Published: December 16th 2010October 7th 2010
On the way up - nice scenery!
The ride up the newly-reopened road to Gangotri was long, hot, dusty and occasionally hair-raising, thanks to the narrow, rock-strewn stretches that had yet to be cleared after being swept away in the flooding. Still, a pair of headphones and a playlist named "Rock out" pretty much garantees a good time under any circumstances, no? Having been on the road for longer than I would have liked, it was a relief to finally arrive in the regional centre of Uttarkashi - soaked and shivering from a ferocious downpour that hit me just 15 minutes out.
Uttarkashi isn't much of a destination in itself butI stopped here for a few reasons, tiredness being the main one. It is however home to the Gamauk National Park permit office, which I visited compulsoraly the next morning.
Many positive things can be said about hydro-electric power, but the large-scale construction works that such scemes entail isn't one of them. As disturbing as the destruction of otherwise pristine habitat is however, a more pressing issue was the destruction of the road. Perhaps 'road' isn't the best term for what there was, as it was really more of a potholed sandy track than anything... Again
Under which is the sunken city of Tehri - former regional capital which has been replaced by the aptly named 'New Tehri'.
progress was painfully slow and the sun had dissapeared behind the valley walls as I approached Gangotri. The final few miles were pretty miserable as the temperature dived into the impending dusk and I was racing along in a sort of frigid desperation when an amazing spectacle suddenly loomed before me. "Sweet Jesus". It was me, actually speaking to myself. An immense snow-clad peak jutted up out of the valley and was catchingt the last heavenly rays of the afternoon sun, contrasting the deep shadows below. Despite my frantic wish to just get there and get warm, I had to stop for a photo. Sometimes the means truly is the end...
Thanks to the recent bad weather, it seemed that Gangotri hadn't seen as much traffic as usual this year and the hotel-wallahs were on the prowl. Amidst the spontaeneously-generated throng a guy said he had somewhere safe to put my bike and a cheap room. Good enough. There was nowhere for him to sit on the bike thanks to my bags but he made do with standing rather unsteadily on the luggage rack as we cruised through the main drag - a narrow bazzar which thankfully wasn't too
First glimpse of heaven
I managed to take this with half-frozen fingers. Worth it though...
busy. The last obstacle in this tiring journey was too lift the motorbike up some steps with the help of a few locals, park it and stumble into the room (which sadly didn't feature a hot shower), which was surprisingly nice and within sight of the Gaumuk track - my objective.
Sitting in a restaurant a few hours later, I happened across the Australian couple from our last trek, who were happy to tell me everything I needed to know about the trail, which they'd just returned from. After an early breaky I set out up the well-worn pilgrim track, which was empty of pilgrims, who tend to come in the less-frigid summer months. In fact it wasn't busy at all and I only saw a couple of trekkers and porters all day. The lower part of the valley was in full Autumn splendour as I passed through Chirbasa
('the place of birch') en-route to Bhojbasa
('the place of pine'), the air warmed up and life was generally pretty amazing.
I arrived at Bhojbasa in the early afternoon and found it pretty deserted - looks like I was the first one here for the day. After a bit
Major pilgrimage destination.
of nosing around I dumped my stuff and settled in at the oddly-named Ram Baba Ashram
- a small collection of tents, one of which was apparently home to Mr Ram Baba himself. He must have been in retreat at the time however as he never seemed to leave his tent and even had his dinner passed through a small flap by the 'manager', who also took care of everything else. With little to keep me occupied, I hit the sack for an hour and arose to find that my nice warm day had gone sour. Cold, misty-looking clouds were closing in as I threw on some extra layers and hung around outside, waiting for something to happen. After a while some other trekkers arrived and it was nice to know I wasn't the only one up here. By nightfall we had a bit of a crew consisting mainly of Europeans and a group of Israelis - about 12 people altogether, which meant that we had to have dinner in shifts due to a lack of plates!
I had thought that night time was cold in Gangotri, but I had apparently seen nothing yet. One by one, people were
aka base camp, aka 'ram baba ashram'.
darting into their tents and scrounging for any extra clothing they could dig up as the mercury dipped below 0°. We few stargazers lingered outside, making conversation, drinking black tea and bitching about the cold before being forced inside under the shelter of thick, heavy blankets. But wow, the night sky... On one level, you know
there are so many stars, but to see them up there burning away is another thing altogether.
I had planned to be up and out by 7am, and finally crawled out of bed at about 8, coincidently just as the sun reached our frozen little camp. It was only 2 hours walk to the Gamauk glacier and the embryonic ganges (as the guidebook to eloquently puts it) but I wanted to explore a bit, maybe head up the glacier and spend some time before returning to Bhojbasa for the night. Breakfast consisted of 2 dry Chapati
and a glass of tea. While I was trying to munch this down I distinctly remembered the guy mentioning porridge the previous day but you know... this is
India and such things don't always materalise. Time to go anyway...
Bounding up the track in high spirits,
I think- not much of an expert on the nature here.
