The walk to Shingo La and the Zanskar landscapes

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.

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The road to Yuksom

This is a story from the time I spent in Sikkim in 2010.

 

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“…and then I distributed campaign chits for SDF. It was boring work. So I became guide at friend’s company. Goecha La is beautiful. If you want, I can take you to Goecha La. The first time I went there I was 10 years old, my father pushed me down a hill because I was walking slow to teach me how to walk on mountains. Hahaha. Now it’s not difficult. More difficult for you. But easy for me. But don’t worry, I’ll take care of you if you come with me. I have tent, sleeping bag, blanket, everything. I like my job. Meet lots of nice girls. I can join you in a group if you like. Cheaper for you and also more fun. 10 years after, you can tell your babies you met your wife on Goecha La with me. Hahaha. One girl from France went with me 2 years before still sends me letters and postcard. If you come to my office, I can show you. Then there was this other Italian…”

I cut Sonam off here and turned to his more reticent partner Tashi and asked, “So what do you do?”

Before Tashi could open his mouth, Sonam blurted, “He loves a nurse” and laughed uproariously in his typically screechy manner.

The three of us were cooped up along with the driver in the front seat of a jeep packed full of people going from Geyzing to Yuksom. Tashi had to put up with the least comfortable seat next to the driver with his legs spread over the gears. They were perilously close to Tashi’s member and the driver had to toggle them up, down and sideways frequently to stay the course on the mountainous road. I had to squeeze myself in the corner next to the window while Sonam appeared to be the most comfortable having a lot of space not just to talk endlessly but also to spread his legs and wave his hands about to elaborate his points.

Tashi had a resigned, saintly look about him whenever Sonam would open his mouth to mock him. But at the suggestion of a romance with the nurse and the scornful laughter that accompanied it, he appeared positively miffed.

“I’m not in love. I only like to talk to her. That is all”, he said, with a mighty huff.

“He’s in love. She’s 10 years older than him but he likes her very much”, said Tashi.

“That is because nobody can talk to you. She is a nice person. Not like your foreign girls.”

“So you do love her, huh?”

“I don’t. And even if I did, I won’t tell you.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything. I know. Everyone knows. Hahaha.”

Tashi was enraged. He turned towards Sonam, wagged his finger, and said, “One more word and… and…” The driver who was trying to keep his vehicle going in the middle of this unwelcome confrontation pulled Tashi by the collar, whacked him on the head and said, “Sit straight or get out!”

Sonam’s victorious laughter that followed this punishment was cut short by the driver yelling at him saying, “And you! Shut up for 10 minutes or I throw you out also.” He looked at me and said, “These two, always fighting. Don’t talk to them.”

I took his advice and stayed mum while Sonam and Tashi kept bickering at each other. It got boring after a while and I fell asleep. My mind soon drifted into dreamspace but deep within my subconscious, I could hear rumblings of a cantankerous boy yelling at somebody saying, “I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m the Real Shady All you other Shadys are just imitating…” This made the more conscious parts of the subconscious think, ”Hey, I think I know this motherf…” to which the uppermost crust of my thought strata responded, “What the fuck is this jerk doing in my head?” At precisely this moment, I was woken up by Sonam yelling Eminem’s immortal whines in my ear.

During the 5 minutes I was asleep, Sonam, Tashi and the driver had put all their differences aside and had begun to jam together to all the pop songs they knew. Sonam laughed at my bleary eyes and said, “Haha, you fall asleep. Can’t sleep in car!”

Sonam and Tashi lived in the same village and worked for the same trekking outfit, taking groups into Dzongri and Goecha La every season. This banter I witnessed appeared to be a routine they had rehearsed all their life. Sonam, being irreverent and bullying Tashi while Tashi quietly letting his anger simmer only to explode violently before the driver shut the two of them down. It was terrifying to witness it sitting in the front seat because the driver would lose control on the precipitously curvy roads every now and then while getting distracted with their fight.

Soon we reached Yuksom and I sauntered into the first hotel I could spot. Their budget rooms were sold out but they had a room free in the underground basement with a shared toilet that I could use for 100 Rs. a night. The room was in a corner of a dank yet spacious hall and was not a lot bigger than the size of a matchbox. I was incredibly sleepy, so I dozed out without a thought in its claustrophobic interiors.

Two hours later, I was woken up by loud 90s boy band music playing outside my room. I went out to investigate the source of this disturbance and found a big party of local boys smoking weed and getting drunk. Among them were the familiar faces of Sonam, Tashi and the driver. Sonam welcomed me into the fold like a long lost friend who had wandered away. All the members of this group belonged in some way to the trekking fraternity. There were cooks, porters, guides, handlers and fixers. After a few rounds of moonshine and barley brews began a session of sharing stories and venting frustrations about the prickly tourists they had to endure.

Much of the conversation was in Nepali and I could only get a gist of what was being said. In any case, since the howls of laughter never ceased, the stories must have been very amusing indeed. Soon, another gallon of barley wine arrived and people got drunk even more. In the middle of this round, Sonam went over to Tashi and began making fun of him. The driver came over to my side, chuckled and said, “He’s telling him about his girlfriend, the nurse”, and went over to join his buddies in the fun. Tashi protested valiantly and appeared to get a few shots in. It was a fairly vicious exchange but it never descended into physical violence as I feared it would.

Then, perhaps tiring of these exertions, they cranked up the music and began to dance. I, too, was made to shed my inhibitions and forced to join in. Now, my gut reaction to a dance floor is to run in the opposite direction but here, there was no escape. I couldn’t possibly go to my room and sleep when all this cacophony was going on right outside my door and I wouldn’t be allowed to sit in a corner quietly and watch. It was all Eminem and Black Eyed Peas and Snoop Dogg and Backstreet Boys, the sort of stuff I loathed from the bottom of my soul in 2010. So I flapped my arms and legs about as unimaginatively and listlessly as I could which had the effect of Sonam and the others bawling with laughter at my ridiculous moves.

