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July 6, 2016

In the High Himalayas - with a prayer and a dog

Alone in the mist, a sight rustle in the woods making the moment awkward, fraught with expectations of the unknown, shadows leap silently and then, the mountains beckon. Straight ahead as far as the eye can see, a vast perpendicular massif of approximate age and snow filled valleys, we were in the upper Himalayas and the whole world down there somewhere has ceased to exist.

Here in the high Himalayas, nature still retains her control over us. Here, we have not yet pummelled her into accepting our diktat and fall into line. Here, the word raw nature exacts its true meaning. Here, in the high Himalayas, we are all pilgrims of nature and it was here that I came to walk.

It was meant to be a test of my frail body and whether I would be able to last for a few days in the extreme climate. With little preparation and prayers on my lips, I set out for Kasol on a late night bus from Chandigarh. Kasol is currently famous as a high altitude party zone and stories abound of how Indians are not treated well and preference is given to westerners. It turned out to be a falsity for people at Kasol are welcoming and ensured that backpackers like me had a great time. Of course, there is one version of Indians who take partying to a dizzy height, ogling and breaking glass shards of every shape and size. These people are then treated rather unceremoniously and often get a kick in their backsides and I would say that this is a healthy precedent for they pollute the cool climes of these high hills in ways and means that are disgusting to say the least.

But Kasol was not my destination and I passed the small but crowded town and moved towards the small bridle path that leads upto Grahan Village. Grahan is the last village below the snow line and has the unique reputation of a voluntary ban on spirits and a general implementation of rules meant to keep the fragile society and the ecology intact in the face of onslaughts of development.

As I walked away from Kasol, remnants of the foreigner crowd that make Kasol its home started thinning. There were a few random tents with smoke wafting across, a few quiet couples sitting around and then, as I walked up the first incline, silence took over. Nothing but the vast forests of deodar and chir pine covered everything in its midst and I walked on. Having climbed three steep inclines, I sat down to take a break and perhaps have a biscuit when I noticed a giant of a dog staring at me from a few feet away. Brown in colour, enormously muscled yet with the eyes of a pup, he must have been rather young, not more than eighteen months. He was staring at me but not in a threatening manner, rather as a curious bystander and I was tempted to offer him a share of my snacks. Shy but not scared, he gobbled the snack and stood ramrod stiff again. Those eyes could have melted hard iron and I ended up giving off the entire packet to him and found him following me though the woods as I took off for Grahan.

I thought nothing of it then and let him follow me and continued my trek. It was a silent though beautiful experience. Alone in the forest, softly walking amongst the leaves and with a giant baby dog alongside, the three quintessential aspects of a mountain walk was coming true in front of my eyes. The walk turned from a tough into a blissful stroll and we whistled on. The forests were denser and I met a few hikers who had stayed over at Grahan and spoke of the stunning views and gripping cold up there. Saying hello to many as they passed, I kept on walking after having some maggi at a small stall and giving off my packed lunch to the dog whom I called Siddu. We reached the camp site by late afternoon and promptly slept off under the giant beautiful sky. When we woke up, Grahan with its ancient temple and strict visage stood majestically across the hill and tourists were cautiously welcomed. However, the day had been long and after a quick walk, we were inside the tents. Siddu, my dog slept outside my tent.

The next morning, it was to be a tough climb to Padri through some dense forests and steep trudges. We had been sufficiently acclimatised reaching the Padri camp site by lunch and was witness to a sight that is forever a special offering from the Himalayas to mortals like us. The camp was laid out in one corner of a giant meadow or bugyal and all around us were giant trees and snow covered mountains. If picture perfect is a phrase, the phrase must have been coined here long back. Personally, it was an underwhelming feeling of humility to be with nature that night.

The walk continued and though some sheer inclines, we kept on climbing towards the Sar Pass. In between, the gods decided to let us on in the fun and sent some freezing rain across, rain which turned into snow or hailstones soon after. We were soon walking through an inch deep carpet of snow in the middle of May. Someone cautiously mentioned as we were trudging upwards that the real India of hot plains and paralyzing winds is somewhere down there, but who were we to care. And so we climbed, up and up, though the slush and the sights, through the forests on to the campsite. It was a visual treat for the clouds moved away and the entire Himalayan range as far the eyes could see cleared up and slowly but inexorably, trees began to give way to high altitude shrubs, scraggly yet majestic and exuding smells which are indescribable. Just the smells of these shrubs is reason enough for one to visit these high altitude heavens at least once. Siddu was loving the sights and smells as well and would often jump deep inside the roots of one of these giant shrubs to hunt unknown enemies. The walk was difficult but the air was light and we managed to cross the tree line after a halt at a temporary camp. It was a revelation for everyone for as far as the eyes could see, on all ridges and cliffs, the tree line visually came to an end almost at the exact same horizontal mark, as if they knew that nature will not allow them to grow any further. Grasslands crept up, herbs everywhere, rocks sprouting, loose mud, slippery paths and then the first hint of snow, deep in a valley and then another.

