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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Snowsome Tales 3: Life on Himalayas

Part 1: Har ki Dun
FYI - Route to HKD goes as follows: Delhi - Dehradun - Mussorie - Naugaon - Purola - Mori - Sankhri - Taluka (trekking begins) - Gangaur - Osla/Seema - HKD

The Village of Osla


“Sir, here we don’t roam around with girls for fun; we do so only if we truly love and want to marry her. You tell a girl that you've got money she wouldn't come, but if you tell her that you love her – she will definitely come!”

Rajendar Singh was our porter. Actually a farmer by profession and a student by age; porter - for that extra income. His view of world stretched up to Delhi, uncommon for most of his folks who had been farthest to only Dehradun, the capital of Uttrakhand, 250 odd km from their village. Delhi by comparison was around 500km.

Rajendar, 17 years old, studied in class 9th. Even though his proficiency in studies would fall short of a regular 9th class Delhi student, a couple of days spent with him were enough for one to appreciate his wit, and the good work that has been done by the government in opening up school in such far flung villages. In fact his village, Osla, is the last inhabited village on that stretch of Himalayas.

As an example; he starts dictating me his address as follows - "Name: Surendar Singh, Village: Osla..." but stops short on seeing my amused expressions (borne out of seeing him use English words so jauntily). He thinks that I didn't quite catch the meaning of the word village, fumbles a little trying to explain "Village, sir Village", and then nails it, "Countryside, Sir", leaving us stunned!

"There's a school upto class 8th here in Osla", he mentioned while sitting with us by the fireside in our HKD rest house, "Sankhri has a school upto class 10th and for further education there is a high school upto class 12th in Mori".

"Do all of the kids in your village go to the school?", I asked expecting the answer which I had often heard in Rajasthan...

"Yes they do, in fact most of them start going to the school in Sankhri after class 8th"

"But Sankhri is a day's trek from Osla!", I asked a little befuddled.

"Yes, but for you Sir!", Rajendar mentioned smilingly.

Ah, I thought. His comment made me suddenly snap out of education-in-India to mountain-people-walk-superfast-on-mountains. I had seen children, as small as 5-6 years carrying large bundle of firewood tied on their hunched back with jute strings. Moreover, the grip of their shoes was usually smudged - however, all the same they kept pace with their mothers on the steep downs or gasping ups. These humble creatures make any trekker melt with shame.



On 29th December 2010, an hour after noon we reached Seema: the resting place for travelers located on the other side of the village Osla. Afterwards we shared a light lunch of Khicdi - our ingenious potpourri of crumpled bread, sandwich spread and namkeen.

Inspired from our conversation with Rajendar over last day coupled with my curiosity to get a glimpse of mountain life I, along with Gj, decided to head out to Osla. A few others also joined but gave up after 100 mt or so - abhorred by the idea of walking on a steep climb again.

While going up we crossed several women and children, each heaving a heavy bundle of firewood. Most of the women were neatly dressed, their hairs tucked away inside a tight cloth that covered their head, their face clear and washed, cheeks rosy, eyes with a hint of mascara, ears sometimes adorned with tingling golden earrings, and lips often sporting lipstick. On the other hand children were not so neat: their hair ruffled, clothes often shabby, cheek skin parched and red and face smudged with dirt often as a result of running nose. However, there was one common thing between them - their disarmingly enchanting smile. And with smile many a times children innocently asked, "Sir, Cap?" We did not give them cap, warned by our guide as a precaution to avoid spoiling children. However, I regret for not emptying our medical kit with their village elder or head. That way we could have helped without spoiling anyone. I will make sure I do that the next time I go trekking.

As the sound of Supin became distant, the village came nearer. The first sign to greet us was a small hut made of 4 plastered brick walls and a flat roof structure. The interesting thing were the NREGA directives painted on the hut. As I read through them it suddenly hit me what managing a country like India would entail - one of the thousand complications being the sheer difference in size: at one end are the bulging metropolis like Mumbai and Delhi - each home to over 15,000,000 people to areas as remote as Osla - home to not more than 500 people.

Still pondering over such thoughts, we took a few more steps while continuing to breathe heavy, and there - we reached the boundary of the village: Built at one of the most beautiful places in the world to live, Osla village has around 100 houses and 500 inhabitants.

From where we stood we could see the entire village. The houses were built of wood, their sloping terraces covered with heavy rectangular stones and decorated with pumpkins. Standing at any house you could feel the slight though continuous vibrations caused by Supin flowing far below, and turn about anywhere to find staring into mountain slopes.

