To the zenith – the panorama of Chandrashila – Part 1

Part 2

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.

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Rudraprayag

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.

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Chandrapuri

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.

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Way to Deoriatal

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.

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Morning rays – Deoriatal

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.

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The Deoriatal shot

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.

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Forests of Deoriatal

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.

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Lunch

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.

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Heera Singh Negi

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

badrinath
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.

karnaprayag
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.

aulicablecar
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.

kedarnath
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

In the abode of the lord – part 1

Part 2

The place isn’t the same anymore. The humans went overboard with interfering into Lord Shiva’s serene territory. He doesn’t demand extraordinary devotion and prefers to live and let live in peace. But humans misjudged his silence as his acceptance. Of what? Well, anything they could think of. Be it denuding entire valleys of trees, relentless construction of structures literally in every corner or constraining the freedom of rivers flowing down the valleys to satisfy their own luxury (read electricity). It was all piling up and finally patience ran out and then came down his wrath. Within minutes, millions of gallons of water roared down from the slopes of mountains of Kedarnath and swept everything that came on its way. The sweet and beautiful Mandakini turned into a demon and devastated lives and properties of millions of families. Parents saw their children getting swept away and vice versa. Houses that took years of humongous effort to build, got swallowed by ever rising tides within minutes. Entire villages got erased from the map. The lord came to act true to the meaning of his existence, which is to destroy everything that is garbage to clean up the way for new. What emanated in Garhwal could only be related to Tandava, the famous dance of the lord to destroy everything. Kedarnath was never going to be the same again. Ramwara, the favorite resting place halfway up the erstwhile route to Kedarnath vanished in no time. So did Garurchatti, the last place of halt where pilgrims took a deep breath before embarking on the last hike to the Kedarnath shrine. Today, one cannot find any of the innumerable dharamshalas or hotels that were built over the years in and around the temple. All that remains is the shrine surrounded the snow-clad mountain slopes and nothing else. Today, one has to stay the upper Lincholi, visit the shrine and come back to spend the night at Lincholi. Probably, the lord wanted his disciples to stay at some distance to allow some space for his loneliness. The route which was 14 km from Gaurikund earlier, now turns out to be approximately 20 km going via Sonprayag-Gaurikund-Bhimbali-Lower Lincholi-Upper Lincholi-Kedarnath.

The place that turned into shambles on that fateful day, once was the epicenter of pilgrimage from across the country and I was no exception in succumbing to its appeal. Kedarnath had beckoned millions through the ages.

Back in those days when there were no trace of any automobile in the entire route from Haridwar to the shrine, people spent months on the trail to the twin shrines of Kedar and Badri. They often started their journeys from their homes with a possibility that they might never return and very often that materialized too. It is the trail that has witnessed the sigh, toil, often deaths and triumphs of innumerable pilgrims.

Mythology says that the Pandavas seeked the blessings of Lord Shiva, who, for some reason was trying to hide from them. He took the guise of a bull. Bhima, the second Pandava recognized him and tried to cath hold of him. In the hide and seek game that ensued, the Lord tried to evade but Bhima tried to pull the buffalo by its tail. In this tug of war, the lord split himself up and the parts of his divine guise landed in five different spots in the Himalayas. The places where the parts landed, collectively came to be known as Panch KedarKedarnath, Mad Maheshwar, Tunganath, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar.

Then came a time when the route turned out to be a nightmare for thousands of pilgrims (in those days, it wasn’t in millions) thronging to the shrines annually. It was during the years of 1918 – 1925. That was when the notorious man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag tormented the pilgrims in a large section of the route in and around Rudraprayag. Ones who have read “The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag” from Corbett know that the animal appeared out of nowhere and started to kill humans (local villagers as well as pilgrims) and very soon turned into a demon. The thrilling and humane description of the plights of the people by Corbett captured hearts of many like me across generations and proved to be one of the reasons of my interest in this voyage. Though, in today’s world, one cannot even gauge the situation that people went through when the animal ended up with 125 documented kills (and many undocumented) till it met its fate at the hands of Corbett. Nevertheless, it thrilled me that this was the same stage where such incidents were enacted almost 100 years ago.

The first opportunity came in the year 1999. My mother wished to visit the shrines and I started to gather information from my uncle. It was the first time I was going on such a tour with my parents. We had no experience of travelling in The Himalayas, especially when it involved a trek of 14 km from the nearest motor head Gaurikunda. Though I call it a trek, but it’s not the only option nowadays. Like many others, we were to travel by ponies. Excitements started with planning and preparations. I had endless discussions with my uncle and other relatives who’ve been there. Then came the time for railway reservations, bookings at holiday homes in Haridwar and Mussourie. Finally, the plan started to take shape.

