Work was taking a toll and whenever that happens, my mind reaches out to the hills for some solace. It wasn’t a different story in the month of January 2012 and I was eagerly awaiting a week-long break. When I initially started to plan for this, all I knew was I had to get away for a few days and I booked the railway tickets for Kathgodam quite arbitrarily. Now that the days were fixed, search started for the destinations. For a moment, it appeared to me that I have exhausted all options in the Kumaon hills. I gave a call to one of my distant cousins in Kolkata, Sanju da (Sanjib Ganguly). He’s a person to whom I owe my love for the mountains. It was his family tours which drew me towards the Himalayas. As always, he didn’t disappoint me this time either. After a few chats, we narrowed down to three places – Naukuchia taal, Chiliyanaula and Sitla (not Sitlakhet).
On a Friday night, after we came back from our office, had our dinners, picked up our bags and off we went to Delhi railway station to board the Ranikhet express for the umpteenth time. Next morning, we were at the Haldwani railway station at 5.30 AM. After completing our morning duties and applying some water to our faces at the railway retiring room, we walked out of the station, fresh as ever, to board a cab. The cab started it’s journey meandering through the congested roads and lanes till it reached the Nainital road. It was all familiar since I’ve traveled so many times through this route. “There’s the bend for the road that goes to Almora”, “Here comes Bhimtaal” – chants kept coming from my wife and daughter. After traveling down the road that surrounds Bhimtaal, the cab took a diversion that moved up the slopes. After a short hike, it came to a halt at the banks of the picturesque, big and the quiet lake of Naukuchia taal. We were right at the reception of KMVN tourist rest house. It beamed (as if to welcome us) in the bright sunlight. The chill in the winter morning wind was equally enjoyable.
After the formalities, keys were handed to us. We had the entire day at our disposal. Warm geyser water aided us with some wonderful bathing and after a short breakfast with bread toast and coffee, we were ready for a boat ride in this quiet and pristine lake.
Naukuchia Taal is the biggest of the entire lake system that exists in the lower regions of Nainital district and more important, its more secluded than the others. Boats were available right at the doorsteps of the rest house and three of us boarded one with trembling steps and set afloat. The water glistened like startling diamonds in the bright sunlight.
The surrounding hills were filled with plush green forests (unlike Nainital, which is shrouded with hotels). The boat splashed along with quiet strokes in the water, splitting the large sparkling diamonds into smaller ones. The warmth in the sunlight was soothing and the gentle wind with moist traces of water from the lake had a healing touch. Life was all good with nothing else to do other than soaking in the beauty served up by nature.
The next day, we woke up to a cloudy weather but it wasn’t raining. A local vehicle was to take us into a ride to some nearby places of tourist attraction. Our first destination was Saat Taal, a system of seven small lakes, about 30 minutes drive from the hotel. As the vehicle moved upwards from the hotel premises along the serpentine roads, Naukuchia Taal offered breath taking bird’s eye views from different angles.
The lakes of Saat Taal were nestled amongst the surrounding hills that were densely covered with forests. It’s so serene to just look around with dense vegetation to soothe our eyes. Nearby forests buzzed with chirping birds. Saat Taal is also a heaven for bird watchers but I was devoid of a lens suitable for it.
We spent the entire morning roaming around besides the lakes and boating. Saat Taal also forms an important source of water for the lower plains of Kathgodam and Haldwani. Each one of the seven lakes (one of them was dry at that point) had a mythological tale behind it. With such surroundings, one doesn’t care about scientific reasoning but likes to believe in such tales.
As the day progressed, we headed to our next destination, Ghorakhal. It’s a place nearby that has a tea garden. As we headed towards it, clouds dispersed and a bright evening unfolded. The golden tinge in the evening sun rays added to the beauty of the sprawling tea garden which appeard as a stretched out bed of tea plants interspersed with tall trees dotting the landscape that have been planted to provide shade to the underlying tea plants.
Shadows started to get large as the sun prepared to bid adieu. We headed back to the rest house at KMVN. It’s been years since that day, but its etched in memory as a simple, peaceful day with rare tranquility. After dinner, we sunk into our blankets. Who knows what ChiliyaNaula has in store for us, which is where we were headed tomorrow?
The downpour that started previous afternoon, continued through the night and there were no signs of it abating in the morning. Our plan for the day was to go up to Hemkund Sahib, come down to Ghangria and then go all the way down to Govindghat to board a jeep for Joshimath. All that travel was to be done on backs of ponies. That was the only option for us if we were to board the train from Haridwar the next night. It sounded like an uphill task and incessant rains gave fodder to some members to contemplate dropping the idea of visiting Hemkund Sahib. The pony owners too, had that suspicion and they kept confirming with us time and again to ensure we didn’t drop the plan. Finally, we went ahead. All of us, wrapped in our rain coats, boarded the ponies (something which I always dread) and embarked on our journey.
