Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Amarnath Yatra - How to go, places to visit, things to do

Amarnath caves are different from any other place. Hence, even this blog needs to be different.This time, there are no usual sections like places to visit, how to travel etc. It is more about the experience of the Amarnath Yatra. I have tried to concise as much as possible. Still, it has ended up as a very long blog. It has been a long time coming. Hope you read till the end. The joys, the pains, the thoughts, the moments, the ultimate experience of Amarnath Yatra. Enjoy reading :)

"Why is he running back?” asked a friend looking towards another friend. The other friend was running towards us, waving at something and screaming all along.
He huffed and puffed as he came near us. 
"What happened?", we asked. 
"There is a rainbow there", he replied. 
"So?" 
"Rainbows are lucky for me. Every time I see a rainbow, something good happens to me."

Even before we could react (read ROFL), everyone around us got out from their stationary cars and rushed to the spot to take pictures. Our friend had ignited a commotion there. And suddenly, the cars started moving. Everyone rushed back to their cars.


Traffic jam just outside Baltal
Traffic jam at top of the world: We were stuck in a massive traffic jam just outside Baltal, base camp for Amarnath Yatra. Every vehicle was being checked. No wonder there was a heavy traffic jam that spread across miles. Baltal (3525 meters) is situated north of Sonamarg. Just north of Baltal is the famous Zojila pass, which is enroute to Leh. Baltal and Pahalgam are the two routes for the Amarnath Yatra. Among the two, the Baltal route was the shorter route and took less than a day to reach the caves. The scenes at Baltal were quite beautiful. So, for a change, the heavy traffic didn't really bother us. We were at a picturesque location. It took us a couple of hours to reach the checkpoint.  We had to leave our vehicle there. No private vehicles were allowed beyond the checkpoint.  We took our belongings and left for the base camp. There was heavy security around the place. Every Yatri was being frisked, and their luggage was being checked. 

The bus ride: We were not at the base camp as yet.  We had to take a bus from the check point to reach base camp. There were buses every 30 minutes which charged around Rs.10 per head. Just as we were about to take the bus, suddenly, we realized one of us was missing. Phones obviously didn't work. His wife was getting all panicky, which was natural. We were getting anxious too. Luckily, we found him, as he chose to return back. He had wandered off ahead. He claimed, he went ahead and was waiting for us. Meanwhile, one of us had used the make shift toilet which was built by the government agencies. The toilet was horrible, to say the least. Soon, we got on the bus. There was a unprecedented rush of Yatris to get on the bus.The steps of the bus were slightly higher than usual. So, one had to climb on it rather than walk into it. As I was climbing, the handle of my bag got stuck somewhere and snapped. And the bag fell down. Ooohs and aaahs followed. Someone lifted and gave me my bag. The bus was overcrowded, with barely any place to set our feet. We somehow managed to squeeze in and got a seat too. As we waited for the bus to start, we began to wonder, we had seen so much already - chaos, the disgusting facilities, raw emotions, people getting lost, panic, a broken bag. We got a glimpse of what was in store for us. We could only hope things would get better. As our good friend predicted, something good was going to happen to us. And then, the bus started and Cheers followed...”Barfaanee baba ki..Jai"

Baltal, Amarnath Yatra base camp
Baltal was this huge camping site, surrounded by ice capped mountains on all sides. It was more like a village of tents. After an airport like metal detector checking; we entered into Baltal base camp. We tried to stick together, as we could have easily got lost. The crowd was enormous. We were greeted (rather mobbed) by different people - tent walas, horse wallas, etc. We were looking for tents. We checked one tent which was near the gates. Somehow, the tents didn't quite appeal us. We were looking for Paramount tents, the most famous tents. The base camp had two main roads parallel to each other. The road to the left had various bhandaras on one side of the road. On the other side of the road, there were shops selling just about everything - clothes, torches, batteries, prepaid cards, water, medicines, etc. We were surprised to find good Airtel network coverage at the base camp. After checking a couple of options, we finalized a tent on the other road. The tent was a water proof tent covered with a florescent green cover. There were 7 beds in the tent. The beds were complete with bedsheets, pillows and even rugs and blankets to keep us warm. The tent wallas inquired if we needed any horses for the yatra.We asked for 4 horses. Our plan was, 3 of us would travel on horse backs and 1 horse would be used to carry the luggage. We unwinded and decided to check out the place...especially the bhandaras.

