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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 4

To Gangotri
A Hair-Raising Drive


The accommodations are getting steadily more environmentally sustainable as we move north. In the river side city of Uttarkashi, gone is the air conditioning or any chance of hot water. "Enjoy your carbon-neutral shower?" Conrad says with a smile the next morning. Before breakfast we drive over to meet Dr. Harshvanti Bisht, an economist whose avocation is doing something about one of the other assaults on our glacier, beyond global warming. She runs a program to replant trees along the glacier's perimeter. (Many trees near the glacier had been chopped down for firewood and without trees there is soil erosion which is another insult to an already sick glacier). We wait a few minutes while Dr. Bisht finishes her day puja, prayers, a ritual that includes holding an urn of Ganges water over her head and pouring it into a potted plant. Her serious mountaineering backpack is ready on the back porch for her trip to the glacier late in the day. It's a 90 mile torturous road and then, for Dr. Bisht, a hike starting from 10,000 feet to the tree sanctuary she has built alongside the Gangotri glacier.

Conrad Anker interviews Dr.Harshvanti Bisht, an economist who is working to improve the health of the Gangotri glacier by planting trees along its perimeter.
Conrad Anker interviews Dr.Harshvanti Bisht, an economist who is working to improve the health of the Gangotri glacier by planting trees along its perimeter.
We are not hiking today, just driving, and the road is arduous where crews every few miles work to remove the latest rock slide or to shore up abutments in the vain hope the road will hold when the monsoon rains come in a few weeks. Mandip Singh Soin, one of India's top mountaineers, runs the company that organized the trek part of journey. He phones to tell us to be on the lookout because the monsoons seem to be coming early. We have plenty of rain gear, but shooting television in the pouring rain on a glacier would be a challenging assignment.

Locals reported that this bridge collapsed a few days before it was due to open for the first time.
Locals reported that this bridge collapsed a few days before it was due to open for the first time.
At the moment, the weather is gorgeous as we drive higher into the Himalayas but still the drive is hair raising. In part it is the oncoming tourist buses swerving at you on crumbling roads that don't seem wide enough for one. Indeed, two military trucks become interlocked as one tries to pass the other. We wait a moment as soldiers work out a way to pry them apart without creating further damage or dropping anyone off the side into the Ganges abyss. There are also some other sobering moments: Kyem Singh, our expedition's guide, points out a spot where an earthquake killed a thousand people in 1993, with many of their bodies washing in the Ganges. Later, we stop to inspect a cantilever bridge slumped into the river. Apparently, it collapsed just as it was about to open causing the chief of the construction company to die of a heart attack.

At lunch, I get to chatting with a boy who shares our table. He's learned some English at school, he says that his dream is to come to America. His handsome younger brother is to my right and I ask for his name. "Diffindan," I think I hear the replay. "Diffindan is his name?", "No," the brother corrects, "he's deaf and dumb." I never did get his name but he watches me eat intently and with amusement. I'm probably using my left hand to pick up food, I later figure, which is taboo in a lot of places I have lived.

About 60 miles of very windy road on the way to Gangotri.
About 60 miles of very windy road on the way to Gangotri.
The most memorable moment of the day comes as we careen through a curve and just about run over a young man lying face down in the main road. His head is swaddled in cloth but it's not a bandage, it's traditional headgear. As we slow to a stop, the fellow, bare-chested, snaps to his feet, takes one step forward, then lies face down again. He is a pilgrim, prostrating himself in an act of religious devotion, all the way up the mountain. He could have been doing it for hundreds of miles. They say in the States that you have fifteen minutes to live if you're parked on the side of a highway. I cannot imagine how he's gotten this far.

"The most memorable moment of the day comes as we careen through a curve and just about run over a young man lying face down in the main road."
On some other sacred spot, Conrad says he's seen some guys prostrating themselves laterally up the mountain. Instead of moving forward one body-length on each prostration, they gain only about a foot and a half per cycle. Other pilgrims on the road accept some modern comforts: There is a guy walking up in flip-flops, but at least he's got on a nice pair of Oakley sunglasses. Personally, I am into comfort, and I have brought along an extra inflatable mattress pad for the nights we'll be camping near the glacier. Conrad is a little unimpressed. He says it will be a sacred place we are visiting and quotes a mountaineering sage saying that enlightenment doesn't come from a full belly or a soft mattress.

Visit "On Thin Ice" to watch the hour-long NOW on PBS special and learn more about global warming.
*Note: All photographs by John Siceloff unless otherwise credited.

Read Day 5: The The "Clicking Swami"