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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Pokhara

The Greenline buses that shuttle between the tourist centers of Nepal are like cocoons that protect you from the everyday realities of travel in the country. The tickets are priced in dollars – the one from Sauraha to Lumbini cost me 23 dollars – and instead of stopping for lunch at the rows of cheap eateries at Mugling, you are taken to the Riverside Springs Resort at Kurintar for a buffet lunch that’s included in the ticket price. The buses are air-conditioned and the drivers are trained to go safely on the notoriously accident-prone roads. Your companions in the bus are going to be predominantly non-Nepalis and you land up in the bus stand near Lakeside, the tourist district of Pokhara instead of the one at Baglung Bus Park or Prithvi Chowk.

When I arrived at the bus stand, an army of hotel owners attacked me with lucrative deals, some with breakfast thrown in, some with bath-tubs, some with wifi. But I was in a tricky situation. DB had given me the address of a home-stay and I had called the owner, KC, the previous evening. His place was fully booked for a couple of nights and he had arranged a room for me at a hotel nearby. But he hadn’t told me where and I couldn’t get through to him. So, I hired a taxi to take me to Hallan Chowk, the main intersection in Lakeside where there was accommodation aplenty. Within a minute of my entering the taxi, KC called back and told me to go to Hotel Asia. This hotel was just a 5 -10 minute walk from the bus stand and we had already overshot it. The taxi driver had an impish smile on his face as he took the 250 Rupees off my hands, probably the most money he’ll ever make and I’ll ever pay for a 2 minute ride.

Hotel Asia looked like a big hotel, something I wasn’t in the mood for in a place like Pokhara. To dampen my enthusiasm even further, there was a big hotel under construction on the opposite side and the only sunny rooms in the complex were facing the abominable drilling going on in that building. I could have ditched KC and gone elsewhere but my conscience was getting prickly because KC had argued a great deal with the owner of the hotel for my stay here. So I took the room, which was bland, dull and business-like but quite clean with an LCD TV, free wifi, hot shower and tea-coffee makers. There was a UN vehicle parked outside the hotel which raised my self-esteem temporarily. KC came to meet me in my room to check if everything was alright and apologized profusely for not being able to accommodate me at his home. In the evening, the hotel was packed to the gills with package tourists from India – big, demanding families from Rajasthan and Gujarat creating much ruckus and noise.

I don’t learn from my mistakes very well and had procrastinated on work yet again. This time, I was up to my neck in deadlines and my laptop punished my lackadaisical attitude by overheating and refusing to boot. I was awake all night trying everything I could – taking the battery out, leaving the device to cool down for hours, refreshing Windows, resetting Windows, formatting the hard disk, reinstalling Windows – and nothing worked. The next morning, I unsuccessfully strolled around Lakeside looking for a place to fix it and then made a despairing call to KC asking for help. I was so screwed that I was ready to buy a new laptop as a last resort. KC knew of a place in Prithvi Chowk that could be of help and arranged for a vehicle to take me there.

The vehicle was a big micro-bus driven by a young Nepali boy dressed in a black leather jacket and ray bans. KC had called him saying he had to pick me up on very urgent business and he took the only vehicle that was available with him at the time to take me around. It felt odd to be the only passenger in such a massive vehicle driven by a guy who looked like a film-star. We vroomed into the computer repair store, which was a small, dusty, garage-like shed with a few laptops arranged haphazardly for sale. They were far more expensive than they ought to have been and I was hoping my laptop could somehow be fixed. The signs didn’t look good. There was a boy in the store who called himself DJ and tripled up as salesman, manager and techie. He confessed to me that he was just out of college and had learnt everything he knew on the job. Nevertheless, he pulled all the tricks he could and after a few hours of unsuccessful tweaking, said he would have to open it up to diagnose the problem. He had never seen my model before, so he went to youtube and took the laptop apart while looking at a video telling him how to do so. It all felt a bit like having a painful dental surgery being done in my molars by a trainee dentist googling for tips and tricks on his mobile phone. Anyway, DJ diagnosed the problem successfully. The heating vents had been clogged with dust and as he painstakingly removed every speck of dirt he could find from the dusty innards, I rued the needless sacrifice of 400 gigabytes of unbackup’d pictures and memories I had made the previous night while formatting my hard drive. DJ could see that I was upset and ordered a round of beers to cool my frayed nerves. Both the film-star driver and I appreciated the gesture, although I had to pay for the whole carton eventually. But I was thankful to DJ for having saved my ass, my laptop and a whole lot of money I would have spent on a grossly overpriced netbook.