Soon we reached the junction where the trail for the valley turned left, but we plodded upwards. Streams of rainwater kept flowing along the route and the ponies splashed along with their dogged steps. At many places, they used their own judgment to traverse the route diagonally to evade muddy potholes that were made slippery by their own excreta. Both the daughters were perched on the backs of their respective ponies, wrapped and fastened by ropes, the ends of which were held by the man who was responsible to drag these animals up the trail. The bends kept increasing as we gained heights. Numerous streams came down the slopes fed by the monsoons. Every now and then, the hooves of the ponies skid and we were continuously on our toes.
Forests on the lower reaches started to fade out and gave way to bushes. Slopes of the mountains were covered by green grass. Yellow dots started to appear among them and they increased in number with height. We realized that these were Brahma Kamal flowers, something which can only be seen in these high altitude regions of the Himalayas. They were not seen even in the valley yesterday, but here they were abundant.
Amidst all the excitement, the weather was biting cold and winds lashed making us shiver to our bones. My daughter’s patience dried up and she started crying. Finally, we saw the huge rocks and a few shelters on the distant horizon way up on the route. A faint tune of religious citations reached our years amidst the sound of the heavy downpour & the flowing streams. That told us, we were nearing our destination. When we finally reached there and off boarded the ponies, it took some time for our bodies to straighten up.
The volunteers of the gurdwara greeted us with warm cups of tea, kheer and khichdi. These were being served super hot from the huge containers where they were being prepared. One could consume as much as they could. The lake was surrounded by high mountain peaks on all sides but their tops were cut off by overhanging clouds.
The slopes nearby were covered with dense bushes with big Brahma Kamal flowers jutting out from them. It was one of the primary reasons (at least for me) to visit the shrine as there aren’t many places in the Himalayas where you get to see them. That too, can only be seen in these monsoon months.
Many of the pilgrims were taking a bath at the lake braving the cold as it is considered holy to do so. We were overwhelmed by the surroundings and the warmth of the service the volunteers provided but time was ticking. So, once again we boarded the ponies, which carried us down the watery slopes to Ghangria. We recollected our luggage and set out for Govindghat, again on the backs of ponies. We reached there finally at about 5.30 in the evening and boarded the jeep for Joshimath. A long cherished dream finally materialized.
It rained heavily for almost entire night but we woke up to a bright sunny morning, the next day. When we walked out of our lodge after breakfast, the streets of Ghangria were abuzz with tourists and ponies. Batches of people were heading off for their respective destinations, some for Hemkund Sahib, some for the valley while the rest headed down towards Govindghat. We gradually started off on foot from the lodge. The trail meandered through the clumsy alleys of Ghangria till we reached beyond the hutments of the main town of Ghangria. After crossing a pool over the stream and a few stair cases after that, we reached a junction. One trail turned towards left, which headed to the valley while another plodded upwards along the slopes towards the distant shrine of Hemkund Sahib. We turned left and came across a gate. It was here we had to purchase tickets to enter the valley.
I walked along with my daughter while rest of the group followed behind, each walking at their own pace. It was a narrow trail but the slope wasn’t high, at least to start with. The Pushpawati river gushed down the valley beside the trail. The sun was still shining bright and it’s rays pierced through the tall pine forests. Tiny flowers of different colors already started to appear beside the trail, though we were told that we still had about 3.5 km to reach the valley.
We were elated with those sights. If this is the start, then what waits us in the valley! The good thing was that rain wasn’t playing spoil sport though we were prepared for it come down at us anytime. After sometime, the trail gradually moved downwards till it reached a small pool over the river Pushpawati. Here it was coming down with tremendous force between the walls of the high mountain walls that surrounded it.
We stopped on the bridge to take some pictures. The trail beyond the bridge moved upwards along the slopes on mountains on the other side. I was a bit wary about my daughter. Yesterday, we had the luxury of a pony, which won’t be available today. People carrying baskets on their backs to carry the kids enquired us if a lift was needed for my daughter and I kept denying. They tried to paint the trail ahead to be steep and tiring enough to merit a pony ride. I insisted on making my daughter tread on her feet, but at the same time, was worried if such requests start playing on her mind. The desperation from the basket owners rose from their need to earn for their families. This was the only time of the year where tourists come to the valley – a span of just 2-3 months as for the rest of the year, flowers dry out as snow takes its place.
The trail was well paved out, but it started gaining steepness as we crossed successive bends. We had to stop frequently as my daughter demanded rest with sips of water to gulp down her throat. But the woods on both sides provided flowers galore.
Some tourists passed by on the backs of basket carriers. I was amazed to see that even adults strode their backs. The carriers bent their backs, while the persons on their backs were almost in a sleeping posture with their eyes fixed upwards towards the sky. The whole sight made me uncomfortable and I could never be comfortable in that posture while plodding these uphill slopes, leaving aside the thoughts about the effects my weight could bring upon the carriers.
As it was sunny, I started to sweat and so did my daughter. She insisted on removing her raincoat which was weighing heavily on her but I knew that the weather could change within a span of minutes and if rains came, she would start shivering. So I kept ignoring her requests but stopped frequently for rest.
After sometime the breeze became cool as the sun went behind the clouds. Walking now became comfortable but it started to drizzle as well.
