By Shairik Sengupta.
Tanja and I were standing at Majnu Ka Tila in a light storm. The plan had come up much like the storm itself. Adrita and Rohit had planned to go to Himachal. Sohini and Rubai were supposed to go too. Rohit had a tent, a gift from Adrita to aid in making the dreams of his life come true. It was just big enough for Adrita and Rohit. This was going to be the maiden voyage of the tent. I had given my tent to Soutrik after I had gotten a new one, that tent had been brought back to Delhi, for Sohini and Rubai. Sohini and Rubai dropped out of the plan after Sohini got sick. With my old tent free, I started itching to join in on the plan. Wanderlust is infectious, and Tanja accepted the invitation soon enough. I have never worked on finishing assignments faster, I had to go on this trip. Finishing assignments did take a bit of time though, and train seats were not available by the time Tanja and I were certain about going. Adrita wanted to take the toy train from Kalka to Shimla, before going on to Narkanda and hiking up to Hatu Peak. It was decided that Adrita and Rohit would go to Kalka by train as they already had their tickets booked, Tanja and I would take a bus and arrive at Kalka at around the same time.
There’s a bridge at Majnu Ka Tila, fitted with color-changing light panels. We stood there in the soothing rain drifting around, the bridge kept changing colors, traffic went past, and the streets glowed golden yellow in headlamps and street lights in the rain-polished world. Our dinners were topped with rainwater falling from the tarps stretched over a South Indian food cart. I love tea diluted with rainwater.
It was way past bus time, I called the bus company. They assured us that the bus had left. I clarified that we were at Majnu Ka Tila, and the operator said with certainty that the bus must be somewhere in between, he just had no idea where though.
Eventually, we found the bus and started off. I love long-distance bus rides, but the sad part is you can’t use the washroom as much as you want while travelling on a bus. Tanja assured me she’ll help in stopping the bus if I had an immediate urinary urgency. Tanja always knew how to stop a bus during an emergency better than I could, therefore I never left her side while on a long bus ride.
The bus stopped at almost Chandigarh, for a dinner/ tea break. Rohit and Adrita were still eagerly waiting at the station for their train, which was already a few hours late, and didn’t mind being late a few more. AC buses stop at very different places from the ones non-AC buses stop at. The place we had stopped at had palatial toilets, complete with bathrooms. An old auntie strictly believed that all that glitters is not gold, and asked Tanja whether the toilets were actually clean. This place ran on the show it was putting on. They served tandoori tea. I had been curious about this thing for some time and finally decided to try it out. Warm tea erupting out of a tandoori pot, against the backdrop of a dark and deliciously windy highway was quite a sight.
Chandigarh is very close to Kalka, and knowing we were near Chandigarh was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the road. Soon enough the conductor announced we had reached the Kalka bypass. This is where we’d have to get off. Someone from the locality was also getting down, the conductor instructed him to show us the way to the station. The guy pointed us in the direction of the station and left.
It was 3 AM. The tail lights of the bus disappeared into the darkness, down the highway, trailing up through the mountainside. From where we were standing, dark mountains were rising up into the night sky. There was a high wind, which became higher in waves. The skies were lit up with sliver stars too many to capture in numbers, too beautiful to capture in words. I breathed in lungfuls of the fresh wild air. We stood there, immersed in the night stretching out in every direction till the horizon, sharing an empty highway.
We sat down by the road for a bit to soak in the surroundings. Tanja discovered that her phone was missing. A location search revealed that her phone was on the bus, going steadily towards Shimla. I called the bus operator, but there was no answer. Tanja concluded we’ll get the phone back, after all, if she left it on the bus, it must be somewhere pretty out of sight, and no one else would notice it easily. We’ll just have to keep trying to call up the bus corporation and alert them. The phone operator was asleep, we were not, we’ll appreciate the pace and time we were in. I couldn’t help but appreciate my travel partner.
