Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sar Pass - Have cool, will travel!

It is necessary not to be "myself," still less to be "ourselves."
The city gives one the feeling of being at home

We must take the feeling of being at home into exile.

We must be rooted in the absence of a place

-Simone Weil

June in Bangalore has got to be my favorite time. I have decided that I like it better than Shakespeare's England, Mozart's Vienna and Italian Rennaissance put together. Rain is never more welcome, mango milkshakes never taste sweeter and Bob Dylan never sounded as defiantly ponderous. What better time and place to be when, say you want to reflect upon a two-week holiday that you know will be etched deep in memory for the rest of your life.

It all started - where else? - at the airport. When you build something based on the assumption that everybody who gets there is from somewhere else, it becomes a big international convenience zone. In order to make everyone feel at home, there is a collection of generic spaces - the shopping mall, the hotel lobby, the food court. But you cannot help but feel a distinct smell of business here, topped off with conditioned air and fake plants. Airports are always so agog with activity and emotion. Mothers breaking down at departure doors, as their sons go off in search of greener pastures; groups of friends determinedly making the most of the last few moments before one of them travels off to a different time zone; couples having their moments of intimacy as they close their eyes and savour that last kiss; passengers themselves being on the edge, with mixed feelings of alertness and excitement. There is always something promising on the other side.

If the Delhi airport was anything to go by, I would say it was like the city's business card and handshake. Huge, busy and ever so self-important. And much like how it was 15 years ago when I last visited, Delhi is still all about the extremeties. Scorching summers and biting cold winters, the cramped spaces of Old Delhi and unendingly huge houses of Janpath, the filling meal at Parathewala of Chandni Chowk and the filling meal at United Coffee House on Connaught Place, the omnipresent rickshaw and the slick underground Metro. The only things that remained constant everywhere were liquor shops shutting down at 10pm and of course, pretty women. Oh my god - everywhere bloody where!! Anyway, with all its various sights, smells and sounds, Delhi was a heady stop-gap location.

A year ago, one of my friends showed me pictures and told me tales from his trek to the Himalayas. Along with the rest of the baays, I just knew, after that where my next holiday was going to be. But with the economy being in shit and office politics in its prime, the holiday plan spent what seemed like a lifetime on the drawing board. After long months of nagging our managers and longer months of slogging our bums off, the six of us finally had our leaves approved and enough dough to get away. With tiny personal tragedies under my belt, a couple of failed travel opportunities and dwindling prospects on my forehead and big bad commercial tastelessness on my tongue, I just needed a holiday like a dog in heat.

So, you can imagine the kilos of adrenalin in our systems as we boarded the bus from Delhi to Kullu - slowly and separately saying goodbye to the last traces of civilization, or at least city life.

Organized by the Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI), the Sar Pass Expedition starts from YHAI's base camp in Kasol (6,500 ft above sea-level), traverses through camps located all along the Parvati valley at varying altitudes, culminates in Sar Pass (13,500 ft a.s.l) and concludes with a descent back to the base camp.

Kasol, set against the backdrop of the mighty River Parvati and spotted with tall, old pine trees everywhere, is a place that makes you realize that traveling is fun because of the people you meet as much as it is because of the places you see. The base camp itself draws hundreds of people from all over the country every day for a month. If ever I needed a lesson in national integration more profound than those shows on DD, it was this.

You can only speak of India in the plural. There's no singular, there's no "one way" to things in here. The way our idealogies, our faiths, our beliefs and our tastes are arranged vouch for that pluralism. Outside the base camp, there was a huge immigrant population, mostly Jewish people from Israel, some holidaying and others probably seeking the "truth". It almost seemed as if the latter group approached a sadhu in Manikaran who said, "Do not ask for truth in India. You will get no short of a billion answers." At this point, the group thought, "Fuck it. Light up the hash". This explains the overpowering smell of hash/charas right through the place! But seriously, a couple of days of acclimatization and emceeing for a base camp show later, I had met a geologist, an astronomer, a fighter pilot, students of structural design, an investment banker and tons of software engineers. To a new eye, India may strike as maddening, chaotic, inefficient and seemingly unpurposeful as it muddles through the 21st century, but you learn that there is more to it than meets the eye. Like E.P Thomson said, "there is not a thought that is being thought in the West or the East that is not active in some Indian mind." Engage in a longer conversation with that old British man in Kasol, over Turkish coffee and beedis. I assure you that will be fun!

