If you have never been on a 3rd class train in India, my advice is: Don’t do it
In India there are several classes of rail service: Shatabdi, 1st Class A/C, 2nd Class A/C, these are all acceptable. I have travelled 1st Class (non A/C) and even this can be OK as long as it is not too hot.
But 3rd Class? Just don’t do it.
For us, though, we had to get to Haridwar, where we would pick up the bus that would take us to Hemkunt Sahib by way of Rishikesh. Haridwar is 408 km from Amritsar, a distance of 250 miles, which is about thirty miles less than from London to Newcastle and about fifty miles more than from New York to Washington DC. Not a terribly long distance.
We were driven to the Amritsar train station where we eventually boarded the train – it was late – and left just as darkness was falling. It was not too crowded when it left: that would change.
All of the carriages were filthy inside and out. In ours we found hard wooden benches and luggage racks. All the windows were open as wide as possible to catch any breezes to ease the stifling heat. About the bathrooms, the less said the better. But you could see the track bed whizzing by through the hole in the squat toilets.
We made ourselves as comfortable as possible and a few lucky ones were even able to sleep.
This was not a fast train. It seemed to stop at every station; for all I know it might have gone to some stations more than once as it often went backwards. It stopped in the middle of nowhere for no discernible reason. People would climb down from their coaches and wander around. They would smoke (not us), urinate or – if there were vendors around – buy refreshments, particularly the ubiquitous Indian favorite – chai. At stations the chai vale (tea sellers) would climb aboard the train and pick their way through the sleeping bodies, calling out “Chaayee, chaayee”.
We soon learned the rules of the unscheduled stops. You could do pretty much do whatever you wanted or go wherever you wanted but you had to keep an eye on the train. When it was time to leave, the train driver would apply the power and the train would slowly, almost imperceptibly, begin to move. Unless you had gone very far away there would be a reasonable amount of time before the train was going too fast to climb aboard but you still had to get on or be left somewhere in the middle of rural India. So, every time the train began to move, after an unscheduled stop, there was a mad rush to get back on.
What was most disconcerting was when the train would start moving in a different direction from that in which it was heading when it arrived. In other words, it started going back towards where it came from. We had several of these during the night and I eventually gave up trying to figure out where we were.
We arrived in Haridwar around 1:30 pm after a journey of about 16 hours, giving us an average speed for the journey of just under 16 mph. We could almost have done as well on bikes! We were all totally shattered and one or two of the party had succumbed to the kind of intestinal occurrences from which travelers to India seem to suffer. In spite of my tiredness I was feeling OK and congratulated myself adjusting well to India. Little did I know that the comeuppance for my arrogance was waiting in the wings.
We overnighted at the gurdwara in Rishikesh which, in those days, had only a brick, three-story guest house with concrete floors and little in the way of facilities. Nowadays there are numerous hotel-like guest houses built at the facility. We went for a refreshing dip in the Ganges – along with some human bones – and that night I saw a firefly for the first time.
Rishikesh is located where the Ganges flows out of the foothills of the Himalayas on to the plains of India. It was a picturesque, sleepy, little town in those days. Now it has become a resort, overrun with spas, motels, tourist traps and a commercial district to supply the building materials necessary for the construction and maintenance of all these buildings.
Rishikesh and its suburbs are known to be a spiritual center and a magnet for seekers from both East and West. The town and its environs are full of Indian sadhus and Western backpackers and tourist. But the real spiritual action takes place in Lachman Jhula, the community on the other side of the Ganges, which is accessible only by two footbridges or ferry unless you want to bring your car and make a very long detour.
It is in Lachman Jhula where most of the ashrams, places where people may come to study yoga or other spiritual disciplines and Ayurvedic clinics are located. That wasn’t terribly exciting for us but we were very interested to find out that the best restaurants were located there and headed over by ferry to try them.
There are some real characters to be found there. Walking along by the side of the Ganges I found a genuine yogi stretched out quite happily on a bed of nails. Yes, such things really do exist outside of cartoons. There was also the “Monkey Man” as I called him.
