This journey took place from the 10th to the 15th of June 2011 from Rishikesh- Uttarkashi- Gangotri- Bhojbasa- Gaumukh and ending in Tapovan.
The Ganga has always been the subject of Indian lore. From mythology to matted-haired hermits, it encompasses a major part of traditions and customs that form a vital part of this country. For me it was always a subject of fascination that stemmed from the book of the Mahabharata asGangawas said to be the mother of the ever endearing Bheeshma. Trust history to liven things up. I am 22 currently and hence a little something called ‘parental consent’ was in order. So this trip to the Gangotri elicited from my parents just one loving response “You will die”. So like any responsible adult I lied (a little) about my whereabouts during the trip and managed the whole thing with my fellow traveller and best friend.
Granted, this severely goes against ethics and the road from Rishikesh onwards is surely perilous, but the lure of seeing snow-capped mountains against the sound of the Gangawas just too tempting. Our plan was to travel from Mumbai toDelhiby train via the Rajdhani and quite frankly it was the best train journey ever. Brilliant food, only one man snored and we stopped only thrice. We stopped inDelhifor a day after which we travelled to Rishikesh and from there on our adventure truly began.
Rishikesh (227 km fromNew Delhi)
We camped at this questionable looking establishment called Hotel Shivlok for the night. From what I could see the city was buzzing with excitement and mad rush. Tourists coming and going in overcrowded buses to nine different types of ‘holy music’ playing simultaneously – there was a certain pilgrimage zest to the proceedings. We checked into our room which was quite standard for a night’s rest and ventured out to stock up food. I strongly recommend not eating heavy once you reach Rishikesh and venture further upwards. Everyone knows there’s one person in the bus who always throws up, no matter what. Thus, to avoid those loathing yet pitiful looks, eat easily digestible food and stay hydrated. With our mountain of biscuits and chocolates ready to go, we tried arranging a private taxi to Uttarkashi but being the dreaded ‘tourist-season’ the fares were through the roof. So we decided to wake up at5amand go the ‘pilgrim’ way – the Share Cab – very economical and not always for the faint of heart (we realised this the hard way).
Morning came and we got on the Tata Sumo with eight other people. It was our first experience in a share-cab and it was not that bad actually. Four hours went pretty fast except for ‘vomit lady’ who retched half way, ate some more, and then drained it all out quite spectacularly for the rest of the journey. Barring that, the ride was lit up with mountains layering the horizon and theGangaflowing alongside watching us with little interest. It was breath-taking to see theGangesfor the first time as it was the stuff of my imagination up till now. But then the unthinkable happened – myGangesexcitement went away, just vanished, poof! It may have had something to do with vomit-lady’s husband who also decided to go into an emetic state, maybe for moral support, I may never know. Before I could ponder more about this potpourri of emotions we had reached our destination.
Uttarkashi (71km from Rishikesh)
Our stay in Uttarkashi was at ‘Tapovan Kuti’ built and run by the Chinmaya Mission. Situated with a pristine view of the Ganga this sanctuary of sorts housed Swami Dhyananand, among other helpers, who helped run this place. I cannot explain this location without using words like ‘peaceful’ and ‘ascetic’ because frankly speaking it is the heart which finds solace in particular things which makes each experience very personal. For me it was such since lunch and dinner was a silent affair with the Swami arriving to commence the meals and everyone ate to their fullest. With his snow-white beard and beady eyes in front of which lay thin spectacles, the Swami spoke in benevolence and gave us a letter which would help us with accommodation in Gangotri. At night I sat in the porch, with my friend, which overlooked the sound of the Ganges and nothing else. It was a feeling unlike no other; the sound of water gushing past in such consistency that one couldn’t help but stay mesmerised for hours. My former diminishing excitement had returned in full flow.
We again awakened at 5am with much less baggage to carry since we left behind some things to return to. We reached the taxi stand and half an hour later we were on our way to Gangotri. This share-cab experience was quite frankly a mixture of horrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Our daredevil driver overtook absolutely everything on the road that lay in front of him. The thought of falling hundreds of feet below into the Ganga didn’t seem to deter him. The rougher the road, the harder he pushed the accelerator. Thankfully we had the scenery to calm us down which was breath-taking. I had my first sighting of a snow-capped mountain in the distance and I knew I was going to make it (the driver was driving like the Soul Reaper, hence the death thoughts). After a good four hours of horror and hunger, we reached Gangotri only to be overcome by the sight which lay before us.
I saw the full force of the Ganga, gushing downwards, slapping the off-white rocks forming various curves and rushing away. A foot-bridge on top of this whole spectacle really put things into perspective. We made our way to the Ishawashya Ashram situated there and used our letter for this purpose. Each room had six beds and in every room there was this sign in Hindi ‘This is not a hotel, everything you use is given by God. Please treat it with respect’. The residing Swami Raghuveeranand was really something to behold. An ardent photographer who had an awesome camera, he sat in his room talking to people and discussing philosophy. We sat for a while before he turned his attention to us. Watching him speak with such humbleness really struck a chord with me. Here was an expert mountaineer who once stuck a flag on top of a mountain that overlooked the place where I stood and my neck nearly snapped because of its near vertical nature, a brilliant photographer who regularly put his very funky Nikon camera to use and here he was talking as if they weren’t extraordinary feats at all.
We explored the town which was filled with eateries serving Chinese food and pancakes at the same time. I tried the cheese sandwich and it was, to my dismay, filled with paneer and some vinegar (?). A lesson here – stick to the paranthas and noodles. We made our way to the Forest Department where we had to take permission for the trek that awaited us. It was rather uneventful unless of course the part where we had to write on the form “We will not hold the Forest Department responsible for any mishaps or accidents that may occur during the course of this journey”. Fun right?
