Apr 30, 2014

A Walk in the Mountains - Part V

The homestay.

The reason why the concept of a homestay appeals to me is probably because I find the fake smiles of most hotel staff a bit jarring. On most occasions. On other occasions, the staff are truthful enough not to smile. Besides, there is a sameness to hotels - you could be staying in Kashmir or Kanyakumari (or Jammu or Jhumritalaiya) and you wouldn't know the difference unless you look outside the window (and see the wall of the adjoining building).

So, the prospect that there can be a set of people who are genuinely excited at having you over, open their home to make you feel like you belong, and share their culture with you while learning about yours, was a completely new and surprising one for me.

After all, a hotel does not have the hyperactive owner's kid chasing a hen and its chicks giving the ultimate threat to the birds - "oye, tereko chicken tandoori bana doonga!", or the same kid telling you, "aap toh superman lagte ho." I rest my case.

After a refreshing welcome drink made from a root extract (how I wish I could remember the name), off we went to our rooms. Now, I don't know about you, but after 4 days of walking without a wash, the sight of a clean bathroom and running hot water made me act like an Indian male tourist in Ukraine... drop all my clothes and get steamy.

After a thorough wash, I came back to some chai-pakora and settled down with a book (a 'real' book as opposed to the kindle, as some people I vehemently disagree with say). Soon, it was time for dinner, and some of the most mouth-watering (and eye-watering, man, it was spicy) chutneys. This, coming from a guy who gets to sample some really brilliant mom-made chutneys at home. We also sampled some home made millet beer, but I did not get high since I didn't have much. Blame the elections for that.

The next day, we took a leisurely walk through the village, led by our guide Khushu. Or the Spiderman of Sikkim, as I have named him, for his ability to leap over rocks. No parkour training, no aaj kuch toofani karte hain funda, just years and years of playing on those very same rocks since his childhood!

We went to the riverside...

... and settled down on the rocks...

... and dipped our feet in the icy cold water...

... and came back very refreshed. For once, I felt a little guilty about financing hydro-power projects which go and screw up the beautiful rivers.

We walked some more (me with a wet shoe since I had stepped into the water, after a failed attempt at trying to mimic the Spidey of Sikkim), preferring to soak in the beauty of the hills, till it seemed like it'll rain on our parade. Thankfully, we hitched a ride before the rains came down too strongly, and after a late lunch, I preferred to settle down on a chair, put my feet up, and read.

A good dinner, a very good night's sleep, a warm farewell to our hosts and a sleepy car ride to the airport brought an end to an amazing vacation.
PS1: All photos across all the posts credited to either Shilpi or Mansi, my co-travellers and the really patient folks who have somehow managed to put up with me all through this trek. One would have thought that one previous vacation with me would have been enough to ensure they don't repeat this mistake, but some people apparently never learn!

PS2: Another co-traveller, the greying, grandmotherly, good doctor (in her own words) has also written about this trip. In far fewer words (unless you count the pictures and assign 1 picture = 1000 words logic).
Here: http://jayitapoduval.blogspot.in/2014/04/sikkim-very-special-experience.html?spref=fb&m=1  

Apr 25, 2014

A Walk in the Mountains - Part IV

A trek is a metaphor for life. It involves long hours of apparently pointless activity, for a few moments of exquisite bliss which makes it worth it all. A few moments that make one forget oneself, let alone remember to get a camera and capture that moment for posterity.

But then, a trek is not just about pretty pictures, though we did come back with plenty of those. It is not about penning down an unnecessarily detailed, mostly rambling and extremely boring account of where we went and what we did, though I am kinda doing that right now.

A trek teaches you life lessons. Not in the standard Indian schooling style of making you repeat something ad nauseam, but in a much more subtle manner. A trek teaches you that you do not always get what you want, when you want it, but sometimes, just sometimes, you might end up with something much better when you least expect it. Like the serendipity of catching the perfect sun-rise just because a rooster near the camp decided to wake you up by starting to crow at 4.30 am, when you have unsuccessfully chased the same sun-rise for 4 days. A trek manages to make a hard-core cynic like me, one who believes that when you desire something with all your heart, the Universe simply turns around and says "I don't care a rat's ass", to see the positive side of things for that one brief moment. Sadly, for too brief a moment.

On that pseudo-contemplative note, I started Day 5. And it was a most rewarding day.

Post a hearty breakfast, we started our descent, with more stone steps than we would have liked. Soon enough though, we came across a perfectly pretty little bridge. And we wasted enough time there, clambering over rocks, and dipping our feet in water, much to the chagrin of the tour leader who wanted us to reach the exit quickly since the porters had proceeded ahead and were waiting.

