India

The Best of Uttarakhand and India’s Char Dham

Some of the holiest sites in Hinduism can be found high up in the Garhwali Himalayas in Uttarakhand, where temples mark the spiritual sources of four sacred rivers: the Yamuna, the Ganges, the Mandakini and the AlaknandaYamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath make up one of the most important yatra circuits in India, known as the Char Dham – four seats.

Between April and November every year, thousands of pilgrims brave treacherous mountain roads and high-altitude trails to reach them. In August of last year, Ollie and I were among them. As well as visiting Badrinath and Gangotri temples, we also set out to see some of Uttarakhand’s natural beauty, along with a Sikh pilgrimage destination.

Our base for this trip was Rishikesh and it was here that we spent a few days either side of our mountain adventures. This is how we tackled two of the Char Dham sites and intertwined them with some other unmissable destinations…

Rishikesh – Badrinath – Valley of Flowers and Hem Kund – Joshimath and Auli – Srinagar – Uttarkashi – Gangotri and Gaumukh – Rishikesh

Badrinath (3133m)

From Rishikesh we took a State Transport bus to Badrinath, which took around 12 hours. The road was in fairly good shape until Joshimath, but from there things took a turn for the worse. Not only did it become pot-holed, narrower and more winding but the driver was also forced to negotiate at least one landslide. The monsoon rains were causing havoc in the hills. We arrived at dusk, in pelting rain and shivering with cold.

The small village, which shelters Badrinath Temple, is home to many budget guesthouses and hotels, as well as a series of even cheaper ashrams. Basic dhabas can also be found within the village, serving the usual vegetarian Indian fare.

Once morning dawned, we set out to see the famous temple, which sits in a superb setting in the shadow of snow-capped Nilkantha. It is sacred to Lord Vishnu and is painted in vividly bright colours; below the temple are hot springs which reach a scorching 40°c. Even though we aren’t Hindu, it was still extremely worthwhile to visit the temple, the atmosphere being charged with a unique spiritual fervour.

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Badrinath Temple

Mana Village

While in Badrinath, don’t miss the chance to hike 3km along the Alaknanda River to Mana village, tiny but full of local character. Though it is possible to take a taxi, the scenic hike, past fields divided by dry-stone walls and with the mountains rising up on either side of the valley, is a treat in itself.

With the sun shining and the sky clear, it was a delight to wander around the traditional village, where work was going on as it had for generations. In a small cave, just beyond the final homestead, lies the 5000-year-old Vyas Temple. Nearby is Bhima’s Rock, a natural rock arch said to have been made by Bhima, whose story is told in the Mahabharata.

From Mana, it is possible to continue another 5km along the river to the 145m Vashudhara Waterfall, though we didn’t as black storm clouds were starting to gather.

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Exploring Mana Village

Upon our return to Badrinath, we managed to find a shared taxi to reach the small settlement of Govindghat, 25km back down the road towards Joshimath. It wasn’t plain sailing, however, as a massive landslide had wiped out a large chunk of the road. We had to take a lengthy detour on foot, via a hillside trail, to skirt around the destruction and then pick up an onward jeep on the other side.

Valley of Flowers (3352m – 3658m) and Hem Kund (4300m)

The 87-sq-km Valley of Flowers National Park is a high-altitude Himalayan valley that is known for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers, of which there are around 300 species. This World Heritage Site is an extremely unique and valuable resource, containing many plant species with medicinal properties.

The meadows are a sight to behold, the pink and white floral carpets so striking against the mighty 6000m mountains that frame the valley, tinged year-round with snow and glaciers. The best time to visit is during the monsoon season, when the flowers are in full bloom, though this of course can make access tricky.

Hem Kund, meanwhile, is a Sikh pilgrimage site, a sacred lake and gurdwara surrounded by seven peaks where guru Gobind Singh is believed to have meditated in a previous life.

Hiking from Govindghat to Ghangaria

To reach the Valley of Flowers and Hem Kund first requires a full day hike from Govindghat to Ghangaria, a one street village set in a deodar forest and full of budget hotels and restaurants, a gurdwara and hundreds of ponies. The scenic trek is 14km of uphill, though it is now possible to shorten the distance somewhat by taking a shared jeep the first 4km, to where the road runs out at a small carpark. Ponies are also on hand if the hike is too strenuous.

Having stayed the night at Govindghat, we made an early start at around 9am and managed to reach Ghangaria in around four hours, in time for some lunch and a rest. Dhabas and drink stalls are, however, available along the route. We stayed two nights in a very basic lodge in Ghangaria, our room very cold and uninviting; the redeeming feature was that hot water was available for bathing for Rs 50 a bucket.

The Start of the Hike from Govindghat to Ghangaria

Valley of Flowers

From Ghangaria the path splits after one kilometre, the left fork leading another 2km uphill to where the Valley of Flowers begins and the right fork zigzagging a more strenuous 6km up to Hem Kund at 4300m.

The ticket office for the Valley of Flowers is located where the ways branch; it is Rs 150 for Indian citizens and Rs 650 for foreigners – still current as of June 2019. The ticket is valid for three days though, as it is not possible to stay in either the Valley of Flowers or Hem Kund, you would have to return to Ghangaria at the end of each day.

We had a beautiful sunny day for the hike up to Ghangaria and were extremely lucky when we visited the Valley of Flowers; though we began the hike in the rain and mist, fate was on our side and the weather cleared by the time we emerged into the blooming meadows. With the sky a leaden grey and entrails of mist still swirling, the bright pink carpets looked even more radiant.

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Valley of Flowers National Park

Hem Kund

We were not, however, so lucky the following day. Despite its glorious setting, all that we saw at Hem Kund was thick unmoving mist; indeed, we could only just make out the gurdwara when we were only a few feet away. It was still worth the hike though, the atmosphere charged with fervour and faith and the sense of being somewhere extremely sacred and special.

We made it back down from Hem Kund by lunchtime, so after some food, decided to head back down to Govindghat that same afternoon. The weather was clear and dry on our descent and we couldn’t help but wonder if things had cleared at the top; should we have waited at the gurdwara longer, we asked ourselves, did the mist clear. We shall never know.

Note that, for those unable to hike, porters are available to carry you up to the Valley of Flowers and ponies are on hire for the climb up to Hem Kund. Seeing porters hauling people in wicker chairs on their backs made us question the morality of such a practice; we would only encourage visiting the valley if you are fit enough to hike up yourself.

View over Ghangaria

Joshimath (1875m) and Auli (3048m)

Somehow, we managed to hike up to Hem Kund, get back down to Ghangaria and then to Govindghat and find a shared taxi to Joshimath, all in one long day! We were very lucky to get onward transport to Joshimath that night, as it normally tapers out by late afternoon. The distance is only around 20km between Govindghat and Joshimath, yet the poor and winding road means that it usually takes around an hour.

Joshimath

Joshimath is a ramshackle, two-street town with a couple of places to sleep and eat and is the base for the Kuari Pass Trek and Auli Ski Resort. There are a number of operators in town who can arrange the necessary permit, guide and equipment to trek in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. We will certainly return to Joshimath to do this trek, which is ideally done in spring or autumn, not in monsoon.

We stayed two nights in town, exploring the Narsingh Mandir in the bazaar and taking a taxi up to Auli, which can usually be reached by cable-car, though not at the time of our visit. India’s premier ski resort offers awesome views of Nanda Devi, the country’s second highest peak; the mountains, however, were mostly obscured by cloud when we were there.

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Narsingh Mandir in Joshimath

Even if you’re not intending to do the Kuari Pass Trek, we would highly recommend hiking a couple of kilometres above Auli, with its artificial lake, to a plateau of upland meadows. It’s a pleasant climb up through alpine forests, past a quaint Hindu temple, to where the trees give way to rolling grassland and, on a clear day, panoramic vistas.

View over Auli

Getting from Joshimath to Uttarkashi

Getting from Joshimath to Uttarkashi requires changing buses in Srinagar, a small town nestled in the Himalayan foothills beside the Alaknanda River. We took a 4am bus from Joshimath and hoped to reach Uttarkashi that same day; what we hadn’t predicted was a string of landslides that meant we didn’t even reach Srinagar until dusk.

We, therefore, had to stay in Srinagar the night, finding a basic hotel on the main street. The following morning it was possible to take a 6am bus on to Uttarkashi, a journey of around eight hours. The scenery on route was beautiful, the deep green forests and plunging valleys of the Garhwall hills rushing past outside the bus windows.

Uttarkashi (1158m)

Uttarkashi is the largest town in northern Garhwal and is often used as a stopover for travellers journeying to Gangotri. We arrived in the early afternoon and spent a half day exploring the town, which sits on the banks of the Bhagirathi River and is a Hindu holy town.

There are many temples and ashrams hidden within the winding lanes, including the Vishwanath Temple, as well as a bustling bazaar. We also took a wander in the quieter outskirts of town, an area of brilliantly green rice fields and traditional homes; two foreigners were indeed a rare sight!

There are plenty of local dhabas in town, where it is possible to get an all-you-can-eat thali for Rs 50.

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Uttarkashi

Gangotri (3042m) and Gaumukh Trek

After spending a night in Uttarkashi, we took an early morning shared jeep to Gangotri; again the journey took longer than predicted due to a series of landslides. Travelling the hills during monsoon, it is important to allow time for potential delays and set aside extra days in case of hold-ups!

Whilst we were waiting on the side of the road for one such landslide to be cleared, we got chatting to an Indian family, who very kindly offered us bags of snacks in lieu of breakfast. Another man even bought us chai from a local tea shack; the benevolence of strangers in India never fails to baffle us!

Gangotri Temple

In Gangotri we found a basic guesthouse for the night then set off to see the temple. Though still quite a trek from the source at Gaumukh, Gangotri Temple honours the origin of Hinduism’s most sacred river, the Ganges, known as the Bhagirathi until it reaches Devprayag.