Bhandaara/Langar : In case, you are'nt aware, Bhandaaras or Langars, in lay man's terms, are food joints of the Yatris. The people who run bhandaaras do it as volunteer service and don't charge a penny for it.They have their own staff of cooks, waiters. One could find each one totally engrossed in his work. One could find someone baking rotis, serving food, serving water or kesar milk. Each of them did this with a lot of devotion and enthusiasm.They consider it a very auspicious and holy thing to do. The food is pretty hygienic too. There were many bhandaaras lined up which ensured none of the Yatris went hungry. We went to have our dinner at one such bhandaara by the name 'Vishal Bhandaara'. It looked a lot cleaner and well organized than the rest. They had neatly arranged tables and chairs for people to sit and have their food. In most bhandaras, it was self service; here there were volunteers who served the food. 

The song of Yatra - Babam Bam : The atmosphere was sombre at first, with bhajans playing in the background. However, in no time it turned into a celebration, thanks to the the song 'Babam bam' by Kailash Kher. The Yatris forgot their impending journey and broke into a dance. The effect of the song was truly mesmerizing, one couldn't resist dancing. The drums, the beats, the loud music, the words, the energy of the song transformed the entire mood of the place. Yatris, on lookers, even the people serving started shaking a leg or two. It was almost as if the Yatris fell into a trance.Shiv Taandav.


Meanwhile, I managed to find a cobbler, yes, a cobbler to mend my broken bag. After that we returned to our tents. As  we retired back in our tents, the tent walas asked us to get up by 4.00 am as that  when the horse walas or dandees would be coming over.  Setting our alarms we were snuggled into the layers of blankets and rugs. off to sleep. It was going to be a very short night for us. 

Chaos at 4: Damn Cold!!! The icing freezing water just couldn't be used for anything. We had barely slept the previous night, the tent walas woke up all of us. We heard tales of disgust about the facilities there. There were make shift toilets and wash basins. The toilets were 100 mts from our tents.There were queues to use these toilets. The toilets were unclean, used, dirty. (We could use all adjectives of dirty). Some of them had no water too. No one could use such a toilet. Luckily, our friends who had already used some, informed us which ones were better. The wash basin had icy cold water. Forget washing your face, one cannot gargle with such cold water. There were slightly better arrangements for bathing though. Small 3*3*8 little tents were put up. Probably, it was arranged by the tentwalas. Perhaps, that's why it was way better. They had been providing us buckets of hot water. And soon most of us were ready for the Yatra. We had put on two layers of clothing and warm clothes too. And topped it up with raincoats. and the monkey cap of course. After making the payments to the tent walas, we left for the Yatra.

The yatra begins...
The Yatra begins:
There were thousands of Yatris eager to get out of the base camp to start the Yatra. Kids, old people, youngsters, parents carrying their kids on their shoulders. The army had closed the gates and opened a very narrow gate. This was to prevent any stampede. As we all know how we the Indians can be, everyone wanted to get out of the gates at the same time. So there was pushing, jostling, pulling all around. In the midst of all this commotion, I was busy clicking a few photos. Soon, we were out of the base camp. Our horses were waiting outside. Three of us climbed on a horse. The Dandees (horse pullers) tied our luggage together and placed it on one of the horses. We bid good bye to our friends, who chose to walk. Chanting with the words, "Bum bum bhole", our journey began...

