The boy who got me back to Bangalore- Part 2

You can read the first part of the story here.

To recap, I reached Kalpetta, the biggest town in Wayanad district in Kerala in the dead of the night without any adventure or mischief. Next day in the morning, I found that this town hardly got any tourists. There was a small tourism booth next to the Inter-State bus stop that provided the brochure of tourist attractions in Wayanad. As Hero had predicted there were no tickets available towards Bangalore on Sunday. However, I was told that there are plenty of alternatives available. I could go to the next nearby town Sulthan Bathery; chances of getting a seat from there are very high. Or I could wait for some private buses from the evening and board one of the many buses that run to Karnataka. All of them go via Bangalore.

Now when you are on an “adventurous” solo trip, you don’t really want to plan ahead and prepare too much. You know, it kills the entire concept of “adventure”, “living in the moment”, etc. If the man at the tourism booth says, it is easily possible to get back to Bangalore without reservation, it would be so. Since I am here only for two days, I can’t afford to waste time on going around, getting a reservation. Worst case scenario, I would return on Monday. It was possible in those days to fall ‘sick’ and not show up for work. So I didn’t care much about Hero’s words. He was probably trying to act too smart.

I decided to get started with my trip at the earliest, which basically meant visiting touristy locations around Kalpetta. I decided to take a local bus to go to Edakkal Caves. Bless 100% literacy rate and Christian missionaries in Kerala, language was not a big problem. The bus was rickety and broken just like it is in the northern states; the difference was that here I clearly stood apart in the crowd. There were fisherwomen with daily harvest, men working on tea estates and I, a light skinned, girl from a big town. I finally understood how Shah Rukh must have felt in Swades during local commute to remote areas.

1438087558_swades

To be less dramatic, it wasn’t a big deal at all. I got a place to stand and swing as the bus went around the hilly curves on the route to the caves which were on a hill top.

The caves were a big disappointment. They were hardly comparable to Elephanta Caves near Mumbai which I had visited already. Plus, I am not a fan of caves anyways. They stink, they are dark, dirty, and you can’t do much there. So I was standing there looking at all the families who were out there on picnics, making happy noises and cheer. It felt kind of stupid for me to be standing alone in a place which was certainly not recommended for solo travellers.

So I decided to move on. I wanted to go to a place of natural beauty where I can sit and meditate as I have seen seasoned solo women travellers do in travel pictures such as the one below.

Traveling-Solo-Women

If I want to make that picture, the timing was going to be right as the sun was rapidly moving towards the West. All I needed was a water body. I asked a nice man at a food stall about a dam nearby, Karapuzha Dam, another tourist destination. It turned out this man owned a van and was traveling in that direction. He offered me a ride.

Now, let’s review the facts. First of all, I had never hitchhiked in life previously. Also, I had always wanted to hitchhike badly. It was a dream. Standing alone on a highway, with my backpack on my muscular shoulders, looking like this. Ummm…

pretty-young-woman-tourist-hitchhiking-along-a-road

As I was drifting in my dream world of being that super confident cool hippie girl, this man in front of me was waiting for my reply.

Anu: No no no, I won’t bother you. I will go on my own. Can you guide me how to reach there?

Man: blah blah blah…. (Gist of what he said was that there is no easy way to reach via public transport.)

Now, I was kind of stuck. One option was to take the bus back to Kalpetta and figure a way to the next destination. Another option was to take this ride to the dam. The image of dusty noisy road and forlorn hotel (which by no standard was 2 stars, forget 4!) in Kalpetta made me incline towards this ride with stranger.

So how does one decide whether or not to take a ride with a strange man?

Appearances do matter.” [Quote: Me.] Though I usually don’t give a damn about my own appearance but that never stopped me from judging others by their appearances. I don’t care for brands or fashion, often that goes pretty low in my hierarchy of “trustworthiness”. Questions that I try to answer while looking at a stranger’s appearance are “Is he married?”, “Does he have kids?”, “What job would he have?”. I try to put a “no-nonsense” label: low, medium, high.

93% of communication is non-verbal.” [Quote: Management School Prof who taught my husband.]

Based on the above two signals, I took the call and became this girl. (While editing this pic, I realized I am blessed for not being a blonde.)

anu hitchhiking

It was one heck of a ride. Bumpy and Rough. Literally. There was no road. And I was in a strange man’s vehicle. All reasons to be supremely nervous and doubtful of the destination. However, this man was one gem of a person. Seriously, it is funny (& erroneous) how quickly we make impressions of a place based on small/tiny experiences/datasets. However, that is exactly what I did. Based on that one car ride, South India (especially Kerala) for me became the most reliable place in the country. If you know me, you must have heard me comparing the two parts of the country and vehemently stating how safer southern states were. This was an impressionable moment.

hitchhiking-free-travel-good-people

I will skip through some of the other details of my trip which included a visit to beautiful and enchanting Kuruva Islands, where you can walk the across river Kabini to reach islands in the middle of the river. However, let’s come back to the main story and fast forward to Sunday evening.

Now after two days of solo travel, I had quite enough of the adventure. Many a times, I ended up feeling quite lonely. A few times I remembered my office gang from Bangalore and wondered why I didn’t invite them along. By Sunday evening, I was quite packed and ready to get back to my friends and home. The only problem was that I had no reservation. I had exchanged a few smses with Hero in the meantime which more or less meant that there were no seats available.

