Monday, June 16, 2014

A Trek through the Kugti Pass

I've just returned from my first ever trek in the Himalayas - and I'm left with a transformational experience that is going to be tough to articulate in words. As I type, I have a tingling sensation running through my body, not only because of the feelings it evokes within me, but also because of my still-recovering frost-bitten fingers :)

Just a couple weeks ago over dinner with a dear friend Kruti, I was listening to her plans to go trekking to the Himalayas. These trips, she explained were planned by Gaurav, an inspiring soul who had been following his joy in 'Connecting with the Himalayas' and was taking people on journeys across the region.

This particular journey was a trail that followed the 'Gaddi' shepherds during their migration across the Pir Panjal range - from the district of Chamba into Lahaul-Spiti. Every summer, thousands of sheep led by their shepherds make the perilous journey at 16000 feet across the Kugti Pass, into the greener pastures on the other side. Every year, they wait for the snow to clear until the gods open the passageways so that they may cross.

As soon as Kruti mentioned the trek, a little voice inside urged me to join. I felt my mind questioning it - 'Wasn't a trek a bit too indulgent?' I came home, pondering whether I should go on the trip. The dates were perfectly lining up with my schedule. I had also had a fair amount of community-time in recent months, and this would be a good time to go a bit inward since I'm normally always engaged with those around me. Also, Nature can be a great teacher, and this radically different context would be perfect for my self-exploration. Of course, I was only rationalizing, my heart had already consented, and so I agreed :)

From Dalhousie in the lower Himalayas, to Bharmour, the last motor-able town, to Kugti, the last village on the trail, to a campsite just before snow, to a marathon 16 hour trek up to the pass in ice, to a camp on the other side. Back down to Keylong and the quaint town of Naggar, the trek was filled with incredible sights and experiences - most of which are either indescribable through a blog, or perhaps best captured through photographs.

For these 10 days we found ourselves embarking on walks in the most gorgeous meadows, crossing ice cold streams on broken planks of wood, scaling heights on loose gravel and even sliding down snow-clad slopes at 50 kmh for hundreds of metres! In the past, I've been on pilgrimages, and visited communities in various parts of the country, but nothing brought me so up close with Nature - literally asking of me to nestle in her lap and to embrace her loving offerings. At various points, we were also confronted with her unpleasant side, which forced us to our limits - and truly questioned our faith in the friendliness of the Himalayas. At each point, it allowed for an interesting dynamic within the group of 15 of us who made the trek together.

The last four years have seen me grow as part of communities at the Gandhi Ashram as well as others. Through experiments in generosity like the Seva Cafe, and initiatives like Moved By Love, I've had the opportunity to be part of spaces with various folks have met in their highest virtue - in Trust and Contribution. But something interesting happened on this trip. For the 10 days, 15 of us were constantly being thrown into situations that tested the boundaries of our human existence. While team work was critical, it was also important for us to understand the needs of our bodies, minds and egos. We held each others hands through loose gravel that was giving way, and even formed human walls so that we could defecate without embarrassment. At times, I found myself playing the role of the good samaritan and pointing out loose rocks on the path, but also hoarding that last piece of peanut Chikki because I knew I needed the energy on the sharp incline up ahead. At each point we were asked to put our lives and humility in each other's hands :) Often, we would find ourselves at our worst - not sharing resources and not offering a hand because we were too tired, or even holding back the last sip of water for our own dehydrated bodies. Often, we would see bursts of anger when that tent-mate began snoring when we had just a few hours to sleep. 

It sounded like a recipe for disaster, with ingredients just right for a circle to disintegrate. Instead, I had the opportunity to witness the exact opposite. I had the gift of seeing how we could hold one another through our ugliest. and I'm not talking just about our physical appearance (which wasn't impressive after 5 days of not bathing :) ) but the ugliest facets of our psyche. Interestingly, our circle held it all. Each evening was a sight to be seen - with people opening up and sharing parts of their life that they hadn't dared to offer to any others in their regular lives. Conversations about personal relationships, how we view our lives, our limitations, our joyous moments were all held with a lightness. All of it flowed without inhibition, perhaps because it seemed insignificant after getting lost in a snow-storm with no water and trudging through loose snow in feet numbed by the ice looking for our campsite.

For the last 4 years, I had been part of communities that were putting their best foot forward. That were meeting each other in virtue. But in this case, we were meeting each other in our vulnerabilities and in our needs. And yet, we found ourselves holding each other. I had set out on this trip to learn in isolation, but in these 10 days, I was offered deep insights into our most basic inter-connection. 

