Shiv, our trek-guide, doesn’t consider her cry stop-worthy; not even a head-turn-worthy. He moves on with an impassive face, motioning us to follow suit. “Chalo, chalo,” he shouts with irreverence. As though he’s herding sheep. Baby curses under her breath and drags her feet again. Other members of B-204 wonder if she’s cursing at Shiv or them.
We are in Himachal, and trekking on the Pir Panjal range, towards Chanderkhani Pass. We have started the trek from Naggar camp, at around 5800 feet above the sea level, and aim to climb upto 12,000 feet in 3 days. It’s the first day and we’re already steeped in self doubts. The terrain is between steep and very steep. The sun is merciless. And the backpack is weighing us down. Our shoulders and legs are sore, our clothes drenched in sweat, and there’s no sight of bath in near future. The drinking water is fast running out; mouths are parched dry. Baby, Shivi, Sahithi and I, the four friends referred to as B-204, are quietly mulling over the choice we made (Baby is no longer quiet). For the uninitiated, the group name comes from the flat address we once shared.
|Baby starts the trek with her war cry: Jai Mata Di! Let's Rock! |
L to R: Sahithi, Baby, this author, and Shivi. At base camp in Naggar
The reader can guess that trekking was certainly not Baby’s idea. This author had proposed it, and Sahithi had grabbed it with both hands and clapping excitement. Seeing this excitement, Baby had acquiesced. Shivi had protested the timing of the trip. Why? Because she was busy serving her notice period. If she worked 12 hours on an ordinary day, it obviously warrants that she clocks 14 when she’s about to leave the burden to mere mortals. B 204 took her protest with the force of an unclaimed baggage on an airport carousel. She was hurled into the plan with obvious pleasure of all, chiefly hers.
Back to the trek. We start at ten in the morning. Guide Shiv tells us that we will reach our destination by ‘around lunch time’. The initial walk, though hot, is bearable. But once we leave behind the roads of Naggar and take to the hills, the real climb begins. At first, it’s the stairs. Hundreds of them. We are not prepared for this because we’ve been dreaming of high jungles and rippling streams. When we protest, Guide Shiv calmly tells us that the real trek is yet to begin. This is just the crossing of civilization, the stairs will end in Rumsu village, he assures us. After an hour of non-stop stair climbing, we cross Rumsu, and enter into real Himalayan forests. The fun begins.
“Shiv bhaiyya, are there wild animals in the jungle?” Baby asks the guide. He looks into her innocent round eyes and says that a wild bear had recently broken into one of the Himalayan camps. We cringe. “But you have nothing to worry,” he goes on. “Bears and leopards in the forest have receded to inner circles because of influx of trekkers. Even if they do see humans, they avoid an encounter because they are themselves scared. Wild animals don’t attack unless they happen to come face-to-face with humans.” Since that’s not exactly comforting, we ask him what we should do in case such a confrontation happens. “You won’t be so lucky,” comes his cheeky response. The guy is stellar. We like him already.
To add to Baby’s pains, somewhere before Rumsu, some dogs start trekking with us. Apparently, it’s a done thing with all trekkers. Eventually, one big-black-furry dog chooses to stay while the rest wander off. He’s a perfect trekking partner. He patiently waits on us. He sniffs the path ahead and circles the entire group to ensure no one’s left behind. Baby too begins to get used to him. However, there remains a grim problem. He eats excreta and wallows in open sewers. That is a deal-breaker for our hygiene queen. Sahithi wrinkles her nose and shakes her head in disgust. Finally, after an hour of his diligent trailing, she turns to him, and delivers like a strict south-Indian matriarch: “Listen, from here, the path is very narrow and you are rubbing against us. In any case, you have come a long way from your home, and it’s time for you to return. Go back now.” Guess what? The dog obeys without a grunt. Even the impassive guide is stunned – he looks at Sahithi with saluting eyes.
