The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.
You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.
Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.
I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.
The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.
Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.
Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.
So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.
The hike from Khati to Dwali is one of the most languid and social hikes I’ve ever done. Every few minutes, our progress would be hindered by some acquaintance of D trudging along the path entertaining him with gossip and conversation. There were friends, guides, horsemen, pandits, old people, so diverse were the people we came across that it was hard to believe there was anyone left in the world who didn’t know D.
Two women, distant aunts of D, provided the most enjoyable company. They were on their way back from the forest with big baskets of wood on their backs. When they saw us, they took a break and began making tea with hot water from a big flask and tea powder. Both women had a lot of fun at D’s expense, dredging up the silly things he did as a kid – stealing chicken from the neighbours farm, wrecking giant cobwebs in the house and putting the spiders inside his mouth, annoying other girls his age by pulling their hair etc.
D soon had enough of this teasing and said we had to get moving quickly or our legs would get swollen up with all the rest. The women mocked him saying that was the randomest excuse they had ever heard and asked me not to worry because even the slowest of walkers walked to Dwali in under 3 hours. So we had more cups of tea and more conversation.
I told them that Khati was the most beautiful village I had ever seen and that nothing appears to have changed in a hundred years. The women shook their heads in disagreement. It wasn’t the village it was, they said. Back in the 70s when they grew up, only the hardiest of mainland Indians or foreigners ever made it to the village and when they showed up, it felt as if they had come from another world. But now, so many came every day that the surprise and the shock of seeing people from other cultures had dwindled to nothing. Even the language barrier didn’t exist anymore because most people had learnt to speak Hindi. People were more content back then, they said. Hardly anybody had money and while life was hard, they had everything they needed to survive. But now, thanks to tourism and easier access, everybody worked for money and no amount of money was ever enough. I could have talked to the women all day long, probing deeper into their history but we had to get moving if we wished to reach Dwali soon and I bid them a sad goodbye.
The most pleasurable section of the walk to Dwali was by the bright green grassy banks of the Pindari river. It was an ethereal faeriland with butterflies of myriad colors flitting by and scarlet minivets adding a touch of bright red to the landscape. Much to D’s annoyance, I took inordinately long breaks here to just sit by the river and watch it flow. On one of these breaks, D confessed that he had once fallen in love with a Gujarati girl from a group that had hired him for the trek. Even though he was a married man, he thought about her every single day, he said. He wrote long letters to her to stay in touch and was enormously happy when she replied to a few of them. It was a bittersweet happiness as it also made him feel guilty and sinful for loving another woman more than his wife. Having married at the age of 18, he felt trapped at having to lead a life he hadn’t chosen. He couldn’t run away from his village and his family because they were the only tangible things in the world that he had and without them, he would feel painfully lost.
By the time we crossed the wonky suspension bridge to reach the Dwali Tourist Rest House, it was 4 pm. I was delighted to be at the end of a beautiful day of hiking and looked forward to spending the rest of the evening with umpteen cups of tea staring at the mountains in front of me. But these alluring thoughts would prove to be delusional. The Dwali TRH was swarmed with a mighty group of kids from an International school in Pune. They had taken up all the accommodation and the place was so small and beds were in such short supply that there weren’t enough of them to accommodate the gargantuan support staff of guides, teachers, porters, rescue specialists, horsemen and random hangabouts.
The manager stormed out and admonished D for taking such a long time to get there. He was terribly angry and advised me to cut his fees for the day because it was his duty to get there early and book a place for his client. If we had gotten there merely two hours earlier, he might have found a corner for me to sleep in. But now it was too late. What took us so long anyway?, he asked, arms flailing about. It was such a short, easy hike! I told him, smiling sheepishly, about the many breaks we took on the way to enjoy the bounty of mother nature. He replied scornfully saying, “That’s good then. It’s good that you like nature because there’s a lot more nature ahead of you on the way to the rest house in Phurkiya. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” and stormed back in to entertain the army of children.
The hike to Phurkiya was everything the walk to Dwali wasn’t. The terrain was relentlessly uphill and steep. Because it was late in the evening, many of the icy stretches on the higher slopes were melting resulting in stretches that were seriously slippery. The hike was made even more treacherous as we had to hurry up to make it to the TRH at Phurkiya before it got dark. After a point, the jungles, the trees, the meadows, anything green that grew, disappeared from the landscape leaving us a barren rocky wilderness punctuated by the hardiest of shrubs that thrived in this inhospitable climate. Little clumps of high altitude wildflowers were just beginning to sprout. D said I should come back a few months later when the entire hillside turned into a bed of color after the flowers bloomed in the monsoon.
