Gangotri, one of the holiest places in India, hosts one of the most breathtakingly beautiful Himalayan glaciers. At over 4000 meters above sea level, this trek is likely to challenge your wits.
‘Simple. Just follow the river to its source’ said a vendor. We had bought walking sticks from an outlet at the gates of Gangotri National Park and asked for tips on how-to reach the summit. It was 08:00 am and, as per local estimates, it took about 3 hours to get to Bhojwasa, the camping plateau, to rest overnight and then proceed to Gaumukh glacier the next morning. It was all good. But. Was it?
Gangotri is a relatively busy town in the summer months, when pilgrims make a beeline. Food stalls and kiosks are setup along the entire route to the glacier. With numbers on their side, and faith on their lips, people from all age groups undertake this high-altitude trek; the frail ones in palanquins, some mounted on mules, and some with the aid of walking sticks and supported by porters.
In October though, when a nip in the air had signaled an impending winter in the north of India, it was a solitary trek. At 3000 meters, about the same altitude as the picturesque Leh, the temple town of Gangotri was frigid. Word on the street was that in a few weeks time, when it begins to snow, the park trails would be shutdown to visitors. On that day, it was sunny.
With a coniferous forest offering shade, and a roaring, chaotic Bhagirathi (as River Ganga is known here) below, we ascended with a chorus of songs.
About noon time, we could see a concrete structure in the distance. Faint voices of people echoed in the valley. Against an estimated 3 hours, we thought we were an hour behind. But. It turned out to be only the midway resting station of Chirbasa. The spirited climb had us exhausted. Others resting there were on their way back from the glacier. Their words ‘its not far now’ were reassuring in an otherwise surprising turn.
Beyond Chirbasa, the trail transformed from a dense forest to an arctic tundra-like, treeless, colorful expanse of craggy terrain. We were exposed to the afternoon sun, with rocks and pebbles reflecting the rays.
Beads of sweat on the foreheads and a trickle on the neck forced us to remove our down jackets. To avoid dehydration, we sipped water more often and soon, ran out of it. Five hours into the wild, the camping plateau was nowhere in sight. The terrain confounded the situation furthermore with a fork in the river. Without a GPS, telecom coverage, or a compass, and no water, the staggering landscape was scarily beautiful. It was one of those situations that required reliance on gut, an intuitive sense. We chose a tributary. We chose well. Barely 100 meters on that track, we came across two guys walking in the opposite direction. The duo was from Israel. They said the same thing ‘its not far now’, as if a mantra. Meeting them was reaffirming and the small talk proved to be a good breather too.
Thirty minutes ahead, thirst took over, we lowered empty bottles into the flow of stream. Only when the icy water had lined our parched throats that we saw a bright, mustard colored, small-sized scorpio swimming inside the bottle. The soothing taste of glacial water took away the jitters and we released it back, refilled, and pushed forward. The unrelenting terrain, with rocks punching into the soles of our feet, was testing us. A snow-covered ridge emerged in the distance and we managed to smile for pictures.
When we ran out of water the second time, the stream was not in sight. We trekked along edges of the ridge, dodging loose soil and tumbling stones from above. The walking sticks that all this time were playful props, had gradually become a support system. By 04:00 pm, the sun was beginning to show signs of fatigue and the valley was graying. We had not spoken a word in a while.
Right then, walking past a cluster of pinnacles, we spotted a herd of Himalayan blue sheep. Few of them were perched atop with all fours – a fine balance. When they moved, they jumped from one to another. Their appearance on the trek was a reminder about deadly fauna in the park. Singing loudly earlier in the day, we had left behind the Asian Black Bear’s arboreal territory. But. The snow leopards? We had got to be on the move.
With every passing moment, enthusiasm was paving way for doubts. Our day-packs were beginning to feel heavier. Rock heavy. Fear was setting in. Fear that we might be lost and end up spending the night in the cold wilderness. At one point, we simply sat on the ground, took off the backpacks, and assessed our preparedness: one packet of glucose biscuits, a torch, but no water. Despair was setting in. The scarily beautiful scenery was now threatening. We had got to be on the move.
Nine hours and thirty minutes into the wild, chasing a rapidly vanishing sun, and viola! From the edge of the cliff, where we stood, we saw the camping plateau with few colorful flags fluttering in the wind. Relief flooded us. It paced us downhill, straight to the dormitory.
One possible explanation for the delay we experienced was an erroneous detour that miraculously got us back to the arterial trail. As we checked in, park staff was putting together a search party, two forest guards and a mule, to look for a missing Swiss national. A professional dancer, she was part of a larger group and had fallen behind. Had we not made it before dusk, our names would have been on that missing list too. Mishaps are real.
Fortunately, the search was successful and, four hours later, the girl was back home, safe. That night, while we slept with chattering teeth, the Swiss group started a bonfire, sipped on hot tea, and continued a chorus. Their happiness was infectious.
When the morning rays sneaked in, we opened the dormitory’s window to a shiny snow-capped mountain.
The five kilometers trek to the Gaumukh glacier, though shorter, was on a rougher terrain. If last evening, we were amused by scenes of Himalayan Blue Sheep jumping on pinnacles, today they would have been startled by our ability to imitate them. There probably was an easier route. But. We were having fun to get to the sandy beaches of Gaumukh.
The landmark, at above 4000 meters and with Tapovan as its backdrop, appeared dramatic. The wind had blown enough sand to color the massive glacier into streaks of brown. Though we expected to witness chunks of ice falling off, there was none of that. This one melted a lot slower. Slow enough that few Sadhus, dressed in merely a loin cloth, took to the yogic lotus posture in natural depressions underneath the ice wall. The serene flow of frigid water was in complete contrast to the mighty force we had witnessed at Gangotri. Like most trekkers, we hiked up to to feel the glacier, while maintaining complete silence to not disturb the monks.
Gaumukh, source of the mighty Ganges, had left us spellbound. In the breathtaking scenery, the achy bodies refused to ride the mules, though you can hire them either way. Before leaving the region, we made sure to visit the famous Shiva temple at Gangotri.
The trek had also left us with severely burnt faces. It took us few weeks of peeling layers of skin to normalize. To avoid the kind of adventures we have had, it is best to hire a guide or a porter at the park gates. Besides, do not forget to carry a 50 SPF sunblock tube. Or else.
While you can book privates at Gangotri, a dormitory is the only option at Bhojwasa. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited or GMVNL operates accommodations at both Gangotri and Bhojwasa.
Remember, Bhojwasa is remote and, at the time, produced its electricity from diesel. As such, if the facility is not full, the staff wont run the generators and instead hand over a few candle-sticks. Unless power lines have made it to the heart of the glacial valley, be prepared for a magical starry night.
Park Permits & Dorms
- National park permits to Bhojwasa are allotted usually for a maximum of two nights. Visit this website for details.
- Accommodation: After obtaining the park permit, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (or contact any other offices listed here) to request reservations for Bhojwasa and Gangotri
Religious places in India typically offer vegetarian food. You will have a variety of vegetarian meals to choose from at Gangotri. However at Bhojwasa, options are limited and, given the remoteness, priced higher than usual.
Plan your treks between April and June (high pilgrim season) or September and November (trekkers season)
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Header Image Credits: Wikimedia