Guna Pani (at 8,000 ft) was the first step on the stairway to paradise. While the trek itself is not very physical, you get braced to the kind of life you will live for the next 8 days. Lunch points at places where sheer natural beauty whets your appetite. Do not miss those charming Himalayan ladies who cook up a dream omelette and Maggi (which I believe I had copious evidence that I was the best at). On reaching the camp at Guna Pani, you get the first feel of the several epiphanies attached to taking a dump in the open space. Trust me, it is an amazingly powerful experience when you're one on one with nature, in a grassy field surrounded by snow-clad peaks that look like molten gold in the sunset. At the end of several such dumps, you know solitude from loneliness and wisdom from information. No, really! I swear on the toilet paper. One of the highlights of this camp was our first camp fire. Replete with songs sung by talented singers from within the group and an engaging hands-on astronomy lesson from our group leader, it was just the kind of fire needed to break the ice that was beginning to settle amongst the 57 of us.

Fual Pani (at 9,500 ft) was a slightly sterner reminder for what we learnt at Guna Pani. The trek entailed a steeper gradient and requires one to be properly hydrated all along the way. And you see that there is no point in rushing from one camp to the next, but instead take it slow and savor nature's complete offering. The camp is situated in a slopy portion of a dense forest with a nice little stream flowing nearby. On reaching, we retired to what was probably the coziest tea stall on the planet. What started as banter slowly turned to a beautiful multilogue of tales featuring adventure, reclaimed lives, lost love, hopes for the future and KLPR (shit, that was genius)!

Powered by a deceptively catchy slogan "Wandering one gathers honey", YHAI does a good job in giving the wandering ones absolutely no honey, not even a blooming whiff of it. The idea is to live in minimal comfort. The tents are minimal, the food is basic, the tea is bland and the sleeping bags exactly as functional as need be. But once you see the terrain that they are up against, you realize how hard it is to set up tents, let alone cook food in these conditions. That was to be the biggest reasons for satisfaction after the trek - the experience of living and living it up with just the basic amenities. Even more satisfying than the physical nature of the trek.

Zirmi (11,000 ft) is just breathtaking. The journey from Fual Pani is about 6 km in high gradient. That would translate to about 18 km of walking on plain land. Being a young bunch, we made it to the half-way mark much in advance, which necessitated a longer break so that the arrangements at the camp would be complete. There is no better way to take a break during a hard trek than lying down together with friends under the sky, watching the sun play peek-a-boo with the clouds, ogling at the perfect conifer tree-line symmetry and having just enough battery on your phone to listen to High Hopes. Pink Floyd gets surreal with altitude in much the same way that wine does with age. This all-consuming moment of togetherness coupled with a pleasant cluelessness to express beauty in words rendered me with the widest, dumbest and most satisfied smile of all time. Enough said!

Tila Lotni (12,500 ft) gives you the first feeling of snow. All the research we had done about snow-trekking paid off. We were forewarned and forearmed (Quite literally, we picked up hunter shoes from Army Stores!). We made merry in snowfall, laughing, as old Jim said like soft mad children, smug in the wooly cotton brains of infancy. We slept that night, fully dressed and snucked in a warm sleeping bag and under two blankets, listening to stories of brilliant adventure from a man who flies the MiG-27 for a living. Do drink a lot of tea.

The final frontier beckoned, as we left Tila Lotni early next morning after a night of heavy snowfall. Way above the tree line and even the clouds, all you see around you is just an array of magnificent snow peaks. But after a while, you start feeling like you're married to Monica Bellucci. You have fantasized about her all your life and suddenly you find yourself sleeping along side her, knowing every cranny of her body over 5 years. It's beautiful, but you're used to it.

