Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note# 5. through a forest of emotion ( Nagling to Son via Baling 7 Km)

It was a cold cosy night. We girls were in the top room of the wood and mud thatched house that was to be our accommodation. Also, after a late night of raucous singing, chakti drinking, and endless binging, and the sound of the howling wind, sleep came quick and easy. We woke to hot piping tea served by Dhiren and Avinash and to the early morning chirpings of the birds… To be honest those darn birds woke too early and made so much noise in every camp that I would be up by 4ish and toss and turn till the others were up. Actually I didn’t mind the birds or the noise but I did mind not overcoming my inertia to go out and be about. I just lay in there sulking and waiting for everyone to raise and talk to me
There was a tiny room adjacent to the loo that could be used as a bathroom. No hot water though. I just had to have a bath and some of us did. Taking bath with cold icy water in the mornings is not advisable for all. But once you do, you don’t feel cold any longer and the day looks much brighter. I always take a bath wherever possible…some water and a bit of privacy is all I need. And there is a technique…first keep all clothes in the order of wearing. Then keep the soap, shampoo whatever you need open and handy. First wet your head and wash your head…that kind of makes the water friendlier. Then without thinking much just pour a big mugful over you. Yes your breath is knocked out instantly and you gasp…but then there is no going back. Do your business quickly with soap and more rinsing and reach for your towel drying your body first and quickly dress up in layers. 

After a hearty breakfast we set out. My ankle wasn’t healed and I reluctantly gave up my backpack that day onwards and carried just a haversack for my camera and warm clothes and other emergencies. Not very proud…and vanity bruised I accepted my condition and realized that if I don’t do anything about it soon and seriously…my future treks are going to be similar. I keep bringing this up because it really was a rattling shocking experience to not be able to direct my body to the wishes of my mind. And the reality was painful to accept that I no longer was in control. 

We walked along a more flat steady path with gradual inclines and crossing streams and bridges. As we climbed higher we turned into a deodar forest. The moment I turned a corner I felt I have stepped into something sacred. The 9am morning light was soft, halo like and blurred the sharp edges of everything. The patch of trees with the light playing on their moss covered limbs threw a surreal view on display. And I felt rooted to the spot like the high and mighty deodars silently communing with their roots. Drawing strength and nourishment from the land and sending down a blessing to them in return. 

I hugged a tree and felt one with it…hugged another and walked on. But there was this one tree that somehow beckoned to me but I was shy to go back and give it a hug. I left with a silent promise that I will spend some time with it on my way back. I am usually reluctant to show my emotions and there is a lot that I hide, but when a tree beckons you have to keep the promise.
Every patch of forest I walked I silently prayed that may man never reach here with their roads and vehicles. If need be, may the villagers go down to more accessible and prosperous lands in and beyond Dharchula, but may these sacred beings always remain pristine and untouched. In these times that’s all one can do isn’t it. The forest and the animals are losing their battle every day. Lower down in the valley The river has lost its width, the wild animals have all gone, musk deer is a growing myth, there is 2 inch thick concrete dust on the spring flowers and a cheap price tag for everything wild.  The good is no longer winning it seems. And man is only growing stronger in his greed. There is also another side to this… 

As I grow older it gets harder to choose sides. I was more clear in my 20ies whether its trees or people. But today when I see an old man who had to carry his wife for 3 days for a treatment in Dharchula…my idealistic tongue curls up and holds back. But there is a middle ground. We can leave these places remote if the government can allow these villagers more access (the army already flies in emergencies) to the air sorties that go to and fro.  And if the focus can be on eco-tourism that can bring in the prosperity that the villagers are hoping from roads and businesses… the people there know how to live with the land. It’s their land after all. The trouble begins when this land will be seen as a business opportunity by outsiders for other developments.

Thinking of these thoughts I walked along with beautiful views of small buggials (meadows) across the mountain. The path became more undulated and there was a slight chill. We came upon Bongling village and stopped for some refreshments. Sunita the girl who ran the place was a striking beauty. We placed our order for spicy maggi, coffees, tea, and chowmein. Yummmm. My mouth still waters as I am writing this. There was a hint of rain as we entered her place so the warmth from her stove made things tastier. I'm sure the smell of woodsmoke is a like a primeval memory for all. It confuses my mind with images I am not even part of along with some that I was…like the campfires from childhood camps, our old family cook cooking fish in the outhouse kitchen in my granny's ancestral house in Kerala during one vacation as we cousins looked on (it was forbidden to cook meats or eggs in the main kitchen). Water boiling over and the hissing of the burning wood, a fireplace in Shillong with my dogs and where lucy always singed her fur by sitting too close, old men crouching over a fire in winter,  cavemen cooking the days catch…..these memories are always in warm fiery tones and shadows... and with the promise of food and comfort.

