Nanda Devi Sanctuary Trek: Reaching Auli


A strange darkness had started to creep in. I had always counted myself rich with an exciting job, a best friend of a wife, three of the cutest cats a person could have ever wished for – yet, there was this big gaping hole in the soul. It was as if I had been kissed by a dementor, a kiss that had sucked all the joy out of my life.

A chance conversation with the wife helped me reach the root of the problem. Partly it had to do with the phenomenon called ‘adulthood’. Over the last three years, I had landed myself an exciting, albeit stressful job, gotten married, and like Jude of the song, had taken upon my (not so) slender shoulders, all the weight of the world. Unlike my pre-adult life, there were no mountains; no rides on my trusty ‘Dope’, and barely time to be alone with the voices in my head. And it was this absence of this connection with myself, that had made me liken my then existence to a dementor’s kiss.

Coming to this realisation was a massive change in itself. It was as if a weight had lifted off my chest… I could breathe easy… the fog of despair had lifted. Now that I knew what to do, I needed to move on to the next step: where to go? Easier said than done. Every road called out to me. Every Himalayan valley seemed to sing a siren song trying to lure me into their deepest recesses. A week’s plan soon became 10 days, and finally grew to two whole weeks. It was settled then: I would do a trek inside the Nanda Devi National Park. To do that I would need to first get to Auli, near Joshimath. This is where my motorcycle, Dope comes in.

I have been on this route a few times, and from the very beginning, it was clear that Joshimath / Auli could not be reached in one day. So I decided to set off from Delhi around noon on the D-Day. The plan was to reach Rishikesh by the evening, rest up and start for Auli the next day at first light.

Credit: @Manasi Saxena

The road till Meerut was chaotic as usual, but once the by-pass starts, it is a clean six lane cruising all the way till Roorkee. I took to the saddle after four years with a lot of apprehension. Would I be able to ride for long? Will my back give up? Would I have to turn back with my tail between my legs? Turns out nothing of that sort was going to happen. It was like fish in the water. The miles just started tumbling and the first and only break of the day came after 216 kms of riding. Once a biker, always a biker.

I had booked myself into Hotel Green Hills in Rishikesh. A secure parking was absolutely essential for me and this establishment had it. I also got an airconditioned room for the night at Rs 700. Another advantage of the hotel was its location right on the highway. All I needed to do in the morning was tie down my luggage and leave.

Morning view from the hotel porch. The hills are just a touching distance away.

Within ten minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself finally in the hills. The monsoons had just about ended and the mountains were carpeted in a million shades of green. On my right was the young Ganga – green and eager and utterly oblivious to the abuse that lies ahead. With every turn of the road, I could feel the mortal energy return to the husk of a being I had let myself turn into. The roads were blissfully empty and the metronome-like engine note of the large single-cylinder benignly threatened to transport me to a meditative state.

The infant Ganga takes her first few steps out of the Himalayan cradle.

 

As we leave the Ganga far below and slowly climb higher, the sun finally comes out.

 

Dope – my companion on this and many more memorable journeys. May your chrome never lose its glint!

My plan for the day was to ride non-stop (photo breaks don’t count) at least till Karnaprayag.  The annual yatra season had ended and I wasnt expecting a lot of traffic. The road itself was in remarkable shape. Except for a few landslide-affected stretches (inevitable in the Himalayas), the road was a poetry in smooth tarmac. Never had I seen a mountain road, (and a highway no less) in as good a shape.

This is no ordinary road. For thousands of years, long before humankind had mortar and asphalt, people have travelled on this road; on foot, on animal-drawn carts and even on the backs of other people, in search of the divine.  Not only does this road lead to Badrinath, one of Hinduism’s most sacred temples, along it also lie the five holy confluences, or prayags – the Panch Prayag.

Dev Prayag: Alakananda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet here, the first of the prayags, giving rise to the Ganges. In terms of riligious significance, it is second only to Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Saraswati meet the Ganga to form the holiest prayag and hence the site of the Kumbh mela.

Alakananda (right) and Bhagirathi (left) meet at Devprayag

Rudraprayag: The meeting place of the Alaknanda  and the Mandakini rivers. At Rudraprayag, one comes across a fork in the road and the two prongs each follow the rivers. I continue to follow Alaknanda towards the next prayag. I turned left on the fork here to follow the road running next to the Mandakini on a previous journey to Deoriya Taal and a trek to Chopta and Tungnath Temple.

Somewhere between Devprayag and Rudraprayag (click to expand).

Karnaprayag: 34 kms upstream of Rudraprayag, the Mandakini is joined by the Pindar river. Legend has it that Karna, one of the pivotal characters in the Mahabharata, prayed to his father Surya at the prayag here and in the process received the kavach (shield) that made him near-invincible in battle. Here, you cross the bridge over the actual prayag and continue along the left bank of the Alaknanda towards Joshimath and Auli. Another road branches off from the bridge towards Tharali and Gwaldham into Kumaon, a road I took on my way back and immediately  went on to have one of the most fun few hours of mountain riding i’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. More on that later.

