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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Road Trip Adventures: The World's Most Beautiful Monastery

730 am, Oct 29 ‘13: I scramble out of bed and get ready. I should have woken up earlier. Wearing my boots, I step out of the room. Outside, a few feet below the property, the Paro river glistens blue in the morning sunlight. I look up at the mountains and somewhere in their midst is my destination.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

I walk to the hotel restaurant. Gautam and Shaheeda, the friendly, young Mumbai couple are there already. Soon, Chetan and Pradeep join us. I like these two boys. Twenty three years old each, they are the youngest members in this Tri Nation Car Rally Road Trip.

We finish breakfast and get into Gautam’s Scorpio - Adventure 19 – and drive to the base of the mountain from where the trek will start. The route is beautiful. Through our position on the hills, we can see the entire town of Paro, those little houses down below looking like Lego pieces.

It is day 9 of our trip. After finishing our Nepal leg in Kathmandu, the Mahindra Tri Nation team drove east and stayed one night at Biratnagar, a Nepalese border town. On day 7, the convoy crossed Bihar and drove into the hilly tea estates of West Bengal. That night we stayed at the sprawling Dooars Sinclairs property in Chalsa, on top of a hill. It is such a green estate. If you are in the region ever, and have the money, stay at the Dooars.

Yesterday, we left Chalsa and crossed over to Bhutan. The border formalities in Phuentsholing took quite some time and we only reached Paro in the night.

I am back in the land of Tiger’s Nest.

It will be my second time, trekking to the monastery. Last time, it took me three hours to get to the top. Today I will not stop even once, till I reach the top. It is purely a mental game.

We cross the main town, and now there are fields on both sides of the road.  A few houses show up infrequently. There are chillies drying on their roofs. Some of the houses also have phallic symbols (penises) painted on them.

We reach the base of the mountain and park our car. Some of the other Mahindra Scorpios are already here. The others must already be on their way up. To check if they are finding the climb alright, I must walk up faster.

The previous night, when we were having dinner, almost twenty people from the group said that they would try going up to Tiger’s Nest. Many are in their forties and fifties. I wondered if everybody could.

Fitness doesn’t really get high priority in India. Once college ends and we start working, we stop playing. We go to office, return late and watch television. Unlike in the west, we do not go camping on weekends. On weekdays, we are not like Denmark, where people are increasingly bicycling to work.

From our spot at the base, the monastery looks like a colourful dot on a big, brown mountain. To reach the top, we must make our way through a hilly forest, rocks and uneven terrain.

We start walking. I know Gautam will take care of Shaheeda, so I go ahead. Pradeep keeps pace with them. Chetan joins me. The two of us make a pact to not stop at all.

The forest is full of blue pine trees. There are no signboards, no stalls or wrappers or plastic lying anywhere. When Jigme Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth and most loved king, made Gross National Happiness a law, its definition specified that economic development and environmental preservation should go hand in hand. He has also made it a law that Bhutan should remain under 60% forest cover for all times to come. Such foresight.

Chetan and I move ahead and soon two small Buddhist temples come in sight. A stream of water flows out from one of them and passes through a brown, cylindrical wooden tube before falling onto the earth. The tube has been fashioned to look like a penis, foreskin et al.

The walk is directly uphill from here. A narrow strip cut from the hills is our path.

For someone who does not climb often, the first one hour is usually the toughest. You feel out of breath, and want to stop often. The more you stop, the more tired you feel a few minutes after resumption. If Chetan is tired, he does not express it verbally. Only a slight grimace gives him away. A lean, tall boy, he keeps steady pace and walks a step or two ahead of me constantly. We keep moving ahead at decent pace.

A steady breeze hits our chests. Forty five minutes later, we spot some of the group members directly above us. We leave the path, and scramble up the hill, through the trees, like two goats. In a minute, we are by their side, huffing and puffing with the extra exertion. They greet us with cheers and smiles.

We reach the café at the halfway point. Chetan and I want to keep walking, but everyone is laughing, talking and ordering tea and biscuits, so we decide to spend a few minutes with them.

I chat with Vivek Naidu, a 46year old man from Hyderabad. In the convoy’s radio conversations, he always stands out as the most polished speaker. Here, he keeps teasing me that he would thrash me in a race to the top. It is all playful banter.

He and Pankaj leave immediately after finishing their teas. Ten minutes later, Chetan and I set out too. We cover ground quickly. We pass an old woman, probably seventy years old. I smile at her but she does not reciprocate. She looks tired, and is holding onto the arm of her local guide. Together they walk at a painfully slow pace.

Soon we catch up with Vivek. He looks out of breath and is sitting on a rock. His face is covered with sweat. One look at him, and I know he won’t make it to the top. I stop next to him, and urge him to keep walking. Pankaj and Chetan look on. We walk fifty metres more and Vivek stops again. He is getting very tired.

I have no idea why I decide to change my script. Till now, I have wanted to reach the top first, reach it under two hours and prove a point to myself. Now, I feel like walking with him. I don’t know why.
Chetan wants to stop too. But at least one of us should do it non-stop, so I persuade him to go ahead. Vivek and I resume again, and walk slowly. Whenever he feels like stopping, I ask him to take five more steps. And after those five, five more.

Pankaj walks ahead, slowly and steadily, stopping every ten minutes to see if we are following his trail.

I don’t want to give up on the race yet. I keep telling Vivek we shall still be the first to get to the top.
He is panting a lot. His breathing is hard. The man’s exhausted. To egg him on, I resort to locker room tactics. I chide him, tell him to take it like a man, urge him to fight it out, roar at him that it is all about mental strength.

