Rumbak

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rishikesh #3 – Joseph and the “Beetles”

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series. Do check out #1 and #2.

Everything I knew about Joseph was second hand information that had filtered through multiple conversations with the ashram gossip machine named Jasbir.

Joseph was disillusioned with life and love after his ex-girlfriend had dumped him when she found out he was cheating on her with two other girls. After this event, he realized that she was the girl he was truly in love with and that he needed to “fix” his playboy traits and work at being a decent human being to get her back in his life. But there appeared to be no one to guide him along this path as all his friends had the same sexual perversions he did and far from making him remedy his path, they believed the only way to feel better was to fuck around even more. Fucking around was apparently easy for Joseph because women were just queuing up to get into bed with him. After half a dozen one night stands, each more depressing than the last, he had had enough and left Vasco in search of spiritual solace.

Looking at Joseph, his curly hair, somewhat visible paunch and shy, contemplative, aloof demeanor, it was difficult to believe that he was this debonair playboy that he claimed he was. Nevertheless, he left Vasco not for the Himalayas but Arambol in North Goa for some peace and quiet. There, between blurry drinkathons, heavy pot smoking and more depressing sex, he was directed by an Italian backpacker towards the Osho ashram in Pune. Joseph was sceptical about going to Pune because he thought it would only mean more sex and less spiritual growth but the Italian convinced him to disregard the scandalous rumours about the place and go for it because the Osho style was all about meditation and zen.

Joseph spent 2 weeks at the Osho ashram. He was initially taken aback at the HIV tests and the orientation course for Indian people teaching them how to behave but he went with the flow. The Italian guy appeared to be right. At the beginning, all he did was meditate in the mornings and join in the celebrations and the parties in the evenings which were completely asexual. He found the people at the ashram amiable, open and easy to talk to. He also felt like his mind had expanded with peace and love and was on the verge of indulging in more meaningful experiences. Soon, he got talking to a Spanish girl who was open to his overtures despite the stringent warnings issued to foreigners by the ashram authorities to be wary of “local” people.

This, he felt, was true love because for the first time since his girlfriend had left him, he felt compassion for another human being. But, alas, it would be short lived. The Osho ashram was an expensive place to live and many of the ashram guests stayed at budget lodgings elsewhere. Joseph was 25 years old and jobless and had chosen to dwell in relative luxury at the Osho resort with his new Spanish girlfriend. He had been spending his father’s money and while his father was quite a wealthy man, some wealthy people don’t like their kids emptying their hard-earned bank accounts like drinking water down the drain. Joseph’s father called him one afternoon and told him that if he doesn’t return to Vasco immediately and help with family business, he won’t be giving his son any more money. Joseph then thought it fit to inform him about the Spanish girlfriend he was courting at the Osho ashram and his plans to marry this woman. His father became furious and cut off all access to his credit card.

Joseph had about 50,000 Rupees left in his bank account and had no choice but to leave the ashram. His girlfriend left him the moment he told her the truth and he became a broken man again. He was angry at his father for putting him in this situation and resolved never to go back. Miserable and forlorn, he spent the next two days on the platform of the Pune Railway station subsisting on 15 rupee Janata meals and sleeping on platform benches. One evening, he saw a saffron clad baba gently stroking his rudraksh mala while sitting on a bench next to him. This sight appeared to bring a semblance of hope to his crushed soul and he followed the baba in a crowded unreserved compartment to Ujjain and then to Haridwar. The baba refused to take him as a disciple as he didn’t feel Joseph was ready for the rigours of spiritual penance yet. But he didn’t abandon him entirely as he directed him towards the basic courses taught by his good friend Swami D at his Swarg Ashram abode. In its spartan setting, he got by on less than 200 rupees a day while filling the religious vacuum in his head.

The Ganga café and The Last Chance café on the way to the Beatles ashram at one end of Swarashram were favourites among the Ram Jhula side travelers. The Last Chance Café promised “good vibrations” and “jam sessions” and was popular among the more colourfully hippie Rishikesh dwellers, some of whom considered themselves to be spiritual descendants of Bob Marley. The Ganga cafe was close to the river, outdoors, where the food was clean and backpacker friendly without having the sort of overloaded multicuisine menu that you found elsewhere in the town and had a pleasing vibe for the less colourful travelers who could sit freely smoking hash, discussing ashram politics, dipping into the travel grapevine, swapping stories etc.

