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In the Mountains

I was born just thirty years ago,

but I’ve wandered a million miles already.

Along the River through the green grass on the banks,

out to the borderlands where the red dust roils,

Chewed herbs, cooked up alchemical elixirs,

trying to become an Immortal.

Read all the Writings, chanted the Histories aloud,

trying to learn them all by heart…

Today I’m on my way

home to Cold Mountain.

There, I’ll bed down in the creek, just to wash out my ears. 

-Han Shan, from Cold Mountain Poems

In the Mountains

In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over the wet earth. Soon enough I’ll hear a trickle, insects buzzing and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over it, especially at noontide.

If there’s a descending stream nearby, then I can tell of its imminent arrival by the appearance of a shadowy deep gully or a gulch. I can tell that there’s one just around the corner by the way the trees clinging to rock faces seem to bend inwards, trying to hide.

Much before I see the stream, I see the flycatchers, flashes of colour out for a meal over the running water. They hop, they leap, they’re beautiful little precise killers. But while they’re full of life, I’m languorous. There’s nothing I would like better than to sit on a large boulder beside the stream, and be hypnotized by the sight of flowing water over rocks.

Mindfulness. Mountains demand mindfulness. Look up. I hear a high, shrill screetch. A dot circling in the clear sky above. I step into a wet puddle. Shit. Look up again. What is it? An eagle or a griffon, or is it a lammergeier? I envy its perspective.

But the view from the high ground is grand too, just in a different way. From up high, I’d never be able to tell that at the root of all mountains lies dust, fine powder that sometimes glints as the sun catches infinitesimal minerals. The ever-present future of all pinnacles, right there, nestled in a lazy pile between boulders, or blowing in the keen, biting wind. I can feel this promise of mortality between my teeth, fine grit I can chew on. What does the lammergeier see?

The Pass

When I’m not in the mountains, which is often, I dream of long, hard descents from some high pass. At the high breach in the massive wall, the world seems pristine—a promise that’s been fulfilled. Look at those peaks, just look at them! Have you ever seen anything finer?

Passes are empty spaces, filled with thoughts that flow like a stream that’s burst its dams. My ragged breaths make me high. Maybe a tiny mouse hare will give me company. Mostly, it will just wait for me to leave. A pass. That notch in a sky full of notches; that gentle dipping depression in a sea of white ice and snow, forever receding; that succession of incredible, titanic, human-hewed staircases of rock that are re-built every year, so the goats and sheep can pass, accompanied by their herders. What ingenuity, to fashion a path through a field of piled boulders as big as houses. When high civilizations crash, this knowledge, this ability remains. Other things might come and go, but we’ll always need to cross mountains.

But then my eyes lead me back to the immediate thrills—the peaks I’ve been dying to meet all these days, whose photos I’ve looked at again and again—the view I’d been dreaming about for months and years. The magnitude of the peaks always defeats my imagination. They exist to undermine all the exalted images in my head. I often dream of famous mountains viewed from a pass. They rise towards me in a slow-moving wave, one that will crash down on me in a million years. After living with their photographs for years, the mountains in all their resplendent granite leaves me dumbstruck. They’re often too near, making me jump out of my skin, or much farther away than I’d imagined—a goose bump horizon of serrated teeth, the jaws of the world.

But a pass must always pass. I can’t live on the threshold. Sooner or later I will have to move on. I will need to descend, over snow, ice and rocks, over cliffs made slippery by rain or rotting ice, piercing through the cloud canopy, down to the promise of green grass and flowing water.

Descending

And so, I descend, on a sloping ridge, where the only gait possible is at a gentle run. I’m sliding on the edge of the void, down a giant rocky rib poised in the air. The clouds stand still below, the wind picks up and screams in my ear. Move, or you’ll fly, scream the spirits of the empty sky. I move.

And yet, the urge to stop and stare again around me is always strong, even at this uninhabitable altitude. Too soon, my soul protests, too soon will this view be lost. Why don’t I just sit in the lee of that boulder and let the mountains soak through? I do stop, for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, perhaps for the time it takes to smoke a biri, drink some water, munch on some sweet biscuits, get a sugar rush, and move on down.

How to climb down a mountain.

Step. Hop. Stop.

Move one leg down a tall slab.

