noun \ˈsä-lə-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd\ : a state or situation in which you are alone usually because you want to be
Do you prefer doing things alone or in the company of others? Some of the things on which I spend a fair amount of time every week, for example, are primarily solitary activities – reading, running, biking, etc. But what about other things that one would normally enjoy as a communal activity.. how different would these experiences be if you were experiencing it alone?
A Swedish TV Series called Experiment Ensam (Experiment Alone) did an interesting project recently to glean insights on the role of community in human enjoyment. After five experiments where a single person experienced things alone that would usually be done with a crowd – e.g. watching a stand-up show, a karaoke performance – the last one resulted in Fredik Wikingsson , a middle-aged Stockholm TV personality, lucking out on a truly-never-in-a-lifetime experience.
Wikingsson, a father of two kids, also describes himself as the biggest Bob Dylan fan there is. As part of this project, he was chosen to experience a concert where Bob Dylan played for him, live and exclusive. And exclusive, in this setting, meant just that – Wikingsson comprised the entire audience of one person for that performance.
“I was smiling so much it was like I was on ecstasy,” he says, recounting his feelings in this lovely this Rolling Stone interview “My jaw hurt for hours”
The channel put together a documentary-style video capturing his whole experience. It’s a great clip.. watch Wikkingsson’s bemusement on whats the best way to appreciate the incredible show that’s unfolding in front of him.. watch Bob Dylan’s response, classy as always.
If you are a Dylan fan, this is a must watch. Even if you are not, this is just an incredible story.
The part where he’s struggling to hold off his tears as Dylan plays the harmonica…. I would have just collapsed weeping. Man, this is what dreams are made of. Epic.
In these days of incessant social media sharing about any news, be it trivial, trite, or terrible, was surprised that I didn’t see anyone talking about Deven Verma on my FB/Twitter TL this week. Like the memorable characters he essayed in his films, he was understated even in his passing away, which happened earlier this week.
Deven Verma brought a rare sensibility to Hindi cinema. His ability to create a Marx-brothers-like zaniness in everyday situations was unique, albeit with a style that was sort of an anti-thesis to the over-the-top, almost slapsticky style that Groucho & co employed. A perennially befuddled expression that conveyed a I-don’t-understand-how-this-world-works-and-its-better-that-I-don’t-try, laced with almost minimalist dialogue produced some of the best comedy seen on our screens.
His repertoire really came through in those lovely ‘middle-class movies’ genre that was the preserve of greats like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, etc . Angoor was obviously the standout, but there were a string of other roles which showcased his talent. His cameo in GolMal, is a favourite of mine.
This lovely tribute by Jai Arjun captures what a gem he was, both as an actor and as a person. Just visualise him with that classic deadpan expression, delivering this line “Ghisi-hui, purani, bekaar si cheezeen (a slight pause) ..jaise tumhare pitaji”. Priceless.
I’m glad that he chose to stay away from the degeneration that has taken over humour in Hindi movies, since those glorious days.
This weekend, go get a DVD of Angoor. And eat some pakodas, prefereably laced with bhang.
RIP, Deven Verma.
As the undisputed running capital of India, Bangalore, the city that I now call home, was long overdue to host a marathon of its own. So it was great to finally see the inaugural edition of the Bengaluru Marathon being flagged off on 19 Oct 2014. Participation from the running fraternity was encouraging for a first-time event, with about 1000 marathoners and 3500 half-marathoners lining up at the start. Crowd turnout along the route wasn’t great, but that’s understandable – it takes time for a city to take a marathon to heart. It’s taken Bombay ten years to make SCMM the premier marathon event in the country.
I used to cover large sections of the marathon route during my regular training runs and it turned out that the route actually passed very close to where I live, The weather gods also benevolently decided to bless us with a cool morning, so it was a real pleasure to run past familiar places and scenes in gorgeous running weather. Overall, apart from some glitches on traffic management towards the end and an unfortunate fiasco earlier involving the lead runners, Bengaluru Marathon 2014 was an enjoyable experience. Hopefully, the event will grow to become one of the great city marathons, like the world majors.
Re-caping some highlights for the memory archive:
Finished with a PB of 4:05:58, 10 minutes better than my SCMM 2014 timing. Though I underestimated some of the elevations around the 26-30Km stretch, any race where you nail a PB is always a good one. This one was a fair result for the kind of training I had put in. Set me up to take a shot at a sub-4 SCMM in January 2015. Que sera, sera…
While the crowd turnout was not something to write about, there was a lovely surprise awaiting the marathoners at about the halfway mark, after the 100ft road stretch in Indiranagar (the half marathoners U-turned back at Domlur, so they unfortunately missed out). As we came down the Domlur flyover on to Inner ring road, was amazed to see hundreds of jawans from the adjoining ASC centre lined up on the road. For that entire stretch of over 3 kilometres (almost till Sony junction), these soldiers egged the runners on, clapping, hi-fiveing, calling out our names from the bibs with exhortations of ‘shabaash, himmat se’, etc. It was an overwhelming, goosebumpy experience that got me all choked up, even as I tried to feebly appreciate their support. Truly, a splendid gesture and a very special memory of this marathon.
