A long trek sometime around the summer has become a much awaited annual event. As the new calendar year came up, friends who I had done last year’s Annapurna Circuit trek with, started throwing up options again. After a fair bit of back and forth on WhatsApp, we finally zeroed in on Stok Kangri in Ladakh. The chief motivation for some was the thought of a 6000m+ summit climb. If you are mainly a trekker (not a climber) and want to have a 6K+ on your resume, Stok Kangri is supposed to be the one to tick.
For me though, just the lure of trekking in Ladakh was motivation enough. I’d read and heard so much about the unique landscape there, plus the fact I’d never been to J&K before made it really alluring. July- Aug was the best time weather-wise, so we locked it for then.
For the onward journey, the plan was go by road from Srinagar to Leh to help with the acclimatisation. We were lucky to drive past just a day before a huge landslide along the route caused a massive traffic pile-up tens of Kms long. The road trip was super fun, good decision in hindsight.
Leh turned out to be a great location – typical trekking-base town, nice to hang out. Visited the lovely monasteries, hung out at the cafes.. even did some rafting on the Indus (the river’s very muddy, more apt to call it ‘brown water rafting’).
Also took in Pangong lake. Beautiful, spectacularly beautiful. The scene that unfolds as you reach there after a long drive.. the unending stretch of shimmering, turquoise water framed by gorgeous mountains. Just takes your breath away. Totally worth making a trip to Leh just for this one vista. And you better go there soon, before the 3 Idiots fan base makes this place look like Juhu beach.
The Ladakh terrain is stunning. Such a visual treat. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy trekking through a mostly barren landscape, but it just blew me away. Couldn’t get enough of the magnificent mountains in their different hues and the saw-toothed peaks, the deep gorges which made you feel like you’ve walked into the set of Mackenna’s Gold. Uff. Will remain etched in memory.
Ate Maggi. In one kutti tea stall near Chang La pass, where the lady owner had a key to use the loo. Divine. (the noodles, not the…. never mind).
Got lucky with the weather. Most of the time. Avoided the landslide. During the trek, made it to camp just seconds before the heavens opened up, two days in a row. Was generally warmer in the daytime than what I had expected, but the weather changed quickly, especially as we went closer to the top.
Summit attempt got scuttled by the weather, though. We picked the best time of the year for this trek, so it was extremely unusual to see this much snow near the peak. A 12 hour summit trek in good weather conditions was made almost impossible by thigh deep snow after base camp. Some of the folks in the groups were a bit despondent on coming so close, and not making it to the top.
Didn’t matter much. I sign up for these trips because I love to be in these mountains. Period. (Cue for the cliché – like life, these treks are about the journey and not the destination – but this line, I totally believe in). Staking a claim on top of a peak is not what it’s about, for me. Also interesting to see the language that is used in general, for these endeavours – we use terms like “I conquered the peak” etc. Almost as if we are at war and these glorious creations of nature are an adversary to be defeated. In a way, it’s good to be reminded of our utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
Was reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction during the trek. The impact of human lifestyles on the planet is felt most in these high mountainous regions.. Seeing it unfold via these unpredictable weather patterns made her message more relevant. Climate change is real. Glad I’m not going to be around when we get to the part of scything our own feet with the axe (bad translation, sorry).
A big shout out to Rimo, the outfit which organized the whole thing. The food (by far the best I’ve had on a trek) , guide- member ratio, everything was way above expectations. Got majorly spoilt. Three cheers to Kon Chok, Nono, Purphu and Tserring for sheperding us at all times – you guys were awesome!
Overall, wonderful time spent in the magnificent Himalayas, as always. So many great memories. The usual suspects from last year – Bond, KV (strutting-her-new-Down) , Ved… and the friends who I trekked with for the first time – full-of-grit Manpreet, Anto (the boy who wanted to see snow , a.k.a JMMABC ). Thanks for an amazing time, guys… Here’s to next year.
The wife decided to get on a Himalayan trek, after a long break. Goecha La in Sikkim was our last one together, 7 years ago. Leaving A1-A2 to deal with life on their own for 2 weeks was a difficult call, but glad that we did.
Made this one special.
On the last morning, as we were driving to Leh airport for our flight back, we passed a billboard for the Ladakh marathon. We both had the same thought – 7 years older we may be, but also much fitter – coming back next year, for sure. :-)
Day 1: Delhi – Srinagar – Mulbekh
A boisterous reunion of old friends from last year’s Annapurna Circuit trek at Delhi airport. Ved, Bond, KV and yours truly comprise the usual suspects meeting again – happy memories are recalled, and fresh ones beckon. Some new faces this time: Vani, Manpreet and Anto, who’s the youngest of the lot and is promptly christened by Manpreet as JMMABC (Junior Most Member At our Beck & Call ). Anto’s farthest journey north of Bangalore till now has been work trips to Gurgaon and he is left wondering what he’s got himself into. :-)
Our itinerary has been planned such that we don’t fly directly into high-altitude Leh. Instead, we take the flight to Srinagar and intend to drive to Leh from there over 2 days, to hopefully help in the acclimatisation. Rimo Expeditions, the outfit which we have planned the trek with, has sent two minivans to receive us at Srinagar airport. We load up all the bags in one, and herd into the other one – much more fun to spend two days on the road this way.
A bonus that I had not expected as we drive through Srinagar is the view of the lovely Dal lake. Ornately decorated houseboats are parked along its banks and a few shikaras gently glide along the placid water. Further on, breakfast stop is next to Naagin lake, which is another scenic setting. Ved has generously carted a bottle of Talisker through multiple airports in the UK and India. Much to the disapproval of Manpreet & Bond (and Avtar via Whatsapp !), it is duly opened and makes a great companion for the overcast conditions and crackling company.
