Beautiful Bhutan

October 3rd, 2012

Kuzzampo[1] everyone! ๐Ÿ˜‰

The recent trip to Bhutan was amazing beyond measure. When Sudar called me one fine morning and said “Bhutan”, I immediately started dreaming about The Land of the Thundering Dragons. I had heard plenty of stories about Bhutan and my legs were itching to get there. Through every minute of the trip, we met fantastic people, came across rushing rivers, crossed 3 high mountain passes, beautiful roads, native culture and festivals, cheerful monks, spicy food and everything in between. At most places, life had come to a complete standstill. No one seemed to be in a hurry and everything seemed to move at a comfortable steady pace. We were constantly overcome by the kindness shown by the people from The Land of Thundering Dragons; whether be it the grocer lady who graciously offered us peaches for free or the cabbie or the owner of a big hotel; compassion was part of them. Almost all the places were very clean and rivers were clean even when they flowed through towns. Plenty of houses had the painting of a phallus on their exterior walls to symbolize fertility ๐Ÿ˜‰ .ย 

Taktsang Monastery a.k.a The Tiger's Nest

Taktsang Monastery a.k.a The Tiger’s Nest

Weather was perfect with just the right amount of sun on most days. Travel was an absolute pleasure. Every morning I got up, I would be in anticipation of what I would experience that day. Would it be the fabulous people or spicy food or hidden waterfalls in every corner or those beautiful chortens with prayer flags fluttering or playful kids or monks? Who knows? Bhutan has a surprised stored in its every corner … waiting for us to discover them.

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Today is a special day. Guess why?

On this day, last year (23-Jul-2011), I summitted Stok Kangri. It is the only trekkable 6000+m peak that I know of. Today am going to share couple of special moments during the trek.

We started from the base camp at 12 AM sharp in bone freezing cold, packed in 4 layers of clothing. Energy was at its highest for me. This was the day I was waiting for ever since I signed up for the trek. Days and days of swimming, trekking and other endurance activities were just about to pay off. I could visualize myself standing on the peak and gazing with awe at the beauty of Mother Nature, in the form of undulating peaks of the Karakoram range. With the barest of the bare essentials, we began our march.

Around 3 AM we stepped foot on a massive snow field. The milky way had opened up above us throughout the night. If not for the cold & lack of tripod, I would have setup camp and shot the stars to my heart’s content. By 4 AM we were at the mountain’s base. Right above us, piercing the night sky in all its glorious beauty stood Stok Kangri. My throat choked. I’m eternally grateful to the mountain for allowing me, a mere mortal, to set foot on her.

Sunrise

Around 4.40 AM, we came to a place where we had to cross an icy patch that was covered with snow. As we were wearing our crampons, the best sight of my life unfolded on the east. The eastern horizon had a thin streak of gold. So subtly thin that it took special effort to notice it properly. Few minutes later, few more streaks joined the show… and then an entire range opened up.

Nature had seduced me completely. For those few minutes, passage of time stopped. Every little cell in my body was completely alive. Transfixed. Jaw dropping. The best part? It looked like the sun was rising from below us. First showing its few rays, then moving horizontally, sliding out of the mountain & then rising vertically … as it consumed its golden rays again.

Every particle of snow and ice in our surroundings glistened as if they were covered in gold. The various views were mind-boggling to say the least. Nature was displaying the best drama that I could possibly see and remember for a very long time to come. The mountain next to ours looked so much like a gold mountain that the photo below doesn’t do any justice.

Clear blue skies were our friends that day. Impeccable weather.

Special Moment on The Peak

Three hours later, I was on the peak. The fastest ones on the trek were turning back. I met them on the way. The slower ones were significantly behind. For approximately 10 complete minutes, the summit was mine. I couldn’t take a photo of myself. So, I waited for people to turn up. The wind ruffled my hair. There was absolute silence on the top. The couple of months that led to the trek whizzed past. At 20,000+ feet, it was a thrilling place to be. On the far east, many miles away, Leh was visible like a dot. On the far North West, our guide showed the savage mountain, K2. On the South, Khardung La (the highest motorable pass in the world) was there. Best of all, a flight passed below me. As I sat next to the prayer flags, I dozed off for a few minutes until my guide came to the top and woke me up ๐Ÿ˜€

It was lovely. I posed like Tenzing Norgay on summit cornice. What a moment that was!

View from the Peak

Here’s a panorama from the summit of Stok Kangri, on a day when the weather was impeccable, when I was in the best of my spirits & when everything in the universe came together to support me.

2011 was splendid. It was a year of many glorious events. Here’s a quick recap of my treks, bike trips and travel that I had done in chronological order with some photos…

Rajasthan

It all started with the Rajasthan trip. From the majestic Udaipur palace to the Leopards of Bera to the Havelis of Nawalgarh and Churu to the dunes at Jaisalmer, this trip was one that will remain etched in my memory forever. Read it here.

