Travel lessons on a trip to Gangotri via a Tibetan settlement

Just 75 km to Gangotri? If we leave early, we should be back by lunch – was our estimate. To which Pradeep from The Goat Village told us to be prepared for a night stay. Once again, the mountain roads and the mountain people had us flummoxed.

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It is surprising even for us, how – without too many deep religious feelings – we put in so much effort to visit places of exalted religious importance. But the peace at Golden Temple, the experience of Amarnath yatra or the excitement at the peer baba’s shrine hadn’t come with any prerequisites. All it had taken was an open mind.

Close encounter with the river Ganges

We had felt the cool calm waters of the Ganges in the scorching heat in Uttar Pradesh. At Gangotri, it would be anything but calm (“tempestuous flow” is the description we had read!) – and freezing cold. The idea of such an up-close-and-personal (we couldn’t have trekked to the actual origin at Gomukh, Gangotri was close enough!) encounter with probably the most important river in India was worth all the effort – religiously inclined or not!

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Local jeeps do not go all the way to Gangotri. “Booking jeeps” would go. We didn’t want to book an entire jeep for us. With so many pilgrims travelling to Gangotri, we decided to take our chances. For sure, a jeep booked by a family from Raithal itself had two empty seats.

Travel lesson: It makes sense to take a calculated risk. If the route has a steady flow of travellers, it’s unlikely you’ll be stranded.

A trip to Gangotri was an annual outing for this family. Obviously, they became our guides. An added bonus was the halts they took at various villages along the way to meet extended family.

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We couldn’t have asked for a better deal. A chance to explore unknown villages. Meet the locals. Listen to folktales about the village and around! So much better than a quick drive to a temple and back!

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Winding roads start at Barso itself

The road follows the river Bhagirathi. This is the river that originates at Gangotri. Further down it meets the river Alaknanda – to become the mighty river Ganges.

We gained height at Barso, the first big village along the way – famous for being the other starting point for the trek to Dayara Bugyal. The road varied from too-narrow-to-breathe-normally to too-good-to-be-in-the-mountains. BRO (Border Roads Organisation), a wing of the Indian Army makes these roads. The road to Gangotri is part of the national highway NH-34.

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The guy in our jeep had a sister who lived in a village across the valley. Our side of the mountain didn’t have any motorable connection to this village. The fastest way would be for her to climb down and cross the valley. As we waited for her to arrive, we got to see a mountain road being made from scratch. Strong brave men and women were toiling hard. At a far distance, we saw a tiny speck of yellow. We couldn’t believe the sight – on a mountain slope – at a spot with no apparent means of reaching – a bulldozer was perched at a ridiculously treacherous – impossible angle. Everyone else went about their business. It was just another day in the life of the mountain road workers!

Travel lesson: Unexpected lessons are learnt at least expected places while travelling. Seeing this road being made helped us realise the privileged place we were in – inside the jeep, seated. It might have been cramped and uncomfortable at the back of the vehicle on winding roads – but at least we weren’t the ones having to make them!

The most exciting part of the journey to Gangotri is towards the end. The sight of ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) vehicles means the border is somewhere near. To the left of the Gangotri highway is the valley leading to Nelong. The border is in this valley and you need a special permit to access the Nelong valley.

The river Jadganga flows through this valley and merges with the Bhagirathi, the river we’d been following all through the journey just before Bhaironghati. Here, we crossed the Lanka bridge over the Jadganga river. Photography or halting on the bridge isn’t permitted, though it is extremely tempting to not heed to this. We don’t have any photos of the bridge or the crossing, but the few seconds it took for us to cross the bridge were probably the most exciting ones of this journey. It is one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world. All morning, we had been driving along sheer cliffs plummeting hundreds of meters into the Bhagirathi river. Now to cross a bridge over a river, at a similar height – it was heart-in-your-mouth kind of stuff.

The villages of Harshil, Bagori and Dharali

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Harshil had a huge army base. Something about this village felt different than the ones we had been to before. It was surrounded by tall pine trees unlike the evergreen ones so far. The conifers meant we had definitely gained elevation. It was notably cooler. The howling wind was deafening.

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Most striking though, was the difference in the looks of the people. We had spent a week in Garhwal by then and had a fair idea of the Garhwali features. Here, however, people looked like they do in Ladakh and Zanskar. The restaurants served dishes like the Thukpa – characteristic to the higher Himalayas.

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We crossed a pedestrian bridge to enter the next village, Bagori. There was even a monastery here! Turns out, they were all previous residents of the Nelog valley at the Indo-Tibet border. They had all been shifted here by the army during the Indo-China war in the 1960s.

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It was past noon and a relaxed time in the village. Groups of women were hanging out at the village corners, knitting busily.

