Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Day 6: Travel to Badarinath

Day 6 was in a way continuation of the previous evening. Descent... descent and descent. Temperature was not pleasant either. I think it was my new found knowledge about the importance of high altitude sun scream - I felt that sun was extremely sharp. Hm... wonder which cream was Ms K (Ms H.K, Canada to be precise) using. Those UV rays that purported to have burnt my nose en route to Hemkund only seemed to have managed to increase the glow in her face. Nevertheless, she decided to descend to Govindghat on 4 legs - those of the mule. Little did I know that it would be last time I would see her. Well, farewell.

After having seen the high mountain passes at Hemkund, the descent did not seem much interesting. More-of-the-same syndrome kept haunting. Well, even when we had gravity on our side getting down the mountain was not easy - thanks to some serious horse shit. We did not make progress as fast as we had imagined we would. One of the reasons we wanted to hurry was to beat the gate-closure-time towards Badrinath. It was becoming increasingly tiring. Only saving grace was that prices of fruit juices were reducing as we climbed down. A glass of nimbu-pani now costed only Rs 5/- compared to Rs 20/- in Ganghria.

Finally we reached Govindghat a little after noon. The Pittus took leave of us here. Nice people. A big thanks to them. Our brief search for our Qualis ended when we saw the smiling face of Khanduriji. Smiling, he told us that we would not make the gate-cut-off and hence we could take it easy. All of us abandoned our mountaineering (sic) sticks and got into the vehicle. As it started moving... I felt weird. It was the first time in 3 days that we were moving without putting any effort. It felt great. Lunch @ Hotel Bhagat and we were off to an hour drive to Badari Nath. Before we knew it... we were there - Hotel Dev Lok (New). The "new" in the bracket is important because there are many Hotel Dev Lok in Badri as well as the rest of Uttarakhand. It was the first time we had good mobile reception (only reliance) in three days. After about an hour frantic calling home, family and friends it was time for hot (yes, hot) bath.

The hot bath was not in the shower... but at the tapta kunda - the natural hot spring. Water from the hot spring is made to pass through 3 tanks. One is for the ladies and hence is covered from all sides ;-). Another one has only the roof and no walls. The last one is out in the open. The water in the covered tanks is obviously hotter. With enough apprehension, we got into least hot one... one by one. Quite a few men from the IQuest gang were also there. I am sorry to drag the comparison of liquour at a holy place... but our minds were just like a bottle of champagne just popped. We were laughing uncontrollably, splashing water at each other like four-year-olds. The place is naturally crowded. There had to be some one to look after the luggage at all time. A piece of advice - go there with as less luggage as possible... so that you can relax and soak in the hot sauna as long as you want.

There were further programs for the day. So we had to get out of the water and got into dry clothes. But alas!! we had to wait for the ladies. Luckily, in Badarinath any place where 10 people can sit - there will be a bhajan organised. We just sat in one of them right next to the tapta kund. After a bunch of songs, the girls were also ready and we proceeded to the shrine. Since it is one of the four matths that Sri Shankara himself started, it is a very holy shrine for Hindus. For that reason, it is also high on terror alert. Consequently, there is prominent security cover. Once inside I realized that it was just like how my 5th standard Hindi text book described it. There are birds chirping and flying anxiously all around. Some sparrows have made their home inside the sanctum also. So nice. I was so excited to see crows with yellow beaks and yellow feet. Only later did Mamu told that they were not crows but yellow-billed-chough.

After the ashtottara (reciting 108 different names of the Lord) we took prasad and joined another Bhajan group that was singing inside the temple. There is some intoxicating powers that these bhajans have. Here is where we picked up our slogan for the rest of the trip "Jai Badari Vishal!!!". We reserved our places in tomorrow's morning prayers and retired for the day. In the background we could here the priests performing the "shyana pooja" and putting Badari Vishaal to sleep.