Sivasamudram Bike Trip

This was a quick chit-chat ride to Sivasamudram. Zipped through Mysore road and we were back by afternoon :)

Early morning shot of Sajjangarh Fort while the moon was just setting

Early morning shot of Sajjangarh Fort while the moon was just setting

The Forgotten Commandments – A Short Film

I was the hero in this short film and as per the plot I was to die in the movie (something that eluded even Rajinikanth till now ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Shooting for this movie was one of the best experiences for me. Read about it here.

Siddara Betta

This was again a short bike and trek trip where we climbed to the caves and explored a few places around. The day can be dubbed as lost-and-found day as mentioned by Sudar in his blog post.

Hugging Monkeys at Siddara Betta

Hugging Monkeys at Siddara Betta

Kerala Bike Trip

Thick in to summer, we knew we had to cool ourselves. Chennai Trekking Club to the rescue. What would be better than a trip to swim in various parts of the Idukki dam followed by the splendid ghats of Valparai?

The shores of the Idukki Lake

The shores of the Idukki Lake

Venkatagiri Trek

It was supposed to be a two-day trek but circumstances were such that two of us had to join another team who were on a 3-day trek in the same area. We trekked with them for the most part and started our exit on day 2 by following a stream. From where we stood, the town was visible; which meant, the climb down would be steep and we had to encounter lots of waterfalls. At last count, we had climbed down at least seven steep places within a matter of hours. Day light faded quickly and we were forced to camp with a meager amount of food at a beautiful cave, surrounded by water. As the moon rose, the whole area glimmered. The Orion smiled at us. We exited early next morning. Myself, Shibu, Vikram, Sundar and Girish were the team. From the first steep waterfall to hanging down a tree overlooking a 30 feet drop to getting down the devil’s rainbow pool etc. it was an experience of a lifetime to remember.

A serene pool inside Venkatagiri Forests

A serene pool inside Venkatagiri Forests

Vellarimala Trek

Oh man oh man! No words in my dictionary to describe this trek. I had reached the limits of my vocabulary to describe that trek. Read about it here.

Savandurga Trek

Myself, Siddharth and Sudar were on this. It was decided the previous night all of a sudden that we had to get out the next morning & we were out on an impulse. Superb day that ended with pizza and a swim ๐Ÿ˜€

At the peak of Vavul Mala

At the peak of Vavul Mala

Bodi-Munnar Trek

Day one from Korangani village to Kolukkumalai and day two from Korangani village to Top Station. It was an easy trek and the weekend was well spent ๐Ÿ˜€

Yercaud Bike Trip

I had been wanting to go to Yercaud for a long time, it being pretty close (231 kms is pretty close isn’t it?) to Bangalore. So what did we do? Tank up the bikes and wrooom to Yercaud and back ๐Ÿ˜€ .. I witnessed the best ever sunrise of my life. On the way back, we swam at the Cauvery river in Mettur.

A surreal sunrise at Yercaud

A surreal sunrise at Yercaud

Ooty Bike Trip

Monsoon season had just begun and Ooty started filling up my mind. Having experienced the monsoon of Western Ghats during a trek to Ombattu Gudde, I had to drive to Ooty. Six of us in three bikes drove to Ooty via Bangalore – Mysore – Bandipur – Masinagudi – Ooty – Coonoor – Ooty – Mudumalai – Bandipur – Mysore – Bangalore. One of my best ever bike trips in the thickest of rains, until the Western Ghats bike trip happened :)

Pondicherry Bike Trip

Some of us school friends met after a long time and we decided to celebrate the occasion by driving to Pondy. En route we stopped at Alampara Fort and had a swim in the Bay of Bengal.

En route Upper Bhavani, Ooty

En route Upper Bhavani, Ooty

Stok Kangri, Ladakh – Summit at 6127 m

Reached the summit of Stok Kangri. It was an amazing trek. It had been my second time to Ladakh. When I landed in Leh, I just stood outside the airport for about 30 minutes, seeing the mountains as if they were my siblings. It was like returning home after a long time. Had lots of adventure on this trek, saw the formation of new glacial streams right in front of my eyes & also listened to the love story of Mr. M on the way down from Mato La ๐Ÿ˜€ .

Stok Kangri Summit - 6127 m

Stok Kangri Summit - 6127 m

Chunchi Falls Bike Trip

A very very memorable trip to Chunchi Falls where myself and two others averted a major disaster. The story is yet to be told :) . Would you like to listen to it?

Western Ghats Monsoon Bike Trip

This was like the thick of Monsoon in the Western Ghats. Over a long weekend, the Western Ghats beckoned us like anything. What did we do? We just answered the call with our bikes and our spirits ๐Ÿ˜€ . It was 4.5 days of pure bliss. From driving in rain the whole way to Kemmannugundi to Hebbe Falls to Maravanthe Beach to Jog Falls, this trip was a dream come true, only next to Stok Kangri. Read Sudar’s blog post about the bike trip and my post about Hebbe Falls in Monsoon.

Jeep trail to Hebbe Falls

Jeep trail to Hebbe Falls

Accident

Had a bike accident couple of months ago. I happened to be extremely lucky to have escaped with a single fracture. Read about it here.

In between all these trips there were many other interesting events. This year made me go delirious with joy. So, that was my 2011 :) . How was yours? Share it in the comments.

