I arrived at my hotel in Dharali on a dark and stormy afternoon. It had been a beautiful (and sunny) drive from Mussoorie, the Bhagirathi a constant, playful companion by our side. By the time we crossed Harsil though, the sun had slunk away and a cold rain was pelting us incessantly. Dharali came shortly after and we pulled into Prakriti Retreat, one of the most comfortable hotels to come up in the Gangotri region, but sans the pointless flourishes we townies are so accustomed to.
The unexpected downpour had disrupted the electricity supply and no one was sure when it would be back up. It had never happened before, after all. I felt a knot in my stomach. How was I going to charge my cellphone, my umbilical connection to the big, bad world? And, then, just like that, I decided to let go, to switch off from the grid. The mountains can have that effect on you.
With the onset of dusk, any residual light began to recede swiftly behind the towering crags. As I was ushered into my river-view room, the temperature dropped rapidly. A cup of hot cocoa helped me thaw as the Bhagirathi roared outside my balcony.
I hadn’t been to Gangotri before, but the carrot that had really gotten me hopping like an eager bunny was a promised excursion to Nelong, a high-altitude valley bordering Tibet that had been opened to tourists for the first time in 2015 after the 1962 Indo-China War. In fact, I decided to visit Nelong first, reserving Gangotri for day two.
The lighting up of pointy snowclad peaks announced the next day, peaks whose existence I hadn’t even suspected the previous evening. After the regulation breakfast of parathas and eggs (food at Prakriti is superlative, but more on that later), we were on our way. After offering our permits for inspection at the Bhaironghati checkpost (only a limited number of tourist vehicles are allowed into the Nelong valley every day), we took the road that turned sharply to the left (the one to the right leads to the hallowed Gangotri shrine). This was a steep valley, carved by the Jadh Ganga, a tributary of the Bhagirathi that originates in Tibet’s Zanda county. They also call it the Neel Ganga, and its clear turquoise waters make it quite obvious why.
It was a beautiful, if bone-rattling, ascent and we caught glimpses of waterfalls and glacial fields. The road is being improved incrementally but was yet to be paved at the time of my visit. After an hour or two, but which seemed like forever, we rolled into an army base at a bracing altitude of 11,500 feet. The snowline was literally in our face. Beyond lay Tibet. The men in uniform were friendly and promptly ushered us into their cosy igloos for a steaming cuppa and some chit chat. As I learnt, an additional permit from the Forest Department would have allowed me to venture a little further into the Gangotri National Park. I’ll definitely be signing up for that next time.
Nelong, which possibly means ‘the place of blue stones’, is a storied valley. It is through this valley that Hienrich Harrer is said to have escaped to Tibet. John Bicknell Auden (poet W.H. Auden’s elder brother), who was working with the Geological Survey of India, explored this region extensively. In the Himalayan Journal (Vol. 12: 1940), Lieut J.F.S. Ottley recounts spending “a satisfactory, if bibulous, evening” with Auden at Harsil after a visit to Nelong. In the same year, the mountaineer Marco Pallis in his Peaks and Lamas wrote: “The highest lying villages in Garhwal, along the Tibetan border, are inhabited in the summer months by a semi-nomadic tribe called Jadhs or, farther to the east, Bhotias. These people are typical frontier product, mixed racially and in tradition, who make the best of two worlds in any border dispute. The Tibetan half predominates in the Jadhs, however, six days out of seven they are Buddhists and, when not wearing European cast-offs purchased while they are wintering on the edge of the Indian plain, they clothe themselves in Tibetan style, in summer they pasture their flocks and ponies in the uplands, or cross into Tibet to barter Indian produce for a consignment of salt or borax.” The Jadhs were the only community allowed into Tibet and, as Harish Kapadia points out in his High Himalaya Unknown Valleys, this cross-border trade was valued at â‚¹62,000 in 1882 (a fair sum of money at that time). After the 1962 India-China War, the Jadhs were settled near Harsil and the valley came under army control. Since the valley of the Jadh Ganga is claimed by China, it’s a sensitive area and possibly why it took the government so long to open it up to tourists like you and me.
Back at Prakriti, I relaxed by the river. Some elaborate ceremony was on at the temple next door and the ringing of the bells cleansed the air. Across the river lay the village of Mukhba, where the Gangotri deity resides in winter, when the main shrine becomes snowbound and inaccessible. The power supply had been restored, and the geyser was gurgling invitingly so I braved a bath. Just a couple of seasons old, Prakriti is well-appointed, but has been conceived in the unfussy style of hill hotels. While the rooms are quite comfortable, I’m sure redecorating them gradually will work wonders from an aesthetic perspective. I’d certainly like to see plusher bathrooms.