The trail now came out of the woods and we could across the meadows on both sides of the trail. We were convinced now that we were at the gates of the valley.
The meadows stretched wide and the slopes of the mountains wore a fresh look with lush green vegetation.
Strong winds blew across the meadows that raised waves among the bushes that wore a carpet of booming flowers.
Some of the slopes were painted with purple, while the others were sprinkled with white. Clouds hovered above the surrounding mountains and all of their tops appeared cut off by them.
By this time, the intensity of the rains increased. We crossed the river Pushpawati once again by walking over a small plank of wood which vibrated heavily when one crossed over it and it allowed only a single person cross at a time. The river was thundering down the slopes underneath it.
I crossed it over with my daughter and waited on the other side for my wife.
By the time we reached the other side of it, rains came down heavily and we reached under the shelter of a huge slanted rock. While it rained heavily outside, we had our lunch (which we carried along in our back packs). We wanted to venture further into the valley, but looking at the intensity of the rains and thinking about the path that we had to traverse to get down to Ghangria, we changed our minds and headed back. When we crossed the river Pushpawati once again before Ghangria, the volume of water had increased visibly. After crossing the river, the rest of the trail was easy and we reached back to Ghangria by afternoon. Rains poured down consistently throughout that night. That gave us some worries for the next day when we were to set out for Hemkund Sahib.
The sun was shining bright as we traveled along the serpentine roads of the familiar Garhwal Himalayas. I was recounting the number of times I’ve traveled through these roads via the familiar places of Rishikesh, Byasi, Devprayag, Srinagar and Rudraprayag. I almost knew what to expect after every bend of the road. After Rudraprayag, our vehicle continued with the National Highway 58, which is the well-known road that leads to the distant shrine of Badrinath. The fact that the sun was shining bright was a pleasant surprise given the time of the year. It was the month of August, the peak of monsoons in this part of the world and our destination for the day was the distant town of Joshimath. We were on our way to visit the Valley of flowers, one of the most unusual valleys nestled in the deep corners of the Himalayas.
Way back in 1931, the British mountaineers Frank S. Smythe, Eric Shipton and R. L. Holdsworth were returning from their successful expedition of Mt Kamet. They were looking for a short route to the town of Badrinath. They lost their way in their quest and landed up on a beautiful valley full of Alpine flowers and were mesmerized by its beauty. That’s the valley we know today as the “Valley of flowers”.
A long cherished dream was about to materialize. We’ve planned for it many times, but it never happened. The last unsuccessful attempt was in the year 2013 when it was literally washed away by the devastating floods of Garhwal. Even this time, things were quite uncertain as we were following the monsoon patterns over last few days. Some of my friends of the mountains advised not to go ahead due to incessant rains that lashed the slopes of the hills causing landslides almost everywhere. We went ahead ignoring their advise with our fingers crossed being well aware that such incidents can result in delays of several days. Throughout our route, we crossed areas with broken roads dotted by boulders and stones which had come down the slopes but fortunately, it wasn’t raining. It took sometime to find out the GMVN rest house amidst the main market of Joshimath. After the formalities, we were allotted a family suite and a double room. Six of us (our and my sister in law’s family) stayed at the family suite while my father in law went to the other. Clouds started gathering in the evening and by night it was pouring down heavily. That added to my worries as we were to start our actual trek the next morning. But that’s expected in this time of the year. However, the skies fell on me when I chanced upon the dates of our return tickets. We were to return by the Nanda Devi express from Haridwar. It departs from there at 12.55 AM, which means it falls on the next day going by the English calendar. However, I booked the tickets on a woefully wrong assumption of it falling in the night of the same day. How could I make such a blunder and it’s not just me, but an entire group of seven people who were to suffer. For all practical purposes, a full day had been wiped out of our itinerary. We contemplated other options but nothing worked out.
The next morning when we started off for Govindghat, it was still pouring down heavily. The road out of Joshimath moved beyond the cantonment areas and we were moving down the slopes till we reached near the river bed of Alakananda. As we crossed it at Vishnuprayag, it bore a ferocious look with gallons of water thundering down the gorge threatening to engulf anything that comes in its way. The vehicle left us at Govindghat and a local jeep carried us another 2-3 km to the start of the trek route. Fortunately, by that time, the rain reduced to a drizzle and sun was about to peep out from the clouds.
After handing over most of our luggage to a porter, we started off on foot for the village of Ghangria which was 12 km ahead. The trail went through lush green valleys with forests jumping into life after receiving nourishment from the monsoons. Streams danced their way through the boulder strewn beds. Waterfalls came down the slopes in milk-white streams amidst lush green forests. It was joy everywhere in the nature and we enjoyed walking amidst the cool air brushing our faces. Our kids too enjoyed walking the trail in company of each other. As we moved along, the trail gained in steepness gradually and the bends increased. Soon our group dispersed, separated from one another by their respective pace and as in many other trails, I soon found myself alone with the Himalayas. It happens so often that you’re with yourself, accessing your own limitations, planning and taking decisions on your own and no one else other than yourself being responsible for your actions and their outcome. That’s what mountains teach you on its hidden trails.
