Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Every now and then nostalgia bumps into wobbly memory cells, leaving you a bit tongue-tied. This happened to me last week when a friend, an ultra-marathoner,  suddenly asked me -  "I want to climb Mt. Fuji - do you know anybody who can arrange it in the off-season this year?"

While trying hard to remember details of my trip in 2009, I just said, "It all depends on when you are planning to climb..."

For a moment, I could not recall the dates when I climbed that iconic mountain. Nor could I remember the route I took, or the total expense for that trip. Instead, the memories that floated up immediately were -  the taste of the most delicious hot curry rice I'd ever had, at a quaint wooden inn high above the clouds; of the long lines of climbers trudging uphill in pitch darkness at 3:00AM; the cold wind and rains, and of a spectacular sunrise we saw, perched precariously on steep, dark slopes dotted with large chunks of pale, white ice.

Memories of the trek had receded to the bye lanes of my mind. It did pop up occasionally whenever I came across a painting, a photograph, or even an emoji that featured Mt. Fuji. A fleeting thought would then cross my mind - "I have actually been to the top of that mountain!"  A sense of awe and wonder that was, perhaps, bigger than the actual experience.

I had to go back to the notes written six years ago, to be reminded that I owed the trip to a gentleman named Sakata Yoshinori, and to an organisation named JISEDAI. In July 2009, I had responded to a notice that came up at Tsukuba University. I was the only one who registered, so  Sakata-san had traveled all the way from Tokyo, just to brief a single guy.

When we met at the Tsukuba TX station, he was standing next to the ticket counter, soaked in sweat. At a Starbucks table nearby, he had carefully handed me his visiting card, and then spread out his laptop, plugged in a thumb-drive, to explain how I should prepare for the trek.

"It would be a nine-member team this year", he had said "All the others were university students from Tokyo". He explained the itinerary, detailed the expenses (~JPY 20,000 which included bus-rides, boarding, meals), and pointed out the precautions to be taken and then offered to help me find the right equipment for the trip. I definitely needed a 35L backpack, a pair of waterproof trousers and, if possible, ankle-length hiking shoes.

Mr. Sakata even insisted to helping me get the right equipment and took me to a few shops at Tsukuba Centre. Apart from being amazed at his helpfulness, I remember thinking that his well-meaning advise bordered on being fussy and over-cautious. Having done some trekking in the Western Himalaya's, climbing a gentle-looking 3776m peak did not seem like a big deal. And then there was the cost of buying all the new gear...It is only later that I realized that Mt. Fuji was different, and that each item was necessary.

Eight of the nine-member team turned up. We all met outside the Shinjiku station and discovered that an interesting mix of people -- Yeo, a dude from Singapore; Melissa, a budding dentist from Indonesia, along with her two batchmates Pat and Thuy; A South American named German (pronounced Herman), and two other experienced Japanese trekkers - Chiaki and Hiroki.

We all took a bus from Tokyo to the Gotenba (2 hours), and then a local bus to a large facility called Fujinosato, an 'education facility' right next to the JSDF Takigahara camp. It was a sprawling campus with scores of tatami-matted dormitories, forest trails, an archery complex, camping sitesi in the woods, and even a spacious Onsen (hot-spring bath). School children, baseball teams, and various other groups in assorted uniforms milled about the place, waiting for their turn to climb uphill.

Our turn was early next day morning. After breakfast we walked to the base of the 7.8 km Subashiri Trail, downed a few cups of green-tea, and started trekking on  pathway that cuth through the thick forests.

