Yelagiri – The lake and the landscapes

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I walked around the periphery of the Yelagiri lake on a Wednesday afternoon when its surroundings were pleasantly free of any touristic activity. A stray family or two were paddling in its waters and the only people around were the people who lived and worked in the town. The place had an air of lethargy about it and I half felt like taking a cue from the people running the canteen and slumbering on the bird-shit stained benches lying about.

Part of the periphery of the lake was embellished with a walking track of sorts. A little ahead was a bridge where I idled for a while watching kingfishers leap into the waters for a meal. Also fishing for a lunch by a cabin near one end of the bridge were two fishermen whom I managed to distract from their routines by pointing a camera in their direction. They signalled me over to sit by their side to watch them fish and take their pictures. When I began talking to them, they indicated with their hands that they were mute. So I sat silently watching them fish. Their technique was crude with a long line of string and a bait at the end of it. But judging by the catch they had accumulated, it must be highly effective.

Further down the trail, I came by a small straw-roofed shack where the woman running it was on the verge of packing up. I asked for a cup of tea which the woman gleefully made. I was her only customer for the entire day, she said sorrowfully. It was only on the weekends that she made any money but since it was her only means of livelihood, she lugged her shop all the way here every day. A sombre-looking man was watching our conversation from the sidelines and when the woman went away, I tried engaging him in conversation. But he began pestering me for money and I scooted away as quickly as I could.

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One of the more adventurous things to do in the Yelagiris is to take a rickshaw to the village of Mangalam and climb Swami Malai, the holy mountain that’s also the highest peak in the area. I read a few blogs which claimed this place offered panoramic views of the entire region. I wasn’t witness to these legendary views because I was a cheapskate. I went alone without a guide and had to abort the climb halfway after two snarling dogs blocked my way. Back in Hotel Aruvi, the manager looked at my depressive shell pitifully and offered to escort me to a point which he insisted had the best views this side of Swami Malai.

So we rode on his bike, stopped at the Tourist Information Center and crossed what looked to be a broken fence wall to enter a dense forest area. The climb was gentle over a rocky terrain punctuated with rocky shrubs. When we reached the top, the sweeping views down to the plains made me swoon. The manager beckoned me to a ledge at the edge of the precipice. I have vertigo and avoid all edges as a rule but he pulled me over and made me sit on a rocky shelf.

From the ledge, one could see all the way from Jolarpettai on the left to the larger town of Vaniyambadi flickering in the haze on the right.  In the deep distance in front of us, we saw the Andhra Pradesh border bisected by the Kothur Hills with their misshaped heads and abstract outlines. Sunset was a couple of hours away and I told the manager that I could be done with my pictures and make a move in case he wants to get back to work. But he was insistent that I stay until the sun goes down.

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While I was clicking a ton of pictures from the precipitous ledge, I tried to learn more about the manager and where he came from. He wasn’t from the Yelagiris, he said, but from a village much further south. He came here a few years ago with his friends for a holiday. While they were having fun, he got to speak with the owner of the property.  The owner offered him a job and he never left. With time, the owner became so comfortable with his work that he let the manager handle everything from bookings to housekeeping. His mother too lived in the property now and whenever he had to take guests like myself on an excursion, she took care of the people who arrived in his absence.

I couldn’t converse with him for too long because he was bombarded with phone calls from people looking for rooms on the weekend. Soon, he climbed a spur to sit and answer the barrage of calls in peace. Judging by his side of the conversations, everyone appeared to want a cheaper deal than the already ridiculously inexpensive rates the Hotel was offering. I admired the calm resilience with which he dealt with these requests.

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I sat quietly by the ledge the rest of time. Having taken exponentially more shots than I needed earlier, all there was left to do was to sit quietly, stare at the hills in the distance and wait for the sunset hour. My attention was momentarily distracted by a gecko which peeked out of the rocks. It slid, jumped, tumbled between the holes and crevices of the terrain. I watched it lash its elastic tongue and catch a fly out of thin air. It must have been a satisfying meal because it disappeared back into the cracks in the rocks after this bit of action, presumably back home.

