I'm sitting in the airport in Delhi and typing my last note from India (at least the last Note of this season in India). It is almost +45C outside, but the airport is air-conditioned and despite the fact that my plane leaves only in 12 hours I prefer the cool air of the airport. It was also very hot in Rishikesh, where I once again spent a few days before coming to Delhi to fly away from India. Just a couple of nights ago I woke up in the middle of the night in Rishikesh and wrote the following in my little notepad.
"I'm leaving India! Yes, I am leaving India in just 2 days and I cannot believe it is happening. It was a trip to a different universe, trip full of discoveries in both my external and internal worlds. It was a trip into an orthogonal dimension, along a new axis of life, of experience, and from this new dimension I started to see a different view, a new projection of my usual plane of existence. I touched the other side of the world and that other side of the world touched that side of me that has always resisted the touch, that was hidden deep inside and was afraid or too weak and immature to come out, to accept the touch. The feelings of accepting things as they are, of becoming one with life, with the universe have grown stronger and stronger and the false, protective shell has become thinner. I feel like I got a few steps closer to the meaning of 'I am'. I am ready to believe that I am an immortal, eternal soul with the body and mind which can feel pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, happiness and struggle, which can fully experience this life and act to fulfill its purpose of self-realization, of final understanding, final experience of who 'I am'."
These were the words that came to me in the hot Rishikesh night. These are just words, the mental images and understandings, not yet the true experiences. Imagine trying to understand the taste of mango without ever trying it. Just from the words of others and from books. You may get some idea and think that you know, you may even study some chemical formula related to the taste of mango, but until you really experience the taste, you will not Know. This is a trivial example of how reliance on purely mental capacity and analytical thinking may trick us into thinking that we know things about which in reality we only have been able to make mental speculations and never truly experience them.
But, enough of that verbose nonsense! Better let me tell you how I spent the past couple of weeks in the Garhwal region of Indian Himalayas.
On May 14th the course of lectures I was attending in Ved Niketan Ashram came to an end and I realized that I have about two weeks left in India. I really wanted to go higher up into the mountains. Rishikesh has became incredibly hot and overpopulated with Indian tourists and pilgrims. A few options were available and after talking to a few people I chose what I believe was the best one. Early morning of May 15th I started a 12-hour bus journey to Gangotri, a holy village high in the mountains just a few kilometers away from the true source of Ganga river - the place where the Ganga comes out of the glacier. Situated at an altitude of 3000 meters, Gangotri is one of the four major holpilgrimagege places in Hinduism (collectively called Char Dham) situated at the beginnings of four major rivers in India. The other 3 places are called Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. pilgrimagege to all four is considered amHindiindi people as important as visits to Mecca Muslimslims or Jerusalem Christiansians Jewsjews. Each of the Char Dham places has a temple which opens according to some rules set up by priests and astrologists. This year the temple opened around May 11th-12th. Once the temples open, hundreds and even thousands of people start moving towards these places. Mostly people travel by local buses, but also by heavily shared jeeps, by taxis, and, the most determined, by foot. One of the major starting points for Char Dhapilgrimagege is Rishikesh. Gangotri is about 250 kilometers from Rishikesh and the other places are at a similar distance. Located high in Himalayas, they cannot be connected to each other by roads, so after visiting one of the places, people have to track back almost all the way to Rishikesh if they want to get on a road leading to the next place. While 250 kilometers may seem like nothing to you, the average speed on the mountain roads in the Himalayas is about 20km/h, so a bus ride from Rishikesh to Gangotri is a 12 hour bus ride on very narrow seats of an overcrowded bus, which also acts as a local transportation for the villagers along the road, stopping quite often to let the locals with sacks and barrels to get on and off. Quite tiring journey, but the people are driven by faith and determination to do thpilgrimagege and no inconvenience will stop them.