At about 7.30 p.m., the night enveloped us like someone just switched the lights off. We made our way to the Ganga Temple located on the bank of the river and what we witnessed was quite enchanting – sounds of the priest echoing onto us offering oblations to the Goddess and the full moon above the mountain with a clear dark blue sky surrounding it. Dinner awaited us at the ashram and thus the night ended
We awoke again at 5am for our journey to Bhojbasa which was a 14 km uphill trek from Gangotri. From there 5km away was Gaumukh and a further 4 km was Tapovan which was our eventual destination. Our guide, Ganesh, was a person of average height with a continuous smile whose calf muscles were made of Titanium and one of his fingers was missing because of a snake bite (if you saw his calf muscles you would know why…)
Thus began our walk from Gangotri to Bhojbasa. After 2km we had to list down the amount of plastic bags, we were carrying, to the authorities so that on the return we can show the same amount thus not leading to a fine, a very sound practice. We had a bag each to carry and that made things more difficult than expected. The path itself is very rough because stones ranging from ‘tiny inconsequential’ to ‘big boulder that may be home to angry creatures’ all litter the way and treading over each stone might get overwhelming. Make sure to stop every 2km or so to drink some water and eat some biscuits or chocolates rather than going gung-ho and trying to cover the entire thing in one go. Our guide led the pack with me in the middle and Dinesh (yes he has a name, who knew!) at the back. I didn’t know what Bhojbasa looked like but I could see the Bhagirathi Mountains at a distance with clouds brewing like smoke on top of it. The weather had been kind to us providing us with clear skies and no sudden mood swing as is common with these parts. One minute it will be clear and suddenly you will find yourself drenched with rain.
Dinesh had told me that earlier this path had a tea-stall almost every 2km but now, as we kept walking, we saw clearings and signs of a pre-existing ‘dhaba’ but no sign of anyone whatsoever. We finally encountered one after 9km where we ate some noodles and drank some tea. With cold sweat running down our spine and our eyes squinting because the cold wind, we made our way again more uphill. Here’s where I sprained my left thigh muscle and good god, the pain was excruciating. The weight of the bag, combined with going upwards and walking on anything but a proper path, all combined into one tough walk. All hail the walking stick!! Apart from helping me make my way it also makes people look cool (no? Okay.). We encountered several sages dressed in saffron robes, beads in hand and chanting to themselves with a small ‘lota’ or container of water in their other hand. Overall this single walking experience was one of the toughest things I had ever had to do because of the sprain but then again after five hours of walking and crossing four precarious looking wooden bridges we finally saw our resting place.
Bhojbasa (3800 mt above sea level)
The name ‘Bhojbasa’ comes from the ‘Bhoj-patra’ tree that is laden on certain stretches of the walk to Bhojpasa and is said that ancient texts were written using the bark of the tree. Our 14km walk led us to a wide scenic view with living arrangements set down. Ganesh told us that there were two options – the Lal Baba ashram or another place adjacent which had tents. We first entered Lal Baba and within 15 minutes were out of there. Let’s just say all the pillows had questionable marks on them. We made our way to the encampment right next to it which had tents placed with eight beds in each. Sleep seldom came so easily.
We woke up in the evening to find ourselves in the midst of cold winds and the sound of people playing volleyball at some distance. The players, of course, had adjusted to the altitude and if we tried that in our current state, well, they wouldn’t have to go far to put our ashes to rest. With two sweatshirts and a sweater trying to protect me from the lashing winds I noticed the Bhagirathi Mountain in all its glory. Three peaks lying side by side eyeing us with curiosity with the occasional onset of clouds blocking their view. Evening fell soon and added a dark blue sky with the moon shining above it. Some sight indeed.
Next morning armed with our walking sticks and a semi functioning left leg, we made our way to Gaumukh which was an easy enough journey since the road was level and we didn’t carry much except some bottles to carry back some ‘Ganga-jal’. We reached Gaumukh and saw the huge cow-face shaped opening through which the water flowed out, hence the name. The Bhagirathi looked magnificent yet intimidating. Crossing the glacier we tried making our way to Tapovan. The path keeps shifting but our guide fortunately knew his way around. He told us stories of people getting lost because of wrong turns and all thinking they “thought” they knew the way. Hence I would strongly suggest taking a guide for your own safety. We ‘struggled’ on due to the rocky road making it impossible to get a firm grip. The final kilometre was a near vertical climb again laden with loose rocks. Dinesh’s shoes gave way and so did nearly Ganesh’s. My leg was taking a severe beating because of this so we decided, rather grudgingly, to head back.
This marked the end of our long, tiring yet fruitful journey. We made our way back to Bhojbasa to spend another night with Maggi, tea and a giant quilt. Walking back the next day seemed to me like another day of leg pain but the journey down was a constant slope so gravity helped us walk in peace and we completed the journey in three hours with half the breaks. We also passed by some mountain goats who were directly above us minding their business. By that time Dinesh’s sole totally ripped off and I had to cater to a violent nosebleed but the sight of Gangotri pushed us onwards. While coming down we saw two people actually crying out of exhaustion and Bhojbasa was still 7km away for them. We headed down to verify our plastic bag count and we were back at the Ashram in no time. Looking at our state some tourists asked us about our journey and quite frankly it made us feel like a little special. They said they seldom see such young boys venture into such a journey and that surprised me. I encourage people to visit this place because it will certainly push you to some limits, and it will also certainly make for some brilliant sights. But more importantly for people my age – don’t be scared, Mother Ganga will never leave your hand.
Writtern by Swarup Subramanian