Monday, February 28, 2011

Of Indians and Queues

So we have a surplus of people - A one billion plus population cramped into the subcontinent. And they crowd; Drive around the countryside and it is sometimes difficult to find any people at all. But in the cities, they cover all available surface area! If there's anything built for a certain number of people to use, there's always at least twice that number to actually use it.

Enter queues. Over time, most of us have gotten used to the idea of these simple enablers of civil society; but we Indians follow them grudgingly at best. I guess the underlying fear is of being left out. With one billion people breathing down your neck, get in front of the queue, before whatever it is that the queue is for runs out? The average queue is hardly complete without a bit of jostling, a few barging shoulders, and some swearing! And if there is a way to circumvent the queue, rest assured someone will find it.

So imagine my surprise when I get out of a packed metro train at Noida City Center along with about 500 other people, and they all come out to the exit gates and form 6 neat queues to get out through the 6 available gates. Neat straight lines; no jostling, no pushing, no swearing! Of course there's a bit of a race to get there first, but it's all fair play. And this in Delhi, a place infamous for it's rudeness and crudeness! I for one, was sure we left our "consideration for fellow humans" genes behind when we got on the great world economy train; guess I was wrong!

But then again ... maybe it's just the air conditioning that keeps people cool!?

Itchy Feet - In the mountains

Itchy feet: very strong or irresistible impulse to travel (Source: The Oxford English dictionary)

That's what all of us have. Plus the need to meet up occasionally and relive the memories and camaraderie from college. This is a great thing in itself, but take a random sample of 7 of your batchmates from college; chances are they will be separated by a few thousand kilometers of ocean (and timezones, and job descriptions, and such). So if these random 7 are in the habit of taking a holiday together every year (or sometimes every 6 months), that is a pretty significant logistical effort. But that is the kind of friendships that come out of college ... the effort will be made.

Last year we hired motorcycles and rode up from Manali to Leh and then some around there. Bettering that is not easy, but you got to try! So that's how we wound up meeting at Rati's place in Delhi on a wet, crazy-traffic-day. Abby and Rashmi from London, Kavi from Chennai, Manoj on a flight from Mumbai, and Mithun, Umesh, Abhijit Chavan, and me, on a train also from Mumbai - the same train Manoj was also supposed to be on, but missed because he underestimated the on time performance of Indian Railways! For the record, he tried really hard to miss the flight on our last trip, but just wasn't good enough then :)

The Nandadevi East base camp trek in Uttarakhand starts from the town of Munsiyari in Uttarakhand. The rail head is Kathgodam, and the same night, we were on the 5013 Ranikhet Express headed there. The excitement and the filth in our compartment kept some of us awake for a while, but not for long. A day in Delhi can be tiring even for the sprightliest teenager!

We woke up to a chill in the air, eyefuls of green landscape, and a mild early morning mist ... only a sneak preview to what we were going to see over the next couple of weeks. Our 2 jeeps were loaded up with supplies and waiting to take us to Munsiyari. The welcome party included our guide Laxman, his partner and younger brother in law Ganga, his older brother in law Deepak (the business savvy end of the trio), and the 2 drivers! There is something about these pahadi folks. They're simple, straightforward, almost naive people who seem to believe that everything about them is better than the rest of the planet (But wait a minute, that last part is true of everyone else as well ... so scratch it). And they do have at least one smart-ass songwriter in their ilk. Sample the one track that translated "Neither my younger bhabhi, nor my older bhabhi. The generation is corrupted by Kareena (Kapoor?) bhabhi." The music is nice and folksy, but would be much better without the tacky mixing most likely done on the producer's nephew's home computer. In the end, the day long ride turned out to be a lot of fun with the music, the fun people, the surreal landscapes, and the anticipation of things to come.

