Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Afterword

Describing the Rupin Pass Himalayan expedition undertaken between May-June 2017 on these blog pages required selective text and a general tone. I have withheld a major part of my personal notes and experiences, for they won't serve the purpose of a travel blog.

There were several wonderful fellow trekkers who were part of the travel narrative. Barring a handful, I have omitted mentioning about most of them, to serve the travelogue's linear, minimal storytelling pattern.

The importance of having a good morning shit, mules, sharing water bottles, the thrill of playing Mafia, an afternoon of playing cricket, lining up for food and the final train journey to Pune are all elements that didn't make it to these travel blog posts. The ripples of the journey will be felt over the days to come. 

au revoir

goodbye until we meet again

Special Mention: My Walking Stick

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: The Kalka-Shimla Toy Train, Deadly Chicken, Etc (Day #12)

Enroute to Kalka

The famous Kalka-Shimla railway line ran parallel to the road, for an ample duration of our bus journey to Kalka Railway Station.

Toy train journeys have always fascinated me. The Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge railway service has existed since 1903. It was only in 2010 that the 105-year old steam engine was replaced by a diesel locomotive. Having rediscovered the quaint ring of childhood during the scenic and wonderfully slow-paced Matheran Railway trip, I could only imagine the joys of journeying on the Kalka-Shimla-Kalka toy train.

       The Kalka-Shimla Toy Train

Drowsy, Sleepy Afternoon at Kalka
Kalka is a sleepy railway station, just the kind of place to laze away to boredom and an afternoon nap. The train to Delhi was to arrive in another three hours. The luggage was deposited in the waiting room. We refreshed ourselves and some people stayed back to guard the luggage, while the rest proceeded for lunch. 

The Deadly Chicken 
The Kalka railway station canteen was an old-time eatery with bearable, edible food. I broke my "only-veg" vow again to order chicken curry. It was a disastrous decision. The chicken tasted like it had been dug up from its coffin, drowned in brown liquid and served. The canteen manager only looked more bored when I complained. He had the quiet conviction of a man who knew that nothing was going to happen. So I posted a picture of the dish with the Indian Railways "handle" on Twitter, along with a written complaint. Yes, they never responded. 

The steam engine as showcased on the Kalka railway station waiting room wall

One Dull Looking Train 
Post lunch, I strolled down the deserted station, gazing at a passing train or two, just to while the hour away. The Kalka-Shimla toy train was ready to depart from a platform and despite the unattractive color combination and drab look, it was worth a glance. At the time of writing this blog post, there is news of reassigning steam engines to all operational heritage trains across India. Now that would be something. Hopefully, the trains will be tastefully redesigned and repainted in brighter colors.

The Kalka-Delhi train journey was largely uneventful. We arrived at Delhi the same evening and ambled to our hotel room in a single line. Many of the group members would be departing Delhi by flight, a dozen of us would be on the train to Pune the next day.

My first Himalayan trekking expedition was done. It had been one rollercoaster ride in continuous slow motion.That I had walked over the Himalayas and was now returning home, was a growing, pleasant feeling that was finally sinking in. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: From Sangla to Shimla (Day #10, Day #11)

Cell phone towers, power grid wires mar the view at Sangla

For sheer exasperation, the latter stages of reaching Sangla was the most testing part of the trek. The initial phase of the trek was magical, with mountain folk passing by, a jungle of pine trees, resplendent greenery, a gentle aromatic breeze floating across and a yak.

Yak of the Groovy Hairstyle 
Did I say yak? Midway through the trek, Rushikesh, the group's mischievous, adventurous spirit, called out in strange loud tones to a baby yak doing its own thing over a hill far above. The next instant we see the yak tumbling its way in a left curve down to us.

This baby yak had thick groovy hair falling over its face like it had been to some cool dude hairdresser. It seemed driven by curiosity and yet held back with an inherent coyness. An absolute cute, tantalizing combination, that. I recall someone trying to feed the animal a green stem. This was the only vivid animal-human encounter that occurred during the trip.

Fragile, Handle With Care
The Rupin Pass trek is in many ways about experiencing the Himalayas in a full circle, to an extent. From snow, grass, desolation, teeming forests, roaring pure water bodies, you also witness the ugly beginnings of urbanization.

The last leg of the trek was mostly a devious mix of mud and rubble. When we finally reached Sangla, walking across the bridge over a roaring river, it was evident how the Himalayas could be ruptured by human habitation, oh so easily. Suddenly the beauty seemed marred, though the mountain air still exuded its effect.