Nothing could stop me either in my determination to finally get to the higher Himalayas and escape the heat of Rishikesh. So, 12 hours later I crawled out of the bus, climbed to its roof to pick up my backpack and realized that moving too quickly with a backpack is not working well for my systemGangotriry is just above 3000meters in altitude - the limiaboveve which unadapted human body usually begins to feel the effects of the more rare air of the higher altitude. Nevertheless, I briskly (or so it seemed to me) walked away from the bus station through the crowds of porters and guides offering their services anaccommodationsns in local guest houses. I always prefer to first look at the place myself and then decide if I need any assistance. It was early evening and it was indeed a time to find a place to sleep. Rejecting all the room touts on the street, intuition or fate or just my feet led macrossss the bridge over fast running Ganga river into a small alley. grayey haired man in orange robe of a sadhu stepped out from one of the doors. "Please, come in", he said. I felt right about the place and stepped into a courtyard of a very nice ashram - Krishna Ashram. In the courtyard I immediately identified the place as a hang-out of westertravelersrs and trekkers like me. The conversations started quickly and introductions and the usual follow-up questions went through with ease. I was put in a very basic room with Britishsh guy Jack and he decided he will start the trek up to the source of Ganga and higher into the mountains with me tomorrow. Then the puja in thashram's's temple started. ("Puja" can be loosely translated as a "service" in a western church). The Swamiji leading the puja was the chief of the ashram and made a good impression on me when I came in to get a room, so I decided to join the puja ceremony. There was a bit of everything - chanting, ringing bells, burning somincensets, receiving and drinking drops of Ganga water (it is safe to drink it up there), going in the rounds singing "Hari Krishna, Hari Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hari Hari" and so on. A lot of people both western and local joined in and it was obvious that the Swamiji is a respected man in the local community. After the puja ceremony all the ashram inhabitants sat on thin mats on the ground and a couple of ashram workers distributed the food. Pretty basic - some rice, cooked vegetables, dal (type of cooked beans) and chapaties (bread). While limited in variety, the food was plentiful, as the workers were going around adding to everyone's plates more and more until people had enough. Sitting outside was quite chilly even in a fleece jacket - nights at the higher altitude are cold. Everyone washed their own dishes and after some conversations a few people including myself decided to head up higher tomorrow morning towards Gamukh (also known as "cow's mouth") which is the lip of the Bhagirathi glacier from which the Ganga river emerges with an intention to then trek higher up onto the Tappovaplateaueu from which magnificent views of Shivling, Meru and Bhagirathi peaks can be seen. Six of us started the trip early in the morning but just an hour later it became clear that everyone has a different pace and an hour later it was just me and Jenny - a beautiful California girl, who became my perfect trekkincompanionon for the next 4 days. The trek to Gamukh steadily gains about 1 kilometer in elevation over 16 kilometers of walking. The trek is well maintained since this is a trek that manIndianan tourists dregardlessss of their physical abilities. Those who cannot carry their stuff hire guides and porters. Those who do not want to, or not capable of walking that distance ride the mules. It was still the very beginning of the season and a bit too cold foIndianan people so there were not too many pilgrims on the trek. There are many chay stalls along the trek and it is always pleasant to stop for a little rest and a cup of heavily sugared chay, which gave both instant warmth and energy. The weather was changing rapidly and soon, from sunny and warm it turned into cloudy and then a heavy snowfall started. That did not stop the pilgrims walking in flip-flops or even barefoot with barely a blanket wrapped around them for warmth. We also proceeded through the snowstorm and by early afternoon reached a small village of Bhojbasa (just 4 kilometers before Gamukh) - the last place for a sleep and food under a roof. So we stopped to spend the night in the local ashram. On a large lawn before the ashram an organized trek was setting up their tents. It was a group from Germany of mostly people in their 50s to 70s. For a 12 trekkers they had about 20 porters, couple of guides, cooks and other support personal. Still, I bow my head to the people who in their 70s are eager to see the wonders of the world and ready to walk for hours under snowfall at the altitude of almost 4000 meters, sleep in the tents and endure all the "niceties" of a camp life. Most porters in this area are Nepalese, and it is amazing how much and how quickly these guys can carry. They start very young - I met some boys who were barely 13 years old,but even they were carrying uncomfortable ugly boxes of 25 kilos each.
By the evening the skies cleared and we were granted magnificent views of the Bhagirathi massive closing the end of the valley we were trekking in. The evening has been spent in taking pictures, waiting for the arrival of our remaining friends (they finally arrived around 7pm in the evening, almost 5 hours after us, just in time for dinner), eating simple ashram food and settling for a sleep on a floor of a large room with 15 more people. The floor was lined with thick blankets and there were more blankets for covering up, but I was happy I had my sleeping bag with me.
