Little sleep over three days with many back to back journeys. Starting a physically challenging trek requires a certain level of serenity and this was sorely lacking as I landed in Delhi on that Friday morning. To make things worse, the train tickets ...
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"Posts On The Rampage" - 5 new articles

  1. The Roopkund Trek
  2. Whats the right distance?
  3. Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory
  4. India's Employability Gap and the IT industry
  5. Cricket and Tongue Twisters
  6. More Recent Articles

The Roopkund Trek

Little sleep over three days with many back to back journeys. Starting a physically challenging trek requires a certain level of serenity and this was sorely lacking as I landed in Delhi on that Friday morning. To make things worse, the train tickets did not get confirmed and Dilip and I had an overnight and overpriced bus journey to Kathgodam. That was immediately followed by another day long (11 hour) road trip to Loharjung (7575 ft) making it the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. But a broken back is not good enough to climb an astounding 10,000 feet in 5 days.

The first thing that my mother asked me on the phone was if the Delhi hot winds (called loo) were blowing and if it has too hot. I had to explain that it was in fact very cold up there in Loharjung. After a quick dinner at Patwal’s guest house, I was able to sleep like a log, but only for seven hours. Had to remind my roommate to not repeat the mistake of waking up a sleeping log or dog.

Day 1: Loharjung to Didna
The day started with a simple breakfast of aloo paratha (1/2) and wheat dhaliya. We set off on the Curzon trail towards Didna after walking down from the Patwal’s place. After taking some time to buy a pair of snow gloves, I joined the team behind everyone else. The going was very slow. I wondered if it was the lack of sleep, less breakfast I ate or if it was something else. It soon started raining and that made the pace even worse. The mind was preoccupied with thought of the next steps and about walking meditation, without actually doing any of it.

Finally we reached Didna after a couple of hours of descent and an equally long ascent. The village offered a great view of the mountains. After a lunch of the usual Dal, Chaval, Roti and Aloo Sabji, we went for a post lunch hike. It continued to drizzle and the rest of the day was quite uneventful.

Day 2: Didna to Ali Bugyal
After the limited ‘conditioning’ that the previous days trek provided, it was time to make things interesting. So off we went on our way to Ali Bugyal (Bugyal means meadows in this part of the world). There were steep climbs all along. Many rhododendron trees were in full bloom making the strenuous climb actually appealing visually.

We took a short break at Topna where the water bottles were filled. The sun was out with the clouds clearing out. A quick sun bath was helpful (a regular bath was already out of question till we returned to Loharjung).

We soon resumed the steep climb to Ali Bugyal after crossing a very pretty oak tree forest. The rolling meadows of the Bugyal offered a very long trail. Soon the dark clouds started showering hail on us forcing us to walk faster. Dilip and I sprinted to reach the trekker’s huts covered with green domes made of fibre glass. We would get into our regular tents later.

Since it was getting quite cold with the hail+ rain mixture still falling we decided to spend some time in the kitchen. Getting lunch ready typically takes a fairly long time and the time keeping oneself warm near the stove is well worth it. While the cook normally serves lunch for everyone at one go, we managed to convince him to serve us early since he was anyway making the noodles in batches due to limitations with both the stove and utensil.

With lunch done it was time to for a siesta. The view of the surrounding snow clad mountains was pretty. The camp site was very picturesque and can easily rank among the best in the world. When it was late evening, three of us trudged up about 450 feet for a better view of the mountains and of the camp site from above. It would also help us acclimatize better for the higher altitudes we planned to reach in the coming days. While the views were good, the climb down proved to me how poor in shape my thigh muscles were (both hamstrings and quadriceps).

We had a dinner on time – paneer matar (cottage cheese with peas), roti, rice and cabbage curry. The untimely eating with prolonged breaks between meals created perfect conditions for stomach acidity. The day’s heavy exertions also meant that the body had to both work on repairing itself and digestion – a daunting task indeed!

