Sunday, May 12, 2019

Uttarakhand III - Haridwar & Journey to GMVN Rampur

Night sky 
Prelude: It had been a long day of travel. It turned to pitch dark. With no pollution or lights in the mountains, the night skies are clear & the night appears darker than in the cities. I was trying to catch a few doses of sleep. One friend was busy on his phone. Whereas the other was talking to his wife, assuring her that he was fine, and not having too much fun. Not sure if that is even possible in an all guys trip, especially when another friend is yelling in the background, "Abey, volume bada naa !! " (Turn up the volume) And definitely not, when the song playing in the background is of the Punjabi rock star, Sukhbir.

That's when the guy seated next to the driver said, "Has anybody else noticed, it's been some time since a car passed us either way".

Everyone stopped whatever they were doing and looked at him.

A friend asked the driver, "bhaiyya, hum sahi jaa rahein hain naa?". (Bro, Are we on the right track?)
The driver responded in his typical style, "Hain ? ". (What?)

The friend showed him his phone and said, "Google Maps kuch aur bata raha hain". (Google Maps is showing something else).

The driver said, "Pata nahin sir, main to pehli baar Kedarnath jaa raha hoon". (Don't know sir, I am travelling to Kedarnath, the first time). Everyone was left stunned at that admission.

Earlier in the day, I was in Haridwar, waiting for my friends to arrive. With the hope of a good night's rest, I had dozed off the previous night. Unfortunately, the rest was not to be, the electricity went off a few times & to make matters worse, the generator wasn't working.  Finally, after the hotel guys managed to fix it, I closed my eyes for the elusive sleep. Suddenly, I received a call, it was from my friend, it was already 6:00 AM. So, not exactly, the rest I was hoping for. They didn't have a good night's rest either. Their train was late by an hour. I went to the station to receive them. After the reunion, I took them to our agent's office. They left their luggage there. As we had to quickly get moving towards Rampur, where we had accommodation booked in GMVN, we contemplated splitting up. We were discussing whether a few would go over to the public restrooms and remaining to the hotel room. That's when, one of the friends, called out, "I would take bath in the Ganges".  With that statement, our discussion concluded.

Yes, everyone decided to take a bath in the Ganga. To be in Haridwar, and not take a bath in the Ganga, we couldn't let that happen. So much has been talked, read about the river Ganga, for us, this was the first sight of the river Ganga up close. From the station, we took a shared rickshaw (Rs. 20/- per seat). We reached Har-ki-pauri, the famous ghat on the riverbank of Ganga. Our rickshaw left us a few 100 meters from the ghat. As we walked towards the ghats, we saw a lot of makeshift tents of nomads, babas, some eateries, shops selling plastic & bronze containers. Most people carry the holy Ganga water. And soon we reached the ghat.

What a majestic sight it was. Had never seen a river flowing with such calmness and elegance. There was a certain feeling of peace looking at the river flowing with such nonchalance. The authorities had tied up chains, next to the bank, so that people can catch hold of it while bathing so that they don't get swept away. Soon, we too got into it and took the dip into the holy river, three times to be precise. It wasn't the most comfortable experience though. Wondering why? Oh, forgot to mention, the water was damn cold!! Still, it was an experience worth remembering. Taking a bath in the Ganges is often said to provide spiritual and health benefits. We were definitely energized for our onward journey. So energized, that one friend started doing yoga on the banks. No, that's not funny, what is funny - a crowd quickly gathered there to watch him in action.

Soon, we left for our hotel, packed our bags, had some light breakfast. And by 10-11, we were off on our journey. We were greeted with traffic on NH34. There was a patch near Haridwar, which took us a couple of hours to cross.  It was so bad that we often used to get off the vehicle and wait for the traffic to get moving. After we experienced exactly what our agent warned us of, we were on our way, as soon as we crossed that patch. The roads were under construction as part of the Char Dham Expressway construction, that started in 2016. We had our lunch at Sainik Hotel Delux. The owner pretty much had his entire family managing the hotel. Apparently, his son, who was a full-time doctor, was taking orders for the day. We enquired about traditional Garhwal meal, for which he explained it needed to be planned in advance & hotels usually serve only the most ordered meals. We had the regular Punjabi food, topped up with a glass of buttermilk. The food was OK.  