With Rumsu and civilization behind us, the greens have started closing in on us. Apple orchids paint the landscape a lively green. The Marijuana plant is nearly omnipresent. Guide Shiv points out village-men rolling leaves in their backyards to prepare a joint. Slowly, but surely, the breeze begins to get cooler. Two hours into the trek, and we plod on with resolve. We even need to clamber up on all fours to negotiate rocky terrain. The ascent continues to be tough, but the sight starts to infuse life.
|Treacherous roads add to the thrill|
The forest is a dense green, and totally unlike the jungles of south India that B-204 had previously visited. Tall trees with horizontally lined branches leave no space for undergrowth. Giant deodar and cedar trees stand like an army of gladiators. Their roots splay out like feet of giant dinosaurs. Far, far ahead, one can see snow capped mountains. It’s amazing how beauty can make us forget pain. We halt time and again, to soak in the view as much as to breathe. Somewhere, Guide Shiv relents, and lets us have the juice and biscuits we are carrying for lunch. Unencumbered of the bag, we collapse on earth, and down the food in a few minutes. We walk another two hours to reach the first camp; it’s only then that our guide reveals that our climbing time is the shortest he has known. And that the next few days won’t be as tough.
It is reinforced, through nature this time, that in almost all journeys, the starts are always the most difficult parts.
The first camp appears like a European countryside in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. It’s a natural meadow with undulating land and perfectly green grass. Surrounded on all sides by Deodar and Cedar trees, the camp is nestled between two deep natural clefts. The sky above is a bright blue. The landscape is dotted with symmetrical tents. For as far as the eyes can see, there are ranges behind ranges of jagged Himalayan peaks covered with snow. Glinting like diamonds in the afternoon sun. There’s gurgling sound of water streaming down the mountain. There’s fragrance of vegetation and wild flowers in the air. It’s a veritable feast for all the senses. Four hearts tick off a bucket list item in unison: We fall in instant love with the place.
|The breathtaking camp site|
Guide Shiv calls out to someone in his local language. From a corner of this camp emerges a dark complexioned man in ruffled hair and worn-out clothes. The man reaches out to us with a firm handshake. “I am Satish, your cook,” comes his confident introduction. We are amazed. This man Satish turns out to be not only an excellent host and cook, but also an able storyteller, shayari collector, and joke dispenser. Behind him are two demure teenage pahadi boys. What follows is a moonlight-washed night of purple sky, twinkling stars, cold winds, antakshari, music, star-gazing, dancing, and above all, silence. Before snuggling into twin sleeping bags each, members of B-204 know that this evening will go down in the best memories’ book.
Camping itself is fun. The cooks at camp understand the difficulty that city-dwellers face in purging body waste in 2 by 3 feet makeshift toilets. They therefore prepare ‘lingdi’ for dinner, a locally found wild stem, known to expel faeces like torrents. Throughout the night, our tent flutters with shivering gusts of winds. We sleep like dead logs despite severe body pains; for hard labour is the best sleeping medicine (the author’s massaging skills are widely deployed, but we’ll skip that here). Come morning, and we spot Sahithi running with the dedicated Bisleri bottle to an unseen spot beyond camp limits. We warn her about wild animals. “I’d prefer to be eaten alive than use those unhygienic toilets,” she shouts and she disappears. We think its lingdi, but when the phenomenon repeats every morning, we know it’s the Himalayan air.
Camp living changes perspective. We become more thankful to privileges we take for granted. We are thankful that we can brush our teeth twice a day. That we can drink water with twigs floating in it. That we can have hot food. That there is water to wash up after ablutions. Though it’s so cold, says Sahithi, that you can never feel if you’re washed enough. It takes us only one day to get accustomed to camp living. From the next day onwards, we go about like regulars. It’s strange how easily humans adapt to changes. Probably the best gift and worst curse of our race: we get used to anything.
|Stud Guide Shiv at centre and cook Satish on extreme right|
The climb of next two days, four hours and six hours respectively, feel like a breeze compared to the first day’s labour. Moving in the heart of the mountain helps. The view and winds are splendid. The sun that tormented us on day 1 has now become an ally. The higher altitudes are so cold that the absence of sun sends shivers down the spine. The high and mighty peaks which seemed inaccessible from the base camp have come into a hobnobbing distance. The sense of achievement is deeply gratifying.
|Babe in the woods|
As we go on scaling heights, mountains reveal their hidden splendor. Unexpected waterfalls, view of rivers in the valleys, colossal trees split into vertical halves by lightning, traces of landslide filled in by shocking pink rhododendrons, sea of lamb and sheep herded by mountain dwellers…there is so much to absorb that our hearts are bursting with joy. The higher we go, the lesser the density of vegetation, the clearer the sight. All conjectures we have been making about neighboring mountains become unnecessary. We get nature’s message: You need to rise to see the truth as it is.
