Birds on a wire

This is a longish account of a long drive from Bangalore to Kibber in the Trans-Himalaya. Notes I kept during the 10 day journey are largely conversations I had with myself but also with my partners in travel, and are used here to share what we experienced, saw and spoke of during this journey across eight states and a Union Territory. I use a collage of photographs to help share what went on, what we saw and how things turned out for us. I call this ‘Birds on a wire’, not just from the sense of freedom experienced while on the road, or of lament as in Leonard Cohen’s song of similar name, but in many ways it was all these to us, as we passed by various worlds. It is also influenced by the observation of birds I saw on electric wires, a near constant feature irrespective of State or place, and I did briefly fantasise with a sense of duality, them observing me rather than the other way around.

 

We were Rishi Sharma, Sudhir (Sudesh Babu) and I in Rakhee Karumbaya’s Scorpio. Ranjini joined us from New Delhi from where Sudhir returned to Mysore – we were in a sense birds on our own wires for this journey. Our objective was to get this vehicle which the High Altitude program of NCF had purchased for fieldwork, across to Kibber in Spiti valley along the trans-Himalayas. This was a journey Rishi and I had spoken of some months before we set out when he mentioned he was looking for company. The journey is memorable to us, not just because of travel, but for how things fell into place. We were supposed to leave on the 20th of September 2012, but Rishi had a few commitments to complete, and as soon as I reached Bangalore I too was suddenly required to coordinate with friends across the Nicobars regarding an urgent issue; it was in those 3 days that this coordination took place between various places and people. Like networks, this journey is about as much a web of thoughts, experiences and sights, connections between cause and effect, and of changes including those that occur to the natural landscape visible from the highway.

As if on cue, the vehicle’s papers arrived from Mysore just as we both finished with our commitments. We were set; there was nothing to churn our minds or disturb our peace – except what we made of our journey.

 

Day 1 – 23rd September 2012: With everyone in place finally the engine purred to life as Sudhir started us out from Sahakar Nagar in Bangalore and on the highway to Hyderabad. From the lifeless concrete and crowded roads of Bangalore we were soon passing green fields on red earth and rows of quiet farms, easing us into vistas of the countryside. The cool air of Bangalore changed to dry heat as we entered Andhra Pradesh. Cowherds and farmers moved in the heat with as much grace tending their stock and crop as a conductor does his orchestra. Thorny acacia nilotica crawled up rocky hills like giant spiders on the untilled earth. Some of these hills had darker brown rocks only along their ridges, so I called Daju telling him of the strange looking chocolate ridges we were passing; he soon called back saying that during his search for where we probably were he found an interesting webpage talking of the anaconda of Anantpur- we should go there he said.

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on the highway into Andhra Pradesh

While we passed many towns and villages in Andhra, the suffix ‘palli’ was constant and we looked out for one with the surname of our friend and colleague. Then in the middle of nowhere in the sweltering landscape we passed a ‘college of engineering and pharmacy’ indicative of the boom (and bust) of money in ‘education’ across the country and the many turns she takes in our search for those multifaceted meanings of ‘development’. Our first meal together was at ‘Deshmesh restaurant’ where an elderly lady churned a dal which looked inviting to us. I had planned to visit the ‘Rayalaseema Ruchulu’ once we reached Hyderabad. This restaurant serves authentic cuisine of the Rayalaseema region, spicy enough to make you sweat from the pores on your scalp, tingle and burn your taste buds with concoctions that have evolved as food on the hot dusty plains of the region, and yet not give you a bad tummy. There is no Manchurian, Mediterranean or tikka available- just ethnic cuisine from Rayalaseema.

Dal being made the old way at 'Deshmesh' restaurant
Dal being made the old way at ‘Deshmesh’ restaurant

Dragon flies hovering in thermals off the road expertly caught the vehicle’s air dam and slid above the slipstream while various butterflies unwittingly committed hara-kiri on the windscreen. We periodically passed toll gates that were in various stages of completion, and Rishi realised that we’d need to keep a stack of money to see us through these numerous payments passing from his hands into toll gates. Rishi had a relatively new phone, and it had a very efficient GPS. The pre-recorded voice giving directions was feminine, and we christened her ‘Dolly madam’. She gave accurate measurements of distances even before a signboard popped up, and of shortest routes we could take. I was mighty pleased using this technology from a phone, as on bike journeys I normally stopped to ask locals for directions. As we progressed further north, paddies came into view indicating water availability. The arid looking landscape shifted between dry beige, dark chocolaty brown and patches of bright green beyond the grey road and steel barriers. Tractor trailers increased as the road heaved and sighed gently like a boat on a calm rolling sea. I played songs of Kishore Kumar on my phone as the FM radio didn’t pick up any signals and we needed to break the monotony of bright sun and the relatively straight road. We covered a total of 642 km, being slowed down by chaotic towns and mad traffic while negotiating unfinished by-passes amidst celebrations for Ganesh festivities as well as.

