The Climb: Gap Year Week 37

It was a long road up.

It was longer still if you counted three weeks in Singapore before this—haphazard planning, flight bookings, flight cancellations, passports given, withheld, returned, meetings, projects half-nascent, half-actualized. By the end of it I was restless, grating against the weekly routine a return home meant, and the time I’d already spent, effortlessly, sitting still, doing nothing, it felt. I was ready to fly, to leave, to see new places, meet new people—to do, in fact, anything but pack for it.

In the end, at the last minute, I managed it all; the whole trip clarified within a few hours; I upturned closets and shoved things into backpacks; abruptly I was at the airport, dropping off my bags, checking in. One of my closest friends came to see me off. We waved at each other through the glass across immigration till I had to walk away.

I realized I didn’t know when I’d see her again. With college a few months away, she would go soon, and when I came back to Singapore for the last time she would not be there.

At security the officer pulled me aside and pointed out I had five bottles above 100 mL in my carry-on. I cursed my stupidity and ran to the Watsons, fumbling for my wallet, everything tumbling out of my bag. On the airport floor I crouched and decanted sunscreen to appropriately-sized bottles while travellers swerved around me. I sprinted back through security, just in time for boarding. My heart kept pulsing, even after the plane sped to take-off. Unease simmered in a vague conviction that I hadn’t paid enough attention, that I had left important things behind me, things I could not find again.

Slowly we climbed. Singapore shrank to a spectre.

***

I landed in Delhi for long enough to be glad I wasn’t staying. For eighteen years I’d neatly sidestepped the compressive heat of Indian summers in happy combinations of school holidays, exams, and family visits; I wasn’t planning on changing that. The next morning I waved goodbye to my uncle and mother and got on a plane to Shimla.

The flight was nearly a quarter empty and had been delayed twice, but the ancient ATR creaked painfully and finally into the sky. Halfway through I abandon my snoring seatmate to find a window seat. The dry plains stretched below, roads and fields webbing across the flatlands, the clusters of roofs morphing endlessly from town to village to town, hardly indistinguishable but, perhaps, to the people who lived there. In turns it repulsed and amazed me: this unstoppable urban breadth of India, growing tumorous and searching.

Gradually the fingers of the foothills broke through. The plains molded themselves first around them, and then gave way altogether. The hills built in waves across the landscape, a swelling rhythm of rise and fall, and clarifying as the plane sank into slopes of trees that edged settlements, each village layered into the swoop of the valleys. All lay in mottled shadow: the clouds brushed in thick curlicues.

I looked up across them and gasped. Above it all the horizon was jagged where the high Himalayas broke through the clouds. In the sunlight the mountains were cut diamonds.

Somehow this sight never palled. That white gleamed lunar: something beyond this world, surely, that kind of seeming purity, a place where water could not flow, all held still, and yet it was here, and was, too, a part of this landscape. These foothills, remote though they seemed from each other, began the climb to those heights. I tried to calculate in my mind what those peaks would be—6000, 5000 meters. The length of cross-country race run vertically away from my island-bound comprehension. I shivered at the thought of it, and at the knowledge soon I would be there, within that skyline, above it all.

The ground rushed precipitously up to meet us. I could make out the tiles of the houses and the leaves of the trees. It seemed we were going to clip their tops, were going to crash, and I braced myself, but suddenly we were skimming the runway at the top of a hill. The snow peaks had vanished from view. It would be two days till I saw them again.

***

I considered, over the taxi drive to the AirBnB, that I could divide my gap year into phases of mountains. First climbing Kilimanjaro, of course, back last July, the (literal) pinnacle of it all; after that spending time in the Himalayan foothills at Corbett, which began six weeks in India and beyond; hiking the Velebit mountains, arguably the highlight of the month in Europe; and now back to the Himalayas, for my last phase, where I was joining the NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation) high-altitude program for a month as an intern.

I arrived just as the NCF team was leaving for the day, meeting them just long enough to thank Ajay, former engineer-turned-programme coordinator, for dealing with my innumerable plan changes and revisions over the last week. Once they had gone, I collapsed on the couch, and didn’t move for the rest of the day.

