Parts of this travel blog were written both during and after the trip; therefore, some events are in present tense and some in past tense.
29th June – Day 1
At 4:30 AM, Stereo Love went off over my head, waking me up to what I hope will be a day full of farms, rocky riverbeds, saffron garbs and more mountains than one can handle. By 6 AM we were ready to take off. Our car arrived – a larger-than-life-for-Ambala-roads Mahindra Xylo, an extremely comfortable car, may I add – and we quickly departed with our usual dugga-dugga.
For this early in the morning, we were pretty awake. The driver certainly did his bit by turning on a slightly hipper version of standard driver Punjabi bhangra music. The fact that highway NH72 goes through quite a bit of Punjab farmland helped set the mood. To top it all, it started pouring. Please note that every Indian must, once in his or her lifetime, drive past the farms of Punjab. It is so Bollywood; it’s like going to Times Square.
At 7:20 AM we reached Himachal Pradesh, and stopped at a local joint for a quick breakfast of surprisingly good tandoori aloo parathas.
It is now 8:25 AM, and we are trudging along the long, winding, hill-studded highway behind an extremely overloaded truck. It’s still raining. Papa says, “Was it this beautiful in Mussoorie when it rained?” Yes, it was. Watching Himalayan rains from a dry car or room is fun. Walking up to school in this rain? Not fun. Walking up to school on moss-covered ramps in this rain? Walking up to school on moss-covered ramps in this rain when you’re late for class and a monkey is chasing you up the hill for the breakfast in your hand? I don’t think so.
Back to the highway. I would, if I could, paint a satisfactory picture of the greenery, or the mini-landslides and little waterfalls and fallen trees and the muddy river water, which according to Aastha looks like chocolate milkshake and to mamma looks like tea? (whichever suits your fancy), but I probably wouldn’t do justice to the beauty of it all. Basically, it’s monsoon in the Himalayas.
Hello Dehradun! After more than five hours that included getting stuck in a hilly traffic jam because of a few massive landslides around 9:30 AM, reversing and coming a roundabout way to Ponta Sahib that involved driving over an overflowing river, taking loads of pictures at extremely high shutter speeds and large apertures, and eating lunch at an iffy little restaurant, we (and yes I am finally approaching the end of this sentence) are finally cruising into the familiar ‘Doon. I am reminded of the litchis and strawberries that we were sure to buy from these outskirts on our way to and from Mussoorie, mostly from, since they were for the people in Ambala who actually ate litchis. I smell some Uttarakhand!
Mamma loves to look for signs in daily events. But we all agree that just because we have had a day full of barriers to our drip does not mean that the trip is not meant to be. A trip is always full of unplanned surprises. And sometimes, grumpy, strong-headed, uncooperative drivers. Long story short, we didn’t get to the permit office in Rishikesh on time, and the office closed before we could get the road permit to Badrinath made.
But hey, Rishikesh is an awesome place to spend the night. We found ourselves a lovely hotel called Natraj, and spent the evening around Lakshman Jhoola, surrounded by bells, bhajans, beads, incense, and of course, the ever-tempestuous queen of rivers, Ganga (Ganges). The constraint in a quickly-changing city. The inspiration of some saffron-clad and the excuse of many others.
30th June – Day 2
We thought 6:30 AM in the morning wouldn’t be early enough for us to wake up, get ready, eat breakfast and make it to the permit office in time to get our permit down as soon as the office opens at 8 AM. Turns out that one must get to the office by 8 AM for sure in order to get his or her paperwork down, and then wait till 9 AM when the Babu comes to physically approve and sign the paperwork. We even had a kid come and check the car’s chassis number for verification; and boy, did he feel important – mamma even got a special side glance with haughty raised eyebrows as he walked away while checking something on his (or his father’s, probably) cell phone. The point is, one must be prepared to dish out an hour and a half in the morning just to get the hill permit done.
So we are finally off to Joshimath, which will be a ride of approximately 250 km. If we make it there before 5 PM, we will be in time for the last dispatch of vehicles to be allowed up to Badrinath, which is another 50 km up. If not, we stop for the night in Joshimath.
