Jammu Kashmir 2016
I have always wanted to experience the Amarnath Yatra since I found out about it on my first trip to Jammu & Kashmir 3 autumns ago. On July 12th 2016, I checked it off my Bucketlist.
What is Amarnath Yatra?
'Yatra' in Hinduism means a pilgrimage or a religious journey. Amarnath Cave is a Hindu Temple situated at a high altitude of 12,756ft ASL up in the mountains of Pahalgam, Jammu & Kashmir, India.
When the Hindus first found an ice stalagmite in this cave, they believed it to be Lord Shiva who resides there. The ice was shaped of a phallus, also known as 'Limgam' in Hinduism. It is the shape that normally symbolises Lord Shiva.
Despite the rough journey and thin air, thousands of Hindu pilgrims visit the Amarnath Cave Temple to pay homage to their Lord within the 2 summer months, every year (typically June & July). The mountain will then be closed for the rest of as the year as nature retrieves its land with heavy snow.
My Journey there:
Due to the Kashmiri and Indian Army conflict that was (and still) happening, the safe route to Amarnath was from Sonamarg. We got there by using the NH1 (highway) from Srinagar at night.
My other two adventurous partners were my mum and a Korean friend named MJ. We camped at Sonamarg beside the Indus (Sindh) River the day before only to start our journey to Baltal at 0345 the next morning.
From Baltal, there are 3 ways up to Amarnath Temple, either by walking (maybe 7 hours), horseback (3 hours) or helicopter(7-10 mins) per trip.
We started our journey on horseback. after maybe 20 mins, we reached the Baltal Border Checkpoint where the army was regulating entry, which we were denied!
This is because we lacked 2 things.
1) A permit to cross the Baltal border
2) A medical certificate to claim that we were fit enough to go up to such high altitudes.
I haven't heard of a border check when planning for this trip, i found out afterwards that it was recently applied. They explained that several Yatris have died over the previous years due to high altitude sickness, and since we were foreigners without a permit and medical check-up, it would be a big problem if something were to happen to us .
After half an hour of waiting and pleading the Indian Army to let us pass, they were adamant that we should not pass. We decided to head back down to camp feeling a bit disappointed. Little did we know, the Head of Police had been overhearing our conversation with the Indian army, he was also regulating the border at the time. By our sheer luck and his kindness, he introduced himself as 'Prince' (his real name means Prince in Hindi) and told us that he could get us up there with an alternative solution.
Another way to get to the top of that mountain was via helicopter, and with his help, we need not require a permit anymore, but we should fist get a medical checkup from the doctor. It was great news, Prince was very hospitable and nice about helping us, he even bought us breakfast. We had a nice Indian breakfast, Prince was telling us of his story when he lost his wallet in Thailand once, the people there helped him to settle the issue, so he is very happy to help a foreigner in his country too. At this point, I was in a really good mood because it was such a random and adventurous day.
I was glad that my mother was having an exciting time also. I do like to make sure when we travel together, it won't be just a normal tourist trip. Having a crush on Prince, she commented on our initial disappointment: " Just as we were about to have a bad day, a 'Prince' came to rescue us, is this for real?" There was giggling throughout our journey.
After breakfast, we were then escorted to The Baltal Medical Base Camp to do our medical checkup. Prince was so nice that he even offered us his ATM card to withdraw money if ours wasn't working for the time being (we didn't take it off course).
The people there were nice, we felt lucky because it seemed like we where getting the royal treatment from the locals, as we were literally the only foreigners there.
We had a second free breakfast with the head doctors and some pilgrims after the checkup too.
The sincerely concerned Dr Irfan kept warning me to take precautions, and that I had to keep an eye on my two older travel companions (my mum's remarks when he called her 'older' was hilarious).
The symptoms of high altitude sickness are:-
c) Leg pains
He advises if we were to experience any of these symptoms, we should stop climbing and go to the nearest medical base camp to get oxygen, and then head back down.
After breakfast, Prince met us again and took us to the helipad. We couldn't help but feel a bit guilty when he also let us cut the line! Princesses Alert!!! There were around a hundred people waiting in line in front of us.
Nevertheless, we took that opportunity and managed to reach the top of the mountain base by 1130 via helicopter. There was another base camp on top of the mountain, from there we continued our journey on horseback for another half an hour to reach the top.
Our horses stopped at about 1km from the temple. Mum and MJ took a Palki (4 people carrying you on a chair on their shoulder) to the temple, I was too embarrassed use the Palki method because it was hilarious. So I decided reach my destination on foot.
The air was extremely thin because we were on such high altitude. Being out of breath frequently, I had to take a few rests. It took me about half an hour to walk 1 km uphill There were no trees growing at the highest grounds. I finally managed to reach the temple and got a blessing from a priest, he put red powder on my forehead (refer to picture at the top of this post).
We weren't allowed to take cameras in the cave but from my observations, the main ice that we went to see wasn't a stalagmite or phallus shaped either. There was only Shiva's Trident stuck into a chunk of small ice which was on an elevated platform in the cave. The ice was barricaded with a gate, separating it from the crowd. The pilgrims took some time there saying prayers and gave offerings to Lord Shiva. The floors of the cave were wet probably due to the ice melting. The temperature was warm, maybe around 26 degree Celsius.
It was quite an interesting adventure. This Yatra takes you on a unique journey through the raw mountains of Kashmir, and at the same time, you meet Hindus from all over India. Us being the only foreigners there made this trip all the more special. I would recommend Hindus from all around the world to do this Yatra at least once in their life.
Note: One thing that I didn't like was that the tourists there( 99.9% Indian) littered everywhere. Polluting the environment is really one of their worst habits, moreover this was on the top of a mountain.