It was in that inter-connection, that I saw my clearly demarcated walls melt away like a snow clad slope in spring. Since my move away from conventional living, I've spent a great deal of time seeking joy and abundance in whatever little I had. A simple room, no problem, 2 pairs of clothes, great! Simple meal - what more can I want? That had been my mantra. But there was a moment, on the day of the pass, on the steep uphill climb when I was struggling on the final 60 degree incline. There wasn't much to go to the top of the pass, but the snow was melting rapidly in the sunshine and the high altitude was finally getting to me. I couldn't bring myself to walk more than four steps at a time. I looked down - we had climbed up almost 3000 feet that day, and there wasn't any turning back. I wanted to just lay where I was for a while, but I kept loosing my footing in the loose ice. There wasn't any option - I couldn't  keep walking since I couldn't find my breath any more.

All through the climb up, I had hit my boundaries on several occasions, but I kept turning upwards from the despair. Somehow, I had transcended beyond that hopelessness and kept going. But this time, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. In that moment, I looked up - wondering if this was it?I began hoping for something to come my way and support me. With one foot deep in the melting snow, and the other knee bent for support, I let out a deep plea - almost as if I was asking Nature to let me pass through her slopes. And just then - blocking out the sun in my eyes came one of the porters -  leaning down towards me, extending his arm my way. 'Come he said. It's just a few metres way away.'

For all these years, I had prided myself in living within my means - in being happy with what I possessed. In that moment. As I looked up at the porter, I could feel something dissolving. It was as through the boundaries within us didn't exist any more. As I gave him my hand, I was filled with yet another dose of energy. But this time, my entire body was infused with a sense of gratitude. Where did he come from. And why? How did he have the energy to come back down on the slopes for me. And was I even worthy? All of these questions were dissolved with that sense of gratitude that was coursing through my body. What a gift, I thought. to have received this. 

As I made my way up to the pass - a narrow ledge looking down at slopes of 16000 feet, I began reflecting on the shepherds who had made their way up with the other sheep. About 4 days ago, they had all stopped at the Kartik temple at Kelang - with the intention of seeking permission for the pass. I didn't entirely appreciate the custom then, but now, it made so much sense. For the last 100 years, man has been attempting to conquer Nature - through treks up the slopes of Mount Everest, through ventures into space and beyond. But this was different. Every spring, the Gaddi shepherds through their customs, 'asked' of mother Nature to open her doors with kindness and allow them to pass through to greener pastures. The shepherds requested her to hold back her harsh weather so that they could move through. And until she consented, they didn't move. That day was the first one in the year where she had consented.

You could look at this externally as a sign of weakness. In today's world, you didn't really need to ask. you could just march on through the pass with the appropriate technology. but this gesture was a reminder, of the larger role that Nature has to play in our lives, and that we are mere instruments in the larger scheme of things. And to build that connection with her, to cultivate that humility in receiving, we asked. And in that asking, we received with gratitude.

It made me think about my life - in all these last four years, I had developed a great deal of pride in 'not asking'. But that day, when I stretched my hand out, it helped me surrender to the vast expanse of Nature. Of coming down on my knees to acknowledge just how limited my capacity was - but when I asked, and Nature consented, it allowed me to become that instrument in the larger scheme of things. It allowed me to receive with gratitude. I had found joy in asking, with grace.

On the last day of our little adventure, we gathered together for a little farewell circle. As Delna (one of the participants from Dubai) spoke, it brought tears to all our eyes as we all realized just what we'd been through. Each one of us shared what these 10 days meant to us, and as we ended the circle in a big, warm group hug, I couldn't help but think I was in yet another Moved By Love Retreat. We were all just grateful to have received so many gifts. We had all received so much from Nature - in that cradle of beauty we had been walking in paths created thousands of years ago by people who would never be known. All of this offered to us as a gift with no strings attached, just so that we could pay it forward in our own lives. I looked at Gaurav and his wife Rujuta who had made this experience possible, and couldn't help but think that this was their little offering to the world - a gift that made it possible for us to Connect with the Himalayas, and in a way, Connect with our selves. 



  1. Piece of Brilliance..Sid...keep writing!! Memories are gushing back...

  2. Wow...I read it like as I was there myself going through what you went through. ..thanks for sharing

  3. Thank you Sid. The porter reaching out was symbolic in so many ways. Hope to catch up with more Himalayan stories in person.

  4. Siddddhu! :) So stunning to read and see this. Sounds like a beautiful, visceral experience in dissolving. I'm so glad you listened to your heart and made it out there. :) Untapped nature is such an incredible temple.

  5. Beautifully written Sid Bhai!:) looks like you've had a rocker of an experience.

  6. Was wonderful to read your experiences while trekking in the Himalayas.Guess the right attitude & patience are key in creating many such beautiful memories.
    Thanks for sharing.