Call of the mountains

Call of the mountains

Every year, streams of people trickle their way up the mighty Himalayas. Some go there for some soul searching, others to search for rare birds. Some go there on a pilgrimage, others to worship nature. But they all share a bond — a bond with the mountains that lures them back, again and again. Lakshmi Sharath  attempts to decipher the kinship that binds man and mountain.

“Once you have lived with the mountains, under the benedictory pines and deodars, near stars and a brighter moon... You will return, you will come back to touch the trees and grass, and climb once more the windswept mountain pass,” says Ruskin Bond, in a poem titled ‘Living with Mountains’, in A Bond with the Mountains.

Standing outside my tent, I gazed upon the ever-changing hues of the Pangong Tso, the high altitude lake in Ladakh, hugged by the vast expansive Himalayas. Walking around rather aimlessly, looking at the towering mountains, I felt like a tiny microcosm in the universe.

It was a humbling moment. The clouds arranged themselves in the sky, floating in thin air as the waters changed colours from azure to turquoise to sapphire, merging into different shades of blue.

The mountains, cradling the waters in their lap, raised their heads, acknowledging the sun’s rays that stroked them. Mysterious and silent, they stood there, framing the lake and raising a toast to the sunshine. At that moment, I struck an unspoken kinship with the mountains.

I was a little girl when I was first introduced to the hills. I was then addicted to the Nilgiris, which was like an annual getaway for the entire family. But like any other child, my dream was to see, touch and feel snow.

Years later, my tryst with the Himalayas began, not with the mountains, but with a painting. Tinged with bold strokes of blue and grey with white snowflakes dripping on the canvas, the mountains simply came alive inside my room. Standing there, they watched over me day and night, and gave me something to look forward to — a dream of visiting them someday. 

Decades later, I was on the steep roads of the Eastern Himalayas, driving towards Sela Pass in the Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh. The mountains had spread themselves out, encircling us, while the winding roads formed a girdle around them. And all of a sudden, the landscape turned white. Sheets of snow filled the road as the flakes crept noiselessly on the deodar trees, turning them into beautiful old, grey haired women, standing there graciously and inviting the visitors. I got out of the car, only to be caressed by the gently tumbling snowflakes, and I shivered more in excitement than due to the cold. My childhood dream had come true. And that is when the mountain bug bit me.

‘The mountain bug’ is an invisible creature. Before you know it, it sneaks inside your head and takes control over you. It is a very powerful emotion that tugs at your heartstrings and pulls you back to the mountains, again and again, irrespective of whether you live in the plains or by the coast.

Every year, streams of tourists and trekkers trickle their way up the mighty Himalayas. Some of them trudge along the rough terrain, while others relax at the foothills, making conversations with the deodars and the pines. Some carry a backpack, others a camera bag. Some are here to do some soul searching, others to search for birds. Some come here on a pilgrimage, others to worship nature. But they all share a bond — a bond with the mountains that brings them from all over the world to the Himalayas.

Love for the mountains

Pooja Mishra walked all around Zanskar for 20 days, visiting one village after another, staying with local villagers and understanding their way of life. She did not own a mobile phone or a camera, as she had no money to buy them. Last year, her colleague and she walked around Zanskar as they could not afford to pay for their travel. But the experience, she says, was ‘life altering’.

Pooja, an animal rescue worker in her mid-30s, discovered the Himalayas just like any other regular tourist a decade ago. A trip to Dharamshala, followed by repeated journeys to the same destination every year, made her fall in love with the mountains.

“Initially, I was just there for a week, then I travelled for a fortnight, and finally for a month. It was the people — their warmth — that attracted me,” she said, adding that she stayed there and learnt the Tibetan language. But Pooja’s grand affair with the mountains was yet to come.

She signed up as a volunteer with a NGO and took off on a four-month trip to Ladakh where she spent her time sterilising dogs in the mountains. Lured by the Himalayas, she went on another trip to Sikkim and Ladakh, on work again, but this time she made sure that she had time to travel. “I don’t call it work as I love being with animals, but I was really fascinated by the people and their simplicity and I wanted to travel around.” And that is how she landed in Zanskar towards the end of her sojourn.

Walking around Zanskar, she stayed with locals and even met a king who owned the Zangla Palace. “He was an old man, probably in his 70s, but was very down to earth. We went to his house to collect the key to the palace. Days later, when we were walking in another village, his car passed us by and he stopped and spoke to us. We were really touched by his humility,” she recollects.

Pooja’s journey, she said, taught her how to live life. “We are forever surrounded by excesses in life — we hoard things and we keep telling ourselves in the city that we need them. But the mountains teach you how to live. All that you need for survival is out there — those bare necessities of life is all that one needs to live a life. It teaches you to be simple and to cut off the unwanted baggage in life.”

Key to happiness

Like Pooja, for many people, the Himalayas is not just about a destination on their bucket list. Yakuta Poonawalla, working in a wildlife conservancy in the United States, fell in love with the Himalayas as a teenager when she went on her first trek.

