Monday, March 21, 2016


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Kedarkantha - slide show

The Winter Embrace of Kedarkantha

I am in Berlin, and trying to write this blog entry at 4 am in the morning. This has long been overdue; though I came back to Delhi after doing the Kedarkantha trek in the second week of January, but the life in Delhi has ever since been too hectic at personal and professional fronts, preventing me to jot down a few lines about the amazing trek and my personal reminisces. But it is not to say that the experience has sunk down deep in my memory lane; I often think, remember, live and cherish the time I had with the group during this snowbound trek in very low tempertatures. Even here I wish to look at the photographs.

I had been thinking of doing Kedarkantha ever since 2011, when I did Roopkund trek with the Indiahikes. We were impressed with the logistics and arrangements done by the Indiahikes, and had wanted to do some more treks with them. Since I had never done any snow-bound winter trek ever, we zeroed down on Kedarkantha, which Indiahikes had recently added to its kitty. Meanwhile, Shariff, Malini (my colleagues) and Vasuman (son) completed the trek long back, and I had to wait thus far to find or create the opportunity. But then, things are destined, they say, and I was destined to do this trek with Kushagra, and the fantastic bunch of 25 young enthusiasts.

Kushagra was planning to visit us some time in December 2015, but when I told him about my intention of booking for Kedarkantha trek in the first week of January, he firmed up his dates immediately to join me for the trek, as he said, ‘it is quite a while, we had done a trek together’.

When I looked at the Indiahikes website to book, I was surprised to see that all the suitable dates for us were already full. It seemed the trek was fast becoming popular. Fortunately, I had saved some telephone numbers of Indiahikes from my previous trek, and to my good luck, the numbers were active, working, and when I rang up, someone immediately put me in touch with Prathima, who assured me of helping us by accommodating us on our preferred date. She precisely did that. Prathima was kind of in-charge of the group leaving on 2nd January, and as I realized, she was mentoring the group throughout.

Fortunately, I had already been training myself for this trek for last few months by working out in gym or going for long walks for cardiopulmonary exercises, endurance, and strengthening my quads and glutes. The significance of training oneself for any trek cannot be overemphasized, and Prathima too had been reminding the group members time and again to practice running 4.5 km in 30 minutes. What I was a little worried about was managing the low temperatures. In the month of January, it could go as low as minus 10 C. But when Kush arrived in December, he advised me very precisely how I should layer myself with specialized layers without overburdening myself. Though his advice was very reassuring, yet the anxieties remained.

That Kedarkantha was going to be an exciting trek was never in doubt. After all, the Indiahikes has labeled this trek as the best ever winter trek. It had given many reasons in support of its verdict: it remains snow bound from December till April, prettiest campsites, beautiful drive in Himalayas, pleasure of walking on a carpet of brown leaves with snow peaks all around. I could vouch for that. We had done nearby ‘Har-ki-Doon’ trek way back in 1993, and to this day I find ‘Har-ki-Doon’ as one of most beautiful treks. The exciting part of Kedarkantha was doing it in winter with snow-laden path under extreme cold conditions.

When I was preparing myself physically and mentally, Prathima from the Indiahikes was constantly in touch with all the group members reminding us about how to prepare ourselves, what all essentials we should carry (no more, no less), what we should expect by way of arrangements, giving various important contact numbers etc. The most praiseworthy part was that whenever any member posed any query on the group email, the response came almost immediately. Meanwhile, one trek member had soon created a whatsapp group for members to get acquainted with one another. They were coming from all over, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and the US.

