Feb 27, 2007

Flowery route to Gurudwara

(To Hemkunt, Valley Of Flowers & Auli-III)

Ghangaria is the point from where our trek forked into two destinations — on our right was a steep ascent to Hemkunt, claimed to be the highest-altitude Gurudwara, and on the left it would lead us to the legendary Valley of Flowers (VoF, if you may excuse). There is no rest-house or food joint on way to the VoF and camping overnight is not permitted by forest officials.

For a long time, VoF was high on our radar, so we dumped our sacks and camping equipment at a Maggie-special dhaba and walked light-footed to the flowery vale. Rusty iron bridges, lactating glaciers and foamy rivers made the walk worth its while. Crossing a glacier can be a tricky business, when the slope is deep and steep. A stick may help, but it is best to use the heel-first approach. This means you hit the heel fist on the snowy path, dig a footrest of sorts, and then move ahead, repeating similar digging by the other shoe-heel. Do not trust the previous footmarks, which may get deformed over time and deceive you into a slippery zone. Both Sup and Bub learned the trick fast and tiptoed over a large obstacle while the veterans Vip & Suk needed no guide to walk the treacherous crossing — at their own pace.

We were a few step early to witness the bloom season. Yet, the buds were on way and we could jump on a ‘buddy’ bed (deforming their uniformity though) and get intoxicated by faint, heady smells in the air. After moving about a bit there and here, we realized that nearly the whole day had been spent; the retreat began, repenting a late start on a cloudy misty weather. In record time — dodging another pesky group of overfriendly Sikhs — we were back to Ghangaria, with a brief photo-shoot. The bazaar at Ghangaria came alive to take care of our needs, from foot massage to various eateries; only rum was missing. We made do with creamy milk and jalebis to induce sleep.

Cramped limbs never find a tent comfortable enough. So we began to haggle again, this time with the lonely forest check-post official to let our group sleep inside the concrete dwelling. After placing a sick-looking Bubble in front of him, we could garner some sympathy and laid out our sleeping bags inside the small post; no hammering of camp rods and nails for the second day too. Since this was a minus-luggage trip and not-so tiresome day, the dreams were preceded by a round of old Bollywood songs, muffled by sleeping bags.

Early morning after we had paid the forest guard a token amount for gratitude, and rolled our sleeping bags, the uphill trek ahead stared at us threateningly. The quick footfalls on previous day, along with skipping the lunch, grounded Bubbles for first half of the day. As we buckled our laces, she looked like as sullen as a Sikh denied the Hemkunt pilgrim. Ten minutes on that steep rise, Supriya decided she would better hire a pony or give Bubbles company. She decided to haggle for a shiny colt and bolted to the destination.

About 35-minute of non-stop, leg-busting ascent, when I stopped over for a cup of tea, I realized I had no money on my person. But as usual, I only had to tell the chaiwallah that a man and woman of certain outlook were behind me and they will pay. He waved his hand reassuringly. Later, I confirmed that Vip-Suk did pay for it. I moved on to reach the Gurudwara in time for the sermon and an advice to return back before weather played tricks. Fair sex is treated more fairly at religious places. When Supriya and I spread out our hands before a prasad-distributing Nihang, only one palm was greased. A visit to the nearby Laxman temple (perhaps the only temple in world exclusively for the younger prince of Ayodhya), and a grand view of Haathi Parvat, we began the downward march.

By 3 o’clock our flock was strapped with our back-packs to go down to Ghangaria. There were a few knick-knacks to be tied up, which I volunteered to do and gift others a comfortable lead. Our target was to reach Govind Ghat before the last bus left for Joshimath. After half hour of others leaving Ghangaria, when I set myself in motion, en route, I realized that I was the only one who took the target seriously; some whiled time on a poison stick while others were too slow to make it on time. Humming Bollywood songs, I galloped downward, straining my knees a bit, and managed to reach the bus-stop — about 15 minutes after the last passenger vehicle had left. The dhaba owner at the stop told me not to worry since there would be a steady line of empty trucks which I could hitch-hike for Joshimath. Presuming that others too would thus make it to Joshimath, I jumped on a truck loaded with babas and reached Joshimath a little before dusk. But perhaps I expected too much from them.

