Oct 30, 2006

Gangotri & Tapovan (Where it all began)

For the Hindu devout, Gangotri is one of the four dhams which guarantee a ticket to heaven (the other three being Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath). Adventurists, irrespective of their religious loyalties, think so too. For, this picturesque spot in the Garhwal Himalayas offers endless divine pleasures — call it heaven, if you so wish. So Amit, Gautam and I set out to this heavenly abode one fine April morning in my second-hand Maruti 800. This was going to be my first formal trek (wayback in 1995).

The route to Gangotri, Hrishikesh onward, offers an ideal sideway sighting. The beauty gets better after Ganganani, a hot water spring. This natural sulphar spring (or tapt kund), has two separate public bath pools for men and women. From here to Harsil, the last stoppale spot before Gangotri, high mountains behold tricky turns. Any driving daredevilry here might buy you your ticket to heaven, literally. We nearly booked our seats when I decided to save petrol on a downhill stretch and my tyres skidded to the edge of a cliff. I felt the sweat down to my undies.

But by Harsil, we had put the bad experience behind us and pitched a tent (borrowed from Wilson John) near a roadside dhaba and a clear water stream. One full day can be spent at Harsil, visiting the winter seat of goddess Gangotri at one side of the road or take a hike to Saat-Taal (literally, seven ponds but there are only four here) on the opposite side. One of these ponds has a thick growth of carpet grass where you can jump and spring, like a water bed. The final and the fourth taal can tempt you with a swim but unless you are sure you won't cramp your muscle in the cold waters, don't jump.

The route from Harsil valley to Gangotri costs about an hour and pays lush greenery in return. A recurring problem was toll tax barriers at various turnarounds. We kept tossing the tenner/fivers to see the barrier poles go up in the air. In the festive season, Gangotri can put you off with its human activity. It mainly hosts the historic temple, a few ashrams and a makeshift bazaar of copperware, pooja items, prasaad and eateries. If you are not the religious type, there is no use hankering around the temple. Choose yourself a spot that allows a prime view of the noisy Ganga negotiating large boulders. Another whole day can be spent lying there straightening the limbs. But Gangotri is no longer the real birthplace of the holy river. Gaumukh, the glacier from where it originates, has over past several decades shifted backwards. It was a good idea to brace the backpack and reach Gaumukh from where Ganga actually melts into life. We divided the itinerary in two days for comfort sake (Today it would be just an eight-hour walk for me). On the way, glowing peaks, bluer sky, large tracts of birch-pine forests and a few blue water ponds reminded us of calender art.

The last dhaba before Gaumukh is Bhojbasa where you get maggie, dal-chawal and a breathtaking view of three peaks — Gangotri One, Two and Three. Gaumukh is barely two-km light walk from here. At Gaumukh, there is a burphani baba (snow saint) hutment nestled between two large boulders and covered by a canvas sheet; if you have nothing to eat, he may help you with some khichdi for dinner. It beats logic as to why the good man is coming here for years and torturing himself to boredom, but hills are like that: an onion full of mysteries, peel over peels. Doctor’s advice is to think less, see more, walk hard, eat well and drink not (at high altitudes, lack of oxygen makes drinking more dehydrating and nausea follows). That whole night, it snowed and we kept guard one by one to keep pushing snow mounds depositing over our camp. The day next, when we tried to get some water, we had to break a thin ice crust over the Ganga. Morning ablutions refused to cooperate.

Four km further up from Gaumukh is Tapovan where the nascent form of the Bhagirathi flows in childlike glory. The journey to Tapovan is tiresome thanks to lack of oxygen. Guide will be of help if you have no experience in trekking before. Hire one from Bhojbasa. Tapovan is a meadow (bugyal), with an icy stream slicing it in two large parts. This is also the base camp for the mountaineers to Shivling, a divine peak that stands majestically atop the meadow. If you have proper equipment (like ice axe, ropes et al) you can try and go further down to Nandan Van or Vasuki Tal, via a glacier trek.

We stayed overnight at Bengali baba's ashram in Tapovan. For the want of ice axe, will power and energy, we decided to call it our last stop. Cribbing and crying, we returned to the grime of April in Delhi. The patience, planning, team spirit et al learned during the trek, melted like an icecream in the city heat. But even 11 years after, a faint flavour still lingers in our mouths.

