An Unexpected Trip to BR Hills

Back in December last year, my cousin came over and stayed with me for little over a month, making the most of the work from home situation. On the very first weekend of her visit, we planned a trip to Mysore. The plan was made such that we would be at Mysore Palace on Sunday evening. The reason being the entire palace is illuminated with about a lakh bulbs and remains that way for 15 min. It’s a spectacular sight and I wanted her to experience the same. (Thanks to the pandemic that didn’t happen, which is another story.)

Our weekend was sorted, we were all geared up to leave Bangalore on Saturday morning, and head straight to Mysore. Late Friday night, a friend called up and his casual recommendation changed our itinerary altogether. We were still going to Mysore but would go to BR Hills as well and spend a night there. Located about 90 Km. from Mysore and 180 Km. from Bangalore, it fitted in quite perfectly.

Pic 1: Stretches of Kans Grass right up to the entry gate of BR Hills made for a blissful experience.

Saturday morning, we left Bangalore at the stipulated time and visited Shivanasamudra. After that we headed for BR Hills or Biligiriranga Hills. Located in the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, at an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level, BR Hills bridges the Eastern and Western Ghats. It houses the BRT wildlife sanctuary, which is an official tiger reserve. BRT is just an abbreviation of Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple wildlife sanctuary. The temple of Biligiri Rangaswamy being the other main attraction of this place. There are hiking and trekking opportunities too, which we didn’t explore this time.

Pic 2: A pond at BRT Wildlife Sanctuary right where the Jeep Safari starts.

The native inhabitants of BR Hills constitute the Soliga tribe. They make a living by selling honey, gooseberry, bamboo and other non-timber forest products. The government has been trying to resettle them with a focus on forest conservation. The Soligas aren’t in agreement and have won a legal battle to continue staying in their homeland. Certainly, they know how to live harmoniously with nature. The battle is far from over though.

Another interesting trivia about BR Hills is that the notorious and dreaded bandit Veerappan, who had terrorized a large part of South India for a very long time, operated out of these jungles till he was killed in October 2004.

Pic 3: The small settlement at BR Hills as seen from the temple.

Driving through a green and soothing stretch of meadows and farmlands, we reached the entry point of BR Hills. The entrance is marked by a forest check post, where we had to provide details of our visit including duration of stay, place of stay, vehicle number, etc. Beyond the gate is a stretch of perfectly tarred narrow winding road with thick forests on either side. Gradually the car climbed up through the road as we remained engrossed in the heavenly marvelous surroundings. A drive of about 30 mins through this paradise, and we arrived at Giridarshini, the homestay we had booked the night before.

It was well past lunch time by the time we had settled down and arrived at the dining hall. Soon after, we proceeded towards Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple.

Pic 4: The home stay was surrounded by coffee estates and various trees of pepper, ginger, etc.

Located on a hilltop, the ancient temple provides a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest down below. The temple was under renovation at that time but that didn’t affect its quaint little charm. The strong wind blowing across threatened to throw us off the edges, and that only added to the temple’s mystical magic.

A huge, handcrafted leather slipper kept reverently just outside the main temple piqued our interest. Asking around yielded no results, thanks to the language barrier. It was only later that we got to know it’s significance. The Soligas believe that the presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ranganatha, wanders through the forest every night wearing that slipper. The slipper apparently wears out every 2 years as a result, and then they present a new pair.

Pic 5: At Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple
Pic 6: The temple presents a panoramic view of the verdant green valley covered by the thick forest

We walked down from the hill and spent the rest of the evening exploring the narrow lanes and bylanes, sipping a coffee or a tea from the tiny shops here and there. As darkness fell, we retreated to our homestay. Dinner was over a bonfire that was arranged exclusively for us. The three sisters laughed and giggled talking about the antics and idiosyncrasies of our extended families, making this one of the most memorable times of our being together. “Now, this justifies all the money we’re shelling out!”, quipped my cousin. The homestay charge had seemed a little exorbitant, but the last minute plan had left us with no time to research any further.

Pic 7: Sunset at BR hills on a cold December evening.

Early next morning, we headed towards the sanctuary for a wildlife safari. We jumped onto the Forest Department jeep with a lot of anticipation and excitement. The two hour-long safari was a great disappointment. All we saw was a couple of sambar deer, one or two mongoose, a couple of birds, a wild boar or two, and that was all. We did spot a bison too.

Pic 8: A pond inside the wildlife sanctuary, seen during the safari.

After a while, we just wanted the safari to end. Even though we were driving through the jungle, everything felt dull and monotonous. Our expectation was a little over the top having heard of people spotting elephants and leopards. It certainly wasn’t our day at all.

