Uttarakhand Update: Part V– Hemkund Sahib
We changed hotels on the night of the 18th, after a brief altercation with GMVN. The quality of the rooms in the hotel we had been staying hadn’t been up to scratch, and with the lack of towels, water and power, and random insects spotted in the room, a few in the group were at an edge and wanted to move to a different hotel. GMVN itself was fully booked, but after arguing back and forth, they agreed to put us up in another hotel close by. By then it was 10 in the night, the power had gone off, and in the torch-lit night as the rest of the town downed its shutters, we packed hurriedly dumping wet clothes by the dozen in plastic bags and hoping that we weren’t missing anything. I was loath to move at that time, but surprisingly the packing didn’t take long at all and shortly we had moved into the other hotel. This hotel, for whatever reason, still had power, and that helped us get settled in. The room wasn’t much of an improvement, still it smelled better, what with the damp clothes yet to make their overpowering presence felt. We retired for the night unsure as to the plans for the next day though most of us were keen to make it to Hemkund Sahib.
Woke up around 6 AM next morning – as usual, Vivek was up first and as he moved about the room, I woke up too. We decided to head to Hemkund Sahib shortly. Vinod woke up in a bit too, and was gung-ho about joining us as well. We had a quick breakfast and at 6:45 or so, we were all set to leave. The others were still asleep or just waking up, and assuming that they would join us later – on horses or on foot – we were on our way. The previous day, we had heard from a returning party that they had spotted a blue poppy on the way to Hemkund Sahib, so we looking forward to that. Enough people had also told me that it was a tough climb up though the distance was only 6 km. Hemkund Sahib is at an altitude of 4330 m, while Ghangria was at around 3200m, so we would be gaining considerable height during the climb. After 3 consecutive days of trekking, I had reconciled myself to taking a pony were I to find the going tough.
On the way from Govindghat to Ghangria, we had come across hundreds of Sikh pilgrims, many of whom repeatedly chanted the Sikh mantra Satnam – Wahe Guru on their way up. One person would utter Satnam, and the rest of the group would chorus Wahe Guru. It was nice to hear that, and as we commenced our trek up to Hemkund Sahib, nearly everyone else on the way was a Sikh too. Quickly, I began to set the pace for the group. My trekking philosophy has always been to stop less and talk less while walking. While I enjoyed walking steadily, it was also a practical matter. I have found that the more I stop, the harder the trek becomes. Every conversation also tended to make my breathing heavier. As such, I often walked alone, taking longer breaks whenever I stopped to let the others catch up with me. So it was here too. Every time I felt I was tiring, I chanted Satnam – Wahe Guru for a while, and found that it took my mind off the fatigue and helped me push along.
Much to my surprise, the climb up turned out to be much easier than I though. Took only 3-4 breaks though as always I carried enough water and food and bought anything else I needed at the few shanty snack sheds that were present on the trail uphill. At one halt just past the 3km mark, I met a Sikh guy who was on his 3rd trip to the Gurudwara. We chatted briefly about work and Bangalore before he continued on his way. The others caught up with me there as I waited for them. We resumed from there, and we had walked but a hundred metres, when Vivek spotted the almost mythical Blue Poppy! I headed back to where he was and we took a few photos, glad to have finally spotted that flower. A beautiful, shimmering blue flower, it was with good reason that it was much photographed and sought after. Being a narcotic helps, of course. In the event, that was just the first of the blue poppies we spotted, there were many more all the way up to the Gurudwara. From the 2 km mark onwards, we could also hear the bhajans and the sermons, intended I suppose to motivate tired pilgrims to keep going.
I reached the Gurudwara at 11, and had excellent hot tea at the Langar while I waited for Vinod and Vivek. After twenty minutes, they reached too. They had also spotted the Brahma kamal on the way up, which I had missed as I was more intent on the walk and less focused on the photography. That could wait for the descent. We went to the Gurudwara, prayed and listened to the bhajans for a bit, before heading out to see the lake itself. It was amazing to see several people undress and jump into the lake to have a bath in that freezing cold water. They were even betting as to how many dips they could take. 51, said one, and after 15, he had had enough! We weren’t bold enough to have a bath, and in any case, we had no desire to – so we contented ourselves with taking photos of the lake and the gurudwara from various angles. Also went to the Laxman Mandir behind the gurudwara, and while there was no priest there, it was very well maintained. I wondered if the gurudwara maintained the temple as well. There was a gentle mist hovering over and about the lake, and while it cleared for brief moments, it never cleared long enough to provide a 360 degree view of the place. Nevertheless, we were able to take some excellent photographs. My only regret later, after I had returned, was that I never actually dipped my feet in the lake itself. It had slipped off my mind completely while I was there.
We had piping hot kichdi at the langar – probably the best kichdi of the trip before we decided to head back. It was 2 by then, and we had spent 3 hours at the gurudwara, longer than we had originally thought. But then, we had reached sooner and that had given us more time to enjoy the views from up there. What it is that moves people to establish temples at such isolated heights, it is difficult for me to fathom; it is to be said though that no matter what one’s religion or however irreligious one is, spirituality is a natural instinct one turns to in such isolated and pristine environments. In some ways, it is the most human of pursuits. At least, that is what I think.
The first part of the way down was dedicated to the pursuit of the Brahma-kamal and the blue poppy. There were Brahma-kamals by the dozen, on one particular slope were hundreds glimmering like light bulbs on a misty day. Blue poppies as well here and there, and we had to leave the trail and straggle in odd positions to take close-up shots of these flowers. Vivek got a few amazing snaps, while I got some reasonably good ones myself. The glacier through/from which the Laxman Ganga was flowing was a magnificent sight as well, and easily the biggest we had seen on the trip. It got warmer as we descended, and my knees and feet had begun to take a pounding. I have always found that it is harder to descend down a hill, and it was particularly so here. By the time we reached Ghangria at around 5, my feet had developed blisters and a bit of skin had come off my ankle what with the wet shoes constantly pressing and scraping there. We met the rest of the group near the entry to the Valley of the flowers – they had decided to abandon their Hemkund Sahib plans and do bird watching instead.
It had been an amazing day, and I was rather thrilled with how the day had gone. We had also been lucky that barring a brief spell for 30-45 minutes or so, the rain had stayed away. No matter the blisters on my feet, it was almost as if the fates had conspired to make it easy for us.