Pressed to ascend an indefinite distance to the alpine meadow of Ali Bugyal, Jennifer Nandi’s mind fastens to thoughts of self-preservation and meditations on the Zen of climbing
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we set off from Didana the next day on what we’ve been told is roughly an “eight-kilometre easy trek” to Bedni Bugyal. We should be there for a late afternoon lunch. We couldn’t have been further from the truth!
We walk the flanks of the mountain and descend quickly to a trickling brook. Scrubby bushes and a higher-altitude variety of stinging nettle encroach upon our path, breaking their needles of poison on the edges of our trousers. Stinging nettle thrives in the phosphate-rich soil around human habitation. In most soils and waters, phosphorus is in short supply. Decomposers return phosphorus to the soil as the phosphate ion. A phosphorus atom, unless lodged deep in the earth, is therefore likely to spend much of its time in organisms.
A shepherd sits under the shade of an old tree, guarding his precious herd of sheep and goats. The shepherds’ goats roam the hillsides devouring their favourite food of slow-growing oak saplings.
We ascend swiftly through straggly oak and rhododendron. It is difficult to imagine that this was once part of a rich forest that clothed the hillsides from the Indus to Bhutan at an altitude from about 1500 m to 3000 m. Today, scant patches of that ancient green belt are the only reminders of its past glory. The large evergreen “Ban” Oak had once been the best known of the Himalayan oaks.
There should be many Black-throated and Eurasian Jays wedging acorns into crevices to split the shell with their ice-pick beaks to get at the seeds. But birds are indicative creatures. They know this forest offers little nourishment. Lopping interferes with the regenerative ability of a tree.
Acorns from adult oaks carry very large stores of food to sustain oak seedlings through their difficult first months. A mature tree may carry as many as 90,000 acorns. Oaks are slow growing. Eventually, they may stand four storeys high to provide boarding and lodging for birds and animals.
Within the roots live beetle larvae. Concealed in crevices of the bark are tiny moths. They lie dormant during the day and fly around the branches at night. And just beneath the bark, beetles burrow radiating galleries in the wood. Hunting for the beetles are Himalayan Woodpeckers. The birds favour a mixed coniferous and temperate forest and, as we leave Didana far behind, these handsome pile-drivers are everywhere.
Epiphytes cloak the bare branches of the oak thickly enough to provide a safe haven for nesting Asian Brown Flycatchers, which are just all over the place. So are Green-backed Tits. One tit, with its mouth crammed with food for its young, takes such a detour to approach its nest hole that we had to pause our predestined aptitude for peering, to allow it some privacy.
Oaks once grew abundantly in association with Rhododendron arboreum and occasionally the Deodar, forming the chief tree of a well-known class of forest. How resplendent the rhododendron must have been with their large compact clusters of red flowers which contrast so strongly with the glossy green leaves. The Rhododendron is either lopped for firewood or its flowers picked to be processed into a kind of sweet drink that is sold by every ‘juice’ shop along Himalayan hill-station roads.
Plantations of Chir Pine, Pinus roxburghi, were planted in place of the primary forest of mixed conifers. This species of tree does not support undergrowth. In the dry season, the tinder-dry pine needles quickly catch fire and, in the monsoon, with little top soil to protect the earth, the rain washes swathes of mountainside down in ubiquitous landslides.
The gradient is now steeper than before and we pause every now and then for breath and for an awareness of where we are. A male Kaleej pheasant sporting a long white crest with white barring on its rump, contrasting nicely with the blue-black of its body, gives us a glimpse of its bright red facial skin before scooting off into a deep gully.
The forest opens. Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers signal their presence with their short interrogative whistles. Tits and tree-creepers are everywhere. But their whistled introductory notes followed by a rapid penetrating accelerating trill, is quite distinct from the high-pitched chi-chi-chi-chi-chiu-chiu-chu trill of what we are more accustomed to.
This bird is a tree-creeper with a straighter bill and with so much more patterning – dark ear-coverts with a nice creamy breast and belly and it is ever so rufous on its flanks. These Rusty-flanked Tree-creepers chase each other and settle frequently on the barks of trees, creeping up the vertical trunks and along the underside of branches, spiralling upwards in a series of jerks, probing the cracks and crevices in search of insects and spiders. Such lively behaviour – is it indicative of nest-building?
Why do we climb? We pit our strength against difficulty; we endure hardship, discomfort and danger. It is almost as if we negate outward agencies of any kind – we put aside competition, we deny our otherwise prevalent sense of separateness, we reject the fake. We see the mountain’s magnitude, its immensity, and in doing so we drive out our pettiness. On occasion, we are so fully absorbed that we escape not just from the ugliness of greed, of noise, of noxious fumes, but from our very selves!