Sunset was quite spectacular. All the haze in the distance meant the sun turned orange long before it hit the horizon while the hills and the plains turned bluer and murkier. As the manager and I were enjoying this spectacle, we heard noises behind us. A group of two boys and two girls came huffing and hurrying up the rocks. “See? I told you. It’s beautiful, right?”, yelled one of the boys as soon as they made it to the ledge. “Wow”, screamed the girls, “this is amazing.” They were from Bangalore, I learnt in a minute’s small talk, and it was a long weekend owing to an Id holiday. Since the serenity of the moment had been well and truly destroyed and I’d had my fill of peace and quiet, I climbed down and let them have the ledge to themselves.

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The next morning, when I was checking out, I realised I hadn’t paid the manager anything to guide me up to the viewpoint. I quit my budget traveller mode and whipped out a couple of hundred rupee notes as a tip. But the manager refused to take it. I was a friend, he said, and the next time I visited, he would happily escort me to Swamimalai.

Beyond alluring places and landscapes, it reminded me why I still traveled over 9 years on. Being on the road makes you less cynical and believe genuine goodness and humanity still thrived in the world.

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Yelagiri – Getting there, the Streets and the People

Yelagiri, about 90 kms south of Vellore, is an unassuming cluster of villages at an altitude of over a 1,100 meters providing welcome respite from the heat to people living in the scorching plains around. It’s the closest thing to a hill station around Chennai and the hotels and restaurants, I heard, are packed to droves with people on holidays and weekends.

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I took a train from Chennai to Jolarpettai, a town about 13 kms from Yelagiri. Here, at a junction on the highway, I had to wait for hours for a Yelagiri bus to come by, hours that felt like an eternity in the bright summer heat. Rickshaw drivers saw my unhappy face staring cluelessly in the distance and asked if I wanted to go with them for 500 Rs. But I was playing in extreme budget travel mode and absurdly controlled my urge to take the easy way out. Matters were made considerably worse by the fact that, when one of the buses did arrive, I had been taking a respite from the heat in the shade of a tea stall and before I could leap over to where the bus was, it had bolted away. After this fiasco, the rickshaw guys appeared even more willing to give me a ride but my resolve had only toughened. After pointlessly wasting another hour by the roadside, this time not moving an inch, eventually I found myself in a tottering bus on the winding road to Yelagiri.

Since I went on a Tuesday and left before the alleged crowds hit on Friday, I wasn’t witness to the spectacle of mass tourism I had heard about. In fact, in my case, the opposite was true. Many of the restaurants were shut, the tourist sites felt forlorn and unloved and the hotels were vacant and lonely. It was difficult for me to imagine the place overrun with tourists because there was so little infrastructure to support such an influx. Nevertheless, I was assured by the amiable and moustachioed manager of my hotel that come the weekend, I would find it difficult to find a room no matter how much I was willing to pay.

My hotel was called Aruvi and appeared to be custom-built for cheerful families, complete with a garden, a play area with slides and swings and a big, gaudy sculpture of snow-white swans with yellow beaks perched on a bright-blue platform adorning the entrance. At 500 Rs. a night (thanks to fabulous discounts on goibibo), my room was a steal. It was impeccably clean, there was a western commode and a geyser for hot water. The manager apologetically informed me that they had shut down the in-house restaurant on weekdays because of a lack of clientele. If only I had arrived on a weekend…

Food, was a problem. The closest place open was 200 meters down the road and was filled with what appeared to be locals and people working in the area. Generally everyone eating here knew everyone else and as the protocol went, they had to stare suspiciously at the one person who didn’t belong. On the first night, the man I was sharing a table with proudly announced to everyone assembled that he had had a fight with his wife and was thrown out to fend for himself. The food was terrible and the only edible options were (extremely greasy) dosas and parotas accompanied by (extremely oily) omelettes. After two days of eating here, I wondered how I hadn’t collapsed with a heart attack.

When I told the manager how terrible my meals were, he suggested I walk down to Hotel Hills, a somewhat fancier dining place. The restaurant here was so desolate, two of the waiters had slumped over the table catching a siesta. Neither of them looked happy when they saw my hungry face staring expectantly around the room waiting for someone to get a menu. I waited patiently at my corner table until a more senior staff walked in and nudged one of the dozing waiters in my direction. They didn’t have any of the thalis or the South Indian dishes and only served the more expensive Punjabi food. Thankfully, it wasn’t entirely the catastrophe I thought it would be as (and I’m sure it had something to do with the terrible food I’d been eating) the vegetable korma was, if not delicious, certainly satisfying and the rotis to go with were soft enough without being chewy.