As we were flailing about, some of us less inebriated folks could hear a faint rustle underneath the booming noise. Sonam put his finger to his lips and shut down the music. The faint rustle was now a very profound rustle and was emanating from a corner of the basement. A closer look revealed it to be a half-finished packet of chips which was being rapidly consumed by a rat the size of a kitten. The size did not intimidate Sonam as he crept up to the creature, lifted it by its tail and gleefully flung it outside a window.

The music started again and while Sonam and a few others went back to dancing to celebrate their victory over a puny animal, some of the others sat down because they were too drunk or tired. As I joined them and imbibed more barley wine, one of the more enterprising Nepali boys came over to my side to talk to me.

“Hi, my name is Dawa. You know Goecha La?”, he asked.

“I’ve heard of it, yes”, I said, cautiously.

“It’s not far from here. There are beautiful forests. Amazing views. Kanchenjunga. If you want, I take you. I take lot of foreigners.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing yet,” I said, “If I go, I’ll find you.”

“You come to Yuksom and not go to Goecha La, it’s a waste. Let’s go tomorrow.”

“I’m just too tired. I don’t think I’ll be doing anything tomorrow.”

“Okay, maybe day after?”

And here, he got a big whack on the head from none other than Sonam. He had seen Dawa conversing with his potential customer and this pissed him off no end. Sonam was so drunk that he couldn’t even stand steadily on his feet. He began slapping Dawa around and had to be restrained by the driver and two bigger boys. The two argued incessantly in Nepali, perhaps about who this prized moneybag belonged to.

After they calmed down, Sonam came over to me and said, “You go with me, okay? Not him. We talked first. We go tomorrow?”

“I’m not going anywhere tomorrow,” I said. “Good night.”

Then I went to my bed and dropped down like a sack of potatoes.

 

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Chamba #1

April, 2009 – I hate buses that leave early in the morning. Those that leave on horrendously winding mountain roads on days when my digestive system is queasing with diarrheac agony are a particular source of sleepless nightmares. I was assured by the staff of my hotel in Mussoorie that the 6.30 a.m. bus was the only way I was going to get to Chamba with public transport. It was a lie as I would discover later. They wanted me to get out as soon as possible because the entire hotel was booked up by 3 families from Delhi for the weekend and no one knew when they were going to arrive and the last thing they needed was some groggy-eyed hippie backpacker holding up one of the rooms.

So I shivered in the wintry chill of dawn and tried getting something to eat before the bus arrived because I did not want to travel on an upset AND empty stomach. The only edible eatables around the bus stop at that time of the morning were a samosa and a cup of watery chai served by an ancient man from his oil blackened shed. Half a morsel in and it became fairly obvious to me that the potatoes inside were rotten. The two eyes peeking out of the million wrinkles on the ancient man’s face were looking at me expectantly as I was eating. I wanted to be a nice guy, so I finished devouring the entire samosa in front of his eyes as quickly as I could, washed it down with the glass of bitter chai and beamed a thankful smile as I handed over a 5 rupee note.

The first 30 minutes of the journey were fine, spectacular even, with the clear early morning weather revealing mighty Himalayan peaks jutting behind the tall mountains of the Shivalik range. This was the first time I had seen snow-capped peaks in my life and the frequency with which the white mountains were being revealed to me made me orgasmic with joy. If my journey had ended calamitously with the bus falling into the mighty gorge below, I would have died a happy man.

But it didn’t, and my joyous musings were interrupted by the lady sitting in front of me as she poked her face outside the window and ejected a projectile of vomit, some of which, because of the forward motion of the bus and the resultant backward motion of the vomit, landed on my jacket and my face.

The odour of the bile that the woman had generously sprayed all around was, needless to say, unpleasant. It had the added advantage of provoking my hitherto peaceful stomach and liver into action to compete with their counterparts within the woman and very soon, I felt violently unwell. But I did not want to embarrass myself and puke away with carefree abandon like the woman did. I tried to keep my body in control till the bus stopped somewhere or reached Chamba. It was only 40 kms away now, which was 2 hours on these treacherous Himalayan roads with their serpentine curves and hairpin bends. I thought I would sleep it off. So I slept.

When I woke up, I felt even more ill than before. I hoped we were somewhere in the vicinity of Chamba, so I looked out of the window for some signs of hope. A milestone gently sauntered by announcing “Chamba – 37 kms”. When I read this, my brain and my nervous system, appeared to have switched sides and allied with the digestive organs in a mutiny against my will. I had no power to resist and the contents gurgling in my intestines gushed out of my mouth with a force 5x times more violent than the woman. It happened every few seconds until the body was assured that it had ejected the samosa, chai and previous night’s oily paneer tikka masala out of its system. This was a demoralizing disaster. Maybe it was time to end my trip and go back home.

I looked around, expecting to be stared at by everyone else in the vehicle. But nobody seemed to have noticed. Half the people were asleep, the other half were detachedly staring into space. The elegantly dressed old man sitting next to me was still awake and was wiping some of the dregs of my violent outburst from the sleeves of his overcoat. He must have seen a pensive expression on my face because he said with a calm, consolatory tone in his voice,“Don’t worry, beta. Ye toh roz hota hai.” (This happens every day.)

I’ve never felt guilty about puking out of a bus on Himalayan roads ever since.

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Sarangkot

Sarangkot is a mighty hill that looms directly over Pokhara. It’s known to serve the best views close to the city and is an enormous tourist magnet. Most sensible people take a taxi early in the morning to catch the dazzling sunrise from the view tower on top of the hill but we weren’t sensible people. We had chosen to get there on foot. When BR, SM and I rolled out the map of the Annapurna Base Camp, the first thing we realized was that we were woefully unfit city-slickers. This was patently untrue because both BR and SB were in terrific shape. It was I who needed to exercise and weeks of gentle walking on the flat promenades of Pokhara meant I had lost all the hill legs I had so painstakingly gained in Tansen.

