A short but very to-the-point video on ways to reduce impact of tourism in Himalayan regions:
We had already visited Haridwar before, but as we had time, we did the usual sightseeing in Haridwar – Har ki Pauri, evening aarti, etc.
Finally, it was time to head back home. We couldn’t complete the yatra, but whatever we got to see was memorable. I was naïve to expect the temples to be quiet, quaint and peaceful because they were in such remote places. But, they do not differ from any other shrines in India, when it comes to crowd, lack of cleanliness and lack of order. It is the region that they are situated in that has a unique charm that is hard to explain in words. Even though facilities have increased manifold, this is still a tough yatra. Still thousands of people go for it with strong faith and devotion. But, the same people who push and shove in the temple to get darshan of goddess, do not hesitate a bit before throwing use-and-throw rain poncho in the physical incarnation of the same goddess – Plastic which may not decompose for hundreds of years. Hinduism is considered the religion that is closest to the nature, as every element of nature is worshipped in it. But, it felt that this very beautiful aspect of the religion itself is causing harm to the elements being worshipped because of wrong practices. Is that why the weather gets so harsh in winter that temples need to be closed and the place becomes quiet and radiates peace so that nature can recuperate?
Next day, we headed for Harsil, 25 km from Gangotri. It is the place where the movie Ram Teri Ganga Maili was shot. A very beautiful place surrounded by thick Deodar forests which has 100% oxygen even though it is at the height of 9000 ft. A characteristic of this yatra is that you climb up on a mountain for a shrine, then climb down, and then start climbing up on other mountain for the next shrine. So, we were climbing down from Yamunotri and reached Dunda in Uttarkashi, where we were joined by Ganga on our side. After a while, we entered Gangotri valley which is one of the most beautiful places on the earth I have ever seen. Bhagirathi (source stream of Ganga) is mighty with strong current and churning white waters. The valley is lush with chirs, pines, deodars, ferns, moss and what not.
We reached Harsil by evening. We were to stay in camps set in an apple orchard next to the river. But, now I had started experiencing signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). First, it was baffling, because I was fine in Yamunotri at 10,000 ft, and was having trouble in Harsil at 9000 ft and full oxygen. But, later I learned that sometimes, AMS kicks in within 24-48 hours. Even though I had started taking the medicine (Acetazolamide) which reduces effects of AMS two days before, it didn’t help me. We had to search for a doctor in Harsil, and after getting medicine to help with by shortness of breath, I could fall asleep. I was lucky that I found a doctor who had an MBBS degree. Most of the “clinics” that I had seen on the way had “doctors” with degree of DPH (Diploma in Pharmacy). As I was feeling very weak, I could not go to Gangotri temple. I felt better as the day progressed, and we checked area surrounding the campsite. On the opposite side of the river was Mukhba village, where statue of Goddess Ganga is kept for six months of winter.
Even though I had all the necessary medicines, the best way to cure AMS is climb down, and that is what we decided. Next two shrines are at about or more than 12,000 ft. Kedarnath is distinctly known for lack of oxygen in air. Even the bus journey was becoming uncomfortable for me in sick condition, so we decided to cut short our tour, and come back. Next day, we bid goodbye to our group, and reached Haridwar in a private vehicle.
Next – Haridwar
Our next destination was Barkot, a small town on the way to Yamunotri. Soon after leaving Hrishikesh, we were climbing hills. Mountains were getting greener and wild flowers bloomed in abundance. Air smelled like mountain air – cool and crisp. We crossed Dehradun on the way, and reached Musoorie in the evening. Roads are in good condition and views are spectacular. Roadside blooms are so beautiful that there is no wonder that this road appears in many of Himalayan tales by Ruskin bond. We saw the famous Kempty fall from afar.
Soon after leaving Mussoorie, we were in Yamunotri valley. We were climbing higher and roads to Musoorie were so beautiful that I was expecting that views would just get better. Instead we encountered bare, dry, almost desolate looking mountains and lifeless valley. Yamuna flows in deep ravines next to the road. At first, I didn’t even notice the river, because the presence of barren mountains was shocking. There are almost no trees barring few shrubs and an occasional tree. Signs of stone cutting were everywhere. Was it done by locals to build their homes or by professional quarry contractors? I don’t know, but ill-effects of human actions were clearly visible on these mountains. Yamunotri road is notorious for fatal land slides in monsoon, and it is clear why. There are no trees to held top soil on the mountains. Neither government nor people nor tourists throngs seem to be worried about them. Strange and sad facts :(!
By now road condition had worsened drastically. Bus ride was getting really uncomfortable. I was thinking this was how it would feel riding in muggle-version of Knight bus :) Don’t know about Knight bus journey. Check this video.
Roads are so narrow that they barely fit a bus, and one side of bus is always on the border. Hill drivers have their own way of communication with fellow drivers using horn and lights. If a bus is coming from opposite direction and has signaled it first, bus in the opposite direction will stop where road gets little bigger, and let the other bus pass. Advisable speed for bus is 15-20 km/h. Yes, just 15/20 km/h! That is why it takes more than 7-8 hours to cover distance of 180-200 km. Uttrakhand government also doesn’t allow night driving, but this rule is followed just in the rule book.
After night halt in Barkot, next day early in the morning, we started for Janki chatti, which is at a distance of 45 km. Finally, we got to see thick conifer forests filled with chirs, pines and other trees and after a while got first glimpse of snow covered mountains. Wind got chillier and it also started raining. Janki chatti is at the foot of the mountain on which Yamunotri temple is situated. There is a 6 km long steep trek to reach the temple. This is the toughest trek among all Char dhams. I and auntie were going on horse back, and mummy took a palanquin because of her back problem. So, dressed in heavy woolens and raincoat, we started our uphill journey.