The hotel boy was a bit disappointed when he saw the friendly ‘madams’ had stayed behind. But I was too happy to find some rest. My frail alcoholic body had done a great job and it longed for some celebrations. I asked him to lead me to a liquor shop and though my trek mates failed to join me, I let out my worries through a punctured bladder.

The day next, when the reunion of sorts happened, we took a detour to Auli (sans-snow) where, while trying to be adventurous, I scrapped through a tiger roar and proverbially peed in my pants. That night, we had to borrow from Sup’s reserve purse to celebrate – which means buying some booze after two days of abstain. Next morning (I remember it turned out to be Sukriti’s birthday) I was too keen to straddle my bike, after a few adjustments on the oxygen nob, and drove home. I sped downhill through mudslush, landslide debris (which delayed fellow mates by a few hours) and a bit of slosh again. Sukriti would not forget this penniless birthday of hers but thankfully at Rishikesh Deva was kind enough to take our word on un-used tents and not charge for the same.

Down to Delhi on the bike, we had to push Bubs in the bus while Sup pillioned with me. The routes were tricky and at a check-point when I asked for the Delhi route (NH-24 was closed for trouble-monger Kanvarias) the khaki-clad was crestfallen: “Aap kya madam ke saath suicide karne aaye ho? (he said something to this effect)”. Thankfully, a red beacon ambassador car took on that route and as soon as the policeman looked at us, I knew the cue to follow. A few dark hours later, I was inside my Dilshad Garden home, splattered on the floor — tired to bones and contented to soul.

Visions of the highest gurudwara flashed in my sleep and I heard myself murmuring — perhaps praying Guru Nanak for more such trips in future — then falling prey to a temporary death called sleep.

Feb 16, 2007

Up, ahead the world is a high!

(To Hemkunt, Valley Of Flowers & Auli-II)

Nothing rejuvenates me fuller than a sound sleep. And if this is succeeded by a healthy breakfast, I will shame a mule for the day's work. At Joshimath, the sleep in our cramped, smelly room worked as a natural steroid. I woke up so fresh that when it came to walk up, for the first time in my trekking career, a concretized trek (Sikh devotees had made smart pathways to Hemkunt), I was leading the pack by several paces. Right from the onset, when we posed before a hanging bridge, I beat my co-walkers by yards. Quite a solace since four years back, Sukriti (nine years younger to me) had kept Gautam and I at a lengthy bay while climbing up to Nag Tibba .

My will to keep ahead worked well for other tired souls too. I fixed a place for our lunch, spelled out a menu and moved backward to see how far behind were my trek-mates. It tickled my ego that inspite of being the eldest in the pack, I was ready to run to and fro to keep the flock like a shepherd.

Irritants were many. Sukriti like always was fussy about the menu. In the plains, she wants nothing except muttar-mushroom and in the hills she would sift tomato skins in her plate and make a pile of wrinkled refuse. An ideal pupil for Bubbles who can work her appetite at whatever she could find — from Maggie to dal-chawal.

Weather became the next irritant. While till lunch, it had been a cool uphill walk, thereto the weather began to whistle… in no time the drizzle turned into a chilly rainstorm. We covered ourselves with the Rs10-rainsheet, a plastic sack with one-side slit, and ploughed on. I still led the pack, with a 500-ml coke spiked with rum for instant energy and warmth. A young wolf-pack from Punjab stayed on my tail, badgering me, like the drizzle, about my co-trekkers. Some of them thought Supriya to be a German (where else may a 5’10” fair woman belong to?) and Suku an American (I am sure they meant a Latino). If rum weren’t there, I could have... grrrr.

Late afternoon, it was Bubbles' turn to cause pain. Inspite of being tired and hungry (more hungry than tired) she refused to ride a pony, delaying in turn the whole five. It was only after a few harsh words on her hassled being that Damyanti Ji agreed to mount a horseback; her business skills still trying to steal my larger sack on the horse.

Being on four legs, Bubbles was the first to reach the spot, a Helipad before Ghangaria, where we had decided to camp. However, considering the lack of dry clothes and firewood, we decided to stay at a dhaba, where we could dry our clothes and get a meal without doing the chores. The bottle of rum came out and all five of shooed off the cold and fatigue.

