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Pankaj Molekhi guides you to the birthplace of the Ganga and a little up ahead…

For the Hindu devout, Gangotri, the birthplace of Ganga, is one of the four dhams that, collectively, guarantee a ticket to heaven (the other three being Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath). Most adventurists, irrespective of their religious loyalties, think so too. For, this picturesque spot in the Garhwal Himalayas offers endless divine pleasures — call it heaven if you so wish.

To watch the whitewater Bhagirathi — this is what the river is called here; it becomes Ganga only at Devprayag after meeting the Alaknanda — moving with a devilish fury, making its way from rocky mountains, is a sight to cherish for a lifetime. Around 540 km from Delhi, the route to Gangotri, Hrishikesh onward, offers ideal sideway sighting. One can also take up the Mussoorie -route to reach Tehri and then move on to Uttarkashi and reach Ganganani hot water spring, a little before Harsil. Do stop by this natural sulphar spring (called tapt kund, locally), which has two separate public bath pools for men and women. From here to Harsil, the last stop before Gangotri, high rocky mountains behold tricky turns. Spare the daredevilry, please, or you just might get your ticket to heaven — literally.

Harsil is an ideal place to stay for the night before going to Gangotri, barely 25 km ahead. It is a valley where Wilson The Pahari had made home, developed an apple breed by his name and also seeded trout fish in a pond at Dodi Taal, near Yamunotri. One can also visit Saat-Taal from here (different from the Nainital ones). Harsil also hosts the winter seat of goddess Gangotri. It now has a string of small budget hotels and luxury tent resorts to choose one’s stay. For the adventurous, there are ample camping sites and streams of waters.

The route from Harsil valley to Gangotri costs about one hour and is lush with greenery. The milky fangs of the Ganga along way are a pleasure to stop by and watch. Though, one recurring problem would be the toll tax barriers at various turnarounds, puliyas, and bridges. Carry loose money with you and keep tossing the tenner/fivers to see the barrier go up in the air.

Gangotri, like most pilgrim places, may remind you of too much activity. It mainly hosts the historic temple, a few ashrams and a makeshift bazaar of copperware, pooja items, prasaad and eateries. These shops remain in place for only six months. If you are not the religious type, there is no use hankering around the bazaar or the temple. Choose yourself a spot that allows the view of the noisy and furious Ganga jumping like a toddler from large boulders. One whole day can be spent lying there; listening to nature’s own music and straightening your limbs. It may well be a disappointment, too. For, Gangotri is no longer the real birthplace of the holy river.

The glacier from where it originates has, over past several decades, shifted backwards; a few environmentalists claim to know the answer to this receding phenomenon but you must have heard their argument too often. It will be a good idea to tie a backpack and reach Gaumukh — the cow-mouth glacier from where Ganga actually melts into life. If you have time, try to divide the itinerary in two days for your comfort. This is a 16 km trek, but an amateur could be hard put to cover it in one day (8 hour walk, roughly). For the veteran it is just a walk, with a few slippery stretches thrown in. You will be amply rewarded with glowing peaks, a bluer sky, large tracts of birch-pine forests and all that you often read in travel articles.

Stay overnight at Cheerbasa (abode of pine trees). The facilities will be minimal, but there are many campsites, if you are carrying personal tents. This will also help you in acclimatizing with the sudden rise in height from the sea level. A little bit of night fire, lit by the pinecones strewn all around, can be a good idea in the cold eerie jungle. You will notice that while at Gangotri, a Pepsi costs about Rs 10/12 and a cooked Maggie about Rs 20, at Cheerbasa, it is priced one and half times. Further up at Bhojbasa (abode of birch trees) the damage is double. Before you curse, think of the hardships of porters carrying the load to such heights (approx 3,500 metre from sea level) and you will know why. Bhojbasa gives a breathtaking view of Gangotri One, Two and Three peaks.

Gaumukh is barely two-kilometer light walk from Bhojbasa. But there is no place to stay at Gaumukh. You will either have to return to Bhojbasa for a night shelter or pitch tents at the riverbank. The latter option is pregnant with possibilities; you may face snowy winds on an empty stomach or, worse, weather the snow, rains and thunder. There is a burphani baba (snow saint) hutment nestled between two large boulders and covered by a canvas sheet; who may help you with some khichdi for dinner. If you accept his help, don’t forget to leave some money (about Rs 50-100 per head) at his feet. It beats logic as to why the good man is coming here for years and torturing himself to boredom, but hills are like that: an onion full of mysteries; you can keep peeling one after another. Doctor’s advice is to think less, see more, walk hard, eat well and drink not (at high altitudes, lack of oxygen makes drinking more dehydrating and nausea follows).

Further up four km from Gaumukh is Tapovan where the nascent form of the Bhagirathi flows in childlike glory. The journey to Tapovan is a tiresome one so advance at your own risk. Guide will be of help if you have no experience in trekking before. Hire one from Bhojbasa. Tapovan is a meadow (bugyal), with an icy stream of the Bhagirathi slicing it in two large parts. This is also the base camp for the mountaineers to Shivling, a divine peak that stands majestically atop the meadow. If you have proper equipment (like ice axe, ropes et al) you can try and go further down to Nandan Van or Vasuki Tal, via a glacier trek.

It is possible that throughout the trek you crib, cry and complain. But once you return to the heat and grime of your city, you will a different man having taken birth inside you. You may also return with a treasure of experience to bank upon at hard times — patience, planning, team spirit, dealing with uncertainty and more. Not to mention a chest of bedtime stories for your grandchildren. Why Tapovan then, for such a bargain, a man will walk up to the end of the world.

by Pankaj Molekhi
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