Saturday, June 14, 2014

A walk back to Kedarnath (May 2014)

A couple of mobile phone alarms beeped inside the 6 person tent at around 2.45 AM. It wasn't a good night of sleep, so waking up was actually a relief. I had even worn my shoes to sleep so as to avoid the pain of tying them up in the wee hours of morning. Armed with two head-torches, we got busy, packing stuff to start our trek to Kedarnath. We were stationed at a place called Linchauli, about 4-5 kilometers from Kedar.

It was the 4th of May, and the shrine was about to open in a few hours from now, at around 6.30 AM in the morning. Some five minutes before we started off, there was some more rustle from inside the tent. We were sharing it with a couple from Andhra Pradesh and their 16 year old son. They requested if they could join our group of 3 - Shyam, the cinematographer, Kishen, a friend of multiple treks, and myself.

We were apprehensive about adding people because of a few reasons. We wanted to be there at 6.30 when the shrine opened, as we were planning to include it in an informational documentary we were shooting. Naturally, we did not want to be slowed down. Additionally, the lady was complaining about pain in her limbs all through the night, and he had spent a good part of the night massaging them back to normalcy. We were also worried because there were no lights on the newly-being-made path from Lincahuli to Kedarnath, above 11,500 feet, cutting across glaciers and melting ice. He confirmed that he was carrying lights. There were no further discussions - we quickly agreed that we will walk together.

A few metres after we left the well-lit campsite, we realized that he was carrying a pen torch, one pen torch for all the three of them. A family from the plains ~ not in the best of health ~ up in the mountains ~ at 3 in the morning ~ walking across icy paths with glacial walls 8 feet high in places ~ on a path slushy from the melt for long patches ~ without lights ~ without proper footwear. These are the same people who would not venture out of their houses after 11 in the night in Bangalore or Hyderabad. All in the name of devotion! I might come across as a bitch, but I also was surprised when they asked for water, some time later. Not the part about asking for water or sharing it, but the part about being ill-informed to brave the icy night with your family without even basic sustenance requirements.

I remember waiting for them initially at every turn in the trekking route to provide some light so that they could catch up with us. Shyam and I discussed as to how nothing had changed when it came to pilgrim attitudes, despite the massive tragedy. Kedar Baba ko dekhna hai, bas, baaki sab Baba ke haath mein! (We have to see Lord Kedar, that's it, everything else is in the Lord's hands)

Outsource everything to Kedar Baba....sigh!

Our journey had started about a week back. The idea was to travel to the affected villages to capture how life goes on in the remote corners of Uttarakhand, a year after mother nature threw their lives and economy into thin air. We sure hope to bring that message to life in the next few weeks or so.

We reached Rishikesh, and walked our way to Paramarth Niketan, the site of the fury of Ganges lashing against the Shiva idol.
Image courtesy:

That man-made idol is no more, washed away by nature. The empty platform remains; while the aarti continues in a clockwork fashion. Foreigners, devotees, merchants, initiates..all abound.

After a few days of fact finding and soul-searching, on the 1st of May, we reached Guptkashi, about 40 kilometeres before Kedarnath, one of the places in Uttarakhand where you could get permits after a biometric registration. Biometric registration was made compulsory this year for every traveler wanting to visiting Kedarnath and the other 3 dhams. I thought it was a good move to issue such permits, considering the fact that no one had any idea about who all and how many were stuck up there in the mountains during the disaster last year. The process of "human accounting" had become difficult, if not impossible (which explains the huge discrepancies in casualty estimates).

The registration process was simple, the queue was small, and we had our cards in our hands in just a few minutes.

The irony though was the usage of the term biometric (there was nothing bio nor metric about it), for they were just taking a picture using a web cam.

That was just the start....the true casualty this year was information. Very few people seemed to know what was happening. Some said that the medical screening was going to be elaborate; others said, there was none at all. Some said that there's accommodation available at Gaurikund, others said it would be difficult. Some said that the route up from Lincahuli was impossible to travel on foot. Others said the government will heli-lift pilgrims from Linchauli for free. Free heli-lifting sounded like a crazy idea even though it had appeared in the papers (unknown at that time, in the true spirit of elections, opposition parties cried foul, and the plan was shelved, though not before a few people had packed their bags in this hope). The fact was, we had no idea, whether we would reach Kedar on May 4th, the day the temple opens.