Either for the rum or a roof, our bunch was fit as fiddle in the morning to deal with the rest of our journey.
(The trip to Valley of Flowers & Hemkunt plus our race to Joshimath-Delhi is next)

Feb 12, 2007

Himalayas, on two wheels

(To Hemkunt, Valley Of Flowers & Auli-I)

The sudden winter rains this Feb (which lasted more than 48 hours) brought back memories of my Hemkunt/Valley of Flowers trek a few years back. It happened in 2002 — an year of transition for me. I had moved out to a better start: leaving a hectic Aaj Tak to join a sparkling & slower ET… had given up an affordable maruti for a spanking motor bike (LML Energy coz dream machine Bullet could not pass the budget). And I was itching to race those wheel on the hills.

Such opportunities come aplenty when you work for ET. With a week-long holiday, bracketed by weekly offs, I revved up to Joshimath on an August night. It wasn't an easy drive, considering the moody truck drivers on national highway 24, and the fact that I was carrying a female pillion (Bubbles) who loved lecturing, along with two rucksacks strapped to a lean engine.

Most of the time en route I was at the receiving end of either the co-drivers or my own pillion. Every time, I reached out for my ready-mix rum-coke tucked near a shiney Gurkha knife, disturbing noises came from close behind. I realised soon that if I ignore them and pull a large swig, the journey becomes bearable. With various such lessons and learnings, I reached Rishikesh a little before dawn. My watch told me that I had about an hour before three more friends joined in and Glacier Tour’s shop opened to lend us a tent. I decided to tank up some energy and with rucksack as a pillow, I spreaded myself outside a shop and crashed for a cat nap.

An hour and a half later, I was on a tortuous hilly road to Joshimath, about 280 km from Rishikesh. Everytime I stopped for coke, breakfast or rest, pahari kids hovered around my skinny bike (which I didn’t mind at all) and some times non-pahari tourists tried to chat up about my travel plans and my skinny pillion (which I certainly minded). But the curvy roads made me a biker maxima. The only shortfall was not to be able to see the Alaknanda valley view sideways; yet the pleasures of negotiating the turns on two precarious wheels were heady enough.

A fresh set of lecture was in store when I braked for a late lunch past Nand-Prayag. Each bite of warm roti, laced with hot dal or sabzi, had to be swallowed with the bitter pill on vices of alcoholism. Llittle did the lecturer know that I had adultrated my steel (or steal!!) glass of water with rum and each time I feigned of choking, the water eased my sufferings.

By 5 in the evening, after a few scraps with mishaps, I touched Joshimath. The notorious hill drivers were still to catch up with the wily mobike couple. While looking for a campsite, a friendly hotel boy offered help with an irrefusable offer – Rs 150 for a room overnight with two beds and quilts (extra quilts to cost Rs 50 each). Drunk to my gullet, I accepted. Supriya, Vipul & Sukriti who arrived later, appreciated the decision and fell wherever they could find space in that 10 ftX10 ft room.

(The trek begins tomorrow (read next post…)

Feb 5, 2007


(Grazing the Western Ghats)

Goa doesn’t belong to India; it belongs to hedonism. The ragged Oxford on my desk defines hedonism as ‘Devotion to or pursuit of pleasure’. Goa defines it better: Piyo, khao aur aish karo (Drink, eat and be merry), without busting your shoestrings.

My penchant for heights have brought me to seashores only twice in my 37 years of existence — once to the Bay of Bengal and once the Bosporus. I therefore found it necessary to consult the Net and friends who had been to Goa recently. Vidya, a walking manual on cost-effective trips, and Shalini, a shoe-shopper given to cleanliness & comfort, passed strong recommendations for Arambol beach in Goa. Few revellers, relatively speaking, opt for Arambol, an extreme-north Goan beach, which helps in keeping the place unspoilt and spacious — also within the reach of budget travellers. I hate five-star resorts because I can’t afford them, so Arambol was a natural choice.

