Logged off, Shut Down… Went Outside

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

My previous two camping treks were when I was still in school and as such, though I must have noticed, but I did not truly appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. It was more of an ‘exercise’ trip, and it helped that after each of those trips, I came back 5-6 kgs lighter. 🙂

I had been looking to go for camping/trekking for a while and this trip came as a great opportunity. We travelled through Haridwar, Rishikesh and Joshimath to Auli the starting point of our 5 day trek.

While walking, the rhythm of the breath moving through my body was like the movement of the ocean tides. As I breathed deeply, I learned to sense the breath in this way. It was like discovering that I had a beach front view inside of me. Mindfully walking, breathing, living and enjoying every moment was a novel experience. (‘Sweat the Alphabets, Dance the Digits’) (Taming the Lions) ( Let’s wander where the WIFI is weak )

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“THE UNIVERSE IS FULL of magic things, PATIENTLY WAITING for our senses to BECOME SHARPER.”~ Eden Phillpotts

Trek

I was a part of a large group of people hiking and camping to the popular Kuari Pass top. We were also the last group of trekkers before the trail closes for the Monsoon. Providentially, for us, it would be bright and sunny while we hiked, and the rain Gods would open up the minute we reached our campsites. So, luckily, all through the hike we enjoyed all kinds of weather without being inconvenienced by it.

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The trek is not as ‘easy’ as my pre-trip research made it sound. At some places, it was very steep climbing and at times with narrow trails with sharp 90 degree cliff drops. However, all the huffing and puffing lead to devastatingly beautiful views which were heavenly to say the least- worth the suntan and the sore limbs. As it is said, “the best views come after the hardest climbs.”

In fact, I also had a pleasant surprise when on the very first day of the climb at Auli I bumped into a friend I had studied in Melbourne with. It was a pleasant coincidence that he was there holidaying with his wife. Such a small world!

Focus

In any outdoor activity, the focus completely shifts from us as individuals to our surroundings- making them the natural center-stage. Throughout my treks, the focus moved from the green rolling hills that were our campsites to the snow-capped mountains that glistened on the horizon. Sometimes, it was the soft clouds drifting in-between us as we made our somewhat arduous walk, and sometimes it was the angry dark clouds bellowing at us from above.

The pitter-patter of rain as we sat huddled in our tents with our cups of hot soup or curled up in our sleeping bags. Or, in sharp contrast, the clear starry evening sky, with the smoke curling up from the cooking tents as the meals were being prepared.

There were the gurgling sounds of fresh water streams we hopped across on our trails, small ponds awash with rain water, and wild strawberries and berries that grew with abandon in the forests as we trudged past them. Alternate to that were the patches of farmlands in the villages we criss-crossed with their organic produce of potatoes, rajma, apricots and colourful flowers.

The grazing sheep, the mooing cows, the tottering ponies, the sheep dogs that followed us… it was nature at its best. It suspended all my anxieties, thoughts and trepidation making them trivial in front of the the vastness and expansiveness of the Universe.

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Sheep scurrying past our camp

Many a time, I found myself sitting in silence over-looking the deep gorges with a mighty river meandering in the distance, or on large branches of trees staring into nothingness as birds hummed in the background. As a quote I read by Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Non-doing has nothing to do with being indolent or passive. Quite the contrary. It takes great courage and energy to cultivate non-doing, both in stillness and in activity”.

Gastronomical Delight

It feels slightly odd to talk about this, especially on a camping trek, where food is nourishing, but quite basic. In a delightful break from my previous treks, the food served at every camp here was a delight. Though vegetarian, the zeal with which the cooks whipped up not just North-Indian, but South Indian, Chinese and Italian cuisines with a selection of desserts, evening tea-time snacks and different soups would give any eatery in the city a run for its money.

I could not believe that after a tiring day I was having steaming hot macaroni, Chinese Manchurian, noodles, pani puri, samosa, cream of mushroom soup, idli, sheerkhurma, gulab jamun (the list is endless) at high altitudes in dense forests and grasslands, with no motor-able roads for kilometres, no electricity and completely cut away from any other civilization.

Needless to say, I doubt anyone of us lost any weight on this trip! Haha…

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We 50

Location: Kuari Pass (4264 meters above sea level), Uttarakhand

Trek route:

  1. Auli to Gorson Bugyal (3300 mts)- 4 kms
  2. Gorson Bugyal to Tali (3500 mts)- 8 kms
  3. Tali to Khullara (3650 mts)- 10 kms
  4. Khullara to Kuari Pass (4100 mts)- 4 kms
  5. Khullara to Tugasi -5 kms

Transport: Delhi to Joshimath by road. Then, to the 5-day trek start point at Auli by road or cable car.

