A Different Christmas


No, festivals do not excite me. The only use i see of them is the fact that you generally do not need to work on those days. But ever since I started working at a news channel, i had to say goodbye to those festival holidays as well. Because, you know, news just keeps on happening. So yes, I am not that big on festivals.

The last Christmas day was slightly different though. Everyone in my team was working and so I took advantage of the fact that that I am the boss and took some time off to join the good folks at Delhi Birds for an old fashioned bird walk. I am not big on group activities either, but the DelhiBird group is led by expert birders who know those secret little corners which I, on my own would never have known. This is how on a cold, foggy Christmas day, I landed up at Dankaur – a village in the middle of nowhere.

The map embedded above only shows you the location of the village. The spot, a now dry lake bed, was a few kms away from the village. The group met up at a designated spot in Noida before taking off towards the destination, around 50 kms away. I was looking forward to this trip for two reasons. Ever since I started working in the live news environment, i lost my weekends, a sense of time and personal life. So, unlike other years, this was to be my first day out birding this season! Secondly, I had finally managed to fix my trusty motorcycle (Dope, as I call him) and this trip out of the city would test my modifications .

For the first few miles we were on the Greater Noida Expressway. Turning off the Expressway at Greater Noida we kept turning into  smaller (and increasingly more potholed)  roads till we reached what looked like a massive grassland with a shallow pond at its center. This is supposed to be the fabled spot, where, on a good day over a 100  Sarus cranes congregate. Will this Christmas day be the proverbial ‘good day’?

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My Garhwal Adventure: The Long Way Home


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At the end of the last post I, battered and bruised, left Chopta and headed towards Gopeshwar. As Chopta had no electricity, I was not able to charge my camera and as a result it died even before I had reached Tungnath Temple. As luck would have it, the road from Chopta to Gopeshwar, a large part of which cut through a National Park, was spectacular. The plan was to get to Gopeshwar, which is barely 70 kms away and rest for the rest of the day before riding towards Kartik Swamy Temple.

I started off from Chopta by 10 am and was in Gopeshwar by 1 in spite of the long nature watching breaks. After two days on foot over a tough terrain, the saddle was a welcome relief. So Gopeshwar was reached and the search for a hotel was commenced upon. Soon, I settled into a cosy room at the Jai Guru Guest House (Rs 250, with running hot water, TV and power backup) and enjoyed a rejuvenating shower. After the shower, I turned my attention to food. Ever since I left home four days back, I had been surviving on delicious, but vegetarian fare. So a non-vegetarian restaurant was found and what ensued can be best described as a cull on the local chicken population.

Basic needs taken care of, my attention was turned on Gopeshwar’s prime attraction, the Gopinath Temple. Uttarakhand’s rulers have had a long history of temple building and that tradition reached its peak in the 12-13th century with the construction of the Gopinath Temple, the largest and the most ornate in the state. It is still a living temple and a carnival of sorts is held around the temple on navaratras. There is evidence to suggest that there were other temples in the vicinity but none of them have survived. The temple premises also serve as a repository for loose sculptures excavated from various parts of town. What has survived unscathed however is a massive trident, nearly 5m in height. It bears an inscription by Anekmalla, a Nepali ruler who controlled the town in the 13th century.

Gopinath Temple

What appeals one most about the temple is how it still remains the center of life in this small town. If you are there, take time out and spend an hour or so in the temple premises in the morning. You will see people dropping in for a quick darshan on their way to work. Schoolchildren say a silent prayer, quite possibly to be spared from the cane of the headmaster. Housewives catch up on the gossip of the day on the way to the markets while the elderly huddle in tight groups and talk about what the elderly talk about. The more things change in big cities, the more things remain the same in small towns. Somehow this is strangely comforting.

Bells at the entrance to the temple
A little shrine by the main temple
A little sacred tree in the temple complex

A temple can only take up that much of your time. So before it was dark I got back to the hotel room, put the cam on charge and spent the rest of the evening watching IPL matches. The next morning I planned to ride to Rudraprayag and possibly beyond. Idea was to avoid the highway that passed through Chamoli and Karnaprayag. Some research had yielded a little used road that connected Gopeshwar to Rudraprayag through Pokhri. Another appeal of the road was that it passed through Kanakchauri, a tiny hamlet that is the trailhead for the trek to Kartik Swamy Temple.

