Wednesday, April 25, 2012

19th April 2012 - Arriving Cochin

When dinner was being served last evening I asked if the train would reach Ernakulam on time. The attendant pointed out to the fact that we were ahead of time in Calicut and that there was enough ‘slack in the timings of the train to even ‘make up’ 2 hours. Such confidence cannot be browbeaten with any argument. I set the alarm for a half past the midnight hour and settled in for the short sleep.
I woke up as the alarm was set to go and made out that we were nearing Trichur. The train was late, after all; maybe, something will go wrong when you are dead sure! Thereafter, the train crawled like an Express train should not, particularly the Rajdhani. It only proved that Kerala does not respect even a hierarchy of trains, forget anything else. In hind sight, a brisk early morning walk may have got me faster in to Ernakulam!
I feared a haggle in the morning with the auto drivers. However, the pre-paid counter outside the station mitigated such a situation. The driver was well behaved and I gave him the extra he requested for the distance from the main road to the premises of the flat. The Himachal sojourn had ended and the strands of a new adventure had started its work on the loom of an exciting dream.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

17th and 18th April 2012 – Leaving Delhi and en route

The previous evening I had made arrangements to go to the New Delhi railway station, mistaking the departure station of the Trivandrum Rajdhani Express. Fortunately, I remembered in time that I had disembarked at Hazrat Nizamudin railway station on my inward journey. Anyway, no harm was done for I had enough buffer time on hand for the change. Despite the last minute change I had about an hour at the Hazrat Nizamudin station before departure of the train. The station premises and the platform were quite unclean and covered with flies. I found a group of Mallu servicemen in an interesting conversation blitzing the politics of Kerala and lost myself in that. I would have remained engrossed in that till the rake was backed on the platform had it not been for the pesky shoe shine boy who insisted on cleaning up my sneakers for a bargain of Rs. 20. I gave in after shooing off for a while. He completed a fairly good job and proceeded to offer certain value add to keep the sneakers from creasing. He quietly told me that it would cost Rs. 10 and proceeded to put some studs on the sole of the sneaker. I found it uncomfortable and asked him to take it away. He had by then put in about eight studs and demanded Rs. 80 for them! He said he meant it to be Rs. 10 per stud. I had him take out the entire lot and settled for an extra Rs. 10 for the effort he had put in! Talk about getting conned - there are many ways.
The rake of the Rajdhani Express was brought on the platform about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time of 11 AM. I located my berth on the chart pasted near the door of the IAC coach; was surprised to be allotted a berth in the coupe. The coupe is more private. I settled on the lower berth awaiting the co-passenger. I spread out what I needed for use during the long journey. I was making a few last minute good byes over the phone when a person opened the door to the coupe and kept alternating between a few sheets of paper in his hand and my face. After a few seconds of this I suspected he was comparing a photograph in his hand with what he saw on the lower berth, it was a bit disconcerting. I shortened the good bye and asked the gentleman if I could be of any help to him. He was quite certain that I had usurped his berth. He also confirmed having checked the chart near the door. I feared I had made a mistake. Both of us checked the chart together. Pointing out the mistake he had made I assumed a very humble demeanor! I wonder how he made peace with his wife who must have been looking forward to a romantic 36 hours in the coupe!! I even mustered enough humility to apologize to her!!!
The train started on time and the water bottle arrived. The IAC travel is quite a luxury. The food served in IAC is much the same as it is in IIAC. The difference is in the manner in which it is served. Crockery, cutlery and a better ambience made for tastier appeasement of the appetite. Lunch and dinner are almost unvarying fares – but then, how much variety can you have on a train. Nutritious food was served hygienically and at regular intervals. However, there was one cause for worry throughout the journey; it was the poor enginemanship possibly combined with loose couplings of the rake. The combination produced so many jhatkas every time the train accelerated and decelerated that I worried for the safety of the train. There was a time when loco drivers used to be charge-sheeted and punished for such shoddy work. Besides, when the jhatkas happen as the food is being had it gets nasty. I had a butter dipped bread stick partially up my nose and hot tea spilt all over my hand. A day and a half of experiencing the jhatkas has placed me in the elite company of the ‘item numbers’. I am ready for the Munnis, the Jalebi Bhais and the Chikni Chamelis after the impromptu training. If people see a difference in my walk after the journey, complete with pelvic thrusts, please understand it can happen to you too when you travel by the Rajdhani Express. I intend to retain my train ticket to prove that is what made the difference.
The time during the journey – between the jhatkas - was primarily to recap the wonderful experiences of the past two weeks and the selfless and helpful people who helped it be that way. Sajeesh, Ashok, Sudhir, Srikant, Prakash, Umesh, Sharma, Gopal – the list is long and no amount of thanksgiving can compensate for the help and assistance they provided. Most acts of human kindness are invaluable and incapable of being assessed in materialistic ways. A journey is incomplete without the people who make a difference to it – be it the journey of life or one where the Rajdhani is involved.

