Monday, September 15, 2008

The Valley Of Gods

The clouds opened up and it started to drizzle. The mp3 player played the latest Hindi songs. Amitesh and I having occupied the last seat of Innova, trickled into a catnap. Sharmil and Nimit in the middle and Hiren in front began their tittle-tattle to keep themselves busy.

The slowness of the vehicle and the loud roar of the downpour outside broke my forty winks and I saw Chandrashekhar(our driver) parking our car behind a convoy of vehicles. Having sensed the road block, I dozed off again.

It was a different scene altogether when I woke up. With the rain still coming down hard, the road had turned into a river. The increasing vigor of River Alaknanda on our left looked threatening. What was more intimidating was the fact that we were stuck on a road which was getting flooded by the minute. Small stones on the slopes to our right lost grip and started falling down on the road. The sheer force of water made these stones roll on the road. Some of these stones collided with the rear tyres of our car which in turn produced rock music:)

Not knowing what was in store for us, we looked at each other. The expressions said it all….we were caught in the hills!

8th August 2008 :
0755 hours:
Mumbai – Delhi. Swaraj Express. The journey was totally uneventful.

9th August 2008:
0435 hours:
Arrival at New Delhi Railway Station. A few phone calls to Mr.Chandrashekhar allowed us to get to him. He waited for us near the VIP car park area on the Ajmeri gate side.

0500 hours: Our 500 km. journey began
Me: Chandrashekharji, plan ke mutabik hume aaj hi Joshimath pahunchna hai. Mujhe pata hai, yeh bahut mushkil hai. Agar aapse nahin ho paaya, toh hum kahin beech mein hi ruk jaayenge. (According to the plan, we need to reach Joshimath today. I know it’s difficult. If you are not able to do it, we shall halt somewhere en route.)

Chandrashekhar: (Long Silence and then a gentle nod)

0700 hours: Our first break was at Cheetal Grand(100 kms from Delhi), a hub en route to Haridwar – an ideal place to dump something in.

1100 hours: Rishikesh.(238 kms. covered) We spent an hour exploring the place and quickly hit the road again as our destination was still 250 kms away...Long and winding 250 kms.

The NH-58 route

1700 hours: It was time to take a tea break. We had reached Rudraprayag.

We anxiously asked the chai wala whether it was possible to reach Joshimath. His response was not very positive.

Chai wala: Aap log Chamoli tak toh pahunch hi jaayenge. Chamoli se 15 km ki doori pe Pipalkoti padta hai. Wahan hotels bhi acche milenge aapko.Wahin ruk jaana. (You will easily reach Chamoli. Pipalkoti is just 15 kms from Chamoli which has decent hotels. You stay there tonight)

It was a good idea to stay in Pipalkoti as it was just 30 kms from Joshimath. Moreover, we would be away from the somewhat city like life in Joshimath.

2000 hours: We finally reached Pipalkoti. Great effort by Chandrashekhar. We had been in motion for 36 hours. (20 hours in train and the remaining in car). GMVN was decent enough for a night’s stay.

Our next destination was Govindghat(Trek start point) and the gate system that the government follows from Joshimath would come into play early next morning. This gate policy is nothing but allowing traffic only in one direction as the roads are too narrow to make it bi-lane. This is what the Government thinks. But what I found was the roads were pretty okay for bi-directional traffic and there was little reason for this kind of a rule to be imposed.

After some enquiry about the gate timings, it was decided that we would go for the 6:30am gate from Joshimath. The next one being at 9:00am was too late. Later, I found out that the Uttarakhand government is not all that rigid with the gate timings. The gates are opened considering the inflow of traffic.

10th August 2008:
0545 hours:
To my surprise, all five of us were at the GMVN reception and we left in 5 mins. As soon as the wheels got rolling, I started developing a nauseous feeling and I purged everything out. My digestive department probably wasn’t content with its contents :)

0615 hours: We stopped again. A van stood in front of us. Whenever a convoy begins to form in this part of India, there can only be two possibilities. It’s either a gate or a landslide. As we were to encounter a gate only at Joshimath, this stoppage meant nothing else but a landslide. It was a fresh one which had happened just a few hours ago.

The 6:30 am gate in Joshimath was now closed for us even before it opened..lolz. We were hoping to slink through the 9:00 am gate.

