Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Eric Shipton, Modern Alpinist Extraordinaire

If the last post on tips for trekking in the Shivalik Hills inspired you, perhaps you’d like to know more about famous climbers and explorers in Asia.  One of the greatest was Eric Shipton.  To mark his achievements, we’ve named a room in his honour at Himalayan Hideaway.

Born in Sri Lanka in 1907, Shipton discovered the allure of mountains at 15 when he visited the Pyrenees with his family.  When he was 21, he went to Kenya as a coffee grower, and first climbed Nelion, a peak of Mount Kenya, in 1929.  He met one of his future climbing partners in Kenya - Bill Tilman, who also has a room named after him in the Hideaway.  In 1931, Shipton and Frank Smythe were among the first climbers to reach the summit of Kamet, the second highest mountain in the Garhwal region, (Nanda Devi is the highest).  At 7,816 metres, this was the highest peak climbed at the time.  With Tilman, Shipton discovered the access route to the Nanda Devi sanctuary through the Rishi Ganga gorge in 1934.  

Mount Everest expeditions
Shipton was also involved with several of the Mount Everest expeditions.  In 1933, he and Smythe climbed to the First Step on the Northeast Ridge (8,400 metres) before turning back.  Two years later, he led an Everest expedition that included the young Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who would go on to greater glory.  Shipton was also on the 1951 expedition which laid out the now famous route over the Khumbu Glacier. 

Proof of a Yeti?
It was also in 1951 that Shipton photographed what he claimed were the footprint of a Yeti.  Whether or not it was a practical joke continues to be debated.  The photographs certainly caused a commotion – the footprint was 33 cm wide!  The footprint was most likely the result of the imprint of a snow leopard superimposed on top of that of a mountain goat.  Shipton never confessed to having played a joke on his fellow climbers, nor did he mention it in either of his books, The Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition (1952) and Upon That Mountain (1956).

A different way of climbing
The bitterest disappointment of his life was that he was not made leader of the 1953 British Everest expedition in which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit.  The decision to make John Hunt expedition leader was most likely because Shipton preferred small groups of climbers rather than the large contingent of climbers, Sherpas and porters that was part of the typical Everest expedition.  Shipton and Tilman once joked that they could plan a Himalayan expedition “in half an hour on the back of an envelope.” Their no-frills style is now the standard:  lightweight, low impact, self-propelled, culturally sensitive, and motivated by the sheer joy of exploration.

Shipton continued exploring and travelling throughout his life.  In 1976, he was in Bhutan when he became ill.  Upon returning to England, he discovered that he had cancer.  He died in March 1977; he was cremated in Salisbury and his ashes were scattered on Fonthill Lake.

If you’d like to explore the Shivalik Hills or simply relax in harmony with nature, Himalayan Hideaway is the perfect getaway. For more details, contact our Delhi office (Phone: +91-11-26852602, 26968169, and e-mail:;

Tags: Himalayan Hideaway, Himalayas, Eric Shipton, Mount Everest, Frank Smythe, Bill Tilman, Tenzing Norgay, mountaineers, climbers, explorers, Shivalik Hills

The Importance of Tree Hugging

In light of the recent disaster in Uttarakhand, it’s important to remember the importance of the peaceful environmental protest known as tree hugging.  This movement, known as the Chipko movement or Chipko Andolan, has its roots in the Garhwal region.

The beginnings
The movement began in the early 1970s as village women realised that something had to be done to stop the rapid deforestation of the area.  By hugging the trees to prevent them from being cut down, the women were asserting their traditional rights to the forest and protesting the commercial logging operations that jeopardised their livelihoods.  The deforestation not only decreased the villagers’ firewood and fodder, it also damaged the soil and destroyed the water sources in the hills.  The movement spread across the region and soon more women began to protect trees from the timber merchants.  By the 1980s, it became the inspiration for non-violent environmental protests worldwide, such as tree sitting and tree villages.  In addition to being one of the first environmental protests in the developing world, Chipko demonstrated the clout of people power.  Chipko also made it clear that fighting to preserve the eco-system was not restricted to the rich and famous.  In fact, in this case, protecting the environment is literally a matter of life and death for the villagers and the poor because they are usually the first victims of a natural disaster.  Chipko, by the way, means “to stick” in Hindi. 

Pioneering woman
While many of the leaders of the movement were men, the true warriors were women like Gaura Devi.  She refused to back down, even going so far as to stand in front of a man holding a gun and telling him, “This forest nurtures us like a mother; you will only be able to use your axes on it if you shoot me first.”  She died peacefully in 1991 and stories of her bravery are still told.  There is now a Gaura Devi Award for environment protection, as well as a campaign to posthumously award her the Bharat Ratna.

