The Mountains Within
By Pihu Saraff
Class 9 Student, Neev Academy, Bangalore
Introduction by Venkat
More than Pihu’s travelogue, the title she gave this article says it all. The very essence of our living and meaning to our existence is in surmounting the mountains within. With self-awareness, we realize the presence of unexplored versions of ourselves and it takes conscious effort to become that version. This then brings greater awareness, thus resetting the cycle for another mountain journey within. The real trek to a high mountain with unfamiliar terrain is physically demanding but mentally it parallels the inner mountain journey in the excitement, struggle and self-realization.
Pihu has depicted here, her trek to Ladakh, Ganda-la pass as part of her school group’s expedition, with the plethora of emotions she went through from the beginning to the end. The details of the trek in sequence and events are well covered and engaging. The experience is more cherishing and beautiful to read with the reflection and wisdom in Pihu’s thoughts. Kudos to Pihu and best wishes for her to reach great heights as a writer in future.
My name is Pihu and I study in grade 9. I love writing regarding things I feel passionately about. I also enjoy reading and watching movies. I would like to pursue journalism when I’m older as I possess a strong desire to make a difference in the world.
The Mountains Within
Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead as I feel my feet slipping. It is under the loosely packed earth at the edge of a rugged cliff that a stream of clear water flows, with a crystalline lustre to it, pristine and tranquil in its demeanour. My face feels hot and my chest is hollow with the lack of air. “People who come here say Ladakh has a spiritual air to it, but I joke with them that perhaps it’s just the lack of oxygen!” Tsewang Namgail, an intellectual of Ladakh who collaborates with the snow leopard conservancy once told us during our travels. I buckle at the knees and nearly trip if not for the protruding “stocks” flaking brilliant turquoise and purple at the edges on which I rest my hand. My hand, now stained blue grips my trekking stick, kept in a bush riddled with thorns so much so that inserting the stick would make it stand upright.
As I continue on the trail, now flat for the next few meters – a breath of fresh air amongst what seems like unending steep and unforgiving trails. But then it begins again, the uphill slope. My back cramps with the camera in my backpack weighing me down and my calves ache with every step. My throat feels like fur and my face feels hot and sweaty. I can hear my heartbeat in my head as I fix my gaze on my shoes trodding along the trail I find myself questioning “How on Earth have I managed to find myself here?” As minutes turn into hours, we approach a rubbled path fenced with stacks of rocks. The sun, now overhead casts a warm glow across my face. Back at home in Bangalore, the chirping of birds would be a characteristic feature of this time. But where I am now, amongst the demanding yet stupendous elevations of Ladakh, the birds do not sing, but the hills are certainly alive with the sound of music. I see our campsite in the distance, azure tents made of tarp, with my friends who arrived long before me seeming to have already made themselves at home. Suddenly, the landscape changes.
There is what seems like a medieval palace in the distance right next to where our campsite is. Moss engulfs the structure’s walls, and yaks graze in the distance across a vast expanse of thickly-growing grass. The white crystals of amethyst are conspicuous against the predominantly brown-coloured stones. Picking up one and keeping it in my pocket, the entire day’s labour feels worth it. The absolute exhilaration I felt at that moment was something I did not think was possible to experience. I would now be able to enjoy an evening with my friends, after completing a significant part of something I never in a million years thought I would even attempt.
The view seen upon approaching the campsite on the first day
That evening, we are instructed to take a walk for acclimatization purposes. Tired from a long day of trekking, I find myself dreading this experience. But something unlikely happens, Gaurav Sir – one of the people who accompanied us on the trek, encouraged me to go to the front of the line. I felt uneasy. Being someone who is not inclined towards such challenging physical activity and having spent the day trekking at the tail of the group, thinking that I would slow the group down and receive all sorts of snarky remarks from those behind me due to my inability to match up to their pace. However, the sun was to fade soon and time was limited, it was now or never. Upon his insistence, it seemed that I had no choice.
As I began walking, I walked quickly, expecting voices to come blasting from the back telling me to pick up the pace, but to my surprise, there was no sort of unrest. Only pleasant chatter and the sound of trekking sticks brushing against the ground. Gradually keeping my own pace, I walked steadily, taking Gaurav Sir’s advice and stopping every fifty steps to catch my breath. To my surprise, being first in the line was much more manageable than being at the end. This way I set my own pace, and everyone else adhered to it. With little apprehension from my peers, I felt confident in my abilities for the first time in a long. I wondered why I was so unwilling to be first in line at first and questioned some of my own mental barriers and how valid they really were. All my life, I limited myself from doing things out of fear of receiving judgement from others, but I was mistaken. I will never move to the back of any line, literal or theoretical, ever again.
