Where does a journey to the Himalayas start?
Is it the physical step or the step taken in the mind? A journey to the Himalayas is so different from other journeys. Any other journey may or may not be a pilgrimage, but a journey to the Himalayas transforms itself into a pilgrimage, somewhere, somehow. And when that pilgrimage is at Uttarakhand, the pilgrims know exactly how privileged they are to reach there. Uttarakhand is called Devbhoomi and no photograph can do justice to the actual energy of Uttarakhand, the actual vibrations of Uttarakhand. Having once been to Uttarakhand, it is not possible to stay away. The heart longs, the mind longs, the feet long, the lungs long and most of all, the soul longs to get back.
The desire for our journey arose in my mind and since my husband immediately agreed, we decided, in March 2006 to do it in October 2006. My husband and I had been to Uttarakhand in 2000 and had always dreamt of coming back. We invited relatives and friends we knew were interested in such a journey. All except one, refused. He had bought Stephen Alter’s book: Sacred Waters, read it in March 2006 and promised himself that he too would reach those places, someday. And when I sent him our tentative schedule, he sent me the book. Both had the same places and the same serial order, almost. Coincidence? I do not believe in them.
Later on, my parents agreed. So it became a group of five adults, aged, 70(m), 69(f), 57(m) and 40(f,m). We scouted on the internet for relevant information and prepare all of us for the journey. We all of us worked at preparations, physical, mental, logistics, bookings, information and knowledge. We found out that maps and distance information did not always tally on the internet. We hired a Tata Safari from Delhi with Idris as our driver.
Himalaya not Bombay!
07.10.06: We left Meerut at 0600 hrs and reached Bhaironghatti (40 kms before Gangotri) at 2000 hrs. The only stop in between was at Haridwar, where the men had their dips at Brahma Kund and the ladies paid their respects by touching the water of Gangaji onto their heads. Around 1800 hrs we were held up by blasting in the Uttarkashi-Bhaironghati stretch for 30 minutes. It was very strange and disquieting, in many ways, to be silent spectators to the Himalayas being blasted out for roads. When we started moving again, it was night.
At the Bhaironghatti GMVN TRH, I soon found out that the voltage was too low to charge any of my mobiles. So I asked the Manager, who was still in office at 2015 hrs. He answered:’ Now, Madam, you have to remember that you are in the Himalayas, not Bombay. Forget your mobile phone. If you want to remain connected to a mobile, why come all this way?’ Said with a gentle smile and kind look, he reoriented me to geography and the purpose of our journey. What could I do but thank him and accept his logic?
We were served a warm and tasty dinner, prepared after we came. We slept at midnight, after packing our overnight bags for the next leg: Gaumukh. My parents were to stay back at Bhaironghatti and visit Gangotri at leisure. My father aged 70 years and with a history of heart problems, was not very keen on that. He wanted to accompany us to Gaumukh but we could not take the risk. His cardiologist had said: No physical climbing. When reminded of his cardiologist’s advice, he stayed back, very reluctantly.
No Mules at Gangotri.
08.10.06: At 0630 hrs. at Gangotri, I soon found that no mules were available on that day, since a group of 40 persons had booked all the mules a fortnight ago. We were asked to wait until 1030 hrs. when mules from Gaumukh would come back and try our luck.
While climbing the ridge behind the temple to enquire for mules, I experienced some dizziness and fatigue – a warning from altitude: take it easy! I immediately climbed down, felt better and found that we were just in time for the morning aarti at Gangamata’s temple. K, my husband and D, our friend, had also reached the temple, locating me by using the wireless set we carried, and joined in. After the aarti, we decided to wait in the car. While walking back, D was persuaded by an enterprising young man, R, to hire porters instead of mules. R was himself a guide and due to the lean season, was also willing to carry some weight. And if we found some mules on the way up, we could always hire them, which we did. The porters could be a back-up, in case of illness.
Poor mule died?
The walk started around 0900 hrs, a day with clear skies and warm sunshine. The path was cobbled with stones of different sizes, with green trees on one side and the gorge on the other. The beauty that our eyes feasted on is indescribable – I will not attempt the impossible. Suddenly, somewhere before Chirbhasa, D’s mobile beeped. He gave it to me. My younger sister, whose greatest desire in life is to spend time in the Himalayas at least once before she dies, had sent an SMS: Please touch the Himalayas for me. I did it and sent her an SMS back: Done. I also had in my mind all those persons I knew would have loved to be with us, but could not, for various reasons. Many of them had sent messages to be delivered to the Himalayas. They were all delivered, as per individual specifications.
