Asia | India – To the source and beyond
We were walking down the great slopes. My steps were as unanchored as the rocks and required literally small leaps of faith that the stones my flying toes were headed for were not loose. It was strange, but after days of perfect weather a slight squall brewed up and the chilly sand started to sting our eyes. I started to slip down a piece of melting sludgy ice, landed at the bottom of a crumbled slope, got up, and continued to cling on with whatever blood was left in my freezing hands. We had almost got to the bottom of the layers of moraine that cover the infinite back of the glacier which is, in all its entirety; the source of the holy Ganges river. We had spent hours among kilometres of mountain rubble and loose sandstone that all piled together in a pattern of mounds. An alien landscape amid some of the greatest mountains in the world. There were epic sized hollows filled with green waters. The underlying ice was melting fast so that the stone of these craters would often cascade. Stripping, rolling and changing their sides like the snakes on the head of the God Shiva shedding their skin. From high above it was possible to hear large rumbles and splashes penetrating the only real sound of silence that I have ever been in. We had lost all contact with the starship enterprise, and one false step could have sent me tumbling. I had spent the past two days in this place called Topovan; a meadow that unfolds at almost 5000 meters up in the Himalayas. I would have loved to stay there for weeks, but it was, to say the least cold! This polder was a Savannah ablaze with clusters of golden brown grass. A thousand sprouting French hairdos occasionally being cropped by a strange breed of mountain deer; or being crunched underfoot by a group of daring mountaineers who had set up camp underneath the latest rock fall. There were also great boulders that roofed the stone Saddhu shelters. I stayed 2 nights freezing in one of these little hobbit holes with the group of Czechs that had accompanied me the last one and a half kilometres of the hike; but it was with two Israelis that I gradually explored higher and deeper into the landscape. On reaching the snowline of the massive Shivalinga Mountain, I began to get worried that I might meet some other weird group of travellers that would convince me to go even further into these netherlands. It is difficult to know when to stop, when the path (if you could call it that) is endless. We finally contented ourselves with a huge flat rock on a kind of stone pedestal. It looked like a big wind weathered mushroom. The sort that a mother-ship might land on. I sat with my head swimming in altitude. The brown, back and white snowy peaks of the three Badrinath Sister Mountains were towering above my imagination. It was late in the day when we finally started back. Down down to the beginning of this story, over those unanchored stones, to the place known as Gaumukh. The name translates into cows mouth; and it literally is-a flattened oval lowing hollow that bellows out ice turned water for the first time. Like a child always asking where things come from, my curiosity about the physical source of the watery axis of Hindu religion was being satiated. The water is pure, and committed pilgrims have washed away sins for centuries in this isolated bowl of crystal pink and blue ice. Tapovan was about an hour and a half walk from Gaumukh. It is a steep climb, and while it is recommended by most of the locals that you take a guide, me and the Czechs had managed fine on our own; always following the small piles of stones that flag ones way up. Gaumukh lies 20km away from the small village of Gangotri and, being apart of the source of the Ganges; it is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in India. While Hindu mythology erratically changes depending on who is telling the tale, the story goes that many thousands of years ago the king Badrinath meditated deep in the Himalayan range (roughly where I was sitting in actual fact, or so I like to fancy). He prayed for about a thousand years; asking Shiva to control the goddess Ganga whom had landed on the earth and whose waters were destroying many great cities. Finally and after much commitment, he was heard. The God took Ganga from the heavens and bound her around the dreadlocks of his head. Henceforth she could only ensue through one of his locks and flow in a calmer and straighter course, which is the Ganges today.
I had planned to sit again on the frost bitten banks of Gaumukh of my return down from Tapovan, but a sandy wind began to sting the eyes of myself and my two Israeli friends. Weeks before even the winter would have expected, snowflakes began to coat our brows. We carried on. Head bowed, eyes squinting. My brain was still drunk with altitude when we came upon a small tent constructed out of a patchwork of old blankets and other donated materials. Outside was a miniature stone shrine dedicated to Shiva. Trident, incense and stone statue among other small godly symbols. I remembered passing it on my way up, but this time we slumped down our rucksacks, took off our shoes and drew back the curtaining stepping into the smoky den of Om Giri
Naga (naked) Baba. It was impossible to go any further that day. My legs were collapsing, my head spinning. The smoke from his small fire was blurring my vision, was starting to blur the boundaries between dream and waking reality. The Ganges sounded unusually loud as I sunk down onto the modestly blanketed floors. My hands were aching with anticipation for the hot cup of chai that Om Giri was brewing. His Dreadlocks were greying and very long. His beard was knotted. He was wearing nothing more than a loin cloth, and a thin shawl wrapped around his tall skinny aging body. I could see through a crack in the materials. The late afternoon turning to twilight was making the crisp brushing of snow look luminous against the darkening skies.
