JOURNEY TO THE INDIAN HIMALAYAS
Text only (for the illustrated version click here)
The chandeliers in the colonial-style Hotel Imperial flickered stirringly, maybe because of my sleepy eyes. We had arrived in Delhi just after midnight after a 15-hour flight from New Zealand and took in dreamily the dark city, the ornate hotel with its decorative columns, mirrors, and the liveried staff.
It was not only the Indian early morning music from the radio, suddenly switching itself on, that roused us the following day; jet-lag wreaked some havoc too. The advice: "you don't get jet-lagged, if you refuse to believe in it!" did not help me.
The heat was already penetrating the sun umbrellas in the hotel garden when we gathered there for breakfast. We were quite a mix of people whom William, director of Himalayan Travellers, was personally escorting to a remote corner of India's Garhwal, a region tucked into the corner formed by Tibet and Western Nepal. Barry was a social worker from Dunedin who had already been travelling in India for six months. Joan was a pharmacist and her brother John a carpenter, both living in the Wairarapa. Julia was teaching in Taupo and Jean running a farmlet near Otaki. Clara, my wife and travel companion, is a chemical processing consultant and I am a writer disguised as a humble public servant; we both live in Wellington.
The hotel was an artificial island of affluence lapped by the teeming everyday life of the Indian capital. Hardly did the honking or shouting, the jingling of bells and the screeching of tyres invade the hallowed grounds. Just outside the walls people were milling past hundreds of little stalls or shops, hawkers and beggars were clinging to tourists, dogs were sniffing through the rubbish on the pavement and in the gutters, and the occasional gust of wind whipped up sheets of red dust.
It was all a little overwhelming, though colourful and exciting, and we felt almost some relief when returning to our oasis. I plunged into the clear, refreshing water of the large hotel pool, relaxed in the deck chairs scattered on the green, well irrigated lawn, and looked up the tall palms, watching the movements of large birds, the kites. The air was pleasant here, but even in the streets I did not feel excessively hot, because of the low humidity. When I later read in the paper that the temperature on that day had been 32°C, I was surprised.
A sightseeing bus took us to the broad tree-lined avenues, spacious parks and monumental buildings of the government district of New Delhi, built when the British moved the Indian capital from Calcutta back to the traditional seat of power. Sir Edwin Lutyens, helped by Sir Herbert Baker, laid out the new city. Inaugurated in 1931, this was to be the Anglo-Indian Rome. But the British reign lasted only 16 more years.
It was appropriate that we visited Rajghat, the place dedicated to the man whose spiritual power brought India independence. Mahatma Gandhi was cremated near the River Jumna. Now reverent Indians pile flower petals on the slab of black marble set in the middle of a large square grassy area around which runs a stone wall with arched entrances and a walkway on top.
For most Indians Delhi has been their capital on and off ever since the Gods of the mythical past, recounted in the Mahabharata epic, founded this city. There are well over 1000 monuments testifying to Delhi's history. No way could we have visited a representative selection of them. However, passing the remnants of the old town wall and gates, we delved back into the period when Mongol emperors, the Moghuls, ruled India.
The Red Fort, completed by Shah Jahan in the middle of the 17th century, is a town itself. Surrounded by mighty ramparts and moats, it contains several palaces, a mosque, and elaborately laid out gardens. The buildings, although somewhat neglected, show the magnificent features of Islamic architecture and decorations.
In the Hall of Private Audience the emperor received ambassadors while seated on the famous Peacock throne. Its gold and most of the semi-precious stones have vanished. Gone is also the water from the marble ponds, pools, channels, and fountains, as well as the once lush and ornamental vegetation in the gardens. The moat of the Red Fort was dry too, apart from a puddle where a family was doing their laundering; the "clean" washing they spread out to dry on the dusty ground.
It was a Moslem holiday and crowds of the faithful blocked access to the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, built near the Red Fort also during the Moghul era. It would have been hard and even inadvisable to carry out our planned visit there. Moving on to Nizamuddin, we still had to brave the everyday traffic where rickshaws, propelled by wiry men, and carts, drawn by bullocks, horses, and camels, vied for space amongst trucks and cars. Once we saw an elephant ferrying master and load stoically above the flood of vehicles.
Peace and quiet we found in the park surrounding the tomb built for Humayun by his widow Bega Begum in the sixteenth century. "Tomb" is a modest description for this monumental mausoleum which served as a forerunner of the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra.
The Qutab Minar and the ruins of the Quwwat-ul-islam mosque drew us another three hundred years back into history, to the thirteenth century. The mosque is said to be India's first and offers surprises: Upon close inspection the red sandstone of the columns and facades of the holy buildings reveals Hindu motives.
Representations of human figures on Islamic buildings? Despite Islam's strict adherence to abstract ornaments and Arabic inscriptions only? Our Sikh guide explained that India's first sultan commanded local Hindus to tear temples down and to use the stones for the mosque. The Hindu figures have been partly destroyed intentionally or obliterated by carving new decorations into them, but by no means completely, as our guide almost triumphantly pointed out.
The same sultan also gave Delhi one of its best-known landmarks, the Qutab Minar, an intricately carved tower that served both as the muezzin's minaret to call the faithful to prayer and as a symbol of Islamic justice and sovereignty.
Not far from the minaret we admired an iron pillar which dates back to the fifth century. It not only fascinates scientists, because it has remained virtually rust-free, but also most visitors, because they may get their wishes granted. There is one condition for this: standing with the back to the pillar you have to get the fingers of both hands to touch. Blessed are the long-armed!
In the evening we all gathered in William's room. "Did you see how they are excavating for a new building next to our hotel?" I exclaimed. Yes, everyone had seen the group of women carrying the soil in baskets on their heads from the bottom of the deep pit up to street level. We talked about the social standing of the Indian women and Barry mentioned a recent report prepared for the South Asian Nations' Year of the Girl Child. It says that more than a quarter of India's girls die before the age of 15 and that one sixth of the deaths could be attributed directly to sex discrimination. Barry explained that a family not only loses the working capability of a girl to the family of her husband, but has to pay dowry as well. The poorer Indian families dread marriages, because they have to take on debts, sometimes to the extent of being bonded to the creditor for a long time.
William took his pipe out of his mouth: "There are hundreds of women reported burnt to death in their homes every year, in Delhi alone. I'm sure some are accidental deaths. Some may be suicides because the girls often can't endure the harassment of the in-laws, or don't want to be the cause for dowry extortion from their families. Some may simply get murdered. A few years ago it was reported that a Delhi businessman had three wives in seven years and all died of burns. The Hindustan Times then published a cartoon showing a heap of ashes, a tin of paraffin, and a mother and father looking through the matrimonial ads in a newspaper, telling their son: "Don't be upset, we'll find the right girl; even if it means burning a few more!"
There was no time for further discussion, because we had to talk about the programme for the following days. We also picked up one "kit-bag" and a sleeping bag each. Apart from the few items we would carry in our daypacks, all our belongings, including the sleeping bags, would have to fit into these bags; the weight limit was 12.5 kg. We were planning to leave early the following morning to travel through the Gangetic Plains to the Corbett National Park.
IN THE PLAINS
The flat land gliding past the windows of our bus belonged to Uttar Pradesh, with close to 120 million inhabitants India's most populous state. There were not many signs of overpopulation, rather of poverty. Near Delhi red brick dwellings dotted the spring green landscape almost picturesquely but, coming closer, their squalor showed up. The fields eventually stretched as far as the horizon, with windbreaks of gum trees in between.
The villages consisted of thatched houses made of mud bricks. Most rural buildings huddle together, here and there separated by paths, where human activity has smoothened the soil. Some roofs are made of just about any material available, and are weighed down with sticks, rocks, or tyres.
The scarcity of water is always obvious. Whatever water there is, in channels or ponds, looks dirty brown and is valuable. Ditches accompany the main road, over wide distances. The water collecting there seems to encourage the growth of trees, such as eucalypts and palms. It is used for irrigation, for washing, bathing, perhaps even cooking. I observed a man washing his private parts at a pond, while about thirty metres away a woman ladled water into a pot.