The Bengaluru Marathon also set a shining example and a high benchmark on waste management. Thanks to a couple of runners and a fantastic group of volunteers who were all passionate about the cause, a very effective mechanism to manage waste during and after the run was planned and executed with exemplary precision. Re-usable glasses/serving vessels, non-disposable plates, segregation of food waste post-run, getting NGOs involved.. A stupendous effort, and a stirring message for a city that is grappling with an acute problem of overflowing landfills, and fast turning from a garden city into a garbage city.
Many valuable lessons here for not just other marathon events, but also for the city corporation. Kudos and hats off to everyone involved in this effort.
This marathon also put me in touch with some new running partners when I started running with the ‘Indiranagar Runners’ group. Our long training runs on weekends kept both the motivation and fun levels consistently up. I believe that runners in general have an in-built ‘goodness-gene’ – they are nicer folks than the average guy on the street. And this group has definitely vindicated my belief. Its been great to get to know and run with a happy, fun loving bunch of runners and also genuinely nice people.
Cheers, guys..I look forward to many many more fun runs, sumptuous breakfasts, and wonderful times together. Thanks for being there!
A few weeks ago, there was a thread on the Bangalore Runners Facebook page about an issue that’s on every runner’s mind when they lace their shoes and set out for a run in our part of the world – street DOGS. Someone posted on the forum asking for suggestions on how to deal with the situation when a dog doesn’t take too kindly to a runner passing by. All runners have faced this at some time or the other, anyone who runs in this city will definitely relate to this issue. Given traffic conditions and work schedules, runners prefer to do training runs in the wee hours of the morning. While we happily trade off waking up to unearthly morning alarms with the prospect of running on traffic-free roads, the flipside is that this is also the hour when our canine friends are surprised by any human activity. They tend to be wary of anyone who’s seen as even a mild threat to their territorial hegemony (exacerbated by the fact that most of these fast approaching trespassers are also clad in fluorescent neon clothing and footwear).
While many single dogs are (in my experience) usually dis-interested, packs can get very terrifying. I had first-hand experience on a winter morning last year on how bad this can be, on Martoli road near the old airport runway. A group of 4-5 dogs didn’t like me disturbing their small talk, and started to bark/growl, then resorted to chasing and then finally began snapping at my heels. All that I had read and heard about how to react in these situations – don’t panic, don’t stare directly into their eyes, slow down, walk calmly, etc. – immediately went out of the window. Terror-stricken, for what was by far the longest minute or so of my life, I literally started sprinting and frantically looking back at the same time, shouting, even growling back at them. Of course, this made an already bad situation even worse. Some of the more aggressive ones began to lunge at me. Luckily I was carrying a water bottle, and used it to fend them off, and was fortunate to have got away without getting bitten. The incident happened on the 27th km of a 30K long run that day. Though I was quite tired at that point, I probably ran the fastest couple of hundred metres I have ever run in my life. If they hadn’t lost interest in me, my lungs would have surely popped out. The Garmin Connect activity tracker reflected my state – my heart rate readings had surged way above max HR level for those few moments. It was an incredibly harrowing experience, one that I will never forget. I get the chills even now when I go past that spot.
Street dogs are a real and serious issue to contend with, if you are a runner. So the question which was posed on the forum was a very relevant one. Expectedly, advice soon started pouring in. Stop running when you spot a dog and walk till ‘the danger zone has passed’ said some, others claimed that these canines can sense your vibes, so just continue running normally. There were suggestions on taking precautions like a carrying a stick (or a water bottle) to shoo them off in case the situation becomes tense. So and so forth.
But what was striking about the whole discussion was that every response basically reflected one core, underlying principle: dogs have the same right to live in these spaces as we humans do, and their reaction is natural because we are the one who’s seen as the intruder and a threat. No one, not one runner, said anything negative about them.
I grew up mortally scared of even neighbourly pet dogs, but managed to overcome my fear and am reasonably comfortable around them now. But I know that there are many runners who carry a pathological fear, for whom it is genuinely very distressing when they see a dog in their path while they run. There have been runners who have had similar experiences as mine above, I have friends who have been bitten too. But it was amazing to note that no one in that discussion cursed the creatures, or proposed that BMC should take them away, they should be put down, etc. There were many pleas by responders imploring fellow runners to not throw stones at them. Someone asked about using high-frequency dog whistles, but got drowned by a chorus of responses on how this can damage their ears, etc.
This level of empathy towards a fellow species which competes for our urban spaces with runners, and poses a real threat to life and limb at times, was very revealing. To me, it’s illustrative of how the running community sees its place in the larger scheme of things, the world around us.
Now, for my rant.
Another topic has produced many agitated conversations in Bangalore of late, among a far larger section of the population than runners: the renovation of key roads in the city under the TENDER SURE project. To quote, the Tender Sure project is all about getting the urban road right; about addressing the issues that have made Indian roads so notorious for their chaotic traffic , potholes, broken footpaths, overflowing drainage, poorly placed power transformers and their hanging, spaghetti tangle of electrical wiring and telecom fixtures.
Sounds great, right? What’s the problem then?
This. (emphasis mine)
“In the hierarchy of road users conceived under the project, pedestrians are followed by cyclists and public transport, which is acknowledged as the necessary mode of sustainable mobility, and lastly private vehicles.”