Alaknanda beach
There were some beautiful sights along the way, but, none better than the creation of Ganga itself. Yes, Devprayag it was. If Ganga was subtle and peaceful in Haridwar, here, which was, slightly higher up, it was ferocious. It was the confluence of two rivers, the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. Both had distinct colours. Alaknanda was slightly greener and Bhagirathi had a brownish colour to it. And their confluence and turning into Ganga was a spell bounding sight. We naturally got down and took some pictures. Also, must mention another sight, Alaknanda beach which we visited in the evening. It had a surreal feel to the place. We had tea and biscuits in a small eatery there. We spent much part of the journey being the DJ, playing songs of their choice, a role that was rotated every hour. 

Travel can be boring after a while, but, not for us. Especially, late in the night, when we realized no vehicle had passed us for nearly half n hour, and after the driver admitted, it was his first visit to Kedarnath. Google Maps in the mountains can get confusing. But, then, we realized even the Maps weren't working. The driver did admit, he might have missed a turn. Good, that was a relief which soon disappeared when he also admitted, he didn't know where he missed it. We definitely knew we were off the track, because, we couldn't see the road, as much of it, was covered with water and snow. We were just about to lose our minds when a car appeared out of nowhere. We asked the driver of the other vehicle, the route to Kedarnath. He concurred with what our driver had admitted earlier, we indeed had a missed a turn. He guided our driver to follow him & soon reached our route. We lost an hour in this detour. Had we continued on the wrong route, we would have reached Ukhimath. 

We laughed off the matter and started focussing on better things to come like our Yatra next day, hoping the rest of the journey to be easy and calm without any further drama. But, it was not to be. We had to cross a very thin patch of road, where only one vehicle could go. On one side was the mountain and valley on the other. There was a huge traffic jam over there. One of the friend got pissed and shot off, "That's why it's not advisable to travel in the night in Uttarakhand ".  It might have been quite late in the night, but everyone was damn awake with rapt attention to watch the driver make turns with utmost care. Obviously, one wrong turn, we would have reached Lord Shiva rather quicker. But, these drivers are truly skilled ones. But, not the one who was in the bus ahead. It was a yatra bus from Delhi. And city drivers generally have very little clue of driving in the mountains. He chickened out & was unable to proceed, which actually caused the huge jam. It took some local driver to get out of his vehicle and guide the poor guy. And soon, the jam cleared, and we also move ahead.

We reached GMVN hotel, Rampur (Ph No. - 9868006646) at 1100 PM and checked-in to our cottages. The cottages were on the edge of the mountains. We could hear the whispering sound of the river flowing. It was extremely cold. We had some light dinner. As it was the Yatra season, the kitchen ran 24 * 7. There were some people in the hotel who completed the Kedarnath journey. We gathered some information from them, we had to reach Sonprayag first, from there, take the shared vehicle to Gaurikund. It was from Gaurikund where we would get the horses & was the starting point of the Kedarnath trek. One yatri who had completed the Kedarnath Yatra had warned us of lot of snow along the tracks. Some elderly people had returned back as they couldn't find any horses. They advised us to leave early around 3 AM, in case, we needed to book any horses. However, we were not in a state to get up that early. As we were all tired, with the long journey, we decided to sleep till 4.00 AM and leave by 5.00 AM, the next day. We needed some rest. Whether it was the right decision or not, only time could tell. We packed for the next day, one small bag to carry, rest to leave in the car. We all went off to sleep, all excited for the big day. We already had enough adventures for the day, what will the next day bring. This was it.

