The Annapurna Diaries: Hoodlums

Contd. from part 2 – Street Hustlers and Everest West Ridge

Monday April 2nd 2012, saw an early start. The alarm buzzed away shamelessly. In the dim orange glow cast by the bulb in the passageway, I could see our bags tucked away in a corner of the room. We had returned and finished the last of what was there to pack the night before. I excitedly leapt off. Grabbing my North Face and Adidas gear from the closet, I spread them out on the bed. The Boreal’s waited patiently on the floor for me to strap them on. After a quick shower, change of clothes, a final scan of the room to ensure we weren’t leaving anything behind, and breakfast, it was time for our onward journey.

Kumar was waiting in the lobby as promised. The 1970s Corolla that had driven us to Hotel Manang was parked in the driveway. Its driver helped load the baggage into the boot as we exited the hotel and handed them over to him. Walking a few steps ahead to the alley adjoining the hotel I looked to my right, into the market, as far as I could. Thamel, was still in slumber. On my left, the city was slowing unwinding. In a matter of few hours the maddening crowds would return. And then it would be organised chaos again. A single blast of a horn, made me turn around. My fellow passengers were waiting for me. I looked back and up at the front facade of the hotel one last time and settled into the backseat. With a shift of gears, the car eased out onto the road and we drove off northwards towards our next halt, Besishaher. It was the gateway to the Annapurna Sanctuary, which housed the world’s 10th highest mountain.

The drive would take us 3 hours. By 11am we would reach our afternoon halt, if all went well. We cruised down empty roads and had pretty soon exited city limits. The landscape had a pale white look about it. Shrouded in mist it mostly was. Migrant labour pockets, brick kilns, and houses in the centre of fields spouted smoke adding to the mist that already hung low. I rolled the window down hoping to take in the morning chill. But to my disappointment there was none. The same stillness which had suffocated us in the hotel room the day before was all pervasive. I cringed. I would have to wait some more to reach cooler climes.

As is what often happens on drives, the movement combined with the stillness outside lulled Varun and Kumar into slumber zone for a good hour. Meantime, I gazed outside as the lush greens flashed us by. I was lost in thought thinking of what lay ahead of us in the days to come. Attempting two back to back itineraries was a first for both of us. Ambitious it certainly was. Strenuous it would be too, but the preparation would hold us in good stead. What kind of weather would we run into, what kind of terrain would we encounter and climb, if we were lucky, we would keep AMS (acute mountain sickness) away, what would our walking styles be, how would KB shape up, would group 2 manage their initiation into the mountains? Questions. Questions. And more questions. I was in a hurry to get answers to all of them.

I saw myself on the morning where I couldn’t walk any further, simply ‘coz I had reached the goal, the end point. Standing tall, happy, satisfied, exhilarated. A sense of victory after the hardships. Cameras clicked away in all directions including my own. I was spending quality time soaking in the scenery. Feeling free. It reminded me of what Ed Viesturs once famously said, “Climbing is about freedom. There is no prize money. There are no gold medals. The mountains are all about going there to do what you want to do”. So true. I was doing exactly that. Just climbing and continuing to go higher. And I intended doing that in the years to come as well.

To prepare myself mentally before each climb, I have always indulged in a series of self projections over multiple days. Eyes closed, with my breathing in perfect harmony, I have seen myself succeed. It has always worked; has helped keep away lingering self doubts and added significantly to levels of self motivation. I did it this time too, as I sat in the speeding Toyota. I had already accomplished them. The circuit and the base camp journeys. More importantly with the team. There were no apprehensions left anymore. I smiled and opened my eyes.

The mind being what it is, leads you in different directions when you least expect it. From the idyllic setting of the Himalayas, I crash landed into an abyss when I realised it was Monday. The beginning of a new week. There was so much work back in office. Would the team hold up, manage, take the correct decisions? What was the corner room busy doing, thinking, saying? I reached out for the handheld to check office mails. After waiting a few minutes for the mails to download, I realised barring the usual trade media emailers, there were none that needed my immediate attention. But I knew the inbox would be flooded soon. For all the excitement of the mountains I thought. In between all this, I shot off a mail to group 2. Met Mahesh, your guide last evening over dinner. He turned out very articulate and well spoken. A definite asset to team 2. He is waiting to meet everyone on April 13th. Meanwhile we are on the road now to Besishaher and then to Syange. Hope the excitement’s building up.

The car meantime was hugging the corners in breakneck speed. Overtaking other vehicles in front commenced from the extreme right of the road with a sharp swerve to the left and brakes were always applied at the last minute to avoid potholes and rumblers. All commercial drivers in this part of the world had similar traits and styles I observed. I told Mad Max to slow down. All the careening and swerving had jolted Kumar and Varun from their early morning siesta. I enjoyed a quiet chuckle.

