The downpour that started previous afternoon, continued through the night and there were no signs of it abating in the morning. Our plan for the day was to go up to Hemkund Sahib, come down to Ghangria and then go all the way down to Govindghat to board a jeep for Joshimath. All that travel was to be done on backs of ponies. That was the only option for us if we were to board the train from Haridwar the next night. It sounded like an uphill task and incessant rains gave fodder to some members to contemplate dropping the idea of visiting Hemkund Sahib. The pony owners too, had that suspicion and they kept confirming with us time and again to ensure we didn’t drop the plan. Finally, we went ahead. All of us, wrapped in our rain coats, boarded the ponies (something which I always dread) and embarked on our journey.
Soon we reached the junction where the trail for the valley turned left, but we plodded upwards. Streams of rainwater kept flowing along the route and the ponies splashed along with their dogged steps. At many places, they used their own judgment to traverse the route diagonally to evade muddy potholes that were made slippery by their own excreta. Both the daughters were perched on the backs of their respective ponies, wrapped and fastened by ropes, the ends of which were held by the man who was responsible to drag these animals up the trail. The bends kept increasing as we gained heights. Numerous streams came down the slopes fed by the monsoons. Every now and then, the hooves of the ponies skid and we were continuously on our toes.
Forests on the lower reaches started to fade out and gave way to bushes. Slopes of the mountains were covered by green grass. Yellow dots started to appear among them and they increased in number with height. We realized that these were Brahma Kamal flowers, something which can only be seen in these high altitude regions of the Himalayas. They were not seen even in the valley yesterday, but here they were abundant.
Amidst all the excitement, the weather was biting cold and winds lashed making us shiver to our bones. My daughter’s patience dried up and she started crying. Finally, we saw the huge rocks and a few shelters on the distant horizon way up on the route. A faint tune of religious citations reached our years amidst the sound of the heavy downpour & the flowing streams. That told us, we were nearing our destination. When we finally reached there and off boarded the ponies, it took some time for our bodies to straighten up.
The volunteers of the gurdwara greeted us with warm cups of tea, kheer and khichdi. These were being served super hot from the huge containers where they were being prepared. One could consume as much as they could. The lake was surrounded by high mountain peaks on all sides but their tops were cut off by overhanging clouds.
The slopes nearby were covered with dense bushes with big Brahma Kamal flowers jutting out from them. It was one of the primary reasons (at least for me) to visit the shrine as there aren’t many places in the Himalayas where you get to see them. That too, can only be seen in these monsoon months.
Many of the pilgrims were taking a bath at the lake braving the cold as it is considered holy to do so. We were overwhelmed by the surroundings and the warmth of the service the volunteers provided but time was ticking. So, once again we boarded the ponies, which carried us down the watery slopes to Ghangria. We recollected our luggage and set out for Govindghat, again on the backs of ponies. We reached there finally at about 5.30 in the evening and boarded the jeep for Joshimath. A long cherished dream finally materialized.
It rained heavily for almost entire night but we woke up to a bright sunny morning, the next day. When we walked out of our lodge after breakfast, the streets of Ghangria were abuzz with tourists and ponies. Batches of people were heading off for their respective destinations, some for Hemkund Sahib, some for the valley while the rest headed down towards Govindghat. We gradually started off on foot from the lodge. The trail meandered through the clumsy alleys of Ghangria till we reached beyond the hutments of the main town of Ghangria. After crossing a pool over the stream and a few stair cases after that, we reached a junction. One trail turned towards left, which headed to the valley while another plodded upwards along the slopes towards the distant shrine of Hemkund Sahib. We turned left and came across a gate. It was here we had to purchase tickets to enter the valley.
I walked along with my daughter while rest of the group followed behind, each walking at their own pace. It was a narrow trail but the slope wasn’t high, at least to start with. The Pushpawati river gushed down the valley beside the trail. The sun was still shining bright and it’s rays pierced through the tall pine forests. Tiny flowers of different colors already started to appear beside the trail, though we were told that we still had about 3.5 km to reach the valley.
We were elated with those sights. If this is the start, then what waits us in the valley! The good thing was that rain wasn’t playing spoil sport though we were prepared for it come down at us anytime. After sometime, the trail gradually moved downwards till it reached a small pool over the river Pushpawati. Here it was coming down with tremendous force between the walls of the high mountain walls that surrounded it.
We stopped on the bridge to take some pictures. The trail beyond the bridge moved upwards along the slopes on mountains on the other side. I was a bit wary about my daughter. Yesterday, we had the luxury of a pony, which won’t be available today. People carrying baskets on their backs to carry the kids enquired us if a lift was needed for my daughter and I kept denying. They tried to paint the trail ahead to be steep and tiring enough to merit a pony ride. I insisted on making my daughter tread on her feet, but at the same time, was worried if such requests start playing on her mind. The desperation from the basket owners rose from their need to earn for their families. This was the only time of the year where tourists come to the valley – a span of just 2-3 months as for the rest of the year, flowers dry out as snow takes its place.
The trail was well paved out, but it started gaining steepness as we crossed successive bends. We had to stop frequently as my daughter demanded rest with sips of water to gulp down her throat. But the woods on both sides provided flowers galore.
Some tourists passed by on the backs of basket carriers. I was amazed to see that even adults strode their backs. The carriers bent their backs, while the persons on their backs were almost in a sleeping posture with their eyes fixed upwards towards the sky. The whole sight made me uncomfortable and I could never be comfortable in that posture while plodding these uphill slopes, leaving aside the thoughts about the effects my weight could bring upon the carriers.
As it was sunny, I started to sweat and so did my daughter. She insisted on removing her raincoat which was weighing heavily on her but I knew that the weather could change within a span of minutes and if rains came, she would start shivering. So I kept ignoring her requests but stopped frequently for rest.
After sometime the breeze became cool as the sun went behind the clouds. Walking now became comfortable but it started to drizzle as well.
The trail now came out of the woods and we could across the meadows on both sides of the trail. We were convinced now that we were at the gates of the valley.
The meadows stretched wide and the slopes of the mountains wore a fresh look with lush green vegetation.
Strong winds blew across the meadows that raised waves among the bushes that wore a carpet of booming flowers.
Some of the slopes were painted with purple, while the others were sprinkled with white. Clouds hovered above the surrounding mountains and all of their tops appeared cut off by them.
By this time, the intensity of the rains increased. We crossed the river Pushpawati once again by walking over a small plank of wood which vibrated heavily when one crossed over it and it allowed only a single person cross at a time. The river was thundering down the slopes underneath it.
I crossed it over with my daughter and waited on the other side for my wife.
By the time we reached the other side of it, rains came down heavily and we reached under the shelter of a huge slanted rock. While it rained heavily outside, we had our lunch (which we carried along in our back packs). We wanted to venture further into the valley, but looking at the intensity of the rains and thinking about the path that we had to traverse to get down to Ghangria, we changed our minds and headed back. When we crossed the river Pushpawati once again before Ghangria, the volume of water had increased visibly. After crossing the river, the rest of the trail was easy and we reached back to Ghangria by afternoon. Rains poured down consistently throughout that night. That gave us some worries for the next day when we were to set out for Hemkund Sahib.
