Monday, March 2, 2009

Kedarnath - The Challenge

Hostel life is not the most conducive environment for regular blogging thanks to all the distractions on campus especially since this is the "Fest" semester. Oh yes!! 3 fests (Techfest - QUARK, Cultfest - WAVES, summer edition and Sports fest - SPREE) in one semester and we'll all be packing bags before your head can stop spinning around.

Coming back to Uttaranchal, however....

From Gangotri to the next Dham, Kedarnath, there was to be a stop overnight at Tehri. This was to be among the longest single stretch we were to cover. This warranted for an early morning which though uninviting turned out to be quite good actually. As the sun rose, the splash of colours was just breath taking. The clouds still threatened to disrupt life and our journey but as they broke apart, stunning snow covered ranges could be seen. It just feels so thrilling personally because that is one thing I've never experienced - snow, with the snow fights, snow man and all. Deserts, mountains from the Western and Eastern Ghats, tropical forests are all fine but it is snowy areas that have eluded me till now. Seeing snow covered peaks just like one sees in television just, well, just makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

Tracing our route from the previous day, we reached Uttarkashi for a late brunch. Then headed off and reached Tehri with a grouchy driver who refused to eat for God only knows what reason. So, the last leg was done in a RUSH! I think the GMVN at Tehri was the worst with pretty poor positioning and a hard-pressed staff, very few in number. We got through the night just fine especially since I got to the see the Formula1 race in the room....The next day dawned pretty early and saw us heading to Rampur our base camp, of sorts, before the climb to Kedarnath. And as we were getting used to the loveley scenery around us, we suddenly got a feast for our eyes in the form of the Tehri dam. Huge is a gross understatement for this stately man made form! And if that weren't big enough, the resorvoir created because of it is a mini sea in the middle of the Himalayas! It stretches for all your eyes can see and then some. Whole villages and towns have been relocated due to the water level rising and thus came New Tehri into existence.

Moving on, there was a drastic change in the scenery back to the lush tropics and we had for company now the Mandakini river, a tributary of the Ganga. The skies seemed to have cleared up for a few more days and the blue skies were a welcome sight. We reached Rampur without incident around lunch time and it was suggested that we go to a place called Triyuginarayan nearby, it being the marriage ground of the Divivne couple Shiva and Parvati??. The sacred fire is still burning today and is fed by devotees constantly as well. The manager of the GMVN property we stayed in was from the village of the temple and offered to take us there. After lunch and a short rest, we drove to Triyuginarayan.

Now, this place was about 10km from where we were staying and was high up in the mountain where Rampur was. It was a treacherous road, almost broken with places where a landslide was waiting to happen. Interestingly, there was a bus service to the place everyday though how buses climb on those roads eludes me. We finally reached the temple, offered our prayers and a tidy amount for the "spirituality" enterprise happening there and were just entering the clouds when big drops rushed to the ground. Then of course we were told by another driver that a stone had just rolled down the slopes and quite a few people had laboured together to remove it out of the way. And to top it all, the conversation on the way back between our driver and the GMVN manager was of happier times when cheetah had been sighted on the slopes, how the car had suffered damage with a rock hitting the door on the driver's side and had to be replaced and how rocks the size of a car's roof were seen falling on the roads! Of course, they were oblivious to the increasingly alarmed look on my face. My parents conveniently ignored the conversation I think!

We did reach back in one piece, the car and all, finished dinner deciding to sleep in preparation for "The Climb". Leaving very early next morning, we were dropped 1km away from the start point thanks to a traffic jam and then began the ordeal. For more than 1km from the start point, we were in the middle of people wanting to get onto Mules and into Planquins(Dholis). All one can smell is tobacco smoke, occasional stench of mule dung/urine (yuck!) and an even rarer whiff of uncontaminated air. As you go higher though, the tobacco smoke becomes the even rarer whiff though the smell of mule dung/urine taunts you throughout the whole journey. An unwanted "souvenir" of the experience. Soon you try to break out of the packs of people, settle into a pace navigating through people and mules(moving up and down). A four laner would have still been small what with having to constantly let the dholis go through and mules being the among the dunces of the animals. Firstly, their trainers don't care if people are thrown off the roads as they lazily stroll behind their mules. Secondly, the mules have mastered the art of bumping into people very efficiently either themselves or with their burden. Lastly, and not least, not much place is left to trudge ahead on after the mules use most of it as part of the biggest toilet in the world!