There wasn’t enough time to go to Sultan Bathery, so I stationed myself at the bus stop on Kalpetta main road and would check with each and every bus, if they would go to Bangalore and if they would have a vacant seat. Starting at around 6 P.M., I did this till 10 P.M. By this time, everyone at the bus stop knew me. As it grew darker and late in to the night, number of people on the stop gradually decreased. Only others like me without reservation remained. None of them were girls.

Four hours is a long time to spend on a bus stop hoping to get a bus back to your home. It is a reasonable amount of time to retrospect and curse yourself. It is enough time to think about different possibilities that might occur. I might not get the bus after all. For how long would be I standing here out on the road? Yes, Kerala is safe, but until what time should I start searching for alternate stay arrangements? How will I go back tomorrow?

A little after 10, a private bus for Bangalore moved in. We, without reservation riders, all crowded in close to the bus door to plead the conductor to take us in. Just then, someone tapped me on my sounders. I turned around to see Hero standing there.

Hero: Are you still without a reservation?

Anu: Yes

Hero: You can come with me. I had reserved two seats in this bus. We can pay inside the bus after we get the seats.

Anu: thank you thank you

At the time, my status msg at FB would have been something like this: — feeling shocked relieved happy thankful grateful.

We got the two seats. I thanked him again and slept off.

It was 530 in the morning when our bus was gliding towards its platform on Majestic. I was still amazed how I reached back home safely, without any misadventures. All thanks to this guy. We, with all other passengers got down. I was wondering what to say to him. How should I express my gratitude? Should I ask him to meet me later in the week sometime.

We were standing near an auto, ready to go separate ways. I didn’t have the nerve to ask him out for lunch or coffee to show my thanks. We said byes and rode off. Until a few days later, I kept thinking about the whole thing. I was expecting a call from him. Usually guys do that. Especially if they know they have a favour on the girl. But he never called. And it was too late by then for me to call. Or so I thought.

I never really got to thank him properly at that time. However, after a decade, I understand that travel is all about meeting different people and helping them. We help strangers and friends, without expecting anything in return. It happens naturally. That is why travel is one of the most compassionate and patient teachers in life.

The boy who got me back to Bangalore – Part 1

This story is about a case of male chivalry and getting your ass saved by a stranger.  

At the age of 23, when you land up in an extremely high paying job, live in one the most beautiful cities of the country, don’t have any responsibilities to take care of, it is very easy to get dissatisfied. Yes, dissatisfied. You know, if at 23 your colleagues/friends start buying houses, cars, looking for brides/grooms, it is as if you can see your entire life planned and organized in a google calendar. Monday to Friday, work. Wednesday, lady’s night out. Friday night, party. Saturday night, party. Sunday, chill at home. Get married, have a kid. Go to kid’s parties. Buy another home after 10 years. Buy another car. Vacations abroad. Have another kid. And goto repeat.

Even now, after almost a decade, this line of thought creeps bejesus out of me. At 23, it would make me go berserk. I would do crazy things. Go on solo trips. Join and work in NGOs. Give up all the money and comfort of corporate job! This story is of one such trip.

It was a Thursday. Remember this old cartoon? This is how a typical Thursday is for most of the corporate sector.

typical work week

In my case, the state of Wednesday usually continued on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and actually all other days of the week. So my cartoon worked like this:

sunday-to-saturday

 

And that’s what I did. I booked tickets for Wayanad. A beautiful forested district in Kerala. I had always wanted to go there to stay in the tree huts of Vythiri resort. But I couldn’t go to the resort, since it was somewhere in the middle of the woods and I was on a solo trip with no personal vehicle and no co-passengers. The next best choice was to go to the nearest biggest town and figure out the rest of the travel from there. So I booked a KSRTC ticket online (in the time of no redbus, there were government booking sites!) from Bangalore to Kalpetta in an A/C Volvo. I used TripAdvisor, a very new website, to book a room in Kalpetta in a 4-star hotel, close to the bus stop and still not the main road to avoid traffic noise. This was the first time I had used TripAdvisor to book a hotel reservation. I never confirmed the booking directly with the hotel. In fact, it never occurred to me that I might not even have a booking! In my defence, I get this insane trust/faith that everything will be okay from my mom. #23-years-old #risks #stupidity #innocence #genetics #recklessness #easy-to-trust

On Friday night, I reached Majestic, the inter-state bus terminal in Bangalore. For me, it was the pride of India. Amazing infrastructure, ease for passengers, safety, cleanliness. And when compared to Delhi’s ISBT Kashmiri Gate, it was a world apart! Bus terminals are a place of extreme excitement, just like airports. Even though you are still in town, you feel your trip has already started! I got into the luxurious bus, settled down, waited for my co-traveller in the 2-seat coach.

The co-passenger turned out to be a young boy, almost same age as mine. We introduced, exchanged pleasantries. As always, he was surprised to find a solo travelled. But the more I spoke about myself, he understood that this is one cuckoo case. I remember seeing some sort of sympathy for me in his eyes.

It was 4 A.M. in the morning, when he suddenly woke me up. We had arrived!

WHATTTTTT?!! It is still dark out there!