But the next morning, I took one good look at Sarangkot and backed out. There was no way I was going to climb that hill without killing myself with exhaustion. BR and SM had already begun walking up the steep stairs leading to the top. I looked for other ways to get there. The easiest option was a taxi and they were also the easiest to find. But I wanted to see if I could get there by public transport and since everybody wanted to sell taxi-rides no one was willing to tell me if a bus went up there. The guide-books made non-committal noises about a bus or two that went near the place every day. So it’s a good thing I didn’t listen to anybody and just headed straight to Prithvi Chowk where I promptly found a bus headed to Kaskikot via Sarangkot. There’s a thrill in finding a dirt-cheap travel option that only budget-conscious travelers would understand. I felt like that miser who would travel in a crowded second class bogie in a local train in Mumbai despite having enough money to buy a dozen Mercedes Benzes and ride in them for life.

The bus dropped me off 75 percent up the hill leaving the steepest section of the trail for me to climb. I had stupidly packed along my laptop thinking I would spend many days up here and the laptop felt like a huge slab of stone on my back as I struggled up the hill with thick beads of sweat dropping from my brow. At the end of the first section of stairs came the first cluster of lodges, all no doubt hoping tired stragglers like me would enter their hazardously pokey looking homes. A phenomenally drunk man came up to me and offered a room for 200 Rs. When I refused, he drawled, “So maybe you want hash, huh? Come inside. Very cheap.” I was too weary to answer and just soldiered on without dignifying his overtures with a reply.

I took a break at a tea-shop on the way where an old man began advertising his lodge up the hill. His lodge had the best views in Sarangkot, he said. He summoned a little girl, his grand-daughter, to take me to his place. She, in turn, ordered two little boys to go along with her. I was too tired to protest and was planning to stay up there anyway, so I went along, the kids running up the stairs giggling at my sore body grinding its way up. The lodge was decent but highly over-priced for what it was. The lady who was presumably part of the family which ran it wanted 1500 Rupees for a tiny little wood-panelled room. The views overlooking the Pokhara Valley were stupendous but I knew I could find something cheaper if I looked harder. As I walked away, she lowered her price to 1200 but wouldn’t go below. I chose to walk around and get back if I didn’t find anything better, a choice that didn’t go very well with the lady who castigated me for wasting her time.

I kept walking up and the higher I went the better the views became. When I was resting at the foot of another long staircase, a cheerful Nepali guy and his Italian girlfriend started making conversation with me. He ran a resort in Kathmandu and was trying to sell it. Was I from India? Oh, he loved India! Indian people are the best people in the whole world. He knew I was special from a distance and he had built his resort just for eclectic and smart Indian people like me. I must have looked really gullible because he kept throwing mischievous winks at his girlfriend in an attempt to convey that he was having me on. I took his card and made some non-committal assurances that I’ll look into it if I ever made it to Kathmandu. His Italian girlfriend, who I heard braying in the distance, felt her boyfriend had really sold it.

This turned out to be the final staircase and I had traveled all the way to the top without finding a place to stay. It was around 4 in the evening and it was empty barring a few tourists. The panoramic landscape visible from here was spectacular by any standards. The mighty peaks of the Himalayas visible hazily behind huge banks of clouds looked just a few handshakes away. Way down below, the Phewa Lake and the glimmering tenements of the Pokhara Valley felt as tiny as they would on Google Earth. Densely forested hills carved deep green valleys around the Seti River. This was pure landscape magic with the verve of the clouds, the play of the light and the whisper of the wind.

One of Sarangkot's many spectacular views
One of Sarangkot’s many spectacular views

A tap on the shoulder snapped me out of my reveries. It was the hand of a Japanese backpacker who wanted me to take a video of him singing a syllable of a popular Japanese song for a music video that he was doing of himself singing the song in every part of the world. He felt the idea was so outrageous that it was sure to go viral when it hits youtube. There was another boy in a red jacket sitting about 20 feet away smirking at this scene. I initially mistook him for a Nepali but when he started saying certain things in a distinctive accent like – “This place has awesome energy, bro” – I immediately guessed where he was from – Bangalore. His name was KA and he had been traveling with his mother for 3 weeks in Darjeeling and Sikkim. He had one last week in Nepal before he went back to the monotony of his corporate job in Bangalore.

He had found a good place to stay in Sarangkot that was also inexpensive and I tagged along with him to his dwelling. It was right opposite the lodge I had earlier rejected. The owners hadn’t forgotten my rebuff and passed snide remarks in Hindi as I walked into their competitors’ home. The Super View Lodge was fantastic and I found a lovely room with a bathroom for 800 NR. My room had a small verandah that had sprawling views of the Pokhara Valley and creature comforts like hot shower and wifi. But in all this excitement, I had completely forgotten about BR and SM. They were utterly exhausted from the punishing hike up the hill and we rendezvoused at the top of the hill. Here, we were greeted by an astonishing sight – a double rainbow. A double rainbow anywhere is a sight to behold. But this was one with a Himalayan backdrop hitting a gorgeous valley below. As we gaped speechlessly, mesmerized by the view, I couldn’t shake the thought out of my head that if I had walked all the way up like BR and SM, the reward would only have been greater.

The double rainbow
The double rainbow

In the evening, the bright lights of Pokhara twinkled like a million fireflies below. I resolved to sleep early and wake up before dawn the next day to catch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a night owl and early mornings don’t agree with me very well. But I was glad I woke up before everyone else in Sarangkot to trundle up the stairs to the view tower above. It was cold and windy and I had to put on all the clothes I had to keep myself warm. Two friendly dogs followed me up and I momentarily suspended my fear of dog-bites to calmly enjoy the rare sight of dawn breaking over mighty snow mountains from the top of a hill. While I had the whole place to myself when I arrived, more people started filling up the place as the day progressed. The dogs were running around and playing with everyone who was there but they freaked out two Chinese girls whose screaming fits lent a certain hilarity to the atmosphere.

