(Chopta, Tsungnath, Josimath, Auli)
Rishikesh is the starting point for one of the most important pilgrimmanges in India, the Char Dham Yatra ("four temple pilgrimmage"), a trip to 4 very high temples in the snowy Himalayas at about 10000 ft above sea level. These 4 temples, located in Badrinath, Kedernath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, are temples that were founded by the Indian Sage Shankara in the 8th century, upon the recession of Buddhism in India. These temples represent some of the most sacred places in all of India, partly in that they have been consistently in place for centuries.
Since my time is short (it takes almost 2 weeks to see them all), my plan is to get to Badrinath, or as close as possible to Badrinath, which according to Beehm, offers the best Himalayan views on the way. Apparently Badrinath is a place where Vivekananda had a major awakening.
The day before I left, Beehm gave me the news that the road to Badrinath was closed due to landslides and snow, which is a minor disappointment, but he works out a very interesting itinerary - Josimath, the town closest to Badrinath is the base of Auli, a ski area that offers a 180 degree view of the highest peaks in the Indian Himalayas, and Chopta, a 9000 ft town that marks the starting point to yet another temple that was founded by Shankara, called Tungnath, one of 5 other lesser known temples in the area. Shankara died when he was 33 years old, and accomplished a lot in 33 years.
So I pay Beehm about 150 dollars for the three day trip, which is expensive by Indian standards, but my experience so far with Beehm is that he is responsible and professional. The 150 includes a guide as well as a driver, who again will be Kuku, which I like very much, as I trust him completely on the wild and zany Indian roads. He introduces me to Hari, a young Indian adventure guide/jock. I immediately take a liking to Hari who is very personable and has that youthful, bubbly thing going on. The only problem with Hari is that his English isn't that great, which concerns me. Hari sounds exactly like the Indian convenience store man on the Simpsons show, a perfect stereotype of the Indian accent. It's easy to talk Hindi-English, just curl your lips out and talk with your teeth closed, it's a starting point at least. Beehm is also concerned, so he assigns me another guide, Sumet, who speaks perfect English, and apparently is Hari's childhood friend. The concerns me a bit, the dynamic, and I am bummed that I won't have the backseat of the taxi all to myself.
But when we pile into Kuku's impeccably clean taxi (Kuku even was a little upset the previous day because I shifted his floormats a bit - wow an Indian with an anal streak!), all three pile into the front seat of the car. Now I feel bad that they have to squish together for three days, but not that bad to offer the backseat. Hey, I'm the important, rich white guy, I should get the backseat. Besides, once I got to know Sumet, I realize that he would have declined anyhow.
So we take off into the Himalayan high country. Despite Kukus driving skill, any bit of bad luck could spell doom for our heroes here, and a few concerned thought pass through now and then.
The reason being is that despite the impressive engineering job building these roads, they are built to be the in barest minimal working conditions. For a country of 986 million the size of the western US, minimal-optimal is the going standard. This means that we encounter all sorts of driving conditions - the road goes from bumpy paved to lunar land surface in seconds with big pot-holes and sections of missing road, in addition to the numerous streams that we must ford, all on a 1.5 lane road halfway up a 1000 to 8000 foot mountain. The Indian designed the road around waterfalls to be part of the waterfall, with special, rocky concrete to do the job. But waterfalls spring up all over the place, making certain sections of the highway like a Malibu beach "sand dune buggy along the shore" kind of drive, to scary mud bog.
And I haven't even gotten to the worst part, the constant landslides. Since I saw perhaps two vehicles for road work/repair the whole trip, most of the work is done by a bunch of guys with a shovel - it looks like the Uttar Pradesh state hires the kujas to be responsible for certain sections of the road. But people power can only go so far, and therefore, at a landslide, an even smaller one lane road is built out of the newly dump dirt and rock. And this is pretty treacherous for car undercarriages and such.
The road crews have an interesting technique - one guy shovels while another ties a rope to the shovel handle down by the blade and help pull when the main shoveler is ready to pick up. Now that's teamwork. And may I mention that there's no glass ceiling in the road crew in the Himalayan highlands - I saw plenty of women dumping dirt and moving rocks. I saw one family where the husband and wife pick up pile of dirt in a big blanket and dump it over the side; meanwhile their two year old baby plays about 20 feet away in a small hole that is about two feet from a 5000 foot cliff. Life on the edge literally. Hari informs me that the Uttar Pradesh transportation bureau is incredibly corrupt. I believe him.
So with all that to deal with, Kuku must manage the road traffic. Customary with all drivers in India, especially taxis, he blows his horn before coming into a curve, and has that certain capacity to always be looking ahead to know if traffic is coming our way, since you get a long distance view of the road ahead in the Himalayas - for the most part - we had several situations where a big, big truck or bus arrived at the same 1.5 lane curve exactly the same time the car did and Kuku handled with optimal efficiency, knowing exactly how much room there is near the cliff of several thousand feet on one side, and the truck on the other. He's a pro at this and he does this at a maximal speed that sometimes is scary, even for me, who likes to go fast. But he is impeccable as a driver, and I think he could give any NASCAR driver a run for his money given the chance. And those Ambassador taxis sure take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. Well built cars. And another thing about Kuku is that he hardly ate for our trip, and when we stopped for the night, he slept in his taxi, and at times we found him working on a friends taxi when we were stopped in a town. He is a transportation God, from the realm where all good taxi drivers emanate, which are few.
Driving along the roadside, we pass cute signs in the Hindi-English style which is supposed to help drivers slow down. Here's a sampling:
"Life is Short. Don't make it shorter"
"Not to worry. Eat curry, Don't hurry"
"Be bright around blind curves"
and my favorites:
"Darling I Love You, But Not So Fast!"
"Pay Attention to My Curves"
and last but not least:
Along the way, I make conversation with Hari and Sumet. Hari asks me a whole mess of question about sports, but I have a hard time understanding at time, which then Sumet stands in and gives me a clearer wording. At one point, we're talking about big tennis servers, and he asks me if I know Goran Ivanesovic - do you have any idea how Goran Ivanesovic sounds like in a thick Hindi accent? By listening close to Hari, Hindi reminds me a bit of Spanish, concise and spoken fast, with little space between words. He has great pride in India, especially the Indian cricket team. I know nothing about cricket and don't have the heart to tell Hari that I don't believe it's a real sport.