Today, I am in Uttarkashi, that is – Kashi of the north (Kashi being the Hindu name for Varanasi). Both cities are on the Ganga and both are important Hindu pilgrimage sites. Uttarkashi is much smaller, more like a mountain way station, and it has an important Shiva temple with a Shiva Linga carved in situ. I’m staying for a few days with friends of Kriti Gallery, midway up the mountainside (about 5,500 ft) from the town, while I put together a trek deeper into the Himalayas to the Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganga. More on this when I get back from the trek. The real point of this post is about getting to Uttarkashi, which was not straightforward. I begin:
I leave Varanasi on April 14th, 2014 on a train to Jaipur, first class, and it was easy-peasy compared to my first Indian train trip and now that I’ve had a number of other experiences buying tickets and taking trains to see quarries and to travel deeper south and to get back to Varanasi (each episode, btw, could easily be a short story, but I will only say that coconuts can be refreshing in the midday South Indian sun, especially when they are a heart felt gift from a man who hardly speaks English but who understands what you are doing. My suggestion is to just have one coconut, not three, esp. before you get on a 45-hour train trip north to Varanasi … or, at least, watch what you eat afterwards. No more on this, at least for the blog); so, taking the overnight train, First Class AC, from Varanasi to Jaipur is as smooth as it gets. You may think I am now an intrepid Indian Traveler … um … barely … getting around India is like a puzzle where none of the pieces truly fit together. That’s right: a multitude of possibilities, but rarely do they mesh. You can spent more money for easier transport, but even then, you have to contend with roads and connections, both of which … themselves … pieces of the puzzle. I get ahead of myself:
Back in December a friend from NYC put me in FB touch with her friend, Katie, who was living in Jaipur and studying Hindi and who will start her PhD program in the fall to research a specific type of traditional art form in Bihar, an impoverished state east of Varanasi. As it turns out, we know quite a few people in common and for months, we were wondering/trying to meet up. Then, I suddenly left for Bangalor, which changed all my plans. So, I was heading to Jaipur to visit her and to take a side trip she put together to Udaipur, both cities in Rajasthan, and both located between the latitudinal lines of Delhi and Varanasi, read not very far north.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into much detail about this trip, except to say Katie booked a local class train, an 8-hour day trip, to Udiapur. This is the most basic seating class on an Indian train and we were the only westerners, and it was totally manageable – no problem – and cheap. I appreciated the fact that Katie spoke Hindi because it made some things easier and gave a different kind of access and comfort to the trip; like, for example, she gave me confidence to eat – read: select! – street and train food … again many stories and I just need more time to write them all down. Here are a few pics from our travels:
I get edgy and anxious in Udaipur: “Wait a minute? What am I doing?” “Head North. Get Higher. Himalayas!” So, I research my itinerary while in Udiapur and for ways to get north, but couldn’t find a train ticket on such short notice. I had a place to stay waiting for me in Uttarkashi, but, like I said, traveling in India is a puzzle and when you get further north there are fewer trains and this was the season for people to travel this direction to beat the heat. So instead, I found a connecting bus to Haridwar. A few days later, Katie and I take the 8 hr local, day train back to Jaipur, which arrives at 9:30 pm and my bus leaves at 11 pm. We have a typical Indian (meaning, indirect and longer than it needs to be) auto-tuktuk experience getting to the bus stop, and it looks like … “wow, what did I get myself into” …
The pic really doesn’t do it justice, and I need you to know that, for this journey north at least, I was not in the “picture-taking-Oooh-let’s-document-every-facet-of-this-new-and-interesting-experience” mode.
Katie is sweet: “look, if you don’t want to do this, you can stay at my place and figure out another way in the morning.”
I brainstorm out loud.
She continues: “I know other people who have taken these buses … it can be done …”
I express qualms – I demur – I wonder.
Katie explains: “See, I would never ride these buses being a woman. You’re a man and it should be fine. But, listen, it’s only 12 hours, you have a sleeper ticket. So, you’ll sleep most of the way and then you’re there …”
I grasp for resolution – I swallow my misgivings: “I’ll take the bus … and I’ll text you.”
Katie: “Ok. Just remember: if the bus gets here and you don’t want to do this, just come to my place. No need to call. Just come”
The bus is two hours late. It arrives at 1 am and there is nothing easy about it. I get on and it is … er …
… this ride is raw, raw, and – I mean – raw. I mean: hot, bumpy, crowed, chaos. Commerce stored in the isles with families – children! – sleeping on top of it. All seats taken. Nowhere for me to step even to get in! much less get to the back to climb up into the tiny loft enclosed by glass (“it just couldn’t be safety glass. no way,” I think), which is a sorry excuse for a place to sleep. I have to carry my over-packed luggage filled with rocks from Bangalore, an angle grinder I picked up in Varanasi, a super sophisticated water-filtration system from America, three different ways to start a fire, an over-stuffed first-aid kit, two hard drives, a video camera, laptop, a whistle, magnifying glass, tiger balm, lip balm, rope (you always need rope), pens, paper, a P.G. Wodehouse novel, a Shiva scarf, a tube of sunscreen, a small bottle of Listerine, a toothbrush, floss, nail clippers, compass and my five juggling balls to name a few items – and, yes, I have too much crap; my bags are too heavy, and I am probably a bit loopy. It doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m not getting any of this stuff out during the trip because I have to jam my bags into the sleeper compartment with me because there is no space anywhere, and this means I sleep curled up in the fetal position for the night. Oh, did I mention, no bathrooms on the bus?
I would not have been surprised to see a pet chicken or monkey riding with us. I certainly stick out, but I don’t care. I just want to get to Haridwar alive. The euphemistically titled “sleeper compartment” is dirty – no, just horrid. I am smushed into a moving vitrine. Each side, interior and exterior, has two sliding glass doors. Opening one half means you expose half of your coffin-sized compartment to either the interior chaos or the exterior dilapidation zipping by.
This makes for a convenient exit – easy, quick – whether you wanted to or not, since these glass, death-trap doors slowly inch open due to the vibrations of the bus. The most moveable one is the interior door by my feet, exposing the bag containing my CPU to a precipitous end and the potential braining of a sleeping child. A few times every hour, I need to open the other door closer to my head so I can reach out and push the moving door shut. There was no handle to move it and no latch to keep it shut, broken. What I mean by convenient is that I could open the compartment to the exterior and just roll out if I so choose and no one would even know.
Over the years, when I listen to my female friends describe their personal experiences that they face as women, I inevitably wonder about my sisters, and now my nieces, in comparable situations; and, as I’ve gathered these stories and experiences from my female friends and when I think of situations where being male or female makes a quantifiable difference in outcomes, my inevitable question is: how would my sisters, and now my nieces, deal with this situation; and, how would I counsel them?
With respect to this sleeper bus: No obscenity way would I suggest my sisters or nieces to ride this bus alone.
Katie’s instinct is correct. No obscenity-filled, foul-word way!
Ok – enough of this. You get the point. Moving on …
I arrive in Haridwar the next afternoon:
Haridware is on the Ganga and another major Hindu pilgrimage site. The river looks much cleaner than in Varanasi (Kashi). I give myself the day to recoup, do a little recon and hop on a local bus the next day to Rishikesh. This bus is not the same as the sleeper-trip from Jaipur to Haridwar. Sisters, nieces, girlfriends – if you want some adventure – no problem, ride away. It is local and not too bad mainly because it just takes an hour and I have a seat, a decent road. It would have been miserable to stand, however, which some did. Again, I’m the only westerner. I arrive further up the Ganga in Rishikesh, not sure how long I will stay, but think a couple of days:
Rishikesh is touristy and much of the place caters towards tourists and yoga practitioners, most of whom, as far as I can tell, are westerners. But once you look past this you see why people settle here, it is calm, inviting, peaceful, beautiful. The Ganga, like in Haridwar is clean and large, fast, powerful – a sight to see. I decide I will definitely stay more than a few days, if for no other reason but to find the best way to Uttarkashi (again, further up the Ganga, closer to its source), which is not far, but I want to make it easier on myself. Time is clicking on. Rishikesh is higher and considered in the Himalayas, but I know there is much more to see of these mountains.
I explore. I meet people. Drink ersatz coffee. The place is chill and easy going and one can’t ignore all the ashrams and yoga centers everywhere, and the many westerners, mainly women (but there are some men in baggy pants and flip flops), with yoga mats.
I am moved not just by the mountains, but also by this kind of dedication to and the mastery of the body that yoga develops. I simply can’t ignore the well-outlined areas of the longer version of the iliac crest everywhere and observe the harmonious workings between the lateral rotator groups and its hidden piriformis muscle in peak condition with the long, slender workings of the fusiform psoas major muscle, along with perfectly aligned spines. I catch the occasional glimpse of a smoothly executed sartorius movement, and occipital lobes flowing beautifully into well-primped cricoid areas are common. I am moved to contemplate the structural utility of the hyoid bone and to ponder the elusive, but ever-present ucipital mapilary. Yup: I think I will definitely stay here for a while. I meet a woman for dinner with her yoga instructor and the three of us talk about the possibilities and benefits of me taking a few yoga classes. I go back to my hotel thinking: “You know, you are here. Yoga is the thing to do. Hmm – Why not take a class or two?” The draw to stay is strong.
However, I am half-heartedly intent on leaving the next morning. My plan is to wake up at 5-ish, get to the bus station (an ordeal I won’t flesh out), and take the earliest possible bus to Uttarkashi, but – “you know” – my schedule is flexible. I go to bed thinking of the ucipital mapilary.
“Maybe, you will stay here for a while longer … what’s the harm?”
I didn’t bother to set an alarm. I need sleep and wake up at the amazingly late hour of 6 am (see last post about my recent inability to sleep past 4 ish), and not really sure what I am going to do. My stuff is everywhere; I brush my teeth; eat some bananas – and as I do those odd nick-nacky, hilly-bo-billy things one does as one slowly wakes up and formulates a plan and routine for the day, my mind wanders …
[… and the story of the Odyssey fills my thoughts … and Odysseus … he survived 10 years of total war with the Trojans … not to shabby … he’s cunning, wily, smart … well that his reputation, anyway … at the end of the day he was not just a soldier, but a leader in his own right … took 10 years to get home with tribulation after tribulation … Huh, now that’s a journey … archetypal, really …]
These thoughts are all in the background, like muzak, as I shuffle some papers, turn on my i-phone, eat another banana … my mind wanders again …
[… all the trials Odysseus goes through to get home … Huh … he looses many men … Cyclops eats scores … he gets a lover, too, who keeps him on her island and almost prevents him from getting home for real, just because of her beauty … He doesn’t want to leave … Hmm, sounds good … forgot her name … Uh … nope – it’s Calypso … and, that episode where some of his sailors get greedy and are turned into pigs … sucks to be them, but Odysseus survives it all … wasn’t he an expert archer, also? … I bet he could juggle, too …]
Again, this is barely at the conscious level; not hard thinking, mind you … it’s like white noise. My brain continues:
[… Odysseus learning about those Sirens from somewhere … how did he know what they were about … I forget … they were beautiful women – I remember that – who with their song and soothing words and promises of eternal bliss lull sailors to their death by ship buffetted against rock … Whoa … how did Odysseus get out of that one … I forget …]
I basically ignore this unconscious dialogue as I refold a t-shirt and push down the cuticle of my littlest, pinky toe. Next, I’m in front of the bathroom mirror making SpongeBob SquarePants faces and then move on to my best Billy Idol sneer, both sides … an image rushes forward:
[… it is of Odysseus and he is about to break free from the ropes that bind him to his ship’s mast so he doesn’t steer it toward the beautiful calls of the Sirens and certain death and the ear plugs of a few of the sailors have been dislodged; they are distracted; they hear the Siren’s call and can’t help themselves and begin to row the ship towards the music …]
I lose the Billy Idol impression, and purse my lips, furrow my brow, looking at myself in the mirror …
[… Odysseus yells, screams, a battle cry, a call of fury … Right in my face.]
My conscious mind finally makes the connection: “Oh my god! I need to go”
You need to go.
I need to go. I need to go. I need to go.
North. Higher. That is your direction.
I throw everything into my luggage, and think: “Ugh … your late, everything is a mess and you still have all this stuff – stuff, stuff and more stuff.”
Man, I have way too much stuff … Forget about my well laid plans to mail this crap home and make me and my luggage more mobile, forget about the writing and work you where going to do here in Rishikesh. I need to get on that bus to Uttarkashi, pronto… The message is clear: I half-get, half-formulate a vision of being trapped by the yoga-siren song of Rishikesh and my brain turning to cauliflower, becoming a vegan, wearing baggy pants, and becoming so flexible that I’m able to administer my own proctology exam with my metatarsi.
I’m out the door: pay the hotel bill – a fair price, because I negotiated days before; get outside and find someone to cart my luggage through the cobbled streets and across the river to the auto-tuktuk – pay too much, but have to go; got a tuktuk to take me to the bus station (there are several. “Where you go?” “Bus station, Uttarkashi” “OK”) – pay too much, but have to get there … and I do.
The bus stall is a far cry from the Shangri-La of touristy Rishikesh. The next bus for Uttarkashi leaves at 10 am – good and early – I made it with … er … 2 hours before it leaves.!?. Doesn’t matter: at least, I am out of range of the yoga classes. I have my ticket and I’ll be in Uttarkashi in … er …
“Quick question, how long is the bus trip to Uttarkashi”
“You’re kidding?! A travel agent told me it was 3 …?! … and, but – it’s not that far …”
“They are mountain roads and not very good ones. Steep. Many been washed away. Bus goes only about 20 km/hr”
Turns out, the bus is doable, but crowded and just crowded and cramped and long. Hats off to the driver, though, because the bus was rickety and creaky and he navigated those sinuous mountain roads with aplomb. I arrive in Uttarkashi at 6 pm. No question – I’m in the Himalayas, now.