About a week and a half ago, I left Rishikesh in all its heat and splendor, and headed northeast then slightly west then up, up, with my friend Liran to Gangotri, one of the four sources of the Ganga River. The season was just opening there, which meant it was cold and more cold, and also meant that each day a new restaurant and tourist pull was being built before our eyes.
I'll start 11 days ago, when I arrived in Uttarkashi, the passing town where I am sitting at this very moment. Since my first transportation experience in India was the relatively calm, pre-booked tourist bus from Delhi to Rishikesh, I only learned about the gem that is Indian transport when I attempted to leave Uttarkashi for Gangotri. Liran and I, dutiful westerners that we are, woke up early, ate a nice breakfast of champions, and arrived at the station at 10 A.M. sharp, awaiting our bus. No bus in sight. When we asked the station manager when the next bus was scheduled to leave for Gangotri, he told us 12:30. He then told us 2 P.M. He then told us 1:00. We then left the station and wandered around the market, ducking into a back alley where we met a beautiful baby, his parents, his grandmother, and a deaf uncle with wild white hair. I took family portraits, which they loved and which I'll post as soon as I download my photos.
At 11 A.M., we returned to the bus station. No bus, but it would be there by 3, the station manager promised. So, we sat at the station and talked to a group of babas and their protege, an 11-year-old boy with beautiful dimples wearing only an orange scarf around his waist, who we later met wandering around Gangotri.
The bus arrived at 1 P.M., and we eagerly got on. A smiling man with an unfortunately cracked yellow tooth saved us a seat and took it upon himself to be our translator and personal adviser. About 20 minutes after we left Uttarkashi, the bus driver stopped, and the Man with the Yellow Tooth smilingly urged us to get off the bus and drink chai at one of the roadside dabas. I didn't really want chai, considering that the last time I'd used the toilet was after breakfast. So I left Liran to drink the powdered milk and sugar while I went off in search of a toilet, or at least something resembling one. I wandered through the gates behind the daba and found myself overlooking a giant dam. I started to take out my camera, and immediately put it away when an officer motioned to me to put it away. The Man with the Yellow Tooth told me, "no camera." Got it. I went up to the officer and asked him if there was a toilet nearby. He motioned somewhere away from where we were standing, and said, "No camera." Yes, I understood. No camera. It also turned out there was no toilet.
After returning from the futile urination attempt, I also learned that there was no bus. "Poonture," the Man with the Yellow Tooth told us, smiling as was his way, though it looked like the bus driver was fiddling with the engine, not the tire. "Another bus at 3," the Man said, showing us his watch, which read 2:30.
A jeep/taxi pulled up about 20 minutes later, and Liran, The Man with the Yellow Tooth and I jumped aboard. The jeep was going to Darali, about 25 km from Gangotri, which meant we would have to get another taxi from there. And so the ride began, a slow uphill climb through the mountains on roads built only for one, and certainly not for the massive trucks that tried to chicken us around the bends. I've got to hand it to our driver, who successfully maneuvered us around some trying curves. We stopped about 5 times along the way, at various dabas, where we got out to pee and stretch, and at a blasting zone, where we stayed in the car with the windows rolled up.
When we arrived in Hermsil, about 2.5 km from Darali, the jeep driver said "challo" and the Man with the Yellow Tooth explained, this is where you get out." And so we did. Liran and I were joined by Shiva, a mountain guide who really seemed to want to be our guide, and Sergei, a giant Russian who told us he had lived in Israel for five months with his Jewish wife in 1991. He also told us he had recently returned from Jammu Kashmir which "vasn't danger" except for "few moment" when snipers shot at his bus after some sort of kidnapping attempt.
Sergei, Shiva, Liran and I walked along to Darali, already high in the mountains. Waterfalls flowed over the highway in cold currents, which I ran across barefoot to avoid soaking my leather sandals. An overly packed jeep came by and offered to take us to Darali for 40 rupees. We declined. Less than a kilometer later we arrived in Darali. "Excuse me, you sit," said Shiva, who really wanted to be our guide. "No, it's ok," we said, "why don't we get on this jeep to Gangotri?"
