Friday, November 24, 2006

The Weekly Masala

The Story:
I was in a hurry. So, here I was hurrying up to apply the final traces of Cinthol onto my face, running out of the shower, trying to get into my cumbersome clothes and using my hand as an unwieldy comb. Whatever happens, a good amount of time has to be spent on tying shoelaces and ensuring everything's zipped - matter of dignity you see. The car keys were usurped. Their rotation was the only hope. As a human who has to attend meetings to fill his stomach (pun intended), the thought of reaching late, knocking the door and smiling sheepishly before taking the seat seemed horrific. Yeah sometimes, my eccentricity leads me to situations when I just cannot help myself saying 'excuse me'. I turned my humble beast into ignition mode and whirred it into action. Not too long after, it was zooming at a Schumi speed which would surely get me a ticket. I was sweating. And it rolled down faster when I realised that the PUC of my beast had expired yesterday. The men in white had to avoided at all costs today. I think they read my mind as I saw them lurking somewhere on the horizon. An immediately decelaration followed and I humbly followed an antiquated rickshaw emitting plumes of black smoke and a groaning voice. Perhaps, the policeman will find a problem with the rickshaw and the law of averages suggest that the next driver should be left scot free. As these thoughts and sweat flew, I hit a beautifully eroded pothole. Damn! Did the sun forget to rise from the East today? Something got hit below my seat. My car was drop dead slow after that hit and from the corner of my eye, I saw the tall "enemy of the day" in crisp white ironed clothes. I started to push the accelerator and the policeman beckoned me with his hand. Is this really happening? I slowed down and began to move to the side of the road. He was indeed eyeing me. Well, there goes 15 minutes, a few hundred bucks and a normal entry into the meeting room. I parked, stayed rooted to my seat and he came over to my window. His mouth opened and all I heard was this sentence. "Son, take care of that pothole the next time. You just missed blowing your engine."

The Music:
I must admit, though with a deep internal conflict, that I love British bands. You ask me and I would name U2 to be my favorite, Coldplay soon to be my all time favorite followed very closely by the Beatles. There is something so British like in these bands that conjoins the three and that something is what I really love. The guitar flow, the bass and the amazing vocals really stimulates my mood. And today, I present to you one of my favorite Beatle songs - I have been humming it since the last three days. Its from Abbey Road and its called "Here Comes the Sun". Sung by George Harrison, there is just so much optimism in the tune that it can show a melancholic soul the right path. My suggestion: don't deprive your ears with this amazing rendition.

The Book:
On the lookout for a nice, sweet, controversial, witty and a beautifully composed novel? Go ahead and buy "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Lee Harper. It has won the Pulitzer prize and there's no reason it wouldn't. The story is in the first person mode seen through the eyes of a young 6 year old girl set in rural Alabama in the 30s. In a time, when racial prejudices were at the peak, her lawyer father takes up the case of black man charged with the rape of a white girl - an unknown occurence then. Carefully detailing the social mores of the American society back then, the novel is wonderfully scripted and a must read.

The Movie:
I finally caught one of Stanley Kubrick's famous work. The masterpiece called "2001 - A Space Odyssey". I had read the novel by Arthur C Clarke and I had found it jaw-dropping awe-inspiring. The movie with Kubrick's handiwork rendered the book perfectly. Leave the few differences with the book and this movie should take anyone's breath away. With dialogues covering just 30 minutes, it is the eerie images of space, the mystery of an alien monolith stone, the dawn of man and the evil HAL computer that makes one appreciate filmmaking at its best. No wonder it ranks in the top 100 all time movies list by IMDB.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Once upon a time, there was a book...

Once upon a time, there was a bookmarker - the protagonist of our story. Once upon a time, there was a bookworm, who enjoyed using bookmarkers in satisfying his insatiable hunger of reading. Once upon a time, there was a bookie, who with all his ill-gotten wealth wanted to satisfy his son's desire to read innumerable books. Once upon a time, there was a Booker prize winning book. A chronological juxtapose of the scenario suggests the bookie buying books for his bookworm son hellbent on using our heroic bookmarker, who in turn loved Booker prize winning books.

Our story begins with the bookmarker's first tryst with paper. Non-recycled ones, of course. The Master - referring to the bookworm in a puerile sense - was gifted Treasure Island by another bookie uncle. And there was immense glee on his generally vapid face in being able to use the lazy bookmarker finally. So started our hero's journey in exploring the antics of Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, his parrot and his motley pirate crew. The Master forgot all about the Industrial Revolution because after this book, there was a new RDB type revolution brewing within him - the desire to devour as many books as possible. The bookmarker, though overloaded with work, could not ask for more. It was given an appraisal rating of 5 and it had to subserviently serve its Master obsequiously.

