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.
It was 5 am and D frantically tried to wake me up to get ready to go to Kafni glacier. There aren’t many people I have hated in my life more than I hated him then. We had to leave immediately if we were to do the trek and return, he said, as he began peeling away the heap of blankets I had crawled under. As I wiped my groggy eyes, a thin gust of air blew in through the door and a frosty cold pierced my feather jacket to strike my bones causing me to wince painfully. I could barely stand up because my feet were swollen with blisters and the cold was making them hurt more. I saw AR sleeping peacefully under a mountain of blankets in a corner. He had been more enthusiastic about going to Kafni than I was when we spoke the previous evening. So I gently poked him to ask if he wanted to go but he was so deep asleep that it was like talking to a piece of corpulent log.
I told D I didn’t want to go because my feet were hurting so bad I didn’t think they could withstand another long day of trekking. D sighed in exasperation, shook his head in disdain and went away. I crawled back into my blankets and went back to sleep. Kafni glacier would always be there, I thought, and I could come back any time I wished. Except I never did and in the 10 years since that day, the glacier has perhaps retreated further into the mountains.
I woke up only when D entered the room with a cup of bed tea at 10 am and shook me awake shouting, “How long do you plan on sleeping? Another big group is coming. We have to get going. Come on!”
As I got up, my blisters were still painfully hurting. “I don’t think I can walk today”, I said mournfully. “Stop being a crybaby”, D said, “I have an ointment that you can put on your blisters and they’ll stop hurting. You should never trek so much with new shoes. Your sweat gets trapped in your socks and when the hard edges of the inner layers of your shoes poke the sweaty socks, they make your feet swell up with fluid. Sometimes they can be very dangerous and even cripple you for life.”
“So maybe I shouldn’t walk today if that’s the case”, I said, nervously gulping down the cup of tea, “I don’t want to lose my legs.”
“Oh don’t worry about that”, he said, “I won’t let anything happen to you. I’m trained in dealing with medical emergencies. Once a man much older than you sprained his foot after slipping on the ice near Zero Point. He had a hairline fracture but I hired a pony and made sure he got to a hospital safely. You only have blisters. In any case, you don’t have a choice. Another big group is coming and they have already booked the whole place. So you’ll have to leave anyway.”
I got out of the bed and walked to the restaurant area. It was populated by a small, chirpy group of school kids who had chosen to skip the trek to Kafni. D took this opportunity to taunt me in front of this group saying, “These kids are just like you, too lazy to walk.” This drew the attention of the kids towards me. A rowdy subgroup among these felt some time could be killed by trolling the wimpy adult.
“Why didn’t you go to Kafni?”, a girl asked.
“Why didn’t YOU go to Kafni?”, I asked.
“She asked first”, her friend said.
“Because I have painful blisters on my feet.”
“I haven’t broken into my shoes yet. You want to see?”
“No. Why don’t you have good shoes?”
“Because you don’t get good shoes here. But even good shoes wouldn’t have saved me.”
“Because shoes take time to break into. And I bought these before the trek.”
“And you didn’t know that? Even we knew that before we came here. We all got good shoes.”
“So what’s your excuse?”, I said, a bit miffed, “Why didn’t you go?”
“We have fever.”
“So all of you have fever?”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“But it’s better than your excuse.”
This went on for the next half an hour and might have gone on all day had AR not interrupted the conversation to tell me he was leaving for Khati. I quickly finished my bowl of maggi and followed him to the background music of mocking laughter.
We walked back to Khati the same way we came, through undulating ridges, dainty river banks, perilous log bridges and thickly forested trails. It was only when we reached the TRH on the steep hillside high above the village that I realised we had taken a different route. D hadn’t said anything about accommodation in the village and I didn’t know where he was because I had no signal on my phone and had lost track of him soon after leaving Dwali. But the caretaker here was so friendly, welcoming us with a big smile and cups of chai, that I didn’t feel like going back to the village to look for D. The caretaker seemed untroubled by this communication breakdown. He felt D would eventually figure it out and come to the TRH if he had any brains.
