The second Kedar – part 2

Part 1

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.

morningview
View of mountain peaks, Bantoli – courtesy Indranil Mukherjee

 

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.

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Locals carrying loads, MadMaheshwar

 

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.

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Our better halves – courtesy, Indranil Mukherjee 

 

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.

friends
Kids having a gala time

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.

madmaheshwar
MadMaheshwar

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.

sunrise
Sunrise en route Budha MadMaheshwar

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.

budhamadmahewhar
Mt Chaukhamba from Budha MadMaheshwar

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.

moon
Moonrise at Gondar

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.

lunch
Lunch at Yashpal Negi’s place

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.

kedarnath
Kedarnath, on our way down to Haridwar from Mukumath

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.

Part 1

The second Kedar – part 1

Part 2

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.

byasi
Byasi – courtesy Indranil Mukherjee

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.

waytojakholi
En route Jakholi – courtesy Indranil Mukherjee

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.

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Himalayan Bulbul, Jakholi – courtesy Indranil Mukherjee

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.

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About to start, Ransi

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.

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Falls en route Gondar from Ransi

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.

ramdanafields
Ramdana fields, MadMaheshwar valley

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!).

Part 2

Queens of Pithoragarh – Chaukori and Munsyari – Part 2

Part 1

The route to Munsyari from Chaukori required us to descend back to Udyari bend. From there, instead of Berinaag, our jeep turned towards Thal, which was about 25 km. Thal was an important junction on this route. It is here where the road from Tanakpur (another entrance to Kumaon from its eastern frontier) & Pithoragarh meets the road coming from Almora. That road comes via Champavat (the place where Corbett hunted down the first ever man-eating tigress known in the history of Kumaon), Lohaghat and the district capital Pithoragarh. From Thal, the road entered the gorge of a deep valley with mountain walls closing in from both sides and we lost the sight of the Himalayan peaks. That pattern would continue till Kalamuni top. The road went along the banks of the RamGanga river. Numerous waterfalls flowed down the walls of the mountains from both sides and waters from some of them flowed across the road. Lush green fields besides the river banks were terraced and were planted with crops of the season that included vegetables and other cereals.

road
On the way to Munsyari

After about 2 hours, we reached Birthi. Birthi is famous for its waterfalls. There’s a KMVN rest house right near the falls. We didn’t stop at Birthi and moved ahead. After about half an hour from Birthi, we reached the Kalamuni top. The moment we reached there, the world changed in front of us! The Himalayan peaks which eluded us for the entire route from Thal till now, made a surprise reappearance with a bang! The Panchachuli peaks stared right at our face. They almost appeared as walls right in front of us. The five Panchachuli peaks basked in the midday sun. Kalamuni top is a mountain pass on the route to Munsyari from Thal. We were really excited not just by the present view but also at the prospect of views to come. Munsyari was still about 20 km from this place and we were only to get closer into the arms of the Himalayas. Our driver offered prayers in the small temple at the pass (as all people do in these remote Himalayan places) as mark of gratitude for keeping evils at bay while crossing the pass. Road to Munsyari from here was downhill. The KMVN an Munsyari was right at the entrance of the town. We left the main road and the car moved down the slope to reach the parking area. After formalities at the reception, we were allocated a room. The Panchachuli peaks were visible from everywhere at the rest house. The windows of all the rooms opened towards the Himalayan views. We got very excited at the prospect of a wonderful sunset. Munsyari is famous for its colorful sunsets and every KMVN rest house in Kumaon boasts a picture of the golden Panchachuli peaks at the sunset. It was time for us to witness that in flesh! But nature had other plans in store for us. After lunch, weather took a turn for the worse. The place which was basking in bright sunshine, suddenly became a sink for the clouds which started pouring in from all directions. Within moments, the last trace of the Panchachuli peaks were gone from our sight! We could’nt believe our luck (or lack of it) but that’s how it plays out at the mountains. It’s a part of the game. That’s the reason we had an extra day of stay here. Though we were disappointed, but we were hopeful for the next day. Evenings in the mountains are very short. As soon as the sun sets, night takes over and everyone goes behind the doors.