Om Giri toasted the tobacco and mixed it with the hash in a quantity that any chapatti wielding Saddhu would be proud of. He packed the chillum and lit it .BOM BOLLINAD. It was passed to me and I put the pipe up to my forehead repeating the Shiva mantra, brought it down to my lips, and sucked hard! The trick was to let everything rush through me without getting knocked over.
Since my first few days in India I had felt inspired to start at the source and work my way down to the end of the Ganges River. While in Daramsala the idea started to erupt like some volcano. I suppose this strength of desire was necessary to launch me out of Mcleod Ganj. I still had to buy a ticket in advance otherwise I would never have been able to pull myself away from there.
In the days after the wheel, and before the advent of the shock absorber, man invented the Indian bus! My exit was on one of the tourist sort- and if any friends tell you that you are a cop out for not taking a local one, tell them to piss off! If I thought it was going to be plain sailing then that ride was the choppiest bloody sea I had ever been in. I felt sorry for the wretching few that did not have their sea legs.
Fourteen hours later I arrived in Dera Dun. Sounding like something out of a cheap western movie, it is pronounced Dera Doon. Not the sort of place I felt like settling down in, so I decided to continue for another twelve hours. The second bus would take me to Utterkashi, and then on to Gangotri. I could just make out through a haze of incense smoke and some kitsch Hindu paraphernalia that it was not going to be Clint Easwood driving me up. The bus goes past Rishikesh, and the about three hours later, at the Theri junction we began our ascent through one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen. It starts out as a reasonably flat terraced landscape, the Ganges still wide and flowing. The wheat still golden in the fields. The harvest had just begun, so families could be seen forking the fields- carrying large tracts of grass on their heads, and piling their bundles in the boughs of trees that line the road. As one gets higher, the foothills become mountainous, steep stepped slopes. Green and partially cultivated with forest in some of the deeper tributary glens. The scene becomes gorge like, with the rushing narrow Ganges speeding over the massive boulders.
Gangotri was more idyllic then I could have imagined. It has been overlooked by the masses, and god willing, will remain so. I think that unless you have a definite idea of going there, the trip might seem like quite an effort. It forms a confluence of forest and snow, the largest peaks and the biggest holiest single river in the world. Situated as I have already mentioned eighteen kilometres from the physical source of the Ganges. Gangotri is a small town, mainly deserted in the freezing winter months save a few holy men who stay in their caves. I was staying in the Ashram known as Kailash Sangam. It was not some strict retreat like other places one finds around India. A small cool space that I was sharing with a few travellers, Yogi Baba and swami Ji. The latter had a propensity for entertaining himself in front of an almost receptionless radio, occasionally giving us bad translations of world news. I was paying two pounds a day for three meals, two optional Yoga and meditation sessions if we all felt in the mood, and a room which was so close to the banks that I could feel the river rushing and echoing under me as I fell asleep at nights. My dreams were being washed down about a hundred meters to the rainbow waterfall. When the sun hits it in the late mornings the water refracts the light into the whole clear spectrum of colours. Like some great Henry Moor, the liquid had scourged and then smoothed the almost white stone creating the most fantastic organic sculptures.
I stayed here for almost two weeks before attempting the walk to Gaumukh. I suppose my body had gone into some sort of purification shock. From going to bed in the early mornings and waking up late in the day; I had begun some crazy regime of 6am yoga stretches, and early bed times. The long bus ride had messed up my lower back, which left me hobbling for the next week; and I finally got some of the famed Delhi belly which left me worshiping the lord of the lavatory for a few days. Up till then I had had no stomach problems, and I had already given most of my rehydration sachets away. You can run, but you cannot hide. Some things in India are simply inevitable.