Tomorrow promises to be an out-of-the-world experience. Behold.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 5: Hemkund Sahib

Rise and shine. As soon as I woke up that day, I checked all my body parts for any discomfort. None found. Thanked R for such simple medicine. Lesson: Salt and water must be taken in ample proportions to avoid cramps. L also gave very sound advice that I should not carry anything more than the camera and the binos. The pittus are specifically hired for carrying the rest. The socialist in me softened a bit and decided to make use of them. I packed my change of clothes into a small packet (god bless dri-fit clothes again) and put it in the bag to be carried by the Pittu. I wore a light T-Shirt and a jacket over it. Warm and Comfortable... and ready to go. After the near horrible experience at breakfast yesterday, we decided to try out "Hotel Deepak", just next door this time. There was one more attraction sitting in the Hotel, that sealed the deal. Most of us opted for English breakfast - bread & butter (lots of them), Hot porridge, and tea. Kumar had a lime juice... and I ate salt. I had come to like it now. After some time, the attraction in the hotel climbed a horse and went away... so did we.

We again came to the fork in the path - left to VOF, right to Hemkund. Q: Why are the two paths so different? A: Horses are not allowed inside the VOF. The one on left is clean and the one on the right is full of horse-shit. Another difference is that the very first 50 meters give you a glimpse of what is to come... steep incline. Hemkund is only perhaps 5 Kms from Ghangria as the donkey walks. In these 5 Kms the donkey has to gain 1300 meters (Ghangria:3048m: Hemkund: 4329m). Even if donkey meander around in 'Z's to tackle gravity, it still amounts to about 25% incline. We are more intelligent than that, we started making smaller 'z' with in the big 'Z' paths... Sure we would have to climb like 7.5 Kms, but the incline would be manageable... Me and R tried this for about a kilometre... Then it got boring and weird. At some time we caught up on L and Kumar. There were nice flowers on either side of the path... but nothing compared to the valley we saw yesterday. We spotted some red-flinches merrily feeding on the invisible grains. And then two more birds that were of the same size... same voice... Only later was I enlightened that all three are the same species - male, female and juvenile. So, avid birdwatchers derive pleasure out of recognising a bird... but three times more. No wonder Mamu kept falling behind. We took some rest at a snack stall... and moved on. There was some road work going on. A group of horses were also anxious to get past us. I did not want to argue with them... In all the commotion, I lost track of Kumar. I assumed he is ahead of me and hastened to catchup. Minutes later I could see a huge glacier at some distance. I felt as if I had a spring in my step. I started taking short-cuts. Taking the 'I' path in stead of 'Z'. But seeing the men and women from Khalsa tribe climb so effortlessly - the enthusiasm rubs off.

At the base of the glacier, it melts and starts a stream. It is perhaps the purest water source possible... I had to drink it. I looked up. I felt like going closer to the glacier... I started climbing towards the right of the stream. I reached the glacier... touched it. It was cold, not as soft as I had imagined it to be. It was just like a gola (grated ice). I took my time... The feeling was very much like being in a temple... can't explain why. But that was how I felt. Since I had gone off path and alone in front of a natural wonder I was seeing for the first time. The moment I turned back, I realised that down was definitely not the way to go. It was too slippery and I did not trust my floaters any more (after yesterday's fall. If I have not written about it, it is deliberate). So I started moving up and side hoping to re-join the path in some time. Actually, the path comes really close to the galcier. From this point, one can see the entire glacier stuck in a wedge between two mountains. Beautiful... I can imagine how bright would it look on a clear day. Time to move on.

I saw a small shrub of the Himalayan Blue Poppy (the majestic neelkamal) with so many flowers. Isn't is beautiful? I went a little off the path to get a close up. This time I made sure that I did not so off that I could not return back the same way. By this time, I came to realise that Kumar must not have been ahead of me or he was possessed by a horse (or some one on it). Nevertheless, it did not make much sense to wait. I carried on. Somebody had written that Neelkanth Peak would be visible from Hemkund... I wanted to see that too. The returning horsemen never tell you how far is the destination. They always waiting for some guy to give up and take the horse to the shrine. As I marched on, I asked a few pilgrims (old men) how far the temple was. They showed me a flag post that seemed two mountains away... That was the holy "Hemkund Sahib". I flaunted my binoculars pretending to guess how long it would take me to go there. The elders also took turns to see the flag post up close... and approved of my gadget.

