Tuesday, January 25, 2011


1st prize
Fragility in Ladakh
by Katherine Joanna Johnson

In the far North of India, on the Tibetan plateau amongst the Himalayas and Karakoram mountains, lies the cold desert region of Ladakh. Its people have thrived for centuries in relative isolation by channelling glacial melt water to cultivate crops from the thin barren land, carefully sharing scarce resources, and living in harmony with the land. Since the region opened to westerners just a few decades ago, thousands of trekkers and backpackers have descended each
summer, demanding hot running water, flush toilets, and electricity, stretching the region’s infrastructure and fragile environment to the limit. This summer I was one of them, and was about to witness the catastrophic outcome when the fine balance with nature is disturbed.

The region is normally shielded from the Indian Monsoons by the world’s highest mountains to the south. Rain is very rare. But nature changed its course as I trekked. Successive days of torrential rains brought bruising river crossings and a night cut off and sleeping in the open without a tent or food. Then, four days into the trek, nature unleashed its full fury. In the early hours of August 6th, as we attempted to shelter in a tent unequipped for such a ravaging, a
violent storm tore through the valley behind us, and the wider region of Ladakh.

In the morning, guides and porters crowded around a radio in our flooded campsite to hear the news: mud slides and flash floods had raged through Ladakh, hundreds of people were feared dead, thousands missing. Panic came over the camp. To escape to safety through the canyon would now be extremely dangerous, but the way back down through the valley was destroyed.

When we reached the canyon entrance the following day, we found that landslides had destroyed much of the path. The only way down was to criss cross the river, now a roaring torrent of water broken in several places by waterfalls. Each time we crossed we held hands in an attempt to reduce the danger of being swept away amongst the rocks and mud. The canyon was narrow and the guide warned us to keep looking behind for fear of surging water.

After 5 or 6 crossings, we came to a further narrowing. I could hear he rocks grinding together on the river bed. We formed a chain and started the crossing, the water was waist deep. But our escape attempt was ill judged. In the middle of the river the power of the water swept me off my feet, and as I fought to keep hold of my friend’s hand, I could hear myself screaming. I was going to die.

A fellow trekker managed to drag me out by my backpack. At the river’s edge, I started to hyperventilate. The shock had been too much. Confronted by nature’s power, I was now very aware of my own fragility. I couldn’t contemplate going on, but couldn’t imagine going back through the river. I was trapped.

After a final attempt to escape by climbing a near vertical landslide, we turned back. It was a challenge, physically and emotionally, to make it. I struggled to control recurring bouts of hyperventilation. At the top of the canyon, we found shelter overnight in a kitchen tent together with cooks, porters and pony men and waited for water levels to subside.

We eventually made it to safety after around 30 river crossings in lower water levels. Leh, Ladakh’s only big town, was a different place now: flattened buildings, plees for volunteers, shops closed, long queues for food and money, phone lines and power supply gone. Disaster had struck and backpackers wandered the streets in disbelief, helplessly searching for bottled drinking water and missing friends. An exhausted and tearful friend had been terrified that we weren’t going to return from our trek. In the UK, my family had started a desperate search for me on the internet and reported my disappearance to the British Embassy.

The morning after our return, we enlisted to help with the relief work, joining teams of backpackers and locals working tirelessly to clear the town’s hospital of mud. As we shovelled out buckets full of sludge, we uncovered x-ray machines, scanners, and other medical instruments. The following day we were sent to Choglamsar, where the devastation was on an unimaginable scale. Whole stretches of the village had simply vanished, the remainder had been mangled under the immense force of a tide of mud and rock. Teams of sniffer dogs clustered together in the rubble while lines of soldiers passed by with blanket covered stretchers. The stench of rotting food (and flesh?) made it necessary to wear masks.

A woman trying to dig in the mud with her hands was inconsolable. A pile of rubble, fallen telephone wires, and a crushed car, had only a few days earlier been her shop. We worked to clear the house of a widow and her children, and the restaurant of a frail old man. Their smiles and offers of thanks were overwhelming. Despite the magnitude of the disaster, the warm and kind nature of the Ladakhi people remained strong.

It was there that the SEEDS team found me, a chance meeting 600km from where I had met them just a few weeks earlier as a student on an Architecture Sans Frontieres workshop. SEEDS are a non-profit voluntary organisation who have formed post-disaster shelter responses in most of the major Asian emergencies of the recent past. I now found myself extending my stay in India to join the SEEDS team in Ladakh, where more than a thousand families had been left
homeless by the flood.

The region records some of the coldest temperatures on earth outside Siberia, so climatic considerations have necessarily been one of the biggest determinants on building form and materials. In one of the most extreme inhabited environments in the world, sustainable
architecture has been the key to co-existing with nature. For centuries Ladakh’s inhabitants have lived in mud brick houses, with thick walls to trap the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night.

For five weeks, I worked with SEEDS to produce a sustainable shelter strategy combining climatic comfort with low-cost construction. We worked hard to understand the local culture and to tap the potential of local materials, techniques, and the local community. And we introduced some simple adaptations to the traditional building technology where these would enhance
sustainability or reduce risk to future disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

As I fly out of Ladakh to return to my studies in the UK, I am still haunted by recurring dreams that I am drowning and then searching for bodies underneath the water. My Himalayan journey has sharply exposed the fragility of both the local people and the traveller when nature’s balance is disrupted. We all have a lot to learn from Ladakh’s well balanced traditional society if we want to continue to be able to safely enjoy one of the world’s most magnificent and beautiful environments.

2nd Prize
Some Himalayan ‘environ-mentors’ who touched my life
Indu Balachandran

“I am off to see the Himalayas next week”.
A statement like that can be a dramatic party-stopper, particularly in deep-south Chennai. There were exclamations of envy, joy, disbelief; a sharing of experiences. I glowed in happy anticipation.

Soon that glow was more nature induced…pink-faced and breathless, in the bracing mountain air of Uttarakhand, I stood mesmerized. Here it was. After a sudden bend on the road. My very first view of the most outstanding panoramic sight in the world: The Himalayas.

I would be hit by this awesome sensation time and time again—as I went on my Himalayan odyssey along its foothills… I had gone seeking thrills, photographs, stories to tell my friends. What I didn’t account for was the many profound ways this trip would leave me a changed person.

For lovers everywhere…
The Himalayas are the ultimate lure for lovers—a variety of them. God lovers, sports lovers, adventure lovers... And how can we forget, fun lovers. They come in planeloads and bus loads, each with a personal agenda that only the might of those magnificent mountains can fulfill. They also come with packets of food and drink, their holy paraphernalia, and noisy new-age gadgets… And watching, dismayed, are another group of anguished lovers: nature lovers. Keepers of the faith in this land; as their precious home succumbs to the ravages of tourism.
They are India’s ‘eco-warriors’ --and here are some unforgettable ones I met along the way. Hosts who soon became my science teachers, my mentors and lifelong friends. Because what these hotel owners run are not faceless halts placed at touristy spots: they are personal encounters with inspired living. And their vigil over the delicate eco-systems of the Himalayas begins right at the foothills of these majestic mountains.

Dunagiri Nature Resort
“Please be considerate of what you bring and what you leave behind on your treks. Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints…”

And that definitely means, don’t leave a carbon footprint. Reading the detailed pre-arrival letter from Piyush Kumar, I instantly knew this was one environment-aware resort owner whose caring really went ground-deep. I had never got such an eco-focussed welcome e-mail before!

I was at Dunagiri Nature Resort, blissfully secluded from urban chaos 7400 ft up in the hills of Almora. Piyush Kumar told me about quitting a plum job at the World Bank, for another ‘plum' job: growing organic fruits and hosting travellers in this tiny piece of paradise in Uttarakhand. With the majestic Himalayan range to gaze at out of his workplace, rather than the glassy high rises of Washington in his previous life!

