D had big plans for the return journey. He had spoken to the manager at the Tourist Rest House in Dhakuri, which was midway between Khati and the roadhead at Loharkhet, to book a bed for the night. The purpose of this one night stop was to generate more time to think about adding other treks he wanted me to do in the region. He was distraught, he said, that I couldn’t go to Kafni Glacier and wanted to make amends by taking me on a thrilling, adventurous hike to Sundherdunga Glacier and untouched mountains beyond. It would require him to hire tents and ropes for perilous clambers over steep cliffs, he said, wiping his hands in glee.
I was less enthusiastic about these ideas than he was. After a few days of hard walking, I was looking forward to the relative comfort of a market town like Bageshwar or Almora and lounging about doing nothing. When he sensed my indifference, he implored me to take AR along for some like-minded company. I told him we would take the call at leisure when we reached Dhakuri.
AR had other plans. On the way down to the village, he wondered if we could take a shortcut back to the roadhead instead of the longer route. This was an exciting idea. I was on a shoestring budget and while D had been a big help on this trek, his services were a luxury. It would be prudent to minimize the expenditure as much as possible and lesser time trekking meant lesser money I would need to spend.
D had asked us to rendezvous at the village square because he had to see his family and say goodbye. When AR and I reached the place, we asked a group of villagers assembled there if they knew of another way back to the road. They did and they highly recommended we take the route. If we climbed up the steep path leading over the hills that hung above the village, there was a trail of rocky steps that would take us directly down to village of Supi on the other side. From Supi, we would have no trouble getting transport back to Bageshwar. They took that route all the time, they said, and we would be wasting time walking through Dhakuri.
When D came back and heard our change of plans, he was furious. “Why do you keep changing your plans?”, he yelled, “I took so much trouble making an itinerary for you and you spoil everything. I won’t take you on this short cut. Go find your way alone if you want.”
Some of the villagers tried to pacify D and asked him not to be rude to his clients as it might spoil the name of the village.
“You know what we were going to do when we started from Bageshwar?”, he replied angrily, “Pindari, Kafni, Sundherdunga, Namik. I had marked all the spots on the map. He’s only done Pindari. If I had known before, I would never have taken him along.”
Then, with an angry grunt, he said, “Chalo!” and we followed obediently.
To say that this route was steep would be profoundly understating it. The trail was barely marked and there were sections which were a right scramble through thick pine and oak jungle. D never stopped grumbling and just to show our place in the world, he would run up a steep slope and watch us with a frown from the top as we slipped and scrambled our way to where he was and when we reached, he would shake his head disdainfully.
After suffering much pain and exhaustion, we reached the top of a pass and I rested on a rock because I was thoroughly spent with all the effort climbing up. I hoped we had reached the top of the hill we had to climb and looked forward to the scramble down. But D shattered these hopes cruelly. “This is only the first hill”, he said. When I asked how long we had to go before we get down, he pointed at a steep hill in front of us and said, “First you need to go up that one and then there’s another one the same size after and then you climb down.”
My spirit thoroughly crushed, I pined for the original route through Dhakuri which, while longer, was a far gentler incline and passed through verdant meadows and had distant views of snow-capped mountains. This was a torturous hike where the only view I had was the steep hills that I had to negotiate to get to steeper hills. But we soldiered on and when, after a few hours of herculean struggle, we reached the pinnacle drenched in sweat, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest.
For these strenuous efforts, I was rewarded with a clear view of the snow white peak of Nanda Kot. But as I was enjoying this view, just to remind me of the ephemeral nature of things, a big bank of clouds enveloped us and D, perhaps as much for the fear of his own life as ours, urged us to move quickly and descend because the weather looked ominous. Minutes after he said this and we began hurrying down, we were battered by a mighty hailstorm.
Much of the trail was a steep descent with crude, haphazard steps cut into the rocks. As the icy pellets rained on us, the trail got increasingly slippery and my terrible shoes, unable to grip the wet, mossy stone surfaces, caused me to slip multiple times. One fall was so bad, I might have descended 30 feet. It was a minor miracle I hadn’t broken any bones or suffered a debilitating back injury.
AR had other problems. While his shoes were sturdy enough, his bag was getting drenched. He was on the edge because he was carrying a laptop and the hailstorm showed no signs of abating as it mercilessly poured over his unprotected rucksack as we were clambering down an exposed hillside with no place to take shelter.
We heaved a sigh of relief when we saw the road below and ran quickly down to a tented teashop covered with blue tarp. It was a wet, muggy place with water dripping through the holes in the tarp but nevertheless it resembled a sanctuary. We dropped our rucksacks in the driest corner, rested on the wet benches and asked the lady who ran the shop to make us some chai.
