Thursday, November 27, 2014

A barbaric bibliophile

There are some things that you cannot do without people making certain assumptions about you. The problem arises when you do certain things, but are unable to live up to the assumptions. A problem that has invariably deviled me in various endeavors - as in my trekking for years, while not ceasing to huff and puff up hills like a veritable novice.

When I started out, I never realized that the reading habit could get me into the same sort of trouble. Alack and Alas! We live in a world where doing nothing is safe. There I was, merrily reading three books a day through school and college - books of my choice - without bothering a single soul and, presto, people start bothering me.

"You like books? You have much in common with Suresh. He is a bookworm"
"Great! Tell me Suresh - how do you like Salman Rushdie?"
"Salman who?"
"You haven't read Salman Rushdie?" with a call-yourself-a-reader tone. "What do you read then?"
"Alistair McLean, PG Wodehouse..."
"Oh! Those...", dismissively, leaving me feeling six inches tall.

Had to read Salman Rushdie, then. 'Magical realism' or some such thing he is supposed to write but, for me, it was all mystifying. I ploughed through some twenty pages of 'Midnight's Children' without a clue about what was happening, if anything was indeed happening. It was difficult enough for me to understand what those sentences meant and people, who saw the book in my hands, started talking about what the author REALLY meant to say. Egads! Give me the bombs and the spies, please!

And then someone told me John Steinbeck was un-put-down-able. At last! Some author I could credibly boast of reading and, apparently, a thrilling read as well. I picked 'Grapes of Wrath' and, within three pages, I knew that I had my poles reversed. Where everyone seemed to find it un-put-down-able, I found it un-take-up-able. It really required enormous will power to lift up the book to read yet another paragraph and extraordinarily easy to put it back down, and look for the Erle Stanley Gardner that I had already read twice, so that I could read it again. Talk about being a Philistine.

Of the entire lot I read, Ayn Rand was the biggest letdown. The rest start off promising no thrilling story and keep their promise. Rand, on the other hand, keeps you engrossed in some interesting shenanigans and, when you are lulled, socks you with a lecture on economics or sociology that will just NOT end. Cheating, I call it!

I had quite resigned myself to the fact that, voracious reader though I was, I could only read stories that had a clear beginning, a middle and an end; that had a protagonist whom I could at least like, if not respect, AND not someone who keeps telling me that the world was full of slimy beings and he was stinking in the garbage right alongside me; and which had enough incidents in it to keep me interested and not merely the workings of a person's inner consciousness.  About the only thing I did not insist on was a twist in the tail - something that seems de rigeur for any writing to be called fiction these days, or so it seems. Me - I was quite content if the journey was good. I did not HAVE to land in Mumbai after boarding a Delhi train in order to be satisfied.

Then came this lady - Arundhati Roy. Wins the Booker Prize and all, so one can hardly say that she does not write well. So, I pick her 'God of Small Things' in an effort to recover my image as a serious reader. The problem with me is that I read two pages of what everyone agrees is wonderfully evocative prose and say, "Hmm! Another muggy day in a Kerala village." With this sort of taste I should never have started on any of these books.

Given my tastes, it is hardly a wonder that I never read Indian authors - barring R.K.Narayan. Apparently, Indian authors would write ONLY what could, in theory, be in the prescribed syllabus for a future English Lit course. The concept of writing only to entertain - like, say, a Ludlum or a Jack Higgins or a Agatha Christie - was anathema. And, I read exclusively to be entertained; to have my mind taken of the myriad problems of my workaday world and did not want anything that could even remotely remind me of my less than stellar - to put it mildly - academic days.

Things have changed now, apparently. There do seem to be a few authors who write what earns the universal ire of literary critics - which probably means that they will never feature in Lit. courses, except as a novelty. 

The problem, though, is that I still cannot join any book discussions. People seem to talk exclusively of authors I have never ever heard of, and some whose names I can not even pronounce. They utter phrases like Dickensian realism and Byronic moodiness and things like that. I would not recognize Dickensian realism if you served it on a platter with watercress around it NOR would Byronic moodiness make an impression on me even if it jumped up and bit me in the nose. With my paltry vocabulary of "It was nice" and "I liked it", I hardly think I am up to the flow of thought and feast of reason in these book discussions - not that I would need to strain my limited vocabulary considering that the sort of authors I read were least likely to be the subject matter of such discussions.

Which is why I may be a bibliophile but will always count as a barbarian among the literati. Let me go and drown my self-pity in that Anne McCaffrey that I am reading now!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Honestly Rude?

Someone said, "A true friend is he who does not shy away from pointing out your faults" or some such thing. If I could only get my hands on that @#?$ .... The problem, you see, is that I have a lot of friends who think that their duty as friends consists exclusively of pointing out my faults. If there is anything else to friendship, they sure do not acknowledge those things.

Take this particular incident for example. A time when I came to a friend wanting some sympathy and support. And THIS is what I got.

"Yaar! I think people are just unable to hear the truth. And they call me rude merely because I tell it."

"What - like the time we went to Sweta's wedding reception and you yelled, 'Hey! Your husband is bald'"?

"But it WAS the truth."

