Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dushanbe Diaries Day 4

My fourth dawn in Dushanbe derived no further pleasures of flesh or mind than what I already had and with an afternoon and evening full of picnics, jolly people, sumptuous food, swimming in mountain pool I decided to take the morning really easy. I was to meet up with Shagarf, the Director of Pamir Silk Travels, at 10 am in Rudaki Street. As I stepped out into the street, I had pre-decided that for today, I won’t focus on women at all; I mean not on her countenance but would fix my gaze and wandering mind on what she walked upon, her footwear. I have had enough of the rest of her and like I said, now I am looking for an ugly woman in Dushanbe.

Why do I always focus on women, you may ask! Well I am not gay for one and as a specimen we men are literally nowhere compared to women when it comes to variety, imagination, boldness and sense of attire. We men dress alike anywhere in the world, same monochrome, same trousers, shoes, tuxedoes rarely and don’t experiment with colours, style or cut much. We are far too easily pleased and satisfied. Whereas women loves to change and dress and be adventurous in her dressing, design and outlook. This makes her much more interesting a subject for people like me who have nothing better to do.

So I keep my gaze on ground following the posterior of women as I amble down Rudaki like a earthworm with rabbit’s leg. I soon realize that Tajik women, no matter who or how they were, preferred low or flat heeled shoes, sandals, chappals, etc and rarely did anyone wear a stiletto or anything that unruly. Young girls opted mostly for flat leather chapplas with ankle straps, that wounds up her leg sometimes till her calves like those worn by Roman noble ladies and sometimes by gladiators. Almost no one wore flip-flops or causal unkempt shoes. The footwear were mostly of black, silver and gold with few dotted in and with blue and pink. Thus satisfied with my women footwear thesis, I reach the place and find Shagarf, a middle aged man with white hair draped in jeans shirt and trouser.


He calls out my name first as he has seen my website and knows how I look. We shake hands and then head for some morning brew. The shops have just started to blink so the roads are mostly empty. Few lazy policemen, feeling important in their uniform, loiter around. Shagarf takes me to Café Bar. We sit on the upper platform. The place is tastefully done up and I see a similarity there with India. We Indian brands and products often depict western and European models to show India since they are fairer than us and that’s a big deal still in India. Now in this café I come across a huge wall poster depicting an Italian man sipping coffee on some piazza, with his windshield fitted vespa behind. Tajiks are proud, handsome and rugged and fairer than any European, I couldn’t understand their fascination with western models to depict their own land.

Shagarf is a regular here, so the smiling manager strolled in soon and I realized he could be another super model in India. I wonder should I start a model coordinating agency for Tajik models in India dumping my adventure travel venture for good!

Shagarf shows me the Pamirs and our intended tracks on his latest ipad and another tour guide joins us for tea. It is green tea with fresh cherry and raisins within and it’s a wonderful anti-oxidant for my grumbling stomach. We discuss some more of our expedition and other places I wish to go later in the Pamirs. And then we part outside. I like Shagarf instantly. He is gentle, soft spoken and very sure of himself.

I went to a big sports shop where Shagarf had said I will find gas as well. I loiter around the shop that mostly displayed boxing and weightlifting paraphernalia. Finally at one tiny corner I find the gas and they ask for 45 TJS and then I realize that Rudaki 148 has been having one on me, where they had asked for 60 TJS per canister. 45 TJS or 10 US $ is more like it. Pat would be happy to hear that. Though this shop doesn’t have any fancy camping or climbing stuff like Anatoly.

I return home to fill in my diaries and to pack in for the picnic. Sharp at 1.30 pm Alanna hails from below and off we go. I am packed in with an American couple and their 6 yr old son, Sebastian aboard a brand new handpicked Honda that the lady is driving. Alanna drives the other car with Kevin, Sam and another couple (they are not couple really). We start off on Rudaki then turn to cross the beautifully frescoed puppet theater and then get on to a road that has been recently and nicely dug up to provide some sort of organized chaos to the city. Sebastian is a cherubic guy and tells me of his recent adventures in Turkey where he wanted to jump off a cliff but wasn’t allowed as he is below the permissible age of 9. What difference could 3 yr make, I ponder, but then Turkish baths are famous for making Turks go a little dodgy on their upper storey. Then he tells me how he floored the throttle of a speedboat, nearly drowning and killing the boat captain, making doughnuts on the water. His parents add supplements and compliments to the story.

We soon hit a highway with decent surface and the lady just floors. The road winds and we enter a green valley going over and atop undulating mountains. These are low like the lesser Himalaya and much more brown but the fields below are green and redolent with corn, maize, apricot and sunflower. People are riding donkeys, donkeys are riding trucks, donkeys are carrying loads of grains, cows are gazing, grazing and munching grass, a fast flowing mountain river appears to our right like a silvery ribbon through the dancing sunlight, cutting a fluid highway through the serpentine valley.

We slowly gain height and the air cools down. We are surrounded by hills, green fields and sunflower beds that just continue till they merge with the misty mountains at the horizon.

We finally leave the tarred road and take to a dirt one stopping in front of an imposing gate. We go in and find the place full of cars and people. This is a sort of mountain refuge or resort where anyone can come either with their own food or order and use the facilities like lounging in the garden under umbrellas, picnic anywhere or swim in the sizeable pool. Few of Kevin’s and Alanna’s friends were already there. We met them and spread out our food and other goodies beneath one of the large shades that had carpets on flat beds. It was warm but breezy and with mountains, small ones, all around I felt good. We started eating, chatting, most of them asking about my real work and purpose in life, to which I give my clueless answer as even I don’t know what it is; besides having fun that is. There’s a couple and with them is their son’s nanny, whom I find pleasant and I learn much to my delight that she hails from upper Hunza and Gilgit, that enchanting valley where K2 stands piercing the sky like a spear. I have always dreamt of going there as that is the only mountain region in the world I am not allowed to go due to my nationality. It’s a pity that we have this kind of disharmony between two neighboring nations that was one before. And I have repeatedly seen that no discord or hatred or mistrust exist within the people’s heart and I have many friends from there, but somehow our leaders aren’t able to dissolve the boundaries of their mind and heart.

So I got talking with the girl from Gilgit. I quizzed her all about the rivers, glaciers, mountains that I dream of visiting one day and perhaps can only visit them in my dreams. Soon enough Alanna got the cake out and we sang chorus as Kevin cut it rather deftly. I avoided the icing, preferring for the plain cake as I am careful of what I eat. The cake is delicious and finally I decide that I must do some exercise. I change into my swimming trunks and get to the pool that is so full of beautifully undressed Tajik women that for a moment I opt to stay out and enjoy god’s creation. As you all know I have the highest respect and regard for women and to me they are always fascinating and an object of mystery and beauty that is a joy for ever. We men can never match up to women in any field whatsoever and a woman’s dynamism and mystic aura always keeps me riveted and attracted to them. So I sit, with my legs dipped into the cool water, and gaze languidly at the splashing and dancing by the water side.

I finally jump in at the deep end and do few laps much like a sinking sailor in desperate need of a raft since I am really a very bad swimmer, though my technique is good as everyone says. The water at first feels really cold, but cold is my friend and then I do few dives and play with one of the kids, touching bottom and bouncing up and down. I am good at sinking and touching bottoms and underwater swimming, anything that doesn't need me to stay on the water surface. Then at a point I come out and lie down on the white pool chair and soon am lost and sleeping in my own wonderland of mountains, rivers, forests and one mysterious woman, who haunts my senses when I am out of my senses.

All good things do come to an end or conclusion, so we have to return as the sun starts sinking slowly but surely to our west. The drive back is nothing much to write home about except that Alanna’s friend in whose car I am the backseat rider, drove really like a F1 racer. Her son Sebastian and I enjoyed the ride as we zipped and crossed other vehicles like a meteor with a tail behind. The husband didn’t say much, perhaps he was speechless and the lady said quite a lot and we laughed and had a jolly good time. Only later did Alanna reveal that she used to be a professional driver…. Goodness gracious me! But they were and are a wonderful couple and we had a really good time in and outside the car.

The evening set in quietly and my stomach growling a bit as I had certainly overeaten and in the name of exercise had slept off on the deck chair by the pool dreaming of heaven and paradise and the embrace of my mystery woman. Nothing much happened thereafter except that mind kept wondering and wandering as it always does when it does anything at all.

Lessons learnt for and during the day can be summed up in only four syllables: I have no idea.

Once again from the bottom of my bottomless heartless heart, khayr and all things good and joyful. Love you all.

P.S. There won't be any further Dushanbe Diaries for the time being or may be for all the time beings since I am now off to the real mountains in a far away fairy land. Yes, I did spend one more day in Dushanbe (day 5) but in that day all I did was meet up with three women for lunch, met one moustached jolly guy for handing over nearly 200 US $ and then accompanied 2 beautiful women for shopping and of course ate several nans and drank few pots of Tajik tea in between, besides taking a ride in a sunroof fitted Merc that is actually a taxi and charged less than what a normal three wheeler in India would. So you can see, day 5 wasn't really exciting and I once again didn't really learn anything, except that now I am seriously thinking of learning Tajik, migrate to Tajikistan (that way I can finally climb K2)and as they say, live merrily ever after and then some. What can I say, I am like that only :)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dushanbe Diaries Day 3

Three is a number that is used almost all over the world to depict some special connotations; like: three musketeers, three idiots (I love this one), etc so I knew right at the moment my eyes opened to the third day in Dushanbe that this day would be different. Soon enough I got embroiled in a seductive encounter with a sizzling woman from a far off land, of which I cannot elaborate here any further since my blog has wide readership below ‘adult’. And don’t you men with dirty minds snigger and wink; it’s nothing like what it sounds like.

Being the third day I decided that I couldn’t continue playing the fool any longer, so I gave the LP Tajik Phrase book its long overdue glance and inserted page-marks at strategic pages with strategic sentences that one could push not so strategically towards strategically placed strategic sirens, of which streets of Dushanbe abound. Thus armed and fully loaded, and feeling no less invincible than Rambo and Terminator 3 combined armed with Bazookas, I stride out into the bright sun with a brighter smile on my countenance.

My first stop is to meet my friend from yesterday and exchange my GBAO permit so that at the end of the transaction I am holding the right permit for the right individual. The guy meets me with an embarrassing smile and apologies galore. I check the only thing that I can read on the permit, which I didn’t yesterday and that is my passport number. Thus satisfied I thank my friend and hop into bus no 3 heading up Rudaki in search of the elusive shop of yesterday, Rudaki Street 148. The bus is full as always and I am being laughed at and with by everyone, to which I smile back as usual. The Chinese Embassy zips by and I crane my neck out like a dehydrated crow on the banks of Sahara to catch the number 148. The bus reached the place up to where I had ventured yesterday, thereafter it started climbing a small hill path. As the bus climbed up, crossing fountains and the university block, I start seeing 146 and then Lo and behold, my 148 as it flashed like a bank thief on the run outside. I had no idea what one should do to stop the bus so I just shout in Hindi, ‘Rukna Bhaiya’ (stop brother) and the bus screeches to a halt. May be I should start talking in Hindi rather than in English. I hop off, or rather am pushed out by a group of gaggling ladies.