We woke up to a bright sunshine in the next morning. After breakfast, we went out for some local excursions in our vehicle. The vehicle stopped at a place 2-3 km from Munsyari. There was a small trek of about 1-2 km through the forests to a small lake called Thamri Kund. A guide offered his service to take us to the place. There was a narrow trail created by footsteps of shepherds and their flocks of sheep and goat. Me and my wife went ahead on the route while my mother waited at the vehicle. The path was very narrow and at times there was barely enough space for two steps but I had no complains about the views on the offering. Throughout the route, the Panchachuli peaks were right in front of us, devoid of any clouds, dazzling like silver in the mid day sun.

thamrikund
On the way to Thamri kund

 

Finally, we reached the kund. I had high hopes of a big lake with reflections of the mountain peaks in its waters, but was disappointed in that respect. It wasn’t anything more than a small pond but I had no reasons to complain because of the Himalayan views throughout the route. While we were on our way back, I saw traces of small clouds in front of the peaks. It didn’t cause any worry as it was quite normal during the day. However, as we headed to the rest house for lunch, clouds grew in their stature and very soon, they covered the peaks. Today was our last chance for a sunset and we saw it go waste in front of us. As evening bore on, it started getting darker. There were dark clouds and as light fell, it started to rain. At night when we were going to sleep, we heard sounds of thunder storms.

The next day was bright and clear and we saw signs of fresh snow in the upper reach of the mountains. The Himalayas wore a new look with fresh snow from last night. The people who would stay at Munsyari, had a great chance of sunset or at least so it seemed. That’s exactly what was said by a person who was standing beside me. He was from a Bengali group of families who are used to trekking in remote parts of the Himalayas and he banked on his experience to say that there was a high chance of clear skies in the afternoon. But that was of no use for us as we had to get down to Kathgodam and we had our train that night.

munsyari
The panchachuli peaks, Munsyari

 

A thought crossed my mind suddenly. What if we extended our stay for a day? One part of my mind said “Don’t let it go”, another retorted back “Don’t be foolish. You have confirmed railway reservations which will go in vain. You have your wife and mother with you and the next day you need to report back at work!”. Reason gave way to passion in this dilemma and we decided to take a chance. My mother agreed reluctantly with a pensive look. We spent rest of the day at the rest house wandering in its lawn basking in the sun with our eyes firmly trained on the Panchachuli peaks. It was a close vigil on the clouds so that they didn’t dare to cover up. Luck seemed to be with us as it was clear till about 3 PM, after which a game of hide and seek began and arithmetic ruled our brains from thereon. We kept discussing. “Three of five are visible, much better than yesterday”, “Oh no, barely one peeps out now!”, “Wait, wait, they clear up again”, “See, the colors are coming on, wow it looks like a gold mine”, “Only if all five were visible!”, “I’ll take this any day, I don’t care if all five are visible, its scarlet now”.

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Sunset – Munsyari

Legend says that the Pandavas were on their last journey to heaven after the battle of Kurukhsetra and they traveled through this part of the world. During their journey, they felt hungry at this place and their wife Draupadi cooked their meals on five huge ovens, which were the five Panchachuli peaks of the present day. The colors that were on display before us made us imagine that indeed the ovens were lit up and we’re seeing colors of fire. The fiery color spread to the clouds which added to the beauty. Colors turned from golden-yellow to scarlet and then started to fade out as the sun went down and after the fiery color was gone, the clouds disappeared too and all the five peaks came out in white, but the brightness was gone. Curtains came down on a spectacular drama that was enacted before us in this natural theatre.

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Sunset – Munsyari

The next day we departed from Munsyari. It was a long day for us as Kathgodam was about 230 km away. Midway into our journey down the hills, I called up at my office and blamed a fictitious landslide for our inability to join back to work. After reaching Kathgodam, we purchased wait listed tickets for Ranikhet express now that our reservations were in vain (they were made for a day earlier) and boarded the train. Neither of us had berths and we had to sit for about half way through the night till the train ticket examiner obliged us with two sleeping berths. I gave one to my mother and shared the other with my wife and finally reached at the old Delhi railway station the next morning.

