Himalayan Trek to Panwali Kantha
For many of us, it has been a long and intense lockdown in India. I found myself going crazy staring at the same four walls all day every day. I barely even left the room to eat because of where I was staying. I’d been craving to get out and explore, and eventually, India granted my wishes.
At the start of September, India opened up again for travelling. Only for those within the country, but that was me, so I was excited. I had seen some Indian friends positing beautiful pictures of a trek they had been on which are so incredibly beautiful. When I got the opportunity to go myself, I jumped on it! The trek to Panwali Kantha through the Himalayas was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I did it with The Nature Bliss, who have a cute little homestay with amazing views, and a great supporting team. Here’s a complete rundown of my experience, so you know what treats you have in store if you want to get out and do it yourself.
I went from Rishikesh with a group of 6 people and we took two cars, one 4 wheel drive, and a cab. I was in the cab so it was a nice comfortable drive up there. Because it was during the tail end of the coronavirus lockdown, we had to make a number of stops to get all the relevant passes and get through the police checkpoints.
It took all up about 9 hours to get there, but the scenery made the whole trip so enjoyable. The views along the way were incredible. I can’t find the words to describe the beauty that is India. There was a beautiful lake that we drove along for quite some time and we stopped to take photos at one point because it was truly beautiful.
When we got further into the mountains, I could see all of these stunning villages. The colorful buildings set into the side of the mountain are one of the treasures of India I will never forget. When it was dark, everyone in my cab (apart from me) saw a tiger or leopard cross the road, and sit silently as we passed. I would have loved to have seen this, but unfortunately, I was sitting in the wrong place in the car!
Eventually, we reached the homestay of The Nature Bliss in Thapla at night. The place is beautifully secluded with a steep walk down to the accommodation that is totally worth it! There we had a campfire and some delicious food made by the incredible Balli. In my opinion, he is one of the best chefs in India. And I am so glad that I have been lucky enough to have eaten so many meals created by him.
We stayed in an adorable exposed brick dorm with comfortable beds that had me fall asleep the moment my head touched the pillow. The next morning when we woke up, I got to enjoy the delight that is the scenery at The Nature Bliss. It is set on the side of a mountain where you can see down the valley and are surrounded by beautiful pumpkin vines.
After we had our breakfast, we headed out to explore the hometown. We went down to have a bath in the gorgeous Ganga river. There is nothing quite like being in a crystal clear river with views of the mountains to get you into that deep relaxation mode. After that, we did a little exploring of other places before heading to a temple. We met many people along the way who were all so friendly. And almost every single one of them offered us to come in for tea. They don’t get many foreigners out there, so everyone was very excited to see us.
We came back for lunch, and most of us enjoyed a nap, while I spent a few hours with my head buried in a book. It’s not often that I find a nice relaxing time and space to read. So I took full advantage of this! When we were all rejuvenated again, we headed out for a sunset walk, then back for dinner. We had an early night to prepare for the big day we had planned to start the trek to Panwali the next morning.
Walking up the mountain
I was quite nervous about going on this trek to Panwali. For the past 4 months, I had been recovering from a series of health issues. So my fitness was far from its peak! I am so lucky to have met an angel on earth, who insisted on carrying my backpack for me the entire way up and down the mountain. Without making a single complaint about it. We had several stops along the way because it is a really steep mountain. We had breakfast, and a number of snack breaks along the way which helped us to keep recharging. There were many incredible things we saw and did along the way. Including tasting some incredible wild berries, and walking through thick clouds that made the jungle look as though it was straight out of an enchanted movie.
We had local tour guides helping us navigate through the mountains so we didn’t get lost, and they were also preparing our food. The food they made was so tasty, and they accommodated my vegan diet and my peanut allergy. So I never had to worry about the food I was eating. Each meal we had was cooked on the campfire, or prepared earlier and was always mouthwatering! It was always enough to keep you going throughout the day and to leave you with a full belly to help you sleep at night. This is definitely something you want when it is so cold up there! There was also always coffee and chai, as well as glucose drinks to help give that extra pick me up whenever you needed it when you were hiking up the mountain.
