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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pic 11: And. one of them poses for me
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Am I dreaming or is this for real! I questioned my wakefulness trying to comprehend the unbelievably gorgeous milk-white sprawling vista that lay before my eyes – a widespread fluffy blanket of untouched snow, sharp and pointed peaks of the Dhauladhar range, clear blue skies with no cloud in sight, early morning warm sunshine, and not a hint of the expected gusty winds.
The ecstatic bunch of us hooted and cheered at 15,380 ft. Our child-like innocent glee reverberated in the pristine surroundings. We couldn’t have asked for more but the mountains were extraordinarily gracious that morning and had another delightful surprise in store for us. A herd of sheep came strolling by with their shepherds and sheep dogs only to exhilarate the already intoxicated us.
This was the moment we were waiting for and all the days of long walks, difficult climbs, and cold weather was more than worth it.
I was back to the Himalayas and this time I was trekking Rupin Pass, a notch higher in the difficulty level as compared to the others I had done so far. Moreover, this time I was alone. I was nervous as I signed up and was not sure if I could make it. My nervousness ensured that I was putting in an extra effort towards fitness – more on that later.
It was an early May morning, when a bunch of us huddled at Dehradun railway station. A quick round of short introductions and the vibes were positive. I was already feeling comfortable with the gang. It’s been sheer coincidental that so far all my treks to the Himalayas started from Dehradun. Hence, I was familiar with the route and even have a fair idea of the good eateries on the way. We bundled into tempo travellers and Boleros and proceeded towards Dhaula.
Day 1: Dhaula – The Beginning
At 5,100 ft, Dhaula was our campsite for Day 1. We arrived at Dhaula late in the evening after a long ride of 10 hours. Deep valleys and thick Pine forests kept us engaged all through the journey. The characteristic bright yellow tents of IndiaHikes were ready for us. (I chose IndiaHikes, once again.) The rapidly flowing water and the gushing sound of Rupin River was music to our ears taking off all the tiredness from the day’s ride. After a quick briefing by our trek leader and a more formal introduction with one another, we retired for the night with countless anticipation for the next day and the days to come.
Day 2: Sewa – Getting to Know Each Other
We started early and this was technically the first day of the trek as we walked up towards the village of Sewa. It was a long walk of 11 Km. through patches of undulated terrain surrounded by tall trees and a couple of steep ascents. Most of this day however, was through a rugged pathway, which is a road in the making. The surrounding greenery with the Rupin River appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in the deep valley made for an interesting walk even though the the sun beat down on us relentlessly.
As we trudged along, the large group of 24 people chit-chatted, breaking barriers, and learning more about each other. There were people from all walks of life. A big gang of young engineers who just completed their graduation and were yet to start their first job; a group of three men from Chennai led by an inspiring 57 year old, whose fitness regime put the rest of us to shame; a group of three friends from my city of Bangalore; the ‘Gujju’ trio who weren’t from Gujarat and who were teased mercilessly for all the eatables they got; and the rest, including me, who were solo travelling from various parts of the country.
However, very soon it was forgotten who belonged to which group as everyone easily blended into one large group.
At 6,300 ft. Sewa was a peaceful village surrounded by tall green mountains where we stayed at a small and cozy wooden homestay. However, what I remember of Sewa is the unique two-storied pagoda-like village temple that had medals and coins adorning its wall and the crazy mosquito bites leading to itchy rashes that affected most of us and healed only after we got back home after completing the trek.
Oh yes, I had a splitting headache too that resulted from walking in the sun all day long without putting on my sunglasses.
Day 3: Jiskun – Luxury at the Homestay
As we left Sewa, the pleasant walk descending through the forest trail delighted most of us. The trail took us straight to Rupin River that sparkled in the morning sun splashing the stones and pebbles as it curved gently to make its way behind the tall mountains. We spent a few refreshing moments beside the river before continuing our walk through the forest. And, now it was time to step over to Himachal Pradesh from Uttarakhand through the wooden bridge hidden in the jungle that separates the two states.
Soon after, we landed onto a dusty track snaking through the mountains, which was again a road in the making. The sun was merciless and I made sure to put on my sunglasses. My ankles had been hurting since morning and it got worse. It was the sides of my shoe that was rubbing against the ankles making it quite difficult for me to walk. I chose to ignore thinking that it would go away. I would discover the next morning how wrong I was!
After a 10 Km. walk we arrived at Jiskun. At 7,700 ft., Jiskun was again a beautiful and simple Himalayan village, where everyone you meet greets you with a smile and a ‘namaste’. We stayed at a homestay, which had several very sunny and airy rooms – quite a luxury at a trek. The guys huddled into two rooms, even though there were several rooms lying empty. The four girls were smarter and selected two rooms giving them a lot of space to relax for the rest of the evening.