We were soon in the vicinity of Hyderabad by dark, but decided to stay far away from the crowds and chaos that is characteristic of any Indian city. I realised I couldn’t ‘do the Ruchulu’ but looked on as the highway turned into a dimly lit multi-lane expressway. We sped at about a 100km/hr in the dark across an initially straight expressway with boards providing directions but without any turns in sight until we emerged into a maze at its end where many roads continued in different directions without signboards.

the expressway with a maze at its end
the expressway near Hyderabad with a maze at its end

Day 2: We left our lodge at Kompally beyond the outskirts of Hyderabad early in the morning to gain as much distance as we could through the cool misty morning air. We passed many truck lay-byes as well as many road kills of dogs, given the number of tenements along the road as well as dhabas for truckers. These included a few authentic Punjabi dhaba’s. We stopped at Narsingi Punjabi dhaba in Medak district, where to Rishi’s surprise he was mistaken for the CEO of XBHP magazine by Monty Singh, the friendly owner. Monty used a lactometer to keep a check on the quality of milk, and a Labrador to guard his earnings and engaged us in conversation while we sipped on his chai.

Monty Singh and his merry men
Monty Singh and his merry men
Aroma's at a proper dhabba
Aroma’s at a proper dhaba
the new CEO of 'XBHP' magazine
the new CEO of ‘XBHP’ magazine

A shikra on an electric wire was the first bird we saw that morning, while later we saw a few ibis in the paddies and also a pharaoh’s chicken soaring above. Some of these paddies were being converted into housing plots, with marker stones painted in various colours, while the colourful lungi’s men wore further south changed to white dhoties in this part of India. Soon the paddy fields changed to those of corn and sugarcane as we passed through the Telengana region. More concrete monstrosities took over the otherwise agricultural landscape. Then suddenly a posse of peahen in a field came into view. I wondered how long this would be possible to see given the demands of a growing population. When we stopped at a ‘Baba Ramdev Rajasthani dhaba’, Daju warned us we might have to perform yoga before we got any lunch. But we were served a tasty lunch of hot pyaaz and aloo paranthas that ended with cool lassi.

The road heaved ever more and soon what looked like a plateau loomed in the distance. The trees also slowly changed to teak and sal as we entered the southern end of Central India. About 54 km before Adilabad we passed a beautiful forest of teak and sal, with gurgling brooks running down round grey rocks beside the highway. Multi-wheeled trucks whizzed past while we stopped for a respite and to take in the imagery. A little later past many tiled farm houses of mud, straw and cement we passed a signboard with a picture of a Nilgai stating Kawal Sanctuary wasn’t far away.

Central Indian Highlands slowly emerging in the horizon
Central Indian Highlands slowly emerging on the horizon
wheels upon wheels
wheels upon wheels
Rain in Maharashtra
Rain in Maharashtra

As we entered Maharashtra the road condition changed to ‘poor’, while toll gates continued to tax vehicles despite the dismal condition. Rain welcomed us as we entered this State and I pointed out long eared cattle to Sudhir. He innocently asked us if the long dangling ears were a result of deformity due to the Bhopal gas tragedy, and it took us into conversation of the mutinies that many of our people suffer in this variously hued landscape, with all kinds of animals, plants and other living beings. Much later sitting quiet in contemplation while the Scorpio sped on, a monitor crossed the road and I told myself they were called ‘ghorpad’ in this part of the country, and it took my mind back to a book by MY Ghorpade of wildlife photography in black and white. It was my first book of wildlife photographs that I could call my own, gifted to me by a friend, and which inspired me beyond my childhood interests in animals.