The walk from the outskirts of Sangla to our hotel rooms seemed to exhaust us more than all the hiking we had done over the week. Maybe it was to do with climbing stairs and stepping on tar roads again. After a week in heaven, we were inching once more to the self-destructive hellish gateways of widespread human habitation.

A more comforting view of Shimla from the hotel room window 

Shimla Calling 

Restaurants, hotel rooms, toilets and the prospect of bathing after a week! We collected at a restaurant and gobbled our lunch like lost and found travelers. Evening walks, Dim Sum feasts, hot beverages and sleeping on actual beds followed. The eateries close shop pretty early at Sangla, as is common in villages. It isn't a village unless they retire early.

Sangla is merely a transit point with no distinctive feature or beautiful landmarks. Except for the snow-powdered mountains, looming like generations of ash smoke, as we caught the early morning bus to Shimla. It was late afternoon when we reached our destination.

Sangla at Daybreak

Dark T-Shirt Secrets
The evening was spent at Mall Road. We had dinner together at a restaurant, roamed around aimlessly, checking out eateries and stores.

I bought a dark gray Superman t-shirt because my present stock was best packed in. I am a Batman fan, they just didn't have one of him. A dark t-shirt seemed the right thing to wear for the remaining two days of travel. A dark t-shirt meant you didn't see my sweat patches, for one. Basically, you couldn't pinpoint where that attractive, perfumed musk-like manly body odor was emanating from. Stealth mode activated.

Shimla, At a Glance
Of what I saw of Shimla during that evening and morning after, it still had a charm and a restrained degree of development, not yet overtly dealing with air pollution, plastic waste, and other Indian city evils. At least, that is what it appeared to be, during our brief stay. The next morning we would be on our way to Kalka to catch a train to Delhi.

A roadside view of the Mall Road, Shimla

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Hailstones and Other Stories (Day #9)

I poke my head out of my tent at the Ronti Gad Camp and this is the surreal sight...

As we trekked down to the Ronti Gad camp, the ground was a shiny, blazing green again. The mountains were all around us, submerged in vision. We were all more relaxed and conversational now.

But as we neared the camp, the cheery weather began to change its texture. We placed our backpacks in the tents and began settling in when the clouds gathered above, passing swiftly. The porters began running for cover. Then the hailstones started falling like mini cannon balls. It was quite a sight, catch a glimpse of it in the video below.

An Afternoon of Mountain Gazing 
For my first Himalayan trek, it made some story that the weather finally gave away hours after the summit climb. That this happened after we comfortably made our tents, is another notable occurrence. I couldn't imagine making that final climb with hailstones dropping heavy on us.

A major part of the afternoon was spent in the tents as rain followed. When the weather began to clear again, the great Himalayan summits further away came into view. Sitting there huddled in a group, gazing at a distance, as clouds and mist momentarily revealed majestic mountain tops was a glorious sight.

Dancing and Dreams   
Before dinner was served, the evening was spent dancing in a circle to the latest Hindi film dance songs. Apart from the fun, the dancing also helped generate much-needed warmth. We had descended from 15,250 ft and were camping at 13420 ft. It was chilly after the passing shower and we needed the body heat. Most of the group members and a couple of enthusiastic, cheerful porters joined in. The porters were simple, open-hearted folk, they seemed at home in the mountains.

The night got colder as we retired snug into our sleeping bags. This was our last night outdoors, in such close proximity to the mountains.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: The Fun Descent (Day #9)

As is considered usual and not addictive in any way nowadays, cameras and cell phones reappeared like old habits from our respective pockets and bags as we celebrated our maiden Rupin Pass summit climb. This was the first ever Rupin Pass batch that the organizers and trek leaders had accompanied to the top, it was a proud moment for them as well. For once, too many photographs were justified. It had been an enthralling, tough climb to the summit.

The Rupin Pass Trek has no base camp. So you don't return by the same route. One descends down the other side of the Pass over another two days to the village of Sangla. So the trek was far from over, though the prime challenge was done. There were more new sights, terrain, and experiences awaiting us.

 Play Video to View Snow Slide

Rupin Pass Descent: Lie Down and Slide!
The fun began right at the summit slope. Each one of us had to descend the first 150-200 meters by lying on our back, raising our arms, keeping the legs straight on the snow and just letting go!

I went down as the second or third person sliding, realizing that doing it now would mean less friction, more speed, and undeniable thrill. It proved to be true. The tenth and eleventh person came down the same slope considerably slower. The porters, as we astonished onlookers discovered with much glee, knew a way to tackle this mitigating factor by coming down fast and tumbling, riding single or double over large thick polythene sheets, used to cover their tents.

