Friday, 19 June 2020

Waiting for Mules: a photo essay of our trek to Chainsheel Lake (Part 1) #TravelouesofArtiJain

Dear Readers,

I hope you are all well and healthy.

Today, I'm sharing memories of a trek that I went on in October 2018. As memories are many and wonderful, I've decided to split the travelogue into parts.

Offering part 1 today for your reading pleasure.

The photos were made then but are being looked at and shared now--thanks to my current home-bound journey status, I'm able to look back at the treasures of my past travels and relish them all over again.

I hope you'll join me.

Warm regards


The morning temperature read -5 degrees Celsius in Mandi Thatch. Misty fog seemed reluctant to let go of the sun. She wanted another cuddle.  

It was the morning after the night of celebrating Vani's 50th birthday. 

Vani, a dancer, a health coach and an avid trekker had decided to celebrate her milestone birthday in the mountains, doing what she likes best--trekking. And even though October gets cold in the Himalayas, a couple of us volunteered to be part of her birthday celebrations--happily and eagerly.

Apu, as usual, did all the spade work. She sent us the itinerary and a packing list. Looking at the weather predictions, I packed all the thermal vests and leggings I had ever bought from UniQlo and landed in Maunda: a village that will become very dear to us after this trip. 

Outdoor Monks were trusted with the task of taking us to our destination: Chainsheel Lake, nestled in the lush green folds of Chainsheel bhugyal -- a high altitude meadow in the Himalayas perched at 3,600 metres above sea level. As there had been a few unfortunate episodes of loss of life in these parts the previous year, the village Pradhanji and one of his friends, Rana ji, came along with us as local guides.
You can see Maunda's charming Pradhan ji (on the right of this photo) all set to embark on the trek with us.  While we were lugging all the thermals known to us and were kitted out in our carefully thought out trekking gear, Pradhan ji's preparation included packing his phone and  a change of clothes and Ranaji for his part, carried his transistor. 

Our trek started in Maunda.  The khacchar wala (the mule owner) who was supposed to accompany the team did not turn up. So, some local lads from a nearby village were roped in to help out with the trek.

The trail we were supposed to take had not been accessed all year. So, this trek to celebrate Vani's 50th would wear many hats -- as a trial to check out the route, as an opportunity to capture its beauty to promote the village of Maunda as a suitable base to start all future treks from and consequently bring much needed commerce into the village.  All we, the mountain lovers whose souls dwell in these parts, needed was an excuse to pack up and go. So we did.

Six or seven hours of hiking later, we reached Sonawat Thatch, our first camp site, by early evening. 

Tents were set up. Dinner followed a couple of rounds of tea and a young moon shone in the deep Himalayan sky while we rested.

As an early riser and as someone who can make do with four hours of sleep on treks, I can be found outside my tent, waiting for the sun to rise.  The next morning was no different.

For me, every sunrise and every sunset witnessed is like a new book read or a poem told. The alchemy of sun and sky in those hours has to be witnessed to behold. 

Sunrises and sunsets are the best kind of gold to hoard in a life time. I'd like to be the Bill Gates of sunsets and sunrises one day. I'm not kidding. I'm extremely ambitious like that.

The sun rose like a sorcerer that morning and sprinkled Sonawat Thatch with its magic.
The mules, though, had a slightly different point of view. Do you notice the ground frost? 
After breakfast, we loaded our day packs on our backs, slathered on sun cream while the team loaded the mules with everything else--all the essentials needed to spend five nights outdoors, in the Himalayas in October.

Clear blue skies, grove after grove of bare branched birch trees and unending rows of mountains kept our spirits up and vibrant. Mountains come in all shapes and forms. The one we were about to traverse seemed to have suffered a few erosive blows from land slides in the monsoon rains. The path ahead started getting narrower and rockier.  

And then it became dangerous. The only saving grace was that it wasn't raining. We crossed this stretch in single file. The rubble and debris on the path made it slippery at places. But as humans with two legs carrying just the day's supplies of lunch, water and extra layers, we managed to cross over pretty deftly and then whooped a triumphant whoop when we got to the other side. The mules who were following us had a very different experience.

You see, treks are a means of income for villages in the Himalayas where employment opportunities are rare as all developmental policies in India, like in many other countries, focus exclusively on manufacturing and building and hardly ever on preserving and conserving. We are all witnessing the effects of such lopsided, money-making, short-term solution based policies.  Treks in these parts are akin to a co-operative movement: the entire village benefits from it, assuming that the head or pradhan has his people's best interest at heart. 

Mules are loaded up with tents and other camping equipment. Care is taken to ensure they are not over burdened and that the weight is proportionate on both sides. A trekking team is as good as its mules/donkeys. Without them, treks such as the one I go on wouldn't be possible. This also provides earning opportunities to the village youth who would otherwise head out to towns and cities, as is the case in so many parts of India. Thus, emptying villages of youth and hope. 
As you can see, with all this load, it was impossible for the mules to cross the narrow ledge. We didn't know any of this, of course. We had carried on ahead and when there were no donkeys in sight behind us, had decided to wait for them.

