Mar 31, 2007

Gladiator on the Glacier

Curse of the black tongue (Pindari Part-II)

Khati is the last village in the Pindari trek route. Although there is still atleast one wooden lodge available at Dwali and Phurkia, the amenities are minimal. It is thus advisable to reload yourself with the essentials like batteries, emergency food items et al, during the brief stay at KMVN guesthouse. Most of the youths in Khati work as porters, carrying grain sacks to higher points for tourists and KMVN guesthouses. Some own mules or horses and provide assistance to tired travelers. Money-order economy works as well, with a good lot of the young employed either in the plains or with Indian Army.

Pitamber, a porter by profession, walked up to us and solicited his services for the road ahead. Though we didn’t need his services, I chatted up with him to find more about the place as well as for the drinking company you require at such heights. The ‘ENGLISH’ rum was a worthy lure. Displaying muscular shins the size of my thighs, Pitamber squatted before the steel glass and narrated us many a tale about his carrying loads for various firangi teams. “Mein ek quintal uttha kar ek kilometer bina rukay-huay chalta hun (I can walk with a quintal-load for one km, without a break),” he said. Thick veins and huge meatballs bobbing out of his arms, it was easy to believe. Thankfully, the angelic devil refused to drink after half a glass of rum. “Ghar jaana hai (got to go home),” he said with a wink.

The day next we were well preapred for Dwali, thanks to a comfy sleep. While the trip from Dhakuri to Khati is like walking on a friendly plateau, with a few tea-stalls and trickle-streams thrown in to making it easier, the journey to Dwali was filled with surprises. The first one was a makeshift bridge (the real rope-bridge had been destroyed with the heavy snowfall last winter) and we had to straddle a thick, moss-laden lodge to inch our way to the other end. Often, uncleared debris from landslides (we were early in the season to avoid the rush and this was a just price) made us alter routes briefly. Besides, unbeaten paths posed directional dilemmas occasionally. However, at the end of the day, it was still a bargain. The path was devoid of human activity and doted by birds of unknown hues. Quietly, the valley sang.

Dwali is a an oasis for the tired soul. One full day can be spent here without moving as much as an eyebrow. This is the confluence point for Pinder and Kafni rivers, both gushing forth and creating a large sum-froth under a wooden bridge. Our team enjoyed the confluence only till my limbs revived; soon, I began to nudge others for, we had made Phurkia the target for the day. Blame either the scenic surroundings or their sluggish attitude but Rachs and Gau refused to budge ahead. “I come to a trek to enjoy and not punish myself,” Gau taunted. “Go ahead if you must. I am here. We shall not hinder your pace.”

If Gau (or anyone else) expected me to stop after this valid logic, I should apologize. A trek is as much an enjoying experience for me as it is a penance trip or a keep-fit regime. So alone I went ahead to Phurkia, with a heavy footfall and an increased load. Little did I know about Gau's black tongue.

I was infact a bit enthusiastic when a frozen track appeared on the way. The small glacier-like crossing before Phurkia was about 30-meter long, and I followed the footprints on the slippery slant. A big mistake that was since the original footmarks had melted out of shape, and the new deceptive marks betrayed me. I slipped down for about two meter viciously, before I stuck a bare hand into the ice to restrain the downward movement. Necessiity is the mother of all inventions. Hanging from a freezing hand, I began to hit my toe severely into the snow and made a foot rest. Before the first footrest began to slide, I hit the other toe and made another footrest of sort. After making 20 such rests and hitting my boot more than 200 times in the snow, I crossed the stretch. If I were not wearing a leather jacket, I would have bruises on my chest as war medals. I had to discard the sliced jacket after that trip (such is the sharpness of a icy sleet).

Muttering curses, I moved on and reached Phurkia a tad late than usual. Gautam’s curse wasn’t over yet. The lone dhaba-owner there had already put off his log fire and reluctantly agreed to provide me with part of his own food. More sweet talks made him help me with raising my tent. The whole night was spent shivering, thanks to the shoddily raised camp and a sudden fall in mercury — a worthy lesson for choosing my ego before friends.

