Somewhere in the middle of nowhere

By the Kargiak river, Zanskar

I took this shot while resting my legs during the long walk from Lakong to the village of Kargiak on the trek from Darcha in Himachal Pradesh to Padum in Zanskar. The mountain that looms in the background is the Gumbaranjan, the most prominent and unique geographical feature on this part of the trail, a massive granite peak that stands alone, higher than anything else in visible range.

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Getting out of Sarahan

A glorious greeting

Most people travel to Sarahan for the spectacularly located Bhimakali Temple and I was no exception. That’s all I had wanted to do, spend a day or two in the serene surroundings of the temple guest house and move on to more exciting things in life, like a short trek in Kinnaur or home-stays in Spiti. Only, I ended up spending a week at the Bhimakali Temple out of sheer inertia.

The village of Sarahan is a dull cluster of dhabas, hotels and a few shabby under-construction guest houses set around the temple. Apart from the odd pack of Israeli backpackers and a Bengali family or two, there was a feeling of desolation here that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere in the Himalayas. Although the views from my verandah were fantastic and living within the grand architecture of the temple precincts was a unique experience, things were beginning to get depressing. I started feeling sad and angry for not getting a move on especially when it was so easy to get a move on with buses leaving regularly for the places I wanted to go.

Bhimakali temple at Sarahan

But the baba had an explanation for it. I was “meant” to have stayed longer than I wished to because I had no choice in the matter. We were “meant” to have met at the temple and he was “meant” to be there to show me the right path. He looked ancient, with a long scraggly beard that extended all the way down to his waist. He was so skeletal in appearance that I felt he grew his beard that long just to cover his bones. He was upset about his previous disciple deserting him on the way to Kedarnath leaving him to fend for himself and I started to get the impression that I was being measured up as a replacement.

I accompanied him for a walk into the forests, him effortlessly walking barefoot, me in my Coleman boots struggling to keep pace. After expounding much on the Upanishads and mythological lore, a lot of which flew over my head, he advised me to do a trek to the lofty peak of Shrikhant Mahadev and said, “I have been to all the abodes of Lord Shiva but none have the ability to make your blood freeze, your feet bleed, your inner systems growel like the Shrikhant Mahadev. At this time of the year, the snow would bury you up to your neck and treacherous crevices could open up at every turn. If you harbour evil thoughts, you will certainly be swallowed by the mountain. But if you have a pure soul, the grace of God will keep your body warm and show you the way. I can help to purify your soul. You can spend months here in these beautiful mountains and get your soul cleansed with the beautiful air and a good diet of fresh fruits and herbs. If you take care of me well enough, we can go climb that mountain together.”

The Shrikant Mahadev Peak from Sarahan

Feeling a little (unjustifiably) creeped out, I told him politely, “I don’t have the faith or ability to live like you do but am highly thankful for your offer to take me into your fold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run because a friend is waiting for me in the village to take me to Rampur. Again, thank you and good-bye!” I scurried down to my room in the temple guest house, packed my bags and hitch-hiked in a milk van out of Sarahan into Kinnaur.

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Masala cheese omelette in Jodhpur

Ready to fire

Even though I was here in November, it was a hot, hot day in Jodhpur when I took this picture. The Mehrangarh Fort looms over the city of Jodhpur like a behemoth and while other forts in Rajasthan may be more beautiful to look at (Bikaner and Jaisalmer come immediately to mind), none is as imposing. It’s big enough to wander around at peace allowing one to take in the delicate artistry of its many walls and windows.

You could see this massive monument looming in the background when Christian Bale crawls out of a well to save Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s snorefest “The Dark Knight Rises”. It was one of the very few scenes in the film that managed to wake me up and pay attention!

One of the chief pleasures of Jodhpur is getting lost in the narrow lanes of the old town, passing through ancient looking temples and between a sea of blue coloured walls of very old houses. It’s remarkably different from the ugly, noisy new city that sprawls uncontrollably beyond the clock tower. The old city is also home to the “Omelette Man”, who’s been making omelettes in his tiny little shop for 36 years and claims to hold the record for making the maximum no. of omelettes single-handedly in a day. He’s also the most enthusiastic street vendor I have ever come across, always making conversation with his customers and sometimes, even advising and admonishing them for being unhealthy. If someone looked too thin, he would mock them and ask them to eat more omelettes to get healthier. The stall was as cosmopolitan and busy as a place like that could get with rickshaw-wallahs, turbaned locals, European backpackers, Israelis, college-going boys and girls, policemen, all waiting patiently for a plate of masala cheese omelette.

