Thursday, September 30, 2010

TREK TO VALLEY OF FLOWERS AND HEMKUND SAHIB


When I told my family and friends that I wanted to trek to Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib this August, everyone thought I was just crazy. Besides Delhi, the rain gods had been relentless over Uttarakhand too causing road breaches at multiple sites in various hill towns. There were landslides everywhere and traffic to all the well known pilgrimage centres of Badri Nath, Kedar Nath, Gangotri and Yamunotri were getting cut off from rest of the country every now and then. The group I was trying to assemble had fallen through. But to do justice to the Valley of Flowers, one has to trek there in the month of August only when the entire valley is at its best bloom. So finally, I enquired at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Ltd (www.gmvnl.com) if they had any vacancy for its weekly tour to Valley of Flowers – Hemkund Sahib – Badri Nath. Of course, they did not have any for the month of August. However, I was banking on some cancellations hoping some people might not like to venture on this trek in view of not a very comfortable situation of roads etc. I checked practically everyday with gmvn’s offices in Rishikesh, Dehradun and Delhi to enquire about the status of roads. Finally my luck struck gold; there were indeed some cancellations and Rishikesh office booked me and Rajesh for the group leaving from Rishikesh on the 25th August, and assured me that GMVN would look after our safety with utmost care.
Valley of flowers was another trek that I heard first from Motor Mama (see my post on Pindari trek for more on him). He had done it in 1970s, and had talked very often about it.
Day 1: we left Delhi in afternoon by Jan Shatabdi Express going to Dehradun, and got off at Haridwar, and took a bus to Rishikesh. From bus stand, the gmvn’s rest house, Bharat Bhumi, was not too far and there were many auto-rickshaws waiting to take us there.
Day 2: After a light breakfast we left Rishikesh by bus for our night halt at Joshimath, which normally one should cover in about 10 hours. But the sky was already overcast and one could not anticipate when a landslide or roadblock would greet us. Our group of 25 mostly had people above 50. Half of the group was of people above 65 years of age. It was nice to see old people venturing out for some adventure. Just two hours later, we hit our first of the roadblocks due to landslide. Mercifully, the staff of BRO (Border Roads Organization) was already at work with a bulldozer when it was still drizzling. It is to the credit of BRO that the roads in Himalayas remain travel worthy inspite of inclement weather; due to better communication facilities, the help arrives on time with efficient equipment. We passed through Devprayag which has confluence of Alaknanda (coming down from Badri Nath) and Bhagirathi (coming down from Gaumukh and Gangotri). These two sacred rivers join to form the mighty Ganga river; so it is from Devprayag only that river is called Ganga.
We also passed through Rudraprayag which has confluence of Alaknanda with Mandakini coming from Kedar Nath.

By evening we reached our third prayag of the day, Karanprayag which has confluence of Alaknanda with Pindar river, coming from Pindari glacier. The great warrior Karna of Mahabharat fame was supposed to have worshipped Sun god here to get the impregnable shield.
All the rivers which we saw were swollen with huge flow of water. By this time we had hit a number of roadblocks, but were fortunate not to have been delayed for too long. We reached Joshimath at about 9 pm and were lodged in the gmvn guest house in the main bazaar. It was poorly maintained and bed linen was damp and dirty. We made noise but could not do much.
3Day: We left Joshimath (I was happy leaving this guest house) early in the morning soon after our cup of tea to reach Govind Ghat from where we were to start our trek to Gangharia. It looked like a small town developed on both side of a narrow road on either side of which there were shops selling religious artifacts with equal number of small eating houses. Govind Ghat, as the name suggests, is surrounded on all sides by hills; it has a Gurudwara which has plenty of accommodation for pilgrims on their way to Shri Hemkund Sahib. We did not stay here for long, and as soon as we could hire a porter to carry our bags, we started on our trek. There were too many porters and far too many ponywallahs. Since tourists were less than expected this time owing to news of incessant rains splashed over all print and electronic media, we were pestered all the way by these pony-owners. Traditionally, all the pony-owners are local Garhwalis, while porters come from Nepal. These porters are reliable and sturdier.

