Monday, May 13, 2019

Uttarakhand - IV - Kedarnath trek

Kedarnath trek
Prelude: It had slowly started to drizzle. At the height of 10000ft above sea level, each raindrop feels like ice. I turned around to look out for our pitthu (porter). He was carrying a huge trekking bag which had all our stuff. But, now, the porter was nowhere in sight. As the rain got heavier, it started a cacophony of events. People were covering themselves with raincoats, children crying, parents trying to console them & covering them up, horses slipping a step, grumpy old people cursing the weather. My friend too covered himself up with his raincoat, I had none.  I had taken it off and given it to our porter, due to the extra weight while walking. We quickly went under a shelter and waited for him. The porter had been walking along with us most of the time. We were sure that he hadn't crossed us. So, we waited there for a few minutes. As patience began to wear thin, there was a sinking feeling, what if the porter had moved ahead and we just missed noticing him moving ahead. My friend and I looked at each other, it was a deja vu moment for us, our minds flooded back with memories of Amarnath Yatra in 2011.

GMVN Rampur to Sonprayag: Our day didn't start that dramatically. We had planned to get up early and leave by 5. Although we did get up early, it did take us some time to get ready. The geyser wasn't working as efficiently. We had to wait for some time till the water heated up for our bath. As time was getting lost, I thought, no point in waiting, I took the plunge with cold water, and it was a real shock, to say the least. We had a cup of tea, some biscuits, packed our bags & checked out from the cottage. We had put on some extra layers of warm clothing. After taking some pictures, we started for Sonprayag. From GMVN Rampur, the journey to Sonprayag is a downhill ride of around 5 km. We had a brief halt due to traffic of vehicles ferrying yatris going towards Sonprayag. We dreaded the worst, but luckily the traffic couldn't bother us much, as it soon got moving, and we reached our destination. We parked our vehicle in the Sonprayag parking lot. It was a huge one with cars, jeeps, tempo travellers, even buses parked there. We took our trekking bags & marched ahead to Sonprayag.

Queue for shared taxi at Sonprayag
Sonprayag was a typical base town for a trek. There were shops, eateries, security arrangements everywhere. The shops had all the things a trekker may want, at nominal prices too. One could buy woollens, caps, scarfs, shawls, jackets, gloves, shoes, even trekking bags & walking sticks. We did some shopping there.  The town was brimming with yatris which included senior citizens, families, kids, groups, locals. They were seen everywhere. There were huge queues of yatris near the registration office to book palkis, dolis, to register themselves for the Yatra. It is mandatory to register oneself for the yatra. Since we had already completed our registration formalities online, we were spared the queue. We enquired regarding the booking of horses, dolis & other modes of transport for completing the yatra. We were informed, all modes of transport were booked for the day. And we could try our luck at Gaurikund.  So, we joined the long queue for Government-run shared taxis to reach Gaurikund. We took turns and had our breakfast. It was good old Maggi. It took us an hour and a half to get our ride. We all cramped inside the vehicle, a Bolero which had more passengers than usual, and started our journey to Gaurikund. 

Gaurikund: The journey from Sonprayag to Gaurikund was 5-6 km. Our vehicle went spirally upwards into the mountains and we reached there in 10 minutes. We stopped slightly behind, because of the traffic ahead. We got down from our vehicles and moved ahead. We were greeted with a huge green colour signboard showing the distance to Kedarnath was 16 km. That was an indication that our Yatra had started. It gave us all a reason for excitement, as this was it. All the planning, exercise, struggles, discussions, etc. was for this journey. Gaurikund was pretty much on an incline. As we went up, we could see hotels, shops on the sides. Apart from the yatris, there were a lot of porters, horse pullers, flocking the place. On the right side, was the Mandakini river flowing with all its might. The famous kund was next to it. Gaurikund is actually a hot water spring. A friend went to have a bath in the kund. Bathing in it is supposed to have medicinal benefits. 

A sad moment: We were all on a high to start the journey. However, our excitement didn't last long. We soon discovered, there were no horses. One friend was badly hit with this unexpected development. He had planned to do the yatra on the horse. We asked a few horse pullers, doli lifters & porters coming from Kedarnath if they could take another trip to the top. There were no positive answers. We were hit with a roadblock even before our journey started. As we were deliberating on how to help our friend, that's when he said, in a sombre tone, "You guys go ahead. Don't waste more time for me". We all looked at him in shock. It was he who initiated the plan, every time the plan was in danger of going astray, it was he who stood rock solid and helped the plan to go through. And now destiny had other plans. We persuaded him to walk a few km, what if we find a horse ahead. However, he stood firm, as it was not possible for him to trek. So, we had to move ahead without him. He gave away the dry fruits, biscuits and even a head torch to us, which he had bought with childlike excitement. It was a sad moment. We all embraced once and wished him to take care.  And just before wishing us goodbye, he broke into a cry to motivate us, "Bholenath baba ki Jai !!!".
Route map

The start of the journey: We recruited a pitthu (porter) to carry our luggage, as we ended up packing more than needed. The initial part of the yatra was smooth with hardly any stumbling blocks, however, we were still not ready to accept that our friend was not making the journey. We, ourselves kept asking doli lifters, horse pullers if they could take another trip. We enquired with our friend if he was able to find any mode of transport, hoping he would still make it. The regret of not starting earlier consumed us. It was only when he mentioned, he planned to go away from Gaurikund-Sonprayag to some neighbouring village for night stay, that's when it finally dawned upon us, that, he wouldn't make it. From there on, our focus shifted to our own yatra.  Must admit much of the route didn't require any herculean efforts. It was a smooth walk, and we enjoyed it at a leisurely pace, with frequent breaks to quench our thirst and give our legs and lungs a breather. We had our lunch at a restaurant in Jungle Chatti. The menu was basic with few chappatis with two curries and dal rice.

