We had been walking for over three hours on the rough tarmac that swerved around the hills of Dalhousie when, quite unexpectedly, we arrived at the crossing that the old man at the bus station had told us to look out for. On our right, the road continued to climb further until it disappeared into a blind corner. It was, however, the dusty gravel path on the left that held our attention. We stood there for a little while, passing a bottle of water between us, until our breaths regained their natural rhythm.
“The final stretch,” said Kunal. “Three kilometers”.
Ajay’s brisk laugh betrayed his exhaustion and he gently slapped Kunal’s back. I just smiled silently and took another sip of water.
About ten minutes later, the path widened and we could see a huge metal pole barrier some distance away, beyond which stood a couple of huts overlooking a field where groups of small children and women were binding wooden logs and sticks into bundles. I noticed a man standing next to the barrier who seemed to have spotted us as well. A few meters above his head, adorning the barrier like a crescent shaped crown, was a board that said – “Welcome to Lakadd Bazaar”. The man gave us a wave and we walked towards him.
“Are you looking for a place to stay?” he asked us when we were still quite a few steps away from him. Despite the cold, he was very lightly dressed. His thin frame leaning against the pole formed a very amusing image, as if he was just about to launch into a particular circus act. He looked at us expectantly.
“We already have a booking,” replied Kunal. “The forest rest house at Kalatop. How far is it from here?”
“Oh. Very good! Ah…it is fifteen minutes away. Follow the path behind those houses,” he said, pointing to the small huts that I had noticed from afar. “Do you want to do a trek through the forest? It starts from behind the rest house. All the way to Khajjiar.”
“We are here specifically for that trek,” smiled Ajay. But we just walked all the way from the bus station. It has taken us about three hours.”
“Oh not right now. It is too late. I can take you tomorrow morning. It’s the best time to do it. Note down my number and give me a call tonight.”
“How much would you charge?” asked Kunal.
“800 rupees for the trip. That’s our standard rate. We conduct paragliding and rock climbing too for the same rate.”
We promised to call him by evening and continued on our way. The tarmac had disappeared the moment we had turned left at the crossing, and had taken with it the last remaining vestiges of the moderately urbanized surroundings that we had initially walked through. We encountered many small children on our path, who I presumed were heading back to the Lakadd Bazaar from the forest, with huge bundles of wood on their shoulders and heads. There weren’t any adults accompanying them. Their faces were extremely cheerful and happy and they couldn’t stop talking incessantly. One of the groups even tried to engage us in a conversation and it was rather obvious that it was part of some game of theirs. They left us soon, almost shrieking with joy and laughter, no doubt having played their joke on us.
Though we were quite tired after this walk, our steps had suddenly quickened. The soft dirt felt much better under my feet as compared to the tarmac. None of us was saying a word and there was a sense of heightened expectation as we neared our destination.
The guide’s estimation had been more or less accurate. We entered the gates of the Forest Rest House around 20 minutes after we had left him at the barrier. It was around 4 in the evening. The dirt road had suddenly given way to a beautiful and evidently well managed small estate, with large gardens spread all around us interspersed with numerous old cottages. We were taken to our room by a smiling porter who informed us about the timings for tea and dinner, which he was quick to point out could be served to us in the room itself if we wanted. We threw our backpacks in one corner and then fell on the large double bed. It was just about big enough for the three of us. My feet and calves immediately started to hurt.
I was the first one to wake up. I tiptoed outside our room and sat on the front steps of our cottage. It was dark and cold, and the only reason I could discern the outline of the surrounding mountains was that I knew they were there.
“It is really cold,” remarked Kunal with his head sticking out the door of our cottage. I turned back and nodded at him.
“I am enjoying it.”
“Well I am going to ask that guy to get us our food. Are you hungry?”
“I guess I will be when I see the food.”
“I can see it already. I’ll wake up Ajay. Let’s discuss about tomorrow’s trek.”
“Yeah. We should call that guide. He seemed friendly.”
“That’s his job. Anyway, come inside before you enjoy yourself a bit too much.”
I leaned against a brick column and continued to gaze into the darkness. I started stretching and flexing my legs in front, which were still in the process of recovering from the day’s walk, though now the pain was soothing and infinitely more welcome. I began to feel very optimistic about tomorrow’s trek.
When I went back to the room, Ajay was still in a bit of a drowsy state while Kunal was busy on his phone.