16th April 2012 – In Delhi

The Kalka Mail rolled into Delhi railway station at the scheduled time of 6.30 AM. I was booked to stay at the guest house of KRIBHCO in Noida. I stubbornly refused the offer of my friend for a vehicle. I was determined to experience the Delhi Metro that was being mentioned of in such glowing terms in the media and by people I had interfaced with. Therefore, as soon as I came out of the Delhi station I made a beeline for the Metro station. Frankly, at that hour I expected the Metro to be relatively free of commuters. I was horribly wrong. There were four queues that had more than 50 people each to buy tickets. I got over that problem by going to the ‘Smart Card’ counter. The card entailed a deposit of Rs. 50 and the balance was available for journeys. The card afforded a small discount for every journey. Buying the card was the smallest of the issues. Getting into the train was ‘the’ experience. The platform was full to capacity with passengers. The G4 Security guys were more ornaments than effective interceptors to avoid the pushing and shoving which happens at the doors of the train. The travel from Delhi to Noida City Centre was completed in less than 45 minutes, but was agonizing for the crush load and the fact that I had to stand with the heavy luggage strung to my back for there was not enough space to put them on the floor of the coach.
After getting ready at the KRIBHCO guest house and breakfast I left for the Railway Board to get my reservation done for the journey to Cochin. This time I decided to travel in the luxury of IAC by Rajdhani Express. It is considered among the luxuries of travel in India. As a retired officer of the Indian Railways I am entitled to IAC travel by paying one third of the fare difference between IAC and IIAC. A colleague got the reservation done and assured a confirmed berth through emergency quota allotment.
It was the Metro once again to go to the Delhi Divisional Office to meet Sajeesh Kumar, Senior Divisional Manager who had coordinated most of my accommodation during the journey. He was due a few words of gratitude. It is persons such as these who still make you feel part of the community of railway employees, whether retired or otherwise. That done it was off to the CGO complex to meet with Sudhir Pratap Singh, IPS, an erstwhile railway colleague and bosom friend. He had just been posted to the CRPF from his home cadre of Rajasthan. As I walked into the office he gave me the news of his being posted to Srinagar. For an outdoor person like Sudhir I personally felt that it was an apt posting, even though he may have liked to be in Delhi. He is a great host. A line I will always remember him for is: Bhaiyya, kuch badhiya vyavastha karna hai; yeh mera khas dost hain, mere bhai jaisa (Brother, you have to make some exceptional arrangements; he is my very dear friend, like my brother). While chatting with Sudhir bondas, badushaa and lime tea passed through without being a hindrance to the conversation. Since Leh will be part of his jurisdiction I requested him to flag off the Leh-Kanyakumari record breaking attempt in July.
The Metro experience at New Delhi was not very pleasant. The security arrangement was woefully inadequate to meet the number of passengers who were aggregating there to take the Metro trains to various destinations. The frisking and x-ray machines are mere formalities at the stations. The rush of passengers with a variety of baggage makes it impossible to do a proper job of it. Maybe these arrangements serve as a deterrent. Surely it serves to slow down the flow and create bottlenecks. I feel that the number of coaches have to be increased per train during working days and the door closing time has to be different in stations that handle larger number of passengers. The security personnel have to play a more proactive role in preventing pushing and shoving. Girls and single ladies have to be told to take the first coach that is reserved for them. Invariably this coach is less occupied and the other coaches are crush loaded. All in all, one must admit that the Metro is the fastest way to move around in Delhi today. Some more inputs are urgently needed to cater to the burgeoning patronization.