Mulbekh, our destination for the day, turns out to be a longish drive which pretty much stretches through the entire day. We encounter a minor traffic jam caused by a mini-landslide enroute. Again, Ved is quick to offer wordly pleasures, this time of an err…. slightly organic variety. So Vani gets the chance to have a fairly intoxicating birthday. Luckily, a bulldozer quickly clears the way, and we are off soon.
The drive also takes us via the Drass region and we stop by the Kargill war memorial. My feelings about ideas of nations, borders, wars, etc. are markedly out of place in this kind of setting. Everyone else is overwhelmed with a fair bit of emotion as they walk around the place, especially near the soldiers’ graves.
The “camp” at Mulbekh (Camp Horizon) is actually a luxurious place, more like a resort. I get my first inkling that Rimo is going to provide us comforts that I have not experienced on any other trek before.
Day 2: Mulbekh – Leh
The day dawns bright and sunny. I look up and hope that the rain stays away for the rest of the trek too. Today’s drive is a shorter one, we hope to reach Leh by early afternoon. As we drive through, I get my first visual experience of how different the Ladakh landscape is from other Himalayan treks I have done in India and Nepal. Stark, imposing mountains of various hues with saw-toothed peaks of loom all around us, offering a stunning, and at times, almost surreal experience. We stop at the Lamayuru monastery enroute, which is ensconced in the middle of one such range. As I gaze around, it’s incredible to see the sheer number of colours in a single visual frame. Spectacularly beautiful.
Leh is very much the typical trekking-base-town. A bustling market in the centre with shops peddling trekking gear and itineraries, and smallish hotels all over. We’ve been booked at hotel Kang La Chen – a comfortable place with a responsive staff. Also meet Yangdu, who runs Rimo along with her husband Motub. Go over all the logistics again. Head over to their warehouse to try out the snow boots & crampons that we have rented for our summit attempt and get our boot sizes locked. Kon Chok Thinles, who is going to be our guide on the trek, sets low expectations of a successful summit attempt by warning us that there is thigh-deep snow at the top caused by extremely unusual rain and snowfall for this time of the year.
A few folks head out for a walk up to the local monastery and the Leh palace, while some us walk through the market area. My sunglasses broke earlier in the day, I pick one up in one of the shops. Dinner is at the nearby World Garden café – thukpa, pizza, hummus with falafel & pita bread, fried rice. Clearly, the fare on offer reflects the clientele that frequents the place. It seems to be a favourite of the firang crowd. The food’s pretty good too.
Day 3: Trip to Pangong Lake
I am usually not a fan of spending an inordinate amount of time on ‘tick-off’ type locations. Today’s plan is a 6 hour drive to see Pangong lake, spend about an hour there and drive all the way back. A large portion of the drive is also through very rocky terrain, so it’s good that we decide to split ourselves into two vehicles, all the swaying from side-to-side would have made it really uncomfortable otherwise.
We cross Chang La pass enroute which is at a height of 17500+ feet. Blustery winds and the altitude has its effect and a few in the group are hit by some mild AMS symptoms. But it’s also good preparation for what lies ahead in the trek. We don’t hang around too long, and set off for Pangong.
And boy, did Pangong lake prove me wrong as being just a tick-off place! An unending stretch of turquoise blue water framed by gorgeous mountains all around. The unique colour of the water comes from the inter-play of glacier water and the reflection of surrounding landscape. Spectacular sight, words fail to describe what you feel.. you just have to see it to believe it.
The sour note is that post the runaway success of ‘3 Idiots’, this once serene and magical place is now becoming a must-see for hordes of tourists. Friends who were here 5 years ago talk about seeing only one tiny chai-ka-tapri then. Now, there are at least a dozen places which have sprung up, with names like Rancho Café, 3-Idiots point , etc. Sad, but inevitable, I guess. If I ever come here again after a few years, I fully expect this place to resemble Juhu beach.
By the time we head back, the little rivulets that we saw on our way up have now become gushing torrents that requires skilful navigation by Lob Zang, our driver. I also notice that he keeps looking out from the windshield from time to time at the mountain alongside. The reason, as he tells us later, is landslides. They are as dangerous in the summer as avalanches are in the winter. Ever so casually, he points to a huge rock that has wedged into the side of the road and says, “isne kal do logon ko maar dala” (gulp! ).
The mountains are gorgeous, and also deadly.
Day 4: Leh to Sumdo Camp (3650m /12000 ft)
A bitter sweet day. We bid adieu to Ved, who had to get back to London for some unavoidable commitments. He’s come all the way till Leh during his India break, just to spend some time with us this year. We’ll miss you, champ.
But after 3 days of mostly being inside a moving car, today is when we’ll finally get to walk a bit on our feet. Of course, we still have to drive for about an hour and half to get to Sumdo, which is our camp for the day. Take in the Thiksey monastery on the way, a 600 year old shrine which expectedly draws huge crowds.
Camp Sumdo is on a small patch of green next to a gurgling stream. I continue to be pleasantly surprised at Rimo’s levels of service – the dining tent which has been set up on the camp site has a proper dining table (with a tablecloth!), dining chairs, nice crockery and cutlery laid out. After a sumptuous 3-course lunch, we set out for a short 2-3 hour walk, to acclamatise. It’s a very hot afternoon.. though we are at an altitude of 12000 feet, almost feels like a peak sumer day back home.
A bit of a crisis happens during the walk – the sole of one of Vani’s shoe comes off (the learning here is that this usually happens if these shoes are left to hibernate for the rest of the year between treks. The glue that binds the sole to the bottom of the shoe is prone to come unstuck during this time). Multiple options are evaluated. We finally settle on getting a new pair from Leh, since we are still not that far away from town. Kon Chok sprints back to camp to catch a Sherpa who’s taking another group back to Leh, just in time. A deal is struck, and Vani is promised that she will have a new pair by dawn the next day.
