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Slices from Life

Keep walking….

Ravi Shankar recommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world, including in the Everest region and the island of Aruba in the Caribbean

Walks in Kuala Lumpur where the author is located currently.

The Government Medical College, Thrissur, Kerala, India has a sprawling and densely wooded campus. The old TB sanatorium at Mulangunathukavu (quite a mouthful even for Malayalis) had been taken over and modified to establish a medical college. There were villages on the outskirts of the vast campus. My undergraduate medical education days at the sylvan campus introduced me to the joys of walking. There were several quiet spots, and you could easily get among nature. The campus was rocky in places and may not have been prime agricultural land. The place could reach 40 degrees Celsius during the peak of summer in April and May.       

We occasionally walked to the tea stalls located in the villages and the walk along unpaved roads among blooming nature was interesting. The campus was much less crowded than it is today, and we enjoyed a relatively sheltered experience. Many of us eventually took to jogging in the early morning. Hitting the tarmac early before the activities of the day begin is a cleansing experience.

The Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), a premier health science institution in the city of Chandigarh, north India, hosts a number of attractive sites for walking.  Chandigarh was the first planned city in the country and sector 12 where the institute is located is congested but just across the road, the vast expanses, and the green lawns of Punjab University were inviting. The city is spread out and expansive and offers good opportunities for walking. The rose garden and the rock garden are vast. The heat during summer can be a challenge but even at the peak of summer, Chandigarh is a bit cooler compared to the cities on the plains and lovely to explore on foot.

The lakeside city of Pokhara is situated in the middle of the Himalayan country of Nepal. The city and the surrounding hills offer plenty of opportunities for walking and hiking. I occasionally walked between the two campuses of the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS). We had to walk through the Prithvi Narayan (PN) campus and cross a suspension bridge across the milky Seti River. Rivers cut spectacular gorges through the soft limestone rocks in the valley. Later PN campus blocked access to outsiders and we had to take a longer way. There are also magnificent walks to Damside and Lakeside. The walk to the village of Batulechaur from the Deep Heights campus of MCOMS is also spectacular. The city is full of magnificent walks and hikes. Winter is the best time, and the views of the snow-covered Himalayas are spectacular.

Walks along the Himalayas

Hiking in the hills of Nepal is a unique experience. Change is coming slowly to the hills. For city-born and bred folks stepping into the hills may mean stepping out of one’s comfort zone. It can often be a journey back in time to a simpler existence. The ascents and descents are long and steep. The trail can deteriorate very quickly, and landslides are common. New trails have been created and some have eventually become rough jeep friendly roads. The trail to Manang north of Pokhara is now blasted through solid rock. The trail passes very close to Annapurna II and in bad weather, the trail can seem threatening.  Walking through the magical Manang valley provides you with a view of the back side of the Annapurnas. The flat trail is mostly easy but can get very dusty. The trail climbs steadily uphill and after Manang village climbs through barren hillsides.  

View from Pokhara

Weather changes quickly in the mountains and can transform from bright and sunny to cloudy and snowy within an hour. Sunny weather elevates the mood while cloudy and snowy weather seems threatening. A trail with a risk of avalanches is the one to the Machapucchare base camp (MBC). The classical pyramidal fishtail (Machapucchare) seen from Pokhara is seen as two separate peaks from MBC. I had hiked to the base camp in March and saw avalanches coming down on the other side of the river.

The Everest region Nepal

In the Everest region, the hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Gorak Shep is a rocky one along the moraine of the Khumbu glacier. I had done this hike while I was staying at Lobuche for a high-altitude research project. The weather was cloudy and low-lying clouds soon closed in. It started snowing steadily and fresh powdery snow soon covered the rocky trails making walking slippery and difficult. The psychological effect of bad weather and the threatening silhouettes of the highest mountains on earth made me deeply uneasy.

Dusk at Wilhemina Park. Photo Courtesy: Ravi Shankar

The island nation of Aruba like most other parts of the world is becoming increasingly obese and overweight. Aruba created a network of walking paths to encourage physical activity. Aruba advertises itself as ‘One happy island’. I used to walk along the Caribbean coast from Wilhelmina Park to the airport. Rains are rare in Aruba and the paved trail is well maintained.