A little under two hours’ climbing brought us to a welcome halt at a shepherd’s summer home. The site is presently occupied by members of a tourist company whose advance party has already pitched camp at Bedni Bugyal. This campsite is amidst relatively giant trees of the mixed temperate forest type. It is too beautiful to simply pass by. So we two women sit in a shared silence. I notice our guide has left to cadge a cup of chai from the mess tent. I signal to him to bring Sunita a cup. He does more. He brings the Camp’s Manager and other helpers, and we chat as though with old friends, comfortable in a trekkers’ camaraderie. They warn of daily hail and suggest noon, which is hardly two hours away, as the cut off time. These men haven’t been to Bedni, but reassure us that this steep incline flattens out soon and the rest is easy as pie. They generously offer to feed us at Bedni if we should run short on rations or fuel. We shake hands with every testimony of goodwill and affection, so alien in a city.
I am hungry. Sunita parts with part of her share of energy bars. But my stomach is still touching my backbone. This is to be my refrain for the rest of the trek. Satish carries sattu and shakkar but that is for lunch. We won’t eat till well after 4 pm that day. And it wouldn’t be our customary meal of sattu – just a small handful of dried fruits embellished with a couple of nuggets of peanut chikki. But we have no inkling of the deterioration of our fortunes…
And so we clamber on regardless.
Griffon vultures skim our heads like small pterosaurs. We pause at a hollow tree with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft perishing bark and a pithy inside. I stop to contemplate and give thanks. For me personally, there is something tantalising about trees. I know that they give off vital oxygen; they moderate temperatures, hold soil, and prevent erosion. They are beneficial to both animals and man. But they also seem to possess a sort of magical power to influence the human spirit, to somehow soothe and inspire at the same time. I have never looked at a tree and not missed a heartbeat. I am acutely aware of how full of life and of eyes is the damp bark. How much part of me must be mould and leaf? After all we came from the same crucible of life. The ground comes up to meet me as I bend to fill with assuaging earth and leaf smell. A sense experience has illuminated but a moment in my life and I smile, feeling as warm as a teacosy.
At each turn of the trail, a new vista unveils. Each view reveals a little of what the mountain is. But it is presumptuous to think we might know it absolutely. At some mental level, all that will register will be just an authentic approximation of what the mountain truly is. So we take in the bits and pieces of each deliberate step and demonstrate our willingness to wander in these uncharted places. It is imperative that, though we travel through an envelope of unknowns, we must assume the responsibility of risk. We have no backup. We have no connection with the outside world – no phone, no doctor, no organization that we could blame for any misjudgement or miscalculation. We carry little food, even less fuel, and very little money. Can one call ‘sattu’ food? That thought stays with me as does my sense of risk.
My sense of risk increases when I remind myself not to loiter negligently over rocks and roots. Must keep an open attitude on this journey to what lies before each step. Must concentrate on the present because each moment contains the consistency and truth of the whole.
The inevitable question arises: ‘Why do we climb?’ We pit our strength against difficulty; we endure hardship, discomfort and danger. It is almost as if we negate outward agencies of any kind – we put aside competition, we deny our otherwise prevalent sense of separateness, we reject the fake. We see the mountain’s magnitude, its immensity, and in doing so we drive out our pettiness. On occasion, we are so fully absorbed that we escape not just from the ugliness of greed, of noise, of noxious fumes, but from our very selves! So just for a while we travel at nature’s pace, listening to birdsong, the streams, the rustle of wind. We look upon beautiful things and live for a moment in time discovering the virtues of simplicity, goodwill and a contentment of spirit.
The mountain and my mind even out the trail’s incline and we walk less precipitously. The Plane Tree, a native of south-eastern Europe and West Asia, with its broad heart-shaped leaves palmately cut into narrow-pointed, toothed lobes at the end of a long leaf stalk, intersperse with spruce, cypress and deodar. A Variegated Thrush flies in to pause on the upper branches of a tree before taking off again to its scheduled foraging spot. It is a significant sighting. For shortly, we come to a clearing with a crunchy litter ideally suited for foraging thrushes. There is a rich humus smell. In mixed temperate woodland, the bulk of the litter is made up of fallen leaves. The moist soil keeps it damp. This dank decay is a valuable protection in summer and winter and eventually produces enriched topsoil. Such places are larders for insect-feeding and fruit-eating birds, and mammals.
The atmosphere is now less dense. The air cools significantly. Pine forest drift by in breaths. There is an unmistakable, resinous aroma in the air. Deciduous forest gives way to a belt of evergreen conifers that assault our senses. Other woodland scents may be harder to define, but no matter how subtle the fragrance, there is usually something distinctive about a coniferous woodland. What an exquisite gift of nature are the scents of the outdoors. And years later, a single whiff is often all that is needed to recall the times spent there. We forget how acute the human sense of smell really is.
I have never looked at a tree and not missed a heartbeat
Sunita, Bijoy and I savour the woodland’s perfume as a conscious act of conservation. Bijoy stoops to pick up bits of lichens. It amazes him to see the intricate variety of form and shape that this symbiosis of alga and fungus assume. He cherishes the little elegances and is loathe to just pass them by. The very touch affords an exquisite pleasure as must a musical instrument. I take out a bag and he gathers them up. I encourage him. Yet it occurs to me that it is the delusion of permanence that supports this urge. Moreover, our ability to cherish determines our human need to see and touch and take. Over the years I have resisted the urge to collect. I hesitate to overturn all the rotting logs in woodland or investigate all holes in every tree. I truly feel that once all of us have had our fill of feeling and touching and taking, there will be no wilderness left to feel and touch and take.