Had we been a little swifter yesterday, we could have avoided this landslide. But as Mr.Sidhu says ‘My dear friend….If ifs and buts were pots and pans, there would be no tinkers’ :)….So no complaints…...

The weather was ok and the Sun shone bright on some of the peaks hovering high on the horizon. As there was nothing that we could do, we started clicking pictures.

0830 hours: The landslide was cleared and we zipped past Joshimath exactly at 9:00am. We were now on our way to Govindghat, 20 kms away.

The Route
Trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria – 14 kms

1000 hours: A huge car park area marks the beginning of Govindghat town. Govindghat at 1828m/6000 feet is a small town just off NH-58 which further continues to go to Badrinath and Mana. It is also the place where Laxman Ganga and Alaknanda rivers unite to form Alaknanda again.

1030 hours: Car was left behind. Our mission to reach Ghangaria meant besieging a couple of ponies for long hours that day. The heavily laden pony pair began its long march and so did we.

15 mins later, after covering a km., we realized that the ponies would reach Ghangaria with our belongings a lot earlier. One of us had to go with them to safeguard our backpacks. We stopped a passerby pony to take one of us with the other two ponies.

As I had rinsed my bodily system earlier in the day; remember the puking act:) ; it was decided that I would be the one who would accompany the ponies :(…all the way till Ghangaria and then the security job of safeguarding the backpacks until the others arrived.

Right from the outset, I was very reluctant to go on a pony back ride, but eventually I did go for it. In retrospect, it appeared to be a very good decision as I couldn’t afford to lose more calories after the puking act and put the remainder of the trek in shambles.

I was deprived of the pleasure of trekking but nevertheless I was enjoying the beautiful scenery from a good height as I was practically 4 feet taller :). River Laxman Ganga gave us invariable company with some rhythmic musical vibes. The trail having a natural green canopy at times constantly gained altitude.

1230 hours: 6 kms done and the three ponies(2 carrying backpacks and 1 carrying me) halted to quench their thirst near a tea stall. I decided to replenish my system by sipping in some juice. That’s when I saw Amitesh and Sharmil gradually approaching me. To my surprise, they too were on a pony back ride.

Amitesh: Oye, tu yahan hai. Arre kitna steep raasta hai yaar. Humne socha ki ghode se hi chale jaate hai taaki kal trek ke time problem na ho. (Hey, you are here. The path is so steep. We too decided to come by ponies so that tomorrow's trek is not hampered.)

Me: Hiren aur Nimit kahan hai? (What about Hiren and Nimit?)

Amitesh: Woh log chalke aayenge ooper tak. Kal Valley of Flowers jaane ke time unki band bajegi :). Pair akad jaayenge ooper pahunchte pahunchte. (They are planning to trek the distance.Tomorrow, while trekking to VoF , they will feel the pinch.)

1300 hours: This time 5 ponies together resumed their walk.3 kms later, we crossed over to the other side of Laxman Ganga River and a steep climb of 4 kms through dense forest was negotiated to reach the high altitude village of Ghangaria.

1530 hours: Ghangaria also known as GovindDham is located at an altitude of 3049 m/10000feet at the confluence of Pushpawati and Laxman Ganga rivers. The river is then called Laxman Ganga. After settling the pony deal, we went hotel searching. We zeroed in on Hotel Devlok near the Gurudwara. Rs 500 for a 3 bed room and 400 for a 2 bed one. It was a decent hotel. At least the rooms and the beds were clean unlike the other hotels we saw.

1830 hours: Hiren and Nimit checked into hotel Devlok. It had taken them 8 hours of trekking to reach Ghangaria. They luckily spotted Sharmil outside. They were totally exhausted, fatigued to the core.

Yes, I agree and you trekkers might as well agree on this. First day’s trek even if it’s a moderate one can drain out energy pretty quickly as our body is so much accustomed to the activities of the lethargic city life.

1900 hours to 2200 hours: Ghangaria is lit up only for these 3 hours during the night. So it’s charging time. Not a point in the room was left free. Every point had something plugged into it ..lolz

11th August 2008:
0800 hours:
Incapacitated after continuous travelling over a period of 3 days, the pleasure of dormancy had sunk deep within our body and soul. We took our time to get out of the comfy bed.