After an unsuccessful attempt at an exciting round of Antakshari, we are busy admiring the gorgeous view out our windows. Ravi Shankar’s “Chants of India” CD fills up the void with the deep, resonating sound of Om, which creates the serene, spiritual aura to match our view. Years of travelling up and down such mountains does not prepare me for the absolutely spectacular beauty of the Himalayas. There is a lovely mist hanging over the winding river, and clouds envelop the lush green mountaintops. I am reminded of the clouds that used to float into my dorm room when I would open the windows in CC – something that I then took for granted.
Has anybody else read (and loved) Enid Blyton’s “Up the Faraway Tree”?
I must say I am impressed by the Department of Tourism’s facilities provided in the state of Uttarakhand. We were supposed to reach Rudraprayag for lunch by 2:30 PM, but have been stuck in this ridiculously long traffic jam caused by a landslide bottleneck. Within a bit you can see cops directing the upstream and downstream traffic, and there are makeshift toilets up as well! I would hate to say that’s unusual in this country, but it’s probably true. Now at least there is some (very slow) movement and a systematic way to get out of this mess. Lunch, we’re coming.
They say if you want to make God (and fathers) laugh, make a plan. As per Nanaji’s original suggestion we had ended up staying in Rishikesh. Now as per papa’s original plan, we are now spending the night in a town before Joshimath, called Pipalkoti, 77 km from Badrinath. The road up to here was absolutely insane, and I think I forgot to breathe during our passing of some ridiculously narrow mud-roads. But some great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sufi qawwalis, put on, to our amazement, by the driver, really made the ride worthwhile. We are now going to go have dinner, and probably sleep without a fan on for once this summer – it is starting to get cool!
1st July – Day 3
We are finally on the ascent to Badrinath. We are now at an altitude past 7000 ft, and the hills have turned into mountains with less trees and more rocks and moss. These are some very steep mountains, with sharp dead-drop cliffs that probably last hundreds of meters. We have clouds above us, clouds below us, and clouds alongside us. How are there cows this far up! There are step farms even at these steep parts of the mountains. I wonder what they grow here.
We’ve been stuck in another landslide traffic jam for quite a bit now. But I love how well all the travelers take these delays – people are roaming around, taking walks, having tea, and even drying their wet clothes on the rocks outside their cars and vans!
We’re Indians. We adapt.
It has been a beautiful day. We had reached Joshimath in time for the 11:30 AM gate opening. Every two hours a gate opens, allowing the traffic to proceed in an orderly fashion on the last 50 km up to Badrinath. Most of the road from there on is well-maintained by the army, but the last few kilometers are preposterously dangerous, muddy, and unreasonably narrow.
But man is it worth the ride. I won’t even start to try to describe the view we were blessed with. 10,200 feet up in the Himalayas, let me just say, is absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous. The rocky and steep mountains are covered with thin waterfalls formed by melting glaciers, some of which can be seen when the clouds allow.
We reached Badrinath at around 1 PM. We quickly had lunch and then explored the town till 3 PM when the temple reopened for darshan. There was a huge line to enter the temple, and a loud cheer went over the crowd like a wave when the temple doors opened with a loud clanking of bells and turning on of Anup Jalota bhajans. We somehow managed to survive the stamping, pushing, shoving, leaning, stinking, cheering, and at one point hair-pulling in the temple stampede, offered our puja, and quickly left the temple. Then we took some customary pictures outside the temple and moved on to buying some fabulous beads!
We then went 3 km further, to a village at the end of the road, called Mana village. This is the last Indian village before the Indo-China (Tibet) border, 65 km from the border. The people who live here are called bhotias, and the language they speak is the bhotia language. They seem pretty self-sufficient as a village, with their little farms and water system and a little personal temple as well. There is a cave there called Vyas gufa, which according to legend is the cave in which Ved Vyas sat and dictated the Mahabharat. There is another cave nearby called Ganesh gufa, which naturally then is the cave where Lord Ganesh wrote down the Mahabharat. Also, legend has it that this is where the Pandavas allegedly passed through on their ascent to heaven. It’s a lovely little village that is definitely worth visiting. One could also see a beautiful ice-capped glacier from this place, and of course we stopped to capture as much details as we could with the divine new tele lens.
We left Badrinath at 5:25 PM and crossed Joshimath around 7:15 PM. We drove back to Pipalkoti, a drive during which I was probably the only person other than the driver who was awake.
It has been a very fulfilling day. Tomorrow we plan to make it to Gaurikund, the base camp for the hike up to Kedarnath the day after. Car day. Fun.