Group Organized by: Mr. Farooq Haque at ‘Within n Beyond’

Tour Operated by: The Wanderers- Mrs. Farzana Haque. Ph: +91 9850427609

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

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Iraqis

Ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the surrounding areas are known as the Cradle of Civilization. My 2-week enlightening experience of present day Iraq proves what an amazing civilization it would have been and how resilient her people are even now.

People and Atmosphere

I had pre-conceived notions of what Iraq would be like- a war ravaged country with bomb blasts almost every week in their cities. I thought I would see burnt car tyres and road blocks, gun-toting Army men, armoured vehicles on their highways and old cars on their roads. I expected to see bumpy and broken down roads and run-down houses. (All images fuelled by those seen on TV and in newspapers).

But boy! Was I wrong. The places we visited were nothing like I imagined them to be. Right from our air-conditioned Mercedes buses to the many luxury SUVs I noticed on the roads…to the well-maintained buildings we passed by and the hotels we stayed at, everything was near perfect. Their highways were 4-laned, clean and in good condition. Even the narrow lanes, by-lanes and roads in the cities were clean-in fact even their garbage pick-ups were mechanized (very unlike in India).

Our hotels had well-appointed rooms and bathrooms with latest fixtures and fittings. Even our towels were freshly laundered and sealed in individual wrappings when we checked-into our hotel rooms (I have not seen this even in 5-star hotels). The hotel staff was attentive and most understood Hindi or English.

I imagined there would be many destitute on the streets especially close to the shrines- but there were hardly any and the rare ones we saw, sat quietly by the side of the road not pestering anyone. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural) I also thought the locals would be wary of foreigners, but this was furthest from the truth. They were welcoming, polite, friendly and loved India, Indians and of course Hindi movies 🙂

There were numerous foods stalls and restaurants-small and big, and they were super hygienic. The aromatic smell of freshly baked breads (multiple types of these), kebabs and shawarmas filled the streets we walked on every day. Iraqis love their tea and numerous vendors sold flavourful Iraqi chai (they would clean each glass with hot water before serving). The buffet at our hotels was unbelievable, especially considering that we were in a country with poor economy. Table full of baklavas and puddings, cheese, salads and mains were served for every meal.

The one other thing that impressed me was the excellent internet bandwidths. The Wi-Fi never failed and there was never a drop in the download speeds. Their economy might be down, but their bandwidths are certainly not.

Masjids

Thousands of people daily visit the shrines of Moulana Ali’s at Najaf and Moulana Hussain’s and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s at Karbala, and even then they were well- maintained with constant vacuuming, cleaning and renovations. The very many other masjids and historical places that we visited during our trip were also clean with constant maintenance- this despite the fact that this region has been affected with violence and destruction. (Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural)

Bazaars

The most colourful and full-of-life souks I have even seen. From knick-knacks to prayer items to yards of material, household items, to gold and silver, and meat, food and bread-everything was sold in narrow,scrupulously clean but interconnected by-lanes. A truly Arabian atmosphere was seen here. Hundreds of people would walk these lanes picking up bargains and in the evenings, supper for their homes.

Almost everyone in my travelling group picked up finger-rings and pendants with semi-precious stones (akik, topaz, sapphire, opals, etc.), colourful head scarves, tasbih (prayer beads), masallahs (prayer mats) and many other souvenirs. The shop-keepers would cheerfully strike bargains, offer free samples of dry-fruits and try to please all customers.

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A vendor selling jewellery

It was lovely walking down their curving streets (even though they were chock-a-block with people), watching the many artefacts on display and taking in the different aromas of food, trays of their local sweets, spices and the crackle of the falafels frying in hot oil.

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An Iraqi man selling bread rolls

Safety

I was never really concerned for my safety though my friends back home were worried. There was frisking at regular intervals and though a tad inconvenient, it kept us all safe. Even we women would walk in the streets throughout the night and no one would bother us. It was in fact ultra safe even for women.

Iraq has natural beauty and a lot of history and I would love to come back to explore. Iraqis are proud of their culture and history. The people of this Cradle of Civilization are welcoming and full of hope despite their many problems. I pray that this land of the Euphrates River eventually attains their lost peace and prosperity.

Travel:

We flew into Najaf, about 100 km from the capital Baghdad. The shrine of Moulana Ali is located here and this city is considered one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam.

We travelled by bus from Najaf to Karbala-a distance of 80 km. Karbala is another very important centre for Islam.