15th April 2012 – Leaving Shimla

Laxman Singh was not a minute late with the bed tea. Serving it, he asked me what I would like to have for breakfast. He gave me the option of fetching either poori baaji or bread and omelet. I ordered for a 4 egg omelet and four slices of toast with butter. Laxman was bewildered. He said, “Sir, yahan omelet do ande ka hota hai.” The poor man’s Adam’s apple moved uncontrollably for a while, when I confirmed two omelets of ‘do ande ka’, before a nod of the head and a twitch of the moustache replaced it.
The ‘slightly’ heavy breakfast propelled me outdoors for a walk to digest the repast to make space for another! I met a Commercial Inspector as I was moving out of the ORH. Of him I enquired what had become of the erstwhile goods shed. He told me that a part of the area was recently converted to a Rail Museum to exhibit rare collections of the Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR) link. Curiosity got the better of me and I took to the railway track that led to the erstwhile goods shed. The Baba Balkhu Rail Museum is in close proximity to the ‘old’ bus stand, a busy and crowded part of Shimla. I was the first customer through the gates today. The Museum was inaugurated in July 2011 and hence, is relatively new. From the registers meant for visitors I could make out that it was quite a hit with the visitors. The most common request in the entries was for a steam engine to be exhibited there. It is a valid request for a coach and a parcel van have been displayed; a steam engine is more esoteric and therefore, more appealing to a visitor. Maybe an inspection car could be displayed. The exhibits have been carefully chosen and documented for display. A letter from Mumtaz Begum the songstress of yesteryears add luster to the collection. The lighting could be motion controlled to save energy. Hopefully, the collection will be expanded over time. There is enough and more space for it. What could pull in more visitors is a sound and light show of the KSR link and the railway in general. Also, there needs to be a more appealing and classy collection of memorabilia for visitors to pick up. Overall it can be termed as a good beginning; it must be built on and maintained.
I took a short cut from the old bus stand to The Mall road and came across the Fontainblue Cottage of 1933. Presently it houses a Museum run by the Brahmakumaris. I went in out of curiosity and was treated to a 15 minute talk on the ideology behind the movement. 15th April is celebrated as Himachal day. The Ridge was full and overflowing. The State government had got up a function there to celebrate the event. Many folk dances and songs were showcased by students and mature artists from various parts of the State; it was a kaleidoscope of the culture of the various regions. I got back to the ORH and did the final packing of the bags and settled the charges for the stay.
The Rail Car is like a mini bus on the rail. It has a driver, a helper and seats for 15 passengers. It was a beautiful four hour drive from Shimla to Kalka. The thickly wooded forests, sun drenched long distance views of human settlements, engineering marvels like the multi-tiered arch bridge near Kanoh railway station and the longest tunnel at the entrance to Barog railway station and the meal at the Barog catering outlet contributed to a memorable journey. The KSR Line is 96 kms long and is a narrow structure of 2 feet 6 inches. The line was constructed between 1898 and 1903 and commissioned in November 1903. The centenary of the heritage line was celebrated in 2003. The steep gradient of 3% is accompanied by 917 curves and 102 tunnels on the entire section. The longest tunnel is tunnel number 33 at Barog station which extends for a length of 1143 metres.
The Rail Car deposited me an hour ahead of schedule at the Kalka station. I walked into the Upper Class waiting room to spend the time before the departure of the Kalka Mail to Delhi. The waiting room was a pot pourri of people who were apparently booked to travel by trains from Kalka. After a while I came to know of the Executive waiting room. I paid Rs. 20 and moved in there so that I could watch the IPL match and rest on s sofa. But within a short while the entire room filled up with a group of yuppies that was booked to travel by the Kalka Mail are were waiting for the AC in the train coaches to be switched on. Mercifully, the IPL stayed on and the group left as soon as one among announced that the coaches were comfortably cool for them to occupy. I had booked by sleeper class to Delhi on purpose. The purpose being to experience sleeper class travel, a class I had not travelled by for over 3 decades. The number of unconfirmed passengers in the coach made for a crowded journey. I remained awake for a while waiting for the TTE to examine the ticket. He never arrived and I slept.