The man’s got spirit. He does not give up. He knows that my shouting is a farce, that it is all a bid to make him keep walking, and he pulls out enormous reserves of will to push himself.

As we go up, foreigners keep passing us, on their way back from the monastery. Every time they do, Vivek greets them pleasantly, cracking a joke or two, being the perfect gentleman. It surprises me.
Not that he can’t, just that he is up on a mountain, spent and exhausted more than he has ever been. Most people would be irritable when they are tired. This man is breathing so hard that I can almost hear his heartbeat, and yet he never stops being pleasant to strangers and keeps gushing about the views and the vegetation. I love his attitude. It speaks of the man’s character.

I now know why I want to walk with him to the top. We keep walking.  We stop only when he is ready to fall. I still taunt him, he still smiles.

Finally Takstsang is at the same height as we are. At the last turn of the hill, Chetan is waiting for us. From here, there is a 500 metre decline, at the end of which is a waterfall. After that begins the last hundred metre ascent to the monastery.

The four of us reach the waterfall. Clambering over the rocks, I rush to the water. I love waterfalls. Chetan keeps yelling that his shoes are slippery but finally he is up on the rocks too. Soon, there are others from the group who catch up with us – Rajat and his wife Neha, Akash and Vishesh. They all come up, gingerly holding on to the rocks and moving on the wet moss slowly till they reach under the fall. The water is icy cold and drenches us within seconds. 

Once we get back, we climb up to the monastery. When we reach, I look at Vivek. His eyes reflect all the emotions that he feels at the moment. There is an overwhelming sense of triumph. He is almost shaking with joy. In his victory, I find my own.

Just like last time, a sense of peace and calmness engulfs me as soon as I enter. No other religious place does that to me. We flit silently through the rooms, and a guide explains the monastery’s history, and the stories of the paintings to us. Later, I wander by myself. I need my own little space here.

We leave an hour later. On our way back, I walk alone. I still don’t know what is it that overwhelms me about the monastery – is it the exertion of the walk and the triumphant feeling at the end of it all? Or is it the magnificence of its location – on a cliff edge at the very top of the mountain, only trees and hills all around, nothing but the roar of water breaking the silence?

At the waterfall, I meet the old lady we crossed earlier. She is still on her way to the monastery, still holding on to her guide’s hand. I am pleasantly surprised to see her come this far. She is 72 and from New Zealand. I ask her how she finds the view now that she is at the top. She smiles quietly. I look at her guide, and he tells me something in a low voice. The old lady is blind.

I am stunned. I look at her and what she has just done and I hug her out of love, out of shock. She laughs and asks me to describe the view to her and I say what I can. Then, the two resume their journey. When I see her last, she’s still walking slowly, holding to her guide’s arm, talking to him.
I walk down the hill, but I don’t know what to think. I just feel so happy that she went up. Taktsang’s aura lies in its awe inspiring location. Yet, she went up, with no eyes, no strength, only faith by her side.

What is it about Taktsang. When I reach to the bottom, my mind’s still a maze of thoughts.
The next day, the convoy leave for Thimpu.

In retrospect, I have a lot of fond memories from that day. We stayed in a beautiful resort, Tashi Namgay, by the river, had a bonfire dinner party, and even had time for shopping.

It was a day that a lot of people bonded with each other in the 5-6 hours it took them to go up and down the mountain. We had spent most of our earlier days either driving, or visiting tourist attractions. In Paro, we learnt to be travellers. To just keep walking.

Chetan and I became close that day, I guess. 

Still, I shall remember our ninth day of our trip, above all, for only two things. The joy on Vivek’s face when we reached the monastery, and the faith of the little lady who held on to her guide’s arm and talked to him, the entire time it took her to climb up the most beautiful monastery in the world.

 Now Read:

1) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue 
2) About Neeraj Narayanan 
3) One Night with a Croatian Backpacker



Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Road Trip Adventures: In the House of the World's Only Living Goddess

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers
Day 4: On the morning of 24th October, the lead Thar car drove out of the gates of the Pokhara Grande and behind that rolled the twenty participant Scorpios cars, two media cars, the support vehicles, and lastly the sweep car that brought up the rear. We were on our way from Pokhara to Kathmandu.

We were driving on the Prithvi highway, that runs through the mountains offering a fascinating view of the rural countryside, terraced fields and rivers.

Soon Bijoy Kumar’s (Chief of Adventure Initiatives, Mahindra) voice could be heard over the radio and he asked the participants to describe their previous day’s experiences.

As everyone recounted, and others cracked jokes, we passed over deep river valleys and landslide prone terrain. Overloaded buses sped in either direction, swerving and braking on the turns, and inviting muttered curses. At Mudling, the bridge over the raging Narayani river groaned and sagged as the convoy drove over it, and the river hissed anticipating a mishap. It was in such environs that camaraderie was built over a faithful radio that connected every car of the Mahindra Rally.

I had two car mates. Agasti was a Top Gear car tester and writer, and also my roommate in this trip. Here on assignment, he would always be looking for locations from where he could take good pictures for his magazine. The moment he would sense a pretty locale coming up, Agasti would pull out of the convoy, pick up enormous pace, speed ahead and reach a point from where he could capture great shots of the convoy. Never once, through the hurtling pace, or even the 90 degree bends, did I feel unsafe with Agasti.  The boy knew how to steer a car.

Our third car mate was Priyanka, a fitting recruit of the Mahindra Adventures PR team. A happy go lucky kid, she was always game for anything sporting. More importantly, Priyanka was the critical link in our car as the originator of all conversation. She made sure that she did her Psychology Honours graduation justice, by showering us with questions that would pick at our brains and souls. With her the drives became more fun and also quite ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’.

