Picking a travel destination

You are dead tired, each step feels heavy and labored, every single muscle in your body is making its presence felt, but, the destination is in sight and relief is just a few more kms away.

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This is the best part of any hike or trek or trip. There is isn’t any more danger or uncertainty. There is no fear that you might be unable to complete the trip without getting hurt. There is just a rising excitement from finally seeing the finishing line and a feeling of relief from the crushing fatigue. You start to smile and talk more and suddenly there is a spring in  your step.

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Once the main trek was done, we took a taxi to Dhankar where we stayed at the guest house attached to the monastery and relaxed for a day before the next trip.

Spiti Valley

After a week of trekking and sleeping in the rain and snow, being finally under a concrete roof in one of the most surreal landscapes in the world is a wonderful feeling. Sitting on a terrace attached to the coffee shop gazing out at the desolation and barren beauty of the Spiti-valley while pondering over things like the motivation of people who voluntarily chose this place as their home, feels different and strange.

Dhankar Monastery

Dhankar Monastery

We spent the morning hiking up to the Dhankar lake and then I and KP spent the rest of the day lazing about and eating tasty little treats and talking at the coffee shop.

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When I think of a place to travel to, it is only rarely that I try to see if that place is objectively beautiful or if the sights are “worth-it”. The first thing I think of when picking a place is about the things that could be done there. I think that by doing something or engaging with a place physically we will be able to better appreciate what it has to offer.

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I have heard many people talk about how great it would be to visit foreign countries or go on a whirl-wind tour of the famous tourist-spots of the world. When I hear that I always wonder what it is exactly one feels when standing in front of a tourist attraction. What is the happiness you get out of taking a picture of yourself in front of the Eiffer tower or some other such landmark? One can of course see anything online nowadays. When we imagine ourselves being happy in front of a particular sight have we ever wondered why we would be happy in that position? Is it just the beauty of the sight?

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A lonely flower

I have a strong feeling that it has to be more than that. Maybe, it is the break from the routine of daily life involved in getting to the said location. Maybe it is being there with your friends or family. Maybe it is the little surprises that happen on long trips…

When I look through these old photos, the pleasure I feel comes more from remembering how I felt like at the time than from the mere aesthetic appeal of the scenery that I have tried to capture with these images.

I once cycled up the Khardung-La pass in Ladakh and was deeply affected by the experience. Once the cycling expedition was finished I got myself into a group which was hiring a share-taxi to visit the Nubra valley through the same route. The second time I went through that route, I slept most of the way and the sights that had deeply moved me the first time failed to have the same impact as they whizzed past the window of our vehicle.

A sky so rare, the moon is visible at noon!

A sky so rare, the moon is visible at noon!

I realized then that the impact travel has on us is mostly a function of our own state of mind, our physical condition, the accessibility and uniqueness of the place, interaction with our travel partners and the activities we are engaged in. If one’s stated purpose for travelling is to collect different experiences and learn something new about oneself in that process, then, the “impressiveness” of any place or sight is of only secondary importance. The way we engage with that place has a bigger say in deciding how much we are able to take away from the whole exercise.

Is there something objectively great about a place that would make a trip there worth the while? I think this is an important question for someone interested in expanding their mind in whichever way possible.

So, the next time I plan a trip, I ought to spend more time thinking about what I can do there than on whether that place is “beautiful-enough” or not.

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Some fun under the Sun

We had thought that the difficult part of the trek was over. I was preparing myself for an easy walk through the Spiti Valley.

Before starting I asked the guide how much time it would take for us to reach Mudh He haw..hummed for a few mins and said that 3 hours ought to be enough. Well, I looked around.

All I could see was an endless desert hemmed in on all sides by mountains with a river flowing through a deep gash in the valley.

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We started off on our “short trek”.

The Sun started growing in intensity in the sky. The air was thin and dry and utterly devoid of moisture.

The trail was initially strewn with a lot of rocks.

We kept walking….

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and walking…

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and walking. The Sun was now at its prime in the noontime sky and beat down on us mercilessly. We came across a rushing stream that was unexpectedly deep and rapid.

