The Shyok river snakes through the Nubra Valley near the town of Khardung in Ladakh.
The Shyok river snakes through the Nubra Valley near the town of Khardung in Ladakh.
The departure of S didn’t depress me for too long as I hopped onto a bus to Almora where I had been invited to stay with my ex-colleague and awesome video editor/shortmoviemaker AJ. He had come to visit his parents who lived in a lovely house a couple of miles out of the center of Almora.
AJ’s parents were delightfully easy going people and great at making conversation. The delicious and healthy home-cooked food was just the icing on the cake. I learnt from AJ’s father about how the Kumaoni Hills were rapidly being denuded of their natural beauty. Earlier, you could see the entire Himalyan range on clear days, he said, but those days were getting more infrequent owing to the chronic haze caused by rampant pollution.
AJ and I hiked up to the Mall Road market in the town through a long-winded route that climbed up through pine forests and descended via an Army camp. This was a wilder and more unmolested part of the Kumaon Himalayas than what I’d seen in Nainital. We passed by a spartan temple dedicated to a Goddess whose gateway was decorated with myriad bells. Some thoughtful people had scribbled the word “Ma” (mother) in white chalk on large rocks in the vicinity and AJ dutifully donned his Bollywood avatar and hugged them for me to take pictures.
Almora town didn’t make a great first impression for my judgemental eyes. The bazaar area here was messy, cluttered and crowded. Steep, dank flights of steps linked the lower and upper bazaars where a long line of shops sold groceries, utensils, electronics, shoes, medicines, covering any basic need the denizens of the Himalayan town may have. The most appealing features of the market were the quaint, crudely ornate wooden galleries adorning the top floors of the shops lining the narrow streets on the market road. Extremely cramped, dark pathways led to more crumbling stairs leading to the houses and the shops below. The IPL (Indian Cricket League) was on and the electronic stores were crowded with people taking a peek at the scores.
I had a blissful, relaxing few days with AJ and his family but it was time to move on. I had pored through the Outlook Traveler and read about an inexpensive nature resort called Binsar Eco Camp in the outskirts of the Binsar bird sanctuary. The day I planned to leave, AJ’s family had made plans to visit Jageshwar, a temple complex built between the 7th and 12th centuries AD and since the place I was going wasn’t too far from here, I tagged along.
Jageshwar’s cluster of temples was as serene and quiet as an ancient temple complex ought to be. Bordering the complex on one side was a deodar forest and it was refreshing to see these broad, green trunks amassed in such density after the more monotonous sight of pine forests everywhere else. The central cluster with their Nagara style spires formed the core group of temples. Here, saffron-clothed priests sat on the ground close to the shrines and calmly solicited pilgrims to offer rituals to the Gods. A relatively unspoilt river stream, perhaps the waters of the Jataganga river, formed another border. A bridge across these waters led to a small shrine dedicated to Kuber, the God of Money, where I dutifully threw some prayers hoping he would shower me with some wealth and fortune so I could be on the road for a lot longer. Some of those prayers must have found an answer because I’m writing this piece sitting in a hotel in Bangalore, still doing what I was doing three months shy of 10 years later.
AJ and family dropped me off at the Binsar Eco Camp in Dhaulachina. My first impressions of the Binsar Eco Camp was that I wasn’t the target clientele for this sort of setting. There was a little play area with swings and a nice little garden full of flowers and orchids. The owner was away when I visited but there was a young boy named R who dutifully showed me around the area.
R was here for the vacations and had already gathered a formidable knowledge of hundreds of species of birds and animals. Binsar was a prime birding area in the Kumaoni Hills and he took me on long walks through the forested terrain, much of which was a humiliating ordeal for me because I could never keep up the pace on the vertiginous hills and had to frequently stop to catch my breath. But it was all fairly exciting as well and it was humbling to learn so much about the natural world from such a young boy. I couldn’t help feeling that, growing up in Mumbai in a world of brick and concrete, I had wasted much of my life being disconnected from the natural world.
Two adventurous days later, the Eco Camp was attacked by a mighty group of school kids and some of the serenity I had experienced within its confines was disturbed. So I chose to take a long walk through the forest to the ancient temple of Vriddh Jageshwar. The jungly trail wound through oak and rhododendron forests. It is perhaps a tribute to my general lack of navigational sense that despite walking on a clearly marked path, I lost my way to wander deep in the forests. It was only after an hour of aimless walking that I realised something was amiss when the path I was on ended abruptly at a yawning ravine.
A little whisper of a wind rustled through the leaves of the old forest and songbirds were singing from the shelter of the mighty oak trees. If I wasn’t so vexed at having lost my way, I might have found it to be a beautiful ethereal scene. But as I clambered down trying to find my way back to the main trail, I realised the futility of the exercise as over a dozen little trails intersected each other at any point and it was impossible for my untrained eyes to pick the right one. I was in a place so deep and wild that I didn’t expect any human being to show up and show me the way.
And no one did. The point where I got really worried was when a steady pattern of footprints lined an offshoot of a trail I was on. They looked suspiciously like that of a big animal (and I feared it was a big cat because R had enthusiastically filled me in on the number of leopards he had seen in casual walks through the jungle) and they looked fresh. Till that moment, I was using my intuition (or a lack of it) and attempting to sniff my way to some semblance of a big, wide trail. But having seen these tracks, I thought the best course of action would be to follow it in the opposite direction and go wherever the trail leads.
