Driving through Uttarakhand we can see many of the hillsides terraced into fields. Where there were no terraces, there could still be houses straggling down hillsides. Several times I stopped to confirm that were no roads to many of these places. How were goods to be transported then? The few trucks we passed on these roads were the ones which carried a few tons. There were no industries up there which needed the multi-axle behemoths which ply on highways in the plains, not were there large dams and power stations which might require them now and then. But strangely, there were very few light trucks either.

In the hills of Bhutan I had seen people carrying logs of wood for construction up such slopes on their backs. I had the feeling that the extensive agriculture and construction that I saw here could not have been accomplished if human muscles were the only powered transport. The mystery was cleared up on our drive down from Kausani. When we began to pass packs of mules on the road I realized that these must be the backbone of the off-road transport network in these hills.

The botanist and spy, Frank Kingdon Ward, wrote some bestselling books about his journeys through the Himalayas. In the book In the Land of the Blue Poppies (1913) he wrote about a variety of pack saddles for mules, ranging from “a wooden frame, with such a multiplicity of bends and hitches that you feel it can never be undone again” to a Chinese “wooden pack-saddle made in two halves hinged like the covers of a book” and the “Indian Government mule harness [which] is provided with two iron hooks on each side, and the loads are attached by slings”. Perhaps the makeshift packs of re-purposed gunny bags, often splitting open at the seams and spilling loads on to roads, that I saw are a jugaadi innovation, created by an economy which takes all skilled workers out of villages and into towns, leaving the former empty of all skills except agriculture. If the pandemic reversal of this traffic lasts long enough, it could be of long-term gain to these communities, as trained people drift back and jugaad is replaced by genuine innovative skill. Long drives lead to new thoughts.

Chaudapheri camp

Chaudapheri camp is a way station on the Rache La trek. This is part of the old trade route that joined Bhutan, Sikkim, and the lowlands of Bengal. The camp’s odd name was explained as a travelers’ direction. This is the point you get to after fourteen turns on the road after leaving Lava. So I suppose this is a fairly old camping spot, much older than the forest rangers’ cabin that you see here.

The mule was dozing in the middle of the mud churned up by jeeps. After it noticed us it walked closer and, in its mulish way, wouldn’t go away until someone fed it banana skins. I was reminded of a description of mules I’d read, partly in preparation for this trip, “However, when it comes to the mountain paths on the roof of the world, the transport mule is about as nimble as the Fat Boy of Peckham on a tight-rope. He falls down; and when he falls down, he falls off; so do your boxes. It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff.” (Frank Kingdon Ward, in In the Land of the Blue Poppies) In these days of 30 lb. limits on baggage, I suppose I’ll only ever get to use one fourth of a mule.

Mountain mules

I leave cities now and then, but it seems the city never leaves me. I’d taken a mountain path from Gushaini towards Ropa village, which is the starting point of the Great Himalayan National Park. The path follows the valley of the river Tirthan for a while, so I kept looking over to the other hillside, which was full of wonderful slate-roofed traditional wooden houses. You can see one of these in the featured photo. I kept wondering about how they would bring the building materials to the construction site. I assumed that it would be easier to bring the wood and mud to the site than to bring bricks. I completely forgot two things.

The first was that no motorized vehicles come over these narrow mountain roads. The second is that slate tiles are the heaviest part of the material. These two forgotten points passed me on the path in the form of a train of mules carrying slate tiles. My aha moment was prolonged. By the time pulled out my camera, the mules had gone past. I still managed to catch the picture which you can see above. In the mountains everything has to be hauled up. Most of these narrow tracks are too narrow for trucks, so there are no alternatives to carrying them up yourself, with the help of porters and mules. Bricks and concrete are options only when there are roads.

After the mule train had passed I recalled having seen it earlier on the path. I’d failed to get a good shot of slaty-headed parakeets and taken out my frustration by clicking a photo of this mule grazing. A car had been parked nearby, and I’d missed a shot of the birds because it started up, startling the parakeets. So I guess a truck must have brought the stone up to that point, and then transferred the load to the mules. One of our companions on the walk volunteered the information that someone was building a large house near Ropa. That was probably where these mules were going. Every bit of construction on the hills is labour intensive, until a road is built.