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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.



Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ghangaria

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There is not much info available on the net about Ghangaria. I had added some info on Ghangaria and Govindghat in wikipedia. Thus I am putting this up as a separate post.

Located at an altitude of 10000 feet on the banks of Laxman Ganga River, this small village is the base camp for travelers to the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund sahib. The river Pushpawati flowing from the Valley of Flowers side meets the river Laxman Ganga flowing from the Hemkund side, meets on the other side of the village. The village is settled along the trek. The settlement area is roughly half a kilometer. On the other side of the village, the trek bifurcates into two – one goes to the Valley of Flowers and the other to Hemkund sahib.

The 13 km from Govindghat to Ghangaria can be covered in following 3 ways :

1) Walk or trek for 7 hours
2) Ride a pony for 4 hours
3) Ride a helicopter for 20 minutes

The helicopter service started by Prabhtam Aviation runs upto Kajila helipad which is roughly 2 km from the village towards Govindgaht. I hope I am right with the name Kajila. Thus even if you shell out a hefty amount for helicopter fare, you will still require to hire a pony to climb the final 2 km, which was really steep. However, I had observed that the helicopter service was not operational in September, may be because of bad weathers or peak yatra season is over.

Accommodation:

Every building in the village doubles up as a hotel. Room rates vary depending on season and your time of arrival. The earlier you arrive, the costlier will be rooms, but you will have better options of finding a decent accommodation. Anyway, a decent double room will cost you at least 350 bucks.

The GMVN guest house is probably the best accommodation as it has a clean complex and provided clean bed sheets, which I feel a must for a good night’s sleep. It is a six room plus a dormitory facility. The dormitory has about 12 double decker beds. However, the conditions of rooms are not that good. The damp surroundings also mean various crawlers creeping into your rooms and toilets. One needs to appreciate the difficulty in maintaining these facilities. The tourist season runs about 4 months a year. We paid Rs.825 per room for economy class room at GMVN. The room was uncarpeted but the toilet had tiles fittings. No geyser, but hot water is available for Rs.20 a bucket at the guest house. Such high room rates undoubtedly make GMVN the costliest facility. But it also is the only accommodation which can be booked online or through many of their offices spread across India. Rooms normally gets booked at least 45 days in advance.

The Gurudwara is the most important and also the biggest building at Ghangaria. When we visited the Gurudwara we saw people sleeping everywhere in the Gurudwara, including the sanctum santorum. Probably more than 50% of people arriving at Ghangaria stay at the Gurudwara.

We did not have any problem with foods. We had food at the hotel cum restaurant located across the road of GMVN guest house. But everything is sold at a hefty premium. Bottled or canned items cost at least 3 times its MRP. A bucket of hot water costs 20 to 30 rupees. You will require hot water not only for bathing, but also after each trip up to sooth the sore muscles.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Travel information on the net

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Surfing the web for travel blogs, I have come across many sites which are meant exclusively for Travel Blogs only. Whenever I see a travel blog, I normally check their listings. This penchant has led me to such travel blog sites. I found that these sites are very useful for frequent travelers like me. You do not have to search countless blogs for a travelogue. The most recent site I have come across is Real Travel. I had explored its page related to India. It has listed information over 10 pages, though some of the pages are yet to be completed. Most of the posts are by foreign tourists indicating that the site is probably not known to Indian bloggers. Overall, Real Travel has the potential to be a very good travel site. It is just one of the sites offering only travelogues. There are many out there. I feel bloggers should help building these communities.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 2:48 PM | 1 comments

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Trek to the Valley of Flowers : Part -I

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The trek starts at the hanging bridge over the river Alaknanda. The first destination is Ghangaria which is 13 km from this point. One is to climb 4000 feet over these 13 km of mostly mule trek inter spaced by concrete and rocky steps at some areas.

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.

Many brave people started off on foot, like we did. But the braveness started to falter barely half a kilometer up the hill. You will find horses cleverly placed at strategic positions on the initial stretch of the trek. It takes hardly half an hour’s climb for one to understand whether he or she will be able to continue climbing for another 12 kilometer. After about an hours walking, we had stopped for breakfast. In that hour we had climbed just 3 km. Numerous snack stalls dots the entire stretch of the trek. But they sell everything for a hefty premium. We had ordered Maggi noodles. The small pack of rs.5/- was sold and served at Rs.25/-.

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.

Few scenes that left an imprint on our mind :

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.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 5:05 PM | 2 comments

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Govindghat : the transit point for trekking to VOF and Hemkund

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Govindghat is the starting point for trekking to Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers. It is roughly 22 km from Joshimath on NH58 at an altitude of 6000 feet. I was not sure about accommodations at Govindghat and so had earlier planned to stay at Joshimath or Badrinath. But the experience of the driver helped here. In fact there are many hotels and guest houses at Govindghat. They are cheaper than Joshimath because 99% of people who arrives here are Sikh pilgrims on trek to the holy shrine of Hemkund Sahib. There is a Gurudwara at Govindgaht which provides free or very cheap accommodation to these pilgrims and hence most Sikh pilgrims were seen heading there.

The road that starts off the main Badrinath – Joshimath road is called the Gurudwara road. Hotels are located about 1 km from the main road. If you have a car with you then you can avoid walking this additional 1 km. But if you travel by public transport like bus or jeep, then you will have to walk down this extra kilometer.

We found that there are very few double bedded rooms as demand for them is low. Sikh pilgrims often travel in large groups and so demand for triple or four bedded or even larger rooms are more. Other problem is that rooms are not that neat and clean. It is all kind of just stay for the night kind of accommodation. No one probably stays there for more than 15 hours. We found rooms @200/- a piece at a hotel named Hotel Him Sarovar. As the hotel was located towards the river Alakananda, the constant roar of the river was a bit louder than desirable, but then we got used to it after some time.

Hotel rates probably fluctuate on the time of the day you land at Govindghat as the time often determines demand. The last gate from Joshimath is at 4:30 pm. So there will hardy be any guest after 6 pm. On our way back from VOF, we found a better hotel @300/- a piece as our time of arrival was about 6:30 pm. On the day of arrival they asked for Rs.400/- as there was still lot of time for guests to arrive. This is the only hotel with geyser. Else, you will have to buy hot water @20 -30 per bucket. Name of this hotel is Kuber Tourist Guest House.

There are some unique facilities available at Govindghat, e.g., Parking of cars @Rs.200 to 250/- till return, meaning till you come back from pilgrimage irrespective of no. of days. Luggage clock room service is available at most hotels @Rs.30/- till return. It will take you at least 3 days to return.

We decided to have an inspection of the area in the evening. Souvenir shops lines up the road from the point where the narrow trekking route starts. The Gurudwara is right on the edge of the Alaknanda. There is a hanging bridge to cross the river. The actual trek starts from the other side of the river. Ghangaria is 13 km from this point. We did visual shopping of the souvenir shops without any real intention of buying. Finally we bought some essential items like rain coats, bamboo sticks and religious head bands (required for entering a Gurudwara). The makeshift raincoats made of plastic sheets costs just 10 rupees a piece, so does the sticks. Rain coats are of use and throw quality. Stitches may come off even while wearing it for the first time. Once you wear it, you can not take it off without tearing. But you can not do without them as it can rain anytime. I feel that an umbrella is a better option as the rain coats tends to sweat you out from inside. I found this out the hard way as trying to remain protected from outside, I got drenched from inside. These rain coats will cost you double at Ghagaria. So you may think of taking at least 2 with you. The bamboo sticks with tin sheet tip is also quite useful if you are planning to walk.

All essential staffs are available in the local market. Though it is pure stupidity to try a new pair of shoes on a trek, I found people buying shoes in one of the shops. Never mind! Some of the pilgrims will make it bare feet. It is really incredible. Besides love, only Faith really makes people climbs mountains. I had made a list of staffs to carry with me before leaving and had carried them with me from Delhi / Dehradun itself. Some such items that you will require are – Glucose, Chocolates / toffees , Knee caps, Combiflam tablets, Antacid, Muscle relaxant like Rallispray, Biscuits, dry fruits, etc.

There also is good variety of restaurants in the market. Though vegetarian North Indian, specially Punjabi dishes, is the common stuff, you can even get South Indian stuffs like dosa as well. None of the hotels have their own restaurants, yet everything can be ordered into your room. You will be approached in your hotel room for room service by these restaurants. But the catch is a 10% extra for room service. You will be better off walking down as all restaurants are within 20 meters from the hotels. We enjoyed the luxury of tea in room that did not attract any service charge.

BSNL mobile network is available, but not all the time. The nearest tower is at Pandukeswar about 2 /3 km away. Availability of network depends on availability of power at Pandukeswar. But I understand that Reliance doing something in the area and may set up its network around this place as well.

Govindghat is not that cool, but not hot either. Though it is at 6000 feet, tall hills surround it leaving very little passage for wind. The only place I felt a chill was on the bridge over Alakanada carrying icy cold waters from the glaciers above. The atmosphere is very humid. The repercussion is that not even small cloths will dry. In fact drying cloths on the entire trip was one of the biggest headaches for us. So you need to carry sufficient cloths, at least underwear, to last the entire trip.

Hotel details at Govindghat:

Hotel Him Sarovar (and Kuber Car Parking), Ph : 01381-225206, Mobile : 09412319849

Kuber Guest House, Mobile : 9412120316, 9412029953, 9411533095

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 3:34 PM | 5 comments

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