Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Pothi padh padh kar jag mua, pandit bhayo na koye;

Dhai aakhar prem ke, jo padhe so pandit hoye.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Kalindikhal - Part 2

16 July: Woke up early and went off to have breakfast somewhere in the city. Here are some misc. snaps from Uttarkashi.

We then loaded all our stuff onto a jeep (hard work! phew!) and moved out of Uttarkashi. Here's what an overloaded jeep looks like.

Halfway to Gangotri, we ran into this little shop with this awesome hoarding. Do click to enlarge it and read all of the writing.

But a little further ahead, we found the road blocked by a landslide. Tons of rock had been swept onto the road, and the rain had compounded the crime by bringing down a river of sludgy mud over it that threatened to immobilize any vehicle that tried to venture across it.

Apparently a bulldozer was on its way, but while we waited for it, some folks on both sides of the divide decided a little honest labour couldn't do any harm. So in a steady drizzle, people squelched around in the muck moving huge rocks and boatloads of mud with one crowbar, one length of webbing and a plentiful supply of bare hands. We all chipped in, some very enthusiastically wading right into the thick of things (literally), and some two-wheelers did manage to find a narrow reasonably solid route across (left) (with liberal amounts of pushing and pulling involved in each transit), but after a good part of an hour the effort waned and we decided stone-throwing competitions were a better way to while away time (right).

The bulldozer did finally turn up, a huge yellow caterpillar-tracked monster that ploughed purposefully through the debris. The huge quantity of earth it displaced with each pass showed very effectively just how futile our manual labour had been :).

And so on to Gangotri, a town perched at 3048m right above a chasm of rock through which the Bhagirathi thunders down after hurtling over a shelf.

You really have to stand on the bridge or one of the little platforms above this spot (right in front of the GMVN at Gangotri) to get an idea of the unimaginable force of a huge volume of water (a good fraction of the Ganga's flow at Haridwar) forced through an opening a couple of metres wide.

A nocturnal visit to the temple nearly resulted in a fight with a couple of self-appointed temple "guards". Thankfully, the situation was diffused before half the town was called into the fray.

(Part 3)

Friday, August 11, 2006

Kalindikhal - Part 1

(This is the first part of a report on our recent trek to Kalindikhal, a 5947m pass connecting Gangotri and Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalayas. Dramatis personae: (Ravindra) Vishnoi, (Mrutyunjaya) Panda, Ajay (Singh), Vladlen (Koltun, my unfortunate PhD advisor), (Harpreet S.) "Happy" (Grover), me. The pictures were shot by all of us.)

Okay, so this story needs a prelude: if you're going to Kalindikhal, you need official permission from the "authorities". The latter is ill-defined. If you go to the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF), they will direct you to the District Magistrate (DM) of Uttarkashi, the district which contains the trek route. If you go to the Uttarkashi DM, he, pleading absence from his office, might direct you back to the IMF, or hand you over, like a sacrificial lamb, to his hierarchy of minions. After much running-around, we ended up having to get permits from both the IMF and the Uttarkashi DM. The IMF is mercifully in Delhi, and two of us were from Gurgaon, reasonably close by. The Uttarkashi affair was a nightmare, though -- read on.

14 & 15 July: Landed at Delhi airport at around 10pm after a disgustingly long flight across the Pacific and was met by a turbocharged Vladlen announcing that he had lost his luggage. Argued at length with Continental groundstaff (a pair of hassled-looking females) who hemmed and hawed and finally told us the stuff had been loaded onto the next day's flight. We filled up a claim form and morosely chugged over to the domestic airport to pick up Vishnoi, who was arriving from Bangalore. Minutes after Vishnoi's flight landed, we received word from Continental that some git had actually made off with Vladlen's pack by mistake, and had returned it, and could we please come and collect it? They didn't explain why their database insisted it was coming the next day, and we didn't ask. End result, the pack was restored to its owner and we all rolled along to Gurgaon in various stages of sleep-deprivation (Vishnoi: negligible, me: slightly less negligible, Vladlen: extreme).

Now we had to present ourselves in person at the Uttarkashi DM's office before it closed for Sunday, so we packed in record time and somehow bunged ourselves into an Innova in the wee hours of the same night. This is what the packing chaos (food, tents, stove, utensils, rope, sleeping bags, clothes...) in Panda and Happy's apartment looked like just before we abandoned it.

That's Vishnoi, Panda, Happy, the driver and Jeet (who'd popped in to see us off) from left to right. Vladlen was checking mail in the next room and Ajay had been sent off to Uttarkashi to initiate negotiations three days earlier.

The car trundled on through the night and the early hours of the morning through Haryana and Uttaranchal, making a forced detour because the direct road had been blocked to allow unending streams of "kavdes" (pilgrims) to walk their way from all over North India to Gangotri-Gaumukh to collect the water of the Ganga from its source. Only notable incident in a largely sleep-dominated drive: Vladlen getting out to piss in a large crop-field and returning to comment, "I'm sure you know this already, but we're standing in a sea of pot." If he was to be believed, cannabis did seem very popular indeed in those endless farmlands :).

We reached Haridwar sometime in the morning, where we switched to a 4WD car and Vladlen took suspicious bites off my roasted bhutta (corn) and succumbed to the guilty pleasures of roadside nimbu pani (he religiously stuck to mineral water wherever available otherwise).

From Haridwar on to Uttarkashi, passing the Tehri dam (left picture: reservoir behind the dam) and lunching at a little restaurant with a fabulous rear verandah view (right picture). It was overcast and everything was lush green.

Enter bureaucratic mayhem. We arrived at Uttarkashi to find that Ajay had spent three frustrating days arguing with the DM's minions (more encouragingly, he had also located a trekking company which would provide a guide, porters and extra equipment). At the Intelligence Unit (ha ha) hideout, we spent an hour fighting our urge to plug an old idiot who kept stalling us on one stupid pretext after another, the last being a clause somewhere in the official literature which stated that "a team of fewer than four foreigners is not allowed to trek to Kalindikhal". Now we had one non-Indian, Vladlen, but there were five more of us and we were sure (read, "eager to prove") that the clause applied only to all-foreign teams and not to our group! The offices closed one by one as the evening approached, we phoned and visited all sorts of officers in their homes, we used a contact in the IAS to "persuade" the Uttarkashi DM via the Haridwar DM, we alternately sweet-talked and bullied the minions, and finally, hallelujah, managed to get the forms signed by the CO and the SDM. The aforementioned old guy was left in the lurch in the process, but we were not particularly sympathetic.

Left picture: Us accompanying the minion with our application file (on the right) from one office to another half a kilometre away. That's Ajay in shorts on the left. Right picture: The SDM signing our forms. That room also functioned as a courtroom with a little fenced-off witness-box and everything, by the way.

Statutory warning: To go on treks like this which approach the China border, be prepared to deal with bureaucratic shit. It's way more draining than actually walking.

Duty done, we trundled into a dharamshala stunningly located right beside the raging Bhagirathi. Here're our verandah view reflected in a mirror (left) and the temple next door (right).

Ajay, Panda and I went to the office of Snow Spider Trek & Tour, our support staff and equipment providers, to pick out six pairs of mountaineering boots in our sizes for the pass day (they insisted we'd be better off with them although it was just about possible to do the snowbound pass in normal hiking boots, and they were right) and talk about an extra stove, kerosene et al. We then grabbed dinner and drifted off into much-needed sleep.

(Part 2)