Fair and Festival Holidays Time in Rajasthan


This is an account of a trek to Gaumukh – the snout of the Gangotri glacier, where the mighty river Ganga emerges and to Tapovan – a high altitude meadow above Gaumukh in the Garhwal Holidays to Himalaya.

The first time that we visited Gangotri. We were fresh after our trek to Dodital and Darwa and wanted to round off our Himalayan adventure with a trek to the origin of the Ganga – or the Bhagirathi, to be more precise. However, we reached Gangotri after a 5-hour drive from Uttarkashi, only to be told that we needed permits for the trek, which are issued at Uttarkashi! The rules for Trekking tours India in the newly-declared Gangotri National Park decreed this and this was the first time entry to this area was being regulated – which was why nobody had cared to mention this to us, I guess. As we tried to get over our disappointment by doing hill walks in this picturesque region, we resolved to come back again next year.

Preparations

So June 2009 found us at Uttarkashi, all geared up for our adventure and having 2 days in hand to secure that precious slip of paper. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried – getting the permit at the Kot Bungalow forest department office was a fairly straightforward affair and we spent the rest of the time visiting the National Institute of Mountaineering campus and doing small scrambles on the pretext of acclimatization. It is important that one acclimatizes well to minimize the ill-effects of altitude on one’s body. To allow the body’s mechanisms to adjust to the rarefied air of the high Himalaya, one needs to spend time at various intermediate points and not rush directly to one’s destination.

Next, we headed out to Gangotri and spent a couple of days there, taking walks along the banks of the Bhagirathi, relaxing and drinking in the picturesque mountain scenery that surrounds this holy town. It is here that legend states that Raja Bhagirath did penance and practiced austerities to bring down Mother Ganges Tours to redeem his ancestors. It is said that Gaumukh – the snout of the Gangotri glacier was near present-day Gangotri many years back and slowly receded over time to its current location 18 miles from Gangotri.

The trek begins

Finally, the big day dawned and we started off on the scenic trail from Gangotri to Gaumukh. We proudly presented our permit and paid the requisite park-entry fees at the Konkhu check post beyond which entry is restricted. First resting place on the trail was at Chirwasa, so named because of a large stand of Chir-pines in the vicinity. Earlier, there used to be dhabas and shacks where one could even spend the night, but under park rules, most of these have been removed and there is only a single tea-shop at Chirwasa now. Here, we met a group from Kerala tour package, one of whom was affected by a bad case of altitude sickness. I had read somewhere that sniffing camphor can bring succour to those afflicted with altitude sickness, so I proceeded to experiment on the hapless fellow. However, it seemed to worsen his headache and nausea and I hurriedly put a stop to the experiment and beat a hasty retreat before his friends could inflict serious bodily harm! We advised them to hurry down as soon as they could since losing altitude is one sure shot way to rid oneself of altitude sickness.

Just out of Chirwasa, we spotted our first bharal. The bharal is a hardy mountain sheep that inhabits the Himalayan Holidays almost throughout the range. The rams have heavy curving horns while the ewes sport much shorter ones. The one we spotted was a young male and was down by the Bhagirathi among the boulders. It surprised us pleasantly a bit later by clambering up and crossing the trail a few meters from us! We also passed through very interesting geological formations – pillars of glacial silt, several meters high, in which were embedded boulders, some of them of gargantuan proportions. These glacial silt pillars are the mementos the glacier left behind as it receded and are visual proof of the earlier extent of the glacier. The authorities have also marked points on the trail as “the extent of the glacier in” 1935, 1899 etc. from records.

Halt at Bhojwasa

Moving on, we reached Bhojwasa – literally the dwelling place of Bhoj Patri (Himalayan birch) trees and our halting-place for the night. Bhojwasa is 14km from Gangotri and just 4km short of Gaumukh Travel. However, it is advisable to stay there since there is no accommodation at Gaumukh and camping is not permitted there. There are just two options for accommodation at Bhojwasa now – the guest house of the state-run Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam and the ashram of the Lal Baba, both of which offer food, too. We spent the evening climbing up steep hillsides to spot herds of bharal and practicing rock climbing on several large boulders by the Bhagirathi. The night in the tented accommodation was uneventful except when we were woken up by the cries for help from some traveller who had got benighted short of Bhojwasa. The Lal Baba – a strapping man with a tremendous air of confident competence about him, gallantly went in rescue with a torch and brought in the lost traveller.

Gaumukh – the Ganga emerges

Next morning, we easily walked the remaining 4km up to Gaumukh. Seeing the Bhagirathi emerge as a stream of turbulent and silty water from the ice cave at the snout of the Gangotri holidays glacier, we were humbled to realise that we were witness to the beginning of the journey of a mighty river that is such a large part of the imagination of an entire nation, a journey that culminates in the Bay of Bengal so many hundred miles away. The ice cliffs at the snout of the glacier keep peeling off and falling into the icy waters, and there is always the danger of large floes breaking away and coming rushing downstream – so it is prudent (and illegal – there are orders forbidding it) not to venture too close to the ice cave.

