Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chardham yatra - My observations

I had been on a pilgrimage to the famous Char Dhams in Uttarakhand, Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath, in the month of May 2016.
Along with a friend of mine from Hyderabad and a cousin's husband (brother - in - law) from Singrowli, we joined the tour which started from Rishikesh. It wasa 10 day road trip with night halts at Phoolchatti, Harsil, Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, Gaurikund, Gauchar, Badrinath, and Kaleswar.

We had a very good experience traveling with GMVN, Garhwal mandal Vikas Nigam limited, as their Tourist Rest houses are sturdy, have the best locations and views, the rooms big and airy, the food (on order) very good, friendly and very helpful guide on the bus, very safe driving, all arrangements done well in advance, and finally a very reasonable package cost...
Kedarnath Yatra darshan wouldnot have been possible but for the guide's herculean effort.

Some of the things I noticed on this journey are:

1. Mountains around Yamunotri are very steep and climb straight up

2. The trek to Yamunotri is much more than 5 kms. (as shown on the bill boards). Be prepared for a steep climb, width of the track not more than 6 - 8 feet only, with millions of steps on the way, horses and riders in both directions, Palankins / dandys in both directions (four men carrying one passenger in a sort of chair), kandies (one passenger sitting in a basket carried on the back), horse dung, steep drop on one side into Yamuna river and sheer height of mountain on the other, people on paidal / foot in both directions.... all these make for a trying and difficult trek..

3. Yamuna water is very cold; only a handful among thousands braved having a bath in the river. There is a hot water spring next to the temple; Separate sections for men and women are there. Most pilgrims have a dip in it. Not very clean as thousands use the facilities continuously...

4. Small dhabas and food stalls near the temple serve simple food like Maggi noodles, Aalu paranthas etc.

5. When asked if she would like to go in palankin, an elderly co passenger remarked, "char logonke kandhonpe baith kar hame nahin jana hai..". I cannot put it any better. Each one to their own...

6. Those planning to go on foot to Yamunotri Dham better be very fit; heart, knees, back, and stomach should be in great condition. It is not simply walking, but climbing. It took us 5 hrs. for going up and 3.5 hrs. for coming down.
Overall, Yamunotri dham is difficult whether paidal, horseback or on the shoulders of men. Those with knee problems, heart problems, Hypertension, breathing problems can avoid this dham. Added to these, the ponies may step on your feet (if you are going on foot), they may slip (as the flooring is smooth and the horses have shod hooves) thereby dropping the passenger; depending on the passenger's luck where he falls, the pony attenders try to control the ponies but by then the damage is done, all of us saw 3 or 4 ponies slipping and falling...

7. Gangotri is doable. The vehicles go till the temple. Facilities are good. It is a beautiful temple and the ghats are new and neat. Bhagirathi river is very muddy, the glacier brings the mud down the mountains.

8. Ghat roads to Gangotri are scary and high up. Traffic is also heavy.

9. Kedarnath is the mother, father and grandfather of all treks. It tests your fitness, endurance, patience, will power, faith, luck, anything else ....

10. There is motorable road to Soneprayag. There, the vehicles are parked in Mandakini river bed. There was a 2 km. long queue to catch the shuttle service run by the govt. between Soneprayag and Gowrikund (5 kms stretch), as the roads are in bad condition and no parking in Gowrikund. Anywhere between 10 to 15 people are stuffed into each SUV and transported to Gowrikund. By now people are hungry, tired, tested, weak, harried, lost or separated from their groups ..... But the real ordeal begins after this ...

11. There are about 5000 ponies plying between Gowrikund and Kedarnath everyday. The number is nowhere near meeting the requirement of pilgrims over a lakh a day. One has to book a pony for the next or next to next day. If the schedule is flexible, they can stay over; on the other hand, if the program is fixed, they either go paidal or turn back; which a lot of them do. Our guide procured 7 ponies for us for the next day. Three of our group decided to go on foot; out of which one returned due to illness after a few kms., one stayed over along the way, and only one (my brother-in-law) made it by the same night, in 10 hrs. time ....

12. It is approxi. 21 kms. to Kedarnath shrine, at a height of 3581 m. from sea level. Oxygen will be less; camphor comes useful. The ponies took 5 hrs to climb to the top. The horses drop off a few kms. from the temple. It was very cold on top. After a long queue (2 km?), the darshan is done in a jiffy with the security personnel shoving from one side and pulling from the other side, and before one gets a proper glimpse of the deity, one lands outside the temple. It rains intermittently if one is lucky, or incessantly if one is not .... we got lucky; got wet to the woollen socks and gloves. By now one is very much alone, having separated from the group totally ....
The snow clad mountains are simply great, the atmosphere is serene, one wonders if one is in heaven...