Obviously a devotee of Hanuman, the monkey god, this guy was dressed up to look like a monkey although not, I hasten to add, in a gorilla suit. He had a piece of stiff wire attached to his butt to simulate a tail. He did, however, do an excellent impression of a monkey’s speech and movements. He seemed to delight in doing this, especially to passers-by whom he would annoy and frighten . Obviously the idea was to get them to give him some money to make him go away. He was very authentic and very annoying. I got out of there as quickly.as I could.
The next morning we boarded our bus and headed up into the foothills and – unusually for me - I wasn’t really clear about where we were going. The end of the day found us in a little town called Sri Nagar (Big Town), not to be confused with the Sri Nagar which is the capital of Kashmir.
Our bus driver was a genial Sikh with a white beard and a very young, clean-shaven Sikh lad as his assistant (most bus drivers in India have assistants). He was a nice enough guy but he had a rather ghoulish habit.
The road from Rishikesh, up into the Himalayas and to the Hindu pilgrimage sites is narrow and treacherous; most of it is hewn from the sides of mountains. There is barely room for one vehicle, let alone two passing each other, and the drop-offs are terrifying. It was – and probably still is – all too common for buses and trucks to plunge down the mountainsides.
Our driver seemed to stop at every place where there had been an accident. He would jump out of the bus, together with his assistant, and stand and look at the carcass of a bus or a truck that was way, way below. Since my Punjabi was almost non-existent I didn’t ask him why. Perhaps I didn’t want to know. All of this was not terribly reassuring, but we made the journey without mishap
That night we were invited to the Sri Nagar gurdwara to do kirtan and I was given the honors. The only harmonium in the place was sorely lacking. One of the ladies in our party said to me afterwards, “If I had to do kirtan and found myself with that harmonium, I’d probably burst into tears.” The only percussion available was a well-meaning but not terribly competent Punjabi who had a dholak. In spite of these difficulties we managed to produce a good, rousing rendition of Waho, waho Gobind Singh, ape guru chela and everyone went to bed in high spirits except those poor unfortunates who were still suffering from their digestive difficulties.
Next day around lunchtime, we at arrived at Josimath where we would wait for an hour or two to be allowed to take the road to Gobind Ghat. Gobind Ghat might be called the “jumping-off point” for the hike to Hemkunt Sahib.
The narrow and dangerous road from Josimath to the Hindu holy city of Badrinath, for the most part, runs along the gorge of the Alaknanda river. The road is so narrow that traffic is only allowed to travel one way at a time, according to a fixed schedule.
When the gate at Josimath is closed, you can drive from Badrinath towards Josimath. If you arrive in Josimath while the gate is closed – as we did - you have to wait there until it is opened to proceed towards Badrinath or, in our case, towards Gobind Ghat. Our destination was located on the other side of the Alaknanda from the road and had to be reached by footbridge.
At Gobind Ghat we found our accommodation which was – as we expected – spartan. All eighty of us were in one room with concrete floors and no beds. We were served langar and made up our beds knowing that we would leave early the next morning for the first leg of our thirteen mile hike to Hemkunt Sahib.
There was one drawback to our room that we did not discover until it was time to go to sleep. There was a partition wall in the room that did not go all the way up to the ceiling. We discovered that a group of women had been billeted on the other side of the partition to spend the night. At least it sounded like there were only women because there were no male voices. There were, however, lots and lots of women’s voices and they were talking away as only Punjabi women can, fast, loud and incessantly. They took absolutely no notice of our shouts to “Choop karo!” and kept on talking. A lot of people were very upset because we were exhausted form the trip and were looking to make an early start in the morning.
Me? I just rolled over and went to sleep. Others told me the next day that the noise eventually stopped around 2 am.
I set off for Hemkunt around 6:30 am in the company of one other man. For once there was no restriction of “group consciousness” which was often the bane of our existence on the trip. We were allowed to travel at our own pace.
Our destination was Gobind Dham, the way station on the journey. That was our first day’s goal. The next day would see us hiking up to Hemkunt Sahib. The first day’s walk would be just over 8 miles and we would ascend from 5500 feet to 10,000 feet. Our second day’s climb, to Hemkunt Sahib itself, was slightly less than four miles but we would ascend 5,000 feet, a very steep and grueling hike at high altitude.