Pic 9: Very unlike us, but we couldn’t wait for the safari to end.

Back in the homestay, we had a sumptuous breakfast and headed towards Mysore. On the way, we stopped at the magnificent Somnathpur Temple.

Karnataka’s Twin Waterfalls

I stood there staring at the gushing cascading waters, aggressively bouncing off the craggy moss-covered rock cliff. It always feels happy to be near a waterfall and this was no different. The white shafts of water complemented by the surrounding greenery of various shades did their job of lifting my spirits and boosting my energy. But my mind was agitated. It kept slipping into the past as scenes from the last time I was here fleeted before my eyes like a motion picture.

I was at the exact same spot a decade ago when I had just shifted to Bangalore.

The waterfall is just the same, but the surroundings look quite different – the usual story of manipulating the natural surroundings to make it more touristy. Such ugly human interventions always disturb the nature lover in me. Today, however, my mind was consumed with other thoughts – the memories of my last visit here. I was here with my parents (dad). Life’s changes are just too fast. And, the decade ago visit feels like it happened just yesterday.

Pic 1: This was clicked during my previous visit. The serene pool formed at the bottom of a waterfall always seems to me like the water needs a quick rest before carrying on.

We were at Barachukki Falls – one of the two waterfall that are collectively known as Shivanasamudra. The other one is Gaganachukki Falls. Shivanasamudra, literally translating as Shiva’s Sea, is formed by the dropping waters of River Cauvery as it makes its way through the Deccan Plateau. The river splits into two branches resulting into the two perennial waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki. While Barachukki is the eastern branch of the waterfall, Gaganachukki forms the western branch. In between lies the island town of Shivanasamudra that marks the boundary of Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district and Mandya district.

Pic 2: The segmented cluster of Barachukki that spreads broadly across the cliff.

Located 140 kms away from Bangalore, Shivanasamudra has another claim to fame. It boasts of the second hydro-electric power station set up in colonial India in 1902. The power from this station was primarily used to run the Kolar Gold Fields during the gold rush of the early 1900s. [The first hydro-electric power station in India was set up at Darjeeling. These two were among the first ones in Asia.]

The twin waterfalls of Barachukki and Gaganachukki are separated by 10 Km. and can be covered just by a drive of 15-20 minutes. The twin waterfalls do not have much resemblance to each other, and they stand out significantly in their look and feel. The only similarity, I thought was the topography of their surroundings.

Pic 3: The horsetail parallel gushing and vivacious streams of Gaganchukki.

Barachukki gushes down fulsome and enthusiastically in all directions. It constitutes a cluster of segmented waterfalls that spreads broadly across the cliff, falling from a height of 69m. The multiple side-by-side waterfall is a consequence of the water dividing into several channels before dropping off the ledge. Gaganachukki is a steep waterfall that thunders down from a height of 98m. with an incredibly fierce velocity. It consists of two large parallel streams, quite aptly referred to as horsetails that cascade down through the rocky bed.

We were there in the month of December, 2020. It being the season of winter, the quantity of water was less in both the falls.

Barachukki Falls also has a flight of about 200 concrete steps, well-guarded with railings, to reach the bottom of the falls. During our visit, this was temporarily closed. It was pandemic times, so not surprising. During my previous visit, I had also seen people taking coracle rides right up to the falls. This time there were none. There is no way to reach the bottom of Gaganachukki and it would be dangerous to do so, given the sheer force of this falls.

Pic 4: L – A decade ago with my parents. R – This time with my sisters.

Nohkalikai Revisited – Pandemic Perks

Shrouded in a mist of white, we stood there staring at nothing. There was nobody other than the five of us. The gushing sound of water, arising out of nowhere, echoed in the background as if trying to hush our overexcited voices.  A row of empty shacks lay behind us. The entire place looked completely different – peaceful and serene. If I minus the shacks and the ugly green building, the place looked exactly like how I had seen it more than 15 years ago. We were at the viewpoint of Nohkalikai waterfall, the tallest plunge waterfall in India at a height of 1115 feet.

“Thanks for nudging me to come here,” quipped BIL, my bother-in-law, as we waited for the clouds to clear. My nephew and sister had taken up their respective vantage points, all set to capture nature’s delightful drama that was expected to unfold soon. BIL and I walked around, making the most of the empty surroundings. Everyone patiently waited for the surroundings to clear. We all knew that having Nohkalikai just to ourselves was once in a lifetime opportunity – perks of the pandemic.

Pic 1: A prominent notice at the entry gate and all shops and shacks remain closed.