As we neared Phurkiya, the oxygen in the atmosphere gradually thinned, the air became colder and my head felt lighter. There were stretches where the snow was so deep that when my foot hit the surface, it sank to the knee. The last rays of the sun were angling across the jagged peaks in the distance and as the light grew dimmer, the mountains wallowed in a deep blue. It was mesmerizing to watch but I had no time to take in the landscapes at leisure as we had to hurry up and get to Phurkiya before it became completely dark.
When I reached the TRH in Phurkiya in April 2009, it was the remotest outpost I had ever been to. At the time I felt it was astonishing that it even existed. A lone structure looking over a mountainous wilderness close to one of the edges of the Himalayas. There were cascading trickles of meltwater falling down the mountains on the opposite slope and the whole area was desolate save for myself, D, the caretaker and AR, a solo trekker who would be my companion for over a week from here on.
It got dark and cold very quickly and all of us huddled together in the kitchen shed to take refuge by the fire. The caretaker delivered us a simple yet sumptuous meal of dal, roti, vegetables and bottomless cups of chai as we made conversation. AR had quit his job to travel and had been trekking alone for the past few days. As two people who had momentarily given up a secure life to wander aimlessly, we connected immediately.
But kitchen fires don’t burn forever and we had to get out of the warm confines of the shed and venture out in the sub zero cold to our rooms to catch some sleep before another long hike the next morning. AR and I were given two mattresses and a mountain of quilts to sleep inside a dark and dank little room. The night was so cold that even though I had all my clothes on and about three heavy quilts over, I was still shivering to the bone. I looked at the time. Five minutes short of 10 pm. It was going to be a long night.
I had slumped into such a deep slumber owing to the exertions of the 10 hour hike the previous day that D had to bang the creaky wooden door down to its breaking point to wake me up. It had been a cold, uncomfortable night beneath a mountain of blankets and all my interlocking dreams had my bones shivering in an Arctic weather and the shivering continued seamlessly to the time I had woken up in the middle of the night wondering if the scenes of me riding a dog sled on thin ice was real or dreamt. But the exhaustions of the day had given me at least a few hours of deep, sound sleep.
D asked me to get ready quickly because we were getting late for school. This was a bizarre thing to hear for someone in his late 20s first thing in the morning and I pinched myself to check if the dream cycle was still on. It wasn’t and I grumbled my way to the big tub of water in the corner to brush my teeth. It was one of the more unpleasant tooth-brushings up to that point in my life. There was no wash basin and I had to make use of the murky water in the big tub to rinse the mouth near the grimy squat toilet.
The government school in the village was housed in a small wood and stone structure. We went to the school because D wanted to introduce me to his kids. The school appeared to have fairly lax discipline because the kids were allowed to saunter out of class for something as unimportant as this. Like all encounters I’ve ever had with kids, this was predictably awkward. D told them who I was and they stared at me for 10 seconds waiting for the stranger to break the ice or do something funny. I asked their names. They told me. Then they just sort of looked at each other sheepishly perhaps exchanging funny impressions of the stranger telepathically. D tried to ease the tension by asking them to ask me what my name was. They asked. I told them. Then he asked them to ask me where I came from. At this point, they glumly told him they didn’t have the time for this shit and would like to go back to class. D laughed and let them run away. I was relieved.
We then went to his house to get some breakfast. Like most of the houses in Khati, it was made of traditional wood-and-stone Garhwali architecture with bright blue doors and windows decorated with crude ornamental carvings. A bare-chested man with a chest full of hair sprawled in a corner. D introduced him to me as his uncle. I dutifully smiled and greeted the man but the uncle was far less diplomatic. He wasn’t happy to see a stranger enter his house at that hour of the morning and grumbled at D in a drooly slur asking why he kept bringing strangers into the house. D asked me to ignore him and brought a cup of chai, a plate of boiled spinach leaves and a few dry rotis.