And as I land on ground with my legs bent for perfect balance and poise and dignity (of whatever is left) I realize that yesterday I should have followed one of my own fundamental principals that I follow in the mountains and preach to everyone. Which is, to take one more step when you think that this is your last step, since the summit may be only one more step away. If only I had ventured forth few more steps yesterday I would have found 148 since it was less than a minute’s walk from the point where I had decided to turn around.
The signboard with 148 Rudaki Avenue is written in Tajik and Russian, but then the Salewa Climbing boot picture along with crampons need no other introduction. This is Tourism Academy Shop, which Gulja had claimed to be the best outdoor and climbing gear shop in Dushanbe since it was the only one. It is run by an ace Russian climber Anatoly, with whom Gulja has hiked several times in the Fan Mountains. I am looking for Gas canisters for our expedition. Gulja had told me that the shop is by rotation run by Anatoly (very rarely as he is always out climbing), his wife and pretty daughter and his son. They all took turns and only the son spoke some hint of English. So I hoped that today would be the son’s shop day. And it is. I just knew it that today is special. So I enter and find a young fellow playing monopoly on computer. The shop is tiny but has the right kind of gear for a moderate hike. Ice axes, crampons, belay devices, snap links, pitons, tents, foam mat, ropes, helmets, headlamps, shovels, etc. Though the brands are not so reputable but then they have the stuff. These are expensive equipment and I am sure they mostly cater to foreigners climbing or hiking in the Pamirs. And they have gas too, though Chinese make, but gas it is. The price hit me like a sledgehammer, right below the belt. One canister goes for 60 TJS which is nearly 15 US $ and that is far too expensive. Even the MSR original canister doesn't cost more than 5 – 6 US $. We needed 7 and that would cost us a fortune, while we were cutting all corners to keep the expedition cost to minimum. So I bargain and fret but the boy doesn’t budge. I hint at future business but he is adamant. He knows he has monopoly and wants to make a kill. I tell him to keep 7 for us and then leave. Let Pat decide when she arrives, after all she is doing the finances.

I cross the street and hop into the next bus going my way. I enter and meet the same young girl with braces from yesterday and we both recognize each other and exchange smiles. She gets off at her stop and I continue. I eye the roads and the cars outside and realize that in Dushanbe the cars have number plates in three colours; red, green and white. The green depict that of any aid giving, NGO or related organization, the white being normal individuals and red are the diplomatic ones. And the number 007 is repeated with alarming frequency most on the number plates. In Alanna’s alleyway alone I have seen two vehicles with 007 somewhere within the number. Now this could mean that most Tajiks think of themselves as the spy with license to kill or consider 7 a lucky number like my brother does.

I get off near the Opera stop and amble down the silent roads towards the Museum of Antiquities. I cross National Bank of Tajikistan who seemed in much need for cash and the tall regal building of Ministry of Finance, who seemed to be the cause why the National Bank looks bankrupt. The museum looked deserted as yesterday. I open the swivel gate and enter. No sooner had I reached the carpet adorned verandah and read that I must wear plastic shoe covers before entering, a lovely girl walks out (I swear it was a lovely girl and not some ugly man) and tells me politely with a smile curling around her almond eyes that I must put on the shoe covers and then follow her. I am delighted and my ears grin happily. I fumble to show her that I am a gentle hearted and well-bred nincompoop foreigner of whom she must take good care. She is wearing a Capri and a brown top and is barefeet till her knees.

I enter the main door and pay the fee of 15 TJS. For Tajik nationals it is 5 and for students it is 1. And only after paying did I wonder I should have claimed the 1 TJS ticket since I study life and will be a student till my dying day. But by then the girl has preceded me into the museum and switching on a light is waiting anxiously to lead me into the mysterious chambers. Needless to say, I am the only visitor. And thus united in secret conundrums we begin our journey. We walk through rooms and chambers full of glass covered boxes and statues, ancient relics of mankind, dug up from various sites around Tajikistan, though most came out from the Southern Province of Panjikant for some reason. The clay potteries are potty while the ivory carvings are iconic. I eye all with equal curiosity as my guide keeps me up to date with her commentary. I observe that she switches on the lights as we progress and switches them off once we exit a room or a passageway and I am impressed. If she is doing this with all visitors then I can well explain her svelte figure. We finally reach the room containing the museum’s most famous exhibit, the reclining Buddha. It is made of hard clay,13 mtrs long weighing around 5 tons and was found in 92 pieces which has now been joined. She told me a little about its discovery and excavation. I took few pictures from different angles as picture without flash is allowed here. Then we see the wall paintings and murals, the bronze and brass works and the headless statue of Shiva and his consort Parvati.

Finally we end our tour and the girl sees me off till the gate. Assuming that she is a guide, I offer her some money that she refuses with a smile, saying that it is her job to show people around; yet I felt that she did this only for me. I walk out into the sun and click few pictures of the busts sitting around the lawn. And then, I just sit around in a nearby park doing nothing more than munching few grasses and conversing with the birds pecking for insects nearby. Into the lazy afternoon I feel drowsy and wish to shut my eyes and drift away with the sizzling woman at dawn. And then I feel a whisper in my ears from a nearby bloom and think that I am far from everywhere but within the distance of the one I wish to touch.

Dushanbe is one of those places on Earth of which it can safely be said, ‘if you have nothing to do, don’t do it here’. Since there indeed is nothing much to do in Dushanbe (even though there is this obscure book of allegory, yet unpublished and authored by an author yet to be found; titled ‘Let’s Do Dushanbe’) and that suits me perfectly since I generally never do anything when I have nothing to do, and that is saying a lot. I take few pictures of the opera square, walk past it and meet my cigarette seller friend and his younger brother and then went in search of a public phone from where I could all up my mother. Now this proved to be an adventure beyond my wildest dreams.

Firstly I couldn’t sight any shops with signs of a telephone or anything remotely resembling one. I entered several mobile phone and connection shops and gestured ‘hello’ with my left palm with the thumb and pinkie extended and rest of the fingers curled in between; now that’s how they show it in Hollywood, when someone wants someone to call. But no one here understands what I want. Much nodding, gesturing, smiling and of course offers to buy mobile phones, I finally enter a money exchange shop called ‘Aloo Express’ that has a red signboard. For Indian’s this is a funny name for a forex service agency, as Aloo in hindi means potato. There I meet a man who can understand what I need. He walks out with me on the street and points towards the statue of Samani and says only three syllables: 500 meters telefono. I am used to cryptic gestures and lingua franca, so I just followed the direction of his hand after thanking him profusely from the heart. By now I am rather saturated with the pretty senoritas, who are blooming and looming everywhere and how long can you just keep gaping at things that are commonplace in a place, even if it is the rarest of beauty. So I focus more on the road and my surroundings and instantly realization dawns of something that has been in my subconscious right from day 1.

Dushanbe streets and buildings, though derelict and falling apart in places, are clean and tidy to rival those in the west. No one throws plastics or papers on the roads or in the parks or any public places at all, no one spits, no one urinates (I am sure they do, but not on the streets like in India). The buildings are devoid of any graffiti, there are barely any walls with anything written on it or plastered with some garish posters. Only on one apartment block on Rudaki, I think it was 136 or 142, where someone had written, ‘I love you ____ <3’ of course there’s an arrow piercing the heart. It was written in English and the calligraphy was brilliant so it seemed more like a work of art from the heart than anything ugly. There are fountains and sprouts almost everywhere and streets are lined up with blooms of rose and rose wood. There are parks in almost every corner and square where people sit or sleep or read or eat. Blue colored dustbins with an ashtray on top and two separate containers for non-biodegradable and biodegradable stuff are found everywhere and seeing the condition of the roads it is obvious that people do use them, unlike India.

I walk down the distance and to my left find a big building with Telefon written on it. So I approach and enter but find one mousy looking lady who just couldn’t figure out what I was saying despite my reading out verbatim from the LP Tajik phrasebook. She nods in denial, I nod in appeasement, she nods with a smile, I nod with despair, she nods since she has nothing else to offer and I nod since I have nothing else to do as I have exhausted all my options. So with our final parting nod, I nod my sorry ass out of the place and back on the streets. I come out and sit beneath a bus shade, not to catch the bus, since I still have miles to go, but to rest my spinning head and to decide which way should I now head. And within minutes I realize that I had completely blended with the local gentry and the atmosphere when an old Tajik man, obviously from Dushanbe, approached me with something scrawled on a piece of paper that seemed like some address. His body language and mumbled words confirmed that he was indeed looking for something; aren’t we all? I heard some words resembling Urdu and English, and I instantly knew the place he was looking for (one of those halleluia (I know this is spelt wrong, but please indulge me) moments for me), which was rather near where we were. So while he spoke Tajik, I gestured and spoke in English and sent him away in the right direction. I am not sure, who out of the two of us should be credited for this cross boundary, trans language and meta cultural exchange that to my belief must have concluded successfully.

Though I don’t need to go to the OVIR office, which is a one stop solution shop for all foreign visitors, I plan to go there, since I should know where it is and I know from LP map that I am rather close to it. Moreover, Laura, the Italian girl from Kabul, who would travel with us till the Afghan border, would be at the office too to pick up her GBAO permit around 4 pm, as she had mailed me. So I thought I should also look her up. Laura’s story is a depiction of Afghan’s present state. She has been living and working for a NGO in Kabul for 3 years and has been to many places around Afghan but to enter the Wakhan corridor, where she wishes to hike for few days, she must enter via Tajikistan since there are no connectivity at all of this area with the rest of Afghan.

I cross the opera house park and then walk on the street behind and at the next crossing, turn left, and few minutes later to my right looms a medium sized building with typical blank walls and façade that could be anything from within and has no signboard that I could see. It looked more like a prison but seeing few western faces running around like headless chicken, I knew this has to be the place. There was only one woman in the waiting hall and I had no difficulty in picking up Laura. From her I learnt that now getting a Tajik Visa on arrival is not a problem, at least not for EU and US passport holders (don’t know about Indian passports). She got her double entry tourist visa for 30 days by paying 33 US $ without any Letter of Introduction / Invitation at the airport. Tajik immigration rule says that for a continuous stay within Tajikistan for a duration of 30 days or less on a tourist visa, you don't have to register with OVIR, but on any other type of visa (business, student, work, etc) you have to register within 72 hrs of arrival. The OVIR office looked bland but efficient. Laura had applied for the GBAO in the morning and had been told to collect it at 4 pm and she got it around 4.15 pm. This is very good progress since so far I had heard contradictory things about GBAO. In all for the GBAO Laura had to shell out around 6 US $, which is way too less than what LP and other places claimed. Tajikistan is certainly progressing fast and opening its doors to the tourists. Besides Laura, I also met Mathew and his friend (whose name now I forget) from France working for a French consulting company named, ‘Altai Consultants’ in Kabul. They both speak Afghani, and little Tajik, and Wakhi and were young energetic fellows who wished to hike and trek in the Pamirs, beyond Khorog but had not clue how to go about it. So we chatted up and I gave them as much info I had, which I could have jotted down in capital bold letters on the tip of my thumbnail.