Halfway through our trail, at about 2 PM, we stopped by the village of Bhuindar to have our lunch. As we had our food, the drizzle made a come back and so did our worries. Not everyone in our group had the same pace and if rains came on now, it would prove difficult for them to reach the destination within the safe bounds of daylight, which was fading fast now. After lunch, we reached the confluence of Bhuindar Ganga and Laxman Ganga, the latter coming down the slopes from the holy shrine of Hemkund Sahib.
After crossing a bridge at the confluence, the trail moved up the slopes in steep gains in altitudes while the number and sharpness of the bends increased. We heard that the entire route to Ghangria from this point was going to be an uphill climb. By this time, I and Ranjan da (my brother-in-law) were walking together with our respective kids, who now started showing signs of impatience and tiredness. After every bend they would ask how far was the destination and the frequency of such questions increased as the uphill trail started taking a toll on their bodies and minds. Our wives were trailing behind and we couldn’t even see them in the vicinity. Horses and mules were plying up and down the routes and they asked if we were interested in taking a lift. So far we’ve resisted the temptation, but as evening bore on, day light started fading and the intensity of rains increased, my daughter started crying relentlessly with no signs of the mothers. We still had to find a place to stay after reaching Ghangria and we didn’t know how far ahead it was. It was at this point, I relented to the call of a horse owner and hired one to carry along my daughter for the rest of the route.
But every toil has an end and so did ours when we finally reached Ghangria. I was relieved to find my daughter sitting on a chair. The horse owner apprised me that she was crying incessantly and only stopped once she saw me entering the village. Contrary to the popular belief, it was challenging to find a hotel as it turned out the village was bustling with tourists even in this raging monsoons. Even after we found a room and placed our luggage inside, there were still no signs of the mothers. I went back a few km down the trail to get a glimpse of them. After a very long wait, they finally arrived on backs of ponies and I was relieved to see good reason prevailing on their part in their decision to hire ponies to reach on time. We were too tired and were quick to resign to beds after dinner that night. The valley of flowers awaits us tomorrow!
In the year 2004, we repeated a mistake, which was to visit the Kumaon hills (this time it was the forests of Binsar) in the summers. Well, on the face it, there was nothing wrong in it as hills are a natural destination to escape from the scorching heat of the plains. But as explained in one of my earlier posts here, summers aren’t the right time to visit if you’re looking for clear views of the mighty Himalayan peaks and Binsar was no exception to that. We did enjoy our escapade in the KMVN lodge right in the mid of Binsar forests, but the peaks eluded us. On the previous occasion, it was in March, and for some reason (can’t remember it now), I thought April might be better but it was not to be. That made me make a pledge to never ever visit Kumaon hills in the summers. Henceforth, all our subsequent visits have been in autumn or winters.
The same year, in the month of October, we made a plan to visit Binsar once again but added another destination to our list, Gwaldam. Geographically, the place falls in the Chamoli district of the Garhwal Himalayas, but the shortest route to it from the plains was from the railhead Haldwani through the roads of the Kumaon region. Unlike our last visit, this time we had the families of my sister-in-law and parents-in-law accompanying us. On one fine morning, we got down from the Ranikhet express on the platform of Haldwani at about 6 AM. The train was about an hour late but we still had time. After all, we were only to travel till Binsar which was about 4-5 hours away from there. After negotiations, we boarded a vehicle and started off. The trail went through the familiar places of Bhimtaal, Bhowali, Almora and finally to the junction from where we had to leave the main Almora road to turn into the one that led to the forests of Binsar hills. After paying the fees for forest permit, we were allowed to enter what was not really a road but a narrow stretch laid with levelled stones.
After lunch at the KMVN tourist rest house, we went on to the terrace which was open from all sides with the view of the majestic Himalayan peaks basking in the afternoon sun. We enjoyed the warmth. My sister-in-law and parents-in-law were excited by the sights (it was their first time to have such close views of the Himalayas). Later, as evening bore on, we were served tea along with pakodas. We spent almost the entire day out on the terrace. Once it was dark, we went to our rooms and candles were provided since Binsar doesn’t have electricity. This is something we enjoy, but to some others it acts as a deterrent to visit the place. Personally, I enjoy it and don’t quite understand why people can’t get over their luxuries in the hills. At least we’re not depleting that much of natural resources during these days, regardless of how insignificant it may be. The chill in the air made the hot chapattis and curry that much more delicious at the dinner.
The Himalayas frustrated us the next day as clouds played spoilsport. We couldn’t afford to wait as we just had a couple of hours at our disposal before heading off to Gwaldam. It would be a 4-5 hours drive and we wanted to reach there before sunset. So, we started off after breakfast and throughout the route I kept an eye on the distant views to see if clouds gave way to clarity. We went through the lower reaches of Kausani and as we turned for Gwaldam, the sun rays started to change their colors but clouds still held the sway. We could see the huge mass of clouds on the northern horizon which was actually shielding Mt Trishul from making an appearance. We could sense how near it was, but couldn’t see it yet. The GMVN rest house at Gwaldam was located picturesquely, but wore a shabby outlook because of poor maintenance. However, we made ourselves comfortable in the rooms allocated to us and came out in the lawn. The clouds were painted with orange and yellow in the lights of the afternoon sun. We all wished they cleared up.