There was ample space at the Khati TRH with AR and I having the entire space to ourselves. We were sitting outside in the grassy open area sipping chai when we heard loud grunts coming from below us. It emanated from a tall, Caucasian male laboriously dragging himself up the hillside with two walking poles. Behind him was a much fitter Indian woman who walked up the steep staircase like she was taking a stroll on a beach. The Caucasian man collapsed onto a chair as soon as he reached the top and threw a panicky fit when he realised that the hydration pack on his rucksack had run out of water. He frantically cried out for drinking water which shocked the caretaker into running inside to get two big jugs full of it.
In the meantime, D came running from the distance looking very worried and angry. Why didn’t I go down to the village?, he said. He began a long rant about how he had made arrangements at the local headman’s house and how he could have taken me on a short hike to a hilltop for mountain views but he stopped when he saw R, the Caucasian man, emptying an entire jug of water down his throat. He walked up to him, introduced himself as a top himalayan guide and began to name drop trekking routes and mountain names. But all R wished to know was if it was possible to find a bottle of whiskey somewhere in the village. D wasn’t sure about whiskey but he said he would gleefully run down to the village and get something “strong”.
R and B, the Caucasian man and Indian woman, turned out to be friendly folks who loved to talk. R particularly didn’t like to shut up, especially after D had come running up with two large bottles of rum. He was from Germany and had married B and settled down in a small village in Goa. He claimed to be an avowed lover of nature, who hated big cities and loved to wander around the mountains with his family. The Annapurna Circuit was his favourite and we were subjected to a long narrative of their trek and a detailed account of how brave their kids were to do the trek with them. He lamented the fact that the Nepal Government were building a road over the trail to connect all the villages and almost burst into tears thinking about all the pristine wildernesses that would be lost to this ugly development.
However, it didn’t take many rum shots for this environmental facade to fall. He soon revealed that he worked in real estate and was continually frustrated by the extent of corruption in India. Some of the projects he had been working on were deep inside Goan forests and it had been terribly difficult to get permits for those. He was especially troubled by the decline in the mining industry and how it was becoming more and more difficult to mine for iron in the Goan hills. Neither of us probed this environmental duplicity because R was a man who had a lot to say but wasn’t particularly interested in listening to what you had to think of his thoughts.
But the conversation was good fun and relieved much of the physical stress of the days before. We lost count of the hours we spent talking and went inside only when it began to rain well past midnight. That was when I realised I had been sitting in my trekking shorts and sweatshirt the entire time. The alcohol and conversation had numbed my senses into feeling a false sense of warmth. My bones were quivering in the cold and a spectacular shiver ran down my spine. I quickly put on whatever clothes I could find and slipped into a sleeping bag to slumber into a deep sleep.
Huffing and puffing up a long, steep, slippery slope, AR and I reached the edge of the Zero Point in front of which, a razor sharp, scree-ridden slope led our eyes deep into the valley below and the glacial wildernesses beyond. Unfit mortals like myself weren’t allowed to venture ahead of this area and for very good reason. Just standing there staring at the slender thread of the Pindari river snaking through the barren, snow-capped gorge was enough to give me a vertigo attack.
“That’s Nanda Khat, that’s Nanda Kot and that’s Pindari glacier,” said D, perfunctorily pointing out the hazy peaks in the Himalayan panorama visible in front of us. While the view might have impressed anyone just waltzing into the place, having toiled long and hard for 3 days, fighting hunger, lack of sleep and the sort of body aches I never knew a human being could endure, my expectations were obscenely high and they found these views underwhelming. To make matters worse, my camera stopped working and I felt like all the hard work I had put in to get there was futile.
D might have sensed the disappointment writ large on my face because he saw a ripe opportunity to throw more salt on my wounds. He said, “The views aren’t great today. But if you had come in October, it would have been much better. It’s all crystal clear that time of the year. That ridge you see next to the Pindari Glacier is the Traill’s Pass. When you lose 20 kilos, get fitter and buy a good camera, I’ll take you there.” I was weary and tired but I summoned all the energy I had to give him as fearsome a death stare as I could.
