It had almost been a year since I’d visited Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh for a 15-day volunteer program. Apart from a memorable 2-day visit to Chikmagalur in October last year, I had hardly seen the hills in the last one year. Saying that I was craving them, would be an understatement. I started to find my senses veering from a half-written line on my word document to the sight of a white horse grazing in the grasslands of the faraway hills. It was time. But where?
One thing which I have come to believe in is that the more options we have, the more confusion it creates and the longer it takes to take the simplest decisions. I just didn’t know which place to go to. I live in Bangalore but I knew I didn’t want to do south. Himachal Pradesh would be hot. Fortunately, my friend simplified it for me. Even though I call myself a Bollywood fan and live half of my life imagining myself to be in at least 5 Hindi films at any given time, it was he who came up with the brainwave called – ‘Kedarnath chale?’
I jumped at the chance and bam! We were at the ISBT Kashmiri gate, perhaps the fanciest bus terminal of India. We bought snacks and waited for our night bus to Rishikesh.
We reached Rishikesh at 5:30 a.m. on Monday and met our taxi driver at the stop. He was a part of the group now.
Flashback to my phone call with the taxi driver one week back –
“Madam, the car will be non-AC”
Me: “Haan chalega”
Because why would we need AC while climbing up the hills? The climate would anyway be cool.
This myth shattered in the tiniest pieces when we started our 200 km journey from Rishikesh to Kund. The climate was anything but cool and the windows of the car didn’t roll down fully. The roads are quite bumpy and super dusty. The only relief was to listen to some soothing music, dhaba Maggi on the way and the scenery till we passed Rudraprayag, one of the Panch Prayag (five confluences), where the rivers Mandakini and Alaknanda meet.
From here onward, the road diverged into two paths, one went to Kedarnath, and the other to Badrinath, we took the former. And that made all the difference. Apart from some eroded mountains and broken roads, the road was offered nothing but beauty.
The river Mandakini was quietly flowing by. Drenched in sweat and exhaustion, I told the driver to stop the car. We found an easy rocky path towards the river which was surprisingly unoccupied and we peacefully dipped our tired feet in the freezing cold water. We came back feeling a little less exhausted and a lot happier.
Our destination was still 2 hours away. We saw a lot of people washing clothes and bathing in the river as we drove further and was thankful for our stop much earlier.
We stayed at Himalayan Eco Lodges in Kund, located beside the Mandakini river. I was reminded of the long conversation I had with the owner and how he had patiently explained the entire route to me while I took notes.
The owner didn’t sit at this branch so I didn’t speak to him again but silently thanked him. Apart from having spiders and some species of insects in the washroom, it was a beautiful and peaceful place with the non-stop natural instrumental sound of the river playing in the background.
The path from our tent till the restaurant felt like a mini practice for the trek scheduled on the following day. How naive were we?
We checked out of the hotel and started for Kedarnath at 4 a.m. the next day. After a two-hour car journey towards Sonprayag (the starting point of the trek) we found a heavy traffic jam and got down from the car at least 2 km before the starting point. We left most of our stuff in the cab and carried our camera bags and one bag full of our winter wear and other essentials.
With a brewing cup of masala chai at a small thadi,we commenced our ascent. After walking for 1 km, I knew that carrying the camera bag was a mistake. Also, there was a long queue for the mandatory biometric registration before starting the Char Dham Yatra. We skipped it and made an online registration which took a while due to low connectivity and internet connection. No one ever asked us for any kind of ID for the yatra. However, before going for any of the Char Dham, make sure that you download the Uttarakhand Tourism app and register yourselves to save time during the trek.
We continued to climb, clicking selfies and calling our folks to update them as the network doesn’t get any more reliable with the height. The weather was still on our side. It was after reaching the Sonprayag parking, that both the weather and the crowd seemed to exceed my expectations, not in a good way.
On my left, I could see some pittus which took me back to the movie Kedarnath. And then someone pushed me from behind, suggesting that this was no place to daydream. It was a horse’s hip. I was immediately kicked back to the real world and I resumed walking with the horses, pittus and hundreds of people trying to fit in my perfect dream frame of the movie.