With nothing else to do, I had to ask myself why, really, I had come all this way. I’d been thinking of this internship for years, yes, ever since I’d first heard about the work of the high-altitude program at annual meet. But it boiled down, I realized, to something far simpler than that. I liked the mountains. No wonder they had popped so frequently in my gap year. I remembered my time there clearer; it meant more than being in a city. I liked the sound of the fact of it on my tongue—I’m in the mountains, a nebulous definitive, evocations of clouds cut sharp, peaks drawn high.

And with the few months I had left, I wanted to spend it in them. I wanted to see how they worked over a time period beyond a short hike: how wildlife moved through the ranges, how communities cycled, how work took place. In places like that, what carried value from day to day? What did it mean to actually live there? What did it mean to save what lives there?

I laboriously rose from the couch by dinnertime and met everyone as they returned from their far-busier days. Over parathas, we talked about where we were going—Spithi Valley, a high-altitude desert plateau adjoining Tibet, now some four hundred kilometers from where we were, but still at least two days’ journey. Kullu, a wildlife biologist from the Snow Leopard Trust now in his second decade of work in Spithi, told us about doing his Master’s dissertation on snow leopards there, living in a five-house village blocked from even road access by snowfall for months at a time.

“But wasn’t it hard?” asked Deepshikha, a conservation coordinator in her first day of work with NCF.

Kullu laughed. “I guess now, looking back. But at 22 years old, studying snow leopards, six months, away from everything, staying in the mountains—it was a dream come true.”

***

The next day we descended. Rampur Bushahr, down at 800 meters, was the starting point of most journeys to Spithi. There Ajay and Kullu left Deepshikha, me, and Abhijit, another new conservation coordinator: for the next week the two of them had work elsewhere, but, they assured us, shared cabs were plentiful and reached Kaza, Spithi’s main urban center, within twelve or so hours. There would be little trouble finding one—several ran daily, and if not buses plied the same route.

As soon as we waved goodbye as the car drove off, it became obvious they were wrong. The receptionist smiled and shook his head when we asked him for phones of cab drivers. All shared cabs were booked out for the next day. When we trekked to the bus station—three sweaty kilometers away in the lowland heat—the bus schedules collapsed to bureaucratic mirage despite the confident assurances of the ticket inspectors. There was a night bus to Kaza, at 11 PM, which I didn’t want to take, and then an early morning bus to one of the first villages on the route.

We walked the long road back to our hotel mostly confused and tired. Halfway back a man driving a motorbike slowed down next to us, then got off and stood in front of us to block our path. We sped up, trying to dodge him. He called after us: “Hey! I just wanted to say hi!”

Reluctantly Abhijit slowed down and made eye contact with him. “Hi.”

The man gestured to my camera and binoculars, which had been welded to my neck for most of the day. “You guys are obviously new here—I just wanted to welcome you to my beautiful state.”

We stared at him. His account was as foreign as mine. But he continued, oblivious to our surprise. “I believe it’s important to wish people on their arrival to new places; this world is so short of simple friendliness nowadays. After all, not everyone is a creepy stranger!” His phone rang then, and he held up his hand while he picked up the call. We made to move on.

Moments later he ran after us. “Hey, hey, don’t go, the call was only a minute, you can’t just leave people like that. It’s just as important to—do you speak Hindi?” Someone nodded imperceptibly and he launched into a stream of Urdu.

Several minutes passed by. I tuned out. Cars swerved around us. The birds chirped somewhere far away. Rocks clattered down the cliff. The fruit seller called out his fresh cherries. A cow gave us an annoyed look.

“—and basically,” he finished in English, “in life always be open to new experiences. Meet well and part well.” He grasped each of us firmly by the hands in turn; I grinned nervously and nearly ran away.

Back at the hotel, laughing over our first encounter with the famed Himachali hospitality, the receptionist knocked on our door. “You said you wanted a cab to Kaza?” Our debate over the best and cheapest way of getting there has escalated only to further befuddlement.

“There’s a girl traveling alone who’s looking for someone to split a cab with her there,” the receptionist said. We looked at each other. Slowly and magically two days of travel in buses vanishes from the future. “That’d be great!”

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***

Over 14 hours of driving the next day, each of us has ample occasion to regret this enthusiasm. National Highway 5, which connects Rampur and Kaza, exists in an endless, laborious state of slow renovation. The road winds through phenomenal landscapes—at first the sunrise-gilded low montane forests, where we stopped for breakfast, and then, as we rose above the treeline, crashing slopes, barren of anything but stubborn shrubs, looming over the river below. Drama, however, came with landslides. For that reason the road’s management has been given over to everyone’s best friend, BRO—Border Roads Organization.

