Travelling alone – not so unsafe after all…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When the Mountains Called

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Chandrashila Peak beckons. Image credit – Binu Sivan

Winner of IndiaHike’s March 2016 Blog Contest.

http://indiahikes.in/march-2016-blog-contest-winners/

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.

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)

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The climb from Sari to Devriatal. Image Credit – Yash Mehta.

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The trail offered stunning views in all directions. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

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The trek through the forest was a dream come true.

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

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The last stretch to the top. Mountains are not simple triangles and it takes longer than you think to cover even a few meters.

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.

Helping Hands

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The team posing in front of the dining tent at the Devriatal campsite. Sitting in front wearing the blue full-sleeve tee and hat is Rajuda, the trek guide who led from the front and the one member of the trek team I got to know the least – because I was at the back with Sunil. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

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.

Holy Cow!

 

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Tungnath Temple – the highest Shiva temple in the world. Click on name for the Tungnath legend.Image Credit – Binu Sivan

 

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My cow. Image courtesy Poonam Mahindre.

 

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

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Picture perfect villages nestled in the lap of the mountains. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

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.

 

Gharwal

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Pink burans dot the slopes.

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.

 

Mindfulness

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.

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At the top! Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

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During the Maggi break, the India Hikes team takes a break too. Image Credit – Binu Sivan.

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.

 

Passion

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The sun colours the sky pink as Dushyant and Vishal talk us through the next day’s trek. Each day’s trek was followed by stretches, games and briefing sessions. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

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.

Thanks for reading.

Smruthi Sb 1

View from the top. Image Credit – Smruthi Sb.

Smruthi Sb

Devriatal – the legendary lake of the Yaksha mentioned in the Mahabaratha. Locals and trekkers are careful not to dirty the water by putting their feet in it. Image Credit – Smruthi Sb.

 

Dhyey Ahalpara

Bhagirathi (L) and Alakananda (middle) join together together to form the Ganga (R). Image Credit – Dhyey Ahalpara.

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Temple dedicated to Goddess Ganga at the top of the peak. Image Credit – Smruthi Sb.

 

 

My Himalayan Odyssey Part 10 – Manali Magic

From the darkly beautiful Jalori...

From the darkly beautiful Jalori…

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... to mellow Manali.

… to mellow Manali.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Trout at Bella... River Bank

Fresh Trout at Bella… River Bank

River Beas in the background...

River Beas in the background…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Himalayan Odyssey Part 9 – Goodbye Jalori

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

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

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

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

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

Good Morning Jalori

Good Morning Jalori

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

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

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

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

Keeping hydrated.

Keeping hydrated.

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

Walking towards the car.

Walking towards the car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Himalayan Odyssey – Part 4

It feels like a 3 tons truck is reverse parking on my chest. All I did was to bend down and open the bag which we had flung on the ground. The act of bending down, unzipping the bag, pulling out the thick coat and standing up again had winded me out! And my head was hurting something bad! I had two Panadols and a lot of water. I lay down for a while but nothing was working. Just then my 7-year-old walks in and says that she thinks she is having a heart attack in her head and chest. This is a sad way to go. We hadn’t even seen a single snow-capped peak yet! I need to mention here that I am a Keralite who grew up in Chennai. My daughter is a Dubai kid. Cities whose feet are firmly planted in the sea-shore. Our bodies are not used to anything higher than a small pleasant mountain like those in the Western Ghats and Switzerland. Luckily Reva walked in to our room at this point and being a veteran of these regions quickly recognized what ailed us – altitude sickness. And like a true Indian the solution was a nuska, a simple idea that works wonders – drink glasses of Eno every few hours. Who knew antacid helped treat altitude sickness!? Now here is the thing… if you are headed up to heights that you have not scaled before, and you are an average person in reasonably decent shape then start on a course of Diamox two days before you set out – half to one tablet every 8 hours for 3 days. You will not have to suffer a truck reverse parking on your chest or a heart attack in your head.

After a long day’s drive and the effects of altitude sickness on the two of us, all the seven of us wanted to do was sit back, enjoy a hot meal and sleep. Anyways there was not much to see outside. The fog and the dark had set in. We were so tired and hungry that everything was tasty. I don’t remember what we ate but I do remember what Reva and I, were foolish enough to drink – apple wine – eeeyuck! An apple a day may keep the doc away but it sure has no place in the wine-press. A sip later Reva shifted to beer and I opted for whisky.

The local lore is that the Hatu Temple is dedicated to Mandodari, wife of Ravana, who kidnapped Sita and met his end at Lord Ram’s hands.]

The local lore is that the Hatu Temple is dedicated to Mandodari, wife of Ravana, who kidnapped Sita and met his end at Lord Ram’s hands.]

Surya who had explored these parts about a year ago on a bike decided that we needed to turn in early as we needed an early start the next day. We were going to start by paying our respects to Hatu Devi, the Goddess (at the Hatu Mata Temple) in charge of our safety in these parts. Typically for the Gods and Godesses in these regions her temple was placed not-so-conveniently at the top of Hatu Peak – just a nerve-racking drive up REALLY narrow mountain roads. About 7 kilometers from Narkhanda, Hatu is home to many herbs with healing qualities and apparently the Pandavas have walked on these mountains during their 13 years of exile from their kingdom after losing a game of dice to the Kauravas. We even heard about the Bheem Chulla (stove used by the Pandava Bheem to cook up their meals) – two large stones arranged to resemble an old-fashioned stove. An exile is called an Agyaat Vyaas in Sanskrit – a name that even inspired a modern-day sanctuary that provides everything from yoga and meditation to exploration.

