Day 117 to Day 122 – trekking to the source of the Ganges, the Gangotri Glacier in Gaumukh

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Day 117 – Uttarkashi

Last night we arrived with the rain and the setting sun in Uttarkashi and came straight to the Monal Guest House, which is only 100m from the Uttarakhand Forest office where we need to get the permits for the Gangotri to Gaumukh trek. The guesthouse ranges from about 600Rp to 1000Rp per night ($12 – $20 USD), but is well worth the price. Located halfway up the hill, there is a balcony that overlooks the expanse of the wheat fields all over the valley. The balcony is a perfect place to practice some yoga and healing sounds, but closing my eyes is useless because I am so gobsmacked by the beauty of the mountains in front of me. I allow my mind to empty of content as I stand there staring at the broad expanse of green.

The owner of the guesthouse comes straight over at breakfast to introduce his animated self. He tells us that rain in Uttarkashi usually means snow up in Gangotri so we need to go into town and get some rain gear. An English couple tell us that the forest office require a photocopy of our passports and visas for the application, so we decide to stay another night and head down to the main market today to get ourselves organised.

The morning is actually hotter than we anticipated and I can hear myself complaining a bit about the walk, which makes no sense since I am doing all of this just so that I can go on a really long walk. The only trekking shop in Uttarkashi is in the main market, directly across from a small restaurant called the Shangri-La (which serves delicious Tibetan bread). This trekking shop is kind of expensive so I kind of wish I had bought some trekking gear in Rishikesh but we find a military shop that has rain coats for about 400Rp ($8 USD). My running shoes won’t be enough to protect my feet from the snow and the uneven ground so the owner of Monal has told me to look for ‘Hunter’ boots which are pretty much just canvas boots with a thick rubber sole. They cost only 400Rp as well. Hand-knitted woollen socks from a small stall cost 100Rp ($2 USD).

Some Godfather beer can be bought from a little hole in the wall just past the fruit market. It is so discreet, I almost miss it but the blackboard lists all stock and prices and the customers move quickly, trying to keep their purchases hidden. It feels like such a splurge to be buying beer, but we have to wait a few hours for it to cool down in the fridge as it is still warm. The guest house is a beautiful respite and I could almost stay a little longer since their evening dinner of paneer masala and dhal is so delicious.


Day 118 – Gangotri, the town in the clouds

The forest office doesn’t open until 10am so there is time this morning for a long practice. Instead of adhering to the ashram rule of meditating at the same time every day, I go back to spontaneous meditation. After breakfast, the moment of inspiration grabs me and I find half an hour of stillness easier than it has been for a long time.

The share jeeps leave from Uttarkashi until 2pm in the afternoon. It is only 4 hours to Gangotri up a steep, narrow road but it is dangerous in the dark. Each seat costs 150Rp ($3 USD) so to avoid being squashed in with 3 other people, we rent the whole middle seat between two of us. I will later be forever grateful for this decision when I step out of the jeep and see the mass of bright yellow vomit sprayed all over the side from out of the back seat window.

As the jeep travels up to over 3000m above sea level, I get a little bit dizzy. Once again, the mountains have me completely captivated and I have to make a concerted effort to keep my mouth closed. When I see snow for the first time I almost want to do a back flip out the window. Above me is the whitest white I have ever seen and below the sharp drop of the cliff, the road is lined with cherry blossoms, pines and birch. The car seems to fly around the corners as it weaves up higher and higher, but it seems I have misplaced my fear because all I can feel is wonderment. I slowly layer my clothing as the cold creeps in, but nothing could have prepared me for the icy air that envelopes my bones when we arrive in Gangotri. Running straight to the first guesthouse we find for only 300Rp ($6 USD), it takes only a few minutes to realise just how horrible it is. Rookie error: forgetting to check for holes in the widows. It is freezing in here! When I finally take a proper look around, I realise that the blankets stink, the pillows are stained dark grey and the toilet, which is a curious mixture of Indian-squat/Western-seated commode, has mysterious brown flecks staining it.

The market sells some second hand trekking coats and I pick up one that is filled with feather down for only 550Rp ($11 USD). It is like wearing a doona! Woollen beanies, socks and gloves cost me only 200Rp ($4 USD). After chai, coffee, hot chocolate, ginger-lemon-too-much-honey tea and any other hot liquid we can find, the only place left to be is bed in the hope of getting warm. I go to bed fully clothed because I don’t want to actually touch anything in this room and fall asleep thinking of home.