"And you thought that it had somehow escaped Sweta's notice all along and it was your duty to warn her of it?"


"Ah! You thought that the rest of us would fail to notice it and it was important to inform us about it?"


"Maybe you just thought it was important for all truths to be told? But...looks to me that you did not tell the other truth that he had a very charming smile...which you mentioned to us later."

"Skip that! But you cannot say that I was wrong in correcting Varun's English. I mean, he was writing 'its' when he should have been using 'it's'"

"Quite! But did you really need to tell him that if this was the best he could do, he should go back to kindergarten and start learning English all over again?"

"If you are acting so wise, what would YOU have said?"

"I would have told him that he had written 'its' by mistake when he meant to write 'it's'. Why would I assume that it was not just a mistake? And, even if I knew it was not, why should I try to make him look like a fool?"

"You always put me on the wrong foot. But, tell me, what was wrong with my telling Ashish that it was surprising that he had got a job in finance, when he managed to muck up every problem in maths all through school? You know it is true and you have said it yourself." I said triumphantly.

"Not in front of his new boss and colleagues - or did you forget that you uttered that pearl of wisdom when we bumped into him at the restaurant where they were dining together?"


"So, of course, Ashish must be very joyous about the fact that this home truth about him was shared with his new boss."

"When you say it, it is OK! When I say it, it is rude, huh?"

"You idiot! As long as you never learn what, how and where to say things, you will always be considered rude and not merely honest."

"I came to you for support. Why are you being so rude to me?"

"Rude? Not at all. I am only being honest."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Upper Mustang Trek - Finale

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VII or Part VIII

A few snippets from the trek that may be of interest.

The one thing about the food in the tea-houses is that it is normally laden with garlic. Probably because it is supposed to be good for AMS. Our palates, though, were so totally unused to so much garlic in every single dish that Ramesh had taken to specifying, more than once, "No garlic" every time we ordered a meal. So effective was his intervention that once he got no garlic even in his garlic bread!

The other group also was infected in part by Geeta's ideas of trekking. Apparently, after hitting Lo Manthang, half the group took ponies to come down. They eventually took a jeep from Muktinath and met us in Jomsom on their way to Poon Hill, where they trekked up steps for some 1800+ meters!

I will never forget the one time Reto pulled Ramesh's leg. When we met at Jomsom, Ramesh was detailing how he came down to Kagbeni and, then, trekked up to Muktinath with the help of the porter. Reto asked, totally deadpan, "Was the porter able to keep up with you?"

The Hotelier at Jomsom looked on us as rara avis. Apparently, trekking Indian were next to non-existent in that area (or, at least, his hotel). Most of the Indians that he had seen were pilgrims to Muktinath.

The stay at Pokhara was not totally event-free. We went on an early morning trek to Sarangkot to catch the sunrise on the Annapurna ranges. Geeta and I lost our way and ended up in a tea-house about a hundred meters below the view-point. As it happened, this place had as good a view and, compared to the jostling crowds at the view-point, it was a peaceful place to take in the brushwork of the early morning sun on the snow-clad peaks.

The next day, we took an ultralight flight. The bird's eye-view was great and it would have been felt like flying but for the persistent drone of the engine in the ears. Next time I shall ensure that we manage paragliding - we were too late to book this time.

For a man who has never seen a movie shot in India, it was a surprise to find a Nepalese movie being shot opposite our Hotel near the Pokhara lake. Looks like heroines there too need to be dressed in tatters for dance scenes and it was a revelation to me to see how utterly boring the shooting of a dance sequence could be.

Robert came down with a suspicious black eye and some specious reason for it. None of us believed in what he said :)

AND now the links for pics.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

The Upper Mustang Trek - VIII

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VI or Part VII

The group was split in three the next day. Ramesh went ahead (so what else is new?) with one of the porters, Praveen. Vinita was, as usual, in some indeterminate position after him. Kulendra and Chandru went next to ensure that the duffel bags were duly loaded onto the vehicle before the rest of us reached, in order to save some time. Geeta, Sampat and I trailed the group.

Descents are horrid on the knees and ankles because you use them to brake your momentum. There is such a thing as descending too fast for comfort after all. No matter how much we want to recapture our youth, cartwheeling down a slope is certainly not one of the most sought after ways. The trick is to take the downward slope with controlled speed so that you do not stress your joints and, at the same time, manage to retain your balance.

Easier said than done? Easy enough if you walk down with knees bent continuously and with your upper body bent forward. That brings the center of gravity of your body lower, making it easier to maintain your balance, and you can travel faster, too. Chandru had explained it in great detail but even his magic had not communicated the modus operandi to Geeta and Sampat.

I asked them to do the Orangutan jog and, miracle of miracles, they automatically bent the knees and stooped forward AND traveled faster. It is a rare occasion when something I say actually communicates to the recipients, and rarer still that I manage to do so when Chandru has tried and failed. I will not get over this experience any time soon, I assure you.

The need for speed, from my side, was primarily because the idea was to lunch at Muktinath - and the longer we took over reaching Kagbeni, the later we would leave and the longer I would have to remain hungry. (Glutton, you call me? I will have you know that missing or delaying a meal sets off the gas factory in my belly. If you have a shred of compassion in your make-up, you will regret that jibe soon!)