On the afternoon of the 2nd, we reached Son Prayag, the starting point of the trek.
Just so that you get the scale of things:

The administration had done a relatively efficient job of trying to clean up the site. As much as possible, they had removed tell tale signs of the disaster including "person missing" notices, destroyed vehicles etc.

Comparison shot from the trip in October, 2013.

Son Prayag is also the place where mandatory health check ups happen. After a BP check and a few questions we had the clean-health-chit in our hands, while we discussed politics with the doctor, yes! The elections were a few days away and politics was on top of people's minds. Politics, in some measure, allegedly contributed to the warlike progress in opening up Kedarnath in order to make a bold pre-election statement that Uttarakhand ain't limping. Roads were being tarred right beneath our tires.

The doli of Kedarnath reached Son Prayag around noon. Every year, after the temple closes, Kedar Baba is worshiped at Ukhimath. Post winter, it is brought back to Kedarnath amid much fanfare. The excitement this year though, was predictably low, with just a few villagers and pilgrims.
The bagpipe-wielding jawans from the 5th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment accompanied the doli till Son Prayag.

The weather wasn't looking good. It had rained the previous night in Guptkashi too. One of us had forgotten to pack a raincoat, so we decided to buy the next best thing available - umbrellas - not one, but three. Soon, we found ourselves walking along with the doli all the way to Gaurikund, about 3 kilometers away.

They kept a leisurely pace with rest-stops and we walked without any strain whatsoever to the dull rhythmic thud of the drum beats.

The steep route up through Munkotiya (which we had taken in October) was no longer needed to reach Gaurikund. The sign is still there, but please do not make the mistake of walking up.

The straight road route was open till about 1 km from Gaurikund, thanks to the good work by GREF (Part of Border Roads Organization). Soon, we left the doli crowd and walked with the GREF folks to their campsite for some chitchat and a refreshing offer of hot tea.
Hats off to these men!

Rock cutting and blasting work is underway for 14 about hours a day, and they have made good progress. At that point, they were only 500m or so short of reaching Gaurikund (you can see the welcome board in the background).

After sipping tea I stubbed out my cigarette and I looked up to see the officers looking past me, amused, sort of. Intrigued, I turned around to see their source of entertainment and found Mr. Dynamite, sitting pretty right behind me.

After saying byes and thank yous, we went back to our original task along the new trek route, one that's comfortable to walk on. By the time I write this, this route may possibly be abandoned, if the road to Gaurikund is completed.

The way was just being made, with fresh coats of paint being applied as we were walking up. The painting process is systematic, with one person in charge of one color. Here's the pacifist painter in charge of white.
The red guy!
And the guys setting it all up.

Good work!
A comparison shot of the same place from October.

We reached Gaurikund by 5 in the evening. The doli had halted there. There was no point in going up, as the next halt was about 12 or 14 kilometers away. Finding accommodation in Gaurikund wasn't tough and prices were the lowest one could charge because of the demand/supply mismatch - we paid 300 Rupees for a 3 bedder.  For those familiar with Gaurikund, places like Sunil Lodge are up and running.

We walked down to the river bed of Mandakini. Here's a shot from down there. It shows how the river shaved off a good chunk of a township where anything north of 6,000 people stayed on that fateful night - June 16th, 2013.

And this is what's left of Tapt kund, the hot water spring and the pond that collected the sulfurous water for people to bathe in.

Gauri Mandir, the epicenter of the town.

We walked a while through the alleys of Gaurikund. No blame, but still a mess.

Dinner was perfunctory. I could not sleep during the night, thanks to some disturbing dreams et al. Was it was all in my head; or was there something really distressing about Gaurikund; was it the smell of bleaching powder, applied liberally on the pathways of this ghost town? I do not know.

I was late to get out of bed, but was thankful for the dawn and the drum beats. The doli had left by then. We walked up to the main route, only to be stopped by cops asking for permits. Confusion was king as there were people without permits arguing that they did not know about the requirement. We kept wondering why people were let in from Son Prayag, to be stopped here at Gaurikund, and.....what would happen from here on. No one was in a mood to go back to Guptkashi to get permits anyway. And that day, they had their way!