The army of houseflies buzzing around us seemed keener on feasting on this meal than I was. D observed that I was tentatively prodding at the rotis instead of eating them and said, “Foreigners pay thousands of rupees for this experience. You’re getting it for free. So just eat.” So I ate. It wasn’t the most delicious meal in the world but it was nutritious enough and would provide nourishment for the many hours of strenuous walk ahead.
I took out my Panasonic LS70, the cheapest camera money could buy in 2009, to get some shots of the village before leaving. It was a 7.2 megapixel camera that ran on AA batteries and I realised to my dismay that the batteries inside were on their last legs and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to buy some when I was shopping for trekking clothes in Kapkote. This was a serious downer because the best landscapes were arguably ahead of us and while I appreciated old-fashioned perspectives on enjoying moments purely without worrying about capturing them, I wanted to take at least a few pictures to remind me of this journey when I looked back at it years later.
When I frantically ran up to D to ask if he knew a shop that sold batteries, he gave me that world-weary look that he had a habit of giving people when they said something stupid or disagreeable. Did I know we were in a village with no road access or electricity?, he said, angrily. There was only one shop that served the entire village and we had to go to the house of the man who owned it to get him to open it up for us. He had no AA batteries, he said, but he had some that were meant for torchlights but would also fit the camera. I bought a dozen of those when I saw that the first two gave out within the four pictures I took to test them out and hoped fervently that the rest would at the least allow me to take half a dozen pictures for keepsakes.
Khati is one of the last old-world villages left in the Indian Himalayas. It’s at the edge of the wilderness, the last inhabited place before the mountains take over. Even in 2019, there’s no direct road access as the nearest road-head is at a village called Khirkiya, a 5 km walk over the hills. It’s setting is absolutely mesmerizing, with high, steep, thickly forested mountains surrounding it on all sides and the high peaks of Kalanag and the Nanda Devi range looming above on clear days. It’s a village one would love not just to visit but linger.
So one of the regrets I have when I think about the time I did the trek in 2009 is that I hadn’t allowed myself even a cursory look at the village. I was so caught up with buying batteries, catching up on sleep, chilling at D’s house and prepping for the day’s trek that there was no time left to take even a casual stroll. Someday they’ll finish the road to Khati which will be a boon to the people who live there. But for a romantic like myself, who has seen places crumble to ugly and unchecked development, it will be a sad day when the regret of not fully experiencing a place when it was pristine and untouched only grows stronger.
It was cold outside when we left the dhaba whose warm interiors compensated for the foul, musty odor. D insisted we leave at 5 am because his friend, whose vehicle we were hiring, had to ferry it back to Bageshwar in the morning. I was happy to have bought the thermals, the feather jacket and the woollen skull cap the previous evening. The owner of the dhaba, who wore a gruff, battle hardened demeanour that could have walked out of any grimy old western, thumped two big glasses of tea for us before he went to attend to the day’s business of chopping meat and onions for the food he had to prepare for his patrons.
A talkative, amiable Panditji (a priest) who lived in one of the villages on the Pindari route joined us on the trek. He appeared to be well acquainted with D and when he came to know of our misfortunes of the previous day, he gave D an earful for not ringing the bells and paying his respects to the shrine of a Himalayan deity on the way. As soon as we reached the location of the deity where a small stone idol of a fiery goddess was hidden away inside a rocky niche, Panditji fished out a bell and performed an elaborate ritual chanting mantras and singing hymns. After this, he plastered a large patch of vermillion on my forehead with his thumb and asked me to put in some money.
I laughed and said, “No, thank you. I don’t believe in all this.”
Panditji gave me a fiery stare that may have made the most fearsome creatures tremble with fear and said, “What do you mean you don’t believe? This is why you weren’t allowed to walk in these mountains. You have to take the permission of the goddess to do anything here. This is her territory. If you don’t, you’ll have to repent for it. So be sensible and give her an offering.”
“But what if someone else takes the money?”, I said.
“These are the Himalayas. No one would dare to take the money you keep here. It’ll only go to the goddess. Anyone who steals her money will only go to hell.”
D pulled me aside and whispered in my ear to put in some money so we could move on. I obeyed quietly and the moment the 100 Rs. note reached the shrine of the goddess, Panditji’s demeanour returned to its default mode of gentle affability.
