Blinding Diamonds At My Feet

DSC_0011

A Prayer of Flags

 

Some people never learn and my friend and I are lifetime members of that club. Scarcely, 4 days after our adventure at Sela, we started on our way to Shungatser Lake from Tawang. The weather was deceptively sunny and given that it was our last day at Tawang, we wanted to make the most of it. We knew for a fact that the road to Bumla was closed but the lake seemed to be accessible. With the promise of sighting golden ducks at the lake, we began our adventure bright and early. It didn’t take long for the landscape to change from predominantly green to nothing but snow white.

DSC_0024

Road to the Sky

 

The scenery was poetic in fact, and my friend and I soon forgot the world below.  In some places the road almost looked celestial with the clouds on one side, the snow clad mountain on the other and the road seemingly leading into the clouds ahead. We passed by smaller lakes and though we could have stopped at or PTSO lake, we didn’t because we were simply too excited to pause.

DSC_0135

Pankang Teng Tso Lake

 

We slowed down at Y junction where the army has set up a coffee shop. Our driver asked about the road conditions ahead and with the confident go ahead we received at the check post there, we set out on the road towards Shungatser Lake. Less than ten minutes down the road, we felt a weird scarping feel from the underbelly of the car and a moment later came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. Let’s pause here and recollect all the amazing car commercials we see. Most advertisements demonstrate how the beast of a car tames the wild badlands. We watch jaw dropping stunts with cars coolly rolling down sand dunes, splashing across rivers and tackling untamed forests and gliding across high altitude roads. Reality check; our car sat like a duck in the snow because its underbelly was not high enough.

IMG-20170414-WA0023

Yes, That’s all the Warning you Get

If there was a manual somewhere on what to do when stuck in the snow, we never read it, so we just wandered around helplessly on a slippery deserted road with absolutely no help in site. Just as my friend and I stopped giggling and started realizing what kind of trouble we were in, a lone army jeep came by from down the valley. Our driver was still hanging on to the hope that his car would grow legs and simply walk out of the snow, but being realists, we asked for help. Not that the jeep’s occupants had much choice. Unless they moved us, no other vehicle could pass by on either side. By the time we got around to figuring out the problem, three other civilian vehicles came by. Thankfully, they sensibly stopped way behind at the bend. After using much of our engineering brains, which was next to nothing to begin with, we started shoveling the snow around the car and under the car. With no choice but to turn back the way we came, we tried making a ramp of sorts with the snow so that the tires can get some purchase out of the slippery frozen sheet of ice covering the road. It worked for about half a kilometer before we got stuck again. Meanwhile, more and more army trucks had queued up on either side.

 

IMG-20170414-WA0011

The Joys of Self Help

Imagine that you are finally promised a hot meal, human company and heating after being locked up alone for three days with no TV, no heating and nothing except uncooked canned food. I know I would turn into a rampaging elephant if anything dares stand between me and the promised meal. Thankfully though, somewhere in the universe, soldiers around the world are told civilians will be stupid and they don’t taste good eaten raw, so the worst we got from the soldiers was a bit of grumbling accompanied by weary painful sighs. But these men are not soldiers for nothing and so they rolled up their sleeves and got to work clearing the snow and pushing the civilian cars out to even ground. The light reflecting off the snow was blinding and it was so difficult to breath, obviously given that we were at 14,615 ft. above sea level. Most of the civilians started trekking back to Y junction’s empty coffee shop. But my friend and I were fascinated by the whole rescue operation, so we stayed back and cheered the men.