In many practical ways, Dunagiri respects the environment. 100% rain-water harvesting is practiced here, with guidelines for sound water management, (one-bucket-water-baths, heated with waste wood, are encouraged; grey water is filtered for re-use in the estate.) Composting provides manure for the organic vegetable farms, special lamps keep wattage consumption to the lowest. Rooms are warmed by the more efficient ‘bukhara’ stove: sure ways to keep a firm check on waste and environmental damage.

After picking this remote patch of mountain land overlooking the Himalayas, Piyush Kumar interacted with local tribals, preserving the best of what he found, and developed the rest to be in complete synergy with the surroundings. The local community has directly experienced a dramatic boost to their livelihood, even while they have shared their age-old native wisdom in farming to complement the owner’s vision.

As I lingered after my stay, reluctant to leave, my host had a twinkle in his eye. There’s a compulsory rule to this homestay, he said: Every satisfied guest has to plant a tree before leaving! Joyfully muddying my hands planting an oak-sapling, I wondered why more resort owners hadn’t thought of this remarkable conservation idea!

Nest Cottages
I was with my host at Nest Cottages, a magical Kingdom of Birds at Pangot—a Himalayan getaway up the hills from Nainital. We were admiring the incredible sunset when the owner spotted a kitchen helper setting off to town on a motorbike. Hearing he was going to buy butter, the owner, Dheersingh Chaudhary stopped him—quite sure they could easily churn up their own home-made butter in Nest Cottage’s kitchen! This small incident exemplified to me the strict rule of ‘everything must come from within’ –from organic vegetables to milk to the material used for the décor; some of the key factors that makes a place eco-sensitive.

Early next morning Nest Cottages’ cheery guide Manju and I stood gazing at the best view ever of the Himalayas in these parts, as the waking sun stroked the peaks with magical flourishes of gold. Manju shared the many ways Nest Cottages follows responsible practices. Solar power for heating and lighting minimised electricity consumption. Ponds collected rain water, composting created rich manure, and the pristine cleanliness of the surroundings was maintained by banning all plastics .
But what about their trekking trails! Seeing several chips packets carelessly flung about, I shared this story with Manju: at a previous holiday near Bhimtal Lake, my sister and I had been on a hill trek —a walk with many interruptions.

We were stopping every now and then to fill a bag each of us was carrying — with plastic covers, sweet foils, chips packets and even glass bottles. This was our host Bindu Sethi's way of do-gooding, at the hills near her eco-friendly Fisherman's Lodge. When we came back to her cosy lodge , we had three huge bags bursting with trash — but had left behind a cleaner hillside for another nature lover to enjoy. Not to mention, a hill that would breathe better, without plastics choking its surface. Nest Cottages, as I anticipated, was eager to put this practical tip into use at these hills too. Because one thing I've found is that an eco-aware hotelier is always looking for new ideas to pass onto to another.

Later during dinner, I exclaimed that I had never eaten softer, more melt-in-the-mouth chappatis. And what was this divine bhang–ki-chutney that I was dipping my chappatis into? Their jolly cook Bhagwat gave me the recipe — and it was more than just mixing pure Himalayan air into every dish! Serving Kumaoni fare, and even explaining to guests the advantages of going organic is Nest Cottages’way of instilling pride in promoting local cuisines.

“I’ll be back, Himalayas…”
Back in my hometown, I pondered over my pictures of those spectacular mountains. Tourism supports. Yet Tourism destroys. What a paradox this industry can be!
And thought about new noisy busloads that even now may be sullying this pretty picture…Yet come they will, in even bigger numbers, because a travel brochure or a TV programme seduced them into arriving here.

But then I remembered the ‘earth watchmen’ on special duty at the gates of the Himalayas. Those uncompromising guardians of our country’s most awe-inspiring tourist draw. Their message sought immediate attention, needed to be spread. For in this unforgettable trip, they had shown me a greener path to tourism, and a whole new meaning to that common travel phrase, for anyone hit by wanderlust like me: ‘travel well…but travel light’.

3rd Prize
A Himalayan Paradise… Under Siege
by Sohail Jafferi

On the Tibet border in north India, Kinnaur is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth. Abode of 6050 feet Kinner Kailash peak, picture postcard pastures, Himalayan glaciers, Kinnaur is a veritable paradise on the old Hindustan Tibet route. Rivers Baspa and Sutlej traverse through Kinnaur, holding some truly awe inspiring valleys and jungles, home to the majestic snow leopard. Some of the quaint villages are situated at a height of 4000m in Himalayas, surviving in their ancient ways. The lifestyle, folk lore and culture of people of Kinnaur are subjects of great fascination and intrigue.

The journey to Kinnaur had started with my quest to explore what lies beyond the obvious. From the scorching summer heat of the plains in the month of May, reaching Shimla was like a magical transformation for the senses. My cinematographer friend Anup Singh shares my passion for the Himalayas and he joined me with his video camera. Our mission was clear. Rather than following the typical touristy circuit, we intended to travel to Kinnaur and meet the locals enroute and discover the unexplored aspects of the Himalayas.

At the mall road of Shimla, we negotiated a truly attractive four days’ package to Kinnaur. Like most of the Himachalis, our skilled mountain driver Praveen was a friendly and extremely helpful accomplice.

Bang next to the highway near Narkanda, about 50 km from Shimla, is situated a village called Kandiali. On one side of the road there is cherry plantation on the hill slopes. Down on the other side is perched the village, with a quaint little post office and a fabulous vista of blue rolling hills. We disembarked here to inspect the cherry farm.

“Whooaahh!!” a loud voice followed by a sharp catapult shot alarmed us as we thought we were caught trespassing. But this warning was meant to scare away the marauding crows hell bent on eating the cherries from the farm, as the smiling gentleman explained this to us. However, crows are not the prime concern of Mr RD Sharma. After showing us around his farm, he took us to a place where his neighbor Mr J R Varma was getting the cherries packed. There were four large baskets of freshly plucked cherries, two of good quality and the remaining two completely damaged. Sharma attributed this phenomenon to the changing weather patterns since last few years that included unseasonal hail storms.

After several hours of delightful journey, much of it along the Sutlej river, we finally entered the district of Kinnaur. Road cutting across hair raising vertical cliffs added an element of thrill. And then, snow white peaks suddenly rising out of horizon turned our thrill into sheer joy. But soon a disgusting vista jolted us out of our blissful state of mind. There were tunnels blasted in the hills.The road was picture of disgust with muck splashing on the windshield of our car. Dozens of trucks roared about and the effect of soot could be felt in the air. This was Karchham-Wangtoo mega hydro-electric project. I had always envisioned hydel projects as one of the most eco-friendly ways of power generation. But such brutal treatment of hills- next to snow covered mountains, many of them sensitive glaciers- something didn’t seem right out there.

Sitting around the bonfire, Ishwar Singh, the village chief enlightened us with local traditions, culture and folk lore. We were in Chansu, a village surrounded by mesmerizing snow covered peaks. Anecdotes were shared as old and the young joined hearty laughter, so typical of cheerful of hill folks. As the ambers crackled, sky took on a mysterious dark blue shade and the still visible Kinner Kailash, benevolent giant of Kinnaur was shrouded in an ethereal glow.

We retired to the nearby Gitanjali hotel, an extremely eco-friendly abode run by Vikram Singh Negi of Chansu. On each floor of this three story building, there is a common kitchen where one can cook one’s own food. Incidentally, we were the only tourists in that simple but tastefully designed hotel.