A small walk through the near by forest and I came upon a wooden tented shelter. There was a makeshift bed and a crudely constructed wooden stand with a larger than life book perched on top. I first saw the four man group and as I looked up I saw a shining eyed old man giving teachings and answering questions in surprisingly perfect English; a man who seems to have a firm grasp of western thinking.. His hair was not surprisingly, long, grey and matted. His laugh was infectious, and he gave me one of the warmest welcomes into his humble shelter. Like some great sage he was being rigorously questioned by young American esoteric seeking students. Whether you have any metaphysical quandaries or not, if you are in the area it is worth going and seeing this philosopher, who, if you have read enough fantasy, is a perfect materialization of the imagination.It is the nateral beauty of the area which is so inspiring. The town itself has nothing more than a shrine like temple and one pedestrian road that sells made up kits of sweet meats and incense to pilgrims who want to make puja(ceremony giving offerings to Ganga).
I finally began to get well and restless and made some mental preparation to begin my journey to the source. I was quite impressed by the promotion of ecological awareness in the area. It was obviously making slightly more impact than the say no to plastic signs I had read in Delhi. About one kilometre into the walk there is a small registry booth where you give fifty rupees(60 pence), your name and passport number. When you return down the mountain you sign yourself out. I did not find out how long a name was left in the book unsigned before they send out a search party.
Autumn was in the air. The walk begins with forests of conifers interspersed with spatterings of bright red and orange trees, and a thick coat of rusty dry fallen leaves that would crush under the hooves of donkeys who were portering some of the weaker pilgrims to the source. The road was straight and undulating. Forest turned to rocky outcrops and deep purple shades of heather; gold and silver shining off the tips of these scrubby plants. The sun rose higher and began to beat down onto my pulsating face. Shade was sparce and being without cream or hat, my face began to redden and my lips began to chap. No mind. I was heading for the top of the world. Each time I stood up I felt an incredible dizziness. The feeling was not exactly bad. In fact one could get arrested for feeling like this at sea level. My muscles would go into small spasms. I dont think enough oxygen was reaching my organs. It was a slightly breathless dragging feeling. You must remember that I had not done much trekking up until this point, and I was certainly not used to the altitude. Altitude sickness itself can be really dangerous. The height at which it starts is different for everyone. Basically water collects on the brain which in turn swells up, and, in severe cases, will kill you. Some people will never feel the effects of it. I fell into the category of simply feeling very high; and I wanted to get higher, so it couldnt have been too perilous.
I would stop and rest every few minutes, starring into the haze of heat that caressed the snow capped peaks. After the first few kilometres chai tents and shelter become more frequent. Just remember to follow the logical rules of passing mules. Always make sure these ladened creatures are on your right. The other side of an often very narrow path yields very sheer drops. My first stop was at Bodjwasa. The steep valley eventually plateaus at the sixteen-kilometre mark and most walkers stop here for the night before carrying on the last five kilometres to Gaumukh, or perhaps going all the way up to Tapovan. There is nothing more than a few tents and some concrete buildings, but the panorama is Homeric. It is also possible to get a good meal and a comfortable bed.
The next morning, like every morning in India was no rush. I continued only after a substantial dose of chai, beedees, strange birds and fresh air. I knew the rest of the walk would be easy. I had planned to spend the day at Gaumukh and return that evening, so I left half my luggage and my sleeping bag on the bed and set off.
My camera had been broken since the first week in India, but my photographs could not do the scene justice. Words are friendlier to me in convincing you that you must go the power source, the magnificent glacial bowl of the Ganges. The object of the pilgrimage along with a submersion in the Ganges is to purify the soul. I saw a checzlovakian fellow strip down and wallow in an icy bath that my big toe had a hard enough time standing up to. I dont know what he must have done in his life, but I decided that I had not done anything that a bit of foot washing couldnt fix. Not more than half an hour passed before I was being convinced to join the Czechs in their adventures up. At first I was A bit dubious. The journey the day before had been tough. I knew it would be freezing up there, and I had left all my gear in Bojwasa. Well I hesitated for about ten seconds before putting my boots back on. I found that the nights sleep at Bodjwasa had adjusted my body to conditions, and I kept up with this mountaineering group up the practically 90 degree slope. It was a good thing that none of them could speak English because I couldnt do any talking. Somehow I managed not to freeze that first night in Tapovan. The few blankets donated to me by the old Baba who lived in this stone and stick refuge might not have been enough, but with our little Czech and Israeli group, we managed to generate a bit of body heat.
With a bit more confidence in my fitness level,it was not difficult to convince me to walk even further. To get above the eagles and stare down at the cascading craters of rock. A rubble like scene which looked like the remains of a planet. The lightness in my head. The mountains that were reeling away from my vision. That large mushroom rock that I sat on; waiting, waiting for the mother ship.