Now when I say camping, I really do mean camping. You won’t have a house or any facilities around for you to use a bathroom. This is true, classic outback camping. And I LOVED IT! I used to be a big camper back in my teenage years, so for me, I felt right at home. But don’t go into this thinking that it’s glamping, because you will get a rude shock! I slept in a tent, and because we were up in the mountains, it was really cold. And you need to be fully prepared for that. As the only female there, I was lucky to have a private tent. The rest of the guys made tents out of tarps in front of the campfire to keep them warm at night. If you’re a lover of camping and nature, you will love this trip!
On the first night of the trek to Panwali, it was a complete cloud cover. You could barely see a few feet in front of you, so I had no idea where we were staying. But when we woke up the next morning, we were greeted with a beautiful sunset coming over the mountains, showing off the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Also, special mention has to go out to the stars. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, it seems like you are staging up at a different sky. There seem to be so many more stars, that shine more brightly than you have ever seen before.
There are a bunch of stops throughout the trek to Panwali, and each of them is absolutely incredible to experience. Whether it be the people you get to interact with, the animals you see playing, or the stunning landscapes with 360-degree views. There is guaranteed to be at least one thing each day that will hold a special part of your memory.
One of the first stops we made on the way up was at a buffalo farm. Two brothers ran the farm, and they were some of the most genuine and truly kind people you could meet. You could see in the way their faces lit up when they saw up come through, and they made sure that everyone got to try some fresh curd, other than myself, of course.
On the second day, one of the beautiful stops we made was at Bhinlgana Range. This was a valley with the most incredible rolling hills and beautiful flowers. This is one of the main reasons I went on this hike. Seeing the valley of flowers was always on my bucket list for India, and I heard this was better than that! I have to say, it did not disappoint. I think those views will be etched in my mind for years to come. It was so incredible taking in the beauty of that place, while also watching the clouds roll in.
The trek to Panwali is known as one of the hardest, yet most rewarding treks within Uttarakhand. You trek up to 11,500 ft (3,500 m) above sea level, which is certainly no small amount! It tests you not only physically, but also mentally. And this is why I was so lucky to have such a supportive bunch of people around me. Not all of us were incredibly fit, but a lot of the people I was with were.
The best thing about our group was that they tackled this trek to Panwali as a team sport. Everyone was always checking in to make sure that others were alright and that they had enough water. They would go out of their way to get you absolutely anything you needed to make it a little easier for you. It’s not only the support you get during the trek, but also afterward when we’ve set up camp and have a debrief on the day.
The people I was with knew that this was going to be hard for me because of my health issues, and at the end of the first day when we were setting up camp, they all started chanting my name. This was to congratulate me for the efforts I had put in that day. Even though I didn’t feel that it was anything remarkable. I had someone who had carried my bags the whole way, so everyone had it much harder than I did. Yet still, they recognized and appreciated the mental and physical efforts I had put in, being at a disadvantage due to my physical restrictions. It was so beautiful to have that kind of support around me, and it kept me going through each day.
I’m a big fan of camping, especially the time that you spend around the campfire. For us, we spent some of the time playing games like Uno or cricket, and when it got dark, that’s when the campfire stories came out. Each of us shared stories about our lives, and it really helped us all secure a closer friendship bond through our exchange. We learned a lot about each other and helped to get things off our mind and our chest in a safe place. There is some kind of unspoken magic about camping with people. There is no judgment or malicious teasing, everyone just sitting and listening with open minds, accepting the people they are camping with exactly as they are.
Scenery & Animals
The highlight of this trip was, of course, the scenery and the animals. The fields were like something out of a movie, where someone has searched for the perfect location that everyone would dream of going to. But here, we were standing right in it. None of the photos or videos I have taken would ever be able to capture the beauty of these mountains, meadows, flowers, peaks, and animals. We watched buffaloes wallowing in a waterhole mere meters from us, on many occasions! A heard of goats, and I mean in the proximity of about 100 goats, mostly baby kids, strutting their way through the fields, and the wild horses frolicking a playing freely through the meadows. If you’re an animal lover, you will absolutely love every moment of this trip. Majestic animals are right around every corner!
For the regular readers of my blog, you will know that I have a series of intense health issues. I have both scoliosis and arthritis in my spine, muscle dystrophy which affects the right half of my body, injuries to both my knees, issues in one hip, as well as an undiagnosed neurological disease that sees it hard for me to control the functions of my body some of the time.