14th April 2012 – Leaving Kalpa

I have a fear, an irrational one, of missing a scheduled journey by being late for it. This has been mine since a young age and to this date I haven’t missed a train, a flight or a bus journey because I was late for it. Nevertheless, the fear persists. Therefore, I do the following: I double check departure timings, sleep early to be up in time for the early morning schedule, ensure that an alarm is set and finally, after all this, I sleep fitfully. Hence, I have even arrived three hours ahead of schedule for a domestic flight in Cochin. A wintry morning I was denied entry into the Delhi airport as I was too early and I spent time walking around with my luggage so as not to freeze in the cold outside.
Last night was no different. I settled my accounts of the stay in the Circuit House even though Sharma, the caretaker insisted that it could be done this morning before my departure. While Sharma was sure that the departure time of the Kalpa-Shimla bus was 6.30 AM I insisted on being at the bus stop at 6 AM for the kind man at the information counter at the Peo bus stand said it would be there at that time. I had kept the alarm for 4.30 AM and woke up at 3 AM! I used the spare time to complete a blog post and re-arrange the luggage in the backpack. Despite all that I was ready by 5.15 AM. When I met up with Sharma to leave at a quarter to 6 for the bus stand he insisted that I had been given the wrong departure timing. I could not share with Sharma my fear and hence reached the bus stop before 6 AM. Sharma waited with me for 15 minutes and took leave of me after repeating at least every two minutes that he was right about the bus timing. Anyway, his departure gave me relief from the constant refrain and I was glad to sight the bus at exactly 6.30 AM. I was the first passenger in the bus and I chose the seat next to the driver once again because of the ease of accommodating my bags.
For the next one hour it was a virtual free tour of some of the villages I had not visited during the tour. One such was Pangi. The approach to the village was through a road cut through rock faces and had numerous precipitous ‘suicide points’. The outskirts of the village were beautiful with orchards and thick forests. The pickup drive lasted an hour and the bus finally left Peo bus stand at a quarter to 8. The bus filled up quickly. I was alarmed to see the driver using a mobile and driving with hand. When I saw him doing this repeatedly I requested him not to do so. He was not too happy about it but I could make out that the other passengers were relieved too. To the credit of the driver it must be said that he never repeated the’offense’.
Since the bus was better than the one I had taken for the trip from Shimla to Peo my ride was relatively more comfortable. I also rested my knees by getting down whenever the bus was stopped. Nearing Shimla the weather turned and it started raining. The bus started leaking and I had to sit on half the seat to avoid a splash; I put on the hood of my jacket to avoid rain water pitter pattering on my head. It suddenly became very cold and the visibility on the road also reduced considerably due to mist. Just 20 kms short of Shimla there was an unusual sound from somewhere under the bus and suddenly some heavy piece of metal fell off the bus. It would have been a nightmare to get off the bus in that weather and look for alternative transport to reach Shimla. Fortunately, the driver agreed to continue for as long as he could. We did reach the ISBT without any further ado. By the time I got off the bus I was shivering despite the protection I had on me.
The wait in the ISBT for a local bus to get to the railway station worsened the situation. I could not feel my feet and the hands felt like frozen meat. By the time I got to the warm confines of the Officers’ Rest House I was in relatively poor shape. The caretaker - he immediately recognized me as the one who had driven to Shimla from Kerala in a car - allotted a room and switched on the ‘Heater Tower’. He also supplied red hot tea. With these my conditioned thawed. Later the caretaker, Laxman Singh, got me a dhaba meal that consisted of rotis, rice, rajma, dal and paneer curry. I hit the sack early with the mind clear of any fear of having to take a morning train.