 

After four hours, one by one, the cars were pushed out of the snow with nothing but raw human strength. I have never seen men lifting an entire car before and when that happened, I couldn’t help but cheer and clap my hands like India won an Olympic gold. By the time the rescue operations got around to our Innova, the car was sadly beginning to fuse with the landscape. It had to be reluctantly towed out screeching and skidding uncontrollably by an army truck. We thanked the soldiers for their help and started our trek towards Y junction on foot as the car had been towed beyond the junction to a better terrain. The adrenalin that had been keeping us going for over four hours slowly started draining and we realized how weary we were. Half blinded by the snow,and gulping as much air I can drag into my lungs,  I walked through the slippery sludge towards Y junction. Somewhere in the middle, I realizes that I couldn’t hear the trucks behind us nor could I see or hear anyone ahead. In that moment, it was just us and the elements. I felt like I was held in the palm of a monster waiting for it to fling me aside like I was nothing.

IMG-20170414-WA0009

The Longest Walk of my Life

A word of caution to fellow women, high heels and ice covered roads don’t work well together. Another advice to anyone who dares climb snow clad mountains, please take your sun glasses. Watching sunlight reflecting off the snowflakes is like staring at a billion diamonds glittering in the Sun; believe me it’s blinding. The deafening silence and the bone numbing cold on our way down reminded me of Sela but at least there was no other road block. All I remember is getting into the car, when I woke up, we were crossing treacherous Sela once again in zero visibility but this time with the added effect of rain. The driver literally held a torch on one hand and drove the car with the other. I was too tired to panic but I certainly wished I hadn’t woken up just then. To my exhausted mind, the howling wind sounded like the mountains were warning us to hurry along. By the time we reached Baisaki, it was well past 9.00 PM and all I remember is hot rice, panner butter masala and a weird heater called Heatking Bukhari before blessed oblivion.

I woke up to conjunctivitis and severe snow burns the next day, but thankfully, I got treated at an army hospital for free. As we got down the mountains and drove towards Tezpur to catch our flight to Guwahati, I wondered how many before me had made this trip. Maybe a thousand years ago, some merchant, noble or farmer had attempted to cross these mountains on horseback. Maybe solitary Buddhist monks made their way to Tibet through these mountains. Or even before that, perhaps our Neanderthal forefathers crossed these mountains bare footed. If the mountains could speak, would they tell us the stories of civilizations gone by? We will never know, but if I am a rock on one of these mountains I would laugh at the men who are fighting over these lands. Because nations will fall and civilizations will eventual decline and die out. Someday, the human race itself will be gone but the mountains will still be here perhaps the last thing they witness will be the world blowing up like a supernova. In the end, it’s obvious that we don’t own these lands, rather these lands own us.

DSC_0670

Umiam Lake, Shillong 

We spent some time in Shillong and finally made our way back to Chennai, where it all began months ago as a simple suggestion from an army officer’s wife. I got home not just exhausted but forever changed at heart. And if there is something I want to tell myself again and again, it is this:

Explore places around the world where man is nothing but an insignificant pest. Pause long enough to feel your heart thud in fear. Feel the blood rushing in panic within your vein and arteries trying it’s best to keep your body functioning. Ignore the signals your mind is sending asking you to step back into the comfortable known world. Stand amidst ruins of civilizations, untamed wilderness and unfathomable mysteries and devour everything you can sense. Let your mind fire up by instinct, open your senses and let go of all that you know. Then take a moment and just feel. Feel yourself standing there with no shell that guarantees safety. Watch the insignificant you, struggle to get your bearing. And Most of all, remember to remember everything.

Won’t this mean that I will carry a part of that world with me till I myself become part of the Earth? I do not know how worthy an endeavor this is, but it’s certainly better than obsessing over the rationale behind my appraisal or wondering if my colleagues are conspiring against me behind my back.

 

 

Sela! Oh Sela!

