Features Issue 92 Jul, 2010
Text by Ravi Shankar / Photo: Ravi Shankar, MD

The poison threatened to destroy the entire Universe! Mahadev (the great Lord Shiva) was the only one who could save it. The Gods and other inhabitants of heaven submitted a petition to Lord Shiva with over three hundred million signatures requesting his intervention. The Lord promptly swallowed the poison; but it got stuck in his throat and stained it blue, giving him yet another name: Nilkantha (‘Blue throat’). He felt his throat burning, and a great thirst overwhelmed him. He struck his trisul (trident) into the snow-capped Himalayas and a cooling gush of water came forth relieving his thirst and creating a series of lakes near Helambu and Langtang, the trekking regions due north of Kathmandu.

The legend has fascinated me since long ago and I resolved to trek to this series of holy lakes (kund in Nepali), with such evocative names as Saraswati Kund, Bhairav Kund and Gosain Kund. These lakes, especially Gosainkund, are popular pilgrimage sites and teem with Hindu lowlanders during the Janai Purnima festival (the August festival when Brahmins and Chhetris change their janai, or sacred threads). Many of the pilgrims are not adapted to the cold and high altitude and fall prey to altitude sickness. The Mountain Medicine Society of Nepal (MMSN), of which I am a member, organizes medical support for the pilgrims each year.

Gosainkund gets very crowded during the festival and the lodges are insufficient to cope with the rush. Nonetheless, the volunteer doctors from MMSN have significantly reduced death and sickness in recent years, and are to be congratulated on providing yeoman service. At the same time they are doing research and obtaining vital information about the effects of altitude on the human body and the prevention of acute mountain sickness (AMS).

The adventure begins
Recently I got a chance to fulfill a long standing desire when I set out with my brother Raju, his friend, Sarang, and a colleague, Ashik, to visit Gosainkund. The bus ride to Dhunche in Rasuwa District, the starting point of our trek, was tedious and uncomfortable. The road deteriorates to a dirt track after Trisuli town. The fertile lower Trisuli valley is heavily populated and people boarded the bus steadily along the way. Chicken, goats and other domestic animals occasionally shared the bus with us. Dhunche is a town of some importance as the district headquarters. Like most hill towns it sprawls across a hillside and there is an altitude difference of over a 100 m between the two ends. We stayed at the Hotel Himalayan Legend. The four-storied modern brick building (painted blue) has a few traditional touches in the form of beautifully carved wooden windows. Such windows are a feature of houses in the Langtang region. Two middle aged Israeli gentlemen also checked in en route to Gosainkund and over the next few days on trek our paths intertwined.

The lodge owner’s two children quickly overcame their inhibitions and soon became friends. Sarang has a gift for mimicry and imitated various animals. His imitation of the khukur (dog in Nepali) during the trek was so realistic that challenging barks were heard from other canines all along the trail. We slept early that first day, to be ready for the next day’s trail.

The next morning dawned grey, cloudy and dreary. Soon a steady drizzle started. We were disheartened and retired to our rooms to wait out the rain. We snuggled under our siraks (quilts) and the warmth soon lulled us to sleep. I woke up suddenly around ten a.m. — the rain had stopped.

Onwards and upwards
We set out without immediately, leaving Dhunche at half past ten. The lady of the lodge told us the previous evening that most locals make it to Gosainkund in a long ten hour day. Ashik was inspired to follow their example, but I advised caution. We had two neophyte trekkers in our group and the altitude gain of more than 2,000 m would expose us to a risk of altitude sickness. Most medical primers do not recommend an ascent of more than 500 m a day. Though the lack of lodges makes this difficult for the teahouse trekker.

The trail meandered along the banks of the Trisuli River. This branch, with its origins in the holy Gosainkund Lake, gives its name to the whole river. The main branch (in terms of volume) originates north of the border in Tibet. This is one of the few instances where a small branch gives its name to the whole river system. A mineral water bottling plant appeared striking an incongruous modern note in the timeless surroundings. Rainbow trout farming has also become a lucrative occupation along the Trisuli and long tanks recreating the flow of the river were seen from the trail. Our route began getting steeper and we were joined by the Israelis and their guide. After a steady three hour climb with frequent stops we came to a lodge and stopped for lunch.

