The Indian Express: What Lies Within

Photographs by: Adityavikram More

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indian_express.jpgWhat Lies Within: The hypnotic beauty of Morocco’s stunning sand dunes

Written by Arefa Tehsin | Published: April 1, 2018 12:05 am

MoroccoA magical land: The wind, gulls and blue boats. (Source: Adityavikram More)

The kingdom of Maroc, enveloping in its fold mud castles, epic mountain ranges, a part of the largest hot desert on earth, wind-blown beach towns and Arabian Nights’ bazaars makes your imagination stretch like the sands of Sahara. An eclectic mix of Africa, Middle East and Europe, Morocco is as spiced up as its tagines. When you roam this fairytale land on the back of a camel or on your own two feet, be prepared to encounter Aladdin’s lamps and flying carpets, ancient fossils and veiled wizards and sometimes, even yourself.

One of the things we did to prepare for our Morocco trip was watch the excruciatingly long classic, The Lawrence of Arabia. Thankfully, now the haunting visions of the super-blonde Lawrence riding a camel back with both his legs dangling on one side have been replaced by villagers riding in similar style on donkey backs. Sometimes, you long for the reality to kick back in, even if it comes riding a donkey.

On our way to Sahara, our gregarious guide Meryam, one of the rare breeds of female guides in Morocco, initiated us into the culture with our first of many drinks of orange juice. Oranges were in bloom everywhere as we crossed ancient nomadic routes, two-toned Berber villages, the Draa valley and the Todra gorges. We sipped on the juice overlooking a Berber village sprawled on the shoulder of a High Atlas mountain as Meryam told us how people have nicknamed her “Abbas” as she does a man’s job. I thought someone needs to tell these men: “A woman’s place is in the house and in the senate.” But then, they don’t need more telling in their lives; only more Meryams.

Roald Dahl had said that those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. Our first brush with Moroccon magic was in Sahara, sweeping in all directions like an ocean that it once was. Ah, the ethereal sunset on the sand dunes, the drummers drumming around a bonfire beneath the stars, hot tagines and cold biting winds, and waking up to the lyrical landscape with a hundred hues of orange. Maybe, we can count the stars in the sky. But grains of sand in a desert? You need serious belief in magic for that.

SaharaShadows in the Sahara. (Source: Adityavikram More)A drink that is omnipresent in Morocco is sugared green tea. It is poured with relish to get froth and served in small glasses. Green tea with sugar kind of beats the whole idea, but not when you’re time travelling in cold lands. On a freezing desert morning, it tastes like nirvana as you try to imagine the best-kept secrets that lie in the desert’s ancient heart.

The most sensational scenery of the Atlas mountain range is between Merzouga and Ourrzazate. The landscape of Idraden Draden, Mountains of Mountains, is utterly bewitching and alien, right out of an outer space movie. To think of, we might actually be remembering it from an outer space movie! After all, we were nearing Ourrzazate, the Hollywood town of Morocco, a delightful town with lampshades-lined streets, boasting of large film studios where movies like Gladiator, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Mummy and Game of Thrones have been shot.

We continued to discover the romance of this North African land in its tagine and couscous clay pots, in its mud castles — kasbahs — in Dades Valley, in its foot tapping hip-hop, and in the crinkly smiles of locals nodding at us and saying, “Amitabh Bachchan!”

Essaouira, the “Wind City of Africa,” by the Atlantic coast — a colonial walled city with its cafes, craftsmen, street performers, ladies preparing the exotic Moroccon (argan) oil and spice scented lanes — is the most atmospheric of all Moroccan towns we visited. Chefs of the fish restaurants hold out live lobsters and crabs for you, blue boats bob their heads in the wind-swept harbour and windsurfers dance with the waves. A seagull may just poop on your head to bring you back to the more urgent matters at hand, like finding a place for your evening beer.

The ideal place to end our journey was Riad Palais Sebban in the cultural capital, Marrekech. The derelict exterior of the riad completely unprepared us for the opulent, stunning palace that lies within its belly, with three intricately designed patios ending in a beautiful water feature.

Moroccan pottery displayed outside a street shop in Marrakech. (Source: Adityavikram More)The maze of the Marrakech medina was much larger than that of Essaouria. The boutique-lined lanes opened up in a carnival of a large square with snake charmers, acrobats and sellers vending everything from millions-of-years-old trilobite fossils to crocodile skins and exotic pets. The performers and vendors were often pushy and rude. In a particularly nasty end to haggling over a diary, a shopkeeper roughly followed our friend, waving his hands in rage. “Mister, you do not know how to respect a pregnant woman!” Our friend snapped and stormed away. “Such rude people…” we lamented as we had a good dinner to quell our fried brains. We headed back in the dark alleys longing for the enveloping calm of our riad. Like Aladdin’s genie, the vendor emerged by our side and smiled. “Remember me?”

Without waiting for us to gasp and step back, he handed a diary to our friend, “A gift for your future child.”

It was not the palatial riad but the dark alley with the vendor that was the ideal place to end our Moroccon adventure. Both the riad and the vendor taught us the same lesson. Do not go by the derelict exteriors, for you never know what lies within.