Day 5: Sumdo to Shang Phu (4300m / 14100 ft)
Our first proper day of trekking. Kon Chok did the drill with us the previous evening – bags to be packed and ready to loaded on the horses by 6.30, finish breakfast and leave by 7AM. Like good, obedient children, everyone is raring to go by that time. Today is estimated to be a 6-7 hour walk. The higher altitude probably makes for some cooler weather, so it’s nice and pleasant to walk. We stop for chai at a local village home where we are offered barley seeds along with the tea. Nono, our other guide, describes it as RedBull for treks. Way healthier than Red Bull, definitely.
The highlight of the day are the multiple river crossings enroute, which involve first changing from trekking shoes to sandals, negotiating the swirling currents and freezing water while desperately clinging on to our guides for support, and leap to the other side with joy. Much fun.
Rimo’s delight-your-customer routine means that we don’t have to trudge hungrily and reach camp site to earn our next meal. Instead, lunch has been carried inside hot boxes by Kon Chok/Nono. We are served burgers, salad, baked potatoes and freshly cut water melon in what must be among the most picturesque setting that I have had lunch in. The lovely meal definitely deserves a post-lunch siesta.
Shang Phu seems fairy occupied, there are other groups on their way back from Markha valley who have also camped here. The wind is blowing hard, good ambience for gup-shup, chai and feasting on baakarwadi & other munchies that we have carried along.
Late, we get to witness a remarkable scene. In what can only be described as the ‘The Great Farm animal Migration’, hundreds of sheep, rams, horses, cows, mules, etc. descend from the slopes of the adjacent mountain to (presumably) get to their home on the other side, with our camp site right in the middle. A few of these brave souls also visit our kitchen tent to say hello, much to the irritation of our cook and other staff.
Day 6: Shang Phu – Shang La (4950m) – Gyanpoche (4350m)
This group scores high on punctuality, we are all set to go at 6:55 AM, catching Kon Chok a bit off guard . Sheepishly, he tells us about a desi group that he came with earlier in the season, where folks would start stirring inside their tents at 7 AM. Today is expected to be a long day – a steep ascent of 600m to cross Shang la pass, then another smaller pass and finally some more distance to cover before we hit the next camp site at Gyanpoche. The trek up to Shang La totally lives up to its billing of being a bloody tough one. The gradient meets us as soon as we start and breaths start getting shorter. I adopt my tried and trusted method: walk 100 steps, stop, 5 deep breaths, repeat. By the time the pass is in sight, 100 has become 75 steps and then 40 as I close on the final climb. Dead tired but exhilarated, everyone lets out a whoops of victory on making it to the top. A fierce gust, the cold and the altitude mean that we don’t hang around for too much time there. A quick huddle for a group picture, and we are off.
The next section though, is a real pleasure. Mostly descents or flat stretches, with rolling hills and green meadows. Traipsing merrily, humming along the way, a happy bunch reassembles for lunch at one such pastoral point, raring to finish the rest of the day’s schedule. As I discover later, this is easier felt than done.
The smaller pass (without a name), though not as high as Shang La, is not a pushover by any means. Bond sprints ahead of everyone else as always. After a fair bit of huffing and puffing, when I finally get there myself, I am surprised to find him plonked on the ground, disappointment writ large on his weary face. He points ahead and shows me why – though we can clearly see our camp from where we are (a distance of only about 1.5Km as the crow flies), the actual route to get there winds its way across several mountains, which will make it about a 4-5 times longer journey.
The trail is a tricky one too. An extremely narrow path, just one shoe-wide, with the steep slope of the mountain alongside almost causing vertigo, forcing us to tread gingerly at every step. By now, an already long and ardous day was becoming worse for me – a bad sinus and headache led to its usual outcome, and I throw up my entire lunch from earlier in the day. Dark clouds have begun to form overhead, and there are loud claps of ominous sounding thunderclouds. I straggle into our camp just as the raindrops begin to fall, which is also followed by a hailstorm. I spend the rest of the day flat inside my tent, save for some soup at dinner. The pelting rain has made it impossible to step out, so KV takes over Ved’s role from the previous trek and becomes chief entertainer for the evening with some skilful DJ-ing .
Day 7: Gyanpoche – Matho La (4940m) – Manrkarma
A good night’s sleep can do wonders, plus waking up to this gorgeous sight of misty clouds floating over snow covered mountains, is a panacea for almost anything. I feel refreshed and ready to take on the day. Toda’s effort is a slightly easier version of yesterday. We first head to Matho la pass which is at the same height as Shang la. The rain from yesterday has made temperatures dip, so out come the thick jackets, beanies, gloves, etc. The cold weather makes it longer for the body to get warmed up, it’s tough to get going. But maybe the previous day’s experience helps, and the gradients are not as steep today, but Matho La feels a bit easier relatively. Vani starts to get some AMS symptoms and slows down considerably, but we all make in good time to the pass.
In contrast from yesterday, the latter half of the trek is a breeze. There are a couple of river crossings to deal with, that’s all. By now , we have become pros at this stuff. No more doing the shoes-to-sandals, etc.. now it’s just hop, skip and jump over some stones across the water (of course, with dollops of hand holding support from Kon Chok and Nono – they deftly place some large rocks to make it easy for us to cross). But just so that we don’t carried away, the last crossing before we hit Gyanboche camp turns out to be beyond even their abilities, so it’s back to the sandal routine again.
Incredibly, for the second consecutive day, we make it to camp just before the rains come down. Our horses haven’t reached, but luckily, there is a small tented dhaba kind of place where we open our packed lunch, along with much needed garam chai.