The landscape was quite scenic with hills all around and river Bhyundar gushing down noisily hitting boulders all along its course. Because of cloud cover, we could not see snow clad peaks.

There were far too many eating places with ubiquitous paranthas, maggi, packaged snacks. There were shops for fresh fruit juice as well as for dry fruits too. The ponies had killed the joy of a leisurely trek; one had to make room for them to pass by, the entire stretch was littered with their solid waste; mercifully, the rains were washing it away too, but at many places it had created slush making that stretch stink. I reached Gangharia after 6 hrs of trek covering 14 km, and had come to an altitude of 3048 m (10,000 ft). To cater to the ever increasing number of pilgrims to Hemkund Sahib and trekkers to the Valley of Flowers, this ‘once upon a time a tiny high altitude village’ has developed into a noisy, thriving market place with dhabas and guest houses everywhere. There is a gurdwara, Gobind Dham, which gives to shelter to pilgrims on their way to Hemkund Sahib; langar and hot tea is available throughout the day. Since no traveler is allowed to stay overnight at either Valley of Flowers or Hemkund Sahib, everyone has to stay here in transit. Gangharia does not have a resident population; the whole area comes to life during 4-month period when visitors start pouring in during June to September.
Day 4: We were to trek to the Valley of Flowers, 3352–3658 m (11060-12070 ft). Its entry is ticketed and, mercifully, not open to ponies. We trekked 4 km uphill through a forest to reach an open expanse of valley. One could trek for another 3 km. From the beginning of forest, flowers of all colour and hue were scattered here and there – what a beautiful treat.



The birch trees were in abundance; at this height that is one of the trees that thrives. The beauty of Valley of Flowers can only be appreciated by visiting it. It is said that nearly 80 varieties of flowers are found here. There are many kinds of birds, and this area is home to brown bear, black bear, snow leopard, and blue sheep (bharel). Since inside the forest and valley area, no eating places are allowed, we had carried packed lunch for ourselves. It was a bright sunny day, and having aloo-paratha in the Sun, surrounded by flowering shrubs in the backdrop of Gauri parbat was heavenly. The whole area is much sought after by botanists, photographers and nature lovers. Some of the well known flowers are Brahm-kamal, blue poppy, cobra lily, anemones, geranium, delphinium, bell flowers, etc. The rhododendron flowering season was already over in August.
Day 5: I woke up early in the morning with some trepidation. We were to trek uphill for 7 km and attain an altitude of 4329 m (nearly 14,500 ft; some estimate its height to be more than 15,000 ft). It was overcast and had started drizzling. No high altitude peaks were visible. We started our upward journey with loud cries of ‘jo bole so nihaal, Sat Sri Akal’. The trek to the Gurudwara is steep all the way, with no flat section. I managed 4 km not with much difficulty; there were pilgrims of all ages; a few young couple were walking carrying their tiny tots in their arms. After 4 km, progress became a bit difficult, I had to stop after every few steps to catch my breath. People coming down would encourage by saying it was not too far any longer; offerings of biscuits, candy, and even glucose, and constant chant of ‘Wahe Guru’ kept me going. When the shrine was just one km away, some outer structure became visible. I got a fresh lease of life; how easily I covered that last kilometer, I could not have imagined a little while ago. I was just in time for the ‘Ardas’ beginning at 12 noon. I decided to have dip at the holy sarovar; the water was icy cold, but I did not waste time, I just went in and quickly immersed myself in the water, and before my head could become numb, I was out in a jiffy. I could persuade Rajesh and another fellow traveler to do the same. After having had dips in some high altitude lakes, including Manasarovar, I had figured out that the key to having a dip here was speed: just go in, immerse yourself completely and immediately and come out, before the body gets a chance to be affected by extremely low temperatures; don’t wait for body to get acclimatized, since it won’t ever. After Ardas, I went around; there is a ‘Lakshman temple also here, it needs maintenance and renovation. Around the glacier lake, ‘Brahm-kamal’ was flowering in abundance. The lake is supposed to be surrounded by 7 Himalayan peaks, but none was visible due to cloud cover.