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Green Bee-eaters at the Pench NP

Green Bee-eater

While every other gypsy had gone looking for tigers, I managed to persuade Arun, who was my gypsy driver, to take it easy and show me some birds instead. He looked surprised and unhappy initially but gave me a wide smile when I showed him this picture of a couple of bee-eaters perched on a branch.

One of the true delights of traveling alone is that you can do whatever the hell you want. I could have saved money and shared my gypsy with other people but since most people go to tiger reserves like Pench to see tigers, I would have been trapped in their narrow-mindedness and ended up missing truly beautiful moments like this one. I wish more people would go to wild places to see birds, animals, even insects and be pleasantly surprised when they see a big cat.

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Day 858

May 27th, 2012

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If you pull out a map of India, you would hardly notice the perilously winding road that hugs the Indo-China border in Himachal Pradesh that runs all the way inwards to Kaza in the Spiti valley. It’s interesting that part of it is, even today, after decades of Chinese control over Tibet, also known as the Hindustan-Tibet highway. Stanzin, who was seated next to me on the way to the village of Nako, said he felt he could almost touch China (and not Tibet) whenever he passed Khab, the closest point to the border on this route from where the road bifurcates to the Shipki La where the border lies. Him and his friends had once hiked all the way to a hill above Nako from where they had a glimpse of the first Chinese village. They felt immediately envious of it because they saw a smooth metaled road connecting it with other towns and as our bus rolled and thundered along the most nerve wracking and bumpy road I’d ever been on, I could empathize with them.

Stanzin, like a lot of people who live in these parts, said he harbours a natural hatred against the Chinese because of their irrational attitude towards the Dalai Lama. He wasn’t particularly fond of the Tibetans but, to him, the Dalai Lama was the equivalent of a living God and no human being or entity had a right to disrespect his living God. He did have a grudging admiration for Chinese technology and efficiency though and he said, given a choice at birth, he would have preferred to be born in the village across the border. When I pointed out that it wouldn’t be so convenient for him to worship the Dalai Lama in that village, he laughed and said he would rather have been born in Beijing then because he didn’t like how lazy Indian and Tibetan people were. “China is running trains to Lhasa and we can’t even build a proper road to Ladakh?”, he asked with much vehemence.

“I still do not understand why you’d want to be born there. You live in such a beautiful place”, I said, somewhat naively.

In Nako village...

In a calm, measured tone, he replied, “To you, this might be a beautiful place. To me, this is a place I want to escape and maybe never see again. If you lived here all your life, you might understand. I’m a Buddhist and from the day I was born, I have been taught to believe in re-incarnation. The Dalai Lama wouldn’t be who he is if the concept of re-incarnation didn’t exist. I believed in it till I was 20 years old but lately, doubts have started creeping into my mind. When I was studying Science in Bangalore, I became good friends with a boy who was an atheist. He asked me a question that got me thinking. If the Dalai Lama is facing such hardships in this life-time, he must have done some evil in his previous life but his previous life would also have been a Dalai Lama. So how is he a God worth worshipping when he has the same frailties of a human being? If he’s a God, he wouldn’t do evil, right? When I put this question to a lama at Tabo, he told me that the Dalai Lama is not facing hardships but it’s actually a good thing that he’s able to serve more people in this life. It was so unconvincing an explanation that I’ve never gone to that monastery again. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for the Dalai Lama and I still worship him as a deity but his people are suffering because of him while the Chinese who have done them wrong are prospering. The reason I said I would rather have been born in Beijing is that I want to be on the side which prospers not the one that languishes and gets exploited. That’s the cold, hard truth.”

