Following in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims on an arduous rainy season trek to Gosainkunda also brought some environmental and conservation issues to the fore
I knew that going trekking during rainy season was not a good idea. During the lead up to the big day, a deluge of news reports on numerous rain-triggered road accidents was the order of the day in the media.
I, along with a team of scientists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), was headed for Rasuwa district on a five-day trek to Gosaikunda (Gosain means monk and kunda means pool), a pristine lake in Langtang National Park. The team was going there to study the biodiversity of the protected area designated as a Ramsar site, and observe conservation works being carried out in the entire Park.
We had planned the trip for the sacred thread festival of Janai Purnima (observed during the full moon day in August). The festival sees tens of thousands of pilgrims from Nepal and India congregate for the popular religious fair near the lake (located at an altitude of 4,380 m above sea level) and to take a dip in the holy waters.
Gosaikunda , as the story goes , was created by Lord Shiva during the Samundra Manthan, the churning of the ocean to recover Amrit (elixir of life) ). One of the products of that exercise was the Halahala poison, which the lord consumed to prevent it from destroying the world. But soon after swallowing the poison, he desperately needed cold water to quench his immense thirst and to get relief from the burning sensation. To do just this, he created Gosainkunda.
But even before we reached Dhunche, which lies at a distance of 71 kilometers north-west of the Capital, the signs were ominous. Landslides triggered by rainfall had blocked the Pasang Lhamu Highway in several places because of which our jeep could only go till Ramche. I came to know that this was a story which was played out every rain season on the only highway connecting Kathmandu to Dhunche.
Fortunately, we found two sturdy woman porters to carry our sleeping bags, tents, trekking equipment and other excess baggage. Pilgrims arriving on their bikes either had to park their vehicles under the makeshift bamboo shades or pay hefty charges to porters to carry them over difficult landslides and waterfalls. Big buses and vans did not even dare try. They returned. In the almost two hour walk through craggy ridges and barren mountainsides, we encountered several landslides and small but fast-flowing streams -- passing through which was a test of one’s faith. Several pilgrims shouted Jai Sambho calling for protection from lord Shiva. A woman from Kathmandu almost lost her breath while recounting how she and a couple of her sisters had to run fast through the slippery mountainside amid fear of being swept away by landslide or a flash flood.
But it seemed that their adventure had just begun. Soon after crossing the damaged portion of the highway, we found that there was only one ransacked local bus and a tipper to ferry hundreds of pilgrims to Dhunche.
Those who came early got the seats and the bus was soon brimming with people. Those arriving late had no other option but to climb up on to the roof of the bus. Clearly, the two vehicles were not enough to ferry so many pilgrims to Dhunche. I was also worried about safety of the bus passengers. There are many bus accidents in the hills in Nepal, mostly due to overcrowding and careless driving on treacherous roads.
Fortunately, we had a relatively easy ride to Dhunche on another Land Cruiser that was sent to get us. Just before we reached the town, we had a brief stopover at Langtang National Park Office to have a little chit-chat with Bed Kumar Dhakal, the park’s chief conservation officer. He was also going to accompany us on the trip. He said the annual fair has already kicked off in Gosainkunda and the number of visitors is expected to reach 25,000 till Janai Purnima.
Dhakal said that as Gosainkunda was popular as a spiritual site, there is always a possibility that conservation efforts in the area may sometimes take a backseat. In addition to that, with the inflow of Hindus and Buddhist pilgrims attending the fair increasing in the recent years, littering, open defecation near Tharpus (elongated make-shift camps run by locals to provide food and shelter to pilgrims all along the religious trail) are a major concern.
As many pilgrims suffer from altitude-sickness, cold and lethargy trying to hurry over difficult mountain pass, he said several health camps manned by doctors and furbished with required medicines have been set up on the way to Gosainkunda by District Public Health Office, Himalayan Rescue Association, Nepal Red Cross Society and the Nepali Army to provide primary health services.