So far the trek seemed easy even though I struggled walking the long distances with my sore ankle. Next day onwards, it was a different ball game altogether.
Swaying coconut trees, rhythmic tides of the sea, and sparkling golden sand on a pristine and clean beach! Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? And if I tell you there are just a handful of people playing around in the beach. How ideal does that sound! Well, that was just how we experienced the Arabian Sea at Bekal Beach.
Bekal is one of the several beach destinations in God’s Own Country – Kerala. It’s home to the fascinating Bekal Fort, which is perched on its rocky shores, situated on one corner of the beach.
We were at Pallikara, a sleepy little lovely village in North Kerala, where all you see is green – just so characteristic of Kerala. Everything in Kerala is green! It’s like patches of concrete hidden in green unlike most other places in India where you find patches of green hidden in concrete!
It was a hot April day when we arrived at this place. As we had lunch at a roadside eatery, we found people staring at us, probably surprised by tourists at this unlikely time of the year or to see women who were on their own and look different from the ones they are used to seeing.
The shop owner had a volley of questions for us and though we displayed our disinterest, he continued. Sensing that he was probably harmless and not wanting to appear like arrogant tourists, we chit-chatted with him . The small talk turned out to be useful as he showed us a shortcut to the beach on the other side of an unmanned railway crossing that runs just behind his shop. The beach was right across and here we were all set to take an auto!
While the sweltering heat nearly baked us at the fort, the beach was much cooler. In fact, we had walked towards the beach preparing our minds to face the hot afternoon sun thinking that we would sit in the shades provided alongside the shore and just watch the gorgeous Arabian Sea. We were already roasting in the April heat of Malabar Coast since we arrived in the morning and that made us cautious.
However, the Sea was in a playful mood and seemed to have a different idea. It was cooler than we thought and we could even walk bare foot on the sand. We played in the water and walked around in the beach for a while and then went off to explore Bekal Fort.
We came back to the Sea again in the evening. This time there were more people but still it wasn’t that crowded. We walked along the length of the beach, sat on the golden warm sand, felt the cool salty breeze brush against our face, played with the waves, followed the fast and furious crabs, and just relaxed.
Evening was slowly approaching and we decided to walk towards the rocky shore where the fort is located. The fort provides for an imposing view from the beach. However, there is no way to reach the fort from the beach, though you can climb through the rocks and approach just a section of the fort wall. The fort can be accessed only through the road.
We spent the evening sitting on the rocks with the fort behind us and the tides crashing against the rocks in front of us. It was splendid to say the least. And it was my birthday. Couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift (other than the Himalayas, of course…)!
Something interesting happened in the evening. We were waiting to see the Sun slip into the sea, expecting a usual sunset that happens in most beaches. The Sun, however decided to set behind the fort providing an awesome view of the entire landscape – the magnificent fort, the setting sun, and the mighty Arabian Sea.
We watched in rapture even as the tides continued discharging their duty of systematically doing rounds of the shore, not getting distracted even once, so what if the Sun was looking gorgeously beautiful. There’s so much to learn from nature, always!
We climbed, climbed, and climbed along! Will this ever end! At every turn, I hoped to see some flat land but there wasn’t any and every turn only revealed another steep climb through the same set of rugged, uneven rocks. I glanced at my watch and it was 2.30 PM. That means we’ve been climbing constantly for 3 hours now. “Just 10 minutes more to the top”, said Droning, our guide. I knew I couldn’t take his word for it. As a 15 year old village boy, he can easily do it in less than that time.
We were tracing our way back from Nongriat after visiting the Double Root Bridge and the Rainbow Falls. The usual route is a pathway constituting 3600 concrete steps but we were on a different route. The path where we were walking, rather climbing, was right beside Nohkalikai Falls, which happens to be the tallest plunge waterfall in India, falling from a height of 1115 feet (340 metres). And, that very well explains the steep climb. It was like walking up a vertical wall of that height.
We got carried away when we heard about this route and embarked upon it without putting much thought onto it. To top it, we had missed breakfast and had hardly eaten anything. Not just that, we ran out of water pretty soon. And, I for one didn’t have a single sip as I was saving it for my cousin, who needed it more.
We had no clue about this route and got to know about it from some travelers the night before at Nongriat. The jungle route appealed to us and we had decided in an instant to go through that route instead of the usual concrete pathway. A quick chat with Droning to gauge the safety of the route with respect to wild animals and if it would be slippery was enough to seal the deal. Droning, however, miscalculated our capability and estimated that it would take us 2 hours to reach the top. He had said it takes him an hour, so by our standards it would be 2 hours. How wrong he was!