Nagpur was the next big town and I looked forward to some fresh orange juice, though we found none. Sudhir’s only remark was that despite the city being well known, it wasn’t as big as Bangalore and wasn’t as great as it was made out to be. We asked for directions to Seoni our stopover for that night as Dolly madam didn’t have an answer. We soon continued on the new avatar of the two lane highway that became potholed, crowded and dusty. We passed through this neglected region of Maharashtra and were soon in Madhya Pradesh, with the outskirts of Pench Tiger Reserve announcing our arrival in this State. Rhesus macaques made their first appearance in this green sal forest moistened by the monsoon, kindling many memories Rishi had, given his previous work in the region. The peaceful greenery was sliced in two by the road we travelled on along with many long chassis trucks passing through, carrying all kinds of goods including a Railway engine on one. Small feeder roads made their way into Gond settlements, and Rishi told me that this was the region where Rudyard Kipling created characters such as Mowgli, Balu and Sher Singh. How much it had changed from that time to our present! With all the traffic and dust the road had changed into a martian surface full of craters and dusty rubble, while a green forest got covered by road dust and silvery streams of rainwater slid under culverts and bridges. This wasn’t surreal but horribly real. Cattle in large numbers swarmed the road that was repaved with tar, allowing us to zip through without having to contemplate change.

Cattle of Pench
Cattle of Pench
this is how much we shook
this is how much we shook

Rishi had a foster family close by, who cared for him when he worked here many years before. We made a scheduled stop that evening. Mr and Mrs Sisodia were ecstatic by his surprise visit and welcomed us into their home. After he learnt that Rishi was father to his first child, Mr Anuj Sisodia recited an impromptu poem for the girl child – celebrating both Rishi’s fatherhood as well as emphasising the need for change in people’s minds, as well a brief chronicle of our country’s freedom movement. We left in the darkness and joined a caravan of monsters and beasts on the dusty martian road through the forest, and up a hill. We briefly spoke of how a change in mind set with regard to roads through National parks and Sanctuaries would be required in our country as well. We were stopped short when we saw a tractor overflowing with people negotiating the road in the dark with headlights as dim as the glow of the driver’s cigarette. Overloaded trucks, trailers and a few two wheelers had taken over the path as it moved beyond the forest and became tarmac again. When we drove into Seoni town and found a lodge, our only concern was bedbugs. Thankfully we were lucky.

Rishi with his foster parents
Rishi with his foster parents

Day 3: Munching on aloo parantha’s at Bhatia dhaba in Seoni for breakfast, a very active beehive above us reminded me that all sorts of wildlife prevail, but again, I wondered for how long? We took off on the highway to Jabalpur steering ourselves toward Gwalior, our destination for the night. Parts of the Central Indian highlands are marked by lush forests of sal and teak. Near small villages and towns sparrows seemed to thrive contrary to what was occurring in other parts of the country. We passed some sadhu’s walking toward Varanasi while red tiled roofs continued to dot the landscape.

strange machinery on all kinds of trucks
strange machinery on all kinds of trucks
a new road in the process of evolving
a new road in the process of evolving
where we wished we'd stayed back
where we wished we’d stayed back
inquiries on agriculture along our journey
inquiries on agriculture along our journey

The development of roads and highways is definitely in a nascent stage in some of these parts, while villagers continue their modest lives in the way they know best.  Over the last two days Rishi and I got various sms’s stating that we were lucky winners of lotteries amounting to crore’s of rupees. We planned to abandon the Scorpio ship and move about in Humvee’s and Ferrari’s. Wearing the heat of the day, we entered a strange restaurant in the landlocked town of Sagar. It was the creation of a very imaginative person with a preference for dragons, the sea and some animals. Not being able to place this imagination of still born dolphins, crocodiles, dragons, and plastic plants, I pondered but little on what we do to actual animal and plant life around us.

The Narmada River
The Narmada River
dug out canoes and frolicking youngsters along the Narmada
dug out canoes and frolicking youngsters along the Narmada
dreaming of a mermaid in land locked Sagar town
dreaming of a mermaid in land locked Sagar town
still born animals and plastic flowers
still born animals and plastic flowers

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Dolly madam was back to playing her part letting us know when a two lane highway become single, and when to expect a change in direction, except for some occasions when we were at speed on a fly-over she’d ask us to take a sharp 90° turn into airspace. This, we rationalized could be due to the vagaries of everything that wasn’t, and though we patted her on her back, I silently told myself I would stick to the ‘ask-the-local’ method when on my motorcycle.

