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.
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.
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 –
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.
You know it all really comes down to how you perceive yourself to be. What is your self-image? I grew up reading a lot of Western novels… Louis L’Amour and the whole Man With No Name series brought so sexily alive by Clint Eastwood in his Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. So it was I guess natural that I believed that I was a tough cookie like Clint… I could squint my eyes against the Chennai sun as well as he could. I was in my 20s when I truly realized that I am not a tough cowboy at heart…
Those of you who have been reading my last few posts on the Himalayan road trip would know by now that that is the farthest thing from the truth as far as I am concerned. I am not a poker-faced, dare-devil cowboy or girl. I am not an adventurer. Not a single risk taking bone in my idli-sambar loving south Indian bones. Fact is, I am a bloody coward scared of pretty much anything which involves my taking my feet off Mother Earth. I love words and I love terra-firma – the flat kind.
But for some strange reason there is this crazy mutation in my otherwise well-behaved DNA strand that keeps urging me to seek mountains – no, not the metaphorical mountain of growth and challenges… just the plain old pine tree and snow-covered ones. Not to climb. I have no such ambitions. Just to look at, from closer quarters and be… I don’t know… I guess, awed. It reminds me that I am part of a whole – a tiny part of a system that somehow works without me and yet is kind enough to let me walk in it, breathe its air and skip among its waves. I am humbled. I have experienced something similar when I stand at the shore of those long Chennai and Pondicherry beaches where the waves crash and bang with a force, that seem to constantly warn me, not to mess with them.
But at the beach I can still hang on to some pretense of being in control. I can tell myself, “As long as I don’t go in too deep I am fine!” Did I mention that I can’t swim? However in the mountains there is no such pretense. I am inthe mountains. I look up and I see gorgeous towering peaks and closer to me towering alpine trees. I look down and I see the ground plummeting away from me and beautiful beginnings of massive plain rivers that are just happy to be gurgling and skipping over rocks and pebbles at this point. I realize that I am witnessing Earth as God must have surely intended her to be – pristine and starkly beautiful.
However I think there is a deeper personal reason – at the beach with the waves crashing on to the shores maintaining a steady rhythm I am intensely aware of the passage of time. In and out, in and out, the hypnotizing rhythm lulls me yet keeps track of every passing moment.
Whereas in the mountains I find that time stands still. It is an illusion. I know that. The shedding leaves and gurgling streams… these are all our time keepers. However it is at a pace that I am at peace with.
So what do you perceive yourself to be? – A Mountain person or a Sea person. Do let me know in your comments. I do believe there just may be an entire semester-worthy pop psychological study that can be conducted on this… you know, a bit along the lines of dog people versus cat people. ;p
I think it is only right that I should end this little segue with these passages by Robert MacFarlane and Philip Connors.
Robert Macfarlane in his Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit says, “Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.”
A view echoed by Philip Connors in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009. He says, “The greatest gift of life on the mountain is time. Time to think or not think, read or not read, scribble or not scribble — to sleep and cook and walk in the woods, to sit and stare at the shapes of the hills. I produce nothing but words; I consumer nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being utterly useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.”
Driving up the Himalayan Expressway, it doesn’t take us very long to climb up to 5000 feet and then 7000 feet. It doesn’t really register because despite the awe inspiring mountains all around us, there is no real sense of having left the maddening crowd behind. The hills are dotted with apartments and cottages, picturesque from a distance but rather grubby on a closer look.
But this is something I have noticed about India. Every layer of dirt and stain adorns a wall or window or doorway or trellis that is richly beautiful. This doesn’t apply to the modern steel and glass structures that are coming up almost everywhere but if you have been to Goa, Kerala, TN or Himachal you know what I am talking about.
There is also a lot of vehicular traffic – trucks transporting everything from grains to clothes up into the mountains, buses taking turns at speeds that would make Ayrton Senna throw up if he was alive, cycles, bikes and cars and fighting for space with all of them on these narrow roads – people! Now here is what I noticed about Himachalis. They don’t seem to be aware of the concept of gravity. Over the next nine days I would often see (with a lot of trepidation that I am going to witness a tragedy) men, kids with school bags and women with babies standing on the very edge waiting for buses. ‘Edge of what?’ you ask. Edge of Earth! Most of these roads don’t really have a bordering patch of earth. They just end with the ravine on one side and the mountains on the other. If they had a bit of ground running alongside, it would be very narrow – say one a half persons thick – and of course it ended near the ravine. And this is where the people waited for buses! On the edge! Nuts.
As we drove up, we decided to skip Shimla and just head up to the lesser explored but equally if not more beautiful parts of Himachal. We had had plans to stop at Solan to check out the distilleries and have a bite. Picking up a crate of beer would have been completely incidental. This is not why we had included Solan in our itinerary. We just forgot one small detail. It was a Sunday. Sundays may be working days in the Middle East (where we all are based) but not in India. The distillery was closed for the day and so were the ‘wine’ shops that sold beers, whisky and some rather ‘iffy’ wines. The men were rather disheartened as we drove on.
Along the way not surprisingly we were famished. Surya wanted to drive on at a stretch as much as possible so that we’d reach Narkanda, our night halt, before visibility reduced. In the Himalayas, for newbies like us, this means 6.30pm latest. 6 if you are being sensible. But two hungry women and three famished children kind of decided things for us. We stopped by the side of the road near a channa batura seller. Now every Indian knows his or her channa batura (big fluffy fried bread served with chick peas masala – that is how the Saravan Bhavan menu describes it!). However in HP the channa batura takes on a more… ummm what should I call it… yeah a ‘takeaway’ avatar.
The channa is boiled and kept separately. So are a selection of chopped salad veggies like onions, tomatoes, coriander (cilantro) and cucumber and what-nots. The batura is not the batura that we get in our roadside dhaba or Saravana Bhavan. It is almost like the Arabic pita breads. It can be separated so that you have a pocket into which the channa and the veggies and the thick spicy masala are ladled and you have a Channa batura takeaway sandwich.
Ravenous no more we sat quietly in the XYLO and watched one stunning scenic frame being replaced by another as we drove further up. We had reached 8000 ft by now and the scene outside was no longer frantic. There was the humming kind of silence that one gets in remote places or after a snow fall.
And in the pits of our stomach the feeling set in – the adventure has truly started… we are in the mountains proper. We drove higher up and we reached Narkanda and by 5.30pm we had reached our destination – Hotel Hatu. Good thing too cause it had started to rain lightly and that meant foggy conditions and zero visibility.
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!