Thursday, January 22, 2015

Himalaya II

Part II - The Journey through the Mountains... 

Each peak is covered in snow. Why is it that this one is bare?
 koan contemplated by Peter Matthiessen in Snow Leopard.

We leave Delhi in a whirlwind, all six of us piled into one rickshaw, flying through the labyrinthine train station and miraculously meeting with the rest of the group at our bags. Thirty seconds before the train leaves. From Delhi we travel Nor' by Nor'-East to Dehradun. 

At a stop en route, I take advantage of the platform outside the train to do a quick stretch. The self-consciousness I seem to have developed in recent years has prevented me from public yog-ing, but after so many hours I can't resist. After a few downward dogs I become peripherally aware of a person standing quite close to me. Instinct tells me to check this out. A young man is standing not three feet from me, staring at me with no suggestion of a smile on his face. I come to standing and look him in the eye, wondering what's coming. He shakes his head in that gentle, ambiguous way that characterizes India, slips off his chappals and springs into a perfectly measured hand stand. He gets up with a grin. I spring into crow, and a modest head stand. Out of nowhere, another young man runs up, straight into a handstand. The train is leaving. No sooner do I smile at them both than they are gone. India. 

The next day at 05.30am we roll into Dehradun: the doorstep to the Himalaya-- and fresh, crisp mountain air. The early morning sun shines through clean air onto smiling faces that remind me of faces from Indigenous people back home. At the station we meet our guides, throw our mountain of bags onto the roof of a bus and set off on a seven hour ride through impossible windy roads, deep into the foothills. A leisurely break of alo-paratas, omelettes and chai wakes the sleepy cohort up. A monkey the size of a well-fed six year old wakes me up, as it rockets off a tin roof some two feet from my head, curious to find the source of the cooking smells. 

Back on the bus, the driver--who seems to have suddenly been struck by a sense of urgency--kicks it up a gear. Rita and I squeal and giggle as the bus careens through hairpin turns, bringing us ever deeper into ever larger hills, and an approaching horizon of snow-capped peaks. People tell each other stories of their lives. Ian--a second year student from Kenya--merrily questions the teachings of Buddhism. I keep to myself, nursing a soar throat and allowing myself to be lost to a swoon brought on by the view through the window: tall Evergreens; Pines, Cedar, old friends from home the likes of which I have not seen in months.

For the first time after months of post-monsoon heat, I don my woodsy woollen wear. Home, away from home.

           We are now many mountains from the tourism-towns around Dehradun, but not so far that a sudden bend will reveal a bustling street market. We dismount, I stock up on fistfulls of ginger and return to the bus, which has become a transnational free-trade market, smiles and laughter mediating the swaps of apples, oranges, bananas, biscuits, chips and other such delicacies. But the road is not ended. We push on, or rather, we allow the mountains to continue pulling us in, like small rocks being gently but inevitable sucked in by waves on a beach. We eventually reach Uttarkashi, a town in a steep valley between two mountainsides with a river rushing through: a small trickle compared to the raging torrent whose monsoon-flood destruction can still be seen along its banks where only skeletons of homes remain. This Bhagirathi River is a tributary of the great and sacred Ganga (or Ganges as it is called in the West): the Mother of all rivers, that continually birth the Hindu way of life, flowing out of these mountain ranges to traverse thousands of miles, permeating an entire subcontinent. 
          Here we don our mountain clothes and switch to jeeps, leaving our city affairs in the back of the bus. It is a golden sunset as we bounce and bang crazily through suggestions of roads--temporary footpaths in the rubble that will suffice until the roads, destroyed by the river, are rebuilt. We zig zag across the icy waters several times, passing work camps where leather-skinned women and men break the great white rocks with simple, heavy hand tools. Back breaking labour, they work on giant rocks the river leaves behind, reducing them to stone pebbles and rough-hewn bricks. After a dizzying 7km we arrive. A last cluster of plastic and corrugated sheet-metal sheds (Sangam Chatti) lead to a bridge that crosses the mountain stream and marks the beginning of our trail.