I found myself standing on a deserted road below a single street light at the bus stop of what looked like a very small town. There were a couple of people sleeping outside the deserted shops, dogs were barking and a few other passengers had quickly disappeared into cars or whatever conveyance was waiting for them. While my panic nerves were firing up, I asked my co-passenger how to find the hotel. He explained the way. It was about 300 mtrs away and I could see the road leading up to it. For the sake of brevity, and also because he really was, for the rest of the story, we will call this guy ‘Hero’.

Within next 2 minutes, I was really scared as I could suddenly realize all that can go wrong going further. A little too late, but yes, now I was thinking about it. What if the hotel doesn’t have a night desk? What if I do not have a reservation? What if the hotel is not safe? What if someone jumps on me in the dark before I reach the hotel? What if… While I was numb, thinking of all that could possibly go wrong, I heard Hero’s voice.

Hero: When are you going back to Bangalore?

Anu: Ummm.. Sunday night.

Hero: Oh cool, me too. Which bus?

Anu: Actually I do not have a reservation yet. I will find out tomorrow.

Hero: Oh, you know, it is really difficult to find the reservation this last minute.

Anu: Umm…  (Right now I can’t be bothered about Sunday!)

Hero: Would you like me to help you get a reservation? I would also be looking for one. I can look for both of us.

Anu: Hmm.. okay..

Hero: Give me your number so that I can confirm you about the ticket.

WHAT?!!! As always. Ladki dekhi nahi uska phone number pehle chahiye. Seriously, why the hell do I get caught up in such situations.

Anu: Why don’t you give me your number? If I do not get ticket tomorrow I will give you a call.

Wow! If I was a guy and offered help to someone who would not trust me with her number but was willing to call me back for help, I would be seriously offended. But, at 23, brought up in a gender unequal society, as a girl, being helped was my ‘birth right’. If I am in trouble, ‘good’ men were supposed to protect me, help me, guide me. Be chivalrous. Weird thing is, they usually were!

Hero: Okay cool. Here it is.

Anu: Ok thanks! How will I reach the hotel? (Current situation grabbing my nerves again)

Hero: Just walk down the road. It is so close. You will be fine.

 

He said bye and left. I walked on. He was right, it was quite alright. I reached the hotel quickly. Woke up someone to open the front gate. Woke up another person to check me in and give me my room keys. No one looked at me with leering eyes and threatening looks. They were all too sleepy to care. I slept off too.

Next day I realized Kalpetta was not a tourist place. It was more of a trading station for merchants and businesses. And yes, Hero was correct. There was no seat on the government operated bus back to Bangalore on Sunday. But I was too adventurous to care about it.

To be continued

The Casanova professor and his lovely wife

This post is a part of series “Dialogues with Strangers” capturing some of the most impressionable ever-lasting conversations I have had with strangers.

Murren is one of the most beautiful alpine villages in the world. It is the last connection by rail in the Jungfrau region near the mountain Eiger. It is also a car free village; means there is no road connecting to Murren. There are plenty of cycling and walking routes around Murren.

IMG_1469

 

In 2013, we were in Murren for a few days, exploring the hiking routes across the meadows and beyond. Our balcony overlooked the peak, Eiger. Murren reminds you of Heidi and re-installs your faith in the miraculous healing power of the mountain air.

alps murren

One evening, after a long day of hike, followed by a dip in the heated indoor pool, as we were sitting in the balcony sipping tea and beer, we met our next door neighbours. I had previously seen the man in the pool and thought he must have been some corporate hotshot. He looked like someone in a powerful job. The woman he was with, looked quite young to be his wife. We exchanged pleasantries.

How was your day? The man asked.

Pretty good! We were hiking all day long! How was your day?

Very good! We were out too. Is this your first time in Switzerland?

No, we have been here before, but we didn’t stay in Murren earlier.

This is our first time in Switzerland. We usually go to Austria in summers. From the last 6-7 years we have been going to Tyrol region in Austria, for 2-3 weeks each time. Over the years, summer lodges and hotels have shrunk there. Most of them now only operate in winters for skiing. So we planned to come here. It is pretty beautiful here as well.

Yeah, we love Switzerland. It is quite convenient and supremely beautiful.

So where did you guys go today?

Oh we were somewhere around Birg and Schilthorn and later we walked around Schiltalp.

We were at Birg too. Actually we had a bit of an adventure. The path from Birg to Murren was getting cleared of snow today. The men with clearing tools were just ahead of us and we were following them down. At a point, one of the three men fell down as there was a big gap in the earth and he broke his leg. Luckily, nothing happened to us. We were careful to take the same steps which the men ahead of us took.

Wow! This was the same route which Nitesh and I had discussed in the morning. He wanted to take it, but I was against it. I thought it was not safe to venture on this path as it came in “difficult” category and we didn’t have hiking boots. There was no one to be seen on that route either. And these guys, people who look considerably older than us, not just took that path, but also finished it – safe and sound! They don’t even look tired!

We asked them further about the Tyrol region. In the last 6 years, they have spent all their annual leaves and savings in walking across the Austrian Alps in Tyrol region. Every year they go to a new or same valley within that region and walk for 10-20 kms on a daily basis exploring a new route. Over these 6 years, they would have covered about 1200-1500 kms on foot, in the Alps. Whoa!!!

Who are these people?! What do they do for a living?

