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Silent valley


     These are memories from seven years ago, of a trip to Silent Valley in Kerala. Hope to visit the place once more. 

  ” I  suffer from wanderlust and there are ever so many places on my list that I really want to visit before I die. Some of them have just not happened even after almost finalizing the itinerary. Some trips just happened out of the blue without any prior notice or planning.

Finally, this last December , I was able to fulfill one of those dreams. I visited the Silent Valley with two of my other friends.

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Madhavi and I travelled to Kannur  from Delhi and from there proceeded to Palghat by an overnight bus, where Vijaya was supposed to join us. Ravi, another young friend working in Hyderabad,  couldn’t make it at the last moment as an unexpected hartal over the Telengana issue made it impossible for him to reach the station to catch his rain. The poor chap was so very disappointed.

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Anyways, we reached the Palaghat station at about three in the  morning. Vijaya’s train was scheduled to arrive at 5.30, but it was running late. We sat on the steel chairs near the counter , just inside the entrance of the station. They weren’t comfortable as we kept slipping off and our eyelids were heavy with sleep. There weren’t too many people around at that hour. So Madhavi and I decided to sit more comfortably on the ground, leaning against the pillar. We dozed off. It was quite embarassing to wake up and  find a long line of people who had queued up beside us in the meanwhile.

Vijaya’s train  finally arrived . It was more than four hours late. As we didn’t want to waste any more time we hired a taxi and reached Mukkali in about two and a half  hours’ time.  Mukkali is the base camp of the National Park. We had done prior telephonic  booking, followed up by e-mail, for our stay there. The Inspection Bungalow does not have too many rooms, but they are nice and clean and spacious. All three of us got accommodated in one room. The rent was quite reasonable.

4426951647_fb7c6f1e55_bThe Britishers had come looking for these trees for building sleepers on Railway tracks.

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There are no  other hotels around  . We had lunch at a small dhaba like place near  where we were staying. An old couple served us hot rice , sambar, curds and pappad. It was a simple meal but very satisfying.

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That evening we trekked a bit  in the buffer zone area. The National Park has a core area of 89.5 sq.kms and is one of the best representative evergreen forests existing in the world.

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There has been very little human interference in its history and hence is splendourously glorious in its rich biodiversity. I’m speaking of the core jungle area, of course. Visitors just get to see the fringes.

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The place gets its name from the total absence of cicadas which otherwise  inhabit the tropical evergreen forests .

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While walking along the rough path through the forests that evening, we spied huge elephant droppings. They were dry, so the pachyderms must have walked that way many days ago. We did see a mother and its baby from a distance on the mountain slope across. It is a very strange , inexpressible feeling to come across an animal in its natural habitat. One feels so much the intruder.

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The next morning we went on a jeep safari through through the forests, stopping at intervals when our guide spotted some animal amongst the trees or on top of it. The lion-tailed macaque is an endangered species that is seen in these forests and we were lucky to spot a couple of them on our way. These monkeys survive on the fruits leaves and buds of a particular tree. Without those trees they would be destroyed. There are a large variety of such relationships thriving in these virgin forests.

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No wonder then that when the Kerala Electricity Board initiated a hydro-electric project to be built across the River Kunti , Silent valley became the focus of  a huge environmental movement that continued for many years. Eventually in 1984, it was Smt. Indira Gandhi who stalled the project. Unforunately she was killed  the same year and it was during the time of Rajiv Gandhi that Silent Valley was declared as a National Park . The Silent valley Movement was perhaps the first story of success in the history of environmental protection in our country and our visit happened to coincide with the silver jubilee year of it being declared as a protected forest.

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It is difficult to describe the richness of such a forest . After winding through the roads, which had been built by the Kerala Electricity Board when the hydro project was just mooted, we reached a watch tower. From atop the tower , as far as the eyes could see, there were mountains and ridges thick with trees.

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The canopy was beginning to change colour here and there; red and greenish yellow and pink.

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One kept wishing for those compound eyes which insects had , which could look in many directions at the same time. In a couple of months time, the entire forests would be a blaze of red, we were told.

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After getting out from the jeep, we trekked about one and half kms into the core area.

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That was as far  inside as visitors are allowed to go which was a huge disappointment , although one should have expected that. So unless you are a forest ranger or a guard or a photographer or researcher with a special permit, all those beautiful orchids and flora and fauna which thrive in all their glory in the deep jungle become accessible to you only in the books and photographs  and postcards one can buy at the office at the base camp. Still, we considered ourselves lucky that we could make the trip.

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We had a late lunch after getting back. Rested and refreshed we strolled down along the road in the evening , stopping by to chat with a family and requesting them for a few luscious looking deep pink “Chambakka” fruits which stared at us invitingly from a tree in their small courtyard. There are a few families living in the buffer are, most of them from the tribal community. They help the forest department to preserve the forests, preventing forest fires and poaching.

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At dusk , dark rainclouds gathered and soon there was a steady downpour. We sat near the entrance of the Inspection Bungalow , watching the rain and chatting with the Wildlife Warden who came by after a while. A very amiable person he was and quite in love with the forests, although he admitted that when he joined the forest service , it was just a matter of having some job. But the forests begin to grow on you after a while, he said. He regretted the fact that there was far too, little manpower  and too little budget allocated for protection of the forests in comparison to what was being spent on policing , say a city like Trivandrum.

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Just behind the Inspection Bungalow, the Bhavani River flows by. This is an Eastward flowing River which joins the River Cauvery, whereas the River Kunti flows Westward to join the Bharatapuzha. We climbed down the steps in the early morning, the next day.

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The rains of the previous evening had increased the flow and the waters flowed gushing by.

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Sitting there listening to the sound of running water was so soothing and soporific. We could have continued sitting there for hours. But we had to get back.

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The bus ride from Mukkali to Mannarkad  had us swerving from one angle to another as we had to travel standing   and the roads kept winding around the slope. From Mannarkad to Palaghat it was comparatively much more comfortable. We broke up at Palghat station. This time Madhavi went on to Ernakulam to visit her relatives and Vijaya and I returned to Kannur.

 

I’m going to Silent Valley again, if possible during the monsoons. That is a promise I’ve made to myself. Let’s see. Meanwhile, do have a look at some of the photos I clicked.. Believe me, they cannot capture what its really like . The images of the green, green forests stored in my mind are going to haunt me , particularly in the coming months, when here in North India , the Loo winds will bring the dust and heat. To twist and old song “ Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something bad” to be deserving to live in this cement jungle. But then again, I must have done something good to deserve going back to the rains and greenery of my home state , don’t you think so?

 

 

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Posted by on March 13, 2016 in Travel

 

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Kashmir kaleidoscope


Autumn leaves changing  colours to fiery red , sunset orange and various shades of dappled yellow before they fell off their perches on the branches to pile up in heaps on the ground below, turn brown and disintegrate in a process of slow demise. In India, this could be witnessed only in Kashmir, they all said. There were hundreds of “Chinar” trees there , most of them much over hundred years old. So there it was that I longed to go to see Nature’s brush at work on the foliage.

 

Kashmir has always been a long dreamed of destination even otherwise, but it had taken all these years for it to extend a concrete invitation to me. All places have secret strings , I feel, with which they pull us towards them. I’d always felt the tug and now it was strong enough to make me walk into its welcoming arms.

 

Well..not exactly walk. After the train journey from Delhi to Udhampur, it took us an excruciatingly slow stretch by road to get to Srinagar. At every turn there would be a flock of sheep , hundreds of them, with one or two shepherds trying to keep them on one side of the road. These were the Gujjars , we were told. With Winter approaching , they were now escorting their flock from the upper reaches which would become unbearably cold and devoid of pasture, to warmer places like Rajouri etc. They would return to the mountains in Summer , when the meadows would become green again with fresh grass after the blankets of snow disappeared with the rays of the sun getting warmer. With the road blocks caused by the bleating woollen groups, it took us well over twelve hours instead of the normal travel time of eight hours. There is no other route by road , except this one and any obstruction in passage, weighs heavily on time and business . The long lines of trucks inching themselves up and down the  slopes were epitomes of patience. Yet, it is only in the past couple of years that work on alternative routes has been taken up by the Government.

After a night’s rest we were ready to explore Kashmir.

There are lots of places you can visit , basing yourself at Srinagar apart from the  almost mandatory shikara ride in the Dal Lake.

