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Published: December 24th 2010
Nanda Devi Peak
The 22nd highest mountain in the world - a fact for geeks and Dean!
We spent a couple of days together in the chilled out and very hippy atmosphere of Swarg Ashram, part of Rishikesh. This was a pretty relaxing time, often spent in cafes overlooking the river Ganges, or watching some of the many Hindus performing holy rituals in and around the river. We also managed to catch up with some of our friends from our time in China, Tik and Emilie. Since we went our separate ways in Chengdu back in July, their travels have taken them through northern China, Mongolia and Nepal, so we had a lot of catching up to do over several dinners - it was lovely to see them again.
The (very bumpy) road north to Joshimath
After a few days relaxing in town, we hopped on a bus for the journey to the remote north eastern corner of Uttarakhand state, hoping to do a 6 day trek over the Kuari Pass, in the Himalayas close to the Nepali border. It was a 5am start for the bus north, a real boneshaker of an old bus with not enough leg room for either of us. As we were heading higher in altitude, towards
View towards Tapovan and the Rishi Ganga river valley
The river flows from Nanda Devi ultimately to form the mighty Ganges River. It's the main route into the Nanda Devi sanctuary
the Himalayas, there are no trains and the already poor roads are made worse by frequent landslides. This resulted in a hugely uncomfortable journey, only made bearable by the stunning views from the bus as it traversed deep valleys, high above the Ganges River roaring below us. Many of the previous lanslides onto the road had only been partially cleared, meaning lots of single lane sections, lots of horn blasting to determine right of way and some very, very bumpy parts (there was definitely clear air between our bums and the seats they should have been sitting in a number of times!).
A sizeable diversion due to a recent landslide meant that we rolled into the small town of Joshimath, 260km away, 13 hours after leaving Rishikesh (yes, that really is an average speed of only 20km/hr!), shaken to our very cores and sapped of all energy, save for finding a bed to collapse into.
After a very sound night's sleep our bruised bottoms had begun to recover and we made final plans for our trek, which we would start the following day. Waking in Joshimath, we discovered it to be a really pleasant, tiny little town with
Nanda Devi early in the morning forms a mighty backdrop
One of our last views of Nanda Devi before it was obscured by the outer sanctuary mountains
one main bazaar running through its middle and huge hills towering around in every direction. After the earlier disappointment of not making it to Ladakh, it was a liberating feeling to be in the mountains and fresh air once again.
A notable feature of Joshimath was the complete lack of foreigners. During our time there we saw only one or two other Westerners. We were well and truly off the backpacker track in India in this town. However, we were most definitely on the Hindu pilgrimage trail due to the holy temple of Badrinath being located only 60km to the north of town. This gave a real transitory nature to the people we met over dinner in pretty much the only diner in town, with Hindus from all over India passing through.
Many were very interested in speaking to us, although they were usually bemused that we were there to go trekking and not to visit this most holy of temples. In the end we almost felt embarrassed to admit we were not in town to visit the temple. We were really impressed with how devout people are in India - we talked to people who had travelled
from Calcutta, and from Bangalore, for example - journeys of several days. Many of these south Indians had never been anywhere that had a colder climate before. Several still wore their shorts and flip-flops, but covered up with blankets and woolly hats obviously specially bought. They huddled miserably in the cold diner, looking desultorily at the menu. Chatting to 3 biochemists from Bangalore sharing our table, we asked why only one of them was eating (and only dahl and chappati at that). The other two pulled distasteful faces and explained that they didn't like northern food, and would rather just have an apple in their room. They clearly felt as foreign as we did in town, another reminder of how huge and varied India is.
Is going to a wedding the night before a trek good preparation?
An advantage to being in a town that not many foreigners reach is that you are an interesting oddity to the locals. This can lead to all sorts of interesting experiences and Joshimath did not disappoint. The evening before we set off on our trek and we were invited to attend an Indian wedding. It turned out that the owner
of the trekking outfit we were using to hire some equipment was actually in the process of getting married (it's a multi-day event in India!). He invited us to come along to the wedding ceremony on the evening before we set off on the trek. Feeling very honoured, we jumped at the chance.
Although we were a bit concerned that we had nothing smart to wear to the ceremony, we needn't have worried. Wearing jeans and a fleece, we were dressed significantly more smartly than most of the men at the ceremony. The women of course, as is usually the case in India, all looked very glamorous in their saris.
We arrived around 7pm to what seemed to be a street procession. The groom, Ajay, was at the back in a car, dressed in a suit and tie with a flower necklace, decorative hat and beads. In front of him on the road were around 50 men, generally dancing and waving arms in the air to the tunes of a small brass collective. In front of this were a bunch of kids who regularly placed fireworks further up the street, which usually went off just as the crowd approached.
