Day 5 : The Sky Lights Up
I wake up suddenly. It feels that I have spent a long time asleep. It must be dawn. I feel for the watch to check the time. To my utter disbelief the time is just 10, not AM but PM. It’s hardly 100 minutes since I have slept. This is going to be a long night. I decide not to see the time again till morning. The sleep eludes me. The dogs are barking outside. Even they are awake! Is the night too cold or is this called altitude sickness? Judging by the constant sound of struggling movements of others, I assume they are also sleep-deprived. Krishnan’s snoring is the only formidable challenge against the mighty sickness.
It’s our rest day. And what you do on such day? You get up early at 4 in the morning -in case you are not already up, get ready and go to watch sun rising over the sleeping mountains. I am glad Biren knocks the door. It’s been a long sleepless night and I have been waiting too long for the savior. Everyone is complaining about not getting proper sleep. Krishnan is the only one still silently wrapped up in his sleeping bag. I remark that he is the only one who could actually sleep in the night. Jabaan kheech lunga agar kisine bola mujhe achhi neend aayi hai, comes the guided salvo fired at me. The tone and the intensity is so high that we incredulously break into laughter. Krishnan, you too! I wanted to say those words but my laughing spell did not see merit in it. The morning has started well. It’s gonna be a good day.
The dawn is yet to break the night’s spell. We climb the small hill in front of Dzongri Hut and start eastward towards Dzongri Top, which offers view of sunrise over the mountains. Behind me, in the west, over the Singalila mountain range in Nepal, the almost full moon is all set to watch sun going to its business for the day. It must have snowed in the night since the path is full of fresh snow. The white ornamental snowflakes are entangled in the bushes. Most of the mountains are covered with white blanket. We are actually above the clouds. The thick layer of clouds is trying to rise to the level of the mountains.The temperature is zero degree Celsius and it feels like every bone is freezing inside the body. We cross a hill, follow the narrow trail and see the fluttering prayer flags. The flags are local people’s way to thank the Almighty to help them survive in the harsh weather. It’s also kind of landmark to identify a place. That particular place is Dzongri Top.
At 4167 meters, Dzongri Top offers the panoramic view of the full range of mountains which not many other places can provide. From East to West, Narsing, Pandim, the three Kabrus, Ratong, Kumbhakarna and Frey’s Peak stand tall. In between North Kabru and Pandim, Kangchenjunga is slightly visible, tormenting the viewer and enticing him to get closer if he wants a full view. What catches my attention is the Kabrus: the South and North Kabru are extrelemy white, covered fully in snow and give impression if someone has plastered the snow on them working overnight. They look like the monks in white robs, unflinching in their devotion. The twins’ younger sibling, the Kabru Dome or Kabru Black, is fully black and dome-shaped. In comparison to their taller twins, it looks more human and thus fallible. That is the only black mountain in the full range. It might be out of place. Or placed strategically to enhance the contrast.
The sun lights up the mountains with morning light of red and golden hues. Light seems to be touching the soul of every life, be it humans or trees. The sky regains its blue color. We click some group photos for memorabilia. I am busy capturing the peaks. Krishnan is standing next to me. A foreigner lady is on his other side.
He looks at her and asks, Are you a German?
She frowningly replies, No, I am from Poland.
This conversation would have been completely forgettable if not for what follows next.
She asks back, Why did you think I am a German?
Krishnan’s reply is, From the texture of your skin…
I cough a laugh. I am barely holding myself from breaking into splits. I am not facing them so I block my mouth. This is quite a novel way to identify someone’s country. The question in my mind is, how many other textures Krishnan knows. He has solid explanation that he was living in Germany for a long time and can identify the Germans by their skin texture.
Though the sun is out now, the cold does not cease to freeze us. We cannot stand at the top for long. We start back towards Dzongri Hut. Suddenly the wind starts blowing heavily. The weak snowflakes are lifted from the ground or from the bushes in air and flying recklessly. I am slapped on face by some of them and it hurts. I better hold myself lest I will start flying in this wind. I stop on the trail, my back facing the wind, the feet firmly on ground, holding my stick and hoping that this little storm will pass. As the wind slows down a bit, I start walking fast. The chilly breeze causes me running nose. I feel as if I am breathing snow and exhaling water in the process. Penetrating the rampaging wind, I reach to the hut. Vinay struggles his way to the Hut. He is in trouble. He had trouble climbing to the top. He felt giddy. Jaggi says that he has altitude sickness. That’s another bad sign. These are signs of the challenges to come in coming days as we go higher.
The breakfast consisting of bread omelets and hot pancakes is waiting for us. After finishing every bite of the food, I try to sleep but I find no entry to that impregnable fort. I venture out. The sun is shining bright. It’s time to take bath – not in water, that will have to wait for a few more days- but in sunlight. I climb over to the small hill. Our porters and yakman are enjoying the sun. A little further, Sandip has spread himself over the grass. Making my camera bag as the pillow, I stretch myself over the gentle slope. The warmth of sun is caressing my face gently. The white smoke of the clouds rise from the valley every moment and hurry past us. In childhood, we used to say that the clouds are going to fill water in them. Those were the days of watching a train whistling past on the track, splashing in the rain, getting dirty in mud and watching clouds in the sky. This very day, I watch those clouds passing by on horizon. Drifting…drifting away…like wandering thoughts…in the realm and reality of their own.
