Friday, December 12, 2014

Over the hills and far away...The Lang Tang Valley Trek

The last time I went on a trek I was too young to understand the magnificence and privilege it brought with it. I loved the peaks in their powder white perfection and the adventure of being higher than anyone else…the Tent Chronicles and loo sagas, the campfires and ghost tales. But the significance, I suspect escaped me. Ever since, aware of the missed moment, I have attempted so often to recreate the situation, but have found myself on road trips to the foothills or a similar sort of visit instead. This year as cruel December crept in, I finally, eight years later, had my chance to redeem that gift voucher from the gods.

The Lang Tang Valley lies in North Nepal, one range shy of Tibet. I’d never heard the name up until Sujoy Das of South Col. Expeditions sent out a group mail suggesting a trek to the area. Sick of having to cancel various treks over the years due to work, illness, bereavements and so forth, I signed up, paid, and swore to myself I would go no matter what. And voila! I did. It’s an attractive trek…only eight days long, not too ungentle on the knees, and full of glorious sights involving very little boot-in-snow action. You’re essentially walking the entire valley alongside the river, which changes from gentle stream to fierce gushing ice water as you traverse up the valley, closer and closer to the source. The trek allows you such varied views of the landscape, you’ll find it hard to believe your Day 4 and Day 1 images were taken only half a week apart.

When you begin walking from start point Syabrubesi (it’s a tongue twister that’ll be rolling out your mouth neatly by the last day), it’s through forests sporting tall bamboo, leafy green plants, trees on the edge of autumn and the obvious evergreens, strong gentlemen, the army men of the forest. The enchanted woods are full of birch and blossoms, pale minute blue butterflies and shaded areas. Everything  is magic and you can almost hear the fairies shake webs of their wings and giggle behind berries. There are places you stop on the mossy path and imagine Aragorn riding down on one of the many fluffy white mares you’ve walked past, catching the sun in their manes like warmth saved up for later. Then you begin walking upward…and mind you upward really is upward (Days 1 and 2 are serious gluteus-maximus improvement).

As you walk, the terrain begins its gradual transition from forested to fall. You’re so close to Tibet you can taste the culture changing. In the faces you pass, the languages you hear, the religious relics you walk past…and all of it is heartening. The tiny paths that weave through the valley become strewn with the crunch of auburn leaves. Everything is copper tinted and dry and looks like it may catch fire if left in the sunset too long. But night falls too fast each day, and as the clouds rise like ghosts over the valley we watch the moon as it rises crisp on the other side, over the peaks, waxing as we walk further and further up paths that have succumbed to no vehicle. That’s the really magical thing about trekking…that there’s a point where you pause and look around and you are exhausted and your feet ache and your back hurts and you can’t recall what a cappuccino tastes like or if you’ve ever really had one at all, and you wonder when you’ll be able to wash your hair again, but you also take note of the fact that it was nothing but your feet that brought you thus far. Your feet propelled by your spirit. And nothing else could have done that. No bicycle could mount those ancient steps of stone, no car so slim has been invented for those edges. Your pocket couldn’t afford the helicopter and your boyfriend’s big bike would be rendered useless by this cold. Nothing but your feet could have brought you here, and when you marvel at that fact, the two tiny captains wiggle proudly in their bruised and dusty trekking shoes and no longer feel any pain. And at night you lie there in your sleeping bag, temporarily a caterpillar, and you listen to the sound in the far off distance and think “Gosh that highway sounds awfully close…” until you realize it’s the waterfall and you can hear it so loud and clear because you are one of only twenty people for as far as you can walk.

The “hardships” of trekking are only as troublesome as you are troubled. Yes it’s December and it’s cold and the wind will shred tiny cuts in your lips and the sun will love you so hard you will burn, but for every frozen over water pipe and lamp-less shared toilet there’s a Tibetan boy’s guitar lying idle in a corner…a peak that turns rose tinted just before dark and a chocolate pancake you could have sworn was made in France. These moments, they’re what you come back with…not the bedbugs and sweat nor the blisters and broken nails, but the memory of sitting out on a makeshift bench, the wind whipping the little parts of you you’ve left exposed, your eyes glued to the dark silhouette of a mountain, an almost-alien glow growing stronger by the minute behind it. And then there she is…the first shard of moonlight explodes upon the valley and the goddess rises, full, illuminating everything within and without. In her glory the peaks shine silver and your heart turns to gold.

