Thursday, November 20, 2014

Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 3 - The Tulian trek

The Lidder is ice-cold. I dip my toe in the water, but instinctively retract it. I marvel at my colleague Sankalp and two Kashmiri friends who shed their clothes for a quick dunk in this burbling river at a campsite some distance from Pahalgam. They badger me to join them, but I dig my heels in and park myself on a boulder on the Lidder's banks.

A dozen kilometres away from Pahalgam, Aru makes for a pleasant car ride on a winding hillside road that mostly runs upstream, never too far from the Lidder. This scenic meadow is a tranquil spot often upstaged by the touristy Betaab valley, named after the Bollywood hit that was filmed there three decades ago. But locals prefer Aru for weekend getaways.

We amble past grazing ponies and pick a spot to rest with pine trees and snow-capped peaks in the distance, while the tin roofs in the village below glint silver in the August sun. The conversation turns to Kashmir's troubles (and it didn't take into account the devastating flash floods a few weeks after our trip).

My Kashmiri friends, both journalists, describe their lives growing up in Srinagar - the narrative is dispassionate, but there are occasional flashes of smouldering emotion. I look at the wired fencing behind us (put up illegally by nomadic goatherds); it's conspicuous in the landscape. A microcosm of Kashmir.


Early next morning, Sankalp and I set out for Tulian lake at an altitude of 11,000 feet (3,350 metres). We were riding ponies. Sankalp was on Chetak while eight-year-old Raja, older and more experienced, was chosen to bear my heavier frame. Munir and Shabbir, their handlers, walked with us.

The ascent was easy at first, aided by breathtaking vistas of the Himalayas. We passed the meadow of Baisaran, which is where most tourists turn back. The never-ending trail headed for what looked like a sheer cliff, but we didn’t stop. The handlers prodded the ponies, but about halfway up the narrow zigzag trail, Raja struggled to cross a jutting rock. I dismounted gladly; the prospect of hurtling to my death didn’t appeal to me.

We later ran into another group of pony riders, a Gujarati family settled in Leeds, England. And an Australian - a weatherbeaten, sinewy old man who had been trekking alone for two days, and easily overtook us on foot.

When we reached the point where the ponies could go no further, it was a welcome break. My buttocks hurt and I was desperate to walk. But then the guide pointed up, towards our destination a kilometre or so away. Only a couple of glaciers and a sea of boulders to cross. My heart sank at this last-minute addition of obstacles to what was becoming a ‘Hunger Games’ quest. To add to our troubles, the Australian trekker returned, saying the first glacier was too dangerous to cross. But everyone was going on ahead, with the exception of a woman with a sprained ankle.

I straggled behind the rest, lost my footing several times on the glacier but eventually slithered across. I lost sight of Sankalp, who had been bounding like an antelope from one boulder to the other. It was getting colder by the minute and I was wearing a T-shirt, but thankfully the sun was still shining brightly. But I lost track of time, and was struggling to place one foot above the other.

Tired, cold and irritated, I was ready to give up. And to my relief, so was a fellow trekker. A sullen teenager from the Gujarati family had thrown in the towel, and was leaning on a boulder, staring into nothingness. His dad offered words of encouragement and eventually, the boy struggled to his feet and pressed onwards.

I sighed. If he could do it, I couldn't stay behind. Damn this Tulian trip. Sankalp got a few mental curses, for not gauging how difficult this trip would be for all my 83 kilos. I brushed  the dust off my jeans and trudged on. After what seemed like an hour, I reached the summit for my first glimpse of why this expedition had been worth it.

I did not dip my toe in the lake. One of our pony handlers said the water was poisonous; legend has it a Hydra-like serpent dwells within its blue depths. I don’t believe in monsters; I was just too tired. So I rested on a boulder, clicked and posed for photos, and gathered energy for the descent.

I wouldn't have believed it, but I soon realized going back down was the hard part. I kept slipping on the boulders and small stones that littered the path, landing with a rattling thump each time. Sankalp, who has good climbing genes (his family is from hilly Nainital), came to my aid and held on to my arm as I slowly made my way down the sea of boulders, and past the twin glaciers.

Near where our ponies were grazing, a Bakharwal (a nomadic tribe of goatherds) woman took us to her hut for refreshments. I don’t drink tea, but even I couldn’t resist a glass of steaming, milky tea that day. The wrinkled old woman said she had been serving trekkers to Tulian during the climbing months for as long as she could remember. Outside, a few Bakharwal children are playing with a goat and I was going to have a sense of déjà vu at Thajiwas glacier near Sonamarg, a trip we were to undertake a few days later.

