Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Bandarpoonch trek

When the Pandavas were on their Vanvas, after losing the dice game, a kalyana saugandhika flower drifted down to their ashram. The enchanting smell of the flower captivated Draupadi. Arjun was away in his quest for celestial weapons and, thus, Draupadi sought the help of Bhim to get her more of these lovely flowers. On his way to find these flowers Bhim came across an aged monkey which was lying down with its tail across the way. Bhim arrogantly asked the monkey to move its tail out of the way whereupon the monkey asked him to remove the tail and proceed. In the full pride of his strength Bhim tried to push the tail out of his way and found that his full strength proved unequal to the task of even budging it by an inch. Realising that the monkey was the Hanuman of legend, Bhim prostrated himself. Hanuman directed Bhim to the flowers and blessed him with victory in the war to come against the Kauravas. The Bandarpoonch Mountain is named after the tail of Hanuman. The Bandarpoonch glacier feeds water to the Yamuna as well as the Ganga. This year’s Himalayan trek was to the foot of the Bandarpoonch mountain.

Sweltering as I am in the heat of Delhi it is difficult to believe that I was shivering with cold under mounds of woolen garments not more than a week back. I have been on Himalayan treks twice before but this was the first time that weather played such an important part in the trekking experience. But I am getting ahead of my tale.

After a jeep ride to Barsu, the trek started in a rather sedate fashion to Barnala Tal (9700 ft high for the statistically minded!). The walk through Rhododendron forests and mild slopes was very pleasant and not too tiring and, almost before we got into the full swing of things we were at the campsite at Barnala Tal. The rains, apparently, had been in abeyance in the hills and the lake was almost non-existent. Mild showers in the evening, however, presaged things to come but, thankfully, we did not realize what was in store for us going forth.

The trek to Dayara Buggial (11500 ft) the next day was not much more tiring. The trek up hills and through verdant valleys was invigorating. The sprawling grassland that is named the Dayara Buggial is apparently a skier’s paradise comes winter. The campsite offered a view of Kala Nag, (20,850 feet), Bandar Poonch (20,640 feet) on one side and Srikantha, Jogin I and III, Gangotri I, II and III and Janoli on the other. This, indeed, is the pleasure of a Himalayan Trek to see hills and majestic ice-clad mountains surround you while you stand in verdant grassland that seems to extend into the far horizon.

The evening brought a not very welcome surprise. A wind started up and it started raining with a bit of hail thrown in. The dorm tent which housed the boys blew open and there was a sudden flurry of activity saving the luggage and setting right the tents. We (Vinod, Chandru, Dr. Sunil and I) were staying in the girls’ tent and Vinod set about securing the tent with stones with the bumbling assistance of yours truly. Soon all the weather-proof clothing and woolens were out and the bunch of trekkers had converted themselves into good imitations of colorful polar bears.

The next day, a designated rest day, dawned bright and sunny and we took a small walk to a place called Dev Kund. A panoramic view of the valley bordered by the majestic white peaks captivated the eyes. Our guides pointed out the Dodi Tal and the route to Hanuman Chatti – the latter being the route to Yamunotri. Our current trek would take us nowhere near either of these points though Dodi Tal does figure largely on other treks. Vinod and I, the designated water buffalos of the group, bathed ourselves in the water of Dev Kund, though we were barred from wallowing in the water since it was the source of drinking water for people who frequented the area. Little did we realize that this was the last bath anyone would take till the end of the trek.

It snowed heavily in the afternoon and, soon, a full-fledged snow-fight was in progress with everyone pelting everyone else. The entire grassland was speckled with snow even the Kala Nag was converted into a Safed Nag by the time the snowfall ended. The entire view that surrounded us had transformed itself with the brown of the nearby hills cloaked in a diaphanous white. One of the joys of trekking is this ever-changing enchantment with which nature enraptures you. The problem, however, was that it was so cold that we beat a hasty retreat to our tents and the cozy confines of our sleeping bags.

