Ice-crusted peaks are soaring heavenward, cleaving the azure expanse overhead. Steep, craggy slopes dense with oak, deodar, birch, and pine .. Lush meadows randomly dotted with a myriad species of exquisite flowers streams gushing forth from glaciers, cutting deep gorges through stratified rock and glacial moraines along their tempestuous course. Words can convey just so much, give but the merest inkling of the aloof grandeur, the remarkable beauty of that northern stretch of India: the Garhwal Himalaya.
It is a region of remote, uncompromising beauty and yet accessible to those game enough to take up the challenge. To trek in the Himalaya, you merely need to be stout of heart and will not necessarily particularly strong of limb. I’m not! And yet, with three of my friends, (all of us city slickers), we made it almost up to Heaven, along with a gloriously dicey path with a few heart-stopping moments but without any mishap to Khatling Glacier.
The name itself sounds somewhat intimidating: like the rattling of a saber. K H A T L I N G ! A pristine lateral glacier in the midst of dense forests, at the height of around 12,200 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas, slightly West of Gaumukh (considered to be the source of the holy River Ganga).
It was rather early in the season when we decided to do the trek (generally not too difficult for regular high altitude trekkers) just the beginning of May. We knew we would face heavy snow in the more upper reaches, and rains and hail along the way. What we did not realize was, that last August there had been some glacier bursts in that region, resulting in substantial floods and significant landslides; the path was all but washed away, rendering the mountainside treacherous. Blithely unaware of what was in store for us, we rushed in where Angels may perhaps have feared to tread. But we did return, limbs intact!
Khatling Glacier is the source of the Bhilangana River, which empties into the holy Bhagirathi. Bhagirathi confluences with the vivacious Alaknanda at Deoprayag, to form the legendary Ganga. Yes, the Indian Rivers have particular adjectives applicable to them! Eternal Eves, they have their consorts, the mountains, well and indeed in their coils --- literally and figuratively!
Legend has it the Bhilangana is the transmigrated soul of a heavenly nymph, who tried to seduce the austere Lord Shiva and failed. Unable to bear the humiliation of being contempt, she transformed herself into the River! In the Garhwal, every River is a Goddess, and a God sits atop every snow-clad peak. You do not need to suspend disbelief to believe this if you’re there. The very air exudes divine wonderment and gets into the skin of even a cynical agnostic. Legend and myth are into the very fiber of Uttarakhand where untamed, untamable Nature holds Man in thrall and rational doubt gives way too fatalistic belief in the incredible, almost as a matter of course.
Despite the dangers we faced, this was one trek I would not have liked to have missed. The Himalayas do that to you: hardships get trivialized beneath notice. When you experience first-hand the breathtaking grandeur of the snow-dappled mountains, the fragrant aroma of the forests, the invigorating sight of Rhododendrons in full bloom and the soothing caress of wet leaves and trailing moss as you inch your way under the dense canopy of oak and deodar and pine. Somehow, from somewhere, you get the strength.
We met at New Delhi. My three companions landed up at the New Delhi Railway Station to meet me on the platform. There was no bus to Rishikesh for at least another hour; we decided to take a taxi.
From Bombay to Rishikesh is quite a leap --- in space, time, and ambiance. The town resounds with spirituality: an agnostic could not escape the vibrations if he tried! The River Ganga is the mainstay of the residents and the focal point of attraction for the transient tourists and pilgrims. The Ganga is indeed the life-blood of Rishikesh. It IS Rishikesh!
We stayed a day in Rishikesh, mainly to hire tents and equipment from the Garhwal Mangal Vikas Nigam (GMVN). We had hoped to get in a day’s river-rafting, but it was the tail-end of the season and instructors were not available. The GMVN does not permit rafting after May 1st.
From Rishikesh, we took a cab to Ghuttu. Ghuttu is the last motor-head before we start trekking. I fell ill at Rishikesh itself and was trudging along with fever, a throat worse than sandpaper, and six antibiotics a day. (I usually never touch the stuff!) Not the ideal conditions for a trek, even to a heavenly destination. But I still wouldn’t have liked to miss this one.