Day 3: Ali Bugyal to Pathal Nachaniya

The next morning we woke up to a wonderful sun rising up from behind the snow peaks. One couldn’t stop admiring the beauty of the camp site. After a breakfast of Puri Chole and Wheat Dhaliya, we slowly started the day’s trek. After tracing back about 100 meters along the previous day’s route, we made a right along the hill.

The trail snaked round the hill with the meadows rolling down beneath us. Where the tree line intersected the meadows, there were flowery bushes that looked like a natural garden with white and purple flower laden hedges. From where we were, we could see Baidyni Bugyal and ahead were the peaks of Mt Nanda Devi and Mt Trishul dominating the horizon. We would stop at Baidyni Bugyal on our way back.

Soon we came up on snow on the path. While this was a great sight, it would also become the bane of our existence for the next few days. The mixture of snow and ice that one had to cross was a tricky affair. Any misstep and the resultant fall would be very steep and prove costly. After a few crossings that tested our courage, we quickly opted for crampons that attached to the boots providing a steel cover below with spikes. The crampons made it only slightly safer. Where there would be a hard cover of ice (frozen snow melt overnight), one had to walk carefully with the toe angled in correctly.

Within minutes of the icy crossings beginning, we turned back to see one of the mules in our caravan slip and roll down towards the valley. Its keeper jumped behind to save his mule. The mule somehow stopped mid way and refused to climb back! This event was enough for all the mule keepers to make an about turn making our trek logistics that much more complex.

The last icy crossing of the day brought us to the highest point of the day - Ghoda Loutanya (“place where the horses are corralled and released to nearby Bugyal to graze and return by end of the day”). It was not as scary due to a ledge offering protection below. I was able to run up the snowy slope to reach the meadow. Stones were placed on top of another as an altar to worship the local deity. This place was actually a mountain pass that separated two valleys.

After a short break, we made our way into the other valley along a path that skirted the mountains right slope. We saw Kurmonital Bugyal below. This was a unique Bugyal that looked like a natural golf course with at least 7 to 8 fairways. Pretty sight.

Half an hour later, I descended down the valley to reach the camp site for the day at Pathal Nachaniya. We could have used the green trekker’s fibre huts that were located near the trail but our site had easy access to a water source. Pathal Nachaniya is so named as it was at this site that according to Roopkund legend, three dancers were swallowed by the earth when the king’s retinue displeased the gods.

As we relaxed during the evening, the sight of the next day’s trail on the mountain was visible like a thin sliver on the mountain’s side. It was a daunting sight and one really worried if such a steep climb was really possible.

Day 4: Pathal Nachaniya to Bhagwa Basa

The next day’s trek began from the camp site with a climb up toward the trekkers huts. Within a short distance we came to a small temple named Chota Vinayak (Small temple for Lord Ganesha). The name contrasted this place from Kailu Vinayak which was a bigger temple located at the mountain pass one would reach after the steep climb up the mountain.

We saw a group of locals sitting near the temple smiling at us, somewhat amused by the urbanites that have come to their world seeking some adventure. One of them carried something special in his hand. They called it “keeda jadi” which was basically a kind of caterpillar mummified by a fungal infection. Found only at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 metres and that too in this part of the Himalayas, it is a prize catch fetching its weight in gold. Keeda jadi is popular in China as a medicine and as an aphrodisiac.

After checking out a few “keedas”, we set off on our path to meet Kailu Vinayak. This path which looked so scary from a distance was quite comfortable. En route, we had wonderful and clear views of an entire snow clad Himalayan mountain range that included Mt Nilkanth (shaped like a Shiva lingam) and Chaukhamba (a massive flattish peak). On our path, there was some snow in between but for the most part the path was a dirt trail. We had to resort to crampons only once.

Eventually we reached Kailu Vinayak, a beautiful temple with a nice altar. The statue of Ganesha was half covered in snow, which gave him an exquisite look. After paying our respects for safety thus far (and praying for more protection in the coming days!), we took a long break. The place offered panoramic views of the twin peaks of Mt Nanda Gomti and Trishul.

