I set off towards Uttarkashi early in the morning and by nightfall found myself back in Chinyalisour. Bugger.
Uttarkashi is the largest city this far up the Ganges, though here the river bears the name Bhagirathi. Only downstream, at the town of Devprayag where Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda, is the river renamed the Ganges. Names aside, about 100km up the valley from Uttarkashi is the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri – considered the seat of goddess Ganga and the origin of the Ganges. So I’m still calling it the Ganges.
People who consider Ganges holy have a soft spot for Uttarkashi as well – the busy town houses dozens of ashrams and temples. The Ganges at once both gives the place life and threatens to drown it. During the 2013 monsoon massive floods devastated the town and left dozens dead. Over 100 000 pilgrims were trapped by raging waters and had to be airlifted to safety. Now I could see towering new concrete embankments on both side of the river, attempting to provide the town a measure of protection.
I had hoped to take a bus from Uttarkashi to Gangotri and later, conditions permitting, ride back down. ‘Conditions permitting’ because Gangotri sits at 3400m, meaning that this time of the year there is still snow. But the amount of snow I had obviously underestimated. There were no buses running up the valley. It was in fact so bad higher up that even 4x4s could only go half the way. Gangotri was effectively unreachable. So much for that plan.
So instead I went down to the river. Being covered in sweat and dust, washing my face, hair and feet felt like something I’d enjoy. And I did. The cool glacial waters felt oh so good. To add to the atmosphere, just as I put my feet in, somebody blew a horn and drums started thump-thumping away. A group of pilgrims arrived next to me, led by their guru and followed by music. Together they were all occupied by a mix of dancing and praying which culminated in everybody dipping their toes into the holy river and splashing water around.
The entire group was dressed up for the occasion, all colorful and glittery. At the end of the ritual, the two drummers dipped their drums into water as well, for good measure. And as the group was leaving, some of them took a bottleful to go. All the while upriver another group was half naked soaping themselves up. Welcome to India.
So I turned around and rode back down the valley. Though its steep sides hid the nearby snowy peaks, the mountain road was a scenic one and I did not mind riding it again. Having skipped lunch, I arrived back in Chinyalisour starving. The local eatery across the street was the perfect antidote for that. A plate of biryani with chapatti on the side felt like heaven.