Soon came the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drews. The adventure stories thrilled our bookmarker akin to an edge of the page excitement. And after the fights - sometimes catfights - came something our bookmarker learnt actually. All of the sudden, the Master decided to explore a new genre. Science Fiction. Fantastic Voyage was stolen and our bookmarker was literally blown upside down during its traversal. Scientists turning miniature and exploring the human body inside out made our hero mull over the vicissitude of life; made it ponder whether it could ever become the Master himself and have a choice without an audience vote. The SF hangover never got over with the entire Asimov collection gulped and burped over 6 months. By now, our bookmarker had trespassed every archaic corner of the universe and every green-eyed alien seemed a neighbour. And all of a sudden, it happened one day...God had arrived.

Shakespeare had arrived. Ignoring his looks, the bookmarker placed a bet that he was the greatest Earth Idol ever. The audience vote did not disappoint him. The humble Bard flummoxed it with his honest yet complex weaving of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and the accompaniments. A lot new human emotions made a favorable debut with the hero. And for the first time, with the emotion of love seeping right into its cranium, it asked the question "Do I love my Master?" And in a fleeting moment came the answer in the affirmative; the proof of it being a kiss pecked on it by the Master. And out of nowhere, it began humming romantic songs and was transported to the Swiss Alps - someday to be reproduced by Yashraj Films. Someday, the lovey-dovey stories had to end and the final gong rang in the form of political thrillers. A yet unexplored genre was brimming with the likes of the Archers, Forsyths, Ludlums, Grishams etc. The bookmarker was amazed at the speed with which some of these books were run over. Reason: the Master was in his engineering undergrad and other than the last few days before the exam, he hardly touched a book concerning his curriculum. The monotonous life ended years later and the bookmarker got its first opportunity in reading a Booker prize winning book. It got addicted and to this date, the love message sent at the application layer reaches only a Booker prize winning book. However, this should not be trivialised as a KANKy sort of infidelity with the Master.

The story has to end here abruptly because the bookmarker is still crazy about Bookers; because the bookie Papa still has lot of black wealth to support his son's Booker love and the tax authorities are blind; because the Master doesn't kiss the bookmarker anymore and needs to get a life; because I am woefully short of words.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Lord Of The Mountains - A Trek Diary to Goecha La

Yeah. Yeah. Been a wee bit too late to be writing this. But then has anyone ever lost tons of sleep due to persisting hallucinations?

Disclaimer: Am no Tolkien. Am not attempting to be one. But am surely a big fan of his fairy tales. And this ain't a fairy tale.

Long long time ago, the Earth was a huge mass of land made of Laurasia and Gondwanaland. And when these two collided, Pangaea was formed with the Himalayas as the post mortem of their fight. The two plates hit it hard in a place near present-day Sikkim giving rise to Kanchenzonga, the third highest peak on Earth and revered by the millions of Buddhists all over. Standing at over 8000m, it is aloof to all the wars, weapons of mass destruction and crimes humanity commits way below it. It reigns immortal in the dimension of time. Humans are mere mortals before it - aptly experienced at Goecha La Pass at 5000m, the closest point one can get to it.

Frodo aka Anup Patnaik was always of the merry sort believing that a thing either falls in the "rocks" or the "sucks" category. Leading a humble spiritual existence with his Apache in Bengaluru, he was doubly excited when the idea of the trek came up. Immmediately, an "Outlook Traveller - Trekking in India" was bought along with a 2000 buck sleeping bag.

Sam aka Ramprasad Madhavan was intially confused whether he should join the trek or please his Korean clients. He was also confused whether he enjoyed trekking. A lil bit of coaxing always helps in his case. Frodo played his part well by dragging his Bangalore chum for trek shopping. Of course, he would be missing his new found love (plus some rasam) all the while during the trek.

Gollum aka me had always dreamt of going to the North East. And when circumstances decided that it would be Sikkim and not the North East sisters, he was a tad disappointed. He had been there before. But the idea of a trek to Goecha La was exhilirating. I call myself the evil Gollum because I planned the trek for 5 days over the general 7-8 days due to work constraints. All despite a few protests. No one seemed to have done this trek in 5 days! Stupid Gollum.