The Hemkund Sahib Gurudwara is the highest Gurudwara in the world. Its history makes an interesting read and is available in many books and websites. Its location was rediscovered only in 1932, and the structure was built subsequently.
Day 6: We started our march downhill. It had been raining since early morning. The progress was slow, however, midway the rain stopped and bright sunshine was most welcome. Bus was waiting for us to take us to Badri Nath shrine where we were to spend one night. The GMVN guest house at Badri Nath was a welcome change after our stay in dirty lodging at Gangharia. We came across two more confluences, Nandprayag (Alaknanda joined by Nandakini coming from Nanda Devi, and Vishnuprayag (Alaknanda joined by Dhauli Ganga coming from Niti pass). At Badri Nath, besides having a darshan at the shrine, we went to the last Indian village, Mana, on this side of Himalaya. It was all very nostalgic, since I had spent some very good time here in 2007 for my induction training for Antarctica expedition.
Day 7: We turned back towards Delhi now, and stayed at Peepal Koti.
Day 8: We reached Rishikesh on time, and left by bus for Hardwar from where we were to board our train for Delhi.

Inspite of all the torrential rains, landslides at multiple sites, and many road blocks, we managed this trek well on time and without any hazard. Gods had been very kind. It is a common knowledge that the Himalayas, 20 million years old, is still the youngest mountain; is still growing, and is geologically active. Since it consists of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, it is porous and very light and prone to landslides. In the Indian Himalayas, the situation has been made worse by indiscriminate deforestation. I have been to Himalayas many times, but never saw how ‘kachcha’ these mountains are. This season, the upper layer of the mountains has just been washed away, and what you see is just loose rocks, boulders, and soil. It was quite scary, more than the swollen rivers or landslides. If we do not do something seriously with honesty and sincerity, we shall stand doomed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

MUKTESHWAR



I should have written this post quite some time ago, but sheer inertia got better of me. This summer we spent a leisurely holiday in a small sleepy town in Kumaon called Mukteshwar in Nainital district. It is about 400 km from Delhi via Haldwani and Kathgodam. We are practically driving every season on this road; last year we did the same route upto Bhowali, and then had taken road to Almorah to reach Bageshwar for our Pindari glacier. Compared to last year, the roads were in better shape, but the bridge at Bilaspur, about which I mentioned last year too in my Pindari glacier post (http://himalayanadventurer.blogspot.com/2009/07/trek-to-pindari-glacier_05.html) being incomplete, was still awaiting completion and had again caused a traffic jam.
We reached Mukteshwar well in time and checked into our holiday resort for which we had made booking in advance.


Mukteshwar is situated at about 7500 ft and is fast becoming a favourite tourist destination, esp for the ones who wish to avoid Delhi crowd at Shimla or Nainital. Consequently, several guest houses and tourist resorts have come up. The town gets it name from Lord Shiva and has a temple dedicated to Shiva (Mukteshwar Dham) situated atop the highest point of the town giving a panoramic view of the entire valley. It also houses the well known Indian Veterinary Research Institute.

We spent our days at Mukteshwar by just relaxing and reading our books or going for long walks amidst rich pine forest. Mukteshwar is also known to offer some great view of the Himalayan range (the most famous being Trishuli), and we went up to the PWD guest house, but could not see any due to cloud cover. October onwards is a great period for good view of peaks.



This is the period for swallows to migrate to this part of Himalayas for nesting, and one pair had already built its nest right outside our room in the corner of verandah. It seems to be made up of stones, and gave an appearance of small tunnel opening inside into a big chamber. Morning time was the period of hectic activity for the parents who would perhaps bring food for the young ones inside. Around our guest house, were plenty of orchards of plum, peaches, pears, apricot, and apples.
After a few days, on our return we decided to come via Nainital which was within an hour drive. It was early morning yet the Mall road was full of people and vehicles. However, the local people said the town did not receive even its 50 percent of quota of tourists. We wanted to have ‘jalebi’ in Nainital, but a half an hour search did not yield any result. All the ‘halwai wallahs’ had turned into fast food or chow-mein centres. I was visiting Nainital after more than 30 years and it seemed so different. Just to complete a ritual, we too went for a boat ride.