When there are no clouds --and such moments are rare- there is a clear view of Singalila range and Kabrus. The alpine trees are lined up on the slopes of the mountains. In some distance I can see some alpine meadows where yaks are grazing. I switch on my iPod. The first song it plays is ye hansee waadiyaan. Every time i enjoy nature’s bounty, somehow my iPod always succeeds to echo the sentiments of my heart. The next appearance is aaj main upar, aasman neeche. The ever grateful iPod does not fail to thank nature and sings shukraan allah.
Ashish and Ashutosh join us. All of us watch the clouds taking different shapes – a horse this time, a deer next, a dragon the following moment. The canvas of the sky is throwing shapes in wide variety. I would love to pass my day just watching the artist spraying the white color on the canvas. Ashutosh and Ashish walk to the rock on the cliff. It overlooks the alpine valley beneath. The river Ratong Chu is down somewhere, currently hidden by the tall trees. We sit there, silent with the valley and the Singalila range in front of us. Some birds fly in an imposing formation. They do that quite often here, says Sandip. I observe a solitary crow flying up starting from valley deep down. It flies over our heads and goes behind the Hut in a flash.
Jaggi, Krishnan, Vinay and Suman also join us there. I am expecting that Vinay will come up with an ultra short plan, proposing to skip Bikbari and Chaurikhang which are there in our original plan, and instead directly go to Goechela, thus finishing the trek in next 3-4 days. Instead, to my sheer horror, he says that he is returning back tomorrow because it’s not advisable to continue when you are down with altitude sickness! I miss a heartbeat when Krishnan also says that he is returning back because he has knee pain! He started getting pain from yesterday and it’s getting aggravated. They want to go further, I can see that in their eyes. But when your body speaks, you should listen to it, else it shouts a great deal by the way of intolerable pain. They know that they have made a correct choice however painful it may be. It disturbs me thinking about missing them. That also makes me miss my other friends and family members.
In the evening, Jaggi, Sandip and I walk halfway up the Dzongri Top. Kabrus are magnificent in the setting sun. There is something soothing when you look at those monks. It’s transcendent. They remain there forever, like a reliable friend.
Sandip does not stay much inside the room. Every time he comes back, he has information about a new foreigner. He is inclined towards them, I suppose. This time when he enters the room, I expect to hear about another foreigner. Instead he says that night sky is beautiful. We should go and take a look. The dinner is over. Everyone is preparing to go to bed. I want to check the sky before starting my tryst with sleeplessness again while others stay inside the room. I will thank my luck all the life for that decision. There are hundreds of stars dotting the sky as if in a big religious procession. They are so close you actually get tempted to stretch your arm to get hold of them. The peaks and the sides of the mountains are decorated with the bright starry lights. They twinkle like children are laughing wholeheartedly. Sandip sets his camera many times to click the photos. I am just happy looking at the sky. We find Saptarshi, or the Big Dipper, in that big crowd. I know only that group of stars and it has fascinated me since my childhood. My hands are numb as they are out of the gloves to hold the torch and help Sandip set his camera. But the heart is all warm with the delightful scenery above us. When I close my eyes to go to sleep, the stars still shine brightly in them. Thank God for all the stars…
Day 6 : Separation and Punishment
First time I slept properly in the night during this trek. It was of the kind which you dream about in your sleepless state with open eyes. The sky last night must have blessed me. Our ways separate today – Krish and Vinay will go back, Sandy and Co. will head towards Goechela. We will take a tow-days detour to Bikbari before returning to Dzongri and eventually making our way towards Goechela. It’s time for some group photos. Everyone is eager to get a photo in their camera. Krishnan and Vinay are going back with Ajay. Their eyes speak, and speak quite clearly. The pain of not continuing is visible in their eyes. Krishnan encourages us to finish the trek and make them proud. We will, I nod in my heart. We hug each other. I hope they transferred some energy and determination to us. Farewell, my friends! The mountain is still there. You will soon get a call again.
At around 8:25, we start for Bikbari. Instead of climbing towards Dzongri Top, we descend into Dablakhang meadows which is a good place to camp. It also offers a big grazing grounds for the yaks. Four chortens stand at the end of the meadows. Behind that princely Pandim rises resplendently. We leave behind the view of the mountains for a steep climb to Dzongrila. We keep making light fun of each other, and especially Birjubhaiya, to make effect of the ascent lighter. He gets himself photographed couple of times. He keeps saying, aaste aaste. Go Slow. He thinks that Jaggi looks like Amitabh Bachchan. To prove his point, he always refers him as Jagtaap, to rhyme with Amitabh, instead of Jagdish. I am slightly ahead of others. At one point, I see two foot-trails and get confused. I ask him which one to take. Kharaab raasta mat lo, achha raasta lo. How simple! And consequently how difficult to implement in real life this philosophy is!