During the dry season there is little need for sheltering equipment or activities. Everything is in the open, exposed for all to see. Privacy hardly exists and is often just protected by the clothes people wear. I noticed a woman with a baby sitting on the ground near a busy path. To shield herself from the crowd, or perhaps the sun or the dust, she just pulled her wide scarf over herself and the child.
Human toil often replaces modern tools. Working on the road, women with little brooms and shovels scooped up the dust and soil, before asphalt was poured. At the numerous checkpoints along the road, where groups of officious men extracted the municipal road toll, barriers were raised and lowered simply by pulling and releasing ropes. Whatever activity we saw, it was reduced to the most basic means. Because of the abundance of labour, many people share a job, even if they are idle most of the time.
"These toll collectors really feel important", commented Julia chuckling. William smiled: "The Indian bureaucracy is incredible. It is fed by the urge of every man to establish for himself a position of power. He doesn't mind if his work doesn't add value to a transaction, as long as he makes his mark on it before it can proceed".
We passed many eating and resting places along the road. People
relaxed in the shade of gum trees on stretchers with webbed
surfaces. We stopped at such a place. Its roof consisted of parts of crates, cartons, and some sheet iron, tied to crooked stems propping everything up. Shelves, supported similarly, displayed the food. From the road the terrain dropped down to a turgid rivulet accompanied by some riverine vegetation. Wells with pumps were sunk into the ground in two or three places. One man was squatting there, soaping himself and pouring some water over himself. He was washing "Indian style", a method we also used in the guesthouses or hotels where the water supply often is inadequate.
The main roads are sealed, but only two lanes wide. Trucks display the exhortation: PLEASE BLOW YOUR HORN! As if this were necessary! Drivers honk their way ferociously through the jumble of vehicles. We soon learnt that in India you can drive on both sides of the road and that the four essentials for successful driving are: good brakes, good steering, a good horn, and good luck. We had a good driver and his driving was successful.
Cattle wander around everywhere. Although these animals are "holy", their work and products are very much appreciated. The most important crop seems to be the dung, which is collected, formed into loaves and dried in the sun. Finally the dried loaves are stacked along the roadside to form conical mounds, waiting to be used as fuel.
Religion pervades all aspects of Indian life. All over the country are shrines of diverse sizes and complexity. Onion-like cupolas top some of them. The Hindu temples are decorated exuberantly and the divinities painted gaily. In one village I saw a statue of a dignitary, which was painted in the same style. The Indian fascination with adorning extends to trucks that parade gaudy paintings and tinsel. The swastika, an ancient symbol, appears often on vehicles and buildings.
In contrast, little attention is paid to tidiness. Towns are filthy and cluttered with rubbish. Everyone drops refuse indiscriminately. The situation seems better in the villages; perhaps the self-purging mechanisms are less overloaded there. The decrepit nature of most dwellings is hard to describe. It is difficult to see how people can manage to conduct their lives in a somewhat orderly way - and yet - often people step out of their hovels remarkably clean and tidy.
One question kept surfacing in my mind: Why has today's Western civilisation reached such a high living standard, while countries like India, from which many elements of our culture have come, have been left behind? India already showed a flourishing civilisation when Europe was still inhabited by primitive tribes.
We reached the Holy Ganges at Garmukhteswar, a pilgrimage place, and walked down the ghats, bathing steps leading to the water. A clutter of sheds and stalls extended along the bank and many people did their ritual bathing and washing. The water was so filthy that I did not even feel like sticking a toe into it.
Near Ramnagar we began to see hills; indeed, this picturesque town itself is nestled on the slopes of the first hills. There is the ubiquitous filth and shambles, but some buildings, although now neglected, must have belonged to wealthy people.
In contrast to Delhi, where both English and Hindi are used, most of the signs and advertisements were in Hindi. This transformation occurred gradually, as we moved out into the rural areas. The mountain population understands Hindi only.
The hotel where we would stay a couple of nights was a "Quality Inn", located at a convenient distance from the entrance to the Corbett National Park and set in a well maintained garden, overlooking a river. The complex comprised several pavilions housing the accommodation units and the main building with a lounge and a dining room girded by a veranda above garden level. All buildings were named after different wild animals and were designed in an attractive rustic style. Unfortunately, they were not quite finished and the water supply functioned only erratically.
On the night of our arrival we did not become quite aware of this shortcoming, because we had a swim in the river which was accessible by a steep, but well built path. On other occasions we had to rely on the houseboy getting us warm water in buckets. After dinner we enjoyed the mild evening on the veranda, drinking beer and talking about India which Julia called a large jigsaw puzzle. "The Indian caste system is still a mystery to me", she said.
William, looking inward, put on a frown: "The system could have been put into place by the Brahmins, the priests, to establish their superiority. Beneath them are the soldiers and administrators, then the artisans and merchants, and finally the peasants."
"And the untouchables?"
"These have literally no caste, perform the most menial jobs, and are still believed to pollute a member of a higher caste if accidentally coming in touch with him or her. Gandhi tried to bring the untouchables into society by calling them Harijans or 'Children of God', but it didn't help much..."
"How do you recognise what caste someone is?"
"You can't, unless you guess by people's jobs or wealth".
"The fate of the harijans is still miserable," added Barry;
"there may be about 100 million of them, among them the poorest, most bullied, and deprived ones. Often they are raped, robbed, murdered. In their ignorance and desperation they often sell themselves into bonded labour. And yet, most of them tolerate their fate, hoping for a better incarnation in a future life.."
The sun was rising behind the hills of the Corbett National Park, flooding the treetops with light. Most trees were foreign to me, but the character of the forest seemed more akin to that of the Snowy Mountains in faraway Australia than to that in nearby Europe. The landscape was ripped open by dry streambeds that exposed large white shingle. These stones, rounded like loaves of bread, also appeared in between the trees, on sloping clearings, wherever the tenuously thin layer of humus had been lost. Neatly stacked, they retained road edges, where necessary held in place by wire mesh.
Our bus disturbed several kinds of deer, large dark yellowish-brown sambhar, and chittal with dots on their hides. Quite charming were the tiny barking deer. Monkeys with grey hair around their faces played near and on the road. In between the trees lurked tall termite hills. Where the sun had not penetrated the dark-green foliage, the forest had an almost mysterious appearance.
Once we looked down into a low-lying water hole and saw a wild boar galloping off. He almost looked like a small horse, with his mane along the back of his head flying. A peacock suddenly fluttered up in front of the bus and crossed over the road. I didn't know peacocks could fly so well! Several species of these birds occur in India in the wild.
The park is quite large, 520 square kilometres, and is the home of leopards and about a hundred tigers which are rarely seen. They feed on deer. You wouldn't want to hike through the park like a few years ago an English photographer who was mauled by a tigress so badly that he died.
We drove to the National Park Centre inside the park and spent the middle of the day waiting for an elephant ride. William told us about Jim Corbett who was an Indian-born Englishman called upon often to hunt down man-eating leopards and tigers. He was very fond of the jungle and eventually initiated the establishment of this national park. Interestingly, he left India after she became independent and settled in Kenya, typifying the fate of many Anglo-Indians who tended to be ostracised by the Indians later on. Jim lived in Kaladhungi where his house and garden are maintained as a museum. We would visit it on the way to Nainital.
From the National Park Centre I walked down the steep flight of stairs leading to the river which braids its way down the plain. Here it was quiet, only the wind brushed gently across the water and the shingle-strewn areas. Along the far side of the river plain stretched hills. It was hot and sunny, barely a cloud in the sky, but the heat was not hard to bear. Occasionally I lay down in the shallow water to cool off. Some elephants strutted to the river for a bath too. They wallowed in the water, hosed themselves off using their trunks and finally climbed out on to a sandbank to give their glistening dark hulks a dusting.
Just before our ride we watched the drawn out processes of saddling and making up of the elephants. The Mahout (elephant driver) makes the animal lie down, spreads a mattress over his back, and then a quadrangular wooden frame with a spike-like handle on each corner. Some mattresses go on top of that. The resulting platform is tied around the elephant's body and underneath his tail. One of the drivers painted his elephant's head first black, then with colourful ornaments. The tourists mount the animals by climbing up a staircase. Usually four people sit on the platform sideways, two on either side. The Mahout perches on the elephant's neck.
