Village Ways – freefrom in the Himalayas


Michelle Berriedale-Johnson goes walking in the foothills of the Himalayas


What do you do?’ asked my two young Kumaon guides.
‘I write a magazine for people with allergies and food intolerances.’ I replied. They looked puzzled. ‘For people who are made ill by some of the foods they eat.’ I tried again. They nodded, politely, but obviously found the concept hard to grasp. Among the people of the Kumaon such a thing is unknown. They eat the grains, vegetables and fruits that they grow, which have been fertilised by the manure of the buffalos whose milk they drink – but of chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics, manufactured foods – and allergies – they know nothing at all.

Although certainly not conceived as an ‘allergen-free’ holiday, the Village Ways walking tours could serve well as such. The mountain air is clear and unpolluted, water and not much else is used for washing, and the food throughout (including overnight stops in Delhi) is vegetarian and freshly cooked, served with rice and chapattis. (These are now often made from wheat but traditionally they were, and still can be, made from finger millet.) Milk in Delhi is from cows but in the villages is almost exclusively from buffalo.

So for those with allergic respiratory or skin problems, and for wheat or dairy intolerants, the holidays are ideal – although maybe not so good for those with serious food allergies as the villagers might not understand the importance of contamination – and you are two hours walk from the nearest medical help!

As regards food allergens, apart from dairy and wheat, walnut trees are common but the nuts are only available in season; soya oil is the main cooking medium and soya beans are sometimes served. Eggs only appear at breakfast time as an omelette so are easy to avoid. And after lengthy discussions the Village Ways directors were sure that the villagers would be both willing and able to accommodate most diets.

So what is this holiday?

Village Ways is an ‘eco-holiday’ in which visitors walk along ancient mountain paths from village to village in the Binsar wildlife sanctuary guided by local guides and cared for in each village by the villagers themselves.

An excellent website gives you a good flavour of the walks on offer. Although party size is limited to six by the size of the guest houses, your ‘party’ can be as small as yourself. You are responsible for booking your flight but you are collected from the airport and delivered to the overnight express to the mountains (via a restful day in a delightful 1930s Delhi ‘guest house’), then collected from the train and driven up through the mountains to the Kahli estate where the Village Ways walks start.



All walking parties are accompanied by two local guides; mine were 22-year-old Hem (with goat) and 30-year-old Raju (below with 99-year-old granny!). All Village Ways guides speak very serviceable English and have had two months’ intensive training, which includes fairly detailed knowledge of the local flora and fauna.

Between them Hem and Raju could not have taken more care of my safety or my comfort. Always around to see that I had everything that I wanted but never intrusive and they had mountain peoples’ gift of companionable silence without the need for endless chat.


The walking

The Binsar Sanctuary (in the far north-eastern corner of India, nestling between Tibet and Nepal) is a mixture of pine forest, Himalayan oak and rhododendron – a forest of red blossom in March and April. There is only one road, access to the villages being along ancient forest paths. These can be steep or gentle, narrow or wide but would present no problem to anyone who had walked in the Lake or Peak districts of England.

The distances between villages vary from two to five hours walking but the pace is gentle with many stops for rests, water and whatever snacks you have squeezed into your pack.

Khali to Dalar

My first night’s stop was at Hem’s home village, Dalar.

An hour’s walk brought us to the bottom of the valley where terraced slopes were being ploughed for the winter wheat sowing. Small bulls pulled ancient wooden ploughs guided by the farmer, followed by women with mallets breaking up the larger clods: hard labour under the hot Himalayan sun.

Dalar is perched on the side of the hill and, like all the Binsar villages, has already lost about half of its population. The houses are strung out along the mountainside and the first that we came to was Hem’s (below), where his father drying soya beans and chillis on the terrace.


As with all the village houses, Hem’s house is surrounded by a verdant vegetable garden bulging with cabbages, onions, garlic, coco yams, mustard greens, pumpkins, ginger, coriander and much more.

In between the vegetables grow roses, canna lilies, chrysanthemum, daisies, zinnias, drooping amaranth and hundreds of marigolds. And over all arch walnut trees, apple trees, peach, pear, apricot, fig and heavily laden lime trees.

The soil is fertile and water from the mountains is plentiful so most villages are largely self- sufficient – which is just as well as a visit to the market can involve a three-hour walk to the nearest road, two hours on a bus, then a three-hour walk home, carrying your purchases!
After tea with Hem’s father we walked on to the traditional, stone built guest house (sparkl-ingly clean and neat, as were all the guesthouses) with a solar-powered shower and a flush lavatory attached. At Dalar, as in all the villages, a committee of villagers look after the guest houses and cook the excellent, fresh the vegetarian food.

Darkness comes early in the Kumaon and since light is scarce and the work is hard the locals retire to bed – and the light supply retires with them. Not that turning in early is any hardship. The beds are very comfortable and there is charm in gazing up, by the light of your candle, at the pine beams and slats of the roof or out the open shutters at the thousands of brilliant stars which crowd the sky.


