I last left this story after my long, dark night of terror...this is how the trip ends...
I told the trek leaders I wanted to get off the mountain the next morning, cup of breakfast chai wobbling in my already trembling hands at 7.30 am. They promised to get me to the village we were aiming for and from there we would decide what to do.
We crossed the hills to a school that morning. The pathways were wider and I felt safer – or perhaps I’d just run out of fear. We began another descent, but the guides were always ahead of me to block my view, and the trekkers who dropped back to become Group 3 walked with and around me, taking my hand as needed. At the bottom of this hill was another river pulsing rapidly over rocks that we were meant to hop across with the ease and grace of a gazelle! It was around this point that I acquired Ashok, my own personal Sherpa. I don’t know if he took it on himself or if he was ‘assigned’ the task, but he stayed with me for the rest of the trek, my silent, sure-footed guardian, with no coat, and tattered trainers.
After lunch, trek leader, Paul, pointed up to the heavily wooded steep ascent ahead and asked if I wanted to come. “No,” I said, “you promised.”
Three other women were in trouble. One had a chest infection she thought she was over, another had terrible blisters and our only case of Delhi belly, and the other (our oldest at 75) had had a fall and was shaken. So the four of us were taken off in a jeep (after another hour’s clambering over rocks back to the river and across yet another rusty floored rope bridge) to Chongay’s guest house. It was an adventure in itself – driving on these roads wasn’t much safer than walking the mountains! Chongay’s family were originally from Tibet, so we learned more of that culture, his way of life, his values and beliefs. We were fed and watered and asleep by ten o’clock, not rising til 9 next morning. After breakfast (the first I’d managed to eat), we were driven back to catch up with the others at another point of the trek. Herein lay the moment of truth: would I have the courage to rejoin them for further climbs in the mountains, or would I retire to the safety of the village? Three of us went ahead.
Although a steep climb, the paths were wider as this was a known tourist trek from McLeod Ganj to Triund Hill. We caught up with the rest of Group 3 at the chai shop ‘Magic View’, and on we went together again. Arriving on the plateau to the surprise of groups 1&2 was my first sense of achievement. Around the camp fire I taught them all a song (yes, I can sing when I’m not crying). Paul confessed that he was glad I hadn’t been there the previous afternoon. ‘I’d have had to blindfold you,’ he said. It was a treacherous climb that everyone found difficult. Trees had come down blocking the way so that the mules had to turn back, two injured on the way, and bags were ripped. I’m glad I wasn’t there.
From our camp on the plateau, the next day would be our final ascent to our summit – Paul pointed out a temple 2mm high up a mountain with no discernible pathways. Did I want to go? Honestly? I was tempted to say no, as I was pretty happy with overcoming my fear and coming back up this far. But would I regret not trying? Group 3 made the decision for me…’but we’re taking you.’ And so they did. For that final journey, Paul swapped the order of the groups and we went first. This time we would have altitude to deal with, passing through the clouds, almost reaching the snow line.
It wasn’t an easy climb. The guides were leaving markers so the others would know which path we’d picked out over the ridge. But it was a happy climb: totally bonded now as a group, we were determined to succeed. It was a delightful surprise, when half way up, just over a verge, was the most beautiful sun-filled ‘valley’, a glacial moraine, providing a wind-protected sunspot with its own chai shop. We stopped a while enjoying our warm drinks and success, before setting off again to stay ahead of the others.
Layers went on as we continued to climb, and clusters of frozen hailstones appeared at our feet. Ashok, coatless, zipped up his hoody, and continued beside me. At the top, the little concrete temple provided a base for us to sit and reflect. Paul gave us prayer flags for us to write our name on, the name of the person we were there for, and a message to them. There were tears and hugs and smiles as we made our mark. Then while we had lunch, we had the pleasure of watching the others arrive; the looks of pride and amazement as each one made the summit. (Though a little voice was niggling in my heart – the cloud was closing in and I still had to survive the descent to camp.) Again Group 3 headed off first and we were more than 2/3 of the way down when the hail hit us – huge hailstones in the Himalayas! As I crossed the plateau into camp, Chongay started to clap ahead of me. ‘What are you clapping for?’ I asked. ‘You’re first to complete your trek!’ And I was.
It was a peaceful and relaxed night around the campfire in the knowledge that all that was left was the homeward stretch back down the tourist path – broad, if bouldered. The morning brought the sun. I attached one of my poles to my rucksack, now un-needed, and marched down the hill – my poor Ashok looking a little dejected as my confidence finally took over. When I arrived at the bottom, I called to Chongay that I hadn’t once said the ‘f’ word. He gave me a delighted hug.
We finished that afternoon by being jeeped back to McLeod Ganj to see the Dalai Lama’s temple which was spacious, but appropriately unassuming. Some people expressed surprise that it wasn’t grander – but how could it be? Nothing would be more wrong pitched against the poverty of this nation. A gilded cathedral would be like a knife in the ribs. We went shopping in the market, and our rupees were gratefully received. I’ve never been happier to spend money.
The next day we left the mountains, their majesty, their clear air and their light to be plunged once more into the hot uncomfortable travel by coach and train to arrive in Delhi, at midnight, in the most beautiful hotel, where we were to have 4 ½ hours’ sleep before driving to the Taj Mahal in the morning!
Delhi is a true culture shock: the smells, the dirt, the smog, the rubbish. I watched a pile of bags stand up into a human being and begin setting out their meagre market wares. Rubbish, particularly plastic, is everywhere. We witnessed a commotion by the railway track where a man lay dead. Others sleep and live in the railway station, immune to the people stepping over them to go about their day. And all the way along the main roads, the towns displayed the same lifestyle: tiny, dusty homes with no electricity. I wondered what they had to do all day, what they had to eat. I felt guilty about all the money we spent on equipment etc to be in India on this trek, and all the money we had raised for our charity back in the UK and it didn’t sit entirely easy with me. By the time we got to the Taj Mahal, it was midday, Saturday, and 32 degrees. I looked at this marble wonder and couldn’t appreciate it. I thought of the cost, the hours of labour, the people who died on the task – and the ridiculous notion that it was all made in honour of the ruler’s dead wife…she’d never even see it!
Then it was five more hours watching street life from the coach as we made our way to the airport.
It has been an immensely challenging journey – one that will stay with me for a long time. I still dream about some aspect of that trip every night. India reminds me to be deeply grateful for all that I have here: a comfortable home, food, heat, the NHS, safe cars and roads. The list is long, but let me end with how incredibly lucky we are to have organisations like St Margaret’s Hopices who deliver care and attention to our loved ones at the end of their days so that the dignity of life remains paramount.
And thank you for your support and generous donation for mine and their endeavours.