Travelling alone – not so unsafe after all…

Ever since I returned from my trek, I have been boring the ‘eyeballs off’ the people I know with my ongoing chatter about the trek. However, this is not about the trek per se. Well… there may be a reference or two.

This post is about perceptions and reality; with specific reference to travelling in India. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone at night.

We have all heard about how unsafe it is for single women to travel in India. Rapists, murderers, and kidnappers seem to prowl the streets of India. This is not to say that women haven’t been kidnapped, raped or murdered in India. They have been. Too many of them.

However, I would be doing a disservice to the people I met and the Indian Railways if I don’t record my experiences.

When I signed up for the trek, I was to tie up with a friend in Delhi and we were to travel to Haridwar by the Nanda Devi Express. A train that is nocturnal in nature as far as the Delhi-Haridwar stretch goes. It arrives in Delhi just before midnight and reaches Haridwar at 3.55am. Similarly, on the return journey, it reaches Haridwar at around 12.45am and reaches Delhi at 5am.

 

Anu haridwar pic

Haridwar Station wore a comparatively deserted look at 6.30 in the morning. Image Credit – Anushree Dutt.

 

 

I have always led a protected life. I have travelled alone, but on flights. I have explored a few European cities on my own during the daylight hours while my husband attended to his work. That is about it. I have never stayed alone… not until I was in my 30s and that too when my husband would go away on duty travel for a couple of weeks. And I have definitely never travelled through the length and breadth of India alone by car, bus or train. Someone, a family member or a friend, has always accompanied me.

In itself, it is not a big deal. In fact, in a way it reflects how much my family loves me. But it has always rankled. I have never been out there on my own. Would I be able to manage if I had to figure it out all alone in a place that mixes chaos and calm, with as much ease as India does?

Two days before I arrived in Delhi, my friend messaged me and told me that she had been diagnosed as suffering from whooping cough, and therefore her physician had advised her against the trek. I was disappointed, as I was really looking forward to enjoying the trek with her and another friend.

It was another moment before I realized that the real problem (or challenge) for me, however, was not going to be the trek. It would be the train journey.

The plan had been for us to meet up in Delhi at my brother-in-law’s place and then proceed to the railway station and travel on to Haridwar. Since there were two of us, it would be an adventure. Nothing to worry about. But alone! Alone in a train from Delhi (Delhi for Pete’s sake people!) to Haridwar, at an ungodly hour! For a moment I did reconsider, changing my travel plans and maybe flying into Chandigarh and making it to Haridwar with the third member of my party. However, that plan did not work out.

It was at this point that I realized that this was my chance. I had always wanted to travel on my own. Here was my opportunity. Sure it was only for a few hours, to be followed by a 10-hour drive with a fellow group of trekkers who I would be meeting for the very first time. Pretty much everyone in the trek team was travelling in groups of 3 to 5. I would be the only one travelling solo. But hey! Perfect recipe to strike up new friendships.

This is not to say that a lifetime’s habits of being risk averse and cautious just disappeared in a flash. No. The doubts were there. So was the fear. Most of us non-Delhi-ites have heard such nightmarish stories about Delhi that we are worried about even going to CP in the daytime. What we forget is that the only stories that make it to prime time and headlines are the nightmarish ones. We forget that for every negative story out there, there must be at least a few dozen positive stories. Stories and people that we never get to hear about.

It was 11.20 pm or so when I was dropped off at the Delhi railway station. A sea of people, most of them asleep on make-shift beds on the station floor, greeted me. The train arrived on the dot. I got settled into my first class AC compartment. (Before you wonder, I did my bookings at the nth moment and no other tickets were available.) This compartment had two berths. I had not had time to cancel my friend’s ticket… so technically the compartment was all mine. However, my brother-in-law cautioned me saying that if the TT (Travelling Ticket Examiner) sees the empty berth, he is within his rights to allocate it to someone else.

After I got settled in, my brother-in-law and his wife left. I locked the door and wondered what I should tell the TT. I did not want anyone else in the compartment. Maybe I could lie and say that my friend was in the bathroom. That way there would be no probability of my having to share the compartment with a stranger.

Now here is something you need to know about me – I was 9 or 10 when I decided to avoid telling lies… as much as I can. (White lies don’t count by the way. Those are the rules! :)) Not for any ethical or moral reasons. But purely for reasons of convenience. When you lie, it never stops with one. You have to utter a few more lies to keep that original lie going. Something that always gets me tied up in a knot, because I invariably slip up, speak the truth at some point or don’t hide the damning evidence well enough, and get caught.

Just then there was a knock on the compartment door. It was the TT. He checked my ticket (which had my friend’s and my name) and then asked me where my co-passenger was. I opened my mouth to say ‘bathroom,’ and instead said, “She could not make it.” Bugger!

I now had no choice but to tell him the whole truth. So then I requested him that he not allocate anyone else to the compartment as I was travelling alone. And if he had to allocate it, to please, please make sure it was to a lady. My head was already abuzz with thoughts of how if I screamed for help in an AC compartment, no one would be able to hear me. The TT smiled and said, “Don’t worry Madam! Aap darwaaza lock kar do. Aap akeli lady hai, issiliye, hum kissi ko nahi bhejenge.” [Translation – You lock the door. We will not send anyone else to share the compartment since you are travelling alone.]

