Monday, February 21, 2011

Life Lessons from the Mountain

I have often found that travel is an outer manifestation of an inner quest. Everytime I embark on a journey, I find a new self. The more I find, the more I want to search.

Travelling is not just taking in the sights, it's also about finding parallels in one's own life. It's about becoming aware of things absent in one's life as well. It's about seeing things in a totally different light. And it's about learning.

What do the visual sights on one's path tell one? Here's what they told me while on a recent trek.

There's a long way to be traveled, mountains to be climbed, 
before you can taste the best.

There will be seemingly insurmountable hurdles on your path. 
They have to be negotiated and conquered.

Life at times may seem like a desolate landscape, dying and hopeless.

There will also be times for you to smell the flowers. 
To appreciate beauty.

Life survives in the most seemingly inhospitable situations. 

One often finds oneself at crossroads. Which direction to take?
Choosing paths. Difficult decisions.

For it's difficult to imagine what lies ahead of the curve. 

It's good to pause for a moment. Take a break and forget about the world.

The joys are to be found in the simplest of the things, like a child's unadulterated smile

The best views are to be had only after a long, tiring, treacherous journey.

The heavens above will always shine a light upon you, even in your darkest hour.

Even the stones have an innate beauty. Stones have a heart too. 
You just have to have an eye to see it.

And if you do see that beauty, you can create Gods out of stones.

Speaking of Gods, even they must face downfall, destruction, annihilation.

Everything, everyone must fall, burn out, die someday.

Yet, even in death, there's a beauty.

'Cos hidden in death lies a seed of new life.

This school, this learning never gets boring. And I'm waiting for the next class.

For more photographs from this trek, click here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

On the trail of Gods - Finale

Next morning saw us waking up to the most amazing view. Jayesh was up way too early to catch a glimpse of golden tipped mountains at the sunrise, if by any luck.  But it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, what we saw before us was no ordinary sight either. Usually, as the sun rises up in the sky, the snow clad mountains don’t look very sharp. But early in the morning, when the sun is just coming above the horizon, it’s a different story. If you know the science of light, you’ll know that the light is very scattered in the later part of the day. At dawn and dusk, it is much focused, thus rendering sharper views. We were also hoping to lay our lies upon that beautiful avian wonder that is otherwise known as Monal Pheasant, the state bird of Himachal. Some were seen by men coming back from Rudranath the previous day. So we reckoned our chances to be good. Alas, no luck there either (We had to wait for another year, before we saw one on our next Garhwal trek in 2010).

We are back to climbing steep ascent. For a short while through, thereafter it would all be climbing way way down. So much so that the ascents we tackled for last 4 days would seem like a piece of cake. After some 30 minutes of climbing up and after passing a ferocious fight of 3 Garhwal Shepherds (remember the adorable dogs?), we hit the descent. The journey now would take us through the same landscapes, only in a reverse order. High cliffs and grasslands would give way to alpine forests and then back to civilization. As we were about to give up our hopes of spotting a Monal, we did see one foraging on a distant slope. We possibly couldn’t have spotted it. But Kuldeep’s alert visual senses (and I thought I was so good at this) spotted the small movement and just by the shape of it and the gait of it, he could tell us that it was a Monal. However, it was so far away that we could hardly see its magnificent colors. But we weren’t so unfortunate in wildlife sightings either. Just a short while later, Kuldeep again pointed to a cliff where a flock of Tahrs(mountain goats) was grazing.

Believe me, the cliff was nearly vertical with hardly any place to stand, let alone walk while grazing. But adept mountain dwellers that they are, the Tahrs were just as agile and graceful as a dolphin is in high seas. Though being shy animals, having seen us watching them, they quickly moved on to the next cliff and shortly disappeared behind it. Being content, we also moved on. Shortly we entered the woods. And again that Symphony of Feathered Musicians. At many places in the forests, we saw remains of cooking fire with 3 or 4 stones places in a manner so as to keep a utensil and the ashes between them. We wondered if any men spent a night in these woods. That would have been a near impossibility, for it always is chilled during daytime and nights are something that humans cannot possibly survive. But who knows. There aren’t few examples of people having survived the worst of nature’s fury. Or maybe it was Gods who spent the night here.

