We checked out of the hotel and started for Kedarnath at 4 a.m. the next day. After a two-hour car journey towards Sonprayag (the starting point of the trek) we found a heavy traffic jam and got down from the car at least 2 km before the starting point. We left most of our stuff in the cab and carried our camera bags and one bag full of our winter wear and other essentials.
With a brewing cup of masala chai at a small thadi, we commenced our ascent. After walking for 1 km, I knew that carrying the camera bag was a mistake. Also, there was a long queue for the mandatory biometric registration before starting the Char Dham Yatra. We skipped it and made an online registration which took a while due to low connectivity and internet connection. No one ever asked us for any kind of ID for the yatra. However, before going for any of the Char Dham, make sure that you download the Uttarakhand Tourism app and register yourselves to save time during the trek.
We continued to climb, clicking selfies and calling our folks to update them as the network doesn’t get any more reliable with the height. The weather was still on our side. It was after reaching the Sonprayag parking, that both the weather and the crowd seemed to exceed my expectations, not in a good way. On my left, I could see some ‘pittus’ which took me back to the movie ‘Kedarnath’. And then someone pushed me from behind, suggesting that this was no place to daydream. It was a horse’s hip. I was immediately kicked back to the real world and I resumed walking with the horses, pittus and hundreds of people trying to fit in my perfect dream frame of the movie.
One of the good parts of this path is that it is paved and dotted with chaiwallahs, jaljeera and nimbu paani stalls along with fresh sliced cucumber and watermelon to keep the travellers hydrated and healthy. In fact, I was quite surprised to find boards for medical help in every few kilometres. However, the funniest parts are the misleading sign boards placed randomly on the way. One board said ‘Gaurikund - 4 km’, and as we walked further, the board said ‘Gaurikund - 5 km’. After talking to the locals, dhaba owners and other travellers, I realised that on this trek, ignorance is bliss. Because the more I knew, the farther the destination seemed. It was 1 p.m. We had already walked for more than 10 km and there were easily 15 more to go. The only roadblocks hindering our never-die walking spirit were the rising temperature and the fear that by the time we reach, the Kedarnath temple might close for darshan. So we decided to do the rest of the trek on horses.
“I recommend you all to take horses at the very beginning to save time and energy especially if you aim to reach the temple in one day.”
I personally am not a fan of horse and camel rides, probably because it feels like I am hurting both them and me physically and mentally. But as we escalated, the temperature began to drop, the colour of the sky turned from blue to grey and the view of the valley looked like a dream.
We paused for a bit and had a round of paranthas, dal and achaar. Now that I stay in Bangalore, I truly miss the North Indian Food, especially the pahadi paranthas. I put on my jacket, cap and woolen gloves and resumed the ride quickly as it had started to drizzle. Within 2.5 hours of taking the horses, we reached the horse parking, just 1 km away from the area which offered accommodation. As soon as we started walking towards it, it began to snow. People were running around trying to hold on to their umbrellas and pittus were taking the pilgrims downhill by covering the seats with huge plastic covers. We stood under an overcrowded shelter shivering to the core, watching the snowflakes passionately greeting the valley as I took some pictures and waited for our chai and Parle-G.
It wouldn’t stop snowing. So we stopped waiting and rushed to the tea shops to ask for accommodation. Thankfully, we found a tent belonging to a tea-seller and chilled there for a bit. It was 5:30 p.m. and we decided to try our luck for the darshan despite people warning us about the long queues and the temple closing at 7 p.m.
We started walking towards the temple. Its mix of dark grey and brown stands out and shrines even under a cloudy sky.
After a full-day hike, standing in the queue felt serene. We stood there gushing over the snow-capped mountain peaks surrounding us and I swear that a sheet of snow far away was a replica of India's map. Chatting with strangers about the 2013 tragedy which wiped away the solid roads and so much more from this holy paradise of India was heart-breaking but that long queue spoke of the relentless devotion of the pilgrims whose faith brings them to pursue this long journey, only in search of their one true God. With hundreds of thoughts and a few conversations about life and other drugs, 2 hours flew by and we finally entered inside one of the most revered temples of the world. We quickly did our prayers and bought prasad and gangajal for family and friends back home and started to walk back to our tent. It was pitch dark and the phone’s torchlight was the only light till my friend pointed up and I looked up to see the crystal clear night sky blanketed with trillions of stars twinkling. I felt my heart smile.
Happy and weary, we had a light meal and slept early, intending to start our descent at the crack of dawn. The temperature dropped to a -2 degree celsius that night and I was up all night in my sleeping bag praying for it to get warmer out there.