By Shantanu Moitra
NEPAL: A KALEIDOSCOPE OF COLOURS AND PEOPLE
Our expedition to Nepal was packed with thrills. Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is a bustling hub for mountaineers seeking to summit the numerous Himalayan peaks. It was surprising to see how the airport in this ancient city was crowded with people from all over the world. Their love for the Himalayas and the unknown had inspired so many people to venture to a foreign country and experience a new culture. Kathmandu truly was a blend of the old and the new in more ways than one.
WITNESSING THE CIRCLE OF LIFE AT PASHUPATINATH
The Pashupatinath Temple is an architectural wonder. The temple dates back to 5th century BC and the Nepalese government has attempted to maintain the original architecture of this structure. The temple itself is divided into three separate zones. The walls of the temple are brown and black from the weathering. However, they are not painted in order to maintain authenticity. The temple is located on the banks of the River Bagmati. On the banks or ghats of the temple, visitors have the unique chance to witness the circle of life. On the left bank, one can hear the mournful chants that arise from the performance of last rites. On the right, newborn infants are dipped into the waters of the river to welcome them to their new lives. Another curious feature is that the youth of Nepal frequently visit this temple to escape the chaotic city life. In Pashupatinath itself, so many people from different walks of life come together to celebrate the various stages of life.
MAKING A SPLASH AT POKHARA
Pokhara had a lot to offer in terms of adventure tourism. To reach our guest house next to the Macchepuchare range, we decided to use a raft. It was an 18km journey up the tumultuous river. The waves splashed against our legs as we drifted with the rapids in a small blue raft. The people who had organised our rafting expedition were a group of youngsters. After the devastating earthquake of 2015, the Nepalese economy was in dire straits. Due to the fear of a potential earthquake, tourism had severely declined. The youth of Nepal were left unemployed in the wake of this tragedy. Instead of depending on foreign aid to solve their problems, the youth mobilised themselves by thinking out of the box. They came up with innovative ways to earn money through tourism. By offering services for adventure tourism, they created a revenue stream amidst a crumbling economy.
UP, UP AND AWAY
We had the opportunity to go to the Annapurna base camp during our stay in Nepal. At dawn, we boarded a microlight plane with a pilot named Raghu. From the plane, I could see the Annapurna glistening gold from the morning sun. A unique feature of microlight planes is that they operate on a single engine. This allows them to dive very close to the earth in very little time. As we got closer to the peak, I felt the plane descending rapidly. From my window, I felt with a slight reach I could touch the top of the Annapurna! The aerial view of the entire Annapurna reminded me of Maurice Herzog’s novel. I realised from afar this mountain looked stunning. But I remembered how Herzog and his team had struggled to summit the peak on foot. Our pilot mentioned that on the day of the Nepal earthquake, he was flying over the Annapurna. When disaster struck, he noticed clouds of black dust rising from the earth. He said for the first time he felt a hint of fear from being around the mountains. Raghu was involved in 10 rescue missions during the earthquake.
He remembered how helpless the survivors felt when he came to rescue them. Listening to Raghu talk made me think about the unpredictable dangers that lurk in these majestic mountains.
At Kathmandu, we visited an ancient mountain cave with a 16-year-old guide named Kong. This cave was home to a large family of bats. They hung upside down, perfectly still, as we walked past them. They were not perturbed by the human presence at all. Kong mentioned that on the day of the Nepal earthquake, there was chaos in this cave. He was inside the cave with a group of tourists when disaster struck. The bats went into a frenzy once the ground started shaking and the tourists panicked. They were trapped in the cave for seven hours and their only way out was a small hole in the ground. This passage was so narrow, they had to wriggle their way out of it. Kong helped the tourists escape by leading them to this opening and showing them the technique to crawl out from the cave. I realised that after the earthquake Nepal had become the country of heroes. Ordinary people rushed to help tourists stuck in difficult situations. I was thoroughly moved by the courage and compassion of the Nepalese people.
GETTING A HANG OF IT OVER THE HIMALAYAS
An incredible aspect about the Himalayas is that the women of this region are strong leaders in the community. I interacted with a Russian doctor named Valentina who managed a hang-gliding expedition. She had fallen in love with a Nepalese doctor and had moved to Nepal to start a new life. She had a friend who was a fighter pilot and he owned five microlight planes. Using the resources available to her, Valentina started her career in adventure tourism. She was successful in her venture, attracting tourists from all over the world who were interested in experiencing the thrill of flying.
