Dhakuri

It was cold outside when we left the dhaba whose warm interiors compensated for the foul, musty odor. D insisted we leave at 5 am because his friend, whose vehicle we were hiring, had to ferry it back to Bageshwar in the morning. I was happy to have bought the thermals, the feather jacket and the woollen skull cap the previous evening. The owner of the dhaba, who wore a gruff, battle hardened demeanour that could have walked out of any grimy old western, thumped two big glasses of tea for us before he went to attend to the day’s business of chopping meat and onions for the food he had to prepare for his patrons.

A talkative, amiable Panditji (a priest) who lived in one of the villages on the Pindari route joined us on the trek. He appeared to be well acquainted with D and when he came to know of our misfortunes of the previous day, he gave D an earful for not ringing the bells and paying his respects to the shrine of a Himalayan deity on the way. As soon as we reached the location of the deity where a small stone idol of a fiery goddess was hidden away inside a rocky niche, Panditji fished out a bell and performed an elaborate ritual chanting mantras and singing hymns. After this, he plastered a large patch of vermillion on my forehead with his thumb and asked me to put in some money.

I laughed and said, “No, thank you. I don’t believe in all this.”

Panditji gave me a fiery stare that may have made the most fearsome creatures tremble with fear and said, “What do you mean you don’t believe? This is why you weren’t allowed to walk in these mountains. You have to take the permission of the goddess to do anything here. This is her territory. If you don’t, you’ll have to repent for it. So be sensible and give her an offering.”

“But what if someone else takes the money?”, I said.

“These are the Himalayas. No one would dare to take the money you keep here. It’ll only go to the goddess. Anyone who steals her money will only go to hell.”

D pulled me aside and whispered in my ear to put in some money so we could move on. I obeyed quietly and the moment the 100 Rs. note reached the shrine of the goddess, Panditji’s demeanour returned to its default mode of gentle affability.

After this ritual, Panditji and D abandoned the clear trail in front of us and took a perilous short cut that cut down to a stream. When we crossed a wobbly log bridge to clamber on to a rock on the other side, I noted that there was no discernible path visible beyond. Panditji and D were quietly sitting on a large boulder smoking a round of bidis. I asked D how we were to proceed ahead. He asked me to calm down, relax for 5 minutes and take a few puffs of the bidis.

“This is your trial by fire”, he said, once the 5 minutes were up. Pointing at a nearly vertical, mossy, rocky section hanging above us, he calmly informed me that we had to clamber over it. The very sight of it made me dizzy and nauseous with vertigo. I had never done any rock climbing in my life because I have always been petrified of height and while this was technically more of a clamber up mighty boulders than climbing up a vertical precipice, it still made me shiver with fright. I asked D if we could continue on the easier trail we had abandoned.

D looked at me and said, “This is going to save us an hour of walking. These are our mountains. You have to trust them and the people who take you. Like I said, this is your trial by fire. If you do this, I will believe you can do this trek. If not, there’s no point in hiring me to take you. You don’t come to the mountains to walk on roads, you come for the hardship and the adventure.”

Panditji decided he had enough and went ahead. Watching him climb the hillside with reptilian agility made me feel a bit embarrassed. I did not want come across as a coward and so I began scrambling up. Every time I slipped a little, D was up on a boulder above to lend me a helping hand. Halfway into the climb, I was thoroughly exhausted and gasping for air. When I looked down, in complete defiance of D’s advice NOT to look down, I felt even worse. The wooden log bridge that we crossed just a few minutes ago looked like a little twig far down below. I’m fatalistic on the best of days but here I had resigned myself to my fate. But D’s encouraging words spurred me on and when I finished my clumsy fearful scramble to the top, I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest.

D appeared happier than I was when he saw that I had negotiated this stretch without any debilitating injuries. “Now that you’ve done this”, he said, “nothing on this trek will be difficult for you.” I told him that I sincerely hoped he was right because I felt as if all the energy in my body had been sucked out with the climb.

The route ahead was mercifully on a gentler incline and the landscape became gradually more ethereal. We walked through large verdant meadows, thick oak forests and misty alpine highlands. Soon, the sun became obscured by a bank of clouds that shrouded us in a blanket of white wrapping the trees and the hills in ghostly shades of grey. We took shelter inside a little hut made of stone and covered with a perfunctory plastic tarp where an old man made us tea while we waited out a sudden hailstorm that battered us.

After we resumed walking, the trail became significantly more brutal as we neared the Dhakuri pass where the steep climb through grassy slopes and jungly paths sliding through chestnut and oak forests was complicated further by the slippery terrain occasioned by the rain. While crossing another grassy hillside, we passed the grave of Peter Kost, a German trekker who suffered a cardiac arrest at the spot in 2000, a poignant reminder that not all walks in the mountains ended happily.

