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.

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