At this point the ground was gently undulating - pathways that cut through the deep, dark volcanic soil and lush vegetation. As we climbed to 6th Station (2400m), and the 7th Station (3000m), forests gave way to sparse scrub vegetation dotting the slopes, and then none at all beyond the Old 7th Station (3200m). We rested for a while at this point at the Miharashikan Hut.  By this time it was cold and windy outside, and, at a time like this, what could be more welcome than a plate of hot curry rice? :)

Shadow of Mt. Fuji on the Clouds (Old 7th Station)

Early next morning, we padded ourselves with warm clothing, fitted head-lamps and walked out into the pitch darkness, to join a steady stream of climbers going uphill. It was between the 8.5th Station - 3450m (Goraikokan Hut), and 9th Station that we noticed that we were far above the clouds. This was also the meeting point of the Yoshida Trail (Yamanishi Prefecture) and, suddenly, it felt like we were all commuters at the Shinjiku Station!

Torches and lights were switched off as everybody settled down on the steep slopes, sitting down wherever they could find some space. As the clouds gradually gathered light, we all seemed to be sitting in a massive amphitheater, waiting for the drama of the rising sun to unfold...and what a sight it was!

Within seconds of the sunrise, a blanket of clouds rolled out reducing visibility to a few meters, and drenching us all in icy rain. We continued moving up at a snail's pace now, a part of a long line of colorful raincoats slowly bobbing to the summit. The last few hundred meters were rather steep and the ropes helped. Finally, when we reached the top, got past the crowds and eateries and looked down the caldera, it seemed so... ordinary.

After offering prayers are the Kusushi Shrine we started our descent. It was a lot faster than I expected because we were just wading down ash-laden slopes. Often our legs would just dig in, right up to our knees with each step.
Wading down the ash-slopes
This is where you realise that Mt. Fuji was quite different from other non-volcanic mountains. The weather was fickle, and the terrain even more so. Each and every item listed by Sakata-san turned out to be essential - the layered clothing, raincoats, and ankle-length boots. Our friend from Singapore made the mistake of coming in shorts and sneakers, and paid the price for it. He had been shivering from the 7th Station, and now, with the ash filling up his sneakers, he was feeling quite miserable all the way down.

In a couple of hours we were down at the Subashiri base station, and then on to the comforts of Fujinosato. After a soak in the steaming Onsen, a hot meal and a nap in the bus back to Tokyo, none of us doubted that Mt. Fuji looked a lot prettier from a distance!

For friends who are trying to climb Mt. Fuji during the off season, my suggestion is simple -- please don't. During the off season, all huts, toilets and first aid stations are closed and most of signs on the trails are removed. Unless, of course, you are part of JSDF, a scientific team or a team with special permission, your are quite unlikely to get beyond the 5th Station.

The climb is not difficult, but given the way the weather changes suddenly, the chances of getting lost in the forests, rain or in the cloud-covered slopes, is quite high, unless, of course, you are travelling with experienced climbers, and following a long line of colorful raincoats all the way to the top!


Official Website for Mt. Fuji Climbers - http://www.fujisan-climb.jp/en/season/
  • Climbing season: Early July to Mid-September
Subashiri Trail - http://www.fujiyama-navi.jp/fujitozan/route/page/subashiri/lang/en/

For info on other trails - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gail-nakada/how-to-climb-mt-fuji_b_3693642.html

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Kalavati and Kankali

If there was a book that brings ancient India back to life, this must be it.

Kshemendra's Sanskrit classic, "Samaya Matrika" (The Courtesan's Keeper), presents the life and times of a Kashmiri hooker, more than a thousand years ago. For anybody who looks at the mess in Kashmir today this book is revelation of alternative realities that existed long before Islamic invaders, their pillaging and forced conversions transformed the valley into a completely different animal.

Written sometime between 990 - 1070 AD, the book begins - "In Kashmir, there was a famous town called Pravarapura (today's Srinagar). Its name is a byword for worldly pleasures."

The protagonist, Kalavati, is no ordinary hooker. She is a courtesan, a professional well versed in the arts, one who clearly understands the limitations set by an ageing body. When business takes a downturn she decides to seeks help from a friend who introduces her to an old, experienced lady who becomes her adviser, consultant and mentor.