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary
The mountain is surrounded by other peaks, making access very difficult
We were encouraged to join in with the dancing which we duly did, the whole procession snaking its way slowly along the streets.
This being India, every now and then an impatient driver, unconnected with the wedding but stuck behind the groom's car, would have enough of the crawling pace and decide to plough through the crowd. Frequent horns would therefore be blasted and the crowd would temporarily split as someone drove through the middle of it all, hoping all the while that no fireworks were let off in his path at the wrong moment.
Eventually the procession reached a tent and everyone lined up to welcome Ajay into the tent, throwing rice as he went inside. Once inside we discovered this was where all the women had been waiting, neatly all seated in rows and patiently awaiting the mens' arrival. Ajay was put on a throne at the front of the room, minus his bride for the moment, while everyone else tried to grab a seat. There followed a prolonged period of waiting for the bride (not unlike home), during which people (including us) were blessed with a tilak (a red dot smeared on the forehead) and
given some Indian sweets, all the while being treated to Indian house music and girls breaking out into spontaneous dancing at the front of the room. The obvious difference with home was the feeling of informality about proceedings in general, it was pretty raucous, and felt more like the start of a party really. From what we could gather from chatting to the other guests sat near us, the ceremony we attended was more of a celebration of the wedding for the local community, the couple having already been married in a religious ceremony on a previous day with family and friends.
Eventually the bride arrived at the tent, wearing a very elaborate red sari and many jewels, including what seemed to be a very large and very uncomfortable nose ring which she continually adjusted. She slowly walked up the aisle to join her groom and both were given a flower garland. These were placed over each other's heads and we were then informed this indicated that they were now married. On this signal, an almighty rush erupted as all the guests jumped to their feet and raced for the exit, while a few hung around to take photos
Helen takes in the early morning view
Resting after a particularly steep climb
of the happy couple. We quickly discovered what the unceremonious rush was all about - as soon as the couple are married, the food is served!
As it turned out, the tent for the ceremony was erected on the top of a multi-level car park, and the food was served one level down. Well, that's one way of feeding what seemed like the five thousand. Quite an ingenious set up we thought. We wandered down the ramp to the food area to witness the most almighty scrum we have ever seen. It was like it was the last meal some of these people would ever get. Some men queued, while women would form a separate ladies queue which simply pushed in front of the mens, as seems to be allowed in India. As we were getting served, little old ladies would shove their heads in under our elbows, up for seconds or thirds. Food was getting spilled everywhere from Thali trays. Meanwhile, behind the food tables, a small army of cooks kept everything coming from huge pots, and chapattis from a temporary tandoori oven that had been built in the middle of the car park. You then found a
spot away from the hordes, and ate your food there and then, standing up. It was the most chaotic, hilarious, raucous meal we'd ever been a part of, absolutely brilliant!
Amazingly, despite all this chaos, the food was really excellent and up to the usual high Indian standard. It did appear to us that a lot of the people at the wedding seemed to be there mainly for the food...we dreaded to think what the average wedding must cost whoever's footing the bill!
Not unlike many of the locals, we decided to call it a night after the food, trying to save some energy for the walk to come. It was a great experience for us to be part of the ceremony and we felt really privileged to be invited. The colour and informality of the event probably struck the most as being different from a British wedding, along of course with the conspicuous lack of alcohol. As we have noticed in India as a whole, there is very little alcohol drinking to be seen (although our hotel owner was the token drunk there - evidently drinking on the sly does happen here as everywhere!). All in all
School children pose in Jhangi
Any excuse to get out of lessons!
it was a really memorable evening.
The Kuari Pass Trek - Unforgettable scenery in the Indian Himalayas
We were intending to be entirely self-supported on the trek, and having read that Joshimath would have little in the way of food supplies to stock up on, we had spent time gathering the likes of porridge oats, packets of soup, rice and snacks in Rishikesh. We had spoken to Ajay on the phone to establish that he would be able to rent us sleeping bags and a stove when we arrived. However, when we went to collect these just before the wedding, we found out that there were some obscure National Park rules that stated that we had to take a local person with us.
Rules like these have the benefit of providing local employment, and of course a knowledgeable local person can greatly enhance a trek - but we find that the flipside of that can be that you feel more restricted and less free to make your own decisions on when and where to take breaks, where to walk/set up camp etc. However, when we saw the size of the ancient stove (and kerosene) and sleeping
bags that we were being given, we realised that another pair of shoulders to carry some of the weight would actually be pretty useful! Trekking in India (unlike in neighbouring Nepal) is still relatively undeveloped, the Indians not being very sporty or outdoorsy, and the equipment available for hire is correspondingly basic, not to say antique.