By late afternoon we reached Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and saw a large board of the Indian Army stationed there announcing that we were in ‘White Tiger Country’. I slunk into internal lament of grand announcements such as these and their purpose, remembering concrete dolphins and crocodiles from the afternoon. In tune with all that seemed unusual, from white tigers, and extravagant statues of politicians of all shapes, to educational institutions located in the middle of no-where, we were in for a night of off-roading while still on a National Highway; we encountered whoop’s, camel humps and unexpected skid turns as we entered the largest Indian State, with the worst road so far. Sudhir having had a rest in the afternoon comfortably took the wheel and as we crawled out of Jhansi towards Gwalior, we entered a nothingness of more dust, depressions the size of our vehicle, and half built roads that dropped off without warning into crevasse like gaps before the road re-emerged on the opposite side of a two lane highway in various stages of progress.

madness along the road to Gwalior
madness along the road to Gwalior

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itinerant cattle lazing around
itinerant cattle lazing around

The Scorpio’s headlights proved worthy in the dark through this dust storm created by many vehicles moving where they wanted, while we humbly followed and over took when it looked safe. Cattle ruminated in this dust oblivious to the noise, and disorder they and we were part of. It took us four hours to cover a distance of a hundred kilometres, crawling snake like, wobbling, grunting and being thrown about with one stop for chai. We sipped chai quietly listening to a soundtrack of expletives as truckers joked and chatted while a movie played on a Dyanora television at the corner of that dusty dhaba. I was reluctant to leave the comfort of the dhaba for the horrid road ahead, but we had to move. Sudhir’s perseverance brought us eventually to Gwalior at 12am, and to our luck we got a room, helped by a bell-boy who ensured we were comfortable with food and water.

Boys for wetting Gwalior
a very helpful bellboy at the hotel, oblivious to the nonsense embroidered on his Hotel shirt

Day 4: As we left Gwalior the splendour of its fortress came into view; for a moment we pondered on the past and the present state of affairs. Rishi enlightened me on the deception by the then royalty toward the Rani of Jhansi and her eventual defeat. In the Andaman Islands, a Marine National Park is named after her, where an escaped convict deceived his friendly Andamanese benefactors to win favour with the then ruling British by squealing on their plans to overthrow the colonisers. I was transported to a book I had partially read by Robert Trivers.

Wildlife visible to us from our perch in the jeep were feral pigs everywhere and hordes of free ranging cattle anywhere. A Coorgi ‘kathi’ would have been very useful I thought, being reminded by the sticker proudly displayed on the Scorpio windscreen. Buffaloes had turned much larger and were a darker hue, had shorter curled horns and sacks for udders. These are a species known for their production of large quantities of milk. The dusty road soon came over a bridge with a sign board for the river Chambal and of rare river dolphins, reminding us of Cora’s work.  Coming close to Agra I was surprised at young men selling coconut wedges in the dry heat. I was used to seeing coconuts in the islands, and wondered how they caught people’s fancy here.

The Chambal River
The Chambal River
charpoy makers along the roadside
charpoy makers along the roadside
being served chai by John Lennon himself in Agra
chai served by John Lennon himself in Agra

We were closing in on Delhi and Sudhir was happy to be going back home, but was apprehensive of being stopped by the traffic police, and being questioned on the validity of photocopies of the vehicles papers; we assured him of full support if anything untoward was to happen. We were now part of a long stream of growing traffic moving toward Delhi passing increasing numbers of traffic police, so Sudhir looked straight ahead in apprehension.

roadsense
roadsense
Big city
Big city
roads have to evolve even underground in our ever crowded metro's
roads have to evolve even underground in our ever crowded metro’s

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We decided to stop over at Mahipalpur in New Delhi for the night. When we stopped to look for a place, a goon charged us fifty rupees for parking for three minutes, because he claimed the roadside land he was entrusted with was worth a few crores – welcome to New Delhi!

We found a small clean room nearby with a fancy bathroom that had a python skin pattern moulded into the tiles. The room had a window which I opened to look for a view, but it opened out into a chute, from where screeches of squabbling rats or bandicoots and a dank odour emerged. It was promptly shut. After procuring his ticket online and eating dinner together we accompanied Sudhir to the railway station. He was happy to return home and we were thankful for his contribution and company over much of this journey.

