We walk miles apart, yet souls together || A Photo Journey from Kedarnath by Sumit Sond (Travel Story written by Aditya Bhardwaj)

 “We walk miles apart, yet souls together”, was the feeling we discovered 10000 ft. above MSL.
The adventure had started on the night of the May 17th, with a classic ride in a Delhi auto, to get to the Old Delhi Railway station. This was a start to the “JOURNEY OF OUR LIVES”, to the lands of the Mahadev, Kedarnath, a highly revered holy shrine located in Uttarakhand, 450 kilometers from New Delhi.

The temple is to have existed at the place, discovered by Lord Adi Shankaracharya, at a height of approx. 3500 meters, on the site where the Pandavas, the mythological rulers of India, had encountered Lord Shiva to seek his blessings on their journey to Heaven. The actual destination lay somewhat ahead of this town, Vasuki Tal, a highland lake at an altitude of 4200 meters. This was a core G.o.T escapade (Gang of Travelers, as we friends have branded ourselves). The group consisted of 5 wanderers, nomads, trekkers (call what you may) - Sond bros. (Amit & Sumit), Munish Devgun (our guide, support & motivation system), Ashish Kalsi (another important person who’s “been there done that”, with a twist), & Aditya Bhardwaj, that’s me.

The original itinerary of the trip was as follows:

-    Reach Haridwar by train; take a bus to Rishikesh (17th May night).
-    Bus upto Gaurikund, where the motorable road ends, stay at Gaurikund (18th May).
-    Trek to Kedarnath; start for Vasuki Tal the same day, if possible (19th May).
-    Camp at Vasuki Tal for a day (20th May).
-    Return to Gaurikund the other day, stay at Gaurikund (21st May).
-    Reach back to Haridwar (22nd May).
-    Take a Volvo/ train to Delhi (22nd May night).

Reaching Rishikesh as per schedule the next morning at 0700 hrs, we had our first encounter with our famed “lady luck”, as there wasn’t any bus service available for Gaurikund. The only bus that was there, left at 0400 hrs in the morning. This left us with two options; either wait a day at Rishikesh & start afresh the next day, or take a cab upto Gaurikund, & thus overshoot our budget. But, the excitement kept us from waiting for another moment at that place. Thus, it didn’t take us long to decide that we’re reaching Gaurikund the same day, even if the budget overshoots a bit. A cab was arranged soon & we were off to our destination for the day, by 0900 hrs. Everybody was just full of all sorts of emotions; both on the religious side, the travelling side or the philosophical, the result of which was an extremely noisy atmosphere in the cab, but still nobody minded the commotion.

Our first stop came for a brunch near Devprayag, the confluence of Gods. It is here at Devprayag, that the two main tributaries, Alaknanda & Bhagirathi, join to henceforth flow as Ganga. Sumit, Amit & I had never been this far up the Ganga valley, & had only seen this place through pictures or videos. Actually being there was something altogether different & reminded us of a campaign that’s on air these days “thrill is better experienced, than just imagined”, and we knew, that this was just a beginning to a journey of experiences. It was a Heavenly sight, to witness the brown Alaknanda & the aquamarine Bhagirathi converge into one another to form the holiest river of the Indian subcontinent. Henceforth, we would follow Alaknanda in this journey, upto the point of the origins of one of its tributaries, Mandakini. The journey then took us to Srinagar, Rudraprayag, confluence of Lord Rudra, the predecessor of Lord Shiva. Here, the Alaknanda merges with Mandakini. The sceneries just kept on getting more and more irresistible as we moved further into the Himalayas, the dry Ganga valley now gave way to lush green mountains of Garhwal. Each of us, considering our nomadic spirits, had an urge to just leave everything worldly behind, settle down here and lead an ascetic life.

Finally, after almost 6 hours of wait that seemed like eternity, the snow laden peaks appeared before us, & we, like directionless mortals, stared at them in awe from that moment onwards. They kept playing hide & seek with us, sometimes hiding behind the closer mountains, sometimes under the cloud cover as the road to our destination unwound and we, like thirsty souls, drenched and immersed ourselves in whatever was at offering, the only thought satiating us was that this was just a beginning, the following days would bring forth a lot more, all we had to do was to keep steady & hold onto our nerves. Such was the level of excitement, that some of us had even initiated the talks about starting for Kedarnath straight after reaching Gaurikund, to get closer to the peaks as soon as possible. But experience is the correct antidote to the poison of enthusiasm, as it was proved later.

