March 22, 2018

MYTH AND THE MOUNTAIN

Words: Afzal Rawuther
Photos: Rohit Mane

“We were dozens of kilometres away from civilisation, in sub-zero temperatures and with no way to get any help”

A WET-BEHIND-THE-EARS JOURNO TAKES ON THE CHALLENGE OF TRAVELLING UP THE HIMALAYAS

It starts with the horror stories that you are told about the Himalayas, the times that man can’t find it in himself to stand up to the might of the mountains. Passed down like folklore, they make you frigid with fear when you are face to face with the devil itself. Do you take a step back to wait and try and comprehend if all this was a mistake? Or do you just dive in headfirst, hoping that you will come out of it unscathed? What happens when a young automotive journo is asked to go up the mountains and cover the toughest rally in India, especially one who has never been up to the mountains? An adventure of a lifetime unfolds. . .

I am stumbling through airport security. The mixture of excitement and apprehension that has gripped my mind makes me literally stumble and fumble around with my baggage and at one point I lose my boarding pass, all to the amusement of the airport staff. We land in Delhi and make our way to Manali winding our way through countless idyllic mountainside villages and places that you’d never mark on your map, but they do make the journey what it is. Manali is where it all begins; at the foothills of the Himalayas. I am in a group of 20-odd journalists and we set up base for a couple of days in Manali. The river Beas flows right across Manali and every time you look at it streaming through, you wonder how something that’s adjacent to a tourist hotspot remains so pristinely clean. Swarms of people flood Manali, and most of what the town has to offer caters to touristy whims and fancies.

I spent an inordinate amount of time imagining what the mountains had in store for me. The view across my window had the same peaks that I’d be scaling over the next week or so. They’d fill my thoughts for hours on end. The fact that I was treated as the baby of the group didn’t help either. Most (including me) thought that I would get altitude sickness as soon as we started ascending to the mighty Himalayas. After a day and a half spent lazing around Manali, we made our way to Chhatru in the middle of the night. As luck would have it, the road condition was not anywhere close to the pristine highways that I had been exposed to so far. But one could forget the broken tarmac and soak in the magnificent view that I was witnessing. The mountains were forever in our sights and as we made our way up, they grew beautiful, the clouds becoming one with them. Despite my best effort at capturing them on my iPhone camera, it just could not encapsulate the emotions that I was going through and hardly do justice to the location. Our convoy of journo vehicles would bottom out a dozen times, the local drivers wouldn’t even wince. This was usual here, par for the course, but surreal for wide-eyed me. We got stuck at one point. The car would slide over the rocks and even after some serious pushing and prodding, we couldn’t get through.

Panic gripped me, we were dozens of kilometres away from civilisation, in sub-zero temperatures and with no way to get any help. A slide could mean falling thousands of feet to certain death. Thankfully some rocks were moved away by the more than enterprising drivers and we set off again. All that travelling was making me queasy though, it was easy to see why it would. The never-ending curves were messing with my stomach and as you might have guessed, I started spewing out my last meal. Chhatru was freezing cold though; body shivering, teeth clattering, we waited for the sun and it did so soon bringing with it the warmth that made it comfortable. I looked around in the minutes between the rally racers rushing past us; and the beauty of the place amidst all of the desolateness took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. I was told by more than a few wise men that I shouldn’t exert myself too much or it might be too much to ask of my body. But I didn’t pay much heed and rushed up the mountain to get a better look and was stunned at the expanse of nothingness that lay before my eyes. You could get lost here, so easily. I have heard of people going up the mountains to get enlightened and come back down to change the world.

A certain Mr Jobs did the same. And having spent a few days up there I can understand why. Being face to face with something the size of the Himalayas brings you face to face with the fact that you are just a small cog in the world. It also tells you that even a tiny cog is an extremely vital bit of the whole operation. All that exploring ensured that I stumbled back to the cab and slept like a dead man. We were making our way to Jispa, a few hundred kilometres away. Another great drive ensued. Mountains after mountains passed by, snow capped peaks in the background held the promise of something that I had always yearned to do – have a proper snow fight.We traced the path of the river Beas through most of the way. It was evening in Jispa and the cold was unrelenting.We stayed put in Jispa for the night. The morning brought with it news that the mountains that surrounded Jispa held hidden secrets that would just leave you spellbound. A lake invited us to sample what it had in store. We sat there dipping our feet in the still cold water. It seemed perfect. The sun’s rays bouncing off the green of the grass freshly trimmed by the herd of cows that somehow didn’t seem to mind the cold too much. No wonder people just leave their life in the cities and head to the mountains to just live here. I used to think it was a moment of hysteria that brought them here, but no, now I get it. The trip out of Jispa towards Pang would change the way I looked at this trip and would be instrumental in me calling it the adventure of a lifetime.

Cars without 4WD have a tough time up in these mountains
Stargazing is not a difficult task in Ladakh

We started out mid-afternoon and started out on what was for me the toughest leg of the whole trip. I got nauseous and ended up puking at least a dozen or so times leaving myself severely dehydrated. By the time we got to Pang, I was crawling out of the car into temperatures hovering around minus ten degree Celsius – the coldest place I had ever been to and for someone who’d slip on a jacket at 20 degrees, it was indescribable. We were to sleep in makeshift tents that did nothing to protect against the wind. The puking didn’t stop and every time I made my way out and splashed water on my face, tiny ice crystals made it far from pleasant. I cowered in fear and wondered about how I would make it to morning. Sleep certainly evaded me, and I felt alone and helpless in a crowd of hundreds that had decided to call Pang their home for the night. I thought of all the times I had fallen in and out of love. Yeah, I was acting a little crazy, wouldn’t you? The range of emotions that the Himalayas makes you feel, just astounds you at first but then you get used to it a little bit and are glad that you made the effort. It feels way better than the numbness of the city life I am used to. Needless to say, I survived and somehow found it in me to get up and head to Debring at three-thirty in the morning. Now, to the uninitiated Debring can come across as a shock. It is a desert plain nestled by mountains on all sides. Such is the strangeness that the desert seems beautiful to you. The mountains seem very close but actually are tens of kilometres away. A kind lady lit up a bonfire and I found a place near it that did the trick.

I felt fine for the first time in what seemed like a really long time.We left as soon as the sun warmed everything up. I was dreading the drive upto Leh, but it turned out to be rather pleasant. The roads were absolutely fine and Leh just seemed to be the perfect place to unwind and relax. The charming town was just perfect for me. The fact that the peaks of the Himalayas were so tantalisingly close only added another dimension to the place. We moved to Kargil and stayed back for a few days. We travelled up the mountain side to get to the finish line. We descended back to Sankhoo and on the way down, in the middle of nowhere I sight a tombstone fashioned out of mountain rock for a certain Miss Razia. It put me in a melancholy quiet that didn’t quite leave me till I was back in Leh. How unfortunate is losing your life in this no man’s land. And how incredible that you’d still have a tombstone. Even in the middle of nowhere, humanity triumphs. I wanted to stop and lay some flowers on her tomb, some blades of grass at least. But I didn’t. I was too overcome by shock to make a move. I hope someone does, at least once in a while. The Himalayas, more than being a test of physical endurance and strength are a mental challenge. It changes you. And that change stays with you. I didn’t find any snow on the way but what I did find made sure I would never look at adventure the same way.

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