We walked back down the rocky hillside to meet the most famous resident on the Pindari trail, the Pindari baba. The baba was born in Orissa but after years of wanderings, he became a disciple of an aged guru and took a vow of asceticism. One day, his wanderings took him to the icy wildernesses of the Zero Point. He was so impressed with the landscapes here that he chose to make it his abode for life.
The baba had been living alone in his modest little wood-and-stone ashram for over 20 years. D said some of the people in the villages had weird theories about him. Some suspected he was a CBI agent, some thought he got funding from foreign NGOs, some felt he was a spy. But what he did know was that the baba could speak over 36 languages fluently and did a lot of work with the schools in the villages to spread education and improve infrastructure.
When AR, D and I entered the ashram, Pindari baba greeted us with a plate of dal-rice and endless cups of tea. He was a gentle, cheerful man, very curious, uninhibited and open to conversation.
“We’ve heard a lot about you”, I said.
“Haha I don’t know what you’ve heard. People say all kinds of things about me. Most of it is untrue. I’m just a simple man living a simple life.”
“How do you speak 36 languages?”
“I can speak more than 36 languages. Many foreigners come here. I talk to every single one of them and try to learn as much as I can. What’s the point of life if you stop learning?”
“Don’t you ever feel afraid or lonely living alone?”
“Everyone asks me this. But what do I have to fear? Every morning I go down to the river to collect water and watch the bharal (wild sheep) grazing on the high mountain slopes. If you had come here earlier, you could also have seen them. Then the trekkers keep coming during the day. After people leave in the afternoon, I have all the time to myself. There’s no one to disturb me. I do my meditation, prayer and a lot of reading. People keep sending me books. Just a minute, I have something to show you.”
He went inside and got a hard cover copy of a book called “Spies in the Himalayas” by M.S. Kohli.
“I just got this book last week. Do you know there’s a nuclear device hidden in the Himalayas? This book gives you all the details. The Indian Government tried to install a plutonium device in the 60s to spy on Chinese nuclear instalments but they somehow lost it and haven’t been able to find it ever since. Why do you think people aren’t allowed to go close to the Nanda Devi mountain? It’s because the radiations might kill you. You should read it. It’s about the deepest secrets hidden in the Himalayas. The author was in the army before. So he knows what he’s saying.”
I would have loved to spend an entire day chatting with the baba but we had a long walk ahead of us. D was especially anxious to get going because he wanted to cross the snowfields on the way before they began melting in the afternoon sun. Walking back in the thick forest, I was consumed by the idea of living alone in the wilderness and entertained thoughts about living a simple life satisfying only my basic needs. I asked D what he thought of these ideas.
“Terrible”, he said, sounding decidedly unimpressed, “First of all, many tourists, especially foreigners, try to do this after seeing babas in the Himalayas. No one survives for more than a few days because it is impossible to live alone for so long. Pindari baba is good and I don’t want to say anything bad about him but there are many babas like him in the Himalayas and not all of them are genuine. Many of them hardly ever stay for winters and have a lot of money in the bank account. They have connections, investments, back up plans and are as materialistic as you are. Some even have money to visit Europe every year. So if someone like you wants to do it, without any tapasya (meditation) or training, you have to have a business plan in place.”
“I wasn’t talking about becoming a baba. I only wondered if it’s possible to build a hut and settle down in the mountains somewhere and live peacefully for the rest of my life.”
“That’s even worse. You’ll kill yourself in a few days. You won’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t look like you fast a lot and you probably don’t know how to grow food either, so what will you do? I have a better idea for you. Come here every year, have fun, spend a few peaceful days walking in the mountains and go back home to your wife and children. Better still, bring them with you. You’re 28 years old. It’s about time you got married. Then you’ll be so busy your mind won’t think of these stupid ideas.”
As we were walking and conversing, the long trail of school children walked ahead of us. One of the kids was traveling on top of a mule, crying uncontrollably. She had twisted her foot close to Zero Point and was unable to walk any further. The mule walked awkwardly and every few steps, it would jerk around and one of its legs would threaten to slide down the trail deep into the gorge below. The girl wailed every time this happened and one of the rescue specialists who was part of the team ran to pacify her.
