Sunday, 19 September 2010

Not to be

Well it's been an interesting few days. We have been chilling out in Rishikesh, venturing out from our hilltop guesthouse between the rain showers of the tail end of the monsoon and enjoying the sights and sounds of the town. The monsoon here normally ends at the end of August and the Himalayan trekking season is generally fully under way by now. However this isn't the case this year. It's extended by a considerable amount but people seemed quite positive that it was about to end. So we have sat tight and waited a few days before attempting the eight day trek on the Kuari pass in Utteranchal under the shade of Nanda Devi India's highest mountain.

I have been thinking about and planning this trek for some time in the build up to coming. Our backpacks are stuffed full of extra stuff that we won't need for the rest of our trip but would be essential on the walk at the high altitude. I've been reading books about mountains and mountaineering and sitting in the Himalayan foothills watching low hanging rain clouds in the valley excited and worried at the same time. Were we being foolish attempting this walk in these conditions? We had signed up with a trekking company who would be providing horses, a cook and a guide for us and they seemed confident that the conditions would be ok as long as the road was clear of landslides which had hampered other treks.

So the day finally came after a night of near constant rain and electrical storms. The company manager decided that as the other road had been blocked on the other days he would send us on the back roads to our destination to camp for the night then begin our trek the following day. The drive was to be about ten hours. We had some nice companions. Two italians. a dutch woman and a south Indian man from Tamil Nadu. Morale was high as we set off and got to know each other and our guide Pheem.

Then we hit the mountain road. Hairpin after hairpin we climbed higher into the mountains past the bulging milky tea coloured Ganges river in the valley below. I was enjoying taking in the scenery out of the window but a few rockfalls and streams running across the road started to warn of potential landslides ahead. And so two hours into the trip the inevitable happened. The road was blocked by a huge landslide of rubble and earth and past that we could see a few more blockages. Other cars at the scene informed us however that a JCB was on its way and the road should be cleared in a couple of hours. Knowing Indian timings and the actual likelihood of this plus the fact that the rubble looked like it would take at least two hours to clear made me very doubtful.

Amazingly about ten mins later a JCB could be seen snaking down the mountain from above and was with us clearing away the blockages in no time. I was very impressed. Probably the only JCB in a hundred miles. So far so good...

We read and played cards and watched with the locals as the digger scooped the rubble over the edge and sent it cascading down the hill into the valley below. Almost every one of the assembled group had some helpful comments on digging technique for the JCB driver although the collective expertise didn't manage to prevent half of the actual roadway crashing into the valley. The road on closer inspection was sitting on top of a dry stone wall with no cement or concrete in sight.

After a mere four hours we were on our way holding our breaths as we passed the crumbling road and higher into the mountain range. At this point the road got really scary. Our driver seemed to be trying to make up the time and the road became simply rubble lying on top of semi organised rubble. It was clear that this was now, for want of a better phrase, a really fucking stupid thing to be doing.

"How much further to our destination is it Pheem?" 

"Oh about 150kms"

"Are the roads all like this?"

"Yes I would say so"

The drive had turned from being quite exciting into a punishing ordeal.

Within an hour the road was blocked again but another JCB was on hand and it was cleared very quickly. Half an hour after that another landslide and two more JCB's. My initial assessment of the heavy construction equipment in the area was way off. This was obviously a very common occurrence. By the last blockage we decided enough was enough and walk into the nearest town having driven a grand total of 50km in ten hours. We received some really nice greetings from the villagers in this small, quite pretty but clearly not a tourist town. Dinner was a good, honest, no frills local affair of rice Dahl, Paneer cheese and Chapatis.

The mood was again high in the group. We had had some excitement and seen a town that we wouldn't have normally encountered, well off the beaten track and our bellies were full of good food.

The gap between joy and despair was to be about ten minutes. News from the driver after our meal was that the ongoing road had a number of blockages and that we would have to stay in this town. By this time it was dark. The town didn't seem so nice anymore and our guide was struggling to find us a place to stay. We drove to "the only hotel in town". A tag that never inspires confidence.

The next morning we decided that the best thing to do was to go back to Rishikesh if we could on another road. Our lives were more important than the trek. So with bitter disappointment we arrived back after another grueling day, more near misses on the roads and all the time accompanied by continual pounding rain. 

What I had considered to be the highlight of the whole trip was not to be. Gutted.

Waking up today and after 15 hours of solid rain the massive Ganges has burst its banks and the first level of houses, temples and restaurants on the river bank are flooded. We are high on the hillside but its a sobering sight. Hopefully we can leave tomorrow and head to drier climes.

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