Swing your butt about, pivoting.

Lunge down to a rock.

Descend five feet.

Rinse and repeat.

For a few hours.

I enter the sea of clouds. It’s like entering a vast hall, with no bottom. Everywhere there’s thick mist. The world is a cloud, and dark, shadowy, echoing giant rock slabs. They careen over me, loom over me. The world is vertical. I descend like demons are on my back. I’m terrified, but also exalted. My blood beats in my ears, a dull thud inside my brain. A thick flap of wool traps all sound within my head.

The biting wind is like the insane flute of Azathoth, the demon sultan. My feet thumping on rocks—a bass rhythm that keeps time, varying its beat constantly. Sometime there’s the wild, high, piercing scream of a bird of prey, out there in the world-cloud, looking for a thermal to rise on.

Hands move assuredly—palm on a bit of soil, a sharp flint shard of shale, a cold rock millions of years old, semi-frozen moss, slippery to the touch. Arms like pistons, the two of them doing what a tail does for the snow leopard­­—find meaning in an ever-shifting world. The body creates its own little bubble of gravity to depend on as the world is constantly giving contradicting signals.

My eyes show me a dark vein of rockfall gully to my left, descending some 100 visible feet into the cloud. The guide has started traversing and has disappeared. He knows that he needs just show the way. After all these days together, he’s sure that I will follow, at my own pace, according to my own level of expertise.

I move as fast as I can. It isn’t just about making time, or the haste to get out of a dangerous zone. The speed is just a function of the way our bodies use the inexorable pull of the void. The animal brain takes over. My eyes look for a zigzagging route through the vertical scree, convincingly fooling the brain into believing that there’s a path, and lo, there is a path. There is always a path. Rocks and boulders might confuse. A devious goat trail might bring me to the edge of a precipice, or an impassable wall. But it’s just a small mistake because a path does indeed exist—I’ve just left it two rock moves ago, missing the small cairn made of one solitary pebble that marked it, not noticing the true trail, faint but still there. There’s nothing else to do but to grin, climb up and then down again, the euphoria of a jigsaw solved.

Falling off a Mountain

Many hours have passed, I suddenly realise with a start. It’s like waking from a meditative trance, knowing that I’ve been doing exactly what the yogic methods prescribe: centre your concentration, focus on your breath, let your mind go blank of conscious thought. The only difference? I’m flying down the cold mountain like Han Shan all the while. Han Shan is Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain is Han Shan.

There’s a Zen saying that I hold very close to my heart. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain. Of course, people still do. I think I came across the aphorism in The Dharma Bums. It’s possible that Jack Kerouac might have just made it up. No matter. What you believe in grounds you. In this perpendicular world, more than at anywhere else, the mind and body need to be grounded. That’s the key.

Sometimes it’s necessary to just stop and go still. Catch up with the racing mind, close my eyes, sway gently, and let the pounding of blood accelerate, chasing the lost momentum of my body. Then it slows, massively, until its barely there. A sudden rush of intense emotions overwhelms me. I look around, what a miracle this world is, it always exceeds my wildest dreams. I think back on just a few hours ago…to when I was standing on the pass. It was another life, another universe. Those huge white peaks, deities all, are still out there somewhere, beyond this cloud that contains me. The vastness of airy distances between my mountain and the rest of phenomena—peaks, valleys, suns, galaxies—break down all my defences. I’ve always cried on descents, out of the sheer wonder of it all; out of gratitude for my brief admittance.

Then I start to feel cold, through my layers. It’s time to begin the dance, again.

Down to the Valley

As I climb lower and the impossible angle of the scree slope levels off somewhat, my descent becomes a loping run. The rock trail is more visible now, the shepherds have tended it well. I can see it snaking down the mountain, in wondrous array of sloping angles. Sometimes I run around the turns, though there might be a thousand foot fall just six inches beyond my widest turning point. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain, I tell myself. And on my merry way I go. Ho, Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

Sometimes I can’t run, because then I’d definitely slip, or twist my knee. I break my run suddenly, come to a standstill. Then I gingerly twist and reach down to the next rock ledge, a few feet below. Then I traverse sideways, a gigantic crab. I’m too exposed to the windy void. I turn my back to it, hug the mountain and gingerly step down. I’m conscious that for perhaps a few seconds I have just three points of contact between the earth and the sky, but I can’t think about it. I concentrate on finishing the move. My face is so close to the rock that I can see the grains of quartz. I’ve never concentrated this hard. It’s a giddy feeling. I complete the move and laugh out loud at the audacity of the human body. It’s the best feeling in the world, climbing mountains.