Laxman had us put up for the night in extremely cozy rooms in Munsiyari that had a balcony with a view to die for! You could see the Panchachuli peaks reaching up for the sky and Munsiyari town down below, while everything in between was covered by a thick fog! He also got us our first bottle of 'dado' - the local brew distilled from rice and jaggery. Takes a while to adapt to the taste (or the lack of it?), but it sure is potent. Unsure of what physical torment awaited us the next day, we decided against any drunken revelry. The anticipation though, was something else ...

Day 1 of the trek - Munsiyari to Lillam

In the mountains, you have to respect nature. Your plans mean little if she decides otherwise. Landslides along our planned route meant that there was no way mules could go. Plan B was to to have have more men to do the heavy carrying, which meant more provisions to feed them, and more weight in turn. That was how we ended up having 14 men to accompany 8 of us! Like a friend told me later, we could have invaded Nepal with that army ... sure their army would have given us a heck of a fight, but me thinks we would have prevailed!

The physical demand of the trek did not take long to hit us. The first 2 hours were an unrelenting steep climb that felt like it would never end. Earlier in the morning, us silly plainsfolk, having no idea what we were up against, had covered up in multiple layers of clothing. Half an hour of trudging up the slope, and people were starting to peel off all those extra layers ... it was sunny, and terribly hot! It's well worth the effort though, if only for the beautiful sights on offer. The valley is thickly wooded for the most part; with villages and cropland interspersed. There is also the occasional bald patch caused by landslides. In fact, we could hear a persistant rumble from the many big and small landslides that covered the slopes. The climb is followed by a gentle down slope through a thickly wooded forest. It's dark and damp and there's a mist hanging, which makes it look very much like a tropical rainforest. And where there's a wet forest, there's leeches. It is not easy to fall in love with these critters. Even veterans have to try super hard to ignore the omnipresent suspicion that there could be a dozen of them in your shoe sucking you dry of blood (Not really though ... It would take an outrageously large colony of them to do that!), so it's easy to forgive the first timers who scream their lungs out!

Useful tip - In weather that is not cold, ponchos good (Roomy, easy to take on and off, fold and carry, covers backpack too), windcheaters/jackets bad (Hot, sweaty, and a complete pain in the ass when not in use). Bright sunshine passed into heavy rain as we got out of the forest, and by the time we stopped for lunch at Yedthi, we were wet and miserable. It required a steaming hot meal, with fresh-from-the-field vegetables, to lift our spirits - as it would continue to do for the next few days. The weather cleared out by the time lunch was done, and we had a comfortable trek to Lillam, a small village of about 10 houses, one chai shop, and an ITBP camp - our abode for the night.

Day 2/3 - Lillam to Bugdiyar to Railkot

From Lillam on, the path is a mild climb that follows the Gori Ganga upstream along the left bank. "Gori" because all the silt that the river drags along makes the water white in color. The weather was good to us here and there was no rain. The path is mostly a gentle slope up with short steep sections at times. To add excitement, every now and then there's a portion of track washed away by a landslide. The only way here - depending on the size of the fallen rocks - is to run across, or scramble up and over ... all the while hoping that the next falling rock does not catch you! There was also the one section where you have to walk right through an industrial strength, freezing waterfall. You can see this in pictures on the internet, but these can hardly prepare you for the actual experience!

Another interesting chai stop en route is Railgadi, so called because of the series of shacks built under the shelter of one gigantic overhang of rock. This is about where the aches started to show up. When Manoj complained, Laxman massaged his knees and gave him a little "herbal" cigarette to kill the pain. That cigarette was so good, pretty soon everyone's knees were complaining!

Useful tip - Carry photo ID. Bugdiyar (night 2) and Railkot (night 3) are both essentially ITBP camps where every tourist has to register on the way up, and sign out on the way down. This is because the Chinese and Nepalese borders are not more than 3/4 days trek away. The restriction does not apply to locals though, who apparently do end up wandering into the other country every now and then! Our accommodation in both places wass the local government rest house.

