Ballu woke us with bed tea from the cafeteria at 5.30. He could be heartless about it – by his standards, it was already late. We dressed and woke and dressed the kids and were at the cafeteria for breakfast by 7 a.m. “You want rice for breakfast?” they asked, raising eyebrows at me. “Yes, please,” I said. We’d told them so already the previous evening. It turned out that they would not make rice for one person – not worth the effort. So I got last evening’s rice with last evening’s rajma and pretty foul it was too.
We started walking at 7.45 and by 3.45 we’d reached – a good eight hours. Not all good, actually. We took innumerable short breaks to keep the kids entertained and one 45-minute break for lunch. We’d carried packed rotis and boiled eggs for the kids to munch on along the way. Around noon, we stopped at a dhaba for fresh omelettes and hot tea. By that time, we were told that we’d done 10 km already. With only another 3-4 km to go, we were all in good spirits after lunch. The walk was easy enough, with a good path, the river running along far below, green water turning to frothy white when it met enormous rocks. Around us rose green hills and in the distance snow-capped peaks were already visible. The kids finally agreed to walk with the porter, Deshraj Rana. He walked at top speed and the girl accompanying him scrambled to keep pace, while the girl who walked with us grumbled and complained. In the end Mrini and Deshraj and Amit reached ahead of me, Tara, and Ballu. Mrini was up in the room, sitting in the window and waving and shouting to us when we walked in to the village.
Even with 13 km under their belts, the kids were energetic and active the rest of the day. There’d been a couple of times along the way when I’d thought they were really tired and couldn’t go on, but Amit thought they had energy enough and to spare and in the end he was right. All they needed was a bit of distraction, a bit of a bribe and they’d be good for another hour or two.
Everyone was impressed. “But tomorrow there’s a continuous climb,” Deshraj and Ballu warned us. “Do you think they can make it tomorrow as well?
Expecting a long day, we planned to leave the guest house at Seema by 7 a.m., so naturally it was 7.25 by the time we got going. Ballu, Deshraj, and the horses were still getting organized, so we set off on our own. The path led out of the village and across an imposing metal bridge suspended far above the raging river. At the other side, there was a steep zigzag path going straight up the hill to a small bridge perched halfway up. By 8 a.m. we were at the small bridge. From there, the path leveled out and the ascent was more reasonable after that. In a few places – three or four stretches, maybe – it was steep, but each steep stretch was quite short so it was never completely exhausting the way it is when you are climbing up towards a high pass. For a while, we walked across terraced fields, then the path curved along the edge of the hill, occasionally descending towards the river but never going right down to it. We reached the halfway point by 10.30, which was encouraging, and around noon we reached a pretty waterfall where we stopped for lunch. Only another 4-5 km to go, they said.
We started the final ascent, about 2 km, around 2 p.m. By 2.30 or so, we had reached the last clump of trees and, crossing it, found ourselves in a beautiful green meadow with the Forest and GMVN guest houses visible a little ahead. We’d also encountered the first few patches of snow. Across the river from the green meadow, everything was covered in pristine white. It was enchanting – but at 3 p.m. it was a bloody pain to walk through. At every step, I sank in up to mid-calf level. The kids, tired and cranky, struggled along holding our hands. They didn’t sink in as much as we did, of course, but when the hand you’re holding suddenly drops by a foot or so, you are liable to lose your balance. It was slow going, and we reached the first of the two guest houses by 3.15 p.m.
We didn’t actually have a reservation for this night. When we’d booked on the Net, we hadn’t found any rooms available. Now that we were here, I could understand why. The GMVN guest house had one room and one 11-bed dorm. The Forest guest house, which we hadn’t even tried to book, had one proper room and some empty cabins with no bathrooms. An 18-member team from New Zealand had booked two nights here. There was already a 40-member party from Pune in occupation. They former had left a day early, but apparently the latter had taken over any rooms they might have vacated. And a three-member party had come up with us and taken the only proper room the Forest guest house had to offer.
Still, we had two small children. I don’t know who was responsible for it, but by the time we reached, someone had obtained a room for us in the Forest guest house. It was apparently the chowkidar’s room. It must have been 8’x8’ sq. ft. with a 6’x6’ bed in it. There wasn’t a lot of room to move around. What’s worse, the room had no window – the one window it appeared to have had at some point had inexplicably been nailed shut. It was dark, dingy, dank, cramped, and depressing. At some point, I stepped on the buckle of the waist strap of the biggest backpack and it cracked. Fantastic – how were we to carry it now?
The kids found snow everywhere, much to their delight, and were just beginning to think about what interesting sculptures they could make with it, when they discovered that dipping your hands in it for an extended period of time made them seriously cold. After that they perched on the steps outside the room and kept themselves busy with their colouring books until a sudden blast of wind came along and knocked Tara to the ground. Luckily she fell on the safe side of the steps and cried mostly due to the ignominy of it – nothing hurts as much as a bruised ego. Despite everything they showed no signs of tiredness until dinner time, when suddenly they found themselves too tired to eat. Deshraj very sweetly found the two least broken of a set of wooden chairs with torn cane seats and the two least broken of some small wooden tables — one of which had only three legs and could therefore be counted on to topple over at inopportune moments – which he set up for the girls to eat dinner at. They were persuaded to take a few mouthfuls and then had to be put to bed presto.
Ballu had cajoled the caretaker give up his kitchen – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d used the kids to justify his need. The kitchen was in a separate building from the rooms. You had to cross a short expanse of snow to reach it, so the kids were soon experts at walking on snow. It was a tiny, triangular space, with a neat space for a wood-fired chuhla and very little space for anything else. The chuhla was most useful for Ballu – there was always a huge saucepan of water being warmed on it, while the kerosene stove was used for actual cooking. Running water was supplied by a pipe just outside the kitchen. It doubtless originated from the clever diversion of a nearby stream. Ballu was delighted with this convenience, which was – for him – almost an unthinkable luxury. In short order, we had tea, Maggi, khichadi (to make up for the lunch I’d missed), coffee, and finally dinner by 7 p.m.
What about the poor caretaker, done out of his room and his kitchen? He squeezed in with someone else in another room next to the kitchen and happily ate whatever Ballu dished up.
And, he put his quilts at our disposal.
The quilts provided another whole dimension to the small dark room – an olfactory dimension; an olfactory assault to be precise. To put it bluntly, they were stinking to high heaven. Up until this point, while the bed linen did not look exactly pristine in any of the guest houses, we had at least been able to close our eyes and get into bed. Here, with the unsavoury fragrance wafting from the quilts and no windows to provide the slightest modicum of relief, I discovered that even Amit had a limit to his tolerance. We unrolled our new, inflatable sleeping mats and unfolded our comfortable old sleeping bags. Then, while looking away and holding our noses with one hand, we reluctantly spread the quilts on top, keeping them as far away from the pillows as possible. By the time we got to bed at night, it was cold. I wondered which was better – dying of asphyxiation or freezing to death. In the end, the need to keep warm – and the inexorable maternal need to keep the kids warm – won out and the quilt slowly crept up towards my chin. Despite which, I managed to sleep. It wasn’t the most refreshing sleep, but at close to 12,000 ft and close to freezing point, you can’t ask for much.
And if you’re thinking surely I must be exaggerating, how much can a quilt smell anyway, let me put it this way: Add up the smells of many different bodies that have not been bathed for a number of days, snuggling up cosily under a 15-kilo load of cotton and perspiring slightly; add in a good helping of sweaty feet still dressed in sweaty socks; and top it off with a dash of beedi-infested clothing, in a dark, warm, and airless room… Need I say more?