The Hills Are Alive!



They had been beckoning to me for a very long time. Every time I saw a photograph or a painting of the snow-covered mountains of the Himalayas, I felt a little pang in my heart. You have to go, whispered the voice in my heart, only to be quieted by the one in my head – It is too late now, you are a tired old man. Should have done it back when your life was all work and no play!

And then one day, while I was browsing the Web, I came across a site called Trek The Himalayas. The very name of this company seemed to issue a command, an exhortation, an invitation. Curious, I decided to investigate of there were any easy or moderate treks a late bloomer such as myself could undertake. And indeed there were. Most were full, but one had an open spot. The photograph promoting the trek looked astonishingly beautiful.

I want to go, I said to my wife. Then go, she said.

A few clicks later, I had confirmed my itinerary. I would fly to the Jolly Grant airport near Rishikesh, stay the night and join the team the next morning. I was unsure, apprehensive, curious, but above all, excited like a child who has just been promised the toy they had been admiring in in the shop window for a long time.

It was in this state of mind that I went over the checklist of things they asked me to bring to the trek. I realized I had everything I needed except a backpack. A quick trip to the nearby sporting-goods store took care of that. Try on those trekking shoes, my ever-prudent wife advised, you haven’t worn them in years! They’ll be just fine, I said. Famous last words. But more on that later.

A couple of days before the scheduled starting date, a detailed WhatsApp message arrived from Laxmi, the organizer at TTH, containing a link to the Google spreadsheet that had the names of my fellow travelers. Six women, six men and good old me. Oh look, one of them was from Pune, where I live. I wondered where the rest were from? No worries. Soon enough, Laxmi had created a WhatsApp group for the trek, and now I was able to communicate with everyone.

Before I even arrived in Rishikesh, I was in touch with Gauri, who was also traveling from Pune. We agreed to see if we could meet on the evening before we would begin our drive from Rishikesh. Alas, that did not work out, because as I found out later, Gauri had a hectic evening trying to trace some old friends who were staying in Rishikesh. I just checked in, showered, changed, ate a small dinner and wandered the streets near the famous Laxman Jhula suspension bridge, taking photos and videos of the Ganges, now in spate because of the monsoon. The streets were nearly empty after the end of the tourist season. Bored, I was back in my hotel room and soon asleep.

Early the next morning, I shouldered my backpack and took a short walk to the pickup spot nearby, where the TTH van would arrive a short while later. I saw two young ladies sitting on the steps of a closed bank branch. They had their backpacks at their feet – Yay, fellow trekkers, I thought excitedly, but then paused. Yuck, who’s the old man? They were sure to be thinking.

They managed to greet me with straight faces; I think they even smiled. Hi, I am Gauri, one of them said, and this is Dew.

We began to chat. I found out Dew lived in Hyderabad, where I have many friends. Soon we were joined by three other young ladies – Gayathri, Shri Lakshmi and Ragini. They were from Bangalore, a city where I have lived for many years. Gayathri and Shri Lakshmi were sisters; Ragini was their cousin. The van soon arrived, driven by a competent man with a ready smile. His name was Roshan Bhai (the word bhai, meaning brother, is often added to men’s names in northern India). Now we were waiting for the men, five of whom arrived eventually. They were even younger. OMG, I thought, I am probably older than some of their fathers!

The backpacks were loaded on top of the van and covered with tarpaulins, we trooped into the van and were soon on our way. The winding climb began almost as soon as we left Rishikesh. The narrow road, part of a national highway, wound around, hugging a river, which would flow sometimes to our left, sometimes to our right, and would change names more often than a model at a fashion show changes outfits. Here it would be called Alaknanda, there Dhauli Ganga, still ahead, Laxman Ganga, then Bhyun Ganga… whatever it was called at the moment, the river was always in spate, its waters cascading down with a roar that was to become the background score to our entire trek.

Our drive would take us through the hillside towns of Dev Prayag, Srinagar, Rudra Prayag, Karna Prayag, Nanda Prayag and Chamoli, to Joshimath, our overnight stop. The word prayag denotes the confluence of two rivers, and there are five holy prayags in Uttarakhand, the state in which were were traveling. We were to encounter the fifth, named Vishnu Prayag, on the last day of our trek. This was to be a long, treacherous drive, made even more so by the frequent landslides, each of which had the potential to delay us by many hours while we waited for the cleanup crews to do their job. I watched Uttarakhand go by from my window seat, noting with a chuckle the things I saw along the way – Lukki Optician (eyeglasses galore – for the sun and the shade; hearing aids also fixed), Annexy Hotel (all types of luxuries along with pure vegetarian food) and Karma Medicose (sic), where I suppose you went if you were comatose, adipose or merely morose.

