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

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