I was so full of excitement at having the opportunity to finally get to Hemkunt Sahib that I took off like a rocket. My companion was also in good shape and happy to keep up with me. The trail to Gobind Dham is not totally uphill. On the sections where the trail descended we would run down and where the trail ascended we would walk as fast as we could. It was a sunny day and I was soon drenched with sweat.
We deliberately avoided the several ramshackle tea stands which were only just opening as we passed. The majority of pilgrims – including, presumably, those ladies who had stayed awake talking until 2 am – would be arriving later and the tea stands would do a roaring trade. I have to admit that none of them looked very sanitary to me. The oil in which they fried their pakoras and samosas looked like it was due for its 100,000 mile oil change.
Before 10 am we arrived at Gobind Dham which was deserted as we were the first to arrive of the new pilgrims; those who were already there had begun their ascent to Hemkunt Sahib. We found our accommodations and looked around the place. There was not too much of anything. Some corrugated steel guest houses, a gurdwara and langar building and the stone houses of the mountain people who had lived there for generations in the village known as Ghangria. They made their living by catering to the many Sikh pilgrims who came there between the end of May and the beginning of October. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of the day there, plus I didn’t want to wait yet one more day to see the sacred meditation abode of Guru Gobind Singh ji, so I turned to my companion and asked him if he wanted to go on, all the way up to Hemkunt. He agreed and off we went.
The suggested time to a lot for the final hike is between 2 to 4 hours. We probably made it up there in just over an hour.
Surprisingly there were very few people there when we arrived. We were part of a much larger group that had originated in Delhi and they would be filling all the accommodation at Gobind Dham that coming night, which is probably why they had not booked too many people in there.
It had become overcast and cool by the time we took our dip in the lake which was extremely cold. At that time only the framework of the present gurdwara had been built; they were still using the little stone hut that was the original gurdwara. We paid our respects to Guru Sahib and left to walk back down the hill.
The next day we returned to Hemkunt Sahib with the rest of the party. This time I took it more slowly. It was a beautiful day up there, with bright sunshine and white clouds surrounding the seven snow clad peaks – sapat sring - bordering the lake, which was fed by melting snow from the mountains.
I spent around four hours up there, feeling good and having no trouble whatsoever in breathing. I took another dip in the lake, I walked around the lake, I even lay down on the soft ground near a patch of mountain wildflowers and took a nap. Shortly after I awoke, one of our sevadars approached and said “Vikram Singh, they are requesting you to do kirtan in the gurdwara.”
I entered the gurdwara, bowed to Guru Sahib, sat behind the waja and sang two shabads. At the end of the second shabad I realized I couldn't breathe. Without thinking I said to no one in particular “I’ve gotta get off this mountain.” I bowed to Guru Sahib, walked out, found my hiking boots and immediately took off down the trail, feeling better as I descended.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. After breakfast I packed up my suitcase – which would be carried down the mountain by porters – and set off by myself for a leisurely stroll back to Gobind Ghat.
Because of the mountains on either side, the valley was still quite dark, while the sky overhead was a radiant blue. At one point, through a gap in the mountains, I could see the peak of Nanda Devi, the second highest mountain in India at 25,643 ft. The mountain peak was backlit by the ascending sun and, even though it was relatively warm and mild in our valley, I could see wild winds whipping snow off Nanda Devi, sending it high into the thin atmosphere. It was an awesome sight.
When I arrived at Gobind Ghat some of our party were already there. Someone asked me if I wanted to go to Badrinath. I wasn’t really interested but then he said “There’s hot springs there.” My ears pricked up. Hot springs? In those days there wasn’t much hot water to be had in India. None of us had taken anything but cold showers since we arrived, a week or so previously. My body was starting to ache from all my exertions on the mountain and the thought of immersing myself in a hot spring was too tempting to resist.
It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny. I boarded our bus with a few others, wearing nothing thicker than my kurta, thinking we would be back long before nightfall. Our bus was one of many parked on the shoulder of this narrow, one lane, mountain road. There was nowhere else to park the many buses which had brought several hundred pilgrims to Gobind Ghat.
We had traveled barely two hundred yards and turned a corner, when the driver suddenly hit the brakes – hard. Right in front of us was a bus with one of its wheels off the edge of the cliff. It was blocking the road and there was nothing we could do but stop and wait.