We stopped for breakfast at a little paratha shop and stuffed ourselves with hot parathas, served with yogurt and a delicious mango-carrot pickle, which we would later discover was a staple of the region. The five young men were huddled together at one table; the rest of us at another. I went and introduced myself to Anand, Shreyans, Junaid, Jaymin and Divyang, who were final-year medical students from the western Indian state of Gujarat. I tried my broken Gujarati on them, which seemed to amuse them to no end.

After a grueling 12-hour, 275 km drive which included a flat tyre and a late, unexpected landslide which we bravely cleared on our own, we arrived in Joshimath, to be greeted by Manu Bhai and Anshu Bhai, our trek leaders. We were also joined by two other trekkers, a young couple named Divyam and Aditi, who had traveled to Joshimath in another vehicle. Now we were thirteen – a number much maligned for no apparent reason in my opinion.

Rooms were allotted to the ladies and the gents. We unpacked, showered, changed and were soon ready for our briefing, followed by a nice warm dinner. We would be given tea at 6 am the next morning, served breakfast at 6:30 and at 7, we would be on our way to Govindghat, a small riverside town 20 km away, where we would change transport (don’t ask why, the local taxi drivers’ union dictates it) and drive another 4 km to Pulna, where our trek would begin. The Kamet Hotel, located in a nook up an incline (like every other building in Joshimath), cannot be described as luxury accommodations, but what it lacked in comfort was made up for by the warmth and courtesy of the TTH staff.

I woke up early the next morning and decided to take a short walk around Joshimath. I found it to be a lovely little town, nestled among the tall Himalayan mountains which seemed to go up in every direction. It looked like a nice day – apparently a rarity in Joshimath these days. One of the residents told me he was seeing sunshine for the first time in a week. If it were to last the day, our long trek would be blessed.

Soon we were done with our breakfast and off to Govindghat. Along the way we passed Vishnu Prayag but did not stop – we were to see it later. We did, however, stop at a point where the river Alaknanda was spectacularly frothy, and took photos and videos. A short stop to complete some paperwork at Govindghat, a change of transport (union taxi), and we were off to Pulna. A quick chai stop at Pulna, where we received our briefing for the day. We would walk 10 km and climb 4000 feet today. We would share the trail with mules carrying bags (including some of our own) and people. We were to treat the mules with respect. Always be on the hill side so the mule couldn’t push you off a cliff. And if he gets too near, show him your stick (alas, I didn’t have one!).

We started walking and soon realized we were badly outnumbered by the mules. And where there’s mules, dear reader, there’s muleshit. Piles and piles of it, all over the trail. When it’s dry, it looks like olive-green cupcakes and you can step around it. But when it rains, it runs all over and there’s no avoiding it. Rain or no rain, the smell of it permeates your nostrils, your clothes, and soon your entire being. I christened this trail with the name it was born with: Muleshit Trail. Thankfully the climb was gradual and there were many Maggi Points along the way where we could stop to eat the gooey Maggi noodles or drink chai. Every few minutes, the helicopter carrying the less fortunate from Govindghat to Ghangaria (a 3-1/2 minute ride, we were told) and back would whizz over our heads, causing us to chuckle. Plus we were all getting to know each other, which made time pass so quickly that we arrived at the Deepak Hotel, which was to be our camp for the next three nights, and did not even know it.

The Deepak Hotel, like the rest of Ghangaria, seemed to be a makeshift joint, built in a time and place where no building codes existed. With streets only wide enough for mules and pedestrians and a part-time population (the place shuts down in the winter), Ghangaria had the distinct look of a refugee camp about it. Except there were so many places selling food (fried savories like the ubiquitous Samosa and fried sweets like Jalebi and Gulab Jamun) that these refugees had to be among the best fed in the world!

Soon after our arrival, it was time for a cup of soup and our daily health checkup. The latter consisted of inserting your index finger into an oximeter, a device which measures your blood

oxygen level and your pulse rate. This turned into a bit of a sport, with everyone becoming curious about everyone else’s readings, and every time a reading was made, loud whoops and guffaws followed, along with commentary on the trekker’s condition. I felt a little apprehensive, what with being over twice as old as the next oldest trekker. To my surprise, my readings were the best among all of us, not just on this first day, but on the next, more grueling day as well. Respect for me among the group went up a notch that evening, I think.

I requested a bucket of hot water (cost Rs. 50, or 70 cents) and washed myself with about 15 liters (4 gallons) of lukewarm water using a process we had learned in college to describe as integration by parts. This helped me fall asleep quickly under a heavy blanket with an uncertain history.

