While sitting in an Advertising agency office last week, I received a phone call from my friend Neil, who currently lives in Delhi but is also a New Yorker, asking if I wanted to join him on an adventure to Uttaranchal, a state in India which is mountainous (ie Himalayan mountainous). He proposed that we trek up to the famous Valley of Flowers which is at about 12 thousand feet. I was a little unsure, since I live in Bombay, which is a lot farther away from Uttaranchal then Delhi is (I would have to fly or overnight train it), and then even after getting to Delhi, it was going to be a trip to even get to the trail head for the Valley. After I thought it over for about an hour, I called Neil back and told him I was in. My reasoning: when am I going to go to the valley of flowers, when else am I going to spend a week freezing my butt off with Neil, I got to get out of Bombay for a little bit and here is my opportunity.
So I booked my plane tickets and off I went... after buying an Indian hiking backpack for Rs. 950 (I was going to need one anyway for my New Zealand trip post India).
Landing in Delhi at 8:30 am after a flight that left Bombay at 6 in the morning, Neil and I headed to the Delhi Bus station at Kashmire Gate, where we boarded a Government bus to Rishikesh (the supposed 7 hour trip took about 9 hours). As we bounced along the not always well kept road which had tons of construction going on, we got covered in dust and caught up as we had not seen each other since I left Delhi in February. Once we reached Rishikesh we found the nearest hotel to the bus station, put our stuff down, ate some dinner at a Rajasthani restaurant; thalis and Limca, and took showers before going to sleep.
The next morning we awoke to catch a 6:30 Sumo (shared jeep) for the 8-9 hour trip up to the mountain town of Joshimath. When we got to the bus station we found out that we needed to be at a different bus station/sumo station to catch a sumo so we got a rickshaw to take us there. There we got a sumo to take us part of the way to Joshimath, where we could catch another Sumo to Joshimath. The sumo was stuffed with people and stuff and we headed out and up. I was armed with motion sickness medication, biscuits, water and lemons (which Neil's grandmother said cured motion sickness and nausea). The first sumo ride was relatively painless, we stopped at a dhaba (road side restaurant) for parathas for breakfast, but then ended up getting stuck in mountain road traffic- when two large trucks or buses cannot pass each other on the narrow mountain roads, and face each other and honk at each other while everyone else waits behind them until one moves back or they somehow manage to pass each other- this can take a while. When that sumo ride ended we somehow managed to get right into another sumo, for the rest of the journey. This ride though was a bit more eventful. The sumo had a bunch of families in it and I sat in between one other and her two young children and another mother and her baby. Neil sat in the back with the group of guys. About half way up, it began to drizzle and the road started to get really-really curvy. I sucked on a lemon (which seemed to be working) and preyed we would not go skidding off the road and down a cliff. But unfortunately, the baby next to be did not have a lemon and vomited the mother tried to use her dupatta (scarf) to wipe up the mess and I handed her the plastic bag I was holding (which was for such emergencies). The sumo came to a stop and the mother, baby and father got out to clean up the mess, the rest of us waited in the sumo. I thought I was going to go after seeing the baby but thank god I did not, although the mother threw up right after we started moving again (this time out the window). Finally we reached Joshimath, which was cold, overcast and raining. Neil and I decided to go look for food (having not eaten anything since our paratha breakfast (not that I felt like eating until then) and it was now early evening. We turned to each other and announced that we both wanted momos (Tibetan dumplings). We went in search of a place that had them- finally finding a place after walking around the whole town for about 25 minutes. We sat down and devoured our momos, soup and noodles. After which we inquired about a sumo to take us the final 20 km to Gobindghat (the base village for the 14 km hike to the base camp of Ghangaria for the Valley of Flowers). We then found a hotel and crashed for the night.
The next morning (it had finally stopped raining) we got a sumo to take us to Gobindghat, but when we got there we discovered the Valley of Flowers was closed and not opened to visitors. We were crushed, we sat down at a dhaba to decided what to do. Neil suggested that we go up to Ghangaria anyway, but I was nervous since we did not know what we would find once we got there (food? housing?). As we sat and discussed a man came over and said his friend Rajnish Chuhan was in Ghangaria and had taken some guys from Bombay there two days ago. He told us to go to the village of Phula (3 km into the 14 km trek) and ask about Rajnish Chuhan to find out more. With this new information we decided to go. After eating a breakfast of maggie (Indian Top Raman) and eggs we headed out. When we reached the village of Phula we inquired about Rajinish Chuhan and found ourselves at his house, where we met his mother, who told us he was heading down from Ghangaria today and that we would meet him on the trail. She then of course made us chai. After thanking her we left and continued up -and I mean up, the trail was incredible steep and Neil literally had to push me up once, because at about the 8th kilometer my body decided that it wanted to stop going up. In any case, we did meet Rajinish Chuhan on the trail (and the two Bombay trekkers who were not from Bombay even though everyone else seemed to think they were). He told us that we could stay at his hotel when we reached Ghangaria and get food there (although only simple food- meaning home-cooked tasting and mostly lentils, potatos and chapatis, and no fancy restaurant fare). We told him this was fine. He said he was going to be back in Ghangaria tomorrow morning around 10 and he would meet us there. Great we thought. Around the 9th km it started to rain again so we put our raincoats on and kept going up (we were now very tired). After 7 and a half hours of trekking we finally made in to Ghangaria, found the hotel and were invited in. We put our stuff down and joined the hotel workers sitting around a fire -they were there painting the hotel and fixing the rooms getting ready for the big tourist season for the Valley and near by Helm Kund (a Sikh pilgrimage site)- which begins June 5th when everything is open. We ate some more maggie noodles (which were amazing a warm) talked with the guys, walked around the village, and then ate a dinner of chapatis and potato curry.