The next day, I was supposed to check out of Hotel Asia and into KC’s place but KC had gone incommunicado and all my attempts to reach him were in vain. I did not want to stay in Hotel Asia because it was bland, sterile, sad, soulless and expensive, filled with the same sort of people I sought to escape when I left India. But I didn’t know where KC’s homestay was either. So I checked out and walked around Lakeside past numerous expensive resorts shopping for a decent place to stay. My Rough Guide highly recommended Nirvana Guest House, praising its “huge, thoughtfully decorated and spotless rooms overlooking spacious flower-strewn balconies and a garden”, so that’s where I went first. They offered me a good-sized room on the ground floor with a bathroom outside for 1200 NR. Too much, I said, and moved on. The street was packed with back-to-back hotels hazardously stuck to each other, all looking identical. I settled for the Eagle Nest Hotel for a room with an ensuite bathroom with hot shower and wifi for 700 NR.

As fate would have it, moments after I checked in, KC called me asking where I was. He was waiting for me in his home and had kept a room all mopped up and ready hoping I would arrive in the morning. Would I be coming home for lunch? I must be craving for some good home-cooked food, no? With a heavy heart, I told him about my predicament and he was understandably quite upset, more with the shitty network in Pokhara than my non-arrival. He had refused guests for my sake and the room will have to go vacant the rest of the day. I felt terrible and told him I would come by the next day to stay for a couple of weeks. This pacified him and I went about exploring ways to socialize in my new dwelling. My room was at the end of a narrow corridor near a little balcony. A Chinese guy and a Danish girl were smoking Marlboro’s and we talked about how eerie the buildings in this side of Pokhara looked. There was less than an inch of space between our building and the next and the balconies of two adjacent buildings were stuck together. We wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck here, something I would find out two months later.

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There are few places in the world that are better than Pokhara to comfortably linger while reading, writing, working and whiling away your time. The frenetic hotel searching, laptop fixing and proof reading had given me little time to enjoy the true pleasures of this beautiful Himalayan city by the lake but once I arrived in KC’s Shangri La Home Stay, my routine started falling in place. Shangri La was in a little alley in Lakeside South away from the touristic mayhem of Lakeside Central and was largely a quiet and peaceful place to live. I spent three glorious weeks here, eating didi’s delicious home-cooked food, lounging in the airy balcony, engaging with trekkers who often stayed here, reading and writing. Some days, when the sky was clear, KC would wake me up at 5.30 in the morning to look at the mountains in all their glory. From his rooftop, I could catch the sun rising over the mightiest peaks in the world, from the Dhaulagiri in the east through the Machchapuchhare and the Annapurnas to Manaslu way down in the west. The shimmering lake, the predominant feature of the city, was just down the road and on many gentle strolls by its promenade, I wondered if I would ever want to leave such a glorious setting.

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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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Nilgiri Journals Part 4 – Busy Days in Kotagiri

...and the best is the one you get from an open toilet
The view from an open toilet

Day 1 – A bus parks noisily behind me honking at me unnecessarily as it does so. A passenger jumps, whips out his willy and pisses into the valley below. Two more people slither out and follow his lead. 5 young boys (who probably think I don’t know Tamil) are staring at me and are wondering in hushed whispers which country I’m from. I stare back, they blush, laugh and walk away. Another man jumps out from his vehicle and relieves himself. Standing in the middle of this frenetic activity, I’m trying very hard to ignore the stench of urine and garbage and focus my attention on the magnificent landscape in front of me because this open toilet cum dumping ground opposite the Kotagiri bus stand commands the best views to be had in the town.

The Wesley Church
The Wesley Church

Day 2 – After spending an entire afternoon in peaceful solitude on the steps of the Wesleyan Church, I walked down the steep steps that lead from the Church to the little village of Kannerimukku. Here, in the 1880s a Mr. John Sullivan had the brilliant idea of building a bungalow, growing tea and kick-starting a tourist industry. It is now an impeccably maintained building that looks as good as a well-restored film print and is taken care of by an ex-Hindu scribe Dharmalingam Venugopal, who has also penned a guide-book on the Nilgiris. I didn’t meet him but I met M and G, the friendly Badaga brother and sister who showed me around the little museum whose “before-after” exhibits and picture galleries with shots of Indian politicians looking at the building were livened up only by M’s scrambled, incoherent yet enthusiastic commentary.

