Walking the Himalaya
A version of this appeared in the Youth For Nature magazine in April 2021
The best way to feel and enjoy the Himalaya is to spend time on the mountain, amidst the rich smell of rotting humus, the long-drawn calls of the hill partridges, and most beautifully, the occasional winter rain. Knowing that a winter storm was approaching, I packed only the bare necessities and set out to spend a few days on the mountain - I had no destination, just wanted to be in the ethereal winter rain. I had all that I would need to live happily and comfortably, on my back.
I began walking north through a dense oak-rhododendron patch, with the occasional tall pine tree with its crocodile-like bark standing out. The narrow pugdandee, or game trail that I was following suddenly became narrower and shorter through the undergrowth leading me to crawl on all fours through it. A few hundred metres ahead I reached a large stretch of the mountain where the slope had slid off, leaving a large bare grey patch on the mountain.
A local herder had told me a few weeks ago that this range of the Himalaya is often characterized by such landslides as it is composed of relatively less robust limestone. I gingerly walked through the rock fall, picking up a shard of rock here and there. This was where the gargantuan Tethys Sea once flowed millions of years ago before the Indian subcontinent collided with the Eurasian plate (which gave rise to the Himalaya) and hence the region is rich in fossils of marine organisms. Traversing this slope was difficult and dangerous as there were certain patches where a slip could be fatal. Hence, I decided to go down this mountain and up the next. I slid and scrambled down the scree, using small saplings and trees to guide my slip downhill. However, one must be careful of the stinging nettle, a plant that causes a short-lived sting. After being stung a few times, one subconsciously finds himself avoiding it!
I crossed a dry streambed and entered a majestic deodar forest. These tall conifers shoot up into the sky and smell of the heavens; I crane my neck to look up at some tree-creepers and tits foraging on its branches. I can understand why it is believed that several Indian Gods and gurus chose deodar patches to meditate in, and hence attained enlightenment in.
I can understand why it is believed that several Indian Gods and gurus chose deodar patches to meditate in, and hence attained enlightenment in.
On an uphill part, I stop to take in the surroundings, leaning down on my rucksack when I spot a little movement up ahead. I get up to see it is a very curious yellow-throated marten, on seeing me look at him, rather than take flight, it stands on its hind legs and peeks closer for a look, I move a little for a better look. It goes a little distance ahead and climbs a little mound and cocks its head towards me before ambling away. Crunch crunch swish, how cathartic the sound of my feet crunching twigs and rubbing against the grass feels.
Crunch crunch swish, how cathartic the sound of my feet crunching twigs and rubbing against the grass feels.
I reach a small clearing atop the hill. The golden grasses sway lightly in the breeze. I put my rucksack down and look at the panorama of the Himalaya. To the north, I see the tall grey and white, rock and ice of the glaciers embraced by thick swirling clouds. The sun is becoming a deeper and deeper orange-red as it makes its way westwards. I can see that the valleys to the east are already in the dark, owing to the hills blocking out the evening rays of the sun. From this vantage point, I can see the mosaic of the tops of mountains illuminated by the sun while the east-facing slopes and valleys already plunged into the long cold nights. I continue on. A group of khaleej pheasants flap noisily away, screeching, startled by my presence.
I go further ahead and find a patch of trees. Given that I have only a couple of hours of daylight left, I start setting up camp. I tie the rope about between two trees. It will sag a little with the weight of the tarp, hence I tie it a little higher. Next, I attach the tarp to the rope to create a roof under which I will sleep. I gingerly sit on the hammock and test it to ensure that it well-secured.
The sun has already dipped below the horizon, casting a mellow violet-orange shade onto the cumulus clouds above. I decide to secure the roof before getting to the other tasks as this is the most crucial and difficult to do in the dark. I scrounge for large rocks and logs and get them to the camp. These shall hold the tarp down. However, I enjoy feeling the freezing wind from the north, hence do not block off both the sides of the hammock by weighing them down with rocks. Also, if it does rain and I get wet, it is better to have a system where the air under the roof can circulate as I would need a fire to dry myself. In these below-zero temperatures, the risk of hypothermia should be considered.
