Category: Travel

Weekly Photo Challenge: Muse

Keep calm and carry on_
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So, this week’s photo challenge is Muse. After sifting through several photographs, I settled for this. How I’d love to sit with a cup of tea, surrounded by greenery and mountains all the time. It’s the most ideal thinking place for me, apart from the beach. :) I shot this picture in a village called Sari, which is surrounded by the Himalayas. :)

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Weekly Photo Challenge: On the way

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Children on their way to school

Earlier this year, I was at a village called Sari, in Uttarakhand. This village is at the foothills of the Himalayas. I drank my morning tea and set out for a walk to explore the village and this is what I saw.

Children were on their way to school, the only school in the village. The school was built way back in 1947, the year India won independence.

It was such a welcome view to start the day with. Clouds shrouded the hills and dew drops glistened on leaves. Children giggled on their way to school. Cool winds whispered sounds of happiness in my ear.

How I wish I could wake up to this view and walk through lovely fields to work everyday!

Braving a hailstorm in the Himalayas

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My little kutthu

It was April 28, 2015. I rose to the sound of cuckoos cooing. Not a cuckoo clock. Real cuckoos. Slowly, my mind registered more sounds. The cric cric of mynas, the cawing of ravens, the pecking of woodpeckers, the occasional moo of a cow, the barking of mountain dogs and the rattling of bells from around mules’ necks. What a perfect morning it was!

My tent mates, Suma and Ashwini, were already up and immersed in hushed chit-chatting. Hushed because every sound in the mountains sounds ten times louder. (And the neighbouring tents can hear all your gossip.) I asked them what the time was. I had no watch and my phone had been turned off for two days. Keeping track of time on this trip was the last thing on my agenda. But we had a schedule to follow.

They said it was around 5 am.

I was up on time.

We were to go from our campsite in Rohini Bugyal to Brujgali today.

I walked out of the tent and was greeted to a fantastic view, something I could never take for granted despite seeing it everyday. From below my feet, acres and acres of bright green meadows unfolded in all directions, until they disappeared into deep, untamed forests. These forests were no ordinary forests. They were replete with rhododendron trees that were full with pink and red flowers – a rare sight that occurs during March and April in the Himalayas.

Rohini Bugyal
The toilets with the best views

Beyond the forests, rose the much-coveted ranges of the Himalayas themselves. Oh how we had waited the previous evening to see these guys! It had become a sort of ordeal to reach the campsite every evening, huddle up on a carpet and stare in the general direction of the mountains, waiting for the peaks to show themselves. They were almost always hidden by a thick layer of clouds. How many abilities we all wished for – to simply blow the clouds away with an “uff,” or wipe the screen clean of clouds or maybe suck the clouds into a vacuum cleaner. If only life was that easy! On most evenings, we went to sleep disappointed, hoping for a good view in the morning.

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Pretend meditation. (Praying for a mountain view) Picture courtesy: Deepak Suri

And that hope was never shot down. Surely enough, everyday, the mountains rose from their lazy slumber along with the sun, showing off the fresh snow atop their peaks. They gleamed in golden rays at dawn, throwing gigantic shadows over villages and forests below. This was the view I woke up to this morning too. As usual, I was dumbfounded by the view. I remember thinking, “Why do I bother writing? Or clicking pictures? Like any of that can actually portray the grandeur of these guys.” I had heard so much about how insignificant they make people feel. And that happened to me everyday.

As I grudgingly brushed my teeth in the biting cold water, I saw one of the shepherd dogs about a hundred feet away. “Doggyyyy!,”  I called to it. When it turned towards me, I noticed with a chill down my spine that it was no mountain dog. It was a sleek little fox. It stared at me for a while, until I gestured to everyone to look at the fox. It stared for a few more seconds and ran away into the forest.

Such was the start to my day. It was just the beginning of the day’s adventure.

We started our trek at 7 am through the densest forests ever. Oaks, maples, rhodos, the “tree of souls” from Avatar, they were all competing for prettiness. For me, the maple trees won it. The shapely leaves against the sunlight and their many shades as they lay drying on the floor left me in awe. I picked up a few to press in a book.

Waterfall as seen from far far away
Waterfall as seen from far far away

We rambled on through the forest till we hit a waterfall. We could hear it from far away, swiftly cascading down the hillside. The water was freezing. After I saw two trekkers dive into the water, I couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in it myself. Unable to strip down like the men, I just went and stuck my head in the water, letting my hair down. As expected, I had a temporary brain freeze. But it was bright and sunny and the water was so refreshing! (The swollen tonsils later would pay the price.)