Just like the kids in the movie Jumanji hear the beat of the drums, we began to hear, the beat of Shivji's Damru....babam bam Bhole...!!!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Uttarakhand - II - Delhi & Journey to Hardiwar

Chole Bathure
"Delhi should be declared the street food capital of  India", these were the exacts thoughts that came to my mind, as I munched another bite of the spicy chole curry with an extra soft Bathure, with fillings of Paneer within it. It was like a pleasant shock to the taste buds, which hadn't experienced anything like this for some time. Yes, Mumbai street food would come a close second. Delhi street food vs Mumbai street food - What is your take on it?

Airport Bus
Eating street food of Delhi has always been a regular feature of any journey to the North. As a matter of coincidence, we got a little extra time to try out the street food thanks to the Jet Airways fiasco. I had to rebook an early morning flight to Delhi. Others were reaching Delhi in the evening. Since I was reaching earlier, it was decided, that I proceed to Haridwar earlier, meet our travel agent, ensure all our arrangements were in place, and yeah, take a good night's rest too. I had to reach the New Delhi Railway Station from where I had a train to Haridwar. To reach NDLS from the airport, one could take a cab, airport bus etc. I decided to try the metro. If one needs to reach NDLS, via the metro, one needs to turn right after getting out of the airport terminal and then take the airport bus. The airport bus has a neat section to keep your large bags. It would drop you at the Aerocity metro station. From there, you can take the airport express metro to reach New Delhi Railway Station. I proceeded accordingly & reached NDLS without much trouble. The metro train was rather empty.

Since there was still some time for my train, I decided to try out some local cuisine. So, just opposite to NDLS, in Paharganj, is the famous eatery called RadheShyam Chole Bathure. I read some good reviews of the place. It is a roadside eatery, with no seating arrangement and no ambience to speak whatsoever. The only thing it was famous for was the authentic Chole Bathure. "Aur kya Chahiye?". (What else is needed?) No doubt, it was bursting with the flow of people - families, college students, office goers. The Chole Bathure was served with some raw onions, lemon and a very special chutney. The Bathure was extremely soft and had stuffing filled with paneer. The chole was spicy and the yummiest preparation known. A piece of the soft Bathure with the spicy chole tasted like heaven. I had a sumptuous meal topped with, of course, the thick Punjabi lassi with extra dollops of malai. Meanwhile, few friends who reached Delhi next had their meals at the airport cafe and went to one of their relative's place, even they had homemade Chole Bathure. Coincidentally, the last friend to arrive in Delhi, even he had Chole Bathure at Haldiram's. Guess, it was a Chole Bathure day for all. Later, they had all regrouped and roamed around Old Delhi. They had an overnight train. They took the pleasure to inform me that they were having World's best Rabri, Kulfi & Icecream at the Giani's. sic. 
I had booked my ticket on the NDLS to Dehradun Jan Shatabdi Express. The train started on time and was a smooth ride. The train was filled with a lot of people, mostly tourists. My co-passenger informed me, during the season the whole of Uttarakhand is filled with tourists, yatris & foreigners. And so was the case in my train as well, there were different groups of tourists in my compartment, speaking Telugu, Marathi & Gujarati. And I was seated in the middle of all these groups, understanding what they were speaking, but choosing to remain silent. The rest of the journey was quite relaxed, rather, a short one. The train literally got empty in Haridwar.
Hotel Arjun, Haridwar

Before I came to Haridwar, my opinion of the place was that it was more of a temple town with not much of development, would probably be deserted by the night. But, how wrong I was, it was buzzing with people, almost like any suburb of Mumbai. I had booked a room for the night at Hotel Arjun. Thanks to Google Maps, I could easily locate the hotel. It was in the lane called Jassa Ram Road, just opposite the station, which had most of the hotels. The hotel lobby was filled with guests, hoping to get a room. It was that kind of season. I checked in to my hotel. I informed the manager that there will be a couple of guests in the morning, for which, he demanded extra payment. 