Little bit about Kedarkantha: One has to first reach a village by name of Sankari to begin the trek.  The road for Sankari (the starting point for the trek) starts from Mussourie and passes through Kempty falls, and some other small towns like Barkot, Purola, to enter the Supin range of Himalayas. A couple of hours before reaching Sankari, one enters Govind wild life sanctuary, a protected area. One then views two rivers, Supin and Rupin, and their confluence, which finally merges with river Yamuna. When a few decades back, my uncle and auntie were trekking towards Har-ki-Doon, they decided that whenever they were blessed with a daughter, they would name her Rupin; and they precisely did that. Now Rupin is a smart young lady, working where else but Silicon Valley. One then reaches Netwar, a small village, which used to be the starting point for beginning the trek to Har-ki-Doon way back in early 1990s, since that was the end of road head that time. Now road goes as far as Sankari. Sankari is a small village of about 400 houses at a height of 1950 m (6400 ft). It has a GMVN guesthouse of about 15 rooms, and a couple of private guesthouses. Sankari is now the base camp for both, Har-ki-Doon as well as Kedarkantha. Once you starting walking up, it is all the way uphill trek amidst lush green forests of pine, oak and other trees. There are two campsites, Juda ka Talab and Kedarkantha base camp at very picturesque sites, finally taking you to Kedarkantha peak at 12,500 ft.

Our journey from Delhi to Mussourie by train, then onwards to Sankari by SUVs was quite uneventful. We met up briefly with our batch mates whenever we stopped for breakfast, tea or lunch on our way up. There were two father-son teams, two husband-wife teams; many of the members were colleagues or had been friends since school days. There was a group of 9 from Bengaluru, who had studied together in school, all graduated from various engineering colleges, and now were all software engineers in Bengaluru itself. Others were fast becoming friends with one another. Youngest of the group was 11 year old Shreshtha, and the oldest was ‘yours truly’.

When we reached Sankari in the evening, Harshit (trek leader) welcomed us at the guesthouse along with his team of technical experts, Sarvan and Tarpan, with hot tea and delicious pakoras. We were tired, and perhaps famished, or the charm of hot pakoras in a remote area, we ate like hogs. Harshit gave a detailed briefing of our trek, which I would rate among the best briefings I have ever had. He explained each point in detail, answered to every query patiently, and did not mind if there were frequent interruptions or similar questions being asked by different members. The GMVN guesthouse at Sankari is basic, with spacious and reasonably clean rooms, toilets with running water, flush working, but no hot water please. The quilts were heavy but warm, so did not have to struggle for sleep.

