MB & J

May 10, 2007

Rajasthan and Himalayan Adventures

The most recent escapades of mbandj include camels, elephants, mules, buses, planes, trains, cars, forts, mountains, deserts and good friends. We did a tour of Rajasthan with Allison McGuire and Justin Griffiths. Rajasthan, the largest state of India in terms of area, is home to the Great Indian Desert, the Thar Desert. Pakistan is its border to the west. Rajasthan holds some of the most unique and historical cities in India. After a week in Rajasthan, Griffiths and I left MB and Allison in Delhi to go to the small mountainous state of Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand (also called Uttaranchal) is known for its picturesque Himalayan mountains and the holy Ganga river. It is bordered to the north by China (formerly Tibet) and to the east by Nepal.


We started the trip by meeting Justin and Allison in Delhi on Saturday April 14. That first day we went out in an autorickshaw and saw the India Gate and the government buildings. Since our train left early the next morning we decided to stay in the hotel and drink beer in our room. The next morning we were on our way to the train station before the sun was even up. After having been on the train for about an hour, I looked out the window at a station to see a large digital clock that read 7:06 AM. In Agra, we visited the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. From there we drove to Jaipur, which is about 5 hours away. The town of Jaipur is pretty interesting, it seems that most of it is single or two story buildings lining the streets on either side. Jaipur is known as the pink city and all the buildings have a pinkish hue. I found the guided portion of the city rather uneventful, we went to some old school astrology park and a fabric museum. The only redeeming quality from these was that we met Jude Law. We went up to speak to him and take pictures, but he quickly said that he was on holiday and didn't want to be bothered. We gave him our phone number in case he wanted to grab a beer with us later, but the jerk never called. He was with a cute girl, that MB and Allison didn't recognize and they were both familiar with his love life. That afternoon we went a little outside of town to a fort and got to ride elephants up the long footpath into the fort. That night we took an overnight train from Jaiper to Jaisalmer. Overnight trains are great. They are comfortable and quiet, and you have the ability to walk around to stretch your legs. It turned what would have been a few really intensely long drives into us going to sleep shortly after boarding the train and waking up in a new town.

I thought Jaisalmer and Karauli were the highlight of our week long adventure. Jaisalmer contains a large fort on a hill, but the interesting part is that the fort is what is known as a "living fort". There are many businesses, hotels and people living inside the walls of this ancient complex. From Jaisalmer, we took a car to Karauli, which is a village about an hour away and deep in the Thar Desert. Here we met up with our camels and guides for the next 24 hours. We were originally supposed to stay in mud huts inside the village, but were quickly lured by our guides to pay a little extra for an overnight stay in the desert. This was an easy decision since this was our original wish. Within a few short minutes we were galloping on camels into the desert to reach a certain very high sand dune to watch the sunset. From there, laying in the Thar Desert next to three camels with one of our guides playing an Indian hand drum, we watched a beautiful yellow sun sink into an abyss of yellow sand. After the sun had set, we rode for another hour to our campsite, where a tractor had brought cots for us to sleep on out under the stars. Our guides prepared a fire and we laid out under a magnificent blanket of stars drinking desert wine until we could no longer keep our eyes open. We woke up with the sun, as you do in the desert, and headed to the village. Many of the small villages in India are like stepping back in time, this one was no different. With the exception of occasional shops catering to foreign tourists, the people don't have most of the comforts that much of the rest of the world has grown so attached. While riding camels is fun and an incredible experience, there's only so long that you can sit on one, I was happy to be getting off of mine. From Karauli, we took a 6 hour car ride to Jodhpur. Jodhpur was a pleasant surprise. We stayed in a really beautiful hotel that appeared to have once been royal horses stables. The rooms were very nicely done and the campus was immaculate. There were dozens of peacocks roaming around. Jodhpur is known as the blue city because many people used to paint there homes blue in order to keep them cool during the hot summer months. Now with air conditioning, people still paint their homes blue because it really gives the city an interesting character. The fort in Jodhpur is well preserved, better organized and cleaner than any other national monument (except the Taj Mahal maybe) that I've been to since living in India. So after the obligatory souvenir shopping, which we did in every city and frankly really gets old, we were off to take our final overnight train back to Delhi. We met a couple of Americans on our train ride who had recently been living in Antarctica. They are now travelling around Asia on their way back to the US. It's really interesting learning about the different paths that are available for everyone to take. I feel really lucky to have been given so many opportunities and to know that there are so many other choices accessible to us.