The Lake is huge, but the stretch that tourists are generally ushered to  is dirty and overcrowded with the canoes and houseboats , jostling against each other  to give one any sense of its placidity or beauty.

There is even a floating bazaar with one or the other canoe laden with wares vying to lodge itself adjacent to the shikara you are in and tirelessly trying to get you to loosen your purse strings.  It’s annoying if you’re more inclined to just float uninterrupted.  Loads of money had been sanctioned for cleaning up the Lake, the boatman said  but nothing was really being done.  We heard the same from others too.  We later saw the dredging machines at various places in the waters,  standing still and inactive . They had all been imported from abroad , we were told. But the Lake is still dirty.

 

 

Nigin Lake , which we  visited on a subsequent day  was much cleaner and more peaceful in comparison.

Gulmarg, where we went to the next day, is about an hour and a half by road from Srinagar. The rolling meadows were still green, but would’ve been greener had we been there in July-August

Kashmir is certainly a place one should visit in different seasons. This same place, in Winter would be covered in snow and the temple in the middle of the meadows would then then be visible only by its tip.

 

The snow covered meadows then made for excellent skiing slopes , which had its own thrill ,as Vijaya,my friend vouchsafes. She’s been here  three or four times for skiing courses. The Indian Institute of Mountaineering conducts courses stretching over two weeks,  every winter at comparatively reasonable rates. It’s a whole package , which includes boarding  and lodging and the instruments. Earlier the participants used to be put up at one or more hotels there, Now the Institute has a nice big building of its own, overlooking the slopes.

 

 

This year  there had been a good inflow of tourists and we were happy to see the normalcy of  life , unhindered by the strife of the past 20-25 years. Majidbhai , in whose vehicle we did most of the travelling ,told us ruefully that the  period of  violence had put back the state by a hundred years. The general refrain was that the politicians were singularly responsible for the whole mess and that the militancy could have been contained and order restored if they really meant business. They spoke of a coalescence of corruption and a strong nexus  of vested interests  both amongst  politicians and some  from the security forces , that actually allowed  the flow of men and arms across the borders , perpetuating  a prolonged period of unrest . There was a lot of business too being carried out under the cover of the disturbances.  Large areas of forests had been cut down for the timber which left the state to line the pockets of those in the loop with easy cash, it was said. Funds released by the Central Government never reached the intended beneficiaries and were being regularly siphoned off and all the while the common man bore the brunt, caught in the crossfire between the militants and the security forces.

In Srinagar , we stayed with Mir Sir’s family. He had retired as the head of the Indian Mountaineering and Skiing Institute . Vijaya , who had done the course several times , was by now a close family friend and by vitue of being  her friends, we were extended the same warm welcome.

 

Qiyaan , Mirsaab’s little grandson was a real charmer and we were literally on our knees trying to woo him  from the word Go!.When we arrived at their house after our stay at Gulmarg, Mrs. Mir and her daughters Aneesa and Hadiqa hugged us with a warmth that radiated  so much of genuine affection. We got addicted to the ambience of that household, the delicious food and the kashmiri  kehwa that Mrs. Mir brewed for us from time to time.

 

We also visited  the Hazratbal shrine  one morning and the Nishat Bagh the same evening. The terraced gardens were a riot of colours  amidst the chinar trees. The evening sauntered slowly into the hours of dusk and the sunset in the waters of the Dal Lake was a like a visual treat  staged specially for us , to wind up the day.

 

 

To Yusmarg, almost the same distance fro Srinagar as Gulmarg , it was a delightful ride in Majidbhai’s vehicle. All along the way , in open fields, the harvested paddy was being threshed and the hay being piled up in neat stacks

 

. We passed  by apple and walnut orchards, stopping  to pick up a few  freshly fallen fruits from below the trees and to watch the walnuts being removed from its pulpy rind. Those at work had covered their hands with polythene because the skin had turned black after being soaked in water and would leave stains. The skin is used by many , adding it to Mehndi to make a natural dye.

 

Up in the slopy meadows of Yusmarg, where the ranges stood as sentinels all around, there were small huts where the shepherds lived. These were not the nomads, who were identified by the ownership of horses, which were used by them to carry their belongings and women and children  from one place to another. The huts belonged to those who had their permanent dwellings in the villages at lower altitudes, where they had cultivation of their own.

 

 

 

They came up to the mountains in Summer to allow their flocks to graze on the rich grass of the meadows.

 

At all these places, young and old men with ponies pestered us to let them take us to some viewpoint or another. Here at Yusmarg, Doodhsagar was supposed to be one such. I got persuaded, I must admit . Sitting aloft the pony, chatting to Firdaus the young boy and making our way through the narrow track on the slopes was fun. Firdaus had never gone to school. During the tourist season , he tried to make as much money as he could by way of the commission he got from the pony owners for escorting them on their sightseeing trips. He also helped with the cultivation on the little patch of land they owned. His parents were too old to do any work and he was the bread winner now. Less than eighteen, Firdaus was already a mature man.

Doodhsagar was a disappointment, being just a thin stream over the rocky bed . A dam built upstream was the reason, they said. But when the snows melted in Summer, the waters would be gushing and roaring making it difficult to cross at any point. While returning , there was a whole group of nomads on their migratory trail, about whom one had just read about here and there. Witnessing them first hand was a really interesting experience.

 

On the way back to Srinagar we visited the newly built Chirar-e-Shareif mosque. The old structure had been burnt down in the confrontation between the militants who had been holed up there and the security personnel. The militants had managed to escape, which was surprising Majidbhai said , as the area was not large and had been cordoned off. Far removed from the happenings in time and space, it was not for us to glean through the various versions, but yes, nothing was as straightforward as made out to be , it appeared.

 

Friendships nurtured by Vijaya from her skiing days at Gulmarg, made for another interesting visit, this time to Manasbal. It is considered to be one of the deepest  lakes in  Kashmir  (about 13 metres). Khursheid, lived in one of the villages bordering the lake.

 

He met us with his little cute daughter, Ikra , who thenceforth became absorbed with a lollipop and wouldn’t answer any of our questions. “Pestering females”, she must have been thinking. Khursheid was just around twenty four , but already a father of two. His wife wasn’t at home. It was only later that we learnt that the reason for her stay at her mother’s place was the arrival of the second kiddo. We met them both on our way back, as their place was not far away.

 

 

We made our way in a shikara  to Khursheid’s sixty year old house, escorted by him. On one side of the lake, lotus plants grew in plenty and there were quite a few men in small canoes, collecting the rhizomes  of the plants(Kamal kakkidi ) from under the water surface.

 

We were familiar with it in Delhi , as they were sold in the markets . But by the time they arrived there they would be brown and hard. Here, freshly collected, they were white and crunchily soft and a little sweet and we bit into the pieces offered to us. The fibrous stalks are said to be good for health, being a rich source of Vitamin C and minerals , besides adding a lot of fibre to the diet. It is said to reduce blood cholesterol, sugar, body weight and constipation.

We met Khursheid’s parents, His mother was a sweet old lady, dressed in the typical Kashmiri phiran, with a scarf covering her hair. She had her hair tied in two neat plaits which gave her a very endearing demeanor. She didn’t know any hindi , so our conversation was limited to smiles.

 

Khursheid’s father was a retired school master. He came across as someone full of integrity and courage. He told us of the times when militants roamed the area and of a night when they had barged in demanding food to be cooked. This was the story we heard from many others. Very few had the courage to refuse. Later the security personnel would be at their backs , accusing them of sheltering the insurgents. Khursheid’s father had dared to give them a piece of his  mind and one of them responded by sticking the gun to his chest. It was only the entreaties of his wife that saved him that day.  As was expected, he had to make several trips to the authorities before they absolved him from involvement with the jihadis.

 

Not just that, when one of the militant leaders operating in that area was later killed in an ambush, the word went around in their circles that he had been responsible for the attack as he had leaked information to the police. But he was apparently a man who had garnered a lot of respect in those areas and eventually he was let alone by both sides. He had strong words for both the leaders of the militant groups as well as for the Government in place. All interested in looking after  their selfish interests, he said. He seemed to be an interesting individual in more ways than one. Some time ago, he had been diagnosed with cancer and was to undergo surgery. Then on the night of Shabbe-baaraat, he had sat up the whole night praying . Next morning he declared that he was feeling perfectly fine. A subsequent check up revealed that there were no signs of any cancerous growth.  An erroneous initial diagnosis or a miracle of faith ? Who knows?

