The Source of the Ganges 23/5/10, Trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh, Uttaranchal

I opened my eyes at 5, seeing only blackness and my breath.  I realised it was bitterly cold, but not where I was.  This can be a regular occurrence when you wander much with a sleepy mind and dodgy belly.

I gathered my senses and my belongings, I had a brisk ice cold water bucket bath.  I was in lovely little Gangotri, the end of the road in Northern Uttaranchal (Tibetan border a hop, skip and a jump away). There was a route to Tibet through the mountains, but the Indo-China war closed it down.  There is nothing north of here, except the source of the Ganges, snow capped mountain ranges and some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever witnessed.

Gaumukh is a very holy place for Hindhus, some say the holiest in all of India.  Many Sadhus (Hindu Ascetics) live in caves up in the mountains, year-round.  They chose a life of non-attachement and meditation, in complete peace and serenity, focusing on attaining Moksha (enlightenment whilst living).  Many are said to be 100’s of years old and have attained super-human powers (Siddhis) through mastering yogic forces.   India is a truly a land of magic and mystery.

Gangotri is one of the famous pilgrim routes in Uttaranchal, many Sadhus take the 15 day walk up here, some take jeeps.  There is a temple to Goddess Ganga here that only opens at certain times of the year, depending on the stars and moon.  It had just opened a couple of days previously, so the place was heaving with pilgrims.  I seem to be following crowds of pilgrims around, I must enjoy general chaos and traffic jams.

It took 5 days from Rishikesh to get here.  As I mentioned, it was busy, the narrow mountain roads struggled to contain the crush of jeep and bus.  I stopped in an ugly town called Uttarkashi for a night’s rest that turned into three days in bed (well mainly sat on the toilet) with the most horrific case of the shits.  Unfortunately one of these days was my birthday, 32 (good age), which I celebrated with a super noodle, my only companions a small family of cockroaches that lived in the bathroom.  I had a wee TV and watched the USA Female College Gymnastic Championships 2010 intently.  Arkansaw dominated.  I think it was a case of giardia and I carried it with me proudly up the mountain.  It regularly took the edge off the scenery.

I strode down the one street in the one donkey town.  The freezing damp mist was swirling around the small huts and the huddled Sadhus,  wrapped in sheets and sitting in rows with alms bowls at their shoeless feet.  I wondered how they made it through such a night, such an austere life.  I could smell wood smoke, the chai was on and hopefully a piece of nutella toast too.

As I walked out of the village and towards the national park, I could see them in the distance, towering over the horizon.  Icey, majestic, demanding awe and wonder.   These things were beasts, real mountains, Badrinath was the tallest at +6000m.  I began to question the sanity of any person who decides it’s a good idea to climb one of these things.  They look like a place were humans should not be.  We are not welcome up there.  If there is a God, he lives on one of these, with the mountain goats.

The Ganga flowed, beige and disturbed, on my right.  Regular rapids added an acoustic to the already naturally stunning environment.  I would follow her up the valley, heading straight for the mountain range.  The walk was around 16 kilometres over an undulating trail.  My first walk of the trip and I was eager to get on.

I reached the entrance hut at the national park just as the sunrays began to pour through the pine trees.  A kind man counted my bananas and biscuits, naturally I was a little confused, but they have tightened up on the littering policy and every piece of potential rubbish must be accounted for.  I felt heartened by this and its working, not much litter at all on the trial.  Hoorah.

I strode off into the forest, the smell of pine and crisp air spurring my on like high-octane fuel.  I was off like a shot, soon to be overtaken by four men carrying a little bundle of a lady in a make shift chair/throne vehicle.  They were followed closely by two porters carrying oil drums and large metal boxes on their heads.  I took a rest, I was knackered and not yet used to the altitude.  I was at around 4000m and my lungs were wondering were all the air had gone.

‘Dire, dire’…..  Slowly, slowly….  I made my way along the winding trail, over mountains streams and landslides.  Regularly surrounded by a 360 degree panorama of snow capped peaks, swirling and shimmering in the sunlight.  I regularly stopped and looked in awe with my mouth open.  Aghast at what the wonderful world has to offer.  Mountains goats hopped over the trail and blocked the way.  I felt it unwise to mess with wild animals when, to my right, I was faced with a steep drop into nothingness.  I let my heavily horned friends dictate the pace for a while and wondered if their hooves were made of rubber (their grip and balance is awesome).