13th April 2012 – In Kalpa

I had initially planned to visit Puh today. After walking up slightly late in the morning I decided to spend time locally, walking around to enjoy some more the salubrious environs of Kalpa. When I am about to leave a place I normally wonder when I will come back next to it or if at all I will. The same feeling assails me when I take leave of people who matter to me. This makes the moment of parting very somber within me, though I always try to portray the opposite. This day was no different. Therefore, to lift the mood a bit I walked to ‘The Monk’ Hotel to meet Prakash. In some manner this person, who I barely met 4 days ago felt like a soul mate, in whose company I felt light and cheerful. I reached the hotel and there was no sign of Prakash or any others. And the place was open. So I went around the lodging complex and saw that accommodation was being expanded by another floor. The view of the Kinner Kailash was superb from the higher floors of the hotel. When I came down after the ‘intrusion/inspection’ Prakash and his colleagues landed up – they were making tea in the adjoining canteen. Prakash insisted on my seeing the rooms; they were very spacious and well appointed. Economical packages can be worked out for groups and their hospitality has been amply recorded in glowing terms by visitors who stayed in the Camping tents, barely a few kilometers away.
When I mentioned to Prakash that I have some time to spare his face virtually became a lit up LED lamp! He suggested that we take a walk to the camping site. I readily agreed. On the way he treated me to a few home remedies for common ailments. By way of introduction he said that all ailments stem from problems of proper digestion, for which the liver function must be taken care of (In his words, “Agar pet saaf hai to sab kuch teek hai”.). He said that the following remedy was passed on to him by a lady in Kalpa and he had successfully tried it on his own mother. 4 dried apricots should be cleaned and soaked in a glass of water overnight. Early next morning the apricots must be ground into a paste in the glass and the pits extracted (the kernel could be eaten later). The material in the glass should be strained and the liquid should be consumed first thing in the morning. Nothing else should be had for the next two hours so that the concoction is given time to ‘settle the stomach’. This could be continued for three weeks or less till one’s metabolism returns to normal. His next ‘home remedy’ had me staring in absolute disbelief and probably stemmed from the fact that I was laboring for breath as I was walking by his side. For labored breath while climbing or exerting he said the answer is naphthalene balls; yes, don’t mistake me, naphthalene balls. Prakash said he carries a couple of them when he goes to explore the mountains and whenever either his companions or he became short of breath he would pass on a naphthalene ball for them to smell and magically restore their breath. So the next time I pack for the hills the first item that will go into the backpack will be a box of naphthalene balls!
Prakash mentioned that there is a tea made from local herbs in Kaza which is referred to as ‘Tshering tea’. When you feel tired or fatigued a drink of the tea will enhance your stamina, you will feel like walking another 10 kms, he said. There is a herb called ‘Samrak’ which is used to tried wounds. For treating external injuries the herb should be prepared with milk and administered. If the person vomits the concoction it signifies that survival is not a possibility. If he is able to retain it, the wound will heal in good time. For internal injuries Samrak has to be prepared with butter and administered. He lifted the cap he was wearing for protection from the cold and revealed neatly combed back dark black hair interspersed with a few strands of grey. He pointed to the shock of grey that stood proudly atop my head and said that a few years back his hair too was as grey. Then he started using a preparation of ‘Rattan Jyoth’, a root (understand the Dabur Navrattan Oil has the same ingredient, but in diluted quantity). The root is kept immersed in mustard oil for two days and left in the sun. The oil becomes darker than blood in the process. Using this oil for a few months forced the greys to give way to jet black hair. He assured a complete transformation even for me!