We hit Kagbeni but the vehicle was not yet available. Ramesh had already left with the porter, on his trek up to Muktimath. By the time we lined up the vehicle and left, it was around 2 PM and, again, we had that experience of traveling in all directions at once. We hit Muktinath after Ramesh had reached. AND, would you believe it, we had to climb some endless steps to get to the temple.

The temple of salvation (Mukti) is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and counts as one of the divya desams. It is also sacred to the Buddhists. The temple is the abode of all five elements. Earth, Sky and Air are available everywhere. Water is normally present too - as a lake or pond - but in Muktinath it is the 108 springs that feed the Kali Gandhaki. Fire, elsewhere, is only present in man-made forms. In Muktinath, there is a continuous natural flame - fed, possibly, by natural gas from underground, near the Jwaladevi temple and housed in a Buddhist temple. Muktinath is also a Shaktipeet, where the temple of Sati is supposed to have fallen.

After a ritual cleansing of the head in the 108 yalis that spew water (and, yet another place where I barely escaped frostbite on the scalp) , we had a darshan of the deity, saw the revered flames and descended down. Lunch time at 4 PM? Not really! Apparently, the last vehicle leaves at 5 PM after which we would have to stay back and wait for the next day. So, it was rush, rush, rush again with a promise of dinner at Jomsom.

Back to civilization but, unfortunately for me, the abstinence proved too much. A serious attack of acidity prostrated me for the next day and a half - when the others went on small day treks, egged on by Ramesh. Once the mandatory trekking was over, the enthusiasm Geeta and Sampat showed for trekking had to be seen to be believed.

Hot water baths, when the water IS hot, is such a pleasure - particularly when you have been deprived of it for so long. I spent the next couple of days reading books and nursing myself back to health. AND there were the mountains all the time - just waiting to enthrall you if you but walked out of the hotel.

We, then, left for Pokhara, spent a couple of days there and flew back to Delhi.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

The Upper Mustang Trek - VII (The Legend of Tulsi)

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart V or Part VI

All through the trek, we have been traveling in the vicinity of the Kali Gandhaki river and, now, we are about to go to Muktinath. It is necessary, then, to also tell you about the myth behind the river, since it is an inseparable part of the myth of Tulsi - the plant that Hindus venerate. There are two versions of the tale - one from the Shiv Puran and one from the Devi Bhagavatam.

The Shiv Puran version is the tale of Jalandhar and Vrinda. Once, when Lord Shiva was angry with Indra, due to the latter's ego, he opened his third eye and was stopped from immolating Indra by the prayers of Brihaspathi and the penitence of Indra. His fury, however, lodged in the Ocean and Jalandhar was born. Thus, in a manner, Jalandhar was the brother of Lakshmi, who also arose from the Ocean at the time of the Samudra Manthan (The churning of the Ocean).

Jalandhar married Vrinda, the daughter of the asura Kalanemi. Vrinda was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu (one version is that she was a gopi cursed by Radha) and as long as she was chaste and prayed for Jalandhar's welfare, Jalandhar was protected from any harm. Jalandhar proceeded to conquer the three worlds and the devas were deprived of their kingdom. Lord Vishnu fights a long and indecisive battle against him but, on the entreaties of Lakshmi, he makes peace with her brother.

Hearing the Sage Narada extol the praises of the beauty of Goddess Parvati, Jalandhar sends a message to Shiva to live true to his reputation of a Yogi and surrender his beautiful wife. Angered by the missive, Lord Shiva battles against Jalandhar but is unable to overcome him. Meanwhile, Jalandhar creates an illusion that keeps Lord Shiva and his army occupied and goes to Goddess Parvati in the guise of Lord Shiva. The Goddess recognizes him for who he was and rises in fury to kill him whereupon he escapes.

When the Goddess asks the Lord Vishnu about why Lord Shiva was finding it difficult to vanquish Jalandhar, he tells her that the Vrinda's chastity and devotion to himself was protecting Jalandhar. The Goddess, then, requests him to put an end to Vrinda's chastity if that was the only way to vanquish Jalandhar.

Heavyhearted at practising such a deception on his devotee, Lord Vishnu takes the appearance of Jalandhar and goes to Vrinda, who receive him as a wife would receive her husband. With her chastity destroyed, Lord Shiva kills Jalandhar with his Trishul. Learning of the deception, Vrinda curses Lord Vishnu to be trapped in a stone (which is the reason why the Shaligram is supposed to embody Vishnu) and, also, that he would suffer separation from his wife (as he did in the Ramayan). Thereafer, Vrinda immolates herself but Lord Vishnu saves her hair and converts it into the Tulsi plant.

The Devi Bhagavatam has a similar tale - with minor variations. In an argument between the Goddesses Lakshmi, Ganga and Saraswati, Ganga and Saraswati are cursed to become rivers and Lakshmi is cursed to be born human and marry an asura. An aspect of Lakshmi is born as Tulsi, the daughter of Dharmadwaj. She undergoes austerities to marry Lord Vishnu when Lord Brahma appears and tells her that before marrying the Lord, she would have to marry an asura.