Needless to say, I did not sleep like a baby.  Not because I did not feel safe. But because I did not want to miss the station. How I envy those seasoned traveller types who can comfortably nod off anywhere, anytime! Eventually, I did arrive at Haridwar.

Getting down at Haridwar, in the middle of the pilgrimage season (or is it always the pilgrimage season here!) I found myself surrounded by the hinterland experience and ambience. I decided to hunker down in the waiting room till 6.30am when the trek team vehicles were to pick us up. The waiting room was everything that movies make these waiting rooms out to be. Crowded. Dirty.

There were families and individuals who had come for their pilgrimages. Guys who had just arrived from wherever, walking around with a towel wrapped around their protruding bellies, after taking a shower in those dirty-as-hell waiting room bathrooms! Two little babies who could not settle down comfortably. Families who had taken up those uncomfortable metal seats en masse – like a package deal.

As I settled in I realised that I needed to use the bathroom. Dirty, wet messy affairs, there was no way I could carry my day bag with my tickets, money and mobile into it. And forget the rucksack. For a while, I decided to just grit my teeth and bear it. No way I could carry bags into those bathrooms! But when nature calls, she calls.

So I asked this lady sitting next to me to watch my stuff and went away. I came back, half expecting her to have decamped with my goods. But she was still there. So was my stuff.

Later, I wanted to charge my mobile but the only plug point I could fix my charger with its square pins into was in one corner. I was seated in the other. In Dubai, I would not have thought twice. The notion of safety and security is so ingrained into us that most of us would casually leave our mobiles charging on an unattended restaurant table if we had to. But in India! I plugged in my mobile. The railway employee who sits in the waiting room (presumably to help the passengers) bolstered my mobile with a few blankets so that it could charge smoothly and without any interruption. As I went back to my seat, a lifetime of being told to be careful and not to trust anyone, especially if you are alone, was pushing against the need to close my eyes for a few minutes. Finally, sleep won. When I opened my eyes, my mobile was still there. So were my bags.

A week and a lifetime later, when I returned to the Haridwar station for my return trip to Delhi, it was again an ungodly hour. I had managed to cancel my friend’s ticket. The train arrived and I walked up to the TT and asked him about my seat number. I was about to go into the spiel about how I am travelling alone blah blah…! Before I could say anything, he checked my ID and said, “Aap akeli lady travel kar rahi hai na? Aapke saath ek family travel kar rahi hai.” [You are a lady travelling alone, right? Your co-passengers are a husband-wife team.]

I don’t know if the Indian Railways have a system whereby they try to accommodate single female travellers and ensure their safety the best they can. Some may even think that I received this treatment because I had tickets booked in the first class AC compartment.

I, however, don’t think that is the case. Four of my friends who too were returning on the same train (different compartments), also found the railway authorities helpful. Two of them had confirmed tickets and the other two were on the waiting list. However, they had flights to catch the next day. Again the authorities helped them out.

We hear the negative stories of rude officials, corruption and lack of safety on a daily basis. I wish the stories of helpful officials, kindness, and a supportive system would also be spread with the same alacrity.

This experience also made me realise how many fears I have been lugging around with me since childhood. Most of us growing up in the 70s to 80s grew up with a litany of ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘that’s not safe’, ‘don’t even think of it’, ‘don’t go there’, ‘are you mad!’, ‘come back before it’s dark’.

Messages that encourage a safer lifestyle for sure. But these very same messages also ingrain in us a deep-rooted sense of caution intermingled with fear… denying us a shot at adventure. The differences between adventure, and risky behaviour get blurred. We were taught to not just be risk averse but also adventure-averse. Now as I slowly stretch out and deliberately do things that scare me, I realise that most of the fears that I have held on to are as ephemeral as the mist on the mountains. They melt away and let you see a few meters further as you walk towards and through them.

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My Himalayan Odyssey Part 10 – Manali Magic

From the darkly beautiful Jalori...

From the darkly beautiful Jalori…

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... to mellow Manali.

… to mellow Manali.

If the trip in and out of Jalori had been fraught with a sense of danger, the drive to Manali was like a breath of fresh air. It is really no surprise that so many travelers list Manali amongst their favourite places to go to. It is a lot like a perfect Mojito – clean, clear, green and cool, with a touch of something sweet. We first had to drive down a bit, cross a valley and then drive up to Manali along beautiful mountain roads that presented one with jaw dropping views at every single turn!

With apologies to Robert Frost - the road not taken all that often.

With apologies to Robert Frost – the road not taken all that often.

The drive to Manali was really special because on the way we saw (and yes this is based on what a local told us… but maybe he was just having a good laugh at the expense of these silly tourist types… I don’t know) the River Tirthan in its infancy… a gurgling, energetic stream tumbling over rocks and boulders on its way to becoming a bigger river. Of course in the land of Sutlej and Beas, the Tirthan is considered a small river.