Hang gliding allows you to truly explore the ability to fly. I held on to a glider that was tied securely to an aircraft. Once the plane was in the air, the rope was unfastened. I watched the plane fly away, knowing that the only thing keeping me in the air was the strong wind of the Himalayas. My legs were free and my entire body felt weightless as I drifted over the gorgeous landscape. The whole time, my heart was pounding because I knew one minor mistake could be fatal. However, I was able to maintain my calm and focus on the stunning mountains below.
MONK AND HER MUSIC
Another inspiring person I interacted with was Annie Cheung. Annie was a monk who had started a movement to rescue girls from sex trafficking and abusive homes. These girls were given a new life in her nunnery where they were given an education and proper care. An interesting fact about Annie is that she always encourages these victims to pursue music. She believes that music has an innate ability to heal people. I met these young girls at Annie’s nunnery where she was hosting a cultural event. They sang and danced with joy and grace, never revealing their troubled pasts for a moment. When I sang Give Me Some Sunshine (from 3 Idiots) with them, I noticed that a lot of people from the nunnery joined the chorus. I witnessed music bringing together people from all the varied walks of life.
This article appeared in THE WANDERER section of THE TELEGRAPH, Sunday, May 14, 2017
BY SAUMYA ANCHERI & DHRITIMAN MUKHERJEE | NATGEOTRAVELLER.IN
Every winter, over 300 black-necked cranes fly from Tibet into Bhutan’s bowl-shaped alpine valley of Phobhijka. The elegant cranes are classified vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Bhutanese know just how to greet them. Since 1998, local conservation efforts host a day-long Black-Necked Crane Festival in the courtyard of the Gangtey Monastery. Monks hold masked dances, school kids don black-and-white costumes and dance like cranes, and locals sell crane-themed handicrafts. Every now and then, a black-necked crane soars overhead in witness.
It’s the sort of reverence for nature that wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood music composer Shantanu Moitra encountered throughout their 12-day trip in Bhutan last November. From last February, the duo has been making a series of trips in the Himalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Tibet, as part of the #100DaysInHimalayas Project. (See their other stories here.) After watching the shows and dart-throwing contests at Phobhijka’s Black-Necked Crane Festival, Mukherjee and Moitra descended 3km into the valley to see the birds in the flesh. “There were hundreds,” Moitra recalled. “It’s the sight of them taking off in the huge valley that makes you realise the size of their wingspan (over 7ft!).”
Perhaps this respect for life is only natural in a country that is famous for annually measuring its gross national happiness. At least 60 per cent of the country is kept forested by law, a golden rule that affords trekking trails dotted with blossoming rhododendrons trees and a paradise for birders. As Moitra and Mukherjee travelled from Paro in the west to Trashigang in the east, they saw great hornbill, yellow-rumped honeyguide, and Ward’s trogon—all classified near-threatened by IUCN—not to mention Assamese macaque and golden langur. “Dhriti said he really works hard for these bird sightings in India.” Moitra recalled, “Here they were just hanging about in the middle of the road.”
Still, it took immense skill and perseverance to photograph the birds. Moitra remembers when they spotted the rare satyr tragopan in the subtropical rainforests of Yongkola, one of Bhutan’s best birding areas. “It was very difficult for me to see the bird,” Moitra confessed since it was so well camouflaged, and he managed to spot it through binoculars only for a couple of seconds. “Dhriti took his big 600mm lens and slid down the mountain slope, and waited an hour and a half for the shot,” Moitra said.
Project 100DaysinHimalayas spots the rarest of the rare in the Himalayan birding paradise.
But Mukherjee’s shining moment was yet to arrive. “We had a brilliant birder with us,” Moitra said, “and it was incredible to watch the game between Dhriti and him about who could spot more birds.” Around a bend in the Yongkola forest, Mukherjee motioned for the car to stop. “He said, ‘This is amazing’—I’ve never heard Dhriti say that he is a very understated guy,” Moitra said, “He had just spotted the only other recorded sighting of the Oriental bay owl in Bhutan.” The moment was so auspicious that the driver quietly did a little jig. “The Bhutanese are so conscious and aware of nature that he danced in silence,” Moitra recalled, “They know that even happiness has a responsibility.”
Bhutan’s snow-capped mountains and lush gorges are spectacular backdrops not just for birdwatchers but also Buddhist festivals. In Bumthang, Moitra found himself accompanying their driver to the Naked Dance Festival, held at Jambey Lhakhang monastery, built in the 7th century. On three consecutive nights, around midnight, 16 men chosen from the surrounding villages dance naked to the elements. They are accompanied by slow drumbeats and chants, in a sombre ritual meant to purify sins and usher a good harvest. “Most hill dances are slow because a lack of oxygen makes it difficult to move,” Moitra observed. The ritual was introspective, but outside, the air was festive with stalls hawking food and clothes. Both dancers and witnesses are believed to be blessed by the hour-long performance.
