No.. No!! do not read it is a travelogue. I say so because it is not going to help you in any of your future travel plans. I just want to take you back along with me to a unique, unplanned and amateurish excursion that we had had 20 years ago. It is a possibility that if you are in your 40s you might draw parallels to any of your own experiences.
Those were the days when internet was new and raw, mobiles were carried by only those who could get a personal loan from the bank for it, call rates were high and even incoming calls were charged, PCOs were common and Pagers were status symbol [If you haven’t heard of the pager… just forget it]. In one of the summers of that era, six of us decided to travel to unknown destinations of Badrinath & Kedarnath.
Unknown.. because we had no clue where they were. In fact we were scheduled to go to some other place but because that place was already explored by four of us, these names popped up when we had already embarked upon our journey. The eldest brother, who had recently married, got so excited after listening to our plan that they [the couple] decided to accompany us late in the evening, a day before. There were no ATMs then so he had to borrow the money for the trip from his friend late at night.
The only thing that we knew was that the routes originate from Haridwar so early next morning we set off for the place in a car [not train because we had no reservations]. After getting our car parked at Haridwar we set out in search for a bus for Badrinath. At GMVN Bus stand we were informed that the couple of direct buses leave only in the early hours of the day. This meant we had to waste one precious day.
That day we spent exploring Haridwar and had a nice refreshing bath in the holy river Ganges. We spent the night in a reputed ashram where even talking loudly was not allowed. Next day, even before the dawn broke, we were waiting for the bus. Once in, we came to know that as per the rule, only 3 persons were allowed for the entire journey so as to accommodate more of local passengers. That meant that three of us were given the ticket to Rudraprayag only which was later extended to Badrinath. Another problem that we faced was that, most of us were carrying Rs. 500 currency notes [remember, no ATMs] and the bus conductor had not seen them before. It was left to the managerial skills of eldest to coax him to accept it.
One can imagine the ecstasy of most of us as we were exploring high mountains for the first time in our lives. Nausea, scary roads with hair pin bends, loss of appetite, roaring Alaknanda river along the road were some of the experiences that I can recall in the 14 hours journey that we had. After Joshimath there was a group of ladies who suddenly had asked us to instruct the driver to be careful. At this, the driver had turned around [while still driving] and asked the ladies to repeat their query. I remember they all broke into kirtan [religious singing] immediately and never they intervened again.
We had reached the Badrinath bus stand at 7pm. It would have been the most beautiful and tranquilizing sight that we all had ever seen. It was extremely cold and raining and we still had our jackets in the bag. I can never forget the delight on the face of the cook at the bus stand as he provided the warm fried veg pakodas [an Indian snack] to the six shivering souls.
We arranged for our stay at Kali Kamli Ashram which was just near the bus stand. There were not too many lodging and fooding options then. Next day at Badrinath was a heavenly sight for our weary eyes. We had our darshans in the morning after a bath in the hot sulpher springs and immediately had set off for 7 kms trek to Vaasudhara falls.
It was the first ever trek for all of us. Imagine our plight in the absence of any food and water throughout the entire stretch that we covered in 5-6 hours. Remember there was a lady [our sister in law] with us who had to be cajoled all the way to carry on and that is an enough explanation for our slow pace.
Tired and hungry we were back at Badrinath at around 8pm. To our horror, all the few eating joints were closed. Luckily, we found a shabby and unhygienic eating joint that provided us with rice and lentils and you bet, we ate like pigs [not literally].
It was in the late hours of the night that we discussed that no one comes so far often so why not pay a visit to Kedarnath too. Early next morning we were at the bus stand enquiring for the mode of transport to Kedarnath. We were told that there was only one bus that goes directly there and it is named ‘Bhook Hartal’ [meaning hunger strike] and that too had already left early in the morning.
The name ‘bhook hartal’ had been give to the bus service because it was functional only due to the long hunger strike of the locals of the places enroute. The only other option that we had was to catch a bus to Rudraprayag and then look forward for another mode for Kedarnath. Our bus left the stand at 8 am and to our dismay, it was a ‘Dak Seva’[meaning Postal Service] bus.