Since this was to be a relaxed ride I did not bother getting up at the crack of dawn like I normally do, but started late at around 7am. For the first 8 kms, I rode on the highway towards Chamoli and then took a left into the single lane road across the river. The surface was mostly nice with some stretches of gravel and it was almost traffic free. In the 70 odd kms to Pokhri, I could not have passed more than 4-5 vehicles. Such was the emptiness of the road that I began to wonder why they built it in the first place. Maybe it is for bikers like us, who would give up anything for a go on roads like this.

The first of the many to come
Still early days into the ride
View of Gopeshwar from the road

But like Francis Bacon once said ‘there is no beauty which hath not some strangeness about its proportions’, the road had its hidden strangeness. First of all there were the sheer drops. The drops were made scarier by the width or the road itself, or the lack thereof. Then there were the fallen pine nettles. As there is very little traffic on this road, the nettles cover up almost all the road and reduce grip on the tires.

And then there was Dope
A river down below

There were stretches where the back-end gave away on a regular basis and one needs to be very vigilant as even the slightest lapse of concentration would send you plummeting to a very certain death. This might all seem dramatic but trust me, I have ridden across Spiti but this road is something else. The real peril is not apparent once you look at it. Its only when you ride that you know that it can kill. But every biker worth his salt will tell you that this is where he/ she would rather ride!

A relatively nettle free stretch

Some 20 kms into the ride, I encountered the first village and fortunately it had a tea stall. So I stopped here and had the most amazing tea and chana.  It was slightly nippy and the warm tea and the hot chana just hit the spot.

Best…breakfast…ever!!

The riding continued and the landscape kept getting prettier and prettier. Turn off the engine and a sudden pall of silence will descend on you. Silence, you will realize, is not the absence of sound, silence is the absence of noise. Look down the edge and you will see a stream, flanked by terraced rice fields. You never see the villages the farmers stay in. This was an amazing road.

The most worrying bit on this road was a stretch, some 400 m long, which had recently suffered a landslide. The side of the mountain was disemboweled and loose rocks the size of tangerines kept falling at regular intervals.  I took a deep breath and started to cross the stretch, one eye looking at the road ahead and the other scanning the mountainside for falling rocks. Fortunately, there were no incidents and yours truly escaped unscathed.

Valley
The sheer drop that i was talking about!
Landslide ahoy
The landslide viewed from a distance..GULP!
A very colourful stretch
My best friend and companion on many adventures

By 10:30, i had crossed Pokhri and the road has smoothened out. It was curvy and had on an almost perfect black top. The traffic had also increased a bit but that did not stop me from leaning on the corners. Very soon i was at a curve on the road, flanked by a number of shops – Kanakchauri for you. A nondescript concrete archway marked the beginning of the 2.5 km long trek to Karthik Swamy Temple. On a clear day the temple, on top of a hill provides a 270 degree panorama of the Himalayas. The day was not clear and i was pretty sure that the peaks were not visible, but i started the walk nonetheless.

The wild road right before Pokhri came to view
It was smooth sailing after Pokhri
The beginning of the trek to Kartik Swamy Temple

Most of the oath passes through a thick rhododendron forest. The inclines were steep in places, but mostly it is a gentle up hill walk. Most of the height is gained in the last one third of the trek where in stretches it is almost vertical. Very little information is available on the temple online. I heard about the beauty of the place from a friend. A veteran of many treks and high altitude Himalayan expeditions, he swore by its beauty, thus prompting my investigation.

Through the forest
The temple is somewhere on top of that hill
Give it a ring while you walk past
Beauty all around
Moving on

Two thirds of the way up the hill, one comes across the quarters of the priests, There are also a few attached rooms where one can stay for the night. It is a good idea to do because then you can climb up to the mountain and watch the sunrise, which is bound to be a spectacular sight. I met the rather young priest and he said that he had just come down, so once i reach the top, i should be all by myself.  Time for an one-to-one with the big guy i guess!

