Saturday, 26 March 2016

And Then I was on Tapovan Top!

I was devoid of the usual nervousness that I encounter each time I embark on a solo trip simply because I was almost sure I wouldn’t make it till Tapovan.
The great Shivling
For the uninitiated, Tapovan is an alpine meadow located at an altitude of 14500feet above sea level in the Gangotri Valley of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. It is also the base camp of Mount Shivling. It is a 23km trek from Gangotri and takes one across the Gangotri National Park and one of the most ferocious Himalayan glaciers in the world, the Gangotri glacier. The 5km stretch from Gaumukh to Tapovan is the most challenging one as one has to literally walk over the Gangotri  glacier dodging crevasses and moraines which dangerously lurk beneath seemingly well-held rock boulders, which give way no sooner one steps on them.  The glacier changes its nature often and there is no fixed trail. The easiest part of this stretch is only TO LOSE YOUR WAY! The services of an experienced guide are a must as also is to keep altitude sickness at bay which affects most trekkers at the first stop (Bhojbasa) itself. All in all, any Himalayan trekker’s life is incomplete without trekking to Tapovan.
I had already made arrangements for a guide. However, I insisted on having not just a trekking guide but an experienced mountaineer. Mountaineers have this uncanny ability to push one to reach a destination and can also spot any signs of altitude sickness that one may be experiencing but unable to comprehend. Mountaineers are also very authoritative when it comes to making decisions as to when it is right to not go further or retreat depending on the trekker’s progress which is essential since one of the effects of altitude sickness is the loss of decision making abilities and a trekker may not be in a position to decide for himself/herself the right course of action. I, thus, chose Real Adventure Gangotri , RAG ( to arrange for the trek and insisted that its owner, Deepak Rana, himself accompany me.

I always carry tetra pack juices and chocolates with me when going on a trek but if you’re going with RAG, it’s a waste really as they’ll themselves carry these for you. It was a last minute decision to buy myself two packs of Glucon D and I later realized how right that decision was.  Rucksack packed, I set out on my journey – my first solo trek. I took a flight to Delhi. As luck would have it, the flight was delayed, so much so, that catching the Nanda Devi Express the same night was becoming a close call. I was almost in tears as I boarded the flight. I quickly began to think of Plan Bs if I truly ended up missing my flight. I came up with a decent Plan B but was praying that I didn’t have to employ it. I reached Delhi airport at a time when the metro services were already closed for the day. This was getting too close.  I prayed for my baggage to arrive quickly. Once it had, I sped out of the airport and hired a Meru cab. I had only about 30min until my train’s departure. I told this to the driver and on hearing it, it almost seemed as if he had made it his life’s mission to help me catch my train. I boarded the train with 5min to spare and I literally had my heart in my mouth.

I reached Haridwar the next morning at 4am. I had already hired a cab to take me to Uttarkashi. I later realized that this was an unnecessary expenditure. The better way to go to Uttarkashi is to get down at Dehradun itself (the last stop of the train) and get into a hired jeep until Uttarkashi. It is absolutely safe and way cheaper. My cab arrived at 5am at Haridwar and I was pissed off on losing a whole hour. Nevertheless, we started and I caught the first glimpse of the Himalayas when we were just entering Chamba. I’ve never quite understood what it is with the Himalayas. One glance at them and it has just a calming effect on one’s body and mind. We were only 30km from Uttarkashi when the car had a breakdown. The driver took 30min to inspect it and came up with the news that it’d take at least a couple of hours if not more to fix it! It felt pathetic to say the least. It was scorching hot and there I was in the middle of a dusty road with a rucksack and a broken car. I announced to him that I’d be moving ahead on my own and paid him his dues. After an hour of standing in the heat and dust, I managed to flag down a jeep that was going to Uttarkashi. I reached Uttarkashi at 1pm and enquired for rooms in Hotel Bhandari (it is bank opposite to the petrol pump). It is a very basic hotel with clean rooms for Rs 400 a day. You can also find single bedded rooms for Rs 200 but they were all taken. I accepted whichever room was available, had lunch, called up my mom informing her that I was safe and went off to sleep. I was so tired!