(Meeting with the Pindari Baba and our race back to Delhi in the next post)

Mar 17, 2007

On a Song to Pindari glacier

Friendly people, unfriendly terrain (Pindari Part-I)

I have mentioned in an earlier post how Rachna, Gautam and I traveled atop a UP roadways bus to reach Haldwani on our way to Pindari. Here is how the journey progressed:

Sleepy and tired, we boarded a bus to Bageshwar from the noisy Haldwani station. That 200 km journey was so slow, so tortuous and so very torturous that it was difficult not to fall asleep. Often, we banged our heads on one another and, when really unlucky, hit the iron handrest in front of us. It was thus a sore trio which got down at Bageshwar. Though we had targetted to reach the last motorable point, Song, on that very day, there was neither rhyme nor rhythm to reach it. Hiring a small room at Bageshwar, we massaged our limbs for the drill ahead and... sloppppppped.

Getting up early the following day and reaching Song, the birth point of our trek, in time was not a problem. Troubles began soon thereto, when, after a few steep paces, Rachs decided her rucksack was TOO loaded. Chivalry becomes thinner during a trek, but since it was just the beginning Gautam and I decided that one person’s sack can be left behind. And her essentials can be distributed between the two of us. We deposited her belongings at the first KMVN lodge at Loharkhet, on the condition that she will share the load whenever either of us felt too pressured (the male ego didn't let such a situation arise, of course).

An ideal trek is considered one where the ascent goes tougher by the day. By this I mean, the first day should be an easier advance, the second can test your strength a bit more and so on; this way, the body becomes conditioned to fatigue and drudgery. But Pindari trek follows a reverse logic: The first day is, arguably, the toughest of all, and thereto the path becomes a plateau — up and down, down and up. The matters on the first day were made worse with our immobile limbs, frozen by city life and cramped by bus journeys. It took some calling to measure the uphill distances and, not surprisingly, we fell well short of our target for day one — Dhakuri. As we threw down our rucksacks on the earth, I saw nobody was willing to hammer the nails or even spread out the tent base. With a heavy heart and heavier knees, your truly went about a predictable exercise with a dome-shape tent, borrowed from Wilson John. Occasionaly when it would be impossible for me to sew up the dwelling only from one end, Rachs would help out and look for gratitude. The tent laid out, I ran errand to trace the nearby water source (had heard the trickle before choosing the spot) and filled the bottles for night. All this while my co-trekkers (damn you Gautam) joked and smoked 'pure' nicotine.

Dinner would have been easier to find had we come a bit later in April, when seasonal dhabas are dotted along the route. Early in the season, most of them were yet to open and since we didn’t have the cooking utensils, the only chocolates, biscuits and rum were on the menue (I hate chocolates, so I devoured a pack of glucose biscuits soaked in, what else, rum).

The next day brought worse trials through an icy rain and cold winds. Many a time, the three of had to squat under one polythene sheet. Waters receded around 9 o’clock and a trickle of smoke up ahead promised hot breakfast. Our legs revived momentum and following a bhotia dog (Tibetan mastiff) we were at the small makeshift dhaba in about 20 minutes. "Dajjyu, teen chai aur 6 ando ka omlette (Brother, three tea and six-egg omlette),” I smiled at him. He had just poured the water for tea when Rachs saw a coffee pouch on display. “Bhaiya chai nahi, coffee bana dena (leave tea, make coffee).” The moment the patient man put milk to boil, I discovered a tetrapack of mango juice in his stock. “Dajjyu, ek coffee cancel, jara yeh mango juice dena (cancel one coffee and pass this mango juice)". Considering that he must have been sick of us fickle-minded by then, I took out a glass of steel from his wares and dug my hand into the rucksack for the rum. Half the glass was filled with dark fluid and the rest with mango juice and, ignoring the disapproving looks from Rachs, I gulped my medicine for the cold and fatigue. Dhakuri was reached a little before lunch time (a good six hours behind the schedule) and we feasted on hot dal-chawal, served Rs 25/- a plate, like hungry Ethiopians (find no racism here). With a few green chilis used to good effect, the food tasted divine. In no time, we were rearing to touch Khati before dusk. And, paddling though it required, we did it in the nick of time for dinner…

(Next post will describe our stay at Dhakuri and trek to Dwali, the confluence point of Pinder and Kafni rivers)

