Saturday, September 6, 2008

My First Trip to the Himalaya - July 1984

I was going through the chronicles of my treks in the Himalaya when I realised that my first trip to the Himalaya was not the hills stations in Uttarakhand nor in Himachal Pradesh but the pilgrimage to Amarnath in Kashmir in July 1984. I glanced through the photos of the pilgrimage taken in my 'aim and shoot' camera in 24mm films and memories of the trip came back to me in a kaleidoscope of images.

Eight of my office colleagues decided to go on a pilgrimage to Amarnath in Kashmir valley in the month of July 1984. My curiosity about the formation of a natural ice-lingam inside Amarnath cave which could be seen in the months of July-August made me to join the group. We booked the train journey to Jammu for July 6, 1984 so that we would be at the Amarnath cave on the full moon day during which the ice lingam was supposed to be in its full size.

There was some uncertainty about our trip as in the first week of June 1984, the army launched Operation Blue Star to flush out militants from the Golden Temple. There were violent protests in Punjab. To add to our problem, the violence also erupted in the Kashmir valley for many days when the Government led by Chief Minister Farooq Abdulla was dismissed in the last week of June 1984. After debating ourselves about the desirability or otherwise of undertaking the trip in the unsettled situations in Punjab and Kashmir, we unanimously decided to go ahead with our planned trip assuming that things will improve by the schedule date of our journey.

When we reached Mumbai Central station, we came to know of the fact that the Jammu-Tawi Super Fast Express would be terminated at New Delhi due to the prevailing situation in Punjab. We boarded the train with a wishful thought that we may get some trains from New Delhi for Jammu. As announced, our train was terminated at New Delhi. Since there were no trains scheduled to Jammu, we proceeded to Kashmiri Gate bus stand to scout for Jammu bus. Fortunately, we got a morning J&K Roadway bus bound for Jammu. We were quite pleased with our efforts as we will still be able to reach Jammu by late evening.

As we reached the outskirt of Karnal, our bus broke down and it took about 5 hours to rectify the problem. Thereafter, it was a smooth journey with not much traffic on the road. The bus reached the Jullunder bus stand at around 7.00 p.m. only to be told that we would have to take an overnight halt at Jullunder as night journey was risky in the prevailing situation in Punjab. There were instances of militants stopping the buses and shooting passengers selectively. After spending a sleepless night, we started the onward journey to reach Jammu bus stand at around 10.30 a.m. The Mumbai-Jammu journey which was supposed to take 32 hours, took almost 50 hours.

We boarded an already delayed J&K Roadway bus bound for Srinagar. After security checks by an army jawan, the bus ultimately left Jammu at 2.30 p.m. When the bus reached Batote, the driver announced that the bus would halt here for the night and depart for Srinagar the next day early morning. At this point, a few of the passengers protested stating that this was not told to them at Jammu. The driver explained to them that it was a normal procedure to take a night halt when a bus got delayed and not able to make it to Srinagar by early night. And the driver was feeling sleepy. But these passengers were in no mood to listen to the driver's explanation. Fed up with the arguments and counter arguments, the bus driver left the bus in a huff and slept on a nearby bench. Later, the aggrieved passengers took the issue with the bus conductor to make the driver to take the bus to Srinagar. But having snubbed by these passengers, the driver was insistent in taking a night halt.

It appeared that somehow these passengers managed to convince the conductor as to how important for them to reach Srinagar at the earliest. Tired of the events and of more than 50 hours of continuous journey, we all sat on our seats preparaing to take naps when suddenly the bus started moving. First we thought that at last, these passengers had persuaded the driver to drive the bus. But we sat to our surprise that it was the conductor who was now driving the bus. Fortunately, the conductor's driving was smooth. Later we came to know that these passengers were journalists who were eager to reach Srinagar as early as possible to cover the latest situation in Srinagar and send reports to their respective newspapers by morning.