Now we are picking up speed. But soon it becomes clear that walking fast on the slopes has started to tell on our legs. Kuldeep of course won’t get bothered by any such petty concerns. Jayesh looks pretty much at ease. Hrishi’s legs had started to give in even before Panar. Now I am feeling the heat (?). Keeping balance on slopes is not as easy as it may seem. It puts a lot of strain on one’s knees, calfs and thighs. They have to work extra hard to keep the body from toppling since the weight tends to be put forward. So now my gait is becoming strange. It was a welcome break to see a sadhus hut. Kuldeep enquired if he could fix us some tea. How decadent!! Us, the self indulgent-materialistic-comfort seeker-jerks asking a sadhu to fix us tea. Or maybe we are not. In an inhospitable region like this everyone is a sadhu and everyone is a comfort-creature, everyone in one’s own capacity is a host and everyone is a guest. Whoever can help the passers by, helps. Whoever needs help, seeks help. Everyone’s an equal here. For everyone knows and appreciates the difficulties of traveling and living here. So the sadhu makes some tea for us and since we are out of stock of ganja, provides us with some at a price. Paying our gratitude, we move on.

After an hour or two of walking down yet more slopes, we are at Atri Muni Ashram. Now again a thing about place names. What would one think of when one hears the word Ashram? A place full of spiritually inclined people and one enlightened master of them all. This place is nothing like that. A serene place with a waterfall, a pool of spectacular emerald green water and a cave where supposedly Atri Muni used to meditate.

A thin stream of the waterfall and the emerald pool are magnificent in no small measure. But the cave is a just crazy thing. One has to climb a rocky patch to reach a platform. One wrong move and one can go toppling down a 100mts down the cliff and into the pool of the waterfall. Once above a platform carved out in the rock face, one must then crawl on one’s stomach to go inside the cave. That’s the only entrance to the cave. They say, once inside, there is enough space for a man to comfortably sit and meditate. I was so tempted to go up there. But for one Jayesh was really upset with that decision as the climb is rather risky and then my own feet did not have enough strength to do the skillful climbing. So I too decided against the idea. We filled up our water bottles and refreshed ourselves in the water of the emerald pool and set towards Anusaya Devi, not very far from here.
Soon we were in Anusaya Devi, named as such after the temple of goddess Anusaya in the village. An otherwise lowly populated village, it draws huge crowds of devotees at the height of winter, in December, for a festival held at another temple, Dattatraya Temple in the village. We found a lodge to drop our backload and relieve our legs for a while. After some more tea, we headed to visit Anusaya temple, a little distance from where we dropped our bags. As at Rudranath, this temple too was closed in the afternoon hours. Common, even the Gods need to take siesta. But from amongst the children playing in the temple courtyard, one small boy went away to fetch keys to the shrine and reappeared in no time. In we went with the boy. 

Now this is a kind of temple that we generally see everywhere. A big hall and the smaller main shrine, with a donation box and all. Since there was no priest around this time to perform puja or enlighten us with some mythological trivia, we paid our respects ourselves and asked the boy to lock the temple again. After spending a few minutes in the courtyard of the temple, taking in the views of the forests that we just through, we were back at the lodge to have lunch. A priest from the Dattatraya temple had come there by that time, seeing us tourists and in hope of some ‘offerings’ and struck up a conversation with us, Jayesh mainly. He insisted that we go visit the Dattatraya temple and seek blessings. We obliged. So he performed a little ceremonial ritual, asking us to cite our names and the places we hailed from and repeated the same with some of his own shlokas. Sort of a request to seek blessings from Lord Dattatraya.

Back at the lodge, the lunch was ready. We had a proper lunch after 2 days. The last we ate full meal was at Dumak. Rice and daal, sabzi and pickle. The priest gave us a company here too dishing out some old wisdom. Seeing our cameras he asked us to click his picture. To which Jayesh dutifully obliged and promised to send him the same after we got back home. The priest gave him the detailed address and all. Have you sent him the picture yet, Jayesh? Funny encounters. So that was it. This was to be our last stop in a proper mountain hamlet. We took off for Mandal from where our mode of transport would change from twin to quadruple.

On our way down to Mandal we met a guy from Bangalore who was accompanied by a local guide. He had already completed a trek with some of his friends who had gone back home and this guy still had time on his hand. So he got hold of a guide and was about to complete the trail that we had just completed in the reverse order. Mandal to Devgram and then back to Rishikesh. Did I tell you, there is no dearth of weirdoes to be found in this region?! Having exchanged some trivia we went in our respective directions. In a short while we were in Mandal and in range for the cell phone signal. No sooner had we got the signal than Hrishi was on phone with his fiancé, Ruta. So see built road for the first time in last 4 days. We had tea at one of the street-side stalls, settled our bills with Kuldeep and bid him goodbye with a heavy heart. He had become a dear friend after all, with his affable nature, comic looks and invaluable help in completing this trek.