We had to stop at Haldwani for our jalebi and samosa. On our way back to Delhi from Haldwani, we took a smaller and less frequented road via Kaladhungi and periphery of Corbett National Park, which was a nice drive.

Friday, May 28, 2010

BONSAI...

Recently, there was a Bonsai show in the Lodhi Gardens of Delhi. Enjoy the slide show. Double click the photo for a larger picture.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

CACTUS FLOWER


This is the cactus flower that has bloomed this season here. It is Adrenium.

In 1960s, a simple and delightful romantic movie 'Cactus Flower' was quite a hit. I saw it on a Sunday morning show during our courtship days when it came a few years later for a re-run. It was fun seeing Sunday morning shows as tickets were available at reduced rates. Problem was to find a library that was open on a Sunday morning, or to warn a friend not to visit home as I would be ‘visiting’ his home on that Sunday morning. Cactus Flower starred Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman, both of them playing a middle aged couple. Walter Matthau, even in his youth, had always looked middle aged and haggard, and Ingrid Bergman even in her past-prime looked ever beautiful and charming. This movie also starred Goldie Hawn in her debut.

To know more about our cactus, the Adrenium, I had just googled it, when I found there was a page on Cactus Flower film in Wikipedia. Some experts from there:

Walter Matthau plays a dentist with a roving eye who had a serious problem with commitment issues. Whenever a girl wanted a commitment, he would pretend to be a married man with three children. However, when his young girl friend, Goldie Hawn, attempts suicide, he decides to marry her. But then he needs a wife to divorce! He pleads his secretary, Ingrid Bergman, to pose as his wife. She accepts it reluctantly, but ends up having a crush on him. With all the hilarious twists and turns, Walter Matthau, too falls in love with her. Goldie Hawn gets fed up with all the lies and drama, and leaves the dentist for one of his own friends.
The namesake of the film is a prickly cactus that Ingrid keeps on her desk at the dentist's office. Similar to her, the cactus is cold and inhospitable. However, by the end, both the cactus and Ingrid Bergman have bloomed.
The movie was based on a successful Broadway play, but ended up being better than the play in critical acclaim and box office earning. Goldie Hawn got several awards for her role, including her only Oscar as the Best Supporting Actress.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

SCIENTIFIC CONFERENCES ON POLAR REGIONS


Before going to my own Antarctic expedition, I thought that I knew a little bit about the global warming and its impact on climate change. However, after my stay there, and reading and discussing more on this subject, I came back more chastened. I understood that climate change is a very complex and multifactorial issue and spans not a few years or decades but may be centuries.
Recent controversy regarding the melting of Himalayan glaciers has raised a very interesting debate. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change is in soup over prematurely and erroneously making a claim that the Himalayan glaciers were melting at such a rapid rate that they would disappear by the year 2035. This statement by the IPCC was made, as it turned out, on unsubstantiated claims.



This year two major conferences are being held on Polar sciences to discuss a plethora of subjects including climate change. The International Polar Year Science Conference at Oslo will demonstrate, strengthen, and extend the International Polar Year’s accomplishments in sciences and outreach. The conference is an essential opportunity to display and explore the full breadth and implications of IPY activities. The international and interdisciplinary science conference will in particular highlight the global impact of the changes that have been observed in the Polar Regions. (www.ipy.org) 8 – 12 June, 2010, Oslo (Norway)


The International Polar Year is a large scientific programme focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009. IPY, organized through the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), is actually the fourth polar year, following those in 1882-3, 1932-3, and 1957-8. In order to have full and equal coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic, IPY 2007-8 covered two full annual cycles from March 2007 to March 2009 and involved over 200 projects, with thousands of scientists from over 60 nations examining a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics. It was also an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate, follow, and get involved with, cutting edge science in real-time.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (www.scar.org) is organizing its 31st Open Science Meeting in Buenos Aires, August 3 – 6, 2010. The SCAR is an inter-disciplinary body of the International Council for Science, and is charged with initiating, developing, and coordinating high quality international scientific research in the Antarctica and providing independent scientific advice to the Antarctic Treaty System. SCAR was established in 1958 to coordinate the Antarctic data from the International Geophysical Year 1957-58. SCAR has grown over 40 members and new applications are received every year. India became a member of the SCAR in 1983 once it established a permanent station, Dakshin Gangotri, in Antarctica.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

