Festival of flowers – hiking Sandakphu in Rhododendron season!

I don’t know (or believe) heaven exists but if it does, I’d like the road leading to its gate be littered with flowers. And I’d like those flowers be rhododendrons. They might not stand a chance against the daffodils and lotuses of the world but I have come to like rhododendrons because they remind me of the hills. The rugged, frosty and hard to tame Himalayan peaks. In crimson red, fearless pink and pearly white they seem to challenge the mundane green of the hills when they are in bloom.

It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.
It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.

Before I left on the Sandakphu trek, I stayed in a Nepali border village called Jowarbhari near Sukhiapokri that overlooks pretty mountains and witnesses spectacular sunrises.

The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.

Each year, starting late January until mid June more than a hundred species of rhododendrons bloom in the eastern Himalayan region that straddles between India and Nepal. The rhododendron blooms render a feisty tone to the otherwise green forest canopy. Also found in the bloom season in this region are the stately white magnolias and the poisonous cobra lilies that strikingly resemble a cobra’s hood. Called Gurash in the local language, rhododendrons are also distilled into a local brew called rhododendron wine – a strong tasting liquor with an aftertaste of the flower.

Cobra lilly
Cobra Lilly
The white rhododendron blossoms
The white rhododendron blossoms
The crimson Rhododendrons
The crimson Rhododendrons
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
Rhododendron Dalhousie
Rhododendron Dalhousie

I went on a trek to Sandakphu in April 2015 and saw rhododendrons in bloom all along the trail. Rhododendron is also the national flower of Nepal, a country whose borders are often crossed during the course of the trail. The 50km trek, done in 3 – 4 days, culminates in a view point from where the Kanchenjunga and even the Everest would be visible on a clear day – a feat I was fortunately able to achieve. The trek also traverses through tiny mountain villages – some of them comprise of only two families (like Tonglu) and provide accommodation and food for the trekkers in this route.

Views enroute Sandakphu
Views en route Sandakphu
A house at Tonglu village
A house at Tonglu village
A bhutia puppy
A bhutia puppy

Staying in mountain villages you get to experience the fluidity of international borders (India and Nepal in this instance). The silver pine trees and the alpine meadows notwithstanding I was also tantalised by the very possibility of spotting a red panda. Only that I didn’t. We hiked through the Singalila National Park where the promise of spotting a red panda in the thick bamboo forests loomed large.

Nepali men selling piglets.
Nepali men selling piglets.

After three days of trekking in the pissing rains and dense fog, I’ve almost lost hope of seeing anything as I reached Sandakphu. But unpredictably, as is customary in the mountains, the weather cleared up on the last day of the trek despite the dismal fog and wheezing rains the previous night. And I woke up to a glorious sunrise lighting up the entire range of Kangchenjunga, Kumbakarn, Simbhu, Pandim, Norsing and Sinni Alsu. Not to mention, I also got a peek of the Everest.

A misty trail en route Sandakphu
A misty trail en route Sandakphu where the promise of spotting a red panda looms large
Sun rises above Sandakphu
Sun rises above Sandakphu
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen.

Have you been on the Sandakphu trek? Don’t be shy. Leave a comment and start a conversation with me. We could bond over travel, you know. Follow me on Instagram and like my Facebook page for more updates and to keep in touch more often. PS: I took this trip with http://www.tripwizard.co.in. Phone: + 91 9749630978.

Why freelance? A personal essay.

As days drew nearer to my month-long trip to a village called Kalap in the Himalayas, my feelings about quitting my desk job grew stronger. I had been contemplating it for a while but did not yet take any serious steps towards leaving the job. Liberal work-from-home policies at my workplace ensured freedom but on the days I had to go to the office, I could not but feel being constricted inside the cubicle. If I did leave my job, I would have no backup plan on the monthly mortgage payment for the house that would tie me down for ten years. I had only finished one year of the mortgage and nine remained.

Just one day short of my trip, my brother called me with news that my father had fallen sick. He had had a surgery to remove his infected kidney a year ago and now he was experiencing pain in his abdomen. Pain so aggressive that he could not walk straight. He was to be taken to the doctor. And I’d be high in the Himalayas with no access to phone nor internet for a month.

Those were the circumstances in which I boarded the bus to Kalap – a tiny settlement in Garhwal Himalayas. Anand Sankar, who has a responsible tourism initiative in Kalap, agreed to host me for a month. Having my basic cold protection gear covered, I still had to buy a sleeping bag which I did at a store called Cliffhangers located in the narrow side streets of Dehradun. I explored the streets of the town that was known as the boarding school capital of India and home to hundreds of schools. The Doon valley, Dehradun, surrounded by hills, was experiencing unseasonal rains in March.