I reached the small temple at the 'end' of the track in about an hour and a half. There is a sign at this point asking visitors to respect the religious importance of the site (as the source of the holiest river in Hinduism, a religion with more than it's share of sacred rivers) by not proceeding the last 500m to the actual source. As one might imagine, this request is generally ignored by all who pass through. Of course the pilgrims tend to ignore it as well when they bathe in the icy waters as a purification practice but hey... I for one didn't feel the need to touch the mouth of the glacier so it wasn't really an issue for me. Instead, I headed up a steep and precarious trail (occasional rock cairns strewn across the glacial moraine doesn't really constitute a track in my book), following the markers up onto the surreal moon-scaped glacier itself.
From here the trail cuts across the glacier and ascends a rocky ridge to the open meadow of Tapovan
, under the flank of the awesome Shivling
peak. I watched a few guided parties picking their way across the boulder-strewn glacier from
At the end of the main track.
a vantage point off the path, where I simply sat for an hour to take it all in, and decide what to do next. I knew I couldn't stay at Tapovan as I had no tent or sleeping bag and at over 4000m it was sure to be even colder than Bhojbasa. I decided to make my way up the other side of the glacier, just to see what I could see.
Getting anywhere on a glacier like this is a lot trickier than one might think. Aside from the lack of a path, the actual ice is covered over by an immense boulder field of potentially loose rocks. As the ice underneath melts and cracks, there is a constant threat of rockfall or of simply tumbling into a hidden crevasse. It is therefore wise to choose your path and footing carefully! Obviously I wasn't getting anywhere fast going up the middle so instead made my way to the shoulder from where I could scramble down onto firm ground and walk up the side. When I got there I found that this too had it's problems. The high cliffs to my left looked very crumbly and every few seconds
For nature and god, actually indistinguishable.
I could hear the clatter of rocks bouncing down from higher up the face. Realizing that it wouldn't be much fun to be hit by such a stone, I was very mindful of where I was going, and what I would have to hide behind along the way.
This prudence paid off and I didn't die.
I walked and scrambled maybe a kilometre or two up the morraine until I spotted a sort of high point out in the middle of the glacier itself. This became my new objective - a mini-summit which I determined to scale before turning around. Back up the shoulder then, and cautiously picking my way around frozen ponds, dark fissures in the ice and the occasional loose rocks on my way to the top. At the very top of the hill (I'm not sure what else to call it) there was a single huge boulder, which had a couple of handy holds to haul myself up with. The view from the top was... wow. Stretching out before me the glacier continued, cracking and heaving to it's own eternal rhythm. To either side were huge snow and ice faces of the various 6000m peaks
World of Ice
The start of the glacier, with Shivling in the background.
and in front, right at the end sat the 7000m bulk of Chaukhamba
. Wow again.
Manging to snap off a few pictures, I sat slack-jawed for as long as I could take the biting wind. Boy, it sure was getting cold up here... I checked the time. Not ideal. You might even use the words 'getting late'. To my right, the sun was starting to make it's way down and I decided it might be a good idea to do the same.
As I dashed back down my little peak ('dashed' being a relative term of course) I wondered whether anyone had been up there before, or would again. How long the 'hill' had been there I don't know, but surely it won't last forever and the very ice that supported my boulder would dissapear once more into the subterranean machinery, eventually spat out as meltwater from the cow's ever-drooling mouth (Gamauk literally means 'cow's mouth'). It was well off any sort of trail and I like to think that maybe I'm the only person to ever stand there. Trying to follow my own route down wasn't easy and I was frequently off-track. Mindful of the impending
On the glacier.
Loving life up here.
darkness I started to have thoughts of being benighted on the glacier - not exactly an ideal situation as I was travelling light without warm gear and anyway didn't fancy the thought of listening to the creaking, cracking ice all night. My thoughts drifted to the fate of my body should I fall into the ice.I saw myself sitting alone in the frigid darkness of a crevasse until, falling asleep for the last time, I would be crushed into nothing by the churning machinery of the glacier - gone without a trace.
Bloody hell, way to get myself down! I decided to ignore my stupid imagination and continue. With uncharacteristic self-control I focussed on the task at hand and soon fell into a good rhythm. I felt like that guy in the 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon'
bamboo forest scene as I fleet-footedly skipped across rocks, deftly skirted the cracks and rather swiftly made my way back down to solid ground. Phew. I was still buzzing by the time I reached camp an hour later, shivering slightly in the semi-dark and very glad of a hot tea and some warm clothes.
It had been perhaps one of the most
From the top of my 'hill'. It's like a different world.
'out there' things I'd done but wow - worth every minute of discomfort! The feeling of utter desolation, the epic view from the top and the adrenaline of my hasty retreat are all things that I'll remember for a long time to come. I spent the evening hanging out with some new arrivals - an environmental film-maker from Delhi and a slightly eccentric Korean poet who was writting a book of prose titled 'magic of the himalaya' or something like that. Also in attendance were a pair of Slovaks who I was able to pass my newly-gained knowledge of the area on to. Their plan was to head up to the glacier, snap some photos and trek all the way back down to Gamauk in a single 26km day. Apparently lots of people do this but I have no idea why. Much better to take the time to explore!
I went down the next morning and after an early night back in Gangotri was back on the bike hoping to get to Rishikesh in the same day. It was a long drive but I was still in pretty good spirits from the trek and the hours seemed to fly
Ben & Shivling
Selfie on the glacier.
by. Getting to town at dusk, I was thankful for a hot shower and a bed to fall into.
As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out like a light.
There are more photos below