We entertained ourselves by reviewing its seemingly infinite supply of road safety signage—”Don’t be gama in the land of llama”, ____, ____—over the long waits while Bihari laborers cleared away debris from a freshly fallen roadblock. The already-unstable slopes were daily picked away further by dynamiting for an ongoing road-widening program; often it took hours to make it passable again.

After we ran out of signage, we sat on the road bend where everyone else had congregated, including the bus we had otherwise planned to take. Together we watched the rocks move. The group let out a collective gasp each time a particularly big boulder was nudged into the river. Phone connectivity had disappeared a few hours after we started. The mountains narrowed our vision; suddenly there was nothing else of importance in the world than if the pebbles fell or not. We took bets on how long each clearing effort would take. Everyone turned out to be wrong. Time slowed, marked only by each cloud of dust billowing up the hillside.

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By afternoon the snow peaks had descended to a neighborly fixture of the horizon. At first we’d gasped each time they emerged around a turn, but eight hours of driving later, the air inside the car was as gritty as a roadwork. Every five minutes someone asked me to check our position on my offline map: our speed remained rooted at 30 kilometers an hour. By the requisite evening tea, at a military checkpost five kilometers from the Tibetan border, no one had the energy to even take out their phones for a photograph of the rose-lit landscape.

When we reached Kaza it was dark and anticlimactic. We hurried our fellow passenger out of the car to her homestay with hardly a goodbye. At our room we wound down an alley for dinner, scarfed some unbearably spicy masala, and then came back and collapsed.

***

Here at Kaza, 3600 meters above sea level, we had completed most of our climb. Our final destination, the village of Kibber, lay a few hundred meters and an hour’s drive further upwards. But that lay some time hence: for now the journey paused, nearly at its end, to give us a few days to acclimatize. I marked the occasion by waking up at 5 am and promptly vomiting.

All three of us were under strict and repeated instructions to not move any more than necessary for our first day at altitude. This didn’t turn out to be an issue. Working through a stack of downloaded Elena Ferrante novels, the day passed easily stationary in acute digestive misery, pausing only occasionally to allow for a quarter of toast.

By the second morning I succeeded in keeping the bread inside me and going out into Kaza. Back in Shimla we had been regaled with horror stories of the place. “During my dissertation, you couldn’t move for cow shit,” Kullu has told us, shuddering.

Since then a flood of foreign tourists had scaled up the town and forced it to engage in at least rudimentary hygiene. Though there was still no waste disposal system to speak of, a drain had been installed down the one road the town radiated out from. This was, however, only intermittently covered, and Tempo Travelers regularly found their back wheels marooned and spinning uselessly in the slicked gutter. On the narrow street, this meant that all surrounding grocery-shopping and souvenir-selling ground to a halt while everyone congregated to offer unhelpful advice.

This was the main event of each hour. Despite throngs of dreadlocked tourists, Kaza served a primarily functional and administrative role in the region. It was the place you came to collect your vegetables, rations, and meat, where you looked for a WiFi connection to download emails, where you spent a few days at most to adjust and ate in the cramped tourist-focused restaurants. It was from where you caught buses to elsewhere, and moved on from. After all, who cared about wannabe hipster coffee shops when stretching above the town were burnished cliffs worthy of some American Midwest fantasy? Opposite all the hills still secreted snow in their dips, and the Spithi river meandered strange paths across a silvered valley. Every ridge promised more behind it.

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By the third day we met one of the NCF field coordinators, Kalzang, bought our vegetables, and eagerly climbed in the pickup with him to head up. Kibber lay above a different branch of the Spithi river, concealed from view in Kaza. When we turned the last hairpin bend and saw it – the white houses gleaming in the alpine sunlight – I sighed in relief. In the base camp, Lamaji, the taciturn caretaker, handed us hot cups with a monosyllabic, “Chai.”

I unloaded my bags gratefully: finally, arrived, 4200 meters, the long ascent complete. From sea level to here, beyond cities, beyond phone connectivity, almost beyond India itself. No more climbing from here.

In the kitchen Deepshikha was talking with Lamaji. “So where will our work be?” she asked him. Our jobs for the next ten days would be with a series of nature education camps held for local students.

“Up there,” he said and pointed to the horizon.

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