Wish you a very happy 2012 :)

Check out the Ladakh trip’s Grand Itinerary first :)

For probably the rest of my lifetime, I wouldn’t forget my drive from Kargil to Leh. It was on that drive that I was simply about to be thrown out of the mountain, narrowly missed getting run over, narrowly missed running over someone and the best of all, with the worst ever spoken Hindi possible, I was able to bargain a place to stay for the night, when I could barely feel my feet. It was also on that day I learnt what “unconditional help” really meant. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the story.

Fotu La

Fotu La

Early on the chilly morning at Kargil, I got my wounds dressed (Thanks Arul :) ) at a nearby hospital for just 2 rupees. I had bruises on both knees and one on my forearm of the left hand. My bike had skid couple of days ago on an oil spill because of which I had to wake up at an ungodly 7 AM to get the wounds dressed. I was not 100% confident about driving my bike because the fall was pretty bad. So, when Ram asked, “Do you want to drive today?”, I immediately said, “Yes.” The only way to overcome fear is to take it head on; which is what I attempted to do. My bike was supposed to carry luggage that day. That means, I had a small backpack on my bike’s tank and 3 big backpacks tied to my bike. I tied them once and took the bike for a test drive. Everything seemed okay. When we started on the road, the rope magically came off & the three heavy backpacks were dragging my bike on one side. I made my way back to the hotel to re-tie it. By that time almost everyone had left and there were just 3 bikes including mine. Ram and Balu left in few minutes and I started after them.

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The silence was overwhelming. The crisp morning wind was blowing across, ruffling my hair. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. As the reality of standing at 2300+ meters altitude sunk in, I was filled with a strange euphoria. Just as if to make the moment perfect, the mist/cloud cover below us parted – as if the curtains are parted in a play – and what lay in front of us was stuff [usually] made out of dreams.

That was the feeling that I was exactly going through when we reached the peak of Vavul Mala on Sunday morning. We were at one of the highest spots in Western Ghats & nothing could have made me more happier at that moment than the silence that I was experiencing from the hills surrounding us. Miles and miles in all directions had views of beautiful undulating mountains. Weather was perfect. It had rained the whole of the previous night and nature was bright green all around us. Leeches took a break at that altitude. It was just silence and myself for those few precious minutes.

View of Vavul Mala from the village

View of Vavul Mala from the village

The vegetation was dense right from the start of the trek. Few minutes in to the trek, the steepness began and it held up relentlessly until the very top. Unlike Ombattu Gudde where the shola grasslands start at about 700 m, peaks in the Vellarimala range didn’t have any grasslands at all. Would you believe it if I said that the very top was covered in dense foliage?

Olichuchattam Falls

About 1.5 hours of trekking brought us to the awesome Olichuchattam Falls. When we reached the falls it was drizzling and the sun was not yet fully out. Weather had played a superb part in keeping us energetic. We were all dry, warm and comfortable – a perfect combination for the steep trek. Water on the falls took a turn somewhere at the top and was flowing furiously straight down the smooth rock face of about 50 m in length. The very magnitude of the falls was breathtaking. Am sure during peak monsoon, much of the rock will be flooded. Away from the falls, the trail split in to two. One went upwards and we took that. Due to heavy rains the previous day, lots of shrubs and small trees had fallen on the trail. Our guide had a sickle and he went about clearing the trail for us as we closely followed him.

The Olichuchattam - Look at the sheer size of it

The Olichuchattam - Look at the sheer size of it

Forty five minutes later, we reached the first stream crossing. The steep climb took us to the top of the falls from where the water was taking a turn to flow down the smooth rock face. With mist covering the distant mountains and a slight drizzle for company, the moment was superb. Clouds were at touching distance and were playing with the smaller peaks around. The cloudscape changed continuously. People were gamboling here and there, splashing water and generally going crazy :) .

Olichuchattam flowing down

Olichuchattam flowing down

Soon, the guide announced it was time to leave. A quick climb and another stream crossing later, we took a short break at the next stream crossing. By that time, leeches had been feasting on our legs. For some people, there were blood spots near their thighs and tummy! Wearing floaters kinda saved me because as soon as I spotted those blood suckers cling to my feet, I plucked them and threw them away. Some were really persistent though.

Damodaran Kolli and Vellarimala Top

The last water point of the day was Damodaran Kolli. The water was pure, crystal clear, ice cold and flowing out of the rocks. The water was so cold that my gums got tickled when I sipped it. A short break later, we climbed for about 2 hours and reached the Vellarimala Top. It was not like any other regular top. This ‘top’ had lot of foliage around. The breeze was missing and so were those awesome views. Slightly disappointed at the absence of views, we opened the lunch packets and had our fill; followed by a group photo session. However, the guide had a twinkle in his eye. He didn’t reveal it yet. The magic was yet to come.