The Sun can be hot though the trade winds keep the temperature bearable. The plan is to extend the linear park from palm beach in the tourist area to the airport. Aruba has beautiful sandy beaches, and a lot of effort is expended on their maintenance and care. The Atlantic coast is less settled, and the waves crash against the rocky shoreline. There are excellent walks among the barren hills and along the old gold mine.

The city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia also has good walking paths. The Bukit Komanwel (Commonwealth hill) near my apartment has inviting walks. Due to the constant rains, the trail can be slippery in places, and caution is needed.

The city is green and the Perdana Botanical Garden in the heart of the city is well-maintained and has several walking trails. The pavements are usually maintained though due to the constant heavy rains they may be wet and covered with moss.  

One of the most difficult cities for a walker in my opinion would be the city of Mumbai, India. It is crowded, the traffic is chaotic, and the pavements are blocked by hawkers, stalls, and parked vehicles, and most shop owners keep their goods on the pavements. The concept of the pavement as a protected area for pedestrians seems to be lacking. The pavements are often dug up and the perpetually ongoing metro railway projects ensure more than half of the road may be unusable. Most open areas and woodlands have long been converted into housing projects and/or slums. The situation has steadily deteriorated during the last four decades.

The modern age has several conveniences and labour-saving devices. With increasing prosperity most people now own cars. Families have multiple cars. Cars can be a double-edged sword in reference to health. I think cars are addictive and the convenience makes you take them everywhere. You end up waking less and less unless you properly plan and stick to your exercise routine. Studies now indicate that all steps taken by a person are useful and can add up over the course of a day. In Malaysia recently there have been several virtual races motivating people to accumulate steps over the course of a day and month. The university where I work has a corporate wellness program and several virtual races are held over the course of a year.      

We are facing one of our biggest challenges in the form of climate change. A steady increase in carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the industrial revolution has caused global temperatures to rise. Sea level rise, super hurricanes, extremely heavy and concentrated rainfall, forest fires, and scorching summers are all being experienced. We seem set for at least a two-degree celsius rise in global temperature and we are still learning the catastrophic changes this can bring. Walking results in insignificant carbon dioxide emissions and helps us do our bit to save the planet. We are only taking care of planet Earth for future generations as, currently, humanity does not have a planet B.

Though I am a teetotaller a good quote promoting walking may be the one provided by Johnnie Walker, the whisky distillery. After the shutdown due to the pandemic, they launched a new campaign to get the world moving again. Keep walking!

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*All the photographs have been provided by Ravi Shankar.

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

A Salute to Ashutosh Bodhe

A tribute from Ravi Shankar to a fellow trekker & a recap of their adventures in the Himalayas

Ama Dulam and Lohtse peaks on the way to Everest. Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar

A very fit and energetic person strode into my office. My good friend, Varun, accompanied and introduced him as a newly joined faculty member in the Physiology department at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS), Pokhara. My friend always called himself Ashutosh though he quickly became famous at MCOMS by his surname Bodhe.

Bodhe was always in perpetual motion. During our five years of close interactions, I rarely saw him sitting quietly in one place. He was a member of the college mess but rarely ate from there. I sometimes saw him around 2 or 3 pm having noodles and eggs from the private food stall located within the mess. He was fond of repairing things. He could put back together nearly everything — except maybe, broken hearts. His tool kit consisted of a soldering iron, screwdriver, screws, insulation tape, clamps, and a multimeter; rather strange appurtenances for a doctor.   

During my conversations with him, I came to know that he had always wanted to be an engineer and had secured admission into a premier engineering college in Mumbai, India. He also later qualified for admission to the medical course and his family insisted that he switch over to medicine. He would walk around the city of Pokhara, Nepal at strange times of the day and night. He would walk from the lakeside to the college campus after 10 pm. This seemed strange in a city that usually goes to sleep by nine.  