Gj and I looked at each other, briefly uncertain and a little scared. We were not sure how we would be welcomed in the village. I scuffled looking backwards hoping that Surendar would turn up as he had promised. But apparently the people who had stopped short of the climb and had settled themselves on the rocks besides the Supin had lured him for a photoshoot session. We were on our own...shrugging our doubts we decided to prod on.

Bang at the point where village starts there is a very weirdly beautiful temple, almost surreal in its architecture with some nonsensical figure carved of wood standing in the middle of its roof against nothingness in immediate background...Ha, things made some sense when we later got to know that it was dedicated to Duryodhan!

As we moved further we saw several people outdoors. Most of them were either breaking stones, collecting water or weaving clothes. What more, all of them were females. In fact nearly 80% of the people I met in the village were females (what luck!!!).

Soon the word got around “Sehar ke log aae hain” ["City people are here!"] and we had a huge trail of children following us causing a mixed feeling of immense joy and mild despair on our part. However, they were soon dispersed by their mothers before they could mob us (they wouldn't have - as they tend to me very shy). When the trail got together again - we clicked and showed them several pictures. They were so bloody excited!!!

We were at the center of the village when a weird looking guy came to us. He had no boots, his clothes were torn and over and above that he had an unusually large rectangular face. He came to us and said something which neither of us understood. Gj thought that he is asking for a picture which he then clicked and showed him. However, it failed to change the curious smile on his face. He said something to us and took a little forward to the path where he stopped and asked us to follow him. We did, and through some twists and turn he took us to the highest house on the hill on deserted us. Oh, it was just beautiful from up there. He just knew that we should be up there to get super-mesmerized in the beauty of his village...

On our way down we also found a solar power operated satellite phone (Only Rs 5/- per min STD!!!) After calling our mothers and clicking a few more pictures we headed back to our campsite, negotiating several herds of sheep and goats returning back home as the sun disappeared and the cold fastened its clutches…



Osla was nothing short than a fancyland: The view from each square inch of the place was as breathtaking, natural and genuine as the smiles of people of that place. The warmth they showed even without speaking much gladdened our heart, and even though we were intruders in their daily lives we were more than welcome. I wish to stay much longer the next time I visit any such tiny secluded village to deepen my first brush with their lives.



"Wooooooooooooooooooooooo ha - ha - ha - ha" "Wooooooooooooooooooooooo ha - ha - ha - ha" a long shrill hoot ending in what looks like laughter "That's how girls whistle here, Sir. Amidst the continuous crashing sound of river, this is the only way", quipped Rajendar.

I remembered hearing this when Gj and I reached Gangaur a few minutes ahead of our pack. We were alone in the open and the sound kept coming. We looked around to understand that the source of the sound was a pack of mountain girls on the other side of the mountains. And we blushed.

The Temple of Duryodhana

Story Continued:

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Snowsome Tales 2: The Journey Back

Apparently it had snowed at 4 in the morning while we all were asleep.

A thin veil of snow had covered whatever our eyes could see, ofcourse except the river: lightly growling then like a lion whimpering in its sleep. All surrounding mountains were shrouded in a mystic drapery of clouds and blowing snow, which parted towards their base, to reveal them shyb-lushing in their new polka dots avatar!

I was still tired from the inadequacy of the space on the bed last night. It was so stupid - what was a rat doing in our room in such icy cold weather. Wasn't he supposed to be in his burrow hibernating! Ok, I know they don't hibernate, but whatever - aren't they suppose to go down to a rat hole at some lower altitude just like humans! In totality, I mean - what the ... was he doing at 3365! Wretched creatures they are...that one rat drove Gj, sleeping contentedly on the floor, to get terrified to his bones despite all that layers of clothing and jump on the bed with already suffocating other 3.

The night had passed, and the grey-white morning was no time to soothe cramped muscles, except o'course for Twigman who had popped in a Crocin before he slept, and then had dedicated almost the entire tube of Volini to his back as soon he got up in the morning! However, on a more generic note - it was the time to drink tea, gulp down maggie, ignore the call of nature to stay back for some more time, and to run!

Even before we started it had resumed snowing mildly. The dense dark grey cloud cover lined our entire downward path causing a morbid worry to surface over our guide,Ramlal Ji's, face as he asked us to make haste. And then, we ran! When we left at 8:45 AM, no one even turned back to heave a sigh; every warm breath was important, more so because the entire trek for the day was uninhabited and our ration supplies had already hit the red.

Soon, flakes of snow started falling thick and fast. Every 10 minutes or so we had to wildly shake ourselves to get rid of the snow piled on our backpacks and boots, shoulder and hoods. As I half walked half ran - the snow lightly crunched under my feet, fell on my lips and eyes and blew in my nose causing a seismic wake of tanginess to run through my body, ending in my belly causing me to suddenly vibrate - it looked as if I was dancing. Well, the truth is, I was! Wouldn't you if you were running in the wild in the first snowfall of your life?

