The pilgrimage of Amarnath is one of the largest Shaivite gatherings in India. Between the full moon of July and the full moon of August, thousands of pilgrims attack the Himalayan peaks with equipment often insufficient, if not totally absent. Faith is a wonderful thing.
Five days to go, five days back, from Pahalgam to Amarnath, that’s what adventure our friend Gilles leads us, Micha and me. Ten days to yomp into these incredible mountains of the Himalayas, without sherpas, without tent or mountain sleeping bag, without any equipment, barefoot in flip flops, in shorts and T-shirt in the snow at the passage of a hard 5000 meters pass. We did not know it was impossible, so we did it. With hundreds of Indians barely better off than we were. All this beautiful people climbs cliffs, crosses snowfields, bivouacs in villages of tents distributed on the way.
It’s exhausting, often dangerous, always exhilarating. Bom Shankar has been too appealing to me, I absolutely wanted to see this magical place, at the end of the course, the famous ice lingam cave where Shiva Baba created the world. Gilles was immediately started. As I understand it, he intended to return there every year, in the middle of the summer, since it is the only time of the year when high mountains are accessible.
In my memory, it remains the highlight of this immersion trip. The meetings are innumerable, incessant. Sometimes exhilarating, or staggering. I remember this German baba met in Pahalgam, in a kind of boarding house called Aksa Lodge. It no longer exists today. This tall fellow had very short hair, and on the top of his skull there was a maze of bumps the size of a finger, winding, sometimes moving at the rhythm of the emotion of the fellow.
Then he sat down in a lotus, closed his eyes and went into meditation on the verge of deep trance. So the most incredible happened. The big spaghetti on his head began to swarm, and an incredible sound came out of his head. A distant, nasal sound. The guy kept his eyes closed, he was very far from us. I stayed about fifteen minutes fixing the crawling caterpillars. I was totally captivated by the movements they made and the deep, unreal sound they seemed to emit. I had used some charras, I admit it. As every day. But as good as it is, this shit is not hallucinogenic.
Another strange memory, though more trivial. The toilets. They were outside, in a small sentry box in disjointed boards. There was a hole in the floor where you could see the rocky floor thirty meters below. The dog was on the cliff side. I did not notice before entering, and it shocked me. The advantage is that the smells remained down the cliff, with the rest. But I must say that doing one’s needs in these extreme conditions was not easy …
Indian women have a singular custom in this matter. In the early morning, we see them move away from the village and as soon as they reach the meadows, sketch a dance step, jump while turning on themselves. When they fall to the ground, their sari inflated like a corolla and under this improvised tent, they can modestly relieve their bladder. You can see all these human flowers dotting gracefully the meadow, we would like to applaud their ballet … but we hold back! It’s a poetic show that I still have in the eye after all these years.
The departure of Aksa Lodge marks the beginning of the pilgrimage. We leave civilization to climb towards the unknown. It’s dawn. Gilles has been buying two large sacks of seeds and dried fruits which will be our basic menu for the next ten days. You have to walk a good step because the steps have a fixed length. It is imperative to reach every night a village of canvas, if you do not want to sleep under the stars. And the higher you go, the colder the nights are. Especially when we do not have suitable equipment …
The first day of climbing will therefore be rather physical. We only stop a few minutes every hour. When we have the chance to meet a waterfall, shower! And we leave as dry, completely soaked, the sun of India was soon dry.
We have given up western briefs for the one that is traditional here: a simple strip of cotton fabric without hem, that we pass in a belt of the same material. Economical, easy to wash, the only drawback of this typical string, the cotton band rolls and enters the intergluteal sill, ie the line of the buttocks. And it’s very unpleasant to me. But in Rome, we do like the Romans …
Towards evening we arrive at the first stage relay. Several large and comfortable tents stand for hotels. As we are the first to arrive, we are entitled to honors: curry dinner with Kashmiri Masala, very hot chapatis, tea ditto, and then under the covers for a well deserved sleep. Just lying down, surprise: expert fingers make us a skull massage! It is included in the accommodation, and I must say that it helps to sleep. We sink with delight into the arms of Morpheus.