As I spoke to Laura, Mathew and his friend, I once again realized the benefits of travel. You meet fellow travelers from around the world and suddenly the world becomes a small place, you learn, you make new friends and doors open to you that you didn’t even know existed. Afghan has always been my dream destination and in my next trip I wanted to visit Kabul and much of the interiors in the west and north to see all the historic places, Taliban notwithstanding, and here right out of the blue I was talking like old friends with three people who have done just that and knew Afghanistan rather well. Laura would be out of Afghan in less than a month but Mathew would be there for another year for sure and now I had a roof and two friends in Afghanistan who would get me everywhere. I was smiling happily. Moreover, Mathew’s friend has a family chalet in the French Alps, to which he invited me any time. And boy, did I love the fact that I am a footloose carefree traveler. They promised to help me with my Afghan travel and planning, which now I would plan next year for sure. Laura went off into the park to sleep and daydream a bit and I and the two French fellows ambled towards Zillioni Bazaar as they too wanted to buy something. They were heading off to Khorog (one day 16 hr drive) in a jeep tomorrow, where they had paid 80 US $ per seat. As we walk, they tell me about their desire to hike in the Himalaya and learning real climbing, to which I invite them to India.

We reach the bazaar and immediately I see familiar faces. Our first stop is the nut and raisins and spice section. I buy raisins (50 TJS for a kg) and dried apricots (40 TJS a kg) and then we come out and pick up Tajik nan (1 TJS per nan). I click pictures and one of self in front of the bazaar gate, just for the heck of it. Outside the bazaar we part company with full forced handshakes and a promise that we shall meet soon, either in Afghan or in India on within the blue azure above Inshah Allah. In the bazaar during our commerce I realized what I had observed earlier. Here no one would refuse to accept a bill, no matter how torn, soiled or crumpled it is. In India people refuse to accept rupee notes if they are marginally spoiled or barely torn. I had a TJS 1 bill that was actually in two parts joined by a scotch tape in the middle but falling apart from everywhere else and the shopkeeper accepted it without a second glance, offering me brand new notes in exchange as well.

I start walking on the familiar sidewalk and suddenly find myself face to face with a face that once upon a time used to stare out of every corner of India (or may be I am speaking in hyperbole). The famous (now barely remembered) Bollywood diva, Preity Zinta stood outside an airline office in full airhostess regalia. I looked close and from far, from all directions and had to agree that it was indeed her. And she was wearing a Ural Air uniform and was smiling to every passerby with her right palm cocked at her eyebrows in a smart salutation. I am sure she had never posed for that shot or had ever endorsed Ural Air and had no clue that she now stands regally outside Zillioni Bazaar in Dushanbe, though I am sure this news would make her happy that at least one nation and one airlines hadn’t forgotten her glorious past. Actually I always fancied Preity Zinta’s cute smile and dimples and as she is an Army daughter, she and I (along with 1.4 million other armed forces personnel) belonged to the same clan; after all our ration and canteen supplies came from the same depot.

I walked back to the bus stand near the opera square clicking pictures of frescoes. While I wait for my bus, I eye the pretty senorita next to me dressed in a peach coloured skirt so alluring that I gape at the skirt more than I gape at her and she sees my eyes and smiles at me, though a little consciously. She sees the LP in my hand and understands that I would understand nothing so we both hold our silence; I dreaming of another senorita I would love to see in the girl’s skirt and the girl perhaps dreaming of her date since she was impeccably dressed with an elaborate hairdo. I was certain she wasn’t waiting for the bus, such damsels deserve only a stretch limo and bottles of Dom Perignon as they are being driven around or they are driving someone around. After all beauty does deserve indulgence and haughtiness. But this girl was just simply beautiful without being aware of it. Sitting by her side I was with another who too is completely unaware of her beauty both from within and outside.

My bus no 3 arrives and it is packed like a can of sardines that has been packed with bottlenose sharks. So I squeeze in and find a place to place my toes. The bus starts and I like the money collecting boy right away due to his charming smile and general happiness. Soon he proved to be a real Samaritan.

At the next stop stood a little boy holding a red wheelchair containing a paraplegic man with horribly twisted torso and almost no lower limbs, instead only stumps. There was absolutely no space inside the bus, but the conductor opened the door, requested all the passengers to make room and then started lifting the wheelchair by himself that wouldn’t budge. The little boy, who seemed to be the son of the wheelchair bound fellow, pushed but to no avail, being closest to the door, I jumped out too and joined and so did two other passengers. We got the man inside the bus, managed to get the boy to hold the chair and then the bus started. Soon thereafter the little boy handed over the required money to the conductor, who, much to my surprise, did not accept it and allowed them free passage. It was obvious that the man and the boy were extremely poor, even then they did not expect or seek free ride or any favor from the conductor, yet the conductor did not take money from them. So they both retained their dignity and sense of self-pride. No one in the bus complained about the man or looked down upon his dirty and stinking clothes or his sorry state since he was drooling all the time and making guttering noises. Everyone made room for him and his son and accepted them as their own.

As I alight at my stop I am much impressed with this exchange of human brotherhood. Wish we could be like that in the rest of the world and certainly India needs a lesson in civility from the Tajik people.

I reached home to find that Alanna and Kevin would be out for the evening and I was the boss of the house. I cooked up a really smashing plate of tossed salad, and dry fruits and sauces and spices along with a glass of strawberry shake, topping everything up with a date chocolate and farm fresh cherries. Needless to say I needed a stroll thereafter beneath the full moon. Which I did with my invisible companion and then turned in for the night. Once again from the bottom of my heart to each one of you following my travel tales with bated breath hoping and wishing that I would not return, goodnight and Khayr.

Tomorrow is a day of promised fun as we are going out for a picnic to celebrate Kevin’s birthday (didn’t ask him which one though) and the house has been redolent with the smell of freshly baked cake and icing.

Day 3 as you can glean from above has been varied too and I would now conclude with some of the local phrases I used through the day, not necessarily they got me anywhere, and with some phrases that I should have or could have but didn’t for reasons you would know when you read them. But I leave it to you to decipher which of the following phrases I actually used from the ones I thought I should have. Have fun; and don’t get rattled, for what would life be without riddles and conundrums that come to you from the plains of Pamris, concocted by your madcap and utterly delightful storyteller!

Shukr (thank you)
Nakuned (never mind)
Khub (good)
Man na mef ahman (I don’t understand)
Hojat khona kujost (where,s the toilet)
Shumo ba zabani anglisi (you speak English?)
Man az Hindustan (I come from Hindustan)
Shumo zandor (are you married)
Man tanho hastam (I am single)
Mekhoham ba india telefon kunam
Chand ast (how much)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dushanbe Diaries Day 2

14th July, day 2 in Dushanbe: when the day dawned it hadn’t looked any more or less exciting than day 1 and I was eager to discover if I could discover some more fine corners of this city without corners and even more dazzling girls than before and if familiarity would indeed rob my senses the much coveted hint of adventure. I didn’t have much as an agenda. But then the morning rolled and things started to happen of their own accord.

Gulja called and said she wanted to meet up over lunch to discuss more about her India trip that she was now considering seriously. Considering that she wanted to visit Armenia and Iran before India, and to a country that actually doesn’t officially exist, with a trip in between to Berlin to drop her stuff there and then perhaps dip into West Africa somewhere, was making her all stressed and dizzy so she wanted my help to sort it out. Gulja’s confusion and distress was well justified though not necessarily well defined and as I specialize on such travel travails, I had to help her to get even more confused. Then came the call from my local support agency guy who would meet up to hand me the much awaited and priceless piece of paper called border permits or GBAO permit. This permit is imperative if you wish to go to the Pamir Mountains and Wakhan.

But my morning quest begins with a wild goose chase for the two supposedly shops selling camping gas. It is very easy to find an address on Rudaki since they are all numbered perfectly, with all even numbers on one side of the street and the odd ones on the other. And they are written in English script too and in rather large bold letterings. One was 148 Rudaki the other being 56 Rudaki. Now for some insane reason I thought the latter was 48 Rudaki. So I walk on and on and on and on eyeing the Rudaki numbers, finally reaching 144 on one side and 155 on the other and then there’s nothing. I go around in circles, ask people who obviously don’t understand a syllable of what I am uttering and vice versa. So I give up finally for the day and hop into bus no 1 to get my first public transport experience.

As expected and hoped, the bus is filled with beautiful girls and plumpish elderly women, all very decked up in simple rustic manner. I pay the fare of 1 TJS and clamp down next to a young girl with braces. The bus, though filled up by Tajik standards, is nearly empty by Indian scale. I am not touching any of my fellow travelers and no one is falling on me either. There’s enough room for me to flex my shoulders and arms akimbo if I so desire. At 1 TJS or 60 dhirams, one can almost go anywhere and this is really cheap mode of transport. As the bus, which is clean and well kept, bounces and jostles forward I begin my love affair with the buses of Dushanbe. Each bus is colored in Green and white and is normally managed by a driver, who is obviously driving and two boys collecting money in return of passage. There’s no concept of a ticket or such things. You hop in, hand over the money and stay put and shut till your alighting point arrives. Easy and simple and really quick too. And with excellent shock absorbers and suspension they are really a joy ride. The seat in front of the girl with braces gets empty and amazingly she offers it to me with a smile. To which I nod my head and gesture her to take it. Which she does with another sparkling smile. I am not sure why she offered me the seat, due to my being a visitor to her country or did she think I was a super old guy or she was just being nice and courteous to an elder (she couldn’t be over 16 or 17). Whatever may be the case, it is unthinkable that a young girl would offer seat to a man in India.

I arrive outside the pedagogy institute to meet up with the guy from my support agency, Pamir Silk Travels. He takes my documents and we start walking on Rudaki towards my RV point with Gulja. We cross the Parliament and part company, deciding to meet in front of opera later in the evening when he would get my permits for the Pamir. I walk down slowly under the tree canopies along the central pathway that divides a street into two. These can be called poor Central Asian cousins of such pathways in London or NYC. One can find sleeping or amorous couples on benches along these paths.

With my LP guide (which is really not good for Central Asia) held like a hornet bee, I reach the Square in front of the famous Ayni Opera and Ballet Theatre. The square is really a square with Parisian cafes and eating tables around a large pool of water sprouts in the centre. The impressive Opera building forms an interesting background to the square. People hang around this square for hours drinking or eating or just day dreaming. The water sprouts through water jets above that falls like drizzle later. This makes the area rather cool and bit wet and a place to relax in this heat. I take few pictures of the Opera and the fountains and then Gulja arrives all hustled and bustled.

We order some food and I go little adventurous with local delicacies. The waitresses are all modern dressed unlike the ones we saw previous day at Rokhat Teahouse. While paying our bill and accepting the change the lady offered, I realize that here you don’t need to pay any tips since the waitress collects her own tips, as whatever she thinks she deserves, out of the monies paid by the customer and the balance is returned. So today when I paid my bill of 14.5 TJS with bills of 10 and 5 TJS, she returned me only 20 dirham, which makes her tips as 30 dirham.

