Sunday, 12 October 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 5

Evening at Maráhni

See here for the Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3  and Part 4 of this series

At the edge of the tree line
The Maráhni meadow lies above the tree line. Soon after we left Kündri the continuous oak forest started breaking up into green sunlit patches of open ground strewn with boulders. For a while we wove in and out of this patchwork of sunlight and the shadows of the forest, until finally we crossed the tree-line onto slopes covered with rolling grassland. Dense patches of rhododendron shrubs flanked the grassland. This was pink rhododendron, the state flower of Himachal Pradesh. Another variety, the red rhododendron, grows much taller but at lower altitudes. I had seen some of these in the forests around Rangthar that morning. Both species have the characteristic waxy green leaves and thick foliage which provides perfect cover for wildlife.

We crossed numerous streams flowing across our path here, indicating that further up there was still some melting snow which had retreated only recently from the soft ground we were walking on. The grass was tender and fresh. It was the first flush of new growth that the herds of sheep hadn’t reached yet. 

The air got noticeably chillier as we scaled up higher and the day dipped lower. Finally, cresting a wide mound, we saw an uninhabited stone hut in the middle of a vast rolling meadow that sloped upwards. Now that the forest was below us, we had an unimpeded view of lofty mountain peaks to the north, east and south, while to the west rose the gentle slope of the ‘Maráhni top’, the peak of the mountain that we had been climbing since we left Pekhri yesterday. We had at last reached our destination, the alpine meadow of Maráhni at 3700m. 

We had only an hour and a half of sunlight left, so leaving the guides to pitch the tents I set out alone up the slope to see if I could reach the top. I was told that on the far side the Maráhni top fell away in a steep and dangerous cliff, so I needed to be careful if I made it to the top. Promising our guides to get back before dark, I started walking up. On the side I was climbing, the grass slopes were so gentle that there was no need to follow any particular path and I walked straight up the face of the mountain.  After about an hour I looked back to see the stone hut and the camp tents dwarfed into mere specks against the towering snow-covered mountains around. It was here that I saw one of the sources of the many streams that had flowed across our path after Kündri. Lying like a enormous grey serpent in a gully were the remnants of the winter snow, its surface flecked with grey sediment. A trickle of a water flowed out from the snout. It was joined by a more trickles some way down, and together they formed a little stream that gurgled its way down the slope I had come up. As I stood there in silence listening to my pulse pounding in my head, I realised that for the first time during the trek, and perhaps, also the first time ever, I was utterly and completely alone. This is not the same as being alone at home or alone on a street. Here I was, more than a day’s trek away from the nearest human settlement, and now out of reach of the only other human beings in the area, alone under an open sky, on vast grassland amid towering mountains. If I got into trouble here, there was no one who could’ve known even if I had screamed my lungs out for help. But then ethereal beauty of the panorama that surrounded me had rendered me speechless anyway.

Camp site at Maráhni 
The mountains around me had been set on fire by the evening. The last rays of the sun had gilded everything they touched in hues of deep gold and orange. The slope I sat on lay in blue shadow, while the peaks arrayed in front looked as if a dam of golden light had burst across them. The very air vibrated with the silent energy of the sun’s rays. Every blade of grass, every wildflower, every stone sat still watching the great spectacle being played out on a scale so vast that it was overwhelming. The blush on the snows deepened with every passing minute. The snowy mountainsides glowed orange and then red. Like a splash of wine seeping through a white table cloth, the radiant colour suffused through the peaks, concentrating at their tips like an intense glowing ember. 

And then in a few short minutes, the show was over. The mountains turned an ashen grey, the colour drained from their cheeks. Darkness crept swiftly up the valleys and covered the forests and the grasslands in dusky blue hues. Only the sky, a great luminous dome covering the world, still held the fast escaping light. It was too late to carry on climbing now and I turned back. The Maráhni top would have to wait until morning. 

The last of the sunlight
That evening alone on the mountainside at sunset is among my happiest memories. I might as well have been a blade of grass or a piece of rock on the mountain, because for about an hour, for all practical purposes, I had disappeared from the world.  

When I got back to camp, darkness was closing in fast. I was treated once again to a steaming cup of tea and some pakorá(potato fritters). This was soon followed by a dinner of curried black-eyed beans, steamed rice and kheer (rice-pudding). The abandoned stone hut had provided the team with a sheltered place to cook today which explained the extra-special meal and dessert. But the variety of foods that we were treated to every day of the trek was solely due to the capacity of these hardy folk to carry incredibly heavy loads over this difficult terrain. They had carried all the rice, the flour, the lentils, the sugar, the tea, the ghee and the vegetables to this 3700m high meadow on their backs to ensure we ate well on our trek. 

The temperatures were frigid at this altitude. The cold cut one right to the bone. When we emerged from our dinner in the stone hut, a bright half-moon had risen and the snows that glowed like embers a couple of hours ago now shone pale ghostly silver.  The mountains looked paler and more far away, but every crevasse and ridge was as clearly visible as during the day. Just that the world was now in monochrome.

