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Trek - From Gangotri to Gaumukh and on to Tapovan

By Anamika Mukherjee

Had I known what it would be like, I would never have gone. Trekking is not quite what I was cut out for and that's exactly what this trip to Tapovan involved. And me a first time trekker.

The trek, 22 km form Gangotri, is not really tough for one who is reasonably physically fit and quite determined. It takes you from an altitude of 10,000 ft to 14,000 feet, where you are right under the majestic Bhagirathi peaks on one side and overshadowed by the towering Shivling and neighbouring Meru peaks on the other.

Gangotri is a difficult place to reach, if you don't stay in Uttarkashi. Our journey there took the five of us by train from Bangalore to Delhi, then by bus via Haridwar to Rishikesh. After an overnight halt, we switched to a cab for the drive up to Uttarkashi. We were all set to reach Gangotri the same day, but were advised against it. This year, the path to Gangotri and the temples there were to open only on May 6, and this being mid-April, there was currently no one at all at Gangotri, we were warned.

Base Camp Gangotri

For the trek to Tapovan, it is necessary to carry with you all you will need: food supplies, stove, kerosene, water to drink en route, medicines, tents, sleeping bags etc. Carrying all this meant hiring porters or mules. Since Gangotri had still not awoken from its winter slumber, we were advised to make all arrangements in Uttarkashi. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam recommended a tour operator who arranged for a guide and two porters. It was too early in the season for mules: they were still in the process of making their way up to Gangotri in a rather leisurely fashion. (We saw some of these troops on their way up, stopping for frequent snacks on the roadside, followed by a lazy snooze.)

The rest of the day went in deciding on the quantities of provisions required on the advice of the tour operator and the guides, acquiring last-minute woolens, hiring kitchen equipment and foam mats for our tents and haggling over rates. We then bought everything as advised and were aghast at the large quantities involved.

The next day, having collected the guide and porters, we set off early. We were in a jeep now, that being the only vehicle that would accommodate the eight of us and the driver, with all our luggage tied on the roof (some of which fell off during the drive and had to be hastily recovered). Buses were not yet plying to Gangotri.

We reached Gangotri early enough in the day to start on the first leg of our trek (9 km to Chirvasa) if we wished, but we had been advised to spend a day walking around and getting acclimatised to the altitude and the rare air. It was just as well that we did this, because acclimatisation problems continued to dog us sporadically almost till the end. Breathlessness while walking fast or up a steep slope was common. Sometimes there was a sharp, stabbing headache too. We only needed to slow down or stop and these would get better. But at night, especially high up in Tapovan, even just turning over in bed could leave one gasping (and in my case virtually panicky) in the battle for oxygen.

The Walk Begins

Our trek began early the next morning. We did 14 km to Bhojvasa (Bhojbasa) the first day, stopping at Chirbasa (Chirvasa) for lunch. The next day we went up to Gaumukh - 4 km - and then on to Tapovan - another 4 km. It was the last leg which was by far the worst involving first boulder-hopping and then a steep climb up loose dirt which required fighting tooth and nail for a hand hold, a foot hold, a toe hold or in fact any kind of a hold at all.

Up to Gaumukh, the path, for the most part, was neatly defined. At one place there was even a parapet. At many points the sloping hillside had been shored up with a stack of tightly packed stones, held back by a strong (one presumes, without having put it to the test) wire net. The only tough part was a couple of km out of Chirbasa, where the path around the hillside was totally obscured by landslides. The hill was steep and you had to somehow hop across loose, dry soil, small pebbles, or stacks of larger but still loose stones. At one point, there was nothing at all but a narrow rivulet of falling sand, a gap of maybe a foot between the rubble and stone on either side. By the time we returned, these stretches had already vastly improved by the tramping of so many more pairs of feet on the damp earth. Also, there were signs of repair work in progress by then. Doubtless by the time the season opened, these risky stretches too would offer easy passage.

But for now, I, for one, could not have crossed many of these tricky patches without the firm hand and reassuring voice of Ustaadji, our trusty guide. He was a Nepali, Shravan Singh by name. But all we ever called him was Ustaadji. He was short, sure-footed, nimble, and ever cheerful, with a transistor radio always in one hand blasting forth some Hindi filmi music. He looked far younger than his 37 years of age.

Initially, in fact, the path was so clear and so easy, that we wondered why we ever agreed to hire a guide at Rs 300 a day. But once we crossed Gaumukh, his importance became evident. Because, after this point, it being early in the season, there was no path. I mean, until now, the path even had road signs, pointing directions, specifying distances and issuing such friendly but worrying advisories as: "Fear of falling stones, walk safely", or "Narrow path, walk in single file". But now the only road signs were collections of three small stones placed - by those few who had so far traversed this path - atop a large boulder, indicating the onward route.

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.