As we were quietly sipping our chai, a short man in a blue jacket wobbled inside with an awkward gait. “Hello”, he said. “Hello”, we said. “Hello”, he said again. We smiled and nodded politely. “Hello”, he said again and then again and kept saying that word over and over again. We didn’t know what to make of it. We thought maybe he wished to make conversation. So I began asking questions in Hindi but all I got was a “Hello” and a “yes” in reply. Then he tried to mumble something in English. The long, treacherous hike must have slowed our senses because it was only when he began drawling words nonsensically in English that we realised he was thoroughly inebriated.
But we were desperate. We had waited for an hour and no vehicle had passed by. It was 5 in the evening and we had to find a place to stay for the night. The lady was highly pessimistic of a bus coming by and the hailstorm was only growing stronger. When we asked her if she knew a place we could spend the night, she merely shook her head. D was sulking in a corner and had gone incommunicado. So we turned to the only other villager from Supi we could find, the inebriated short dude in the blue jacket.
When we asked him if he knew of a place to stay, he nodded enthusiastically and asked us to follow him because he knew just the spot. The room was clean and had a toilet, he said, and we could have a look if we wished. And he managed to communicate all of this with just “Hello” and “Yes” and wicked spurts of laughter. My desperation was so great that I volunteered to go have a look. As soon as I said this, D rushed to where I was, picked up my bag and said, “We have to get out of here.”
“Why?”, I asked, ‘It’s still raining outside.”
“Because you could get yourself killed”, he said.
“Aren’t you being paranoid?”, I asked.
“You don’t know these people”, he said, “They could stick a knife on your back.”
Then an elderly Army guy walked in. He calmly brushed the water and the hailstones off his raincoat and sat down for a cup of chai. AR wanted to ask him if he could accommodate us. But D was having none of it. He had already begun to walk with my bag in the pouring hailstorm.
“We should walk down to the highway”, he said, “We might find a vehicle there. This is a dangerous place.”
“But he’s an Army guy”, AR said, “I’m sure he’ll know a place we can stay.”
“You can’t trust anybody”, D said.
“Oh yeah, why should we trust you”, AR said.
“Okay, you don’t trust me”, the looked at me and said, “Do you trust me?”
I shrugged diplomatically. Caught between a leaky tent and a hailstorm, we had to make quick decisions and I had no idea what the right decision was here. Following the army guy, we might have found a bed and some food for the night but there was uncertainty there because I didn’t know if he genuinely an army guy or just a guy dressed in fatigues and what if D was right? Following D down to the highway in the middle of a hailstorm didn’t sound like a particularly great idea either because what if we were stranded in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? But D, for all his eccentricities, had taken me through a perilous trek and since I had been with him for 5 days, I trusted him more than I did random strangers on the road.
So I told AR it’s probably a better idea to follow D because he knew the region better than we did. AR felt it was a much better idea to follow the Army guy because we could wait for the rain to stop and his bag with his laptop won’t get wet. My gut instinct told me to go with D, so I followed him to see what happens. As we walked down the road, AR grudgingly followed us as well.
All of us were on the edge and D especially appeared to have entirely lost his sense of direction. He began taking needless shortcuts requiring us to slide down steep paths to cut across the road but when we reached the road and looked at where we came from, we realised we would have made it faster and safer if we had just walked along.
The hailstorm showed no signs of abating. But now it was accompanied by lightning bursts. The lightning was so intense that I could feel it strike the dirt road just ahead. This made us scamper for any shelter we could find. We found a small village below the road and stood under the roof of a house. But when we heard the sounds of a vehicle on the road, we broke into another run. My joy knew no bounds when I saw that the vehicle stopped for us. It was a large Innova and belonged to a politician. The driver rolled down his window, had one good look at us, then rolled it back up and sped away.
In 20 minutes, another big SUV passed by, another belonging to a politician, and another that sped away after taking a good look at us. I began to feel it was a far better decision to go with the Army guy. AR too made sure D and I knew what a terrible decision we had made and suggested we go back to the tented shack and look for the Army guy. As we were about to walk back, we heard another vehicle approach the road below us and we made another run for it.
It was a sumo ferrying passengers to the village of Song. But since it wasn’t carrying a politician, we could have a conversation with the driver. To our considerable delight, he was okay with us hopping in. Song was a proper town, so we could maybe figure out some accommodation there, maybe in a dhaba, maybe in a shop.
On the way, I wondered aloud if it was possible to go all the way to Bageshwar.
“I wouldn’t want to drive all the way to Bageshwar in the night in this weather,” the driver said, “But…”
“But what?”, we said.
“But if you’re willing to pay extra, I don’t mind.”
I was willing to pay more than extra, I said excitedly, much to consternation of both AR and D, who seemed to be on the same side for a change. But we agreed on a fare that wasn’t extortionate.
AR had left some luggage at the TRH in Loharkhet which was a small detour from Song. So we went there, picked it up, and reached Bageshwar at 10 pm in the night. I congratulated myself for leaving some of my clothes at the hotel I had stayed in because everything in my bag was wet. After a quick change of clothes, the three of us went to the only restaurant that was open. It was quietest dinner I’ve ever had with the three of us so exhausted that we spent 30 minutes eating our meal in complete silence.