The ground realities today
Unfortunately, the victories of the Chipko movement seem to have been short-lived.  Villagers have laboured to re-grow forests and continued to protest against the unplanned development in the region, but their efforts have been in vain.  Meanwhile, environmental experts continue to sound the warning that deforestation and construction damage the soil’s ability to hold water, resulting in the devastating landslides seen in June.  They maintain that development in the region must respect the terrain and the fragility of the Himalayas.  It may seem odd to think of a mountain range as being unstable, but the Himalayas are the result of the collision between two plates and this process continues today.

How you can help
If you’d like to help Uttarakhand rebuild from the damage wrought by the rains and floods of June, there are two organisations we endorse – Goonj ( and Save the Children (  Both have worked tirelessly to assist the villagers to get back on their feet.

Still a haven
In the meantime, we’re grateful that Himalayan Hideaway and the area around it were spared the devastation of June.  If you’re looking for a getaway in Uttarakhand, our lodge is the perfect place to breathe clean air, bird watch and take in stunning landscapes.  Our Delhi office (Phone: +91-11-26852602, 26968169, and e-mail:; will be happy to assist you in making the arrangements.

Tags: Himalayan Hideaway, Himalayas, Uttarakhand, Chipko, Gaura Devi, ecology, environment, people power, disaster relief

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Tips on Trekking in the Shivalik Hills

If you've ever wanted to trek the Himalayas, a good place to start is in the Shivalik Hills, which is a mountain range of the outer Himalayas.  The treks in this area range from easy to moderate+ and are a good way to assess if mountain trekking is right for you.  As with any new venture, it helps to be prepared.  With that in mind, we have a few tips!

Know before you go – read up on the climate and terrain, and look at a good map.  You’ll want to trek when the weather is cooperative and you’ll need to know what challenges the terrain might have in store.

Go with the best – hire a reliable guide.  An experienced guide will make the trek safer and more enjoyable. 

Shape up – the Shivalik Hills may not be as challenging as Mount Everest, but they still demand a certain level of physical fitness.  A good way to get in shape is to walk up and down stairs a few times each day.   This will improve your cardiovascular system, as well as strengthen your legs and back. 

Carry what you need – if you’re going on a short trek, you don’t want to weigh yourself down with a heavy backpack.  You’ll need plenty of water, of course, a packed lunch, and some granola bars or dried fruits and nuts.  If you’re going on a longer trek, consider hiring someone to carry your tent, sleeping bag and cooking utensils. 

Be prepared – have a well stocked First Aid kit.  You should carry bandages and/or gauze pads and adhesive tape; disinfectant cream; insect repellent; pain reliever; anti-inflammatory; antibiotics and a thermometer.  Make sure you've got sun block and a hat, and wear sunglasses.

Break in your footwear – whether you prefer hiking boots or sandals, wear them a few times before you start trekking.  It’s hard to appreciate the beauties of nature when you’re plagued with blisters.  Some experts suggest wearing two pairs of socks to prevent blisters from forming – a thin liner on the inside and a thicker sock worn over it.  The thinner socks will absorb sweat and can be rinsed out every night because they’ll dry more quickly than the thicker ones will.

There you have it!  With a little preparation, you can happily trek the Shivalik Hills and enjoy the wonders of nature.  And who knows – it may inspire you to scale greater heights!

At Himalayan Hideaway, we’re happy to help organise the perfect trek for you.  For more details, contact our Delhi office (Phone: +91-11-26852602, 26968169, and e-mail:;

Tags: Himalayan Hideaway, Himalayas, trekking, Shivalik Hills

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Tracing the Mahabharata in Uttarakhand

There are two epic sagas of ancient India that almost everyone is familiar with – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  It’s hard to reduce either great story to a single line, but the Ramayana is basically the trials and tribulations of Lord Rama, who overcomes a scheming stepmother and assorted obstacles in his quest to be rightfully recognised as king. Meanwhile, the Mahabharata is the story of the five Pandava brothers and their long and bloody family feud with the Kauravas. Needless to say, both stories have a phenomenal cast of characters, including gods, demons, humans and animals, and employ more plot twists than you can shake a stick at.

It’s not surprising, then, that when you travel across India, you’ll find several places where events from these great sagas took place. Part of the Ramayana takes place in Ayodhya in north India and there’s a crucial episode in what is now Sri Lanka.  In the Mahabharata, the main action takes place across north India, more or less between Delhi and the foothills of the Himalayas.

If you want to see where Kurukshetra, the battle to end all battles in the Mahabharata took place, you can find it in Haryana. Purana Qila in Delhi supposedly stands where Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandavas, was located.

