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.
Recently I went on a high altitude trek to Chadrashila Peak (12,083 feet) in the Himalayas. If you want to read something that is packed with edge-of-the-cliff adventure, this is not that blog post. However, if you are willing to be satisfied with a few insights, read on.
I was born in a place called Malappuram in Kerala. It basically means ‘Land of Mountains’. The mountains of Malappuram are the gentle, rolling hills of the Western Ghat’s coastal face.
So I guess the affinity I feel for hills and mountains should be expected. Give me a hill station any day over a beach. I love the cooler climes, the greenery, the gentle and grand beauty that is a South Indian hill station, like Ooty, Kodaikanal, and Munnar. I have also stood humbled by the perfection that is nature, at the top of Alpine mountains in Switzerland. However, at no point did the mountains call. I admired them all and I moved on.
Then three years ago I went on a 9-days long road trip through Himachal Pradesh. Those nine days, saw me re-visit how I wanted to live my life in the near and not-so-near future. The peaks looming above me, the evergreens towering over me, the mist, the rain, the greenery… everything. These were not the gentle, green rolling hills and mountains of the south. These were not the perfect snowy slopes of Jungfrau and Rigi. This was a different beast altogether. Wild, untamed, verdant, stark and edgy they called to my soul in a way no other place ever has. The mountains didn’t just call. They screamed.
Since then, I have always tried to include a visit to the Himalayas into our holiday plans. I succeeded the year that we visited Bhutan and failed miserably the next year when we visited Lavazza, near Lonavala. Maybe it was the failed holiday plan or just plain old middle age, but this year my friend and I decided to go on that long-planned trek. “Come what may. We are going to do this.” We told this to each other over and over again, until we believed it. We then informed our rather incredulous families. Neither of us is remotely athletic and a pretty long way from desired fitness levels. Nonetheless, the decision was made. The mountains had called.
My brother, a veteran of three to four treks, recommended India Hikes to us. And just like that over a phone call, I registered my friend and my name for the Devriatal-Chandrashila Peak trek for the March 21-26 batch.
Image Credit – Smruthi Sb
Image Credit – Smruthi Sb
Our reasons for picking this particular trek were rather straightforward. The website describes the Chandrashila trek as an easy-moderate trek. The words ‘easy-moderate’ lulled me into believing that my rather pedestrian level of fitness and a course of Diamox would see me through.
It was not until I was into Day 3 of the trek that it struck someone to ask the trek leader, “Easy-to-moderate in comparison to what?”
The trek is easy-to-moderate in comparison to other high altitude Himalayan treks. If you are planning on going for one of these treks, please take those fitness charts, the trekking companies send out, seriously.
However, that (my fitness levels) was about the only downside of the trek for me. The rest was all… life-affirming, humbling, joyful and peaceful. Starting from the base camp at Sari to the second day’s camp at Devriatal, then the third day’s camp at Rohini Bugyal and finally the camp at Martoli, which was our base for the last two days including the day we summited the peak, and the final day’s mini-trek to Chopta and back to Haridwar, I enjoyed myself despite gasping for air like a fish out of water. I am not going to document each and every step of the trek. This India Hikes article http://indiahikes.in/deoria-tal-chandrashila-peak-trek/ does that much better. However, I would like to share moments, anecdotes, conversations and lessons that stood out in stark clarity for me.
Pahadi Rasthe (Mountain Paths)
I have read some great poems about mountains, open roads, and walks through forests. Wordsworth, Whitman, Frost et all have to step aside, though. One of my favourite lines was the one quoted by our tempo driver – Vicky – as he drove us from Haridwar railway station to Sari base camp – a gruelling 10-hour drive. I don’t remember the context in which he mentioned it, but he said, “Yeh pahadi rasthe zahreele saanp hothein hein. Sambaloge nahin toh das legi.” [These mountain roads are like a poisonous snake. If you are not careful, they will strike.]. I had never, despite my crazy imagination, looked upon these curving, twisting stretch of tar, gravel, and rock as a living, breathing entity. Now I can’t think of it as anything but!
My second pahadi rasthe comment came my way courtesy Sunil – one of the trek guides and the designated ‘sweeper’, the guide responsible for ensuring that no trekker is left behind. Guess who made up the ranks at the rear. I, me, myself and Sunil. It was Day 3 and we were on the interminably long trek from the Devriatal campsite to the Rohini Bugyal one. The trail was a combination of gentle ascents (more about these later), descents and in Sunil’s words ‘seedha rastha’.