DSC_0501

Somewhere at the beginning

I don’t remember the last time I looked up at the night sky and admired the stars. In fact, working in an IT company, I am one of those vampires who leave the office well after darkness had set in, but still, I am usually more concerned about the traffic than the cosmos. Meanwhile, I suppose stars are being born, galaxies are moving towards black holes and comets are raining down on some planet far away. Forget the universe, did I ever wonder why I am no longer able to leisurely and slowly lick my vanilla softy like I did during the peak of summer 10 years ago? No, global warming and my ice cream were simply too far apart for me to connect until recently. But sometimes, the Earth decides that our haughty selves need a reminder and whacks our polluting selves with a hurricane or an earthquake so hard that it is impossible not to see how we are as insignificant as the fly that got stuck on a drop of melted ice cream.

 

I did feel like a bug caught in a storm on my recent trip to wild Arunachal Pradesh at several points, most notably at Sela pass and then four days later at Y junction. When my friend and I planned this trip in the third week of March, a friend in the army who had been there before warned us about the unpredictable weather in March. But like true city folks who are used to jumping into the nearest McDonalds at the slightest hint of a drizzle, we didn’t take him seriously. What more, our journey to Tenga from Tezpur and subsequently Bomdila was deceptively warm and sunny. The day we crossed Sela, we started early and had breakfast at an army rest stop at Sappar. We ate hot momos and started ascending towards Sela pass. After a while, my head was feeling fuzzy with all the twists and turns of the mountain road but thankfully, the momos I ate stayed in their grave. Half way up, it started getting cold suddenly and before we had time to pull on our jackets, it was snowing. Between one hairpin bend and another, the landscape changed from green to white and within 10 minutes of this, we had to stop owing to the slippery ice covered road ahead. Minduji informed us that he had to “put chains on the tires” and like a true city bred idiot, I got down from the car to watch the chaining ceremony is utter fascination, only for my face to freeze within a couple of minutes. If I thought the road was bumpy before, post chains, the experience was akin to riding a drunken camel on high heels.

Sela Pass

The Chains!

If you are crossing Sela, you should remember that connectivity is pretty poor. Even in the few places where you do get some kind of reception, the howling wind, especially in bad weather, doesn’t allow for an effective two way audio communication. A fact I realized when someone called me over four times and each time I said the same thing “What? Huh? Are you talking in Hindi? No? Sorry, that wasn’t me that was the wind, sorry can’t hear you…” Back to our journey, enjoying the increasing isolation, we rode on into the blizzard and all off a sudden, there it was, Sela pass. The gate appeared in front of us like the entrance to a magical kingdom, thanks to the poor visibility inside the cloud that had rolled into the mountain. But just as quickly, the weather cleared for a few minutes and we stopped to cross the historic pass on foot not only to enjoy the scenery but also to stretch our cramped legs and bent backs.

Sela is 13700 Feet

13700 Feet people. You have no idea how lucky we Indians are to be on the right side of the Himalayas

After loitering in the middle of the highway, and peering up at the hardly visible snow covered mountains, we got into the car to warm up and start our descent down Sela only to stop just a few feet beyond the gate owing to a road block. The long line of army convoys already stuck in line was not very encouraging. But fortunately we were with Minduji, socializer extraordinaire. He made friends with the locals and soon found us some shelter in a tea shop? House? Restaurant? No idea what it was but it had a fireplace and a roof. Just like how people have this overwhelming compulsion to share ghost stories on dark nights when there is a power failure, most of the talk in the tea shop was on the death of a tourist the previous day at the same spot we were stuck at; never mind 127 other tourists were successfully rescued by the army.

DSC_0548

The Gate

After much grinning and small talk in broken Hindi with the locals, we felt sufficiently warm and bored enough to step outside once again and explore. We soon realized to whom we should be thankful for this vacation, The Boarder Road Organization. If not for these guys, I don’t think anyone can reach Tawang at all. I cannot imagine how it should have been to cut the mountains and lay roads in such bad weather. They truly will be remembered.

