Basking in the glorious winter sun at my new home in Jaipur just after having come from the Punjab and before leaving for the land of Gaddi shepherds of Bharmour in Himachal Pradesh, my mind wanders back to the thrills of the year gone by.
It began with an epic winter trip to Ladakh, which in retrospect feels like a dream. I still don’t know how I managed to remain alive in the freezing cold whilst exploring various parts of the snowed out landscape. I was told the night that I spent in a basic homestay at Spangmik village, on the banks of Pangong Tso was easily -30 degree Celsius. My teeth chattered in the day when I walked on the frozen lake fully knowing that two kids had broken through the ice and had died the year before.
Life kept making random plans for me as I traipsed region after region; unknown to the world. I traversed little villages on the banks of the rapidly freezing Indus river and went to the small village of Domkhar. I flirted with danger in the rumoured Aryan Land to arrive in Biamah in the evening and nearly spent a night in the open because they simply didn’t want outsiders to stay there. On my way back, I was lucky to be given a ride by one army brigadier when I had missed the only bus of the day. It was an adventure all right to be stuck in a sandstorm at Khardung La before a local came to my help. Although the snow leopard sighting had eluded me, I walked on a frozen river in the beautiful Markha Valley of Ladakh with kids from Rumbak and had many nights to remember when the night sky shone with a million stars.
Planning a winter trip to Ladakh? Read : Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh
I was the only outsider wherever I went and the masked annual dance at Spituk Gustor was ‘icing on the cake’ after an influential family from Spituk had invited me home for one of my most lavish spreads ever; and that too in winter – in Leh of all places!
Life changes like the seasons. I was on cloud 9 after this trip and was brought down with a thud when my next experience turned out to be life threatening. It was snowing in Shimla in February and I had ventured into remote Garhwal, Uttarakhand before the unthinkable happened. My worst fears had come true and it took a humongous effort to somehow escape unhurt from the fraças. I had thought at that time that my solo sojourns were finished.
As they say time heals, I was up and running in two months and it took every ounce of courage to set out of home again, all by myself. I had a morbid fear of strangers for the first week in Nainital but it was much better after that. I slow travelled my way in Kumaon for almost two months; the trek to Milam Glacier on my own being a standout feat. I felt better. I still wasn’t as carefree as I usually was. I started by travelling in familiar territory, my ancestral villages of Shekhawati while exploring havelis with vivid frescoes and talking to strangers.
It was painfully hot when I returned back to Jaipur in June and on a whim travelled to Goa in a sleeper class train to arrive in the midst of a deluge. Goa seemed prettier now that there were no tourists and hardly any signs of life on the beach. I had great fun exploring villages off the beaten path, swimming in the river and walking along a railway track in lush greenery to see Dudhsagar Falls; boarding a goods train on my way back to Goa.
The Churches of Old Goa were perused at leisure while I ogled at cute Portuguese houses on the street. I raided the Mapusa market to bring back local produce and experimented with food while staying at an art café in the affluent Goan neighbourhood of Sangolda.
Two friends had been coaxing me to go on a leisure trip to Parvati Valley with them. Instead they were seen to accept my ideas of trekking into the mountains as we made our way to Rashol in torrential rain. My friend fell sick and we had to rush our way out of there to reach Manali in the sunshine where we had a gala time eating at the various cafés by the Beas river and listening to live guitar performances.
My unplanned antics had resulted in me making a standing journey from Dehradun to Chandigarh in a crammed bus and then smartly bargaining to board a comfortable Volvo.
I had been to Lahaul numerous times but had always overlooked it in favour of Ladakh & Spiti but this time I wanted to see as many monasteries as possible. There are a total of nine gompas around Keylong (headquarters of Lahaul and biggest town too) all located at considerable distances from each other and usually only accessible by an uphill climb. My Lahauli friends helped me in narrowing down the list as I walked exhaustedly for three days to revel in the calmness of the Drukpa or red hat sect monasteries.
The mystical land of Zanskar had been calling me ever since the first trip to Ladakh was made. I had never particularly liked Kargil, so it was decided that I do the unthinkable and cross the 5080m Shingo La and reach Padum after seeing Phugtal Monastery. It turned out to be an epic tale of survival; losing my way, AMS coupled with torn shoes, exhaustion of cash in the freezing cold. Everywhere I went, the locals welcomed me and I feel very proud to have been repeatedly told that I am the only Indian outsider to have crossed the Shingo La this year. The monasteries of Zanskar were explored on foot as I realised the remoteness of the valley. It felt to have arrived back in time. I can safely say it might be one of the last vestiges of Tibetan Buddhism.
Due to a local strike, I had to hitchhike my way out of Zanskar and it was a delight to stay in an unknown hamlet with picture perfect views of Mt. Nun & Mt. Kun. I lost my heart in Kashmir relaxing in a houseboat on the majestic Dal Lake before leaving for a short trek to Aru Valley and beyond to the pristine lakes of Tarsar Marsar.
I felt like a ragged backpacker having hardly spent anything in a month and ate my way across chić restaurants in Delhi roaming around like a little kid with torn shoes. I was almost scared seeing so many people at one go after being in the remote mountains for the longest time.
In between, my family bought a home in Jaipur to try and station me to one place (As if that was going to help!). I promptly moved to Himachal Pradesh to work on my writing and some aimless walks in the forests whilst exploring lesser known places helped. It was off season and hence I merrily spent days at my mountain friends’ homes to see the local way of life.
I finally saw the Taj Mahal and other wonders of Agra in my own inimitable style and not according to the guidebook. Some monuments were covered in dust and some were in a state of utter neglect. The grandness of architecture and intricate designs were mind boggling.
Even after having been around Himachal Pradesh for a very long time, Punjab had eluded me but that changed in this year when I visited Amritsar and was very happy to live the farm life in Hoshiarpur. I was besotted by the wood inlay art there and carried a 12 kilo table all the way to Jaipur. Although the Wagah border ceremony and Golden Temple experience was overhyped, I fell in love with Amritsar on the food and heritage walk. The architecture and paintings inside the Golden Temple are a sight to behold.
So, rather than striking off ten countries off my list; I am glad to have slow travelled my way across obscure towns and realise the joy of solitude; reading a book sitting by a river in the bounty of nature. A wealth of local information has gathered in my brain and there are so many untold stories from the mountains. I try to travel in an eco-friendly way and responsibly while benefiting the local economy by staying in homestays. I have become an even more staunch advocate of organic food after having conversed with some Du Pont guys in Lahaul who agreed that the mountains don’t require pesticides.
Perhaps I shall find words to share them with you someday. I hope I can remain carefree and travel and stay away from asthma and be a role model for people to have no rules in life.
The time is now. Do whatever makes you happy.
What makes you happy?