I ignored my body’s painful protestations and walked rapidly up and down this stony, steep, slippery track and I don’t know if it was my prayers to Kuber a couple of days ago or just dumb luck but after trudging anxiously for an interminable amount of time, I had a glimpse of what I never considered a wondrous sight but was now the very vision of heaven, a truck rattling down a tarmac road a hundred feet below. I clambered down a precipitous trail down the slope and as soon as I reached the road and sat on a roadside rock to catch my breath, I blacked out.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself lying on a cot in somebody’s home surrounded by concerned eyes staring at me. A doctor with a stethoscope around his neck was examining my body. A sigh of relief went about the room as he told them there was nothing to worry about. I was merely carrying a mild fever and the reason I had the fainting episode was dehydration and exhaustion. In all my stress and excitement, I had forgotten that I had walked for over 9 hours without drinking a drop of water. He asked me to thank the biker who happened to see me lying motionless by the roadside and escorted me to this house in Jwalabanj.
The Jwalabanj people served me dry rotis and dal to eat. After this nourishment and gulping down a liter of water, I felt up and ready to go. But the people of the Jwalabanj house wanted to know more about how I landed up here. When I told them it had taken me 9 hours from the Eco Camp to here, they laughed. If I had taken the straight route, it wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of hours they said. The doctor advised me stay put for at least a night but I wanted to move on. It would be a pity not to go to Vriddh Jageshwar after working so hard for it. The biker who rescued me offered to take me up to the temple and back to the Eco Camp and I gladly went along.
He was from a village nearby and had been cantering merrily to Dhaulachina to meet a friend for his birthday. I apologized profusely for derailing his plans but he brushed it off saying, “Usse toh mai roz milta hoon. Aapse milne ka mauka mujhe phir kab milega?” (I meet him everyday but when will I get a chance to meet you again?) like I was some celebrity. He took me to a little house by the temple where we had chai. He had finished his BA in Economics two years ago, he said, but had to put off his job hunt to take care of his ailing father. He was terribly bored by the tranquil rural life and was itching to get to Delhi and find a job. “Pata nahin aap log kya dhoondne aate ho yahaan par. Hume toh sirf pareshaani hoti hai. Mauka mila toh bas bhaag jaayenge.” (I don’t know what you people are looking for. I only get stressed out here. If I get an opportunity, I’ll just run away.)
Vriddh Jageshwar was a more serene, modest place of worship than the Jageshwar temples. There was a lone temple pujari who was sitting by himself inside the shrine. I paid a generous tribute to the Gods having survived two potentially life-ending episodes in a day. The biker then took me to a spur where he pointed out the Himalayas peaks that were now shrouded in mist. “Udhar Trishul hai. Aap agar subah subah aate toh badhiya hota”(Trishul is visible over there. If you’d come in the morning, it would have been good.), he said wistfully.
He then took me to Dhaulachina where I wished his friend a very happy birthday and hiked up the steps to the Eco Camp. The people at the place heaved a sigh of relief as they had been worried where I had gone all day. Vriddh Jageshwar wasn’t so far, how stupid of me not to take a guide, mountain walking isn’t for everybody etc. They were also disappointed that I wasn’t there to consume a Kumaoni buffet they’d made for the teachers and the kids. I heard them all patiently, then quietly went to my room and dropped on the bed like a sack of potatoes.
I wouldn’t wake until noon the next day and I wouldn’t have woken up at all if it wasn’t for the yells and screams of the school kids in the play area. Unlike the previous day, I quite enjoyed their screeching. Maybe getting lost in the wild had momentarily awoken a hint of compassion for humanity. But not for too long.
At brunch, the caretaker mournfully informed me that R had departed for Dehradun. I would have liked to say goodbye. When I heard the news, I suddenly found the noise and chaos of the children and their teachers very annoying. What I needed was some quiet but my body was aching too much from the travails of the previous day and taking a tranquil walk all alone wasn’t an option. I also felt lonely and my mind was in a haze not knowing what to do amidst all the chaos, not having either the imagination or the inclination to go talk to the teachers or the other people around. So I went back to my room to sleep, slept the entire day, packed my bags the next morning, paid my bills and walked down to the highway for a jeep back to Almora.
(In 2012, a friend and I hired a horseman from the village of Darcha and trekked through the high pass of Shingo La into the villages of Zanskar. This is a continuation (and the conclusion) to the journey I began to recount in the previous post. The focus of these posts is to showcase the photography. I will do a more detailed report of the trip on a future post.)
The terrain below Shingo La was steep and punishing as we slipped and slid through vertiginous snowfields and mighty scree slopes to reach the campsite of Lakong. The lone granite peak of Gumbarunjon would be the defining feature of the spectacular wildernesses between Lakong and Kargiak as the Kargiak river photogenically wound through the arid technicolor moonscapes.
Although the goal of the trek was to spend as much time in the wilderness as possible, we couldn’t believe how relieved we were when we reached the stupas lining up the trail to the village of Kargiak and met its people at the trekkers cafe on the outskirts. The five days spent outside the realms of civilized society were beautiful but we were craving for genuine human warmth and conversation. The architecture here felt one with the landscape, whitewashed stone and wood houses set amidst green fields with the craggy mountains of Zanskar hanging above.
Beyond Kargiak, the trail passed through more villages and increasing human activity until we reach the campsite of Purne, the trailhead for the walk to the monastery of Phugtal. After you’ve walked through a landscape of sheer scree-ridden canyons, you cross a bridge, turn left and up there hanging in the sky on a sheer vertical cliff would be the Phugtal monastery. The first sight of this magnificent sanctuary is bound to impress even the most jaded eye. I spent 2 nights at the monastery guest house, a humble, spartan establishment, conversing with the monks and making repeated trips to the monastery above to have a closer look at the ancient murals and rituals at the monastery. It was a fitting end to what had a spectacular few days walking in the Zanskar mountains.
In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.
While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.
Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.