I have lived my entire life in coastal cities, where seedha rastha basically means a flat, straight path. Half way through that day’s trek, I am dead. Seeing my condition, Sunil told me that up ahead is a seedha rastha, and I trekked on in hope. After thirty minutes of hanging on to hope as we climbed up and down, and turned this way and that way, I turned to him and asked, “Where is the seedha rastha?” He looked at me innocently and told me that we were on it. Then he added, by way of explanation, “Pahadon mein seedhe rasthe aise hi hothe hein.” [In the mountains our straight paths are like this.] Sunil is one of the sweetest guys I have ever met, but I could have killed him in that moment.
Saved from Lifelong Regret
Basically, you ask yourself – “Can you do it?”
As I prepared for the trek, I told myself – “Of course, I can!”
If I had not summited, the answer I would have had to live with for the rest of my life is – ‘No. I could not.”
Of course, there are many trekkers who have failed at summiting their chosen peaks but then have gone on to defeat their inner demons and climb the same and other peaks.
However, if I had failed at this one, I doubt I would have had the will or the courage to try again. My greatest motivator was the knowledge that I would not be able to cope with this regret. I was saved from this regret not because I am a great trekker (I am not) or I am tough as hell (you guessed it. That is not me.), but because I got bloody lucky with regards to the human beings I got to trek with, and because the mountains decided to let me climb its slopes.
I also need to mention that while being fit enables us to enjoy the trek better, completing a trek is not dependent on fitness alone… it is dependent largely on one’s will. Ironically enough, this holds especially true if you are not a fit-as-a-fiddle trekker.
When I signed up for the trek, I had rather romantic visions of trekking easily in the lap of nature, enjoying the silence and solitude of the mountains a la William Wordsworth. When I found out that I would be one of 25 other trekkers (average age 25) in the March 21st, 2016 batch, I got worried. ‘There is going to be a traffic jam along the way!’ I thought. ‘What have I signed up for!’ I worried.
Karma of course worked its beautiful magic and I never got caught in a traffic jam at the top. Not because the number of trekkers came down, but because I was always the last one crawling into a camp or arriving at the summit. Humbling lesson learnt.
I have heard that a trek is a great teacher. I was a willing student and the ‘real’ lesson that this trek held for me was truly beautiful. When I met my fellow trekkers, with the exception of my friend, everyone else was a stranger. Day 1 as I lagged behind, I wondered – what will the others think? By day 2, I realised that they were not bothered about analysing my speed, rather they were more interested in cheering my arrival at our smaller ‘break’ spots and our day’s campsite.
Thanks to my speed I did get to have my Wordsworth inspired moments of solitude, but I was also blanketed by the warmth and support of 24 other trekkers, 4 trek guides and PE sirji, the man in charge of the two mules that carried the rucksacks of the nine trekkers who had chosen to offload. (Apparently, he was famous or infamous amongst the kids in Sari, for making them do a few jumping jacks, squats and stretches every single time he came across them. Luckily he spared me that trauma. He would just smile kindly at me and tell me ‘ho jaayega.’ [You will be able to do it.])
I loved most parts of the trek, except the ascending bit. I know. The irony. It was on those ascending bits that Dushyant and Vishal, the trek leader and assistant trek leader, took turns to keep me company, with general chit chat, stories, jokes and even songs. Given that my response to everything and anything was usually just a grunt (I was conserving oxygen) you can imagine how hard these guys had to work at keeping my mind occupied.
On the last day, we stepped out at 2.20am with our day bags. It was the day when the rucksacks were left behind at the Martoli campsite, as we were going to return to it. Yash, one of my fellow trekkers, took my day bag from me saying, “I don’t have a bag to carry today. My friends are carrying my water bottles for me. I will carry your bag.” By now my ego was suitably humbled and I gratefully mumbled my thanks. Yash, and his friends, and then Sunil carried my bag the whole of the final day.
While coming down, Shubham bravely accompanied me as I kept sinking into knee deep snow. Every time I sank, I ensured the poor guy took a dunking too. Alok helped me through the slippery icy bits near Tungnath temple. Dhyey kept me company while we came down the Tungnath trail. On the previous days, Polika would happily splash my face with water whenever we neared a stream. Preety taught me how to control my breathing so that I did not feel that my heart was conspiring to jump out of my body via my mouth. My friend, Reva, would wait for me to arrive so that we could eat together. My other fellow trekkers would always have a word of encouragement for me.
And on the last day, Dushyant walked with me up a mountain. Step-by-step, breath-by-breath, not letting me sit too long, especially near the peak (knowing fully well that if I sat down, I would not get up again), as he reminded me again and again, why I was doing this. Some of my fellow trekkers have similar stories about other trekkers. Poonam swears that without Vishal and Dhyey she would not have made it. Bonita was awed by Ambuj and Jasjot’s willingness to put her comfort ahead of their need to summit in time to witness the sunrise.