Pacifying Pongot

Visited Pongot with Rajeev-Vidya, Anil-Manju and John-Saki one chilly November. This place, a “popular” bird-watching hill spot, is some 16 km ahead of Nainital. Once we lodged in home, after a good 10-hour journey, it required little booze to get drunk; Anil and I had been working upon an Old Monk since 5 in the morning and the only reason that kept us awake with others till 10 o'clock was bonfire & bar-be-cue. It took some persuasion from friends to wake up the morning next (if you can call 11 am morning). Brunch over, and I sprawled under a soothing sun.

Disappointment always arrives first. Friends dragged me to a long nature trail, selling the bird sanctuary like an insurance agent. The visitors book to the place where we stayed also showed comments from at least five bird-watchers of national fame. Each comment was a canary song in praise the "bird-watching paradise". Pity, then that we could not see even one per cent of what others had. If Vidya is to be believed, we saw some four-five species of Himalayan winged creatures, like seven sisters, white-eyed yellow breasted sparrow, magpie robin, etc. Now, I can only tell a sparow from a crow, so all that went above my birdbrain.

But paradise Pongot surely was — in terms of scenic beauty. There, it gets 10 out of 10, maybe 11, what with some 16 snow-clad peaks lined neatly in a straight column (without forming an arc). We were about 3,000 mt from sea level and felt just as high. If it sounds like a travel brochure, so be it. To see in person what you have only read about in travel pieces, can make or break your creative self.

There was more to come at the sunset. Various shades of blue and orange were merging into each other to create a unique rainbow effect on the sky; only that the bow had straightened up. Anil was busy with his Nikon and I too helped him capture the moment with his son Nanu (sorry, Jatin, as he inisists)

The polished-wooden cottage where we lodged was too swanky for a trekking enthusiast to feel comfortable. Same goes for the hospitable attendants; I was too damn embarrassed to ask them for anything. The buggers kept bending backward at every request. But once in a while such indulgence would not kill, I assured myself, specially when you get this at a massive discount (the total expenses were 1600/- for two nights and three days stay and it included one day-night in Tigercamp, an equally swanky place near Corbett park and an early morning Gypsy safari in the jungle). Thank Vidya for her contacts.

The jeep safari as always was as bad as it always has been, if not worse. Didn’t see much except the battalions of deer, langurs and — dont laugh at this — tiger paw & pee marks. But the day was made by a very young and wobbly deer-calf, safely tucked inside the four-legged cage of her doting mama.

Rajeev let me maneouvre his spanking new Zen on return journey — a big deal considering he is known to be possessive about his vehicles — but that hardly lifted the spirits. Return journeys are like retired lives, tedious and predictable. Magar kya Karen, bhai, to quote an adline, naukri bhi to karni hai!

PS: at one point of time, while walking to reach a hilltop, I left my older friends several paces behind. In that quiet and lonely time, I momentarily thought about my work in office — visualising myself sitting before a Che Guevara wallpaper or typing furiously on a word document. Then, slowly, I raised my head to savour the snowy woods all around. The difference between the two images was telling! No pains, no gains. The office grind and the wilderness trail were two complimentary halves of a necessary whole. I was lost in a smile when Rajeev tapped me from behind. "Kya hua?" he wanted to know, since I am not known to stop for a breath so easily. "Nothing," I lied, "Just waiting for you guys."

Oct 29, 2006

But Why Trek At All?

(Written before setting out on a bike to Valley of Flowers trek)

I know it is going to be a punishing journey — all that way to Joshimath on a bike, and a trek thereto. It will tax my back and toll every limb, I know it from experience. I know.

Why then, pray, I am going there at all. What reasons? Why can’t I toil a bit more on my work station and do a little better in life? What is there to gain from this trek-shrek, after all?

It cannot be machoism, or masochism. It is more complex than Freudian theories, even if I can’t put my finger on the switch. There is a bit of show-off factor at work too, I agree. But would I stay back if my friend circle did not feel impressed with it. I am sure I would have gone, with or without the world knowing about it. Without a bike, without a rucksack... Could it be then that I am an escapist. Is it, as I often say, collecting some bedtime tales for grandchildren (??) or some anecdotes for a party? All these possibilities are there. But these are all ‘advantages’ of a trek, not the reason. Going for a strenuous trek for holding captive an audience does not make much sense, normally speaking.

