Monday, June 08, 2009

Trek to Hemkund Sahib

On 27 May 09 I left Jamshedpur by train accompanied by some friends – our goal was to trek to Hemkund in the Garhwal Himalayas. After reaching Delhi on 28th evening, we travelled by night bus to Rishikesh. After freshening up at the Rishikesh Gurudwara on 29th morning, we travelled by 10-seater MUV (Tata Sumo / Mahindra Maxx) to Joshimath via Rudraprayag and Chamoli.

After spending the night of 29th at a hotel in Joshimath, we proceeded to Govindghat on the morning of 30th May by MUV. Our trek was to commence here. We left unessential baggage at the cloakroom of the Govindghat Gurudwara and started trekking at 10.30 AM with backpacks containing warm clothing and essential items for the next 3 days. This 13 km trek from Govindghat (6,000 ft) to Ghangria (10,000 ft) was the most arduous I have ever undertaken – it took me 7 hours and by the time I reached Ghangria I was ready to drop dead! There is a steady climb all along this 13 km route – some stretches are quite steep – and after about 9 km I started getting cramps in my calf muscles. So the last 4 km were done at a very slow pace with frequent rest breaks.

The entire route from Govindghat to Ghangria (as also that from Ghangria to Hemkund) is a well marked cobbled path paved with stones. Certain short stretches of this route are even cemented or made of concrete with proper steps. But the 4000 ft climb over a distance of 13 km saps one of energy – at least I felt pretty drained, probably because I was climbing after a fairly long gap. Also, it started drizzling around 2 PM and trekking with a raincoat on was more painful. Nevertheless, I was the first to complete this stretch amongst my trekking companions.

The Govindghat – Ghangria route is quite scenic, passing through lush forests and never far from the noisily gurgling Lakshman Ganga. These sights and sounds make one forget one’s travails and spur one on.

Too much MD for my liking

During the trek, the one thing that bugged me most was MD. Due to the steep and long climb, almost 20% of the people use mules and these animals have a tendency to crap copiously regardless of the time of the day. So the entire route is covered by Mule Dung all the time. MD has a strong and disagreeable stench, makes the cobbled path slippery (esp when it’s raining) and converts into dust that flies into your mouth and nostrils when it’s sunny and windy. Gradually, my nose and lungs literally got saturated with MD during this trek till I was almost immune to its further onslaught!

The little village of Ghangria

Ghangria is a sleepy little village at 10,000 ft which exists only to cater to the tourists / pilgrims going to the Valley of Flowers / Hemkund during the few months in the year when this route is open to tourists. Upon reaching Ghangria (also known as Govind Dham) on 30th May I found this village just getting ready to cater to the tourist influx as Hemkund Sahib was going to open for this year on 1st June. The main thing in Ghangria is the large Gurudwara which is well-equipped to cater to the inflow of pilgrims. This Gurudwara is surrounded by numerous small hotels, eateries and shops which open only during the 4-5 month long tourist / pilgrim season. Ghangria does not have mobile telephony and during our stay it did not even have electric power supply and the satellite link for BSNL landline telephony was broken. So for 3 days (till we descended to Govindghat) we were completely cut off from the world – no phone, no TV, no newspapers!

Valley Of Flowers

We checked into a hotel at Ghangria on 30th May and after a well-deserved night’s rest proceeded to the nearby VOF on 31st May. The flower season still being some 6 weeks away, we could not see any flowers in the valley. However, the VOF is quite scenic with its lovely walkways through lush forests, springs with crystal-clear water and snow-capped peaks all around. Made a mental note to return to the VOF during flower season sometime in the future.

The final ascent to Hemkund

Ever since we reached Govindghat, fellow travelers had been narrating scary stories of the ‘incredibly steep and back-breaking’ 6 km climb from Ghangria (10,000 ft) to Hemkund (14,200 ft). To be frank, at my age of 57 and trekking after a long gap, I was quite apprehensive. But I could not stoop to the ultimate humiliation for a trekker – riding an animal or another man! So mustering all my courage, I started climbing at daybreak at 5 AM on 1st June with a light backpack. Though similar to the route from Govindghat to Ghangria (paved with stones) it was far steeper. I climbed at a slow and steady speed with minimal breaks, taking deep breaths. The traffic of pilgrims was heavy as everyone wanted to reach Hemkund in time for the Nishan Sahib hoisting ceremony at 10 AM. About 25% of the pilgrims were riding mules, so avoiding the mule traffic was sometimes problematic at narrow stretches. My backpack was grazed by mules twice and tore badly. I ascended above the snow line and it was exhilarating to find fresh clean snow all around. At 9.30 AM, I could barely believe that I had actually ascended to Hemkund at 14,203 ft in 4 ½ hours. It was a heady feeling, renewing confidence in these old bones.

The small lake (‘Kund’) at Hemkund is really beautiful – reflecting the snow-capped peaks around it. Devout pilgrims were bathing in it. It was a clear sunny day and the ambient was a comfortable 8 deg C. I was lucky to see the Nishan Sahib hoisting ceremony on the first day of the season (1st June) – a band of Army bagpipers was in attendance and Army soldiers played a key role in the physical hoisting of the Nishan Sahib. As always, I felt proud to witness an important social event where Indian Armed Forces personnel lent a friendly helping hand. I went berserk with my camera.

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since morning. I visited the Hemkund Gurudwara langar and ate two bowls of delicious khichdi. Duly fortified, I began my descent and made it back to Ghangria in 3 hours. Due to the steep gradient, one has to be very careful while climbing down. My toes were pushed too tightly against the front of my sneakers during the descent and upon removing my shoes at Ghangria I found that one of my toe-nails had turned black – I’ll lose this nail soon and a new nail will grow back over the next few months. During my last major trek to Darwa Top I had lost three toe-nails!

Descent to Govindghat

After resting at Ghangria during the night, we descended to Govindghat on 2nd June. The 13 km descent took me 5 hours. Luckily, I did not encounter any rain during the descent. I had bandaged my damaged toe and no other toe-nail suffered any further injury during this descent.

It felt great to have successfully completed the 13+6 km trek to Hemkund and back. I must continue with such treks whenever the opportunity arises – it’s a great rejuvenator and renews one’s confidence in one’s body and mind.

Visit to Badrinath

On 3rd June we travelled by MUV to Badrinath. We got a clear view of Mount Neelkanth from Badrinath. After a quick visit to the Badrinarayan temple, we started our return to Delhi.

I have uploaded some photos from this trip to my web album at . Do check ‘em out.