We had visited the area around the bridge the earlier evening to have an understanding of the trek. We learnt that one should hire Pithoo or horses from the counter located next to the bridge. The rates are fixed by some association of these horse owners. The rate at that time was Rs.365/- per horse for Ghangaria. You get many options there like horses for Govindghat – Ghangaria or Govindghat – Hemkund (same day) and also Govindghat – Ghangaria – Govindghat (same day). The last one will cost you Rs.1400/-. But it will not only be too much cruelty on the beast, but also to your back and buttock. We are not ancient soldiers who can ride horses for 10 hours. If you take that kind of one day whirlwind trip, you will probably not be able stand up next day. More importantly you will miss the enjoyment of being with un-spoilt nature. If you do not have time, then why do you go there?
I was determined to trek to Ghangaria. So was Mono, my better half. I had no idea on what was on Chandan’s mind. Both the families had two small kids and thus decided to hire two horses for them. We also had carried one bag plus two back packs which we had planned to put on the horses. Despite my talk, Chandan took two bags with him. He was to face the music for that later. My advice is to travel as light as possible and carry only essential things to cover 3 days stay. We had deposited extra luggage at the cloak room facility of the hotel we had stayed at Govindghat. The charges per luggage are Rs.30/- till return.
We walked up to the point where horses are stationed, carrying the bags on our own. We thought they will load the horses with one kid and one bag each. But citing balancing problem, they had loaded one horse with luggage and then put the two kids on the other. We had started the trek with great enthusiasm. Just imagine my condition. Exactly 17 days back I was not able to stand up or even sit because of a recurrence of slip disc problem. And now I had the audacity of a fool to trek 13 km. I had the waist belt on and more then me, my wife was worried and kept enquiring whether I am OK. I was determined to make it to VOF. When there is a will there is way!
It was around 7:45 when we had started. People start off very early. In fact when we got up in the morning at around 5 O’clock, we could see the beeline of people going up the trek in complete darkness using torch lights. However, there is no time frame to start off as it takes about 6 to 7 hours to reach Ghagaria. People keep going up all the day starting off at their own time. We saw even people starting off at 3 pm as well. But starting off at 3 pm is a bit scary. Trekking at night! Only a sardar can think of doing that. In daylight, you can see the trek ahead and decide how safely to negotiate it, and also enjoy the beauty of the nature. But in the darkness of night, you can not be even be sure that you are on the right path. I feel that staring off between 8 to 9 am is the best time, provided you have confirmed accommodation at Ghangaria. This will ensure that you reach Ghangaria by 3 pm. We had confirmed booking at GMVN Guest House at Ghangaria. So starting off a little late was not a problem. But if you do not have booking, you should start a bit early, so that you reach Ghangaira early to have a better option of finding decent accommodation.
Meanwhile my daughter had started complaining about the difficulty in riding the horse with another kid. The problem was that other kid was a little young and she had let her weight to fall back on Tiko, making it painful for her. We also had observed the problem on the way. The other issue was that we could not keep pace with the horses. Therefore we had to hire an additional horse. But the charges remained same. No discount for 3 km less. So one has to take a prudent decision about hiring horses right at Govindghat. It is one thing to want to trek 13 km and another to practically do it. Here we had paid the same amount we had paid at Govindghat for the horse. One of us could have the luxury of riding the horse for 3 km that he had to climb. Anyway both the ladies were put on the horse with one kid each. The third one was carrying our luggage. I and Chandan resumed our trek on foot.
As the climb continued and our energies started sapping, the average speed reduced from 3 km per hour to about 2 km per hour. We continued our journey with the Sikh pilgrims chanting ‘Bole So Nihal…Sat Sri Akaal’ and ‘Wahe Guru’. In fact we had wondered as to whether anybody else was going to VOF. The entire crowd appears to be heading for Hemkund Sahib. We had another break at around 6 km mark. My wife had found sitting on the horse a bit uneasy and so had decided to get off. Tiko was too happy to ride the horse alone. Horses are plied in pairs. A Punjabi lady was on the other horse accompanying Tiko’s horse. The lady told us not to worry and assured us to take care of her.
Chandan sped off. He was walking faster than me and waited for me while taking small breaks en-route. I was walking slowly to avoid injury to my back. As my wife has joined me, he decided to continue at his speed without the need to wait for me.
Scene 1: Three ladies were walking barefoot doing symbolic ritual of kar-seva by cleaning the road with brooms while continue the climb up. It was tough to walk, leave alone doing something else. The weight of 1 kilo of my camera on my neck seemed a bit too much. This is the sheer power of devotion.
Scene 2 : An old lady, should be well past 60, was walking very slowly. She had a small bag on her head. I and my wife were taking a break every five or ten minutes of climb. Each time we had a break, the old lady goes past us. Then we start again and easily go past her. We sit again for a break. The old lady goes past us again. It was like the story of the tortoise and the hare. The old lady just kept walking, though very slowly, without stopping at all. It was incredible. This continued for about half an hour when we finally left her behind on a relatively easy stretch.
Our journey continued up the hill. After a tough stretch of climb we finally reached an open area with a gentle slope down. This is where the helipad was built. Ghangaria is another 2 km real stiff climb from this point. The sign of two kilometer infused some fresh energy into our tired legs. But that 2 km’s climb seemed never ending. The final climb was really very stiff. Our average speed has come down to 1.5 km because of the stiffness of the trek in the last 5 kilometers. Finally we had reached Ghangaria at 2:30 pm. It took us 6 and ½ hours to trek 13 kilometers. But I was happy that I had made it on foot. In fact it turned out that the most unfit person in the group, i.e. me who had a question mark for his slip disc condition, was the only person to have walked the entire 13 km. My wife had a brief horse ride in between for 3 km. Later we found that Chandan also rode the last 4 km of the trek. Out of love for him, his dear wife had decided to get off the horse and asked him to ride the horse at around 9 km mark. The horse sped off, leaving his wife to scale the stiff climb of final 4 km on foot. She later repented that it was all the way up from the point she got off the horse.
After having lunch, we eased into our rooms at the GMVN guest house. I found that there is plenty of accommodation at Ghangaria. In fact, every shop or building there doubles up as hotels and has some kind of accommodation to offer. GMVN was the costliest option. But it is the only place which offer advance booking through their website. So it always remains full. The conditions of the rooms were not good. But the clean bed sheet and towels were the welcome sight. I am sure that no other place will provide you such clean bed sheets. The climate there is so damp that cloths will take days to dry. September is kind of shoulder season for yatra to Hemkund, the peak being in June. Yet at least 1000 people reach Ghangaria daily. Imagine what will be rush in June. The place will close down for tourist and pilgrims in October.
Even though we had stayed at the GMVN guest house, we had our meals at the restaurant cum hotel located exactly opposite it across the road. The guest house staffs were slow, even in providing hot waters. Each bucket of hot water will cost you about 20 to 30 rupees. Further, having food at the guest house will attract taxes because they will bill you. Things are 3 times costlier to its MRP at Ghagaria. So having food outside will save you some bucks.
Despite the 13 km trek, our legs were not that tired. But we took combiflam tablets to kill whatever muscle spasm we had. When we had arrived at Ghagaria, we did not feel the cold because of the heat body had generated during the climb. In fact we were surprised to see people moving around in warm clothes. But as the body heat subsided, we felt the cold and the chilly wind a little bit more biting than desired. Once we were inside blankets, it was tough to think about getting out.
In the evening we visited the Gurudwara. There were people sleeping everywhere in the Gurudwara, including the sanctum santorum. Probably more than 50% of people arriving at Ghangaria had put up at the Gurudwara. We could be easily identified as non piligrims or non – Sikhs among the hundreds of people in the Gurudwara complex. Sikhs who are not so rich are very good people. Two such Samaritan volunteered to explain the importance of the both the Guruwara at Ghangaria and Hemkund Sahib and also about things within the Gurudwara complex. We were shown a tree which has a hollow cave type structure at its base. We were told that when the worshiping started at Hemkund Sahib some 70 years back, the priests used to go there every morning and then come back in the evening. As there was no place to stay at Ghangaria at that point of time, they slept at the natural tent formed at the base of this tree. The Gurudwara at Ghagaria was later built at this place.
I had mentioned earlier about the affable nature of the not so rich Sikh people. The lady who rode the other horse with our little daughter in fact came in the evening to enquire about us. Tiko had started crying when we had not arrived even after half an hour. Though the lady left when Chandan arrived, she was worried and so had come in the evening to enquire. Tiko was so happy when she saw us arriving.
We had a meeting in the evening. Because a change of plan was in the offing. We were to go to the VOF on day 2 as per original plan. I had a plan to attempt to reach Hemkund as well, provided my back holds after two days of trekking. But Chandan was not sure because around 11 pilgrims had died there in Aug 2007 for lack of Oxygen. However, on arriving at Ghangaria, he also had a change of mind. The sea of crowd going there had made him changed his mind. If so many people, including old ones can dare to go there, why can not us. Further, the likelihood of coming back here again is remote. So instead of VOF, trip to the Hemkund Sahib took priority.