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. 

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