54 Indians and I – The beginning

How it started

Somewhere along our numerous and lengthy conversations, my host Aashish in Trivandrum (Kerala) mentioned a Himalayan trek he had booked for the summer. A trek! In the Himalaya! That sounded brilliant. I was never going to look for a trek on my own, especially not a pricey one for white tourists – I assumed most treks were like that. But this one, being organized by the Indian YHA (Youth Hostel Association), was cheap, and beginners were welcome. Rachel, another traveller who was around at the time, was also willing to join. Aashish called to check that foreigners were welcome to take part, then readily booked Rachel and I for the same date.

Hiccups

A few weeks later, Rachel and Aashish had a massive argument, and Rachel dropped out. Then it was my friend Béré’s turn to try to talk me into not doing my trek. I told her I would be thrilled to spend a week with her if she flew to India, but I was definitely doing the trek, it was non-negotiable. Even though I have not been brought up near one, I have a definite attraction to mountains. I was also looking forward to leaving the giant Indian cities for a while, and to seeing some nature. Trek it was!

Getting to Manali

Béré and I, after some sight-seeing in Delhi and Agra, took a train to Chandigarh where we were to meet Aashish and Varun, a friend of his who was also coming.

Tourist time in Agra

From Chandigarh, the three of us boarded a bus to Manali. We drove in the night, up the windy and narrow mountainous roads. The night came, I closed my eyes and was happily dozing off when Béré said “Oh gosh, have a look outside, how close we are to the edge of the cliff!”. We were indeed dangerously close to the ravine… I couldn’t sleep after that. It was too scary. The driver showed an impressive mastery of the roads though, particularly each time we had to cross big trucks or other coaches coming down. Everything was by the millimeter. I kept repeating to myself that it was alright, obviously the driver had been on this road many times. Besides, no one in the bus wanted to die any more than we did, so it would be all ok, it was just different safety standards to ours, right?

Finally the morning came, and with it vanished our fears, replaced by our ravishment at the sight of the Himalayan valleys.

When I told Aashish how scared I was while driving up he said “Oh, well, there are plenty of accidents on this road as a matter of fact. The day before we came, a whole bus fell into the river, 30 people died”. Oh my. May they rest in peace… Later, I read somewhere that many foreigners fly into Kullu to avoid having to drive up this particular road.

YHAI treks

Every year, for about a month, the Indian YHCA organizes treks. Volunteers set up camps high in the mountains with big tents, temporary toilets, a little kitchen, a cook and a camp manager, and they stay up there for three to four weeks. Every day a new bunch of people arrives at the base-camp, every day a bunch of people leaves the base-camp for a higher one. The groups can be pretty large. Ours was one of the biggest, 54 people, but stretched out in the wilderness, it didn’t feel that big at all. As you can imagine, it’s quite an organization. And by the end of the summer, quite a few people have been through the YHAI trek camps.

Good-bye my friend!

After spending as much time together as possible, strolling around Manali, time came to say good-bye to Béré. She would be on her own for the rest of the trip and actually had a great time in Rishikesh before flying back to Europe.

Last Day with Béré in Manali

The boys and I, after some trek-related shopping, got on a bus that took us, all brakes screeching, along a very bumpy road to “15 Miles”, the YHCA base-camp. It was already 8.30 p.m. when we got there. We were the last ones to arrive – we were late – and the organizers had assumed that we would forfeit.

We were just in time to get some leftovers in the kitchen. I couldn’t finish my plate because my belly was playing tricks on me since Béré and I had been to Agra. Delhi Belly, they call it…

We had a look at the planning and I was disappointed: we were to spend two days at the base-camp, not just one. I was eager to go higher up! It was to acclimatize us to the height. I didn’t think 2000 meters qualified as really high. But having people from all ages and physical conditions taking part, they can’t take any risks, I guess.

While we were eating, some people were singing or telling jokes in front of where the whole camp assembled. It felt like a scout camp. I was the only foreigner around and was stared at a lot. Luckily, Aashish acted as my chevalier servant and would explain to everyone who I was.

They wanted us to get up at 5.30am the next day, to start activities at 6.30, so we were sent early to bed. I was in tent 17, with just one other woman. She looked so comfy wrapped up in her sleeping bag, I assumed she’d been sleeping in one her whole life. Turns out, it was a first for her.

(to be continued)

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