After this ritual, Panditji and D abandoned the clear trail in front of us and took a perilous short cut that cut down to a stream. When we crossed a wobbly log bridge to clamber on to a rock on the other side, I noted that there was no discernible path visible beyond. Panditji and D were quietly sitting on a large boulder smoking a round of bidis. I asked D how we were to proceed ahead. He asked me to calm down, relax for 5 minutes and take a few puffs of the bidis.
“This is your trial by fire”, he said, once the 5 minutes were up. Pointing at a nearly vertical, mossy, rocky section hanging above us, he calmly informed me that we had to clamber over it. The very sight of it made me dizzy and nauseous with vertigo. I had never done any rock climbing in my life because I have always been petrified of height and while this was technically more of a clamber up mighty boulders than climbing up a vertical precipice, it still made me shiver with fright. I asked D if we could continue on the easier trail we had abandoned.
D looked at me and said, “This is going to save us an hour of walking. These are our mountains. You have to trust them and the people who take you. Like I said, this is your trial by fire. If you do this, I will believe you can do this trek. If not, there’s no point in hiring me to take you. You don’t come to the mountains to walk on roads, you come for the hardship and the adventure.”
Panditji decided he had enough and went ahead. Watching him climb the hillside with reptilian agility made me feel a bit embarrassed. I did not want come across as a coward and so I began scrambling up. Every time I slipped a little, D was up on a boulder above to lend me a helping hand. Halfway into the climb, I was thoroughly exhausted and gasping for air. When I looked down, in complete defiance of D’s advice NOT to look down, I felt even worse. The wooden log bridge that we crossed just a few minutes ago looked like a little twig far down below. I’m fatalistic on the best of days but here I had resigned myself to my fate. But D’s encouraging words spurred me on and when I finished my clumsy fearful scramble to the top, I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest.
D appeared happier than I was when he saw that I had negotiated this stretch without any debilitating injuries. “Now that you’ve done this”, he said, “nothing on this trek will be difficult for you.” I told him that I sincerely hoped he was right because I felt as if all the energy in my body had been sucked out with the climb.
The route ahead was mercifully on a gentler incline and the landscape became gradually more ethereal. We walked through large verdant meadows, thick oak forests and misty alpine highlands. Soon, the sun became obscured by a bank of clouds that shrouded us in a blanket of white wrapping the trees and the hills in ghostly shades of grey. We took shelter inside a little hut made of stone and covered with a perfunctory plastic tarp where an old man made us tea while we waited out a sudden hailstorm that battered us.
After we resumed walking, the trail became significantly more brutal as we neared the Dhakuri pass where the steep climb through grassy slopes and jungly paths sliding through chestnut and oak forests was complicated further by the slippery terrain occasioned by the rain. While crossing another grassy hillside, we passed the grave of Peter Kost, a German trekker who suffered a cardiac arrest at the spot in 2000, a poignant reminder that not all walks in the mountains ended happily.
As I slipped and slid up to the vast, highland meadows at Dhakuri, I was greeted by a ginormous view of the Nanda Devi range hanging in the distance above and beyond the KMVN Tourist Rest House. It was the first time I had seen the Himalayas so close and all the pain and effort I had to put in to get here melted away. We rested at the Dhakuri Rest House for an hour, getting a meal of dal, roti, vegetables and numerous cups of tea and then resumed our journey to Khati.
When I returned to the market square, I saw a concert going on at the main thoroughfare where a Mizo rock band was playing to an audience of bystanders. It was impossible to tell how good they were because all I could hear was a loud pinging feedback from the speakers I was close to. This pinging resulted in a resounding ringing in my ears and for a few minutes I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing. I felt as if time had stood still and my head was doing a 360 degree move like one of those cinematographic shots from Gravity. When I snapped out of this reverie, I realised I couldn’t hear a thing and I feared I had gone deaf and just as I was beginning to run helter skelter in panic, a hand pulled me aside and threw me inside a shop.
It belonged to the lady who ran a small tea and snack store that doubled up as a sumo counter. A cup of tea landed on my table along with a yellow pill. The face of the lady who pulled me inside was staring at me to make sure I consumed the contents on the table. I was still dazed and dizzy from the ringing, so I gulped down the pill with the cup of hot, watery chai without thinking of the repercussions.