These last few weeks have witnessed long pieces in the press, frustrated water cooler conversations… all whining about how as part of the renovation, footpaths are being widened by a couple of feet, with cycling tracks built in. How idiotic, is the refrain…did you see what they have done to St. Marks! The city is already a traffic-mess….how can they screw it up even more, goes the cry in anguish.
Err, excuse me… it is people like us who have caused this mess in the first place. As this bunch of people pointed out so simply and effectively, our urban traffic chaos is largely a result of “the absurdity of using a large car to move a single person”. Getting a couple of extra feet-width on the road for motorists is not a solution at all, all it does is make a larger part of the road clogged with traffic.
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it is a place where the rich use public transportation”- Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota.”
Sadly, it loks like we will remain buried under our own ignorance and apathy towards making this city a better place. Politicians have now got involved, and we all know how that usually turns out.
So dear whiners, may you continue to be stuck for longer and longer hours in worser and worser traffic jams. That’s entirely your choice, and you’re entitled to it.
But atleast stop whining, yaar.
Obviously, there is no data on how many of those who are griping over this are also runners or cyclists. I would want to think that it’s an extremely low number, if at all. Of course, I realise that this is a gross generalisation to make. (This is a rant, after all. :) ). There are many friends I know who are not runners or cyclists, and believe in sustainable urban transport mechanisms. But overall, the narrow-mindedness of motorists in our city on this issue is appalling, to say the least.
Take a cue from the runners, folks. Sometimes, just sometimes, its good to look beyond our own noses, yes?.
End of rant.
Somewhere in the midst of watching Finding Fanny, I thought of Wes Anderson and his delightful The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both movies open with a narrator setting the context for what lies ahead. Here, it’s Angie (Deepika Padukone) describing a fictitious place in Goa – Pocolim, as a “puppet-show as large as a village”. A reasonably interesting bunch of characters are then introduced, most of them slightly dysfunctional, setting the stage for a promising plot. Unfortunately, that’s where any similarity between the two movies ends (well, there is a common thread of a feline meeting a violent death, not sure whether that was coincidental or an intentional hat-tip).
Anderson lords over the quirky/whimsical genre of film-making, with an attention to detail, depth of characterisation, and deft touches that made TGBH such an engrossing masterpiece. In stark contrast, Homi Adajania, who made an impressive debut with Being Cyrus, disappoints with his latest effort.
The story revolves around Pocolim’s postmaster Ferdie (Naseeruddin Shah)’s search for the eponymous Fanny, the love of his life, forty six years after he let her slip away. Angie orchestrates matters such that Rosie, her matronly mother-in-law with the ample behind (Dimple Kapadia), the local artist Don Pedro who lusts after Rosie as his muse (Pankaj Kapur), and Angie’s admirer from the past, the Bombay-returned Savio (Arjun Kapoor), are their fellow travellers on this quest.
This basic premise of the five companions who band together for a road trip feels like a slightly contrived setup. Ok, Savio still pines for Angie and maybe can’t say no to her, but there’s no reason for Rosie to be there, except that she then becomes the bait to get Don Pedro into the scheme of things – and of course, he loans his car too. It’s almost like Adajania doesn’t care too much for details, he just wants to somehow bundle up his cast of characters for a madcap ride.
The overall attempt is to be drolly..and cool.. and deep and poignant too, but its badly hampered by the fact that the movie tries very hard to be all of these. (Exhibit 1 – The conversation between Angie and Savio about post-coitus rolling over and falling asleep). There are scenes that fall straight in the realm of bad slapstick (Exhibit 2 – the Don Pedro tea-biscuit scene). There is a longing for the Goa of yore and a veiled reference to how this once idyllic town is being taken over by the mafia (Exhibit 3 – Scene with the loony Russian). At best, these kind of sequences elicit some forced guffaws. An extremely weak climax also doesn’t help at all – a clumsy attempt to tie things up at the end works at cross purposes with all that the film has tried to be till then.
It’s probably not a stretch to figure out where Adajania gets his inspiration from. Angie’s backstory is that she was widowed on her wedding day – her caricature for a husband (Ranveer Singh in a fleeting cameo), chokes on the marzipan , but the real reveal is that his character is named Gabo. The imaginary village of Pocolim is very likely Adajania’s version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. Goa is beautifully shot in the film, and Pocolim, with its coconut palms, churches and bylanes evokes a nostalgic feel for a quaintly magical place. Like in Marquez’s novels, those who feature in Ferdie’s quest for love have their own imaginary world intertwined with the reality of their lives.
What I felt really let down by, is that Adjania had such a first-rate cast at his disposal. Naseer and Pankaj Kapur could have done these roles in their sleep – competent all right, but more clichéd than compelling. Arjun Kapoor is still finding his way, has promise.
Deepika Padukone is resplendently gorgeous, lighting up every frame with her presence . Dimple Kapadia seems to be having fun wiggling her bottom and delivering lines like ‘wine is not good for me because… it makes me spread my legs’, with panache.
So yes, I get that this is not a movie with a story line, is more a metaphor for life, about how we are all lost in our solitude, etc. But its a bit all over the place, and loses its way often. A lot of the dialogue has a Konkani lilt (I ‘toh’ felt, etc) , which is good.. but in between, Angie also comes up with a “return of the prodigal son” kind of line which feels oddly out of place in that particular conversation.