Nandaprayag: 23 kms upstream, the Nandakini River meets the Alaknanda River at Nandaprayag. Unlike the other prayags, the confluence isn’t visible from the road here. What you can see is a maze of concrete structures and have your senses invaded by noxious diesel fumes emenating from the bus terminus.

The road thus far has the river for company and follows a gentle enough gradient; but as soon as you cross Nandaprayag, things get more interesting. The roads are not as wide as you have experienced before and switchbacks appear with increased frequency betraying a rather steep gain in altitude.

What a pleasure it is to ride on these roads!
A short break to appreciate the surroundings. And the companion.
… the said surroundings

Vishnuprayag: The last of the prayags was the only one I did not visit. This is where the Dhauli Ganga river (this river will make its appearence in a future post) meets the Alaknanda, a few kms upstream of Joshimath town.

During the course of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary trek, we would be hitting altitudes in excess of 4,500 m (14,700+ feet), so it is recommended to complete an one-night accimatisation trek. We had chosen the Gorson Meadows above Auli for this very purpose. To reach Auli, we had to take a small road turning right from the highway, a few kms before Joshimath town. This tiny little road snakes through thick forests and a couple of Indo Tibetan Border Police encampments for 14 kms and ends at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouse in Auli, at an altitude of 2,500 m.

If the sky is cear, Auli offers the visitor a clear view of the iconic Nanda Devi peak (7,816 m / 25,643 ft). But this was not to be. The sky had gotten overcast as I took the turn for Auli and by the time I was unloading my luggage, it had started drizzling. The clouds, however, did little to obscure the unique jagged-edged mountains around Joshimath and Auli.  In the dying light of the day, the dramatic mountains looked like the exposed teeth of a long dead leviathan, bared menacingly skywards upon death.

The black snake of a road slithers up the mountain at Auli.

 

Ephel Dúath

 

As a couple of plates of maggi, followed by some excellent chilli chicken whipped up by the good cook at GMVN slowly soothed the body into a state of temporary hibernation, the mind drifted across the jagged shadow mountains towards Mordor the deep Himalayas. What adventures lay ahead? Will the goddess Nanda Devi open her bounties to this humble traveller? If only I had a window into her divine mind…

Ladakh: A Journey in Photos


For years now I have been delaying my plans to embark upon a road trip to the Mecca of Indian bikers – Ladakh. But then the most unexpected of things happened. Royal Enfield offered to take me on a ride from Delhi to Ladakh to test ride the Himalayan. I would be a fool to turn down the offer of a lifetime.

This would be my first road trip in three years. There were doubts. many, many doubts. Do I still have it in me to travel these long distances? What if I get mountain sickness? What if the bad roads and the strain of the saddle trigger my dormant sciatica? Strangely enough, all these doubts dissipated the moment I swung my legs over the rugged Himalayan on a sweltering July morning at India Gate.

What followed was a week of riding, riding, and then riding some more. Fine, I did fall off a couple of times, but in my defence, it was only while I was trying to show off. So anyway, while I battle my laziness and contemplate how to document the journey in this blog, here’s a teaser of the journey; Through some photographs from the phone. Hopefully someday soon I will manage to get off my ass and write a travelogue and post photos from the ‘proper’ camera.

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My ride, the Royal Enfield Himalayan. Tough as the rocks behind it.

CHAPTER I: THE HIMALAYAN

I worship my Royal Enfield, a 2008 Machismo 5oo. But the Himalayan was a different beast altogether. For starters, it is purpose-built to take on the rough roads and then carry on when even these ‘roads’ ended. This is not a review of the motorcycle, but let me tell you this, the chassis and suspension are on point. What I loved most was the positioning of the foot pegs; it allows you to stand up and ride. Specially designed indentations along the fuel tanks help you lock in your knees and just glide over the rough patches.

I have always admired motorcycles for their simplicity and ruggedness. After 6 days and close to 2,000 kms on this motorcycle, I can report that not one panel on the bike exists for aesthetic purposes. Everything is rugged and everything is functional. This is what, in my mind, makes the Himalayan beautiful. There is a lot of bite in the brakes, at times, a bit too much, but this is something you will get used to.

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Just before Bilaspur, where we regrouped before resuming the ride towards Manali.

All these improvements on the Himalayan meant that it was really hard for me to get off the saddle. As a result, the 320-odd kilometres between Chandigarh and Manali was covered with just one butt break (not counting the photo stops). The previous day we rode into Chandigarh from Delhi, a distance of some 260 kms. This was good because it gave me time to get used to the bike before hitting the hills.