The bus reached the outskirt of Srinagar at around 2.00 a.m. At the check point, the police told the conductor that a dusk to dawn curfew was clamped in Srinagar and as such the passengers will not be able to go out from the bus stand. He then suggested him to take the bus to Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) where the passengers could take rest until morning. As directed by the police, we reached TRC at around 2.30 a.m. The TRC Manager was very helpful in providing temporary accommodation to us in one of the rooms which was mainly used for storing blankets, matteress and pillows. When he heard of our Amarnath plan, he advised us to proceed to Pahalgam early morning as the situation in Srinagar could get worsen leading to the reimposition of curfew.

Getting ready for departure from our guest house at Pahalgam

Refreshed with three hours of sound sleep, the next day, we proceeded to Pahalgam( 2130m) by a taxi which dropped us at the guest house which was already booked for us. The guest house was spacious having a common room, 2 bed rooms, and a kitchen with services of a cook. For the first time after leaving Mumbai, we felt relaxed as there was not an iota of tension which was evident during our journey into Punjab and then to Srinagar. The caretaker arranged three porters for carrying our luggage. We had already made the reservation of pitched tents at Chandanwari, Sheshnag and Panchatarni enroute to Amarnath through correspondence from Mumbai. Although, all these places had few dabhas to cater to the pilgrims, we did take provisions, stove and kerosene as two of our group members were keen to cook the food for us.

The following day, we commenced a 16 km trek to Chandanwari (2920m) on a dirt road skirting the Lidder river. We saw a couple of jeeps packed with local passengers moving on this road. After crossing a bridge over Lidder, we reached Chandanwari early afternoon. There were many tents picthed on the camp site of which two tents were allotted to us. These were military style tents with 4 folding beds. We had dal rice for lunch prepared by one of the group member.

Filling water from Lidder river for drinking

The next day, we resumed our 12 km trek to Sheshnag. After crossing the snow-bridge over the Sheshnag stream, we were on a steep winding climb of Pisu Ghati. Being the first exposure to steep climbing to most of us, we made a very slow progress to reach the Pisu Top (3390m). We were happy to see a couple of tea shops where se stopped for rest and hot tea. The valley from this spot looked beautiful.

Valley view from Pishu Top

After about 6 kms of a gradual accent we reached a point from where there was again a steep climb of about 2 kms followed by one km of level walk to a place called Wawajan (3550m) where our tents were pitched. At the opposite side the camp site was the blue coloured Sheshnag lake with Trinity peaks in the background. Although there is beautiful camping on the bank of the lake, but to reach there, one will have to walk on a steep slope.

Sheshnag lake

The next day, some members of the group decided to take the pony ride as they were not physically fit to trek further. Since all of us wanted to be together in our pilgrimage trail, we all joined together on ponies and started our march at 7.30 a.m. After ascending one km, the climb to Mahagunus Pass (4600m) started. Even though we were on ponies, the thinness of air was evident. I could see that my pony was breathing very fast resulting in foams coming out of my pony's mouth.

Our fellows at Mahagunus Pass

After crossing the pass, the path was mostly flat until we reached a downward slope. From here the vast meadow of Panchatarani (4270m) was visible with large number of tents. We continued to move ahead and now we were moving on small patches of snow on our path with Amar Ganga streams flowing just 30 feet below the path. After about 3 kms of decent through the valley we reached the base of the Amarnath cave. This was the point upto which ponies were allowed.
A dip in ice-cold water of Amar Ganga

After a refreshing dip in the ice-cold water of Amar
Ganga stream flowing just about 100 meters below the cave, we climbed about 100 stony steps to reach the Amarnath cave (4170m) at 12.30.m. There was not much of pilgrims' rush and we could have a nice and satisfying darshan of ice-shivaling. There were two more rectangular shaped ice-formation, which according to the priest, represented Parvati and Ganesh. Since the cave floor was covered with ice sheet, it was an ordeal for all of us to stand on the barefoot.