A tiny blood sucker

A tiny blood sucker

Kethan Paara

The surprise revealed itself in the name of Kethan Paara (Kethan – Name of the place, Paara – Rock). Since it was one of the high points in Vellarimala region, the view from this place was good. As if it was our luck, the clouds parted again, giving a breathtaking view of the valley below. Masthakapara and the elephant’s trunk like slope of the rock was clearly visible. Just like how the trunk attaches itself to the elephant’s head, that huge piece of rock was attached to the hill top. With a small dip after the rock and a clearing there, it looked just like an elephant. One of the trekkers claimed that he spotted an actual elephant in the adjacent valley running towards the foliage as soon as it heard our noise. But since no one else saw the elephant, we found it hard to believe. All through the trail, there was fresh elephant dung. If those mammoths made their presence in our presence, only one of us would be alive!

Clouds moving away from Kethan Paara

Clouds moving away from Kethan Paara

A quick trek from Kethan Paara took us to the base of Vavul Mala. This place was named REC Paara. Since it had rained quite heavily the previous day, the place had a water source with a good amount of flowing water. Sky was already overcast. The guide said it would surely rain and that we have to setup our tents quickly. Just as the tenting was completed, it started raining. It drizzled heavily for about 5 minutes before turning in to a full blown fury. The tent was quite stable. It was getting cold at 5.45 PM itself and we crawled in to our sleeping bags. The view of Vavul Mala from the tent gaps and the clouds over it made me enter a different world. Vavul Mala was not in the initial plan and I wished to trek to the peak. Since it was the highest peak in the range, I was pretty sure the wind and views would be there ๐Ÿ˜€ .

Rain’s Havoc

Three hours in to our sleep, it felt as if a huge bucket of ice-cold water was poured on us. Gasping for breath, we woke up to find that the heavy rain and furious winds had blown away our tent. The tent looked like it was screaming for help as it held on to the last string tied to the rock. We brought it together and tied it again; not before it was torn apart again by the wind. I asked for the time and someone said it was 11.45 PM. I thought, “Whoa! We have a long night.” The rain never abated. With every passing minute, it only seemed to be getting worse. Tiny streams were forming behind us, threatening to wet everyone’s sleeping bags. An hour or so later, the tents were blown away for the third time. It was enough already :) . So, Pratik (one of the trekkers) sat through the whole night and held the tent. He probably slept for about 5-10 minutes in all. With the occasional droplets of water falling on my face and cold feet, I was somehow lulled in to sleep. Once sleep came, my senses shut out the howling of the wind and it instead became musical. I wandered in to my dreams. It was good. I still can’t believe I actually slept!

View of camp from somewhere close to top

View of camp from somewhere close to top

I woke up totally refreshed. At 6 AM, the sun was not yet up but the whole landscape around me was bright green. The rain had polished every leaf to be as shiny as a mirror and the whole environment had a wonderful aroma. Everything was fresh. Everything was alive. I was totally in tune with the silence and greenery around me. With a few clouds here and there, the sky was in its superb blue. The sun had started to rise on the horizon and coloured the peaks in its brilliant morning rays. It was … it was … Sorry, am unable to explain that feeling of awesomeness.

Vavul Mala

Eight of us started moving towards Vavul Mala that morning. With just a sickle in his hand and rough animal trails for guidance, the guide took us through the forest as if he knew them in and out. He seemed to know every plant and rock over there. For brief moments, he would disappear in to the foliage. Whenever a grunt followed, we would follow him inside. The foliage was so thick that sunlight never penetrated it. From all the previous night’s rain, the floor was pretty wet and slippery. Leeches didn’t attack us though. The animal trails cris-crossed each other. With the silent confidence of an expert, he led us through the maze of trees, rocks and trails. After one hour and 45 minutes of trekking through the foliage, we came to a big clearing. He didn’t say much. He just went to a place and sat down there.

Moon and Vavul Mala

Moon and Vavul Mala

Suddenly, it hit me that we were at one of the highest points in the western ghats. We had reached the peak. The silence was overwhelming. The crisp morning wind was blowing across, ruffling my hair. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. As the reality of standing at 2300+ meters altitude sunk in, I was filled with a strange euphoria. Just as if to make the moment perfect, the mist/cloud cover below us parted – as if the curtains are parted in a play – and what lay in front of us was stuff [usually] made out of dreams. The moment was special. The guide pointed out the Chembra peak to the north. Masthakapara looked way more beautiful from 2300+ m altitude than from Kethan Paara. The peak had a deep crevasse running down its height, never revealing where it ended. It was home for the bats & somewhere deep below, there was water.

View of Masthakapara from Vavul Mala

View of Masthakapara from Vavul Mala

After spending enough time at the peak, we started trekking down to the camp. Slipping and sliding through the foliage, we reached the camp in half the time we took to reach the top. It gave an indication of what was to come for the day in terms of climbing down.

Trek Down

The trail was totally slippery and we had entered leech territory. I had multiple leech bites on my feet. But the view and winds at the top of Vavul Mala was worth every leech bite and steepness it took to get there. What’s a sweet success without some struggle? The jeep trail towards the end of the trek was never ending as usual. One of the locals pointed us to a small trail that led to the stream. The chill water was refreshing and it was totally soothing on the arms and legs. A beautiful trek had come to an end. We started with a tea at the tea shop at Muthappanpuzha and finished the trek at the same place with Pazha Pori (Banana Fry) and tea :) .