We didn't see many wild animals during our one and a half hour ride but it was most fascinating to move above shrubs and small trees in the seemingly impassable riverine landscape. When directing the elephant, the driver had to watch out for branches of tall trees threatening us from above.
We did see one deer. It was observing us from the middle of the river, apparently unconcerned. Monkeys clambered about in trees. Some people claimed they had spotted a crocodile in the river. However, I felt that from the point of view of observing animals in the wild the ride had been a little disappointing. I was not surprised, though. Most animals rest during the day's heat and choose to roam about in the late afternoon and evening. We had started our ride at 3:30 PM, too early really, but according to park rule all visitors must have left the park by dusk, around 6 PM.
We had our surprises when returning to the park entrance: a large light-brown animal lept with cat-like movements across the road, only about 100 m in front of us: a tiger! There was quite some commotion in the bus, but the incident happened so fast that not everyone saw it. We were still excited about this rare opportunity when we came across another tiger! No one could miss this animal looming in the middle of the road, almost waiting to be photographed. The bus driver braked sharply and we fumbled for our cameras. In vain, the beast quickly disappeared into the bushes.
As for seeing leopards, we had to be content with the stuffed ones in the little museum at the park entrance. There were also stuffed tigers which had been found dead or had to be destroyed. Each of the animals had a little note about the circumstances of its death attached to the display case.
Jim Corbett's stories about this area only date back to the first half of the 20th century. It surprised and saddened me that much of the jungle, its animals, and the old village life have been wiped out within the few decades since. However, life used to be tough and "man-eating" tigers and leopards sometimes terrorised large areas. In his books, Corbett takes great pains pointing out, that tigers and leopards do not normally prey on people. He was always able to find the reason for them becoming man-eaters. Having acquired this habit though, they were highly dangerous. Some of these beasts were able to kill several hundred people before they could be destroyed. In one particularly terrifying account, Corbett describes tragedies inflicted by an unbelievably cunning leopard that managed to get into houses through inadequately secured windows or doors, at times carrying away his victim without awaking other persons asleep in the same room.
A well engineered road, daringly cut into the steep hill sides, took us in a short time to almost 1600 m where we had a roadside lunch at a forested slope with a wide-flung view. We already felt coolness in the air. Up the mountain slopes the fields climbed, narrow terraces neatly contained within stonewalls. Houses stuck in there, further apart from each other than in the plains. Wherever the soil was not cultivated, jagged boulders lay scattered all over the hillsides.
Culturally, the mountain people differ from the inhabitants of the plains. Once there was a belt of thick jungle along the foothills. With rampant malaria, roaming animals of prey, and forbiddingly steep hillsides, it remained an effective barrier for centuries.
Nainital used to be a "Hot Weather Resort" during the colonial era, because of its location in a magnificent mountain valley, over 1800 m high. Colonial officers sent their families there during the hot season. Now it is popular with middle-class Indians from the plains. Apart from our group, there were hardly any "Westerners" in town. We moved into the Tourist Reception Centre, a dirty, run-down hotel, one of the many the town offers.
It was early morning when Clara and I got to the ridge above the township for a brilliant view of the main Himalaya range. We gazed at our destination, still so far away. A mild morning breeze was sweeping down the Nainital valley. We had started out soon after dawn. At 6 AM the sun already rises over the hills. Later in the morning the mist usually draws a veil over the snow-covered peaks stretched out along the horizon.
For our climb we had chosen the footpath which starts at the statue of a local dignitary near the lake. The track is paved only for the first couple of hundred meters. Then you have to find your way along dirt tracks that lead everywhere and nowhere. They are the main ways of access to the slummy huts that crawl up the hill.
The climb takes only 50 minutes if walked briskly, but it is steep, slippery and cumbersome. On several occasions we had crossed the sealed access road which leads to the vantage point, as does a funicular which is at rest early in the morning. Opting for the zigzagging road might still have proved more convenient and faster for getting to the top, but we would have missed out on the close encounters with the slum dwellers. Dogs barked at us. A woman started cooking by lighting a charcoal fire. A man engaged in his morning toilet, slapping water into his face and rinsing his mouth. Two boys shepherded some goats. Roosters crowed.
It is amazing how oblivious the local population is to making these tracks more convenient, how little they care about their environment. Some of the shacks have small paved or concreted areas in front, but in between the houses everything is left to the forces of nature and to random human and animal impact. No formalised paths lead from hut to hut, nor to sheds or garbage dumps. Water supplies are limited. There are no toilets; people just step outside their huts and relieve themselves there. Most housework happens outside the dwellings. Everything seems to serve the sole purpose of survival from day to day.
As we were descending, Nainital spread out under us charmingly, partly touched by golden sunlight. Tal (spelt exactly like the German word meaning dale) is the Hindi name for lake; this is a neat indication of the common origin of the Indian and most European languages. The lake separates the two parts of Nainital which are connected by a shoreline road. From a distance the township has a striking similarity to mountain resorts in the European Alps.
The lake is about one and a half kilometre long. Rickshaws pedal the road from one part of the town to the other. This main road is called the Mall and is lined with hotels and wealthier looking houses. Tourists get hassled everywhere to buy rides on horseback or rowboat trips across the lake.
Walking around Nainital and looking at people’s faces, we found some similar to those in eastern or southeastern Europe, only darker skinned. People wore warm clothes, the men mostly sweaters, the women several layers of clothing on top of their dresses. Most people covered their heads with various types of cap. Begging is also part of life in Nainital, not only in the plains. It is disheartening that the best some people can do is sit at the roadside and groan "bakshish..bakshish.."
However, polite helpfulness was a feature of many Indians we met. Take the example of the bookshop manager who asked deferentially for our wishes and, having taken great care in pinpointing our interests, selected a number of good books. Or take the keeper of the shop where we bought some items for our early breakfast. He looked through a large number of packets of biscuits to ensure we got one with a recent manufacturing date. All children greeted us merrily with "hallo". Adults don't normally greet foreigners first but they answer with joyous politeness if addressed with "namasteh" or "namaskah". Westerners are as much objects of interest to the locals as the local culture and its representatives are to them.
We left Nainital by the second of the only two roads leading up to the town and noticed that the valley is really only a big step in the mountain range there. We dropped down to the next township just as steeply as we had climbed up going to Nainital. The road turned out to be exciting once again, with vertical drops of several hundred meters. One error of judgement by the driver would plunge the bus down seemingly endless slopes with nothing to hold it back. So we were amazed about the amount of bus traffic on these roads and had to remind ourselves of the popularity of this resort as well as of the lack of alternative access possibilities.
Where there are ledges on the slopes or simply where they are less steep, villages cling to them with honeycombs of terraces hanging around them. Some of the plots are lush with crops, others brown, lying fallow for a year. On occasions, sparse forest clothed the slopes and brightly red rhododendrons flared up in between trees.
When we got to the next town, Bhowali, the site of a popular sanatorium, we stopped to buy some fruit and to stretch our legs. It struck me again how drably clad the people were. We felt out of place and overly conspicuous walking around the market square. Almost with relief we re-boarded the bus.
However, there were stunning contrasts: as our bus was passing through a village, I glimpsed a statue, or so I believed, standing on the stairs leading to a house. She was beautiful. A tapered headdress crowned her, and she wore a necklace over a golden flowing robe. Surrounded by the usual disorder, she seemed strangely out of place. Then she moved! Was she a bride?
Along the country roads most people carry something. Some have circular pillows on their heads for putting loads on, some carry stuff on their backs, with a headband tied to the load as an additional aid.
Once we passed a so-called "ashram" a refuge where pilgrims flock to learn from one of the many gurus India produces. Striking features of the buildings were tapered towers coloured red and beige.
In a small township we stopped at the stall of a pan wallah, a seller of herbs. Pan is a preparation of betel nut spread on a leaf that is rolled together and chewed. Similar preparations are packed in sachets containing spicy and astringent chips allegedly consisting of betel nut, catechu, tobacco and spices.
In Gwaldam, the starting point of our trek, we stayed in the tourist hotel. Over a meal of very hot "dal", made of lentils, we speculated about coming adventures. Joan and John who had previously been on a trekking trip in Nepal, warned us against stepping towards the outer edge of the path when giving way to a mule train. John described how a member of their party had made this mistake: "A mule pushed the woman off, she grabbed hold of it, and both fell down the steep slope. The mule was dead, the woman fractured her leg twice and had to lie in a village hut for several days with her bone sticking out through the skin, before she was taken off the mountain."