After freshening up, I decided to venture out to explore Haridwar. Jassa Ram Road, where the hotel was located, was quite crowded with tourists, Indian as well as foreigners, babas, shops, roadside eateries & even rickshaws passing by. On some occasions, there was hardly any space to walk. There were a lot of ashrams, bungalows converted into hotels. There was a constant sound of aarti & bhajan happening in the place. Surprisingly, there were a lot of Gujarati restaurants & shops there. I had my dinner at Dosa Plaza Punjabi Tadka. It was a quaint little family restaurant. The food was ok. Meanwhile, the rest of the friends had boarded their train Delhi-Mussoorie express and were on their way.
Jassa Ram Road, Haridwar

I located our travel agent’s office, which was just opposite to Haridwar Railway Station. After a brief introduction, we discussed our plans for the next day. I enquired about any washrooms to freshen up for my friends, he informed, as you exit the station, as you walk towards the left, there were public washrooms which were well maintained, with clean restrooms, bathrooms with geyser facility at nominal charges. Regarding the journey itself, He advised us to start early to avoid traffic, as it was a long day of travel & most importantly travelling in the mountains can be unpredictable. We had to reach Rampur, which was close to Sonprayag, the base village for the Kedarnath yatra. It was going to be a gruelling 8-9-hour journey in the mountains. With that news, I decided to wind off for the day & bid farewell to our agent. I went back to my hotel room, hoping for a good night's rest as the next day was going to be a hard and long day of travel.

Public Washroom, Haridwar Station
Note - This blog series on Uttarakhand journey, is not the usual one with details on how to go, places to see, etc. Although the details are very much there, I have covered over the course of the blog along with the experiences. Hope you like it. Enjoy reading !!

Uttarakhand - I - The making of the journey

Kedarnath trek
The mobile phone, which was idle for the most part of our journey, rang suddenly. The call was from a friend who had gone ahead. The friend who was along with me picked up the phone and put it on speaker.

We answered in somewhat of an excited manner, "Hey man!!!, Where have you reached ???".

Our friend on the other end spoke in a sombre tone, "There is a piece of good news and bad news".

I answered, "Hmmm...OK, What is it ???".

Our friend on the phone said, "The good news is, I have reached the base camp !!!".

"Wow!!!! Cool man!!!", we exclaimed.

Our friend not being affected by the euphoria from our end, responded calmly, "The bad news is, our cottages are 5 more km from here".

My companion friend and I looked at each other with disbelief, "How could that be ??", we enquired.

Our equally despondent friend said, " I have enquired with someone at the base camp, and they advised, our prebooked cottages were far and it would be better to stay put in one of the tents at the base camp".

We were perplexed, what to do, the sun had almost set for the day, we ourselves were quite behind, and to make matters worse, it started to drizzle & the call got disconnected as the network died.   

Such were the scenes from our trip to Kedarnath early this year. It had been 8 long years since our trip to the North. Over these years, whenever we met, the discussion always came up, whether we shall ever be able to replicate our North trip of 2011. We have had some family trips, but, never the Himalayan journey - a trekking expedition, which always seemed elusive. There were many such conversations of returning back to the Himalayas. One who has been there will admit a certain unexplained feeling that makes you want to go, experience the Himalayas again. We always wanted to do the Amarnath Yatra again, this time from the Pahalgam route, since, some of our friends had missed the magical and out of the world experience of the Pahalgam route. But, looking at the state of affairs in Kashmir in recent years, we dropped the idea. It turned out to be the right decision, because, Amarnath Yatra was called off this year mid-way.

There were clearly two distinct trains of thoughts among the group - Adventure & Spiritual, which made the core basis for the choice of the destination. Our most adventurous friend often said, "Let's go somewhere, where there is trekking involved". He had his priorities clear. Whereas, there was another line of thought, the destination needed to be a spiritual one, which anybody could do it. Which I agree to an extent, I often wondered, a journey without a spiritual exaltation, how exciting could that be, reach some mountain top and return back. May be its fun, but, I feel something is amiss. After going through a lot of difficulties, crossing one's own boundaries, physical and mental, to reach the lap of God is an experience, no other journey can ever match. Perhaps, its an experience from our own journey to Amarnath caves, that I relate to.

