Cold Comfort: A Sojourn Through Uttarakhand's Snowy Landscape

Unearth legends and hidden nature trails in these gorgeous snow-covered hamlets scattered throughout the Himalayan state
Stay in one of the charming wooden cottages in Dayara Bugyal's Goat Village
Stay in one of the charming wooden cottages in Dayara Bugyal's Goat VillagePuneet K Paliwal

You are walking along a deep trough of fresh snow, the sun glinting off your glasses, and somewhere, in the deep recesses of your mind, you register the silence of the frozen forest. Travelling to the hills in winter is often preferred by adventure junkies (think skiing, snowboarding), but even for slow travellers, the snowy abodes have a lot to offer. From your vantage point on top, you can see the white villages below speckled with wooden cottages and bundled-up humans. Travellers can pick between skiing along these alpine slopes or sitting inside an earthy home of a local, warming their fingers on a hearth.

Stopping In Sankri

Sankri is the village that everyone passes through, but hardly anyone stops at. Kedarkantha, Har-ki-Dun, and Ruinsara Tal are well-known names for trekkers, and all start at Sankri. While the sport of an uphill climb through the snow is something to look forward to, a digital detox at this beautiful Uttarkashi hamlet is a must for everyone who wants to douse themselves in the slow life and sustainable practices of the locals. “I have led many treks across Himachal and Uttarakhand for my clients, but I always make it a point to stop by these small hamlets,” says Jatin Shah, co-founder of The Vertical Tribe, a company that prepares customised itineraries for travellers and plans treks in the hills. Shah recounts idyllic evenings, after a day of leading taxing treks, sitting around a fire in the picturesque village of Sankri while the locals indulged in folk tunes and tales, regaling a close-knit community.

Get rewarded by stunning vistas as you explore Uttarakhand
Get rewarded by stunning vistas as you explore UttarakhandShutterstock

Getting there: Sankri is the base camp for many treks, including the Kedarkantha trek. The easiest way to the village is via bus. There are several direct early morning buses that you can catch from Dehradun railway station and Mussoorie bus stand; alternatively, you can also hire a cab or take a shared taxi from either of these places.

Winter transport: “Winters could be harsh, but they are also the most beautiful time to explore our little village,” Kamal Singh, a local, says. “Although there are buses plying daily to and from Dehradun and Mussoorie, in case of intense snowfall, public transport is not operational.”

After dark: “There isn’t much to do, but in some homestays, the women organise cooking classes, and in winters, our herbal teas are in great demand,” says Singh, who lives with his parents and helps them by working as a guide for trekkers and general tourists. Try their jhangora khichdi (barnyard millet), a Himalayan superfood specific to Uttarakhand that is great for treating a cold.

Shepherding In Sarmoli

Many villages in Uttarakhand’s Pauri, Tehri Garhwal, Pithoragarh, and Almora districts have become “ghost villages” with no human inhabitants. Various reports suggest this is a significant issue brewing in the state for a while. Reasons for abandoning such hamlets range from harsh weather, lack of proper healthcare, frequent leopard and other wild animal attacks, and unemployment, which lead residents to migrate to bigger cities. Situated amidst these ghost villages is Sarmoli, where residents are thriving through their homestay programme. Here women run their own households and take care of the homestays in the village.

Take part in the everyday chores with the locals in these villages
Take part in the everyday chores with the locals in these villagesPuneet K Paliwal

Malika Virdi, a mountaineer, who moved to the village in 1992, started the Himalayan Ark Homestay programme in collaboration with the women of the Sarmoli Jayanti Van Panchayat in 2004. Pushpa Sumtiyal, who lives with her family in the village, runs a homestay via the Himalayan Ark programme and offers guests home-cooked meals with fresh produce from her farm. Through these homestay programmes, travellers are given an immersive Kumaoni experience wherein they are involved in farming, cooking, helping their hosts collect firewood and managing their cattle. Go on nature walks through the village and follow trails through the snowy woods while shepherding cattle along slender slopes.

Getting there: The village is located in Pithoragarh’s Munsiyari. You can take a car or shared taxi from Haldwani, approximately 280 km from the village. There are also local buses plying the route, and the nearest railway station is Kathgodam.

Winter transport: Roads are motorable and safe to travel. Trains operate throughout the year, and from Kathgodam, shared taxis and jeeps are available.

After dark: Bonfires are set up in the evenings when there is no snowfall. You can help your hosts cook a meal, try their locally-produced bhang, and even learn how to knit.