TREK INTO THE MOUNTAINS
Good Friday dawned with a tremendous thunderstorm. We doubted that we would start our trek, but suddenly the sun pierced the clouds. The haze over the distant mountain range thinned, revealing the snowy tops. Some of the porters who would accompany us had already arrived. We hired some Nepalese men to help them and took off.
We walked downhill on a well-maintained bridle-track, laid out with the ubiquitous shingle. Some trees were in bloom, the air was fresh and aromatic after the rain and soon it turned quite warm. We passed through pine forest, terraced fields with farmhouses, meeting many people walking along the track or working in the fields. Often groups of children gathered around us. The going was easy, but I was glad I was wearing my tramping boots because the paving of the path was rough. We carried only our daypacks, as we would for the entire duration of our hike. The porters lugged all the food, cooking and camping gear, as well as our kit bags.
When resting at a mountain stream, which flowed in a wide bed with large boulders, we imagined the volume of water gushing down here during the monsoon season. Spring is usually dry, but it rained again when we arrived at the Forest Rest House in Debal where we would stay overnight.
For the local children and some of their mothers we were obviously tantamount to a circus troupe; everything we did and anything we owned aroused tremendous interest. When the sun had shaken off the rain clouds, William showed us how to pitch our tents. Then we climbed down to the river for a bath. We repeated this little outing the following morning for another cold wash; we had to, because the tap in the Forest Rest House had run dry. This we learned fairly smartly: in India never trust a tap - or a well -; water may flow now, but not later.
From Debal we strode on briskly to the end of the road and continued on a trail that took off steeply uphill to Lohajung, a small settlement on the pass to the next valley. It was a hot afternoon and for the first time we opened our umbrellas to protect ourselves from the searing sun.
On the pass we relaxed below the widespread branches of a tree and a dangling bell waiting to be rung by pious wanderers. The sunshine was still hot, but the breeze cold. A little farther over to the side there was a terraced meadow watched over by a shrine with a pyramidal top. Here we pitched our tents, enjoyed the splendid view, allowed the local horde of children to look us over thoroughly and washed ourselves at a water spout near the path to the meadow. Some villagers asked for medical help. I looked after a sore foot, dug a splinter out of a thumb and flushed a dust grain out of an eye.
For dinner we gathered in one of the porters' tents. There was even cake for dessert, since it was the Saturday before Easter. Then we told each other funny stories from previous trips, while the flickering kerosene light chased shadows across our faces.
Clara and I had pitched our tent just below the stonewall of the top terrace, to get some shelter from the wind. Julia and Jean followed our example, some distance from us near a group of shrubs. It was already dark when we returned to our tents. That's when we heard the ding-ding-ding of mule bells. The mules were tied up close to the bushes next to the tent of our neighbours.
"I won't be able to sleep!" complained Jean and tried - unsuccessfully - to have the muleteer take the animals away. There was little chance of Jean and Julia moving their tent in the darkness. Fortunately, I could offer them earplugs. Ding-ding-ding... ding-ding... ding-ding-ding-ding... On and on it went; I could hear it faintly through my own earplugs, on the odd occasion when I drifted out of my sleep during the night...
Easter Sunday dawned brilliantly and we prepared for an early start. What a shame the waterspout where we had washed ourselves the day before was so dry we could almost believe we had dreamt. Round a few corners of the stonewall we found a conduit-pipe. The joint between two segments of the pipe was leaking and expelled a faint jet of water. Some genius had formed a tray out of a piece of rusty sheet metal where the water gathered running off as a trickle. This became the bathroom for everyone in our group.
The track from Lohajung to Wan leads through a steep mountain valley. The mountains here rise to several thousand meters and continue piling up towards the white peaks in the distance. First we hiked through the shade of forests interspersed with blooming rhododendron. A pleasant scent hung in the air. We walked past picturesque villages, met peasants herding goats and cattle, and encountered mule trains with amazingly heavy loads. Some mules carried enormous logs, one on either side, and we were very careful to avoid them as they came swinging round corners! On a bridge monkeys played.
We soon noticed that we were never alone in this country. Wherever we went, there was someone around or appeared suddenly out of nowhere. However, apart from the children, people remain rather unobtrusive. It was easy to miss seeing them, if we didn’t look out. They pretended not to see us when we were engaged in private activities like washing ourselves or using the bush toilet.
Lunch we had at the lower end of Wan on an island formed by two arms of a stream. The water was cold but we all had a wash or even a short dip. We were surrounded by stunted trees, a common sight near all villages. Because of the shortage of wood and fodder, the villagers cull the branches as much as possible to get both. According to my altimeter, we were now on 2300 m but, apart from the walking feeling more strenuous, this was not obvious. We were still in farmland with pockets of forest, and the terraced fields continued to climb up the slopes.
The Forest Rest House, next to which we set up camp, was 200 m higher up, overlooking the pleasant valley in which Wan nestled. Above the Rest House the mountainside was forested, with no end in sight. In this country you never seem to get to the top of the mountains; they keep on rising as you ascend. We had plenty of time for exploring the surroundings, sitting in the sun, reading and writing. I retreated to a place where I believed I would be able to speak my impressions into my tape-recorder.
Hardly had I sat down when a little boy turned up and started talking to me. I didn't understand a word of what he was saying, but he was insistent, always pointing at my leg. After a while I realised that he was not pointing at my leg at all but at my tape-recorder next to it and I assumed he wanted to know what this was. So I spoke into it, replayed the recording and indicated to him he should follow my example. He did this with great relish, singing a song. In no time we were surrounded by many other kids - and one mother - who all enjoyed this spectacle tremendously. I have now many recordings of solos, duos and trios of Himalayan songs on my tape. By the way, I think this little boy knew in the first place what the tape-recorder was there for.
IN THE SNOWY REGION
On the morning of Easter Monday the sky looked as if it were about to snow; a cool wind was blowing across the ranges. We left Wan's forest rest house and followed the path up a steep slope, then down to a pleasant stream adorned with rhododendron blooms and from there up another steep slope to a camp site just below the tree-line. We realised there would be still a lot of snow higher up and we would not be able to have our planned rest day on the mountain pasture Bedni Bugyal.
The forest consisted of Himalayan cedar and Himalayan oak and some deciduous species. In between grew rhododendron and bamboo. However, the forest was not dense; the sun always filtered through. It was a very enjoyable walk, which we did slowly to adjust to the altitude, breathing in the fresh mountain air with pleasure.
The forest clearing where we pitched our tents was beautiful. A collapsed hut stood there, around it lay some fallen trees, useful as seats. Here we had our lunch and spent the rest of the day photographing flowers, exploring the forest and resting. The sun was hot, but when a cloud enshrouded it, the coolness of the air became immediately noticeable. Around the campsite there were still patches of snow. The stems of the trees wore clothes of moss and lichen; laces of lichens draped even the branches. It was quiet; only crows cawed occasionally.
The snow did come. Gusts of wind whipped it across the mountain and we sheltered in our tents. Later the porters got a wet campfire going and its smoke tortured Clara's throat and mine despite its distance of about 20 m from our tent. When darkness fell, we put on all the clothes we had and huddled around the fire for dinner.
The following day the sun soon shattered the cold and drabness of the dawn and we climbed through wintry forest towards the peaks, often leaving the path to dodge deep patches of snow. Now and then grandiose vistas opened up. At the tree line we rested on a stone platform. One of the porters caught up with us and, folding his hands in the prayer position, bowed slightly towards us. This is the customary way of greeting. The more you respect the person greeted, the higher you lift your folded hands and the deeper you bow. For just a casual "hallo" you may only slightly indicate the folding of the hands and the bowing; you need not even say anything.
On this occasion the porter had been quite reverent and those of us who saw his salutation responded accordingly. William smiled: "he didn't greet you, but the shrine," he explained. Only then did we notice the stone slabs arranged to form a modest niche where passers-by were able to place small offerings of devotion, such as flowers or a piece of cloth. Often such little shrines adorn the wayside, encouraging some pious, if only brief and humble, communication with God.