The sun was shining bright as we traveled along the serpentine roads of the familiar Garhwal Himalayas. I was recounting the number of times I’ve traveled through these roads via the familiar places of Rishikesh, Byasi, Devprayag, Srinagar and Rudraprayag. I almost knew what to expect after every bend of the road. After Rudraprayag, our vehicle continued with the National Highway 58, which is the well-known road that leads to the distant shrine of Badrinath. The fact that the sun was shining bright was a pleasant surprise given the time of the year. It was the month of August, the peak of monsoons in this part of the world and our destination for the day was the distant town of Joshimath. We were on our way to visit the Valley of flowers, one of the most unusual valleys nestled in the deep corners of the Himalayas.
Way back in 1931, the British mountaineers Frank S. Smythe, Eric Shipton and R. L. Holdsworth were returning from their successful expedition of Mt Kamet. They were looking for a short route to the town of Badrinath. They lost their way in their quest and landed up on a beautiful valley full of Alpine flowers and were mesmerized by its beauty. That’s the valley we know today as the “Valley of flowers”.
A long cherished dream was about to materialize. We’ve planned for it many times, but it never happened. The last unsuccessful attempt was in the year 2013 when it was literally washed away by the devastating floods of Garhwal. Even this time, things were quite uncertain as we were following the monsoon patterns over last few days. Some of my friends of the mountains advised not to go ahead due to incessant rains that lashed the slopes of the hills causing landslides almost everywhere. We went ahead ignoring their advise with our fingers crossed being well aware that such incidents can result in delays of several days. Throughout our route, we crossed areas with broken roads dotted by boulders and stones which had come down the slopes but fortunately, it wasn’t raining. It took sometime to find out the GMVN rest house amidst the main market of Joshimath. After the formalities, we were allotted a family suite and a double room. Six of us (our and my sister in law’s family) stayed at the family suite while my father in law went to the other. Clouds started gathering in the evening and by night it was pouring down heavily. That added to my worries as we were to start our actual trek the next morning. But that’s expected in this time of the year. However, the skies fell on me when I chanced upon the dates of our return tickets. We were to return by the Nanda Devi express from Haridwar. It departs from there at 12.55 AM, which means it falls on the next day going by the English calendar. However, I booked the tickets on a woefully wrong assumption of it falling in the night of the same day. How could I make such a blunder and it’s not just me, but an entire group of seven people who were to suffer. For all practical purposes, a full day had been wiped out of our itinerary. We contemplated other options but nothing worked out.
The next morning when we started off for Govindghat, it was still pouring down heavily. The road out of Joshimath moved beyond the cantonment areas and we were moving down the slopes till we reached near the river bed of Alakananda. As we crossed it at Vishnuprayag, it bore a ferocious look with gallons of water thundering down the gorge threatening to engulf anything that comes in its way. The vehicle left us at Govindghat and a local jeep carried us another 2-3 km to the start of the trek route. Fortunately, by that time, the rain reduced to a drizzle and sun was about to peep out from the clouds.
After handing over most of our luggage to a porter, we started off on foot for the village of Ghangria which was 12 km ahead. The trail went through lush green valleys with forests jumping into life after receiving nourishment from the monsoons. Streams danced their way through the boulder strewn beds. Waterfalls came down the slopes in milk-white streams amidst lush green forests. It was joy everywhere in the nature and we enjoyed walking amidst the cool air brushing our faces. Our kids too enjoyed walking the trail in company of each other. As we moved along, the trail gained in steepness gradually and the bends increased. Soon our group dispersed, separated from one another by their respective pace and as in many other trails, I soon found myself alone with the Himalayas. It happens so often that you’re with yourself, accessing your own limitations, planning and taking decisions on your own and no one else other than yourself being responsible for your actions and their outcome. That’s what mountains teach you on its hidden trails.
Halfway through our trail, at about 2 PM, we stopped by the village of Bhuindar to have our lunch. As we had our food, the drizzle made a come back and so did our worries. Not everyone in our group had the same pace and if rains came on now, it would prove difficult for them to reach the destination within the safe bounds of daylight, which was fading fast now. After lunch, we reached the confluence of Bhuindar Ganga and Laxman Ganga, the latter coming down the slopes from the holy shrine of Hemkund Sahib.
After crossing a bridge at the confluence, the trail moved up the slopes in steep gains in altitudes while the number and sharpness of the bends increased. We heard that the entire route to Ghangria from this point was going to be an uphill climb. By this time, I and Ranjan da (my brother-in-law) were walking together with our respective kids, who now started showing signs of impatience and tiredness. After every bend they would ask how far was the destination and the frequency of such questions increased as the uphill trail started taking a toll on their bodies and minds. Our wives were trailing behind and we couldn’t even see them in the vicinity. Horses and mules were plying up and down the routes and they asked if we were interested in taking a lift. So far we’ve resisted the temptation, but as evening bore on, day light started fading and the intensity of rains increased, my daughter started crying relentlessly with no signs of the mothers. We still had to find a place to stay after reaching Ghangria and we didn’t know how far ahead it was. It was at this point, I relented to the call of a horse owner and hired one to carry along my daughter for the rest of the route.
But every toil has an end and so did ours when we finally reached Ghangria. I was relieved to find my daughter sitting on a chair. The horse owner apprised me that she was crying incessantly and only stopped once she saw me entering the village. Contrary to the popular belief, it was challenging to find a hotel as it turned out the village was bustling with tourists even in this raging monsoons. Even after we found a room and placed our luggage inside, there were still no signs of the mothers. I went back a few km down the trail to get a glimpse of them. After a very long wait, they finally arrived on backs of ponies and I was relieved to see good reason prevailing on their part in their decision to hire ponies to reach on time. We were too tired and were quick to resign to beds after dinner that night. The valley of flowers awaits us tomorrow!
In the year 2004, we repeated a mistake, which was to visit the Kumaon hills (this time it was the forests of Binsar) in the summers. Well, on the face it, there was nothing wrong in it as hills are a natural destination to escape from the scorching heat of the plains. But as explained in one of my earlier posts here, summers aren’t the right time to visit if you’re looking for clear views of the mighty Himalayan peaks and Binsar was no exception to that. We did enjoy our escapade in the KMVN lodge right in the mid of Binsar forests, but the peaks eluded us. On the previous occasion, it was in March, and for some reason (can’t remember it now), I thought April might be better but it was not to be. That made me make a pledge to never ever visit Kumaon hills in the summers. Henceforth, all our subsequent visits have been in autumn or winters.
The same year, in the month of October, we made a plan to visit Binsar once again but added another destination to our list, Gwaldam. Geographically, the place falls in the Chamoli district of the Garhwal Himalayas, but the shortest route to it from the plains was from the railhead Haldwani through the roads of the Kumaon region. Unlike our last visit, this time we had the families of my sister-in-law and parents-in-law accompanying us. On one fine morning, we got down from the Ranikhet express on the platform of Haldwani at about 6 AM. The train was about an hour late but we still had time. After all, we were only to travel till Binsar which was about 4-5 hours away from there. After negotiations, we boarded a vehicle and started off. The trail went through the familiar places of Bhimtaal, Bhowali, Almora and finally to the junction from where we had to leave the main Almora road to turn into the one that led to the forests of Binsar hills. After paying the fees for forest permit, we were allowed to enter what was not really a road but a narrow stretch laid with levelled stones.
