North-East, Kerala, Thailand. I had turned down all three of these trips when Ankita approached me for some silly reason or the other. Seems difficult to comprehend now, but a year back it would have been too obvious. Back then, the idea of travelling gave me jitters, rather than excitement. The moment it was time to sleep in the trains, I would start missing the comfort of my bed in my room. But a few travels in the last year had changed me. First was Vizag, followed by Kolkata, two nearby cities unexplored. But the trip to Trivandrum was a turning point for me in many ways. The feeling of stepping on the soil of a place for the first time, seeing things in real which you had only seen in books or on the internet. The charm caught onto me.
I was just back from a family trip to Pondicherry and when I came to know about the plan to be at Rishikesh and Auli, I said yes. I had never been to North and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. But I didn’t have much idea about both these places and when I came to know that the trip involved lots of activities, I was a bit apprehensive because I had been a book a hotel, book a cab, visit a place and take a picture kind of traveler till then. Though, once the tickets were done, I started looking forward to it. More than anything I needed a break from the monotonous work schedule. I approached my manager for leaves and he was like, ‘You just went on leave!’ I had to explain him that I would be going after approximately four months. He didn’t confirm anything then and I had made my decision, even if he didn’t, I was still going.
The day arrived finally. 9 people, 9 days! I knew Ankita since my school days, and had known 4 of her friends in the office after she introduced me to them. The remaining 3 were strangers to me. Moreover, this was my first trip with a group of friends. Mily and I were the latest members of this group. Others had traveled together. Every one of us had a trolley. Anisha’s was the largest among the lot, large enough to fit a body of a grown up human. So large that if it was packed with RDX, an entire town would have been wiped out. So large that if Mr. Bachhan lifted it while shooting for his movie Coolie, he would have been hospitalized just the way he was because of that blow during one of the action scenes. We had jokes like this about her bag all along the trip. Yes, I could only crack jokes, while the gym boys, Deba and Sitesh had their workout sessions during the entire trip as they didn’t miss lifting weights. Guys, better get that treat from her as promised.
This was my first time in Rajdhani Express, the country’s premier train. Yes, the colors of the coaches and the space near the doors was different from other trains. I couldn’t spot any other difference. Like other special trains, they too served with some food every few hours. The train route was the most boring one that I have ever traveled, nothing noteworthy outside. Plus, I realized that railway stations in south are way cleaner than in north. Having found nothing outside, I shifted my focus back to inside the train. We had our berths in two different places in the same coach; one was near the door and other in middle. The girls were sitting near the door while we were in the middle. A man from UP lay there, pants unbuttoned, his paunch too big now to be contained and when he slept sideways, it seemed like his bulging tummy slept next to him like a different entity. Though it seemed obscene, to be fair with him, there were no ladies there, so it was okay. An older man boarded the train at Cuttack, a father of 2 IAF pilots, on his way to meet his younger son at Amritsar. I don’t know why but I remembered the movie Baghban, old aged parents taking turns living with their children. But this one didn’t seem like a sad story. Soon, the conversation happened among us and no prizes for guessing what the topic was. It was politics and UP elections. The uncle from UP had a bit rough way of talking. But the more he talked, I realized it was just the way he spoke, not that he was a bad man. He was a father of 2 software engineers, son worked in Flipkart at Bengaluru and daughter worked at Infosys, Pune and supposedly sat one floor above where a girl was gruesomely killed recently. Few minutes later, when the conversation was getting boring, the girls saved me by calling out to play UNO. I had always heard about this card game but had never played. So this was another first for me. We sat together, spread out a white cover provided by railways on our legs. This served as our deck where we placed our cards. Soon, I was familiar with all the rules but one rule troubled me the most which seemed to be a basic rule. Calling out UNO when you had one card with you. I always forgot this and Deba would always be vigilant to point that out and hand me new cards. No regrets there as winning meant you sat out of the exam, shuffling cards. A short mention here about one of the numerous skills that I want to possess; shuffling cards like they do in Las Vegas. If you thought I would stop there, no on days I am high, I also wish to be in a tuxedo, have a poker face and beat Le Chiffre like James Bond did in Casino Royale.