The locals told us that this stream goes on to become the River Thirtan. Not sure whether he was pulling our collective, ignorant touristy legs... but I like to believe that he was right.

The locals told us that this stream goes on to become the River Thirtan. Not sure whether he was pulling our collective, ignorant touristy legs… but I like to believe that he was right.

From Jalori to Manali - The Thirtan or so the guy says (5)

From Jalori to Manali - The Thirtan or so the guy says (6)

From Jalori to Manali - The Thirtan or so the guy says (1)

I just love the way we see things in comparison to other things. I remember this trip to Vienna and we were being taken around by my husband’s Viennese colleagues contact – Hans. Suresh and I along with two other friends (all of us based in Dubai at that point of time) were walking around with Hans and just taking in the sights and sounds of this historic city. We were so impressed with the palaces and opera houses. And then we saw another beautiful old building and asked Hans, “Tell us about that building.” Hans looks across at the building we were pointing at and just waves his hand and dismisses it saying, “Oh that! It is nothing. It is a new building. Not much story there.” The four of us look at the building and ask Hans, “New! When was it built?” Hans shrugs and says, “Oh about 100 years ago.” It took us a while to make Hans understand why the four of us burst out laughing. In Dubai, if a building is 20 years old, it is considered OLD. Of course in India, the land of Mahabalipuram, Hampi, Ajanta and Elora, even old can be broken up further in to old, really old, ancient and Baba Aadam ke zamane ka (from the time of Baba Aadam (who may or may not be the Adam of Biblical fame)).

Anyway older than all these buildings and maybe Baba Aadam himself are the rivers that flow through this beautiful land. River Tirthan flows through the Tirthan Valley and originates from a spring called the Tirth. (According to the Britannica, Tirtha in Hinduism refers to a holy river, mountain, or other place made sacred through association with a deity or saint. The word tirtha means literally “river ford” and, by extension, a sacred spot. Courtesy http://global.britannica.com). This river is very popular with anglers for its excellent fishing, especially the trout.

Along the way we had to stop for a barf break courtesy my daughter who had feasted on cheesy Cheetos in the back seat, not realising that Cheetos, moving car and a winding mountain road don’t mix well. We were all snapped out of our dreamy admiration of the vista when Sakshi bawled “STOP THE CAR! I am feeling pukey.” We would have made army commandos the world over proud with the speed with which we stopped the car, leapt out, got the kids out from the back seat and made her puke outside the car. The motivation was high – no one wanted to spend hours in a car scented by barf.

Winding mountain roads and cheesy Cheetos don't mix well.

Winding mountain roads and cheesy Cheetos don’t mix well.

While Sakshi recovered from her motion sickness, we sat around and enjoyed the beautiful scenery.

While Sakshi recovered from her motion sickness, we sat around and enjoyed the beautiful scenery.

As one drives on one gets to see the confluence of the Rivers Tirthan, Sainj and the Beas. We were amazed by how different the waters of the three rivers were! At the Sangam (point where the rivers meet) you can actually see one river that is muddy, another that is almost green and the third that is blue.

From this point we started following the River Beas and drove through the 3 kilometer long Aut Tunnel also called the Kullu Manali Tunnel on the Kullu Manali highway.

Crossing the tunnel we soon reached the outskirts of Manali and enjoyed one of the highlights of the trip… Bella… River Banks. (In fact I found out later that this restaurant was also featured by Rocky and Mayur on Highway On My Plate). A Beas riverside restaurant, Bella boasts of the best trout ever, but the highlight for the kids (and the grownups too I must say), was that the restaurant had roped off a small section along the river bank, where one could place one’s plastic tables and chairs and lunch on freshly caught and hot off the stove food, while the ice cold water lapped at your feet.

Fresh Trout at Bella... River Bank

Fresh Trout at Bella… River Bank

River Beas in the background...

River Beas in the background…

This was such a lovely beginning to our stay in Manali. The girls still talk about the fun they had.

This was such a lovely beginning to our stay in Manali. The girls still talk about the fun they had.

The kids had a blast running and hopping along the river bank, picking smooth pebbles and enjoying the glacial cold water. We however could only sit with our feet in the water for this long. 5 minutes later we were moving table, chair and trout to less wetter parts of the riverside.

To be honest, the food was just so-so. However the ambience more than made up for it. They could have served me burnt toast and I would have considered the meal the best ever because the meal was accompanied by a cool mountain breeze, a gurgling ice cold Beas, beautiful mountains in the background, a sunflower garden nearby and so much greenery that my desert-living, greenery parched eyes, heart, mind and soul were soothed and calmed.

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I do have to point out at this stage that keeping in mind the accident that occurred earlier this year when those students were swept away by the waters of the River Beas, we were lucky but we were also in an area that was and still is designated safe by the locals.

The rather fragile wooden barricade let us know how far we could walk along the river bank without any danger to ourselves.

The rather fragile wooden barricade let us know how far we could walk along the river bank without any danger to ourselves.

