A trek to Milan Glacier-The abode of Gods by Late Biswajit Banerjee

Life is unpredictable and no one can deny that! You never know what will come to your way the next moment. On a rainy morning, an elderly lady (Banerjee aunty) of our apartment knocked the door. I saw her standing with an old file in her hand. Then she handed over me the file asking if I could go through the contents of it. There were some dusty papers inside. There were some travel experiences of her late husband Mr Biswajit Banerjee, who was an enthusiastic traveller. She wanted to preserve the write-ups by publishing to a journal. I suggested why not preserve it digitally as journals are kept in the corner of a library after some time but if shared through blogs, hundreds of people can read it.

I have never seen Mr Banerjee but heard lots of praises about him from his wife. Now, as it has been years, he passed away, no one is there to take proper care of his rich collection of books, magazines, journals and many write-ups. Being a travel enthusiast myself, I thought why not share his interesting write-ups with you all! So, here I am trying with my limited capacity to share his experiences with you all.

Over to late Mr Biswajit Banerjee....

When the written approval of Indian Mountaineering Foundation came and our Regional Manager sanctioned special leave to me for taking part in the expedition to the Milan Glacier, my heart leapt with joy and anticipation. I possess a unique and awe-inspiring fascination for the Himalayas and an expedition in that region on foot not only set my adrenaline in motion but also came to me as a 'dream come true'. The only barrier left was the approval of my family, specially my wife and the children. To my utter surprise and delight, I got the approval without any fuss. My wife knows my inner desires and she readily consented but was only concerned about my health and safety, which, I promised, would be my first priority.

After an elaborate preparation, we, Purushottom Banerjee, Sajal Sengupta, Nrisingha Chakraborty, Swapan Chatterjee, Keshar Bindu Roy and myself, started on our journey by Amritsar Mail from Howrah at 7 PM on 3rd June, 1995. We reached Lucknow in the afternoon of the next day amidst sweltering heat and humidity. From Lucknow, we boarded the Nainital Express and reached Pilibhit on the wee hours of the next morning, where, after detaching the two Tanakpur bogies, the Naini Express headed towards its destination, Lal Kua. We were on one of the Tanakpur bogies. These bogies were then attached to a broad-gauge local train, which took them to Tanakpur, the last destination of the North West Uttar Pradesh, at around 9AM. From the Tanakpur station, we quickly went to the bus depot a kilometre and half away, by rickshaw for out onward journey to Pithoragarh. From the Tanakpur bus stand, one can avail of state buses, private buses and jeeps for going to Pithoragarh. But unfortunately, we could get none due to acute diesel crisis prevailing at that time. we began looking for other modes of transportation and after some abortive attempts, we managed to convince a loaded lorry, which was going to Pithoragarh. only three of us including myself could be accommodated in this lorry while the other three of us waited for the next lorry. The fully loaded lorry carrying the three of us encountered the hazardous ups and downs of the winding mountain roads with the speed of a snail and rolled into Pithoragarh at 8:30 PM. We heaved a sigh of relief and unloaded our luggage at the upper bus stand at Pithoragarh. We put up in a hotel near by and waited for  our other companions. They reached Pithoragarh at 12:30 AM and spent the night in the bus stand. We located them at the lower bus stand the next morning and decided to leave for Munshiary immediately. There are two buses leaving from Pithoragarh for Munshiary- one via Mudkot and the other via Didihat and Kalamuni top. The via Mudkot bus had already left at 5:30 AM and we had no option but to wait for the other bus. The bus left Pithoragarh at 8 AM and reached Munshiary at 6 PM. The SDM office had closed for the day and we would have to wait till the next day for our permission. M/S Prem Ram & Co., our would be guide, helped us to get accommodation in the PWD Bungalow and we promptly appointed him as our guide @ Rs. 80 per day per person and two others Sundar Ram and Nathu Ram @ Rs 60 per person per day as porters.

Munshiary is a nice little place perched on the slope of a mountain in 7200 ft above sea level overlooked by the Panchchuli range of the Himalayas. From here, one can get the best view of the majestic Panchchuli range comprising of five 'chuli' shaped peaks on which, as mythology goes, Draupadi had cooked meals for her five husbands on their way to heaven. But for the remoteness of this place and the apathy of the government in providing infrastructural tourist facilities, Munshiary has all the ingredients of becoming the most sought after hill station of India with its rich repertoire of natural beauty, flora and fauna. The KMVN (Kumaon Mondal Vikas Nigam) has recently started constructing a tourist complex cum rest house, which is scheduled to be completed within this year. The PWD bungalow at Munshiary can be booked before hand from Didihat. There is also a forest department bungalow at Munshiary situated at a higher location than the PWD bungalow, which may be availed of, if empty.

