Three Women and a Desire: Exploring Uttarakhand
When I was a kid I would watch television channels like Discovery or National Geographic and pine to travel just like the way smart and adventurous travellers in these channels did. I used to ask my Dad whether I would get to travel widely in my life and he would reply ‘yes, definitely’. After I started working I made friends who would want to travel just like the way I did. By that time I was earning enough money to travel as well.
Renuka, Kevi and I were workmates and friends, and travelled to a few places together, sometimes with other friends. Whenever we travelled we wanted to do something extra – something, which we have not done before; something, which would challenge us mentally or physically or both. Among those travels were two in Uttarakhand: river rafting in Rishikesh and a trek in the Valley of Flowers.
Discovering our own little space in Rishikesh
White water river rafting in Rishikesh is quite a popular sport by now. Almost every other week I see photo updates in social networking sites from people, who have been to Rishikesh in groups for rafting. In particular, it is a popular ‘team building activity’ in office outings. The idea is that a group of people rowing a raft in rough waters and trying to survive would bring them closer.
The three of us did not have any such aim. We simply wanted to have a new experience. Since I did not see any other small team of lady rafters than us, guess I can safely say we were already doing some thing different.
It was May 2010, we took a late night train from Delhi to Haridwar. Before moving on to Rishikesh, we roamed around a bit in Haridwar, drawing in the spiritual solemn ambience. It was my first visit. From Haridwar we took a big auto (three-wheeler), which we shared with many other people, to go to Rishikesh. My memorable moment of the auto journey was a conversation with a holy man – a Sadhu – about many uses of marijuana plants. Marijuana grows profusely in the Himalayas as I learnt in my travels to this region. We had go to a bit further up north from Rishikesh to stay in a cottage. In Rishikesh, a car from the cottage picked us up. The cottage was slightly high up in the hills while most people stayed in camps around the ‘beaches’ of River Ganges. We were basically the only ones in the cottage. Not that it bothered us.
The next day we were ready in our waterproof shoes, shorts and t-shirts, and with lots of sunscreen lotions - just as recommended by the company, which organized our trip. We had some Canadian (or perhaps Australian, I forget which) boys and girls as our co-rafters. It was quite enjoyable. Especially enjoyable was being splashed with water when lying down on the head of the raft. Our co-rafters were occasionally diving in the ice-cold water and going for a swim. We had paid for a longer journey so there was a change of co-rafters at a certain point. The next bunch – a group of Indian guys – happened to be much less adventurous than the earlier one. Suddenly we were not enjoying as much – we realised the company makes a huge difference. At the end of our journey – in Rishikesh – the three of us - very wet and excited – were again picked up a car from the cottage and brought back to our place of stay. This time we had a French woman as a co-passenger.
The next day, we were ready to something less organised and planned, and more off beat. Since there wasn’t much else to do, we went for a walk. Soon we were climbing down the hills through a jungle towards the river. There was a light, gravelly track in the beginning but after a point we were pushing away branches and small plants to climb down. After about 20 minutes or may be half-an-hour of climbing we reached a small empty space by the river. There was no human soul in sight on either side of the riverbanks. We were ecstatic. We finally found a space of our own. We did something different. The beach was covered with gravels, stones and boulders. We decided to dip in the chilly water. Soon the realisation dawned we were not completely alone. Occasionally, rafts would pass by but from the other side of the river. The current of the river at that spot was such that navigators would take the rafts towards the other side. The river was wide enough so we couldn’t see the people in the rafts very clearly. We still had our own little space to ourselves. The rafters, who did spot us were curious to see three women almost in the middle of nowhere, dipping in river water.
After being in the water to our hearts’ desire, we started walking back but using a different route. Soon we reached the cottage – happy and contented. The next day we three returned to Delhi while planning for the next trip.
Trekking in the Monsoons: Valley of Flowers
The same group of three travelled to the Valley of Flowers in the same year, in July, at the height of the Monsoons. The Monsoons is the best time to visit the Valley as flowers for which the Valley is well-known, bloom plentifully only in this season. Like the last time, we took a late night train from Delhi to reach Haridwar early morning.