The morning was bright and sunny, and after a sumptuous breakfast we were ready to trek to ‘Juda ka talaab’.  The other groups had also camped in the village, and their members had left before us. We were to trek for only 4-5 km, but would gain 2700 ft, so it was an ascent all the way. The trek passed through a dense forest of pine  and maple trees, and I think there were rhododendrons also; did not see any wild life, birds were chirping, but too high in the pine trees, so could not sight any. The climb was not tough, but at places, there was slush, or frozen snow that made the trek slippery at places. But I was happy that I was making good progress, and not feeling any fatigue. What I had decided this time was to necessarily consume 3-4 litres of water every day. That is the key to success; you prevent dehydration, and it prevents mountain sickness. So by the time we left Sankari, I had already consumed at least 1.5 lt of water. The campsite was almost like the size of a football field, and had on its left side the ‘talab’, the pond, of the size of ‘D’ of the field, was half frozen. We were now at 9200 ft, and the temperature was falling down rapidly. Though we had reached quite early in the day, I had decided to enter my tent only after having my dinner. Meanwhile, Kushagra helped the group do some stretching and flexibility exercises. I continued with my walking and breathing exercises preparing myself for the tough part over next two days. I started getting acquainted with the group members, and had found them to be a fantastic bunch. More about them later. Later in the afternoon, some members got together to play ‘pitthu’, known as ‘laghori’ in local language, and also known as ‘seven stones’. It was fun seeing them running around or away from the ball, or chasing stones and putting them one on top of other. Meanwhile, the kitchen staff brought hot tea and ‘chatpata pakoras’. Everyone got together to polish them fast, but the kitchen staff kept on supplying them till we ourselves could eat no more. I must say something about the kitchen staff right away. They were an enthusiastic bunch of young people, who never shied away, whether it was cooking and serving food in sub-zero temperatures, or pouring rains, or at an unearthly hour of 3 am. And each meal was a multi-course meal, starting with starters, soup, main course, and dessert, followed by hot chocolate. To top it, there was hot water available for washing our cup-plates.
The next day trek was to Kedarkantha base camp. I wondered why it does not have any other name. It was at an altitude of 11,400 ft, and of course has no resident population. From here one could see peaks all around us, but with some haze and clouds, it was difficult to identify these with names. The trek leader identified them for us as, Swargrohini, Bunderpoonch, and Kalanag etc. The camp was a pretty site, with snow all around. Following lunch, people got on to their own devices. In no time, there was a snowman erected giving all of us ample opportunity for photographs and selfies. My anxiety levels had starting increasing. The next day’s ascent to the peak of Kedarkantha was going to be a steep one, in freezing conditions on snow-covered treks. I was worried about my fitness, capacity to tolerate low temperatures, and had fear of slipping on snow trek or frozen ice. Arjun Majumdar’s video on how to layer ourselves in low temperatures, Kush’s selection of right gear and wear, Harshit’s (trek leader) assurances to be by my side all the way up, and other members’ enthusiasm and encouragement was much helpful in keeping my morale high. With the sun setting, the mercury started falling down rapidly, and many of us were losing our appetite. But it was essential to keep ourselves well nourished and hydrated. Fortunately, I was drinking enough water, keeping away fatigue as well as other problems of high altitude.
The night was cold, but the tents and the sleeping bags, being of good quality, were able to keep us warm in sub-zero temperatures. But it was difficult to sleep soundly. After tossing and turning, I woke up very early to get ready for the challenging yet most exciting day of the trek. We were to trek for 3-4 hours to reach the summit at 12500 ft. One wanted to enjoy the rising sun and sun-basked peaks in front, but I was concentrating in maintaining my pace. The peak where we were to ascend appeared so distant, testing my resolve time and again to walk.
The soft snow covered trek was now hard ice, taking each step became an effort. In spite of frequent temptation to stop and rest, I resisted; that would have meant delay as well as breaking the rhythm. Kush was in front, but keeping an eye on me all the time. He kept on encouraging and goading me to push myself. What a relief it was when at some distance I saw our batch mates assembled on a small flat area at the top, excitedly making noise like school kids during their lunch break. What an exhilaration it was when I joined them at the top. It was an unbelievable feeling of excitement, relief, and elation. When Kush hugged me, I was overwhelmed with emotion. On the top, there was Lord Shiva’s temple. We all bowed down to pray.
Even when I had reached the top, it was an humbling experience. As I had written in my earlier post…
Coming down was easy and fun. Now we were descending down on the southern ridge, which was heavily covered with soft snow. We discovered very soon that sliding down on the snow was the best and fun filled exercise.
We were to reach Sankari via Hargaon, where we stopped for a night. Just before Sankari, when I was to take a trail out of so many going down, I heard a melodious voice cautioning me not to take that trail since trekkers often fell down there. This young girl was coming from her orchard nearby bringing some fruit. I was overjoyed when she offered me a kiwi. I did not know kiwi was grown there. I eagerly peeled and ate it. And I can vouch, never in my life had I tasted a more delicious fruit of kiwi. She disclosed that she would study to become a doctor; I wished her well, and thought if somewhere down the line we would be working together.
A few words about my batch mates. I had spent some enjoyable time with these young guys during this trek. Many of them, Sunil, Rishab, Gaurav, Utsav, and Ashish had encyclopaedic knowledge about computers, smart phones and mobile apps. Some knew all about movies, whether Hollywood or Bollywood. Milind Tambe, a naval architect, was in profession of rescuing stranded ships in the ocean. He could also give a tip or two on photography as well. He has promised to take me along when he goes for his next rescue operation. I hope he remembers it. Sunil Chauhan could patiently wait for his panoramic shots and night photography. If you cared to ask, he would teach you as well. Bengaluru group was a big group, always willing to help others.