Also, it was only later that we discovered people climb down the route but seldom climb up. It’s not a very popular route and many people don’t know about it. Backpackers, trekkers, and adventure seekers walk down this route to go to Nongriat and then go back up through the concrete pathway.
Rajat and Ashwin, two of our newly made acquaintances had joined us too.
The jungle was alluring and too glamorous for words! The initial 2 hours was simply fascinating. I felt the five of us were like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five unearthing a secret trail attempting to solve a dark and deep mystery. Tall trees and thick shrubs adorned either side of the steep rustic moss-covered stone steps. The sun passed through the miniature openings in the thick foliage making varied patterns on the path we walked. The entire pathway had a generous dose of Bay leaves scattered all over.
Every view appeared unique yet the same, all at once. Once in a while we came across these huge and delicate spider webs housing an elegant spider, proudly sitting right at the center. Gorgeous velvety butterflies fluttered every now and then spreading a blast of colours across their path. Some were tiny while most were really big, almost the size of a man’s palm.
A sweet jungle fragrance filled the air and our eyes feasted on multiple shades of green, sometimes interspersed by few browns. Wild flowers of myriad vibrant hues scattered here and there were a source of constant delight uplifting our spirits and minds. I felt transported to a different realm. I wished I could take this jungle home and make it part of my everyday life but I couldn’t and have to make do with potted plants in my tiny little balcony.
There was nobody other than us in the trail making it even more enigmatic. The only people we met was a British couple going down the path towards Nongriat. They had come driving all the way from England and were exploring the remote corners our country.
As we started walking, we found plastic bottles, chips packets, chocolate wrappers scattered all around. Though this path was less littered compared to the concrete pathway but it was disturbing nevertheless. Even a place like this, which is not touristy and less frequented was not spared. Initially, we just exchanged discontent about this among us.
Soon the discontent got the better of me and I started collecting them in a spare bag I had and by the time we were done with the climb, my bag was full and there was no more space in it. It was a great feeling to find the British couple doing the same and they were stuffing garbage in their pockets. I had another extra bag, which I handed over to them.
After about 3 hours of continuous climb, we were drained. The tiring uphill trail coupled with an empty stomach was increasingly becoming tough for everyone. Our water supply of 2L was almost exhausted, which was anyway insufficient for six adults. We had expected to find a water source enroute in the jungle but there wasn’t any. Our focus had shifted from the enchanting surroundings to ourselves. The enthralling jungle was failing to divert our attention anymore and was becoming more of an ordeal that we wanted to get over with.
All of us were pushing ourselves. My backpack felt heavier than it was and with no water my throat was parched. My sisters were struggling. While one of them kept complaining about a supposed hamstring in her thigh muscles, the other was finding it more demanding than the rest. She kept drinking glucose water and spraying Volini on her calves to keep her going. She was getting me worried if she could at all make it to the top. At one point where I was further ahead, she even napped for a few minutes somewhere in the trail – I have no clue how she managed to do that on the almost perpendicular flight of rocky and uneven stairway.
To keep myself going, I devised my own strategy. I started counting the steps and set myself a goal of 30 steps at a time. After 30 steps, I would rest for a few seconds and start towards another 30. I would silently congratulate myself for completing 30 steps and heave out a sigh of relief of having progressed a little ahead.
Towards the end I was so dehydrated that it was getting increasingly difficult for me to move on. Desperate, I requested Droning to run ahead and get some water for us as we continued our climb. After an arduous 4 hour climb, the jungle gave way to tall brown grasses on either side indicating we were almost at the top. A little while later the hilltop appeared in the form of a vast and sprawling meadow. What a moment that was! Phew! At the same time Droning arrived with a bottle of water. We guzzled up all the water in split seconds like raindrops on a parched land. After quenching our thirsts, we moved ahead and soon spotted Nokalikai falls shining in the bright afternoon sun.
Today, as I look back it feels good that we had chosen to walk that path. Several memories besiege me –
Agony of the 4-hour near vertical climb winding through the thick green canopy
Stepping through hundreds of fallen dry leaves strewn over moss-covered rustic stones
Maneuvering billions of crisscrossing gnarling roots that even God himself cannot map
Feasting our eyes on the myriads of colourful flowers and butterflies
Mushrooms and lichens of various shapes and sizes
Amazing and unusual insects by the dozens
And much more……….
All of this I wouldn’t have known had I taken the concrete pathway.