After lunch at the KMVN tourist rest house, we went on to the terrace which was open from all sides with the view of the majestic Himalayan peaks basking in the afternoon sun. We enjoyed the warmth. My sister-in-law and parents-in-law were excited by the sights (it was their first time to have such close views of the Himalayas). Later, as evening bore on, we were served tea along with pakodas. We spent almost the entire day out on the terrace. Once it was dark, we went to our rooms and candles were provided since Binsar doesn’t have electricity. This is something we enjoy, but to some others it acts as a deterrent to visit the place. Personally, I enjoy it and don’t quite understand why people can’t get over their luxuries in the hills. At least we’re not depleting that much of natural resources during these days, regardless of how insignificant it may be. The chill in the air made the hot chapattis and curry that much more delicious at the dinner.
The Himalayas frustrated us the next day as clouds played spoilsport. We couldn’t afford to wait as we just had a couple of hours at our disposal before heading off to Gwaldam. It would be a 4-5 hours drive and we wanted to reach there before sunset. So, we started off after breakfast and throughout the route I kept an eye on the distant views to see if clouds gave way to clarity. We went through the lower reaches of Kausani and as we turned for Gwaldam, the sun rays started to change their colors but clouds still held the sway. We could see the huge mass of clouds on the northern horizon which was actually shielding Mt Trishul from making an appearance. We could sense how near it was, but couldn’t see it yet. The GMVN rest house at Gwaldam was located picturesquely, but wore a shabby outlook because of poor maintenance. However, we made ourselves comfortable in the rooms allocated to us and came out in the lawn. The clouds were painted with orange and yellow in the lights of the afternoon sun. We all wished they cleared up.
Elders say it you pray for something honestly enough, God answers your call. At least nature heeded to our calls that day. Suddenly, we saw golden outlines making their appearance behind the cracks which started to spread across the body of the clouds. Gradually they all dispersed and the mighty Trishul made it’s appearance before us. This was a totally different angle from where we were seeing it. We could see all the three peaks (which gave it’s name) from the front. In all its earlier appearances from Chaukori, Kausani or even Binsar, all the three fell in one vertical line. The sun was spraying its fading colors across the entire Trishul massif which was colored with orange with a tinge of red.
The next morning, we woke up to a clear sky with clouds nowhere in the vicinity. Trishul and its neighbour Nandaghunti were right in front of us, clearly visible from the GMVN lawn. The sun was gradually making its presence felt. Just the edges of the three peaks of Trishul were lightened by rays of the rising sun and not it’s entire body. That made it’s name sound it even more obvious.
The entire day was at our disposal and skies were clear. So, after breakfast and morning showers, we thought of roaming around with leisure through the streets of this quiet Himalayan town. Gwaldam is on the route of a road that connects Kausani to Karnaprayag, a town on the main highway from Badrinath to Haridwar. There is a PWD bungalow somewhat down the road to Karnaprayag. As in other places, this too, was at a picturesque location. The bungalow was nestled high on the hills with a pond in front of it. Trishul and Nandaghunti formed an exquisite backdrop with their images in the water of the pond. It came across as a picture postcard.
By this time, it was already 9 AM and the sun was out in its full glory and so was Trishul, which now basked in the sun. It was an unusual day when the clouds never came in the ways of the mountain views. Normally, views are clear early in the morning or in the evening (if one’s lucky, then both). But, usually, after 9.30-10 AM in the morning, as the intensity of the sun increases, clouds start forming and by noon, the peaks are no more to be seen. But on that day, the peaks were clearly visible throughout the day in their full glory.
As we roamed around, the landscape around us changed from large pine trees, to terraced fields with serpentine roads moving through the woods but one thing was constant above all on the northern horizon, Mt Trishul and its peer Mt Nandaghunti. They were visible from all corners of Gwaldam, no matter where one was.
That was a day that will remain in our memories for a long time. We spent the entire day lazily walking amidst the streets and fields of Gwaldam. Afternoon once again started to cast its spell on the rays of sun as their colors started to turn yellow to golden and orange and finally to red.
A few km ahead of Gwaldam lay the town of Lohajung, the base camp for one of the most popular treks in the Himalayas. The trek to the mysterious ‘skeletal’ lake Roopkund. From Lohajung, it takes about 4 days to reach this glacial lake, which lies at the lap of the Trishul massif. The lake has it’s banks dotted with numerous human skeletal remains. No one knows who were the persons who met their fate possibly hundreds of years ago and where they came from. There are mythological stories about these that rings bells amongst the locals. Above Roopkund, lies the Junargali pass. After crossing it, one can reach another glacial lake Homekund that lies at the base of Nandaghunti. Trishul and Nandaghunti are worshipped as Gods amongst the locals and every 12 years, a huge band of locals go on a pilgrimage to these places. This pilgrimage is called “Nanda yatra” .A Himalayan four horned sheep is taken along with the procession. Rituals and offerings take place. The procession goes up to Homekund, which is where the sheep is freed with ornaments and food to wander in the remote regions as a sacrifice to the mountain Goddess Nanda Devi. These remote villages in the Himalayas are filled with curious traditions that runs through centuries and attracts people from all over the world. May be, someday, I’ll heed their calls too.
There’s nothing like waking up on a bright sunny morning and that too in a forest. Birds chirped all around. When we came out of our tent, we were greeted with a chilling breeze that was much colder than what we found at Deoriatal. It was evident, we were at a greater height. After regular morning duties and a breakfast with parathas, we left the tents. The rest of the crew were to follow us later after dismantling the tents. They would overtake us in between and reach the destination earlier to get the place ready for our stay. Heera Singh, the guide, stayed back and was to guide us through the forests. It took sometime for him to find the way out amidst the dense forest and we followed his footsteps.
After yesterday’s rest, our legs were fresh in the morning. We then came out into a sprawling meadow. It was the Vanagher Bugyal, the place where we were supposed to camp yesterday. It is a wide open place with peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas peeping out of the horizon. While we rested there for sometime, our crew overtook us along with the ponies. We followed after sometime. At the end of the meadow, forests started again and we were on our descent down the slopes of the hill. It was a zig-zag trail of steps made out of rocks and soil. We had to be careful as they were steep. We kept going down till we reached the banks of a stream that flowed through the gorge between the surrounding mountains. Just as we reached there, our crew (who already reached there before) started off with their journey to our destination for the day. Heera Singh stayed behind to serve lunch to us. What a place to have lunch! We sat on boulders beside the stream with trees forming a canopy above our head. The cool breeze that flowed through the leaves removed the tiredness from our bodies.
The trail after lunch was going to be tough. Firstly, it’s always difficult to walk after lunch and secondly, the entire trail was a steep ascent. We crossed the stream by placing our steps carefully on the rocks spread across it and reached the other side and started our ascent. We were moving up at snail’s pace. We would ascend a few steps, breathe a few mouthfuls, take a few steps again only to stop to breathe. My daughter got bored with the process and started to show her resistance and then came to a halt. Me and my wife persuaded her firstly with calm words, then bribed her with the prospect of rest “just a few steps ahead” and finally scolded her for the behavior. It was one of the acts which I regret to this day. After all she was on this trail not by her own choice, but thrust by us (more specifically, by me). Finally, she resumed her journey but for that I had to involve in a constant conversation with her to keep her mind away from toil. That had a surprising effect on her mind and body. She started walking with a rejuvenated spirit and I was bombarded with numerous questions about almost everything under the sun. I tried my best to answer them. It wasn’t easy to speak while I was ascending the slopes, but she showed no signs of tiredness and the barrage of questions kept coming at me.