Aftermath

Aftermath

Some Information

Where – Vellarimala and Vavul Mala are reachable from Muthappanpuzha village in Kozhikode (Calicut) district of Kerala. To reach there, take a bus that goes to Kozhikode and get down at Thamarasery. From there, take KSRTC buses that go to Muthappanpuzha. Alternatively, you can go to Thiruvambady or Omasery and take a share auto/jeep from there.

Guide – We hired a guide named Binish, whose dad Raman accompanied us on the trek. He was totally awesome and knew the area like the back of his hand.

Season – Post monsoon is the best time to go there. For us, even though we went in summer, the weather during those 2 days felt like it was monsoon. I should say we were lucky.

Notes

  1. When we went to Kethan Paara on the way back, the area was taken over by fast moving clouds. Someone (I think Dinesh) pointed out that Rajinikanth was smoking from the valley ๐Ÿ˜› .
  2. Keerthana sang “Top of the world” at Kethan Paara. Nice song!

Photo Albums

What’s a trek without photos. Here are some of the clicks:

  1. Bharath
  2. Debashish
  3. Jinu
  4. Sushruth
  5. Vikas

Check out our trip’s Grand Itinerary ๐Ÿ˜€

Unlike other places where you drive to reach a destination, in Ladakh, the journey itself is the destination. The road goes through such breathtaking vistas (and life-taking as well if you aren’t careful enough) that it is impossible not to be impressed by beauty of such magnitude. However, things aren’t rosy all the time. At high altitude, weather plays a crucial role in shaping up the day. This story is about one such drive when the weather was gloomy and we had very little time in our hands to afford the luxury of staying at Tangtse for an extra day.

When I woke up that morning, I felt fresh and the song Mazhai Thuli (rain drops) was playing in my mind. Almost instinctively I had a look outside the window and it was drizzling. I heard that Ladakh was a high altitude cold desert and that it doesn’t rain much. So I convinced myself that some clouds might be moving around and sprinkling some water on the way :) . The usual blue of the sky was missing. The horizon had a few black clouds as well. Determined not to let go of the day, we got ready quickly. Ram P and Suresh started first on Ram’s Pulsar 220. Some time later, I followed.

First touch of snow :D - A special moment

First touch of snow ๐Ÿ˜€ - A special moment

I was well protected. Thermal inner wear, jeans, rain pant for the bottom and for the top, it was again thermal inner wear, followed by a t-shirt, fleece jacket and leather jacket. For the legs and feet, it was cotton socks, woolen socks and then ankle length leather boots. For fingers, I wore woolen gloves and Cramster’s leather gloves. As I started the ride, I was thinking that if it had rained a little here – at 14000 feet – would it snow at 15000 feet and above? That day we had to cross India’s third highest motorable pass known as the Chang La at 17000+ feet … in inclement weather. A light cold wind was blowing too!

The Drive

After 7 km I came to a fork in the road. Right fork led to Durbuk and the left fork led to Chang La and then to Leh. I took the left fork and few minutes later, the ghats started :) . Drizzling stopped this time. But it was cloudy and the slight drizzle had wet the roads considerably. As soon as I crossed the first few hairpin bends, I saw the sight of a lifetime. The winding road with its various hairpins wound down to the plains at 14000 feet and then went to the forkย in a straight stretch. Another fabulous straight stretch took the road to Tangtse. Both these towns were visible from this vantage point.

View en route Chang La. Durbuk and Tangtse are visible.

View en route Chang La. Durbuk and Tangtse are visible.

After clicking couple of pictures, I was on my way. Rest of the gang weren’t visible yet. Since I was on a 125cc bike, I wanted to start a bit early so that by the time my bike climbs, the heavier bikes can come quite fast and catch up. In most places, the roads were quite steep. The altitude was climbing steadily. I was well acclimatized and hence didn’t feel the pressure of oxygen. The drizzle came down harder and visibility was going down. Soon, I crossed the magical 15000 feet and crossed a heavily puffed up rushing river – over a fragile bridge ๐Ÿ˜€ . At many points, roads were joined vertically through off-road trails. Four wheel drive cars managed to climb up and down very easily while I was watching them from my 125cc!

Snow Attack

At about 15150 feet, I could feel the chill on my fingers. The warmth was long since gone and they were fast becoming cold. Feet were doing good so far. Suddenly, my jacket was no longer watery. A gray layer was forming as I was driving. I quickly realized what it was! It was snow! SNOW FALL. Snow was coming down real fast and it was being blown all around. Until then, when snow had come in contact with us, it would simply melt and wet the jacket. But that day was different. Snow fell on my jacket and it froze, becoming ice.

Road on the way to Nubra Valley

Road on the way to Nubra Valley

Within minutes, visibility was reduced to mere meters. Few minutes later, visibility was zero. Bike was wobbling slightly. I couldn’t see anything. Immediately I realized what had happened. Snow had fallen and frozen on my helmet visor, thereby taking out the visibility. I stopped the bike and took a minute to clean my visor. Snow was falling down hard and fast & it froze. It was not possible to drive with the visor on. Roads were steep and slippery. Hence, wearing the visor wasn’t an option. I started my bike again and took off. Soon, those tiny fluffy particles of snow started hitting my face and were pricking my eyes. Unlike rain, snow particles are really small, come in huge numbers & take a good helping of the skin! It was similar to a swarm attack.