13. A short note on horse back climbing to Kedarnath: Though the govt. fixed rates are Rs.1800 for going and Rs.1200 for coming down, no one was willing to come at those rates due to heavy demand. we paid Rs.3500 for going, and Rs.1500 coming down and Rs.200 to the attenders as tip, and also pay for their tea etc. Going up on pony is fun and saves one from the pains of a long trek. Climbing down on horseback is pure torture. the knees take a beating both literally and figuratively. Continuously looking down into the valley and Mandakini river does not help the confidence at all. If one happens to witness a horse slipping falling and injured rider or horse, it becomes more difficult to hang on to the saddle and make it to the bottom. The back takes a beating from all that jarring and jolting. Need to take more breaks after a point, meaning more number of times climbing on and off the horse. If the horse is frisky, that much more risky. Usually the knees give way on reaching the ground and one just flops into whatever is on the ground, and then have to pick oneself up with the help of the attender. Various parts of the body start aching; swelling and welts in unmentionable places; a sore back and stiff legs are on course for a few days. In conclusion, it is not fun horse riding...

14. There is another option, Helicopters. There are 4 - 5 operators flying from Phata, close to Soneprayag, to Kedarnath. Pavanhans is State run, they say, by far, the best. The ride has to be booked in advance depending on the demand; approxi. a week to 10 days. They do not give you the time of your journey. Only after one reaches there, that your flight is scheduled depending on current conditions. So, one should be prepared to wait ... they do not fly if the visibility is bad or in bad weather or if the chopper develops technical trouble and the trip gets cancelled, and money will be returned whenever they deem to return it. If someone cannot climb either on foot or on a horse, if the chopper gets cancelled, one has no option but to return without darshan.

15. Badrinath is a beautiful town. There are good hotels, dharamshalas. GMVN has several TRhs there. Badrinath gets maximum tourists supposedly. The darshan queues are long, going around the mountain (almost). The place is windy and chilly as it is in a sort of a  valley. There is a hot water spring for dip or bathing, and do the darshan.

16. All the four Dhams are bang on the banks of rivers. They are must visit places. 
Once in a life time experience being in Himalayas. Any non-hindu / non-religious should also  go for the sheer energy and vibrations there. I had a great time. Met some great people. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Kedarnath Yatra

We did Night halt at Rudraprayag GMVN Tourist Rest house. It is handsome building with big open spaces at the front and back. Right on the banks of Sangam of Bhagirathi and Mandakini rivers. There is a short trail down to the river from the Rest house. Some of us ventured and took a dip in icy cold water. 
Next morning, we set out very early for Soneprayag. As per the scheduled program, we were going to stay at Kedarnathji / Kedar puri overnight. So we packed very light, just one set of clothes and plenty of warm clothes for the journey and night stay; a few medicines, snacks and such.
The road keeps climbing continuously. A few kilometers before reaching Soneprayag, there are helipads at Phata where a few charter services are available for those wishing to fly to kedarnathji. Several pilgrims from our tour stopped at these helipads. One has to book the tickets before hand. There will be a waiting list for 8 -10 days in advance. My friend thought she could buy a ticket after reaching there. They were all pre-booked and none available

At Soneprayag, I was shockingly surprised to find the parking for buses and 4 wheelers in the river bed of River Mandakini; the very river had a deluge and washed off everything in sight, in July 2013. 
Here the road is a few meters above the river bed. There were many shops and guest houses here I believe before the floods of 2013. The road between Soneprayag and Gaurikund was totally damaged. Prior to 2013, the tourist vehicles would go till Gaurikund. There are still landslides between Soneprayag and Gaurikun from time to time, so all vehicles are stopped at Soneprayag itself.
After getting off our bus, we had to join a serpentine queue, probably 2 km long and moving very slowly. I started to develop stomach cramps by now. Could not figure out the reason. Someone helped me with an Eno powder. It didnot help at all. Believe me it was painful 1 hr. crawl. We crossed the bridge over the river and on the other side, govt. run SUVs were parked. We climbed into, should I say, packed into them like sardines;which didnot help my condition.

