Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tango At Toral - Part 1

My foot slips on the thin patch of ice on a ground steeper and smoother than the flanks of Eiffel Tower and as I lose my balance and tumble head down into the abyss below I chide myself lightheartedly: ‘Not again Satya, not again. You are seriously getting senile and imbecile if you already aren’t.’

Humor is the only way to counter the deep constriction, the tightening knot at the pit of your stomach (which we sometimes name as fear) one feels at the time one realizes that all is finally lost and you are well on your way to meet your creator. Plus humor also helps me in seeing the world from an extremely humorous angle.

Within the next fraction of a second I am dangling upside down, my head banging against the rock face while my heavy sack is pulling me towards the bottomless void from where chilling breeze is rushing up to meet my unruly hair. I am enjoying the upside view as I can see the dark ominous sky above my feet and wonder why am I still stuck at this impossible angle; whereas naturally I should by now be far off and below hurtling like a dead stone crashing and disappearing forever. And then the bone shattering pain rips through my right knee jolting me into a shock that bolts out everything else for a moment. I empty my lungs in a cacophonous scream and break into fresh sweat.

I realize my right toe, miraculously had got caught inside a thin crack into the rock and my entire weight is now being held only by the toe of the leg, the same leg with torn ACL and injured knee. I also realize that very soon my body weight will pull out the toe or the toe would disintegrate by itself and I would follow gravity. I struggle desperately and then calm-headedly, sweating profusely into the below-zero chilled air, to get myself upright but to no avail. The sack is far too heavy and my angle of dangle is far too steep. I am helpless, limp and literally hanging by the toe of my right leg. And then my companion, my shepherd friend appears above me. And I know that once again I have cheated death, even though by less than a toe’s breath.

I have a knack of turning simple and straightforward mountain trails into one loaded with landmines. But then I rarely do simple things, at least not up in my vertical world. There I prefer to do things that are not normally done, in a manner that is not normally prescribed. Often trails don’t exist and if they do, then they are not fit or meant for humans. Such are my preferences, so in search of another such trail, I recently traveled to my favorite haunt of Dhauladhar ahead of Dharamshala, to traverse the Toral-Talang Ridge that is rarely visited by outsiders. I have been visiting this spellbinding mountain range for years as only an overnight journey from Delhi gets me to the foothills and from there in less than a day, I can get above the snow line. What these mountains and passes lack in altitude (the highest is only around 5000 m) they make up more than adequately in terms of difficulty, dangers, natural beauty, pristine and virgin landscape, exotic flora and fauna and the friendliest of people.

To my knowledge, the Dhauladhar Range has 14 passes for going from one side to the other with about half a dozen technical peaks thrown in for good measure. I have done all of them except the area of Toral and Talang Passes and the peak of Matterhorn (as it is named). Finding a gap of 5 – 6 days in the middle of June, I decided to go into this area where no one I knew of had ever gone. I have had some major injuries during April winter climb and the whole of May I had been Delhi bound nursing my limbs back to some amount of fitness; hence I had to do something really extreme to get myself back on track for my Afghan expedition in July. I had little time and Toral and Talang Passes seemed perfect. This was easier said than done.

I spoke to all my local friends but no one knew how to get into this area. Finally I found someone who knew someone, who might know someone, and that someone may even be willing to act as my guide.

Life isn’t fun if it is known and can be planned. Mine is completely unplanned, unpredictable and unknown so this seemed totally tailor-made for my purpose.

I packed my sack with all the things I could stuff into, to make it as heavy as I could carry; after all this was for my own training and I couldn’t allow myself any leniency. Caught hold of a bus and there I was at the foothills of the gorgeous mountains. After a preliminary leisurely walk along a valley I know well, I head for the village of Shalag (above Tang Narwana in Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh) that would form the base for my further climbs into the Toral – Talang Ridge.

Shalag is a typical mountain village with terraced fields, lush and green like a painting. Swept through a misty cloud I reach ‘someone’s’ house and am offered a piping hot cup of delicious tea along with oiled roti. I am informed that a local ‘gaddi’ (shepherd) has been located who would take me where I wish to go. Soon enough the women and kids of the tiny village gather around me, staring at my stinking form with open eyed wonder. I enjoy the attention of the fairer sex as always. A small girl named Kajol assumes the role of my PR officer and keeps the onlookers at bay, while snuggling close to my lap, refusing to let go of my cap and sunglasses. A big shepherd dog sits at my feet and I look no less regal than a warlord. The shepherd appears well after sunset.

