Head for heights

In the Himalayan foothills, Helen Anderson walks among remote villages and rhododendron forests.

The butler dispatches the ball with the accuracy of Zaheer Khan. The Tibetan chef smiles - he's always smiling - as he wields the hand-whittled bat like a meat cleaver. He attempts a slog-sweep, misses entirely and the three wonky stumps teeter.

This is no reflection of the chef's skill, for no one, least of all the batsman, can actually see the ball, fashioned from a couple of men's socks. The sun is slipping behind the snow-capped Great Himalayan Range and the pitch is illuminated weakly by a rising moon. The temperature is plummeting, but the Leti XI, as I call them, play on with Indian intensity. Only the two Australian fielders are shivering.

This pint-sized pitch is wedged between the glass-and-stone lodge and the four guest cottages of 360° Leti. It's the only level ground for miles. From this tiny plateau at 2230 metres, a 360-degree swivel reveals the vertical nature of life in the Himalayan foothills of the Kumaon, a region in the mountainous northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

The village of Leti, from which the lodge takes its name, is almost parallel with us, but more than an hour's walk away. We're wrapped in valleys of steeply chiselled terraces planted with shooting wheat. Above us are the sharp, icy angles of the Himalayan range, which marks India's border with Tibet and Nepal. Both of those regions have higher and more famous mountains but what's important here is not height but faith, for what towers above us is the embodiment of a goddess in a holy mountain. The peak of Nanda Devi, or the "bliss-giving goddess", is ringed by glaciers and mountains so formidable that even gaining entry to its base, the so-called sanctuary, was regarded for a long time as more difficult than reaching the North Pole. In 1936, when a British-American team reached the peak, it was the highest summit anyone had climbed.

To Hindus, this region is the Land of the Gods, the cradle of Hinduism's most powerful legends and the source of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Pilgrims have been coming here for more than 1000 years to pray at the holiest of Hindu temples, many dedicated to Shiva the destroyer and to absolve their sins. "Just as the sun dissipates the dew," says Mark, our guide, "Hindus believe their sins will be dissipated by the sight of the Himalayas."

Like many pilgrims, I travel by train, car and on foot, though the similarities end there. The Kumaon town of Almora was on the '60s hippie trail (Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Timothy Leary and fellow drifters hung around on spiritual quests), but the region beyond Almora is little known and there's virtually no tourism infrastructure.

This makes a bespoke walking holiday with Shakti Himalaya, a specialist luxury-tour company, very special. With the behind-the-scenes support of a guide, driver, cooks and porters, a traveller can walk alone in these remote, heavily forested mountains and, at the end of the day, settle into renovated rustic-chic village houses and eat superbly prepared local dishes. On the strength of the Kumaon village-walk operation, Shakti has since established similar walking circuits in the Indian states of Sikkim and Ladakh.

My journey to the Himalayas (those who live here put the emphasis on the second, not the first, syllable) begins with a crisp "good morning, ma'am" from Mark, in a cut-glass accent honed at boarding school in Darjeeling and university in Assam. He's waiting in the grey dawn with a cup of tea at Kathgodam, where we step off an overnight sleeper train from Delhi. From here it's a four-hour drive to Almora, a lively town of temples, ashrams and ageing hippies, then a three-hour walk along cow paths and through pine forest to our first village house. Our driver, Sonum, comes from the "moonscape" state of Ladakh in India's far north, "where sometimes we must drive where there is no road". This fact gives me solace as we navigate a road of relentless hairpin turns and washed-out gullies, just wide enough for a car alongside a flamboyantly decorated truck ("Blow Horn Please!" on the bumper) and with a steep, crumbly drop off the side. I'd forgotten what motion sickness feels like. "We get used to these roads," Mark says, and I do, too, once I take the pills he keeps in the car.

Mahatma Gandhi spent three weeks near Almora and later wondered "whether the scenery of these hills and the climate are to be surpassed, if equalled, by any of the beauty spots of the world". I wonder the same as we skirt wheat terraces and pine forest in perfect walking weather: 20 degrees, sun on our backs. Goatherds and school kids greet us along the way; we tip our hats to a posse of farmhands playing cards and drinking tea on a farmhouse verandah. As happens everywhere in India, we step around the most insouciant cows in the world. In winter they'll be fed from haystacks arranged, curiously, halfway up the trunks of trees - high enough to avoid water damage and lazy livestock.

In the garden of a farmhouse we pause and seemingly from nowhere a porter arrives with camp chairs, napery and a three-course picnic.

A farmyard sari is a blaze of colour in these parts and women balancing bundles of oak leaves on their heads are herding cows and goats into ground-floor stables beneath their homes when we arrive at the village of Jwalabanj.

Even the dogs are kept indoors at night. "There's a healthy number of leopards in these hills," Mark says, unfazed. "You often see them when you're driving at night."

The Shakti model is unique in India. Three village houses in the Kumaon, roughly a day's walk apart, are leased by the company. They look like all the solid stone houses here, though they're renovated with simple, stylish interiors and the plumbing and comforts expected by well-heeled travellers, usually couples or small family groups. The logistics of providing this kind of service in remote mountain villages is complicated; what's impressive is that it works without a hitch and without fuss. The landowners are trained and employed in the venture, which is key to its success.

Michael, the cook, is busy in the kitchen when we arrive at a pretty two-bedroom house. We're staying in a new stone cottage on an adjoining terrace, with a bedroom (fine linen, excellent bed, woollen throws woven locally, plenty of candles and lanterns in lieu of electricity), a bathroom (solar hot-water shower, flushing toilet, local organic bath products) and a verandah for sundowners around a fire.