Griffiths leaned over and said to me with a grin "You know, this is pretty extreme". As I'm looking down out the window I notice that the ground is not visible directly below the bus, just a sheer rock drop of about 1000 vertical feet. The comment had a deeper meaning though, we were about 9 hours into a 12 hour bus ride in the Indian Garhwal Himalayas on our way to Joshimath, a small village, but the largest and most accessible high up in the mountains. Through the last day and a half since we left Delhi, we had come into contact with very few English speaking Indians as well as no foreign tourists. Our hotel accommodations in Haridwar, to put it kindly, was anything but luxurious. But we found adventure, and were glad to be off the beaten tourist path.
The office of Grand Adventures is on the 4th and top floor of the Nanda Devi Hotel. The hotel, named after the 7,816 meter mountain that loomed over the town as well as the many high peaks within sight, was basic but suited our needs of a place to sleep before hitting the trail. We met Mohan, one of the two brothers who run Grand Adventures and with whom we had booked our 3 day Kuari Pass trek. His appearance is very different than that of the people of south India. Being so close to China and Nepal, he looks more like what I traditionally think of as Asian rather than Indian. At this point, I'm giddy with excitement, it's so nice to be off the bus, and finally basking in the shadows of these majestic mountains. Mohan, Griffiths and I have a conversation about what to expect on our trek and what time to be ready the next morning.

The Trek

Our route over the next 3 days was to begin in Auli, a winter ski resort higher up on the same mountain as Joshimath through a series of switchbacks that takes about 45 minutes by jeep. From there we hike through Gorson Pass and camp in a flat spot at the base of Gorson Top at an elevation of 3100 meters. On Tuesday, we traverse Gorson Top to a small snow melt lake and then summit Kulara Top which is about 3500 meters. We continue on to reach Kuari Pass at 4200 meters, then backtrack to the campsite in a field below Kulara Top. Wednesday is all downhill through rocky snow melt created trails, dense forest and a couple of small inaccessible-by-car villages to another small town where we meet a jeep to take us back to Joshimath.

I couldn't sleep late on Monday morning due to excitement and I was up as soon as the first rays of light were peeking over Nanda Devi to the east. We reached Auli at about 9 AM and met the rest of our group in a small field. Several guys were busy packing up the 3 mules which were to haul our gear. In addition, we had 4 guides who each had specific responsibilities. Shohan was our main trekking guide and spoke the best english, he seemed to be in charge of the group. Dinesh, a little chubbier than the others, was our cook. Surenda owned the mules and kept them on the right path and under control. Finally, there was Kalam, who was assistant everything, though I'm not sure what he actually did other than serve us hot chai. The view from Auli was breathtaking, but was just the tip of the iceberg. Continuously through the entire trek we had 180 to 360 degrees of enchanting snow capped peaks to view. The hike from Auli to Gorson Camp was short, mostly uphill catching the edge of a large forest into a treeless field below Gorson Top. Shohan, Griff and I hiked slow and took our time just because we were enjoying the views on such a glorious day. The rest of the team went ahead and by the time we got to camp, they already had everything setup. The setup included 3 tents: a large dining tent, a large tent for cooking and for them to sleep in, and finally a nice 4 season Northface tent for JG and me. Not too long after we reached camp, the weather started to turn, with a certain quickness that can only happen high up in the mountains. The wind picked up and it began to hail and snow. Fortunately, the weather didn't last long and it cleared up before dusk. That night, we had a delicious Indian meal, which may be the best Indian meal I have had throughout my year long stay in India. It was cold and windy, so after dark we were comfortably warm in our sleeping bags.

On Tuesday, we hit the trail about 8:00 AM after a couple of hardy Bread Omletes. About half way up Gorson Top, we came to a narrow trail etched into the side of the mountain heading east-southeast which we followed to traverse the steep mountain. Within our view, from West to East, but all North of our position, were the peaks Horse and Elephant adjacent to each other (generally called these names in Hindi), Birmal at 5888 meters, Dhonagiri at 7145 meters and of course Nanda Devi, which means the Power of the Gods. We soon reached a small lake. Just above the lake on a slight hill was a herd of about 50 monkeys. These monkeys had whitish grey fur with black faces and long tails. I tried to get close enough to get a good picture but I startled them and in a moment they were all hiding in the adjacent forest. It was exhilerating to see and hear them run for the woods with thunderous mobility, which quickly turned into a small tornado of branches swaying at the edge of the forest. I sat for a moment to watch what would happen. While I could tell they became more comfortable with my presense by playing and jumping from limb to limb, none of them came out of the trees while we were there. It was refreshing to see monkeys in the wild rather than domesticated and dependent on human garbage like in many of the big cities of India. The lake marked the beginning of a long ascent to reach Kulara Top. Griffiths and I both were feeling the effects of the elevation; less oxygen in the air and the suns powerful rays. Or maybe we were just in poor shape...one of the two. From Kulara Top, we hiked along the narrow ridgetop over a couple of other small peaks to reach the trailhead for Kuari Pass. The rest of the way to Kuari Pass was uphill and mostly snow and ice. There were a couple of places where we each fell through some loose snow up to our thighs. I was very thankful that I had borrowed some trekking poles from Mohan back in Joshimath as they saved me from falling on several occasions both on the way up to Kuari Pass and back down to the campsite. We reached our Kuari Pass destination at about 2 PM, at 4200 meters this is the highest elevation that I have ever been. The first thing I noticed though was a front of rainy looking clouds off in the distance, which appeared to be heading in our direction. I stayed there for another half hour just enjoying the view and the pleasure of reaching our destination before I took off for the camp. I summoned some stored energy to make a quick pace downhill for the Kulara Campsite reaching the camp, and some delicious hot Chai, before Shohan and Griffiths. I don't know the specific distance that we hiked, but it was enough, I was tired and ready to call it a day. The Kulara Camp was a beautiful field with a stream flowing close by and a herd of sheep and goat passing through. The rain didn't reach us until around dusk and didn't last long. We had another fantastic meal and were in our tents before long.