When you are used to riding the older generation Royal Enfields (and in this, I am including the models with the ‘new’ UC engines), you become so accustomed to vibrations at high revs that when you come across a motorcycle with no vibes whatsoever, it seems rather unreal. This is exactly what happened to me between Delhi and Chandigarh; on top gear at 110-120 kmph, I felt no vibrations whatsoever, at neither the handlebars nor the footpegs.

This also brings us very neatly to what is the biggest downside of the Himalayan – the rather unimpressive power delivery on the higher rev ranges. This is felt the most on long stretches of empty roads where you might want to give it some beans. Irrespective of how well you shift or how wide the throttle, the higher reaches remain annoyingly flat. This motorcycle needs and deserves 10 more horses. The day Royal Enfield makes this happen is the day I put down my deposit on one.

CHAPTER II: THE RIDE, OH THE RIDE

The flat Delhi-Chandigarh and the twisty Chandigarh-Manali stretches ensured that by the time we left Manali towards Rohtang and beyond, I had gotten the hang of the Himalayan. The Himalayan Odyssey is a group ride and this year there were close to 80 riders. In addition to this, there were us, a handful of riders from the media. I am not that much of a group rider; in fact, i ride alone and ride to get away from people. So, the mornings were usually slightly stressful for me.

 

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Meditating upon a mountain: A man sits by the edge at Rohtang, watching the world roll on by.

But where there is anxiety, there is also a solution. I planned ahead and parked the bike closest to the exit spot so that in the mornings I am one of the first riders to leave. Upon leaving, I picked up some speed (it was relatively easy as I am a paced rider by nature) which allowed me and a couple of experienced riders get a considerable headstart over the rest of the group.  Once you cross Rohtang and descend into the otherworldly Lahaul-Spiti valley, you need to be in your own skin to enjoy the ride and this strategy allowed me to do so.

 

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The road to Jispa

CHAPTER III: ON THE BANKS OF THE BHAGA

Our destination on the third day of the ride was the tiny mountain village of Jispa. At barely 110 kms, this was the shortest riding day of the trip. Coupled with my riding strategy, this meant that I was able to reach Jispa well before the rest of the gang arrived. Jispa is but a small hamlet located at the widest part of the Bhaga valley. The river here is wide, shallow and full of pebbled banks and a much-needed refuge to worshippers of solitude. Spend some time here, amid the relative greenery before you venture into the land of the high passes, the sparse, stark cold desert.

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This was once the bottom of a primordial ocean. Then came the uplift and the earth folded into curious rocks. Now they reside some 3 kms above the sea level. Nature, you beast.
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…but if you know the right people your bike can have a drink along the way.

 

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The tiny cluster of buildings in the distance, that is Jispa
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And quiet flows the Bhaga as the golden light paints a thousand shades on the mountain slopes.

CHAPTER IV: MOONLANDIA

The word ‘Ladakh’ translates to ‘the land of high passes’. The first of these, Baralacha La, lay but a few kms from Jispa. The previous night was spent in the throes of a myriad of impossible dreams – an obvious effect of the high altitude. So as I swung my legs over the Himalayan’s saddle, I was acutely aware of the fact that on this particular day, we would end up camping at Sarchu, about a kilometre higher than Jispa. I had been previously under the impression that altitude-sickness would not affect me – what with all the trips across Spiti and a couple of high-altitude treks under my belt – but boy, was I about to be proven wrong.

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A crisp morning in Jispa

 

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Bikes and bikers stop for a laboured breath at Bharatpur (No, not the one with all the birds)

Altitude is a great leveller and pride comes before Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Avoiding the precautionary dosage of Diamox was a bad idea. Baralacha La came and went, but what remained was a constant throbbing in the head and a strange tingling on the lips. Every breath was laboured and progress was hard. There was barely any strength left to stand on the footpegs and let the lovely Himalayan (which, at this point was faring better than the rider) loose over the gravel and the occasional water crossing. Your appetite goes for a toss, but you need to keep a full stomach to fuel the body and keep the situation from getting worse. Luckily, the lovely tented restaurants along the way dish out many a delicacy from their makeshift kitchens.

Sarchu is cold, windy but impossibly picturesque. It is also a nightmare for those staying overnight. There are no permanent structures, only tents offering varying degrees of ‘luxury’. Gasping for breath, we reached our encampment, neatly lined up in the middle of the windswept plains against the background of the stark, craggy hills.

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Our campsite at Sarchu

 

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Motorcycles and tents… life on the high plains of Sarchu
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A game of thrones.

 

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As the sun sets on yet another day on the road, it leaves us with this gift, a million earthy shades on the mountains of Sarchu.

CHAPTER V: RIDING INTO HEAVEN