Sangam Chatti was the end of the road. From there, they would travel by trail to Kanasar. Still following the Assi Ganga valley as it curved sharply to the east, the families were once again immersed in the forest. Their route would take them some 20 miles (30km) deeper - and 8000 feet (2450 meters) higher - into the mountains.


Since there was a well-used recreational hiking trail etched into the northern slope of the river canyon, the nomads stuck to the rarely-traveled paths on the southern side. They walked high above the Assi Ganga itself, since the terrain closer to the water was simply too sheer to cross. Eventually, where the topography mellowed out temporarily, they descended to the river, crossed it, then climbed toward Dodi Tal, a small lake popular with trekkers, which is said to be the birthplace of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati.


The trail through the forest.

Jamila cooks while holding Yasin, at a camp in the forest

Tiny Halima rests on the forest floor

Salma washes her face one morning at a camp along the trail


While everyone was glad to be behind the veil of the forest once again, conditions soon became difficult. Progress was slow. A series of storms settled over the mountains, flinging rain, hail, and snow. The steep dirt paths became slick with mud, which was hard on the Van Gujjars but even harder, perhaps, on the pack animals; some were so worn down that at times they’d be relieved of their saddlebags – which would then be carried, fully-loaded, by people. The days when they craved shade or plunged into a river to escape the heat of the day seemed like the far distant past, as they now crowded around fires and bundled up in wool shawls for warmth. They lingered for days at some campsites before moving on, waiting out the weather and grateful not be at Kanasar yet, where the exposed meadows were surely getting hammered even harder by the elements. 


It rained - sometimes poured - on and off for days

Trails were steep and slick with mud - notice how the horse strains, as Appa looks up at the next hill they have to climb

Hamju carries a set of saddlebags up a steep hill, on an unmaintained game trail, since the bull that normally hauls it is too worn down 

Trying to warm up ...


The plastic shoes that they wore were falling apart, so they cut up the most damaged ones and used their pieces to patch those that could be repaired. As they moved further and further away from shops where they could buy flour or rice or anything else, food was strictly rationed (to about three or four chapattis smeared with chili paste each day, plus milk and chai), and everyone lived with pangs of hunger. At one point, a crew of the older children hiked about 10 miles (16km) back to Sangam Chatti to purchase supplies, then returned to camp the same day, each carrying between 25 and 40 kilograms (55 to 88 pounds) apiece of flour, rice, sugar, tea, and other goods. This was much more difficult than their usual migration to Gangar, and they felt it, but generally handled it with patience and humor.


Salma, exhausted.

Mariam's foot

Patching shoes with pieces of other shoes, using a searing hot blade

A pack horse makes its way up what only loosely meets the definition of a trail


In all, they took ten days to travel the 14 miles (22km) between Sangam Chatti and Dodi Tal. From there, just one more day of trekking would take them to Kanasar. But they’d spend some time camped near the little lake first.


Roshan Din, a friend traveling in the same direction

Another friend in the forest