The next day, chapatis again, and we take the road. We will make our toilet at the first mountain stream. The path is easy to spot: there is only one. Impossible to be wrong. We meet pilgrims who go down to the valley. At each meeting, we stop, we greet each other for a long time and the questions come out. Always the same. There is one, unmissable, that amuses me a lot: “Where are you from?”
Well, we come from Pahalgam. Of course, like everyone else. It is impossible to come from elsewhere. On this path, one can only climb Pahalgam, or descend from Amarnath. No mystery. Gilles puts me in my place. “You do not care about their mouths, Xavier, they’re not cool, they’re asking you what country you’re from, you do not look like an Indian, and that interests them. There are people from all the world. “
Shitting shame! The moron is me. The following meetings will be better. We take the time to sit, we talk about France, Europe, and made the inevitable shilom turning round.
In the third day afternoon we are very high in the mountains. On steep slopes, a kid runs after his goats. At this altitude? There is no more grass, no more bush, no more trees. We met Kashmiris carrying fagots and branches to feed the fires of the relays and Amarnath. The rock is bare. Stone screes, cascading streams of water, and suddenly this little shepherd with his goats. Surreal!
He comes to us. Dressed in rags, naked I should say. In his hand an orange. He peels it and without hesitation divides it into four. A quarter for Micha, a quarter for Gilles, a quarter for me and the last one for him. “You see,” said Gilles, “this kid has nothing but this orange. He didn’t hesitate to share it at once. That is hospitality, the true one, the one that comes from the heart.” What a love, this little goatherd! Will I be willing to share everything I have with the first comer?
Gilles asks him in Urdu where he comes from. “Cabri” he says, showing his little flock. I guess he did not understand the question. Gilles deceives me. There are three touching countries here. This child does not know which he belongs to, or where he walks. Besides, he does not care. His country is where his goats lead him. Hence his answer, cabri.
We arrive on a meadow of thick grass that is reminiscent of mountain pastures. wild horses walk along the paths, a whole network of narrow paths that they have dug through. At some intersections, there is a post with a sign written in Hindi. The funny thing is to see a horse stop in front of the signs, raise your eyes as if to read them, and resume his serious path like a pope. I tell myself that it is a village for wild horses. Too handsome.
The fourth day, we arrive in the area of eternal snow. They are reduced in this season, the only one of the year where access is practicable. We are still obliged to cross a firn where our flip-flops (!) Slide dangerously. We go barefoot to avoid a fatal fall in the chasms. Gilles announces that we will pass a pass at 5000 meters altitude. Higher than Mont Blanc!
There is a lot of snow where our bare feet sink. I am the one who is closing the march. The closer you get to the pass, the harder the climb is. I’m falling behind, and I can not help it. I am short of breath. My heart beats wildly. My feet weigh a ton, I can not lift them anymore. My head is spinning. I collapse in the snow. Micha looks at me with a smile. Gilles turns to me. He thinks I’m kidding, as it often happens to me. But no, I’m really on the verge of fainting.
Seeing their happy look, the demon of the kooks me back despite my discomfort. On my stomach in the snow, I extend my arms towards them and I exclaim: “Give me up here, I’m delaying your march!” For years I wanted to say that. I’m happy I did. They retrace their steps, surround me with friendly care. I drink a drop or two, I nibble some cashew seeds.
Moral returns. But they will have to help me to cross the pass. As soon as we go down on the other slope, I find my form intact. They do not seem to have suffered at all. I understood: my altitude limit is 5000 meters. Fortunately, Amarnath is lower: 4500 meters. What grandiose mountains! Passing this pass higher than the highest point of the Alps, still there were above us peaks 3000 meters higher. The impression of immensity is indescribable. We felt like ants in these breathtaking expanses.
The next night we slept too well. And the next day, departure at dawn, bound to Amarnath!