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A Mountain Road-head

Updated: Apr 16

Notes from the Thought Train during The Dayara Bugyal - Dodital Trek, Garhwal.

"Gaonwalon, himmat rakho, road aa rahi hai."

Till a few years ago, it was common to see this message scratched on rocks and mud walls along trekking trails across Uttarakhand. For mountain villages, a road usually meant easier access to the nearest town and its superior healthcare system, better schools, a market to sell produce and buy provisions, etc. All these are worthy reasons for connecting a remote village by road, where, without one, handling a serious medical emergency can be a whole new ball game.

Roadhead: End of the road, such as:

a: from where men and goods must continue on foot or animals.

b: the farthest point reached by a road under construction.

The former definition (Merriam-Webster) has a hint of adventure associated with it, while the latter sounds cold and ominous, stinking of ‘development’ and portending doom for the ecology. Two sides of the same coin. Be that as it may, a road-head has always been an important and well-used term in the Himalayas. For tourists, it denotes the limits of their explorations (thankfully!), but for trekkers and all other right-thinking people, it is where the fun begins.

For the local, however, it is a beacon of hope and a long-awaited harbinger of change. Naturally, any discussion with the local villager, the intended ‘beneficiary’ of the new road, about how rampant road-building is harming the natural wilderness, never stood a chance… up until now.

What has Changed

The ever-growing road network in the Himalayas has, in recent years, reached (or is about to reach) some of the last remaining inhabited villages on the periphery of the high-altitude national parks and mountain ranges, along the Indo-Nepal-Tibetan-Chinese border.

This has produced some very interesting changes in the outlook of villagers. 'Roads are good' is no longer a fixed adage. Let us consider, for example, the villages of Raithal, Agoda, and Barsu, the current road-heads in the area. Up until last year, a village called Bhatwari, on the Uttarkashi-Gangotri road, which lies in the upper Bhagirathi basin along the Bhagirathi river, was the effective road-head for the popular Dayara Bugyal trek. The said “Bugyals” or meadows, hanging 4,000 ft. above the river, could be reached by a steep, 17 km trail, starting at Bhatwari and passing through Raithal, which is perched halfway up the mountain. Earlier this year, the new road from Bhatwari to Raithal became operational, making Raithal the new ‘road-head’ and rendering Bhatwari redundant from the trekkers' point of view. Being on the main Uttarkashi-Gangotri road, Bhatwari may continue to benefit from the ever-growing religious tourism centered around Gangotri and survive. But Raithal is destined to thrive.

The above scenario has been playing out for decades, as the ‘road-head’ shifts from village to village, ushering in change. Since there was always another village beyond, the road-heads were propelled forward by their own logic. Of late, there are not many villages left but mostly pristine wilderness beyond. Either that or the international border.

Thus, the fortunate villagers of Raithal, Barsu, and Agoda, who for generations had to be content with maintaining traditional grazing rights for their cattle, now increasingly see themselves as custodians of the forested hills, valleys, and meadows of this belt, with a stake in nature conservation.

The above region includes trekking hotspots like Dodital Lake and the Dayara meadows and offers breathtaking views of the Gangotri group, Bandarpoonch, Kalanag, and other peaks of the Sankari range.

The significance of the opportunity is not lost on the inhabitants, who now find themselves in a unique position as the sole gatekeepers to all trekking-related tourism between the rivers Assi Ganga and Bhagirathi. The village has decided to oppose any further road extension, if it comes to that, thus ensuring they retain a monopoly as the roadhead.

The windfall has been transformative for Raithal. Last year, GMVN relocated its guest house here from Bhatwari, small farms have begun to disappear, to be replaced by the many new homestays that have come up since then, land prices have risen rapidly, and the first of the outsiders has already come and bought land in the village for a small resort.

The good news is… the road has stopped, at least for the time being.


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