The hill overlooking the Fewa Lake. Photo Courtesy: Ravi Shankar

Bodhe, on occasions, also joined us on day hikes in the Pokhara valley. Pokhara is a trekker’s paradise. The walk up to the Shanti Stupa on the hill slopes overlooking the Fewa lake can be a good Saturday morning activity. Rowboats are available on the shore of Fewa Lake and are mainly used to visit the Tal Barahi temple located on an island in the middle of the lake. The stupa was built by a Japanese monk with the help of locals in the early 1970s. The stupa stands on Anadu hill in the onomatopoeic village of Pumdi Bhumdi and is a good hour’s climb. After the visit, you can climb down to Damside, continue to Lakeside, and return after a delicious lunch.

Boats on the shore of the Fewa Lake. Photo Courtesy: Ravi Shankar

Occasionally, Bodhe would join us on our Saturday walks to Lakeside. The walk would take about 90 minutes. We continued along the lake to a ‘Korean[1]’ restaurant. The restaurant constituted of small huts by the side of the lake with tables and chairs. It was a magnificent location for a feast! We used to have Nepali daal bhaat tarkari maasu (lentil curry, rice, vegetables and meat, usually chicken). In many Nepalese restaurants, food is usually prepared fresh after you order. The food takes around an hour to be prepared. This leaves plenty of time for conversation. The food by the lake was always fresh and piping hot. The country chicken was beautifully spiced, and the green leafy vegetables were perfect.

 Our other go-to place for lunch on Saturdays (the weekly off in Nepal) was the Pokhara Thakali Kitchen. Thakalis are originally from the Thak Khola (the upper Kali Gandaki River) around the Nigiri Himals to the north of Pokhara. They are successful businessmen and run some of the best hotels and restaurants in the country. I simply loved their rich, thick green daal and their potatoes fried in ghiu (clarified butter). The other specialty was dhido (a thick paste) made from either corn or buckwheat flour.

Bodhe, me, and a group of students hiked to the Everest Base Camp and Kala Pathar. We flew to Lukla (from Kathmandu) and the Tenzing Hillary airport at around 2800 m. This is one of the most dangerous airports in the world and accidents were not uncommon. The runway was only around 600 m and then it is a steep drop to the river below. We had lunch at a lodge in Lukla while we waited for our porters. Most hikers spent the first night on the trail at the settlement of Phakding. The first thing we noticed was that the Everest region was much colder than the Annapurna trekking region just north of Pokhara. A large portion of the hike is at heights of over 3000 m.

The peak autumn trekking season was underway and there were large groups of hikers on the trail. We were racing against each other to find a place for the night. Those were the days before online booking and land telephone and internet access were still not available in Khumbu.

Namche Bazaar, the ‘Sherpa Capital’[2] was packed with tourists, and we were lucky to find rooms at a small lodge. The next morning dawned clear and frosty and the views of the Himals were spectacular. Bodhe, while chewing tobacco, was busy clicking photos and we were dancing vigorously to various songs. He really liked the song Kaanta laga[3]. He would reminisce about the wild morning and mention the ruckus we had created, chewing his usual wad of tobacco for he seemed addicted to the stuff.

Bodhe was a man with tremendous energy and a useful person to have on a long trek. He was impulsive and a practical joker but a kind soul with the energy to get going when the going becomes tough. He sprinted uphill on hikes and then climbed a tree or went off sprinting into the bushes. He did not reach a lodge or a settlement early as he was easily diverted by wayside attractions. He was fascinated by the term boche which stands for a flat land seen from a hilltop. In a very rugged and mountainous landscape, flat land is a coveted commodity. There are many boches in the Everest region – Pangboche, Deboche, Dingboche, Pheriche Tengboche among others.

We eventually reached the settlement of Gorak Shep at 5300 m. The weather was cloudy and freezing. The temperature was well below zero. We were shivering under our quilts in the lodge. It was the eve of Kojagiri Purnima[4], and the moon was beginning to rise. Bodhe motivated a group of students to carry and pitch a tent on the slopes of Kala Pathar (Black Stone) in the freezing cold. They donned all the winter clothing they had and spent the night on the rock photographing the world’s highest mountains in moonlight. The cold chilled their marrows and sleep was out of the question. They arrived around eight the next morning with wild stories of their hair-raising night.