Reaching Gaurikund around 1800 hrs, we set out to find a place to spend the night. The whole settlement is very congested, built on a slope of a mountain. The small passages that round the place, with enough space for 2 people to walk together are surrounded by 3-4 storied structures, which make it impossible for the sunlight to reach the ground, even at noon. Also, the biggest disappointment of them all, the place was thronged by virtually tens of thousands of people from all over India, as it was the peak time to visit the temple. Now this dampened our spirits a lot, as we were used to “treks”, with lots of loneliness. But here we were, unexpectedly stuck in a pilgrimage. Now, we are religious in our own ways, but for us, pilgrimage was never something as an interest. We would’ve trekked to the same place in winters when it was closed & deserted, & yet attained our goal. For us, unison with God comes through our connection with nature, our love for its beauty, & our respect for its complex-yet-simple ways. We luckily found a decent room, near the roaring Mandakini in the valley, & after a sumptuous meal & some “exploring”, called it a day.

Starting off early next morning with somewhat low spirits courtesy, the throng of the pilgrims & commercialization of the entire journey. Anyone could do the pilgrimage, as there were several modes of transportation, from mules to palanquins, even helicopters. We continued steadily, covering 7 kilometers in almost 4 hours. By 1300 hrs, we were at the midway, Rambada, from where the path looked rather steep & difficult to climb. But the rewards were worth the hardship, the only push we had in us, the destination, in the lap of the might snow Gods, in the lap of Mahadev. At Rambada, we decided that each trekker would trek at their own pace, & after deciding a common meeting point at Kedarnath & a heavy lunch, we set off again. Sumit & I, the swift ones, as we were called, led the path, & we expected to reach Kedarnath by sundown. Lesser we knew that we had grossly overestimated our capabilities in such terrains. The next 2 kilometers came swift, in 40 minutes. But the last 5 kilometers, came in over 4 hours, out of which, the last kilometer took almost an hour. Each step as if drew life out of us, each breath became dearer & each signboard was, as if, mocking at us. Alongwith it, following the fixed path continuously was making our mind go numb, so, in order to cut distance & also exercise our mind, Sumit & I started looking for trails in the form of shortcuts. And it was at one of these trails, that Sumit delivered a very profound thought that I haven’t forgotten to this date. We somehow managed to reach Kedarnath by 2000 hrs, completely exhausted. Our main motive after reaching was to secure a decent place to stay, & one was arranged by our ace negotiator, Amit. The difference between the arrival of the first & the last trekker was over 2 hours, with everyone being the happiest to see the other through safely. We checked in, took out our sleeping gear & plunged in the warmth of the sleeping bags.

After dinner, some of us took a stroll to visit the legend at the other edge of the settlement, and as we approached, our heartbeats became so loud that each of us could hear each others’. We were overpowered by intense emotions of being at the very place of which we’d dreamed of since years. It was dark, but the light was enough to outline the massive cliffs that guarded, as it appeared, the resting place of the Lord. We returned after spending sometime in the vicinity of the temple, sad somewhat at the spring of civilization around it. It was learned later, that all the photos of the place in circulation, were taken years back, & the open spaces had converted to houses & shops over the time. Returning back, we sat to have a discussion on the next Plan of Action. It was clear that the opportunity to reach Vasuki Tal was lost, as it was too challenging by the standards of the terrain. The trek would’ve been futile, we learnt later, as the way to the glacial lake was still covered with snow, & the weather Gods playing spoilsport too often, it wasn’t advisable to set for the place. In the meanwhile, some of us wished to experiment with the cooking gear we’d brought with us, which went terribly wrong & ended with Munish giving his fingers a near frostbite experience. After all the commotion had ended, we slept without making a plan for the next day, which proved to be a fatal mistake.

19th May, we all woke up, around 1000 hrs.,  disheartened, as it was too late to start a trek more than 2-3 kilometers by then, but decided to quickly get ready & explore the places nearby (read: get to the snow in the least time). After breakfast, Amit, Sumit, Ashish & I went for a dip in the Mandakini flowing alongside. With the origin a few kilometers upstream, the water was glacial cold. Still we braved for several dips, and came out refreshed. Again, we again ventured near the temple area, clicked a few photographs & then headed to the Bhairon temple, on top of the mountain overlooking the shrine. Playing in the snow as we progressed, rising higher, we felt our spirits being set free, as even though we weren’t able to achieve our target, we still had ample to enjoy & soak ourselves in. The sky was cloudy, and it looked as if about to rain. But apart from scatters of drizzle, the weather Gods seemed generous that day, even blessing us with a few spells of snow when we headed up the nearby cliffs after paying homage at the temple. Soon, all the artificial sounds ceased, & we were surrounded by only the tranquility of Mother Nature, which was broken frequently by the noise of the strong winds, but who would’ve minded that. Once sufficiently high on the slope, we rested on a huge boulder that was poking out of the mountain face. The snow laden cliffs now appeared even bigger, & we could see the source of Mandakini. Though appearing within a hand’s reach, we were experienced enough to understand that reaching the place would take atleast a day.