Our travel organisers had sent a car to the Haridwar station. So we began our 12-hour car ride. Soon after we crossed Rishikesh, as we were beginning to climb the mountains, we saw a huge landslide. It did not stop our journey but brought disquiet within us. While planning for this trip, we were warned about frequent and terrible Himalayan landslides in the Monsoons. None of us said anything to the others about this – we talked about other things. I slept through most of the journey. On our way we saw a few other landslides.
We reached Joshimath in the evening. It was rainy and cold. Kevi had brought some dark rum, which comforted us a bit. Quite soon we fell asleep. The next day, by 5 in the morning or so, we were up and running, and ready to travel to our next stop: Govindghat. The landscape, by then, had changed. We were deep into the Himalayas, surrounded by imposing mountains. The road from Joshinath split in one place: if you go right, you would reach Badrinath – a place of pilgrimage for Hindus. We continued our journey to the left, until we reached our destination.
From Govindghat, we began our 14 km trek upwards. I was super excited so completely overestimated my stamina. It took a bit of time for me to get into the rhythm. In fact after a while I was separated from my co-travellers, as I didn’t want to disturb my pace. I even reached Ghangharia- the base camp for the Valley of Flowers, earlier than them. Ghangharia did not have any running electricity or water but had a helipad. Rather they do have electricity connections but were in the middle of a multiple-day powercut when we reached. This meant the guys in the kitchen were boiling water and bringing us for our baths. It was still rainy and cold. Ghangharia is the base camp for Hemkund Sahib as well – a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs. Ghangharia itself had a Gurudwara where people can stay besides the many small hotels and camps. It didn't have much else.
We started for the Valley early in the morning next day. It was a 3 km walk up and down a mountainous trail. It was a remarkable trail: with dark green and heavy vegetation, tall trees and, interesting flowers and fruits. The Valley of Flowers is a protected area – people are not allowed to stay in it in the night without permission. We saw many other trekkers on our way. The trail – running alongside two rivers - at places was slippery and broken. Soon it began to rain very heavily, visibility dropped to almost nothing. In our heavy trekking shoes, which were wet, raincoats and jackets and sweatshirts, we became frustrated. At one point, there were talks of going back. It didn’t seem like we would be able to see anything as the valley was covered with clouds as far as we can see. In fact we were not sure whether we had reached the valley or from where the valley would begin.
The three of us didn’t give up and continued walking. Like magic, suddenly at some point the rain stopped and clouds lifted. And we saw the most amazing sight possible. Surrounding us were miles and miles of meadows full of flowers of different colours. These flowering plants were of low height so the view was spectacular. I have never seen so many flowers at one go. Probably never will. The valley was surrounded by high mountain ranges and glaciers. We were told that Badrinath lies on the other side of one of the ranges. Wet and cold, we walked a bit more, and reached a grave of a lady – Mary Legge - who had died in the Valley in 1939. After spending a couple of hours, we headed back to the base camp. We were so tired by the time we reached, even Kevi’s dark rum was not enticing enough. I did not drink any.
The next day we decided to trek up to Hemkund Sahib. More people were climbing up to Hemkund Sahib than the Valley of Flowers. However we did not quite manage as well as we hoped. Happy and excited, we were on a frenzy to click photos of flowers and plants we could see. The three of us were also looking intently at any interesting plants and trees, and trying to guess the names. After spending a certain amount of time like this we realised we haven’t gone far. We panicked and hired mules to take us to the top.
The journey on a steep upward slope was quite remarkable. In particular we were happy as our mule guide showed us two flowers for which the valley is reputed: one was Bramhakamal, which Renuka very much wanted to see and the other, famed and rare Himalayan blue poppy. We couldn’t have spotted these flowers by ourselves.
Hemkund Sahib has a lake, which remains frozen for the most part of a year, and a warm and cozy Gurudwara. It was still raining and quite cold when we reached Hemkund Sahib. We spent more time inside the Gurudwara, under generously available warm blankets, than outside. Soon the three of us got back. This time we walked down, taking a slippery, slopping short cut. The next day we headed back to Govindghat where the car was waiting for us to take us back to Haridwar.
On our way back, there were more landslides. In fact we were held up in a place for a few hours. By then, it did not matter to us much. We three were tired and probably also homesick but it felt like we had achieved some thing. Two trips to Uttarakhand in a space of few months, two trips to challenge ourselves.