Elders say it you pray for something honestly enough, God answers your call. At least nature heeded to our calls that day. Suddenly, we saw golden outlines making their appearance behind the cracks which started to spread across the body of the clouds. Gradually they all dispersed and the mighty Trishul made it’s appearance before us. This was a totally different angle from where we were seeing it. We could see all the three peaks (which gave it’s name) from the front. In all its earlier appearances from Chaukori, Kausani or even Binsar, all the three fell in one vertical line. The sun was spraying its fading colors across the entire Trishul massif which was colored with orange with a tinge of red.
The next morning, we woke up to a clear sky with clouds nowhere in the vicinity. Trishul and its neighbour Nandaghunti were right in front of us, clearly visible from the GMVN lawn. The sun was gradually making its presence felt. Just the edges of the three peaks of Trishul were lightened by rays of the rising sun and not it’s entire body. That made it’s name sound it even more obvious.
The entire day was at our disposal and skies were clear. So, after breakfast and morning showers, we thought of roaming around with leisure through the streets of this quiet Himalayan town. Gwaldam is on the route of a road that connects Kausani to Karnaprayag, a town on the main highway from Badrinath to Haridwar. There is a PWD bungalow somewhat down the road to Karnaprayag. As in other places, this too, was at a picturesque location. The bungalow was nestled high on the hills with a pond in front of it. Trishul and Nandaghunti formed an exquisite backdrop with their images in the water of the pond. It came across as a picture postcard.
By this time, it was already 9 AM and the sun was out in its full glory and so was Trishul, which now basked in the sun. It was an unusual day when the clouds never came in the ways of the mountain views. Normally, views are clear early in the morning or in the evening (if one’s lucky, then both). But, usually, after 9.30-10 AM in the morning, as the intensity of the sun increases, clouds start forming and by noon, the peaks are no more to be seen. But on that day, the peaks were clearly visible throughout the day in their full glory.
As we roamed around, the landscape around us changed from large pine trees, to terraced fields with serpentine roads moving through the woods but one thing was constant above all on the northern horizon, Mt Trishul and its peer Mt Nandaghunti. They were visible from all corners of Gwaldam, no matter where one was.
That was a day that will remain in our memories for a long time. We spent the entire day lazily walking amidst the streets and fields of Gwaldam. Afternoon once again started to cast its spell on the rays of sun as their colors started to turn yellow to golden and orange and finally to red.
A few km ahead of Gwaldam lay the town of Lohajung, the base camp for one of the most popular treks in the Himalayas. The trek to the mysterious ‘skeletal’ lake Roopkund. From Lohajung, it takes about 4 days to reach this glacial lake, which lies at the lap of the Trishul massif. The lake has it’s banks dotted with numerous human skeletal remains. No one knows who were the persons who met their fate possibly hundreds of years ago and where they came from. There are mythological stories about these that rings bells amongst the locals. Above Roopkund, lies the Junargali pass. After crossing it, one can reach another glacial lake Homekund that lies at the base of Nandaghunti. Trishul and Nandaghunti are worshipped as Gods amongst the locals and every 12 years, a huge band of locals go on a pilgrimage to these places. This pilgrimage is called “Nanda yatra” .A Himalayan four horned sheep is taken along with the procession. Rituals and offerings take place. The procession goes up to Homekund, which is where the sheep is freed with ornaments and food to wander in the remote regions as a sacrifice to the mountain Goddess Nanda Devi. These remote villages in the Himalayas are filled with curious traditions that runs through centuries and attracts people from all over the world. May be, someday, I’ll heed their calls too.
There’s nothing like waking up on a bright sunny morning and that too in a forest. Birds chirped all around. When we came out of our tent, we were greeted with a chilling breeze that was much colder than what we found at Deoriatal. It was evident, we were at a greater height. After regular morning duties and a breakfast with parathas, we left the tents. The rest of the crew were to follow us later after dismantling the tents. They would overtake us in between and reach the destination earlier to get the place ready for our stay. Heera Singh, the guide, stayed back and was to guide us through the forests. It took sometime for him to find the way out amidst the dense forest and we followed his footsteps.
After yesterday’s rest, our legs were fresh in the morning. We then came out into a sprawling meadow. It was the Vanagher Bugyal, the place where we were supposed to camp yesterday. It is a wide open place with peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas peeping out of the horizon. While we rested there for sometime, our crew overtook us along with the ponies. We followed after sometime. At the end of the meadow, forests started again and we were on our descent down the slopes of the hill. It was a zig-zag trail of steps made out of rocks and soil. We had to be careful as they were steep. We kept going down till we reached the banks of a stream that flowed through the gorge between the surrounding mountains. Just as we reached there, our crew (who already reached there before) started off with their journey to our destination for the day. Heera Singh stayed behind to serve lunch to us. What a place to have lunch! We sat on boulders beside the stream with trees forming a canopy above our head. The cool breeze that flowed through the leaves removed the tiredness from our bodies.