2nd July – Day 4
Wow. I was not expecting the amount of fun we’ve had in the last few hours on our way to Gaurikund. The road was (is) very narrow and rather bumpy, but it goes through a beautiful area called Mandal, which is basically all forest land.
It was like Alice in Wonderland, complete with its own animals and sounds and mushrooms! There was something mystical about the place. The floor of the forest was entirely covered with ground covering, and there were streams and mini-waterfalls everywhere. This forest is famous for its abundance of musk deer.
We stopped for a bit where the forest ended at a clearing and a few shacks were set up as tea-stalls. Beautiful place but covered with ravens. I have never seen so many ravens at once. It was a less creepy version of an Edgar Allen Poe story. The view from this place was lovely; there were horses walking around freely. They even had a hut that you could rent, and a tiny makeshift plastic-sheet-covered bathroom which was much cleaner than some of the awful ones we’ve had the misfortune of using during the trip. The tiny area was self-sufficient – they even had their own water tank, and used nothing but solar power for heating and electricity. Fascinating.
So Gaurikund is a tiny village which serves no purpose other than forming the base from where pilgrims hike up to Kedarnath. The entire village is basically on the two sides of the path up to Kedarnath, which starts at the bus stand. We reached Gaurikund well before dark, and checked in at the GMVN Tourist Lodge, which is about half a kilometer up the path to Kedarnath. Cars aren’t allowed beyond the bus stand, and parking is a good kilometer and a half further away. So we got ourselves a pitthu, which is a man who carries any sort of load on his back (person or luggage), and had our luggage transported to our rooms. The lodge may not exactly be the ideal hotel of one’s dreams, but the service was decent and the food made us feel at home. Big day ahead.
3rd July – Day 5
I don’t even know what time of the night it is; I have never been this exhausted in my entire life, even though I have a strong feeling I won’t feel the worst of it until tomorrow. What a day it has been. We woke up in the morning at 5 AM to prepare for the long day. We each packed a backpack with a day’s change of clothes, an umbrella, money in case we get separated, and a 20-rupee green plastic cover crudely designed to work as a makeshift raincoat. All this just in case we are unable to return to Gaurikund the same day.
We were at the base of the Kedarnath hiking path by 6:15 AM. Here, one has the option of walking up by road – which does not qualify as a road – or going up by horseback, or even being carried up on a palanquin by four sturdy Garhwali boys with legs that looked like they could break stone.
Turns out that the road is nothing like the one at Vaishno Devi, which is a little less steep, well-paved, well-lit, cemented and well maintained, and certainly not utterly covered with what can very delicately be described as horse waste. We shall cover the subject of horse waste in detail when the right time comes, as it happens to be the most vivid image and smell force-carved deep into my brain, and to leave it at just this would not do the truth justice.
Our original plan was to do the 14 km hike, but needless to say that because this path turned out to be much tougher than the one we had envisioned (and because we now hoped to return to Gaurikund the same day), we decided to take horses up and walk on the way down. Truly a decision I will never regret, except for the fact that somewhere along the four-hour ride up I lost all feeling in my very sore behind, and it may have crumbled into pieces and fallen down the cliff at some point. Riding a horse uphill on a very rocky path for four hours is no joke, my friend. Keep a cushion handy.
But I must say that the four hours went by at a decent tempo. The owners of our four horses, two young men (maybe my age or younger) by the names of Ajay and Sanjay, walked consistently and effortlessly next to us shame-faced useless beings, and I of course kept asking them questions and conversing with them to keep myself entertained. The first thing I did was ask Sanjay about my horse. Her name was Poonam, and she was 6 years old. She always walked behind the other three because her job was to make sure they walk on together at a decent pace. My mother’s horse was right in front of mine, and her name was Bindiya. She was 5 years old, and she clearly loved to poop on while walking like nothing ever made a difference in this simple world.
I like to think Poonam and I connected on some level. I felt really bad for her initially because of the amount of load she has to carry up to Kedarnath and back twice in a day. But she seemed pretty cool with it, and I eventually forgot about her woes and started chatting with her. (So what if my fellow riders looked at me like I was insane?) Every now and then I would lean over and pat the side of her cream colored neck or the top of her head, and would feel the warmth and softness of a real living thing, just like me, instead of the hard machine-like coldness of the saddle. And her muscles would respond to my touch; I would feel the movements with my hand. I thought of all these dedicated pilgrims who did the tough path up to Kedarnath on the backs of four men, or even people like us who did it on horses, and wondered how the pious could even consider this prayaschit while on the backs of those who do it every day, with somebody else’s weight on them.
