Leaving Kanpur was not easy. And it wasn't because we had gotten used to the air-conditioning and the cable television in our hotel room. We had simply gotten used to spending every day with Jitendra's family and it seemed painful to be saying goodbye. We were now affectionately known as Emilie Bhabi and Yann Bhaya (older sister and older brother) by Jitendra's cousins. We had been so lovingly welcomed by everyone and we got a small glimpse of the closeness of an Indian family.
We were also parting ways with James and Antonia, albeit only for a few weeks. Being their first time in India there were a few “must-sees” that we all agreed they shouldn't miss. But we would wait for them in the coolness of the Himalayas. We decided to head up to the state of Uttarakhand, the location of the Himalayan Char Dam, an important Hindu pilgrimage circuit covering four temples.
One of the main jump off points for the Char Dam is Haridwar, actually one of Hinduism's most sacred cities. The sacred Ganges river enters the North Indian plains for the first time from its origin in the Himalayan glaciers. According to Hindu scripture, Haridwar is one of four places where a drop of the elixir of immortality was accidentally dropped. We only had a day there, which was marred by the fact that I had been stung by an insect in the overnight train and had one eye completely swollen shut. Yann was his usual unsympathetic self and didn't seem to be as concerned as I was about the possibility that I might go blind. It was actually quite painful, especially trying to pry the the contact lens out of my eye. But the worst part was navigating through the hectic streets of Haridwar half blind. Yann did a good job of pulling me around for the morning until the anti-histamines kicked in. In the afternoon, we took the popular cable car trip to the Mansa Devi Temple which was crowded and confusing (The Goddess Mansa Devi is said to grand the wishes of her devotees, which might be an explanation for the the temple's popularity). We just followed the crowd and did what everyone else was doing. When we were in Haridwar, it was the tail end of the pilgrimage season and thousands of mostly young men, covered wearing head-to-toe orange scoured the city. Many of these pilgrims were walking to and from Haridwar from in order to carry back sacred water from the Ganges back to their home villages. They are known as kanwarias, named for the kanwar, the pole that they balance on their shoulders with water jugs hanging on each end. The orange colour represents the God Shiva and the Ganges water will be used to honour Shiva in their home villages. Apparently, at the busiest time of the pilgrimage season, entire swaths of highway are closed off to accommodate the crowds of kanwarias heading to Haridwar. With the rainy season fast approaching, the mountain roads leading to the four Char Dam temples would soon become too treacherous for the buses, so the number of pilgrims seemed to be manageable for the city. Although most tour bus companies offered a 4-day/4-temple Char Dam package, containing some ungodly amount of time on a bus. We decided to focus on only one of the four sacred temples. We picked Badrinath because it seemed to be the most accessible by road, and because the national park a few hours away was actually our main destination. We were able to book a direct bus to Badrinath for the next morning at 5:30am, we had no problem getting seats for the 14-hour trip.
We have taken hundreds of bus trips, and it seems like every one of them is worse than the one before. This ride was no exception, in fact it this one seemed to surpass any of the trips in our recent memory as the most uncomfortable, the most unpleasant and the most dangerous. Although the road winding up and down the mountain is in relatively good condition, what makes it dangerous is the sheer volume of traffic plying the route. Buses speed and pass each other on perilous switchbacks, the one highway leads to the four Hindu holy sites and a Sikh holy site. In terms of comfort, clearly every single seat in the bus had been ripped out and been replaced with tiny ones so as to cram more people in it. Our knees were completely up against the seats in front of us, which seemed ok for the first few hours, but grew more and more awful as the ride continued. When we finally arrived in Badrinath it was already night. We were happy to be alive, but we were even more happy that it was so cold that we needed to pull out our sweaters. It was the first time we had needed to wear them since arriving in Asia. We were so delighted with the weather that we decided to stay for three days. Badrinath itself is a mainly seasonal town. In the winter the road is too perilous to travel and the weather too cold. Hotels and restaurants are open only for the summer pilgrimmage season, only a few villagers remain nearby for the winter. The atmosphere in town is festive with hundreds of saddhus living in the surrounding hills for the summer months and the colourful Badrinath Temple itself (for which the town is named) is overflowing with visitors. We were a big hit at the temple entrance where everyone wanted us to join into their family photos. We spend almost a full day walking into the mountains surrounding Badrinath. Various trails criss-cross the hills and lead to holy caves or worshipping places. We followed a trail that lead us to a small tea shop where we met two sadhhus (wandering Hindu holy men). One of them had a huge walkman that played tapes, he carried two small bags with him, one was entirely filled with tapes. He insisted on having us listen to one of his tapes to prove to us that he only listened to Hindu music. "No Bollywood... no Salman Khan ...!" Another saddhu at the tea shop seemed to be interested in us as well and hovered around us as we set up to keep trekking up the hill. Sensing a request for money we tried to go on alone but we had picked up a new friend and the three of us left together. We wandered along together and everytime we crossed other pilgrims he would make his plea for money. It seemed that he believed that our presence might be increasing the quantity and quality of alms he was receiving and he became increasingly cheerful as we walked up through the mountains. We crossed dozens of pilgrims who keenly inquired about us and requested photos with us. People were incredibly friendly and excited. At some point we decided to head back to town, and the saddhu accompanying us asked for a gift. He didn't want money, he wanted a gift. Luckily I had a bag full of Canadian flag pins and I handed one over. He was quite convinced that it was an earring and despite my attempts to dissuade him, poked one through his ear then asked for another one. In exchange he gave me his Krishna pin. actually he emptied both of his pockets and tried to give us everything he had in them, including his bag of hash. We left with only the pin. The next day we walked to Mana village, the last Indian settlement on the road heading to Tibet. The village was truly lovely albeit slightly overrun with visitors passing through from Badrinath (such as ourselves). The villagers didn't speak much English, nor did they speak much Hindi, and the older women dressed in brown wrap-like coats, adorned with jewelry carved from bone, reminiscent of their Tibetan neighbours. We were an easy 3km away from Badrinath, but we were in a completely new setting, the pace had slowed to a near standstill. Women sat around together knitting hand-spun wool, the village is known for its knitwear, but the wool was so rough, we couldn't bring ourselves to purchase anything (and actually everything also happened to be hideously ugly). While village men sat in their porter's baskets waiting to carry visitors up steep mountain paths (not looking particularly interested in nabbing any customers though). It took about 20 minutes to get a chai because the tea shop owner didn't want to interrupt his card game. It seemed as though the higher the altitude, the slower things moved, which made us perfectly happy.
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