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How a city dweller revived his kinship with the mountains

There is something soothing about sitting down facing a mountain, observing its features, familiarizing yourself with the landscape. Spend enough time and you develop a kinship with the towering shape. And if the bond is deep enough, she’ll have surprises in store for you every now and then, keeping you going.

Observing the mountain is a hobby. During most of last year’s pandemic, I sat by the window of my home in Mumbai, alongside the resident squirrel, tormented by memories of such visions. I was trying to focus on the work in hand, only to be brought back to those magical heights by the prayer flags dancing near the window and the many mountain sketches on the walls. It was almost as if the Buddha at my desk was teasing me, aware of the turmoil I was going through every day.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to go, just to look at the mountains again. Himachal Pradesh is a land that I have traveled through many times in the past. This time around, however, there was no return date, a generic itinerary for one route and mountains in mind.

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Travel has changed. For my part, I have always been happy to take any mode of transport, caring more about conversation than comfort. This fall, however, the pandemic forced me to create a bubble in my Ertiga of confidence. Plus, it allowed me to carry luxury items that didn’t quite fit in a backpack. Three days later, I arrive at the foot of the hills. The next morning, I cut the high speeds, and the air conditioning, as I hurtled down the first slopes. The locals call the region dev bhoomi, the land of the gods. The pilgrimage has begun.

Soon I am in apple country. The villages seem abandoned but the orchards, and mandis (markets), are lively. It is harvest season and there is not a minute to lose. For locals like Navkaran Boris, an apple grower in Kalpa, business is just starting to pick up after the pandemic. By the time I get to Kalpa I have a collection of the freshest Kinnauri apples.

It is dark when I wake up the next morning in the village of Saryo. It’s so early that I feel guilty about munching on my apple breakfast, lest the crackle wake up the neighbors. The forms of the Kinner-Kailash chain opposite emerge, the placid glaciers glisten in the first rays of the sun.

While Kinner-Kailash Peak attracts pilgrims, it’s Raldang on the far right of the chain that catches my eye. It seems to pierce the sky as the jagged ridges slide down into the valley below. The sun wakes him from his sleep. I settle down, finally in peace, far from viruses and vaccines. For the rest of the day, I sit there, allowing Raldang to exercise his alluring charm.

Throughout the past year, Spiti Valley has been closed to foreigners. Residents felt this was the most effective way to keep the virus at bay. It has been a hectic time for Padma Dorjee of Shego, a short distance from the Kaza district headquarters. Having worked in tourism all his life, he missed tourists and hikers; his foster home seemed abandoned. He breathed a sigh of relief when the pandemic situation improved. Hikers and tourists to the plains have started looking at the mountains again. But things seemed to be going better this time around: The tourists were back, yes, but in fewer numbers – in numbers perhaps just for the fragile landscape Dorjee calls home.

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I tell him that I want to stay away from tourist places. On a whim, we headed to his wife’s maternal home in Demul, climbing a peak called Palari that overlooks it. The rarefied mountain air taxes my exhausted and disconnected lungs, and the slow rise of a scree seems endless. The stop to snack on dried apples and jowar (sorghum) is a welcome relief. Finally, we get to the top. A floating sea of ​​mountain ranges unfurls in all directions. Directly opposite is the majestic Nimo Loksa, plumes of snow rising in the air. The wind blows like a breath, the heat of the sun is energizing.

Dorjee bursts into winter stories, when the valley enters a deep frost. The life of the village comes to a halt, the people largely stay inside. It is, he says, that the mountains come to life. Snow leopards, Himalayan red foxes and blue sheep make themselves felt on the same slopes we just hiked. This is reason enough for the intrepid traveler to brave the cold.

In winter, when village life stops, the mountains come alive.
(Shail Desai)

Dorjee, a veteran of those trips, says spotting wildlife in the cold can be as difficult as starting the car. It takes hours to heat up a fuel tank and start the engine. He remembers being blocked on precarious roads, his path blocked by meters of snow. Last year there had been no such adventures. Dorjee took care of the housework. So his excitement is evident as he contemplates a Palari climb this winter.

The road from Manali to Leh has attracted adventurers for years. But with the pristine roads mapped out by the Border Roads Organization, today you have to turn to Kunzum La which connects the Spiti and Lahaul valleys for a real dose of adrenaline. These are not really roads, but rather a clear area of ​​rocks for a vehicle to pass.

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A sign tells visitors to stay off the road for six months from October 15. In winter, even a rescue is not possible. There is no mobile phone network beyond Losar, the last village in Spiti, to Khoksar in Lahaul. The dhabas (restaurants) in Batal and Chhatru have also closed. For the next 85 kilometers, I am on my own, relying on the generosity of fellow travelers. At first I seem to be on the right track, despite a few cliffhanger moments. But then, as at the right time, a truck breaks down on a bend, a rock at its side preventing any vehicle from crossing it. The vehicles lined up are abandoned to discuss a solution to the situation.

There is enough time to admire the raw dreamy scenery. The Chandra River winds calmly through the rock-strewn valley. Views of pandemic-stricken Mumbai counting its covid-19 cases are further removed from the mind. By the time we are clear, the valley closes the last rays of the sun. The peaks turn a pleasant pink.

The tedious crawl is finally coming to an end, I spot an asphalt road in the headlights. The seemingly endless nine-hour roller coaster ride is over. A row of parking lights flash in the distance. I look around. Under a dreamy full moon, interrupted by traveling clouds, glowing snow peaks always keep me company.

Difficulties in the mountains come in many forms. Until last year, the people of Lahaul were locked in each winter by snow-capped passes. The Atal tunnel, inaugurated last year and bypassing Rohtang La to link Lahaul to Manali throughout the year, has changed everything. How much this is something that locals are only beginning to accept. Some days the roads are crowded with vehicles spitting smoke. Dots of plastic ubiquitous on the snowy slopes. Waste is thrown into the nullahs which flow into the Chandra River. It meets the Bhaga downstream and forms the Chenab which flows into Pakistan. A local jokes about the toxic gifts India gives to its neighbors.

My month out of time passes too quickly. As I walk back, Shimla’s twinkling lights let me know that the holiday season has arrived. The parikrama is complete, with a happy heart and a peaceful mind.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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