The final stretch for the day was the trek to Bhagwa Basa. The path was a semi circular cutting across the large valley. The sun was overhead causing the snow to melt at many places. This made the path quite slushy and at places the foot would cave into knee deep snow/slush. The path did not require crampons as the snow was offering a good grip to the shoes. As my body warmed up, I got into a jog and enjoyed the one hour brisk walk/jog to Bhagwa Basa.

The camp site had two more of the trekker huts, but one of them was full of ice that got accumulated. We anyway would get into tents later in the day but this time they would get pitched on top of thick snow. Given the mule fall the previous day (it appeared so distant), it was a long long wait for the rations and supplies to reach the camp site. So we took rest on a large boulder that was overlooking the valley. We had a Khichdi lunch after the supplies arrived and took a small nap.

Evening time was play time and some of us climbed up the nearby slope for a slide down. The climb up was not easy (especially after a day’s hard work) but I enjoyed my two trips down. It snowed a bit and the weather was getting cold. The entire landscape was white all around, another contrast from the previous day’s camp site. The diversity of landscapes is another compelling reason that draws one back to the Himalayas again and again. The day ended with a beautiful sun set that as a backdrop had rain clouds in the distant valley showering rain.

At around quarter less four in the morning, I got up to take a leak. When I looked up, I saw the Milky Way as a faint white patch streaking across the sky from South to North. The sight of our galaxy is fairly common in the high mountains and is yet another pull factor. In these parts of the world one gets to see it before dawn.

Day 5: Bhagwa Basa to Roopkund

The day promised to be the toughest day and was also the longest day in terms of effort. We had to trek up to see the Roopkund Lake and them come back to the camp site for a quick lunch and then continue to Pathal Nachaniya. No wonder the day’s trek started at 5 am. We had a tough climb up the snow slopes to reach a place called Chidiya Naka. It took us time to cut the ice and create steps to climb up.

Like the previous afternoon, we followed an anticlockwise path along the middle of the mountain slope. At some places we saw remnants of mini avalanches. On a much small scale, one could see small snow roll offs that accumulated more snow as they rolled in a spiral path. The resulting shapes were nature’s work of art – three dimensional roses made completely of snow.

The progress was very slow as the guide had to cut steps wherever the slope was steep. The crampons were now worn constantly. As I warmed up, I wanted to go a bit faster and slowly reached the head of the line. I looked at the guide for permission to move further and he nodded. Soon disaster struck.

We reached a place where two large rocky formations created some sort of a snowy gateway. The slope was very steep here, almost vertical. The right side of the rocky formation was further along. The left side appeared closer and I started walking towards it. I was a mere two feet away and used my hiking stick as a pivot to jump across to the rock. Attempting this with all the heavy woolen gear I had was foolish, but then I say that in hindsight. The metal stick could not take all the weight and snapped.

I started to fall into the deep valley below and the first reaction was panic. Within a second or two I recovered and used all my four limbs and the remnant of the stick to dig into the snow. Fortunately I was able to stop myself after slipping down by four feet. Then as the team leader Sandeep came, I was able to slowly standup. However I was shaken and this did affect my confidence for the next few hours.

We resumed the arduous climb and made more steps to climb. Had I waited for the steps to be made, I would have perhaps been spared of the fall. We arrived at a resting place. Recouped our energies and made more steps to finally reach the destination. Some fifty feet below us was the fabled lake called Roopkund. It was of course frozen but shone like a jewel under the sun. We had a small celebration on the achievement of being the first group in the season to reach the lake, that too so early in May. Under other circumstances I would have climbed down to reach the lake. But the exhaustion took the better of the team and no one went down (except the porters for whom this was all play).

The Return Trip Begins

Despite the sun being up in the sky, it was getting chilly as we were not moving. So after a longish break, the return trip started. I find climbing down tough in normal circumstances as it tests the hamstrings the most. This time with the snow melting under the noon sun it was slippery and treacherous too.

Nevertheless we started off with a spectacular slide down on the steepest slope which was from our pre-Roopkund resting place. My rain coat made my slide very fast causing me to flip over in the process. The subsequent climb down was tough due to the melt; our crampons were not finding any grip since there was no snow powder. To make matters worse it started to snow as well. In this part the snow falls as small round balls – almost like thermocol balls and not like the regular snowflakes.