Here, on these walks, the import of being alone, yet with companions in ear-shot, comes home as nothing else. On these walks, the need to be alone, the desire to walk alone, the urge to think alone; as one of a group, made each one of us keep a different pace, but within reach of each other. As time went by, D literally flew ahead, without mules or porters or a guide. We did not see him for hours. We saw an unknown man being carried on the back of a porter – the man being carried was unconscious and his entire body was swollen up. Would he last until he reached a hospital? It was very difficult to say and even more unpleasant to think about. At a particular bend, a heavy stench hit the nose, before the wind carried it into another direction. I asked R what it was. A mule had stumbled, fallen down and died, he said.
Both, K and I became increasingly anxious about D and finally shared our worries with each other: he could have taken someone with him, not fly alone – how would we know if he needed help of any sort……..? Somewhere near Bhojbhasa, we saw him as a distant blue speck and waved for him to wait. He did. My husband and I had been slowed down due to my problems with altitude. And apart from that, we both wanted to savour each moment of the journey. So as not to exhaust ourselves, we took turns with walking and riding mules. We took frequent rest breaks, as and when we felt like our bodies needed it or a particular sight had to be transported into the soul’s memory forever. I took as many photographs as possible, carefully composing them for my sister, to urge her to come while she could and for some others, who, most probably would not make it in this lifetime. I wanted to bring a bit of the Himalayas to them, for each one of them, personally.
Himalayan Journey, let's keep it up!
On the other side of the gorge, it was possible very often, to see stretches of the old pilgrim path, some deer, shepherd huts; rarely, waterfalls and all the time: dazzling mountains vying with each other to touch the skies with their sheer, harsh beauty. The size and shape of the rocks in the Bhagirathi instils immediate respect for the forces of nature: water, which can cut across such sizes and stone, which still resists water. The different moods of the Bhagirathi on this walk must be experienced, not described. Would you like it if I described a love story when you have the opportunity to be a part of it? Mountains and rivers, the Himalayas and the different Ganges – each have their own little love stories. Sometimes they are fighting each other, sometimes only quarrelling loudly, sometimes just indulging in mock-fights for the sheer fun of it; sometimes one wins and at other times, the other; sometimes they pamper each other or cuddling each other; at most times they are like father and daughter: the proud, stern and grave, sometimes sullen father wrenched into smiles and laughter by his little, lisping, prancing princess……..
The number of symptoms I experienced of altitude illness and the intensity of each one of them increased with altitude and time. But I never once thought of turning back or resting for more than 2-3 minutes. The motivation and strength to carry on came from someplace inside me, coordinates unknown. K began to feel the heat of the sun and took off his khadi kurta. He almost held my hand all the way and was a source of great moral support, in his own silent way, during the entire walk. We did not talk, except for: ‘Break. Let’s go. Water. Look.’ And the silence was the best part. My thoughts went back to our wedding pheras. This entire walk-cum-ride, I felt then, was one more phera. I would not have reached Bhojbhasa upright without him.
At Bhojbhasa, we got down from the mules and stopped at the first dhabaa. D was already there. I couldn’t keep my head or anything else up for a moment more, but there were too many people for me to lie down. So I asked K if he could find a place, hidden from public sight, where I could just rest my head on his lap, even if only for a moment. He came back soon after and led me behind the dhabaas – he had also managed to find a thrown away mattress, and two pillows and laid them out for me! Out of the sight of the rest of the world, I crashed. To my utter surprise, K crashed too.
Take a break
We rested there a few minutes, coming more close together by holding hands, after 7 years of marriage, than a newly-wed couple would on a prized honeymoon. When we finally decided to walk back, we found that D had arranged for a tent and had also got our luggage transported into it, helpful soul that he is. We asked no more than a weak ‘where?’. Heading straight for it, both K and I crashed into the beds inside. It was around 1600 hrs. K was the only one who had any experience in pitching tents (which is part of Norwegian military training) and was expected to do it for all of us - it was when he crashed that i knew value of hiring a tent with cots. K had fever and was in no shape to even sit on the cot, let alone pitch tents.
After a quarter or so, I felt the need for fresh air and ventured out. K was developing high fever. I was in the throes of the first headache in my life. D told me that this was the only tent available and that he had negotiated it for the three of us, in spite of the 6 cots it contained, since, R and some of our porters would also be sleeping inside. This was part of the well-known Baba’s ashram. He had a kitchen, would serve dinner and breakfast, and warm water as per request and had toilet with lockable doors! 7-star luxury right on the banks of Bhagirathi at 3500 mts.