Further up we would have had to cross a steep snowfield that looked smooth, shiny and slippery. Anyone stumbling there would have slid down fast perhaps a hundred meters towards a group of rocks beyond which the slope broke off completely. We were not adequately equipped for such a crossing, only being able to "share" three ice axes. So we climbed straight up a ridge to follow it to a point above Bedni Bugyal.
When we looked down at this mountain pasture, it spread out glistening white with snow covering everything apart from two shepherds' huts. These were built of stone, with small openings for windows and pyramidal roofs through which the smoke of the campfires would find its way in the absence of a chimney. The floor consisted of compacted soil and the huts were obviously not only used by humans but also by animals. So we looked for a campsite elsewhere and found a flat area on the shoulder of the mountain extending down from the pasture. Not far was a hump with rocky slabs, which would come in very handy for weighing our tent ropes down. Pegs would have been useless on the snow.
The pyramid of Trisul, 7040 m, dominated the landscape. We were close to this mountain peak, only a day's trekking away from the place where we would have camped the following night, had there been less snow. From the camp we would have climbed up to Roopkund, a tarn nestling in the flank of the mountain at 5000m, where mystery surrounds the skeletons of a large group of people, partly buried by soil and snow. This trip would not only have taken us to the highest point of our trek, but would also have been one of the highlights of our journey.
However, for me it was just as well that we could not proceed with our original route. I felt somehow strange, weak, and with a tenseness in my head and neck. I attributed this first to the altitude; we were already on 3550 m. Nevertheless I forced myself to wander across the snowfield to a pleasant little stone chapel with a bell and some pieces of devotional cloth tied to the top of a tall pole.
We ate lunch on the rocky hump before pitching our tents. By now my head felt as if it were being squeezed in a vice and I knew I was also running a fairly high temperature. "Mountain sickness has struck", I confessed to myself. Unfortunately, it would turn out to be a ferocious bout of flu. I collapsed into my sleeping bag and did not feel like leaving the tent for the rest of the afternoon. I did not even walk over to the shepherd's hut where our cook had prepared dinner, late as usual, after 8 PM. At this time the night is pitch-black, unless lit by the moon. The smoke in the hut would have been very irritating to my already sore throat and blocked nose, as every gulp of coughed up phlegm was a strain and every inhalation cut like a knife through my head.
Our physical activity was certainly not the hardest part of this trip, because we hardly ever walked for more than four hours a day. It was more difficult to get used to the local standard of hygiene, the altitude, and the rather harsh climate which may alternate between very hot in the sun and sub-zero temperatures during the night.
I found it remarkable how the mountain dwellers cope with such conditions, especially during the winter. The men wear blankets that cover most of the body, even in the heat of the day; during the night they roll themselves up into them. They walk in plastic shoes without any socks, even in the snow. They are used to going without a wash for days. On trips away from home they cook on campfires, regardless of sun, rain or snow, sometimes carrying the firewood with them, if there is none at the intended campsite. Since the wood is hardly ever dry, they brave the smoke that bites right through every bit of clothing.
Fortunately there was only a moderate breeze during the night. Our rock anchors would not have withstood a strong wind. After breakfast in one of the shepherds' huts we descended. This time we crossed the steep snowfield following the footsteps of our porters. Fortunately, no one of our group was afraid of heights; I have seen people on exposed or steep places mesmerised, unable to move forward or backward.
We retreated to the rest house in Wan where we spent the night and the following rest day. I stayed in the tent trying to get rid of my cold as quickly as possible. Some members of our group walked down to the village to look at "shops". They found that they could not choose from whatever the shopkeepers had for sale because the goods were in windowless rooms. They had to ask for a particular item and the shopkeeper would then bring it, or a related product, out into the open. Our friends did buy a few things and not only from the stores. Jean talked a woman into selling her attractive necklace made of coins, coloured wool and coloured beads.
STONE PATHS AND RHODODENDRON GROVES
If we had been able to visit Roopkund, we would have followed the ridge separating the valleys of the Rupganga and Nandakini Rivers. Instead we climbed up to Kukin Khal, the mountain pass above Wan, to descend from there to Sutol, a village at the Nandakini. The scenery here exceeded our expectations. The valleys are deeper and the mountains much grander than I had seen anywhere else. I felt like moving through a super-alpine landscape. The houses in the villages were built of stones neatly fitted together - just like the stonewalls of the terraces - and were covered with thatched roofs. Most dwellings huddled together to make use of the limited space. Villages and terraced fields were creeping up unbelievably high the sheer mountainsides.
The weather was brilliant and the sky more often than not dominated by the white peak of Trisul. The sun was hot, yet always tempered by a cool breeze against which I had to protect myself with a scarf wrapped around my neck and mouth. I felt chilled, weak, and vulnerable.
Our campsite near Sutol seemed taken out of a romanticised painting. Our tents stood between large boulders. Below us a river raged into massive blocks of stone and swirled around stuck logs. A bridge spans the torrent, just before the gorge narrows upriver. The path to Sutol leaps happily off the bridge and, turning back on itself, sidles round the opposite slope at a steep angle. We could not see the village from our campsite, but the distance meant little for the kids who gathered and squatted in front of our tents.
We passed through the village of Sutol the next morning. There Clara had the opportunity to buy one of the felt blankets that the local men wear draped around shoulders and upper body. Our chief porter had found a newly made one that was for sale. These blankets are not made often, perhaps because they last the owner for many years and take a long time to make. The wool is hand-spun and then laid out crosswise in layers, which are pounded until the product looks like thickly woven cloth. It keeps the owner warm and does not soak up water easily because of its thickness and content of wool fat. Clara and I covered ourselves with the blanket when sitting around the campfire in the evenings and also during the nights, despite lying in our sleeping bags. This was very pleasant. I particularly appreciated the blanket while recovering from my sickness.
In Sutol I also visited the so-called "hospital", in search of some ointment I could put into my nose to alleviate the pain when breathing. The "hospital" was one of the windowless houses, but distinguished itself by some inscription in Hindi painted on a weathering wooden board. Inside, a man sat at a table that accommodated an array of somewhat sinister looking containers, most of them made of carton. One chair was waiting for the patient to sit on. A door led to the adjoining room where I noticed a stretcher.
The man did not appear to have any ointment, but he offered me some boric acid powder and a tuft of cotton wool, giving me to understand that I should swab up some of the powder for snuffing it up my nostrils. When he saw that this did not make me happy, he took some dark pellets, similar to goat droppings, out of another box and wanted to wrap them up for me too. At this stage I decided that my own means, though limited, were not significantly inferior to his, returned the items and thanked him for his efforts.
The next part of the hike was a long steep climb. We stopped at a stream for lunch and also for a good wash; there would be no water at our overnight campsite. Almost during the entire hike the mountain range, of which Trisul is the highest peak, followed us, from behind or appearing at our side. We were able to see the pass which we would have crossed, if there had been less snow, and could even make out the approximate position of Roopkund. Less distant loomed the hills we had crossed the day before.
This evening our chief porter showed us how to put the blanket on, using Clara as a model. When we were sitting around the campfire, the porters for the first time started singing and dancing around the fire. The dancers moved slowly, taking one step to one side, then to the other, holding each others' hands and swinging them from side to side, or putting their arms around the shoulders of the dancers next to them, forming a circle which moved gradually around the fire. The words were repetitive, but once in a while someone sang out some new text.
I believe that my bush toilet the following morning was the most magnificent so far in my life. I was squatting on a steep slope below our camp, in between some shrubs, overlooking the treetops of a forest which descended hundreds, if not a thousand meters, into the deep narrow valley. On the opposite side of the valley the day was creeping into a majestic mountain wall. Without craning my neck I didn't see where it ended. Forbidding as it seemed, terraced fields and houses stuck to its lower end. In the entrails of the valley the river was trying to hide, its roaring wiped out by the enormous distance.
After breakfast we got on our way to Ramni. The stony path, grandly referred to by the local population as "rasta" (road), jutted into the sky more spectacularly than ever. Seen from certain angles, it appeared to be taking off into space or intent on flinging us abruptly into the unknown.
