They shoe horses before they send them out on the battlefield, I joke, as I step out to buy a pair of serviceable trekking shoes. My heart is set on an ankle boot a fellow trekker had worn on a previous trip, unassuming Bata creations, which have the grip of a limpet up the slippery slopes. But they have been discontinued and all the phone calls to Bata stores across the city are in vain. So here I am checking out shoes at an up market hiking boot store.
My prescription for myself is simple: light, strong shoes with a good grip. I have shoes that are wonderfully all these except that they are heavy, and when one is climbing at high altitudes with little prior experience, every step becomes a journey in itself!
And anyway, a new pair of shoes is always welcome.
By the time we get onto the train from Delhi to Katgodam, the new shoes are nicely broken in. Short of wearing them to bed, I have worn them diligently, every single day, even to what would have been frowned upon as inappropriate places by those who worry over such things. Ok, so here’s the story of the trek, in short takes. Which is the best way to take a trek!
Day one. Beware, the adrenaline flows fast. It’s lovely to shake off the dust of the city roads, forget the cramped drive uphill, and walk.
The forest is green, flowers smile reassuringly, and the steps beckon. 11km… bah! You could do 20!
The mood lasts an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Then, the mind is yearning for rest, for a drink, some shaded nook to lie and read a book in.
But there’s a way of getting beyond the ennui that city dwelling creates.
Look around, smell the green, touch the barks of the many different trees alongside, let a leech measure its way past, search for a four leaf clover in the thickets, climb through a shortcut and rest while the others catch up.
These are my own little ways of beating the need to give up and go quickly downhill to the guest house, which is a speck in the distance. Chale chalo, chale chalo [keep walking], and one step at a time, till we get our second wind. But the fact remains; we are walking 11km, uphill. Steadily. It’s not easy if you are rusty. A little grave en route sends us a quick intimation of our mortality. We know whose grave it is, earlier that day, as we readied to start, we have met the family of the person who lies covered by green grass and a white stone. A German trekker, whose wife and son come often back to spend time with the one who chose to stay behind.
The views grow more scenic as we climb, the valleys are deep below, the road we have driven on seems a country away. And the first sight of the peaks is like a rush of glucose to the brain. Exhilaration stronger than the sweet tea takes us onward. And at last, before evening falls, we are in sight of a guest house. Dhakuri! I would rename you Paradise!
We are just about crossing the boundary gate, and the weather decides to turn funny. Large drops of rain fall without warning. Somehow we find enough breath to scuttle in, to shelter.
There’s always a surprise waiting in the mountains for you! The guest house is pretty, but even before we can catch our breath, the sky turns dark, the wind rises and sweeps in like a damp cloak around us, and the rain comes pelting down in great sheets.
The cold catches us by surprise. Huddled in warmers, we are grateful for the hot snacks and tea. Nearby, a dog, his bushy coat wet, watches us thoughtfully.
Then, another surprise. Card games are abandoned and the cold night is bravely ventured into… for the stars are out, millions of them, and standing just there, to welcome us, is a great white snow-touched peak. Glistening in the dark, it’s telling us of the vistas that the trek will grant us as we progress.
I’ve heard stories of co-travellers of the four legged kind trotting along with trekkers. Our bushy friend has indeed adopted us. He finds more friends along the way, at one point we have three dogs of various ages running along. Their energy is infectious.
We have ponies too and mules carrying luggage. And like good trekkers, we all stop to make way for whoever needs to pass first at any given point.
The road from Dhakuri to Khati is mostly downhill, we have been told. It passes through scenic little villages with potato fields and squares of standing grain, and houses with a profusion of roses arching over doorways.
But all that goes down must go up. The climbs, when they come, are steep and unexpected, and much resented.
I, for one, take comfort in the thought that the route back through this stage will not be all upward.
Snake hoods rise in the grass, the cobra plant mimics the deadly reptile, who surely must be somewhere too. Venturing out of the trodden path, one of the group hears a definite warning hiss. In the mountains, nature needs to be respected and left to itself. We are but visitors, passing by!
