An Indian Odyssey
Gaumukh – Tapovan: May 16 – 21
Mount Shivling and Ganga under a setting moon at 4.45 am.
We set off at seven the next morning. The sky was perfectly clear and the wind almost non-existant, a light breath across the land every so often. To my relief Hikmasin, my guide, kept a moderate pace and I was on his heels with ease. But these first five kilometres back past Gaumukh were easy. The real test would come after.
Gaumukh Glacier and Bhagarathi Peaks.
Bhagarathi Peaks and the top of Gaumukh Glacier.
Mt Shivling, Gaumukh Glacier and Ganga emerging from the base.
We reached Gaumukh quickly, gave it an almost cursory glance (been there done that – but truly I was still enthralled) and began the ascent along the glacial ridgeline. It was narrow and treacherous, with innumerable landslides eating away at the already thin ridge. I stuck close to Hikmasin, tracing his exact footsteps as closely as possible, hoping we had the same size feet! Patches that looked like earth were in fact solid ice with a thin coating of grit and dirt. I tried not to think about our precarious position as I watched numerous rocks dislodge and tumble 800 feet to the valley floor.
Hikers ascending the landslide-riddled ridge at the edge of the glacial face.
3 – 400 metres up on the roof of the Glacier we were welcomed by a panorama of rock, ice and dirt. Looking upstream (if you can call it that) resembled a dirty, stormy, frozen sea as wave upon wave of churned ice and rock crested and fell, crested and fell but without any pattern or rhythm. Just a mass of churning matter, frozen in time. Yet alive, yes alive. And moving. Ever so slowly moving. Tearing, grinding and carrying the earth tens of kilometres, then dumping it at the glacier’s end, an offering to who knows what. The glacier stretched far back, back to Bhagarathi, those wonderful peaks, and then curved around its face into the distance.
My Guide, Hikmasin, atop the glacier.
Hikmasin on top of one of the glacial ‘waves’. Bhagarathi peaks are behind.
Our next couple of kilometres was draining – moving forward over an endless sea or rock, up and down as we passed through the mini valleys between the glacial waves. Cairns (small rocks stacked atop one another) were placed regularly to guide hikers, but in a sea of grey, black and white stone, they were often like apparitions, appearing for brief moments in one’s sight before dissolving back into nature.
Young porters carrying camping gear for hiking parties.
Mt Shivling, the roof of the glacier and the waterfall on the RHS
The trek up was going very well. It was maybe 10 am and I was standing in the middle of a glacier on a bright sunny, clam day. My breathing was good, my guide was good and my footing was good. And the scene was beyond clichéd breathtaking. It was phenomenal and deeply profound. Here I was halfway across the world in a foreign land, atop perhaps the world’s holiest river under my own steam. Any doubts about my abilities had fallen clean off and were replaced by the rare and wondrous clarity accompanied by a real sense of purpose and achievement, and a desire to encourage ordinary people to undertake the trek. We are bred in such fear-obsessed societies in the West but the various ill-prepared pilgrims had shown me what ordinary folk are capable of.
Mt Shivling and the waterfall.
We reached the far side of the glacier and began the 1 km climb up alongside the waterfall. About halfway up the path crossed the tumbling river, offering a great opportunity to partake in Ganga’s waters. This would be my first oral consumption of Ganga. I held the bottle up to the light, watching the sediment particles calmly perform their acrobatic feats, waited for them to tire, lifted the bottle towards my lips and poured from inches above. The water cascaded forth, arcing through the air before catching my upper teeth and running back over the roof of my mouth and finally down my throat. Cold, sharp and hugely refreshing.
As we approached the top Mt Shivling reared thrust its head and upper torso into the sky directly above the crest of the waterfall. It was as if the waters descended directly from mountainside to waterfall. They were one and the same, if only in a different form – this water cascading here beside me was that ice and snow clinging to Shivling’s torso.
As my head came level with the crest and my eyes rose above, Tapovan laid herself out before me, a flat, light brown, grassy meadow. Hikmasin was stretched out on the meadow, reclining on my bag of clothes and looking back whence we came. He gestured for me to join him and struck up a cigarette (about his third for the climb), offering it to me. I declined, on two grounds: death from lack of oxygen was already close at hand; and the panorama before me was spectacular.
We were looking back down over Gaumukh Glacier. All the frozen standing waves looked much smaller from this perspective, just as the glacial face had looked deceptively small from a kilometre away but then rose up 3 – 400 metres, towering above you when face to face. But from this vantage point we could see the glacier stretching silently several kilometres from Gaumukh in the north down south towards Bhagirathi peaks, then swinging gently away to the South-East whereupon it disappeared out of sight behind Bhagirathi.
A glacial lake on the roof of Gaumukh Glacier.
Back behind us, running several hundred metres towards the base of Mt Shivling and then curving away at the last moment across the face and out of sight, was Tapovan. Although I couldn’t see it from here it ran several more kilometres along the base of Mt Shivling. It was somewhere up along there that Ganga truly began.
Ciggy break over, we turned and walked the last kilometre across the meadow, following the winding stream that was the mighty Ganga. She was now only about 10’ wide – a peaceful mountain stream. Soon we arrived at the tiny stone ashram.
