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”.

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