A little ahead is a fork in the road. There is a easy path of really wide "Z"s or the very steep steps that takes directly to the door step of the shrine. In addition to saving time, the stairs meant that it would give much needed relief from the horses and horse shit. The choice was simple. It was here that I mingled with a troop of pilgrims. They were practising sikhs from some district in Punjab. It was little Jagan's first time in the high mountains. He had a unique way to stall climbing (so that he can get his breath back). He used to volunteer jokes and songs and ask every body to listen. I stayed with this group all the way to Hemkund. They were happy to be my guides. Punjabi is not much different from Hindi and I could get most of the jokes from the punch line. As we came near the shrine, the shout of "Jo Bole So Nihaal" started louder and louder... I joined in with "Sat Sri Akaal" every time. This is in fact a sikh hello, a war-cry, conveys devotion, denotes jubilation and many other emotions. It is a proof of our Indian tradition of remembering God at all time ;-)

Once inside the compound, Sandeep (one of the pilgrims) told me that I should not delay taking a dip in lake. We must do while the body is still warm from the climb. Five dips is what one must do - and it will give lot of brownie points in the heavenly account book. Sir, Yes Sir. I disrobed and went near the ice cold water. I saw that people were jumping out of the water after just one dip... there were a few who survived even 3-4 dips. I reckoned, 5 must really be a lot of brownie points and was determined to get them all... and more bonuses of available. There are iron chains whose one end is fixed on the bank of the lake... I wondered why would iron chains be required to take a dip in hip high stagnant water. I found the answer when I got up from my very first dip. I almost lost my balance. I could no longer feel my foot, let alone make it move on my command. Some reflex action kicked in and regained balance. Two, three four and five... By time I got up from my fifth dip the numbness had hit my head. I collected my points in full and let the bonus points go... Perhaps I would not have survived a sixth. So, this is what people call hypothermia. This is one place, being fat helps. Once out of the pond, I realized that my change of clothes is yet to come... Sandeep, who advised me on the 5-dip-theory sprang out just after one... Did he just con me into spending 10 excruciating seconds in frigid water without proper dry clothes to change into?

Next stop was the ritual of "Matha Tekhna" at the Gurudwara in front of the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. It felt warm inside the Gurudwara. I went round the holy book and touched my forehead on the ground before it. This is Matha Tekhna. After coming out of the Gurudwara, we had hot tea and khichidi at the langar. Langar is the free food service that can be seen in almost all the Gurudwaras. Sikhs never turn back a visitor hungry. Sikh pilgrims consider it sacred to help out in the kitchen and doing dishes. It is a self sustaining process which the temple official only facilitate. With fuel in my stomach, I started to go around.

The lake is surreal. After having seen the water solidified in the glacier, it is hard to believe that such a huge lake can exist at this altitude. On the far side of the lake, one can see glacial water flowing ever so slowly into the lake. The excess water flows out into the mini-hydel project that caters to the power needs of the shrine. Beyond the lake, there are mountains on all the other three sides. On the slopes of these mountains, we can see foot high shrubs of the legendary Brahmakamala. This flower blooms for about 15 - 20 days a year and only above 4000m altitude. The semi transparent pale yellow petals hide the intricate design of the black pot shaped pistils. Its a see-it-to-believe-it kind of flower. I could see trekkers trying to climb those mountains to see what is beyond... Since I was still waiting for my friends to come, I did not want to venture too much. Later I learnt that there is a path that leads to Khag Bhushandi Taal (The lake of the crows) from here. It is supposed the be even bigger than Hemkund and another 1000 metres higher in altitude.