Day 4 - Railkot to Gannaghar
By Railkot, the weather starts to get chilly, and the landscape begins to change. The trees give way to grassy meadows and flowers of different hues! All through, the calm of the mountains continues. Occassionally, you bump into a shepherd watching over his grazing flock. Friendly locals pass you, and they always have the time if you wish to stop and chat a moment. Every now and then, there's a mountain torrent blocking your path with only precariously perched log bridges to cross over.
Gannaghar, our stop for the night was a village typical for the parts. Small, cozy stone houses with slate roofs, raised living quarters, and a store in the basement; a whole bunch of abandoned and broken down houses; tiny fields growing veggies; and the odd goat. The sarpanch is the most educated man in the village and has the best house, let out to us for the night. He also happens to be the operator for the village sattelite phone - a sure sign that technology has begun to make a difference in the remotest corners of the country. Who needs an erratic postman when you can call anyone in the country at Rs.2 a minute (Rs.5 for tourists)! Mobile phones are useless after the first morning of the trek, and this is the only way you can communicate with the outside world.
The sarpanch is also your entertainment for the evening. He loves talking and telling stories, so while we rested in the evening, he sat with us and told us stories about the village; about the legends of the Goddess Nandadevi; and about the festival every year dedicated to the Goddess when thousands from the surrounding villages and towns gather there.

Evening gave us the first glimpse of what we had come this far for. At 7816 meters, the western peak of Nandadevi is the 2nd highest peak in India; the 23rd highest in the world; and another 3500+ meters higher than where we were. One of the most interesting stories associated with the mountain is about the CIA trying to plant a nuclear powered device on top to spy on Chinese nuclear tests in Tibet; only to lose it in a major storm. The device is rumored to still be hanging around missing somewhere, "radioactive poisoning" anyone who inadvertantly gets close to it!
But we were at a safe enough distance, and when the clouds cleared out momentarily to show the mountain in the evening light, it was impossible to not be awed by the sight! Even from the distance we were - about 10 kms as the crow flies - we could see why Nandadevi was the Goddess in these parts.

Day 5 - Gannaghar to "Base camp"
"Base camp" is the point where the real climbing starts. For Mt. Everest, base camp to the peak is only 5 days of climbing (although it takes about 3/4 weeks with the acclimatization, and waiting for the right weather). So when the guides promise to take you to base camp or camp 1 (which is further), take that with a pinch of salt. Additionally, given the exalted status of the mountain, the locals have beliefs about not taking women there (Yes, the prejudices still exist!). So although they tell you that you are standing at base camp, some close questioning will reveal that the real base camp is still some way off.

So although some of us wanted to see the real base camp, that did not seem practical considering the guides' reluctance and the time constraints. It also does not help that Nandadevi is a highly restricted zone since it was found that tourism was causing the fragile ecosystem some serious damage (Conspiracy theorists also refer to the missing nuclear device as a reason for the restrictions). Getting into the inner perimeter of Nandadevi requires special authorizations, and these are not easily available. We took the compromise - an additional day to go up closer to the glacier and camp there - and the reward was even more breathtaking views of the mountain from closer up. Even though it meant sleeping in tents on a rainy and bitterly cold evening, it was completely worth the effort.

Day 6 - Martoli
We saw a lot of beautiful places on the trek, but Martoli is out of this world! First glimpse reminded me of pictures I had seen of Machu Pichu in Peru. Being situated strategically on the traditional overland trade routes between India, Nepal, and Tibet, Martoli has had a long history; but after India and China decided to go to war in '62, the trade routes died. And with each passing day, there is lesser hope of a revival. The once bustling village is now down to a last few people. Most make their living harvesting herbs that grow all over the place; keeda-ghaas being the most fascinating of the lot - it starts life as a worm, but a fungus infects the worm, kills and mummifies it, and grows out of the worm as a blade of grass. The herbs are used in traditional medicine in China and India and go for high prices. Goat breeding is another venture. The pashmina goats make for excellent and expensive wool, and the other mountain goats are prized for their meat. The more successful goat owners have flocks numbering in thousands!