Lunch, rhododendrons and the army
While eating lunch, we watched the sun playing hide and seek with the Himalayan peaks. As we set off again, the path led uphill at an angle of around 30 degrees and my brother Raju became apprehensive. I reassured him that most Himalayan trails are easier than they look. Rhododendrons were in bloom and to my delight the common red one (laligurans) was supplemented by purple, pink and white blossoms, a riot of colors. In Han Suyin’s novel, The Mountain is Young, the hero Unni Menon tells Anne Ford how load-carrying women lighten their loads with rhododendrons. Ashik had the same idea and affixed a pink rhododendron to Raju’s bag.

Eventually, we came to an army camp at Dimsa and rested, while chatting with the soldiers. When we started out again, we felt tired and sluggish after a long, tough day. A fellow named Thapa, who was guiding the Israelis, tried to buoy up our spirits by stating that the first day to Sing Gompa (also called Chandan Bari) is the hardest part of the trek. It was after 5:30 p.m. when we arrived there, and checked into the Green Hill lodge owned by a relative of our Dhunche hotelier. Sing Gompa is at around 3250 m; we had climbed over 1300 m from Dhunche, and I was worried about the possibility of altitude sickness in our party. Fortunately everyone felt fine.

High altitude cheese
There’s a famous cheese factory here and we wanted to buy some to take back so, the next morning under a clear sky we walked there. A Dairy Development Corporation (DDC) employee briefed us about the process of making cheese. DDC has factories in many exotic locations like Chandan Bari, Jiri and Kyangjin Gompa. The cheese was rich and had a more subtle flavor compared to the powerfully flavored kind made at Kyangjin.

The nearby monastery of Sing Gompa, however, was closed and were disappointed by its size. Somehow we expected a grander structure. It reminded me of a comment by the British adventurers of the last century, H.W. Tilman, who wrote in Nepal Himalaya about the simple structure and lack of upkeep of monasteries in the Langtang region.

The track steadily climbed through forests of conifers and rhododendrons. I sometimes think that the life of a tree must be boring. Always rooted to the same spot, with the same view and the same perspective on life. Do they not feel the urge to move on, to trek, to see what is beyond the horizon? We stopped for tea at Chalang Pati (3380 m) for much needed sustenance and to wait for our friends (Ashik and Sarang) who had started late from Chandan Bari. The next part of the trek has been described as having outstanding views of the Langtang range but, unfortunately, the weather played truant.

Surrendering to the Gods
Now the vegetation was thinning out, though Piptanthus nepalensis shrubs were in bloom covering the hills with a carpet of yellow, and clouds wrapped themselves tenderly, protectively around the blooming rhododendrons. The weather was becoming chilly and hostile and I was becoming apprehensive. A lodge could be seen high up on a distant hill and we guessed the place to be Laurebinayak. Laurebina means ‘without walking stick’, as the pilgrims leave their sticks here before they proceed to the lake, surrendering themselves to the Gods. Religion was becoming a dominant force on the trail, chortens and prayer flags were seen at intervals. The prayer flag is a powerful device sending prayer and religious thoughts flying in all four directions. Someone once remarked that the Tibetans were among the few people on earth who harnessed physical forces of Nature for spiritual purposes.

It was 11.30 when we reached the first lodge. We decided to have a light lunch and wait for our companions. Laurebinayak is at around 3930 m and several other lodges could be seen on the hill about 50 m above us. The fire was warm, the lodge comfortable, so we decided to stay put for the day and go to the lakes early the next morning. Our friends, the Israeli gentlemen, soon joined us.

The advantage of trekking in Langtang and Helambu is that there are enough trekkers on the trail and lodges to keep you company, but not so many that you have to fight for accommodation. The clouds cleared briefly that evening and we could see the Langtang range nearby. We could also see a chorten about 200 m above us on a barren hilltop, and our path winding around it. We chatted with a young Japanese lady and her guide who were also going to Gosainkund and then on through the Laurebina pass to Helambu.