One friend amongst us decided to move ahead, after lunch, as he didn't want to take too many breaks. He felt it disturbed his rhythm. Most of the time, the pitthu was walking along with us. There was a drama some time in the middle, where we couldn't find him. We were not sure if he had gone ahead or left behind. After a brief wait, we moved ahead, only to find him seated in the sitting area ahead waiting for us. Apparently, we missed seeing him move ahead. In Kedarnath yatra, at every few km, there is a shelter with seats for people to relax, some tea stalls, juice sellers etc. Kedarnath yatra was well managed.  Intermittently, we would call our friend who had gone ahead, to enquire where he was. The network is intermittent in the hills. Although we were walking at a brisk pace, as we moved higher, I could feel something amiss in the air. Oxygen probably. It got steeper in some patches, nothing alarming though. But, slowed us down to some extent. 

An unexpected development: As it turned to dusk, with the sun giving away the last rays for the day, so were our bodies and mind. The strenuous journey had taken a toll on us. Breaks got longer, walks became shorter. We were somewhere between Bheembali and Lilcholi. That's when we called our friend who had gone ahead. He was already at Kedarnath Base camp. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, but, he seemed perplexed. He informed the place where we booked our stay for the night, Kedardome cottages were still 5 km away. That stunned us. We were already struggling way behind. And to hear that we still had 5 more km to cover was difficult to come to terms to. Some tent wala at Kedarnath base camp had suggested our friend take accommodation there. We put our friend on standby. I and the friend who was with me all the time, had a discussion, to check if we both were prepared to walk an additional 5 km. After having consensus, we asked our friend to move ahead. No matter what it takes, we will join him at Kedardome cottage. 

Slippery route
The last leg: With that determination, we entered the last leg of the yatra. We took certain shortcuts at Lilcholi, that saved us some time. There was an icy slippery patch after Lilcholi. There was ice on all sides, even on the path, which had almost everyone slipping, even horses. To make matters worse, it was pitch dark. One wrong foot, we would have slipped. We negotiated that patch very carefully. The head torch was very useful there, thanks to our friend who couldn't make it. In fact, it helped everyone around. Once, we crossed that stretch, and a few steep climbs later, we reached Kedarnath base camp. It was a huge campsite, although not as big as Lilcholi. It had a lot of facilities, like food, first aid, etc. However, we had to move ahead. Kedardome cottages were very close to the temple.  We could see the Kedarnath temple very clearly now. All our pains, niggles, breathlessness had ceased to exist. The route was mostly flat with hardly any incline. And soon we reached our stay rather quicker than expected. The journey from Kedarnath base camp to Kedardome cottage was hardly a couple of km. The tent wala at Kedarnath base camp had misinformed our friend earlier, probably to fill up a few additional berths. The decision to move ahead was the right one.

Cottage and final drama in the night: Since our friend had already registered on our behalf, we straightway went to our cottage. We were in Cottage number 14. The cottage was made of wood, which protected us well from the cold, icy weather outside. Each cottage had around 16 bunk beds, although not fully occupied. The beds were neatly arranged with blankets, rugs, pillows etc. Our friend had already cuddled into one. As we were tired, we skipped our dinner and just hit the sack. I found it very inconvenient, with breathlessness in the low oxygen atmosphere, both outside the cottage and very much inside it, in the closed environment. After much discomfort, I decided to walk out and see if I could find a doctor to check for any remedy. I couldn't find any. In fact, not a single soul. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I saw one yatri. I couldn't stop myself from narrating the problem. He advised me to first remove all the extra warm clothes and then he gave me some camphor to smell, which is a natural remedy for the breathlessness. That made me feel much better. As I turned around to thank him, he was already gone. Who was he, where he disappeared remains a mystery. I returned to our cottage and this time slept near the door, keeping it slightly ajar. Others were already snoring.

We had seen so much drama, adventure, some highs and some lows, some decisions turning out good and some bad during the day. It was the best preparation for the next day - the day of darshan. We were at the doorstep of one of the panch kedars, the most famous of the Char Dhams, at 11000 ft above sea level, in hostile conditions, with ice and snow all around, low oxygen with neither a leaf nor an animal around. The place had seen so much a few years ago, miraculously saved by the grace of the almighty, still attracting millions of yatris. With the hope of a good darshan, the next day, there came an end to one of the most adventurous days ever. Only Bholenathji knew what was in store.
The last mile

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 !!