Uttarakhand, Gangotri, India
In Indian mythology, the Ganges River was brought to earth from heaven by a rishi (sage) named Bhagirath. The rishi endured a long penance so that India could have a perennial water source. However, the force of the Ganges was so strong that Shiva had to break her fall on his head so that she would gently descend to earth. His presence is symbolized by Shivling Peak, towering above the source of the
Ganges. Thus the River Ganges is supposed to flow on the earth to wash away the sins of mankind, and its source is a center of meditation for sages and in this case the objective of our pilgrimage.
Cristina and I were seated on top of the Gangotri Glacier (4,092m or 12,280ft) at the source of the Ganges, looking to the east in hopes of spotting the Tapoban camp, but grey clouds obscured our view. I could tell that those clouds were bad news and that shortly it was sure to snow. The wind was already whistling and the temperature was well below zero Celsius, so the addition of snow certainly demanded that we rethink our plans. It was past mid-day and were at least four hours from our objective of Tapoban (at 4,200m). We were on a trail that was alleged to wind over this glacier and then up a very steep slope to an open plateau. Even in the best of conditions the trail would be hard to find and harder to follow, but now with the threat of snow, it would mean a dangerous and sometimes blind glacier crossing, followed by a slippery and exhausting climb, only to end the day damp and cold in a small summer tent. Under normal conditions I would find the challenge acceptable, but with Cristina in tow I had to be more realistic.
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So being the wise fellow that I am (at least sometimes), I pointed out the approaching snowstorm and presented our options. We could proceed and most likely spend the night in the tent, out in the snow, or we could turn around and race the storm back to the ashram (a poor man’s guest house with a religious slant) at Bhojbasa. We opted for a return to the cold ashram rather than spend a night in the tent with only tropical (summer) sleeping bags. We turned around and began the slippery and challenging descent down the glacier to the sandy moraine as the snowstorm stuck us with an abruptness that seemed taunting.
t was simply amazing that only a few days before we were sweltering in Rishikesh, with the temperature in the shade floating around 40 degrees Celsius. It had been so hot that we visited an air conditioned Internet Café more for the cool air than the Internet service. Then one day we packed our stuff and caught a tuk-tuk down to the city proper in order to catch a slow local bus to Uttrakashi (155km from Rishikesh). This town is strategically located half way up the single winding narrow road to Gangotri (a village 240km from Rishikesh, located at the end of the road and trail head of our trek).
Getting There & Started
The road to Uttrakashi was one of those typical mountain roads that must be experienced to understand. The distance between the starting point and the destination is not far, yet the road hardly ever goes in a straight line. Instead it follows the contour of the foothills and river gullies. It simply winds and winds, and then winds some more for what seems endless hours with the only break in the nausea being the periodic stops at stilted shacks selling soft drinks and thali on the side of the road.
We arrived in Uttrakashi at the main traffic jam called the bus park, as the sun was setting; the streets were filled with people, cows, hawkers, and fumes. We quickly established that the strategically located hotels were owned by a species of humans that are related to taxi drivers. The starting price for a dump or a room was 500 Rs ($10) which was outrageous. After visiting a number of hotels we settled for a 300 Rs closet with no windows, on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. We were dusty, it was dark out, and we simply wanted a place to rest before starting the second day of road travel.
The next morning I walked out of town to find the permit office for the Gangotri National Park, a few km outside of town. After a short 30-minute walk I found the place and then settled down to wait until it opened at 10am. When it opened I was the second customer in line. Being second didn’t seem to make much difference since the haggard official behind the desk was constantly answering the phone or the queries from military officers that entered, or simply the piles of faxes thrust under his nose by the many local tourist booking offices. After an hour the first customer finally received his permit (which was then manually transcribed into three different large journals of the type used in the 1900’s. After another hour of interruptions I got angry and began to complain and exert my height and brawn. I simply blocked the desk from any more intrusions and told the official that I had been there over two hours and that these other people and phone calls simply had to wait their turn. With startled eyes he bowed his head to the paperwork and finished my permit in less than a minute. I accepted graciously, shook my head at the other waiting westerners that were after me, and left just as the pack resumed their attacked with their requests.