These and many other pieces of conversation occupied the walk and we reached the camping site of the Kinnaur Geo Tourism. It is located in an orchard of apples, walnuts, apricot and has numerous varieties of flowers and many poplar trees. The site offers unmatched views of the Kinner Kailash and has tents and huts – the huts are plastered with mud to keep it warm inside. The canteen provides food and hot beverages to suit the campers’ requirement. The remarks of the visitors in the register provide an insight into how well they are taken care of. Repeat customers are testimony to the hospitality of the local management; many entries mention Prakash and Harish by name. There is a small plot within the camping site which is regarded as the original seat of the Kothi Mata before She was relocated to the Temple in Kothi. A slab of granite in the plot is almost in direct alignment to the ‘Shivalingam’ on the Kinner Kailash. It is said that Lord Shiva comes to live in Kothi for three months of the year between November and February – so strong are local beliefs. While having a cup of tea in the camping site Prakash picked up a small runner beside him and asked me smell it. The smell was so strong, a combination of Vicks and mint. He said tea made from brewing the leaves of the runner will sort out any issues with indigestion! Prakash also narrated how he was ‘converted’ from a no-gooder who was addicted to liquor and had forsaken his family to what he is today. He believes that it is a vision he had one night of Lord Shiva that changed him for the better.
Time had gone by so quickly without any realization of it. Promising to stay in touch with this remarkable person from whom I had learnt such a lot of insight into the local life I left for the bus stand to explore options of leaving Kalpa. Prakash asked me to check out the options of taking the Delhi and Chandigarh buses, if Delhi was my destination. It sounded logical. However, the timings of the buses and the number of hours I would have to stay contorted inside the bus made me stick to the original plan to go to Shimla. I then caught up with my contact in Peo and had lunch with him. He also presented me with a bottle of the apricot distillate.
It was time for packing the bags for the early morning trip to Shimla tomorrow. I had this on my mind as I reached the CH. But the interplay of the sun and the clouds on the snow clad mountains was too tempting to ignore and go indoors. I noticed two elderly gentlemen sitting on chairs outside the CH and enjoying the sights. It turned out that they were two retired government employees, septuagenarians both, one Wing Cmdr (Retd.) AK Singh of the Indian Air Force from Lucknow and the other CP Singh a senior scientist formerly with CSIR from Benaras. We quickly became friends; the common thread of retired employees travelling alone probably was the spark. Later in the night, before dinner, we had a session together when we partook of the apricot vodka laced with some savories. While the apricot distillate was the reason for the session, deep philosophical discussions over shadowed all else. It was a time for sharing fears and feelings and trying to find meanings to them. We also shared our experiences of our travels; I also presented them a copy of my book. After dinner the goodbyes were said with the expectation that we would keep in touch. However, as I mentioned earlier what seized me at the moment was the question, “will we ever meet again?” I try and recover from such sad seizures by thanking God for the opportunity He gave me to meet such wonderful people. Interactions of such kind give you opportunities to learn, remain humble and incrementally grow as a human being.