Early morning Jenny and I headed towards Gamukh without waiting for others. They decided to spend an extra night to recover from the trek and acclimatize more. Bathing in the Ganga is considered a very holy purifying action in Hinduism. Bathing in the Ganga at Gamukh, where the water comes right from under the glacier and has a temperature of at most 2C is the holiest and the most purifying and energizing activity. We got lucky - the weather was sunny with no wind and so we went for it. The bathing in the Ganga should be complete, i.e. one should submerge into the water completely, including the head. The experience was super-invigorating, and gave a feeling of extreme energy. Besides us, a few of the German trekkers also went into the fast flowing water of the Ganga barely 10 meters away from the icy mouth of the glacier. Next destination - Tappovan. A large meadow just below the immense Shivling peak is about 400 meters higher than Gamukh. We crossed the glacier and followed some loose cairns and some small groups of porters and guides and finally reached the last steep climb up to the Tappovan. One more hour and we are on the Tappovan. There is no official "housing" on the tappovan so one has to bring a tent or live with "Baba"s in one of the cave/stone-house structures. We did not have a tent and so relied on being housed in one of the baba's caves. The word "Baba" can be used in India towards any kind of monk. In an ordinary life "baba" translates simply as father, so it is the same in the Christian world, where a priest is ofter referred to as Father. The origin of the reason for addressing the priests as Father (or Mother / "mata" in Hinduism) has been explained to us in the lectures at Ved Niketan. Apparently, addressing a spiritual person as a Father removes any kind of sexual context from the conversation. So, to the Babas we go. I was warned that while they usually provide some food for the travelers stopping by, it is nice to bring some, so I bought some rice, dal, flour and biscuits and brought the whole lot to the "cave". The cave is actually more of a one-story building with a door, couple of windows and three rooms one of which is used as a kitchen, one is really more of a cave as the back side of a building is made around an overhanging rock and the front room is just a basic room with some blankets and mats on the floor. The windows and doors do not have any kinds of windows or doors installed, they are just holes in the stone structure. The two babas living in the "cave" were very happy when we arrived and became extremely happy when I unloaded rice, dal and flour. Apparently their food supplies were extremely low. Soon too Indian people appeared led by a Nepali guide Uttam. (Later I will hire Uttam for a different trek from Gangotri). Of the two babas, one was very sick with some stomach problem. He was originally from Nepal and has been staying here for 13 years. The other only stayed here for 3 years. Uttam took over cooking and we were lucky to eat some rice and dal that evening as well as drink a bit of chai with biscuits. That was the whole food for the day, but I was incredibly happy with the views of the famous mountains right around and practically right above me. I could see the line of the climb on the Meru Central that brought Valery Babanov one of the most prestigious awards in mountaineering - Piolet d'Or, for his solo ascent of the peak. Nearby I could see another of his (Babanov's) recent achievements - a line he put on the wall of the Baghirathi with the Italian Simone Moro. But it was the Shivling peak that dominated the view on the Tappovan and I was taking countless photos with different exposures, zoom levels, clouds, no clouds, etc... Once we arrived to the Tappovan, Jenni's head started to hurt badly, showing the effects of the altitude. Some Tylenol and lots of fluids took care of the major problem. I felt pretty good until the night. I decided to spend the night under the stars, outside of the building. I set up a mat and a sleeping bag and went to sleep. Soon I woke up with a heavy headache. I discovered that I set up my sleeping place right next to a slightly leaking kerosene canister and the smell of kerosene must have been the last drop that in addition with the altitude brought the headache to me. Still, the stars and the sky were magnificent. I could see Milky Way absolutely clearly, billions of stars lining up the sky and a dark silvery silhouette of Shivling closing a portion of the star parade.
I went in, took some pills and slept the rest of the night inside.
There was no breakfast but some chai in the morning, and I went on taking some more photos in a different light and also concentrating on the photos of reflections of the mountains in the nearby semi-frozen pools, little lakes and streams. The whole place felt so full of energy that I decided to do some meditation and some "Om Nama Shivaya" mantra-chanting in front of the Shivling. That felt great. A ten minute walk from our cave was a base camp of a Swiss expedition that was attempting to climb and then ski down one of the nearby peaks - Kedar Dome. Jenni and I made some good friend with Vinnay - Indian liaison officer for the expedition and Shankar - head of the supporting organization. They invited us to the Swiss camp for some more tea and we met some of the expedition members. But I had ambitious plans to get "higher up" and so I decided to climb to a little col on the ridge leading up to Shivling. I managed to climb to the col and gain the ridge when the weather rapidly started turning bad. I quickly took some photos of Meru glacier and Meru peak disappearing into the rushing clouds and practically run down from the 4900 meters which was the highest point I could get to.