At no point, did I ever ask for help. At no single point did I have to ask for help. Was it the mountain air that made all of us better and kinder human beings, or did I just draw a trekker’s dream lottery and land up with a trekking team that was peopled with such beautiful souls? I don’t know. All I know is I am deeply grateful.
When we do something that tests our limits, within a day or two we are shorn off all facades, and we are reduced to being exactly who we are. Did I walk with strangers? Maybe on day 1. By the time the trek ended, I knew I had been fortunate enough to walk with people whose histories and life stories I may not be aware of, but whose real self I was privileged enough to have had a glimpse into.
I am a hard-core non-vegetarian, but, now, beef is one item that is off the menu for me. This is what happened. Day 2. It is the day we had that interminably long trek. Like a fool, I was lugging an SLR with me too. About 4 hours into the trek and with another 4 hours to go, I was questioning my sanity and wondering why I did not opt for a luxury spa holiday.
As I sat down for yet another 2-minute break, a black cow joined Sunil and me on the trail and stood near me. I moved aside to let it pass, but it waited with bovine patience. As I trudged along, it kept walking with me for a while. At one point I turned around and the cow was not there. I thought it had got bored and moved on and said so to Sunil. The next bend we turned, we saw the cow waiting there on the mountain side. I felt secretly thrilled. I began to entertain myself with ideas like, maybe Lord Shiva sent the cow down to encourage me and tell me not to give up. Please don’t theorize about Nandi being a bull. I am sticking to my idea of my cow being universe’s messenger. I began to think that maybe… just maybe, I will make it at least till Tungnath temple (which is 700 feet below the Chandrashila Peak) on the final day. The idea did not make me walk faster. But, it kept me walking.
As I walked on I caught up with some others from the group who had lagged behind to take photographs. When they made way for the cow, it moved on ahead and stood on a knoll nearby and then turned around and waited. The others moved on. I followed with Sunil. And the cow followed. I stopped. She stopped. I walked. She walked. This went on. Not for a few minutes or even an hour, but for the rest of the day until I reached the campsite a good four hours after meeting the cow for the first time! She hung around the camp for a while and then moved on. I did not see her after that.
In the next trek, if a hen accompanies me I am turning vegetarian.
Gentle Ascents… More or Less
People who are born in the mountains or those who have adopted it as their home have a peculiar code. They are tough people, but they are also gentle. Maybe it is this gentleness that prevents them from telling you exactly how far you have to go, how long it is going to be and how steep the path up ahead is. Either that or a perverse sense of humour.
Our trek leaders and guides would egg us on by saying, “Bas thodi dhoor aur.” [Just a little bit more.] Invariably we would walk for another hour or two after that statement. Trails were described as having ‘more or less gentle ascents’. Trust me unless you are a billy goat or a pahadi (by birth or choice) there was nothing gentle about those ascents.
Truth be told, these ‘gentle ascents’ and ‘thodi door aur’ did see me continue with the trek. Hope, after all, springs eternal.
Trekking slowly up and down the mountains of Gharwal and through its beautiful rhododendron forests with Sunil, I had the opportunity to learn more about the people and the culture of the land. I learnt that the rhododendron is called the burans in their dialect and that the juice of the red burans is delicious, but the pink and purple burans are considered poisonous (apparently the animals and birds don’t feast on them either). In the village shop, if you want the juice, you should ask for burans juice. If you ask for rhododendron juice, they will give you a blank look. Oaks are called karsu, and if I am not mistaken, pine, fir and deodar trees are all called devdaar.
I learnt that the smoke coiling up on the distant mountains were not caused by forest fires, but by the fires that farmers set to their fields to get rid of old roots, and help the soil revive. I learnt about the choolah room – a room adjacent to the kitchen which may lie unused in summer. The room truly comes alive in winter when it becomes their makeshift bedroom with everyone piling into it for warmth. Something similar happened on days 2 to 4 at the campsite, when after sunset the temperatures would dip and we would all pile into the dining tent and stay there until bedtime, talking and swapping stories (scary and otherwise), because that was the largest tent in the camp and all of us wanted to bask in human warmth.
On day 2 as I was sitting down on a flat-ish piece of rock for my hundredth break, I looked back at the distance we had covered so far. I could see Sari (our base camp) lying nestled in the laps of mountains. I must have crossed a few mountains and ridges! For a veteran trekker that maybe no big deal. For a computer bound writer, it was gobsmacking awesome. It is a beautiful piece of land. However, Uttarakhand has experienced nature’s fury. Parts of it have been ravaged by the 2013 deluge – we can still see the damage in places like Rishikesh. Still up here, nature was at its benign, beautiful best – at least for the duration of our trek.