The characters are half-baked, we don’t feel for them like we should. At least I didn’t.
Finding Fanny, for me, felt like a recipe which has mouth-watering ingredients, which fail to come together as a dish that you can savour.
Zola Budd was my first crush from the world of international sport. Ok, technically speaking, John McEnroe came before her, but let’s put that one down as an obsession and not a crush (by then, I was quite sure of my sexual orientation).
If you’re in your forties or older, her name will probably ring a familiar bell. Zola Budd’s anticipated clash with American Mary Decker in the women’s 3000m was the most hyped up contest during the build up to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984.
As personalities, they were very different. Mary Decker, reigning world champion and regarded as the greatest distance runner of the time, was America’s darling and hometown favourite. She had to miss the Moscow games in 1980 due to the cold-war caused boycott, and an entire nation desperately wanted her to win her deserved Olympic gold medal this time. Zola was the shy, almost waif-like 18 year old barefoot running prodigy from South Africa, who had been hastily (and controversially) granted British citizenship to enable her to compete in the Olympics – South Africa was barred from all international sport those days because of the apartheid regime.
The race took place on a summer day in August, 1984 – thirty years ago, almost to the week. As it happened, it did live up to all the pre-event billing, but in a different sort of way. A New York Times article described what happened in a recap piece:
Before a screaming crowd of 85,149 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Miss Decker led for more than four laps of the 7 1/2-lap race. Then, on a turn, Miss Budd edged
a foot or so ahead on the outside. They bumped for a moment, which happens often in this sport. Seconds later, they made contact again, and Miss Decker and her hopes went sprawling on the ground.
At a post-race news conference, a teary Decker declared, “I hold Budd responsible for what happened. I didn’t do anything wrong.” Budd, initially disqualified from the race, was later reinstated to her seventh-place finish.
Indeed, the image of an inconsolably weeping Mary Decker being carried out from the stadium by her husband, was one among the most enduring images from that Olympics.
Young readers may not be able to relate to this, but those were the days of no internet, no YouTube and a grand total of one (government owned) channel on TV. So watching endless replays at will wasn’t an option for us. Given the huge press that the incident generated, I did manage to see clips from the race a couple of times later on news bulletins and the like. In the throes of my teenage crush, I was of course, firmly convinced that Zola was not at fault. After an investigation, the authorities came to the same conclusion.
By all accounts, the incident also cost Zola Budd a possible Olympic winning finish. The stadium erupted with boos immediately after Decker fell down, Zola’s eyes welled up with tears, and she faded away in the race from then on. She said later that she did not want to win after what happened, fearing the expected hostile reaction from an emotional home crowd. She also maintained that she never saw footage of the race again.
Budd then trained to compete in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But just before the event, she was engulfed in controversy again, when African nations alleged that she had competed in an event in South Africa. Despite her claim that she had merely attended the event as a spectator, the Athletics Federation suspended her from the Olympic event. She did make an appearance in the 1992 games, this time representing her home country, which by now had been reinstated into the sporting fraternity after Nelson Mandela became President. However, illness hampered her performance, and she never won an Olympic medal in her running career.
After three decades, I read about Zola Budd in the news recently, and as you may have guessed, it was about another controversy at a running event. The Comrades marathon is one of the toughest ultra-marathon events in the world. Participants have to complete a distance of about 90km in under 12 hours, plus a number of timing cut-off points along the route, each of which runners must reach by a prescribed time, or be forced to retire from the race.
Zola Budd (now Zola Pieterse), age 48, finished the 2014 Comrades in 6 hours, 55 minutes. She placed 7th overall and first in her age category, earning her a gold medal. She was however later stripped of her title following accusations that she did not display the required age category tag while running. As of now, Budd has challenged the decision, and is contemplating legal redress. In an interview, she said, “My whole athletics career has been plagued by politics and interference from administrators who are selective and do not apply the rules consistently.”
I’ve can’t but help wonder as to how one dramatic event sometimes alters the course for the rest of one’s life. While Zola Budd did seem to move on from 1984 and apparently made her peace with life, it’s funny that controversy somehow manages to rear its head in her life every now and then.
What if, I think.. what if there was no collision that August day, and Zola Budd had actually gone on to win the race that day. How would her life have turned out then..
But then, C’est la vie, I guess.
In your life there are a few places, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.
—— Alice Munro, Face
The summer of last year was a disappointing one, at least for my trekking attempts. Planned three treks. Had to bail out on two of them at the last minute, and one fizzled out. The only thing that actually resulted was major frustration and some very bad haiku (worry not, dear reader – that was my first and last attempt at verse).
This year promised better things. All the organising and scheduling were done by others who were far more efficient & capable, all I had to do was show up. Having never done the Nepal side of the Himalayas before, Gokyo Ri–Everest Base Camp sounded very enticing. EBC is a boost to the ego, and the Gokyo trail meant that you avoid the ‘highway route’ to Kala Pathar. I couldn’t wait for the flight to Delhi and then onwards to Kathmandu.
As John Lennon famously said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Landed in Kathmandu all right, but bad weather forced cancellations of all Ktm- Lukla flights the next day, and the outlook didn’t look good at all for the next couple of days. A quick confab, and we decided that rather than being at the mercy of the weather, we’ll head out west from Kathmandu instead of east and do the Annapurna Circuit (AC) trek instead.