We reached our Kathmandu hotel, Godavari Village Resort, around 730 pm. It was a sprawling property built on a hill slope, with landscaped gardens, trees and a swanky pool. I wondered how much extra money the Mahindra guys were spending in maintaining the convoy cars and providing such luxury hotel stays. It now dawned upon me that this trip was not intended to directly draw in business. It was in fact an experiential branding exercise. How better to make your customers love you, than to create great trips and do every single thing possible to make it a success.

With dinner came drinks and the first official dance party of the trip. It would have remained an obscure affair had it not been for our enthusiastic doctor.  In his simple world, dance meant doing violent pelvic thrusts. Some of his thrusts were so powerful that three metres away, I could feel powerful winds almost lifting and toppling me over.

We danced till the wee hours of the night and hopefully at the end of it all, our dear doctor’s pelvis and neighbouring organs were still part of his body.

Early next morning, the group members reached Kathmandu airport, for the 45 minute Everest flight. The twenty seater rickety Buddha Air plane did not inspire any confidence.

After a shaky start, the plane was soon flying above the mountains. Everyone was given a window seat. The airhostess passed us sheets depicting the list of the mountains we’d see. And then slowly , they all loomed out of the clouds, out of the fogs, those beautiful mountains that so many men had been seduced by, those sinister mountains that so many had tried conquering. One by one they all came out, Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Chamlang, Manasalu.

And then came the mother of them all. The beast. The Chosen One.

Mount Everest.

The hair on our skins prickled as we saw the magnificent mountain. 29,035 feet above sea level. This was what those brave men George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had tried summiting in 1924.

By 1920, man had already reached Antarctica, the North and South Pole.  Everest, ‘the third pole’ as it was also known, was now the one unconquered frontier. After two unsuccessful attempts in 1920 and 1922, British explorers returned in 1924. It was in this trip that Mallory and Irvine crossed 27,000 feet after which there was no sighting of them. They then disappeared. Mallory’s body was found 75 years later in 1999, at 27,750 feet. Found a hundred metres below his ice axe, with his arms outstretched, it is assumed that he had desperately tried to cling to anything that came his way as he fell down the ice.

The pilot called us all, one by one, into the cockpit to absorb the view.

In 1933, Douglas Hamilton and David MacIntyre made a bid to fly to Mount Everest on a modified bi-plane from India. Flying at 30,000 feet, at 140 mph, in freezing conditions in an open cockpit, with unsophisticated oxygen material, the brave tried to capture as many photos as they could. It would later assist climbers to find a route to the top of the world. They tried to see any signs of Mallory or Irvine’s bodies but found none. Some oxygen pipes cracked, and the men shivered bitterly, but finally they came back alive.

Eighty years later, here we were looking at the same mountain.  The effort of all those men must not go unheard. We, the story tellers, have a duty to tell as many as we can.

After a few minutes of viewing, the plane turned and we were on our way back. After one last look, we left, in silence, in awe.

Once back on ground, we headed for the royal palace, the site of one of the most brutal royal massacres in recent history. As the story goes, crown prince Dipendra shot nine members of his family in a fit of rage, before shooting himself. Some believe that it was all a set-up and the killings were masterminded by the king’s brother Gyanendra and his son Paras, who then went on to become the rulers of Nepal. Bullet marks can still be seen on the garden walls where Dipendra allegedly shot his mother Queen Aiswarya.

From the palace, we walked down the road to Thamel, the busiest market in Kathmandu. A vibrant, loud, colourful area, Thamel was full of shops selling mountain gear, clothes, antiques, khukris and just about everything else. We crossed hippies and quaint cafes, and both added a lot of flavour to Thame’s charm.

And then, as we walked through the market, through the people, through the deafening noise of it all, we suddenly came into another land. Durbar Square.

It really felt like another land. Suddenly the market abruptly ended, and we stepped into another era.  A moment ago we were staring at the giant modern edifice of ‘North Star’ – the premier mountain gear selling brand in this region. A moment later, we were staring at palaces built in the tenth century, the spectacular architectural work of Newar artists and craftsmen. A moment ago I was in the twenty first century, a moment later I felt that I had stepped back ten centuries. I closed my eyes.  In my own mind, all the noise of the street was now blocked out and I could see the Newar men carving under the sun.

Ahead, we stopped at a building called the Kumari House. When Priyanka told me its story, I was stunned. We were supposedly standing in the abode of the world’s only living Goddess.

Every ten years or so, Nepal selects a new, real life incarnation of Goddess Taleju (Durga). Picked only from the Shakya caste, she must possess 32 specific attributes – ranging from eyelashes like a cow, body like a banyan tree, and skin that is golden, tender and that has never been scratched nor bled. As Durga is considered fearless, the child is then made to go through several tests. In one, she is left alone in a room full of severed heads of animals, with masked men dancing furiously all around. Only a girl who remains calm and serene through these tests can go on to become the Goddess. The Kumari.

Once selected, she is separated from her family, moves into the Kumari house and lives there away from the public eye. Her only companions are her caretakers and servants. Her feet almost never touch the ground. She comes out only once a year, to bless the public during the festival of Indra Jata, bedecked in red, her eyelashes painted long, a third eye painted on her reddened forehead. As she sits in a golden palanquin carried by her servants, thousands throng the streets and the king himself comes to kiss her feet.

The rest of her time as Kumari, no one can meet her.

In ten years’ time, when she hits puberty, she is replaced by another girl as the new living Goddess. From God one day, to nothing the next, just like that. Tradition demands she does not marry ever.