It was a very long wait!
We waited and we waited and then we waited some more. First, I went around clicking photos of mountains and trees. Then, I munched on an apple. Then I clicked a few photos of us waiting. That's Apu up there. Now, the thing is that without our mules, we wouldn't be able to carry on ahead. I'm usually lost in my own world so I tend to find out what's going on pretty late. Any stop on a trek is an unhindered opportunity to click. So I click and don't ask too many questions.  When the waiting didn't end for a very long time, I asked.

"They're having trouble with that last pass." Someone said.

All manners of speculations and suggestions fluttered around the group. Pradhanji, for his part, sat unperturbed and Ranaji's transistor rang out ---"Yeh Akashwani ki...seva..." to break the silence when conversations died down: as they do when one is faced with an unexpected change of plans. 

"I can see them." declared Pradhanji, getting up from the perch he was sitting on- on his haunches all this while, smoking.

"Where? Where?" we all erupted simultaneously.

"Ooooh...there....can you see that falan-falan bend ..." he pointed his finger in the direction we'd just come up from.

To say that it took me an hour after he'd spotted the moving mules on the horizon to make out dark blobs of movement far, far, away is no exaggeration. Well, that's what you get when you live in cities---you stop seeing clearly!

A collective sigh of relief followed by a chorus of "kya hua, kya hua?" (what happened, what happened?) greeted the team when they finally joined us in Mandi Thatch, our camp site for the day.

As expected, the narrow ledge had freaked out the mules who rely entirely on their instincts for survival. So, their loads had to be offloaded. Each mule was then cajoled/pushed/perhaps even threatened to cross the ledge, guided by its keeper. The loads were then carried by the team across the ledge and only when the mules felt settled, were they loaded up, balanced and secured (for the second time that day) for the rest of the journey. 
Once reunited, the tents were pitched, tea was made and life returned to normal once again.

That night, Surinder, the chef, excelled far and beyond our expectations. He makes the most amazing food but when he and the team brought out a cake: baked in the tent in a pressure cooker and dotted with candles to celebrate Vani's 50th, it left us all speechless. I still can't fathom how Surinder manages to bake and cook such feasts at such altitudes! The cake was delicious.

Sunset and bonfire, cake and cuppa, songs of 'Happy birthday' sung in English and Garhwali, tum jiyo hazzaron saal... followed by amazing shero-shayari (poetry recitals) by Pradhanji created a celebration like none seen before or since. It was perfect. We went to bed clad in many layers of warmth, both the thermal kind and the fuzzy kind one feels in ones heart when man and nature come together.

The next morning unfolded dramatically. 

"Our mules have gone.... khacchar bhaag gaye...the mules have fled..." cries of wonder and hilarity (the kind one finds in unimaginable situations) tweeted around Mandi Thatch along with birdsong a little before sun rise. 

The morning was bitterly cold.
Siddhartha's thermometer refused to rise above -5 degrees Celcius despite his effort to take it to the 'sunniest' spot around his tent.

After some chaotic kerfuffle trying to figure out the mules' whereabouts, the team figured that they must've made their way back to their village--yes, equivalent to  a day and a half of our trek thus far. A little sleuthing revealed that while the mules' novice keepers took to their grasses to invite sound sleep, the mules had decided to scamper all the way back to the warmth and familiarity of their own haystacks and sheds in the village. Animal instincts are fine tuned for survival. 

Another wait unfolded. But, with hot cups of tea, yummy breakfast and enough warm layers, we were able to crack jokes. Or perhaps, it's the innate optimism of a new day breaking out over the mountains that makes one see everything through the prism of positivism. Or maybe, it was Pradhanji's chilled out vibes that helped. His reaction to the situation was akin to a father's whose son or daughter  has just missed the school bus and he knows he'll have to take his car/scooter out to drop his offspring--a slight deviation in daily routine but nothing to get worked up about. When one is in sync with nature, patience comes naturally.

Khacchar walas (keepers of mules) took off to look for the stars of the trek and to fetch them back. 

As soon as word reached  that they had been spotted and were now being brought back, it was decided that the group would carry on ahead with Bharat, our team leader, while the rest of the team of Outdoor Monks will wait to load up the Moody Mules and follow us.

By then, fog had reluctantly let go of the sun. The long wait for our band of rebels to be found worked in our favour. Slowly and steadily, a bright sunny day began to emerge from the smothering cuddles of Himalayan fog.

Everything sparkled-- snow, stones, shrubs and our smiles:)
A 'happy' birthday girl:)
The pictures that follow were all taken on Day 3 of the trek: we covered 11 kms that day from Mandi Thatch (Bhutaha) to Sarutal. Come along and enjoy the spectacular views. The air is fresh and crisp. Cerulean skies and fluffy clouds are ready to keep you company.

To stand and ponder and stare for hours without any agenda or plans--now, that's bliss in my world. And when one gets amazing chai after a long day of walking and admiring, that's what I call sone pe suhaga:
translation: Gold. Pure Gold.
I'll be back with more bags of gold for you soon-ish. Part 2 of this travelogue promises to blow your socks off -- or rather freeze them--because while we will be climbing higher to get closer to Chainsheel Lake, the temperature will tumble lower.

The views, however, will make it all worth your while as they did for us.

Till then, stay safe and healthy. Smile often and dance whenever you can:)

Happy weekend dear ones. xx