We kept hiking and after sometime the steepness decreased somewhat and we came in the midst of a grassland, the Martoli bugyal. It was spread for miles along the slopes of the mountains we were hiking. The fields were bathing in the bright afternoon sun. The slopes started to get steep once again and gradually we entered a land of loose boulders that dotted the uneven slopes. We had to walk over them carefully as they were skiddy. As I looked up to see how far the shepherd hut was (where we were headed), I could see the trace of a trail that embraced the distant hills like a snake. Guides confirmed that it was, as I guessed, the trail to Tunganath from Chopta. But our place of halt, Bhujgali, was still a long way ahead. I saw one of the members of the crew coming down the slopes with two ponies. Anindita was getting tired and the pony provided a welcome break to her. She and my daughter ascended on the ponies which were to carry them for the rest of the day’s journey. As my daughter rode the pony, she was wrapped around by the jacket of Anindita that fastened her to the saddle to provide extra protection against a potential fall.
As they rode away on the ponies, I followed on foot and after considerable amount of time, found myself crossing the boundaries erected by rocks that formed the fences around the shepherd hut, our destination for the day. We finally reached Bhujgali. By that time, our crew had already installed the tents. The sun was already preparing to go down the horizon. The skies turned crimson and the surrounding oak and pine forests too bathed in those colors.
The tent was pitched along a gradual slope and as in the evening before, our crew stayed at the adjoining shepherd hut. I requested them to erect one more tent as it was very clumsy in a single tent and they obliged. Evening was approaching fast and after the sun slid behind the distant hills, temperature plummeted. It was late November. The doors of the Tunganath temple were already closed by that time of the year and the lord resided in his winter abode at Mukumath. The next day was to be the culmination of our trek and was the toughest. We woke up early in the morning at 4 AM. It was pitch dark outside. We were given head torches. Me and my wife started the ascent to Tunganath. My daughter lay asleep at the tent with some of the crew members to take care of her. We carried a bottle of water each. Anindita rode a pony, but I preferred to walk. We were accompanied by the guide and the person who managed the ponies. In the beginning, we plodded up together but soon I found myself walking alone as the pony strode ahead. The ascent was steep and so, my pace was slow. I constantly kept an eye on the skies to watch out for daylight. Our target was to reach Chandrashila, about 1.5 km above Tunganath temple, to witness the sunrise. As I gained height, I had to breathe hard and sip water more frequently. It wasn’t comfortable at all to gulp down cold water in this shivering cold, but that was my best bet to keep Oxygen flowing through my blood vessels in order to keep going.
As I saw the top of the Tunganath temple after a bend around the corner, first rays of sun gradually started to light the skies. Anindita was already there and we didn’t loose time at the temple and instantly started off for Chandrashila which was still 1.5 km uphill from there. The trail (or should I say a narrow strip of foot marks) zig-zag-ed up with frequent and sharp bends. Very soon, it ceased to be a trail and we had to ascend by placing our steps carefully on loosely scattered boulders which were rendered slippery by the last night’s dew which froze to a white powdery mass. Anindita was moving carefully and she relied heavily on the guide Heera Singh. By that time, the peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas had started to wear their crowns of gold.
I found the Chandrashila top to be a small flat space and almost the entire Garhwal hills and the villages and settlements were below us. As I turned my head gradually and completed a 360 degree circle, I found myself surrounded all around by the mighty peaks of Kumaon and Garhwal regions. The sun was popping up from behind the peaks of the Kumaon Himalayas and showered its rays on the ones from the Garhwal region. As I turned anti clockwise, I was greeted with magnificent views of Nanda Devi, Trishul, NandaGhunti, the mighty Chaukhamba, Mandani, Kedar Dome, Kedarnath and many others stretching up to the peaks of the Gangotri region. Chaukhamba was almost just a stone’s throw away.
Our toil was rewarded handsomely by nature and all tiredness were swept away by the views that Chandrashila had in store for us. I opened my bottle to sip water and suddenly I felt the pricks of a few cold needles in my throat. I saw the bottle and found small needle like icicles floating in the water. A bottle of warm water provided to me by our crew at the start of the trek in the morning, had ultimately, in this biting cold, transformed itself into a viscous mixture of water with frozen icicles.
On our way down from Chandrashila, though I was careful on the slippery rocks, I tumbled at least twice on their skiddy surfaces. We prayed a brief visit to the closed shrine of Tunganath and headed down to Bhujgali, where our daughter greeted us with anxious eyes looking for her parents who absconded her on a cold wintery morning. After gobbling down a few spoons of noodles, we headed down to Chopta and then to Sari.
In the year 2012, on a cool November morning at 4 AM, we off boarded the Nanda Devi express at a platform of the Haridwar railway station. We were three of us (me, my wife and my 3 years old daughter). We were on our way to undertake our first family trek. I was a tad nervous because of my daughter as I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to bear the brunt of walking 8-9 km a day for a stretch of 3 days but I was overjoyed to be proved wrong at the end.
We were glad that the train wasn’t late and had the entire day at our disposal (or so we thought). After all, we only had to go till Chandrapuri, a picturesque place on the banks of the river Mandakini which was about 5-6 hours drive from Haridwar. After getting fresh at the railway retiring room, we started off with our journey on a vehicle when it was still dark. As always on this route, we took our first break at the town of Byasi, about 55 km from Haridwar. After having some tea and a light breakfast, we resumed our journey. The road moved along the slopes of the familiar landscape of the Garhwal region keeping the river Ganges on its right. Then came Devprayag with its view of the confluence of the Ganges and Alakananda. The colors of waters of the two rivers always remain distinct. Over the different times that I have been to this place, I’ve seen one of the water streams to be green and the other muddy and the colors have switched sides but never they have looked the same.
After travelling about 20-30 km beyond Devprayag, we got our first setback. Our vehicle broke down. At first it seemed to be a minor defect and the driver assured that we’d soon be on our way but the signs were ominous. It turned out, we may have to wait for another 4-5 hours to get it repaired and for that too, we have to head back to Devprayag again to find a motor garage. I wasn’t prepared to waste time and gave a call to Lakhpat Singh (our tour co-ordinator). He arranged for another vehicle but that had to come down to Devprayag from some distant town on the route beyond Rudraprayag. It was still some time lost, but was much better compared to the former option. By the time we set off once again from Devprayag, we already lost about 3 hours. After Devprayag, the road descends to the valley of Alakananda river to reach Srinagar. The act of building a hydro-electric project on the river Alakananda had transformed it in many ways and not every change is welcome (in fact, most of them aren’t). Concrete walls were being erected along its banks and large swathes of the mountain slopes were devoid of trees. Hills had been blasted to make way for the large reservoir behind the dam. With my limited knowledge, I asked “Was it safe to embark on such large-scale constructions in these Himalayan areas, which are known to be fragile?” Landslides are common in the growing Himalayan mountains. So, how could we afford such extents of deforestation in the name of development? The river Alakananda appeared to have been tamed with its free flow constrained by such activities (or so we thought). The next year, it would prove way too costly when cloud bursts would trigger massive flow of water allowing Alakananda and Mandakini to break free from human clutches washing away large swathes of villages along with them.
We bid goodbye to Alakananda at Rudraprayag and rode along the banks of Mandakini. Gradually, we crossed Tilwara, Agastamuni and by the time we reached Chandrapuri, the afternoon rays of the sun had started to take a golden touch in its colors. The GMVN rest house was at a picturesque location. It was spread out with cottages dotting a sprawling lawn that led to the banks of the river Mandakini. The sky was crystal clear with some white clouds building up in the distant horizon. The chill in the air was on the rise as evening wore on. Lunch was served on a table in the lawn. Mountains surrounded us on all sides with Mandakini giving us company with its soothing sound as its waters danced their way through the boulder strewn river bed towards Rudraprayag.