Roadblocks even before starting: The shops on both sides of the road offered us water, elachi tea, some things to eat like samosa, etc. all for free. Usually people prefer to undertake the journey as soon as it is open for public. That is more due to the reason that, at the start of the Yatra, the shiv ling has a good height. As the Yatra goes on the shiv ling melts down. This was the second day of the Yatra. No wonder the crowds were huge. Horses galore. We had heard that the horses that went to the caves the previous day, returned quite late in the night. We moved along smoothly. Soon there was a halt. The road ahead was steep and was quite a narrow one. The army had stopped all horses from moving ahead. The trekkers went ahead. Our friends, who came from behind went ahead of us. We waited on the horses. After some time, the army allowed the horses to move ahead. After some time, we were stopped again, again the wait. This went on. As the roads were narrow, there wasn't enough space for two horses to move ahead. They had to move one behind the other. Space was needed for the returning horses as well. So there was a massive jam of  stuttering horses. 


No use of going ahead, Return back : As we waited, we met people returning, each one sharing  the story of their journey. Most of them had started their journey the previous day. Some of them advised us not to go ahead and return back. In fact some of the horses had returned mid-way. It was already 9 am, and we had hardly moved anywhere. There were shops selling lime juice and cold drinks along the way. The prices were steep too. A bottle of water cost R.s 40. The wait was getting frustrating. Our phones didn’t help either. Except for BSNL network, all other networks stopped working as we moved higher. Soon our dandies advised us, there was no use of waiting  any longer. Even we felt the same. The people, who were walking, moved ahead, the horse riding Yatris were stranded. It was o.k. for us to leave the horses and walk, but what about the luggage which was on one of the horses. We were in a dilemma as our friends had already moved ahead. Now, we couldn't have left the luggage behind and walk ahead. In no sense we could have carried the entire luggage. It would have been much better had we all stayed together. Well, that was the plan initially. Frustration levels only grew. We waited for a miracle. And it happened. 

The saviour and the decision: In this moment of distress, there was a saviour. We found a pitthu (porter). He agreed to carry our luggage to the caves for little over Rs. 1000. So, we paid our dandies some nominal money and bid our horses good bye. Our pitthu took the entire luggage and tied them up in one big cloth. So, now the three of us and the pitthu eventually started our journey on foot. Although, we opted to walk,  none of us was really in a good condition to do so. Normally people practice long walks  two months before the Yatra. We had not done none  this. Some of us had recently come out of sickness. We hoped it would be a normal easy trek.

It ain't easy: Initially, we were walking rather quickly, rarely taking any breaks. There were people, horses, pithus, dandies, army personnel walking along the way. At the end of every km, there were signboards informing how many kms were left for the caves. We decided to take breaks only at the sign boards. There were stalls selling cold drinks, water, biscuits near the sign boards. Things were going well. We stopped at a langar along the way recruited another pithu. This one was a sharp lad. He charged us more for lesser distance. We were in a helpless situation and had to recruit him.We were concerned that the first pithu was carrying way too much stuff. We thought of reducing his burden. Additionally he could carry some of the bags that we were carrying. Hence, we recruited another pithu. Now, our entire luggage was with pitthus. We resumed our walk again. We felt we were progressing. 


On the way to the caves
A sad moment: At one place, all crowds had accumulated. No one was walking any further. The army had stopped everyone from walking ahead. It was a narrow pass. We were standing at one end of the road near the mountain. Room was made on the arrow pass for people who were returning. We waited there for a couple of hours. What started out as a single non-moving queue, multiplied in no time. It soon became a bottle neck, narrowing down the road even further. Now the space for the returning people became even lesser. People were getting restless. Disaster was waiting to happen. Then an army officer slipped from the edge. He probably lost the balance and fell from the edge of the mountain. Luckily he caught hold of a bush that saved him. Even a horse went crazy and was about to fall off. The lack of space to walk might have scared the poor creature. Common sense prevailed. Public tried to create single queues instead of so many queues. During this wait, we saw something the army officers were bringing down. It was not clear at first. But, as the army officers came closer, we realized what it was. It was a dead body. Not really sure what happened to the departed soul. It was a sad moment. Everyone around stopped yelling and froze for a moment and allowed the body to pass.

After some time, the army allowed us to move further, but in a single line. We slowly, steadily moved ahead, taking more breaks from before. Somehow, we managed to drag ourselves to a place called Barari top.