I woke up in the evening and
A lady offering prasad to devotees outside the temple
went for a stroll outside. I visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Uttarkashi and went on to meet few fellow trekkers who were also going to Gangotri the next day. 
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
 I came back to my hotel and went off to sleep after dinner. Deepak advised me to leave as early as 6am the next day and get into a shared jeep to Gangotri. The next morning I missed the 6am deadline. I went to the shared jeep stand and heard someone shouting Gangotri. As I went to him, he put my rucksack on the top of the jeep and asked me to sit inside while he went on to look for more passengers. There was a couple sitting beside me who I overheard were talking about things they’d like to do after reaching Mussourie. Their conversation planted a seed of doubt in my mind and I couldn’t help but ask them where this jeep was going to. They promptly said “Dehradun”.  I was at my wits’ end! I called out to the driver, asked him to take out my rucksack and gave him a earful for putting me in his jeep.  I was told by others that the jeep to Gangotri was further ahead. I reached the point and boarded the jeep. I was the first passenger and it was 7:15am. It took the jeep more than 2 hours to be filled and we finally left at 9:30am.

The journey from Uttarkashi to Gangotri is a beautiful one.
Beautiful Harsil Valley
On the winding way, one comes across Gangnani which is famous for its hot springs. One also passes through Harsil, a small picturesque village 25km before Gangotri. There is a view point in Harsil and the Himalayan valleys with the Bhagirathi flowing between them look stunning. Gangotri is only 95km from Uttarkashi but it took us almost 5hrs to reach there.  
Deepak met me at the Gangotri bus stand and helped me check into a hotel. It had a clean bed and bathroom just what was needed at that moment. Hot water is readily available.

Surya Kund
Surya Kund
Later in the afternoon, Deepak took me to some places such as the Surya Kund and the Pandava Gufa.  There were beautiful rock formations at the Surya Kund. 

We returned back in time for the evening arati at the Gangotri temple and the Bhagirathi (which later, is known as the Ganges). As the arati (worship with fire) of the Bhagirathi began, it was a spiritually charged atmosphere and it is impossible not to feel disconnected from the world then.

Ganga Arati in Gangotri

I had planned to stay 2 nights at Gangotri for acclimatization. Gangotri itself is at 10000ft above sea level, so the trek starts at that height making acclimatization all the more important. I retired early that night and slept well.
I spent the next day loitering around the National Park. As evening approached, I met Deepak to know when we were leaving the next day and he gave me the biggest shock that I could ever get. He said that I’d have to carry my rucksack myself during the trek as the porter would only carry the food articles, tents, mattresses etc. Although, I was expected to carry items for only 2 nights, it was still a lot for me because I was suffering from a chronic neck and shoulder pain (common work place hazard!) and was strictly advised against carrying any load for a long time. I didn’t say anything to him but he was kind enough to accommodate the warm (and hence heavy) stuff with himself and the porter. I went to bed with a lot of stress on my mind. The next day we were to start at 8am but I woke up quite late. I got ready quickly but we still couldn’t start before 8:45am. I cannot express in words how nervous I was that day. The trek starts by climbing a few steep steps from the Temple Road. With the rucksack on my back, I was heaving and puffing after climbing only a few steps. And just like it happens when you lack confidence, I felt that the porters and other trekkers were all laughing at me. I cursed myself for being so stupid as to undertake a trek like this and that too alone. I was putting each foot forward with such nervousness that all I wanted was someone to tell me to go back.
I reached the check post of the Gangotri National Park (about 2km away) with the burden of a rucksack and immense self doubt. As Deepak went into the office to submit a few papers, I just hung my head down and didn't even bother to look around. 

But as soon as I started from the check post, the entire valley opened up before me with the Bhagirathi flowing below the valley. It was nature at its best and it was at that very moment that all self doubt vanished. I told myself that I’d be happy even if I made it only until Chirbasa, such was the captivating beauty of the place. And this was only the beginning!

