Guest post by Pujya Priyadarshni
‘Travel’ – isn’t the word synonymous with excitement and discovery? But here I was packing my bags in apprehension. How do you begin a journey you have been agonizing about since the day of its planning? Will I survive the mountainous bus journey? The memory of a car accident witnessed in childhood rears its head each time such a journey looms. Will I manage the trek? Recently recovered from dengue, the uncertainty of fitness levels were still raw. Two girls travelling alone. We both had been given a dose of the ‘be careful and not adventurous’ sermon by family and friends. It was with these, and many more, self-doubts the journey to McLeod Ganj began.
As we reached Delhi’s Interstate Bus Terminal on a cold winter night, all questioning thoughts abated. Chaos outside tends to provide the mind the privilege of order. The place, teeming with people, presented us with our first challenge – find and board the right bus. Questions elicited vague responses. Travelling by the available State tourism Semi-Deluxe bus, one was headed to the hills of Himachal Pradesh. We expected little and were prepared for a long night. But as we boarded the mid-size bus, things started to look up. Full of young people bustling with energy, the bus mirrored the image of an escape vehicle. As it pulled out of the bus station, one knew that there was no looking back.
The bus had an old world charm. Stuck on the last seats of the bus, right above the wheels, one expected little sleep that night. As we left the city for the outskirts, a 1990’s Bollywood comedy rolled out on the screen. Much to one’s surprise, passengers left their gadgets to watch as part of the larger communion. With multiple small stops, complete with tea in terracotta cups, the journey till the mountains was smooth sailing. I, however, continued to dread what was coming and decided to try and catch sleep before the meanders began. Keeping my eyes shut, I kept telling myself that the mountains were yet to start. Every turn that I could feel in my stomach was branded a poor swerve. I was prepared to do this all night, when I realized that I was only fooling myself. I had to face the fear. With great reluctance I opened my eyes, and as luck would have it there was a complete blind turn ahead. I shut them right back. It took several iterations before somewhere deep inside I felt the fear ebb. As everyone slept peacefully and I struggled, there was sense of calm. Though surrounded by people, one is on one’s own when it comes to the journey of life, complete with its trials and tribulations. Much like my fast asleep, well-meaning co-passengers, people who make up our universe are bystanders who stand witness to the lives we lead.
We reached Dharamshala in the wee hours. But as one made way to the hostel, the familiar sun made its way up from the horizon. Though exhausted after the night-long journey, one felt energized by the canvas that welcomed us. There is something about that first look of a new place, accentuated here by the reddish-orange light.
As one walked to the main square later in the day, one could feel our pollution choked lungs heave a sigh of relief. The fresh air was simply rejuvenating. We began the day by a customary walk through the town center that lead to the Namgyal Monastery.
The monastery overlooks the valley on one side and provides a spectacular view of the snowcapped mountains on the other. The synergy between nature’s pristine beauty and the spiritual energy of the monastery brew magic. As one basked in the calm, one discovered a lesser known treasure behind the monastery, the Kora Circuit. A narrow 1.5 km pathway, around a mountain curve, it is replete with Tibetan flags, prayer wheels, small temples and a hall to commemorate those who gave their life for the cause of Tibet. Pious or not, the tranquil journey is therapeutic.
The Kora Circuit left us wanting to explore the Norbulingka Institute, which showcases and preserves Tibetan art and culture. No documentary, article or any other secondary source can bring one close to understanding the angst of a displaced people. Our introduction began with the interaction at the ticket counter, where the ticket seller decided to volunteer his version of history. Two young girls as an audience to explain the injustice of decades. That too in a span of 2-3 minutes! As he spoke about the cause of his people, it reminded me of my interactions with Palestinians in Syria a decade ago. Their anguish had similar manifestations. True, that each side has a story to tell, but in that moment you belong to the narrator in front of you.
The Institute is simply breathtaking. With manicured pathways and gardens, colorful buildings, occasional fountains and Tibetan flags strewn across, it is reminiscent of a dream promised to successive generations. It houses a temple, a library, a doll museum, a customary gift shop and a quaint little café. But the real attraction are the workshops that provide an insight into the Tibetan art form of statue-making, thangka painting, and thangka applique among others.
After the cultural expedition, the rest of the day was spent hopping between cafés and unwinding in the bustling market.
Early next morning, we embarked on our trek to Triund. As it began, the lingering self-doubt about my physical fitness remained. The beginning was smooth with a low gradient and a wide clean path. But as we slowly gained height, we found ourselves stopping occasionally to rest and soak in the scenic beauty of the valley below. With speakers strapped to our backpacks, we tuned into our familiar songs in the unfamiliar terrain. And of course, we weren’t the only ones. Where small talk fails, music helps you bridge the gap. While some co-trekkers would tag along for a stretch while a particular song played, sometimes we would lower the volume to listen to their playlists. So as we recreated a comfort zone, the trek gave one time and space to unwind. To wonder. To contemplate. To self-analyze. And come right out when the reality ahead of you so demanded. This flexibility was relaxing and invigorating.
After about an hour and a half, we finally saw the mountaintop, as the final destination. A goal in sight speeded us up momentarily. However, as time passed, the mountaintop seemed to be at the same distance making us wonder about our progress. Much like life goals; real yet elusive.
But then suddenly, one turn, and we were on the last stretch of the climb. As is with life, the last mile is always the hardest. With the turn came ice. We had expected it, but done little to prepare for it. Music off, one step at a time we started our march. The silence broken by an occasional shout or a cry of fellow travelers. Even as one calculated every step, one walked, slid, crawled and hung on to strangers. No different from life’s realities. For as much as we tried, we could not control our actions or the consequences. It was a telling experience in letting yourself go.
After a four and a half hours we reached the top. The view was worth a million such climbs. The snow clad mountains all around and the plateau like structure on which one stood had an isolating effect. While most of the journey up was a community affair, the destination was exclusive and private. It was perhaps because one could not look all the way down to the bottom of the mountain, giving a sense of an island. The beauty of islands lie in their constricted reality with an endless horizon ahead! In that moment, it’s just you and the mountains. For those who can’t meditate the conventional way, give rigorous physical activity a chance. It requires focus and discipline that has a calming and soothing effect.
The return journey, down the icy stretch, was trickier than going up. The satisfaction of the journey up and the destination itself made it bearable and enjoyable. Again, everyone helped each other and engaged with strangers. One wondered whether it is the lack of such interactions that makes city life so often solitary. And like all good things, this journey too came to an end. Our return journey the same night was by a Volvo. And somehow, the larger bus, the crowd and everything about it portended the return to the grind.
Travel never fails to surprise. The mountains, beyond their physical scale and grandeur, represented the psychological barriers one harbored. The arduous journey, the fear of failure in strength and the trepidations of travelling alone. One climbed every mountain. It was a liberating experience for the body, mind and soul.
For as Marcel Proust put it aptly, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”