The thrill of walking on the Gartang Gali

Suman K Sharma
There was the fear of Corona. The 6-7 hour sightless journey from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi, hen-cooped on the backseats of 8-seater jeeps, was tiresome. The stuffiness caused by an intermittent rain spoiled the fun of journey. Huge boulders sled down the hilltop, frightfully crushing everything that stood in their way in a landfall.
Was it then sane to leave the certitude of homely comfort and expose oneself to such risks and inconveniences – just for the dubious fun of walking on the made and unmade paths of mountains? The answer came from Upendra Vajpayee, the YHAI Field Director at Uttar Kashi (Uttarakhand). “Trekking is a passion, a passion fermented to the level of madness,” he said. The grizzled veteran seemed to know it well. He had celebrated his 75th birthday at the basecamp only the previous day. Sizing up the group of participants of the Gangotri Dayara Bugyal trek assembled before him, the doyen went on, “You are here on an adventure trip. So, if you come across any adversity on the way, venture to face it in good cheer.”
The trekking team was a medley of 15 men of ages ranging from late twenties to the oldest who was a few months shy of seventy-three. Along with them was a single woman. The young lady too was in her late twenties. The one thing that they all shared was the thrill of the challenge.
Not just walking on
The base camp at Uttar Kashi was a 7-8 hour drive from Rishikesh. The participants kept arriving till late afternoon. Introductions were made in the evening and they were briefed at some length by the Field Director and the Programme Co-ordinator, Mr. Jyoti K. Shrivastava. After a night’s stay, a jeep ride of about an hour and half took them to Raithal (7096 ft). From Raithal to the village Gui (9750 ft) was a trek amid the splend our of a thick forest, lasting about 5 hours. The YHAI camp was located at some distance from the village. The genial Camp Leader, Sunil Sharma, came some distance from the campsite to greet them. A welcome drink of Rooh Afza, then tea, followed by soup and then dinner by 6:30 PM. All within a couple of hours. But that’s the compulsion of trekking in the hinterland that goes without electricity. The trekkers had to be properly fed and energised before the daylight went off. The camping tent proved a bit tight for three male adults to sleep in. (If the sole lady participant had a whole tent for herself, her male co-participants did not resent her.) The morning brought another distraction. The make-do latrines were smelly despite trowelful droppings of (wet) earth by the successive users. The finicky amongst them chose to go, with a small bucket of water in hand, in search of dense bushes to do what had to be done.
After a nourishing breakfast and packed lunch in hand, they left for the next higher camp at Chilpada (9842 ft). It was not much of an ascent. The sweet scent of the forest, the twittering of birds, the melodious undertone of the crickets and the exhilarating chit-chat of camaraderie was exhilarating.The ascent was just about a thousand feet and the distance was covered effortlessly in a couple of hours. The Camp Leader, Mr Kasim, with his trim moustache and military bearing, matched every bit of his role. During the day-time, his whistle regulated the timings of morning tea, breakfast, lunch and so forth. In the evening after the dinner, he joined the trekkers at bonfire (where, in compliance of the strict directive of the Forest Department, burning of wood was substituted by lighted battery-torches), singing with gusto and vying with the participants song-for-song in the ‘antaakshri’. The team spent the rest of the day exploring the breath taking surrounds of Chilpada. If there were little inconveniences of sleeping in those flimsy little tents pegged on to the uneven stony platforms, or even that off-putting visit to the odoriferous privy, the trekkers did not seem to mind. It was more than compensated by the prevailing jollity. The following day, the YHAI guides took them to Dayara Bugyal.
Beauteous Dayara Bugyal
It was rather a stiff climb, but worth all their sweat. ‘Bugyal’ stands for a pasture in the local tongue. And what amazingly beautiful sights it presented! The ranges of Bandar poonch, Black Peak and Gangotri were there in their majesty. Lushest greenery provided a velvety sheen over the rolling hills. From the ground rose spontaneously little flowers of diverse colours and forms. They bedecked the place with such beauty as no master craftsman could hope to emulate in his embroidery. There was the sweet jingling of bells tied to the necks of the grazing cattle. Sparrows of a black and white shade not seen in the planes hopped merrily from one bush to another; and ravens, almost one and half the size of the measly crows of the planes, looked about for yet another tasty bit to peck at. White falcons perched on the tree tops watched the goings on with their characteristic alacrity.
The team, after having aneyeful of the unflawed beauty of the land, wended its way back to the Chilpada campsite. By then, another team of seven trekkers had arrived at the camp. The tea-soup-dinner routine was followed and the 16 participants – by now a well-knit group -had had a whale of time with their antaakshri competition, till it was ended abruptly. A member of the other group complained that the noise bothered him.