           By the time we suit up and set off across the bridge, dusk is upon us. We hike under the light of a waxing moon. Her light is bright, beautiful and endless comforting, ushering us into the unknown that lies before us. Soon I take up my habitual position at the back of the group, walking painfully/mindfully slowly to keep the pace of a friend who is trekking for the first time--and defying a past of illness and near-death hospitalization. Slowly, haltingly, they make it. Our path takes us gradually up, until the lights of the hamlet where the jeeps left us are as stars fallen into the dark valley behind us. Weaving to and fro across the hills, we pass through one village and another: stunning outposts of human resilience, these clusters of homes are perched on the steps of the surrounding hills and enveloped in terraced gardens--green rice in the summer, brown wheat by winter. Every dozen steps we pass a warm glow coming from a home of simple construction and surrounding by amazing feats of small-scale, high-production gardening. Squash, beans, corn and more provide sustenance to these villages in the middle of the foothills.
      Upon reaching a third village, I meet a wide-eyed Namgyal--the "Mountain-Samurai" guide, a young buddhist man from Ladakh, some 400km North of here who I will come to learn is tough as nails. Is Rita with you, he asks, barely slowing his pace as he walks towards us. No, I say, perplexed. Rita had long ago headed up the trail, leaving us far behind. She is nowhere to be seen at camp. People do not seem worried and I take the time to set up tents with Felipe. People layer up as we cool down after the hike. It is late, dark and increasingly cold. Soon I set out with the lead guide to cover the ground not yet searched by Namgyal. Training scenarios run through my head as we hike ahead, down to the path Rita would have followed had she unknowingly missed the turn off to our camp. The roaring river below drowns out the sound of my calls. Instead, we squat low and scan the mud for tracks. After some twenty minutes we agree to head back and search the footpaths close to the village. It has been a long day and I feel both of us loosing energy fast, not having eaten a proper meal in hours. In the distance I see a bright white light, distinct from the warm glow of house lights. I call out, and an excited yell comes back. Rita. 
     Back at camp, all accounted for, we prepare for dinner. While the guides work away in a nearby, borrowed kitchen, we group up and write down hopes, fear and dreams on beautiful handmade paper from MUWCI. Then we feast. Rice, daal, cooked veggies and chicken curry with chai and hot milk. Victory. Giddy, full and exhausted, we wash up and pass out, to sleep through alarms, set in ambitious preparation for our first full day of trekking. 

        We wake with a start at 07.30, sad to have missed our first Himalayan sunrise but grateful for the extra hour's sleep. I set the team to motion. Soon we dine--still full from dinner--on a feast of toast, (proper!) marmalade, honey, peanut butter, nutella, cream cheese omelettes and of course, endless chai.

Ramesh, our intrepid cook dishes out food with a warmth that comes from somewhere deeper than the stove. 

Full to the gills, we set off: marvelling collectively at the beauty that we have awoken to. Range after range unfold as we hike. I set off at a quick pace, trying to break with my habits and let Rita bring up the rear. After two hours of steep incline the group has stopped at a lookout. Lunch for some, rest for others. I sit for some time, skin to the sun and wind as the former dries my sweat-soaked shirt. Not keen on food just yet I head off with a wink and a nod to Namgyal and continue up the track. Hiking alone I set a quick pace, stopping to admire the impossibly striking lookouts as one snow capped mountain moves from NE to SE and more hills unfold almost fractal-like. It is a golden world of waterfalls and autumn leaves, filling my heart with peace and fondness for this cool weather. For the first time in months, I feel quietly, deeply at home. 
I stop now and then, stretching, drinking from streams and leaving small signs for the others to see--an inukshuk here, a UWC logo traced in the sand there, until I can see the group on the far hillside behind me. I stop at a gushing river and bathe--washing three days of train, bus and road off in shockingly cold water. This river, I learn is the Assi Ganga, one of the hundreds of mountain rivers that feeds into the Ganga itself. After a long journey, I now feel completely here, and ready to return to that simple state that the mountains bring out of you. Soon, the soft tinkling and flashes of red on brown make me peer back down the trail. The mules and their minimalist drivers--young men and old, hiking in flip flops--have caught up with me. Not wanting to get stuck behind this caravan, I dash to my pack and back to the trail. I push my steps into high gear as the mules approach fast, and the game is on.