Nothing interesting in the train journey as we arrived the next day in New Delhi one hour late. Yes, premier train, I know. Go ahead, tweet Mr. Prabhu.
We had our next train to Haridwar after 3 hours from the same station. We just had time for lunch. We decided to go to the nearest KFC. We had the luggage with us and getting into cabs whose dickey was fitted with gas cylinders was difficult. But we got there somehow with 3 different rides.
The evening train ride to Haridwar was a good one. Once one entered the mountain state of Uttarakhand, one could feel the presence of nature untouched by humans.
There was this girl who boarded the train along with us at New Delhi and sat next to our seats. Her friends who came to see her off safely requested me to help her with her luggage at Roorkee station. She had short hairs like boys, and wore a track suit; and call it the Bollywood effect, I assumed in my mind she was some Haryanvi sportswoman. Images of Kangana Ranaut from Tanu Weds Manu 2 came flashing in my mind. Rakesh who was sitting with me went a step ahead and asked her if she was studying at the IIT. “I am with the Police”, pat came her reply.
We got down at Haridwar, went to our hotels. After changing our dresses, which we had worn for the last 2 days, we went out for dinner. We had our dinner, then literally had a scramble for the rabri. We then set out for the ghats, Har Ki Pauri as they call it. We had to cross the busy market to get there. Shiv Ratri was less than a week away and therefore the mad rush of devotees. And poll season meant, huge posters of Rahul Gandhi hanging from the walls of very old buildings somewhere, and flags with lotus symbol fluttering somewhere else.
When we reached the ghats, I hadn’t imagined anything. I didn’t have a picture in my mind to compare it with. So, I was pleasantly surprised. People were taking dip in the cold waters of Ganga flowing quietly. It was saffron everywhere. We spent some time there in the ghats. It was liberating as I was away from the job scene. Some of us offered our prayers to the holy Ganga by letting an earthen diya along with flowers float away in a boat made out of leaves. While some others went live on Facebook.
Next morning when it was still dark, I was late and everybody left for the ghats to watch the aarti. Sitesh was there for me but then he too walked away briskly. The road was straight and as I walked alone in the crowded streets; my imagination took over. I imagined myself as an assassin out for the kill. You should get used to my occasional bursts of imagination by now!
I reached the ghats and then we waited by sitting on the steps for the aarti to begin which starts just before sunrise. Once it was over, it was already dawn now and we had to hurry back to our hotel. Rishikesh was our next destination. Now when we hurried in a group, I imagined us as a group of con men running away from the scene after our last job.
Cramped in a big auto along with our luggage, we left for Rishikesh. It was cold so that the covers were down and we couldn’t see the scenes along the road. I could feel what queens of yesteryears felt when they were taken to a nearby kingdom in horse carriages or palanquins. Rishikesh is very popular among foreign nationals as it serves as a beautiful amalgamation of Hindu spiritualism and adventure sports. The thrill seekers and peace seekers have both got something to seek. We were out for thrill. At this age one should. So after a brief wait, we started our ascent up the hills in a Tavera for our next destination, Jumpin Heights. Few minutes into the drive and a policeman stopped us to search our luggage most probably for liquor bottles and one should have seen his disappointed face on not finding any. On our way up, we saw several camps on the banks of Ganga. The road was at a much elevated height and from up there, the sight of the emerald waters of the river flowing silently among boulders is something that’s too difficult to put to words. This was our first sighting of the river in the hills and she was going to stay with us for most of the remainder of our trip.
