Sunday, 1 January 2012

Hemkund Trek – Second Time Lucky

My first attempt to trek Hemkund in the year June 2008 was aborted due to the collapse of glacier enroute Hemkund and the trail was blocked for three days. We made a course correction and headed for Badrinath. The desire to take one more shot at it continued during summer of 2009.

We arrived at Govindghat on early morning of fifth day of June, to undertake the 13 km trek to Ghangaria, which is base for Hemkund trek. Having done a 14 km trek from Gaurikund to Kedarnath a few times, this trek was no big deal. We comfortably made the distance in 7 hours and checked at GMVNL deluxe room which we had booked in advance. 

Sixth day of June 2009, began as another fine morning. I went to the verandah of GMVNL Ghangaria guest house and found a myriad of colorful turbans in motion. The Sikh community in bulk was striding, amidst chanting of Guru’s name. It was barely 5 am. The four trekkers, Deepak, Ashok, Sandhya and me got ready, with our back packs filled with some eatables and drinking water to hit the cement paved trail for Hemkund.

Gurudwara View, Ghangaria
We passed by Gurudwara, teeming with people; June being the busiest month for Hemkund Yatra. Just ahead of Gurudwara, the Yatris were bargaining with ‘pony-wallas’ and ‘pittoos’   (porters) for their services. Interestingly, the ponies were hired in pairs as one pony-walla took care of two ponies with a rope tied between them. Sandhya decided to take a pony, while Ashok and Deepak took their time in making the arrangements. I took this opportunity and looked around the Ghangaria landscape. The abundant tree cover, the colorfully painted Gurudwara, the roaring waterfall, the view of snow capped hills and the cool and crisp air added grandeur to this place. My chain of thought was broken by a pony passing by and nudging me on my shoulder. “Now onwards, I have to be extra careful about the ponies, lest I get knocked down on the trail,” I said.

Moving ahead of my trek mates, thinking they will catch up with me, I did some photo - shooting on the way. After crossing bridge over river Laxmanganga and walking another half a kilometre, a sign board indicating the direction to Valley of Flowers and Hemkund appeared. I veered towards the right side and become a part of human stream. The beautiful water fall ahead gave rise to several cascades running down towards Ghangaria town. Even after another half an hour of trekking, there were no mile posts to be seen. I decided to calculate the distance traversed by me at the rate of two km an hour; that is my walking speed in the hills with gentle slope. The row of dhabas selling food and beverages, appeared at regular intervals. The cost was prohibitive but all the same they were doing a brisk business. I decide not to sit at any place but take a half minute rest when I felt tired and resume my trek. At that rate, my target was to cover the seven km distance to Hemkund in five hours and spend at least a couple of hours there. As we got higher and higher, the morning became brighter and sky became bluer; even those white clouds became extinct. This was contrary to my expectation of a cloudy and murky weather as per the account of the most of Yatris who visited Hemkund some time or the other. So far so good; ‘Wahe Guru’ was kind to us.

Above Snowline
Yatris enroute Hemkund
At 9 am, I came across a few scattered glaciers. The trail was stone paved now and we had to have careful foot hold to negotiate it. The gradient becomes steeper, forcing me to take frequent rests in between. The trail cut right through the glacier. We were above the snowline. Part of the crystallized snow was on mountain side and a small amount on the other. Yatris poked the snow with their steel plated sticks and got some kind of pleasure at this 12,500’ altitude. There was no mile post to indicate how much distance I covered. I was looking forward to the archway to 1184 steps which would take me right up to Hemkund Sahib. No luck yet. So it had to be the stone paved zig zag path all the way. In panting breath, ‘Wahe Guru’ escaping their lips, Yatris were extracting extra bit of energy to do this arduous trek. A group of Sikh yatris passed by shouting “Jo Bole so Nihal.” I added to the chorus of “Sat Shri Akal.” The landscape, now, was a photographer’s delight with zig zag path and scattered snow giving grandeur to otherwise craggy mountain and tree-less terrain. I was walking in a trance as if there was no end to this path, ‘and I have miles to go before I rest,’ going through my mind. The sunlight was bright; though the cool wind took the heat away but the trekking was becoming tougher. After the umpteen bends, I abruptly came across a mass of people congregating on a flat land. It was 10.30 am by my watch. As I reached the cement wall, the trail seemed to fade away. I was thrilled after realizing that I had arrived at Hemkund Sahib! The shining hexagonal rooftop structure of Gurudwara was majestic and imposing. I thanked ‘Wahe Guru’ for making my trip to Hemkund Sahib possible; my dream destination for the past two years!

Hemkund Sahib
Hemkund Lake
On reaching near the Gurudwara, I found a group of yatris washing the utensils and spoons as a part of ‘kar seva.’ Inside a room in ground floor of Gurudwara, huge vessels filled with ‘Khichdi' was being distributed by ‘kar sevaks’ to the famished yatris. In spite of hunger pangs in my stomach, after having done the seven kms of trekking, climbing nearly 5,000’ in five hours of ordeal, I suppressed my desire and proceeded near the blue waters of Hemkund lake. A large number of people were taking bath in the ice cold water. Some taking dip in holy lake by latching onto the steel chains located at fixed intervals. After spending some time, I came back and stood near a huge gate in ground floor of Gurudwara. Suddenly, a person with two horses come hurriedly, waved me aside and vanished inside. ‘Is there some kind of a stable inside the structure?’ I was perplexed.

Inside Gurudwara
Kar Seva
 As I made enquiries for the entry to Gurudwara, an old Sikh gentleman asked, “Have you done Isnan?” I replied in negative. He hurriedly explained me to have a bath in Hemkund lake and then enter Gurudwara. Back to the lake, I took a brief bath in ice cold water, covered my head with a handkerchief and proceeded towards the Gurudwara. This time I climbed the steps to first floor and entered Hemkund Sahib. The Gurudwara hall was huge and beautifully decorated with tapestry and colored lights. The photos of Sikh Gurus adorned the walls. The accessibility of Gurudwara was facilitated by four doors at four corners. Some twenty yatris were seated on the carpeted floor with blankets wrapped around them. I got down on my knees and bowed near Granth Sahib and offered a brief prayer.

Laxman Temple
The verandah running around the Gurudwara hall, served as a beautiful 360 degree observation post for Yatris. In crystal clear water of the Hemkund, the pebbles, small and large stones were distinctly visible. The seven hills called ‘sapta shringa’ around with saffron flags fluttering on their summits, gave the whole place a divine dimension. At a distance near the bathing area, yatris were taking repeated dips in ice cold water. Some collected the lake water (called Amrit), in bottles to take it to their native place.

After having finished photo- shooting, hunger pangs made me arrive post haste at the Langar. I picked up the utensil and spoon from heaps of the them. The langar food was a plain ‘khichdi’ slightly on the liquid side, but piping hot. It tasted heavenly in the Himalayan destination. Hot tea was also being provided for the yatris. I pushed off, to visit the Shri Laxman temple. The temple is supposed to have existed much before the Gurudwara was constructed with the efforts of Guru Govind Singh’s followers. I took a second helping of the ‘khichdi’ and decided to wait for my fellow trekkers. Seating on the boundary wall, I watched the pouring in of yatris on foot, horses and palkis. This year, the weather being hotter than normal, the entire trail to Hemkund was clear of snow and horses arrived right up to the holy shrine. Hundreds of ‘pittoos’ were seated, waiting for their services for the return journey. Some were perched on the adjoining hill getting a bird’s eye view of the place.

Return trek via steps
Water fall on return trek
At around 11 am, my three trek mates made their appearance. We decided to meet after about an hour at the same place and they disappeared through a throng of yatris. After waiting for good one hour, I decided to make my return trek, by taking a different trail, the steep steps down ward which eluded me while climbing up. The initial few hundred steps were, quite comfortable. I was able to photo - shoot the yatris making their return trek by the zig-zag traditional route, and they looked like ants walking in a single file. I considered myself fortunate for having chosen the return trek through those 1184 steps. After scaling down the steps for about fifteen minutes, a sudden panic gripped me! Those steps suddenly disappeared; instead, heaps of stones of various sizes were placed on the steep gradient. My photographic mode of mind had a sudden demise! A few yatris were coming up huffing and puffing, and that got me thinking. I safely tucked away my camera in back pack and mentally prepared for the ordeal. I doubly concentrated on negotiating the rest of the gradient. With throbbing thigh muscles, and aching toes, I reached the last few ‘would be steps’ and did not find the beautiful arch to the entrance to the steps which existed before. ‘The ravages of nature causes immense damage to the man made conveniences,’ I mused. Thereafter, I became part of the ‘ant-stream.’ Once again I felt terribly hungry and my toe appeared to be in first stage of blister formation. I began walking awkwardly on my heels, to lessen burden on my toes and entered a ‘dhaba’ to have some rest. The piping hot aloo parathas, at Rs. 10/- appeared fairly priced compared to beverages, which were selling at Rs.30/- and above. I returned to Ghangaria, without much incidents, but agonizing toe pain and waited for my fellow trekkers to return.

By 5 pm, all of us met and then our immediate priority was to compensate for those burnt calories! Loitering on road nearby Gurudwara, the loud booming ‘Chole – Puri’ attracted our attention. The ‘Khalsa Daba’ boy was doing double duty of frying puris and shouting to attract clientele. We thought of experimenting with his delicacy and were not disappointed. The Puris were soft and crunchy, Chole was delicious. The piping hot Gulab Jamoons, which we discovered, was a specialty in Ghangaria, did a wonder for our stomach and soul.

We thanked ‘Wahe Guru’ for giving us the wonderful opportunity of Yatra Hemkund, which will be etched in our memory for a long time. With time, we hope that those 1184 steps to Hemkund will be repaired and the arch re-erected, so that Yatris will have the option of trekking their last few kilometres via steps, and arrive at Hemkund Sahib.

Important Information :
1) Ghangaria, the base for Hemkund trek offers decent accomodation in GMVNL guest house which can be booked through its website . Dormitory is priced at Rs.90/- per person and double bed deluxe at Rs.1200/- per room. Some tents were also being put up when we checked out. There are more accommodations in Ghangaria, which cannot be booked on line.
2) Hemkund Yatra is possible from 1st June to 30th September
3) Hemkund Yatra on foot will be easier if traditional zig zag route is taken. Please avoid taking short cuts or those damaged steps in last two kms.

 Sri Hemkunt Sahib Yatra As I Recorded It

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