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Focus

Mar 01, 2017

A Woman’s Account of a Mountaineering School in Kashmir

A first-hand account of what it's like to be one of the few women who attend JIM, a mountaineering institute in India’s northernmost frontier, Kashmir.

WRITTEN BY

Shikha Tripathi

 The sharp blow of a whistle in the dead of night shakes me inside out; the moment I’ve been dreading is here, and there’s no turning back. At one am, I am harnessed and buckled, have coerced myself to gulp down a portion of porridge, and am ready to begin the onward march.  For over four hours, I relentlessly follow the little circle of light stemming from my head torch. I don’t want to stop, for the temperature is well below a numbing minus twenty degrees, and the wind is sweeping it down to even less. I twitch my toes whenever we stop to keep the blood circulation going, and when I can’t move those, images of amputated frostbitten body parts pop up in my head like re-runs of a horror flick. As thrilled as I am to be on my first expedition, the prospect of frostbite is mildly terrifying. It’s Summit Day, nay, night, and finally, when we reach the base of the first, big, hundred foot high ice wall, dawn breaks over the Stok range in the Ladakh Himalaya to reveal what we’ve left behind. The base camp is a blurry spot hundreds of metres below, and as the blood in my veins starts to thaw, I look around at the spectacle that height and a play of light can create. A veil of dull crimson has appeared in the sky, but the surrounding ice is still blue. I exchange my first smile in six hours with a teammate; the beauty has warmed me. We’re already higher than some smaller peaks, and it’s astonishing to realize the gradient of the ridge we’ve negotiated. The cloak of night took care of vertigo easily. The break is short—enough to drink water, strap on crampons, and get ready to ascend the 6025-metre high Golap Kangri, the ‘Snow Peak with a Flat Head’.

       After a basic mountaineering course over a year ago, I decided to go for the next level. Despite the word of caution from friends, I chose the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Kashmir over NIM, where I had done my basic level. Up in the extreme north of India outside Pahalgam in Jammu and Kashmir, the institute is not popular. But it wasn’t clear why. It was this lack of clarity with the opportunity to spend time in Kashmir, my favourite mountain zone of Ladakh, that made me sign up for the course despite all rumours. Kashmir, though a politically sensitive zone at the Indo-Pak border, wears the crown of paradise on earth. As I reached the institute, I realised that the taxi that had just dropped me off was the last bit of comfort I would have for a while. The empty hall that I assumed was a waiting room was actually our dormitory. We had to collect a sleeping bag each and spread it out on the carpet to make our beds. The grey clouds, the sight of a cold, vast hall with no beds, the irksome bonhomie of people who had completed a JIM basic course together, all made my heart sink. The more I explored that afternoon, the more I missed my previous institute and regretted not appreciating it enough while there. Then, along came Rizwana.

Near the summit after an 11-hour climb. Photo: Shikha Tripathi
Near the summit of Golap Kangri after an 11-hour climb. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

       For a 20-year-old, Rizwana Khan exuded the confidence of a mature mountaineer. I felt slightly shaken when the girl who looked like an underage student was introduced to me as an instructor. She was there as a student to get a much-needed certificate. I was inexplicably drawn to her, and she opened up to me on day one.

   Rizwana is from an underprivileged Muslim family in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district. She first came to J & K in 2009 with a dream to climb Everest—not that she knew how to spell the name, let alone how to climb the mountain. But her father took a small loan to pay for the basic course at JIM. She proved her mettle, and managed to get a job at the institute that cannot afford to look too deeply into merit as there are no takers among women for jobs there.

I dug deeper into this, and a lot was revealed in my exchanges with Colonel Virinder Singh, the institute’s principal. A passionate mountaineer from Jammu, he carved a career over the years as a senior instructor at the Indian Army’s much respected High Altitude Warfare School or HAWS, then as the Officer In Charge (OIC) of training at the Siachen Battle School, then the Kargil Battle School, and subsequently the Desert Warfare School in Barmer before JIM. The man is friendly and witty, and very accessible as a principal. He admits that the infrastructure has a long way to go. I’m concerned about the poor boy to girl ratio (we were thirteen in a class of nearly a hundred students), and he explains why JIM is flawed. The Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering is currently one of six national mountaineering institutes in India, and perhaps the only one to have faced so many challenges, because of its location in India’s most politically volatile region.  

Established in October 1983 in Aru, the institute changed location thrice due to militancy threats before finally settling on Nunwan near Pahalgam, a three-hour drive from the capital Srinagar. When Colonel Singh took over in 2009, the total number of girls attending courses annually, whether mountaineering or skiing, were a mere 642. They rose dramatically to 6,653 in 2014-15.  The Colonel, who was an avid mountaineer had made the institute a personal challenge, and wanted to change the image of the institute and that of Jammu and Kashmir as an unsafe place. Its bad reputation has kept not just students but potential instructors away, in a place where most women are not allowed to pursue anything beyond a teaching career at a primary school.