Mar 13, 2007

Footloose In Foothills

How I Discovered Kotdwar

Why must your travel plans be always immaculately laid out — pre-decided destinations, pre-paid accommodation and a pre-decided stretch? Why can it not be a way of exploring new corners by traveling at random alone, for once atleast? I know, even I can ill-afford it today, tied as I am to domestic chores and the money-spinning wheel. But once in a long while…

Well, the foremost thing is not to make up your mind about the destination. Nor prepare oneself all too well (a pair of denims and limited money should do). Have no fixed idea of the duration either. Just arrange your backpack, slip into a pair of jeans & sandals, and land up at your local Inter State Bus Terminus early evening. The place would resemble a fish market, I am sure, with an array of destinations being shouted loudly. Browse through the destinations painted on the State transport buses. Choose any place whose name you fancy the most. This could be Baagpat, Bageshwar, Ajmer, Sonoli, Eta, Hissar, Hastinapur, Kalka… anything. Just let your instincts drive you on, in your own re-discovery of India.

That was how I once discovered Kotdwar, a sleepy township in the Himalayan foothills, some 12 years back. I just liked the name, and after a few inquiries boarded the bus, and landed at Kotdwar at 3 in the morning. I got down with a small borrowed backpack, dusted myself, and surveyed the scene. Even in early June, there was a nip in the air and I needed some sleep. After three cups of tea at various places, I managed to persuade a restaurant-owner near the bus station to give me a charpoy and a blanket for Rs 10. The back-pack as my pillow, I crashed.

I woke up to the hustle-bustle around 7 am. Creaky kiosks selling audiocassettes were playing incomprehensible pahari numbers with off-key orchestra. All around us, bus/matador/jeep conductors were helping travelers load and unload. Occasionally, altercation would ensue over the positioning of their vehicles. Another cup of tea, and I dug out that Kotdwar was an alternate gateway to Hindu pilgrimages in the Himalayas.

I expected to roam around the township full day, but it was so small that it barely took me five hours of walking and rickshaw-rides to do the job. While the heart of the township was too chaotic, noisy and boisterous, with mandis of various wares, the peripheries offered faint hill-lines, tubewells, and large tracts of greenry.

I ate whatever looked good to me: aaloo tikkis from a cycle-borne vendor, soda lemon from a dilapidated shack, and milk cake at Tourist Hotel… In the evening, I re-appeared before my host, Shamsher Singh Bisht. This Garhwali Rajput insisted that I visit Siddbali temple nearby and also Durga devi mandir in Dogadda. Another place of interest was Kanvashram about 10 km from Kotdwar, and a waterfall nearby, Sahashrdhara (it later turned out to be just a line of trickle from mossy mountains). I decided to trek down to Kanvashram the following day, got the same charpoy again, and crashed without a wink.

I had barely crossed the township next day when things began to brighten up. Following a stream of icy blue river, I reached Kanvashram around lunchtime. The route was dotted with hutments, irrigation pumps, mini-canals and great landscapes, also an ancient banyan tree. Golden wheat crop was ready for the reap. A ‘gurukul’ denizen in the area got friendly with me and narrated the story of Kanva sage (Vishwamitra is the more popular name) who had made this place his ashram for meditation, and was wooed by Maneka the seductress, sent by Hindu heaven lord Indra. Daytime was slightly warm but evenings required a thin blanket. The dorm at a tourist bungalow charged a princely sum and I was too happy to roam about whole day in the hills.

I overstayed at Kanvashram, soaking my days near a small water barrage, and counting the stars at night. My calculations told me that I had spent a total of Rs 570 for four days of traveling, the largest of which was spent only on the state transport fare. It was a big sum for a fresh graduate, but I didn’t mind. I had got more than I had bargained for…

Looking back today, I have traveled farther and wider, twice on a Mitsubishi canter. There have been quite a few trips that I would rather not remember but that is all part of the game. Now I have a set of rules too. Sample a few: Listen to everybody, pay heed to a few and trust no one blindly. Make your precarious financial position known in the first place. Advertise your indulgence barriers and limited buying capacity. Look for a dharmshala (charity lodge), or a dormitory. Take interest in people around you, while away at chowks, mandis, fields, mosques, temples and marketplaces. If you have a taste for the rustic and the unknown, India will not disappoint you.