I was a bit disgruntled with D’s straightforward assessment of my life choices and walked with the rescue specialist. He, too, was a frustrated man.
“It’s not as if I don’t like doing this”, he said, “Of course, it’s wonderful to take children deep into the mountains and show them natural beauty. But as an adventurer, I’m sick of walking on these easy trails. I have seen these mountains so many times it’s boring. I need some new adventures. Just last week, I was climbing Satopanth with a Korean expedition and see what I’m doing today. But if you want to put food on the table, you have to run after mules. Chances for big expeditions don’t come very often.”
“But from my perspective, you’re very fortunate”, I said, “If someone gave me your job, I’ll very happily take it and do it for the rest of my life.”
The rescue specialist laughed and said, “This is not an easy job. I had to train for years at the Mountaineering Institute to be good enough to qualify. If that mule falls down the slope, I would have to put my life on the line and run down the gorge, pick up the girl and climb back here. There’s no option to fail because it is my responsibility to see that everyone finishes the trek safely. That could be a huge burden to deal with every day of your working life.”
We soon arrived at the Tourist Rest House in Dwali without any casualties. The angry caretaker who had shooed us away just the day before didn’t look any happier when he saw AR, D and I striding towards him. He looked at me and said, “What did I tell you yesterday? He is your guide! He has to come hours before you do and tell me you are coming. How can you make the same mistake again and again?”
“So you don’t have any rooms today as well?”, I said, wearily.
“No, I don’t. All the rooms are taken by the school group.”
D smiled sheepishly and said, “Wait here. I’ll do something.”
He managed to find a “friend” among the guides working with the school group.
“You know that if it was up to us, we could walk down to Khati in a couple of hours”, he said to his friend, “But these clients, they get tired too soon. So just do something.”
The friend spoke to his crew and managed to get AR and I some space in a dark, dank store-room space filled with quilts and rugs piled on a filthy floor. My feet were aching so bad after the strenuous 8 hour walk that I could barely move them. We had to wake up early the next morning for another long day’s walk up to the Kafni glacier and back, a thought that sounded more agonizing than pleasurable.
D was right, if this was the way I felt after only 3 days of walking in the mountains, maybe it was a terrible idea to even entertain thoughts of settling down here.
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 a gentle downhill walk from Dhakuri and this gave me the opportunity to learn what an achiever D already was at the age of 23. He was married with two kids, the assistant headman of his village and a vociferous campaigner for the Youth Congress. He had also been working with the Forest Department for environmental conservation and prevention of forest fires and of course, was a registered trekking guide for KMVN and private trekking outfits.
I also learnt that, for a guy his age, he didn’t care a whit for the musical trends of his time. He loved Hindi film music but as far as he was concerned, nothing after the year 2000 was worth listening to. He had particular contempt for A R Rahman because he felt his music sucked the soul out of what made songs by his heroes, Anand-Milind and Jatin-Lalit, great. To prove his point, he made me listen to his favorite song, a torturous ode to gentle objectification, “Kudrat ne banaaya hoga”, a song that literally went “God must have made you when he had a lot of free time on his hands”, on a loop on his phone and if the climb up to Dhakuri was physically gruelling, this made sure the walk down to Khati was no less so.
When we reached the village of Wachcham, we rested in a shed plastered with posters of Mayawati, the leader of Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), not because we needed to rest our bones or refresh ourselves with more chai, but because D, being an ardent Youth Congress worker had to get into a long debate with the people huddled together at the shed, many of whom were BSP supporters. In the middle of this squabble, an environmentally conscious gentleman pointed out that the Tehri Dam was a catastrophe waiting to happen and that it was the Congress party which was responsible for its existence, a point that didn’t sit too well with D, who reacted with supreme fury by calling the man a communist who had no space in the modern world. D felt that the dam was necessary for the economy of the region and for jobs and livelihoods to flow.
