Editor's Note: Also see this post's trailer and a bonus photo album with commentary!
I’ve covered most of the stories from my trip in the previous posts, but to finish off the telling I will borrow a device from my favorite writer Bill Simmons and hand out some awards:
Nobel Laureate Barack Obama Award for "Biggest Surprise of the Trip"
To the difficulties of traveling to remote places in India. It took us over an hour and a half to travel the 1000 KM from Gujarat to Delhi. It took us another 2.5 days to travel the 100KM or so between Delhi and Joshimath where we started walking. But the traveling process itself was an adventure. Once you get out far enough from big cities, vehicles traveling to any destination become varied and unpredictable. Samir believed in a greedy algorithm: always take the first thing moving roughly in the direction you need to go. This meant that not staying too long in one place was more important than where exactly you will end up and how much closer it gets you to your eventual destination. Just keep moving. The strategy worked remarkably well. It also resulted in a patchwork of different vehicles and intermediate destinations. From Delhi, we took a luxury bus to Dehradun, then a public bus to Haridwar which took us to a fork in the road where we picked up a small charter bus to Rishikesh. The next day we took a bus to Srinagar, then the next morning a jeep to Chamoli, then another jeep to Joshimath.
Indian Broadband Connectivity Memorial Award for “Most Frustrating Aspect of the Trip”
To losing stuff while traveling. Call me a green traveler, but I lost an embarrassingly large number of things. It started off with my wristwatch (sorry Dad!) which inexplicably fell off my hand while I slept in the bus to Dehradun. I also lost sunglasses in a river, water bottles at restaurant tables, gloves at a clothing shop(re-found), and hand sanitizer bottles (lost, re-found, lost, bought new, lost). Of all of these I think losing the watch was the most impactful. It was near the beginning of the trip, and from there on Samir and I pretty much stopped keeping track of time. For someone as anal as me, this was uncomfortable at first, and I never got completely used to it. But it was a fun exercise. At one point Samir and I were in Ghangaria and we realized we needed to plan when to start making the descent back to civilization in order to make our flight from Delhi. We had no idea what day it was, or the date. When we finally found out the actual date, we discovered that our best guess was off by 2 days.
Honorable mention for this award goes to my backpack, borrowed from the uncle I’m staying with in Ahmedabad. The bag was old, and developed rips at both the shoulder straps while walking. It was a burden to mind as I walked each step, wondering whether this would be the step when a strap finally gives, and I’m screwed with 20lbs of stuff in the middle of nowhere with no way to carry it. Luckily there were mochis (cobblers) at some of the places we stopped at on the way to Ghangaria (last city before Valley of Flowers) to mend the bag. Had to get it mended two separate times.
Sex in the City Award for “Most Overrated Part of the Trip”
To Rishikesh, a popular destination for wanderer-types from around the world who come to India for trekking adventures. A beautiful city scenically on the banks of the holy Ganges (this part of the river is also quite clean), but the place was overrun by foreigners. There was a large contingent from Israel, where a lot of youth fresh out of military duty come from to unwind. So much so that some menus etc. were written in Hebrew. But there are foreigners from all over.
I found it disorienting and for some reason annoying. It felt like the environment was cheapened; the city seemed to have sold out from a meaningful, holy place and degraded to catering to foreigners and their peculiar desires. The place offered an ideally packaged experience for any foreigner making a “pilgrimage” to India to live a spiritual cliché, all the while enjoying the comforts of a European resort. The main roads were lined with a rotation of quaint restaurants with names like “Freedom Café” and “Namaste Café”, cybercafés, convenience stores selling Garnier Fructis shampoo and hand sanitizer, schools for yoga and massage, and stores selling knock-off North Face gear and books on tantra and Kama Sutra. I liked Samir’s remark that Rishikesh is “Spiritual Las Vegas”, where people come for debauchery in the guise of a spiritual experience.
John Muir Award for “Best Hike”
Definitely to The Valley of Flowers. Although it was off-season so the flowers weren’t in bloom, I loved this hike for its killer combination of beauty and isolation. I made the ~6km trek through the valley alone, as Samir hung back to sit and write in his journal. Because it was off-season, there weren’t a lot of people in the Valley, so I was literally by myself as I walked through. After being in the world’s densest urban areas for 3 months, this was a very welcomed change of pace. My favorite part was stopping to look around and feeling I had the whole beautiful place to myself.
