Monday, May 26, 2014

To the roof of the world

The big iron bird hung in the sky, the sun glinting off its white metallic hull. It was the pinnacle of everything that the dominant species (on this planet under observation) had ever dreamt of, but here amid row upon row of snow-capped peaks glittering a thousand times brighter, stretching from horizon to horizon - north to south, east to west -  it seemed insignificant.

Maybe we should instead study its journeyers for a better story. So we float down alongside and draw up against one of the tiny windows. The bespectacled face staring out at us (though we’re invisible to it) is anxious, pensive. This is no surprise to us.

This one looks like a member of that group of wage-earners that they call programmers. They live a life of certainties, of money and time. The money, they get with clockwork precision at the end of every month. The time, for five days of the week, is spent bitterly complaining in little prisons with artificial lighting and climate. The only momentary relief they ever get is in torturing their fellow inmates, mostly through the medium of words delivered through the contraptions on their desk - even if the recipient is a cell-mate and they could just as easily turn around and talk to them - or that higher, subtler form that they call “meetings,” where several little cells empty into a larger cell and one sentence is re-arranged for an hour-and-a-half by every one of them. They read little, travel even less, and at the end of the fifth day they’re paroled for the weekend, which they spend imbibing various honey-coloured drinks. Of course, these are mere patterns: sometimes the parole is longer, and sometimes giant red bulbs glow all over and the words “production alert” blare on loudspeakers throughout the glass abode and their weekend pass is revoked. But, such as it is, this is their life.

This particular specimen is fairly typical. What he’s called travel up till now, whatever little of it, were planned to exhaustion: every night’s stay, every mode of travel, oftentimes every hour of every day too. This then is a bit of a journey into the unknown for him. Why this experiment, you ask? Who knows? We can read their memories but not their hearts. Maybe it’s this very question that’s the cause of his anxiety. Or maybe it’s the sudden roar of the engines, as it plummets to an impossibly tiny clearing in the midst of the mountains.

But wait, this is no way to tell a story. Every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, and unless you be a prickly French filmmaker, it’s usually best to tell it in that order. This story is mostly one of geography, though; one which we could survey by ourselves if we so chose, with no need of his memories. But we have far more impressive sights where we come from and our eyes see differently than his: facts do not make a story, a point of view does. And this is his.


His trip began in a little sunburned city, ten degrees north of the equator, on the coast of the Arabian Sea. The first 2500 kilometres were on rail, a 38-hour trip. The first half of this was along the Konkan coast, and a marvel of engineering. The train sped along by the sea and the forested hills, over precipitous bridges and lakes and through impossibly long tunnels that cut short a previously much longer journey; one of the prettier rail journeys you could take. He didn’t have a seat by the window, though, and this being the premier rail service in his country, he and the other three in his cabin were fed a little too generously, with the result that the folks who did have seats by the window preferred to draw the shades and sleep through much of the trip. Still, he did get to see enough to not carry too much of a grouse.

The second leg of the trip, to Leh, was at dawn on the day after the train reached Delhi, a much shorter trip of 600 kilometres or so, only an hour by flight over the Himalayas. There was another way in, a beautiful, if harrowing, 2-day drive through mountain passes; a narrow, bumpy road, maintained by the army for transporting supplies, and reaching heights of 18,000 feet without so much as a handrail on the side. The passes are blocked by snow through much of the year, though (as it was now, to his relief). The flight it was.

He’d spent hours researching the aircraft type to figure out which seat would give him a view unimpeded by wings, and he was delighted to see that his researches were indeed accurate. (Well, except for the engines that protruded a bit into his field of view, but that was only a minor irritant.) He’d spend the hour with his nose glued to the window.

As soon as the plane left Delhi, the clouds took over. Mountain-shaped, with scarcely a gap in them to let the earth through, they formed their own ranges in the sky. Rather threw him off, too. He’d see an ominous grey shape in the distance, sloping down toward the earth, and imagine it to be the start of the Himalayas. But on closer inspection, no, just a cloud.

So sure was he that the change from the clouds to the mountains would be near imperceptible, that at first he didn’t notice the dark shapes visible through the occasional cracks in the white carpet below him. But as the carpet started to thin, he had his first glimpse. Dark brown, almost black, like the slopes of Mount Doom. No sooner did he notice them than the clouds seemed to disappear all of a sudden. Now the dark peaks below covered the whole world visible through the windows. It was beyond belief, the immensity of them - it wasn’t a range, it was a whole forest of mountains, as thick as the trees on the hills of the Konkan coast. There was hardly a space between them, neither valley nor river. Just barren, dark rock, as far as the eye could see.

In a while though, the peaks started to be capped with snow. They seemed so near, practically scraping the bottom of the aircraft. You could, he imagined, jump onto one of the peaks quite safely, and slide whee-eee down the slopes. They were now craggier and there were often huge crater-like hollows bordered by half a dozen peaks. The hollows were filled with snow, not solid but soft like cream, with the same ever-shifting shapelessness, rising here, dipping there, and altogether wholly irresistible. The mountains were now a little more spaced out, with valleys between them. The rivers that flowed through these valleys, though, were not liquid but of mist.

This too would change in a while. The peaks, with the white at the top and the dark at the bottom, gave way to white in its entirety. There were no longer any craggy peaks or valleys but only dunes in a white desert, all rounded, no longer sharp, with the dark nowhere to be seen at all.

As Leh neared, the dark snowless ranges made a reappearance. The difference, though, was that this time thick, grey clouds were flowing through them, just a little below their peaks. And what a sight that was! They were flowing against the direction of the aircraft and they were just like the waters in a river, mostly flowing around but sometimes jumping smoothly over the peaks.

Almost without warning, the pilot mumbled something about descending and the engines roared like never before. “Descent” may have been the pilot’s choice of vocabulary but “plummet” seemed a more accurate description to the programmer. By the time he’d caught his breath all he could see was a wall of rock through the window. He had to slump low in his seat to catch a glimpse of the mountain tops at all. And he could see ahead the impossibly narrow valley with a blue river (liquid, this time) winding through it, that was to be his destination. And it was then that he truly grasped where he was heading to: the feeling was one of claustrophobia, heading toward that tiny sliver of land, surrounded all round by these gigantic walls of rock. This was practically another planet, so isolated did it look.

The aircraft turned around and, to his immense relief, the valley widened considerably: a brown landscape, with a strip of green around the blue river winding through the heart of it. As he got off the plane, on this runway at 11,000 feet, he’d half expected all his insides to get sucked out of his ears and nose, but no, the difference in air pressure wasn’t noticeable. What was noticeable, though, was the cold - especially for someone who’d spent the previous three months in a tropical sea-side city.

Happy to feel solid earth beneath his boots, he studied the mountains all round, looking for monasteries, particularly the one he’d read about that directly overlooked the runway. The mountains took up all 360 degrees of his view and were now not quite as intimidating as it had looked in that terrifying first instance of the descent. He nonetheless remembered the layer after layer of mountains over hundreds of kilometres that he'd crossed to get there and so was left in no doubt that he was now marooned in the land of monks, stupas and snow leopards… on the roof of the world, without a stairway in sight.