Karma, I guess. Two of my three aborted trips last year were to be to the Annapurna range. Der aaye, due to rust aaye, I told myself.
The AC route is generally regarded among the trekking community as one of the best treks in the world. It spans a clutch of 8000m+ peaks – Manasulu, Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri.. and nestled between the last two is the Thorung La crossing. At 18000 feet, Thorung La is the highest point of the route and the Circuit goes around the Annapurna ranges down into the majestic Kali Gandaki, which is the deepest gorge in the world.
The views enroute are spectacular too. Snow-capped peaks greet you very early on, stunningly beautiful scenery all through competes for top spots in your memory archive as you traverse the majestic mountain ranges. The Annapurna Circuit is undoubtedly the best trek I have done, an absolute must-do in any bucket list of treks.
Sensory delights apart, these sojourns in the mountains also unfailingly offer meta level lessons. Stirring thoughts inside you, leaving behind impressions which are often transformative, long after you get back to your regular life routines. This one was no different.
A casual conversation with N, the American who runs the tea house in Gumsang on the way to Yakkharka, led to this quote from him “You don’t come and live in the mountains to get rich. But I have a wealth of peace and quiet here.” On the way to Thorung Phedi, a truly unique experience of seeing a mother yak delivering her baby by the side of the trail, triggered a myriad of thoughts on rights, liberty, nature, ethics, etc. (more details in the trek diary below, includes video). Enroute to Ngawal, we gaped at an avalanche that broke out on an adjacent mountain, awe-struck. And then came back home after the trip to read about the sherpas killed in another one on Everest, because they were unlucky to be on the same mountain when the avalanche broke out, and not an adjacent one like we were. In a parallel universe, probably would have happened the other way around.
But above all, these magnificent mountains are a reminder of the sheer insignificance of our individual self in the larger scheme of things, also known as the Universe. After our descent from Thorung la into Muktinath, we bought ‘shaligrams’ (ammonites), from local vendors – black limestone ferreted out from the Kali Gandaki river which contain fossils of shell fish and other sea creatures inside.
The Himalayas are the youngest mountains in the world, created when Continental Drift caused the Indian part of the Gondwana-landmass to split away from the African continent, move across the Indian Ocean, and slam into Eurasia from below, giving birth to these spectacular mountain terrains. Sitting a thousand miles away at home in Bangalore, as I look at this souvenir from our trip, it’s mind-boggling to think of the journey this creature has made, from a deep ocean millions of years ago, to a place inside a rock in one of the highest places on earth. Really puts everything about your life in perspective.
A trek, like life, is always about the journey, not the destination. Whenever the mountains have come calling, it’s been an experience of a lifetime. Every time.
“Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”
——– Maurice Herzog, Annapurna
A trek is also about the people who you’re with. My best ones have been with folks who made the whole journey unforgettable with loads of camarderie, laughter and fun. This nice little montage put together by B captures the mood of our trek perfectly.
So here’s to all the memories, guys.. thanks for all the hasee & khushi, and a fantastic couple of weeks.
Ladki, kulfi, khukri – the labels were many, but she defies categorisation. Her wish to see snow got fulfilled chappar-phaadke (though by the end, she had enough of it to last a lifetime :-) ). After years of making plans and one almost-made-it attempt, we finally trekked together. Here’s to many more.
My boss’s boss at the workplace more than a decade ago. Great to see you again after so many years, in a different avatar :-) . Fantastic to trek with – all the wisecracks, the steady pace, mentally so strong. Also my role model for life after 45.
Has canoed in the Zambesi river dodging crocs, among other things. Cool as a cucumber. Chief planner. Account keeper and our annadaata. Insanely fit. A walking Wikipedia on anything and everything to do with the mountains. In short, ‘Bond’.
London-waasi, Bombay born & bred, but with pahaadi genes that make him streak like a mountain goat across difficult trails. Generous, effervescent, bubbly, a morale booster in any situation. DJ extraordinaire. Unsurpassed at selfies.
Kathmandu to Besishehar
We land in Kathmandu on a humid afternoon to a welcome of garlands. Inching our way through city traffic, we finally check into the Thamel Eco resort – clean, functional and right in the heart of the shopping district. Nice lunch at New Orleans café, a visit to Pandeyji’s office to get our permits and porters organized.. we are now free to walk around the streets of Thamel, checking out curios to pick up on our way back and do a bit of trek shopping. Dinner is at the iconic Rum Doodle bar, a place to visit more for the hype and lore than the quality of the food.
Our flight to Lukla is next morning, we make a touchdown at the Pashupati temple enroute to the airport. Seems like god has other things in store for us, though. We spend hours at the airport, waiting forlornly for our flight. Turns out the weather has made it impossible – no flights take off that day. From the reports we get, seems like the chances of getting a flight are very low for the next couple of days too. By afternoon, we have made a decision (amazing that we do so, and is a credit to the people I travel with). Gokyo-EBC is replaced with the Annapurna Circuit route instead. V graciously agrees to the plan too – he had done the AC route a dozen years ago. It’s a happy memory for him, as he first met his future wife on that trek.