PERMALINK > Read the original article on National Geographic Traveller Magazine
BY SAUMYA ANCHERI | National Geographic Traveller India
Nepal towers over the world with eight of the 10 highest mountains—and Pokhara is its gateway to adventure. White-water rafters and kayakers gather here to grapple with Kali Gandaki (gandaki is Nepali for “river”) and Seti Gandaki. Trekkers and mountain bikers come to scale the Annapurna range—there’s even a “Royal Trek” named for the route that Prince Charles purportedly followed in the early 1980s. It’s one of the best places in the world to paraglide, and there’s a golf course with stellar mountain views.
So it was only inevitable that wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood music composer Shantanu Moitra hit up Pokhara on their visit to Nepal last October for an adrenalin rush. From last February, the duo has been making a series of trips in the Himalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Bhutan, as part of the #100DaysInHimalayas Project.
First up, they went white-water rafting in River Trishuli, named after the trident of Shiva that was driven here to create three springs. While families often raft in this river, Mukherjee says their experience was strictly “not for kids. The river is steep and there are lots of rapids and boulders.” In some places where the water was calmer, Mukherjee swam.
Pokhara means “valley of the lakes” in Nepali, and Phewa—the biggest of Pokhara’s eight lakes— borders the city. Rent a paddle boat, or hire a mountain bike from a lakeside shop to explore the waters, or simply sip coffee with lake views at Phewa’s many waterfront properties. Visitors also make a day trek to the second-biggest lake, Begnas Lake, nestled in thick forests and vibrant with waterfowl.
Seeking a different view of the landscape, Mukherjee and Moitra booked a ride on two-seater planes over Pokhara’s wetlands and rocky mountain. On the next day, Moitra hopped on to a hang-glider to soar near the peaks of Annapurna and Macchapuchhre (or “Fish Tail”). Mukherjee accompanied on a microlight, a tiny aircraft that is open to the elements, affording bird’s-eye views and a terrific vantage for photographers. “It was very cold,” Mukherjee said, “about 1 or 2 degrees Celsius when we were up. But everything is so exciting that you ignore the cold.”
Pokhara’s adventures also extend underground, such as the limestone formations of Mahendra Cave and the sacred cave of Gupteshwar. Moitra and Mukherjee braved their way through Bat Cave, on the outskirts of Pokhara, home to thousands of the nocturnal creatures. Some would baulk at the sight (and smell!) of hordes of horseshoe bats on the ceilings, but the broad-shouldered photographer’s challenge came at the end, when they decided to squeeze through the narrow exit, rather than return the way they came like most climbers. “I’m the last size that will fit through,” said Mukherjee, exultant at having wriggled through.
Nepal is not just known for its high-octane adventures, but its gentle and highly vigilant guides. Mukherjee was most impressed by the steely Indian pilot of his microlight in Pokhara, who kept scanning the land every few minutes. “I asked him why he kept looking down, and he said he was looking for a place to land in case the wind stops,” Mukherjee said. It made him realise that they were really at the mercy of the elements, he said, “You’re flying over mountains and glaciers in a small aircraft under a lot of influencing factors, it’s very tricky.” Moitra was particularly moved by the hospitality of the locals, and the sensitivity that Sherpas displayed when guiding climbers. “They put themselves last,” he observed, saying that their kindness was reason enough for travellers to return again and again to one of the world’s most remote regions.
But in Nepal, the biggest adventure magnet will always be the mighty Mount Everest. Mountaineers here and acclimatise to summit the world’s highest peak. Others choose to take lesser-known trails in the Everest region. Having trekked to the Everest base camp before, Mukherjee and Moitra slotted in a new memory of the mountains: from the skies. In Kathmandu, the duo flew in a helicopter to the camp, via what is arguably the world’s scariest airport—Lukla, which has a skinny landing strip usually populated by skittish goats. The chopper skimmed over the glittering aquamarine Gokyo Lakes and glaciers only to stop for a precious few minutes at the base camp, as the two-hour-long ascent was not enough time for them to acclimatise to the high altitude. They took in staggering views, sighting six of the eight highest mountains in Nepal including Lhotse, Makalu, and Dhaulagiri, each over 8,000m. “Exactly eight years back, I’d walked this route,” said Moitra, who was just as overwhelmed this time by the spectacular views of the mammoth snow-capped peaks.