Already at midday we arrived at our destination, the ruins of the forest rest house near Ramni. From there, on the following day, we walked up through magic forest. Not far from the village a woman hovered in the sparse canopy of a tree, pruning it. The branches dropped down onto the path where they would stay until sufficiently dry for collecting.
Further away from the village the trees were less affected by human activity. The forest was open with little undergrowth, just mossy boulders standing or lying in between the trees. Sometimes the path even makes use of these rocky slabs or blocks, leading over them or taking advantage of ledges extending from them. Once in a while we passed through or near clearings, where huts had been erected, or rather the stony walls of huts, with a long pole as the apex of the roof, to be thatched before use in summer.
Within the few seconds of reaching the top of the Ramni pass, an exciting view lept into our sight. Unobstructed, a large part of the main Himalayan range revealed its splendour. Behind lies the Tibetan plateau. We had a good view of the Kuari Pass, our highest pass, close to 4000 m, which we would cross two days before the end of our trek. Near us a mountain meadow, decorated with stones of different sizes and a few snowy patches, dropped steeply down to a tarn, flowering rhododendrons, and the edge of the forest. It was quiet and peaceful until we heard intermittent whistling behind us. Two shepherds were directing their herd of goats across the pass.
A chilly wind gusted up this northern slope when we were jumping down to reach our lunch spot on a meadow in a rhododendron grove. Soon our porters caught up with us. They had shovelled some snow into a bucket and mixed some curry powder in. Then they dumped the mixture on to a flat rock, plucked some rhododendron leaves of which they broke off the tips to obtain instant spoons, and shovelled this refreshing delicacy into their mouths.
We descended to a campsite above Jhinji through magic forest where more rhododendron bushes were now in bloom, with more colours: red, pink and orange sparkled through the foliage that scattered sunlight tinted various shades of green. In one place our path changed into a natural flight of marble stairs around which marble slabs lay around, toppled or piled on top of each other like the ruins of a collapsed temple.
We passed grassy clearings and small beautifully glistening waterfalls. Within the evergreen groves the deciduous trees were growing springtime shoots and leaves. The stony trail here was in good shape, almost meticulously built to the same width everywhere. Following it, I felt like walking through a huge park where stones, trees, flowers, waterfalls, meadows, and even the opening and closing views had been arranged in a very appealing and imaginative pattern.
Our overnight campsite was a pleasant mountain meadow, cascading down the slope, the flatter portions allowing us to pitch our tents. A trickle of water was flowing through a jumble of small rocks and pebbles along one side, not good enough for washing. We had to wander back the path a few hundred meters to a waterfall. It gushed from a small gorge, quickly controlled its temper and passed under a little stone bridge. The water was icy cold and despite the sunshine that warmed the bathing spot, we kept the washing of ourselves and of some clothes to a minimum.
After nightfall at the campfire we listened again to our porters singing. They had split into two groups whose chants responded to each other. Buckets served them as drums.
The following day started with a pleasant downhill walk to the village of Jhinji. I liked these morning walks. It was not hot yet, but the sun was shining through the trees. There was this fresh scent in the air, of leaves and soil and blossoms. We came across some peonies, white with yellow centres; then there were more and ever more of these flowers, showering us with their pleasant fragrance. Then we entered the massive gorge of the Birahi Ganga. Like all other valleys we had crossed, it was V-shaped, the bottom of the V being very narrow. A giddying swing bridge crossed the thunderous river.
On the other side a desert began, a barren rocky mountainside ruthlessly baked by the sun. Seldom did we find shelter in small groves of trees. By the time we reached our lunch spot we had almost emptied our water bottles. Here the path swung into the neighbouring valley and we could look to either side and down the Birahi Ganga to the place where a giant landslide had once dammed it. A large lake had formed and threatened the settlements downriver. The natural dam had eventually burst, flooding the valley below. Fortunately, there had been time to evacuate the villages. Only one life was lost.
From our lunch spot onward, trees shaded our path and opened or closed vistas into the valley as far as to the village of Pana reclining in the gallery of the amphitheatre-like end of the valley. Thirst sped us on until we reached a narrow hillside gap overgrown with trees. From a moss covered rock face cool clear water splashed into a pool and romped on over jumbled stones until it vanished under the arch of one of the stone bridges typical for this area. Not far from this romantic spot we crossed a broader stream, apparently the gift of a massive waterfall visible in the distance.
We camped only a few hundred meters from these streams, just outside the village. Grassy ledges along the path offered good tent sites and enough room for the campfire. While it was hard to get used to the lack of hygiene, some situations were not without some humour. We had gathered for a meal. Our cook brought a plate laden with paratha, pancake-shaped Indian bread, and put it down on the paddock which served as our table. Clara nudged me, pointing at a pile of dung as tall as the contents of the plate next to it. Having grown used to the ubiquitous animal droppings, I had not even noticed; after all, the brain filters out irrelevant things.
Lack of water often ruled out proper washing of the dishes. The porters just rinsed them off using a little water over and over again. If necessary, they first rubbed plates and pots "clean" with some soil and grass. If the cooks dropped a knife or a lid, they would wipe it off on their clothes. Still, the risk of a gastro-intestinal infection may be smaller in the mountains than in the plains. Most stomach or bowel troubles in our group appeared before we began our trek. I myself caught a stomach bug on the very last day of our stay in India, possibly as a result of contaminated food served on a train.
ACROSS THE KUARI PASS
I felt like storing the experience of walking through this beautiful landscape in metaphorical tins for future enjoyment. Since this is not possible I was trying to imbibe my impressions, anchoring them solidly in my memory.
We had to mind our steps, of course. The path was not always easy. Although it has been built to last, what does this mean in this land of eroding mountains? They have been thrust up from the sea floor by the colliding Indo-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates, within a geologically short period. Viewed again on a geological time scale, they weather away swiftly, taking with them the work of humans. As we penetrated more and more into the higher terrain, rocks and large tree trunks had tumbled across the path, demolishing or obliterating it.
It has completely disappeared in the giant gorge on the way to the Kuari Pass, a gorge so steep and deep that it looks like slashed out of the mountain with a monstrous ice axe. We looked like ants clambering down the loose stones and soil to the river where cascading waves smashed into boulders and into each other, separating only to repeat the turbulent game.
I didn’t take any photograph of this impressive scenery; the scale was too vast – even if compressed by a powerful wide-angle lens. There was also the contrast between light and darkness. Most of the gorge was filled with the dusk of a moonless nightfall. Into it pierced, with ever-increasing power, blinding sunshine. As we emerged into the light cast on the opposite slope, we breathed in the smell of water spray and humid soil and ventured the odd glance down into the landscape in motion.
At the Kuari Nala stream the forest was already partly covered with snow. We came across puzzling slide marks on a small snow field cut short by a stream and concluded they might belong to a bear that had used his claws for braking. More signs of wildlife showed up near our lunch spot at a small mountain brook: the droppings of a snow leopard.
Up and up we climbed, across meadows densely covered with yellow flowering stars, until we reached the hanging mountain pasture of Dhakwani where we managed to pitch our tents, just in time before a thunderstorm threw lightning at the mountain. Then the weather calmed down and snow and sleet began to blanket our camp. We fell asleep.
Our cook's whistle - which he always enjoyed using - and his calls "tea! tea!" roused us. The calm and pleasant evening invited us to become active again. Clara and I scrambled up the steep slope behind our tent to a notch in the ridge where the gigantic mountainscape unfolded completely.
Seen from below, the high rocky outcrops could have been any size and were inadequate to show the scale of our surroundings. How different was it from the top, looking back down! Our tents were tiny specks that would have been swallowed by the terrain, if we had not been aware of their existence. Even Dhakwani itself was a mere dash of green against the background of the towering mountain wall on the other side of the valley.
Turning our backs on Dhakwani, we found our view partly obstructed by a spine of crags, separated from our vantage point by a steep, barren, snow-covered ravine. However, to our left we could follow the mountains receding towards the plains near the horizon.
When we gathered at the campfire for some late afternoon soup, our porters showed growing excitement. They believed they had seen a bear near the edge of the forest and hurried off, armed with ice axes and a long pole. Despite searching the area with our binoculars, we could not find any trace of the animal. Perhaps the evening shadows had played a trick? Anyway, I can't imagine what the men would have done with the bear had they found him. They returned with a peacock egg instead.