Friday, April 13, 2012

12th April 2012 – In Kalpa

Bright sunlight and almost cloudless skies greeted me in the morning with fabulous views of the ‘more’ snow clad mountains. It had snowed the previous night and much of the hill behind the CH had also received a fair share of the ‘showers’. I decided to go for a long walk with little else on the agenda.
While walking back from Rogi village the day before I had stood in front of a mid-sized hotel called ‘The Monk’ to enjoy an unobstructed view of the mountain range. Prakash was sitting on a chair in the verandah of the hotel. His greeting has a special warmth that immediately endears him to you. Inclined to take a break from the walk I stood by and had a chat with Prakash about the Kinnaur Geo Tourism Pvt. Ltd. that has promoted ‘The Monk’ brand through a network of hotels/resorts, camping huts and home stays in Kinnaur. They offer a range of services across the region such as Kalpa, Nako, Shego, Rohru, Sangla and Spiti. They organize customized tours and treks as well as adventure sports to match pockets of different sizes. Their brochure proclaims that a journey through the Himachal Highlands is ‘A journey through Paradise’. Taking on from local lore it further says: God first created Himachal Highlands then copied it to Heaven.
And this morning I walked across to ‘The Monk’, that Prakash was in charge of, to spend some time with him to understand Kalpa and Kinnaur better. I could not have chosen a better person for the need as Prakash turned out to be an amazing source of information based on over a dozen years in Kalpa. The traditional crop of Kalpa is apricot. Households made wine, oil, medicinal preparations and food from it. The oil is used for a variety of purposes such as for cooking, as a rub for aches and pains, for hair and skin care and for treating illnesses like digestion problems, liver complaints, blood circulation, etc. It probably is because of the ‘magic’ of apricot that illnesses are not common in the Highlands. However, use of modern pesticides and inorganic fertilizers in farming has given rise to the phenomenon of ‘modern’ illnesses in the region. Lifestyle changes such as consumption of packaged foods has added to a new set of worries for the new generation of inhabitants in the region. Prakash claims that wine made from the local red grape and aged in burrow pits would put Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal in the shade.
Apple is a more recent introduction in Kinnaur and it has made people immensely wealthy. This has led to a spurt in construction activity and purchase of personal vehicles for transportation. Government provides items of daily consumption like kerosene, dal, rice, wheat, etc at special rates taking cognizance of the harsh climatic conditions of the region and its tribal status. However, law and order is not a problem in the region even with new found prosperity. The justice system of the Panchayat and that of the local ‘Devi’ of the Narayan-Nagini temple is swift and widely accepted. Prakash mentioned an instance when he was involved in a scuffle with a drunk resulting in a fracture in the arm of the latter. While both had been to the local police station to register their complaint the matter was sorted out before the Devi who instructed Prakash to pay a certain sum within a time frame as compensation. It is said that local people ‘fear’ the grilling of the Panchayat more than any litigation in courts. Therefore, the tehsildar and the thanedar are largely less ‘busy’. Break-ins and robbery are almost unheard of and houses are seldom locked. Marriages are conducted in style with the bride wearing gold ornaments from head to foot. The ‘kamarband’ itself may weigh between 10 and 20 tolas of gold, depending on the status. Every family keeps a note of gifts received by them for various occasions from different individuals/households. It is returned as a multiple when the occasion arises. It is not uncommon to pass the hat around for donations to help the needy. People donate quite generously in such times.
I reluctantly tore myself away from Prakash to go for the self promised walk. Muslim, who I met in Rogi village, had told me about the beauty of Kothi village. I decided to walk to the village and explore it. It was a long walk despite the fact that I took short cuts through the forests. But it was worth every minute of it. Kothi is an amazing village, its location in the arms of the snow clad mountains make for a land that one only comes across in fairy tales. When you see such places you start believing in concepts like paradise, bliss, god like people, etc. The mountains seem like they bestow special attention to the village. The traditional construction with slates, stones and wood are common in the village. But concrete and tin sheeting are gaining rapidly in the new generation buildings. The temple dedicated to Chanadika Devi is quaint and well maintained. A gold image of the goddess is enshrined in the sanctum. A couple of girls, watching me using my camera liberally, asked me to photograph them, which I did. They were extremely pleased with the result and moved away as quietly as they had come. This was in stark contrast to my experience near Rogi village where I asked four small kids to pose for a photograph. After I had taken a couple of them the oldest among them approached me with the demand, “Uncle, paisa do’. Perhaps more visitors go to Rogi than to Kothi village and even kids have realized the commercial prospects of such visits.
My legs were about to give way when I spotted a clean restaurant at the exit of the village. I plonked myself on one of the chairs and ordered for a plate of non-veg chowmein. It arrived with a bowl of soup and was quite edible. The Reckong Peo bus stand was not much further from the restaurant. I went in there and confirmed the timing of the bus to Shimla from Kalpa. My stay in the region was coming to an end. I have to leave the day after. If outsiders were permitted to buy land in Kalpa I would have invested in a dwelling here. Its heavenly and peaceful. With the restrictions in place the only way I could own a dwelling is to enter into matrimony with a local lass! Knowing that my time is up for such adventures I am reconciled to return to Kerala!!
The next stop was at a cyber café to upload the blog posts for my TATA Photon connection has gone wonky. The cyber café is also part of ‘The Monk’ network. Immediately as that was done I took the first available bus back to the CH. Eerily enough, once again the skies opened up as soon as I reached the warm confines of the room. It even snowed in the compound for a while. The snow was too flakey to settle on the ground. It was accompanied by stormy winds that made it uncomfortably cold even with a heater in the room.