Part 1

Queens of Pithoragarh – Chaukori and Munsyari – Part 1

Part 2

How does it feel when a long-standing pain goes away suddenly? That’s how I felt back in the year 2003. I was going through months of stress in my professional career and on one fine day, suddenly everything fell into place. On such occasions, you normally strive for something more than trivial. That’s when I thought of visiting the hills of Kumaon. I’ve been to Garhwal and Himachal for a few times by that time, but Kumaon was still out of reach. However, I wasn’t new to the place, thanks to the literature of Edward James Corbett. I opted for the upcoming long weekend of Holi (a festival of colors in India) but faced a problem of plenty when it came to selection of places. After speaking to some of my friends and relatives who have been to the Kumaon region before, I narrowed down on Kausani (a picturesque hill station in the Bageshwar district) and Chaukori (in Pithoragarh). Stories were ripe about amazing sunrise and sunset views from Kausani and Chaukori was famous for its proximity to the famous Himalayan peaks (some Bengali travel magazines had phrases like “If you throw a stone from Chaukori, it might land up on Nanda Devi”). Hence, quite obviously, my expectations were high and that was one of the reasons of sheer disappointment of this tour.

Me and my wife boarded the Ranikhet Express from Old Delhi railway station at about 10.30 PM in the night and found ourselves at the Haldwani station, the next day, at about 6 AM. Haldwani is one of the main entrance points of Kumaon. We hopped on a share jeep that was headed to Almora and from there, boarded another one for Kausani. The serpentine hill roads after the last railway head Kathgodam had its impact on me and I was nauseating. However, it subsided after sometime and we reached Kausani at lunch. The KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam – the tourism wing of Uttarakhand state Government that handles the Kumaon region) rest house was about 2-3 km beyond the main market of Kausani. But the northern skies were filled with clouds and there were no traces of the Himalayan peaks. We settled in our suite and had lunch. Afternoon didn’t prove to be better either. We just saw glimpses of the Trishul but soon clouds covered it up. In the evening, we asked the staff at the rest house about commute options to Chaukori and that’s when they dropped the bomb shell! From what transpired, it became apparent that during the Holi festival, almost all vehicles go off roads and we’d find it very difficult to hire one. They suggested we immediately get down to Nainital and spend the rest of our vacation there because it is near to Kathgodam and it would be easy for us to get a transport to the railway station. Our entire plan went for a toss. We were to stay 2 nights each at Kausani and Chaukori respectively and I was not ready to spend all these days at Nainital. The next day, against the advice of the hotel staff, we ventured out for Chaukori. We woke up early in the morning hoping to see the sunrise but were disappointed. That’s the first time, we experienced this strange phenomenon. The sky was devoid of any clouds and we could see the dark outlines of the distant Himalayan range but as the sun started to come out, they just started fading away in the bright sunlight. Much later after we came back from this trip, we came to know the reason behind this. In this time of the year before the onset of summers, the villagers set grasslands (and often forests) on fire with the aim of clearing up fields for cultivation. Land is scarce in this part of the world and no bit of arable land lies unutilized. The pressure of growing population continues to have its effect in terms of depleting forest cover. Such “wild fires” result in generation of a lot of smoke and fills the air with dust particles, thereby creating an invisible screen that prevents clear vision. The months of October and November and the winters are the best time to visit Kumaon.

Coming back to my story, we boarded a bus from Kausani to Bageshwar, followed by a shared jeep to Chaukori. It took us about 5 hours to reach there. The cottages of the KMVN rest house at Chaukori was spread out over the slopes of a hill that offered magnificent views of the Himalayan peaks of Kumaon region “provided” the sky was clear. The word “provided” weighed upon us very heavily on this trip and Chaukori was equally disappointing. We piggybacked with two other families who were kind enough to accommodate us during our return journey from Chaukori to Nainital where we reached in the evening.