0930 hours: The rejuvenated five, then left Ghangaria for Valley of Flowers (VoF)-UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. For more information about the valley.(Click Here)

We went past the Gurudwara and the final few concrete structures in Ghangaria, post which the trail gently climbed to a junction where it split.

A few monetary transactions at the check post got us the permit to enter the natural botanical garden.

The Route: The first 3 kms. from the check post was all uphill. Snaking through the thick undergrowth and well laden path; with Pushpawati River for company we got to see traces of flowers right from the beginning of the trail. These 3 kms have to be covered just to reach the valley. It’s only after this that the valley expands its wings for kilometers after kilometers. The path inside the valley was easy and uncomplicated with gentle ups and downs and occasional icy streams which obstructed the path but satirically also acted a source of water to douse our thirst.

Some pics taken during the 3 km trek.

Flowers, Flowers and more Flowers

1230 hours: Amitesh and I entered the valley first and then there was no looking back. The other 3 members of our group were out of sight. We later found out that they had covered the initial 3 kms to reach the valley and then decided to return back to Ghangaria.

1230 hours to 1430 hours: Exploration of the valley was on full swing. The broad valley stretched as far as the eye could see with patches of white, pink and green. In a span of two hours, we visited Joan Margaret Legge’s grave which is a dead end and Suin Chand. We reached a point from where we could see the trail losing height and then stretching for 3 kms right till the glacier alongside river Pushpawati.

1430 hours: With the clouds closing in, barely 3 hours for the Sun to disappear and with NO food in hand (biggest blunder committed before commencing the trek even after knowing that the valley is devoid of any eateries. During our breakfast, we had decided to carry something, but at the brink of our departure, we forgot!), there was too much risk involved in covering those 6 kms, to and fro from the glacier. Famished, we had to return back to Ghangaria before dusk thus covering a total distance of approximately 13 kms.

1630 hours: Our 3 friends lay gossiping on the bed as they wait for their hot waters to arrive to have bath. It’s 40 Rs a bucket. A quick hi and a few exchange of words with them and we straight away entered the restaurant to put a gag on the grudging tummy mice :)

Amitesh: Main kal 5 baje Hemkund Sahib ke liye nikal jaaunga. Gurudwara mein jaake madad karunga (I'll be leaving at 5 am tomorrow to Hemkund Sahib to lend a hand at the Gurudwara.)
Me: Main bhi aaunga. Mujhe bhi uthana (Wake me up, i'll come along)
Amitesh: Tu nahi utha toh main nikal jaaunga. (If you dont wake up, i'll leave)

The others had decided to go on ponies and hence could afford to leave a little later.

We slept early that day as we had to be fully charged for the onerous 6 km ascent next day to Hemkund Sahib.

12th August 2008:
0445 hours:
The alarm shattered the eternal silence and Amitesh sprung into action minutes later.

0515 hours: He set foot outside even before I could get ready and began his long walk in the dark.

0600 hours: As Amitesh had left a lot earlier; I took my time to freshen up, had a cup of hot tea and then began my march towards the holy Shrine of Hemkund Sahib and Laxman Temple.

The Route: Zigzag Up, up and up with plenty of shacks, restaurants en route for refreshment. There were many tempting short cuts en route which when taken certainly saved time but left one out of puff. This route was visibly more frequented by pilgrims as many Sikhs made their way up to the Shrine to pay obeisance.

Flowers could be seen all along the route especially the Himalayan Blue Poppy.

Within a couple of hours of hard climb, Ghangaria shrunk to a speck which was encompassed by mighty mountains.

Brahma Kamal, a flower that apparently blooms once in many years could be seen in the upper reaches of the trail just below the Shrine of Hemkund Sahib.

0950 hours: 3 hrs and 50 mins of steady hike from 10000 to 14200 feet took me to the Shrine. Amitesh reached the top just 20 mins before me and he stood at the entrance waiting for my arrival.

The star shaped Hemkund Sahib is a memorial to the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji and just beside the Gurudwara is Laxman Temple, also known as Lokpal Temple where Lord Laxman performed penance.

Hemkund Lake located contiguously to both Shrines acts as the origin of Laxman Ganga River, also known as Hem Ganga. It has a circumference of approx 2 kms.