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We walked a few kms towards the mountains until we found a glacier and walked across it.

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By the time we reached a meadow in the afternoon and plopped down on the soft wet grass for a bite to eat, we were pretty hungry and thirsty.

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I took of my shoes and walked on the soft grass while wallowing in memories of the greenery of Kinnaur and the shade of the trees on the other side of the mountains.

After eating and sitting around looking at the flocks of sheep grazing around us I asked our guide how much more of our “easy trek” was remaining. I wasn’t surprised when he told me 3 hours again. I stuffed my legs into my dry hard shoes again and we all started once more on the dusty trail.

It seemed liked we were walking on Mars or at least somewhere that was not on earth.

The barren land, the mountains bearing the tear marks of glaciers with their strange mineral-derived colors, the gorge in the valley that stretched far into the distance and the trail winding and weaving its way along the side of the mountains.

We kept walking…

I fell into a rhythm. My breathing, my steps my gaze and my thoughts all fell into lock-step. I am a guy who enjoys movement and the continuous rhythmic motion was deeply soothing for me.

By afternoon, signs of civilization started appearing. Pieces of smooth stone with prayers inscribed on them, artificial ponds, farms and electric poles in the distance.

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Finally, we could see the village of Mudh in the distance. Nestled in a crook in the mountains, flanked on both sides by glaciers and standing like a sentinel over the lush green paddy fields under it. It was a pleasing sight.

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After a final trek up the slopes towards the village along stone paths cutting a way through the fields we got into the village and then into a small tea-shop.

I kept drinking water until I suddenly started sweating profusely. After sitting down I had fresh omelettes and tea until I felt the haze start to lift from my mind and felt alert and active again.

We got into the hired vehicle which would take us to Dhankar where we would be halting for the night. But, not before we saw a couple of monasteries along the way.

After a week of sleeping inside a sleeping bag in a tent, the hostel attached to the Dhankar monastery was a pleasant change.

No big treks for the next 2 days! But, going over the plans inside my head, I had a feeling that things were going to be no less exciting…

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Treading on ice

When I woke up from my short and fitful sleep it was still very early. The Sun had barely risen and it was still very chilly outside. I coaxed myself out of my warm and cosy sleeping bag and out into the open. It was a glorious morning.

I stretched my limbs and breathed in the cold, sharp morning air. I felt the chill spread into my chest and suddenly, I felt very awake.

After breakfast we started on our short trek to the last camp below the pass. It was called Kharo. It is the last campsite below the snow-line and the one from which we would start the next day to cross the pass and descend into Spiti valley.

As we started on our trek, our guide pointed out a distant meandering stream and casually said that we would have to cross it to get to the other side.

I was thinking, “Yeah, so what? We have crossed so many streams”. But, as we started walking towards it I realized that this was one stream that I wouldn’t be hopping and skipping over in a hurry. The waters were flowing rapidly and there seemed to be treacherous gaps and sharp rocks lurking under the rushing planes of water. We walked up and down the stream looking for a place to cross it.

Eventually, our dependable guide found us a stretch where the waters were relatively shallow and spread out. I took off my shoes and waded into the water after him.

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Well, the next couple of minutes were a truly illuminating period for me. The water was ice-melt from a glacier just above us and it was only a few degrees above freezing. As I stepped onto the sharp pebbles and rocks with the water gushing over my feet I suddenly felt a sharp jab of pain in my legs. I desperately rushed to cross the stream behind my guide who somehow seemed to be completely unaffected by the brutal chill of the water made worse by the unsteady rocks and gushing water.

159-IMG_8676 As I stepped out of the water and jumped about a bit to get some feeling in my legs I felt the heat of the Sun soothe my feet and that immediately calmed me down. I sat down to let my legs dry before putting on my shoes.

I waited for some time as one by one all the guys caught up. As I was waiting there at the bend that would take us away from the valley, I turned around and gazed one last time at the magnificent valley that had hosted us the previous day.
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It would be the last time during the trip that I would be able to look upon such verdant beauty made complete by the streams and glaciers with the towering snow-capped peaks watching over it all… it was indeed a magnificent sight.