The disappointment of this trip resulted in a plan of visiting these regions again during better times and that was in late October in the same year during the vacations of Diwali (another important festival of India). This time around, when we reached Haldwani, the atmosphere was visibly different. There was chill in the air and the vegetation bathed in bright sunshine. My mother was with us this time around. We started off in a Tata Indica from Haldwani. The vehicle was to stay with us for the entire trip that involved staying one night at Chaukori, followed by 2 nights at Munsyari. It would then drop us at the Kathgodam railway station from where we were to board the Ranikhet express for Delhi. As we moved ahead of Kathgodam, roads started spiralling. We crossed Bhimtaal, Bhawali and stopped at Khairna for breakfast. I engaged myself with the route. We gradually crossed Almora and The Himalayan peaks started to appear. Things weren’t going very well with my mother She was nauseating. We had to stop frequently for her where shed would wash her face before starting again. We crossed Dhaulchina and reached Berinaag by afternoon. A few km after Berinaag came Udyari bend. Chaukori was 5 km up from this place. I was praying hard for the road to end as my mother was in a sorry state. Her eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. We finally reached at the KMVN rest house. After the formalities at the reception desk, we were allocated a cottage. It was an isolated wooden cottage with a bedroom and an attached toilet. Its windows opened to the majestic views of The Himalayas. The sky was crystal clear with the rays of fading sun acquiring a touch of pale yellow. One could see unobstructed views of Trishul, Nanda Devi (the largest peak in India before induction of Sikkim as a state, which is when it passed on the baton to Mt KangchenDzonga), Nandakot, Nandakhat, Pawalidwar, Rajarambha and many other peaks. The group of five Panchachuli peaks was at the eastern end of the horizon. After having tea, we went outside the cottage and the stage was set for a marvellous sunset. The mighty Himalayas were set ablaze by the setting sun.

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Kumaon Himalayas at sunset – Chaukori

My mother went through an abrupt change as soon as she got off the vehicle at the end of our long journey. She was feeling surprisingly well, especially after having tea and the splendid sunset pumped her up. We roamed around carelessly with our eyes firmly on the Himalayas where the sun was spraying colors galore. No one seemed to be in a hurry, both tourists as well as locals. Life seemed so easy and simple in this lazy evening. Birds flew back to their nest with their purchase for the day. There were no targets to be met, no need to uplift yourself at the cost of others.

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Nandakot – Chaukori

We came back to our cottage and spent time gossiping till it was time for dinner which was served at the dining place. As soon as dinner was over, there wasn’t anything to do and we slid into bed under the warmth of the blankets. Sleep embraced us with both hands and we were soon into the world of dreams.

The Himalayas makes me rise early and Chaukori was no exception. There was a watch tower at the KMVN lawn. We climbed to its top while the sky was being sprayed with scarlet. There were some clouds in the sky but that only added to the beauty. Their lower edges burned like a fire as the sun popped up as a golden ball from behind the hills.

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Sunrise – Chaukori

As we turned to the North, The Himalayas were rising from last night’s sleep. The twin peaks of Nanda Devi brightened up and as the sun came out in its full glory, they turned into silver.

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Himalayas – Chaukori

After spending sometime at the tower, we came back to the cottage as it was time to prepare for our next journey to Munsyari. After having bath and breakfast, we settled our bills at the rest house and headed out for Munsyari, 90 km from Chaukori.

Part 2

In the abode of the lord – part 4

Part 3

the next morning, we woke up early and headed towards Joshimath bazaar. That was the main place where the gate was (the gate refers to the accumulation of vehicles headed for Badrinath that were given permission to hit the roads at regular intervals – something that I explained in my earlier post).