Stone memorial by BRO

I wish there was a way to spell check writings on stone memorials

My friend and I continued our casual stroll along the road to capture the scenery, which wasn’t much given that everything was blanketed in white. The weather was volatile and there were sudden gusts of snow and wind interspersed with moments of utter stillness; something like the mountains having a sneezing fit. We were stuck at the pass for over an hour and a half but honestly it felt like a lot longer. Breathing was difficult and talking too because of the frozen face syndrome. However, the scariest part was the disorientation. I have no idea how long we walked and how far we went down the road especially confused because of the long line of similar looking army trucks loaded with similar looking soldiers. The road ahead looked endless and time had no meaning with my own body slowing down. The landscape was nothing like the pictures we googled before our journey. The historic gate was completely shrouded in fog, the road, the lake and the mountains were all covered in snow. It gave a strange feeling of being suspended in never ending cold whiteness.

DSC_0588

The Sela lake is somewhere there

 

Thankfully, misery loves company and my friend and I stopped our indeterminate journey exploring Sela’s wild beauty on hearing snatches of Tamil. We started a conversation with an army Jawan from Chennai and from there on we passed the time happily reminiscing about sweltering heat and the dry spell back home. Meanwhile, it started snowing quiet heavily. Despite people around me, I felt a crushing sense of isolation as we wandered about. The imposing mountains looked cruel and heartless in the dark and broody weather. But just as before, the weather cleared after a while and even the sensible folks who were waiting for the road to clear from the safety of their vehicles ventured out. Soon there was a mad scramble for good selfie spots. I don’t think I will ever understand the raw courage the prospect of selfies induces in people. But anyway, we finally started our descent towards Tawang feeling very much smaller after facing the rage of the mountain Gods.

DSC_0609

Onward March! More like onward slide along

 

Oh! And why did I talk about connectivity before? Because, someone from Tenga was trying to reach us over phone to warn us about the road block. Moral of the story, when traveling across wild places, don’t rely on your gadgets and learn to do what the natives do. That is, wind down your window and simply ask how it is ahead at every check post and also smile and strike up conversations with every driver passing by. After all, the mountains are no place to be morose and prideful.

DSC_0757

Where the Buddha Smiles

DSC_0926

Have you ever been to a place where it is so peaceful that it spooks you? I have. At first glance, Tawang gives you the impression of a town caught in the wrong side of geopolitical conflict. Even as we drive along the sorry excuse of a road from Tenga to Tawang, we get the feeling of driving into the elaborate sets of a second world war movie put up somewhere perhaps in the Alps. Army convoys and camps seem to be the norm so much so that I gave up counting the army vehicles and started counting the civilian vehicles to pass the time. The few moments I took my eyes off the picturesque landscape passing by and looked ahead, I ended up looking straight at bored men in green riding at the back of sluggish army trucks. For two women from a costal city, the whole ride up to Tawang felt like a roller coaster ride minus the safety belts.

DSC_0995

But for all the presence of the men in green, Tawang is the most peaceful place I had ever been to. Presided over by the Buddha in the middle of the town, it screams peace and harmony at every turn. To add to the effect, the snow clad mountains surrounding Tawang on all sides seem to muffle the hustle and bustle of the external world. Life seemed to be slow with natives chopping fire wood or stopping on their way to markets to chat with their neighbours. I say this on good authority because Minduji, our driver is a native of Tawang and he seemed to know everyone in the entire town. To our bemusement, he used to slow down at every turn to greet some friend or family.

DSC_0814

Walking down the market place was a strange experience in itself. The term painting the town red takes on a literal meaning here with the number of monks one would encounter. They are as many as the men in green I suppose. With the market being the most happening place in town, it was were we landed to sate our curiosity of the locals. Local food was awesome and being a place where Buddhism is actually practiced, for once, my friend and I didn’t have a problem finding vegetarian food.

DSC_0815

The only annoying thing about the market was that most of the shops were left unmanned thus making it difficult for us to buy anything. Even when the shopkeepers turn up, they seemed to be unconcerned about shoppers wandering around their shop unattended. Was that faith in humanity? We suspicious lot from the cities will never know.