We left for the Valley of Flowers early the next morning, after black tea, a hearty breakfast and a heartier trek cheer which went Chiri Miri Chiri Miri Hoo Hah Hoo Hah! This was a 4 km long trek each way – the altitude rose from 10,000 ft in Ghangaria to 11,500 ft in the valley, with the highest point of the trek being a few hundred feet higher. The first one-third of the trek was a gentle climb along the unevenly laid stones that we had by now gotten used to, having walked 10 km the day before on a similar (but broader) trail.

The weather was crystalline – sunny and dry, the views were breathtaking at every turn, so our spirits soared. There was much laughing and joking. A great feature of this trail is that mules are not allowed. So the only things we needed to make way for were the palkis (palanquins, consisting of a chair with four long handles carried by four bearers – more on these later) and the baskets, which are just that – a wicker basket chair hoisted on the bearer’s shoulder, in which the less able (or the less willing, as the case may be) would be carried up and down the trail.

The next one-third of the trail was steeper. The stones were cast about loosely, and there was no telling which one was firmly anchored and which one would give way. So you had to step gingerly, testing the stability of each stone you stepped on as you went. This not only slowed us down considerably, but it also made conversation difficult because we needed to concentrate.

The weather held up, and the views were now even more spectacular. We kept going and soon entered the final one-third of the trek, which was a gradual descent into the valley. This was undoubtedly the best part of the trek. We crossed many babbling brooks (some babbled rather loudly) over makeshift bridges consisting sometimes of a single corrugated iron sheet. Slowly the valley came into view, and so did the two glaciers at either end of it – Tipra and Rataban. Manu Bhai, our trek leader, told us it was a rare monsoon day when both glaciers were visible, so we were a lucky thirteen indeed.

After a welcome round of mid-morning chai, we roamed the valley, taking photos of the flowers and the scenery, admiring the sheer scale and variety of the vegetation, breathing the crisp, clean air of the valley and counting our blessings for having made it here to this piece of heaven on Earth. Manu Bhai, to his credit, tried valiantly to get us to know and remember the complicated botanical names of the pretty flowers, but soon gave up after sensing that our interests lay elsewhere. Much jumping-for-joy occurred, videos were filmed in fast- and slow-motion, there was lots of cheering, and finally we sat down to eat our packed lunch.

This is when the weather began to turn and Manu Bhai advised us to begin our trek back down to Ghangaria. The downward trek, especially the middle third, was even more treacherous than on the way up, because this time the consequences of a misstep could cost us more dearly. We took it nice and slow and still made it back to the base camp around 4 pm. After tea, a warm bowl of Maggi noodles and some rest, it was time for soup and our second oximeter check. Dinner soon followed and I was back under my now-familiar blanket.

I woke up early the next morning and realized this was going to be the worst day of our trek. It was raining, the clouds were hanging literally above our heads, and you could feel the dampness under your clothes and inside your lungs. The 5:30 cup of black tea was a welcome but short-lived respite. Breakfast was eaten, but in a laissez-faire, perfunctory manner. The cheers too were somewhat listless. We had our longest and steepest climb ahead of us – 6 km each way and over 4500 feet up. Soon we were on our way.

The trail up to Hemkund (strictly, Himkund, meaning ice lake) and the eponymous Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara (Sikh temple) by it is similar to the trail from Pulna to Ghangaria in some ways – it is equally wide, the stones are laid firmly if unevenly for the most part, there are many Maggi Points along the way, and mules are allowed and present in equally large numbers. But here the similarities end. While the Pulna-Ghangaria trail is a gentle climb where you can amble along with a carefree whistle, this trail is the real deal. Long, steep and full of hairpin bends, this is a challenging trail even in the best of weather. Today it tested us, with the incessant rain, the mist that soaked us from inside out and the slippery rocks that made the going very unsteady. A highlight of the trail was when it passed very close to a huge, imposing glacier.

One funny episode brought much-needed comic relief on this hard trail. You see, along with us, a group of wealthy and fussy seniors (actually people my age and younger) was staying at the Deepak Hotel. And conforming to the stereotype, these people were loud and obnoxious. One of them, a woman Divyang decided to call Chachi (aunty, because I was already the team’s Chacha or uncle), was particularly haughty. When we had stopped at a Maggi Point for chai, along came Chachi, in a regal procession consisting of herself in a palki carried by four bearers. Frowning from her high chair, she appeared to survey the landscape as though she owned it and was owed much in back taxes by the local populace. It was all so comic that I had to go up and greet her. She returned my greeting with an even bigger scowl. My twelve naughty co-trekkers cackled and guffawed in unison – Gauri was the loudest of them all. Of course this made sure that none of us would forget Chachi for a long time to come. Divyang, especially, exploited the Chachi story for all the laughs he could get.