11th April 2012 – In Kalpa

I was almost certain that the mountains would be enveloped in low hanging clouds that would hide the majesty of the view and prevent identification of the major mountains. My misgivings were belied; the clouds were not so low and the sun had risen to sparkle on the entire range of mountains. The views of the entire range of mountains particularly that of the Kinner Kailash, were majestic. All the villages in Reckong Peo face the majesty of the snow clad mountains of which the Kinner Kailash is regarded as one of the mythical homes of Lord Shiva. The mountain at 6400 metres is not to be confused with Mt. Kailas which is in Tibet. By the side of the mountain is a 79 foot high rock formation that resembles a ‘shivalinga’. It is told that the formation changes colors during the course of the day and seven colors can be seen using a set of powerful, field binoculars. A 7/8 trek covers the ‘parikrama’ around the base of the mountain. There are reported to be 9 major mountains in the range, which apart from Kinner Kailash are: Ralgang (5499 mts), Gushu (5607 mts), Pishu (5672 mts), Phawarang (6400 mts), Jorkanden (6473 mts), Shipki (6608 mts), Leo-Pragial (6691 mts) and Shilla (7025 mts). The inhabitants of Kinnaur believe that the spirits of the dead of Kinnaur reside in the peak of Raldang.
After enjoying the morning spectacle I got ready for my visit to Chitkul and Sangla. I was informed that the first bus to Sangla would leave Peo at 9.30 AM. However, I left early for Peo with a few school kids from the neighborhood via a short cut to Kalpa. As luck wouod have it there was a service at 8 AM, which promptly deposited me at Sangla before 10 AM. What strikes you en route are the massive hydel power projects on the Baspa River undertaken by the Jaypee Group. They have also put in place many CSR projects like schools, bridges, soil erosion measures, etc.
I found Sangla colder than Kalpa, even though Kalpa is supposed to be the coldest place in Kinnaur, along with Chitkul. Sangla village is above the right bank of the Baspa River and is the main market in the area. A vehicle had been arranged by my contact in Peo for the tour of Sangla and Chitkul. The youngster at the wheel, Lokesh, was of the opinion that KIinnaur is blessed in every way except the condition of the roads. I tended to agree with his observation but not so much with the manner in which he negotiated them.
On the way to Chitkul are a few quaint villages. The first of them is Batseri which is set on the left bank of the River. The surrounding of the village is used by camp organisers who set up trekking trips of varying difficulties. The village is reputed to have a huge prayer wheel housed in a shelter that is turned by the stream’s waters. The village of Rakcham is at an altitude of 3115 metres. The name of the village is a derived out of two words, rak and cham, the former meaning rock and the latter bridge. The local belief is that the river waters corroded a stone dam, thereby creating a natural bridge on the spot. Chitkul is the last inhabited village in the valley and is at an altitude of 3450 metres. Vast snow fields, rocky terrain and high mountains separate the village from Tibet. The village also has a flour mill housed in a shelter, the wheel of which is turned by the waters of a channelized perennial stream. Cold winds make the place extremely harsh. Watching a lady washing woolen clothes in a running stream almost turned my blood cold. The people in the villages have Tibetian features and the food is predominantly of that region. On the ride back to Sangla I had a panoramic view of the Sangla Valley. I presumed that September/October would be the right time to appreciate the beauty of the 95 km long valley for the valley would then be green and with the Baspa River in full flow. The Baspa River flows north-west against the normal north-south flow of other rivers. The River that rises in the hills of Uttaranchal meets with the Sutlej River at Karcham.
While nearing Sangla I felt a few mild pangs of hunger particularly when Lokesh mentioned that the village has a few good Tibetian eateries. However, the one he chose for me dished out a pitiful preparation of Thupka and momos that tasted strange. Normally never the one to waste food I was forced to this time because I suspected I would take ill if I went any further. The last destination in Sangla was the Kamru Fort. It was the original seat of the rulers of Bushair. I was not prepared for the steep climb to the Fort; I was under the impression that I could drive up in the car up to the Fort. The entrance to the climb is guarded by the image of the Buddha. Summoning my reserves of will power and woefully inadequate lung capacity I made it up to the Fort only to be told that it would open only late evening. Disappointed though I was of not accessing the Fort, the views of Sangla and that of the surrounding areas were lovely. Moreover, as with most places in this lovely region of Kinnaur, the air is clean and almost aromatic. It is in times such as this that I regret having spoilt the lung by wanton smoking.
I had to wait for just a half hour for the bus back to Peo. I must have slept through the trip and I was gently woken up by the young conductor on arrival at the stand. I made it back to the CH just in time, once again, before it started raining heavily.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...