Donkey, Simon and Snow

Donkey, Simon and Snow

My speed had come down to about 15 kmph. Through all this, I suddenly realized that bike stopped again. Reason? I couldn’t shift the gear. My little finger and ring finger were screaming in pain. They had frozen hard. I was at about 16500 feet now. Everywhere on the road, the milestones mentioned about the remaining distance to Chang La, Leh and the altitude. I was hoping there would be some place where I could have a cuppa chai ๐Ÿ˜€

Wish Granted

Ten minutes later, my wish was granted. I saw an army camp at Tsultak at 17000 feet. Along the direction board, there was another board which announced the facilities of the place & the one that caught my eye was the “Mess –>” direction board. I drove straight to the mess. My fingers and feet were pretty much frozen now. Any effort with them required enduring pain. Two army folks appeared from the mess.

Me: Mujhe thoda garam paani chahiye (I need some hot water)

Army dude: Pehle, helmet kholo (Remove your helmet first)

Me: (after fiddling with the helmet lock) – tried talking in Hindi (didn’t work out) – Please remove them yourself. Fingers are frozen.

Army dude: He smiled and then removed the helmet. I was called inside the small mess.

Damaged Car

Damaged Car

One guy was a Mallu and the other guy was a Tamilian. Seeing my TN registration plate, he asked in tamil, “Neenga yengendhu varinga (Where are you coming from?), for which I answered “Chennai.” I was damn happy to hear a guy talking in Tamil at 17000 feet. Apparently, they were from the Madras regiment and they had just returned from a posting on top of Siachen Glacier!

The board that mattered

The board that mattered

A huge cauldron of boiling water was in the middle of the mess. With almost no effort, he lifted the cauldron from the stove and moved it elsewhere. I was stunned at his strength. Then he increased the flame and got a chair for me. He also helped me remove my shoes. Both my socks were wet. Toe edges had become white. Fingers were frozen. As the flame increased, I thawed them, massaged them and brought them back to life. In an impulse, I put my bare feet on the ground and felt the chill sending a shiver up my spine. The army dude then inquired about the bike trip and said that winters in that place were truly horrible; with temperatures reaching -10 during day time itself. As we were discussing about his life and my trip, he asked how many people were we. I said 13 and then he asked whether we’ll like corn soup!

Corn Soup

I pinched myself. What? Corn soup? At 17000 feet with snow wrecking havoc around? Before even I could reply, I thought “WOW! That’s dulcet” and then I said “Yes! We would love it.” By that time, the rest of the gang had come in and they were getting toasty in the visitor’s room. Soon, the soup was ready. Everybody took large helpings of the soup. As the hot soup went down my throat, I could feel life surging back in my limbs and body. Various parts of my body along the oesophagus started to absorb the warmth. As the warm soup splashed my stomach, it was nearly orgasmic. After warming up sufficiently, we headed to Chang La. It was few kilometers from the army camp.

Hot Soup and the Gang

Hot Soup and the Gang

The army guys warned us that we were about to enter avalanche zone and that not more than one bike should cross the zone at anytime. Since it was also snowing, the risk of avalanche was higher. We bade them goodbye, thanked heartily and then went on our way.

Chang La

Seeing the prayer flags flap in the chill breeze was a HUGE relief. I felt happy from the inside for coming that far. I was thinking of how folks would feel when I narrated the story to them after getting back. My mind drifted to Chennai. Then, it was time to savour the moment. At Chang La, the Indian Army gives free tea to everyone who makes it there. After couple of group pictures and a funny dance (am trying to find the video), we bought some mementos and then started to Leh. We crossed snow fields and some more avalanche zones.

Paari at The Chang La

Paari at The Chang La

Weather was showing some improvement. Though chill winds were blowing, it was not snowing. Through winding roads and more splendid views, we reached the beautiful village of Sakti and then reached the outskirts of Leh by around 4 PM. Paari and Arul went to Hemis Monastery. Rest of the gang, caught on the football fever, found a ground to play. I went to Thiksey monastery and then drove to Leh. Due to an earlier adventure that’ll be described in the next post, I missed Leh Palace before. So I drove to Leh.

Sunset at Leh

It was around 6.30 PM by the time I reached Leh. Sun was setting and I was offered a splendid view of the sunset from the top of the Leh palace. I made friends with theย Buddhistย monks there and they were telling their stories. I wanted to climb to Castle Tsemo opposite to the Leh palace. But unfortunately, it was becoming cold quickly and it had already become dark. So I thought Castle Tsemo was for next time and then went back to our home stay.

Sunset at Leh

Sunset at Leh

The day was absolutely brilliant and it was one that I would never forget in my life! Even months after coming back, that day is still fresh in my memory. I can recollect every detail even now. I can’t stop talking about the beauty of Ladakh.

See you soon on the next adventure post!