We hung around in the restaurant for a while and then moved on. The road ahead branched towards Manali to the left and to the right the road led to Manikaran, a pilgrimage centre for Hindus and Sikhs, which I did not get the chance to visit during this trip. A popular Hindu legend is that Manu recreated human life in Manikaran after the catastrophic floods that destroyed all life. In fact this is just one of the legends that make this place so magical; there are so many more captivating stories related to this beautiful holy spot.

However we were on a schedule and we took the road to the left and drove into Manali – the land of Manu, ancient Deodar trees, apple orchards, momos, traditional Kullu shawls, jackets and caps, magic and our destination for the night, Mayflower Hotel.

My Himalayan Odyssey Part 9 – Goodbye Jalori

I seem to be making a habit out of apologizing for my tardiness! But please blame IE. I am no longer able to open WordPress on Internet Explorer. AAArrrghhh! HATE Chrome cause of all those pop-ups, but am now back on it. If any of you have any advice on how to get Wordpress functioning on IE please do let me know. But remember I am a non-techie who slips into a coma when faced with words and phrases like ftp and plugins. So do be kind and gentle when dishing out the advice.

Well, with that non-apology out of the way, let me continue…

Waking up in the tent to utter silence was one of the strangest experiences of my life. I think I had half expected to be washed off the mountainside by the rains. But here we were. Safe and sound. The adorable mouse had departed for its home and all the chattering and buzzing bugs had cloaked themselves in the anonymity of day light.

Opening the flap of the tent I nearly tripped over Yugi who had also decided that it was time to wake up these lazy adults. This was followed by a run to the two port-a-loos closest to us – everyone wanted to get there first. Not surprisingly the girls won the race on the strength of their whining power alone.

The air was cold. The loo door was cold. The water was COLD. The loo seats were cold. Brrr…

Good Morning Jalori

Good Morning Jalori

All of us had a quick cup of tea and an aloo paratha each. We were scared to have more than that as we had a drive of 4 to 5 hours to look forward to.

Packing our bags (a matter of minutes) we said our byes to Thakur who promised us that the next time he will definitely organize the chicken for dinner. Sakshi looked at him like he was off his head. She wouldn’t return to Jalori for all the chicken curries in the world and anyone who knows Sakshi knows that she LOVES chicken… in any form.

We then had to walk / climb / scramble up to the point where the XYLO was. Surya walked with Sakshi as she and I struggled for air as we climbed up. Reaching up, it was decided that the bags will be loaded in to the car and Surya will take the car and drive out to a safer part of the road and the rest of us will walk the half kilometer or so to that point. This will keep the weight off the car and allow Surya to maneuver the car safely.

Walking the 500 meters was alright. In between we had a few cows deciding that they wanted to walk in the middle of the road and we sidled along the side. Thakur and Surya had warned us to keep taking small sips of water as we walked because at these heights you don’t really feel thirsty and can become dehydrated despite the cold.

Keeping hydrated.

Keeping hydrated.

Walking those 500 meters we realized that the decision to scrap our original plan for the morning had been good cause the paths were so slushy and walking in the rain with three little kids was no joke.

Walking towards the car.

Walking towards the car.

The original plan had been to trek across to Sirolsar Lake (4km or so from Jalori Pass), which according to Thakur was about an hour’s easy trek away through forests of oak, blue pine, fir, Deodar and spruce. But the previous night’s rain had resulted in a heavy mist which Thakur predicted would not clear for the next few hours, which meant that we would not be able to see the lake even if we stepped in to it.

Serolsar Lake - Image courtesy of www.troutvalley.co.in

Serolsar Lake – Image courtesy of http://www.troutvalley.co.in

There is a lovely story about the lake. According to local legend, you will never find any fallen leaves floating on the lake’s surface. The locals state that birds fly down and pick the leaves off the surface ensuring that the lake is always clean. Since we scrapped our Sirolsar plan I cannot say for sure if the lake surface was as clean as my mom-in-law’s kitchen or not. If any of you have had the opportunity to visit Sirolsar Lake do let me know about your experience and if the lake was indeed leaf-free.

Tired troopers - cold, wet and suffering from altitude sickness. But it was still an experience worth having.

Tired troopers – cold, wet and suffering from altitude sickness. But it was still an experience worth having.

Anyways, left with no choice we decided to head out of Jalori and move on to our next stop – Manali.

Beautiful Manali with the tempestuous River Beas. But before we could pay our respects to Beas, we had to greet River Thirtan. More about her in the next post.

Beautiful Manali with the tempestuous River Beas. But before we could pay our respects to Beas, we had to greet River Thirtan. More about her in the next post.

My Himalayan Odyssey Part 8 – Lil Brown Mouse and Some Unwelcome Rain

We just dumped our bags outside our respective tents and headed to the rickety plastic table and chair arrangement outside the dining tent for a few beers. The local beer that we had purchased in Solan from a local shop (the plan to buy it from the brewery had amounted to naught as it was closed on that day) is called Lion. I am not much of a beer drinker but according to the other three extremely knowledgeable parties the beer was strictly m-eh.

The view more than made up for the not so great beer we had bought in Solan.

The view more than made up for the not so great beer we had bought in Solan.

 

Perfect setting to swap ghost stories :)

Perfect setting to swap ghost stories 🙂

We also braved our way down in the gathering dusk to the port-a-loos. (Word of caution – at these heights toilet seats are cold, so prepare yourself mentally for the shock of sitting on it). The kids (including the baby) made their way to the kitchen tent and warmed themselves at the choola (brick stove that uses wood for fuel).

The tents looked very picturesque and romantic... from the outside.

The tents looked very picturesque and romantic… from the outside.

Warming Up By The Choolah. That was the dal (lentil) being cooked.

Warming Up By The Choolah. That was the dal (lentil) being cooked.

It was at this point that we were told the bad news – Thakur had not organized the chicken for dinner. Apparently we were supposed to pick it up along the way and bring it for him to cook. A minor detail lost in translation, which meant that dinner was again rajma-chawal… all of us being hard core non-vegetarians, we were getting a bit tired of the rajma by then. But given that there was no way we could get a chicken at this point of time, we trudged to the dining tents and ate our dinner rather glumly under those gloomily lit bulbs that remind you of Malayalam art movies from the 70s.

Reva had to hang on to Yugi to keep the spiders safe. That fellow is fearless!

Reva had to hang on to Yugi to keep the spiders safe. That fellow is fearless!

Dinner was quick as everyone was tired. It was at this time that we began to notice the bloody spiders. For some reason, Himachal Pradesh doesn’t have small spiders. They are big! Crazy big! The mountain air apparently suits them! The girls refused to touch the tent flaps or sit too close to the wooden tables. With Yugi we had the opposite problem. We had to stop him from grabbing anything and everything. I did not take any pictures of those spiders for obvious reasons but if you are the sorts that really wants to know how those spiders looked, click here… I would suggest you don’t but…

The next day Surya, Suresh and Reva told me that they had seen a huge black snail on the tent’s ceiling. They had wisely refrained from telling the same to the girls and me cause altitude sickness or not, mountains in the dark or not, the three of us may have just run down screaming all the way to Chandigarh.

Outside it was pitch dark. It was a new moon night, so we only had the stars and the silhouettes of the tall trees and the mountains for company. It is a sight that should strike terror, but while one did experience a frisson of fear the main emotion was awe! The silence interrupted only by the chirping and buzzing of some bugs partying away in the grass added another layer of depth to the overall awesomeness of the place.

The sun had set and instead of the moon and stars we got rain clouds...  After a while I quit wiping my camera lens.

The sun had set and instead of the moon and stars we got rain clouds… After a while I quit wiping my camera lens.

After dinner we all trooped to our tents. It was still drizzling. The interiors of the tent may never win any Good Housekeeping awards but it was clean if you disregard all the moths that were attracted to our lanterns. We dusted the bed and the blankets to make sure that no other creatures had settled in for the night.

Parisa was searching for bugs n spiders, I was trying to tempt Yugi away from the snack bag with a lip balm (don't ask!) and Sakshi decided that she had had enough of the great outdoors and wanted some TLC time with her iPad.

Parisa was searching for bugs n spiders, I was trying to tempt Yugi away from the snack bag with a lip balm (don’t ask!) and Sakshi decided that she had had enough of the great outdoors and wanted some TLC time with her iPad.

After Parisa and Yugi went to their tent, Sakshi managed to remove her hiking boots and crawled into the middle of the bed and was out cold in the blink of an eye. Surya called out from his tent and told us to hang the plastic bag with the chips and snacks on a coat stand just to keep any pests out. These are instructions that would have normally sent me in to shock but I guess it was a measure of how tired I was that, I didn’t give a fig. I just took the bag and hung it on the topmost hook in the stand.

Sakshi out cold! She was too tired to even bother with the spiders and bugs.

Sakshi out cold! She was too tired to even bother with the spiders and bugs. And yes, I know the picture quality sucks… sorry.

We got into bed and I turned out the lantern. By now the sporadic pitter-patter of the drizzle was replaced by the continuous rhythm of a steady rain. I began to worry about the mud road above… how will we drive the car out and get it to the top! I really did not fancy staying at the camp for one more night though that was an eventuality we were all warned about. Later on I learnt that this very thought of the difficulty of driving on that mud road had kept Surya awake most of the night too. The earlier experience of sitting in a car while it skidded around a bit was not something any of us wanted to re-live.

Suddenly there was another layer of sound added to the beat of the rain! My heightened senses could clearly hear something rustling around. I asked Suresh if he could hear it. He was almost asleep and muttered ‘must be a mouse’ and fell asleep. Nice! Very nice!

I decided that I would turn the lantern on to drive the pesky mouse away. I quietly reached across… a part of brain busy praying and hoping that no creepy crawlies were resting on the lantern for warmth… and turned the lantern on. The sight that greeted me must have inspired the creative brains behind Tom and Jerry. It must easily have been the cutest, little, light brown field mouse, in the world, sitting and nibbling on a piece of cheesy Cheetos. It was standing frozen in the sudden light – reminiscent of the Bajaj ‘meri chori pakdi jaati’ moment. It looked so adorable that I turned the light out thinking that something that cute deserved all the Cheetos in the world. I just made a mental note to throw the bag in the bin the next day.  It was with this background of a cute little mouse nibbling at Cheetos and worrying rhythm of rainfall that I finally managed to fall asleep.

This trip taught me that there is a very thin line between adventure and terror, as the recent horrendous death of 24 students and a tour guide reminded us again. Are these things fated? We went to Himachal Pradesh a month after large swathes of Uttarakhand were swept away by torrential rains, so there was a very real sense of fear that the rains could become a source of terror instead of just a minor inconvenience. However throughout the trip, except for one or two nights of heavy rains (in Jalori and Manali) we had lovely weather. We had prepared for the worst but at the end of the day, we were just lucky that we had such a smooth, adventurous, challenging yet uneventful road trip, despite ‘driving’ on the edge.

Edge of the road.

Edge of the road.

 

My Himalayan Odyssey Part 7 – Camping with spiders and a little brown mouse

What is the distance between the road and the ravine? What is the distance between the path and the edge? I really believe that it cannot be measured in meters or feet or even inches. It can only be measured in heartbeats missed, gulps and gasps swallowed and the duration one’s breath is held.

To date I don’t understand how we drove between the mountain face and that ‘chhoti si dikhat’ in the form of a huge boulder. I was convinced that we were going to be stuck. But nary a scratch on the XYLO, Surya got us to the other side. Not that he was doing us a favour, because for the next 3 kilometers we drove on one of the most horrendous roads in the world – well, whatever road was left in the middle of all those puddles, ditches and exposed rock. Our bones rattled as the vehicle jolted from one ditch to the next. Reva and my biggest concern was that Yugi who was sleeping peacefully in his car seat was going to be jolted awake and bawl his heart out… an additional source of stress that all of us could do without. But funnily enough, he slept right through the whole drive! The girls in the back were beginning to make noises about being hungry and tired and their litany of ‘how much longer’ and ‘when will we reach?’ had just begun, when we crested the top and reached the pass.

The road to Jalori Pass is listed in www.dangerousroads.org. It says and I quote, “The road’s winding design, providing stunning panoramic views, is very curvy and fun for a leisurely ride, so it pays to take it slow. From Ghayagi to Jalori Pass, the road is a mix of mud and pebbles restricting the speed of the vehicle to barely 20 kmph. After Shoja, the climb to Jalori Pass is steep and just about 3 kms before the pass, road conditions become bad, narrow and steep which makes it more difficult to climb even in first gear. A traveller on this road must follow some rules: Extreme caution advised, drive in first gear only, steepest gradient, most dangerous curves along the road.” Closed during the peak winter months, the drive along this road provides jaw-dropping amazing views, but at a price.

State highway 11

State Highway 11

It was 5.30pm – nearly 2 hours behind schedule. The shops (all of 3 in total), one of which doubled up as a restaurant, were shutting their shutters and the local ladies and gents who worked in the same were piling into a mini-truck / mountain taxi for the ride back to their homes. At these heights everything shuts down by 5… 5.30 latest as the sun sets in the blink of an eye and you really don’t want to be stuck up here when it is dark. Unless of course you are part of a group of city bred idiots who are willing to pay money to do the same.

Is it my imagination or was the scenery really rather more ominous?

Sunlight made the mountains look so beautiful. But the same spot was rather forbidding once the light began to fade.

Is it my imagination or was the scenery really rather more ominous?

Is it my imagination or was the scenery really rather more ominous?

The scenery here is a lot different from what we got at Narkhanda – same trees, but somehow more dark and forbidding. Maybe it was the mist and the gathering darkness. As we watched the mini truck drive away, we couldn’t escape the feeling of being abandoned in the middle of the mountain. Thakur the man employed by the HP government to take care of the Jalori camp had waited till 4 and then left; but luckily Surya managed to reach him on his mobile and he came right back up to the point where we were waiting. Reaching the camp meant that we had to take the XYLO a kilometer or two down a mud road off the right of the ‘main’ road. No biggie. Except that it had been raining the previous night (it was monsoon season after all) and it had started to drizzle again.

With Thakur walking ahead on the muddy path, Surya started driving down the mud road. The rain and passing herds of cows had turned the otherwise solid mud road into a slush fest. If I had thought that the roads to Jalori Pass were scary, I was wrong. This was way scarier. We had barely managed to go halfway down when the car started to skid to the right towards the edge. Surya immediately stopped driving and gently applied the brakes. By the time the car came to a stop, we were near the edge. It was almost in a haze that we blindly followed Surya’s instructions to get out slowly from one side without shaking the car too much. Cause of the baby seat, Reva ended up having to get out towards the edge and literally hugged the car on her way out. Once the three adults and three kids were out, Surya found it easier to maneuver the car away from the edge. He then inched forward slowly another 500mts until we reached a point where the car could be parked close to the rock face and we could see the Jalori Camp 200 to 300 feet below us.