Pahalgam was the place we should have spent more time at, instead of just a day we had at our disposal to go around before returning to Udhampur to catch the train back to Delhi. There we  visited the Betaab valley, so called because some scenes from the hindi film “Betaab” was shot there.  It was absolutely beautiful

 

. The soft sun sending its warm rays from blue skies, the play of light and shadows amongst the trees that grew on the banks of the River Lidder, the green roofed cabins dotting the slopes, the blue and grey and brown of the mountain ranges, all combined to spread out vistas of  beauty before our eyes. Later in the day we went to the Aru valley also beautiful.

 

The landscape is the same..mountains, meadows, streams, winding roads,chinars and poplars , blue skies with white candy clouds , grazing sheep and so on. But each part of Kashmir presented new angles to this combination.

The return ride to Udhampur, thankfully didn’t take us as long as on our first day. We didn’t linger long to have lunch or make other stops except one, where we watched “kangris” being made from reeds gathered from the forest. These  stoked with small lumps of burning coal and held close to the body , below the loosely hanging overcoats(phirans) ,were used in Kashmir as personal heaters, We bought a couple of small ones as mementos of the trip.

We had taken a shared vehicle on the return trip. All through the trip we had heard voices that bemoaned the years of strife and blamed the fleeing of the Hindu Pandits from the valley on the authorities that were in power at that time. Now we listened to another voice, that which spoke of the disgruntlement of the muslim populace who were backward in education and thereby denied of opportunities in Government   jobs and other avenues for advancement. They spoke of instances when they were suppressed and insulted. This was what made many of the youngsters be swayed by the rhetoric of salvation fed to them by the Mujahideen and others. Here was a voice which still spoke of “Hindustan” as another entity , which had not bothered to quell the disgruntlement or improve the prospect of the muslim populace by way of developmental projects and education and jobs. This was a voice which still carried whiffs of animosity , although the whole dialogue was laced  with relief that things were changing for the better.

There would be many versions to the stories about Kashmir. We, a group of women, three of them young, were  impressed by the fact that there was no sign of dis-respect  or eve teasing or commenting  from the males on the streets. The girls seemed to go around with confidence and freedom.

 

They all wore head scarfs. Only a few wore the burqah and my word!…they were so beautiful. Their faces reflected the same serenity that one sees in the people living in other mountain landscapes elsewhere in North India and that one found very surprising considering the fact that they had gone through such disturbed times of fear and insecurity , threat and loss of loved ones .

I have a lot of stubbornness in me and it is not easily that I surrender my optimism .  I choose to believe that this wonderful place with its wonderful people have suffered long enough and that the rays of peace are falling soft and warm on the mountains and the valleys , just like the Autumn sun that blessed us on our way through it.

More photographs may be seen in these albums:

https://www.facebook.com/nadira.cotticollan/media_set?set=a.10151052229187093.418725.613677092&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/nadira.cotticollan/media_set?set=a.10151052966797093.418846.613677092&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/nadira.cotticollan/media_set?set=a.10151050259182093.418398.613677092&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/nadira.cotticollan/media_set?set=a.10151046571082093.417916.613677092&type=3

https://www.facebook.com/nadira.cotticollan/media_set?set=a.10151046571082093.417916.613677092&type=3

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Travel

 

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Two leaves and a Bud


It didn’t actually work out as initially planned. There were to be six of usgoing on this trip. For many , many years we had been sharing lunch and exchanging gossip together in the same workplace. And we had travelled together too . Those of us who had kids had tagged them along as well, till they grew up and considered it beneath their newly acquired dignity to accompany their moms and aunts. But we had never, in all those years been able to travel some place, all together.One or two of us would always have to opt out because of one reason or another.

I had in the meanwhile taken voluntary retirement. Two of the others had wound up their work too and we had hoped that we could all make it together this time. Well, many a slip, as the saying goes.

So it was just me ,Mamta and Vaidehi who boarded the Rajdhani train to New Jalpaiguri and proceeded from there to Kursiong by road.

We checked in into the Railway Rest House at Kurseong, situated on a slight incline , just beyond a bend where the St.Paul’s church stood tall against the sky. We were going to be there only for a couple of days before we caught the train back to Delhi and we were planning just to laze around.

We had reached there by noon and was hungry. So we stepped into the West Bengal Tourist Lodge, which was just across the road. They provided reasonably good accommodation , we learnt and the food we ordered was okay. We didn’t see too many hotels or restaurants around during our two day sty or may be there were other parts of the town we hadn’t explored.

Chamelias grew all over the place in Kurseong on shrubs that looked pretty much like the tea bushes, the flowers themselves looking like roses . And they came in all shades.

The Wikipedia tells us that the species is indeed related to the tea plants and in fact is called the “flowering tea” in China. Interestingly, the plant is called “chahua” in Chinese. Is that where the word “chai” , which is ubiquitously used all over India for tea ,comes from?

In the evening, we went up to the Makaibari Tea Factory.Shri Om, the Supervisor in charge, kindly took us around the unit. He showed us the trays where the tea leaves plucked that day were thinly spread out to be subjected to wafts of hot and cool air, before it would be fed to the rotating machines, on the floor below.The moisture content in the leaves, having been reduced considerably, the leaves would then be having the right texture for being rolled up by those machines. Then it would be fermented for a while and then dried again, thereafter being sent through the sorting machines. We could come and see all the processes the next morning if we turned up early enough, he offered.

He told us a little about the Makaibari Tea Plantations. It was the oldest in the Darjeeling area and the present owner Shri Rajah Banerjee belonged to a family who had held it for four generations. The processes of tea making was pretty much the same , but what gave each blend its distinct quality depended on the temperature , time etc. each process was allowed and most importantly on the position of the leaves plucked, on the plant. The best, of course , came from that prepared from the ” two leaves and a bud’, placed uppermost on the branches. Green tea comes from leaves that are not subjected to the fermentaion process, which differs in duration from 20 minutes to half an hour and so on, the time length making the taste totally different.

The quality also depended on the seasons. High on the list was what was named “First Flush” in the Makaibari menu. This came from the leaves picked soon after the plants woke up from the Winter’s slumber in a burst of new shoots and leaves. And then there was “Silver Tips” , which he said was picked when the plants were bathed in the silvery beams of the full moon. Really, One never knew there was so much romance involved in a cup of tea.:-) Before we left the place, Shri Om did treat us to cups of golden hued mellow brew of the “First Flush”.

The British left us their Tea Plantations, but they didn’t teach us how to drink it, commented Shri Om. While sipping that delicious brew I pondered over the way tea is brewed in some places in India, with loads of milk and heaps of sugar, while sipping that cup and knew that he right.

We requested Shri Om to wait for us at the Kurseong station , early next morning , so that we could walk along with him to the factory. The air was cool, the next day. It had rained the previous evening and night and it started drizzling again even as we were on our way. On the way, we passed women with baskets on their backs who were going to the tea plantations for their day’s work at picking the two leaves and bud.

There are many plantations in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal. Most of them sold the produce at auctions, which were then marketed under brand names such as Goodrich and others The Makaibari Estate was one of the few plantations, marketing the tea under their own name.

We had stepped into one of the wayside shops waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t look it was in a hurry to. Shri Om finally managed to get us a lift from some acquiantances, who were also headed that way.

The Makaibari factory has been functioning in the same premises and building for many, many years. Some of the machines were quite old too, but still moved and rotated and dried and sorted the leaves, without any loss of efficiency. It was quite an education, going around and witnessing the various stages of tea processing, for ourselves.

The Makaibari Tea Plantations also takes pride in being organically farmed. The yield has reduced considerably, but there is definitely an increase in quality. Shri Om vouches for that saying that earlier on (he has been there for a long time now) , whenever he tasted the brew of the first flush for its flavor and quality, it used to make him slightly dizzy, which did not happen any more.

Also , he says, the locals have been able to spot an insect , which they believe came from the tea leaves themselves. They deem it to be a Goddess of the Tea Plantations. Those who spot it and bring it to Mr. Banerjee, the owner , are given a monetary reward. The myths aside, the reappearance of this insect which had vanished from the Tea Gardens, is supposed to be indicative of the increased health of the eco-system in the plantations ever since organic farming was taken up.

