Tuesday, May 02, 2006

crushed mules and pilgrims

i stopped in uttarkashi after a 6 hour bus ride from rishiskesh, where i found a guide and a few porters to take me on a five day trek to dodi tal (tal==lake) and the snowy high point (13000 ft) above it. the trek was nice but easy (way too slow) and my guide was annoying. i was determined to stop shelling out big rupees for these treks that i could easily (and more pleasantly) do on my own and in less time. the only thing i lacked really was a sleeping bag. a tent isn't really necessary, as usually you can find something to huddle under in a pinch.

so i caught a shared jeep north to gangotri, the most remote of the 4 mountain temples visited by the devoted. an hour into the journey we were halted by a landslide that crushed a mule.

the landslide was caused by road work, and the owner of the dead mule was demanding compensation from the goverment. for some reason, we had to wait for the "big official" to arrive and assess the situation before they would clear the slide. so for 2 hours i sat and watched a herd of sheep and goats voraciously devour a swathe of the mountainside. it was more interesting than you might imagine. i started a doctor doolittle-ish dialogue with a baby goat who was interested enough in whatever it was i was saying to come over and let me pet him. deprived of meat for the last 2 weeks, i guiltily thought about how tasty this kid would be.

the goat was saved by the arrival of the big man, who struted around in sunglasses and a silly hat and waved around a stick, his large entourage testifying to his importance. he declared that the government would pay the man for his dead mule and finally road clearing work began. i didn't watch them scoop up the mule guts. finally they let vehicles pass one at a time so that if another slide occured, only one group would be crushed to death. we survived.

finally we arrived in gangotri, a nice location along the ganga (ganges), with some views of snowcapped mountains in the distance. the pilgramage season would start on the very next day, and the entire town was being given a last minute coat of paint in lieu of a proper cleaning (so much so that i still have paint on my arm and backpack.) i checked into a hotel, and discovered that my filthy bathroom had no running water at all. instead they brought me a bucket full of holy but cloudy ganga water with which to bathe and flush. a news crew from some hindi channel interviewed me for a story on westerners who visted these holy mountain sites. i could tell they were disappointed that i didn't babble new age god-meets-river-meets-mountain nonsense. essentially i told them that i sort of randomly wandered up here with no intention of meeting god. i will probably not be on the air. back home i enjoyed the 2 hours of generator provided electricity and went to bed early.

the next morning i headed out alone toward gomuhk and the massive glacier that feeds the mother ganga. this time no porters and no guides--for the first time i would actually be carrying all of my own gear. it was easier than i thought. the trail followed the ganga, climbing gradually for 13km until hitting upon bhojbasa and its ashram in the desolate river valley where i could spend the night. fortunately they were still serving lunch and i stuffed myself silly with rice and dahl. the weather was starting to turn ugly. i checked into my cold, tiny room. fortunately they had thick (albeit filthy) blankets. i napped until someone came by and installed a large israeli man next to me, a cosier arrangement than i would have liked. this inspired me to get out a bit and socialize in the bitter cold with my fellow ashramees, an odd mix of saddhus and pilgrims and israelis and even a few other americans.

i should explain the ashram concept for those who don't know. actually, i'm not sure i really understand it (as with most indian institutions), but i'll give it a shot: ashrams are ostensibly semi-religious, communal, tax exempt places to eat and sleep and meditate and "get away from it all". they are often run by a guru of some ilk who might teach yoga or lecture about god, etc. you supposedly donate what you'd like for your room and board. the reality is that many ashrams are little more than tax-evading hotels with a fixed "donation" that you have no choice but to pay. this particular ashram was turning a tidy profit, packing us in tightly for a mandatory "donation" of 150 a head. at least that's what whitey was paying.

it was too cold and rainy to do much but huddle in the room. dinner was a large communal and cold affair, with lots of pre-eating chanting and such. i don't know what it was i was chanting, but i chanted nonetheless, afraid they wouldn't feed me if i didn't.

i slept early because i had nothing else to do. my roommate "redeye" went down the hall to flirt with a roomfull of israeli chicks, which i think is against the rules.

i woke at 5:30 am and in started the 5km toward gomukh in the freeing wind, but it warmed quickly as the sun rose in the cloudless sky. i decided i would not try to go to tapovan, 6km beyond gomukh, because everyone told me a guide was essential, as crossing the glacier was dangerous and the trail was to hard to follow.

the trail was deserted as i approched gomukh and the gangorti glacier.

apparently on average one pilgrim a week is crushed to death when the monster glacier calves, so i thought better of standing directly in front of the beast. instead i continued climbing the rocky trail alongside the glacier, looking for better views. after another half an hour i realized that i was well on my way to tapovan. i decided i might as well keep going, vowing to turn back as soon as things got tricky. i broke my vow almost immediately. the rock-hopping trail along the glacier surface was difficult to follow, even without the patches of snow obscuring portions of it. i used my binoculars and my guidebook description and some landmarks to map out where the trail generally was, so that when i lost it i could find it again. progress was slow; i lost the trail several times, but always found it again.

finally i made it to the steep mountain wall i would now have to climb. a stream flowed down the mountain, and many of the rocks were icy and loose. i heard thunderous crashing nearby--a landslide. these became disturbingly regular as i ascended the mountain, but were always on the unstable ground to the right and left of the path. i supposed this spate of landslides must have had something to do with the early morning sun thawing the evening's freeze. i was emboldened by the appearance of a few porters below me, just starting up the mountain i was now most of the way up, though i was also afraid i might send some of the loose rocks tumbling down upon them. i ignored sign painted on a rock that pointed me across the river to tapovan, because the river crossing was far too treacherous. instead i continued up. at last i was there. though hardly the lush green valley filled with wild blue sheep my guidebook described (too early in the season), the snow covered plain bisected by an icy river and hemmed in by dramatic himalayan peaks was nonetheless beautiful and worth the trip.

i found my way down and back to the ashram by lunchtime. i had a double helping of rice and dahl. i was fairly tired, having done 22km of difficult trekking, but at the same time didn't relish spending the afternoon at the cold and boring ashram. did i dare walk all the way to gangotri? could i possibly be that stupid? yes and yes.

i started back. the weather turned ugly quickly. the wind picked up, and it began to snow. after 5km i found a shelter shared by 8 others and waited for the weather to calm. a gangotri bound family contemplated heading back to bojhbasa. after half an hour i decided i would wait no longer and pressed on through the snow. the weather soon cleared. i encountered an impressive herd of wild blue sheep (huge beasts with massive curly horns) along the way.

it was slow going, but by 5pm i completed my 35km of trekking, my legs feeling like jello. i found the closest hotel with running water (though no hot water) and a generator which the owner promised would be on in a few hours. the generator came on but i had no power. a man came to my room to investigate. he took off his shoes, assulting me with the worst foot stink i have ever encountered. i shooed him out, but the stink would not leave. the man declared there was a short and brought me 4 candles. i declared i must leave my dark and stinky room, and in my exhausted state was forced to venture out in search of another hotel. i checked into an uglier one for the same price, but at least i had electricity. that is until half and hour later when the generator broke down. i gave up, and decided to go to bed early. just as sleep was setting in, an enraged man started pounding on my door, trying to force it open. he yelled things in hindi through the locked door and i yelled back at him in english. he eventually decided i wasn't the guy sleeping with his wife (or something equivalent) and left. i decided i despised gangotri, and finally went to sleep, as yet unaware of the tick that had burrowed its way into my chest.


Anonymous said...

You're STILL over there? Man, and to think you could've been making money all this time.

super timmy said...

do you have a better photo of the blue sheep?