INDIAN WOMEN ON TOP OF THE CONTINENT, AND AT THE BOTTOM OF PLANET


INDIAN WOMEN AT THE TOP OF CONTINENT, AND AT THE BOTTOM OF PLANET
The ending of the year 2009 has been amazing for the Indian women, especially for those with adventurous bent of mind. Krushnaa Patil is the first Indian women (or may be the first Indian) to scale the highest peak in the continent of Antarctica. Reena Kaushal Dharmashaktu became the first Indian woman to ski all the way to the South Pole, the deepest point of the planet Earth.


Krushnaa, only 20 years of age, achieved the distinction on 22nd December when she scaled the highest peak in Antarctica, Mount Vinson Massif at 4897m (16077 ft), with the Antarctic Logistics and Expedition team. This feat has come close on the heel of her climbing the highest peak on the planet Earth, the Mount Everest, in May, 2009 when she was just 19!(see the pic).Not only that, she has already done the highest peak in Africa, Kilimanjaro, and aims to do all the seven summits in all the continents. The others are: Mt Eldrus in Europe (5642 m), Mt Kosciuszko in Australia (2228 m), and Mt Aconcagua in South America, and Mt Mckinley in Alaska (6194 m).
Krushnaa joined her team in Punta Arenas in Chile and then flew all the way to Antarctica to reach Patriot Hills. Another short flight of 1 hour took her to the base camp. Her team established another 2-3 base camps to reach the summit with arduous snow and ice climbing and braving extreme climatic conditions of very low temperatures (minus 50 C) and piercing chilly wind.
Vinson Massif is about 1200 km from the South Pole at coordinates of 78°31´31˝ South and 85° 37´ 73˝ West. The massif lies in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains which stand above the Ronne Ice Shelf near the base of the Antarctic Peninsula.


Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu a mountaineer from Delhi, ended the year 2009 on a high note as she became the first Indian woman to ski to the bottom of planet i.e. South Pole. The Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition saw 8 women from the Commonwealth countries of Cyprus, Ghana, India, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Jamaica and the United Kingdom brave blizzards, crevasses and temperature below -30C as they skied over 900 km across Antarctica to the Geographic South Pole. Marking the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth, the expedition aimed to demonstrate the potential and achievements of women across the world. Reena got selected amidst a tough competition among more than 100 short-listed aspirants to become part of an all-women expedition that skied for eight to ten hours days for 40 days traversing a 915km path, braving chilly winds, sub-zero temperatures, the vast emptiness of Antarctica, and carried 80 kg of load on their backs through one of the coldest and most desolate regions of the world. Close to midnight of 30th December, Reena reached the trademark mirror ball (ceremonial South Pole) in the middle of nowhere of white continent that marks the geographic South Pole.