SonAm was an orphan and had worked his way up as a guide and a cook for tourists in idyllic Yuksom, Sikkim. He was accustomed to the geography of the West Sikkim and accompanied enthusiastic trekkers on the way to Goecha La. He had the perfect understanding of distances and the right mettle to satisfy what his customers seeked.

SangCho, the porter was the baby of all. The 20 year dimunitive farmer boy from Yuksom had the cutest smile, the strength of an ox and the maturity of a very wise man. He had always wanted to visit Goecha La and here he saw an opportunity. There can't be anyone in this world who can hate SangCho.

Shiva and Dadu, the 65 and 70 year old porters were strong able men and were known all over the Yuksom valley as carrying 25-30 kgs on their backs as easily as a Hindi film actor carries his heroine.

The Story:
Before the curtains open for "Day 1", the miserable and apathetic journey suffered by both Gollum and the Bengaluru gang is worth mentioning. Gollum's train from Mumbai was 8 hours late even before it moved its iron ass, he was suffering a bad cold due to the Diwali pollution and by the first night in the 3AC compartment, he already had his long forgotten and unused asthma puff out. By the time he reached New Jalpaiguri (NJP), he was 16 hours late, grossly weakened with cold and congestion, 6 hours away from Yuksom and wondering if there will be a trek possible. Frodo and Sam had to endure lots of Bengali eunuchs and chatter from all sides, but they did thank Lalu whose rule to ensure that atleast 10% of trains reach on time worked in their favor. Due to Gollum's delay, they stayed overnight at the Hilton in NJP for a measly 200 bucks and thankfully left for Yuksom to make the trek arrangements. The cab ride to Yuksom, which should have included Gollum too, eased their pockets by 80 per head with other fellow travellers. And poor Gollum had to make that ride alone late in the night shelling out 1600. Stupid Lalu - our Sauron of the trip. The reunion finally happened in a small wooden cottage "Pemaling"(200 bucks per night) at 12.30 am with cold sub zero winds enveloping Gollum all over. With each snuggled in their heavy blankets, they snored. Their merry little journey was about to begin in 7 hours.

Day 1:
Luck smiles. The morning Himalayan rays does stir some magic on the soul. It just invigorates all. A simple registration with the local police station later, it all began with the always cheerful Frodo, the energetic bearded Sam and the slow but motivated Gollum trudging across the Yuksom fields with their heavy backpacks (avg 12 kg). SonAm led the way. To their chagrin they realised that their porters SangCho, Shiva and Dadu were carried 25-30 kgs of their rations with ease and were outpacing them pretty easily. Their destination for the day was supposed to Tshoka - a trek of 11-13 kms over tropical valleys and ravines with the last 4 kms a straight uphill 60 degree inclined climb. A normal fit trekker would accomplish this in 5-6 hours. But for Frodo and his bunch, it was arduous. Every climb hurt. Gollum was miserable with having to control his breathing to avoid another asthma type situation along with a not-so-great stamina. He always stayed behind the pack. Sam used his short bursts of energy to good effect but it withered after a while. Frodo who was literally jogging at the start of the trek slowed down gradually and also began to find the climb tough on his ankles. 5 minute rest breaks were the order of the day. Two rope bridges over glistening waterfalls and yanking away from a few domestic yaks (with bells on their necks) later, they reached a small hut at Sachen at 2pm. About 6 kms had been covered. This would be where lunch was to be cooked. Out came the kerosene stove from Dadu's bag - along with lots of onions, tomatoes, masalas and all that one can imagine. A few noodle bags were shredded. Ummm. Before that came the hot chai - superbly accompanied with Marie biscuits. It felt like a Thanksgiving vegetarian feast in the middle of the Kanchenzonga Forest Reserve. SonAm told them that it gets dark by 5pm and only by running can they reach Tshoka tonight. With distressed glares and legs, they decided on aiming for it. At 3.15 pm, the trio almost doubled their pace. It was hard - it really ached. It was just the first day and if the 30 degree climbs were a problem, the 60s were just waiting for them. They carried on. At 4.15 pm the huge bridge over the Prek Chu River passed by. The loud roar that the river made with its descent was music to the ears and for a moment it felt like a painkiller. It was all uphill from here. 2 kms to Bakhim and 4 to Tshoka. SonAm recommended camping at Bakhim. Of course, everyone nodded. It began at 4.30 pm. One just had to look vertically UP for the next step. A twig here, a crawl there, few stones tumbling down - it was all happening there in semi darkness. Half a kilometer away, it was pitch dark and a single torch saved the day. Holding each other's hands, the trio and SonAm reached the Bakhim outpost at 6pm. So shellshocked were they when they realised that Dadu, Shiva and SangCho were already up there making chai for the trio. A wooden house awaited them and they somehow straggled to the nearest bench and collapsed. Phew! What a day, it had been! An hour later, out came the Royal Stag Premium Whisky. It was in the whereabouts of -5C. The hot rush through the throat was more like Benadryl syrup as Sam suggested. Over a dinner consisting of rotis and sumptous aloo subzi, an hour long chat on beliefs, spirituality, religion ensued which opened the hearts and minds of each of them. Just before 9pm, the three experienced the heavens at night. Every nook and corner of the sky seemed to be on rent with a star or galaxy egging to be filled up with it. The sleeping bags were the antidote to all the aches and pains. Lights dimmed slowly and it end of day 1. However, not before Frodo, Sam and Gollum saw a shooting star and made a wish - to emerge victorious!