Mahabharata in Garhwal

In the Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, where Himalayan Hideaway is located, the Mahabharata is hugely important. The Garhwali people consider themselves to be descended from the Pandavas, the good guys, more or less, of the saga. Do the Kauravas, the villains of the story, have any fans there?

Oddly enough, they do! In the Tons River basin in the western area of Garhwal, near the border with Himachal Pradesh, you’ll find people who worship Karna, a tragic figure associated with defeat and death, and Duryodhana, a symbol of evil. In fact, local legend has it that Duryodhana was not killed at Kurukshetra and fled for his life to the Tons basin area. As for why he is worshipped, well, it has less to do with his unattractive traits and more to do with his power.  As a being powerful enough to bring or withhold rain, Duryodhana is important for the local farmers.

The Mahabharata lives on in the pandav lila, a local tradition of a ritual performance of some of the more martial episodes of the story. And we say ‘ritual drama’ because this is more than a folk drama – the performances are meant to please the gods and ensure that the crops grow, peace and prosperity prevail and disease and misfortune are averted. For nine nights, villagers across Garhwal sing, act and dance the stories that they know by heart.

Visit scenes from the Mahabharata with us

Himalayan River Runners, Himalayan Hideaway’s sister company, operates a camp on the Tons River between April and June every year. In addition, we organise many treks into the area mentioned in the Mahabharata, including a walk to the Duryodhana temple. We can also take you to Har Ki Dun, which has the Swargarohini mountain, the point where the Pandavas ascended into the heavens, as its backdrop.

If you haven’t read the Mahabharata yet, we highly recommend it. Not only is it a fabulous story of good vs. evil, the characters and episodes resonate today across India. There are any number of versions around, some longer than others, and there are also TV adaptations for those who prefer seeing the action instead of reading about it!

 Photo:  18th-19th century carpet showing Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata
(This image is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired)

For information about treks to Mahabharata sites in the Himalayas, please contact our Delhi office:
Phone: +91-11-26852602, 26968169

Tags:  Mahabharata, Himalayan Hideaway, Krishna and Arjun, Uttarakhand, Tons basin, Garhwal, Pandavas, Kurukshetra, Duryodhana, pandav lila, Himalayan River Runners, tons River

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Kachnar Tree: A Botanical Gem in Himalayan Hideaway’s Garden

If you wander through Himalayan Hideaway’s garden of native plants, you’ll find a number of shrubs and trees that not only play vital roles in the local ecology but also have a rich variety of medicinal, culinary and other uses.

One of the most striking is kachnar (Bauhinia variegata), a small to medium-sized flowering tree in the pea family found right across Southeast Asia, from southern China to India and Pakistan. Its twin-lobed leaves look just like a camel’s foot-print, giving it one of its evocative common names – ‘camel's foot tree’. Other attractive names are the ‘orchid tree’ and ‘mountain-ebony’.

In the dry season, usually between March and April, kachnar sheds its leaves and stunning flowers begin to appear on the upper branches. But flowering times differ according to the local micro-climate, starting as early as January and going on until May in some places. Sweetly scented, the waxy blooms vary from white to purple (depending on the variety) and are an irresistible magnet for birds and insects, which come to feast on the bounty.

Around Himalayan Hideaway you are likely to see both the purple and crimson sunbirds enjoying the rich nectar supply. The relationship between sunbirds and kachnar were highlighted in painful lines written by a poet grieving for his father:

“My father sleep on/after the pain and/ Burning canker.../ The kachnar tree blooms/Again and the little/Sunbirds come to seek pollen/but you come only in dreams/Graves do not speak/nor do kachnar flowers talk/That's the damn irony!”

However, the sunbirds never have the kachnar blossoms to themselves. The flowers are just too delicious! Orange-bellied leaf birds arrive to eat the petals and drink at the ‘nectar bar’; black bulbuls also feast on the flowers; and the flower-peckers (both thick-billed and fire-breasted) are lured both by the sweet nectar and the insects that swarm over the tree.
Uses for kachnar

From the bark to the buds, this tree has an astonishing range of uses. Its wood is quite hard and suitable for making agricultural implements. From the trunk comes a gum that swells in water and the astringent bark can be used in dyeing and tanning. The twin-lobed leaves provide nutritious fodder and are sometimes used to make beedis. In India and Pakistan, the flowers and buds are used in curries, usually combined with chicken, yogurt and spices.

In addition, the root, flowers and bark have a number of roles in traditional medicine (although we do caution you to consult with an expert before distilling your own potions!). Herbal practitioners use kachnar to combat asthma and ulcers while the buds and roots are good for digestive problems.