We eventually returned to Lukla and reconfirmed our flight tickets for the following morning. Our flight was scheduled for eleven am and the last night at the lodge was a wild one. Bodhe was in full form and we were all relieved that the trek was over, and we were flying back to Pokhara. It was raining heavily the next morning and our flight was repeatedly delayed. Flights to and from Lukla are notoriously fickle. We were the last flight to take off as rainy weather closed in.

It was a long drive in the rain from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Clouds and mist draped the hills. Soon after reaching the hostel, one of the students who had joined us on the trek mentioned that the next day was a holiday as the roof of the Manipal Teaching Hospital had collapsed. We chided him for his fertile imagination but slowly realised that he was telling the truth. The hospital roof had collapsed that afternoon killing a few patients in the waiting area and seriously injuring a few others.

We hiked with Bodhe, some other faculty, and a few postgraduate students to the village of Ghandruk. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung[5] village in Nepal. The hike was along a rocky riverbank and then through stone staircases. The sun was up full force and our trek to the village was hot. Mule trains raised dust clouds as they move up and down the trail. The village is the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). There are several excellent lodges in the village and the Annapurna South and Hiunchuli Himals can be viewed from there. One of the finest lodges in the village was the Himalaya lodge, a Kerr and Downey resort located at the top of the village. The lodge was an additional twenty-minute hike, but it is well worth the effort. The views are stupendous and the rooms beautiful. They provide down jackets and slippers for the comfort of their guests. There was a good porch and a magnificent lawn in front. Bodhe absolutely loved this place.  

Sadly, Bodhe never stayed in touch after he left Pokhara. There were rumours of him working in the Caribbean, in Mauritius, and in different places in India. In a circuitous fashion, I came to know about his death last year. We do not know the details yet. Looking back on his life, I am reminded of so many unfulfilled promises. The man had a first-rate intellect and boundless energy. He could have achieved much only if he had been able to focus and channel his God-given gifts. But, he lived his life in his own terms. Dear friend, I sincerely hope you are finally at peace. Ashutosh Bodhe – tujhe salaam[6]!       

      

Bodhe

[1] The restaurant mainly catered to Korean tourists and used to serve primarily Korean food but also cooked Nepalese dal bhaat

[2] Most Sherpas are from the Namche region

[3] A thorn has pricked me

[4] Fullmoon in October – supposed to be auspicious

[5] An ethnic group that lives in the foothills of the Annapurna range and one of the groups recruited as Gorkha soldiers

[6] A salute to Ashutosh Bodhe

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Trekking to Tilicho Lake

Photographs & Narrative by Ravi Shankar

Tilicho Lake

I ran through the dark narrow corridor into the cold night air. I had been having a pounding headache since my arrival and lacked the appetite for my evening meal of spaghetti and eggs. My stomach churned violently, and the bile rose in my throat ejecting the contents into the frozen ground surrounding the lodge. Vomiting always makes me uneasy and brings back unpleasant memories of my early childhood when vomiting accompanied most maladies. Luckily this was the only serious episode of altitude sickness that I had during my high-altitude travels.  

We had broken most rules of acclimatising to the altitude during this trip. We had flown to the Humde/Hongde airport at Manang from the lakeside town of Pokhara, a day before. Pokhara is at around 800 m above sea level while Humde is at around 3400 m. Most flights to Manang are from Kathmandu and many Manangis are rich and sophisticated traders. The pilot did a visual inspection tour walking around the twin otter aircraft. He seemed satisfied and we were soon skyborne. The view of the Annapurna Himal (snow mountain in Nepali) in the morning sunshine was breath taking. We had lunch at the Airport Hotel in Humde and then hiked up to Khangsar at 3800m. We spent a night at a lodge run by a relative of our Humde didi [1] and started walking to the Tilicho Tal[2] after a substantial breakfast of buckwheat bread, late in the morning.

A cold wind was blowing, and the trail wound through scree[3] slopes. The hike was becoming treacherous, and we did some of the worst sections on our hands and knees. The mountain views were becoming spectacular as the Himals closed in on the valley. Our heavy backpacks threatened to unbalance us and push us over the edge to the Khangsar Khola and Marsyangadi river far below. Thorny bushes grew in the arid landscape and snagged our down jackets. We were worried about the condition of these jackets that we had rented in Pokhara. The shop owner was a patient of my fellow trekker, Dr Praveen Partha.    