For the Original Article, please visit National Geographic Traveller India
By Shantanu Moitra | The Telegraph
JIM CORBETT NATIONAL PARK: TANGO WITH A TIGRESS
Dhritiman Mukherjee (my friend and co-wanderer) planned a sudden expedition to Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, eager to encounter some spectacular species of wildlife. This famous reserve abounds in natural beauty.
As our jeep entered the gates, I heard the excited chatter of birds and the buzzing of bees. My senses tingled with the scent of the fresh earth and forest flowers. We were surrounded by towering sal, peepul and mango trees. It felt refreshing to be amongst all this greenery soon after my trip to the frozen, icy landscape of Vasuki Tal.
While I was absorbed in my musings, our jeep driver had spotted something extraordinary. The jeep came to a sudden halt, breaking my train of thought. I looked at the clearing ahead and saw a majestic Royal Bengal tigress, enjoying her siesta. She was snoring gently, completely unaware of our presence.
A yellow butterfly came flitting out of the forest and perched itself on the tigress. She flinched a little and the butterfly changed its position. The tigress opened her eyes and raised her head slowly. The butterfly now started flying around her head, determined to confuse her. The tigress used her paw to try and swat the pest away. We watched these unlikely companions play for a while. But when the butterfly flew away, the tigress turned her attention to us.
She looked at us with an intense gaze, as if trying to assess us. Then she put her head back on the ground, preparing to sleep again. We heaved a sigh of relief and the driver turned on the engine. The sound made the tigress spring up. With slow, steady steps, she started approaching us. I froze. I had never been in such close quarters with a wild animal. The jeep was open and there were only the three of us with our cameras. If the tigress wished, she could.... Dhritiman noticed my tense expression and whispered, “She probably wants water”. I nodded, not fully convinced.
The tigress continued walking as our driver kept moving in reverse. We were caught in this unusual tango for half a kilometre. Suddenly, she decided to walk off towards a freshwater lake nearby. We watched her drink and then saunter off into the woods. Even after this regal creature had left our presence, I could feel my heart pounding.
(Clockwise from above) Shantanu at the world’s highest post office in Hikkim, manned by a solitary postmaster; Chandra Tal in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh; a close encounter with a Royal Bengal tigress at Jim Corbett National Park
HIKKIM: WORLD’S ‘TOP’ POST OFFICE
Our introduction to Himachal Pradesh was in a quaint settlement called Hikkim. This Himalayan hamlet is a small community of only 25 houses located around 16,000ft above sea level. A unique feature of this place is the presence of the world’s highest post office. The concept of getting mail by post has become outdated in the big cities. However, in Hikkim — where there is no access to the Internet — people have continued with this age-old method of keeping in touch.
The exterior of the post office is very simple. It is a small hut with white walls and a red post box hanging outside. When we walked in, the postmaster, Rinchen Chhering, was waiting for us. We discovered that Rinchen had been the postmaster of this facility since its establishment. He was chosen at the young age of 22 because he had a bicycle and could run fast. Since then he has been delivering mail to the locals and monks of the region. For over 20 years he has worked alone. When I asked if he ever tires of his work pressure, he responded with a prompt “no”.
After a short pause, he said, “But in the last five years, the volume of post has increased and I think it is time I asked the government for an assistant.” His statement left me astounded. I wrote letters to my friends and family in silence and watched him prep each letter meticulously for posting. He had single-handedly done all these tasks for over two decades. And after working alone for this lengthy period, he was just beginning to consider some form of assistance. I was completely in awe of this man, who had graciously accepted a challenging profession and stayed loyal to it for so many years.
A glorious sight of the Sach Pass in Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh
TABO: MINGLING WITH THE MONKS
We continued our journey through the picturesque Himachal and made a few stops at some of the oldest monasteries in India. The first one on our list was Tabo Monastery, located in the Tabo village of Spiti Valley. This is the oldest monastery that has functioned continuously since its inception. Founded in 996 AD, this ancient structure is a hidden gem in the Himalayas.
The origin of most monasteries is high-altitude mountain caves. Initially, those pursuing monkhood would climb to these caves for the tranquil atmosphere. Later, these caves were converted into the rooms of a monastery.
The walls of the Tabo Monastery are adorned by inscriptions and artwork by the early cave-dwelling monks. Walking through this place of worship is similar to exploring an archaeological site.