All too often, a hiker will casually pull at a leaf or a branch for no apparent reason. One branch may not seem to count, but with the multitudes of people out-of-doors these days, such injuries add up. In whatever way, collection is injurious. But if we allow our sense of smell to be part of our “looking around;” and make the most of fragrance, making a point of analyzing what it is you are smelling, then that all-important sense of smell enables you to retain and savour experiences without collecting a thing.
Days later when he hands me back the specimens, I take them and wordlessly return them to the woodland. But for now, his gathering helps him stitch a thread into the riot of authentic adventure.
We sit in the loud quiet that has effectively robbed us of words
Sunlight no longer sifts through curtains of moss-and-lichen covered coniferous branches but floods a break in the forest canopy. Plants favour sunlit openings. Wild strawberries with coarsely toothed trifoliate leaves are everywhere. I take out my much-used magnifying glass to inspect this dark laboratory of soil. I point out the spiral symmetry of the fiddleheads of ferns. A pine tree had long fallen and now this ‘nurse’ log supports a carpet of mosses, some with thin stems ending in a hollow capsule at its tip. Cone-bearing trees are best adapted to living in cold and snowy areas. Their specially designed needle-shaped waxy leaves reduce moisture loss. In thick forest, little light penetrates the moss-and-fern-covered forest floor. The dry layer of resinous needles may not be seed-friendly, but they do enrich the wisdom of the soil. Next time when you walk under a pine tree, feel that hushed footstep tread on centuries of accumulated wisdom.
No longer shielded from view, a vision of mountain grandeur rears up. We, just specks in an immensity, look upon the Chaukambha range in awe. Sahastra grandly points out the different peaks and calls each by its right name. It is close to mid-day but Satish offers us handfuls of dried fruits and rusks. He reserves the sattu for later in the afternoon. We hurry on.
In the chiaroscuro of the gentle climb, I am warmed by the play of shafts of light from a cold sun. The path widens to an erosion-laden track and dung-heaps appear. Soon we are out of the forest. Small Rhododendron trees with pink flowers give way to Dwarf Rhododendron shrubs with lilac flowers. Then suddenly, we leave the wealth of wood and venture into grass. Out-of-place buffaloes and cows rest in a moistened depression chewing high-altitude cud at 11,000 ft. The rocks and soil of the Himalayan lands above 10,000 ft, are under constant assault from the elements. The only binders are scrub grasses and juniper bushes. Plants keep close to the ground to avoid desiccation by wind.
Enchanted as we are of the place, we fear that one careless word or step might fracture the spell. Sunita is a little while in coming so we sit in the loud quiet that has effectively robbed us of words. Despite our proximity, conversation is cancelled. Waiting on the grassy ridge, flanked on both sides by deep and well-wooded valleys, we experience an indescribable buoyancy of mood on these grassy knolls. Afraid to castrate that buoyancy, we continue sitting in silence.
It is very difficult to trek and not be affected by landscape. If we could draw on relationships in the exterior landscape and project them onto our interior landscape, we would be able to reproduce that harmony of the land within our souls. For those of us who succeed, there is a success of a balanced state of mental health. But first we must understand the relationships of “the land.” Once we have a handle on the historical dimensions of wilderness experience, we can then pursue the spiritual and aesthetic. If only we could be a reflection of the myriad enduring relationships of the landscape. If only we could look on the mundane and perceive the magnificent.
As far as the eye can see, nature has been parsimonious in its employment of punctuation here – no sudden exclamation of rock or mountain, no commas of winding streams to break the monotony of meadow, no full stops
Bijoy, Sunita and I fall to lagging behind. We stop and inspect and deliberate and look for hitherto undiscovered features. As far as the eye can see, nature has been parsimonious in its employment of punctuation here – no sudden exclamation of rock or mountain, no commas of winding streams to break the monotony of meadow, no full stops! This simplicity of landscape gives us an inadequate idea of the powers of the land and its knowledge of the world. But we are exuberant in our tripping, desultory in our talk and thoughts, grateful for the flood of life that is flowing over us. Rosy Pipits, obliterative in breeding dress, waft up like agitated smoke. We are so happy.
Sunita then asks the guide how far we have to go. The answer is eerily like a koan from a Zen Master. He points with his ever-present beedi into the distance at a speck. We peer through the binoculars and detect a glacier falling steeply in the cleft of some very dark grey granite. It’s the only uncovered mountain in a range of snow-covered peaks! We laugh and dismiss the oxymoronic dissonance outright.
We’re on the bugyals now. Ali Bugyal is a gentle climb up to a little over 12,000 ft and then Bedni is just a touch a way from there. We feel fit. We are a combination of stamina, strength and mental resolve – a potent combination for a successful trek. Secretly, I know that my steadiest employment is to keep myself in top condition, ready for whatever may turn up in the world.