I walked back to town and then began the waiting game phase of the journey. A few times a day a bus from the south would stop in Uttrakashi on its way north to Gangotri (our objective). But these buses where long-haul buses that got filled up at the originating cities and then over filled along the way with locals, so that they arrived in Uttrakashi stacked high with people and goods. Then more aggressive locals with parcels and livestock would squeeze on at Uttrakashi. A set assignment at Uttrakashi was impossible to obtain so it boiled down to pushing and shoving, followed by a grueling up-mountain winding trip for another 8 hrs. Rather than endure this test of stupidity, we opted to take a shared jeep, which also requires a measure of fortitude and patience.
The price per seat in the shared jeep is fixed at 140 Rs (almost $3), but the real problem is that you must wait until the jeep is full before it will leave. How Indian’s define full is completely different from how we define full. The jeep required 11 passengers (plus the driver) to be considered full. This amounted to three in the front, four in the middle row, and five in the rear jump seats. Add to that the fact that many Indians that can afford to travel are fat (the really fat ones travel in their private SUVs), and you end up with a very, very tight 7 hour ride up a winding (dangerous) road that clings to sheer cliffs without second chances.
We discussed our options of survival and departure with a few other westerners at the jeep and resolved to buy a few extra seats so that the jeep would leave immediately and so that we would be comfortable, but the driver refused to drive without a full load, even if paid. The idea of driving without a painfully packed vehicle was beyond his comprehension. Finally after two hours of this nonsense we secured a few more Indians and headed off for an exciting, nauseous, and beautiful drive to Gangotri.
Like our arrival in Uttrakashi the previous day, we arrived at the crowded and smelly bus park as the sun was setting. Rather than play the over-priced hotel game again, we simply walked into the small village, crossed the river, and began asking for guesthouse prices at the far reaches of the village. We immediately settled on a dump, on the river’s edge, that assured us that they had lots of thick blankets for 150 Rs a night ($3). It was the last day April, so the blankets were essential at this early time of year and at the altitude of 3,048m.
The seasonal village of Gangotri is a holy site for Hindus, and is the site of one of the four holy temples of the Char Dham pilgrimage (Yamunotri, Kendarnath, and Badrinath being the other three), as such there where many strange looking or acting characters, especially those that undressed and bathed in the freezing cold and muddy Ganga waters. We settled into the cold village in a state of exhaustion and delight as a cold drizzle began to fall and the lights flickered and finally went out as do most places in the north.
Day 1 of Pilgrimage
We woke to clear and brisk skies the next morning. We placed one of our packs in the kitchen for safe keeping and then set out for the trail on the opposite bank that would lead us to the entrance of the national park. At the park entrance we showed our permit and paid our entrance fees (300 Rs each for 3 days, plus a 100 Rs video camera fee, and finally a refundable 50 Rs per plastic bottle fee, or approximately $9 each) and then set off on a groomed trail that followed the Ganga River upstream.
The day was sunny, but clouds threatened on the horizon. Our pace was comfortable as the trail rolled higher as the pine forest thinned, then was replaced by the remnants of a Birch forest, and then gave way to scrub bushes and mountain grasses. At this stage (around 3pm) we reached a small camp called Bhojbasa where a government rest house is located, as well as an ashram, and a few other government buildings that I couldn’t figure out. After checking the prices we opted for the Ashram, which offered shared unheated rooms, with floor mat beds, smelly thick blankets, and a group dinner meal in an open hallway of sorts.
