The next day, around 9 in the morning, Skandh and I set out for the village of Grahan. From what we could ascertain, it would take around 4-5 hours to reach there. Carrying only the essentials in a drawstring bag, power banks, sandwiches, bong and water, we set out down the path from Kasol market and up to Grahan. We had no idea how far it was, what the way was like nor possessed a reliable map of the area. It was just us, the bong and the great unknown (at least to us).
After about an hour and a half of spirited climbing, attacking the slopes with a gusto and pushing ourselves ever upwards, we reached what seemed like the summit of a small hill. We cheered and pat ourselves on the back, thinking that obviously, Grahan cannot be surely so far off, we had done quite a lot of climbing, must be at least halfway there. We kept walking down dried up streambeds, rocks jutting out at angles that made it difficult for us to keep a plane footing, hairpin bend after bend, sometimes steeply upwards, sometimes straight but entirely the wrong direction, From time to time we passed villagers going the opposite direction. How nimbly they loped along! How simple they made it look. Also, it didn't help that I was lugging along perhaps an extra 40 kilos of fat on my legs. 2 hours later and I was a panting, sweating, thirsty wreck. The river gushed beside us and yet there was no discernible way down and we longingly looked at it in thirst. The cold weather was a blessing in disguise and helped keep us on our feet and kept me from overheating.
After maybe 3 hours into the hike, we came across a small clearing with a huge rock formation, ideal for our small lunch of chutney sandwiches we had so thoughtfully packed back at the lodge. We ate silently, thanking our 4 hour past selves for their foresight. After lunch, I presently plopped myself on a rock that had been pleasantly warmed by the sun for a while and laid back indulgently. Oh how glorious that nap was, I had never before experienced such deep relaxation in 15 minutes as I had then, at that point; wearied but full, tired but happy. A few minutes later another party of Israelis, evidently with the same destination, came up the road into the clearing. Seeing me lolling on the sunlit rock like a tired, happy dog, one of their group, came up to me, and with a smile, wordlessly gave me the little water she had in her bottle. I looked up in gratitude and wonder. At that moment in time, and place, no one was as beautiful as she was. I gladly received the bottle and sipped the cool, crisp river water. She had to have been an apsara, sent by the devas; or so I like to believe. Thirst temporarily averted, we set off again up the trail. A little way ahead we met two men coming the opposite way, and they told us to take the 'Easy way' ; which made no sense at all at the time. Half an hour later, we came to a fork in the trail. The path going down to the left was marked with arrows and chalked on the rock in a friendly hand was written - "Easy Way"; and to the right, the trail angled steeply upwards, looking dark and forbidding. The choice seemed so laughingly simple that we presently wheeled left and set off at a brisk pace, fully expecting to see Grahan around the next bend.
The trail was long and winded, we dragged our soles forward without any bearing or idea if we were on the right path. For a few hours we met no one, mobile networks were non-existent and we grew weary and impatient. The scenes that met our eyes at every turn was breathtaking but a few hours of that and you start yearning for the reassuring sight of a gable roof. With no internet, and therefore no maps, trying to use a finger cubit to scale our distance on the blank screen from the blue GPS dot and the starred Grahan temple was quite useless as the path meandered back and forth, and thus the distance and displacement would be different by scores. At one point we encountered a portion of the trail that had caved in, and the only way across was to sling across using some broken tree roots. Pure terror gripped my heart every time my footing gave way, but slowly and surely, with a lot of grit, we made our way around it, clinging on to the soil and roots for dear life. A little ahead, we met our first person in miles, and asked him how far Grahan was and where could we find water, he replied it was half an hour away and water, 15 minutes away. And sure enough, Mother Gaia was kind enough in 15 minutes as we came up to this gurgling spring by the side . We drank our fill, filled our bottle and set on forward.
Six hours into the trail, the question on our lips was the same; Where Is Grahan? It had been 2 hours since we went down the "Easy Way" and yet there was no sign of the village or its people. We climbed down what may have been the 3rd steep hill since the fork, and before us lay a grassy riverbank, dotted with tall bushes and trees. The most surreal pathway opened up before us. The ground was mushy, and gave way easily under our feet. Roaring past us was the mountain river, seeming tantalisingly like jewels. The range of emotions pure water can excite just by foaming, frothing, leaping from rock to rock has no bounds. It's a primeval bond that leaves you feeling comforted, safe, and nourished next to water. A river in spate, the roar, the gentle mist, the crash on the rocks, a juggernaut of nature and giver of life. Out here, one develops a deep respect and awe for the untamed and the free.
The trodden path on the riverbank ended at the foot of another hill. Grudgingly we plodded our way upwards round the hill. Halfway up, the trail turned across the trail direction and we were treated to a view of the way we'd come by.
We sat down to admire the view. It was now 6 pm and we had been on the trail for more than 7 hours. Looking at the horizon, across the blue and green valley, for the first time in the trail, it didn't matter if we reached Grahan on time. The constant expectation of seeing Grahan had plagued us as soon as we had begun the hike, and we kept hoping and calculating and plotting our way and time. But Mother Gaia had other plans. She took away our encumbrances, our training wheels, and slowly, her hand from ours. Time and distance really didn't matter out here. Our watches ticked away unseen, while we tracked the sun across the sky. Expectations bred want and in turn, wants led to disappointment. After we had been broken in, all that mattered was that we came this far beyond our own puny little comfort zones, without our smartphones to help.
Chests brimming with joy, we continued upwards along the circuitous track around the hill. A few minutes later however, found us pressing ourselves flat against the hillside as a trio of enormous cattle came abreast down the narrow path. This was a good sign as it meant people weren't far behind. And sure enough, 10 minutes up the path, there came running down the hillside a lady, quite breathless from the run, enquiring whether we'd seen the cows. Flummoxed, we wordlessly pointed down the hill, and she shot off down the hillside. Bolstered by this encounter, we trudged up the hillside with renewed vigour. As we turned around a bend, at last we spied Grahan nestled on the hillside, the last rays of the setting sun illuminated the gable roofs like heavenly Shangri-La. Oh, how rewarding did the aches in my back feel then! Overcome with joy and relief, we sat down on the trail itself, waves of euphoria washing over us.
As we made our way past the last little bridge and into Grahan, we looked about us for a place to set down and get a well deserved bong hit. Wandering about, and choosing to keep off the main village square, we tried the inner pathways and ended up at the quaint little house called Mount View Cottage. Finding no one in the house we made to return to the main square and try our luck someplace else, when we almost ran into an old lady. Turns out, she was the proprietor of Mount View, and she absolutely wouldn't hear of us eating anywhere other than her place. We gladly accepted and deposited ourselves in the upper room for the princely sum of 200 Rs.
After we had settled in and kicked off our boots, she came up to our room with two glasses of rhododendron juice known as buransh, the last of their batch. During the season, the women gather flowers in large numbers, crush the stalks and extract the juice. The juice is a deep red colour and quite delicious, it was a pity that was the last of it. Dinner was a simple affair of steaming aloo parathas and spicy homemade chutney. Our hunger, which had been largely ignored since morning, came rolling back in waves. We put away those aloo parathas like we'd never seen one before. The lady's son sat with us while we ate, occasionally sharing a bite, and talking about his village and his life in and around it. The people of Grahan are some of the hardiest and happiest people I have ever met. What takes 6 hours, say even 4 hours to the fittest of city dwellers to make it to Grahan from Kasol, takes them 2 hours. In case of a medical emergency, such as delivery of a child, 4 men carry the woman on a chair up and down the hills to Kasol. The hardships of this life up in the hills were fiercely and proudly met head on by these noble and hardworking people.