Sunday, December 11, 2011

Around the Annapurnas in ten days, part one

The story of my most memorable trek yet.....

Saturday 12 November, 2011: New Delhi to Kathmandu
6 a.m.There are six of us flying from Delhi to Kathmandu this morning. We plan to spend the day exploring Kathmandu, and to leave for Besisahar by bus tomorrow, where the trek begins (or so we think). We meet at Terminal Three in New Delhi - Aditya and Nisha from Chennai, Abhilasha, I and Sekhar from Hyderabad and Asheesh from Delhi. Only four of us will complete the circuit, but let me not get ahead of the story.

9 p.m.The journey has begun badly for both Sekhar and me. The poor guy did not have a passport and could not board the flight. He is now travelling by road and will reach Kathmandu by tomorrow afternoon (it turns out that Indian citizens need either passport or voter's ID card when flying in to Nepal, but neither of the two if they drive in). My tragedy, thought far less tragic, is crippling. I'm down with severe diarrhea and have been pumping myself with medicines non stop. 
Thamel is a typical touristy place, but unlike any I've seen before. It is bright and colorful, and sells everything that a traveler might desire or need at the beginning or end of his journey. I especially love the Sherpa and North Face stores, although they are a bit expensive. But there are good fakes too; and if you know how bargain well, you can get great deals. I paid 4000 NR for the fake down jacket that was to save my life at subzero temperatures, when the quoted price was 6500 NR. And I'm not so hot at the fine art of price negotiation.
Sunday, 13th November 2011:Thamel, Kathmandu
11 am. My diarrhea continues unabated. Sekhar has finally reached, after 29 hours of travel by flights, taxis, rickshaws and god knows what else. I find that one of the joys of travelling is how special commonplace things become. I tied a scarf around my neck just now, and remembered how Girish had taught me to wear the scarf in this style. And this made me miss Girish so much, like I had last seen him years instead of weeks ago! Or perhaps sickness and dehydration is making me sentimental.
9pm. God knows who said it before but its true we are slaves of our stomachs. Kathmandu looks ten times more charming this evening, now that my belly cramps are gone and my appetite's back. I went for a short walk, bought a Terry Pratchett, and read it over a hot dal-rice-aaloo subzi dinner. Life is good again.

Monday, 14 Nov 2011: Kathmandu to Syange
Me and the yummy thukpa, at Besisahar
We no longer plan to begin the trek at Besisahar - one, because we have lost one day, and two, because we learn that Besisahar to Syange is now a motorable track and hence no longer fun. We left KTM at a quarter past seven in what has to be the most rickety bus being driven on this planet. The bus ride costs NR 480 per head and reaches Besisahar in about six hours. Had a bowl of delicious thukpa at Mt Kailash restaurent. Great food, but 350 bucks for a bowl of soup is a trifle worrying. Should we have budgeted for more than a thousand rupees a day?
You could start the trek at Besisahar, but it's a good idea to take the jeeps wherever they ply, because its better to be inside the jeep than outside where you would inhale the kilos of dust on the path. The trek is best started where the road, or what passes for a road in these parts, ends. Which is why I feel sad that the trekking path is getting shorter as the road keeps encroaching on what used to belong only to yaks, goats, and trekkers.

Besisahar Bus Station (no kidding!)
The jeep stand at Besisahar is next to a lovely stream. The jeep from Besisahar to Syanje costs 600 NR and the jeep ride makes the KTM-Besisahar bus ride look positively luxurious!! It is a beautiful mud track; beautiful and treacherous, because we drove over boulders and streams - and some of the latter are not gentle or meandering by any standards. We reached The New Waterfall hotel by 6.30 pm and the collective sigh of relief from all jeep passengers was hilarious. It's a comfortable hotel, and charges you 100 NR for a bed and blanket - this price will remain constant throughout the circuit. The lodges make money on the food you eat, so it's expected that you will eat at the same place that you sleep at. Since the menu is exactly the same at every teahouse in every village, and the food is universally delicious, it does not matter where you eat. I had a very satisfying egg curry and rice for 300 NR.

Day one - Tuesday, 15 Nov 2011: Syange to Dharapani. (17 km, 7.5 hours)
The first day of the climb - an ascent of over 600 metres. One of the tougher days. But also one of the most beautiful.
Syange to Jagat. 4km. 1 hour.
Route from Syange to Jagat
We left Syange at 8 am (we had planned to leave at 7, but we lingered over the pancakes and the great views). Syange to Jagat is a gentle climb, almost a walk. I wish I could describe what it feels like to walk next to a river that sings non-stop and is so clean that you can and do drink from it. It has to be experienced. Let me just say that back at sea level, I miss the background hum that was part of my life for those ten days. And it never sounds the same, the river has a different song in every village. The road from Besisahar has come upto Chamje now, so you could begin the trek in Chamje as well.
Jagat (1300m) to Chamje (1385m), 4km, 1.5 hours.
Sekhar faces a decision

