Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Himalayan Travels - Part I - Do you want your child to be a naturalist?

This effort of mine to write a blog is pretty similar to my Himalayan travels - part exploration, part serendipity and trekking skills largely developed on the fly after a couple of hard and painful knocks. This blog is inspired by the children of  Maruthi International School, Tumkur whose sense of adventure, youthful zest and energy and most importantly being such 'no fuss' kids. With them around, there was not a dull moment.

Srinivas & Dr.Vishala who run the truly child-centric school have a philosophy of nurturing children in a multi-disciplinary environment (Both Srinivas and Dr.Vishala are partners in The Little Crest preschool chain). Being with nature is a very key ingredient of this educational philosophy. Forging close relationships with parents (which is quite unusual for most Indian school!!) is something that the Maruti school has done commendably.

I have written this blog in two parts to help you reader  beat the tedium of reading  a overgrown travelogue.

'Time Travel' - Day 1 & Day 2 : May 11th and 12th 2013
Travelling by train is like 'time travel'. It always unwinds to the 'past', a time in which the clock ticked a lot slowly. When we had the choice to travel by train to Delhi, it was not an involved decision for me. I just said YES. We boarded the Rajadhani express on Saturday 11th May at around 8pm from Bangalore city. There were predictable scenes of confusion about which seat is allotted to whom and most importantly do I as the rightful passenger 'own' enough baggage space under the seat!! We Indians always like to move around in droves. There are at any point in time, there are more number of eager relatives providing the extended support while only a small number of people would board the train. The scenes on a railway platform are such a microcosm of life itself. An emotional farewell to newly weds here and a tear shed with in an unnoticeable way by a fiance.

It was important for me to keep my expectations of the travel by Rajadhani express low. Rajadhani actually is a nice train. It does have well maintained compartments & surprisingly reasonably hygienic. Among the several big surprises was a 'Passenger Satisfaction Survey' that the staff conducted on us. On the not-so-positive end was the food. The food was hot but not great. Being a Bangalorean, we are blessed with moderate weather all year long. I got off the Rajadhani at Nagpur for a couple of minutes. It was like being in a furnace!!

13th May (Monday):
The Rajadhani express arrived on time at the Hazrat Nizamuddin station on schedule. Unlike a Chennai Central or Mumbai VT station, this station appeared fairly nondescript. On a different note, the Hazrat Nizamuddin area is steeped in history.

Himalaya Raths
We boarded the well maintained and bright looking air conditioned buses. We were driven to a service apartment for us to shower and change near the ISKCON Temple, East Kailash, New Delhi. Rakeshji & Rajeshji were the drivers and at first look didnot show how skilled and knowledgeable when it came to driving in the mountains and in negotiating the Himalayan terrain. More about this later!!

ISKCON temple in East Kailash, New Delhi

I had seen ISKCON Temple in Bangalore. The one in Delhi appears to be beautiful and special. Surprisingly it appeared less crowded compared to the milling crowd that you find in Bangalore. This ISKCON also draws a lot of morning walkers.

Bhajans & dancing
When we went in, the bhajan that the ISKCON devotees were singing broke into a lovely rhythmic dance. There is something magical about these places of worship. Devotion (bhakti) is in the air. One can say that ISKCON is a commercial entity. There is possibly some truth in that but I guess a templace like any other organization also needs to adapt to changing times. This ISKCON temple is self-contained with a restaurant, bookshop, sweet shop and a Audio Video facility.

Govinda beckons
Our breakfast was at the Govinda restaurant which is at the entrance of the temple. The running theme is one various leelas of Lord Krishna. The painting which I liked the most was the one which didnot quite appear like a original but really intricate detailing and nuanced expressions of Krishna and his friends. The restaurant has some really adoring paintings and exquisite craft work.

Golden brown pooris
Two days of train travel and the food on the train does some strange things to ones metabolism and craving for food. 'Can I get some idlis? Can I get some hot sambar?' was my refrain. The restaurant served us Idly - Sambar, hot pooris, sandwiches and chilled rose-flavored milk. The Pooris they served was different. It had a layer of masala which had a nice aroma and tang. 

We drove past the monumental Akshardham temple and the Commonwealth Games Village while heading towards Haridwar. We drove thru the bustling Ghaziabad with its new glitzy malls, historically relevant Meerut (happened to spot Indian cricketer Praveen Kumar’s restaurant on the highway) and a quaint Roorkee town (I was keenly looking forward to spotting IIT Roorkee and I was relieved to have a got a fleeting view!!).  I did count about a dozen engineering colleges en route to Haridwar. I guess the students who were migrating in the past to South India in search of quality engineering education donot have to travel that far anymore. It appeared that they had reasonably comparable options to get an engineering degree in the neighborhood.