We crossed the highway fence and started walking on the only road around. On our right were the mountains. On our left, a little way below and away were the plains, rolling off into the distance. Ahead and behind us were a few buildings, standing awake while everyone slept. As we walked into the town, a few people were waking up, along with a few tea stalls.
We reached the train station and learned that the toy trains going to Shimla were probably going to be delayed. After all, all other trains coming into Kalka were running late, toy trains don’t have much other demand without tourists who want to ride them. We were so early that even the ticketing window was not open yet. We went into the first-class waiting room (other classes are probably not important enough to have their waiting rooms kept open all night long). We dumped our bags and decided to stroll around Kalka. There were just a bunch of tourists who assured us they would not steal our bags, nor let anyone else steal them.
The station is below the main town, we climbed up the main road to see if any shops had opened. Breakfast would have been welcome. All that was open were tea stalls. One of them had chairs and tables set up on the road.
Under the sky slowly going from black to a cloudy blue-grey we settled into two chairs. With the shop’s first tea in our hands and the sun’s first light seeping out from behind the mountains, we discussed life.
We went back to the station to find out about the toy train. The ticketing window was finally open, and they had finally decided how late the trains were going to be. The trains are scheduled to start from 5 AM, they’d start from 7:30 instead. There were three trains only, in fifteen-minute intervals, and the first one cost Rs 800 per head. Riding the train was Adrita’s wish, Tanja and I were visibly dejected at the Rs 800 rupees price tag, and started discussing whether to take a bus or not. The ticket vendor saw and heard our disappointment, and decided to step in. He told us cheerfully that the next train was for Rs 600, and the last one for Rs 150. All of them reached at more or less the same time, and the cheapest one had a glass roof, we should definitely take the last one. We agreed, got the tickets, and went out in search of breakfast.
A rail police officer came up to us and asked us where we were from. Switzerland and Kolkata were both equally exciting answers for him. Knowing I’m from Kolkata he wished me “Khela Hobe”. The slogan of “Khela Hobe” had been born in the election campaign for Bengal and had apparently reached as far as Kalka.
It was already 6, but no one was serving breakfast yet. We found a food cart where the owner said he could make arrangements for bread and butter. We agreed, but he wasn’t really satisfied. He sent a kid hanging out near his shop to survey the town and find out if any better place was open. The kid came back and confirmed that there indeed was one place open, selling parathas. We were sent over to the paratha place, guided by the kid. This was another cart, in a closed market area. We sat on a metal bench, waiting for the huge parathas to be made. Around us were closed shop shutters, above us a wide-open cloudy silver-grey sky.
We strolled back to the station. Adrita and Rohit had finally reached Chandigarh and had no hope of reaching Kalka in time for any of the toy trains. We decided that we’ll reach Shimla by train, they’ll get off at Chandigarh and get a bus, and whoever reached first will recover Tanja’s phone. The bus operator had finally picked up one of my calls, and then picked up the phone too. All we needed to do was locate the bus operator, once someone reached Shimla.
Kalka station has two parts, one for the long-distance express trains, and one for the toy trains. The toy train platforms have a tinier version of everything the normal platforms have. This includes miniature benches and miniature shades, even though the people are still full-sized.
We got onto our coach, which was filled with tourists from Bengal. Their biggest concern was what captions to put with the photos they were taking incessantly. We left the crowd engaged in enjoying each other, and went to sit by the door to watch the mountains outside in peace.
Sun-kissed valleys rolled down into the distance. Tall trees filtered the sunlight, coming in through the glass roof. We shared the scenes and songs. The train stopped at small stations, which looked more like a building and a signpost, than proper rail stations. The stops were for less than a minute each time, but we jumped down at each one of them. Tanja had left her shoes at the original seat we had, but had no inhibitions in exploring everything in socks. I took off my slippers to make them equal.
The guard’s coach was just behind us. Our coach was the cheapest, and this had to be reflected somewhere. The deluxe coaches had thick cushions on the seats and toilets. The guard called out to tell us we were welcome to use his toilet at any time.