I put on my headlamp, pick up the machete and start collecting firewood. Since there are very few humans that traverse this region, there is plenty firewood. I pick up small twigs, fallen branches, dry pine needles and scrape up some dry grass. This will serve as kindling to start the fire. I pack a part of this tinder in a plastic bag and put it away; this is in case I need to start a fire when it is raining and I get wet. I move further along, collecting snags and fallen logs, whittling away at the extra branches with the machete so that they are easier to lug up to camp. The best place to collect firewood is along streambeds. During the raging monsoons, several trees and logs are washed down the slope along these paths and often get stuck, not making it all the way downhill. I make several trips, picking up enough to last the night, even though I am certain to use only a fraction.
I tend to be frugal with firewood as despite seeming dead and useless, fallen logs play an important role in the forest, serving as food and shelter for several insects, snakes, lizards, frogs, and even small birds. Their decay also enriches the soil with nutrients, helping the forest grow better. I stash away a part of the firewood under the tarp. If they are unused, I shall scatter them across the forest the next morning.
Deep below in the valley a barking deer calls repeatedly, almost maniacal. It must have sensed a leopard around.
Deep below in the valley a barking deer calls repeatedly, almost maniacal. It must have sensed a leopard around. The calls reverberate through the mountains bouncing off the tall slopes which are turning dark green to black. I am lucky as I find a large fallen oak branch, for oak burns much longer and much warmer than other trees. In addition, I have some bamboo; which burn fast and furiously, a great help when one is cooking in a hurry. But I am in no hurry, I have all the time in the world now that my shelter and heat are taken care of.
But I am in no hurry, I have all the time in the world now that my shelter and heat are taken care of.
I start the fire and lean back against a log and watch the cracking and roaring of the orange flames pick up. It is mesmerizing. I find myself thinking about everything and then nothing, just being. There is a ringing unity that feels to emanate from the fire; all feels like one. I bend forward to stoke the fire; the sharp cold wind stings the exposed skin between my pant and jacket. I bring out the vessel and put some water to boil. I add some rice and dal to it and a stray onion that I had picked up. Moving a log aside, I place the vessel on the coals.
There is a ringing unity that feels to emanate from the fire; all feels like one.
A mountain scops owl begins calling, its typical two-noted too-too a familiar sound in these parts. Another calls from the east, them both almost dueting. Gradually, the calls come closer and closer, until they seem to be just on the tree I am tied to. However, I know that it is futile to attempt to spot it, these owls are always heard but almost never seen!
The wind picks up and I put on another four layers of cloth and feather, the temperatures are going to see a massive dip in the night. I see that there are no clouds to reflect the radiated heat back to the earth. The sky is an incredible deep black peppered with twinkling lights, a shooting star blazes across the space before disappearing into the dark. I savour the hot meal, and lean back, content and fulfilled. I keep the leftovers in a bag and tie it atop a tree, an unnecessary precaution in this region but out of the habit of keeping away from ants and curious wild boar.
The wind picks up and I put on another four layers of cloth and feather, the temperatures are going to see a massive dip in the night.
I then spread out the sleeping bag on the hammock, getting ready to sleep. I write a few more notes and warm myself by the fire before enveloping myself in the sleeping bag. Just as I was getting in, I hear a blood-curdling screech almost like a woman's wail. It is the spot-bellied eagle owl, a large, strikingly handsome owl that inhabits the Himalaya. It is this call that has given rise to countless ghosts in the region. I suppose that this is what the story of the 'banshee' stemmed from, as did the local legend of there being a woman who lives in the forests, whose scream is the harbinger of death. It can be quite unnerving to be walking these dense forests at night and hear this wail from right behind you without knowing what it is.
I wait for it to call again, and once it does, shut my eyes for a good night's sleep. To me, living on the mountain is an incredibly fulfilling experience, to feel the elements against one's skin, to spend one's time simply living and thinking is a source of great contentment.