It was built by a Gorkha commander in the 18th Century; nearby lies the rock where Shiva is said to have cushioned the impact of the water as it poured from the heavens, thus saving the earth from its destructive force.

Even though we aren’t Hindu, it was still a special moment when we first caught sight of this famous temple, which we had seen in photos so many times. It felt a little surreal to finally be there in person!

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Gangotri Temple

Hiking to Gaumukh

The next morning, we set off on the trek to Gaumukh, which lies 18km upstream at an altitude of just over 4000m. Before you can hit the trail, you must first get a permit from the Forest Office in Gangotri; access is limited to 150 people per day and is highly weather dependent.

We were refused permits the evening before as weather reports indicated rain; we were told to return the following morning. Due to a stroke of luck, we were able to get hold of the necessary paperwork, paid the fee (Rs 600 for a foreigner, Rs 150 for an Indian, valid two days) and were on our way.

Also note:

  • If you intend to be on the trail for more than two days: each successive day costs Rs 250 for foreigners or Rs 50 for Indians
  • In Gangotri the permit can be obtained from the satellite office near the bus stand – locals will direct you. It’s open daily from 8am to 10am and from 5pm to 7pm.
  • In order to get the permit you’ll need to bring along a copy of your passport ID page and Indian visa and fill out a form, available on the spot
Hiking to Gaumukh

It’s a beautiful trek upstream, the trail rising gradually and the valley sides steep on either side of the river. At some points, you’ll need to cross a small wooden plank bridge over a rushing stream, or negotiate your way across a landslide area; the trail is, however, generally solid until Bhojbasa.

Bjojbasa lies 4km from Gaumukh and offers basic accommodation to halt for the night. We reached here by lunchtime, arranged to stay at Lalbaba’s Ashram, where we had a quick bite to eat, then continued on towards the source of the Ganges.

The first 2km of the route is a little broken with more streams and uneven areas to navigate but, nevertheless, it’s passable. A small Shiva shrine can be seen after 2km and marks the point where the snout of Gaumukh Glacier used to be; it has receded over the years due to global warming.

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Shiva Shrine near Gaumukh

It was just beyond this point that we, grudgingly, decided not to proceed as the trail virtually disappeared and you had to scramble over boulder moraine to continue on to Gaumukh. Heavy mist and a light drizzle had also descended; it would not have been safe to traverse such uneven terrain, especially as we had no guide.

Outside of monsoon, if you do have a guide, the necessary permission and camping equipment, it is possible to continue 6km past Gaumukh up to the meadow at Tapovan, an extremely challenging undertaking which involves traversing Gaumukh Glacier.

Even though we didn’t actually see the source of the Ganges for ourselves, it was still an incredible trek with some beautiful scenery and knowing that we had reached within a couple kilometres of Gaumukh was good enough for us!

A couple of useful points:

  • Lalbaba’s Ashram charges Rs 500 per person per night, which includes a very basic room, dinner and a light breakfast
  • The best months for the Gaumukh trek are May-June and September-October when skies are clear and mountain views at their best – Mt Shivling and Bhagirathi Parvat are two such peaks you’ll see

In Gangotri there are plenty of cheap guesthouses, ashrams and restaurants, catering to the large number of Indian pilgrims who journey to one of India’s holiest temples. It is possible to take a bus or shared jeep all the way from Rishikesh, though we recommend breaking the long trip in Uttarkashi.

Having stayed the night at Bhojbasa, we left early next morning and were back in Gangotri in time for lunch. It took some time but, eventually, we were able to hitch a lift with a large group of Indians as far as Uttarkashi, where we stayed another night. We then took a 4am bus the next day back to Rishikesh.

Note that transport from Gangotri to Uttarkashi normally leaves in the early morning; by lunchtime you’ll likely need to try your hand at hitching!

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Bhojbasa – Base Camp for Gaumukh and Tapovan

If you find yourself in Rishikesh, or indeed Uttarakhand, during the pilgrimage season a trip to one or more of the Char Dham sites makes for a worthwhile adventure. All four temples are located in stunning settings, surrounded by soaring peaks.

Whilst Badrinath and Gangotri can be reached by road, Yamunotri and Kedarnath must be trekked to. The 5km trail to Yamunotri begins at Janki Chatti whilst it is a 22km uphill hike from Sonprayag to Kedarnath. It is our aim to visit these other two dhams when we are next in Uttarakhand!

Rishikesh

Back in Rishikesh, you can relax in one of the many cafes or soak up the spiritual energy beside the rushing Ganges.

some of our Rishikesh recommendations:

  • Do a yoga, meditation or reiki course
  • Attend the nightly Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan ashram
  • Explore Lakshman Jhula, Ram Jhula and Swarg Ashram
  • Visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, otherwise known as the Beatles Ashram
  • Hike to Neer Garh waterfall or Neelkantha Mahadeva temple
  • Climb up Bhoothnath Temple for panoramic views
  • Attend the International Yoga Festival (1-7 March annually)

Let us know if you have any questions or comments about Rishikesh, the Char Dham or any of the other places mentioned in this post!

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