We worked out to some sane semblance Gulja’s likely itinerary for India and then she left for the nearest internet café, where she had already spent like 5 hours on research as how to make her trips to Armenia, Iran and India fall exactly in that order.

I suggest that she should toss them all up in the air and then let them fall to the ground and form their own order aka chaos theory. After she leaves, I stroll down to the other side of the street and reach the famous (one of the must see and do in Dushanbe) Museum of National Antiquities. I see the timing and decide to return tomorrow as I wished to spend more time inside taking pictures. This museum is world famous for its exhibits and I didn’t wish to rush it. From there I ambled back to the opera for few shots and then I walked down the Chekov Street (Nissor Mohammed Street) reaching shortly the Zillioni Bazaar of Dushanbe.

This is Dushanbe’s largest bazaar and is now known as Shah Mansur Bazaar. I was thinking that maybe I would be pestered or persecuted by vendors like another Mediterranean or Asian bazaar in places such as Turkey, Syria, Egypt, etc (where your limbs would be pulled in opposite directions by opposite forces – of which I would write some day). So I entered the bustling but surprisingly not loud bazaar of Shah Mansur. Even before I had reached the bazaar, my nose had found the whiff of fresh nan (Tajik bread), roasted meat, spices and condiments. The pavement just outside had mountain heaps of watermelons, musk melons and bananas, and several other rather healthy looking fruits. There were people everywhere doing what people normally do in a bazaar anywhere. I tightened the strap of my knapsack and ventured forth right into the eye of the storm like Indiana Jones did to rescue Noah’s Ark.

The first few stalls are of onions and potatoes and the sellers just look at me or completely ignore me and my intentions. Only one melon seller, a young boy, poked at me jovially and I poked him back and we both laughed. All the pretty girls here wore traditional kurta and kameez. No pyt here with jeans or skirts, I guess the Tajik dress is more suited for the bazaar. I reached the arched entrance to the inner bazaar and found a group of gaggling women with heap loads of nan. It was a sight to satisfy my eyes but ignite my passion (for food). I just inquired the prices of the nan to the women, knowing fully well I had no intentions of buying and we would never understand each other, but then, one cannot just pass by a pretty nan seller and not talk.

So, much amusement and gesturing followed, finally they too understood I was having fun, and everyone laughed at my comic demeanor. It’s not a bad thing to get lost in a lost place where you are lost for words and expressions. Happens with me all the time. But smile is a great moment molder and it can get you far. After the nan-vendors I crossed few more vegetable sellers and few kiosks with all sorts of grocery and eggs. Then I entered the inner sanctum of spices and dry fruit and lollies and sweet sellers. This building has very high roof with sellers sitting in rows and columns, fanning themselves listless with mounds of the most delicious looking and tasting (I did get a free sampling; I am an Indian after all) nuts, raisins, apricots, dry peaches, almonds, etc that Central Asia is synonymous with. Here too I just couldn’t make myself understand to anyone. And then one vendor directed me to another, who pointed at another and then another and back to the earlier one, each claiming that the other can speak some English.

I understood it is a fun game for them since I went around like a bull terrier chasing it’s own tail and returning to the point where he started spinning from. It is imperative that to see the funnier side of the world and everything, you must first learn to laugh on your ownself and make yourself the last comic standing. So I burst out in loud guffaws along with all the vendors and enjoyed their game to the extent. I waved at them and left the place to venture even deeper. The bazaar seemed to grow as I went further, not seeing the end of it, though it looked tiny from the outside compared to such markets in India. It grew like the interiors of a clay water vessel, which has a narrow neck to enter but then bulges out like Hippo belly.

I just wanted to accomplish two objectives: to ensure that the bazaar had everything that we need to buy for the expedition and to find out its opening days and timings. The first objective could be achieved simply by looking, which I did much to my satisfaction, but the latter took me ages and finally one guy, as perplexed as I, got out his calculator and tapped first the number 7 and nodded vigorously, to which I interpreted he means the bazaar is opened all 7 days, and then he tapped 6 – 9, to which I interpreted it opens from 6 am to 9 pm. So I thanked him profusely by placing my left palm over my heart to express my heartfelt gratitude (this is the traditional Tajik greeting gesture) and left. I could be completely wrong in my interpretation; but I think I am right. As I left the bazaar what I liked most was the clean precincts (which is impossible to find in Indian bazaars), the clearly laid out shops and vendors where you can’t get lost, the sellers who did not pester me at all, the haunting fragrance of spices, nuts, meat, eggs, sweets, fresh vegetables and the huge melons of all species. This is the best place to meet the locals and see the real culture of Dushanbe. I will return here with the LP Tajik phrases book in hand.

I loiter back and saunter slowly on the Chekov Street eyeing the shops and road side banana sellers. At a point I found a girl in early thirties with plaster on her feet and crutches under her arm, begging for alms. She must have been really poor to be begging, as I had barely seen any beggars in Dushanbe, which is a common sight anywhere in India. I stood rooted a little away from her for two reasons: first that she was again one of those drop dead gorgeous girls, though without any make up or fancy garb, and to know how she would beg.

Soon enough an old man loitered by, and from their body gestures I could make out that they didn’t know each other, even then they spoke for a while, I guess the old man was asking her how she got injured, etc and then he placed some money in her bowl and walked on. Another man came along and the same thing happened, some amount of talking and dropping of coins in her bowl. I was impressed. She did not really beg or pester the passerbys, did not throw pitiable looks to anyone, did not really seek anything. She had her pride intact on her person and face, the inner beauty radiated and glowed. She simply conversed with people who cared to talk and if they dropped some coin it was fine and if they didn’t even then it was fine. In India no one would dream of chatting with a beggar, they would simply drop some coins with a disgusted look on their faces and rush away.

I stayed at my hideout looking at her and so wished that I could speak her language and get to know her better. Why couldn’t the beggars in India be like that, dignified, silent and patient! Finally I came out and walked up to her, I sat down on the ground to be at her level and she could obviously see I was an outsider so she smiled and said something to which I could only mutter the standard Tajik greeting and that I am from Hindustan. She could see that I wanted to talk but didn’t know how to and I could see she wanted to converse but had no clue how to; I wanted to hear her story and to know where did she come from; but the language barrier proved a tough one to navigate. She muttered something in Tajik, I said something in Hindi (for it really didn’t matter) then I said ‘Shah Rukh Khan’ to which her pretty face immediately lit up and she smiled and seemed really happy. Then I placed one TJS in her bowl and left. I walked ahead quite a bit and looked back to find her looking at me and smiling. I smiled back and waved and walked away. The evening air once again full of people and cars and cats and trees.

I returned to the café square in front of the opera since I had to wait for the guy from the agency to deliver my GBAO permit and it was still an hour short of our appointed time. I sat down at a corner bench and soon started drawing attention. A little boy who was watering the square came to me first and greeted in broken English and then we talked about Bollywood, India, Delhi, Salman Khan, Dushanbe girls, etc. He was a fine fellow and then came his elder brother who knew better English and peddled cigarettes and gums to people in the square. So we chatted up a bit, then eyeing my camera and big lens, a photographer joined us who didn’t know a single word in English but then he was carrying Nikon D3000 so that was our point of communication. I showed him some of my shots and he showed his. Soon came along a family of a very fat couple with a very thin daughter. They sat by my side and ate icecreams, cones, and roasted meat. The girl shyly gave me few glances when her ice cream melted and dropped on her white skirt I smiled back and nodded assuringly that she need not be embarrassed, happens to me all the time. Then an old lady selling breads came and sat by, she smiled I smiled, she offered, I bought and sat munching the delicious bread that I am slowly but surely getting addicted to. There were two girls on the opposite side of the square selling icecreams and they did brisk business and I was getting tempted despite my curfew with desserts and everything sinful. But finally when the cigarette vendor boy got one for himself and sat right next to me, it seemed like Devil’s workshop and I just couldn't resist any longer and decided that I would pick up one on my way back home.

Watching people at a square going about their work and eating or drinking or just sleeping, is a great way to while away the time. I love observing people since within them do I find my stories, my characters and my reason to be what I am. I do detest populated places and this ever increasing global population but in moderation human beings are not that bad after all. We are diverse, different and funny most of the times and we add colors and composition to the planet. On one hand we have or are in the process of destroying our own existence while on the other we are also the cause why Earth should and most places is, this beautiful and utterly worth fighting for.

Finally my contact arrives and hands me the much coveted, and worth it’s weight in gold, the GBAO permit that would let me travel to the Pamirs and beyond. It’s only when I get back home and show the permit to Alanna’s husband does he divulge that the permit is in someone else’s name and I am holding the right permit for the wrong person. Well, so much for my elated evening till then. Will need to get it changed tomorrow.

With the supposedly correct GBAO permit in my pocket, I get bold and get myself one ice cream cone from the girl where no words are needed. I raise one finger, she raises one too, I mean that I want one cone, and she means that it costs 1 TJS. We complete the exchange and then licking the cone I approach the bus shade. The ice cream is delicious, thick, creamy and sweet. I have had ice creams all over Russia and Central Asia and they are delightful everywhere. It can’t get any cheaper for such a large helping, cheaper than India even. So while my internal organs are getting cold, which I like very much, and my tongue can’t stop drooling and licking, my eyes eye my fellow ‘would be’ passengers. The bus arrives, as spick and span as ever, the boy jumps out and opens the door, we hop in, I hand over 60 dirham and off we go. I stand beside a girl, both looking out of the window at the Rudaki outside and I shying few glances at her pretty profile. I get off in front of the Pedagogy Institute, dumping my earlier intent of walking around taking pictures, since the sky has been grey all day and the light isn’t good at all.

As I enter the lane to Alanna’s abode, I meet my friend from last night, the portly old fellow watering the lanes in front of his house. This seems a ritual here, late evenings you would find boys and old men watering the ground outside their respective houses with long hoses. This not only cools the air and ground down but also helps in settling the dust. I smiled at him bowing a little and putting my palm on my heart, he bowed too and smiled. We have become wordless friends in the evening. I walk on and reach home.

On the second day I didn’t learn much over the previous one about the city or its people, only reaffirming my earlier impressions as revealed in Day 1 diaries. Just a note that my ‘single’ status has drawn considerable interest and dismay from most people as everyone here gets married early or soon enough. For a 47 supposedly handsome (even if it is only in my mind) young man to be single is something like finding a penguin in Tajikistan. And as I walked into my room, with Cricket jumping all over me like an excited bullfrog, I couldn’t help wondering that it seems highly unfair to the rest of the world that so many beautiful women should be concentrated within so small a region. But then inshah allah, I am here enjoying his creations.

This post too comes without pictures, though I have shot some, and for those of you who might be wondering if I might be actually hiding myself from the loan shark mafia from whom I have borrowed millions and lost all on horses and pretty girls, somewhere around Delhi but proclaiming to be in Dushanbe or Afghan (as the case may be) then let me confide that the lack of pictures is directly blamed to an abominable machine called Mac Notebook. I know it is the favorite of all things wonderful, beautiful and intelligent in the world but I am a complete alien to it and Alanna has kindly given me a Mac to do my work here. In the Mac I have no idea how to download pictures and resize them for posts or mails using the iphoto. I have seen it before, wherever, the letter ‘i’ depicts intelligence, I can’t seem to figure that entity out since to me ‘i’ always denotes incomprehensible.