We could see the Tilicho base camp lodge far below. The descent was along sheer scree slopes. The soil was loose, and the ground could vanish at your feet! Running descents down 45-degree slopes were battering to the knees. Time seemed to stop as we negotiated the vertigo-inducing slopes. Eventually, we reached the valley below and the final stretch was a short level walk. The lodge was dusty and cold. There was some problem with the solar lights and only the dining room was lit.

The next morning dawned cloudy and grey. It had snowed the previous night and I was still feeling nauseous and light-headed. The lodge owner told us about an ultra-marathon race being held that day and that we might meet the runners on our way up. It was a long climb to the lake. The trail initially wound through scree slopes and then climbed more slowly through snowfields. A freezing wind was blowing, and we wore sunglasses with side blinders to protect our eyes from the reflected sunlight and avoid snow blindness. My nose was becoming numb due to the cold. We were struggling at the high altitude (above 4500 m) and in my weakened state, I was finding the going difficult.

The runners were racing through the landscape. Their fitness was astounding. The ones we had met during the early stages of our hike were now returning from the lake. We saw the trail to Yak Kharka[4] and Thorung La[5] in the distance. Our plan was to cross the pass and descend to the holy site of Muktinath and the city of Jomson on the other side.

The mountains provided a stark contrast. The north-facing slopes were cloaked in the snow while the south-facing ones were bare. The power of our star, the Sun even at 152 million kilometres was awe-inspiring. We continued climbing. A steep climb along a snow-covered slope and the dark blue waters of the lake could be seen in the distance. The race organizers had set up stations for the runners and race flags and posters were seen on both sides of the trail. The wind was bitterly cold. The snow-cloaked landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is located at an altitude of 4940 m.  No aquatic organisms have been recorded in the lake.

Snowfields

Tilicho lake is believed by Hindus to be the ancient Kak Bhasundi lake mentioned in the Ramayana. The sage Kak Bhasundi told the epic to Garuda, the king of birds near this lake. The lake was also the location of the highest scuba dive by a Russian team in 2000. A trekking route skirting the lake and reaching Thini Gaon in the Kali Gandaki valley is becoming popular.

This route requires at least a night of camping as there are no lodges (tea houses) after Tilicho Base Camp till you reach Thini Gaon[6]. I have never camped during my travels in the Himalayas. Camping gives you more options but may be more challenging in terms of logistics. Many lodges also have well-maintained camping places.

The trekking lodges in Nepal started as converted tea houses. They were places to have tea, exchange gossip, and eat food. They had been around in the hills for a long time. People hiked the trails for different reasons ranging from trade, visiting family and friends, and pilgrimage. As trekking became more popular many of these started offering travellers a place to sleep. They used to charge only for the food. Later the rooms became more elaborate and private accommodations were created. In big towns and popular locations, some have become hotels.

The cold soon drove us down from the lake and the descent was easier on the lungs. Runners were still running up the slopes. The weather was becoming cloudy, and the sun was soon cloaked by clouds. Light snow started falling. In the mountains, it often snows around noon. I was beginning to feel better but was still weak. It was around four in the afternoon when Dr Partha and I reached the base camp lodge. My appetite was slowly returning.

Climbing to the village of Khangsar

The next morning, we started mid-morning to the settlement of Khangsar and eventually continued to Manang village. The village has some excellent hotels and spectacular views of the Gangapurna glacier. Manang is at 3500 m and the plan was for me to rest here and see how I felt the next morning and then decide whether to continue to do the circuit trek through the pass or return down to the road head of base town of Besishahar.  My bout with altitude sickness had sapped my confidence and we decided discretion was better and slowly headed down. I felt bad for Praveen who was keen to do the circuit before heading off to the greener pastures of the United Kingdom.

The Thorung pass still remains on my bucket list. Hopefully one day I will be able to do it. The Annapurna circuit trek has steadily contracted over the decades as roads have made deeper inroads into the mountains. The trek used to start from Dumre on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, then the trailhead shifted to Besishahar, and with the construction of the new road to the district headquarters of Chame. On the other side, there are regular buses from Pokhara and Kathmandu to Muktinath.