Dilip also had a fall and before that he sprained his ankle. A few other people fell too. When we reached Chidiya Naka, it required more cutting as fresh ice froze in areas where there was snow melt. This took considerable time and finally we reached Bhagwa Basa.

The camp site was a big relief after all the adventure during the day. After ingesting a lot of water, we took some rest. Had a heavy lunch of Khichdi and packed our bags to leave for Pathal Nachaniya via Kailu Vinayak.

This route was again made treacherous with the melting snow and freezing ice. The risk was fall taking one to either a cliff hanger end or smashing into a rock if one happened to appear before. The entire route bore absolutely no resemblance to what it was just the previous day. With great relief we reached Kailu Vinayak, took off the crampons and thanked Ganesha there once again.

From then on the climb down was quite comfortable. There was ice at some places but it was easily crossed, with help at times. On the way back I saw a rock shaped just like a lion’s face. This made a nice sight. The pace was brisk and it was feeling quite hot both due to the exercise and the fact that we had lost altitude. The same camp site of Pathal Nachaniya was reached. Warm water and snacks welcomed me there.

Having completed the toughest part of the trek, there were two key realizations. One is that the trail up to Kailu Vinayak that looked so daunting from Pathal Nachaniya was doable, step by step. The same applies to life’s challenges which also appear intimidating at first sight. Second is to focus only on the next step, never look down or up. Only the next step matters, nothing else.

Day 6: Pathal Nachaniya to Wan

The prospect of sighting the Milky Way once again made me wake up again at 3:30 am. There was no camera though, to time lapse the picture as Ankur who had the right piece of equipment was unwell and could not wake up. Nevertheless enjoying the sight in person matters the most (of late I have seen tens of professionally made pictures of the galaxy in tumblr).

The day’s work started at 8:30 am with a quick hike to Ghoda Lautaniya. Kurmonital Bugyal’s golf course view was visible from above as we made progress. From there we made our way to Baidyni Bugyal and had some tough going as we encountered snow and hard ice once again. What made it riskier was the fact that we had returned our crampons the previous day. The temptation to just climb down over the rocks into the valley below and head straight to our immediate destination was resisted. We could have taken hours in the wilderness of the pathless valley below.

Having negotiated the icy patches, we veered off the main trail by taking a smaller trail into the valley below. It was a long descent and we crossed the Bugyal and reached Baidyni Kund. There was a Mahishasur Mardhini temple as legend has it that this is the place where the demon Mahishasur was vanquished by Kali. This was a rustic place with horse running around the large lake. The lake was still and mirrored the views of the snowy peaks around.

After a long break there, we resumed the return journey at quarter less noon. The descent was steep, unending and painful. The thigh muscles underwent incessant torture. The only visual relief was a patch of beautiful rhododendron forest that we passed through. With rhododendron flowers in various shades of pink, rose and white, it was a beautiful sight.

After hours of climb down, we finally reached a metal bridge that sat across a river. Our ears were desperate to hear this river’s sound as we made the painful journey back. A short break there gave an opportunity to fill some water and chill out.

We resumed the journey with a climb up to Wan village. Wan is situated on the top of a hill and there was a cell phone tower located right there. Welcome back to civilization!

Another long (and painful) descent ensued. We saw a Parvati temple on the way. It had a large bell near its compound wall. This was rung. Close by were two very tall and extremely wide deodar trees. There was more descent and finally we emerged out of a line amid the village’s tightly packed houses to reach a motorable road. Our jeeps were packed there and they would take us back to Loharjung.

The modest Patwal’s motel at Loharjung offered hot water which meant a proper bath after a week! Since dinner would take more time as usual, we went to a nearby shack and ordered something to keep the belly pangs at bay. Dinner was accompanied by some celebration and closure ceremony to cap what was yet another memorable trek.

Whats the right distance?