Day 2:
Some birds really do sing - long tailed magpies really do. A beautiful song awoke Gollum from a hallucinating experience at the tip of dawn. Sooner, Sam and Frodo were up too. And all Frodo could wonder of was a decent place to shit. The bushes, mate! So as Sam and Gollum admired the beauty around them and clicked, not too far there was a rustling in the bushes. Soon, the time came for Gollum and Sam - ultimately Gollum did admit that it had been the most natural way of performing the act. The scent and the substance had been laid by the trio for future explorers to discover. Back to edible stuff! A hot spicy aloo broth had been cooked as breakfast and by 9am, the backpacks were up and ready. The day's trek would be the most enduring one - a total of 11 kms from 9000 ft at Bakhim to 13,200 ft at Dzongri, where the air would gradually start thinning. If Day 1's antics were to be repeated, reaching halfway would be a milestone! So it started. The fresh legs and energy did help one and all despite the straight uphill climb. And Tshoka was breached within an hour. This was a proper habitable settlement with dozens of houses and a few shops. Fortunately, SonAm's aunt lived here, which meant offloading useless items from the backpacks and collecting it on the way back. The average backpack weight after Tshoka would be around 7-8 kgs. Thankfully! Jackets, tuques, gloves were added to the caravan - without them, a man would freeze in 5 minutes. Sam was desperately asking for time to shop for a few Tibetian stuff for that special someone - Frodo and Gollum never have to worry with that perspective. At 11.15am, after a ridiculous trolling with time, it started again. The tropical forests gave way to coniferous ones. Dzongri was not even conifer - it was barren and fully laden wih snow. The next pit stop would be Phedang - 6 kms away. Gollum once said that this stretch, despite being a nice wooden trail, is akin to climbing over a 1000m at over 60 degrees incline and is the toughest section of the trek. Even the most experienced trekker would swear by it. Even the yaks bell their bells, when you talk of this stretch. A nice chat with a few Americans on the way gave some respite. Most were medical students from all over the US and the trio on enquiry did find that they had a few altitude sickness tablets to spare - something the trio were really thankful for as Yuksom didn't have those. The Phedang barrier was finally blown apart at 2.15pm. Be it Gollum, Sam or Frodo - it just meant running to the polyester mattress laid by the porters, dropping the backpack and dozing off for a while. Excruciating doesn't even come close! But it was breached and the view from the locale said it all - the snow clad mountains were easily all around them, the conifers were beginning to thin and life @ 4000m seemed really cool (pun intended). Then came the chai and the hot lunch. Frodo and Gollum slurped on egg noodles, while Sam was content with regular ones. The vice of jealousy did erupt here when a foreign group pitched their tents right in front of them. A 5 day trek really cannot afford that luxury of camping every 6 kms. The porters had relaxed, the trio had relaxed and even SonAm was chilling out. Suddenly Gollum's watch announced it was 4pm and all hell broke loose. There were another 3-4 kms to go and that would mean trekking again in the dark. The trio convinced SonAm to aim for Dzongri, no matter what. There were more torches now and after a further climb of 2kms, it would be an easy trek over snow. At 4.15 pm, the blip of seven men on the Phedang radars would move again heading first to Dzoraelli Point, where the first view of the entire clan of the Kanchenzonga would be visible. By now, climbing uphill was commonplace and the legs were accustomed to getting streched in finding the next higher rock crevice. At 5.30 pm, just about twilight, the Point was reached and it was outer-wordly. The trio folded their hands at the sight of the majestic Kanchenzonga flanked by Pandim and Kabru. It was more than a treat to the eyes. Of course, they never knew they would getting really up, close and personal with them. But as they say, first impressions matter a lot! The day still had not ended for them. Half an hour was Dzongri. And after a long long time, there would no climb. Out came the torches and the first brush of the shoes with the snow. The soft snow made matters easy as it is not hard on the feet. Within no time, the Dzongri Trekkers Hut welcomed the gang. It was full of foreigners and a tiny corner was carved for the trio. It seemed the trek is never attempted by Indians - either one saw foreigners or the local Sikkimese porters and guides. In the dim hut, it was again discussed if it would be possible to finish this colossal trip in 5 days. Stubborn Gollum stuck to his rut that he would not extend the trek and miss the train back home even if it meant not reaching Goecha La - it would be tough for him anyways considering the altitude and his deteriorating breathing problem. Frodo and Sam tried to make sense to him, suggesting for a back-up plan if things didn't go the way they were supposed to. It was finally decided to take it on a day-day basis and decide accordingly. The dinner followed with each morsel containing rice, dal, subzi and papad. Everyone wished for sweeter dreams. After all, as per the early itinerary, Dzongri had to be reached by Day 2.