Tim Cahill, a travel writer from Montana, wrote, “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.” Praveen was perfect company. We gelled well together, we were adaptable and took the rough with the smooth. We did some interesting treks together and I am sure he must be continuing his walks in the cold English air as he thinks about medicine, health, love, happiness, and eternity! 


[1] Elder sister in Nepali

[2] Lake in Nepali

[3] Mountain slopes littered with loose pebbles and rocks

[4] Alpine pasture in Nepali

[5] La is pass in Tibetan

[6] Village in Nepali

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

The Call of the Himalayas

Narrative and photography by P Ravi Shankar


Pokhara with Annapurna towering in the backdrop

Pokhara, Nepal is one of the few places in the world where towering snow-clad mountains are easily seen from a subtropical setting. The town is at a height of around 900 meters and within a span of around 40 kilometres, the land rises to the summit of Annapurna at over 8000 meters. The view of colourful poinsettias and bougainvillea against the blue sky and the white peaks creates a picture postcard setting. The soft limestone rocks are easily eroded by powerful glacial-fed rivers creating deep gorges. The hills surrounding Pokhara have many charming villages and one can also follow the river valleys to the Annapurna Sanctuary (a pasture situated between the Annapurna peaks) and to the land of Mustang.

I was at Kalopani in Mustang. The morning was bright and sunny, but the air was still chilly. The dining room was heated, and many tourists were having their breakfast before continuing their treks. The Nilgiri Himals (snow-covered mountains in Nepali) were clear in the bright morning sunshine. We were waiting for our pooris to arrive.

My friend and I were hiking up toward the Thakali (the major ethnic group in this area) settlements of Tukuche and Marpha. The dining room was big, and the glass windows had spectacular views of the pine forests. We were at the Pine Forest Lodge in the twin settlements of Lete and Kalopani. The settlement continues for over thirty minutes on both sides of the trail. The lodge is big by trekking lodge standards and has sixteen rooms. Run by the Dhawlagiri Technical school, this facility is often used to train tourism students. The manager informed us that the number of tourists they can accept every day is limited due to an agreement with similar businesses in the area. Now, it also offers free wi-fi services. When we visited in the early 2000s, cellular and internet services were still in the future.

Our pooris finally arrived. They were fluffy and brownish red. A potato and peas gravy accompanied the pooris. The dish was thick and spicy. The small hill potatoes were tasty.

The lodge constructed of stone can be cold during the nights, but comforters are provided to guests. I always had pleasant stays at this lodge. I never had the opportunity to meet trainee students as usually they started their sessions only after nine in the morning. By that hour, we were already out on the trail.

The Village of Kagbeni with the Kali Gandaki River
The Tibetan shrine with the five foot statue of Buddha in the background

The Red House Lodge in Kagbeni is a bewildering warren of rooms and passages. Kagbeni is on the way to the holy shrine of Muktinath and hikers without the expensive permit to Upper Mustang can watch the trail meandering through the Kali Gandaki River and the barren brown hills. The Red House Lodge is an iconic establishment and several stories and blogs have been written about it. The lodge is a traditional, red-coloured Tibetan house and was started by Pema Doma in 1997 when the region was opened to tourists. She developed a beautiful friendship with an Australian lady, Sydney Schuler. The small house that served as the lodge did not have a name and she then decided to install a signboard inscribed with ‘Red House Lodge’. There are Tibetan religious texts and a Tibetan shrine with a five feet statue of the Buddha at the centre. Firewood and provisions dry in the harsh sun on the flat roof and there is a large pole with prayer flags flapping in the wind.

From the roof, you can gaze at the dreamy landscapes of upper Mustang and watch the constantly changing play of light on the barren hills. By mid-morning strong winds roar from the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans use both the wind and water to carry their prayers far and wide. The lodge was used to store rations by the Khampa resistance fighters, who struggled against cultural hegemony in the mid-twentieth century. Kham in eastern Tibet was one of the three traditional provinces and the Khampas (the inhabitants) have a reputation as tough fighters. They eventually migrated to Nepal along with other refugees and waged armed resistance to free Tibet till they were eventually disarmed by the Nepalese army in the 1970s. Kesang in the Mustang region was one of the main centres of the Khampa resistance.   The food at the lodge in Kesang is excellent and it is a good place to rest either on your way up to or down from Muktinath. The sense of history is strong in this lodge as a comfortable familiarity with the past blends into the present.