We entered the red brick, three storey building, designed in the style of the Buddhist Viharas.
The walls of the courtyard where we stood had ornate workmanship on them. There were about twenty people inside, including us, and a group of Europeans led by a local guide. Suddenly, we heard some movement, and saw an old lady, the Kumari’s caretaker, at a window on the third floor. It had slits in it, and we could just about see her looing down grimly. She said something to the guide in Nepali, and he turned to the crowd excitedly. The Kumari was going to come to the window to bless the crowd.

Every eye stared at the window waiting for the little girl to make her appearance. The guide asked us to keep our cameras away.As we waited, I wondered just how much responsibility the little girl carried. Brought away from her family, sitting in a captive house all day for ten years, not allowed to have any friends, not having any books or school to go to, not allowed to play. And yet pampered, looked after, worshipped by an entire country, her parents made rich and receiving a new respect. But did she want that life? Did she ask for it? Was it right? Was it wrong?

And suddenly just like that, she came to the window. A gasp went up from the crowd, and then turned into a hushed silence. We looked at her, waiting for her to do something, to give us some sign. I could see a number of people bowing their heads in reverence and praying. Was it right, this belief of theirs? Was it wrong, this faith of theirs? I looked on, trying to find some emotion in the little girl’s face. All I could see were the large eyelashes painted black. The next instant, she left her seat and was gone. It was all over in less than half a minute.

I turned to look, and everyone was smiling. In my own heart, I felt special, to have seen a living Goddess. I wonder if it was right of me, to feel special.

That night, I found it difficult to sleep. A hundred thoughts flitted through my head. Good things somehow had a way of coming to me, ever since I started traveling five months ago. I would be at a place, stranded, and a stranger would help me. I had fallen in front of a bull in Spain, and yet it chose not to attack me. After leaving Bhutan, I had prayed that I find a way to get back there soon. The very day I reached Delhi, there was a mail lying in my inbox saying that Mahindra Adventures wanted to take me to Bhutan. And today, I had stepped into the Kumari House for five minutes, and the little girl had chosen those very moments in the entire day to come to the window. How, why were these things happening to me.

I slept dreaming of mountains, and me climbing them. Some of them were real, some just symbolic.

Image Credits: Prakash Mathema (at Indra Jat festival)

Now Read:

1) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue
2) The Good Men of India: A story at 17,000 feet above sea level
3) A Fishy Affair

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Road Trip Adventures: The Mountains of Pokhara

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers

3 June, 1950. Both men are spent, their breathing hoarse and every step  now a battle against the conditions. The snow scatters as the ice axe strikes the earth again. The temperature is well below freezing point, and visibility is low. There will be a storm soon. It is but a regular day in the life of a mountain 8000 metres above sea level.

Moments later, the first man lets out a cry. Maurice Herzog has become the first man in the world to climb Annapurna. Louis Lachenal scambles up the last few metres and both men raise their hands in triumph.

At 8091 metres, Annapurna is the first mountain over 8000 metres that man conquers.

22nd October 2013: We are ready for our second day’s drive. The Mahindra Tri Nation Adventure Car Rally day 2 schedule reads – Shivpatinagar to Pokhara (200 kms).  Shivpatnagar is a small UP town near the Nepal border. Actually, I like the place where we are staying – the Royal Retreat. Once upon a time the hunting lodge of Raja Shivpati Singh, it is now a heritage hotel.  We reached here the previous night after driving 850 kilometres from Delhi on day one. The property has huge gardens, a lake in a wooden glade, and mango orchards.

The convoy rolls out as per schedule and we cross the Nepal border at Sunauli. We stop briefly at the Mahindra showroom where we are welcomed warmly. The cars move again soon and we cover an easy 24 km straight stretch before stepping into the mountains.  We drive up the Terai region and here begins a 35 km long brake-testing ascent to Butwal. This relentlessly turning and twisting road to Pokhara is the Siddhartha Highway. After leaving behind the landslide prone stretch near Butwal , the convoy passes through the highest point on the highway. Soon we are crossing over the Kali Gandaki river at Ramdi Ghat - a site for many caves. The road descends by the steep gorge and we are almost parallel to the river floor.

Sixty three years ago, the French Alpine Club puts together a mountaineering team. Louis Lachenal, Lionel Terray and Rebuffat, three skilled professional mountain guides form the nucleus of this team. Maurice Herzog, the lone amateur, is made the leader of the group as per the amateur ideals of mountaineering. Together, they go up the Kali Gandak valley in April 1950, probably on the same mud where today road stands and our convoy is driving through. They try to examine the Dhaulagiri (another 8000 plus metres mountain) from the north and eastern face, and after Herzog declares it “fiendishly difficult”, the expedition turns its attention towards Annapurna, previously unknown.

The highway starts to go up the mountain again and once we near Syanja village, the hills rear up spectacularly and the scenery is dramatically beautiful. By late evening, we reach the Pokhara Grande Hotel and retire to our rooms. Our room is nice and spacious, and after covering  1100 kms in two days, I am glad to lie in the hot bath tub.

I come face to face with Annapurna early next morning. 

It is by chance that I wake up around 6 am, and walk out groggily to the reception. A few members of our group are standing outside looking at something and I join them. I stagger when I look at what stands in front of me. Straight ahead, the Annapurna range looms high in the sky.  Five peaks, Annapurna I,II,III,IV and Machu Puchre (Fish Tail) stand out from the rest.

