It was the first day of 2021. We didn’t have any definite plan unlike every other year when this day would effortlessly sequence into our elaborate year-end travel or trek. Times are no longer the same and the first day of 2021 was just another holiday at work. My sister and I were not in Bangalore though. We were at a small town called Madanapalle, situated in Andhra Pradesh but just about 125 Km. away from Bangalore, spending the last day of 2020 at The Satsang Foundation.
A friend happened to mention that Horsley Hills was close by and we could go visit it. I knew about this place but didn’t know that it was located very close to Madanapalle. A quick googling and yes, it was just about 27 Km. away. So off we went to explore Horsley Hills. Happy that we were doing what we love doing on the first day of the New Year.
Named after W.D. Horsley, a British collector, Horsley Hills constitute a series of hills located in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. W.D. Horsley had built his home at this place, possibly because of the cooler temperature compared to the hot and dry surrounding. Located at 1,265 m. from sea level, Horsley Hills is fondly referred to as ‘Andhra’s Ooty’.
The driver of our rented car informed that we should have planned an early morning visit as that’s the time for the best views from the top. We agreed but that wouldn’t have happened as we had other plans for the morning.
As we approached the entrypoint, we were greeted by cops who stopped our car and thoroughly checked everything we carried with us. It being New Year, the authorities were extra vigilant. Also, we could see dozens of bikes parked all over. I recalled a friend mentioning that Horsley Hills was an ideal place for bike trips. Soon we learnt that bikes were not being allowed past the gate on that day. In all selfishness, the prospect of lesser people up in the hills delighted us quite a bit.
As the car slowly made way through the well-paved and winding road the surrounding hills and valley looked breathtakingly beautiful. Huge rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes interrupted the lush green hills. The naked rocks and boulders seemed to be in perfect harmony with the strikingly divergent green foliage. In some places, the well-tarred road barged through jungles of tall trees unabashedly intruding nature’s personal space. Soaking in the freshness, I lowered the car window and looked up at the blue sky sharply contrasting with the various shades of green. The first day of 2021 felt perfect.
Gali Bandalu or Wind Rocks
This is the most frequented place at Horsley Hills. Gali Bandalu literally translates as ‘Windy Rock’ and that’s exactly how this place is with strong gusty winds blowing all day long. It’s a single huge hill rock that slopes very gently into the valley. One can easily walk down the slope for a significant distance before it drops while enjoying unhindered views of the surrounding hills as strong winds keep you company. We were not wearing appropriate shoes and hence didn’t dare to walk beyond a certain point. Though we had taken off our shoes, we had to exercise extra caution walking bare foot lest we stepped on something undesirable.
The Microwave station located near Wind Rocks is supposedly one of the oldest Microwave stations. We discovered a trail beyond the Microwave Station and climbed up a relatively easy rock face. The wind was gustier here and there was nobody other than the two of us. Our new year was certainly made!
We missed the View Point, which was supposedly behind the Governor’s Bungalow, but didn’t feel too bad about it.
Kalyani – The Eucalyptus Tree
A 150 year old Eucalyptus Tree with a height of 40 m. and a girth of 4.7 m. is situated inside Van Vihar Park and is said to be the oldest Eucalyptus Tree. Wrapped in layers of stories and history this tree was planted by W.D. Horsley himself. Located behind a forest bungalow inside the park, we could locate the tree only after asking around. This is no ordinary tree, it won an award too as was mentioned in a board displayed against it.
Besides Eucalyptus, Horsley Hills also boasts of Silver Oak, Mahogany, Coffee, Jacaranda, Allamanda, Gulmohar, Red Sanders, and Sandalwood.
Van Vihar Park also houses a mini zoo with some birds, deer, monkeys and crocodiles. It also has a viewpoint. We were here, however, only to see Kalyani.
We wondered why this name, which conjured up images of the Himalayas in the far North. Also, we remembered spotting at least one more lake, then why does this one have a name? Is it because it seemed to be larger? No answers to our questions. And, the lake with its still green waters, soaking in the warm sunlight peering through thick foliage, couldn’t care less. Later we got to know that the other lake we had seen is known as Mansarovar.
Horsley Hills also has a couple of temples. So engrossed we were in the natural surroundings that we decided to skip the temples.
The best part about Horsley Hills is that all the places of interest can be visited by walking as everything is within a radius of 2 Km. It has the best recipe for a one day trip from Bangalore.
It was the month of February. The pandemic was already in the air, just that we didn’t know much about it. The world at large wasn’t much affected till then. I received a call from a friend who informed that he had taken a sabbatical and planned to go to his hometown in Kalimpong. And, that he wanted to spend some time travelling in the North East. Back then neither he nor I had any idea that God had other plans and his sabbatical would not serve its due purpose. Before leaving Bangalore, he wished to go for a day hike somewhere in the outskirts of the city.
The following weekend, we were on our way towards Achalu Betta. Another friend had joined in and so it was the three of us. Achalu Betta, also known as Muneshwarana Betta, is a small hillock located in a sleepy village known as Achalu (‘Betta’ is a Kannada word meaning Hill). Just about 57 Km from Bangalore, this village has a temple that’s situated on the hilltop. The temple is dedicated to Lord Muneshwara, a form of Lord Shiva.
Once we reached the village, it took us a little while to figure out the way up the hill. We could see a portion of the temple and a set of stairs going up but we had no intention of taking the stairs. There were not many people around to ask for help and not knowing the local language was another handicap. After a little deliberation, we did manage to find a trail that would take us up. A little more than an hour and we were up after a steady climb of about 3Km. The sun was shining bright making it a little tiring but the lovely panoramic view of the surroundings terrain more than made up for it. Also, there was nobody other than the three of us. It couldn’t have been better.
After a quick lunch somewhere in a roadside eatery, we went towards Muthathi, a settlement located about 100 Km. from Bangalore. Muthathi is situated on the banks of River Cauvery and remains surrounded by a dense forest, which is part of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. As the car speeded towards the sanctuary, the surroundings gave way to a fresh and verdant green. Tall trees of various kinds lined up both sides of the road against a backdrop of low lying green hills. Needless to say that it was an enthralling drive with dense jungle on both sides of a neat and well-paved straight road.