There are two options to to choose from when you leave the village of Jagat. You could continue on the straight and narrow path that jeeps use, or you could follow the signboard on your left that says -"Way to Beautiful Old Trekking Route to Chamchhe and Manang". Of course, since we're suckers for lines like that, that's the route we took, but I'm told that the other is beautiful too, with a trail that continues by the river, and goes through a forest of pine trees and rhododendrons. The old trekking route will show you various abandoned guesthouses, and a waterfall with a rainbow. We stopped for tea at the predictably named Rainbow Waterfall guesthouse. It is important to remember to hydrate yourself well on this route, since you may not often feel thirsty. Ginger tea is a popular choice and is rather refreshing.
Chamje to Tal (1700m), 5 km, 2.5 hours

Chamje to Tal is a steep ascent of nearly 400 metres. It has some difficult bits, some stretches where you would feel grateful for a walking stick if you had one (I recommend one for this circuit, by the way). And the village of Tal....I'm going to try and describe it. After about two hours of climbing through a densely forested trail, you see a gate on top of small hill that says 'Welcome to Tal'. You start climbing the hill, happy for the rest your weary feet will get for a while, because you have planned to have lunch at Tal, the village that you read has been built on a former lake bed. You reach that gate, notice that the village is downhill, and then stand speechless for a while because the village has taken your breath away. There is blue lake on your left, and next to it, a villlage that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. No picture can capture what the village looked like that afternoon.

Its a fifteen minute walk downhill to the village, and it's reputation of good food is well deserved. We had corn bread with vegetables and the ubiquitous dal-bhat set at the Paradise Hotel, and it was rather good. It was a leisurely meal; we took two hours over it, and made friends with some very interesting fellow trekkers. For me, that has been one of the most exciting things about Annapurna - how you meet people who are so different, and yet so alike, how it is so effortless to strike up conversations and friendships because you share this common love for the mountains.
Tal to Karte (1870m), 4 km, 1.5 hours
This one seems easy after the Chamje-Tal stretch. Karte is a sleepy little village and rather pretty, but not too many people stop here, because the bigger, more popular Dharapani is just an hour's walk away.
Karte to Dharapani (1900m), 2km, 45 min.
This one is a comfortable walk. Dharapani is a good place to spend the night, because the view in the morning is something that you will remember for a long time. The village lies in a canyon with mountains rising so high on both sides that one feels overwhelmingly small. And to feel small is isn't such a bad thing - it's great at straightening one's perspective. (So what was I worried about again? Really?) It was rather cold in the night, so I unpacked and wore my thermals here. And slept like a baby.

Day two - Wednesday, 16 Nov 2011: Dharapani to Chame, 16 km, 6.5 hours
An 800 m ascent. One tough stretch, rest a breeze.
Dharapani (1900m) to Bagarchhap (2160 m), 2km, 1hour
Asheesh and Abhi, at Bagarchap
It continues to be a walk through pine forests - the bleak terrain of the likes of yak Kharka are still four days away. There's a very tempting detour between Dharapani and Bagarchhap, and I'd like to take it if I ever do this route again. They call it the Danfe trek - it goes to a villlage at 2300 metres height through some untouched and beautiful jungle trails. It would need about half a day's climb from Dharapani. All this I know from a yellow board that was right next to a narrow trail that seemed to disappear at the next bend.

Bagarchhap is surrounded by apple orchards. It has some great apple pie that they serve with warm custard. Yumm. Also, Bagarchap is where the Buddhist culture starts becoming noticeable. From here onwards, we will see prayer wheels in every village. Remember to always walk with the prayer wheels on your right.  
Bagarchap to Damaq (2200m), 2 km, 1 hour
Another gentle stretch. It's becoming a little too easy, I think. Ha! It's good I know so little about what the rest of the day is about to bring.
Damaq to Thanchowk (2570 m), 6 km, 2.5 hours
Sekhar and Jeremie, on the way to Thanchowk
This one HAS to be the toughest stretch so far. It's practically a 45 degrees incline for the larger part of the way. Landslides have destroyed the older trail, which is something that Asheesh and Abhilasha discovered to their utter annoyance. They took the older trail, which turned out to have a river flowing through it. Abhilasha had to walk with completely drenched shoes for the rest of this day. The older trail meets up with the new one somewhere halfway. The route continues to be beautiful and woody, and you can see the Manaslu peak in the distance. We had lunch at Thankchowk at the at the Chooyouu restaurant. It was quite nice.

Thanchok to Chame (2710 m), 6km, 2 hours
Another easy stretch, with some great views, specially near Koto, which is a quiet little village just before Chame. Koto also has a Tibetan monastery which wikitravel recommends that you visit, but we were looking forward to getting to Chame and continued ahead. There's a checkpost and some tiny shops in Koto, where you can buy warm clothes, candies, etc.

To Chame...
After walking in so much quiet beauty for hours, the bustle in Chame comes as a shock. It is the adminstrative headquarters of Manang district, and has multiple shops that sell practically everything. They have a police headquarters here, and a doctor, and the biggest shocker - Internet!! Maybe I can go home and suggest to the Deloitte leadership that we set up an office here. I would never need vacation.

