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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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Aug 10, 2016

Remembering Hari Dang – A Legend

Explorer Mandip Singh Soin remembers Hari Dang - a passionate mountaineer, environmentalist and an award-winning educationist, who inspired many to follow their dreams.

WRITTEN BY

Mandip Singh Soin


Hari Dang, a brilliant mountaineer, educator, and wildlife conservationist, passed away on the afternoon of 23rd July 2016 in his residence in New Delhi. He was 81.

Hari Dang was awarded a Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award in 1976 for youth services. A charismatic educationist, he was the head and rector of schools including St. Paul’s in Darjeeling, as well as the Army and Air Force schools. He introduced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme to India, which now runs as the Indian Youth Award Scheme. His passion for the mountains led him to be a mentor and inspire many others who followed in his path. A wildlife enthusiast, for 15 years, he was a member of the Indian Board for Wildlife.

Mountaineer and explorer Mandip Singh Soin writes about his relationship with his longstanding mentor who seeded in him the passion for mountains and adventure.

I met him as a student at The Air Force School in Delhi, where he was principal. The school assembly always had western classical music playing in the background of his booming voice. That same booming voice would often correct our English.

Analogous with the great wisdom he shared with the world, it’s only fitting that we be of positive mind and spirit and celebrate his life – celebrating that he lived on his own terms and displayed a kickass attitude, even to the cancer he was fighting in the end.

We are not talking about a great educationist, but a legendary one. The man, the myth, the legend – one who would open so many windows of the mind, sometimes all at once! 

From names of birds, flowers and trees to mountains and mountaineering; from conservation and sustainability; to good old Geography that he loved to teach.

Doon School Anecdote
Legend has it that during a lecture at the Doon School, he asked a student where north and south was. When the student responded by pointing to the ceiling and floor, he promptly yanked him up by the ankles, held him upside down and repeated the question by asking, “NOW where is North and South, son?”

As a mountaineer, he was part of one of the first Indian Everest expeditions. He ingrained in me as with many others the love for mountains and nature, climbing and adventure.

During their summit attempt in 1962, he spent three nights at 27,650 ft. Two of those nights were spent without oxygen, with Capt MS Kohli and Sonam Gyatso. In 1962, it was a world record of sorts.

Having started regular expeditions at the Doon School, for the schoolboys it was logical he became the promoter of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme in India and launched expeditions regularly to Black Peak (6387m) in the Garhwal Himalaya and other peaks like Jaonli (6632m).

In 1961, he accompanied a team attempting Nanda Devi. For him, it was a preparatory climb for Everest. They did not manage to summit, but the entire expedition worked on a budget of INR 20,000.

Hari Dang in his early years. Photo Courtesy Rupin Dang
Hari Dang in his early years. Photo Courtesy Rupin Dang

In 1973, he came up with the idea of getting school children to participate in the Himalayan expedition to Black Peak in Garhwal. He roped in other giants in education and outdoors like Shomie Ranjan Das and JTM Gibson for help.

About ten of the most prestigious public schools of India came together and launched this experiment of which I was a part, and even though I just missed the summit by a couple of thousand feet, Mr Dang had planted the seed of mountaineering and the spirit of enterprise in me. There was no looking back.

During the expedition, he was extremely energetic and took some of us over a high pass despite having lost his toes to frostbite on Everest. All this for a sighting of  the rare Primula Moorcroftana, as he was not satisfied with the Primula Denticulated we had already seen.   

Air Force School Anecdote
Once he accosted a student in a wet t-shirt after a hockey game, and the student blurted “Sweating after hockey Sir!” Mr Dang roared at him and said “Animals sweat and you sir, as a human being – are perspiring!”

In fact, there was a delightfully wily part of him – he tempted us to go on a trek during the mid term-tests and many signed up thinking they would be able to dodge the tests. What no one knew was that he had rescheduled them and we had to take the exams anyway!      

He also had amusing eccentricities – would always dress in white in summer and green in winter. His name Hari translates ‘green’ in English. He refused to sign in any colour of ink but green! Add to that he had an outlandish long signature, travelling all the way to Timbuktu! 

Photo Courtesy Rupin Dang
A charismatic educationist, Hari Dang was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award in 1976 for youth services. Photo Courtesy Rupin Dang

Extremely bright, he studied at The Modern School and did his graduation in Chemistry from Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College and would flaunt his French with aplomb.

He was a strident environmentalist and was the editor of the Global Journal of Sustainable Development. He was also an advisor for many national committees – Government on Education and National Integration, and was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 for youth services.

My own fascination for the mountains sealed in school, in fact, was so strong a push into the world of adventure, that even at St. Stephens’s college, where he had been active in the Hiking Club – I followed his legacy and ultimately found studies getting in the way of my expeditions!

Mountains and adventure soon transitioned from my passion to my profession, armed with his idea of just believing strongly in what one did, come what may. Some of us were the first in the country to get into the world of adventure and adventure tourism. I had signed up on every rock climbing trip, as many expeditions as I could take on, trying to balance my studies and my role as Prefect and Boarding House Captain.

He had actually shown me the way – given me a sense of direction –  towards my profession; towards my life. While I had joined St Stephen’s to try for the IFS or IAS; at the end my passion had overtaken and having taken a year off to hitch hike and climb in European Alps, we set up Ibex Expeditions, a pioneering adventure travel company, along with two other Air Force School friends, Sunil (Joe) Chandra and Rajiv (Thud) Luthra.    

In the early 80’s, he would call me to inspire young students of the Army Public School. On a winter day in 1984, with his rock solid wife Mrs Renu Dang who was always full of warmth, we set out to Dhauj for a day of rock climbing.

I later discovered this was also a ploy to check out Anita, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife. Later in the day Mr. Dang called and informed me that Renu and he approved of Anita – that was his way of participating in my choice of a life partner!

Unfortunately he lost Renu Dang in 1993 and was never the same. As a life partner, she had stood by him throughout.

In a message to the Air Force School alumni, he wrote,

“Unlike most of my generation, I have kept growing younger and I’m still learning, or trying to learn, how to keep an open mind, a clean heart, and magnanimity.” – Hari Dang. Photo Courtesy Rupin Dang
“Unlike most of my generation, I have kept growing younger and I’m still learning, or trying to learn, how to keep an open mind, a clean heart, and magnanimity.” – Hari Dang. Photo Courtesy Rupin Dang

“Unlike most of my generation, I have kept growing younger and I’m still learning, or trying to learn, how to keep an open mind, a clean heart, and magnanimity.”

His passion for the mountains led him to be a mentor and inspire many others who followed in his path, and is best summed up in a George Mallory quote,

“How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end – to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared… Is this the summit, crowning the day?… We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished…

Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No… and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction… fulfilled a destiny… To struggle and to understand…”

Mr Dang was an inspiration to the thousands who walked his path. He was last seen in vigour at his beloved mountain estate in Landour.

We will miss him dearly and our thoughts are with his children Himraj, Rupin and Vibha, along with the grandchildren Ahilya & Aranya and Bagini and Dharanshi.

Feature Image: Hari Dang enroute Maheshkhan in Kumaon
Images Courtesy Rupin Dang

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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.

_mg_6537
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.

_mg_7103
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.

_mg_6297
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.

img_1668
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.

_mg_6562
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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