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.

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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.

Birds of my backyard – Part II

The rains have brought in a bevy of beauties to the backyard. I spotted a few newbies in the bunch and some strange behaviors too. Although the pictures this time are better, they are no way world class. But I am quite satisfied with the peacock picture you will see here. There is something about that picture I can’t quite put a finger on that is making it a cut above the rest. To think that I took it in a hurry.

Plus, I am also not promising totally new ones as opposed to the earlier post but the ones here are certainly better pictured. Or so I think. Read and leave a comment so I know you visited!

Black-hooded Oriole

Black-hooded Orioles are very common in our backyard in Kerala. Their stark yellow coat, black hood and pink beaks are ubiquitous as they hop from tree to tree looking for insects and fruits.

Black hooded golden oriole
Black-hooded Oriole
Black hooded golden oriole
Black-hooded Oriole

White-cheeked barbet a.k.a Spot the Bird in the Picture

Honestly, this bird has got to be a lifer (the term used to denote in birders tongue that I am seeing this one for the first time). Though these resident birds are not rare to come by, they are supremely well camouflaged making them difficult to spot. As you can see, let your eyes get used to the picture until you figure out the bird in the picture.

White-cheeked barbet
White-cheeked barbet
White-cheeked barbet
White-cheeked barbet

Common Birds – Myna & Jungle Babbler

These are resident birds of every household in Kerala. If you have a house with a big enough front-yard, these birds will be constant company on your lazy afternoons and rainy evenings. Rain drenched, their beauty is accentuated as you can see here.

A jungle warbler
A Jungle Babbler
A common myna
A common myna

Green Damselfly

No that’s not what this damselfly is called, I just made it up (although it is quite possible it is what this one is called). I take my excuse in the fact that classification of damselflies (in western ghats) is still at a nascent stage.

A dragon fly
A dragon fly

Jungle Owlet

This one seems to have mistaken the clouded, gray day to be the onset of the dusk. He was out around noon, when on a drab, rainy day. Also I think this guy / gal is a juvenile.

Jungle Owlet
Jungle Owlet

Rufous Woodpecker

Another common resident with a ‘shaggy crest’ and ‘short black bill’ as noted by Carol & Timm Inskipp in their ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent.’

Rufous Woodpecker
Rufous Woodpecker

Yellow-billed Babbler

I saw a Yellow-billed babbler feeding on a chick. The chick was making quite a racket but it got me thinking whether it could be the chick of the Yellow-billed babbler at all. Because for one, the chick seemed to be bigger than the adult babbler itself. Any thoughts? Have I got the bird wrong and witnessed a strange behavior?

Yellow-billed Babbler
Yellow-billed Babbler
Yellow-billed Babbler feeding
Yellow-billed Babbler feeding

Mystery birds

I couldn’t fathom what these birds are. One looks like a sunbird and the other I have absolutely no clue of. Care to clarify? Leave a comment and let me know. I will be grateful to you, expert birder.

Mystery bird - sunbird?
Mystery bird – sunbird?
Mystery bird - no clue
Mystery bird – no clue

Peacock

Peacock is a persistent company in the backyard, so are their calls. This one knew he was the center of my camera’s attention and skittered away soon. But I managed this shot. You like? Leave a comment.

The skittering peacock
The skittering peacock

What does your backyard have? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Qutb Minar – a photo essay

Delhi is strewn with monuments of victory, love, grief and other emotions the sahibs and sultans were capable of propagating with grandeur available at hand, employing the best of architectural talents. To celebrate his victory over a Hindu kingdom, Qutab-ud-din Aibak installed this towering structure, 73 m that is entirely made with red sandstone and marbles. Though the work started in Aibak’s period in 1192, it continued on with his successor – Iltutmish adding up to the structure and finally, in 1368 Tughlaq finished the structure by building the fifth storey.

The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque inside the complex is considered to be the first mosque of India. Qutab-ud-din Aibak is also the first muslim ruler of Delhi. Experts concur that the structure is either built with the help of destroyed Hindu structures or that Hindu craftsmen have been employed in its construction since it is possible to spot Devanagiri inscriptions. Either way, Qutb is a treat to watch in the fading light of the day.

Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar
The minaret
The minaret

 

Qutb Minar - a closer look
Qutb Minar – a closer look

 

The towering minaret
The towering minaret
Qutb is largely a red sandstone structure
Qutb is largely a red sandstone structure
Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar
the restored archways
the restored archways
Another view
Another view
Qutb minar at a distance
Qutb minar at a distance
the crumbling structures
the crumbling structures
One last pose - at Qutb
One last pose – at Qutb Minar

Have you been to Qutb Minar? What has been your experience? Leave a comment.