A Short, Solo Hiking Adventure in the Eastern Himalayas, When the Host Family Dogs Abandon Me
One has to be confident while hiking. One should know that her shoes can take care of her and, if alone, she can climb down steep paths and clamber up narrow ridges by herself. Because, sometimes, things don’t work out the way you expect them to. Then you have to adapt. This is one such story of a lone hiking adventure on a sunny afternoon in the Eastern Himalayas of Sikkim.
Please note: Below is my diary journal from the day of the adventure. I have edited the note for better readability and reflecting back, have drawn lessons from the journey.
May 8, 2023
I am here in the Sikkim countryside.
After being in a hotel room in Gangtok for three months—I couldn’t look up from a creative writing project—I wanted to go deep into the state. The Eastern Himalayas are unknown to me, and I was craving to walk on them. I couldn’t go on a longer hiking trip but I could take two days out to be on the wild Himalayas.
With that promise, my partner and I checked out of our Gangtok home, said goodbyes to the hotel staff who had treated us like family, and set out onto the road. The village homestay we had been trying to book didn’t reply. We called the Homestays of India website which said even they couldn’t reach the family. The guy from the website booked us a room in a tea estate. This guesthouse was a bit more expensive but was promised to be really good.
That was yesterday. When we arrived, the house was so dirty as if it hadn’t been cleaned for months. The linen was filthy but only at night when I was about to sleep and started shaking the blankets that the big cockroach came out of his cosy nest in the bed.
More on the un-livability of the place later. But the two dogs here surely brighten up the day when you are trying to not have a heart attack from the sight of the drinking water that you have drank half a litre of and that has been fermenting with cobwebs, dirt, and other indiscernible particles for who knows how long.
Today afternoon, as I was heading out for a walk, I called the dogs. They got up and followed me as if they knew it was time to walk. I wonder if they go into the woods by themselves, too.
This home is on the road but the family’s tea estate sprawls up on the mountain. Towards the left of the estate, the mountain is wild: no homes, no farms, nothing. Through a path leading from the backside of the guest rooms, and from which women bring down firewood on their backs, I went into the forest.
I went up the trail yesterday, too. It climbs up the mountain through a dense and mostly undisturbed forest: the kind in which the branches, trees, shrubs, and grass, everything is trying to grow into each other.
Today, I followed the forest-fringed path to its end, beyond which a landslide had happened recently. The mother dog Kanchi and her son, quite conveniently named, Baby, ran onto the rocks and were through the landslide area in seconds. I also took onto the flattest part of the scree. Then we climbed up slippery stairs along the edge of the hill. I wanted to go to the end of the track. Soon, it brought us out on the road.
The route had been tricky and slippery at the end. Maybe I will walk back to the house via the road. I would explore the road too. It will be easier to walk on it anyhow.
It was the main highway. On the road, the dogs were uneasy. Perhaps they didn’t know the way and didn’t trust me. For as we walked, first they were ahead of me, then they crossed the road and ran about. I called them back afraid a car might run over them. But Kanchi started running amok again.
After less than ten minutes, Kanchi, the mother, jumped down the road and went down the slope before I could even see which trail she had taken. Her son, Baby, didn’t follow her. She surely must have gone home. Where else? But Baby who is bigger in size than his mother, stuck with me. He didn’t know the way.
“We two will just go along,” I said to Baby.
After a few minutes of walking onward, he stopped and returned to where his mother had disappeared. Dogs from a nearby home barked at him. The family looked at me suspiciously. On the left, only a small part of the scree was visible. The landslide must have affected that part as well. Baby jumped off the stones a bit but unsure of himself on the loose rocks he returned to me.
Baby wasn’t comfortable on the road either. After going back and forth a few times, we discovered the path through which we went out on the road. Baby stood rooted on his feet and refused to move. I nudged him with my hand, touching his soft fur, but he didn’t budge. I held onto leaves and branches and descended the slippery stairs. Baby followed me step by step. He clearly hadn’t gone down that way many times.
Slowly, we came down the soggy track. I called out to Kanchi but she wasn’t anywhere close.
“Your mother must have gone home,” that’s all I could say to Baby, who was looking around him like a restless baby missing his mother.
He and I crossed the landslide area and, at some point, I must have taken a wrong turn. The track became narrower and uneven and was hidden under decaying wet leaves. It now clung to the verge of the mountain. The trail was so unrecognisable that I was sure we hadn’t gone that way.