As I slipped and slid up to the vast, highland meadows at Dhakuri, I was greeted by a ginormous view of the Nanda Devi range hanging in the distance above and beyond the KMVN Tourist Rest House. It was the first time I had seen the Himalayas so close and all the pain and effort I had to put in to get here melted away. We rested at the Dhakuri Rest House for an hour, getting a meal of dal, roti, vegetables and numerous cups of tea and then resumed our journey to Khati.

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Backwards from Pindari

This is an account of the Pindari Glacier Trek that I had done back in April 2009 and a continuation of this post.

All the passengers got off as the jeep screeched to a halt at Song, a village 5 kms before the trailhead at Loharkhet. The driver had to attend a wedding in the village and was in no mood to go any further just for the two of us. I wondered aloud how much it would cost to persuade him to take the jeep all the way to the trail head. D smirked with a vengeful grin and said, “500 Rs. This is why I asked you to go with my friend. If you had taken my advice, we would have been trekking by now.”

I gently reminded D that I was the boss and we were on a budget and if we have to walk 5 kms more, so be it and let’s move on. We moved on with D leading me on a short cut through a perilous trail that cut across the road. It wasn’t an easy walk for someone as unfit as I was. When we reached a little stream about 3 bends above the road, I was so exhausted that I threw down my bag and copiously washed my face with the icy cold water and asked D if we were there yet. D shook his head helplessly and said we had barely walked a mile. But I felt as if I had been walking all day. I had such a lot of sweat pouring out of my pores that I wondered if something was wrong with the plumbing in my fluid vessels.

We rested on a boulder where D, disappointment writ large across his face, wondered if we should take it easy. Our original plan was to finish the Pindari stretch in 4 long days. Now D broached the idea of doing it in 7 days, in short stretches and resting at more points on the way. When I heard this, the budget traveller in me got a rude shock because I realised I would be paying D 3 extra days than I would if I walked harder and faster. This had the effect an adrenalin shot would have on an ailing body making my senses spike and get their act together.

I heaved my way breathlessly to the Tourist guest house at Loharkhet where the chowkidar in its desolate interiors treated us to some tea and snacks. He was grateful for the human company, he said, because not too many people stopped by. It wasn’t the prettiest of places. The Himalayan peaks were hidden far away and the tall landslide-ridden mountains on the opposite slope were a bit of an eyesore. D was intent on getting the latest updates on local gossip with the caretaker and I had to interrupt their interminable conversation and ask him to move quickly so we have time to do the 24 kms to Khati by sundown.

As I clambered gingerly down a bouldered section that led to a stream on another one of D’s torturous shortcuts, I could feel something soft and squishy underneath my foot. It felt like horse dung or the back of a wet sponge. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything because I was walking with well worn, rugged Woodland shoes. When I leaned down to investigate, I saw a sight that no trekker should ever have to see. The soles had come off and I was standing on a patch of dirt with bottomless shoes.

D, who had already crossed the stream and was halfway up the hill on the other side, looked at me exasperatedly. He spread his arms wide and asked, “What happened now?” I pointed at my shoe. He grumbled his way over and asked if I had any chappals. Of course I didn’t. I was enough of a cheapskate to have never bought any and had been happily tramping all over India for two months on these Woodland shoes.

“We have to go back”, he said.

“Can’t I just go on barefoot?”, I asked, trying to salvage the situation.

“Look at you”, he said, “You can’t walk in the mountains even with your shoes on.  How’re you going to walk barefoot?”

“Good point”, I said, obediently.

He then took this opportunity to gloat about the advice he had given me earlier. “If you had shopped for some of the things I had written in that list, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, he said, “When we go back to Kapkot, you better buy your thermal inners and a good feather jacket because I don’t think your sweater is going to save you when you’re shivering in zero degree cold in my village.”

I was angry but calmed down when he took off his chappals and lent them to me so I could walk back to Loharkhet where we were treated to more tea and snacks by the manager at the Tourist Rest House. The manager gave me a pair of gumboots that he said I could borrow till I found a good pair of shoes. Those shoes were so uncomfortable that they gave me blisters from just 10 minutes of walking down the jungly trail back to the road. My feet were bleeding and I told D that I couldn’t possibly walk any further. We waited by the roadside staring at the landslide-ridden landscapes until we got a ride on the back of a milk van to Kapkote.

In Kapkote, I surrendered to buy whatever D thought I needed for the trek, a sturdy pair of shoes, walking sticks, thermal inners, a thick wind-proof feather jacket, rain cover for the rucksack, slippers, a haul that cost me more than what I had budgeted for the entire trek. But now, I had resigned myself to the elements and chose to do the trek even if it was the last thing I did in my life. We spent the night at a dingy little dhaba on charpoys spread around the kitchen, the odor of rotting potatoes and stale meat filling the room. When D came over the next morning to ask if I wanted to go by the shared jeep, I said no, I’d rather spend a 1000 Rs. and take his friend’s jeep if that option was still available.

“Of course”, he said with a mischievous smile plastered on his face, “Whatever you want. It’s your trek.”

