Story by Paramjot Kaur
Roaming white goats and curving streams etched lines into the green mountain valleys like lines on the palms of our hands. I inhaled the crisp, clean mountain air, absorbing a rush of energy from the altitude and feeling as if I could float. It is said that everyone should visit the Himalayas at least once in their lifetime—there is an eternal peace that resides in these regal mountains.
My destination lay at a fantastic 15,200 feet: Sri Hemkunt Sahib, the pilgrimage place of all Sikhs, open to any and all travelers. As the car climbed upward on the way to our starting point Govindghat, a cool spray of mist hit my face. Frequent rainfall had eliminated the brown dust I had grown so accustomed to seeing throughout India. The country is known for its high temperatures—almost every traveler can relate to the “heat at first sight” moment when stepping out of the airport in New Delhi. We stopped for a break and looked over the cliff, absorbing the the fact that we had entered another world.
There were groups of old men and women carrying boxes of powdered glucose for energy. There were parents carrying small children. We were surrounded by hundreds of other travelers, all testing the path ahead with long bamboo poles, all struggling towards the same goal: to make it to the top.
Donkey travel services are famous on the Himalayan trails. If travelers cannot go any farther on foot, they can pay to ride a donkey all the way to the top. We braved the trip on foot, stopping at small shops to buy water and lunches of pickled lemons and potato pancakes, until the last six kilometers steepened dramatically, and my legs felt as if they were on fire. Travelers returning from the temple cheered us on, and at their recommendation, we chose to embrace the donkeys.
Riding a donkey in the Himalayas is like being in the passenger seat of a car with a terrible driver—you can try as hard as you want to mentally control the vehicle, but it’s never going to work. Every time the long-legged animal teetered close to the edge, I fruitlessly tried mind control to prevent it from slipping off the trail. Ignoring the “don’t look down,” advice, I glanced beyond the edge out of the corner of my eye, seeing only the trees far, far below. But relief was close.
For the last bit of the trail, we dismounted and trekked on foot once more. Greeted by orange flags and ice-capped peaks wrapped in white fog and, us shawl-draped travelers had all made it to the top—even the group of elderly people I had seen thousands of feet below.
Every step had counted, yet getting to the temple entrance made every step worth it. The fatigue and discomfort evaporated as we reveled in the success of our hard work. 15,200 feet above sea level, in a country on the other side of the world, I felt euphoric.
Climbing in the Himalayas is not about reaching the top of a mountain peak. It’s about embracing the elements that make up the journey: the blessing of the man with the waist-length hair, the sand-colored monkeys running alongside the trail, the fellow travelers that became welcome friends, and the grueling satisfaction of finally reaching a destination.
This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Baedeker.