Mar 8, 2007

Midnight oily fare near Jama Masjid

A late evening stroll

It is seven o'clock in the evening. A time when shopkeepers in Delhi have begun to pull down shutters. When treetops are abuzz with homeward-bound birds. And Blueline buses are packed to capacity, ferrying sweaty human bodies home. In short, nearly everybody has called it a day. Nearly everybody!

The Jama Masjid area in the Walled City, at this hour, is warming up to the long evening ahead. Mainly it is the Urdu Bazaar facing Gate No 1 of Jama Masjid and a side street called Matia Mahal where the activity concentrates. Although most publishers and calligraphers of the Urdu Bazaar have shut shops, myriad makeshift eateries have switched on large 300 watt bulbs to illuminate their wares. The smell of fresh fish, fuming kebabs and fried chicken is in the air. There are sweetmeat experts too, setting up jumbo paraphernalia for jalebi and phirni to meet the onslaught of late evening customers. By eight pm, many vendors have descended on the side street Matia Mahal, and are busy unbundling their sacks of electronic gadgets and fancy toys, decorating them in near rows on the pavement. There is a long queue of the underprivileged outside Yasin Hotel, looking forward to a free dinner. In short, the day has just begun for a few.

Once here, the first thing that strikes you is the sheer numerical strength of human heads around you. Space is sacred. From the rickshaw-puller to the Esteem-owner, and from a cart-pusher to the pedestrian, everybody is crying for room and elbow space - truly representative of India's one billion-strong population. But all said and done, there is a method in this madness. The traffic momentum never stops even for a second.

Raise your head from the human sea, and the towering domes of Jama Masjid catch your eye. It is impossible to roam about in this area and not feel dwarfed by the three awesome domes of this 17th century mosque — India's largest. The mosque has a courtyard that can accommodate nearly 25,000 namazis in one go. Broad staircases lead from three sides, through various arched gateways, to the main prayer hall facing west (where Mecca is). The four minarets in each corner are worth visiting till the top, if you are game to steal a bird's eye view of the Old Delhi. But much more pleasurable would be watching devout Muslims paying obeisance to Allah during namaz. Neat lines of heads would bow in a rhythm and roll sideways in unison. After namaz, as hoards of similar looking men sporting bowl-caps and goatees come out of the masjid, the crowd of beggars sitting outside various restaurants on the main side street (Matia Mahal) facing the Masjid look at them expectantly. A few devout deviate and pay for the food of a select number of beggars. In a jiffy, the hotel staff gets going by folding big tandoori rotis and distributing it to the needy, with liberal doles of bada (buffalo's meat curry). Allah provides for all.

For the privileged, this is party time. Tempting aromas are wafting from every second shop. Large banners outside the shops boast of chicken changezi, mutton korma, biryani, kebab, tikka and ishtu. The crowd is swelling by each passing hour and by dinnertime, the business is brisk at nearly all shops.

There is food for every taste and pocket. There are several handcarts that have set up a tandoor and a bar-be-que. They are selling seekh kebab and tikkas (made of buffalo meat) with rumali roti (paper thin bread). The prices are very competitive: Rs 2 for one kebab stick and Re 1 for the roti. The spicy chutney and onions are complimentary. The kebabs are delicious and well done, and for a Rs 10 note, one can have a bellyful. One meaty leg of fried chicken costs around Rs 20, while biryani and korma range between Rs 25-50. Matia Mahal also houses the famous Mughlai restaurant, Karim's. If you can bear the shoddy service, the food will more than make up for the trouble.

One end of Matia Mahal street leads you to a forked route to Chitli Qabr on one side and Turkman Gate on another, while Jama Masjid end of the street may lead you to Chawari Bazaar or Balli Maran. This street also boasts of a few madrasas, where even at this hour, young children come to study Persian script and Koranic verses. I take a sneak at one such madarsas, which is slightly off the street. There is a sizeable pond near the entrance, where children wash their hands before touching their books. The method of learning is by rote — a site made too familiar by post-9/11 documentaries on Taliban and Muslim fundamentalism.