In the morning we woke up had some chai and more maggie for breakfast. When Rajinish Chuhan got up we discussed our options, Helm Kund was out of the picture (at least for that day) because you had to leave at 5 am to reach the top (mountain lake) before the afternoon when it can begin to rain or snow and you do not want to be up there when it starts snowing. The valley of flowers was closed but he said we could ask permission to go, we did and though it is unclear if we had permission we went anyway (there is nothing blocking the enterance).
The hike was gorgeous and the mountain views were amazing. Although there were very few flowers in bloom (still too early) the scenery was fantastic. About half way into the valley I started feeling dizzy (my ears had been popping the whole way up the day before) and then nauseous. I could not figure out why, then I realized it was probably altitude sickness. We stopped, and I put some W.H.O. Re-Hydration salts into my water which helped but I still felt funny. So Neil went the rest of the way, while I sat and watched the river and glacier. When Neil came back we headed back down to Ghangaria for a late lunch of more maggie and then hung around the village. We decided that we would skip Helm Kund the next day since there was reportedly a foot of snow on part of the path (which we did not bring equipment for), Neil's knee was hurting and my altitude sickness from that day would not make the next easier.
The next day we woke up early in the morning to head down. We had our last maggie breakfast, thanked everyone at the hotel and headed down, snapping pictures as we went and passing ponies carrying supplies up the mountain. We reached Gobindghat around 12:00, wind and sun burnt, jumping into a sumo headed for Joshimath. Which was fun until we got stuck in mountain traffic right outside the town. After sitting there for 25 min we got out and walked the finally 500 meters into town and a dhaba for lunch. After lunch we went in search of a hotel with hot water so that we could take a bath- we smelled really bad having not had a bath since Rishikesh. We found one, but sat in the room waiting for the bucket water for half an hour, so we walked out of the hotel and got another hotel which brought the water quickly. After cleaning up we sat and talked before getting dinner.
The next morning we headed down to Rishikesh, this sumo ride was uneventful but cramped. Neil (who is tall) and I were squished together in the front seat next to the driver (which meant I did not get sick) but also meant that we could not move. After the ride down we were pretty tired and decided to walked around and find a hotel. We quickly decided we did not like Rishikesh (famous for when the Beatles came to India and went to an Ashram there). It was very touristy, Neil described it as a fake and clean version of Varanasi filled with western-hippies. Although we had thought about going rafting the next day, Rishikesh is famous for rafting down the Ganga (which runs through the town), once we got to the hotel we were too tired to do anything about planning a rafting trip nor did we want to get up and go in the morning the next day. We decided we would head back to Delhi the next day so I called the airline to see if I could bump my flight up to Saturday night, which I could. We then spent the rest of the evening watching Blood Diamond until the cable cut out and then ate dinner.
So we left Rishikesh early the next morning, got on a bus to Delhi and then sat for hours and hours and hours on the bus. Not our favorite, the people in front of us smelled really bad, and traffic was terrible. But we did manage to get some peaches from a cart vendur on the side of the road which were delicious. It took some convincing to get Neil to agree that there were peaches on the side of the road (he kept telling me they were mangoes not peaches). We arrived back in Delhi, washed up and then had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. We then headed to the airport, and said our goodbyes. It was fun and always good to have a travel buddy!
In the airport I sat and watched the outcome of the Indian national election unfold with everyone else in the airport (even the guards). The Congress Party and allies had won a whopping 260 seats! This was a huge win and everyone was talking about it. The news channels even played a montage of the now re-elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waving at people, making speeches, and looking political while the song "Singh is King" from the move "Singh is King" played in the background. The news anchors talked a lot about how this enabled the Congress party to push its agenda through more easily and gave greater stability to the country (because the government was strong- not an un-united weaker coalition). The plane was about 40 minutes late so we finally took off around 11:10pm and landed around 1:00, instead of the 12:30am we were suppose to. I was happy to be done with my travels, except I was not... after boring the bus to take us to the terminal we got caught in runway-car traffic (I did not know such a thing existed). We sat on the tarmac, in the bus, for 20 minutes going nowhere. Then the bus turned around and went around the airport for another 15 minutes before finally reaching the terminal. I got into an auto and then finally reached my apartment.
Hours traveled in vehicles: approx 42
Number of Maggie meals: 5
Number of W.H.O. Re-hydration salt packets consumed: 2
Pictures taken: approx 100
Number of lemons sucked on during driving: 5
Number of seats won by the Congress and allies: 260
Fun had: Tons
It was a long trip but a fun one, and definitely an adventure.
More pictures later this week.