As I heard the birds chirp in the surroundings, I pulled myself out of the sleeping bag, juggled along to make some way and unzipped the front of the tent to peep outside. A mild brightness spread across the sky just enough to mark the outlines of the mountains. I gradually came out of the tent. The chill was strong but enjoyable. After putting a quick glance around, I headed towards the nearby bushes with a bottle of water in my hand. After brushing my teeth as soon as I splashed water on my face, it felt like prickles from a thousand needles. After that, I went to the tent to wake up others. They cuddled in their sleeping bags enjoying their sleep that came very late last night due to unaccustomed surroundings. I let them continue with their sleep for some more time as the day’s walk was not supposed to be long (as per our guide Arvind, it was only about 1.5-2 hours). I took my camera and ventured around for some photography. The sky started to light up with the bright sun rays falling on the Mountain peaks of the Bhagirathi range. But these places don’t offer golden views of sunrise as the sun rises from behind the mountains. Finally, the entire meadow bathed in bright sunshine. So was Mt Bandarpoonch.
I woke up my wife and daughter. I had to push them to come out, but once they did, they felt much better in the bright sunshine. They got themselves prepared, which basically meant brushing the teeth and answering nature’s calls. Bathing was out of question. We went inside the shepherd hut behind the tent, which acted as the kitchen and breakfast was served. A couple of parathas with hot tea provided the much needed warmth.
After breakfast, it was time to strap the backpacks and hit the trail. The route moved through the meadow to ascend gradually into the forests along the higher slopes. We entered the woods and once again we were walking under the canopy. The slope was gradual and walking was easy. Now that she got used to it, my daughter too, wasn’t complaining. The bright sun rays of the morning trickled through the canopy and played hide and seek along the tracks which traversed through the woods. A breeze kept flowing with a mild chill (which is normal in the autumn season in these parts of the Himalayas). Winters were knocking at the doors.
I had a look at the trail ahead. Our guide Arvind pointed towards the top of the hill we were ascending. There, just beyond the tree line, lay our destination. It didn’t seem very far. The plan was to reach there by noon, have our lunch and spend sometime settling in our tents and then head off towards the adulating meadows of Dayara Bugyal.
As the trail moved up the slope, the forest started thinning out. The intensity of solar rays increased with reduction of the canopy cover and so did the heat, though it wasn’t at the levels as felt the day before during the afternoon. Partly because it was morning and partly because we got used to the trail, the members felt better.
During the trek, I kept comparing the facilities available in Nepal with the Himalayas in India. There, in Nepal, one can expect to find a well managed tea house throughout the route, even in places as high as Gorakshep, which is just shy of the Everest Base Camp. At the Annapurna Base Camp trekking route, one can even stay at a tea house. But here, in Garhwal Himalayas, even in routes like Dayara Bugyal which fare nowhere in terms of remoteness or altitude, one has to be content with staying at tents. In a way, it is good as it doesn’t impact nature or its resources as much as it does in well frequented routes of Nepal. Proximity and accessibility brings its own set of drawbacks to quiet abodes of nature. The route, by now was devoid of any forest as we crossed the tree line. The peaks of the Bhagirathi range was visible on the horizon and so was Mt Bandarpoonch.
After a few more steps, we could see the shepherd huts and we knew we had reached our destination. We sat there to have some rest. Arvind gave us mugs of steaming hot tea, which was so refreshing for our tired bodies. The porters already started to erect our tents. They were being erected on a lower ground, just where the slope from the huts descended to. The hut was to act as kitchen and the place of stay for the porters and guide Arvind. They wasted no time and got started with preparing the lunch.
The place where we our tents were put up, was just before the start of the seemingly endless adulating meadows of the Dayara Bugyal. They chose this place because of proximity to streams of water, which is a crucial factor in determining places of halt. Lunch got served quite early. After that we settled in our tents for sometime to have some rest but Arvind reminded us to head for the bugyal in the afternoon with enough sunlight to enjoy. So, despite our desire to rest for some more time, we heeded to his calls and went out for the meadows. Beyond the huts, the path moved up gradually and took a turn around the bend. As we turned around the corner, endless slopes of adulating fields greeted us. As if the surrounding forests were making their advances from lower hills to cover these tops, but came to a halt suddenly to give way to endless grasslands which form the favorite pastures for herds of sheep and goats of the villagers.
These high altitude meadows of the Himalayas often are self-contained ecosystems and are homes to many endemic species (i.e. species that are found only in specific meadows and nowhere else). Right after winters and before the monsoon, these meadows get covered with numerous flowers with varied colors. One cannot move around in these fields without stepping on the floral beds. Hence, the forest departments take care to protect these species and their habitat. Increasing number of tourists and camping on these grounds often cause danger to the survival of these species, which, if not protected, will become extinct. Ever increasing human activities and related deforestation and cultivation have cut out the connection between these meadows and most of the species housed by them are not found elsewhere.
We roamed around the fields aimlessly, taking a look at the surroundings. This wasn’t the time of flowers, but the meadows, nevertheless, were picturesque. The afternoon rays of sun glorified the fields. The slopes went down on one side leading to the forests, beyond which, lay the gorge of The Ganges. The hills on the other side of the river moved up till they gave way to the snow peaks of the Bhagirathi range.
The entire meadow was devoid of any sound, beyond the reach of any modern civilization and its allied fallacies. I climbed up the slopes of some of the hillocks to get views from different angles. Though it wasn’t the time of the year when flowers bloom in these meadows, I could still see some remnants with some peeping out from the grasses.
