A pilgrimage up north – Part 5: Rambara to Gopeshwar

The first few steps were killing, every time I had to take a step down the knee would hurt badly and I had seven kilometers to trek down. The walking stick that we had carried with us was turned out to be very helpful and I began a very slow, very painful walk down the hill. I had gulped in a pain killer after breakfast and it had no obvious effect on the pain. I managed the first km in 1 hour and then I realized, if I walk like this it would take us another 6 hours to cover the distance and it would 3PM by the time we could reach Gowrikund. And then I figured out that it was much easier on my knees when I walked on the mud in the corner of the cobbled pathway, rather than use the cobbled pathway. Slowly but surely the knee started cooperating and I picked up speed and managed to reach Gowrikund in another couple of hours just around noon. We had a good meal at GVMN hotel at Gowrikund and were ready to depart to our next halt at Gopeshwar via a beautiful meadowed hill station called Chopta, also known as the Switzerland of India.

Chopta is a awesome place, right out of a picture perfect postcards. Apparently on a clear day, one could see the peaks of Nanda Devi. We reached there at around 4PM and took a break for tea and snacks. There was traces of snowfall and kids loved it. And then to our surprise we met Tanvi’s and Yaami’s friend from school. She was on a trek with Chinmayananda Ashram. It is such a small world!! Spent some time taking photographs, taking in the beauty and enjoying the scenery and then it was time to head to Gopeshwar through a drive through a forest adjoining Chopta. The forest lies in the Nanda Devi Biosphere reserve and was practically untouched. After a very peaceful drive, we reached Gopeshwar for a halt at GMVN toursit house opp the bus stand (an absolutely avoidable place). The next day we were headed to Badrinath!

A pilgrimage up North – Part 4: Rambara to Gaurikund Trek

Pawan and Nitika started a little ahead with the kids while Meena and I took a leisurely stroll back to Rambara, this part of the trek was awesome! Even if you cannot do the trek uphill, I recommend everyone to walk down the hills. It was exhilarating, the snow capped peaks in the distance, the waterfalls meandering down the hills and the changing weather patterns at every turn of the mountains. By now the rush of pilgrims had slowed down to a trickle and we did a very slow trek down till Rambara, talking to so many pilgrims on the way.

The conversation with the pilgrims was what I loved the most on the way back. For one, we were relaxed having done the journey. Secondly we had answers to the questions, people who were trekking towards Kedarnath would ask us. Essentially there was only one thing on everyone’s mind – What is the difficulty level ahead?

There were people from different walks of life and different parts of the country, one could hear Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Marathi. Those who could afford it, would take the palkis or the ponies, and there were several from the small towns of India who were trekking uphill with no shoes, no warm clothes, just a big smile on the face and willing to actively engage in conversations and the conversations revealed the strong faith that people had in Divine. It was something to experience this faith.

When we started from Gowrikund, we had met an Australian lady who was walking all the way from GuptKashi so as to get used to the uphill trek. We met her again at Rambara and she had decided to take a break at Rambara so as to do the trek uphill next day morning at 4A.M. so as to avoid the rush of pilgrims and do the journey in solitude. One look at her glowing face, we knew she was someone who was on the path. If only we had some time to engage in a more meaningful conversation with her.

We met a group of pilgrims who had come from a village in Maharashtra walking bare feet up hill with a huge smile on the face!

The next day we met an elderly gentleman from a village near Indore who was supposedly about 90 years old (in the photograph with Yami, Nitika and Pawan) and was traveling with his son and was coming after doing Gangotri and Yamunotri. Apparently he gets up at 4AM everyday, washes his own clothes, cooks his own food and does not depend on anyone else in the family. At Gangotri he had walked way ahead of the others in the group and had completed the yatra before others in the group could make it. It was the same case here, the rest of the group was lagging behind while this gentleman was ahead of others. I am not sure if I was even half as fit as the guy was at 90!

We reached Rambara, just as the night was about to fall. In the meantime, my left knee had started to hurt. We had a very nice dinner and slept with the night temperature going right below zero. The next day morning I woke up with a very stiff knee, unable to walk even couple of steps and I had another 7 Kms ahead of me and we had to reach Gowrikund by lunch so that we can reach Gopeshwar for the night halt.

