Reaching Santopanth Tal

Continued from previous posts—

What a morning to begin the trek!   We had breakfast, arranged our packs and by 8AM we were on our way to Mana, 4 kilometers closer to the Tibet border.  We checked in with the Army Post. We gave the officer in charge our passports and permission letters and signed in on a roster. We would be required to leave our passports with him. We told him that we planned to stay at Santopanth Tal for 8 days and he wanted to know why we wanted to go there and why stay so long.   He had all kinds of questions about about me and my marital status.   He wanted to know who would be guiding us and if we had porters.  He knew our guide, which helped.  He went outside to check on our porters.   He assured us that if we didn’t show up after two weeks an army patrol would go looking for us.   I told him  if we don’t show up after the 11th day start looking for us!  Apparently we were the first Westerners he had allowed to travel there.  It seems that being so close to the Tibet border it had some strategic military status.   We were told not to take any photographs of the area.  There was a seriousness in his questioning. As we were leaving, the official, smiled and said, “Enjoy yourself and May the Lord be with you.”  I wondered, “had I really thought this trek through?”

We headed for the rope bridge crossing the Alaknanda/Saraswati River.  What an amazing adventure!  I was 47 years old and  heading for  a 23 kilometers trek that will take 2 to 3 days in which I would be climbing up narrow mountain passages in altitudes much higher than I had ever experienced before.  I didn’t know if I had the proper gear or clothes or if we had  enough food once we got there, of if I was physically in good enough shape to handle it.  I had been told that the journey would be my “dark night” and still, my heart was so full of joy and love and my mind totally at ease. I was in a state of moment-to-moment awareness, difficult to describe here. It was as if the rational mind had left me and I was working purely from a state of surrender.

We had packs on our backs filled with the things we would need as we traveled, water and some snacks.  The porters carried the heavy cooking items, tents and sleeping bags. Still my pack felt heavy. Randy had forced me to bring plenty of water so that I would not become dehydrated.   He said it was good my pack felt  heavy, that would encourage me to drink the water I was carrying.

Even as we began to climb the gentle slope of the first hill, I began to breathe heavily.  Mana is situated well over 10,000 ft.  Women from the village were coming down the path, their back rounded under the heavy wide baskets filled to the brim with potatoes.  Their walk was steady and graceful.  As one woman was walking past me she began to breathe heavily mimicking my own breathing and we both burst into laughter.  “Alright, alright! I said, “You’d win a race, but I will get there!”  She didn’t need to understand my language, she understood my heart.

At the top of the hill there is a Shrine to Divine Mother.   We stopped for a moment to seek Blessings.  Devanada began to pace himself with the guide who was traveling at quite a clip.  I kept a steady pace, but fell far behind the porters. Randy was good enough to walk with me always in his view.  He liked the slower pace. He could smoke along the way.  I don’t know what he was smoking. I never asked.

About 45 minutes in the journey I saw three people traveling toward us, from the direction of Santopanth Tal.  I could see it was a woman and two men. When they were close, the woman came running to me, “Madame, Madame! I must talk to you.

I stopped and said, “Hi!” surprised at her insistence.

“My Guru told us you were coming! You are going to Santopanth Tal! Right!?

“Yes, how did you know?” I was quite stunned.

“My husband… this is my husband and his brother,” she said, as she pointed off in the direction of the men who seemed totally disinterested in our conversation. “Well, we were visiting our guru, who lives in a cave high up on the mountain on the other side of the valley from Santopanth.   He told us that you would be coming and that I should tell you that it is was good that you come.  He wanted me to tell you that you will be able to camp at Santopanth Tal only because it did not snow last winter.  Otherwise since it is glacier, you would not have been able to do so.  It was a blessing!”

I told her we wondered where we would be able to camp and if we would be able to get to the lake.   No one was able to tell us how close we could camp.  “But how did you know?,” I asked again.

“My Guru is omniscient. He is a Enlightened Being with great powers of sight.  He has been living  in the cave near to Santopanth for 15 years.    You may see  his cave on the other side of the valley.    He stands with one arm raised always.  You may notice his ochre cloths perhaps.   We come here every three months to see him and bring him some food.   He wanted me to tell you, that you are welcome there!  And that there will be 5 of you.

“Five?”   I said, “no there are just three of us.”

She smiled, “He said there will be five of you!  And welcome to you all.”

“Thank you Madame, I said, for telling me this.   I am deeply touched that your Guru took the time to ask you to speak with me.  I hope he hears my surprise and deepest appreciation”

The woman smiled broadly. She seemed happy for me.  Her husband and brother in law pushed by us with a sideways glance, but not even a nod.  “Best be on my way, Thank you again!” I said.  We waved goodbye.

I jogged for a couple of minutes to catch up with Randy.  When I got to the top of the hill, I could see him, seated on a stone looking out over the valley smoking.  I rushed to tell him what the woman had said.

The walk was consistently difficult.   It never seemed to ease up for a moment. It just got more difficult as my breathing got more labored.  I never considered stopping for more than a few minutes.    I tried to drink as much water as I could. Randy pushed me often to drink more.  Drinking the water helped me lighten my bag, but I was not sure how much it helped my energy.  Randy gave me some coca leaves to chew on. That seemed to help.  The sun was hot and I had a hat, but I had not put on sun lotion and could feel my face burning.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take another step I saw the porters below and Deba was preparing lunch.

The hour long lunch break was great. I got my energy back and was ready to go the  few more hours it would take  to arrive at a camp site for the night. We would break the trek into two or three days.  I felt better in the afternoon, although the trekking did not get any easier.  The path was inundated with jutting rocks. Each step was an opportunity to twist an ankle, so you had to watch each step you took.  At no time could you safely walk the path meditatively or absentmindedly.