Three years back when I happened to pass by Nohkalikai while trekking to Nongriat, I was in for a shock. (Read my trek story here.) The place was teeming with tourists and backpackers. There were vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of shops selling all kinds of local wares were lined up on one side of the viewpoint. A restaurant with a direct view of the waterfall bustled with activities adding to the already cacophonous situation.  All of these completely doused the brilliant gorgeousness of the waterfall. It was a complete contrast to how I had seen the waterfall several years back, when tourism was yet to take off in North East India. Tourism boosts local economy and needs to be encouraged but tourism with no focus on sustainability is sheer foolishness, and that’s just what’s happening in Meghalaya. I do hope the authorities take control of the already deteriorating condition.

Nohkalikai is the pride of Meghalaya tourism and is located in Cherrapunji, about 2 hours away from the capital city, Shillong. Cherrapunji, also known as Sohra, is one of the wettest places on Earth. Its lush green layered hills and low hanging clouds appeals to your senses evoking a frenzied sense of ecstasy. And, I say that with no exaggeration, whatsoever! However, it remains overcrowded with tourists throughout the year. As a result, it’s been over a decade that we stopped visiting Cherrapunji. This year was different. Due to the pandemic, Meghalaya had shut its borders and there were no tourists in the state. Tourist places remained closed for several months and opened up in mid-October, but only for the locals. This was our opportunity and off we went for a drive to Cherrapunji. As expected, it was deserted and we had all the fluffy clouds, the winding roads, the tall pines, the layered hills just to ourselves.

Pic 2: Clouds kiss the ground here.
Pic 3: Layered hillocks in varying shades of green.

Nohkalikai, however, happened only because I insisted. Other family members were not too keen as everyone felt, “How many more times will we see Nohkalikai.” I knew with nobody around, Nohkalikai would look completely different. The glorious waterfall would dazzle like it did several years back. And, right I was! There’s no denying that Nohkalikai is one of the most stunning waterfall in India.

Getting a clear view of Nohkalikai is quite often like the roll of a dice given the fickle nature of Meghalaya’s clouds and rains. This time it was no different. It was 4.00 PM by the time we arrived and the thick clouds didn’t seem to have any intention of clearing at that time of the day. However, knowing the weather like we did, we decided to wait for a while. There wasn’t much hope as it was the fag end of the day.

Pic 4: The clouds recede steadily revealing the waterfall as a thin strip of white.

But it turned out to be a very fruitful wait as nature rewarded us with the most spectacular show. The clouds started moving slowly, the sun popped up once again, the green hills started gently making their appearance. The show was turning out to be way better than we had anticipated. The curtain was raising and it was like a drama unfolding in nature’s amphitheater.

Pic 5: And there it is….

The sparkling white beauty made a glamorous entry cascading on the stage of green forested hills. The reflective white strip singularly stood out plunging amid a dozen shades of green. The clouds moved further and then disappeared altogether while displaying the still pool of turquoise down below. It seemed as though the mighty plunge needed some much deserved rest.

We stood there gorging on every single act, not a word from any of us. Slowly the clouds came back, the curtains were drawn, the show was over, and once again we were staring at nothing. “Let’s get going,” said someone.

Pic 6: The clouds start coming back and eventually covers the waterfall completely once again.

The Much-Needed Nature Therapy

Nature’s such that you can visit the same place a hundred times but each time it looks new and completely different. The best part of being in Shillong has always been the impromptu drives I undertake, either with my cousin or with my brother-in-law. I have written several such posts in the past on the various places we have explored.

My being home this time is, however, not the same as other times. My life has been turned upside down in the last one month and I am not sure if those carefree days of being home will ever be back. My personal circumstances coupled with the pandemic makes for a very tumultuous situation this time.

Pic 1: The characteristic clear blue Shillong sky. Potatoes, cabbage, and cauliflower cultivation seen here.

This Sunday we woke up to a gloriously bright and sunny morning. The surprising part was it remained that way for the rest of the day. The light breeze that complimented the bright weather made for a heavenly day. And, if you know Shillong, you can tell that such days aren’t in plenty.

My cousin wouldn’t let such a day go wasted, especially with me being around. Like most people, she loves to drive around the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Getting away isn’t an elaborate affair in a place like Shillong. A 15-20 minutes’ drive is often enough to escape to tranquility, away from city traffic. Shillong has been under very strict pandemic protocols. As a result, cousin wasn’t able to indulge in such drives for quite a while.  

Pic 2: A romantic afternoon of soft Sun, Pine trees, wisps of floating clouds, rolling hills, and green meadows.