Meals at Prakriti consist of very good vegetarian food but the highlight of the menu has to be their traditional Garhwali fare. And that’s the other big enticement that had drawn me here. That night I was served a soup made from the local kulath dal and dishes with names like chainsu and phaana, to be had with maithiyali roti and the local rice. I rounded off the meal with jhangora kheer and the most divine sooji ka halwa I’ve had in a while. I don’t exaggerate when I say that that dinner was among the top 10 meals I’ve ever had. Even if you don’t have a single religious bone in your body, go to Gangotri just so you can stay at Prakriti and stuff your face.
The next afternoon was reserved for Gangotri, where my cellphone suddenly sputtered to life (between Uttarkashi and Gangotri, you only have BSNL). Once I’d dealt with the unavoidable distractions of WhatsApp, I drank in the scene. The Gangotri shrine itself was more understated than I had expected, and I was touched by the lack of ostentation. Having avoided the morning rush hour, I had it all to myself. The cafes had the merest trickle of patrons. The shops leading up to the temple were selling a wide variety of religious paraphernalia, most important of which were the water canisters of every size and shape to carry some precious Gangajal back home. The devout were bathing in the freezing stream. An evening arti was about to commence. We were deep in the Himalayas, cut off from the world, yet connected to it in some primal way.
The nearby village of Harsil too warrants a visit. It has a colourful history, for it was the seat of Pahari Wilson, a British soldier who deserted the army after the Mutiny of 1857 and ended up in Tehri Garhwal. Wilson then made a fortune sending logs down the Bhagirathi to the plains where they were in huge demand to make railway sleepers for a rapidly expanding rail network. Pahari Wilson was, by all accounts, not particularly kind to his workers. He did marry a local girl and settle down in Harsil. You can still see the ruins of his old bungalow here, although he is buried in Mussoorie’s Camel’s Back Road Cemetry along with his lady love. Wilson had such clout he even minted his own coins.
I couldn’t help but feel wistful as I drove back from Dharali past the orchards of Wilson apples (which the self-anointed Raja of Harsil had introduced to the region). There were small hamlets hanging precariously from the cliffs, where, miraculously, crops were flourishing. I was going to miss all this terribly. But most of all I was going to miss the sound of silence.
Gangotri is a 500km drive from Delhi. The route would be Delhi-Meerut-Muzaffarnagar-Roorkee-Haridwar-Rishikesh-Chamba-Uttarkashi-Harsil-Dharali-Gangotri. You could also take the train to Haridwar and drive down from there. Or you could take a flight to the Jolly Grant Airport, midway between Dehradun and Rishikesh. If you are so inclined, chopper services are also available from Haridwar and Uttarkashi. The helipad is at Harsil.
Where to Stay
I stayed at Prakriti–The Retreat, a resort on the banks of the Bhagirathi at Dharali, 18km short of Gangotri. It makes for a great base to explore the region, whether you’re religiously inclined or merely devoted to nature. The food, as I will never ever tire of saying, is to die for. Be a little adventurous and try their local Garhwali fare. (Gujarati and Bengali thalis are also on offer to groups on advance notice.) As always in the hills, service is warm. Note that Prakriti is closed in the winters, when Gangotri pretty much shuts down.
What to See & Do
> Gangotri is one of the Char Dhams, and therefore a major site of Hindu pilgrimage. Apart from the main shrine and attendant activities, you may also want to visit the Bhairav Nath Temple in Bhaironghati. The 18km trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh, the glacier’s snout, is popular with devotees and trekkers alike. Some intrepid trekkers proceed to Tapovan.
> A visit to the Nelong Valley is an absolute must. Do arrange your permits in advance since only a limited number of visitors are allowed into the valley each day.
> Harsil, which was the scenic location for Raj Kapoor’s iconic Ram Teri Ganga Maili, has a Tibetan settlement you can visit. It’s also associated with the legend of Pahari Wilson.
> The Gangotri National Park is spread over an area of 2,390 sq km and offers a fascinating glimpse into a high-altitude ecosystem, comprising coniferous forests, meadows and glaciers. Besides mammals like bharal, brown bear and snow leopards, it’s also home to 150 species of birds.