Our stomachs full, we walked along. The path ahead was flat and we all got a chance to walk together and gossip. No I'm not sharing that. But it enlivened things up. Dilip passed us by and Babita quickly changed the topic:) it’s so strange; across time from my parents to my friends…men always frown at women gossiping. It’s another matter that men are bigger gossips and exaggerate truths and also love their exaggerations.
We missed Panchachuli 2 (Arjun parbat) as it was clouded over and walked on to reach Son village which was our base camp.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note# 4. All uphill (Urthing to Nagling 13 Km)

Started from Urthing after a heavy breakfast and along the way we hit the ITBP checkpost. They had a telephone we could use and we all called home. My mom didn’t pick her phone as usual and they got a few calls back from her much to their amusements. A remote trekking route with an ITBO post is nothing for her… she was used to checking on my father at every Army TCP (transport checking post) much to my father’s embarrassment, when he would be greeted by sir maam ka thodi der pehle hi phone aaya tha”(Sir maam just called a while ago)… this is when he was travelling to really forward border areas. I had half a worry that she might get the number of the 2nd post at Bongling and call me. But well she didn’t know when we would reach there…so it figures:)
Well from there it was an endless up and down trail. We passed raging streams, bridges, scree, snow field, frozen rivers and such. Given my ankle this time I wasn’t doing very well but Jyotsna and Nidhi patiently pepped me up and walked with me. I am grateful. We were all tired out and finally reached the village of Nagling after a bit of a climb. 

It was still the early part of the day nd the sun was blazing. Just at the top of the path that led us into the village were a gaggle of girls…one of them more forward and forthcoming welcomed us and pestered all of us for chocolate. When we told her to come in the evening, she cheekily said that she would be asleep by then so it’s better we hand it to her now. 

It was a village to behold. Beautifully built houses of stone and wood, with doors and facade decorated with goat horns, paintings and carvings of statues of Gods and spirits…and some doors painted a deep deep lapis lazuli blue. The houses had cattle bedding in the lower quarters below the kitchen and bedrooms of most houses. The wealthier had a full courtyard covered with barns and storerooms and different utility spaces, but most others made do handsomely with their flat dwellings.

sridevi nair
sridevi nair

they are built from the granite stones collected from the hills around and then cut to rough slates and stacked over one other. The mortar in between can’t be seen, and from the outside it looks like a tight and perfectly stacked wall of stones. Houses are plastered with mud from the inside and then painted. These old houses need masons who are expert in it…now a dwindling tribe, what with villagers preferring modern brick and mortar houses. These houses absorb the sun heat and stay warm for longer and in summer keep the house cool.

We were the guests of the local prince!... he is the wealthiest in that village so I suppose he can say call himself so. The food was delicious as usual and we had a proper toilet with a bath here. We took a well-deserved nap and then got out to explore the village. Avinash and Dhiren our guides took us around. Dhiren’s parents were from Nagling and we went around seeing his house and also met his parents. We then moved onto other important spots in the village and both Avinash and Dhiren told us of many local lores and legends. I repeat that it’s hard to not believe in larger than life entities. Everything around is so surreal and beautiful and wild and seen in another light can also be threatening. Thy told us about the man who went across the river and was spirited away by fairies. If you look hard at a spot on the mountain across the river you can make out a face of a man and his dog sleeping by his feet. They say in some beautiful enchanted places one should never sleep off…as these other worldly beings might carry you away.  The other story was of a wish fulfilling vessel and a ghost but I have kind of forgotten the flow.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note#3. A great sunny start (Dar-Bongling-Urthing - 11Kms)

Hot water. Breakfast. And a halfway ride… Small joys that we will begin to appreciate even more as we went along the trip… We set out and Avinash Nepalchyal our guide was with us. He was a 2nd year BA  student and was helping out his uncle (Mr Lakshman) during his break from college. His father is in the AMC and he lives in Dharchula with his mother and brother; a very confident, mature modern young guy…and very proud of his roots. 
This is something I found across. Everyone was so happy and proud of their culture and roots and without being arrogant had great pride in telling us about it. Everywhere people were happy and prosperous. 

Halfway we sat on the roof of the Maxx and it was some experience to have the wind in your hair, your heart in your mouth as the vehicle lurched along narrow lanes with steep falls on one side. It was sunny, it was real and it felt free and happy. We stopped at Dar to start the trek. 

The walk was easy…lots of ups and downs in the trail…. Gauri spotted a yellow throated Marten along the way in a rhododendron forest. This time of May summer was in effect and most vegetation around was almost dry, and the sun was draining us a bit. At Bongling village we had our first break and their hospitality was so touching. We met a 76 year old veteran who takes tender for the meat supply to the local ITBP post. As we trekked further he caught up with me and started talking….he told me about his son in Chandigarh and his wife who passed away just a few days back. Along the way we saw many small shrines for the dead. He explained that these are benign spirits who guide the travellers and keep them safe from harm and bad spirits. I said a prayer to all… you can’t not believe in such haloed places.

The day grew sunnier and so did the discomfort. On a personal level this trek was an alarm bell for me. I need to stop thriving on overconfidence and get fit. My ankles were hurting terribly and I am ashamed to say that after the first two days I couldn’t carry my full backpack and had to make-do with a day pack. I’ll never live this down… I am sure my ankles hurt because of the excessive weight I have put on. So either I lose it or I lose opportunities to trek:(
We all tumbled into Urthing; some with more speed and grace.
Urthing is a beautiful flat campsite with a vertical shelf of mountain face on one side and the Dhauli Ganga flowing beside on the other. The arrangements were unbelievable. We had room size tents! There was a full kitchen and meals to die for! Food, tea, soup, sweets… hard to say this was campsite food! We all relaxed; some played cricket, some took a walk along the river, and some even took a dip!!!
Late in the evening as we gathered outside the kitchen hut, Sayee sang. I must explain Sayee to you. You can’t ignore him. He is a well know musician in Goa. Has a deep voice - a rich baritone, sings beautifully, is gregarious, generous and a great entertainer. He is also Dilip’s very close friend.
We all sang late into the night; us the cooks, the staff…it was a happy merry night. Made merrier with some local alcohol. Have to admit we broke all of Mr Lakshman’s rules everyday:)
We retired into our tents thinking the fun had ended. But late at night Haroon called out and we rushed out thinking it was some wild animal. In a rush to get their cameras Nidhi and Anu ran pell mell and bumped into each other. 

But it was worth it…a big round cheezy yellow moon had just peaked off the mountain head. First everyone got busy clicking and adjusting… then giving it all up just stood and stared at the moon and the mountain, the moonlit valley, the stillness in the air, the rushing of the Dhauli Ganga, the lone trail that disappeared somewhere ahead... and time stood still and everything was perfect.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note#2: A comedy of errors… Kathgodam to Dharchula

This year’s trek was decided much in advance. While some of us were rooting for Nanda Devi east base camp…our organizer sold us this trip. And every bit was worth it. The route is Delhi to Kathgodam station (by train or bus) and a day long journey via Pthoragarh to Dharchula. 

I was rushing to get to platform#13 in Old Delhi railway station to catch the Ranikhet express. I saw them before they saw me…and each step down the stairs to the platform only brought more familiar faces into focus. It was a happy reunion. I never felt I was meeting them after a year. It was like meeting old school friends. So there was Jyotsna, Nidhi, Babita, Haroon, Dilip, Amit, Rahul, Sarang from the last trek and Anuradha, Ashley, Gauri, Sayee, Deepak, Pareesh and Ankur who I met for the first time. Most knew each other from before except me. 

The fun started when the train rolled in and we were standing just below the stairs the ‘wrongest’ inappropriate place one can imagine…with our bulky backpacks. We created an instant lockjaw jam…no one could more forward of back… not to mention the crazy surge of human population; a meele of bawling children, plump aunties, sweaty men, buckets, suitcases, bags, all struggling to get into the train or get through us. I even had a man trying to get through between my backpack and my back only to realise they are connected.  Being short didn’t help as all we could see on both sides were more people and the best thing to do seemed was to get into the nearest 2nd class bogie. We pushed and got in…only to see that the rest of the platform ahead was completely empty. We created the jam by trying to get into the wrong bogie!!!