Early next morning, while the nip in the air was still sharp, we joined Ratan Negi, who was supervising pesticide spray in his apple orchard. He explained that till a few years ago, about two sprays were enough for a crop. Now he needed to spray at least eight times to protect his crop from the pests. For a healthy apple crop, at least 1500 hours of temperature below 15 degrees centigrade is essential. Since last few years, snowfall has been erratic even in these higher reaches of Himalayas. The situation in the lower Himachal has been much worse. Climate change is one thing. But Ratan’s other concern is located closer home. He showed a layer of dust on the apple leaves. This, ominous development was of recent years, coinciding with construction of hydel project near Sangla, he felt.

During the day, we drove down to Batseri, a beautiful village on the banks of river Baspa. We came across Banjara camps, an eco-friendly tourist retreat with its dozens of swiss tents near the gurgling Baspa. While enjoying nature in its most pristine form, one can experience adventure sports and trekking in the Himalayas with like minded nature loving tourists.

High up in the Himalayas, near the picturesque Nathpa village, Tashi was a sad young man. Until a few years ago, his herd of goats used to graze contentedly in the sprawling rich pasture. But this pasture went dry all of a sudden, robbing the place of its ethereal beauty and directly impacting the livelihood of goatherds like Tashi. Reason was poignant. Down below, mountains were blasted to divert the Sutlej river for hydel projects. Several connected streams dried up and the consequences are felt in Tashi’s pasture.

Stories and evidences of destruction abounded, from the impact on world renowned Kinnaur apple crop, chilgoza pine trees to natural calamities in the form of land slides and flood. But the moot question is why such ruthless treatment is meted out to this extremely eco sensitive Himalayan paradise, which was opened up for the outside world as recent as 1989?

Kinnaur’s majestic Sutlej and Baspa rivers became the reason for outside intrusion with construction of several mega hydro-electric projects. Modern world’s compulsive and obsessive need for power generation is becoming a nemesis for the Himalayas in Kinnaur .

The careless execution of such hydel projects - supposed to be an eco-friendly way of generating power - has ironically wrecked havoc, defying all environmental norms and causing untold misery to the livelihood of locals. What’s more worrisome is the fact that Himalayas, heritage of the entire world, are facing threat of irreversible damage. The research on the impact on Kinnaur’s glaciers- which feed rivers, which in turn nourish the plains of India- is perhaps yet to be done by the scientific community.

Despite great opposition from locals and environmentalists, several new hydel projects threaten to engulf Kinnaur jeopardizing its ecology and culture. Experts believe that while a powerful hydel company indeed overstepped the limits in its hurry to implement the projects, all is not lost yet. If the hydel company is made to implement all the mandatory conditions for environment protection with no further exploitation of nature, some loss can still be recovered.

Kinnaur has two extreme topographies. Some mountains hold dense rich vegetation, while the higher reaches are akin to barren cold desert. At one such punishing location, which entails several hours of trekking, a local gentleman has converted vast area of barren Himalayas into a lush green paradise.

The collective might of a big hydel company and several agencies with endless resources could not control the destructive tendencies unleashed with the hydel projects. In the same area, the grit of one determined man changed the façade of a barren outpost of Himalayas. This is just the perfect juxtaposition to hammer home the message what should have been done and what can still be done to save one of the last remaining bastions of nature in its most stunning, awesome form.

3rd Prize (tie)
A trip to Auli-Nanda Devi biosphere
Susan Sharma

'Snowfall predicted for 24 Feb 2009, temperatures expected to fall below -12 degrees' my brother looked up some weather forecast on the Internet and warned me before I boarded the train.

In a taxi from Haridwar to Joshimath, I read "Auli has the best slopes in the world facilitating snow skiing during winters beginning January to the end of March". My friend and I were looking forward to seeing the International skiing festival organized in February every year. The road journey was hot-the sun became hotter as we climbed up. At Joshimath, local people informed us that there has been no snowfall in Joshimath this year, unlike last year. But they carefully added that weather in these parts is always unpredictable. Auli is sure to have snow. We hurried to make it to the cable car which will lift us to Auli, at 10,000 feet. "No cable car today, we were informed at the cable car base; Today is maintenance day after a three day strike by workers". Sumo drivers appeared from somewhere offering to drive the stranded passengers of Hotel Cliiftop Club. Our own car driver backed out saying the 14 km drive is too risky for his car. Snow makes roads slippery, he averred.

As we drove up through steep, dusty and winding roads, the peaks Nanda Devi, Kamet, Mana parbat and Dronagiri began to look closer and closer. The landscape looks a bit like Leh with brown rocks all around -Leh in summer that is, my friend observed. The snow tipped Nanda Devi was tantalizing, I forgot we had come to see snow and the skiing festival.

ClifftopClub did not look like the pictures on the web- The building was there. But where is the snow and the Deodar trees around? Instead there were huge bulldozers working up the roads in dusty clouds, removing the last bit of vegetation which clung desperately to the slopes.

Then the realization dawned. Auli has had just one snowfall this year. The January snow fall did not last enough for snow to harden. In winter 2008 Auli had 3-4 feet snow compared to the usual 8 feet or so every year. The writing was on the wall and Government authorities moved in with an ambitious plan to create artificial snow slopes. The bulldozers and mules around were busy getting the slopes ready for December 2009, for the South Asian Skii festival.

When it snowed on 24 February for about ten minutes, the bulldozers were silent just for a few minutes till the flakes melted away and the fierce sun dried the slopes again. A large pool was getting constructed near the hotel we stayed, for storing water, and converting it to snow. Global warming was here and too close. We were in for a different kind of holiday!

The mountain and the snow
When you reach the lap of Nanda Devi, height 25,643 feet and second only to the Everest, you are overwhelmed. The nearest mountain ranges of Dronagiri seem bare, stripped of snow, in the peak of winter. The Brahmkamal peak with spikes resembling the actual flower is an instant hit. So is Hathi Ghoda Palki with the glaciers clearly visible. But we came here to see and feel snow. Where are the snowflakes? On 24 February, it snowed for nearly fifteen minutes. Our new friend from the hotel wrote in her diary. " Snowflakes-some slow, some fast, some feisty doing a jig before succumbing to gravity...." Honeymooning couples danced on the terrace in the snow.

The trees and plants one sees above 10,000 feet surprise you with their sturdiness. The trees look majestic and protective. The sturdy bushes and grass support your heels while climbing up. Pretty flowers smile at you lighting up unknown corners. Trekking on foot is the best way to appreciate the terrain and the flora.

The ‘Nahar Bush’ has lovely smelling leaves and is an insect repellent. We are fascinated by the pink white flowers of Basant tree. We found beautiful flowering trees lining the roads on our way back to Joshimath. We wanted to know the name of the tree. Some Bank officials whom we met, who were posted in the area, could not help. Nor could the hotel owner at the hotel where we had lunch. The most common local tree had no name! The flowers resemble cherry blossoms.

But we saw ‘bottle brushes’ and ‘gulmohars’ being planted on the roadside by PWD (or Forest dept) to make up for trees cut down during widening of roads. The question which came to us was, why are we not propagating the local trees? The most majestic of all the trees in Auli? The Golden Oak, no doubt. Two hundred of these more than hundred year old trees, are slated to be mowed down for the ski slope.

Absence of snow at Auli had a silver lining to it. We could go for small treks around the place with our normal trekking shoes. The easiest trek was just 1.5 km, to R.R Point, an army communication center. From R.R point one could see the Hemkunt range and the Valley of flowers enveloped in clouds far away. Immediately below is a village, which is shaped like the map of India.

The next trek was to Gorson Bugyal, 3.5 km away. Many ventured on this trek as Gorson meadow had a patch of hard snow where one could get basic lessons in skiing. Bharati, a black dog and Sheru a brown dog faithfully accompanied us on all treks. The feeling of oneness with nature one experiences on treks is reinforced by these two best friends of man. The trek is indeed beautiful. A temple called “Padiyar Devta’greets you half way up the climb. As we near Gorson point, one is within reach of the snow clad peaks.