Day 119 – acclimatise

Morning time, the sun is out showing off the glory of the snow-capped peaks around the town. For some reason I could hear a chainsaw at 1am last night so I had horrific nightmares of amputated limbs. We need to move rooms but first we need to warm our insides. Trying to drink a litre of water this morning gives me a stomach ache so we find a small café facing the sun. I stand outside, trying to dry my boots. For some reason they just feel perpetually damp. In the new room which we have bargained down to 500Rp a night, we check the blankets for strange smells, the windows for holes and the toilet for stains. Everything seems to check out so we get a bucket of hot water to shower with. I don’t even want to take my shoes off and stand on the freezing tiles, but eventually I realise that I can sit with my feet in the bucket of hot water. I remember it was only a few days ago I was so hot that I had to sit with my feet in the coolness of the Ganges and feel that same sensation of temperature rising up through my legs and coursing through my whole body. This week I have to let go of my attachment to being clean, because it is way too cold to actually wet any other part of the body than the bare necessities.

In relative comfort, I sit under the blanket with the sarong draped over my head and meditate. This is surprisingly easy. The deep breathing is helping me to acclimatise and breathing under the material has created a warm little cocoon that I just don’t want to leave.

On the suggestion of a guidebook, a great Paneer Butter Masala can be found at Hotel Gangaputra, which is close to the Shiva temple at the Eastern end of Gangotri, but prices are surprisingly expensive at 50-100Rps per dish ($1-$2 USD). By midday, the clouds have descended upon the mountains and it feels as though the world has been pushed directly up into the heavens. I make a point to note that rain starts at around 1pm, so we need to leave pretty early tomorrow to avoid getting wet. I just can’t wait to start walking. Moving in the cold has got to be better than sitting around and waiting for frostbite to rob me of my fingers.


Day 120 – trekking from Gangotri to Bhojbasa

Before 7am the sky is covered in clouds and it is only my feet that don’t want to get out of bed. I get up and use pranayama to ignite some internal fire, but I promise you even my soul is freezing over right now.

We finally start walking at about 7.30am, but we walk through the temple and take the first path we see. By the time we are facing a huge boulder, we realise the track has ended and we need to double back. An old man points up a steep goat path and tells us that Gaumukh Road begins up there. It takes about fifteen minutes of steep rock climbing to reach Gaumukh Road and looking back along the path, I realise that it must start somewhere around the Western end of town. Great start. Everything else has to be easier than this, since all the guidebooks and other travellers assure us this trek is a gradual incline.

Only an hour and a half past the forest office where we show our permits and give a deposit for the plastic bottles and bags we are taking, there is a small signpost that says 15kms to Gaumukh. We have already walked three!

The first part of the hike is 14km to Bhojbasa and although most of the way is gradual, there are enough steep up and downhill sections to leave me more than a little breathless. The air is so thin up here, 2:1 breathing goes out the window and I am just sucking in oxygen anywhere that my body will take it. If only it were at all possible that my belly button could inhale! There are enough rocks on the path that I have to keep my head down and watch where I put my feet, but I take frequent opportunities to stop and look around. I have never seen such beauty. The snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas seem to roar in silence and the pine trees sway, worshipping the chilling sky. After allowing my lower mind to give me more than a hundred reasons why it doesn’t actually like trekking and why walking uphill in the cold, thin air is NOT so fun, the sound of the river, our steps and the loop of my breath fall into a rhythm and eventually there is a hush. I look around at where I am, what I am doing and the beauty, the glory of this place stuns me into silence.

There are no more signposts until we are about halfway, at the 10km mark. After this, the last 3km seems the hardest. My left hip has started to ache with every step and I can’t take my fingers out of my pockets because it is so cold; even in gloves they will go numb. I want to stop but every time we do, we cool down too quickly so Yon just keeps walking and we keep going. We come across a sadhu in orange robes and sandals. He gives us each a peanut and it is the greatest legume I have ever had the privilege of consuming.

At 2kms left until Bhojbasa, my head is starting to pound from the altitude and I feel a little nauseous. Every corner I am hoping that this town will be just on the other side. I look down at my feet and remember each step is for someone I love. I don’t think I even know enough people for all the steps this is taking, so I guess I am sending love to people I don’t even know.