Sudhir, ..glad to return to Mysore
Sudhir, ..glad to return to Mysore

Day 5: We stopped over for two nights in New Delhi as Rishi had work at the University and I decided to explore Chawri bazaar for a bronze gong. I had been on the lookout for such an instrument on being requested for one by the islanders of Chowra in the Nicobar Islands. I had looked around for a year at various places in vain, and was eventually given a tip by Ranjini and Saloni on the possibility of finding one at Chawri bazaar after they’d made enquiries with Buddhist monks and friends at Kibber, given their ceremonial use of large gongs. At Chowra Island three ancient gongs were washed away in the tsunami of 2004. A single damaged gong is safely ensconced within a hole in a tree, and is revered for its significance during an important cultural ritual. The former gongs were either originally acquired from the Japanese during their occupation of the islands in World War II or from earlier Chinese traders visiting the islands in the 19th century. During many visits to the island, I had to constantly hear a few friends hanker to help them re-acquire these instruments of significance from any corner of the earth, as they had no way of finding one in the Islands. This was my best bet so far, so off to Chawri bazaar I went.

Altruism-in-the-market-place
Altruism in the Chawri bazar market place

The bazaar is behind the famed Jama Masjid and is a large assortment of shops selling all kinds of wares from fuse wires to huge metal pipes and of course in one small corner three shops that sell gongs among many other brass and bronze goods. Chawri bazaar is made of narrow roads filled with cycle rickshaws, tangles of electric, cable TV and telephone wires along and across those streets and lots of people moving to and fro like any typical old bazaar.

Goat's head soup
Goat’s head soup
Forty Licks
Forty Licks
fresh water chestnuts in dry Delhi
fresh water chestnuts in dry Delhi
Flies and Firni at Chawri bazaar
Flies and Firni at Chawri bazaar

After asking around in various shops, and trying various keywords I was directed to Lal’s Emporium, but the shop was closed until the afternoon. I slunk around the streets and saw large goats meant for a biriyani or kababs someday, which made me recall that ‘Karim’s’ the famed restaurant was around the corner. After a good meal I went back to Lal’s and found the shutters being opened. Soon, after a bit of negotiation I finally found what I was looking for. There were various gongs to choose from, most of them likely pilfered from monasteries and sold here in Delhi. Some were sonorously heavy and deep, while others were like metallic waves crashing on a tin beach, and still others had solemn moans. I made a choice, and like to think that there are some happy islanders who will again be able to use their gong for festivals and rituals like they have for about a century (they say I am owed a few pigs in return for that favour). That night I listened to cool smooth jazz during dinner with a friend at the up-market Lodhi Garden restaurant– a world apart from the travails of Chawri bazaar.

Kebab's at Karim's
Kebab’s at Karim’s
Roti's at Karim's
Roti’s at Karim’s
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Curries galore….
old world charm in some chai shops of Chawri Bazaar
old world charm in some chai shops of Chawri Bazaar
Chawri bazaar expressway
Chawri bazaar expressway
Steamed water chestnuts in the bazaar
Steamed water chestnuts in the bazaar

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desi tooth brushes for sale at the bazaar
desi tooth brushes for sale at the bazaar
smooth jazz at the Lodhi Garden restaurant
smooth jazz at the Lodhi Garden restaurant

Day 6: Finding ourselves caught in the maze of New Delhi, Rishi and I used Dolly madam’s expertise to pick up Ranjini from Jangpura and to navigate out of town. Along with Ranjini aboard came new perspectives and energy; we were ready to roll. As we neared the outskirts of Delhi, an auto driver drove alongside and said ‘peechay swalpa kam hawa’. He was right; it was thoughtful of him to use a Kannada word in the middle of Delhi, on seeing the vehicles registration plate. We changed over from nitrogen to regular air, and changed the tyre with ‘swalpa kam hawa’. Much later as we came close to Sonipat in Haryana, we were stopped for the first time by police at a checkpoint. With our luck, photocopies didn’t matter to the policeman. He waved us on and wished us good luck. We zipped on into Punjab and through Chandigarh, where we were given two different directions by Dolly madam and a Sardarji. We used road signs to take the road to Manali. The foothills of the Himalaya’s came into view and somewhere in this excitement I took a wrong turn, and we climbed an unpaved road of pink dust and rocks up a mountain.