At one halt, a lot of people had gotten down to take photos. One guy assumed I didn’t know Hindi, and asked me to take his photos using hand signs, thanked me in English, and left. Tanja speaks Hindi fluently. I speak flawed Hindi fluently.
A lot of the stations had tea stalls, one had a tea and Pakora place. We went ahead to get chai and Pakora, the train decided to go ahead with the journey. We ran after the train with chai pakora in hand, some people in a different coach helped us out by taking the edibles out of our hands, and we jumped up.
As we kept going higher, through turns and tunnels, the weather kept getting colder and cloudier. By the time we reached Shimla, we had a few splashes of rain on the roof of the train, but the weather was calm and sunny.
We headed off towards the bus station, where Tanja’s phone, as well as Rohit and Adrita, were waiting, albeit in different places. We had actually gotten off one station before Shimla, as the bus station was supposed to be nearer from there. This advice was factually incorrect, but it led us to a bus ride through the high mountains.
We finally met Adrita and Rohit, waiting on a desolate street lined with colorful houses, with a dog they had made friends with. The location was the one sent by our bus driver, but they had already asked around the houses and learned that no bus driver stayed on any of the buses there. We started tracking Tanja’s phone. Apple tries to beat google in everything. Unfortunately, this includes the category of who can make the worst maps. We hiked up and down through narrow streets and people’s backyards and finally saw a familiar yellow bus down below.
There was no one around. I remembered that bus drivers sometimes sleep in the belly of the bus, and sure enough, the driver was sleeping there. On being woken up, he annoyedly told us to look for the person sleeping inside the bus and went back to sleep. The bus appeared to be locked, but after a little coaxing, the door opened. The conductor was sleeping in the back row, he had the phone. I stuffed a little chocolate bar in his hands, he gave us the phone, and went back to a sleep from which he had never really woken up.
Finally, the whole group was together – every member and their phones. We walked up to the bus station. The bus to Narkanda would be leaving after half an hour, we stood at the parking lot, sipping tea. The plan had been to reach Narkanda by 4 PM. It was already 4. The journey so far had given us way more than what we had planned for.
The bus started off, on a road curving through a cloudy quiet blue sky. With each passing town, Tanja added a layer of warm clothes to herself. Adrita was satisfied with a snow jacket. Rohit and I waited till the sun went down to put our jackets on.
By the time we reached Narkanda, the skies were black, and Tanja was mostly a bundle of jackets.
It was drizzling a little, and we needed dinner more than anything else. One restaurant was open, and it served a dinner that warmed our minds and bodies. None of us could get tested for Covid before starting out despite trying, and the latest Himachal guidelines stated that covid negative results were compulsory to check into hotels. We had thought this wouldn’t really be a problem, as we would be camping anyway. But we had planned on arriving in Narkanda in the late afternoon and reaching Hatu peak by evening. Now, trekking up to the peak was out of the question, and we had to set up camp somewhere. Camping at the edge of town was one option, but not really a lucrative one. The road to the peak is actually used by cars too, so it wouldn’t be as risky as a narrow foot trail. We decided we’ll go up, the maps showed a lake midway, and we’ll camp beside the lake.
It was still raining, and only I had a rain poncho. A plastics shop was open, we went to ask if they had plastic ponchos. They wanted to sell us raincoats for Rs 500 rupees, but that was more than our daily budget. The shopkeeper finally revealed that he had plastic sheets, which came for Rs 100 rupees each.
We now had to turn the sheets into ponchos. We bought a bundle of rope and set it to work. Rohit had got a Swiss knife on his birthday from Sohini, but like Sohini, the knife too had stayed back in Delhi. We only had a Swiss girl with us. Fortunately, Megha (being a wise human) had given me a camping knife and I had it with me. One by one people stood up and I fitted the sheets around them with the rope going through little holes. Makeshift rain ponchos were ready. The shop had stayed open for us, it finally closed down. The drizzle had picked up to rain, and we started off at quarter past nine.