We both are professors at University of Oxxxd, UK in the department of engineering.

Whaaaaaaaaaaat?!!!!

Suddenly I had a flash back. Imagining my fat bellied, languid college professors, I couldn’t believe this man in front of me could be in academics and research. Didn’t research mean you have no other pleasure or interest in life expect for your research topic?! Aren’t they supposed to be eccentric, weird and poor? Of course I know this was just a prejudice I had, but apart from a few outliers (like that amazing History Professor from JNU) I have never seen academicians who look like this guy, like a Casanova. Or who would spend so much time, energy and money in pursuit of other interests! Much like common, greedy mortals!  What about their age; how old are these good looking adventurous cool college professors?! We were soon going to find out.

How long are you here and where are you going next? The prof asked.

We are here till Thursday; then we go to Zermatt. I was hesitant to add that we will further hike there. Our hiking and their hiking seemed way apart!

Oh cool! We are going there too! We are not staying in Zermatt. It is actually a funny story. Our son and his girlfriend were in Zermatt last year, when they came across this very small hotel between Furi and Schwarzsee which has a perfect location. Zermatt is in the valley and Schwarzsee is quite high towards Matterhorn so the views are fantastic from up there! Though we would have to climb for 20-30 minutes to reach there but it is worth it.

Man, these guys were killing me. How old is your son? I had to ask now!

He is 30, blah blah blah….

I stopped listening to him. My head was spinning. If their son is 30 years old and these guys are researchers; means they couldn’t have had kids in early 20ies; they must be older than 55. So this man and woman looking young and fit, above 55 years in age, climbing much more than us, are going to remote exotic stay locations on foot while carrying their entire luggage on their own!

In India, so many of us do not even carry our luggage across platforms, up the stairs on a railway station! Does being in late 50ies or early 60ies mean nothing to them, who are living life as if they are in early 30ies! As of what I have seen, in late 50ies, people start getting joint pain, arthritis, back problems etc etc. They do not go wandering in mountains for fun!

Yes, this was probably one of the most impactful conversations I have had in life until then. Within the next 3 months after the trip, I ran my first 5K. A girl who hated treadmill and couldn’t survive 10 minutes on it, I ran for 40 mins in less than a month of practice. A lot of my prejudices were shattered in that trip. I had learnt an important lesson. What I do today will directly impact my life 20-30 years down the line. When I am 50, I can either climb mountains up and down in fresh clean air like those profs or I can climb up and down the escalators in different hospitals to see various docs and specialists like so many of elder people I know. The choice is mine. And it depends entirely on how I choose to spend my today.

Dialogue with Strangers [Series Post]

Over the next few weeks, I will post dialogues I have had with strangers (turned friends) during the trips I have had in the last 10 years.

Travel means quite a few things to me: getting lost in nature, seeing a bit of a new culture, eating new stuff (while yearning for home food :P), personal development, meeting new people. Most of the stuff I do on a holiday is forgotten a few months of coming back; it is the people and my encounters with them which lingers on in my mind. I would like to share those experiences here for future fun reads.

In this post, I will start by making a list of all such conversations. Going further, I will post about one conversation every week.

2002, from Dadar station to IIT hostel: Coffee date with the rickshaw wala

2005, Solo trip to Mundoli: The contractor & the journalist

2007, Solo trip to Wayand: The boy who got me back to Bangalore

2007, Solo trip to Naggar: Manju, the girl with dreams

2008, Solo trip to Baran: The woman on a mission

2013, Murren: The Casanova professor and his lovely wife

2014, Solo trip to Kinnaur: The trend-setter, icon of running

2014, Sichuan Valley: A Chinese teenager who inspired an Indian adult

2015, the island of Boracay: An Austrian couple who want to own a resort island

2015, a mountain village in Vent: A German couple inspiring in their struggles

Hope while writing these stories I would be able to do justice to the beautiful conversations I have had with these amazing, inspiring and sometimes weird people.

Responsible Development (India vs China hydro projects)

I had made two trips in May and June of 2014 to the two mountainous regions of India and China. First one was in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh of India, which lies in the west to the Tibetan plateau. Second one was in the Dauxe Mountain range, a part of Hengduan Mountains, in the Sichuan province of China, which lies in the east to Tibet border. Kinnaur was a lone backpacking trip carried through public transport or friendly hitchhiking.  China trip was an organized trekking trip in a group of around 10 people.

In India trip, I travelled the entire distance from New Delhi to Kalpa to Sangla Valley and back to Delhi on road. In China, the distance from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, to Kangding to the base village near Mount Gongga to CoaKe village and back to Chengdu was on road. The total distance travelled in India was about 1300 km and that in China was about 800 km. Time spent on road in India was about 50 hours in public transport and co-travellers’ Innova. Time spent in China was about 15 hours in private mini-bus vehicle. Most of the time spent was in both the journeys was in the hilly areas going up till almost 3000 m above sea level.

The stark difference between both these travels was the quality of roads and the quality of environment in terms of deforestation and landslides adjacent to the hydro projects. Both of these areas have rivers and steep valleys making them suitable for hydro projects.

