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Trekking in Uttaranchal
Chapter One: Northward Bound
by Rick Dar

Camping in the Himalayas
High in the sky!

A trekking holiday is not the way to unwind and relax, and the term itself is a fascinating study in contradiction. Trekking involves walking uphill and sometimes steeply downhill, 6-7 hours daily with 10kgs on your back, sleeping and performing one's daily ablutions out in the open, suffering from mountain sickness, and generally being exposed to any and every kind of humiliation that nature decides to throw in your face. The period of the trek can vary from 1 day to 30 days, depending on the masochistic tendencies of the people involved. Of course, treks longer than 30 days are undertaken, and the kind of people who do this are eventually found living in small rooms with padded walls.

A holiday, on the other hand, raises visions of beach bars with beautiful bartenders (preferably female) serving tall frosty drinks with little umbrellas on them, and that delicious feeling of inertia when you know the hardest task for the day will be getting out of the hammock.

So when Ashish and I decided to take a trekking vacation to the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttaranchal, it involved a lot of heartbreak and soul-searching; mainly because it involved traveling through Delhi and secondly because we had no idea how to go about it. We had researched some trekking routes before we undertook the trip. Our research chiefly consisted of a 5 year old Lonely Planet: Trekking in the Indian Himalaya guide book, and a trip to the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) office in Mumbai. The GMVN officer was very friendly and totally uninformative. We knew more than he did, and the map he gave us looked like it had been scrawled by a 3 year old child. We were planning to do the Har-Ki-Dun trek which starts at Sa nkri and ends at the Har-Ki-Dun valley. From there, we wanted to extend it to Ruinsara lake and descend to Yamunotri via the Bali pass. Despite some contrary advice from people who said they knew better, we were naive enough to think we could do this without any guides and porters.

A quick word on the Himalayas: they are spectacularly beautiful and can quickly stun the senses into submission. I mention this here so that we can establish this fact right at the beginning and I need not go into the mandatory raptures later, when this chronicle actually reaches there. To put it simply, Uttaranchal is beautiful, the Garhwal Himalayas are beautiful, and anything you read about them or see in photographs falls embarrassingly short of the real thing. I could go on about 'stunning snow-capped peaks,' 'clear sparkling streams' and similar PR guff, but I think you get the point!

The first leg of our journey involved a train ride from Mumbai to Delhi in the Rajdhani Express. Astonishingly, we reached the station well in time, which means that the train was still on the platform. Most previous journeys have involved convoluted acrobatics while jumping on to a running train with a bag in either hand, so we took this to be a good omen. The Rajdhani is the fastest way of traveling to Delhi, if you cannot afford the airfare. The unique thing about the Rajdhani that I have noticed is that every carriage comes with its quota of squalling babies. It almost seems like the railways have a policy of evenly distributing children across all carriages, so that no one can escape them. This is a phenomenon that can also be observed in cinema halls, especially if the film requires some level of concentration. Suffice to say that we had a bunch of banshees in the adjoining compartments that set the tone for the night.

There are very few places in the world that I detest as a traveler, and New Delhi occupies the pride of place in this list. I would like to clarify one thing here: As a city, New Delhi is one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in this nation. To compensate for this, God has populated it with the kind of people who would automatically qualify for life membership in Hades. These would include in order of merit: the politicians, the bureaucracy, diplomats, rich Punjabis and lastly, the worst elements of the other Indian states and some foreign ones. The latest additions to this menagerie are prostitutes from Russia, amazingly one of the few countries where they earn less money than they do in India.

Unless you are born in Delhi, you cannot appreciate it; and if you are born in Delhi then you wouldn't have a sense of appreciation in the first place. Delhi railway station is an eye-opening and in most cases also eye-watering introduction to the city. From the minute you get off the train, the city and its denizens assault your senses. As you stumble through the crowds, you are accosted every step of the way. Clutching hands, prodding fingers, and sometimes a complete stranger will pick up your bags and start walking away, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. After the few lifetimes that it takes to recover from this combined attack, the first thing one realizes is that there is a train standing on the platform that will go back to Bombay. It is sort of like the post-natal feeling a newborn would have after poking its head out into the world and realizing that it should have just stayed put!

Then comes the period of acceptance which lasts for all of a minute, after which total despair sets in. We squared our shoulders, put on our most irritated faces and boldly started walking.

"You want taxi?" came from a yellow kerchief diagonally opposite us.

"Good hotel, very cheap!" shouted a checked shirt.

Visions in red kept dancing before our eyes as one coolie after the other kept insisting on carrying our bags. The sheer mass of people on the platform would have made it one of the densest objects in the known universe. I guess the only thing denser than it would be the average American mind.

The typical composition of the crowd at any Indian railway station would be as follows:
10% are actual travelers
40% relatives who have come to pick up and see off the travelers
10% railway coolies
10% railway employees
20% taxi, auto and hotel touts
10% beggars, policemen and other people who have nowhere else to go

The coolies and the various touts operate on the 'erosion principle'. They will keep badgering you till your resistance wears down, at which time either you or your temper will give in. In our case, it was Ashish's temper that gave in. The object of his ire was a thick black moustache that insisted on taking us to 'best quality rooms.' The moustache acquired strands of grey on the spot!

We spent 2 long days in Delhi. Let me just say that it was hot, we were in a non-AC taxi, and on the last night both of us suffered a bad bout of food poisoning. On top of that, our train out to Dehradun was scheduled for 7:00am, so it was touch-and-go but after a few bouts of retching, I was ensconced in my seat.

As I was drifting off into deep sleep, a loud persistent jangling noise jolted me to consciousness with such speed, that I subconsciously curled into a ball, before I realized what it was. On the Shatabdi Express, we were being entertained at 7:00 by jarring Hindi music to elevate our deprived souls. Something like this strengthens my belief in the theory that everything in life has a balance and a counterbalance. Since the Shatabdi is the fastest train to Dehradun, naturally the journey itself must be made as uncomfortable as possible. This is a theme I have observed in every aspect of life; whenever something good happens, life is waiting with a bully club just around the corner.

The journey continued with unceasing cacophonic accompaniment, which over time degenerated into pure noise. Shamelessly, we tried to sleep through it. A few minutes later I felt a tugging my shirt; it was a waiter serving bottles of water. The fascinating thing about the water bottles served by the Railways is that they are designed not to fit in the designated bottle-holders in the compartment. Everyone puts the bottles in the torn magazine holder on the seat in front, so I did the same. Coincidentally, the chap in the front seat decided to push his seat back, which suddenly reduced my freedom of movement to under a radius of 10 cms.

I persevered with trying to sleep, and then there was a prod on my arm. The waiter was back, this time with an assortment of newspapers for my e dification. I peered at the pages bleary-eyed and stuffed them next to the bottle. The next interruption happened a mere 15 minutes later when breakfast was served. My stomach was already feeling like it was at a carnival; every few minutes it went on a roller coaster. Just the sight of breakfast was enough to send it hurtling again. I ran to the toilet, the sight of which further aggravated the situation.

Admirably, Ashish was sleeping through all this peacefully, as if it was his own bed. I muttered jealously under my breath, and tried to emulate him. On the 1098th sheep, I felt the obligatory prod on my shoulder; it was the ticket checker. I just stayed awake!

(To be continued...)

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