Monday, July 30, 2012

Tamasha - India's favorite genre

El Nino, Lost crops, La Nina, IMD,
We didn't start the fire  
No we didn't light it  
But didn't try to fight it

Now, I'm a big fan of the Billy Joel song, but I had to edit the last line (and the first one). India (and Indians, by default) could well be headed for it's worst  year in the last decade. No matter what our meteorological department says, we haven't seen rains this year, at least in the south. August rains are predicted to be pretty strong, but the precipitation lost in the last two months could be costly. Though it may have sounded like one, this is not a weather update, and this could have major implications on our lifestyles in the coming months.

Sugar hovers at around Rs. 33-35 a kilogram. How about sugar at Rs. 60 or 70? The whole of India (especially the North) would go into a tizzy. The present Sheila Dixit dispensation in Delhi got the first real taste of success after the onion price rise in the run up to the elections that brought down the incumbent BJP government. How about aaloo at Rs. 50 per kilo? And how about Rs. 60 for a kg of rice? If you thought the Food Corporation of India and their rotting warehouses would save us from a stratospheric price rise in food grains (like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and their salt domes filled with oil in the US), you could be in for a rude shock.

If this interests you (at all, at alll), tune in to the Indian Option.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Gangotri, Gomukh, Tapovan - 14 years later - Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

We woke up early in the morning. The candle light dinner and the basic accommodation did nothing to dampen our spirits. Possibly, this was the way we visualized it. Sleeping on the cement floor in a sleeping bag. Here's a view from Gangotri.

We started walking up from the temple, by around 8 in the morning.

The initial few hundred metres are punishing on those who come from the valleys. Till you reach the check post - after that it's not so hard, at least for some time. At the check post, they charge you some basic fees plus a deposit based on the number of plastic articles you're carrying. While coming back from the trek, if you have a lesser number of plastic items, the deposit is forfeited. This practice is still there as I gleefully discovered in one my later visits. The economic incentive aside, it creates an awareness not to throw plastic items around.

The first pit stop is Chirbasa, a couple of kilometers from Gangotri. It has a few small temporary outlets where you can have basic food. They let weary travelers plonk inside their shops while they prepare tea and whatever you chose to order (noodles mostly). You would be lying down tired, but what rejuvenates you is the smell of the hot brew mixed with herbs that waft into your senses along with the mountain wind and the roar of the adolescent Bhagirathi river in the background. Chirbasa set up a surprise for me a few years later, when I took my entire family to Gomukh. That time around, we traveled on ponies, because I thought the trek might be tough for my parents and in-laws. While moving out of Chirbasa, the lousy teenager who was walking my pony hit it really hard while it was facing a two feet high rock. The pony jumped up the rock and fell forward. And yes, I was sitting on top. I remember falling over it's head (my wife screaming in the background), rolling a few meters down the incline before I somehow arrested my fall. Thankfully, I escaped with a few bruises and a broken camera.

After Chirbasa, the scenario changes. The next stop is at Bhojbasa (named after Bhojpatra/birch trees), about 6 kilometres ahead. There are sections in this stretch that are dangerous, with paths about two feet wide, with the threat of rolling stones from above. Our guide, Raawatji, proved to be very useful throughout. He had just one major weakness - his 2-in-1 tape recorder. It wouldn't have been a weakness, had he not had another minor weakness at that point in time - dil to paagal hai. He loved the song so much and just kept rewinding and playing that track throughout our trek, that I got totally psyched out. Not even the nascent Bhagirathi could silence the "pehli pehli baar, milata hey yehi". I hated it then, but when I write this, all I have to do is listen to the song on youtube and the trek feels like it only happened like yesterday (ok, ok, day before yesterday).

We were going at a very rapid pace for people from the plains, and after some point I requested Raawatji to stop. I think it was at Bhojbasa, where there are places to stay. Raawatji refused and said that he could arrange for accomodation at Gomukh itself.  The refusal is the reason why I look miffed in the photo below.

After a lot of huffing and puffing and cursing for about 5 kilometers, we did finally reach the marker that announced our arrival at Gomukh.

Now what? The marker can wait, because we had to walk up further to see Gomukh, the last line of the glacier which looks like (hypothetically speaking) the snout of a cow from which the River Ganga/Bhagirathi emerges. It is a magnificent sight, but with the temperature dropping, we did little to appreciate the beauty of the glacier and the mountain backdrop at that point.

Raawatji had gone to arrange accommodation. There was a baba who stayed in a tent near Gomukh who had a spare tent gifted by foreigners. Thankfully, the tent was free, and there we stayed that night - bang in front of the Gomukh glacier - I don't know how many stars lit up the sky that night (not that I walked out to check), but that was truly a multi-starrer accommodation for the sheer location.