But I wasn't quite in the home stretch yet. As the afternoon wore on, our guides lost track of the trail and blundered further into the forest. As the slope was very steep, I preferred to dismount and let the ponies go on ahead. As Sankalp and the pony handlers quickly disappeared down the hill, I straggled behind. I took tentative steps and found gravity was working just fine. Losing my footing, I slid down the hill, grabbing nettles to slow my fall. I steadied myself and looked around, trying to map the best way down. But I slipped again, turning over on my back and sliding. Pebbles and sticks tore into my limbs like razor blades till I caught hold of a low branch. My head was aching, there were burrs stuck to my midriff and there didn’t seem any part of my body that wasn’t bruised or sprained.

I was just entertaining dark thoughts when I heard Sankalp and Munir call out, trying to figure out my location. I reply, relieved that I wasn’t going to meet my maker after all. Someone told me to hurry up, there are bears in the area and they come out in the evening. That did it for me. I stood up, slowly digging my feet into the mud and shuffled along in a zigzag line. Munir caught up with me, grasped my arm and helped me down, steadying me whenever I slipped, my legs flailing out under me. They had found the trail again and I climbed on to the pony, dead tired and aching all over, but knowing that within a few hours I’ll be at the hotel, where I hoped to crawl into bed after rubbing pain reliever cream all over. And I did just that. I felt much better the following morning and the Tulian aches and sprains had healed by the end of the Kashmir trip.

After our stints in Srinagar and Pahalgam, Sankalp and I spent the rest of the week in Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Manasbal; the first two are regular tourist haunts. Gulmarg has its gondola car ride and overpriced "self-service" eateries where employees ask for tips. Sonamarg has its pony ride and sledding on the glacier. But Manasbal is somewhat off the tourist trail, with an army camp and a village adjacent to a tranquil water body.

The ruins of Jharokha Bagh overlook Manasbal lake. Four centuries ago, Mughal Empress Nur Jahan spent several summer hours here. There's something to be said for the beauty and quiet of Manasbal, still unfrequented by most tourists traipsing across Kashmir. Were she alive today, I can just about imagine Nur Jahan curled up in her terraced garden, immersed in a book of Persian poetry on her Kindle, occasionally lifting her regal gaze towards the placid waters.

(Photos taken on my Nokia Lumia 925 phone. Some photos have been Instagrammed)

Part 1 - Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection
Part 2 - The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

Monday, November 03, 2014

In Pics: Garden of Five Senses, New Delhi

Friday, October 17, 2014

In Pics: Weekend trip to Manali and Rohtang

Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.

A couple near the #Rohtang Pass    

This cyclist is a long, long way from home. On the way back from #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali

A view of the road to #Rohtang Pass

Pedestrian bridge over the Beas river, on the road to #Manali

Shorn sheep block the road near Manali

A view of the road to #Rohtang Pass

Horsing around near #Rohtang Pass, #Manali

Tourists paragliding in the sky as trucks trundle by on the road below.

Tea? Coffee? The beverage man on the way to #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali

Neigh, neigh. Happy horse near #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali.

Rock formation on the road to #Rohtang Pass

Rock formation on the road to #Manali

A tourist paraglides over #Manali

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Notes from Darjeeling, Gangtok, Mirik and Nathu La

Perhaps my most abiding memory of last week's trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim is that of taxi drivers obsessively cleaning their cabs. Having spent much of my life avoiding rides on New Delhi's smelly cabs, it was good to see people caressing their vehicles as they hosed them down.

As we drove around Darjeeling to take in its sights, our driver took advantage of every halt to flick imaginary insect carcasses off the windshield. As we walked back from a temple complex in the nearby town of Kalimpong, we found our cabbie scaling the front wheel, trying to reach with his duster what appeared to be an unblemished portion of the SUV's roof.

And he wasn’t the only one. Cab drivers in the region seemed to spend a lot of their quality time tending to their cars’ needs. On the drive to Gangtok, we stopped for steamed chicken dumplings at a roadside shack in Lopchu. Our driver Sohan Lama took a break too, but not before instructing a labourer to soap down the car. I am not sure if any money changed hands, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Of our many cabbies during the week-long visit to India’s east, Lama was perhaps the most interesting. A Nepali Buddhist from Sikkim, he supplemented his income with a store that sold herbal medicines championed by Baba Ramdev, a saffron-robed yoga guru adored by millions in the country.

Lama, an amiable man in his 40s, beams even more when talking about his teenage son, who’s training at a prestigious football academy set up by Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India’s most famous player.