Meanwhile, Sudama (who, in this case, is considered an aspect of Lord Vishnu) is born as an asura - Shankachud, son of Dhamba - and he marries Tulsi. Shankachud is blessed to be invincible as long as Tulsi remains chaste. He conquers the three worlds and, in his arrogance, challenges the Lord Shiva. The Lord Shiva finds it impossible to vanquish him.

Lord Vishnu then, reluctantly, takes the shape of Shankachud and goes to Tulsi. Shankachud is killed by Lord Shiva and the news is conveyed to Tulsi while Lord Vishnu is with her in her husband's apearance. Upon being accused by an inconsolably weeping Tulsi, Lord Vishnu appears in his true shape. Tulsi accuses him of being stonehearted and curses him to become a stone. Her body decays into a river - Kali Gandhaki - and her hair turns into the Tulsi shrub.

We have a habit of picking all the wrong lessons to learn from our myths. The things to be noted are that a. Even though it WAS the Lord, who committed the 'crime', and even though it was done under compulsion, he accepted the punishment imposed on him and b. Far from being reviled as unchaste - as would probably have been done in these unjust times - Tulsi is a deity to be venerated by the chaste.

Now that we know why the Lord Vishnu - in the form of the Shaligrams - lies always in the embrace of the Kali Gandhaki river, and why Tulsi is Vishnupriya, we can proceed with the last stages of the trek.

Photo Credit: Sampat

The Upper Mustang Trek - VI

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IV or Part V

The climb to Samar on the way up was now the descent. We were headed to Chusang and we started off with the testing descent. Now that we were taking it in easy stages, there was a miraculous revival of interest - nay, active enthusiasm - in Sampat and Geeta. Strange how, once we dispense with the tough parts, trekking seems to become almost an obsession.

Midway though, at the tea-stop, Geeta suddenly developed a new interest. There was a school bus starting off from there and she wanted to continue her trek by bus. No amount of twitting her about the fact that riding piggyback did not mean that she had become a school girl would stop her complaints about how hardhearted Chandru and I were in denying her the pleasure. Apparently, she was vying for the exclusive pleasure of having 'trekked' by every available mode of transportation. (The fact that there was an old foreign gentleman, who was trekking by the expedient of riding a pony uphill and walking downhill, robbed her of that necessary feeling of uniqueness in having 'trekked' by pony. We had to console her by telling her that he could not have done the piggyback ride and the motorbike ride, too)

Ramesh, as usual, had sped ahead and, when we reached the destination, we had a message to join him at the river. By the time we set out - trying to find a way to the river - he was back going gaga about exactly the same things that I talked of when I mentioned my earlier dips in the water. We got side-tracked into plucking apples right of the trees nearby and crunching them. Such crisp, tangy and juicy apples as I had never had in my life - but then I have mostly been a city-brat and something fresh off the trees has not come my way too often.

We did try to reach the river, thereafter, but the only path was a near 90 degree descent - easy enough to accomplish, if you just thought of sliding down, but daunting to think of climbing back up. Ramesh, I suppose, must have found a way OR used this path but judging what I could do by what he could do was more stupid than even I can claim to be. So, we retreated to the tea-house.

There were a few foreigners in the tea-house, as indeed there had been in almost all the tea-houses we were in, who asked Ramesh whether we were all trekking friends - to which he pointedly replied, "Friends but NOT trekking friends". Such is human nature. If you read/write books that I would not read, you are no reader/writer; if you enjoy movies that I do not enjoy, you are no movie buff etc etc. Strange how we define every activity only by how WE prefer doing them.

I am sure that there must be someone - who carries all his belongings himself; finds his own way; puts up his own tent; cooks his own food on his own campfire - who would sneer at the idea of Ramesh calling himself a trekker! Chandru and I, on the other hand, call ourselves trekkers merely because we know of no other word to differentiate what we prefer doing from what Ramesh prefers doing and, thus, what Ramesh said did not act on us like he had deprived us of a deserved Nobel prize. We had both left behind the hierarchies of corporate life and were in no hurry to be fitted into hierarchies in what we thought of as our leisure activity.

So, when the next day's plan was for us to trek to Kagbeni, take a jeep to Muktinath and then continue by jeep to Jomsom, while Ramesh would trek to Kagbeni and then to Muktinath, there was no rush of volunteers to join Ramesh. (From Chusang to Muktinath would have been shorter BUT Ramesh needed the porter to guide him and the porter had to dump our duffel bags in Kagbeni first.)

The last day of the mandatory trek lay ahead on the next day.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Upper Mustang Trek - V

 Click to read Part 1Part IIPart III or Part IV

If there be some such person who has been religiously reading through - and remembering - the posts on this trek, the trek back to Samar should remind such a mythical being of that 3-5 Km descent to the tea-house at Syanboche. THAT, now, would be an ascent on the way back first thing in the morning.

Geeta had, today, decided to trek back by pony - something on the lines of the chap, who is starting his car, telling you that he was going for his morning walk. Ramesh, full of his sense of moral responsibility, had announced his intent to accompany her all the way AND, in an astonishing display of modesty, said that he would go on ahead so that he could be along with when the pony caught up with him. My! My! That he could even entertain the idea of any creature being faster than him on the trails!