Wednesday was a long downhill journey over rough rocks and difficult trekking terrain. My legs hadn't been sore as of yet, but I was sure they would be after hiking down this path. We came through some amazing forests down to a couple of small villages. The villages are not accessible by road so they live off the land and only go into town by mule, horse or foot. The farmland was cut into the side of the mountain like scales, small patches of garden lined by stones to make the ground level. They had a surprisingly intricate irrigation system considering there is not an automobile road leading to the town. We smiled and waved to the locals who were extremely friendly and waved back. Before long we were in the town at the base of the mountain adjacent to a larger white water river that Shohan said joined with 2 other rivers before becoming the Ganga down close to Rishikesh. The trek, and the beauty of these scenic Garhwal Himalayan mountains, totally exceeded my expectations.


We tried to arrange some alternative transportation down to Rishikesh due to the uncomfortableness of the bus, however we didn't feel the price difference for a personal jeep was going to make the trip that much more bearable. The bus ride costs 200 rupees each (close to $5 USD) and a jeep would cost 2250 rupees each (close to $50 USD). In addition, we knew more of what to expect and were mentally prepared for the long journey. So we got on the bus at 4:30 AM to Rishikesh and tried to sleep for as much of it as possible over rocky uneven roads. When we got to Rishikesh, we felt is was time to step up our budget for accommodations and stayed at a nice, clean hotel with AC, hot water and cable. Rishikesh is known as a yoga mecca and holy city. People come from all over the world to study yoga and take a dip in the sacred and cleansingly cool Ganges River. Rishikesh has also become a great launch point for white water rafting. While I personally am not into traditional yoga, it's hard not to recognize its value for the mind, body and soul. Every night at dusk in Rishikesh, and Haridwar, people gather at the edge of the Ganges river for a ceremony to wash themselves and praise the gods, specifically Shiva. We read that everyone places flowers with lit candles into the river to float downstream, however we noticed that is was only the foreigners who were participating in this tradition. The colors that the Indian women wore to the gathering were magnificent, bright reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and blues. Oddly, the men wear all white. It was an interesting event and fun to attend. The funniest part was a forign guy with a really nice camera who had a dreadlocked mullet. It was wicked cool, the kind of mullet that you only dream about. JG and I had a nice laugh.

Visiting this city was certainly something we both wanted to do, but more importantly we wanted to do some white water rafting down the mighty Ganges river. We signed up with a group, actually before we even found a good hotel, for a full day river rafting experience. Our group of 8 included two friends, one from Mumbai and one from Delhi, 3 guides, Griff and me, and some other guy that we couldn't figure out. The rafting was super. There were definitely a few highly technical rapids that we had to paddle through, but for the most part, it was just fun and relaxing. At one point, as we were approaching a section of rapids, the guide tells us that these rapids are meant for body surfing. I thought he was joking, but as we approached them he yelled "okay, jump out now!". A little stunned, I waited for someone else to move first, but everyone jumped out, and I body surfed my first white water rapids. The water was frigid cold, but clean and invigorating.

This two week adventure in Northern India was one that I'll never forget. I'm so grateful that MB and I got to share it with close friends. Our adventures in India have come to an end as we leave in a mere week. This trip to Rajasthan and Uttarakhand was more than a cherry on top of a super year; it's more like hot fudge, peacans, whip cream and 3 cherries on top of an incredible banana split! Hmmm, banana split...

Last Updated: Thursday May 10, 2007 [Contact MB][Contact J]