We wandered through the numerous low-lit rooms that resembled the tomb in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the rooms was completely off limits to visitors. However, the monks knew about our venture and allowed us in without our cameras. In the dim lantern light, we were able to decipher a large number of cubby holes lining all the walls. Inside each were ancient scriptures containing the secrets of Buddhism. We were allowed to touch these religious scrolls, but not to read them. The curiosity nearly killed me.
The monks informed us that a few years back, a large fire had consumed the entire monastery. A lot of antique scriptures and teachings were lost and the exterior was damaged. However, the monks saw this as an opportunity to rebuild and improve the structure of the monastery. Rather than be shattered by the loss of their homes and religious texts, they had been inspired to create something new.
DHANKAR: FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
From Tabo we trekked on to the Dhankar Monastery, curious to find out more about monks. The Dhankar Monastery is located at a height of 12,774ft and overlooks the village of Shichilling. We learnt that the monks and the villagers share a unique bond here. The villagers would come to this monastery, not only for worship but also for education. The monks made frequent trips to the village to offer their counsel and help with medical treatment and healing. The Dalai Lama had decided that monasteries had to do more than offer religious insights. So, monks offered their knowledge as friendly counsel to the villagers.
LANGZA: BRIDGE THE GAP
One of the people accompanying us on this trip was Dhritiman’s old friend Lara. He had helped Dhritiman spot his first snow leopard. Lara’s village, Langza, was located in an isolated valley. There are no roads connecting the village to the highway. This is because a huge gorge, about 250ft deep, lies between Langza and the main road.
The government had started construction on a bridge over the gorge a while back. But the lack of sufficient funds forced them to abandon that venture. The villagers were stranded in their small settlement, which had no schools or hospitals.
To overcome this problem, the villagers built a ropeway across the gorge. Every day one person from the village of 40 was appointed to pull a basket tied to the rope. The residents of Langza would sit, stand and even hang from the small basket and cross the gorge to reach home. Sometimes they would load goods like cupboards, supplies, farm animals and bring them across to the village via the ropeway. They have operated this way for the last 16 years, just to help people travel across the gorge.
I was asked to sit in the metal basket and try this novel way of transportation. I sat in the middle of the basket, while a mother and her two children stood next to me along with four other men. The sides of the basket weren’t covered, allowing a bird’s-eye view of the drop. A man slowly started pulling us from the other side. I heard the basket creaking with our weight as it moved on the ropeway. When we reached the village, I felt a moment of relief. But I soon realised I would now be alone on my way back.
The little basket took off and I clung on tight. In the middle of the ride, the basket came to a halt. Dhritiman yelled that the person working the ropeway was resting his arm. As I hung over the gorge, petrified, I understood what everyday life in Langza really meant.
Shantanu Moitra is a music composer, author, an inveterate traveller and a dreamer. He has gone up mountains and trekked deserts. He is also a pro in the kitchen. Follow him on Twitter @ShantanuMoitra
Permalink > The Telegraph
Project #100DaysInHimalayas finds a calm in the Nepali capital.
By SAUMYA ANCHERI | National Geographic Traveller
Nepal’s bustling capital thrums with millennia-old energy. Much of Kathmandu was devastated by the 2015 earthquake, but as wildlife photographer, Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood music composer Shantanu Moitra found out on their visit there, the Himalayan capital has a sturdy resilience worthy of the mountains. From last February, the duo has been making a series of trips in the Himalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Bhutan, as part of the #100DaysInHimalayas Project.
In Kathmandu last October, they spent time in the backpacker district of Thamel, well known for its adventure stores and lively music gigs. Thamel is popular with travellers, Mukherjee said, “a mecca for mountaineers with good restaurants and bands”, so it was only natural that international tunes rang from its many pubs and cafes. Many evenings, they’d hear songs of love, freedom, and eventually, about surviving the earthquake and hope for the future. Moitra, who has visited numerous times, was also heartened to see stacks of Nepali music albums and “people were loving it,” he says.
Bhaktapur’s pagodas are among the many structures in the Kathmandu Valley that are slowly healing after last year’s catastrophe. In November last year, the gold-topped Boudhanath Stupa—the largest in Nepal—was officially reopened after extensive restoration work. The stupa is part of the cultural heritage that put Kathmandu Valley on the Unesco World Heritage list; the quake had cracked its gold tower. But even before restoration was complete, the holy site was abuzz with pilgrims young and old, chanting and paying their respects at its many prayer wheels. “I didn’t want to be part of the crowd,” Moitra said, “so I sat at a lovely cafe that had a window overlooking the stupa.”