We reached and then we were told to wait before they called us out to show us a promo video. They had 3 activities, Bungee Jumping, Flying Fox and Giant Swing. After the promo was over, we were handed forms to fill to declare we didn’t have any illness related to heart. While others filled it up and discussed which one they should sign in for. I refused the forms and sat there. Sitesh, Ankita signed for Bungee, while Anisha, Mily signed for both Bungee and Flying Fox, (talk about girls being braver), and the not so brave ones, Rakesh, Sumit and Shivani signed up for Flying Fox. Now the good thing about Flying Fox was that it could be performed in groups. I didn’t want to sit there and get bored. So, when everyone was done with the formalities, I filled the form, had my weight checked, (I was glad I was in the 70s bracket now), made the payment as they marked my hand with my weight with a marker.
The seven of us had to do a short trek to reach the Flying Fox platform and by the time we reached there my heartbeat was already racing. The 3 girls went flying first just like the Powerpuff Girls. It was my turn next. Suited up, Deba and I flew at 160 kmph on Asia’s longest flying fox track. After the initial thrill, we had nothing else to do when we were hanging above the Ganges. Both of us were without our glasses, and the rocks beneath us sometimes looked like the body of a cow and sometimes something else. There was no badge saying, ‘I have got Guts!’ for us like the ones who did Bungee had. By the time our ride was over, I realized why. It was fun but it didn’t require guts. We then moved to the Cafeteria of Jumpin Heights. They had 2 screens there; one showing live feed and another showing videos of your activity on demand. While we sat there, we watched Deba, Anisha and Mily do their jumps Live. Sitesh and Ankita had trekked down with their badges and experience by that time. We then collected our certificates and videos to bid goodbye to Jumpin Heights.
We were supposed to go down to our camp, Him River Resort. But then we had a minor hitch. The driver who brought us there turned out to be unruly and demanded extra money for the time he spent there waiting. There was argument. We thought we had reached a settlement but then he dropped us off at quite some distance from our camp, knowingly or unknowingly that’s still a mystery. The camp was visible to us which was downhill but as hilly roads are we had to cover quite some distance to get there. Walking till the camp would still have been okay but to carry the luggage we had that made it difficult as the rough roads meant one couldn’t drag one’s trolleys, rather one had to lift and carry them.
Somehow, we managed to reach there to find hut shaped cottages ready for us. The camp served buffet lunch which was delicious. After lunch when we walked to the river bed, it was lovely. The water was quite shallow at this time of the year and I could see small pebbles of various colors made smooth by the running water over the years. I couldn’t resist as I picked up a few and held it in my palms. These were going with me to Bhubaneswar, I thought as I put them in my trouser pocket. It still gives me the thrill to hold something which belonged to The Ganges and The Himalayas here. That was the thought behind picking them up. Next, we had to trek nearby to reach a waterfall. A guide from the camp accompanied us. We climbed up slowly and when one would expect nothing in that jungle, we saw a beautiful waterfall. We bathed and when its chilly waters drubbed the backs of our tired bodies, we felt rejuvenated. In the middle of nowhere along with that waterfall was a small tea shop. We had hot Maggi there which came at Rs.50 a plate and quite understandably. It was getting dark and it was time to get down. By the time we reached down it was already dark and then we had to get back to the camp from there. Walking in group with a torchlight guiding our way, it felt like I was back in my village. On reaching we found the people at the camp were getting a bonfire ready for us in the lawn. I had heard about such stories in books and movies till this time. But this was happening for real. Hot pakoras arrived too and so did an Old Monk. There was music and there was dance as revelry was in the air. Since it was off-season for tourists, we had the entire place to ourselves and it was here I realized I don’t dance not because I am shy but because I don’t want to. Because if there was any place to make a debut on the dance floor it was this. Instead I sat there warming myself, thinking about life and making jokes once in a while. Couple of hours later, when the fire was dying down and others were tired, we went and sat beside the river for some time. We had the Shiwalik mountain right in front of us and in the dark it looked like a huge canvas. On looking up, one could see stars twinkling.
