A journey through the realms

This story begins in the village of Dharamkot in the foothills of the Himalayas at 2,100 m above the sea. I have been living here for over a month now, mostly focusing on my meditation practice and the studies of buddhism. I am staying in a homestay and I really like the family. We have a good rapport, although their command of english is as limited as my command of Hindi. There are two meditation centers up here which I frequent a lot. They help to keep my practice up and have also brought me several new dhamma friends.

I had heard about this hill station place called Triund (त्रिउंड) that was up the mountain from Dharamkot. I met people hiking up there daily while hanging out outside the meditation centers, in particular on weekends when there were droves of people heading up the mountain.

One morning I decided to do the same. I started my day at the little chai shop outside of the meditation centers with some breakfast. In a way this was not in line with the trek that I was about to embark upon, since it made me walk for about 20 minutes in opposite direction of Triund, but I really enjoyed starting my day with muesli, curd and chopped fresh fruit there.

Since I knew that the apple strudel at the chai shop was very filling I decided to buy one for the road. Anyway, I didn’t really plan to embark on a really long hike after all. As I started walking, I realized that I was going at a considerably higher speed than I normally would have, and it occurred to me that it might be because I was wearing my Feiyue shoes instead of my usual slippers.

The first leg of the trip brought me up to the Gallu Devi temple above Dharamkot village. The sun was shining and it was a really pleasant walk up the hill. It is also possible to take a taxi or a auto-rickshaw, and occasionally I was passed by people who chose this easy option. This part took me about 20 minutes.

After I passed the Gallu Devi temple, the road became even nicer since I no longer had to yield for traffic and listen to the car horns that people so love to use here. I did pass some hikers on the way up, and I realized that wearing slippers all the time had trained my resilience. I made it up to the the first chai shops up the hill. The prices here have already risen by about 50%, but I didn’t feel like any anyway, so that didn’t affect me at all.

After about 1.5 hours, I reached the Triund hill station at an altitude of 2,850 meters. I was actually a bit tired at this point, and so I got myself a Snickers bar, which was twice the normal price, for some quick energy. I also ate half of my strudel at this point. Looking up the hill, I wasn’t really sure if I should go on. There were some dark clouds hovering above, and from experience I know that the weather will change very quickly. After the snacks, I sat down on a big rock and meditated for a while — after all I had skipped the morning meditation session at the center, so I thought I would make up for it a bit.

The view up here was just just remarkable. Below the stone where I sat were a few cows resting, who seemed to be having a really wonderful existence. This was like paradise in a way and just the perfect spot to recover one’s strength. One of the cows came up to me in hope that I would provide her with something to eat, but unfortunately I had to disappoint her.

It wasn’t only me and the cows that were resting up here. I found some very laid back goats in a little Hindu shrine, and they had found a great place to hang out too.

Triund means “three peaks”, and it’s named after the view that you get of the Dhauladhar mountain ranges from there. It’s really spectacular and no photo can rightly capture it.

To better get to know the place, I started talking with some locals and they pointed out where to go if I wanted to go up the the snow line. It also turned out that there was a Puja going on and people were heading up halfway of the snow line to visit a temple. After my newly consumed sustenance, I also started heading up the hill. There were musicians playing bagpipes and drums on the way. The guy with the bag pipe must be really fit since just the walk itself was quite tiring. Blowing in a bag pipe at the same time would set most people back a lot. They were going to have food down at Triund after the visit to the temple, and they invited me. I thanked them for the invitation, but I really wanted to go further and didn’t think I would make it in time for their gathering.

After the temple, the path started to become more and more silent. The ambient noises that I was so used to down in Dharamkot was not to be heard of. It also started to get cooler up here. Some of the hikers started heading up a much steeper path, but I pressed on in the direction that the locals had told me about. So quiet and serene. After about an hour I made it up to the Snowline Café. It was now 11:30am, so I figured I might just as well have some rice and dal (lentils). I really enjoyed getting some warm food in the stomach. In the low tent-like structure that served as storage facility, refuge, and shop, I found two hikers from Israel. We chatted for a while, but then I felt like it was time for me to keep moving. I asked a local about the distance to the caves up in the hill that I had heard of. He told me that they were about 1.5 hours away, but I should consider getting a guide if I wanted to go there. As I really hadn’t any proper hiking gear, I just thought that I’d head up the hill a bit further and have a look. Although the place is called the snowline, there is not really any snow here. After all this is summer, and the glacier has retreated way up in the hill. Still, you could hear the smelting water flowing down the hill.

As I did head up further, I realized that I could make it to the glacier. It still wasn’t too cold and it would be nice to get a sensation of the ice and snow again. It has been a while since I had that kind of experience as I spent the last winter in Thailand and Burma.

It was nice to finally make it to the the glacier, but I also came to realize that it was quite dirty. Not as pristine and white as I thought when I was looking up toward them from down in the valley.

I still had time to spare before I needed to head down the hill. Some people rent a tent and stay the night in Triund, but I didn’t really feel like doing that. I reckoned that it’s better to just head down and sleep in my warm comfy bed.