The pill worked. The ringing slowly subsided and I felt fresher and more energetic than before. I asked the lady how she knew what was wrong with me. She replied saying these impromptu gigs happened all the time and she had been a victim of some of these before. We made conversation as I ordered more cups of tea to celebrate my recovery. She wondered if I worked for the government and when I replied in the negative and told her I was merely a tourist taking pictures, she crinkled her eyes in suspicion and asked me why I had come all the way to Kolasib because there was nothing to see or do there. I told her I was wondering about that myself and that I liked boring towns to which she sighed unconvinced and pointed at the hilly range looming in distance and said I could go look at the lake from the Church if I wanted to.
So I went up to the Church located on a hillock down the road to have a look at the lake in the hills. While the view of the hills from here was magnificent, I could only see a hint of the lake and it wasn’t an ideal place to get pictures because the landscape was criss-crossed by the power lines in between. Then I saw some houses on the other side of the street which appeared to have a more direct view of the lake and the hills.
Now I’m hardly the sort of guy who would knock on a stranger’s door asking if I could get on their roof to take pictures but I don’t know if it was the tablets the woman had given me or a general adrenalin rush because that’s what I ended up doing. The woman who opened the door was understandably coy and perplexed at my request but went inside and got some big keys to open up a rusty lock on a wooden door that was broken up in 10 different places. On the terrace, I weaved between laundry lines to get to the edge to witness a glorious unobstructed scene of the Mizo mountains in the distance and the water body that spread between densely wooded lands below.
The lake was the result of the Serlui hydel power dam and in the evening light it was shimmering in myriad shades of blue to go with the honey orange hues that were filling up the forests around. The woman too had walked up to see what I had been doing and while she approved a picture or two that I had taken, went away thinking I had gone crazy as I stood there clicking a 100 more. Perhaps I “had” gone crazy because this beautiful scene ought to have been enjoyed by keeping the camera asida and sitting on a wooden chair gazing into the distance because when was I ever going to see these Mizo hills again?
When I got off the roof and hit the street again, I found the musically secular boys walking back to lodge. I assumed they were going to the wedding but they said they knew a spot to watch the sunset. So I tagged along and we took a road that turned right from the lodge to a wide playground that one of the boys said belong to a hostel for blind children. At the edge of the field, there was a grassy vantage point surrounded by trees and infested with mosquitoes that gave away views of distant hills, now glimmering and fading away in a misty orange glow as the sun set behind them. It was a glorious view, the sort the makes you want to live in a place and keep seeing it every day. I wanted to go back to the lady at the teashop who rescued my ears and show her the pictures to tell her my trip to Kolasib wasn’t so futile after all and that what I wanted to do was to spend many more days here taking in the languorous vibe of the place and do nothing.
But, alas, my permit was about to run out the next day and I did not wish to be rounded up for questioning for prolonging my stay further than I was allowed to. It wasn’t so easy to get this month long permit to roam the mountains here in the first place and I wanted to come back many more times and take in its chilled air and explore this most unexplored corner of India. The next morning, I went to the market and boarded the first Silchar bound vehicle that had an empty seat and left these beautiful hills once and for all.
The walk to the Markha Valley began with a cop-out. I wanted to do it alone, just with a rucksack for company and by public transport to the trail head. But no buses went to Zingchen where the long traverse to the Markha Valley began. Zingchen was not a settlement big enough to warrant these luxuries. An option was to walk from wherever the bus dropped me off on the highway but one look at the map and the mountainous wilderness that lay between the points was enough to dissuade me from the idea. So when I heard M and J, two great ladies from Australia, talk about doing the trek in the spacious confines of the restaurant at the Oriental Guest House in Leh, I threw my intrepid plans out of the window and joined in.
By the time I began this journey, I had spent over 2 months in Ladakh but I wasn’t quite used to the more surreal aspects of the Ladakhi weather. When we left Leh in our private taxi, the temperature was close to freezing but as we drove on the barren wilderness towards Zingchen, the sun was beating down our heads and there wasn’t a hint of a wind blowing our way. It became so hot that we had to tear down layers off our over-dressed bodies to beat the heat. It was singularly strange because the mountains around us were draped in thick stormy clouds bringing down rain and snow on their slopes, the very terrain we would be walking for over a week. These stormy portents did nothing to soothe our nerves.
The vehicle dropped us off near the edge of a plateau where a group of pack animals with big burdens on their backs were grazing by a little stream. M, J and I looked at this scene with contempt and thought, “Tourists.” But when I saw a familiar face amongst the group of people huddled together in the distance, I knew these weren’t mere tourists.