And finally, we reached Sar Pass at a crazy 13,500 ft above sea level. Oh the joy! Once you are at the top, there is just a vast stretch of snow through which it is impossible to walk through. So what do you do? You slide, of course! Stick in hand, rucksack on the back I felt like a Winter Games champion. And also like a trapeze artist for a brief moment where I was air borne. You just gotta try!

The after-dream that followed entailed copious amounts of Signature and numerous puffs of adulterated Charas, and at some point there I turned 24.

As I traveled back, living a dream, trying to put a face to strange beautiful female vocalists on my player, staring at the stars and awing about them, I marveled after those who sought new wonders in the world. The trick is to use knowledge as a spur rather than a comfort pillow for a settled way of thinking.


Blogger Enthu Cutlet said...

A really good read :) Sounds like one helluva trek!

"I swear on the toilet paper." - Hehe. Really now!

6:39 PM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger Murali said...

When I meet you, why do you act like someone who isn't capable of such writing?

7:29 PM, June 22, 2009  
Blogger Manu said...

EC: Heh! You will not believe how useful it was. And please make yourself reachable soon!

Murali: I'm not sure what you mean, but I will quote Nick Hornby here - For alarmingly huge chunks of an average day, I'm a moron. :)

11:32 AM, June 23, 2009  
Blogger Srinivas said...

Well written! Must have been a real nice experience meeting other people from various backgrounds, and the journey itself through such picturesque surroundings :)

11:08 AM, June 24, 2009  
Blogger Seema Smile said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:35 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger Seema Smile said...

I haven't read something so beautiful in a long time. Makes me want to pack my bags and go off on that trek right away.

9:37 AM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger The Darkling Thrush said...

love-the-lee manudo :) welcome back. and how!

big babis hugs!

1:21 PM, June 26, 2009  
Blogger Nikhil said...

Felt like himalayas re-visited :)

8:02 PM, June 27, 2009  
Blogger Manu said...

Srini: Yes, it was the perfect blend of people and places. Do not miss it!

Seema: Glad you felt that way. Needless to say, the trip comes strongly reco'd by me!

DT: He he! Thanks.

Nik: Didn't it, just?!

11:56 AM, June 29, 2009  
Blogger Australopithecus said...

sorry: stopped reading at " I just needed a holiday like a dog with two dicks needs action." I am still laughing.
will read the rest of the post when i recover.

8:35 AM, July 10, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what's in a name?so much...i remember reading your blog a year ago,went through all the posts,got entertained,reflected and liked it,but very conveniently forgot to store the link or id.Today all of a sudden felt like getting back here,but had a tough time remembering the name of your blog except for the word orgasm :D trust me , i had a reallllly hard time searching for your blog in the heap of searches that came up on google...since i'am not a person who gives up so easily,racked my brains really hard for like half an hour trying to figure out what comes before the orgasm...finally got it and here i'am ...was there anything else i couldnt connect with your blog...sure, i did remember a little bit about volleyball or this movie mahanadi you have mentioned in your blog,but then again that's not enough to search ;-) now i realise,when u write well,please do leave your complete real name,so that its easier to get back...

11:54 PM, August 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

btw,you do write well,that's way i got back here...

12:00 AM, August 03, 2009  
Blogger Manu said...

Austro: He he! Imagine!

Anon: I don't leave my name as my rather catchy blog-name makes up for it. Heh! Kind of you. But do leave your name too. :)

11:18 PM, August 04, 2009  
Blogger Phippogriff said...

great post man!!
you had a superb time indeed...
oh n yeah..Delhi's B***s..hahahaha !! Awesome observation :)

8:29 AM, August 29, 2009  
Blogger Phippogriff said...

"The trick is to use knowledge as a spur rather than a comfort pillow for a settled way of thinking" Hats off :) !!

8:38 AM, August 29, 2009  
Blogger Manu said...

Phippo: Thanks, brilliant time indeed! :)

1:17 AM, September 02, 2009  
Anonymous ICSI Mexico said...

Beautiful photography, keep it up.

3:14 PM, May 08, 2011  

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