Finally got into our AC compartments and it felt like a 5 star lobby… That night I was declared Dr. Devi owing to my universal and versatile cure of ‘salubrious mountain air’ and ‘lots of laughter’…from fever to constipation. We got to know each other and Sayee saved me by getting us some bread pakoras in the night. And we woke to the sounds of people getting off at Kathgodam station. We took our time getting ready and Jyotsna noticed Ashley brushing his teeth for a looong time…he being a dentist made it sound funny:)
The road trip to Dharchula was made in 2 Mahindra Maxx…with full Kumar Shanu festival blaring in our ears. Our driver Karan needed the music to keep him pepped up. The music finally let up towards the 2nd half of the day and moved to mellow hum-able Kishore kumar and Lata aunty tunes. We stopped midway to see a leopard sanctuary that had three very healthy but bored leopards, they are fed 3 kg of buffalo meat everyday but nothing much to sustain their wild spirit.  We also stopped at many places for our breakfast and numerous teas, but the best was the stop for lunch. It was a quaint little dhaba named ‘Lohani’s about 70 kms before Pithoragarh. While half of us feasted on the mustard flavoured kheera raita and simple chana the rest went next door to have chicken and local fish. I was stung by the nettles or ‘bichu buti’…this plant is also boiled and eaten in the hills and many use it as a pain bam. Pithoragarh is a big cantonment of both the Army and the ITBP…and I was remembering all that my mom said about this place when my parents were there. 

The route was very scenic along the way and it only got better. But just then we received some bad news that someone in the Roopkund trek died by a strike of lightning. Sandeep our organiser had to rush back. All the beauty around went suddenly bleak. I could only feel pained by thinking about his family and what he must have been thinking. I really liked Nidhi’s perspective that fated or not, or his time had come or not, but what is certain is that we have limited time in this world and we have to live it to the fullest. 

Anyways come evening and we rolled into Dharchula. It was a busy town and after the long and lonesome winding hilly roads, all the bustle, lights and crowd was a surprise to our senses. And like Jyotsna said it reminds one of Joshimath. Dharchula is the border town with Nepal and has a connecting bridge that is open till 7 pm daily. We were received by Mr Lakshman who runs an adventure tour company. He introduced his team to us and briefed us on the trek. He was giving us standard briefing procedures but we were a tired lot with no Sandeep in sight and a change of plan at hand. It was a totally confusing confounding interesting evening. 

And what ensued is a comedy of errors. 

He said the wrong things. We asked the wrong questions.  He painted a bleak picture and gave us one plastic lunch box each in which we were supposed to carry boring lunches like pulav, upma and other tasteless food. He also warned us of the heavy snowfall along the glacier and that we might not be able to do the last stretch to Panchachuli base camp due to the weather. At that point he was of an emotional and reactionary nature and those who were of similar disposition immediately sparked with him resulting in some pricelessly funny conversation exchange. He told us to not mingle with the locals, that smoking and alcohol was forbidden in the trek and that women need to be extra careful on the trail. Some of us argued on all points while some of us wanted to know why the stretcher has to be in the front and not the back and many such questions that had him simply foxed! 

He had invited a 3 time Everest summiteer who is also a Padmashree awardee. He is an army ex-serviceman and during his career has skied down from most peaks of the Himalayas. He also is the only person to have spent 6 days at the final Everest camp without having to come down.

We finally retired for the night in hope of some good sleep. I was a bit apprehensive after the evening’s discussion wondering if with so many new factors it was going to be just an easy walk in the park. But as the night got darker old wisdom and earlier lessons learnt in the mountains came to me that going with the flow is the greatest adventure and that anywhere in the mountains is always beautiful and worth the while. The rest I don’t remember as I fell asleep.

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note # 1: Not all those who wander are lost… 

Many of us relate to this symbolically, it’s even part of my tattoo, but Tolkein’s famous quote from Lord of the rings really hold true for the people of Dharma Valley. They are the migratory Rang tribes also known as Bhotias (The six categories of Bhotia tribe are: Rang, Johari, Tolcha, Marcha and Jad)…they are Indo Tibeteans, of mixed ancestry, and are hardy cheerful people. They speak excellent Hindi, are educated; and even the remotest village boast of a doctor or engineer in each family thanks to the government reservations and facilities. I was happily surprised to see that albeit living in such remote and inaccessible terrain, they understand the value of an education, have taken advantage of it, and are prosperous. 

They are migratory because of the patterns of the weather. As a cold bitter winter sets in, it makes the Dharma valley inhospitable, so they leave their high altitude dwellings to come down to the town of Dharchula or other villages; and as the summer sun warms the valley and melts the snow, they trek back up to the village, cattle, luggage, provisions and babies in tow. These treks can take from 4 to 5 days one way. 

 It inspires me. To live this life of transition. I for one, try and live out of a suitcase as much as possible. All my things can be packed into a suitcase and a bag of books. In the last five years I have bought a guitar, a bookshelf, and a cupboard as a possession (the latter three in the last few months by my mom). It’s nice to live simple and sparse. Keeps the thoughts clear, helps see the many possible futures, and of course no baggage. Something also to do with our cavemen days I’m told, when physical objects could potentially block our view of predators. Or it’s something to do with my nomadic life living in different army cantonments, making new friends, adapting, shedding, adding, and an early understanding that everything is temporary. 