The Colonel says students act as the biggest ambassadors in spreading goodwill today. Despite the comparatively poor infrastructure and mediocre equipment, the success story of JIM lies in the struggle it has overcome. Other institutes have had it easy; nowhere else have they had to deal with curfews, riots, local disapproval, and being shuttled like an unwanted responsibility between the central and state governments.       

Compromise, however, says the principal, might be on other factors at JIM, but not on training. I couldn’t agree more, especially because we have been placed under the able guidance (and iron rod) of Mangal Singh Koranga, 36, an ex-instructor from HAWS. He has participated in about ten major Indian Army expeditions including those to Kamet, Panchachuli I, Rajrambha and Shivling peaks and numerous smaller expeditions.

Mangal ustaad, as he is referred to by lieutenants, wing commanders and other senior army officers who are also part of this course, is a disciplinarian to the hilt. The worst thing to happen to you during the course is not the traumatic physical training regime every morning or being given additional tents to carry to base camp, but being in his bad books. Individual punishment can range from doing twenty push-ups right after you’ve climbed a rock face, while group punishment could mean hunting for a lost rock piton on a vast, craggy stretch for hours in the scorching sun, no matter how tired you are. Only then, he adds, “will you realise the value of a small piton that can a save a life. Only then will you realise that you cannot afford to be a careless mountaineer”.  

Mangal Ustaad leads the way during a rope fixing class. Photo: Shikha Tripathi
Mangal Ustaad leads the way during a rope fixing class. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

Tsering La Dol, 28, a Ladakhi mountaineer, also joined the course. She climbed Everest when she was 18, chosen for the NCC expedition from over 500 candidates across the country. Some of the best private adventure outfits in Ladakh don’t hire women, and that is how a highly qualified Ladakhi woman like La Dol found herself working at a Kashmir-based government institute. The other senior instructor is Gurmeet Singh, who has a fierce Haryanvi accent that I sometimes don’t follow.

When it comes to training, girls are treated almost equally, and everything I had heard about a mixed class being easy on girls was untrue; you won’t be let off the hook simply for being a girl. Boys may extend their courtesy by letting you skip ahead in the queue for tea, but not when it comes to carrying backpacks or equipment.             

JIM has a unique marking system. Instead of one hundred, we are judged on a total tally of three hundred points, with individual tests for every mountaineering skill, including rock climbing, rappelling, and base making. An endurance race at 11,500ft that requires one to run an uneven stretch of nearly 5km with 8 kilos of weight for girls and 12 kilos for boys, carries fifty points. Another 50 points are awarded straight away if you make it to the summit on the final expedition, and 50 points are kept aside for a theoretical exam upon return. The Instructional Practice test requires each student to give a talk based on a chosen mountaineering topic, after which the audience is allowed to ask questions. The thorough detailing of this system ensures that every aspect of learning is covered. While my previous institute judged students on their overall performance, the system here warrants that I learn to climb the toughest of rock faces in the training area even if it takes multiple attempts, for there is no escaping it and no underperforming in one area and making up in the other.

The level of testing goes up here even more due to the frightful lack of good equipment. I’m flummoxed on the first day when I realise that there are certain items that aren’t available at all. Climbing on mirror-smooth rock faces without climbing shoes is a talent non-existent in me. There will also be no down jackets or feather sleeping bags for the expedition. The snow-shoes and crampons are limited, so everything will boil down to either a Who Dares Wins race, or the generosity of some who will be magnanimous enough to let others have them. Before reaching Leh, I start making alternate arrangements for equipment from local Ladakhi friends.

Instructor La Do Tsering makes her way up a rock in the foreground of the Stok Kangri.
Instructor La Do Tsering makes her way up a rock in the foreground of the Stok Kangri. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

I realise how important it is to have good equipment on the expedition, and how much the lack of it can adversely affect your performance and morale. I’ve managed to scrape through the rock climbing training and tests because I threw a fit about not being given climbing shoes. Perhaps a mug of hot chocolate might be too much to ask for in a government institute, but PA shoes is a fair expectation on a mountaineering course. Beseeching Mangal ‘ustaad’ as a fellow Kumaoni, we finally got a bag full of various sizes that we took turns to put on and climb. But at the base camp, I can see girls and boys reeling under the effect of high altitude and low temperatures, some of which could have been kept at bay with the right equipment. I’m thankful for all that I’ve managed to procure, for I’m warm both inside and outside my tent. I’ve had no Acute Mountain Sickness to battle, and my body and mind function well throughout. Some don’t have the right gloves, or jackets, and some are cold through the night and cannot rest well. I’m surprised to see that Rizwana is down and out, she’s the one I had put my money on.