While ascending HKD (Har Ki Dun), I was of the opinion that it was one of the most beautiful winter treks that I've seen, but oh I square that it was doubly so when we descended. I had so far believed that my favorite color was blue, though I really don't think I have a favorite color but just in case had you asked me mine - I would have said blue. But damn, I am saying the color of snow the next time you ask me, and no kidding this time.

And it was not just snow - at halfway, the path down from HKD suddenly bends at a right angle around a ridge to completely tumble the world before your eyes - from bleary huge snowy mountains lurking in your face, the view after the turn suddenly opens up to the far horizon with Supin river joining you back - flowing down several hundred feet between yours and the parallel mountains...

After having walked for a little over 2 hours: through steep downs and large white flats, from over freezing streams to over already frozen falls, the snow finally started receding. The urgency in us too receded with it and a sense of peace set forth in our gait. We started to notice how huge boulders tumbling from mountains had blown off huge bridges and the teetering makeshift wooden bridges in places, how the occasional green patch of land was indeed a wheat field, how effortlessly our porters walked, and how with every step downwards our knees said 'Ouch'! The last part is important - descending on mountains is never easy on knees which are accustomed to not even descend a single floor on well laid stairs. However, it generally helps if you don't climb down mountains like stairs but instead put your legs horizontally across - as you might have seen in military movies in 1-2 1-2 steps. Moreover, try to keep your legs on some stable boulders instead on the ground while climbing down a slope or walking on a flat - as once your leg is on a boulder it is much more stable then when it's on ground where it keeps on hitting the scattered boulders lying around.

Caution: don't run! Walk fast if you have faith in your shoes and judgement, but don't run! Last time around, Tobebabu risked the most important parameter in his equation of being a babu: being alive! When we were descending from a height of 4200m to 3200m around curving slopes, he decided to run directly downwards assuming that...

Probability {his legs finding a boulder to step on/he keeps his foot forward} = 1

...this was flawed, and even otherwise so! He stopped when we all saw him and shrieked on the top of our voice, only to look up with an expression of - "Just trying!"

However, no major heart-stoppers occurred on our downward journey this time, except for when Twigman leading our pack in the drafting snow stepped over ice, which was slyly covered under snow, and fell headlong. It was momentarily scary and then funny to see him trying to axe his nails in the ice to get a grip, slipping a little every second toward the small stream which we were crossing, before he was given a hand by Gj. However, no joking about the fact that being drenched when it's snowing might have been a direct ticket to heaven (I guess he's a good man!).

By and by we reached the bridge over Supin river which would take us back to comfort of rest houses. But crossing bridge was no easy thing - the pull of dashing white river was too strong and one by one everyone slumped on the bridge; lost in their own special thoughts. When we looked at our watches - it was just half hour past noon! Everyone in the group had made down amazingly fast; and some of us were again in enthusiasm to go further and reach our starting point, Taluka, the same day; however, we did not - and for good, as otherwise I would have missed something which mesmerized me more than anything I had seen thus far on our journey...[to be contd.]

The bridge over Supin

Story Continued:

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Snowsome Tales 1: Har Ki Dun

Har Ki Dun: The valley of God

It was fairly cold outside. What else do you expect when the valley you stand upon looks on three quarters of an arc to the mighty snow clad mountains of the Bandarpunch range of the Himalayas.


Swargarohini peak, the 6300m high ladder to heaven, the mythical place from where Pandavas and Draupadi ascended to heaven, stood at a stone throws distance. It is one thing to look at high mountains in pictures, another thing to see them rising above the surrounding mountain ranges, and a completely another thing to see them - right there, in your face, and checking them out all up: from base to peak!

By the time last of our men arrived, the light had melted into darkness and the even though the moon was faint, the white mountains became blue, and green trees dispersed enough of the available light to leave nothing for us to see but black patches. And my thoughts were such:
I don't know why, but I can feel sadness creep
from behind the imposing you, and flowing thy
Out and out, engulfing me by
Sadness, nhy
Jealous, am I!

There were two places where we could sleep in the night - rest house, or camp!

I wanted to camp under the starry chilly night. And I had a reason for wanting to keep away from the comfort of the rest house: we had reached our destination - Har Ki Dun, 3 days after starting from Dehradun. However, the ascend had been fairly easy presenting no real challenge or sense of adventure, but only blindingly beautiful views. I thus wanted to bear the chill of night in pretext of testing my capabilities. And here's the thing - trekking in mountains is not just about admiring nature, but more so about finding yourself, physically and mentally. When you push hard for long in thin cold air, the pain and numbness reach to the extent that they drown all other thoughts from your mind: worry, guilt, pride, stories of past, present and future and leave you free!