But the peace and tranquility of this stretch didn’t last very long. Soon we reached the riverfront only to encounter a chaotic situation. Hordes of people were all over the place cooking, eating, and merry making. They looked like people from the nearby areas. Though there were families and children, the crowd didn’t feel very decent. Feeling awkward and out of place, we left the place. We got to know only later that it was a festival day for the local people.
A little ahead, we found a quiet place by the river. Excited, we parked the car and headed out to the river. Locating a nice spot, we opened our shoes, dipped out feet into the cool and soothing river water. In less than 10 min, a forest guard appeared from nowhere asking us to leave immediately. Apparently people are allowed only in the picnic spot that we had just left behind. Our attempts to convince him went in vain and we had to leave.
Further ahead we located a place that looked like a government guest house. Eager to spend more time in the river, my friend promptly went in to seek permission. He was told prior booking was mandatory. However, a little bit of convincing worked in this case and they allowed us to spend time beside the river though it was chargeable.
Once again, it was just the three of us. We had the soft flowing Cauvery just to ourselves. We spent a leisurely afternoon. While I chose a flat rock and sat there dipping my feet, both my friends swam around in the water. The afternoon slipped by as tiny fishes nibbled at my toes and soles. Evening descended sooner than we thought and it was time to leave for Bangalore.
The noisy bunch of over-enthusiastic friends from Poland that we kept bumping into at every tea house, quite a botheration they were! The huge group of nearly 50 people we crossed twice on the way and had to step aside to let them pass. The warm smiles of the two Japanese girls we often found sitting around the bends taking a tea break, every time we eyed their beautiful flasks. The two German men we ran into every now and then until they decided to introduce themselves, leading to small conversations each time we met. The petite Chinese girl who was perennially rushing but never missed talking to us – in her own language while we replied in English, we communicated without understanding. The two Korean girls with whom we shared a room at the base camp, who spoke English enabling some interesting conversations.
These are some of the people from different parts of the world we met during our ABC Trek, last year in October. I clearly remember so many of those faces, some leaving impressions deeper than the others. I wonder how all those people may be coping with the Covid-19 situation. I wonder if everything is fine with them. There is no way I will ever know.
A big aspect of travel for me has always been the people I get to meet and connect with. Of the several people I met during the ABC Trek, the following need special mention.
“Does that look like a baby carrier basket?”, I asked my sister. Curiosity had me striding a little faster. The basket looked fancy and the man carrying it, dressed in typical trekker attire. So, wouldn’t be a local. It was the second day of our Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek and we were climbing through one of the steeper sections of the trail when I saw this man several feet ahead of us. As I drew closer, my doubts gave way to confirmation. It was indeed a baby carrier! The man was carrying his 3-year old daughter as he trudged towards the mighty eight-thousander. He was with his wife and three children aged, 12, 7, and 3. The family had traveled all the way from Shanghai.
Trekking with a 3-year old in the uncertainties of the Himalayas is no mean feat. Things like Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), sudden weather changes, are for real. Well, I am sure they would have thought through all of that and were well prepared. They did, however, gather quite a bit of attention all the way. Every other trekker seemed to be talking about them and as one would expect everyone had some opinion or the other. While some hailed them for being brave others thought they were being irresponsible. I was too stunned to have any opinion. We met the family at several junctions during the trek and each time I envied the fun they were having and all the memories they were creating together.
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” The septuagenarian trekkers reiterated Mark Twain. Janette and Joe caught our attention on the trail one day. The cute couple was sitting on a rock and taking a break while munching on chocolates. Later, we caught up with them at the two tea houses where we stayed together. They were well into their 70s, had come all the way from the USA, and were trekking in the high altitude of the Himalayas for the very first time. Their agility, enthusiasm, and zest for life was infectious. They could easily give all youngsters a run for their money.
Then we met John, who was also from the USA and was traveling with his wife (a septuagenarian too) along with a group of family and friends. John proudly announced that he was “Seventy plus Four years old”. People like John, Janette, and Joe are astoundingly inspirational. They go on to prove that trekking and hiking has a lot to do with mental strength, which is just as important as physical strength.
When I interacted with these elderly people, I couldn’t help but think about my parents, especially my father who belongs to the same age group. I am certain they would have loved to do something like this, but it’s simply inconceivable for them. In fact, I haven’t seen many Indians in that age group trekking or hiking.
However, one thing I know for sure – if I am to live up to a 70 and beyond, I’d better be someone like Janette!
The morning sun mildly breaks through the cracks and lights up the dirt path. Dry Pine needles scattered on the ground crackle under our feet. We don’t feel any wind but the tall Pines swish-swash compelling us to stop intermittently to gaze up and look at their canopies. A distinctive aroma fills in the air – the sweet organic fragrance of Pine forests. Colourful butterflies hang around our way as well-orchestrated bird songs flow in from every direction.
Even today I can clearly feel the unparalleled soul soothing peace of those mornings in the Pine forest.
Morning walks and Pine trees are things that I associate with my Shillong home. Shillong mornings are synonymous with morning walks. I had written about that before. (here)
Last year, this time I was at my Shillong home. I was there for the whole of May and a part of June. Every day would inadvertently begin with those ritualistic morning walks. Most of the days those walks would happen in the Pine forest, just about 1-2 Km. away from my home. The forest has always been there, and I have passed by its periphery countless times but had never ventured into it. Back in the years Shillong was consumed by ethnic violence and such kind of adventures were unthinkable. My cousin, who introduced me to this enchanting place, had discovered it quite recently.
There was a simple routine to our Pine forest ritual – I would walk to a certain point where my cousin would join me. We would then walk into the forest, spend about an hour or so and then go back to our respective homes.