It’s humbling, to say the least. To remember your own smallness, in the face of such greatness. Those mountains that have sat from the beginning of time sit serene and somber, and you feel almost doubtlessly that they’re the abode of the gods. It’s no surprise then why over the centuries god-men have turned to the mountains and the mountains have turned ordinary men to God. Because trekking and spirituality aren’t that different. Technically, you leave behind your materialistic desires and take nothing with you save the clothes on your back. Whatever food you receive you are grateful for, and you spend up to nine hours a day in silence, often alone, focusing on nothing but the next step and the vastness of the universe. There’s no other place on the planet where I, a one-time cynic, have felt the presence of a higher governing force more. So very close to the stars, there’s little else that seems important enough to ponder. Lost in the Himalayas is where I’ve had the most peaceful thought of my life….that if I should go now, I would go happy. And therein for me lies proof that those mountains are the closest to Heaven we’ll get on this Earth.

Schedule for the LT Valley Trek:
Day 1: Kathmandu to Syabrubesi by bus
Day 2: Syabrubesi to Lama Hotel Village
Day 3: Lama Hotel Village to Lang Tang Village
Day 4: Trek to the Lang Tang Monastery and back to the village
Day 5: Lang Tang Village to Kyanjin Gompa + summit Kyanjin Ri for views of the entire Lang Tang Range behind which lies Tibet
Day 6: Kyanjin Gompa to Lang Tang Village
Day 7: Lang Tang Village to Upper Rimchhe
Day 8: Rimchhe to Syabrubesi
Day 9: Drive back to Kathmandu

-Choose a good time of the year. Everyone balked at my December plans but the skies were so blue I’ve had to actually de-saturate some photos to make them more convincing! December is dry, clear skied and relatively empty as trekking season is technically over. Only drawback is finding places to stay and food options.
-Carry sunblock and drink enough water. Altitude sickness is a very real thing that affects almost everyone if the right care isn’t taken.
-Carry enough snacks of your own. Nuts, fruit, chocolate, energy bars.
-Carry as little as possible. You’ll find one t shirt easily lasts you three days on a trek.
-If you take sherpas or porters with you, don’t treat them as your servants for chrissake.
-Don’t litter.
-And finally, go with a company and group that do treks well. The experience is easily ruined if you’re trekking with folk who aren’t similar minded or if you’re with a group that chooses to cuts corners on small but essential things. I used South Col. Expeditions and was overjoyed with the results to the point where I’ve pretty much put my name down for treks with them up until November 2016! You can check them out here –

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Kerala Trip

Manvi’s late and both Shweta and I knew she would be. Dammit Manvi, you’re closest to the airport as well. It’s 5:30am and Delhi is awash with the first real rain of the season…there’s actually something akin to ‘crispness’ in the air and suddenly leaving seems unnecessary. But we haven’t seen real rain, not yet. Or so he says on the phone when we tell him. “Yeah what you call rain we call light drizzle. See you in a few hours.” A few weeks ago Mushtaq said we could all come visit him in Kerala and I was obviously the first to raise my hand hysterically. Despite all the hob-knobbing of the coasts of India I’ve done, I’ve somehow skipped this most celebrated star of the south. So here we were, three girls with “the golden ticket” and some scattered wanderlust in our city eyes. We make the flight despite reaching the ‘names-being-announced’ precipice of lateness, Shweta asking, “Is there still time for Starbucks?” as we become the last people to clumsily enter the plane. It flies us to Mangalore where we lose a laptop (and find it again – hurrah!), buy the world’s largest bag of banana chips (it lasts us the next four days) and just about manage to hop on a train that heads to Kannur.

Mushtaq’s family has kindly booked us first AC but we plonk ourselves, luggage lunch and all into the first empty box we see because it’s raining and this, this is rain like we have never seen before. The only air-conditioners in these compartments are the ones God made at the start of the world and we shiver as the rain spills onto our thighs and shoulders as we press up against the bars at the windows. A whistle blows and then the breeze hits you in the face like pleasure itself and we’re off. You think that whistle is calling for a train to start, but it’s calling out to life itself, signaling it to slow down, which it does. We eat slippery, rich homemade mutton stew and red masala chicken off paper plates, delivered to us at the station courtesy Mushtaq’s Mangalore side of the family (his entire family we soon figure are basically all Michelin level chefs). Then we swing from the train doors, faces wet, world zipping by, wolf howling and laughter fresh. The world is a cool green chlorophyll bubble and we dip our fingers into packets of newly sliced mangoes, so thick they’re like pieces of meat, so orange our nails are painted, so sweet we’re hysterical from the happiness of escape.