We had to walk a bit on the main road before the trail forked off. By the time we reached the trailhead, we had a full-blown storm going strong. We had put plastic bags around our socks, but the water was streaming through our shoes anyway. We were out of town, and there were no lights anymore. Rohit had the best surprise up his sleeve, literally. It was a flashlight, a gift from Minhaj.
We started walking in the light of the Rohit’s flashlight. It was pitch black all around. In the light of blue lightning blasting down and across the skies we were in, we sometimes saw tall dark trees rising up around us, into the purple thunder backdrop.
When the lightning wasn’t there, all we could see was in the little circle of the torch light. Torches have two parts in their light, one bright circle and a dimmer wider circle. The boundary was so sharp, that I sometimes mistook it to be another person, walking beside us. Everyone at this point was black figures anyway. I took the torch from Rohit to give him some relief. Unfortunately, once the light was in my hand, I went to my natural speed and left the others behind. It was decided that I would walk behind everyone, Adrita being the slowest would lead.
With layers of jackets and plastic over our ears, it was hard to communicate, especially when the rain drops were drumming on the covers. The road was narrow, and half of it was slippery mud, with a deep valley waiting on either side. To keep everyone on the road, and perhaps more importantly, to keep everyone’s spirits up, we decided we would hold hands.
Adrita and Rohit were going in the front, and by this time we had walked into the fog. All the light could show us was the swirls of fog, and drops of rain, and when the light did reach the road, the water on it promptly reflected the light back into our eyes.
My gloves were actually cycling gloves, with my fingers sticking out. The torch had a metal body, so my fingers were freezing from both the torch and the weather. I switched hands and stuffed my fingers into Tanja’s palm to warm them up. Tanja had woolen gloves, which had basically become sponges. Whenever she clenched her fists, a stream of water flowed out. Her watery hands were warm enough for me though.
We walked on, searching for the lake, or any other campsite. None came up. There were supposed to be some homestays, but they were invisible too. A fork in the road came up. One road was going down, and a chain had been hung across it. We decided to set up camp there. The chain would stop any cars that might come our way. The mountainside would give us some shelter from the wind and the rain. On the side of the cliffs, there were pine trees, to guard us against the storm. The slope of the road meant water wouldn’t make a pool around our tent. And more than anything, no one was ready to walk anymore, despite all our protection measures, everyone was wet to the core. It was a good time to stop and set up camp.
The tents were in our packs, and our raincoats were over our packs. We set our bags down. I had seen the precipitation bouncing off Adrita in weird angles while walking. We now realized that we were actually in a hail storm.
Adrita and Tanja were in charge of the lights. Adrita decided to light up the road and us too. She started singing “Afterglow”. I had to rub my hands to restart my fingers before I could start working on the tent.
Everyone needed warmth, and we were the only source of warmth around. We decided humans and dry stuff would go in one tent, wet things would go in another. My tent was arbitrarily identified to be the larger one. Rohit was pitching this tent for the first time, and every new tent has some surprising parts. I was done with mine, so Tanja and I started to make sleeping arrangements. Two layers of sleeping mats and a layer of two slightly wet sleeping bags made the floor. There was only one mummy sleeping bag left, and two blankets for cover. Rohit and Adrita had finally convinced the other tent to stand upright and had taken everything else inside it. They were freezing in the ice-cold water seeping out from our gear and quickly came over to our dry tent.
Once everyone was done changing into less wet clothes, the concern was to keep the dry tent dry. Soutrik had once made sure that I understand the importance of having slippers when going camping. I had the slippers lying ready outside the tent, it was my duty to transport the wet stuff to the wet tent. My rain poncho came down to knees only, and below that everything was wet. This was a camping pants though, and the bottom half could be removed easily. I went out into the hailstorm in a half pants, half shirt, and slippers, and ran to the other tent.
When I came back, the others asked me if I had gone to the other side of their tent. I did not, and to this day they swear they had heard a voice coming from the other side.