We got a jeep to reach Chopta, the base town to reach Tunganath, the last of the Panchkedars on our itinerary. We check in at a Chopta hotel by 5 in the evening. Had a nice hot water bath and set out to explore Chopta and enquire about bus timings back to Rishikesh. Not much to be seen in Chopta though, having been witness to breathtaking landscapes for last couple of couple of days. Got some useful info from Garhwal Nigam’s office right opposite our hotel. Back at the hotel, we had an early dinner and later hot milk which was heavenly in the cold weather. And to bed.

Next day morning, we got up early so as to reach Tungnath well before the sun started come in prime. The path to Tungnath from Chopta is well paved. There are even mules available for less capable pilgrims. All in all, it is an easy place to reach, except that our legs were really in tatters now. But riding on a mule or something was simply out of question. That would have been outrageous and insulting to ourselves. So we set off on foot to climb the measly (?) 6 kms to the temple. After much effort – I think me and Hrishi put more efforts here than we had in our entire trek – we were at the grandiose temple. We thanked Tungnath for having made our journey safe and thoroughly enjoyable.

From the Tungnath temple, Chandrashila is some 300 odd mts high. But things are way different there. Climbing those 300mts in a short distance of about 1.5kms means that one has to tackle steep ascent and then, this being the highest point (approx 4000mts/14000ft), it’s highly windy and chilly on top, with another breathtaking panoramic view of the Himalayas in all directions, unlike at Panar. They say that one can view the famous peaks of Nanda Devi, Chaukhama and Bandarpunch. But today, owing to clouds, we couldn’t see very far. One finds stacks of small stones, sort of cairns, arranged here. Hundreds of them.

It is believed that placing the stones in this manner, one’s wishes reach up into the Gods in heavens. Thus every devout pilgrim makes sure that s/he makes one. Not that we believe in that. But we did the same nevertheless in the right spirit of the moment and the place.

We climbed down well in time to start the ‘Part II of the most tiresome and seemingly unending parts of our journey’. Got a bus to Ukhimath. Found ourselves a decent hotel. Found some bandage and anti-septic for I had injured myself on the way to Anusaya Devi. Had lunch and after a little rest and watching TV (signs of having been back to mundane urban life), headed for yet another temple in the town. Again an impressive structure and with ancient idols placed. By late evening we were back at the hotel and having our dinner, went to bed.

Next day saw us traveling back to Rishikesh. We reached Rishikesh well before evening. So we dumped our luggage at the hotel opposite the bus stand and set out to explore Rishikesh, its famous ghats on Ganges and its markets. After visiting the jamn packed streets and markets and having failed in finding Bhuranch Sharbat, we returned to the hotel for the night, content on lichis and our last fix of ganja. Early by the next morning (as early as 3), we got aboard a bus to Delhi and immediately a train to Pune which was just as uneventful as the one we took to Delhi. Journeying back from the surreal to real.

P.S: I would like to mention a thing here explicitly. I’m not a religious person. Far from it. I don’t believe in idol worship or typical Hindu ritualism (from religious point of view that is), I don’t visit temples back at home. And we didn’t come here to do religious pilgrimage. We are just adventure seekers and plain nature lovers. But up there, it’s a whole different ball game. One can’t help but feel obliged and indebted to whatever that one might want to term as God. One can’t help but feel small and vulnerable in those mighty mountains. Make it there while you still can. Remember, this coming from a Western Ghats devotee.

Jai Bhole!!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On the trail of Gods - Part III

Panoramic View of the Mighty Himalayas
So with our backpacks slung over backs again, we embarked on our pilgrimage. The views of snow clad mountains, which were so far a novelty for us and were infrequent, owing to our journey so far in the lower mountains and through forests, were now our constant companions. We were now walking on top of the mountains with only grasslands and absolutely no trees to block our view.The almighty Himalayas were always visible in their full glory to the North East. And the alpine forests that we had negotiated so far were also visible with all their vast expanses. At one point we could even see Tolitaal that we had passed the day before. It seemed so far away. We boasted in self-glorifying way of how long we had walked.