When we finally see a flag and a rooftop in the distance, our pace picks up with the thought of chai, blankets and maybe a fire. The valley comes into view and the corrugated iron buildings that make up the ashram, GMVN guesthouse and the police quarters of Bhojbasa is the most beautiful site in the world. We are some of the first to arrive and within five minutes of sitting down for some 2-minute-noodles and a cup of way-too-sweet chai, the snow starts to fall. I feel too sick to keep eating and I eventually just take a headache pill and go to sleep for a couple of hours, curled up in a little ball under the thick blankets of the dormitory, holding my icy toes. I am terrified that the frostbite is already kicking in.

When I wake up in the metallic dorm room, I can feel my toes and my body has regained some warmth but my head still hurts. Apparently sleep is the worst thing to do for altitude sickness so I need to walk around and breathe.

The snow has not stopped falling all afternoon. It is the most beautiful, magical sight to see tiny flecks of pure white blanketing the ground. It’s like god is sifting flour all over us. There is no winter fire place or even a tin can, so I just keep pacing, stopping every few steps to look at the white rain that descends, bring heaven down to earth. Or is it bringing earth up to heaven?

A part of me can’t believe I haven’t yet died of hypothermia but my head has at least stopped hurting so we sit down in the thin metal dining hall for hot chocolate and a game of cards. We meet some of the other people making the trek. A couple we saw at the start of the trek arrive later; they had to trek through snow for an hour and almost considered stopping in a cave for shelter. I am so grateful we didn’t stop! They turn the generator off by 10pm and I retreat to my position under the covers, realising for the first time how hard this mattress really is. I have never been so cold in my life.


Day 120 – Gaumukh, the source of the holy river

I didn’t sleep. I think I might have dozed off a couple of times, but the cold and the excitement pretty much kept me awake for most of the night. I really do not want to trek for 9 hours under-slept but I also do not want to stay here in the cold for another night.

The final 4km trek ascends about 200m in altitude, but does not feel like too steep of an incline. When we get closer to the glacier, my pack starts to feel lighter, my feet are steadier and I pick up speed. It is like the descending force is pulling me towards this mass of ice.

The sun comes out from behind the mountains around 8am, when we are at the glacier itself and the snow sparkles in the light. I sit on a dry rock to get used to the fact that I have actually arrived at the source of the Ganges. After the idea has settled in and I can wipe the awestruck look off my face, I make the small climb over the snow-covered rocks to reach the mouth of the glacier. As I look to my left I see that the massive wall of ice beside me is actually part of it. I am actually standing in and on the glacier! I’m not sure that pictures, words or any human expression can truly capture that feeling of unity, of oneness, of extreme awe at coming face to face with the divine. Staring into the flowing water where ice becomes river, I make an offering and a prayer.

I look up at the towering giant of blue and white ice before me. I touch the icicles and write my name in the snow. Then I am ready to give the Ganges something that I have been holding on to for too long. I am ready to let go of the past, those negative emotions, memories of arguments and disappointments all the past associations and attachments that are holding me back. I can’t keep them any longer. So, hum… I throw it all into the water, right at the mouth of the glacier.

My heart is beating out of my chest. I sit down on a rock and hold my mala.

108 breaths. 108 hum so.

The past is not real, the future is not certain and all I have is right now, right here.

Part of my prayer is for sunshine. We still have to get all the way back to Gangotri before the snow or rain starts to fall. All I can do is pray and believe that this divine force will keep us in the light of the sun. We are walking back with an Italian and a Spaniard who have the beautiful presence of mind to start picking up rubbish along the way. We fill up the plastic bag before we even get back to Bhojbasa. If everyone who did this trek brought a plastic bag and picked up rubbish on the way back it would make up for the few people who still throw their plastics into this sacred, natural space.

The trek back is easy enough to hold a conversation for most of the way and the sun blesses us all day long. At one point we stop to marvel at a huge tree that seems to be holding the entire mountain up from the path. I stop to listen to it and it feels like I am hugging my mother. Stopping to hug a tree is like learning the secrets of the earth, embracing her and feeling infinite love. I hold the trunk for a while, feeling the subtle exchange of energy.

By the end of the trek, we can stand in the sun in t-shirts. The sun has answered my prayers and stayed with us the entire way. Gangotri, for the moment, is actually warm in comparison to where we have just been.

I have just trekked to Gaumukh, the source of the Ganges and back. I have seen snow for the first time in my life. I have stood in the mouth of a glacier and felt complete union with the earth. I have done this.


