When we woke up the next day, it was still dark. There were quite a few members and the number of toilets were few. We had to depart for MadMaheshwar as soon as possible to allow us enough time to reach there before evening. Though the distance was approximately the same as the day before, but the entire trail was up the slopes. So, we needed to ensure we had enough time. We had two ponies which weren’t utilized the day before, but today, the kids (except the elder ones) rode them. The daughters of me and Indranil rode the same pony. They were fastened with the saddle by the sweaters and jackets of their fathers to secure their erect posture during the ride. The morning was bright with clear views of the Garhwal Himalayas.
Gradually, one by one, we hit the trail once again. The road initially for a few km was dug up and slices of boulders and rocks lay everywhere. After that, it was better, but the incline increased gradually. After sometime, I found myself walking with Niladri. His elder daughter went ahead of us along with Rumi (my niece) while rest of the people were behind us in separate groups, all heading up according to their own pace. Before the tour, everyone was repeatedly told not to hurry or compete with others but only to follow one’s self judgement. We weren’t into a race. The road was the same and so was the destination. Forests continued to provide shade to the trail so walking was generally comfortable except for the steep climb. For me, the trail was a blessing. The greenery was soothing to the eyes and I was in company of my friends. We reminisced about past memories of our friendship as we walked on. Tourists returning from MadMaheshwar passed by us. Some of our members kept asking the passers-by about the remaining distance.
The locals bent their backs to carry huge bundles of grass to feed their cattle or to use them in the roofs of their homes. The river Madhu Ganga kept its company with us. Though the trail wasn’t tough, but it was being paved with freshly cut boulders in an effort to get it cemented in future. This ongoing work created problems for us as the boulders made it uneven and we had to put forward every step carefully as there was risk of straining our joints unless we did so. Not everyone in our group were comfortable. Anindita (my wife) was tiring and she had problems with her knee joints which aggravated with the steepness. The biggest casualty of this tour though was Sanjukta (Niladri’s wife). Though she was fine in terms of fitness, but she wasn’t quite enjoying the trek. What you see or feel depends a lot on how you look at them. For her, the toil weighed heavily on her mind and she mostly saw the pain rather than the natural beauty. Niladri convinced her into this trip citing that the trek wasn’t difficult but she found it to be quite the contrary. After this tour, she vowed never to trek again and she has kept her word till this day.
We reached Nanu, a small village on the route. There was a small shop where we all assembled to have tea and some noodles. More than hunger, this was mainly to give some rest to our legs and exchange our experiences so far. The kids were having a gala time. They were fit (quite contrary to what we thought initially). Some of them rode the ponies. The two ponies were fondly named ‘Gauri’ and ‘Champa’ by their owner. My daughter and Madhuja (Indranil’s daughter) mused about the names and were keeping track of who rode on whose back as they swapped their places with others in turn.
After some rest and food at Nanu, we hit the trail once again. Niladri moved ahead with his elder daughter and I found myself walking with Ranjan da (my brother-in-law). Clouds started to appear and the sunshine disappeared gradually. With that development, the air became cold and rain droplets started falling. Fortunately, it was still a drizzle and we plodded upwards. There were still no signs of the ladies as they were much behind us. The trail showed signs of levelling and I had a feeling that were just about to reach our destination. After sometime, forests disappeared and we entered a wide valley and saw the MadMaheshwar shrine at the end of it. Mountains surrounded the valley from all sides and the sun was out once again. The temple of MadMaheshwar shone in the bright afternoon sun. The structure was simple and it resembled that of Kedarnath.
Our kids already arrived on the back of the ponies and so did Niladri and his elder daughter ahead of us. I entered the temple guest house along with Ranjan da and settled ourselves in. There were no signs of the ladies till now. We sat in the afternoon sun and waited for them to arrive. Even after an hour, there were no signs of them. Just when we were about to send our ponies in their pursuit, they started to appear one by one. Sanjukta was the first to arrive along with Sudipa (Indranil’s wife) and long after them, the outlines of Anindita and her sister were visible in the horizon. We offered puja at the temple in the evening and witnessed the Aarti (a prayer accompanied by religious songs and sounds of temple bells). The night was cold. For dinner, we had to split between two local shops (that was the rule to allow both the shops to share the paltry revenue equally). We sat cosily close to each other in front of the mud oven where our dinner was being cooked. No matter what gets served under such circumstances in these remote Himalayan regions, people enjoy it and we were no exception. The next morning, we left early at about 4 AM for a hike of 1.5 km to Budha MadMaheshwar. We made our way through the dark helped by the light from our torches and started to hike the mountain near the MadMaheshwar temple and soon lost our way. We wandered around on the slopes trying to figure out the way but we kept moving upwards. Darkness started to fade and it was a battle against time trying to reach Budha MadMaheshwar before the sunrise. The morning rays started to fall on a nearby mountain peak which started acquiring the shade of gold.