My initial reluctance stood no match to her insistence and I just had to give in to her coaxing and cajoling. Glad I relented.

So, late afternoon, well after lunch we drove towards Upper Shillong to one of our favourite spots. We’ve been there multiple times and really enjoy the drive all the way up. Especially that section constituting narrow and winding well tarred roads with forests and meadows on either side. The huge ferns that sporadically hang out right onto the roads is something else that allures us. We are never tired of seeing these ferns, so what if we have seen them hundreds of times.

Pic 3: The fluffy clouds continuously changed shape forming amazing patterns.
Pic 4: The day was so clear that we could see Umiam Lake, which is located in the Guwahati-Shillong National Highway. Do you spot the lake in the picture?

I had been here last year in the month of May and had enjoyed an amazingly resplendent sunset. The sunset this time was good too but not as gorgeous as it was in May. This time, however, there were myraids of flowers in pinks and yellows and whites and purples. These weren’t there last time.

We were quite surprised to find more people than we had expected. Sunday afternoon must be the reason. However, the place didn’t feel crowded and maintaining social distance was easy.

Pic 5: The sky just before sunset.
Pic 6: The sky at sunset.

Basking in Shillong’s unparalleled beauty, we found a place for ourselves in the green meadows where we lay down in solitude watching the bright afternoon slowly and steadily dissolve away.

Curiosity Kills Cats, Not Squirrels

It was morning, not very early though. I was still in bed, neither fully asleep nor fully awake. I could sense my sister was up and was at my bedside jabbering something rather frantically. My half-asleep state didn’t register a word but gathered that something needed my immediate attention. While it appeared urgent, it didn’t seem serious. I turned over and decided to sleep for a little while longer.

A good 30-45 min later as I got out of bed, there were tiny oval grayish pellets strewn all over the floor of the house. It took me no time to recognize these were squirrel droppings. So, this is what my sister was trying to tell me. All the doors and windows remain closed at night. How did they manage to get an entry? And, when did all of this happen? I don’t remember hearing any noise at all. My sister declared that she did hear some mild rattling as dawn was breaking in, but she was too sleepy to bother.

It did not take me long to piece together what could have happened. The chimney in kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I usually call in for a service expert twice a year. At other times, I do the cleaning myself. So, I had removed the flap that absorbs the fumes, scrubbed, washed, and left it outside to dry. The flap also forms a barrier between the exhaust pipe and the hob.

Tuntuni, the garden squirrel who lives in the tree just outside the kitchen would have once again entered the chimney pipe. Over-inquisitive as she always is, she would have accidentally fallen onto the kitchen counter. I am not sure if she was alone or was goofing around with her siblings. The confusedness that would have followed is only left to my imagination! She would have felt trapped having no idea how to get out. She would have agitatedly gone around the house trying to figure a way out. Droppings all over the floor and the dining table are tell-tale signs of all the commotion that would have happened.

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I cleaned the droppings – dry pellets, nothing messy. Heaving a sigh of relief and not realizing that the mess was yet to begin, I opened the kitchen sink tap. Water gushed right into the kitchen floor and there I was suddenly marooned in a sizeable pool of water. While trying to escape and looking for an outlet, Tuntuni had damaged the sink drainage pipe. That was not the end. Bewildered, she had even managed to extract some kitchen waste from the garbage bin, which is usually kept below the sink. All that foul-smelling unwanted waste material was now floating on the pool of water.

Certainly not the best way to start a day for the cleanliness freak that I am! That aside, the plumber had to be called and dealing with plumbers is something I loathe to the core. With zero knowledge on the subject, I always feel cheated and exploited. It has never been a pleasant experience.

All of this just for some unadulterated and pure squirrel happiness. Phew!

I still have no clue how she might have escaped. The same chimney route is all that I can think of, which would have again been an accidental discovery. And what relief that would have been! It’s all the fault of the Myna, who had built a nest in the chimney. The squirrel until then had no clue about this hideout. In all her innocence, Tuntuni is just a hyperactive and playful little curious squirrel.

[Click here for a previous post on the squirrel.]

 

 

 

Some Mornings are Magical

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.

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Pic 1: As we enter the 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.

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Pic 2: Somewhere on the trail, we would cross a fallen tree trunk.

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.

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Pic 3: As we watched the swishing canopies laying on the forest floor.

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.

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Pic 4: At the bowl-shaped glade with cousin and a friend from Bangalore, who had visited Shillong during that time.

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.

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Pic 5: Our sweet spot, the huge rock with the perfect backrest.

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.

In the Lap of Mother Divine

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.