Taking a Pony down the hill was out of question. Doing uphill is fine, but the ponies have tough time managing their footing downhill and if one is not seated properly the chances of falling are much higher. The big question was how do I climb down with a hurting knee?

A pilgrimage up North – Part 3: Rambara to Kedarnath

The last couple of kilometeres, we found were the hardest for us. In the distance we could see the destination, but our pace had slowed down considerably, it started snowing very lightly and Meena was having a tough time coping with the journey. She had tried hard to build up endurance for this trek and was going on regular walks in Bangalore for at least a month or so before the journey, and it didn’t seemed to have helped. Despite asking her to take a Pony for the last kilometer or so, she choose to walk. The last couple of Kms took us more than an hour. As the mountains gave way to the plateau, the scenery changed and it was stunning to see the majestic peaks of Kedarnath in the background. However many photographs we clicked, it was impossible to capture the beauty of it.  It was almost 1.30PM by the time we reached Kedarnath. Nitika who had gone ahead on the pony from Rambara along with the kids and had already reached by 11AM and kept waiting for the rest of us to follow.

Then suddenly we realized it is past lunch time and would the Pittu guy would have dropped Tanvi to where Nitika and kids were or would he be waiting for us and what about Tanvi – what if she was feeling hungry or thirsty? And how and where would we find the Pittu wala? The very thought gave us the shivers! Very fortunately for us the Pittu guy had very safely delivered Tanvi to where Nitika was waiting.

Kedarnath peaks in the background

Kedarnath peaks in the background

The kids had some Maggi for lunch and then the trouble started.  Akku started vomitting….the other 3 kids meanwhile had taken their shoes off and ran into the temple and when they came back, the socks were wet, the temperature was almost freezing and they starting feeling the frostbite and one after the other, all the four started howling, with Pawan and Nitika feeling overwhelmed and tending to them, unaware of the fact that it was the frostbite that was troubling the kids.

Meanwhile as Meena and I reached into Kedarnath and crossed Mandakini, we saw a series of oversized steps leading into the town and that’s when I gave up. Just sat on the stairs exhausted!! We somehow dragged ourselves into the town and walked to the temple. Meena meawhile was mentally cribbing about the journey, tired and exhausted, as she approached the temple, a Sadhu looked at her and said “Woh sab baad mein, pehle darshan” (All the cribbing later, first have darshan). How did he read her mind, is something we couldn’t figure out. She waited to see if he said the same thing to others, but he just smiled at her, turned and walked away.

We found Nitika and Pawan with the kids at the first shop opposite the temple. As we tended to the kids, Pawan and Aunty moved into the queue for Darshan – the temple closes for lunch at 3.00PM. We joined them and very fortunately, we all had a good darshan. Darshan over, it was back to tending to the crying and howling kids, we bought new pair of socks, rubbed Zinda-Tilismath that gave them much needed relief – didn’t I mention earlier that it was a cure for everything – bought additional blankets for the kids, hired Pittu’s for all the kids for the journey down and started back for Rambara.

In the chaos that ensued with the kids howling, we had forgetten to click any snaps at Kedarnath, I wanted to visit Adi Shankaracharya’s samadhi behind the temple, but couldn’t and as we stepped out of the temple town, we started feeling famished. It was already 3.30PM….and we didn’t have time to stop for a proper meal – we had the 7.5Kms trek back to Rambara to do and we had to do it before the sun went down. As it is the weather was quite unpredictable – we had experienced bright sunshine, rain, and light snow in a day – and we wanted to reach Rambara before nightfall. We stopped near a shop bought a couple of bananas and ate them, they were the hardest bananas that I had ever eaten in my life. Luckily we had taken choclates with us and both the ways we gorged on them to keep the energy going.

The trek down hill was awesome!  More about it in the next post.

A Pilgrimage up North – Part 2 – Dehradun to Kedarnath

Our first destination was Kedarnath – one of the four char dham sites and as per Wikipedia, the most remote one as well. The only way to reach Kedarnath is via a 14Km uphill trek from Gaurikund. We hired couple of reliable Amby’s and off we went from Dehradun to Gaurikund – the place where the motorable roads end. We left Dehradun early in the morning by 6AM and reached Gaurikund by 5PM the same evening doing a leisurely journey via Rudraprayag, Guptkashi,  Agastyamuni etc stopping enroute for a leisurely lunch by the riverside of Mandakini near Agastyamuni.