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On the road to Silchar

The jeep from Kolasib to Silchar clattered to a halt at an utterly desolate section on a jaw-toothed road made of sharp stones and pebbles. We were only four passengers and the driver laconically suggested something in Assamese to all of us and ran away. As we got out, a gusty wind blew from the mountains of Mizoram and swirled all the dust lying on the road into our faces. Before I could find out what the driver said to us, my fellow passengers had formed a group, hailed a passing vehicle and left leaving me stuck on the road all alone.

I felt sad and angry at this situation. At having to leave the hills, at being back in the hot and dusty plains, at the jeep breaking down miles before the town, at the dust clogging my windpipe, at having to either walk many miles or negotiate a fare if I do find some mode of transport, at having no signal on my phone so I could google where I was, at being lonely in the middle of nowhere. There were no chai stalls, no shops, no one to ask around for help and there weren’t any rickshaws or taxis moving in my direction either. The nearest settlement I remember passing by was miles behind and the only sign of humanity around me was the broken down car and the green fields with their farmhouses surrounding the area. I couldn’t see anyone working in those either.

Some trucks passed by but none answered my frantic waves of the hand. When one vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was, the people in it had a non-verbal meeting of the eyes, gave a suspicious glare and moved on. I had been in such situations before and like always, my nerves were doing a panicky dance and my mind joined nightmarish threads as it tried to figure how the end was going to be, starvation, kidnapping, torture, a sudden attack of a disease. It also wondered about those novels I hadn’t written, the films I hadn’t made and how I had wasted so much of my time watching silly youtube videos. If only I could somehow get myself to an inhabited town, I would get some discipline into my life and get to work at everything I hadn’t been doing.

As my mind was entertaining such fatalistic thoughts, its reveries were broken by the entry of a mongrel in the middle of the road. Now I have nothing against dogs but I had been bitten before and the aftermath was extremely painful and this dude was snarling at me for no reason. I looked around helplessly and stayed as still as my nerves would allow me  but the mongrel was intent on having a staring contest with my eyes.  I looked at it, looked away, looked back to see if it was still looking at me and when it turned out its gaze hadn’t shifted in the least, looked away again.

This game was broken by the arrival of an old man walking with his hands folded behind his back and dressed in a white undershirt, a white dhoti and a white towel wrapped around his neck. He brandished a stick tied to his dhoti and tapped it with a thud on the floor. The dog, startled by the noise, took its eyes off me and ran back into the fields. The man, after staring at me in puzzlement for a few minutes, came up to me, laughed and said something in Assamese. I nodded and told him in Hindi that I didn’t understand his language. His reaction to this was to launch into a long monologue in more Assamese and the more I nodded politely, the more elongated it became.

Once he had finished monologuing, he walked away, then looked back and beckoned me to follow him. I held my hand up to suggest I was okay where I was but the man was insistent. So I walked up the narrow tracks in the fields to a little shed with a tin roof and an assortment of farming equipment lying in a dusty, cobwebbed mess. The mongrel that had caused me distress earlier was there too but it appeared to be subdued and came over and sniffed my hand. The man went inside and came back with two wooden chairs and when I volunteered to help him, he sternly asked me to stay put.

I sat there staring at the fields while he disappeared for a few minutes. The slow breeze of the wind, the bucolic atmosphere and the view of the hills in the distance calmed me a little. The man then resurfaced with two hot, steaming cups of chai and began monologuing again in Assamese. I kept nodding my head politely. It was comforting to be in friendly human company again and I thought in a worst case scenario, I could crash here in this rustic farmhouse.

After we finished the cups of chai, the man asked me to follow him back to the road. Once we got there, he stood in the center of the highway and began waving maniacally at every passing vehicle. I feared for his life and tried to dissuade him from this crazy hitchhiking spectacle but to no avail. He didn’t stop until he had successfully managed to wave a biker down.  When the biker stopped, he pointed to the broken down car lying by the side and mumbled something to the biker who nodded sympathetically. The man then came up to me and asked me to sit at the back.

I asked the biker where he was going. He was on his way to his village nearby, he said. I asked him if he would drop me to Silchar. He said I must be mad to ask him to do that. He muttered something angrily to the man and moved on. The man then shook his head disapprovingly and walked back to his farmhouse.  I was all alone on the highway yet again.

Just as I was beginning to wallow in another despairing fit, I saw a familiar face on a shambolic three wheeler cantering towards me. It was the driver who had abandoned his sumo by the roadside who was now back with a litre of oil and some tools to fix his engine. He laughed in disbelief and asked me why I hadn’t taken a ride to the town with the other passengers. I said it didn’t matter because now that he was here I felt so ecstatically happy that it was only right that I didn’t go when the others did. He looked at me like I had gone insane.

It took the driver an hour to fix the jeep and he dropped me in front of the Center Palace Hotel in Silchar. The indifferent staff and the crummy room didn’t bother me. Neither did the staff’s inability to make a cup of chai. I treated myself to sumptuous biryani at the Nawab’s restaurant next door and then quickly booked a seat in the train leaving for Agartala the next morning.

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