So we are back again in Pandeyji’s office. Maps are opened, and a quick re-scheduling of routes and stops are made. Our guide Dhurba gets the new permits, and we start a 6 hour drive from Kathmandu to Besishehar, which is the start point for the AC trek.
Besi Shehar (Chamche) – Dharapani
A short drive in the morning from our overnight halt at Besi shehar gets us to Chamche. After a sumptuous breakfast of Tibetian bread, omelettes and chai, we “officially start trekking”. The trail leads us through an unfolding landscape of deep gorges and swaying bridges. We are a chirpy bunch, happy to be finally walking on our feet. In an hour, reach an arched entrance which leads to Taal – and offers a stunning vista of a pristine lake flanked by a sandy bank on one side and rolling hills on the other. Running like excited children towards the water, we click away on our cameras/phones. It’s amazing what a sight like this on the first day of a trek does to lift your spirits. It really does set a positive tenor for the rest of the journey.
Reach our first day rendezvous, Dharapani, late in the afternoon, at about 4ish. B & V race ahead to find a nice tea house tucked away from the main street, which has nice rooms, plus a courtyard. Copious quantities of pakodas and hot ginger lemon tea are consumed, and the menu is enhanced later by good ol’ Khukri rum. I also discover first-hand how luxuriously different trekking in Nepal is, compared to my earlier treks in the Indian side of the Himalayas – hot shower, a nice bed with blankets, properly built loos… it’s a completely different experience from holing up in a tiny cramped tent, spending cold nights sleeping on hard ground, toilet tents.
Dharapani – Chamye
The alarm sounds out loud and clear at 4 AM. Except, none of us had any plans of waking up at such an unearthly hour, it’s an enthusiastic rooster in the vicinity who thinks we should be up bright and early. So anyway, we set off by 7 AM, a commendable routine that we would faithfully adhere to, for the rest of the trek.
Today, the path winds through a forest-like stretch with small, gurgling streams – which cause this region’s version of minor traffic jams. An amazing aspect of the Annapurna Circuit is that we get our first sighting of snow-capped peaks at this very early stage of the route (and as I would discover, these sights get even more breath-taking further up). Manasulu and then Lumjung elicit plenty of oohs and aahs, as we walk with our necks craned upwards.
Chai break at Timang – a gorgeously beautiful setting with open meadows and the mountains around us, making the piping hot tea taste even better. End of day halt at Chamye is in a place better than the one in Dharapani.. perks include an open lawn facing the flowing waters of the Marsyangadi river (added bonus – the toilet in the lodge has a western commode. Seriously, what more can one ask for!).
V discovers a tiny hot spring buried under some big boulders alongside the river. He had stayed at the same tea house on his AC trip a dozen years ago, and happily recounts some nostalgic anecdotes.
Chamye – Upper Pisang
As dawn breaks, the first rays of the morning sun light up Lumjung’s peak with a glorious golden hue. In contrast, I’m holding a toothbrush in hand and staring, mouth agape. Lumjung escorts us through most of the day, and is joined after a while by the Queen of ‘em all – the Annapurna in her pristine glory (Annapurna 2, to be precise).
Today I learn about plumes – condensed clouds of snow dust that float atop peaks. For other ignoramuses like me, plumes are created by the immensely strong winds which blow snow off the top of these great peaks. This snow dust mixes with the moisture in the air and forms clouds that float away in the strong breeze. Mt. Everest’s plume for example, is estimated to span a distance of 15-20 kilometres.
Why do school textbooks say that clouds are only formed by evaporation and condensation of water from our oceans, rants B.. what about these ones created by these magnificent mountains, he asks. Why, indeed.
Today is also a day of unending visual delights – the show ain’t over yet. As we cross a really windy bridge, the ‘dome’ of Pisang comes into view. A massive expanse of rock covered by snow, with a thin wedge running through the centre. Not wanting to have such a spectacular sight remain without a name, B christens it as ‘the El Capitan of Pisang’.
On Dhurba’s recommendation, we choose Upper Pisang as our destination (as against Lower Pisang) and even after we get there, climb up to the highest point of the village to find a dwelling for the night – and are rewarded with stunning views of A2 and El Capitan, as we slurp our noodle soups.
There is also a splendidly built Gompa (monastery) right next door, with impressive murals and lovely architecture. Drawn to the gompa’s serene setting, we spend some very relaxing moments inside. Eyes closed, meditating, reflecting, introspecting. A calming end to a fantastic day.
Upper Pisang – Ngawal
As I walk down the next morning from the slopes of the Himalaya tea house, a familiar face greets me outside another lodge below. It turns out to be an ex-colleague from Bangalore, who’s also doing the Annapurna Circuit with his wife and 7- year old son (who is definitely the bravest seven year old I have ever met) . H used to sit in bay adjacent to me at work, and we’ve done some weekend cycling rides in the past. But I hadn’t seen him for ages, imagine running into him in a small village in Nepal at 12000 feet above sea level!
From Upper Pisang, we take a detour to Ngawal instead of the straight path to Manang, the ‘biews are better’ on that route. This involves negotiating a steep ascent via Ghreyu, a 400m uphill climb which makes my lungs scream at every turn. I look over my shoulder to A for inspiration. He has been down with a painful tooth infection since the previous day, has been on a steady dose of painkillers, and his steady pace is a testament of his mental strength.