The last bit of the trek is comprised of steps cut into the rock and at places its almost vertical. The beauty of the temple is that throughout the trek you know where it is, but it does not show itself. But when you climb over the steep steps and come to a plateau, it suddenly reveals itself. And what a revelation that is!

Stairs to the big blue sky
Steep!
The temple comes to view!
And what a view!

By now you are suddenly aware of the height that you have gained. You are higher than any of the surrounding hills and on either side of you are sheer drops. If you peek over the edge (if you dare to, that is!) you will see a thick carpet of trees. And again, there is silence! That soundtrack of nature!

Like i predicted, the peaks were blocked by clouds. Standing there, i could imagine how it would look had the clouds suddenly disappeared, revealing the snowy giants. But i am glad i came here and i have every intention of coming back.

The forests, nearly a kilometer below!
The final flight of steps

The Kartik Swamy Temple has a unique ritual. A big fair is held in Kanakchauri on the occasion of Kartik Purnima (usually on the last week of November). It is believed that if you carry a bell to the temple and make a wish, it will come true. As a reasult the temple complex is full of bells. Thousands of them, in various shapes and sizes. This reminded me of the Chauragarh Temple near Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. Both temples are located on top of mountains and can be accessed by long treks. The only difference is, in Chauragarh Temple, the devotees offer trishuls (tridents) instead of bells.

The bells of Kartik Swamy
No dearth of them around here
The other side of the temple

I also spotted some offerings of sindoor (vermilion)  and combs. I could not understand the logic behind this. In Hindu mythology, Kartik, or Kartikya is known for his handsomeness. His vanity is also reflected in is choice of vahana (divine vehicle) – a peacock! I think since both sindoor and combs are used as cosmetics, they would make sense as offerings to Kartik. I might be wrong, but in case you know the explanation, please do tell me.

Strange offerings
Another view

Like the priest had predicted, i was all by myself at the top. Intent on making the most of this rare solitude, i spent over an hour there, just sitting and gazing into the abyss, battling inner monsters. I knew that after i climb down, i would begin descending and very soon i would be in the hot, shimmering plains.  Predictably, the abyss gazed also into me and whispered words of kindness and promises of a return into my eager ears.

Right now, four months later, i am sitting in a south Delhi barsati, jabbing at the keyboard and counting down to the day when i will go back to the mountains.

Oh, the drop!

My Garhwal Adventure: Deoriya Taal to Chopta


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 first shot of the morning
Kedar Peak in the morning light
No, i could not stop clicking!
My lovely little home for the day
In full glory

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!

Reflections
Chaukhambha
Kedarnath
Spring foliage around the lake
More of Chaukhambha

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!

Other campers
One last look before we leave

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!

The woods were lovely and deep, but not that dark. Sorry, poet!
Trekker!
Trekker’s eye view of Saari
Prashant and our guide!
Somewhere high up on the mountain in the distance is Chopta

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!

Clouds coming down
Bad hair, just like i promised in the previous post!
Few shots of Chaukhambha before it is veiled by the clouds
Prashant posing
The highest point of our trek

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.

Descending to the valley
Kalapahad, the black mountain. Does someone know its real name?
Walking through a painted forest

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.

I don’t know why, but i had a sudden urge to dance to ‘Singing in the Rain’. This shot caught me midway through the routine. Donno if you can make that out!
Another one

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.

Emerging from the forest on to the meadow
More of the meadow comes into view
Prashant and the guide wait for me to catch up
And the protagonist. This photograph does not even begin to convey the sheer scale of the peak
Sweet repose

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.

The wild and steep descent towards the stream

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.

Beached whale

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!

An ancient forest
The little women and their huge loads
View of the valley floor from Chopta
The last push towards Chopta
‘Not all who wander are lost’

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.

Early morning views from the road to Tungnath

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.

A meadow on the way
More of the meadow and some abandoned huts
Chaukhambha says Howdy!
Lukka chuppi
Something heavenly must lie at the end of this path!

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.

More and more snow
Prashant is clearly thrilled..or not
This is the only shot of the Tungnath Temple before the cam ran out of juice

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!

Live here? Good idea!