Now I go forth into the third day, hoping for some more action, at least one for sure. And hope to see you people later if I am still alive and kicking in that order. Once again, just like before, KHAYR!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dushanbe Diaries Day 1

I have few days in Dushanbe before I head off into the Pamirs and Afghanistan Hindu Kush, and generally during the evenings, I have nothing more to do than twiddle my sore thumb so thought of writing a series of posts, on my everyday adventure in this ancient city that has been labeled by LP as the most scenic capital city of Central Asia, which comprises of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. And if Dushanbe is the prettiest and cleanest of all the capitals in Central Asia, then I tremble in fear what the other capitals look like. Well I don’t tremble in ignorance rather in knowledge since I have been to all of them earlier. And well, LP has been wrong on at least this count or marginally offset. Anyway this is about my first day (not night) out in Dushanbe and not a LP bashing platform so I will get on with my self-imposed rather tough task.

First for those non-initiates, I am in Dushanbe since I wish to go to Afghanistan. Now if this sounds rather roundabout and it is, then please check up Google and all things mysterious about Afghan, etc and you would realize that this is the only relatively safe passage to the Wakhan Corridor and Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. It is of some comfort for me to proclaim that long time ago (much before my 10th great grandfather was even conceived – may his soul rest in peace or in pieces wherever he might be scattered currently) a Hindu dynasty extended into the Hindu Kush and therefore it’s name. For my entire life I have dreamt of getting into Afghan and climbing there. So Dushanbe is my first step. To know more about my purpose of this trip and life in general you can read my earlier post, ‘Prelude to Madness’.

The East Air flight (which flies every Tuesday between Delhi and Dushanbe both ways and costs a whopping amount of $ 350.00 one way) got delayed by 2 hrs from Delhi for no reasons I could comprehend or supplied by the company that manages ground work for the airlines. The check in counter was literally flooded with Tajik people with bulging bags carrying only Allah knows what, since they seemed clueless. While I remained glued to one absolutely gorgeous girl whose hands were smeared with henna from her ears to I am ashamed to say more, since all her visible skin was buried under intricate designs and of course not much of her skin was visible. Thankfully her cherubic face was uncluttered and rather heavily made up. She had huge stone rings in all her fingers and her flowing dress could have hidden a baby gorilla for sure; maybe she had one beneath. Who knows and who cares! There were barely any passengers and I think the final count stood at around 55 which comprised of mostly Tajiks (heavily scented) few Indian Embassy staff, few Indians working in Tajikistan and only one tourist (yours truly). So this should tell you a bit about the tourist influx into this beautiful country, about which I am going to do something constructive.

The aircraft was really tiny, air hostess like plastic Barbie, and when I saw my seat (supposedly the widest leg space one onboard as the check-in guy had assured me) I knew I was back to my Russian days. I am a thin guy by any standards and short by Russian and Slavic standards and I felt like being stuffed within a rather dirty and smelly sack as I sank inside my seat so how can it fit a burly Tajik or Russian; was beyond me. For some insane reason I had opted for the window seat, while I always go for the aisle as it allows me to stretch my knees and walk around a bit so that they don’t hurt by constant sitting. But here I realized right away that I was stuck to that bloody seat for the rest of the journey till someone actually came and pulled me out of it.

I gingerly took off my 4 kg worth of climbing boots, which had already created quite a stir in the airport, as everyone eyed me like an alien, but I had to wear it to save on baggage, which was obviously overweight with all my climbing gear. Then I tucked my knees as quietly as I could in the front. Window did provide me some solace and the outrageous food kept my stomach growling. Both for the reasons of my seat and my unwillingness (for the first time in my life) to venture into the loo for the sake of some unpalatable adventure, I stayed within my seat forever. The airhostess though pretty like Barbie didn’t offer me a single glance, smile or words of encouragement and I enjoyed the flight like only I can. After all I am a past master in self censure, self induced masochism and all things painful and comfort-hating.

The flight landed at a dark airport, flying over few dots of lights below in the darkness therefore denying me the chance of seeing the majestic mountains below, even then my nose remained glued to the window that was obscure due to grease and grime and perhaps much remnants of the previous occupant. No wonder I was sniffling, coughing, and jerking (don’t get me wrong) for all the right reasons. The arrival hall was tinier than my mom’s tiny apartment patrolled by very stern looking and equally lost looking security staff with useless rank tabs on their shoulders. No one in uniform smiled. My passport was stamped with some syllables in Tajik to which I replied Spasebo (thanks in Russian) and exited. The bag arrived, and I grabbed a trolley and went to the X-Ray machine. Here a burly fellow asked me something in such a tone I figured he couldn’t be saying, ‘welcome to Tajikistan.’ I offered him my passport, my air ticket, my visiting card, and then my smile, but he refused them all, muttering even more menacingly. Then he pointed at my baggage check in labels and finally I understood he wanted to see my check in baggage tags. Now this is very important for all who travel here, they won’t let you take your bag out without the tags so please keep them safely and don’t let your dog or cat or kid or wife eat it on the way during the flight, since it would certainly make for a better and wholesome meal on board.

The X-Ray guy, I had noticed earlier, was asking everyone, including the pretty painted lass to open their bags (even after having been X-Rayed) and though I had nothing more illicit in my bags than the bottles of Indian Pickle, I didn’t wish to open my bags since they had been carefully wrapped and packed with all my climbing gear, food, and few items of delicate feminine nature. So as soon as my bags came out of the machine and the burly gorilla looked at me really in a mean way, I gave him the universal sign of brotherhood, which is my most dazzling and idiotic smile, which I hope would melt even Saddam’s heart (if and when I do meet him). It worked wonderfully, the fellow simply waved me through.

My first step into Tajikistan, as I exit out of the door (which is narrower than my mom’s apartment entrance), I stumble and nearly crash on ground with my trolley in complete helter skelter. The trolley ramp is so steep and broken that I wish they would remove it altogether. As of now it’s more like a mirage, with false sense of existence but not there in reality. But out of nowhere appeared a pair of white hands and like magic caught hold of the flying trolley and then refused to let it go. I looked up from my vantage point to discover a young fellow (couldn’t be more than 15) locked onto the trolley like a falcon with the looks of a vulture and babbling to me in Tajik / Russian, both of which sound identical to me, even though I did learn smattering of the latter nearly 22 years ago. But I am Indian and I understand haggling and tourist bulldozing by people outside airports and I vigorously shook my head, my shoulders and then my waist and my legs and told him in no uncertain terms that I am here with a friend and I don’t need him to hold or look over my trolley or me and I certainly don’t need a taxi. But the fellow wouldn’t let go. I don’t blame him. These people are really poor so they must do whatever they can to make ends meet. My friend Alanna was there outside with her 3 month baby boy Sam strapped with a chest harness. We got into the car and I started feeling at home; the well dug up and potholed roads and the stifling heat and the friendly smiling people around. At that hour (11 pm) the roads were mostly deserted, with few night clubs and karaoke bars open. Young men hung around, as everywhere, showing their biceps and looking for means to while away their leisure hours. After several twists and turns, since many roads are being currently dug up and rebuilt in preparation for the Tajik Independence 20th Anniversary on 9th September 2011 we reached.

That night I crashed off into the soft feather bed, humming the famous lullaby, ‘Grandma’s featherbed’ and felt like Scarlet Pimpernel. Alanna has a lovely set up though a bit chaotic perhaps with her young kid and two adorable dogs, of whom ‘Cricket’ instantly got hooked on to me for reasons I couldn’t fathom. She leapt up excitedly with her front paws around my waist every time she found me in the vicinity.

13th July, my first proper day in Dushanbe. The morning lay calm inside my cool room so when I step out around 10.30 am the blast of heat hits me like Muhammad Ali’s knockout punch. Despite my cap and climbing glasses and cold water bottle I simply dehydrated like a beluga on beach. I love walking and that is my transport choice for the day and everyday while I am here. So I exit through the alleyways and come out into the main road of Rudaki Street. Now Dushanbe (as I had already gleaned from the maps) is a city where it is nearly impossible to get lost. It is tiny by any standards, sparsely populated by Indian standards, vehicular traffic is negligible by NYC standards and the people are really friendly by any standards. Even for the fact that nothing at all is written in English, except such signs that need not be written about, and everything is in Tajik script and most people don’t speak English, even then getting lost in this lost city would be a herculean task even by my standards, and that’s exactly what I wished to do on my first day in a city, I have never been before in the proper way.

Why you can’t get lost is due to two main reasons, one is manmade and the other is nature made. Modern Dushanbe (which actually means ‘Monday’ in Tajik) built by the Russians have the same simplicity in city planning with grand but boring and monochromatic buildings thrown in for good measure wherever the architect couldn’t decide what else to erect. It’s the same story in all almost all ex Soviet states. The streets run parallel and straight with no roundabouts and Rudaki Street is the central nervous system. Just get on this street that runs through the entire length of the city and you will find your way. So wherever you are in Dushanbe, just know your destination and home with reference to Rudaki Street. The other manmade thing that is visible from anywhere in the city is the Flag Pole right next to the Presidential Palace and the Central Park. It is touted to be the tallest such pole in the world and therefore Dushanbe’s tall claim to a mini fame. A country that is so poor and disheveled, would spent rumoredly 32 million US $ on a pole that just sticks out of nowhere into the sky reaching nowhere and that no one can certainly climb, seems a useless spending of tax payer’s money. But then we see such things in the shape of elephants, useless minarets, and tombs, arches and domes in India too that is nothing more than the egoistic metaphor of an individual who couldn’t care less if that amount of money could have fed few thousands of poor families or brought health care to the villages.

So the pole is literally the guiding pole for this city. If you get lost just look up and head for the pole as the crow flies and most probably you would find a path that crows can use and do use to fly around. And come to think of it, the pole could also be a symbol of Tajik masculinity; of which they are rightfully proud. So between the streets of Rudaki and the Pole, you would find your destiny in Dushanbe. The other landmark being the mountains that forms a magnificent Eastern backdrop to the city and I could see the distant snow clad peaks, pretty to make my heart jump up in joy. I would soon be heading that way.

Alanna’s house is stone’s throw away (if you are an adept at throwing stones and breaking windows of your neighbour) from the landmark of Pedagogy Institute on (as you have guessed it) Rudaki Street and as I hit the road what really hit me hard, other than the scorching sun, are the drop dead gorgeous girls in their teens and twenties and thirties and forties. Well, I am now nearer to half a century so to me women in forties are girls, so no smirking there ok! They are fair, pretty and lovely by any standards and I am black, ugly and unpalatable by any standards so it is nice to see girls smiling at you even if in jest.