But there is cosmic justice after all. As I huff and puff my way to the top of the hill, there is a roar from the mountain nearby – and I am witness to my first ever experience of seeing a snow avalanche at close quarters. In a few seconds, the slopes are shrouded by an enormous cloud of snow dust, as the avalanche cascades down. It is an awe inspiring sight (video), and also a reminder of the majesty of the mountains and one’s own insignificance in the larger scheme of things.
The second half of the trail is easier, and we check into the tea house at Ngawal by noon. The friendly lady there rustles up some fine food. B takes her pet apsos, Angel and Gava, for a walk around the village while the sun is still out. Soon, the breeze picks up and a chill sets in. We huddle in the warmth of the dining hall as little snowflakes start to fall. KV, who’s been fervently praying for some snow during the trek, has her wishes granted, and sets out for a walk under falling snowflakes for the first time in her life, a broad smile lighting up her face.
Ngawal – Manang
After heavy snowfall the previous evening, the morning luckily dawns clear. We have an easy day today – Manang is only about 3 hours away, and is actually at an altitude lower than Ngawal. It’s a leisurely trek, stopping at Brakha for some delicious Cinnamon and Danish rolls at a German bakery (we were told of its existence the previous night by some fellow trekkers at our tea house – world famous in Brakha, I suppose).
Manang is among the largest villages on this route – shops selling trekking gear, a fair sprinkling of largish tea houses, a nice coffee shop, where I drool over the freshly brewed coffee – it’s the first time I get to have caffeine after we started trekking. KV & V decide to order the yak burger on offer.
Since we are at Manang pretty early in the day, I hike up for a short trek up a nearby hill with B & V to Chorsar point (3800m), which ends right at the foot of the Gangapurna glacier. Spectacular close-ups of the glacier are on offer, plus a panoramic view of the Gangapurna taal and the river plains below. Also make a trip to the lake while coming down – the green coloured, still waters of the lake framed by mountains all around is among the most picturesque sights I have ever seen.
Glacial water contains tiny bits of rock and minerals called “rock flour” in suspension from the grinding action of the glacier. The rock particles refract the green spectrum of the sun’s light, so the water appears GREEN.
Manang also offers other entertainment options and since we have time on our hands, we end up in one of the local cinemas to see ‘Seven Years In Tibet’. The theme (a climber’s story of redemption) and the plea the movie makes for Tibet’s freedom, are an appropriate fit for our general mood, and triggers conversations over dinner later.
Manang – Yakkharka
We’ve now got super-efficient at our early morning start routine. After a delicious breakfast of fried eggs and toast, we leave Manang behind in the morning haze. A 500m ascent is the order of the day, which will get us to Yakkharka, and also to a 4000m altitude. The first half of the route is ardous, with a steep hike around a mountain right after we begin.
Mid-route break at Gumsang. End up chatting with N, who runs the lone tea house there. He is originally from Colorado, but a love of the mountains brought him to Nepal for the first time a decade ago. He then made a trip every year, and finally ended up marrying the daughter of the original owner of the tea house about a year ago, and has now made Gumsang his home. “I am not rich, but I have a wealth of peace and quiet here”, he says, and it seems unlikely that he will return to the country where he spent a large part of his life.
The weather at Yakkharka stays true to the now familiar pattern – warm and sunny when we get there, but very soon turning frosty, with heavy snow fall. This time, all of us get out and horse around in the snow for a bit. V even makes a mini-snowman.
But we are back inside very soon. I try to get some part of my foot edge-wise near the heater in the dining room. Dumb charades, scrabble, etc. get us through the afternoon, with cups of steaming ginger lemon tea.
At this height, the altitude starts becoming a factor in all your planning, and we have multiple chats about how slow or fast do we schedule our route from here. A fellow trekker from Israel is heli-rescued back to Pokhara after displaying acute symptoms of Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). Another lady in the dining room is down with hypothalmia. It was relatively easy going till now, things will start to get exciting from here on.
Yakkharka – Thorung Phedi
A tough, but spectacular day. All that snow from the previous day has turned everything into a sea of white. It also means that one has to be careful while walking, and look out for stretches of ‘black-ice’ – slippery as hell, but more importantly, difficult to spot sometimes over black rock.
The day is about gorgeously beautiful, milky white scenery all around, but comes with a treacherous down slope about halfway into the route, just before a bridge. It’s about half a kilometre of steep descent on a narrow, zig-zaggy, snow-covered trail, and has to be negotiated with extreme caution. Right after the bridge, a brutal, but (thankfully) short climb up a hill leads to chai-break stop, where the tea tastes heavenly. Reach our destination at Thorung Phedi just in time, as the snow begins its now customary routine again.
The Thorung Phedi lodge has the best dining room of the trek by far. Large, warm and open, with double glazed glass windows and groovy music too – the familiar sound of Bob Dylan’s raspy vocals greet me as I walk-in, and the bar (music-wise, I mean) remains high through the day. I settle down at a large table with my book and decide that I’m not going to get up till evening. The other guys go out for an acclimatisation walk, but I am not convinced enough to give up my cozy nook.