In the forest, we would leisurely walk through the undulating trail for about 3 Km. upto a certain point. Thereafter, we would retrace our path and walk down through a narrow passage to a bowl-shaped glade that was cordoned off in one part of the forest. There the forest floor would be blanketed by a thick carpet of crisp brown Pine needles. Could we resist laying down in a place like that! Time stood still as we would gaze into the deep blue sky that was visible in patches through the oscillating canopies of the lofty Pines. The forest felt mystical and spellbinding as the swishing canopies rustled gently, nudging, and coaxing each other. Breathing in the sweet aromatic fragrance of Pines needles, we often felt a sense of kinship with the elegant Pines. We and the Pines and everything else seemed to be in a perfect harmonious blend.
Sometimes we would play some light music on our phones while watching the trees rhythmically dance away to our music. My cousin would often come up with her own theories of how the trees might be gossiping about us – humans, maybe they are chit-chatting about their families, or maybe discussing the well-being of their kids – the Pine cones, maybe they’re just chilling with our music. Those were freeze frame moments when life felt flawless, moments where we could remain forever and ever.
Some days, we would climb up a steep slope in the forest. It wasn’t an easy climb by any means as we would keep slipping through the dry Pine needles strewn all over. However, all the trouble was worth it for our sweet spot on top, which was a huge rock shaped in a way that gave the feel of a couch or a bean bag with the perfect backrest. We would sit there listening to the birds as the trees would dance away in a world of their own. Down below through the thick foliage of greens and browns, we could spot tiny roads and tiny houses. The forest felt like where we belonged, it comforted our hearts, and it would take quite an effort to get up and leave. This we usually did on weekends as it would take up more time.
If things would have been normal and there would be no Covid-19, this is exactly what I would have been doing every morning at this time, this year too.
“Hey, I’ve been here before!” I exclaimed excitedly as my friend slowed down the car and then pulled over. The still blue pool of water glistened in the afternoon sun like a piece of jewel in the crown of the surrounding greenery. It looked just the same as I had seen it 8 years ago – nestled right there down below amidst the green hills.
It was a Saturday when I was out on a long drive in the honour of my cousin, S, who was visiting me all the way from Shillong. The car belonged to a childhood friend, G, who also lives in Bangalore now. Our long drives together date back to Shillong during our college days when we would do the same in G’s Maruti 800. Yes, this drive was an attempt of recreating memories of the past.
It was a little before noon when we started from Bangalore and had no specific place in mind. While on the way, we decided to go to Savandurga, which is considered among the largest monolith hills in Asia. Driving in the outskirts of Bangalore is sheer pleasure. Well tarred roads in most places, intermingling green hills and valleys, sporadically dotted with rugged barren rocky hills, lush forests, and quaint hamlets.
The pool of water that we found on the way was Manchanabele Dam, which is a reservoir built across River Arkavati. Also spelt as Arkavathy or Arkavathi, it is a tributary of River Cauvery. About 40 km. away from Bangalore city, it is a man-made dam built mainly for the purpose of irrigation. After clicking a few pictures, we decided to proceed towards our destination and come back before sunset. A few meters ahead, we found fresh fish being fried and sold in makeshift shops. We helped ourselves on my cousin’s insistence and then proceeded to Savandurga, which was about 14 Km away.
The sun was at its peak and it was well into afternoon when we reached Savandurga. Any other day we would have climbed up the hill but we were late and weren’t prepared in terms of clothing and shoes. We spent some time in and around the hill exploring the temple at the base of the hill and the surrounding grassland. Thereafter, we set off to catch sunset at the dam.
Driving an additional 9 Km after taking two wrong turns, we arrived at the dam just before sunset. As we were about to turn the car onto the narrow muddy road going towards the lake, a guard appeared from nowhere saying public entry into the lake is prohibited. My argument of having been here a couple of times before fell on deaf ears. After a while he said he would let us go in if we pay Rs. 200.00. After haggling for a bit, we paid the amount. G asked for a for a receipt, which he obviously refused. So, it was a bribe – we are guilty.
G carefully maneuvered the car downhill through the broken and muddy road littered with small and big stones. Near the lake we met a family who had also paid bribe to the guard. We shared our apprehensions of doing something illegitimate. The ban apparently was implemented two years back after a series of drowning incidents when people attempted swimming in the water.
Soon the colour of the sky started changing with rich hues of reds blending with oranges and crimsons. Our guilt and apprehensions were completely forgotten as our collective focus was unknowingly directed towards the yellow ball of fire that appeared to change scenes every second. Within a few moments the show got over. We bid goodbye to our momentary acquaintances and retraced our path to the car. As we drove back, S and G sang medleys of popular Bengali Tagore songs (Rabindra Sangeet) all through the way making for a soothing end to a beautiful day.
There had been no more rains since last evening and clear blue skies greeted us in the morning. The Sun was shining up in the mountain tops but was yet to reach the valley, where Bamboo, our tea house, was located. As a result, it was cold at Bamboo.
Through the Bamboo Forest
After breakfast, we started off for the day. The walk through the forest continued. This time, it was a dense and damp forest dominated by Bamboo trees. The Bamboo Forest was even more beautiful and enigmatic than the forest we had walked the day before. Not surprising, I found myself completely lost in a world of my own.
The trees and shrubs, the bushes and creepers, the roots and leaves all seemed to be interacting with me as though telling me unknown tales of their mysterious wonderland. Each and every leaf exuded radiance, shimmering in the morning freshness. The renewed sparkle can be well attributed to the rains that had happened the day before. “Don’t they seem to have just stepped out of a beauty parlour, massaged and manicured with some essential oils,” I remarked. My sister gave me a scornful look, rolled her eyes, and walked on.
Dovan to Himalaya
Enjoying every bit of the walk we leisurely reached Dovan, the next tea house where clear views of Macharepuchare peak greeted us. We took 2.5 hours instead of the expected 1.5 hour to get here. Thanks to our frequent stops in the forest to admire the flowers, caress tree trunks, marvel at the leaves of various shapes and sized, inspect the moss-covered boulders, etc. What’s the hurry! Somewhere we even crossed a stream through a rickety broken bridge.
