Monday, July 31, 2017

The Practical Guide to Vaishno Devi, India

It is surprising to read the number of blogs written on the Vaishno Devi trip yet none truly explores it from the practical (and I must state, commercial) aspect. Everyone talks about how to reach, where to start, how long it takes, how beautiful it is, how tiring it gets and so on. But what will surprise you the most is how alarmingly under-explained all these posts are.

For example, you do know that helicopter is one of the means to reach the shrine and also that you will have to book it at least two months in advance, but did you know that the service does not ply for most of the monsoon and your flight may be cancelled at the last moment without prior intimation and no alternative provided?

So all those who are planning a trip with their parents who may not be able to walk for that long, just hang in there. Make sure you read this practical guide and make an informed decision.

This is a narrative of my own experience of July 2017. It may or may not coincide with your experience so any difference of opinion will be much appreciated, and my own is expected to be respected.

We were 7 people, four elderly very close to their sixties and three relatively younger ones (including me) in the late twenties. So we decided that the three of us would walk while our parents would take the helicopter rides to and fro. This is what we planned and what eventually happened:

1. The booking - We planned a four day trip hoping to cover Vaishno Devi (Katra), Shiv Khori (2 hrs from Katra) and Patni top (4 hrs from Katra). Our dates had to be planned based on availability of helicopter for the adults as they are usually fully booked at least for the next 45 days. So we planned in mid June and made the booking for July end. This fixed our dates and we proceeded to book return flights from Delhi to Jammu. The accomodation for Katra was booked via OYO Rooms and Shiv Khori did not require accomodation since it would be a day trip only. The accomodation for patnitop was delayed in hope for a good deal on hotels (since this was an off season there) at a later date.

Our itenerary was supposed to be like this:

Day 1 - Fly from Delhi to Jammu. Reach Jammu at 0900 hours and take an SUV cab to Shiv khori. Do the darshan there and head toward Katra. Spend the night in Katra

Day 2 - Full day for Vaishno Devi darshan. The kids (three of us) would start walking at 0700 hours to meet the parents at the top (assuming it would take us 5 hours to reach) The helicopter ride for adults was scheduled at noon and would return at 1500 hours. We all would do the Darshan together and have lunch at the top, then we three would walk back while the parents would take the helicopter back. Ideally we would reach 4-5 hours after our parents reached.

Day 3 - Check out from Katra at 1100 hours and leave for Patni top. Do paragliding in Sanasar (as per tripadvisor's things-to-do-in-Patnitop) and spend the night there

Day 4 - Check at 0900 hours and leave for Jammu to catch the 1600 hours flight to Delhi.

This is how it panned out:

A week before the trip - News of terror attacks in a place called Anantnag, which is only two hours from Patnitop. Since patnitop is on the Jammu-Kashmir highway, we decided to give it a miss. Also, we learnt that paragliding has not been happening there for over a year now. So we decided to cut short the trip by one day and booked the 3rd AC coach of Jammu Rajdhani that starts at 1900 hours from Jammu and reaches New delhi next morning at 0500 hours. Luckily we got confirmed reservation there even though we booked only a week in advance. The return flights werr not cancelled yet.

Day 1 - Flight to Jammu was smooth. However, it was largely empty because of the low volume of passengers due to fear and panic in the region. On arrival we planned an Innova from Jammu airport to Shiv Khori and then to Katra. However, the prepaid rate at the airport was 6500/- so we dialled a couple of contacts and were able to book an outside cab for 4000/-

But for this we had to walk for a half a kilometre because the outside cab could not collect us from the airport. So much for saving a couple of grands.

It took us 4 hours to reach Shiv Khori including an hour's stoppage for Lunch. We had to collect a free ticket to enter and everyone had to do it individually because they take a picture of all the devotees to keep a head count so I could not collect the ticket for my parents. The ticket counter was literally next to a stable where you could get ponies to ride to the top. The area was literally full of horse shit. It is expected that way too because it is not a popular destination and is in a remote village, so absolute hygiene is not a big concern there for the government. 

The route to the Shiv Khori cave is a 4 km steep slope from the starting point and we chose to walk (I had runkeeper on throughout). It was  really daunting for my parents who took 2 hours either way with ample stoppages in between. When you reach the top you have two options, either stand in the queue for a couple of hours or pay the darshan-brokers 150/- to take you through the VIP entry directly to the cave. Darshan-brokers (a name I invented)  are the bees that will stick to you as soon as you reach the top and will remain stuck till you are there and not done the darshan. They will keep pestering you for VIP darshans and will ask for 150/- bucks. So we succumbed to their nagging and decided to go for the VIP entry and paid 150/- to one of the darshan-brokers to save 2 hours of waiting time.

Inside there is a small cave with rocks shaped unevenly representing various dieties in the form of 'Pindys' that were pointed out to by our broker. An atheist may think its a gimmick, but as religious as we people are, we bowed our heads to each one of them and hopefully did receive the divine blessings of them all. 

The broker also pointed out two passages in the cave, one that leads to Amarnath and the other to - wait for it -heaven! I was truly impressed by how close I had gotten to heaven's entrance. I asked one of the pandits how long it would take to reach Amarnath via this cave route (it is 500kms from there by road) in response to which I was snapped at

"Only lord Shankara could take the cave route millions of years ago"

Not even worth trying then, I thought.

