At an altitude of about 3000 m, Triund is a day’s return hike from McLeodganj.
‘You must start early. Don’t start after noon,’ advises the owner of the guest house where I am staying. I am at the Rainbow House. It is nestled on the slopes that are a decent descent from the town’s main roads.
‘Weather can turn nasty quickly up there,’ he warns.
I get ready and by half past seven I’m on my way towards Dharamkot. The walk to Dhramkot is by an easy road that climbs gently. McLeodganj is spread out on the slopes of a wider landscape covered with tall deodars. There are plenty of other native trees but I’m no expert to either identify or name them. I buy a bottle of water at Dharamkot and take to a stone paved path climbing with far views of the landscape. The sun has come out of the clouds. I can see not just McLeodganj but also Dharamshala. The modern stadium at Dharamshala where IPL matches were held last season can be clearly seen.
I continue picking my way around the right flanks of these hills, turn as the hills turn, rise as the slopes rise and drop as the paths drop. I stick to the frequented path that has been here for years, perhaps decades. The hike to Triund is a popular one for tourists looking for a good day’s easy climb. Wide views of the landscape remain with me for most part of the walk. Weather is bright and cheerful. There is no chance of rain.
I hear the sound of chopping wood. Right on my path, a few paces ahead of me past a little bend, a woman is busy collecting firewood. She is working on a medium-sized trunk. It’s going to take a while to chop it into manageable chunks. I request her to pose for a photograph. She refuses. I smile in response, shrug and move on. A little later three women walk down from a higher path driving before them half a dozen goats. Sometimes the goats pause to graze but the women move on without stopping. Instinctively, or perhaps out of habit, the goats follow them. They are never far behind their keepers who carry on their backs bundles of forest grass as fresh fodder.
I am now on higher slopes. The lanscape has changed. Large granite rocks are strewn about the green slopes. A mist gathers and trees loom in and out of the mist as part of a still dance. Rhododendrons, flowerless in this out-of-season period, open their pointed leaves to the sky against a distant background of dark green slopes overhung with white clouds. Little rare birds of the mountains fly by, alight on mossy rocks, sing their god-given songs and disappear into thick undergrowths. Cobra lilies stand with their bold violet-maroon stripes and green veins in shady wet margins. Somewhere in the distance I hear the playing of a flute.
‘Do you have water?’ a teenage boy asks me as I overtake him on the path. A few yards behind him an old man is struggling up the path with his load of blankets, clothes, an umbrella and a ground mat. He must be in his seventies.
‘Yes, I have water,’ I reply as I reach for the bottle. I take a sip and hand him the bottle but he will not take it. He cusps his palms instead. I pour out the water into the cup of his palms. He takes a few sips. By now the old man has caught up with us. He takes a few sips in the same manner. Some of these old traditions live in these hills. This manner of drinking water, or for that accepting any offering, may be rooted in India’s caste system and its belief in social segregation. The lower classes are not permitted to pollute by contact the upper classes. It may take many decades for such practices to change.
‘I used to live at Triund for many years grazing my livestock. Then I had an accident that seriously injured my back,’ tells me the old man. He walks with a slight hunchback. I am amazed that at this age he is able to hike up to Triund. The young man is his grandson.
‘Those days I used to come down from Triund to graze my goats, sometimes twice a day. I’m old now. I’m finding it difficult to walk today,’ he reveals. We are now walking together at a pace set by the old man himself.
‘Are you returning to Triund?’ I ask.
‘We will camp there for a couple of days. I have my old stone house on the slopes near Triund,’ he replies. ‘I am coming to Triund after six years. This will be my last visit.’
I can sense a deep nostalgia in his voice. This is not just something of a weekend trip for this old man. It is almost a pilgrimage. Like pilgrims on their way to Kasi in fulfilment of a last wish or a long desired goal, he is on his last journey to the place he loves. Going to Triund is a sort of homecoming for this old man.
I walk with them for a few minutes. The old man’s toothless smile betrays the youth of this spirit. Even the daunting nature of this long climb and weight of his load does not dispirit his mood. His pointed chin is touched with a layer of white stubble. His shrivelled eyes twinkle with the love of these mountains. His cheeks cave into the bony frame of his wrinkled face. His woollen cap sits snugly on his head.
I leave them and walk briskly the rest of the way till I reach a small ridge at a clearing. A couple of shops are set up in this high location. I’m not sure if I have reached Triund. The shop owners confirm that this is Triund. Just my luck, thick clouds sweeping past Triund block the views of higher slopes and peaks in every direction. I sit around patiently for an hour nibbling on biscuits and a bar of 5-Star. Sometimes when the clouds part, I see the surrounding mountains towering above clouds with pointed peaks. The cliffs are a patchwork of exposed rocks and thin green cover. Ice, snow and scree dazzle the eye on the higher slopes. Notwithstanding the majesty of the mountains, I do wish the skies had been clearer and the lighting more dramatic.
Triund is a popular campsite and a convenient springboard for treks towards Indrahar Pass and beyond. There is a Forest Rest House up here. I walk on the rige for a while, sometimes staring into fog and sometimes lost in imagination among the rock-strewn pastures. Suddenly my attention is diverted towards an eagle in the sky. It is flying high but it is dwarfed by higher peaks in the background. It moves as a brown brushstroke on a white-grey canvas of clouds. Its broad wings catch the wind in perfect rhythm as the eagle glides, sweeps and turns. There is hardly a flap in its aerial dance. It is not hunting or looking for a nesting ground. It is born to fly and is simply exercising its birthright. The eagle’s native joy is in its flight without any higher agenda.
I leave Triund and start my return by the same path. It has taken me close to four hours to the top. It may take an hour less to get back to McLeodganj. On this hiking path are a couple of stalls selling drinks and snacks. It seems an awfully isolated place to set up shop. From one such shop, the sweet shrill sound of a flute wafts across open slopes.
‘Do you get enough business here?’ I ask the guy who must be in his twenties.
‘Yes. During season we get lots of people walking to Triund,’ he replies. Silently he fingers the flute in his hands.
‘You play beautifully. How did you learn?’
‘I learnt it on my own. I have a lot of time up here.’
‘Will you play something for me?’ I request. I pull out my camera to capture a short video. The guy is shy and modest but he agrees to render a half minute ditty.
The mist is rolling in. In seconds I’m isolated on the mountains with this guy on the flute. The song is of a folk genre. It embodies the spirit of the mountains, the mist in which we are wrapped and the lilting stream coursing downhill some yards to our left. I am lost in the magic of this simple song, so lost that I forget to shoot the video. I request him to repeat the recital and the man obliges.
I pass a group of tourists on their way up to Triund. From their conversations I guess they must be Israelis.
‘Namaste,’ greets one of them.
‘Hello,’ I reply out of habit. Had it been an Indian, I would have said “namaste.” It is funny. The Israeli looks puzzled. I hope he understands the word “hello.” A smile plays on my lips as I move on.