Joshimath is an important junction in this route. It has significance in multiple aspects. Not only it is a big town on this route, but it is also the place where the puja for Badrinath (Narayan or Lord Vishnu) takes place during the six months of November to April (dates vary across years) when the actual shrine becomes inaccessible due to winter snow. Joshimath also is an important junction on this route when it comes to trekkers. It is from here, trekking routes go to the interior of the Nanda Devi National Park to places like Mallari, Niti valley and other wonderful routes. There are accounts of ancient routes to Kailash and Man Sarovar through this area, but those routes seize to exist nowadays after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962.

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Road to Badrinath from Joshimath

We boarded a bus that was carrying pilgrims to char dhaam yatra (Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath). The road initially moved downwards from Joshimath through its cantonment area and then spiralled down till we reached the banks of Alaknanda river, where it crossed over to its other bank and moved towards Govindghat. We often crossed areas where road was damaged by fallen rocks from the upper mountains. The entire route to Badrinath from Rudraprayag and particularly this section of it between Joshimath to Badrinath is prone to landslides. We went through places, where people were posted to keep a watch on falling rocks from upper slopes of the mountains in order to alert the passing vehicles. When we reached Govindghat, I was excited once again as this is the place from where the trek starts for another amazing route in the interior of The Himalayas – the Valley of flowers and Hemkund Sahib. Many years after this trip, we had the fortune of visiting these places, but that’s a tale to be told another day.

It took us about 2.5 hrs to reach Badrinath. We off boarded at the bus stand, but our place of stay was at Kedia Cottage of Kali Kamli which was about 1.5 km walk from there. Kali Kamli had many rest houses at Badrinath. Kedia Cottage was located on the banks of Alaknanda just opposite the Badrinath shrine.

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Badrinath shrine

Badrinath is a bustling town, much larger than Kedarnath with the Alaknanda river flowing right through the middle of it. After settling down at the rest house, we went to offer the puja at the shrine. The priests surrounded us trying to convince the importance of offering a puja of higher amount. We spent the afternoon at the rest house. A dry cold wind flowed from the north and was lashing at our faces. In the evening, my mother discovered that my father was running high temperature. That was surely a cause of concern. I went out in search of a doctor and luckily found one. He gave some medicines. We went to bed that night concerned about how the fever might play out. We still had to get down to Haridwar which was a journey of at least 12-13 hours by bus.

We woke up to a cloudy day the next morning. I had to drop my plans to visit Mana, a place about 5 km from Badrinath and was the last Indian village before the Sino-Indian border. My father still had high temperature so we chose to stay at the rest house. A local boy came up to us and offered to provide buckets full of warm water. He’d be bringing them from the hot spring near the Badrinath shrine and asked for Rs 15 for two buckets! The rate was in no match for the effort involved (the hot spring was on the other bank of Alaknanda). He pleaded us not to take the services from anybody else and even agreed to carry our luggage to the bus stand the next day morning when we were supposed to board the bus for Haridwar. He represented the extreme poverty and the hardship of the locals. What we view as tourism, is a necessity for them to survive.

When we woke up the next morning, it was still dark. As we prepared ourselves, the light gradually started to spread. That’s the first time I noticed the dark outline of a distant mountain right behind the hills on the opposite banks of the Alaknanda river. As the first rays of sun fell on it, the tip of the mountain turned golden and swathe of gold gradually expanded and a beautiful peak appeared in front of us. It was Neelkanth. We haven’t had a view of it till now and just before we were about to leave Badrinath, it was kind enough to appear before us.

neelkanth
Neelkanth

 

The local lad came and helped us by carrying our luggage to the bus stand. After giving  tips, we exchanged wishes with him and boarded the bus. The bus started at 7 AM. I had a mixed feeling during our return journey. On one hand, I was a bit sad as we moved back towards the plains, but on the other hand, it gave comfort that the next 2 days we were to relax at Haridwar and our days of toil were coming to an end.