My Garhwal Adventure: Delhi to Deoriya Tal


It has become a sort of a ritual. I lay in bed, tossing and turning but no sign of sleep. Oh good! Tomorrow I ride on the hill roads while having to fight sleep from taking over. Couldn’t be more excited! To be honest, I wasn’t trying too hard to fall asleep either. Passed time watching a mundane IPL game and the very entertaining Craig Ferguson, while waiting for the clock to strike the witching hour.

Just when I was checking my luggage for one last time before saddling up, came the rain. This ride would be different, I knew. I had broken my wonderful Nikon D80 on a earlier ride to Sariska National Park and on this ride, I would have to make do with a friends Canon 450D. It is a very different camera from my Nikon. For one, the controls and the metering are completely different and it takes a long time to get used to. Also Dope has been worked upon. I have removed the stock air filter and replaced it with a K & N air intake. The carburetor has also been up-jetted. As a result both the acceleration off the block as well as the top speed has increased substantially. This will be fun.

Route

Anyway, it happened to be a passing rain and it stopped within fifteen minutes and I was good to go! The idea was to take the Meerut by-pass and turn into Khatauli and proceed from there towards Pauri via Bijnor and Najibabad. From Pauri, the route joins the National Highway 58. I would follow 58 till Rudraprayag from where I would cross the Mandakini and take the left bank road to Ukhimath. My plan was to reach Saari, (trailhead to Deoriya Taal) till nightfall. The plan was ambitious but like Gandhi once said: ‘aim for the sky and you reach the treetop. Aim for the treetop and you never take off’. Flawed plans and questionable quotes aside, I was ready for the ride.

By the time I left, it was almost 3:30. The idea was to get past Meerut before sunrise, which was done easily even after a 20 minute wait in a cattle-shed waiting for a passing shower to …well, pass by. A few kms after the Meerut by-pass I took the right turn into a sleepy Khatauli just as the sun was coming up on the wheat fields. From Khatauli, I followed the Jansath Road and turned left towards Bijnor.  On this stretch, as I stopped for a snap, I realized that my bike was leaking engine oil. When I had removed the stock air filter, I did not remove the box it was enclosed in. One of the pipes leads from the main crank into a breather under the seat. From there, another (drainage) pipe leads to the empty box and it was this that was spewing oil all over the silencer and the rear wheel.

By my estimate I had lost around 300 ml of oil by the time i spotted the leak. So I disconnected the pipe, stuffed it lightly with some cloth and started riding again at a much reduced speed. A constant monitoring for the next 50 kms or so revealed that there was no further leakage. I always carry a liter of oil on me when I am touring, so the loss of oil was not a concern. But the leakage coated the hot silencer with grime and ruined Dope’s painstakingly achieved shine.  Too bad for photographs!

Somewhere on the road to Bijnor

The hills appeared soon after Exxon Valdez was fixed. There was a bottleneck at Najibabad, but then if you had a totally hassle free ride in the plains; it would be really weird, no? The roads were in good state as monsoon was still months away. I love this road. I have taken this twice in the past and on both occasions I was heading to Lansdowne. This time I would pass by this lovely town and head on further towards Pauri. It was late spring and the colours of the season were reflected in the foliage. Once you cross the Lansdowne turn, the road becomes exceptionally empty. It is a good idea to stop your vehicle on a lonely stretch and stand there listening to the silence. The only sounds punctuation this deep silence are the occasional chirping of birds and the constant, mild crash of a dead leaf falling on a bed of other dead leaves.

Spring colours on the road to Lansdowne
Spring colours on the road to Lansdowne – Basically the same place, but different orientation
Dope at rest
At one of the turns after Lansdowne. You can notice the results of the oil leak on the silencer.
A lovely bend on the road and your bike to lean on…BLISS!
Lovely clear waters of a stream near Satpuli
And onwards to Pauri!

I had a quick lunch at a road-side restaurant and I used to time to consult the map. For those riding out there, it’s a good idea to avoid the TTK maps. Not only are they ambiguous and contain the very basic information, but also also hugely misleading. A section of the road between Pauri and Lansdowne, which has been closed for years, has been marked as a state highway. Your best bet for Uttaranchal is Nest and Wings. If N & W is unavailable, use Eicher maps (also happens to be my past employers).

