Dear friends,I have recently returned from a 10 day trek to the Indian Himalayas. To be more precise, I have trekked through the region just to the south-east of the famous Nanda Devi - the tallest mountain wholly in India. There are many historical accounts of the dramatic Nanda Devi ascents, but right now the mountain itself and the immediate surroundings are closed off for public access. But I got more than a glimpse of the immense East wall of the mountain, which (the wall) is by itself over 4000m tall. The mountain itself is just under 8000 meters tall. As everything in India, this trip was testing my ability to adapt to rapid changes in the plans and itineraries, but in the end everything worked out just great. I was simply happy to be there, in the valleys and hills between magical Himalayan summits.
The original trip was supposed to be just between me and one of the guides I met in Rishikesh. Ramesh is a partner in a trekking agency and he wanted to explore the new region and did not want to make a commercial tour, but was willing to take me along as it's nice to travel in a company and share costs and food. However, just the day before we were supposed to leave, 4 more people expressed interest in going and so our little adventure turned into a full-blown guided commercial trek with 5 clients, 6 porters, 1 cook and a guide. I did not mind paying some extra money, but was more concerned about trekking with total strangers for 10 days. It turned out to be not so bad, but I suspect that the trek with Ramesh alone would have taken us further and higher up into the mountains.
An exhausting 17-hour drive to cover 400km on really bad mountain roads (average speed 25km/h) got us to the village of Munsyari, where we spent our last night in civilization, bought supplies and hired porters. >From there the trek started up the narrow valley and was supposed to bring us to the Milam Glacier where the base camp for Nanda Devi East would have been if climbing was permitted on that mountain. But, I will repeat myself and say it once again: things in India never happen according to a plan. Landslides broke the trail in a few places and there are no bypasses or walkarounds. Ramesh, Kesam (head of porters) and I went to check the first landslide and realized that we can easily pass it. But this time the interference came from the Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol. This area is close to the sensitive Tibetan border and so the ITBP is supposed to be up there, watching for trespassers. Well... It's not that we needed some permit or some other piece of paper. They simply did not want us to go because if we go and prove that the trek is passable then their superiors would require them to go as well, before the trek is fixed. They are just a bunch of lazy guys happy to hang around in a big village instead of freezing their a** on the much higher elevations of the border area.
So here we were, after the first night in the tents with no trek to follow. Fortunately, the head of the porters and our guide worked out an alternative trek, which while not taking us to the same elevations was still supposed to be good and would take about 8-10 days as well.
The trek was good indeed, but not what most of the people expected. Usually commercial treks have a very clean altitude profile, where a gentle climb from day to day takes one to higher and higher elevations and then finishes with a reasonably quick drop back to civilization. Such was the plan for our original trek, where a valley up to the Milam glacier should have provided exactly that profile. The new trek that was chosen went instead across multiple ridges and valleys, so every day we were gaining and loosing approximately the same altitude, sometimes more than once a day. This profile is excellent for training endurance, but is far from ideal for the people who went trekking for the first or second time or had expectations set for a gentle "upward to the views" trek. That trek profile was also hard on porters. They went exceedingly slow, especially the first few days, so that we would come to a camping spot and would wait for a couple of hours for them to show up and for an hour more to finally get some food. This was certainly quite demoralizing for the members of the team and some air of unhappiness with the trek could be felt despite the beautiful scenery we were going through. To help porters out and to get some more exercise at the same time I decided to carry all my things including sleeping bag, tent, all personal belongings - everything except for the food. That load immediately told me that the 2 months in India did not strengthen me despite all the yoga classes I have been going to. It took me 3-4 days to get back into better shape and by the end of the trek the same backpack was feeling quite light.
It would be difficult to name a single highlight of the trip, as every day I would see something or experience something that would just take my breath away and I would have a feeling that this is why I came here. Most of the trek was happening at the altitude of just below 3000m, with occasional crossings of higher passes. In addition, on a rest day I run up to a nearest summit of just over 4000 meters. I guess I can count this as my first Himalayan summit (or hill :)).
We got really lucky with timing - the trek happened exactly during the short period of time when the Rhododendron trees are in full bloom in the Himalayas. We are used to the variety of rhododendrons that look more like low bushes. These trees are tall and go up to about 1 meter in diameter. They are completely covered with huge pink and red flowers each flower - a ball of about 10-12 centimeters. When you go through a forest of these trees with the floor also carpeted in the fallen flowers, you completely transcend into some magic fairy tale universe. When in addition you see snow-caped mountains in the background, the view leaves you completely stunned by its unique beauty. Every night we would make a big fire and sit around and chat. There was a Swedish woman, a German guy, an Israeli, an American and me. The age went from 30 to 42 and we celebrated 2 birthdays on the trip. It was quite interesting to learn people's life stories. Everyone had a story to tell and everyone was interested to listen to others. It is not often that you get good listeners, but I guess the evening fire makes the storytelling and story-listening more natural - this must be in our genes from the pre-historic times.