I walked up a bit further and met a local that was carrying a lot of packing. His name was Sunil Kumar, and he was going to cross the Indrahar pass the following day. I shared some crackers that I just bought from the Snowline Café. His plan was to go up to the last cave below the pass and then set off early the next day. His luggage looked really heavy so I offered to help him for a little while. He gave me one of his backpacks, and boy that was heavy. I could only imagine what it was like to have both that and the much bulkier luggage that he had tied to his back with ropes. Under the ropes he had a blanket to prevent the ropes from cutting into his shoulders. The dog Seru was his loyal companion, and the three of us headed together further up the hill. Since the packing was heavy and the air grew thinner and thinner, we did take rest every now and then.

Two of his front teeth were gone from a fall, and considering the terrain here, I was not too surprised. Slippery and precarious. It turned out that he was just 19 years old, but to me he seemed much older and maturer. I guess crossing this kind of landscape makes one grow up rather quickly.

I don’t think I would have walked that high up the mountain if it weren’t for Sunil Kumar. He knew the best place to cross the glacier, but nevertheless it was really slippery. My Feiyue shoes are really not made for snow, let alone glaciers. We finally made it up to the last cave before the Indrahar (इ हार) pass and from it you can have an extraordinary view if the weather permits. The sky was changing all the time. Sometimes dark and sometimes the sun shined through. The sunlight was really strong when it was given access to the two hikers hanging out at this very last outpost. The Indrahar pass has an altitude of 4,342 metres and we were about 300m from it. I have never climbed this high up in my life before.

We did take a rest for a while, but at 2pm I knew that I would have to start going down to make it down the mountain before sunset. That should be enough time to also account for unexpected events. Or so I thought…

To my surprise Sunil Kumar was also going down. He was going to gather some sticks to make a fire in the cave to keep warm. Since we were way above the tree line, that meant that he would have to head down quite far.

I was really happy that he accompanied me across the glacier again. He lent me his walking stick to make sure I wouldn’t slide down the very slippery glacier. That really helped. It turned out that Sunil Kumar was a shepherd, and as we got further down, he told me that the goat we passed by was his own. No wonder he was so used to the terrain. Then we parted and I wished him good luck with the final climb and crossing the pass the next day.

The way down was nice and I took it quite slowly as the body now started to feel the effect of all the climbing, in particular from carrying the luggage up the last part of the stretch.

When I made it down to Triund, it was about 5pm and I was surprised to see that my Puja celebrating friends were still there. As I passed by, they came and invited me to sit down for some food. They served me rice and curry mutton. Although I mostly eat vegetarian food, I don’t mind making an exception every now and then. Next to me sat another foreigner who turned out to be from Karlsruhe in Germany, to be more specific — the city where I spent one unforgettable year of Erasmus exchange studies. After eating and talking for a while, I had to continue my journey down the hill. I made a final photo before my phone died due to depleted battery.

I knew the general direction and it all seemed to go remarkably well. After a while, I came by a few stone huts that seemed uninhabited. My curiosity drew me closer. However, I found a lot of goat droppings around, so I figured that that place might be inhabited after all. I pressed on and found a big herd of goats, and in the distance a group of people. Only one of them seemed to speak any english and he showed me the general direction in a very loose way. It seemed like the trip down was going to be easy peasy. He presented himself as a guest house owner from down in the valley. It was something about him that I didn’t really like. Not very genuine somehow. I figured the other people there were goat herders. I started heading down the hill, but I found it a bit strange that I no longer saw a clear path any longer. I figured it would be clearer as I came further down.

As I was 100meters down the grassy slope, I found a path and sure enough I started following it in the general direction of the Bagsu waterfall. I knew that is where I ought to end up if I were to follow this way.

The path left the grasslands and continued into a forest that climbed on the hillside. As I got farther and farther inside, the path was getting smaller and more precarious. At one point I thought to myself that I might just as well make a shortcut and go strait down the ravine. That seemed all good in the beginning, but as I climbed further down, I realized that I got myself into quite a mess. It would be hard to climb up, but at one point the mountain just went straight down. One slip and it would be the end of me.

That made me actually reconsider, and I reversed the direction and started climbing up the rocks and the naked mountain surface. I thought that maybe I could make it if I just kept going up. It required quite a bit of effort, but I was able to make it to up the ravine. As I passed my entry point to the ravine, I saw that going back that way would be hard, so I pressed on upwards. After climbing up the rocks for a while I entered the forest to the left since I hoped that it would make the climb easier. And it did for a while.

However, I found myself in a similar situation as the mountain wall started becoming steeper and more and more difficult to escalate. The problem was made worse by all the loose leaves that covered the ground and made it quite slippery. Another bad sign that I really shouldn’t have been here was that there were no goat droppings. The grass was long and I actually used it from time to time to pull myself up or cross to one side or another to ease my climb. However, at one point I just had to face the facts. This was another dead end. I was high up and the risk of slipping and falling was a considerable one.