Day 121 – the long road down

It takes four hours in the share jeep to get back to Uttarkashi. We stop for lunch and buy some fruit before grabbing a taxi down to Rishikesh. The share jeeps only go to Dehradun, which is still an hour out of Rishikesh so the 3000Rp ($60 USD) taxi seems the better option for two extremely tired and dirty trekkers.

Morning practice in the cold has been reduced to just pranayama to warm up, so I am looking forward to getting back down to the ashram and feeling enough warmth to lie on the floor and stretch. The backs of my calves are sore, but amazingly my back is fine after carrying my pack for two days.

When we finally arrive in Rishikesh, it is almost 8pm and dark. We meet some friends and despite hunger, we are so excited reliving the adventure, we barely even eat. Chantal has met a number of people who have made meditation their whole life and is starting to feel like the only progress we can make is through hours and hours of daily practice. But after what I have felt, walking up the Himalayas and every moment of life that I have breathed in India in this past month, isn’t it possible to make your whole life meditation and make every hour a practice in itself? I refuse to believe that life and meditation are mutually exclusive. The more time I take out of each day to stop and meditate, the easier it is to move back into the day with that same sense of awareness and consciousness. If every breath is felt with purpose and sensitivity then even sitting around talking to friends and cracking peanuts can be a meditation, right?

I am washing my clothes and waiting for the shower water to warm up. I hover over the bucket, deeply impressed by the almost black water I am squeezing out of my clothes. I start an internal dialogue:

“Liz, that was amazing. Look at what you did! If you could do anything, anything at all, right now, what would it be? If money, work, family, home, study was not an issue and you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?”

The answer comes as a small surprise:

“Go to Africa.”

“Seriously? Um, ok. If you want, let’s go to Africa! Why the hell not?”

It is a strange feeling to still be travelling and already feeling the intense need to go somewhere else but I have faith- if I can manifest sunshine and walk 4000m up into the sky, what can I not do?


Day 122 – displaced in the anywhere

I wake up with excitement to get back into the regular pranayama, meditation and asana practice. The air is warm and I am the only one in the meditation hall this morning. It feels good to be back to this place I called home for three weeks. Home? I actually feel like this is home right now. They say that home is where the heart is, but once you have direct contact with the cave of your heart, home is within. Home is enlightenment. Home is where the true self lives. So home is always anywhere that you happen to be?

I need to do a fair bit of writing, so I take my little laptop into town and sit down with an iced coffee, looking over the Laksman Julle bridge. The distractions are kind of hindering the typing, but eventually the channels of my fingers open up and the words flow. I stop to write a message and then have a sudden urge to call mum. My mum is beautiful, generous, kind, caring and just one of those universal mums that would adopt anyone I brought through the door. She takes in students while I am away and has just taken on an extra one, giving away my room. Well, the room I would sleep in when I went back to Sydney. It seems I have no home to come home to. I don’t want to upset her, so I promise it is fine. I get to stay with my brothers, which I love doing anyway, so realistically it is not a problem, but I can’t help feeling this niggling emotion. I stop typing to observe what this thing is tugging at my sleeve.

Witnessing this emotion is strange because it has come up from underneath the veneer of being the tough, travelling, nomadic who likes a simple life and few belongings. I realise that I feel displaced. I feel a little lost, a little sad that I don’t get to just go sleep in my own bed, in my own room among my own things. There has to be a reason for this, but I can’t see it yet because the damn emotion is clouding up my head. I wonder through the rest of the day in Laxman Julle trying to stay in the now so that I don’t worry about the uncertain future, but this strange feeling of displacement gets stronger. It was only this morning that I felt like the ashram was my home. Why do I care so much about this Sydney ‘home’ if I have already felt that home is within? By evening I decide I want a beer. There is apparently one place in Rishikesh with alcohol, called the Bandhari Swiss Cottages, right at the top of High Bank. We arrive only to be told that the boss has the key and the beer cannot be accessed yet. It’s just one of those days…

Suddenly I am laughing deliriously because I realise that despite these apparent setbacks, I am in India and I am outrageously happy. I am happy because suddenly I have no issues of home or family holding me back. I can change my study schedule for the rest of the year. I can go back and work hard for a couple of months and make more money. So now that I have no attachments holding me back, I can do whatever I want.

Ok universe, what are you saying? Go to Africa? Keep travelling? Keep searching, keep finding. Keep on keeping on. The world is my home.

Name: Elizabeth Major

Address: Anywhere


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