After a delicious dinner we retired to our comfortable rooms. Next morning when I wake up, it was raining. It had rained heavily the last night and the wet clothes from the waterfall that we had left to dry were drenched in waters. Once, the rain stopped, we went out with our cameras and we took photographs. Soon, the weather cleared and after having warm tea and tasty aloo parathas, we set out for rafting in the Ganges. The boys sat out in the open section of the jeep with the raft on top of us acting as the roof. It was few minutes’ drive from our camp and on reaching there, we were suited up with life jackets and oars. We were ready to go! The sand looked completely white. We got into the inflatable rubber boat and next moment we were sailing with the instructor’s command, “Team, move forward!”
We had to cross 9 rapids in total and it was here we realized the huts in our camps were named after the rapids. The names were quite interesting, like ‘Double Trouble’, ‘Roller Coaster’, ‘The Three Blind Mice’, ‘The Golf Course’ to name a few. The rapids were fun as the boat swayed in the whirlpool of waters, spraying the water in our face. We even had a minor accident when in one of the rapids, the water hit the raft with some force and it tilted and the next moment when I looked, there was no Ankita and Mily. I could see a pair of slippers and couple of oars floating in the river. Though Mily had held onto the rope on the raft’s side, Ankita had floated away. But few nervous moments later, everyone was hauled up including the slippers and oars. The eighth rapid was for body surfing and every one of us got down in the waters, then let go off the raft entirely to float holding each other’s hand, it was an incredible feeling! Though, we didn’t take a dip in the holy river at Haridwar, this more than made it up as this was further upstream. After crossing the eighth rapid, we anchored for a while as we had hot Maggi again. Then some of us jumped into the waters from a height of 30 feet. All the boys except me to be exact.
We were back in Rishikesh town and after lunch when we were set to move to Dehradun as we had a hotel booked for the night there and in the morning we were to embark for Joshimath. It was then that we realized that Dehradun and Joshimath were in opposite direction. We had to take a decision and we decided to cancel the hotel booking at Dehradun to stay at Rishikesh for the night. Being from the plains, it was a weird feeling when standing atop the terrace of a five storied hotel, I saw a playground almost parallel to the roof. It was like the projections of dreams in Inception. In the evening, we walked to Lakshman Jhula as it was nearby. The walk through the narrow inclined roads in between houses was yet another beautiful experience. We ate Chinese food for dinner and called it quits for the day.
Next morning, after our breakfast, a Traveler waited for us outside our hotel. This was the road trip we all had been waiting for. As I was not involved in the planning of the trip, every day brought in a new surprise for me. It was supposed to take 10 hours for us to reach Joshimath and did we have fun in the trip! All along the way, we had the river by our side. It was Ganga till Devprayag but after we went up Devprayag, it was the Alaknanda that gave us company. We got down at Devprayag for some time and it was a treat to see the waters of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda getting together to form the lifeline of India, the Ganges. Two streams of water originating up in the hills at two different places, flowing with their own stories to meet and begin another story.
We had halts in between for lunch and also unplanned stops whenever the sight got too irresistible to drive on. On one occasion, we had to halt as the road ahead had been damaged because of a recent landslide and the ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) was busy repairing the road. Along with the fun, it was quite nauseating as well to be in a vehicle throughout the day which went around in circles. The driver was quite adept though as he went about his job without any nonsense. We had the chance to go through the beautiful town of Srinagar as well and everyone in the crowd looked cute to me.
Just before dark, we had the first sighting of snow-capped mountains. Though low visibility meant we couldn’t confirm it. The sight of mountains at dusk when one side of the mountain was illuminated by the Sun’s slanting rays was a visual delight. Once it was dark, we could see forest fires in the distance and it looked magnificent; like hot lava flowing from an active volcano. Almost a thousand bend in the roads later, we were few kilometers from our destination. We stopped once more to have omelets and Maggi. Those things tasted something else in that cold and elevation. It was getting really cold now and soon we reached our hotel where we were to stay for the night. Joshimath is a small hilly town and after having dinner, we retired to our rooms. I slept that night with gloves and socks on.
Next morning, I had the first real sighting of the snow-capped mountains. In the daylight it was clearly visible. It was a sunny day and suitable for outdoor activities. We had to reach Auli by rope way. Real fun was beginning now and I could sense something else in the air apart from the cold, the excitement.
