This is a poem I wrote recently when I wanted to take a break from struggling with my first novel. It will be published soon in the 16th edition of Dubai Poetics out by April end. Do let me know your thoughts. 🙂
‘My poems are born of you,’
the river whispered to the mountains.
As the wind carried the river’s gentle sighs,
high up to the land of clouds and veils
nestled in the skies,
the mountains trembled.
It had felt the young love of his beloved
as she skipped, laughed and tripped along with him.
Majestic he had stood, watching her antics,
she had murmured her delight and thundered in pleasure.
But… his silence engorged her senses.
Nothing else could she bear.
Yet, she wanted, just for once, to be held
and loved with words she could hear.
Flowing away, with time, she left her mountain behind.
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!
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.
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. Courtesyhttp://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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anyways, left with no choice we decided to head out of Jalori and move on to our next stop – Manali.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
It feels like a 3 tons truck is reverse parking on my chest. All I did was to bend down and open the bag which we had flung on the ground. The act of bending down, unzipping the bag, pulling out the thick coat and standing up again had winded me out! And my head was hurting something bad! I had two Panadols and a lot of water. I lay down for a while but nothing was working. Just then my 7-year-old walks in and says that she thinks she is having a heart attack in her head and chest. This is a sad way to go. We hadn’t even seen a single snow-capped peak yet! I need to mention here that I am a Keralite who grew up in Chennai. My daughter is a Dubai kid. Cities whose feet are firmly planted in the sea-shore. Our bodies are not used to anything higher than a small pleasant mountain like those in the Western Ghats and Switzerland. Luckily Reva walked in to our room at this point and being a veteran of these regions quickly recognized what ailed us – altitude sickness. And like a true Indian the solution was a nuska, a simple idea that works wonders – drink glasses of Eno every few hours. Who knew antacid helped treat altitude sickness!? Now here is the thing… if you are headed up to heights that you have not scaled before, and you are an average person in reasonably decent shape then start on a course of Diamox two days before you set out – half to one tablet every 8 hours for 3 days. You will not have to suffer a truck reverse parking on your chest or a heart attack in your head.
After a long day’s drive and the effects of altitude sickness on the two of us, all the seven of us wanted to do was sit back, enjoy a hot meal and sleep. Anyways there was not much to see outside. The fog and the dark had set in. We were so tired and hungry that everything was tasty. I don’t remember what we ate but I do remember what Reva and I, were foolish enough to drink – apple wine – eeeyuck! An apple a day may keep the doc away but it sure has no place in the wine-press. A sip later Reva shifted to beer and I opted for whisky.
Surya who had explored these parts about a year ago on a bike decided that we needed to turn in early as we needed an early start the next day. We were going to start by paying our respects to Hatu Devi, the Goddess (at the Hatu Mata Temple) in charge of our safety in these parts. Typically for the Gods and Godesses in these regions her temple was placed not-so-conveniently at the top of Hatu Peak – just a nerve-racking drive up REALLY narrow mountain roads. About 7 kilometers from Narkhanda, Hatu is home to many herbs with healing qualities and apparently the Pandavas have walked on these mountains during their 13 years of exile from their kingdom after losing a game of dice to the Kauravas. We even heard about the Bheem Chulla (stove used by the Pandava Bheem to cook up their meals) – two large stones arranged to resemble an old-fashioned stove. An exile is called an Agyaat Vyaas in Sanskrit – a name that even inspired a modern-day sanctuary that provides everything from yoga and meditation to exploration.
The next morning we had a delicious aloo parathas for breakfast and then packed our luggage in, bid adieu to Hatu Hotel and got in to the car in our designated seats and took off. A thin curtain of mist still hung around us but it was not too thick and we could see reasonably well enough. Suddenly we came across a fork in the road. One stretch of road continued on as level as a Himalayan road could, while the other which really was nothing more than a cow track wound up to the right at a rather frightening angle. Needless to say the sign board saying Hatu Devi Mandir was pointing to that track. It is a strange thing that I have noticed about myself and I guess I am not unique in this; but when I am faced with options like this, while the sane part of me is silently screaming for me to take the slightly wider, flat road, I find myself saying things that I am not thinking or feeling. Surya asked “Shall we go up?” Reva ventured that it looked dangerous but doable. Suresh was busy clicking pictures and I heard myself say “Yes, let’s go before the fog sets in.”
What the hell!!! Why?
Anyway we got on the road and I am feeling like a colossal fool, like one of those nut cases who jump off planes with parachutes. You know you are doing a dumb thing but you do it anyway. Once we got on that road there was no turning back until we reached the top. Now this is really not a road. It is a path – a mud path if you will, with a thin ribbon of tar in the middle. As usual there is the solid rock of the mountain on one side and unbelievably beautiful, heart stopping scenery plummeting away from us on the other side. One reason for starting out early was to get to the temple and back before other tourists or locals decided to get on this road. But somebody had beaten us to the top and was on the way back when we were driving up.
On mountain roads people change the rules around a bit. When you face oncoming traffic, the drivers move their car to the ‘wrong’ side of the road so that the driver can see how far he is from the edge. It is a very sensible rule… but very scary for the passengers seated behind the driver. Anyway we did the criss-cross business and the tire’s crunched on the pebbles and stones on the edge and then we continued on wards.