The driver asked us if we wanted to continue. We were all quite happy. The day was warm and we were looking forward to our hot spring adventure. In any case, this looked like the kind of situation that would be taken care of within the half hour in the US - except that we were in India.
More than two hours later, the crowd of bus drivers, bus drivers’ assistants, assorted hangers-on and onlookers still had not managed to get the bus with all four wheels back on the road. Finally, under the direction of a man who was obviously a Sikh but had no turban and was wearing a dhoti, the offending wheel was eased back on to the road and we were free to go. Off we went to Badrinath.
By now it was getting towards late afternoon and the clouds were gathering overhead. When we eventually arrived in Badrinath, the first thing I noticed when we got off the bus was that everyone – I mean EVERYONE – within sight was wearing an overcoat and a muffler (scarf) while all I had was my thin kurta. The mountain air was turning cold, very cold. Still, we were here so we headed for the hot spring. The hot spring turned out to be a concrete tank close to the Alaknanda River and yes, there was plenty of hot water which appeared to be quite filthy.
We were not about to let hygiene become an issue and plunged into the water. After a while I wanted to sit out as I was getting too hot. As soon as I did I started to shiver. I got back in and the shivering stopped. Soon after that we decided to leave. I got out, put my kurta back on and began to shiver uncontrollably. I felt absolutely awful.
The tour leader decided it would be best to overnight there in Badrinath, not only because it was getting late, but also because of my condition. We found a hotel and went inside. The guy at the check-in desk was wearing an overcoat and a muffler, and this was indoors. Still we got rooms and I headed for bed, while the others went out to eat.
When they returned they had a Sikh doctor in tow. He diagnosed me with altitude sickness and gave me a few pills to swallow which seemed to make no difference whatsoever to my condition. I did notice that, when I took some Tylenol, my shivering would stop for a while. So I spent the night in and out of sleep, trying to stay warm and gulping down Tylenol every couple of hours.
The next morning they got me out of bed and into the bus. The bus had a bench seat at the back that had room for four or five people. I stretched out across that seat in my own private field of misery. I was vaguely aware when we stopped at Gobind Ghat to pick up the rest of the party. In the back of my mind I was hoping that someone would pack up my clothes and bedding but I was too sick to make an issue of it. In fact some unknown soul or souls were kind enough to do that seva for me and my gear emerged intact at the next overnight stop.
As we traveled down the mountain, back to the small town of Sri Nagar, I was mostly left alone to experience my own misery. The road was bumpy and it seemed that, every time we hit a bump – and it was a very bumpy road - my whole body would raise itself a couple of inches off this hard seat, then slam back down.
I had been doing a lot of personal paath before and during the trip.. I had been reciting seven or eight shabads in praise of Guru Ram Das ji, as well as doing paath of Raagmala because someone had told me that doing that paath can help increase your musical abilities. But on this day I decided I was way too sick to perform my daily paath. I had no sooner decided this than a voice came into my head and said “Vikram Singh, you must continue your paath today so we can extend your time in this human body.” As soon as I heard this I began my paath and managed to complete it even though it was hard to concentrate and I kept falling asleep.
Later in the afternoon we arrived in a town called Rudrapriyag. Everyone got out to get tea and snacks. By then it was quite warm and all the windows in the bus were wide open. I was still lying in the back seat in my own field of private misery.
My good friend Baba Singh stuck his head in the open window and said “Vikram Singh, don’t you want to see Baba Ram Dass?”
Baba Ram Dass (nowadays just Ram Dass) had been known as Richard Alpert and was one of the pioneers of the psychedelic use of LSD. Later he had written the New Age mystical book be here now. Why would he be here in a funky little town in India?
“Go away Baba”, I said. “Quit B-S-ing me. Why would he be here in this dump?”
“No!” said Baba Singh, “I’m not kidding. Take a look for yourself.”
I wearily eased myself up to a sitting position and looked out the window. Sure enough there was Baba Ram Dass happily strolling down the middle of the town’s main drag surrounded with a group of Westerners whom I presume were devotees of his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba.
By the time we arrived back in Rishikesh I was closer to being my normal self; which was just as well because we had another nightmare overnight journey on the train from Haridwar returning to Amritsar.
It was good to get back to Amritsar. It felt like we were home, rather than trekking around the Himalayas.