Two of the three most difficult stretches from Son Prayag that I encountered during my last visit had been put out of use, thanks to the reconstruction efforts. The one near Munkotiya, and this steep elevation on the left, a kilometre or so after Gaurikund. Gracias!

For the better part of the day, we were kept occupied in a forced conversation by a "sadhu". Abuses and platitudes were his hallmarks. Shyam found himself a victim of "BC/MC vocabs" (something like AC/DC) after he said something in English. Not that he cared three hoots. Another sample: "mein saare saadhuoon ko helicopter chalaana sikhaaoonga" (I will teach all saadhus to fly helicopters), while rotating his wooden shaft menacingly above his head. I asked him if he knew how to fly one in the first place, and he cursed me non-stop for the next few minutes. I was being rational, but he did not see it that way.

The sound of rotors kept punctuating the roar of the river Mandakini, with helicopters ferrying men, media, and equipment every ten minutes or so. Here's a chopper that has been moved from its crash landing site and covered up (well it was covered up, before people noticed the photo-op).

Comparison shot:

The amount of human labor that goes into opening such routes is mind boggling. Everyone knew their price too. Daily wages had risen from the normal 300-400 Rupees to about 1,000 Rupees per head this time around. I heard a few complaints about inflated wages, but I felt it was money well earned for truly back-breaking work.

Well the mountains, they have not changed a bit, thankfully.

Nor have some attitudes of entitlement. I have taken the mules 2-3 times long ago, so I'm guilty too. The mule service was limited to the Gaurikund - Linchauli stretch. Owing to this, a good number of people returned from Linchauli without visiting Kedar. If anyone was expecting the yatra of yesteryear, they were going to be sorely disappointed.

The first pitstop was at  a place called Jungle Chatti, about 3-4 km up from Gaurikund. They were serving free tea here, but somehow we could not find the place. Jungle Chatti was in the news this week, after a dozen human remains were discovered from there. Jungle Chatti will not be the only place nor this will be the only time such news breaks, that much I know for sure.

Here are some officials of the newly constituted SDRF (State Disaster Recovery Force). Drawn from the state police force, these men have been trained by the NDRF to stand ready should a catastrophe strike again. I wonder how much they will accomplish in a calamity, but it is a start, nonetheless, in the right direction.

Breakfast was arranged at Bhimbali, which we reached by around 11. People from GMVN, the tourism promotion board of Uttarakhand, was in charge of cooking food.

More people than they were expecting were coming up, and the outstretched hands soon outnumbered the pooris being cooked, so we quit after a bite or two.

I had written about this spot in an article in my college magazine, about 16 years ago. About a little girl "manning" this place, who put a tika on my forehead, as she would have to thousands of people. The cold feel of those little fingers!

There was no stay option in Bhimbali, unlike the last time around. We saw some tents being put up, but I do not know if they will be for travelers.

There is a lot of cleaning work happening in what is left of Rambara, which is very little apart from rocks and rubble. An SDRF officer "graphically" described to me the state of the bodies that were being discovered while lifting and moving rocks. These were being cremated as swiftly as possible.

Some people also spoke about the number of skeletons that they find in the forests just above Rambara. Local officials have been entrusted with the task of finding and cremating them, but very little gets done. That was something I found extremely disconcerting in all the hectic preparations for the yatra.

There is a new bridge replacing the makeshift one across Mandakini. From here on, the responsibility for rebuilding the trek route was entrusted to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi (NIM). Hundreds of people are at it, and from what we saw, they have done a truly remarkable job.

Comparison shot of the bridge:

This almost felt like a highway up there.

The climb is difficult from here on till Lincahuli, but it could have been far worse if the pathway wasn't in the form it was. We slowed down considerably and it took us about 4 hours to walk the next 4 kilometers or so.

Comparison shot:

The route also had it's share of glacier cuts.
Kishan n Shyam, upcoming Bollywood tycoons. ;)

While resting somewhere near the top, we saw a small slab of rock or ice give way and hurl down at one of these glacial crossings. Everyone stood up shouting and yelling as a few people were directly in the path of the debris. The saadhu who gave us "company" in the morning ran the crap out of himself to get out of its way. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

A slight drizzle started and we were so thankful to our decision to buy umbrellas from Son Prayag. A word of advice - buy big umbrellas. Rain or sunshine, they are the best protection.