I spent my first day walking around Kottaiyur and Athanavoor, two of the main settlements in the area. There was an informal market at the junction of the two near the main entrance to the lake. Here street vendors selling colourful trinkets and fluffy, obscenely gaudy dolls sat glumly waiting for customers to show up, women laughed and gossiped by the fruit stalls selling locally grown guavas, pineapples and watermelons in front of the bright red and yellow striped temple walls, tourists tested their plastic gun skills by taking shots at balloons hung on a white cardboard wall and the pungent odor from a cluster of street food stalls that lay cluttered on the pavements selling fried fish fresh off the lake filled the air.

Here are some of the shots I took of the people I observed in the markets of Yelagiri –

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Rumbak

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The walk to the Markha Valley began with a cop-out. I wanted to do it alone, just with a rucksack for company and by public transport to the trail head. But no buses went to Zingchen where the long traverse to the Markha Valley began. Zingchen was not a settlement big enough to warrant these luxuries. An option was to walk from wherever the bus dropped me off on the highway but one look at the map and the mountainous wilderness that lay between the points was enough to dissuade me from the idea. So when I heard M and J, two great ladies from Australia, talk about doing the trek in the spacious confines of the restaurant at the Oriental Guest House in Leh, I threw my intrepid plans out of the window and joined in.

By the time I began this journey, I had spent over 2 months in Ladakh but I wasn’t quite used to the more surreal aspects of the Ladakhi weather. When we left Leh in our private taxi, the temperature was close to freezing but as we drove on the barren wilderness towards Zingchen, the sun was beating down our heads and there wasn’t a hint of a wind blowing our way. It became so hot that we had to tear down layers off our over-dressed bodies to beat the heat. It was singularly strange because the mountains around us were draped in thick stormy clouds bringing down rain and snow on their slopes, the very terrain we would be walking for over a week. These stormy portents did nothing to soothe our nerves.

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The vehicle dropped us off near the edge of a plateau where a group of pack animals with big burdens on their backs were grazing by a little stream. M, J and I looked at this scene with contempt and thought, “Tourists.” But when I saw a familiar face amongst the group of people huddled together in the distance, I knew these weren’t mere tourists.

When you spend any length of time in a place, you become more recognizable to some of its denizens even if they may not know you very well. So it was with A, the Ladakhi girl I had met on the Sham Valley trek, who was now leading a Canadian wildlife conservationist on a recce of snow leopard terrain on the same route we were going. She worked with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Leh and part of her assignment was to make sure the parachute cafes (locally run tents serving tea, coffee, drinks and snacks to exhausted trekkers) on the route up to Ganda La were up and running. We made small talk and chit chat at the café by the dainty stream in Zingchen. I was hoping that we could follow her to make sure we were on the right trail but being citizens of the mountains and hence many times fitter, they were miles ahead while we were merely tottering behind stopping every few minutes to catch our breaths.

We hopped across raging streams on precipitous log-wood bridges, walked over slippery scree slopes avoiding nasty slips into deep ravines below, miraculously found ourselves on the right track after repeatedly losing our way on clearly marked trails, gaped at the crenelated bowl of mountains that surrounded us on all sides at all times, slipped through spectacular canyon gorges that looked like mythical doorways beckoning us to otherworldly landscapes, and wondered at the infinite geometric permutations that made the wildly different designs on the doorframes in the shepherd huts on the way possible.

Closer to Rumbak, at a wild turn on the blackened slopes, we caught up with A and her team. They were squinting with their binoculars at the rocky crags of a vertical mountainside a few miles away. To the naked eye, it was perplexing and I began to get a move on thinking the team had gone mad. But A lent me her binoculars and urged me to look more closely at some of the crags. I did and sure enough, the eye could see horned figures jumping from rock to rock vertiginously.

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Bharals are a fairly common sight in the wilder parts of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayas. But the Canadian naturalist suspected they were argali, a terribly rare species of mountain goat. A was quite sure that they couldn’t be anything but bharal and seemed a bit exasperated at the naturalist’s stubbornness. A had grown up in Rumbak and had been watching these animals all her life, so no snooty Canadian was going to win an argument with her on her turf. Eventually, the Canadian had to concede grumpily and they moved on.