As the conversation meandered on endlessly, Panditji got tired of it and left the scene. I followed him as we walked down the stony trail to Khati. Panditji was highly disappointed at the selfish nature of the people who had been arguing. “They’re only interested in themselves,” he said, “not in the general well-being of humanity. They come to temples when they need something but none of them realise that good things will happen to them only if they consistently respect the rules that God has set for the people of the world. They’re greedy and it is this greed that’s going to destroy the world They might make a lot of money by indulging in corruption but God is going to make sure they pay for their sins in the next birth.”
“If bad things are going to happen to them in the next birth, why worry about it now? They’re going to suffer anyway, right?”, I said.
“That’s not the point. When I grew up, we feared our Gods and respected the rules set by our elders and our ancestors. We were taught not to do or say certain things and we tried our best to be good people out of the fear that doing bad things led to bad consequences. The young people these days don’t have that fear. They do anything they want, laze around all day, do drugs, fall in love with girls not approved by their parents, indulge in politics, don’t care for the rituals and traditions.”
“So what do you think of the Tehri dam?”
“I support the Tehri dam because it provides livelihood to local people. For the longest time, politicians only took money but never did any work. So any work that happens is good.”
“But people say the dam has destroyed the forests and only exists to serve the needs of people living in big cities.”
“People say all kinds of idiotic things. As long as it is beneficial to someone, it’s good. It’s providing work to young people who would be wasting their lives uselessly otherwise. And many young people go from villages to cities for work nowadays, so if the needs of a city increase they have to find resources from somewhere.”
“But how does this fit in with your philosophy that greed is bad? Surely, young people are going to the cities because they aren’t satisfied with the life in the villages and want to make more money?”
“That’s not greed. That’s moving with the times. In the olden days, you could live a satisfied life by tilling your land and taking care of your family without seeing anything of the outside world but that’s no longer possible in this day and age. You need money to survive and you can’t make any money just living in your village. You have to move out and seek work. You’re stupid if you don’t do that. I see many village boys just loitering around doing nothing. That’s not healthy. We never used to loiter when we were young. We always had work to do. Greed is when a wealthy politician promises to build roads and give you electricity and when he gets the money for it, he keeps all the money for himself. At least with the Tehri dam, the government has built something and it’s doing some good to ordinary people somewhere.”
Soon, we reached the cobbled paths winding through the terraced farms on the outskirts of Khati village. D ran up, patted my back patronisingly and said, “Good job! You’ve learnt to walk in the mountains today.” He put me up in a one room house that belonged to one of his friends that was covered with a stony roof and furnished with one desolate wooden cot and a squat toilet in a corner.
The sun was setting over the Himalayan mountains and even though I had walked over 20 km in the day on fairly steep terrain, adrenalin was coursing through my veins and I wanted to explore the village to see what it was like. These desires were put to rest emphatically by D who said, “You’ve walked 20 kms today. You have to walk 20 more tomorrow. So just eat and go to sleep. You’ll need it.” It was good advice as the moment I had finished my simple meal of dal, rice and vegetables, I slipped into a deep slumber.
This is an account of the Pindari Glacier Trek that I had done back in April 2009 and a continuation of this post.
All the passengers got off as the jeep screeched to a halt at Song, a village 5 kms before the trailhead at Loharkhet. The driver had to attend a wedding in the village and was in no mood to go any further just for the two of us. I wondered aloud how much it would cost to persuade him to take the jeep all the way to the trail head. D smirked with a vengeful grin and said, “500 Rs. This is why I asked you to go with my friend. If you had taken my advice, we would have been trekking by now.”
I gently reminded D that I was the boss and we were on a budget and if we have to walk 5 kms more, so be it and let’s move on. We moved on with D leading me on a short cut through a perilous trail that cut across the road. It wasn’t an easy walk for someone as unfit as I was. When we reached a little stream about 3 bends above the road, I was so exhausted that I threw down my bag and copiously washed my face with the icy cold water and asked D if we were there yet. D shook his head helplessly and said we had barely walked a mile. But I felt as if I had been walking all day. I had such a lot of sweat pouring out of my pores that I wondered if something was wrong with the plumbing in my fluid vessels.