From hereon, since there was no more altitude to be gained, it was mostly a level ground and after crossing Pitardhara (slang for Pitrudhara), we were descending towards a place called Panchganga. It’s wonderful how places are named in these mountains.
Firstly, they are not really ‘places’ in true sense of the word. I mean, there is no settlement really, just a small hut manned by a lonely man. Or like at Pitardhara, which is just two man-high stacks of flat stones with a piece of wood placed across them to hang bells. It’s like an entrance to Rudranath, only much earlier. Yet they are named and named as if they are holiest of places, which they really are of course. Every inch of this territory is sacred, peaceful, beautiful. So we walk from one holy place to another holy place, that too on a holy path. Truly a pilgrimage.

Our Host-cum-Cook-cum-Guide-cum-Entertainer
So we reach Panchganga. And we find this hut-cum-hotel-cum-kitchen with its sole caretaker who is a host-cum-cook-cum-guide-cum-entertainer. Though at the moment he is in a company of his folks from his village somewhere far down the mountain. These men manning such huts on the way are just as intriguing as the names of the places. They befriend and chat with anyone and everyone passing by. They will cook for people, provide necessary tips and information to travelers like us and also valuable and entertaining insights into the lives of the native people. 
So we enquire with him about how far is Rudranath from here and if we can find a place to stay there. He advises us to stay in his hut as it’s not occupied at the moment, refresh ourselves with some food, and go visit the temple of Rudranath which is a little more than 30 minutes of walk from here. We thought of that as a good idea since it would save us that much of walking back the next day – as we had to go back the same way to Anusaya Devi, and further to Chopta, our destination for the next day. Also, it started raining quite heavily (we were so lucky to had arrived in the nick of time). Thus, the man cooked us the staple, Maggie and put some potatoes in the fire for us to munch on. Roasted potatoes with Ash Flavor. After indulging in the 7-star mountain cuisine, we spread ourselves wide and long and waited for the rain to stop. I dozed off while Hrishi and Jayesh chatted up with the man. A few more men and a woman passed by the hut all drenched in the rain while we were blissfully cozy in the blankets. They just continued towards Rudranath, without as much of a bother for the rain. God, I couldn’t imagine doing that. But that’s what holy pilgrimage and pilgrims are about in India.

The rain must have stopped after an hour or so. Seeing that it would not rain again, we set off towards the highest Panchkedar temple, Rudranath. Rudra by the way in Sanskrit means fearsome and Nath means master, lord, ruler, God. Shiva is Rudra. And this one being particularly tough to reach, goes by the name. With Kuldeep again in the lead, we reached the temple. Now this place more than just a hut or a temple. There are proper houses built of rock and with a proper tin roof. It’s but natural for some pilgrims must want to spend a night here before moving on. They must be catered food and a comfortable place to stay. And then at the end of all these houses in a row is the main temple, a rather small and unassuming one for its name. The foot trail ends here. One can’t go any further than this unless one wants to go climbing the Rudra mountain situated behind the temple. At the time we reached here, the mountain looked even more menacing with clouds gathered at its peak, giving it an ‘out-of-bounds’ look.

The Priest and Rudranath Temple
To our sheer disappointment, the temple was closed and one of the residents which again happened to be Kuldeep’s distant relative informed us that the priest would not come for another two hours or so. Having come this far and not seeing the temple from within and paying our respects, would be such a waste. So we decided to wait for the priest, in spite of the knowledge that we would have to walk back to Panchganga in dark. So we whiled away clicking snaps of Turtle Doves and Red Sparrows. But Gods of the Mountains must have been impressed by our efforts and dedication. The priest appeared much earlier and opened the temple for the only three pilgrims (Read: the pilgrims of the wild and inhospitable i.e us). The priest was a very stern looking, authoritative man with a full beard. I thought just as Rudra as the place itself. He did a little puja and told us about mythology behind Panchkedars and how it would benefit us if we complete this pilgrimage and made some offerings. So we made our ‘offerings’ and after a chai at Kuldeep’s folks’ place, we were back on our way to the multifunction hut. Nothing much different on the way back, except that we met a group of Sadhus from West Bengal. We had learnt that most of the visitors to these regions are from West Bengal and Maharashtra. Bengalis mostly for religious purposes. Marathis for religious, but largely for seeking adventure. We had already met some adventure seeking fellow Marathis in Devgram. And now we were bumping into Bengalis every now and then.