Come to think of it, it has never made much sense in most of the things that I do. Barely has there been anything ‘normal’ about it — mostly. My rewards often come as a short gasp of breath after a long uphill move, a sudden view of cold Himalayan snow, a gentle pat on the back from a co-trekker, a lungful of fresh mountain air and the renewed zest for city life after jheloing the life which a pahari lives everyday. This is a small collection of moments that I have.

I keep these worthless marbles the same way a child stocks his junk. And everytime I feel down and low on any front, I pull out this box buried in a stack of bricks in the backyard, juggle its contents, relive the cherished moments, and feel rejuvenated. That makes me feel high and prosperous all over again. City travails become more tolerable, greenbucks revive importance and life shifts into a new gear. And the hunt to raise the stock in my personal treasure continues.

Reasoning can wait, bloody hell.

Oct 28, 2006

Jaipur Jottings (In the Aravalis)

If there is one thing that I hate more than Delhi road-users, it is having to get up early in the morning. However, this time, the worm was too good to be missed. I had to reach the office sharp at 6.30 am, and there was barely half an hour left for the mission. You lose some, you win some. As I moved on to the main road, missing on my precious early-hour sleep, the charcoal-laden path looked wider than ever; better still nobody honked impatiently from behind. My modest vehicle moved as if it was part of a minister’s convoy. And, for the first time in life, I made it in time for office.

At C-28/29 Qutub Inst. Area, what stood before me was an interesting site: men in joggers, young girls in casuals, and a harried Bhawna calling out names and frantically ticking on a series of list. “Bus number two is yours,” she barked at me and handed over a list of some 40 colleagues. I was supposed to take care of these passengers. In plain terms, play the bus conductor. A cursory glance at my fellow travelers and… good lord, my heart sank. Smiling at the top was EB, South Asia head, Indu Ramchandani. If the stories of her love for discipline were true, the journey was going to be as peaceful as Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March. The only saving grace was Sabari & Yusuf being in the same bus, but there was no trace of the first even at 7 a.m. (I heard later, that he made it by the whiskers.)

Inside the bus, Indu belied everybody’s expectations. The cubs realized soon enough that it was a holiday. And the fun began. Ashutosh, the marketing head, was game too. In no time, with help from Yusuf and Sabari, some ten people had polished off two bottles of Vodka and a half of Bacardi. The bus wore a merrier look now, with everybody singing and dancing full blast. Among the women, Geetanjali, Anubha, Pooja, Shahnaaz, Payal, Monicas, and Bindu did not give peace a chance. The only worried soul was the sturdy Sikh driver. Each time we fished out a cold drink from the thermo-col box at his cabin, he repeated his prayers.

Bosses are bosses. The diktat came midway at the Rajasthan border: Nobody was to have booze during the journey, thanks to a ghastly experience with Rajasthan cops last year. Aalok-Amir smothered the fun for the bus-II occupants, with I-am-serious tones. But the old dogs were not willing to learn new tricks. The last half of the unfinished bottle was worth the risk. The nectar was smuggled despite a watchful Amir, and put to good use by the foursome that need not be identified here.

The lunch at Chokhi Dhani was nothing much to write home about. What stole our hearts were the film-like village settings, rooms, and the jhoolas around the place. One more drink at the bar, and things brightened up.

Why is joy always shortlived? I was dreaming of swimming in a pool of beer, when Yusuf shook me into life. “We have to be at the conference hall for the Amir’s presentation, NOW,” his voice came from a mile. I got up; my head was still swimming. A splash of cold water and I returned to Chokhi Dhani. Together, Sabari, Yusuf, Percy and I made way to the conference hall. The door creaked violently as we entered, and I felt some 50 pairs of eyes boring into us. But no one had actually bothered about us; we were guilty, and hence conscious (may be sub-conscious).

If I were to give the best presentation award, it would go to Aalok. “Any questions?” he began with a query. No one said a word in return. “So you wanna go?” he smiled, and left the podium. Everybody wished him well, and dispersed.

The evening was worth looking forward to. Post-eight, the venue resembled a bird sanctuary. It was a hands-down victory for the Britannic babes. They came, they saw and they conquered. Some in slits, most in spaghettis, a few in tights; all of them smelling nice and laughing confidently. Men suffered from the minority complex. The only place where they looked confident was bar. I too helped myself generously. People are generally indulgent when the bill is to be footed by the company. So there were unfinished glasses of expensive liquor all over the place.