And then the come down.
Past the cows mouth, past Om Giri Baba, back through Bojwasa and in the blinking of an eye I was signing my name next to my passport number at that small registry booth.
I spent one more day in Gangotri before leaving the story altogether. The next stop was going to be the hot springs at Ganganani, so despite the beauty and energy of the place, it is understandable why I was motivated to leave.
We were told that the bus from Gangotri was going at 3 o’ clock. It went at 2, leaving me and the other departures on the side of the road wondering if we were simply being bullshitted, cajoled into the arms of a greedy jeep driver. An hour later that jeep had taken away all our independence. This was not going to be one of those typically Indian trade agreements. The driver, who was holding all the cards; or rather, all the wheels to the only vehicle in a hundred mile radius was not up to negotiations! It also became quite apparent that we were not all going to fit into this rickety business on wheels. Finally me and Ziv ended up on the square meter roof of the car with about five rucksacks, two sacks of apples and a discount. I felt a bit like the flying duchess with a death grip. Holding on was not the only concern. It was necessary to duck the low overhanging rocks and drooping wires. A cold wind was seething up my baggy trousers and I was praying that we would catch the fast setting sun that was selfishly hiding its warmth behind each successive foothill. It should be noted that the latter is a dying sport in India. Feeling the rush of speed, seeing the epic beauty of the mountains from the vantage point of a bus roof used to be a favourite among many travellers. Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find any driver who would allow you to sit above in economy class.
The word “hamlet” would be overstating the size of Ganganani. It is basically a very natural oversized bathroom with a few beds available. That first freezing night I made my way to the hot pools. Being a Hindu country there was quite obviously one for men and another for women. Not wanting anything but hot water and some stringy green algae seeping into my pores made me realize what a good thing this was. The water was luxuriously scalding. The piping hot liquid was near impossible to bear. What was more difficult was getting out. With blood vessels the size of Jaipur crystals, I spent a full crouched minute experiencing the most intense headrush and feeling of disorientation.
The next day was steamy and relaxed. I sheltered from the beating sun in the ad hoc restaurant come chai shop. Some Indian families splashed around in the pools. A few youths were cleaning themselves under ducts which pipe down water from the hot spring into a concreted area referred to as the “showers”. An old man sat in a corner shaving himself in front of his small rusted brown mirror. There were a few other foreigners, and (if you havent guessed by now) a group of babas smoking copious quantities of charas/hash out of a wooden pipe beautifully carved into the relief of a cobra.
I will certainly go back there, but it was necessary to leave for Rishikesh before turning into a sultana.
I decided not to stop in Utterkashi to pick up my stuff that was being stored in the hotel. If I really wanted to refill my bag with left belongings, I would have to retrace my adventures half way around the world. I seem to forget about the things that I couldn’t bear to throw away when they are not by my side. I believe the realization that nothing (save a passport,dosh and sketchbook) is that necessary, is all part of the art of travelling lightly.
Ten weeks after I had first arrived I was back in Rishikesh. The browny orange misty atmosphere of monsoon mud had given way to a clear green flowing valley. There were more tourists but it had not become unbearable. I even made my way back to the Shanti River Music Cafe in search of that magic curing tea I spoke of a few months ago. What I found in its place was a concrete shell with the remnants of some torn down thatch and a few tattered old rags lying in the sand. I started to feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle. His story renders him asleep in the Catskill Mountains, supposedly under the influence of fairy magic. When he finally awoke and went back to his village it was not as he remembered. At this point he realized that he had been unconscious for the past one hundred years.
My job before heading down south was to try and extend my three month return ticket. The task was to put it simply-impossible! They would not even allow me to pay the difference on what would have been a six month return. “Three monthers” grant the least amount of flexibility on most airlines; so unless returning is a do or die decision try to leave home with a more accommodating ticket. That great job you intended returning too might be seriously outweighed by intentions to stay on the other side of the world.
The result is that I am still in India. I took my return voucher and burnt it, throwing its ashes into the Ganges along with the hundreds of bodies that are ritually cremated along the banks of the river in the city of Varanasi. But this is another story; as are all the places I have visited between.
I realize that I have been out of touch for a pathetically long time; but, this is an “on the road diary” and I am, after all, in the words of Jack Kerouak still…”On The Road”…