Rajasthan is a diverse and beautiful place that beats superlatives. Everywhere you go in Rajasthan, you will see so much colour and liveliness that you can’t believe that this part of the Indian sub-continent has so much happening. During much of this road trip in Rajasthan, we visited lesser known places and came back with an enviable experience. Combine this travel with an icing-on-the-cake type easy desert trek and you would never want to miss this ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

Sunset in sand dunes of Rajasthan

Sunset in sand dunes of Rajasthan

I did miss some regular tourist spots though (like Mount Abu, Ajmer, Pushkar etc.) but I guess I’ll cover them at leisure when there are no better places to visit.ย Except in the months of May and June – when summer is at its peak – rest of the year is open for tourists. November, December and January are particularly very cold. The desert trek was organized by Youth Hostels Association of India. Without much ado, here’s the itinerary of the trip.

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Ladakh – Below is a snippet of the lyrics from the song “Kanmani Anbodu” from the movie Guna.

Unnai enni parkayil kavidhai kottudhu
Adhai ezudha ninaikayil varthai muttudhu
la la la … la la la …

It roughly translates to, “When I think about you, emotions flow; but when I try to put them down, words fail me.” That exactly describes how I feel about Ladakh and the bike trip. The beauty of Ladakh beats all superlatives. Its memories left me in a dreamy state for days together … making sure that I longed to visit that place again and again.

I totally felt at home at Ladakh. The people were cheerful and friendly. The weather was so cold that its summer was like Chennai’s winter. Mile after mile, we passed through breathtaking vistas, rushing rivers, snow capped mountains, snow storms, bad roads, snow fields and what not! Each of those scenes screamed at us to stop, close our eyes, take a deep breath and take in that scene. Much of those even rendered me speechless. Sunset time was especially brilliant. Though we were never able to see the actual sun set – because of high mountains around – the golden light created so much contrast that everything around us opened up to its purest beauty.

There were 13 of us on the Grand Ladakh Trip and I’m sure every one of us had personal special moments that we will cherish for our lifetime.

Team Poster

Team Poster

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Well… it was a terrific Sunday. I’m not going to tell you the regular story of how beautiful the hills and streams were and how we jumped and monkey dived from top etc. Instead, I’m going to tell you the story of how mental clarity and strength of will helped resolve a critical problem.

By the way, If you like this and other trekking stories of mine, I would strongly suggest that you subscribe to my RSS feed. You won’t regret that decision I tell you.

The Setting

On Sunday morning, the last water point was at around 10.30 AM. I drank about a litre of water, got some water on my backpack and we started moving ahead. We proceeded to hit a side-stream which would (according to the maps) take us somewhere close to the exotic Nagalapuram’s regular first pool. By about five hours after we started walking, all water resources had been exhausted & most of us were thirsty. We hit upon a 15m fall in the stream and couldn’t proceed any further. Straight and butter smooth rocks rose on both sides which made direct climbing impossible.

First Climb on Day 1

First Climb on Day 1

The 15m fall didn’t have any place to hold and climb down. But there was water there & we couldn’t even reach it with ropes. Eventually we decided to climb around it and then go down. The direct route was very bushy and thorns started raping us in all places where even a tiny bit of skin was visible. So, we backtracked some distance and climbed an 80 degree incline. Best thing about the incline was that, it had a good number of crevices to keep our hands and legs for balance. By the time we started climbing that incline, it was 3.30 PM. The sun was mercilessly burning down on us and the rocks were hot.

The Climb Up

Many of us were able to do the climb. Some did it slowly, some did it quickly, some did part of it quickly and part of it slowly & some of them had to be helped. But climb up … we all did. It was around this time that dehydration started to hit me. Every cell in my limbs were screaming for water. Blood receded from my finger tips and created wrinkles. Then I stopped climbing and noticed that a good number of people were still way down. That would give some time for rest. I wrapped my arms around a tree to stabilize myself and slept standing for sometime… may be 5 minutes. But that didn’t work out. So I removed my backpack, found a flat rock and rolled over there to get an amazing sleep for the next 1 hour 15 minutes. The sun was burning down and there was not much shade. But with a towel to cover my eyes and arms, sleep couldn’t have come at a better time.

Butterflies

Butterflies

During regular climbing, if I had said that piece of rock as “flat rock”, I would have been called a dumb ass :) but who cares when youย want some rest?

Eventually everyone made the climb. It was around 6 PM now. The sun began to lose its intensity and a cool breeze was drifting around. That pushed me in to another 15 minute siesta. The gang stabilized and was gearing to climb down. After the climb down, we would get to that elusive elixir of life. This guy, let’s call him Jay, was the last one to climb up. Myself and Anand took the responsibility of getting him to the base camp. We were told to give him some rest and then take him to the hill’s peak and walk along the peak until the gradual descent began. That way, there wouldn’t be much pressure and since we would go on to the peak, the breeze would be good too.

The Sunset

After few minutes of rest, myself and Anand pushed Jay to start walking. It was getting dark and being stuck on the mountains during darkness isn’t a fun thing. We pushed, pushed and pushed, with myself and Anand taking turns to carry couple of extra backpacks. After 30 minutes of walk, we rested. The sun was setting just behind us on a mountain. The sight was breathtaking and so wonderful. But Jay’s spirit went down with the sun. The sun going down meant that twilight would be available only for about 30-45 minutes more and that was too less a time to get down fast.