Uneasy Contemplation.
Uneasy Contemplation.

The rain delayed my trip from Dehradun to Kalap but when I eventually left in a rickety bus early in the morning, for a five hour journey, there were no signs of rain. The bus crawled through the windy mountain roads flirting dangerously close with the gorges. I met Guddu, my minder in the village for the duration of my stay, at a dusty mountain town called Netwar. With his incandescent smile and hair curls bleached golden by the mountain sun, the amiable Guddu immediately inspired confidence in me about the trip. I was practically a stranger, but that evening, over home-cooked meals and the drone of his children studying, we got to know each other slightly better. Guddu’s children, like children in other mountain villages in the vicinity, went to school in Netwar – the only school available for miles in any direction.

The next day, we began a 5-hour trek to reach his village high up in the mountains. The trek, through an unpaved, boulder strewn, steep mountain path made me thirsty while the sun beat down heavily. The weight of my backpack pressed me down and threatened to crush me but I persevered and arrived at the village to the curious glances of village kids who, upon sighting me, a stranger, joined their hands in respect and said ‘namaste’ as a welcome gesture.

After reaching Guddu’s house and getting acquainted with it, I quickly fell into a routine. I spent my days reading and writing on the sun deck of Guddu’s wooden house overlooking the valley. I accompanied him to his field along with his horse to spread manure before the onset of the sowing season. I took long walks and tried to identify the plants and bird life around the village. On these trips, I mostly stood glued to the grand vista of the mountains, its terrace fields, while the deafening roar of the Supin River way down in the valley played backdrop to this setting.

I met strangers in the village and accepted invitations to visit their homes. Sometimes, I was taken to their kitchens, dining rooms, or halls and fed sweet, milky tea and whatever else happened to be on their menus.

I became the official photographer for the village’s Holi festival and, by the end of it, although I survived without being doused in color powder, my camera bore the brunt. I helped make Gujjia – a Holi special that’s like a sweet calzone. Its deep fried packets of dough are filled with a roasted mixture of semolina, desiccated coconut, jaggery (a traditional sugar) and raisins. By the end of it, Guddu’s wife, Pathuli – meaning butterfly in the local language – had thawed towards me after witnessing my able handedness at rolling and sealing the Gujjias. I asked extensive questions about what grew in Kalap and what didn’t, what kind of fruits could be cultivated, and compared their food with that from the plains. I also became accustomed to Guddu, Pathuli, and the other villagers switching to the local language in the middle of a conversation, unmindful or uncaring of my presence.

Lead by the master.
Lead by the master.

In all this, I forgot that I had an alternate existence – an existence that is punctuated by staring at different screens for ego-inflating status updates in social media outlets, a liberal dosage of pop culture consumption, and I also forgot about my sick father.

I watched myself in the mirror, the magnificent hills framed behind the reflection of my overgrown facial hair, gaunt face, sunken eyes, tanning skin, and cracked lips that needed moisturizing. In the cold, I rationed my shower to once in two days. My toiletries bag sat untouched, unused. I went to bed and woke up based on the sheer diktats of my body clock. The hand-drawn calendar I brought from the plains to keep tab of time, like all gadgets up here, also sat next to my bed, abandoned.

Most of the time the loud conversation of the villagers – which sounded like yelling at each other to my untrained ears – interrupted my silence. Even so, the rhyming dialect of Uttranchali was oddly comforting to my senses. It characterized the mountain to me – its cadence like the deep blue expanse of its skies, the whooshing of wind through its cedar trees and the chirp of the birds.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

I tried to make Rotis, the Indian flatbread, without a rolling pin in Guddu’s kitchen, learning the tricks of it from Pathuli.  She said, by way of instruction: take a bit of dough, roll it by hand and flatten it, pinch it round with the thumb and slap with both the palms to stretch the dough into a perfect round shaped roti. At best, I could only make ragged edged Rotis.

At night when the sky was clear, I sometimes stepped out. The gazillion stars in the sky resembled a crowded Indian railway station with numerous tiny stars and constellations jostling for space with each other.

Sometimes I saw raging forest fires in the night – bright orange and red flames spreading across the forest at a distance. But the icy cold night extinguished the fire, no matter how widespread, and normality returned in the morning.

The unpredictable weather in the mountains ensured drastically different days. One day the sky was clear blue with sunshine, while on the other, streaks of dark clouds obstruct the sun throwing out only weak sunlight. Some days thick grey clouds billowed past and a blanket of cold rain came down with occasional hail or snow falls.

All this notwithstanding, the predictability of my life remained the same. My dad’s illness did not vanish as I did momentarily from their lives. He was now prescribed to undergo two surgeries – one to fix the hernia and the other to remove his stone-infested gall bladder. Both keyhole, albeit. The world has been just as I left it. But I have changed a bit – adapting a bit of the matter of fact, yet laid-back, attitude of the hill people.