That evening, a Bengali team who were on their way back to Bhojbasa walked into our tent just to say hi. The leader of the pack brought out his cigarette factory, and in 15 minutes, I learned the art of rolling cigarettes - adding tobacco to the paper, rolling it, licking it to seal, and lighting up. Talk about heights of learning.

Baba's attendant made dinner for us that night. I ate just a little (my appetite dead), and so did Sumesh, but Somnath was hungry and kind of binged. He did have a puking episode later in the night (or was it the next day morning?). The night was an experience in itself. The mountain winds howled throughout and buffeted our tent, and despite the best temperature protection that I could afford, I found myself in a troubled shivery state.

I woke up complaining at about 6 in the morning and  walked out of the tent. What I saw stunned me. No, it was not the magnificent glacier that appealed to me. I saw an elderly couple walking back from Gomukh, in wet clothes (may be they took a dip in the water) that could at best be described as a villager's daily wear. And I was thinking, these folks must have started from Bhojbasa an hour or two back, taken a dip, and are now walking back. And here I was, in my woolens and jackets and twin gloves, complaining about temperature. What drove them, as far I could comprehend, was pure faith, however blind it may be.

That's us, having breakfast.

Raawatji is the fellow sitting next to the baba. We asked Raawatji about the baba's pedigree and he told us "Baba pehle goli chalathe the." (a.k.a Baba used to fiddle around with guns before - for the lack of a better translation.) We did not prod further, and for all these years, I have had this nagging doubt, whether the baba was a bandit or a military personnel, before he took this identity.

Next stop - Tapovan, the grassy meadow overlooking the glacier, about 6 kilometers away. We got on top of the Gomukh glacier and started walking up. Raawatji was most helpful during this part of the trek. We were mostly going vertical, on what was a dirty treacherous mix of  slippery ice, rock, gravel, and dirt. We reached Tapovan in about 3 hours. That's Sumesh in Tapovan (about 4450 m -16,600 feet).

I still do not know why we did not pay a visit to the Mata who stays in a little cottage in Tapovan, most of of the year. The day is still a blur to me. Tapovan wasn't as green as we had anticipated, because the snow had just melted, but it was beautiful with the Himalayan peaks in the background, some climbing tents in the distance, and the pretty little stream that ran through it. I will make amends for my blurriness by revisiting it, some time soon.

And, to be honest, I don't remember how we came down. There's a pic of me walking down.

We walked all the way back to Gangotri that night. For the benefit of future trekkers, the trek to Gomukh is not so arduous as the altitude gain is limited from 3,200 m at Gangotri to about 3,900 m at Gomukh over 18 or 19 kilometers. The distance helps by flattening out the elevation gain, but the flipside is that it tires your limbs. I would recommend staying in Bhojbasa, and doing the Gomukh-Tapovan-Bhojbasa route in a day.  

I think we reached Uttarkashi the next day. My non-vegetarian turrets had started acting up after days of vegetarian food. Thankfully, the Uttarkashi restaurant that we went to served rotis and a curry which had a lot of oil with pieces of so-called mutton floating in it. It tasted awful, but it comforted me. While we were sitting there, we heard a foreigner asking the waiter, "What's this?" in a stentorian voice. The waiter replied, "Sir, this is bhindi" as though bhindi is the most natural word for a firang. And the foreigner barked back - "What's BHINDII?" We laughed at the situation then, but I have to give it to the waiter. He looked flustered for a few seconds, but then came back - "Sir..this is ladies finger." And the guy just shut up with a "aah, ok".

We went to Kedar and Badri afterwords, and went back home, but not before experiencing the taste of Sher-e-Punjab cuisine in Jwalapur, and the roughness of Mulayam Singh Yadav's kisan (farmer) rally that robbed us of our first class train seats from Haridwar to Delhi (and forced us to sleep in the compartment corridors). Rough ride!

In college, I had a shortage of attendance that semester. I gave the trip explanation to my Dean (while maintaining a studied silence about all the other leaves that I took). He brushed off my excuse saying that such trips should only be taken at a later stage in life. I have been following his advice ever since. ;)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gangotri, Gomukh, Tapovan - 14 years later

There's something really odd about writing a travel piece about 1.5 decades after the event. The details, which could be of use to others, are lost and so are most contacts. My photos are gone too, thanks to a glitch involving the college magazine. Thankfully, Sumesh, my college buddy and travel partner managed to scan his photos and save them for what I think is, precisely this blog. There are only a few of them, because in those days, our pocket money and travel allowance allowed just one or two rolls each, and we traveled for about 15 days completing the Char Dham circuit. For us, the spirituality bit was there, I guess, but it was more about getting to see the mountains up, close, and personal.