I remember a few years back seeing a specialist and saying that I wanted to dance and run again. He had told me in the kindest possible way that I needed to reset my expectations and be more prepared to be in a wheelchair within 5 years. That was now two years ago. I was told not to do any extreme activity that will put my body under stress, such as hiking. I know this is something I should probably listen to. Considering I checked one item off my bucket list two years ago (snowboarding in Japan) and was unable to walk for 3 days after due to the stress it put on my body.
But I am completely unwilling to accept that a wheelchair in the next 3 years is my fate. And even if it is, I am going to make sure that I make the most of every moment before it happens. Perhaps this is irresponsible and potentially nihilistic of me, but I guess my point here, is that your mental strength plays a big part in your ability to do things. With a strong mindset, you can achieve things that you may not have thought possible. My motto throughout the trek was ‘small baby steps are better than no steps’ and repeating that to myself really helped.
We had seen many groups go past us at one of our stops the day before, so we had stopped to set up camp elsewhere. We had gone during the weekend, which no one realized because we don’t have normal jobs. But that meant there were a lot of local people doing the trek. So we decided to camp a little further down a make a day trip the following day.
When we reached there, we were met by many people and made our way into this tiny little village. The people there were shocked to see foreigners there. After speaking with one man, he let us know that he has lived in the village for 20 years and not once has he ever seen a foreigner there. Not only that, he had never seen a foreigner in his life! It was kind of crazy to learn that people had never seen someone with different skin colour in real life. We would have looked straight out of a movie to him.
On the last day of the trek to Panwali, we completed the whole return in one day. I’m not sure about other people, but for me, the walk down is always the hardest. Sure, walking up the hill leaves me breathless because I’m unfit, but walking down is simply just painful. Whether it be a pain in my bad hip, either of my knees or my back due to the heavy compensating I do ease the pressure in other parts of my body.
I was definitely the weakest link in this part of the trek, likely delaying the trip for hours. But we still made minimal stops, and we made it down to the village before the sun went down. We went down the same way we went up, which means that it was crazy steep and you had to be very careful you didn’t slip around too much and twist an ankle. Again, the people I was with were so kind and considerate. At one point they reshuffled the carrying of bags so that someone could give me a piggyback down the mountain. Of course, I refused, but it just goes to show how incredibly caring and supportive these people are.
After the trek was over, we spent one additional day at the homestay unwinding before we made the trip back to Rishikesh. There I was treated with the most luxurious mud wrap, which my skin lapped up after getting severely sunburnt on the trip. The mud wrap was made of virgin mud, turmeric, aarti Kapoor, marijuana leaves, flower leaves, natural essences, and basil. It was like a dream being layered onto my skin. It left me feeling so soft and rejuvenated, I wish I could have one every day!!
We finished off the night again with a campfire, some whisky, and some incredible pumpkin flower pakora. It was the perfect end to a perfect trip, surrounded by incredible people.
What to Bring with you
I went on the trek to Panwali in the middle of September, which is apparently the best time to go. After monsoon season, and before winter starts. I was a little underprepared for what to bring, so here’s a list of what I think you will need on this trip. It can be quite warm at the homestay, so a t-shirt and some shorts would be ideal.
- In the mountains, its really cold, so lots of layers and a big jacket
- A scarf and a beanie
- Sunscreen! I didn’t expect to get burnt, but my gosh did I! My hands were swollen from the burn, and I got a really bad burn on my nose and lips. So don’t forget the sunscreen!
- Baby wipes. There isn’t really anywhere you can have a bath, so baby wipes helped me to feel fresh and somewhat clean throughout the trip.
- An extra pair of shoes. My sneakers got drenched on the first day, so I’m glad I had an extra pair of boots and socks to keep me warm at night.
- A power bank. You’ll go four days without the ability to charge your phone or camera. So having a fully charged power bank will help you keep snapping pics of the gorgeous scenery.
Doing this trek to Panwali through the Himalayas with The Nature Bliss was truly incredible, and I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list of things to do while in India. All up including transport, accommodation, guides, and food, you’re looking at around 10,000 rupees ($160 AUD) for a week. That is an incredible deal for such an amazing experience!
If you want to trek to Panwali yourself, get in touch with Arvind on 74669 62932 or via WhatsApp on +91 91197 57631, and he can help to arrange everything for you, including travel passes and transportation. He makes sure that you are comfortable throughout the whole trip and genuinely cares about giving you the best possible experience you can have. Honestly, I could not recommend this trip enough. It is an absolute must-do whenever you plan to visit India!