This trek through steep golden oak forest is rated as difficult-mainly because the climb is continuously steep without plain resting spots. It is made tougher these days since one has to climb up the ski slopes first which are shorn of grasses and bushes thanks to the bull dozer razing through it many times to create the artificial ski slope.

As we neared the golden oak trees, we saw some with huge cavernous holes (Black bears sleep there, our guide informed). Fresh diggings in the mud were attributed to wild boar. Distant trees moved with the weight of animals or birds flying about-monkeys or Himalyan monals? Here is the lichen with which monals make nests on trees, our guide showed a clump on the ground. Trekking downhill, the large pool for storing water which will be turned to ice and then sprayed over the slopes, came into view. Bull dozers and men are hard at work dislodging grass and bushes which held together the mountain slopes for years.

As we moved down I collected a few branches of golden oak leaves. The trees marked with the "death warrants" continue to haunt me when I look at these leaves dried but golden, weeping silently in my vase.

Special Mention
What does nature do to you?
Anjor Bhaskar

Nature gives us all that we need for survival: air, sunshine, nutrients, water and energy. It is in nature that all beings co-exist peacefully and in complete harmony with each other. The moment I had a realisation of the joy I used to derive from nature, I ensured that I would consider and evaluate the environmental consequence of all my actions. I would travel only by public transport or on foot, plant trees wherever possible, consume only local, natural products, minimise the use of packaged goods and of electricity and encourage others to do the same.

For many, including myself, the magnificent Himalayas symbolise all that is natural and beautiful. Like many others, I have loved travelling in the Himalayas ever since I was a small child. The mountains offer a sense of peace and comfort similar to what one feels in the lap of one’s own mother. Thus, when I left my job in January to travel the Himalayas, I decided to travel in a way that was not just eco-friendly and minimised my carbon footprint but would actually contribute positively towards preserving nature.

I had been in touch with an organisation, Ecosphere, which worked on sustainable development of the Spiti Valley and was interested in having me over as a volunteer. So as soon as the roads to Spiti opened in May, I set off on my journey. I decided to work towards developing an environmental education programme for children of all ages.

As I realised later on, the task was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Most government schools remain closed in summer as the children are supposed to help out their families with agricultural work. The schools that were open felt an environmental education programme would be nothing but a diversion from course work and preparation for their exams. Besides, I was a mere youth with lots of enthusiasm but no claim to fame in the field of environmental education whatsoever. I was an economist who had worked for two years on developmental research and left his job to travel. The fact that this was not part of any project for Ecosphere meant there were no resources, financial, physical or human to assist me in this. Lastly, I wanted the focus of the workshop to be on discovering local ecological issues through outdoor activities. However, I had little knowledge of them myself.

Thus began the process of extensive research. I learnt about the local flora and fauna and about the food chain with the snow leopard at the top and the conflicts in the region. The attempt to find out about the waste management situation was turning out to be futile as no one seemed to be aware of the current practice, nor the policies related to it. Finally, I came across a man who seemed very eager to talk about the issue and introduced me to all those concerned with it. It turned out he was disgruntled because for the last few years, his neighbours had been throwing all their garbage in front of his house and on his land. His persistent attempts to stop this had failed.

The first workshop was scheduled in an elementary school called Highlander School whose principal, Mr. Norbert, was known to be very enthusiastic and interested in innovative teaching methods and outdoor education.

By the end of the first day of the first workshop at Highlander School, all the children were lined up outside Mr. Norbert’s office in punishment. Inside the office, I sat opposite the principle’s desk, head hung low and eyes focussed on the floor. Mr. Norbert was reprimanding me for the lack of discipline and the fact that the rules had been broken. The students had gone close to the river and returned with muddy shoes (‘what will I tell the parents when they come barking at me tomorrow?’). I wanted to ask him what, he thought, was more important, that the children’s shoes remain clean or whether they learn about their environment. I wanted to tell him the children had probably learnt more in that one day than they had in a whole year. They had actually learnt about the water-cycle. They now knew where the water they drink comes from and, where it goes. About the air they breathe and how they affect it through their own actions. They had learnt about their valley’s geological evolution and why the fossils they found everywhere were integral to the study of this evolution. They had realised how most of them had been engaged in impoverishing their valley of its greatest heritage by selling these fossils to foreigners in exchange a few rupees. They had been to an actual green house and learnt about the green house effect which helped them understand the concept of global warming. They had started thinking of ways to tackle climate change. I wanted him to see how thrilled they were as they went about identifying different local plant and animal species and learning about the importance of each one of them in our lives.

The children now, are probably much more likely to grow up as aware and responsible adults who know about their responsibility towards the planet. However, I kept quiet and listened to Mr. Norbert as he expressed his displeasure at seeing the children’s dirty shoes. A few weeks later, I was holding the workshop at Navodaya Vidyalaya. The air was full of the enthusiasm of children who were involved in segregating the waste that they had collected. Just then, a friend came with an envelope addressed to me. I opened it to find a letter from Mr. Norbert. He had expressed his gratitude for conducting the workshop and mentioned how it completely changed the children’s perspective since they went through the workshop. I smiled to myself.

Following the workshop, the children were involved in developing projects such as proposing a waste management plan for their school, mapping the flora and fauna around their school and setting the ground for a fossil museum (the first in the valley). One afternoon, while I sat in the room of my guest house, I heard a knock on my door. I opened to find a child from Navodaya standing there in his school uniform. He opened his hand and held out a massive fossil and said ‘Sir ye aapke liye’ and ran away. It was an Amonite. I had told them about it in class.

The discussion on fossils and how we are involved in selling away our most precious natural heritage had struck a chord in the children’s hearts. Most of them had sold fossils away for money. But they were determined to make up for their past by not only learning more about their fascinating geological heritage but also spreading awareness about it by setting up the fossil museum. They would keep coming to me with all sorts of rocks and fossils with unique designs and patterns on them. They wanted to discuss what they could possibly signify. With my limited knowledge of geology or paleontology, I would sit with them, open a book on fossils and look for their answers with them.

Special Mention
Always Welcome
Sriparna Ghosh

The doors to Ladakh valley in Kashmir opened very briefly this summer. They were hardly even ajar, preceded and succeeded by weather disturbances that forced them to close. For tourists like me, who wished for a whole summer in Ladakh, the situation wasn’t ideal. Initially, when the high passes closed, we waited anxiously as our departure date approached and the passes refused to let up. With about six months of looking forward and two months of extensive research and meticulous planning of our trip to Ladakh, a lot of emotions were riding on the opening up of these passes.

And, they did open. And our vehicle took us through the same roads which, were closed just a day ago.

After exchanging the usual pleasantries with one of my favourite towns, Leh, and a night over at Pangong Tso, we headed to the Suru and Zanskar valleys, where tourists seldom go. Our vehicle was packed to capacity with six people (plus driver), from three countries. For single tourists, Zanskar is an expensive region to travel to, since taxi unions have unusually high rates and a monopoly. And mass transit is arduous and slow. So, a Japanese and a British backpacker were added to our group of four Indians. In our little way, we extended our hospitality and help to those whose wishes couldn’t be met by their means.

In a similar way, the villagers of Rangdum in Suru valley opened their homes, hearts and kitchens to us. Being with a local family, sleeping in their rooms, eating their food, conversing in what little common words we share bring us a lot closer to a place than we could ever be, sitting in a perfectly appointed hotel room and chatting with the room service. Our first local experience came by chance on our trek to Har-ki-Dun, where we stayed in one of the villager’s homes after being caught unaware by a sudden downpour, and were pleasantly surprised to be served only kheer for lunch. The one night we spent in their wooden home made us hungry for more. And more is what we got on our trek to Spiti where we home-stayed in all the villages we passed. These are fond memories I will hold on to long after the feel of the whitewashed walls of the hotel rooms and the taste of the buttered naan have faded away.