We caught a glimpse of this board as we were driving up. Learn more about it at http://www.agyaatvaas.com/activities.html

We caught a glimpse of this board as we were driving up. Learn more about it at http://www.agyaatvaas.com/activities.html

The next morning we had a delicious aloo parathas for breakfast and then packed our luggage in, bid adieu to Hatu Hotel and got in to the car in our designated seats and took off. A thin curtain of mist still hung around us but it was not too thick and we could see reasonably well enough. Suddenly we came across a fork in the road. One stretch of road continued on as level as a Himalayan road could, while the other which really was nothing more than a cow track wound up to the right at a rather frightening angle. Needless to say the sign board saying Hatu Devi Mandir was pointing to that track. It is a strange thing that I have noticed about myself and I guess I am not unique in this; but when I am faced with options like this, while the sane part of me is silently screaming for me to take the slightly wider, flat road, I find myself saying things that I am not thinking or feeling. Surya asked “Shall we go up?” Reva ventured that it looked dangerous but doable. Suresh was busy clicking pictures and I heard myself say “Yes, let’s go before the fog sets in.”

What the hell!!! Why?

Anyway we got on the road and I am feeling like a colossal fool, like one of those nut cases who jump off planes with parachutes. You know you are doing a dumb thing but you do it anyway. Once we got on that road there was no turning back until we reached the top. Now this is really not a road. It is a path – a mud path if you will, with a thin ribbon of tar in the middle. As usual there is the solid rock of the mountain on one side and unbelievably beautiful, heart stopping scenery plummeting away from us on the other side. One reason for starting out early was to get to the temple and back before other tourists or locals decided to get on this road. But  somebody had beaten us to the top and was on the way back when we were driving up.

On mountain roads people change the rules around a bit. When you face oncoming traffic, the drivers move their car to the ‘wrong’ side of the road so that the driver can see how far he is from the edge. It is a very sensible rule… but very scary for the passengers seated behind the driver. Anyway we did the criss-cross business and the tire’s crunched on the pebbles and stones on the edge and then we continued on wards.

The fog was by now quite intense and we passed the Tani-Jubber Lake and the small hut (often used by Gujjars and sometimes by trekkers who are passing by) abutting it without really seeing them. And then just as suddenly we were at the top. If it weren’t for the sign board we would have had no clue! We parked the car along the side and trudged a few meters to the temple itself. It was COLD! But it was also so energizing. It could also have been euphoria at not having plummeted to the bottom. Either which way we felt on top of the world as we reached the temple.

Walking to Hatu Devi Temple - the kids and the grown-ups had a blast!

Walking to Hatu Devi Temple – the kids and the grown-ups had a blast!

The temple appears out of the fog!

The temple appears out of the fog!

Walking to the Hatu Mata Temple (1)

We are nearly there!

Hatu Devi Mandir

Hatu Devi Mandir

There we saw a sign that said ‘Remove Footwear’. Since no one ever has the balls to break religious rules especially when you are in a land where religious fervor and passion are worn on your sleeves, we removed our shoes and socks and stepped on the wet, tiled floor. Luckily it was so cold that our feet went numb immediately so I did not feel any pain. The temple itself is beautiful – a relatively new structure boasting of amazing woodwork depicting the Gods and Goddesses from Indian mythology. The detailed carving is a feast for the eyes. The priest was a surprisingly young guy in saffron clothes, wind cheater and a mobile. India always does that – surprising you by juxtaposing the old and the new in the most eccentric combinations possible.

Amazingly detailed carving adorned the whole temple!

Amazingly detailed carving adorned the whole temple!

Carvings

A closer look at some of the work!

After offering our respects and walking around the temple and admiring its carvings we decided to walk around a bit as the fog was showing signs of lifting. But first we wanted to pee. But there was a slight problem – no public loos. So we did what any self-respecting traveler or trekker would do. We looked for a private spot and boy! did Reva find one! Seriously it involved taking a few steps along the edge and then looking out into the most amazing scenery as we did the job. Of course we took turns! Some horses grazing on the mountain side further away were our only company! Mind blowing!

What a spot - better than even Richard Branson's Pacific island home's luxe loo.

What a spot – better than even Richard Branson’s Pacific island home’s luxe loo.

And this was the view!

And this was the view!

The constantly changing fog cover just added to the magic.

The constantly changing fog cover just added to the magic.

The rest of the peak also offered spectacular views! The rock faces were so monstrously strong. They looked invincible and like something out of Middle Earth. And then you had the soft, ethereal beauty of the flowers in the mountain. So delicate they looked like lace at times… more Austen than Tolkien. A beautiful contrast.

There is nothing more magical than seeing the fog lifting and unveiling the raw beauty of the Himalayas!

There is nothing more magical than seeing the fog lifting and unveiling the raw beauty of the Himalayas!

We stayed up there for about 20 to 30 minutes and then decided that if we planned to reach our next destination on time we better head out soon. The next leg, according to Surya, was going to be a toughie! I was thinking – “Seriously tougher than the drive up to Hatu! You got be kidding me! Let’s go back to Chandigarh.” But my brain and tongue continued to suffer from, what my dad used to tag all electrical problems as – a loose connection. I joined the three other adults in telling the kids to get in to the car because we now had to head to Jalori Pass. But that’s another post altogether.

Onwards to Jalori Pass from Hatu Peak

Onwards to Jalori Pass from Hatu Peak

[For a very different trip up Hatu Peak check out this site. http://phototravelings.blogspot.ae/2011/03/climbing-falling-stumbling-and-crawling.html#.Uqk6_vQW2a9. In our defense they did not have three kids! Nah! just kidding! I wouldn’t have had the guts to do what they did! Amazing! Crazy too!]