At 4329m /14200 feet, this Holy place is surrounded by seven peaks known as Sapt Sring and is accessible only from June to October.

Garma garam chai and Khichdi at the Langar provided some warmth as the temperature had dipped considerably.

We then explored the surroundings and found a number of people taking the holy dip in the gorgeous glacial lake. The lake was indeed very welcoming and I too decided to plunge in.

Amitesh: Soch le, paani bahut thanda hai. Kahin beemaar pad gaya toh problem ho jaayega. (The water is very cold, you'll fall sick)
Me: Nahi yaar,Fataak se andar jaake bahar. (I'll quickly go in and come out)

I jumped in, one dip…stood to catch hold of my breath and God knows what happened after that…I came running outside….whoaaa…freezing!!!

We met Sharmil, Hiren and Nimit at the Gurudwara. They had started at 8 in the morning and it took only 2 hours for the ponies to reach the top.

Clouds soon shrouded the top and it started raining. We then visited the Gurudwara and Laxman Temple. We dropped the idea of going around the lake as the visibility was very poor.

12 Noon: We started our descent and the lousy weather with intermittent drizzle made the path slippery. We had to get our barsaatis on (rain gear)

1430 hours: 12 kms done and we were at Ghangaria. Quick lunch and a phone call back home to let them know that we all were safe

1630 hours: Valley of Flowers Information Centre near GMVN, run by the Eco Development Committee (EDC) air a slideshow of Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib. We decided to check out the 20 min slideshow. Ridiculous! We had already visited the place. We laughed it out..lolz; but nonetheless it was an informative one. Should have seen it earlier :)

It would be unjust if I don’t mention the Gulab Jamuns of Ghangaria. There were many vendors selling hot hot Gulab Jamuns. Look at them- your mouth starts watering. Have them – you won’t regret. They are simply delicious. 10 Rs a plate.

13th August 2008:
An early morning start from Ghangaria would ensure that we would reach Govindghat(14 kms) by 10 am and then we could avail the next gate to Badrinath.

0600 hours: Myself and Amitesh left Ghangaria with our pithoo(person carrying luggage on his back). The others were still asleep and we thought they would come by ponies.

1030 hours: A bit of rummaging in the car park area and there…we spotted Chandrashekhar. Hiren and party came 2 hours later and surprisingly they had trekked down :)

1330 hours: The route to Badrinath, just 25 kms from Govindghat was quite steep.

The route:
Govindghat – Pandukeshwar – Hanuman Chhatti- Badrinath

We had to halt at Hanuman Chhatti for 45 mins as the 2 pm gate at Badrinath was opened for downward traffic.

1530 hours: Badrinath at 3133m/10270 feet looked unruffled, calm and peaceful. Gully cricket was very popular among the locals and many of them played on the main road itself. I too pitched in a fast delivery at Amitesh which was a bit wayward and hence was safely negotiated: P

1600 hours: Hotel Dwarkesh, a new entrant in Badrinath was where we stayed. Good hotel with extremely comfy beds and 24 hrs supply of hot water.

1900 hours: We visited Badrinath Shrine and offered our prayers to the Lord. The illuminated Temple looked beautiful in the night. Neelkanth peak behind the clouds kept eluding us.

14th August 2008 :
0800 hours:
It was time to head north to Mana, our final frontier. Mana is a small Tibetan settlement 3 kms north of Badrinath at an altitude of 3118 m/10200 feet. Moving northwards from Mana would mean moving away from civilization as this village marks the end of any kind of habitation. It’s the last village on the Indian side with Indo-China border less than 50 kms away.

0830 hours: We visited Ganesh Gufa, Vyas Gufa and Bhimpul in Mana. The Story of Bhimpul dates back to the Pandavas epoch. Legend has it that Draupadi was obstructed by the fierce flow of River Saraswati while She along with the Pandavas travelled to Swargarohini. It was Bhim who came to her rescue and flung a huge rock over the river thus bridging the gap. This rock bridge is called Bhimpul (1st pic below is Bhimpul and the second one is the view from Bhimpul).

0930 hours: YHAI group from Mumbai also had arrived at Mana.

We: Aaplog Vasudhara falls tak jaaoge? (Are you going till Vasudhara Falls?)