One of the good parts of this path is that it is paved and dotted with chaiwallahs, jaljeera and nimbu paanistalls along with fresh sliced cucumber and watermelon to keep the travellers hydrated and healthy. In fact, I was quite surprised to find boards for medical help in every few kilometres. However, the funniest parts are the misleading sign boards placed randomly on the way. One board said ‘Gaurikund – 4 km’, and as we walked further, the board said ‘Gaurikund – 5 km’. After talking to the locals, dhaba owners and other travellers, I realised that on this trek, ignorance is bliss. Because the more I knew, the farther the destination seemed. It was 1 p.m. We had already walked for more than 10 km and there were easily 15 more to go. The only roadblocks hindering our never-die walking spirit were the rising temperature and the fear that by the time we reach, the Kedarnath temple might close for darshan. So we decided to do the rest of the trek on horses.
“I recommend you all to take horses at the very beginning to save time and energy especially if you aim to reach the temple in one day.”
I personally am not a fan of horse and camel rides, probably because it feels like I am hurting both them and me physically and mentally. But as we escalated, the temperature began to drop, the colour of the sky turned from blue to grey and the view of the valley looked like a dream.
We paused for a bit and had a round of paranthas, dal and achaar. Now that I stay in Bangalore, I truly miss the North Indian Food, especially the pahadi paranthas. I put on my jacket, cap and woolen gloves and resumed the ride quickly as it had started to drizzle. Within 2.5 hours of taking the horses, we reached the horse parking, just 1 km away from the area which offered accommodation. As soon as we started walking towards it, it began to snow. People were running around trying to hold on to their umbrellas and pittus were taking the pilgrims downhill by covering the seats with huge plastic covers. We stood under an overcrowded shelter shivering to the core, watching the snowflakes passionately greeting the valley as I took some pictures and waited for our chai and Parle-G.
It wouldn’t stop snowing. So we stopped waiting and rushed to the tea shops to ask for accommodation. Thankfully, we found a tent belonging to a tea-seller and chilled there for a bit. It was 5:30 p.m. and we decided to try our luck for the darshan despite people warning us about the long queues and the temple closing at 7 p.m.
We started walking towards the Kedarnath temple.Its mix of dark grey and brown stands out and shines even under a cloudy sky.
After a full-day hike, standing in the queue felt serene. We stood there gushing over the snow-capped mountain peaks surrounding us and I swear that a sheet of snow far away was a replica of India’s map. Chatting with strangers about the 2013 tragedy which wiped away the solid roads and so much more from this holy paradise of India was heart-breaking but that long queue spoke of the relentless devotion of the pilgrims whose faith brings them to pursue this long journey, only in search of their one true God.
With hundreds of thoughts and a few conversations about life and other drugs, 2 hours flew by and we finally entered inside one of the most revered temples of the world. We quickly did our prayers and bought prasad and gangajal for family and friends back home and started to walk back to our tent. It was pitch dark and the phone’s torchlight was the only light till my friend pointed up and I looked up to see the crystal clear night sky blanketed with trillions of stars twinkling. I felt my heart smile.
Happy and weary, we had a light meal and slept early, intending to start our descent at the crack of dawn. The temperature dropped to a -2 degree Celsius that night and I was up all night in my sleeping bag praying for it to get warmer out there.
We woke up at 5 a.m., had our cups of hot tea in the tiny paper cups, soaked up the sterling beauty of the Kedarnath valley and bade goodbye till we meet next time.
The descent was a lot smoother and faster in the initial 3 hours but became difficult in the last 1 hour due to exhaustion and tired feet. Also, the weight on the shoulders (even though it was just one camera bag), slowed me down. This was when I decided that my camera will no longer accompany me in my long treks/hikes/walks in the future. It was a relief to spot our cab in the Sonprayag parking and rest a little before we could pull up our socks and get ready for another Dham.