Early February this year, in one such conversation, Kedarnath - Badrinath came up. We felt this could be a trip where the contrasting ideas could converge. Kedarnath has a good 16 km trek, with a lot of options including horses, helicopter, pitthu, palki options available. And Badrinath can be reached by car. This could be the right destination. We quickly bounced the idea around. And luckily, it fell through with everyone. Quickly an itinerary was formed. We also included the Chopta trip with the famous Tungnath temple trek added to it, with the disclaimer, whoever has the fuel to make it after Kedarnath could go ahead. Those, who wished to take rest could enjoy the hotel stay. We included Rishikesh in the itinerary, as a place to relax after the intense & physically demanding days preceding to it. There was an option to do some river rafting as well. Here is the itinerary that finally took shape. One may think the itinerary is quite tight, considering there is no room for any unexpected delays, especially travelling in the mountains.
Itinerary map
  • 11th May Reach Delhi
  • 11th May Delhi to Haridwar overnight train
  • 12th May Reach Haridwar, sightseeing, leave for Sonprayag
  • 13th May Kedarnath yatra, Overnight stay at Kedarnath
  • 14th May Return from Kedarnath, proceed to Chopta, Overnight stay at Chopta
  • 15th May Trek to Tungnath temple, Return back, proceed to Badrinath
  • 16th May Badrinath Darshan. Proceed towards Rishikesh, Overnight stay at any mid-point (Karnaprayag/ Srinagar)
  • 17th May Reach Rishikesh, overnight stay at Rishikesh
  • 18th May Relax at Rishikesh, sightseeing, Ganga aarti, overnight stay
  • 19th May Travel to Dehradun. Dehradun to Delhi by train. Night flight to Home
We booked airline tickets and train tickets. Our stay at some of the places was also booked. Our rooms were booked at GMVN Rampur ( Ph No. - 9868006646). This is close to Sonprayag. We booked the Kedardome cottages - near Helipad (Ph.No. - 9412045813) at Kedarnath. It was said, it is quite close to the temple. In Chopta, we had booked our rooms at a hotel called Mayadeep Chopta, which offered a spa, herbal massage. After, the strenuous trek of Kedarnath, we felt, this could be a good place to halt. Rest of the places, we decided to book based on the fly, based on where we were at that point. We also registered ourselves for the yatra on the GMVN website.  For our travel itself, we reached out to GMVN tourism, however, their package didn't work for us. It was with stay and travel all-inclusive. However, we opted with a travel agent based out of Haridwar, Yatracare Tour and Travel (+91 9897 63 6681, +91 9045 33 7002, + 1334 22 0999). The office was just opposite to the Haridwar Railway Station and run by a person named as Gurvinder. And the estimates stated by him were found to be reasonable. But, this was only for the vehicle and travel. And any sightseeing was separate costs.

And with that, after eight long years, our journey to the Himalayas was set in motion. Each one of us, started some physical preparation, a little bit of running, walking, yoga etc. We used to egg each other on to keep up the good work. The motivation for the journey was enough to leave all the laziness behind and try to be in good shape for the event. As the event came closer, some of us, who had booked on Jet Airways found ourselves in a quandary. The airlines went bankrupt and got shut down. We had to rebook our tickets on another airline. We made all the purchases for the journey, right from warm socks to trekking shoes, rainwear, even a head torch. The night before is always the longest one, last-minute packing, deciding what to keep, what to leave out is never easy. There was excitement, at the same time some anxiety. A lot of things have changed in these 8 years, are we ready for the task? But, we all knew within, we were better prepared this time, as we knew, one key thing about these journeys, "Always expect the unexpected".