"We're three engineering students on the Char Dham trip" was our staple dialogue during the episode. In our froggish world, it was a sentence that made a lot of impact. It did make an impact occasionally, and when in interesting (wink, wink) company, we would add the word Mechanical,  with a yeah, yeah rap lilt lighting up our faces. The world was small then, but Royal Mex didn't care. There were three of us - Sumesh, Somnath, and yours truly. It was from Somnath that I learned the few Bangla phrases that I still remember. Those phrases did come in handy in some way or the other during those 15 days.

I'm not going to narrate the details about Yamunotri, Kedarnath, or Badrinath, because a lot has already been written about them.What interested me was our trek from Gangotri to Gomukh, the source of the Ganga, and from there 6 kilometers up to Tapovan, the grassy meadow where....

We first visited Yamunotri, and had a hard time trekking up the 14 kilometers to our destination. I feel it is the hardest Char Dham trek, even when compared to the 18 km Kedar trek. Some sadhus at Yamunotri:

Anyway, on the way back to Uttarkashi, we were waiting for this bus, which sure did come, but there was a problem. The bus was full, thank you very much. Sensing our discomfort, a cop asked us "problem kya hai?" I pointed at the bus and told him the bus was full. He was dismissive in his response - oopar chad jao! (climb up the bus). We were like, really, this is awesome, a cop asking us to break the law and travel on the roof of a bus! We thought we had seen everything, like smoking inside the bus, goats inside the bus, everything. (I remember lighting up immediately after I saw the driver smoking, and was thinking the Royal Mex back home in Trivandrum (Thiruvanathapuram) are not gonna believe this.) Anyway, it was so cool climbing and sitting atop a bus and drinking in the scenery, the U-turns, the alpine forests, and all else. Well, here's proof:

We reached Uttarkashi and searched for a guide to Tapovan. If you do the Gangotri to Gomukh round trip, you might not need a guide. The pony guys are good enough. But as you move into the glacial terrain up to Tapovan, you will need one. Searching for a guide on the location is a practice I avoid these days, as everything is arranged beforehand. But this was a time when was not popular, forget indiamike, the Internet wasn't popular. The information that we needed for the trip was gleaned from the books in Trivandrum Public Library. Also, the teacher who taught me Sanskrit verses during my childhood had been on the Char Dham trip before and she had jotted down her travails in a single line 80 pages note book. I remember that being my Bible for a few months. She is no more, but as Metallica says, the memory remains. Anyway, in Uttarkashi we met up with this tour organizer, and he arranged for a guide. Mr. Ravinder Singh Rawat from Gangnani district. Rawatji arranged for sleeping bags and stuff like that and off we went into the wild ranges.

Gangotri was a wonderful experience. This was the point from which Ganga originated centuries back. There's a temple here, which is the Holy Dham. Time has taken the glacial source 18 kilometers further and if you want to see the true source, you do have to do some reasonable trekking. Rawatji arranged for accommodation and food in Gangotri.

We were idling in the evening. That's Somnath and Sumesh in front of Gangotri.

And that's Suraj Kund, the spot where the waters of the mighty Bhagirathi fall down. I like this better than digital photos.

There were holy congregations happening all around Gangotri. I wasn't too holy to get inside any of them. Outside one of those there was this idling smart horse. I went up to him, and in a beneighn gesture, started to rub his forehead. The horse got all worked up and almost kicked me away and was furious for the next few minutes. A fifty-ish saffron-clad man walked up and managed to pacify it. And then he talked to us and asked us who we were. Pat came my reply - we're engineering students.... He asked me "what's an atom?". A dismissive textbook response followed. And then he spoke in Hindi, "something in your system - at a subatomic level did not sit well with the horse." And, in my mind, I was like yeah yeah, horse-master, feed me some horse shit. And then we asked him what he did. He was a senior research scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Tails between our legs, the Royal Mex crept back to Rawat's accommodation, had Dal Chaaval, and slept - devoid of our illusions. It was our first lesson.

That's me and Somnath, me trying hard to pose.

Tomorrow, we go Gomukh!
Part 2 can be found here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Gangotri, Gomukh, Tapovan - years later

This trip was special to me. The mountains had me in one go, in 1998 - for breakfast, lunch, and dinner - for the rest of my life. Hope to write about it soon. Scanned photos from rolls of film, carefully used, because we didn't have much spare cash.