We stayed at the Maryasandi Mandala, which was a very comfortable hotel, and I confess I paid for two buckets of hot water and had a lovely bath. The next bath I have will be in Muktinath, just about a week from this day. Chame also has a large school, and a Stupa next to it. When we set up office here, we could volunteer to teach at the school on weekends. There's a miniscule hot water spring too, which can be reached by crossing a bridge at the end of the village. We had to ask around for the whereabouts of the spring, it's quite well hidden, and worth the trouble. be continued....

Day three - Thursday, 17 Nov 2011: Chame to Pisang (3250 m), 16 km, 5 hours.....

Around the Annapurnas in ten days, part two

Day three - Thursday, 17 Nov 2011: Chame (2710m) to Lower Pisang (3250m), 16 km, 5.5 hours
Lamjung peak, at 6:00 am in Chame  
I woke up in Chame in with Asheesh banging on the door and shouting that we had to see the view outside if we wanted to die of happiness. You can see the Manaslu and the Lamjung covered in snow and sunshine from Chame, and though we did not die of happiness, I have to admit it was something.  
We left Chame at 7.15 in the morning, and we seemed to be almost the first group to leave - something about Chame makes people comfortable enough to want to laze; but you need to shake the comfort off and leave the bustle of the village behind, because there's a lot of loveliness that lies in wait.
Chame to Bhratang (2850m), 7km, 2 hours
Bhratang to Dukhur Pokhari
This is a fairly level walk, with about 150 m of ascent over 7 km. This is the kind of path where people sing and talk as they walk. And take a lot of pictures. Bhratang is a quiet, sleepy little village, and we did not stop here at all.
Bhratang to Dukhur Pokhari (3240m), 6 km, 1.5 hours 
The surroundings change constantly on this trek, but in some places the change is really stark. The path between Bhratang and Dukhur Pokhari continues by the river, but the pine forests are less dense here. Part of the trail is cut on the side of a cliff, so although the views are great, I would not recommend looking down and walking at the same time. The path climbs steeply in some places, especially after you cross the old bridge. The air is filled with the scent of pine cones, and I cannot help but think that very soon, the road will come here too, and it will bring with it fat Punjabis, and there will be candy wrappers here on this path, next to the pine needles.
But all that is in the future. Maybe they won't come. It was beautifully bright and sunny day, perfect for walking, and no one can think morbid thoughts for too long in such a lovely place. We had lunch in Dukhur Pokhari at a teahouse where things were really slow, but they usually are, in this part of the world. But we were making good time and did not mind so much.
Dukhur Pokhari to Lower Pisang (3250m), 6 km, 1.5 hours
This is a dusty path through tall pines and rhododendrons, and does not ascend at all. You walk for about an hour and a half in complete silence and wilderness, interrupted by the occasional herd of mules, cross a couple of streams, and find yourself in the busy village of Lower Pisang. There are many good teahouses here, and the one we stayed in, the Eco hotel, was very comfortable. They lit a wood fire for us in the dining area, around which we sat, talked and dried our clothes.
Urgen Chholing Monastery, Upper Pisang
Upper Pisang lies 60 metres higher and 30 minutes away from Lower Pisang, and can be reached by crossing a bridge near the prayer wheel. This is a village built on the sides of a forested hill, and has the remnants of very medieval Tibetan culture. The monastery in this village (the Urgen Chholing Monastery) is said to be one of the most beautiful in this region, and we went to visit it. It truly is a marvel; even though it was swarming with about fifty tourists, it was still peaceful. The monks were serving ginger lemon tea, and looked so happy that I wanted to sit there, talk to them and never leave.

A lot of trekkers prefer to sleep in Upper Pisang than Lower Pisang because they want to take the upper trail to Manang on the following day. That's a decision you will have to take. There are two trails from Pisang to Manang. The lower one is shorter, and goes through the most beautiful pine forests of this circuit (not to mention the last pine forests of this circuit, because Manang onwards, the route is stark and barren). The upper trail, which starts from Upper Pisang, takes an extra two hours, but has some great mountain views, and has the additional advantage of being higher and hence recommended for acclimatization. Abhilasha and Asheesh chose the upper trail, while the rest of us decided to take the lower one. Aditya was beginning to get a steadily worsening headache and was beginning to worry.
"Want to take it easy, or want to be tough?"
Day four - Friday, 18 Nov 2011: Pisang to Manang (3600m), 12 km, 5 hours
I woke up with my left shoulder hurting so bad that I spent 20 minutes convincing myself that it wasn't angina. I have large bruises on both my shoulders, and putting my face out of the sleeping bag into the bitter cold is agony. I decide to swallow my pride and give my sleeping bag to the porter. Aditya's headache has continued through the night and he hasn't been able to sleep at all. We have our first acute mountain sickness (AMS) casualty. He decides to descend and finds a porter to accompany him down. Abhilasha and Asheesh leave for the upper trail to Manang at 7.30 a.m., and Sekhar, Nisha and I start on the lower trail at eight a.m.

The upper trail goes through Ghyaru and Ngwal and has much to recommend it - it is sunny and offers great views of the Annapurna range. But it is also the tougher one, with steep ascents through the major part. Asheesh and Abhilasha raved about the delightful sights they had seen on the way, but it did tire them out.