I had many more questions for him but we had arrived in Nako and since Stanzin was from the village of Chango further ahead, we exchanged numbers and said our goodbyes. Though a part of me was sad to see him go, much of me was insanely happy to have reached here in one piece. It was a 9 hour journey from Kalpa and I was feeling the sort of adrenalin rush one gets after a long, uncomfortable, hair-raising bus journey. It was evening time, so I rushed with my backpack to a point in the village where I could get the best view and caught one of the most glorious sunsets I’d ever seen.

A fool on the hill...

I was glad I wasn’t in Beijing or in that first Chinese village Stanzin saw but right here, in Nako, that looked from a distance like it hadn’t changed in a big way in a very long time. But would I want to live here? Only time could tell.

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Day 134

November 12th, 2009, Pushkar

3 p.m to 5 p.m

I started climbing the trail to the Gayatri temple, not because I was feeling religious or in a mood to sight-see, but because I wanted to get away from the overbearing commerciality and touristiness of the town. I loved the fact that you had no option but to walk everywhere when you were there but the sheer amount of falafel shops, trinket sellers, fake sadhus, pizza parlors, Hebrew signs, “Salvador Dali” art galleries, backpacker cafe’s, yoga & meditation classes and snake charmers started getting to me. I looked at the little tourist map I had and I saw two hills, on either side of the lake, adorned with temples on top. Being a lazy ass, I chose the smaller one closer to the town.

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This was my first real experience of solitude in Pushkar and it felt beautiful. I huffed and puffed my way to the top and enjoyed the sweeping views of the town that lay below. Since it was still mid-afternoon, I was quite exhausted and sought a shade by the temple to lay down for an afternoon siesta. Not long after, I was in a spectacular dream where I was flying over slanted rooftops, that looked like something from a medieval Chinese village in a Shaw Brothers film, from one town to another selling crocodile pickle.

It was while I was having this adventurous time that I felt a firm poke at the back of my leg. I turned around and saw that it was an immensely old man with a stern, admonishing look on his face. “This is a temple, not a dharamshala”, he scolded in pure Hindi. I was startled and my mind had a hard time getting back to the real world from the fantasy it was living in just a few moments ago. Was he shouting at me because I hadn’t delivered his pickles yet? For a while there, my mind was expecting the body to fly away but since that did not happen, it knew reality had well and truly crashed its preferred domain.

“This is Gayatri Devi’s temple and she’s having a violent tussle with Savitri Devi who lives up there”, he said, pointing to the hill on the other side of the lake. “So you better be careful about what you do here. I have heard many stories of people getting sacrificed to Savitri Devi in a number of horrible ways so they could resolve this ancient tussle. What are you doing in Pushkar?”

I was going to scream, “What the fuck?” but managed to retain some composure to reply that I was just traveling.

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

He shook his face sympathetically and said, “Don’t worry. Come with me to Kalitopiwale Baba (the Baba with a Black Hat) and he’ll set you right.”

“I don’t want to be set right”, I said. “I like my life the way it is.”

“That’s where you are wrong, my son. You’re being highly ignorant. But that’s not your fault. We all harbour evil within us but there are ways to fight the evil within you. Your loneliness might be a result of some grave wrongs you have committed in this life and your earlier lives. Once you meet the Baba, everything will become clear to you. The Baba will get your juices flowing and women will start liking you. Look around you. There are so many beautiful women here (he said goriyan but I’m not using the more racist, literal translation i.e. “white” here even though that’s what he may have meant.). They have all been sent by God just to keep the people here happy. Many people come to seek Baba’s blessings when they have trouble getting women and there are many who have flown to America as a result. He will help you lead a good life. You’re too old to be alone but there might be some good within you. You only need a force to unlock the good and defeat the evil that resides in you.”

This was just an abbreviated version of his sermon, which went on very slowly, painfully and repetitiously for 20 minutes. At the end of his lecture, my head was getting dizzy with conflict. Should I take up the offer? There was a huge part of me that wanted to go see the Black-hatted Baba and see what happens. After all, isn’t that the whole point of travel? To seek the unknown, have an horrible experience, survive it and brag about it later? But I had to refuse because I had told Celine and Josh that I would meet them at the Sunset Café in the evening.

