Incredible Sundays: Scaling the pinnacle

Today was the toughest day of the trek: Scaling and crossing the Rupin pass. Disclaimer: This post is longer because it was a day of intense experiences and I’m going to pen them all.

The day began early at 3:30 am: so early that we were fumbling around in the dark for tea and bathrooms. We set off at 5:15 just slightly before sunrise.

The first half an hour of the trek was petrifying. My chest and lungs heaved and complained. There was barely enough oxygen going in even though the oxymeter gave me an unbelievable reading of 95. The layers of clothing we wore to shield against the mind-numbing snow and winds were suffocating. I had a brief thought that I should hang up my boots- tell the trek leader that this was beyond me, beyond my endurance levels.

There were 3 kinds of ascents I discovered today and I’m going to describe all 3. The first, and how our trek began, is a moderately steep ascent (gradient 30 degrees). We were asked to bunch together as a team, and your speed is determined by the slowest members who lead. You walk the footsteps of the person in front, think like him, become him in a sense. Your speed is slow, breathing controlled. Although this bit came at a point today when we were just starting out and hence felt harder, I’ve realised this type of climbing is comparatively easy.

The second type of ascent is crossing gently upward sloping ridges. Up on the mountains, the fresh snow rises up in crests and troughs, like giant sand dunes. Walking through and climbing this was the hardest bit for me today since we broke form and were allowed to walk at our natural speeds. I would start off in natural enthusiasm and end up coming up for giant gasps of air, like filling up a balloon.

The third type was the steep slope, climbing up the pass (gradient 45). We had technical guides who would continuously make shelves in the ice which we could use as footholds. It felt very similar to rock climbing- your entire focus is on climbing each step, not look up or down, modulate breathing.

“Mountains have been seen around the world as thresholds between this world and the next, as places where the spirit world comes close.”

It does feel like you have crossed over a threshold atop. Scaling the pass felt like an emotional achievement for everyone- we had weathered, and overcome some kind of physical or emotional obstacle and ascended up to 15,000 feet. The Chinese phrase for going on a pilgrimage actually means “paying one’s respects to the mountain”. To me this is what scaling the pass feels like-I ascended like Moses and met my maker.

A brief detour here to talk about our guides. All across, we’ve been accompanied by Chacha, the senior, serious local expert, Prateek, our young, bohemian lead, Jaggu, a fun lad who brings up the rear and will shepherd us to ensure we’re on track and in time, and a host of other porters, and technical guides. They’ve all been so incredibly warm, helpful, jovial. One could argue it’s their job but making the journey more enjoyable and keeping a jolly demeanour in such trying natural conditions is the extra they bring to the table- something I’ve been grateful for each day.

After Rupin, we walked for 4 more hours. The first was walking through a snow desert-the sun beat down steadily upon our heads. We crossed several slopes sliding down- this is an intensely fun activity which involves you sliding down the icy side of a mountain, a natural roller coaster of sorts.

The rest of the walk was through bits of snow, melted streams and meadows. “In the experience of walking, each step is a thought. You can’t escape yourself.” Every long trail on the hike has made me feel reflective and meditative- perhaps this is what meditation is supposed to feel like. The natural rhythm of your body, feeling and being one with the landscape, and feeling completely at peace with the mind and world. The wish that this should never end.

Snowy Saturdays: Romancing the mountains

In the olden days writes Solnit, and what perhaps even Dante’s Divine Comedy is built as, memory could be structured by poets or thinkers as building a palace-you built different rooms and placed thoughts amongst these.

If today’s expedition were to be the palace of dreams, the door would open into a staircase, going up to the main living area of the house. Once there, you would have 4 rooms all around you. There would be a giant bookcase off the landing. The floor would be wood and the rooms would be carpeted.

We began the hike with a steep ascent, everyone lined up like sheep, methodical, rhythmic, aligned, shepherded by the guides. Even a single whistle in these parts can set off rocks and ice, as we indeed saw, and hence we hiked silently, respecting the laws that rule us here. The walk up felt like a pilgrimage as we all huddled up behind each other, walking the walk of the person in front.

A couple of ascents across soil and we were at the main landing or level with the upper waterfall. The upper waterfall is a highlight and could be seen from our last campsite, which itself looked like a few dots far, far below.

“What does it mean to arrive, and what to wander without destination?”

Snow. At once you feel like you have arrived and almost then you feel you could experience this forever. Almost all of the walk was through snow today. I cannot describe how fresh snow makes me feel: pure, fresh, intense joy, playful, young. I could launch grenades of snow forever.

Walking through it is a bit akin to how I feel when I’m running: light, as if you could fly, clear-headed. We even hiked a wee bit up at the campsite so we could slide down. So much fun!

Windy Fridays: Treading the ice

It took me many many years to move beyond common misperceptions regarding meditation. I have always wondered and still struggle to really comprehend and make meaning of vipasana. To me walking (or running now) is all of the above-reflective, meditative, invigorating, soothing.

“It is the body that moves but the world that changes. Travel is a way to experience this continuity of self amidst the flux of the world.”

