Under my byline

Gait to Ghangharia

Posted in Fitness, Living by Rrishi on 20 September 2009

Looking back towards Govindghat (c) Wrik Basu 2009Climbing towards Hemkund and the Valley of Flowers takes more than inspiration and fortitude

Two kilometres in, I realised this was going to be much harder than I had thought. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it much at all. We had just stepped through the gate at the Govindghat end (with a “Satnam! Wahe Guru!”) onto the suspension bridge across the blue Alaknanda and stepped off at the other end, disdaining the ponies, to begin the long walk upward.

It was lunchtime, but we hadn’t eaten a bite. Waking in the thundering darkness in our hotel room overlooking the sangam at Karnaprayag on the Alaknanda, we had begun our trip to Govindghat via a relay of compact hill buses. With hillsides and hairpin bends swinging by, the coming climb was not the first thing on my mind.

Now, I actually felt my temperature setting change — almost with an audible click — from “Oh well” to “Oh dear”. There were 11 km to go, all of them uphill, my stomach had plummeted and a constant light drizzle was peppering us with rain. I could see right below the huddle of buildings and tourist taxis that signified Govindghat. It looked as though we had scarcely progressed.

It was time to seek inspiration. Years ago I had read an American short story — title and author now escape me — about a backwoodsman who goes looking for a mountain cabin whose window he sometimes sees glinting in the sun from his own lowland homestead. In one place the author described the “long, rolling gait” of the hillman. I took this to mean letting the hips roll free, thus placing no strain on my back. This worked well, bearing me along another kilometre or two — to our first banana stop.

This was, like the others, a shack open on three sides. The closed side sheltered a stove for tea and coffee, and a little store from which the Garhwali proprietor sold suckable sweets, apples and bananas, pahadi cucumbers, biscuits and salty snacks, and giant colourful plastic bags with a hood and sleeves that served as rainproof smocks — all, at the more prosperous establishments, under the baleful eye of a TV blaring Bollywood. There was always a boy to serve. As in the rest of Garhwal, hardly any women or girls were visible.

On the way up (c) Wrik Basu 2009One was welcome to sit and not buy. Tired climbers, among whom women outnumbered men, stopped to catch their breath, rest their knees and rearrange their backpacks. Some got off ponies to rest their thighs and bottoms; on the path the ponies steamed and fidgeted, dropping pungent green dobs of manure while their Garhwali ponymen chatted among each other or wrestled with their charges.

This was, after all, the only route to Ghangharia, the settlement at which the final ascent to the Valley of Flowers (where we were headed) and Hemkund (for the pilgrims) starts. Hemkund is the high-altitude lake at which Guru Gobind Singh is believed to have meditated in a previous incarnation. At over 15,000 feet, the indefatigable Sikhs have built themselves a gurdwara. It is a remarkable feat.

The bananas were good climbing food — cool, fresh and energy-giving. I also gained strength from watching the pilgrims. Mostly small-town Punjabis, many were old or overweight, yet they soldiered on. Most were ill equipped for the climb, wearing plains clothes and slippers; some, particularly among the more urban women, went barefoot. “One must be humble,” a tired young woman with delicate-looking feet explained. One elderly pilgrim in a blue turban and pink smock cheerfully poured us handfuls of orange-flavoured Glucon-D powder from his own supply, which shifted us along some more.

What finally gave me my mountain legs — just in time for the last awful 3 km to Ghangharia — was watching the ponymen. They led human- or baggage-laden ponies up and down twice a day, walking over 50 km. They wore torn jeans and faded sweatshirts, with bathroom slippers on their feet; yet they powered along, chatting. Watching one of them, I added to my rolling gait a forward lean at every step, and a lengthened stride.

Fortitude thus boosted with example and inspiration, at 7 pm we finally staggered, in the sudden mountain darkness, over round pebbles, through slush and pony droppings, between unnaturally still deodars and the oppressive outline of looming black mountainsides, into the lights of Ghangharia, where a hot bath and an overpriced meal were most eagerly awaited.

Down towards Ghangharia from the entrance to the Valley of Flowers (c) Wrik Basu 2009

(Ghangharia’s name is spelt in many different ways. Wikipedia says Ghangaria, and various other respectable and casual sources make their own interpretations. However, I spell it to accord with the way the name was scrawled on a signboard in Ghangharia, in the Devanagari script.)

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