YHAI member: haan,hum jaa rahe hai. (Yes, we are.)

Hearing this, our catch 22 situation of going or not going to Vasudhara falls(5 km trek from Mana) got solved. We decided to go for it having come all this way. But Sharmil and Hiren turned their backs soon and headed back.

Amitesh, Nimit and I got our feet going for one last time. The YHAI group marched ahead and we followed suit. The sky was erratically painted in blue and stuffed in white as the Sun played peek-a-boo with petite creatures walking towards Vasudhara falls.

1100 hours: Vasudhara falls acts as a dead end for us as well as the trail. The valley stretches beyond, leading to the high altitude lake of Satopanth. A small opening high above us allowed the waters of Vasudhara to leap straight onto the boulders below.

It is believed that Vasudhara falls sways away from sinners. Now, there has to be many definitions of ‘Sin’ as I was not dry when I left Vasudhara :)

1330 hours: The weather turned gloomy during our return from Vasudhara and it continued to be so, whilst we left for Delhi from Mana.

1400 hours: The gate in Badrinath was thrown open and so were the gates in heaven. I fell into slumber watching the wet windscreen getting wiped every 2 seconds.

1500 hours: Just 18 kms from Badrinath and 4 kms before Pandukeshwar, we got caught in the claws of Nature – Landslide it was and it appeared to be a major one.

It was as if the clouds wanted to empty their month long stock at that very place. The unfurled uncertainties that lay ahead was enough to make a decision to head back to Badrinath.

Just as we took a U over the stones that masked the road, we could sense that there was no going back. The road to Badrinath too was blocked. STRANDED, we had to get ready to do nothing :)

1730 hours: A lull in the downpour allowed us to get out of the car and flex our stiff muscles. It was but obvious that the night was going to be a long one.

1930 hours: The loud gush of Alaknanda River was all that could be heard as darkness pitched itself in completely. It was time to have some Maggie and tea before the shops closed.

2030 hours: Just as we were thinking on how to spend the night in this enclosed cabinet, a localite approached us and made an offer to stay in his house. Ofcourse, not for free :)
I was more than happy with the offer and convinced the others and we made our way up the hill to enter their small house which had a room big enough to accommodate 4-5 people.

We fell asleep discussing the events that unfolded during the day.

15th August 2008:
0700 hours:
We left their house and paid them Rs 300 as part of the deal.

0800 hours: We saw a cop approaching from the landslide affected area.

We: Yeh landslide kab clear hoga . (When will the landslide be cleared?)

Cop: Aaj 15 August hai. Clear hoga ki nahi kuch keh nahi sakte. (It's 15th August, not sure whether it will be cleared or not)

A collective gape as the cop’s bombardment left us stunned. Ironically,it was Indepedence Day and here we were....Trapped :)We had to reach Delhi asap as we had to catch our flight back to Mumbai the next day.

0830 hours: A Yellow colour vehicle on the other side of the landslide made entry into the scene. Yes, it was a bulldozer which was out to clear the debris. Everyone stood by the edge of the road and watched the magnificent machine doing the clearing act. Moments later, a loud thud was heard and a car size rock started making its way down the hill. It was right on target to hit the bulldozer and BANG. The boulder hit the picker section (in the front) of the bulldozer and then continued on its way to meet river Alaknanda below.

1100 hours: The landslide was cleared. The engine of our Innova got back its long lost life, 20 hours to be precise and it was time to cross the affected area. Phew! We finally made it to the other side and tough times for ChandraShekhar began as we had to reach Delhi soon.

We whizzed past curves and bends at good speed and we quickly crossed all the Prayag towns and by dusk we had reached Rishikesh.

16th August 2008:
0200 hours:
We were in the Capital. Hiren, Sharmil and Nimit decided to stay in a hotel and head to the airport after breakfast. Amitesh headed straight to the airport, preponed his flight and left for Mumbai at 6 am. I stayed at my uncle’s place as I had to attend the Raksha Bandhan ritual early in the morning. I flew out of Delhi at the onset of dusk.

Dev Bhoomi Uttaranchal – A land that offered spiritual adventure, valleys that hummed the music of mysticism, an experience that will be ever etched deep within our hearts, and hence the title, The Valley Of Gods!

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