Bugyal Top (11,829 ft) was the highest ascent that the team climbed. From then on, it was a long descent to the village Barsu via Barnala. On the way, they prayed before a magnificent Naga temple. As if to confirm that their prayers had been granted by the Serpent Deity, a snake slithered peacefully across their path. The young enthusiasts among the team also had a taste of the home-made Bhatt (a variety of Rajma) curry and rice at the wayside home-cum-eatery of an enterprising villager. The man also provided boarding – at a significant cost – in the dark anterior of his shelter to the over-eager wayfarers, who valued their privacy more than the comforts of a proper lodging.
Delicious apples and then to Gangotri
Then, again a jeep ride, and they arrived at Harsil. The original itinerary of the group was to take them from Harsil to the Gangotri shrine. But this was changed in compliance of the Supreme Court orders to discourage large gatherings in religious places in the wake of Corona. The YHAI management had therefore decided to take the group instead to Gartang Gali. The wooden step way was in news recently on its reopening to the public 59 years after the Indo-China war.
Then it fell out that the apex court had permitted limited access to the Gangotri shrine. 400 pilgrims could perform puja there at a time. The news was greeted with enthusiasm. One member of the team, who was somebody influential in the Railways, managed to have permission of the local authorities for the entire team. Negotiations were made with the jeep drivers to take the team to Gangotri and from there back to Uttar Kashi basecamp via Gartang Gali. The Camp Leader at Harsil, Mr. Sudhir Sharma, revealed that he had already got a whiff of the team’s intention to visit the shrine. They could do so, he said, only that they would have to bear the extra cost.
Harsil, inhabited by ethnic group of the Bhutiyas and a small number of Jadhs,is renowned for its apple orchards. The one day stay there was comfortable. The trekkers were lodged in a hotel boasting of amenities such as attached bathrooms fitted with geezers. In the late afternoon, the Camp Leader Mr Sharma and the Programme Coordinator Mr. Shrivastava, escorted them to the orchards, where they had the rare privilege of eating the fruit right off the tree branches. Back to the hotel, the Mr. Sharma made it mandatory for everyone to get up early, take a bath (it was to be a pilgrimage to one of the holiest shrines, after all, he said) and be on the road not later than 5 in morning.
They got up early as directed. But it was pitch dark inside the hotel rooms even though the street lights were on. In the dim light of the battery-run torches, they got ready for the road. The geezers were there, but not the luxury of bathing in hot water. By 5 o’clock, the two jeeps were ready for the 24 km journey to Gangotri, carrying the 16 trekkers and also Mr. Srivastava, who had decided to accompany the team at his own expense.
The early rising helped the team to arrive at the shrine even before it was opened for the pilgrims. Happily, the members performed puja, took photographs and selfies avidly and were back in their jeeps for the next leg of the journey to Gartang Gali in the Nelang Valle
Fascinating Gartang Gali
Considered one among the most dangerous passages, Gartang Gali rests on wooden planks nailed to wooden poles jutting out of the unyielding mountain side. It was once a route for Indo-Tibetan trade. But when war broke out between India and China in 1962, it had to be closed for the public. Reopened recently to bolster tourism, the 125 meter long bridge has 425 steps made out of sturdy Deodar planks. To have access to it is itself a strenuous exercise. Leave aside the rigid control of the Forest Department on the sightseers – one must produce the Aadhar Card and give details such as permanent address – the approach to the bridge is a difficult trek of steep ascents and descents demanding patience, a degree of physical fitness and alertness. One false step on the narrow path and the person is likely to fall several hundred feet down below. Just before the entrance to trek is a signboard installed by the Forest Department. It lists as many as sixteen instructions to the tourists on how to behave. Instruction No. 10 says that jumping about in excitement or dancing on the trek is prohibited. No prizes for guessing why.
The team reassembled on the road on having experienced the thrill of the last segment of the trek. The 110-km journey to the basecamp at Uttar Kashi was uneventful. Yet everyone’s eyes shone with a joyful gleam. They felt rejuvenated. They had made friends with those they had never seen before. They were taking home with them valueless treasure of stories they would be sharing with their kith and kin.
Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI)
It was in 1909, that Richard Schirrmann (1874-1961), a German teacher, came up with the idea of youth hostels. On 9 Jun 1945, Sir Bertrand Glancy, then Governor of Punjab, opened the first youth hostel at Taradevi, near Shimla. Post independence, enthusiasts in India formed the Youth Hostels Association of India, YHAI. It received an associate membership from the International Youth Hostels Federation (IYHF) in 1956 and the first YHAI youth hostel was established at Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, in the early 1970s. The complex, comprising a hostel, administrative offices and training facilities, is the national headquarters of YHAI.
The non-profit body is committed to provide “hostels of good standards to millions of youth(s) of limited means during their travel at affordable rates on a sustainable basis and by organizing adventure and educational events and to develop understanding among youth about social & developmental issues.” With its 96+ nation-wide hostels, a life-time membership of 1.5 lakh and over 18,000 participants in more than 70 yearly programmes, YHAI today is one of the premium bodies of its kind in the country. It has branches in every state, including J&K.