Just before reaching Lincahuli, we were asked to produce our permits, and were warned not to proceed further, as accommodation in Kedar was full. We were quite okay with that and proceeded to have a heavy basic lunch offered free at the camp site. A shot or two of Lincahuli:

Accommodation in Linchauli was also nearly full, but people kept showing up. Even during the night, over the crackle of wireless sets, we would hear those messages "15 people are just reaching Lincahuli, accommodation has to be arranged." And the cops would come around and search every tent, to see if they could squeeze in a few more. They were simultaneously putting up new tents, but it all amounted to a lack of concerted planning rather than teething troubles on the first day of the yatra.

Why would you sent people up from the checkpoints, if there is no accommodation in the upper reaches? And most people coming up were not the hardy types, they were mostly 60+, obese, riding on mules, school kids, little kids (yes, little kids).....all on their way to uncertainty, not even knowing if the route is open and clear. Mostly, the vulnerable end of the demographic gene pool on either side. Again, I do not want to sound like a bitch, I understand the part about devotion, but I fail to understand the lack of awareness - why would you carry 3-year old babies into a place that's not ready to give you whatever kind of experience it is that you are hoping for?  And which "International" school would sent kids on such adventures?

If you're 60+ and devout, why would you not wait a bit for the news to break to see how the situation is. Now, some of you would think I'm unfair, but hear me out. I found a few people the next day in Kedarnath who were:
(a) pushing hard for a free helicopter lift because they were about to "die"
(b) complaining that doctors were not there to treat the blisters on their soles (shouting match...where the hell are the doctors that were promised?....%@*$##...we had been told that all facilities are up *%*$%#)
(c) wondering why they were not supplied ointments to treat some other crap.

I also heard a fellow yelling on his phone "nahin helicopter ke  andar nahin, chal reha hoon, koi free helicopter kuch nahin hain ithar" (no, not inside the helicopter....I am walking...there is no free helicopter or anything like that) - apparently someone who packed his bags before the opposition raised a ruckus and stalled the government plan.

People should be told that the new Kedar route is perilously close to a medium-difficulty high-altitude trek for anyone coming from the plains. Even if the road to Gaurikund is open, it will still be close to an 18 kilometer trek. And when you embark on something like that, expectations have to be set straight from the beginning. Food and extremely basic accommodation is free for now, and mules will soon be going all the way to Kedar. Beyond that, please do not expect any comfort. Even makeshift rest rooms were a rarity when we went. There were just two that I saw in Linchauli, put up by Sulabh, and one of them had a commode that was topped off by a plastic bottle on top of you-know-what.

As for mule riders, this should give you an idea of how steep things are going to be.

Anyway, we set our alarms and tried to sleep, despite the occasional zipper lifting (of the tent) by the cops.

And......we found ourselves on the 4th morning at around 3 AM with a family in tow, trying hard to push for the opening ceremony of the temple. It was extremely cold when we started off. That worsened as we approached the glaciers, thank you! Long patches of the route were cut through ice walls that refused to melt.

The family tried to keep pace with us, but often fell behind. Surprisingly, it was the lady (who had problems a few hours ago.....and was wearing flip flops now) who set the pace for them. I had my moments of anger and reckoning, when I considered moving ahead instead of lighting the path for them. But, we waited for them, because the going was harsh.

It was alright in places where they had neatly laid down the rocks. However, in about an hour or so, we reached an open ground where the path was full of slush. Ice cover on both sides and a track made muddy by the melt, in between. The path was so squishy and slippery that we chose to walk on ice. Hard ice wasn't any better in terms of stability, but it offered better momentum for forward movement.

We worried about the family walking behind us, but we need not have. A hundred lights had started out from the campsite in Linchauli, now behind us, in the distance. We could hear the chants of "Jai Kedar" in the spartan silence of snow, as the NIM folks literally moved at an elvish pace and seemed to fast approach us. They had two Everest climbers also with them, so you get the general idea! NIM folks gave us the liberty to move a bit faster as the family now had more lights and able people to support them. It was around 5.30 and the weather also seemed to brighten up.

All that said, there was another kilometer or more to go and I had almost given up the idea of reaching in time for the opening. Some places only offered the option of excruciatingly slow walk as the ice turned even more slippery, that I started preferring the muddy track.