Home is where the heart is, and home can be a place in the middle of nowhere.
The last climb up to the guest house at Khati, our third stop has us panting. Those of us who take the shortcut find ourselves on wobbly ground. Obviously, this is a route favoured by the many cows that are heading our way!
The rest house is pretty though, and has a lovely front. Time then, for a game of cricket. And he [or she] who sends the ball flying beyond the boundary has to climb down to get it.
By evening, teatime snacks have all been forgotten, everyone is ravenous.
The horses are the happiest, they find a space to scamper and stretch their feet. Keeping up with humans is a bit of a chore for them, obviously.
Also happy is our guide. His own house, gaily painted is in the village, and he is happy with the obvious welcome that awaits him. For a man who treks the mountains through a big chunk of the year, stopping at home for a lovingly cooked meal and a night under his own roof is like a benediction indeed.
When the mind is happy, the body is full of energy. That night we walk under the stars by torchlight up the slope and down it and up again, as we make our way to the village. A temple beckons, a goddess stands forgotten inside, waiting for the festival when lights will decorate her abode. But, for us, she seems a haven of peace.
The children watch us trooping along, they are friendly. And new dogs consider the possibility of tagging along, even as our day old pal returns with a group going back. This relay service is indeed amazing, it never fails to make me stop and wonder.
And yes, there’s another blessing, a telephone line. We queue up to call: for news, to say we are fine, to check on work…the line crackles as we talk, and the city seems a planet away.
When you reach the goal, the journey has just begun. Two days more of walking, and some serious climbing uphill, and we are at Phurkia. I have conquered fear. An icy waterfall, slippery and slushy, tests my nerve and my shoes. Both hold, and though I imagine I am in a huddle at the far end of the fall, I cross safely, holding tight to any offered hand.
We have stopped at a rather basic night halt at Dwali, and watched more robust trekkers continue after a break. We are happy to linger and take in the place, despite the dark and the bugs.
Phurkia springs a surprise with a friendly baba, who feeds us, plies us with blankets for our tents, and lets us find time for spiritual introspection in the wonderful temple he has built out of nothing but his own ministrations and piety.
Of course, the rain is a constant, visiting us every night, and one entire morning goes in drying everything we own that has been wet, thanks to a leaky tent.
The tent site is magical, mountains surround us, Nanda Devi hidden in the mists, Nanda Khat almost at touching distance. The glacier is hiding, but as we set forth for zero point, we know it can hide from us no longer.
Zero point is an anticlimax. It’s a thread of a road that snakes its way across a stream. The stream will swell into a river in the rains, and does indeed become the Alaknanda further down. The path crosses it easily though and climbs to a point where there is no way forward.
We are left standing on top of a mountain, while just beyond the snows beckon, the ice lies waiting to be explored. The glacier is beyond the curve of the mountain.
We won’t be stopped.
Like mountain goats, we cling to the grassy side and cross over to safe ground. A lot of fun follows, as we attempt the icy slopes, climbing and sliding down, like kids on holiday.
Then climbing to get as close to the glacier, we arrive on top panting, to realise a deep chasm separates us from the Pindari as it lies in majesty just out of reach. Braver souls might attempt it with proper equipment; we are content with capturing it on camera and prepare to return.
For some, Camp One on the mountain ahead beckons, and they set off on an impulse. We, more cautious, walk back through the valley, giving zero point a miss. Mission accomplished! The mood is light, cheerful, and determined to make the most of the remaining day.
Every day is new. The journey back has its own treasures to unfold, and though we have been this way just a day or so earlier, it is still full of surprises. But we are more sure, more sanguine of meeting our goals. The walking stick is handy for downslope, and we walk faster and beat the rain this time.
The days telescope one into the other, the magical names are now familiar, the villagers recognise us.
All too soon, it is over. We are in sight of our starting point, at the rest house where the rest of our luggage awaits.
Sigh, when can we go back? I ask. And sagacious nods tell me everyone else is thinking the same!
This was first published in the May 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.