Day 3:
At the first light of dawn, the eyes flickered. Reason: A 45 minute visit to Dzongri top at almost 4800m is a must for every living creature in Dzongri. Just because at that height, one gets a panoramic view of the entire Himalayan range in the vicinity. No backpacks were needed. SangCho accompanied the trio for the endeavor, while SonAm, Shiva and Dadu embroiled themselves in cooking up a breakfast. The route was all uphill and this time it took a toll on Gollum who finished almost 10 minutes behind Frodo and Sam. The early morning cold air is really thin at those heights and the breathing does get laborous. But what greeted them all was simply mind rupturing. Being a very Buddhist area meant that a high human-accessible hilltop like Dzongri Top was spiritually revered by them and the prayer flags at the top were proof of that. Add to that the early morning blue skies and the first sun rays kissing the mountains. It was an awesome sight to behold. Of course, the Top was all snow clad and sitting anywhere would mean a nice frozen ass. The shutterbugs continued - for the first time all the cameras were in full use despite a concern whether the batteries would last till Day 5. It was a total paisa vasool place. Back in Dzongri by 7.30 am. A separate thin hut there acted as the loo. All it had was a long open cavity in the centre. Pretty interesting concept! After an output, there should be an input and a breakfast of bread toast and omlette created the balance. It was all hunky-dory by 8.30 am after which the walk began again. The day's trek would be the most easy-going. Amazing views all around in superb weather conditions with nothing much to climb. Day 1 and Day 2's efforts seemed so far away. An interesting snippet here is that this part of the trek is way more colorful in spring than in fall due to the blooming of the rhodendron shrubs. After all the effort of two days of trying to gain altitude came a point on the way after 6 kms - a straight drop of over 1300m at the bottom of a valley near the Prek Chu River. The trek henceforth till would be on the sidelines of the Prek Chu right upto its source. Such a descent should be a treat. As such, it was way lot faster to traverse without the need for rest. But a downhill walk means a lot more stress on the legs, toes and ankles. On the other hand, an uphill climb requires stamina, energy and a bit of knee power. Gollum really loved going downhill, while Sam found it really troublesome. And so, Kokchurong at the bottom of the huge hill was won around 12.30pm where one and all could hear the sweet strumming of the PreK Chu river nearby. A 15 min breather near the Trekkers Hut elapsed before 15 minutes and it was time to move again. The Prek Chu was crossed over a rickety bridge and the next destination Tangshing was 3 kms away. It was a wee bit uphill trail though not as bad as Day 2. All this uphill, downhill, uphill trails made the three wonder the true nature of a trek - it is essentially a mixed combination of both which gets involved in deciding the best possible trail to a destination. Around 2.15 pm, the playground of Tangshing came into sight and with it a host of tents and a Trekkers Hut as always. The trio were itching to experience a tent's life n the Himalayas and it would seem possible today. Though as per plans, Tangshing wasn't supposed to be the final stop for the day. It was to be at Le Mune 3 kms further up the Prek Chu. The problem was that there was only a small wooden cabin there and it was already occupied by other porters. The gang's tent was only a 3 man one and it could not accomodate 7 of them. Realising this, the trio were disappointed. But SonAm relented that the porters would manage somehow and that they would head for Le Mune after food. Aloo lunches do help in such conditions due to their starch content and the instant feeling of hunger satisfaction. By 4.15 pm, the backpacks were shouldered again and it again seemed thatthe night trek factor would seep in as earlier days. Fortunately the stretch, mostly over thin streams and rivulets meeting the Prek Chu, was covered soon and in the final twilight hours, the tent pitching process was gathering steam. With torches on, the end product was a dream come true for the trio. They decided to avoid dinner and doze off sooner. The temperature outside was already close to zero and it was expected to dip a lot further. To the trio's horror, SonAm and SangCho had decided to sleep outside in their bags beneath a few rocks. There was no other solution in sight. The older Shiva and Dadu would be accomodated in the tent. It is no wonder that these so called Sherpas are the strongest and the courageous in the world and no amount of salutes can complement it. Inside the tent, a few candle games were demonstrated by Frodo and sleeping seemed to be the last thing on his mind. Not to forget the first ever Colgate smiles posing for snaps in that tiny space. It all had to end soon. 3.30 am would mark the continuation of the trek all the way to Goecha La and back. As the brains hallucinated, sometime in the night Dadu and Shiva joined the sleep circus in the tent and somewhere outside beneath a rock, SonAm and SangCho - the true heroes - dozed off to sleep.