my first sight of the mountains
my first sight of the mountains…after which i took a wrong turn further…

Since we were long gone and each of us including Dolly madam were clueless except knowing we were on a longer route to Manali, there was no turning back. It was late afternoon, and Rishi called his friend Dev, who lived in the region for directions. He invited us over for a bonfire, drinks and dinner that included mutton and chicken. That was all we needed and we trudged on, the Scorpio proving herself as we negotiated the steep road and watched mountain vistas in the fading light. We consulted Dolly madam again, and she responded repeatedly that she was recalculating the route, and to turn right and then immediately left. We didn’t follow her instructions, or we’d have carved our own version of Mount Rushmore with our behinds sticking out of the mountain slope further below. We concluded that she was a city slicker and was confused by the unpaved road. When we stopped for a break, the only two plants I could recognise among millions were cannabis and curry leaves, both useful plants that grew luxuriantly in patches all around. By nightfall we were back again following a caravan of heavily laden trucks along a dusty road of hairpin bends in the Sarkaghat – Swarghat region. Eventually we peeled ourselves from the snake like entourage and were alone in the dark of an unpaved road. We then looked out for wildlife hoping to spot a leopard from these mountains but saw wild hares and two owls we couldn’t recognise. We only saw ruminating cattle along the rest of the route, until much later that night we saw Dev Thakur waving us down. Devinder is an old friend of Rishi’s from the Wildlife Institute in Dehradun, and was in the Forest Service at Delhi. It was 12am when we reached and he comfortingly took us over to his warm house. While Ranjini was given dinner and a room to sleep, we followed Dev, clambering over to his old house in the fields; it was plastered with mud and cow dung, supported by battens of thick bamboo and local hard wood with windows made of deodar wood. A roof of shale slats was above our heads. This was really comfortable and the first bottle was opened along with a vessel full of hot meat fresh from the wood stove. While we warmed ourselves and Rishi caught up with Dev, my eyes fell on two bidi packets- one from West Bengal, and the other from Vellore my hometown in Tamil Nadu. I was amazed at how far they’d travelled reaching this little hamlet in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. I was made very comfortable among Dev, his younger brother and two other relatives by Rishi and we all got talking. It was only when I started seeing double, that I realised it was nearing 5am and we’d not had a wink.

Bidi packet from Vellore (Tamil Nadu), in a quaint village in Himachal Pradesh
Bidi packet from Vellore (Tamil Nadu), in a quaint village in Himachal Pradesh
Dev, his relatives and friends
Dev, his relatives and friends
Mountains of slat roofed houses
Mountains of slat roofed houses

Day 7: It was close to midday and fresh milk and tea brought the two of us back to life. Ranjini had kept busy making a himachali version of pathroda with Dev’s mother and wife. Our hosts already planned for us to visit a few sights of the region that included temples, a Gurudwara, a Tibetan monastery and water bodies. I learnt that in the local language ‘Sar’ meant pond or water body and the region got its name from the many found here. Dev told us of his earlier research on leopards of the region, of their tenacity and of brave women who had defended their goats from leopards while collecting fodder from grassland commons. This region like many across the country used traditional systems of land and resource tenure and seemed self-sufficient with the exception of articles such as bidis from Vellore, motor vehicles and refrigerators that had to come from elsewhere. The web of connectedness got more complex, and I gave up trying to fathom it all.

Ranjini-pounding-away-in-the-morning..
Ranjini …helping with the pathroda manufacture
Our host seeing us off
Our host seeing us off
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Goats on a rock
Breakfast- all from homegrown produce
Breakfast at Dev’s…… all made from homegrown produce

Day 8: We left the warmth of Dev’s house and the flavours of home-grown homemade food, toward Manali after this unscheduled detour. It was another long and winding road across villages in mountains of shale slat roofs, and narrow roads with occasions when colourful Himalayan magpies swooped in front of the vehicle to peek at the three of us looking for directions to Manali. In time we reached the Manali highway and sped on another beautiful road that took us further uphill. The transformation in vegetation was new to me and I was mesmerised by views of deep gorges, pine trees, short white beaches along the Beas river edged by palms, reeds, sharp rock faces and gnarled trees. We reached a cozy guest house in the cold but slept early that night preparing for the most spectacular view of the Himalayas.