That night, a campfire was built near the campsite. As we sat round, the flames warmed our  hands and faces, even though our backs were still freezing cold. “Tonight at the highest point of our trek, we shall all sing and dance”, declared the guides. And so, the empty food containers were converted to drums. Songs rang out lustily to Bholánáth or Shiva, the God of Gods, the ascetic with the ash-smeared body and the matted locks, who lives in the Himalayas. There were others too, like the ones about Künjüwáthe mountain lad with whom a local village girl had fallen in love. Künjüwá was now hunted by her clan for the crime and men in the village waited with their guns loaded. The girl pined for him and wept  everyday at the river while doing the washing, for a button was the only thing she had left to remind her of him.

The songs rang out late into the night until the flames died down.There is something quite comforting about sitting around a camp fire under a sky of stars, surrounded by snow peaks glowing in the moonlight. Certainly not your everyday end to the day. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 4

Through the Golden Forest

See here for the Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3  and Part 5 of this series.

When sunset lights are burning low,
While tents are pitched and camp-fires glow,
Steals o’er us, ere the stars appear,
The furtive sense of Jungle Fear,
For when the dusk is falling fast
Still, as throughout the ages past,
The stealthy beasts of prey arise
And prowl around with hungry eyes
Laurence Hope

As the last traces of light drained out of the sky, and stars began to twinkle, the world around us disappeared in a dense sea of darkness. The eye that had roamed over valleys and mountains earlier in the day could no longer see beyond a few feet or so. After dinner, as the battery powered lamp was switched off and the last embers of the cooking fire died out, I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, plunged into complete and utter darkness. There would be a moon, but it wouldn’t rise up behind the snowy range to the east for at least a few hours. There wasn’t much else to be done, but go to bed. Our tent was at the very edge of the meadow, with a steep drop into a forested valley a few yards away. Snuggling against the cold in the thick sleeping bags, I lay on the ground in my tent listening to the muffled sounds of conversation and laughter from the guides’ tent about 30 yards away. I could hear their footsteps in the grass outside as they walked past our tent into the jungle below to relieve themselves before bed. Soon all sounds faded away. There was no wind buzzing through the trees anymore, and a dead silence filled the world around me. 

My mind played back the events of the day. Of all the things that Hüküm Singh had said, the one that stuck was the reason he wanted the binoculars-to watch out for marauding bears and leopards. It dawned on me that we were in an extremely favourable position for a close encounter with a beast of prey - because of our proximity to Hüküm Singh and his sheep. Carnivores will quite naturally be drawn to herds of livestock, and in the silence of the wilderness, the ruckus created by a hundred bleating sheep and goats carries far and wide. It was entirely possible that a hungry leopard who had stalked the flock the whole day was now lying in wait under cover of darkness for the fires to die out and the men to retire to bed. To make matters worse, just as I was pondering over this possibility, Hüküm Singh’s dogs started barking furiously into the night. It may have been just a wild cat or a marten, or it may have been a leopard. But after that, in those few minutes of semi-consciousness before sleep takes over, every rustle in the grass became the stealthy footstep of a stalking leopard or the sniff of a hungry bear. Even as I was reasoning to myself that the sheep were actually a measure of protection - a leopard would rather carry off a sheep than break into tents -  exhaustion got the better of me, and I drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep.

The next morning I stepped out of my tent into the blinding morning sunshine. Even at 7 am the sun was already too bright to be enjoyed - dawn breaks in the mountains as early as 5 am. Leopards and bears seemed as remote a possibility now as they had seemed likely in the dark. The sheep were nowhere to be seen, they had already gone off to graze. We too soon broke camp and headed off uphill towards the crest of the mountain.

Forests of Kharsü*
The way led over rough stones and broken ground, but we on much higher ground today, walking through the dappled shade of towering trees. As a result the air was much cooler, and the climb much more enjoyable. The trees were Himalayan Brown Oaks, locally known as ‘Kharsü’. They grew tall and straight, with branches sprouting only a good way up the trunks. But what was most interesting was that it was autumn in these oak forests even though it was summer elsewhere in the mountains. The small shiny leaves were a rich copper and gold. They carpeted the ground as we went further up, and at times we were walking through a dense deep tunnel of red, copper and gold surrounding us on both sides, with patches of a brilliant blue sky showing through foliage above. Occasionally, when the trees parted, we could make out the same snow-peaks across the valley that we had seen earlier, only that they were now much closer, almost at eye level, as we continued to ascend.

At one point we came across a pile of firewood, and saw that each one of our guides threw in a small twig or stick as he passed, with a deep reverent bow. It was the ‘funeral pyre’ of a man who had died up here many years ago. He was a shepherd, and somehow had been caught up here in the bitter cold. He had died alone, and later, when the body was found, it had been cremated at the very spot where the pile of sticks lay. “The mountains do not claim a life without reason. In all these years, he is the only one that we know of, who died up here, far away from the villages”, said one of our guides. ”We throw in a stick on the pile every time we pass, to show our respects.”

