I met a sage in Gangotri who told me “Bhramaan se Bhram Mitta Hai” which means “you clear your misconceptions through your travel” and I couldn’t agree more. I arrived at Gangotri from Uttarkashi on the 17th of June 2012. The most important reason for visiting Gangotri was to trek up to Gaumukh and Tapovan.
Gangotri is a small holy town packed during the months from April end to June mid for the “charm dham yatra”. The place has a certain charm to it. They say that when the Ganga arrived on this planet, it is here in Gangotri; where she started her journey throughout the country. Seeing the Ganga flow with all her might is very intimidating yet a certain pinch of calm and serenity strikes with the temple bells ringing behind and the priests chanting shlokas behind you.
I had my booking at the “Gharwal Nigam Mandal Nigam” (GMVN). This government run guesthouse is off the main temple street and offers seclusion and silence from the busy main street filled with pilgrims. I purely chose it because the daily rent was Rs150 a day. When you are on an Rs 500 per day budget, this is a steal. The rooms were very clean and the bathrooms were very well kept; much above my expectations as the GMVN I stayed at Hanuman Chatti, close to Yumnotri was falling apart.
I had decided to spend few days in Gangotri to acclimatize to the high altitude and prepare for the trek towards Gaumukh and Tapovan. I had got permission for the trek from Uttarkashi and happened to meet a local trek operator who directed me about the entire trek. I realized that my budget didn’t allow me to hire a guide but I was advised to take a porter along as they are familiar with the route. At Gangotri, I happened to speak to few porters but they were not affordable under my budget.
My three days stay in Gangotri was very comfortable and I was brimming with spiritual exuberance. I chatted with the locals and gathered all the information one would need for the trek. Some had stories to share that were rather frightening but all of them strictly advised me to take a porter along if I was going further to Tapovan, I only realized why they were so persistent when I reached Gaumukh.
Day 1 : Gangotri to Bhojwasa
On the 20th I started my trek towards Bhojwasa which is 14kms from Gangotri. I carried few packets of biscuits for the way and filled my bottle with some fresh water. On my way, I could see the Neelkanth Peak far ahead of me. The narrow path often escalates to leave the trekkers breathless. The view around makes the effort worth every bit. The air gets sharper due to ascend and one can actually feel the cold icy nip in the air.
On my way I found many pilgrims who were going to Gaumukh only. I perhaps was the only planning to go to Tapovan alone. At times it felt daunting but the surge of adventure often kept my spirits high. The plan was to reach Bhojwasa and look for someone who can lead me to Tapovan. I was rather comfortable with the climb and took my hourly rest of 15 minutes and my photo breaks which were happening too often as the landscape changes with every turn.
Four hours and 12kms into the trek comes Cheerbasa; where your permit is checked again. Earlier this place had tiny hamlets that used to sell tea and snacks but the government has banned all such activities for past three years now. A small check post is seen further downhill. From here Bhojwasa is around 2 kilometers trek which gets rather strenuous as you are almost at 11480 ft above sea level.
In some places the route is totally destroyed by landslides. There is very narrow passage and only one person at a time can cross this. Passing this area get even tough as the rocks are loose and getting a good grip is difficult. A fall would mean a serious injury and getting help out here is considerably difficult.
After 6 hours of trek I finally reached Bhojwasa which can be seen in a valley below. Most pilgrims take the route ahead to Gaumukh and on their way back they stop here. Bhojwasa is a very small temporary settlement set up to aid the Gaumukh yatra. This place has few places to stay like the “GMVN” guest house but the more popular place is “Lal Baba Ashram”. I took shelter here for the night and was provided with some warm food and blankets. A much needed rest after a hectic trek of 14kms that took 6 hours to complete.
The view from Bhojwasa is even more exhilarating. The Neelkanth peak looks life like and mighty than it does from Gangotri. There are numerous other peaks that dot the sky line. One feels rather humbled and mortal by the view of such mammoth natural wonders.
Stay at Bhojwasa proved to be fruitful and I happened to meet a porter I earlier spoke to in Gangotri but then I could strike a deal with him as he was not within my budget. This porter was taking a single person to Tapovan the next day; a Ukrainian lady who visits the ‘Mauni Baba’ living in Tapovan for past three years now.
I requested him to take me along and he was more than happy to have another person for company. The porters are mostly from Nepal and are very humble people. If you speak to them nicely and offer to share things you have they will help you out. My work was done and I was going to Tapovan but then I always had a doubt if I could make the climb. I have traveled a lot but this was perhaps the most daring thing I was about to do in my whole life so far. But the next day after a good night’s sleep we were on our way to Gaumukh and then to Tapovan.
Day 2: Bhojwasa to Tapovan via Gaumukh
Gaumukh is roughly 4kms from Bhojwasa and the terrain gets rockier. The path is paved but it is very weathered in most of the places, making it hard on your feet. The sharp edged rocks at times are painful if stepped with a lot of forward force. We covered the distance in just less than two hours and then stopped at the small temple that’s been made to mark Gamukh and the origin of the ‘Holy Ganga’.