While climbing Annapurna, Terray and Herzog are the strongest and acclimatise to it best but when the supply chain stalls, Terray gives up his shot at the peak in favour of pushing supplies. From camp IV, Lachenal and Herzog are the two who will attempt conquering the  summit.  As they plod on, without supplementary oxygen, Lachena is terrified as his leather boots don’t offer sufficient insulation. Afraid that he might get frostbitten, he asks Herzog what the latter would do if he chose to turn back. A disgusted Herzog replies that he would continue come what may. “Then, I’ll follow you” replies Lachenal. On June 3, they conquer the summit. An ecstatic Herzog stand there blithely while Lachenal prepares to come down. As they descend, Herzog takes off his gloves to open his rucksack and watches in horror as the gloves fall down the mountain. He will pay for the mistake dearly.

The descent turns out to be a terror. In freezing conditions, Herzog and Lachenal try to find their way. Terray and Rebuffat climb up to help them. Terray finds Lachenal lying in the snow, desperately trying to get to the doctor at a lower camp. As afternoon turns to night, a storm takes over the entire mountain and they spend an agonizing night in a crevasse, lost and weak. When the storm loses its vigour, Terray and Rebuffat try to find a route in the blanket of white and suffer from snow blindness.

Both men, Lachenal and Herzog, suffer from frostbite and their toes are amputated once they reach lower altitudes. As Herzog lost his gloves, all his fingers too are amputated. How much more can a man pay for a mistake.

We have a rest day in Pokhara. Everybody has their own plans on how to spend the day. We form a group of ten and take two cars to Sarangkot, which is supposed to have spectacular views of the Himalayas. We pass Pokhara Taxi stand and go up the hill. When we reach the view point, we see the road still continuing forward, so we decide to pursue it. The road worsens ahead, it is all mud and rock now with huge depressions.  As our Scorpios bounce up and down the uneven terrain, I stare at the gorge plunging hundreds of metres down,  just a foot or two away from our car.  Although not planned, this is our first offroading experience in this trip and I like this new flavour. The Tri Nation road trip is not just about driving for long hours, it is also about driving through every possible variety of terrain, and about testing our skills.

Finally after a horrendous three four kilometre stretch, we reach the outskirts of a village. A pond, a small school, and a few small houses dot the road. We stop near a large patch of grass and get out of our cars. One can see the whole valley below from here. The Phewa lake glimmers below in the morning sunlight.

As we walk back to the cars, I look fascinatedly at two women. One is a European girl of twenty, the other is a sixty year old Nepalese local. One is in harem pants and a tee that doesn’t look washed in days, the other is in the traditional dress of the community.  One has messy hair that somehow add personality to her appearance, the other has neatly tied her dark hair ina bun. The girl sits on the outside wall of a house rolling a joint, and the old lady stands next to her. Together, they smoke it turn by turn and I can’t help but smile.

Sarangkot, or the village yonder still lives in a slow world, a world very different from ours’ in the cities.

We drive back to the view point. The guide books were right, the view is spectacular. In silence, we all sit, and look at the five main peaks of the Annapurna range. Fish Tail, or Machu Puchre as the locals call it, is lovely, jutting out and looking very different from the rest.

When Herzog returned to France, he became a national hero in a country struggling with the after effects of World War 2. As he lay in hospital for months, plunged in depression, he dictated what would eventually become the most bestselling mountaineering book in history. The title? Annapurna. When The Paris Match magazine shared the picture of him on the summit, it broke all sales records for them. They went on to call Herzog France’s “number one national hero” while Lachenal did not get a single mention. Herzog went on to become minister of sport and youth while Lachenal died an unknown figure five years later in a skiing accident.

The sky is full of paragliders. They are like big colourful blobs, flying with the thermals, soaring with the birds. A number of our group members try it and tell us later that it is a fantastic experience, to be flying like that, with the mightiest Himalayan peaks right in front, and a lush valley below.

I love Sarangkot, it's slow life, the little pond where everyone gathers in the evening. The men smoke after a hard day's work, the women discuss what they did the whole day. Boys throw stones in the water to see who can throw the furthest and hence is strongest. They want to catch the eye of the girls their age, it is their biggest reward. Everywhere in the world, we have our own ways of wanting affection. There is no hurry in Sarangkot.

We click a lot of pictures of the mountain range, and then have a late lunch in the restaurant below the view point. It is 430 now and we plan to drive down to Phewa lake to catch the sunset.

In the sixties, Nepal, and consequently Pokhara, was one of the main destinations of the Himalayan Hippies Trail. Hippies from Europe would come over land to India and Nepal via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan. They used the cheapest travel means available, hitchhiking, bus rides to cut costs and extend as much time away from home as possible. In Nepal and India, they found solace, they found innocence and they found lands which were still away from the tourist glare. They also found a lot of weed. Pokhara was no different.

However, as we drive down to Phewa Lake, a lot has changed from then. There are bright cafes, hundreds of shops selling mountain gear, and dance bars. Tourists walk everywhere. Nepal, much like India, has changed a lot. I like this little town, but I wonder how much more prettier it would have been forty years back.

At the lake, there are multi coloured boats ready to take tourists to a small temple island lying just ahead. There is a large evening crowd, so we just walk by the river. In the falling sunlight, we bond and laugh.

We spend some part of the night by the pool talking and getting to know each other. It is still early days in this trip and as is obvious in any large group, here too people are finding their way with new friends. The Tri Nation road trip is also about the relationships that get formed along the way.

The next day, our convoy leaves for Kathmandu. I look out of the window as we see the Annapurna for the last time. I want to return next year to do the base camp trek and some day I want to climb to the very top, just like two men did in 1950.