Rudaki is lined with poplars and birch trees very tall and redolent with not much green presently. The shops and hotels are nothing much to report back home. My first target is the Indian Embassy where I plan to get free tea, some information about my future travel through Tajikistan and meet the DA, even though I am not in active service anymore. Suddenly I locate an ATM but it doesn’t work. There are few scattered ATMs now on Rudaki and they work most of the time and accept all sorts of cards though there are few that do not take a Visa card. You can choose English for operation and seek Tajik Somoni (1 US $ ¬¬¬= 4.7 TJS) or US $ from an ATM though it may not cough up what you seek, just like Zen masters of China. I cross Avesto Hotel and then find the only Indo fusion eating joint in the city, Delhi (Delli) Durbar. It is garishly painted in red and orange and I have no intention of venturing indoors. There comes a modern café, named just Café Bar with blaring music to my left where few young boys loiter. I enjoy the walk as beautiful girls are nearly everywhere in all directions and wherever I look I find a thing of beauty and therefore joy forever. Men are very well shaped and built just like any Aryan race with Mediterranean features of Turkish, Greek and Romans, and this would be a delightful place for a gay since the men do display their biceps and torso through tight fitted T. The middle aged and elderly are soberly dressed though, often with skull caps (tupi). Most girls are dressed in jeans, skirts and other modern dresses though there’s a good number of them dressed in their traditional kurtas and izor with trousers underneath and matching headscarves (rumol) quite similar to the Indian traditional women’s dress of slwar and kameez. Few sport very richly decorated hats with brocade and gold thread.

Covered bus shelters are spaced out along the street and as I gather there’s bus route no 1 and 3 that ply on Rudaki and for the price of 1 TJS will drop you anywhere on the street, up or down. So you really don’t need any language, just hop in, pay the money and hop off wherever you fancy. With preparations going on for the forthcoming 20th Independence Day celebrations on 9th September in Tajik, Rudaki Street is undergoing real makeover so most of the street is closed to traffic. The trees offer me scant shade so I am looking for something when I hear the squelch of kids and discover that they are jumping in and out of a fountain, so I join them and dip my feet and head for a while and then take off again. As I progress I discover more fountains, almost everywhere once I cross the Central Park to my right. Here I get little confused (as I do in any cities) and seeing a middle aged guy, I seek guidance to the direction of the Indian Embassy. I am stumped when he addresses me in perfect English and few words in Hindi, wow, am I glad.

As it transpires he has an Indian colleague at work and just loves Indians and everything about India. He not only showed me the way but advised that if I am ever stuck in the streets of Dushanbe then the best people to ask for directions and anything else for help would be the people I would be delighted to get lost for. You got it, one must always approach the pretty lasses of Tajik for help since they go to school and are most likely to know English than their male counterparts and this suited me just right. And as the day progressed I experienced it myself. He also advised never to approach a policeman for help. He bid me goodbye by saying he loved Bollywood and one day would love to meet our superstar of yesteryears, Mithoon Chakrovarty. Now in India we might fete Amitabh Bacchhan (my mom included) but here in Central Asia (as I know from my previous trips) they simply adore Mithoon. I finally find our embassy after few more close encounters of the pretty girls kind, after all no harm asking directions to a pretty lass even when you know the way and not really lost. By the time I am admitted inside the embassy I am smiling my brightest that only gets brighter as I am greeted warmly by the receptionist. My Embassy episode is not worthy of mention here except that just like anywhere my background can open doors to any Indian Embassy anywhere in the world and I am usually offered the most warm welcome by all. So after some time and few cups of delicious chai, I leave to meet my friend Gulja, who is a German lady teaching German in Tajik for the last 4 years. I am meeting her for lunch and as she is a keen hiker and nature lover, I hope to learn more about the Pamirs and Tajik culture, etc.

We are meeting at the historic Chaykhona Rokhat teahouse that LP suggests is a must see in Dushanbe. So I stroll back on Rudaki and get into Rokhat where Gulja had already been waiting for over 40 minutes for me. Not a nice thing to do to a woman but then I am not nice all the time, even if most of you presume so! Rokhat is a grand Soviet-era Persian style Chaikhana (teahouse) which is great for people watching (as LP says) and we take a two seater table on the first floor. The ceilings are covered with fine filigree of colorful Persian mosaic mostly flowers, leaves and other twisted decorations. Not many people around though quite a few pretty young things in delectable dresses. But it is un-chivalrous to be with one woman and ogle at others so I focus on my lunch date. The well endowed waitress twaddle along, dressed in typical Tajik costume. She is heavily made up, blue eyelashes and mascara and a belly that must be sampling quite a bit of what the kitchen churns out. We order some sashlik, salad and Tajik bread and of course a big pot of green tea. My first meal outside and I don’t attempt something too adventurous, I am also carrying my own bottle of distilled water from Alanna’s house as drinking unbottled water outside is a serious health issue, though my Indian and global stomach should be able to handle anything. So from tomorrow I intend to amble across uncharted gastronomic trails and report back if I am still up and about.

Over lunch, and here I must disagree with LP, the service is prompt and served with a smile and the food is hot, delicious and the portions really large. We discuss Tajik Pamirs and other things that interest me. We discuss the Fan Mountains, of which I don’t know much and she has been there several times. Gulja asks about my global gallivanting and we compare notes from her travels and her future plans, and I advice her to the best of my abilities since nearly everywhere she dreams of traveling I have already been. We spend some time and then split. I must return to the embassy and also visit the Min of Foreign Affair Consul office to inquire about my exit visa, which is a funny situation that may never arise but if it does then I would need some divine intervention, so no harm in gathering information of it beforehand.

At the Min of FA building right opposite the overpowering statue of Shah Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid Dynasty of which Tajiks are descendents, I am confronted by smiling but non-English speaking security staff. After much gesturing and nodding they are able to locate an English speaking staff, and you guessed it right, a really drop dead gorgeous girl who smiles at me like an old friend (wish we were) and offers to walk me to the right office that is at some distance away. I am taken aback, this would never happen in India. So she asked me to wait for few minutes while she gets her stuff.

As I await in the lobby a beautiful, resembling a supermodel, tall girl comes up to me and in gestures indicates that she wants to come with me and while I don’t know what to say, the security people around burst into laughter. I don’t know what to make of her as she is smiling mischivously and making a certain kind of gesture with her index finger that cannot be mistaken. Such things do happen in Central Asia and I have been offered similar services in other countries too, as money is scarce and a foreigner is a good option for some dollars, but I can’t believe that it could happen right inside the front office of the Min of Foreign Affairs. I am sure the girl is having fun at my expense and I am not a fair skinned rich European either.

But she keeps up her antics and even nuzzles closer to me and I shuffle a few steps away much to the amusement of the onlookers. Then she asks me in very broken English, when I don’t respond to her gestures, that do I not find her beautiful! Now this kind of boldness in an Islamic nation (even if they are not fanatics) needs a delicate response and I am puzzled and stuck for words. So I finally gesture in equally badly broken English to allow for ambiguity, that I do find her beautiful and nice and I like the fact that she likes me too, and may be we would meet one day at a chaikhana somewhere. I have no idea where the conversation would have gone but then my pretty guide arrives right at the moment when it could have turned embarrassing and extricates me from the situation with a dazzling smile and only then do I notice her gold cap plated molars. Which only adds to her overall dazzlement.

We walk and she tells me her dream of visiting India one day. She shows me the consul office and then takes leave. As I watch her walk away and realize that she is actually headed the opposite way and had a long way to return and she had absolutely no need to walk with me this distance in this heat just to show me a place I could have eventually found on my own, do I realize that I don’t know her name or whereabouts and she doesn’t know mine and in all likelihood I would never see her again in my life. But her smile, generosity and kindness would remain with me as a symbol of humanity, Tajik hospitality and all things good for eternity. It’s only for such people that the world remains my playground and I love to travel, where you find a kind and kindred soul out of nowhere and gather a smile that you can never forget. I smile again into the sun and to an old lady selling apples and approach the consul door.

As I step across a tall gangly man emerges from nowhere and grabs my palm in a friendly firm handshake. He asks if I am Hindustani and then goes on how he loves the films and my country and wants to invite me inside a swanky building where he is the security head. His name is Parvez and you would find him next to the consul office. He is too tall to be missed and if you are Indian do look him up and enjoy a heart warming cup of tea with typical Tajik goodwill. From there I hop back to our Embassy and finally find the DA, who welcomes me profusely. Past closing time, I leave the Embassy and head back on Rudaki Street, now the sun quite low and good light for some candid photography. I cross the road and walk along the fountain lined periphery of Central Park, clicking the sun through the water droplets. People loiter around aimless, parents with kids, amorous and newly weds with big bunches of rose, old and young, and everyone out for a stroll. I love the distant mountains, hate the manmade structures and enter the arched gate of the park, which is locally called Maydani Azadi (Freedom Park).

Here too in preparation for the Independence Day, lot of digging and renovation is going on. So I follow the general flow of the people with my Nikon dangling around the neck. There are many local photographers around as well to take pictures of people for money. There are rich beds of roses, dahlias, and other purple flowers I don’t know of. I head for the large arch in the middle with fountains around, and a statue beneath the arch. The arch is beautifully decorated in Persian mosaic depicting stellar bodies and flowers. The statue is of the great poet Rudaki and he looks serenely from his stone eyes at the city with his index finger raised to the sky as if in preaching or poetry. I sit for a while around the fountain and am approached by several young boys and girls who insist on talking to me but we can’t as they don’t speak English and I no Tajik. I show them some of the pictures I had clicked. The near full moon next to Rudaki was good. I got some candid shots of people too, spoke briefly with a young fellow Mustafa who has been selling coke and pepsi in the park for ages. He chills the bottles by submerging in the fountain wells with a rope and pulls them out when demanded. Quite enterprising and jovial. I also found a couple in a cozy corner under a peach tree in very cozy composure and loved the fact that locals can and do indulge in display of affection in public places in an Islamic state.

From the Park I strolled out towards the Presidential Palace where I faced my first unpleasant encounter. By then, sun had set behind the mountains and the sky was redolent with hues of red, orange, and ochre and there were flying clouds, something that I just love to shoot, so just as I pointed my camera at the clouds a car appeared out of nowhere and a massive and ugly looking policeman jumped out with wild gestures, all because my camera was pointed in the general direction of the President’s palace. I am ex-military and uniforms or display of authorities doesn’t bother me or scare me a bit and I knew that I had nothing to be scared off either, so I explained to him and also showed him the picture, which was far too underexposed and barely caught the upper spikes of the palace fencing. Surprisingly he missed out the point or beauty of my picture and asked me to delete it right away then inspected my passport and then let me go with a warning that I shouldn’t click pictures of any buildings that flew the Tajik national flag. I continue ahead and reached the Flag Pole, the abominable symbol of Tajik freedom I suppose. Had a bit of dilemma since I was still within visual sighting of the palace, but then I hid behind a tree and looked around but couldn’t see any policemen anywhere so clicked few quick shots into the deepening twilight. Walking back I crossed the upper scale Tajikistan hotel and a solitary cat within a rose bed undecided what to do with life in general; or may be cats are like that only.