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Pic 1: Everything was whitewashed when we arrived at ABC.

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Pic 2: At the same place as as the previous pic on the next day

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.

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Pic 3: This is what we saw when we went to the viewpoint.

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.

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Pic 4: Our first view of Annapurna-1 around 5 PM when the clouds decided to gave way.

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Pic 5: Machhapuchchhre or Fish Tail mountain in the evening with Gangapurna peeking on the left.

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.

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Pic 6: Annapurna South and a part of Annapurna-I, seen from the Tea House just before dawn.

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.

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Pic 7: The molten gold peak of Annapurna-I at sunrise.

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Pic 8: The molten gold peak of Annapurna-South at sunrise.

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.

Click here for a more detailed post on my experience of the ABC Trek.

Note: Pictures are unedited raw photos, clicked by iPhone 6.

To Nature – My Best Teacher

Today I was scanning my mailbox, looking for a specific email, when I came across an email I had written to a dear friend. It made me nostalgic and took me back to that rainy morning at my home town of Shillong. I remember exactly the reason why I had written all that to him.

A part of that email I thought I would share here as it reminded me of the fact that Nature is our greatest teacher. Nature has hundreds of life lessons for us, only if we choose to be her students. And, this is just one of those.

So, here it goes – an excerpt from the email that I had written to my friend.

This morning it rained, not heavy rains but good enough to drench you. Other days, I would have happily tucked inside the quilt and gone off to another round of blissful sleep. But today being the last day that I would walk these lovely roads, I stepped out with an umbrella. It was wonderful, hardly anybody around - the usual morning walkers I mean. I had the entire road and all the trees, the flowers, the ferns, and the greenery to myself. On the way back, I sat on a roadside culvert for a while just to soak in the surroundings which I will badly miss in Bangalore. After sometime, I closed my eyes for a while and concentrated on the sounds. The small and large raindrops falling on my umbrella, the birds of various kinds calling out, the brook behind me gushing away....every sound was distinctive, yet like a well-coordinated orchestra. It was music and it was beautiful. Nature is God! My mind was blank and I was thinking of nothing. Then something I had read somewhere about learning from nature came flashing by.....The brook behind me was gurgling away and it was the loudest sound at that point of time forcing my attention towards it. I thought to myself, doesn't it gurgle the same way whether it is a bright sunny day or a gloomy rainy day. What if it would say, "I am not upto myself today, I will not gurgle today. It's a gloomy day, let the sun shine and then we'll see." Shouldn't we strive to be like the brook in our daily lives? Good days and bad days will keep coming and the cycle of life will continue. Does that mean we pause in our path and stop doing what we do?

As I read this, I thought to myself if at all I practiced what I had preached. A few moments of deliberations and I think I do, but sometimes not always. The roller-coaster of a ride that life is, I hope I will remind myself to be resilient and patient like Nature is – always and NOT sometimes!

The Cairn Craze

I must have seen them before but they never caught my attention. It was only when I started trekking in the Himalayas that I actually started noticing them – stones neatly stacked one over the other and standing in a delicate balance. I learnt that cairns is what they are called.

A cairn is nothing but a stack of stones or rocks that are delicately placed one over the other balancing them in the form of a pyramid.

They are often seen in trekking trails of the Himalayas, especially around lakes and rivers. Considering that cairns find their use in navigation, this shouldn’t be surprising. But the cairns that I am talking about surely aren’t used for that purpose. With a large number of them concentrated in many places this will only cause confusion. However, cairns in reality are indeed used for marking trails across the world as its natural and supposedly causes minimal disruption to the natural environment.

As I write this, I am reminded of the first time I had seen cairns and that was long before Himalayas happened to me. It was at a temple in Tirupati that was situated beside a stream. It was a belief that if you create one, you would be blessed with a house of your own.

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Pic 1: One of the several cairns at Chandrataal Lake in Spiti Valley 

[Here’s my experience of Chandrataal]

During my trek to Rupin Pass a few months earlier, I found clusters of cairns lavishly scattered right on the path of Rupin River, on an elevated exposed area. The river was making its way around this little clearing seemingly unaware of these human interruptions right there on its path.

This was at the lower waterfall campsite where we were privileged to share nature’s bountiful wilderness for a day. Lower waterfall is an astounding amphitheater of wide meadows, tall mountains, and effusive waterfalls. The main three-tier waterfall continues as Rupin River on the ground, quietly meandering for a little while as if resting a bit before unleashing its unrestrained self.

The quiet part of the river was just beside our tents and that was where the exposed bed lay, dotted with cairns.

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Pic 2: Cairns beside the Rupin River.