When you spend any length of time in a place, you become more recognizable to some of its denizens even if they may not know you very well. So it was with A, the Ladakhi girl I had met on the Sham Valley trek, who was now leading a Canadian wildlife conservationist on a recce of snow leopard terrain on the same route we were going. She worked with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Leh and part of her assignment was to make sure the parachute cafes (locally run tents serving tea, coffee, drinks and snacks to exhausted trekkers) on the route up to Ganda La were up and running. We made small talk and chit chat at the café by the dainty stream in Zingchen. I was hoping that we could follow her to make sure we were on the right trail but being citizens of the mountains and hence many times fitter, they were miles ahead while we were merely tottering behind stopping every few minutes to catch our breaths.
We hopped across raging streams on precipitous log-wood bridges, walked over slippery scree slopes avoiding nasty slips into deep ravines below, miraculously found ourselves on the right track after repeatedly losing our way on clearly marked trails, gaped at the crenelated bowl of mountains that surrounded us on all sides at all times, slipped through spectacular canyon gorges that looked like mythical doorways beckoning us to otherworldly landscapes, and wondered at the infinite geometric permutations that made the wildly different designs on the doorframes in the shepherd huts on the way possible.
Closer to Rumbak, at a wild turn on the blackened slopes, we caught up with A and her team. They were squinting with their binoculars at the rocky crags of a vertical mountainside a few miles away. To the naked eye, it was perplexing and I began to get a move on thinking the team had gone mad. But A lent me her binoculars and urged me to look more closely at some of the crags. I did and sure enough, the eye could see horned figures jumping from rock to rock vertiginously.
Bharals are a fairly common sight in the wilder parts of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayas. But the Canadian naturalist suspected they were argali, a terribly rare species of mountain goat. A was quite sure that they couldn’t be anything but bharal and seemed a bit exasperated at the naturalist’s stubbornness. A had grown up in Rumbak and had been watching these animals all her life, so no snooty Canadian was going to win an argument with her on her turf. Eventually, the Canadian had to concede grumpily and they moved on.
I had a closer encounter with the bharals a couple of miles ahead. There was a herd of them hanging right above the cliff we were under, impossibly balanced on sheer vertical slopes. Every time they moved a shower of scree would rain down and we had to run for cover. Neither the naturalist nor the team were too interested in this sight because they didn’t believe it was so special. M & J moved on as well while I lingered for a while watching these graceful creatures socialize and canter about the craggy cliffs. A meditative calm set upon me sitting all alone in the cold wilderness watching these wild goats hop from one rock to another. Every once in a while, the entire herd would look in my direction, perhaps wondering if this guy staring at their mundane routines had gone full loco.
In the outskirts of Rumbak, the women of the village were setting up the parachute tents for the season. They had lugged chairs, tables, cylinders, tent poles, food supplies etc. on their shoulders and the backs of ponies and now beckoned hungry trekkers like myself to stop by and have a cup of tea or maggi. It was a handy location for hardy trekkers who liked to camp closer to the high pass of Ganda La and wanted to take a break before pushing on without having to visit the village.
A gentle snowfall began to pepper the landscape as I trudged towards the village whose ancient stone walls were visible in the distance in the backdrop of the razor-sharp crags of the Stok range. Mani-walls and whitewashed stupas lined the entrance to the village. Some of the mud-caked walls were ornamented with horns of the myriad species of mountain goats found in the region, relics from a time when they were considered totems of fertility. The architecture of the village was typically Ladakhi, rectangular grey and white structures made of wood and stone, built to withstand extreme weather of all kinds. The fields, set in a little bowl of space surrounded by enormous mountains, were marked with crude wooden fences made from the lean poplar trees that one finds in abundance everywhere in Ladakh.
The homestays in the village were run by the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the homes were allotted to guests on a turn-based system. As it turned out, M & J were put up in a house at one end of the village while I was given a house at the other end. But instead of settling down in my allotted homestay, I dumped my rucksack in A’s house and went for a long walk towards the Stok mountains. Coarse, stony, sheep pens marked the other end of the village and they looked so beaten and battered by the weather that from a distance they took on the aspect of ruinous, forgotten old watchtowers crumbling in the shadow of an ancient landscape.