When we reached the hut, there was a whole new set of people chatting with our host for the night. We joined in the revelry. In a short while, another sadhu, who goes by the name Mauni Baba for he keeps, maun, a practice of shunning the words altogether for communication. He never talks, only uses gestures to communicate. We could hardly understand his gestures. But apparently people here have got used to him. They seemed to understand as Mauni Baba as seamlessly as if he had been talking like the rest of us. They told us that he’s a weirdo of sorts. Yeah, here that’s not a rarity either. And I’m sure the natives here think of us the same way. Why would anyone come this far just to seek a little getaway from the colourless urban life?! There are sadhus and then there are us. Both on a quest, albeit of different sorts (or is it really the same?!). And both love smoking ganja. So we roll our daily dose and after a hot meal go for a doze. Next day is when we kind of begin our return journey. Although with one more Kedar to visit on our way back.

The Bengali Sadhu
cont. on

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On the trail of Gods - Part II

Next day we were up by six, but Kuldeep who had vanished the night before was nowhere to be seen. Bhandari’s son had assured us that he had gone to his place and should be back. We were still concerned that he had somehow forgotten that we had to leave early to reach Panar so as to reach well in time. This was going to be the toughest – if not the longest - part of our hike. But just as we had finished with morning rituals (read: ‘dumping’) and tea, Kuldeep turned up. Our bills settled with Bhandari and a few words of gratitude exchanged, we set out on our course to Panargumpha. A few women scurrying about their morning chores - with whom Kuldeep would exchange some words in a language completely incomprehensible to the three of us (I wondered at times if he joked with them about how slow we were) – and Kuldeep’s uncle’s home after, we were on a descent towards a ravine. The river flowing down there could be seen and heard too. There were a few women collecting grass on seemingly unreachable slopes. Suddenly Jayesh, Hrishi and Kuldeep started pointing towards something on the slopes far away. They thought that the small black figure could be a sloth bear. I joined them in their investigation. After a lot of pondering over the apparent height of the animal, the gait et cetera et cetera, we concluded that it was nothing but a cow or something since there were other of the kind as well. Wishing that we would come across some wild animal we climbed down towards the river.As we reached the bottom of the gorge, we decided to spend 15 minutes (strictly) on the river, refresh ourselves and take a few snaps. The place turned out to be quite serene. Gushing ice cold water with exquisite round pebbles on its banks, trees with their branches overhanging above the waters and some wonderful wildlife like the dippers dipping in the cold water to catch a beetle or two. Fifteen minutes over and we crossed the river to start on an ascent that Kuldeep informed us would not leave us all the way till Panar, still a good 10-13Kms away. As we walked along a path that hugged a high cliff on the right, we saw a figure in red and blue on the high slopes of the cliff, unusual colours to be present there. That turned out to be another woman collecting grass. Now that we thought was the height of it, literally and figuratively. We managed to take some snaps of her to remind us of how petty we were in our adventures. We carried on discussing how women here work harder than men. After some two and half hours of hard climbing later we reached a place called Tolitaal
. Taal is a lake and as the name suggested there indeed was a small lake. We had our much awaited Chikki Break and also gorged ourselves on the breakfast. As we started towards our path on the ridge above the taal Kuldeep asked us if we would like to have a cuppa (cup of tea that is). We were like…what could be better that a cup of hot tea in this beautiful weather. It was indeed a beautiful day. Sunny, yet with a slight cold in the air, snow capped peaks visible in the distance across the top of pine trees. Only if Sharmila was there, I would have felt like Rajesh Khanna from Aradhana. So Kuldeep took us to a small house (house, for the lack of a better word) of stone where a number of men including one very elderly one were sipping on their tea and were chatting (I don’t know about what). Kuldeep asked for tea and we joined the men in their chitchat. The old man turned out to be quite a chatterbox and almost delivered a sermon. He would talk about how the Almighty created this world and now how the man is making a mess of it, how he had seen his land of birth being changed in the name of development and how the God has His ways of expressing His wrath. As we finished our tea, we bid them all a goodbye and the old fellow wished us a safe journey ahead.
We were again on a road through the woods with all kinds of flowers all along, bhuila to munch on, butterflies and a rare sparkling blue feather which a man herding his cattle informed us, was of Monal, the most beautiful of the pheasants found around here. As he told us that the bird is often seen here, I was eager to spot one. But we were not to have a glimpse of the ‘out of this world’ bird until two days later. We reached the top of the hillock that we were climbing and clouds started gathering in a threatening fashion, as ever. Threatened they did not. They just delivered. It started pouring and it seemed that we had to face what was most dreaded. Getting drenched in the cold weather, with no food in our stomachs and another 5-6 kms to go. We took a shelter under a tree for a while as other passers by - mostly local folk - went by, much to our envy, with their rain protection. Thankfully it stopped raining. The rain had made it even colder and I thought I couldn’t go any further without satiating my appetite. So we had some food and boy…it was heavenly. From where we were having our meal, we could see the ponies that had passed us on the ascent blissfully grazing in the meadows across some distance. With some respite from hunger, we again set out on doing what we had come here for. Walk walk and walk.
Panaar, our destination for the night wasn’t far from here. A bunglow kind of structure (only with two rooms filled with hay) and a hutment cum kitchen of the caretaker. That’s all there was in that place. Human creations that is. Bang we went in to the kitchen and enquired if the caretaker had anything for us to eat. It turned out that his rations had almost been exhausted and would not arrive for a day or two. All that he had was lots of Maggie. Garma Garam Maggie. Who would not want that?! We sat by the fire (It was quite cold even though sunset was an hour away) and joined in the conversation of the caretaker and some his folks by the time he prepared our meal. Ask Maggie people to promote their 2-Minute campaign to these people. They would laugh at them. It takes quite some time to cook even though it’s not really very high altitude. One particular thing hanging from the ceiling caught our attention. A Cowboy Hat. That was a strange place for the hat. The caretaker tells us that his brother got it for him from Nagaland. Hrishi went so crazy after that hat that the salesman in him kicked right in. He wanted to convince the guy to give away the hat to him. Sadly, the guy turned to be a hard nut to crack. He just didn’t give in.
Well….having finished Maggie, it was time for the roll. Out we went and started rolling some stuff. The site and the sights were breathtaking. From where we were sitting, we could see a valley and a river gorge. On the other side were the majestic ranges of snow capped mountains. Suddenly there appeared this huge flock of goats n sheep. The shepherds here are a rich lot. I mean the flocks are literally huge. Nothing less than 200-300 animals. It was quite amusing to watch all these animals pass by us onto the meadow right opposite the kitchen-hut. And they would give us such curious looks, as if we were some aliens from other planets. We were, in fact. Especially the males ones would look at us as if we were going to steal their ‘wives’. Some of these males were like…huge animals, with huge horns. Some of them really scared the hell out of us with some threatening looks. To add to it, some of the rival males, among the goats as well as from amongst the sheep started fighting among themselves. That was some fighting to watch. The whole flock eventually settled down at the sundown. We also decided to arrange our beds (or rather sleeping bags) inside one of the rooms in the ‘bungalow’. Bed time had always been early since we started on this trek. By 8 we were curling up inside the sleeping bags.
Next morning, we were up by 5. The caretaker had already started putting some fire for hot water for us to bathe. This was the first time during our trek that we were bathing out in the open. It gets real here. It took quite some guts to bathe even with the hot water. The moment one is done with it, by the time one dries oneself, the breeze just whacks the shit out of one. Anyways, we did manage some feats up there. What a boost for the ego. We were to start towards our next destination, Rudranath, supposedly the toughest of the Panchkedars to reach

