The waters of Deoriya Taal must have miraculous properties, for when I was woken early in the morning by a shivering Prashant, I realized I had no hangover at all! Wonderful realization aside, one could now see the mountains in bright daylight and what a sight it was! From left to right, the entire horizon was marked by white, jagged peaks, culminating with the Nanda Devi, peeking surreptitiously over the ridge-line!
The lake is famous for the reflection of the peaks . This only happens early in the mornings when the air is still. Once the wind picks up, post 10 am, it creates ripples on the surface of the lake and the reflections disappear. The setting on this particular morning was perfect. The air was still, the light was bright and the reflections were near perfect. Just a tiny problem: the camera seems to have a mind of its own. No matter what setting I used, the photos were all washed out. I just could not figure out the damn thing. It’s surprising, considering how brilliantly it performed in the low light conditions the previous night. On the brighter side of things, I did manage to salvage like 10 clicks from the hundreds I shot. Sigh!
The magical waters of the lake failed to have its effect on Negi, whose snoring had woken Prashant up who then decided that I have slept enough. While Negi was sound (well…) asleep, his friend from the village arrived, to guide us on our trek from Deoriya Taal to Chopta. It is a 14 km long trek through the rhododendron forests and the occasional bugyal (meadow, in the local lingo) and a tough one too, for unfit souls like us. I did not even have proper trekking shoes!
The track started at the other end of the lake and for the first part, passed through thick oak and rhododendron forests. After around a mile or so, the track starts climbing towards the top of the ridge that overlooks Saari village. The total ascent here is of about 250 m over a horizontal distance of less that 300-400 m. So it’s STEEP! The top of the ridge offered a spectacular view of the village and the surrounding valleys. On the distance, we could see the motley collection of tents and a few permanent buildings that is Chopta. It was still far, very far off!
On the other side was Chaukhambha, now appearing even more massive. Slowly, but steadily, a growing cloud was covering up the mountains. There was also some concern over the reappearance of the storm I faced on the first day while I was riding up to Sari (see earlier post). As a result, every now and then we found ourselves glancing towards the heavens searching for the tell-take signs. We were walking at an average altitude of 3000m, and a good soaking would definitely result in a most pleasing bout of pneumonia. Oh good!
We then traversed the top of the ridge and proceeded to descend into the valley on the other side through some thick woods. Every now and then, we would chance upon a clearing or a meadow where we would rest, drink some water, and munch on some biscuits. It was a tough trek and most of the time we were climbing over ridges and descending into valleys. Straight and level stretches were few. Although I struggled a bit in the uphill parts, a made up for it by taking less breaks.
After we descended into the valley on the other side of the ridge, the Chaukhambha disappeared from view and another snow clad peak showed itself. Taking into consideration the relative height of the nearby Chandrashila and the amount of snow left on it, it couldn’t be more than 5500 m tall. But since it was very close (right across the gorge to our left), it loomed over us like a giant. It was made of jet black stone and the way some dark clouds gathered around its summit, gave it an aura of mystery. Negi (yes, our guide was also called Negi. No relation though.) told us that the villagers call it Kalapahad, owing to the dark rocks.
Every now and then, the forests would clear and we would emerge on a bugyal. While most of them were snow-less, the higher reaches of some still had some patches of dirty, dying snow. With every meadow, the mountain called Kalapahad was getting closer and closer until we came upon one where it felt that you could just reach out and touch the mountain’s snowy slopes. By this time we had covered almost 60 percent of the trek and since we had also made good time, we decided to reward ourselves with a long break. So we sprawled out on the gently sloping meadow with the mountain occupying most of our visual field.
We could have sat there and looked at the mountain for ages, but alas, we had to move on. The track began climbing again and very soon, huffing and puffing, we were on top of yet another ridge. Chopta was now only one more mountain away. Incidentally, our supply of water was exhausted due to zealous consumption. With around 5 kms still to go, our only chance of a refill was at a stream at the bottom of the ridge. It was a rather steep descent and the trail was, at times, blocked by fallen trees. To add to my fitness issues, my shoes were now cutting into my feet and the discomfiture increased with every step.
So needless to say that when we did reach the stream, the first thing I did was to take off the shoes and dip my gnawed out stumps in the water. What I did not realize was that the glacier the stream was being fed by was merely 300 m upstream. Bone chilling is an understatement. I could not feel my legs for a full minute after a mere one second soak. Good thing I guess. Water does not come purer than this. We refilled our bottles and decided to lounge here for some time. I found a slab of rock in the middle of the stream, undressed to my shorts and promptly fell asleep in the sun. A power nap never hurt anyone, especially since we were one just one climb away from reaching Chopta.
Soon it was time to get going again and embark on what would be the last leg of our trek to Chopta. From the stream, we clambered up the side of the next hill and soon came upon the longest flat stretch of the trek. Here we met a group of villagers comprising mostly of women and one lone man. They were carrying on their backs huge loads of a local fern which they would then dry, bind together and use as brooms. These are hardworking villagers, the very salt of the earth. While I was groaning under the weight of my 12 kg backpack, these tiny women were each carrying a load almost equal to their own body weight and even then outpacing me!
At long last the track merged into the metalled road leading to Chopta, which was still around one kilometer away. After the rough stones and uneven ground, the feel of the hard, flat surface beneath the feet was very comforting. Negi (not the guide) had arranged a hotel for us in Chopta, which was right beside the path that leads to Tungnath and Chandrashila. By this time the battery of the camera was on the last bar and I was hoping to charge it up for our morning trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila.
Little did I know that Chopta had no electricity! They had some solar panels but those are only for the lights. This did bum me out a little but I forgot about my woes completely when the room service boy showed up with a huge bucket of hot water (no running water as well, unless the room service boy is in a hurry). The hot shower took away all the strain of the trek and once I had changed into some comfortable floaters, I was almost as good as new.
So energized was I after the shower that I joined a few local kids in their cricket match. Prashant, meanwhile couldn’t care less about a bath and went straight to bed. Chopta, at 2900m was considerably higher than Deoriya Tal and the cold, as a result was also more severe. By the time the game was over and I had had my tenth cup of tea, the temperature had plummeted. With no electricity and the fascinating things that come with it, like moving pictures and songs from boxes, we called it an early night.
We woke up at the crack of dawn for the trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila. Boy was it cold! After the customary five mugs of steaming tea, we set off for this 4km trek. The locals have been telling us that we would not be able to reach Tungnath, never mind Chandrashila which is 500 m higher. The winter had been severe and the temple was still covered by snow, almost knee deep. If we even had proper trekking shoes, we could have done it. But not in the present rag tag state we were in. But we headed out anyway.
The path was steep, but unlike the trek from Deoriya Tal top Chopta, and owing to the large pilgrim footfall in the yatra season, the whole path was paved and cemented. When we set out I just had enough juice in the camera for 10 shots, so I had to shoot judiciously. Amazingly enough I got more than 20 shots out of it and it finally gave away when after much slipping and falling on ice; we managed to reach the temple. Chandrashila would have to wait for the next time.
The way down was easier, thanks to gravity. From here however, Prashant and I would part ways. I would ride on to Gopeshwar and from there back home via some relatively unknown roads and over two days, while Prashant would go back to Ukhimath and head back home from there. We parted with promises to keep in touch. Two months later, as i sit and write this account, i am glad to report that we are in touch and much to my consternation, while i am in the furnace called Delhi, Prashant, the professional poker player (no kidding!!) is cooling his heels in Khajjar. Bastard!