The lower trail, on the other hand, turned out to be a dream. It ascends so gently that it seems not to ascend at all! It passes through Humde, where the Manang airport is being built and Bhraga, where you can get some great cakes and a really memorable yak steak. We had lunch at The New Yak restaurent where you can also buy and swap books. Bhraga to Manang is another gentle half hour walk.

Manang. Doesn't the word itself say how wonderfully romantic the place would be? I fell in love with the village at first sight. It's surrounded by views that are even more screensaver like than the rest of the trek. Half of the village is the tourist hub, with every convenience money can buy. Do not miss the Manang culture museum or the projection hall, the former for a feel of the 'manangi pride' and the latter for a once in a lifetime experience of watching a movie at 3600 metres above sea level. The moviehall has a fireplace, and they serve you ginger tea and popcorn as you watch the movie.

But keep walking, Manang is more than just these bells and whistles. Without warning, the street turns a corner and you find yourself transported back in time where Manangis live like they've lived for centuries. The architecture is unlike anything you have ever seen, the alleyways look like only black and white pictures should be taken of them.

I'd like to come and stay here for a month.

Day five - Acclimatization in Manang
Abhilasha with the Praken Gompa monk
We stayed in a hotel (it's too big to be called a teahouse) called Tilicho House, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. The food is great, the dining area is warm, the staff is friendly, and they have hot water. It is recommended that you stay an extra day in Manang because AMS is a reality that does not even spare the Sherpas. The air feels thinner from Manang onwards, and you find yourself taking deeper breaths often. It is also recommended that you attend the daily lectures that the Himalayan Rescue Association holds in Manang. There is a doctor who is extremely well informed. And he's rather good looking too, but that's not why you should attend his lecture. He gives some very useful tips on how to sail smoothly through the next three days to the Thorung La pass. The acclimatisation principle is to "climb high and sleep low". There are many day trips one can take from Manang to the 'climb high' part. A map of times, distances, and locations of the day trips has been placed next to the central stupa in the village. Abilasha chose the Praken Gompa. The other four of us chose the Ice Lake, and spent the day wishing we we had gone with Abhi's choice.
Acclimatisation trek to Ice lake
Ice Lake
Let me be honest. Ice lake is a damn hard climb. Now that that has been said, I don't need to dwell on how Dorota and I asked the Shyam the porter every twenty minutes - "Are we there yet?" It's four hours of straight climbing, a 1000 metre ascent, and it acclimatised us like nobody's business. It played hell with my knees because the three hour descent was as steep as the climb had been. But the view at the top was entirely worth it.

We watched "Seven years in Tibet" at the projection hall that night.
Day six - Sunday, 20 Nov 2011: Manang (3600m) Yak Kharka (4050m), 9km, 3.5 hours be continued.....

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Around the Annapurnas in ten days, part three

Day six - Sunday, 20 Nov 2011, Manang (3600m) to Yak Kharka(4050m), 9km, 3.5 hours
Asheesh, on the way to Yak Kharka
Another beautiful sunny morning at Manang, another sumptuous breakfast at the Tilicho - I promised myself I will come and stay here for a month someday and a write a book. Ganesh, the waiter at Tilicho who loved us because we were the first Indians he had seen in years, promised to get me the room with the best view, whenever I decided to come again.
Starting at Manang, you can either stop at Yak Kharaka, or at Letdar, which is an extra hour's trek from Yak Kharka. We were wary of AMS after the multiple urban legends of death and destruction floating around, so we decided to do the short stretch this day. Manang to Yak Kharka is a treeless, dusty path, and it is beautiful in morbid kind of way. You can see the Annapurnas II, III and IV peaks from Yak Kharka.
We stopped at the Gangapurna Teahouse, which we thought had the prettiest  dining room in the circuit. How do they get so many lovely rugs and curtains so far up? All they have is yaks and mules, and they've managed to create so much impressive splendour! The teahouse also had a bookshelf where I exchanged my third book and picked up a fourth.  We spent the day sitting around the fire, talking an reading. This kind
Gangapurna Lodge, Yak
of acclimatization is so much better than hauling yourself up to Ice Lake over seven hours!
Day seven - Monday, 21 Nov 2011, Yak Kharka to Thorang Phedi (4450m), via Letdar, 6 km, 3.5 hours 
Another crucial decision awaits at this point. Should you sleep in Thorang Phedi (4450 m) or the High Camp (4850m)? The former offers the advantage of the lower altitude, so there's a good chance that you might sleep well. But you will have to start at 4 a.m., to miss the high winds which begin at 11a.m. at the top of the Thorung La. Staying at the High Camp, means less ascent in the morning. And it offers some great views of the surrounding mountains. We chose Thorang Phedi, and when we heard the horror stories the next day, of friends who did not sleep a wink at the High Camp, we were very glad we did.

We left Yak Kharka at 8.30 a.m. Its a bleak three and a half hour climb to Thorang Phedi. The climb is not terribly steep, except in some parts, but be prepared for some breathlessness and tiredness, now that the celebrated 4000 meter mark has been crossed. This day we walked even less than the previous, but it will be more than made up for, tomorrow. Tomorrow is the Day of The Pass.  