We drove thru Haridwar which I could notice since I had made a trip about three years ago. Everyone got a quota of sleep on the bus. We stopped over at Haridwar for lunch which turned out to be quite delayed.

Magical nest

After our lunch and as we were getting ready to leave for Rishikesh, we noticed something which was clearly out of the ordinary. The birds had built their nests with clay and sand and they were continuouisly flying in and out. It appeared as though they were defying all the  laws of physics. It was like a series of basketball shots were aimed with extreme accuracy (slam dunks!!).

The drive into Rishikesh is quite arresting. One could see opportunities for adventure sports and camping along river Ganga. We drove thru Shivwalik range which is also called the outer Himalayas with peak altitudes of about 3500 ft MSL. 

We reached Rishikesh by around 5.30 pm. With tired bodies and aching feet we sighted Rishikesh. The Uttarakhand State seems to have reasonable controls on vehicles which ply in the mountains. We were held up at the checkpost for a while. As we entered Rishikesh, the traffic police in Rishikesh at the Veerabhadra road junction much to our disappointment showed poor judgment and even worse lack of understanding towards us visitors by making us run around in circles. 

While Srinivas was coaxing the Uttarakhand police staff to cooperation, I made a quick visit to the Rishikesh Railway station. This is the last railway station at the foothills of the Himalayas. The railway station was chiefly occupied by the Sadhu Maharajs. I have always been intrigued by the prospect of having a conversation with a Sadhu and understand their life and in particular their typical day. I overhead a Sadhu in the midst of a discourse egging a middle aged man about the need and power of giving!! I guess the philosophy is to think and act like a millionaire when it comes to giving and being a Sadhu is incidental and doesnot come in the way. THINK BIG as they say!!

There was a reunion of sorts at the Swami Rama Sadhakagrama. We had the group which flew in via Jolly Grant airport and the group led by Kasper from Denmark. We had a well deserved hot shower, hot supper and rest.

14th May (Tuesday):
The serenity of the Swami Rama Ashram is striking.  There is a certain stillness in the air. The plants and the flowers and the occasional flight of birds all seem to be in harmony. 

I made a trip to bathing ghat in Rishikesh. Ganga          flows with great vigor and force after entering the plains here. After some initial reluctance to plunge into the river, I thoroughly enjoyed the holy dip. I felt refreshed and recharged. 

I meandered around to have a tete-a-tete with the Sadhu Maharajs. I discovered that the Sadhu (possibly about 80 years old) that I talked to was originally from Gujarat. He recounted his life in about three minutes of conversation. His father was from the Pakistan (undivided India) of the British era. He worked as a carpenter for a few years in Gujarat. He was not enjoying being with his sister and drifted to Nasik and met his Guruji. He has been in Rishikesh for over 30 years. The high point of my interaction with him was the unfettered glee with which he recounted how an American lady who used to live in Rishikesh sent him a $ 10 bill from her home in the USA. He was gloating with pride that he encashed that for a princely sum of Rs. 430!!!

Our drive up the Himalayas began this morning. The climb uphill is slow and soft. It doesnot reveal itself  at all. It slowly dawns on you that unless seek it you wont get there. Reading the road signs and the occasional messages from the Highway authorities are some of the perks of road travel.

Poetic appeal...
On the picture on the left is an expression (please enlarge the picture for greater clarity) from possibly an underutilized engineer from the Highways department. I did some research trying to find a limerick on the same theme. Here is something that I found on internet:
Once I had some whisky,
And boasted to friends it was risky;
They came in a group,
And drank it like soup...
tottered like lambs very frisky. 

First flush as a tea gardener would say....
There is something magical about the first sightings of the snow-capped peaks. As you drive up, suddenly a breathtakingly beautiful view appears from nowhere. The excitement of these occasional sightings is unbelievable. Here's one such stopover and a picture of us savouring the view. We all were gaping as though we saw an alien spaceship!!!

15th May (Wednesday): Deoria Taal
I woke upto the strains of Mandakini river serenading the backyard. There is a certain timeless appeal about Mandakini river. As you lift your gaze from the river into the mountains there are dozens of little hamlets with about a dozen houses. Pahadis or Garhwalis as they are generally called make living out of agriculture from
their small holdings. The day begins as early as 5am and they use ox or donkey or mule as beasts of burden. 

We had a walk in winding serpentine road. We were treated to the best Aloo Parathas on the entire trip. The Parathas were  hot, soft and just melted in the mouth. I realised that most restaurants donot offer Dahi with Paratha. 