The sensation of your body flat on the ground, speeding like a comet is one of the greatest pleasures you can have with snow. So off we went down a couple more brief but breathtaking snow slides, tracing our way to Ronti Gad, our next camp at 13000 ft.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: The Summit Climb, Part II (Day #9)

These photographs by our fellow trekker and prolific photographer Vijay S Somayajula gives a glimpse to the heart-stopping thriller that the Rupin Pass summit climb was.

There is a reckless streak in each one of us, lying dormant for most of our lifetime. It does awaken occasionally, especially when we find ourselves in a tight corner. I sometimes want things to go worse, just for the fun of it. A teeny weeny bit of harmless fun. Was our unending run of good luck going to cease here? Probably, we will now get a snowstorm, an avalanche and a stampede of mountain goats along with this steep climb to nowhere.

But nothing remotely like that happened. The weather, yes, that wonderful, much-repeated, single worded element of these travel diaries, yes you guessed it, the weather continued and continued to be excellent. Mountain goats were not hurling themselves from the other end either. In fact, there was no sign of them.

In retrospect, we couldn't have asked for more.

For a final ascent, the Rupin Pass summit climb just didn't seem to end.

This 40-minute slow hike to the top still stands out in my consciousness in great, unblinking detail.The snow, the almost-vertical path, taking each step carefully, deepening the foot holes for better grip, a growing anticipation, a faint wisp of excitement in the air...

Life itself seemed to have taken a pause, as we took the final steps to the summit. The culminating, overwhelming flood of feelings is best experienced. Words are too feeble to describe it. There, enough said. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: The Summit Climb, Part I (Day #8, Day #9)

Despite the biting cold, it was at the final camp before the Rupin Pass ascent that we really let ourselves go. Snow extended beyond our sight and after a heavy lunch, everybody got to sliding down slopes, making snowballs and having a wild time.

Soon a mega snowball throwing battle ensued and livened up the afternoon, with no two distinct sides. Almost everybody was aiming for everybody else. By early evening, we were icy wet, cold and wrapping ourselves in layers of sweaters and jackets. Extra servings of masala noodles made up for the chilly evening.

The Rupin Pass Summit Climb Begins
The sunlight honeyed over the snow the next morning, it was simply another splendid day for a trek! The organizers provided each one of us with a pair of crampons as an extra grip for our shoes. We began closing in towards Rupin Pass with a collective steadiness. This was the longest stretch of snow we had to tread on so far and it took that additional bit of effort and time.

Overheard: Trek Leader Monologue
Nothing prepared me for the actual summit climb. I didn't know what to expect, despite having checked the Internet (prior to the trek) for detailed images.

Our group awaited our turn to make a beeline for the final climb, while another trekking group went ahead. Before proceeding, the leader of that group was delivering no-nonsense instructions in one loud monologue. "Hold the trekking pole in your right hand.Take one step at a time. If you fall, fall alone, don't hold on to the person beside you, don't fall over the person behind you. OK? Let's go!"

Mountain Wisdom: One Step at Time
Overhearing that conversation gave me the first hints as to what lay between the two vast expanses of jutting snow-smothered rocks. Surely that man was exaggerating. I thought he was basically creating an atmosphere of caution among his group of trekkers. We were soon to find out for ourselves.

I realized then that this epic trek had been so immensely enjoyable because I had not thought about tomorrow or even the next hour for one instant. It had been about taking the next step and nothing else.

I tell you, walking in the mountains for over a week changes you, you will never be the same again. Either you will heed the call to climb the mountains again, or return resigned to your dreary habits and to habitats that we call the cities of India. Among the traffic, chaos, smoke, population crisis, corruption, greed, grime, and carbon soaked air, you will then long for the mountains and suffer.

Suffer then and suffer well. How else will you make it to the mountains again, but with that huge bullet-holed memory in your heart? How will you make it again, but with that desire for deep, eternal calm?   

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Dhanrashi/ Lower Waterfall to Upper Waterfall Camp (Day #8)

Heading past 13000 ft and beyond, a great silence enveloped us like a gentle friend. It was the toughest day of the trek so far and I recall that we didn't speak much that day. Sometimes we urged a lagging person with encouraging words like, "Come on!" And that was that.

Sunlight reflects off snow in a continuous blinding burst at this height, my specially-bought sunglasses really served their purpose over the next two days. Despite the ample food we were eating at the daily stopover camps, many of us were losing their appetite, some were experiencing headaches due to altitude sickness. Nobody fell seriously ill though. The weather continued to be excellent, like a long run of good fortune.

Soon, any sign of vegetation would completely disappear. The geography would be limited to only snow and rocks until the descent.

