Home > Himalayas, India, National Parks, Travel, Trekking > Sikhs in the Sky

Sikhs in the Sky

Our stay in Uttarakhand included further flirtation with the Himalayas. The mountains have a magnetic pull that just wouldn’t let us go and we were soon clambering towards icy peaks once more. On this occasion we were to visit two separate attractions, both of which begin from the same point in Govindghat. The first was to be ’The Valley of Flowers’, and the second a Sikh pilgrimage named Hemkund Sahib, neither of which, as you may have guessed, are an easy stroll. During our ascent I found myself wondering why the majority of pilgrimages include a monumental climb. Surely the Guru, Saint or preacher in question could have shown some compassion, perhaps giving his or her loyal devotees a gentle stroll along the beach in the Maldives, or if not, something more low key like a caravan park in Bangor?

I was pondering this thought while sat in the back of a 4×4, sucking a sweet which had been handed to me by a charming group of female Sikh pilgrims. This was merely the beginning of the generosity shown by our fellow trekkers, and from the outset we felt as if we were being welcomed into a friend’s home. We deposited our main bags at the base of the climb and then crossed the entrance bridge adorned with orange flags depicting the Sikh emblem, Khanda. Our goal for the day was to reach the village of Ghangaria, a 14km climb up the mountainside. It became clear that it ’twas the season to be Punjabi’ and we were joined by a huge amount of devotees from the home of Sikhism. Thankfully, their generosity also continued and every other individual we met offered us nuts, fruits or glucose powder. On talking with a number of English speakers we discovered that generosity with food is an extremely important part of their religion; all individuals should be provided with free food and shelter, especially on a pilgrimage.

The small dwelling of Ghangaria was cold and damp and rather eerie. Mist and cloud engulfed the cheap guest houses and restaurants, while mice scurried across the floor of our room. Breakfast in bed was out of the question, so we rose early the next day to begin our walk through the Valley of Flowers. We first had to navigate our way through the sea of horse owners offering assistance, mostly to those climbing Hemkund. ’Hello, horse?’, ’No, thanks’. ’Hello, horse?’, ’No, we’re OK thanks’. ‘Hello, horse?’ My patience is being well and truly tested now, ’NO, leave us alone, and if one more person calls me horse…..’ Then right on cue…..’Hello, donkey?’

We left the ’pilgrimage taxi’ peddlers in our wake and entered into the tranquillity of the Valley of Flowers. The greenery was dense due to the monsoon and the flow of water from the Himalayas was strong. We dipped down and climbed upwards again before reaching the valley itself, a vast expanse of nature at her best. We were visiting at the end of the season and most of the vibrant colours had left for the year, but this made the surroundings no less impactful. We walked through head high plants and rolling mountains until the path we were following fell away into the river. There appeared to be a path over the headland and of course we wanted to see what was there, so we climbed up the slippery banks as the rain started to fall. I was equipped with my giant, camp, rainbow spectrum umbrella, so a spot of rain was no problem. This little travellers trinket I had picked up in Kathmandu, and it had served me well as a walking stick while wading through swamps in search of tigers. However, this expedition proved an adventure too far, and the metal pole sheared on one particularly tricky section of terrain. I fell flat on my arse and had lost sight of Hazell in the long grass, ’Abort! Abort!’ I yelled, ’Man down!’

The rain had increased in intensity, and I thought to myself ‘what would Mears or Indy do now?’ I could hear the lines from Spielberg’s classic in my head, Harrison Ford gruffly proclaiming ’Fortune and glory kid, fortune and glory.’ I pulled up my muddied and fallen trousers and grasped my truncated umbrella handle. The wind promptly wrenched my rainbow coloured contraption inside out and broke every last metal brace. ’Indy would carry on with the tools he had’, I thought to myself, so I pulled the umbrella back over my head and walked on. It should be made clear, that while all this was going on Hazell was pissing herself with laughter and taking photos of me. Nonetheless, I persevered with a device that looked like a paraplegic spider trapped in a hot air balloon over my head.

The rain continued as we reached a river we had crossed earlier; it was now swollen with nowhere obvious to traverse. We walked up and down the banks in search of a suitable spot, while above us an impressive glacier reminded us of our place within nature. I was still clutching my umbrella for dear life when Hazell boldly declared, ’right, I’m going to make a bridge. There’s a plank of wood over there; help me.’ Impressively assertive, I thought to myself. Then I remembered this was the girl who almost had to be airlifted by helicopter from a school orienteering trip in Wales. Nonetheless, we persevered and hurled the flimsy plank over the flow of water and then sea-sawed across. As we reached the other side the rain began to subside and we both stopped and laughed, asking ourselves how we manage to end up in these positions. We took a short breather and stared up at the glacier as we enjoyed some jam sandwiches. It really is a magnificent place and we both felt extremely privileged to be there, particularly as we had the whole valley to ourselves. Clouds rolled in from the mountains, covering the glacier and making their way up the river towards the border with Tibet. The climate changed almost instantaneously, and it seemed as though we could hear the valley breathing as the trees grew around us.

The following morning we rose at 6am to join the Sikh pilgrims on the climb up to Hemkund Sahib, which is devoted to Guru Gobind Singh Ji the tenth Sikh Guru. This was by far the more populated route, and men and women of all ages were making the steep 6km climb to the top. We were particularly taken by the traditional dress of the older men, who were often to be seen wearing traditional Punjabi dress consisting of a brightly coloured turban, long shirt and trousers, curly toed shoes and a fearsome sword. In reality, most of them were sheep in wolves clothing, and were a pleasure to talk to as we learnt a little about Punjabi culture. It was a gruelling, cloudy climb and by the time we reached the top, visibility was down to a few metres. We were relieved to receive some Sikh hospitality and enjoyed some complimentary tea and dhal at the rest house.

The main event at the top is a genital shrinking dip in the holy lake. Scores of Sikhs stripped down to their undies, grabbed onto the bankside chains, and submerged themselves repeatedly. I was informed the best tactic is to bathe as soon as possible on arrival at the summit; dallying results in a loss of body heat and increased suffering. I was repeatedly encouraged by the Sikh contingent to jump in as they reasoned with me, ’You’re English, you’re used to these temperatures. We’re from the Punjab; very hot, very hot!’ I concluded that the Sikhs may have a few misconceptions about English winter activities, but I also felt it necessary to explain I was an Englishman who was devoid of any underwear on this particular occasion. To avoid any further embarrassment for both involved parties, I chose to tentatively wash my face in the holy water and no further damage was done.

On the banks of the lake we got chatting to a Punjabi Sikh who had moved to Cardiff. It was rather amusing conversing with an individual who sounded more Welsh than Hazell in such an obscure corner of the globe. Every question ended with the obligatory ‘is it?’ and Hazell felt immediately home sick. The young man had spent some time working in McDonalds in Cardiff, a slight cultural shift one would assume from the sandy plains of the Punjab. Perhaps Hazell had sown the Karmic seeds for this encounter many years ago on a boozy night out in town? Indeed our new friend remarked ‘I shouldn’t really say it here, but as you can probably tell from my size, the best thing Cardiff has given me is beer.’ Worlds collide. Worlds collide. He concluded our conversation, ‘well, nice to meet you. I’m off for a dip now. You’re heading back down now is it?’ Our heads reeled at this comic encounter as we trekked the 20km back down to Govindghat, and by the time we arrived, we were both walking like pensioners again. Our attempts to get to Badrinath were foiled by the closed road, therefore we headed back to Joshimath where I enjoyed my favourite post trek activity; sitting on the toilet with my feet soaking in a bucket of hot water.

  1. November 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Hey, really great blog post… I’ve enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy.

    I actually work for the CheapOair travel blog. If you’re interested, we would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail: gchristodoulou(at)cheapoair(dot)com, and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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