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still was that night in Manali
….still was that night in the guest house at Manali

Day: 9 Early morning was dark. Across a narrow bridge we picked up Cyril, a friend of Ranjini’s who was climbing the mountains, and Lobzang a member of the community at Kibber and the NCF team there. The rear of the Scorpio was stacked with people and luggage, and as we drove up, white emergent peaks evolved through mist in the early morning light. Trees became shorter and then disappeared and rocks got sharper while the road snaked, climbing along the mountain side. There apparently was snowfall a few days earlier and Rishi was hopeful that the Rohtang pass was open as the weather was warming up a bit. Then all of a sudden we turned into a small bazaar of roadside eateries with many tourists in ski suits. Ski suits of various colours turned ordinary people into uninhibited bulbously excited candles on a cake. We stopped for chai and I was offered shilajit rock oil for purchase, apparently an elixir with aphrodisiac properties. This was like arriving at beautiful Havelock Island (or any other tourist beauty spot) and being accosted by pestilential sellers of anything and nothing, transacting wares or pleasures on your face, when all you want to do is look out. I smothered more internal lament of tourism and the bandwagons that follow by gazing out at real mountains- my first sight of proper mountains.

colourful suits in fervid air
colourful suits in fervid air

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finally...the Himalayas
finally…the Himalayas

I told myself, those who lived in such areas surely thought very differently than I. We joined a smaller entourage of tourist vehicles going beyond the pass and into the trans-Himalaya.  From here on, my head spun at the heights, shades of colours along mountain sides and of the raw terrain. For me this was like nothing ever before. As we slunk past a few road watchers of the BRO and horses that seemed straight out of a cowboy film, we crossed over Rohtang pass and came atop from where a series of mountains and the bluest sky I’d ever seen filled the viewfinder of my eyes. I was and am bereft of words and just tried to absorb as much as I could. Much of the rest of the journey for me was in mesmerized silence, except for Rishi and Ranjini filling in, describing parts of the entirely new world and terrain to me. Rocks became scree as well as boulders, and mountains became habitat for magnificent Himalayan animals like the pika, fox, ibex, snow leopard and lammergier. Tree species could probably be counted in one hand, and leaves of some plants along the mountain side turned into colours difficult to describe, while life for humans was hard for me to configure. What would people gather, grow or subsist on given an extreme climate and an even more rugged landscape?

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I suddenly thought i was Kevin Costner in a cowboy movie..
I suddenly thought i was Kevin Costner in a cowboy movie..

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herds people with their livestock
herders with their livestock

As if in trance I watched roads emerge out of rubble and scree, towering mountains reiterating my terminable insignificance in that high altitude cold desert. The road soon began to resemble the El Camino de la Muerte with insane drop offs and rubble to ensure that a firm stop (if you were at speed) could be graded until the edge. These roads I must admit despite their rugged look were much better than the one we bungled on between Jhansi and Gwalior, and local drivers had etiquette hard to find in the plains. There was a sense of respect in the air and for all around (and approaching from the opposite direction) that I found pleasing and new – well, a new world, and new ways of being!

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Vegetation alive and colourful in the crisp mountain air
Vegetation alive and colourful in the crisp mountain air
Gravel or scree?
Gravel or scree?
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Himalayan fox trotting off with a pika for brunch

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Ranjini pointed out- ‘here’s a pika, ……..there’s a pika’, and it took me a while to adjust to the differences between rock and pika. Much further down the road a fox trotted across scree with a pika in her mouth toward the clear blue water of Spiti River flowing through the valley. Though I wished I could walk down this road to look around, it felt impossible with my throbbing head adjusting to the altitude; the Scorpio provided comfortable solace. This cold desert isn’t barren, but quiet with life in various forms. A pair of intrepid tourists cycled along the road, while during brunch a few motorcyclists were the only other traffic on the road. We stopped at the lone tented Tibetan restaurant that served aloo parantha and was run by a friendly family who shifted between Manali, their natal village and this location seasonally.

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mesmerized at Kunzumla
mesmerized at Kunzumla

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I was also made to realise the agents of change seeing an increasing number of people from other parts of the country as marketable human capital among various vocations that human migration and the creation of dependence is built on. I wondered how people and wildlife indigenous to the region would cope in the long run. While standing outside afterward I saw crows with yellow beaks, and was told they were Himalayan choughs. I later saw them indulge in some cool aerobatics.