“I was so mesmerised by the beauty of these mountains that I wanted to go back there again and again. I didn’t know why I was getting a degree in college, or trying to get a job, because all I wanted to do was to be in the mountains and work there,” she says.

Month-long treks, working with an outdoor adventure company, made the mountains her companions for life, as they helped her shaped her own personality.” They touched my life, gave me a sense of assurance and direction in my personal life,” she says. “I always felt that I could talk to them, that they were listening to my stories, and they would always have an answer.” The mountains were not just an escape to her, but they showed her a path, she adds.

Ashishwang Godha echoes the same, saying that she found answers for the turmoil in her emotional life in the mountains. “I learnt that the compromises one makes in life that leaves you sad are just not worth it. The hills, she adds, taught her that life was simple and serene and to enjoy it with honesty and minimalism, not with shackles and materialistic wants.”

But the mountains are not just there for those looking for answers in life. The solitude and the simplicity there often lure people from other countries who want to be in tune with nature. Stephen Christopher, a research student from the Syracuse University in USA, is completely inspired by the mountains and the people that he even changed his research topic. “It was my love for the mountains,” he says, adding rather philosophically, “The Himalayas inspire me on an everyday basis.

As an obvious metaphor, it encourages us to look up and think large, to think monumentally. Conversely, the Himalayas confront us with the smallness of our own lives, the temporariness of human life. And the kindness of mountain people is infectious, and to some degree a corrective for the hyper-industrial, consumer-oriented culture in which I live.”

He is currently researching on the dynamics between the Tibetan refugees and the Gaddi tribes in and around Dharamshala, and says he is completely taken in by the hardy mountain people that he wants to live in a small jhopdi in the hills during summer, or sleep in his sleeping bag under the stars. “Being there has obvious advantages: clean air, simple people, great views, and a Gaddi-Tibetan interface that remains the focus of my research,” he adds.

It has not been a very easy journey for Stephen who has had his share of mishaps in the Himalayas while trekking above Manikaran in Himachal Pradesh. Waiting for a doctor who had to walk up for five hours, he remembers the pain that he was going through. “The doctor performed a minor miracle… I remember being laid out on a kitchen table, somewhat out of my mind, spectators watching, wondering how serious the wound was, and feeling the painful tug of the needle breaking through my skin.

I was very thankful to the doctor for his services, and my leg has since healed a hundred per cent. Danger is part of the Himalayas, and that adds to the mystique of the place.”

Inspirational stories

For many who hike every year, it is the sense of challenge and achievement that drives them on in life. The mountain air gives them something to look forward to — a new peak to scale or a new path to tread. But a new challenge awaited travel agent Alan Curr from London who helped to organise a cricket match on a frozen lake bed, Gorak Shep, almost 5,165 metres above sea level, located at the base of  Mount Everest.

He writes in a blog that he had no idea that one could even go to the Everest Base Camp and he later realised that he had to trek for about nine days to get there. But a team of 50 eventually did get there, and even play the match. That was in 2009. But Alan Curr’s life changed with his tryst with the mountains. Getting away from a bustling city life, he trekked all over the Himalayas, stayed there for a while, wrote a book on his experiences, and took up adventure tourism, so that his relationship with the mountains continue.

But the most inspirational story is that of Mahesh Chaturvedi, who has never stopped romancing the mountains ever since his first trip 60 years ago. “I pitch my tent anywhere, wherever there is water, and then drive or trek my way through.” That is his journey uphill every year.

“Once the bug bites you, there is no turning back. You either love it or hate it. There is no grey area,” he says. There is so much to see, the variety of flora and fauna, the blue green shades, the hard working, simple, happy and always ready to share mountain people, the friends for life you make here…” he rattles off, describing his love for the youngest fold mountains.

But he has not kept the passion with himself. He has taken it upon himself to initiate young children to the Himalayas. Introducing them to the mighty mountains, taking them through live geography classes, and igniting in them a passion for the mountains, he has seen children turn into men and women as they have trekked with him in the last four decades. He started this initiative almost 40 years ago, and up till now over 30,000 children have seen the Himalayas through his eyes. “It teaches you a sense of discipline in your personal life, and without discipline, one cannot survive the mountains. It is a tough life out there.” And ask him what brings him here again and again, and he says, “Friends for life.”

A thought echoed by Stephen Christopher when he says, “I’ve visited India six times, and five of them have been to the Himalayas. Travelling in India is an endless pursuit, but visiting the Himalayas brings a sense of closure for me to a trip, and prepares me to go back to the USA.”

Ruskin Bond speaks about how “the mountains have been kind to him as a writer”. His poems, journals and short stories bring the mountains alive in those pages as he speaks of the simple, yet brave people who live there. “I like to think that I have become a part of these mountains, and that, by living here for so long, I am able to claim a relationship with the trees and wild flowers, and even the rocks, that are an integral part of them,” Bond writes in Mother Hill. And it is probably that sense of kinship that binds man and mountain.

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