I turned back and started walking towards the mountains. The grass started growing sparser. The Sun beat down harshly and patches of dirty white ice started appearing along the trail.

After a short trek we reached the campsite.

After putting up the tents I jumped in to escape from the harsh elements. This was the worst of all the places we camped at during the entire trip.

The air was thin, the Sun beat down mercilessly and the air made our noses bleed. Inside the tent it was alternately baking hot and freezing cold as the Sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. Some of the guys came down with pounding headaches. I spent most of that day reading inside the tent and venturing out only to eat and wash myself.

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The next day was the one I had been waiting for all along. For the first time in my life I would get to walk on solid ice and be surrounded by the stuff while trekking across a pass separating a lush green valley and a spectacular dessert.

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As I and KP loaded up, tightened our straps and filled our bottles with electrolyte we discussed what it would be like. We started soon and after a couple of hours of determined climbing we came onto the first big glacier. I looked ahead and saw the guide walk over it as if nothing had really changed.

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So, I too followed suit and stepped onto the ice and walked on confidently. But, immediately I realized that something was not right. My shoes started sliding and slipping as I pushed off with my toes.

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Very soon it had become impossible to walk normally and I was struggling. After a couple of falls the guide turned back and told me to wedge my toes into the ice with every step to prevent my feet from sliding about. I tried it and it worked!

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So, I was again walking smoothly and enjoying the view around me. But, then I came to some rocks and suddenly my leg plunged through some thin ice into a hollow. That shook me up pretty badly.

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Having your feet disappear under you when trekking on ice is not a pleasant experience. My one friend then explained to me that the rocks get heated by the sun and cause the ice surrounding them to become soft and unstable and advised me against walking too close to them.

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So, we went on like that. Through that unreal landscape… through blinding white ice, heading for the gap in the mountains,  breathing hard and taking controlled steps while keeping a wary eye out for rocks sticking out through the ice.

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It was with a sense of relief that I gingerly stepped onto the ice near the edge of a glacier and hopped onto steady land. Each time, hoping that I wouldn’t have to step onto another glacier again. Only to be faced with the next one within a few metres.

It looked like my reluctance to walk on flaky, soft and slippery ice was going to get beaten out of me that day. After a long time spent trudging through the ice the top was finally in sight. After another breathless lunge at the peak we were finally there… and it felt strange to be there.

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One one side was the green Kinnaur valley. Standing on the lip of pass turning to the other side one could see the vast, surreal and intimidating bareness of the Spiti valley. The claw marks that the glaciers had ripped into the mountains on their way down, the mineral patterns, the river flowing through a gorge in the valley, an endless desert speckled with green meadows here and there….

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It was shocking to see two such vastly different ecosystems at the same time. After spending some time at the top we started on our way down.

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Going down steep icy slopes can be either very dignified and difficult or easy and fun depending on the type of guy you are and the chill-resistance-rating of your butt.

Those black specks in the ice are guys sliding down

Those black specks in the ice are guys sliding down

After a long time spent jamming my leg into the ice and gingerly walking behind the guide, I finally gave up and just jumped onto the ice and slid down the rest of the way!

Well, there were few occasions in life that were more fun.

The rest  of the guys followed suit and we had a swell time.

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But, some of them didn’t have waterproof pants like me and their behinds paid the price for it.

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This is how people walk when their behinds are sore

The rest of the way was all big, big boulders and rocks and after that some more rocks interspersed with stretches of ice and ice-melt. The ice-melt was converging into a stream.

A crevasse formed by a fissure in the glacier

A crevasse formed by a fissure in the glacier

We had lunch at a spot somewhere along the way. Most of the other guys were having pounding head-aches. I was feeling nauseated from lack of water and food. I ate something and drank the ice-cold water from the stream with great difficulty and felt better soon.

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The long trek to our campsite

After several more kilometers of trekking we finally came to the campsite and settled in for the night!

What a day it had been! Every bit as exciting as I had hoped it would be. Next day’s adventures in another post!

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