A few hundred meter lower Jenni was treated to an excellent coffee and swiss chocolate in the dining tent of the Swiss expedition. Snowfall started and I joined the crowd. The rest of the afternoon we went through an unlimited coffee, some swiss biscuits, bits of chocolate and a lot of mountaineering and life stories and jokes. When we finally got to the babas, we were told that we missed the "dinner" and so were given some cold rice and water. Nevertheless, I was really excited to be up there. More people came up while we were away and the "cave" was pretty full. I found a place to sleep next to the door and throughout the night I was occasionally woken up by some field mice running in and out of the cave right in front of my face. The next morning babas talked a bit too much about people not paying enough for their stay in their cave and that created a feeling of some negative energy of the place, so after paying a short visit to the Swiss camp we said good buy to babas, payed them some money and left for Gangotri. 18 kilometers later we were back at the Krishna Ashram, but before the dinner was served at the ashram I went through at least a couple more dinners at the local street restaurants. The weather was unstable and almost every afternoon it was now snowing up high and raining in Gangotri. I said good bye to Jenni who was rushing to make it on time for her Buddhist meditation and philosophy course in Dharamsala, and started looking for a tent to hire for a trek to another peak famous in Himalayan mountaineering - Thalay Sagar (6905 m). Almost 7000m high, Thalay Sagar is one of the most technical climbing peaks in Himalayas and ascent of it by practically any route is considered a great achievement. I badly wanted to see that famous mountain access to which was just within 15 kilometers from Gangotri steep up a narrow valley. As there are no facilities to stay in near the base of Thalay Sagar, I had to find a tent, a stove, some food and a guide. As I found out after some legwork, there are only 2 tents in Gangotri. I managed to get a hold of one of them - a 2-season, really old Coleman tent with a decent top fly and the inner tent made entirely of mosquito netting. Very appropriate for high altitude snow camping. I met Uttam, who I knew from his appearance at the baba's cave and offered him a job if he can find a stove and organize food. He indeed found an ancient kerosene stove, we bought kerosene, spicy ramen noodles and some odds and ends for food and next morning headed up the beautiful narrow gorge towards Keder Tal - a glacier lake at the base of Thalay Sagar. It is amazing how going in a slightly different direction from Gangotri, nature looked so different. If on the way to Tappovan it was plain and barren, the path to Thalay Sagar was lined with thick birch trees, some late blooming rhododendron bushes, and much more greenery. There were no people on this trek and most expeditions to Thalay Sagar happen either in March or in October. Being acclimatized I was able to keep up with Uttam and our loads were almost equal, with his being much more uncomfortable as he packed a corner of his stove towards his spine in the backpack and was carrying kerosene canister in his hands. By 2pm we reached our campsite at about 4300m and quickly cooked some food before the weather turned onto us. Squalls of snow and wind were shaking the little tent and the night was cold. The morning though presented a totally different picture. Thalay Sagar and back side of Meru peak were lighted up beautifully and we rushed to get closer to the peaks to take a closer look and some more pictures. There was a lot of snow on the ground and the path was not obvious even to Uttam who has been to the place before with some expeditions. We scrambled over multiple ridges of moraines until after the final ridge we were able to see the whole face of the mountain. I was totally mesmerized with the view and was constantly swapping camera for binoculars, binoculars for video camera and so on. In binoculars I could even recognize the climbing lines, chimneys and crack systems that I saw in the Alpinist magazine that had one of the issues dedicated to Thalay Sagar ascents. That was super-inspiring and all the lines looked super-hard. A few hours later we headed back and spent a pleasant afternoon in a camp. The weather became stable and the night was warm. A few hours in the morning took us back to Gangotri and an hour later I decided to leave Gangotri. Just 2 hours down the road in a village of Gangnani one can enjoy the warmth of the natural hot springs, which I did for almost two days, meeting some wonderful people and exploring nearby villages at the same time.
Ten hours of rough bus ride and I am back in Rishikesh. This place really became my home - that was exactly the feeling I had when I stepped onto the streets of Rishikesh. Familiar faces, familiar places... Rodrigo, my Spanish friend did not leave and I was very happy to see him. The Swamiji at Ved Niketan was happy when I produced a little bottle of Ganga water from the source that I collected for him up in Gangotri. I was really, really happy to be back in Rishikesh. The few days before leaving for Delhi went fast. I went to swim in the Ganga every day and every day I felt the power of his place making little changes, little adjustments in my life, in my fate in my soul. I am still the same, and yet, I'm very very different. It's hard to explain, but that is the experience of many people who come to Rishikesh (or to India in general) for long enough time and are prepared, are ready to accept the changes. I know I will be back to Rishikesh and I believe I will be back to India soon. But, I'm not making plans. I just believe that this is what will happen.
As for now, I'm sitting in Delhi airport and my plane leaves in 8 hours. I'm not going to reread what I wrote above. Let it be as it is, unedited and un-spell-checked.
I'm going to Moscow now, to see my friends, to see myself at my old home. To be home for a bit before going to other homes - homes of my friends in NY and Boston and then, then going to Peru to climb the mountains which are no less beautiful than many Himalayan mountains, to see another culture, to see myself in the new world and hopefully once again gain another dimension, another projection of my life, to gain a closer look at who I am.