Turning back to the noisy and the boisterous market area, one is pleased to find a good many old men sitting in various groups and exchanging notes of the day. Some of them have earthen glasses of warm milk in hand. Their younger counterparts too have gathered around for a night stroll and eyeing up the burqa-clad womenfolk on the sly. Despite a very conservative surrounding, romance has found its way into the citadel. But it is the middle-aged which is a majority here. Most of them have burly physiques and look tall in pathani suits and skull caps. Banners of all sizes and same colour (green) across the street, have announcements in Urdu scribbled over them. Jumble of wires around shaky buildings have denied the wheels of modernism here. At several old houses, Persian window-patterns are all too visible. Easily, one may as well be in Lahore.

It is well past 12 o'clock now. But the hustle-bustle refuses to thin out. Bade Miyan who is selling phirni (rice-milk pudding) in earthen bowls for a paltry Rs 8, discloses how long the marketplace will remain abuzz — 2 in the morning, he makes a victory sign (mouth is full of paan)! Bade Miyan should know, for he is in business here for donkey's years. Not a minute passes when he does not wave at one or the other local walking the street. And true to his word, the place remains dotted with men and women of all age groups till 1.30 in the night. From here, the tide begins to ebb down.

The road offers more space now. The shouting of street-users has also reduced. And shopkeepers suddenly look keen on calling it a day. But in a few minutes, the noisy scene will return, with a battery of delivery vehicles carrying fresh stock to the market. And till the crack of dawn, the offloading will continue and the Urdu Bazaar will look like a fish market. This shall be followed by the azaan from the muezzin for early morn namaaz. And the wheel will come a full circle. With so much activity under His nose, I wonder if Allah ever gets a restful moment.

Mar 2, 2007

A moving moment on wheels

It was a job interview that took me to Mumbai for the first time. I had been unemployed for about three months, after "leaving" Encyclopaedia Britannica, and any interview call with travel reimbursement was welcome. The cool & crampy AC-3 coach, provided by my prospective employers, appeared a bit loud for a restful sleep in the first view. Everybody seemed to be either chatting or arguing — LOUDLY. The highest decibel-level belonged to a group of young boys and girls — a small group of budget travelers, much like the adventure clubs I had started at Britannica or The Pioneer, destined to Bharatpur. The music they played in their section was loud, giggles louder, but they tap-toed in rhythm; and spilled soft drinks all over the place. That whole small block smelt of life, noise and human sweat mixed with deodorants.

I lay close to this frolicking crowd, dipping my gaze into and out of Icon (a Forsythe thriller) every now and then. I cherished the interludes provided by their disturbances, and remembered about my own 300-day stint in Britannica, spent with a bunch of similar friends; of frequent mails to ALL; prompt replies; the boisterous lunch hour; mild office flirtations; day-time boozing sessions with Yusuf and; above all, our adventure club. The Britannica Adventure Club, as we had Christened it. How nice it would be — I trailed in my thoughts — to sit around a campfire once again with my adventurist friends, surrounded by moist night air and hill silhouettes, then clobber the silence with peels of laughter and Bollywood songs…

A sharp crack of noise, followed by a heavy tap on my shoulder, woke me out of the reverie. “Aaapka ticket, bhai saab.” The tie-clad ticket-checker asked politely. I brought out my papers mechanically. After the ticket-checker, there was the dinnerwallah, then the tea seller, the waterbottle wallah, and so on. I was kept from being myself for a long time. I had already folded the thriller now into a corner.

It was only when even the boisterous crowd had settled for the night, I slipped back into my thoughts again. On that hard berth, I relived my smooth 11 months in the Britannica office, day by day, while hours ticked by. I was smiling from ear to ear. “…around a campfire in the moist night air,” I mused loudly, causing my neighbour to squirm. This would never happen again, I told myself. Britannica Club had folded, Britannica had almost folded and, the straws were no longer held together to the broomstick.

Grudgingly, I decided to consign myself to sleep. As always before sleep, I went to the basin and washed my face. There, while placing cupped palms under the tap, I looked closely at the mirror. Claw-lines had begun to draw around my eyes and cheekbones, reflecting my true age. The lines became sharper each time I smiled.

“Any regrets in life, Molekhi?” I asked myself. In a brief second, I quickly scanned my life for possible regrets, ambitions and failures. Then I witnessed, in the mirror, a strange softness appear on my face. “Life has been kind to me,” I told myself, scratching my beard, “very kind infact….”The smile was still playing on my face when I buried it into the Indian Railways pillow.