As I walked on, gentle rolling hills towered on my left glowing in rosy and amber hues while in the distance, the sharper edged mountains of the Stok range rose like an impenetrable wall, their peaks peppered with snow. I sat on a stony platform a few miles from the village away, it seemed, from all of humanity, admiring the enormity of this landscape. The silence here was so total that I was startled when I heard faint whistles and hoots in the distance.
Two villagers from Rumbak were descending down a distant slope with a herd of sheep. They were on their way back to the village from grazing in the mountains below the high pass of Stok La. This could have been a scene from a hundred years ago and the only element that gave away the fact that we were in the 21st century was the dust soaked winterwear the villagers had donned for protection from sub-zero temperatures. We walked together silently to Rumbak where they directed the sheep into some of the ramshackle pens I had seen on the way.
I got my rucksack back from A’s house and dutifully socialized with my hosts at the homestay. Ladakhis like to congregate not in their living rooms, but in their kitchens because of the natural warmth a lighted stove provides from the biting cold of the night. This particular kitchen was typical of a Ladakhi kitchen room with a mighty vertical stove in the cooking area and the walls covered top to bottom with shelves full of brass and copper utensils surrounded by colourfully decorated pots and pans.
T and S were delightfully warm and hospitable. I took a crash course in rolling momos to assist them in the cooking but after a couple of clumsily rolled balls, gave up because I didn’t wish to waste any more food. Food takes an inordinately long time to cook in the Ladakhi weather, so T indulged me in conversation to kill the time. He worked as a trail guide for wildlife conservationists who came to the village to go Snow Leopard watching and since Rumbak was strategically placed to provide the best opportunity to spot these elusive and secretive wild cats, work was never too hard to come by. One of his most cherished trips was with an intrepid National Geographic team that had set camp in the village to shoot a film on the wildlife in the area.
After they had done cooking the food, S worked away in a corner, stitching woollen socks meant to be sold to tourists during the peak season. Back then, I was terribly shy to use my camera on people but T & S urged me to shoot them knitting, laughing, posing for the camera. They were disarmingly good people whose warm hospitality made me think of extending my stay in the village.
But T had to go away to Leh on some work and S wouldn’t be around all day. If I had to extend, I would have to move to another house. The next village on the trail was merely two hours’ walk away and M & J wanted to get a move on as well. So off we trudged to the one-house village of Yurutse down the valley two mountain slopes away.
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.
On the top floor restaurant of my hotel in Darjeeling, P looked decidedly more upset and downbeat than I had ever seen her. She was fiddling with her phone at the payment desk in an attempt to look busy. The group of brash, young Australian backpackers had tested her patience with their disrespectful comments and crude behavior. They had pretended not to like the soup and momos they had ordered and were complaining incessantly like spoilt little brats about the lack of heating in the space. In response to their diatribe, she had provided them with additional hot water bags, given them a generous post check-in discount on their room and hadn’t charged them for the food they finished. On the way down to their rooms, when they thought she was out of earshot range, they laughed and hi-fived each other for having duped the woman into giving them a deal. But the wooden floors and the silence of the night had carried their voices all the way to the top floor.
I approached her desk tenderly on the pretext of getting some tissue paper to wipe my hands. She looked at me with a distressed look on her face and said, “My father would have thrown them out, you know. But I am not like my father.”
I had been staying in the hotel for over 3 weeks and we had seen each other every day at breakfast and dinner but had never interacted beyond the obligatory smiles and greetings. She was comfortable in her own shell and I was in mine, reading some book or staring vacantly at the Kanchenjunga. So I was somewhat shocked to see her open up to me the way she did.
Her father, I learnt, was an ex-Gurkha who had fought for the British Army. He was also a bibliophile who was responsible for decorating the restaurant with a sprawling library. He was an extrovert who liked to entertain his guests by talking to them as long as they wished and was meticulously attentive to their needs. But now, he was an old man living in their house in Siliguri leaving the business to his younger daughter. Being heavily introverted and completely disinterested in the whole business of running hotels, P was nothing like her father. She didn’t like interacting with guests and was happy doing her stitching, cooking and skyping with her daughter.
This brought her to the matter of her divorce. Her ex-husband was a powerful man in Gorkhaland and like some powerful men, he liked to throw his dick around. One day, after she had protested strongly, he broke all the furniture in the house, left and never came back. The divorce proceedings were messy and though he hardly attended any of the hearings, he was excused from paying alimony. Her daughter now lived in London with her brother’s family who had settled there and squeaked in a British accent whenever she came to visit her.