Towards the west of the Gurudwara is the Hindu temple of Laxmana - brother of Lord Rama. While the Sikh legend has that Guru Gobind Singh did meditate here in his previous life, the Hindu mythology says Laxmana meditated here. Similar story lines definitely indicate that this is an ideal place to meditate. I took a couple of photos and videos to tell the story. Again, electronics can just not record emotions. Too many people and the constant noise does irritate a bit. But if you can mentally block them out, this is as close as it gets to heaven. Wonder if potato, onion and raddish grow at these heights... If so, one can live here and declare independence from the rest of the world. Every two years, I would sell some potatoes and buy a new tent and thermals.
Just as I was thinking all kinds of international treaties that I would have to sign with India, China and who else... a thick fog covered the entire area. Visibility got reduced to just 10 feet. Light drizzle, frigid air. I asked a security guard how long would it take for the fog to lift. He said, some time it could take minutes, some time it took days. That day it did not (at least until late afternoon). My friends reached the shrine only now... L and Kumar were the first, then followed by R and then the rest. I played the role of tourist guide - first the pond, then the Gurudwara, then the temple and finally the langar. We got back into the Gurudwara since it was warm in there and they provide thick blankets for all pilgrims. We took ample rest - even slept for a while. Outside, the rain intensified and tourists became more chaotic... just the same effect that a drizzle has over Bangalore traffic. Sorry to remind of hell when we are in heaven.

Nothing notable happened on the way back ;-) More pictures of the Lake here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 4: Valley of Flowers - a walk among the heavens

The razaais (quilts) were very good. I had a well deserved sound sleep - the kind which one gets after hard labour. Climbing Ghangria was no less an ordeal. We were half-woken up by the bhajans sung by the pilgrims going to Hemkund. Later Sanju tells me that it was 5:00AM. Where do these people get the energy to be up so early in such frigid climate? I tried to put off the inevitable  (getting up) as much as possible. 

Bad news was waiting for me as soon as I woke up. Cramps. The previous day's dehydration had finally found a way to assert itself. I tried asking for "Electral" in the local drug store... He blinked twice and asked if a masala lemonade mixture would do. Any salt is better than no salt at all. I bought it paying 10 times the MRP (Re 1/-). I think the shopkeeper - a kid, about 10 years old - saw the pain in my face and knew instantly how badly I needed it - a true White Tiger. After the morning chores, we were all ready for breakfast. This time, we wanted to try something on the way to the Valley of Flowers - Hotel Kuber. We were surprised to see the exact same menu. In fact, it even had the small print "Hotel Devlok" printed at the back. After much deliberation, we all settled for the usual - Onion Parantha and Aloo Parantha. Only one of us broke the shackles and tried Corn Flakes - with disastrous results ;-)

After our breakfast, we were joined by Raghubir Chauan - our botanist guide for the day. He is a short man. His interests include - flower watching, guiding, bird watching, tree watching... all round naturalist. He is a very good photographer too. During the monsoon months, when the valley is open for tourists, he accompanies groups of them into the valley as a guide (for a nominal fee - of course). Most of what comes next is gyan downloaded from him. Even though the official protected perimeter of the "valley of flowers" starts about a kilometer from the Ghangria, Chauhan says geologically even the Ghangria valley belongs to the valley of flowers. The proof of the same was right in front of our eyes - beautiful flowers lined our path all the way. 
After crossing a small makeshift bridge, on our left is a public toilet - courtesy department of sanitation, Chamoli. Beyond that the path bifurcates into two. Left goes to the valley and right goes to Hemkund. There is a check-post where we deposit the entry fees (Rs 50/- per person per camera?) While the modalities were being taken care of Mamu got busy shooting a bird - white beaked brown chested red something. I added some geographical prefix and called it Great Himalayan White Beaked Brown Chested red something. It does sound authentic. Doesn't it? Any way, my mind was not entirely into anything... the hamstring was irritating me like a poorly composed background score of an art movie. I gulped as much "masala lemonade" as I could. The rock salt that was used had a peculiar smell/taste.