The ice cave at the snout of the glacier at Gaumukh

After washing our feet and faces a safe distance away from the snout, we proceeded to climb up the right bank of the glacier, with the objective of crossing it. The glacier is covered with a tumbled mass of boulders – the moraine that is generated by the incessant onward movement of the river of ice. Crossing the glacier is an activity fraught with danger, since portions on the surface of the glacier can to cave in unexpectedly, if the layer of ice beneath has thinned due to melting. It is advisable to hire a guide for this part of the journey from Gangotri. The route keeps changing every day as portions of the glacier collapse and safe passage is marked by little cairns of stones by whoever pioneers a new route across. Make My Trip

It was difficult to imagine looking at the masses of rocks and earth on the surface that a thick river of ice was hiding underneath. However, gurgling of unseen melt-water underneath and rumbles of distant rockfalls and the occasional gaping crevasse served well to convince the doubtful among us. My friend, our mountaineer friend from Dharali, near Gangotri, kept urging us on and dissuading us from taking a rest on the glacier. “Let’s get off the glacier, then you can rest as much as you want!”

Ascent to Tapovan

Once we crossed the glacier, it was a steep climb to the high-altitude meadow that is Tapovan. As we climbed up the last few feet to Tapovan, all sense of fatigue fell away at the sheer breath-taking beauty of the scene before us. An immense plain of grass, cleaved here and there by pretty meandering streams and the lovely spire of Mount Shivling dominating over the meadow. There were other peaks too – the three peaks of Bhagirathi group to the east, Srikanth to the west and the serrated ridge of Meru to the west of Shivling. But Shivling is the peak that lords over the meadows of Tapovan. A smaller rocky peak called Baby Shivling is part of the Shivling massif. As we stood in awe taking in the majestic beauty of the peak, My friend pointed out various routes up the mountain. To our awestruck minds, some of the routes, especially the one that the Spanish climbers took across the nearly vertical south-east face, seemed simply atrocious! Tour Packages India

We put up at the ashram of the Bengali Mataji at Tapovan. She had lived here every summer vacation now for 17 years and wished to cast off her mortal coils in this idyllic abode of Shiva. During winters she retired to Uttarkashi or went on trips to ashrams or other holy places down south. Her “ashram” was basically one large room fashioned under the overhang of a large rock and a small “annexe” for itinerant trekkers like us. She cooked meals for us and really mothered us, even to the point of scolding me when I went photographing bharal unmindful of the lunch growing cold! As it is, the altitude – 4000m above MSL at Tapovan, was beginning to take a toll on us – we had headaches and every spoonful of food forced down had to be followed by several minutes as we fought off the wave of nausea that succeeded them. Gently, she coaxed us to eat. “It happens to me too, after all these years here.” she said, “But one has to eat somehow.”

The blue sheep of the Himalaya

Bharal were plentiful around the ashram. There were two herds that visited the area regularly – one mostly consisting of adult rams and one with ewes and young mainly. Though initially they were very shy and bolted whenever I approached, they gradually got used to me (aided, no doubt, with generous doses of Mataji’s salt!) and permitted me to get close enough to get some very good photographs of them. I was thrilled to get so close to an animal that I had first heard about in the accounts of Peter Matthiessen and George Schaller in their remarkable books – The Snow Leopard and Stones of Silence.

Bharal silhouetted against the Bhagirathi group of peaks at Tapovan

There were other adventure holidays too. My friend and I crossed over onto the lateral moraine of the Meru glacier and reached quite close to the Advanced Base Camp of Shivling. In the process, we attained a highest point of 4600m. We also climbed a small outcrop on the ridge of Baby Shivling and named it Point shiv in honour of the mountain and ourselves! I found leopard scat on the ridge near Point Shiv; of course, where so many bharal roamed, the predator could not be too far behind… I wondered if the scat could belong to snow leopard, but my grasp of field zoology did not extend to distinguishing between leopard and snow leopard scat!

Farewell

As we wound up our visit and bid farewell to Mataji, we were surprised to see quite a few moist eyes around. Even Mataji cried a bit as she bid us goodbye. It is astonishing how this simple lady who lives alone in the shadow of a remote Himalayan peak could affect us so much by acquaintance of a mere three days. We will be back next year, we promised her. I’ll visit you if possible at Udupi during winter, she in turn promised.

We were not lying. For, in the three and a half days and three nights that we had spent in this dream world where majestic peaks caught fire with the first and last rays of the sun every day and herds of bharal pranced on the slopes, we had fallen in love with the proud beauty of Shivling peak. While we knew quite well that the snow and ice peak of Shivling was beyond the realm of our technical abilities, a plan quietly formed to try and climb Baby Shivling next summer. As we climbed down to the glacier for another hair-raising crossing over the latest safe route that had emerged, the sadness of parting with Mataji still fresh, we resolved that we would be back next summer.

Mataji outside her rock-shelter ashram

And we are geared up this summer. But as we are getting ready, there is the disturbing news that Mataji has been evicted from Tapovan by the authorities. Henceforth, only expeditions will be granted permits to visit there. There is no doubt that the poor lady who co-exists with bharals for half a year annually causes less ecological damage than large peak-hungry expeditions. We feel sad for her. I still remember how, when we parted, I had told her to please take care of herself. She laughed and pointed at Shivling, framed in the entrance door to her little rock-cottage. “I don’t need to when he is there…” she had said with great conviction, “Everyday when I open this door, he is there.” Mataji will not have the privilege of this darshan anymore.



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