As I reveal my intentions the shepherd’s eyes grow larger and wider. At the end of my monologue he asks ‘why’, and I say ‘why not’ to which he nods his simple head and says we should start early morning next day as we have long way to climb. And as he gets up, he adds as an afterthought, how far and long can I walk in a day. I give the very predictable answer. Night sets in quickly and I repack my sack, add a kg each of rice and pulses and 500 gm of sugar to my ration and then crash off.

I am ready by the first ray of dawn and I smell the delectable waft of hot paranthas (Indian fried bread) emanating from the mud thatched kitchen of my host. The lady serves me on a steel plate, never once asking what I need or wished for. And I couldn’t have asked for anything more or better than what she had concocted. As I bid them goodbye my eyes glitter in happiness of the unknown before me as well as due to the parting from these simple earthly people.

Surprisingly my climb begins with a descent as my shepherd friend, Subhash, leads me down the slope from the village. We soon lose around 100 m and arrive at a quaint little tea and grocery shop overlooking a gurgling mountain river, where we pause to pick up bidi (Indian cigarette) and tobacco and a sack of ground wheat. The shop is tended by an antediluvian couple and the old lady kindly asks me my whereabouts and purpose of my life. Her kind eyes bereft me of my usual nonchalant answers and I simply say, I am here to seek what I already know. With the tea warming up our interiors to a pleasant degree we shoulder our sacks and take to the trail.

While I am attired in a fancy North Face hiking trousers and T shirt with a fancy 75 Lt backpack with all sorts of loops and attachments hanging around, Subhash is dressed typically as a shepherd. Woolen cap on head, plastic shoes, a shredded red colored shirt with a woolen jumper, rolled up trousers and hanging from his back are his blanket, wheat sack and in his hand he holds a stick. He is also carrying woolen footwear that helps him to cross ice patches without slipping and they are as good as modern crampons. His stick can be used as ice axe, for balancing on treacherous grounds or for battling with a bear or leopard if need be. And of course he has a large cache of tobacco and bidi.

We walk along the Toral Stream, rushing, frothing below us and then start climbing through dense forest of thick trees. The stream is to our right. The trail till now is well marked as there’s a hydro-electric project in operation up above. We soon cross a dangling swinging bridge across a tributary stream. While Subhash crosses it I prefer to boulder hop and wade through the stream. The day is pleasant, the forest thick and cool redolent with avian echoes and we keep up a steady pace of climb. Shortly we arrive at a junction where several trails have collided and three abandoned huts with slate roof stands silently. They were used by the hydro-electric workers while it was being laid, Subhash explains. We lollygag a bit, filling up our stomach with cold water from the stream. We have been on the trail for nearly two hours and I begin to observe that Subhash seems to be slowing down. I urge to proceed as time is short. We again cross the stream at another place and then begin to climb at a steeper angle through thick lush forest. Suddenly we emerge upon flat ground and literally have to hack our way through the thick undergrowth. The place is full of bichhu gota plants that are so itchy that even a rhino would be scared of them. Soon we both are scratching our legs and hands for all our worth and then some. Then comes a rushing stream and we both jump into the cold water that soothes our blistering skin to a great extent.

The slope starts climbing on the other side of the stream through thick bush and I realize that but for Subhash I would be completely lost. The old trail is so well covered by the tall grass and wild bushes that I cannot see the ground and have to walk purely by sensing how far the ground is beneath my feet. Several places I misjudge the distance and slip and stumble, slip and slide and then carry on. I can see Subhash giving me dubious looks, doubting how far or high would I be able to climb. There are moss covered tiniest ledges across which we need to jump or just glide, one lost step and we would fall 100 ft into the stream below. The third stream crossing is the deepest and despite having my trousers rolled up to my thighs, I get wet to the waist. My shoes are hanging like garland around my neck therefore they stay dry.

We reach a ground spring that is bubbling with fresh water and where a massive sized buffalo is walloping in the oozing mud nearby. Subhash bids me to stop and declares we must have lunch. What lunch I inquire, let’s make rice and lentil he supplicates. Either he is genuinely hungry or this is a delaying tactic I ponder. But he seems hooked to his lunch.