Ghuttu, a delightful town on the banks of the Bhilangana River, was the last halt where we could get anything we needed for the trek ahead: food, medicines, provisions, etc. Typically everything likely to be required during a trek is packed before you take off for the trek. But one tends to forget or run out of things. As one goes ahead, on the way to Khatling, there is nothing but wilderness. And breathtaking scenery. Food enough for the soul, no doubt, but you do need to stock up food for the body, especially when you’re trekking around 20 km. In about half a day, at altitudes above 10,000 feet. (In the mountains, it’s by and large advisable to reach your next camping spot by the afternoon). At Ghuttu, Reeh, and Gangi, you can stay in the guest-houses run by the GMVN, as we did. The guest house at Ghuttu is well equipped, the canteen is slightly right, and the view superb! All the guest houses have an impressive number of tube-lights, bulbs, switches, etc. The only problem is the actual electricity, which is as unreliable as the weather in the hills! Most of the time, we had to make do with a hurricane lamp and our torches. Make sure you carry at least two compelling lights per person and plenty of extra cells. In the Himalayas, the darkness envelopes you like an all-pervading blanket in which torch-beams get reduced to pathetic flickers.
At Ghuttu, we hired four porters-cum-guides for the trek. We were carrying, apart from our baggage, tents, carry-mats, sleeping bags, a small stove, pressure cooker, a couple of vessels to cook in, food, provisions, medicines, kerosene, the works. And of course, requirements for the porters, including rice, daal, masala, etc.
From Ghuttu to Reeh, (around 10-11 km.), the trek is along a relatively straightforward path, with few ups and downs. This trail too was washed away by the floods last August, but mercifully was rebuilt by the forest department and the villagers. The Reeh-Gangi stretch, also ten km., is rather steep. Along the trails from Ghuttu to Gangi, we met quite a few local inhabitants: rosy-cheeked children came running to us, with a cheerful Namaste, and the inevitable request for `mithai: sweets! The elderly stopped us with demands for medicines `gold, as they put it, for fever, headaches, and sore-throats: the common ailments plaguing the mountain-dwellers. The women (almost all wearing the most elaborate and gorgeous gold nose-rings I had ever seen), eyed me curiously, asking the most personal questions without inhibition, was I married, why wasn’t my husband with me, how many children did I have ? etc. etc. etc. . .
Up to Gangi, there was a definite path, and though the trek was rather steep and tiring in parts, it was not life-threatening. The local inhabitants had terraced significant chunks of the mountainside for cultivation, and golden patches of wheat swaying in the nascent sunshine were a common sight before they fell prey to the cutting edge of the scythe. From time to time we would come across mounts of the freshly-dug earth, those turned out to be potato farms. Potato is the one vegetable freely available in those regions, apart from lying, which the locals call `99’ because the veggie is in shape like a `9’! The locals busy themselves with cultivation, and grazing herds of goats, sheep, cows, and buffaloes on the gentler slopes. During the trekking season, some make money acting as porters and guides.
Having shaken off the heat and dust of the plains, we reveled in temperatures ranging from 5 degrees Celsius to 10 degrees. We crossed numerous small streams along the way, some having rickety bridges, some having no bridges, merely stones, and boulders over which we hopped across. It rained heavily every afternoon till the night, and at Gangi, it hailed quite heavily. The evening we reached Gangi, the weather became unbearable that we had grave apprehensions, whether or not we’d be able to go ahead. Because beyond Gangi all was wilderness, we were warned by the porters and guides that they were not too sure of the way.
Ours was virtually the first team, that season, to proceed towards Khatling. It was rather early in the year, and the path had all but disappeared. Traversing the mountains had now indeed become a Himalayan task (pun intended)! The horsemen had to abandon their horses and carry all luggage on their backs. From now on, there were no guest-houses, no cultivated patches, no villages, no herds of goats, cows or buffaloes. Just the forested mountains, the river, and streams.
We reduced our luggage almost by half, leaving behind the rest of the stuff in the guest-house at Gangi. Fortunately, the day we went Gangi was quite sunny and bright. We started off at a brisk pace, determined to brave the way ahead.
. . . What lay ahead was a squelchy mass of treacherous, pathless mountainside! Large chunks of mountains had been washed away by the landslides and glacier bursts. In parts, entire mountains had been cloven almost into the half, completely stripped of all vegetation from the peak to the foot. Huge trees lay uprooted, and we had to clamber ahead over the felled trunks of the once majestic oaks and gracious deodars which now put dying, supporting colonies of mushrooms and a profusion of ferns. The mountainside had become dangerous, in parts almost life-threatening. It became difficult to get any secure foot-hold. The earth was wet and lumpy, causing our feet to slip. There were loose boulders and rocks all around, giving way at the slightest touch, likely to go hurtling down if we stepped on them; we could not hold on to the trees for support as their roots had been a weak cause of the landslide. They were likely to come off in our hands, as we teetered at the edge of a precipice above a 1000-foot fall into the Bhilangana! At times, we found it more comfortable to sit and slither across, or roll across, almost lying on the ground.