The forest continued beyond Dovan and soon we hit upon a relatively wide footpath that can be well described as the rustic version of a cobblestone pathway. At the start of the pathway a notice was displayed with clear information about maintaining the sanctity of the place as a highly revered temple lay ahead in the forest. Soon, we landed at the temple. It was a Shiva and Parvati temple. A tall jagged mountain stood behind the temple adorned by a cascading waterfall that spread across the breadth of the mountain.
Beyond the temple was a steep set of stairs that continued all the way almost upto Himalaya, the next tea house. The stairs were well defined at the beginning only to be replaced by rustic boulders later. At Himalaya, we took a tea break. Dark clouds filled in the sky and it started drizzling. We slipped into our rain jackets and continued walking.
Gray Langurs at Hinku Cave
The climb continued after Himalaya but the forest started slowly thinning out. Multiple waterfalls strewn here and there from the mountain tops drained vertically down into Modi Khola that thundered somewhere in the deep gorges. In some places the trail was very narrow and we had to be cautious with our footing. In all such ascends, I would mostly be alone as my sister walked slowly way behind with Amar, our guide.
After sometime, a short but very steep climb got us face-to-face with a huge overhanging rock. This was Hinku Cave. All over this huge rock, were a large number of Gray Langurs – young and old, babies and families. We paused for a while to watch the over-energetic playful bunch hopping around before continuing our walk towards Deurali.
Surrounded by Waterfalls at Deurali
Soon we spotted the tiny blue tinned roofs of the tea houses in the far distance. Finally, Deorali was in sight though it was still quite a walk away. Simultaneously, Modi Khola made its grand appearance gushing away in leaps and bounds through the gorge. After a while we crossed a bridge and yet another set of steep stairs stared at us that would take us up to Deurali – our stop for the day at 3230 m.
We reached Deurali in the afternoon. The sun was shining bright when we arrived, but it lasted just for 10-15 min. No complaints, as it was enough to dry our partially wet clothes. There were several waterfalls all around us – in the valley in front and the tall mountain behind. We couldn’t enjoy the view for long as thick fog descended and progressively it got very cold. However, the evening sky was kind enough to put on a show of some gorgeous display of colours breaking the monotony of the drab foggy afternoon. A peak in the surrounding mountain resembled Lord Buddha’s face and we got to see that only the following morning, all thanks to the fog.
Her Very Own Flower Garden
As we left Deurali, we stepped into a valley guarded by tall mountains on both sides. The morning was cold, and the sun was yet to reach the valley. We passed through few easy ascents and descents through the rugged trail with Macharepuchare staring at us from the right. The familiar fish-tail shape was missing and I could not recognize the peak until Amar pointed it out.
After a while a picturesque sight greeted us. The snow-clad Gangapurna made an appearance at the horizon glowing with the first rays of the sun even as the valley still remained in shadow.
Gradually, the valley opened up and we walked through a flat stretch of winding trail as Modi Khola gushed away right beside us. After the forest, I fell in love with this section of the trail. The entire area was carpeted with multitudes of unique flowering plants. The bushes on either side were sprinkled with yellows and purples and whites and reds. Every few steps we were compelled to halt, not just for admiring the colours but the shapes and structures of the flowers. This place felt like Mt. Annapurna’s personal patio, a place she personally nurtured. No other explanation seemed plausible enough to justify such divine beauty.
Face-to-Face with Macharepuchare
A relatively steep trail started soon after the flower garden. After about an hour or so, we reached the Macharepuchare Base Camp (MBC), at an elevation of 3,700 m. It was a bright and sunny day. The sky was azure blue but some frivolous floating clouds appeared from nowhere and decided to spoil the show. On one side was the pointed-tipped Macharepuchare and on the other side Annapurna South. The clouds flirted with the both the mountains leaving us high and dry with only occasional glimpses. After a cup of tea, we headed towards our final destination – ABC.
Towards Annapurna Base Camp
As we started climbing up towards ABC, the floating clouds got thicker. The blue sky disappeared and everything around us was completely white-washed. A strong wind started blowing and it was getting really cold. Slowly and steadily we climbed up the winding pathway greeted by meadows, flowers, glacial streams. We could see only our immediate surroundings, the thick white blanket allowed no more.
It was no different even an hour and half later when we arrived at Annapurna Base Camp. We could see nothing at all, which was disappointing to say the least. And, we all know how adamant clouds can be in the mountains when they arrive in the later half of the day. We made peace, oblivious of the miracle that would unfold a little while later.
The grandeur of Annapurna Massif makes Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek one of the most sought after Himalayan treks. This moderate level trek entails a stunning journey bringing you face to face with the majestic Annapurna Massif in a very short span of time. The Annapurna massif includes the world’s 10th highest peak, Annapurna-I or Annapurna main. At 8091 m., the unforgiving Annapurna-I has the highest fatality ratio among the 8000 m. peaks across the world. It also holds the distinction of the first eight-thousander to have been scaled. The other peaks are in the range of 6000-7000 m. and consist of Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchchhre, Gangapurna, and a few others.
Among these, Machapuchare or the ‘Fish-tailed Mountain’ holds a special place because of its unique shape and exquisite beauty. It is believed to be one of the homes of Lord Shiva and is revered by the Nepali people. Also known as Matterhorn of Nepal, the sacred Machapuchare has not been officially summited as it is not permitted by the Nepal Government.
My interest of trekking ABC finally culminated this October. I have already written a post on my soul-touching experience of the magnificent peaks at ABC. Click here to read.
Here’s a detailed account of my journey.
The Bumpy Jeep Ride to Nayapul
Tossed and turned and churned I tried my best to focus on the greenery all around me. Travelling on a bumpy off-road in the back seat of a Tata Sumo is not the most comfortable experience, if you know what I mean.