The expedition saw use of high-tech communication equipment when they could update the world on their progress and also send their voice message through podcast. Some of the interesting comments written by the team members are:
‘Although I have not really skied before, I felt it very much in my element, totally happy’ Reen from India
‘It is difficult to get my legs to do what I want them to do, especially when there are so many different kinds of snow out there. But I'm not cold and I'm not scared of the snow.'
Kim from Jamaica on skiing for the first time.
'It felt like I was kayaking back home, gliding rhythmically over the calm waters as the sun rises - absolute peace and quiet joy. Although the snow was blowing relentlessly into my face when I was skiing, once you focus and get that rhythm going, you just shut everything off, it felt so......... free. Of course those moments lasted only momentarily before I stumbled, being totally new to skiing, but I am marking an increase in the frequency and length of those amazing moments. It's going to be even more magical on our way to the South Pole!'
Lina from Singapore on skiing for the first time.
'We had an experience with the loo. If someone had asked me a week ago if I would be doing something like this I'd have said, 'Are you nuts?''
Athina from Cyprus on sub-zero camping.
'Unpredictable weather ; hate it, love it, cherish it. Just like you would on the mountain, a rough uphill climb, then comes the summit, then the adrenaline rush down the steep slope. Absolutely Fantastic. We ended our nights to a hot cup of soup, creamy pasta, and a nice hot drink, and bonding around the hot stove. Skiing past beautiful views of the icy plateau, you can't help but request breaks to take (TONS of) pictures of the view. Aniza from Brunei on the mini-expedition
"I thought the hardest thing would be the skiing but actually the hardest thing was keeping track of three layers of clothing. I'm used to wearing one layer of clothing and I can't loose that because I'm wearing it. This was something totally new."
Kim from Jamaica.
‘Today I realized that there is one reason why you should not be happy about not having too much body fat: because in this environment for this number of days you will realize that the body uses every part of it.’ Sophia
‘It is not like old days; now we have dehydrated meals and protein shakes where once they relied on seal blubber and eating dogs.’ For Christmas celebrations, the girls had, what else, but freeze dried chicken tikka masala!
‘I think a highlight for a bunch of us 7 women that have been depreived of shopping a long time was going to the small South Pole shop and being able to buy some little souvenirs.’ Amazingly, the Amundsen-Scott station of the US has a small shop there. At McMurdo, another US station, the expeditioners can even buy condoms.
‘It is very exciting here because obviously it is the lead up to New Year. We have already celebrated one new year which is South Pole time new year but we are looking forward to celebrating new year at least 7 times over the next 24 hour period. One for each time zone that we belong to so there is a lot of celebrating to be done.’
Not only her family and friends but whole India too becomes proud of her achievement.
For 38 year old Reena this achieving this feat was no simple. There were several barricades on her mission like first she has to arrange huge loan to fund her and then she had to compete with all top mountaineers of world as by the time she was finally selected she had edged out 116 aspirants to get the right to represent India in the eight-women Commonwealth team expedition. Similarly getting sponsors was no simple as everyone including government & private companies has shown no interest. Finally her family had to take loan from bank. This has now marked her achievement more unique.
Her husband who is also a classic mountaineer himself has incidentally climbed Mt Everest thrice and has congratulated her on successfully completing such an arduous journey. Reena is based in Delhi and is a freelance outdoor and mountaineering instructor.
Hats off to the spirits of Indian women!
(photos credits: IANS and www.kasperskycommonwealthexpedition.com)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

RANTHAMBORE FORT


We had an interesting trip one afternoon to the Ranthambore Fort. From outside itself it comes across as an imposing structure. And within the fort too, there are many interesting places each with its own intriguing story. By the way, Ranthambore, is the place where the confluence of two hill ranges, Aravalli and Vindhyachal, takes place. As soon as we got down from our jeep, we were surrounded by a group of local guides offering to give us a guided trip to the fort at a very reasonable price. Since we were not interested, we politely refused. And to our surprise, they went away also. It was very much in contrast to what we had earlier experienced at places like the Taj Mahal or Fatehpur Sikri; their persistence had almost made us exasperated. One person at Ranthambore, however, continued to follow us. We realized he was a young boy, and asked him what was he looking for. We were taken for a surprise when he offered his services as a guide. He had an innocent face and sweet voice. We were charmed by him. We negotiated with him his rates. He seemed a seasoned bargainer, but finally we settled for a price to each other’s satisfaction. He was a 12-year old boy, student of class 7. He started with giving us a brief history of the fort; to our amazement, he was right about the dates and names connected with the fort.

He told that the word, Ranthambore, is made from 3 peaks which are seen here: Ran, Tham, and Bore. What we learnt from him was that the fort was more than 1000 years old and many dynasties ruled over it depending upon who was ruling Delhi at that time. But most of the time, it remained with the local kings and was their favourite ground for tiger hunting. But some of them were great conservationists, and laid down rules for conserving the nature. He took us to all the three temple seen during visit to the forest, one of these was an old Jain temple. Whenever, out attention wavered, he would lose no time in asking us to listen to him. To make his narrative interesting, he also told us what VIPs had visited this fort and what movies were shot there. He aimed to study at least till graduation and get a job in the secretariat. His father, though with limited means, was also keen that his two children should study. That the family did not have an idiot box at home was proof that he was serious.
Our guide took us to all the important sites and we returned very satified. We thanked him and wished him well in his life.