The trail after lunch was going to be tough. Firstly, it’s always difficult to walk after lunch and secondly, the entire trail was a steep ascent. We crossed the stream by placing our steps carefully on the rocks spread across it and reached the other side and started our ascent. We were moving up at snail’s pace. We would ascend a few steps, breathe a few mouthfuls, take a few steps again only to stop to breathe. My daughter got bored with the process and started to show her resistance and then came to a halt. Me and my wife persuaded her firstly with calm words, then bribed her with the prospect of rest “just a few steps ahead” and finally scolded her for the behavior. It was one of the acts which I regret to this day. After all she was on this trail not by her own choice, but thrust by us (more specifically, by me). Finally, she resumed her journey but for that I had to involve in a constant conversation with her to keep her mind away from toil. That had a surprising effect on her mind and body. She started walking with a rejuvenated spirit and I was bombarded with numerous questions about almost everything under the sun. I tried my best to answer them. It wasn’t easy to speak while I was ascending the slopes, but she showed no signs of tiredness and the barrage of questions kept coming at me.
We kept hiking and after sometime the steepness decreased somewhat and we came in the midst of a grassland, the Martoli bugyal. It was spread for miles along the slopes of the mountains we were hiking. The fields were bathing in the bright afternoon sun. The slopes started to get steep once again and gradually we entered a land of loose boulders that dotted the uneven slopes. We had to walk over them carefully as they were skiddy. As I looked up to see how far the shepherd hut was (where we were headed), I could see the trace of a trail that embraced the distant hills like a snake. Guides confirmed that it was, as I guessed, the trail to Tunganath from Chopta. But our place of halt, Bhujgali, was still a long way ahead. I saw one of the members of the crew coming down the slopes with two ponies. Anindita was getting tired and the pony provided a welcome break to her. She and my daughter ascended on the ponies which were to carry them for the rest of the day’s journey. As my daughter rode the pony, she was wrapped around by the jacket of Anindita that fastened her to the saddle to provide extra protection against a potential fall.
As they rode away on the ponies, I followed on foot and after considerable amount of time, found myself crossing the boundaries erected by rocks that formed the fences around the shepherd hut, our destination for the day. We finally reached Bhujgali. By that time, our crew had already installed the tents. The sun was already preparing to go down the horizon. The skies turned crimson and the surrounding oak and pine forests too bathed in those colors.
The tent was pitched along a gradual slope and as in the evening before, our crew stayed at the adjoining shepherd hut. I requested them to erect one more tent as it was very clumsy in a single tent and they obliged. Evening was approaching fast and after the sun slid behind the distant hills, temperature plummeted. It was late November. The doors of the Tunganath temple were already closed by that time of the year and the lord resided in his winter abode at Mukumath. The next day was to be the culmination of our trek and was the toughest. We woke up early in the morning at 4 AM. It was pitch dark outside. We were given head torches. Me and my wife started the ascent to Tunganath. My daughter lay asleep at the tent with some of the crew members to take care of her. We carried a bottle of water each. Anindita rode a pony, but I preferred to walk. We were accompanied by the guide and the person who managed the ponies. In the beginning, we plodded up together but soon I found myself walking alone as the pony strode ahead. The ascent was steep and so, my pace was slow. I constantly kept an eye on the skies to watch out for daylight. Our target was to reach Chandrashila, about 1.5 km above Tunganath temple, to witness the sunrise. As I gained height, I had to breathe hard and sip water more frequently. It wasn’t comfortable at all to gulp down cold water in this shivering cold, but that was my best bet to keep Oxygen flowing through my blood vessels in order to keep going.
As I saw the top of the Tunganath temple after a bend around the corner, first rays of sun gradually started to light the skies. Anindita was already there and we didn’t loose time at the temple and instantly started off for Chandrashila which was still 1.5 km uphill from there. The trail (or should I say a narrow strip of foot marks) zig-zag-ed up with frequent and sharp bends. Very soon, it ceased to be a trail and we had to ascend by placing our steps carefully on loosely scattered boulders which were rendered slippery by the last night’s dew which froze to a white powdery mass. Anindita was moving carefully and she relied heavily on the guide Heera Singh. By that time, the peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas had started to wear their crowns of gold.
I found the Chandrashila top to be a small flat space and almost the entire Garhwal hills and the villages and settlements were below us. As I turned my head gradually and completed a 360 degree circle, I found myself surrounded all around by the mighty peaks of Kumaon and Garhwal regions. The sun was popping up from behind the peaks of the Kumaon Himalayas and showered its rays on the ones from the Garhwal region. As I turned anti clockwise, I was greeted with magnificent views of Nanda Devi, Trishul, NandaGhunti, the mighty Chaukhamba, Mandani, Kedar Dome, Kedarnath and many others stretching up to the peaks of the Gangotri region. Chaukhamba was almost just a stone’s throw away.
