Monday, October 20, 2008

The trek, rain, shine and joy

Up at 4:30. The night was so short. We had to divide our luggage into two. First set, we would carry with us to Govindghat and the other would join us after we came back from there. Thanks to the Dri-fit variety of clothes for I could squeeze all 3 day worth of clothes into my back-pack.

The girls expectedly took a lot of time - pack, re-pack, cross-pack, inter-pack and various other kinds of experiments were done. They finally concluded that what you do not need for 3 days, you may not need for a life time... so they ended up packing most of their stuff into the three day bag. Once the bags got sorted out, we were all set to go. From here on, the roads are really narrow and treacherous. Hence, they (locals) have worked out a nice time-sharing plan. Every alternate two hour slot is designated to each direction. Two hours is the approximate time required by a slow vehicle to go from one check point to the next. Between those check points (called gates), the drivers can be rest assured that there will not be any on-coming traffic. Since the taxi-drivers very well understand that this arrangement is for their safety, they adhere to the time limits strictly and do not attempt to bend the rules. However, there are always some brash, moronic self driven tourists who miss the time limit and dangerously pose themselves as unexpected oncoming traffic. We did make the Joshimath - Govindghat gate in good time. On the way we did see the Hydro Electric project at Vishnu Prayag, the base of ITBP (Indo Tibetian Border Police), the base of Gharwal Rifles (Para military outfit). There is no other sign of civilization between Joshimath and Govindghat.

[left: Hiring the Pittus, intense negotiations]

Govindghat is a stop-over town. There is nothing permanent here. Hotels, Restaurants and temples all are made only for the tourists and pilgrims – mainly pilgrims visiting Hemkund Saheb, one of the most holy places for the Sikh community. Its is again a single street city (you can not get lost here…) the street ends in a bridge. Across the bridge, the trek to Ganghria beckons. But before that, we had to get tick off two big “to-do”s – break-fast at Nany’s restaurant and hire the Pittos. Pittos are porters who carry luggage for those who wish not to carry themselves. For the benefit of both Pittus and the travellers, the whole process of Pittu hiring is organized. Every Pittu has an ID card that is deposited with the traveller at the point of hiring. The traveller pays for the Pittus in advance, but not to them directly. Money is placed at the organization counter (kind of an Escrow) – for which he gets a reciept. At the end of successful and satisfying trip the ID card and the reciept are handed over to the Pittu, who then encash the reciept for cash. No Pittu is allowed to operate out of the system. This ensures both minimum pay for the Pittus and safety of the traveller (and his belongings). We finally hired two of them because one of them sopke broken Kannada and the other was his friend. I forget their names… How rude?

[right: River Lakshmana that we followed through out the valley. It has its origins in the Holy Lake of Hemkund or Lakshmanatheertha]

Once the Pittus were hired, the journey starts after crossing Alaknanda. The 13 Kms trek to Ganghria can be done on foot, on horse back, on a doli (for old people) or the back of a pittu (for little children). The path is well laid out. One can not get lost. However, since the digestive cycle of horses are not under anybody’s control the path is littered all around with horse shit. If you are on this trek, you are forced to rewrite the proverb “You can take the horse to the loo, but you can not make it crap”. I know that it is bio-degradable, and we are better off with horse shit than plastic, and we have to learn to live together with nature and all such fundas… but the fact of the matter is that it is still horse-shit and shit stinks. There was a weather forecast for rain/thundershowers. From the ground condition, it looked as though it had rained the previous day also. Hm… horse shit, rain, muddy path. We are going to have a heck-of-a-trek today.

[right: One of the innumerable Water falls across the valley. Can you spot the Great Himalayan White Snow Leopard? Neither did we...]

Trekking in the Himalayas is not very from trekking in Western Ghats. He he he… that’s totally a frog-in-the-well comment. Its totally different. The gradients are different. The altitude is much higher. The air is cool (not humid). The vegitation, birds, butterflies everything is different. For me, everything is also new. Thanks to the Binauculars-101 class that Mamu gave me yesterday, I was enjoying the scenery/birding more. The seven men group soon split into 3 + 4. The first three kept pace with the fast Pittus and soon were out of sight. In the back group were mamu, Sneha, Roopa and me. 13Kms to cover, entire day for that – how hard can it get? So we took it really easy. Taking time off at every bend, at every breath taking view, at the sight of every waterfall. Yes, there was a water fall to be seen almost every half hour. It is not those monsoon streams falling off a cliff that we call waterfalls in the south. These were really tall 200+ feet falls. Thankfully they were all on the other side of the valley and totally inaccessible. Hence there was no need to fight off the temptation of taking dip. The mountains on either side kept growing on us as we walked further.