In Kinnaur district, the biggest dam is at the Kancham-Wangtoo, a Jaypee project, which was started more than a decade ago. There are many small projects all over the valley. Due to the massive floods of July 2013, the roads were still not repaired when I had visited in May 2014. In fact, on the Sangla-Chitkul Road which cuts from NH22 towards Sangla Valley the stones, rocks were constantly falling on our car for over a distance of about 20 kms. The driver of my taxi had his window-shield broken in one of the incidents when the rock actually hit his car! He was keeping a watch on the falling rocks from the slopes above while also looking ahead on the broken road.

Hydro project India
Hydro project India

In China as well, there were many hydro projects that we passed en route from Chengdu to Kangding. However, the roads were incredibly well maintained. There were a few cracks in the road here and there which could be due to rains or snowfall. But all the main highways G108, G318 were not only very smooth and safe; they had many tunnels to cross over valleys and dangerous routes. We covered a distance of about 10 kms just in the tunnels on our return journey from CaoKe village to Chengdu via Ya’an.

Broken road India
Common Broken road in India
Most broken road in China trip
Most broken road in China trip, this was probably the worst patch

During my entire time in China, I compared everything that I saw or heard or experienced with India. I might have been comparing (Indian)Apples to (Chinese)Oranges (pun intended!) but it was unavoidable. I couldn’t help but gape at the infrastructure development carried by Chinese government in the same difficult terrain and dangerous areas as those in Indian Himalayas. What the hell were we doing wrong?

Cemented mountain walls in China
Cemented mountain walls in China
IMG_5153
Untreated barren eroded walls in India

When I came back I read this story about the village in China which literally carved a tunnel using chisels and hammers for 5 years. Everyone knows China has constructed motor able roads till Mount Everest Base camp. I found that China is even creating more powerful and huge dams. On the other hand, we in India are halting development, because our development is probably resulting in more harm. From what I saw in Kinnaur, I could not help but agree with this report about how the hydro power projects in Kinnaur have actually reduced the place into a landslide infested barren and dangerous region.

Let me be clear about one thing, I believe in development. I believe in construction of roads to connect people and cultures. To promote business and trade. To allow education and personal growth. I also strongly believe in capability of our engineers and scientists to build projects which are both environmentally friendly and allow developmental growth.

What I do not understand is why we have not been able to achieve that in the most vulnerable part of the ecosystem, i.e. our mountains? Is this also due to lack of capital or greed to earn more profits? Is it because the government doesn’t have enough resources to implement the guidelines suggested by environmentalists’ at the time of project inception? Or is it because we didn’t have an active civil body to raise concerns and monitors progress of such projects? Or is it because everyone would rather make money using corrupt means than take up responsibility of such projects?

While coming down from Rampur to Shimla in a taxi, I had a long conversation with the taxi driver who was from the Rampur district. We spoke about the degradation of Kinnaur area and how land was further sliding downwards in the Peo village. Though I sensed a lot of biasness against Kinnaur locals from him due to some local traditional conflicts in the two areas, one more connected to Punjab-Haryana plains and another more connected to Spiti and Tibetian culture, it is possible that locals couldn’t/didn’t do much in this case to avoid such a downfall of this area. Maybe they were happy with the money they got from the land sold for these projects. Or maybe the projects brought work to them that fetched them money. Or maybe they didn’t know whom to approach and how to get heard regarding the rising dust and pollution in that area.

When I think of mountains, I think of trees. I think green. I think of flowers and birds. I think of rivers and not riverbed mining. I think of natural erosion and landslides and not hydro power tunnelling explosions, barren faces of mountains as an after effect. I think of pure natural air and not clouds of sand and dust.

I really do not know where we are failing in our developmental endeavours, but it is high time someone starts a company which can provide solutions into ecosystem preservation. Given the crazy funding activity going on, I am pretty sure a business idea around valley conservation and responsible tourism will be a big hit with investors! Something must be done.

National highway from Kalpa towards Kaza
National highway from Kalpa towards Kaza
Wild flowers near highway in China
Wild flowers near highway in China

The Old Himalayan-Tibet Highway

It was called The Hindustan-Tibet Road, built by British to connect India with Tibet via Shipki Pass. The existing highway has been stretched to to connect the remote areas of Himachal Pradesh including the Zaskar valley and Spiti Valley.

The Old Himalayan-Tibet Highway
The Old Himalayan-Tibet Highway

When in 2007 winters I had visited Narkanda, that lies on this route, my fascination for this highway started. It was my dream since then to travel from ISBT Delhi to Kaza in a continuous journey of a state transport bus. The total journey in those green local HPDC buses is around 36 hours long, costing about as cheap as 20 dollars(!).

I finally got my chance in 2014 to come back to this area. I was lucky to be travelling in the month of April. Early spring is the best time to travel in the Himalayas, especially in Himachal Pradesh where the apple, cherry, apricot orchards begin to blossom. The dream which is seen in early 20ies but lived in early 30ies requires one to make a few essential adjustments. I booked the AC Volvo bus to and fro Delhi-Shimla part to get as much comfort as possible during the trip. After reaching the hilly region, beyond Shimla, I decided to rely on local advice to choose the best way of commuting through public transport. This seemed like a crazy plan but a dream is a dream, however insane; I had to give it a try and tick it off.

