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

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