The following morning, after a comfy night's sleep in a warm bed and a filling breakfast, we met our local person and porter, Kailash, and got our last bits of kit together for the trek. We were embarking on a 6 day, 85km trek over the Kuari Pass, a 3,650m pass that promises views of some of the highest mountains in the Indian Himalayas. The route goes from Auli, a small ski resort (in the loosest sense of the word - there's just the one chair-lift), above Joshimath at 2,750m, south towards a small village called Ghat. All the while, it skirts the western edge of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, a ring of mountains that encircle the Nanda Devi peak, at 7,816m the 22nd highest mountain in the world and visible from the trek. The mountain is also holy to Hindus, and the
Views towards Chaukhamba mountain
Some of the stunning scenery along the Kuari Pass trek
whole sanctuary has been completely closed to expeditions since 1983, making the walk one of the few ways to view the many 7,000m + peaks in the area, which extend north towards the border with Tibet.
We were driven to our starting point at Auli, almost 1,000m above Joshimath, to be greeted with stunning views of the snowcapped Nanda Devi mountain itself off in the distance. With its vast pyramid shape looming in the background, we set off on the fairly undulating trail, suitably inspired.
As we would be camping and cooking for ourselves during the trek, we had a fair bit of kit to carry. A tent, sleeping bags and mats, and 6 days worth of food meant our packs were fairly heavy for the first couple of days. Kailash carried the stove, fuel and cooking implements, and pointed out the way when the trail vanished (which it did, more often than not).
The trek delivered in every way that we had hoped it would. The scenery of lines of snow covered Himalayan mountains in the distance was truly breathtaking, particularly over the first couple of days of the trek. This gave way over the final few
days of the trek to passing through verdant valleys, oak and rhododendron forests and villages surrounded by fields of crops. We crossed a couple of major rivers that lead ultimately from the mountains into the Ganges. Passing through villages often led to many curious local residents coming out to greet us with "namaste" and asking to have their photograph taken. In particular our final night camping in the village of Gorni stood out, a tiny village with no roads (so no traffic and no horns), linked to the world by a 2 hour footpath to the nearest road. In the 21st century, the village still had no electricity and mobile phones seemed to be the only concession to modern living (although we still haven't worked out how they charged them!).
The trek itself was quite challenging physically, crossing passes and traversing valleys, meaning there was plenty of ascent and descent to contend with most days. Over the 6 days of the trek, we climbed over 3,300m, much of it over 2,500m in altitude, which took its toll on our legs, particularly over the first couple of days while we acclimatised. Due to the reasonably short walking time each day
View from Sutoli back towards the Kuari Pass
The Kuari pass that we came over is in the centre of the ridge
(usually 5-7 hours), we found we managed to keep it going fairly well, although we were pretty exhausted most evenings. The shorter amount of daylight at this time of year (we had only 12 hours of daylight each day), also meant that we would get into our sleeping bags fairly soon after it got dark, allowing our legs to recover.
Camping and cooking for ourselves was just really peaceful and simple - a long way from the cacophony we had left behind. We camped in some beautiful spots, looking down isolated valleys or onto snowcapped distant peaks, making rising from our tents at 06:30 not such a hardship. The weather did take a turn for the worse over our last couple of days, with temperatures dropping quite a bit, making sleeping in the tent a little chilly (the sleeping bags were not very substantial unfortunately!). Autumn walking does have it's advantages though - it was gorgeous to see the colours of changing leaves sweep the valleys, and every morning we would emerge from our tent to the excitement of another fresh dusting of snow on the peaks around us.
The best thing about the trek was the amazing
Hindu temple on the Kuari Pass walk
We were blessed by our porter, Kailash, for a safe walk
feeling of isolation and natural beauty. For the first three days we barely saw another soul. I would regularly pause and just be amazed by the complete silence around me....in India!! Throughout the walk on most days, eagles would circle in the valleys, gliding silently below the path we were on in the valley, adding to the feeling of unspoilt beauty. I think the difficult access to this region of the Himalayas (read long, uncomfortable bus journey), along with the need for camping, puts a large number of people off trekking here. But that's their loss, as this is a stunning part of India and we would highly recommend it to anyone with a love of mountains.