There was more adventure yet to be faced. The final two hours were a challenging steep ascent through lush meadows where woolly sheep grazed. But as we ambled on, a thick layer of dark grey shrouded the pretty blue sky and left us apprehensive about rain. Sure enough, it began to drizzle and then pour. Since we were all equipped with raincoats, bag covers and ponchos, we were all safe and ready to carry on.

An hour away from our destination, the camp site at Brujgali, water droplets turned into tiny marbles of ice. We were all fascinated! We collected hailstones in our hands and played with them. We stood with our mouths open to the sky and ate hailstones. We were thrilled!

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Last picture I shot before putting my camera inside to protect it from the rain

But not everything was sunshine and rainbows clouds and hailstones. Within ten minutes, the hailstones grew to the size of baby potatoes and began pelting us with enormous force. It had turned into a full blown Himalayan hailstorm. Solid stones fell in abundance from the grey nothingness above. And with great force. It was painful. I remember exclaiming “Ouuuuch!” and shouting at every stone that hit me. We ran to our campsites with the little energy we had left in us. We made it just on time, before the thundering clouds lost control and burst open in a celestial flash of light.

Hailstorm at Brujgali
Hailstorm as seen from the dining tent

Had we been outside for even ten more minutes, it would have turned into a life threatening situation. If not life threatening, a few of us might have lost a few toes and fingers to frost bites. (And I’m not exaggerating.)

But we were safe for now. Fifteen of us huddled together like cows in the dining tent, threw our bags, ponchos and shoes in a corner and rubbed our hands together for warmth. Some people sat back-to-back trying to generate some warmth. It was bitterly cold. Our teeth clattered and our knees trembled. It was past lunch time and we opened the lunch boxes we had packed in the morning. Our rotis had turned cold and hard and our sabzis had dried up. But we ate hungrily. By now, there was a foot of ice all around our tent.

Ashish, bringing us tea
Ashish, bringing us chai

Struggling to speak, breathing out frosty and misty air, we kept ourselves cheerful with gay banter. But the real cheer came when we heard Ashish’s (our local guide) voice outside, shouting out that one word we longed to hear. “Chai!” My face lit up with excitement. Hot chai in the middle of a hailstorm in the Himalayas! No matter how cliched that might sound, it is worth every bit of the hype. Nothing could make me feel warmer than chai. We were all so lazy to look for our mugs, we just took chai in our lunch boxes and drank like savages. It was wonderful.

Like chai was the answer to everything, the hail storm subsided around then and we could finally step out of the dining tents into our own 3-man tents. We ran in and settled for the evening, unpacking, repacking and setting up the place with sleeping bags and inners. I remember thinking, “Did we do something to piss the mountains off? Why did they pelt us from above and give us such bad weather?” I’m not a particularly religious person, but that evening, I prayed to Shiva and Rama (whose temples were our final destination), saying sorry and to give us good weather.

My prayers were soon answered. At around 5 pm, when I stepped out of the tent, I was greeted by the most gorgeous view I’d seen so far on the trek. The jagged incisors of the Himalayas stood tall and proud on the horizon. The white of their teeth stood out against the forget-me-not blue sky. Tiny wisps of cloud floated high over the mountains. Closer to me, trees swayed, trying to shake the ice off themselves. I could sit and watch for hours despite the cold wind.

Brujgali camp site
Our campsite at Brujgali

The scenery was worth a thousand hailstorms.

I drank soup, clicked a bunch of pictures for the little time my camera battery lasted and went to my tent. The view from my tent of the setting sun is something I’ll never forget. It’s the best view I’ve ever had from any place I’ve lived in. For a while, I wished I could live permanently in that tent at that very spot.

View from my tent
View from my tent

It’s funny how a few people say good things are short-lived and how a few others say good things last forever. This Himalayan trek was a mixture of both. It lasted only a week, but it’s effect will last on my for years to come. Well, at least until I go on another trek and refresh my memory.

I feel much more mature, calm and accommodating than ever before. Despite the exhausting trek, I feel re-energised. I feel like I can deal with any demanding situation by simply saying to myself, “Pfff I’ve braved a hailstorm in the Himalayas. This is nothing.

Most of all, I feel at peace.