The first flower that was caught our guide's attention was the Serpent Lily. Hm... how did it get its name? As we left Ghangria behind, we descended down the valley towards the river. The river that gives us company today is "Pushpavati" (named hence as it originates in the valley of flowers). Since our guide had a very good idea of what to show and what not, he was zipping through these paths. Obviously a wide variety of balsams and innumerable nameless (since we did not know it) flowers did not interest him. He stopped by the smallest flower of them all named "Forget-me-not". Very often he kept telling that we were very lucky since weather was very good and we had to hurry up, so that we could be in the valley while the weather was still good. The next thing he waited to explain was burrow - a hole in a tree. This is the winter home of a honey bear. He did not say anything about its summer habits... which made me a bit weary. The hole seemed did not seem large enough for a fully grown adult. However, even a baby bear could beat me running on one and half legs. Half an hour of walking gets us to a iron bridge across the Pushpavati. There was a huge tree uprooted tree stuck amongst the rock below the bridge. If a tributary of a tributary of a tributary is so ferocious, one can only imagine the power of the Ganga.

After crossing the bridge, there is little up hill path and the real valley unfolds itself. Yesterday, I met this gentleman who was descending to Govindghat and talking to his friend in a familiar Kanglish accent - typical "Hale-Mysooru" mannerisms. I wanted to test if my guess was right and greeted him with a "Namaskara". He immediately took the hint and switched to appata (pure) Kannnada. That was when I realised, only kannadigas us "Namaskara", not "Namste"... not "Namashkar"... not "Namaskaramu"... I found something very simple that was unmistakably identifiable as Kannada. Never the less, I enquired about weather and what I could expect to see... "Swarga saar, Swarga!!" (Heaven! truly Heaven) that was how he described it yesterday. Now I see what he meant. Even in the scriptures, this is the place where heaven and earth meet. This is the abode of Gandharvas (lower caste among Gods). They are "fairy" equivalents in the western mythology. They have enough magical powers to take care of their chores without worrying too much... and spend most of their time singing and dancing. They are known to be scholarly and take their literature seriously.

My leg was still hurting... and I took as many breaks as possible. Chauhan and gang were at least 20 minutes ahead of me. After few more minutes, I noticed a bunch of ladies taking Patel shots one after another... I tried get past them after mustering a muted smile (read: excuse me, excuse me). One of them read my mind and replied - "Look at the Glacier, the first one !!!". Ha... a glacier. A beautiful one, split right in the middle and ready to fall down. "Dear Ladies, this is not a happy picture. Melting glacier will only cause floods and destruction... yada yada yada..." I sighed and went past them without telling a word... I still wonder if that lady really read my mind. Creepy. They say every thing in nature protects itself. This glacier made itself a huge favour by by placing itself at a steeper part of the valley - out of bounds of the people walking up and down the valley. Posing as a background does not hurt it... but making snow balls out of it only hastens the melting process.

After walking past the glacier, we get to see this!! It was worth walking every inch of the way... We are surrounded by mountains on all three sides. We can not see the tops of any of these mountains as mild fog has decided to play hide-and-seek. On the only side that was clear, we can see the snow capped peak of Ratoband (6000m+). Another look around and you definitely know where the "Sadaa Kannali pranayada..." song of Kavirathna Kalidasa was shot - or rather where it should have been. Green grass, blue sky, white mist and a stream of pink balsams. "Swarga saar, Swarga!!!"

As we walk past the colour of the flowers change... from dominant pink to lavender to purple... As one gazes up the mountains on his left, he can see how these flowers have colonized (yes, they are called colonies). There is a definite patter, like a flowing river - from high in the mountains to the stream in the valley. A few days ago, we saw the marvel of confluence of rivers... merging of water of different hues. Today we see a sea of flowers with streaks of red, pink, purple, yellow and blue... Chauhan says the valley changes colour each week. The flowering cycle of these plants is so well adjusted that they do not seem to fight with each other at all... the bees/flies of the area have their hands full for the entire monsoon. 