The Stok Kangri peak is supposed to be visible from this site, but the cloudy day rules out any chance of a dekko. Now that we are two days away, conversation during dinner that night veers towards the chances of making a successful summit attempt. Being the practical realist (or cynic, depending on which way you look at it) that I am, I am already dealing with the fact that it’s going to a very tough ask – a 11-12 hour trek in biting cold, a 1200m climb in unfamiliar gear (boots, crampons, etc) combined with Kon Chok’s earlier comments on unusually heavy rain and snow at the top.
Being able to summit or not doesn’t bother me much, though. For me, these treks are about a lot more than just trying to stake a claim atop a peak. I just love being in the mountains, and every time I come to this part of the world, I always carry joyous memories back with me. This one has been no different.
Day 8: Mankarma to Base Camp (4900m)
Overnight rain gives way to a clear morning, which gives a clear sighting of the Stok kangri peak. Today, we will hit base camp. It’s a short 3 hour trek, though the increasing altitude will make it imperative to be alert to any AMS symptoms. We also sight some of the fauna that resides in these altitudes. We are traversing marmot territory now.. furry, largish-squirrel like creatures that dart across from time to time, and quickly dive into their holes if we try and come too close. After the pass crossings of the previous two days, today’s effort feels much easier, though it’s the same climb ascent-wise.
As soon as we hit Base camp, it is christened as ‘downtown Stok’. It’s quite obvious that multiple groups have been camping here over the last couple of days. The place is teeming with tents of all hues and sizes. The sun’s out as we troop in, but Kon Chok advises us to be well protected as the weather in these parts can vary significantly within minutes. So out come the Downs and the thermals. A few of the guides start kicking a foot ball around, and others join in.
Here too, there’s a dhaba kind of place, where we meet Jay from Ahmedabad. He’s come riding to Leh on his 150cc motorbike, all alone (unlike the numerous ‘Bullet bikers’ that we had seen down below). Jay has just returned from a summit attempt the night before. He had to turn back because of too much snow and bad weather, but isn’t too disappointed. By his own admission, the coldest temperature he had ever experienced before this trip was 7 degrees C, and he had never seen snow before. He’s been travelling all over the country over the last couple of years, and has been through 17 states. Interesting character.
Surprisingly, base camp offers network connectivity, while none of the places enroute while coming up had any signal. (Note: BSNL and Airtel only. Vodafone didn’t have coverage even in Leh, so Vani & I were both pretty much unreachable throughout this whole trek). The word going around is that the best spot for getting a clear signal is a short hike up a nearby hill. Worth the effort. Luckily, Bond and Anto both are on Airtel, so calls are made to reassure near and dear ones that all’s well.
The weather has been a show stopper for almost everyone at base camp. We hear a few accounts of groups abandoning summit attempts because of heavy snow along the route to the summit. Apparently, amongst the 70-80 people who have been up here, only 5 or 6 were able to successfully summit in the last couple of days. This puts a bit of a dampener on the general mood in our group. Personally though, I am happy to just spend the couple of days that we have here and just deal with whatever happens. Summit conquests are not what I trek for. To use a cliché, I strongly subscribe to the idea of a trek like this being not about the destination, but about the journey.
While I have only trekked in these mountain ranges and not done any “climbing” myself, I find it interesting to note the kind of language that we use in climbing – conquering the peak, etc. –akin to terms used in war. Maybe we sub-consciously see these mountains and peaks as an adversary to be defeated. Probably, in our sub-conscious, a summit attempt is like fighting a battle – pitting our physical and mental abilities, with victory establishing our hegemony over these magnificent creations of nature.
As afternoon turns into evening, rain clouds gather and soon it starts pouring. From a summit attempt perspective, not a good sign at all.
Day 9: Hiking around Base Camp
It’s been a case of incessant rain from yesterday afternoon, all through the night. Scuttles any chance of a summit attempt for anyone who had planned for it. While having breakfast, we see the French group who had camped with us earlier on, packing up and heading back after 2 unsuccessful night at the summit attempt. Anyone who has gone up talks about thigh-deep snow, conditions which make a peak summit attempt almost impossible. Others are leaving too, and suddenly base camp looks much less crowded.
Today, our plan is go up a few hundred metres along the route to the peak, and get a feel for the snow boots, crampons, ice axes, etc. The boots feel heavy at first, but I soon get used to them, and can imagine how useful they would be in conditions like the one we have been hearing about, enroute the Stok kangri peak. An ardous climb up a hill to start with, offers a clear sighting of the Stok Kangri peak. After continuing further for about an hour and a half, we reach the area designated by our guides as the ‘get-used-to-the-equipment-and-also-have-some-fun’. We tie up our crampons beneath the boots and start practising uphill and downhill drills on a small hill. Some one snows a snowball, and it soon catches on. The ‘Çharlie Chaplin’ walk with crampons results in a fair amount of slipping and falling, and there is mirth and laughter all around. The grand finale is for everyone to go up the hill, and then slide down the slope in free fall while lying flat on your back. Overall, great fun. Getting back to camp is much faster, it’s all pretty much downhill.
Since we now have a feel for the gear to be worn for the summit attempt, it’s now time to decide who all are actually going to give it a shot. A couple of folks are uncomfortable with the heavy snow boots, and wary of trying to walk for upwards of 12 hours in them. After some deliberation, Bond, Anto and KV decide to make an attempt starting later at mid-night. I decide to join Vani & Manpreet and start later in the morning, to see if we can go for some part of the route. The big X-factor is the weather of course, conditions have proven to be very unfavourable for any attempt.
The rain stays away today. A bunch of British teenagers (who’ve been hanging around here for 2-3 days, and getting bored and fidgety, I suppose) , start playing volleyball, and one of them unfortunately dislocates his shoulder. Some hastily arranged first-aid is administered, but the boy is wincing in pain.. not a pretty sight. Kon Chok, who’s been watching all this unfold, wryly shakes his head and quips “mountain mein masti accha nahin hai’’.