About an hour and half into the journey, the driver screeched to a halt. In front of us, was complete chaos and bedlam. There were vehicles – both private and tourist – lined up, stationary on both sides of the road. In the narrow strip that remained cars, busses, trucks were attempting crazy manoeuvres from both directions. It seemed like a total gridlock. Mad Max decided to participate as well and drove headlong into it. It was good, since we had to maintain our day’s schedule. I wasn’t complaining now. After a while however we too groaned to a dead halt. “What’s the problem Kumar?” I asked. “Could you look into it?”. Kumar stuck his neck out and angrily belted out a few sentences to the spectators inquiring what was holding everyone up. He looked back at me, half resigned, half irritated. “It’s a bloody blockade, Debolin Saab. They have blocked the roads up ahead and aren’t allowing vehicles to pass. Seems like we are stuck here for sometime”. Great, I thought. That’s just what we need. What an adventurous start. We still had to reach Besishaher and then another road trip to Syange. Wonder when we’d reach both.

We were stuck on that strip of tar for almost 2 hours, without making headway of any sort. It was hot and grimy and I lost my jacket. Meantime, the situation I think, got the better of Kumar and Varun. Both stormed out of the car and headed straight into the ongoing fracas. Varun, his face the deepest shade of red I have ever seen, began marshalling, shouting and directing the tourist busses and trucks into some kind of order and discipline (much to their chagrin, I may add) and Kumar with his sleeves rolled up, his chest thrust out, his knuckles bared, got into a confrontationist mode with the leader of the hoodlums. He was quickly surrounded by young men brandishing thick and broad wooden sticks. They were good enough to crack a skull if needed. Eye to eye contact made, both got into a serious bout of high pitched debating. I had an eagle eyed view from an adjoining hill. The army personnel and the local police hadn’t a clue what to do, though they were present at the scene. Why didn’t they take some action? Were they sympathetic to the cause? I scrambled down hurriedly to join both of them.

The standoff lasted for another hour and half. It was one hour past noon. We waited patiently at the car. If the situation demanded, the driver would join the fray. For now though, he was at the wheel ready for an emergency exit. We could soon see Kumar walking towards us. He was smiling as if he had reached a consensus.”All sorted Kumar?”. “Debolin Saab. These youngsters have to be guided. They are fighting for the development of their village and land. I told them this isn’t the way you fight for your goals. Not by inconveniencing guests who have come to visit your country. We’ll send out wrong signals. Instead of wasting your time everyday, go out, do something constructive and contribute. Look at me. I am in my mid 40s, successful and contributing to my community. I think I’ve created a moral dilemma for them”. Kumar belted out a loud laugh. “Let us quickly make our way through this blockade before they have a change of heart or escape the dilemma.”. Good work Kumar, I said. Mad Max was already revving the engines and no sooner had we slammed the doors, the car took off as if possessed.

We swerved our way through, past the waiting cars, past the hoodlums and sped off towards the mountains. We had a good laugh while at it. We rechristened Kumar as Don Kumar, a title he immensely enjoyed and kept addressing himself as one. And with him there was ofcourse the hot headed Kashmiri boy. What a combination. Not to mess with for sure. We ran into 2 more blockades all supporting the same cause. Barring brief interruptions we safely avoided them. In another hour and half, we crossed a dusty and rubble ridden bridge. In front was a billboard welcoming us to Besishaher. Finally, I exclaimed.

Varun at the billboard


We stopped at Besishaher for lunch. We were famished. It had been a hectic morning. Dal Bhaat Sabzi was relished by one and all. This would be our staple diet for the next 2.5 weeks. By now KB and Lakhpa Sherpa, our porter had also arrived. Thankfully they had escaped the blockade too. We were introduced to Lakhpa. We’d be a team of 4 that would travel to Syange.

Mad Max, Lakhpa Sherpa, Me, Kumar & KB

Kumar and Mad Max soon left us and headed back to Kathmandu. We wished them a safe drive. Now we were on our own. The bus which had parked itself in front of our lunch halt failed to inspire much confidence in me for our upcoming journey. It would be a torturous, nerve wracking and arse numbing of a drive. And I was right. It turned out exactly what I had anticipated it to be. To begin with was the seating and the passengers and then ofcourse the drive itself. It was straight out of the Michael Douglas film Romancing the Stone, based in Columbia and its jungles. We had live poultry as co-passengers, multiple kerosene cans as flammable cargo, stubborn and persistent women folk out to snatch one half of my window (which I didn’t let them; I had jammed my elbow in between), hard seats which made us lose all sensations on our behinds, bald tyres which kept slipping in the muddy slush of the terrain we drove on, mountain cliffs and raging rivers below and ofcourse the dark of the night which gradually and then suddenly began enveloping us.

The bus which didn’t inspire confidence



Eventually we did reach Syange. The body was a goner by then. We desperately needed a shower, fresh clothes, a warm meal and the comfort of the bed. These four were the most important things in our life that moment. Later over dinner, we sat hunched over the trail map, plotting our path for the walk next day and the time we’d take to reach the day’s halt. We decided to outrun the itinerary and save precious time for later. We would need them to recuperate. It seemed like a smart decision on our part.

To be contd.

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