Everyone said Milam was a ghost town and it is. Once a thriving summer settlement on the old trade route from Eastern Kumaon to Gyanema and Gartok in Western Tibet, it was abandoned in the wake of the 1962 border war with China. But by the time I got there, after a four-day walk, sweating and cursing on the climbs, creaking and wobbling on the steep descents, I just felt very happy to be alive. It was beautiful: the sunshine poured through the thin mountain air, the Milam glacier glistened on the slopes below Hardeol at the head of the valley. We walked to the glacier snout plucking rose hips and Tibetan sea buckthorn berries and returned to a breakfast of parathas and potatoes garnished with fresh local jimbu or chives. The day before, I had seen the twin peaks of Nanda Devi cresting like frozen waves over another ghost town called Martoli.
“This used to be the biggest village in old Almora district,” said Kishen Singh, the chatty old chowkidar at Deepu Guest House, a snug whitewashed cottage at the edge of town. “There were five hundred families here, and back in those days, they say, young brides, who were new to this place, would lose their way in the galis. They’d go to fetch water from the river, and wind up in the wrong house when they returned.” Kishen Singh’s face lit up at the ancient innuendos of the story. An old wives’ tale of young wives. The gossip of ghosts.
Milam has more famous ghosts of course, you may even have heard of them: the “Pundits” Nain Singh and his nephew Kishen Singh, surveyor spies of colonial yore, (code names “A” and “A.K.”), who traversed Tibet on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, masquerading as pilgrims while charting the forbidden Himalayan Kingdom with their Victorian gadgetry concealed in prayer wheels and rosaries. I wanted to see their homes and was led through the maze of Milam’s lanes, edged with drystone walls and a few scattered willows. There were handsome houses all around us, with sturdy stone walls and some finely carved lintels. But many were crumbling and most of them were roofless. We stopped at a barren enclosure at the eastern fringe of the town. This is where the Pundits’ houses once stood, I was told. But all the stones had been sold to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
It was a small disappointment but then, the whole town was a ruin. After the 1962 war had put paid to the Tibet trade, the despairing Milamwals had even sold their roof beams and rafters as firewood to the soldiers who now wintered here.
In the angled amber light of evening, the place reminded me of other historic ruins I’ve seen, places of calamity and legend, snuffed out by drought and famine, fire and war. In its own way, Milam was a casualty of war. And yet it is a disarmingly unsentimental ruin. Haunting perhaps, but not haunted.
For one thing, the ghost town now has a lively if less charming doppelgänger: the ITBP camp, garrisoned by fat soldiers from the plains. They have satellite phones and TV dishes and helicopters that fly in trucks and motorcycles and even bulldozers to build the roads for them to drive on. Someone had told me that the choppers also brought in a regular ration of porn DVDs for the lonely privates. So I asked a young jawan if this was true. “That was in the old days,” he giggled. “Our generation does everything on smartphones.” There’s progress even in downfall, I suppose.
Back at Deepu Guest House, Kishen Singh told me another story from the good old days before the soldiers moved in. The tale of Milam’s winter chowkidar, a retired Tibetan horse herder called Dhondup. “He didn’t get a salary but he had the village to himself and he would move from house to house, helping himself to whatever provisions he liked until he got completely snowed in. That was the arrangement. When the villagers returned at the end of winter they would dig him out of the snow.”
It sounded like a bit of a fable but later when I was back in Munsiyari, I visited the local museum and they had an old photograph from the 1950s, of Dhondup in Milam. A shaggy Tibetan Hagrid.
So why would anyone want to spend the winter alone in a ghost town? “He loved it!” Kishen Singh insisted. “He used to tell the villagers ‘the moment you people leave Milam all the ghosts leave with you.’”
Appeared in the December 2014 issue as “The Chowkidar’s Tale”.