Sullivan's Memorial in Kannerimukku
Sullivan’s Memorial in Kannerimukku

Later, M (who was certainly a bit inebriated) took me to his home, served me awesome coffee, discussed football and Badaga rituals, introduced me to his kids who were just back from school, showed me off proudly as a “friend from Bumbaai” to all the people we met on the way and offered to hang out with me for the rest of my days in Kotagiri. His sister seemed embarrassed and apologized for her brother’s “openness”. I didn’t know what to say and mumbling some thank yous, walked back to Kotagiri.

Tengumarada village
Tengumarada village

Day 3 -The wind was lashing my face with what seemed like a lot of wrath and anger but I was finding it very hard to look away from the spectacular landscape that lay before me. On my left were the Talamalai Hills beyond which one could see the villages of the Mysore Plateau. Down below was the village of Tengumarada, remote and isolated, hemmed in by the walls of Talamalai on one side and the winding Moyar river on the other. The women who ran the tourist café seemed bored and started filling me with anecdotal information like how Bharathiraja, the Tamil film director, loves to shoot in Tengumarada. In front of me rose the insurmountably tall Rangaswamy Pillar and the Rangaswamy Peak which fell steeply to the plains below where the waters of the Moyar river had been dammed to form the Bhavani Sagar reservoir. This was the Kodanad view-point, among the best of its ilk. During a conversation with an idle forest guard, I mentioned that the views were somewhat hazy and he advised me to come at dawn when they are much clearer. I mulled staying at the desolate Deccan Valley View Hotel near the view-point but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. Lonely nights in a lonely place are just not my thing.

The Kodanad Viewpoint
The Kodanad Viewpoint

The view was still extraordinarily beautiful though and as I was taking in its beautiful extraordinariness, a Gujarati family led by a patriarch trotted up purposefully. He was a businessman who had lived in Coimbatore for the last 50 years and certainly preferred the life there compared to the one he had in Ahmedabad when he was a young man. He spoke to his wife in Tamil but in Gujarati to his brother and sister-in-law and gave me crucial life-lessons (in Tamil) – “Marry a girl who wants to live here, not in Mumbai”, “Better still, take a girl from here, get married and show her to your parents. It’ll be a load off their shoulders”, “Youngsters these days think sex is everything, but you have to love first”, “We Indians are still backward and afraid when it comes to making moves, that’s why rapes happen so often nowadays”, “When we were young, the women used to do all the household work. They used to get a lot of exercise. Now, everyone has a maid in the house thanks to feminism and all that. That’s why they’re so weak. Women of my generation would fight back boldly.” etc. etc. He promptly took his leave when his wife yelled at him to get back into the car so they can go shop for tea in Kotagiri.

The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri
The few remaining shola forests in Kotagiri

Day 4 – I took a walk to the Longwood Shola which is one of the only shola forests that exist close to Kotagiri. As I walked in some general direction, I thought I had lost my way. So I asked a gentleman who was just parking his car where the Forest Office was. After enlightening me of its location, he asked me if I’d like to have some tea. So, instead of going ahead and taking a nice walk in the forests in good weather, I spent the whole afternoon drinking tea and talking to him. He was a pharmacist and Kotagiri being a small town where everyone knew everyone else very well, started filling me in on unnecessary details about the life of the owner of my guest house. After a few hours of idle gossip about his family life, adventures in Sharjah and Dubai, more cups of tea, plans for the new house he’s building, some cookies, lunch, a tour of family albums and a lot of other nonsense, I bid farewell. It had started raining by now, very heavily too, and it was getting late. Yet, I soldiered on to the Forest Office, met C, the super-friendly caretaker of the Forest Rest House there and drank more tea with him. He laughed when I said I wanted to see the Longwood Shola saying I should have been there earlier because the whole track would be covered with leeches after the rains. I told him very quickly about my little time-wasting session with the gentle pharmacist and he shook his head and agreed to take me on a little tour. We walked for a little while inside the thickest forests I’d walked this side of Taman Negara and C very excitedly showed me some Malabar Giant Squirrels, leopard tracks, bison shit, porcupine squills, some mynas and some red-whiskered bulbuls. I’m definitely going back to Longwood Shola someday.

