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. 

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