Day 4:
The Judgement Day had not even begun. At 3.30 am in the Prek Chu valley far away from the maddening crowds, even the celestial beings would give up monitoring mankind - it was that remote. And the chilly winds reminded one and all that the day's experience won't be easy at all. Would have been around -15C at that time. In such frigid temperatures, SonAm and SangCho had set themselves the task of cooking up a heavy early breakfast. There were no huts upto Goecha La, which meant no food till everyone returned back to the tent. It also meant Shiva and Dadu would stay put in Le Mune and there would no need to carry backpacks. While the cooking continued in the open air with a single kerosene bottle flame as the light source, Frodo went around to a distant corner with another flame - as usual to shed his innards. Doing the act at 3.30 am at -15C in the open air is a different matter altogether! Around 4, the food was ready to be served. Puris and spicy ginger-garlic infested aloo subzi surely made the body feel warm and energised. Not too long after, with the bottled flame as the mashaal or guiding light source, the 5 embarked on the seemingly distant but not too far Goecha La Pass. Winning it would be decided by the motivation level, the weather, the energy levels etc. It was a tough ask to trek in the darkness despite the single light source as there were many small streams on the way, which had frozen to the point of being slippery. The sun would later break them apart. The torch bearer, either SonAm or SangCho, would wait for all to climb up the smallest incline or the smallest ice sheet of frozen water. An hour's walk later at 5.30am, the real originator of the Prek Chu became visible in the early light. Samiti Lake. Witnessing the birth of the river they had been seeing all along the way was a dream come true for the trio. Surrounding it ever so close were all the peaks they had seen from far. From all those snow-clad peaks emerged thousands of brooks meeting the Samiti - a silent green wonder on its own - and from it broke out the Prek Chu over a cliff. Fascinating! Like the Kanchenzonga, the Samiti was deeply spiritual for the Sikkimese and they had recently banned camping there. There had been incessant reports before that a lot many foreigners would bathe naked in the lake which had incensed the government into taking the action. Mincing no words, a walk along the shorelines of the Samiti is an outer-wordly experience. Nature's perfection at its best! The next viewpoint was Zemathang - a straight uphill climb over a barren hill surrounding Samiti at over 5000m. Air was really getting thin here and all forms of flora had disappeared. Infact no life form could exist there. It reminded Gollum of the Mars landscape as seen through its robots- all rocks and stones. Very eerie. This stretch was covered really slowly. 3 minute rest breaks were taken after every 7-8 minutes of climb. The exhaustion was ripe on everyone's faces and the altitude added to the problem. At every such break, an attempt was made to capture all the amazingly close above 6000m snow clad peaks on camera. Be it slow, such potraits but would rarely be again seen in a person's lifetime. The morning rays had descended on all the peaks and fortunately the weather was perfect. Around 7.30 am, the prayer flags at Zemathang were caught by the eyes from a distance. Just before reaching it though was the most dangerous part of the trek - a thin trail of rocks to walk over and a deep valley on the left. Any false move and it was nirvana right then and there. It literally rquired crawling step by step and once that was done, the sight was a splendour to see. It is really tough to explain whatever was seen on this day in appropriate words - only one's presence there can bring in a hue of emotions. Zemathang as such is generally thought of Goecha La by a lot of adventurers, who head back after visiting it. It is at the same altitude as real Goecha La and the trek to the real Goecha La Pass can be very dangerous in inclement weather conditions. The majestic Kanchenzonga, lot many unnamed glaciers and the path to the Pass is seen from this viewpoint. Surprisingly, a huge arid desert of some kind is visible and has to be negotiated to reach Goecha La. Frodo, Sam and Gollum looked in the distant horizon towards their target - the Pass 2 to 3 hours away and contemplated. All the three were motivated - Frodo the most, Sam hesitant at first but coaxed, Gollum very much only if his breathing allowed (he was carrying his puff). All bets were off and the break at Zemathang didn't last long. The first obstacle was a straight deep descent onto the Goecha La "arid desert" valley. So steep that a single stone movement would cascade