Lower oxygen levels meant more little breaks. The walking rhythm was a crucial factor now to maintain a certain pace and at the same time for energy retention. Veteran mountain trekkers were more at ease though, with a been there, done that finesse in their movements.

The organizers had decided to set up camp at almost 14000 ft, further away from the Upper Waterfall. We were covering more distance that there was less to cover the next day, the final day of the climb. For we needed all our gathered grit and courage for the upcoming Rupin Pass summit climb. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Buras Kandi to Dhanrashi / Lower Waterfall (Day #7)

The experienced Himalayan campaigner, Aditya, guides me before I set foot on my first snow trek.

What was my prior reference point to trekking on snow? Commercial Hindi films. Bollywood movies have made walking on snow feel like dancing on your best friend's wedding. I mean, even way back in Junglee (1961), Shammi Kapoor rolled, crashed and drowned in the snow without any visible injury, while shouting a thunderous, "Yahoo!" to go with it. As for Sridevi swaying in a thin yellow saree in Chandni (1989) to Rishi Kapoor's sweater-draped romp over the definitely chilly Switzerland hills, well they must have paid her damn well for that craziness.

Walking on Snow: Alertness the Key 
Cutting back to reality, believe me, Hindi film fans and my other dear readers, you are on your own here. How hard snow, melting snow or crushed snow responds to your shoe grip can be tricky. The best thing for beginners is to stay alert and ensure a firm grip with every step. I had my faithful companion, a walking stick. It was a stout lengthy dark branch of a tree that a villager at Jakha had cut to the right size, scrubbing it's one end to a rough bluntness. The stick made for great support, especially during the testing snow hikes.

Crampons, to be fixed to the boots for superior grip on prolonged snow walks, were provided on the vital day of the thrilling summit climb, but more on that later.

Himalayan Magic: Melting Snow, Gushing Stream
We arrive at the Lower Waterfall camp after another tough but enjoyable day of trekking. That the air was getting thinner at 12000 ft was evident now. I tread cautiously, catching my breath after a set of dozen steps and then moving ahead.

Many of us were carrying our own backpacks. What we ate, how much we ate, how much energy needed to be conserved, precautions to not fall sick, protective layers of clothing, drinking warm water, were now important factors. Keeping conversation to the minimum while trekking - another good idea for unhindered breath.

The waterfall was gushing as a result of the steadily melting snow. It was no longer in the icy white, frozen form that I had seen on the Internet image searches. In fact, by evening, the stream beside the camp had doubled in volume and width. Jokes on flooding and imminent death followed.

It was unlikely though for the stream to swell through the night and engulf us all. Surely, the weather would grow colder and the melting ice would pause until sunrise to continue its age-old cycle.We were all still alive, dry when morning arrived, to the tinking of the bells around the porters' grazing mules. An icy flood, a timely escape, and an exciting rescue mission ending with steaming hot chocolate cups would have made a great story though, at least on paper.

One, with the Mountains 
To be at par with the adjoining mountains during the acclimatization climb treats us to another great waterfall and a grand view. It is truly as if we were in the age when gigantic beasts ruled the earth and gods at war flung huge weapons of lightning, piercing the earth and creating mountains. Climbing up fast and joyously, it is here that I am finally confident and convinced that nothing will deter me from enjoying every step of the trek to follow, from making the final summit climb.

Another majestic waterfall greets us at the Lower Waterfall camp, falling from a great height, making midgets of mighty rocks.

Our tents seem like a distant, unknown village while gaining height during the acclimatization climb. 

The first sun rays slice the top of the mountain into two shades. It is an epic sight, imagine watching a miniature tilted, revolving earth, lighting up from within. That's what it felt like.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Jakha to Buras Kandi (Day #6)

Words end up as cliches in describing the Himalayas. The Himalayas are best experienced, and the best way to do this is to hike on foot. Though 'development' is already ruining the joy of treks in certain parts of Himachal, the Rupin Pass trek is still unaffected and untamed.

Crossing the log bridge over the stream during the trek to Buras Kandi.
The Photography Addiction  
In reflection, I wish to have taken fewer photographs and let the moment sink in deeper. Yet, that ubiquitous need to photograph and shoot short videos to aid storytelling later back home got the better of me. Still, I think I was judiciously enough to not use the cell phone camera all the time, except at select places and enjoy the trip raw and first-hand, for most of its duration. The best moments happened when the cell phone was tucked away safely in my backpack.

A Fragile Coexistence 
Gurgling with force, flowing with vigor, one feels transported to the making of the world, the time when humans were yet to conquer the earth with an insatiable greed, the time when nature was king and queen. Nature still rules in the Himalayas, but it is a fragile co-existence, as we witnessed in later sections of the trek.