On the last day of climb, we leave our bags behind at the camp. Feeling like featherweight ballet dancers, I’m reminded of my favourite poet Neeraj’s words: Jitna kam saaman rahega, utna safar aasaan rahega. We ascend through incredibly green and gorgeous landscapes. “This is the part that remains under snow during winters, hence no trees grow here,” explains Guide Shiv. It’s so far away from forest authorities’ offices that there are acres of illegal marijuana farming. Our guide gauges the worth of one medium sized patch to be around INR 3 million. He concludes with the words, “There are all kinds of human on this earth. Some who clinch the Everest peak. And some who drain their entire heritage on drugs.” He spends his words like money. Deeply impressed, we’ve started evaluating him for Sahithi. Baby has omitted the bhaiyya from the Shiv.
|Feeling like a million dollars walking without the backpack|
The Dhauladhar range, which has been running parallel to us, begins to look accessible. There’s barely any vegetation to block the view between the ranges. Within four hours, all covered in jackets and woolen caps by now, we come to a point where Guide Shiv says we have arrived. We are nearly on the top. Barring one mound that blocks the view, there are peaks and deep valleys on all sides. Beas looks like an uncertain pencil line drawn by a child. Eagles can be seen flying lower below in the mountains. Manali is a teeny-tiny dot; it’s mind-blowing to notice how far we have come. The view is magnificent.
“Why don’t we go to the top?” I ask our guide, who’s lying supine on the grass. “Because there is no path there, neither made by humans nor by mules,” he answers uninterestedly. I decide to climb that last one mound coming between the peak and me. I tell other members of B-204, who’ve all fallen silent by now. It’s the space where speech is unnecessary. And they know there’s no point in arguing. Baby is sitting on a rock, Shivi is lying down, and Sahithi is off to meditate. I start my final journey. Alone.
The guide was right. Since there is no path, the climb is a nuisance. I have to hold on to tufts of grass to pull myself up. The bugger didn’t tell me that the ground would be wet from recent thawing of snow. I slip twice. My heart has begun to beat faster. I’ve been struggling fifteen minutes, my friends are out of sight, and now I can’t even see the peak of what appeared to be a small mound. How we underestimate some targets. I remember the guide telling us to walk on very steep terrains as snakes slither on ground – in zig-zag ways. I try that method, and it’s definitely better than plain upward motion. But it’s taking longer. Despite chilly winds, my spine is dripping with sweat. Half an hour into the toil with situation remaining unchanged, I think about giving up. ‘Had you known how close you were to the goal, you’d never have given up,’ quotes collected since childhood come rushing back to my conscience. I take off my jacket and start again. After another fifteen minutes of extremely rough climbing, I reach the top.
Whistling winds and a glorious 360 degree view of snow-capped Himalayas reward me for the extra effort. Now I can see the moving dots of my friends. I wave hysterically, and surmise they wave back. I crash on the ground prostrate. An inexplicable joy has flooded my heart. I find myself kissing the ground through laughing tears. All I feel and know is that I’m grateful to life for living this moment. I’m grateful to every preceding condition that made my coming here possible. I’m delirious with the joy of being alive. And finally able to understand why elders said ‘jeetay raho’ in their blessings. From tip to toe, I’m drenched in gratefulness for being alive.
|The Chanderkhani Pass: Connecting Pir Panjal to the Dhauladhar range|
Ten minutes and a resolve later, I start the descent. It takes fifteen minutes to climb down what took thrice the time to climb up. The strain on muscles is so immense that my legs shiver for the next two hours. The same day, B-204 returns to the base camp. Stopping for Maggi in between; the moment that the trek stands redeemed for Baby. Guide Shiv teaches us to spot sweet wild berries, and we four get into the business like professionals. As always, we pluck the best berry for another. “Aapka pyaar bahut achcha hai,” comments Guide Shiv, visibly impressed by our bond. A silent prayer crosses our hearts. Three hours later, we are back at the Naggar base camp.
B-204’s first trek is as memorable as possible. The nights of endless laughter echoing through the hills. The days of ceaseless bantering, much to the entertainment of fellow trekkers and Guide Shiv. The state of being enveloped in love – people’s and nature’s – as a most cherished gift of life.