[Here’s my experience of Rupin Pass]

The shepherds passing by told us a little secret that they believed in – make wishes while building cairns, your wish is bound to be fulfilled. And, we jumped at the opportunity. What better place to make a wish than in the magical land of the Himalayas! That was the first time and the only time I build a cairn. May the mystical Himalayas grant my secret wish.

Building Cairns Maynot be a Good Idea

Recently I chanced upon an article that explains why it is not a good idea to build random cairns anywhere and everywhere. Quite an eye-opener this was for me. If you are someone like me who thinks that building cairns is just a harmless fun activity, I recommend giving this article a quick read.

https://www.hcn.org/articles/a-call-for-an-end-to-cairns-leave-the-stones-alone

Rupin Pass – Nine Days of Paradise

The Mystical Himalayas Beckons Again – Part 2

As we moved on from Jiskun, the true essence of the Rupin Pass trek started unveiling itself. (Read Day 1- Day 3 here)

Day 4: Udaknal – Passing Through the Hanging Village of Jhaka

We walked through the narrow forest trail as we left Jiskun. The greenish-blue Rupin River seeping and dribbling as it merrily swerved through the tall mountains appeared much closer today. On any other day, my heart would have been dancing immersed in nature’s gorgeousness but not today. My right ankle was hurting with every step and I felt helpless wondering how I would go on. The dreaded steep climb towards Jhaka was here and I struggled with every step. Loosening my shoe lace, as suggested by our Trek Leader, turned out to be immensely helpful. Once again I was my sprightly self and found myself at the beginning of the team.

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Pic 1: The houses in Jhaka Village are literally stacked one on top of the other on the steep slope

The village of Jhaka, situated on a steep slope of the mountain was extraordinarily beautiful. The villagers are staunch believers of the ways of Satsang and are strict vegetarians. Even the mention of animal food is blasphemous here. We spent some time at a home in the village before continuing our onward journey towards Udaknal.

This day wasn’t easy as it consisted of steep ascends and descends. However, the long stretch of the magnificent fir forest with towering pines and a forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles was tonic to the eyes and mind.

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Pic 2: Stepping into the forest with tall trees watching us silently

My forest happiness was short-lived as we soon encountered the steep slope consisting of loose soil that goes down to the Rupin River. My mind-block with such terrains made me jittery as I cautiously took steps fearing that I would slip and fall to my doom. Hell, I’m here to enjoy and not to go back with an injury! The burbling water of the dazzling river down below came closer with every step and that’s what kept me going one step at a time.

Soon we reached Udaknal at 10,100 ft. The yellow tents stood bright amidst the lush green surroundings as Rupin River hurried through the valley down below and the elegant mountains stood tall and watched us gracefully. The evenings started to get really cold.

Day 5: Dhanderas Thatch – Nature’s Grand Amphitheatre

I was told that Rupin Pass is a trek where each day only gets better and there are surprises at every turn. And, here I was witnessing that and soaking in the ever-changing landscape of Rupin Valley.

We left Udaknal and started climbing up through yet another forest trail, the irregular blocks of stones here made it different from the other forest trails we covered so far. A trekmate had a slower pace than the rest of us and almost always lagged behind. On this day, she was recommended to start half an hour before the group by our Trek Leader. I decided to tag along, fearing my ankle problem could slow me down. Slowly and steadily the three of us walked on.

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Pic 3: The calm and poised Rupin with dark clouds looming large

Very soon dark clouds loomed in and it started raining. Almost simultaneously, we encountered snow for the very first time on the trek. By then the group had joined us and many in the group were overjoyed, experiencing snow for the first time. Snow fights (hitting each other with snow balls) ensued notwithstanding the rain that had just started. Our raincoats and ponchos were out, and the trail got a tad slippery slowing down our pace.

My ankle was in a very bad shape causing me to limp and that was a distraction, diverting my attention from the exceptionally brilliant surroundings – the earthy fragrance of wet mud, the rugged mountains, the green meadows interrupted by sporadic bursts of yellow flowers, the sudden calm and poised Rupin.

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Pic 4: A carpet of green with bursts of yellow flowers against the first patches of snow made for an utterly gorgeous view

A little while later we crossed two snow bridges across the thundering Rupin one after the other. This was my first experience of a snow bridge, I didn’t even know such a thing existed! And crossing it was thrilling to say the least.

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Pic 5: As we crossed a snow bridge clad in colourful ponchos and raincoats

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Pic 6: Another snow bridge – fascinating to say the least

The rains had stopped and a wide green carpet adorned with blue and yellow flowers welcomed us at Dhanderas Thatch. The wide expansive valley of Dhanderas Thatch at 11,680 ft. was a perfect melody of snow-clad mountains, green meadows, several cascading waterfalls trickling down from all sides, and the ever present elegant Rupin River.