The trek for the next day was cancelled because the snowfall had coated rocks with treacherous ice. We spent the day watching the grazing sheep and the efficient sheepdogs which guarded them. Photographers went berserk filming the iridescent green of the grasslands which were looking at their best after their bath in snow. A cute newborn mare foal was another of the attractions of the day. Another bout of snow drove us back into the tents. A few more days like this and we would seriously bemoan having shed our fur in the long gone evolutionary past! Things were not helped by the snow continuing into the night with all of us shivering in out tents worrying about the tent getting blown off in the middle of the night leaving us lying out in the blizzard.

The next day we did set off for our next campsite at Lamda. It was a tough day’s trek up and down steep slopes. We had to cross a couple of snow patches with nothing between us and a steep slide down the mountainside but the grip of our shoes and the ever-helpful guides who stood between us and the precipitous slides. At the end of a tiring day, we ended up at the 12500 ft high Lamda.

The next day’s trek to Gidara Buggial was more of the same with the lot of us slipping and slithering on snow patches and panting up steep slopes. After five hours or so of trekking we ended up at a point where the way forward was a near 1000 ft steep descent covered entirely with snow. The very idea of descending down this slippery slope had our hearts in our mouths. The idea, however, was to glissade down this way.

This word glissade could well give rise to the idea of a lissome figure sashaying down the slope gracefully on a pair of skis. Nothing could be farther from the truth of what we did do there. We just squatted down on the snow and slid all the way down using our hands and feet to brake ourselves. It was an exhilarating experience though we did end up in a wild tangle of hands and legs at the end of the ‘glissade’! At the end of this fun we still had to climb up a tortuous slope and then stroll down a valley to reach the campsite at Gidara Buggial.

The Gidara Buggial provided some of the best views in the entire trek. Picture yourself standing in an enormous grassland carpeted with tiny blue and yellow flowers. Just in front of you is a burbling stream and on the other bank rears a brown mountain with a huge snow bank from the top to the bottom. Behind you is another brown mountain speckled with white and to its left is a grey massif which looks luminescent and glistens like a giant grey pearl. To your left, you can see snow-clad peaks shimmering like fairy castles in the light of a sun that is hidden behind the peaks. The entire view was so ethereal that you found it difficult to believe that it was real.

With a full moon in all its glory, the night provided a different charm. The entire area appeared stage-lit and, since the light was not too intrusive, the entire landscape was thrown into relief. What the view lost in ethereality it gained in majesty and one could find no words for what one saw and was reduced to wordless ejaculations. I, however, will be the first to admit that Vinod sort of over-did it with one wordless ejaculation per degree of the compass!

We spent a couple of days at Gidara Buggial. Snow, apparently, had taken a particular liking for our bunch and it had followed us here as well. With the weather the way it was, the decision was to abbreviate the trek. We were to trek to a place called Gujjar Hut (one of the many in the Himalayas) and from there to Gangnani, which is back in civilization. The hot springs there were certainly an attraction to the shivering bunch of trekkers who had already started dreaming of the comfortable warmth of Chennai!

The trek down to Gujjar Hut will live in my memory for long. After a conventional beginning it turned into an extremely strenuous but invigorating experience. We were to descend down through Oaks and Pine. A descent is normally a testing experience but when one adds a snow blizzard to the mix it turns out into an extremely exhilarating experience. Snow was sleeting down as we were making the descent. The sight of a snow blizzard falling down into green valleys is so beautiful that it is difficult to find words to describe how lovely it looks. The problem is that if you start taking in the view your feet start slipping right off the ground and you suddenly find your vision filled with stars! The entire trip was a mix of this beauty and the difficulty of trekking on the snow under your feet. All in all, one of the days that made me feel great about having taken up trekking!