Martoli was also the set location for our party - to celebrate the successful trip - and our hosts sure knew how to throw a good one! The dado and chang (rice beer) flowed unlimited, and a goat had been slaughtered and cooked. There was song and dance around a fire, and we partied late into the night and got completely wasted!

Day 7/8/9 - Martoli - Bugdiyar - Yedthi - Munsiyari
From Martoli, the return trip to Munsiyari was two and a half days with stops at Bugdiyar and Yedthi. Good knees had gotten bad and bad knees had gotten worse with the downhill work, but the thought of the celebratory single malt kept everyone going. Actually, the whole return trek went past like a blur. All we seemed to do was walk, eat, walk some more, stop and check for leeches, and sleep at night - a little tedious if you look at that description. It was all mixed feelings - disappointment of the trek coming to an end, anticipation of hot water in a bath, and even plain physical tiredness. But when we finally got off the trail, I almost turned around and went back!

That is the thing about the mountains - one time up there, and you are hooked! Hide all you want, but sooner or later you will go back. And if you have your college buddies to go with, it cannot get better! The only probem at the end of this trip is having to better it next year! But that's a problem we like to have!

Sunday, February 27, 2011


That last post was a draft from 2 years back. Just published it so I could get on with life! As of that one, I am killing the Ladakh post. It was too far back in the future and I am not sufficiently enthu to write about it anymore! Might continue with it if I get in the mood some other time!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Return to Ladakh - Introducing Anand

Our time - A euphemism for extremely unreliable time estimates / extremely unreliable timekeeping (Source - the official Ladakh 2009 trip dictionary).

If you don't sleep at night, waking up early ceases to be a problem. But once you wake up, you still need to pack up the tents, clean up the campsite, and cold start the bullets in the thin air! When we finally got going at 7 "our time", we were 2 hours behind the scheduled time of 7 hours IST.

Chavan was already ill. Abby having not gotten his quality sleep was grouchy. And to top it, there was the rain; not a downpour or anything, but that steady persistent drizzle that gets under your skin. Suddenly, no one wanted to take photo breaks or smoke; all that we wanted to do was ride non stop till we found better weather, hopefully beyond the next pass. We wished!

Just past Nakila, we ran into a herd of grazing Ibex. That was our first stop for the day, and even that lasted only long enough to get a few photographs.

But knowing our history, it was time for something to go wrong :) Abby was complaining all along of his engine dying in idle, and just after Nakila it stopped again; and refused to start! Brute force kicking would never have worked, and it did not. As luck would have it, just when we were running out of ideas, we saw this lone rider come up from behind us. And he turned out to be just the person we needed.

Anand Ethirajulu, on his solo trip, had enough knowledge of bullets to help us fix the broken bike. It wasn't a major fault - just a change of the fuel mixture to adjust for the rarefied air - but left to ourselves, we probably wouldn't have got it right for at least another hour. It took us a few kilometers, some experimentation with the settings, and fixing a bad fuel supply tube before we could really get going again.

The rain had let up by then, but the sky was still overcast threatening to open up any time. We pushed on though, and did the remaining 25 kms to Pang in quick time. The landscape had changed meanwhile; we were riding through a valley with an ultra clear river flowing next to us. Everything around had gotten more stark, more dry, more rough, and nature was doing overtime in it's modern artist role; creating strange and varied formations out of the rocks.

Just before Pang is a small checkpost where you have to register your vehicle and riders. It's manned by a friendly policeman who has no clue what the weather is outside his tent. If you do have questions about the weather, you'd be better off asking someone else!

Pang itself is a small tent colony where you can get some grub and bedding for the night. They've got a cool socialist scheme going - even though there's fierce competition between tents for the food business, the proceeds from the accommodation business are distributed evenly between all the tent owners. Viva la revolucion!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Return to Ladakh - Deep freeze

The plan, day 3 - Leave at 0800 hours and ride the 200 kms to Pang. Take the ride easy; with more breaks and more photographs; soak in the view; chill out even while making the distance.