The solar rays changed their angles and so did their colors, which started to play their part on the distant snow peaks. Gradually, shadows started to move along the long distant fields of the Dayara Bugyal giving an indication that the sun was about to exit the sky.
Arvind showed me the trail that moved up towards Bakharia top, our destination for the next morning before we head down towards Barnala. The extent of the meadows seemed endless. He talked about a trekking route wherein one can traverse the Bugyal and descend towards Yamnotri. Another variation of that route can take one to Dodi taal and further ahead, to Yamunotri. There are numerous trekking routes in these parts of the Himalayas, some of them even cut across the watershed between the Ganges and the Baspa river to descend into Chitkul of the Sangla valley in the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. While I was chatting with Arvind, my wife and daughter started feeling the chill of the evening winds as the sun was fading out fast. I urged them to move ahead towards the huts. As they moved along, I trained my lenses on the peaks to capture sunset views.
Herds of sheep started to come down one of the slopes towards the huts. They were returning after enjoying a full day of grazing on the distant meadows. As they crammed to move into the huts, their bleats of different pitches coming from animals of varying age groups filled the skies. They hopped around and over the rocks and uneven slopes to move ahead. Two strong dogs kept a strict vigil on the group ensuring the herd sticks together.
The peaks acquired a tinge of yellow, which successively turned golden, crimson and finally all white after the sun bowed down.
As I came back to the huts, I saw my wife and daughter enjoying the bonfire that had been lit up by the porters. I was welcomed with a steaming mug of tea. The chill in the air was significant which prompted all of us to subside into the huts. One has to bend the back considerably to be able to get a passage inside. The cooks were already into their act preparing for the night’s dinner. Some lentils were being prepared over a burning earthen oven. We sat beside it. The warmth from the oven gave us comfort. After dinner, we headed to our tents. On this second night in the tents, it felt less uncomfortable as we got used to it. Since it was only 7 PM, we spent sometime playing ludo using our headlight torches. Sleep was peaceful as there wasn’t any dog to move around.
As I ventured out of the tent, next morning, a dazzling Mt Bandarpoonch gave a hearty welcome. After breakfast, I headed towards the meadows once again while rest of the family moved down along with the support staff towards Barnala, an hour and a half of walk down the slopes. We took the turn around the same bend and then started moving up the slopes. It was a different route that moved up and down the hillocks. The meadows were bathing in bright sunshine and the lush green fields resembled a freshly laid carpet.
The bugyal was at its best in the bright sunny morning. As we moved ahead, my walk got increasingly interspersed by small flowers that peeped out of the lush green fields and I took time to focus my lenses on them.
The flowers were so small yet so beautiful. It was a tough time to get still snaps as they continued to shiver in the chilling morning breeze.
After going a long way, I realized that the Bakharia top was still far away. A quick look at my watch prompted me to turn around. The further we go, the more we’d have to traverse on our way back and the day’s target was to descend to Barnala. So we headed back.
As we started our descent beyond Dayara Bugyal, forests made their reappearance and once again, we were walking under canopy cover. After walking for about an hour, we came to a small lake with a temple beside it. By the looks of it, I recognized it to be Barnala (thanks to the pictures from the internet). But I couldn’t see any trace of either the porters or my family. Arvind walked up the nearby hillock to have a look at the valley below and he recognized their location at once. I glanced a look beyond his shoulders down into the valley and I could see them too. The mules grazed around and the porters got engaged with work. My daughter was roaming around freely in the small patch of ground. But all of that was a silent film that was being played out at a distant place down in the valley with no sounds reaching us. We continued our descent and finally reached there. Our tent was already erected. It was picturesque setup with tent almost lying in the middle of no where. Dense forests surrounded the entire place.
After lunch, we roamed around the place. Fresh breeze running through the pine forests carried their fragrance to us. It was leisure that was written all around. But that was for us as the porters and cooks were constantly engaged. After lunch, they got started with preparations of evening tea and snacks. They promised to treat us with fried onions and potatoes along with the evening tea. While it lifted our spirits immediately, it wasn’t an easy task to provide such comforts at these places. Materials and rations for all that gets served at these altitudes, have to be carried all along from the towns below. They either need to be carried on backs of mules or by porters all the way up.
We roamed around freely and enjoyed the views at our disposal. The peaks of the Bhagirathi range were visible through the gaps between the otherwise thick pine forests. Another herd of sheep and goats made their way down the slopes from the meadows above. They raised the same symphony of bleats of different pitches. The rusty shepherds and their sturdy dogs kept tight vigil on the herd.
As the herd made their way through the forests into the lower villages, evening wore on with the familiar shades of color being played out on the distant snow peaks resulting in yet another colorful sunset.
We couldn’t remove our eyes from the colorful play on the distant peaks. Darkness covered the forests nearby but the sun was still lightening up the peaks on the northern horizon.
After darkness came upon, we moved towards our tents. Bonfire was already setup and our cooks handed out cups of hot teas accompanied by fried onions and potatoes. We enjoyed the treat thoroughly in the chilling atmosphere. While they went back to prepare the dinner, we went inside our tent. The tent had almost transformed into our small home away from home. We had worked out how to sit and arrange ourselves in the small space available. While we were playing ludo, I heard sounds of water droplets on the roof of the tent. Before long, it started raining intensely. Just as we were thinking about how we could go to the kitchen tent for our dinner amidst heavy rains, we heard sounds outside our tent and saw lights. The cooks and the porters came up to our tent with our dinner. I was simply spellbound by their hospitality in these harsh conditions. They braved the downpour in the chilling night to serve our dinner right at our doorstep. That night we went to sleep with not just peace, but respect for the large hearts that these poor and simple people possess.