We have an early supper instead of dinner, so that the three folks who are planning to give a shot at the summit at midnight can go to bed early.
Day 10 : Base Camp – Stok Village – Leh
I wake up at dawn and see a cloudy sky. My first thought is that it’s going to be really tough going for those who have braved the cold and set out at midnight for a summit attempt. The three of us hike up the familiar route from yesterday, but the misty clouds make even a last sighting of the Stok Kangri peak difficult. We then see our other trio coming back with heavy hearts. Thigh-deep snow from the glacier onwards has made them abandon any chance of making the summit, and trudge back. It’s a similar story for almost everyone who decided to go up, except for a couple of Norwegian looking types who also seem like seasoned, hardy mountaineers. In the two days that we have spent at Base camp, among the almost 100 people that were/are around, only a handful of folks have managed a successful summit attempt.
I have been reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction through this trek. It’s a compelling account of what she defines as the ‘anthropocene’ era, which basically is a nice-sounding word to describe the trail of destruction that homo sapiens has been leaving on the planet. The highly unusual weather at Stok Kangri for this time of the year is a stark manifestation of the havoc that we are wreaking by just being who we are, as a species. We urban dwellers bemoan our unseasonal showers and increasingly hot summers, but it is in the mountains that the true impact of our carbon footprint is felt. Climate change is undeniably something humans are wholly and solely responsible for…and when nature conspires like this, scuttling well laid plans, our grand ambitions of conquering the mountains, etc. , in a way, it’s good to be reminded of our utter insignificance in the larger scheme of things.
We decide to head back directly to Leh by evening, via the shorter route down. After passing Makarma, a different route will lead us directly to Stok Village. Walking through this section makes you feel as if you’ve wandered into the sets of Mackenna’s Gold – deep gorges flanked by the now familiar mountain landscape with the qunique, saw-toothed peaks.. I walk along, totally spellbound by the spectacular visage all around.
Its late evening by the time we hit the village. Turns out that there is a transport strike in Leh, so the vehicle which is coming to take us back will be delayed. We while away time with some beer, omelettes and conversation at a local restaurant. The hotel that we stayed in at Leh more than week ago is fully booked this time, but Kon Chok manages to get another place – Goba Guest house, which doesn’t sound too inviting. Turns out to be perfect though – after 10 days of living in tents, we are longing for a nice room, cosy beds, clean bathrooms, and it’s got all that and more. After a sumptuous dinner in the warn dining room, we crash out.
Day 11/12: Chilling in Leh
We have 2 days before our scheduled return flight to Delhi, and everybody makes their own plans. Bond has to attend some event a his daughter’s school , so we bid adieu to him. KV and Anto decide to head out to Nubra valley and spend a night there. The rest of us hang around in Leh. There’s enough to do. We have leisurely breakfasts in the balcony of the guest house which overlloks a lovely vegetable garden, make a visit to the famed Hemis monastery, hang out at the local cafes, do some touristy shopping. Rimo also organises white water rafting on the Indus river, so we sign up for that on the morning of the 2nd day – te rafting is a 25 Km trip down the Indus, with decent rapids (Grade 3 ish)… great fun. KV & Anto return to Leh by late afternnon, and we have dinner at this Tibetan Kitchen, a popular restaurant in town, which incidentally is owned by the chap whose guest house we are staying in.
So finally, two weeks after we came in, it’s time to say goodbye to Leh. As we drive to the airport, we see posters advertising the Ladakh marathon, which is scheduled in a couple of months. Vani and I look at each other, identical thoughts running in our heads.. Coming back to run next year, for sure!
Summer break at school. Neither V nor I are fans of sending the boys to any “character forming summer camps”. No long vacation plans this summer either, which has meant that A1/A2 are at home most of the time. Mom’s visiting for the holidays, so it’s probably good that she gets to see more of them.
Even after accounting for their football/basketball stints and the many hours on the Xbox, there’s still time to kill. A2 is the hyperactive one, and being the voracious reader that he has always been, scours his large bookshelf for anything new and interesting. It’s Friday evening, there is a bandh in the city the next day (library will be shut), so the weekend potentially looms without new books to read. He’s in a phase where’s he’s finished pretty much the entire young adult fiction genre probably twice over, and is re-reading Harry Potter titles in desperation, half a decade after he first raced through the series.
I’ve tried to get him into P.G Wodehouse in the past, he didn’t seem to like it much (I still harbour hopes that he will pick it up again). We all gather around our favourite bookshelf at home, trying to pick out a book from our collection, one that will pique his interest.
And then I see it, the familiar stark white cover with just the name of the book and the author. I tell A2 that he might relate well to this one. Am just about to give him more context on what its about, when I suddenly have a better idea. I read out the opening sentence of the book, aloud:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it. ”
A2’s eyes light up as I think it would, we exchange smiles as he takes the novel from me and goes to his favourite reading perch in the balcony.
I was a few years older than him when I first read Catcher In The Rye. An hour or so later, he looks up at me.. my eyebrows go up in inquiry… he nods, says ‘good’ with a smile. Nostalgia overwhelms me, and my eyes well up.
The next day, in a family whatsapp conversation, in response to some mild admonishment from V on the boys not coming with us for a Carnatic concert, A2’s response is on expected lines – ‘I don’t care’, reads his message…. but now, it also comes with a suffix: “#Holden Caulfield”
(I can almost visualise him grinning with glee while typing that hashtag)
The most famous account of teenage angst and rebellion ever written in the history of English fiction, has just found another generation.
Mr. Spock intersected my life over two phases, separated by about two decades. The first phase, like many of my generation, was via the Sunday sermons that I spent the whole week waiting for – the 10.30-11.30 AM slot every Sunday morning was religiously devoted to watching him and the other crew members of Starship Enterprise navigate the galaxy on their exciting adventures.
Apart from being deeply fascinated and influenced by his logical and emotion-less approach to everyone and everything, I also had a quirky personal connection. My abnormally large-sized ears (they probably looked even larger on my 12-year-old-self) prompted an uncle to anoint me with the same sobriquet as the Vulcan. Even though it was a source of much mirth for others in the family, I was secretly very thrilled to be called by this nickname.
The second time Spock shaped my thinking, albeit in an indirect sort of way, was in my thirties. That was when I was sorting out where I stood on matters of faith, belief, etc. Among all the literature that I read on the subject at the time, one article has been lasting in its impact – an essay by this gent who calls himself Mr. Lizard.
Mr. Spock features prominently in this piece. In a way, it was fitting that he had a role in leading me to my atheist affirmation.
You Lived Long And Prospered, Mr. Spock. RIP.
<pic credit: @lillie_80 on Twitter>
I have quoted an excerpt from the above mentioned essay in one of my earlier posts, but it’s worth reproducing here in full. Superb read.
More Fictional Than Thou
Presented for your consideration: Two gentlemen, both with what one might term a mild delusion — they are deeply involved with people who don’t exist. Both spend a lot of money on this obsession. Both can recite, at length, the putative words, thoughts, and deeds of their fictional obsessions. Both have allowed the ideals expressed by these non-existent beings to shape their lives, and both proudly proclaim their allegience in a sect of followers. Despite this odd obsession, both men hold down jobs, have families, pay taxes, and commit no more than trivial crimes, such as jaywalking, or speeding, or ripping the tags off of mattresses.
One of these men, though, has a serious problem — he won’t acknowledge the fictious nature of his fantasy friend. The other one has no such difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy.
Yet, in our society, the former is considered normal and healthy — while the latter is, at best, a figure of mockery, at worst, a reviled outcast.
The former man, you see, is a ‘Christian’, and the fictious being he admires is called ‘God’. The latter is a ‘Trekker’ and his fictional focus is called ‘Mr. Spock’.
Neither God nor Mr. Spock exist. Both are creations of the imagination. There is no such thing as being ‘slightly fictitious’ — a thing, or a person, either exists, or it does not. God does not exist, making him as fictional as Spock, Fox Mulder, Tom Sawyer, Hamlet, Bart Simpson, or President Clinton’s ethical standards.
There are many people in our society obsessed with fictions. Any college library will have scholarly journals, many of which have been published for years, which contain endless articles analyzing the psychology and behavior of people who don’t exist, from Huck Finn to Hamlet to, of course, Yahweh. No one would blink at someone with a bumper sticker reading ‘God Is My Co-Pilot’. Many people attempt to solve moral dilemmas by asking themselves, “What would Jesus do?”
A teenager who professes a strong faith in ‘Jesus Christ’ is likely to find societal approval. Even if he comes from a Jewish, Muslim, etc, family, he will easily find a community to support him. And while his parents might disapprove of his beliefs, even disown him, neither they nor society will doubt his sanity — even though Jesus Christ (as the Son of God, not a loudmouthed Jew hippie) doesn’t exist. Not at all. Not one tiny little bit.
But change Jesus to Spock — or Sheridan, or Mulder, or Megatron — and you suddenly have a ‘geek weirdo’ who might well need therapy for his ‘unhealthy obsession’. A teen who spends all his free time studying the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran is usually admired for his peity, at least by adults;a teen who spends all his time studying “The Star Wars Encyclopedia” is considered unhealthy at best.
Given how unhealthy and destructive religious beliefs are, you would think fandom would be lauded and praised. No fan of Star Trek ever went to court to demand that warp drive theory be given ‘equal time’ with the theory of Relativity, as Creationists have done with Evolution. No matter how vicious the Internet flame wars between fans of Star Wars and Star Trek, no one has yet been burnt at the stake for heresy. Not even the most fanatical follower of Mr. Spock would voluntarily limit himself to sex once every seven years (if the opportunity for more frequent matings ever arose), yet thousands of followers of Jesus voluntarily suppress the most fundemental, basic, human urge for their entire lives. Some women even claim to be the BRIDES of this fictional being, living forever in an unconsummated relationship with a man who does not exist. Compared to that, two Trekkers getting married in Klingon garb is postively wholesome. At least the ‘Klingons’ will probably have sex at some point.
Religion is needed to inspire men to do good deeds? If a man chooses pacifism because Yoda said that anger is the path to the dark side, rather than because Jesus told him to turn the other cheek, is he any less of a pacifist? Marcus Welby undoubtedly inspired many to become doctors;Perry Mason, many to become lawyers. The usefulness of incarnate ideals to serve as our guides and inspirations is beyond doubt — but there is grave danger when we forget these incarnations are just the creations of other men.
Is it a waste of time and resources to buy ‘Darth Maul’ style toy lightsabres (Toys R Us was sold out last night…Waaah! I had to settle for the poster) or painstakingly catalog every color variation on ‘Batman’ action figures? Perhaps — but consider how much waste has been done in the name of the gods. Imagine if all the medevial toilers who built the cathedrals of Europe had instead built roads and bridges and mills and forges. If the tens of thousands enslaved to build the pyramids had instead been permitted to build themselves better houses. If all those who spent their lives memorizing vast amounts of religious litany had instead used that incredible brain power to create new things, rather than simply preserve the old?
Is there a difference between a ‘Darth Vader Lives!’ bumper sticker and a plastic Jesus on the dashboard? Both are icons declaring a faith. The buttons and bumper stickers of the geek are akin to yamulkes and crucifixes — they identify your religion to the world.
