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.


Lakshmi said...

"as the donkey walk" hilarious :-) it does sound like heaven for folks who have the remotest idea on what this place feels like.

Roopa said...

Something notable did happen on the way back .. but then thats my story :)