We had a look around in the office of Makaibari tea Plantaion, before we left. The walls were lined with all kinds of interesting information and framed paper cuttings, containing snippets of the Makaibari tale.

And there was this amusing quote kept framed there as well.

We had had dinner the night before and breakfast at the Rest House itself. On the way back, we bought stopped by a shop in the marketplace to pick up some spinach and greens for the salad for lunch and dinner that day.

The caretaker and the cook and the other staff were very friendly and the food that they gave us matched our moods perfectly. It was down to earth and wholesome.


Having rested for a while, we decided to take a trip on the cute little train plying on the metre gauge track , from Kurseong to Ghoom , from where we could watch the train manoeuvering its way through the Batasia Loop.

It was a crazy ride, the train chugging its way through the crowded market place at a slow leisurely place, unmindful of the people walking alongside and the cars overtaking it.

Some staions would be across the road and people would alight and dart across even before the train actually stopped.

The route was beautiful and the weather glorious.

In the distance one could see the clouds descending over the valleys and ahead of the train, as it went round a bend, the mountains would look dreamy through the mist.

Sometimes the track would actually cut across the road to proceed on the other side.

We met the Steam engine at Ghoom. It was getting ready for the stretch to Darjeeling.

The one in which we came was a diesel powered one. We had thought that the Batasia loop was just a little way ahead from the station at Ghoom, but it was a bit of a distance to be covered before the train overtook us on its way to darjeeling and as we paced across along the side of the road, it looked as if both the trains would go ahead. Fortunately for us, although the diesel train forged ahead , we reached in time to see the steam engine entering one stretch of the loop at an elevation and then curling around to enter the other arm before it went under the small bridge and then turn round again before the track straightened out.

The view from that vantage point was breathtaking. We could see Darjeeling in the distance enveloped in the mist.

And all of these engineering marvels of those long ago times were put in place to cater to a market for the potatoes grown in Darjeeling, one had read at the Kurseong station.

It was soon growing dark and there was just that small patch of tension in an otherwise perfect day, before we managed to find a way to get back. No taxis came by and the only one available was charging much too much. We started walking back to see if we could find some transport , closer to the station. A vehicle went past us and we desperately waved out. It didn’t stop then and there. But the driver did stop a little way ahead and he stood here waiting for us to catch up. Must have taken pity on us . may be we were looking a little forlorn. He asked us where we were going. He was on his way to pick up a group of girls who were going to Kurseong to give their Senior secondary exams. They would be staying there for a month So there would be some luggage. He would take us along for a per head fare if we could adjust in the available space. We didn’t need to think. We only too glad to get back, somehow.

We paid a visit to the St.Paul’s church the next morning. It was Easter Sunday and a mass was going on. Outside , lined up against the wall were potfuls of some of the most beautiful blooms I’ve seen.


And then it was time to bid good bye to the place. We told ourselves that we’d come again, whenever our hassled nerves cried out for some smoothening salve.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Travel

 

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Trek to the Pindari Glacier


I’ll be turning fifty five in two months’ time and this trek to the Pindari Glacier at the base of the Nanda Devi and NandaKhot mountains in the Himalayan ranges, is a birthday present that I’ve given to myself in advance. I must tell you that in spite of the arduousness of the tightly packed five-day schedule organized by the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, the one overwhelming emotion that echoed along with each and every heartbeat of mine was gratitude. I was alive, I was breathing in huge gulps of unadultered mountain air, my senses were being flooded with beauty from all sides, I was feeling wonderfully at harmony and at peace. What more can I ask for?

Just may be that the programme could’ve been arranged over a period of 8 or ten days instead of five. Apart from being utterly exhausted by the end of each day, the need to get to the next camp before dark and before the weather turned inclemental, deprived us of the leisure with which we could’ve enjoyed the breathtaking vistas that spread itself before our eyes.

We started from a place called Saung, some distance away from Bageshwar in Almora District.. Bageshwar is accessible by road from Kathgodam which is the nearest Railhead. We trekked after dark for 3 kms up to Loharkhet. There was a round moon shedding its soft silvery light on the path and on the trees around. The walk helped us acclimatize ourselves for what was coming in the days ahead.

Loharkhet (1708 metres) to Dhakuri (2608metres), the next point along the route is a steep climb of 11 kms. We should’ve been allowed to stop there for the day. We had started at around 7:20 in the morning and it was around 4.15 in the evening when the stragglers amongst us reached there. The youngsters of course had reached around four hours earlier. For some in the group, it was more than enough and they decided to stay back and proceed further at their own pace or just stay put till we completed the trek and came back there.

From Dhakuri to the village Khati (2210 metres) is another stint of 8kms, downhill most of the way thankfully . But then by dusk it began to rain and we were still about 3 kms away. Everybody was tired , even the younger ones. The baby in our group was just twelve years old.(I was the seniormost but one). Fatigue took over us completely . I was literally dragged along by the guide for the last half a kilometer . It was then that I realized with all of my conviction , the strength of a human hand stretched out to help another, for it was not my determination that kept me going then.

Khati is a quaint little village nestling in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Cute little houses with slate tiled roofs, golden brown fields rich with harvest, a few small private rest houses, a PCO booth et all. But we saw none of this as we plodded along in the dark, wet and heavy with our rucksacks on our backs. It was only on the return trip that we took in all the details of that beautiful village, which by the economic standards of those parts was almost thriving.

From Khati to Dwali(2575 metres), the next morning , was a beautiful stretch through forests, the climb not so tiring and the weather quite pleasant. There were times when those along with me, were either way ahead or some distance behind and those were the spells I enjoyed best. Imagine walking slowly along through the trees, their trunks and branches gnarled with age and covered thickly with layers of moss, wet with the moisture of the rains of the previous evening. I could hear no other sound except that of my heavy breathing and the palpitations of my heart and my footfalls as I tread over the brown leaves that now lay strewn all over. The sunrays filtering through the spaces in between the branches created a lovely dappled design . The river which ran all along the path was at first a distant murmur , but it would soon gather in width and speed and then it was a gushing body of white foamy water over big rounded boulders. Birds were few but the sudden trilling sound of an occasional one that revebrated in the depths of the forests, would immediately add an additional thrill to my already satiated senses.

There were many waterfalls on the way, flowing down from the summits of the distant mountains, like a still white chalky line , to join the river below. We would come across gurgling streams every now and them, some of them wide enough to need small bridges across them, made of wooden planks , while others were like little children running across the paths in gay abandon. We quenched our thirst and washed our faces with the refreshingly cool water.

In the kitchen at Dwali, where we sat having lunch , Vijaya and I chatted with Kharak Singh, who was positioned near the fireplace on a low stool, stoking the fire with logs. He was an employee of the Public Works Department. The entire mountain track up to the Pindari glacier, laid with stones to prevent the mud being washed away and the path becoming slushy and slippery, as also the bridges , were all maintained by workers like him. But Kharak Singh was quite cheesed off . He had been working for the past thirty two years , but had still not been given the status of a permanent employee. He was on a daily wage of Rs.200 /per day.

We would have loved it if we had been allowed to stay on at Dwali for the rest of the day. But the schedule had us trotting along again, immediately after lunch, this time to Phurkia which is at an altitude of 3260 metres. It was a climb again. I had left behind some of my stuff at Dwali to lighten the weight of my rucksack, but that was mot of much help. I would be panting after walking short distances and I had to stop often to catch my breath.

On the way to Phurkia, which was 7kms away, we met young Munna, who was hurrying along to catch up with his friends at Pindari. Munna had just completed High school and was enjoying the holidays going here and there in the mountains. A few days earlier, he had been trekking in another part of the mountainous terrain when a small avalanche had brought along some loose stones, one of which had hit him on the head. He had to go all the way down to Haldwani to get himself treated. So what happens when there is a medical emergency, I asked. Well, the patient would have to be lifted on to a chair, with its legs tied to horizontal poles, and then carried all the way to the nearest point where there there was a motorable road, by a group of around ten or so, who would take turns at lending their shoulders.

Munna had aspirations , but there were no job opportunities for those like him if he stayed put in the village. He was looking forward to going to Bageshwar to take up some part time employment there and perhaps also pursue a college education. But for those who were willing to be engaged in manual labour something or the other turned up. The NREGS also provided the villagers with some employment now and then, he said.