The Valley after crossing the Gangotri national parl checkpost

On the way to Chirbasa
On the way to Chirbasa

After walking for 5km more, I began to feel immense pain on my shoulders. I knew I could carry the rucksack no more. I told this to Deepak and he was very kind enough to carry my rucksack along with his. 
 One can start feeling the rising altitude as Chirbasa approaches. Chirbasa is at an altitude of 3600m. The vegetation becomes sparse and all one can see are the mighty Himalayas towering above almost as if they were watching over you. There are stretches which are completely over boulders and one has to be extremely careful in negotiating these boulders. No one wants a twisted ankle! What I found interesting here is that you simply cannot just marvel at the beauty of the mountain peaks and trek simultaneously. You need to pause and be stationary if you want to admire the beauty of the surrounding nature, otherwise, you could easily take a wrong step and well, you do not want to think about where that wrong step would lead you to! Being a novice trekker, I found the 9km trek fairly challenging. We reached Chirbasa at 1pm, a decent enough time. We were supposed to break for lunch here. Deepak sensed that I was tired and suggested that we camp here for the day but I insisted on going until Bhojbasa (5km away). Camping at Chirbasa would have meant trekking an extra 5km the next day and I wanted to avoid that.

Chirbasa to Bhojbasa
The boulder laden trail
We had a lunch of aloo parathas, chocolate and juice. This was very refreshing. We resumed our trek to Bhojbasa (3780m)at around 1:40pm.
Besides the fact that this trail too was boulder laden, there were a couple of rock fall zones too in this stretch. We surpassed large boulders, some as large as a sedan. We found fellow trekkers on the way already feeling the effects of altitude and again some trekkers feeling nothing at all and taking big strides to their destination.

  The rock – fall zones are areas where the wind speed is so great that it dislodges boulders hanging precariously on the mountain walls, thus causing them to roll down. Remember that while on the one side you have the mountain walls, the other side is a steep valley and if one such dislodged rock were to hit you, you’d have a 100ft fall at least. It takes immense agility and alertness to dodge these falling rocks and that’s when you’ll either thank yourself for having a good guide or curse yourself for not having one. This is also why it is necessary to start the trek early so that this region can be crossed by noon time. The weather in the Himalayas is very unpredictable post noon.

One has to cross a few streams on the way to Bhojbasa. There were asbestos planks laid across a couple of streams that have a relatively strong current. For the others, the rocks made it convenient to walk across them.
Catching my breath and soaking in the views
That pole was really not necessary
I walked in stark silence with the only sounds of my breath and my footsteps. This silence was occasionally broken by sounds which seem as though there were blasts going on somewhere far away. These are nothing but boulders dislodging themselves from the opposite side of the valley. Experiencing these sounds coupled with the sound of the Bhagirathi roaring across the valley is so divine that one is completely oblivious to the physical strain and exhaustion that one is going through. We crossed 2 such rock fall zones and finally arrived at our destination for the day, Bhojbasa at 4pm.

The Bhagirathi
The Bhagirathi group of peaks welcomed us at Bhojbasa. There were already a few trekkers there who had begun to feel the effects of altitude and some of them who were supposed to start for Tapovan that day had stayed back. But I didn’t want to think about the next day just now. Accommodation at Bhojbasa was very basic with a dormitory style tent to sleep in. The beds were clean and comfortable. However, after this hard day’s trek, you wouldn’t really mind tugging into any bed. There is a GMVN guest house also nearby but I opted for this one as it was quite cheap. 

One can hear the Bhagirathi flowing close by. It’s flow is so fast and furious that it almost seemed to me as if the Ganges from the plains had made an SOS to the Bhagirathi to cleanse her of the dirt of both body and mind being dumped into her every day. 

We had a steaming cup of coffee and then went to a nearby ashram (Baba Nirmal Das) where a man who sang bhajans lived. We listened to the bhajans for a while and as evening approached, we came back to our tent.