This bus would go to the bus stand of every village/ town enroute and then would go to the Post office of the place and exchange the sack of letters and parcels. An ancient but effective and the only method of carrying letters in those times in the upper Himalayas. Boon for some but for us it was so agitating. By the time we reached Rudraprayag which was only 150 kms away, the watch was already showing 6 of the evening.
It had started drizzling and no jeep driver was ready to drive us to Gauri Kund. Finally, one of them consented but only on the condition that we paid him for the full capacity of 9 passengers instead of actual 6. I remember it had amounted to Rs. 1700 then [around $28]. Very soon it had become dark and the route was through thick Kedarnath Sanctuary.
The driver didn’t want to miss the 8 pm gate so he was driving fast. The rain was coming down hard and the visibility was low. I don’t remember who was clutching my hand hard then but I can recall that there was a pin drop silence inside the vehicle. Just a kilometer before the final destination, we encountered a small landslide. The slush and the debris had formed a small mount on the road. Our driver decided to drive over it. It was then that the jeep skid horizontally and just stopped near the edge of the road. The silence inside was so deafening that one could clearly hear the heartbeats. 5-7 minutes of careful maneuvering and we were through.
We reached Gauri Kund late at night. The place was too congested and the rest houses too shabby and ill maintained. The trip had been so eventful and occupying that we all were in no mood to have dinner. Early next morning, we had to begin our 14 kms trek. To our surprise, when we woke up, the only elderly couple [not literally, just the eldest amongst us] was gone. Their trek had already commenced and they might not know even yet, but we were happy for them that they had saved us of our energies which would have been unnecessarily wasted in coaxing them to continue with their walk.
We got up, had our bath in the tapt kund at Gauri Kund and rushed off. With every bend we expected to have the glimpse of staggering couple but they really astonished us with their continuous visual absence. It was only after 6-7 Kilometers that we could catch them at Rambada. We had a hearty brunch there. After that it was the usual persuasion and sweet talking to move them up.
The trek was a visual splendor throughout. The snowcapped mountains, the river Mandakini alongside, the hanging clouds, the occasional signboards of ‘Beware of falling stones’ and the aura of the place was heavenly. Another experience worth mentioning is that we covered the entire stretch in anticipation that at some place the stink of the ponies’ excreta will die down but our expectations lasted longer than the route itself. During the trek we all had made a point to chide every single youngster who rode a pony for their physical incompetence.
Our leisurely high altitude trek ended at the sight of magnificent Kedarnath temple standing atop a platform at the end of the small lane in the snowy backdrop. It was around 2:30 pm and we were the last ones to enter the temple. After offering our prayers we sat on the banks of Alaknanda. It was only after 4 pm that we decided to walk back.
Hardly had we walked down 1 kms that it had started raining but we carried on. Very soon we realized that the entire route was deserted with occasional sighting of a pony with his master. All the shops were closed and one of the passerby even questioned our wise decision of returning so late [no wisdom, we never had any idea] and is if to add to our jitters we also had presence of wild animals to worry about..
In no time it had become dark and we were not carrying any torches. The rain had intensified and we all were walking, drenched to our skins, in the pitch dark trek route 3000 mts high. Luckily we had two sticks so we formed a straight line. The leading brother would bang the stick hard on the ground and announce loudly whether it was alright, staircase, hair pin turn or whatever. We all were engulfed with varied emotions like fear, weariness, companionship and valour throughout.
The only other thing that we encountered in our return trek was a dead horse [or a pony] whose body was spread across the route. After four hours of careful walking we finally could see the distant lights of Gaurikund. It was 10 pm and all that had happened was soon forgotten and the feelings once again had sudden drift, away from everything to pure ecstasy. I still remember the screams of delight at that moment. Finally we were back, shivering and drenched to the bones with those Rs. 10 a piece raincoats still hanging on our shoulders announcing there inaffective presence. But we were pretty much alive.
I do not remember how we returned from Gauri Kund to Rishikesh, must have taken a bus or maybe…. but it has been a long time but no other trip ever after has been so eventful and nostalgic. The memories will remain as long as each of the 6 memory sacs are at work.