Devananda, Randy and I had begun the afternoon walk all together.   At one point, when we had reached the top of a high hill, I turned to view how far we had come since morning.  The sky was amazing.   Clouds were forming and settling in the valley as I watched.   I called to Devananda and Randy to stop and look back.   It was as if the clouds were closing the valley off….and moving towards us– closing us in.    It was like a scene from Brigadoon, my absolute favorite play, when I was young. I must have seen it ten times as a child.    I hadn’t thought of it since.    Brigadoon is a mysterious village in Scotland that appears for only one day every hundred years. The villagers in it only experience that one day and then I suppose they sleep for the next 99.  The enchantment of the village was a blessing to save the village and villagers from destruction.   Once there no one leaves.     I was  overwhelmed  by the feeling that I had been looking for that village, ever since I was a child.  And that perhaps this adventure was my Brigadoon.

According to our guide, this was truly a mystical place and even the playing  ground for   some parts of the Mahabharata.  Right where we camped that first night,  the Pandavas of the Bhagavad Gita fame had stayed for some time.   Perhaps Arjuna himself had slept there, before us?   Deba made dinner for us all.  The porters ate a lot.  I lost count of all the chapattis that were consumed.   I was somewhat concerned over the amount of food we had brought with us.  We had not taken into account these three other heavy eaters over 8 days…  And they were eating like that even after  I had given each of them one of my heavy duty Power Bars.   I had 50 of them and was feeling generous.

That night, I  had a deep and peaceful sleep and woke refreshed.   We began early the next morning and hoped to make it all the way to Santopanth Tal.  Our guide told us it was possible, but we should probably not push it due to the altitudes. Then he and Devananda took off.  I was able to keep sight of the porters who thankfully lagged behind them.   Randy thankfully continued to walk with me and coax me to drink water.  I was sure that each hill I would climb would my last before we would have a long break.   But the break didn’t happen.  At one point, I told Babaji, “you to have to take it from here!” I was truly exhausted, Babaji’s mantra began to vibrate through my head.  I stopped to pick up a perfect white stone and clutched it in my hand, telling myself it was magical and would carry me the rest of the way.   I saw what I thought was the cave of the Guru of the woman I had met. There was a ochre cloth dhoti flying in the breeze.  I did not however glimpse the Sage himself.

It was like that all day long…just pushing, pushing, pushing and no rest. Finally we came to a flat patch and there was Devananda and the porters sitting and having some refreshment, awaiting my arrival.  And just beyond that flat patch was a hill so steep that it looked like a mountain to me and it went straight up.  We were already well over 14,000 ft.

Devananda called me over to sit by him.  “My dear, we are here contemplating whether or not to camp or to go on.” “You will decide for us.”

”I assume we have to climb that mountain and then what?”  How much further?” I requested.

“No one seems to have a good idea about that?” Devananda continued.  “I am told we can make Santopanth Tal by nightfall, if we go right now!”

“Okay, let’s just go, because if I spend anymore energy contemplating this hill, I won’t be able to climb it!”   I headed for the hill.  Devananda yelled, “Okay! let’s move on out!,” like he was herding cattle.

That hill took everything out of me. The interesting thing about me is  if I see the top of something. If I can see how far I have to go, I can muster the energy to get me to the top.     It is only when  I don’t know how far I have to go that I begin to doubt myself.    Here, I could see the top and I was going to get there.    Devananda and the guide of course made it to the top first and was over it…. I was coming up along with the porters.    Randy was lagging behind now.  I was in overdrive and making pretty good time, feeling pretty good, when I got to the top of the mountain and saw what was beyond it.

Oh My God! It was the surface of the Moon or the Valley of Doom.  I supposed this is what is left when a glacier melts. For as far as the eye could see, it was all boulders, nothing but boulders to walk through and at the end of  what looked endless, there was another hill, almost equal in height to the one I had just climbed. However,  on top of that hill, I could see a flag, delineating no doubt,  the path to Santopanth Tal.

Devananda was already down the other side of the hill, saying, “Come on Jan!  Durga come on!”    “We can make it, don’t stop, just keep on going!”  Randy was coming up from behind me.

”No Way!” Randy demanded that I not take another step. “There is no way we can reach Santopanth by nightfall.

Devananda begged, “come on, come on now!”

Randy yelled, “No, you are going to die if you try this Devananda!”  Durga and I are going back down. Tonight we will camp below and start again tomorrow.  It was nearly 4pm.    So here I stood on the precipice with Randy.  Down below was Devananda, the porters and the guide.  So either, go back and spend night with Randy or go forward and die.  It didn’t take long to make up my mind.  I ran down the other side of the mountain to meet Devananda and the guide.  Furious Randy continued too, never forgetting for a moment that this was the second time we were mutinying.

The Valley was as difficult as it looked and I really don’t know how we made it before nightfall, but I do recall  the climb up that final mountain.  I felt absolutely euphoric…. I was in a state of grace, no other way… or a second wind or taken up on a wing and a prayer…  It was a group effort!  The guide and Deba reached the top before all three of us. And so they dropped their backpacks and came back to help us the final, quarter of the hill.  Everyone was high on the feeling of accomplishment or perhaps it was a lack of oxygen, but when we got to the top of the world…and looked over and saw the shinning waters of Santopanth glistening in the amazing colors of the setting sun… we all broke down and started to cry.   We literally fell to our knees and cried.

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