We rested on a boulder where D, disappointment writ large across his face, wondered if we should take it easy. Our original plan was to finish the Pindari stretch in 4 long days. Now D broached the idea of doing it in 7 days, in short stretches and resting at more points on the way. When I heard this, the budget traveller in me got a rude shock because I realised I would be paying D 3 extra days than I would if I walked harder and faster. This had the effect an adrenalin shot would have on an ailing body making my senses spike and get their act together.
I heaved my way breathlessly to the Tourist guest house at Loharkhet where the chowkidar in its desolate interiors treated us to some tea and snacks. He was grateful for the human company, he said, because not too many people stopped by. It wasn’t the prettiest of places. The Himalayan peaks were hidden far away and the tall landslide-ridden mountains on the opposite slope were a bit of an eyesore. D was intent on getting the latest updates on local gossip with the caretaker and I had to interrupt their interminable conversation and ask him to move quickly so we have time to do the 24 kms to Khati by sundown.
As I clambered gingerly down a bouldered section that led to a stream on another one of D’s torturous shortcuts, I could feel something soft and squishy underneath my foot. It felt like horse dung or the back of a wet sponge. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything because I was walking with well worn, rugged Woodland shoes. When I leaned down to investigate, I saw a sight that no trekker should ever have to see. The soles had come off and I was standing on a patch of dirt with bottomless shoes.
D, who had already crossed the stream and was halfway up the hill on the other side, looked at me exasperatedly. He spread his arms wide and asked, “What happened now?” I pointed at my shoe. He grumbled his way over and asked if I had any chappals. Of course I didn’t. I was enough of a cheapskate to have never bought any and had been happily tramping all over India for two months on these Woodland shoes.
“We have to go back”, he said.
“Can’t I just go on barefoot?”, I asked, trying to salvage the situation.
“Look at you”, he said, “You can’t walk in the mountains even with your shoes on. How’re you going to walk barefoot?”
“Good point”, I said, obediently.
He then took this opportunity to gloat about the advice he had given me earlier. “If you had shopped for some of the things I had written in that list, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, he said, “When we go back to Kapkot, you better buy your thermal inners and a good feather jacket because I don’t think your sweater is going to save you when you’re shivering in zero degree cold in my village.”
I was angry but calmed down when he took off his chappals and lent them to me so I could walk back to Loharkhet where we were treated to more tea and snacks by the manager at the Tourist Rest House. The manager gave me a pair of gumboots that he said I could borrow till I found a good pair of shoes. Those shoes were so uncomfortable that they gave me blisters from just 10 minutes of walking down the jungly trail back to the road. My feet were bleeding and I told D that I couldn’t possibly walk any further. We waited by the roadside staring at the landslide-ridden landscapes until we got a ride on the back of a milk van to Kapkote.
In Kapkote, I surrendered to buy whatever D thought I needed for the trek, a sturdy pair of shoes, walking sticks, thermal inners, a thick wind-proof feather jacket, rain cover for the rucksack, slippers, a haul that cost me more than what I had budgeted for the entire trek. But now, I had resigned myself to the elements and chose to do the trek even if it was the last thing I did in my life. We spent the night at a dingy little dhaba on charpoys spread around the kitchen, the odor of rotting potatoes and stale meat filling the room. When D came over the next morning to ask if I wanted to go by the shared jeep, I said no, I’d rather spend a 1000 Rs. and take his friend’s jeep if that option was still available.
“Of course”, he said with a mischievous smile plastered on his face, “Whatever you want. It’s your trek.”
I opened the door of my little cell at Hotel Annapoorna in Bageshwar to find a face staring at me in utter torpor. So complete was the shock writ in its contours that I was about to ask the boy who owned the face if he wanted to sit down and if everything was okay and who the hell died? The face then regained its composure somewhat and said, “Aap Pindari jaa rahe hai?” (Are you going to Pindari?) I replied in the affirmative and the face sank again. The eyes sized me up and then looked at me like they were looking at a cat wanting to learn how to ride a bicycle.
