Friday, June 19, 2009

All i want is a Roof Somewhere

On popular trekking routes, groups of tents huddled together are quite a common sight at points designated as night halts. Amongst my happy memories of sleeping in a tent is one of discovering my favourite mountain orchestra at Tsokha, a small settlement at about 10000 ft on the route to Dzongri in Sikkim (you can read about this trek here, here and here) . Playing to a musical score set by the forbidding mountains, the wind swooshed and whistled aggressively down the peaks onto the meadow where we were camped; this was offset by the reassuring, gentle tinkle of bells tied around the necks of pack-ponies as they grazed.

Tents are striking from an aesthetic viewpoint - whether the peaks are covered with shades of summer brown, monsoon green or winter white, the bright orange- yellow – purple tents add a dash of colour and their compact shape makes for a neat picture. However, the low roof and compact size tend to make them a bit claustrophobic and difficult to move about in, especially for someone with a large build, i.e. yours truly.

I would much rather sleep out in the open in a sleeping bag - weather permitting, of course, with the wind on my face, gazing at the starry sky and giggling my way to sleep as my companions come up with non-zodiac descriptions of the stars. Never to be forgotten is one young gentleman’s description of two unusually bright and prominent stars of a constellation as ‘Aunty Sharma’s (pause here for effect)…………..earrings’ and the reactions it evoked, half the group cackling with glee and the other more – astronomically - inclined half wincing at the sacrilegious intrusion on their discussion.

While tents, sleeping bags and caves such as the one in Harishchandragad are all a welcome change from mundane city life and have an adventurous element to them, it is on the Himalayan treks that one really gets to experience the entire range of shelters possible.

While trekking with Odati from an altitude of 12000 ft to that of 14000 ft in Arunachal Pradesh (read Anusha’s description of the trek here), we stayed in log huts made by the GREF - General Reserve Engineering Force. Like the BRO (Border Roads Organisation), these corps, unnoticed and unsung, are responsible for building much of the basic infrastructure in the border areas. When they work in remote areas for a short span of time, they often build log huts to stay in. Two of these, in Nagajiji and Dhonk chi phoo, were a boon to us - it was raining and snowing intermittently at both places and the charm of such weather fades very soon if you are directly exposed to it. Having a GREF hut implies not just thick wooden logs between the elements and yourself, but also a roof high above your head that allows you to stand up straight, enough room for 6-8 people to spread out their things comfortably and the added bonus of a log fire to warm you up. Truly the answer to the wish for a room somewhere !

‘All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air,
Lots of chocolates for me to eat
Lots of coal making lots of heat,
Warm face, warm hands, warm feet,
Aow, wouldn’t it be lovely ? ’
(with apologies to Ms. Eliza Doolittle)

(The GREF hut at Dhonk Chi Phoo)

Each GREF hut has its own unique features that you discover only when you enter. The one we stayed in at Nagajiji was big enough to have contained two Bombay-ishtyle 1BHKs in it. There was a big central fireplace near which we huddled to make the most of the warmth, even stretching our frozen feet out dangerously close to the flames. Around the fireplace were poles on which we tied strings and dried all our wet clothes, thus ending up smelling of wood-smoke for the next few days. The GREF hut in Dhonk chi phoo was as big as the one in Nagajiji but had a wall dividing it into two halves, almost like a planned conservative zenana-mardana divide. The wall even had tiny holes that enabled conversations across it !

In the same mountains but at a lower altitude of 10000 feet, we spent a night at a village called Lubrang near the Bhutan border. After a refreshing walk on a path overhung with rhododendron flowers, we arrived fully satiated and satisfied with the trip, prepared to spend the night in a corner of one of the villager’s houses. We were totally stunned when the village headman, who was our guide, invited us to stay in the village Gompa (Buddhist monastery or place of worship). I initially thought I must have misunderstood him, until one of my companions actually spread out his sleeping bag and went to sleep, right inside the sanctum ! In his defense, I must mention that he was unwell and suffering from fever and a bad cold. (As an aside, consider what a title that would make for a book – ‘I snored at the feet of the Buddha’, a bit blasphemous, but definitely attention grabbing!)

(Pictures of the entrance to the Gompa at Lubrang - don't miss our shoes outside the door and the tea kettle kept nearby, also the amazing prayer wheel to the right)

There was something awe-inspiring about us mere mortals being permitted to close our eyes, not in devotion but in slumber, in the presence of divinity. Never had I imagined I would sleep in such a beautiful place, guarded by a statue of the Buddha, surrounded by walls with beautiful paintings and shelves filled with religious items ! The generosity of the village in offering us such hospitality proved that the clich├ęd ‘atithi devo bhava’ is still practiced in some areas.

Another trek, another shelter – a home stay at village Tolma (altitude approximately 10,000 feet) in the Garhwal Himalayas. Here we stayed in simple rooms in the villager’s houses, the normalcy of it reassuring after an arduous walk in a snow-storm the previous day. Tolma village is defined by Dronagiri mountain in the foreground. T he immensity of the mountain dominates the horizon as it looms over the village like a majestic-but-moody guardian, and the village huddles gratefully-but-carefully by its foot. The early morning has the mountain at its gentlest as the rays of the sun warm its cold visage and a snow plume languidly wafts off its peak. It was lovely to wake up, step out of the room and see a white snow plume stretched out across the blue sky, especially when I knew I had the option of retiring to the sanctuary of the room and snuggling under thick quilts the minute I felt too cold.

The beauty of Tolma was not limited to Dronagiri’s majesty, or the quilts that protected us from Dronagiri’s largesse of icy cool wind blowing off snowy slopes, it was also in the bucket of warm water each of us got for a bath in the makeshift bathroom, and in the nice clean loo that the villagers had constructed specifically for tourists to use. After five days in the wilderness without the pleasures of even basic plumbing, it was a close run thing between Dronagiri and the amenities when it came to deciding which sight gave one more happiness ! Dronagiri eventually won, but only just; quite a typical reaction towards the end of the trek !

No matter how much I relish the experience, after some days of the harsher, more basic existence, my city-bred spoilt side comes rushing to the fore and demands attention. While I love the mountains, I am also used to many amenities of Life in a Metro and start longing for them. Then it’s only the shelter provided by the grimy building where I reside in my dirty polluted Mumbai that I want. As they say, ‘There’s no place like Home’. Amen.

By Zen
(you can read more posts by Zeb at

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