[left: Ladies of Gharwal, Beauty is in the air here]

We ticked off Kilometer after Kilometer, each one being slower than the previous.Spotting a bird here, a wild flower there. Talking to people coming back, some tired, some jubilant. Everybody were mesmerised by what they had seen at the Valley and Hemkund. They said it was nothing short of heaven. I imagined, there must not be any horses there… no horse, no horse shit. A couple of Gharwal ladies were on their way back from daily routine of collecting grass for their cattle. They agreed to be photographed. People here are surprisingly aware of their right to say no... and rightly so. At the beginning, we were going slow because we wanted to soak in the beauty around us (in spite of horse shit). After 4-5 Kms, we were slow because we could not go any faster… even if we wanted to. Water bottles were with Pittus who were too far ahead. No Glucose, No Electral and no sign of the forecasted rain. In stead it was a hot and de-hydrating day. “On ward we move…” I kept telling myself to keep myself motivated. There is a free medical camp mid way if at all pilgrims get injured/sick. There are two state-of-the-art foot massage machines, powered by a diesel generator.

[Right: One of the many shops to keep the food coming, as long as you do not mind the x2 price tag. L was thrilled at seeing the calendar]

At around 2:00 PM we were at the mid way point. There is a hotel there by that name. That triggered of the thought of hunger. We had quick make-shift lunch – Maggie with vegetables. Rs 30/- for the same. We had lime water at some other place. Rs 20/- per glass. All the shops have identical pricing to take competition out of the picture. Since the number of travelers are way too high, every body gets as many customers as they can handle. So, they do not see the need to compete on prices. After these two surprises, we made it a point to know the price of anything before we order. This was hardly a snack and we moved on.

Powered and rejuvenated by the pit stop, our speed picked up for the next few minutes – only to be brought to a complete halt by wet weather. Where did that come from? Just 30 minutes ago, the sky was spotlessly clear. We quickly draped ourselves with the rain-coats we bought at Govindghat. A rain-coat is called “barsati” here and I had a US Army barsati – bright and red. Once we had that on, rain did not bother us. And the rain surely lifted our spirits up, and also that of our location - waterfalls, trees, mountains and the river below - all seemed to be singing and dancing to the tune of the rain. Too bad, we had packed all our cameras inside – safe and dry. We kept walking taking lesser and lesser breaks since there was no decent place to sit… horse-shit + rain + slush + brand new US made raincoat, there was no way I was going to stop anywhere. With just 3 Kms to go, we were welcomed into one of the restaurants by our very own Kumar. It was about 3:30PM... and lunch was definitely due. Guess what? Alu Parantha and Onion Parantha again. Since it was almost tea time, and rain had just eased a bit, we also gulped 2 cups of tea each ;-) This was the first time we came so close to the river. This is the only restaurant that is on both sides of a river with a makeshift wooden plank acting as a bridge. I gauged the temperature of the water by washing my hands in it... 3 seconds and I could no longer feel my palm. It was that frigid. It is understandable because the water was only couple of hours away from its source, a melting glacier.

[left: a million streams run down soon after rain, forget the foreground]

We moved on. We had to make good progress because it gets dark too soon on the mountains. It started pouring again. While my Solar sneakers held on well, Roopa’s Nike gave up. We had to do some creative engineering to keep it from falling apart - at least till Ganghria where we could buy new foot wear. As the rain got heavier, surprisingly our spirits were much lighter. No pain, No worry, just march on - horseshit or otherwise. I don’t know why I started singing loudly - “Appadi podu podu...” (Moto Rokr). Two more hours of walk-stop-walk and the terrrain eased a bit. It was clear we were in the Ganghria valley. The rain had also eased. The scenery that surrounded us was surreal. We were surrounded by high peaks on all sides. There were numerous rain fed streams on all the nearby mountains. It was as if the mountains wore silver ornaments all over. On the distant peaks, glaciers and snow made them look majestic. Truly we were “in” the Himalayas.

[right: Look for the melting glaciers on the far off mountains. Entry to Ganghria.]