The (very) bumpy road (again!) south to Rishikesh
We returned to Joshimath, almost a week after leaving, to treat ourselves to a big meal back at the local restaurant and a short sleep only, before hitting the streets once again at 05:00 to wait for the return bus to Rishikesh (unfortunately Joshimath is at a bit of a dead end, so to go anywhere else, we had to return to Rishikesh, on the awful road!).
The walking had provided
enough of a mental distraction that we had forgotten just how awful the journey to Joshimath had been - we were all too soon reminded though, within about 10 minutes to be precise. As we embarked on the return journey, we chatted with a lovely guy sitting next to Mike, Aksha, who was on a pilgrimage to Badrinath from Calcutta, with his smiling mother beside him. Little did we know what lay ahead.
The landslide that had closed the main road and forced our 3 hour diversion on the way north had been cleared and the road re-opened, we had been told. So we continued on our bouncing journey south, over all the bumps and potholes of the road, until eventually we rounded a bend and faced what appeared to be a section where most of the hillside had given way and collapsed down into the river below. Ah, last week's landslide.
The Indian version of 'road cleared and declared safe for vehicles', is that the gaping wound of the landslide was still in its raw state, regular rivulets of rocks and stones still cascading down the hillside and over the now single lane road, crashing over into the
steep drop to the valley below. Not a single thing had been done or any barrier attempted to stem the flow of debris, but two boys, each wearing a hard hat to signify their role, had been posted onsite to attempt to direct traffic through the rock strewn one-way section.
One boy stood at each end of the landslide area and waved to the other to indicate which side of traffic should advance. This was decided in a completely arbitrary fashion, and frequently on a group pressure basis, as all the occupants of the cars and buses backed up on either side had left their vehicles and crowded round the edges. Everyone just looked up at the hillside, and the breaks in the volume of rockfall, and estimated when it might be possible to send a couple of vehicles through, at top speed, without getting hit by a rock.
It was pure India in a nutshell. Everyone had an opinion, and no-one was in charge! If one side had had several vehicles go through, the people on the other side would get irate and start yelling and waving and whistling at the other side - the 'safety boys',
A bus takes it's chances through the landslide
Rocks continued to fall as vehicles attempted to get through the landslide affected section
who did not have so much as a walkie-talkie, would be thoroughly intimidated and immediately change whatever they were signalling, although with everyone waving and shouting, who knew what messages were being received.
Sometimes, following a long period during which no vehicles had moved because there was continuous rockfall, a kamikaze driver would lose his patience, rev up, speed around the waiting vehicles, and dash though to the other side, to gasps from the crowd...often gaining a couple of dents in his bodywork in the process. We were just relieved we didn't witness a bloody scene as one of the bigger rocks could have gone through his windscreen - they were going at some speed.
Eventually, our bus was waved forward. We all climbed back on, and our safety measures were announced: 'everyone stand on the right side of the bus'. The left side being the one at risk of pelting. We advanced forward as quickly as the driver could over the loose rock, Aksha with eyes squeezed shut and praying, his mother staring, transfixed, out of the window at the right side, where our wheels were only just clinging onto the edge of the precipice. We had
Village child in Gorli herding a cow
Quite interested to stop and stare at us, less interested in his cow
got about two thirds of the way across unscathed - when we got to a bottleneck that wouldn't allow us to pass out of the danger zone! As we shuddered to a halt, a rock smacked into the side of the bus with a loud bang. Everyone on the bus started to shout in panic, Mike's Irish tones joining the Indian ones around us.
We pulled through at last, and all I could think to do to help restore calm was pass round my packet of Polos. We resumed the more mundane worries of sitting on the very back seat of a bumpy bus - namely anticipating the moments we would be taken over such a bump as to make all 5 of us clear air from our seats, to our combined cries. We gladly pulled in to Rishikesh after only a 10.5 hour endurance event this time, glad to have completed the journey to give us a few days of R&R in Rishikesh again before we moved on.
Pushkar - Back in Rajasthan again!
For our final stop in India, and because Mike had enjoyed his time there so much, we decided to travel down
Evening view over Pushkar Lakes and ghats
The hill with Savitri temple on top is in the background
to Rajasthan on an overnight train to spend a few days in the holy Hindu city of Pushkar (yes, there are a lot of holy cities in India).
The town is built around a small, round lake which Hindu religion believes was formed when Lord Brahma (the creator) dropped a lotus flower to earth. On to the spot where it landed, a lake magically appeared in the midst of the desert. This makes the place an exceedingly holy Hindu city and pilgrims come from all over India to bathe in the waters of the lake, which they believe will cleanse their souls. To facilitate the bathing, the lake is surrounded by over 50 ghats (sets of steps) from which the pilgrims approach the lake, and over 500 temples are in the vicinity of the town. In respect to Lord Brahma, the city (in common with Rishikesh and other holy cities) is also strictly meat, fish, alcohol and eggs free, yes, the entire town!