The book brings to life a time when religion was a garment that was worn lightly. You could joke about Gods and their fallibility. It weaves humor and irreverence with homilies that would do AIB proud. Here are a few samples -

"One's youth must be devoted to a special, artful trade -- that of relieving the unintelligent of their money in various ways..."
 "One who has money is honored by everyone...And  the unlucky one who does not earn money, is always a malefic planet: the heartless Rahu, the slow-moving Shani and the crooked Mangala."
"Do not forget that youth, the friend of lovers, is ever passing. It disappears like the pretty spring creepers and the sun's warmth on the lotus pond; like the autumn moonlight...like a simpleton's money"
Along with tricks of the trade, the narrative carries you through cities and towns that existed long ago, and gives you a glimpse into the lives of traders who crisscrossed various kingdoms with ease. A saffron trader brings his son along and the youngster cannot resist the temptation of making a show of his father's wealth. Scenes that have not doubt, been repeating every year for the past 1000 years!

Many of the places mentioned in the book still exist but with truncated names. Pratapapura is now Tapar, Vijayeshvara is now Vijabror and Parihasapura is the Paraspor of today.

The book also opens up a world of possibilities in Sanskrit literature which, for some odd reason, is now co-branded and fettered with religious texts.

It also makes you look at today's Kashmiri's in a completely new light, for it is difficult to imagine that the ancestors of burkha-clad women, the stone-pelting students and gun-totting jihadi's of Kashmir once lived in an altogether different world!


Amazon - http://www.amazon.in/Courtesans-Keeper-Samaya-Matrika/dp/0143421476

Search Kashmir in Bits and Pieces - http://www.searchkashmir.org/2012/09/ruins-of-parihaspura-i-govardanadhara.html

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Spring Flushing Puzzle

Winter is giving way to Spring in Delhi.

Days are getting hotter, and longer; Sparrows are getting noisier as they compete for mates and nesting sites, and the lapwings have started doing aerobatics to keep stray dogs off their nesting grounds...and some trees are busy shedding leaves.

"Fall" is a season commonly associated with Autumn (Sep-Nov). It is easy to understand the logic behind trees shedding their leaves to prepare for a few months of cold winter. There is a need to conserve energy, to minimize exposure to the elements, especially when energy from sunlight is hard to come by.

Why then do so many trees retain their leaves right through winter, only to shed them in spring, just when the days are getting brighter?

In NCR Delhi, many avenues are littlered with yellow leaves time of the year. Neem (Azadirachta indica), Kadamba (Neolamarckia cadamba), and even the Rangoon Creeper (Quisqualis indica / "Madhmalti") go almost completely barren even while they are putting out fresh shoots and leaves. Why is this so?

Turns out that botanists and ecologists are still grappling with this puzzle. They call this phenomenon "characteristic and counterintuitive ‘spring-flushing’ of monsoon forest trees". Latest available research covering Costa Rica, India and Thailand seems to suggest that the trees do this because "it optimizes use of large subsoil water reserves for photosynthetic activity during seasonal drought and thus extends the relatively short, wet growing season."

This does not make sense. Neem trees thrive in dry, drought prone areas and it seems unlikely that Rangoon Creepers are capable of sending their roots deep down to the 'large subsoil water reserves'.

So this makes 'spring flushing' yet another of nature's puzzles, and the answers continue to be in the realm of speculation.


*(2006):  Leaf flushing during the dry season: the paradox of Asian monsoon, Global Ecology and Biogeography -  http://ctfs.si.edu/Public/pdfs/ToDelete/Elliott_etal_2006_GlobalEcolBiogeogr.pdf

* Spring Flushing - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00468-002-0185-3
- Establishment of new foliage shortly before the wet growing season is likely to optimize photosynthetic gain in tropical forests with a relatively short growing season.

- Deciduous - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deciduous

Indian Infra: Untold Stories, Lost Lessons

I always do a double-take whenever I spot an article or new item on the Delhi-Mumbai Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC).  Call it nostalgia, or just plain curiosity that comes from close association a few years ago.