Suddenly snow was everywhere but not yet in the path we walked and as suddenly as that, Siddu transformed. From being my companion to a wild free soul, he went crazy over the snow. Jumping across huge boulders, he would dive straight into the snow and play with his imaginary friends, eat snow like we hog rice and roll around. Siddu was home and we all knew that he was happy here. He bounded up and reached the main base camp at Nagaru without missing a breath. When we reached the site, absolutely tired, there he was, chomping on some old bones that he must have found on the way and striking a visage of a zen master of the high Himalayas.

But when we managed to catch our breath, my eyes were in for a slight shock – for all around us were grand mountain peaks. We were at 12000 feet and the entire Kullu district laid out her mysteries to our minuscule eyes. If there is ever a 360 degree view, here it was and in a manner befitting the gods, clouds kept on peering, the sun gave a blink and I bowed my head to the gods and to Mother Nature.

That night was cold and our worry was Siddu but when we woke up to start our final trek to the pass, he was eagerly waiting for his treats and be on his way. We had been worried for him but he seemed to have been made for the snow and was enjoying every second as if it were his last. The walk began and the ascent took us higher through deep fields of snow, one step at a time, legs plunging into whiteness. Almost as if it were the effects of high altitude sickness, I found some of friends going crazy over the endless fields of snow, one group was particularly creative for they were photographing themselves in angles which made them seem to climb perpendicular walls of snow, surely their facebook accounts will be flooded with congratulatory messages in honour of their solo expeditions into the tough Himalayas.

Me and Siddu reached late and thanked what is left of Mother Nature for this amazing spectacle and then almost as if, we had reached the grand finale, I found myself standing next to a vertical slope of more than two kilometers and the guide saying ‘Go’. Just that, no formalities, no wishes, just a simple word ‘Go’ and there I was twisted in gravity, sliding through a deep snow field as fast as my body could cope and amazingly with Siddu sliding or running parallel to me all the way. It was 60 or 80 seconds of a crazy, mind-numbingly moment of thrill made priceless by having Siddu come the entire way with me when finally the slope reduced and my butt braked me into a single human on a mountain slope with a crazily barking dog and an almost involuntary prayer of thanks to nature. I fell back, looked up to the clear sky, held my Siddu in my arms and went blank.

The others joined me soon, each holding their own individual tale of magic to their sleeves and started our long walk back to the base camp. I looked back after an hour and saw the mountains standing still, golden light on the summit, the slide marks still visible and a gang of deliriously happy individuals who had all experienced something unique. Siddu, merrily oblivious of all these emotional fluctuations that we were going through was busy concentrating on some cows who in turn were warily looking at this crazy dog running up to them at a mind-numbing speed.

We walked down and the shrubs vanished, the trees returned, meadows turned green and we knew that the mountain shall wait for us to return again. We walked down-hill, resting at another beautiful camp site and finally reached a small village where a giant dam is being built to ensure that we must play god with god and do that right inside God’s sacrosanct territory. Huge trucks and giant concrete beams were strewn around and ambitious agendas to dig tunnels through these giant mountains were in place so that no river may ever run free and no fish may dare to thrive, but the needs of us humans continue to be met as only we can think of these outrageous ideas to fill our quota of greed.

The magic of the past week with Siddu along with the shattering of the beautiful world we knew in form of this hideous dam and the fact that Siddu may be parting ways with us made me all the more melancholic. The bus conductor sportingly allowed Siddu to be boarded and we paid for his ticket and in an hour, we reached Kasol. At Kasol, Siddu was spotted by his family and they tearfully held on to him. I stood there, alone, looking at SIddu who was now called Buster and who suddenly did not look towards me and stood there for a long time, when finally it dawned upon me that it was time to say bye to him. I said bye and walked off from Kasol, back home.