          Shifting through warm sun and crisp, cool shade, I glide across handmade stoneways that carry me across creeks as they have done for thousands of years of Hindu, Buddhist and ancient Bon travellers. Hours melt away, my tired legs find support in a lean, light walking stick I had made myself earlier and soon enough I make a final ascent--now wearily caught up with by the mules--and arrive at a pass between two great ranges of hills. And perched atop, a village that speaks of an agelessness unlike anything I have ever seen. I follow my feet to a dusty old shack where an old man has pots on the fire. Chai.
          Soon the rest catch up. I eat half my lunch--a hard boiled egg, potatoes and white bread--and drink a second chai. Then Da'an--a student from the Netherlands whom I met previously in Canada--and I are off, even as others are still arriving. Though we set off with a few others, we are soon on our own, Da'an keeping up with my second-wind mountain pace. I feel warmed up now, nimble despite my 12kg pack, and we fairly fly across the path, slowing only to admire giant pines, drink from rivers and stare speechless at the never-ending vistas of sky and sun and mountain and mountain. 
        We stop at a small mountain shrine--Hindu. I put one hundred rupees in the metal box, feeling almost embarrassed at this pitiful contribution to a trail that has brought me to my bliss. Here one of the local guides passes us, walking light and fast. 

We follow in his wake and talk of this feeling of charging through life, pushing ourselves to our edge.
Whose edge? The mountains ask. I smile as we run and walk through the dappled gold.

Eventually we begin to descend into a valley at the foot of two mountains. The autumn light touches only the tips of distant mountains now, setting rocky peaks on fire. I get a strong and inexplicable feeling that we are about to reach our camp and sure enough, not twenty steps further, I spy roofs. We bumble our way, dumbfounded, into a scene from myth and legend: Dodital. At 3,024m this place is said to have been the home of Lord Ganesha and the temple, bright red, yellow, blue, green and white stands out against Dodital Lake and the mountain pass behind it.

A well earned meal for a noble mountain steed.

   We greet a man wrapped in wool as old as the hills: he lives here and sees to the upkeep of this temple. While we share no common language, he welcomes us and invites us to visit the temple later on. Da'an goes off to write, and I unpack my Kelly Kettle to make tea. Others arrive, I feed them the hard-earned fruits of my labours and then disappear to write my own thoughts down. It is night now and everyone is here. A big fire is set up and quickly blazing, circled by merry chatter and further off, the sound of the mules bells, happily tinkling away as the beasts of burden finally graze to their hearts' content. 
         But now my hands are frozen stiff with cold--despite the cup of chai brought to me by Da'an, and it is time to join the party. Tomorrow we set out to attempt Darwa Pass, at 3,800m with an optional summit of 4,200m and an experience the likes of which I have not even dreamt of.

Bless, bless, bless.

That night, I talk to Nitesh. Darwa Pass is snowy. Perhaps too snowy for the mules. Risk of loosing a mule, or worse. Huddled in the kitchen tent, propane stoves ripping, we decide to pack camp and head up mountain, ready with all our gear in case the pass opens to us, ready mentally to turn around and carry everything back down. Nitesh and I bring up the rear with Apu, leading her in slow breathing exercises to ease the steep climb up a ravine. In perfect rhythm she climbs, slowly but steadily, stopping to curse every forty steps. The snow line is at our feet now. The air is thin and the going slow. Footsteps running off into the snow tell of an exited Ian (Kenya) and Atul (North India), neither of whom have seen the white miracle until today. 
           We drop our bags at Darwa Pass where half the group has passed out in the noon-time sun. I squat to eat paratas. Rest. Feel oddly restless. Head up to Darwa Top and the summit, to find Namgyal stringing up a line of fresh prayer flags. 

A dash of colour at the top of the world. 
Cup chan ahe.

View from Darwa Top


The Nations will come together on the Mountaintop
From right to left: Republic of _______, Kenya, Canada, Netherlands, Portugal, India/UK, Canary Islands, Poland, India

Those of us who have walked to the top take a moment in silence, taking in the stunning panorama. After some eight days travel, we sit and look out on the Hindu Kush stretching out before us. For some reason I can't quite identify, I still feel restless and ill at ease. I feel no peace, nor a reason to feel this way. And then it strikes me as oddly comforting. If I don't feel at peace here, of all places, then surely the place one is has no bearing on such things. Enlightenment in the Himalaya, or in the office.  I find this reassuring and I gradually settle. But it is already 14.40 and what with the surrounding mountains, we have some three hours of light left in the day and a long trek yet. The pass itself is indeed too snowed in for the mules, so we follow our own footsteps back down to Dodital.  