Like this three mad girls arrive to the cacophony of Kannur and yet we manage to drown it out. Tattoos, Toms shoes, leather bags, headphones and jangly earrings we clutter out the tiny railway station past a slew of hijabs and checked shirts and we are deposited upon the entrance like some wayward children, giggling, and then he rides up, tan and lean, glasses and guns and he hoists our bags into the car, shoos our hugs away and herds us in like school girls because that is what we’ve turned into and miaow…we’re bouncing through the streets watching Mushtaq point out things that could be poignant memory or completely made up. “My first gym,” he says and gestures to a tiny pink square with lurid muscles painted on the walls. Kannur, or Cannanore – Land of Lord Krishna is home to the loom industry, spotless stretches of beach and sexy Delhi lawyer boy Mushtaq Salim. Now he tells us to close our eyes and all three of us comply. Two minutes later the car abruptly comes to halt and he says, “Alright open them,” and we do and there in front of us, twisting and turning, endless and oblivious, lies the Arabian Sea. And so our trip begins.

I’m not sure what we expected (houseboats? Tropic thunder?), but the essential elegance of this state shows up in the lines and slants of the old houses, the crumbly violet earth and the tossing water. Everything fits into each other and than the rain comes down to meld the pieces together. Thus the land touches so closely the water and the water so smoothly the sky. Everything rises into each other like lovers who never tire of one another. Does such a thing exist in humans?

Mushtaq likes to eat and he feeds us like we’re his pups – often, irritably and enthusiastically. There are brownies freshly baked by his cousin Niza, soft and chewy, molten yet firm. Tiny chicken filled French pies the likes of which we’ve never had before. Flaky, frilly edged textbook perfection all created just for us. Breakfast time rolls in dosas, idlis, vadas, puris, appam, stew. Soon after there is fish curry, ghee rice, prawn biryani, mutton biryani, spicy roast chicken, parotas, parotas, parotas, “mallu” shawarmas dipped in garlic sauces, onions everywhere…we eat endlessly and then lie around as the mosquitos (that Mushtaq calls ‘local pigeons’) flutter around for blood and we let them have it, swatting too sleepily at bites. In the evening there’s honey pepper vodka and dark rum and Sri Lankan arrack and stories and lies that act like sweet lullaby.

In the day we bathe with cold water and sit by the sea for hours. Clouds pass and perched on the edges of cliffs we barely talk. Music is played then isn’t. Books are read then aren’t. Coconuts come down from trees and we drink from them. We disperse, come back together. Silent then silly. Watch the storm, watch it pass. The air is damp and cool. We tug mattresses out to the long tiled porch and lie under the sloping tiled roof. Sheets wear thin under the graze of our skin. Write, stare at the water, forget time exists, stand strong against the rain then become one with it. What to say about this rain? That it is cold and bold and bone drenching. That it comes down when you most need it. When your insides are collapsing from sadness or you realize the star you were wishing on just burnt out. In the afternoon and at night or early in the morning, whenever it is you most need to cry your tears the rain comes down to give them company. The hibiscus and birds of paradise growing wanton across the front lawn bow down alongside the palms. Caterpillars crawl out, vivid in their wetness. We footprint every bedroom and soundtrack our steps with the call of the sea. What echoes it has left in me. It surges, we sigh. It sighs, we surge.

At the beach our pockets fill with sand and we leave it there to take back some of this land. We drive to Tellicherry where we have the heavenly fortune of staying at Ayisha Manzil, a heritage homestay complete with Malabari cooking classes, outdoor meals and unfair views. It is high ceilinged, cool and vast. Tall antique beds skimmed by mosquito nets, swinging old fans and the creak of old wood. Laughter cracks the air as we try yoga moves and photo shoots. The afternoon storm breaks, welcomes us, and we dip our warm bodies into a swimming pool filled with rainwater, displacing leaves long dead. “Check for snakes!” someone shouts and everyone splashes about in a mess of squeals soon silenced by lightning. We eat boxes and boxes of date and walnut cake and collapse into naptime only to wake from gossamer dreams at twilight. We walk around this ancient mansion looking for each other and meet over fried bananas and stuffed mussels. “And then what about massages?” we nag, having heard so much. So Mushtaq and his charming brother Sayeed pack us off to the Ayurveda centre. The Kerala massage is no jasmine scented white robed affair. It is robust, vigorous and rough handed…dung scented, medicinal and healing. When you are done, the oil is so slick and thick upon your body, if you were an ocean, small dead ducks would float upon your surface. I leave bruised but certain some demon has been beaten out of me. And that eventually is the trip as a whole. When you are warned a place has ‘nothing to do’, rest assured, it has everything to find. Against the dreamscape of a southern sky, something within is restored.