Lama’s son may have been among the dozens of excited pupils we saw, rather heard, at Gangtok’s Paljor stadium adjacent to our hotel. I say this with no particular joy, for this army of shrieking children invaded my sleep each morning and pried my eyes open.

I endured other early risers in Mirik, a hill station in West  Bengal. This time, a flock of pigeons rustling up avian buddies for a 5 a.m. conference outside my window. But not one bird was as irritating as the Bengali tourist seated behind me on Darjeeling’s heritage toy train. Each time the clouds parted and we caught a glimpse of the majestic Kanchenjunga peak in the distance, this woman screeched the equivalent of “Look there, can’t you see? There, there, not there, there,” in her native tongue, till everyone in her extended family had witnessed the spectacle. There was little to choose between her shrill voice and the blaring train horn - both were enough to cause a headache.

What was music to my ears was a pair of Gorkha teenagers rapping to Kanye West in the Himalayan village of Sukhia Pokhri. A friend and I were waiting in an empty restaurant for Lama, who was stuck in traffic several kilometres away in Ghum, home to India's highest railway station. The siblings trooped in and fiddled with their mobiles for a bit before breaking into song karaoke-style with the background music on at full blast.

An old woman walked in and apologized to us, saying the wannabe hip-hop artists were her grandsons - they responded to her censure with gap-toothed smiles. “This is what the new generation does,” the woman said in Hindi, clutching her forehead in a gesture of disdain, but with a smile trembling at her lips.

After several hours of a back-breaking ride on barely-there roads and a dash through the yak-infested banks of the Tsomgo lake, our shared jeep finally reached Nathu La - a mountain pass at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet - only to be told by military guards that our mobile phones couldn't be taken past the entrance. We dumped our bags and smartphones in the jeep, and trudged onwards in a sulk that lasted till we caught sight of the Chinese soldier just across the barbed wire. He smiled and walked past us, brazenly taking a photo of the milling tourists. I shook hands across the border as we attempted to engage him in conversation. "I don't talk," he said, and with that, he walked away to his post.
(Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with some having added Instagram effects.)

The stupa at Duddul Chhoedten in Gangtok, Sikkim

A red panda at the Darjeeling zoo

A pet dog at the China bazaar, on the way to Nathu La

Yak on the loose at Tsomgo lake on the way to Nathu La

A cloud trapped between two hills in Sikkim

A tree stands forlorn near a Darjeeling tea garden

Tea gardens at Mirik, West Bengal

Rusted vehicles at the BanJhakri waterfalls park near Gangtok

Young monks play football at a monastery in Kalimpong

Young monks polish shoes near to the Mirik monastery

A double rainbow on the way down from Nathu La

Cable car dustbin at Darjeeling

This dog got a bird's view of Darjeeling
A couple of frisky goats on a rock on the way to Darjeeling
A crystal clear view of the Kanchenjunga from our Darjeeling lodge

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Photo blog: Kasauli - a weekend getaway

Mapping the view at Sunset Point, Kasauli
This British-era cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh is a cozy weekend retreat for tourists escaping the heat of the plains. The mist rolls in at odd hours, sometimes accompanied by squalls and - in our case - hailstones.

Shaggy dogs, each more bearlike than the next, loll about the cobblestone paths that meander past gabled houses shaded by pine trees. Intrepid monkeys lie in wait for careless tourists - one sudden move and that mouth-watering bag of goodies is lost to the simians.

Quaint shops sell knick-knacks; even the more modern ones offer apple cider vinegar -- a magic potion that sucks in fat to help you fit into that beloved pair of pants. Waste bins shaped like tiny green houses stand guard at almost every corner, flanked by old-world streetlamps. At Ros Common, the heritage hotel where we stayed, there are no electric fans. Not that we need them. We spend much of our time on the garden swing, laughing and basking in the sun.

At night, the silence is deafening and the pre-dawn twittering of birds is music to my ears. We devour aloo parathas for a lazy breakfast in the open, while a bunch of speed merchants roar past us on fancy motorbikes. The imposing Christ Church, built in the 19th century, is a short walk away. The climb to Sunset Point takes a toll on my knees but the glorious view, laid out before us like a landscape painting, is worth it. Chandigarh's Sukhna Lake glistens in the distance, dozens of kilometres away.

It's a trip well spent, in the company of former colleagues at India’s premier news agency. Amazing people, each one of them. We should do this again.

(Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.)

Christ Church, Kasauli

My friend Sumit at Sunset Point

Another milestone achieved

All smiles on the way to Sunset Point

Breakfast in the sun

Kasauli as seen from Mount Path

Clean and Green

The bikes of the biker gang

Designer streetlamps

Peter the dog soaked in the sun on top of cars

Christ Church, Kasauli

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