ISBT Delhi
ISBT Delhi

I love ISBT in Delhi. Over the years, I have seen it transform from a creepy unsafe unorganized bus terminal into family friendly safe well-scheduled platforms, something which Majestic Terminal in Bangalore was since ever. My bus was on time and when I was comfortably settled in the bus I remembered the dozen odd journeys taken on the same road at different points in life. This highway for me is like home’s backyard for those who have the luxury to stay in same house for decades. I love to wait for different cities to come and go: Karnal, Kurushetra (with rath entrance towards the city), Panchkula and every town which we cross till the town of Kalka appears, that mark the foothills of Himalayas. At the dead of night, the Kalka market street, which is also a national highway, is so peacefully different from the usual hustle bustle of daytime; but the narrow lane and thousands of small shop booths on both sides still clearly stand out.

Next morning when I reached Shimla before sunrise, I was not so tired and ready for another long unknown road journey. Though my plan was to go until Kalpa, I was ready to change my plans as per the transport situation, weather etc.

I boarded the first bus to Kalpa which had a halt at Lal Bazaar for half an hour before taking off again. This bus was not an express, which meant it would stop for anyone anywhere. Initially that bothered me as mine was the last stop on a long journey, but eventually I found a good companion in a fellow traveler who was a school teacher. My interactions with her are recorded in a previous post here.

Majestic mountains
Majestic mountains

Until Rampur, which we reached a little before noon, the journey was really beautiful. The winding hilly roads through blossoming orchards and cool morning breeze made a nice journey through Theog and Narkanda. After a brief halt at Rampur around noon, the sun made its presence felt a tad too warmly and the roads started disappearing slowly. Roads completely disappeared after Jeori, giving way to pebbles, dirt, rocks, and sand. The rest of the journey was a bumpy ride through clouds of dust and sand.

Narkanda Bus Stop
Narkanda Bus Stop
Leveling the road
Leveling the road

Honestly, I was shocked. Saddened. Angry. Disappointed. Scared. I didn’t want to die and vanish on a trip like this. The valley was deep and fall could be fatal. We were a few inches away from the cliff at many times. I looked at the passengers around me, now that the bus was overcrowded and people were hanging through the bars. This is what they do regularly. Risk their lives to meet their families, to run their businesses. Fuck. What a reality check this is.

The white peak and broken path
The white peak and broken path
At the edge of the road
At the edge of the road

But this is not how it was supposed to be. Garhwal roads were superb more than decade back. What crap had happened here? These roads are worse than Baran roads, the poorest tribal rural area I have seen in remote India so far. Wasn’t this area supposed to be a rich with all the fruits and nuts plantations? Why then are the roads non-existential? This question stayed with me not just for that trip, but for many months to come.

What if there is a bus coming downwards
What if there is a bus coming downwards

We stopped for lunch at some local dhaba where I had momos, as they are the local delicacy. There I met two girls who were my co-passengers and were going home during their college break. I realized this bus is only going till Peo and Kalpa is still a good one hour away from Peo. When we disembarked in Peo, the two girls offered me ride in their dad’s car till Kalpa’s market road. But I wanted to go further up till HPTDC hotel. It was already evening and intercity buses had stopped running for the say. I went to a government travel agency office and they helped me get a taxi till Kalpa. The taxi driver was also a funny and interesting chap, but that is another story.

When I finally entered my room in the Kinner Kailash (after changing the initial room which has visible creeping bed bugs eeeeeekkkk!!), the view from my room was my reward for the last 24 hours of torture of a journey!

Kinner Kailash Range
Kinner Kailash Range

From my journal: “Phew! The last 24 hours was like a roller coaster ride, only emotionally and physiologically more consuming! “

Meeting a Hindi speaking Tibetian in China

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On the third day of the trip, when we were in Kangding, which is Simla of Garze in Sichuan, I was quite bored of eating everything cooked from rice and was craving for wheat bread or parathe especially for breakfast.

So I found a beautifully decorated coffee house in the new town market and in hope of at least finding a muffin there, went in.

After placing my order, when I asked for water, the girl on counter said: “garam pani”? I was like whoa!! I would have never dreamt of meeting a Hindi speaking person in remote areas of China!

She was a Tibetian girl, who had lived for a while in Dharamsala, where she had picked up Hindi. She was also surprised to find me there! We both definitely made each other’s day!

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Minya Konka Trek Diaries: The last day

After a dreamless night in the comfort of bed, we woke up fresh and started early. Today we had a long walk gradually going downwards to our final destination where we will get Hot springs! :D Yayeeee!! Everybody was in festive mood, mostly because we were going to have phone signal after a few hours. In the festivity, the breakfast was simple Tibetian bread, cheese and coffee. I had both Tibetian bread and Tibetian tea, and I can say I don’t care for either. Tibetian bread has no taste, no salt, no sugar, only yeast. Tibetian tea has pork butter and salt. Good enough for survival, but nothing more.