Map errors notwithstanding, the roads between Lansdowne and Pauri were beautiful, broken in patches and wild. After Lansdowne, it was downhill all the way till Satpuliafter which the road starts rising again. Ironic as it may sound, I am somewhat scared of heights. It’s all good when the roads are wide, but when the roads are narrow (like on this stretch) and you can see (or not) the end of the gorge, my heart starts racing. It’s a pity that photographs can never tell you how scary the roads have been, because on the rougher stretches you are shitting bricks and hoping that you do not veer even two inches to the right. Taking a photograph is the last thing on your mind. After a couple of hours of white-knuckle riding, I found myself on the outskirts of Pauri. A quick glance at the watch confirmed that despite the time lost to the oil leak, I was well on schedule.

On the road to Pauri
On the road to Pauri

The road started to descend immediately after Pauri and in around 30 kms, it connected with the National Highway 58 at Srinagar. After riding on the single lane, a drop-and-you-are-dead road for the last 3-4 hours, the 58 was a welcome break. It was near perfect tarmac and it was WIDE! I could finally test the mods on Dope and boy, was I happy! The bike was pulling like a runaway freight-train and thanks to the roads I could take them corners at almost triple digit speeds and engage in some foot-peg scraping foreplay. But like all good things, all this fun soon came to an end as I reached Rudraprayag.

Approaching Srinagar, where i join the NH 58

In a previous post on Binsar, I talked about how much of my fascination to Uttarakhand was borne out of the works of the legendary Jim Corbett. No place is more memorable to Corbett fans than Rudraprayag, the once hunting ground of the eponymous man-eating leopard. Between 1918 and 1925, the beast killed at least 125 people in the area, most of them pilgrims on their way to Kedarnath or Badrinath. A plaque still stands at the spot where Corbett shot the leopard.

Spectacular views from NH58, just before Rudraprayag

The Rudraprayag of today is a far cry from what it would have been back in the days of Corbett. It is a pile of concrete, replete with hotels which are full of transiting pilgrims during the yatra season. I stopped at the main square for a quick chai and resumed my journey across the Mandakini on the road towards Ukhimath. It was around 4:30 pm and chances of reaching Saari looked pretty good.

Truth be told, I was rather tired at this point and the lack of sleep did not help either. Then things went from bad to worse. Just as I was about to enter Agastyamyni (19 kms from Rudraprayag), the blue back-drop of the spring sky was replaced by a threatening, dark grey cloud. The wind was picking up and the dust in the air made it almost impossible to ride beyond 10 kmph. But I labored on. Soon big fat drops began to fall from the sky – an ominous sign of things to come. Amazingly, the GMVN bungalow of Chandrapuri magically appeared at the very place where it started pouring. I put dope in the parking and secured a room for a princely sum of Rs 360. It was a spotlessly clean double room with a TV, geyser and enough space to play football!

Approaching Agastyamuni. The sky darkens!
Something’s gotta give

There was no electricity and I decided to sit by the window and write my journal while waiting for the generator to be switched on at 6. The rain had, by now, transformed itself into a howling storm. Upon enquiry, the hotel staff told me that it had been surprisingly hot the last few days and when that happens, Mother Nature sends a storm like this to cool things down. On the brighter side, I could now expect a sparkling morning. Yay!

Meanwhile, the morning after, I look out of my window and see this!

It was too much waiting for the lights to come on so that I could take a hot water bath. But I was super sleepy too. So I showered with ice-cold water to wash off the day’s dust and grime and dived under a pile of warm blankets. Sleep needed no further invitation.  I have only the minutest recollection of being woken up (the dining room was upstairs) when the dinner was served. I was woken up early in the morning by Anindita who had a little adventure of her own on a double-decker bus on the way to Shirdi from Mumbai. After making fun of her for a while, I got dressed and stepped out into a dazzling morning. The clouds had disappeared and in its place stood a huge, snowy massif on one side of which was the mighty Chaukhambha and on the other, Mount Sumeru. So this is what I came to see! Recharged, I wolfed down some breakfast, cleared my dues, strapped on the luggage and hit the road to Ukhimath.