One woman caught our eye – she was operating something like a sewing machine in her house. We asked if we could see what she was doing, and she invited us over. She was spinning the yarn, the raw wool was from the sheep her family owned. She also did the knitting and was happy to show us some of her work. In white, black or grey colours (since the sheep are black or white), she had caps, socks, shawls et al. We bought some woollen wear from her – our most local purchase ever!

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There were old, palatial, beautifully carved wooden houses in these villages as well. The ones in Bagori were a particular standout – they had some scriptures in the Bothi language carved in wood.

Harshil had a fair bit of guesthouses, which wasn’t surprising at all given its location – by the gushing Bhagirathi, hidden under the tall conifers on the even taller mountain faces.

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Mandatory stops for pilgrims enroute Gangotri

There are some prerequisites to visiting the temple at Gangotri – places to visit before you finally get the darshan at the temple.

First one is the hot water spring at Gangnani. Romantic notions of us soaked in the warm waters sipping wine surrounded by the lush greenery on the tall Himalayas, the river Bhagirathi gushing below – had to be thwarted instantly. Hot water springs along a pilgrimage route in India mean temple, holy water and cleansing. The springs are warm for sure but claims of “holy water” are to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Travel lesson: Holiness doesn’t always (in fact, rarely does) mean cleanliness. While it’s important to be aware of the local sentiment you need not be carried away by it.

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A small lake (yes, this one’s holy too) at the bottom of a mountain pass leading to Suki Top, with a temple built by BRO (now that we had seen how these roads are made, we weren’t surprised they had built a temple before commencing the task – they could do with all the blessings possible!) is the next stop.

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Ahead of Suki top, near a village named Dharali are some ancient temples, nestled in the mountains. Some still intact in the old stone construction, some reconstructed. Around here, atop a hill is the temple where the idol at Gangotri is kept during the winter months when Gangotri becomes inaccessible due to snow.

Further ahead, close to Gangotri comes Bhaironghati. After visiting the temple here, pilgrims usually take a lunch break or halt for the night to visit Gangotri early the next morning.

The Gangotri temple

The Gangotri temple itself was a bit of an anti-climax. The offseason meant the absence of long rowdy queues. We had to ask around where the temple was.
The high altitude terrain of the Himalayas starts here. There green, happy mountain slopes are replaced by barren jagged tops. Their snow-covered peaks can be seen around here. The trek to Gomukh starts just adjacent to the temple complex.

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We could only imagine trekking up this path, towards Gomukh – into a world of glaciers, virgin meadows, mysterious sadhus and the dangerously enticing Himalayan peaks. From what we could see beyond this temple at Gangotri, it all seemed magical. Someday, we will be back to go to Gomukh, and maybe beyond, we decided.

Sadly, even Gangotri isn’t shielded from the effects of global warming. The trekking distance from Gangotri to Gomukh is steadily increasing due to the receding glacier. The 18 km original route is now said to be 21 km long.

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We were now in search of Surya Kund – a lake like structure formed by the small but thundering waterfall of the river Bhagirathi. The river wasn’t yet flowing to capacity, yet the force was massive – ferocious was the only word that came to mind.

There are some caves here where the Pandavas of Mahabharat are supposed to have meditated. It was a 1.5 km walk to the caves. Surprisingly, we didn’t see anyone on that trail and decided to turn back without venturing alone on an isolated mountain trail. The search of another spot called Gaurikund took us to an ashram. An older man and a woman dressed in orange robes gave us contradictory information on how to get there, with the man also telling us we have to be “spiritually aware” to be able to see it, but he would make sure we do! All this talk made us a bit uneasy. We made a hasty retreat, saying it was getting late and we had to go far.

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Travel lesson: It’s okay to not see everything when you sense danger or something about a place makes you uneasy. Always trust your instinct.

Return journey from Gangotri to Raithal

Our return journey from Gangotri to Raithal was no less entertaining. It was pretty late in the afternoon. Chances of finding a vehicle returning were slim. Just as we decided to stay back for the night, we saw a group of pilgrims leave. They were kind enough to give us a lift.

It was a group of senior citizens on their Char Dham yatra, all from a small town in India. Everyone was in high spirits with their trip going as planned. A couple of the men, however, felt just one thing short. They hadn’t yet been able to get the “bhole ka prasad”. They asked for it at the dhaba we had our tea, even stopped the bus to ask a sadhu if he had any. Until one of the women had enough of it. She got off the bus, broke a branch of cannabis and handed it to the man with a stern warning, “If you get caught, it’s not on me!”

Travel lesson: Age is not a barrier to live a life of adventure – of any kind!

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Map of the route to Gangotri from Uttarkashi

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

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