Vote of thanks

Thanks to all my trek mates, especially my tent mates, who turned out to be like family members to me. I’m sure every time I think of this trek, the sound of our laughter and elation upon reaching the peak will echo in my head. Also I want to say a huge thank you to the mules for transporting our luggage to every camp site, and to all the animals (dogs, cattle and sheep) who made my day everyday! Also, to the little kids in Sari, our base camp, who were such a hearty bunch. They actually came and fell at my feet and made me stupidly say, “Chill,” every time they did that.

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Baba :)

Also, special thanks to Baba, who literally paved our way to the peak with an ice axe. He is a champ. I don’t think any of us would have gotten anywhere without him, especially not in that knee-deep snow. Also, thanks to Indiahikes, who treated us like royalty with bed tea to wake us up and a hot mug of Bournvita before sleeping and the cosiest tents and sleeping bags. I don’t think I felt deprived of anything even for a minute in the mountains. And I have to thank Sandhya and Arjun, my bosses, for encouraging me to go on this trek. I really have the best job in the world.

Thank you Mahesh and Deepak for contributing pictures to this blogpost. :)

It was just my first Himalayan adventure and it taught me a lot. And I’m already planning my next one. :)

Here’s to many more trekking adventures.

PS: Sorry to all you guys whom I left worried after the earthquake in Nepal and India. I didn’t have network and I couldn’t have possibly updated you all. Thank you for the concern.

Keep calm and carry on_
Cheers!

 

Two days before my first high-altitude trek

It’s April 22, 2015. I have approximately 36 hours until my flight to New Delhi, the Capital City. I’ve been there once before, but that visit almost doesn’t count. I don’t know if this one does either, but I am spending around 24 hours there and meeting Sanjana and Priyam there. So maybe I’ll count this as my first visit to Delhi.

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Just a poseur for now.

I’m quite apprehensive. I sat in front of my cupboard this morning hoping to pack my bags. Instead, I sat for a whole hour and bit my nails. After I had no more nails to bite, I left to work.

I’m going on my first high-altitude trek to Deoria Tal on April 25. It’s an easy trek, I’ve been told, just like a stroll in the Nilgiris or in the Western Ghats. But I’m still nervous and of course, excited. I’m going to be travelling alone all the way to Haridwar. I’m venturing into unknown territory. And I’m going to be trekking in snow for the first time in my life.

There’s one thing that’s been eating me up though. I haven’t been exercising. Sure, I do walk 2-3 km casually every day, either to buy ice cream or to shop for groceries, but I don’t exercise with an intention to exercise. I hope it isn’t going to come back and bite me on my bum.

What makes everything such a big deal is that I’m going on this trek from work. You see, I’m going to be assisting the trek leader, because I’m an employee at the company organising the trek. So, if someone falls down and the trek leader isn’t around, I’ll have to pick him up and help him snap out of it. It’s actually quite a big responsibility. I remember I had to do that at my previous trek. Some girl couldn’t walk any more, so I had to carry her bag the rest of the way, make Electral for her, hydrate her and assist her all the way to the destination. All this, when I had no prior trek experience.

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This is how it’s going to be, hopefully.

It’s actually sort of gratifying. I guess the idea of me being responsible for others makes me automatically and instinctively responsible for myself. When I’m egging others on, I don’t even have to think about whether I’m alright or not. I’ll be naturally alright. It’s only when I pay excess attention to myself that the littlest problems in my body and mind seem to blow out of proportion.

Maybe this is just too much foresight. As always, it’s my mind that’s doing all the over-thinking. I will wait for the trek to start and then see how it goes.

I’ll go home and pack today.
I’ll unleash my excitement and throw my apprehension away.
I’ll sing like a lark and set my legs free on the wondrous mountain way.

Yayyy! Look at me belting out poetry n all! Haha! That’s a first.
Hopefully, I don’t come back with a load of nonsensical poetry and highly romanticised prose from the mountains.
Can’t tell you how that annoys me, mostly because I don’t understand poetry or highly romanticised prose.

Anyway, until next time! :)

Traaa laa laaaaa laa la la laa…

Here’s what my work is all about. There’s something in it for everyone

Today, someone asked me what I do at Indiahikes. I said, “I write about trekking.” I stressed further, “Only trekking and nothing else at all.”

And then, as an afterthought, I added another line. “There’s a lot to learn.”

Every day, I learn little by little that trekking isn’t just about walking on hills and mountains. There is just so much involved.