While I had a little tent to sleep in, most of the nights I was sleeping outside near the fire under the stars. Raising up early became my habit on the trek. 5:30am I was already up, making the fire to boil some water, while the cook and porters were starting to prepare the breakfast. Going to their tent and immediately getting a cup of chai was part of my morning ritual.
Here I want to make a slight diversion. Indian people are really warm and generous and seem to genuinely want to make you feel happy. It is really a great quality, but often leads to misunderstandings and even disappointments and aggravations because of our western understanding of "service", "efficiency", "truth", etc... This has to do with the fact, that in their desire to please they loose track of reality as we understand it (if such thing as "reality" exists in their concept of the world). Here is one rule: One should never ask a question in which "yes" can be an answer. For example, I you ask - "Is it going to be warm today?", you will definitely get the "yes". Same with: "Are we going to get to the camp soon?" or "Is this mountain - Nanda Devi?" you will get "yes" to any of this questions regardless of the reality. Of course every "yes" is accompanied by a characteristic side-to-side shake of the head, which may mean yes or no or anything in between. Instead one should always formulate the question requiring an extended answer. Even in this case the "truth" as we understand it is not guaranteed to come out. I got at least 7 mountains named Nanda Devi. This was in part because they do not always know what Nanda Devi looks like, but they know that I came to see Nanda Devi, so to make me happy they would call each tall mountain Nanda Devi. The other type of misunderstanding has to do with "anything is possible in India" rule. If you come to a restaurant and ask for something, they will say "yes" regardless of the fact that they do not have the ingredients for the dish. They would hope to somehow figure it out - the word "no" or "not possible" in most cases just does not exist. This is of course quite annoying, as while they try to figure out how to solve the problem, the time passes and you may be waiting for your dish for over an hour and it has not event started cooking. (That just happened to me this morning - I asked if an apple pancake from the menu was possible and got a positive answer. Half an hour later I noticed no activity in the kitchen - I learned that they sent a boy to the market for apples and will start cooking once he brings them. In the end, it was over an hour to get the pancake for breakfast.) In that desire to make everyone happy there is also a conflict of priorities which is usually resolved quite poorly. Here is an example. Our cook in the kitchen tent is cooking breakfast. There are two stoves, both of which are utilized for the process. One of the clients comes to the tent and asks if it is possible to have a chai. Well... what do you think happens? Of course he says "yes". And completely stops working on everybody's breakfast in order to make a single cup of chai. As chai takes a stove to make, whatever was being made on that stove goes cold, the other stove is ignored, the chai is made and then the cooking process slowly returns to normality until the next interruption. That can make for a very late breakfast. In some sense it correlates well with the philosophy of living in the present moment - that is exactly what happens. There is no concept of time, schedules, plans. Just the happiness of the present moment. I think I'm beginning to understand these people. And you cannot get angry with them for that - they are what they are, I'm learning to accept this reality. Indeed, what's the rush? Why do we need to be somewhere by certain time? Would it make us happier? No, you cannot get angry or annoyed at them. The same way as you cannot get angry at the clouds for throwing down the rain or at the sun for setting down too early. I came up with the notion that in India "a human factor is just a part of nature". Once you accept that notion, you relax and just enjoy the moment, the trees, the mountains, the air, everything that you are a part of at every moment in life. But let me get "back on trek" :).
Despite seeing the Himalayas for the first time in my life, the most significant memory of this trip comes from our stay in a little village, where we spent a night in a school building during the only rainy night of the trek. This village of only about 500 people has a school to which kids from this and from smaller surrounding villages come. The village lies away from the major trekking routes so people practically don't see tourists there - sometimes Indian trekkers, but almost never foreigners. Kids were especially excited by our visit. As I now realize it, they were no less fascinated by seeing us than we, by seeing them. We arrived into the village late in the afternoon as obvious rain clouds started gathering around the mountains. There was a meeting of village elders in the school building and once it was over, they offered us to stay in the school (just a big one-story hut) for the rainy night. The rain started soon, but despite the cold drops, the children playing in the yard were not leaving. Many of them barefoot, in really old, worn out closes which seemed totally unsuitable for the weather, they stayed around partially playing and partially watching the strangers that took over the part of their territory. Soon the curiosity took over and our digital cameras, with their "instant gratification" capabilities won their hearts. Everyone wanted to be in the picture and then look at it, point himself out to his friends on the screen of the digital camera. So much fun! Even more exciting play was with my video camera. It has an ability of turning the LCD display towards the subject that you are shooting. Then they see themselves on the screen while acting. That attracted the whole crowd of faces, pointing fingers and laughter. Everyone, even the shy ones wanted to be the movie starts. After that, I used this trick with other people in India with great success. What a way to capture really genuine excitement!