Ghandruk is a large Gurung village near Pokhara and the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). Gurungs are an ethnic group dominant in the hills around Pokhara. Along with other ethnicities they constitute the famous Gurkhas known for their courage and valour. Gurungs are believed to have originated in Tibet and practice a mixture of animistic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious practices. They live on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in central Nepal and call themselves Tamu. Many serve in the Nepalese, Indian, British and other armies and police forces and have seen action in several conflicts.

Due to the civil war, many Gurungs migrated from their villages to settle in Pokhara. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung village in Nepal after Siklis. The village sprawls over a hillside with terraced fields. From the road head at Nayapul (new bridge), Ghandruk is a four-to-five-hour trek initially along the riverbank and then through well-maintained stone staircases. The Himalaya Lodge (a Kerr and Downey resort) is located right at the top of the village. This lodge lets out rooms to independent trekkers if not occupied by those who have reserved their rooms through Kerr and Downey.

The lodge has spectacular views of the Annapurna Himals. The dining room is decorated in the Gurung style. The food at the lodge served in traditional copper utensils is excellent. The freshly plucked green leafy vegetables and the radish pickle are tasty. The rooms are well-appointed with attached bathrooms. You sleep between freshly laundered white sheets. The lodge provides guests with slippers and down jackets for their use during their stay. There are tables and comfortable chairs placed in the stone-paved courtyard for al fresco dining and you can watch the clouds gather and eventually cloak the Himals. Butterflies and birds flit among the flowers. The lodge also has different handicrafts for sale. I was first introduced to the singing bowl or the Himalayan bowl here.  The traditional bowls were originally made of a variety of metals including mercury, lead, silver, iron, gold, and copper. I found it fascinating that by moving a wooden stick around the bowl a rich harmonious note could be produced.

Ghorepani at around 2800 m is famous for the views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. The viewing of sunrise at Poon Hill is a highlight of the trek. I usually stay at the Snow View lodge located close to Poon Hill. The lodge is made of wood and has an excellent solar hot shower. They have a single room with a window providing excellent views. The cast-iron stove in the dining room is warm and the food is excellent. Ghorepani is a long day’s climb on steep stone staircases from Nayapul and Birethanti. Climbing to Poon hill from the lodges using flashlights in the predawn darkness is a unique experience. Ghorepani was a watering hole for horses till it was discovered by tourists. The settlement has several lodges both down in the main village and higher up at Deurali (the pass). The rhododendrons during spring bloom in various shades of red and pink. The cornbread baked at Snow View lodge is excellent and is my breakfast of choice.   

      

The last few years have been hard on the trekking lodges. First, there was the devastating earthquake of 2015 which damaged the infrastructure, and then the global shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The lodge owners are resilient and resourceful. The lodges offer comfortable alternatives to staying in cold tents and also contribute to the local economy. Now, as the world is beginning to open its doors again to tourism and travel, I look forward to returning to the magic of the Himalayas and revisiting these wonderful lodges.

Sunset on Annapurna

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

The Great Freeze

P. Ravi Shankar shuttles through winters from Everest to New York to Kerala to Aruba in the Caribbean

My friend and colleague was turning blue. The cold wind hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. We both had on all the warm clothes we could bring. I had on me a woollen blazer, a full sleeve sweater, my shirt, a half sleeve sweater, and underneath it a thermal. The freezing wind cut through these layers like the proverbial knife through butter. I was beginning to lose sensation on my nose and extremities. We were in freezing weather for less than a minute crossing the road to where the car was parked. We were inadequately dressed for a February morning in New York city. A nor’easter had hit a day before and the temperature was below minus 24 degrees Celsius. The news channels mentioned it was the coldest day in over two decades. Luckily for us, the car was heated, and the seats could also be warmed. We slowly thawed after the flash freeze.  