The atmosphere was too serene back then to believe that the same river, a year down the line, would swell almost twenty times in volume and pour its wrath on everyone residing on its banks and wipe this place (along with many others) off to redefine the region’s geography. As darkness came on, we resigned to our cottages and focussed on re-juggling our luggage to separate items that would be required on the trail for the next three days from the ones that could be done without. We slid into our beds early that night. We were to forget the comforts of a hotel, at least for next three days.
After a comfortable breakfast, the next morning, we found ourselves heading towards the Sari village. We were heading down the Kedarnath road till we reached Kund, where the roads divided. The road on the left went towards Gaurikund via Guptkashi, while we took right towards the town of Ukhimath. This is the connecting road that goes through the Kedarnath wild life sanctuary till Chamoli, where it meets the Badrinath highway. After about 5 km from Ukhimath, we left the main road and headed up the mountain slopes on the left to reach the village of Sari. Sari is a small congregation of lodges, shops and local village homes. Lakhpat met us there. We spent sometime and had some tea while Lakhpat briefed us about the plan for the next few days. The hike for that day was a simple one for about 2.5 km which were to take us up the slopes of the mountains above Sari to the other side of it. There resided a small lake nestled amidst the mountains, Deoriatal. Three of us embarked on the trail. Bukku (my daughter) seemed to be enjoying the gradual elevation of the hike. Clear weather also contributed to the general cheerful mood.
After crossing the final bend, we found ourselves on the banks of Deoriatal. Lakhpat had a permanent tent erected besides the lake with a bed inside. This was going to be our address for the night. The famous Himalayan views gave a skip as clouds held the sway. There wasn’t much to do except to sit back and enjoy the afternoon sun and to have our delayed lunch beside the lake. The day visitors to the taal (there are many of them) gradually headed down to Sari. As the sun slid behind the mountains, evening was waiting its turn somewhere round the corner and was prompt to capture the stage. The night was silent, but sleep deserted me (not sure why), but my wife and daughter seemed to have a sound sleep.
When I strode out of the tent the next morning, it was still dark but traces of faint light were spreading across the northern horizon. Stars were abundant in the sky. The dark outlines of the Himalayan peaks were visible in the backdrop of the faint morning light. That was a comfortable sight and it meant clouds won’t spoil the party. This is a practice I’ve followed many times in my past Himalayan ventures. I could recognize the familiar outlines of the peaks of Chaukhamba, Mandani and Kedarnath even in this darkness. The eastern corner started getting brighter with the first rays falling on the crests of Chaukhamba while the others still remained in darkness. The rays started to spray their colors on the others and gradually the peaks of Kedarnath, Kedar Dome and Mandani woke up from sleep and finally, the rest.
Lakhpat’s crew met us later in the morning. That included a guide named Heera Singh Negi and another person (I don’t remember his name anymore) who started off with the role of leading a pony to carry luggage, cooking and tent equipment, but later on his role expanded to that of a cook, installation and dismantling of tents on the way and virtually everything required for the trek to be successful. The clear morning views lured us to spend more time at the taal and I took a round trip around its banks to reach the famous viewpoint which gave the famous Deoriatal shot to my camera.
All that delayed our departure and we started off at 9.30 AM. We walked along the northern banks of the taal and gradually ascended towards the woods that covered the higher reaches. To start with, my daughter rode on the back of Heera Singh. The trail entered the dense forests of the Kedarnath wild life sanctuary. We walked under the shades of the trees that formed a canopy. The freshness of the morning mist mixed with the smell that oozed out of the forests made the walk memorable.
By noon we reached a place where there was some open space to sit around and our team felt it was time to gulp down the packed lunch of roti and pickle. So we sat down to do justice to the food and water.
After the small lunch break, the trail moved out of the forests temporarily and we had to climb up the hill. The path narrowed up to some extent and we had to be careful as the rocks underneath were not very stable. Looking down the steep slope on the right of us was not even contemplated and we just focused upwards. At times I had to help Anindita (my wife) with her steps. Another sudden development was a cause of concern. My daughter started showing signs of dissent with Heera Singh and it reached a point where she simply resisted to ride his back. Heera and us tried to persuade her to continue the status quo but she was stubborn. I started to get irritated. After all, who would not like the comfortable ride and avoid the tiring walk? But just like this instance, I was grossly mistaken about her for the entire trek. In an attempt to teach her a lesson, we advised Heera to leave her behind and we all started walking while she stood her ground behind a tree. We hoped that isolation would force her to abandon what we interpreted to be her whims. However, we found that she was quite comfortable walking on her own and came along behind us. We then asked Heera to accompany her, else there was every risk of losing track in this wilderness.
After reaching the top of the hill, the track headed down the other side of the slope and once again we entered into the forests, which got more dense. At places, we had to make our way through the thick undergrowth. Heera led us through the forests, while rest of our crew went ahead to prepare for our halt for the day. Our initial target was to reach Vanagher bugyal (high altitude grassland), but time was running out as sunlight started fading. So, as an alternative plan, it was decided to stay near a shepherd hut amidst the forest. As we reached there, the afternoon sun already wore a texture of gold.
Heera Singh started to erect our tent, while rest of the crew stayed in the shepherd hut and prepared for the dinner. Our crew suggested that we stay at the hut to keep us warm amidst the fire they started up, but we didn’t want to let go of the romance of living in a tent.
We were given a torch to aid us in the night if we had to venture out to answer nature’s calls. We prayed not to have to do so. They also lit fires around the tent and the hut in an attempt to keep wild animals at bay and asked us not to heed to strange sounds at night. All such preparations added to our imaginations and the lack of room for movement in the tent that housed three of us also didn’t help the cause. As a result, I couldn’t sleep well.
The trek for next day wasn’t going to be simple as it involved a steep hike after lunch that would take us to the base of the route to Tunganath. But I shoved away the thoughts and at some point, sleep managed to reign.
Tawang is inhabited by the Monpa tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. The monastery at Tawang has importance in the context of Tibetan Buddhism. The region has both spiritual as well as political significance. Tawang is the place where the 6th Dalai lama was born. It is also where the 14th Dalai Lama stayed for a while as a part of his escape from Tibet in 1959.
As I stood on the edge of a hill overlooking the valley on a clear morning, the entire town appeared before my eyes along the slopes. The Tawang monastery was at the right end of the 180 degree view that was at my disposal. Our schedule for today was to visit Bum la, a pass at 4600m (15,200 feet) above the sea level on the Sino-Indian border. It is only about 37 km from Tawang, but the gain in altitude was significant. One requires a special permit to visit the Bum la pass and we made sure to acquire one in addition to the general permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh. We started off for Bum la after breakfast. As soon as we left Tawang, the road started winding up the slopes and vegetation started to thin out. We had to present out permit documents at multiple army posts on our route. Gradually, we had to let go of the luxury of traveling on a formal road as now our vehicle was simply jumping across the boulders on the uneven terrain. Maintaining an upright posture was proving to be increasingly difficult as our heads frequently collided with the roof of the vehicle. However, all that were merely operational aspects as the terrain was changing drastically as we moved up the slopes. Bushes and shrubs waded out and it was all rocks and boulders. Patches of snow started to appear on the higher mountains and such patches came closer to the ground as we gained altitude.