Sampat, having suddenly found a grave interest in trekking, declined the offer of a pony and, thus, the three of us - Sampat, Chandru and I - set off before Geeta's ponies had ambled into the picture. Kulendra was with Geeta, since he was the chap who had the onus of getting the pony in and, more difficult, getting Geeta on to the pony.

We had completed the ascent and were down at Bhena for tea with no sight of Geeta. While we were sipping our tea, Geeta finally turned up astride her pony, looking for all the world like a Revolver Rita, sans her revolvers. Apparently, the first pony she had tried decided to have nothing to do with her and it was a miracle that she was not bucked right off into the gorge. THAT one was saddled with the baggage while Geeta was astride the other - more docile - one. WHO said complainers do not get rewarded?

Geeta was surprised that she had HAD to go piggyback on the minor slope, as she descended it with us, giving some respite to the pony. Yes - it is always like that. Slopes seem steeper when you climb than when you descend. The ones that appear almost the same both ways are the ones that you would prefer not to descend, for fear that you would BE the avalanche that goes down faster than the eye can blink.

AND nearly that sort of descent was what we faced up to after some time - going down the gorge to the river. The ponies, apparently, could not be trusted down that slope with a rider on and, thus, Geeta descended with us as well. Once I sighted the river, there was no stopping me. I HAD to have a dip - again.

In fact, on our way up, one of the things that irritated me was the fact that there was no time to spend in the water. I have always been a sucker for running water on my treks - rapids, waterfalls, streams and rivers. The fact that I know no swimming has seldom been a bar and, even some near-drowning experiences as recounted in 'Swimming like a stone' have not put me off it. AND places like this - a stream or river winding its way through a gorge with tall mountains on both sides - have always been of special appeal. Looking up the gorge between the mountains, with the sky seeming like a blue lid on top, and at the watercourse winding down, sometimes hiding itself in a curve and reappearing, glinting in a million diamonds of iridescence was mesmerizing. It always seemed to draw me in with the infinite promises, secrets and allure of Nature at its best.

Again, I was in the water and again Kulendra and Sampat enshrined me for posterity - or the trashbins of their cameras, as the case may be. (I am yet to receive these pics as well). The others stayed well upstream of me and dangled their toes in the water, and snapped the views up the gorge.

The last leg to Samar was an ascent of about 800 meters - the descent when we came down the trail, as the mythical beings can recall. Geeta climbed...her pony...and we climbed. We hit Samar in time for lunch - preceded by a beer, of course.

Meanwhile, what of the chap whose pious intentions were to accompany Geeta on her pony-ride? He had hit Samar a couple of hours earlier, had had a hot water shower and was a beer ahead of us!

Onward to Chusang the next day.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

The Upper Mustang Trek - IV

 Click to read Part 1Part II or Part III

Programs did change and the group split in two. Geeta, Vinita, Sampat, Chandru and I were quite content to lazily wend our way back to Pokhara, while the Swiss trio, Sanjeev and Shivashankar wanted to go on to Lo Manthang and back as planned originally. The surprise was Ramesh. He decided that he had to come back with us - since Geeta had come over on his invitation and it was his responsibility to see that she was safe. THAT, now, was a bit of a poser and left me with ambivalent feelings. Coming back was all fine but with Ramesh in the mix could anything be leisurely?

The next day the Up-to-Lo-Manthang lot went on their way, while the rest of us decided to take a rest day at Syanboche. Some rest day it turned out to be, with Ramesh taking us along on a 'short day-trek' to Chungsi caves. THAT man has no clue what 'short' really means.

It must be said that for him it certainly seemed short. While we were content to walk along on the laid out trail, he was darting to this side to climb a wee bit up to have a look-see at some caves, to that side to see if the trail that way was more 'challenging', and so on and so forth till it made me absolutely tired just to witness his energetic exertions. It seemed such a pity that mankind had spent all those eons in evolving into itself, when there were so many people who exulted in being a cross between a hare, a mountain goat and a monkey. (Geeta was so overcome by Ramesh's exertions that she stopped off mid-way and beat a retreat.)

The way to the caves was all downward, initially - something that always gives me the jitters on day-treks since we would have to come back the same way AND it would be uphill all the way then. And then we found we had to climb up and, would you believe it, I was upset about having to huff and puff uphill with no thought to how easy it would be to come back. After huffing and puffing for about an hour, we hit the caves - to find that there were steps leading up to the final destination.

If there is one thing anathema to trekkers, it is steps. Normally, you find trouble with breathing when going uphill and trouble with ankles and knees when you descend. Steps uphill ensure that you have all the problems all at once. I have no clue what a guy like Ramesh thinks about them - maybe he exults in the fact of a complete challenge - but most of the others groan the moment they see steps.