Our toil was rewarded handsomely by nature and all tiredness were swept away by the views that Chandrashila had in store for us. I opened my bottle to sip water and suddenly I felt the pricks of a few cold needles in my throat. I saw the bottle and found small needle like icicles floating in the water. A bottle of warm water provided to me by our crew at the start of the trek in the morning, had ultimately, in this biting cold, transformed itself into a viscous mixture of water with frozen icicles.
On our way down from Chandrashila, though I was careful on the slippery rocks, I tumbled at least twice on their skiddy surfaces. We prayed a brief visit to the closed shrine of Tunganath and headed down to Bhujgali, where our daughter greeted us with anxious eyes looking for her parents who absconded her on a cold wintery morning. After gobbling down a few spoons of noodles, we headed down to Chopta and then to Sari.
In the year 2012, on a cool November morning at 4 AM, we off boarded the Nanda Devi express at a platform of the Haridwar railway station. We were three of us (me, my wife and my 3 years old daughter). We were on our way to undertake our first family trek. I was a tad nervous because of my daughter as I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to bear the brunt of walking 8-9 km a day for a stretch of 3 days but I was overjoyed to be proved wrong at the end.
We were glad that the train wasn’t late and had the entire day at our disposal (or so we thought). After all, we only had to go till Chandrapuri, a picturesque place on the banks of the river Mandakini which was about 5-6 hours drive from Haridwar. After getting fresh at the railway retiring room, we started off with our journey on a vehicle when it was still dark. As always on this route, we took our first break at the town of Byasi, about 55 km from Haridwar. After having some tea and a light breakfast, we resumed our journey. The road moved along the slopes of the familiar landscape of the Garhwal region keeping the river Ganges on its right. Then came Devprayag with its view of the confluence of the Ganges and Alakananda. The colors of waters of the two rivers always remain distinct. Over the different times that I have been to this place, I’ve seen one of the water streams to be green and the other muddy and the colors have switched sides but never they have looked the same.
After travelling about 20-30 km beyond Devprayag, we got our first setback. Our vehicle broke down. At first it seemed to be a minor defect and the driver assured that we’d soon be on our way but the signs were ominous. It turned out, we may have to wait for another 4-5 hours to get it repaired and for that too, we have to head back to Devprayag again to find a motor garage. I wasn’t prepared to waste time and gave a call to Lakhpat Singh (our tour co-ordinator). He arranged for another vehicle but that had to come down to Devprayag from some distant town on the route beyond Rudraprayag. It was still some time lost, but was much better compared to the former option. By the time we set off once again from Devprayag, we already lost about 3 hours. After Devprayag, the road descends to the valley of Alakananda river to reach Srinagar. The act of building a hydro-electric project on the river Alakananda had transformed it in many ways and not every change is welcome (in fact, most of them aren’t). Concrete walls were being erected along its banks and large swathes of the mountain slopes were devoid of trees. Hills had been blasted to make way for the large reservoir behind the dam. With my limited knowledge, I asked “Was it safe to embark on such large-scale constructions in these Himalayan areas, which are known to be fragile?” Landslides are common in the growing Himalayan mountains. So, how could we afford such extents of deforestation in the name of development? The river Alakananda appeared to have been tamed with its free flow constrained by such activities (or so we thought). The next year, it would prove way too costly when cloud bursts would trigger massive flow of water allowing Alakananda and Mandakini to break free from human clutches washing away large swathes of villages along with them.
We bid goodbye to Alakananda at Rudraprayag and rode along the banks of Mandakini. Gradually, we crossed Tilwara, Agastamuni and by the time we reached Chandrapuri, the afternoon rays of the sun had started to take a golden touch in its colors. The GMVN rest house was at a picturesque location. It was spread out with cottages dotting a sprawling lawn that led to the banks of the river Mandakini. The sky was crystal clear with some white clouds building up in the distant horizon. The chill in the air was on the rise as evening wore on. Lunch was served on a table in the lawn. Mountains surrounded us on all sides with Mandakini giving us company with its soothing sound as its waters danced their way through the boulder strewn river bed towards Rudraprayag.
The atmosphere was too serene back then to believe that the same river, a year down the line, would swell almost twenty times in volume and pour its wrath on everyone residing on its banks and wipe this place (along with many others) off to redefine the region’s geography. As darkness came on, we resigned to our cottages and focussed on re-juggling our luggage to separate items that would be required on the trail for the next three days from the ones that could be done without. We slid into our beds early that night. We were to forget the comforts of a hotel, at least for next three days.