The last day of the trek provided another of those lovely panoramas within an hour. The stunning 270 degree view with the grand snow-clad peaks in front, brown massifs on both sides, oaks and pines on either side and flowery grassland underfoot stopped us in our tracks and we spent nearly half an hour drinking in the view. The day degenerated from then on with pelting rains keeping us slipping and slithering all the way to Gangnani where a waterlogged campsite greeted us at the end of a seven hour trek. This was too much to bear for the tired group which took recourse to a hotel there, signaling the de facto end of the trek. After a dip in the hot water springs there we lost no time in converting the hotel into a Dhobi Ghat with all sorts of apparel strung all over the balcony and footwear spreading their fragrance after their long over-use.

I have, hitherto, not attempted to put down my Himalayan trekking experiences primarily because it requires far abler pens than mine to capture them in words. How does one adequately describe the hurt that you feel when you have to step on those lovely tiny flowers that quietly beautify those grasslands? What do you name the fullness of the heart that you feel when you see the jungle fox (which looked like an over-sized Malabar squirrel) spurt across the path and vanish into the bushes? How does one communicate the beauty of that copybook Christmas tree clinging to a rock? Down in the plains it feels ridiculous to mention the sense of peace and belonging that you feel when in the laps of the mountains or the pride that you feel in being a part of all that indescribable beauty. You only tend to over-use words like enchanting, panoramic et al and feel foolish at not being able to do any better.

Even the more human aspects of the trek are difficult to describe. The camaraderie that you feel when you pant up those slopes; the shared fears of walking across snow or ‘glissading’ down snow banks; the common reluctance to walk out into the cold to have a dinner that doesn’t appeal merely because it will be too cold before you finish it and the in-jokes that do not sound as funny when you are back in your work-a-day world.

Be that as it may, I am back in civilization and back to looking forward to the next Himalayan trek!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Of Choices

I still remember a science fiction story that struck a chord in me way back in the past. The hero lives in a huge mansion and works for only one day a week with all the other days given over to amusement. Being low on the social totem pole, he mopes around all day dreaming about a future when he would have risen far enough in society to be able to live in a cozy one room flat and work for six days a week!

A somewhat similar story is one of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer adventures. Tom is punished with having to whitewash the fence. While he is at it his friends come around and jeer at him. Tom claims that his job is important and cannot be entrusted to anyone who cannot do it with the competence and efficiency that he himself can bring to it. The net result of his reluctance to hand over the job to anyone is that all the boys in the village end up bribing him for the privilege of whitewashing the fence. The tale ends with ‘…if he had not run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village’.

In both the above tales we find people aspiring to do things merely because they are hard to get and valued by society. Makes you think about the choices you make and how far these choices are driven by your innate needs and how much by your own perception of what is valued by society. The idea of making personal sacrifices – be it time, effort or money – in order to gain the approbation of others, who, in their turn, are similarly engaged in gaining your approbation seems funny but that does seem to be the reality that we live in now.

We do not know whether we, in isolation, choose the lifestyles that we feel that we have to live of whether we do it because that is the way all our peers live. We sacrifice time to earn the wherewithal to lead the lifestyle that we have apparently chosen but earning money acquires a life of its own and, so, we earn far in excess of what we can spend even at these lifestyles. The one thing that we appear to value the least is the one thing that we have very little of – Time! Oh! Yes! We do keep bemoaning the lack of time to do all that we have to do but, as is evident, we have made our choices of what we will do without taking into account the value of the time we are dribbling away in doing it. If you truly valued time you would decide on what you want to do with your time and then balance the need to earn money with the need to use time to suit yourself.

Not everyone in this vale of tears is in a position to make the choice. The basic needs need no peer pressure to enforce satisfaction and he who is yet to assure himself of his basic requirements leads a life of little choice. Poverty steals life in more ways than one and one of the insidious ways in which it does it is by denying a person free use of his time. To be in a position to choose the use of one’s time and to not exercise it is to lead a life of poverty when not required to do so and what can be more stupid than that?

If, indeed, you prefer living in a cozy one room flat and work six days a week do so if that is what you want to do. If your idea of fun is to whitewash a fence all day who am I to criticize it? If, however, you do either because of peer pressure or, worse still, due to mere force of habit then it shows more than mere material poverty. It is a poverty of imagination that beggars description.