As the sun rose, the mighty Himalayan massifs started popping with light, first blue, then orange, then yellow, then white, like huge dollops of multi-coloured ice-creams in space. They looked tantalizingly close and one felt like reaching across the valley and grabbing them with the palm of a hand. The status of Sarangkot as a tourist magnet was well deserved and as I was gaping wide eyed at this stunning scenery enveloping around me, I couldn’t stop the tears. This was a transcendentally beautiful scene the likes of which I’d never seen before. In any other country, this scene is all it would need to get on a tourist brochure to attract people. But the greatness of Nepal lay in the fact that this was but a minor sidelight compared to the remarkable number of pleasures it had in store for the people who walked among its mountains. The harder you walked, the more you were rewarded for your efforts. This sensational view of the mountains was all the inspiration I needed to pack up and begin my long-pending trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

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Tansen

IMG_6500Getting to Tansen from Lumbini was somewhat complicated. I had to hop three buses, one to the Buddha Chowk in Bhairahawa, another from Bhairahawa to Butwal and a third from Butwal to Tansen. Just ahead of Butwal, the Siddhartha Highway which provides the most direct route to Pokhara from Bhairahawa twists and curls into the middle hills through scary rock-fall prone sections, terrifying drops down steep gorges and mesmerizing views of the fertile paddy fields of the Madi Valley flanked by green hills on all sides.

I had messaged DB on Facebook the previous evening about a room at the Horizon Homestay that he runs in Tansen but hadn’t received a reply before leaving the free wi-fi confines of Lumbini. Nevertheless, I was determined to seek it out and try my luck. The lanes in Tansen were immensely steep and circuitous and my sense of direction was so awry that I had done many rounds of the lower parts of the town without ever approaching Shitalpati, the center of the bazaar. BS, a garment shop owner, saw me floundering aimlessly about the town and offered to direct me through its maze of alleys. He was a fast walker and my unfit body felt like it had carried 30 tonnes of coal up Mount Everest when we reached Shitalpati.

I was absolutely out of breath by the time I had climbed the near-vertical lane that led to the Horizon Homestay, sweating profusely, ringing one of the more hopeful bells I had rung in a while. A little boy, a friend of the family, opened the door, invited me in, led me to the cleanest rooms I had seen in weeks, showed me how the gas-powered geyser in the bathroom worked and gave me the password for the wi-fi. DB and his family had gone out for a wedding and the boy had been requested to stay in the house just in case I arrived. DB had left a message for me apologizing for the unavailability of home-cooked food that night. I was already impressed. My room was compact and well-kept. The bathroom was tiny yet spotless. The gas shower was scalding hot, which in the freezing temperatures of Tansen was a godsend. There was a small, sunny double terrace up above with a few potted plants, a roundtable, some chairs and great views of the town of Tansen below.

The Madi Valley
The Madi Valley

I was famished and a feast was in order. So I went to the fanciest restaurant in Tansen, Nanglo West, which was a branch of the Kathmandu chain of Newari restaurants. It had outdoor seating, splendid old-fashioned architecture, costumed waiters, a bakery and a good menu. The dal bhat was expensive by Nepali standards and wasn’t very different from what you found in an ordinary teahouse, so I certainly was paying for the ambience here. But it did the job by being delicious and filling. It was at Nanglo that I had my first brush with an expat in Nepal, an exquisitely dressed English gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat who was dining with a Nepali woman in the adjoining table, speaking in perfect Nepali. Later, we met at the bakery while shopping for desserts.

“I couldn’t help noticing that you speak great Nepali. Do you live here?”, I said. He replied, with a wink and a smile, “Well, I couldn’t help noticing that you speak good English. I don’t suppose you live in London, do you?” He looked surprised when he learnt that I came from across the border. “Indians don’t usually travel in these parts, do they? They’re quite happy going to Pokhara and Kathmandu.” We sat outside and had a cup of coffee together. He’d been coming to Nepal since the 70s and been learning to speak the language ever since. Tansen had been among his favourite towns in the country but he’d been falling out of love with it recently. “It was a beautiful town with beautiful buildings all over but after the Maoist strife, people have been pulling down the old buildings and putting up these stupid concrete houses that probably aren’t going to last a decade.”

He had been in the town during the extraordinary attack by the Maoist led PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the town’s barracks and government buildings. The town’s centerpiece, the Tansen Palace which also housed the police station, came in for a particularly vicious assault where the building was burnt to rubble. It has since been rebuilt but was closed to the public when I was there. He spoke of the harrowing time as a turning point in his utopian view of life in Nepal. The experience made him more cynical of life in the country and forced him to temper his enthusiasm for its people and its mountains.

An old traditional house in the town
An old traditional house in the town
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace

Despite its tumultuous recent history and concretization, Tansen cast a spell on me. This was largely because of DB and JB’s beautiful hospitality at the Horizon Homestay. I hadn’t planned to spend more than 3 or 4 days in Tansen but ended up living there for two weeks. Many mornings, I went for a walk through the pine forests up to the Srinagar Hill to take in the gobsmackingly spectacular 360 degree views of Madi Valley and the Annapurna Range from the under-construction tower on the hill. I was joined by DB on some of these walks and my appalling fitness levels stuck out like a sore spine as DB, who was at least a decade older than me, sprinted up the steep and slippery slopes of the hill while I stopped every few steps to catch my breath. On one of these magical days on the tower, the Madi Valley was enveloped with clouds to form what the locals called the “White Lake”. DB wasn’t very happy with the formation of the “White Lake” because he thought the clouds were leaking beyond some of the nooks and corners spoiling the effect but to my untrained eyes, it looked absolutely divine, like a massive lather of soap frothing between the hills.