Gaurikund is a small bustling town. For those who didnot register for Biometric identification, can do so here. There is a narrow path, on either side of which small restaurants and guest houses are located. All these adjoining the river Mandakini. These are fairly new structures since most of the buildings got washed off in the floods.
Luckily for us, the GMVN rest house sits on a higher ground, also made of solid stones. There was a slight damage to one end of the building, but rest of the structure is intact.
The distances from Gaurikund to Kedarnathji vary from source to source. The above list gives a fairly accurate picture. 
Our guide had a plan of securing ponies for those of us desiring to take a pony ride rather than trek, at Gaurikund. By now my stomach pain was severe and also started a temperature. My plan was to wait until I reached Gaurikund and see the conditions and decide which mode of travel to take. If I was feeling fit and there was ample time, I would trek, or take a pony. Since my condition was rather painful, even traveling by pony seemed tough.
Upon reaching the rest house around noon, we came to know that all ponies start out in the morning and there were none to be hired. Three of the pilgrims decided to trek and started with an over night bag right away. Our guide tried his best and secured 6 ponies for the rest of us. All we had to do was rest and be ready and fresh for the pony ride. It gave me ample time to sleep and recoup.
The rates are fixed by the govt. for coolies, ponies and dandys. Since it was peak season, no one was willing to come at those rates (Rs.1800 one way up, for pony ride). We went that far and return because of the extra cost of ponies was unthinkable. Finally they agreed for Rs.3500 for one way per person. Starting at 2.00 am next morning!!!! To continue on to the rest of the Chardham yatra, as per the program, we had to be back by afternoon. We had an early night and with the help of alarm set for 1.30 am, got ready (brushed, and put on extra warm clothes ) and waiting by 2.00 am. The ponies with the attenders came promptly and we set out by 2.15 am. 
It was an unusual experience; middle of the night, on strange horses (never having ridden any except sit atop a few as a sack of flour), no street lights, on the ghats, mountain on one side and Mandakini on the other, continuously climbing .....

Thus we kept going for 5 hrs. It was bitterly cold, temperature around 4 degrees centigrade, weakness from not having eaten properly for more than a day ...
The old route was good for 13 kms. which is on the left side of Mandakini as one goes to Kedarnathji. Cross a bridge and go to the opposite side for another 9 kms. This part is the new road.
I was glad I was on a pony and not climbing those mountains. At that time of the night, there were no pilgrims on the way. As we were close to the top, we came across a few coming down. The route seems never ending.

The early morning sun on the snow capped mountains is a sight to behold. The majestic Himalayas have to be seen, felt and experienced here. The grandeur and the scale cannot be described in words.

At one spot we saw hundreds of sheep grazing on the hill side. other than that, there are no life forms to be seen.
Finally we reach the top. Pony parking, as I called it, was a few kilometers from the temple. The knees would not support after the long climb. It took a few minutes to stabilize. From here we all dispersed strangely enough. we were all on our own. There were toilets a plenty. My only aim was to take the darshan somehow. So haltingly and dragging my feet, I reached the queue, a kilometer long?

we were warned about the reduced oxygen levels at that height. I was prepared with camphor, but the reality was different. I started feeling slightly oozy and no control over my movements etc. immediately I started sniffing the camphor. After a couple of hours, I got acclimatized to the weather conditions.
At the entrance to the temple an official was taking down the names and addresses of the visitors. A light shower started and quickly the said official folded his register, collected his stuff and made haste. I wondered if the procedure of recording the particulars of the pilgrims is to know how many and who were there at what time, and the official scoots at the first light rain, what about the rest who get caught in a thunder storm or a blizzard or worse a landslide etc.? Well, there is faith for everyone!!! 

As the rain increased, there was pushing and showing and barely enough time to pour the Gangajal and darshan inside the temple. 
It is a small temple. There is a Mandapa and Garba griha, inner sanctuary). It is not clear when exactly the temple was constructed, probably more than a 1000 years ago, and who got it built. Built of huge stones, cut finely, the likes of which are not found around that region. Seeing the habitable period is only 6 months a year, it must have taken several years to complete it. 

Once outside the temple, there was no shelter for the pilgrims to sit or stand, close by. I was soaked within minutes. Where does one go in the rain. the temperature dropped further. I saw several senior citizen shivering violently.
Kedarnath Temple is at a altitude of 3583 m. from sea level. Gaurikund is an altitude of 1982 m. We climbed some 1601 m. in 5 hrs. on a pony. A huge boulder sits in the back yard of the temple. It is called Divya sila. It was washed down from somewhere and stopped just behind the temple. Because of it, only rubble and water entered the temple, and rocks and boulders couldnot hit and damage the temple. Except the temple, everything else got washed off during 16/17th.July 2013. Reconstruction work is going on. 