K’s fever went on rising and I started giving him a Crocin, with some dry food and water, every 4 hours. By 1900 hrs, I was definitely better, hungry and cold. Some residual symptoms remained, but I could take them in my stride. K could not be persuaded to step out, not even for fresh air. D and I decided to have dinner: daal, roti, sabzi! D had some coffee sachets, so after-dinner coffee was also possible. He set his mobile alarm clock for K’s medicine timings. Since we had planned to stay in tents, I did not carry K’s details required to fill out the C-form. Baba accepted my suggestion of me posting the details to him, later on.
Sometime before midnight, I screamed out loud enough to wake up all of Bhojbhasa (or so I thought) due to sudden and intense cramps on both my legs. K awoke for the first time and helped me get over them, several times. I tried to sleep, but sensed the presence of death hovering around K. There was hardly anything I could do, except pray that if it was to be, it should be painless. After that, there was no question of sleep, though I severely needed it. I needed more, to hear K breathing, each breath. By early morning, I sensed the danger to have passed.
Travel to Gaumukh!
09.10.06. The fresh morning and my fresher mind made it possible for me to actually see Bhojbhasa. So austere, so stark, so simple, so hard, so silent, so harsh; yet, so beautiful – almost like a Norwegian winter, in many ways. Morning rituals and breakfast over, D was persuaded by both of us to attempt reaching Gaumukh. He was very worried about us and not willing to leave us ill and alone. K was still not speaking and I had residual symptoms, on and off. I looked around for the bright red case of my digital camera, could not find it and so had to let D go without it. After he left with the mules, R and the porters came down to our tent. K was better but had very low grade fever, but willing to speak. He asked if I could arrange for a helicopter. The local council, headed by Baba, told us that it would take 3 days. Palki would take 3 days too. One day down. Second day up. Third day out, I persuaded K to come out and feel the fresh air. Finally, he did and after half an hour, began to feel better. I packed up and searched for the camera. R and the porters also searched for it, within the tent, outside the tent, around the dhaabaas, in vain.
D came back from Gaumukh and found us willing to descend. He did not tell us much about how it was: Great! – was all we got out from him, since he is not exactly a chatterbox.
He accompanied us to the banks of Bhagirathi, where K and I had to end this leg of our pilgrimage. We offered our pranams to Gangaji, in our own unceremonious ways. Picked a few stones from her bed, some for my father, some for us. We filled up 2 litres of her water, one for my father and one for us. It was then we found that one of the 2 metal water-bottles we had bought, was missing. Since both were identical, I assumed it was ours that was missing. So we loaned D’s water bottle to carry Gangajal and bought a plastic one for him from a dhabaa on the ridge. The dhabaa also served hot and tasty aloo paranthas and tea, which D and I consumed hungrily. K was not yet into eating or drinking. This time we asked that all of us stay together: we three, the porters, the mules, and R. K would either walk or ride and I would be within whispering distance of him. We left at around 1100 hrs.
As altitude decreased, both K and I felt better. But we still took it easy with frequent rest pauses. D carried water for all three of us, since we two were not yet well enough to carry our own. D soon learnt his first Norwegian words: vann = water, få litt vann ? = can I get a little water? D also carried the group’s first-aid kit on his back. The boulder fields, the log ‘bridges’, the landslide areas, the almost razor thin paths edges – we walked all the way. K had not eaten a meal since the dinner at Bhaironghatti on 07.10.06.
Just before Chirbhasa, we met an ISKCON party going up. One of them, an Australian, was experiencing symptoms of altitude illness. They had neither mules nor porters. With 10 kms left to Gangotri, we decided to hand over our mules to him, since we felt confident enough to walk. The porters started complaining – they wanted to walk faster and without the back-up of mules, they were sceptical if we would reach before sunset. The mule driver was paid but refused to take any tip since he felt responsible for the loss of my camera, even though he had vehemently said at Bhojbhasa, that he had given it to me. The porters also wanted their payment and some extra for carrying the load that the mules had been carrying. We reached an agreement: R takes them down, as fast as possible, and gives the message to my father waiting in the car at Gangotri that we are walking down and likely to be six-seven hours late. Payment to be made after we reach Gangotri.