Arefa Tehsin is an author and environmentalist.

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The lovely captures by Adityavikram More

 

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The Hindu: Driving Through Middle Land

Travelogue in The Hindu: Driving Through Middle Land

The beautiful captures by Adityavikram More
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Driving through Middle Land

  • AREFA TEHSIN
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
 
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
 
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
 
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
At Spiti Valley PHOTOS: ADITYAVIKRAM MORE
 

Gurgling rivers, crunchy apples, breathtaking views…Spiti Valley turns the writer into a storyteller

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” Bilbo had warned Frodo. And so were we warned, before we went to Spiti, literally ‘The Middle Land’ between India and Tibet, which is no less adventurous than the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings.

After an inspiring self-drive to Ladakh last year, we had to brave the more desolate desert mountain valley of Spiti in the Himalayas, located in the remotest part of Himachal. On the very first day of our long self-drive journey, the T-shirt of one of our gang warned us — ‘Things don’t get easier, you get stronger’.

Our journey started from Chandigarh. Crossing Shimla, we entered the valley through the Kinnaur region and reached Kaza, the district headquarters of Lahaul and Spiti, went in a long loop around the hushed valley and exited it through Rohtang La, which separates it from the chirpier Kullu valley. It’s essential to travel light if you don’t want to break your backs, however. Taking Solzhenitsyn’s advice, we let our memories be our travel bags and returned laden with a lot of extra baggage.

Apples, in full bloom throughout Kinnaur, were the constant companions on our autumn journey. We helped unburden the bent apple trees at every opportunity. We munched on apples as we hiked to the apple orchard village near the Sangla Valley, when we trekked from Chitkul alongside the Baspa River to the Chinese border and when we went to explore the area around Kalpa, with the snow-capped Kinner Kailash looming large by our side. Even when we reached the end of our comfort zones, we still carried apples.

The barrenness of the mountains strikes you with its suddenness as you enter the valley along the Spiti River and its numerous tributaries – from the fruit-abounding Kinnaur to the fruitless, pathless, treeless, fearless and people-less Spiti, one of the least populated regions of India. We passed villages with a population board stating “25 souls”.

Predominantly Buddhist, Spiti has a culture quite reflective of Tibet and Ladakh. It is dotted with gompas, around some of which small human settlements exist. The 1000-year-old Dhankar, perched precariously on jutting rocks on a mountaintop, is the most fascinating. It is losing its battle with the elements. It is on good terms with snow, but can’t stand rainfall, which has increased due to climate change. The revered dead animals that hang from its walls or the three skeleton-faced gods standing guard on tridents seem at a loss to halt the impending doom.

The best guides to any gompa are its lamas. Even if you had a working network in the remote Himalayas, Google cannot substitute talking to a lama, telling you that from each family they send the second son to become a lama to avoid division of family property. Or sitting in a wooden home in Sangla Valley, with the wife of the household asking one of her husbands to take care of the children while she talks of the fraternal polyandry practised by the locals — one wife with several husbands — to avoid division of family property. Paul Theroux wisely noted that tourists don’t know where they’ve been, and travellers don’t know where they’re going. And you too never know where these conversations will take you – to the deep recesses of timeless cultures or to the progressiveness of those supposedly left behind by progress.

Another popular monastery of the region is Key. On the winding road to this gompa, a golden mountain fox crossed our way at dusk with a fat rodent in its mouth. Although the drive by the river into the treeless Pin Valley was fascinating, there was no such encounter with a wild animal in this national park. And thus we kept driving in Spiti, with the hope to someday address Prophet Mohammed’s question, ‘Don’t tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you have travelled’ — especially since the question of education is a little touchy for most of us and we won’t tell that anyway.

If one is not as averse to a dry pit toilet as one is when it comes to talking of one’s educational qualifications, one can stay at Langza, the third highest village in Asia. Staying at a home in this village, which has a population of 200, provides an insight into their culture and the survival tactics needed in such an unfriendly terrain – and not to forget the local liquor.

Ibn Battuta had said that travelling leaves you speechless; then turns you into a storyteller. Our most adventurous story of the journey is of that fateful day when we crossed Kunzum La – which rises 15000 ft, dividing the Lahaul and Spiti region — in heavy snowfall, with our hearts and vehicle skidding from edge to edge, detoured to perilous Chandratal, crossed the stream-laced, pathless 50-km stretch till Gramphu at night, and arrived at Sissu just before we or the vehicles collapsed.

Sitting in Sissu by the willowed banks of the Chandra River, my partner Aditya told us its story. The Chandra River, as the mythology goes, was the princess of the kingdom around Chandratal, in love with Baga, the son of Suryatal’s king. They were caught and killed at Tandi, where they’d met to elope from their dissenting fathers. From then on, it is believed, they wander through mountains as Baga and Chandra rivers and converge perpetually at Tandi where they become the Chandrabhaga River. It’s not just us who are left speechless witnessing the Himalayas. The Himalayas are silent spectators in witnessing a race that has, for as long as they can remember, preferred war to love.