The patches of snow that initially interspersed the black and brown terrain of boulders, now converted to entire swathes of snow covering the entire slopes on all sides. We were reaching near to Bum la. The vehicle continued to move up and after the final ascend of a slope, we entered a flat plateau with a vast stretch in front of us. the road suddenly became level and we could see the border posts. Finding a level stretch after a bumpy ride made our driver ecstatic and he pressed the accelerator pedal and the vehicle whistled along the road that slit through the snow-covered mountains on all sides. That’s when we heard shouts from behind asking us to stop. Only then we realised that we were almost about to enter the Chinese territory and had to pull back. At the far end of the slope, we could see the fences and posts on the Chinese side of the border.
Strong winds greeted us as we ventured out of our vehicle and crystals of snow lashed at our faces. The road continued to the other side of the international border into what official is “foreign territory”. That’s when one realises how futile are the political boundaries, which are nothing but divisions created by humans.
Neither the mountains nor the flora and fauna care about it. Nature doesn’t discriminate, but humans do. The attack on the Indian territory in 1962 started from the north of Bum la. What appears as a vast and silent stretch, became a boiling pot on one fine morning. As we saw around us, we could see army posts on top of every surrounding peak on both sides of the border. The army personnel who were posted there, shared their experiences at the border. In such sub-zero temperatures, they continue patrolling the border 24 hours a day, 365 days in a year. The soldier who chatted with us had his home in the distant state of Haryana in north-western India. He was on his 2nd year of posting at Bum la.
After sometime we were advised to leave the place, primarily because of the cold and cloudy weather and because my daughter was only a little more than a year old. We went back to our vehicle and headed down the bumpy slopes on the way to reach Tawang. After a lunch with momo, our next destination was Tawang war memorial. The war memorial was erected as a mark of respect to the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Many remains of the materials and arms used in the conflict are preserved in different enclosures with descriptions explaining the context of their usage. As we moved around the different sections of the memorial, we found innumerable names inscribed on the murals.
Models are kept at the memorial that depicted the troop movements during the days of the war annotated by dates of the key events.
The next day, we visited the Tawang monastery. It was situated at one end of the Tawang town. We visited the main place of worship that had a large statue of Gautam Budhha and a big portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama. Then there were the hostels where religious students stayed. There was a museum with antiques from the days when the monastery was first established.
Our final day at Tawang ended with a dinner at a local restaurant with a menu of squash curry and momo.
Our return journey the next day, we spent some time once again at the Nuranang falls, purchased some vegetables at the local market at Dirang, enjoyed the views of Se la pass and finally ended our journey at Bomdila. On our way down, we were obliged with views of distant Himalayan peaks lying in Tibet in a clear sky.
The next day, we started off from Bomdila and the road descended through the familiar terrains. We spent some time besides the Kameng river at the beautiful Tenga valley.
Our second stay was at the border town of Bhalukpong. Just before Bhalukpong, we entered the area of the Pakke tiger reserve. Pakke was actually an extension of the Nameri forests of Assam into Arunachal Pradesh. When we reached Bhalukpong, the sun was already preparing to bid adieu. Bhalukpong is a place surrounded by forests. The hotel offered magnificent views from its balcony of the Kameng river as it descended the mountains to enter the plains of Assam where it is called by the name of Jiavarli.
The next day, on our way back to Guwahati, we paid a visit to Nameri with the hopes of a jungle safari, but were disappointed to find that safaris were not yet allowed at Nameri because the monsoons were yet to subside from the region. We went on a small trail till the banks of Jiavarli river. The river flowed through the plains of Assam with dense forests on the opposite banks of it which climbed up the distant mountains of Arunachal and merged into the forests of Pakke tiger reserve.
We all felt that at sometime in future, we will make a trip to Nameri along with Bhalukpong. Hopefully that time will come soon but till then, with a heavy heart, we bid good-bye to Nameri and the distant hills of Arunachal as we headed towards Guwahati.
“North-East” – the word itself has a connotation of unknown and unexplored in the context of India. You have the Himalayas, low-lying hills, forests of the Terai (the foothills of the Himalayas) and there is Brahmaputra and its tributaries. None of these sound new. What you get there, you get elsewhere too, at least in geographical terms. Yet it is very different from the rest of India. That’s simply because, not many parts of it has been ventured into. The hill stations, villages, flora and fauna are unique and still pristine. International conflicts and local disturbances have kept it out of reach from rest of the country for long. Connectivity is yet to reach in its remote corners. The lack of exploration has created an aura of mysticism around the region. Out of the different states out there, the biggest in terms of area is Arunachal Pradesh and probably the most unexplored as well. Previously known as North-East Frontier Agency, majority of the state’s terrain is mountainous and is covered by forests. Till today, Botanists and Zoologists continue to find new species of flora and fauna in the forests of Arunachal. It is the home to the Eastern ranges of the Himalayas. Arunachal is also the state which welcomes the river Brahmaputra (Siang, as it is called in Arunachal) as it enters the Indian territory from Tibet, where it travels for a long distance as the Tsang Po river after its origin at Manas Sarovar lake in the western Himalayas. It is probably the only river that traverses the length of the Himalayas.
All such stories have haunted me for long and I’ve always strived to visit the region. Finally, the time came in the year 2010. Plans started in August and we found ourselves heading to Kolkata on a morning flight in the month of October. After reaching home, we got ourselves fresh and spent the rest of the day visiting some of our friends and relatives. My sister-in-law arrived the next day with her family to join us. Arrangements were complete for a cab to pick us up at 6 AM, the next morning for a drop to the airport. We went to sleep after setting an alarm in my cellphone to wake us up at 5 AM the next day. However, the next morning I woke up by the sound of missed calls from the cab driver. It was already 6 AM. But how come the alarm didn’t set off? A quick look at the cell exposed the reason. While I set the time of alarm meticulously, I forgot to turn the alarm on! I rushed others to wake up and get ready quickly. Fortunately, we could board the flight on time from the Netaji Subhas International Airport as traffic woes were absent in the morning. Our flight was to Tejpur via Silchar, a city in the Barak valleys of southern Assam. It took us about 2 hours to reach Tejpur. The airport was very small and ours’ was the first flight to land at the airport that day. By the time we got ourselves fresh at the airport toilets and exited, the same flight was ready to take off for its return journey. Ranjan da (my brother-in-law) already made arrangements for a vehicle which was standing in the parking area. This vehicle was to accompany us for the entire tour in Arunachal and would finally drop us at Guwahati.
Tejpur is the gateway to western Arunachal. It is a city on the Northern banks of the river Brahmaputra. The name Tejpur derives from Tej (meaning blood in Sanskrit and Assamese languages) and pura (meaning town/city in Sanskrit). Legend has that in the battle between Krishna and Shiva, Banasura’s (a disciple of Krishna) army fought for the rescue of Aniruddha (Krishna’s grandson). It is said that there was so much blood shed in this battle, the entire place turned red. That’s where the place derives its name from.