There are flowers whose names only Chauhan can remember... I can only describe them thus: flowers with beard, with a tail, with horns, double colour, multi-colour, guess-my-colour and what not. There were flowers that were bell shaped, candle shaped, onion shaped, pickle (close cousin of cucumber) shaped, horn shaped. There were tiny ones smaller than fly... with petals as thin as needles... One odd thing though, there were not many fragrant ones. I put 2 and 2 together and assumed that it must be because most of the insects of the area must have been photosensitive and not the smell-catching kind. There are however a few - wintergreen and thyme. Wintergreen is edible and is used to make Iodex. Now you know why I stressed on the edible part ;-)

The visitors do have their part in the nature. Look at how they perform their solemn duty of pollination. Look at the flourishing balsams along the path. The only danger is when they unknowingly bring seeds of some dominant species that can potentially spread like a virus and destroy the colonies. Luckily, there are very few species of flowering plants that can survive in this cold weather. More over, to succeed here you must make the most of three months of sunshine. After walking for about two hours (that did not seem like it though) we come to a huge rock. There were already some people on it, Chauhan one among them. The view from the top of the rock is not that different from the ground below... An elevation of 20 feet can not change your perspective when you are surrounded by (4000m+) mountains. Nevertheless, I had to climb it... in spite of aching hamstring. Bad decision. I became even more slower. This is usually the place normal tourists head back - those who do not have an able guide like Chauhan.

He promised that the scenery was even better if we walked two more kilometres. Again he reminded us that very rarely does weather co-operate like this and we should not miss the opportunity. Onward we marched. He was right. It was like walking from the doorway-to-heaven to heaven itself. The valley becomes broader and we could see clearly till the very beginning of the stream. Chauhan kept showing us wonderful flowers and explained their intricacies using his pocket lens. At some point, it did become meaningless - in a good way. What was that Shakespeare said about a rose... whatever. He surely was not here, even in his dreams. At the fourth or fifth stream, he decided it was time to head back - after lunch.

We had flavoured jolada rottis (somebody please translate), loads of chikki, almond sticks (you get it some where in Gandhi Bazzar). I was concerned about de-hydration. So I drank water from every stream we crossed and re-filled the bottle as often as I could. If there was something called over-hydrating, I would have got it that day. Chauhan had timed it to perfection... half way back, it started to drizzle and wind picked up. Need I describe how a mountain side would look when white clouds go past green pastures only to be scattered by the wet and shining rocky tops. The light was still intact. Would have made pretty pictures. But pictures could have told even half the story. There is a reason why they do not allow people (however decent and green you are) to camp inside the park... They would have a tough time to vacate them. 

The journey back sad... L and me kept a brisk pace. Little did we talk. There were people still coming into the valley. We did not have the heart to tell them that it was raining, and they will probably tick the valley off their list without even seeing its doors. There was a group of people (mostly middle aged) that visited Hemkund in the morning, and planned VOF for the afternoon. That does not do any justice... neither to Hemkund, to the valley nor to the tourist. We took a small break at the Galcier... clicked a few Patel snaps for others. We still did not talk much. I think silence is a normal response after witnessing something magnificent. The next stop was the bridge. This is a favourite spot for weary travellers to pick themselves up. There is always something about flowing water and clarity!! Hm... for me it was much more than that... a level rock, cool wind meant 30 minutes of most satisfying afternoon nap.

Chauhan realised that Mamu was disappointed with the valley since he did not spot any bird. He took Mamu on a detour with a promise that he would show him some nesting sites. Soon they disappeared into the woods. My leg was slightly better now. L had come out of meditation of some sorts, and were ready to head back to the hotel. As soon as we reached the hotel, I made it a point to take ample rest - slept like a baby. I heard all the others trickle by one by one. When it was night fall, they woke me up for supper - Hotel Himalaya again. But this time, we ate some pulkas and stuffed tomato (stuffed with grated paneer). As suggested by R, I ate as much salt as taste would permit. Hopefully tomorrow would be a good legs day !!!

Wondering why there are no photos of flowers in the "Valley of Flowers" description? Watch them all here :
(Fair use and disclaimer: Photos are not from our trip. It is from Pravin Kawale who visited the valley a week before us. But we saw the same set of flowers. He is a much better photographer than me ;-) )