By the time I hit back Rudaki everything was in gloom but not gloomy. The bright chirpy girls were everywhere. I discovered ice cream is really cheap and mouth tingling but resisted as I am dieting. Night life is calm as day life, crossed Café bar now lit up with red and yellow lights and loud music. Then came a place that was showing a film on some musician and orchestra performance. The moon had by then sprouted atop the buildings through the deepening sky and got it too in my frame, though not in the manner I wanted as the streetlights were too bright and at only one place did I find a two-branched tree that could hide the streetlamps to an extent. Got back home around 9 pm and after a lovely meal got down with work.

In a large nutshell the following is what I learned about Dushanbe on the first day.

All the recommend LP ‘must sees’ in Dushanbe can be accomplished in one day with room to spare for your meals, siesta and evening stroll. And you don’t need any taxi, bus or other mechanical gadgets for doing so. Just walk and enjoy the scenery, the people, the cafes, the teahouses, the scant rustle and bustle and people who really don’t give you a second look or bother you at all.

People are poor but very helpful and friendly even when they don’t understand a word of what you say and vice versa. But it’s better to stay away from uniformed officials like security guards, policemen, military etc since they still sometime behave like the Soviet KGB and can seek bribe. This is something that I didn’t encounter personally but was told by someone claiming to know such things so I would treat this cautiously till I myself have a similar experience. Otherwise I am willing to vouch for the goodness and hospitality of the Tajiks.

The girls are really beautiful and will make your head turn so much in all direction that you may get dizzy and collapse on ground. They are also very friendly so if one fancies your eyes you can definitely speak to her to find directions to places you know well off. And you can definitely ask them out for a meal or tea and they will mostly take you to a cheap and good place.

Rudaki Street is like the main artery and you will find absolutely everything on this street, except museums and embassies.

It’s not a pretty city neither ugly, it just is. I don’t know how else to describe it. Water sprouts and fountains are found almost everywhere. The eating places and teahouses are aplenty and there’s even an Ecuadorian joint that I saw from outside and many Persian, Mediterranean, Turkish and Tajik places. Food is cheap, a full meal like the one I had with Gulja cost us total 34 TJS, so each shared only 17 TJS about 3.5 US $ and my tummy was really full by the end of it and we were eating at a very well known place so I guess that’s pretty much the food cost anywhere else too.

There’s no need to register in OVIR office for foreigners if you are visiting on Tourist visa. The Min of Foreign Affairs, Visa Consul office is quite near the Iran Embassy that is easily found if you reach the Samani statue at the end of Rudaki Street.

There are ATMs in many shopping areas too and they have both English and Tajik for operation. Internet cafes are also several but the ones near the Opera house are much better than the ones found on Rudaki.

Dushanbe is best tackled as an entry point to go into the Fan or Pamir mountains. It can be easily negotiated and seen within two days. If you have a local English speaking friend then life will be much easier, else learn Tajik before you arrive, and if not, like me, then just keep approaching the pretty girls, like I did and will do, which isn’t a bad price at all to pay for ignorance.

Don’t take pictures in the direction of buildings flying the national flag, even a local screamed at me for doing so.

Always carry your passport and entry immigration form as papers can be asked for anywhere by the police. Even though very open and modern in its approach, this is still an Islamic country or Sunnis and Ismailis, so be properly attired and be respectful to the religion and local customs and you will find it a very pleasant place to visit.

Last but not the least, I found the people very nice and warm hearted, even if some of the men do seem straight out of ‘Hulk’. Smile and you will be smiled at and no one at least gave me any suspicious or hostile stare at all. And as Gulja confirmed, even a single fair skinned rich woman is totally safe here and she has no hassles traveling alone late night on the streets for a walk etc.

With that I sum up my first day in Dushanbe with further adventures planned in the coming days of which I can only dream but not declare as I have no idea what or how would they shape up. Till then like the locals would say, KHAYR or ASSALOMU ALAYKUM and TO DIDANA

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summit is always OPTIONAL


I never climb a mountain to reach the summit. That’s not the reason why I climb. If I ever do so then it would be curtailing my voyage, my journey since the summit does define a boundary, a limitation beyond which I do not see. And that would indeed be the end of my climbs. Therefore I never understand why climbers all over the world are so hungry for the summit. Why are they in such a rush to reach from where they would have to descend and return? Why don’t we simply seek the trail and route as high and far we can go! It may take us to the geographical summit or it may take us beyond, or it may take us somewhere else altogether.

I never like to reach; I prefer to be on the road, on a journey without an end or a reason. Only by doing so do I reach several summits one after another as they become resting points of my ultimate journey and not an end in themselves. Always arriving and approaching but never reaching and thus life becomes an endless adventure where I seek not to conclude but to continue.

But I do like reaching the summits, only if they happen of their own accord as I climb and as I have said before elsewhere, that to me wherever I reach is my summit. Even when summit is optional and never my primary pursuit I still reach it no matter where I reach. This might only be a way of fooling myself, some of you may opine; but then what’s life if not a foolish pursuit in search of our own destiny that we can never alter but certainly shape.

When I look up from the bottom of the mountain at the summit so far high up shimmering into the blue azure, I take a deep breath and sigh and then tell myself that it is a place where I may never get to and it isn’t important either. But then what’s important is for me to keep on walking and climbing. Since that’s the only thing that I can ever do and is within my control. The summit is never within my reach or control so why get obsessed with it! I will focus on my steps and my breathing and my silent solitude and let the summit take care of itself.

If the mountain feels generous and benevolent then she would allow me a fleeting moment on her crown, else she will tell me to go back and return another day when I am more worthy of her crown. And thus humbled, even when I reach the summit, I return home with another trail, another mountain and another summit within my heart’s eye.

Summit is always optional, getting down is mandatory!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Tango at Toral - Part 3

We step on the slabs and climb nimbly with utmost care as not to dislodge any of the stones. I wonder what an ingenious way to overcome a typical rock problem that otherwise would need proper gear and rock climbing equipment. As we exit out of the dihedral I heave a sigh of relief. It wasn’t a steady climb at all. As we ascend so does the pale dawn, turning pink and then crimson and then golden-orange, and so does the towering peaks around. I pause to take pictures and walk behind my guide and shepherd friend. We climb through an ice column and across and over several rock ridges and finally I begin to see the top of the Toral Ridge. Shortly I sight the prayer flags fluttering at the pass. My happiness knows no bounds, after so many years I am finally within touching distance of this elusive pass. We have been climbing really fast and in about 40 min from our tent, I finally step on to the slab rock that marks Toral Pass at around 4600 m.

What a magnificent sight it is, I take a deep breath to fill up my lungs and look around in wonder and awe. The place is prettier than my wildest dreams. The fact that I might be the only outsider to reach here in decades adds to the thrill. A massive ice field covers the slopes on the other side that flows down to grassy alpine meadows far below. It’s windy and the first sunrays bathe the place in a divine glow. Subhash stands in supplication in front of the prayer flags. Toral God is a very potent deity, to whom each shepherd after crossing must sacrifice a goat. Legends say that Toral God fought and defeated the demons in ancient times that used to infest these hills and kill the shepherds and their flocks. And for his victory and to ensure his benevolence, the shepherds forever have been offering a goat to the god after crossing this dreaded pass. We find few ration loads too scattered upon various rocks and corners around the pass, of those who would come after us. I click pictures but the automatic camera (my mom’s) that I carried kept running out of power in the freezing cold. I am so excited that the cold doesn’t bother me at all, though my companion is shivering in his woolens and the jacket he had borrowed from me.

I bow my head to the God and pray seeking and asking nothing but offering my gratitude for keeping me safe and granting me this rare audience. I ask Subhash to go down with me to the other side and approach the bottom ice fields of Matterhorn, to which he seems highly reluctant. His logic being that there’s no point in going down as we would have to climb back up again as we would be going down the same way we had climbed. So I ask him to accompany me to a little distance on the ice field and show me the way to the other side, from there I would be on my own and he can wait for me below the pass inside a tiny cave. He isn’t happy with my decision but plays the field.

We slide down the other side on hard ice and bounce like balls on the flat field below. It’s great fun. I pose for few pictures till the batteries completely died down. Subhash gives me a run of the topography, naming all the peaks and pointing out his grazing ground in the yonder and also the route that would take us into Chamba and Ravi Valley.

Time is short and I take off in a sprint down the icy slopes, sliding and slithering all the way to the edge. I walk for an hour and reach the bottom slopes of Matterhorn and look up at the vast expanse of the mountain. Though a little under 5000 m, it is a magnificent sculpture of landscape carved by millions of natural forces. I am not carrying my ice axe or crampons and to go up further would be fraught with danger that I do not wish to take. Plus time and food was certainly not in my side. The mountain pulls me towards the red hued summit like magnet but it also tells me that today I must return. I say my goodbye to the mountain like an old friend and return. I carry no backpack so I can climb up almost as quickly as I had gone down and in about an hour and half I am back up at the pass where I find a shepherd along with his son and father and a flock of 250 goats and lambs crowded around my companion.

It’s chilly and windy and they all are sharing a hookah with contentment writ large on their cheery faces. They have four shepherd dogs. I immediately fall in love with the leader of the pack, the cream-white coated Bhaloo. I pull him and hug him and pat him and finally manage to catch him in couple of frames too. He is a magnificent animal. The shepherds find my fascination for their flock humorous. They ask me to join them and go down to their grazing ground. I decline reluctantly, my heart struggling to decide. I am so tempted to go with them. But I know the time isn’t right and I must return one day to fulfill this journey that I have now done only half way. We shake hands, exchange names and wave at each other. Subhash is by now completely chilled (not chilled out) though he smiles through chattering teeth. It’s nigh impossible but finally I tear myself away from the pass and we retrace our path back to the tent. On our way down Subhash points out a tiny cave where we find human skeleton of someone who had frozen to death at the spot few years ago.

Quickly I make some brew and we wash down some peanuts along with the hot fluid. We pack up and start going down. For me descend is always more dangerous, damaging and hurting with my broken knees and torn ligaments and cervical stiffness. My ortho has been advising me for ages to stop climbing and to get my knees operated. My knees jar and shockwaves rush through my body as we tumble and fumble down the steep slopes of tottering rocks and slippery slopes. While going up what had seemed easy is now carefully negotiated. I apply my ski poles into the ground forcefully to take off some weight from my knees. My companion’s knees are in much fitter condition and he easily outpaces me. I am careful and take short pauses every now and then.

At one of the ice fields we face a traffic jam as hundreds of lambs and sheep are caught right in the middle of it. Goaded by their herders the animals simply scream at the top of their voices but refuse to budge in any direction. I am not sure if they are scared or delighted or upset to see us on their trail. We wait for the jam to clear and then sprint across.

The sky is now clear and we can see for hundreds of miles ahead and below us. We can see Kangra town and even Pathankot in the distance, faded and bluish into the horizon. We have a long day ahead and at least 1500 m to descend still. My knees are hurting and I pray for clear weather. We rest before plunging off into an abyss of wet slippery mud gully. We start going down again, slipping and sliding into the gully. After few steps I step on a rock that slips beneath my feet and I crash into the slope twisting my right knee sharply and I collapse on the ground as shocking pain jolts through my right leg. I fear the worst.