Some of us posing for photo in front of ice shivaling.

After spending an hour or so in the vicinity of Amarnath, we commenced our return journey of 5 kms to Panchatarani to take the night halt in our tents. The camp site was located on a flat meadow and the five streams flowing through it provided plenty of water sources.

The next day early morning, we started our pony ride from Panchatarni to Sheshnag and then by trekking and reached Pahalgam by late evening. We stayed in the comfort of our guest house. The following day, we departed by bus to Srinagar by which time, normalcy had returned in the Kashmir valley. After spending two days in around Srinagar for sight seeing, we bid our adieu to Kashmir valley and boarded a morning delux bus for Jammu. As we reached a place called Mand, about 50 kms before Jammu, we saw a bus about to depart for Katra. Since we had one extra day to spare, we took an impromptu decision to get down from the Jammu bus and take the Katra bus for visiting Vaishodevi shrine.

We reached Katra in the late evening. After dumping our haversacks and other luggage in one of dharamshalas near the bus stand and taking an early dinner, we commenced the 14 km trek to Vaishnodevi at around 8.00 p.m. and reached the shrine at 2.00 a.m. We got an early darshan of Vaishnodevi as there were not many pilgrims in the queue. After taking rest for an hour or so, we started our return trek to reach Katra at dawn and then by a bus to Jammu in the afternoon.The next day, after some local sight-seeing, we boarded the Jammu-Mumbai Super Fast Express and reached Mumbai the following day.

This was the trip which was full of adventure of a different kind. As I relook at the trip after 24 years, I now realise that the trip was not as efficiently planned as we do today. Most of us relied on the experience of our group leader who had earlier done the Amarnath pilgrimage. We took the trip as a pilgrimage and neglected the trekking aspects - the physical fitness, precautions to be taken on mountains and the problems at higher altitude. Many of us were not even aware that we were to cross a 4500 m plus cross to reach Amarnath.

The trip, however, made me 'addicted' to the Himalaya in general and to the world of trekking in particular. The flip sides of this trip was that I missed to capture many of the beautiful sceneries due to the limitation of my 'aim and shoot' camera. Furthermore, I was not happy with the pony ride from Sheshnag to Amarnath and back as I missed the trekking opportunity on the Mahagunus pass and the sceneries in this route. I was mostly concentrating on my pony which often moved towards the edge of the path due to the temptation of green grass and shrubs. A lose of balance at such juncture would have resulted in serious injuries if not fatal.
When I reached Mumbai, I decided to revisit the Amarnath cave - more as a trekking destination than the pilgrimage - with a reasonably good SLR camera. I did complete the trek to Amarnath in July 1987 with a Pentax K-1000 SLR camera. While, we had a smooth journey from Mumbai to Srinagar, we faced some hardships during the trek especially from Sheshnag to Amarnath cave which was, to my surprise, was heavily snow bound. I will share more experience about this trek in another post.
Photos by the author.


KS said...

Wonderful account of your first Himalayan trek, SK!

Sadanand Kamath said...

Thanks KS.

TG said...

KS : Interesting blog of your first trekk. As per your description, it appears as if you did this just few days back.

Ganesh Murugesan said...

Mr KS ,excellent sir , nothing can match your trip ,while reading your blogspot, i can feel the experience as if i am going thru the trek, now today after 25 years nobody can ever think of this wonderful trip. militants, impatience like going by flight, cost etc will never give the satisfaction which you must have got in those years. bless me that even i get the oppurtuinity to visit the Holy Amarnath shrine.

Sadanand Kamath said...

Thanks Ganesh.

In retrospect, I, at the age of 64, feel that we had taken great risk at that time by going ahead with the trip. Honestly, at that time, the worry about militancy somehow went into background as nothing came to our mind except the darshan of ice lingam at Amarnath.

Pratap Sikdar said...

I really salute you sir......I have just started my treks...your blogs are of real motivation to me....thanks a lot.