After a comfortable breakfast, the next morning, we found ourselves heading towards the Sari village. We were heading down the Kedarnath road till we reached Kund, where the roads divided. The road on the left went towards Gaurikund via Guptkashi, while we took right towards the town of Ukhimath. This is the connecting road that goes through the Kedarnath wild life sanctuary till Chamoli, where it meets the Badrinath highway. After about 5 km from Ukhimath, we left the main road and headed up the mountain slopes on the left to reach the village of Sari. Sari is a small congregation of lodges, shops and local village homes. Lakhpat met us there. We spent sometime and had some tea while Lakhpat briefed us about the plan for the next few days. The hike for that day was a simple one for about 2.5 km which were to take us up the slopes of the mountains above Sari to the other side of it. There resided a small lake nestled amidst the mountains, Deoriatal. Three of us embarked on the trail. Bukku (my daughter) seemed to be enjoying the gradual elevation of the hike. Clear weather also contributed to the general cheerful mood.
After crossing the final bend, we found ourselves on the banks of Deoriatal. Lakhpat had a permanent tent erected besides the lake with a bed inside. This was going to be our address for the night. The famous Himalayan views gave a skip as clouds held the sway. There wasn’t much to do except to sit back and enjoy the afternoon sun and to have our delayed lunch beside the lake. The day visitors to the taal (there are many of them) gradually headed down to Sari. As the sun slid behind the mountains, evening was waiting its turn somewhere round the corner and was prompt to capture the stage. The night was silent, but sleep deserted me (not sure why), but my wife and daughter seemed to have a sound sleep.
When I strode out of the tent the next morning, it was still dark but traces of faint light were spreading across the northern horizon. Stars were abundant in the sky. The dark outlines of the Himalayan peaks were visible in the backdrop of the faint morning light. That was a comfortable sight and it meant clouds won’t spoil the party. This is a practice I’ve followed many times in my past Himalayan ventures. I could recognize the familiar outlines of the peaks of Chaukhamba, Mandani and Kedarnath even in this darkness. The eastern corner started getting brighter with the first rays falling on the crests of Chaukhamba while the others still remained in darkness. The rays started to spray their colors on the others and gradually the peaks of Kedarnath, Kedar Dome and Mandani woke up from sleep and finally, the rest.
Lakhpat’s crew met us later in the morning. That included a guide named Heera Singh Negi and another person (I don’t remember his name anymore) who started off with the role of leading a pony to carry luggage, cooking and tent equipment, but later on his role expanded to that of a cook, installation and dismantling of tents on the way and virtually everything required for the trek to be successful. The clear morning views lured us to spend more time at the taal and I took a round trip around its banks to reach the famous viewpoint which gave the famous Deoriatal shot to my camera.
All that delayed our departure and we started off at 9.30 AM. We walked along the northern banks of the taal and gradually ascended towards the woods that covered the higher reaches. To start with, my daughter rode on the back of Heera Singh. The trail entered the dense forests of the Kedarnath wild life sanctuary. We walked under the shades of the trees that formed a canopy. The freshness of the morning mist mixed with the smell that oozed out of the forests made the walk memorable.
By noon we reached a place where there was some open space to sit around and our team felt it was time to gulp down the packed lunch of roti and pickle. So we sat down to do justice to the food and water.
After the small lunch break, the trail moved out of the forests temporarily and we had to climb up the hill. The path narrowed up to some extent and we had to be careful as the rocks underneath were not very stable. Looking down the steep slope on the right of us was not even contemplated and we just focused upwards. At times I had to help Anindita (my wife) with her steps. Another sudden development was a cause of concern. My daughter started showing signs of dissent with Heera Singh and it reached a point where she simply resisted to ride his back. Heera and us tried to persuade her to continue the status quo but she was stubborn. I started to get irritated. After all, who would not like the comfortable ride and avoid the tiring walk? But just like this instance, I was grossly mistaken about her for the entire trek. In an attempt to teach her a lesson, we advised Heera to leave her behind and we all started walking while she stood her ground behind a tree. We hoped that isolation would force her to abandon what we interpreted to be her whims. However, we found that she was quite comfortable walking on her own and came along behind us. We then asked Heera to accompany her, else there was every risk of losing track in this wilderness.
After reaching the top of the hill, the track headed down the other side of the slope and once again we entered into the forests, which got more dense. At places, we had to make our way through the thick undergrowth. Heera led us through the forests, while rest of our crew went ahead to prepare for our halt for the day. Our initial target was to reach Vanagher bugyal (high altitude grassland), but time was running out as sunlight started fading. So, as an alternative plan, it was decided to stay near a shepherd hut amidst the forest. As we reached there, the afternoon sun already wore a texture of gold.
Heera Singh started to erect our tent, while rest of the crew stayed in the shepherd hut and prepared for the dinner. Our crew suggested that we stay at the hut to keep us warm amidst the fire they started up, but we didn’t want to let go of the romance of living in a tent.
We were given a torch to aid us in the night if we had to venture out to answer nature’s calls. We prayed not to have to do so. They also lit fires around the tent and the hut in an attempt to keep wild animals at bay and asked us not to heed to strange sounds at night. All such preparations added to our imaginations and the lack of room for movement in the tent that housed three of us also didn’t help the cause. As a result, I couldn’t sleep well.
The trek for next day wasn’t going to be simple as it involved a steep hike after lunch that would take us to the base of the route to Tunganath. But I shoved away the thoughts and at some point, sleep managed to reign.