What shall I do now? Should I keep going? There is no point in turning around. I don’t know where I took a wrong turn.
With Baby on my tail, I continued even though I was unsure if I would reach home that way. For everything, it might be leading me further into an unknown part of the jungle.
Should I call someone? My partner was back in the room, busy on calls. It would be embarrassing and tedious to call the host family. I could still find the way and was hoping that Kanchi was already home.
Please please please, don’t let the dog get lost. What will I tell her family? If they don’t find Kanchi, they would surely ask me. Should I say, I didn’t know where she was or tell them that she had gone with me but had disappeared midway? What would Sagar say? Would he be irritated with me for getting lost in the middle of the day when I knew he was busy? Why did I get into the mountains with two family dogs and keep going on, knowing that I didn’t know those paths and could get lost?
Well, what was done was done. All I can now do was try to find our way back home safely.
The forest was deep. From both sides, large trees overgrew onto the path. Creepers as wide as anacondas stuck to tree trunks. The ground was squishy and squelchy. It had been raining a lot in Sikkim.
As I squeezed from behind a tree on the narrow jungly trail, two boys scrolling through their phones were seated right ahead of me. Perhaps they had been smoking something. Seeing me, they giggled, clearly a bit embarrassed to be seen like that. I didn’t pry and walked on.
Further ahead, the path became even narrower and was reduced to a faint essence of a trail that was now taken over by the jungle. I turned back to ask the boys for the way out.
One of them looked up from his phone and said, “If you follow the track straight ahead, you’ll arrive at the stairs you must have taken to come up.”
“What stairs? I took the jungle path,” I said.
“This will take you to the Shiv temple and then those stairs go right to the bottom,” The same boy replied.
With Baby behind me, I walked on. If the stairs go to the bottom, my life would be easy. But how have I ended up on this path that leads to the temple? Where did I go wrong? I didn’t know.
I knew the Shiv temple. Our host family told me they had constructed it. But as per the navigation in my head, I should have been far from the temple.
The boys were right. Soon, I was at the stairs. Further up was a stone arch, and from the red cloth tied to it, I could tell it led to the temple. But it wasn’t the same arch I had seen on my walks earlier. Is it the family’s Shiv temple or another one I have no idea about and that isn’t close to home at all?
I was sweating. My mouth was dry. Prickly bushes and scrubs had been poking my legs throughout. Except for the silence of the forest, I couldn’t hear anything. Baby wasn’t much help either. What I would not have given to get out of that forest, have some water, and be with my partner in our room!
Baby, who had been pretty unsure and bewildered until now, sat down on the stairs with some relief on his face. I walked to him. After exchanging a few comforting words, I started climbing up to the arch.
Maybe this is the same arch, and I’ve always seen it from the other side. Maybe the house is just beyond this. That couldn’t be because the cottage was not higher than the arch, it was at a lower height. But when the brain is so confused, it conjures up things.
As I went up the stairs, Baby, finally, gave up on me and disappeared. I was sure that unable to take any more of my curiosity and exploration, he had gone home. The stairs continued up the arch and still no temple so I went down again.
After a bit, the stairs ended. The remnant of a mulch-covered trail was steep from there. It looked quite slippery too. First, I sat down on my haunches. I would get down slowly. But on a monsoon hike through the sodden Western Ghats in Karnataka, my group had warned me against sitting down. “Hold the trees and lean on your walking stick,” they had said. Once you sit down, you find it harder to get up and balance yourself.
I stood up and put my feet on the thickest patches of grass I could find. One step at a time. The stairs reappeared. A breath of relief left my mouth.
The stairs then brought me out of the Shiva temple arch I recognised from my walks earlier.
I descended quickly now. With my heart beating against my chest, I was hoping to find both dogs at home.
Baby was there, licking his leg. I knew he would be. But when Kanchi who was sprawled right outside the family’s door came into my view, I breathed. I didn’t want the family to lose the dogs because of this random three-day guest who was stupid enough to take the dogs on the road.
I still don’t know where I had taken the wrong turn. Perhaps right at the landslide section. I guess I would never know, and it doesn’t matter.
On that walk, I felt fear after a long time. For a while, I had not been on a solo hike, short or long. In Siliguri city before Gangtok, I went for walks around our house. People were always around. A couple of months earlier in Vietnam, I went for a hike alone on a habited mountain. On that mountain path in a village, dogs barked at me so viciously I was sure one would bite me. It was a remote village, I was alone, my partner was back in the guesthouse, and the nearest town and the hospital were a few hours away. The locals didn’t help me until I called out for help from a family whose dogs had been barking at me for the past fifteen minutes and had blocked my way.