After plodding up for some more time, we finally reached Budha MadMaheshwar. There was a small temple at the site but it’s backdrop is what mattered the most. The huge massif of Mt Chaukhamba stood firm against the clear sky basking in the morning sun which by now had spread its tentacles on all of the four corners of the peak. It’s reflection, now clearly visible in a small pond in front of the temple, formed a wonderful symmetry of images.
Other famous peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas, the likes of Mandani, Kedar Dome and Kedarnath stared at us in the bright morning sun. An entire range was visible with peaks from the Gangotri region appearing right at the western end of the sky. We stood there, awestruck with not a single word uttered by anyone. Anindita and her sister were still on their way up and their figures finally appeared at the horizon. After that we started our descent (against our wishes but time was running out and we had to reach Gondar, a village halfway down the trail with enough daylight at our disposal).
After breakfast, just as we were about to start our descent from MadMaheshwar, it suddenly started raining even though the sun was still bright. It was a wonderful sight and very soon, a few flakes of snow accompanied the rain droplets. We waited for that to abate and then headed down. The trail down was less painful for our lungs and heart but proved severe for our knee joints, at least for some of the ladies. On our way down, we moved at our own paces and soon found ourselves alone. It always happens on a mountain trail when one finds him/herself alone with the mountains. Depending on your mental and physical condition, you either enjoy the solitude or feel nervous. The latter happened with Anindita and her sister. They were having trouble descending with their bruised knees and moved at snail’s pace. While we all were down to the village Gondar by the afternoon, there were still no signs of them. Suddenly, Ranjan da received a call on his cell. It was Anindita’s sister, Madhumita. She was waiting at Nanu (just half way down between MadMaheshwar and Gondar) and there was no trace of Anindita nearby. It was already afternoon and sunlight was fading. At this pace, they won’t be able to make it to Gondar by any chance. I kicked myself for not walking by their side as I felt, I could have catalyzed their descent, had I done so. The ponies too, by now, had already descended to Gondar. I gave a call to Ramesh (the owner of the place where we were to stay that night) and urged him to send some ponies back up to Nanu to bring the two sisters down. The masters of the ponies were understandably upset at the proposal (they just came down, tired after the journey and now were being asked to go back up to help a rescue). But fortunately for us, they heeded to our calls and went back up with their ponies. We waited anxiously at Gondar. Finally, by the time when both the sisters arrived on ponies’ back, it was already pitch dark. When we were having our dinner at Gondar, the full moon appeared in the sky, lighting up the entire valley.
The next day, we walked down to Ransi, where our jeeps waited to take us to Mukumath. We bid goodbye to the MadMaheshwar valley at Ransi and headed to Mukumath by the jeeps.
Yashpal is an old friend of mine. I visited his bird watching camp at Kakragaad a couple of years before this tour. That camp of his, got washed away by the river Mandakini during the flash floods of 2013 and his entire investment went in vain. He could barely escape with his family to his ancestral village of Mukumath (the winter abode of Lord Tunganath), where he was granted some land in lieu of his lost home at Kakragaad. He purchased some more and on that he had built another place of stay for bird watchers. The place had descent rooms, and we relaxed there for 2 days.
People of our group enjoyed the rest at Yashpal’s place and some of the group members felt, the worst was now over. After 2 days at Yashpal’s camp, we headed down to Haridwar railway station and the group parted ways with some leaving for Kolkata by Doon express and rest of us for New Delhi by Nanda Devi express. As Doon express left Haridwar station, I bid goodbye to my friends. As their figures disappeared around the corner, I recalled the memories when we came to Haridwar on a chill morning, all excited to meet with my friends and the prospect of visiting MadMaheshwar. Tours will continue and we will surely meet again, friends. Till then, goodbye.