Today was the last day for us before the snow line. Perhaps it was the most picturesque day of this sojourn. Maybe it is just the thought that from tomorrow, it will be only about snowy and white landscapes.

Either way we had our fill of views all along the way. Beautiful green meadows coloured by purple and yellow blossoms. Sparkling, clear, grey-blue streams and mini-lakes. Brown-grey lichen-specked stones and natural bridges to cross over. Herds of adorable sheep to keep us company.

We trudged for distances, along and over ice. Our boots barely holding onto the slippery surfaces. Walking over snow is an art in itself. The locals have it mastered and slide effortlessly over miles of precarious slopes.

Now we sit ensconced in our tents as we are lashed by rain from all sides. This is also the most picturesque campsite – next to a lovely brook, mountains and snow around 3 sides, green pastures still visible on one. Reading, talking, listening to music, thinking, wondering.

Lost Thursdays: Lost in the wild

Everything hurts-my shoulder blades, my right knee, thighs and glutes, the emerging blisters underfoot. And the need for sleep. And coffee.

Surprisingly it is the memory of having chai on my balcony that is haunting me this morning. And it’s broken by the memory that I’m trying to build of the mountains. We return to the absent always, do we not?

It’s a lazy and difficult start- I think I sleepwalk through the first hour. My competitive alter ego doesn’t allow falling back even in this state so I tell myself to emerge from this sullen cocoon I am in.

Today’s walk will offer the most diverse views- bridges that merge into steep climbs that merge into sloping meadows that merge into a village trail.

And forests. The forests are spectacular, overpowering, protective. The fir and pine forests stretch on as if they’ve been here forever- across time, histories, movements. Towering down at you they remind you of how small and impermanent you are. My first tears and resolutions emerge.

“Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is conquest but as you get higher, the world gets bigger and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much room to wander, how much unknown.”

We walk and walk, always compressing the distances that separate us from the full stop. We cross the first dense patches of dry ice over a full-bodied river- it amazes me how the path stays intact, sturdy even.

We camp now at the last stop before the snow line-revelling in the last time we are a part of these forests, the river and the shifting colours of green, gray and white.

Lyrical Wednesdays: The sound of music

The trails had still not been gruelling enough on the first day and I lay awake post 8:30 when they bid us to bed. I drifted off to sleep to the sounds of tunes played on a mouth organ by one of the team members.

The hills are alive with the sound of music. Of rivers gushing forth. Of crickets and birds and beetles. Of eagles whistling and soaring high in the sky. Of pine forests rustling and swaying to the breeze.

Music is respite for the soul wherever I am, cities or mountains, solitary or in large packs: soothes me when I wake up to Krishna humming each morning or puts me to sleep when I am restless.

So it is here. At night it is the tunes of an organ. In the morning, folk music rings across a tiny village. Women shepherding buffaloes stream the latest Hindi music off their pocket radios. I find myself humming Lata’s best tunes- this is my mom’s favourite music and what I seek too on every occasion.

Emotions stirred by the landscape are piercing. “Sometimes birds, trees, the rocks underfoot draw your attention, sometimes you are looking straight into the steepness, but a turn or pause lets you see the vastness across directions, an infinite cloak of air wrapped around your back. ”

It aptly describes today’s trail-my favourite so far. It’s long and winding, we are constantly accompanied by the valley and the river to our right and steep mountains on our left. We cross gorgeous hanging wooden bridges-here this is what marks borders between states- and temples with handcrafted knockers and adorned with coins deposited by the faithful.

The yellow jersey is mine for the day and the team is sufficiently scattered to give the feeling of utter solitude. This is what it means to be lost in the wild, to give yourself up to it.

Our trail ends at Jhakha-the last big village on the hike. It pours torrentially in the afternoon-all the elements of the view stay with you- the giant snow-capped mountains encircling us, the mist rolling up, trees shuddering and swaying to the rain, the orchestra on the tiled rooftops.

Winding Tuesdays: Following trails and gorges 

We set out with much gusto, with the energy in your heart and legs which you can only feel on the first day. Today is a day for winding, scenic trails across hills and vales, up the first set of mountains. 

We climb hills, overlook deep gorges. The river is our constant companion: serpentine, broad, tranquil, buoyant. We catch the first glimpse of snow clad fountains far across in the distance. “Are these the best corollaries to truth, to clarity, to independence”. 

Green. The colour of nature, freshness. Of glens, glades and gorges.  The sides of the cliffs have lush grassy slopes. There are apple orchards bearing delicate green fruit and shrubs with white and pink flowers. 

We end for the day at Seva, a tiny village nestled deep inside the mountain. Our two-storey tree house faces a mammoth mountain-sheer rock jutting out from the belly. Sounds of abey yaar ring across the afternoon as the local boys set up a game of volleyball-perhaps the only sport you can play in this windy, hilly terrain.  



Blue Mondays: Chai by the Rupin

A frenetic and stressed month, finishing work trips and work itself. All so that I could take off on a guilt-ridden trip to the wilderness. Is the very nature of our existence such that it is impossible to disconnect? I was still downloading an extra book on my Kindle as our jeep broke down after Mussoorie. Worried that I would be stranded in the wild, with no book and reading material to keep me company.