Tags: Himalayan Hideaway, traditional medicine, medicinal plants, herbal medicines, kachnar, sunbirds, camel foot, orchid tree, mountain ebony, Bauhinia variegate, Orange-bellied leaf birds, flower-peckers, purple sunbirds, crimson sunbirds, trees, pea family, himalayas

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Perfect Book for Your Himalayan Hideaway Balcony

Chocolate Soldier, Golden Sapphire, Orange Oakleaf, Peacock Pansy, Snow Apollo and Spot Puffin - just some of the beautiful creatures that flutter through the pages of Peter Smetacek’s captivating memoir “Butterflies on the Roof of the World”. But you don’t have to be a butterfly enthusiast or even a naturalist to love this gem of a book.

Like the great conservationist Gerald Durrell, Smetacek is gifted story teller who, with wit and humour, weaves fascinating information about the natural world around a cast of engaging human and animal characters.

Based in Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, where he grew up, Smetacek has devoted his life to the study of Indian butterflies and moths. He has published at least 60 scientific papers and described more than a dozen species new to science. His interest in butterflies and moths, inherited from his Czechoslovakian father, began almost as soon as he could walk and became an all-consuming passion.

Join Smetacek as he embarks on bone-shaking motorbike journeys through the Himalayas in search of the Black Prince, the Spectacle Swordtail or other elusive insects.

Share his embarrassment in Nepal when his hunt for “butterflies” is completely misinterpreted by the locals - “butterfly” being the euphemism used by human traffickers when referring to a saleable girl!

Discover Himalayan wonders like hallucinogenic honey, a steroid-producing caterpillar-mushroom, and the milky plant juice that is the Ladakhi equivalent of Viagra.

Enjoy delightful descriptions of wildlife around his Bhimtal house – moths that drank till they were tipsy at his father’s nightly moth trap, an audacious toad he encountered as a small boy and the troupe of monkeys that befriended his family.

Learn about the extraordinary and elaborate tricks butterfly species use to deter predators – being poisonous, pretending to be poisonous; mimicking leaves or flowers with incredible accuracy; flying in different ways at different times of day or hiding out among crowds of other butterflies.

Discover that these insects, rather than being the “free spirits” of popular culture, flitting from flower to flower at whim, are actually rigidly controlled by their ecological requirements – the right kind of trees, the right food plants and the precise level of humidity. They may be confined to one patch of hillside during the monsoon, or a particular grove of trees or a specific ravine.

Indeed, Smetacek’s detailed studies of the butterflies and moths on the “roof of the world” show that we can use these pernickety creatures as accurate indicators of environmental health in the all-important watershed areas of the sub-continent. Their distribution over the mountains has much to tell us about the efficiency of the groundwater systems and the insidious effects of global warming.

If you plan to escape to the hills this summer, this enchanting and informative book is the ideal companion!

Butterflies on the Roof of the World, by Peter Smetacek, 2012. Published by Aleph Book Company

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Rishikesh: Evening Aarti

When you stay at Himalayan Hideaway, then it’s easy to go down to Rishikesh to witness the evening Ganga Aarti. This beautiful spiritual ritual is performed at dusk on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh, Haridwar and Varanasi, and is well worth attending. 


An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering, usually in the form of a lit lamp.  For the Ganga Aarti, a diya, a small, shallow lamp, is filled with flowers and a candle.  The diya is offered to the Ganga, the goddess of the river, and floated downstream.  With several people launching their diyas into the fast-moving waters of the Ganges, the river looks like a gorgeous embroidered sari!

What Makes the Rishikesh Aarti Unique

In Haridwar and Varanasi, the ritual is organised and performed by Hindu priests who lead the congregation in chanting or singing hymns of praise to Ganga.  In Rishikesh, the most famous Ganga Aarti is led by the residents of the Parmarth Niketan ashram and the children studying there.  For many people, this aarti is a less elaborate and more intimate experience, allowing them to forge a bond with Ganga. 

The ceremony begins with bhajans (devotional songs), prayers and a hawan (a sacred ritual of offerings made to Agni, the fire god). The lamps are lit and the aarti acts as the climax of the ceremony. The children’s voices give the ritual a special quality.

Attending the Rishikesh Ganga Aarti

All are welcome to attend the Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan. You’ll need to arrive early to secure a seat on the steps for the best view of the action.  Before entering the area, you’ll remove your shoes and store them at the entrance. You can sit quietly and observe the proceedings or join the crowd in singing the bhajans. Your hosts at Himalayan Hideaway can advise the best time to go and will happily organise the excursion for you!