The trees begin now, just the bare stumps of cold rotting tall pines. They stand as the defeated outliers of the treeline, beaten back by the natural history of altitude. There’s not so much rock under me than turf. At some point I’ve left behind the perpendicular slabs of rock and brittle scree and now I’m trotting along on a boulder-strewn meadow. It’s still treacherous going though, because the ground is now disguised by grass and soil. Little blue flowers distract with their sudden beauty. A hidden gap between two boulders might well twist my ankle, hurl me face-first into ruin. My brain adapts yet again, racing ahead with the calculations, trying to maintain the balance between speed and caution. Right then, I’m the greatest mathematician in the world.

The pleasures of the boulder-hop. The pirouetting leaps from one ball of granite to another. Between them lies grass, soil, flowers, beetles and flowing tendrils of water. The valley floor is here at last.

I emerge from the cloud that has been my world for the past six thousand feet of descent. Boom! The universe expands rapidly. I can suddenly see for miles and miles. A green world of undulating meadows punctured through with dark thick groves of pines and rhododendrons. The trees soon become denser, the vanguard of high Himalayan forests. Behind me, lies the giant perpendicular rock cirque that I’ve just come down from, disappearing into the waiting cloud above.

The chitter of birds begin. The buzz of insects. The dull echoing void is replaced by the song of the bees. I leap over runnels of water that will coalesce into a small lake before debouching down the valley in the form of a mountain river. Behind me, my sky-path is lost in a kilometre-wide jumble of boulders. My body is weary. The knees hurt, the back aches, the head thuds. All that constant impact on my poor insignificant body, just a speck in this ocean. I look forward to the lake ahead, beside which will be our camp, and fire and heat and food.

In the Mountains

In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over damp earth. Soon enough I hear the muted splash of tiny waves as I reach the lake, flies fussing over dung and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over anemones, out for a last sally as evening rolls in.

The runnels are wide now. I can’t leap over them. Instead I skirt, certain that I will find a useful rock to use as a bridge. I let my weary feet take me where they will. Cows and ponies from the shepherds’ encampment mill about in the sloshing meadow, with gambolling, friendly bear-dogs for company.

Smoke rises from cookfires. I can’t walk anymore. I want to sit down right where I am and go to sleep. But after my solitary descent, I think of the company of the camp…the tales of miraculous snakes, of napping bears in spring. There will be tea! There’s rain coming on. The spectral cloud above is ready to give up its secrets in a torrent. Soon I’m home.

fin

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The Great Wide Open: A Trek in Ladakh

Emptiness can be beautiful, and intensely terrifying. To get a an idea of just what I mean, go to the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, climb up one of the many 5,000m passes that dot the landscape, look, and hear the blood pounding in your head. But even in the dun emptiness, there are sounds—the whistling cries of a marmot, the distant neighing of wild horses, and the wind, the ever-present wind that burrows through your clothes right into your soul, wailing like a thousand dakinis.

The walk across the Changthang plateau is a profoundly eerie and wonderful trek to the vast inland lake of Tso Moriri. Marking the important pashmina trade route from Leh to southeast Ladakh and then to the Tibetan plateau further east and to Spiti to the south over the Parang La, the trail lies across a marvellous desolation, the like of which I’d never seen before. We walked with and without our mule trains across seven passes over 4,800m high, across the vast lands where Changpa nomads live with their pashmina  goats and yaks, kept company by the small, silvery antelope Kiang, marmots, wolves and horses. We crossed the giant bowl of the salt lake of Tso Kar, past piles of salt washed up by the blue-black waves, while behind us rose a barrier of scree and rock peaks 6,000m high, dividing us from the vast Morey Plains—over which passes the Manali-Leh highway—maybe the vast dusty bed of a giant lake itself.

Strong, fresh, cold ice-melt streams punctuated our walk over extensive high and wide valleys of grazing grounds. These reminded more of Arctic Tundra landscapes than anything else. In other valleys we saw packs of wild horses running in braided patterns, their manes flying, hooves kicking up the water in the stream. Above in the passes, beautiful large grey wolves lurked, disappearing in a flash quite astounding for such large animals. Almost for the entire stretch the clicks and whistles of the marmot dogged our steps, while their furry fat heads played peekaboo from their burrows. After over a week of hallucinatory walk over surreal landscapes of menace and beauty, we finally reached a pass higher than all the rest, perched high up on the the Mentok range, and looked down for our first, breathtaking view of the storied Tso Moriri. Covering a distance of some 100km, this is probably the most quintessential trek in all of Ladakh. The trek takes in no less than seven passes over 4,800m high, thus living up to Ladakh’s name—the land of passes.

This was my first visit to the trans-Himalaya, and I found that just like the landscape, all the other rules of trekking change in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range. Whereas south of the Himalaya, the trails wind up from semi-tropical regions to the tree-line and then to high alpine areas, the Changthang seems to hang in the air. It seems not quite of the earth—the skies are panoramic and big, the clouds low and stretched out. There are hardly any steep, craggy cliffs here, just unending slopes of gravel and coarse scrub, loose scree and marshes that look like rolling meadows. The general desolation and the extreme altitude here places immense strains on the human body, so trekking here can only be done with full bundobast, which means pack mules, muleteers and a guide with at least one helper.

We started our walk from Rumtse, on the Leh-Manali highway, before veering off up the Kyamar Chu valley, over marshes dotted with orderly groups of Changpa flocks. The first of the passes, Kyamar La, marks the divide between central Ladakh and the Changthang. Look west and the peaks of the Zanskar range like Kang Yatse stand out. Further east, the rolling ranges that punctuate the high plateau come into focus. These run more-or-less parallel to each other, separated by either large lake beds like that of the Tso Kar, or intensely fast-flowing streams. On some days, we crossed not just one pass, but two, which meant ascending some 2,000 feet, and then descending another 1,500 feet, only to repeat this again. Panting for breath in that wide wilderness, unable to realistically gauge distances in the shimmering air, the landscape seemed ripe with intent, brooding and alien. Was that flock of Kiang five km away or ten? Was that skyline the true pass? Was that an enormous shaggy dog or a wolf? Was that stiff-limbed figure lurching towards me a Ro-Langs, a zombie?

The day would wax sunny—and by sunny I mean sunlight that flays the skin off—and come afternoon, that high, shrill wind would start again, scoring our faces with a million tiny pinpricks of dust. In that phantasmogoric landscape, it was difficult to tell fact from fantasy. The whistles of our constant companions, the marmots, sometimes took on a distinctly sinister, unearthly pitch. As we walked, the moon waxed every night until at the Changpa camp of Rajungkharu, it rose above a far mountain like a gigantic searchlight, turning the black night into an eerie bone-white landscape.

Then there were the Changpa people. The entirety of the Changthang are dominated by them and their flocks. At major Changpa camps like Pongunagu and Nuruchen on the Tso Kar, Rajungkharu and Gyamalhoma, were raised their ubiquitous black and white tents. Their traditionally the black yak-hair tents are slowly giving way to the newer white ones made of a sort-of parachute material, there were signs of growing prosperity on the back of their pashmina trade. The most startling of these were their SUVs. I felt it was a trick of the mind when, wile approaching Rajungkharu, I saw far off, the beetling shape of an SUV crawling over what seemed like a perpendicular slope. I learnt later that it was jeep service to ferry people to Leh to attend the visiting Dalai Lama. At these camps, eery morning would begin with the bleating of sheep and goat as the flocks were herded and milked, before setting off for the day’s grazing. On Horlam La, a Changpa on a horse appeared suddenly, riding towards us full tilt. It was quite a charge. At the last moment he wheeled his mount around, shouted a “Juley!” and galloped off. Later that day, we saw another band of horsemen cross a small pass, again at full speed. I felt I’d wandered onto a set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The final day’s walk was probably the most euphoric one. Starting out from our highest camp yet at the 5,150m Gyamalhoma, we threaded our way through a deep rocky defile, with surreal overhangs and a chilly stream passing through. As the valley climbed higher the peaks of the ice-plateau of the Mentok range came into view. We walked up through the gravely hills and up to the Yarlung Nyau La, a whopping 5,450m high. And there, spread out some 3,000 feet below us, were the waters of the Tso Moriri,  all 120sq km of it, a deep lilac carpet laid across a vast valley.  Across it darted a multitude of low clouds, and across the lake rose the summits of Chamser and Lungser Kangri, the highest peaks in the Changthang.  It felt like I’d walked into a Roerich painting. We raised a toast to the lake with some rum, and stumbled down the dusty slopes for the long walk into the void.