The final push
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and we were on the trail by 5:30. I was reminded of other early morning treks I have done, to Poon Hill in the Annapurnas and to Kala Pathar above Mount Everest Base Camp. Meanwhile, our Gosainkund lake destination was two to three hours away. I was struggling slowly up towards the chorten taking frequent rest stops along the way. Ashik was in front and Sarang behind. Raju was not feeling very well and decided to stay back in the lodge to await our return.

The sunlight was bright, pure and strong. I was feeling great and knew I would have no difficulty reaching the lake. After the chorten and the small temple the path wound round steep hillsides. The trail was high above the Trisuli River and was not for acrophobics. Luckily, most of the snow had melted and only patches lay on the ground out of reach of the Sun. It’s been said the trail is spooky and dangerous if there is snow. Under the pressure of countless feet, snow hardens to ice and that’s when the slippery surface threatens to send the unwary trekker over the edge plunging into the valley below.

The first of the lakes, Saraswati Kund, could be seen in the valley below. People were returning from it and I briefly spoke with a long haired, bearded khuire (Nepalese slang for a Westerner), a latter day hippie who was of the opinion Gosainkund was an awesome place. The landscape had changed to rock, snow, ice and water. There were no trees or shrubs.

Water, water everywhere
The second lake Bhairav Kund soon came into view and the Trisuli River could be seen where it originates from the lake and plunges into the valley below. I could see the lodges of Gosainkund now and knew that the lake was near. I was joined here by Ashik, Thapa and one of the Israelis (the other one balanced his thirst for adventure with his responsibility towards wife and kids and returned to Dhunche).

The waters of Gosainkund were shimmering in the morning sunshine. ‘Gosain’ means priest and ‘kund’ means lake. There is a small shrine by the shore and this lake is said to be connected through underground channels with Kumbeshwar Mahadev Temple in Patan. While I stood admiring the view, a bright orange bird was flying about enjoying the warm sunshine. The birdlife had been magnificent throughout the trek.

The lake water was cold but not as bad as the freezing and numbing liquid that I had endured while at Lobuche (4920 m) in the Everest region a year earlier. I washed my face and arms and collected the holy water in plastic containers to take back to relatives and friends. Gosainkund has a black rock in the center, said to be the head of Lord Shiva. The pure of heart are able to see an image of Shiva in the lake. I was sad that Raju was missing all this. Dorothy Mierow wrote Kathmandu, Treks and Hippies Too, a novel set in the late 1960s, she described a silent lake. But the lake we saw was far from silent, with so many people around.

Merriment on the road home      
On the way back we took a different route from Chalang Pati. The descent was steep and we lost altitude rapidly. I was reminded of something from Tilman’s book In my experience, he wrote in 1952, “a Himalayan track is seldom content to follow the bank, but is always busy either climbing to escape the river or rushing down to it in order to avoid some impassable cliff.” The trail was difficult to follow and meandered a lot. It was late evening before we could see the serpentine village of Thulo Syabru below. Raju was having a tough time descending, so we stopped at the first lodge. A family in the village was celebrating the birth of a son. Chang (Nepalese beer) was in free flow and everyone was having a great time. Sarang joined in the dance, a simple but beautiful affair where dancers link hands, step forwards and back and slowly moves about in a circle.

We were now used to early morning starts and by five were on the trail hoping to catch an early bus back to Kathmandu from Syabrubensi. The descent was steep and tough but we had good views of Ganesh Himal and Langtang enroute. As we came down, I felt satisfied and content from a wonderful trek and knowing we were back safe and sound.

Guidebooks generally recommend that Gosainkund be done after either the Langtang or the Helambu trek. The major reason is the rapid gain in altitude. Most trekkers reach the lake in two days, with the first night at Sing Gompa (after a 1200 m climb) and the second at Gosainkund itself (a gain of around 1100 m). The medical doctor in me reminds me to point out that acute mountain sickness (AMS) remains an ever present danger at altitude, especially during a rapid ascent.

Trek to the holy lake of Lord Shiva; discover the power of faith which brings thousands of lowlanders to this high altitude lake every August. Many walk bare foot; some are inadequately dressed for the cold, but religion relentlessly pushes them on. Faith may occasionally move mountains, but nearly always carves a walkable trail through them!