The bumpy muddy road did everything to make sure that a part of my attention remained on it even as my mind and heart was captivated by the surroundings. Winding roads snaking through tall green hills and deep valleys, clusters of tiny colourful houses nestled erratically on the green slopes, quaint tea houses intermittently scattered alongside the dusty road, sporadic areas of lush green pastures separating the road from the hills, terraced cultivation here and there up in the hill slopes, the meandering Modi Khola (Khola means river in Nepali) playfully appearing and disappearing, sudden gushing waterfalls cascading from nowhere making a noisy pool of water on the road before flowing off on the other side.
We were on our way from Pokhara to Nayapul, about 43 Km. away, to start our trek to ABC. The road from Pokhara is paved until Ulleri after which it’s just a dusty track that seems unfit for any vehicle. From Ulleri, one can take various routes to arrive at the village of Chomrong, beyond which the route is common upto ABC. The route is decided mostly based on the number of days one has at their disposal. The trek can take between 6-10 days on an average. After Ulleri, it is a common sight to find trekkers walking through the muddy stretch, lugging their small and big backpacks.
Climb to Chomrong via Jhinu
It was a little past noon when we arrived at Nayapul. A quick lunch and we were set to hit the trail. Our destination for the day was the village of Chomrong, via Jhinudanda.
Initially we walked through a near level ground with only negligible ascent and descent. The trail passed through dense vegetation on either side with views of green mountains interspersed with terraced fields and village homes. Soon we reached New Bridge, beyond which is Jhinudanda – commonly called Jhinu. New Bridge is a metallic suspension bridge that runs for nearly a kilometer. I normally don’t suffer from vertigo but on this bridge I found myself feeling a little unsteady each time I looked down. The fact that it vibrated with the number of people walking on it didn’t make things any easier and I tried my best to cross over as fast as I could. On the other side of the bridge, a flight of stairs greeted us that took us to Jhinu.
We didn’t take a break at Jhinu and continued towards Chomrong, little knowing that the entire trail constituted of rustic stone steps. Soon after, my sister started complaining of indigestion and feeling unwell. We rested for a while, she took some medicines and we continued. My sister was very slow and I was finding it difficult to keep going at her pace.
Day-1 in any trek is usually tougher as the body is still getting used to the new situation, so this wasn’t totally unexpected. Our guide, Amar, was with her and hence I continued walking ahead. Very soon I was way ahead and couldn’t see them.
After a while, dark clouds came in and it started drizzling. I had forgotten to keep my raincoat in my day-pack. It remained in my main bag, which was with Amar. The rains intensified. I tried to take shelter underneath a huge rock but the rains splashed me anyway. This rock was on a turning and I couldn’t see beyond. Realizing it was no point waiting, I decided to keep walking ahead. Just a few steps ahead, I could see a small restaurant. And, luckily enough that turned out to be the starting point of Chomrong village – our destination for the day at 2700 m. I waited here for Amar and my sister. By the time they arrived, the rains had stopped. We climbed a few more stairs and soon landed at the tea house that was booked for us.
The rains resumed in the evening and it continued pouring off and on. The snow peaked Annapurna Range remained shrouded by fleeting white clouds. As I went to bed that night, I thought to myself it would be a good idea to be up around midnight when the clouds would most likely clear up and the mountains would be visible. However, I slept through and when I woke up it was well past midnight. The first thing I did was to lift the window curtains and peek outside. And Ah! There it was – the glamorous snow laden peaks as though eagerly waiting to greet the dawn. I looked at my watch. It was 4.00 AM. I could easily distinguish the triangular Macharepuchare but wasn’t sure of the other peaks. It was not until breakfast that Amar helped identify the other peaks as Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, and Gangapurna.
Into the Forest towards Bamboo
Our trek for the day started by climbing down a series of steps that seemed to continue forever. We learned it was a series of 2500 steps and along with that knowledge came the not-so-comforting thought that we would have to climb up the same on our way back. The entire ABC trail is like a roller coaster ride, all you do it go up and go down with only very few level walks. Somewhere we crossed the office of Annapurna Conservation Area Project where our permits were checked. Thereafter, we passed through trails overlooking terraced fields, crossed over another hanging suspension bridge over a deep valley, and climbed through some uneven rustic stone steps as we headed towards Tilche and then Sinuwa – Lower Sinuwa and Upper Sinuwa, the last village enroute ABC. Annapurna-III was visible from some places while Machapuchare kept us company all through.
After taking a break at Upper Sinuwa, we moved towards our last stop for the day, Bamboo. The trail started with a thick forest dominated by tall Oaks. There were Rhododendron, Bamboo, and few other trees as well.
Forest trails are my eternal favourites, where I always find my imagination running wild. The trees and the bushes seem invitingly mysterious as though dozens of invisible eyes are scrutinizing my every move. And, I walk along building my own fantasy world of fairies and witches. Sometimes I blend in and feel one with them, at other times I feel I am encroaching upon their secret and sacred territory. Complementing the overall forest charm was the gurgling sound of Modi Khola flowing alongside that could only be heard but not seen and the twittering birds, calling out occasionally in a variety of melodious tunes. All of these were interrupted by one large and several small waterfall.
A steep descent for about 30 minutes, somewhere in the forest and we reached Bamboo at 2,145 m., after covering a distance of about 8 Km. from Chomrong. Almost immediately the rains started and we were thankful for arriving just in time.
Bamboo was bustling with trekkers it being peak season for ABC trek. We got to know there was no space for us, even the benches in the dining room were taken. Amar made a quick call to Dovan, the next tea house about an hour and a half away. That was fully occupied too. Amar recommended we have our lunch while he figures a way out. After waiting for close to 2 hours, Amar informed that he had finally managed a room, much to our relief. He had struck a deal with one of the tea house owners who agreed to give us his personal room. I have no idea where Amar or the tea house owner slept for the night. My repeated probing with Amar yielded no results.
By dinner the rains had stopped and the skies were clear. As expected, we woke up to a bright and sunny day.
