Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan

High up in the mountains, poetry begins to make sense. Keats’ verses resound in the wild expanse of forestlands; ‘bleak’ ceases to be merely a word — manifesting in the sheet of mist and gusts of cold wind that surround one at this height. ‘Melancholy’ is sitting on a solitary ledge built along a stony road; ‘tranquility’ is a silence broken only by the occasional birdsong. And everywhere you look, a swathe of green — pine, shot through with the blood-red of rhododendrons.

(Above: A small pond at Kalipokhri. Image credit: Apoorv Perti)

This same green descends like a curtain when you lower your lids to steal a nap. When on your feet, dry leaves crackle and crunch, the hard stone that lies beneath making walking a painful endeavour.

Do we deliberately seek out suffering? For, what else might explain leaving aside one’s warm bed and urban comforts — all to trek up a steep mountain? Or for that matter, why people choose to live in isolated communities where everyday life is a series of challenges and the cold — harsh and biting — is a steadfast companion?

(Above: A milestone on Day 1 of the trek to Sandakphu, while on the way to a camp at Tumling. Image credit: Prakash Jadhav)

I found myself dwelling on these thoughts as my group of 23 trekked past the hamlet of Meghma — at 2,600 metres above sea level, it literally nestles in the clouds, hence its name — on our way to the Sandakphu Pass.

This was my first Himalayan trek and the climb from the small town of Mane Bhanjang in Darjeeling to Sandakphu, which straddles the West Bengal and Ilam borders, was an exciting prospect.

(Above: Losing altitude on the descent from Sandakphu is the village of Srikhola and a river by the same name that passes through here. Image credit: Apoorv Perti)

There were 15-km stretches uphill and downhill through the Singalila National Park, with the opportunity to sight a red panda or bear. And of course, here in the Himalayas, the deeper meaning of life would become evident, the floodgates to serious philosophical contemplation opened.

Both these possibilities — the earthly and the metaphysical — were to elude me.

***

Standing on a mountaintop, 12,000 ft above sea level, solitude silences the brain. There are few thoughts, and no epiphanies.

(Above: The Kanchenjunga Ranges or the Sleeping Buddha as seen from atop Sandakphu. Image credit: Apoorv Perti)

Instead, you must contend with upset stomachs, fainting spells, sinus attacks and dehydration — all of which take a backseat when you summit. You find yourself tearing up at the sight of the snow-clad Kanchenjunga ranges on a crisp morning — the Sleeping Buddha, reclining in all his massive, eternal glory; Everest, a faraway pointy tip; and if the weather holds, a glimpse of Lhotse and Makalu.

The overwhelming emotions? Those come much later, on the journey back home. Introspection pays a visit only after all the exertion, when you’re back at base camp.

Even later, as the airplane ferrying you loses altitude and takes you back to your banal existence, the search for some enlightening insight consumes the mind, because if not to spark that why is the beauty of the mountains so profound? Are we to imagine that an idyll that has existed for thousands of years is in fact, quite ordinarily — just magnificent and nothing more?

About: A campsite at Kalipokhri. Credit: Pratiksha Prabhu

(Above: A campsite at Kalipokhri. Image credit: Pratiksha Prabhu)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because before we reached the end, there was still a lot of climbing to do.

***

Decades-old sturdy land rovers make trips from Darjeeling to the several teahouses and homestays along the trail. Packed with the middle class’ coveted goods, they are the only means to stock up on sundry items in case of thunderstorms, hale and occasional snowfall.

(Above: A stone ledge to sit on and catch one's breath while trudging along the 15 kilometre stretch through Singalila National Park. Image: Apoorv Perti)

The meals mostly comprise dal-chawal, with the entire family sitting by the wooden stove in the kitchen, putting a kettle on to boil or slicing potatoes to make aloo bhaja. Sometimes, the locals meet up with trek leaders for their dinners: succulent meat cooked in a delicious curry.

(Above: The colourful local guide, Lakpa Tamang. Image credit: Pratiksha Prabhu)

As for Lakpa, who lives with his widowed mother, becoming a hiking guide was his way of branching out: most of the family served in the Armed Forces, including his older brother.

***

On the penultimate day of our trek, Lakpa guided us through a steep, tiring climb of about 6 km — we huffed and puffed through the high altitude and low oxygen on his crafty assurances that only a short walk lay ahead (40 minutes by Lakpa’s estimation translated to 1.5 hours for us). We were at the highest point of our trek — the Sandhakphu peak.

(Above: Trekkers take off. Image credit: Nikhil Patke)

Here there were a few houses, a check-post and a lone hotel for tourists.

Also at the summit? The joy of being in two places (India and Nepal) at once, a warm dinner, and a scalding hot mug of coffee.

The inn atop Sandhakphu has a dining hall that also serves as lobby and sitting room. Throngs of trekkers gather around a single fire, napping dogs monopolise the sofas. Hindi, Malyalam, French, English, Nepalese words bounce across the room, and you can escape the din by going round the front entrance, and into an under-construction basement of sorts.

Lakpa is here, huddled against the 1 degree cold, in a cramped space that smells of burnt coal. With him are a group of weary trekkers, discussing how the community flocks together for the annual Yak Festival and for Losar, their New Year.

(Above: A home stay along the roadside at Sepi. The last camp of the trek after a descent of around 15 kilometres from Sandakphu. Image credit: Adwait Gokhale)

Like most locals of Kalpokhari, Meghma, Tumling and other villages along the Sandakphu trek route, Lakpa hasn’t travelled too far from home. Lakpa has never been further south than Rishikesh; neither has Bhupender, another local guide.

They have no qualms about not being able to travel, ‘wanderlust’ drives them nowhere, except higher up. Lakpa likes the mountains and wants to scale taller peaks than he has. I imagine him doing so in his Crocs, his tiny sack flung across his back, the clothes on his back all that he’ll be taking in the way of apparel.

Bhupen and Lakpa are a cheery twosome, chopping, peeling, serving and eating, all while they keep up a steady stream of conversation.

***

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan

The Himalayas are beautiful, grand, harsh. But they are not here to dispense life lessons or induce introspection.

Amid their freezing winds and blinding fogs, the soul is purged and thrust into some heady space.

Days after I return home, there lurks at the back of my mind, a feeling of something missing — the nothingness I left behind.

***

— The verses used in this article are excerpted from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. The writer completed her hike with Yuvashakti, a Pune-based trekking organisation.

— Title image courtesy of Shreyaan Rajguru.

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