Bhagirathi Group of Peaks at night
I sat there on a bench and as night fell, I beheld a stunning view. It was a night with clear skies and with no electricity, the snow covered peaks of the Bhagirathi rose majestically against the backdrop of the night sky. Dinner was a modest khichdi and we retired to bed early. I was unable to sleep for the whole night partially due to the altitude probably and more so because of my nervousness for the next day. Although I knew that going until Gaumukh itself was an achievement, in my heart of hearts I knew that I’d be utterly disappointed if I couldn’t make it till Tapovan.
First glimpse of Shivling
I woke up the next morning with an upset stomach. It was the last thing that I had wanted. I only had a cup of tea with a few biscuits for breakfast. Deepak said that I must eat more as the trek ahead would be challenging and exhausting. But I decided to remain on fluids. It was a 5km trek up to Tapovan. We would be gaining almost 1000m today and this was quite something at this altitude. We started at around 7:45 am. For the first 2km or so, the trail was quite leveled. After walking for around 1.5hrs, the great Mt. Shivling made its appearance. Oh! What a wonderful sight it was! If the Kanchenjunga looks like the Sleeping Buddha, then the Shivling from that angle almost looks like the face of Lord Ganesha. What a grand mountain peak! And you wonder why sages since time immemorial have meditated in the Himalayas to achieve enlightenment. Gazing at the Shivling, it almost felt embarrassing that we fret and complain about things like commuting to office, performance, appraisals, home rents, inflation. Such things seemed so small at that moment that I was astonished that we actually waste precious time in thinking about these issues. 

In about 45min more time, we reached Gaumukh.  This is the source of the Ganges although, the source does not really look like a cow’s snout as the name suggests. This is because global warming has melted the glacier and it no longer has its original form.
The trail leading to Tapovan from Gaumukh!

The trail from Gaumukh to Tapovan cannot really be called a trail. Broken rocks, pebbles, boulders are spread over the whole area. This is the stretch where one is more likely to come across crevasses and moraines. Traversing that stretch is an experience in itself as I remember myself climbing up most of the time and at times, holding onto one rock for support to climb up. I was feeling extremely thirsty and the bottle of glucose that I had was finishing up fast. We broke at a point for lunch (above 1.5 – 2km before Tapovan). I was unable to really eat anything as I was feeling extremely thirsty and exhausted too. I had only 2 slices of bread, cucumber and a chocolate. We resumed. This last lap was undoubtedly the most exhausting as well as challenging of all. We were now only climbing up. And Deepak said that now we wouldn’t be able to take long rest breaks (My rest breaks were only for 5min). I, probably, paused after walking every 2minutes. But the pauses were not more than 30secs just enough to gather your breath. In many places, rocks came down rolling but thankfully, these weren’t large in size and we were able to dodge them. The trail is so slippery (being a typical scree zone) that it is advisable to not halt in this trail.
See the blue water body? That's where we had to climb up from!

That's the Akash Ganga from a distance
We, soon, reached the Akash Ganga flowing down with great force. When Deepak said that we would have to cross this, I thought that this is the end of my trek. I simply told him that I cannot do this. He reassured me saying that the flow today was quite mild. I didn’t want to even imagine how this is crossed when the flow would be strong in his words. But going back now would be equivalent to a crime! – A crime for which I’d never forgive myself. Deepak asked me to follow his footsteps. I looked neither up nor down and did just that, stepping on the very stones that he had stepped on. When I had crossed it and looked back I couldn’t believe that I had just done that. 
After crossing the Akash ganga

After crossing the Akash Ganga, I almost felt as if I was climbing a wall. My mouth and nostrils were full of dust. My hands were dirty with holding on to rocks for support. I felt grateful that I had invested in a good pair of hiking shoes rather than wearing my sneakers as usual. After what seemed like an eternity, Deepak suddenly told me to look up. 

A Dream Finally Comes True
The great Shivling stood right in front of me. It was simply a grand sight! And finally, I was on Tapovan top. 

I had made it! I simply didn’t know how to react. That dream that I had been weaving since almost 2 years had finally come true!
All I wanted to do after reaching Tapovan was to drink water and wash my hands and face clean. We had to walk on a fair bit of snow even at that time of the year. We went to Mauni baba’s ashram. He is thus called as he has taken a vow of silence since the last 7 years. He communicates via signs and although it was difficult to comprehend him when I met him, I soon was able to understand what he was trying to convey by his signs. We made good “conversation” for the 2 days that I was at Tapovan.
Mauni Baba is an excellent cook and it seems that he completely believes in the adage “Atithi Devo bhava”. The care and love with which he served us the food which he had cooked himself can be compared to only how a mother serves food to her family.