cont. on

Friday, March 12, 2010

On the trail of Gods - Part I

With a Western Ghats – Sahyadris as they are known in Maharashtra – fixation, I was never too keen to explore Himalayas. Neither would I really comprehend the obsession people having been to the Himalayas show about the mountains which are said to have formed due to erratic behavior of terra firma. So I didn’t exactly jump to the idea from Hrishi to go to the Garhwal Himalayas. Add to that my new startup, financial concerns and the guilt of indulging myself in ‘exploratory luxuries’ when I should be looking after my new baby and I tried to pursued Hrishi the other way. As it turned out at the end of this sojourn, I was about to be proved wrong and a new beginning be made.

I had little idea about our itinerary. I thought it would be fun not to worry about it and learn as we go traveling. I would just tag along Jayesh and Hrishi. Our journey till the starting point of our circuit would not be very exciting. The only factor that would make the journey a little bearable was a beautiful company we would have till HNZM. One would wish one was good at sketching.

Delhi to Hrishikesh and then to Helang would be Part I of the most tiresome and seemingly unending parts of our journey (Part II would come a week later). It would consist of hot and dusty bus rides, seemingly fearless and rash drivers and absolutely eccentric and drunk conductors. To worsen my misery I was seated next to the driver facing rearward.
Jayesh and Hrishi were gracious enough to let me sit throughout the journey while they switched turns to do ‘Standup Travelers’. It was an experience in its own right though. Just when I had started thinking that I have had it, Helang arrived and we took the whole travel so far, as a necessary and unavoidable prelude to the exciting five days to come. All good things come at a price I guess.