When we finally reached Dhunche in the evening driving through a dense fog, we found that the small town had already been conquered by pilgrims who spent the night here before setting out on the religious trek early the next day. Many of them were from Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Kavre, Sindhupalchowk and neighboring districts. They filled up the hotels, lodges and restaurants and spilled into the narrow strip of road of Dhunche town for an evening walk, to take photos, watch a roadside documentary show about the Gosainkunda fair and the terrain and the flora and fauna found in the national park. There was much noise and activity and the place appeared like a fish market than a quiet, sleepy little town tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas. And stream of pilgrims coming to Dhunche continued till late in the evening.
With so many devotees spending the night at Dhunche, rooms at the hotels and small lodges were very expensive. And even if you were willing to cough up extra cash, there was no guarantee that you would get a room. Many camped outside the hotels. Fortunately for us, we had booked few rooms before-hand.
Prior to dinner, we went to visit Langtang Area Conservation Concern Society , an NGO run by energetic local youth active in raising awareness among local people about conservation and climate change and its impacts on the area. The youths were also involved in effective community mobilization and community-level interventions for the conservation of high-altitude wetlands and lakes like Gosaikunda in the national park.
We found that the society also ran an eco-club where visitors could get information about the culture of the Tamangs, the main inhabitants of Rasuwa district, the flora and fauna found in the park and fresh conservation efforts to save endangered animals such as the red panda and the snow leopard under the Sacred Himalayan Landscape Project of WWF. The group also ran a small library where tourists could also get general information about the Gosiakunda and associated Lakes in the park, books and journals about Langtang’s biodiversity, the trekking map and major conservation issues of the Ramsar site.
After a brief discussion with the youths, we were invited to have dinner with them at the small restaurant the society ran on the office premises. We had a great time over a sumptuous dinner and a lively discussion about fresh conservation issues in the area. Under the solid waste management program run by the group every year to make the Gosainkunda fair eco-friendly, I learnt that a dozen or so volunteers from the society were also heading to Gosainkunda the next day to collect the trash (the next day I watched with disgust the Wai-Wai packets, biscuit wrappers, water bottles, Red Bull cans that littered the entire length of the trail) left by the pilgrims en route to the holy lake.
But the long trek we were going to embark on to Gosainkunda tomorrow was on the back of our head all the time, and we decided to call it a day early enough after the dinner. I was very tired after a day of high drama crossing the active landslides of the damaged highway: An exciting prelude to the trek.
In ancient period, people went on their journey towards the Himalayas, where the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites are located, after retiring from worldly affairs. It is not known since when people started to go on a pilgrimage to Gosaikunda, but according to history the brave General Amar Singh Thapa, who led the Nepali forces on the western front during the Anglo-Nepal War (1814-1816) , died on a pilgrimage to Gosainkunda after retiring from military service following Nepal’s defeat at the hands of the British.
Finding quite a number of old and elderly people setting out on the ancient pilgrimage route with a prominent stick on their hands to facilitate their walk early next morning made us realize that the idea still holds true. The morning had offered a fantastic panorama of the rugged summits from the hotel’s roof top - Langtang Lirung (7,227m), Dorje Lakpa (6,996m) and, far in the distance, the majestic Tibetan Himalayas.
But the clouds were slowly cloaking the mountains, and the sun was nowhere to be seen. And as we entered the upper tropical forest keeping a South Korean mineral water plant and swollen Trishuli river to our left, a slight drizzle soon gave way to rain. The stony path turned slippery and walking on it, especially downhill, became difficult. But this didn’t affect the pace of pilgrims and devotees in small clusters as they marched swiftly across small milky-white streams, walked over wobbly Jhulunge Pul and climbed up scary steps on the pine covered hills shrouded by clouds from where one misstep will directly lead you to the gushing river far below.
The winding trail then started to climb steadily. But as we ascended for just two hours, we were not very tired. The rains had also subsided after a quick burst and the weather was cool. The first of the Tharpus then started appearing where got we ourselves warm cups of black tea (one should avoid milk while trekking in high altitude, we were told).