We had flown from sunny Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) the previous day. Miami had perfect weather, but New York was freezing. Manhattan is full of skyscrapers. There is no direct rail line from the airport to Manhattan. New York has a decent public transport infrastructure but no airport metro. The city’s infrastructure does need some serious investment on upgrade and maintenance. The hotel room was warm and toasty. Outside, it was snowing. I saw the homeless on the freezing sidewalks trying to shelter from the bitter cold. Poverty amid opulent wealth.

I have mostly lived in warm places where your major concern is staying cool in the humid heat. In Kerala, in the south of India, a mundu or a lungi wrapped around the waist was the common male attire. The mercury in most areas never goes below 20 degrees Celsius. In New York during winter, the major concern was staying warm. Suddenly, common English expressions began to make sense. Warm welcome, warm greetings make sense when you are coming in from a freezing weather. When you are all hot and sweaty, the warmth seems unwelcome. Also, the European style of dressing was designed to minimise heat loss. Socks, hats, gloves, coats, tie, scarf. The buildings all had double doors to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth. Central heating kept the inside warm.

Keeping warm is expensive. I did some rough calculation and worked out that I would have to spend USD 1500 on winter clothing and over USD 250 monthly on heating bills. The tempo and rhythm of life changes in the northern latitudes with the change of seasons. Winters mean short days and time spent mostly indoors. The wily COVID virus is capitalising fully on this human behaviour. Summers translate to warm temperatures and long days. With global climate change, the highs in summer and the lows in winter are becoming extreme.  

On another occasion I was strolling by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago enjoying the early morning view. There were gardens and walking paths by the shoreline. Suddenly a cold wind blew across the lake from Canada. Despite all the winter clothing I donned, I was frozen. In cold weather, it is important to have a waterproof and wind proof outer shell. These are expensive however, and as occasional visitors to cold climates, we were unwilling to invest in such clothing. Upstate New York is even colder than New York city, and Rochester is said to be among the snowiest cities in America.

New York city is relatively well-prepared for snowy weather with double doors, central heating, winter clothing and snow ploughs. So is Chicago. Some of the southern cities in the US also experience snowy weather due to climate change and are not prepared for occasional winter storms. The plains of northern India experience cold weather from December to March. A thick layer of smog blankets the plains. Trains and planes are delayed, and driving could become hazardous. Air pollution rises and the air becomes dangerous to breathe. The sun succeeds in clearing the fog only after ten in the morning. Kathmandu in Nepal also experience fog and increased pollution during winter. Pokhara is a Nepalese city without fog in winters. I have often wondered why. With beautiful views of the Annapurna range, winter mornings in Pokhara are occasions to be savoured. In these places there is no central heating. Quilts are widely used. I enjoy the quilt which slowly warms you up using your own body heat.

In the mountains of Nepal, external heating devices are common. In the Everest region, there is the yak dung burning cast iron stove in dining rooms. In the Annapurna region north of Pokhara, wood burning stoves are common. In Thak Khola, charcoal burning stoves under the table are used. The bedrooms, however, are unheated and freezing. I had stayed in Lobuche in the Everest region, at around 4900 m for over a month for a research project and the nights were freezing. The water bottle used to freeze. If you wanted something to not freeze, you kept it beside you on the bed inside the quilt.

Watching snow fall is relaxing. The snowflakes glide down and blanket the trees and the ground in white. The cold reduces a bit. Rain is more noisy and violent and often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Walking on snow is difficult. Soon the snow melts during the day and refreezes again at night and turns into ice. Ice is extremely slippery and dangerous to walk on. Snow is a rare treat for persons from tropical climates. However, living in snow covered regions is challenging.

Near the equator the climate is constant throughout the year. The rains cool down the atmosphere, but the hours of sunlight do not vary much. Life is not influenced by the seasons. The further north or south you go from the equator, seasons begin to colour your life. Summer brings long days, sometimes extreme heat and more time spent outdoors. Winter brings longer nights, snow, and more time indoors. In both New York and Chicago, in winter, the trees were totally bare, bereft of leaves. I could not believe they were still alive. With the coming of spring the green twigs would sprout again and the cycle of life resumes. The writing of poets and authors from temperate countries about the dreariness of winter and the warmth of spring and summer began to make sense to me — a person from and living in the tropics.      

      

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL