Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Sixth Day

It is 3:30 in the night, or very early morning you prefer calling it. The night is over. Yet I do not see the sun up as yet. There are miles to go before I can finally see it. The morning sun, oh how I long for it.

It is drizzling outside. We are a tired bunch, stranded in this unknown area, and we must head for our destination very soon, for we may miss our train home. Delay could be too painful. We are in a desperate situation. And the situation is created by mother nature. The same Mother Nature we came all this long way to see. To admire. To be humbled. We had seen the unimaginable beauty of it. The unthinkable majesty of the most wonderful scenes with which it could come up with. What we had not seen was the fury. We had forgotten everything about it till yesterday.

The fifth day of the trek would be registered as an extraordinarily eventful day.

We take leave of the shabby place where we put up for the night (or a very small part of it). The shabbiness did not matter : we were just too happy to be inside the room, which offered a stable platform to sit on, to sleep on. We do not know if the road is clear till Hrishikesh, or if there are more landslides on our way. After Hrishikesh, the hilly road ends, and it should be a comfortable journey afterwards to Dehradun. I remember the plans we had in our minds some 36 hours ago. I sigh and smile.

I remember the past day clear as the waters of Hemkund Sahib. As per our plan, we started early, at 6:30. The descent was quite comfortable to our feet that were so accustomed to ascents for the past three-four days. The weather was cold yet cheerful. There was no sign of rain, or even dark clouds. Memorising the moments at Ghangriya, the Valley and Hemkund, we were descending by hundreds of feet every ten minutes. The Bhyundar town was waking up, the cattle were ready for an early breakfast, the snow peaks were taking their not-so-routine bath of golden rays. Songs in our minds, we were humming the tunes to the breeze, with able accompaniment of river Pushpavati flowing in the valley. It was quite some experience. One of many to come our way in the long day ahead.

We stopped by at the Old Man's Hotel. On our way up, we had stopped by at this hotel. The Old Man and his Radio got registered in our minds. There was no hurry at all, we were ahead of our schedule. The tea had an amazing warmth, which had trickled into the tea from the Old Man's kind hands and great heart. The place was worth a photograph, and we took one.

As the clock ticked by, we found crowd on the rise. They were asking how far Hemkund Sahib was from here. We could only smile and say, "not too far, keep on walking you should reach there soon". Five days ago we ourselves would believe in such information, but now we knew better. There was no sign of Madhwalji who had vowed to overtake us (on his mule!). We were really far ahead on schedule. Soon we could see buses lined up in the parking lot of Govindghat. And within next half hour we reached the suspension bridge on river Pushpavati. There was still a lot of time till our whole team assembled. I had my time to write the concluding chapter of the trek, my reflections and conclusions ♣. I took my own time and wrote, seated on the bank of river Pushpavati. I did not have slightest of idea that this was not the end of trekking by any means. I removed the trekking shoes, put on chappals, and tried to relax. I called home declaring the 5-day ~50kms trek was over. It was just a matter of taking a bus or a jeep back to Dehradun, then staying in Dehradun for the night before leaving for Delhi. And we would be back to our own world. Soon.

I wish there were means by which it would be "just a matter of" returning. But now, it really does not matter. What matters is the next two-three hours, in which we expect to be in Hrishikesh. My fellows are trying to catch a nap, it has been a very long day and very short night for all of us. Yet, even the cool breeze and vibrating rhythm of our vehicle can't put me to sleep. I stay awake, trying to erase some of the moments of yesterday. I fail miserably.

There was certain delay in getting our vehicle to Hrishikesh. We were six of us, and finally accommodating one additional person, the Tata Sumo finally took off for Hrishikesh. The fellow passenger was from Dibrugadh, Assam♪ as only confirmed by his accent. Tracing our road back, climbing up initially we reached Joshimath by noon. Sun was shining, and there still were no chances of rain. We bought some biscuits to partially fulfill our hunger. Not so surprisingly, the rates of such items had also come down to normal heights! In Ghangriya, we had bought a four rupees biscuit pack for ten rupees. Things were getting back to normal after all. The return journey was tiring. There was not much talk in the jeep, and most of us tried to recharge ourselves with some possible naps. The driver this time was good. He seemed to know a lot of people. Every now and then some taxi would pass, and the two drivers would chat. It was interesting to see that he even knew some of the bus drivers, who generally are considered to be from a rival community by the taxi drivers. Madhwalji did not seem to have any interest in food. He was now concerned about the expenses he had incurred throughout the trek. Well, that was his problem, and couldn't be solved by skipping a lunch. We had our lunch, amidst honks by the irritated taxi driver and Madhwalji's pressure to finish it sooner than what was possible.