But it takes the might of all the crowds that pull the Jagannath rath to drag me away from a mountain stream. Only the promise of "you'll find a better spot later" managed to convince me to step away from those rocks.

And as we walked on, we came across more of what is now my second favourite part of the trek. Fallen trees. Few people appreciate this, but if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to pose for a picture with it, did it really fall? To remove all doubts, we had posed for several, across all days of the trek...

If a tree falls in a forest...

... and no one is around to pose for a picture with it...

... did it really fall?
You know what's better than a fallen tree? One near a water stream, with a view of the hills...
Water, Tree and Hills... can't get better than this!
This picture was taken at an even prettier place, where we could spend only a brief 15-20 minutes because we were late. Someday, I am coming back, and I am going to spend an entire day sitting here. Someday...

Since we had tested our tour guide's patience, and the normally chilled out guy was close to raising his voice, and since we are responsible adults (although we may not always behave that way), we decide to cut out any detours and bounded down the trail, reaching the exit.

Our car was waiting for us, the luggage had been loaded, and we set off towards Pelling. Lunch was at this excellent place called Hotel Garuda, and I stuffed myself on momos and fried rice. In between, we also visited a monastery, and it was apparently very pretty, but I was too sleepy to notice.

And we finally reached the Daragaon homestay, which was to be our resting place for the next 2 nights. I had planned to wrap up this travel rambling in this post itself, but the warm hospitality of Mr. Shiva Gurung and Mrs. Radha Gurung deserve a separate post...

Apr 24, 2014

A Walk in the Mountains - Part III

Day 3 began with clear skies, when I woke up to the view of the mountains on one side and flower laden trees on the other. In spite of waking up at 5.15, I had missed the sun rise since it was already spreading its golden rays on the snow-capped mountains. Of all the 4 days, this was my absolute favourite campsite.

We were apparently a very, very lucky group since we got such good views on all days of our trek, but I still attribute that to the mysterious mantra chant of my friend.

The tour leader had taught me how to pack my sleeping bag (basically, use all your might to stuff it in to the bag), and I spent a good fifteen minutes attempting it, and although it was obvious from the end result that it had been the work of an amateur, the thing was done. Phew. If anybody is looking for a good and different work-out and is bored of the gym, may I recommend packing 3-4 sleeping bags in a low oxygen atmosphere.

The views were simply too good, and since we had time to kill before the breakfast, I just took the sleeping mat out, spread it out on the grass, and settled down with my kindle.
Pic Credit: Mansi (again!). The 'self-packed' sleeping bag acts as the pillow.

Day 3 was a much easier trek, but since we were descending, it was a bit harder on my knees. But two days of walking had gotten the legs a bit used to this new routine, and without much ado, we were at the camp-site.

The tour leader had mentioned that the Day 3 campsite would be next to a stream. Now, I am an absolute sucker for mountain streams, since the combination of ice cold water and the gurgling sound of the water gushing down rocks makes me insanely happy for reasons I haven't bothered exploring why.

Well, the 'stream' turned out to be yet another hyperbole conjured up by the tour leader, since it was just a very, very thin line of nearly stagnant water where with one step, I could cross from one bank to another. And while the camp-site was in a glorious valley, with hills on either side and a view of the Kanchenjunga in the distance, the massive build-up of expectations around a stream left me, at least initially, a bit underwhelmed. Never set up an appointment with that thing called 'expectations', and you'll not be dis'appointed'. There is a life lesson in there somewhere, but then, long walks in nature tend to make people a bit philosophical.

The younger lot among the porters were playing cricket, with a log as a bat and I joined in for some fun, only to realize my bowling sucks even more than when I was a kid getting plastered all over the place. Soon, sanity prevailed and I let the kids continue with their game, and came back to an excellent lunch.

We got to pitch our own tents, albeit with a lot of instructions given by the tour leader and the sherpa guide.
Pitching our tent
 Once the tents were done, I took off to the 'stream', had a good wash and came back to my favourite position... on the sleeping mat, outside the tent, packed sleeping bag as pillow and kindle in hand. The rest of the gang caught a nice siesta, while I caught up on some Carl Sagan (on that note, I wish I had the ability to convey the sense of awe at the sight of nature the way Sagan does with space and stars in Cosmos...).

I guess I had praised the weather too soon, and Nature decided to teach me a lesson. The bright afternoon sky soon turned into an overcast one, and the rains made me flee into the safety of the common tent. We could hear the wind howling, and the raindrops were also making quite a dent on the tent. We later learnt it was not just rain, but hail.