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Pic 7: Dark clouds, snow wrapped rugged mountains, green meadows – dreamy surroundings

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Pic 8: A green carpet welcome

The main waterfall was a three layered one that distinctively stood out right at the center and it’s the first thing that you notice in the valley. And, we would be climbing up to the mouth of the waterfall, looks daunting and undoable today. The Dhauladar Range was clearly visible beyond the waterfall.

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Pic 9: The cascading three layered waterfall with the Dhauladhar Range behind it                           [P.C. Arunesh Srivastava]
Day 6: Dhanderas Thatch – Lazing Around

We spent the next day at Dhanderas Thatch. It was our acclimatization day. An entire day at such heavenly abode – oh what bliss it was! I for one was so looking forward to this day – a day of thoughtless moments doing nothing but soaking in the depths of nature and admiring the divine Himalayas. My ankle got the much needed rest too.

We spent the day chit-chatting, playing games, practicing walking on snow, building cairns along the river while making secret wishes, sitting by Rupin quietly listening to its rapid gurgling sound, wandering aimlessly admiring the various waterfall, and watching the shepherds pass by with their sheep and sheep dogs. The rain and sun played hide and seek on this day forcing us in and out of our tents. Brief moments of hail happened too.

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Pic 10: Those purple flowers. [P.C. Vineet Prajapati]
 

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Pic 11: And. one of them poses for me

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Pic 12: Soaking in the sun with the morning cup of tea

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Pic 13: The cairns alongside Rupin River entrapping secret wishes and desires.

Day 7: Upper Waterfall – The Wonderland

We woke up to a bright sunny day. Once again a team of three of us started off early. This was going to be a short and difficult stretch. As we approached close to the waterfall, the boulder strewn tall mountain stared at us rather menacingly. The 2.5 Km. climb was steep and not easy by any means. We had to carefully maneuver our steps through small and large loose rocks. With slow and measured steps, we trudged over the snow patches and the snow bridges as we gingerly made our way to the top.

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Pic 14: The top later of the waterfall, just a little more to go. [P.C Sachin Vidyasagaran]
In between the adventurous moments, I paused and gaped at the thundering waterfall, which was our constant companion on this day. The valley below that we just left looked spectacular and the gushing Rupin now appeared like a branched out narrow canal meandering its way through the valley. A deep sense of admiration filled my heart with nature casting its spell and my soul bursting with happiness and joy.

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Pic 15: Navigating precarious sections with great caution [P.C Sachin Vidyasagaran]

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Pic 16: A section of the waterfall with yet another snow bridge

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Pic 17: The valley we left behind, where we had camped the day before.

At the top, we were greeted by an amazingly serene and picturesque campsite. The melting glaciers from the heaven-touching mountains flowed down gracefully and quietly moved towards the waterfall. Much of the tall mountains flanking either side were draped in snow. The vast blue sky was in perfect harmony with the surroundings. The soft grass on the banks of the river was moist displaying the first signs of green, an indication of just melted snow. The warm sun beckoned us and everyone was lazing around on the soft grass. Peace and tranquility reigned here, and I loitered around feeling like Alice in Wonderland.

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Pic 18: The wonderland of dreams and fantasies

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Pic 19: The cold water therapy for my ankle

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Pic 20: Our tent opened to this!

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Pic 21: A well captured reflection [P.C. Vineet Prajapati]
Day 8: Rupin Pass – The Grand Finale

This was the day we were all waiting for – the day we climb up the ‘gully’ to Rupin Pass. ‘Gully’ is a 250 m. stretch of 70 degrees inclination that leads to the Pass. A team of two technical guides armed with their ice axes joined us on this day. They were qualified mountaineers who we met the day before and who had briefed us on the do’s and don’ts of the big day.

Just as the past few days, a team of four of us started off earlier than the rest. While the group started at 5.30 AM, we had started off at 3.30 AM. Our aim was to reach the Pass by 8.00 AM so that we can climb the ‘gully’ before the sun finds its way through. Once the snow starts melting, it gets difficult.

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Pic 22: Our tents reduced to tiny colourful dots as we climbed up

It was still dark when we started walking with anticipation and excitement building up at every step. The initial climb was a grueling one through the rugged mountain where we had to be cautious not to step onto the thin film of ice that made its appearance every now and then. There was a precarious frozen section of a thin layer of flowing water that we had to cross where the technical guide made good use of his ice axe.