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Aerial acrobats...Himalayan Chough's
Aerial acrobats…Himalayan Chough’s

Rusty stones piled together, some with etchings, were like stone tablets of yore to me. Only then did I wish I could’ve stayed for longer. There is so much to learn and see, but I couldn’t. My journey back to the islands was already booked and I had to get back to work after this long drive. It was like sniffing a warm freshly baked cake but not being able to cut into it.

The sky above was breathtakingly beautiful all around, knife-edged mountain ridges becoming the horizon; with increasing altitude I could feel the need for lung nectar and the cause for the throbbing in my head. Rishi and Ranjini planned to stop at Kaza to help me acclimatise. A tall ridge before us at the lodge we stayed reminded me of where I was in my trance.

the mountain side that reminded me where I was
the mountain side that reminded me where I was

Day 10 – 2nd October 2012: The high altitude NCF team has an accomplice in Lama Tenzin (better known as ‘Mirinda’), who serves in the Kee Gompa monastery as a monk. He was an active member of the team until he chose to fulfil his promises and obligations as a monk to society, as many people from this society undertake. Rishi planned to stop by and say hello, before we reached Kibber. Perched upon a hill the monastery is a perfect recess for contemplation, as life passes around it and along the Spiti River.

more thoughtful woodlots
thoughtful community woodlots
wood lots of a village
more wood lots of another village

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Kee Gompa from a distance
Kee Gompa from a distance
fields fertilized by people and livestock from the villages
fields fertilized by people and livestock from the villages

We were welcomed into the monastery and into a room he shared with another monk, which was an example of cleanliness and organization; every utensil and book had its place and nothing was strewn around. A clean room is reflective of a clean and clear mind they say, unlike the clutter in mine. I gulped in awe and admiration.

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a neat room = a clean and clear mind
alley in the monastery
alley in the monastery
architecture at the monastery
architecture at the monastery

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Mirindaji with other monks at the monastery kitchen
Mirindaji with other monks at the monastery kitchen

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There is something about the place and people I haven’t been able to fathom.  Just as the mountains stood tall and silent, the people too embody similar stature. There are of course outliers like in any society, but I like to think its foundations were like those etchings, set in stone. After a cup of tea and a short tour of the monastery we were driving up the last lap. Those aerobatic Himalayan choughs welcomed our dusty Scorpio into Kibber forming our advance party rocketing out before us from the sky above. A set of white houses faced northwest along the mountainside in front of us.

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Kibber village!
Kibber village!

This was Kibber, a place from where Charu and Yashveer pioneered the high altitude program and snow leopard conservation. Thinleyji and others from the base camp arrived to take us in. Weary and still sort of hazy, I settled in for my last two nights. By evening Kalzangji, Lobzangji, Thinleyji and other members of the NCF team from within the community trickled in and we warmed ourselves with home brewed barley – aarak.

Thinleyji showing me some of his family heirlooms
Thinleyji showing me some of his family heirlooms
I warned Thinleyji about the traders at Chawri bazaar
I warned Thinleyji about the traders at Chawri bazaar
end of the road for me...thanks to all of you for that lovely journey
end of the road for me…thanks to all of you for that lovely journey
my first sight of snow...ever!
my first sight of snow…ever!
Dinner&Drinks-@Khibber2
Alls well the ends well……with arrack and warm people

The Scorpio had been finally delivered from Bangalore to Kibber, and she with all of us arrived without any problem. For me the journey across part of the country was of vistas and transitions, of conversations and spectacular sights, but with more questions than answers in my head.

         “Of the terrible doubt of appearances,

                    Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,

                    That may be reliance and hope, are but speculations after all,

                    That may be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,

                    Maybe the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills,

                    Shining and flowing waters, the skies of day and night, colours, densities, forms,

                    Maybe these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions,

And the real something has yet to be known.”

 

From ‘Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances’ – Walt Whitman in ‘Leaves of Grass’

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2 thoughts on “Birds on a wire

  1. Wow, really enjoyed reading the travelogue, especially an ‘islander’s’ perspective about the cantral Indian plains initially and later the Himalayan mountains. Hope the gong rings soon. Lovely article!

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