Listening to the sounds of a village preparing evening meals feels oddly intimate: babies crying, pans rattling, women scolding (children, husbands, livestock). There's a thrilling dissonance in hearing the familiar sounds of daily life in a wildly unfamiliar setting. In a low-ceilinged dining room, once used as a family's stable, we're served lentil soup, curries of mustard greens, potatoes and vegetables, roti and a coriander chicken curry so good I bring home Michael's handwritten recipe.

Another Shakti home is in the village of Kana, where we share a front terrace with the family next door. There are clothes drying on those odd haystacks and goats and cows tethered near stone houses, many with the region's distinctive, ornate window and door frames painted bright blue, like ours. People smile and say hello but are otherwise unflustered by a couple of foreigners walking in their midst, which adds to the feeling of being travellers, in the old-fashioned sense, rather than voyeurs. Our neighbour, a 10-year-old boy, shows us his kid goat and pesters Mark for a game of cricket (all-rounder Yuvraj Singh is his hero).

After a big breakfast of fruit and omelettes we follow cow paths and terraced plots to the nearest road, not far from the sacred temple complex at Jageshwar. Set in a towering cedar forest at the confluence of mountain streams, there are 124 stone shrines dedicated to Shiva, some dating from the eighth century. With a crowd of pilgrims and a couple of new brides dripping in gold, I slip off my shoes and we hobble on wet, near-freezing flagstones to a shrine lit by a lamp that is said to have burnt since time began.

From the village houses, the drive to Shakti's alpine lodge, 360° Leti, is long and never uneventful. There are many more of those hairpin turns and potholes, but also more cows and motorbikes to avoid and the ubiquitous four-wheel-drive Mahindra Maxx taxis: the people-mover of choice in these mountains. It's wedding season, so in most towns there are vehicles full of excited guests following wedding taxis bearing the names of today's lucky couples: "Prem Weds Rita"; "Ravi Weds Padma".

The road rises higher; the switchbacks coil tighter. There's no pine forest here, but junipers and rhododendrons and massive mophead Himalayan oak, their lower branches lopped off long ago for fodder. Then the paved road turns to dust and rock, and Sonum grips the wheel tighter. From the trailhead we walk for an hour - though the local women porters carrying our gear get there in half the time - to a warm welcome and a lit fire at the lodge.

Even with this new, ugly gash of a road edging closer, the lodge is still "improbably" remote, admits Shakti Himalaya's owner, Jamshyd Sethna. He dreams of building another lodge even higher in the Kumaon Himalayas. A Parsi psychoanalyst based in Mumbai, he grew up in the mountains of Darjeeling and loves trekking, though "these days I also like a comfortable bed, fresh vegetables and a glass of wine at the end of the day". He's undeterred by the logistics involved - for 16 years he has owned and run Shakti's bigger sister company, Banyan Tours, one of India's leading luxury-tour operators. Later, over gin and cucumber sandwiches in a Delhi hotel, he describes his Shakti "epiphany".

"I was walking in deep snow, high near a glacier in the Himalayas; I could see Nanda Devi. There's blue sheep up there, you know. And there I see the tracks of a snow leopard. It was a moment of such exhilaration, it got me thinking that everyone should feel this good."

He established Shakti and the Kumaon village-walk circuit in 2004. A year later he saw this plateau, high above the Ramganga River, leased the land from six farmers (whose families now work at the lodge) and began work with Mumbai architect Bijoy Jain to build a place of "sophisticated simplicity". (The logistics of carting tonnes of stone and wood and 350 panes of glass to this eyrie were anything but simple. Hence the cricket ball made from socks.)

Yeshi, a former monk and Leti's chef, is the linchpin - radiating Buddhist calm, growing vegetables, baking bread and cakes and cooking multi-course Kumaoni, regional Indian and Tibetan meals from scratch over two gas burners and a tiny wood-fired oven in a small, spotless kitchen. One night he shows me how to make a perfect biryani with a pot, a coil of dough and a heavy rock balanced on the lid; on another night, how to make momos, Tibetan dumplings stuffed with hand-minced mutton. "Leti is a little piece of heaven for me," he says, smiling. "The mountains, no pollution, everyone happy."

It often feels like we're edging a little closer to heaven. An hour's walk along a ridge from the lodge, past oak and rhododendron forests and a tiny flour mill powered by a mountain stream, is a shrine to Shiva, depicted here as a blue-faced god carrying a trident.

The shrine is deserted. The sounds of laughter and wedding music, Bollywood style, float up from the valley, two kilometres below. Then a shadow slides beside me and I glance sideways with a start. A bearded vulture, very close and much bigger than me, with a wingspan of two metres or more, is circling in the Himalayan drafts, suspended over the abyss.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Shakti Himalaya.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Delhi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1540 low-season return including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Delhi (5hr 45min); see singaporeair.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months. From Delhi, take an overnight sleeper train (about 8hr) to Kathgodam, where the Shakti tour begins.

Walking there

A three-night Shakti Kumaon village walk costs from $US1307 ($1240) a person, twin share. This includes village-house accommodation, all meals and drinks, a guide throughout, private chef, porters, driver, car and return transfers from the train station. Many travellers team the village walk with a stay at Shakti's lodge, 360° Leti. A three-night lodge stay costs from $US1916 a person, twin share, with all the inclusions of the village-walk package. See shaktihimalaya.com.

When to go

Village walks and the lodge operate from October 1 to the end of April. In December and January the night temperatures at Leti can drop to zero but the days are sunny and good for walking.

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