Speaking for the steepness of the path though is the fact that these problems soon start seeming minor compared to the effort required to put one step in front of the other after 5-6km. A few kilometres into the climb though bought a scare when my mom started feeling dizzy. I have never felt so freaked out in my life! I held onto her and she in turn held on to the rock wall and waited for the bout to pass. In that moment I forgot that I could have asked someone to stop my dad ahead and ask to come back for us. So, it was almost an eternity when a few minutes later he came back for us noticing our absence behind him. Luckily, it was just one of those things that happen when your a bit hungry, so a chocolate and a rest later we were back on the road. 5km into the climb the crowd does start thinning out and left with your own thoughts there is time to take in the scenery, the Mandakini river and the occasional last bit of ice that somehow survived the sun and didn't melt, and even click photos amongst other things. 7km brings with it Rambada. Breakfast and comprehensive rest point and we had been climbing about 3hrs if I'm not wrong. Resting for more than half an hour, I was so loath to leave that place! We were visited by the occasional sprinkle when we started but thankfully nothing worse than that threatened our path.

This climb has been the ultimate test of resilience and sheer willpower because there was nothing else to drive me forward! Personally, the reason for my climbing had nothing, I think, to do with a temple being at the end of the journey. The one thing that made me continue the climb after a point of time was the simple but hugely helpful fact that it was too far to go back and I can't stay the night in the middle of nowhere! I just realised how hugely motivating a roof over your head, warm food and dreamless sleep can sound. One way to while away the lonely (because even talking, which we love to do incessantly other times, starts eating into the energy required to climb, at least did so for me...), not to mention tiring time, is by thinking of repetitive slogans or something on the lines of the Gayatri Mantra to intonate your steps. Surprisingly, that throws your brain a task better than concentrating on the pain and breathlessness as it does become rarified as you climb! As we trudged the breaks were lengthier and more in number (like how about every 500m or less??). About 2km from the destination the road does flatten out(i mean there is horizontal visibility along the road for more about a km) in comparison to the monster slopes one has crossed previously.

The view is stunning enough to make you forget 14km worth of trekking!!! The mountain on both sides of the river have carpets of immaculate green all the way to the top. Everywhere except the walking track!! A delightful herd of sheep with a shepherd were found grazing on the other slope. They looked amazingly healthy and nimbly jumped their way across to the lush grass. It was like almost seeing black and white darts on a green dartboard! Look carefully, and the grass is not so immaculate anymore. Interspersed in between, with skill no Persian carpet maker can match are clumps of the most vibrant flowers exactly how one would have drawn them in art classes. And then when you were thinking how satisfying it all looks, the clouds parted to reveal a breathtaking mountain of snow hiding behind there. And no, of course, it could not be just one mountain, it had to be a whole range still playing hide and seek with the clouds so much so that you are tempted to crane your neck thinking you can see behind the cloud! It sure makes all the trouble taken worth it.

The last 2km was like a sprint compared to the previous 5km and we flopped thankfully onto the beds in our hotel room. Hot food and a nap later we went out in the evening for a Darshan if possible. On the way we discovered a tea shop which became our personal hang out joint during the next 15 odd hours of our stay there. Then came the waiting in the lines to enter the temple. It wasn't crowded considering crowds are defined as the human traffic in Tirupathi. Once done with the visit to the Almighty, we returned back, had dinner as it was dark by then, and hit the sack in what must be a personal record in at least 5 years as far as an early bedtime goes. Just for the information, the temperatures to merely 5 degree Celsius at night. Boy, weren't those quilts a godsend!! Early morning saw us getting ready for visit no.2 to the Almighty. This time the lines were long, winding into and out of makeshift stay areas. And this of course means, the essential Indianness surfaces in certain people. Cutting into lines by the family not the individual! Feigning faintness and age as an excuse to go ahead. And a certain person who thought she was being extremely smart when she moved from just in front of us to the other arm of the hairpin queue. This hairpin was going through a room and coming out and this esteemed lady had apparently (unknowingly), decided she wanted to go through the room again when she cut into the other arm!! I thought I might collapse with laughter what with the jelly legs (effect of the climb) and all.

Nothing short of entertainment. Well, the clouds had parted that morning and we saw all that had been brushed under the carpeted heavens, a huge range of the most breathtakingly exhilarating snow-capped mountains. I couldn't help but let my mouth open up in awe of God's creation in his backyard (Literally!!). Nothing has ever made me so speechless ever (Yes, there now are degrees to speechlessness after this trip). The Darshan happened without much more incident and soon we were rushing on our way down after the delay at the temple.

The climb down was like flying over stones, gravity lending more than just a helping hand with it. Caution was of utmost importance as the smallest slipup might mean at least a broken leg and at the most, broken everything! A painful knee for dad meant we paced the descent steadily after our break at Rambada. Luckily, it didn't worsen too much later on. After the appropriate number of breaks and shoving those mules out of the way, the Kedarnath experience was suddenly over and I was sitting in the car with the most numbest legs I have ever had. They were constantly throbbing but never seemed to belong to the same body as the rest of me. Well after a few stretches after the mammoth trek down, feeling and circulation returned to them. Lunch at Rampur was the last stop before heading of to Uttarkashi, the stop for the night.......