On prior visits to India, I did my tourist rounds dutifully, visiting Rajasthani architectural jewels and desert towns, and the idyllic Goan and Kanatakan south. I was following itineraries, checking boxes and snapping obligatory been-here photographs. They were fantastic trips, but also felt scripted and a tad unfulfilling.
This time, after finishing my yoga teacher training in Rishikesh, I had a full week to spend with no plans. Having done high altitude treks in Africa and Tibet, and long-distance hikes elsewhere, I found it impossible to be in the foothills of the Himalayas and not hear the mountains calling. I forewent tourist-oriented operators and signed up for the Deoriatal-Chandrashila trek with Indiahikes. I knew nothing about the route and never hiked with a local group outside of Hong Kong, where I reside. I mentally refreshed teachings from yoga school: no expectations – surrender and acceptance.
I stepped foot in the pickup Sumo, and was greeted by some kind and generous fellow hikers: a Mumbaikar family with two precocious and energetic 9-year-old boys, and a young couple from Hyderabad. After 8 hours of snacks, stories, Chinese lessons and gradual ascent on mountainous roads, we arrived in the base camp in Sari village. The Indiahikes team greeted us warmly. My batch-mates were from diverse backgrounds but shared the same curiosity and love for the outdoors. We learned how to ranger-roll and pack compactly. I had my first (of many) delectable meal in the mountains. I was scrubbing cutlery after dinner and thought to myself: today is a good day.
Challo! I began my Deoriatal Chandrashila trek. As I made my way up, little village houses became tiny matchboxes scattered in the vibrant bright green that painted mountain meadows. Irrigated rice terraces glittered in the morning sun. The snow-streaked peak of Chandrashila, looking both discouragingly far and temptingly within reach, beckoned on the horizon under a cloudless blue sky.
After a short climb, we arrived at Deoriatal, our campsite of the day. A tranquil alpine lake ringed with lush forests, it sits in the cradle of some beautiful Himalayan peaks: Chaukhamba, Nilkantha, Bandarpunch, Kedar Range, Kalanag. At a much higher altitude, this is decidedly different from the coastal landscapes that I am accustomed to in Hong Kong. I brought my book to the lakeside and took it all in – reading, napping, gazing at the towering peaks, exploring the surrounding footpaths and enjoying the echoes of cowbells on the grazing pack mules.
As the setting sun gilded us with a golden sheen, Vishal and Tanmay, our trek leaders for the Deoriatal trek, held an insightful talk on the green trail initiative and led us on a forage to clean up trash in the woods. Tanmay has completed a comprehensive range of mountaineering courses and showcased how to make a rescue stretcher out of a long sturdy rope – nothing short of a sleight of hand! Vishal detailed campsite waste management and gave vivid accounts of life in the mountains. I consider myself fairly attuned to environmental issues but the knowledge and passion that these guys had blew me away.
After a short but intense ascent up the mountain ridge, we came to Jhandi Dhar, a high-point clearing marked by a flag post with unobstructed views of the surrounding peaks, including Chandrashila, and the cliffs on both sides of the ridge that sharply receded into valleys down beneath. I was inspired by the brilliant sun to do a couple rounds of Surya Namaskar (sun salutation). One of the children was curious, and we had a brief conversation about what we believed – the sun or God in bestowing us with life, energy and warmth. The candour and profoundness of the exchange with a young, inquisitive mind still makes me smile.
The rest of the day was a lovely forest walk. Pines, oaks and deodars stood tall, shrouding the forest with canopies while allowing slivers of sun rays to cast through. The soft thump of my footsteps on the thick blanket of foliage, the rattling of my cutlery in the backpack, and the resonating percussive birdsong of woodpeckers and flycatchers created a soothing harmony. Ahead and all around me, rhododendron blossoms set the valley ablaze in a fiery display of all shades of pink and red.
Allowing myself to soak up this sumptuous sensory feast, I almost lost track of the meander of the trail until we came to an opening of pasture land, and a few boxes of striking red, purple and green popped into my field of vision, before I realized those were our service tents. The setting couldn’t be more dramatic: undulating snow-capped mountain ridges loomed straight ahead on one side of a large patch of alpine meadow, while rhododendron bloomed like fireworks against the backdrop of verdant forest on the other. It was quiet. The moment seemed to be frozen in time and imprinted in my mind.
I woke up to find my nose congested, a cough developing, and my voice raspy. The day was otherwise a short walk; we arrived at the next (and last) campsite – Martoli – just as rain and hail(!) hit. Downpour went on for a good few hours as we scampered around.
I had lost my voice completely by evening. Vishal and Tanmay brought me lozenges, hot water and slices of ginger, which was the best we could manage in the mountains. We packed for the summit climb and lights went out at 8:30 pm. I was wide awake. My throat was bothering me, the tent felt damp from the rain, laughter from the previous batch which summited early that day permeated through my ear buds, and my mind was racing. From experience, I knew pre-dawn summit climbs were tough; the air would be freezing, we would be groggy from the interrupted sleep, visibility would be merely a meter or two ahead. Without visual references of distance and elevation gain, it would challenge our will to plough through. Plus, that particular day, it was wet and I was sick. My confidence was melting away like icicles in the glaring sun. I curled up against the damp cold and slowly drifted into sleep.
We were woken by Tanmay’s blowing whistle at 2:30 am. I lay in my sleeping bag until discomfort of all kinds seeped into my consciousness. Sore throat, voice reduced to a hoarse whisper, bone-chilling temperature, the need to put on clunky layers of clothes and gear, and a steep climb in the dark. It took enormous resolve for me to stagger out of my tent all bundled up. I lined up at the dining tent to scarf down breakfast in an attempt to warm my body and steel up my will for the challenge ahead. At 4 am, with heavy eyelids and a deep inhale, we set out in single file.
The ascent was steep as expected, and I forced myself to keep to the front-runners, to stay focused and motivated. After half an hour, I could make out a wide and flat meadow clearing fenced by silhouettes of trees in the delicate luminescence cast by the half moon, followed by a zigzagging stony path uphill. I looked behind me, torch lights dotted the pitch-blackness like darting fireflies. After the Tungnath temple, we continued to trudge upwards on a slope at a disheartening angle, which was covered with ankle to knee-deep fresh snow. It felt like a David-and-Goliath battle to the top. I found myself in my own company, puffing in the thin and frigid air, willing my tight thigh muscles – weighed down by the unwieldy clamp-ons – to inch forward while the group of peaks behind me, and Chandrashila above, revealed more of themselves as I edged up.
I finally crawled up the summit. The sun beamed through, generously lacquering the slope down beneath with a glittering glow. I was rewarded with a glorious 360-degree view of magnificent Garhwal and Kumaon mountains, towering in undulating continuity and rugged layers of depths. The snow at the very top of the peaks far in the distance were blown by gusts of wind into clouds of fine dusts, like dancing silver flames. Time stood still in the presence of the mountains, and I began to understand why the lonesome and silent path up is a pilgrimage. I successfully completed my Deoriatal Chandrashila peak trek!
That night, the last night, we reflected on the trek as a group. I had so much to say, but my broken voice prevented me. I could only thank everyone for their kindness and company, and the Indiahikes team’s leadership, knowledge and attentiveness in guiding us through this rewarding journey.
At last, I sat outside the tent gazing at the night sky littered with constellations, large and small, like someone tipped a jar of diamonds over a black velvet canvas. I was grateful for my decision to let go of expectations and embrace the Himalayas, sad that it was coming to a close, and hopeful that I would be back soon.