We had not packed any 'entertainment' options (of course, I had my kindle, but this was an older version and can't be used to read in the dark), and hence we borrowed a pack of cards from the sherpas and played in the lantern light. Well, whatever luck I had seemed to have evaporated along with the morning mist, and I lost all the games. But playing cards are an excellent way to pass time, and even the normally taciturn guide was soon making laconic remarks on the game.

I woke up early on Day 4 as well, determined to catch the sunrise at least once during the trip. Missed it again, but was rewarded with this.
I have no words!

The grandeur of the mountains explains why local communities usually worship them as deities, and usually such a sight moves people to praise the 'Creator'. Realizing that this is the product of 40-70 million years of continental drift, and not the overnight handiwork of a conveniently invoked super-being, should, if anything, add to the sense of wonder about these mountains. Sadly, most people don't agree.

But standing before the mountains in their full glory is a humbling experience, irrespective of your faith (or lack of it). Realizing that these mountains were here for thousands of years before you, and would continue to exist and enthrall people a million years after you are gone, does give one a sense of perspective. The pressures of every day life, the humdrum worries about mortgage and pay rise and hairline receding begin to melt away in the presence of such magnificence.

Meditating on the magnificence of mountains and the allure of alliteration

Day 4 was the toughest day, since it involved a 2 hour climb, a 2 hour traverse and then a 1.5 hour descent. The climb was tough, but the traverse was more painful because the trail was full of uneven rocks and there was this constant fear of twisting my ankle. We took a lot of breaks, and for once, I concentrated on the walk itself, without my usual monkeying around.

Unlike the previous days when I had attempted to pay homage to the ancestors...
Conclusive proof for Evolution!
The traverse ended at a military border outpost, where we had lunch and then began the most painful part of the journey. The descent was over steep stone steps cut into the mountain, and they were steep enough to send a jolt through my knees at every step. Seeing the sherpas bounding down those same steps at great speed, with a song on their lips, only made it worse.

After exactly 1 hour and 18 minutes, (I know, because we timed it), we reached the camp-site, thankful for the opportunity to take off the shoes and put up our feet and rest.

Evening of Day 4 involved more card games, more general chit chat and a general sense of achievement, since we were nearing the end of our trek. All that remained for the next day was a short descent, but what a fun descent that turned out to be...
PS: Combined Day 3 and Day 4. After all, there are only so many lines one can write about "we woke up, we walked, we ate awesome food, we talked, we slept" :)

Apr 21, 2014

A Walk in the Mountains Part-II

Read Part-I first. This is not a non-linear narrative!

Day 2 began with glorious sunshine, as brilliant as Wodehousian prose. The mist had cleared and the mountains were visible in full glory. Thanks to, as I came to know later, a mysterious chant by my friend. Did you know that, before the mountains were mapped and explored and their summits conquered, the British geologists once speculated that the Himalayan mountains were a volcanic range because of the white plumes constantly rising from the top of the peaks? Well, I could see the snow capped mountains, I could see the plume of white rising from the top, and I could see the golden rays of the sun kissing the mountains. It was much more surreal that what a person with my limited ability with words can describe.

Even though I had risen at 5.30 am to catch the sun-rise, I found that the sun had beat me to it. I had heard that people in the North-East are early risers, and the sun seemed to have joined their gang. But it was still cold, way too cold for my comfort. In spite of being wrapped up in my heavy jacket. But the chill in the air, I now believe sitting in warm Mumbai, added to the magic. It was time for the most important activity of the day.

*Queasy people, skip this - Don't say you weren't warned. Others, select the text to read*
Now, I don't know about you people, but I am quite fastidious (almost Sheldon Cooper-ish) about my morning bowel movements. If my morning dump happens without anyone disturbing/ hurrying me, I feel at peace. Any issue there, and I end up feeling literally crappy all through the day. I am also quite particular about water in the loo, and have cribbed enough times about some hotels being too posh for me, what with their fancy toilet paper and water-less loos. Now, camping in the open has its perks, with glorious views, starry skies at night, fresh air and the general upbeat atmosphere of 'being outdoors'. But it was one little drawback. There is no shit-pot. 

Apparently, they dig a hole in the ground, cover it up with a tent, and expect you to go do your business and wipe. Put a little sand on top of your output, so that it is ok for the next person to use the tent. No water since the hole in the ground would get too messy.

