We wound our way further into the mountains on the side of a steep valley which led down to the meandering bright blue Ganges. There was no barrier, lots of sharp braking and a fair few dodgy overtakes. The villages we drove through were all built into the steep hillside and painted in faded blues, pinks and yellows. En route we stopped at the confluence of two rivers which is considered to be the beginning of the Ganges River thus making it an important destination for pilgrims. We often passed Babas on the road, usually walking barefoot with a small sack slung over their shoulders and wearing only their robes despite the cool temperature.
Our tents, which were carried up the steep hillside by mules, were pitched next to a lake with the backdrop of superb snow capped mountains. We all climbed up a rickety lookout to watch the final glow of the descending sun upon the mountains. The display of fiery colours left us in awe. The evenings were colder than we ever imagined and we soon regretted taking the tour guides warning of it being bitterly cold so lightly; naively, we wore sports leggings, trainers and a token jumper brought the day before.
Our first evening was spent huddled in a little stone hut eating a delicious fire-cooked meal of chai, chapattis, noodle soup and curry. Afterwards, the guide, a young Indian guy who grew up in Chopta, asked us all to sing a song from our country. Somewhat nervously we all sang and translated our songs. Katelyn and I were extremely relieved to be able to sing Loch Lomond together. After the singing, some old speakers were plugged in and we all danced away to Indian music, our awkwardness gradually subsiding as we laughed at the strange situation. Even the driver and the old man who lived there joined in, bidis in hand.
In the morning we woke early and warmed ourselves up with steaming chai and banana porridge. Today’s walk began with a steep 5km clamber and although we rested often, we found irony in the fact that the ‘breather breaks’ were mostly for bidis. The walk was challenging and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at our guide, Karly, who scaled the hills without even braking into a sweat or catching his breath, all the while rocking a leather jacket, jeans and trainers, cigarette usually in hand. The landscape was carved out by deep valleys and etched with terrace farming, we wandered through rhododendron woods, small luscious paddocks, picnicked under packs of monkeys eagerly spying on our food and numbed our feet in rivers of ice cold, translucent water. Both silent contemplation and conversations meant the time pasted quickly. That night we arrived at our second campsite situated in a small hamlet which would soon be deserted by the villages who moved down to the larger town during winter. Here, the mountains towered over us. We collected wood so that the hours of darkness could be passed around a roaring fire, it was, as you can imagine in the baltic temperature, a saving grace. The gentle ache in our limbs and depleted wood supply meant we settled into our sleeping bags early; we knew we had to try and get some sleep before the 2:00am start the next morning.
Under a blanket of stars we climbed the mountain Chandrashila and moved quickly prevent getting cold. However, by 4.30am we were ahead of time and to avoid waiting in the bitterly cold wind at the top we climbed into an old ruin and lit a fire to keep warm, passing round much needed biscuits. We arrived at the top in darkness and sheltered by the small temple, huddled under a couple of blankets whist we waited for the sunrise. We watched the first light appear in total tranquility, flooding our view with warm, golden sunlight. In the space of a couple of minutes the night sky disappeared. It was so breathtaking none of us spoke, all I could think was this is one of those numinous moments.
All slightly overwhelmed by the beauty, we tucked into a hearty breakfast before ambling back down. We visited the beautiful Shiva temple that has perched precariously on the mountain for 1000 years. The courtyard, full of bells, overlooked the valley and there were fountains and lions carved out of huge slabs of stone. Back at our campsite, we were sad to discover that a tiger had taken one of the puppies we had been cuddling and its remains found 10 meters from our campsite. After expressing our angsts to Karly, he attempted to reassure us, half joking, with “well it’s unlikely to eat you but I don’t want to say there is no chance”. Us three girls squeezed in one tent that night
Much to our sadness we headed back to Rishikesh the next day, not only did it feel strange to back in a throng of people but were were thrown in the chaos of India's crack down on 'black money' and Trump had won the election. How we wished we could have stayed in that world above the clouds where being oblivious really is bliss.
Feature Image Credit: Meggie Williams (photos), Canva (rangoli flower illustration), Twemoji (Indian flag), studiog (notebook and pens), FWStudios from Pexels (wood), Beth Robson (curry illustration)