Most are riveted by the iconography of the facade: Buddha’s eyes above a question mark (actually the Nepali numeral for 1 that symbolises unity), but Moitra was fascinated by the whirl of devotees walking clockwise around it. He sat for a while, watching people “all becoming one as they go around.” There was a sense of order despite the crowds as if the shrine was an anchor of stability in the eye of chaos. This makes sense when you consider the origins of the word “Kathmandu”. The city was named after a wooden shrine: “kath” is wood, and “mandir” is temple.
Read Full Article on the National Geographic Traveller Website
In his concluding column, our traveller visits the tallest mountain above sea level.
By Shantanu Moitra, Mumbai Mirror | For Mumbai Mirror
Everest stood towering in the distance. From the base camp, we looked at this incredible creation in awe. Recently concluded to be over 450 million years old, these mountains have witnessed several changes on our planet including the ice age. Yet they survive today, unharmed by time.
I looked back at our base camp which was bustling with human activity — a group of travellers sat near a small fire, a lady was distributing chocolates to everyone, and people were taking pictures and setting up tents. All the travellers felt elated they were present there. The different groups of tourists were getting along and helping each other. I was able to see that all people have the ability to be considerate and cooperative.
I looked back at the snow-covered Everest, starkly contrasted against the cloudless blue sky. It certainly was a wonder that it had seen so many generations of people.
These mountains know more about humans than we will know of it. This silent observer to the lives of people in six countries has done its part in helping life. Other than being a natural boundary, it is also home to some rare species that only thrive in Himalayan climate. It has become a region synonymous with an alternative lifestyle. The uncertainty of Nature makes the individual more cautious about the value of human life. The population is limited so lives are not disposable. Thus everyone ensures that their neighbourhood or town is able to survive and improve.
As a region, the Himalayas are very dynamic. The weather changes without warning, landslides occur and flash floods breakout. The only way to overcome these disasters is by being united. This is what these wise mountains demonstrate time and again. In a world which is segregated in many ways, it is time we stop focusing on differences. Only then can we address the problems in our world.
Suddenly I felt the wind blowing faster and the soft drizzle of snow. The weather was changing and we could no longer see a clear sky. As I left the base camp, I felt I have come a full circle. I climbed to that exact spot 10 years ago. I had thought differently then. However, time and my experience of 100 days have changed me. My explorations continue to Bhutan and Tibet. But my journey with you, dear reader, ends today. This process of 100 days has been so overwhelming and I have learnt so much.
And I want to thank you, my readers, for listening with me.
Permalink > Mumbai Mirror
This week our traveller gets a glimpse of the beautiful snow-capped mountains of Nepal.
By Shantanu Moitra | For MumbaiMirror
Pokhara is a little town with a scintillating air. Nestled among snow-capped mountains, Pokhara is a gateway to the lofty Himalayan realm. One of the methods of reaching the high peaks is via a microlight plane. These mini planes have only one engine and accommodate two passengers. Due to their light structure, these planes can dip close to the mountains very quickly.
We reached the Pokhara airport and I met my pilot Captain Manoj. He had trained as a pilot in New Zealand, specialising in adventure flying. He returned home to find that this concept was alien to India. He was unemployed for a while and greatly disheartened by his failure.
A few months passed and he received a job offer from Nepal offering a nominal salary. He was going to be a pilot, ferrying tourists in a microlight to the 8000 meter Annapurna peaks. Initially, he was not enthusiastic about the prospect. But when he flew over the icy crevices and crystal gorges of the Annapurna for the first time, he was spellbound. He decided he wanted to do this for the rest of his life. For Manoj, the ability to see the mountains every day was enough to keep him happy. He did miss being in India and hoped that adventure tourism would gain popularity.
The plane flew towards the glistening peaks and I felt my heart racing. I opened my window and felt the crisp, cool air fan my face. The first book about mountaineering I read was Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna. As our plane loomed closer to the ground, I recognised the route Maurice described in his book. I saw with such clarity, the rocky terrain, the deep gorges and the frozen caves decorated with icicles. As we approached the peak Maurice’s description of a “mass of precipices, immense icy walls and sharp ridges converging at the summit” manifested into reality for me. It was haunting how accurate and insightful his words were. We also saw the base camp where Herzog and his men stayed. The whole experience was a fairytale come to life.