After settling our luggage on the roof of the car, we started off with our journey. Our destination for the day was Bomdila, which was about 156 km. We whizzed through the streets of Tejpur amidst the greenery of the fields. The weather was cloudy and the air was fresh. Gradually, fields gave way to trees and their density increased. We were now going through the forests of Assam. The smell of freshness from the forests and the chill in the air was refreshing. We were going through the forests of Nameri National Park. The serpentine black road went right through the middle of the forest with trees closing in from both sides to form a canopy. I noticed after every km on the road, there was a soldier posted beside. We were stopped a few times where the soldiers asked about our whereabouts and destination, checked our identity documents. All these security checks reminded us that we were in a region close to the international Sino-Indian border. In one such checkpoint, a soldier complained to Ranjan da about the poor connectivity of the state-owned telecom provider (by now he was aware that Ranjan da worked for BSNL, the state-owned provider by his interrogations). He was visibly upset that soldiers like him had to work in these remote areas away from their families and they couldn’t even connect to them thanks to the lackadaisical service of the state-owned telecom provider. We reached Bhalukpong, the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh by noon. There was a gate where we had to stop for security check where officers checked for the permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh (Ranjan da had asked a local officer at BSNL, to arrange for the permits). People visiting Arunachal (including Indian citizens) require an inner line permit (with proof of their identities and details of their itineraries) and only in the event of successfully obtaining the permits, they are allowed to visit. We had to wait for sometime at the local BSNL office for our permits to arrive.
After Bhalukpong, the road started moving up and went by the banks of the river Kameng. Mountains on both sides were covered with dense forests and it was green everywhere. For the first time in my life, I saw banana trees on a mountainous trail. Our driver told us that these bananas were of a wild variety and not edible. It was drizzling and the weather was cloudy. The road was very bumpy and was muddy at many places as work was going on for its widening. Very often we had to make way for convoys of trucks of the Indian Army carrying goods to distant areas of Arunachal and to the army posts at the international border.
Every inch of the mountain slopes was covered with green. It was just after the monsoons and this is a region that receives heavy rainfall, which was apparent from the greenery. Waterfalls flowed down the slopes every now and then. I’ve traveled on mountainous roads on many occasions, but most of them have been in the western Himalayas. But what my eyes were presented with now on this trail, was something I’ve never witnessed before. The vegetation was very different and was more dense than any other parts of the Himalayas. As I’ve already said before, the forests were abundant with banana (something which is normally seen in the plains) and bamboo trees. Air got more cold as we ascended higher. Suddenly, my daughter (who was a little more than a year old) started feeling uneasy and started vomiting. We had to stop by the road to give her some rest and apply water to her face for comfort. Though she was administered some mild medicines to avoid nausea before we started our journey at Tejpur, it turned out that the mountainous terrain started taking its toll on her. I got a tad nervous as she was doing fine till now, but we still had a long way to go before the day’s halt at Bomdila. Some of our relatives advised against taking my daughter to this tour as she was still very young to undertake such a journey. However, after some rest, she felt good and we moved on only to stop at regular intervals for the same problem. This ate into our time big way. The forced stop at Bhalukpong for the permit and now these breaks only added to our already delayed run of the day and Bomdila was still far. We were also forced to move at a slower pace than normally what is possible on a mountainous road because of the surface conditions, the ongoing road extension work at multiple patches and lost time to make passage for ongoing army convoys.
But all these tensions were overwhelmingly beaten by the views of nature we were offered with. There were no reasons to complain whatsoever and all such problems are part of the game in the mountains. We were going through the West Kameng district of Arunachal. The vegetation now changed and we were seeing less and less of banana trees. It started getting dark as sun sets much earlier in these eastern parts of India and by the time we reached our rest house at Bomdila, it was already dark. We stayed at the rest house associated with the Bomdila monastery (an important one on this trail). We were offered with delicious and hot mixed vegetable curry and chapatis for dinner. It was here, I first tasted the delicious vegetable squash, which was to become a regular part of our staple diet from thereon in this tour. As we were tired by the entire day’s travel, it took no time for us to go to sleep.
The next morning, we got ourselves prepared and hit the road early. We had to reach Tawang by the evening, which was 172 km from Bomdila. Our route for the day was going to be very interesting as we were to cross the famous Se la pass on our way to Tawang. The road after Bomdila started to ascend further and the vegetation started changing. The density of the forests decreased as trees became sparse. Gradually they gave way to shrubs and bushes that were of yellow or red colors. Clouds came closer to us as we gained heights and finally we were at the Se la pass. A gate welcomed us at the pass and right after crossing the gate we were awestruck with the view of the large expanse of the Se la lake with distant mountains on its banks.
As soon as we came out of our vehicle, we were greeted with extreme cold winds lashing at our face. We had to be careful with our daughter. We spent time enjoying the beauty of the lake and the pass. Se la pass is at a height of 4170 m (13,700 feet), the highest point in this route. The road from here was downhill and after sometime we reached Jaswantgarh. Jaswantgarh is an important place on this route. It was here where the brave Indian soldier Jaswant Singh Rawat of 4th Garhwal rifles fought bravely and laid down his life defending his post. In the process, severe fighting ensued and Jaswant and his comrades caused heavy casualties to the aggressor Chinese army before laying down their lives. There is a war memorial erected in his memory. Every tourists who pass by this place, are offered with free snacks and tea at the nearby army canteen run by the soldiers and we were no exception. The hot tea and snacks tasted wonderful in this biting cold and it was more warm because of the hospitality offered by the soldiers. It’s for them, that we sleep with peace and they are the ones who made it possible to visit this remote Himalayan region. After Jaswantgarh, we moved on and crossed Dirang. After Dirang, our driver halted the vehicle at a place. We came out and walked down a narrow trail from the main road to reach a place and were awestruck by the sight of a massive waterfall amidst the forests. Huge volumes of water thundered down the slopes above. The waterfall appeared like a stream of milk flowing through the surrounding green forests. The splashing water droplets formed a rainbow amidst the fading sunlight of the day.
We spent a lot of time at the falls and no one was ready to leave the site, but time was running out and our driver hurried us. We hit the roads again and now we were into the last leg of the day’s journey to Tawang. Just as the day before, the sun slid down the horizon almost suddenly and it was pitch dark. Tawang was still some distance away and the jeep meandered through the serpentine mountain roads with its headlights as the only source of light in the darkness. After reaching Tawang town, we came to know that the NTPC guest house (arranged by Ranjan da) was not available for us as some executives were staying there. We couldn’t complain as this was the norm (the rest house was meant for stay of NTPC staff). So, we moved over to the BSNL inspection quarter (also arranged by Ranjan da). The rooms were big and we slid into the blankets after having dinner. Sleep embraced us with open arms after the day’s tiring but rewarding journey.
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.
In one of my earlier post, I told the mythological story about how different parts of the divine guise of Lord Shiva landed in the different parts of the Himalayas which came to be known as Panch Kedars. Out of them, the second Kedar is MadMaheshwar.
It was an evening in Kolkata at my friend Niladri’s house in December 2013. I was on a vacation to my home town for an annual refill of memories that I don’t get to live nowadays regularly. We were contemplating about doing a trek together, but it had to be one that could be done with our families. It would serve both the purposes of spending time together on s trail as well as give a taste of something we haven’t done before (we’ve been to treks individually, but not together). We had to rule out difficult options since our kids were to accompany. I say kids, but it turned out later that they fared much better than some of the adults and enjoyed much more. Frequented routes like Kedarnath were kept out as most of us have been there before. Suddenly, I proclaimed “MadMaheshwar” and Niladri and Indranil (my namesake and friend) agreed. I instantly called up Yashpal Singh Negi (a guide from Mukumath, +91-9720709499 with whom I’ve traveled before) to get some details. It turned out, the trek was for about 32 km (up and down) to be spread over 4 days. One could get ponies on the route. We all were excited though it was still far away (we were planning for October, 2014).
