Badrinath, Valley of Flowers, Hemkund Sahib, Auli (India) – Day 3 of 9

An account of our 9-day road trip to Badrinath – Day 3

June 2012

(Note: This travelogue was written real-time, as the 9-day road trip to Badrinath progressed)

Joshimath to Ghangaria (via Govindghat)

Because we had already packed our stuff yesterday, we were able to start quickly from Joshimath after waking up at 6:30am. We were to “take the 7.30am gate”, which means the following:

“Gate system” between Joshimath and Badrinath: Since the road between Joshimath and Badrinath is narrow at a few places and sees a large volume of traffic during the months when it is operational, the authorities have devised a one-way system that allows ascending and descending vehicles to take turns to cover this 40 km distance. The first set of vehicles is released from Joshimath at around 5am. It is assumed that they will reach Badrinath in a couple of hours, after which the gate for vehicles waiting to come down from Badrinath is opened. This happens 5-6 times during the day till 4pm, after which the road is closed for the night. (Hence, if you want to drive up from Joshimath to Badrinath after 4pm, it’s a no go, and you have to stay overnight in Joshimath and take the next day’s gate. The same applies to Badrinath after 5pm.) Please note that there are no physical “gates”, but just one checkpost on either end with barricades operated by the authorities. There’s also a checkpost midway at Pandukeshwar (1 km beyond Govindghat) which helps in further fine-tuning the gate system. Also, this is not a completely airtight system in that not all vehicles are able to cross over before the opposite gate is opened, so you will see a few vehicles coming from the opposite side. (I in fact feel bad for these poor chaps who are not able to cross over in the designated time – these must be slow drivers taking extra caution and time while driving on this tricky stretch, and then they have to face the barrage of vehicles coming from the opposite side because they could not cross the finish line on time!) The system works quite well and it pays to wait patiently in the long queue for the gate to open.

We lined up in the queue at Joshimath’s gate by 7am. As soon as we arrived, a dozen hawkers surrounded our car, trying to sell everything from tea to popcorns to saffron to shawls. They sensed our lack of interest soon and mobbed the next vehicle that came in. The gate opened at 7:30am and we started apprehensively on this infamously dangerous road.

We were surprised to see how good the road was as we headed to Govindghat, and for a moment even questioned the need for the one-way system. The vehicles were zooming ahead and there were stretches where we ourselves drove at over 60 km an hour. It’s a broad, two-lane road for the most part, and becomes narrow at a few places due to landslides or sharp protruding rocks. The river gushing by the side is a sight to behold. We had faced tougher stretches yesterday between Devprayag and Joshimath, and this one was a cakewalk for us. But as we found out later, the critically bad stretches of this road as documented in various travelogues lie closer to Badrinath and stretch over 10-odd kilometers,i.e., the last quarter of the drive. Since Govindghat is only midway between Joshimath and Badrinath, we weren’t going to face any challenges on the road at least today.

We reached Govindghat in quarter of an hour. For the trek to Ghangaria (also known as Govind Dham) and to Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers from thereon, one needs to park their vehicle at Govindghat. There is ample parking space at Govindghat spread across three zones, most of which is occupied by vehicles of Sikh pilgrims going to Hemkund Sahib. We couldn’t park at the first parking area located at the entrance of Govindghat, because the approach road is relatively narrow and the vehicles behind us which had to go straight to Badrinath without stopping at Govindghat, started honking like crazy as soon as we paused to look for a parking slot. So we drove on and parked in the second parking area a few meters down the first one. The parking charges are Rs. 100 per day and they issue a parking ticket. The third parking area is near the Gurudwara right where the trek starts, but driving down to it can be a little tedious due to sharp, narrow turns.

Govindghat is teeming with Sikh pilgrims during the summer months. There are several restaurants in Govindghat dishing out regular Indian food. We had breakfast at one along the way. We also hired a porter to carry a couple of bags for us till Ghangaria. This proved to be a good move because the trek ahead was very tough and there was no way we could have carried those bags ourselves. Porters generally charge Rs. 500-600 for Ghangaria, and Rs. 1600 for the entire Hemkund trek and back. The authorities charge an additional Rs. 85 for the porter.

There are multiple ways in which one can cover the 13 km distance between Govindghat and Ghangaria – on foot, on a pony, in a basket tied to the back of a porter (yes, you read it right), or on a helicopter. Trekking on foot takes around 8 hours and one can stop for snacks at almost any point on the way. A pony can be hired for Rs. 600 and takes 3-4 hours to reach Ghangaria. You can also hire a pony midway into the trek. With so many ponies traversing the path in both directions, the entire route is replete with their poo, though you get used to the smell a few minutes into the trek. The porters here transport not just the pilgrims’ luggage but the pilgrims too. It is heart-rending to see the poor porters carry people on their backs all the way in order to eke out a living. One wonders why aren’t they appropriately rewarded by God for this holy service of carrying pilgrims to His doorstep on their backs every single day. There is also a convenient helicopter service between Govindghat and Ghangaria – they charge Rs. 3500 per person per side; the helicopter can seat 10-11 passengers and the ride hardly takes five minutes.