Just two more days to go and the discomfort in my body with the fever and its associated symptoms were still going strong. The frantic visits to the doctor, the dengue scare, concerns from friends and family were making me nervous and adding to my stress. On D-day, I just took the leap of faith, trusted the doctor’s words and went ahead with my flight to Nepal. I was still unwell and here I was off to Annapurna Base Camp, on a trek to see the mighty Annapurna massif constituting some of the most dangerous peaks in the world.
I made a deal with myself. I am not going to push myself, if my health doesn’t permit at any point of time, I would just retrace my path. At least I am getting to visit Nepal, a place I hadn’t been to before. And, most importantly I wasn’t alone, my sister was with me. With all that uncertainty, and the Nepal Airlines flight being delayed by 5 hours, we reached Kathmandu at 1.00 AM. And, with a bus to catch at 7 AM there was hardly any time to rest.
However, as my mom had predicted, by the time I boarded the bus for Pokhara I had forgotten that I was ill.
In the following days we walked through scenic villages experiencing the local culture, through deep green valleys, and dense and damp jungles with the various peaks of Annapurna playing hide and seek till we reached our destination – Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).
It was the time of Durga Puja, the most important festival time for Bengalis. Five days of festivities to celebrate the Goddess’ arrival on earth (her paternal home) along with her children. On the 3rd day of Puja – Mahasthami, considered to be the most important of the five days, we arrived at ABC. Ideally, I should have been home with my near and dear ones celebrating the Mother Divine. Yet, I was far away from home, in the lap of the Himalayas. However, I did celebrate Mother Divine in the form of Annapurna – the Goddess of Harvest, who is just another form of Ma Durga.
When we reached ABC, late in the afternoon, we could see nothing. Everything was whitewashed by a thick layer of fog that lay between us and the mountains. We knew the mountains were just behind the thick white curtain but we saw nothing at all.
Was there any chance of the cloud clearing later on? “No”, said our guide, “Not until tomorrow morning.” We made peace, had lunch and headed to the viewpoint nevertheless, which was just a 5 min walk from the tea house. It was quite cold and nothing was visible with the clouds still forming a barrier between us and the mountains. We walked around marveling at the various memory stones and plaques commemorating fatalities of the climbers.
The mighty Annapurna massif has some of the most dangerous peaks in the world. Annapurna – I stands at an elevation of 8,091 m (26,545 ft) and is the 10th highest peak in the world. This unforgiving mountain also carries the legacy of the first eight-thousander peak to have been scaled.
I looked at my watch and it was a little after 4.30 PM. With the cold getting worse, there were only very few people at the viewpoint. My sister and I decided to sit quietly with our eyes closed for a while and then leave.
After 15-20 min., we opened our eyes and were stunned by what we saw. The clouds had moved, the sky was blue, and the 360 degree panoramic view had miraculously opened up. This was unbelievable. We hadn’t expected this at all. Dumbfounded, we found ourselves desperately looking all around – what if the clouds decided to come back!
The peaks around us constituted Annapurna-I, Annapurna South, Annapurna-III, Machhapuchchhre, Hiunchuli, Peak 10, Gangapurna. The view remained for a good 20 mins before the clouds started taking their positions once again. The mountains seemed so close that I felt I could touch them if I extended my arm.
At night, just after dinner, the sky was clear studded with millions of stars. The moon was bright with full moon just a few days away. The mountains glittered in the soft iridescent rays of the moon. The view was nothing but ethereal. Never had I seen such tall mountains from such close quarters lit up by the moonlight. It was one of those times when I missed having a camera. My mobile phone could not capture a thing.
We didn’t stay out for long though as it was extremely cold and we wanted to get to bed early in order to wake up early for sunrise on the mountain. Assured of having a great view the next morning with the sky being clear, we went off to a blissful sleep for the night.
Sunrise was just as gorgeous as I had expected. The peaks of Annapurna-I and Annapurna South looked like molten gold. It was magical. The Sun seemed to be waking up with utmost delight, putting up a show of painting the peaks for all the curious onlookers. The peaks seemed to be indulging the Sun like a mother reveling in her child’s playful activities. No words can do justice to the breathtaking view. The moment lasted for 6-7 mins and this was one of the most beautiful sights I have witnessed in my life so far.
All along I found myself profoundly thanking the majestic Annapurna for all the divinity I was experiencing.
The world of Social Media is flooded with cool travel pictures from across the world. Pictures that make you want to want to pack your bags right away and get into that gorgeous beach to watch the sun go down, trek through the meadows and jungles to reach the supposedly secluded mountain peak, dive into deep blue pools at the base of the tallest plunge waterfall, bungee jump off the highest cliff, or simply stare at the milky-way dazzling in the middle of the night. While many of these may be slightly exaggerated, they aren’t false. Travel does lead to such unique wonderful experiences creating a lifetime of beautiful memories.
However, not everything about travel is hunky dory, not all travel memories are fun. There are tonnes of unpleasant things that happen during travels, more so when on offbeat, adventurous, and budget travels. Nobody talks about them, they are things best forgotten. Afterall, we tend to remember all good things from the past rather than the not so good things. It’s not uncommon to deal with things like falling sick, unclean toilets, long waits at transits, cancelled or missed flights or trains, undesirable fellow passengers, getting injured, sudden political unrest, delayed or lost luggage, no mobile network, the list can go on and on. Any one of these or a combination of few has the potential to completely mar a travel experience.
Despite being an avid traveler, I have had several situations where travel felt no less than a torture. Here I share three of those.
Yes, you read that right! It was peak monsoon during the month of October and I was in Goa during an extended weekend with a friend and my sister. We were at Palolem beach in South Goa on a day when the rains poured incessantly. Not to be perturbed by the dismal weather, we set out walking along a lonely stretch of the beach towards a point where the sea meets the backwaters.
After an enjoyable ride in a boat through the mangroves in the backwaters, we were walking back when we spotted a series of colourful boats set in a row towards the periphery of the beach. Drawn towards them, we went and happily perched on the boats oblivious of the fact that those boats were coated with some chemical that contained acid. The boats were kept there for drying. There was no warning sign anywhere.
