Back in 2001, I was a small town boy of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, who never travelled beyond his home town except 2-3 trips to nearby places and a school trip to Taj Mahal in Agra. There was a desire to see the new places always, but it never became a passion of my life. I was always fond of maps and had two great Atlases of Oxford and Dreamland’s Publications. I often stared on them. My inspiration was the lines of The Great Ghumakkad Rahul Sanskrityayan, “कमर बांध लो भावी घुमक्कड़ों ! संसार तुम्हारे स्वागत के लिए बेकरार है.” (Be ready future wanderers, world is eagerly waiting to welcome you).But still, during those days, I was not a nomad type of person. It was only in my thoughts.
It was only in the month of April 2002, when all it started. I was in the 2nd semester of Engineering and luckily my college was in Ghaziabad, close to Delhi. Delhi, the capital of India, is a major railway hub with trains connecting to all parts of India. One day my room-mate Manish showed me his railway pass, as his father is an Engineer in Indian Railways at Jhansi. That pass was valid from Jammu Tawi to Mumbai and there was no photograph pasted on that. It means, any person of the age of 21 years could use that pass using the name of Manish. So, I just planned a random tour to Shimla, the nearest hill station from Delhi after Mussorrie. Holding that free pass for a train journey 10 years ago, I didn’t know that my life was going to change forever and my decision would continue to empower and inspire me for the years.
I started my journey with two pair of clothes and Rs.350 in cash. No guide-books, no camera, only two atlases. Those were not the days of cheaper mobile phones or plastic money, so no debit or credit cards and no mobile phones. From Delhi, I boarded a train going to Ambala and after that, it became a week long journey on the random trains going to the random places on the route of my pass. None of those places were planned in my itinerary. I visited Rose Garden and Rock Garden in Chandigarh and The Golden Temple in Amritsar before reaching to Jammu Tawi. I thought in Jammu, I would be able to see the snow-packed mountain peaks of Himalayas. The train left me at Jammu station in a fine morning, but there was no sign of those snow-clad peaks. It was the first proof of my bookish theoretical knowledge of Geography, which never taught me that those snow-clad mountains are in the Kashmir Valley, nearly 300 kms away from Jammu, that too in winter season. In other season, you have to go well-beyond Sri Nagar and Gulmarg.
Anyway, I was still a confused traveler those days, so I went to Jammu Bus Stand. There was a list of nearby places with the fare, to which the bus services were available. I selected a place Katra, for which the fare was Rs.20, minimum in the list. In the search of the snow, I boarded a bus to Katra and reached there in 3 hours, still unaware of the fact that unknowingly I reached to the base of Trikuta Hill, that is the adobe of Maa Vaishno Devi (Goddess Vaishno Devi). In fact, I saw many hoardings on the way to Katra from Jammu and many stones painted (later those paints were removed by the Supreme Court Order) with Jai Mata Di, but still never thought about that as my mind was occupied with the snow.
When I de-boarded the bus at Katra, a man approached me and asked if I required any hotel room. I denied, and then he asked whether I would like to take a bath before climbing to the temple. Then I asked him, which temple is here? He told me that I reached at the base of Maa Vaishno Devi Temple. Oh My God! it was the biggest surprise in the entire journey. With mind full of surprise, heart full of joy and head bowed down in devotion, I visited the temple and offered my prayers there. After that I forgot about the mountains, the peaks, the snow and the Kashmir Valley. From there, I returned to Delhi. I told my friends about my visit and getting a Prasad of Maa Vaishno Devi Temple was a pleasant surprise for everyone.
That trip was only some random train journeys made in hurry without any knowledge and surely not the trip of life-time, but that changed my life forever. After that, I always celebrate my life on the road. Manish left the college in second year and I used his pass twice, second time to Mumbai. But still without that pass, I made many trips during my engineering days either alone or with my friends from Sri Nagar to Mumbai and from Jaipur to Kolkata. I have numerous stories of using general (2nd class) coaches of trains, spending nights at the platforms, eating foods on the roadside dhabas, spending money as less as I can.
I did not reach Shimla in that trip and Shimla remained far away for the next 7 years, when I finally reached there in 2009, but again that was Shimla minus the snow. The search of the snow is still going on, despite the fact that I have visited Sri Nagar, Gulmarg in Kashmir Valley; Dharamshala, Mcleodganj, Shimla, Kalpa, Chhitkul and Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh; Badrinath, Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib in Uttarakhand, but never ever I stayed on a full snow-clad mountain. I always got that snow in patches; however I have seen the glaciers in the Valley of Flowers and even walked on them. One day, I will surely visit these places in the winter season to finish this search of the snow.
After that amazing 2nd semester trip to Maa Vaishno Devi, I went there in the each semester of the engineering course and thereafter every year; only broken link was the year 2011. That place always gives me courage and inner peace. I always feel very relax there.
Since then, I visited Chandigarh, Amritsar and even Shimla many times and clicked a lot of pictures, but unpicked pictures of that first trip are still fresh in my mind. I still believe in budget travel and ‘Budget’ is not a dirty word for me. Ten years later, the quest of backpacking is still on. I continuously save money to chase the dream of backpacking. Whenever, I get leaves from my routine job, I celebrate my life on the road. No matter how big or small, all of my journeys have opened my eyes, broadened my horizons, and given me deeper perspective into both my life and the world around me. After all, these journeys are celebration of my life.