We spent 2 days at Haridwar and the next day, we went to the station for a train to Dehradoon. Our next destination was the hill station of Mussourie. Local people at Haridwar suggested to board any train and they said reservation wasn’t going to be required as the journey was merely for an hour or so. The Delhi-Mussourie express entered the station and we boarded a compartment. The train stops at Haridwar for a long time as some of its coaches get detached at Haridwar with the rest going to Dehradoon. After we boarded, the train started to move backwards and after sometime, it moved to a different line before coming to a halt. We knew that trains stopped for a significant time at Haridwar. There were other local people who sat with us in the compartment. But when it didn’t start even after a long time, I got nervous and started to ask others and that’s when I came to know that the Delhi-Mussourie express had already left for Dehradoon. As it turned out, the coach we boarded (along with a few others) were slated to be detached at Haridwar and were not destined for Dehradoon. While we waited in them, the rest of the train had already departed! We had to get down in somewhat awkward manner as the coaches were not standing beside a platform. We literally had to jump from the door and walk back to the platform along with the luggage. This time around, I made arrangements with a coolie (persons who carry luggage) that he would arrange for seats in the next train and that too, in a compartment that was destined for Dehradoon (the act of detachment of coaches happens for all trains headed to Dehradoon via Haridwar). He kept his words and we boarded the next train and we were finally headed for Dehradoon.

Part 3

In the abode of the lord – part 3

Part 2

Part 4

Temple bells woke us up the next morning. The dark sky was dotted with numerous stars. The Kedarnath shrine stood against the dark backdrop of the mountains behind. The morning light gradually started spreading in the sky though the sun wasn’t out yet. The sages were headed to the temple to offer the morning prayers to the lord. The rays of rising sun started to shower on the Kedarnath peak. It looked like the crown of a king with just the top of it acquiring a touch of gold. I couldn’t take my eyes off. It was my first ever experience of sunrise in The Himalayas. Gradually, the rays of sun fell on Kedar Dome and the mountains behind the shrine and when the sun finally came out, the entire range of mountains appeared as if they were wrapped in dazzling silver.

We got ready and bid adieu to the temple town. Our journey down to Gaurikund was not more than 2.5 hours. After we reached there, we went to the hot spring for a bath. As I submerged the lower half of my body into the shallow pool of luke warm water, I almost fell asleep. As if someone had prepared a bed to welcome my tiring body. Our initial plan was to stay at Ramwara both on our way up and down from Kedarnath. Since we travelled on ponies, we now had 2 extra days at our disposal. We met a group of travellers who were coming from Badrinath. From them, we came to know about Auli. It was a picturesque slope up in the mountains. One could reach there by a ropeway from the town of Joshimath, an important junction on the road to Badrinath. I made up my mind and went to book tickets for the bus at Gaurikund bus stand. However, tickets for the first bus were sold out and we had to settle for a bus ride to Rudraprayag. The bus drivers convinced me that we could get ample buses from Rudraprayag for Joshimath.

The next morning, we left Gaurikund by the first bus and reached Rudraprayag at around 10 AM. As we waited for the bus, tension gradually started to creep in. I had my parents with me and we had luggage. The buses that came from Haridwar or Rishikesh were all filled to the brim and there was almost no place to sneak in, let aside getting a chance to seat. We had to let go many of the buses that came by. Finally, we gave up hopes for seats and boarded the next bus that was headed to Badrinath. I had to climb up the ladder at the back of the bus to transfer our luggage to the roof. The bus was jam-packed and we could barely stand. These buses were the only means of daily transport for locals and we were just piggybacking. As the bus moved on, we got adjusted and after sometime, two people gracefully offered their seats to my parents. After a journey of a couple of hours, the bus reached KarnaPrayag.

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KarnaPrayag

KarnaPrayag is the confluence of the rivers Alaknanda and Pindar. The bus waited for a long time at KarnaPrayag but that was expected. As we were waiting, some passengers got off the bus and boarded another. Gradually, more and more passengers did the same and that caused suspicion in my mind. I got off the bus and asked the conductor (who was having tea in a nearby stall) when the bus was about to resume its journey. His reply gave me shivers down the spine. I learnt that the bus won’t go any further and that’s the reason, most of the passengers got off to board another bus that was standing beside and it was to start its journey immediately. I didn’t even have the time to debate with him about his responsibilities to inform his passengers. I rushed back to the bus, informed my parents. I then dragged them down, made them board the other bus and rushed to the driver to ask him to wait for some time, climbed up the ladder of the previous bus and transferred our luggage from its roof to the roof of the other bus. When we resumed our journey from KarnaPrayag, I was still breathing heavily.

