Monday, 5 June 2017

Those 12 minutes...

For those 12 minutes, I was on cloud nine - awestruck by the voluptuous curves and unsullied gorgeousness that lay in front of me. Her vastness had a humbling impact on me, whereas the abundance was simply captivating.

The profusion of virgin beauty of the earth below compelled me to gawk at it, while riding the chopper that takes pilgrims from Phata to the Kedarnath shrine, in the Uttarakhand state of India.

Interestingly, it was not my maiden ride, on a chopper.

Back in 2007, I had travelled in a helicopter with the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, during his election campaign. For about 10 hours, I had accompanied him to more than a dozen public meetings at various places in the state. However, at that point of time, my sole concentration was on covering his meetings and weaving news stories around his campaign [LINK]. The mode of transport couldn’t hold my fancy.

However, this time, the story was altogether different. It was a journey amidst lush green, colossal mountains.

We had arrived in Uttarakhand only a day before. The overnight train journey (from Lucknow to Dehradun) followed by the day-long road travel (from Dehradun to Guptkashi via Rishikesh) had drained us. Yet, fatigue was not an issue at all. We were up at 04:00 AM. An early morning shower with chilled water (in biting cold) only infused a fresh life in us.

By 06:00 AM, we were at the chopper company office. The guy at the reception asked us to wait until 13:00 hrs, as we had originally opted to stay the night at Kedarnath. But the excitement was too high for us to wait that long. We decided to play our charm and managed to get the tickets changed to same day journey. Even then, we had to wait for a couple of hours, which we utilised in exploring the surroundings and stealing a few shots (photography is prohibited in the area).

Finally, it was our turn. We queued up at the waiting area, where the usher handed us our boarding passes and baggage tags. And, then began the extensive briefing sessions (preparing the passengers, majority of whom travelling in a chopper for the first time). There were numerous directives -  “Do not touch the seat or the seat belt”, “Do not touch anything inside the chopper”, “Do not talk to each other”, “Do not use your phone”, “Do not use your camera”, “Do not walk towards the back of the chopper where the propeller runs so fast that it becomes invisible and poses danger”, “If you drop something, do not try to pick it up but wait for the ground staff to help you”, and many many more such instructions.

The company had deployed two sets of ground staff – one for pilgrims returning from the Shrine and the other for those ready to board the flight. Each passenger was individually assisted by one ground staff member.

Guided by our leads, we were rushed towards the chopper as soon as it landed. The staff hardly took two minutes in helping onboard passengers getting off safely, and assisting the ongoing ones getting on and buckling up. The whole process was ultra swift and super efficient.

The pilot and the ground staff had their routine communication gesturing a thumbs-up sign implying all set to take off.

I was fortunate to be seated in the front next to the pilot, although the privilege came with some additional riders – “Do not touch any button on the panels in front or around you”, “Do not talk to the pilot” etc etc.

I was still struggling to emerge from those ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’, when the pilot asked me to wear the headphones hanging in front of me. Obediently, I followed that instruction as well.

“Hi, this is Vicky,” a friendly voice rang into my ears. I realised that it was not a routine announcement as it happens in commercial airlines but the pilot here was trying to establish a dialogue with me. “This is Alka,” I blurted awkwardly.

An ex-army-man, flying the shuttle service (this is how the chopper service to Kedarnath is commonly referred to as) for 6-8 hours daily, Vicky was manoeuvring the machine smoothly and effortlessly. Even his face showed no signs of tension. His eyes were free of any worries. I realised that he must be used to seeing people feeling nervous while travelling in a chopper; and he must have evolved an affable way of easing the passengers, at least the one sitting shotgun. He had succeeded in his endeavour.

I found myself slowly getting in-sync with my surreal surroundings. We were more than 6,000 feet above the ground flying amidst huge and lush green mountains. The sun was bright and the clean air made the sky look pristine blue. A play of light and shadows had created distinct layers on different peaks, reflecting various shades of blue and green, blending well with each other. The snow-covered pinnacles gleamed like gold in the bright sunshine.

The splendour of the nature had left me speechless. At the same time, the magnificent view from above had facilitated my imagination to take a flight of fancy. “Had there been a heaven on earth, it would have looked like this,” my mind wandered.

As we veered right towards Kedar valley, Vicky pointed at the river Mandakini, gently flowing below. Squeezed between massive mountains on both sides, the narrow stream of the river appeared innocent and harmless. This was the same river that had caused wreckage in 2013 [LINK], after a disparaging cloudburst and terrible landslides. The tragedy had left thousands of people dead and injured and had caused heavy damage to properties.

The whole picture of that catastrophe whirled in front of my eyes for a second. At that moment, Vicky, as if reading my mind, drew my attention to the old but damaged route of yatra that pilgrims used before the disaster. The ramshackled route was full of the remnants of devastation.

“And, that is the new route,” Vicky interrupted my stupor and brought me back to hope and positivity.

I spotted swarms of devotees walking on the 20 odd km long, newly paved track [LINK]. From above, everything down looked diminutive. There were also mules and pitthus (carrier men) transporting old, invalid and children or any other person who was unable to take the journey on foot or couldn’t afford the chopper ride.

It was a landscape displaying the faith of humanity walking in pursuit of an unknown but the omnipresent power. The scenario brought an involuntary smile to my face and brightened my eyes.

“So, we are here! You can see the Kedarnath Shrine,” Vicky announced.

I could see the shrine in front of us. Surrounded by mammoth mountains, it appeared comparatively small, but the exhilaration this journey had ignited in me was enormous.

Landing at the helipad in the Kedarnath valley felt like a dream come true – an experience to be cherished forever!

More information about shuttle service to Kedarnath can be found here [LINK]
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