The path to Thorang Phedi
Thorang Phedi is reached after three hours of walking among a landscape that begins to resemble the moon. Even the small bushes that we saw till yak Kharka have all but disappeared. The last 45 minutes of the trek is on the side of a cliff, which is well known for landslides and has multiple loose stones. The sight of the two lodges in Thorang Phedi is a welcome relief. People lie around dozing in the sun, reading and talking lazily till it becomes too cold to sit outside, which happens very early in these areas. Then you move into the dining hall, which has a fire and great food and coffee.

The Thorung La lodge in Thorang Phedi, is run by two brothers, both of whom look like Bob Marley. I feel terrible that I have forgotten their names now. They run a lovely place on top of cold, unfriendly mountain, make great apple pies and coffee, and play some great rock and roll music in the dining room. The contrast is interesting: biting winds and bleak rocks outside, warm light from orange lanterns, smell of freshly brewed coffee and sound of forty animated conversations inside. The most common question is - "What time do you plan to start tomorrow morning?".... We intend to start at 4 a.m. Tomorrow will be the hardest day so far - we will climb for 4 hours to the Thorung la pass at 5416 metres, and then downhill to Muktinath, another 4 hours trek. I had a little headache since the morning and the1000m ascent the next days was alarming.
Thorung La Lodge, Thorang Phedi

Day eight - Tuesday, 22 Nov 2011, Thorang Phedi to Muktinath
Sekhar was hyperexcited at 4 am: "Guys! This is the day we've been working towards! Literally the 'high point' (air quotes and giggle here) of our trek!". Breakfast at the Thoring La Lodge was a surprisingly cheery affair even at that hour, with one of the Bob Marley brothers playing something I did not recognize on his guitar. I confess I wore five layers of clothes that morning. With headlamps on, Abhilasha said we looked more like miners than trekkers. 
Almost there...

Thorang Phedi (4450 m) to High Camp: 1 km, 1 hr: We climbed in silence and darkness, for an hour, till we reached High Camp at about half past five, where I gave voice to the truth - "This is hard!!!". They say I looked quite angry when I said this. I don't think I was angry, but it had been a surprisingly steep climb, and it was so cold that the water had frozen in my water bottle. We continued plodding over the zigzag pathways, through the loose rocks and screes. It almost feels like walking on the moon. 
High Camp (4850 m) to Thorung La Pass: 5 km, 2.30 hr: The sun rose by about 7 am, things started looking almost beautiful at this point, and there came into view a blessed teahouse! I will not forget the taste of that coffee as long as I live, and the fact that I was barely able to hold the cup, my hand was shaking so much. I remembered reading that it's important to find your pace and stick to it. It's good advice. Abhilasha and I talked and bonded as we climbed, and we joked about how our next holiday would have to be at a warm place to get this cold out of our bones. Twice we got all worked up and excited because we thought we saw the pass, and it turned out to be yet another place to cross. But we were having fun walking in that barren beauty now, and were almost surprised when we reached the chorten where we saw two of our Isareli acquaintainces from the day before dancing. We had reached the Thorung La. The large chorten is photographed with a vengeance, by every one who has shed blood and sweat (and seen it turn to ice) in trying to make it here. A couple runs a tea shop here too.
It's a long way down.
Thorung Pass (5416 m) to Muktinath (3800m): 10 km, 4 hrs: The descent is rather steep. The path seems endlessly long, but has some great views of the Dhaulagiri, and some delightful photo opportunities. You can stop for lunch after about 3 hours of descent, at the place the locals call the Phedi, but the map calls Charabu. The descent continues after Charabu, less steeply, and vegetation starts to appear. Muktinath is known for its temples, and those are the first structures to appear. The lodges are about a half hour's descent beyond the temples, so you can visit them now, or the next day. We decided on the latter.
There are about 15 lodges in Muktinath, and we were too tired to care where we stayed, so we walked into almost the first pretty looking structure, and we picked a winner. The Bob Marley guest house boasts of a chef who has worked in Melbourne for over ten years, and man, the food was delicious. And the hot shower felt like a blessing from the heavens.

Day nine - Wednesday, 24 Nov 2011,Muktinath to Jomsom by jeep
We visited the Muktinath temple complex at six in the morning. It has buddhist gompas and hindu temples in a walled enclosure. One of the most interesting among these is the Vishnu Temple, a recent addition to this place, which is built just below a spring believed to be sacred. 108 water spouts surrouns the small temple, and devotees shower under all the spouts - it is believed to wash away the sins of all your past lives. My friends did braved the cold and take the holy shower. I'm told it's as cold as I imagined - there were icicles formed under the taps! I figure my sins are not too many, I can live with them.

