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.
I was the first to arrive at the Bungkawn taxi stand where sumos to Reiek departed. As is the protocol, I was given the window seat in the front which delighted me immensely. But this happiness would be fleeting because as soon as I opened the door to occupy my rightful place, the driver snarled at me and pointed at the seats behind. I showed him the receipt. He shook his head. I said I didn’t understand, stubbornly emphasising that I would like to sit where I had been assigned.
He sighed agitatedly and said, “You know Mizo?”
I said, “No.”
“This seat for Mizo. We like to talk. So go sit at the back.”
Something in the tone of his voice suggested it was perhaps not a bright idea to protest further. So I went behind and sat where I was ordered to sit, which was in the middle of two men who smelt like they’d been drinking since morning.
Reiek was located on the mountain ridge bang opposite to Aizawl and was clearly visible from some of the higher elevations in the city but as is typically the case with mountain roads, it took over an hour to get there. The road undulated down to a bridge where the driver and some of his companions stopped for a break as if the 30 minute ride down to the valley had utterly exhausted their reserves.
Having had their fill of some local snacks and moonshine, we climbed up for another half an hour and voila, we were in the village of Reiek. When we reached the turnoff to the Tourist lodge, the driver yelled at me to get off. I thought he was being rude because he didn’t like my face or something. But then, gentle mocking laughter went around at my expense as the sumo zoomed away. For a moment, I empathised with Rajesh and wondered if his xenophobia was justified. But I brushed that thought away since impolite behaviour had no ethnicity and you could encounter it wherever you went.
The Tourist Lodge in Reiek was located up a steep road above the village. With my swollen rucksack, it was a heavy climb with no end in sight. The road was deserted and the only people I saw on the way were construction workers from Bihar building a house on a slope by the roadside and kids running around a garden area near a viewing platform. The village proper appeared to be clustered on the lower slopes and the higher I went, the more vacant the place became. Finally, on top of a spur, nestled in a forested grove, were the group of cottages that I had been looking for.
“How long are you staying?”, asked the woman at the reception.
“3 days”, I said.
“3 days?? You’re the only person here for 3 days”, she said, with genuine puzzlement.
I told her I was surprised to hear that because everyone I had spoken to had vouched for its status as the most touristy place in Mizoram. Moreover, I was there on a weekend and I had been scared that the lodge would be packed to the gills with people.
Many tourists came to Reiek, she said, but they returned home once they’d climbed the hill and seen the views. Aizawl was too close by and there was nothing else to do around the place. I was crazy to waste 3 days here.
But I didn’t mind being alone in a setting like Reiek. There was no network on my phone and if I walked a few meters beyond the lodge, all I saw was sheer darkness and all I heard was the creaky sounds of the forest. It was pure disconnection and I looked forward to 3 days of peace and quiet away from the stresses of social media and the internet. My cottage was basic and was furnished, like all Mizoram Tourist lodges, with a clean bed, ample blankets, a functioning bathroom equipped with a geyser and western commode. It was rustic yet comfortable.
I was hungry owing to the exhaustions of the trip here. So I hit the restaurant near the reception to see what they served. Since they hadn’t been expecting any guests, no food had been prepared. The best meal they could rustle up on day one was chowmein. While I was eating, my idyll was disturbed by a snooty, bearded Indian man accompanied by a sulky woman. Both were originally from Delhi and had come from Aizawl on a day trip to the Reiek mountain. The man was a braggart who had once worked as a government official in Aizawl and was trying all he could to impress the woman by boasting about his time in Mizoram. In his narrative, inaccurate facts blended seamlessly with snap judgements to give a patronising, uncharitable view of the people whom he characterised as too pious, curt and boring. He whined incessantly about how there wasn’t anything to do here and how the mountains here were so underwhelming compared to the Himalayas closer to Delhi. The woman, who had to make frequent trips to Mizoram on account of her work, had complaints of her own. She complained of the challenges of dealing with the food, the cold weather, the lack of infrastructure, the language, the people and moaned about how even the dogs were nasty and why she wasn’t surprised that the people here ate them. I was fervently hoping for someone to take offence and knock some sense into them.
In the evening, workers who were constructing a Children’s Park nearby took over the restaurant area. This group was more amiable than the grumpy Delhiites. They washed the hard labours of the day by lounging on the sofa, watching Hindi serials and old Hindi movies on TV. I also got to meet the cook/caretaker, who had been missing when I arrived. He was a flamboyant guy who cheerfully cooked meals and made merry with whoever was staying there. He appeared to have struck quite a rapport with the labourers because they hung out in the kitchen when they weren’t watching TV and treated the place like it was their home.
I made the hike up to the Reiek peak the next afternoon. It was a Saturday and the trail was full of day-trippers from Aizawl. It was a clearly marked stony path that gently ascended past dense forest singing with crickets and a long, gloomy cave to the head of a cliff. The views from here were beautiful and looking at the sheer vertical staircase ascending above me to the Reiek peak, I was half-tempted to call it quits and go back to the lodge.
But when a group of young kids raced past and began chucking at my indecision, I pulled myself together and swore to make it to the top come what may. It was a vertigo-inducing climb punctuated by flattish sections where the Mizo Tourism people had thoughtfully provided benches for exhausted trekkers to break the hike and take in the sweeping views. The young kids who’d mocked me earlier now wanted me to take their pictures while balancing themselves on the perilous slopes. I dutifully obliged though a mere look down the hills made my head dizzy and my palms sweaty as I began to worry about how I was going to clamber down all alone without a dozen panic attacks.
From the top of the hill, there were sweeping views down to the vertiginous Mizo range. A slender river slithered down far below, the evening light filtering through the hills making it glow silver. A group of more Mizo boys and girls had camped on the view tower. They offered me a drink which I gladly accepted. It was a perfect place to get light-headed. One of the girls who was more inquisitive and chattier than the others told me this was the first time any of them had come here. She found it amazing that someone who lived over 2500 kms away had made it to the spot the same day as herself who lived just across the hill. Another boy in the group came over to make conversation as the sun went down way in the distance. This was the synthesis I always hoped to experience, sitting in a beautiful place with people who belong to the landscape, making a connection.