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Pic 23: A precarious section of frozen flowing water crossed only with the help of an ice axe

Soon the vast rolling snow fields took over and we walked endlessly and silently in one straight line. All I could hear was click clack of microspikes that provided the much needed grip on snow. It was dawn by now and the larger group had caught up with us as we were engulfed in a sea of white with our clothes being the only specs of colour.

After walking for a while, we paused to take a break. The air was thinner and we were rapidly gaining altitude. At this point, we spotted the ‘gully’ and excited chit-chatter filled in the air.

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Pic 24: Walking in one straight line towards the mountain pass [P.C. Rajiv Namathirtham]
Once we approached the base of the ‘gully’, the technical guides arranged us in one straight line with the ladies at the beginning. I turned out to be the first one following the technical guide, who was making steps for us through the snow.

The arduous ‘gully’ climb and the most exciting part of the trek begun. The 250 m. distance felt like a lifetime as we climbed up with focus and concentration one step at a time. I could see the sun shining bright at the top of the ‘gully’ and couldn’t wait to get there. It must have taken us 20-25 minutes to reach the top but I can’t say for sure as I had no track of time.

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Pic 25: The rather vertical climb through the ‘gully’ [P.C. Surjo Dutta]

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Pic 26: Nearly arriving at the top through the ‘gully’ 

Once on top, I squealed in joy. I couldn’t believe that I had done it.  It was an exhilarating experience at 15,380 ft. The breathtaking panoramic landscape left me spellbound. I felt like being immersed in a huge bowl of vanilla icecream with a few chocolate chips inserted here and there. The mountains blessed us and the weather was perfect. The deep blue skies seemed to be rejoicing with us as the morning sun smiled at us warmly. There was no sign of the expected gusty winds. The razor sharp Kinnaur Kailash was distinctly visible in the horizon.

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Pic 27: At the Pass – a huge bowl of vanilla icecream!

I silently bowed to the mighty Himalayas and expressed my gratitude for enabling me to experience such splendor. While we were still immersed in the intoxicated surroundings along came the herd of sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. Could we have asked for more? It was PERFECT!

Day 8: RontiGad – Time for Celebrations

It was time to start descending. We slid through the snow in two stretches and it was the craziest thing we had ever done. No amusement park in the world can match up to the Adrenalin rush we had here. We screeched and hooted and laughed and cheered as each one of us went down one by one.

After walking on snow for some more time we arrived at a sharp descent that goes down to meet a stream below. As always, my descending demons were back making me extremely slow and cautious. Not surprising, I was the last one to reach the stream.

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Pic 28: Walking back after reveling at the Pass and after sliding down

This was a very long day and the walk seemed unending. My knees were hurting and I couldn’t wait to reach the campsite. At every turn I expected to see the bright yellow tents but it was only after walking for 6-7 hours, we arrived at Ronti Gad and had descended to 13,100 ft.

At the campsite, it was a relaxing day for everyone. We basked under the sun laying over the green meadows just outside our tents. In the evening, we celebrated, shared experiences, and received certificates. Before long, night descended and we retired into our tents with a sense of accomplishment.

Day 9: Sangla – Time to Bid Goodbye

This was a day of mixed feelings. We were on our way back. As much as I looked forward to going back home, a big part of me was also saddened about all of this coming to an end.

It was a gradual descend towards Sangla, situated at 8,600 ft. We walked leisurely and were in no particular hurry. Deliberately, I chose to trail behind the group to savour the last bit as much as I could. It was a beautiful walk through vast green meadows where yaks and cows lazily grazed. There was no snow in the path, only very little at the mountain tops. Slowly we approached civilization as we passed through tiny lanes of small hamlets dotted with apple and apricot trees. Stony pathways with pine forests on either side formed connecting links between these hamlets.

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Pic 29: The first glimpse of civilization

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Pic 30: For some reason, this reminded me of ‘King’s Landing’ from ‘Game of Thrones’!

After walking for about 6-7 hours, we arrived at Sangla. Here we bid goodbye to each other with promises to keep in touch and traveled to Shimla in smaller groups based on our respective travel itineraries.

Another fascinating rendezvous with the enchanting Himalayas comes to an end with cherishing memories for a lifetime. They say the Himalayas are addictive and I tend to agree. I know I will go there again. I feel fortunate and blessed to have experienced their mysticism yet another time. It’s the mountains who decide who steps on them and experiences their grandeur from close quarters. I am immensely grateful and bow with sincere reverence.

For some more stories on Rupin Pass, click here.

Here are links to my past experiences with the majestic Himalayas.