My refusal seemed to have hurt the old man deeply. With an air of resignation, he said, “If I was a young man wearing a suit and talking to you in English, you would have accepted my offer. But since I’m an old man wearing shabby clothes, you don’t trust me. You think I’ll have you murdered or something. In time, I’m sure you’ll regret not taking this opportunity. Well, it’s your choice.” I started protesting and saying that it wasn’t the case at all but he simply looked away from me towards the barren wasteland of the Thar Desert that stretched all the way to Jaisalmer and into Pakistan.

I clambered down to the town and as I was sitting in the Sunset Cafe, meeting up with Josh and Celine, talking about places to go, things to see, Shantaram and Maximum City, bragging about our ordinary lives and getting annoyed at a group of Israelis sitting by the bone-dry lake and jamming to “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, I thought the old man was right about one thing. I do regret not sitting with the Black-hatted Baba and finding out what he was all about. It most certainly would have been more interesting than what I was doing at that moment, being a tourist, sitting in a tourist café, with other tourists, watching some tourists play touristy songs.

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Day 5

March 9th 2009, Ahmednagar

5 a.m to 7 a.m.

I had never imagined things would be so pathetic after merely 4 days of hard travel when I woke up at 5 a.m in my dingy little room in Ahmednagar. I was downbeat, disheartened, ready to throw in the towel (that I didn’t have) and go back home. My chappals were torn, my feet were bleeding, my intestines were burning, my senses were jammed, my body was exhausted, I was sweating like a pig and depressed and lonely and I hadn’t even gone very far.

Thanks to my ridiculous budget of 250 Rs. a day (for everything), I had to settle for a little cubicle of a room with plastic walls and a TV that cost me 100 Rs. a night. Every evening, the guest house was packed with salesmen, relaxing after a hard day’s work, playing their TV’s loud until 3 in the night. The cacophony of noise was unbearable but I was too xenophobic to go out and request my neighbours to turn the volume down.

The electricity used to go off at 8 in the morning, only to return at 9 in the night for the salesmen to watch their TV’s. So there wasn’t any hope of catching up on sleep. I woke up at 5 a.m. in the sort of exhausted, hazy yet semi-adrenalized state one finds oneself after many days of poor sleep and bad nutrition and decided to do something to liven up my spirits. I took a walk in the eerie silence along what looked like a cemetary and towards the deserted Juna Bazaar, where crumbling old structures hang over gaudy new shops. The only sound to be heard was the sound of the crickets from the gardens of St. Anne’s Church that only heightened my paranoid anticipation of possible horrors. I felt stupid and irresponsible to be out in an unknown and unpeopled place making myself a convenient sitting duck for a mugging. Who knew who or what lurked in these ancient and deserted semi-urban streets at such unearthly hours of the morning? Just while I was contemplating these terrors, I felt a tap on my back and I froze.

After 2 seconds of silence when time appeared to stretch to infinity and my imagination raced at a million nasty thoughts per millisecond, a deep baritone voice said in Marathi,
“Wait right there. You don’t look like you’re from here.”

This couldn’t be happening. Why couldn’t I just have continued with the life I knew, confined to a dungeon in a studio or a production house editing tacky shows about celebrity lifestyles and settled for an unsatisfactory yet relatively comfortable and stable life? My four days on the road had given me nothing but misery so far. What the hell was I trying to achieve?

“I don’t want any trouble. Please take my money and leave me alone” is what I was going to say as I turned towards the big brawny man with a moustache but the words that came out of my mouth were, “You’re right. I’m from Mumbai. Do you know where I can get some chai?”

He said he knew just the place. We were quietly sipping tea in a corner of the Kapda bazaar, him probably wondering what a lonely, single man was doing wandering in a town like Ahmednagar purposelessly at that hour in the morning, me still recovering from the shock of finding myself capable of, what seemed to me then, a cool reply while every bone in my body was quivering with fear. We exchanged small talk, him telling me about his life as a carpet salesman and me bragging about my ambitions of long term travel.

After much conversation and many cups of chai, he invited me to his home on the outskirts of Ahmednagar. I said yes immediately and his home was to be my home for the next couple of days. It’s only because of Zafar, the carpet salesman of Ahmednagar, and countless people like him that I encountered over the years, that I still yearn to be on the road. It’s seldom the places themselves, but always the people, good and bad, eccentric and simple, rude and kind, that make for interesting times.

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