This being my third trip to Ladakh, I was very sure that I wanted to explore the Zanskar region. But a few people advised us to not venture into Zanskar, for there is nothing worthwhile. They said, “What will you do in Zanskar?” We didn’t have an answer for that, but we wanted to find out. We had seen very few pictures or travelogues about Zanskar (other than the Chadar trek) and that is what added to our curiosity. The reason for the dearth of interest in Zanskar valley is perhaps that those who had any inclination at all paid too much heed to the advice we decided to let go.

So, after Rangdum, we crossed over the Penzi La and made way into the Zanskar valley. And the valley welcomed us with its blue skies, rainbow clouds and striking monasteries. Each of the four monasteries we visited had a story to tell, and an impression to make. Be it for the super friendly nuns of Zangla, or the delicious food of the hill-top monastery Stong-de or the precariously located cave monastery Zonkhul, or for the mini-monks allowing photo-ops at each corner at the Karsha monastery. There was never a bleak moment or any question of what we will do in Zanskar.

Zoji La came next on the agenda, which I had seen before at night-time. As I crossed over this time, in bright daylight, the frightening view of the valley below was more obvious than the ride. The widespread human settlements that stretched all across the valley floor were clearly visible due to their colourful sheds, the cars and the litter. This was a sight I wasn’t at peace with, because for someone like me, who shoves her garbage into a bag meant just for that and goes to places which are mostly devoid of manmade trash, it isn’t a pretty sight. The millions of Amarnath yatrees that frequent that area for about two months have led to a situation that I feel will soon take its toll on the already fragile landscape. The fallout of this vast mela is felt even in a simple town a little further down the road to Srinagar. Sonamarg is turned on its head into a noisy, filthy and money-minting town.

Glad to escape from the clutches of the devil-of-religion, we soon found ourselves on deathly silent roads being flocked by security personnel and more-frequent-than-regular checkpoints. We felt the curfew in Srinagar long before we reach it, and hardly noticed once we are in. The Dal Lake has its calming effects, and for the next 24 hours we easily forget the world beyond its banks.

Almost 3 months have passed since then, and I often sit back and wonder at our good luck, by the dint of which we made it through this highly unlikely journey. With the ghosts of the cloudburst and the curfews still lurking in the Kashmir valley, the doors that opened for us make me feel special.

I have always returned from the Himalayas with something every time. Sun-burns, fractures, pockets full of trash and cameras full of tales. But this time, in retrospect, I have returned with love. In my personal way, I show my affection for the Himalayas by travelling there at least three times a year. The attempt is to travel to the remotest corners, places unheard of and isolated. The means of travel are as basic as possible, be it a packed Maruti Alto or a flagged down truck, be it on foot or on a rickety State Transport bus. Each of my travels is self researched and planned, and put into execution with the help of local people. The need for a tour operator as a middle man is completely removed since wherever we go, we ask for local guides and porters, and even local donkeys. I have never left anything behind, apart from promises to return. I have never hoped for anything in return except hope that the human footprint doesn’t add to the pressures of these hill states.

This summer, the way Ladakh opened its doors and welcomed me in made me feel warm and loved. It reassured me that the Himalayas understand my love for them, and will always want me back.

Special Mention
Independence Day: 14,000 feet
Sheela Jaywant

Summer in Bareilly is the closest you can feel to getting broiled: enveloped in 98 percent humidity under a 44 deg C sun.

Nothing like lack of money to make you travel cheaply, innovatively. Borrowed haversack stuffed with home-cooked food, old but dependable shoes, a lift on a friend’s scooter to the railway station, a packed-to-the-gills second-class journey to Kathgodam. Once we burst out of the train, along with a thousand other picknick-tourists, a wash in the waiting-room (surprisingly clean, may I add) we began our search for some way to go to Ranikhet and beyond. Bus, naturally, with us lugging our kitbags.

Within the hour, the fragrance of the pines overtook the diesel fumes. We could breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, in, in… to feel that freshness. Took out our shawls and jackets as the rays cheated us: the brightness didn’t match the temperature. The higher we went, the more curved the groaning road, the strong the urge to throw up, the prettier turned the ‘scape.

“Just a two-day journey” turned out to be an unending trek to a place of ‘a hundred springs’, Sahastradhara, via village Lata. My poor knees, muscles, sinews, feet, shoulders, head. All I could think of was food and sleep. It was only when I awoke at night, to offload the bladder, when I stepped out into that vast, unfamiliar darkness, the biting chill, that I felt something I’d never experienced before: total silence. The stars that hung within plucking distance, the silver, moonlit peaks… all made memorable because my ears had never before known such quiet. So restful. So different. So blissful.

Daylight meant hot chai, rotis, walks. It meant green horizons, a zillion flowers stretching over those green hues, birds secretly passing messages of welcome, not-so-shy butterflies gliding by to make friends, camaraderie amongst us walking companions, and the unbelievably huge mountains, the stretching valleys, the canopy of the blue sky above….and more.

Where we camped, the constant flow of the water, not very different from the hum of city traffic, lulled us to sleep. The difference lay in this: here, the punctuation was from the occasional croak or cricket; there, it was from jarring horns and grating gears.

Back on the climb, we picked our way through shrubs, wound around enormous ferns, the tree line was below, a vast forest of dark green studded with patches of lighter shades, speckled with a boulder or a patch of bright blooms. Far away, an occasional herd of cattle slid over a open maidan at an unhurried pace.

Our limbs had recovered from the initial trauma of exercise. We discovered muscles we didn’t know we owned. Our steps were measured and steady, and our spirit cheerful the further removed we were from ‘civilization’.

One’s perspective in life changes when one stands atop a ridge, swiveling to see a 360 degree landscape not just around but below one. And if the ridge on the opposite side is Pankhwa Dhar, nothing but nothing can be prettier. What luxury to the eyes. The soul is delighted to see the world below. The scale is fascinating. It makes one humble that one is so small in such a large universe. It makes one proud to be part of it.

The day we climbed to the highest point in the neighbourhood was August 15th. Early morning, we could only feel the breeze. No rustling leaves, no chirping birds, fluttering insects moving soundlessly by, we were overwhelmed by the peace. Maintaining the silence, we wordlessly unfurled the flag, breaking the ‘rule’ by heartily singing the jana gana mana, our thoughts and hearts with those at the cruel border areas, those who’d given their lives so we could walk freely, talk freely, live our lives unfettered. There’s something about the flag and the anthem that brings a lump to the throat and a glitter of pride to the eyes. Nestled in the Himalaya, standing still at that height, surrounded by loveliness, bringing to mind the different scapes from Tamil Nadu to Andhra to Nagaland to Haryana to Maharashtra, the lump got bigger and the glitter gave way to tear-drops. Emotions! Following by fun.

Our laughter and good cheer, the breakfast of stale theplas and pickle has not yet been erased from my mind, fifteen years down the line. Satiated, we sat around, chatting for awhile, then soaking in the silence again. Somehow, more than anything else, it was that silence that was both restful and rejuvenating, in the extreme. It was something that has stayed in me, that has drawn me back to Nature, to the outdoors, over and over again.

The panting, puffing, gasping echoed and loomed large when we were climbing. Once settled, when the breaths came easy, Silence reigned once more. The contrast in those sounds were reflected in our behaviour. Irritability, resignation, acceptance, enthusiasm… one could gauge and expect a tent-mate’s mood by the sounds around. The flapping of a plastic bag was cacophonic. The clicks of a nail-cutter could be identified. When nothing moved, not even lips, it was luxury. An indescribable oneness with whatever was around. Godmen say one can meditate on a railway platform if one is serious, one has the faith and the practice. Why then do they themselves prefer to live in solitude in the mountains or in caves? Without doubt, for the lack of noise, indeed, lack of any sound. You can close your eyes and shut out the visual, keep still and not touch or be touched. But to rest your ears, and that without being compressed in a sealed room, is rare, so rare. To do that in the great outdoors, at a height where few birds venture… that silence must be experienced by the sound of mind and body at least once in an adult lifetime.