On our last evening of the trek at Sankari was of sharing our experiences and thanksgiving. I had a long list of people to thank: to name a few, the Indiahikes team, trek leader Harshit Patel, Sarvan and Tarpan, all the kitchen and housekeeping team, the fellow trekkers, and many others. I shared with them a story of fish and shark. How the presence of shark in ocean or fish tank is crucial to keep fish alert and active. We all should always have a challenge before us. It acts as a huge motivating force to keeps us productive, innovative, and full of life.
Kushagra had been a constant guide before and throughout the trek. On return, he posted the following lines on his facebook page, the best lines of this trek, As a young boy this man took me up on my first trek up the majestic Himalayas leaving me with a deep lasting love for the outdoors. This week, twenty-five years later, he and I went back for a winter trek in Uttarakhand to climb up the beautiful Kedarkantha. As he overcame the bitter cold and severe fatigue to bravely surmount the last couple of miles to the summit I realized that I'm still following him trying to be half the man he is. Dad you will always be my hero. Love you. #‎Himalayas #‎family #‎climbing #‎trekking #‎India

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Kashmir - a personal narrative

I am writing this from Srinagar Airport, on the last day of my 3-day visit. I returned to Kashmir after 12 years. My last visit was here in 2003, when Vasuman and I drove down from Leh to Srinagar via Kargil, Dras and the treacherous Zozilla pass. That visit to Leh was incredible in many ways. We had (Chitra with us) travelled from Manali to Leh by rickety public transport bus. But that was not the most painful part of our journey. From a height of 6500 ft we had climbed to Sarchu at 15000 ft on the same day, giving ourselves practically no time to acclimatize to high altitude. All three of us were suffering from headache, lack of appetite and feeling nauseous, and cold, but Chitra faced the brunt. She was so miserable that she was willing to dictate her will, only that I had no strength left to take down the notes. Next day, we crossed the second highest motorable pass, Tangri La at 17500 ft, when even Vasu and I wanted desperately the ordeal to be over, such a splitting headache we had. But soon after crossing, we started descending down, and things started improving, but leaving us totally drained. It was only when we sighted the mighty Indus river (Sindhu) that we had a sense of exhilaration, with fatigue also then retreating. At the crossing, we could even enjoy our cup of tea, with what else but ‘samosa’. But I must reiterate that journey was a new experience in our Himalayan travels. Nowhere in Himalayas, you get to see such changing landscape. From the lush green pine forests to bushes to green meadows, then to the naked mountains, with not even a blade of grass. And the mountains changing so many colours, I now cannot recall all. After staying at Leh, Chitra refused to go with us to Srinagar by road, and preferred to return to Delhi by air. But she was a sport in accompanying us to Khardung La at 18500 ft, the highest motorable road in the world.
Vasu and I carried on to Srinagar by road via Batalik sector, Dras and Kargil. The Kargil war had taken place only four years ago, and we saw huge army presence and big convoys of armored vehicles. We also saw the famous Tiger hill, and experienced a strange feeling when we stayed overnight at Kargil.
2003 was the year, when Kashmir valley was experiencing its first rush of tourists after a gap of many years. The hotels, guest houses, house boats, markets, restaurants, places of tourist interests were full of people from the plains. And we had to wait for long time at STD booths, whenever we wanted to have a long distance call. Kashmir at that time perhaps had no mobile connectivity.  
Over the years, since the start of militancy and ‘liberation movement’ in Kashmir, I have heard many intellectuals, socialists and opinion makers advocating, ‘let the Kashmiris decide, whether they wish to remain with India, or go with Pakistan, or have fully independent state’. Many times I too felt that way. However, after my visit to Kashmir in 2003 and savoring the incredible beauty of its landscape and warmth of people, I now know that we cannot afford the loss of Kashmir. We cannot separate ourselves from Kashmir.