An Ancient Route
The Rupin Pass trek route is a traditional path that dates back to more than 800 years. Shepherds are known to be the originators of this route, leading their mountain goats through the mountain passes, snow tops, and valleys for many generations now. Mountain goats and shepherds were our companions right up to the Rupin Pass summit climb.   

Behold! The first sight of snow! Yes, I finally get to see the first snow of my lifetime! The mountain is farther away than it looks, hazy and mysterious even on a sunlit day.

My first touch of snow, duly documented during the acclimatization climb at Buras Kandi, as melting on the top of my finger. This is not fresh snow, the feel of it is like ice kept in a deep freezer for an entire season and then sprayed on the mountains as some kiddish mischief. My first snow trek was to follow the next day.

One of our porters rests under a twisted tree.The organizers pick a great place to camp as always at Buras Kandi. It has been a grueling but rewarding day of trekking. As we continue to gain height, now camping at over 11,000 ft, the scenery is more breathtaking.

Mountains loom over us like benign giants and the upper and lower waterfalls come into view. It's an epic setting, for some seconds it seems unreal. A couple of months ago it was highly unlikely for me to be here, yet here I was.      

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Sewa To Jakha (Day #5)

Bright clear day, and as fellow trekkers had suggested, one doesn't need layers of clothing while trekking during these initial days. The body generates enough heat for one to trek with just a t-shirt and a pair of trousers. The thermals, sweaters, gloves were required in the evenings and while sleeping in the camping tents. We were yet to get our first glimpse of snow.

Wild, untouched, greenery. The air is abundant with a richness of oxygen and life teems here unhindered, except on the rocky, trodden path.

Again, we were warned not to drink too much of the ice-cold water from the passing streams, because there was the danger of falling sick from a stomach ache, and resultant disastrous effects related to the bowel movement.

We rest for a few minutes en route to the hanging village of Jakha. At Jakha, no construction touches the earth, every wooden house and construction stands above the ground, supported by sturdy wooden pillars giving the village its name.

The Card Players of Jakha 
We reach Jakha in the afternoon. I find a group of village men engaged in a leisurely card game and strike a conversation.

The gentleman on the left, speaks of his winter trip to Pune a year ago (and about liking it immensely). He clearly didn't witness Pune's chaotic traffic. Along with a group of villagers from Himachal Pradesh he also visited legendary activist Anna Hazare's village Ralegan Siddhi during the trip, underwent training in water conservation and sustainable agriculture techniques.

He clearly didn't like the trip to Mumbai. Understandably. Our conversation extended in bits and parts, unhurried. He was mulling over his next hand in the card game and speaking when it pleased him. Only the afternoon and its goings concerned him. There was no cell phone or watch to contemplate over. There was nowhere to rush to, a lull surrounded the mountains as evening fell. Now that is what a laid-back life really means.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Rupin Pass Himalayas Trek May-June 2017: Introductions, First Steps (Day #3, Day #4)

An evening of introductions commenced and a clear, astounding picture emerged of my fellow trekkers. I was among Limca and Guinness Book Record holders, individuals delving in their passion for photography, cycling, yoga, boxing, marathons, teaching and other pursuits. This was one varied group, many among us fiercely independent and self-sufficient.

We had a cozy home stay here at Dhaula. Post dinner some of us retired early, comfortably cocooned in our sleeping bags. The rest engaged in several enjoyable rounds of card games and conversations, before sleeping in late.

Dhaula to Sewa
Wednesday morning brought apprehensiveness, tea, and rain. Experienced co-trekkers had already mentioned about the utter discomfort of trekking in a Himalayan downpour. The drops feel like needles, they said, and you would rather wish to be somewhere else when that happened.

But wondrously, as the local hosts had prophesied, the skies soon cleared. We began our trek with what was to become a rousing daily practice, hailing out a battle call in praise of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the legendary Maratha king.

Along the Rupin River
A long and leisurely day of trekking followed. There was barely any significant altitude gain, the scenery was breathtaking. Clouds floated by mimicking lazy travelers, a gigantic cloud wedged itself into a valley.

To the omnipresent roar of the Rupin river, we passed cute, curious children calling out, "Hello." Some of the kids hailed us in shrill voices, asking for chocolate. Chocolate distribution, group photo sessions and nibbling on local village store lollipops followed.

By 1 pm, we were at Sewa for another home stay. A long gorgeous afternoon and evening lay before us, as we placed our bags in the wooden-floored rooms, washed and refreshed ourselves. What a lovely beginning and no stinging rain as yet. Hurrah!