As things transpired, we got up in the morning, sat around chatting, had a heavy breakfast at the hotel, and when we finally got rolling, the time was closer to 10. Thankfully, we had already fueled up the night before, including picking up our spare cans of fuel; otherwise, we might have ended up doing only 30 kms that day!

The roads were pretty good and we made Darcha in under 2 hours, photo and smoke breaks included. Darcha is the point where the Bhaga and Barai rivers meet, and is the starting point for a lot of treks into the Zanskar valley. The ride was pretty uneventful except the one time when Chavan decided to switch gears. Suddenly, from riding easy in third spot, he was racing out in front of everyone else. For a moment, he seemed possessed. Till he decided to stop for 10 minutes to let an oncoming truck do the 50 meters between them and pass; the moment was over.

After a chai (or two, in the case of Manoj) at one of the many tea stalls in Darcha, we hit the road again. The road overall was awesome, except for the one water crossing, with the coldest water that we had yet encountered. We finally stopped for lunch at Zing Zing Bar, which is a total of 3 tents run by Nepalis; serving chai, maggi, and dal chaval. I doubt there would be a cooler named place in India (with the possible exception of Chutia, Assam; although some would dispute the use of the word cool in this case ;-)).

The Nepali dude at Zing Zing Bar decided Kavi was "strong" because she was wearing just a pair of trousers and a t-shirt in that weather, while the rest of us were all covered up in multiple layers! Well ... she obviously wasn't strong enough to do the striptease later on Baralacha La ... like a couple of us did! :) By the way ... any likeness to Somali pirates is purely incidental. For the record, there have been no reported sightings of Somali pirates anywhere in Ladakh.

Just before Baralacha la is the serene Suraj Tal lake; memorable to Kavi as the place where she touched snow for the first time. Baralacha La was the highest pass that we had yet done on the trip. Standing at the highest point on the road, all around are rolling hills checkered black and white with stone and snow. To the right is a stupa with thousands of prayer flags. The small hill to the left is covered in chorten (Stones piled to resemble a stupa; a symbol of thanks from travelers for their continued safety).

We hung around for sometime, even getting abused by a passing truck driver for parking our bikes in the middle of the road. Not true really, but he was probably just getting back at us for having blocked him in a bad patch of road on the up slope. He went sliding down some 10 meters before he regained traction there!

The road down from Baralacha is as bad as the road up to it is good. The landscape starts to get stark around here with hues of brown all around; loose rock and mud, landslides, and the like. The road meanders down about 30 kms before finally reaching Sarchu, occasion for a small celebration as we had finally hit J&K state, and Ladakh ... 3 years after we first set out!

Sarchu is where we see the Tsarap Chu river, strangely beautiful in the way nature has carved the gorge down from the grassy plains to the river. Look carefully, and you could see nature carving faces in the mountains around (No! I was not high on anything at this point. :-))

It did not look like we had a lot of daylight left. The sun was going down fast, leaving us no chance of getting to Pang for the night. We stopped after going only as far as daylight and terrain permitted us. It took us the better part of the available daylight time to set up the new tent, which we had to figure out how to put up (The damn packaging did not even have a picture of the thing for us to use as reference)!

Chavan was already showing signs of illness - a mix of food poisoning and AMS - and his sleeping bag was wet (A result of his new river crossing strategy - "floor it"). So it's 4 sleeping bags, 5 people, and biting cold - perfect recipe for a sleepless night. Abby probably had the worst of it as Kavi seemed more adept at tugging at the sleeping bag in her sleep, but we all had a pretty bad night although wrapped in full riding gear!

The best part of the day was just before though - the night sky lit up with a million shining lights. I remember nights spent at INS Shivaji in Lonavla that could compete, but I'm sure even that would be a distant second to this sky. It was the perfect place to camp ... if only we had been more prepared for the cold.