The path to Jomsom is no longer the trekker's path. We took a jeep - it costs 330 NR per head to Kagbeni, which is about halfway to Jomsom, and is strongly recommended for its castle and monastery.
Kagbeni: Kagbeni is a village on the border of Mustang, at the confluence of two holy rivers, and hence quite sacred. We met Dara, who works at the Yak Donald's (yes) teahouse and will take you for a guided tour of the village for 1000 NR. It was a very good deal. I will remember the place for its 600 year old monastery and the ruined palace where we met the grandson of the erstwhile king. He was repairing parts of the castle for his family to stay in and invited us to sit in the room where six monks were chanting prayers for the village. The village also has the border checkpost for the Mustang Circuit trek. The checkpost doubles up as a museum, and does everything in its power to convince you that Mustang should be the next trek you plan. We had lunch at the Yak Donald - Maxine tried the Yak burger, and she said it was good. But then she likes most things so her opinion is hard to credit. The local apple brandy was terrible and I do not recommend it at all. The jeep from Kagbeni to Jomsom cost us 660 NR each, because we had to book the entire jeep. One seat costs 330 NR, and the driver won't move until he has all seats full, so if you don't want to wait forever, you may have to buy multiple seats.
The dusty road to Marpha

The jeep ride from Kagbeni to Jomsom was packed with excitement, and not just because of the cute Belgian guy sitting next to me. The road exists only in the mind of the driver - he drives over boulders and rivers like he doesn't see them, all the while playing the cheesiest hindi songs at the upper decibel limit of human hearing. The high point of the ride has to be Sekhar explaining to Maxine, what the song "Chunari-chunari" was about. I'm laughing even now as I'm writing and remembering -
"So he's saying he wants to touch her shawl..."
We reached Jomsom at six in the evening at stayed at the Trekker's Inn. Also recommended. Good food, good apple brandy, extremely friendly and talkative owners, and the ATM machine is across the road. It works intermittently.

Day ten - Thursday, 25 Nov 2011, Jomsom to Marpha and back
We walked to Marpha, the apple capital of Nepal the next day. I had insisted on this leg because I had read that the best food in the circuit was to be found in this village. It was certainly good. And we gave a lot of business to the local trinket sellers - the tibetan style knick knacks were irresistable.

Thakkali Thali
Friday, 26 Nov 2011: Jomsom to Pokhara by flight. Let me just say that the domestic flights in Nepal are one of the must have experiences, just like the jeep rides. And also, the Nepali thakkali cuisine is killer. Must try.

Saturday, 27 Nov 2011: Pokhara to Kathmandu by flight And all good things come to an end. But we did have one last night painting the town red, pub hopping and listening to the local bands belt out Pink Floyd and Bruno Mars in almost the same breath. And yes, I recommend the cookies made at Hot Breads in Thamel.

Sunday, 28 Nov 2011: Kathmandu to Delhi.
I'm back in the other world, the world of clean clothes and hot showers, and friends and family. But there's too much clutter. It's clutter that I love and need, but it's clutter still. Life was so much more fun, when all the decisions I needed to take were around how much weight I want to carry, how much I want to walk and what I want to eat. But it's ok, I'll go to that world again. Soon.

Next year: Mustang Circuit. Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Annapurna, here we come....

12 November 2011
2.00 am.
Three months of planning and dreaming, and six iterations of packing a rucksack are behind me. I will be in Kathmandu in a few hours, and starting the Annapurna trek tomorrow. I've been reading so much about the trek that I'm quoting lines without remembering where I read them...
"Leave the village with the Maryasandi river to your right....ten minutes later, you will come across a stream with a wooden bridge across it....." Yes I will!

The trek itinerary that Sekhar and I have created so diligently looks like a consulting assignment output. I'm filled with anticipation at the world I'm going to be seeing over the next two weeks, and the people I'm going to meet. In about 5 hours from now, I will meet four people at the airport that I've never met before, and at the end of two weeks I will either loathe them like I've never loathed anyone, or they will become my friends for life...but I will know them really well.

We will climb for as much as 10 hours on some days, we'll eat exotic things, we'll sleep in bags, we'll rent and ride cycles, and we'll meet lots of crazy people. Not the least of which is the guide Santaman who sent us a kilometer long email in reply to the one liner we sent him. It was a lovely mail, describing the beauties of Nepal, in the most lyrical prose, and it ended with:

You are welcome to spread over your footprint in our holy Himalayan Region.

Let's go get the tears.

The exec summary of the itinerary
The pictures above are sourced from: 1.; 2.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Emperor of All Maladies

In a world where being a fan of fiction is looked down upon like few things are, I fiercely defend my love for novels and stories. "Escapist literature!" - my father used to get so annoyed at the P.G Wodehouses I was addicted to. "I never read stories, I read to improve my mind, not for entertainment" - said the guy I was trying to impress with my large bookshelf, his lip curling in disgust at my Terry Pratchetts and Ashok Bankers.

My affection for fiction comes unabated. I will stop reading novels when I no longer get the tingling feeling of anticipation when I hold an unread book in my hand, the anticipation, that in a few minutes some people will come alive in the here and now, whose destinies I will get involved in, whose troubles will make me cry and whose joys will make laugh. I share this passion for creative fiction with my little sister Leena, who is the only other person I know who can inhale 500 page novels in one afternoon. And Azar Nafisi agrees with me: 

“A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.”