All right, lets admit. Twitter has almost killed writing anything more than 140 characters. The blog that i used to tend to quite often, until couple of years ago has fallen somewhat silent. But what if i wish to say something in more than 140 characters or pithy sentences on facebook? Hence the revival of this blog with this post!

Extend the metaphor, what is the right distance to go? Right size for anything? Rightsize is actually a verb now, and it depends on what ones appetite is and more importantly how much one can endure. When i picked up running in the US, the right distance for me was a 5k. Later in Hyderabad i redefined it to 21.1 km. I am fairly clear that i do not wish to move up to the 42.2 km league - not that it is not possible, but at this stage i feel it is not worth the effort. The same question applied when i moved cities last year. How long does one persevere in overcoming the inevitable initial teething pains?

An idea that is quite liberating and thereby helping one stay the course, is to define the distance or time frame upfront - set expectations with oneself and dont give up so easily. This could apply to a diet, a running regimen, job, a career etc.The following was a tweet few days ago as i was pondering this:

The funny problem with the mindset of a long distance runner is that when you face trouble, you run deeper into it.
  Nice way to end a blog post, by quoting a tweet!

Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory

This weekend i happen to be in London and what better way to spend a day than to visit some of the free museums! The plan was to visit the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory which also houses a planetarium. Both places have one thing in common - they symbolize man's eternal search for the last frontier; indeed humans have a gene for exploration. I consider myself a seeker too, which explains why i was there. Here is quick summary and some tips on these places.

The Maritime Museum had several nice exhibits, the most famous being Nelson's uniform, Frederick's boat and countless sea-farer artifacts. The theme of exploration and how brave men in Europe risked everything to find new passages to India and the East was the most impressive. The museum has done a great job of bringing those episodes to life, and also set the context behind such expeditions. Exhibits showing how the strengthening Ottoman empire stifled routes to the East forcing Europeans to take to the sea, how the Renaissance era equipped them better and changed their world view, and how the missionary zeal of King Henry of Portugal instigated the likes of Dias and Vasco da Gama to go explore, were all very insightful. If so many cross currents had not come together in history, then I am sure the British would have never come to trade and rule India!

After the museum tour, i made a brisk walk uphill (reminded me of the fast walks during the Rupin Pass trek) to the Royal Observatory. They had a section on the Greenwich Meridian (which was very touristy) and a full fledged Planetarium with regular shows. I skipped both for lack of time, and headed straight to the Astronomy section. The ninety minutes spent here were most rewarding.

One of the good books i read (rather, managed to finish) this year was "The Edge of Reason" by Anil Ananthaswamy. After reading this interview with the author, I bought the book on flipkart (India's The book moved me and rekindled my childhood interest in astronomy. This interest stems from a basic question that is also deeply spiritual; it starts as "What the hell am i doing in this world?" and soon leads to other questions like, "What is this world?". The book helps you realize how insignificant our world really is in the larger scheme of things in 'The Universe'. Hundreds of billions of galaxies in this universe and the possibility of multiverse i.e, multiple universes (10 to the power of 500, exactly) both flummoxed me and excited me.

Anil's book takes the reader to sites in the world engaged in cutting edge physics and astronomy using various advanced telescopes. The Observatory had a wonderful exhibit (similar to this image) that shows where each such telescope would fit in. Along the large wall there was a sine curve showing the electromagnetic spectrum; one can easily contrast the frequencies of radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays. Since we cannot see much outside the visible light and the atmosphere absorbs many of the frequencies, some of these telescopes had to be taken into outer space. The most famous one, of course is the Hubble Telescope. During my previous trip to London three months ago, i was looking for the Observatory but somehow ended up going to the Science Museum, where i saw an IMAX movie featuring the Hubble Telescope. That movie showed pictures of distant galaxies and supernovae that are a slight peek into the beauty and grandeur of the universe.

The Observatory has done a decent job of explaining many of the basic concepts about the universe (Big Bang, black holes, etc). It was nice to see several pre-teen kids swarm around some of the exhibits. There was a nice 'Make you own Launch Vehicle' to explore Venus, a comet OR one of the moons of Uranus; a team of three individuals had to choose two spacecraft objects each and then launch the vehicle. The launch would fail if a wrong combination of components was chosen. There was also a telescope like exhibit which allowed you to zoom into one of four cosmic objects.