However, as the night wore on, along with everyone else, I comfortably settled in the forest hut. I suggested several audacious plans of getting up early and trekking further on to the Jaundar glacier, which immediately got enthused nods from a few group members (Gj, Chahha, and Tobebabu); however each of those were turned down by our guide as infeasible to be done in a day!

With the beauty of Valley of God seeping into us, we became, I became, content of the idea of spending the beautiful morning dancing around sunshining river and guardian mountains of the valley.

Trying to absorb the beauty

Moreover, the room of the rest house was direct from yellow leaves of a British book. The wooden flooring and bed by the fireside took me to to the Colonial times. Soon enough a heap of firewood was lit and the glow enthused my spirit. I couldn't believe it - I was actually sitting by the fireside in the Valley of God, oh a feeling ran through me that is hard to describe! I wrote that it is amazing to write that I am writing by the fireside! Half of us (Twigman, Tobebabu, Dolllover and Mr. McK) had already slipped into cozy beds and quilts and were cracking loud bratty jokes, incorrigible to those sitting by the fireside - lost in a dreamworld while listening to tales of mountain villages from our porter! I wrote:
Har Ki Dun is a pure bliss which can be enjoyed without any sense of adventure – you just sit here and admire the beauty: the rocks and boulders jutting out at places most unthought-of, long straight pine trees growing at the top of otherwise absolutely barren mountains, snow blowing off magnanimous peaks all of which stand nonchalant of the gaping mouths of young travelers feeling dwarfed by the humongous rise of theirs, and the finally the river: it’s water casting different mystical spells when under Sun, Moon, Stars or even a plain dark overcast sky. How do you capture all this in your eye, ear, heart or brain? Only if each of your thousand million pores opens up, you can encompass in some small measure, the beauty which is present here
While I was thinking that they should seriously think about renaming Cloud no. 9 to Being at 3-3-6-5, our guide and porters readied the dinner for us: steaming hot rice with steaming hot curry! I dipped my fingers into them, without caring for spoons and started eating hungrily only to be done in a plateful! All the time when you are climbing during the day you think that you're going to eat so much, but when you actually start eating there's only so much that you can eat!

However, the worst comes after eating - washing your plates! Every single time I did that, it felt like - one more second and my fingers might need an amputation. The innocent looking water turns into a Satan potion the minute it lands on your hand, and ere long you've to rush back to fire! Therefore you can imagine how difficult might it get if you forget to pack a roll of tissue paper for other needs!

After dinner it was time to once again snuggle into quilts, or sit by the fireside and get lost into dreamworld. This time, however, we tried to kindle the fire ourselves, to our utter failure. Porters came to our help, and this time I carefully observed how they kindled a fire. The trick is to form almost a pyramid of wood and put small pieces connecting the larger pieces of wood to transfer the fire. Other trick is to constantly take out ash and put in new pieces of wood. And the trickiest of all - to blow into the fire when it starts to waver. It's poignant to see how quickly the fire starts asphyxiating once ash starts to block the flow of oxygen causing an untimely, fast and leg-kicking death! However, more often than not you blow stupidly enough to either cause the fire to stare back at you saying - dude!, or to cause ash to fill the room. The worst of all is to suck the air after blowing hard, without turning your face. Get ready to cough your way for next 5 minutes until large tears well up in your eye!

Rookie Fire

A rookie's guide: Make a base of T1 with the center filled with small twigs/grass/paper. The larger you want your fire to be, place more of T1s over each other, finally on the top of T1 place T2, with the T2 wood much thicker than T1s. Place T3, or simply long twigs connecting various thicker wood to transfer fire. Blow from the base. Don't suck after you blow! For completion sake: keep distance, extinguish it once done, and google after reading this to find exact info!

The Junior Woodchuck Guide

Anywho, by and by the wood got all burnt up and once again cold started engulfing us. As much as I hate to waste time, I hate to share a double bed with 4 people, 3 of which were worthless engineers, who couldn't apply their nutty brains to suggest until 5 AM that we should sleep with head-feet direction reversed for every alternate men! I hate the experience more so because once asleep the uncaring ones sprawl their legs flat into others territory and shamelessly snore!

After 5 AM, I slept astoundingly well , only to be woken up at 7AM with loud cries of snow! I quickly got out of the bed, with only a few warm clothes on and ran to open the door and join in the celebrations going outside. A cold wind blasted on my face as I opened the door, what else was I thinking, but hey - Dreams do come true, in the Valley of God...the valley had turned white, overnight! [to be cotd.]

The Morning After

Snow White

Story Continued:

Read about last year end trek: Finding Frozenland