We reached Kedarnath around 11 AM. I said my goodbye to the horses, and we took a few minutes to stretch and regain blood flow in the lower half of our bodies. Then we walked the last few hundred meters to the Kedarnath temple, which is at the altitude of 11,750 feet. There was a line of passionate Shaivites who would do anything to get past you and get closer to the naturally-formed rock shivling. There are pundits sitting around the shivling and they offer a personal puja on your behalf in a professional manner.
I got little time to admire the ancient Vedic stone architecture of the inside of the temple, before I started feeling nauseous and dizzy because of the fumes and smells and because of major claustrophobia. I don’t consider myself very pious, but there was so much energy just brewing inside the temple. People seemed to be losing themselves at the shivling, as if in a trance. For one concept to overpower that many people to the extent of a stupor was unthinkable, but to escape that powerful force and be a spectator oneself was impossible. I somehow held my ground amongst all the pushing and shoving during our puja, but when I was made to touch my head at the shivling, I cried. I don’t know why. Maybe all that energy was just overwhelming. Maybe what the pundit said at the moment about my future was moving. Or maybe I was just feeling sick.
Once out of the temple, and after downing a bottle of mineral water priced at 30 rupees (instead of the usual 12), I slowly regained my composure, and we proceeded with the customary photographs. We did a little shopping for our family members, grabbed some lunch, and around 2:20 PM, set out to do the long walk of 14 kilometers down to Gaurikund.
Way easier said than done. The first couple of kilometers were great; we took some pictures along the way, stopped at a place for tea, and were very enthusiastic. That got old fast. Constantly going over rocks covered, and I mean slathered, with horse poop, gives you no time to look up from your road and actually enjoy the scenery, even though we tried. There was horse poop on our shoes, there was horse poop on the bottom of our pants, there was horse poop on every stone we stepped on and on all the ones we avoided because there was more horse poop there. To top it all it started raining, so now we had flowing horse poop in lots of water that we stepped on and got our socks wet in. I will never get the smell or sight of it out of my brain. Thankfully even though horse poop stinks, one can get used to it eventually, and not notice the smell (or the failing knees) anymore.
I mentioned failing knees. The last six kilometers were very, very painful, and we trudged along, stopping at almost every kilometer because of the pain in our legs and backs. At some point we decided to hail a horse and tie our bags to it so at least we wouldn’t have to carry them along with our own body weight anymore. We sang very creative parodies of songs to vocalize our pain, and somehow made it to the beginning of the last two and a half kilometers. At this point my cousin and I couldn’t take it anymore, and we decided to run the last few kilometers. You can’t really feel the pain while you’re running, and the pain on the next day wouldn’t matter because you’re only driving home.
My cousin and I ended our nonstop run to the base camp at 7:40 PM. It was now getting dark, and after collecting our bags from the horse owner, we sat and waited for my mom and dad to arrive. About 20 minutes later they arrived, and the four of us limped back together to our hotel.
I am going to roll over and pass out now.
4th July – Day 6
Unsurprisingly, my cousin and I had lost our ability to walk. We held hands, two brave but broken soldiers of war, and hobbled down the hotel stairs and the last 500 meters to the bus stand, where our car was waiting for us.
I remember little of the ride back, except that we caught a glimpse of the ice-laden glaciers near Kedarnath at some point, and stopped in the middle of the road to totter out of the car and take a few fantastic shots of the view with papa’s incredible tele.
Most of the day involved sitting in the car. I don’t even remember lunch. We stopped for dinner in the evening when we reached Dehradun, and rolled off to sleep immediately after, till we reached Ambala. The last I remember is getting out of the car and limping into the house, almost falling on my cute little Nani with my entire weight at the doorway as a replacement for a hug, and crashing on the nearest bed I could find.
Six days, hundreds of kilometers of the Shivaliks, close to half a dozen landslides, 2.25 GB of pictures, a hundred hours of bhangra music, 4 broken bodies, daily orders of alu jeera and urad daal, and thousands of vibrant memories later, I am a very satisfied customer. This isn’t a trip one can do more than once in a lifetime, but it is definitely a trip worth doing once. I know that the memories of my return to Uttarakhand are etched into my mind for life.