This is the special element in the Himalayas. Although it belongs to our world, it certainly looks like it originated from another cosmos. The precision with which each mountain is formed is surreal. It does seem to be the work of an ingenious artist. Captain Manoj mentioned something interesting when I asked him if is job is life threatening. He said, “beauty comes with a price”. Everything that is aesthetically pleasing also has a darker aspect to it. In the case of the Himalayas, beauty and danger coexist. These mountains constantly teach people to accept both. This is true for most things in life. The good and the bad are complementary entities. To appreciate both is a constant challenge. But as Herzog says “tiny as we were, we were to scale these tremendous heights”. These words have helped me at all times. And taught me that in order to succeed, all I have to do is listen.
PERMALINK > MumbaiMirror
Our traveller’s latest journey makes him curious and learn more about the wise mountains.
By Shantanu Moitra | For Mumbai Mirror
The sunlight trickled in through my hotel window, telling me it was time for our journey to Pokhara. We had a peaceful drive for a few hours and I was able to soak in the beauty of Nepal. The Himalayas loomed large and magnificent against the bustling streets of Kathmandu. It was incredible to see this union of civilisation and nature.
Suddenly our jeep came to a halt and we were surrounded by cars. The narrow mountain road was completely congested and it was a one-way street, so we had nowhere to go.
In the distance, we saw a large truck that had skid on the road and was now lying sideways on the street. However, despite this accident, there was no chaos on the road. None of the cars was honking and no one was yelling impatiently. Instead, I noticed a crowd had gathered around the truck and were trying to help the driver. It was inspiring to see how the Himalayans maintained decorum even in a crisis.
After a few hours, the traffic started moving. I was astounded at my patience as well. I had waited out the entire duration, without feeling the need to complain or express annoyance. We finally reached our destination which would lead us to Pokhara.
Our plan was to go rafting on the river Trishuli and reach Pokhara. We put on our gear and boarded our blue rafts. The water in the river was unusually clear and transparent. The river meandered through Edenic valleys, covered in blossoms. The evening sun painted everything in a soft orange glow. The rapids hit the raft continuously, making the experience similar to a roller coaster ride.
After 16 kilometres of rafting, we reached our landing site. The people helping us with the rafts were in their teens and mid-twenties. I noticed that despite providing world-class equipment to us, they were all dressed very simply. Some of their shirts had tears and their shoes were weathered and worn. Upon conversing with them, I learnt that they were suffering due to the earthquake of 2015. The number of tourists to Nepal had decreased sharply after the catastrophe. And these young Himalayans, whose only form of income was tourism, were suddenly faced with financial hardships. I talked to the group extensively , listening to their stories and how they were coping with this dire change in circumstances. Nature had ravaged everything they held dear and they were suffering the consequences. Yet they showed determination to improve their lives and had immense faith in a better future.
It was late in the evening when we reached Machchepuchare. Our hotel was located on the Machchepuchare lake. A small boat ferried us to the island on which our hotel was located. As I lay warm in my bed, I looked down at the flower given to me by one of the younger boys in the rafting group. I cherished this small token because it meant that I had been able to do a little something for my fellow human. The flower signified their gratitude for the fact that we were willing to listen to their troubles and concerns after giving them a fee and a tip. We think that donating money to a cause is the solution to that problem. But helping a person goes beyond offering monetary benefits. I am happy that the Himalayas have given me the opportunity to reach out to individuals from all walks of life. I am forever curious to see more and learn from these wise mountains. All I have to do is listen.
Permalink > Mumbai Mirror
By Shantanu Moitra | For Mumbai Mirror
An encounter with a shopkeeper in Nepal provides our traveller to mull on the height of honesty.
As our flight descended into Kathmandu, I saw a bright morning waiting for us. I felt a pang of sorrow about leaving my family and friends behind but at the same time I was enthusiastic to explore the new experiences that lay in store.
From the airport, we journeyed to the Pashupatinath Temple. It was a Tuesday morning and a public holiday in Nepal. The temple was teeming with excited faces, eager to see the deity. This temple has an elaborate structure painted in black and red. Built in the 15th century, there are numerous myths surrounding the origin of the main temple. Over the years, this became a complex with several smaller shrines dedicated to other Gods. At the entrance a priest asks about your religious preference. I discovered that this was done to keep Muslims and Christians from entering this place of worship. It was interesting to see this ancient temple adhere to such strict biases.
Around the temple, there were piles of debris from the horrific earthquake that occurred in 2015. However, the temple stood untouched by the wrath of Nature.
