“Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance”
How many of us get a chance to experience the beauty of these words from Wordsworth in real life? I did. I witnessed a ten thousand and more flowers at a glance. All of them occuring naturally in a valley – a valley with clouds hovering around and birds chirping away all the time. The place is called the ‘Valley of Flowers’, high up in the Himalayas, in the North Indian State of Uttarakhand.
The journey started from Delhi. It was a few days before Commonwealth games in Delhi, and construction work seemed to be happening in every marg and sadak of Delhi. There was dust everywhere, and being the month of July, the weather was not too friendly. Everyone seemed to be covered by a layer of dust, and every place seemed to have something broken – to be fixed, and the heat was bogging down on my neck with every step I took on the roads. Nevertheless, this was the place which was the epicenter of a large part of Indian history, and the place that saw quite a lot of wars and bloodshed. Still, the city goes on like a wheel, oblivious to the weight of history behind it, or the complicated politics that’s being played all around it.
I had my ticket booked online on a private bus to Haridwar, from where I had planned to reach Rishikesh. This was the first of the many mistakes I did on this tour. It was not long before I learnt that private bus operators have no sense of reservations on their buses. Seat numbers do not matter, and despite having a reserved ticket, seat allocation was at the discretion of the bus conductor. I managed to get a front seat anyway, and hoped to see a lot of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand country life during my journey – a thing I usually love to do. A rickety ride in the bus started. I was happy to leave all the dust and chaos of Delhi behind, and head to the Himalayas.
Bus journeys out of Delhi towards Uttar Pradesh, are not one of the most pleasant journeys you can take. The highways are not empty and driver-friendly like those in Southern India. Being the most populous state in India (200 million people), towns in Uttar Pradesh never end, and there are people everywhere. The bus moved at a snail’s pace, and it took a lot of effort on the part of the driver to manage the bus amidst hordes of pedestarians and passersby. An alternative to the bus journey, is to take the train to Haridwar – better in terms of comfort and chaos. If you have the means, better take a flight from Delhi to Dehradun, from where Rishikesh is just 15 kms away.
The bus journey to Haridwar took 8 hours, including a massive traffic jam before Meerut, becasue of road construction work. As we reached closer to Haridwar, the weather cooled down, and I had the first of my bare minimal vegetarian thalis of this journey. Vegetarianism is the rule of the land in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, and most of the time this translated to rice and dhal; sometimes roti and many times just aloo parantha with curd. The colder regions of course were liberally dotted with shops serving piping hot maggi. Another interesting thing to note wa that buffaloes were the ones pulling carts in this part of the country.
Ganga was gushing in full flow in Haridwar. I could see a lot of temples on the way, in and around the place. From Haridwar bus adda, I took another bus to Rishikesh. It was a journey of about 45 minutes, passing through some greener patches – which meant more chill. It was a welcome change, and soon I was in the town of Rishikesh, where religion was business. I was completely tired and exhausted after my day long journey, that I took a room and crashed for the night in Rishikesh, near the Laxman Jhoola. There was more in store for the days to come.
Rishikesh was a new experience for me. The whole town is centered around selling Indian religion to foreigners. For a place that is a center of Hinduism, yoga and spirituality, there were too many foreigners than I expected. And, there were as many places that served international dishes, as there were local eateries. One strange thing I noticed in Rishikesh was, shop-temples. Which means, every third shop in the locality was a temple – kind of a makeshift one, and the shop opposite to this temple was a paid footwear stand. There were gurus, yoga centers, meditation places, massage houses, and what not! This town is just the gateway to Garhwal – the land of Hinduism, spirituality and yoga.
Next morning, I had to start quite early. Joshimath was a long distance away, and the travel could easily take a whole day. Garhwal roads are generally narrow ghat roads, and full of landslides. It takes special skill to drive long distances in these roads. Piligrims come in hordes, and there are umpteen buses queuing up on these roads all the time. Traffic jams and delays are the norm here, and it would not be surprising to reach your destination after a delay of 24 hours sometimes. Most buses to Joshimath start early in the morning, and the earlier in the day you start, the earlier you would reach Joshimath, or sometimes Badrinath.
I took an auto to the private bus stand in Rishikesh, at around 5.30 am in the morning. A number of tempo travelers and mini buses were queued up there to take all of the piligrims, foreigners, locals and office-goers to Joshimath. Some of the local travelers took up temporary seats next to the driver, as they would get down at places which were under an hours’ drive from Rishikesh. I got into a tempo traveler, and managed to secure a front seat where I can keep my extra-long legs stretched during the journey of 12 hours. There were Israelis around me – all of them going to Joshimath – the abode of Shankaracharya in the north.
A journey to Joshimath is an interesting one. The Shivalik ranges of the lower Himalayas offer spectacular views of the mountains, interspersed with temples, mutts, and a huge number of religious motifs. There are many towns that are of religious importance along the route. The journey is practically tracing Ganga upstream along its course. River Ganga is not known by its popular name all along from its origins. It is actually a confluence of a number of rivers. It originates at Gangotri, where it is known by the name Bhagirathi. Further downstream, it merges with rivers like Alaknanda and Mandakini among others. Towns at these confluences are called by the name prayag – we have Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, Devaprayag and the like. We travel through all of these prayags to reach Joshimath, where it is still called Alaknanda.
The bus stopped for breakfast and lunch on the way. Piping hot aloo paranthas with curd during breakfast tasted heavenly making up for the weather which was becoming colder by the hour. The driver was maneuvering the vehicle through a lot of landslides, which were also being cleared up by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Roads to these distant reaches of India are maintained in a motorable shape because of the efforts of BRO. At around 6 pm in the evening, we still had a few more kilometers to reach Joshimath. My bottom was aching from more than 12 hours of travel, and I just waited to reach Joshimath and crash for the day.
Joshimath was a small and simple town. There were Punjabi and Gujarathi restaurants around, and a lot of piligrims. The Shankaracharya Mutt of the northern direction is located here, and Joshimath is also the base for traveling to Badrinath, which is one of the four holy centers for the Hindus. Also, Indian and foreign travelers to the Valley of Flowers, and the Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara – all congregate here. So, Joshimath was quite a busy town. Mobile connection was intermittent. It was interesting to note that every third shop in the town was a barber shop, and at least one person was getting his beard shaved in each of the shops. I took a basic room for around INR 250 at the place where I got dropped off. It came with a TV, fan. and a western closet, and was more than a bargain. I shopped for snacks, tablets and the like, and after an early dinner, I retired for the day.
I noted down in my travel log that tomorrow was going to be a tough day.
(To be continued)