We decided to rest here for half an hour. Meanwhile I got busy clicking pictures of the view around me. Yes it was Gaumukh at 13120 ft above sea level. The glacier has receded quite a lot over the year and now has been pushed away considerably. We then started perhaps the most challenging part of the trek, onwards to Tapovan which is at a distance of 4kms from Gaumukh and is almost parallel to it.
The porter led us to a higher ground from the left side of the Gaumukh glacier. As we ascended, the paved route totally disappeared and what left was a stone path upwards which crumbled at slightest pressure. I was walking on and could see crevasses next to me that are more than often deathly. Now I understood why everyone advised me on taking a porter to Tapovan. If you are new to this place you will get lost or even worse fall in to a crevasse.
The climb was taking a toll on my thigh and calf muscles and the thin air made the climb even more testing. The porter asked me not to stop until we reached the top of the glacier, later I was told that the falling rocks from above can be life threatening. I did manage to reach the top of the glacier and saw at a distance I was up against. A very steep hill was to be climbed up to reach the final destination, Tapovan. From a distance this hill looked virtually impossible to scale. But this was not it. To reach this hill we had to pass through the remaining glacier. The path was rather treacherous as I couldn’t make out which part was ice and which part was stone. The mud on top of the icy glacier makes it look like a firm land but as you step on it you slip down. Any further struggle would cause you to slip further.
Exhausted we reached the foot of the hill. The porter told us that this was the last part of our trek and then we will reach Tapovan. We started our climb. The steepness of the hill was relentless, often increasing our frequency of rest breaks. After what can be termed as a very high level of endurance test we reached a waterfall. We crossed over to the other side only so see the end of the climb in sight.
We made it to Tapovan. At 4500 meters above sea level world looks a lot different. We started walking towards the Mauni Baba’s Ashram, who happens to be the only settler in Tapovan for eight months of the year. The trek was over and the view around made the effort worth every bit of it. We were welcomed by Baba at his ashram where we stayed for the night. The Baba provides everyone with food that he makes on his own and warm blankets for the night. As a courtesy people carry some food supplies along with them or leave small donations as they wish.
Tapovan is perhaps the most peaceful place I have been to. I have seen quite a few secluded places in India but this one has a soul to it. A walk along the ‘Akash Ganga’ River that flows through out Tapovan imposes a sense of calm and clarity within you. In Tapovan it is just the person and his encompassing thoughts, making the Neelkanth Peak now look at an arm’s length. The sense of satisfaction one gets after reaching here makes the challenging climb worth every bit.
The Baba shares some stories and trekkers help him with chores of cooking and cleaning. Though it’s difficult to understand him initially but he does write and puts his views across.
The night in Tapovan gets really cold. There is no electricity so after sunset it gets pitch dark. That’s when the stars shine and you can actually catch their reflection in the river. My advice is to be brave and take a walk out in the open, keep a flash light handy; it’s a chill worth experiencing. At night I was wrapped under many layers of clothing and had a blanket provided by the Baba and could still feel the cold seeping in.
Day 3 : Tapovan to Gangotri
Next morning it was time to head back to Gangotri. After paying my regards to ‘Mauni Baba’ and thanking him for his kind hearted hospitality I started my journey back to Gangotri. It took us around four hours to get down from Tapovan to Gamukh and then after that I was all by myself to reach Gangotri. On my way down I shared my bottle of water with the porter and another pilgrim so I was left with few drops of it. I then decided to head down towards the river to find some water.
The Gaumukh area has a very muddy water flowing which can be had only after straining and boiling it. I was in need of water and the sun was making it even tough for me. A quick wash at the river bed refreshed me and I had few biscuits which I had picked up when I started from Gangotri. At some distance I found some broken ice floating in the river. I fished some out and broke them to smaller pieces to fit them in my flask. This was my water source till would reach Bhojwasa 4kms away.
After a two hours trek I reached Bhojwasa and had a fair share of clean water from the “Lal Baba Ashram” and the khichdi they provide for free. Such gestures make one feel very humble. I thanked the‘bhakts’ that run the ashram all through the year, even when the temperatures fall below zero.
I wanted to reach Gangotri the same day and halt there for the night. The only issue was that I had to reach before 8 p.m. at night as the gates of the national park are closed then after. So I had around 6 hours to cover 14kms to get to Gangotri. I managed to reach in less than 5 hours. Exhausted I sat in the nearest restaurant I could find for a hot tea and some snacks. Shared some with another porter I befriended on my way down.
In all I spent a week in Gangotri along with my trek and met many people who shared a lot of their personal experiences. I would advise everyone to try and make this trek at least once in this life time. There is much for these eyes to see and this soul to experience.