Clouds started gathering and by the time we reached Joshimath, it was raining heavily. While my parents waited under the shed of a local shop in the market of Joshimath, I went around in search of a hotel. By the time I found the rest house of Kali Kamli Wala, I was totally drenched. After having my parents settled at the rest house, I went out in search of some food. Though the rains caused trouble for us, the locals were relieved as it was the first rains of this summer. After an early dinner at 6.30 PM, we slid under the blankets in our beds. It was still raining heavily and there was nothing much to do. The next morning, we woke up to a clear and bright sunshine. I went for the rope way ride to Auli while my parents preferred to rest.

The rope way from Joshimath to Auli was the longest in Asia at that time. The cable cars and the rope way were designed by an Austrian company. The cable car had space for about eight persons to stand and had glass windows an all sides of it. As it started its journey upwards from Joshimath, mountains started to peep out from behind the hills surrounding Joshimath. It appeared as if curtains were being raised and scenes began to unfold in a theatre that made us awestruck. Snow capped mountain peaks started to appear from behind the hills and when we reached Auli, we were greeted with a 180 degree view of snow capped Himalayan peaks. As I turned my head around, from right to left, the peaks of Nanda Devi, Trishul, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba, Kedarnath and many other snow peaks of the Garhwal Himayalas were visible.

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Cable car at Auli

After spending some time basking in the morning sun and enjoying the majestic views of Himalayan peaks, I headed down to Joshimath by the cable car. For the rest of the day, we relaxed at the rest house. The plan for next day was to board a vehicle for Badrinath. Back in those days, the road from Joshimath to Pandukeshwar was one way – i.e. vehicles could travel only in one direction at a given time as the road wasn’t wide enough to allow crossing of two vehicles from opposite directions. Every alternate hour, vehicles were allowed to go from Joshimath to Pandukeshwar. The same pattern was followed for vehicles coming from Pandukeshwar to Joshimath. It meant that if your vehicle missed to leave Joshimath in the first hour, it had to wait for the third hour for its turn. Hence, our target was to leave Joshimath by the first hour (first gate, as it was then called). We went to sleep with that in mind.

Part 2

Part 4

In the abode of the lord – part 2

Part 1

Part 3

Sleep deserted me last night. Partly because of the excitement, partly because of tension around whether we can successfully pull off the journey to Kedarnath and finally because of the roaring sound of Mandakini flowing under the balcony of our room. When we got ready to start, it was still dark. The walk to the pony stand from the inn was a narrow lane through the maze of the hotels, inns and shops of GauriKund. We were clad with whatever warm clothes we’ve brought but still the cold outside was biting and this was still 14 km before Kedarnath.