The massive shrine is built on the banks of the river Bagmati. When we walked along the banks, we noticed funeral pyres burning simultaneously. On the opposite side, there were families performing rituals and rites for a new born baby. A strange silence enveloped the temple. Although it was crowded, no one was being loud. There were no priests begging for alms or harassing tourists. Even the people mourning showed no overt emotion. However, their silent tears moved me. The aura of the temple was a strange mix of life, death, and divinity. Despite being a man-made structure, the Pashupatinath temple truly does feel like the abode of the Almighty.
We went to our hotel in Thamel. This area is a bustling marketplace that specializes in high-end mountaineering gear. Every store had a collection of sleeping bags, tents, ropes and trekking boots. I walked into a shop and was examining a pair of special boots meant for the frozen terrain. They were an expensive pair of shoes and I quickly set them down. The shopkeeper noticed and said,” I know they seem exorbitant now, but when you are up in the mountains these shoes are a matter of life and death”. I was impressed by his sales technique but still not convinced that these shoes were necessary. Then I noticed a picture of two men on the summit of Everest. One of them was the shopkeeper and he was wearing boots similar to the ones I wanted. I asked him if he had been to Everest.
He smiled and said, “only three times.” I was shocked by his response. Reaching Everest is by no means an ordinary feat. But this man had accomplished it thrice. I realized that he had tried to sell me the boots in my best interest. He knew, from personal experience , that high-quality snow boots were a necessity while climbing snow covered mountains.
While I lay in bed that night, I realized that veracity is a part of life in the Himalayas. Even in a sacred spot like the Pashupatinath temple, there are elements of reality such as segregation among people, the joy of a new life and the sorrow of death. And this is what the Himalayas teach its students continuously - the harsh cycle of reality. It is difficult to accept these lessons. But it is a life skill to see things for what they really are. I am still learning. All I have to do is listen.
Permalink > Mumbai Mirror
By ShantanuMoitra | Pune Mirror
When we bid adieu to McLeod Ganj, I had a sinking feeling in my heart. I realized I had spent 50 enchanting days in the mystical Himalayan realm. Time had passed so quickly and so effortlessly, I almost felt disappointed at the thought of returning.
As our jeep started its descent into civilization, I reflected on my experiences in the 50 days. Life in the Himalayas is always fraught with danger and is in a constant state of unpredictability. The residents of the region focus more on daily survival and less on long-term planning. This is because they are aware of the transient nature of life. As a result, they do not cling to their material items or concentrate on acquiring comforts. Landslides, flash floods, prolonged spells of harsh weather and wars have proven to the people of this region that life can change without a warning. They are masters at adapting to change. It is astounding how adept they are at surviving the odds. They accept challenges with a smile and willingness. They also have the amazing ability to rebuild and bring back stability to their lives after any dire circumstance. Their souls are indomitable.
In their daily lives, they maintain a minimalistic approach. Nothing is exorbitant, not even a celebration. Most importantly, everything is shared within a community. Once while I was in Ladakh, I saw a group of people having a heated argument in a small village. Upon inquiring, I discovered that the debate was over a 500 hundred rupee note. One of the tourists had left a generous tip for a tea shop owner. The shopkeeper wanted to use that money to help his village. Thus he had called a meeting to help decide how to invest the money to benefit the most number of people.
The social setup in the Himalayas has a distinct charm to it. People still greet each other when they pass by. Two strangers do not just avoid eye contact like we do in the cities. Instead, they smile warmly and exchange pleasantries. The locals and other tourists are willing to help without being suspicious of a person. In that harsh climate, somehow the external pretenses of the human personality fade away. What remains is the true inner persona, which I have discovered to be truly beautiful and virtuous. Without any socially constructed rules, and with nature as the ultimate disciplinarian, the Himalayans have discovered how to be their purest selves.
Through my interactions, I have found that the Himalayans do not have any complains about their environment. The only concern I saw was in the eyes of the parents when they discussed their children’s education. Due to severe winters that last four months, most schools remain closed. Only a very few families have the means to send their children to school in further locations like Jammu. However for the rest of the children, it is four months of staying indoors without any recreation or learning. For me, that is a tremendous waste of potential in a child. I genuinely feel there needs to be some conscious effort towards sustaining education for the Himalayan children, especially during the winter months.
Our jeep had finally reached the train station and I could now see all the elements of the world I belonged to- crowds, loud noises, a sense of urgency and some outright inconsiderate behavior. However as I watched the scene at the platform unfurl, I felt nothing but a peaceful, easy feeling. I had found the ability to accept any sort of reality, both the serene and the chaotic. Something had changed in me drastically. As I boarded the train, thinking about my venture to Nepal, I knew something unique lay in store for me. All I have to do is listen.
Permalink: Pune Mirror