Non fiction can do this too sometimes. I've just finished reading Siddharth Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, and if any book can make you hold your breath and keep you awake at night, this one can. I recieved two copies of the book on my birthday (thank you, Sekhar and Anal!), and its one of the best birthday presents ever! Before 12 pages were done, I knew I was going to love it as much as the most thrilling fiction I've read. Mukherjee calls it the 'biography of cancer'. The book is that, and so much more. It's a thrilling page turner of a book, where the science and the discoveries blend so effortlessly with the human joys and foibles. No courtroom drama, or detective with magnifying glass can keep you so riveted for 600 pages. The stories pour out one after another, of how disfiguring surgeries acquired near religious fervour then lost favour, of the decades of war between tobacco manufacturers and activists, of gene discoveries that were as much chance as years of passionate work...And then there are human stories of victory and defeat, like the Jimmy fund and the Herceptin trial, that make you well up.

The book won a Pulitzer this year. But that's not why I recommend it. Read it because never before has science been written about in a way that reminds of poetry and detective fiction.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I wrote this formula about six months ago for how I choose movies to watch: Alien movies, no. Animation, yes. Disaster movies, no. Romantic comedies, yes. Horror movies, never. Period movies definitely. Family tragedies rarely, fauji movies, not even on the pain of death. Fantasy genre, always.

And then I watched Bol last night. The movie is disturbing at multiple levels, not the least of which is this: the passionate appreciation I feel for this movie might mean that I have overcome my absolute aversion of morbid films, that I have finally grown up!

I watched the movie with Divya, who's one of the most enthusiastic people I know. She loves and watches movies with an unequalled avidity (no, maybe Anmol can equal, or even top that avidity. It'll be a close contest). We argued about the movie on the way back - Divya feels that the film could have achieved so much more than it did, that the power of the story was diluted because the filmmakers wanted to make it more watchable. I disagreed, I don't remember when I've been so moved by a story.

I came back and read about 60 reviews, and it turns out that most reviewers echo D's sentiments. Bol was created by Shoaib Mansoor (, the same guy who made the Khuda ke Liye (note to self: must watch this one soon). The general opnion seems to be that the first film wins because it has one single theme (terrorism) underlying the drama, while Bol may have bitten off more than it could chew, with a story that weaves in multiple issues, each more tragic than the other.
The movie is already a blockbuster in Pakistan, and it's doing well in India, US and Dubai; it does not really need me to defend it. But then again, I need to say this: What.A.Movie. To say that Shoaib Mansoor may not have lived up to the expectations he created with his first film is to deny the ache that this movie is capable of creating in your heart. It's the story of a family that lives in Lahore in the present time - humongous shopping malls and rock concerts coexist in perfect believability with a world that does not permit girls to get educated. Its the story of a family that conspires to live with dignity in a world that is so harsh and unfriendly that it's terrifying. A family that protects the father who terrorises and hates them (and who they hate in turn), because they do not know how to live without him. The movie moves from one heart breaking tragedy to another, with small bits of respite that are really small and really few. But they warm up your heart. The affection the sisters have for a brother that their father despises, the romance with the next door boy, the neighbours who secretly look after the family - I don't agree that these dilute the power of the movie. Because hope can be as powerful and as stark as the truth.

But heartbreakingly morbid as it is, Bol wins because it has actors that live the part. Even the loathsome father, Hakim (played by Manzar Sehbai), is someone that one can understand, and maybe even forgive a little. The female lead Humaima Malik, who plays the eldest daughter in the family, can be nothing but what she is in the movie - an unwanted child in an impoverished household, torn between fear and anger for the world she part of and cannot escape. That she is a 25 year old with a facebook fanpage is shocking, and a little unreal. The courtesan Meena (actress Iman Ali) who lives and breathes Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah, is awesome too. Contrast this with the Katrina Kaif and Imran Khan in Mere Brother ki Dulhan that I saw on Friday - they cannot be anything other than Katrina and Imran! Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed MBKD too, for all sorts of different reasons, and I adore Ms Kaif for the joy she brings into our lives. But she's not unforgettable. Not yet.

I recommend Bol. It's a great movie. And hey, it has Atif Aslam too! I did not know what the guy looked like until yesterday, and I think like what I see.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Long weekends and adventurous friends 

I love these, as I love this Scotland of the East
The mists are hazy, and the rafting is crazy
So thank you Coorg, for so many things

the roads through the jungle

the home-stay, and the taboo
the Namdroling monastery

Hunting high and low, for the elusive coorgi food
Struggling against forces that threaten to kill the mood

the silly jokes
and friends who let you be

The never ending curiosity - I wonder what lies behind THAT bend?
If this is madness, may the madness never end.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

“So how do YOU know Natasha?” Part One


Pre's fairy tale home
10.00 a.m. Sam’s home.
All weekends from now till the end of time, are going to try and compete with this one, and slink back ashamed. On the awesomeness scale of one to 100, last weekend just made a hundred and fifty. If it wasn’t for the insect bites I’m covered in (and can’t stop scratching), I may have found it hard to believe that I did not dream up the last couple of days. That and the fact that I’m humming as I write, the random song Prerna taught me as we were climbing Deer Hill -“One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow…..”
There are two reasons why I’m sitting up writing this even though my eyelids feel heavy with a wonderful cetirizine induced haze (for reason for cetirizine, refer to insect bites above). One, a memory as brilliant as this deserves to be saved, so that I can revisit it whenever things become drab. And two, like our grand old (and 23 years of age) cynic Prerna Nair said, this wedding has reaffirmed our faith in the sordid institution of marriage. Maybe the thing isn’t that sordid after all.

