Tyler, a friendly American I've been spending a fair amount of time with over the last few weeks, is planning a trip to the mountains; the valley of flowers and Hemkund, and says I should come along. On the surface we're fairly contrasting characters, (him a loud, open American, me a quiet, reserved Brit) but we have many deeper similarities and get on well. Plus he plays loads of poker - what's not to like? He also invites a Russian named Gribb... I guess I should explain about him now.
Gribb Gribb Gribb. Where to begin. I suppose a good place to start might be the fact that he named himself Gribb (Russian for mushroom I think) after a mushroom shaman, and when we asked his real name he wouldn't tell us, saying (please imagine the accent) "that is not me. I am not my name. I am not my biografia". He later won't allow us to take pictures of him because it would 'steal his energy', and tells us he's burnt all the photos of him that he can get his hands on ("I am not me. I am not human. I am nothing. How can you save nothing?"). This is a particular shame because he has a floppy Mohawk with shaved head either side, a penchant for bright or neon clothes ("is very acid!") and several funky ear-bar things. It's quite nice not being the crazy foreigner and center of attention for a while! Every local we pass either laughs, shouts something like "Good hairstyle my friend!" or just stares open mouthed for minutes on end.
His beliefs... I got most of it in one huge dollop the first night I met him. I wish I'd had a tape recorder or something, I've forgotten most of it, but suffice to say my jaw was on the ground the entire evening - some of the stuff he was coming out with was just... WOW.
He believed the world as we know it will end in 2012 because of the Mayan calendar (given to us by aliens thousands of years ago, along with the pyramids and various other things), he believed there are aliens on the moon, on mars, on earth, he believed you could survive on nothing but 'universal energy' and claimed to have gone 4 and a half days without food or water. He believed technologies in films like The Matrix and Total Recall exist and are kept secret by governments across the world. I think my favourite was his belief that when the poles melt after the apocalypse in 2012, the lost city of Atlantis will be free from its icy prison under the North pole and float to the surface, replete with 5-metre tall gods with strange skulls (pictures of which he assured us he'd seen) possessing special powers such as teleportation and telekinesis. I kid you not. It was incredible! And I honestly believe that he honestly believed it. I got to utter the words 'sorry, why are there demons in babies' minds?' which brought me great joy.
I asked him, somewhere towards the end of the evening, where he got all this information. Can you guess what he said? 'The internet'. I'd tried to keep a straight face, but couldn't help laughing (or should that be loling?). As one of the others said afterwards, 'some people shouldn't be allowed on the internet'.
So that's a not-so-brief intro to Gribb - the kind of person who comes out with sentences like "I fly.... outside of matrix!" with seemingly no context, that send me and Tyler into giggles. In short, he's bat-shit crazy, but enormously good fun. As Tyler points out, he adds a bit of life and energy into our group.
Ok... So the whole trip starts out pretty weirdly. We book a jeep for 6am, I turn up at 5:40, stick around for an hour and find no trace of Tyler, Gribb or jeep. I find Gribb and Tyler the next day, it seems they overslept, but I have no idea where the jeep was. We book it again, found my team this time, waited for an hour (which included over-friendly cows and a very spaced out lady who sat with us for ages howling at the moon) and then got told the jeep wasn't leaving because it wasn't full. Third time's the charm, and we finally take the 8hr bump-fest to Joshimath. From there we get a ride to get a ride to Govindghat, the starting point for the hike to Ghangaria.
Govindghat is eerily empty, not quite a ghost town, but certainly dying (or hibernating - the season is all but over). We are the only tourists, and the few locals we meet all seems to be emptying they're possessions into trucks (in a disconcertingly hasty, almost panicky manner) or huddled around fires of burning rubbish. We manage to get a room at the only open guesthouse, get told by several people that the valley of flowers is closed and there are no places to stay, but Gribb is insistent everyone is lying, and that we should go. "You think of problem, make problem! There is no problem" We try to explain dying of exposure or starvation would be problems whether we think about them or not, but he doesn't quite get it. We find one person who says there are things still open, and of course he's not lying - everyone else had 'bad energy'. We decide this craziness is why we brought Gribb along, and set out the next morning anyway. The walk up to Ghangaria begins wonderfully, a winding path following a tributary of the Ganga with the Himalayas in the background. I gaze hungrily at the view wishing I had photographic memory and mourn the fact the photos won't do it justice (not bad though):
Along the way we stop beside the river for Gribb to have a swim. It's glacial water, and putting my foot in for more than 5 seconds causes pain. I turn and see Gribb, absolutely butt-naked (as Tyler would say) dunking himself into the river over and over with a huge grin on his face. He emits a high-pitched roll of the lips, sounding like a Pokemon - 'brrrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeee!' Then his signature choking noise, that I imagine to be similar to that of a strangled duck, and then a spit. KKKKARH-spit.
The end of the 14km walk gets tougher and we're pretty tired by the time we get to Ghangaria. It's even quieter than Govindghat , we see maybe 3 or 4 people. We find there is an open guest house though, and they serve food. It's starting to get dark and frighteningly cold; Tyler is shivering like crazy - I suspect he has a touch of hypothermia but he feels better after some dhal and roti (our diet for the next 4 days). Our room has no electricity, the toilet doesn't work, and the gaps in the doors and windows mean it's the same temperature inside as it is outside. It's certainly below zero at night as the edges of the river freeze over, and we spend the nights fully dressed and shivering.