One day I was sitting at the Ganga cafe with Joseph talking about life and love and all that sort of thing when two white men ran inside, dropped their daypacks on the ground, took off their shirts in a tearing hurry and jumped into the river. Another Japanese man followed, took off all his clothes except for his undies and rolled on the sandy floor writhing in pain. A woman came limping in howling with agony, sat down, probably realised she had to respect the sensibilities of the cultural and religious hub she was in and couldn’t do what the guys did, put her head on the table and weeped uncontrollably. The Japanese guy then got up, went into the kitchen and began frantically begging for ice. But there wasn’t any ice to be found as the people inside cooking our food looked as puzzled and amused as the rest of us. He kicked the tables and screamed in agony.

Mike, Dan, Hiroko and Catherine, who had invaded our café in distress, had been staying in a cheap guest house in the Lakshman Jhula area and had walked all the way here to visit the now dilapidated Beatles ashram. While exploring some of its more hidden and ruinous crevices, Hiroko had disturbed an active beehive and as a result, they got stung by bees all over their bodies. Mike, when he had sufficiently recovered from his stings smirked and said, “Now we could tell people we went to the ‘Beetles’ Ashram. Get it? Beetles?” It was our turn to groan in agony.

Catherine was still in a bad mood and had slumped on her table all by herself. No one had the nerve or the interest to go up to her to ask how she was. No one other than Joseph i.e. While other people and I were chatting up and joking around with Mike, Dan and Hiroko, Joseph had slunk away to Catherine and began sweet-talking her. I felt like he was a completely different man to the one I knew over 3 days. He was gregarious, lively, humorous. It was the first time any of the stories I heard from Jasbir rang true. In a few minutes, both had disappeared from the café.

I would learn later that evening that Joseph came by the ashram, took all his belongings and checked out of the place. It would be an entire week before any of us would see him again.

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The pros and cons of a traveling life

Although I tend to look at people who talk about the transformative nature of travel with a hint of cynicism, I feel like I’ve myself been transformed considerably by the freewheeling life I’ve been leading over the past several years. And I’m not sure if it’s always been a good thing.

The positive aspects are many – the repository of incidents, people, places, landscapes, experiences is so huge that I feel like I’ve lived many lives already and even if I don’t do a single thing from today, I’ll most likely not have any regrets. I’ve been writing vigorously over the past several days, poring over my notes, recounting and remembering people and events, feeling utterly nostalgic, about Ladakh, Vietnam, Laos, Nagaland, Darjeeling, Sri Lanka, Hampi and I feel enormously fortunate for having been able to travel so freely and for so long. There are bad days on the road, lonely, depressing days, but it’s never difficult to overcome them because with every new place, you surround yourself with new people and a new setting to refresh yourself. I’ve never been stuck for very long during my travels and if I have been in one place for too long, it’s only because I wanted to.

But having traveled for as long and as relentlessly as I have, it’s becoming more difficult with each journey to come back home. Nowadays, I just go into a shell when I’m in Mumbai or Chennai. While earlier, when I was working in Mumbai, I used to be enthusiastic to go hang out with friends, binge on movie marathons in Fort and Colaba, eat and drink out at every available opportunity, now it’s all about conserving money for the next trip because money is a necessity and the next trip can’t come soon enough. So life here is an oppressive kind of monotony where I feel like I’m the antagonist to the character that I am when I’m traveling. There’s also little that I find that I can connect to here and the distance and the effort it takes to commute around the city takes a toll on me that it doesn’t in other places. Even on those rare social interactions, a sort of listlessness or boredom takes over. Sometimes, it’s because I feel the pressure to live up to the “traveler” tag which means I’m supposed to come up with a funny story at the drop of a hat and other times, it’s the retread of the same conversation a group of us might have had innumerable times. There was a time I used to take pleasure in these things but it just doesn’t feel good enough anymore.

Travel, at least for me, has an exciting journalistic aspect to it. You ask a lot of questions, try to find out about new places, hear out new stories and points of view, take a lot of pictures and I’m sure that can be done at home as well. But along with people who live in a place, you mingle with many of the travelers passing through. I guess, even though I bitch about their ways very often, I miss those interactions with people who tell you where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing and the things they’ve seen while you tell them about yourself. There’s an openness, warmth and unpredictability to these conversations that I miss dearly when I’m back home. Long term travel is addictive because people like myself can never have enough of it and once you’re used to it, you feel like a very strange person in a static, workaday world when you’re back home.

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