The white lake
The white lake

Having spent many months on the road eating restaurant food, I was craving for some genuine home-cooked food and JB’s cooking was simple but absolutely delicious. Dinners were served in the kitchen indoors and breakfasts on the terrace outdoors and both were terrific places to eat. DB inevitably opened a bottle of beer every night and we used to chat away for hours while JB made snide remarks about DB’s expanding belly. Horizon was then the no. 1 listed B&B on tripadvisor in Tansen, so DB had a steady stream of guests from all over coming to his place. One night, it was a group of cheerful Italians on the terrace introducing me to Gogol Bordello and underground psychedelic rock, another night, rounds of beer and arthouse film discussion with a big group of very tall Dutch tourists. It was an easy, compact place to get conversations going with anyone and everyone who happened to be there.

Despite JB’s wonderful cooking, I chose to have all my lunches outside and my favourite place to eat was a little momo cafe right next to the City View Guest House. The cook was a friendly and chatty man who’d worked in Delhi for many years of his life and his momos, lollipops and chai were quite delectable. There were many of these little momo café’s littered around the town and some of them turned out to be drinking dens too. Every once in a while, I would stumble into one of them to ask for a cup of tea only to look around and find everyone else getting inebriated on locally made rum while little boys and girls were running around playing hide-and-seek. The only other real restaurant in the town that was unaffiliated to a big hotel was The Royal Inn, which had copied the Nanglo West template, with a smaller outdoor area and a dankier indoor section and served pretty much the same dishes at slightly cheaper rates.

The holi dahi handi
The holi dahi handi

Holi in Tansen was an amusing affair. There are few things I hate more than rowdy kids splashing me with colour when I’m walking on the road minding my own business but it delighted me to know that such loutish behavior was banned in the town. The ban seemed to be having little effect though as the terraces were full of young kids armed with water balloons ready to strike any unsuspecting passerby. Bikers vroomed around the alleys in colourful face masks and right below DB’s house, a group of young kids had strung a rope across two buildings, dangled an earthern pot in the center and were clambering on top of each other in an attempt to build a human pyramid to bring it down. This was familiar but also strange to Indian eyes because Dahi Handi, as it is called in India, is celebrated during Gokulashtami, which was many months away. Nonetheless, it was good fun to watch, with people from the neighbourhood splashing colours and spraying water at the kids while they were perilously perched on top of each other. Roars of laughter went around every time they tumbled down in a heap.

The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek
The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek

One day, I walked alone to Bagnaskot, a hill about 2 hours which commanded the best views of the surrounding area. There had been a lot of rain for a couple of days and the air was clear and fresh. One of the best things about Tansen was walking out of it into the country around, a green, expansive and spacious region full of little hamlets. This walk was largely on the road but there was very little traffic on the way. A perennial breeze was blowing in the air and the views were stunning wherever I looked. I climbed a little hillock on the way and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Annapurna range playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. The sunlight streaked between the clouds to hit the snow mountains in their folds to make them look like bright patches of light hanging in the air. The effect was quite extraordinary and I dutifully plonked myself down on the grass, took the Canon 550D out of the bag and clicked a million pictures. The only other human presence in the vicinity was a shepherd whose herd was grazing in the pastures. He offered me a cup of tea from his flask and a joint from his pocket and we sat together, drinking tea and smoking up, silently looking at the unbelievably beautiful play of light and shadow unfolding in front of us.

After this tranquil moment, I went to the momo place near the point where the road slithered steeply up to Bagnaskot. I had already seen the Annapurnas and the sky was getting seriously cloudy. So, instead of climbing up the hill, I sat at the momo place with an elegantly dressed old man sharing a bottle of rum and some plates of momos to go with. His face was exquisitely contoured like the face of a mountain, with deep wrinkles and folds weathered by a long journey through time. He had spent his entire working life in the Indian army, fought in the 17 day war in 1965 and the 1971 war against Pakistan and had been shot thrice in combat, wounds on his shoulder and legs which he showed me delightfully. Because of the violence he had witnessed, he believed in a Gandhian ideology and wished Nepali politicians had the intellectual maturity of the Ambedkars and the Nehrus and the Patels to pen their own Constitution, a burning issue in Nepal that had been raging ever since the Maoist-led civil war had ended. We walked back to Tansen together and he gave me innumerable tips for things to do, trek to Ranighat, the temples at Ridi Bazaar, a bus to the Palpa Bhairab temple renowned for animal sacrifices, a homestay in the village of Baugha Ghumma, a walk up to the bridge at Ramdi, another hike through the old trade route to Butwal and on and on.

I didn’t do any of the trips he suggested, putting them in a bucket-list for things to do on the next trip. DB had warned of a big tourist group that was going to invade his house and while he offered to put me up in another homestay, it was time for me to leave. After two weeks, I had imbibed enough of Tansen to last many years. Yes, I would have rather left after doing more hikes and seen more temples but Tansen was such a stunner of a town that the opportunities were endless and I was certain to return in the future.

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Muktinath – Before the Quake

11174678_10153215270136963_1110935383350014418_oThe next morning I woke up ridiculously late to find all the tables in the restaurant empty. The big, loud German group had gone away and so had everyone else. Didi, Romy (the cook) and his naughty little child were the only ones left, peacefully gulping down their breakfasts. Soon, they were turning over tables, lifting up chairs and putting on ear-splittingly loud music to motivate themselves while cleaning the restaurant area. Romy threw a sparkling smile in my direction and suggested I go upstairs to eat my meal.

Armed with my diary and my kindle, I did as I was told. The sunny terrace here was the perfect place to sit down, reminisce, read, write, update my diary and take in the view of the Dhaulagiris while resting weary legs that had been walking for 20 days. I breezed through a few chapters of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s mighty tome “In Search of Lost Time”. My cerebration was soon jolted by a hoarse voice crooning “Tu Mujhe Kabool, Main Tujhe Kabool”. I was so deeply engrossed with the cat-and-mouse games of M. Swann and Mme. Odette that I hadn’t noticed Romy had sauntered upstairs and was sitting right opposite to where I was gleaming another one of his toothy smiles.

“You know this song?”, he asked. “Yes. Khuda Gawah. You sing well”, I said.