Three years after Herzog and Lachenal became the first men to summit an 8000 plus metres peak, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mount Everest and became living legends. In the ten years of the fifties, thirteen of the fourteen highest mountains in the world were summited, and the fourteenth was summited soon after in 1964. Just how much impact did a French alpine team make in that summer of 1950, on mountaineering, on the world itself.

---- ---------------------- The End -------------------------

Now Read:

1) About Neeraj Narayanan
2) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue
3) Climbing up to Tiger's Nest

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue

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'There is nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars'  - Jack Kerouac

Out of the airport, I flag down a taxi. After loading the bags in the back, I take my seat next to the driver. We are on our way to Palakkad. Home.  I am tired. I started from Bagdogra at noon, and it is already 830 in the night.  A white car passes me and I turn my head as it passes by. It’s a Scorpio. I smile.

The last twelve days have passed in a blur. Three thousand kilometres of driving. Two weeks of discipline and following a calendar – waking up according to schedule, sometimes at 7 am, sometimes even four hours earlier; Lining up after breakfast, listening to the chief give a brief pep up talk, and setting out for a new destination; keeping to your spot in the convoy and looking out for the ones right in front and behind you; the little chai breaks in the mountains, those indulgent moments of talking to the others in the group. Thirty cars and 3,000 kilometres of driving through India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Photo Credits: Nitin Yadav Photography

I can see the hills in the distance. “Have you driven on a highway in the night, sir?” the driver asks me. I smile. What do I tell him, that I am just back from my first Adventure Car Rally trip?

When I reach the Double Tree Hilton Hotel in New Delhi, on the first day of the trip, I try to size up the crowd. Forty participants, two assigned to each car. That evening, we are shown a presentation of all the trips Mahindra Adventure organizes every year, and later there is an introductory session.  There are a number of married couples, and then there are friends too, teaming up to be part of Tri Nation 2013. I wonder what makes them spend money on a trip where for two weeks they will be on the road for ten hours (sometimes more, sometimes less) every day. I wonder why they don’t use the same money to go on a holiday to Bali, or Sri Lanka or the Andamans.

The answer hits me on the very next day. We wake up at 330 am.  Today, we will be driving from New Delhi to Shivpatinagar, - a UP town close to the Nepal border. An 850 kilometre drive, it is by far the longest we will be covering in a day, during this trip. Around 10 pm, we reach the beautiful property. It used to be a princely estate earlier. As I walk into the large dining room, I am certain that everyone would be exhausted and eager to doze off. But I see them, standing in different groups, holding their glasses of whisky and rum, discussing cars. The answers start tumbling in.

I don’t understand everything about cars but I do recognize passion when I see it. I like it when I see some of these people’s eyes shine when they talk about vehicles. My room mate, Agasti, a car tester and writer for Top Gear is one such specimen. So is Vinod Nookala (Brand Manager - Thar & Mahindra Adventure). Their obsession with motor vehicles is amusing. They can talk about cars for hours, actually they will not stop till you tell them to. I believe they looks at Google images of sports cars the way I, err not I.. my friends, the way my friends look at Pamela Anderson. I have no doubts that some day when Agasti gets married, it will be on an F1 track. When his children are born, he will name them Ferrari and Lamborghini. Jokes apart, I love these two men’s passion. It isn’t amusing, nay, it is enviable.

For here, there are people who love cars, and adventure. Here, there are people who can take two two-week holidays a year, and use both to be on the road and drive through the wild, with a wife or a best friend. I like the sound of that, being on the road, with someone you care for, talking to them as the sky changes from day to night.

For here there are men and women who love to get dirty. In their cars. Not in the sense that you obviously took it. You readers are such kids.

Dirty in the off-roading sense. Pressing on the accelerator, screeching the tyres, bouncing over the bumps, driving through ditches, slamming down on the brakes, swinging, swinging,swinging the steering so much as to challenge the very laws of physics, spraying the earth, holding on as the car does a 360 degree at high speed.

That kind of dirty.

The Mahindra  Tri Nation 2013 Adventure Car Rally story will be about these men and women. Not just the participants, but also the organizers, who we never felt were on the other side at all. It will be about the human relationships that were forged between this bunch of fifty. It will speak of the rest days, when we’d all bunch up and go out and explore the towns and cities and villages that we breathed in. It will speak of Pokhra, Kathmandu, Thimpu and Paro. It will speak of the Himalayan mountain ranges we stared at, the blue waters of the Bhutanese rivers, the dodgy flight that took us up to see Everest from close, and the trek up tiger’s nest.  And it will speak of the cars, our drives, the crackle of the radio, the laughter passing through all the vehicles and the collective silence when nature stunned us.

Photo Credits: Nitin Yadav

It will also be about our dancing to cheap, loud Bollywood numbers.

I think of all the friends I made on this trip.

Forty participants, twenty Scorpios.  Numbered  one  to twenty and following that order in the convoy. Two Media Vehicles with your favourite author bobbing his head to Punjabi tracks in one of the cars. A radio in every single vehicle to maintain communication.

A Lead vehicle, Mahindra Thar, always at the front of the group. A Sweep vehicle,  always bringing up the rear. A Float vehicle – going up and down the convoy, available for assistance if anyone needed it. A Roving vehicle. Two support vehicles, with mechanics in case any car broke down. An advance vehicle that would reach the night halts, those luxurious hotels, first up and make sure that everything was in order before the rest of the cars rolled in.

Photo Credits: Nitin Yadav

 All seven vehicles ensure that the drives are absolutely safe, efficient, and on schedule. I like these men. They are not businessmen, but guys who love the outdoors as much as I do. Among these ten twelve men are national rally drivers, photographers, anglers, wildlife lovers and bikers. These are people who love doing what they do.