Had the bar not been closed at 12 (or was it 1 am), and the music not stopped half hour later, the party would have ended with morning treasure hunt. But that was not to be. By 3 am, almost everybody was back in his/her bed. Almost!!!

The morning came with a nightmarish knock on the door. Poor Yusuf was virtually dragged out of slumber by a girl named Anjolika. Percy was hauled out by an equally obstinate Simar. But a few held the fort. Come hell, heavy water, or treasure hunt, the old guard remained wrapped to their blankets. The clues at the hunt were game, and enthusiastic women lost a few kilos looking for the answers. Finally, the deserving got the best.

The breakfast tasted like rubber to those who had an overdose of aperitifs last night. Considering the number of zombies in the team, it was a good idea to ferry them for once and all. I had been assigned the role of monitoring the bus-II. By no stretch of imagination it was a mean responsibility. And already the guilt of having left behind Prasanna & Mona hanging on my neck like Albatross, I was careful this time. I ran south, I darted north, but kept the flock intact. Sugata, how I wish you were there!!

The return journey was depressing. The seats suddenly turned uncomfortable, the road too bumpy, and the lunch insipid. Had it not been for The Gang (Geetanjali, Anubha, Pooja, Monica J, Monika T), everybody would be sleeping. But fed on some steroids, this women power took the bus by storm. The total amount of energy spent would have cleared the rubble at Bhuj earthquake. Meanwhile, Payal, Bindu and Arpana concentrated on Yusuf like acid. Yusuf fought back like Abhimanyu the (young!!??) warrior, ducking a volley of jibes from all corners. How happy and cheerful you then looked Yusuf!! I wish I could show you the mirror; you were the fairest of all. And, God was I jealous???

Barring Yusuf, it was a tired lot that reached Britannica Center at 7.30 pm. The hustle bustle was at the same crescendo that it was some 38 hours back. I stretched and moved inside the vehicle with friends to head eastward – the only worrying point being the morning sleep.

No wonder, then, that I woke up in the morning with a familiar pain in the head.

Oct 22, 2006

Thrills on the Hills—I

Seven die-hard trouble-makers inside a fast Mitsubishi Voyager; six unholy hours to kill and; five bottles of rum. Adventure was bound to happen on National Highway 58.

What lay ahead of the troupe at Hrishikesh early on Saturday last morning, was much more than road-raging fun. We were there to defeat the waves, conquer the rapids, and, of course, for a tête-à-tête with Nature. A splash of green mountains, deep gorges, and the Ganga moving like a green python out of the Shivaliks, welcomed us. For most of us, early morning found a new meaning that day. The spot where we were to stay looked promising. It had a queue of Swiss tents pitched firmly on soft riverine sand, make-shift canvas loos, and a large canopy with a central table and chairs to serve as dining hall. The holy river gushed nearby to make the picture postcard complete.

FOOOODDDDD!!!! we cried in unison, seconds later we had dumped our bags. The host, sensing what lay in store for him in the coming 24 hours, cringed. Soon the breakfast was well laid out, with piles of paranthas laden with small butter cubes. All that kept disappearing in a jif, even as the poor host laboured to keep the supply line intact. Relief was writ large on his face as one by one each one of us burped with satisfaction and sprawled on the sand. None of the 16 devils had winked for a second the last night but nobody complained. The majority wanted a holy dip while a few still preferred the "unholy sip". With a mellow sun delivering vitamin D constantly, the forenoon looked pleasant and warm to us the dripping souls.

One of the deadliest rapids in the Ganges is a four-grader, The Wall. Our camp was barely half hour away from it. So, hopping the boulders and negotiating the sharp edges of rocky banks, we set about to dekho that turbulent rapid. It took some skill and courage to reach The Wall; made worse by the fact that some of us were bare feet. But the exercise was worth the pain. Raging white water was gushing out with raw power. The roar was audible from well before 100 meters. The gush looked as much impressive as destructive. Each one of us chose a comfortable rock and sat down to savour the furious beauty. Time ticked by meanwhile...

It must have been two hours or so when we got up reluctantly, nudged by the pangs of hunger, and returned to our huts. The fare laid out on the table was simple – rice, dal, chapati and a sabzi – but it tasted divine. A cup of piping tea to boot, and we were all set to retire for a siesta. In no time, we were dozing off peacefully (okay, there were a few snores to compete with the Ganga).