A field guide to getting lost is my companion for the initial part of the journey. Rebecca Solnit quotes Meno: How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?

And yet, the unknown is what we have set out to find. Commemorating my 30 years of existence but unable to determine who I still am. “Lose the world, get lost within and find your soul”.

The first day has been about traveling to the base camp- Dehradun to Dhaula. Like all races, the starting point itself is a destination. Yamuna has kept us company throughout: a keen grey- blue presence, meandering across the valleys. The banks are stretches of white rock, glistening in the morning sunlight. Some villages are just clusters of brick buildings carved into the mountainside. Little boxes of butterscotch, pista, chocolate- scattered across the terrain. It could all hurtle down in an instant, down into nothingness

We pass scores of beautiful dense forests. Some full of massive and towering conifers. Others with tall light-green paintbrushes. Some with ferns for leaves, some with cacti-like outgrowths. And even then, they’re still planting new ones. 

We end with chai by the banks of the chortling, gushing river Rupin which gradually begins (or ends) its journey. Memories of my travel are defined by Mondays. Tea with lions, train to Venice, chai by the Rupin. 


Tales from Italy: Day 11 – Ciao and Grazi Roma

There can be no place to end this holiday of a lifetime but in Rome. What all can I say about Rome. The ruins, cute VWs and street bikes, random crossings, the food (oh lord the food!), the alleys and piazzas, the incredible architecture, the beautiful, well heeled Italian women, the crowds, the smiles, cafes and gelaterias, the efficient termini, budget hostels and friendly, no fuss travellers and of course the imposing ruins transporting you to a different time.

Ciao Italy but I have a feeling we’ll see each other again. Maybe as an old woman (I met a woman who was spending a month in Florence just to discover herself and get away from family). In which case I am happy I did all the walking I could. But there is still so much to see, hear, experience. Grazi!

Tales from Italy: Day 10 – The garden of Eden

It has been a hectic week of walking and exploring as much as we could in each city we’ve been to. A person we met yesterday remarked, “You can’t see all of Italy in one trip. You’ll need to be back again”. And so we forewent the idea of heading to the beautiful, medieval town of Siena in favour of spending a last, leisurely day in Firenze.

We began the day by a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce. After all this, it seemed right to bid adieu to Florence by visiting a basilica one last time and importantly, Michelangelo’s tomb. The basilica is very humbly decorated and the stained glass windows and painted murals are lovely. This place also marks the tombs of Galilei and Machiavelli. Michelangelo’s tomb is of course designed by his student, Vasari.

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We then strolled down to the banks of the Arno – on the way, stopping to have the best chocolate I think I have ever tasted, at Vestri. This gelateria is a pretty bakery that sells loads of varied flavoured chocolates, gelato and chocolate drinks.

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Next stop was the Bardini and Boboli Gardens. These are lovely terraced gardens where you can stop to spend the afternoon, as we did, reading and soaking in the breathtaking views of Florence.

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It is difficult to explain just why or how beautiful Florence is. A city of limited colours and yet myriad personalities. A Florence of basilicas, duomos and campaniles, a Florence of large piazzas but narrow alleys, a Florence here and beyond the Arno and Ponte Vecchio, a Florence of opera and art and a Florence of chocolate and gelato.

Sunset views are best seen from the Piazzale Michelangelo. There are musicians performing on the steps and so it’s a beautiful and melancholic evening atmosphere.

The last supper was at Osteria Santo Spirito in the middle of the lively piazza of the same name. We had plenty of prosecco, the sparkling white wine and a sad walk back in the rain.

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Tales from Italy: Day 9 – The Tuscan countryside

After a full week of touring Italy’s dreamy museums and galleries, a little bit of museum fatigue crept in. So we decided to explore the Tuscan countryside which is supposed to be as splendid as the city itself.

Although wary to the point of being paranoid of organised tours, we were swayed by the brilliant recommendations given to the cycle tour by trusty LP and Trip Advisor and decided to prebook one.

As part of the tour, they first took us for a tour of a castle where we were given an introductory course to wine and olive oil making, followed by satisfactory tastings of both. We were then strapped to our respective bikes (my steed was Harry Potter and Krishna’s Pamela Anderson) and off we went, steadily downhill at first. The first half of the tour was going down several scenic slopes, stopping to admire the vineyards.

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We then stopped for lunch at a traditional Italian eatery where we were served copious amounts of food – insalata, three courses of pasta, panna cotta for dessert and espresso.

Post lunch was the difficult bit and all uphill. It was also the longer and more beautiful section – vineyards and olive groves as far as the eye could see, villas nestled in between, tall pine trees, blue grey skies. For anyone visiting Italy for longer, I would definitely recommend more than a day’s stay at a Tuscan villa and cycling around.


Having built ourselves a hearty appetite, our bellies craved for a helping of the famed Florentine meat. We had dinner at an eclectic diner – Antico Trattoria da Tito – famed for its T-bone steak as much as its grumpy but genial owner Bobo. As promised, the beef fillet, rabbit stew and potatoes were hearty and delicious in a happy, raucous atmosphere.