The next day came our "final assault" on the pass which is over 3800m high. We climbed up a long steep ravine past rocky walls and over loose rocks and snow. The view from the pass was disappointing: thick clouds were hanging in the main range. The slopes leading down from the pass were covered with snow. We sidled a few snowfields and then amused ourselves sliding, jumping down, falling over, throwing snowballs.
It was fun, but when we arrived at our next campsite, at 3200 m still wearing patches of snow, the sky had not cleared, it was cold and we were wet. Luckily we had already pitched our tents when another electric storm with sleet and rain hit us. All you can do on an afternoon like this is engaging in some chores that take ages, or to crawl into the sleeping bag and try to sleep. Wait for the tea, wait for the soup, wait for dinner. What a pity I left my book behind to save weight!
When we woke up the following morning the tent walls were pushing down on us. Snow had covered tents and surrounding landscape. It was still snowing now and then, the snow was moist and it took a long time to cook breakfast. Our porters had been up all night talking, no doubt huddling together or moving around. In the morning they asked us for socks. Most of them wore their plastic shoes on bare feet. We were all cold and I thought the best would be to postpone breakfast and get moving.
However, our chief porter urged us to wait a couple of hours; the sun would come out. And so it was. First the cloud cover ripped open in several places around the mountaintops that appeared almost ethereal. Then brilliant sunshine flooded the snowscape and the main range of the Himalayas flaunted its grandeur. We were still high enough for a spectacular view. If we had left earlier, we would have been sorry. Besides, by the time we were ready to pack, our tents were almost dry and much of the snow on the ground had been eaten away by the sun. We embarked on the last leg of our trek, descending through forest, then terraced fields, villages, through gorges, past waterfalls, down to Tapoban, our goal for the day.
There we were allowed to set up camp on a grassy patch of a hostel belonging to the army whose presence is very noticeable in this border region. From Tapoban it is only about 40 km to the end of the road and from there perhaps 20 km to the Tibetan border.
As so often, just after we had pitched our tents, it started raining. When the rain stopped at dusk, the air was very chilly. From our campsite we could see the pool of Tapoban's warm spring, but only Barry braved the elements to have a bath there. Clara and I climbed down to a trickle of water on the terraced slope close to the road. Although it was already getting dark then, anyone walking on the road was able to look into our open-air bathroom. So we took turns in holding up a towel, to ensure a measure of privacy.
The next day was a Sunday, and sunny it was. There was plenty of time to dry our tents and other belongings, because William's task of paying off the porters turned out to be more protracted than expected, involving a lot of bargaining and, unfortunately, some discontent. Eventually some sort of agreement was reached. The porters got tips, in addition to their payment, and shared between them some clothes as well as items of everyday use that we did not need to take back to New Zealand. At long last, we all got into the bus which had come to pick us up. The porters came along with us too but would change buses in one of the towns we were to pass through.
The trip from Tapoban to Srinagar was again hair-raising, the road being not much wider than the bus. In many places slips above and below the road had occurred. Where the road had been cut out of the hill, the terrain dropped almost vertically down hundreds of meters. We felt very vulnerable, just relying on the skill of one man, the driver.
When two vehicles met, they had to stop and juggle themselves into positions, which allowed one of them to pass. Sometimes the driver's helper had to jump out and push a block of wood, carried on the bus, behind or in front of a wheel to make sure we didn't slide off the road. The road edge was sometimes only inches away from the wheels. All this manoeuvring made for slow travelling most of the time.
In Srinagar we stayed in a tourist hotel where we could, at long last, wash ourselves properly, if only with cold water which we poured on us Indian style. Clara and I went for a walk through the centre of the town and bought some biscuits and fruit. We were famished and dinner is usually served late in India. It was nice that William was able to buy some beer and we had a Happy Hour all together before the meal.
The next morning we left early, planning to have breakfast in Deoprayag, one of the holy towns, important for its location at the confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. From here the river is called the Ganga (Ganges). The Hindu believe in the cleansing power of water, both in the physical and spiritual sense. This power is potentiated where two rivers meet.
We stopped at a vantage point at the roadside opposite the town which boasts a large shrine, rising from the welter of houses glued to the hillside. Wide flights of stairs lead down to a platform, stylised in the shape of a map of India, above the converging point of the tributaries. These are still youthful and strong and the pilgrims need protective chains to avoid being swept away, when entering the water.
Markedly lower hills than further upriver accompany the gorge here and yet, the road is still forced to follow their contours with little room to spare. The Ganges was silty but otherwise reasonably clean. Now and then there were rapids and nice sandy beaches. The air felt warmer but not yet oppressive like in the plains and there was always a pleasant breeze.
Breakfast we had in one of the tiny tea shops lining the roadside and precariously perched on the edge of the steep embankment. In places they were hanging over, supported by long poles. We squeezed into the little space along a table and sat down on long benches. Spicy curry sauces were served in a couple of small dishes. Between our table and the footpath sat a boy kneading dough for parathas, baking them in a round-bottom pot over a charcoal fire. Whenever one paratha was ready, the teashop keeper grabbed it and dumped it on one of our plates. Cups of tea were brewed sequentially. We definitely stretched the place's potential.
In the back of the shack stood a basin with murky water. Here our host rinsed all plates and cups, attempting to dry them with a wet rag much dirtier than any we would wipe our floor with at home. We decided not to look and to disengage our brains. The tea had an excellent flavour and the food was good, but you always wonder to what extent you play Russian Roulette with catching nasty germs when eating in these places.
Along the road we often came across bearded "holy men" with walking sticks, saffron robes and painted foreheads. We also noticed some people whose attire was different from that of the local villagers. William explained that these were bhotias, trans-himalayan traders who, after the annexation of Tibet, chose to live in India. They got some land from the Government, but are still finding the new life style hard to get used to.
Hardwar has a special atmosphere. It is one of the holiest cities in India, the gateway to the mountains, being situated at the place where the Ganges reaches the plains. The tourist hotel where we stayed sat at the left bank of the river just outside the town. A narrow park was laid out between the hotel and the river. The riverbank was turned into stairs for easy access to the water. The current was swift, but iron handrails accompanied the bank, allowing a space of about two meters for bathing. I found the stairs quite slippery, but the water refreshing.
We cleaned and tidied up our trekking gear. The following day around midday we would be back in Delhi. In between we lunched, enjoying an abundance of tropical fruit. One fruit new to me was a crossing of apricot and peach. Another one, a chico, is the size of a kiwifruit and contains three longish black seeds. It can be eaten peeled or whole. However, in India it is always advisable to peel a fruit, if you can't wash it, or not eat it at all. Another fruit was a type of tangelo, a crossing between an orange and a mandarin. There were also mangos, pineapples, bananas, plums, and papayas.
In the evening we followed the promenade along the Ganges to the city. We met men in saffron robes. Many people, even entire families, camped there. Most of them had come with a minimum of personal belongings and had built shelters out of all sorts of discarded materials. They cooked in the open and bathed in the river. In front of us walked a man with a pile of dung in his hands; he was obviously collecting fuel for cooking the evening meal.
The closer we came to the city, the more shrines we encountered, more street hawkers, some beggars, but also more well dressed people strolling. Hardwar is a tourist town for Indians who like to combine their holiday with religious practices. We were just a little too late for riding by cable car up to the temple on top of the hill above the city centre. A similar sanctuary crowns a hill on the opposite side of the river.
We then walked through the town's bazaar, probably the most orderly one we had seen in any Indian town. Displayed was the same range of goods as anywhere else. The noises, the smells, the scent of incense, hawkers who urged us to buy, all that was similar. However, there were many street vendors who offered us dyes and gadgets for painting our foreheads and there were many stalls with flower-and-candle arrangements, which float on water. People light the candles and send the floats on a voyage down the river as offerings or in the hope of getting a wish fulfilled. For sale were also many Hindu rosaries, of which Clara bought at least four to give away as presents.
Everywhere amidst the crowds holy cows were wandering, well looked after, sometimes even with painted foreheads. They can be a real nuisance, because they grab food from unwary peddlers. All that may happen to them is that they are chased away. They drop their excrements everywhere so that you can never walk without minding your steps.