This unbelievably brilliant picture was shot by Ethan Dsouza at Kedarkanta
This unbelievably brilliant picture was shot by Ethan Dsouza at Kedarkanta. There are quite a few animals on the trail – dogs, horses, sheep, mules, cattle. I personally want to go on a trek simply to be at close proximity with all these animals for a whole week.

For instance, the basic connection while trekking is with nature. Nature itself is so vast. So if you’re on a trek, you can learn about trees, birds and animals around you. You can learn about which flower is called what and why it’s called so. You can learn about Himalayan griffins (and I thought those birds were mythical creatures, only to learn yesterday that they actually exist), about red pandas, about colourful rhododendrons and about deodar and cyprus trees. Another thing I learnt yesterday, for instance, is of Bhojpatra. A tree on whose leaves the Mahabharatha and Ramayana were written. I find that fascinating! I can almost picture Vyasa narrating the Mahabharatha to Ganesha, who sits, scribbling away on a paper with a quill.

In fact, for a person who drinks up mythology, there is a LOT of treasure buried on mountain trails. Every peak or lake has a story behind it. Every river and stream has a myth attached to it. I don’t think it matters whether these stories are true or not. They’re just so fascinating. For instance, there is a peak called Swargarohini, and apparently, it was here that Yudishtira (and his dog) found a stairway to heaven. Hence, the name Swargarohini. There is also a Black Lake that never freezes throughout the year despite being bang in the middle of the Himalayas.
Just the other day, I asked my colleague about the story of a fort on some trek. He absolutely sold to me a story about how a king built the fort because he was sad that his daughter ran away with a boy. Of course, sometimes, it is fun to make up “folklore” to troll your colleagues.

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Beautiful ladies at Roopkund helping out in the Greentrails project. This photo was shot by Izzat Ansari, who heads the Greentrails project.

And the people. There are so many people involved when it comes to trekking. It’s not just about the trekkers. In fact, they make for just 10 per cent of the people. There are trek leaders, porters, guides, ground co-ordinators, photographers, writers, cooks, medical help, localites, and each of these people has his own story to tell.

On a daily basis, I find that a lot has to do with the locals in all these towns and villages on the trail. It’s a two-way street, where they make ends meet with the income they get from trekkers and in turn, trekkers take a truck load of information back home. For instance, my friend learnt only last week that “Gurkha” doesn’t mean watchman. She was shocked to know that they’re a sect of people in the mountains, in fact, few of the strongest men in India, along with Sherpas. Now now, don’t scoff. I’ll bet most of you are ignorant about many such things, except you don’t know of it because, well, you’re ignorant.

There are a few things, however, that you can’t afford to be ignorant about while trekking – your own health. You have to be fit, so you’ll learn about how to get fit. And you have to start two months in advance because you have no go otherwise. Also, when you’re on the slope, you’ll have to know about which medication to take when, if you get sick. You can’t be taking wrong medicines in the middle of nowhere and getting worse. You just can’t risk that.

So trekking, after all, isn’t just about trekking. It’s a life-lesson package. Of course, at Indiahikes, I learn more about my country than anyone probably does. I learn about mountain ranges in every state, every district. I learn about different tribes and sects, different languages, different job options (things I never knew existed!) and about simple living. The best part about it is that all this learning is not theoretical. It’s all practical. If you open a Geography text book to learn about which river runs where, I go to the river to find out where it’s running. That’s kind of how life here works.

I know I haven’t yet gone on a high-altitude trek, but writing about these things on a daily basis, and speaking to my bosses and trek leaders for just ten minutes every day, teaches me more than I’d learn in a year without these people around me.

So, yeah, that’s what I do. I write about trekking.

And I get to travel to the most remote and beautiful parts of India. For free. #Win

Trekking vs. holidaying

It’s not easy. Staring at pictures of extraordinarily beautiful snow-capped peaks, lakes, hills and other such landscapes, while sitting in this mind-numbing urban setting in Bangalore, is not easy.

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Most pictures I stare at everyday look like this.

But staring at these pictures is part of my job. For those of you who don’t know, I’m currently working at Indiahikes. Indiahikes organises treks (national and international) and documents obscure trails all over the country. I’m working as the editor here, and my job is to edit articles and write a few myself. I also get to travel and go trekking for free. Just saying.

So, over the weekend, I thought, “I’ve had enough of just staring at pictures. It’s high time I jump into one.” So I set off on a local trek to Ballalarayana Durga, which is near Kudremukh in Chickamagalur.

