"You should thank us that you are here talking to me today." he said with a smile that spread across his handsome face. Then, as quickly as the smile painted his face, the warmth was replaced with a steely coldness as he added, with a sense of brutal finality, "In fact, you are lucky to be alive today."
There was a sense of army-like candour about what he said. But that was to be expected, for we were at an army camp. I sat directly across this smart young Sikh Major, camp commander of the army camp. The camp itself was set in a beautiful valley in the Himalayas, some 30 kilometres away from the India-China border.
The army camp was beautifully organised, like most army barracks normally are. And as the handsome Sikh Major, took off his expensive-looking Rayban sun glasses, he looked like he had walked into the sets of "Saving Private Ryan", Despite the idyllic setting and the presence of the handsome Sikh, the Hollywood set analogy was spoilt by our presence. My friends and I were scraggly, dishevelled and unkempt after eight days of trekking in the Himalayas.
As I looked at Tom Hanks in a turban, I thought to myself, 'Yes. We were lucky to be alive after a particularly tough climb to Kala Khal (pass) the previous day.' But that wasn't what Tom Hanks was alluding to. The previous night. our camp site was under siege.
Our group had trekked from a place called Raj Kharak (approx height 3700m) to Kala Khal (at approx height 4500m). It was a brutally tough climb in which we needed all our energies, strength, skill and wits about us. Our calf muscles were screaming for mercy and relief as we stood at the pass with a sense of relief and achievement. Perhaps some of us felt that we were lucky to be alive! And as we stood and surveyed the impressive and imposing landscape around us, my eyes fixed on a neat arrangement of sheds in one of the meadows in the valley immediately below the pass.
Our guide informed us that we were quite close to the India-China border and that the sheds we could see in the distance were part of an army camp. This camp itself was part of a series of army barracks that stretched from where we were to Nithi, which is on the India-China border.
But that piece of information that our guide had just provided was quickly forgotten because we soon commenced the gruelling climb down to our camp for the night. This was to be at Bhujani, some 2 kilometres away from and at a clearing which was about 200m higher than the army camp. We focused on the climb down to camp, and for some of us this was tougher than the climb up to the pass.
By the time we got to our camp site, we were all physically wrecked. This had been the toughest day of trekking for each of us in our group. But this weary feeling was mixed with a sense of relief and achievement. For all of us in our group, this had been the toughest climb we had undertaken and we had all made it successfully. Yes, we did have many aches and bruises. But then, to a bunch of amateur trekkers/climbers, these are mere badges of honour!
We tended to our aches, pains and bruises, had an early dinner, and repaired to out tents by 8pm that night. I talked to my tent-mate for about half an hour before dozing off. I think my friend may have been in the middle of a sentence, but I was too physically smashed to bother about nuances of politeness. I was asleep. Sound asleep. The quiet and serene environment was the perfect balm that soothed my burning calf muscles, the painful blisters on my feet and my bloodied toes.
That calm serenity would be shattered exactly 2 hours later. I was jolted out of my deep sleep by a cacophony of loud shouting and banging that ripped through the peaceful night. I heard lots of male voices scream a series of instructions in a mixture of Hindi and English; and the instructions were not polite. I was scared; very frightened. I feared the worst. I thought we were being attacked by dacoits.
Soon, someone unzipped the two layers of our tent and I heard a man bark, "bahar aajao, turant bahar niklo," (come out immediately). I was fully awake and completely scared as I sat up, clutching my sleeping bag. My fear was compounded when I stared right into the nozzle of a nasty looking rifle. I couldn't see the face at the end of the rifle because light from a torch blinded me. I withdrew my hands very very slowly from inside the warm comfort of my sleeping bag. I did not want the rifle guy to think I was pulling out a weapon of my own, for that would render my aches and pains quite meaningless! I put my hands up in the air and said "hum log mumbai se hai," (we are from mumbai) as I emerged head-first from inside the tent.
It was only then that I saw that the rifle guy was in army fatigues. These guys weren't dacoits. We weren't being ambushed. That comforted me somewhat, although I was still quite afraid. Around me I saw that my co-trekkers were also out of their tents. All of us wore expressions that spoke of a mix of bewilderment, fear and strange relief.
The army camp below had seen our night torches and camp fire, decided we were, potentially, infiltrators, spies or terrorists and had dispatched some soldiers to case us out. I didn't count but there seemed to be some 10-15 soldiers, all armed with rifles that glistened menacingly in the night light. All of them were incredibly young and it soon became quite apparent that they were as filled with nervous energy and adrenaline as we were, with fear. And when young men with fully loaded guns are in that state of excited, adrenaline-fuelled alertness they normally shoot first and talk later.
They asked us questions about where we were from, where we travelled to and why we were camping where we were. We carefully explained our trek route and got them to realise that we weren't spies.
They asked if we had sought permission to trek. Our tour guide whipped out the permission certificate which he had procured from the Forestries Ministry in Joshimath prior to our trek. In a clear case of the right hand not bothering much about what the left hand needed to know, the Forestry Ministry did not bother informing the Army post.
After a half hour of heated argument and conversation, the army guys departed. I was too excited to sleep. I tossed and turned and nursed my aching muscles. I was also quite angry.
Several questions raided my head continuously:
We had set up camp at 2.30pm that afternoon. Why did it take the army until 10.30pm to check us out?
If we were indeed terrorists or infiltrators, would we really announce ourselves through fluorescent yellow tents, torch lights and a camp fire?
What is the role of the Forest Department in all of this?
Questions. Questions. More questions.
My friends and I posed these and other similar questions as we talked about the previous night's incident. Our tour guide was extremely unhappy too.
We posed these and other questions to Tom Hanks. He said that, as far as he was concerned, we could be just about any group. We could be friendly civilian tourists or, just as likely, be spies. He had no information of any civilian movement that night. He said he had a job to do and that was to protect the land. He said that with brutal frankness and cold professionalism, and added, "And given the context of where we are, any suspicious movements are nothing but unwanted threats that have to be eliminated immediately."
My anger was replaced with respect. The questions I had could wait for another day. We all shook hands with Tom Hanks.
We were indeed lucky to be alive!
ps: I will try and write a separate post on the trek at a later date.
pps: For a collection of pictures I took during the trek, check out my Instagram feed (handle is @mohankaus).