The only difference, really, is that we know the dates of creation of Mr. Spock and Darth Vader, and the names of their creators. We don’t know the name of the first person to make up the story of Adam and Eve, but that doesn’t make it any less made up. All gods are stories, and all stories have an author, even if his or her name is lost to us forever.
So believe if you must. Call your God Yahweh or Spock, call your Devil Darth or Satan;it’s no skin off my nose either way. But don’t strut too proudly, no matter which you choose, for your lie is no less false than your neighbors, and his god is no more fictional than yours.
One of the things that I routinely do when I visit someone else’s place for the first time is look for a bookshelf, and if I spot one, spend a fair bit of time looking at the titles. Apart from being a great conversation starter, a book shelf says so much about the person – if it’s an acquaintance who one doesn’t know well yet, I can almost foresee how well we are going to get along (or not) :-) . However, with the advent of e-readers, this kind of personality analysis is sadly becoming more and more infrequent. It seems a bit rude to ask for someone’s Kindle and scrutinise their purchase history.
The contents of the book shelf featured alongside has probably been the single biggest influence on my general worldview and has shaped a lot of my thinking. The 200+ books nestled in this favourite corner of our home has some of the best writing that I’ve been privileged to read in the last couple of decades of my life. Of course, there are more books in other parts of the house, plus the many borrowed from friends & libraries over the years, but the ones here are a fair distillation of my adult-life reading. Applying my psycho-analysis to myself, this book shelf almost defines who I am.
My reading pattern tends to yo-yo a bit. Sometimes, days go by when I don’t open a single page, and there are times when I spend most of the weekend and week-nights post-dinner, reading. In recent years, on average, I’ve settled down into a rhythm of finishing 12-15 books over the course of a year. And as I get older, this has led me to think carefully about what I read nowadays.
Given where I am in life, I give myself another 35-40 years of a (hopefully) healthy life, where my eyes will allow me to read for any length of time. This basically means that I will have to pick the 450-500 absolute must-reads from now till the day I die. While 500 may sound like a lot at first, it really isn’t that much. Think about the choice set: the millions and millions of titles published since Guttenberg came up with the printing press, and a similarly unimaginable number that will come into existence over the next four decades. From this vast ocean of literature, I have to find and choose the 500 best pearls of wisdom, entertainment, knowledge, pleasure, pathos, etc. And who knows, I might die of cancer in five years, or get hit by a truck once again while cycling next week (and not be so lucky to get away alive this time). Bottomline, I have begun to get really, really picky in what I read.
For example, the editors at Amazon recently published a list of 100 books to be read in a lifetime, of which I have read only about twenty…. 30-40 more to go from that list, at least. But the majority there are fiction, while most of my reading over the last couple of years has drifted into non-fiction, which makes it another huge list to look at and choose from. Then there are all the classics that I put off reading in my youth for later in life – Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and the likes…. now, I am in that “later” phase of my life. Poetry is something that I have never related to earlier, but after reading gems such as this one by Wislawa Szymborska, is a genre where I am desperate to make up for lost time.
So I have to be really thoughtful on which books to spend my time on.
The other thing that’s happened to my reading of late, is that I straddle 3-4 books at any point of time. I guess this is a consequence of getting into mostly non-fiction reading. I cannot remember the last time I stayed up till the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t put down a thriller until I got to the last page. Actually, wait.. I do remember – Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was when it happened last, a few years ago. I hardly read those sort of novels now.
On my bedside right now:
Brian Greene’s The Fabric Of The Cosmos. The big questions about our origin and how our universe works have become a bit of an obsession with me.. physics, biology, genomics, stuff like that. Have discovered authors who deliver high quality science writing in the language of the layman. Greene is one of the best in that breed.
I’m an atheist by choice, but the few times when I can empathise with the divine feeling that believers describe, is when I hear MS Subbalakshmi on the stereo. She lived a very interesting life too. Given the paucity of publicly available written material available on her, T J S George’s biography, A Life In Music, makes a masterful effort even more precious.
On the Kindle:
Re-reading The Brothers Karmazov, two decades after my first attempt. In my twenties, I found Russian novelists depressing (exception: Chekov). Now, older and (I hope) wiser, I’ve started on it again, and the insights into and reflections on life that Dostoyevsky weaves into his characters are compelling to read now. Next, Great Expectations.
Also on the Kindle, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: Written with clarity and verve, a depressing but brilliant account of how the consequence of mere human existence is proving to be disastrous for many other species and ecosystems in our planet. Next, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
The reading that I look forward to most these days is a book that I finished just a couple of months ago. Yuval Noah Harari, who teaches Humanities at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, offered a course called ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ on Coursera some time last year. I signed up enthusiastically, but like with many other courses, didn’t last the distance and dropped out midway. I was still fascinated with the ideas and discussions that the course threw up, so when his book Sapiens (which is a print version of the online course) released a few months later, I immediately ordered my copy. Harari traces the history of our species over the last 70,000 years, with three distinct inflection points – the Cognitive , Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. With lucid, evocative language, a sharp wit and cogently laid out arguments, he tackles a broad swathe of issues across areas spanning anthropology, culture, myths, evolutionary biology, to name just a few, and constructs a fascinating narrative of how we came to be where we are as a species. If I were to pick the one standout book from all of my last year’s reading, this would be the one.
I really believe that books like Sapiens must be made compulsory reading for high school children in our schools. Since that is never going to happen in our education system, I started a reading project during the boys’ Christmas break. Now over dinner at home, I read out a few pages from Sapiens aloud while A1/A2 and V chew on their calories. Harari’s extremely engaging style and compelling content has meant that they were hooked right from the first few pages, which was not surprising at all.