DSC_0860

It will be criminal of me to talk about Tawang without mentioning Tawang monastery. Although the monastery was undergoing renovation, it had the feeling of an active Buddhist center. Unlike the other monasteries we visited, it was not quiet. Instead it had the feeling of a thriving Buddhist community. Monks were scurrying about busily directing workers cleaning up every nook and corner of the monastery, some of them were engaged in discussions with the locals and tiny cute monks in training were reading up on their scriptures. Maybe it was because we were there just a week before the Dalai Lama’s much anticipated visit, but I am quiet sure these monks took their work seriously.

DSC_0901

Something I truly admire about the monks was their welcoming nature. I hated going to temples back home because I never did understand what the priest was up to. There was usually a lot of mumbling accompanied by grand gestures at the end of which you are sent away with pulisadham or pongal. Here they smile and stop to explain if we ask them something. We went to a nunnery where the nuns even allowed us to sit with them in their prayer. They didn’t mind us walking around gapping at every small thing they did and that I should say was kindness in itself. We even met a nun from Burma who took us to her home and fed us Bori.

DSC_0009

The silent snow clad mountains, the faint laughter of people from houses adorned with wild sakura trees, the bold call of the wild birds, the yipping of fluffy puppies, the rhythmic gushing of the river and the soring chants of the monks somehow manage to drown out the loud rumble of the Indian army here. Even the men in uniform were friendly and warm in their own way. Their biggest concern seems to be the unpredictable weather and even that was more in acceptance than annoyance. Be it Minduji who took us to his home and fed us butter tea or the soldier from Thirunelveli who said, “Vangalaen, sapittutu pogalaam (come, have a meal with us)” I have never felt more welcome anywhere else in India.

In case you are planning to visit Tawang and hire a taxi, here are the details of Minduji. He is reliable and a local who knew his way around. He was also the inside man who got us access to the secrets of the far flung lesser known monasteries in Tawang.

DSC_0187 My Tawang (minduphuntsok1962@gmail.com)

A Beginning

cropped-wp_20170323_08_03_02_pro.jpg

 

The man who scripted the greatest quest of all times, JRR Tolkien famously said, “All who wander are not lost”. That perfectly sums up the entire Lord of the Rings series I think. But sometimes I wonder, what’s the point of wandering if not to get lost for a while in places unknown? There are those who are born into travelling alongside their nomadic families, those who start traveling by choice and some who start out as accidental travellers; but no matter how they start, once the spell of strange seas and distant lands is cast, there is no escaping wanderlust. I have always been fascinated by the world map, always wondered what secrets are held behind those green and brown blotches scarring the vast blue of the oceans. Thankfully, once in a while, I have had the chance to satisfy my curiosities.

 

I am no seasoned traveller nor can I afford to travel often, but by chance and by choice, I have in the past wandered into unfamiliar lands. So far, like a dragon hording its gold, I had kept the memories of my travel all to myself. Foolish as I was, I had believed they would stay forever mine. Well, I forgot that time, that can erode the hardest mountains can just as easily erode what’s in my mind. So, now in my haste to record not just what I have seen but what I have felt in my travels, I am attempting to chronicle my adventures here.

 

This is definitely not a travel blog. I am the last person who can tell you how to get to a place and where to stay for I am very much directionally challenged. But since I am mostly writing for myself, it’s pretty much going to be what I felt. My trusted companions are often a Samsung tab, which I use as a phone, my Nokia 730, which I use as a backup camera and my trusted companion who best describes everything that I find interesting, my Nikon d5200. I am no photographer either. Ask my Nikon and she will cry you a river. So if a picture is pretty, its pretty much the subjects fault.

 

I suppose more than this you don’t need to know me for we are merely strangers whose paths crossed for a moment. But let’s be the kind of strangers who genuinely smile at each other when we find something of mutual interest in passing shall we?