Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Upper Mustang Trek - Finale

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VII or Part VIII

A few snippets from the trek that may be of interest.

The one thing about the food in the tea-houses is that it is normally laden with garlic. Probably because it is supposed to be good for AMS. Our palates, though, were so totally unused to so much garlic in every single dish that Ramesh had taken to specifying, more than once, "No garlic" every time we ordered a meal. So effective was his intervention that once he got no garlic even in his garlic bread!

The other group also was infected in part by Geeta's ideas of trekking. Apparently, after hitting Lo Manthang, half the group took ponies to come down. They eventually took a jeep from Muktinath and met us in Jomsom on their way to Poon Hill, where they trekked up steps for some 1800+ meters!

I will never forget the one time Reto pulled Ramesh's leg. When we met at Jomsom, Ramesh was detailing how he came down to Kagbeni and, then, trekked up to Muktinath with the help of the porter. Reto asked, totally deadpan, "Was the porter able to keep up with you?"

The Hotelier at Jomsom looked on us as rara avis. Apparently, trekking Indian were next to non-existent in that area (or, at least, his hotel). Most of the Indians that he had seen were pilgrims to Muktinath.

The stay at Pokhara was not totally event-free. We went on an early morning trek to Sarangkot to catch the sunrise on the Annapurna ranges. Geeta and I lost our way and ended up in a tea-house about a hundred meters below the view-point. As it happened, this place had as good a view and, compared to the jostling crowds at the view-point, it was a peaceful place to take in the brushwork of the early morning sun on the snow-clad peaks.

The next day, we took an ultralight flight. The bird's eye-view was great and it would have been felt like flying but for the persistent drone of the engine in the ears. Next time I shall ensure that we manage paragliding - we were too late to book this time.

For a man who has never seen a movie shot in India, it was a surprise to find a Nepalese movie being shot opposite our Hotel near the Pokhara lake. Looks like heroines there too need to be dressed in tatters for dance scenes and it was a revelation to me to see how utterly boring the shooting of a dance sequence could be.

Robert came down with a suspicious black eye and some specious reason for it. None of us believed in what he said :)

AND now the links for pics.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

The Upper Mustang Trek - VIII

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VI or Part VII

The group was split in three the next day. Ramesh went ahead (so what else is new?) with one of the porters, Praveen. Vinita was, as usual, in some indeterminate position after him. Kulendra and Chandru went next to ensure that the duffel bags were duly loaded onto the vehicle before the rest of us reached, in order to save some time. Geeta, Sampat and I trailed the group.

Descents are horrid on the knees and ankles because you use them to brake your momentum. There is such a thing as descending too fast for comfort after all. No matter how much we want to recapture our youth, cartwheeling down a slope is certainly not one of the most sought after ways. The trick is to take the downward slope with controlled speed so that you do not stress your joints and, at the same time, manage to retain your balance.

Easier said than done? Easy enough if you walk down with knees bent continuously and with your upper body bent forward. That brings the center of gravity of your body lower, making it easier to maintain your balance, and you can travel faster, too. Chandru had explained it in great detail but even his magic had not communicated the modus operandi to Geeta and Sampat.

I asked them to do the Orangutan jog and, miracle of miracles, they automatically bent the knees and stooped forward AND traveled faster. It is a rare occasion when something I say actually communicates to the recipients, and rarer still that I manage to do so when Chandru has tried and failed. I will not get over this experience any time soon, I assure you.

The need for speed, from my side, was primarily because the idea was to lunch at Muktinath - and the longer we took over reaching Kagbeni, the later we would leave and the longer I would have to remain hungry. (Glutton, you call me? I will have you know that missing or delaying a meal sets off the gas factory in my belly. If you have a shred of compassion in your make-up, you will regret that jibe soon!)

We hit Kagbeni but the vehicle was not yet available. Ramesh had already left with the porter, on his trek up to Muktimath. By the time we lined up the vehicle and left, it was around 2 PM and, again, we had that experience of traveling in all directions at once. We hit Muktinath after Ramesh had reached. AND, would you believe it, we had to climb some endless steps to get to the temple.

The temple of salvation (Mukti) is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and counts as one of the divya desams. It is also sacred to the Buddhists. The temple is the abode of all five elements. Earth, Sky and Air are available everywhere. Water is normally present too - as a lake or pond - but in Muktinath it is the 108 springs that feed the Kali Gandhaki. Fire, elsewhere, is only present in man-made forms. In Muktinath, there is a continuous natural flame - fed, possibly, by natural gas from underground, near the Jwaladevi temple and housed in a Buddhist temple. Muktinath is also a Shaktipeet, where the temple of Sati is supposed to have fallen.