About a month before we were to depart, a severe earthquake struck the Chamoli district of the Garhwal Himalayas. Loss of lives and devastation followed. The places where it struck were right at the heart of route. Most of our relatives suggested to drop the plan except my uncle. His justification was that we still had a month to go. Majority of the damage was done to the route to Badrinath from Rudraprayag. It was expected that the army will rectify it as soon as possible since it’s a road that leads to the Sino-Indian border. On the day of our departure, I had a fever which gathered intensity by the day. Out train was at 7.30 PM and I was running temperatures in the range of 102-104 (F) in the morning. It appeared to be a lost case and I almost gave up hopes. My doctor sprang a surprise. Instead of preventing me, he encouraged to continue with the tour. He prescribed the medicines and gave his suggestions for taking care. When I slept in the train that night, I still had fever. It disappeared the next morning and I breathed easy. We reached Delhi by 8 PM and boarded the train for Haridwar at 10 PM. We reached Haridwar the next morning at 6 AM.

Haridwar railway station was small and calm by the magnitudes of Howrah (Kolkata) or Delhi. There were a few sages roaming around on the platform and auto and taxi owners started to approach us with proposals for a tour in and around Haridwar or Rishikesh. Ignoring all of them, we boarded a three-wheeler from outside the station and landed at our holiday home. While my parents relaxed at the holiday home, I had the bus tickets booked for Gaurikund for the day after.

haridwar
Haridwar

 

Our evenings were spent at the banks of The Ganges at Har ki pauri watching the splendid Aarti. The flowing river was illuminated with countless lamps lit and floated by the devotees with the hopes of blessings from the river which is the lifeline of entire Northern India. Our bus for Gaurikund started from Haridwar at 5 AM. After exiting the city, it crossed bridge over the Ganga to reach the other bank and we entered the Chilla range of the Rajaji National Park. The road lay ahead like a black serpent swirling through the dense forests on both sides. Then came Rishikesh – a place dotted with numerous temples on both sides of the Ganga. The road gradually started to move higher as plains started to give way to the mountains. The picturesque Laxman Jhula foot bridge spanned across the river with the green waters of the Ganga flowing beneath it. The place bathed in bright sunshine. The first stop of the bus was at Vyasi for breakfast. When it resumed it’s journey, the road scaling more heights up the slopes of the hills. We reached DevPrayag., the first of the many Prayags (confluence of rivers) on this route. While we were approaching the main town of DevPrayag, we could clearly see the confluence of The Ganges that was coming down from the snout of the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh and Alaknanda, which came all the way down from the distant town of Badrinath. The colors of the two streams were distinctly different. The waters of Alaknanda were muddy, whereas that of The Ganges was crystal clear and green.

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DevPrayag

 

We left The Ganges at DevPrayag and the road now was along the banks of Alaknanda and we crossed Srinagar and then came Rudraprayag, the confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini. RudraPrayag today is a busy town and an important junction in this route. This is where the road gets divided. One goes up the slopes along the banks of the Alaknanda all the way to Badrinath. But our bus crossed the bridge over Alaknanda and entered a tunnel. After exiting from the tunnel, we suddenly found ourselves on the banks of the river Mandakini, which was to be our companion all the way up to Gaurikund. In fact, even beyond that till the Kedarnath shrine. The road moved along the banks of Mandakini. The rays of afternoon sun showered its golden colors on the terraced fields along the mountain slopes. We gradually crossed the towns of Kund, GuptKashi and Sonprayag and finally reached Gaurikund bus stand. It about 3 PM in the afternoon. After collecting our lodge, we went towards Bharat Sevashram Sangh, the Dharamshala where we were to stay for the night. Gaurikund was a congested place surrounded by hills on all sides. We showed a copy of the letter and receipt of the payment made at their Kolkata office at the main entrance and were alloted a room. One had to bend his back in order to enter the room which was very dark with only a candle to light it up. Luxury is not something one expects in these areas and no body complains. Our room extended like a balcony above the river Mandakini which was roaring down the rocky terrain. One could hear nothing but the roaring river right beside our room.

I went to the room of the Maharaj to inquire about the rate and options for pony for our journey to Kedarnath the next day. Our initial plan was to walk the entire route but break our journey at Ramwara and then continue to Kedarnath the next day. But after taking stock of reality, I dropped the plan considering my parents’ health. The dinner of hot khichdi, pickle and papad was sumptuous in this biting cold. As we went to bed, I had a mixed feeling of excitement and tension. While the former was about my long cherished dream coming true while the latter was being able to take along my parents with safety. Jai Kedar.

Part 2