July 2012. In the wildernesses between Lakong and Kargiak on the long walk from the village of Darcha in Himachal Pradesh to the town of Padum in the Zanskar Valley.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.”
“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.
The 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.
It 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.
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”.
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. 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.
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.
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.