We were already late by our calculation. So we decided to have a cup of tea to refresh ourselves and look for a taxi. As it turned out, we were not to get one and had to start walking right away. Having tea was a welcome break for me as I was pretty dizzy with the motion sickness thanks to the curvy roads all the way from Hrishikesh to Helang. In retrospect I wonder how I survived that 9 hour journey in the ghats. Also, this is where we got our first glimpses of snow clad peak. We had arrived.

With a little information from the tea vendor and some locals there, we set out towards Devgram, our first destination on the circuit and the halt for the night. A suspension bridge across white gushing waters that are so signature to this region and we were on a road to Devgram.
We had barely walked 500 mts when a jeep comes from behind, much to our delight. However, the joy was short lived as the jeep was laden with villagers, some even sitting on the top. The driver agreed to drop the locals and come back for us. With a faster transport having been arrived we decided to climb down to the stream and indulge ourselves with some ice cold refreshment. We emptied our water bottles and filled them with fresh and cold water. To hell with mineral water. While climbing down Hrishi and I brushed ourselves against what is locally known as ‘Bichhu kata’, a shrub with transparent broken-glasslike thorns. It immediately gives a burning sensation, same as when one is stung by a scorpion. Thus the name. Down at the stream we washed ourselves with the ice-cold water and vroom went the burn. Healing waters, literally.

With me keeping a slow pace, checking out different sorts of cones from the coniferous trees, trying to identify – to no avail – the birds and clicking an occasional snap and Hrishi keeping a slow pace thanks to his weight, Jayesh would constantly prod us to pick up the speed as the jeep had not turned up till then and we had started to get a feeling as though it never would. We had to make our way all the way to Devgram on foot. On one turn we met four shepherds with their herd of at least 100-150 goats and sheep and some 5-8 dogs.
I’m not sure what their breed is but Garhwal Shepherds or Shivalik Shepherds would be an apt name, wouldn't it? Everywhere we went on our trekking route, we came across the same kind of dogs. Black with dark brown on the throat, at times with a golden tinge and obviously very hairy. With their friendly demeanour they were an adorable lot. As the shepherds guided, this is where we left the road and took up a trail through woods having made our way right through the flock. We could still see the road though and after walking up a little we saw the jeep going down the road. It was obviously beyond catching any signal from us. That wasn’t very encouraging. Clouds had begun to appear, thus making it even darker in the woods. Concerned that we would be caught in the rains on the very first leg of our hike, we hurried.

The first hamlet we came across was Salna. And we went past the house of the very same people who were traveling in the jeep. They greeted us with a ‘Pahoonch gaye(arrived finally)?’. This is how we would be greeted every time we reached a place on our entire itinerary. They showed us Devgram, located across a couple of hillocks. It seemed far, but it was reassuring to know from them that we would not encounter any ascents thereon. We would mostly be traveling on flat ground or climbing down slopes. Another hour through the woods and we arrived at Devgram. Little children – lots of them – would greet us with a ‘Namaste’ and Jayesh started giving a poppins to each of them. I was quite amused by their courteousness until Jayesh pointed out that it wasn’t just a ’Namaste’, but ‘Namaste, toffee do’. Though not all children would do that, it was quite disheartening to see them greet in this ‘beggar-like’ way. I wonder where they learnt that from.

Just when it was about to go completely dark we reached Negi’s lodge. Thankfully Negi was also there. Turned out to be quite a talkative guy. We dumped our luggage and sat out in the ‘balcony with a view’ to sip hot tea and to enquire a few things from Negi. Wow…cold air, hot tea and a million dollar view. Who needs five star hospitality?! It couldn’t get better than this.
After the tea and little chit chat after, we decided to take some nap till the dinner was ready. The room was a cosy space with walls adorned with displays of various certificates, medals and trophies. On the walls opposite the beds, Gandhi and Nehru were an odd sight between the posters of Rani Mukherjee and Preity Zinta. About an hour later the dinner was served in the courtyard of Negi’s house. Roti with a local variety of vegetable called ‘lengde ki sabzi’, rice with sprouts and dal accompanied by salad and pickle. We filled ourselves to our hearts’ content and again headed to the Balcony to take in the starry sky which is a sort of luxury for us, the city dwellers. After identifying a few constellations and stars that we could, we headed off to our cosy comforts and quickly dozed off having exhausted ourselves after months.