God’s Gift for shelter

It takes about a thousand bucks to reach Arambol from the airport in a taxi (with Nidhi complaining about the sun and infant Manila lugged on my back, I decided not to try the local bus). In hindsight, the taxi fare remained the biggest one-time expense in our whole trip. As Arambol, local name Harmal, surfaced, I spent no time in taking an eyeful of the area. Once a fishermen village, Arambol now is a long, pristine beach, with a row of budget hotels running parallel to the shore. The waters and the hotels are separated by an uneven line of straw shacks (with elaborate menus and beach couches).

I was lucky to have found advanced bookings for a room attached with kitchen, bath and sea-facing balcony, at a paltry 500/- per night in God’s Gift, suggested online by Dr Funkenstein (called Jim off-line). The d’Souza family who runs God’s Gift treats their guests as blood brothers, Jim had vouched.

Jim, Shalini, Vidya all proved true to their last letters. The beach looked slow and divine; surroundings serene; music distant and it never strained the wallet…

Fireball and firewater

Since we had landed in Arambol early evening after about four hours of journey, Nidhi got busied in fixing up her kitchenware in the hotel room to prepare milk. I decided to take a recee of the area, after removing a soiled diaper from Manila’s baby bums. I kept walking and discovered, down further north, a shock of coral reefs and a fresh water lake bang opposite the sea. For the adventurist, 20-minute para-gliding trips were on offer, for Rs 1,400 (ouch!). The triplet of Western Ghats, lake and sea made a perfect sand-bed. I promised to come back the next day.

The only thing I couldn’t postpone was the beer on beach. Light on the head, I walked and watch the scenic beaches, flushed with a colourful combo: copper-plated bods, amber sky, blue tides, rusty fishermen and dusty feet. It would be a waste of key-pushing to describe the travel brochure stuff! Our dinner was a pleasant choice of fish, prawns and vegetables, smoothened by large doses of rum (I was yet to discover the king of beers in Goa)

King’s rules the beer stable in Arambol. A brand exclusive to Goa, this 300 ml barley brew, served in small barrel-shape bottles, beats all its premium cousins in smoothness and effect, easily making it the first choice of the frequent visitor; the novice makes do with Kingfisher. The price list of hard liquors was another big relief — Rs 15/- for a 60ml Old Monk rum!! (Defence Mess & Press Club, wake up!!). Before you think alcohol can’t get cheaper than that, try the coconut or cashew fenis.

As promised, I returned to the lake the other day with family. Having jogged on the beach early morning, I chose to play the lethargic whale and flopped on a couch. Periodically, I would gulp a beer, splash into the sea, dry myself and the leftover of the beer, then make a few laps in the lake.

Manila was the only pimple (adjusting the switch between Delhi cold and Goan warmth) but in one long day, her mountain blood acclimatised to coastal climate. That made a happy family and happier (hic!!) father. Each time, I lifted my 11-kg devil and walked the loose sands, I could feel the hint of paunch making things more difficult. I toiled while Manila enjoyed the ride.

Chomp Chomp...

If Arambol gets ten out of ten in booze and beauty, it gets 11 on the platter front. Even the smallest of shack here lays out a thorough-fare, comparable to five-star speciality restaurants. And that is no mean competition. From Continental & Near East to Western, the menus in Goa are a battery of laminated flips. And before the doubt gets the better of you, run your finger with eyes shut on the card and order. Of my weekly stay in Arambol, I barely had to repeat my orders or eat at the same place twice (save for God’s Gift restaurant).

The breakfast came from museli-milk, tuna sandwiches, a choice of toasted breads, poached eggs, bacon slices... (am already watering in mouth) and the lunch-dinner from a line-up of steaks (in pastes as varied as basil, bean sauce, mushroom sauce & cheese), sizzlers, pastas, spaghetti, prawn curry, Goan fish curry, grilled pomfret, red snapper, kingfish fillet, shark, lobsters, crabs and — huff, huff... — what else. Nidhi (my teetotaller, vegetable-loving wife) feasted all this while on a pick of vegetarian delights, sandwiched between fresh fruit juices to good effects.

No wonder the brief trip changed us in colour, shape and spirits. The skin acquired a darker hue, the body gained a few extra kilos, the soul lifted a trifle.