Our horsemen decided to take a shortcut, which was basically a muddy and crooked trail. White trying to adjust on horseback, I was getting worried if path was to be this bad the entire way, but soon we were on a stony path. When we started our journey in Delhi, our tour manager said that everything about this tour was good except heavy crowds at each shrine. On this upward trek to Yamunotri, it was clear how correct he was. There were people on foot, people on horses, people in palanquins, people going up, people coming down. It was still raining and everyone was in hurry to go ahead. Utter chaos!
It took about 2 hours to reach the temple. Horses don’t go all the way to the temple, so we walked the last ½ kilometer. Luckily, it had stopped raining and sun was shining bright. At the height of 10,000 ft, it wasn’t cold at all. That is how it is in mountains. If the sun is shining, it is warm, but in the shade it is still cold. As soon as the sun hides behind clouds, it again gets cold.
We started heading back around 2 o’clock. Just after 15 minutes, we were in a jam. Out of all the places in the world, we were in a jam at 10,000 ft high in the mountains. As the day had progressed, more and more people had climbed and more were still coming. Those people who had finished darshan were in hurry to go down. Roads were slippery with mud and horse manure. No one wanted to back a bit. Situation was so precarious that if one horse slipped, several horses and people would have fallen in the ravine. It became impossible for horses to move, so we started on foot. After half an hour, the jam cleared and our horsemen came searching for us. Climbing down on horse back is more uncomfortable. Steepness of the path becomes more apparent. Many stretches on the path were so steep, that horsemen advised us to cover them on foot.
By 4 o’clock, we reached Janki chatti. This time we passed through the settlement of hill people. Six months of winter, when the temple is closed, goddess Yamuna’s statue is brought here. This people live here all around the year. Our horsemen were actually schoolboys studying in Inter – Standard 12th. They were working here in their summer vacation. Talking with these boys, I learned how hard life is in the hills. Nothing except potatoes, rajma and rice grows in their step farms. Crop is barely sufficient for their family. These people can earn only in the six months of tourist season. Unemployment level is very high. Medical facilities are close to nil. These boys go to school in Uttarkashi which is more than 30 km away, and work all the holidays. They wish to own a hotel or a restaurant, when they grow up. Those are among the few options, in stead of going to plains to find work. Still these boys always smiled, were trustworthy (we had given them our backpacks, while we visited the temple), were helpful. They searched our bus and dropped us at its door.
Our fellow passengers did not come back till 8:30 pm, and we headed back to Barkot around 9 o’clock. Kudos to the driver for driving very well in darkness. One positive side of this late night journey was being able to see inky black sky and brighter than ever seen stars. More than once, I mistook lights of isolated houses in surrounding mountains for stars J. We saw 2-3 lights in a place, indicating 2-3 houses. Weather changes mood any time. The region has good amount of wild life – hyenas, tigers, leopards. Only way to climb up/down is narrow trails. People here know how to live in this tough region, or may be, this is the only way of life that they know and are comfortable with.
Next – Gangotri valley
Yes, I know it is Char Dham yatra, but I visited about 1 and 3/4s of them. You will learn how and why.
Char Dhams – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – four very important shrines of Hinduism situated in the Himalayas are visited by thousands of pilgrims every year. Several years ago my mother and auntie talked first time about going for this yatra, but the idea never materialized. When I was in USA, the idea started seeming interesting to me, too. I had read and heard a lot about natural beauty of these places, so experiencing them firsthand was worth. Moreover, I don’t need a lot to convince myself to go to the Himalayas. This year the plan formed very quickly. I, mummy and auntie were to go for the yatra, but when we contacted tour operator, all tours were booked. It seems that people make bookings as soon as new panchang comes out around Diwali, after checking the date of Akshay Tritiya (These temples are open only for six months of the year, from Akshay Tritiya to Diwali). So, it seemed that it won’t be possible to go this year. More than 10 days after this, tour operator called saying that 3 seats have been cancelled and we can join the tour, and hence we decided to go for the yatra at the last minute.
Soon we were in Delhi and were joined by other fellow tour passengers. From Delhi, our first destination was Hrishikesh. Roads are just ok with mango orchards on both sides. Even though it was late may, mangoes grown here were still green. It seems that there are no bypasses around cities, and we had to travel through cities like Meerut, Muzzafarabad , etc. By late evening, we were on Haridwar-Hrishikesh road and the weather changed suddenly. There was a thunderstorm with very strong winds and rain and more than 100 trees fell down. A huge Jamun tree fell on the road just ahead of our bus. The road was completely blocked now, and traffic started piling up on both the sides. If we were 5 minutes earlier, we could have left before the tree fell, and if we were about 2-3 minutes earlier, the tree could have fallen on the bus. So, here we were stuck on the road. Our bus driver and tour manager who were locals informed that such a strong storm is unheard of in Hrishikesh, and hence the city authorities were unprepared to handle the situation. We got news about more trees that had fallen on the way, and people started saying it will take entire night to clear the road. Only two-wheelers were able to pass and most of the cars had started turning back. It was not possible to turn our big bus, and almost 3 hours had passed. After a while, some people came with axes and started chopping branches, but still it didn’t seem that bus will be able to pass. Finally, we contacted tour operator’s office in Hrishikesh and asked them to send a bus on the other side of the jam to get us. By the time the bus arrived, it was 11 o’clock. We walked in the dark with help of torch light to reach the bus passing through vehicles stuck in the jam. As soon as we reached this other bus, we heard that the jam was clearing, and our bus was coming. That was some experience!
We visited the usual places in Hrishikesh – Lakshman zula, Ram zula, Lakshman temple, ashram of Baba Kali Kamlivale and Shivanand ashram.
Next – Yamunotri…