Day two was a relatively short, but delightful, walk to Risal (the only village in a valley) through mixed pine, oak and rhododendrons following the paths of several streams now reduced to a lush but manageable post- monsoon flow.

A lazy afternoon in the sun was divided between a book and exploring Risal where the late afternoon light was gentle and small blue and white houses with rows of pumpkins drying on their stone roofs, nestled into the hillside above.

To Satri

The following morning a steepish climb
took us up to the pine forests – hundred-foot tall trees with spectacular irridiscent pink-plaqued trunks clinging to vertiginous slopes. Also clinging to the vertiginous slopes were women hand scything the sparse grass between the trees. When enough was gathered, this was piled in towering loads on their heads, entirely concealing their faces, ready for the two-hour walk back to their village.

carrying grassWhat, however, was somewhat disconcerting,
and proves that no matter how hard you try to escape, the 21st century is always snapping at your heels, is that beneath her 15 kilo load of hand-scythed grass a woman may well be talking on her mobile phone… For, as in so many of the less developed parts of the world, a mobile network is cheap and easy to establish so that only in the deepest valleys in the Kumaon are you deprived of perfect mobile reception.

Satri is the smallest village in the Village Ways group, perched on a spectacular ridge and now only consisting of three families, including six bubbly teenage girls. After dinner all the villagers, including the girls, a bongo drum and set of castanets, gathered in the guest house to sing and dance, only interrupted by the constant ringing of the girls’ mobile phones!

Satri to Gonap

From Satri to Gonap, village number four, we left the pine forest (and the endless and deafening crickets) and traversed two valleys of oak, mixed forest – and birds: endless varieties of woodpecker, jays, tree pyes, parakeets, rose finches, grey bustards, sparrows, swallows, bullbulls and many more.

GonapGonap nestles into the hillside below its peak and its guest house is in the charge of green- fingered Mr Singh who has surrounded it with a butterfly-filled marigold garden and carpeted the ground with a velvet soft moss lawn – a delight to walk on when making a torch-lit visit to the loo in the night!

The evening village walk in Gonap extended as far as the ‘cricket pitch’ at the far end of the fields – a small clearing where three sticks and a cloth ball were providing the boys of the village with an enjoyable if somewhat erratic game of cricket.

Zero Point & Kathdhara

The walk to the last village, Kathdhara, was via Zero Point, the highest point in Binsar. As we rounded a bend in the path, the high Himalayan peaks floated into view, detached from the green mountains below by a thick haze, almost indistinguishable from the sky above.


Kathdhara is the biggest of the villages – over 100 inhabitants – and the one which sits least comfortably within the Village Ways concept. The most obviously grating note is the sparkling new electricity supply which marches through the village – but is not connected. Connection was scheduled for 1998, the year that the mains-electricity-free sanctuary was created.

The guest house terrace in Kathdhara looks over the valley where, the following morning, a dead oak tree was full of black- faced monkeys taking their morning sun bath. The monkeys are such a problem that, during daylight hours shifts of villagers armed with sticks, stones and loud voices, mount guard where the terraces meet the forest to try, not always successfully, to drive the monkeys off.

pounding riceBecause Kathdara is such a big village
it seemed to have more than the usual quota of grannies ranging from 75 to 99, most of them still planting and weeding, and all anxious to chat, to discuss how many children I had and to enjoy the attention of my nice two young guides!

Some of the younger women were
also pounding the rice to remove its husks. This was a sociable, if laborious process, in which the rice is pounded in a small hole in the terrace stone, by two women alternatively aiming long, heavy poles into the hole while a third brushed the escaping rice and chaff back for more pounding.

Although Kathdhara still has over 100 inhabitants, including a number of retired soldiers and a very jolly retired Delhi policeman, there was no shortage of empty houses. And one can understand why. Life is hard work in the mountains and the lure of the city is strong.

But for everyone who wants to leave, there is one, like Hem or Raju, who loves their mountains, their measured, sun-regulated way of life, their buffalo and goats, their fresh vegetables and blooming marigolds and for whom the noise, dirt and bustle of the city holds no charm. For them Village Ways has provided a lifeline.

For the visitor, refreshed in mind and body by the mountains, and returned, with charm and efficiency, to Delhi and the plane home, Village Ways provides a wonderful, invigorating, yet relaxing holiday!

Essential Contacts / Information

Village Ways - for all holidays costs etc.

Jet Airways - cheap direct flights to Delhi

Delhi - Lutyens Bungalow

Comfortable boots - mine were Brasher lightweight leather
Walking sticks - I used two and found them invaluable
For more visible wild life (within a day’s drive)–- Corbett Park

First published in 2007

June 2012 – Editor:

Since this article was published five years ago, Village Ways have spread their wings and now can offer not only the original walking holidays in the Binsar Sanctuary but similar holidays further up the Himalayas, in Kerala (south India), Rajashthan and the Thar Desert and, even further afield in Ethiopia. See their site at, for full details and/or sign up to their newsletter.



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