Home > India, Travel, Trekking > Riding the Indian Monsoon

Riding the Indian Monsoon

Entering India from Nepal we were reassured by our good old Lonely Planet that the Indian monsoon was about to disappear and that it would be plain sailing from the beginning of September. We boarded our first clunky old Indian bus. It raced alongside decorative trucks down country roads and through dirty Indian cities. Up and up we went into the clouds, faster and faster until we arrived in the hill station of Naintal. The small lakeside town remained submerged in mist and cloud for the few days we were there. Clouds would swoop in and claw the green emerald lake, Naintal’s soothing centrepiece, and then slowly crawl down the valley only to make way for new fog to fester.

Although we didn’t experience too much rain in Naintal it had been raining in other parts of the state of Uttarakand and many roads were closed. Our next destination was Almora and Kasar Devi; although the road was officially closed, taxis were still running and the drive there was rather smooth. There we stayed at a small hotel with a friendly Indian owner who spoke English with a strong German accent. When we told him of our plans to travel further north to Joshimath he told us ‘the roads are very bad yah, many are closed yah’. We got the feeling that he was just telling us that to get us to stay longer at his hotel, so the next day we set off for Bageshwar. A bumpy, twisty, turning road that made Carl and I both a little queasy, though luckily the Indians seem to have stronger stomachs than the Chinese. We arrived at Bageshwar safely and were told that to get to Joshimath we had to get a bus at 5am the next morning.

In the morning drizzle we got onto another clunky old bus and held on for our lives. The road had been attacked by landslides of late and one pothole caused Carl to inadvertently throw half a litre of water over our fellow passengers. The road soon turned into more of a cliff face. The driver didn’t seem to sense the inherent danger and continued to speed round sharp bends leaving the back of the bus often hovering over a fifty foot drop.

The rain cleared and perfect blue skies started to form, but the rain from the night before was still causing havoc. About 3 hours into our journey the bus stopped along with other buses and 4x4s. Many 4×4 jeeps run along the dangerous Indian roads for those who don’t want to risk their lives on the buses. Carl got out with the other passengers to see what was happening. The road in front of us had completely fallen away and men were desperately trying to rebuild it with rocks and mud. It didn’t look like the bus would be moving anytime in the next few hours. Taking the lead from our fellow passengers we donned our backpacks and set off to cross the landslide by foot. On the other side we jumped in a 4×4, along with 15 other people. Needless to say it was more than a little cramped. As we cosily drove along we encountered an old man holding his thumb out for a lift. The driver stopped and I thought to myself, surely he can’t fit in. The old man obviously had the same opinion so he jumped on the top of the car and held on to the roof rack where our bags were. As we drove along the sunny mountainside I listened to the rattle of his walking stick from above. When we stopped at the next landslide the man, who must have been in his 80’s stood up on the car and threw our bags down at us.

We then had another landslide to tackle. Only this one was more of a river; a waterfall that had swollen  in the rain and completely engulfed the road below. It didn’t look too deep but the flow of the water was strong. We were told by some Indian men to wait half way across. They formed a line across the strong current and helped others through the violent river. I went in and the water covered my legs completely. If it wasn’t for those three men pulling and pushing me and my backpack, I would probably be lying in a gorge right now. Carl and I swore never to do anything like that again. Little did we know that this was just training, a small ‘obsti-Carl’ or ‘Haze-ard’, compared to what we were yet to encounter.

We had to walk about 1 or 2 kilometers to the next landslide. Huge rocks had left craters  and landfall adorned what once were considered roads. A digger was working on clearing the rubble and Carl being a boy, got very excited. The Indian men were rather amused to see a Westerner so taken by a digger. Carl insisted on staying and watching the digger attempt to roll a huge bolder over the cliff. Try as he might the digger operator couldn’t tackle the boulder, so a disappointed Carl agreed to walk on to the next 4×4. Although this one had to navigate it’s way around many landslides and rivers on the roads we made it to Karanpranag in one piece. From here we decided to get another share 4X4 to Joshimath as they were the same price as the bus and to a certain extent safer. At an altitude of 1,845 meters and deep in the Nanda Devi valley, we’d heard the journey from here onwards was treacherous. The roads (if they can be called roads) were steep with many sharp bends. Huge sections had fallen away, victims to the rocks above. Uneven surfaces and thin dirt tracks characterised much of the 4 hour drive. We stopped many times for various rebuilding work and, to Carls delight, diggers. We finally arrived in Joshimath about 12 hours after we’d left Bageshwar. We checked in to a cheap hotel with a balcony overlooking the huge rocky mountains. Unfortunately a few hours after we arrived our bad view karma once again kicked in. Out went the sun and in came the rain and clouds which would remain until the day we left.

During our time in Joshimath we did a lot of trekking; Valley of the Flowers and the Sikh pilgrimage Hem Kund, but those experiences deserve another post. The roads around these areas have been carved by dynamite into the huge rock faces of the valley, but to quote a fellow traveller, ‘If you mess with the Himalayas, the Himalayas will mess with you twice as hard.’ Sheer drops, road rivers and rock fall are common features and unfortunately many people die in accidents here every year. While we were there we were informed that a bus travelling from Karanpranag to Joshimath had fallen, along with the land beneath it and sadly many passengers. Locals in the area have to put up with these stories everyday. During the monsoon they live in constant fear of their surroundings. To travel to the next village meant tackling natures hazardous obstacle course. 

