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

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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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