Not many children in the villages high up in the mountains, went to school. For one thing they had to go long distances up and down the slopes to Khati where the school was located and for another , even if they did make an attempt there was no guarantee that the teacher would be present.

The extension of the road up to a point midway between Dhakuri and Khati, was itself a recent one . This has been a great relief to those living in the villages at higher altitudes. Earlier , quite often, the porters who brought provisions in bags tied on to the backs of donkeys, would suffer losses when the animals slipped or swerved , throwing off the bags down the steep slopes. Now at least part of the transportation distance was covered by a motor vehicle and that was a big help. In winter, the villages in the higher reaches would be completely sealed off by snow and they necessarily had to stock provisions to feed themselves through the cold months, when they spent their entire time inside their dwellings.

The trekking route from Phurkia to Pindari was the most beautiful by far. Early morning, just out of our beds, with steel tumblers of hot tea in our hands, we stepped out to have our first glimpses of the snow peaks of Nandakhot and Sundardungha. The white snow took on different hues as the sun rose higher and higher. As we started on our trek , we were thankful for the clear weather. The skies were an unbelievable blue with the white peaks silhouetted against it, the dark brown of the lower ranges investing an effective contrast which made the whole panorama strikingly beautiful.

We crossed small glaciers on the way. The distance up to zero point was only 7kms and it was a lovely walk. Flocks of sheep scampered expertly down the inclines. Dogs guarding them barked loudly. A little way off , down in a meadow we saw a small shepherd’s hut. The whole scene was so idyllic or so it seemed to us.

We met the shepherd himself a little way further. Himmat Singh would be spending six months up here in these altitudes, where there were plenty of grassy meadows. The only company he would have was the occasional trekker or another shepherd like him who came that way with his flock. He tended to around 500 sheep, he said, which belonged to different people in the villages of Khati, Dwali and others. They paid him Rs. 200/ for looking after each sheep. But he would get it only when the beasts were handed over safely to the owners at the end of six months. If there was a casualty, he had to pay for the loss. He also had to pay for the bags of salt which had to be fed to the sheep and that cost him around Rs. 35000/ in all. The porters which brought up rations also demanded a lot, which did not leave him much to save for his family , who lived in the village down the mountain. So, was he able to recognize each of those sheep, I was curious. One had to, he smilingly replied.

At the top of a slightly steep climb, just before the small stretch of snow which extended up to the Zero point, from where the Pindari glacier extended upwards, we came across the Ashram of Swami Dharmanand. He gave us steaming hot tea and puris that he had prepared in the morning. The Swami hailed from a village in Andhra somewhere near the Orissa border. He was only sixteen or so when he left home . He had spent two years at Gomukh, but had found the place too crowded. And then he had heard of Pindari from another Swami who went by the name of Pilot Baba and had proceeded to set up base here. He’s been here for the past twenty three years. In those early years, the permanent snow cover started at the lower ranges itself. With each passing year, it had been receding , said the Baba and now the white stays permanent only at much higher altitudes.

The Baba stays put here for most of the year. In the month of February when the snowfall is at its peak , he goes down to Khati, returning a month or two later. He makes another trip down in the months of July and August when the rains become incessant. For the rest of the year he is all by himself , quite at home with the mountains and the meadows for company. Had he gone to school at all? He didn’t remember. In any case he didn’t believe that one could learn only by going to a school. He had learnt a lot about different healing practices and medicines , including ayurveda , all on his own.. Did he ever think of his people back at home? This is home and everybody is family, he said. It was amazing to see how comfortable he was with his way of life. He had a very pleasant smile and a calm expression. He charged nothing for the tea and snacks. But of course those wanting to make a contribution could drop something in the donation box. Without actually preaching anything, this young Swami (He must be just above forty) makes a point about our eternal search for peace and happiness, I felt. We , with our worldly dispositions seem to be forever chasing it outside ourselves in temporal things. He seems to have found it by just staying put in one place.

I just felt like sitting there and didn’t cross the snow stretch to the actual zero point from where the Glacier started. Vijaya who did, said she was sorely disappointed to see the bare patches where the glacier had melted. Here were the effects of global warming to be witnessed first hand.

We returned a while later to Phurkia and then proceeded back to Khati in the afternoon. We could’ve skipped the rest of the return trek along the same route had we been able to get a vehicle at that midpoint between Khati and Dhakuri. But a landslide had blocked the road ahead and that option was therefore ruled out. So we ended up traversing again through the forested area , in darkness and rain. It would’ve been really scary, had we not stuck together in groups.

And then the last day of trekking from very early in the morning from Dhakuri to Loharkhet , which we completed a little before mid-day. After lunch we hopped on to a vehicle which took us all the way to Kathgodam, from where we boarded the train back to Delhi.

We were a group of forty to start with. But the hectic schedule had taken its toll and only a little more than half that number actually completed the entire length of the trek. Those who stayed behind at the different camp sites had, however enjoyed little walks and watched the mountains and the clouds and the sun throwing up different compositions of colour and form with each passing moment.

Back here in the plains, the recent gale and rain has brought down the temperatures. The difference would’ve been starkly uncomfortable otherwise. I’ve been sleeping in spells and repeatedly looking up at the photos I clicked on the way when awake. My camera is a basic digital one (Kodak Easyshare -4 mega pixels). So the pictures are not anything like it looks for real. But then if it gives you some idea of the beauty of the Himalayan ranges, I’m more than happy. Hope you pack your rucksack too, one of these days and get going. It’s worth the aching ankles and the blisters on your toes and the whole week going by without a bath and the discomfort of the pressure building up in your bowels at odd hours and the longing for the sight of that tiny teastall on an elevation and the disappointment when you reach there and find it closed. It’s worth it. Just try it 

 

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Packing my bags again.


Travelling again. How I love taking off to the mountains. One trek is all it takes to get you hooked .

This trip wasn’t even on the cards for me. Was planning to go some place else, which didn’t work out. Thanks to my friend Vijaya , who managed to get me a slot in the group taking off on a trek to the Pindari Glacier, I am now in a mood of controlled animation. I say “controlled” because you really can’t see a fifty plus female leaping around, can you?

But then , I just might . Let me get there. I might just roll in the snow and give a full throated imitation of the actor Shammi Kapoor’s yell in the Bollywood film, Junglee .

“Yahoo!!!!!”

Will catch up next week with all the details. Meanwhile, take care, all of you:-)

 
 

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Chanderkhani Trek in Himachal Pradesh


The  Youth Hostels Association of India arranges  a number of Himalayan treks every year in the months of April to June at the national level. For those in love with nature and the outdoors, YHA provides a wonderful opportunity, at comparatively very reasonable costs, to allow you partake of an experience that is very, very exhilarating.

I would say that I was very fortunate to have been able to go on a couple of these treks. In the year 1996, when I was nearly forty years old, I joined a group of my friends, for the YHA trek across the Chanderkhani Pass. The route was through the mountain ranges of Kullu Manali. Starting from the base camp at Babeli, a little distance away from Kullu, and returning to the same place after eleven days of trekking through beautiful terrain, away from all hustle and bustle of the plains , it is an experience that gives you a life long addiction for the mountains, the fresh air, the joy of walking and a spirit of camaraderie based on nothing but a common spirit of adventure.

This was my first trek ever, big or small . The experience was so full of novelty for me that I felt like recording every bit of it . Back at the camp, after each day’s trek, I would jot down the experiences of the day in the notepad that I carried with me.   I take up those notes every once in a while just to vicariously go through the thrill of that amazing experience again. I’d like to share it with you.

7h May, 1996

Base camp at Babeli. We reached here at around 11-11.30 A.M. Tents provided are smaller than we expected-about 20 ft. by 20 ft. and accommodating 15 persons. But there are trees  all around and shade. Toilets are in good condition as well- So much for the infrastructure.

We came here by the Himachal Roadways bus, which left Delhi last night at 8.30 P.M. Had dozed in fits and starts-so there is nothing really that I remember of the overnight journey except the clamour at the inter-state bus Terminal.. But the view in the morning was glorious. The bus ran along roads that were precariously placed between huge mountains on one side and sheer drops on the other, at places alarmingly so. At certain bends on the road, one could see the snow covered peaks in the distance. At places, there were stretches of poppies and pretty blue flowers suddenly bursting on you in full glory. Rose bushes with deep red blooms, so big, as you can’t see even in the best tended gardens in Delhi.