Some of the saffron-robed men had gathered under an enormous tree on the promenade near the city centre. One man had painted almost his entire body grey with ash. They all joined together in a concert of drums and bells and whistles.
From the main bridge in the centre of the city we watched the seven o'clock celebrations. A Hindu priest said prayers through a loudspeaker, people bathed, others put their flower arrangements into the river. A variety of shrines dedicated to the different representations of God invited the faithful to pray or to light candles. It was a beautiful, colourful picture. As dusk progressed, the little specks of light floating down the river became more conspicuous.
I could not help wondering how much the great Western religions have taken over from the East. Walking back to our hotel we heard bells tolling from shrines, felt incense wafting through the mild evening air, observed the devotees praying with folded hands, or clasping the rosary beads, or taking offerings to the shrines to please the Deity. Similar rituals we find in the orthodox and catholic churches.
Even the cleansing and strengthening power the Hindu attribute to water is mirrored in the holy water used for Christian baptism or for blessing a congregation. The ash daubed on the foreheads of Catholics attending Ash Wednesday ceremonies may correspond to the symbols Hindu paint on their foreheads. Flowing robes and walking staffs appear in many biblical scenes. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the Indian Trinity. The spires and steeples of the Hindu shrines carry the prayers to heaven in analogy to the Christian churches.
Most members of our group bought flower arrangements, lit the candles, and put the floats into the water, with varying success. Some floats immediately hit an iron rod of the protective railing and toppled over. Clara stepped into the river to avoid this danger and we could see her little light floating down for a long time until its flicker became indistinguishable from reflections dancing on the water.
It was quite dark on our way back to the hotel and we had to take care not to stumble over bodies of people and dogs sleeping on the ground near the riverbank.
IN THE CITY OF THE TAJ MAHAL
We reached Agra by the early morning express train from Delhi. At this time of the day the air was still milky with moisture and offered a whiff of pleasant coolness. William reserved visiting the Taj for the afternoon; in the morning we'd wander around in the Red Fort where the idea of building a marble mausoleum beyond the Yamuna River probably took shape.
The Mughal emperor Akbar started building the Fort in red sandstone in the sixteenth century. His successor, Jahangir, embellished the Fort, but then came Shah Jahan who perfected it several decades later, adding a string of palaces in white, gleaming marble, elaborately decorating them with delicate floral arabesques of precious and semi-precious stones. He laid out ornate Persian gardens, making extensive use of waterfalls, fountains, channels, and pools. Water made the heat of the sun-drenched plains bearable inside the walls and arcades of the fort. Evaporation also helped to cool the rooms. Screens of marble lattice allowed refreshing breezes access.
One of the most exquisite palaces is Mussaman Burj, which Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She is described not only as a beautiful but also as an intelligent woman, advisor and companion to her husband for many years. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, Shah Jahan was heartbroken. After mourning for two years he devoted all his energy to building. Two decades later he had completed for his wife an astonishing tomb, the Taj Mahal.
The massive gateway to the Taj is itself already a sight worth seeing. It is 30 m high, built of red sandstone and topped by
Hindu chattris (small domed pavilions). The Arabic inscription around the huge arch of the entrance appears to be the same size on top as at the bottom. In reality, the letters become increasingly larger the farther they are from the observer, to create this illusion of consistency.
As we were walking through the gateway, William advised us to stay in the centre of the passage, to see the tomb framed by the classic Mughal arch which initially makes the building look small. When getting to the garden side of the gateway, we moved sideways, avoiding the crowd of visitors. From there we could get a better idea of the size of the tomb, by comparison with the people walking around it.
Of course, we had seen pictures of the Taj and, of course, we had admired them, but personally experiencing a place is very different, particularly, if it defies our means of pictorial reproduction and description. The mausoleum is faced entirely with white marble with delicate inlays of semi-precious stones forming graceful ornaments and calligraphy. These, the graceful arches, and the decorative chattris, give it an impression of weightlessness and transparence.
The building rests on a rectangular plinth with minarets at each corner. They are slightly tilted to cause them fall outward in the event of an earthquake. The mausoleum is flanked by a mosque and another similar building, both built of red sandstone. Only the Western building can be used for worship, because it faces Mecca. The other one simply provides architectonic balance and is appropriately called "The Answer".
When we entered the central chamber of the mausoleum, we first walked around the sarcophagi, knowing quite well that both were empty, being duplicates of the real ones. Mumtaz and her husband are buried in the crypt beneath. Duplicates or not, we stood in awe in the domed chamber where even a whisper seemed amplified and flickering lights struggled to chase the darkness from the stupendous lattice screens surrounding the sarcophagi. Each screen is carved from one block of marble. When William touched the surface with a flashlight, the marble became almost transparent and the intricate flower inlays lit up in the brilliant colours of their beautiful stones.
Clara and I walked all around the mausoleum, visited the mosque and then the little museum with its collection of historic artefacts connected with the Taj. We relaxed in the garden which is quartered by - now dry - watercourses representing the four rivers of paradise: water, milk, wine, and honey. We did not have to stroll far to be on our own, enjoying the peace, the glimpses of the monument between the trees and shrubs, and the playful calling of the birds.
Suddenly the sun disappeared. A strong breeze swishing in from the surrounding plains was swirling up fine dust. The resulting twilight transfixed the Taj. It was not resting on the ground anymore, but seemed suspended, an opaque image projected onto the canvas of the dust-choked sky.
Just before we had been gazing down from the mausoleum's plinth to observe the languid Yamuna River and, in the hazy distance, the Red Fort. At that place, now swallowed up by the dust, the story of the Taj Mahal had begun. There too the story had ended for Shah Jahan. His own son, Aurangzeb, had the audacity to keep him prisoner in one of the marble palaces. Shah Jahan would be confined there till the end of his life, albeit able to view the jewel of architecture he not only had dedicated to his wife but had, indirectly, bequeathed to the world.
The superb craftsmanship needed to furnish the Moghul palaces with exquisite carpets, sculpted marble and sandstone, with jewellery and precious stone inlays, with gold and silver work, and with delicate metal engravings, this craftsmanship is still alive.
In one of the so-called "emporia" we observed young boys weaving an elaborate carpet under the guidance of their father, singing the colour pattern as they progressed from side to side of the loom. In the store the manager and his helpers unfurled before us carpets of all sizes and patterns, tempting us to buy as many as possible. The most stunning item was an enormous carpet which barely fitted into the display room. It would be the showpiece of a mosque or of a luxurious mansion.
In front of another emporium workers sat under a roof by the entrance, sculpting marble and polishing stones of many colours and sizes to be fitted into ornaments cut out of the marble surfaces. We were escorted into several showrooms filled with objects of great beauty. Some large intricately carved works of art were priceless and not for sale at all. They must have taken many years, if not a lifetime to complete.
The last emporium we visited on that day in Agra specialised in jewellery and engraved metal articles. It was a joy just looking at the variety, envisaging what owning some of the artefacts would feel like. There were, however, limits to our spending capabilities. Clara had admired a pretty ring with a ruby set in gold, but had decided not to buy it. While we were sitting in front of the shop drinking complimentary tea, the assistant who had looked after Clara came outside several times, each time with a new proposal about price and method of payment. His best offer was a down payment of merely one rupee!
William who escorts his groups to these places every year seemed immune to temptations to buy. He finally succumbed at the Agra railway station when he bought a large box of pottery birds. "You may think I've gone barmy.." he said with his usual apologetic smile.
We were looking forward to getting back to our hotel in Delhi. We'd leave India within the coming 36 hours and we were quite tired and sleepy. Unfortunately the night express turned out to be almost three hours late. Since there was no better place to go and the railway station's waiting rooms were crowded, we retreated to one of the central platforms where we found some free benches, but all we felt like was lying down somewhere. I ended up dozing off on some mailbags.
We arrived in Delhi after midnight. The railway station there had turned into a mass quarters. People were sleeping on the ground everywhere, on newspapers, on blankets, sometimes whole families with babies cuddling up to them. We piled into a couple of dilapidated taxis, partly sitting on each others' knees, observing with great amusement how our vehicles sped through the dark city without adequate lights, tearing round corners, sparks flying as metal parts scraped the pavement.
Click here to go home
Click here to go for the illustrated version
Click here to go to the beginning of the story