The camp is buzzing with activity during tourist season. The works - singing and dancing around the campfire in the clearing. Watch out for the stream though!

The camp is buzzing with activity during tourist season. The works – singing and dancing around the campfire in the clearing. Watch out for the stream though!

The walk of 500 meters to where the car was parked winded my daughter Sakshi and me out – our altitude sickness which had abated as we had descended from Narkhanda was now hitting us with a vengeance at a height of 10,800 feet (3,120M). We were also rather shaken up by the drive and skid down the mud path. The idea of hiking down to the camp was also not doing us a lot of good. But there was no way we could drive out at this point of time in the day.

The hike down the mountain side to the camp winded Sakshi and me out. The lack of oxygen really got to us beach babies (not babes).

The hike down the mountain side to the camp winded Sakshi and me out. The lack of oxygen really got to us beach babies (not babes).

The camp itself is in a clearing so we had enough sunlight to guide us down. But making it down that narrow path was another story altogether as both Sakshi and I were having trouble breathing. We’d take two steps and then wait for a couple of minutes to get our breath back. What made it worse was the fact that Thakur had just skipped down that path with our overnight bags. The altitude also seemed to have had no affect whatsoever on my husband and on the Rathores, who were quite familiar with the mountains. It took the two of us, with Surya supporting Sakshi, nearly 15 minutes to get down those 200 odd feet; something the others did in 5 minutes.

But even those 200-300 feet made a difference to how we felt. The headache and chest pain subsided a bit. The camp is owned by the Himachal Pradesh Government and during peak tourist season (pre-monsoon and in September and October) is almost fully occupied and manned by two full-time staffers. During off-season the camp is pretty much empty and we were the only two families there! And it was manned by one staff – the aforementioned Thakur! The camp has about 20 tents – for individuals and families – I am not very sure about the number cause honestly I was in no condition to count, besides a longish tent that doubled up as a dining room, Thakur’s tent and another smaller tent/kitchen with an open choola! There were two port-a-loos a few meters further. Apparently this is a new addition, and even until a few years ago, if you had to go, you had to risk cold grass tickling your nether regions.

We managed to cross the stream and get a hang of the layout in the 10 odd minutes before the sun set.

We managed to cross the stream and get a hang of the layout in the 10 odd minutes before the sun set.

The guest tents were separated from the dining, staff and kitchen tent by a tiny, gurgling stream with a little bridge across it. Of course there were no lights, so taking strolls in the moonlight or starlight or visiting the loo after sunset meant keeping your torch handy and making sure that you placed your feet on the bridge instead of walking into thin air and taking an unplanned bath in a cold stream.

This is turning out much longer than I anticipated, so more in the next post, where I write about an unplanned middle-of-the-night visitor in our tent and the effect of mountain air on spiders… ugghh! Please do let me know your thoughts on this post and if you think it is too descriptive or any other feedback you may have.

 

My Himalayan Odyssey Part 5 – Chalo Jalori!

Please forgive me… so tardy that I am not even giving an excuse. Just read please. I think the very fact that the www.dangerousroads.org lists the road to Jalori on its site should have warned me off. According to the website, the Jalori Pass (at an elevation of 10,800 ft / 3,120m) above sea level in Kullu, features on every adventurer’s map! The roads are usually closed to vehicular traffic during the winter months. And even during the summers and especially in the monsoons, the winding, narrow roads are a test of one’s driving skill, patience and balls. There are stretches (especially closer to the Pass) of the road which are just one vehicle wide, climbing steeply and where it is nothing but mud, pebble and stones, with the tar layering worn off by the rains, streams, landslides and harsh winters.

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One distracted moment while driving and you are falling down that!

The initial stretch from Narkanda to Jalori (a total of 77kms) down the Ambla-Shimla-Kaurik Road is a dream. Initially we descended from the heights of Hatu and Narkanda and soon the jackets were off as the sun warmed up the mountains. The Ambla-Shimla-Kaurik Road branches off near Sainj and we turned left and took the Sainj-Ani-Banjar-Aut Road. At one point we stopped the car and stepped out for a 10 minute break to just sit and take in the beautiful view which included the Sutlej (Satluj) River snaking its way from one end to the other. The water is brown and muddied from the recent rains and in the hush we could hear its roar even from a great distance.

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Our first glimpse of the majestic Sutlej.

At 1,450km long it is the longest of the five rivers in the region and originates from Rakshastal (Tal means Lake and Rakshas means demons in Hindu mythology – read a bit more about Rakshas at the end of this post) which lies south of Mount Kailash (it is considered the dark to the light of Mansarovar lake), before heading into the Arabian Sea. That is some journey! Along the way The Sutlej (also called the Red River) meets up with the rivers Beas, Chenab and finally the mighty Indus itself.

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The road ran along the River Sutlej before climbing up again towards Jalori Pass.

 

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The Sutlej River tributary along the Sainj-Ani-Banjar-Aut Road.