All hell broke loose: We had been hearing all along that the caves were just an hour from Barari top. When we heard it was 4-5 hrs walk, all hell broke loose. We were just not ready to walk. We kept pondering whether we could travel again or should we take a break and resume our journey the next day. It was around 4.30 pm  there was still bright sun light. We had some heated arguments over what to do next. One of our friends's wife had already gone ahead with our trekker group. So he was keen to travel the same day. We were confused, perplexed.  

Near Sangam
Maggi saves the day: We decided to have some food. Probably having some food into our system would help the brain function clearly. We had some maggi, yeah that's right, almost 12000 ft above sea level, it was maggi that gave some energy.We finally decided to take horses and travel to the caves. They charged us around Rs. 1000 /- per horse.  The pitthus had a different route than the horses. We bid our pitthus good bye. We planned to meet at the first langar. Off we went on the horses. We traveled past the langars, out of Barari top. We soon reached a place called Sangam. This was the steepest part of the journey. The dandee asked us to get down and travel by foot. It was amazing to see how the horses managed to handle the steep curves. Soon we were up again on the horses. And resumed our travel. We went past iced glaciers, caves, rivers, , steep trenches and some angry Yatris too. And finally, in couple of hrs we reached our destination - Amarnath Caves. We paid our dandees the travel money and some bakshish too. They charged us a bomb and then they desired some more bakshish (tip). We did end up paying them some bakshish. It was because of them, that we reached the caves. The decision to travel by horses that fateful evening was the brightest decision of the day.

Drama that doesn't end: Amarnath caves were at least 2 km away from the entrance. The area was snow clad. It was solid ice. Had it been fresh snow, it would have been better. Solid ice meant not having a solid footing. We slipped many times. At that altitude there is very little oxygen. We were getting tired with every step.  It turned dark too. Luckily one of the friend's phone had a torch. We had to walk till the first langar. That's where the pithus were going to meet us.  We somehow pushed, slipped, held each other and reached the first langar. The pitthus were nowhere in sight. We were getting more frustrated than ever. We received a call. Our friends had managed to grab a BSNL phone from somewhere and had called. They were in a tent that they had taken. It seemed the tent was near the entrance itself and we must have gone past it. We asked our friends to meet us at the first langar, so that the searching could be saved. They informed it was not possible for them to reach the first langar and gave us the tent number. And it was up to us to search the tent. That's when we completely lost it. We didn't know where the tents were, we didn't know where our luggage was, and there was no help too. We didn't know what to do. We felt like banging our heads on a wall. Probably, the lowest point of the day. 

The day that finally ends: Standing in front of the langar waiting didn't make sense. We started calling out the pitthu's names loudly, just in case one of them hears.But to no avail. We decided to walk to nearby places. One of us was standing there, just in case the pitthus turn up, remaining two were looking around. We looked to the right of the langar, but the pitthus were no where in sight. Then we walked to the left. We walked mid-way when my friend suggested, we should return back. For some reason, I wanted to walk till the next langar. We walked ahead. 


"Oye saab", was the call from behind. There were our pithus sitting in their typical style.We heaved a sigh of great relief. The pithus weren't aware that another langar was put up ahead, and were under the impression that the second langar was the first langar. We all walked towards the tent. Suddenly, a man came from nowhere asking if we were looking for the tent no. 432. Everyone yelled together , "Yes". The tent wala took us to the tent, which was on the back side of a Prasad shop. We took off our shoes and went inside. The tent was on ice and had at least 14 people sleeping side-by-side. Our friends were not in a great shape. One of them was wearing an oxygen mask.  The friend whose wife had reached ahead almost broke into tears when she saw him. "This place is unforgiving" said our most adventurous friend. I had a slight head ache due to the low oxygen. I took a Crocin and prayed, "Oh Lord, Help me get past this". With those words, we just talked about the day's adventures. What a day it was...what a day. Meanwhile, our good friend had already started snoring. 