We had had tea and biscuits at some dhaba near Sundernagar, which was not much of a breakfast, considering that I had had practically nothing to eat yesterday; the day had been so hectic to which was added the tension of the journey ahead. So by the time lunch was served here at the base camp, my appetite was really at its peak; so also was the case of the others, it appeared. Meals were simple, but hot and tasty. We had rice, chappatis, daal and a subji with pickle.

Right now, it’s nap time, being our first day at the camp (Reporting day). So we really have nothing to do.

The other group, with whom  we’re sharing our tent, is a group from Hyderabad. I think they’re from Mangalore, ‘cos they’ve been speaking in Konkani (which I recognize from the spoken language of  my neighbours , back at home,  in Kannur who  were Manglorean Christians).

6.40P.M

We had tea with biscuits at 4.30 p.m. Went for a stroll along the river which was rushing along-sweeping, majestic! Huge boulders along the banks, rounded and smooth and white. Trees all along the shore. We sat there singing all the old songs we knew in school; two of the others were teachers and they and the kids were familiar with the songs too. We’re supposed to present a group song at the campfire tonight.

We’ve been issued rucksacks and blankets (blankets are just for use here at the base camp, thankfully. We don’t have to carry them from camp to camp)

8th May

Up at 5.00 A.M.. Ooh!!, it was cold in the night. Towards dawn, I kept turning from one side to another, looking for the warmer portion of the blanket.

Last night we had a campfire. When they told us about it, I thought it was going to be one of those roaring crackling bonfires. It turned out to be a petromax kept in the middle of the circle that we formed , seated on the ground. Participants from different groups presented some item or the other. It was horrible, some of them, but fun anyway. Even our group sang “Que sera sera”. That was the only song all of us knew in common.

Right now, we’re about to set out for our morning exercises and jogging. All of us have had a full steaming cup of tea. But nothing seems to be working on my bowels.

6.30P.M

Had a long hectic day. After morning exercises that was intended to move and stretch every bit of muscle in our bodies,we were back for breakfast at the camp-sandwiches, samosas and tea. Then we bid goodluck to the first group who were leaving for the higher camp, after which we set out for our acclimatization trek. We carried two blankets in the rucksack, just to get the feel of what it’s going to be like. We trekked about 3 kms up . It really strained the leg muscles-over rocks and boulders and across little streams.

Up there was a little village, built of wood with slate like tile roofs. Really very indigent conditions. Even for basic necessities they have to walk the whole way down that tricky terrain and carry them up again. I don’t think the kids go to any school. In the verandah of one little hut, they had a tiny loom , which had a half -made shawl, apparently being woven for their own use. Vegetables, they grew a little, they said, whatever was possible of being grown. It looked a really tough life out there, but what was striking , was that there was no cynicism or disgruntlement on their faces.

Back at the camp we had lunch and after a bath and a little rest, we had an orientation talk. After dinner , campfire  at night,  songs, hot cocoa and sleep.

9th May

Morning exercises after a long jog and then breakfast. Afterwards, we were taken for rock climbing and rappling. It looked so easy when the others did it, that I decided to give it a try. The rock surface was steep, at least, it was for me, who was doing anything like this for the first time in my life. There were few footholds. Till halfway through, I managed somehow, but then came the difficult part. There was no ledges to hold on to, except narrow spaces where one could just fit in a few fingers. I don’t know how I managed to push myself up; my hands had lost its strength. Anyway, after that there was no way I was going to attempt the rappling. I decided I wasn’t adventurous enough to try.

In the afternoon after lunch, we were taken for river crossing. I didn’t have the nerve to try that either, although it looked easy enough when others did it. A rope tied across a small ravine  and one was required to slide across, fastened to the rope. Even at night, I kept having visions of the rock and the rope and the fall.

Campfire at night again and then packing up for the trek to the higher camp, which meant sorting out belongings for the rucksack which we would be carrying with us; the rest of our stuff was to be left behind at the base camp, to be picked up on our way back.  Sleep.

10th May

Trekking for 12 kms to Larikot. We started off at 8.30 approximately, in great spirits, singing all the way. But by noon, we’d slackened a bit, as it was ascent all the way. Beautiful landscape . Way down below, we could see River Beas meandering along , from different angles. The higher we climbed, the stiller the waters seemed, until the whole landscape looked like a framed painting or a picture postcard. Blue skies, blue- grey and white mountain ranges, little patches of green in various shades, pine and other trees. The trekking route was narrow most of the way. At places there were rivulets with ice cold , gushing  clear water. We had our lunch at one such water hole. On our  way  again, we had nimbu paani at one or two places, where the villagers had set up make-shift stalls.

Isolated cluster of huts here and there with a cluster of children wearing clothes that had obviously not been washed for ages, running noses, but such innocence on the faces and such smiles!!.

The second half of the day’s trek was smoother, through shady trees. Finally,  Larikot.

Four tents and forty seven participants. Fifteen ladies in one tent! We had tea and finger chips on arrival, the kitchen camp was way below; oh, but it was so welcome. We walked off to find suitable places behind the trees to attend to the calls of nature, the right side of the camp reserved for the males and the left for the females. We were cautioned not to wander further up the track so as not to contaminate the waterhole there, which the villagers used.

6.20 P.M

We’re sitting up on a hillock beside the tents. In front, there is a whole range of blue- grey mountains across the entire stretch of sky. The sun, setting behind it, is sending down distinct bands of white light . Kids are running down the slope, sure-footed as mountain goats. Earlier they’d come running round us for sweets and biscuits. Little girls returning home with huge bamboo baskets laden with firewood. Life here for the females seems to be quite a grind. They work in the fields with little babies around their backs, they carry water from water holes, they cook and heaven knows what else. What they don’t seem to be doing , is washing clothes and by the tattered look of the clothes the people around here are wearing, it looks like that the only reason could be, that they don’t have another set of clothes to change into.

11th May

Early morning trek through pine forests up to Bringta Top. The path literally strewn with pine cones-one had to kick them aside at every step before moving on. The trees grew thickly and when the wind blew through them the sound resembled that of sea waves, advancing and retreating. The climb up to Bringta Top was steep. It was not tiring though, as  there was no sun. It kept drizzling often. We kept taking out our rainsheets and packing them back again.

The view from Bringta Top was breathtaking. Range after range of snow peaked mountains, the valley below with the Parvati river flowing down from the mountains. Then the trek to the camp at Pinni along narrow mountain paths  at the very edge, often dangerously narrow.

The whole way through, one could only walk in single file.Weather was glorious; there was no sun except when we had lunch beside a stream and then the sun was so welcome!

All along the way, the path curved round the mountain slopes with forests, fields and streams. Getting near the stream, there was a whole hillside of iris plants with buds-just a week more and the whole stretch would’ve been and expanse of blue!

Pinni village seemed more prosperous. There were cute houses built of wood perched on stilts. Fields of wheat and fragrant coriander. The way to the camp at Pinni from the Larikot camp was a distance of 16 kms.Brinta Top was at a height of 10,500 feet.  We had climbed around 2500 feet up till that point and then descended to Pinni for the rest of the way. The camp is beautifully situated. The tent was a luxury compared to the one at Larikot. It is beside a running stream .Lots of participants are doing their washing. My jeans were wet and dirty. So I’ve changed them for the night and hung them out to dry, to be worn for the next day’s trek again. The weather is cloudy, so one might not as well risk washing it. Carrying wet clothes around would be twice the burden. Even as it is, the shoulder blades seem to break by the time we put down our rucksacks. All that arm swinging and hip rotating at the base camp has helped but the strain becomes insufferable , even then.

Little kids with cheeks rosier than apples chanted “Ta-ta, toffee”. They’ve become used to being offered toffees by trekkers, I guess.

All I was certain of at the camp was that in spite of the physical constraints, in spite of having to look for a cover behind the trees out of sight , to relieve yourselves, in spite of the wind blowing into the tent and the stones pricking your backs beneath the tarpaulin sheets when you slept, the trek was worth every inch of it-the spread of beauty before one’s eyes made all the ordeals seem so trivial, eventually.