We encircle the Dzongri Hills on our way to Dzongrila. The Garmin shows that the altitude is 4360m at the pass. I have never been to such heights before. Hurray! I am climbing mountains. We all are. Forget about humans, even our canine friend Kaalu is a mountaineer now. By now, we have realized that it’s a female dog, so we rename it to Kaali. She is with us for last 3 days.
The pass is full of thick snow. Once you reach to the top, the vista opens up to offer splendid view of Kumbhakarna, Ratong and the Kabru peaks. Kumbhakarna looks like a burly figure of human sleeping in the sun, so the name. Some people call it Sleeping Budhdha. Kabru Black, or Kabru Dome, is so close that you can actually kiss it from here. And true to the name, it’s black! And imposing. Jaggi says it’s the only mountain which is not beautiful. To me, it’s a black mole which adds to the beauty of a fair lady. Or a piece of jewelry she puts on for a change. We climb on a rock and click many pictures. I jump down from that rock like I invariably do every time I get a chance. Jaggi and I have a Saurav Ganguly moment when we remove our shirts in the sub-zero degree temperature and and get clicked.
We climb down to the other side thru snow and infant ice which breaks at slightest of the pressure. The path is almost flat now. Kabru Dome is on our right. Ratong Chu is on our left, running like a vein in a bulky body. The emerald green water is bouncing on small boulders in a narrow span. The rhythmic sound of the river is piece de resistance. There is a waterfall on the other side in distance. We need to cross the river to go to the Bikbari camp which is on the right bank of the river. The descent from the ridge to the riverbank is precipitous. And it’s full of river sand. The 150m fall takes some effort as we need to be careful so we do not fall.
There is a makeshift bridge on the river to cross to the other side. 4 wooden planks are set on each side on two big rocks. Two of the planks are not reliable. So we have to walk only on two planks to cross the river. Biren helps me reach the other side. Kaali is afraid of crossing. She walks on the bridge halfway and turns back. She sits nearby, contemplating the crossing but courage deserts her. Finally Biren goes to her side and runs after her. Afraid, she runs towards the bridge and crosses it in hurry.
There is a Trekkers’ Hut in Bikbari but it’s not maintained at all. That means we have to pitch a tent. Biren, Povel and our yakman help set up our tent. Kaali is tired after her struggle to cross the bridge. She is fast asleep next to the tent. We have tea and biscuits. The thermometer shows 26 degree Celsius on the scale! That’s quite high, but we are feeling cold. Mysterious are the ways of mountains!
Ratong Chu is slowly working its magic on us. The crystal clear water, washing the sins of the stones, is enticing. After the lunch which we take sitting on the riverbank, we give up in the face of unyielding river. In a place on the bank, where pebbles are as clean and pure as prayer beads, we jump into the river. Little did we know that the sun doesn’t heat up the water here. We immediately develop the cold feet. For a few moments which feel like eternity, I stay inside, hoping that the cold will pass. It does not. For those few seconds, the river takes me over from the feet to the head and from the mind to the soul. I am the river.
We spread our mattresses outside the tent, very near to the river, so we can listen to the soulful rendition of nature’s sweet melody. How perfect everything feels – some rising mountains seen from the crescent view the valley offers, stone marbles lying in the riverbed, the sky which is home for us now. Face upwards, I watch the clouds making different formations. Coming from the direction of Mt Ratong or from behind the brown rising ridge in front of us, they meet and separate in the sky. I see the world go by, unmindful of past and future. The clear blue of the sky is almost unreal. I see a horse, a dog, a duck, a goat, a flying dragon, a child and a man in the sky. When there is no cloud, I see my loved ones – oh, I miss them! How much more the joy will be if they are here. But they are here: a river like mother, a mountain like father, a bridge like a sibling or a friend. If there is ever a perfect place, it has to be this. If there is ever a perfect moment, it has to be now.
Snowfall just then reminds me that life is not always --and rarely- perfect. We are driven into our tent involuntarily. We play cards for some time. Suman and Jaggi wants to take a nap. I try to read a book. The mood does not set in. I listen to some music. I come out of the tent. It’s almost evening. The weather is clear again. I take a walk along the river. I wish I can flow like it, ceaselessly, seamlessly, unabashedly. For now, I just watch it do all that I cannot do.
Night falls early. We take dinner inside the Trekkers’ Hut kitchen. The noodle soup is delicious. The clouds have started gathering their army outside. It may rain in the night, or there may be snowfall. We have to be ready for a long and cold night. Just before we go to sleep, Jaggi asks a question which will linger in my mind for a long time – why we punish ourselves so much by running marathons or trekking to the harsh and uninhabitable places? I know one of the answers: it is to have the experience which I had in the afternoon, to feel one with nature, to feel the presence of God, and to stop feeling anything and just be still. Such experiences do not occur always though, and there must be some answer which is true for all the times. When the time is right, the answer will come in sight and there will be glowing light…