For me personally, this whole process of reading out a book to them has been immensely gratifying. The last time I read out aloud to A1/A2 was more than a decade ago, when they were toddlers, so it probably triggers a strong sense of nostalgia inside… watching their faces as I read aloud, trying to answer all their questions which triggers some amazing conversations.. this reading project has been a deeply satisfying experience, one that I shall cherish for the rest of my life.
The timing of that sunrise couldn’t be more perfect. You are almost halfway into your race, have settled into a steady rhythm, body nicely warmed up and cruising in auto-pilot mode. The darkness of the night slowly makes way for the break of dawn. Your senses are alive to the smells of the sea breeze and the crisp chill of a winter morning in Mumbai.
You find yourself running on the magnificent Bandra-Worli Sea-link, with its imposing architecture. On the one day in the year when the only sounds emanating from one of Mumbai’s most iconic structures, are the gentle tip-tap of running shoes on the tarmac, or of runners making small talk, exhorting each other to keep going. No braking, no screeching of tyres, no honking.
It’s all perfectly set up.
And then you see it on your right, an orange circle slowly rising above the skyline. As you traverse the length of the sea-link and head towards Mahim, it morphs into a golden yellow ball of fire, heralding a new day for a city which ironically prides itself as one which never sleeps.
With every year that I come back and run the marathon at SCMM, I’ve become more aware of and alive to savouring this majestic sight. 2015 was my fourth time at this event, my third marathon (I ran a half-marathon in 2012), and again fully lived up to its promise of memorable memories. Spectacular sunrises apart, it was, as always, a special feeling to run in the country’s biggest marathon event and my home city. Staying in Sion where I grew up, spending time with family & friends, forming new bonds. This has become a much looked-forward-to annual weekend ritual.
As I wrote in an earlier post, the 2015 edition was also my first real crack at a 4 hour marathon (I ran a 4:16:02 last year). A 4 hour marathon is a kind of Holy Grail once you become a serious recreational runner (well, some would argue that qualifying for Boston is the Holy Grail, but that one is still in the realms of fantasy for me) . My training had gone reasonably well, and I was cautiously optimistic about race day. The only potential pitfall was exactly the same as last year – a work trip to Redmond the week before – which meant that I crossed 14000 kms over a 13 hour time-zone to land in Mumbai about 24 hours before the starting gun went off at Azad Maidan on the morning of 18th January.
Jet lag and the usual pre-race jitters kept me awake all night, but it didn’t seem to matter much. On race day morning, I was pacing myself to perfection. As it transpired, I ran the ideal race till 36 Km. Was tracking better than my pre-race plan on each and every 5K-split till that point. I felt really good, had a nice rhythm going.. had even crossed the dreaded Peddar road slopes without too much of a bother.
But you know what they say about life happening to you while you are busy planning for it (also applies to running marathons in hot and humid mornings like the one at SCMM 2015). Just after turning past the corner at Wilson college and entering Marine drive, as I began to habour visions of breasting the finish line comfortably under 4 hours (chickens, counting, hatching…. yes, yes.. I know), my left quadricep, moody drama-queen that she is, felt like that was the point when she really needed some deep love and affection. So a case of bad cramps it was. Really bad. Grimacing, clutching back of left thigh and hobbling in pain kind of bad.
Now there are two ways that this could have gone from then on. One is what you see in those Youtube clips that folks keep posting all the time in running forums. The ones which end with Beethoven’s Fifth playing in the background, as the heroic and courageous runner battles insurmountable pain and collapses in victory just after the finishing line, goal achieved.
The other way is what I did (which is why no one posts these kind of stories). True to type, I chose an icing+massage at the nearby aid station over pushing-through the pain (or trying to push through and end up not-finishing). This obviously cost me a few minutes, and while my leg felt better post-treatment, I still wasn’t confident enough to go for a final kick at the pace that I had originally planned. End result : 4:00:37.
So, the oft-heard cliché about the glass being half-full or half-empty, now had its perfect case-study. Quite a few of my runner buddies sent messages cheering me up, thinking that I would be crestfallen at having come so close to a sub-4. V, who had an awesome finish earlier – she smashed her previous HM best that she ran just 3 months ago at Bangalore, by a full 13 minutes – greeted me back at Sion cheerfully, but with a teeny-weeny hint of regret – it would have been the perfect day if I had finished 38 seconds faster, I guess.
All that empathy from everyone around felt nice, and also a bit amusing. I remember reading somewhere that race timings should be the last thing that determines one’s happiness, and I really couldn’t agree more. Got back to Bangalore the next day and conversation with A1/A2 went something like this, hey appa.. heard you did some 4 hours at Mumbai, right? Cool. Btw, you need to fix the Xbox. Like, NOW.
Keeps things in perspective.
Honestly, on that Sunday afternoon, I was just blissfully content in the afterglow of a special day. Running has filled my life with so much joy and happiness, and on days like SCMM, it truly feels like I am in paradise. You always carry back wonderful memories.. the banter and chatter at the start line, hi-fis with the kids sporting their sunshine-smiles near Mahim church, the unending enthusiasm of the families (spanning multiple generations) handing out food and drink on Peddar road, all the bands rousing your spirits along the way, treating complete strangers who are running alongside as kindred souls just because running a marathon together brings that special camaraderie… unforgettable. Above all, just the pure pleasure of running through the streets of Bombay in the kind of atmosphere that only SCMM offers.
And that sunrise. Man. Running on the sea-link and watching the sun come up like that. That moment alone will make every possible highlights reel of my life when I re-play that movie from my deathbed.
So here’s my take on the numbers. Ran my first 42 a couple of years ago, now this 4-hour marathon. 42 @ 42, 4 @ 44.. has a sort of a nice ring to it, no? Am far, far fitter in my forties than I was in my twenties. More importantly, happier, healthier, and feeling more alive than ever before. What more can one ask for from life?
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.