Ghangria is again a city carved out for the tourists. GMVN has a hotel and a dormitory. However, they get filled pretty soon. There are numerous hotels. Rs 1000/- per room per night is the normal price. But, don’t expect any thing more than basics. We managed to get acco at Mary Cottage, 2nd floor. The hotel quickly fixed the leaky roof. We decided to use one room exclusively to dry our clothes and rest in the other two. The rest of the evening was spent in shopping (for better rain-coats, Roopa’s foot wear), dinner at Hotel Himalaya, phone-calls to home (Rs 20/- per minute) and exchanging pictures and comments.

New friends:

In front of the GMVN guest house, mamu sighted the “Little tree creeper”. Since the bird was also in a photo shoot mood, he was clicking away to glory. His interest in seemingly insignificant bird raised a few eye-brows. However, people who know the trade were pleasantly surprised and appreciative. One of them was Ragubir Chauhan. He is a Botanist by profession and owns a souvenir shop in Ghanghria, selling photos, DVDs and books on the valley. He also accompanies groups into the valley as a guide. A very nice man.

In the middle of all the rain, we met Prahlad from Bangalore. He will join PES college for engineering. A jolly young man, sadly with a heavy bag. He found himself in the alone in a group of 52 - to slow to be with the leading group, faster than the slowest. We gave him some company for a Kilometer or two trying to up his spirits ;-)

Suguna aunty. She was so kind to us. I have seen very few of them who talk so pleasantly to strangers. God bless her.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Drive through the mountains – Rishikesh to Joshimath

Two full months after the trip, and still no trip-report. This has some reasons - albeit frivolous. One, work pretty much sucks. Second, I have come to realize that words just do not make justice to the wonders that we witnessed during that week. It is truly befitting that Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) on "Bucket List" chose ‘seeing the Himalayas’ to tick off the "Witness something magnificent".

Our journey from Rishikesh to Joshimath may have been ordinary and routine for the locals (like our driver - Jaypal Khanduri). But for some of us who were seeing the Himalaya's for the first time, it was nothing short of magnificent. Yesterday, I saw Ganga for the first time. Today, I am seeing Himalayas for the first time. We saw numerous rope bridges built across the Ganga. One of the first was at Marine Drive. A beautiful winding drive of about 4-5 Kms clinging to the Ganga, just like its name sake in Mumbai. It is maintained in top form and aptly named by the BRO - Border Roads Organization. One is bound to imagine what would happen if BRO were not there... All our destinations would be multi-day treks instead of 12 hour drives. Not too bad.. eh?

The early morning fog on the Ganga looked nothing less mystic as the Amazon. (My knowledge of the Amazon is only from the movie with J Lo and the snake). The river passes through valleys and bends around mountains to make wonderful beaches at the bends. It is difficult to believe that water takes the path of least resistance. Looking at the tall trees, boulders and parts of mountain devoured by Ganga along her way, it only looks like she does not choose least resistance. She just chooses a path on her whim and quells all resistance on that path. We just have got the cause and effect wrong.

The rest of the morning was interestingly-boring. It is a new term, when people get bored of seeing too many interesting things. We had a late breakfast at Kaudiyala (at Monal Restaurant. I guess?). We had Alu-parantha and Onion-parantha - loads of them. Little did we know that our familiarity with these two specific dishes would only increase as we gain altitude? Beyond that point, the roads got more treacherous and scenery got more beautiful. Deep gorges, Rock cut roads, Landslides, terrace farming, rope bridges, rain and shine became the order of the day.

We reached Joshimath a little after sunset. Joshimath is a town bustling with travelers. It is small pack of activity amidst total wilderness. For six winter months in an year, this is the last bit of active town along this route. We quickly finished darshan of some of the most holy shrines for Hindus. A cave where Adi Shankara performed long term penance and composed some of his best works, the present Jyotirmath - winter office of the Shankara Math of Badri and so on... By night fall, we again were faced with the same old question. What to eat? And where? Thanks to some heightened level of cleanliness consciousness, we shuttled from hotel to hotel before finally ordering food from a restaurant with open kitchen. However, we could never be sure where the food came from... since restaurants seemed to loan food whenever there was some kind of liquidity (turn-over) crisis ;-)) We retired to the cozy beds under the thick blankets wishing it were a long night. Ha ha ha... we had to be up by 4:30 to be on time for the next-day's oprdeal.

Breakfast at Kaudiayala, lunch at Rudra Prayag, tea at Pipalkoti and dinner at Joshimath. That pretty much describes day-two of our trip which saw us drive past three of the four holy prayags - Dev Prayag - confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, Rudra Prayag - Alaknanda and Mandakini, Karna Prayag - Alaknanda and Pindari.

(from Left: Dev Prayag, Rudra Prayag, Karna Prayag)