As the jeep crawled to Gangotri, night fell, though luckily none of our luggage precariously strapped to the roof did. We arrived in Gangotri at around 8 P.M. I let out one foot, and then another, and within seconds was swarmed by 15 boys shouting, "hello? hello? you want room?" I did, but not like that. The gang followed us down the street, repeating their mantra, which was echoed uncountable times from every corner. Little did I know that we had arrived on what was ostensibly the first day of the Gangotri season.
We found a place for 120 rupees (including a bucket of hot water for a shower), and went out to eat, trying to tune out the shouts of "hello, want room?" I am not exaggerating, not even a little. I wish I had recorded it.
The next day, Liran and I headed out on a three-day return trip to Goumukh, a glacier over 4,000 meters high. Gangotri is about 3,000 meters (these are not exact measurements), so the hike was 36 km round trip at an incline of about 1,000 meters. We arrived at the entrance to the park and payed 150 rupees to get in. Indians pay 40. On the sign it says Pony - 25, so I guess even horses have to pay. Babas get in for free.
The first few hours were difficult, not for my legs or my back, which were handling the walk well, but for my poor sweet lungs, which have barely experienced such high altitudes. My face beat bright red as we walked up the hill, through melting snow patches, a view of giant mountains over 6,000 and 7,000 meters high visible in the distance.
On the way up, we were passed by young guys in ripped shoes and flip-flops carrying generators and bags of something unidentifiable, which we soon learned were to stock the chai shops. On the first day of the trek, there were only three chai shops scattered along the trail. On the way back there were about nine. For some reason, these shops were built in clusters right next to each other, each cluster at least 5 or 7 km away from the next.
We met a nice Japanese duo walking up, who kept stopping to smoke chillums along the way. My lungs cried out to these Japanese guys, but they seemed fine. Aside from the incline, which got easier, the hardest part of the trail was avoiding the kilometer of sliding rocks, about three kilometers away from where we were to be spending the night. Oh, and the rain.
The walk up should take most western-bred white people between five to seven hours. By the end of the sixth hour, my western-bred white self was tired. We were supposed to be sleeping at an ashram at a pass called Bhojbasa, but I was beginning to believe there was no ashram. As we turned a corner, my foot hit a metal object, which I realized was a horse shoe. Now, I'm not so superstitious, but it was a nice sign. It meant that there had been life on this trail before. My optimism returned, and soon enough, we saw below us Bhojbasa pass.
First, we went to a cluster of tents which we mistakingly believed to be the ashram. The manager showed us one tent, where an Indian man was tucked into bed. "250 rupees per person," he said. We stared at him. "Ashram is there," he pointed.
Down we went to the ashram, which was run by a nice baba named Raju, who told us food and board were included in the 160 rupee price. I went with him to fill out the guest form, tired and hungry, and oh, so cold (it was approaching about 2 degrees up there). When I got to the question about "purpose of my visit," I turned to Raju and said, "what is the purpose of my visit?" "To meet me," he said, looking at me half-seriously, half-mockingly. So I wrote in the slot, "to meet me." Raju jabbed me in the ribs.
Darkness fell, wrapping the mountains which I can only describe as glorious, and we went inside for the evening prayer (arti), which consists of bells and chants, and ends with the leader of the prayer bringing around a flame, water and a sweet to each person in the room. After the prayer, we went into the dining hall. The room was set with three rows of narrow cloth, in front of which were placed a metal plate and cup. We sat down, two of the rows filled with babas in their orange cloths, blankets, some wearing sandals, some barefoot, none in shoes. The travelers, which numbered to about 10, sat in the third row, all of us layered and freezing.
Raju stood at the front of the room and said, "you may eat as much as you wish, we will come by to fill your plate again and again. But please, do not take more than you can eat and do not leave food on your plate." He began chanting, "Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram," as the babas sang along.
Then came the food, which, true to Raju's word, did not seem to end. "More chapati?" I nodded. "More sabji?" I nodded. "Rice?" Yes. "Dal?" Of course. "Chapati?" No... well, okay. "Sabji?" Well, it is really good. "Dal?" Okay. "Rice?" Uhhh... But on my plate it went, and try as I might, I did not finish my food. So I scooped it up and put it on Liran's plate. One of the kitchen workers laughed. Throughout the meal, which was delicious, which was filling, which was warm, I couldn't stop saying or feeling, "this is amazing."
Liran and I shared our room, which consisted of a giant thin mattress on the floor, with an Israeli guy named Uri (not the same as the one I met in Rishikesh), who had recently returned from Tapovan, a higher peak above the Goumukh glacier. We all passed out at around 9 P.M.
