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. 

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