Our trek to Deoria Taal was planned as a dress rehearsal for the 'biggie' which was to come the next day. The bus ride from our hotel at Chandrapuri was a rough one. For once we saw how treacherous these roads could be given the constant threat of landslides. We observed in a couple of occasions, the clearance for the bus was so sharp!! You feel strongly for the drivers here since they have to be constantly making adjustments to surmount the challenges.

The trek to Deoria Taal was about 4 KM. The Deoria lake really transports you to a land of serenity. There are opportunities for one to camp and soak in the views. We were lucky to spot a Himalayan fox which made a quiet appearance for a drink of water in the lake.
Deoria Taal - View in summer
Deoria Taal  in winter

Pahadi Sabzi-Linguda
In one of the eateries, we sampled Pahadi cuisine. This is a dish called Linguda which is greens which is gently steamed. On making some enquiries with the dabawallah, I realised that if you know the Himalayan terrain, there are a myriad options if you want to cook Linguda. This is fibrous and supposedly good for ones intestine.

I also recollect a hauntingly soulful Pahadi Dhun which is more or less a signature tune of  Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasiaji on the Bansuri. Mountains synonymous with Himalayas have been a constant source of inspiration for musicians and artists since time immemorial. Like all folk traditions, the Garhwali folk music is soothing and therapautic. Here is a link to the Youtube video which provides a sampling of Garhwali song Meri Shunita  and Bedu Pako  which is considered more Kumaoni !!

16th May (Thursday)
We woke up at 4am and got ready for the trek ahead. I was visibly excited at the prospect of finding my limits of endurance. We had to drive upto Gaurikund to start the trek. Gaurikund is at an altitude of 6000ft above MSL. After winding thru Guptkashi we drove through Phata. Three private companies provide helicopter rides from Phata to Kedarnath. When we touched Phata the the stationary helicopters were being readied for a busy day ahead. We drove further for about 1 hour through really difficult mountainous roads to reach Gaurikund at about 8am. Here is a terrific aerial shot (Dr.Shivaprakash took from the helicopter) of the roads.

Gaurikund - the trek begins 
To borrow a term from the world of theatre or Broadway, the grand entry at Gaurikund is too shocking for anybody's comfort. One is suddenly swamped by a sea of people soliciting business of one form or the other. It is a little bit like a cat & mouse game. 

At every 10 ft of the way, someone would ask if we needed a Godi. Gaurikund seems to have about 5000 horses and possibly 4 times the population of horses seeking customers for the Godi service. I was sympathetic to the fact that the Garhwalis are a hard working lot with seasonal employment and livelihood opportunity. The unbridled commerce and somewhat indisciplined action of the dalals (middlemen) is a shocker. You need to have the temperament of a Zen monk and the strength and ability to dodge obstacles of a Kho Kho player to seek Lord Kedarnath. 

Serving the lord.....?

For those who either have to be or enjoy being carried, here is the Doli as an alternative. On closer examination, the Doli appears to be a product of significant design and engineering effort. If four able-bodied men of similar height are engaged, I believe that the Doli experience can be reasonably good. (of course, you need to like the idea of being carried around!!)

Putti for babies...
There is yet another option if you feel like a baby and weigh like one, you could get yourself a Putti and be carried on the back. Here is a picture of an overgrown baby trying one of them. 
The path is lined with eateries on the side. The eateries are actually a marvel of frugal engineering and layouting. In some of the eateries, if you occupy the corner with three sides covered with locally sourced insulation in between plastic sheets and a woollen rug, you possibly can withstand the worst of the summer's windy weather and snow. 

The cricketing legend, Don Bradman (arguably the best batsman the game has seen) once said "You may exhaust yourself but not your subject". I guess one can say the same about Himalayas. You can exhaust yourself capturing the views but still not capture it at all. Here are some lovely pix.

Piligrims Progress : 
Kedarnath then and now: 
50 years ago...

One of the best ways to understand and appreciate what we enjoy today is to look at 'NOW' and 'THEN' say 25 years or  may be even 50 years ago. As luck would have it I chanced upon a Hindu newspaper clipping chronicling what happened 50 years ago. The clipping said that there was only ONE bus ferrying pilgrims to Kedarnath. On our descent from Kedarnath, I think there were at least a thousand vehicles headed to Gaurikund.

We inched towards Kedarnath and we came upto the bridge across river Mandakini. As luck would have it we were on time to witness the evening aarathi of Mandakini Mai. With aching legs and creaking joints we wound our way into our hotel room. We walked into our dark and cold room. Without a whimper I just collapsed asleep.....