I found this time a marked change among the people in Srinagar from the time of 2003. There was free movement of people everywhere and all the time. There was no obvious army presence in the civilian areas. There were no road barriers or security checks of vehicles etc. Even at late night, the vehicles and people, including women, were moving around freely. However, the floods (sailaab) of last year have taken a heavy toll on the city. Most of the city looks weary, old and colorless. The entire city is in need of major repairs and renovation work. It is here that people are bitter of government’s sloppiness and lack of serious intent on improving the lot of citizens. The relief has not reached needy people, while government says it has spent 1500 crores. It does not require an intelligent guess to know where the money has gone. They are angry over the previous chief minister, who just sat like a nincompoop doing nothing, literally like the proverbial Nero who sat twiddling thumbs while Rome was burning.
The present government keeps on lamenting about lack of ‘central assistance’ for all its incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption. PM Modi had visited Srinagar soon after sailaab and had assured people of ‘achhe din’ and ‘parivartan’, but nothing has been visible on the ground. The people are angry and bitter. Manjoor, who was chaperoning me around, sums it up differently, “this is all ‘Allah ka kahar’, Kashmiris are paying for their own sins; first, they suffered the wrath of militancy, and now this sailaab”. He says, ‘Kashmiris have become lazy and corrupt; they are entrusting all work to the Bihari migrants, and have forgotten the virtue of work and labour. He is not wrong about the work force from Bihar. Most of the hawkers, vendors, and unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers are now from Bihar. Even for their traditional and unparalleled skill in shawl and carpet weaving, they are employing outside labour. 
This time I found people much relaxed; they were open about talking of so many of contentious issues. Even if many people were driven by an ideology, they could talk about all the ill effects of militancy of nearly three decades, that militants are nothing but social outcasts, thugs and interested only in making money, and abusing firepower and women. They also state that Kashmir cannot afford to go with a failed state that Pakistan is; it cannot demand a fully autonomous and independent status, when it is surrounded by three nuclear powers. They accept that Kashmir’s destiny is linked with India only.
In last few years, the number of vehicles have grown beyond the capacity of roads. New roads and alternate routes do not exist. A welcome change, however, is the number of women drivers on cars as well as scooty.
One observation has been constant in all my visits to Kashmir, that is, all the governments without exception, have done precious little about the development of Kashmir. We do not tire ourselves of comparing Kashmir with Switzerland, or that ‘if there is a heaven on Earth, it is here, here, and here only’, but what a state we have reduced it to. The state of roads, infrastructure, developmental projects, all are as bad as they were in my earlier visit in 1987. On the name of development, Kashmir has only unplanned hotels and guesthouses and real state to show.
During the Mughal period in particular, Emperor Jahangir and his wife Nur Jahan were so enamoured of Kashmir that during summer they moved to Srinagar with their full court entourage from Delhi at least 13 times. Shalimar Bagh was their imperial summer residence and the Royal Court. They crossed the arduous snowy passes of the Pir Panjal mountain range on elephants to reach Srinagar. The black pavilion built during the early part of Jahangir's reign in the top terrace of the Shalimar Bagh, has the famous inscription in Persian, which says:
Agar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast.
This is a couplet by the Persian poet Amir Khusrau,
Translated to English, it means, ‘If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here’.
It is also mentioned that when Jahangir was asked on his death bed about his cherished desire he is credited to have said, ‘Kashmir, the rest is worthless.’

Sunday, June 28, 2015


Gorkha Earthquake : a personal narrative

“Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts; we are shortly going to land in Kathmandu; the local time is 2.45 pm, and the temperature is 25 Celsius”. The shrill voice of the airhostess woke me up from my reverie. I was returning to Kathmandu after a year, and for the first time after the devastating earthquake of 25th April. Ever since I visited Kathmandu for the first time in 1995, I fell in love with Nepal and its people. And this love, having been cemented with my stay in Dharan, 1997-1999, has grown over the years. During my short journey from Delhi to Kathmandu, I could not help but thinking with trepidations that in what shape would I find Kathmandu and its people. Though I remained in regular touch with my acquaintances in Kathmandu and Dharan to know their welfare, I knew it would be a different ballgame to see things first hand.