In the morning it was still raining. We walked some distance on river beds and had many streams to cross. The gore-tex shoes finally paid off. I was scared to put my shows in water, however, there was no escape this time. I had to jump off rocks and logs to reach the other side. I was fascinated by the power of waterproof material, as this was my first experience with such shoes. My shoes were completely soaked from outside and totally dry from inside! :)

After about 1.5 – 2 hours later, we reached a huge lake, very calm and pristine. It was quite like a painted vision, the dead lake surrounded by mountains and jungles, wild horses standing by, the deformed trees standing straight in water. By this time, I was tried and hungry. Now we also had to go uphill to cross the hills. So I took a break and ate an apple, refilled water. After crossing the final waterfall, we started the fast-pace walk. So, we were basically divided into two groups, one with the seasonal trekkers and other with slow pacers. Somehow today the slow pacers, including me, were maintaining the pace with the fast ones. At one point, when I was very tired and felt I could no longer go on at this face, I felt quite defeated. I didn’t want to give up. This last leg had to be done together. Then I tasted just a bit of what is meant by mental strength. What do marathon runners mean when they say that the last mile was totally mental. It is quite a cherish-able feeling. Feeling like this is quite similar to feeling you get when you meditate successfully.

So we all reached the final destination around the same time, for a final picture and the final journey down the hills. The Hot Springs resort was a big let down, with no wi-fi, very poorly maintained rooms, dirty toilets and unclean hot springs. This reminded me of shady trips Indian adventure companies (read: Indiahikes) also make. Well, I can’t really complain since the costs were not too high. But what I have heard of African safaris and treks, I think they create a different league of luxury travels in low cost budgets. Next on my agenda is Mt Kilimanjaro, last thing I want to do before I create life-time responsibilities. :-)

Crossing rivers
Crossing rivers
The Lake
The Lake
Gore tex shoes test
Gore tex shoes test
Eating apple
Eating apple
Minya Konka route
Minya Konka route

Next Destination:

Mt Kilimanjaro

 

Minya Konka Trek Diaries: Days 6 & 7

(At Village Guesthouse, the third house on right in the village below Mt. Gongga Monastery)

Yesterday, a nightmare came true. It started raining at about 2 in the afternoon and never stopped (till now). We spent the evening huddled in the big tent, which serves as kitchen and sleeping place for horsemen. A good part of the night was spent in sponging the water puddles inside our tent using tissue, adjusting the outer layer of tent to stop the leakages. Alas, it was too late to adjust it. So another lesson learnt about camping, in a very very hard way, always keep the outer layer of tent taunt at an angle so that it doesn’t touch the inner layer. Because, if it does, then your tent will leak for sure. 

My nightmares from Bedni came rushing back. Near midnight, Daniel told us that the area around our tent is getting flooded, we can shift into the big tent if we want to. I was initially hesitant to do so as I just don’t like the way these horsemen stare me. However, I wasn’t prepared to get soaked at night either. It was freaking cold as we were at the mountain top. So in drizzle, we shifted our entire stuff into the big tent. And lol behold, what did we find? The big tent was dripped as well. Plus there was no floor layer in that tent. But now all our stuff was here. And the rain was still going strong outside. So it didn’t make sense to go back. So we got into our sleeping bags, trying to adjust to the new water situation, with the horsemen staring at the two girls unabashedly. My sleeping bag was just next to the kitchen garbage so I had to face the leaking wall of the tent! The entrance door to the tent, right next to me, didn’t zip to the end, leaving last 2-3 feet open. We kept an umbrella there to shield from rain and wind. However, in an unnerving situation comprising of water on my head, grass below me, egg shells on my feet, open air to my left and four staring horsemen to my right, I was too shocked and distressed to think about sleeping. I was prepared to stay awake the entire night. 

In the middle of the night, I had to pee. In the light of my head lamp, with ghostly fog all around me, I pee-ed while raindrops kept falling on my back and butt. Yes, this had to be one of the toughest nights of my life. The RAM of my mind brought back another experience of a long scary night in 2010 and I end up meditating for the rest of the night. It got me a few winks of sleep. 

Finally it was morning again and I was happy we will be leaving this place soon. So when Daniel said that we will get breakfast at 9:30, I said lets just get out of here. I don’t mind not eating as long as I am not in the rain. I was already drenched completely. It was so cold that water in my bladder bag had frozen. So we quickly packed and literally ran down the hill to the monastery.

In the foggy night, one of the horses got lost. So our horsemen were still up looking for it. We had a delayed lunch with a few other travelers who happened to be in Monastery. These were three people, a guide, a porter and a girl who was going to Lhasa on foot. It would probably take it two months or more, but she had time as her college was over and she had taken two years of break to explore her country and the neighboring areas. She was very happy to see me as I am from India. She was in Rishikesh last year for three months, where she learnt yoga. 

Finally, we got moving again. Walking helped get some warmth. Otherwise even in 4 layers, including a down jacket, we were shivering. It was this journey, from monastery to village below, about 6-7 kms in total, which we covered in 1.5 hours, that I learnt to hike down. Since I was already so uncomfortable today, I was able to risk my otherwise controlled downwards hike, by taking larger steps and lightly jumping on stones downhill. After a few minutes, I got used to the pattern: spot a stable stone on right, jump on it, and repeat the same for left foot and be quick. I started enjoying this game, it made downwards so easy.  

This guesthouse has a toilet! That’s the first thing we noticed. Yes monastery had a kind of toilet too, which was nothing more than a hole in the floor. This one flushes water. :P Plus, we have beds with blankets. I can’t even start describing how luxurious bed feels after camping. 

There has been no contact with family from last 5 days. Tomorrow, we will get the signal again. It is the last day of hike. Although, I am really excited and looking forward to talk to Nitesh and my family, I know I will miss this time spent with these people here. The no-signal-situation was necessary for people to talk to each other. It was so amazing to have a mix of Singaporeans (all of Chinese origin) and Europeans in this group. I couldn’t help thinking how India and Germany are at the two end of a spectrum, while Singapore is somewhere in the middle. 