“It was shot right there”, he said, pointing towards Jhong. “Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi, very good movie.” I dutifully noted this previously unknown (to me) trivia in my diary as Romy threw some details about his life for me to chew on.

He had been working in Kathmandu in a big hotel but had shifted to Muktinath recently with his boy. It was more peaceful here and the money was better too. His wife was working in Israel and she saw them once a year. He had an affable, easygoing attitude but was obviously missing his wife a lot. I couldn’t probe more deeply into the circumstances that led to them being temporarily separated because he was more keen on probing “me”.

“Are you married?” “No.”

“Girlfiriend?” “No.”

“Don’t you feel lonely?” “Well, yeah, sometimes, but then there are always people to talk to.”

“I think you are a good man. Not like other Indians.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you are quiet, travel alone, read books. Indians talk loudly and make noise. Are you really from Mumbai? I think you live in Europe. No?”

“I’ve never been to Europe. I lived in Mumbai for 27 years before beginning my travels. And I know many Indians who are quiet and read a lot, much more than I do.”

“But you also walk.”

I pulled out the Mumbai Hikers website on my phone and showed him there were other Indians who walked too.

“But why don’t they walk here?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because the people who trek in India don’t come here very often. And many of them are in jobs that don’t give them such long holidays.”

“But still, I think you are different. Tonight, if you don’t mind, we can eat together and have a party”, he said, beaming another of his big smiles. It wasn’t an offer I wanted to refuse.

IMG_7492The skies were cloudy and there was a rumble or two of thunder. It was getting cold. Since the noise had died down below, I went back to the restaurant. GG and MS were back from their hike to the Thorung La Base Camp with their German friend, who was recounting the fascinating story of how he slipped on the icy slopes while trekking. There was also a Polish couple, a Ukranian guy and a Polish-Irish couple, who had all made their way down from the pass that day.

We were all getting to know each other when an old man in a blue hood with a big, white beard marched in, his eyes ferociously darting around the room. The eyes locked themselves on GG, who was standing by the door. He waved his hands theatrically like a magician, closed his fists, opened four of his fingers in a flourish and said,“Char chai.” The whole place burst into laughter. He then marched out, hollered to his friends in Tamil, and when they entered, chattering loudly in Tamil, they were welcomed with peals of laughter.

It was difficult to tell what was more hilarious, their derogatory assumption that any Nepali looking guy had to be a waiter/working for them or the absurd theatrics of it all. Incensed at the fact that GG was standing there doing nothing and just coyly smiling a beautific smile, the old man went up to him, waved his fingers and said, “Chai kahaan hai??” (“Where’s the tea??”) This led to another round of laughter which only served to anger the old man and his group. GG, meanwhile (despite the fact that it wasn’t his job) went up to the kitchen and told the didi, who was busy cooking, that she had customers who were asking for chai. The Indians were now red-faced with anger. They had realized by now that people were laughing at them and started confronting GG and MS. One woman called GG to the table and demanded an apology. “Why were you laughing at us? Is this how you treat your guests??” etc. etc.

Having noticed that their interrogation was going nowhere and was attracting only smirks and giggles, they switched to bitching about the country they were in among themselves.

“Namba dressa thaan parthu chirikkaralo ennamo” (Maybe they’re laughing at the dress we’re wearing)

“Inda madiri adhiga prasangithanathunnala thaan uruppadi illama poyindirukku inda naadu. Namba thaan inda madiri chinna idattha perisa panni vidarom. Pohattum nashtamaa. Namba enna pannaradu?” (It’s because of these antics that this country is languishing without development. It’s only we who come to this small place and make it more prosperous. Let it go to hell. What can we do?)

“Police stationku poi complaint pannalam. India lerndu pannattha vaangi Indiansa paarthu chirikkaranga.” (Let’s file a police complaint. They borrow Indian money and laugh at Indians”)

The chai arrived and this led to another round of righteous indignation. “Is this what they call chai?” “It’s just half a cup and they charge 50 Rs. for it.” “Maybe they’re doing this because we’re Indians.” And they were having these discussions in Tamil so loudly, no one else could speak. Romy had to come out and request them to speak a little softly because there were other people sitting in the same room. This, of course, led to more anger and more hate. The old man, who was ready to go to battle again, was wisely dissuaded from doing so by the women in the group. “Pessama panattha kudutthuttu polaam vanga” (Let’s just give them the money and go) The didi, meanwhile, was trying to cool things down and make peace with them by asking them if they liked the chai, how their trip was etc. but it looked as if she was speaking to a stone wall. The group had already decided that they hated the place and the country and all of its people. It couldn’t possibly have any redeeming features.

After the initial bout of laughter, I stayed quiet and intervened neither for nor against the group. I did not let on that I was from India or that I knew Tamil. I fought the urge to tell them that people were neither laughing at their dress code nor their nationality but at the rude, unruly, entitled behaviour they had brought along with them. None of them apologized for having mistaken a Nepali trekker for a waiter and neither did they have a word of gratitude for someone who went out of his way to get their orders in anyway. But it’s not my place to tell people how to behave in a foreign country.

IMG_7507It had started snowing and I went out to taste the first fresh “powder” I had tasted in 3 years. Unlike the harsh pounding of raindrops, a snowfall feels ethereal, majestic, magical even as it slows down time with its gentle shower. It took me back to Markha Valley, Hemis, Tawang, Shingo La, Nubra and filled me with gratitude for having been fortunate enough to be able to travel to places where I could comprehend the beauty of this phenomenon. With these reveries playing in my head, I walked to the monastery in the centre of Ranipauwa, whose caretaker was a lovely, shy, Tibetan woman who was knitting woollens outside its gates. It was a new, remarkably well-kept monastery with some of the most exquisitely detailed and colourful paintings I had seen. They didn’t have the wear and tear that added texture to the many millennia old monasteries in Tibet and Mustang but the artistry was so sublime, I was sure if they managed to survive a few hundred years, they could be regarded as masterpieces in their own right.