Moving down to the ground floor, there was a display of images by the winners of 'Astro Photographer of the Year' contest conducted in association with Flickr. The images were literally 'out of the world'. Flickr also has an Astrophotography group that is worth checking. If you are visiting London, then i strongly recommend a visit to the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. And do read Anil Ananthaswamy's book.

India's Employability Gap and the IT industry

Last Saturday I was on a panel titled 'Plugging The Employability Gap', hosted by the two year startup NiceFit at the Centre for Organization Development. The topic is hot, with the economy grappling with shortage of skilled manpower as growth resumes. The focus was on the IT industry, as it is on of the largest sources of jobs in the organized sector. This industry has grown from $4b in 1998 (1% of GDP then) to 70b in 2010 (6% of GDP). It accounts for 16% of India's exports and exports 70% of its output. More than 2.3 million are directly employed (30% of them women) and another 9 million (4 x factor) are indirectly employed.

With growth kicking back in, the industry plans to hire 120,000 - 150,000 in the current fiscal year. If growth continues at the present rate of 20% per annum, the industry will employ a mind boggling 30 million by 2020! This year alone, AP's IT industry needs to hire 90,000 people to meet growth (20%) and attrition (10%). The obvious question is where will these future employees come from? India is witnessing a demographic dividend and will have several hundred million youth coming into the job market. But these statistics may not convey the true picture, as it is said that only 1 in 4 engineering graduates are actually employable today.

A closer look at the numbers in the Hyderabad region (AP state) show that there are 650 colleges graduating 250,000 engineers - 25% of India's output. AP also accounts for 30% of India's overall 3.5 million graduate output across streams. Of the engineering output, 25% get into campus jobs (yes, 1 in 4). Another 10-15% go for higher studies and 8 - 9% end up being self employed (some voluntarily, others due to lack of 'options'). That leaves a whopping more than 50% having nothing to do!

To sum, in the state of AP alone, there are 125,000 engineers (50% of the college output) without jobs while the local IT industry needs 90,000 people but can only hire 62,000 from colleges (25% of the output). This is a net shortfall of 30,000. If supply of talent cannot meet up with the demand, then the rosy growth story will not materialise.

The industry will be forced to ramp up in other geographies (China, Eastern Europe, Philippines etc). There will be more backward integration ie, industry will build its own education infrastructure. Infosys' Global Education Center is an example, 'graduating' 50000 people through its intense six month boot-camp over the last three years.

More in a subsequent post on what it takes to plug this 'Employability Gap'.


Cricket and Tongue Twisters

Yesterday I went with a group of friends to see the India New - Zealand cricket test match. Though Sachin Tendulkar got out almost as soon as entered the stadium, local boy VVS Laxman (a true hero and a humble man) held the fort and pushed India's score along. This was my first international live match in a stadium and i was impressed, even without the zing-bang of a T-20 match (DJs. dancers, music etc). We were seated not very far from the commentary box and the view of the pitch and batsmen was close enough and the weather initially was good.

A welcome break to the match viewing (just as the weather got really hot, and Rahul 'The Wall' Dravid started to make the match boring), was the Intel 'Toungue Twister challenge. A television crew from Neosports which is running a promo for Intel spotted our group and called us in for the contest. Perhaps they chose us since were the only few in the crowd, not salivating at the sight of the actress Priyamani, who was seated in the box directly behind us. Such 'segmentation' could be topic of another post!

They made us sign 'waiver of rights' forms for the video shoots they were about to take - very professional indeed. The anchor walked in - dressed in all red and black. Thanks to the show i was able to discover a talent in me - that of reeling out tongue twisters. We were given three tongue twisters, in increasing order of difficulty (starting with "Fast faster fastest Smartest Smarter Smart"). I managed to reel them out and the prize was free tickets to the remaining two days of the test match. Good fun, and i tried some with my daughter when i was back home (say "English engine" ten times)!

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