On our way down, the silence hiccupped. We chatted, stomped our feet to brace slips and falls, swung twigs out of our way, sang ditties, but still, there were long moments of that bliss.

I knew we were approaching another team’s campsite. I couldn’t see their tents, yet I knew. The garbage and litter bothered me. The stepping aside to avoid mounds of turd and the stench bothered me. And then came … “jaane man.. something…something”… a squawk and a whirr that rented the air and ripped the peace to shreds. A transistor or a mobile phone or some instrument that didn’t belong here. Like the blaring horns, the shouting mobs, the grating gears, the loudness, we are taking these for granted. They play an important role in our lives, bring music to our homes, connect us to loved ones. But their role needn’t be extended to becoming a nuisance to the world. Pollution comes in different forms. The invisible, and the audible. The first, we are tackling. The second: we must, before it overtakes us irrevocably.

Darkness and silence: they add to the grandeur of the Himalaya. To its enigma and its charm. Let’s keep them as they are. Pristine. Unblemished. We’re doing it for ourselves. We owe it to ourselves. Let’s be selfish. Jai Hind.

Special Mention

Land of the Mystical
Sudeepta Sanyal

Nothing prepares you for Ladakh. You may have read all those travelogues posted online, gone though all the travel literature that you can lay your hands on. You may have talked to all the friends who have been there-or sometimes even approached random strangers that you bump into at the airport sporting Ladakh T shirts, you may have drawn up a foolproof itinerary, tapped yourself on the back for it-But trust me on this, nothing prepares you for Ladakh. Nothing!!You have to be here to experience it!!

We had quite a tight itinerary drawn out for ourselves spanning over a good 11 days-slick city folks that we were! Our journey was mapped like this: Chandigarh- Manali-Rohtang-Darcha-Leh-Mulbek-Srinagar by road.

But of course, once you enter the mountains you realize that you are at the mercy of the whims of the Himalayas and plans are only for the foolish. For there are so many factors that are just beyond your control- The upturned truck at Rohtang (due to which truck supplies to Ladakh were held up for the last 6 days), the ride in a vegetable truck from Rohtang to the nearest village Khokhsar (as we had to walk through the landslide at Rohtang on foot unless we wanted to stand in line with the trucks, watching the mud slowly giving away), to name a few. But once the ride begins and the mist moves out, you are surrounded by mountain ranges in white, with their peaks adorned in gold, reflecting the first rays of the sun, and you know that it is only going to get better from here.

Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri were a spectacle in blue. But what people seem to miss out about the Lakes that they are also home to one of the most exotic species of birds. Keeping that in mind, all the tourist camp sites are located well beyond 100 m of the waters to avoid any ecological harm to the habitants of the cool blue waters. Many enthusiasts traverse the moonlands of Ladakh on motorbikes and they invariably pitch their tents at spots as they please.
When we were at Pangong, we saw a 60 year old couple pitch his tent right on the banks of the Pangong Tso. As romantic a night in the tent can be pitched on the banks of the bluest Lakes, we have to keep in mind the damage that we cause to this region which balances, clearly, on a very fragile eco system. Roughly 80,000 tourists visit every year within a span of 4 months –so we can do the math! So it is not about that one tent that gets put up, but when most of the tourists put up their one tent, it adds up to a staggering number. While travelling we also took care as to dispose of our garbage responsibly. Water bottles, food left over’s can be easily kept within vehicles, to be disposed off at garbage bins at stop over’s. One thing worth noticing in all of Ladakh, whether it is the tented food stalls in the middle of nowhere or a ‘Thukpa’ stall in the Leh city-they do not litter. They have garbage bins which are maintained and if visiting tourists are a little sensitive, then they too can contribute to keeping this magical land clean and not harming the ecological balance here. The power of ONE is immense, it’s about that one thought, that one measure that you take that can make a world of a difference.

It is after we left Ladakh and started our journey towards the Kashmir valley that the moonscape changed a little. The browns turned into greens in patches, the rivers were more frequent and most of the time we were travelling parallel to rivers. The mountains were constant companions, sometimes we were on top of them, sometimes spiraling dangerously down from them. We crossed the ancient monastery of Lamayaru, perched on top of a cliff, but the first time you sight this monastery bathed in the light of the setting sun, is a vision one cannot easily forget. A ghost town comprising of mud houses exists just adjacent to it.

After an 8 hour drive from Leh, we reached Mulbek. Mulbek is the last frontier of the Buddhist Kashmir. After this when one drives down the Leh-Srinagar road the Islamic influences are everywhere, in the architecture, in the local language used, in written word and the spoken and even the facial features of the people who live there. Mulbek is 45kms from Kargil and its claim to fame is a 9m Maitree Buddha sculpted on a rockface. We arrived at a camp site only by the Wakha river run by the ever smiling Nilza. Pristine white tents with cozy beds for two awaited us and one knows the value of that when you have spent 8 hours travelling by BRO roads in Ladakh. There was a common dining space out in the open under the stars with wooden benches and after a warm meal and a hot water bag for the night we all retired to our tents.

But it was only in the morning when I ventured out into the fields right behind the campsite-that I realised why Kashmir is called Heaven on earth. The barley fields of green stretched out till they met the mountains. The first set of mountains was brown and the ones in the background were snow peaked. The Whakha river had its rivulets, some of them man-made to help in the farming, so all one could hear the sound of trickling water all the time. Seated there amidst the crops, with the sun shining down at you, the cool dry breeze against your face- all you can do is take in the beauty that surrounds you! One cannot help but feel so dwarfed by nature, all problems, struggles, complaints seems so petty and one realizes that everything that a human needs to stay happy comes for free. All you need is an open heart and an open mind. That’s the learning I took back from the Mountains.

People talk about the blues of the lakes in Ladakh, the beauty of the monasteries, the rush of the white waters; names drop the high passes, the endless roads and the moonscape of Ladakh and Kashmir. But it is in the solitude of the mountains that I believe, everyone finds a little bit more about themselves and that is a story not always shared!

Special Mention
Trek to Nanda Devi (East) Base Camp
Sheela Wadalkar

On 16th June 2010, our guide Ganesh Jangpangi from the village Dharkot, met us (a family of four) at the KMVN resort, where we were staying, in order to plan our trek. We had travelled from Mumbai-Delhi-Kathgodam by train and later by road to Munsyari, a picturesque town nestled in the heart of Kumaon.

Whilst in Munsyari, we visited Dr. Sham Sher Singh Bisht, a renowned Kumaoni author and an avid climber in his younger days. Apart from a tour of his small but impressive museum, we discussed how to preserve the ecology of the great Himalayas, which is inexorably getting destroyed by the burgeoning tourism and consumerism. Though Dr. Bisht talks to the local people regularly about ecology and environment, he did agree that much more needs to be done by like-minded people and organizations for the upkeep of the beautiful landscape there.

Determined not to ‘leave any mark’ on the pristine surroundings, we set off early on the next day to the road-head Dhapa (12 km). Due to road construction (the Indo-Tibet route) there, we started our trek by descending about 200 ft. and traversing the mountain on a rather narrow sand path, with sand and mica showering on us from the construction above. As much as one realizes that roads are important for improving connectivity, the ecological consequences of building roads in the mountains are disastrous. Alone what meets the eye - felled trees, loose earth, cement dunes - is bad enough, the hidden impact on the flora and fauna is much more. Since we cannot stop the ‘progress’, we have to try our best to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

We quickly passed this treacherous area to join the regular path, which runs along the Gori Ganga river. We trekked around 13 km crossing Jimmy Ghat, Lilam village and reached Garam Paani, which gets its name from a hot water spring close to the river . Since we were still itching from the sand all over us, we decided to go there for a quick clean-up. An eco-friendly ‘tap’ made by sticking a bamboo cut in half provided for a continuous supply of hot water. We all took care to wash ourselves in an area, which does not connect to the river, in order to avoid polluting it. We stayed overnight at a ‘Dhaba’ run by a local. Staying in such places saves trekkers from setting up their own camps and burning wood for cooking and keeping warm. It also helps to interact with the locals and see how they live in harmony with their environs.