Nepal Trek Part 1: Plane to Lukla

I’ve made a bit of a habit of going for treks in the off-season. I never planned to do so, but that’s the way it seems to work every year. One of the advantages of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half the rates, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam, and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.

That’s an idle fantasy of course. In this day and age, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, as long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. You might suffer with slippery rocks on a high pass, or spend days waterlogged but you certainly won’t have to fight off the bears for a dinner of boiled bamboo shoots.

Even then, when I get an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’, and what’s more, ‘in season’, I jump at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? And that’s not all. Apart from Everest and its sister eight thousanders Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to the Sherpas, probably the most legendary mountain people in the world.

Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering in a forty-minute flight a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that almost all my co-passengers seem to be retired Europeans, makes me feel many worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. I don’t like flying, and I’d foolishly watched far too many YouTube videos of wobbly landings on the airstrip for my comfort. But once the die is cast and we are airborne, there is little to do but trust in the nous of the pilots and enjoy the ride. My friend Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we end up with the much coveted left hand seats. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.

Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Soon after taking off, the aircraft banks slightly to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into step. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins a rapid descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain, the Lukla airstrip. We have arrived at the Dudh Kosi valley.

Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

A smooth landing and cries of “Bravo” from assorted passengers later, we are found in the melee of porters and baggage by our guide for the trip, Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, a young, affable man in his late twenties. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel groups, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.

Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of the Khumbu region. The sun hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, Numdur, a 22,000foot peak of the Rolwaling Himal was glistening in the sunshine. Further north, cloaked in cloud banners stood the southern face of Kwangde. Talk about arriving bang in the middle of the Himalaya. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in it’s normal North West to South East axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and it’s tributary rivers.

To be continued…

Secret Garden

Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.

The hanging valley of Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.

Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain

A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.

I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.

A musk deer in the distance preparing to leap off and away. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.

It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.

The Dhauli Ganga valley with Lata village in the distance. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.

And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize—a brahma-kamal.

The Nanda Devi puja in progress in Lata village. photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.

Traversing the Satkula ridge to Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.

The Rishi Ganga gorge from Dharansi at sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.

Dunagiri from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.

-Bibek Bhattacharya

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Traveller.

Devi: The Village of Stories

The road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the sky.

Leaning, I stare into the west and utter a long sigh…

Swift rapids, wrestling cataracts descend in roaring spasms,

Pound cliffs, boil over rocks, and thunder through ten thousand chasms.

– Li Bai

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor in Satyajit Ray’s Eko Shringo Abhijan (The Unicorn Expedition) to Oz and El Dorado; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. You would never find them on a map, at least not a real one; you’d have to endure many hardships; and you could never hope to reach there without a large amount of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, and places that could well have been Faerie. But then, last year, I went to Nanda Devi.

The West face of Nanda Devi as seen from Chandrashila peak above Tunganath. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The goddess’s secret garden has held sway over me for what seems like forever. A few years ago I’d chanced upon an excellent book by the journalist Hugh Thomson called Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary. This led me to Eric Shipton’s classic Nanda Devi, an extraordinary book that has to be one of the most romantic mountain travel books ever. In 1934 Shipton along with his partner Bill Tilman and three of the best sherpas of the day spent the summer, monsoon and autumn wandering about central Garhwal, living off the land and accomplishing some unbelievable mountaineering feats, the biggest of which involved finding a way into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, an impenetrable mountain fastness that had repelled all earlier attempts by locals and mountaineers alike. I’d been dreaming ever since, and through a convenient coming together of luck and circumstance, I was finally going there, to pay my respects to a great mountain.

