If you are on your way to Vaishnodevi (approximately 6000 ft above sea level), as I was, you should know by hearsay that you are not there till you are there. That was exactly the case.
It’s often said, and I believe it now, that you cannot go there till she, the Divine Mother, calls you. (The Bulawa, as it is called.)
I had been fortunate the first time I went there. I didn’t think otherwise this time. However, rain the previous day had dampened our spirits. The locals said it was impossible that the helicopters would be operating the next day.
Fatalistic thinking! Oh well!
We slept with apprehension. The next day however was miraculously clear. Sunshine touched the tops of the mountains and streamed through the windows. Exhilirated, we were off.
A short ride and we were at the Katra helipad.
While my travails at the helipad have been outlined in a previous post (http://tectonicshifts.blogspot.in/2012/12/fivedaysoff-great-start-and-miracle.html), here is where I want to talk about not just the heights of the mountain ranges but the new highs I got out of the helicopter ride.
It’sappropriate to say hats off to Jammu and Kashmir Tourism for taking the helicopter service to Vaishnodevi to really superior levels of efficiency.
I don’t recall much the last time I was in Vaishnodevi. It was almost a decade ago. I do recall a somewhat unplanned helicopter ride. I remember hanging around waiting and then taking the ride from one kind of makeshift helipad to another. While I did appreciate the service at that time it was definitely rudimentary and disorganized. And if I’m not mistaken, expensive too.
Now it’s supremely well done. Each flight is serially numbered from both sides.
As you check in, a boarding card has your number written on it. Ours was 11. Each helicopter carries 6 passengers. One sits next to the pilot, two behind him with their backs to him and three facing these two passengers.
Each flight from helipad to helipad takes roughly 5-7 minutes.
At some point your flight number is called out and six passengers are ushered in through a security check to the helipad, away from the landing bay.
As the wind whips your face one of security personnel tell you what to do.
Wait here till you are told to move. When the helicopter lands run towards it and allow us to buckle you in. When you land, allow the security person to unlock the doors and undo your seatbelts. And run from the front of the helicopter to the terminal!
More, you are quickly divested of any largish baggage that you are carrying and assured that you will be given that back once you land and run across the tarmac.
Uh-oh! There’s a rather embarrassing detail I forgot to mention. At check-in, besides the infamous PAN card there’s one other number that needs to be checked: Your weight. A huge industrial size weighing scale stands prominently and ominously outside the check-in window. Once you weigh yourself on it, you announce your weight to the guy inside who quickly writes it down. Mortifying, I thought. Luckily for us the weighing scale decided it would stop working for a while. Which meant we could safely go to the window and a bit quietly disclose our weight (as we thought or imagined it to be) to the impassive guy across the counter.
Why the issue about weight? This was not really a diet and wellness centre! (Nor for that matter how heavy your religious or spiritual fervour was!) Apparently it was to balance the helicopter with the right amount of weight. Even more importantly, it was to decide who would sit in the hallowed place right next to the pilot.
So down to the truth. Which hurts. I knew in a moment that the hallowed seat next to the pilot was not to be mine (all those missed Crossfit classes, sigh!).
Once our flight was announced, we were marched through security on to the helipad Five of us were lined up on one side. One lone (slim) person was isolated (rather chosen) to be on the right.
Then the helicopter landed. A gust of wind caused by the rotors blew into us and before we knew it we were hustled to the helicopter (a 100 meter dash – Usain Bolt style!) and ‘placed’ into our designated seats. And even before we could say the traditional “Jai Mata Di” we were up, up and away!
The copter rotors never did stop.
Up into the air we could suddenly see the valley as the helicopter took a curved way around the mountain to the other side. It’s standard to say that the valley view was breathtaking but what was even more beautiful was the snow-dusted peaks of the mountains. Fresh snow had fallen the day before and it glistened in the soft morning sun like a flannel baby blanket. The air was crisp and clean and we were on our way up… to our destination.
It’s amazing how one can think at the speed of light. Now speed has another metaphor: the helicopter ride from one pad to another. Before we knew it we had landed, the rotors still on, we were hustled out of wind’s way into the landing. We had reached Sanjhi Chhat. Another 2 kilometers and we would reach the shrine.
On our way back, the procedure was the same. This time, thankfully we didn’t have much of an issue (a tiny hiccup yes, but not an issue of the PAN card variety).
We waited for our flight number to be called out. This time however, there was just two of us from the group on our flight: SG’s mother and I. Her uncle and aunt were on another flight (read carrier).
We waited patiently for the ride back. When it did get called out we knew the procedure and marched out to the helipad with a great deal of confidence.
As we reached out and proceeded to stand in a single file, one of the attendants approached me. He asked me to stand on the right side of the file. Ooooooh! I knew what this was! He asked me gingerly if I had any problems sitting in the front. Problems?! No! No! None whatsoever! My heart leaped like the legendary Wordsworth heart without even seeing a rainbow in the sky! I was skipping with joy inside!!! And then my inner wicked self tugged me from behind! My weight hadn’t been noted this time.
I froze. Was this man making a mistake?
What if he suddenly decided that I was not as ‘light’ as he probably thought I was? Then to make matters worse, to my horror, I saw a slim young girl walking up to the helipad. I am not discussing sizes here but she was definitely and visibly slimmer than I was.
I decided to stand my ground, behave badly even throw a tantrum at that height if need be but not give up my hallowed place next to the pilot. I don’t know why I had earned it but the very fact that I was asked and I had agreed made me somewhat special and the righteous owner of that sacred seat.
It turned out ok! As I looked on, I realised she was on her honeymoon, her (newfound) husband close at heel. The ‘thoughtful’ attendant (God bless him, twice over) had decided not to separate the honeymooning couple and thought I’d be the next best candidate!
And so the chopper came in and I rushed excitedly to my designated place. I couldn’t wipe off the silly smile on my face all through the dash to the copter and through the flight. I was asked to completely put off my cellphone – which I willingly did – and sat strapped into the sit and savoured the experience.
In seconds we were airborne and I gasped as I looked down. We were in the ‘bubble’ part of the helicopter and the bubble extended to below my feet! If I could sing, or if this was a Hindi film, I’d be singing Karen Carpenter’s “I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation…” But it wasn’t and I didn’t.
Yet it was a wonderfully a giddy feeling. Even if it was for a short time. And as we landed. I held on to my smile because all in all, I’d managed quite a bit in one short day – and it wasn’t just the heights, but things were looking up, weren’t they?