I knew this couldn’t last forever. Oases do not a desert make. While Guddu and Pathuli secretly longed for a life in the plains, I longed for more time in the mountains.

When I rejoined work, a month later, I felt something inside me was bottled up. Where before I negotiated craggy, bridled, forest path, I now climbed concrete stairs. Where I’d lifted my eyes for tumbling vistas against the backdrop of deep blue sky, I now lifted my eyes to see cubicles and torsos hunched over laptops. I sent my resignation in less than a week of my return. I traded a reasonable paycheck for wide open spaces, fresh air, opportunities, and a financially dicey, extremely uncertain career of freelance writing. Wherever I go in this new phase, at least I will be certain that I wanted this.

A version of this appeared in the last edition of the Outside In Literary Travel Magazine and can be accessed here.

Suru Valley in pictures

This year’s tiny window in which Ladakh is open to tourists is fast shutting. Have you ticked off Ladakh from your bucket list yet? Visiting Ladakh is indeed a life-altering experience (my first published article for a major publication came after my Ladakh trip). The sheer wilderness of its landscapes, the endearing people and the way life is lived in that cold desert, its gompas, its animals and many more aspects of Ladakh will leave you asking for more.

Suru Valley is one of the less explored regions in Ladakh. If your plan includes a road trip from Leh to Srinagar (which I insist you should do), pop Suru in your plans. Do not forget to visit the Rangdum monastery while you are there.

Rugged roads - Suru Valley
Rugged roads – Suru Valley
Rugged roads and the valley  - Suru Valley
Rugged roads and the valley – Suru Valley
Craggy mountain roads
Craggy mountain roads
A glacier-fed lake
A glacier-fed lake
A Himalayan flower
A Himalayan flower
Himalayan flower
Himalayan flower
Suru river
Suru river
Monks in training - Suru valley
Monks in training – Suru valley
The Rangdum Monastery
The Rangdum Monastery
The glacier stream hosts greenery
The glacier stream hosts greenery

Have you been to Suru? Leave a comment.

Walking in the mountains – A trek to Kalap

When Guddu showed me his village Kalap from the jeep we were travelling in – looping up to the village Mothwad in the Har Ki Dun route, my heart skipped several beats. Stitched across the belly of one of the mountains of the Garhwali Himalayan range, Kalap stood aloof and the bridle pathway meandered vertically, as if a casual arrangement in a snake and ladder game board, looking like it could give the chills to even an accomplished mountain climber.

Ariel view of Kalap
Ariel view of Kalap

No vehicles travelled to Kalap and the only access is a four-hour trek through the route that is scattered with tiny boulders, carved into the mountain. I silently follow Guddu after slinging my overweight backpack but too many questions simmer in my mind. Prominent of them being; How broad is the route?’ Is it so narrow that I am in a danger of tipping and spooling down the mountain at a simple misstep? But it is too late to retreat from the plan anyway, so I edge on.

The first obstacle was to cross the Supin River. The bridge had been washed away in a flood and cloudburst about a decade ago causing the Dawla village on its banks to be abandoned by its inhabitants. Owing to the large scale erosion, Dawla’s banks are now unsuitable for construction of another bridge. Now, there stands a makeshift bridge made of a few planks and logs of wood across the river, alongside a zipliner for more daring souls. I gingerly walk across the bridge after climbing down a huge mound of boulders and loose sand over Guddu’s pep-talk: ‘don’t be scared, use your heels. You’ll be alright.’

A whiff of snow dust settle on the trees
A whiff of snow dust settle on the trees

Soon after, the ascend began, with it the assault to my body – dehydration, exhaustion from lifting the backpack that is pressing me down. I walked no more than a hundred feet before taking a break along the steep incline slowing down even Guddu’s progress. Add to it, I brushed the leaves of the stinging nettle – once with my forehead – and triggered a scratching marathon. Turns out, marijuana juice is an excellent remedy for nettle sting.

As we go up, the view broadens. What looked like an impossible incline opens up views of pine and deodar forests, other tiny villages on the opposite side, brightly colored single, standalone houses, terrace fields and bright yellow mustard fields. Supin’s roars subside and peaks like Kedarkantha and Bandarpoonch draw nearer. At every nook, the view shifts. Walnut and apple trees have withered out in the winter while apricots, peaches and cherry trees are in full bloom with their pale pinkish white flowers. A local, on his way up, joins in but couldn’t keep up with our impossibly slow pace and quickens his pace, disappearing into the mountains.