Rizwana prides herself in being one of the more hardy female instructors, and she is. While most of the female Kashmiri ‘instructors’ are more like wardens, Rizwana has been active on the field come rain or shine, even in the holy month of Ramadan. I am astonished to hear her accounts of training with classes while she was fasting, and even refusing water. Balancing mountaineering and religion is a double-edged sword, and Rizwana has faced some backlash for refusing privileges for fasting instructors of the institute in the Islam dominated state. What would you do if you got thirsty on a trek like this, I had asked her when we were on a 25km introductory hike through gorgeous alpine landscapes to the lovely Kashmiri hamlet of Aru. ‘I would dunk my head under cold water, because it is the brain that needs to stay cool’, she had said with a smile. I couldn’t agree more. And yet, I am distraught when I see Rizwana weak and cold at the base camp, clinging to her thin jacket and woollen gloves that no mountaineer in his or her right mind would wear on an expedition. She’s not the best, but given the right support, she could be groomed into a promising athlete.

Equipment demonstration on the JIM campus at Nunwan, Pahalgam. Photo: Shikha Tripathi
Equipment demonstration on the JIM campus at Nunwan, Pahalgam. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

We’ve been split into two groups, one half of which is headed to the popular Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in the region. I choose Golap Kangri, that is shorter but a more technical climb, so I can’t be accused of choosing a ‘trekking peak’ that many mountaineers dismiss Stok as.

I learn later from the other group that it’s actually not a mere trekking peak; they had to fix a rope and tackle a glacier covered in scree. Our group ends up dealing with a lot more, evident in the fact that our relatively smaller summit and return takes us nearly seventeen hours. At around 5.30 am when we reach the base of the first gigantic ice wall, I regret what I grade as the Stupidest Decision of my life. I gave away my cleverly acquired crampons just as we left base camp to someone else because I wanted to reduce the weight of my summit bag, and because I thought I could manage without them. I’m stuck with no crampons, a girl ahead who is reeling with AMS, and another right before me who manages to pull the piton and fixed rope out of the wall leaving everyone dangling on to their active rope for dear life. It is only with the help of Sunil, a rope member ahead whose footholds I step into, and the sheer power of my arms and ice axe that I manage to climb that ice wall. It’s a lesson well learnt, that goes into my mountaineering rulebook along with other pointers such as never lending your sling to anyone and never leaving your bottle full of water unattended. Switching my bottle for my camelback hasn’t helped either. My water has frozen, and I’m left with no choice but to borrow a sip here and there with the promise of returning the precious liquid as soon as mine thaws.

When we are finally past the second tricky vertical stretch and stand on a snowy ridge, the view erases the agony of pulled-muscles, backaches, blisters, nose bleeds and headaches. We are surrounded by a sea of clouds, and the tips of little peaks break through the waves like islands. The Karakoram Range can just about be seen in the far horizon, and I’m exploding with an incredible love for nature. “You’re near a cornice!” yells Mangal Ustaad, threatening to throw my crony Bhatt and myself off the peak along with our cameras. We hurriedly get back into the line and rope up. ‘Hurriedly’ takes on a totally different meaning at 19,000 feet—a turtle could race past us. Every ounce of weight matters, drawing every breath is an activity you are awfully conscious of, and everything feels like being in a sequence from Requiem For a Dream. Finally around half past one in the afternoon, we summit Golap Kangri. We’re way past our target time, and the weather is already turning bad. We quickly take the routine summit photos, and I’m relieved to begin the descent. I let my exhausted body take over my mind momentarily; something I’m not very proud of in retrospect and eager to change in my next expedition.  

I’ve been feeling queasy on our way down, but my brain can’t quite place it. Something is terribly wrong, and then it hits me—I haven’t peed in over twelve hours. There’s not enough time to look for a rock but enough to shout out a warning to others to look away. And as I zip up, all human needs come tumbling down, like seracs in an icefall. I want to sit, eat, rest, sleep. I want to drink an entire flowing glacier from its snout, but make do with my (now melted) camelback water, a few dry fruits, a spoonful of flavoured rice from my unopened lunch pack to quash my sudden craving for salt. Slipping, tumbling, slithering my way back to base camp, coming back to my senses feels like a homecoming of sorts. And in that surreal state, I look over my shoulder one more time to take in the vast expanses of dazzling white snow, crimson and purple rocks, cirrus clouds and grey-blue skies, and above all, I hope that Kashmir be paradise once more, for I have felt the pulse of its people and its mountains, and it beats for peace.  

Feature Image © Shikha Tripathi
This story featured in The Outdoor Journal Spring 2016 edition of the print magazine

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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