“Just go outside once,” I said to Ajay. “Quickest way to feel completely awake.”
“I want to take my time.”
“Food! The trek! The guide!” said Kunal, looking up from his phone. “Let’s decide things. It is 8 already. I am calling them for the food.”
The guide must have been quite near the rest house because he knocked on our door just five minutes after I had called him.
“Do you live nearby?” I asked him as he entered.
“Oh no. There is nothing nearby. I live in the town below. Right near the bus station from where you all walked this morning. I am staying the night here with the guards.”
“We wanted to finalize tomorrow’s trek,” said Kunal.
“Ah yes! We should start early. It is around 12 kms and begins just at the edge of the rest house boundary. All the way to Khajjiar through the forest. It is called the Switzerland of India! And we didn’t give that name, it was the foreigners.”
“What is your best rate?” asked Ajay.
“The rates are fixed here by the forest authority. January to December, with or without snow, the rate is 800 for less than five people.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It is simpler.”
We all looked at each other with an expression that suggested we agree to the guide’s proposal.
“Is it okay if we start by around 9 in the morning?” asked Kunal.
The guide smiled. “As early as you can manage. I’ll be right here. You only have to call me.”
He left around the time when one of the workers arrived with our tray of food. It comprised of Rotis, Dal, Paneer and some salad, all cooked in the way one would expect at home, which was exactly what had been told to us. Although our journey had tired me a lot, I wasn’t excessively hungry and ate lesser than I normally would.
The next morning, I was once again the first to wake up. It was around 8. I sat at the front porch and looked at the scenes around me that I had only been able to imagine and sense last night in the darkness. But perhaps an even bigger difference than the sights were the sounds. The morning was quiet with a somewhat lethargic feel to it, interrupted only by the occasional chirp of a bird or the rustling move of a squirrel, while the night had seemed to compensate for its lack of visual presence by a chorus of insects’ calls.
We had a quick breakfast of Maggi and coffee after which we settled our entire account for the stay as we weren’t going to return. The guide was waiting for us at the reception, wearing the same smile and perhaps even the same clothes. He took us behind the reception building that ran along the forest’s border where a small wooden gate marked the beginning of our trek.
“This shall be fun,” he announced rather theatrically.
The change in scenery, though had been quite perceptible from outside, was still quite sudden and very welcoming. The narrow and dusty path, in less than a hundred meters perhaps, led to an even narrower and dustier route where we were sandwiched between tall and entwined trees. It took me a while before I realized that we were actually heading downwards so that soon our rest house was perched upon a hill high on our left.
“We are going down initially?” I asked
“Oh yes. It is a 6 kilometer downward slope until we reach the stream. From there we will climb 2 kilometers before covering the final 4 kilometers on a straight level.”
We were all walking in almost a line as it wasn’t possible to comfortably walk side by side. The guide was at the front while the rest of us seemed to be automatically changing our positions from time to time.
“Where are you from?” he asked
“Delhi,” said Kunal. “All of us, though I now work in Bangalore.”
“Most of the people coming here are from Delhi or Punjab,” he said. “Just a month ago, we had two families from Punjab who were living at the rest house. They weren’t interested in this trek. Each of the three nights they stayed, they would sit in the garden with their food and drinks while we had to ensure their children didn’t run off into the forest. Such horrible children…”
He stopped and picked something off the ground. It had a conical structure with small serrations that somewhat resembled the gears on a bicycle all over its exterior. He handed it to us.
“That’s a cone. They fall from the trees and are buried under the snow. It is how the forest goes on.”
We stopped and took turns to hold the cone in our hands before I tossed it into the inner reaches among the trees. The moment I had stood still, a dull pain had somewhat started from my toes and traversed the length of my legs. I hadn’t noticed it while walking.
“What kind of trees are these?” I asked
“They are mostly Deodar,” he replied. “Their quality of wood is renowned. They don’t rot for years. But I was telling you about those two families. I wanted to ask them why they had travelled all the way to this beautiful place only to experience it as one would a park in whatever dreadful city they came from. And their three fat children….”
Our mild and gradual descent deeper into the enveloping forest continued at quite a fast pace. Apart from the noise of the leaves and twigs getting crunched under our feet, and the intermittent squeak of a bird, it was the guide’s voice that seemed to soar through and become a part of the setting itself, to the point where it would have started to seem unnatural if he wouldn’t have been speaking. The rest of us merely exchanged glances from time to time, which acknowledged the fact that we were quite enjoying his performance. The pain in my legs, though not excessive, was fairly constant, and in quite an ironic way, the very thing causing the pain was helping me to not focus too much on it.