 Summer is also the time to plough fields, sow buckwheat and potatoes and tend to livestock… and to trade. Dharma valley is situated in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand and is inhabited by a population of 1000 spread over 12 small and remote villages inaccessible by road. Before the Indo China wars they were thriving on trans-Himalayan trade of legal goods like salts, raw material, wool, etc. and illegal trade of animal parts and other such. Post the war in 1962 the legal trade came to a stop rendering the otherwise prosperous villagers without much. But the illegal trade survives. The borders of Dharchula are very porous and a hop skip jump over the river will land you in Nepal. And further ahead there are passes into Tibet. The ITBP (Indo Tibet Border Police) is vigilant but more can be done for stopping trade in animal part and poaching. 

 Summer season is time to collect the ‘KEEDA’ or the caterpillar fungus. This creature thrives in the alpine slopes once the snow melts. It is a fungi spore that enters a caterpillar and devours it and turns the caterpillar into a fungus. There is high demand for it the Chinese medicine market and a kilo of this is prices at Rs. 4 Lakhs to Rs 5 Lakhs. this is how it looks...iv copied it from the internet to give you a more graphic morbid picture:)
So Keeda collection is big for all families. I am told that this fungus produces strong steroids and many hinted that the success of Chinese athletes in the past decade has something to do with this as this is one steroid that is not detected in human test samples. Well it’s alleged so; I haven’t done any investigations to prove it 

 This is a thin line….where my values and beliefs conflict with my empathy for human survival. I do empathize that 4 lakhs could mean a fortune to this people and ensures them smiles throughout the year…but yes I do feel this is wrong not only for its illegal, but when going Keeda collecting, they also hunt Himalayan bear for its Bile and other smaller animals to trade in the Chinese medicine market. So not all but maybe some of us who wander are kinda lost…

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Death by Demand draft

The demand draft is a stealthy killer. It looks harmless…lurking behind old harmless bank counters. One hardly encounters them in everyday life and if one does it passes off as a benign happy smartly turned out cheque.

But it waits for you…in its tarantula-en web. Zen like… sharpening its claws, checking its traps, and estimating your naivety. Like a sniper it waits…amongst cheques, notes and coins.

The first attack is subtle… at the form filing itself…it wills you to make a mistake, in the payee name or the amount. If you pass that the next mistake usually is fatal….losing the demand draft: by yourself, by the receiver, or in transit.

It’s got you in its web. And as you struggle hard to retrieve yourself…you are pulled further down into the dark labyrinths of the nether world. A world where you will encounter rites of passage like…NOTARY, FRANKING, AFFIDAVIT, INDEMNITY, COUNTER SIGNATORY etc.

People you barely glanced at assume large proportions…you will meet bank managers, paan chewing random lurkers in bank, security guards, helpful advisors, service managers, tellers, advocate, other banks, franking machines and may be even the police and of course other customers with other purposes for conversations as you wait in endless lines.

For a demand draft is a promissory note. Like cash.

So here is the process for canceling a demand draft and reissuing it.
Frist…cry at the misfortune…get it off your system. Prepare for an adverse experience by disembodying yourself and numbing yourself.

1. Now write a letter to the bank manager explain the loss, and the draft details.
Get an indemnity form with a franking of Rs.200/- (some banks need a notary letter from an advocate)

2. get a third part guarantor to sign the indemnity form along with his pan card details.

3. If draft is lost by third party, a letter from them saying they have lost it in transit.

4. If you want to reissue a draft fill another demand draft request form and a ‘ to yourself’ cheque if it’s from your own bank.

5. Take it to the bank manager…breath and smile. Fingers crossed that he will accept.

6. It will take upto 15 days for the bank to contact the ‘payee’ get their signature and confirmation that they will not encash this draft, and then create new demand drafts for you.

7. In the event that anyone encashes this draft within six months of validity the bank will deduct it from your account.

You are usually dead by the end of all this…born again, wiser, calmer, sympathetic, and more appreciative of all that’s going well in life.

So my advice is as much as possible get away with a cheque…

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sorry, why do I travel?

Not just to see places…or to douse the restlessness that lurks inside. Not just to satiate the culture vulture nor to kill my curious gene. I don’t travel to expand my horizons or to realize that the best thing is in coming home. I don’t travel to feel free or express my independence in this standardized world. It’s not a drive of my individuality, my personality, my airy sun sign of Gemini, or a long ago promise to my angels. And it’s definitely not just the need to take off from everything for a while.

I travel because only in doing so I feel I am moving…somewhere, anywhere… For, to stand still is to die.