The Tri Nation 2013 Adventure Car Rally story will speak of the fantastic work done by the two organizers – Mahindra Adventure and Xtreme Sports Organization – two companies that displayed extraordinary professionalism in making a group of fifty people enjoy every moment in twelve days and twelve nights.

It has been a blurry five months since I quit my job. It started off with the bull run in Spain, and a lot of dancing in Barcelona. After a visit to the Spanish south, I found myself chasing vineyards in Italy. After a narrow escape with a bear in a Croatian forest and driving through Slovenia, I was back home. 

Only to go to Sikkim, to India’s second highest lake. Bhutan lay just a few hours away, so visiting it became a natural progression.

When I had finally exhausted my resources, I took the train back to Delhi. The very evening I reached , I got an email from Mahindra asking me if I would like to join them on their Tri Nation Adventure Trip, as the official blogger.

A number of people ask me favourite experience among the three. Solo traveling in Europe, backpacking with a girl in Sikkim or being part of a road trip.

I don’t have an answer. I am a fan of Europe’s openness, but it was in Bhutan I developed a love for the mountains. Something inside me exploded then, and I knew that there was a new love brimming inside me. One that insisted I climb mountains. As many as I can. I want to know my physical limits. And today, after this trip, I love cars as well.

I don't have an answer to which my favourite trip is. Long term travel, after a point, is just about going with the flow. What I do know is that with every trip, my fascination for travel increases and I want to be on the road even more.

The Tri Nation stories will also be about a man trying to discover himself. A man who wants to keep doing the things he loves – write, lead group tours and see beautiful places.

The road looks familiar now. We have entered Palakkad. It is 1015 pm.  Soon, the taxi stops in front of my house, and I see lights coming on as my family is coming out to greet me.
I am home.

Now Read:  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The good men of India: A story at 17000 feet

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For as long as the earth goes round, there will be some men not considered equal to some others. From the former, will rise a few, who shall shine, if not by their success, then by their deeds. And we, who were more equal by virtue of our birth or money or blood should feel ashamed for such travesty.

6 AM, Day 7, Gangtok:  As we piled our bags and got inside the car, Binay introduced us to his friend Prashant, who would assist him in driving. I nodded mechanically. To complete North Sikkim in two days, we would have to be on the road for at least 15 hours each day. Only later I would realize that there were finer reasons for me to feel glad about his presence.
We were headed to Lake Gurudongmar. At 17,100 feet above sea level, it is India’s second highest lake.

We rolled out of the city. We smiled at the mountains, the sky and the sun. We stopped for chai and omelettes. With soaring spirits, we carried on.

At every waterfall in sight, I would yell and Binay would stop the car. While I ran to clamber over rocks and make my way in, the rest would laugh at my antics.

I love waterfalls. There are few things as overwhelming as standing right under a waterfall, and looking at the water fall from the top of the mountain

We broke for lunch at Chungthang. When Binay and Prashant sat at a separate table, we took out plates and joined them.
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We drove on. Somewhere we got down to play in the waters of the Teesta  river. We screamed with happiness and pain as the freezing cold water cut into our soles like a hundred knives.

By 5 pm, we had rolled into the small town of Lachung, more than 9600 feet above sea level.

From here on, everything changed dramatically. For one, the brightness of the sky started fading. It would soon be pitch dark.  Second, at these altitudes, the vegetation changed from green to brown and red, what they call the alpine variety.  Wild orchids sprouted from the hills along our way.

Changes were also happening to the dynamics inside the car. Till now, Binay and Prashant had been chatting mostly with each other. Now, they started opening out to us. They told us about their families, and work - driving taxis to Kalimpong every day for a living. They spoke of how they fell in love and married their childhood sweethearts, how the wives were now working in the US.

They asked us how we got married. We did not tell them that we weren’t. In their simple minds, our being married was probably the only explanation for being on a trip together.

It grew dark soon.

As we went past dark hills and streams, we kept on talking. Then Prashant switched on his phone, playing songs, all sentimental tracks that we grew up listening to in the 90s.  We all started singing in chorus. We knew ever word,every tune and somewhere in the darkness mountains, our voices were the only ones breaking the silence for miles. Somewhere in the beauty of the environment, and the beauty of the moment, my mind took me back a few years. And my heart, well it just cracked a little. Some things shall never change.

Looking back, those few hours of singing together were my best moments in the trip to North Sikkim.

Around  10 pm, we reached Thangu.

Not a single room was not available for hire in the village. Both the hotels had been occupied by workers of a construction firm. We decided to ask the villagers. Ten minutes later, a man offered to let us sleep in his storeroom. Binay asked Snigdha and me to take the room, and said that Prashant and he would sleep in the car. Of course I declared that we would not separate, that we had come as four friends, not as drivers and customers,  and that we would either all sleep together in a room, or in the car.

Thankfully, Prashant managed to get a room in another house, so we had two rooms now, and nobody had to sleep in the car.

Our storeroom was tiny. Hanging on its door was the leg of a yak leg. Inside, there were two thin beds, they were loaded with warm mattresses. Prashant brought out a bottle of brandy. Binay and I disappeared into the street to get some snacks. It was blisteringly cold, and every time I spoke, puffs of air came out of my mouth. I laughed and looked up at the sky.

I have never seen more stars in my life.  Take me to a court of law and I would swear there were a billion. For a moment, time stopped, as I gaped, and stared and stared at the clusters and clusters of silver that shone above.

Back in the room, we drank our brandy with gusto. After dinner, Binay and Prashant went back to the other house.

They were back to wake us up at 430 am.