After three strenuous days of trekking we returned to Joshimath. We decided to have a peaceful day and drive to the holy Hindu town of Badrinarth, approximately two hours away. We crammed into a 4×4 and off we went. The roads were badly damaged and sheer death drops haunted every corner. The car was silent. About an hour in it started to rain, and we started to climb the steep twisting mud soaked roads up to Badrinarth. The car skidded and slipped but the driver managed to control it and we all breathed a sigh of relief when we again hit concrete and made our way up to Badrinarth at 3,133 meters above sea level.

Our relaxing day was kind of going to plan. We pottered round the sacred Badrinarth temple with the Hindus, and while locals bathed in the hot springs and braved the cold Alaknanda river, we sat down for a thali and a cup of chai. The rain had come again so we decided to make our way back. Once again we squeezed into a 4×4 and headed off down the dangerous dirt tracks. The man sitting opposite me kept looking out of the windows then consequently kissing his Shiva statue and praying to the Hindu gods for all our lives. I started to chat with a Kerelan man named Matthew who spoke good English. He was from the South and not accustomed to these roads or the weather that made them so treacherous. After a while the conversation died down and we sat in silence, once again clutching whatever we could to make us feel that little bit safer.

About half way through we encountered a gathering of parked cars. Although our driver tried to make his way through he was stopped by a BRO worker. (BRO or Borders Roads Organisation is on hand to watch, survey and repair the dangerous roads in North West India). Matthew explained to us that there was rock fall and we couldn’t cross yet. We’d be waiting at least an hour he said, so Carl and I got out and stood under our umbrella with the other Indians. We watched in fearful awe as big and small rocks sporadically came crashing down pulling others with them as they came. The rains became heavier and more rocks began to fall with force. Carl retreated to the car and I shared my umbrella with a local boy whose brother carried around a tea pot selling chai. Over an hour had passed and the rains weren’t giving up. We started to think about making our way back to Badrinarth for the night, but the thought of tackling those roads again made us shudder, and the stern Hindu family that we shared a car with insisted on waiting. Others started to turn back.

People on the other side of the rock fall began to get impatient. They took their chances and made their way across the rock fall zone. Most rushed across and the rocks held back, until an old woman started to make her way across. As she ran we all heard a crack from above. She was about 200 meters away from us but my little Indian friend and I screamed at her in our different languages to turn around. She ran one way, then the other closely avoiding the falling rocks and making it across to the other side. She walked past us laughing, like she’d just had an embarrassing fall on a banana skin.

After another hour or so my little Indian friend looked at me, bobbed his head, pointed up to a small house on the hillside and left. Our driver was nowhere to be seen so we decided to walk back and try and find either him, or another car willing to take us back to Badrinarth. It was then that we realised Indians were walking over the rock fall and to the other side. It was still raining but the path looked pretty secure so we took our chances. We said goodbye to Matthew, who sensibly chose not to walk over the rock fall, and off we went. It was still raining and although I had an umbrella I was pretty wet. When we reached the top of the hill we had to walk through fields of mud. I took my flip flops off and walked bare foot through the fields. Little houses were scattered along the way and friendly Indians would poke their heads out to point us in the right direction. The path going down was extremely slippery and much muddier than the one we had ascended. We held onto surrounding trees and lowered ourselves down slowly, until we encountered yet another sheer drop. The path and all land had disappeared, taken away in a previous landslide. Panic set in and we scrambled back up the path until we saw a young Indian boy directing us down a steep, muddy opening that would take us to the road below, or what was left of it.

We held onto trees and slid down the path, painting our clothes and bodies in mud in the process. I wondered why I had opted for a cream coloured coat. When we were near the bottom we were stopped by a group of Sikhs in front of us. One was extremely scared of heights and drops and refused to move. We sat in the mud, holding onto a branch watching as his friends encouraged him down. They spoke a little English and helped us down the steep slope. Finally we all made it, not to a road but to a river. Two rusty metal bars balanced between two rocks. I looked at them and shook my head. The water that rushed beneath was deep and violent. Indians stood on the other side encouraging us. One of the Sikhs crossed and waited in the shallower part of the river to help Carl and I across. I went first and crawled along the wobbly metal bars, and on the other side our new Sikh friend held my hand and pulled me across to safety. I looked back just in time to see Carl wobble and lose one of his flip flops. He reached down to get it and a chorus of onlookers shouted at him to leave it and carry on. He emerged from the water safely with one shoe. The group of Sikhs high fived us and we had photos taken before departing to try and find a car to take us to Joshimath.

Here we met Jesus from Venezula and Bardo and Ram from India. They were all studying in Dehra Dun and had watched us emerge from the water. They were planning on going the other way but had sensibly chosen to turn around when they saw us. We walked for about 2 kilometres trying to find a 4×4 that wasn’t full. Carl disposed of his other flip flop and walked bare foot. It was about another kilometre or so to the next village and we weren’t guaranteed a ride from there. Luckily Ram managed to negotiate a ride with a passing car. We piled into the back, which was also where the rubbish was kept. The car took us within 1 kilometre of Joshimath. When we emerged from the car the rain had stopped and the sun that had been absent all day decided to show its presence, breaking in reds and purple in the evening sky. We made our way to our hotel and decided to get a 4×4 to Rishikesh the next day, where we would stay until the monsoon departed.

Our new friends were also going to Rishikesh so we hired a 4×4 together and left at 6am the next day. As we drove away we all looked up in awe. The rains that had permeated our stay had vanished and the sky was completely devoid of cloud. The tops of the mountains appeared and we got a glimpse of the towering Nanda Devi, the worlds 23rd highest mountain. Our necks bent back out of the windows, our mouths slightly open. After all we’d encountered, the snow dipped jagged peak of Nanda Devi seemed the perfect emblem for both the beauty and the ferociousness of nature.

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  1. November 4, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Nice post + great photos. Thanks for sharing

    http://autospirit.wordpress.com/

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