“…there is no signal here, of course, apart from Vodafone in a few corners. I don’t know why. There are no poles. Once a young couple, acting too modern, thinking they could do the trek without a guide, got lost inside here for hours. When finally one of their phones connected, the only thing they could tell us was the shape of the trees around them. Imagine that! We found them eventually, of course, but I almost felt like…Can you hear the water?”
It took us another five minutes before we could make out the sound and another fifteen before we arrived at a small wooden bridge below which we could spot the trickling water meandering between the huge shiny rocks that had most of their surface covered by moss or algae.
“The water is clean and fresh. You can rest here for some time and fill your bottles. The ascent begins straight after that. Watch out now, the path here is very slippery. You’ll probably fall but that’s ok.”
We followed his footsteps as there was no clear defined path that he was taking to reach the shallow stream. Every leaf or piece of wood that I brushed along the way was damp and started sticking to my hands and clothes. I put my hand on a rock to steady myself as we slowly reached lower and lower, only to slip and fall towards my destination, my backpack rather awkwardly getting flung almost over my head. The earth was soft and damp enough to ensure that the fall was simply a humorous incident.
“Hands are of no real help,” said the guide, waving both of his near his head as a mime artist would. “You will all fall. If you don’t, it doesn’t mean you have good balance. You are simply lucky.”
“Do you still fall?” asked Kunal. The guide laughed.
“Of course not. I really have good balance. Unmatched in all of Dalhousie. It took me years of falling to develop it.”
He was right. By the time we reached the point where we could sit on the rocks in the middle of the stream and rest, all three of us had tripped on an average at least twice during the way, so that we had to take off our socks and walk around barefoot while our shoes dried.
The area was beautiful and picturesque, almost like a small refuge from the wilderness surrounding us, so that when we looked around at the enveloping green hills that rose quite sharply away from where we were seated, it seemed that we were in the very heart of the forest.
While we rested on those rocks, the guide was prancing around quite comfortably, apparently bidding his time until we felt ready enough for the climb.
“Now we’ll see how fit you are,” he said and, as if on cue, my attention was once again captured by the pain. “Let’s go. The initial ten minutes would be the hardest.”
The climb was steeper than I had imagined. The stream fell further and further below at a staggering pace. The distance between us all also began to grow as Kunal surged ahead with apparent ease, followed by Ajay who looked as if he was struggling but clearly not as much as I was. The guide meandered between all of us from time to time.
“We get groups who come during the winter when a thick layer of snow covers the entire area. That is just a completely different experience. We ask only the fittest to walk in the front, as they have to make the path for the rest to follow. It is much easier to walk on trampled snow…….Don’t have too much water. Have a small bite of chocolate if you have one. That’s better than water.”
I nodded and gladly accepted some from Ajay. Even though it hadn’t been long since we had started, I really wished to stop and sit down for a bit but knew that it would then be even more difficult to continue.
“We should finish this stretch without stopping too often.”
But we stopped every few hundred meters, perhaps more on my account than anyone else’s. I was lagging behind and they would wait for me to catch up to them. I would have felt embarrassed about the situation if I had the energy to do so.
The two kilometer distance marking the end of the climb came and went, and the path leveled to a more manageable contour, but the fatigue that had set in seemed beyond recovery. My legs, feeling quite independent from my body, continued to fall on the ground one after another, being carried forward not by will, but by momentum and adrenalin. Kunal and Ajay sped further and further away until I could neither see nor hear their footsteps. The guide, rather dutifully, was giving me company.
“You can go along with them,” I said rather magnanimously but the guide only smiled.
“What work do you do?” he asked me.
“I’m an engineer.”
“My son has just started going to school.”
It was strange to hear him suddenly speak of his family and for some reason I found it rather hard and almost fantastical to picture him as a father. But he seemed to have left his jocular tone for the moment and was speaking in a sedate voice. I found myself drawn in by the conversational manner of his speech.
“He very much disliked it the first few days. My wife had to almost shut him out of the house to make him go. Now I think he enjoys it.”
“How old is he?”