From the window of the aircraft I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas, but was disappointed due to the cloud cover. During the check-in at the Delhi airport, I was surprised when the check-in agent asked me if I had any preference for the seat. That meant the flight was not full. Usually Delhi-Kathmandu flights are always full, so one cannot get a seat of choice if not already reserved on web check-in. I always prefer a window seat on the left side, since it allows one to have a peek at the Himalayas. Predictably, a number of seats were not occupied. Tourists are avoiding going there, and for trekkers it has been a big disappointment, since all the popular treks are closed down due to massive landslides that had claimed lives of so many Sherpas and the trekkers. From the aircraft, I could only see buildings after buildings. Each successive year, I find the green cover of the valley shrinking in geometric proportion. The baggage area of the Kathmandu airport had stacks of relief material all over.

After I checked in a hotel in the Thamel, I went for a walk in the area. Thamel is usually a lively area with mostly white tourists (for Indian tourists, the favorite spots remain Pashupatinath temple, casinos, and various malls and shopping areas). The shopping in Thamel is mostly of the trekking gear, and it is littered with restaurants serving cuisines of every part of the world. It also has some very good bakeries, and my love for apple pie began here only. In a decade or so, an additional ‘attraction’ that has been added here is of ‘dance bars’ and ‘massage parlours’. It was disappointing to see the area bereft of its usual crowd. There were virtually no tourists in any of the shops. The eateries wore a deserted look. ‘Hot Bread’, which usually would sell its unsold items of the day at 50% rates at 9.30 pm, was doing so at 8.30 pm.
Prof Saroj Ojha, head, Dept of Psychiatry at the Institute of Medicine, Kathmandu visited me at my hotel with his wife. And after preliminaries, the talk soon shifted to the ‘Gorkha earthquake’. Listen to Prof Ojha in his own words, “We were having lunch with my aged mother and two kids, it being the Saturday, and suddenly felt as if our chairs and the table were pushed by a train engine with a deafening roar. After a momentary hesitation, we realized it was an earthquake, and went underneath the dining table, hoping it would be over within seconds. But the seconds stretched to never ending time. I felt we were pushed and pulled simultaneously in opposite directions, with a force over which we had no control. I was stunned into total silence, remained huddled underneath the table, clutching my two children, while my wife and mother kept chanting prayers all the time. All I could think was death, death, and death; all other thoughts had deserted me; I could not even frame my parting words to my family. Once the violent jerks stopped, it took us a few minutes more to come from underneath the table, which seemed to be providing some security, and we immediately rushed outside into the open area, which seemed to be the safest place on entire Earth. The scene outside was chaotic; no building had fallen down, but the entire neighbourhood had come outside; people were crying, even when none seemed to have died there, shouting, screaming, whispering, some were in total shock; people rushed to me for advice as to what they should do now. What could I tell them; I was as confused as they were. I was totally paralysed, not knowing what to do, should we go back inside, or just run away somewhere. I wanted some divine intervention to suggest to me the safest place on the Earth, where I could head to with my family.” Prof Ojha decided to shift his family to his office in the Institute of Medicine, where he lived with his family for the next one month. It seemed to be the most convenient place; besides his own, IOM is working place for Mrs Ojha too, who is gynaecologist there. Food was available in many canteens within the hospital compound, or from many eateries in the vicinity. In case of any emergency, medical help was available 24 hours. For next few weeks, Prof Saroj Ojha remained in great demand with the TV channels and print media for his advice to people on what should they anticipate, and how they should look after their emotional health, but ‘I myself remained a bundle of nerves within myself; I did not know whom to turn to for advice’. 

Sudhir K Khandelwal
Despatch from Kathmandu

26 June 2015