GMVN Nandi base camp had sitting area / restaurant. People huddled together inside. My stomach being still sensitive. I avoided eating anything. We took ponies for the return journey to Gaurikund. It cost us Rs.1500 per person.

Food, shelter facilities are meager along the trek to Kedarnath. The pony ride was painful, especially while coming back / down, more so for those who are scared of heights. 
It is once in a life experience and a must visit place. For all the difficulty, I would not have missed it for the world. Ever grateful to Mr.Ranbeer, our guide, who worked tirelessly to make the darshan possible for us.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mana (India's last) Village

On the way back from Bhardrinath Pilgrimage Darshan, at a distance of 3 kms. there comes a fork in the road; the road on the right fork leads to a quaint village called Mana Village. it is also called the last village of India. The buses, vans and cars were parked on either side of the road. There should have been a designated parking or atleast a clearing for the numerous vehicles which were stopping by with tourists.
As we kept walking (which was a chore after 9 days on the road / in the ghats!!!), we passed under a an entrance arch declaring India's last village Mana and Welcome. A thrilling experience! meaning I traveled to the edge / end of the country! 

There was a board declaring the altitude of the village at 10133 ft. Wish we could stay for a few more days and did some adventure trekking etc. Not possible on a package tour.  
I wanted to see some Babas / Sadhus / Munies, on my travel; except for a group on Kedarnath route didnot come across any, till then. There was one sitting under huge cave like depression. He was covered in ash. Some pilgrims took blessings from him.

A board giving the directions to various tourist attractions in that region. As we were given a short time to visit here, I could not visit Ganesh guha and Vyas Guha.

we crossed a stone bridge and after we went to the other side did I notice that it is a single rock, monolith bridge. It is massive. One of the nature's wonders that a natural bridge is formed like that.
I heard from my mother and also from others that River Saraswati went underground and one cannot see it.You can imaging my astonishment and shock when I heard this is the Saraswati river here; cascading out of the rocks in a thunderous waterfall, going under Bhimpul and disappearing through the rocks. 

A small is built next to saraswati river. After visiting Yamunotri and Gangotri, temples for rivers Yamuna and Ganga, this temple is a really sad structure.
There were a couple of Tea stalls selling Tea / coffee / water and snacks. the name of one of the shops was 'India's last shop'; lacking in imagination, but he got his point across. 
A path leads from here to the India Tibet border. It is blocked for tourists or civilians; Only Border Security Force uses it. 

The villagers in Mana Village take up mostly knitting / selling wollens and spices. Earlier they used to trade with Tibet. They live in Mana during summer months only. They move in November from Mana, during long winter months,  they reside in Gopeswar, Chamoli.  

It was a unique experience to say the least. I saw Saraswati river! also the quaint culture of the people of Mana village.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pinafore to Nightie - A Refashion

Some of my friends, relatives and acquaintances know that I make clothes. My neighbour every once in a while unloads stuff that she has no use for, onto me. Someone gave her this imported dress and it turned out to be too tight for her. Because I am slimmer than her, she said maybe I could wear it or use it to something. The fabric was cotton and very soft, but not thing or transparent.
 After I took it home and looked at it closely, turning it inside out, noticed that it is actually a pinafore and someone just stitched up the sides till armhole opening. It became too small across the chest and obviously it will be too tight. Once I opened up the seams, it turned out to be an ok kind of design. Personally I am not a great fan of pinafores. Especially in Goa, it is humid most of the year and cannot wear two layers. So, the long and short of it is, I have no use for a pinafore. 

Since the cloth was really good and the print was small, in soft colours, and the best part is that the bodice was lined with soft white cotton fabric. I decided to make a nightie out of it. 
Chopped off the top of the bodice; cut out the neck and arm hole openings; turned the dress front to back, and finished the raw edges by turning them in twice. 

Left the skirt as it is.I had a big roll of this soft white lace in my stash, so it went around the neck and arm hole opening. The length is till the knee, exactly how I like. I am really enjoying wearing it.
If the outfit / item turns out be pretty and useful, it gives a very satisfying feeling. Feeling of trashing the earth a little less!

Salvadordo Mundo Church - Goa

  It was Easter and we have a ritual of going to a natural spring before sunrise and drinking the holy water from it. Since both Jo and ...