Indian Toilets Memorial Award for “Most Underrated Aspect of the Trip”
To moleskin, which Samir kept in his first-aid pack for blisters. I never get blisters, but I developed two on my right foot possibly from the hiking shoes I had bought just before leaving for the trip. The moleskin really helped ease the pain. When you are walking for so long, even a small annoyance in your feet can develop into severe pain. I slowly observed how the sensations from my blisters came to dominate every step I took during the trip. The lesson, as always, is to take care of your feet.
Honorable mention to black tea, which was our drink of choice during the cold mornings in Ghangaria. I never drink tea, but I must admit that I was hooked on it while on the trip. Best way to warm up.
Jayeshbhai “Most Memorable Personality” Award
To Rajnish, the expeditioner, tour guide, botanist, bird watcher, and photographer I befriended in Ghangaria. I first encountered him on the trails, when he flew by me up from Govindghat. I took notice because I am a fast hiker myself and I’m rarely passed. Later on I met him in his little shop in Ghangaria and we got to talking. He showed me his amazing collection of photographs of all kinds of wild animals, birds, and flowers of the area. He’s led Discovery Channel expeditions in the area as a local expert. A real mountain man.
Honorable mention goes to two local women we met between Joshimath and Govindghat carrying huge bales of hay. They were stopped over resting on the side of the road as we walked by, and they offered Samir and I cucumbers. So nice! We gave them a Kit-Kat in return for their generosity. Or maybe they were hitting on us.
Steven Gerrard Award for “Best All-Around Aspect of the Trip”
To the natural landscape of the Himalayan foothills. Being cooped up in Ahmedabad, a hectic urban environment for the past 3 months, I was dying to get to some clean, open space. And this trip didn’t disappoint. I loved the cold air, just the feeling of being cold. I loved the sound and the feel of the rivers. My favorite hikes are those near rivers; in this trip it was great to get near their rush and violent power. I loved the severely steep mountains, which stood out to me as the biggest difference between the Himalayan landscape and Yosemite, which I have been going to since I was a little tike. I couldn’t remember craning my neck in Yosemite as much as I did here to see the top of a mountain. That’s the best way I can describe the difference, the pictures don’t really reflect it.
An innovation to the trekking experience in India is that the trails are lined with shacks where people sell water, soda, snacks, and even cook full meals. So you are hiking along on a rugged trail and then suddenly pull over to a table and chair where you can enjoy roti and daal (as I did). At first I was thrown off and against it because I am a nature purist and don’t like human alteration of natural places, but I eventually made some place in my heart for the mountain snack shacks. And of course if we brought this concept to California trails, Choks wouldn't need to worry about being out a Safeway deli sandwich with olive spread in the middle of nowhere again. But the main drawback of the shacks is the amount of garbage they create on the trails. It was appalling. How remote do I have to travel in India to escape from the eyesore of littered walkways? At one point I was walking and saw a girl in the act of throwing an empty chips bag. I walked up to her and in my broken Hindi told her to pick up the trash, and asked her to please not throw trash on the trails. Her boyfriend, standing next to her, went stiff with disbelief, managing to utter "Yeah, sure." I don't think they got it.
Chris McCandless “Most Valuable Trekker” Award
To Samir Patel, a hall-of-fame travel companion. Samir definitely knows what he’s doing on treks. It’s one of the things he takes real seriously. He is super prepared with all the best equipment which he very generously shared with me. He has gotten packing the essentials down to an art (family members will not be surprised to know he doesn’t emphasize packing a lot of underwear). He also has a great sense of balancing what you need to plan ahead and what you don’t. He left just enough open-ended to make the trip both smooth and adventurous. We had good communication, marked by our unspoken commitment to not over-communicate. On the trails or when planning we talked when we needed to, and kept silent when we didn’t. Of course during meals we stayed silent. We were busy. The one exception was to discuss The Black Swan, which we were both reading simultaneously. Pretty soon we were seeing black swans everywhere.
It was great spending time with Samir to catch up in a real deep way. There’s no bonding like mountain bonding. Thanks for everything Sam.