I wouldn’t have made any of those trips if my stay at the “Heavenly Stay” had been truly heavenly. It was a little lodge-like place, very clean, overlooking a not-very-busy road but the hammering noise from the construction site next door made sure I didn’t spend any time in my room during the day (the nights were quiet and peaceful). At 750 Rs. a night, it was also the most expensive place I’d stayed in the Nilgiris with little of the homely atmosphere that even an institution like the YWCA managed. The family was friendly and helpful enough but I wish they were visible more often. D, the care-taker, was among the more annoying people I’d met. If I spent even a couple of hours in the room during the day, he would either look very suspiciously (I don’t know why) or very pitifully (because I was alone). His typical “Good morning” message went something like this – “Good morning (beaming smile). So what are you doing today? It must be very sad being alone, no? Where are your friends?” My trips out of my room were primarily a way to convince him that I was “doing something” in Kotagiri and was “happy”. And, just for that, thank you, D! Caveats aside, it certainly is a good value place to spend time when you’re in Kotagiri.

Climb a few meters above Heavenly Stay to Luke's Church and you get this view
A small, clean, open and charming place, like all hill stations ought to be

Kotagiri is the smallest, cleanest and the most pleasant of all the Nilgiri Hill Stations. It doesn’t have the polluted haze of Coonoor and Ooty and the people (even D!) go out of their way to be open and friendly. My favourite haunt here was the Friend’s Bakery which was hugely popular with locals. It had a little café where the evenings were spent discussing World Cup matches, politics, DMK-AIADMK wars, movies –why Rajnikant is awesome, why Vijayakant is awesome, why Tamil movies are the best movies in the world, gossip – why so-and-so person working in the PWD didn’t get his pension, how this man was ruining his family by piling on debt, more gossip and more politics. In a way, it made me feel warmly nostalgic for the small Himalayan towns and villages in that, in many ways, the people in these hills weren’t so different from the easy-going, affable people one encounters in the Himalayas. Once the altitude drops and the population rises, the smiles start to disappear and the faces appear more tense and unhappy.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 2 – Being an account of two days spent around Coonoor

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The view from Lady Canning’s Seat

Of the 5 weeks I’ve spent in the Nilgiris so far, 3 have been in Coonoor. Thanks to ennui, laziness and the peaceful confines of the YWCA Wyoming, only two days out of the 21 were spent traveling around the town and they too happened only because of coincidentally timely visits by a few friends.

One of them was a drive around Wellington with A and P (you know who you are if you’re reading this), through the military area and the golf course, to a little puddle with paddle boats they called the “Wellington Lake” and then to a nice property they had stayed at called Tea Nest which had big rooms, friendly staff and delivered gorgeous views, sprawling tea estates, massive hills in the distance, good tea and a story about a bear that likes to pay a visit every now and then.

The cloudy drive to Dolphin's Nose
The cloudy drive to Dolphin’s Nose

The other was a trip with D to Dolphin’s Nose, Lamb’s Rock and Lady Canning’s Seat two days before I left the town for good. We could see nothing but walls of clouds around us when we were on our way and I began to think it was a terrible idea to do the trip in that weather. But thankfully, once we reached Dolphin’s Nose, some of the mist had cleared and while the views were still somewhat hazy, one could see all the way down to Mettupalayam and Coimbatore in the plains below. M, our rickshaw driver, insisted that there was a map of India imprinted in the landscape somewhere. I squinted hard but couldn’t see anything so cartographically precise but when he started getting agitated and directing my eyes to every hazy outline decipherable below, everything I saw started resembling a map of India in one way or the other. I pretended to see whatever he wanted me to see to get rid of him momentarily and break out of bizarre illusions.

"They haven't evolved much, have they?", says the monkey watching humans litter
“They haven’t evolved much, have they?”, says the monkey watching humans litter

While we were standing there admiring the view and ignoring resident primates and trigger-happy tourists, M started telling us about a traumatic incident he witnessed a few years back. He had come here with some gullible tourists and was showing them the landscaped map of India. A young couple were sitting on a rock behind the view-point having what he felt was a leisurely chat. Suddenly, the boy (of the couple) walked down calmly and jumped into the valley below. I asked him if this is what passed for “suicide point” in this area and he laughed and said that the suicide point was on the other side of the hill where even more gruesome events were known to happen. I discovered that vertiginous suicides were one of M’s pet obsessions when he tried to convince me that Lamb’s Rock was so named because a certain Mr. Lamb jumped from his eponymous rock, which is utter nonsense as I learned from a little google research later.