In the morning we vacated the school building by 7am, just before the classes were supposed to start. The weather was good. We were still packing up and finishing breakfast when the school began. It started with about 15-20 minutes of various singing and prayers by all children. That was absolutely magical - singing children's voices in the light of the just raising sun with the background of snow capped mountains. Then the classes began. They did not use the school building, rather, each class (about 5-6 in total, split by age) sat down in one or the other part of the school yard, just on the bare ground with just pieces of rough cloth insulating from the cold ground. There are only two teachers, so the teachers wander from class to class, while kids work on their assignments. The "blackboards" are just a couple of rough planks put together and painted dark. Little kids (around 5 years old) that are just learning to write do not use paper - paper is too expensive and they would waste a lot before they learn to write properly. So they use dark painted wood boards with handles (similar to our kitchen cutting boards) and write on them with some very light, liquid, washable paint (probably made from dirt - judging by the color, or from some plant). I was very impressed with the discipline maintained in each class despite the fact that we were still around, packing and holding our cameras, and teachers could not really watch over every class. There was an obvious respect towards teachers and the elders in general. I guess the remote villages are still capable of keeping the true traditions. But it came time for us to go and after taking another thousand photos we left the school and the village.
I have not eaten any meat or fish or eggs since my second week in India, which was in early February. Now, on a rest day everyone got excited with the idea to get a lamb from one of the shepherds and have some meat. The closest shepherd asked for a too high price, so our guide organized couple of porters to get a bit down, closer to one of the villages and by a lamb. The lamb was bought along with some home brewed alcohol (all for about $30) and the next day we all, including the porters, had a few different courses of meat. That meat, plus some chicken meat on the way back were the only meats I ate since coming here and to tell you the truth, I do not miss it at all. Maybe the climate plays the role, as in hot climate it's much easier to be vegetarian and live on fruits and vegetables. But somehow I think this trip will have certain influence on my diet.
The last night in the mountains we spent near a hill on which a new temple to Shiva has been just built with a help of a traveling Baba. "Baba" is a name often attached to a sadhu - a spiritual man who renounced the world in favor of spiritual search and life. In the evening we went to visit the little temple and the Baba who, according to some locals was still there. This Baba has traveled for over 20 years exclusively by foot all over the Northern India and Nepal and has been building (initiating the building) of temples like this one in every place where he stayed long enough. Here he has finished with the temple and already passed it on to an elderly man from a nearby village to watch over. We got lucky as he was about to leave to continue his journey in a couple of days. Our porters also came up, the old man of the temple got some traditional instruments and our porters played and sang a few folk songs. Then Baba told a few stories which our guide managed to translate a bit. All of this was accompanied by chilam smoking. Smoking chilam (filled with ganja or marijuana) has pretty much became a spiritual tradition among many "Baba"s in India and sharing the smoke is like sharing the prana - the energy body. Of course we all took part in the offering. Here I should point out that all forms of cannabis are extremely cheap and widely available almost anywhere in India. This is one of the reasons why so many young kids come here from Europe, Israel and other places to unwind and relax. We also have done a small share of relaxing, but did not abuse ourselves or local traditions :). Most of the people left, but I with Ramesh and Elliot stayed till the evening and got to see the small puja prayer ceremony that both Baba and the old man held. It felt very sincere and was most inspirational. The trip back to Rishikesh took day and a half with a stop in a small town. In Rishikesh I finally moved to the Ram Jhulla - the part I really preferred to the Laxman Jhulla which became a 50%/50% indian/israely touristic hangout. My plans were to rest for a couple of days and move on either onto a new organized trek or just to travel on my own into some new mountain regions. But have I told you already, that plans in India don't usually work? It's been almost 10 days now since I came from the trek and I'm still in Rishikesh. I discovered a very interesting course of lectures in one of the ashrams and so every morning for almost 3 hours I listen to teachings on yoga philosophy, kundalini yoga, vedanta, bhagavat-gita and other subjects that explain the basics of eastern philosophies and religions. Swami Dharmananda teaching the course is quite a character - coming from a dysfunctional family and going through the 20 years of military schooling he finally renounced the external world and settled in the Ved Niketan ashram in Rishikesh. He has a wonderful book of poems which in simple verses describes his struggle of renunciation, his inner aggressions and weaknesses and angers and searches. I think his past allows him to be a better teacher for us, people from the non-spiritual world - he sometimes can easier find words which work for us and get easier into our misunderstandings of the concepts of his talks. So far I'm really enjoying the lectures and that makes it very difficult to leave Rishikesh even for the higher mountains. One thing he mentioned was really nice to hear for me as a climber. He said, that when you go trekking or climbing into the mountains, don't think you go trekking or climbing - think of it as a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that cleans you of the worldly worries and puts you closer to yourself and, therefore, to God.
So I will keep coming for as many lectures as I can handle and then will go on one of those pilgrimages.
Even though it is a bit too early I can finally start counting how many days I have left in India. I finally bought a ticket back home. On June 1st I'm flying to Moscow and on June 8th from Moscow to New York, to pack my bags with heaps of climbing gear and head onto my next pilgrimage to the Peruvean Andes. Hopefully, before I leave I will write another trip "Note" from India or from wherever I will be by that time.