Adrita and Rohit somehow managed to slip into the mummy sleeping bag together. I zipped them up, but that had to be undone, even Adrita and Rohit needed some wiggle room.
Two-person tents are small, and we were four people. It was decided that Tanja and I would sleep facing the other way, four heads the same way would have been too much for the tent.
Rohit and I felt the least cold, so we chose to sleep beside the wall, and we were facing the same problem. No matter how waterproof a tent is when you touch the walls, water starts to seep in. Also, touching the walls means getting really really cold. But with four people inside, some body part or the other had to touch the wall. I used Tanja to warm up whatever part had gotten too cold.
I kept turning to prevent one side from getting too cold, and somehow Tanja could wake up from sleep momentarily to follow my instructions to turn around whenever required.
Though I was lying with my head downhill from my feet, using my hands as a pillow, and a sudden realization that my hair was touching the tent wall and getting wet, I actually slept quite happily.
Humans give the best kind of warmth.
We woke up to a clear bright morning – the kind you get only after a stormy night. The skies were bright, rain-washed green trees soared up into the sky. The air was fresh, just like the sun rays washing up us, the forests, the mountains, the valleys.
We compared our experiences of the last night. Adrita and Tanja had had a nightlong conversation in kicks until Rohit grabbed Tanja’s legs like a side pillow. Once, Tanja had got up to use the washroom. She had forgotten there was a door on our side too, and opened the door on Rohit and Adrita’s heads’ side. Rohit and I had very different reactions to this act. Rohit was alarmed he’ll be trampled and then get wet from the rain. I had been happy, because I had intended that side to be the entrance anyway, and set up the tent so that wind blast was the least from that end.
We started packing up. Rohit discovered that he had also brought a pair of slippers, and packing up went faster. Adrita started cooking up Maggi on the camping stove.
Soon breakfast was ready. Adrita had bought only chopsticks, and I had forgotten how to use them. I was hungry enough to get the food to my mouth using them and had to forgo the art part of it.
Armed with a roll of tissue I went into nature to answer nature’s call. I had an audience of monkeys. I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that monkeys, unlike humans, throw their literal shit at each other. I wished they wouldn’t take me to be one of their own. But then I also didn’t want to be taken as a human. They were famous for stealing stuff from humans, and my only possession was a roll of tissue.
Once everything was done, we sat down for a bit. The place that had given us shelter for the night almost didn’t want us to leave.
We picked up the final pieces of clothes hung out across the chain, on trees, and on the roadside grass and started off again.
Passing clouds sometimes made it a little cold, but once they did pass, they were just one more bright silver wave in an endless sky.
We started walking up the route. Forests rolled down to us on one side, and sunlight came filtered through the tall pine trees. On the other side were vast valleys.
The sunlight on the snow, little clouds in the blue sky, and the dark green waves with crests of bright sunlight green rolled off to distant dark mountains. They rose up into the sky, covered in white and grey snow. Clouds kissed their heads.
We finally reached the lake we had planned to reach last night. The narrow road we were on opened up into a huge meadow, full of green grass. Mountains came down from one side and turned into this meadow. Pines lined one side of the meadow. On the other side was a clear view of the faraway mountains.
We lay down beside the lake, to gaze at the sky, just like the lake. The deep blue looked down at us with a sky-full of love. There was a shop that sold tea and adventure sports. Over a cup of tea, we sipped in the sky and the colors around us – the yellow flowers and the different shades of green in each wave of the land. Behind us was the trail going up, and it called us back. A group of local women had passed our camp in the morning. They had given us directions to the peak then. Now they gave us handfuls of Desi trail mix. A dog had joined us. He also got some trail mix.
We stopped often, to look at all the world around us. The dog was the best trekker among us all, it stayed with Rohit when he was at the front, and it stayed with Tanja and me when we were at the front. A man was coming down with a pack of dogs, and our dog left us. I trusted Rohit would get the dog back when they met, as he was a better animal whisperer than I am.