Earlier that day, I had gone to the KMVN office to casually enquire if they had someone who could accompany me to the Pindari Glacier. The man at the reception said I didn’t need a guide for this particular trek as the path was easy to navigate and that I could find my way easily. But I was terrified of walking on my own after the disastrous trek to Vriddha Jageshwar a week ago when I had lost my way on the widest and clearest trail one could find. So I told him I’d rather go with a guide if he knew someone who could take me. He said he knew nobody who could and I walked back to my dank little room at Hotel Annapoorna dejectedly.
Hence, I didn’t expect this dismayed figure to show up at 9 pm in the night. After D had recovered from his shock where the wars going on his head about whether it was wise to take up this “assignment” was clearly apparent and the business end of his brain had ended up triumphant, he invited me over to where he was staying so he could go over the route with me. He generously ordered dinner for both of us while he took me through all the possible routes in the area, the trails to Pindari, Kafni, Sunderdhunga. Soon his apprehensions about my ability appeared to have evaporated as he made an itinerary for a 20 day long walk through remote Himalayan terrain much of which would involve walking through dangerous terrain, camping in the wildernesses and the use of porters to carry food supplies.
But I had to depressingly remind both of us that I was not some millionaire with a bottomless pool of money to spend on people who would carry my luggage, cook my food and take me around. Even D was a luxury I was permitting myself because I didn’t want to take stupid risks and it would be a crying shame to come all the way to the Himalaya and not walk its mountains. D looked crestfallen but he was in no mood to give up. He tried to convince me to go the whole distance by pulling out pictures of a 24 year old French guy who worked as a waiter and who had gone with him on a 2 month long sojourn through the remotest parts of the Kumaon Himalaya. Such was the bond they struck during that journey that the Frenchman still wrote letters to him. If I did this, my mind would become clear and I was certain to be successful in whatever I chose to do with my life after. It all sounded very exciting, I said, but we’ll take it as it comes and see how the body and the wallet feels after I finish the 4 day hike to Pindari. My only instruction to him was, KEEP IT CHEAP!
Which is why I found it particularly vexing when he turned up at my hotel the next morning on a jeep that belonged to his friend and coyly informed me that I’ll have to pay 1000 rupees to get to the trailhead at Loharkhet. I had done some investigation of my own the day before and found that a local shared jeep went to Loharkhet from Bageshwar which would cost me a measly 100 Rs. I couldn’t afford a private jeep for myself, I said, and it would be better for both of us if we found the shared jeep that took us to the trailhead. D was puzzled at my anger. “This is for your own good,” he said, “It’s a lot more comfortable. They cram 15 people into those sumos and people even ride on the roof. Where are we going to find space for all the things we are shopping for?”
“What are we shopping for?”, I asked, my anger rising with every heartbeat. D then brandished a shopping list which included a feather jacket, a down jacket, a sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees, snow shoes, carabiniers, woollen caps, gaiters, a 2 man tent, ropes, thermal inners, walking sticks, cooking stove, utensils, rice, potatoes, a kilo of oats, tea, 10 packs of maggi and a dozen other items. He smiled and said he knew a place in Kapkote run by a friend that could get us all of this in just a little over 15000 Rs. The Pindari was a teahouse trek with conveniently set rest houses on the way that provided food and shelter so you didn’t have to carry any tents or food. So I dropped my bags and told him I wasn’t going with him and would walk alone if I had to. D was again perplexed at my reaction and when I explained why I felt his shopping list was extortionate, he said we would need all of these if we were going to Sunderdhunga and the other remote routes he had told me about and that supplies would be a lot more expensive if we had to shop for those in the villages on the way.
“Look at me”, I said, “do I look like a guy who could walk up and down mountains for weeks on end?” D laughed and said, “Baat toh sahi hai lekin hum aap se pachaas kilo zyada logon se bhi trekking karwa lete hain”. (You’re probably right but I can make people 50 kilos heavier than you trek in the mountains) I told him that I will go with him on two conditions. One, that we go there in a local shared jeep and two, we won’t be shopping for anything for the Pindari trek as I already had all the woollens and shoes that I needed. D nodded dejectedly and got rid of his friend who had some choice words to say to him for having wasted his time.
So we went to the jeep stand, found a jeep that went to the trailhead at Loharkhet and rode on the roof with sacks of onions and chickens because all the seats inside were taken.
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.