Ok, so let’s get the chicken thing out of the way first. I’ve never resorted to clickbait before, but being bitten by a chicken wasn’t what I was expecting as I was hiking in northern India. Usually when walking in remote areas I’m apprehensive only about snakes or wild dogs, so when I saw a few chickens in my path, I assumed they would simply scatter like they do in villages. But these were wild chickens, and one particularly bossy rooster wasn’t moving out of my way without a fight. He squawked, fluttered his wings and pecked me on the leg.
It was the end of the first day on the Dodi Tal trek in Uttarakhand. I’d spent a few days in Delhi which is a hard city to love. I visited some wonderful Mughal tombs and other monuments, but the traffic chaos, filth and noise are uninspiring. I was happy to flee to the mountains again, this time in Uttarkashi, the gateway to Gangotri, the source of the mighty (and, to Hindus, holy) Ganges. Uttarkashi is a miserable, noisy and charmless town of the sort you find all over India, but the two day trek up to the source is fabulous. I caught a cramped shared jeep up to Gangotri, where there is a temple, and I stayed the night in a pleasant guesthouse with a room overlooking the river Bhagirathi which becomes the Ganges a little further downstream.
The next day at a bitterly cold dawn I set off up the mountain path for the six hour hike to the small settlement of Bhojbasa. After a cold night in a cell-like room in an ashram I set off early again to reach Gaumukh, the point where water gushes out from a rock and eventually becomes the Ganges. Sadly, the glacier which only ten years ago hung over the rock, has retreated almost out of sight. It was a hard scramble over boulders to reach the top, but because of the difficulty of access there were fewer people than I expected. You are no longer allowed to walk down below to the actual source.
The way back to Gangotri was long and exhausting and I spent ten hours walking that day. The path is quite dangerous and in places has eroded away. The steep drops to the valley below were vertigo-inducing. Gangotri is actually the second stage of the Char Dam, the so-called four seats, which attract pilgrims from all over India. It was fun to see some of them taking pictures of ice by the river, something they’d obviously never seen before.
The first of the Char Dam is Yamunotri, the source of the river Yamuna, which runs down to Delhi. You can take a bus there, but you can also trek. I organised this through an agency in Uttarkashi and I set off with a guide and two porters. The first day was easy, despite being attacked by a chicken, and we camped a few kilometres beyond the village of Agoda in a place called Bebra.
On day two we followed a beautiful mountain path up the valley to Dodi Tal, a small lake with a temple dedicated to Ganesh. I was invited in at dusk by the porters to watch the evening aarti, or ceremony. Day three was the hardest and longest, as it involved crossing the high Darwa Pass, but the views of snow-capped mountains more than compensated. We camped at Shima, the best site I’ve ever seen. It was also the coldest night in a tent I’ve ever experienced and the following morning the tent and ground were covered with a thick layer of frost. The last day was tough and the least interesting as it was mainly just a long descent, in places very slippery with ice.
My last day in the mountains was unfortunately a disappointment. I followed the pilgrim trail from the scrappy village of Janki Chatti up 5 kilometres to the temple at Yamunotri, where the Yamuna river is formed from water falling down from a high glacier. It’s undeniably impressive, but sadly ruined, like so many places in India, by the extraordinary amount of litter and rubbish strewn everywhere.
Indians come from all over the country and the rich hire horses or are carried up on litters, while the poorer people walk. It’s a great spiritual quest for them, but it’s sad to see that so many of them have virtually no regard or respect for the environment. Plastic wrappers, bottles and paper line the route and river bank. It was also the last day of the season before the Char Dam sites close for the winter and the villages looked forlorn and slightly depressing, but maybe it’s better in peak season.
With a brief excursion to Punjab and Delhi I’ve spent most of the past three months in the Himalayas which I’ve really enjoyed, but I’m ready to leave the cold behind now. Over the next month I’ll be pretty much following the course of the Ganges across the hot plains as it winds its way to Kolkata in West Bengal. My first stop will be Rishikesh, made famous in the 1960s when the Beatles turned up there in search of spiritual enlightenment. As for me, I’ll just be happy to be warm again.