We slowly climbed up the mountains, looking at the houses and pine trees below from the cable car. Patches of snow was now visible. Once we reached, we were given snow boots and walking sticks to trek. Soon the snow fights ensued. From where we stood, the peak of Nanda Devi was visible and the view was breathtaking. It was difficult to go up as the Sun had melted the snow to make it slippery and along with the muddy soil underneath, the ground looked to be like Choco Vanilla ice cream. As we trekked up, we saw Army jawans practicing skiing. Soon, we were in the forests where the snow was still intact because of the shade. At the edge of the woods there was a temple where we took rest briefly before moving out in the open. There was snow everywhere and the bright sunlight made it look spectacular. Out in the distance we could see mountains entirely covered with snow. Places where people had already walked was difficult to walk upon as the snow had turned slippery. There were places where the snow was too deep and with each step breathing was getting difficult but we kept going and soon we were at quite an elevation from where the view was magnificent. We had a snow man built also and before it got too late, we had to start descending. Walking down the slope in the snow had its own challenges. The moment you start increasing your pace, you are bound to slip and I slipped too couple of times. It took us an hour to get down. We had hot tea and noodles and even if one felt thirsty, the water was too chilled to drink. In fact, I never drank this much amount of tea in life before but the cold meant I was gulping it down.
There were only 3 hotels up there in the Garhwali region. We could have taken the chair lift from there to our hotel which would have been equally fun. But we chose to trek down.
This was easier considering there was no snow there. But still there were places where it would seem there was no way of going forward. We had broken down into four smaller groups and were slowly but surely making progress. Our hotel was visible from the height and seemed close, though it took us some time to get there.
The rooms here had room heaters but even then it was too cold. You couldn’t even wash your hand without switching on the geyser. You couldn’t drink water without heating it in a water heater first. I always wanted to experience the life in the hills but at that moment I realized how tough life is on mountains and how simple is life in the plains and I started missing home for the first time. After a difficult night’s sleep, we now had the arduous task of climbing up the hills the same way we had come down last evening. Though, we were not going to climb till the point where we started descending the other day, but still Pier 8 was at distance and in hills, even small distance seem long because of the elevation. We began our ascent and each one was struggling on their own and ultimately we made to the tower from where we had our return cable car. Our knees had gone weak with all the climbing and when I climbed the stairs of the tower which was as high as an eight storied building my legs felt weak and on looking through the gaps in the steps, I felt dizzy. One after the other, we reached the top and feeling thirsty, we remembered the Limca bottle from the dinner last night. At that temperature, it was chilled when we took the bottle out and trust me, it has never tasted that good the way it tasted that morning. Our cable car arrived after waiting for quite some time since we had seen one go above us when we were still climbing.
Once we were back at Joshimath, our Traveler was waiting with our luggage. We hopped inside and began our return journey, this time directly to Haridwar. We saw the same places that we had crossed on our way up. It was Shiv Ratri and we were in the land of Bholenath, so we could see an increase in the traffic. Every turn had people in new dresses going to the nearby temple to offer their prayers on the holy occasion.
By the time we reached Haridwar railway station, we didn’t have much time before our train to have dinner. So we went in two groups, one after the other, while one group had dinner, the other manned the luggage. The train arrived and we boarded it and straightaway went to sleep. We were going to get down at the terminal station of Old Delhi the next morning.
The next morning after getting down at Old Delhi, we decided to take the Metro to New Delhi Railway station where we had a booking at the Executive Lounge. They had shower and buffet facilities and it was much-needed there. Having worn 5 layers of clothing and being without bath for the last 2 days, I desperately needed the shower. After the shower and a sumptuous breakfast, I was as fresh as the first day and was raring to go again. Rakesh was going separate ways from here as he was all set to travel north again, this time to Himachal Pradesh to join his college friends. We kept our luggage in the cloak room and went by Metro to Akshardham Temple. Given the short amount of time we had in Delhi, this was the only thing suggested by others. We had lunch there and then we were again back at the station for our last leg of the trip, the train to Agra.