Well, the trekker's hut had a loo (with a bucket, mug and running tap water!), and so, I decided to use it for the day, before I truly became part of the uncivilised wilderness for the next couple of days. It was the most blissful dump I had taken for a long time. I came back to find that the yaks had no compunction about doing their business in the open, since I nearly stepped on the dung and was only saved because mist was rising from the warmth. I always thought 'big steaming pile of shit' was a metaphor, till I saw that.

*Queasy people, welcome back. The subsequent paragraphs are hopefully not as shitty*

Day 2 was planned to be a more difficult walk than Day 1, and hence I was advised not to try any heroic stunt like carrying my own backpack. My shoulder and back muscles agreed, and we started off at 9 am, deeper into the trail, in the middle of bamboo forest, with rhododendron, magnolia, daphnia flowers greeting us. The climb was steep in some places and our progress was a bit slow. We eagerly took every possible opportunity to click some snaps, partly because the views were so compelling, and partly because every photo-op was also a chance to rest. The legs were slowly realizing that they were being tricked into a longer walk, and had started to protest.

Against the advice of the tour leader, I had also chosen to carry my heavy jacket with me, and that beast was wearing me down. Soon, I was questioning the wisdom of agreeing to come for the trek, and muttering "I am too old for this shit" to myself.  Thankfully, we took a break for lunch, in a pretty meadow, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Sandwiches and hot soupy noodles. And I took the opportunity to rest a bit.

 Pic Credit: Mansi, the lady who can create magic with her camera.

Unfortunately, the rest period was shorter than I would have liked, and we set off for another long (about 2 hours?) walk, climbing most of the way.

The tour leader did not help things by pointing out that this was a very, very easy trek. It took us two more days to realize that he was very, very liberal with his use of 'very'. Well, all I can say is that I was not very, very amused by that.

Walking for long stretches of time can lead to very, very weird discussions. I don't exactly remember how it started (maybe it had something to do with the day being Ram Navami), but soon we were debating whether Ram was a North Indian god, and whether Krishna was a West Indian god and who really qualifies as a South Indian god. I didn't think of this then, but on reflection, given his complexion, his general party attitude and his way with the ladies, I think Krishna qualifies to be a West Indian (of the Caribbean kind).

Thankfully, before we could allot any more geographical restrictions on the gods, they decided to hurry us onward to our camp site! The mist had re-enveloped everything (or probably, my friend was not chanting the mantra properly) and we settled into the tent for some chai and cookies. After some more time spent chatting on various topics, including ethics in the medical profession these days (thanks to the doctor), we settled in for the night.

I slept much more soundly, partly from being very, very tired, and partly because, well, I do have a clear conscience!
PS: One post for each day looks about right. By that logic, this would go on for at least 3 more posts. If I have the energy and enthusiasm for it.

Apr 19, 2014

A Walk in the Mountains - Part I

What is your idea of a nice vacation? Mine involves a white sand beach, the evening sun, a chilled beer and some good food, and lying on a hammock with a book in hand. The one thing I don't get is why would anyone want to do any 'activity', much less one of a physical kind, on what is supposed to be a period of rest and relaxation.

So, imagine my consternation when the gang (i.e. those few friends who can still put up with my PJs over an extended period of time) suggested a trek in Sikkim in one of our many conversations on vacation planning. (As an aside, we float multiple mails/ chats/ whatsapp group messages on possible vacation plans, most of which meet the same fate as any random character from the Game of Thrones, i.e. die a painful death).

 Now, I fail to recollect whether it was the work pressure, a crazy resolution to try new things, the allure of the snow-capped mountains or a growing sense of 'let's do stuff before we get too old to do so' (after all, one can lie on a beach with a chilled beer and a book even when one is 60), but something made me respond with a 'Yes'. And so, plans were made, tickets were booked, and leave was applied for. Of course, not before the budget was agonized upon, fretted over, and the trip nearly ditched because this year is a bad year when it comes to pay.

Being new to this concept of paying a large sum of money for walking up a mountain, I was not too enthused about the trek. (I mean, the least you can do for this amount is teleport me directly to the top of the mountain in a sort of Beam-me-up-Scotty way... what do you mean I have to walk it up? You surely cannot expect me to do the work and pay for it too!). And the tour leader (the guy who runs this: http://www.kipepeo.in/) did not help matters by sending a detailed inventory of things to carry for the trek. Having never spent any part of my life in a place where there is even a hint of cold weather (unlike the Starks, I have never had to worry about when 'Winter is coming'), I found that I was woefully ill-stocked when it comes to clothes which would permit me to endure anything other than the sweltering heat. And so, new trekking shoes, a huge backpack, track pants and sweatshirts and other expensive stuff were ordered online, and the vacation budget was looking worse than Air India's.