We passed by the temporary settlement inhabited by the administration in Upper Linchauli. I had stayed there the previous October in pre-fabricated huts. How I wished it had been open for all of us this time! It would have really cut short our current drudgery.

What really changed our spirits was the sight of the Kedar township in the distance. It was almost 6, and we figured we might just make it in time. Emboldened by that thought, we moved fast and rushed past the helipad and the temporary settlements near Kedar. This pic, btw, was taken on the return journey.

Around 6.15, we reached the Saraswati River and crossed over the new Bailey bridge, set up in a record time of less than 2 days by the NIM volunteers led by Amod, another Everest veteran. BTW, the material for this bridge was sitting idle in the same place for the last 9 months or so.

As soon as we entered the township, a cop stopped me and asked for my permit - a text book case of wtf moment. I told him to forget about it - I mean, are  you crazy, you think we would be here at 6.15 in the morning after all those multiple check points and crazy walks over ice and rocks to be here without a permit? And what are you going to do, if I do not have one? I promised him that I will show him my permit as soon as I came back.

We reached a minute or so before the opening.

The media was there in full frenzy for their 2 minute video bytes.

And after the initial rush was over, it was left to the NIM folks to take over the premises with their chants and bhajans. For them, it was the realization of a dream of building a path that they can be proud of - that spirit was there in all the NIM folks we spoke to.

Some things never change. Like free food packets thrown around after consumption....despite the existence of contraptions called waste bins.

The green tarpaulins below reveal more about us and our society than they conceal.

We started our walk back by around 9.30. Free breakfast was arranged, but it was a lot of work considering the crowd, so we skipped it.

It was raining in Gaurikund by the time we reached at around 3. It was a long day, but we decided to carry on and walked almost till Son Prayag, before a free cab gave us a lift for the last two kilometers.
The locals that we spoke to earlier were hopeful that the pilgrims will come back, but like last year, nature had other ideas. Rains continued for the next few days and the yatra had to be temporarily called off. It has been restarted now, but this year, the only hope for the local folks is the post-monsoon season, but that has historically been a weak one. Time will tell. 

As for Kedarnath, nothing much has changed. It's the story of a township frozen during the winter. It still looks similar to the pictures I took last year, except for the snow cover on top of the buildings. The bleaching powder can do only so much. Unless that is addressed, nothing really changes. It is as important as the trek route and facilities for pilgrims, as important as removing visible signs of destruction. And not just in the areas where pilgrims go today, in the areas where people went in June 2013 in a frantic bid to save their lives. It is said that each rock and brook in Uttarakhand has a mythological significance. Similarly, each hill and each nonexistent path in this terrain has a tragic human story attached to it now. I hope we are able to respect them in death.

Because, in life we failed them and we continue to fail. This year, I heard first-hand accounts of people who reached Kedar looking for accommodation (which was already full), wet in the rain, receiving responses like "kisi ne nyota diya tha kya?" (Did any of us sent out an invite to you to come here?) Unless, we fix this haughty attitude, and the attitude and awareness of pilgrims, we are bound to hit some fault lines.

A police officer we met later in Trijuginarayan had just come back from a recce of an alternate escape route from Kedar, should something go wrong again. His face was a picture of pain, as he visibly searched for the words to speak, while telling us about scores of skeletons on the route - some sitting upright, some with shoes...backpacks.  A Hindi word entered my vocabulary that day and it's bound to stay forever - kankal.

That said, a lot could change too. There is talk of a ropeway to Kedarnath. Some are demanding a motorized road right up to the shrine. Proposals are out to construct the new Kedar township - may be in Upper Linchauli. Finally, there is also a move to remove the boulders from Kedarnath - just in time for the next monsoon. I hope it's a really weak one at least around here.

Whatever plans the administration has, I hope we rebuild things in a sustainable manner taking into complete account the fragile nature of the ecosystem and the economic realities of the local population. As a parting note, I have a humble request to the Tughlaqs out there - please do not offer free helicopter service or anything like that to prove any point - (a) it will be disruptive to the environment (b) more people will die in stampedes than anything else.

Nandai: Since time began, the dead alone know peace. Life is but melting snow. 

And, if anyone is wondering what happened to the family who walked with us from Linchauli, they reached Kedar by around 8, and left soon afterward! Jai Kedar!