Last I wrote, we were in Rishikesh at the recommendation of a friend we met in Delhi, a popular yoga and pilgrimage place. Rishikesh is where the Ganges River flows from the mountains onto the plains, and for this reason is considered a very spiritual place. From here, we took an 8 hour bus to Ghuttu for the start of our trek over the Panwali ridge and up to Kedarnath, another very popular Hindu pilgrimage place where people go to worship the god Shiva in the temple. In Ghuttu, we were able to secure a pony driver who would guide us and carry all of our gear on his sturdy little pony.
The first day of the trek was very difficult and we gained about 6000 feet in elevation, to top out on Panwali ridge. We were accompanied by two Babas (holy men), one of whom was doing the entire walk to Kedarnath barefoot. At one point, we were stopped at a shepherd’s hut drinking tea, when I heard Tim outside starting to freak out. I went out to see that his sock, shoe and pant leg were covered with blood and he had a small hole in his ankle. The pony driver and shepherd’s children could only tell us this was "zjunk", and stand by giggling with glee. Finally we were made to understand that zjunk was not anything to worry about. Later, we learned that zjunk is a leech. Leaving the hut, I began to develop a cough, from the wood smoke, which would only get worse later.
As we reached the ridge top, I began to dream of a nice quiet campsite with expansive views. It was not to be. We walked down into a shepherd’s village and camped amongst the grazing animals, whose bells tinkered all night. We also found that we were unable to make our stove work. Out pony driver, Alamsing, arranged for a shepherd to cook us dinner, and breakfast the next day. The food was excellent, some of the best we have had in India. We were also able to watch the chapatti (bread) being cooked over the coals. Unfortunately, the culinary delights were served in another shepherds hut, which had a wood burning fire pit/oven in it and no ventilation besides the small door. By the time we left, my cough had grown very bad. That night, Tim also found out that besides being sucked on by a leech and carrying a broken stove that he had left his headlamp in Ghuttu. It is an example of the extreme kindness of some of the people that we have met that when he called a friend we made in Ghuttu, this man secured our headlamp and drove it down to us in Rishekesh, refusing any payment.
Next day we woke up to beautiful views of the Himalaya Mountains spread out along the horizon. We hike some ways across the ridge, gaining another 1800 feet in elevation before dropping down about 5000 feet to Tiyrgi Naryan. We were led into the crazy courtyard of the pilgrim rest house, which was full of babas and people surrounding us to see what we were all about. At one point, one baba began to beat another with a large willow-like stick. We never did figure out why.
Tiyrgi Naryan was an incredibly air-polluted place, even more than Delhi, with homes, teahouses, fields, and temples constantly spewing out masses of smoke from burning wet wood. The people were very nice, however, and one priest took us through the temple and explained the puja ceremonies to us. He likened the objects of worship to photographs in that when you look at them you think about and remember who they represent. In this case the statues and stones represent and remind the people of the various reincarnations of god. Alamsing again arranged our meals.
The next day we walked a fairly easy day to Gaurikund. Here is where the major pilgrimage route begins, which we walked the next day. The trail from Gaurikund to Kedarnath is 14 km long and about 5000 feet elevation gain. It is traversed every day by thousands of pilgrims in the summer season. There is more than one way to make the trek. Most people walk. Some will ride a mule or pony up. A small person, children and the frail elderly, can ride up in a basket on a porter’s back. Finally, a person with lots of money to spend can be carried up by 4 men in a doli, a large wooden chair like contraption.
There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie on the hike up, with people shouting "Namaste" (hello), "Jay Bole" or "Jay Kedarnath" (basically, praise lord Shiva) or "Hello, how are you, where from?", as they held out their hands to tap yours on the way by. When we arrived at Kedarnath, we found lodging and went to look at the mountain views of Kedarnath Peak, at almost 7000m high. We were lingering outside an Ashram full of babas when they called out "come in, come in." We joined in another puja ceremony and were invited back that evening for a free meal. After this we headed to the temple for yet another puja ceremony and a viewing of the representation of Shiva. These puja ceremonies basically consist of throwing offerings of flowers, food, and/or scented wood or incense on a fire while reciting specific mantras. Other, larger food offerings are not burned, but left for the priest, along with money.
At the temple, we ran into Mickey and his family, who we had met in Gaurikund and who had promised to teach us the breathing and meditative exercises of Pranayam, which they said will keep us healthy and cure all disease. Mickey’s family was very protective of us and shepherded me through the temple, which was a crowded mass of people vying to get in and view a streamer covered alter type thing. There was a metal detector to walk through and many police trying to keep things under control, and I was barely able to get a glimpse before I was pushed on. Later we learned Pranayam. That evening we went back to the ashram for an excellent dinner. We ate after the babas were served, who assembled in a large U shape in the courtyard. The babas are very colorful with wild hair and sometimes bodies painted with ash. They wear sandals or go barefoot, carrying a blanket, a small water bucket, and some type of tongs or poker for fires. I complemented them on the food being very good, and one answered back "of course it is good. It has been offered to the gods". I very much enjoyed being a part of this pilgrimage and learning more about the culture and Hindu religion.
My cough had continued to grow worse and the next morning I woke up very sick. I had a headache, was throwing up, 103F degree fever, coughing, and just basically felt horrible. In a sort of daze, I followed Tim to a free health clinic we saw near the temple. Dr. Swami was very kind and competent and put me on oxygen for a little over an hour after hooking me up to a pulse oximeter and diagnosing me with altitude sickness (AMS). He gave me antibiotics and pain/fever reducers for a lung infection with severe congestion. Tim asked if we should descend, but Dr. Swami assured us that everything would be fine after the oxygen treatment and that if I wanted to stay, we should. He exact words: "Your spiritual journey must continue."
As sick as I was from the lung infection, the only thing I wanted to do was sleep, and so we remained in Kedarnath several more days before heading back to Rishekesh and then on to Manali. Tomorrow morning we get on a two day bus for Leh. Hopefully, after 4 days in Kederath, we are now well acclimatized for Leh and Ladakh!
Terraces around Ghuttu
Shepherds camp on Panwali
The Himalaya from Panwali
Wild Orchids on Panwali
Kedernath temple-click on it to enlarge and see the detail
The steps are lined with babas.
Kedernath peak, shrouded in clouds
A colorful baba
A child in Tirgy Noryan