At many points during our climb we came across small stones or rock outcrops that had pieces of red and gold cloth tied round them. These were small shrines of the local deities, the ‘Jögnis’. Each Jögni looks over her patch of forest or meadow, each one who passes must pay his respects and say a short prayer. Besides the Jögnis, there were other more significant deities scattered all around the mountains. These were the guardians of all that lay across the hills and valleys, especially the forests, the meadows and the creatures who lived there. These Gods were immensely powerful, and were not to be crossed at any cost. Our guides told us the story of a government official who had tried to move the temple of one of the Gods when the park was being formed. “When he had come here to discuss possible alternate locations with the locals he was bitten near the eye by a wasp whose bite is very toxic and to which there is no antidote. The eye swelled out for days, and it was only the God’s clemency that spared him from being blinded in the eye. After that, he never here came and no one talked of moving the temple again.”

“So the Gods did not want the park to be formed?” I asked. “No no, They did. The park could have never been formed against Their wishes. The Gods are the protectors of the forests. They say that the forests are for our use, but each one may only take what he needs. Of late, people have been taking too much. Killing too many animals, taking too many rare plants. It has affected our environment as well. For instance snowfall has reduced, and you wouldn't believe how drastically. Down in Pekhri, there are houses built on raised platforms, using thick strong logs of timber. Our elders say these may look like overkill now, but there was a time when there would be so much snow that smaller houses would've been buried under. Those that didn't would've collapsed under the weight of the snow. These are just stories for us now, we’ve never seen it snow more than a foot or so in our lifetimes” Ghyanshyámji, one of our guides told me. “That is why the Gods allowed the park to be established. They realised that people had become too greedy.”

Ridge covered with forest*
As lunch time approached, we were walking along the knife-edge of a narrow ridge covered with oak forest. The guides kept a sharp look out for a stream to stop by. They carried no water- for this was one precious resource that we almost entirely depended on the mountain for. Summer was well advanced now, and the initial rush of melt water cascading down through the forests had subsided. At a couple of places where our guides thought we would find a stream, there was none. After a few disappointments, we came finally across a tiny trickle, a dark wet stain across the carpet of brown leaves. Tiny pools of water glinted in the sun through the leaf-litter. Following the wet trace up the slope, our guides soon found a spot where they located a tiny flow seeping down between stones jutting out of the earth. Using leaves from a nearby bush, they made a funnel and were finally able to direct the trickle clear off the stones and into our water bottles. Ironically, these were plastic water bottles bought in Delhi, labelled ‘Himalayan Mineral Water’. It was probably the only time that the name was true to their contents.

Through the golden forest*
We continued on our walk through the woods, and soon I could feel the day cooling down into late afternoon. The call of the Himalayan Cuckoo came floating over the rustle of the breeze in the trees. Unlike its cousin the Koel whose glorious undulating cry fills the summer mornings and evenings in the plains, the cuckoo’s call is quite unobtrusive and easy to miss. It is a short sweet “cuck-koo” uttered at long intervals, perhaps also giving the species its name. As we trudged along, our guides told us stories of the other treks that they had undertaken across the mountains. There was the 70 year old American, who had made a marathon 15 day trek up the Párvati valley, with energy and endurance that belied his age. There were the documentary film makers who had come up to Maráhni and stayed for weeks, going into the dense oak and pine forests to film wildlife. Ghanshyámji told us how big the park was, and how beautiful the “thách”s that lay further up were. Tháchs are high alpine meadows, at times surrounded by dense forest, at times lying above the tree line like Maráhni. These were where the shepherds go with their livestock, for the grazing is very nutritious in summer. Each thách would traditionally be used by a family of shepherds, with grazing rights passed down from father to son. (This was one of the problems created by the park, by robbing some of the shepherds of access to their ‘family thách’).

“Further up there are towering peaks where the snow never melts. And high up among the peaks there are lakes of magical crystal blue waters. They are incredibly vast. You can never fathom how so much water came to be so high up in the mountains. It is as if there are hidden oceans in the mountains….”, Ghanshyámji said as he described his impressions of the glacial lakes high up in the Himalayas. “And beyond the lakes, there is Tibet.”

As we talked and walked on, we suddenly burst out of the forest. The land fell away steeply into a bowl-shaped depression enclosed by steep rocky slopes on three sides and open on the fourth. The sun was behind us, and up ahead across the valley stood a magnificent snow covered mountain shining in the late afternoon sunlight, flanked by more such peaks on either side. Thick oak forests beyond the meadow, much like the one we had walked through framed it in a golden brown frame. Looking down into the depression from the edge that we were perched on was like looking down a Roman amphitheatre. A few bullocks, the size of mice, grazed on the grassy meadow, and shepherds, the size of ants sat at one end. Shadows of the steep walls had already started creeping up the grass clearing. This was the meadow, the thách, of Kündri. It meant that Maráhni was now within striking distance.

The meadow of Kündri

* My acknowledgments to one of my fellow trekkers who clicked these photographs