We settled into our room, under double thick quilts, and read while the temperature dropped and the wind whistled through our door, which was constantly left open by one of the eleven Indian pilgrims that had to go through our room to reach theirs. Finally around dinnertime we ventured out to the dining area to join the throng. Dinner was an experience in itself. A Baba floated around giving orders while straw mats were laid out for each of us to sit on. Drinking tin cups and plates made out of pressed leaves were then placed before us. Then buckets of fried lentils were dished into our plates, some mixed vegetables tossed in, and piles of steamed rice were heaped on, and finally chapatti bread handed out to balance out the meal. We then waited out a prayer session of chanting before we were given the go ahead signal. No utensils were provided, but I was ready for such an eventuality, as I always carry my own spoon when traveling in this part of the world. The meal was actually very good, and we could eat as much as we liked, but eventually the cold cement floor and the folded sitting position got the best of me and I gave up and retired to the drafty room and thick blankets.
Day 2 of Pilgrimage
The next morning was sunny and warming up quickly. In spite of the sunshine, I advised Cristina to put on some cold weather layers. We packed up our stuff and then set out upstream for Gaumukh (The Cow’s Mouth), the source of the sacred Ganga. The going was easy as it dropped down to the river’s edge. We passed a few shrines, climbed through a few easy boulder fields, and then hugged the sandy shore of the narrowing river for the last half hour. By mid-day we were seated in the boulder-strewn moraine at the foot of the glacier wall. The river was no more than a small pond at the foot of the glacier before it began to trickle away to become a creek, then a stream, and then a river that joined six other rivers to form the mighty Ganges.
We settled in comfortably to take photos, eat lunch, and simply enjoy the majesty of the glacier and the peace of the holy place. After lunch we climbed up the sandy north bank to a small foot trail that lead up onto the glacier itself. From this point the trail becomes very sandy, slippery, and scattered due to the ever changing topography of glaciers. We managed to gain the top (3986m) where the faint trail split. My map showed that a trail to the north lead off to a distant village called Ghastoli, some 10-15 days away. The alternate trail to the south, lead across the rocky glacier to a steep slope that climbed to a flat camping area called Tapoban (4460m) and possibly a stone structure managed by another holy Baba.
We spent the next hour struggling along sandy slopes, through boulder fields, constantly searching for stone cairns to indicate the trail, or back-tracking to firmer footing since the trail was a fluid concept on top of this ever expanding and contracting glacier. It was at this stage that we noticed that the sky had darkened, the temperature had dropped, and that snow clouds were approaching.
We opted to turn tail and head back to the ashram with just enough time to reach the foot of the glacier as the snowstorm struck with full force. Fortunately the wind was at our backs, but even so the going was difficult and cold as we made our way back to Bhojbasa. We reached the Ashram covered in a white coating of snow and ice as more and more pilgrims (and trekkers) arrived to take shelter. It turned out to be a wickedly cold and snowy night that gave way to a clear sky morning with beautiful snowy mountains in all directions. By the time we finished breakfast most of the snow on the trail had melted and the day began to warm up.
Day 3 of Pilgrimage
We walked out easily that day (it is essentially all downhill) and were back in our Gangotri guesthouse by dinnertime. We asked about the weather the previous afternoon, and were informed that it had rained quite a bit the previous day, but that was normal, since it rained almost every afternoon at that time of year. Cristina looked at each other and realized that in that case, it must snow almost every afternoon up at Gaumukh at this time of year. We had been cold, but clearly we could have been much colder if we had tried to camp above the glacier in our limited clothing and tropical sleeping bags. Perhaps an investment in cold weather clothing was in order, even if it was 40 degrees down in the foothills of India.
Some Words About Purification
Bad karma, the impurity caused by bad actions in prior lives, are the focus of much Hindu rituals. Rivers are believed to have great karma purification power, stronger at the source, at the confluences (where two join), and at the mouth (exit into the sea). There are five confluences in the Himalayan section of the Ganga – Deoprayag, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag, Nandaprayag, and Vishuprayag (called Trayagraj or King of Prayags). On the plains, Allahabad is the most important confluence, where the Yamuna, the Ganga, and the mythical underground river, Sarasvati, all meet.