I met many pilgrims on the trail, most older and wearing what looked like Marks and Spencers slippers.  I was inspired by people like Mr R.P. Sharma, 75 years young, making his way up the trail with a chirpy attitude and smile.  For many pilgrims it’s a once in a lifetime experience and I felt blessed to be able to wander with them and try to understand the magnitude and piety of the whole journey.

I made good time to the base camp/ ashram.  Ran by a kindly Swami and a man who wore a leather biker jacket and mirrored shades throughout my stay, he looked like an Indian ‘Fonze’ and served up some great Thalis (rice and daal).  Served on the floor with the other pilgrims.  I met a nice Israeli couple, Ben and Tamara and we shared what was a small stable of a room.  We slept on the smelly floor and were regularly woken by small rodents, I thought they were gerbils.  Rather cute.  I woke in the night to take a trip to the outside squatter (toilet area), realising that the entire universe was on display above me.  A perfect snapshot of whats going on out there.  The stars lit my ablution.

Across from us slept a group of four snoring Sadhus who were just completing a four month walk across the Himalayan Range, visiting remote temples along the way.  These guys don’t take the roads, they go vertical, across tiny mountainous trails wearing only flip flops, fantastic beards and thin blankets.  Only the Sadhus know these routes.  You can’t imagine four more radiant, amiable chaps.  We had no common language, but communicated through big smiles and laughter.  I’ve never seen people eat rice like these guys, kilos per sitting, they definitely needed the fuel.

The Ashram is a cluster of squat buildings, a magnificent operation.  All foodstuff and supplies must be lugged up the pass by teams of porters and donkeys.  It’s a vital part of the route, in one of the hardiest of earths environments.  I can’t imagine what winter must be like, this was summertime !

I woke at 5am (again!) and went to stand on a large rock in the Ganges to watch the sunrise.  It took ages and the wind chill froze me to the core.  The sunlight was just catching the platinum craggy mountain tops, casting wonderful shadows.  Light at this altitude is different, it has an ethereal quality and clarity.  The vastness of the valley was filled with complete silence.  One giant triangle of a peak stood prouder than the rest and mini white cyclones whipped around it.  Snow dust blowing up towards the bright blue sky.  Overall it was rather pleasant, a dreamlike vision.

We set off towards Gaumukh.  It was a rocky trail, hard going.  We skipped and picked our way over scree and boulders, heading to the valley end and what seemed like the top of our world.  We eventually reached a small shrine (an assortment of rocks and colourful flags) to Shiva and Goddess Ganga, set in a barren, lifeless plain.  Bleak, like Mars.  Another 20 minute scramble and we were there.

Wizened Sadhus smoked ceremonial chillums and chanted mantras perched on rocks in front of the giant blue crystal glacier.  The mighty Ganges poured from a dark cave at its base.  No trickle this, a real torrent.  stalactites and a few mites formed a cathedral-like backdrop to the raging brown water.

Some pilgrims had beat us there and were splashing around in the freezing water, wearing only their grey y-fronts and wide smiles.  Ecstatic and shrieking (due surely to cold bits, and reverence).  The holiest place in India and the Hindus where making a joyous racket.  This behavior marks a major difference between more staid,  sedate religions.  Hindus have alot of fun and don’t take themselves too seriously.  I felt comfortable and accepted, seemingly a constant.

I made my way down, past the elderly French photographers, to take a tame head and toe dip.  More than enough I felt.  I collected some of the water, its is said to have many super powers.  It could come in very handy along the road.  It is said that a Hindu cannot lie when holding this water.  Holy Truth Serum.

The sound at the base of the glacier was deafening, the sheer force and presence of the Ganges awesome.  I could feel the roar going through my body.  Looking up, I could see three towering mountains and the crystal new day sun.  It was a moment I will (hopefully) never forget.  Worth every step and loose bowel movement.  Uttaranchal has an outrageous amount of ancient spirituality and ascetics wandering the streets and mountains.  Enter only with an open heart, mind and soul.  The rewards are endless.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Mama Wolf said,

    Yeah – 32 is a mile-stone with 28 – 32 being your first Saturn return. Next comes a mide-life crisis and no, no matter how much we think we’ve dealt with our shit, there’s always a residue that shakes us to our depths and wakes us further, which is its purpose in this never ending cosmic roller-coaster we call ‘Life,’.

    Your next Saturn return (that which you’ve neglected but now have to face) will begin if you make it to 56.

    Shit, I’m 56……

    • 2

      leroywatson4 said,

      You are not 56! Nonononononono. Good to see Saturn returning. I missed it. If Saturn blew up, over 30% of the worlds herbs will perish (according to my Australian source, Sam) and we all need our herbs. Man.


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