After some bargain, three ponies were slated for us. To board them, we had to ascend some stairs to an elevated platform to get to the same level of their backs. With some difficulty, my mother managed to sit on the saddle of her pony and local boys helped her to sneak in her feet in the metallic slots that hung from the saddle on both sides. Once she was settled, me and my father repeated the steps for our respective ponies. A look at my mother quickly revealed that she was not at all comfortable and looked very tense. Her entire attention was focussed at her pony. We started off just as when the morning light started to come out. After sometime came the first shock. Till now, each pony had a person by its side, but now only one boy remained who was supposed to control three ponies all the way to Kedarnath. That sent shivers down the spine. It was a narrow path and the ponies moved along the edge beyond which there was a steep slope that went straight down to the gorge of the river Mandakini. The fact that all three of the ponies were tied to each other by a rope didn’t give much comfort. As they went around the bends, they came precariously close to the edge. The fast flowing Mandakini thundered down the gorge in the form of roaring rapids. It must have been a magnificent sight, but frankly, beauty did not even figure in our minds. The trail was laden with dung of ponies and every now and then, their hooves skidded on such piles. The morning mist, the smell of the fresh morning dew from dense forest in the valley and the aroma of dung piles all mixed to form an atmosphere which was refreshing (yes, even with the smell of dung). Our ponies formed a line with my mother at the start of it, followed by my father and I at the end. The local boy was at the front  carrying the leading end of the rope that tied all three. I missed enjoying the beauty of the initial journey as all my attention was on the ponies. Our bodies danced in the rhythm generated by the steps of the ponies. Every now and then we crossed with the ponies coming down the mountain from the other side and with carriages carried by humans (dandi, as they’re called in this part of the world). In these mountain roads, such crossings weren’t very pleasant as there wasn’t much room to spare. To allow passage, someone had to step aside (usually one tries to be on the side of the mountain wall, but at times we got forced to the edge). My constant vigil on ponies wasn’t letting me enjoy the beauty at our disposal and I tried to force my attention towards it. After all, this is what we were here for. Gradually, I got used to the situation and was able to turn my attention away into the wilds of nature. The thick dense forest was interspersed with thundering waterfalls every now and then which came down the slopes. A batch of four persons carrying a dandi were coming down the path from the opposite side. I was worth watching their steps, which looked like a march with all of their steps harmonized like a tuned musical instrument. This was very crucial to keep balance of the carriages in these roller coaster trails, which carried a human being. As the carriage approached us, I suddenly saw that my mother slid from the saddle and she almost fell from it. The boy immediately rushed to her help and prevented the fall just in time. She was crying like a child. Later, it transpired that the carriage collided with her pony and that imbalanced her. This incident had a lasting impact on her for the rest of the journey and she could never turn her focus away from the path or the pony.

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Kedarnath

 

After 7 km from GauriKund, we reached Ramwara. Just before reaching the place, we had to cross a place where the path was very narrow, filled with boulders with water flowing over it. The ponies had to jump from one boulder to another carrying us on their top. Every step appeared to be dodgy and a slip from there could have landed us straight into the laps of Mandakini. We had our lunch at Ramwara while ponies were given their share of grams. Apart from food, our bodies too got a chance to relax as it was very painful sitting on the saddle. Our journey resumed after lunch and now the path started to spiral upwards. The hairpin bends increased in frequency as the trail moved up. People of all age group were on this path – right from child on the backs of porters to the elderly and differently abled. Some of them were treading on foot wrenching their backs to scale these tiring slopes with the hope of reaching the shrine. In search of what? What has made thousands of them toil over the ages to these shrines? Is it the wish to rid their sins in life? Is it the wish to reach heavens beyond this earthly life?

Trees had declined in numbers, giving way to shrubs and bushes. After Garur chatti, the last inn before Kedarnath, the last trace of green disappeared from the mountains. We were now into the land of moraines and slopes with striated with patches of snow. As we crossed a bend, we were greeted with the sight of the Kedarnath shrine at the backdrop of the Kedarnath and Kedar Dome peaks. The afternoon sun showered its fading rays on the Kedarnath peak. We crossed the bridge over Mandakini to reach the Kedarnath town. The Kedarnath shrine was at the center with hotels and inns surrounding it. The place looked like an amphitheater surrounded by mighty peaks on all sides. The temple had a simple structure with the idol of Nandi (the bull) in front of it.

We arrived at the Bharat Sevashram Sangha and went to our allotted rooms to relax for sometime. In the afternoon, the bells of the temple resonated amongst the mountains. The fading sun showered its rays on the temple and turned the peaks of Kedarnath and Kedar Dome into crimson and then gradually faded away. Temperatures plummeted as darkness hovered over the town.

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Kedarnath at sunset

We offered puja at the shrine and went into our rooms. At about 7 PM, we were told that dinner had been served but we didn’t even heed to that. We were already into our beds, wrapped in multiple blankets. It was so cold that the blankets felt like they were drenched with water. The tiring journey on the ponies and cold made us fast asleep.

Part 1

Part 3