After spending good 3 hours at that place, which seemed to pass like moments, it was time to head back to civilization. All of us naives were silent, with the experience too much to sink in too quick. Emotions like these are best when felt, or when they consume you, rather than imagined or explained. After reaching the shrine, we had some snacks, after which Sumit & I decided to stay back at the temple to pay homage to Lord Shiva. The others returned back. After almost 3 hours of braving the cold, the rains barefooted, though a couple of aunties somewhat kept us (and many around) entertained with their state-of-the-art hypocrisy, we finally reached the stairs that would eventually lead us into the most revered Jyotirlinga, or Divine Form, as this shrine & many like these, are called in our religion. We were again overwhelmed with an intense wave of emotions as we rose up those stairs & entered the premises. The temple was simple, but the crowd & the commotion made it difficult to notice all the intricacies of the building. Still, it was the holiest of the Holies, & we felt blessed to be present there. We returned back around 2000 hrs, had dinner, after which a sad decision came that we would be returning back tomorrow. It was no point staying back, as we will not be able to make it to our destination. But after all we’d experienced here, Kedarnath itself had become a destination for us, for the connection we shared with nature felt equally strong here. The cliffs, the serenity, the clean air, WHAT MORE COULD A NATURE LOVER ASK FOR..??????? Saddened still, we started our retreat on 21st May at 1000 hrs, after breakfast. Coming down was quick, but still took us a good 6 hours, for there were a lot more photo sessions at the waterfalls & glaciers on the way back. Reaching Gaurikund, we looked for buses to take us to Rishikesh or atleast Rudraprayag, as we wanted to finish this leg of the journey as soon as possible. But, as the whole route is a landslide prone zone, the buses ply only in daytime.

We decided to make a stop at Guptkashi for that night, & catch the first bus to Rishikesh the next day from there. Again, thanks to our negotiations pro, Amit, we managed to get a shared cab upto Guptkashi. Stuffed in like broiler chicken with 9 other people in that Bolero, we started our hour and a half long journey, which did seem like ages. Now, the Uttarakhand govt. is working on widening the road from Guptkashi to Gaurikund, but this was currently in a nightmarish state. The throng, the vehicles brought along, and considering the mannerless ways of us humans, the journey took more than two and a half hours, with all getting down to push the cab out of the quicksand like conditions the driver had got us into at one point of time. Tired and broken down after a long day, we checked into a hotel in Guptkashi & came out immediately for dinner. One thing I can be sure of throughout the journey and that was the quality & the quantity of the food. We luckily stumbled upon a bus that was headed for Rishikesh the next morning & was parked right in front of our hotel. Reserving the seats immediately, we came back, refreshed & went off to sleep. Confused, whether to be happy or sad to return to our homes, we knew this incredible adventure had come to an end.

Next morning, the second last leg of the journey began. We expected to reach Rishikesh by 1300 hrs, & had a train from Haridwar at 1800 hrs. With so much time to spare, it was obvious that we wouldn’t leave Haridwar without a dip in the holy Ganga, which we eventually had for 2 long hours. Settling down in the train on time after a sumptuous lunch, we all slept our way to Delhi, tiredness showing up on our faces when we touched down at the capital later that night. Nobody likes the heat wave that the North India experiences every summer, and it became even more unbearable after spending days in temperatures ranging from 13˚ to -1˚C.     

The journey was fun, it always is. But this time, the destination was even better. These are moments for us when we re-discover our lost connections, what we actually are, where we actually come from, & where we are headed. There were moments that taught us together, we can overcome anything we want, that faith moves mountains, and that there’s more to this world than meets the eye. Lessons like life is about the journey, not the destination, are re-learnt. Though it was an incomplete journey, it gave us a reason to come back to the place. God’s will, fate, call it whatever you may, to come back & finish what we’d gone there for. Today, the five of us lead on with our lives separately, yet waiting for the moment of unison, when we travel to the Land of Mahadev again, thinking of that common goal, “walking miles apart, yet souls together”.  

If you liked this post and found it helpful, I would request you to follow these things when traveling -

- Manage your waste well and don’t litter
- Use dustbins. Tell us if you went to a place and found it hard to locate a dustbin.
- Avoid bottle waters in hills. Usually you get clean water in hills and water bottles create lot of mess in our ecosystem.
- Say big no to plastic and avoid those unhealthy snacks packed in plastic bags. Rather buy fruits.
- Don't play loud blaring music in forests of jungle camps. You are a guest in that ecosystem and disturbing the locals (humans and animals) is not polite 

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