As for me, the stream by the side of the trail was so inviting, I allowed the rest to go up and get back with the reports of what was there in the caves, while I had a pleasant dip in the water. (Yes! I have been accused of having no clue about the meaning of 'pleasant' when it comes to dips in the water. The water is, normally, ice-melt and is at some 5-10 degrees centigrade. The pleasure of the dip is in the dipper, if you know what I mean. You dunk yourself in the water and pop out the moment you feel that you have lost your skin totally. Then bask in the sun - it is an absolute delight. Do it as many times as you can manage. IF it is cloudy, avoid any such activity. Hypothermia shall make as good a try at killing you as AMS)

By the time the others came down to report that there was a dilapidated figure of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) in the upper cave, I was already in the water. Sampat wanted to take a pic and I was immersed in the water posing for him. He took so long over it that I got frost-bitten in the scalp! Upon questioning, he claimed that looking at me set him shivering so badly that he could not focus the camera. Thank God he did not shiver long enough to have me freeze over totally. (AND the minion of Hell still does not send me the pic so I can post it here. All my freezing was in vain!)

The return to the tea-house was every bit as bad as I anticipated - if anything worse, since the sun was at its noon-day fury by then. After a 5-6 hour trek (Short trek, forsooth!), we were back with chilled glasses on beer in hand.

The next day we were to go back to Samar.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Upper Mustang Trek - III

 Click to read Part 1 and Part II

Geeta was in good spirits the next day and we set off on the trek to Syanboche. The trek was expected to be long - some 20+ kilometers - but the saving grace, apparently, was that only the initial leg to Samar was a climb of some 600-700 meters. Thereafter, there was only a height gain of about 100 meters. Since climbing in the early morning was far less taxing, the prospects seemed not too bad.

By this time, Karthikeyan had established himself among the 'fast group'. On the road journey, he was a part of the 'Chennai chatterers', which so vexed the others, BUT, since he had the uncanny ability to say something or the other which extended one of his legs for a royal pull, he must have thought that pushing himself to travel faster was a lesser evil than having his leg lengthened by the sustained efforts of Chandru or me. THAT was a pity since, by the time we hit the tea-houses for lunch or the evening, his abilities as a masseur was usurped by one of the others. Sometimes, a sense of humor can REALLY cost you!

Vinita, though, went her own way. She stayed somewhere between the rushers and the amblers, probably to totally avoid the members of the 'Chennai chatterers', who were split between the two groups. This left Chandru, Sampath, Geeta, Kulendra and myself at the tail of the trek group. Finding that the slower rhythm of the others was tiring us, Chandru and I went some distance at our pace, sat and waited for the others to catch up, then sped up again and, in this manner, we hit Samar somewhere around 11-11.30 AM.

When you see the photographs, you see it outside looking in AND, more often than not, you see the mountains about the size of your palms. When you ARE there - with the ranges of the brown and green mountains rearing all around you with the snow-capped mountain ranges over-topping them from behind; with the deep gorge to your side and a light green river snaking along the course, glistening in the sun; and with vagrant breezes cooling your brow and vanishing, leaving you panting for more - you are dwarfed by the sheer majesty of the mountains AND, unless you are particularly prone to beating yourself up, you feel exalted at being a part of all this beauty. THAT is the joy of trekking for me, a joy that a visit to a Hill station does not provide since jostling crowds drag you back to the mundane, even before you have craned your neck to see the iridescence of the sunlight on the ice-cap of a distant mountain.

In order to take in the view, it is necessary for you to stop to look around. To gawp at the sights while you are trekking could possibly end up with your BECOMING a part of the landscape instead of merely looking at it. Thus it is that you will see trekkers studiously ignoring all the magnificent beauty surrounding them and look raptly at their feet while they are trudging up the mountains. Except, of course, the gifted few who seem to have been equipped with an extra couple of eyes in their feet.

The program for the day seemed too tight for us to be taking too many breaks to take in the view and, thus, we resigned ourselves to enjoying the view in other people's photographs - much like any of you guys - and toiled our way up to Samar. A tea-break later, we wended our way onward to Bhena which was the scheduled lunch-stop.

We had not gone too far from Samar when we realized that the day's trek plan had omitted an insignificant detail. It was, indeed, a fact that we would only need to gain another 100 meters in altitude BUT right in the way of gaining that altitude was a gorge leading us down to the river. Which, in effect, meant that we would have to descend 800 meters and, then, ascend 900 meters to gain that paltry 100 meter altitude. Ye Gods!

Descents are hell on the ankles and knees, so banish all thoughts of coasting down descents, as though you thought we were youngsters riding bikes. By the time we hit the river and were looking with trepidation at the ascent ahead, Geeta and Sampath were in full flow. The sun was beating down on us with all its afternoon fervor and, every time we hit some shade, both of them started discussing with Kulendra the possibility of hiring ponies or a vehicle to complete the rest of the day's trek. On top of it, Geeta started developing a headache, which seemed more and more like heatstroke than AMS. Chandru went on ahead while I stayed behind with the trio to ensure that they did make it to the end.

The climb seemed to get steeper and steeper, till at one point Geeta just could not keep going. We called on a porter to carry her piggyback for the rest of the ascent - some 200 meters or so. Little did she realize how mercilessly she would be ribbed for that. For the rest of the trek/tour, she had to listen to one or the other of us twitting her for still retaining childish interests like riding piggyback but she was a good enough sport not to resent it.

