“The Mountains are calling and I must go”. When John Muir wrote this in a letter to her sister, in 1873, sitting somewhere in Yosemite Valley, little did he know that in another 140 years, his letter would become public knowledge and his words would form one of the most popular headlines ever to announce the love for mountains. When I think of mountains, I think of my childhood. That’s where it all began anyway.
My childhood was full of bhajans, kirtans, jagrans & satyanarayan kathas. In fact, when most of the kids elsewhere in the world were checking out pastry shops, I was probably distributing prasad in kirtans and kanchaks. No points in guessing that I also belong to a family who takes their gods and goddesses seriously. This is why our annual holidays were mostly planned in the mountains of Uttarakhand and Jammu singing in chorus, “Chalo bulawa aaya hai, mata ne bulaya hai.” and my younger siblings would finish it with a loud cheer, “Jai Mata di.” Spending holidays while bathing in Har Ki Paudi, trekking to Chandi Devi & Mansa Devi, and relishing the rajma chawal & Halwa at Vaishno Devi & Hanuman temples from all over, I began exploring life at altitude. That was my first tryst with mountains.
This program of holidaying in mountains with episodic visits to temples continued longer than one can imagine. No, I am not telling you till when. So, naturally I had to do something to salvage my social life. While my family would plan their next visit to the rest of the 56 shakti peeths, I will conspire with my friends to plan short trips to nearby hill stations like Nainital, Mussorie & Dehradun, in the name of excursions and picnics.
I finally got a break when I took admission in a business school in Bangalore in the summers of 2008. Along with my friends, I explored the royal city of Mysore, the colorful gardens of Vrindavan, parts of Western Ghats in Coorg & Dandeli. Those weekends were the high points of my two-year long life in Bangalore. Sleeping in a moving vehicle and waking up to a beautiful sky with a mountain saying ‘Hello’ on the horizon, are my best memories. Taking breaks in between, eating out on a highway joint & using the dirty washrooms were a sign that mountains are coming. You know what’s the most exciting thing about travelling to mountains for a sloth like me? I get to do what I want. I have nothing to do with trekking or climbing; I am all for mall roads, flea markets and street food.
I like the long walks and gasping for breath in between. I like to be the last one in the whole group to reach the hotel and thus spend more time outside. Also, because I can’t keep up pace with everybody else. I like the rush and the topsy-turvy roads. I like the nip in the evening air & the sharp bends. I like how people in mountains just go about their business and pay no heed to tourists unless we walk in to their shops & browse the shelves filled with paper mache craft, jewels and gems and leather or leather-like bags and wallets. In the last 5-6 years, I have spent more money buying these wallets and bags than investing time in earning some.
There’s one more thing that has happened in the last few years; I have fallen in love thrice in three distinct spots. Every time was special in its own way and romantic in its own right. I recall all three times like it’s happened yesterday. My head that’s always busy getting anxious and worried or generating crap non-stop had stopped working for a while. My eyes became bigger, smiles grew longer and I felt as if I have arrived in life. I no longer needed anything else as long as I were there, in those very spots doing what lovers do the best – forget the surroundings, avoid all living souls & focus only on what’s made you fall in love in the first place. I did that too, and adored those very spots from the bottom of my heart.
The first time was the most romantic. It happened when I travelled to Gulmarg, took the famous Gondola ride & reached the top-most station. At a height of 13000 ft., one might feel dizzy. Me? I was looking around trying to consume every inch of the spectacular Pir Panjal Range. There was white snow all around me and I was feeling particularly beautiful. I was constantly being asked whether I was ready to go down by my family, and later by my guide. But I wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay there as long as I could, till the very last moment they allowed. Because I was feeling everything they said you feel when you fall in love.
My whole world changed in a matter of hours when it happened for the second time. One moment I was in my cab leaning on Google Maps to find the right turn to Terminal 2, Delhi airport. And another moment, I was in the balcony of this amazing hotel in Ladakh, sipping my Ginger honey tea, trying to calm the f*** down, to keep my heart rate in check. That day when we started from Leh to reach Nubra, I remember leaving my bags as well as baggage behind. That was the day it happened. The roads were narrow, twisted and dangerous. With every kilometer, the air became thinner and altitude became higher. I had to constantly adjust my layers to keep up with the changing temperature. I haven’t taken Diamox and relied on my inner strength to manage everything that came with altitude. It took 8 hours or probably more than that to reach Nubra. Those 8 hours were spent in crossing the passes, capturing the vast landscapes, spotting the rivers. And somewhere in between, I realised that I will never be able to forget this place for I have never known anything as beautiful as Ladakh range.
The third time was the most unusual. I had woken up at 3 am to watch the early sunrise from one peak near Theni, Munnar. It took a rough Jeep safari and 2 hours of treacherous roads to reach the top of the peak. And when I caught the view of Nilgiris from the peak of Kolukkumalai at 5 in the morning, I lost my heart. The sky was bursting into hues of Blue, more than I could count on my fingers, more than I have ever known in my life. Seemingly ordinary blue flowers were blooming in patches all around me; they were called Neelakurinji – a marvellous gesture of nature that you can spot only once in 12 years. We spent a lot of money to fly all the way from Ghaziabad only to spend a few early morning hours in the company of these flowers, Neelakurinji. But my heart was beating for Nilgiris that morning. Later, I came to know that it’s only because of these purple blueish flowers that the hills got their name, Niligiris – the blue mountains.