The last time I made up my mind to do the Vaishno Devi trek, it rained. We had motorcycled down from Jammu and just after entering the first station, it started raining. Taking it to be a message from the gods that they did not want to see us, we reversed direction, wet like dogs. It rained all the way back to Jammu – and the 25 bucks plastic bag raincoats did little to help. The experience kept me away from Deviji in spite of the fact that I visit Jammu at least thrice a year.
But this time, the elder daughter wanted to do the adventure – and insisted that I and her mother chaperone her. Taking the signals from the Devis to be positive this time, we set out post lunch for Katra in the school van. The constraint was that we had to be back by 0800 hrs the next morning for the van to make its usual rounds to pick up students. I added another constraint – wanted to catch up on some sleep before I dropped the van back. So the idea was to make it a quicky.
We reached Katra at 1730 hrs – and overshot the ticket counter where you get passes for entry. Went back the 2 km and not finding any suitable parking slots entered the taxi reserve parking. The advantage of having a white maruti van is that it is a favorite for taxi operators. No one objected, so we proceeded to hire an auto to take us to Banganga, the last point where IC engine operated vehicles are allowed to enter. En route we hired shoes for the Missus, who had not packed footwear which was appropriate for the trek.
Missus’ cousin in Chandigarh had boasted about how he had reached the top in 3.5 hours. So that was the target that we had set ourselves. Travelling light is important – as we saw a lot of people rolling up strollies, lugging 10 kg bags – probably stuffed with bedding for the night stay outdoors. We were determined to bed it back to the hotel. The advice given was to avoid the stairs – and it was sound advice. Ramps are anytime more comfortable to climb than stairs – one can check that out at any railway station. On the occasion that the missus decided to climb the shorter ways on the stairs, we managed to more than catch up.
One baggage that you cannot reduce is the one that you lug around your waist and hips. That was the one that set us back. Frequent stops were made for the rear of the party to join the lead pack. But the rule was clear – no stopping unless it is really required. On the journey up we managed with 2 stops – one to drink iced tea and the other to have Masala dosa. Btw, would recommend the Masala dosa, it is the high-point of the journey. You will find the outlet – run by SMVD – on the new road to Bhawan (the place where the main cave is located). This road starts at the half-way mark – and is a very enjoyable road. The good parts – absence of two major pests that torment the trekker – horses and shopkeepers.
On the subject of horses – we saw quite a few of the retired varieties roaming around the roads of Katra – left no doubt by their previous owners – to graze on the munificence of the tourists who dot the town. Most of the horses seemed to be fit, as were the owners, who accompanied them. The general strategy to accelerate the 1 HP vehicle used to be a kick on the butt, with the brake applied by pulling the tail. I imagined that there would not be so many of them on the night shift – but my imagination proved to be imaginary. We saw quite a few of them on our way down as well. One can imagine the roads of our cities a century and a half ago when you do the Vaishno Devi climb. On most of the road, one lane is reserved for ponies. And the smell of their proficient output adds to the flavour of the food that is served alongside. To be honest you have SMVD employees who are regularly cleaning the stuff from the road, but the aroma persists.
A good option to the horses are the electric ones which are available on the new road. These are Mahindra Bijlees – and short of walking – are the most VFM transport. They charge 500 for a round trip – 300 on the way up and 200 on the way down. Maintenance seems to be an issue though – one could see about 30-40 of them in the garage at base camp. The next best VFM option is the helicopter ride – which takes about 10 minute – and costs 800 one way. The ponies come next at 2000. And the most luxury ride is the one in palkis – you have 4 porters who put you in a chair and take you up literally on their shoulders. Adequate practice I must say for the final journey that all of us will again make on four shoulders. This comes at 4000 for the round trip.
We reached Bhawan at 2103 hours. Having started from Banganga at 1745 hrs – the travel time was about 3 hours 18 minutes. Hey Jagdeep (missus’ cousin in Chandigarh) – we just bested your record. Next time target is going to be 3 hours for the 11 km climb. And next time we should start earlier. We had been advised to start climbing at 1900 hrs. But I think we need to start around 1700 hrs. You get to enjoy the view on the way to the top – seeing Katra town and glimpses of Jammu also. Of course the views start only after the first 4 km. Till then it is blocked by the continous shops on both sides of the path. On the return journey you get to see the night scenery. No stars – because the ambient lighting is very high – but I suspect that we saw a long string of lights – which could have been the Indo-Pak border which is lit up every night. (on a slight off-track – imagine all that electricity being used to light up houses in rural India which suffer from power cuts most days)
On reaching Bhawan, we were advised to deposit all our material possessions in the cloakroom. At the cloakroom they were choke full. So the security guard advised one of us to do a spiritual darshan – sitting at the entrance with the material world surrounding – whilst two would go ahead. Signal from the Devi again. So yours truly had a power nap – whilst the missus and the daughter went inside to pray for whatever material objects they desired in life.
The climb down was shorter – we reached in 2 hours 30 minutes. The stairs helped – but in hindsight would not recommend them. There is one final staircase with 589 steps at the end. The lighting was not good – a lot of the shop keeper had also shut down their shops post midnight. So one kind of took one step at a time – feeling very much like a 60 year old arthritic. Next time will take the ramp on the way down. I kind of like the long-cuts in life. The journey is after all the destination..