The fog was by now quite intense and we passed the Tani-Jubber Lake and the small hut (often used by Gujjars and sometimes by trekkers who are passing by) abutting it without really seeing them. And then just as suddenly we were at the top. If it weren’t for the sign board we would have had no clue! We parked the car along the side and trudged a few meters to the temple itself. It was COLD! But it was also so energizing. It could also have been euphoria at not having plummeted to the bottom. Either which way we felt on top of the world as we reached the temple.
There we saw a sign that said ‘Remove Footwear’. Since no one ever has the balls to break religious rules especially when you are in a land where religious fervor and passion are worn on your sleeves, we removed our shoes and socks and stepped on the wet, tiled floor. Luckily it was so cold that our feet went numb immediately so I did not feel any pain. The temple itself is beautiful – a relatively new structure boasting of amazing woodwork depicting the Gods and Goddesses from Indian mythology. The detailed carving is a feast for the eyes. The priest was a surprisingly young guy in saffron clothes, wind cheater and a mobile. India always does that – surprising you by juxtaposing the old and the new in the most eccentric combinations possible.
After offering our respects and walking around the temple and admiring its carvings we decided to walk around a bit as the fog was showing signs of lifting. But first we wanted to pee. But there was a slight problem – no public loos. So we did what any self-respecting traveler or trekker would do. We looked for a private spot and boy! did Reva find one! Seriously it involved taking a few steps along the edge and then looking out into the most amazing scenery as we did the job. Of course we took turns! Some horses grazing on the mountain side further away were our only company! Mind blowing!
The rest of the peak also offered spectacular views! The rock faces were so monstrously strong. They looked invincible and like something out of Middle Earth. And then you had the soft, ethereal beauty of the flowers in the mountain. So delicate they looked like lace at times… more Austen than Tolkien. A beautiful contrast.
We stayed up there for about 20 to 30 minutes and then decided that if we planned to reach our next destination on time we better head out soon. The next leg, according to Surya, was going to be a toughie! I was thinking – “Seriously tougher than the drive up to Hatu! You got be kidding me! Let’s go back to Chandigarh.” But my brain and tongue continued to suffer from, what my dad used to tag all electrical problems as – a loose connection. I joined the three other adults in telling the kids to get in to the car because we now had to head to Jalori Pass. But that’s another post altogether.
This has been long overdue – well… three to four weeks overdue, which is not too bad by my standards!
A wall of fog
The narrow road ahead is barely visible. Thick fog blankets the Mahindra XYLO from all sides. On the right side a sheer wall of rock looms up. Up ahead, coming from the other side is a Himachali bus lumbering on towards us, looking for all intents hell bent on brushing us aside while it descends to wherever it is headed. On the left, where I am seated, there is a wall of fog. But I know the wall is an illusion. It hides a bottom less ravine that has a few million deodar, pine and fir trees sticking out like javelins waiting to impale me. Surya (our designated driver – actually the only one with the skills and balls to drive there) was reversing the XYLO so that the damn bus could pass us without knocking us over. The tires crunch over the stones and rocks that form the edge of the road, and the world as far as I was concerned. My heart and stomach are not in their designated spots. They are in my mouth and that may be the only reason why I was not puking in sheer terror. As usual I found myself leaning to my right towards my friend Reva and her year-and-a-half old son Yugi – as though by leaning my shoulder in to the baby seat I could prevent our car from tumbling over. And I asked myself for the 100th time, “How did I get here!?”
Hair pin turns and bends
Close-up of hair pin turn – that was the edge of the world as far as I was concerned
I turned 40 this year. Gravity is suddenly having a greater impact on my body (and no I am not going into the details) and my emotions have swung between being a defiant-25-something and a why-bother-we-are-all-going-to-die fatalist 90-year-old. It is no fun. Just when the ‘young me’ whips myself up into a flurry of excitement about something (dinner, movie, whatever…) my 90-year-old-self crashes the party and down the drain I go. No fun this. Why am I telling you all this? So that you understand why the above mentioned trip was so important to me!
I have always looked upon the Himalayas with a combination of awe, smug pride (that I guess almost every other Indian feels) and love. I come from a place in Kerala called Malappuram – land of mountains… ok fine… land of hills. So I guess my affinity for the Himalayas is rather understandable. I have driven through Munnar and most of the Western Ghats in Kerala, been to Ooty and Kodai. Seasoned mountain person – that is what I considered myself to be.
And* then the Himalayan bug bit me. I wanted to visit the Himalayan foothills. Not being too ambitious here! I thought I will start small… the foothills and then one day I will try for Mansarovar and Kailash… as for Mount Everest… NEVER – I am a very sorted person. I know my limitations. I hounded my husband to agree to this idea and then conned and brow beat our good friends to accompany us because ‘uh they know the way’. Said friends had done the Himalayan foothill jaunts a couple of times and are seasoned adventurers. Anyway I managed to convince my friends that it was all their idea so that not only do we use one of their parent’s home in Chandigarh as our base but so that Surya (my friend’s hubby) does the driving. Oh I forgot to mention that! Me bad! The trip was all set to be a road trip – a week through the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh and then a few more days in Punjab.
Scenic roads from Jalori to Manali but no fun when you have to make way for oncoming traffic
Anyway something in me (hubby thinks it could have been a poorly digested dinner) told me that I am 40 and this is the first day of the rest of my fast dwindling life and I need to get down to doing the things that I have always wanted to do – paying homage to the Himalayas was one.
Sorry I am going to stop now. Will update in a day or two! 🙂
* I like to start sentences with ‘but’, ‘and’, and ‘because’… sue me!