I had a closer encounter with the bharals a couple of miles ahead. There was a herd of them hanging right above the cliff we were under, impossibly balanced on sheer vertical slopes. Every time they moved a shower of scree would rain down and we had to run for cover. Neither the naturalist nor the team were too interested in this sight because they didn’t believe it was so special. M & J moved on as well while I lingered for a while watching these graceful creatures socialize and canter about the craggy cliffs. A meditative calm set upon me sitting all alone in the cold wilderness watching these wild goats hop from one rock to another. Every once in a while, the entire herd would look in my direction, perhaps wondering if this guy staring at their mundane routines had gone full loco.

In the outskirts of Rumbak, the women of the village were setting up the parachute tents for the season. They had lugged chairs, tables, cylinders, tent poles, food supplies etc. on their shoulders and the backs of ponies and now beckoned hungry trekkers like myself to stop by and have a cup of tea or maggi. It was a handy location for hardy trekkers who liked to camp closer to the high pass of Ganda La and wanted to take a break before pushing on without having to visit the village.

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A gentle snowfall began to pepper the landscape as I trudged towards the village whose ancient stone walls were visible in the distance in the backdrop of the razor-sharp crags of the Stok range. Mani-walls and whitewashed stupas lined the entrance to the village. Some of the mud-caked walls were ornamented with horns of the myriad species of mountain goats found in the region, relics from a time when they were considered totems of fertility. The architecture of the village was typically Ladakhi, rectangular grey and white structures made of wood and stone, built to withstand extreme weather of all kinds. The fields, set in a little bowl of space surrounded by enormous mountains, were marked with crude wooden fences made from the lean poplar trees that one finds in abundance everywhere in Ladakh.

The homestays in the village were run by the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the homes were allotted to guests on a turn-based system. As it turned out, M & J were put up in a house at one end of the village while I was given a house at the other end. But instead of settling down in my allotted homestay, I dumped my rucksack in A’s house and went for a long walk towards the Stok mountains. Coarse, stony, sheep pens marked the other end of the village and they looked so beaten and battered by the weather that from a distance they took on the aspect of ruinous, forgotten old watchtowers crumbling in the shadow of an ancient landscape.

As I walked on, gentle rolling hills towered on my left glowing in rosy and amber hues while in the distance, the sharper edged mountains of the Stok range rose like an impenetrable wall, their peaks peppered with snow. I sat on a stony platform a few miles from the village away, it seemed, from all of humanity, admiring the enormity of this landscape. The silence here was so total that I was startled when I heard faint whistles and hoots in the distance.

Two villagers from Rumbak were descending down a distant slope with a herd of sheep. They were on their way back to the village from grazing in the mountains below the high pass of Stok La. This could have been a scene from a hundred years ago and the only element that gave away the fact that we were in the 21st century was the dust soaked winterwear the villagers had donned for protection from sub-zero temperatures. We walked together silently to Rumbak where they directed the sheep into some of the ramshackle pens I had seen on the way.

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I got my rucksack back from A’s house and dutifully socialized with my hosts at the homestay. Ladakhis like to congregate not in their living rooms, but in their kitchens because of the natural warmth a lighted stove provides from the biting cold of the night. This particular kitchen was typical of a Ladakhi kitchen room with a mighty vertical stove in the cooking area and the walls covered top to bottom with shelves full of brass and copper utensils surrounded by colourfully decorated pots and pans.

T and S were delightfully warm and hospitable. I took a crash course in rolling momos to assist them in the cooking but after a couple of clumsily rolled balls, gave up because I didn’t wish to waste any more food. Food takes an inordinately long time to cook in the Ladakhi weather, so T indulged me in conversation to kill the time. He worked as a trail guide for wildlife conservationists who came to the village to go Snow Leopard watching and since Rumbak was strategically placed to provide the best opportunity to spot these elusive and secretive wild cats, work was never too hard to come by. One of his most cherished trips was with an intrepid National Geographic team that had set camp in the village to shoot a film on the wildlife in the area.

After they had done cooking the food, S worked away in a corner, stitching woollen socks meant to be sold to tourists during the peak season. Back then, I was terribly shy to use my camera on people but T & S urged me to shoot them knitting, laughing, posing for the camera. They were disarmingly good people whose warm hospitality made me think of extending my stay in the village.

But T had to go away to Leh on some work and S wouldn’t be around all day. If I had to extend, I would have to move to another house. The next village on the trail was merely two hours’ walk away and M & J wanted to get a move on as well. So off we trudged to the one-house village of Yurutse down the valley two mountain slopes away.

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