The SDM of Munshiary was out of station and we spent the whole of 7th June running from one office to another for procuring our required permit. It was finally issued by the Tehsildar. In the afternoon, we purchased our rations and retired to bed early in anticipation of an early start the next morning. There had been a fire in the mountains for the last fortnight and the surrounding peaks together with the Panchchuli were engulfed in a carpet of smoke thereby shutting them out from our view. We were really unlucky at this and felt gloomy and disappointed.

1st Day: 08-06-1995

After completing the morning chores and packing up our rucksacks, we started our trekking from Munshiary PWD bungalow at 7 AM. It was a steep downhill trail passing through cultivated fields on the slopes of the mountains. The small children greeted us with 'namaste' followed by 'toffies', which we distributed throughout our journey. We passed Dummargaon, a small hamlet with a Post Office and halted at Selapani after 7 kms to have something to eat. After a well-earned rest with tea and snacks we resumed our trek.

The bus to Pithoragarh from Munshiary via Mudkot passes by the road at Selapani and we could have easily cut short our first day's trek by 7 kms by availing of the bus and starting our trek from Selapani. This could also have saved us from the injuries inflicted on our feet by the Hunter shoe on our steep descent from Munshiary to Selapani.

The trail from Selapani was also downhill but with a lesser gradient. We passed through Suringar and halted again for food at Jhimighat before reaching Lilam, which is situated 250 meters above the road. We decided to stay at a wayside wooden lodge instead of the PWD bungalow. It was a nice place by the side of the River Gouri Ganga surrounded by lofty mountains on all sides. The natural beauty of the place revitalised us instantly and completely alleviated the pains of our first day's trek. The River Gouri Ganga, which will accompany us throughout the expedition, charmed us with its wild, rustic beauty and the occasional Rhododendron in bloom enchanted us.

2nd Day: 09.06.1995

Our second day's trek started from Lilam at approximately 7 AM. Our destination was Bugdiar, which is 12 kms from Lilam. We walked at a leisurely pace. The road, which is 2 to 3 feet wide and strewn with boulders, some fixed and some loose, winds its way through dense forest up and down the mountains accompanied by the youthful River Gouri Ganga on its right. After an hour and a half we reached Rupsighat which is about 3 kms from Lilam. There is a big stone placed by the side of the road under a tree, which acts as a temporary resting place for the weary travellers. Taking a brief halt here, we continued on our way. A few bends later we suddenly came face to face with the charming Pilti falls. The magical beauty of this falls completely overwhelmed us.

After taking a few snaps, we went on our way and reached Radgari at around 10 AM, another 5 kms away. The River Ralam originating from the Ralam Glacier, has joined the river Gouri Ganga here. There is a bamboo hut where one can take rest as well as stay for the night. Food is also available here. We ordered our lunch and rested while it was being prepared. The shepherds were cooking their food outside so we went outside and chatted with them. From them, we came to know about their wandering life and how they control the movements of their large herds of goats and sheep with the help of watchdogs. These dogs are huge ones and are specially trained to keep a strict vigil on their respective herds so that there is no mix up between different herds. These they perform with such expertise that it is a real treat watching them. After lunch, we bade good bye to Radgari and resumed our journey to Bugdiar. This part of the trek turned out to be a lonely, monotonous uphill climb with only the exuberant company of the River Gouri Ganga giving us some consolation. We huffed and puffed our way to Budgiar at around 3 PM.

Budgiar (altitude 2450 meters above sea level), according to local language, means 'tiger's cave'. There is a PWD rest house here, an ITBP (Indo Tibet Border Police) outpost and a couple of shops serving hot tea, snacks and food, if ordered. The Poting Nala coming down from the Poting Glacier, meets Gouri Ganga here. It is at this very place, where, on 7th January, 1989, a massive avalanche swept down the mountain and killed 13 jawans on the spot.  The scattered chunks of the broken down mountain and the memorial tombs, built in their memory, still bear grim testimony to that grave natural disaster that took place here not so long ago.