We descend in a loose group. Patricia, a tough young Portuguese student, sprains her ankle. Rita wraps it, the mules take her bag and her friends help her down. We come across Prikshit, an Indian student, sitting shirtless in half-lotus, deep in meditation by the rushing river that has carved out this ravine. Seeing his bare back in this cold mountain air I think of the legends of Milarepa, the famouns Tibetan mountain sage who could sit in such a position atop mountains for days, emanating the Mystical Mountain Heat of the ancient yogis. Watching this young man sit as we quietly pass by, I can feel that Prikshit is at an important time in his life.
      We reach Dodital just in time to be invited by the priest to the temple for a Puja. He knew we wouldn't make the pass, our guides explain, and has been waiting for us. For me, apparently. I rally the troops and we head to the temple and into another world. Incense burns, candles flicker and we are all smudged with holy dyes, we touch the Ganesha, we sing along, haltingly, to a kirtan the old man gets lost in: a tune I know from years of listening to Krishna Das back in Guelph, Ontario.
   We give the priest our thanks and a modest collection of rupees for the upkeep of the temple, and eat. Dinner ends around the fire and most go to bed while the rest stay up for a Circle led by Da'an: an open sharing circle of infinite depth, from which pours out some real, heavy, heart-felt energy. Blessed, sick, hurt, beaten down by the mountain and utterly spent, we collectively collapse into bed.

 The following morning we see the Guru Ji for one last blessing before making trail once more, this time back the way we came, homeward bound. The moving is slow, easy. Everyone seems to be in a similar, contemplative place. We stop often. Look. Listen. In silence.

I walk alone. Reaching the high-altitude tea house of the previous days, I notice a porter is quickly catching up to me. Impressed at their speed, I stop to catch their face. It is none other than the Guru Ji, free of his woollen blankets and walking at the pace of a fit sixteen year old, a huge bundle of dried grasses strapped around his forehead. He passes me with no more than a soft smile, and disappears around the mountain. 
         I feel both cold and hot flashes, a soar throat and the symptoms of a cold. I walk in a slightly feverish dream-state, not eating much as I pass back through the autumnal forest, the pines and cedars and golden light of this mountain Middle Earth. I imagine I am a seventy year old monk, hiking alone through the hills from one village to another: part of a long journey through unknown lands. Great eagles and vultures circle and soar above, at eye level, below. Huge. Beautiful. Silent. The mountains are silent. Only leaves speak. Whispered stories of the wind. Silently, we humans observe, and walk on. Moving slowly, absorbed in stillness. Every turn is a goodbye: to the mountain ranges to the North; to the deep; the less penetrated, cultivated, explored. Every turn is a sign of civilization. 
A refreshing dip in the mountain 
Our walk comes to an end at Bevra village and the river in which I first bathed. While students splash and scream, I weakly set up my sleeping bag and pass out into a deep sleep, until awoken by Felipe, hours later. Darkness outside. We're around the fire, he says, They're asking for you. With a Herculean effort I will myself into movement, put on all my warm clothes and join the others around our last fire together. After dinner we begin a long Appreciation Circle, sharing what we appreciate about each person on the trip. An hour and some years later, we collectively give up, seven people to go, and head for tents. I am diarrhetic, dehydrated and still somewhat feverish. I sleep deeply. 

         I awake feeling notably better. Breakfast feels like a celebration. I rinse in the river. We leave, thanking the Bhaya for allowing us to camp on his land, with many a turn-around-and-bow. I am the last to leave. A Day of Departing. A Day of Returning. I am weak. I rest at the trail-side in the early morning sun. Houses, villages, rubbish, children, cows, goats, electricity wires, crops, streets, walls of buildings on either side of the path. After a few final pauses at the trail's edge to sit and look and listen and feel, to drink in the silence and the green and the distant mountains, I turn towards Sangam Chatti. In one last sit, I feel tears welling up inside of me. I don't know why.

        Soon I am at the bridge: the same bridge we crossed days ago to begin this adventure. I breathe deeply, bowing to the ground in the four directions, in thanks. I leave my trusty walking stick on the wild side of the bridge, for some next wanderer. After crossing back over, I leave my pack, my boots, my socks and head down to the water.  Wash, drink, bless, bless. Everyone else is released, soar, relaxed, happy. We have a long ride, mostly in the dark, back through the winding roads to the lower foothills. We reach Missouri, an eco-adventure mountain town and Woodstock, an international school where we will spend the next two nights. Hot showers, "Western" toilets (that simply do not get the job done) and pre-set-up tents.  In short, civilization.


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