M is for Mountains!

This trek had been on my list (stored away safely in a list on Google Drive) for close to five years now. From the very first time, I heard about it (from Anand at EEEC, I guess) – I had wanted to do it. AMK Trek as it is popularly known stands for Alang, Madan and Kulang. These three forts are a part of the Kalsubai Range in Nasik.  This 3-day trail is said to be the most difficult trek in the Sahayadri ranges because of the sheer expanse of these mountains and also due to many a patches that can be negotiated only with the help of technical climbing (rock-climbing and rappelling).

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Mr. Sanyal is the reason this trek finally happened. His last day in office was 31st December and I had been racking my brains all month long, to come up with an idea for his farewell gift. I spent many days thinking about it, yet nothing I came up with seemed fitting, or good enough. And then suddenly one day on my morning walk, I thought of this brilliant idea of gifting him a trek! (with me, of course :)) Only catch was that it could no longer be a surprise as I had to check his availability before making the bookings. This was, if I may say so myself, the perfect gift because Mr. Sanyal loves mountains and he loves photography just as much– and this 3-day climb gave him an opportunity to do both. :)

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Day 1: Base village to Alang Top (trek)

We started from Pune at 11 PM in the night. After many a vain attempts of trying to get some sleep on a 6-hour rickety bus-ride from Pune to Nasik, we reached our intended destination just as the first rays of the sun illuminated the sleepy little village of Udaavane. This was the base village, behind the picturesque backwaters of Bhandardara, from where the trek began. We got off the bus and took in our first views of the intimidating mountain ranges that surrounded us.  After a delicious hot plate of pohe (which continues to be my main motivation for trekking), our 27-member group started climbing the Alang Fort.

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The plan for the next three days was simple;

  • Day 1 – Climb up Alang Fort by early evening and spend the night at the Alang caves.
  • Day 2 –
    • Rappel down two patches of Alang and then go up Fort Madan by rock-climbing.
    • Rappel down Madan and start walking the long traverse along the ridge to Kulang.
    • Climb up Kulang Fort by early evening and spend the night at Kulang caves.
  • Day 3 – Spend the morning on Kulang top and start descending downwards to Ghatghar village where our bus would wait to take us back to Pune.

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At the end of trekking Day 1, I was one of the last people to reach the Alang caves. Many people find climbing up relatively easier than coming down. I have always found it so much easier to come down a mountain, the upward climb drains me completely. By the time I reached the caves, the kitchen area had been designated & cordoned off and all others had put down their sleeping bags in warmer, cleaner parts of the cave.

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I was so tired by the time I got there that I just pulled my Yoga mat and lay it open on the first empty space I spotted. The minute it touched the ground, I regretted my decision because the floor was full of mud, dust and stones. Anyway, when you are that tired, hygiene isn’t a high priority item on the checklist. I napped for about an hour and then we all went together to watch the sunset from top of the mountain.

Now this is the part of trekking that I love the most – the time alone with the mountains that you get. We walked around the fort, spent some time by water tanks and filled our bottles with refreshing, cold water. And finally, I settled at the edge of the mountain, waiting for the sun to go down. Gloriously tranquil it was, seeing the sun dissolve into the horizon while admiring mellifluous shades of the evening sky.

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We came back after sun down to the caves and our dinner was ready. The organizing team of 6 people had made Pav Bhaji for everyone complete with side salad and all. After a day of climbing, it’s worth noting the amount of gratitude you feel for the hot plate of food in front of you.  After dinner, we played the most amazing game of Antakshari! We had great singers in the group, it was a real pleasure hearing them. The fact that we were all by ourselves on top of a mountain, under the twinkling gaze of a million stars, just added to the ambiance. :)

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Something else that I learnt the hard way at night with my leg cramping up was that no matter how tired you are after all the trekking, you have to do your stretching exercises before you plonk yourself happily down for a nap on your yoga mat. This is especially true if you are going to be out in the cold… in a cave….sleeping on the rocks.

Day 2: From Alang to Madan and finally to Kulang Caves

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Next morning we woke up at 4 AM, had our breakfast and set off towards the edge of the Alang mountain to start rappelling down . I’ve done rappelling once before in my life and that was about eight years ago, I guess. Wow, eight years …..  some calculations are best left undone – it seems like yesterday – my first job as graduate engineer trainee at Emerson.  Anyway, coming back to the rappelling – this was a small patch at Vajragad Fort and the mistake I made there was to let enough no. of people go ahead of me so that I could watch & learn. Bad strategy! If there’s something that scares me even a little bit, the approach that works best for me is to go at it head on. At Vajragad, as I watched more and more people rappel down – some slipped, some bruised themselves because of faulty techniques etc – my tiny amount of fear got amplified to a great extent. Of course, I was too much of a proud peacock to actually admit openly that I was scared and eventually I went ahead did it. But here at Alang, I was pretty sure I wanted to go first – down the all the patches and even for the rock climbing. When you are the first to go, it is scary because every step is a judgment call and you have to make all the decisions yourself. Once you get past it, it feels great not just because you did it but more so because you relied on and trusted your own judgment to navigate a difficult patch.