3rd Day: 10.06.1995

After spending the night peacefully in the 'tiger's cave', we embarked on the next part of our journey at daybreak. A steep laborious ascent of 3kms took us to 'Nahar Devi', a meadow at the foot of a high mountain. It is a lovely tenting ground with only a temporary shed supplying tea and food, and a small temple of goddess Nahar Devi, whose blessings are sought by one and all, who traverse this region. Taking tea and a brief rest here we resumed our journey. It is from this place we had the first glimpse of fallen snow lying by the sides of the surrounding mountains. As we progressed further we encountered no less than seven small to medium sized glaciers, which we had to cross on foot. many mountain streams and falls blocked our way and we had to overcome them sometimes taking life risks. The heavenly beauty of the surroundings egged us on and we reached 'Chirkan Jharna', another remarkable falls out of the many we encountered on the way, after 3 kms. Another couple of kilometres ascent took us to Mapang (alt 10130 ft), a small place on the slope of a mountain surrounded by fallen snow with two temporary sheds acting as resting as well as eating places. Here, we met three officers of the Australian Army, who were members of the International Army Expedition to Mt. Nanda Devi, organised by the Indian Army. Thirty five members of thus expedition including these three officers of the Australian Army, had reached the summit of Mt. Nanda Devi on 3rd June and were on their way down. There had been a casualty when an American Army officer had slipped and fell into a gorge while on his way down from the summit. Arrangements for retrieving his body were in full swing and this was holding up the conclusion of the expedition.

After another round of tea and a 4 Kms trek, we found ourselves at Rilkot, a small hamlet on the lap of a steep mountain at a height of 12200 ft. above sea level. There is a permanent ITBP outpost here and an isolated stone-walled hut serving as a hotel-cum-restaurant. The route from Bugdiar to Milam passes through, what is called, a 'wind tunnel' with an average wind speed of around 100 kms per hour and it blows continually from 9/10 AM to 9/10 PM. The howling wind tormented us throughout our journey blowing away our caps and sticks- sometimes even threatening to blow us off our feet.

Another annoying factor here is the mules and donkeys one encounters on this route. They are the only mode of transport here and they usually go up and down this hilly terrain with quite a load on their backs. We were forewarned about the dangers of passing these animals on these roads, where a little callousness can bring about a grave danger to one's life. These mules and donkeys have a peculiar, inherent tendency of walking on the edge of the road overlooking the steep downward slope. If anybody tries to pass them by that side of the road there is every possibility of him being pushed over the edge by them. It is always advisable to lean on the mountain wall on the opposite side of the road and let them pass. One of us, Sajalda, nearly paid the price for not heeding this advice when he was somewhat forced to go to the edge of the road to make way for a loaded mule, which he encountered on a bend of the road. He was pushed by the animal and while going over the edge he desperately caught hold of the saddle of the mule and was miraculously saved.

A brief rest and an exhausting ascent of 2 kms brought us to 'Rilkot Dhar' panting and completely out of breath. After about another kilometre we came across a signboard 'Martoli village 2 kms', pointing uphill on our left side, which was to be our halting point for the day. The continuation of this trail would have taken us to Burfu village, via a bypass, one of the usual places for night halt in this route. We decided to halt for the night at Mortoli, where one can get a good view of the Mt. Nanda Devi at sunrise. It was well past 4 PM and the steep uphill climb of 2 Kms to Mortoli at the fag end of the day gave a good beating to the aching muscles of our weary and unaccustomed legs. We rolled into Martoli at around 6 PM. It is a small, sleepy village, perched on top of a mountain amidst lush green fields and surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains all sides. The fascinating location and the surrounding serenity of the place instantly rejuvenated us. It is from here the Nanda Devi expeditions originate after offering prayers at the Nanda Devi temple. We took shelter in one of the cottages, which constitute the village.

4th Day: 11.06.1995

Early in the morning we all flocked to the Nanda Devi temple from here, one can witness the heavenly phenomenon of the magnificent Mt. Nanda Devi being lit up by the rays of the rising sun. The sun rose as usual but a patch of cloud blocked our view. We waited eagerly for nearly two hours but the heavenly sight eluded us. At last, with a heavy heart, we had to turn back and prepare ourselves for our journey ahead.

We took leave of Mortoli at around 8 AM after breakfast and began climbing down the mountain to the road, leading to Burfu. It was a steep descent of nearly 1500 ft. with practically no marked path. We followed Prem Ram, our guide, carefully balancing ourselves on rocks and boulders some of which were loose. A false footing here would send us hurting down the mountain side with very little chance of survival. After about an hour we came down to the place where Mortoli Ganga has joined the Gouri Ganga and crossing a wooden bridge over the Mortoli Ganga we made our way towards Burfu. Until now, the Gouri Ganga was on our right side and, just before Burfu, we crossed the river for the first time by a hanging rope bridge. From Burfu, a 3 kms of ascending trek took us to Bilju, the last village before Milam. Another village, Panchu lies on the other side of the Gouri Ganga opposite Bilju from from where there is a road leading to the base camp of Mt. Nanda Devi. On a clear day, one can get a gorgeous close-up view of the majestic Nanda Devi from his place. We were blessed with this magnificent spectacle on our way back from Milam, which more than compensated our disappointment at Mortoli. From Bilju, Milam is 3 kms away. The road goes up and down the mountain, prone to frequent landslides, with no significant ascent or descent. It took us an hour and a half and passed over the 'Goenka Nala' wooden bridge before entering Milam. The speed with which the wind blows here is tremendous and its ceaseless scream is as uncomfortable as it is terrifying.