We left for Mapang (3200 mt.,13 km) on the next day, which according to us was the toughest stretch on this route: Rargari – Chuni (tea) – Bogudiyar – Nahar Devi( lunch) – Mapang. Beyond Rargari, there is a dam being constructed across the river, which is bound to alter the entire topography of the area – another blow to the ecology of the place! The local people are aware that some of their villages would be flooded sometime but hope to get enough compensation from the government.

The next day began with a scrumptious breakfast at the Dhaba in Mapang of Puri Bhaji served on spotless steel plates. Mind you the shining vessels are not on account of some fancy dish washing soap, but clay used to get rid of the grease and stains! I can’t think of a more eco-friendly way of conducting a daily chore! We proceeded to Rilkot (4 km), from where we could catch a glimpse of the route to Birje Ganga Pass - our initial target. However, we learned from the local people that there was still a lot of snow up there (for which we were ill-equipped). Since we were not quite confident about getting to the Pass, Ganesh suggested Nanda Devi (East) Base Camp. The idea of seeing the 2nd highest mountain in India immediately appealed to us and we set off to Martoli (3385 mt.,11 km) and stayed at a ‘hotel’ run by Ganesh’s sister, Ganga Didi. At Burfu en route to Martoli, we saw Milam glacier and the path leading to it on the other side of the river gorge. The people of Johar, as the Milam valley is locally known, were traders who crossed from India into Tibet through high passes. Trade stopped with the Indo-China war (1962) and these prosperous villages were abandoned to render a desolate look. Martoli is a typical example of such a village. From the Nanda Devi temple on a hill-top at Martoli, we had a spectacular view of Nanda Devi (east and west face) and Nandakot.

Next day, we headed towards Ganghar (3260 mt.12 km), where we stopped for lunch, Thereafter began a rather precarious climb on a steep path full of loose rocks and gravel, which however evened out further up, winding itself through beautiful meadows. We reached Base Camp (3434 mt.) at around 5 pm and quickly pitched our tents as dark clouds had descended (no Dhaba here). Disappointed that we did not already have a view of Nanda Devi, we had an early dinner consisting of soup and noodles made on our little camping stove. The empty plastic packaging, including those we had collected along the way, was carefully put away in our rucksacks to be disposed off in a proper manner at Munsyari.

Ganesh had decided to sleep in a small shelter built by one of the shepherds (also a relative of his) close by. Since it was freezing cold, they made a bonfire of dried rhododendron wood and offered to make one for us too. Since we did not want to add to the CO2 emissions, we declined and instead joined them at their fire. However, the rain played spoilsport and our blissful moments at the fire soon came to an end. Later, we snuggled into our sleeping bags hoping that the next day would not be a dampener.

At 6 am, we peeped out of the tent and gasped in awe - there was Nanda Devi towering against a bright, blue sky. The snow-clad twin peaks formed a perfect backdrop for the innumerable photographs we clicked. Thereafter, we dried and packed our tents & rucksacks and started to descend to Ganghar and further to Martoli. That evening there was a feast awaiting of (sun-dried) mutton starters (Shikaar) and Chang (rice beer)!

The next day, we reached Bogudiyar and stayed in a Dhaba there. The final leg of our trek took us all the way down to Jimmy Ghat, after which we had to take a diversion through the forest because of the road construction. This meant a steep climb through the thick forest with no trodden path. Displaying the bravado we didn’t quite feel, we started on our last climb up the mountain and down a steep slope to Dhapa. Even for nimble Ganesh it was quite a challenge to navigate through the forest and help us through the difficult terrain. Finally we all reached down extremely tired but happy for having completed this particular trek successfully, because when the road is complete, this trekking route would probably become history.

Special Mention
Kedarnath – Stuff that mythology is made of
Saurabh Kejriwal

Ever imagined a land which has bright and sunny mornings, rainy afternoon, and grey, cold nights? Such is Kedarnath. The land believed to be inhabited by the Pandavas of Mahabharata, the great Indian Mythology. Right in the middle of the Himalayas, secluded and enticing.

The route to Gaurikund was long and winding. The bus moved precariously balanced on the narrow road, and every turn inspired a prayer. After regular breaks for acclimatization, we reached our river-side lodge late in the night.
The morning was bright and sunny, and majestic snow-capped peaks beckoned us from a distance. Post a heavy (read rich) breakfast, we were off to start our 14km trek to Kedarnath. It was a 3-feet wide, muddy path, wet and tricky. Horses walked besides us, relieving themselves at will, mounted by those who chose less fatigue up the way. Walking along the river, we criss-crossed from one mountain to the next, with stunning vistas of small glaciers and a river running alongside.

Locals claim that one can match their watch to the 12.30 noon drizzle, and it had remained so for centuries because of lack of human and civil intervention. They were worried now for helicopter rides had started up the valley and lit le hotels had sprung up. And that staying in harmony to nature was beginning to be a threat. “This is our holy land, sa’ab. If something happens to this land, it’ll happen to all of us.”

By noon, we were up almost 10 kms. The snow-capped peaks had disappeared behind thick fog and only teased us with small glimpses here and there. Sure enough, at 12.30 sharp, it started drizzling. The kind that isn’t strong enough to make you take shelter, but enough to make your step heavier. We wagered on, after a stop for hot chai and ‘rusk’.

Soon, we knew we’d arrived. Ahead of us stood the great valley filled with small houses and a little bazaar, with the imposing temple right in the center. There are no cellphone connections, no television or satellite channels, or even radio. The only sign of modern age was electric bulbs suspended from wires running from shop to shop.

And bright red oxygen cylinders. The portable kind. Apparently the temple had zero ventilation, and incidents of people passing out inside were common.
The temple was built in 500 BC, supposedly by the mythological Pandavas, when they killed a demon that terrorized the valley. Big slabs of stone were juxtaposed with each other, lined by a limestone mixture, an ancient version of the cement we use today. Inside was a huge space – low height, crowded but serene, and lit entirely by lamps, the air thick with oil-vapors. 3 Pandits sat surrounding a slightly elevated platform of small idols and people took turns sitting beside them, praying. Photography, of course, was prohibited inside.

I’m not religious. I travel for adventure and experiences, but hardly ever see myself bowing down in prayer. But even if you consider what man says about god, a comfortable calmness in the temple was evident. Positive energy, peace, proximity to God, call it what you will. Its pursuit is as ancient and instinctive as the pursuit of food, company and health. And it must be different forms of this pursuit that formed the religions as we know today.

Past the temple was a shrine of a sadhu. A marble arm jutted out of the wall, holding a Trishul (Trident) and a Damru (small acoustic instrument believed to be help by Lord Shiva). A few young sadhus hung around, smoking grass to get in touch with the elusive god of death. The path ended at a confluence of two rivulets. Hardly knee-deep, they garlanded a hill and met right at the center.

As the day passed, the cloud-cover descended lower, and soon all we could see was fog. And then, there was a moment on the horizon, captured by my lens, when it appeared that the snow-covered peaks were floating above the clouds. Made one think, was the fable of Lord Krishna picking up a mountain a similar illusion?