On two sides of the city there are 2 hills which take about an hour each to climb to the respective temples on the top. Both hills are great spots from which to watch the
A sweet-seller in Pushkar
The local delicacy, syrup coated chapatis, are in the large pan in the front, very tasty!
sun rise over the surrounding desert and even we managed to drag ourselves out of bed on 2 mornings to take in the amazing sight. On the perfectly clear mornings, the colour change over the town as the sun comes up was quite spectacular. Also a rarity in India - we were almost the only people there so there was peace and quiet. It's from the tops that the green oasis of Pushkar around the lake can be appreciated in the midst of the sprawling brown wilderness. On our way down after sunrise, we passed a steady stream of Hindu pilgrims climbing the steps of the hills to the temples - several of whom were so old they were crawling on all fours. Again, the lengths they will go to in their devotion was eye-opening to us.
In the town itself however, the other side of Indian 'religion' was sadly more than evident - that involving tourists being particularly targetted and hassled. In the case of Pushkar, many Hindu priests (some real, but most probably fake) prowl the streets looking for foreigners to 'bless' with a Pushkar puja on the edge of the lake. This ritual involves the repetition
Ghats at evening time in Pushkar
Amazingly no dodgy priests were present at this time!
of prayers, throwing of water from the lake onto the face and blessings for yourself and various family members. It is concluded by the tying of a string band around your wrist (The 'Pushkar passport') signifying you have been blessed once and hence a sign to other priests, in theory, not to harass you any more. Of course this is all accompanied by demands for money to ensure the blessings are followed through. The priests are extremely pushy, being particularly forecful for large sums of money to ensure the 'blessings' are followed through. Other approaches involve children pressing a flower bud into your hand, 'just to welcome you to Pushkar', only for an adult to then corner you and try and force you to the edge of the lake to throw the flower into it and yes, pay a large sum of money for a blessing. We found this to be really intimidating, really making us avoid wanting to be anywhere near the lake so as not to be bullied by the con. It also gave us a very bad impression of the Hindu religion, insisting only money will allow people to be blessed, and becoming aggressive when not enough
Enjoying a masala chai in Pushkar
We were both slightly addicted to this stuff during our time in India
is offered. It's a real shame as the lake has a rather lovely silvery quality, and would be a lovely place to spend some time particularly around sunset, but people aren't really left in any peace to enjoy the spot.
We also did a cookery course together on our final afternoon in Pushkar, deciding to make some of the other dishes that we have enjoyed so much in India, and hoping to take some skills home! This time around we made a chana masala (chickpea curry), malai kofta (our particular favourite of a curry with potato croquettes in it), and a paneer (cheese) butter masala. We were taught by a guy aged only 24, in his kitchen at his family's house, who was a great teacher and was very patient throughout our slow onion chopping (every dish we made seemed to require about 3 onions to be finely chopped by us, we were in tears throughout!). He was also really engaging to talk to, and we had a great afternoon cooking and chatting to him about Pushkar and Indian life. He sadly agreed that the fake priests were a shameful example of the worst side of India, and encouraged
The Pushkar skyline
Many now crumbling temples are found throughout Pushkar
us to try and put pressure on the authorities to address the issue, by writing to the likes of Lonely Planet. If you are in Pushkar, we would highly recommend his cooking class at Deepa Cooking School
Pushkar did perhaps encapsulate the best and the worst of India for us - the town has such charm in its old cobbled winding streets, and dreamy silver lake in the middle of the desert, but the harassment and scams dominate the atmosphere. We boarded yet another overnight train to get us back to Delhi, where we had started out nearly 7 weeks earlier, and our flight on to Kathmandu.
Farewell to India
Exploring the north of India and Rajasthan has been unforgettable. It fulfills all your worst fears and your greatest hopes: the chaos, noise, dirt, heat, hassling, antiquated and impenetrable regulations are all as advertised....but also you are bowled over by the outstanding myriad landscapes and scenery, fabulous food, the deeply spiritual side that runs through the core of everything, and the energy and warmth of the people. For every scam-artist who won't leave you alone, you meet a charming gent who wants nothing more than to practise his
colonial type english with you, and tell you all about his fascinating country. The huge challenges that India poses to travel in do leave you wrung out and sometimes jaded, but they are richly rewarded. While we left exhausted, we won't forget it in a hurry!
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