Amarnath Caves
The amazing Darshan day : There are no toilets at the caves. Everything was out in the open. We didn't have the will to take a bath in the cold weather. We brushed our teeth and packed our bags and left for the Darshan. We left our bags in the tent. Initially, we were tempted to some rather insane ideas. We wasted few hours trying to take the shorter route. Only to find the army had discontinued the shorter route. There was a shorter route for the elite public, senior citizens who came by paalkis. We actually took our good friend, who was slightly sick by the paalki. But it was of no use. We had to start again. We joined the queue, right at the end. Some of us got an entry somewhere in the middle. We chatted with the people around, sharing our experiences, listening to their experiences. It was a pleasant, slow walk to the caves. We walked in snow, in land. We had lunch at a langar. It was a six hours long queue. And the best part was, we never felt it was a six hours queue. Time passed so quickly along with other Yatris.  Had we not tried the shorter route, we could have finished the Darshan much earlier. Later, we were joined by our remaining friends. The caves itself were gigantic and awe inspiring. All of us did the Darshan together. The ice shiv ling was a huge one this year. We couldn't take any pictures as cameras were banned at the place.  Although, there was an army presence at the caves, they didn't push us off or anything, like it happens at other holy temples in India. They gave us enough time for a good darshan.  We even saw the two doves.


A problem much bigger : On our return, we had some light snacks at a langar. We had already started thinking about our return journey.  We returned back to our tents by the shorter route. Along the way, we were debating on how should be our return. It was already 6.00 pm. According to our original plan, we had planned to return via the Pahalgam route, which was a longer route. However, the turn of events over the past two days meant loss of time. One thing was sure that no one wanted to spend one more night at the caves in that weather. There were horse wallas suggesting to take the Baltal route. However, we had seen the dangers of the Baltal route during the previous day. And travelling in the night, surely it would have been a lot riskier. It was again one of those moments where we were not sure of what to do. However, as we were contemplating both options, we realized, we had a problem which was way bigger than anything. We had very little money left !!! 

Two different groups, two different routes: We never realized that we had spent all our money on tents, tent walas, hot water, pithus, horses etc. No wonder we had very little money left. There were no ATMs anywhere close. Pahalgam and Baltal were two places where ATMs were available. No one was in any shape to walk. Both the options had their pros and cons. The Baltal route was shorter, but riskier, especially in the night. The Pahalgam route, which was the traditional route was longer, but safer.  Some of us were keen to get back to the normal world a lot quicker. Some wanted to reach safely. After much deliberation and clash of conflicting thought processes, we decided to split up. One group decided to go via the Pahalgam route. The other group left for Baltal. I was part of the Pahalgam one. After settling our accounts we left for our different destinations. 

The journey back
First stop  -Panchtarni : The first place to reach on the Pahalgam route was a place called Panchtarni. It is a confluence of five rivers, that are set to be originating from Lord Siva's hairs. The basis of choosing this route over the Baltal one was safety and a clear, unified decision to avoid travel in the dark in those mountains. Panchtarni was only a couple of hours from the caves. Tents were available at very nominal rates at Panchtarni. We had just enough money to pay for the horses to reach Panchtarni and for the tents that the night. As the journey till Panchtarni was less, the charges were around Rs. 300 for every horse. The route was much simpler and broad enough for horses as well as people to pass through comfortably. Along the way We kept calling each other to check if we were fine, and mostly to keep each other's motivation going. And within no time, just as the day was being engulfed by the darkness of the night, we reached Panchtarni. We thanked the dandees who did not even ask the customary bakshis, looking at our plight. We didn't have much food that night, just some biscuits. We took a tent, which was again quite a huge one. 

A good night's sleep : In such traumatic and extreme moments, the importance of a good night's sleep cannot be under estimated. Everyone had good night's rest. Especially when you have a long way to go. We woke up around 6.00 am. We freshened up  and took some horses. We explained our position to the dandees. They were fine with the condition that, we could pay them only at the end of our journey i.e. Pahalgam. Each of us sat on a horse, with all our luggage on a fifth horse. Led by a senior dandee, we left for Chandanwadi. The Dandee told us about Pahalgam, horses, the story of Amarnath Yatra, his ancestors, etc. The horses at Pahalgam were a lot different than the ones in Baltal. They were sturdy, a lot bigger, stronger and probably of a different breed than the Baltal ones.  