That evening in the blue tent with a central table extending across the tent, we all sat sipping on warm beverages waiting for our dinner. Hushed conversation emerged from all corners of the tent, and I found my mind wandering to the recollections of what seemed like an eternity ago, but was actually just a week in the past. I recalled sitting in Miss Madhura’s cabin, on the verge of tears a few days before arriving in Ladakh, asking to revoke my decision of going for the trek. I wondered how I would cross the streams, navigate the trails, and balance on rocks. The words used to describe the trek in the sign-up mail – “Physically Challenging” seemed so daunting. However, upon her reassurance, I decided to board the plane to Ladakh with my name still marked against “yes” for the decision about the trek. After completing Shanti Stupa on the first day of the trek, I was completely convinced that I would not be able to attempt the trek, for it was harsh, like nothing I had ever done before but only a predecessor to what was to come during the trek. The steps were steep, and there were hundreds of them. Hot salty tears ran down my face from the embarrassment of being left behind by my group as I struggled to complete the climb. Dejected, I had lost every morsel of hope that I would be able to attempt the trek in a couple of days. But I completed it, and everything else that took place in the days leading up to the trek. Whether that be climbing up hundreds of steps at the various monasteries, or the impromptu trek we took up to Leh Palace. But now I was on the actual trek, and although the first day had been demanding, I had successfully completed it. I questioned how I would complete the next day’s trek which we were told would be twice as challenging. “I did it today, so I will do the same time two times over.”
The views upon reaching Shanti Stupa with great difficulty
The consequent day was set to be gruelling. Starting off as the leader of the group for the first couple of hours, I struggled, desperately asking for breaks, saying I couldn’t do it any longer. Gaurav Sir discouraged me from taking frequent breaks, telling me to keep going. I could not understand why he was not allowing us a break, but throughout that, I realised that I had kept walking the entire time. Regardless of how much I asked for a break, Gaurav sir declined, and I kept walking, and I could do it. Pushing myself, and not doubting my own abilities was something I wasn’t used to before this. Although it may sound ignorant and as if it is coming from someone awfully sheltered, it was something completely different to the approach I usually took. We stopped finally, and the first sip of water I took felt so rewarding, in that moment seated on a rock alongside my peers, I felt infinite. The group exclaimed at the sight of a Himalayan marmot scuffling across the mountain, in awe of its how adorable it was.
Our group stopped for a break on the second day. Walking the next few meters, I took ill, coughing uncontrollably. Unsure how I would be able to complete the rest of the trek up to the final destination – Ganda La pass, I was tense. A glimmer of hope came when I saw the mules approaching in the distance, with my friend Drishti approaching behind them. She had also been suffering from various ailments throughout the day. We were told we would be riding the rest of the way on the mules. My stomach dropped. I had seen the haste with which the mules navigated the terrain, and to be on the back of one of them all the while? I had no idea how it would turn out.
Mules approaching in the distance
After getting on the mule with much difficulty, I held on tight to the metal bar attached to the traditional Ladakhi rug kept on the mule’s back as we set off. I was frightened at first, the twists and turns made it difficult to balance atop the mule. With the mule taking continuous detours to snack on the weeds sprouting irregularly amongst the rubble and overlapping rocks. While Drishti’s mule seemed deprived of sleep, mine was a bottomless pit; for it ate tirelessly!
Barren of mules
With two locals of the area leading the mules all the way, we arrived at the top of the pass. The wind was intense, and multicoloured banners hung from a wall of rocks. The local woman greeted a pair of french tourists, “Bonjour!” We sat with our backs against the wall, the wind in our hair. Hungry, I nibbled on my lunch, now slightly deconstructed after the mule ride. I took a second to take in the landscape. We had finally arrived, and soon the rest would too. The mules standing against the unending scape of mountains of every possible colour, I felt as if I was looking at a painting.
Local woman and the mule against the dramatic backdrop of the pass
My hands were calloused when the third and final day came around, and my toes blistered. But I was determined to reach the end. The now downhill slope was much easier on my calves, as I led the way every inch of my body ached. I was dizzy hopping along the pebbles of the streams, with my shoe getting drenched in the water a couple of times. Upon inquiring how much longer it would take for us to arrive, I received only one response “half an hour longer.” It felt as if I would never see the end of this trail, being stuck here forever. But then I saw it, the vans in the distance. The vans I had ridden in just a few days ago, were so naive, so unknowing I was back then. Passively completing the last few minutes of the trail, I absentmindedly took a seat in the van. Something changed. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I shed a tear of disbelief.
Something that had seemed so out of reach was now a reality. I put my feet up on the seat and let the wind blow through my hair. Those who visit Ladakh leave a piece of themselves there, and bring home a new one.
When we climb mountains, we mount them not just physically but climb many psychological mountains too.
An intense landscape captured sometime during the trek, nothing but rows of barren mountains with two mules and their owner in the distance
- https://www.dsource.in/gallery/rock-formations-ladakh – Website used to find out the name of the pillar-like projections of rock called “stocks”
- The pictures are all taken by me throughout the trek.