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We finally got to the top of the Madan fort. There isn’t much to look at on the top but the views of  the mountain range that we traversed were truly phenomenal .

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We sat there for a bit and started our descent to the ridge from where we had to start walking towards Kulang. We took a lunch break here. I can never understand why Maharashtrians love Amrakhand (especially the Chitale variety) so very much. Every single person on the trek shrieked with joy as they saw poli and amrakhand in their pre-packed lunch bags. Everyone but for me, of course. I was praying for a small packet of pickle or something spicy to surface from somewhere. It didn’t and I had to eat that lethally sweet aamrakhand. Good Lord! Every  single bite of that painfully sweet thing sent a current down my spine.

Anyway, after lunch we walked for about 3 hours continuously to reach Kulang. The last stretch involved about 130 knee-high steps. This trek was challenging for me because of three very specific reasons; 1) First being that I’ve never had to carry a 10 kg backpack up a mountain. Even on the Himalayan trail, the pony carried our larger backpack and we trekked with a small bag carrying only essentials. 2) The sun, this time of the year, on Sahayadris trails can be quite harsh and unforgiving and this makes a hard climb even harder. 3) Pace was a serious issue for me because speed isn’t exactly my strong suit. We had to be on top of the 3rd mountain by tea-time on the 2nd day, so the entire group had to walk fast, continuously and with less or preferably no breaks at all.

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At Kulang, I was offered two options of spaces to sleep. One was the far end of the cave which would be warmer since it was a corner space and the other was at the mouth of our cave which would obviously be very cold at night. I was later informed that the corners of the caves serve as homes to rats. The choice was made – I slept at mouth of the cave, shivering through most of the night. I made a mental note to myself that night to buy a sleeping bag as soon as I get back to Pune.

Day 3 : On top of Kulang mountain & descent.

A couple of us who loved music spent our after-hours together through most this trek. It always amazes me how a few strangers find connection amidst all the chaos of large groups. And this group of people was very diverse too – a first-year engineering student from Pune, a third-year engineering student from Bhor, an IT engineer from Hyderabad, Mr. Sanyal, me and a software engineer from Pune (who also happened to be the only other girl on this trek).  I have always teased Mr. Sanyal about how outdated his music library is and that he only sings songs from the 50s and 60s. So this new group of ‘youngsters’ took it upon themselves to ‘educate’ Mr. Sanyal to the likes of Arijit Singh, Monali Thakur, Pappon and many others. We spent the whole trek listening to the most beautiful, soulful music – thanks to amazing music banks of the people in this group.

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The more I travel and climb mountains, I’m beginning to become more convinced than ever that there is no one ‘heaven’. It’s probably easier for me to think this way because I don’t believe in after-life or reincarnation. I feel that we live our heaven here in this life, maybe heaven isn’t one place that comes to us at a certain time but is composed of many a tiny small moments of pure, absolute happiness. This morning on top of the spectacular Kulang Fort was one such moment. It was a relaxed morning since all we had to do that day was to climb down. We woke up at about 6:30 AM, our little group sat on top of the cave and watched the sun rise gradually over the crimson skyline against the mystic contours of the Kalusubai range and Pappon serenaded us with ‘Moh moh ke dhaage as we sipped our hot, cups of tea in silence.

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In the sea of singers these days, it’s very difficult to tell voices apart. And there are so many of them that it’s almost impossible to keep track. In the past few years, only two songs have made me want to look up the singer as soon as I heard the song and I have followed their work with interest ever since.  Pappon was one of those two singers and the song that made me fall in love with his voice a couple of years ago was this one. The second singer was Arijit, way back in 2012, when I first heard Phir le aaya dil. I think I was cleaning my closet or doing something very mundane when this song played on the radio for the first time and it did what only timeless, classic songs have the power to do – command undivided attention. I put down whatever I had in my hands and sat down to listen – enjoy the music, the voice and the lyrics.

Coming back to the trek – we enjoyed a beautiful, leisurely morning and started climbing down after a big, hearty brunch. It was a long, long … loooooong way back. We reached the base village at 4 PM in the evening and changed into a clean set of clothes. Ah, the joy! In celebration of trek completion, the organizers played loud, blaring music – all marathi dance numbers – and people danced. Those moves, not at all my cup of tea. :) I found a seat on the bus and plugged in my earphones and listened to some more music on my way back. We stopped at Nasik for dinner and reached Pune early morning at 2 AM.

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Resolutions aren’t really my thing but lists certainly are. And on top of my list this year, is to climb more mountains and I’m so glad that AMK happened in the very first week of 2017. Hoping for many more to come this year and beyond!

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Photo credits : Thanks to Mr. Sanyal, Anil and Reema :)

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