Idli, Dosa ??? : Everything about the Pahalgam route had been lot better than the Baltal one. The Baltal route is just one decade old. The Pahalgam route has been there ever since Amarnath Yatra existed. The langars were quite big, and there were many of them. Almost everything could be found there - Chole bhature, Aloo chat, Idli, Masala dosa, Puri bhajji, all kinds of sweets, fruits and Chinese too. Even the toilets were lot better and well maintained.  Most of our journey was spent either admiring the natural beauty around or eating some of the best food.


Sheshnag lake, the lake out of this world : Our remaining journey was quite a pleasant one. Thanks to the picturesque sights. The routes were quite wide and there were no chance of any mishaps happening.  We went past places such as Mahagunas, Sheshnag, Pissu top. Each place has a story behind it. No wonder it is called the traditional route. Sheshnag lake was one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It a tinge of blue to it, that made it one  of most spectacular places to be. We had seen some great sights in the past few days, but nothing could better this. We just couldn't get our eyes off the lake. The dandee informed us that, some years back, there was a five hooded snake spotted near the Sheshnag lake. According to mythology, Lord Shiva had taken off the Sheshnag from his neck and left it near the lake. Even to this day, the lake has a lot of snakes. 


Sheshnag lake
Back to the normal world : It was around 3.00 pm, that we began our final descent at Chandanwadi. The weather began to change too. After the extreme cold in the last few days, it started getting hotter. We started seeing some trees, birds chirping. Due to the lack of oxygen, not many trees or birds can been seen as you go higher. For some it was relief, for some sadness as the Yatra came to an end. We took a taxi from Chandanwadi to Pahalgam, which was 45 mins away. One of the dandees accompanied us. We found a SBI ATM at Pahalgam. We took out the money and that was a sign of really returning back to normalcy. We paid our dandee handsomely. He insisted some extra bakshis and offered our good friend some special Kashmiri feast, promising him some real fun, whispering all this in his ears. We were surprised as to what made him make the remark to our good friend. We had a laugh about it later. We took rooms at a hotel. We had dinner at a local restaurant. The next day, we reached a place called Khannabal, which was on the Srinagar - Jammu route. Our other group that had gone via Baltal was returning from Srinagar and was going to pick us up from there. They reached there around 11.00 am. 

As we traveled back, some were happy to back in the real world. For some it was sad leaving the place. We had seen just about everything - the decisions, the in-decisions, the raw emotions, the anger, the frustrations, the people. It was so real up there, it so much brought the real self in us. We had seen so much struggle. Not to forget the great darshan we had. It was almost as if, after conquering almost everything, you had reached the lap of God. And now, you are going away. No doubt, the journey, the experience, the moments will remain with us for ever...Bolo Shankar bhagwan ki....JAI !!!!! 

5 comments:

  1. "The Baltal route was shorter, but riskier, especially in the night." I dont agree with this statement. There are thousands of yatris descending by this route at nite & even I did it during night time its completely safe & very fast. I would even suggest any goin via Pahalgam route to descend by baltal route especially at nite as there is no one coming from opposite direction & there are 1000's of ppl all with their torches on so enough light & loads of time saved..

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  2. Thanks for your comments. It is true that people might be using torches, and there might be sufficient light. But then, you never know.

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  3. really nice summation of the journey vamsi, liked the humane element of the our tryst with god. I do feel that , being their at the moment , the experience/ decisions seemed very important but now when i look back my favourite memory of the journey is the Darshan and i now feel that the its called a tirth-yatra (pilgrimage) for a reason. The reason being the journey is more important then the destination. So with all the frustration, anger , uneasiness, i feel this was a jouney i because of each and every one of the team. So thanks to all my fellow yatrees. and P.S. will not advise any one to travel in night , whichever route (baltal/pahalgaam) you gonna take.

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  4. Good one

    -Gaurav kumar

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  5. I have visited various destinations, but whenever i read your blog, my senses are left spell bound for a minute and i'm forced to go weave the imaginative cob webs in my mind. I liked your blog and would like you to explore more on India Pilgrimage Tours.

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