Sunrise on Sunday

Sunrise on Sunday

We pushed off again and didn’t give rest for Jay for the next 45 minutes. It was pitch dark by then. But we knew where we were because right down the hill, we saw the dam and people could notice our torches too. That way, we were safe and didn’t actually get lost. By around 8 PM, Jay lost all gas and plopped. He couldn’t move much without water and was mumbling something. Anand was beginning to get low because of the current situation. We yelled for a few people from the top of the hill but no response came. Every time we thought we heard a response, it was the wind playing games. Jay’s situation was getting bad.

Stars appeared here and there and in a few minutes, a whole orchestra was being played in the skies.

The Idea

I suggested that instead of waiting for help, it would make sense to walk for 10 minutes and rest for 20 minutes. That way, we would at least reach the bottom of the hill and be near water. We could drink water to our heart’s content and even camp there for the night. But that was not to be. As with Jay, Anand also announced that he cannot move anymore. Some coaxing and bullying didn’t work & that followed by more yelling for Peter, Biju, Alex etc. But no one heard us. Idea didn’t work out. Myself, Anand and Jay took turns showing our torch in case someone noticed. Sooner or later, they would have to figure out that we were missing.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Anand then called B in the city who told us he would get back to us immediately. I then talked to B, D and P and explained the whole story so far :) and asked them to come from the city with some water because none of the trekking members were reachable. Then few minutes later Ansar called in and said he would come. I pinched myself literally and asked him to repeat it once more. He said he’ll pick up Sujai and come there for the rescue. Immediately Guru (the ultimate trekking and navigating machine) came to my mind and I told Ansar to pick up Guru also. Guru is a lean and a classic trekker full of stamina and power. While on call, Ansar also spoke to Jay and Jay’s spirit soared to some extent. He went from :( to ๐Ÿ˜ … In the time that followed, Anand snored peacefully while Jay and myself were talking some random fun stuff. I was happy that I was able to maintain my cool from a tense situation.

Peter to the rescue

Suddenly, Ramesh (one of the trekking members) gave a call to Anand’s number asking where we were. I shone the torch from the top of the hill. He could see us but I couldn’t see him. He said Peter was looking for us and coming in the direction of the torch with some water. I felt “WOW”. In an hour or so, Peter reached us. Jay’s spirit went from ๐Ÿ˜ to :) . He gulped down some water with electrol and his face lit up almost immediately. I drank some plain water and waited for Ansar, Guru and Sujai to make their appearance. Peter had come in through some really dense bushes and didn’t want to go down the same way. Time was 1.30 AM. I couldn’t sleep anymore. The thought of going to the base camp and it being so near was exciting me to the core.

On top of the 800m peak on Sunday morning

On top of the 800m peak on Sunday morning

Help Arrives

In an hour (2.30 AM), we saw a bright orange light sweeping the ground beneath the hill. It was Ansar’s car. We gave a call to them. Guru woke up some locals near the dam and inquired about the easiest route to reach the torches on top of the hill. With the help of two locals, Guru and Sujai carried 6 litres of water and came to the top. Meanwhile, we packed our bags again and started walking downhill with Peter holding Jay’s hands and dragging him down. We climbed down for around one and half hours. A huge bear hug to Peter, Guru, Ansar and Sujai for coming there on time and giving us water. That was very timely and very quick response. It’s something that I will never forget in my lifetime.

Sunrise and Ochre on Monday

Sunrise and Ochre on Monday

4 AM

The sky was opening up to the sun slowly. It displayed a brilliant ochre that mesmerized me completely. Soon, I witnessed an awesome sun rise on the eastern hills and my spirits were back to normal. It was totally surprising that I could hold on in such a pressure situation & since I was able to handle that, I would be able to do better in other life situations I guess ๐Ÿ˜‰

Any questions?

See you soon!

Note: Click on the pictures for bigger versions.

If you want to see the craziest people in Chennai, it has to be at CTC. We trek on untamed terrain with awesome gangs in search of that elusive elixir of life. Once in a while, this craziness increases up a notch. What was once thought to be impossible or out of habit became a habit :) … and one such habit was taking out underprivileged kids from many of the homes in and around Chennai for an easy trek in to the pristine jungles so that they can have fun as much as we do all the time.

Thilak and kid. Priceless happiness on their faces.

Thilak and kid. Priceless happiness on their faces.

That Sunday was special. Thanks to Thilak, the kids from SIP Home in Kolathur were taken on a beautiful one day trek to Nagalapuram’s Eastern side. I had taken a break from trekking for whole of April for swimming & when this trek invite came in, I was more than glad to accept it. What made that home special was that it cared for kids who are HIV+. What really surprised me was that the home was being run by a trans-gender. She was very supportive of us taking the kids in to the jungles for a day of bliss & she even accompanied us. At 61 years of age, she is supremely fit… fitter than any of the modern couch potatoes!

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