many deep below into the valley. Going down meant it was run over in no time and in no time the long stretch over the desert ensued. It might have been over a kilometer of walking on sand of all things with the mountains peeking over the five. And when that ended, it was a zigzag way to reach the base of the hill above which the Goecha La Pass loomed. At this point, Gollum requested the rest to go further and that he would want to be really slow in covering the last part. If he didn't feel right, he would head off over to Zemathang and wait for the others to return. SonAm asked SangCho to accompany Gollum whatever the situation be - reaching the Pass or back. Frodo and Sam lumbered ahead with SonAm and Gollum with small steps and breath in control slowly trudged along. It was an uphill climb of sorts and halfway through would take over the trail. Gollum took 2 minute rests every 5 minutes and gulped down the ice cold water of the Prek Chu. The water seemed to give him energy to move ahead despite it being not the right thing to do. Around 10 am, it was done. Frodo and Sam had done the impossible. They had breached Goecha La. And 15 minutes later, they saw a tiny figure in a green jacket slowly limping behind its guide in a yellow jacket. Gollum reached the Pass with a deep satisfaction and collapsed on the snow to take a breather. They all found it straight out of a dream. The Kanchenzonga - the third highest peak in the world was right there above them. So near. Obviously far in terms of an altitude of 3500m. Very few humans get to experience such a spiritual peak so close. A countable number of them, if you just talk of Indians. As mentioned earlier, words are short for such moments. Adjoining the Pass were the other peaks with all their snow run over steep deep inclines. There was a dark green lake below the Pass - very likely a source of another river. Looking towards the big K - the route ended there for all trekkers and it was illegal to go further even on narow trails. Proper mountaineering equipment and a permit is needed to go ahead. Frodo spent some time pondering the road ahead and found another lake, albeit frozen, at the base of the big K. The cameras were out in full strength and the prayer flag bought in Tshoka was tied at the Pass. Proof of the trio's footprints at Goecha La. After an hour at the Pass, it was time to return. The second leg of the trek had begun. Going downhill wasn't a troublesome task for anyone in particular and retracing the steps back gave all the time to think of all the effort that had gone in feeling Earth's beautiful creation first hand. In a matter of minutes, it started snowing and with it came the winds which had evaded them till then. The tuque and the jacket played its part well on this occasion because the freezing breeze hit the head hard especially in the desert region of the valley. Zemathang followed and Samiti was to follow. By this time, every step was badly energy sapping. It was around 1.30 pm and with no food in the guts, the reserve energy was used up. SonAm moved early than the gang to cook up a meal before the trio reached Le Mune. Finally at 2.30 pm, the famished three reached up to Le Mune only to find that no food could be cooked. The stove had gone horribly wrong. Dadu and shiva were unsuccessful in repairing it and only at Tangshing, with the help of other porters, a good meal could be made. Sam and Gollum had by then reclined in the tent, sipped on some orange juice with Marie biscuits. So tired were they that it was decided to take a short nap till 3 and then head off for Tangshing with Sangcho. SonAm left for Tangshing right then to take up the meal issue. The very short nap did make matters lot easy. At 3pm, SangCho packed the tent and herded it onto his basket. Off to Tangshing. On reaching it around 4.30pm, a hot meal of rice and vegetables followed and sooner, the backpacks were up again to head for the pitstop of the day - Kokchurong. It would involve running in the dark again - this time with the kerosene bottle flames. A lot of the stones on the way troubled Frodo, who found it really tough to find his way in the dark. Around 6.30 pm, the Kokchurong Trekkers Hut welcomed the seven. The sleeping bags were put hastily. Sam, Frodo and Gollum dozed off immediately with the latter deciding not to have dinner. Sam and Frodo gulped in some food later and returned back to sleep. Except Day 1, the itinerary had been strictly followed. But Day 5 would be of the "crossed fingers" type. Too much to be covered and which had never been covered by a trekker before: Reaching Yuksom by the end of day, albeit following an different route till Phedang from Kokchurong. The big K would encapsulate the trio's dreams that night.

