By autumn 2020, it was impossible for me and my girlfriend, Mallika, to not heed the call — of the mountains or the jungle or someplace other than Delhi. The long lockdown had ended, Covid cases were declining, and Uttarakhand offered a window. We knew we had to go. Now, Covid hasn’t entirely gone away and the protocols such as social distancing and avoiding crowded spaces were very much there.
Our travel plan must agree with the rules and so we cottoned onto the idea of going deep into the Himalayas and giving our pins their long-pined-for exercise. Of all the options, trekking ticked the most boxes. And why not? A solitary walk in the woods is perhaps the perfect pandemic activity, tailor-made for social distancing. Even a guided trekking tour on popular trails up there is a lot safer than travelling in a city. Besides, it brings much-needed money to remote communities dependent on tourism, which is ravaged by the pandemic. There couldn’t have been a better time to explore and enjoy solitude. This year, after the second wave of Covid and when the Himalayas open up again, the post- monsoon season will hopefully offer an incredible opportunity for trekkers.
Last October, Mallika and I visited Gangotri for two separate three-day treks. The first took us to Gomukh, a source of the Ganga at the yawning mouth of the Gangotri glacier, and then to the stunning Tapovan meadow. Returning to town, we set off for the second hike to the awe-inspiring lake of Kedartal. Easy access to these high mountains is a lucky byproduct of military activity and the flood of religious pilgrims to Gangotri. A trekker can drive on a paved road to Gangotri, at 3,100m, and hike in a single day to the foot of the mountains above 6,000m. Few places in the world offer such powerful mountains so accessibly. The mountains of Gangotri have a deep-seated spirituality.
The Road to Gangotri
Mallika and I got our PCR tests and hopped on a flight from Delhi to Dehradun. A taxi took us up the long, spectacular route into the Himalayas, through Uttarkashi to Gangotri. The unending ridges were hypnotic, full of hill villages and terraced fields. We bought fresh local fruits and vegetables as snacks. By the time wereached Gangotri, darkness and cold had enveloped the land. Dawn revealed Gangotri as a stunning town squeezed between vertically forested ridges, above the glacial Bhagirathi river. We finalised our permits, hired local guide Rakesh Rao and hit the trail on our first hike to Gomukh.
Hike 1: To Gomukh and Tapovan
The trail climbed into a picturesque valley bursting in all pigments of colour. Autumn has touched the land, painting the leaves orange and gold. The Bhagirathi raged milky-blue through chaotically strewn boulders, below textured granite slopes. Rugged wooden bridges lay high across streams. When the stunning pyramid of Bhagirathi peak appeared in the afternoon, we used its snowy promises to pull us forward as the challenge of altitude increased. We planned to sleep at the3,775m Bhojwasa camp, but had not yet acclimatised. Our packs felt like lead. Only a herd of wild Bharal, Himalayan Blue Sheep, provided some relief from the uphill grind.
Finally, we crested a ridge to a view beyond belief: the whole Bhagirathi mountain in front of us, immense yet graceful, catching the orange glow of the setting sun on its snowy summit. Before dawn, we were hanging in a welded metal box on a cable above the roaring Bhagirathi. We were the first to cross that morning. The trail continued up the widening valley, arriving in a tremendous boulder-field. This brutal no man’s land, left behind by the glacier retreating at 25m a year, made for a surreal hike.
Tapovan and the Mouni Baba
The glacier’s famous mouth loomed ahead at Gomukh. Instead of visiting it right away, we scrambled up a rocky slope to the high meadow called Tapovan. It lies far above the great buckling form of the glacier, right at the foot of stupendous summits. We pulled ourselves over the last boulders onto Tapovan and saw a full panorama of rock and ice. The beauty of Mount Shivling smacked us in the face as its perfectly proportioned ridges sliced into the sky above 6,500m.
We continued to the small, rock-built ashram that houses Tapovan’s lone hermit— Mouni Baba, the quiet one, because he took a decade-long vow of silence. He has lived alone in this remote abode for 14 years. He is proof of willpower, enduring through the winters at such an altitude. Luckily, Mouni Baba has opened up to the world. He was happy to receive us, and we found him surprisingly young, witty, and urbane. His voice was barely audible, but the glint in his eye exuded warmth. When Mallika told him that she had grown up in Bombay but now lived in Delhi, he joked about the idiocy of such a manoeuvre. He was happy to hear an unending flow of town gossip from Rakesh. The time at Tapovan was golden. We wandered the gentle meadow, took in the spectacular peaks from every angle, and noshed down tasty dal served by the Baba.