Stopping jilted lovers jumping over
Stopping jilted lovers jumping over

Our next stop was Lady Canning’s Seat and I could already sense a fidgety impatience in M when he started playing loud Tamil songs and telling us that there was nothing to “see” there. But we wanted to tick all the boxes, so up we climbed the desolately mossy steps to a “seat” that was scratched and scribbled with notes of people who must have wanted to record their memories in stone. D wondered why it was called “Lady Canning’s Seat” to which I cunningly replied that it must have been because a Lady Canning sat there. We had the whole place to ourselves and the clouds were doing a ballet in the air waltzing over the villages and estates below creating a dreamscape that stays in your head long after but is impossible to photograph (with my limited skills anyway)

Watching reptiles at Lamb's Rock
Our reptilian friends at Lamb’s Rock

We then merrily hopped towards Lamb’s Rock, where M issued a stern warning to us to make it quick because we were going regularly over the “time limit”. But Lamb’s Rock proved to be the place we lingered the most, not because of the views, which were just a slight variation of the views you get from Dolphin’s Nose, but because I started developing a sudden interest in herpetology. Down on the rocky cliff were many multi-coloured reptiles basking in the sun safe in the knowledge that no human being would be stupid enough to venture where they were. After spending an inordinately long time watching and taking pictures of the many lizards on the rocks (some extremely well-camouflaged), we remembered M’s grumblings and hustled back.

More herpetology
More herpetology

M’s rickshaw started rebelling against him as it sputtered and stuttered to a halt. He rather somberly shut the music down and started focusing on solving the problem at hand while we were solemnly contemplating walking the 8 kms back. D had foreseen this much earlier but we hadn’t done anything about it. Would our inaction bite us in the ass? Fortunately for us, M solved the problem soon enough and we romped home.

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It’s all about the view in Yercaud

A view from Yercaud

After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.

I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.

To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed  to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.

But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.

Another view from Yercaud

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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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Getting out of Sarahan

A glorious greeting

Most people travel to Sarahan for the spectacularly located Bhimakali Temple and I was no exception. That’s all I had wanted to do, spend a day or two in the serene surroundings of the temple guest house and move on to more exciting things in life, like a short trek in Kinnaur or home-stays in Spiti. Only, I ended up spending a week at the Bhimakali Temple out of sheer inertia.

The village of Sarahan is a dull cluster of dhabas, hotels and a few shabby under-construction guest houses set around the temple. Apart from the odd pack of Israeli backpackers and a Bengali family or two, there was a feeling of desolation here that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere in the Himalayas. Although the views from my verandah were fantastic and living within the grand architecture of the temple precincts was a unique experience, things were beginning to get depressing. I started feeling sad and angry for not getting a move on especially when it was so easy to get a move on with buses leaving regularly for the places I wanted to go.

Bhimakali temple at Sarahan

But the baba had an explanation for it. I was “meant” to have stayed longer than I wished to because I had no choice in the matter. We were “meant” to have met at the temple and he was “meant” to be there to show me the right path. He looked ancient, with a long scraggly beard that extended all the way down to his waist. He was so skeletal in appearance that I felt he grew his beard that long just to cover his bones. He was upset about his previous disciple deserting him on the way to Kedarnath leaving him to fend for himself and I started to get the impression that I was being measured up as a replacement.

I accompanied him for a walk into the forests, him effortlessly walking barefoot, me in my Coleman boots struggling to keep pace. After expounding much on the Upanishads and mythological lore, a lot of which flew over my head, he advised me to do a trek to the lofty peak of Shrikhant Mahadev and said, “I have been to all the abodes of Lord Shiva but none have the ability to make your blood freeze, your feet bleed, your inner systems growel like the Shrikhant Mahadev. At this time of the year, the snow would bury you up to your neck and treacherous crevices could open up at every turn. If you harbour evil thoughts, you will certainly be swallowed by the mountain. But if you have a pure soul, the grace of God will keep your body warm and show you the way. I can help to purify your soul. You can spend months here in these beautiful mountains and get your soul cleansed with the beautiful air and a good diet of fresh fruits and herbs. If you take care of me well enough, we can go climb that mountain together.”

The Shrikant Mahadev Peak from Sarahan

Feeling a little (unjustifiably) creeped out, I told him politely, “I don’t have the faith or ability to live like you do but am highly thankful for your offer to take me into your fold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run because a friend is waiting for me in the village to take me to Rampur. Again, thank you and good-bye!” I scurried down to my room in the temple guest house, packed my bags and hitch-hiked in a milk van out of Sarahan into Kinnaur.

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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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