Day 5:
It all started too late. Upto Phedang was was easily a trail of easy ups and downs, but still a good 8 kms away. It would take 3-4 hours easily going by the gang's speed. From there, Tshoka was another 6 kms downhill. Finally, Tshoka to Yuksom - a day's trek would be 12 kms mostly downhill. A whooping 26 kms expected to be covered in 1 day. Yeah Gollum was stupid. But the good part here was it was all mostly downhill and with a bit of luck, all those distances could be covered in double the time than before. SonAm estimated that with a consistent speed, YukSom could be reached by 6 pm. The porters woke up a bit late and instead of 5 am, it was 7 am when the first steps were taken. After a breakfast of hot dal and rice. The first stretch was along the Prek Chu passing through a dense tropical forest. Frodo found this part of the trail exhaustive. At 10.15 am, Gollum made the breakthrough at Phedang where a huge group of Indians had arrived with some instructors. They were part of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and as part of their coursework, were heading for a base camp nearby. Soon, Frodo and Sam arrived and by 11 am, they were en route for Tshoka. This distance, when going uphill was the most excruciating - but downhill seemed way easier. The three wondered with amazement how they had trekked this tough section 3 days back. By 12.45 pm, Tshoka was breached and it was a welcome invasion. Lunch had been cooked up. And it arrived in the form of noodles. Sam continued his shopping endeavour and the rented jackets were returned back. The offloaded items at Tshoka had to be filled up into the backpacks again, but that was taken care by SangCho and Dadu, whose baskets had become a bit lighter by now. At 2 pm, Tshoka was seen in the distance and headed for. Frodo now felt much better. Going downhill, Bakhim was astonishingly covered in half an hour, the long Prek Chu bridge in another hour. It was 3.30 pm with another 8 kms left. Sachen by 4.30 pm. By then, it was really getting dark and this was where the problem started. There was no light to guide them. Dadu had the kerosene and being old and faster, he had galloped ahead without caring to no one knew where. SangCho jogged ahead in the darkness to find him. He was finally found around 6 pm. By then it was too dark to walk with just a single torch. SonAm and SangCho attached a jute bag at the end of a long stick, dripped kerosene on it and lit a huge flame. That took care of most of the problems. But a lot more of kerosene was getting used. 3 kms away from Yuksom, SonAm found some rubber which he lit with kerosene and that never died. It burnt till the end of the trek. Around 8 pm, Yuksom was finally won and there were moments of joy everywhere. Frodo, Sam and Gollum relaxed themselves at Sherpa's house - the person from whom Frodo had arranged everything in Yuksom. Fresh chai arrived, snaps were taken and the overnight cab for NJP arrived in no time. Money changed hands - arranging for porters (200 a day), cook/guide (300 a day), food items et all cost the three around 16000 bucks. The final byes were waved and the cab whirred into motion. The cab was booked for 2200 bucks because there was no one who would take them to NJP that late in the night. It was all over and the screaming legs in the cab were evidence of that.

On reaching NJP at 4 am and the train four hours away, it was decided to use up the Hilton to clean up oneself. The past six days, there had been no thought to bathe and shave. The Hilton served its purpose really well and by 8 am, the train for Kolkata had chugged along. They just snored in the train. As Lalu's Indian Railways go, the train's engine blew up with Kolkata two hours away. Frodo and Sam had a connecting train for Bhubaneshwar, while Gollum had to board one for Mumbai. With the engine blowup, all plans had gone haywire. Backup plans were made with Gollum booking a flight ticket and Frodo/Sam aiming for a late night train. By the time the engine problem was sorted, the connecting trains would have been on their way. Luckily, Gollum's connecting train was also two hours late and he promptly cancelled the flight ticket. At Kolkata, they parted ways for the way back home. The trek had served its purpose - uniting the three friends for a common goal. And it wasn't darn expensive at all - 10K per head overall - considering what was achieved. Goecha La won't be forgotten in the annals of their lives and hopefully this diary contributes to that endeavor.

Thank you for reading, if you did. I hope that this diary serves a good information stop for anyone wishing to head for the Pass. My best wishes. (Do look out for SonAm and SangCho if you are heading there - they rock bigtime) . More snaps in the Flickr link alongside.