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The door was open and a young man stood in the doorway facing inwards. He was wearing a blue tracksuit and bulky headphones. Hikmasin embraced him and spoke in familiar tones like an old friend. The young man responded in mime. This, it seemed, was the speechless holy man, Baba Ji. It was a spectacularly unexpected sight. The only bits that could possibly have made me guess this was Baba was his mass of beautiful dreads and his supremely calm and relaxed countenance. To my great surprise I was informed that Baba Ji was only 24 y.o. and had been up on Tapovan all year round for 4 years, during which time he had taken a vow of silence.
A young French girl was here too, also not speaking (but with an air that was more arrogant and superior than calm and relaxed). It was Marcel Marceau territory up here and was very peaceful. Baba spread out some canvas and blankets on the dirt terrace, brought out some chai, and we all lazed about under the sun and clear blue sky in relative silence, staring at nothing and everything. The meadow lay below us and Shivling towered above. Hikmasin would offer the occasional few words, as would I, and Baba would begin his mime response. And the French girl, she simply rotated her prostrate body every few minutes and remained silent. This activity was to be a significant part of my life for the next four days at the top end of the world. Not much happens out here but everything happens.
Baba Ji in the sitting/dining area of his house – he only had this one room in which to cook, eat, sleep and pray.
Some of the fresh vegetables carried up to Tapovan from time to time by porters.
But the most impressive arrival was the tiny Japanese girl (Michiko) who, with only a day pack and wearing a pair of gripless Crocs, scaled the glacial heights to Tapovan without a guide. She was without pride and simply explained that it was a sort-of Japanese tradition (I assume to go journeying solo with minimal gear – not sure if the Crocs were an essential part of the gear list). She reminded me of some of the Japanese who come to Australia and venture across desert tracks from one side of the country to the other on motorbike…and occasionally don’t live to tell the tale. She intended to return the following day. But out of genuine concern I put the fear of G into her that night after a heavy snowfall, explaining that, although she would make the waterfall descent in record time due to the snow and her gripless crocs, she would be very likely to be seriously injured or dead on arrival at the base. Fortunately for her, and me, she heeded the warning and stayed another day. I liked her company. She was strong-willed and adventurous yet soft and unassuming. Like me, she simply liked walking in the mountains rather than living a city existence.
On my third day I dropped down onto the meadow and followed Ganga slowly upstream along the flank of Mt Shivling. She was 6’ wide at this point and, with only the slightest gradient to speak of. She flowed calmly, twisting this way and that through short clumps of brown dormant grasses which were waiting to shoot forth for another season. A few tiny purple wildflowers had erupted across the meadow, butterflies flitted and a solitary bumblebee hovered around me for some time.
Looking down onto Ganga and Tapovan (passed a prayer flag and Shiva’s pitchfork) from a nearby ridge.
And for G’s sake, you wouldn’t believe it, there are effing pigeons up here – at 4500 bloody metres! I didn’t travel all this way to document flying rats!
Mountain Goaty and Mt Bhagarathi.
I walked to the top end of the meadow where Ganga had decreased to about 3 foot wide and I then continued up the narrow rock-filled valley.
Ganga from the top end of Tapovan meadow.
Ganga and Bhagrathi Peaks.
Ganga and remnant snow in front of the Bhagarahti peaks.
About two-thirds of the way up the valley, this monumental river which feeds billions was now only 1 foot wide. Three branches came together at this point, heading down the valley. I followed one which came to a dead end only feet away, stopping abruptly an in earthly cul-de-sac. Looking down, I could see her pulsing up rhythmically. I followed the 2nd minor tributary – it continued up only a few more feet past the first and then disappeared under a huge boulder. I followed it’s general trajectory a short way and could hear her echoey call as see traveled underground through the rocks. And then nothing – the earth had closed over her completely. I looked up along the suspected trajectory to a shallow snow-covered depression on Shivling’s flank.
Ganga beginning from an eartly cul-de-sac (bottom left) and emerging from under boulders (upper left).
Mt Shivling and the snow-covered flank from which Ganga emerges.
The third and most significant branch continued up the remainder of the valley to a shallow marsh in a depression at the head of the valley. A small handful of streams ran into this lake, all coming from patches of snow on Shivling’s lower flank – the same flank from which the other tributaries seemed to originate. I boulder hopped up the flank until I found a large flat-topped boulder. I climbed aboard and sat on the source, taking in the scene around me and recognising the great privilege that it was to be sitting here, so completely insignificant under Mount Shivling, surrounded by magnificent, awe-inspiring Himalayan peaks and with a holy river at my feet. There was nothing happening, yet everything happening: mountains rising, rocks crushed, billions being fed, economies created and religions preached because of Ganga. It was a truly awesome, sublime and humbling experience of silence and insignificance. And while Ganga’s journey started here, it was the end of my road. It was time to fill the bladder of a long-ago-drunk Yalumba Shiraz Chateau de Cask and drink the shiraz infused Ganga water!
The shallow marsh at the top of the valley.
Streams of Ganga running into the marsh from Mt Shivling’s snow-covered flank.
A dry section of the shallow marsh.
Sitting on the source on Shivling’s flank and looking back down the valley into which Ganga flows.
A mist-enshrouded Ganga.
Mt Shivling, Tapovan meadow and Ganga after a snowstorm.
The peak of Mt Shivling.
A frozen pond.
Amazing lichen, moss and flora, below.
The Bhagarathi Peaks and Ganga at 4.50 am.