I feel my right knee and it hurts palpably. I feel the kneecap and it seems skewed. If I have again ripped my ACL then I won’t be able to stand or walk, far less descend. We are still at 4000 m and there’s no power on earth that could get me out of this place. I apply my physiotherapy knowledge and ask Subhash to pull my right foot and twist the toes from one side to another. I cry out in agony as he did so, but felt relief immediately afterwards. I hobble back on my feet and decide to shut off the pain from my mind. Everything seems ok for the time being but I dread the ‘Bharam Nullah’ which is still far below us.

We exit the gully and then leave the trail again to get to the cave where Subhash needs to return the borrowed blanket. Suddenly we are amidst thick mist. One moment I could see for hundreds of miles and in the next I could barely see my friend few meters away. The grassy slope is unusually slippery at this hour and I constantly grasp clumps of grass to keep from falling off the face. There are still intermittent ice patches around that I carefully avoid. They are real booby traps. Subhash is behind me somewhere and then I misjudge a particular slope and in order to make a direct descent to the cave I step off the ground and step on the steeper side below. The moment I do so I step on a thin patch of ice and in an instant I am falling and airborne.

This is the moment of reckoning in every mountaineer’s life when he knows that this is finally it. I slip and start cart-wheeling with my heavy pack adding to the momentum. I know nothing on earth can or will stop me and I must be lost now forever. I am not sure what my thoughts were in that millionth of a second but as instantly as I had started falling, I stopped with equal alacrity. My entire lower body and right leg screamed out in sheer agony. And then I realize that my right toe had got jammed in a thin crack into a rock that had so far been concealed into the grass and my dragging toe had gone into it. I lay thus immobile and totally helpless and lifeless tossing around like a dead doll.

Subhash appears above and he quickly summarizes the situation. Soon he throws his woolen rope and I wind it around my waist but I indicate to him my inability to straighten up since I am hanging upside down and my heavy sack doesn’t allow me to get my head back up. Subhash is a brave surefooted shepherd but he doesn’t know how to tackle such a situation. Luckily I am carrying a tiny key-ring carabiner on my belt buckle and I decide to try my luck. I slowly unbuckle and dislodge my backpack and clip it to the rope with the tiny carabiner. Then I ask Subhash to pull the sack up. While he does so, I sit up and try to take my foot out of the crack.

Finding me struggling, he comes down and offers his hand. I pull myself up finally to the ledge where he is standing shaking like a dry leaf. He seems scared out of his wits. I am not sure how I look and I don’t ask him either. We silently go down and reach the cave where we drink another cup of tea and buttermilk. I confide to my guide that my knees are now hurting so badly that I wouldn’t stop at all and must go down all the way to the stream below since I may not be in a condition to descend the next day as he suggested. We start off soon. I tackle the Bharam Nullah half climbing down or crawling on all fours, by any method possible, in and out of climbing guide books. Limping and stumbling I emerge out of the rock gully to Ghoontu and I pay my respects to Hindi Goddess for her benevolence. We rest for a while and then speed off. I ask Subhash to use all short cuts possible as I wish to get off the vertical slopes as soon as possible. Pain and cold are mental conditions and I blot them out of my mind. I just follow my companion heedless through anything and everything, only intent on losing altitude and gaining horizontal grounds.

Crossing the streams back is agonizing as at each I have to take off my shoes and wade bare-feet through the freezing currents. Finally after 15 hrs we reach the abandoned huts at Arur. We crawl inside one of the derelict huts and I somehow cook khichdi (mix of rice and lentil). We both are dog tired and my shirt is soaking wet. We gobble the food and just slip off into oblivion. I feel warm after the cold above, though we are still at 2000 m and the ambient temperature is around 10 deg C. Though exhausted to the bones I can’t sleep. My left pelvic girdle throbs in pain; I must have hurt it during my fall. I toss and turn and doze in and out of fitful slumber. Around 4 am I finally sit up as I can’t lie down any further. I switch on my headlamp and discover that Subhash is awake too and is quietly puffing his bidi in the other corner. We have a quick discussion.

We are at a junction from where I have two options, one to return to Shalag from where we had begun our trek or to climb up back again around 1200 m to the other side and visit Chamunda Devi temple that is dedicated to Goddess Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. Chamunda Devi is one of most powerful and sacred of Shakti Peeths (places where Goddess Parvati’s body parts had fallen – it’s a long Hindu mythological story). Chamunda Devi temple sits right on top of a conical mountain top at around 3200 m which is visited by many pilgrims each year. We could climb through dense jungle and across several mountain ridges if I wanted to. I have always wanted to visit Chamunda Devi and now it seems so near. So I decide to climb to the temple and then descend to the village by nightfall. It took me less than ten minutes to reach the decision. Tea got ready in a jiffy and we packed off our bags and were off before the clock struck 5 am. Subhash predicted that we would take nearly 6 hrs to reach the temple.

Though hurting severely, climbing up is not as painful as coming down so I follow my guide through another mountain ridge and then another where no trail exist. It is more of bushwhacking and climbing through trees by clutching at roots, branches, leaves and anything at all that can be grasped. Light shower followed. The place is immensely beautiful and lush and verdant. Suddenly on an opposite slope we sight a group of musk deer, that very rare and shy animal, which is hunted for its musk pouch. They sprint away as we come near. Half way up we reach a flat ridge that seems like the ideal camping ground. From there we can see the temple dome on top of the mountain on one side and also the Matterhorn and our route of ascent to Toral. Now it all seems impossibly far and high into the sky. It is hard to believe that we were there barely 24 hrs ago. Then Subhash points out the route to Talang and the pass itself etched against the pale sky. It indeed is full of hard ice as I could discern and very steep. Talang must be done much later. Neither do I have the time for the present to go to the bottom of it.

After the flat ridge top we descend and cross two streams and then once again start climbing almost vertically up the slope. I break into sweat and so does Subhash. Slow and steady we gain altitude and dot after 4 hrs we reach the temple just as the rain starts in true earnest. We dump our sacks outside beneath a shade and take off our shoes. It’s too early for anyone and we are the only occupants of the temple. I find a mysterious peace within the precincts of the holy shrine, we can hear the steady chant of the priest from somewhere within. I sit on a side underneath a Shiva painting and shut my eyes in Holy Communion. I am a firm believer of Shiva and he is more of a friend than a god and I speak to him silently in my mind, asking him questions I can’t answer myself. I sit there for long as the rain drums on the tin roof above. The priest calls me and hands me some prasad (God’s food) and applies vermillion paste on my forehead. The rain has stopped by now.

We pick up our backpacks and go to the tea shop below and eat our breakfast comprising of tea and thin wafer biscuits. The sun finally emerges, though pale, out of the clouds and we spread out our wet clothes and shoes to dry up. After an hour we begin to descend by the normal pilgrim’s route that is paved with stones and steps at most places. And then I realize how exhausted and painful my legs are. I am determined to reach the village though Subhash suggests we should camp en route somewhere and get to the village the next day, but I am adamant for some reason.

It takes us three hours to reach the bottom of the trail and as we are about to reach the final teashop, the sky opens up in a torrential downpour. A sweet little girl is tending the shop and we ask her for water, which she serves in two steel glasses. We then order tea. While we wait for the tea I jump out into the rain and enjoy the cold drops against my worn out body. I toss my dirty T shirt away and enjoy the rain on my skin. Soon my body cools down and the chill hits me deep. I get inside the kitchen and hover around the open fire while sipping the tea. We wait for the rain to subside and eventually have to leave in the rain. The normal route to the village of Shalag being very long and winding, we take the forest path directly below the tea shop. Very soon we are lost in thick wood without any trail or signs of human habitation.

We both are exhausted beyond words and hungry and in a rush to conclude the journey. There’s not a patch on my person that isn’t sore or aching. We crash down steep slopes through wet mud and running rivulets, without any heed to our clothes or appearance. All we wish is to get out of the forest and on to the final approach trail to the village. As we are rushing down like mad buffaloes, suddenly out of nowhere springs out a temple in the middle of the thick jungle. Had we been in our senses we would have been wonderstruck but on that day we were in a kind of daze and did not think much of it.

The temple has only a dome supported by four pillars without any walls. I could see a Shiva Lingam in the centre, the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva that is worshipped all over India. The temple looks ancient though newly painted. As suddenly as it had appeared so does an old woman who simply pops out of nowhere and appears on the temple courtyard. She is really ancient but radiance emanates from her beautiful face. She beckons us to come to her. We approach her and she hands us two malpuas (a delicate succulent sweet that isn’t usually found in this region) each with a mound of halwa (another popular Indian sweet, often offered in religious rituals). The sweets are piping hot though I don’t see any fire anywhere and the rain is falling and the air is rather cold and windy. At the time we both are devoid of logic so we begin to leave with our food but the old woman asks us to sit for a while and eat then and there. We follow her dictum and I find the sweets unusually fresh and delicious and hot. All my hunger is washed away in an instant. We thank her and then drink from a neighboring stream and take off in our pursuit.

After several more twists, turns, slips and bum-slides we emerge out of the jungle onto a grassy mound where we collapse to catch a breath and to enjoy the fascinating landscape around. I look back at the jungle but don’t see the temple with the old lady. I wonder where did she come from and how come the sweets were piping hot and fresh. I ask Subhash and he too is clueless though he isn’t as wonder struck as I. He opines that the temple could have been there and the old woman could have come from any of the villages below though he couldn’t explain how come he had never seen this temple before since he has been through this area many times earlier. It remains a mystery and I let it remain so. We go down and cross the rushing stream once more and climb back up on the same trail we had taken five days earlier. At this juncture we part company.

Subhash must return to the jungle to join his other shepherd friends and ferry loads up the trail to Toral and gather his herds from the opposite hills while I must return to civilization, dust and grime of the city life. He is reticent as usual and I am awkward in departure. I feel like parting from a dear friend but I find no word to suit the occasion. In all possibility I would never meet this man again who had been my guide and savior on a journey of a lifetime. What can one ever say when so much is to be said but so little time. I pay him his due shake his hands and we both take up the same trail walking in opposite directions.

I swing my stick into the wind; sing to the flying birds and to the swaying trees, wave at the rushing clouds and smile at the gurgling frothing streams. I am happy and sad at the same time. Sad that the journey concluded so soon, happy that at least I could get a glimpse of this abundant wonderland. I cross the tea stall of the antediluvian couple and they recognize me instantly. They offer me tea that I sip gratefully. I tell them of my adventure and their old cataract eyes shine in mirth and memories of younger days. With halting steps I climb back upon the hills, through the green fields and reach the upper slopes across which I could see my friend’s house. I look back at the majestic mountains where I have been only recently and at the dark clouds that have been my heavenly companions all through.

I sit on the grass one last time and stare at the grazing lambs around, at the distant hills and lush forests, at the stream now looking like a thin silver sliver and don’t wish to be anywhere else at all. I could just sit there like that frozen for eternity. But practicalities of life knock at my senses and I stand up and with heavy halting steps reach my friend’s place where a grand welcome awaits my arrival.