We got shelter in the PWD Rest house here in one of its suites consisting of two rooms with attached toilets. The main village of Milam is at a little distance away by the side of the River Gouri Ganga and surrounded by lofty snow clad mountains on all sides. It is situated near the Indo Tibet Border and is a strange location for the Indian side. There is a permanent ITBP outpost here with sophisticated communication installations, which keeps around-the-clock and round-the-year vigil. The road to Milam Glacier passes northwards through the village and the glacier is 5 kms from the village. One, who wishes to visit the glacier, must notify the ITBP outpost and obtain their permission.

The Milam village was in its heyday during the period of open Indo Tibet trade. At that time, Milam was a prosperous and flourishing village with all amenities available including a school with more than a hundred students, a local court and a jail. So were all the villages in that region namely Bilju, Panchu, Burfu, Mortoli, Lhaspa etc. But in the sixties, the Chinese invasion and subsequent occupation of Tibet led to the fall out of the Indo Tibet open Trade Treaty thereby cutting off the main lifeline of these villages. As a result, the lifestyle of the people of these hitherto affluent villages underwent a drastic change overnight. The living condition deteriorated sharply and people left these villages permanently in search of great pastures. Those who remained were forced into a life of acute poverty, crisis and hardship. At present, the villagers use these places as summer retreats going down to Munshiary during the cold months, when snow comes. We were shocked at the woeful lack of medical facilities in these villages and sick villagers mobbed us wherever we went for medicines. We tried our best to supply as much medicines as possible from our limited stocks. Had we known of this situation beforehand, we could have easily brought a much larger and varied stock of medicines for distribution amongst these neglected people- a work which would have given us much more pleasure and satisfaction.

5th to 10th Days (12.06.1995 to 17.06.1995)

Early in the morning we set out for our ultimate destination, the Milam Glacier. It is one of the oldest glaciers in India and the longest in Asia. From the base of Mt. Hardeol to its mouth or snout it stretches for a distance of 19kms. We were quite tense and excited as the hour of reckoning for the achievement of our goal drew near. After a couple of kilometres the roadline vanished and a vast stretch of mountainous terrain, strewn with multi-coloured and multi-sized rocks and boulders, confronted us. we had left our rucksacks behind at the PWD bungalow at Milam village. Otherwise, it would have been quite risky and hazardous to negotiate this cumbersome territory with rucksacks on our backs.

With Prem leading the way we proceeded carefully jumping from one boulder to the other and balancing ourselves. There was quite an accumulation of clouds in the sky and the twin mounts Trishuli and Hardeol played hide and seek with us. After about an hour and a half we suddenly came face to face with our cherished dream, the Milam Glacier. It was a heavenly sight. Our hearts leapt with joy and fulfilment. The picturesque setting of the glacier with the vivacious river Gouri Ganga gushing out of its snout and the majestic twin mounts Trishuli and Hardeol in the background completely mesmerised us. For quite some time, we could neither move nor say anything as we stood there dumbfounded by the awe-inspiring beauty before us. At the urgings of Prem Ram we moved closer and closer to the glacier and finally reached the snout of the glacier. The tranquil serenity of the place and the vastness of the surrounding natural beauty amply justifies this place being called the 'Devasthan' or 'the abode of God'.

According to Prem Ram, much of the grandeur of the Milam Glacier is being lost gradually by the recurring landslides and avalanches from the surrounding mountains, which are covering up and breaking the glacier. But what we saw will be etched in our memory for a long time to come. After spending a couple of happy hours there and picking up some multi-coloured pebbles as mementos we trudged back to Milam village. The success of our expeditions and the heavenly scene we witnessed installed in us a unique sense of satisfaction, which is a rare commodity that neither money nor any other worldly affair could give us.

The next morning, we started our return journey. After night halts at Burfu, Lhaspa, Bugdiar and Lilam, we reached Selapani at 1:30 PM on 17.06.1995.

Lhaspa is a small village between Rilkot and Bugdiar, perched on top of a mountain and about 14000 ft. above sea level. It is an exhausting 2 kms uphill trek from the road. But the panoramic setting of this idyllic village revitalises the weary and unaccustomed traveller in no time. The fascinating Bankatia range forms the backdrop of this dreamy village. The splash of colours formed by the rays of the sun on the snow covered range and the unforgettable hospitality of the simple villagers will be long remembered by us.

From Selapani, we took the via Mudkot bus and reached Munshiary in the evening thus concluding a memorable trek.


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