After a few minutes, we felt a sticky substance on our back. My sister immediately went to the resort we were staying at and changed into a fresh set of clothes. I didn’t. Being completely drenched, I thought I would dip myself into the seawater and get rid of the sticky substance. I felt some discomfort on my back but didn’t pay any heed to it. It wasn’t until midnight that my sister and I discovered we had blisters all over our buttocks and in certain areas on our thighs. My condition was far worse that hers.
Coming back to Bangalore was a pain that I am never going to forget. It took me nearly two weeks to heal and the treatment had to be done with utmost care as chemical burns can easily get infected.
This happened to me on two different occasions. The first time in Kanyakumari when I did not know I was allergic to certain types of seafood, including prawns. I gorged on a plateful of prawns and had a lot more than I usually do. The others thought the prawns weren’t cooked well enough. I had their share too!
When in the ferry towards Vivekananda Rock, I started wheezing. Thinking that the cold wind of the sea was getting into me, I didn’t bother much. Once in Vivekananda Rock, my face swelled beyond recognition forcing us to get back to mainland immediately. A few doses of Avil, an anti-allergic tablet, helped arrest the situation. I spent the rest of the holiday with a swollen face with eyes that were nearly shut.
Another time, while returning from a trek, I was bitten by certain insects leading to a severe allergic reaction. This time, I had an Anaphylactic Shock – a life-threatening situation – and had to be rushed to the hospital ICU immediately. It’s by God’s grace that I am here today to tell the story. [More on that story here.]
Marooned in a Beach and then Getting Lost in a Jungle in the Dark
It was about 7 years back when I was visiting Gokarna with a bunch of friends. At that time Gokarna was relatively unknown and didn’t get many visitors. We had hired two autos to go to a place called, Paradise Beach. We had no clue where this beach was or if such a beach even existed. There was no Google Maps, no smart phones.
The auto drivers duped us and took us through a jungle dropping us in some isolated place far away from civilization saying that was Paradise Beach. We could see no beach but could hear sounds of waves crashing somewhere down the hill. We climbed down the hill maneuvering tall bushes only to find ourselves on huge boulders amidst thousands of crabs.
One of us was smart enough to note down the auto driver’s phone number. Or else, I have no idea how we would get out of that place. Now, why the auto driver’s left us at an isolated place is anybody’s guess!
On the way back, it had gotten completely dark. We had to make our way down a hillock following a trail through a jungle for a distance of about 2 Km. to reach Kudle Beach, where our resort was located. No motor vehicles could pass through that part and it had to be traversed on foot. We weren’t prepared for the dark and didn’t have torches.
All we had in the group of seven of us was two working phones, the batteries of which were nearly draining. The rest of the phones were completely out of charge. The friend leading the group down took a wrong turn and we soon realized we were lost in the middle of the jungle. To make matters worse, the two working phones went out of battery. After panicking for a while, we had no choice but to carry on walking following the sound of the waves. Once again it was by God’s grace that we made it alive to our resort in pitch darkness.
Would you like to share your not so good travel memory(s)?
“I couldn’t have had a better start to this day,” I said aloud as I looked out of the window of our room. Kanchenjunga Peak was covered by clouds but Pandim massif and Kabru peak were right there, seemingly looking at me acknowledging the statement that I just made. Mr. Karma, our homestay owner, had said the day before – “You have to be blessed by Kongchen Chu to set your foot here.” And, at that moment, blessed is what I felt! (Kongchen Chu is the local name for Mt. Kanchenjunga.)
It was the month of April and the day was special as it was my birthday. My sister and I were in Dzongu Valley to experience the Lepcha way of life at Karma Lepcha’s home. Located in North Sikkim, Dzongu Valley is about 70 Km. away from Gangtok. The entrypoint to the valley is Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim.
Located within the Kanchenjunga biosphere, Dzongu is sparsely populated, inhabited by the Lepcha Tribe – the happy and peace-loving aboriginal people of Sikkim. The Lepchas believe that they are descendants of the mountains and the word ‘Lepcha’ literally means ‘Children of the Gods’. The Lepchas are a vanishing tribe with a dwindling population of about 50k across parts of Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and West Bengal. The Lepchas have lived in Dzongu Valley for centuries and it was declared as a protected area for the Lepchas in the 1960s.
Lepchas are nature worshipers and believe that Mt. Kanchenjunga or Kongchen Chu is their protector. They are duty-bound towards Mother Nature and believe that by performing good deeds they will be rewarded with an afterlife and eternal bliss at Mayal Lyang – heaven hidden in the foothills of Kongchen Chu. Lepcha folklore has that Dzongu is the bridge to Mayal Lyang, which is the place of origin of the Lepchas.
When we Arrived
The day before we had made a dramatic entry to Dzongu Valley at dusk, when the sky was overcast with dark clouds and it was raining quite heavily. The low visibility through the narrow, broken, winding road right up to the village with a deep plunge to Teesta on one side wasn’t the most comfortable thing though! We were going towards Tingvong, a village in upper Dzongu where we were to put up at Rumlyang Homestay for the next two days.
Dzongu is divided into the northern ‘Upper Dzongu’ and southern ‘Lower Dzongu’ by Rongyang River, a tributary of Teesta. Dzongu Valley is vast and remains largely uninhabited though both these regions have several villages. The mighty Teesta that separates Dzongu from the rest of North Sikkim had changed its course after a devastating landslide in 2016. This resulted in the breakdown of the only motorable bridge that connected the villages of Upper Dzongu. A hanging bridge now connects Upper Dzongu with mainland but it is a walkway and vehicles cannot pass through. Hence, the Innova we had been traveling in for the past few days could not go up to the village. It went upto the landslide area over the broken bridge and another vehicle arrived from the village to take us.
Earlier, as the Innova had taken a turn from Mangan towards Dzongu the stunning greenery had made us feel like we were entering Amazon Forest.
The Welcome Drink
Karma and his brothers welcomed us to their home with Chee, the locally brewed liquor, served in bamboo mugs with bamboo straws. Chee is made by fermenting millets and is like an organic beer. As a custom, Chee can be consumed only after offering it to Mt. Kanchenjunga and there’s a particular way of doing this.