So the group that was 3 pilgrims, 3 porters, 3 mules with all that was required to last 2 days in Bhojbhasa, 1 mule driver and 1 guide the day before; ended up at Chirbhasa, the next day, with 3 pilgrims, 2 headlamps, 1 torch, a well-quipped first-aid kit, some biscuit packets and 1 litre of water.
We picked up speed on the way down. By 1800 hrs., we were still 3.5 kms away from Gangotri. Darkness slowed us down. Our headlamps and D’s torch showed us the stones to avoid and at 1900 hrs., we reached Gangotri temple, just in time for the evening aarti. We took part in the aarti and reached the car park where my anxious father had sent R upwards to search for us/bring info about us. It was pitch-dark and R and the porters soon came back, since someone along the path had told him about us taking the temple steps path.
R and the porters were paid enough to bring smiles on their faces and welcome us back to Gangotri. And a grateful father thanked Ganga mata for bringing his children back to him.
My mother, alone at the Bhaironghatti GMVN TRH, from 1300 hrs., had been pacing the corridor in her night clothes, unable to sleep, be inside her room or do anything else constructive. At 2100 hrs., she welcomed us with a broad smile and ‘You all look very tired! Come and eat and then rest!’, as any mother would have done.
Breakfast in Himalaya!
10.10.06. At 0530 hrs., we started loading and left Bhaironghatti at 0600 hrs. - the right time to soak in the rich beauty of the Bhaironghatti-Uttarkashi drive which we had missed on our way up. We made an unscheduled halt at Uttarkashi for a warm breakfast and to get cash from the SBI ATM. Right outside the restaurant, we saw that very good quality shoes and boots for sale were piled up on the street. Footwear had been a major concern long before we started – the internet recommended shoes that were not available in India and it was not easy to decide on the final choice. My husband had excellent mountaineering boots, but we bought rough terrain shoes from a Reebok store in Mumbai, since we suspected the weather might be too warm for boots. I had bought a similar Nike pair from Cochin and D had bought his Nike from Mumbai. All our shoes did very well during the walk up to and down from Gaumukh. But it was only after looking at the quality that was available in Uttarkashi that I realised that we could have saved us much time, energy and valuable luggage kilos and space, if we had but known that we coud safely buy footwear at Uttarkashi itself, taking a rain check on the warranty.
After breakfast, Idris took us round and round for about 25 kms, in search of a petrol pump. When he did locate one, he forgot to tell us that it was in the opposite direction of the Vishwanath temple at Uttarkashi. Finally, we reached Vishwanath temple. It was Karva Chouth and I was fasting. The last time we had come to this temple, we had distributed banana chips from Kerala, since we did not have a change. We still remembered the smiles on the faces of the sadhus and others sitting there at receiving something so rare and unexpected. Therefore, we had carried about 5 kilos of different ‘rare and unexpected’ dry food stuff from the other end of India, to give away here. My husband and father enthusisatically began distributing and their smiles told me that we were right in carrying all that stuff, all the way up here.
My earlier memories of the temple freshened up and I could have happily spent the day absorbing the energy of that place, like the others. But we were already 3 hours late and had a schedule to keep. So we all trooped back into the car.
Soon after, my mother told me that Gangotri had been very good for my father and that he no longer regretted not being with us to Gaumukh. On asking him, he explained that he had spent almost all of 08.10.06 at Gangotri, just walking around. The sheer inaccessibility and wildness of Gangotri, as compared to Mumbai, worked on him in ways that made him appreciate both more. He had strolled along the ghats and suddenly experienced great thirst. He has a long history of diabetes and mentally, had prepared himself to die on this trip,if it was to happen. On seeing the water of Ganga at Gangotri and experiencing that thirst on her ghats, he felt that if he got some drops of that water, he would die happily. Feeling too unsure to reach out to her waters himself, he asked some passing boys and they came immediately and gave Gangajal from the cups of their hands. He drank like it was life itself. He felt himself a renewed person and thanked Gangamata for many indescribable and unlistable matters. On coming back to Bhaironghatti, he told my mother of his experiences and also found that he experienced her in a different way, with much more appreciation, love and care, than the day before. My mother is an aethist by choice and welcomed the change in my father, since it was to her benefit, ?.