“Five. He is very quiet. My father says that’s a good thing. He said that the only thing I could do was talk and that’s why the only thing I could be was a guide. And a vegetable seller….Give your bag to me…”
“No no. It is fine,” I said and slipped my fingers through the shoulder straps. For a moment the increasing pressure on my shoulders seemed like a good diversion but then soon all the sources of pain compounded and acted together, creating an almost burning sensation that ran across my body. The trees, the rocks, the sky, the path, all lost any sense of meaning or importance. Sheer physical fatigue took hold over me in midst of all that beauty and my eyes drooped towards my feet, refusing to lift or deviate in the slightest. I almost expected to see my shoes in tatters with my toes having cut through the fabric. I smiled, as much as I could without disturbing the muscles of my face, on noticing the almost perfect condition in which they were, albeit just a shade darker because of the moisture in the dirt. I became almost fascinated with the movement of my feet. Their symmetry and coordination seemed to confound me, more so now since the numbness had turned them into complete strangers who I was finding very hard to rely on. During all of this, the only exterior presence that pierced through the haze of pain and inconvenience, was the guide’s voice.
“You are a vegetable seller too?”
“In the months when we have no tourists. This can never be a permanent job. I am dependent on you. My uncle was a vegetable seller. It is very easy. But the real fun is here. I don’t even like vegetables that much.”
“How much further,” I asked.
“Do you never get bored of this walk?”
“I always have different people with me. Last year, we had a young lady who wanted to camp for a week near the stream. We would bring her food from the rest house, and every evening she took out her guitar and sang while we sat and listened to her. She had a great voice, almost like the one you hear in movies. She even asked us to sing and we sometimes did. She said I was a good singer so I started singing more often. I even sing to my son but he doesn’t like it. Do you sing?”
I could have told him I didn’t, or even implied the same through a shake of the head, but at that moment my ears picked up the rather welcoming sound of a vehicle that I couldn’t see.
“Almost,” he smiled.
“Do you get people like me?” I asked, finding a little energy for a self-deprecating joke now that it was almost over.
“Always. At least I don’t have to carry you.”
I felt quite inclined to accept that as a bit of a saving grace. The path we were walking on rapidly widened and become more and more devoid of grass as we approached the main road. There, at the junction where the two met, Kunal and Ajay were sitting under a tree. They started cheering as I approached.
“Good news,” said Kunal. “Now we walk a bit on the main road before we reach the lake. A few hundred meters.”
Ajay laughed and pointed to the place next to him.
“I am not sitting,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Five minutes later, we stepped down from the road and onto the green patch of land that had the famous Khajjiar lake in the center with hills rising in the backdrop. There were a few people around, most of whom were scattered at the edges of the field where the small eateries were set up. The lake lay all by itself in the middle, with only some stray animals for company. Even from the distance we were at, I could notice the dark and murky colour of the water. The guide gestured towards a wooden board that stood a bit to our left in the shape of an arrow with the words “Switzerland 6194 km” written on it.
“That’s the distance between Khajjiar and the capital of Switzerland,” remarked the guide on following our gaze. “In that direction.”
I finally relented and sat on the grass, letting out quite an audible sigh as my legs almost convulsed with relief. Ajay paid the guide and he shook our hands before taking off.
“Thank you,” I said to him. He smiled, turned around and almost ran up the steps to the main road, on his way back, I assumed, to his home in the city.
“Maybe this is how Switzerland was when they made the comparison,” commented Kunal.
“More likely, this place was just much better.”
“There are food stalls here,” I said. “Once food stalls are set up, nothing can save a place.”
“Some people actually drive up to here,” said Kunal. “What a waste! At least our journey was worth in itself. Otherwise it would have just been….”
“Painful,” I smiled.
We all laughed and sat at the spot for almost an hour before getting a cab back to the railway station. I fell asleep as soon as we sat in the cab, only to wake up during the middle of the journey when both Kunal and Ajay were sleeping. It was still early in the evening and the cab had just entered the city from where we had started our ascent yesterday. The station was another two hours from here.
I looked out of the window at the people bustling around the market area, the tourists interspersed with the locals, meandering through the little shops lined at the edges of the streets. I let my head fall back and eyes lose focus, so that it all started appearing as one big moving mass of activity, dissolving in a maze of colours and emanating a myriad of sounds, among which I thought I quite distinctly heard the sharp and loud pitch of a vegetable seller.