I am used to eating a meager breakfast and then walking the entire day till the evening / nightfall when I would make dinner. Cooking lunch en route in the middle of the day is alien to me. It’s just past 2 pm. I take out my tiny pressure cooker and find a flat place beyond the fat buffalo who eyes me like an insignificant piece of the landscape. Soon enough lunch is ready. I eat little, while Subhash polishes off the entire cooker and then declares it’s time for siesta. In the mountains it’s always ‘slow and steady’ but this is getting slower than steadier so I reluctantly lie down a little away from the buffalo who is now eyeing us as his lunch. He seems cross that we hadn’t offered him a share of our rice. Subhash’s extended legs almost kicks into the buffalo’s belly. Soon he is snoring while I listen to the chanting of the brooks and gaze at the gathering dark clouds atop. Rain seems imminent.

I get up with first drops pattering on my face. Subhash needs no further goading and we are back on our trail and soon I understand why he had called for lunch and siesta. Rarely have I seen a trail so suddenly and abruptly alter its gradient and degree of difficulty. Few steps beyond our siesta place, the trail zooms up into the sky like a rogue rocket. Big boulders spring out of nowhere and soon enough I am huffing and puffing and cursing under my breath. Subhash allows me to stay in the front and I need to use all my trail finding skills to stay on track. I don’t wish to lose the trail while Subhash is watching. Even then, I do at two places. The unmarked path keeps spiraling up and above without rest. It is narrower than the width of my feet and at places I feel walking on empty air. In such places one needs to be real fast and swift so as not to allow gravity to take control of one’s motion.

We literally sprint up the 60 deg path clutching at dry straws and hard grass or any leaves or trees, the itching devils notwithstanding. Soon my hands are bleeding through innumerable scratches and stings. And then I literally bang into a massive boulder slippery with moss and dripping trail of water. There isn’t any trail around or above it. And I couldn’t figure out how we could climb upon this boulder either. It was easily V7 and I am not a boulderer by any standards and neither did Subhash seem to harness such skills. He too caught up with me and stared at the obstacle as if he was seeing it for the first time, even though he must have been on this path several times with his herd of lambs and goats.

While I am scratching my half-grown beard trying to extract the lady bug that had found its home in there, Subhash suddenly plunges down the slope to the left like a squirrel and disappears from sight. I shake my head, so much for my adventures, and follow. Soon I am slithering without control upon the slope, hanging on to roots and dry branches. After going down for nearly 30 ft I land on a narrow ledge, from where a faint trail leads upwards again. And that’s where I find Subhash waiting for me. Unlike a normal shepherd, Subhash is mostly silent and his face betrays no emotions. He laughs little and speaks even less unless spoken to.

We again start climbing through a large grassy filed infested with boulders bigger than high rise apartments. I start seeing cow droppings and soon reach a narrow cave occupied by a pair of old men who herd cows and goats during the summer in the area. We are invited in by the kind people and offered hookah. I decline and walk around the place clicking pictures. The evening is approaching and we have now been on the move for nearly 10 hrs. I have no idea how far do we still need to go. I have my tent so I am not bothered.

Thick mist has started swirling from below making the entire valley and the mountains look dreamy. After the cave of the old men, we get on the grassy slopes that are slippery due to the drizzle that now cools us down considerably. Subhash fills up his plastic shoes with dry grass for better grip. An hour later we reach another cave, rather large and well appointed where we find an old man with his grandson tending three lamb calves. Daylight is falling fast and the old man offers to host us for the night. I am hungry and thirsty, my T shirt is soaking with sweat and I am glad to find shelter. We learn that the old man is 86 yrs old and he has been coming here from even before independence. He makes our stomach split with his heroic tales of wrestling with bears and leopards and about his two wives. The young boy is 10 yrs old and has come to visit his grandfather during school vacation. While the old man and Subhash stoke the fire and prepare dinner, the young boy leads me out onto a flat patch and tells me about the landscape around. He shows me the cows and buffaloes, identifying each with their names and features. He is a sweet boy and very mischievous, reminds me of my childhood and I quiz him about his school, etc.

The little boy and I hop and skip through and across the grassy slopes over boulders, laughing and chatting merrily like old friends, footloose as the clouds above and free like the laughing streams. Mists float in and immerse us within its silky confines. I see myself in the little boy remembering that at his age I had stepped on my first Himalayan glacier and had realized the true purpose of my life; I wondered if this boy knows or would ever know what his true purpose is. For the moment he is free as the butterflies and pure like the mountain tops. We run and chase ladybugs, slip and roll on the grass together, laughing for no reason at all. I teach the boy to click the camera and show him how to enlarge his images. He is delighted and amused. As the sun sets we round off his buffaloes, and together arrive at the old man’s cave.