12th May

Last night was bad. It rained and the water seeped into the tents. Our sheets got wet and half the night was spent shivering and shifting inside the tent. Our camp leader had to be woken up in the middle of the night to dig a shallow canal along the borders of the tent so that the rainwater would flow away. How we waited for the morning!

Trek to the Chalal camp was tough but beautiful all the way. River Parvati roared over huge boulders. Descent most of the time, but the path was so narrow-one put each step forward hoping and praying that one didn’t slip and fall into the river below or at least break one’s bones. Chalal campsite is absolutely gorgeous. Parvati river just beside it and clumps of trees.

One could hear the river all the time as if there was a constant pour of rain.

We had a wonderful real campfire. There is no dearth of wood in these parts. All the houses are built of wood. There was song and dance. Here we met the trekkers of C3 group , who would set off to Rashol tomorrow. Tomorrow is rest day for us. Welcome rest day!

13th May

Rest day.  After seeing off C3, we set off to Manikaran to visit the Gurudwara there and also have our baths. Manikaran is famous for its hot water springs. We paid Rs.15/ for taking a hot water bath in a hotel. It was real luxury. One just let the shower spray down on the shoulders and backing soothingly warm streams. We had lunch at the gurudwara. Took a lift back till Kasol and then walked back to the camp. In the evening , the C4 group arrived one by one. As we had done our washing in the morning , we just relaxed for the rest of the evening.

14th May

Chalal to Rasol-12 kms. Nice trek . The tent allotted to the females, had a direct view of snow-clad mountains. I chose the corner of the tent for sleeping , thinking that in the morning I’d just open the flap of the tent and look at the mountains, the first thing in the morning. The evening sun on the ranges had been so lovely, with the sunrays catching the tips and giving the snow and indescribable glow.

Besides, the shadow of the opposite ranges fell upon them, leaving dark shades in between. We had a small bonfire at night and played Antakshari and dumb charades. Everyone joined in. It was fun.

Morning was misty . So the mountains remained a distant shadow, only hazily visible.

Trek to Rashol Jot; up a steep incline, the path very risky, with fear of falling stones. It took all our stamina and will power to get us there. The young boys were quite helpful, ready with a hand to pull you up when you’re your legs and feet did not have the strength to lift you up. From Rashol (10,000ft) down to Malana Nala, which is a huge roaring river, it was down all the way. It rained and then started snowing. It was my first experience of snow. The path became wet and slippery and one could only walk with confidence if one could get into the knack of balancing the body and rucksack on your two feet and knowing how to find your way without slipping. All of us slipped and fell on our behinds, me twice.

I would never have been able to imagine  that I would be doing this , sitting in the comfort of my home or in the office. Talking and planning about it in anticipation  was an indulgence of one’s fantasies. This was  reality and it was tough.

At night , we got the most disheartening news. The C1 group had returned to Malana as they couldn’t make it across the Chanderkani Pass. There had been a snow storm and the guide who was to meet them at the snow point had not turned up. I hope things are better for us. Today’s trek through slush and rain was one big ordeal. But it would all be worth it , if we could make it through.

I forgot to mention Malana village. The small  population there are supposed to be directly descended from Greek ancestors. They had their own Parliament and rules. We were warned well ahead not to touch anything there, or we could be fined anything up to Rs.5000/-

No campfire tonight. We got into our sleeping bags as quickly as possible.

16th May.

Morning. Glum faces all around. No one sure whether to go on or go back. Together with the disappointment of the returning group and the tiredness of the ten and a half hours of trekking of yesterday, most of us failed to tap into our reserves of strength-mental as well as physical.

In any case , we started off with the encouragement of our camp leader- Raunaque. True to his name, he was one great source of confidence and encouragement. All of us were apprehensive , wondering whether we would have to return all the way back from Nagruni, if the Chanderkhani Pass was impassable. A little after we started , in the Malana village, we saw the C1 group, put up in school there. They looked really tired and disheveled.. Further on, we met the C2 group as well. They seemed disappointed as they had  not been allowed to go on. Their camp leader was not prepared to take them further. But Raunaque was detemined to help us make it through.

Looking across at Rashol Jot, which looked as high as the sky, we really wondered how we had made the climb from Rashol camp in that rain and hail and down again.

Today’s route was again climbing and climbing. I had to stop after every little while to take my breath. Ankles didn’t pain as in the earlier climbs. Sun came out after a while and there were such welcome smiles all around! We reached a meadow and rested a while.

We  just lay down , with the sun bathing us in it warmth. There were snow covered mountains all around, at close range, with wide belts of snow along the slopes, which would later melt into the streams that we had encounterd all along the trekking route and from which we kept filling up our bottles. The sun had really livened up all our spirits.

We felt that we would be able to make it across Chanderkhani. Having made it all this way, it would have been really an anticlimax to retreat and moreover, it would be much more tedious.

After the meadow, it was a climb again, but through a forest. The guide mentioned bears, so we were supposed to walk together.

 There were patches of snow on the way. We tried walking through it just to have a feel of what it would be like . Plonk plonk, we went. Freshly fallen snow is soft and wouldn’t hurt if we slipped and fell, that is what we were told.

We made it to Nageruni , the next campsite, by four in the evening. This time, we had a small room with brick walls to sleep in. It was snowing a little when we reached there. We felt a little alarmed. But I believe this kind of weather is nothing unusual in these parts at this time of the year.

Tonight we are to sleep quickly. Have to get up at 2 O’clock in the morning and start for Chanderkhani to make it across the pass before noon; the weather invariably gets lousy after that , we were told.

Now we’re all cosily sitting around in the room, with as many clothes on us as we can put on-two shirts, sweater, two pairs of socks, gloves, scarf etc. We’ve had hot steaming soup and we’re waiting for dinner. Then sleep.

17th May

Today is the big day. We were woken up at 2.30 A.M. Last night had been horrible. Fifteen of us sleeping in that room, breathing in the same air-the two doors and windows closed because of the intense cold. No heads could be seen . Just rows of sleeping bags, lined close to each other , in two lines. There was a howling wind outside and the sound of the other tents flapping and the roof of the hut making a menacing beating sound, was scary. Through the glass windows, one could see  that it was snowing outside. Our hopes of being able to make it across the  Pass plummeted further down. After a while, the wind died down and the snow stopped falling. I couldn’t sleep. The closed space was giving me claustrophobia. I sat up near the door, keeping it slightly ajar and kept my face near the open space, shining a torch because I couldn’t even stand the darkeness. Thankfully, we heard Raunaque’s voice outside soon afterwards, telling us that there was good news for us-that the weather was excellent. We got up in a hurry to look up at the sky and my word! In my forty years, I’d never seen such a sky. It was completely star-studded and so bright and near; one felt that you could grasp them just by extending your hands. By 4 A.M , we were ready with our rucksacks , having had tea and a little bit of breakfast- one puree and a little kheer. None of us could eat, partly because it was too early, more because of the excitement.

Raunaque came with us for a kilometer or two, then wished us luck and returned to the camp at Nageruni. Two local guides accompanied us. We were given instructions how to dig in our heels on the snow on upwards slopes and push in with our entire feet on  stretches of snow on the side of mountains. I became quite adept at it and could do it with the minimum of slips and slides, except at one place where both  Pushpa and myself kept sliding down everytime we tried to get up. So we stayed put on our bums, with our heels dug in till the guide came and got us up on our feet again. There was nothing but snow all around. We were wearing our goggles because the glare on the snow was too bright even at 6O’clock in the snow. The mountain slopes in that area would probably be stretches of bright blooms later on in May, when the snow started melting . We could see the plants, or at least the tips of it , all over the place.

After having plodded up and down and sidewards in the snow for hours, we reached Chanderkhani Pass. Up one slope, across an expanse and then the next slope and we were through. What a sense of achievement!! What pride in our strength and endurance. I think we were all crying inside with joy, more so, because we knew that luck had favoured our group specially, the earlier groups having failed to make it because of inclement weather.

Some of the C2 group, however were determined and in a while, we saw them behind us, having made it to Chanderkhani with the help of a guide from Nageruni , through another route, which was shorter, but more arduous. We were happy for them.

The trek was not over though. There was a 2 km slide down the mountain which all of us enjoyed thoroughly, without exception.