The porters were a tremendous help on such stretches. One of them had attached himself firmly to me and would not let me out of his sight. From time to time he would murmur encouragingly, in Hindi: “Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall. I’ll take you on my shoulders if need be!” I did not have the heart to tell him I’d be even more terrified of being carried on his shoulder, in those stretches! At that altitude, it is necessary to stay close to the ground, to ensure gravitational balance. However, the guide’s helping hand was tremendously reassuring. But what saved us was the little forest bamboo! Bamboo has roots that go deep into the earth, and the shoots are extremely flexible, yet strong. (The green ones that are; the dry ones would snap.) Whenever we saw a clump of bamboos, we would sigh with relief, “Thank god! we are safe” Clinging on to the bamboo for dear life, the porters and the four of us made it across from Gangi to Kharsoli.
Nonetheless, the trek was extremely rewarding, and the sights, sounds, and smells that assaulted our senses will stay encapsulated in our memories for a long time to come. The views were stupendous: looming all around were the snow-clad peaks glittering in the sun. The Khatling itself, a massive expanse of virgin ice, glowing with a cold fire, as alluring as any Lorelei, beckoning us farther. The forest, daily laundered, exuding a heady aroma a perfumer may well covet; the canopy of trees is soothing the eye and invigorating the spirit; the frothy Bhilangana was bubbling away alongside, feeding numerous small streams and waterfalls which added enchantment to the trek. .And all along the trail bloomed the spectacularly gorgeous Rhododendron. Blooming on shrubs that grow higher than eye level, the Rhododendron provided for us a phantasmagoria of colors: deep reds, vibrant pinks, delicate mauves, pristine whites, massive, dew-drenched blooms balanced delicately on slender stems swaying gently in the breeze. The oak and birch and deodar hosted vast quantities of moss and epiphytic ferns that tickled our faces as we walked underneath. Occasionally we would come across a patch of the graceful silver birch, the Bhojpatra, whose bark can be peeled into strips, which the Ancients used to write text on, and store grain. And the birds. The birds! Numerous species were seen and heard all along the trail, the birdsong now a glorious symphony, then a muted harmony, yet again a sharp counterpoint.
Near Kalyani, on the way to Kharsoli, the attention of one guy in the group was attracted by a rock which seemed to move! A strange, brown-colored stone. Under our astonished gaze, the rock metamorphosed into a huge bear; it ambled around for a while, then caught hold of a tree trunk in the distance. We waited, breath bated, to see if it would climb the tree when the porters started a ruckus, and the bear fled. We also sighted some foxes, a lone mongoose, and langurs, all from a comfortable distance.
Kharsoli, around 16 km. Ahead of Gangi, is an excellent tenting spot to pitch camp. From a distance, the ground seemed level, and running water, the pre-requisite of any camping site, was available. Closer inspection, however, revealed that the land was covered with stinging nettles and was not that level. But there was no help for it! We had to pitch tents there. The guys gallantly tried to choose the best site for my two-man tent, where I would stay alone, being the only girl in the group. Even the `best’ site had a good-ish slope and every night I would find myself and the sleeping bag sliding down, down, down, and almost out of the tent!
The couple of days we spent at Kharsoli and its environs were bliss indeed, despite the hassles. Rising every morning to a spectacular view of the Khatling: the expanse of ice was at its most pristine white, powdered daily by fresh snow-fall. Glaciers have a crystalline quality that renders them dazzling to the eye, especially in the nascent sunshine of early morn. The Khatling seemed a significant drop of opal suspended in the distance, refracting the light into myriad delicate hues.
There was no other habitation around, and we were alone among the elements. The stars at night seemed a benediction and the bird-song at dawn, an enchanting call to rise!
From Kharsoli we trekked ahead farther. Crossing a couple of ice-fields, we made it up to Belbhagi, around 14 km. from the Khatling. We could not go beyond Belbhagi, as indeed we had been warned. There was substantial snow ahead, and the weather was worsening. We ultimately broke camp and returned to Ghuttu, perforce in half the time.
The day we reached Ghuttu, the heavens opened up in a deluge. We had made it back just in time. After arriving almost up to Heaven. With a tantalizing bit of the way left for some other time.