In the hills, soon as its past 6, it’s night. The temple stands majestic and imposing in its valley, and the houses slowly ebb into slumber. We too settled down, the next morning was to bring an early downward journey.
I can’t remember what, but something woke me up in the night. I walked out to the little balcony our cozy lodgings had, right beside the temple. It must’ve been a full moon night, or nearabouts, and the valley was flooded with moonlight. There was not a cloud in sight and the snow-capped peaks that had eluded me the entire day not stood visibly, shining like silver. They looked grander and more mysterious than in any kind of sunlight. I rushed in to get my camera, but there was not enough light to capture them. As if god’s way of saying, you can’t capture these and take them with you; anyone who wants to see them, should come to the mountains.

The temple shill shone at a distance, with the lights on, and imposing. I could picture the grand hills with just the temple and the rivulets, and a vast, empty valley, devoid of civilization. As it would have been centuries ago.

Early the next morning, we got up to capture sunrise. But grander picture emerged before we could see the sun. As the darkness ebbed into twilight, the peaks of the mountains behind which the sun hid, started glowing as if garnished with gold.

Soon we settled down for breakfast, and started the downward journey. I had a hundred photographs from the past 24 hours. But none of them could recreate what I was about to leave behind.

The one they left behind. Because he was busy drinking in the views. Shooting the sights. Scribbling down notes. They couldn't wait more. And he couldn't care less.

Special Mention

A Walk in the Park

Pooja Ohri Gandhi

There is an element of rare curiosity in visiting an area, which appears like a black spot on the trekking map, never having been visited before. The Kanasar Lake (4400m) located in Western Garhwal between the Supin and Nalgan Valleys is one such location.
So when our motley crew of 8 disparate, valiant explorers set off from Kalka, we were merrily adrift on a voyage of discovery, none was too sure where it would lead to. One would have expected that a team driving a path-breaking route to an unseen lake high in the Himalayas, would comprise of athletic, strapping mountaineers, the kind that amble over hills and vale, with rock hard bodies and stoic Spartan countenances. On the contrary the intrepid explorers of our squad comprised mostly of portly, unfit physiques, but brimming nevertheless with an eager enthusiasm and sky-high spirits. Our team leader genially reassured us that the whole trip was going to be a ‘walk in the park’; and never have any words come back to haunt me later, as those uttered with cheery abandon on Kalka railway station.

Nalgan Pass
After two blissful days of scenic walking and we ambled into camp two, to be greeted by torrential rain and as the afternoon progressed, we were in the middle of a full-blown snowstorm, with icy winds fiercely lashing at our tents, the sub-zero cold chilling us to the core. By nighttime the storm had worsened with blazing flashes of lightening seeming to strike frighteningly close to us, lighting up the interior of the tent with flares of eerie orange brightness. The night was terrifying and by the end of it, we were all mutedly huddled together, down to our prayers to the almighty.

It was perhaps the early hours of dawn, when Neha, my tent-mate, suddenly shook me awake. “The snow has stopped Pooja,” she whispered, “come out and look at the sky”. I reluctantly crawled out of my warm sleeping bag and glanced up; then my jaw dropped. The dark night sky, now cloudless and clear, was awash with a gleaming canopy of crystalline stars; scattered haphazardly in an immense warped cosmic canvas; as though a petulant child had carelessly knocked over a bucket of shimmering, magical fluid across the infinite expanse of the heavens. Misshapen stars gleamed brighter than I had ever imagined, illuminating the entire infinite space, their brilliant light falling crookedly on the craggy snow capped peaks, the snow dully reflecting it back, in a tawdry, inadequate measure of response. Neha and I both lay there, staring awestruck at the vista above us, until finally the bitter cold lulled us back to sleep.

When we awoke it was to a previously grassy meadow, enveloped in a thick layer of snow. After a quick breakfast we hastily prepared to leave, eager to put that icy, windy spot behind us. As we started our ascent for Nalgan Pass, the weather turned again and soon we were toiling on in a blustery snow storm, every arduous step labored up in knee deep snow, pausing every few steps to catch our breath in the rarefied high altitude air, the piercing wind stinging our faces with pin-pricks of sleet, the bitter cold clawing into us, chilling us to the marrow. Slowly we hauled ourselves closer to the pass, until at the final ridge I finally saw young Mangal haul himself over the top, to break the first route onto Nalgan Pass. One by one, we all gathered at the top and paused for a rest. The guides and porters made a small makeshift shrine to the Gods and we all gathered round for a small Puja, culminating with a coconut being broken and strewn all over the ridge as an apt offering to the hill gods.

If we were thinking that the prayers and offerings were going to turn things in our favor, we were badly mistaken. As we started our descent we quickly realized that a precipitous downhill terrain, strewn with rocks, covered with slushy mud and an icy coating of snow, did not add up to make it a pleasurable walking pathway. Almost immediately we were all sliding down the sheer face of the hillside, our shoes unable to find a footing anywhere, each step becoming a treacherous choice of trying to find a grip on the devious surface below. Eight exhausting hours of bouncing knees off jagged rocks, tripping over tree roots, clawing at stones and clutching at straws and finally we crossed the stream into the campsite. There were few smiles as we stumbled in exhausted, cold and sullen. But after having taken off our sodden shoes and mud-splattered wet clothes, we gathered back into the cozy warmth of the common tent. Hot tea followed by hotter Maggi and finally the surly mood of the previous 24 hours was shaken off.

O What a Lake!
The next three days comprised of the most picturesque meadow walks, the kind that dreams are made of; with undulating grassy hillsides sprawling unremittingly for miles on end, carpeted with exquisite wild purple and yellow flowers, strewn with boulders, narrow streams tumbling all over the place. Again we estimated that it would take us about two hours to reach Kanasar Lake from camp. A walk in the park...

Once we crossed into the snowline, the going became perceptibly tougher and after gaining a couple of ridges we reached a point at 4200m which appeared like the final stretch, needing about an hour more. However, distances in the mountains and the degree of difficulty can be deceiving and eventually the massive boulders covered in thigh deep snow did us in. It took us another four hours of trudging to get our first views of Kanasar Lake.

The lake was sheer beauty; fringed by weathered boulders and craggy peaks, it lay ensconced in a quiet ethereal calm, while the mist around played hide and seek. Partially frozen, it was covered with a fine, diaphanous crust of ice, broken at some places. Towards the southern side, there were two islets that seemingly divided the lake into two halves perhaps responsible for its name ‘Kanasar’. Apparently the islands resemble a mark on the eye of a blind person or ‘kana’ hence, the name Kanasar. Based on local information the lake is revered and visited annually by villagers, primarily from Himachal Pradesh, who use a rope to immerse a deity into the Lake. Respecting these sentiments and keeping in mind that we would disturb the serene sanctity of the lake by camping there, we decided to head further to set up camp. It took us a full hour to walk the length of the lake, almost a kilometer long by our estimates, and by the time we were done, it was late afternoon; clouds had descended around the lake creating a heavenly sight.

In the quiet seclusion of my tent later I looked back, at Nalgan Pass and the mountain ranges around. The lofty, regal snow-covered crests looked haughtily down in undisguised scorn. Being in the Himalayas is perhaps, the most profoundly humbling experience in life. Those towering, majestic peaks soaring high up to the heavens, unruffled by the brutal fury of nature, unfazed by the unending passage of time over millennia. And we, mere mortals, daring to set foot upon these proud lands. One immediately feels dwarfed; diminished in mind as well as body, by the grandeur of these glorious vistas. But when God creates Man, He begets a creature with an indomitable spirit and untiring zest for life. I remember experiencing an unshakeable exultation as well; I am here... beleaguered and awed, yet incongruously triumphant, my body is tired and spent, but my spirit as yet undaunted, looks further to strive on ahead...

This Travelogue contest was organised by WWF-India and Lonely Planet Magazine (India) as part of the Green Hiker Campaign. These travelogues are personal accounts of the contestents and bear no resemblance to the views of WWF. For more information on the contest, please visit www.ecotrail.in

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