But after that exhilarating bit, came a really hazardous bit of trekking through the snow. There was an unending path winding halfway down the mountain, prepared by the guide in front, which we had to walk through, one at a time, one foot at a time. Fresh snow was easier to walk in. But here,  the snow had hardened and was turning into thin glassy sheets. One had really to be cautious. One wrong step and it would be a slide down the mountain. People who were experts would know how to stop the fall. But amateurs like us would just keep sliding. I managed to cross without help.

To make matters worse, one of the ladies, Chandrika started having intense chest pain and breathing problems. As I was next to her, she collapsed on me, as soon as that long stretch was over, across which she had made it slowly with the help of Shekhar and Ratnam, two youngsters from Hyderabad. It seems she had B.P problems as well as diabetes and was under medication for the same. Was it foolhardiness to have come on such trek , knowing that, I wondered. May be not, may be it is still worth it to have such beautiful glimpses of Nature’s bounty, unravelled before you at every step of the way, something that you cannot even begin to imagine , when caught up in the mundane pre-occupations of everyday life.

The rest of the group, moved on, except a few of us who who stayed back with Chandrika. We kept on massaging her chest and back and hands and legs till she was slightly okay. There was no help anywhere around . It was still 3 or 4 kms to the camp at Rumsu. The guide told us that we would have to get her down to lower altitudes as soon as possible because staying at that height (Chanderkhani Pass is at 12,500 feet above sea level) would only worsen her condition and things would get out of control. I can’t remember anything of the remaining stretch across the snow except the urgency in our minds and hearts.

By the time we got out of the snow line, Chandrika had already started feeling better. We were at a much lower altitude by then. We had a cup of tea at a makeshift stall, some two kms. Away and by 7.30, we were at the next camp, having walked for nearly 15 hours. I can’t remember eating anything; but I know we did. Sleep.

18th May

We were through; another four km. trek to Nagar, a small township; visit to an art gallery of Roerich, father-in-law of Devika Rani, with various paintings of the Himalyas put up in three rooms; lunch at a café, where we waited for nearly an hour or more for a plate of macaroni. Then we took the bus back to the base camp at Babeli.

We were leaving the same day. So we rushed through the formalities of filling in various forms and assessment of the trek. Returned our rucksacks, packed up in hast and were ready to take the bus back to Delhi by 6 O’clock, the next morning. We had reserved the tickets earlier. Goodbyes, everybody turning quite emotional. Sandeep, a 12th std. student, the youngest of our group started crying; he had been such a big help to us matrons throughout the trek. Great trip!!

UNFORGETTABLE!!!

 

 

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A Date with History- trip to Bihar

A Date with History- trip to Bihar

        Have always been curious about Bihar. Think about all those history lessons one learnt by rote. All those confusing dates that refused to register and the names of various kings in the  long lineage of dynasties. But even amongst all those pages of wars and exploits and secessions , the annals  of  King Ashoka  who gave up fighting and spent the rest of his days working for the welfare of his subjects, never failed to intrigue. He is still so much a part of every Indian’s everyday life , isn’t he, our currency and the national flag and the National emblem all bearing symbols of what he had left behind.

      After the Kalinga war and King Ashoka’s adoption of Buddhism, his kingdom is said to have had fifty years of  prosperity and peace . The soil of Magadh is where Mahavir and Buddha walked , where dharma was supposed to have flourished , where Nalanda, one of the world’s oldest universities, attracted those bitten by the bug of learning from all over the world, including Huein Tsang.

    And then we have the Bihar of the present times.  How could a region turn so topsy turvy? What had happened in between ?

     My recent trip to Bihar was courtesy some close friends , whose young nephew Anuj,  was to be married. I knew the boy too and it didn’t take long for them to persuade me to attend the wedding in Gaya. Theirs is a large joint family and it was quite a fascinating experience in itself to be going up and down the stairs of their residence , from one floor to another , from one suite of rooms to another where each separate branch  of the huge family tree spread out. The inhabitants there were from different generations and it was confusing when somebody called another quite obviously only old enough to be of his father’s generation “Dadaji” (grandfather) . Joint families of course can have a lot of undercurrents going on , but it is  a wondrous thing that they still exist even rarely in these quite individualistic times. I feel the advantages would  more evidently present themselves if only the older generation were a little more accepting of the changing mores .

       The building was one of the many rows of houses , standing shoulder to shoulder on one side of the street. Gaya is not one of the cleanest towns by any standards , but it was quite alive. People and rikshaws and cars jostled each other on the roads , unnervingly sometimes. There was hustle and bustle from dawn till dusk , in the neighbourhood.

     I didn’t see too many buses on the roads though. For the wedding , we travelled from Gaya to a place called Giridih,   which is situated in Jharkhand just across the Southern border of Bihar , in the direction of and close to Shikharji, which  is an important place of piligrimage for  the Jains . The marriage was to take place in a community complex there,  as it was convenient, logistics-wise for both the families of the bride and the groom.

       On the way, all one saw were  stretches and stretches of barren land on both sides for most of the distance of about 175 kms. It was punctuated by small clusters of  houses and shops here and there  and a few townships. The exciting bit of the journey for me was to pass by Jumrathalaiya, in Koderma district. I was immediately transported to those days when Vividh Bharati was our prime source of entertainment . Jumrathalaiya  is a word akin to Timbuctoo. It gives you the feeling that they didn’t actually exist . But all those song requests that used to flood the Vividh Bharati  programmes of hindi film songs  was a sure sign that it did. Mr. Jain , my host told me that the place around that area used to be rich in mining activities and it had been a flourishing town till perhaps the 1990s and the place had a considerable num,ber of phone connections , even in those times.

     

The marriage of course was a vibrant , heady mix . Colourful sarees and jewelry, music and dance  , tasty food . It was fun but exhausting as well , true to form of any Indian wedding , I guess.

      

Our visit to Nalanda, the next day was a solemn affair in contrast. The remains of the monasteries, with its small cells , where the students of those times must have laboured over their texts , the small beds built of mud and stone, the sloping section in the walls of some of the rooms which let in the light , the platforms where discourses may have been delivered , the remains of temples, all  gave an eerie feeling .

The Nalanda University is supposed to be the oldest residential university in recorded history, that housed thousands of precious books, all of which is said to have been burnt , some say by Allaudin Khilji , a Turkish invader , while others hold that the fire was the result of confrontation between the brahmanical order and the Buddhists. Xuan Xang(when we learnt about him in our history texts, he was Huein Tsang) had travelled across mountains and deserts to reach Nalanda , where he had stayed and studied for many years. There is a new monastery that has come up recently near Nalanda, which has been built in tribute to the great scholar, which is a must visit if one is travelling to this region.

       And then of course , the visit to Bodh Gaya. Funny isn’t it that as Indians , all of us take so much pride and talk incessantly about “our culture and heritage” and yet apparently it was a British archeologist who unearthed the remains of both Nalanda as well as the Bodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya.

There was a huge crowd that evening at Bodh Gaya, as is the case everyday. Lots of Buddhist monks, lots of tourists from Srilanka and lots of local people as well. The place was buzzing with activity of both the worldy type which involved buying and selling as well the religious type of meditating and chanting . It was quite touching to see a large group of Buddhist monks praying for the earthquake victims of Japan , near the Bodhi tree. I’ve posted  some more of the pictures on my Facebook  profile . Take a look.

httpp://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/nadira.cotticollan


     What was really nice about the whole trip was the optimism that was clearly evident everywhere . From Moti, the driver to those doing business in the Jain household where I was staying, and others one met elsewhere , all waxed eloquent about “hamara Nitishji”. He really seemed to be making a difference. He has sent a strong message, it seems across all the Government departments that the systems must be functioning and functioning well. People are feeling more secure . More investments are flowing in and property prices are going up. The newspapers apparently carry details of which doctors are on duty in the Government hospitals, lots of labourers who had left the state in search of employment elsewhere have returned , there are more children in the schools and more teachers to teach them. The roads are being improved , there is more of police patrolling and so on. One really wishes that other Chief Ministers would learn a lesson or two from  Nitishji.

      The travel bug had invaded my blood a long time ago and I am glad that now I can   succumb whenever  its attack gives me the itch to pack my bags and board a train or bus. I personally feel it’s the best way to expand one’s minds and hearts. Besides, it makes coming back to one’s own personal space and the warm circle of dear ones and friends all the more appealing after staying away for a while. My advice folks, put on your travelling boots once in a while. It is really worth it.

 

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2011 in Travel

 
 
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