Aarack is the other local liquor that is brewed from cinnamon plant and has a strong and pungent taste.
The Lepchas lead a self-sustained life and vegetables and crops are grown with organic manure. They only buy rice, pulses, and salt from outside. Cooking in their kitchen still happens on earthen ovens with log fires – surreal to us, the city dwellers. Karma did have a LPG gas stove but they seldom use it. The village had just one provision store that didn’t have much to offer.
The Picnic that Didn’t Happen
Day-1 in the village and my sister and I were up early in the morning. The sun was yet to reach the valley but the chirping and chattering birds made sure we stepped out of our room. Karma and his brothers – Dawa, Nordin, and Tashi – were still asleep.
The greenery in the morning light was freshly captivating. We took a stroll in the neighborhood amidst rice and cardamom fields, across icy rivulets, through random fluttering of Buddhist prayer flags, and admiring little boys and girls peeping though half-opened doors of their traditional huts.
We ended our morning odyssey by walking over to Karma’s elder brother’s home, situated closeby. Randomly walking into somebody’s home and introducing yourself – quite unimaginable, right?
Later that morning, my sister offered to prepare parathas for breakfast. Karma announced the weather was perfect and it was my birthday, and that called for a picnic. And off we went. Loaded pats and pans, some potatoes, and some rice and lentils onto the Bolero-like vehicle. Karma, his three brothers, a relative of theirs, and the two of us.
We first went to Lingzya waterfall, a steep vertical drop of about 300 ft in the middle of greens. We spent a substantial amount of time there while Karma and gang indulged in noodling but with no success.
We then visited the Lingdem hot water spring, located in Lower Dzongu. The hot water spring has two log cabins for men and women. However, the outlet of both were clogged at that time and a common area was provided outside for everyone. We dipped into the hot waters for a good 45-50 min. along with Karma’s gang. Just visualize soaking in the goodness of the medicinal qualities and healing powers of a Himalayan hot Sulphur spring in the middle of a dense forest beside a stream of icy melt. Pure bliss!
Soon after the rains decided to play spoil sport ruining our picnic plans and forcing us to return to the homestay for the day.
By evening, the rains had stopped and the skies had cleared up. Nordin and Dawa came by inviting us for a walk to the village school, and off we went with them. There we found Tashi playing football with the village boys and also met a school teacher with whom we had some interesting discussions about Sikkim’s political scenario.
We ended the day with some melodious and rhythmic Lepcha music over a simple dinner of rice, dal, and potatoes. Nordin and my sister danced away while we cheered them, sipped Chee, and chatted our way into the night.
Kanchenjunga remained covered by clouds had eluded us so far. The other peaks, namely, Sinolchu, Kabru, Pandim, Langam Chu, and Pungyong Chu were clearly visible most of the time. While Pungyong Chu is considered to be the guardian of Kanchenjunga, Langam Chu is the guardian of Tingvong village.
On Day-2, we woke up to clear skies and looked out of the window of our room and voila – there stood the majestic Kanchenjunga draped in shining white. We jumped out of bed and rushed out. Karma recommended we walk a few meters ahead in the street for a better view and we did just that without bothering to even brush our teeth. We wanted to make the most of the view before the clouds came back. The view, however, remained clear for the next 2-3 hours. Karma thought we were really lucky and I guess we were.
The Village Hike
My sister and I gelled very well with the two brothers, Dawa and Nordin. We were already having a great time together. So much so that they decided to postpone some work they had in Mangan and stay back to take us for a hike to the village monastery and the other five villages that constitute Tingvong Gram Panchayat in Upper Dzongu. These villages are Namprick, Nung, Tingvong, Lonkoo, and Kusoong.
A flight of steep steps took us to the village monastery and the climb was not an easy one. It was a special day at the monastery and some rituals were underway. The monks offered us fruits, biscuits and butter tea.
Thereafter, we reached Kusoong village walking through cardamom fields and bamboo plantations, across rickety bamboo bridges over several streams, and a waterfall here and there. The day was bright and sunny until then. The weather Gods changed their mood soon and it started drizzling. Dawa and Nordin took us to their friend’s home where we decided to wait till the rains stopped. The slight drizzle, turned to hailstorm and heavy rains, which continued incessantly for the next 3 hours. Dawa prepared tea and noodles as we waited for the rains to stop.
Finally, the rains lessened. It was pretty late by then and we decided to go back to the homestay instead of the other villages. Karma had prepared some special bamboo shoot dish for us and we did not want to disappoint him by not having lunch. We reached back around 4.00 PM and had a late lunch together.
The rains continued lashing through the evening forcing us to remain indoors. It was cold and there was no electricity. We spend the evening in Karma’s kitchen cozily wrapped in blankets catching up on stories from our respective lives.
My sister and I left behind a part of ourselves at Dzongu. We are certain, we have some greater connection with Karma and his brothers. At Karma’s home, we never felt like guests. It was like visiting friends or family. There are many subtle feelings and emotions that I cannot describe in words. Dzongu has been super special and shall always remain so. God willing, I would love to go there once again and stay for a longer duration. Three days is hardly sufficient to explore the valley.
Lepcha Words and Phrases
Here are some Lepcha words and phrases that we picked up during our stay:
Achuley: Cheers, used mostly while drinking Chee
Chee: Wine, liquor, alcohol
Tokchee: Thank you
Tokchee atim: Thank you very much
Eng: Younger sibling – brother or sister
Anum: Elder brother
Anom: Elder sister
Adho sa ab ryang shugo: What is your name?
Ho sarey jong nee: How are you?
Go arum se: I am good
Adhom go lenchyo matsyo: I love you
Kat, Net, Sam, Flee, Fumo: One, Two, Three, Four, Five
I have a feeling of incompleteness about this write up. Perhaps, I have not been able to capture the essence of Dzongu Valley. The feelings and emotions I have experienced are beyond words. I leave you with some more pictures.