Soon enough, we began to hear the sangeet (devotional music) being played in the gurudwara and relayed via loudspeakers, and our steps automatically quickened. Surely if we could hear it, it must be just around the corner? Wrong! Sound carries a long, long way in these quiet mountains and valleys. From the time we heard the first of the songs, it took us over an hour to arrive at the gurudwara. The full trek from Ghangaria to Hemkund had taken us over five hours. And it was freezing up here! I went around the lake at the back of the gurudwara, snapped a few photos and was back in the langar (the kitchen that provides all comers with a free meal), drinking chai and eating a warm bowl of khichdi, a staple of every langar.

I knew the descent had to be slow and careful, so I left soon after lunch. This is when I realized how wrong I had been in my choice of shoes. They were a size too tight for a trek like this which involved a steep descent. As a rule, for this kind of trek, your shoes need to be a size larger than your normal size. I paid dearly for my error, because my left big toe was impacted so badly by the shoe that by the time I was able to take it off after an excruciating four-hour descent, my toenail looked like it would fall off on its own. It also had turned a lovely cornflower blue – same as the color of the Blue Poppy, a flower that grows on this trail in abundant numbers.

I was wet, shivering and in immense pain. This is when my trekking family came to my rescue. Dew quickly wrapped a headband around my ears, slipped her spare woollen socks onto my feet, sat me down in a chair and handed me a warm cup of tea. My shivers went away and my spirits lifted quickly after this. By the time we had dinner, the best of the five we had on the trek, I was a happy, if sleepy, camper.

The next morning it was time to begin our long, 10 km descent from Ghangaria to Pulna. Strangely, the trail was not as crowded as on the way up. There were decidedly fewer mules and therefore, much less mule-kakka. After a leisurely amble, we reached Pulna and had lunch there, with some of us ordering an omelette to supplement the fried rice we had packed in the morning. A short union-taxi ride later, we were in Govindghat and soon afterward on our way to Joshimath. Along the way, we stopped at Vishnu Prayag, the confluence of the rivers Dhauli (white) Ganga and Alaknanda. We descended the steps that took us right to the meeting-point of the two rivers, took off our shoes and socks and dipped our feet in the icy-cold water. Apart from the relief this brought to our tired feet, the place had a certain energy about it that was hard to describe.

A short while later we were back at the Kamet Hotel in Joshimath. After our final debriefing, a short affair that became quite emotional, and a great dinner that was followed by a dessert of fruit custard, we lazed around. Some went looking for weed, for which Joshimath is famous, but came up empty. Divyang and Junaid found a Theka (liquor shop) and bought cans of beer, of which I partook with them at their invitation. We talked about what we were all going back to – them to their tough medical-student lives, me to my considerably easier retiree’s life.

After a restful night we began our journey back to Rishikesh and Haridwar in a van driven by Mohan Bhai, a younger, somewhat temperamental but equally safe driver. For some unknown reason, Mohan Bhai made up his mind that someone in the van needed to catch an evening train in Haridwar, and used this line everywhere he was stopped by the authorities as his excuse to be let go as quickly as possible. After ascertaining that none of us had a train to catch that evening, I decided that maybe Mohan Bhai himself had a train to catch. When I asked him about it later, it turned out that he not only did not have a train to catch, he had never been on a train in his entire life!

I was the only one heading onward to Haridwar. I spent the hour-long ride chatting to Mohan Bhai, whose favorite subject seemed to be driving his van and learning everything he could from it. The overnight stay in the noisy city of Haridwar (made even noisier tonight by the Krishna Janmashtami religious celebration), the train ride to Delhi and the flight home to Pune were all uneventful to the point of being boring.

And thus the trip was over. The goodbyes in Rishikesh had been emotional. Promises were made to keep in touch. New friendships had been struck, life stories had been exchanged, pet peeves had been aired, counsel on important life decisions had been sought and given, we had learned to look at each other (and hopefully the world at large) with a somewhat clearer eye, listen to each other with a keener ear. Not bad for a few days in the mountains with twelve complete strangers!

So – the mountains called and I went. What did I learn from this experience?

First, the people you undertake the journey with matter a great deal, whether on a Himalayan trek or on the journey of life.

Second, that sound you hear in the mountains, above the chirping birds, the roaring rivers, the rustling trees – that is the sound of your own spirit talking to you. The closer you listen, the more rewarding the experience becomes, again, whether on a Himalayan trek or on the journey of life.

Third, it is very difficult to know how far your destination is or even what it looks like, when you have never been there before. You may think you see it. You may think you hear it. But in reality you have no idea how much climbing is still left, how many twists and turns lie ahead or how many loose stones are waiting to trip you up. When you look back, it scares you to know how high you’ve climbed. What to do? Just focus on the next step. Take that step firmly, carefully and determinedly. The rest will follow.

Whether on a Himalayan trek or, you guessed it, on the journey of life.

Amen.

Written By
Satyendra Hombali

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