I was working with JICA in the 2000s when this project was conceived, and when the proposal passed through the labyrinth of North Block before being taken up by the Japanese government. As a part of the numerous surveys and site visits that resulted in the master-plan, I worked with various consultants and traveled extensively - especially in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

One thing that had always puzzled me was the insistence from Indian Railways that the dedicated freight line be "double stack" and "electrical traction". This meant that the engineers and planners had to work on Star Trek mode - to 'go where no man had gone before'. Such a combination had never been implemented successfully anywhere. Getting the electrified pantographs over and above the height of double-stacked containers, and then to get these trains to run reasonably fast across the baked scrublands of Rajasthan, seemed particularly difficult.

Another clear challenge was to get the freight lines through the super densely populated areas of Mumbai, to the JNPT Port.

After 2009, I had lost touch with this project since not much was coming into the public domain by way of news. I did read that the Japanese had - very strategically - limited their ODA involvement to the Western Corridor, and that too from Rewari to Vadodara, instead of going all the way till Mumbai. The Eastern Corridor was subsequently taken up by the World Bank.

Cut to 27 Feb., 2017, to a symposium organised the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and the Embassy of Japan on "Quality Infrastructure: Japanese Investment in India". At this event, I was quite surprised to hear Mr. Amitabh Kant (now CEO, NITI Aayog) say that five new cities would be commissioned by 2018, along the DFC.

Was this my own Rip Van Winkle moment? What had I missed? Was the Industrial Corridor coming up faster than the freight corridor that supported it? How was this great development being ignored by our hyperactive media?

A subsequent presentation confirmed a long-held opinion that the focus of the Indian media remains firmly on negative reporting. Good news is no news.

Mr. Anil Kumar Dutta (MD, DFC 2014-15) spoke of the close coordination with state government that had resulted in smooth transfer of land to DFC. He talked of 'bombshells' that had been defused during his tenure. One had come from the environment ministry (MoEF) demanding that the route alignment be shifted 140km to save the Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. Another one from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that had objected to the use of a piece of land in the Rewari for the main rail-yard because it had traces of a Harappan settlement dating back to 3000+ years.

Contrary to popular notions about both MoEF and ASI, Mr. Dutta declared that they were "most cooperative...all you must do is to listen - and take action - on their concerns!"

In the case of the suspected Harappan settlement, the discussions had yielded a time-bound, pragmatic solution. DFC hired the services of IIT Kanpur and had the whole rail-yard zone scanned with special ground penetrating radars. A small portion was found to contain ancient remains and  ASI had agreed to go as deep as required to extract all the material it needed. Once this was done, all the clearances were promptly given.

This symposium had quite a number of takeaways. Clearly, we seem to be hiring the right people for the right jobs and they seem to be doing great work, far away from the glare of the Indian media.

Unfortunately, it is also clear that we continue to be pathetic when it comes to documenting lessons learnt from mega projects like the Dedicated Freight Corridor. Great lessons learnt by JICA, DFC and DFCCIL remain locked in project reports, and in the minds of the pragmatic people who cut the proverbial Gordian knot, and then moved on nonchalantly to the next task at hand, or just faded into retirement.

If the lessons we learn are not shared in the public domain, the task of pioneers in other sectors are bound to become so much more difficult.


* DFCCIL - http://dfccil.gov.in/dfccil_app/Home
* Axis Capital PPT (Jan., 2016) - http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/Railways%20report%20-%208%20Jan%202016.pdf
* Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary - https://forests.gujarat.gov.in/balaram-sanctuary.htm
* (2012) - http://www.financialexpress.com/archive/environmental-issues-may-delay-rail-freight-corridors/1030135/
* (2013) - DFCCIL PPT by R.K. Gupta -- http://www.i-cema.in/past_event/DFCC-Project-Status-Opportunities.pdf
* Nippon Koei India - http://www.nkindia.in/transportation.html