My only option was to climb down again. When I got to the middle where I basically had entered the ravine, I did see that it was actually possible to go further along the path I originally had set out on and I did some for a while. It did look promising for a while, but soon I got myself into the same kind of trouble. I fell and slipped down a few times, but luckily I didn’t injure myself seriously, except bruising my foot a bit. The sun was setting and a feeling of despair started to set in. I could see myself having to spend the night there, but I also realized that it would not change anything. Tomorrow morning I would be in the same situation. I started talking to myself. “No no, Daniel, it’s time to backtrack”. Over and over again.

And that is what I did. I made it back to the first precarious ravine and looked up at the original difficult entry point. I felt the need to generate loving kindness towards myself and I applied it as a mantra. “May I be well. May I be well. May I be well.” I stumbled on one of my first steps, but I chose not to let that dishearten me. Luckily I was able to make it back despite the slippery leaves and the steepness of the surface. I had to pull myself up using the roots of the trees. As I finally got up from this dangerous passage, I was feeling very relieved.

I quickly started to make it back to the way I came. As I came back to the grasslands, I figured that I just had to keep going in the other direction to make it down the hill. Going back up to where the shepherd stayed did not seem attractive at all. I wanted to get down o the mountain, not up. Going down the grasslands seemed more promising than my experience from the forest that had just kept me captive. I made it down on the surfaces quite fast, but only to realize that I got myself into another mess. I was still very high up, but the mountain surfaces started becoming very steep and no sign of any proper trail down. I realized that I had to face the facts. The same mantra started echoing in my head. “Backtrack, backtrack, backtrack”. No other perceivable way presented itself. At this point, I was already down about one third of the hill, so I was quite disheartened about heading up the terrain I just covered.

There was still a bit of light left from the sun, but once I arrived at the place of the goat herd, it was already rather dark. The time was about 8 o’clock and it was getting colder by the minute. There appeared the dark silhouette of hundreds of goats, which all seemed to look at this lonesome wanderer. For some reason I addressed them. “Hello there!” They didn’t reply at all, but from their midst appeared one of the shepherds and he walked down to meet me. His command of english was very limited, but I was able to ask him for the proper path down the hill. He told me it was too late to start going down at this point. The sun had already set. He invited me to come inside one of the stone huts that I passed before. Inside of the hut sat two other shepherds who were already warming themselves in front of a little fire that burnt in the corner. One of them was making chapati. I was cold at this point and it was really nice to feel the heat radiating from the fire. I tried to communicate with them, but they just replied: “English, no”. If only I had learnt some Hindi. Just some simple words like “yes”, “no”, “good”, and “thank you” would have been really useful. The first shepherd whose name was Dampal came back after finishing up his work with the goat herd for the night. Although we didn’t have many words to use for communication, they were really nice to me and offered half of their very thick chapatis and some warm goat milk. It was really nice to get some warm food in the belly. I sat there and listened to them speak as I couldn’t contribute much. I zoned out into meditation and felt very grateful for the good hearted nature of these mountain people. After a while, Dampal indicated that it was time to sleep. He showed me out to another stone hut that seemed to serve as a goat house as well. There were lots of goat poop on the ground. Dampal brushed some of it to the side in an attempt to make the place more presentable. He covered the ground with a simple mat and gave me a blanket. I quickly covered myself with it as the cold was setting in more strongly. As I was lying there, I was thinking that the night would probably be very long. And so it did.

I was able to half dose off, half pounder, until about 2am when the cold was getting very severe. I was thinking to myself that I just had to make it until the sun started to rise, but from experience I knew that it wouldn’t be until about 5am. Oh, my goodness. That would be 3 hours of this excruciating cold. I tried to sleep but that didn’t work at all. After lying there for what I thought was quite some time, I thought: “at least half an hour must have passed now”. I looked at my watch and felt disheartened for in fact only 5 minutes had passed.

Somehow I did make it though and I guess I actually must have dozed off from about 3:30 am to 4:45 am before I heard Dampal collecting some firewood outside. Great! I really needed some heat in my body at this point. I packed up the blanket and the thing I was sleeping on, and went into his stone hut. Sure, enough the fire was now burning and he had started to prepare some chai. He asked me if I wanted something to eat, and I had to admit that it would be nice with just a little something. I assumed that they only had quite scarce resources up there. I got a quarter of a thick chapati, and it did taste wonderful with the the cup of chai I had been served. The other two shepherds also came over for some chai, but again there was not any possibility to really communicate. After a while I figured it was time for me to leave. The sun was not up, but the day was here already.

I left Dampal and his friends, and started to head down the mountain following the proper trail this time. However, I double checked and triple checked with Dampal before I left to really make it down properly. On my way down, I really felt like a hobbit in the Lord of the rings. Not long after that thought crossed my mind, a big vulture flew off right to my side. It was magnificent with a huge wingspan. A few moments later another one rose to the sky.

In the end, I made it down the mountain with just one little detour of the main path. Again I had to ask a local farmer for directions and I finally made it to the waterfall this early morning. No others were to be seen. It was still early.

Sometimes in life we need to backtrack to where we came from in order to go further…