Minya Konka Trek Diaries: Days 4 & 5

Days 4 & 5

(In Mt Gongga Monastery courtyard)

Two days of trek completed. Yesterday we walked for what felt like 15-18 kms, 600 mtrs up and 1000 mtrs down. The journey upwards was through the meadows towards a mountain pass which we had to cross to go to the other side of the valley into MoXi valley. We did this part with short breaks and slow walk as some of us were affected by the AMS. For me, this was the pleasant trip as the path was wide and we just had to climb up. Somewhere in middle, it started to hail for few minutes. At the top we were treated with clear views of Minya Konka.

The journey down was a totally different story. After going down the pass, we were into a different landscape. We had to now walk in the jungles, under the trees and cross streams many a times. Sometimes the path would be narrow and slippery and the streams wouldn’t have bridges. Oh how I hate such trails! Already my legs were tired with all the climbing up and I was too scared that the dirt and mud will spoil my clothes on the first day of the trek itself! I hadn’t carried/brought too many walking pants.

Tang En who walked with me all the way down was super patient. At that time, I remembered my last trek in mountains, in India, and the urgency we were all compelled with to walk quickly. It was always like walk faster, walk faster. It is so different here. They understand that a person can walk slower but not faster. They don’t push you to walk faster, just encourage pacing up once in a while. If you tried walking faster, but are more comfortable at a slower pace, then so be it. The training is to be done before the trek, not during! Finally we reached the camp and our tents were already up! The first thing I did after reaching the camp was to clean my pants and shoes.

The camp ground was adjacent to a river. It was a beautiful location and felt like we are in the middle of nowhere. The nearest village was 4-5 hours on foot and two on horses. We have 9 horses, two spare to carry us if required. Camping in the middle of nowhere was a first time experience for me. I have always camped in larger groups. We were in total 15 people, including 4 horsemen, 2 guides and 9 of trekkers.

I can say now that camping is more fun in retrospect/ in memory. In reality, it is a hard, cold, dirty, risky business. At a point, our kitchen tent was just about to be on fire! I dreamt of wild animals in the night. The sound of night in a jungle is kind of disturbing. It is definitely not peaceful. I was up for most of the night, twisting and turning, trying to get warmer. It was so cold. In morning, I realized while talking to teammates, that TangEn and I had forgotten to use the insulation mats and hence were lying almost right on the forest ground next to a river. It was expected to be insanely cold in that case!  A lesson learnt the hard way.

The morning was breathtaking beautiful. I had woken up to the sound of commotion. It turned out one of our mates, a British guy, was swimming in that insanely cold river water!  The sunlight was lighting up the mountain opposite us, next to the river and we were to be in the shade for many more hours. The moon shining above the peak lit up by morning rays was a heavenly sight. What wasn’t so heavenly was the experience of defecating in the open with three horses staring at me shamelessly! Yes, I admit, I hate forests. They are creepy and full of dark secrets.

After my life saving (literally, this was the only thing that kept me alive) Western breakfast of omelette, cheese, bread, apple and coffee (I could never swallow rice porridge and rice bread first thing in the morning!), I mustered the courage to move my stiff knees and thighs again! Off we went for a 3-4 hours (in my case, may be longer) hike to the Mt Gongga Monastery, the monastery dedicated to Mt. Minya Konka (called Mt. Gongga in Tibetian). Looks like tribes here too pray to the mountain peaks, like we do in back home.

It turned out to be fairly easy hike even though my muscles were quite sore. TangEn again volunteered to be my walking buddy and the last hour of the hike was absolutely amazing with spectacular views. We spent a lot of time clicking pictures as the sun was bright and the peaks were cloud-free. The Monastery looked more like an Indian dharamshala with colourful windows in two-three storey-ed wooden structure. A larger part of the monastery served as guesthouse with kitchen and a tap, and a small restrictive section was the real monastery. Not only did we have two persons’ room to ourselves, the window in our room had fantastic views of Mt. Gongga. It is a privilege to sit on bed (after a day of camping) and simple enjoy such fantastic views!

Ok, so I am an exotic entity here. People stare at me. The visitors, I don’t know where they are coming from, click pictures with me. They are just a step away from treating me like a celebrity. Oh wait, they just did that too! They presented me with a white piece of silk, which they call prayer cloth and put it cross my neck and blessed me. While this happened, of course, I was so damn embarrassed more because I didn’t know what was happening. But now I feel overwhelmed. Of course, there is a Brit and a German here too. But their presence is less unlikely than an Indian’s, I guess. I am very amused to find myself more exotic than Caucasians!

It is evening now and the sun is running the last lap to home. The prayer room is alive with drums. All through this trip, I am reminded of India. Like in India, all the mountains here too are dappled with religious symbols such as shrines, piled prayer stones, prayer flags, monasteries. This monastery is like any temple in India, with a huge courtyard, a structure in middle for religious burning (we have our tulsi in temples), living quarters all opening into courtyard and toilets which are outside the structure. While sitting here I am thinking of the temple above the town in Naggar and the old priest and the young son and the rebellious daughter. Wonder how they all are.