Sadhus on the way to KedarnathAll the way starting from Rishikesh to Kedarnath, we would see Sadhus walking bare feet to do the chaar-dhaams, completely dependent on the support and help of the villagers for everything from food to shelter. What faith and what trust!

Gaurikund is a very small, congested town (not sure if I should even call it a town!) consisting of sundry shops, eateries, and rooms for pilgrims to stay. We had booked ourselves in one of the GMVN hotels – a pretty neat and clean place, considering the remoteness of the location. The Mandakini river flows right across the street and one can hear the river once the chatter in the town subsides by evening. The weather had turned cold and almost freezing and one look at the imposing peaks of the Himalayas and hundreds of bright shining stars in the dark sky left us all mersmerized. What an awesome place to be!

We were quite apprehensive of the trek next day, not knowing what to expect and people whom we met on their way back, kept on giving contradictory views on how to do the trek. We decided to start early by 5AM and return half way down to Rambara to rest for the night. We woke up by 3.30AM to the constant jingling of bells of ponies going through the town. We figured out that people had already started their journey.

The local administration has a very neat arrangement for toursits to hire ponies, pittus (people who carry small children in a basket), and palkis. It was really commendable. We were doing the trip in a slightly off season, the summer vacations for schools had not yet started and the toursit inflow was not that high.

Just to give you a quick orientation, the climb uphill goes through a series of interconnected mountains with awesome views all round, the cobbled path way is wide enough for at least 6 to 10 people to walk together comfortably with railings on one side. Rambara is exactly 7 kms from Gaurikund and lies midway to Kedarnath.

For the journey upward, we hired 4 ponies for the kids and whoever was tired enough and wanted to get onto the ponyies– realized it later that it doesn’t work that way. For those manning the ponies, the business window is only 6 months with monsoon in between and they want to be doing as many trips in a day as possible, so they are least bothered about how you want to structure your journey, they do it their way – Quick, fast and efficiently. Meena, I and the 4 kids did the first half of the uphill journey on the pony, while Nitika and Pawan trekked uphill and for the other half, Nitika along with the kids went on the Pony, while Meena, I and Pawan trekked uphill.

Unlike what you will read on the net, the first 7 kms of the trek are really steep, than the last 7 kms. Though not as steep as the first 7 kms, the second half is more tiring – primarily because towards the last couple of kms, the mountains give way to a plateau, the weather dips drastically, since you are no longer shieled by the peaks of the mountains, the cold air that comes in from the snow peaked caps all around Kedarnath starts hurting you, secondly, the oxygen level drops as you approach Kedarnath, a lot of folks do have difficulty breathing due to the drop in oxygen levels and carry camphor, vicks, oxygen cyclinders etc to ease the journey and the stay at Kedarnath.  Those regular with the Sudarshan Kriya will not even feel this dip in the oxygen level as we realized much to our delight.

If you are unfit and do not think you can take the rigour of a trek, just take a pony ride uphill – it will take you 4 hours, we did the trek uphill in about 6.5 hours.

You will find tea, snacks, eatables in small road side shops all the way to Kedarnath. So don’t worry about food and water. We took a halt at GMVN River side hotel at Rambara – an absolutely gem of a place, right next to the gushing Mandakini river, the place where we would halt for the night, dumped all the extra stuff we were carrying – for a lovely breakfast of hot Alu-Paranthas, bread toast butter and jam and some steaming hot cups of tea and coffee!

At Rambara, the kids saw a bunch of people falling down from the ponies and hurting themselves and then Tanvi got scared and started crying and Sreesh followed suit. Getting onto a Pony is a not so good experience, the fact that you are travelling uphill on an uneven cobbled surface, with a deep valley on one end is more than enough to give you the jitters. Then the pony operators have their own rules, however much you offer to pay them so that you get one handler to a pony, you will invariably end up with one guy handling at least two ponies. We lost quite a bit of time preparing the kids to get onto the ponies…finally Tanvi didn’t agree and did the uphill trek with us for about an hour, when we finally managed to convince her to get onto a “Pittu” for the rest of the distance. We asked the Pittu guy to walk with us at our speed and then within 15 minutes we found that the Pittu and Tanvi were not to be seen anywhere within our eyesight! We did not imagine what lay ahead for us at Kedarnath! More on that later.