And thus the vacation started...


After a long, uneventful flight from Mumbai to Bagdogra via Guwahati, I stepped out of the airport only to find myself surrounded by taxi touts offering to take me to Darjeeling, Gangtok, Pelling and China. Ok, maybe not China. But the friends had already hired a vehicle, and after a quick lunch, we found our tour leader and his vehicle waiting for us. And we met our first co-traveller, a nice doctor from Pondy with a penchant for, as I came to know later, photographing flowers. A 5 hour cab ride later we were in a charming little guest house, in time to watch India lose miserably to SL in the T20 final. Somewhere in the middle of the cab ride, we had picked up our last co-traveller, a lady from Pune with a penchant for, as I came to know later, food, photography, talking and cats, though not necessarily in that order.

Waking up to a misty morning, I took a small walk around the premises, admiring the views of the valleys and listening to the sound of birds. Was soon joined by my friends, one of whom was wearing a 'Converse' branded sweatshirt, which gave me an opportunity to crack the "Converse, not a verb #tinai" PJ. Come to think of it, Converse could also be a poem about a thief. But considering that we were standing at a place where, if an unintended push came to shove, I was likely to become the Jack who broke his crown and there was no Jill to come tumbling after me, I decided to keep my PJs to myself. Or crack them later, when I blog about the trip, from the safety of my house.

After all, imagine kids being taught this:
Jack and Jill (and Jane) went up the hill
To watch a pretty red flower
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill and Jane wouldn't bother

After a nice breakfast, we got into a vehicle, a form of motorized transport that would be alien to us once we set foot inside the sanctuary. The plan, for those of you who are interested in the mundane logistics of the trip (as opposed to listening to me pontificating on the myriad mysteries of life), was to drive to Hilley, enter the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, and trek for 4 days, and exit from Uttarey. (Itinerary here).

The tour leader assured us that it is an easy trek, and in any case, the backpacks were to be given to the porters and all one has to do was to walk a bit. Maybe it was the mountain air, or maybe the lower levels of oxygen at that altitude had addled my thinking faculties, but for some unfathomable reason, I decided that I will trek with my backpack instead of handing it over to the porters. After all, what's another 9.5 kg bag on top of a moderately heavy (I am not disclosing my weight in public!) person.

There is a thin line between bravado and foolhardiness and for a painfully short-sighted person like me, the line is practically invisible. After about 3 and 1/2 hours of slowly huffing and puffing through the trail, I had a vague sense that I had crossed that line somewhere without realizing it.

The first day was supposed to be an easy day, with the intent being to gradually remind our legs of their raison d'etre. The legs probably thought this is just a one-off excursion which would soon be remedied by long periods of inactivity and did not protest much. We reached our first camp-site, by the side of a trekker's hut, overlooking a ridge. The whole area was covered in mist, and the tour leader casually mentions that if the mist clears, we would get some good views of the Kanchenjunga. He also casually mentions that some groups could spend 4 days without ever seeing the mountains because of the mist.

We had a good lunch (actually, the food was excellent all 4 days of the trek, and to save myself the trouble of repeating it over and over again, let me put it out upfront... whenever I mention breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner, feel free to add your own preferred adjective from sumptuous, delicious, mouth-watering and other superlatives). Since we were not too tired after our 'light' walk in the morning, and since we were freshly energized from our intake of food, we decided to do some more walking around, and reached what supposedly would have been a wonderful view point. But the mist was persistent, and all we could see was a white blanket of condensed air. I half imagined that a White Walker would slowly walk out in front of me, and feared that the last sight I would see is a sword of ice cutting me up.

Well, given that I am writing this blog post and last time I checked, my eyes haven't gone blue, you can safely assume that no White Walkers showed up and we returned to our tents safely. Only to be greeted with warm tea, rains, and yaks tethered up near our tents.

Now, people who know me really well, know that I can sleep anywhere, anytime. And I pride myself on that, often taunting other sleepless people that 'a clear conscience brings sound sleep'. Well, it is said that visiting the mountains is a humbling experience, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I did not have sleep as well as I am used to. Maybe it was the tent, maybe it was the sleeping bag, maybe it was the excitement of the day ahead. Or maybe my conscience was getting misty like the weather outside.

And thus ended Day 1...

PS: Like GRRM, I do not know how many parts this will take. I might ramble on for 3-4 posts, or I might wrap it all up in a single post. Let's see how it goes.