THAT was, by no means the end of the day's trekking or even climbing. Beyond the ascent was a descent that took us to Bhena where we stopped for lunch - a rather later lunch for us. By then it was clear to both Chandru and me that the program as laid out by Ramesh was certainly beyond Geeta and Sampath. Geeta had collapsed again at Bhena and was dozing and Sampath was nursing his back. Chandru and I could, possibly, have completed the program as laid out but it would have been merely trudging from one tea-house to the next, sleeping and waking up to another day of trudging. The idea of trekking for both of us was to soak ourselves in the ambiance of the mountains and not to merely walk till we dropped for the pleasure of coming back and reporting the completion of some prescribed trek. The latter idea sounded too much like work to us and, to anyone knowing either of us, the very idea of work is anathema. Thus it was that Chandru proposed and I concurred that we could let the rest proceed while we went back in small stages, spending time leisurely on the way back.

Till, of course, we were shocked rudely by the fact that the tea-house refused to rent out rooms, leaving us no option but to either go to the day's destination OR return to Samar. Considering that it was 3 PM already, I thought that braving the descent to the gorge when it would likely be dark was not the wisest of things to do and, so, we went ahead reluctantly to Syanpoche.

Only a minor ascent - till THAT lamp-post and then we descend to the tea-house. HOW simple it sounded. On we went, with Chandru vanishing round the bend in jig time. We had not even reached the start of that 20 degree incline to the lamp-post when Geeta was down and out. Kulendra had sought his guides to send back a hired pony but that seemed nowhere near appearing. In desperation, we flagged down a couple of bikers. One of them offered Geeta a lift and we waved her off, expecting to see her again within half an hour at the top of the climb.

You hit the spot, turn and find another endless climb ahead to another lamp-post. You trudge onward endlessly, as it seems, and then you see the tea-houses within a kilometer to your right. The only fly in the ointment is that a gorge separates you, again, BUT, thankfully, you only need to meander down the trail to the left which snakes back to the destination after a good 3-5 kilometer trek. AND, around 7 PM, almost twelve hours since we started the day's trek, we collapse in the tea-house after hearing, thankfully, that Geeta had been ferried all the way by the motorcyclist.

THAT, then, was how we celebrated Diwali this year!

The next day, programs would change.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

The Upper Mustang Trek - II

You can read the first part here

Homo Sapiens is certainly a most peculiar species. I am certain that most of the denizens would, if told to take time to smell the roses, say impatiently,"Well! Bring the roses to me soon so that I can smell them. I have a zillion things to do." So, it is no wonder that when the group was being split into the 'fast group' and the 'slow group', the first time trekkers were vociferously discontented with being put in the slow group. It did not help that Ramesh, who was the sort to take pride in saying, "You know what? I finished partying in one hour while those other guys needed 5 hours to finish partying", was the chap who was talking of the groups and the way he said 'slow group' made you feel like snails wending your slimy way up the mountains. Trust some people to make a holiday seem more like hard work than your job.

Chandru and I - devoted rose-smellers that we are - automatically places ourselves in the 'slow group'. After all, the novice trekkers needed the support of some 'experienced' ones. Kulendra of 'Adventure Connexion' - the guys who were organizing the trek for us - had joined in as a co-trekker and he, too, was with the 'slow group'. Geeta, Karthikeyan, Vinita and Sampath rounded off the group. The three Swiss Germans - Reto, Regina and Robert; Ramesh; Shivashankar and Sanjeev were the guys, who had decided that their vacation had to be spent playing hard. That, then, was the order of the first day.

Within no time at all, we were faced with an uphill trudge. The trek is in the rain shadow region and you raise a puff of dust with every step you take. The problem for me in such terrain is that the nostrils get half clogged with dust and I perforce have to breathe through the mouth. Since my throat dries up in no time when I do that I inevitably keep coughing in such terrain, which is of course a great help when you are trying to get as much of the thin air into your lungs as possible to help lug your not inconsiderable weight up a slope. But, of course, I was keeping to the tail of the group ONLY because I had to be handy to help the novice trekkers.

The novice trekkers, though, were under no compulsion to keep up with me. Karthikeyan, Geeta and Vinita went rushing on ahead to prove that they did not belong with the slow-coaches. Sampath, though, was taking it slow and easy as befits a man out to enjoy himself. Chandru kept pace with him and I brought up the rear. We hit Chusang for lunch in roughly that order.

The thing about trekking in this region is that you have tea-houses dotting the landscape and, thus, you have your meals at dining tables - with beer, if that is how you prefer it, and stay the night in rooms with beds and quilts laid on. Of course, all tea-houses offer free Wi-Fi and paid-for hot water much on the lines of how I could offer free caviar and champagne at my home. If you can find it, you can have it for free! (Well - since the hot water comes out of solar-heating of freezing cold water, they probably provide a lukewarm bath to ONE trekker and THAT, invariably, used to be Ramesh, who rushed ahead of the group merely for that privilege.)

We hit Chusang to see the crowd - barring Ramesh and Shivashankar who had decided to push on to the day's destination 'Chele' and have lunch there - sitting and waiting for their lunch to be served. Meal orders in these tea-houses have to be placed about an hour before you intend to have the meal. Thankfully, beer does not take that long!