When I was back in “Path of Dreams”, GG and MS were singing folk songs. MS, especially, had a mellifluous voice and the didi joined in every now and again while flitting between the kitchen and the dining room. Sometimes, they sang along to the songs playing on the speakers through the didi’s iPod. The playlist was a mish mash of Nepali songs, heavy metal remixes of folk songs, 80s Hindi film songs and fresh out of the over Bollywood nos. In the middle of this infectiously harmonic atmosphere, GG gave me a free crash course on Nepali folk music. He told me about Raju Lama – one of the leading young Nepali singer-songwriters, Edge – a popular folk-rock band from Pokhara, Gaurav – a singer whose trick-in-trade was switching between Hindi and Nepali in alternate stanzas.

This scene dissolved into the evening when, as promised, Romy invited me to dine with all the Nepalis once the other “foreigners” had gone off to bed. The musical session resumed with Romy on the tabla, GG on the guitars, MS on vocals and Romy’s 4 year old boy doing the screams and the growls. The didi was habitually shy but she had the sweetest voice of all and obliged to sing a couple of songs. It was a beautiful evening, pure, harmonious and in tune with the tranquil settings of Muktinath. I had known none of them the day before but by the end of this evening, it seemed as if we were the closest of friends. This was the sort of evening that validated solo travel, gave it momentum and made you wish you never had to go back home again. As it turned out, it was also the last purely happy moment any of us would have for weeks.

 

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Muktinath

View of Jharkot from Ranipauwa
View of Jharkot from Ranipauwa

Ever since I’d met R & B on a cold, drizzly night over whisky and chips in the village of Khati in Kumaon, Muktinath had been firmly plonked on a bucket-list of priorities. R especially was so enthusiastic , he wouldn’t stop raving about the Circuit, the trek, his children doing the trek, the pass, crossing the pass, his children crossing the pass, arriving at the incredible wonders of Mustang, a world apart from the other side and blah and blah. He was selling the trek and left me no choice but to buy it. I’ve been to Nepal twice since that cold, drizzly day in Khati and was thwarted both times, once by flash floods, the next by a terrible eye infection. I wasn’t going to be beat this time.

The walk from Jharkot to Ranipauwa, the lodge town below Muktinath, takes just 30 minutes. But it was a breathless 30 minutes as I took the short-cuts climbing up the hill trying to avoid the dusty jeep-infested road as much as I could. Everyone I had met on the way had warned me against staying in Ranipauwa. “It’s just big hotels built for Indian pilgrims”, “It’s dirty and charmless”, “Except for the temple, there’s nothing interesting there” and it’s all largely true. Ranipauwa is just a disorganized cluster of ugly buildings, bland lodges and over-priced shops but I didn’t want to have come this far and not stayed just steps away from the temple. C & T, the affable American Missionaries I’d met in Tirigaon, had highly recommended The Royal Mustang Hotel saying they had “friends” there. But when I spoke to the didi, she didn’t seem too happy that people recommended by C&T were knocking on her door. I wandered around for a bit, past trinket sellers who were trying to make a fortune by haggling fiercely with gullible Indian pilgrims over ammonites procured from the Kali Gandaki Valley, bypassed Hotel Bob Marley where there seemed to be a big party going on and went straight to one of the last places on the road, the enticingly named “Path of Dreams”.

Fierce haggling in Ranipauwa
Fierce haggling in Ranipauwa

The first thing you do when you “check out” a lodge on a trek in Nepal is not ask the price of a room but look at the menu. The price of an ensuite room with bathroom, wi-fi and hot shower is usually a miniscule 200 NPR (2 dollars) but it’s the food that could break your bank. Here dal bhat was 400 NPR, a very reasonable rate for this altitude, so I put my bags in my sunny room, took a hot shower and had a sumptuous meal of dal bhat while watching pilgrims from my country go about on horseback. The Indian pilgrim traffic to Muktinath has exploded recently after the “road” opened a few years ago. Till then, only the hardiest people made the trek all the way from Pokhara. Most people now fly to Jomsom and take a jeep to Ranipauwa and while the temple is hardly a 20 minute walk/gentle ascent away, they are too lazy to trouble their precious legs. A few years ago, motorbikes from the surrounding villages made a killing by ferrying them across to the temple. But thankfully, those have now been replaced by ponies. Many of the pilgrims were young and healthy and it was just embarrassing watching pot-bellied, double chinned 30-year old men, looking weary and exhausted, sitting lifelessly on top of a pony pulled by a pony man.

I met some hardy pilgrims on the way to the temple, huffing and puffing every now and then. After the obscene spectacle of fat people on horses, my admiration knew no bounds for these more genuine pilgrims, some who had walked from the jeep-stand, some all the way from Tatopani, all adorned with saffron robes and begging bowls. I generally ignore any request for alms but the contrast between the luxury tourists and these old pilgrims made such an impression on me that I treated some of them to chai. Then, realizing that they had finally laid hands on a suitably gullible victim, they started clamouring for my money. It was time to beat a retreat. IMG_7392 Muktinath was destined to be one of the premier pilgrim destinations in the Hindu/Buddhist world. One of the essential requirements for the establishment of a Vaishnavite temple is the presence of a shaligram (ammonites) or two. The Kali Gandaki Valley below Muktinath is littered with ammonites and that certainly must have played a part in its designation as a place of liberation or “moksha”. It also happens to be a sacred site for Buddhists as Guru Rinpoche aka Padmasambhava, one of the founding fathers of Tibetan Buddhism, had spent some of his time meditating here. It’s one of the 108 Divya Desams compiled by the Alwars from South India which explains the huge number of people who make it all the way here from Tamil Nadu and Andhra. And thanks to the eternal flame at the Jwala Devi Temple, it’s one of the very few places in the world where the five elements (fire, water, sky, earth, air) co-exist eternally. In short, it has some pretty impressive credentials for divinity.