Smoke is coming out of the entrance and we smell hot food and my stomach churns on its own accord. Dinner is simple rice and buttermilk laced with turmeric and cumin all cooked over slow fire. As we gobble up amidst much laughter and hookah I couldn’t remember if I have ever had tastier or more sumptuous meal. The cave has a tiny trickle of water deep inside like a house tap and I lie besides it on my mat. The stone floor is covered with dry grass as shepherds do everywhere. Night sets in and so does the cold. The old man starts snoring soon and I snuggle closer to the sleeping lambs and drift away into my own dreams.

A lark’s whistle awakens me with a start. I find the little boy looking at me with amused eyes. It’s barely past five in the morning but the fire is already on and my little friend offers a glass of hot tea. The old man guffaws, and asks how I slept. He has made rotis for us to carry. The little boy bids me goodbye and leaves with his herd of goats to graze somewhere and I wonder if I would ever see him again. Shortly thereafter the grandfather too takes his leave, asking us to stay around as long as we wish to. He just smiles and bids us good luck and then gathers his buffaloes and off for his day’s work. It isn’t even 6 am. As I watch his receding form I wonder when we would see such kindness and humanity in the cities. The old man has literally left his entire worldly possessions and his dwelling to two complete strangers and gone. He was smiling on our arrival and is smiling at our departure. He doesn’t know the pangs of saying goodbyes, neither does he suspect strangers. Just a simple good soul. Soon enough we pack our bags, drink some milk and get on our way. I leave a part of me in the old man’s cave.

Above the cave there’s absolutely no trail at all. Multiple meandering tracks of animals that just lead nowhere. Subhash shows me the general direction we need to go and I follow my short cut policy of climbing (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line). I just charge and hack my way through the jungle and slope and soon Subhash asks me to stop and takes the lead. He starts zigzagging like a caterpillar, eyes intent on the ground and I have no idea what or how he is finding any trail at all. To me the entire mountain slope is one thick bunch of wild bushes, man sized grass and fallen leaves. The trees grew out of the slope at an angle seeking the sun and moisture and they seem alive like the enchanted forests of Lord of the Ring. The ground is painted in ochre, brown, pastel and earth colored leaves. The trees emerge and then disappear within the dense mist and we silently climb, only our hard breathing break the silent monotony. We reach another massive cave that has recent sign of fire. Subhash deposits the sack of wheat he had been carrying. His other friends would take it from here.

The shepherds begin their mountain migration just as the snow starts melting and the high passes begin to shed their snow, which is around the middle of May each year. They first need to stock up the route with rations like rice, wheat, salt (which the animals eat in massive quantities), tobacco, tea, sugar, spices, etc. They begin migrating and moving from the lower plains of Dhauladhar Range and cross the high passes to reach the higher pastures that are rich in exotic herbs and grass fed by pure spring waters and glacial melt, which the goats and lambs eat to produce finest quality of wool and milk, etc. The shepherds stay in these alpine meadows and grazing grounds for long, and then begin to travel across further passes as the summer gives way to winter. Some migrate towards Lahoul via Kugti and some go down to the plains of Punjab where they stay the winter and then return home with their flock. In between they sell the wool and the milk products and then the goats and lambs for other purposes. That’s how the shepherds survive and exist. They have an amazing life that is unusually hard, dangerous and minimalistic. I intend to travel and stay with them for several months next year to write a book on them and their livelihood, their beliefs, their culture and craft, music, ways of life, knowledge of the weather and local herbs. Sadly it is a dying form of livelihood now as the new generation is mostly unwilling to take up the family tradition. As is evident, to survive for few months at such inhospitable places one needs to stock up enough food and ration. Generally shepherds work in pairs or in groups of 3 – 4. So they take turns to ferry ration loads and all along our route we find load deposits of different shepherds. It is the honesty of the people that no one would steal or borrow from someone else’s stock, no matter how difficult his own survival might be. There are gods and goddesses and deities everywhere keeping an eye on their meager belongings and on their safety and that of their herds. It is with such grounded belief that the shepherds have survived centuries of such hardship.


  1. Love your world, S.. thank you for such beautiful journeys..

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.