1 August 2008

Letter 2.54

Going north out of Almora there is a steep climb along a paved road for about 1,5 miles, until coming to Chota Bazaar ('Little Market'), which lies at the foot of Crank's Ridge. Turning off the paved road one enters upon the Ridge, a horse-shoe-shaped protuberance (visible from Almora and blocking the north and view) perhaps 6 miles long. The dirt road-jeepable in good weather -- then makes a huge arc along the top of the Ridge, and it is sometimes possible to look down both sides at once -- steeply sloping hills (often more vertical than horizontal) of pine forests (which are tapped for turpentine) and deodars (a tree similar to the pine) with grassy fields and long-trod footpaths, during the rainy season (now) brooks well up out of the upper slopes and cascade down to the valleys thousands of feet below, where minute villages are nestled among the terraced rice-paddy fields that slope upwards to the forest line. Since there are few thorns, bushes, and other obstacles I can wander among the slopes freely clambering over stone walls which separate fields, wading (and bathing in) icy streams, sitting on rocky outcroppings or at the root of a tree. Except for an occasional boy tending his herd of cows, buffalo or goats, and for the prematurely yellowed and wrinkled village woman who passes by carrying a basket on her head laden with pine needles, straw, or vegetables, there is no one about.

Although there's a lot of farming in the valleys, these high foothills of the Himalayas are still wild: in the day I can watch eagles soaring above, their wings quivering for balance only rarely, and at night I sometimes hear the yelping howl of packs of jackals or a solitary wolf. And on the topmost peak of Crank's Ridge -- perhaps 7500 feet (Almora is 5600 feet) -- is the Kasr Devi temple, an ancient complex of low stone structures where I can sit, in sunny weather, soaking it all in. And, of course, when the skies are unusually clear for the rainy season, I can look north, to the snow-peaked mountains 50 miles away, and be always astonished at how much higher, and more massive, and icier blue white they are than I remember them being the last time I saw them: the most prominent peak, Nanda Devi, is over 25,000 feet high, and although over 50 miles away it is easily capable of sending icy blasts of wind (and, perhaps, more subtle emanations not only far beyond Almora, but even, in the southwest, to Rishikesh, the Hindu holy of holies, a hundred miles off. The details -- the minutiae of life -- here are always surprising; a wonderland. The mountains, the hills, valleys, flowers, birds, clouds, fogs, and sunsets all strongly and strangely affect the people who choose to live at this height (altitude an attitude?).

The road also has its influence. Beginning at Chota Bazaar it continues far, beyond the Ridge, and the knowledge that it carries on into Tibet already gives it a certain mystique: On clear mornings the massive fortress-like mountain called Trisul (in Tibetan: I don't know the Hindi or English names) is visible in the far northwest, pure white with peaks at each of its four corners, nearly 100 miles away, but still dominating its quarter of the horizon, and Trisul is in Tibet itself, the forbidden (and forbidding) land.

The road, running along the top of the Ridge, sometimes seems like the Razor's Edge, worn blunt, but also -- since daily there is a certain amount of going up and down the road -- being nearly circular I find myself in a position reminiscent of an ant that runs endlessly along the rim of a cup, ever retracing its own steps, and -- since everyone else on the Ridge does the same thing -- I always meet people on road and we stop to wave our tentacles at each other over a cup of tea, or to just talk briefly before hurrying on to circle the rim of the cup once again.

There are many Westerners here doing various Things -- Hindu Things, Buddhist Things, Tantric Things, Freak Things, or simply quiet things -- and many very cool heads among the Indians as well, and also some very peculiar congruencies and incongruencies: perhaps in another missive I can describe the local fauna who live north of Chota Bazaar, and you will understand why the area is called Crank's Ridge.

A cottage has been rented for three months; a three-room affair with 3 patio with a fine view to the north; it's on one of the hills atop the Ridge, but off the 'main' road, so all is quiet with few visitors. (I call it 'the Mole Hill' because I want to make a mountain of it.) It has a stone floor and a slate roof and is a rustic mixture of colonial and native styles. Our landlord, Major B. Thomas Chodhury, is a well-off wog -- i.e. a native who has tried to get into the (former) colonial power-structure by adopting English ways: he vacations in a big house just above the cottage; but since hels usually in Delhi -- as he will be for the next two months -- we have the use of his fine large unkempt gardens, as well as the rest of the (non-commercial) estate for Rs. 40-/month -- a bit less than $6. With a few bits of furnishing -- a large rug in the main room (where we mostly live, and which is about 14 feet by 12 feet), straw mats, etc. -- it’s quite cozy, particularly with a roaring log fire in the fireplace. Water is not much of a problem in the rainy season -- we have 4 gallon tins brought up from a tank not far below now -- but when the rain stops we'll have to have it brought from a mile away, the nearest spring, where it is enriched with minute particles of mica (a lot of the stone hereabouts is mica, which glitters beautifully in the sun, but is ugly for the guts) which have to be carefully filtered out: the water shortage is what keeps the population sparse in this area: aside from a few other Westerners living on another part of the estate, our nearest neighbor in any direction is a 20 minute walk -- that's over to Snowview Estate.

It's afternoon now, and I'm sitting on the porch, The day's light sprinkle is over; the sun shines on the hedges and deodars, and I can look out onto the far end of the Ridge and the patchwork slopes leading down to the valley -- a few bits of houses, sprinklings of trees, a few fields, pasturage, light green, dark green, dusky and russet, and onto the next few ranges of hills, deeply etched with shadow and stippled by forests and fields, and then mountains of white and grey cumulus clouds mass high to obscure the sight of white and blue Himalayan crags which, perhaps this evening, will become visible again, One of the semi-wild dogs hereabouts wandered up, sniffed around, and wandered off again -- they live on gleanings from houses and shops on the Ridge -- and somewhere distant is the sound of a woodchopper, and in another direction, also distant, some children are shouting and laughing. A farmer came a while ago and sole me a kilo of peaches for 75 paise (about 1O¢). Soon apples will be in season. Two eagles soar over the valley now, one at eye level, and everything sparkles in the thin air of nearly 1,5 miles high. Time passes very slowly in the mountains, and the scent of the pine cones linger in the day, the coals of the fire linger in the evening, wisps of valley-riding fog linger in the morning. Perhaps I shall linger here a while longer.

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