After a ritual cleansing of the head in the 108 yalis that spew water (and, yet another place where I barely escaped frostbite on the scalp) , we had a darshan of the deity, saw the revered flames and descended down. Lunch time at 4 PM? Not really! Apparently, the last vehicle leaves at 5 PM after which we would have to stay back and wait for the next day. So, it was rush, rush, rush again with a promise of dinner at Jomsom.

Back to civilization but, unfortunately for me, the abstinence proved too much. A serious attack of acidity prostrated me for the next day and a half - when the others went on small day treks, egged on by Ramesh. Once the mandatory trekking was over, the enthusiasm Geeta and Sampat showed for trekking had to be seen to be believed.

Hot water baths, when the water IS hot, is such a pleasure - particularly when you have been deprived of it for so long. I spent the next couple of days reading books and nursing myself back to health. AND there were the mountains all the time - just waiting to enthrall you if you but walked out of the hotel.

We, then, left for Pokhara, spent a couple of days there and flew back to Delhi.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.

The Upper Mustang Trek - VII (The Legend of Tulsi)

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IVPart V or Part VI

All through the trek, we have been traveling in the vicinity of the Kali Gandhaki river and, now, we are about to go to Muktinath. It is necessary, then, to also tell you about the myth behind the river, since it is an inseparable part of the myth of Tulsi - the plant that Hindus venerate. There are two versions of the tale - one from the Shiv Puran and one from the Devi Bhagavatam.

The Shiv Puran version is the tale of Jalandhar and Vrinda. Once, when Lord Shiva was angry with Indra, due to the latter's ego, he opened his third eye and was stopped from immolating Indra by the prayers of Brihaspathi and the penitence of Indra. His fury, however, lodged in the Ocean and Jalandhar was born. Thus, in a manner, Jalandhar was the brother of Lakshmi, who also arose from the Ocean at the time of the Samudra Manthan (The churning of the Ocean).

Jalandhar married Vrinda, the daughter of the asura Kalanemi. Vrinda was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu (one version is that she was a gopi cursed by Radha) and as long as she was chaste and prayed for Jalandhar's welfare, Jalandhar was protected from any harm. Jalandhar proceeded to conquer the three worlds and the devas were deprived of their kingdom. Lord Vishnu fights a long and indecisive battle against him but, on the entreaties of Lakshmi, he makes peace with her brother.

Hearing the Sage Narada extol the praises of the beauty of Goddess Parvati, Jalandhar sends a message to Shiva to live true to his reputation of a Yogi and surrender his beautiful wife. Angered by the missive, Lord Shiva battles against Jalandhar but is unable to overcome him. Meanwhile, Jalandhar creates an illusion that keeps Lord Shiva and his army occupied and goes to Goddess Parvati in the guise of Lord Shiva. The Goddess recognizes him for who he was and rises in fury to kill him whereupon he escapes.

When the Goddess asks the Lord Vishnu about why Lord Shiva was finding it difficult to vanquish Jalandhar, he tells her that the Vrinda's chastity and devotion to himself was protecting Jalandhar. The Goddess, then, requests him to put an end to Vrinda's chastity if that was the only way to vanquish Jalandhar.

Heavyhearted at practising such a deception on his devotee, Lord Vishnu takes the appearance of Jalandhar and goes to Vrinda, who receive him as a wife would receive her husband. With her chastity destroyed, Lord Shiva kills Jalandhar with his Trishul. Learning of the deception, Vrinda curses Lord Vishnu to be trapped in a stone (which is the reason why the Shaligram is supposed to embody Vishnu) and, also, that he would suffer separation from his wife (as he did in the Ramayan). Thereafer, Vrinda immolates herself but Lord Vishnu saves her hair and converts it into the Tulsi plant.

The Devi Bhagavatam has a similar tale - with minor variations. In an argument between the Goddesses Lakshmi, Ganga and Saraswati, Ganga and Saraswati are cursed to become rivers and Lakshmi is cursed to be born human and marry an asura. An aspect of Lakshmi is born as Tulsi, the daughter of Dharmadwaj. She undergoes austerities to marry Lord Vishnu when Lord Brahma appears and tells her that before marrying the Lord, she would have to marry an asura.