A calm beauty that is reflected in the Gharwalis. Without exception, every single woman, man, and child I met had a smile to offer and that smile always… always reached their eyes. Kind and loving – those are the words I associate with the people of Uttarakhand. Now, back in a global megapolis, trying to assimilate back into ‘normal’ life, it is no longer alright to look into someone’s eyes and smile. If you do, you are usually met with a stony stare or a look that translates into: ‘stay away from that crazy lady who smiles at strangers.’ Sigh.
Off late, the concept of mindfulness had been vying for attention in my packed-to-the-gills life. I realised that I could no longer multi-task efficiently. Then the trek happened. The first two days were spent just trying to get my act together. The third day was better. But everyone knew the last day was going to be a killer. We started out at 2.20am. It was dark and the trail was lit only by our headlamps and the moon. We didn’t really need the torches or the headlamps. The moon was shining so brightly. Kind of apt, given that the peak is named after it.
Our trek leader knew that it was going to be tough for me, so he stayed back with me and told me to focus on just two things – every single step and every single breath I took. That is how I climbed on the last day of the trek. It was an interminably long day (including an almost hour long team Maggi break on the way down) for me. I summited at 8 and got back to camp at about 1.30pm. 11 hours of ascending and descending. I made it because of the attention I was made to pay to every single step.
I was told – Keep it small. Bigger strides will tire you in the mountains. Don’t try and climb straight up. It will tire you. Opt for paths that zig-zag. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth at a steady pace. Don’t rush. It is not a race.
As I sit typing out this post, I find that these words have become the symphony playing on a loop in the background in my mind. As someone attempting my first novel, I am able to extend these words to story maps, character-development and chapter divisions. And through it all, I remind myself to breathe… slowly and deeply.
Most trek leaders were usually working at regular day jobs until their first trek. (The exceptions are the ones who are born in these mountainous states.) The first trek almost always led to a love affair with the mountains. They then either underwent further training or embarked on more treks, and then quit their day jobs and opted for a career as a trek guide and leader. It is a career path that may never find mention in an MBA case study.
Yet, almost all of us – corporate lawyers, sales executives and managers, IT specialists, doctors, traders, writer and educationists (people who made up our motley trek team) – knew that at least one of these guys had found his calling.
To witness a man doing what he absolutely loves to do and be exactly where he wants to be – it is a joy. To witness his passion and energy for the mountains and nature and for his job – it was a wake-up call that most of us carried away with us. Life is too short. We should be spending our hours doing what we like… not what we should be liking.
Like I said earlier, the greater Himalayan foothills have cast their magic on me. They have definitely called. It is up to me to heed.
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.
A road trip in the Himalayan foothills involves many things – adventure, fun, great views and most uniquely to India – road signs from our BRO. That is the Border Roads Organization and not Big Brother. So what is so special about these signs you may well ask? Is it the Indian penchant for misspelling or malapropism on our signage? Well… the BRO signs are relatively free from misspellings (though there are a few exceptions)… but what makes them unique is the humorous and appealing manner in which drivers on the mountainous roads are reminded about road safety rules and principles. Take a gander at a few… (Images courtesy http://www.peeppeepdon’tsleep.com, http://www.fabsn.com and http://www.myvisionmyway.com). There are a few that warn one against drunk driving and try their hand at rhyming while they are at it…
Then there are the ones about daydreaming that will appeal to the creative ones amid us..
My favourites are the ones devoted to curves… of the roads and not the sort that you may occassionally find walking on the roads… the adventurous spellings just adds to their charm!
Then there are those which don’t make any bones about the dangers ahead. The warning is loud and clear. Proceed but beware …
This was obviously written by a male chauvinist at the BRO. But then… on second thought, maybe he is addressing it to the second man sitting in the car and not to the driver’s wife who is quietly fuming cause the men are refusing to ask for directions.
Then these ones which keep your family in mind even if you are willing to forget about them or more specifically, are up in the mountains in order to forget about them. Well, tough luck, the BRO is not going to let you forget your loved ones back home.
Then there are the random ones! Like an apologetic BRO –
The mysterious and profound ones that can cause you to drive off the road in to a ravine, while you try to decipher them –
The ones that touch on luuurrvve –
The ones boasting the ubiquitous ‘cheeky’ misspelling –
The ones with good advice that can be kept in mind even if you are not driving on a mountain road –