A Walk in the Woods

A lament and a few pointers. Not a practical guide.

What happens when you venture in blind in to a 7-day trek? The path leads you through stunning trails of moss-covered trees, past streams and bridges as promised. Fresh air fills your lungs as you match the tread of seasoned trekkers. You puff up with pride, the ego inflates. I can do this after all, you think. The trekkers on their way down don’t look so worse for wear. The path is well laid out…

Streams, moss-covered rocks, bridges and plenty of trees enroute to the campsite.

…it’s, however, getting uphill for longer stretches. How long has it been? The good ol’ knees are still standing. But…shouldn’t we be taking a break? Just to pause and look at the different hues on display. Are my lungs the only ones protesting? They just want to breathe, they don’t have a loftier purpose than that. The two girls with me, practically strangers, are looking behind more frequently, pausing for me to catch up. The moment I reach them, I find them walking again. I inhale. I start walking. Is there to be no rest for the vain, with a point to prove? The guide is hanging back, smoking. My lungs want to scream at him but he’s the one with the sandwiches. Is that grumbling I hear? How long has it been, really?

We are eating vegetable sandwiches, but this is no picnic. We refill the bottles at the stream. The plastic on the spot makes you want to start with a broom, but the guide has pronounced the words: Let’s go. A 10-minute is break is all the lungs can get. One of the seasoned travelers wants to pee. I’m the prude. I’ve conditioned my body to hold itself on trips given the state of Indian restrooms. I’m prepared to hold out now. We shall reach the campsite… it’s getting darker though. The legs have started protesting. They don’t remember how I have looked after them all these years, using cabs for the merest distance. There aren’t many people on the path. What happened to the ones around?

Turns out, we were too slow…
…while they reached the campsite.

The guide finds us a small wooden hut. We shiver through the night in our sleeping bags. I have just the jacket I got on rent. It’s a good one, but some woolens would be great right about now. Everything I have is on rent – the shoes (sturdy thankfully), the pole, gloves and torch. I’m grateful for the two thick pair of socks they made me buy. I’ll soon realise my folly…

Next morning is an early one, there is more distance to cover. Little do I know that this is the trickiest day. The climb to Dzongri camp is steeeeeeeppppppp. The lungs have given up reminding me that I have asthma. I’m panting, stopping, gulping both air and water, screaming in my head. The path is a blur. I don’t care where the other two are. I don’t have even an ounce of energy to call out. If I could huff and puff myself out of the situation I would. Why did the school principal give me the girl’s number? Why couldn’t I have stayed in a cozy homestay? Why did no one tell me you have to walk eight hours a day or more? If my lamentations aren’t enough, it’s now raining. There’s water trickling through. It’s slippery and muddy. The socks are soaking wet…the jacket thankfully works. It’s getting cold though. The valley is covered in mist. You can barely see a few paces ahead. I’m secretly glad that the guide is lingering back.

Somehow we are at the campsite. It’s post sunset. I have no recollection of the kilometres or the hours, what we ate or spoke about. I just want to lie down. Scratch that. I want a shower. A long, hot one. We are the last ones in so we have to squeeze into the third and smallest room. But at least there’s a room, a proper roof, no? The shower is out of question. I curse myself for not buying proper pants. These are muddy and damp. The others go looking for a spot to relieve themselves. Why not use the toilet? There’s two. The assault on the senses the moment I enter is enough to make me draw back. I would faint like the Victorian women I never sympathised with before, but I don’t see anyone nursing me back to health here. Nor is there the sea to compose one’s nerves. I contemplate the outdoors, hold my nose in and walk in a martyr…

The campsite has a little shop I wanted to investigate before, but now of course I won’t be eating for the rest of the trip. For most, the next day is acclimatisation and rest before going to the Dzongri peak. Our guide, Aita Hang, is in a hurry. We set out towards the next campsite. Hang is quiet, reserved. I’m the same, except I’m finding myself babbling like a baboon. I don’t know how I have the energy to speak. The legs are on autopilot, resigned to their fate. The lungs make heaving noises intermittently. I’m still stopping, panting, breathing…cursing myself yet again for not staying back at the previous campsite.

That’s when the cook comes back with tea in hand. I can see the campsite! The sun is still out..we only walked four hours! Thansing is a beauty! It’s roomier. The mountains are breathtaking. The valley is laid out before you – brown, bare, tipped with white snow. All you want to do is stare at it. Till the cold gets your scurrying into the kitchen for some warmth. We have corn soup, even some canned fruit. I could stay here if I could get used to the temperature. I’m shivering all night, even with the sweater one of the girls has handed me. They are seasoned trekkers, these two. They are equipped with all essentials. I’m like a fish out of water, thinking if I’ll ever get home, back to the waters, my beloved sea. I wonder what is worse as I gulp down the soup – visiting the loo or dying of cold?

Thansing campsite

I’ve decided against getting up at 4 am and walking to the peak. My legs are jelly. A walk in the dark, across streams, would be certain death. I’m glad for the sleep. I promise myself that I’ll be back for the peak someday. Hang has, however, asked the cook to take me to a nearby lake. We are walking again. I can’t fathom why. The valley is laid out beautifully, but I’m struggling. I want to sit down in the middle of the road and go to sleep. I’m not sure if I can make the journey. We have been walking for two hours…

…to hell with the lake…somehow we I stumble back to the campsite. I curse my metabolism yet again, and promise myself no more treks! The girls return, tired but smiling. They are older, I learn; in their 40s. It would be best not to talk of fitness here when a 70-year-old French man outpaces you. Still, I made it further than I thought. A lot quit on the second day, I’m told. I made it to four on sheer madness. I didn’t account for how devious the mountains are, how they lull you closer and bind you. Well, I didn’t account for anything. Not the pants, which I’m wearing for the fifth straight day.

The journey back is better. I can see the colours again but more importantly I’m dreaming of a shower. For someone who can’t wake up without one, going five days without it has been personal hell. I’m not sure if my lungs can recover. A PFT is in order. The last campsite (the very first that we missed) is sheer joy. There are horses and lakes. And wooden beds!

The return to the base village is followed by quieter days. There’s plenty of food, talk and some walks to nearby village haunts. The last is not easy. The legs having put in their papers, and no amount of cajoling has helped. I think they have heard the girls discussing Nepal. I’m not sure I can do Nepal…but I’ve been bewitched and decided to buy new shoes. Some outdoor training is in order as well.

Some pointers:
1) Be prepared to handle a lot of smells. A clip or yoga asanas to control your breathing is advisable. I’m told it’s better with professional groups but still…
2) Don’t die sockless. Pack one for each day at the very least.
3) Pick a trek where you have a day to acclimatise to the surroundings. Altitude sickness can turn bad very fast.
4) Give your body a legs-up of what’s to come. Don’t Netflix and chill. Get walking before the trip.
5) Don’t donate blood to the leeches, visit a hospital. Invest in good shoes.
6) Gather your favourite candies. You need to be hopped up on sugar to even believe you can conquer the mountains.
7)Build your own plastic castle back home. The mountains don’t need any.
8) If you are as spoilt as me, opt for shorter and simpler treks first. A three-day trek is challenging enough.

Ps: In case you are wondering, I went for the Goechalla trek in Sikkim. It’s a moderate trek, with a few tricky areas but offers magnificent views.

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