THE NORTHERN stretches of Garhwal (Uttaranchal’s western hills) are strewn with pilgrim towns, ancient shrines and forbidding snowbound peaks. Uttarkashi, the main town, lies 148 km (92 miles) north of Rishikesh and is an important starting point for treks to the upper reaches of Garhwal. A leading school for aspiring climbers, the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, is situated in this town, and boasts of having trained Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to scale Mount Everest in 1984.
This region also encompasses an area traditionally known as Derv Bhoomi (“Abode of the Gods”). The Char Dham or four major places of pilgrimage, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, are all situated here at altitudes over 3,100 m (10,171 ft), in the shadow of some awe-inspiring Himalayan peaks. The pilgrimage season lasts from April to early November, after which the snows drive away all but the most devout. All four sites can be reached from Uttarkashi, Haridwar and Rishikesh
Yamunotrt, 209 km (130 miles) north of Rishikesh, is the source of the Yamuna, and a 13-km (8-mile) walk from Hanuman Chatti. Its temple was rebuilt in the 20th century after the earlier one was destroyed by floods. The small village of Gangotri, named after the Ganges which flows through it, lies 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Uttarkashi. Its 18thcentury temple has images of Hindu deities. Gaumukh, the source of River Ganges, lies 18 km (11 miles) upsteam, below the soaring Bhagirathi peaks, and can be reached via a path that follows the lovely river valley.
At this point, the river is known as the tthagirathi, and only becomes the Ganges proper after it joins the Alakoanda river at Devprayag . The impressive Kedarnath peaks form the backdrop for the pilgrim town of Kedarnath, sacred to Shiva, and 223 km (139 miles) northeast of Rishikesh. A beautifully carved stone temple, said to be 800 years old, lies 4 kin (9 miles) north of the road head at Gaurikund.
The most visited of all the Char Dham shrines, Badrinath is situated 298 km (185 miles) northeast of Rishikesh. Its colourfully painted temple, dedicated to Vishnu, is usually packed with pilgrims. The town has a spectacular setting, wedged I between the Nar and Narayan ranges. The Neelkanth or “Blue Throat Peak”, named after Lord Shiva, towers over Badrinath at a height of 6,957 m (22,825 ft).
Joshimadt , lying 250 km (155 miles) northeast of Rishikesh at the confluence of the Dhauli Ganga and Alaknanda rivers at Vishnuprayag, is one of the four mathas (seats of learning) established by the great 9th-century sage, Adi Shankaracharya It is also the junction of two ancient trans-Himalayan trading routes. The town was a gateway to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary until the sanctuary was closed to the public in 1983. Today, visitors head mostly for the ski slopes of Aull , reached via road or cable car from Joshimath. The popular trek to the Sikh shrine of Hemkund Sahib and the Valley of Flowers National Park begins 20 km (12 miles) north of Joshimath, from Ghangaria. The Valley of Flowers, best visited between the months of June and September, is a carpet of anemones, roses, primulas and other alpine flora.