Geeta was lying down with eyes closed. When we checked with her, she complained of headache and nausea. Acute Mountain Sickness can be a killer and these were also symptoms of AMS, so, this was worrying. I gave her half a bottle of electral and asked her to force herself to eat a meal. She drank up the electral, made some indeterminate noises and went back to communing with her misery.

When Chandru says, "When you feel like this, yeah, you HAVE to eat something, yeah, even though you won't feel like it, yeah...", the recipient of the message feels like she is listening to Krishna discoursing on the Bhagavad Gita and is impelled to follow the advice. When I say things like that, I probably sound more like a mosquito buzzing irritatingly in your ears. So, I turned to Chandru and asked him to tell her to eat when the food came. He did AND, of course, she ate.

After the meal we proceeded onwards with Geeta, Sampath, Chandru and I bringing up the rear. As it so irritatingly often happens on these treks, the last leg of the trek for the day was a steep ascent. Ramesh was waiting at the top and when Geeta reached him, she told him that she was feeling poorly since her headache and nausea had still not gone. Ramesh told her that it could not be AMS since she did the ascent quite well and, indeed, the guys behind her (Chandru and I, obviously) were also struggling and using her as an excuse for the slow pace.

Well, now you know! All of you have met such people. Just as the other end of your alimentary canal had emitted one of its infrequent loud noises and you, turning a delicate magenta, look around, hopefully expecting that no-one has noticed it even as the echoes are dying down, there is always someone cupping his ears and declaiming, "Speak on lovely lips that never spoke a lie"! If you know some such person, who specializes in voicing inconvenient truths, you KNOW Ramesh!

Drowning the resentment in beer, we trudged off to sleep to wake up to whatever horrors Ramesh had planned for the next day!

Photo Credits : Co-trekkers! Not a single one by me!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Upper Mustang Trek - I

The problem with being called a veteran at anything is that it automatically creates the pressure to live up to the tag. I mean, just imagine someone calling you a veteran cook with eight years of experience in the kitchen. Even as you are scraping the half-burnt pieces of carbon on to your plate and hypnotizing yourself into thinking of it as dinner, you simultaneously swell up in pride and set your mind scurrying to find explanations for why exactly burning food is a sign of extraordinary culinary expertise.

This, in short, is the position I found myself in on this Upper Mustang Trek. With five first-time trekkers in the group of twelve and my own self clubbed under the veterans, I found myself in the invidious position of having to live up to the name. Rather put the kibosh on any thoughts of squatting down on the trail midway, and kicking and screaming for someone to tote me up those steep trails. Add  to the mix the fact that Ramesh had squeezed a 14-18 day trek into 11 days AND that he thought it would be a good work-out for HIM, you can well imagine that any fond thoughts  - that any given day’s trekking would end well before the time when wailing would seem the only way to go forward - died stillborn. (For those who have not read “Trekking in Kothagiri”, Ramesh is the chap I suspect of being an android, considering the fact that his speed of travel seems to take no cognizance of minor considerations like a 30 degree slope heading up to infinity.) It was, therefore, with much trepidation that I landed in Kathmandu on 19th October.

Such is human nature that the problems of the trek itself paled to insignificance compared to the immediate problem that faced me. Two days of road journey preceded the start of the trek and, as has been cited in these annals before - notably in 'Sick of Motion', the contents of my stomach reacted with motion of their own - upwards and outwards - whenever I hit the roads. What with food refusing to taste as good coming out as when going in, I was understandably averse to the idea. Having been remiss in not perfecting teleportation, however, I had little choice in the matter but to grin and (literally) swallow my bile for the ensuing two days.

The next day, the trip started with a visit to the auspicious Pasupathinath temple. The day's journey was to Pokhara, where we would halt for the night. The journey would have been almost uneventful but for the fact that Sampath gave the first intimation of his uncanny specialty. He had bought a camera at the Delhi Airport, and had left it behind in the vehicle that ferried us from the Airport to our hotel at Kathmandu, along with a bottle of duty-free rum. What was special about the incident was that both were safely recovered and delivered back while we were en route Pokhara. Just to prove that this was no fluke, he repeated the feat with other goods all through the trip - misplacing and, invariably, retrieving his goods!

The subsequent day, we traveled from Pokhara to Kagbeni, from where we were to start our trek. If ever there was a journey where we traveled in every possible dimension all at once, it was this one. So smooth was the road that we were traveling from one side to another, jouncing up and down as well as inching ahead - all at once. It is a tribute to the inherent good nature of my fellow-trekkers that I was not bounced off the seat adjacent to the driver since that would have been the most comfortable seat of all - not that THAT was saying much. After a hair-rising crossing of the Kali-Gandhaki river - not on a bridge or trail but by driving across the river-bed - we reached Kagbeni and, after a gingerly assessment, came to the surprising conclusion that our bodies were still in one piece. (One piece each, I mean, NOT welded to each other.)

The next day would see us start the real business - of trekking up the Mustang trail.

Photo Credits : Co-trekkers! Not a single one by me!