You must understand the implications of going as part of the organisation and not just as a participant. It was my first trek after close to six years, and yet, I was handed a lot of responsibility on the trek. We went with 45 college students and I was told to take care of them and encourage them to trek. If they were tired, I was told to ask them to not give up.

I was quite apprehensive about it. What will I do if I can’t go any further? What if I want to give up? 

The last time I trekked before this was to Kumaraparvatha. I was a wreck during that trek. I threw up at the start. I almost passed out on the trail. All of us completed just half the trek. Although it was fun being with friends, from a trekking point of view, it was a failure.

Yet, I made up my mind and went, determined to make the fit and unfit students trek to the destination. Along with me came Nisha, a colleague, who, I suppose, had the same thought running in her mind.

Nisha
Nisha

I was surprised at my own capability. Knowing that my boss had told me to be the encourager and not the encouragee, I egged students on and didn’t sit down to rest at all. Believe it or not, I actually didn’t feel tired although I walked 16 km in a day, without prior daily-exercise. And 16 km in the mountains is a lot!

That’s when I realised that it’s all in the mind.

My colleague, Parth, who is a trek leader, said that our body is a machine – one of the most beautiful and efficient machines. It can go on forever, provided the main switch is on – the main switch being your mind. So while you’re trekking, if you think, “Oh God! What am I doing here when I can sit at home and chill watching TV,” you’re switching off your mind. No matter how much physical strength you have, you are not going to have the capacity to go on. (In my opinion, you’re being daft.) On the other hand, if you take time to open your eyes, look around you and appreciate nature, your body will automatically want to move on and see what is beyond the next hill.

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And when you’re walking, exhausted, trust me, every minuscule thing is a thing of beauty. Every shady tree, every blade of grass, every gust of wind is a thing of beauty. You will never thank God more for creating food and water and shelter. And don’t even get me started on the beauty of a good nap after a trek!

In fact, when we reached a waterfall and rested there, I dipped my feet in the water, lay down on my back facing the bright blue sky and closed my eyes. That half hour’s nap was the best nap I’ve experienced in my life. I didn’t have a care in the world. Not about people watching. Not about the hard rocks that made my bed. Not about the blazing sun in my face. It was the best nap I’ve ever had.

That power nap was all I needed to get back on my feet and trek 8 km again. Ushering the college students, Nisha and I trudged along the trail, through the meadows, the silent forests at night and back to the base.

Once we reached the end, we stretched and lay on our backs on the road. We stared at the stars and the waxing moon. We ate pulao to our heart’s content.

It was a blissful experience. I slept like a log on the bus back to Bangalore.

Doggies that lead the trail
Doggies that lead the trail

The aftermath: You’d think that after walking 16 km uphill and downhill in a day, you wouldn’t ever want to walk again in life. But after I got back, I’ve only been more enthused about walking around and exercising. I probably seems silly, but for everything I do, be it climbing four flights of stairs to the terrace or carrying a 10-kilo puppy around the house, I think, “Gah! I climbed 20 km. There is nothing I can’t do. I’m invincible!”

I am, of course, aching all over, but this is a good kind of pain. It’s the pain that tells me that my muscles are becoming strong. They’re going to take good care of my bones if they get strong. Fitness is something that comes automatically with trekking. After you go once, you’re hooked to trekking and you want to get fitter everyday.

The best part of a trek is that you feel like you’ve earned everything you get- be it the scenery, a sip of water, the food, the fresh air… You earn every single bit of it. All you have to do is spend some calories.

On a holiday, though, you’re earning nothing. In fact, you’re burning a hole through your pocket to repeat something you do at home – sit in a hotel room, watch TV, use WiFi, order a regular/fancy breakfast.

Of course, I love holidaying too. Nobody can really have anything against holidaying, But somehow, after going on my first trek, I feel trekking adds so much more value to your trip, in terms of self-gratification. It’s something that adds more meaning to your life. It makes you stronger, harder and quicker. It removes the word lazy from your vocabulary. It teaches you how to live minimally. Luxury is something that is wiped off your desires, whether you’re on the trek or at home. It’s all about going back to the basics and you’ll be surprised how well your body and mind deal with that.

It’s hardly been four days since my trek and I can’t wait to go back to the mountains again.

Every time I go out, I want to do better.

I want to reach greater heights, literally.