Freezing dips in the pool
Freezing dips in the pool

And that’s probably why people choose to go through what should certainly count as one of the more “chilling” rituals in Hinduism. It requires people to take their clothes off in sub-zero weather, then a shower in each of the 108 fearsome fountains spouting glacier melt water from the Himalayas and then end the ordeal with three dips in two pools, also filled with freezing glacial waters. Some people, especially the very young Nepalis who come here in huge numbers, treat it as good old-fashioned fun. Some dip their toes, try to sneak out, then look around to see an assembly of tourists armed with cameras and lest they be taken for sissies, take the obligatory dips screaming in agony.

The fearsome fountains
The fearsome fountains

At the western end of the temple complex was a Buddhist monastery. It looked newish but it was a good place for some solitude and to take in the view of the region around. To my right were the old villages of Chongur and Jhong, with their own ancient monasteries, cults and traditions. Far below was Jharkot, where I came from that day. In the distance, the Dhaulagiris and above me the trail that ascends steeply to the Thorung La. It was 3 in the afternoon now and the weather was getting cloudy and stormy with gale force winds striking my face with much fury. I could see groups of trekkers limping their way down after the torturous walk from the other side of the pass. I wanted to stick around for the aarti at 6 but the weather was just getting too windy and cold. For all its pilgrim traffic, this temple was among the most peaceful and tranquil settings that I had spent any length of time in. With the mountains, the history, the mythology and the moving spectacle of people sacrifing comfort to shower in its fountains and dip in its pools, it was as genuine a spritual atmosphere as I have encountered. Having been to temples all my life and been appalled time and again by the filth, the corruption, the moneybagging, the swindler pandas, lack of hygiene, general unruliness and ugliness, Muktinath was like a breath of fresh air.

Back in “Path of Dreams”, it was now packed with people, particularly a large, loud, German group who had crossed the pass and were celebrating the achievement with many bottles of beer. It was around 5 and I ordered dinner, veg curry with rice, specifically mentioning that I wanted it at 7.30. It was on my table in half an hour and I was fuming with anger. I hate early dinners because I have always been afraid of waking up at midnight and getting hunger pangs. I gave the didi a gentle earful to which she smiled and said, I could always order something else later. But I was also afraid of running out of money because the nearest ATM was in Jomsom, 20 kms away. I grred and ate my delicious curry-rice very slowly hoping not to become hungry again.

Because of the large German group, I had to share a table with a Dutch couple and two Nepali boys, GG and MS, who were playing chess. GG and MS had initially mistaken me for a Nepali (it’s not funny the no. of times it’s happened to me in Nepal) and after having a loud laugh about it when they realised I didn’t speak a word of Nepali, returned to their game. The Dutch girl was reading “Burmese Days” which gave me a good conversation opener. “That’s a great book, isn’t it? A bit depressing but so beautifully written.” “Well, I think it’s disappointing,” she said, “We’re going to Myanmar and I thought I could get some tips about life there. It turns out it’s a novel. Do you know any good books about Myanmar?” That was a conversation ender. I said, “Not really”, a tad grumpily and started focussing on the chess game between GG and MS. It was a tough game and after GG beat MS, he wanted to play with me. An India vs. Nepal match. In no time, I had lost 4 pawns, 2 elephants, one horse and a queen. I had let my country down.

It was 7.30 and I was already feeling a bit hungry. I looked at the menu and the only affordable and light meal that wasn’t a salad was an apple pie. So I ordered apple pie. When it arrived, steaming loudly on its place, I already knew there was something wrong. But when I looked at it, it made me almost throw up with nausea. It was a small, fat, deep fried pakoda with apples stuffed inside. The Dutch couple, sitting opposite, had ordered fries and burritos, both of which looked delicious, and I wished I hadn’t grumpily ended the conversation earlier with these Orwell-haters just so I could borrow a bit of fries and burritos! GG and MS sympathised and I went back to my room to hopefully sleep without having to wake up hungry in the middle of the night.

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The cable car from Kibber to Chicham

Chicham is a village like any other in the Spiti Valley, quiet, pastoral, with a primary school, a friendly lama and spectacular views.  But the people in the village have one hell of a time getting out of it as the nearest settlement, Kibber, is one deep canyon away and the only way to get across is through a perilously perched pulley system joining two cliff-sides.

I trotted along with D purposefully towards the object of our adventure. And there they were, the village in the distance, the gorge separating us, the angry waters of a stream gurgling 500 feet below and a little basket and a rope provided to haul yourself across to the other side. D bailed out immediately and left the scene. I stupidly put my foot in the pulley only to realise that it had moved before I could get the other foot in. I got the other foot in and then realised that there was no one on the other side to pull me across. The basket had moved and there was now a 20 meter gap between me and the cliff separated by a yawning canyon. I tried pushing the pulley back to the cliff but it resisted the motion and pulled itself away towards the other side, which made me curse myself for not paying more attention during physics lectures in college.

After a while, no matter what I did, the basket wouldn’t move and this was bang in the middle of the canyon. My nerves were doing a dance of death and I sat there suspended for over an hour, 500 feet above raging waters wondering what after-life was going to be like. I had lost all hope of survival till I heard someone calling from the Chicham side of the gorge, giving me step by step instructions to get out of the jam. Basically, I had to loosen the ropes very slowly and pull myself with all my might to go over to the other side. I fought my vertigo and gingerly got up to loosen the ropes one by one, after which it moved a few feet. In 20 minutes, once I was close enough to the Chicham cliff, the man pulled me across.

He was a Czech musicology student who was doing some research for his thesis paper on ethnic music from the Himalayan hinterlands. He lived in Chicham, he said, and went across to Kibber every day for a snack and a few beers. He didn’t know how the pulley worked either and was primarily using trial and error to negotiate the challenge. Nevertheless, he had saved my life and we went on to have a few beers in Kibber to celebrate the fact. What are the odds.

The village
The village
The road
The road
The gorge
The gorge
The solution
The solution

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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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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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