There was some talk of a landslide in that town. Soon the traffic came to standstill. We could see the road-restoration work in progress at two sharp bends along the road. The landslide was not very serious and the traffic soon continued. We heaved a sigh of relief. The problem was that as there was no rain since last couple of days, the soil had become loose. That increased the chances of landslide wherever the tree-cover was thin on the hills. We had seen a couple of landslides on our way to Joshimath, but we never were held up.

Leaving coming towns behind, we were speeding towards Hrishikesh, and a late dinner in Dehradun didn't seem so distant at all. The milestone declared we were about 150 kms from Hrishikesh and 18 kms from Srinagar, a major town in this area. Since the morning we had descended about 2000 mts. We spoke of this rather casually, almost disrespecting these heights. I do not know if the nature heard all this, and presented us with another challenge.

I do not believe in all this stuff, but it was not honourable on our part to speak such things. Or even to think. I know it can't be the reason for what happened next, yet it has made its mark on my mind.

The town of Rudraprayag looked cheerful. In the defense area, a game of basketball was going on. The sun had started its descent, and was comfortably warm now. Our driver got another passenger (whom he knew, of course) and was having a lively conversation with him. Everything looked good. Rudraprayag was not too far behind when we discovered a huge line-up of trucks, buses and all sorts of vehicles. Slowing down, the driver exclaimed something about the road block. Soon we found ourselves out of the taxi, trying to get some news about the road block. The site of landslide was quite far from where we had parked. Using the zoom lenses we tried to focus on the place, to no avail. It was just too far. Piyush and Manoj decided they had enough of sitting inside the taxi experience and started walking to find out for themselves. Myself and Shantanu went back to the taxi, and pressed Devendra for a late afternoon raga. He was more than happy to oblige us with Bhimpalas. Outside the window I could see the curious faces of fellow drivers, passengers who were worried about the road block. The drit bandish was soon over, yet there was no sign of speedy recovery of the situation. Shantanu again went in the search of truth and we tried to relax a bit. The driver had announced it would at least take two hours, we had no choice but to wait. Suddenly one large stone came rolling down and almost hit our taxi. We were out of the taxi in a flash. Now things were getting serious. Piyush brought a news that the landslide was still on, and the bulldozer which had started with the work had to leave the place.

I remember how horrifying a sight that was. We were about half a kilometer away, and we could still see the stones coming down with a great speed before falling in the deep valley. That was real. That was so close. And importantly we were now involved in it.

The Tata Sumo continues its journey towards Hrishikesh. The wipers are sweeping the droplets away. I cannot sweep the memories of yesterday that just seem to be pouring by tonnes.

That was not a good news. The continuing landslide meant delay in the clean-up work. More so, it was not predictable when or whether the landslide would stop. We had our train from New Delhi the next evening. We must reach Delhi before that at any cost. Going by what we were seeing, all this was impossibility now. Along the mountain on our left, we could spot a few people walking. They were crossing the landslide site from the top reaching this side. Madhwalji gathered all the courage and proposed that we also follow the route and cross the site. Otherwise, according to him, there was no way the road would clear up before next next afternoon. We believed him, it was evident. There was however still a chance that the landslide may stop, and the work would begin. If we stayed at Rudraprayag for te night and returned to this place early in the morning, we could still reach Dehradun by noon, and then to Delhi before the train started for Bangalore. This was a risky plan. On the other hand, we did not know the way to cross the mountain. Moreover, there was no guarantee that we would get a taxi to Hrishikesh after crossing the landslide. We could see people, even women in their sarees coming from the other side. We asked if there was any way to cross, they answered positively. After much discussions, we decided to take this risk. we brought out the trekking shoes, torches, and some courage as well. It was getting late. Already 6 o'clock - the sun would set soon. We asked the taxi driver to return, which he was just too happy to do.