The evening belonged to an amateurish attempt at rock climbing. As we made our way above like wily lizards, it dawned upon us that this was going to be a tricky situation if we went too high. For, the route that we had left behind allowed only upward mobility; and it was to be a treacherous way down. Praying and sweating we came down one by one, and thanked our stars for the fresh lease of life. On the river beach, our host had fixed up a volleyball court, so the menfolk merrily went about exercising their skills and power with a different ball-game.

Soon a dark blanket, full of zillion bright holes, engulfed the earth around us. The campfire beneath, with dreamy-eyed adventurists huddled all around, looked stolen from a romantic Hindi flick. Songs, booze, hash smoke, and the warmth -- one wished the night would never come to an end. If wishes were horses...

That was to be a night of long knives. One of the camps, with only female population, found to their horror that some ghostly power was swinging the lantern kept outside their hut. Another group met a white-cloth figure on their way to answering a call of nature. But adventurists all, no one died of cardiac arrest. Reels of jokes and peels of laughter echoed many a tent throughout the night. No wonder, we looked like a bunch of dehyderated lushes in the morning thereafter...

Thrills on the Hills—II

Now the part Two…

It took some effort to see things in focus on Sunday morning, but we all somehow managed to come out of our beds. Cold Ganga-jal cleared the cobwebs from our eyes somewhat and we walked down to the breakfast table like zombies. The fare was a Xerox copy of the Saturday’s menu, but we were least bothered. Hung over by alcohol, we ate mechanically. The food had a gradual effect on our system and we woke up fully — after one hour of leaving our beds.

After polishing off the plates, we reached Shivpuri, the spot from where we would board the raft. The large beach was bubbling with activity. Several groups were gearing up for similar adventure trips. Our guide pointed at a pile of fluorescent jackets and helmets, and asked us to slip them on. LIFE JACKETS???? Some of us nearly jumped out of our skins. We weren't going on a mission impossible!! Were we? The guide was curt, "Please put these on and listen to instructions. All of you have to pull the oars. Those who don’t know swimming will sit at the back. Remember, if anyone of you falls into waters, don’t panic." Fall into waters and not panic? "Please listen to the paddle commands and don’t make too much of noise. Any questions?" he parroted, and left without bothering to wait for any response.

We all remembered God before getting into the German raft. What had looked like a dreamboat all along, gave us nightmares of the worst kind now. Splash went the boat into the current and some of us let out a yell – some in excitement, others with fear.

The first rapid, Return to Senders, was tailor-made for a starter. It had just the right amount of turbulence to encourage the novice, and condition them for the deadlier bit to come. But when the deadlier did come, the conditioning went for a toss. Roller Coaster, the second rapid on the run, lived up to its title, sending the rubber boat to a roller coaster spin. The first big wave that attacked the raft blinded the navigator in the back for a brief second. And when the man recovered his vision, he could see only two men in the extreme front pulling the oars. The rest six – including Monika, Shamya, and Geetanjali – lay fallen on the raft floor, soaked and unnerved. The rapid was crossed with some luck and some pluck.
Tee Off, a relatively smaller rapid came next, which indeed looked easy thanks to our over-conditioning at Roller Coaster. But the joy was short-lived. "The following one is the mother of all rapids in this stretch," informed the guide. No one jumped more than a foot. Couldn't the sod keep this info to himself. A few gave up paddling and gripped the lifeline. No one looked keen on rafting thrills any more; they wanted their lives. Golf Course, as this rapid is known, had several gaping holes in it, big enough to engulf a six-footer. Scenes from Titanic danced before us.

But fear is a great leveler. As the raft hit the rapid, everyone paddled to save his/her life. Up went the raft in the air, for a second that looked like eternity, but landed securely on the waters. At times, oars were of little help as they looked like straws in the waters. The thrill, I must admit, was there. And as we came out of the Golf Course, soaked and jubilant, we stood like a PGA World Tour champion. No longer were we afraid of any turbulence, water or earth.

The following string of rapids – Club House, Initiation, Double Trouble, and No More – were chicken-feed to our lust for adventure thereto. At Hrishikesh, some of us changed into dry clothes, while a few let the sun take care of excess water over their clothes and body. A brief sojourn to the town, over Laxman Jhoola, followed by a sumptuous meal at Choti Wala Restaurant — and we were all set to go back to Delhi.

As the Voyager whirred to motion, some of us fell asleep while others massaged the aching limbs. Oh, and what happened during the journey is another long story for another occasion…