After drinking hot tea, we set off for Gurudongmar at 5 am.  There is no human settlement ahead of Thangu, and the land is under army surveillance. Gurudongmar, itself lies just five kilometres from the Tibet border.

At dawn, we passed through blue mist. As the day progressed, we passed through large magnificent stretches of barren land and colourful mountains. The lake is about 15 kms from the last check post. It is mandatory that everyone be back at this check post by noon, as the  winds at Gurudongmar blow faster as the day progresses, enough to blow you off the ground.

We reached Gurudongmar around 930 am. After paying our respects at the Gurudwara, we walked to the banks of the lake.

It was incredible. For it is a blue that no river is, no lake is. It was a blue that no blue is. It is one of the most beautiful lakes you will see in the world. Do go there some day if you can.

Mad with joy, Binay and I rushed to take off our shirts and prance about in the ice cold waters. Our first bad decision.

The second bad decision was to attempt to walk around the 6 km perimeter of the lake.  It doesn’t sound strenuous, but at 17,100 feet with low oxygen levels and fast blowing winds, it is a lot. That day, the four of us were the only ones, besides an army regiment, walking the perimeter. We plodded, and plodded and reached one bend after another. At every bend, we would think that we had reached the last to realize that we were not even close. Finally, we completed the entire circle with Prashant and Snigdha beating us to the end.

Having seen the lake to our heart’s content, we returned to our car to drive back to Gangtok. The journey back is probably one of the most treasured ones in all my travels.The roads were terrible, in fact for stretches  there were no roads at all, only mud, but we were so busy talking and singing and laughing that we never noticed or felt any discomfort. It was not just the company, but also the nature around us. The alpine steppe vegetation made my heart sing. Mountains full of red and brown bushes, orchids, blue streams, yaks… it all overwhelmed me. It was as if we had come into a ‘lord of the Rings’ or a ‘Narnia’ setting. We clicked a thousand pictures, and I kept shaking my head in disbelief, at the beauty I was seeing around me.

If you can, do visit the region between Lachung and Thangu some day.

And those two men.  Binay, ever the friendly boy, ever the impulsive man. Knows only two things, to follow his heart and to not care about the consequences. Hedoes things on instinct. When he told me that he agreed to come on the trip because of the excitement in my voice, and not for the money, I smiled. And I believed him. Because I understood how this man functions. To do things for the love of it, or because your heart or gut tells you to do so, and to worry about the consequences later, is his mantra, and maybe mine.

 I have often looked at a waterfall and a rock and jumped to climb those, but few companions have been as enthusiastic. But Binay would join in everything.  We jumped out of the car when we saw yaks and ran madly with the herd. We stopped the car when we saw a beautiful massive thirty feet rock and raced to see who would reach the top first. We would climb up only to realize that we did not know how to come down. When we were finally back, we were out of breath, our heads ached, our ribs were almost bursting with the exercise, but we were still laughing.

 In Binay, I found an alter ego. Hopefully, he found something in me too.

Prashant, on the other hand, was relatively sober. An immensely practical man, he wouldn’t give way to emotion as easily as Binay or I did. He was the right man to be Binay’s best friend, I felt. As Binay repeatedly said, every time he would be in trouble, Prashant would help him out. He wasn’t just Binay’s best friend. He was also his guide, his counsellor and brother. ‘Daju’,Binay called him affectionately, the Sikkimese word for brother.

We spoke non-stop throughout the journey. It amazed me that both men’s wives were working in the US (as housekeepers). When I asked them if they did not miss their wives, they smiled. Both men answered that they missed their wives terribly. When I asked them, why then, their replies were simple. Their wives wanted to see the world, and they wanted to help them fulfil those dreams.

Here were two men, working as drivers in Gangtok, raising their kids all by themselves, so that their wives could at least try and pursue their own dreams from life. Here were two men, themselves not educated beyond eighth standard, but making sure that they worked long enough to ensure that their children studied in good boarding schools in Kalimpong. What an example to set for Indian men.

Here were two men who kept checking on Snigdha to see if she was okay, who kept praising her for the stoic way in which she walked around Gurudongmar, who accorded her all respect and warmth, and who were ready to sleep in a car after driving for fifteen hours, only because they felt she would be uncomfortable with their presence in the same room. As Snigdha told me later, ‘never, not for a single moment did I feel insecure as we drove through the night in the hills of a strange unknown land with two men we did not know at all.’ We were too busy singing I guess to be worried.

For two days, they kept calling her ‘Bahini’ lovingly, the Sikkimese word for sister.

While our country rages and despairs over the rapes that engulf it, while the world media rightly questions India’s disgusting patriarchal behaviour, while men in Delhi and other parts of the country still continue to grow more lecherous and vicious, while tourists wonder whether or not they should visit this country, here are two lowly educated men deeply in love with their wives, secure about themselves and their partners, and doing everything they can to encourage their partners to live life on their own terms. I wish somebody would use these two men as an example when they wrote that article about ‘The Good Men of India’ in the New York Times.

To anybody who reads this blog from outside India, and wishes to visit this country, I would like to say that these are the stories that never come out. And while we have rapists, we also have such men here.

That night, we reached Gangtok at eleven pm. After 18 hours on this road, we still weren’t tired at all. We shook hands, hugged and promised to stay in touch on Facebook. I felt sad about leaving these two men and going off to a new land the next day.

I still remember asking Binay his wishes from life. 

“Neeraj, I just want to do one thing. I don’t want to be too rich. I just wish I had money enough to travel. I want to see as many places as I can, talk to new people, understand how they think, and learn something from the experience.”

If only you knew Binay, you spoke the words that fill my mind.