Meanwhile, Sudama (who, in this case, is considered an aspect of Lord Vishnu) is born as an asura - Shankachud, son of Dhamba - and he marries Tulsi. Shankachud is blessed to be invincible as long as Tulsi remains chaste. He conquers the three worlds and, in his arrogance, challenges the Lord Shiva. The Lord Shiva finds it impossible to vanquish him.

Lord Vishnu then, reluctantly, takes the shape of Shankachud and goes to Tulsi. Shankachud is killed by Lord Shiva and the news is conveyed to Tulsi while Lord Vishnu is with her in her husband's apearance. Upon being accused by an inconsolably weeping Tulsi, Lord Vishnu appears in his true shape. Tulsi accuses him of being stonehearted and curses him to become a stone. Her body decays into a river - Kali Gandhaki - and her hair turns into the Tulsi shrub.

We have a habit of picking all the wrong lessons to learn from our myths. The things to be noted are that a. Even though it WAS the Lord, who committed the 'crime', and even though it was done under compulsion, he accepted the punishment imposed on him and b. Far from being reviled as unchaste - as would probably have been done in these unjust times - Tulsi is a deity to be venerated by the chaste.

Now that we know why the Lord Vishnu - in the form of the Shaligrams - lies always in the embrace of the Kali Gandhaki river, and why Tulsi is Vishnupriya, we can proceed with the last stages of the trek.

Photo Credit: Sampat

The Upper Mustang Trek - VI

Click to read Part 1Part IIPart IIIPart IV or Part V

The climb to Samar on the way up was now the descent. We were headed to Chusang and we started off with the testing descent. Now that we were taking it in easy stages, there was a miraculous revival of interest - nay, active enthusiasm - in Sampat and Geeta. Strange how, once we dispense with the tough parts, trekking seems to become almost an obsession.

Midway though, at the tea-stop, Geeta suddenly developed a new interest. There was a school bus starting off from there and she wanted to continue her trek by bus. No amount of twitting her about the fact that riding piggyback did not mean that she had become a school girl would stop her complaints about how hardhearted Chandru and I were in denying her the pleasure. Apparently, she was vying for the exclusive pleasure of having 'trekked' by every available mode of transportation. (The fact that there was an old foreign gentleman, who was trekking by the expedient of riding a pony uphill and walking downhill, robbed her of that necessary feeling of uniqueness in having 'trekked' by pony. We had to console her by telling her that he could not have done the piggyback ride and the motorbike ride, too)

Ramesh, as usual, had sped ahead and, when we reached the destination, we had a message to join him at the river. By the time we set out - trying to find a way to the river - he was back going gaga about exactly the same things that I talked of when I mentioned my earlier dips in the water. We got side-tracked into plucking apples right of the trees nearby and crunching them. Such crisp, tangy and juicy apples as I had never had in my life - but then I have mostly been a city-brat and something fresh off the trees has not come my way too often.

We did try to reach the river, thereafter, but the only path was a near 90 degree descent - easy enough to accomplish, if you just thought of sliding down, but daunting to think of climbing back up. Ramesh, I suppose, must have found a way OR used this path but judging what I could do by what he could do was more stupid than even I can claim to be. So, we retreated to the tea-house.

There were a few foreigners in the tea-house, as indeed there had been in almost all the tea-houses we were in, who asked Ramesh whether we were all trekking friends - to which he pointedly replied, "Friends but NOT trekking friends". Such is human nature. If you read/write books that I would not read, you are no reader/writer; if you enjoy movies that I do not enjoy, you are no movie buff etc etc. Strange how we define every activity only by how WE prefer doing them.

I am sure that there must be someone - who carries all his belongings himself; finds his own way; puts up his own tent; cooks his own food on his own campfire - who would sneer at the idea of Ramesh calling himself a trekker! Chandru and I, on the other hand, call ourselves trekkers merely because we know of no other word to differentiate what we prefer doing from what Ramesh prefers doing and, thus, what Ramesh said did not act on us like he had deprived us of a deserved Nobel prize. We had both left behind the hierarchies of corporate life and were in no hurry to be fitted into hierarchies in what we thought of as our leisure activity.

So, when the next day's plan was for us to trek to Kagbeni, take a jeep to Muktinath and then continue by jeep to Jomsom, while Ramesh would trek to Kagbeni and then to Muktinath, there was no rush of volunteers to join Ramesh. (From Chusang to Muktinath would have been shorter BUT Ramesh needed the porter to guide him and the porter had to dump our duffel bags in Kagbeni first.)

The last day of the mandatory trek lay ahead on the next day.

Photocredits: Fellow-trekkers. None taken by me.