Goats Galore At Dayara Bugyal

Women sitting around knitting and weaving in the sun, men riding the ponies or churning butter. These sights will greet you when you arrive at Uttarkashi’s frosted-over Dayara Bugyal. To the uninitiated, this might seem like a very close-knit community of village locals, but soon you realise there are tourists disguised among the village folk in equal numbers.

Star gaze, talk, or 'do nothing' in the Goat Village
Star gaze, talk, or 'do nothing' in the Goat VillagePuneet K Paliwal

Located in one of the richest Himalayan snow hubs, The Goat Village is an initiative of Green People, an environmental organisation. Their Goat Villages are a chain of farm stays that promote sustainable living practices by involving the tourists in the everyday chores of the villagers. They follow a “Pay As You Like” policy for all the indigenously-cooked, vegetarian meals to promote their regional cuisine. Since they have no electricity and only operate on solar power, this is the best village for a digital detox where travellers can coop up in one of their charming wooden cottages as the snow thickens outside.

Getting there: Dayara Bugyal is a six-hour drive from Dehradun. Take shared taxis from Dehradun to Uttarkashi and another from Uttarkashi to Raithal. Walk the last 400 metres to reach The Goat Village.

Winter transport: The drive up can be gruelling, particularly when it snows. Although the roads are mostly clear throughout the year, check with the retreat before you start.

After dark: “Doing nothing” is a motto the retreat follows very closely. Electricity is sporadic, so your phones and laptops won’t work. After the sun sets, people in The Goat Village sit and talk to each other, stargaze, and eat delicious Garhwali food. Their cinnamon tea is your best bet to keep warm at night.

Join The Locals In Jakhol

“People never stop here for more than two days at a stretch,” says Ajay Rawat. For him, the blissfully simple life of Jakhol is nothing extraordinary. “Potatoes, lentils, and wheat are some of the crops we harvest using all old techniques without a speck of chemicals or machinery.” Rawat is a trained mountaineer and is completing his bachelor’s. He explains how there are no cement houses in his village. Houses in Jakhol are made only from wood, offering curious travellers a humble but cosy temporary abode. Trek to Lekha Top, a little ahead of the village, for stunning panoramic views. The green valley of the summer turns into a white blanket, with cottony snow hanging in clusters like fruits from tall pines. Village walks are a must for travellers who forego the oft-trodden path in favour of this obscure locale.

Live like a local in the sleepy hamlet of Jakhol
Live like a local in the sleepy hamlet of JakholPuneet K Paliwal

“We let them get dressed in our traditional attires and take pictures. A tour of the locals’ homes and the Someshwar Mahadev temple is also a must-do activity,” adds Rawat. He also recommends a trek up Har-ki-Dun, where one might chance upon Osla Village, an ethereal little hamlet that seems to have grown out of the timeless Himalayan peaks.

Getting there: Jakhol is situated inside the Govind National Park, which is about 20 km from the Netwar town of Uttarkashi district. You can easily take a taxi from Sankri to Jakhol.

Winter transport: Local buses regularly ply to and from the village.

After dark: You can enrol in cooking classes that the village women organise. They also host regular village fairs that let you be a part of their culture and life.

Feasting On Folklore

Siyaram Singh Rawat, Kamal’s father, is now in his 70s. He recounts, with decided clarity, the kindness of the devtas (gods) of Sankri.

“Terrible droughts had plagued us in the past when I was a young man,” he narrates, gaining momentum on being prodded. “Once, it was so bad that we couldn’t understand what to do. So I took my daughter with me to pray to our devta, and would you believe, within two days, we had so much rain!”

Locals would advise you not to venture out into the night; some cite cold, others unseen force. “I have my faith. But I can’t fathom how the same pristine peaks of snow that make me believe in an omnipotent creator can have any form of malice that can harm,” says Pragya Sharma, a Lucknow-based traveller who has visited both Jakhol and Sankri multiple times. Where Sarmoli and Dayara Bugyal are better equipped for stays, Sankri and Jakhol abound in a wealth of stories, serendipity, and sincerity, all covered in snow, if only you dare to unearth them.

In The Backpack

  • Heavy, fur-lined snow boots

  • Thermals, waterproof clothes

  • Insulated jackets for subzero temperatures

  • Medicines and prescriptions

  • Power banks, torches, and extra batteries

  • Hot water bags, heating pads, sleeping bags

  • Extra socks, sunscreen

  • Cash

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