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a cirque of high mountains in the centre of which sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere, in its 110 km length, is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high. At a single point in this chain, the Rishi Ganga cuts a frighteningly deep gorge through the mountain barrier and flows west to meet the larger trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga by crossing the 4252m Dharansi pass to the hanging valley of Dharansi and then down to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

My friend Parth and I arrived at Lata on a sunny day in early September- the final day of the annual Nandashtami festivities. Originally a tribal nature cult, to outsiders Nanda is just a stand-in for Parvati, but to the Bhotias, just as to the rest of Garhwal and Kumaon, Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. In an old temple in Kumaon, Nanda’s image is that of a tribal woman. Many are her legends, too numerous to put down here, but the entire area is consecrated to her- the forests and the animals are her children, as are the Bhotias, who celebrate the end of the monsoon harvest season with nine days of songs and dancing, ending in the ritual sacrifice of rams in honour of the devi who inhabits the body of her priest to bless the day with her presence.

A young man from Lata village possessed by the trickster god Latu, Nanda's deputy. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

We caught the final day’s rituals before Nanda was carried back to her temple from an antechamber where she had been residing the past few days amidst great fanfare and rejoicing. It was one of the few truly animist rituals I’d ever seen.  The stone Nanda temple dominated a courtyard, studded with bramha-kamals to mark the occasion. Women in Tibetan-looking long black robes and white cloth headgear danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then the spirit of Nanda’s deputy, the trickster god Latu, invaded the body of a designated medium. Latu lurched around the compound to frenetic drumming, tasting all the fruits of Nanda’s bounty- from sheep’s heads to barley. Then he flung the rest of the prasad into the delighted crowd, who took what they could. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize- a bramha-kamal.

Women of the village sing a song of regeneration and pray to Nanda to bless the village with her bounty. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra of Mountain Shepherds, my guide, is a charming young man in his mid-twenties. We stayed at a modest home-stay that he runs for his father Dhan Singh, the former village sarpanch. Dhan Singh and his friend Raghubir Singh were much-feted guides in the hey-day of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. It was in Lata and the nearby village of Reni that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the felling of sacred deodhar groves by forestry contractors.  Since the closure of the sanctuary in 1982 for environmental reasons, a generation of Lata men had lost out on a lucrative source of income, especially since the 1962 war had terminated their earlier trade with Tibet. Dhan Singh, who was a young man during the Chipko movement, organised the villagers of this area into an effective body of activists during the Jhapto Cheeno movement in the late Nineties in an effort to get back their land that was shut to them with the advent of the National Park and it’s subsequent notification as a World Heritage Site. Its success led to more elbow room for the Bhotias, and now a few trails were allowed to be kept open in the national park for small groups of trekkers with permits. Men from Lata and the enarby village of Suraithota acted as guides. We were to leave the next day, with Raghubir Singh and Narendra acting as our guides.

To be continued…

Good Day Sunshine!

Jumping out of bed at the cold, unearthly hour of 4:30 am I stepped out into the freezing night only to have my breath taken away by the galactic arm of the Milky Way stretching over me. But I hadn’t much time to lose, as I had to get to the peak of Chandrashila above Tunganath by 6 am or miss the fabled sunrise. So I ran in the lightening darkness, my lungs heaving with the effort in the rarefied air and my head spinning with the cold and the exertion. Behind me the Chaukhamba and Kedar peaks brightened in the fast-approaching dawn. Ahead of me, on the ridge-line the silhouettes of other sunrise-spotters intent on their goal, trudging up. One by one I overtook them. Below and behind, I could see a torchlight in the darkness- Debo and Biru coming up behind me.
A loud yell of exhilaration escaped my throat as I rounded the last hump and came up in front of the temple of the moon atop Chandrashila. The sky had cleared behind me, though Chaukhamba and the other giants had yet to catch fire. I made my way through the gaggle of people on the peak to the farthest point on the ridge. This is what I saw, over a half hour that lasted forever. Night below me and daybreak at 3,800 m. My ancient camera had stopped working in the cold the previous day, so I had to borrow a friend’s cell phone, cursing my luck. But I forgot all that once the sun came out slowly, with impeccable timing, behind the beautiful spire of Nanda Devi.
Right to left, main peaks: Trishul, Bethartoli Himal, the Devitan peaks, Nanda Devi, Changabang, Dunagiri, Rishi Pahar, Tirsuli group, Kamet. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya