2009 - July/August: Far from the madding crowd: in India

In a land of over a billion people it’s hard to find a place that isn’t crowded; neither overrun by tourists nor too commercialised, but Jan did.  After studying a couple of semesters of Hindi Jan realised there was only one way to become proficient (or at least confident) at speaking Hindi and that was to go to India to study.  In 2009 Jan headed to Nolunna, a Hindi school and guest house, where she studied a six-week intermediate Hindi course in the beautiful western Himalaya.

Far from the madding crowd: in India

Babalu started the car and almost simultaneously started blowing the horn.  Despite silently willing him to stop, he was relentless.  Babalu was my driver.  He would take me from Haridwar, on the Indian plains, into the mountains of the western Himalayas.  Babalu, an effervescent, chatty man, is a Sikh who considers himself more of a Hindu. 

Naively I had assumed everyone drove Ambassadors in India, but Babalu’s vehicle is a soft top Mahindra jeep, sturdy and with enough ground clearance to negotiate the landslides that frequently block the road.  When I first saw the jeep in the Haridwar Station car park, as I wilted in the oppressive heat of the monsoon day, I thought, “Shit, no air conditioning!”  But the mountain air is cool and clean; better than anything manufactured by an air conditioning system.

Babalu's Mahindra jeep

In The Himalayas, a driver must be daring and tenacious, know his vehicle, be able to fit between soaring escarpments and plunging precipices, or to muscle his way between other determined road users.  Babalu turned out to be both audacious and resolute, and the Mahindra, all muscle.  I was a middle-aged western woman travelling alone in India.  I knew I was in good hands.

My destination was Nolunna, a peaceful Hindi school cum guest house about 20 kilometres upstream from Uttarkashi, on the banks of the Bhagirati River (as the Ganges is known before she becomes the most sacred watercourse in the world).  Nolunna was to be my home for six weeks while I studied Hindi.

The entrance to Nolunna

In a land of over a billion people it’s hard to find a place that isn’t crowded, but such sanctuaries do exist; neither overrun by tourists nor too commercialised.  The district of Uttarkashi is such a region.  Uttarkashi is in Uttarakhand, one of India’s newer states, nestled in the corner, northeast of Delhi, sharing a northern border with Tibet and in the east, Nepal.  This is the region of the western Himalaya, lush and warm in the monsoon season, cold and snowing in Winter.

I was there during the monsoon, when Ganga (The Ganges) is ferocious; being fed by the summer glacial melts and the monsoon-swollen tributaries that feed into the river from the surrounding Himalayan Mountains.  During the monsoon, the days are warm and balmy and the nights cool and frequently wet.  The country is moist and lush.  Wildflowers abound.  To some it is the most beautiful time of year.  I can understand why.

Looking upstream towards Nolunna - just around the bend

I arrived at Nolunna at about 8.30pm, thirty-eight and a half hours after having left my home in Australia.  I was tired, hungry and in need of a bath.  Hot water awaited my arrival and within minutes I was refreshed, reminded of how rejuvenating a bucket bath can be.  Dinner had been delayed until my arrival, so my hunger was also soon sated.  It was a taste of things to come.  The hospitality in this region is boundless.

Nolunna is a small retreat with basic facilities; three vegetarian meals per day, morning and afternoon chai and hot water for bathing delivered to your room.  Nolunna is a sanctuary, and its size lends an intimacy, providing opportunities to meet locals that would probably not be possible in larger establishments. 

Nolunna, on the banks of the Ganges, is a welcoming haven

For instance, two days after my arrival I attended a religious festival (mela) in Senj village, a few kilometres up the road from Nolunna (literally, by which I mean two kilometres along the road and then one kilometre up the side of the mountain).  It was an honour to be invited  as most villages don’t allow westerners at their festivals.   Senj is an exception (though that is in the process of changing - so I may have been among the last outsiders to see the blessing of the rice crop).   I attended as the guest of Anil, my Hindi tutor.  Twenty-three years old, Anil taught me Hindi, about the Hindu beliefs, myriad stories of the Gods, songs in Hindi, and his opinion on subjects such as the caste system.

Anil plays a drum...
Then village elders dance with the deity...

And villagers dance around the temple to summon the spirit

I was to encounter great hospitality and even greater curiosity.  While a western woman travelling alone is unusual enough to generate interest, a fat middle-aged western woman who also speaks a little Hindi is something to behold.  I consequently found myself the centre of attention nearly everywhere I went.  My visits into Uttarkashi, for instance, invariably became a series of social as well as business interactions; having chai with the travel agent, and being fanned and offered water by the man at the photocopy shop, explaining to the men in the phone shop how pleased my husband would be to hear from me with my new SIM card (at least I hope that’s what I said).

Uttarkashi town is the capital of the Uttarkashi district; with a population of around 20,000 it is not big, by Indian standards, and that is one of its many attractions.  Most necessities can be procured there, from Internet access and SIM cards, to traditional medicines or antibiotics, excellent ‘Barfi’, and other local delicacies.  You can even buy a pair of hiking sandals and sit and have an apple juice with Sanjay, the shoe shop owner, and perhaps practice your Hindi.

By Indian standards, Uttarkashi is very small - just right really...

On the banks of the Ganges, a suspension bridge joins either side of the town

On one Saturday morning Eva (solo traveller from the Czech Republic) and I ventured into Uttarkashi.  I met Eva at Nolunna; she was learning Hindi as her fourth language.  We both needed cash so we made for one of the two working ATMs and took our place in the queue.  We were about sixth in line; the only women and the only westerners.  Unexpectedly the man in front turned to us and enquired, “From which country do you inhabitate?”  We embarked on a conversation of fractured “Hinglish”, telling where we were staying and what we were doing in Uttarkashi.  We rapidly became the centre of attention, so Eva took the opportunity to explain in Hindi how much we loved India, but really didn’t like waiting.

The reaction was instant.  Our new friend commanded aside everyone ahead of us in the queue and beckoned us to the front where we stepped into the small room housing the ATM, with as many of our new-found friends as would fit.  Those who couldn’t squeeze in stood outside the opened door and peered in.  Under instruction from our companions, Eva placed her card in the slot and entered her PIN.  Her cash needs were great as she was paying for her accommodation for the coming weeks so she did two maximum withdrawals on the ATM (Rs20,000 - 20,000 Rupees, around AU$500).

It was my turn, and I hadn’t decided how much to withdraw.  I needn’t have worried as our companions instructed me.  “PIN”, then “1”, “0”, “0”, “0”, “0”.  As I complied, my completed transaction was greeted with a rousing cheer and applause.  We walked away from the ATM with probably more money than many of those men would earn in a year.  Yet we felt at ease.

Such it is in this region.  For this reason, I didn’t think twice about engaging a guide and embarking alone on a trek to the source of the Ganges.  Uttarkashi is also a base for trekking in this part of the Himalayas.  With the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering overlooking the town there are ample opportunities to acquire the equipment, guides, porters or whatever else the aspiring trekker requires. 

My trek was an introductory one: 36 kilometres from Gangotri to Gaumukh, the snout of the huge Gangotri Glacier nestled at the base of the Bhagirathi ranges, whose meltwater feeds the infant Ganges.  Gangotri is at 3,000 metres and Gaumukh, 3,900 metres above sea level, and with less oxygen in the air, a walk up a flight of stairs left me gasping for breath, giving rise to another “Shit!” moment - I’d never been above 2,200 metres except for in an airplane. 

Gangotri sits on the Ganges just 18km from her source surrounded by spectacular mountains

Getting to Gangotri and back is challenging during the monsoon.  While a bus trip from Uttarkashi is cheap (about Rs90 (AU$2.50)), the road is treacherous and buses frequently founder (on the day I arrived in India 43 people had plummeted into the Ganges in such an accident).  Many Indians do not travel well in the mountains, so apart from the danger of mishap, fellow passengers are frequently ill.  Consequently, it was an easy decision to hire a private car.  So with Babalu at the wheel, and my guide, Attar, in the back we headed further into the mountains.

When a bus tumbles off the mountain there is little left to retrieve

Hiring a guide still isn’t mandatory for this particular trek and the way is well signed.  However, a guide is nonetheless advised, especially for solo, female or first-time visitors.  At Rs500 (AU$12.50) per day plus meals, they are relatively inexpensive.  If disinclined to carry a pack, porters can also be hired for Rs400 (AU$10) per day, and this also is advised if carrying a lot of gear.  However, unless planning to go past Gaumukh to Tapovan little is needed - camera, change of clothes, toiletries, first aid kit, snacks and water.

Jan at Gaumukh

I carried just that; along with Dil Bahādur’s staff as my trekking pole.  I don’t know how old Dil Bahādur is; he is Nepali and belongs to the warrior ‘Bahādur’ caste.  Bahādur means “brave”; Dil means “heart”.  He is mostly deaf and has few teeth, so his Hindi can be difficult to comprehend, though I always understood when I was being reprimanded for walking sand into my room.  It was an honour to carry his staff.

Dil Bahādur

Gangotri is one of the holiest places in India and the second of the “Char Dham” sites; the four sacred temples that mark the spiritual sources of the Ganges.  At Gangotri, Hindu legend says that, Lord Shiva caught the Goddess Ganga in his hair to ease her descent to Earth, where she became the Ganges.

Gangotri temple

Where Goddess Ganga came to Earth

The first of the Char Dham sites is also located in Uttarkashi district.  Yamunotri (source of the Yamuna River that flows through Delhi) is north of the township.  The other two sites are in neighbouring districts.  Consequently, this region is very significant as a pilgrimage destination and hence domestic tourism; but less so westerners; making for ample opportunities to meet Indians from all over the sub-continent, or even the world.

Staying in a remote and less populated region lends itself to experiencing the local culture and hospitality.  For instance, walking on a mountain road can lead to an invitation to tea.  One morning on the road to Syaba I met Badri on his way to work at Nolunna.  Badri lived in the village of Syaba and he insisted I go to his house and have tea with his wife.  I was dying to see Syaba.  Just getting there is a challenge as the road can only be traversed on foot or by donkey.  It weaves steeply up to the top of the mountain and around to the village, hidden from view at the top of a deep ravine that feeds into the river below.

The road to Syaba is steep and arduous

I had chai with Binita and Sumitra, his sisters-in-law.  I showed them photos of Badri and Debendra, his brother, transplanting a tree at Nolunna.  They spoke no English, but women are women the world over; they would not allow me to photograph them until they had ‘freshened up’, and we admired each other’s jewellery.

I had chai with Binita and Sumitra

I couldn’t have imagined that in such a densely populated land I would find such tranquillity, and such a human experience.  You don’t need to speak Hindi to appreciate what Uttarkashi has to offer.  The most important thing you need is cultural sensitivity (be modest - for women, that means cover your shoulders and legs, and be respectful).  A healthy desire for some adventure also helps.  As a woman travelling alone in India common sense is also requisite.

As I travelled back down from the Himalayas to the plains for the last time, Nolunna’s owner, Yogendra, explained how I had amazed many of the locals.  “In India, women your size don’t do the things you do”.

2010 - August: Paul and Jan's exciting Indian adventure - Yamunotri

Paul and Jan’s exciting Indian adventure


I will probably regret going all the way to Janki Chatti and not walking the final five kilometres to Yamunotri.  But my decision to talk Paul into continuing the journey, when we were stranded for three hours just 30 kilometres from Uttarkashi was vindicated when I saw the look on Debendra’s face when he returned from his pilgrimage.
The journey from Uttarkashi to Hanuman Chatti is supposed to take six hours but it took us over nine.  To say the road was damaged would be something of an understatement.  It was in parts the worst and also the most dangerous road I had ever traversed.  Blasting for road widening at the start of the Yamunotri Road had loosened the mountainside. 

This landslide held us up for 3 hours

These landslides weren’t the first we encountered and were not to be our last.  Roadworks around Barkot combined with the monsoon had turned the road into a slippery bog of deep potholes and ruts which cost one taxi its front axle.  In Australia Paul and I had been debating whether we needed All Wheel Drive for our next vehicle, so you can imagine our astonishment when we realised our Mahindra jeep was only Two Wheel Drive.

We weaved our way along the relentlessly winding road up and down the Himalayan Mountains to the Yamuna Valley.  It has been a particularly wet monsoon so everywhere is green in shades ranging from olive through to deep dark hues and the almost fluorescent green of the rice fields.  We rose to 2100 metres above sea level, back down to 1000 metres and then back up again.  I saw people walking on grassy, almost vertical slopes and wondered how they maintained their grip on the mountain.

Babalu drove.  I had met Babalu last year and we hired him and his Mahindra jeep to take us from Uttarkashi in the Bhagirati Valley over to Janki Chatti in the Yamuna Valley in the western Indian Himalaya.  The total trip was only about 150 kilometres each way, but in these mountains that is a long journey with average speeds of only 20 to 30 kilometres per hour on the steep winding roads.

Babalu - "Besht driver!"

Paul sat in the front and Debendra, Balvil and I sat in the back.  Debendra and Balvil were from Nolunna where we were staying.  Nolunna is a Hindi school and guest house about 20 kilometres upstream from Uttarkashi, on the banks of the Bhagirati River (as the Ganges is known before she meets the plains).  Young Hindu men, Balvil, at 17, had never been beyond Uttarkashi and neither he nor Debendra (a young married father of three) had been to Yamunotri so this was to be a big experience for them both.

Balvil and Debendra

Babalu, as ever, was effervescent and we chatted, laughed and listened to Hindi music.  Babalu’s English was worse than my Hindi, but we communicated well.  Everyone is Babalu’s friend: not surprising as he is a likeable larrikin.  At the first road block he directed traffic on the lower Rishikesh Road so no-one was inadvertently crushed by debris dislodged by the front end loader clearing the landslide.
We lunched late at a settlement further up in the valley.  “My friend”.  “Chai besht (best)”.  And he told all the waiting cars the road was now open.
But when we got upstream from Syana Chatti Babalu’s face was set like stone as he concentrated on the difficult road.  The road was badly damaged by landslides and once through the more difficult sections Babalu would lighten the atmosphere by saying, “Road good, no damage”.
We had just passed a section not much wider than the jeep with a 100 metre sheer drop to the Yamuna River on one side and an unstable wall of rock on our other when Babalu came to a stop.  He turned, his normally cheerful face set, unsmiling.  “Road blocked”.  I responded, “Vapas”.  “Vapas?”  “Yes”, I said.  And with that we negotiated a three-point turn on the side of the mountain and headed back to Hanuman Chatti.  After nine hours we were stymied only a few kilometres from our destination.  Babalu’s frustration was palpable.  “Only one kilometre more”.  But there was simply no getting through the slide that had already claimed one victim: a Mahindra Maxx sat in the middle of the road, buried to its chassis.
It was almost dark when we inspected the room at the “Panwar Tourist House and Restorent” at Hanuman Chatti.  It was a typical Indian style hotel.  The room consisted of a large bed, big enough for three (or more) with a thin mattress, three pillows and three heavy thick doonas.  The ‘ensuite’ was a room with a tap and bucket for bathing and a squat toilet.  It was relatively clean.  There was a light and power point, but no electricity.  My request for “garam pani” (hot water) was granted within minutes.
We had no other options as the roads were too treacherous to travel by night and this was Hanuman Chatti’s only hotel.  Nonetheless it was a serious culture shock for Paul who had been thrown into the deep end on his first visit to India.  But refreshed by our bucket baths and armed with our sleeping bags, liners and pillows we had a reasonably comfortable night.
Babalu, Debendra and Balvil took the adjacent room.  Babalu turned out to be something of a wheeler and dealer and we secured both rooms for 300 Rupees (about AU$7.50).
We dined downstairs in the ‘hotel’.  This was a large open room with the kitchen the main feature. The kitchen was a large mud platform with a wood-fired oven built into it and the cooks squatted on top, rolling and cooking chapattis over the fire, dhal in the pressure cooker and chai in a pot.  Everything was at their fingertips and what they couldn’t reach was passed to them by an assistant who also served our meals.  It was a well organised, primitive affair - typically Indian.  

The kitchen at the Panwar

The next morning dawned shrouded in the Himalayan monsoon rain.  My initial thoughts turned to Nolunna, but as the rain began to clear we loaded into the jeep and headed for the landslide that had halted our progress the day before.  From there we were on our own.  We didn’t make it that far.  Only a kilometre from Hanuman Chatti the road was blocked by another slide, so we headed to Janki Chatti on foot.
We were only at just over 2000 metres and the climb was steady but Paul and I both felt our breathing labouring as we crossed landslides, walked on road that was itself a torrent and climbed a steep shortcut that had me mildly panicked about how I would get down again.  Finally, just above the GMVN Rest House at Snol Gaad we had to run across a large landslide where intermittent showers of rubble teased of further collapse. 
We were now about four kilometres down from Janki Chatti and the road above was ‘open’ so we piled into a share taxi.  In the mountains the taxis tend to be soft top Mahindra jeeps or hard top Mahindra Maxx’s.  The Maxx is about the size of a mid-sized four wheel drive.  There were five of us over the back, four each in the front and rear seats, one on the roof and two clinging to the back.  It was ridiculous on many fronts and on that short ride Paul and I decided we would give Yamunotri a miss and walk back down to Hanuman Chatti after exploring Janki Chatti.

Looking upstream to Janki Chatti
The peaks above Janki Chatti

But for Debendra and Balvil, Yamunotri was their destination.  Being the first of the Char Dham, Yamunotri is a significant religious site and the source of the Yamuna River.  The Char Dham is collectively the four sacred sites that represent the spiritual source of the Ganges.  Few Hindus would pass up the opportunity of this pilgrimage.
So after chai Debendra and Balvil headed up the steep five kilometre path to Yamunotri while Paul and I explored Janki Chatti before commencing a leisurely descent to Hanuman Chatti.  The day was bright and warm and the walk was pleasant.  Even the big landslide at Snol Gaad seemed to have settled down, though we kept up a brisk pace passing through it. 

The road back down the mountain was littered with the debris of landslides
We had chai at the GMVN and embarked on the final five kilometres.  Just a kilometre from Hanuman Chatti we stopped on a high switchback to watch some land slipping.  It wasn’t until we rounded the bend after the next switchback that we realised the land had been falling directly in our path.
We sat, watched and contemplated our next move.  How long should we wait?  Water was flowing down the slide and every now and then a small rock would dislodge at the top and as it gained momentum on the way down it would dislodge further debris until a shower of rock and mud cascaded down the mountain.  The main slide appeared to be over and the road was blocked by trees and boulders.
We watched as a group of elderly Indians, more accustomed to this than we were, negotiated the slide, gripping a large boulder as they stepped around the outside on a six inch ledge that had been created by the falling earth.  There was nothing between them and the raging Yamuna 100 metres below.
I wasn’t keen on that route and told Paul I wanted to investigate closer.  His response angered me so much that with my gut filled with fury and adrenalin I took the Indians’ route around the slide without breaking pace.  It was fortunate, because without the anger I simply could not have summoned the courage to proceed.  It was quick, easy and one of the more frightening experiences of my life.
We were back at Hanuman Chatti less than two hours when Debendra and Balvil returned from their pilgrimage.  I will never forget the look of excitement on Debendra’s face when he walked into our room.  “Yamunotri bahut sundar hai, lekin rasta...” (Yamunotri is very beautiful, but the road...).  He clutched his calf muscles and I immediately felt better about backing out of our planned walk to Yamunotri.  Yamunotri is a climb of about 640 metres over five kilometres, about as steep as the walk to Syaba that we had done a two days earlier, but another 1000 metres above sea level.  Debendra and Balvil are fit young men and they felt the strain, albeit after running parts of the way in their excitement.
Debendra presented Paul and I with souvenir pictures of Yamunotri.  It brought tears to my eyes and I thanked him by touching the gift to my forehead.  Then he excitedly showed us on the picture where the hot springs are next to the temple.  He had bathed in them.  Then he shared “Prasad” (a religious offering) with us.  I was genuinely touched and knew that our treacherous journey had been worthwhile.
But we had to make it back to Nolunna...
Our original plan was to spend the second night in more salubrious accommodation at Syana Chatti, but Babalu informed us that the road was blocked nine kilometres downstream so we would be staying put.  We had become accustomed to our simple lodgings and felt we could survive one more night without electricity.
Soon it started raining.  This didn’t bode well and as I watched Babalu and Debendra head off under my umbrella I had an uneasy feeling.  Sure enough, they returned soon after and said we were going.  We were making a run for it.
On more than one occasion during the next two hours I involuntarily clung to the Mahindra’s frame, but after negotiating the boggy roadworks that had further deteriorated, we made it to Barkot.  In his inimitable style Babalu sniffed out a ‘bargain’ through town away from the main bazaar where he negotiated two rooms for 300 Rupees.  As he showed us our room, wide eyed and clearly pleased, he pointed out “western toilet”.  The hotel was certainly cheap, with electricity and hot water that worked after some manipulating of devices.  But you get what you pay for as they say...
The bathroom, while having hot running water, hadn’t been cleaned for goodness knows how long.  The basin was filthy and the toilet... enough to say that a standard western toilet used as a squat is never a good outcome.
Nonetheless, we were safe and not stranded on the road.  We left at 8am the next morning.  The roads were not improved by a couple more days of monsoon rain, and with numerous stops to breakfast and stock up on fresh produce by the roadside, by 2pm we were back at Nolunna just 100 kilometres away.  Lemon water awaited us plus hot water for bathing, and lunch.  It was like coming home and Paul’s last remark as we climbed into bed that night was “Aah, a nice clean bed”.   

Share taxis are too crowded!!!

We were entertained while eating our breakfast

Aloo Paranthas for breakfast - Yum!

Buying fresh supplies on the way back