With tentative minds but hopeful thoughts, we started the ascent. Believe me, it was quite crowded. People coming towards us were in a great hurry to finish the walk. We thought it was aggression, but it was not so, which we later realised. It was urge to be done with all this. The ascent was tough. The path was narrow. The load of the ruck sack seemed heavier and the earth more slippery than it was.

I marvel at how good some decisions turn out to be. All throughout the trek myself and Shantanu had led the way. I don't know how I got the thought, but I asked Shantanu to be at the rear of the troupe. I led the way (actually Madhwalji was leading at the start, but he offered the job to me when going got tougher). This was the crucial decision that helped a lot during the second half of this adventure outing. The first lights of the dawn are visible now. It is 5:30 in the morning. I see thick clouds covering the small towns. The road is still wet. Clouds are blocking the blind corners, yet we have the drive to move on. Thankfully there is not much traffic on our way. Hrishikesh is not so far now. It's like cricket: one never knows on what score a wicket might fall and even a small target would start looking formidable...

After much effort I reached the top. There was thick grass to catch and regain balance. There were some some small trees strategically planted to hold and drag our bodies over a difficult portion. It was tough but manageable so far. I could see Madhwalji following the path I encouraged to take. It was an altogether different experience, the trek leader relying on an amateur like me for directions. On the way up, we crossed the landslide site. It was the most horrifying scene : there was loud cracking sound as if whole earth was giving way, and then we could see huge stones rolling down.

Hrishikesh : 27 kms. I can now joke at the idea of stopping there to take a few snaps. It was the last thing on my mind. Shantanu, I am told did actually try for that, but there really was no place to stand still, take out the camera and shoot. It is better not to capture such scenes on any physical media. They are best left unexpressed, burried in memories...

I thought we were half way through. Distancewise we might well have been, but I guess that was just the start of it all. The nature had just posed another question for us to answer : it started drizzling. The grass became wet, so were our hands and shoes. Walking became tougher when the grass was replaced by bushed with a lot of thorns and sting. Take another challenge! The descent at the beginning looked easier. There were stones to keep foot on and stop on the way. There were enough trees to rely on. But not for too long.

I must admire Madhwalji's physical fitness. We had laughed off his boasting of, "I used to walk 70kms a day when I was your age", yet he showed a great character climbing all the way up till there. The thing that was constantly bothering me was his incessant talking aloud things everyone of us knew. I tried my best to neglect it and keep going. Every alternate minute I was announcing the directions aloud, so as to keep him moving. At one point he even thought of returning to Rudraprayag. This was ridiculous. It didn't make any sense. It was this point where I assumed the lead role and made him give up on this thought.

The rain God finally decided she had the satisfaction, and let us go. It was almost 7 o'clock now and light would fed quite fast. Keeping one eye on Madhwalji and asking Shantanu to shout aloud his whereabouts, I trekked along. From down, I could only see Madhwalji, struggling to keep his balance. At one point he said that the camera bag was bothering him. I offered to take it, which he happily agreed to. Now I was completely loaded. Because of the bag-strap around my neck, I could not see my feet clearly. At one point, I decided to turn around and climb down as one climbs down a ladder. That was a mistake. Before I could turn around completely, I slipped. I remember my struggle for a support. With all four contact-points, two hands and two feet I was trying to get hold of even a slightest of stone, grass, anything at all. I don't know for how long I ket slipping, neither in time nor in distance. I guess it was around 15 feet fall before I caught one thick root with my right hand. That stopped the fall. I was totally shaken by that incident. After that point I took my time to calculate every factor before taking the next step. That took a lot of energy out of me. But finally in almost darkness I reached a point from where trucks and buses could be felt within a few hundred feet.

I did not have any idea what was happening to the people above me : I later got to know that Devendra escaped being hit on his head by a falling stone. Madhwalji had a great fall, which he described with an analogy to an elephant's fall. (which was something I could not visualise though). Shantanu extended his ever helping hand to Piyush and stop his slide. Overall, it was not easy going for any of us.

The light had faded away into the night. Visibility was extremely poor. After almost one and half hours we had reached a point from where the road seemed to be very near. We were wary of any more of such descent now, and just wanted to get over with it. We tried to hurry in the slippery area, catching hold of almost anything that our hands could find. In this last lap, we had had enough bruises and scratches. At that point of time, we were least bothered about them, let alone the mud-clad outfit.

At around 7:30 we finally touched down on the highway. Predictably, there was a long long queue of trucks, buses, jeeps, taxis lined up, all waiting for the blockade to clear up. People had settled down for the night, some were playing cards, eating whatever they had with them, just passing the time. We washed our hands and faces in a stream on the way. Now it was Madhwalji's responsibility to find and negotiate for a vehicle to Hrishikesh. We were a large group, and clearly the drivers of Sumos were trying to get some real money out of it. We were too exhausted to put up an argument against quite high fare the driver was asking. We agreed to it and without much delay went and sat in the Sumo.

There were other difficulties to take on now. The high-way is closed during the night time. The driver refused to take any chances in the night. He was talking too much and we were not in mood of listening to his endless chatter. What was more irritating was that Madhwalji was trying to make his ridiculous comments about what we had just went through.

I have learnt my lesson that the most important virtue in such situations is patience. Patience with everyone around, patience with myself. It helped me in this matter. I just ignored what he was talking (so loudly). Our driver, Shriram, was telling us tales of the holy land, uttaranchal that is. At one or two places the police stopped us. The driver took care of it by telling that we were going to stay at "Mantriji's Hotel" for the night. That seemed to be some passcode as when we finally reached the hotel, we could nowhere find that name at the entrance of the place.

The plan for the next day was to get up early, at 3:30 that is, and start for Hrishikesh. Our Shriram seemed to be quite famous around here. He managed to get us a room when the person at the reception desk told us, "no way". He was popular among the fellow drivers too. Soon he started talking too loudly. All this matter was growing on us. It seemed too vulgar at times. We were hoping that our lord Shriram would refrain from drinking that night and drive us to Hrishikesh without further incidents.

It was already 10 in the night when we had some dinner and tried to sleep in a room sufficient for only three or four people. We couldn't care less about it at that point. Of course we couldn't sleep, the room being too congested was the least convincing reason for it.

It is morning now. We stop for tea at a highway hotel that is also lighting the firewood for the first tea of the morning. The rain has stopped. Hrishikesh is quite near now, after a long time now we all feel cheerful. A hot cup of tea has its own wonders.

We woke up very early, or simply opened our eyes, should I say. Our warm breaths were visible as we came out in search of the vehicle parked somewhere. We had to wake Shriram. We did not have any wake-up-O-Lord devotional song with us, nor any mood. After politely declining an offer for tea, we climbed up in the Sumo and got ready to take off.

It was 3:30 in the night, or very early morning you may call it. The night was finally over. Yet I did not see the sun up as yet. There were miles to go before I would eventually see it. The morning sun, oh how I longed for it.

After four hours of tense journey, I see the huge waters of the great Ganges. Hrishikesh is in sight. We get down the make-shift taxi. Catch another one for Dehradun. This one is enormously crowded, with some 12 people. We have no choice now, and we do not ask for comfort. The jeep takes us to Dehradun. We have to collect our baggage we kept in Dehradun. Madhwalji helps us in this matter. Without many goodbyes, we take leave of Madhwalji, and head for the inter state bus terminus. We hunt for some filling breakfast. We make phone calls. And board the bus for Delhi. We are all in absolutely dirty conditions, but can't help it. The bus passes through busy and crowded cities of Roorkie, Meerut and the like. After six hours of further journey. We finally step down at the ISBT, delhi. First thing we look for is a bath-room. A bath is a must now : if we miss it here, then it'd take two more days before we reach Bangalore! That would be quite unhealthy. Luckily we find one, get cleaned up in the cold waters of Delhi.

The freshness now is beyond words. The minds are stable and clearer. The sigh of relief is more than audible. We have dinner on the New Delhi railway station, and board Karnataka Express. At around 9:40 the train leaves. The trek is now over. The whole mood has been changed by the last forty eight hours : what an experience that has been. Without such experiences, I guess a trek is not a trek.

After further ~40 hours of journey, we reach Bangalore. The weather of Bangalore is cheerful as ever. We do not feel tiredness now, we are fresh. We are ready to recollect all the memories of the past ten days. I start gathering words to capture those.

I write this.

♣ Yet unpublished.

♪This person was traveling with a ruck sack and another handbag. It was virtually impossible to cross the landslide site with such luggage. He had started to climb with us. We do not know what happened to this fellow.

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