So here it is, the pensieve that I will create and keep, to visit often:
Saturday, 06 August, 2011, 7.00 a.m. I stumbled out, sleepy eyed, of the NSL Express and called Pre who instructed me to take an auto to ‘Bibi ka Makbara’ where she was waiting for me on her scooter. I sat on the scooter and felt two years melt away in the next instant. It was a ten minute drive to her house, and we did not even waste thirty seconds in small talk. That’s what best friends are like – it’s so easy to pick up threads of conversations that were started weeks and months ago.
The view from Hanuman Tekri
But one sight of Pre’s Aurangabad home can make you completely forget what you wanted to talk about. You know how, when you go trekking, you see those homes in hills that look like they belong in fairytales, and you wonder – wow, who gets to live in places like this? We know the answer now – it’s Pre’s parents. The house is right at the foothill of a hill called hanuman tekri – it’s a hill covered in every shade of green that you ever dreamt of, and some that you did not even dream of. And when mists roll over it and around it, you just know that the whole rest of your life is going to be just fine.  I know this because I went for a walk, to the temple on top of the hill (women are not allowed to enter, but I no longer like to fight silly bigotry, so I said my hellos to the orange god from the door), sat where I could see for miles around and thought about a hundred things. And came back knowing that all was going to be well.
Sameer and Natasha
Pre’s parents are as warm and as full of life as you would expect them to be – where else would she get this awesomeness from? We had breakfast, resisted the temptation to climb the other hills around their house, and headed to the pair who had planned a wedding ceremony that was going to make all wedding ceremonies pale in comparison.

Natasha is one of the most beautiful women I have ever known, and she looked more radiant than she has ever looked. It warms up my heart to see the happiness and the calm that she seems filled with. No pre-wedding jitters for this girl. She knows she’s where she belongs and I feel so happy for her. And Sam looks like he’s sitting on top of the world, as he very likely is. And my happiness for Natasha grew tenfold as I met Sam’s parents – they were so enthused over the unique ceremony that their children had dreamt up. Not for them the regret of missing out the traditional wedding drama, the crowds of hundreds to show off to….this was going to be a celebration of love and the entire family seemed to just get it!
I met Lakshmi, after nearly two years. She hugged me and said, “Congratulations, I’m so proud of you and so happy for you, do you know that?...” It was the same magic with her, we were able to start conversations from the middle, leave them lying around like dismantled clockwork, to pick them up, take them apart and put them together as we went through the day. And what a day it was.

Lakshmi and I, at Bibi ka Makbara
I met some of Natasha’s friends that first morning. And if you said the magic sentence -"So how do you know Natasha?" - the most exciting stories came tumbling out. From Andamans to Delhi, we all came, to attend to the wedding of this unique creature who has made friends wherever she has gone. And she just threw us together, knowing that we would find each other interesting and get along famously.

11.00 a.m. Bibi ka Makbara and Ellora caves
I had my second breakfast of the day at Sam's home, and went with Lakshmi and Pre to Bibi ka Makbara, the Taj Mahal look alike that Aurungzeb’s son built for his mother. It’s quite beautiful, even though it’s touristy and I recommend a visit. For me it will be the place where I walked around with two women that I respect and love so much that surprises me. They’re so unlike each other, and yet so alike - strong, opinionated, capable and yet both filled with self-doubts that are amusing to their own rational selves. We had strict instructions to be back from Bibi ka Makbara in an hour and a half and that’s exactly what we did, somehow also squeezing in a visit to the passport office that Pre needed to make. be continued....

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Back in Hyderabad....

26 April 2011
Luxor Residency, Hyderabad

This is all it needed to get my brain working again! 5 km of running on the ISB treadmill with a songlist beginning with “Just the way you are” and ending  by “waka waka”. By the end of the 2nd kilometer, i was smiling like I hadnt smiled in two weeks...I had missed this happy face I see in the mirror today!

At  9.30 pm today, as I was leaving the gym, happy and sweaty and dizzy, for a good 5 seconds, I lost track of time. I was walking and thinking....I will reach home, call up Neha, Shally, Maggu and Girish to ask them what their dinner plans are before I get into the shower....I looked up and saw a tall guy walking with a tiny slip of a girl and my mind said- “Haresh and Ipsita”!
I smiled and raised my hand to say Hi and THEN it hit me. Oh no, no, no.

But the good part is that this realisation did not make me as sad as it would have last week.....It’s over, and it’s ok. I’m happy we had what we had for as long as we had it, but it really could not have lasted forever. Now we will learn to manage long distance friendships, we will learn to let go, and we will make new friends. There’s so much to look forward to. 

Had dinner at Goel, with Anmol, Aarthi, Vedha, Navneet and Sumit, and teased Anmol about the eleven cups of dahi on his plate....Thank God, somethings haven't changed. 

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