With hundreds of pilgrims – some wielding the Trishul and some wearing fake snakes round their necks to impersonate Lord Shiva - passing through these Tharpus every hour since the beginning of the fair a week ago, the owners were of course making good money selling tea and snacks. After a three-hour trek, we reached Deurali (2625 m) where we had lunch at a small but very busy family- run hotel.
As we rapidly gained altitude, the thick mountain fog smothered all views the open hillsides offered. Few members from my team who had come on this trek during peak tourist season (trekkers from all over the world flock to Langtang in early spring and autumn) regretted how they missed the spectacular views all the way to Annapurna, Ganesh Himal, Dhaulagiri and Langtang.
Further up the steep trail, we saw a group of young men from Kathmandu smoking pot out of a chillum, shouting Jai Sambho everytime they dragged Lord Shiva’s Prasad deep.
We left them in their exalted natural consciousness (so to speak), and walked on. We were trudging up at a very slow pace, especially after lunch, and were now really starting to feel tired since it had been 6 hours that we were walking. Few among us shared jokes and our conversation turned lively to help us forget about the fatigue for some time. However, the discussions were not focused and jumped from one topic to another.
The Langtang National Park was in the news recently after a badly decomposed body of a 23-year-old Belgian woman was found decapitated 50 meters below the trail, 10 days after she went missing. Another American woman in her early 20s went missing two years ago in the Langtang region. All efforts by her family to find her have so far yielded no results. This has led to the Nepal government mulling a ban on tourists trekking alone in the Himalayas by making it mandatory for them to hire at least one porter or guide from a recognized agency.
One fellow trekker in my team said though the compulsory arrangement of a tourist guide for a trekker will ensure their security on the trail, but the isolated cases of disappearances and killings of trekkers will not tarnish the image of Nepal as trekkers’ heaven and one of the safest destinations for tourists from all over the world (a trekking aficionado from the west recently wrote in an English language national daily that the risks of travelling in Nepal do not compare to the level of violence in most other countries, including cities in the West. He writes that to put such unwarranted emphasis on security in Nepal will make tourists misperceive that there is a real problem, and this will darken Nepal’s image, possibly reducing the number of visitors).
After a grueling four-hour walk from Deurali, we reached Sing Gompa (3,250 m), another open hillside with a Cheese Production Centre (the Yak cheese made on wood-fire ovens were simply delicious) a dilapidated Buddhist temple and few hotels and lodges. We had tea, biscuit and cheese at Hotel Red Panda, a fine, cozy wooden lodge with attractively carved wooden windows.
It was one of the first lodges to open its doors to trekkers back in the 80s. Its owner, Subba Lama, a man in his late 60s, was very hospitable, peppering our brief talks about tourism and development in Langtang region with his own story of struggle against odds in one of the most impoverished part of Nepal to establish a very well-run lodge on the trail.
Although some of us wanted to spend the night at Mr Lama’s lodge (also because our legs were hurting and wanted to call it day), our trip organizer had already booked our rooms a further two-hours walk away through a rain-soaked and slippery trail of sub-tropical forest.
When we reached Cholang Pati (3560 m), our rest for the night, the fog had disappeared and sky was clear. A great extant opening the valley into beautiful alpine meadows and yak pastures was seen. The tree-line ended here because it was over 3,500 meters.
Most of the pilgrims spent their night here before taking on the challenging Lauribina La pass (4,610 m) the next morning. Most of the teahouse style lodges in the area were packed with pilgrims beyond their capacity, the dining area filled with people huddled round wood heating stoves.
Those who could not afford the exorbitant prices of lodges, howeverm had no other option but to brave the nippy weather sleeping inside many similar-looking Tharpus with only plastic tents above them and thick mats below.
It was sad looking at hundreds of pilgrims sleeping in such appalling conditions inside Tharpus as their owners tried to adjust more and more hapless people in it for profit. At the health camp run by the Nepali Army nearby, some half a dozen or so people were receiving treatment for symptoms that was closely related to altitude sickness – dizziness, vomiting, lethargy, and lack of appetite.