We bought walking sticks and started the trek on foot a little after 9am. It was already a bit warm and the physical exercise made our precautionary warm clothing unbearable. If going on foot, one is advised to carry chocolates, glucose, dry fruits etc. to maintain energy levels during the course of this tough trek. However, all along the way there are tea shops which stock all sorts of such packaged snacks, water and cold drinks, and also serve food (paranthas, Maggi noodles, butter toast, fresh lime water, soups et al). The only issue is that the price goes on increasing as you trek higher. For instance, a water bottle with a printed price of Rs. 15 sells for Rs. 30 after 3-4 kilometers, and for Rs. 40 thereafter (including in Ghangaria). We were carrying our stock of chocolates and biscuits and that proved quite helpful.

There were very few foreigners on the trek; we only came across two foreign women trekking up and a couple of families coming down. Clearly the destination is not very popular among American and European backpackers, who prefer to travel only till Rishikesh on this route.

It was also sad to see how the two poor foreign women were having a tough time trying to ward off all the separate groups of men stalking them. These men had supposedly come for a holy pilgrimage but they were clearly more interested in making friends with and getting pictures taken alongside these women.

The trek was monotonous and boring for the most part, though occasionally the path came quite close to the river flowing alongside. We crossed the tiny Pulna Village which is 4 km from Govindghat. The real beauty of the trek emerged only after the first 9 kilometers, after we crossed the Bhuyandar Village (which is the starting point for the scenic and unspoiled trek to Kag Bhasundi Tal). This is when the glacier appeared, and we walked across over it. The flow of the river at this point was tremendous and the roar was so loud. The air was misty with the water breaking on the rocks with such force. The fun lasted for about a kilometer, and the best part came towards the end, where there was a restaurant named ‘River Point’ with a large verandah overlooking the gushing river. We had lunch there, and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It reminded me of Manali from a couple of years back where they had placed chairs and tables right into the river and were serving food and beer there.

The last three kilometers of the trek were an absolute ordeal. The path was way too steep and we had to stop every ten meters to catch our breath. Ponies coming from both directions were not making life any easier for us. We were half-dead by the time we completed the trek and reached Ghangaria. We were very envious on seeing the helipad as the first thing on entering Ghangaria. Soon enough, a helicopter carrying passengers landed, and without switching off the engine, promptly loaded a group of passengers from Ghangaria and flew back to Govindghat in a jiffy. We had seen this helicopter do a several such rounds during the course of our trek.

Right after the helipad, on the outskirts of Ghangaria, the first accommodation to appear was the camp site operated by Adventure India, comprising of almost a dozen tents. The GMVN Tourist Rest House which we had booked was a further 600 meters from here. Besides these, there are a few other small hotels in the market, and a Gurudwara which lets the pilgrims stay for free and also provides a blanket and free food. There are also a few restaurants serving regular Indian food similar to what we saw in Govindghat.

Since there is no mobile network in Ghangaria, one has to use the satellite pay phones provided by a couple of shops. There is always a long queue of people wanting to make a call, and the cost of calling is an exorbitant Rs. 20 a minute. One can call international for less than half of this amount from most Indian cities.

On reaching our hotel, there was little else to do than dump our stuff in the room, take some immediate rest, inform our loved ones of our successful tryst with this mammoth trek, have food and doze off. This is exactly what we did, with the hopes of bearable body ache and a lighter trek to the Valley of Flowers tomorrow.

If I had to summarize today’s 13km trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria in one line, I would say the first 9 kilometers are non-happening, the last 3 are steep and torturous as hell, and the 1 that I left out in between is the only shining star of this trek. Seriously consider taking the helicopter, you won’t miss much.

 

Key expenses:

4 dorm beds at GMVN hotel in Ghangaria: Rs. 1000
Porter from Govindghat to Ghangaria: Rs. 500 (plus Rs. 85 registration fee for the porter)

 

Read more:
Day 1: Delhi to Devprayag
Day 2: Devprayag to Joshimath
Day 3: Joshimath to Ghangaria (via Govindghat)
Day 4: Ghangaria – Valley of Flowers – Ghangaria
Day 5: Ghangaria – Hemkund Sahib – Ghangaria
Day 6: Ghangaria to Badrinath (via Govindghat)
Day 7: Badrinath to Auli
Day 8: Auli to Rudraprayag
Day 9: Rudraprayag to Delhi