Considering all this, she found it thankless of her father to be so adamant on keeping the hotel a family-run business instead of leasing it to somebody else like most of the other hotels had done in Darjeeling. “It’s expensive, full of cheating and I don’t know accounts. So we lose money also. But he never listens!”, she said angrily. To cheer her up, I told her a few of my travel tales like the time I lost a phone in a train making the other passengers frantically look for it only to find it safely hidden away in a dark corner of my bag and the time when my big rucksack inadverdently bumped into an idli stall at a railway station spilling all the contents on the floor and being labeled a “bulldozer” as a result.
“I’m happy we are finally talking”, she said, “I see you every day but we never talk. You’re always busy in your book. These westerners are very artificial. My father loved talking to them and used to be a little rude to Bengali tourists because they were so demanding. But I think the Westerners are even worse. I feel they’re always making fun of you in their mind. At least, Bengalis are more honest. They will tell you what they think to your face.”
She had to interrupt her anthropological analysis when she realized that I hadn’t eaten dinner and made me a big plate of momos with generous bowls of soup. It was freezing inside and she brought a hot water bag to put under my feet to keep me warm. I felt less like a hotel guest than a close family friend who had come by for a visit and I told her that. She laughed and said, “If all guests were nice, I would have no problem running this hotel. It’s not that I don’t like this business but many people who come here speak rudely and that affects me. I don’t know how to handle that. My father never bothered about those things. No one spoke rudely to him because they were scared of him. I’m not scary. He would just throw people out if he didn’t like them.”
The next day, after a long exhausting stroll around the hills, I came back to my room to take a nap in the afternoon. I dozed off for a far longer time than I had planned to and woke up with a start when I heard someone banging at my door. It was the manager who manned the reception downstairs. “Didi wants to see you upstairs”, he said. Not knowing what to expect and expecting the worst as I’m always won’t to, I got dressed quickly and rushed upstairs.
She asked me to come over to the terrace where she lived. There, she had set up a table with a pot of hot tea and two mugs. It was one of the best vantage points in Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga range and the city below and I had come here innumerable times to take pictures. But today, it was a special evening.
“How could you stay in your room when the day is so beautiful,” she said, while pouring me a cuppa, “I thought you had gone for trekking but the manager told me you were back in your room. I was worried for you. I hope you are okay.”
The sky that day was truly special. Cirrocumulus clouds extended above us as far as we could see and in the distance, unobstructed, rose the Kanchenjunga. It’s five peaks could be clearly discerned and while we were quietly sipping away our cuppas, the entire spectrum of colours were seen reflected on the clouds and the Himalayan mountains in harmony with the setting sun. The scale of such a grand visual spectacle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Everywhere we looked, the colours were mixing, connecting, blending with and bleeding into each other, on the clouds, in the city below and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was like watching a giant abstract invisible paintbox at work and along with the pot of tea, the landscape, the warm hospitality, it became one of the most memorably beautiful evenings of my travels.
I thanked P profusely for waking me up from my slumber. She said she would have done it even if the sky wasn’t as spectacular as it was. She was leaving for Siliguri the next day and would be away for a few weeks leaving her managers to handle the business. “I don’t know when I will meet you again. You should come home and meet my father. He will like you very much because he also likes reading books like you. Give me a call if you come to Siliguri. You can come to my house and eat momos.”
In the weeks immediately after I left Darjeeling and traveled through the heart of West Bengal, people (both travelers and locals) appeared perplexed every time I waxed rhapsodies about what had become (and still is) my favourite place in the hills. And even though I have always recognized the indisputable fact that travel was that most subjective of life experiences, I found it hard to accept the way a lot of travelers I spoke with ran the place down as too crowded, polluted and chaotic to love. Maybe they didn’t see the sunsets I had seen or met the people I had met. Maybe the hotels were awful and they stayed in the crowded and noisy tourist area downtown but how could anyone not be exhilarated by the sight of Kanchenjunga, whose snow white peaks on some misty days appear to be suspended in the air high above the town.
I became so used to seeing the mountain every day that I took it for granted until the day I left when I caught a final glimpse of its magnificent architecture on the way down to Siliguri and as the road wound down towards the plains of Bengal, the lump in my throat got bigger and bigger.