Our road had patches of snow, which looked more like bunches of hail. We reached the peak. As we stood on a rocky outcrop we had climbed up on, the sky was all around us, over and below. I was happy to have the chance to have a few moments at such a vantage point.
A lot of cars had passed us on the way up, some ceremony was going on in the temple at the peak. Unfortunately, most accessible peaks have a temple on them. When we arrived, we had been shooed off from the temple complex. People were dancing there. We went closer to see what was going on. We had to witness an animal being sacrificed. We thought it was a dog but later were told it was a goat. Sacrifices in temples are banned, so they simply did it just outside the temple gates.
After the unnecessary killing, no one wanted to stay at the peak anymore. A storm was brewing in the distance, we could see cyclones adorning the heads of distant glaciers. Soon, the storm clouds reached us, and snowflakes started drifting down. Rohit had got a cramp in his legs, and no one wanted to trek down in a storm. We decided we would try to hitch a ride. Cars had come packed with families, and four people would be hard to fit in any car. We’d have to split. Tanja and I went ahead to ask people if they had space in their cars. After all, people are always the most interested to help Tanja. A person agreed, saying we were guests in their home, we would face no trouble and get help whenever needed. To his dismay, Rohit got into his car. The next car in their group was quite packed, and Adrita being the tiniest was allocated a seat there. Tanja and I were the last priority since we had the most experience with snow.
Our car reached the final fork in the road, at the edge of Narkanda. The car would be going some other way, and we had to get down. It was drizzling, we ran into a Maggi point. Our car came back in reverse, and shouted at us to come back, and get Adrita’s little essentials pack, which had ended up in our car during the confusion of dividing the group to hitch a ride.
Over a cup of chai, we saw the storm pass us. Over a plate of Maggi, we watched the evening sunlight creep back into the valley, from a little window of the warm Maggi shop.
Rohit and Adrita had already reached Narkanda, we got back on the road to join them. The world glowed in an after-storm evening glow. Yellow little leaves played with the soft sunlight, dark green trees admired the sky turning from grey to blue.
Rohit and Adrita hand found a cheap restaurant with an amazing view, we went in there.
Over our lunch cum dinner, we exchanged our car ride stories. Adrita’s group had wanted to take Tanja’s autograph. Rohit’s group had taken his number, another storm was coming. The skies greyed up, and winds and the rain rushed through the valley we were in. In the storm, only our valley was there, the rest of the world disappeared. Once the storm passed, the light of the setting sun lit up distant mountains in shades of fire, while the valleys turned dark.
We went outside to get the bus back to Delhi. The winds were chilly, but I couldn’t stand under the shade for long, the world was too beautiful. Tanja taught me the smell of fresh snow.
Our bus came, and we got the back row to ourselves. The sun had set, and the skies were an explosion of colors from blue to black. As Adrita put it, it was a nice time to say goodbye.
The bus ride back to Delhi was lit up by our conductor. There was a group of old Bengali women going to Chandigarh. They were a huge confused about where exactly they were supposed to go and vomited all the way through. In Shimla, the conductor decided to scare them into silence by saying the bus will go straight to Delhi and ignore Chandigarh completely. Reaching Chandigarh, they were left at the edge of the station road. Some other, quieter passenger was escorted to their home by the conductor, in reward for their behaviour.
In the swirling roads of the mountains, we had stopped trying to sleep after being thrown off the seats on numerous turns. Once in the plains, we slept off, curled up in the bus seats.
We had never planned on going into a storm. But my friends made it an amazing storm.
Going to new places is something I can never get enough of. Tanja brought in a whole new perspective on looking at new places. After all these years, India presented itself as a country I’ve never been to.
I mostly travel alone, because most people I’ve travelled with become a curtain and fade out all the little things that there are to sense. I’ve heard many times that going solo is the ultimate goal. I have been lucky though. I got one more person who reignited my belief that the world is too beautiful to not be shared.