The Sutlej soon gave way to one of its tributaries as we would our way up the mountain. Along the way we stopped at a roadside dhaba for lunch. It was rather ominously called the Kobra Dhaba, and had a bathroom that had spiders the size of toy teacups. I did not take pictures… I should have but honestly I just wanted to get the hell out of the loo. After a quick bite at the Kobra we continued towards Jalori Pass. The route and the scenery soon changed. The sun was soon shrouded in a thin veil of mist, the trees loomed ominously over us and the road narrowed and twisted and turned sharply. One could not escape the feeling that it was almost like a warning from the mountain Gods… an unspoken sense of anxiety sets in.

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On the edge of nowhere!

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The road to Jalori Pass was almost non-existent. And this happens to be a two-way carriage!

Surya became even more focused on the driving and the other three adults in the car also began to pay attention to the road and the various outcrops, rocks and the clouds. Yugi slept unawares but Sakshi and Parisa stopped squabbling and sat quietly. We crossed the aftermath of a few landslides that had occurred in the recent past which the locals had told us about. Luckily, no lives were lost and the authorities had cleared the road allowing traffic to flow.

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Land of the landslides.

When we had started out on the Sainj-Ani-Banjar-Aut Road we had come across a few rivulets cutting across the road. But they looked tame and were quite easy to ford. In fact the government has now created passages below the road for the mountain streams to flow, thus preventing them from cutting across and wearing down the road. However further up the rivulets were a different beast altogether.

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Small streams created by melting snow – a reason why it is always advisable to step out early before the sun begins to melt the snow.

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The government has now created these passages below the road for the mountain streams to flow, thus preventing them from cutting across and wearing down the road.

While we had been covering the distance at a decent pace until now, our speed was just a few kilometers above crawling now as the road snaked uphill. Up ahead we could see a rivulet (well, it was more a stream) that was cutting across the road. In this particular case the danger was heightened by the fact that the water seemed to be flowing down a channel created by a recent landslide. We were in two minds as to whether we should go ahead or not, when we saw an SUV driving through what looked like a rock-fall road block.

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Rivulets cutting across the road and flowing down the mountain side along a channel cut by a landslide.

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Bhaiyya aage rasta kaisa hai?

We saw a local driving up and Surya hailed him to ask him how the road ahead was. Typically, the answer was “Haan haan bhai, Ja sakte ho. Sab teek hai bas ek chotti si jagah pe thodi dikhat ho sakthi hai.” (Transalation: Oh yes! You can go ahead. You may face a slight problem in a small section of the road.) In the mountains the trick is to read between the lines and the gist of the local’s warnings always amounts to – “Go ahead if you are an experienced driver like us locals. However if you are an amateur ape trying to be macho on the mountain roads, then you’d better turn back cause you are going to be so screwed”. The ‘thodi si dikhat’ or ‘small problem’ he was referring to turned out to be a large chunk of road eaten in to by a landslide. Given that Surya was an experienced driver and used to these roads, we decided to forge ahead. There is a trick to fording these rivulets – it lies in respecting them. They look like they are going to be easy to cross but most of them have a strong under-current and vehicles can very easily lose their grip on the road and find themselves sliding to the edge of the road along with the water flow.

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Rivulets cutting across the road and flowing down the mountain side look deceptively easy to ford.

Image We managed to cross the rivulet though we were too close to the edge for my comfort. Quite a few times, I caught myself thinking ‘this is it’ as I looked out of the window in to the ravine. I don’t know about the others but my heart was in my throat and I could feel the headache returning. Image On the other side of the rivulet loomed a nature-made bottleneck created by the mountain side on one side and a huge rock (no doubt, the remnant of a massive landslide in the past) on the other. I was convinced that the XYLO was going to get stuck between the two.

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An old rock fall which was not cleared means you have to squeeze your vehicle through this!

But there was no way we could turn around at this point… the road was too narrow. So we took inspiration from the local who had driven his SUV through this and said ‘Jai Mata Di’ and forged ahead.

PS 1 (courtesy Wikipedia): It is said that Rakshasas (demons) were created from the breath of Brahma (the creator in the Hindu trinity) when he was asleep at the end of the Satya Yuga. As soon as they were created, they were so filled with bloodlust that they started eating Brahma himself. Brahma shouted “Rakshama!” (Sanskrit for “protect me!”) and Vishnu came to his aid, banishing to Earth all Rakshasas (thus named after Brahma’s cry for help). Rakshastal also called Ravana Tal is where Ravana is supposed to have undertaken severe penance to please Lord Shiva.

Ravan or Ravana - the demon king who fought Rama in Ramayana.

Ravan or Ravana – the demon king who fought Rama in Ramayana.

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Ra One of Bollywood fame. Inspired by Ravan. And NO! I am not trying to sneak in a picture of Arjun Rampal in to my blog post.

PS 2: It is obvious that you love the mountains and the environment; otherwise you would not have read till the very end of this post. So while you are trawling the net, please do visit http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2608579/, to read all about how the villagers of about 250 villages in HP have turned eco-warriors to save the Sutlej and assess the damage caused by hydro power projects in the state. This is of great relevance considering the terror unleashed by the rains in Uttarakand last year.