Neela tal
After lunch I went inside my tent and rested for a while. In the evening we explored the meadow for a while and had dinner right after sunset. It didn’t take me very long to fall asleep. It had been a hard day, after all!
We woke up early the next morning to view the sunrise on Mt. Shivling. The sun’s first rays fall on the tip of the Shivling and that’s when this peak truly resembles a shivling. After breakfast, we left for a short trek to Neela Tal (literally, Blue Lake). It’s a mountain lake which has crystal blue waters and the fortunate ones also get to see the reflection of the Shivling in its waters. Neela Tal is about 1.5 km from Tapovan. But at that altitude, it seemed

Climb to Neela tal
 endless. Again there was no trail really and we were walking on scree zones, loose rocks and this time the wind was blowing furiously. The sun simply scorches you at that altitude, yet, you cannot let go of your wind cheaters as the wind is very cold. I took it easy today. As I had the whole day to myself, I trekked to Neela Tal taking all my time. It took us about an hour to reach Neela Tal. The lake, although not too big, is very beautiful and stays true to its name of bearing a sky blue color. It was extremely cold near the lake and after spending about 15min there we traced our way back to our camp. I rested for a while after lunch.
Shivling towards sunset

In the evening today, we were granted the beautiful night view of Mt. Shivling. In the night sky, the Shivling looked even closer to the naked eye. It was much colder on the second night than the first. We had an early dinner and I went off to sleep early. It was difficult to sleep though as it was very cold.
The next morning, we explored the area a bit more and soon it was time for us to leave this sacred place. We started our descent at around 12:30pm. Not a good time to start but I wanted to postpone the descent for as long as possible. The descent was horrible. I couldn’t grab a steady foothold on that steep slope that was nothing but loose soil and small rocks. I had Deepak leading me and the porter covering me from the back. I am glad they had this arrangement as I was saved twice by the porter from falling backwards.
After climbing down that surface, we had to cross the Akash Ganga again. This time its force was much higher than while coming here. Crossing it was the most terrifying part of the whole trek.

I kept climbing down and in some time reached Bhojbasa. Just as I reached, the weather turned itself and it started raining. I was saved from the rain, thankfully.

 Sitting at Bhojbasa, the feeling of actually coming back from Tapovan had still not sunk in. But I felt as if I could conquer the world at that moment!

The next day, we trekked back to Gangotri. I checked into the guest house and refreshed myself with a hot bath,  It was only after I called up my family and close friends and listening to their reactions, I realized that this was some achievement.
All through my journey back to Mumbai, all I could think of was Tapovan. 
It is very difficult to explain the feeling of achieving something you have set your heart on for a long time. Amongst the many other things, it reinstates your Faith in your own Self and in Life.
All I knew is that I had gone there empty handed and I had returned with a lap full of presents, presents that were for a lifetime!

Things to know before you plan:
  1. Number of days needed is10
  2. Total trekking days is 5
  3. Maximum altitude reached is 4463m
  4. Best time to visit is May-June and End August to Diwali (End October) 
  5. Take a shared jeep from Dehradun to Uttarkashi and then a shared jeep from Uttarkashi to Gangotri. 

For a detailed itinerary and package inquiries, please visit Gaumukh Tapovan Trek


  1. You have written in a lucid compelling style - the precise reason why I read this again and forced myself to read slow. Felt as if am trekking alongwith. Going to read your other blog posts, too. Keep visiting and keep writing Paromita. Nitin Gaonkar

  2. Great blog, picture perfect with your experiences. I was there last Month with couple of my friends. I could relive my experinces and memories while reading.

  3. Great blog, picture perfect with your experiences. I was there last Month with couple of my friends. I could relive my experinces and memories while reading.

  4. I have visited gangotri/ gomukh twice tapovan once 1999, excellent description with photos

  5. What a marvelous write up! Really wanna go there. 😍😍😍

  6. What a marvelous write up! Really wanna go there. 😍😍😍