Discussion went on though the next months. My friend Indranil Mukherjee pulled out of the race because of other responsibilities in his family. That came as a dampener as I seriously wanted him on this tour (in 2013, we went to Ladakh together, but he had to end that tour abruptly due to the unfortunate death of his father in law). Anyways, information gathering went on. On my next trip to Kolkata in June 2014, Indranil invited us, the friends and their families at his home for lunch on a Sunday noon and once again MadMaheshwar came up in discussions. I and Niladri tried to convince Indranil and his wife Sudipa that it wasn’t going to be a long trip and the walking too was apparently manageable (even considering the kids). He was ultimately won over and preparations began in full swing. Yashpal provided us contacts of persons out there who would arrange for our stay on the route as well as at the temple guest house at MadMaheshwar.
According to the plan, Niladri and Indranil boarded the Kumbha express from the Howrah station with their families in the first week of October, 2014. Sanjukta’s cousin sister Lily Biswas accompanied them. They reached Haridwar, the next afternoon. That same day, we (me, my wife Anindita, my daughter and the family of my sister-in-law) boarded the Nanda Devi express from the New Delhi railway station at 11.50 PM. That was on the day of Mahasthami of Durga puja (one of the primary festivals in India). Telephonic conversations with Niladri revealed that a vehicle has been booked by them for our next day’s travel. We would be going the place Jakholi, a quiet hill station in the district of Rudraprayag with spectacular Himalayan views in its store. We reached Haridwar railway station at 4 AM and went towards the waiting room. That’s when I discovered that I forgot to bring my 75-200 mm zoom lens. It was a mistake for which no consolation was enough but there wasn’t any point brooding now. In about 2 hours, we got ourselves fresh after performing our daily natural duties. We reconciled with the rest of the group in the vehicle outside the railway station. The vehicle was a mini bus that could accommodate about 17 people. It made its way through the morning streets of Haridwar as shops were opening up. Preparations were on in the shops for the morning tea and snacks. The road went through the forests of the Motichur range of the Rajaji National park. The refreshing smell of the forests closing in from both sides and the slight chill in the air refreshed our minds. It’s been so many times that I’ve travelled on this road (same was the case with my friends) and all the places on this route were known to us like the back of our hands. We crossed Rishikesh and after about 2 hours, we stopped at Byasi for breakfast. We helped ourselves with tea and Alu Parathas. Our journey resumed and we crossed Devprayag, Rudraprayag one by one and reached Tilwara at about 2 PM in the afternoon. From here, our route diverged towards Jakholi from the main route that went to Gaurikund. After crossing the Mandakini river by a bridge, the road moved up the slopes of the mountains on the other bank of Mandakini. The sky was cloudy and as we moved upwards, the chill increased.
We finally reached at the GMVN rest house at 3 PM. Though the Himalayan views eluded us, it was a pleasant afternoon. After we settled in our respective rooms, it was time for some tea with gossip at the rest house. On a clear day, Jakholi offers one of the best sunset views of the Garhwal Himalayas but it was tough luck for us. We had the entire evening at our disposal with friends and families around. The world seemed so beautiful. The rest house was surrounded with a lawn. We wandered around watching the birds chirping. Our kids enjoyed themselves by playing in the balcony, which was wide and opened to the views of the mountains. I called up Yashpal to ensure all arrangements were made for the vehicles that were to take us to Ransi from where our trek was to start. There were talks to visit Kartik Swami temple at a place called Kanakchauri. It was famous for a wide range of Himayalan views from the temple complex. After careful consideration, we dropped the plan and decided to relax at Jakholi before start of our trek. While our families stayed in their respective rooms, we, the three friends, stayed together in a separate room. Time just fled with chats between us and we went to sleep.
The next day was sunny but skies weren’t clear. A few of us went to the local market to purchase the ration for our lunch. We had khichdi (a cooked mixture of rice and lentils with shades of turmeric augmented with fresh vegetables) and omelets for lunch. People just lapped it up to the last bit. Lily di (cousin sister of Sanjukta, my friend Niladri’s wife) enquired about the distance that we were to walk for MadMaheshwar and so did others. While we enjoyed our relaxation at Jakholi, at the back of the minds of some, the trek and its toil kept looming. The two jeeps arrived that night. They were to take us to Ransi, the next morning. We enjoyed our dinner with country-bred chicken curry and rice.
The next morning went mostly into preparations. Bags were being packed and segregated to identify items that we needed to carry during the trek, while the rest were to be carried away by the jeeps to Mukumath at Yashpal Negi’s place where we were supposed to stay for 2 days after our trek. The group divided and boarded in two jeeps and we started on our way to Ransi. The road again went down to Tilwara where we joined the main route towards Kund. On the way we went through familiar places of Chandrapuri, Syalsaur, Kakragaad (we stayed at all these places in our earlier trips) but couldn’t even recognize the places as the landscape had changed drastically after the flash floods of Garhwal in 2013. The only way I could trace Syalsaur was by the sights of the damaged GMVN rest houses by the banks of the river Mandakini whose gorge has widened more than two times than what we saw a couple of years before. From Kund, we left the main road (that went to Gaurikund) towards Ukhimath and after crossing the main Ukhimath town, we finally reached Ransi. It was here where we bid goodbye to the jeeps which went back to Mukumath along with my father in law and the majority of our luggage.
It was 12 noon with the sun out in the middle. The weather was bright, clear and warm. Our sweaters and jackets came off and we folded them across our waists. All of us had a stick in our hands and we started on our journey. For the next three days, we would be on the trail to MadMaheshwar with no link to any form of automobile. The first day’s trek would take us downhill from Ransi to the village of Bantoli. The distance was about 8 km. After Ransi, the trail crossed a few bends and we entered a section which was entirely covered by forest. It was all downhill and we kept going down amidst the shades of trees. The cool of the shade made walking comfortable and the kids went far ahead than us. Waterfalls came down the slopes of the hills nearby, where we stopped by to take snaps before moving on.
The river MadMaheshwar Ganga (Madhu Ganga, in short) gave us company all the way along. The valley was lush green and most of the trail went through forests. It was interspersed by few villages that we crossed. In the villages the forests gave way to terraced fields along the banks. Gradually, as afternoon bore on, the sunshine changed colors to acquire a golden tinge. The fields of Ramdana (a cereal grown in this part of the world) glittered like gold. After the village of Gondar, the trail gradually moved upwards for about 2 km till we reached the village of Bantoli, our place of stay for the day. The last 2 km of ascent to Bantoli proved a bit tiring especially after a downhill walk for the majority of the day’s trek after Ransi. We were offered glasses of water with jaggery after we reached.
Houses on this trail are very simple that offer basic amenities. Luxury is a distant dream in these areas. My sore back started to complain after the day’s walk. Evening comes down very fast in these Himalayan villages. As night fell upon us, dinner was served (chapatis and vegetable curries). Some of us complained about the steep ascent of the last 2 km of the day’s trek, but it was nothing as compared to what we were to face the next day, which was entirely uphill right up to MadMaheshwar for about 9 km. We went to sleep as the Madhu ganga thundered its way down the valley. The next day was supposed to be the D-Day for us. If we could pull it off, the rest was supposed to be a cake walk (or so we thought!).