Rhododendron blooms
Rhododendron blooms

The breathtaking beauty of the mountains harbors harsh living conditions. The crushingly long winters ensure no crops survive and the short summer produces only few grains (amaranth, rajma and wheat). Vegetables are largely out of question owing to threat from wild boars and porcupines. Cattles survive but dairy supply is intermittent. The monsoonal downpour brings cloudbursts and landslides cutting the village from the rest of the civilization. Most of the supplies come from the plains but Kalap is largely self-sustainable with its produce and primitive machinery (like this hydro powered mill to grind grains) to process the grains. A mountain dweller’s staple diet mainly consists of grains and pulses and vegetables are only an occasional addition.

With barely about a hundred families, Kalap is a Garhwali Himalayan village with wooden houses, hardworking women and equally hardy men. The school is only partially open with teachers choosing to stay in the plains over battling the four-hour trek to their daily job. As a result, the school stays closed most of the time with many children being sent to the private schools in plain by parents who can afford private education.

All these natural impediments, however, do not seem to thwart the spirit of the mountain folks. They are unconditionally welcoming. “You should come in the winters when the entire mountain range is covered in snow. Not a speck of green will be visible,” Guddu tells me. His tone doesn’t harbor regret for the winter’s harshness. On the contrary, he seems to savor it.

Spring blooms in the village
Spring blooms in the village

When I hauled myself up to the village, it was already close to sunset. I was in a hurry to shower – partly to luxuriate in the success of the climb but Guddu warns me that the water is ice-cold. I persist and take the most painful, numbing shower of my life over giggly, watchful children. The shower threatens to anesthetize my cranium and other parts of the body. As I look up, the sun is fast disappearing behind the mountains casting its incandescent glow on the valley. The tiny villages far, far away light up for the night. Strangely, their winding access routes do not look breathlessly impossible to climb. These are signs that the hardy hills are made habitable by hardier humans.

How to get there:

Kalap is at a distance of about 250kms from Dehradun. An early morning bus leaves Dehradun that reaches the nearby bazaar town Netwar at around afternoon 4.00 p.m. Kalap is a further 5 – 6kms trek from Netwar. The only option available in terms of accommodation in Kalap is Homestays run by locals. Visit www.kalap.in for more details.

A version of this appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.

Birds of Garhwal – briefly

Uttrakhand consistently ranks top among the birding destinations in India. Thanks to its landscape blessed with lush and snowy mountains, thick forests and grasslands, Uttrakhand has an abundance of bird life. Recently, on a trip to Garhwal Himalayas to the mountain village of Kalap, I stumbled upon a variety of birds. Mostly tiny, very common ones since winter was only fading away from the hills and many birds haven’t yet made appearance after their winter hibernation.

A warning though. I am neither a bird photographer, nor do I have the best of equipment for bird photography. These pictures are taken using my humble Cannon 1100D (often using the telephoto lens) and though the effects are not that mind blowing (nowhere close to what is available on the internet about birds of Himalayas), I couldn’t resist posting these. Do leave a comment if you like what you see.

1) Golden Bush Robin

One of the toughest birds to photograph, the Golden Bush Robin is also the tiniest and the prettiest of the birds I saw. Supremely fast and agile, as you can see, I couldn’t get the bird to sit still for say 1 second for a good shot. After hours of painstaking wait, what resulted is this half-decent picture.

Golden Bush Robin
Golden Bush Robin

2) Grey Hornbill

Although considered to be among the common bird species, I have never seen Grey Hornbill in urban landscapes. This one, along with the partner, would make a ruckus every morning reveling in the ripe berries on the berry tree behind the house in which I stayed in Dehradun.

Gray Hornbill
Grey Hornbill
Gray Hornbill
Grey Hornbill

3) Grey Shrike

I found Shrikes among the most commonly sighted birds in Kalap, where I stayed. Well, only probably next to laughing thrush pictured below.

Grey Shirke
Grey Shrike
Grey Shirke
Grey Shrike
Grey Shirke
Grey Shrike

4) Himalayan Vulture

You can spot a strong presence of these vultures in any village. They are scavengers and have a sharp eye and smell for animal carcasses. Once, when a cow slipped and fell to its death into a ravine in Kalap, tens of these guys appeared and polished off the remains of the dead animal.

Himalayan Vulture
Himalayan Vulture

6) Red Vented Bulbul

This one was spotted in Dehradun. Although tiny in the picture, the gorgeousness of the Bulbul’s black coat against the sparkling sunlight and the soothing green of the tree are the characteristics that made me like this picture.

Red Vented Bulbul
Red Vented Bulbul

7) Streaked Laughingthrush

Each morning, these thrushes would make catcalls announcing the arrival of the dawn. You could also see a few of them warily hopping about in the event of the sun not seen at the usual time, on a cloudy day.

Streaked Laughing Thrush
Streaked Laughing Thrush