Our lodge too was swarmed by pilgrims (and among them were few Shamans who were easily recognizable from their distinct garb and other paraphernalia like drums for singing and dancing during the annual full moon festival). The meal was the same we had for lunch - rice, lentils, potato and bean curry and achar (pickles).
Before that we had a warm garlic soup, which is believed to help the body cope with altitude sickness. As there were not enough rooms at the lodge, some of us had to go sleep in the attic. But we didn’t mind that as we were extremely tired and slipped inside our sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep. I was woken up once in the night when I heard moans of a person staying at the lodge being carried to a lower altitude after suffering from altitude sickness.
The next morning I was woken up by the hustle and noise of pilgrims about to set out on the most grueling uphill trek on the entire trail where there is high risk of people getting altitude sickness. Some pilgrims, mostly elderly, were riding horses being led by their owners till Buddha Mandir (4,097 m), from where the narrow trail pretty much flattens.
The trees had already disappeared and what remained of bushes gave way to alpine meadows and barren slopes as walking through mist on the very steep trail full of rocks and boulders sapped whatever energy you regained after a long night’s rest. But the slow pilgrim progress continued.
The only respite was the magnificent view of the mountain range whenever you halted to regain your breath and composure and looked behind to gauge the altitude you have gained. As it is always the case, friends from my team didn’t also failed to compare this difficult uphill climb with the one described by the Nepali writer Taran Nath Sharma in his famous travelogue “Ghanghasya Ko Ukalo Katda”.
The sun was shining when we reached Buddha Temple after three hours that seemed to be an eternity. There was a small Stupa and a Hindu Temple there and pilgrims took some rest before proceeding again. Devotees who were returning from Gosainkunda told us as we had gone past the difficult portion of the trail and that we were just an hour or at the most two hours away from our destination. All along the barren slopes we saw that pilgrims had made Shiva lingas (phallus-shaped structure) by placing stones one top of another as an ode to the God.
Since we had crossed the most difficult portion of the trek, the sheer wish to reach Gosainkunda as swiftly as I could gave me a newfound energy.
But then the sun was again enveloped by the fog and it started to drizzle again making the trail slippery. Although not steep, it was very narrow for even two pilgrims to pass through at the same time.
And in some portions there were massive stony cliffs passing from where one needs to exercise maximum care and focus. After several dip and rise later, the first of the milky white waterfalls that turned into ravines that made Trishuli appeared and it flowed making a huge grumbling sound, then after few bends appeared Bhairab Kunda, another holy lake, cradled amidst craggy peaks.
Soon, we set foot on Gosainkunda, but by then the slight drizzle turned into a heavy downpour, forcing us to unfurl our umbrellas. However, the rain cleared the fog to reveal the full splendor and beauty of the azure glacial lake. A small, but milky waterfall that flowed down into Gosainkunda was at a higher point and was the best spot to see the lake. There was a small Shiva shrine smeared red by devotees constantly milling around it while the priest performed pujas, managed the offerings of pilgrims and gave them prasads . And after filling up their bottles with the sacred water from the waterfall, some devout even claimed that they saw patterns of Shiva lying in the water!
Meanwhile, devotees gathered in hordes in the Shiva Temple after taking a holy dip into the lake. I and some from my team mustered up enough courage to take a full body dip into the sacred icy cold water not so much as to wash away all our sins than to test our sheer stupidity.
But the biggest act of faith was not only to see the religious and spiritual value of Gosainkunda, but the immense ecological diversity that the still lakes here (each connected by small waterfalls with the other, spilling and flowing into one lower down before turning into streams) have helped sustain in the Langtang National Park despite the blindness of the pilgrims towards the environmental damage they are causing by littering carelessly.
Hope they can see this truth after they open their eyes from their prayers.
Satyam Shivam Sundaram!