Earlier in the day, just before the stretch of the tricky descent, we saw a mother yak deliver her baby right next to the trail. Expectedly, she soon attracted a crowd. I stayed for a couple of minutes and left, didn’t wait till baby yak came out. Actually, am unsure about what I feel about this whole thing. Is this part of the natural cycle of life, like so many other things that I have seen and experienced on this trek. Or does the yak deserve her moment of privacy, and not have a score of trekkers watching her give birth ( I try to imagine how the wife would’ve felt if there was a bunch of yaks watching her when A1-A2 were born.).
Like I said, not sure where I stand. I walked away pondering over this one.
Btw, if you’re interested, the scene was also captured on video. General reactions : beautiful, moving.
Thorung Phedi – Thorung La
D-day. We have decided to change our original plan of staying a night at HighCamp. So today, it’s a straight climb from Phedi (4500m) to HighCamp (4900m) to Thorung la (5416m), and then all the way down to Muktinath (3800m). All this in about a foot and a half of snow. In other words, a heck of a long day.
Its 3:45 AM as we start on the trail to HighCamp, our head lamps shooting white beams of light through the darkness on a half-moon night. The stiff breeze feels bone-chillingly cold, the altitude leaves me short of breath ever so often. V and I do the 75-step routine – walk 75 steps, pause, deep exhale 5 times, walk 75 steps, rinse, repeat. It works. In about an hour we join fellow trekkers beginning their day at the High Camp tea house over porridge, boiled eggs and tea.
Dawn breaks. The all encompassing whiteness of the landscape reflected against the sun is almost blinding to the eye. It’s bewitching to stand and stare, but in A’s words, snow is nice to look at, but tough to deal with. I trudge slowly along a narrow, almost invisible trail, carefully trying to find footprints of other trekkers as they are our only guide to a sure footing. Walking sticks are put to maximum use. We poke, prod and anchor them in the snow for balance, fully aware that one false step will take you sliding down the icy slopes and buried in tons of snow.
It’s probably the altitude playing tricks with our minds, but feels like a never ending journey to the pass. Every ascent leads to yet another uphill, and it takes an agonizingly long time (four hours, but seemed way longer) to finally get to Thorung La. Immense relief, much Hi-fis and posing for pictures ensues. Hungrily wolf down the tastiest veg noodle soup ever made, and begin descent to Muktinath.
Thorung La – Muktinath
The descent to Muktinath makes the first part of the day look easier, at first. The downslopes leads to a lot slipping and falling. All of us have our share of landing on our bums in the snow at least once. V has a pair of crampons in his day pack, which he gives to K and A. A gives me a tip on how to tackle snowy descents – land heel first, do the Charlie Chaplin walk with your feet diagonally outwards. I slowly get a hang of it, but it’s still a long stretch to cover – all 1600 metres of it. After an eternally long effort, clearly the longest of the trek by far, warily troop into Muktinath after 4 PM. A 12 hour trek today, but worth savouring every minute of it.
As I walk down the main street of this revered temple town in search of the tea house that my friends must have carefully chosen, I pass by a Bob Marley restaurant. If he was alive, this is the last place on earth where Bob Marley would’ve expected a fan club. We are like this only, maaaan!.
Muktinath – Jomsom – Pokhara – Kathmandu
We had initially thought about going further down from Muktinath to Ghorepani and take in Poon hill also, but decide to drop plans. KV’s daughter back home is unwell, she wants to get to Kathmandu and head back home. The rest of us also decide then that Thorung La has provided a perfect end to a great trek, and decide to chill out for a couple of days at Pokhara / Kathmandu, before we return to our respective home bases.
The road that has now come up on this side of the route has means that there is a regular stream of jeeps and two wheelers downstream from Muktinath to Jomsom, so it’s not such a great idea anymore to cover this part of the AC trek route by foot. We take a combination of jeep+bus rides from Muktinath, which takes us to Jomsom via the scenic plains of Kagbeni, along the Kali Gandaki river.
Reach Pokhara on Nepali new years’ eve. As down our drinks at nearby waterhole, there is lots of gaiety and celebration around us. Festivities end reasonably early in the night though. Its 11 PM and ours is the only table that is occupied. And obviously, none of us have reached our alocohol threshold levels either (exception being Bond of course. A teetotaller!).
A pleasant walk the next morning around the lake in Pokhara, with a decent view of Machupichure, the fish-tailed peak. . Spend a lazy morning exploring the coffee shops and other knick knacks on offer. I like Pokhara better than Thamel. More relaxed, and has more character.
So after 2 weeks, we are finally back at Kathmandu. A and B have a tradition of doing a grand dinner at the exquisite Garden of Dreams after their earlier Nepal treks, so we continue the tradition. Garden of Dreams is an erstwhile palace which has now been converted into a wonderfully done expanse of green, and open to the public.
Beautiful landscaped gardens, fountains, exotic flowers… its like an discovering an oasis just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Thamel. A place where one can spend a lovely evening walking around, followed by dinner at the restaurant inside.
K, B and V are leaving the next day, while A & I will spend a day more in Kathmandu. So this the last evening when all of us are around. We clink our glasses for a celebratory toast, recount our favourite stories and moments of the trek. As usual, there is incessant chatter and laughter.
A memorable evening to end a magical two weeks.