Our journey back to Katra was uneventful and we checked in late at night to the hotel. I asked the reception about next day's trip to Vaishno Devi shrine and got three useful pieces of information

1. We could get the yatra parchi from the hotel itself. Though what we wanted really was the VIP darshan parchi which would enable us to skip the queue again but the hotel people couldn't provide it. The helicopter people already had a VIP darshan Parchi with them that was given free with the helicopter ticket, so we used one of our contacts to arrange it for the three of us as well.

2. The hotel provided a free shuttle to and from Banganga, the starting point of the trek.

3. The helicopters may not operate in lieu of the bad weather. This could be a big blow to our plans because the three of us had to leave 4 hours early in order to catch up with the adults on time but if the helicopters didnt operate then the adults would have to take the normal route which meant we would have to wait for at least 4-5 hours for them at the top. 

So we decided to wait till the morning to take the call on weather.

Day 2 - To our relief, the sky was sunny and we were relieved that the helicopter would operate as usual and our original plan would execute as planned. So we left at 0800 hours, got a ride till Banganga and surprisingly took only 2 hours to reach the mid point

The mid point is Ardh Kwari (or Ardh Kumari) and that is where the strenuous walk ends. The road ahead is a piece of cake (read less inclined). As soon as we reached Ardh Kwari we contacted our parents to see if they are at the helipad yet and that was when we got the first shock of our life

The helicopters were not plying BECAUSE it was sunny down here. Sunny sky at Banganga would mean a lot of fog at the top (some science shit that actually turned out to be true) so all the flights that day were cancelled. This led to the existential crisis - "how will the parents make it to the top?"

They then had the following options to choose from -

1. Walk - A clear no. They could barely make it 3 kms to shiv Khori a day earlier so 14 km one way was out of option.

2. Take a battery operated rikshaw - But they operated only from Ardh Kwari till the shrine and back so there still had to reach ardh kwari by one of the means.

3. Take a human Palki (4 people lifting the person via a seat on their shoulders) - This is what they decided and that was when we got the second shock of our life.

The Shrine Board approved rates were 4500/- per head to and fro but no one was willing to go for that rate. The minimum amount they quoted was 6500/-. When we complained to the Shrine Board's complaint number painted all along the route they hardly seemed interested and we realised they must be working in tandem with these people. 

So spending 26000 on four people was out of question for us, again.

3. Take ponies to Ardh Kwari and Battery operated Rickshaw from there - This is what they did eventually and paid 500/- per head till Ardh Kwari for the ponies. 

On reaching Ardh kwari, they realised that there was a huge unorganised queue for the battery cabs (we three had already reached the top by then). What they now had to do was push their way up till the booking counter and get the tickets.

The ticket counter closes at 1100 hours and reopens at 1330 hours, and you cannot book it in advance for anyone.

That was when we got the third shock of our life.

The battery rickshaw drivers were openly accepting bribes and letting people in without tickets, only they had to pay 200/- extra, a killer deal to save 45 minutes of hustle.

Meanwhile, while the three of us were at Ardh Kwari earlier, we decided to visit the Garbjoon cave there since we now had to wait for a couple of hours for our parents. 

But we got to know that booking for that is also done in advance and at least 3 hours of waiting is required. So we decided to skip it. The following day, however, we came to know that we could have taken a back door entry there as well through the darshan-brokers. So much for our ignorance.

 Finally we all did manage to do the darshan together, albeit 3 hours behind schedule. 

Then came the next big question - " How do the parents get down?"

The battery rickshaw would start again at 1900 hours so we would have to wait for a couple of hours for the ticket counter to open. We decided against it.

Ponies were out of equation since numerous blogs had stated that downhill ride on a pony puts immense pressure on lower back.

We were left with only two choices now - either walk or take the palki. So our mothers decided to take the palki (we were two families) and after over thirty minutes of bargaining, we settled at 3750/- per head for the way down. The fathers did not want to spend that much so decided to walk, much to our surprise since they were not physically fit to make it.

But they did, though it took them seven hours and a couple of strained backs to make it back to the hotel. 

We kids would have volunteered to walk for them had there been an option, but sadly they had to do it themselves. We will forever grateful to Vaishno Devi for giving them strength to do it. My father had had a slipped disc a year ago and avoiding a repeat injury was my major concern. 

The shrine board has done nothing to manage the various operators who are openly looting the devotees who are helpless and at their mercy.

The return flight from Delhi to Jammu cost us 3500/- per head, the helicopter return ticket was only 2100/- per head, but this one way journey for 14km cost us 7500/- 

What is saddening is that despite so many rules being laid out for everything, little is done to keep them in check. 

Day 3 - Pretty uneventful tour of Jammu taken only to while away time till the evening train back to Delhi

Our return flight tickets from Jammu remained unused. We did not even bother cancelling them because the cancellation charger were more than the ticket prices themselves.

To sum it all I would recommend the following to whoever is planning a similar trip:

1. Have a good amount of 'Jugaad' for getting accomodation at Bhawan and VIP Yatra parchi. There is no other way you can have it.

2. Have a pocket full of currency notes for the darshan-brokers, battery cabbies, pony operators and palki operators. Money saves time and health.

3. Think again who have elderly parents who may not be able to walk for long. Else depend entirely on Maa Vaishno Devi's divine Shakti for strength.

As I stated earlier, this was my personal experience and may or may not coincide with yours, so respect and accept it.

Happy Journey
Jai Mata Di!

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