We woke up at 9 A.M., but I don't think I slept more than five hours, partially because of the cold, partially because the bed was not very comfortable, and partially because of the very odd dreams that kept sliding through my brain.
We woke up too late for breakfast, but Raju gave me a pot of hot water to clean my face and teeth. We then headed up to Goumukh, which is only about 5 km from Bhojbasa. Despite the rain, the walk was beautiful, and the glacier astounding. Rachel, a British woman who we met at the ashram, and who I later would spend the good part of a week with, told me that she had seen a sign next to the chai shop (about 1.5 km from the glacier) which was marked '66 - apparently signifying the recession of the glacier since 1966.
There were a couple of officers at the glacier when we arrived, who told us "duty, no go glacier." Ice was falling from the glacier, in the rain, so it apparently wasn't the best time to get close. "50 rupees," the officer told us. "No way," I said, and went to sit on a rock to look at the glacier, leaving Liran to bargain. "No," Liran said. "20?" the officer suggested. No-go, go-go.
We stayed another night at Bhojbasa, this time without Uri, who went back to Gangotri in the morning. There were at least three times the number of travelers staying there, and half the number of babas, who all seemed to have gone up to Tapovan that morning.
The next morning I woke up early enough to drink three huge chais and eat a bowl of chickpeas, and to talk to some of the other travelers staying at the ashram. We headed down the mountain at about 10 A.M., lazily wandering. The decline was so much easier than the incline, I could practically run it (which I did, when we passed the kilometer of the landslides).
When we arrived back in Gangotri, we were exhausted. We went to our previous guest house to retrieve our belongings, which we'd left locked in a room at a high price of 50 rupees. The owner of the guest house was nowhere in sight, and when he finally arrived he was very sad (I'm using the term "sad" lightly, to describe his fury) that we were not going to stay there another night.
We went to the Krishna ashram, a place mainly for travelers. Liran left the next morning for Rishikesh, and I ended up moving in with Uri, who was also staying there. We stayed that for two nights, and were promptly kicked out into the rain on the third for having "violated" the "rules" of the ashram. The "rule" we "violated" was returning past 10 P.M. the night before, when we'd gone into the forest with about 10 friends to make a bonfire. I apologized for my violation, though this rule was not written anywhere (there actually was a very extensive list of rules posted in our rooms, and this was not on it). The swami, who I will call here Swami Ego, said to me, "sorry? didn't know? I do not forget and I do not excuse." Our German friend Anne, who had been at the ashram for 2 weeks helping out, was also booted for this violation.
So Uri and I went back to pack, as the rain started to fall in bursts. When it cleared for a few minutes we took our stuff and went to sit in a cafe, where we sat for about six hours at a huge table with just about every traveler in Gangotri (remember, this was still the beginning of the season, so there weren't very many). We found a room, and moved on to another restaurant, where met our friends again. It was a very lazy, beautiful day.
The next morning I left with Uri, Rachel and an American named David to Gangnani, a small village housing pools of hot springs. We went for breakfast before catching the bus. My banana porridge had not yet arrived when David spilled my chai on my lap, soaking me through. I jumped up and started looking for another pair of pants in my bag, when I realized that I'd left my laundry, and with it all my pants, in the guest house. It turned out to be a very good thing to have had my chai spilled on me. On the bus I kept hitting my head on a piece of metal above me. I haven't figured out the significance of that yet.
In Gangnani we relaxed for three night and three days, in a really nice wooden guest house/chalet set above the hill. Anne joined us for a night, and then David left. We had two rooms between us, so we figured Uri would need a roommate. That's when Orian came by, completing our crew. Most of the other travelers from Gangotri were also there, in the same wooden cabins as us, so it really felt like Camp India for Adults. On the first day we strolled up to the nearby village, which with its lush setting and slate thatched roofs really looked like a fairy tale. The little creatures running around playing (beautiful children who I will post pictures of soon) made it seem all the more so like a fairy tale. The rest of the time we lazed around, going into the pools at night, eating and relaxing.
Except for Rachel and a Dutch guy named Mark, all of the campers at Camp India for Adults headed out in a jeep for Uttarkashi, where I am now, staying with Uri and Orian. Still undecided about tomorrow's journey, but I think I see a lake in the distance.