Drive to Gaumukh
The drive to Gaurikund was breathtaking and most of the journey was either spent in sheer silence broken regularly by gentle nudges of ‘Look!’ at a passing mountain or a particular bend or mood of Bhagirathi. Past 1400 hrs., Idris had not yet been asked to stop for lunch anywhere. Though we were using the dry food and water with us, my mother asked me if there was any possibility of lunch or was it going to be ‘Namah Shivaya’ today too? Idris is an excellent driver but also kept a part of his mind attentive to his passengers. I could see him breaking into a wide grin. In our family, as children, when something does not happen as it was supposed to, we were taught by our parents to say ‘Namah Shivaya’ and accept it as His grace. My parents have been travelling with us for 5 years and learnt to adjust to the demands of travelling on a tight schedule while we had learnt to adjust the schedule to their needs.
Difference of breakfast
Both my mother and I burst out laughing. In Mumbai, she lives a strictly routine life, with all daily activities having an almost clock-like precision. Second tea of the day at 1115, lunch at 1230, third tea of the day at 1545-1600 and so on. The only comfort that she had had during the day was the excellent breakfast at Uttarkashi, with excellent tea. I told her, laughingly, that she could tell Idris to stop the car, if she noticed any suitable place to eat or drink. She laughed even more, in her need for tea and a proper lunch and recognising the sheer impossibility of fulfillment of her daily needs. With me joining in with her laughter, all the men, except Idris, wanted to know why we were laughing. Having explained, I also added a rider that we all need to be prepared to say ‘Namah Shivaya’ several times during this journey. Idris, had caught on, without any explanations. Perhaps he was used to catching such stuff?
The great driver
Idris had received standing instructions from me before he started the journey with us at Delhi, that he should always prioritise his needs over and above our schedule (he had a copy which I saw him studying several times): whether it was food, drink, waste elimination, rest or sleep. He was to stop the car for himself without asking or telling us and do what was required for himself, as his own master. And that we would just learn to adjust ourselves to him. We had already found out that comfort mattered to him, he would not sleep in the car and swiped off a tidy amount of food without feeling sleepy, unlike our other drivers so far. We paid for his accomodation all the way and all his other expenses, so that he could save his daily expense money and keep it to buy something for the child his wife was expecting. We also found out that apart from stopping the car to stretch himself awhile, he never stopped the car for himself and adhered to the schedule as best as he could. He drove with the caution and respect required on Himalayan roads and enjoyed the trip with us as much as we did with him.
A little after sunset, we reached Rudraprayag. On our earlier trip in 2000, we had stayed two nights at Shangri-la, a small wayside hotel with a dhabba. Unwilling to take the risk of driving upto Gaurikund, as per schedule, in the dark, we thought of stopping at Shangri-la. Idris was willing to drive, but preferred to stop due to a lack of any help for the car for the next 87 kms, in case of an unexpected problem. My parents were willing to sit for 3 hours more, without dinner, even though dinner might not be available at Gaurikund due to the late hours of our arrival. We stopped, disregarding the full payment made for accomodation at Gaurikund. Shangri-la had changed almost beyond recognition. The dhabba was now a full-fledged restaurant. Another building had been added. Only the small Hanuman temple under an old banyan tree by the road was the same. Like last time, we greeted Hanumanji and sought his blessings for the journey. Shangri-La is a better place than Hotel Corbett, a little down the road and a more homelier option than Monal, some 5 kms outside Rudraprayag. Like last time, we gathered all our used clothes for laundry and handed them over to the boys at Shangri-la, who arrange washing and ironing at Rudraprayag. The owner, as we knew him was not to be seen and on asking I found that he would be back after some days. The same room that we had used in 2000, was available to us. And we had the luxury of a real bath, that too with warm water, since 05.10.06! D had found out via smses to Mumbai that the moon had risen, but by the time I finished my bath, the moon had risen visibly at Rudraprayag too. We prayed and I broke my fast. ‘Welcome to our second honeymoon!’ my husband said, since we had labelled that journey in 2000 and especially the stays at Shangri-la as our first honeymoon, though we had got married in 1999. My husband and I had treasured the early morning view from the balcony of Shangri-la as one of the best mornings in our lives. We slept around midnight, dreaming of reaching Kedarnath the next day.
Some info about us:
K (57) is Norwegian and working as a software consultant in the corporate (telecom) sector in Norway.
L (40) is Indian, K's wife and working towards her doctoral on mental health of youth in Norway.
D (40) is Indian and working as a software consultant in the corporate sector (finance) in India.
My mother was a school-teacher and my father, a civil engineer but currently a free-lance finance consultant.
The write-up is essentially my work, but corrected and approved by both K and D.
Article presented by: L Nrugham
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