Then I knew the route back to the house. Even though street dogs followed me and my breath was stuck in my throat, I could be home in a few minutes by the curvy trail.
Here, I was scared, rivers of sweat were flowing out of my armpits, my t-shirt, and head, my throat was parched, and at times, my legs were trembling. I was scared I would fall. My shoes aren’t the best. I could have slipped on the rocks or the protruding roots and hurt myself. The pink rain jacket was rustling around me making me feel even hotter. I felt stupid.
The abandonment of the dogs bothered me too. If you head out alone, you head out alone. But suddenly bereft of their company, I noticed their absence. The dogs didn’t trust me.
I am visiting Sikkim for the first time, and the mountains here are strangers to me. While in Himachal locals were more scared of leopards, here, people worry about black bears. Our host said a bear had eaten a man’s hand but the guy managed to escape. A woman who had gone to cut grass had been attacked and killed by the bear. In these very forests. Apart from those two guys whom I luckily found, no one was there in the jungle.
Maybe, I found the boys at the right juncture. Or perhaps, you feel that wherever you got help that was the perfect and the last place for help, else you would have been lost. With my legs trembling from the effort of stabilising them on the wet and mossy forest ground, the idea played in my head that I might have to call my partner. He would have to leave work.
What would he do? How would I let him know where I was? Would he be able to walk up this path given he is so scared of slippery tracks?
Multiple thoughts clouded my head. Was I being overconfident when I said to Sagar I wanted to soon travel alone for six months while I could lose my way so close to the house?
Lone travels would bring troubles and dangers much more numerous, large, and visceral. When I left for the walk, my partner told me not to be too daring but I didn’t listen to him. He would have turned back from the landslide scree but I didn’t.
On a solo trip, I would have no one to find me or to call. No one to tell me to be careful. My partner, from far away, wouldn’t understand the context or the terrain even if I called him for help. Someone else would have to be called for assistance if it came to it.
But while fumbling to find the way home, I was thinking less and doing more. I was immersed in the now. With my feet shaking, I had fumbled for tufts of grass, anything to hold, grabbing whatever roots, leaves, or spiky branches came into my hand. I ignored the thought that the dogs had been peeing everywhere.
When the stairs seemed to have ended and the track looked unstable, I stopped and said to myself, “I can’t do this. I would just sit here and wait for those boys to come. Then I would walk with them.”
I didn’t wait though. I had to move despite the fear. I had to go past the physical barriers to get home. No one could help me unless I specifically called someone. No one knew where I was. There were little chances of someone just passing by.
So it was either take a step now or stay stuck here.
Sometimes, our journeys not only tell us our limits but also push us to move. Travel teaches me to move past not only the physical barriers but also the mental ones. Even when I was scared of falling, I had to keep going. And when you trust yourself and the universe enough times, you develop the habit of not staying stuck. To keep moving. To keep trusting. To keep taking step by step. Because you have seen it enough times that when you move, eventually you find your way. You are practicing the habit of unstucking yourself every time. And that was good enough for me on that afternoon. After all, I had done nothing else apart from satisfying my curiosity. That isn’t a crime now.
If I find myself in a problem on a solo trip, I would find a way out of it too. My travels have given me enough strength that I can promise at least that much to myself.
My partner was glad I was back. He was comforting the scratches on my hands and legs. Even though I was a bit shaken, the dogs had already forgotten about the whole adventure and were running around, doing their usual nonsense.
Should my learning here be that one should be less like a human, and more like a dog: playful and forgetful?
My partner and I discussed a protocol on what to do if I ever get lost alone on a mountain.
1. Don’t scold her
2. Don’t panic
3. She shouldn’t go out in the dark
4. She must be nearby
5. Prepare yourself to help—shoes, torch, phone, et cetera.
6. Be confident. Take a walking stick if needed. Wear shoes.
7. While leaving home to find Priyanka, tell some people you have gone to find her so they know what’s going on and where you are.
8. Maybe tell Priyanka to come on a main path if she can retrace her way and you pick her up in a car. Share live location.
9. Be thankful you found her.
10. Treat her with chocolates.
Have you ever been lost alone? What did you do?
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