Next morning before we were up, Negi had already started preparations for our breakfast – roti and bhindi ki sabzi. Kuldeep, our guide for the next four days was already there. It would be unjust to call him a guide for he turned out to be quite a friendly and interesting fellow. We refreshed ourselves, had our breakfast while watching feisty Kalchilada
across the courtyard and headed off for Kalpeshwar, one of the five Panchkedar where Lord Shiva’s jata (tresses) are believed to be placed. A couple of Kalchiladas, lots of roses and gerberas and two langurs almost the size of an average sized man later we were in the temple, a cave actually. The cave lay underneath an overhang and some 50 mts above the stream. These places are truly steeped in tranquility and spirituality. No wonder Gods chose Himalayas and Shivaliks as their home. After paying our respects we headed back to Negi’s place.

Soon as we reached Negi’s, we settled our bills and with Kuldeep in the lead started towards Dumak. He pointed to a distant pass in the mountains which we had to cross to start climbing down to reach our next halt. Steep ascent till then. Potato fields, apple orchards and akrod trees flanked our way for first 2 kms or so. Ah! And shrubs of ganja as well.
At one point we stopped to fill our water bottles and plucked a few leaves off the shrub. That is one fragrance I tell you. We decided to carry the leaves with us and make a roll of it to smoke. Crazy idea. But as they say, when in Rome….. As soon as we entered the alpine woods, the surroundings suddenly came alive with bird songs. Whistles of thrush interspersed with a katkhor (woodpecker) drumming on tree bark in search of a meal. As we traversed through the alpine forest, there would come a clearing where there would not be any trees and we could see snow clad peaks in the distance. Such infrequent and little glimpses were provocative and would give us an idea of things to come.

We stopped by one such place, a meadow really, and filled our water bottles and munched on some chikki to energise ourselves again. Instead we found another source of energy right under our feet. Bhuila as it is called, probably since it grows very close to bhui (earth / ground) is an ultra-small shrub with small berry like fruits which look and taste exactly as strawberries. A little sweet, a little sour - as the song goes in Taare Zameen Par ¬– those were really fun to be plucked from the ground and tossed in one’s mouth. And quite refreshing too. It became quite a routine for us to pluck the berries as we climbed the ascent towards the cusp. After much effort during the last 30 mins of the climb thanks to steep boulder strewn climb, we were at the narrow pass on the top from where we were to start climbing down towards Dumak. Kuldeep lit a bidi to energise himself (I guess chikkis didn’t punch enough kick for him). Five minutes to catch our breath and we took out our meal for the afternoon. The wind was blowing like crazy and it had started to get cold. So we looked for a little sunny spot and had our lunch of roti and bhindi ki sabzi. The small portion of the meal didn’t last long. Neither did the sun. Clouds had already gathered in the sky and threatened to drench us. We had another at least 2 hours of walk. So we hurried and started to climb down with bhuranch trees lining the trail.

Playing hide n seek with rain we reached a hamlet called Jakhoda where curious children flocked us and we took a few snaps. Kuldeep had gone ahead in the meanwhile and arranged for a tea at one of the households. It was place with a courtyard with a view across the valley. A few more snaps with Hrishi with kundi slung on his back (that was quite a sight and the village folks enjoyed themselves to the hilt), the cattle in the barn and yes, a beautiful flash of sunrays through the clouds, illuminating a spot on a mountain across the valley which was otherwise dark with overcast sky. We had our tea and biscuits and moved on. Rest of the hike wasn’t very eventful and we reached Dumak well before sunset, thereby allowing us a lot of time to settle ourselves in a room at Bhandari’s lodge. It had started raining by then. So we rolled ganja and warmed ourselves a bit. As it stopped raining we decided to explore a Lord Shiva’s temple right opposite the lodge. Unfortunately, the temple was locked, so we sat outside on the temple wall and cracked some jokes for a while. As the sun went down, we retreated to our cozy room. Meal was already ordered and it arrived an hour later. Though we didn’t feel like getting out of the warm blankets, food was necessary, for the next day would be our toughest of all. As on the previous night, food was heavenly having exhausted ourselves over the 14 kms from Devgram. Dinner over and off we went into the dreamland (though there was really no room for any dreams). Good Night Dumak!

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