We found the Agra Cantonment town a very sleepy one. Our experience with hotels which were pre booked in all the places was quite good until we came across the one at Agra. Barely 500 meters from The Taj Mahal, the hotel looked like a haunted house as we reached there late at night. The security was drunk and didn’t quite understand us. The rooms were in very bad shape and looked as if they had been unused since ages. Ankita called and complained with the booking agents and we got comparatively better rooms but they were still bad enough. Mosquitoes swooped on us and Sitesh and I didn’t feel the blankets were hygienic enough and so avoided using it though we felt cold. I couldn’t sleep and woke up before dawn at the sound of the azaans from the mosques nearby. I kept up till the time it was daylight and kept myself busy with social networking sites till the time others woke up. Once everyone was up, we set out for The Taj.
To be honest, though it was grand, I had just come back from seeing the Himalayas and no marvel of man can match that of nature. We took a detour and when we came out, the hawkers were after us to have miniature Taj Mahals and Agra’s sweet delight, pethas. We chose to have some flavored pethas packed for our friends and families back home.
As we were having breakfast, I checked the train timing of our return train to Delhi and as expected it was running late by couple of hours now. We had our flight at 18:30 from New Delhi and one hour before that Mily had her flight to Hyderabad. We sensed that it was going to be difficult and instead of waiting for our train, we made tickets in the latest train available and got up in the Sleeper class. Our problems didn’t end there. In fact, it had just begun. This train which was already running late stopped in the middle of nowhere for almost half an hour and we sat there as the clock ticked by. The train never gave us hope as it slumbered along lazily. At this point of time we were confident of catching our flight; we were just worried about Mily’s flight. She was surely going to miss it if we sat and did nothing. So, it was decided and Deba and she got down at couple of stations before New Delhi. They were to book a cab and race against time. It was already 16:00 by then and even this plan looked like a long shot. By the time we got down it was already 17:00 and we scrambled to the metro from where it would take 20 minutes to reach the airport. A friend of Anisha advised us about checking in the luggage at the metro station itself and then we could comfortably make it to the airport to take the flight. The man was missing from the Air India counter and when asked about his whereabouts, the guy from the other counter said he was in the washroom. We wasted precious 15 minutes waiting for him before we realized they only check in luggage 2 hours prior to the flight. This news gave us butterflies in the stomach. For the first time, there was realization that we won’t be able to make it in time. As we ran and luckily found the doors of the airport metro still open, we got in but the faces told it all. It was all over and we were clueless about our next step. None of us had any idea as we were just going through the motions. By this time, the news of Mily having taken off for Hyderabad was a relief. Her luggage wasn’t that lucky though. That had been the plan, if it came to that, we would keep her luggage with us to be sent later.
I just wished for the flight to be delayed for some reason or the other, a bird hit, a medical emergency; whatever it took the flight to be grounded. The metro arrived at the airport and the porters there were a big help. They put our luggage in the trolleys and they started running. We ran after them. Our boarding gate was couple of levels above and we had to take couple of lifts to reach there. The airport was huge! It was already 18:00 now. The man at the counter initially hesitated to hand out our boarding passes and as the porter requested for us, he proceeded with checking in our luggage and finally there was a glimmer of hope. Still, there was a gnawing fear and I couldn’t rest until I was on the flight. Deba’s whereabouts were still unknown and then we came to know he was in the flight waiting for us. It was a mad dash as scenes that unfolded next, I had only witnessed in movies. The entire airport noticed us as we six ran for our lives. I couldn’t help myself but think of us as the losers from the movie Happy New Year. But like in the movie, it was our day as we entered the flight just in time. Such an eventful trip deserved a fitting end and this rush proved to be the thrilling climax. As the flight took off, I imagined of home; the trip had finally come to an end.
It has been more than a month now since we returned but I still think about the places. May be this piece of writing can bring a closure and I am able to move on with my life. May be some part of me still wants to hang onto these memories.