-Tamanna S. Mehdi

Bonding- Spiritual, Social, Cultural

I have never before been on a journey with so much hope, as on the one I went on last month. This pilgrimage with my family, friends, relatives and acquaintances was about just that- HOPE. Hope for better spirituality, hope of a better understanding of our roots and hope for a better life. (Taming the Lions)

I rarely have difficulty writing a travelogue, but I am at a loss to describe this tour. This travel also had pretty sights- the meandering Euphrates and Nile Rivers, the hustle-bustle of the colourful Arabian souks, beautiful masjids, towering pyramids and magical and mythical stories. But this tour was about more than that- it was a trip back in Islamic history from about 570 to 680 AD. It consisted of a personal dialogue with God involving feelings that are extremely heart felt but difficult to express in words.

We took the almost month long trip of Umrah to Saudi Arabia, ziyarats (pilgrimages) to Moulana Ali’s Holy shrine in Najaf, and Moulana Hussain’s  and Moulana Abbas Alamdar’s shrines in Karbala in Iraq, (Iraqis) and Cairo, Egypt. For me this past month has been about bonding- bonding with God, bonding with our own selves and bonding with our fellow companions while learning about our spiritual roots.

I feel so privileged to have had a chance to take this trip along with our spiritual head, His Holiness Moulana Amiruddin Malak saheb and his family. The pilgrimage was made easy and more informative due to His knowledge, guidance and His blessed presence with us through out.

Spiritual Bonding-

It is most difficult to describe this. The awe, joy and privilege one feels standing at these Holy places- it is impossible to illustrate. All we could do was bow our heads at Prophet Mohammed’s (SAW) shrine in Masjid-un-Nabawi, Madinah or stare at in awe and respect at the magnificent Kaabah in Mecca. Performing Umrah, praying and meditating in front of this House of God was an exhilarating as well as an over-whelming experience. The abject feeling of sadness while leaving these two cities is perhaps symbolic of how deeply they moved us while we were there.

Travelling to Najaf and Karbala was no less moving. I felt a sense of peace at these places and also felt somewhat unworthy of visiting the final resting places of these great Spiritual heads of Islam. Moulana Ali’s shrine is located in a busy market place, but once you enter the compound, there is so much peace and not a sound from the outside world disturbs the mind- one can sit here meditating for hours without being disturbed. The same is true of the masjids of Moulana Hussain and Moulana Abbas Alamdar at Karbala. (Iraqis)

Social Bonding-

We were a group of about 200 plus people travelling together. Praying together, walking together, eating together with them has been a most pleasurable experience of my life. Many of those travelling along, I only knew by name and if it had not been for this trip, I would have never mingled with them and connected with them at such a close level. As I was also a group coordinator (in-charge of 20 people), I had even better interactions with many of them.

Mingling with people from around the world at Mecca and Madinah, and the locals at Najaf, Karbala (Iraq) and Cairo, whether at the masjids or walking about in their market places, hearing their languages, observing their body language, smelling the different aromas of bread baking and spices, all added to this holy travel opportunity. (Iraqis) Infact, Cairo felt like any Indian city- the warmth of the people towards Indians and the Suzuki Maruti cars reminded us of home every day. We just had to mention that we were Indians, and thanks to the Hindi movies, the people would start chanting ‘Shah Rukh Khan, Shah Rukh Khan…’ and offer us tea and good deals.

Cultural Bonding-

Tracing back our roots and feeling proud of the lineage we come from has to be felt to be believed. Especially in Iraq where the Battle of Karbala took place in the month of Moharram and the month is observed every year throughout the world. Standing on the same grounds that are steeped in history that we had only read about in books was a very emotional and moving experience.

From here, the other history of the Pharaohs and their towering wonders- the Pyramids in Egypt, though in stark contrast, were also an enjoyable eye-opener. Dining on the Nile cruises in chilly winds was another unforgettable experience.

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At the Giza Pyramids, Egypt

As they say, hidden connections are stronger than the obvious ones. Living this array of varied emotions and being a part of this trip is indeed a great honour for me as it must be for all those who took this trip. I thank God and His Holiness Moulana Amiruddin Saheb for making this trip of a lifetime possible for all of us.

Hope anchors the soul.

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All of us at Masjid Kumail, Najaf

Weather:

Madinah and Mecca were getting warmer, but were comfortable in March.

Najaf and Karbala were warm during the day, but evenings and early mornings were cool in March.

Cairo was chilly and windy in March.

Hotels:

Gulnar Taibah, Madinah

Anjum, Mecca

Qasr Aldur, Najaf

Alfajr Albadeea, Karbala

Kempinski Nile, Cairo

Travel Agent:

Ideal Tours and Travels, Nagpur. Phone- 98230 53931

-Tamanna S. Mehdi