Pahad. Mountain. If you are as smitten with the mountains as I am, I bet the mere mention of pahad transports you to colorful valleys nestled among towering mountain peaks. Or to a secret mental place where tiny brooks flow down the side of the road, meandering through the fields, making an unmistakable gurgling sound as crystal mountain water flows over pebbles and falls down deep cracks and crevices. Palm sized colourful birds tweet freely and uninhibited and can be seen happily hopping around drinking water and eating seeds from newly ploughed lands. Stand very still for a while and chances are you can hear the dull hammering sound of a woodpecker leaving his signature on another wood bark. And among all this natural beauty, I can’t help but feel a little bit envious of local folks so befittingly in-sync with nature. It is no wonder that mountains have always been my source of eternal joie de vivre.
I am an intensive traveller. I owe this trait to my father who as far as my childhood memories go, encouraged me to sit still and imbibe the culture of a place from a lone bench or at a roadside tea stall chatting with the locals. ‘Imbibe the culture’, he always says. And that is what I love doing on all my travels. Listening to locals. Listening to their stories. Their perceptions of a world where I reside when I am not in the mountains. Their trials and tribulations of a tough mountain living always underlined by their deep and unshakeable love and respect for the mountains that surround them. So, as much as I love pahad, I am equally enamored and enchanted by the locals, quite a few of whom I remember fondly and with deep respect even after years.
Of all the amazing people I have met on my trips, Nirjhar babaji is my favorite. I met him very very briefly on an impropmtu mountain hike during my stay in Sangla, many years ago. I and three of my friends were in Sangla, unknowingly enroute to Sangla-Kanda lake. I say unknowingly, as we were not chasing the lake but the lush green meadows with snowline we had seen from our hotel window.
Our hike would have been largely uneventful but for my sudden impulse to leave the paved uphill path to the meadows and climb straight up the side mountain. What is the fun in walking up a well-worn paved path as compared to climbing up an untrailed mountain, or so I thought!
Needless to say, we lost our way a couple of times and had to crawl up a mountain wall with 80-degree incline, just because all of us were reluctant to trace the path we had already lost. Mindful of the sheer drop on both sides of the wall, we gingerly and very slowly managed to scale the wall without any accidents and came face-to-face with a flock of sheep with a shepherd smoking under a tree. Eager to reach the meadows with sufficient time to return to our hotel, we forged ahead after greeting the shepherd and chatting briefly. Very sure that we were nearing the meadows if the thinning tree line was any indication, we trudged forward until we came at a clearing and stopped dead in our tracks.
We had a clear view of the meadows but on the next mountain, not on the one we were climbing up all this while. And I was not sure, but far far away, I think I saw a moving figure of a man and a child. What a sight!
Dehydrated, tired and hungry from our little adventure, we took a small break and quickly gobbled mini-packed lunch.
Our luck favored us a little as we realized that contrary to our fears of a sheer drop between our mountain and the next, there was a patch of land joining the two mountains, just that we could not see a route down. The sheep dog that had accompanied us from the village tracked down a path and we managed to safely touch ground on the mountain with the meadow. As evening drew near, our cries of “Koi Hai?” were largely met with deep silence and occasional barking of the sheep dog that had accompanied us, up the mountain.
Nirjhar. Waterfall. Meeting Nirjhar babaji was almost poetic. He seemed to be the lone resident of a small village enroute to Sangla-Kanda Lake. Seeing Nirjhar babaji emerge from the roof of his house with his grandson in tow, has to be the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. The four of us were severly dehydrated, tired but happy to have come across another human who lovingly offered us glasses of water.
Now one may wonder, why such hoopla about such an innoucuos task like offering drinking water to four tired hikers. To set things in perspective, Nirjhar babaji and other residents of the village have limited supplies of fresh drinking water and have to walk more than 8-10 kms daily to fetch water from the river below or the Sangla Kanda lake. In any case, the fact that he didn’t put a limit to how many glasses he could offer, made this little gesture extremely precious to each one of us. That, we could have gulped down 4-5 glasses each but restricted ourselves to not more than 2 glasses each, as we did not want to take his hospitality for granted, is completely another matter. Those 2 glasses of water each, fueled us enough to hike back 8 kilometers to the village. Amidst beautiful sights.
Midway to our hike back the village, I had to stop at a house to request a glass of water for two of us and the gentleman politely stated that he could spare only one glass of water. We gratefully accepted the water but each one of us couldn’t help but be even more humbled by Nirjhar Babaji and his selfless help considering how much farther he must travel to fetch water.