View of Mandakini on the way to Ukhimath
Just before entering Ukhimath
Paddy

Around 20 kms from Chandrapuri, the road bifurcates at Kund.  The one on the left leads to Gaurikund (trailhead for Kedarnath) via Guptkashi while the one on the right, which I took, leads to Ukhimath. Till Kind, the road followed the course of the Mandakini and then it starts climbing towards Ukhimath. Thanks to yesterday’s shower, the air was clean and the landscape looked brand new. The serpentine road passed through little villages surrounded by terraced paddy fields. It was early but life in these villages was already buzzing. The kids were on the way to their school; the adults were either working their fields or manning their businesses, all the time being watched over by the mighty Himalayas.

Ukhimath

Okhimath, as it is also spelled, is a lovely little town, known for the ancient Omkareshwar Temple. During the winter months it is home to two of the five kedars – Kedarnath and Madmaheshwar. Luckily the two deities were still at the temple when I visited and I was lucky to have a darshan.

Omkareshwar Temple
Details from the temple

This brings me to the rather ambiguous issue of Religion. I am not a religious man in my day-to-day life, but when I am travelling it is a different story. I have often put it down to the dangers of the road. It is tough riding in India and you tend to fall back on the crutch that is religion. Often, while riding you come across a tiny roadside temple, like the millions of others that dot the Indian roads. If you would have passed by it in Delhi, you would hardly glance. But on the road it’s different. Almost instinctively your right hand first touches your forehead and then your chest and you lips quiver in a prayer or two.

A shop outside the temple at Ukhimath

Then there is nature! Lift a temple off the crowded streets and put it on a hill against the backdrop of the high Himalayas and it immediately commands respect. The Panch Kedars (Kedarnath, Tungnath Badrinath, Rudranath and Madmaheshwar), in this case, have been around for ages. People have walked up to them from the sweltering plains below for thousands of years. The architecture of the temples themselves reflects that very antiquity. So the combined effect of the mythology, the architecture and the picturesque setting results in a very religious yours truly.

Saari village, where I intended to reach yesterday is merely 12 kms from Ukhimath. I was actually glad that I did not make it to Saari last evening. Considering the overcast conditions and the hurry I would have been in, I would have missed out on the sights that I so enjoyed this morning. I was in no hurry at all. While I was researching for this trip on Indiamike.com, I came across Prashant, who like me, was planning to travel in the area. So we decided to meet up in Saari and then trek up to Deoriya Tal together. When I called him from Ukhimath, he was still 3-4 hours away. I could and did take my own sweet time.

The road from Ukhimath to Sari. The snowy peak on the right is Chandrashila
Looking back on the road travelled

The roads were amazing as usual and as after Ukhimath, villages are few and far between, the traffic too was sparse. So I stopped every 500 m or so, killed the engine and listened to the mountain sounds. By now Chandrashila (4000 m, which I plan to climb in course of this journey) with the sprinkling of snow near the top was visible.

Dope, with Chandrashila in the background
Life on the Edge

After around 10 kms, a road branches off left and leads to Sari (2-3 kms). Most of the people in Sari are involved in tourism. One of them, Mr Raghuveer Negi (Ph: 09690090515) was to be my host. I had contacted him from Delhi and he was to rent us camping equipment and guide us to Chopta, should we plan to trek there from Deoriya Tal. I reached Negi’s shop in the village and on finding out that Prashant was still 1.5 hours away, went off on a walk in the village.

The oldest part of the village can be reached by one of the many tiny paths that branch off the main road. There is a square of sorts, paved with stones, around which stand a handful of typically Garhwali houses. They are visibly more than a century old and the door jambs have ornate sculptures and a Ganesh on the lintel. Beyond the old village is a path through the rice paddies which takes you to the school, located on the end of a sheer cliff! At this time, I got a call from Prashant who was stranded on the Ukhimath Road as public transport from there was limited. So I drove down, picked him up and came back to Negi’s tea shop for a spot of lunch.

A house in Saari
The old part of Saari
Chandrashila in the distance
Another shot of Chandrashila from Saari

Prashant and I hit off immediately and very soon Negi too joined in on the banter. While we were having lunch the sky darkened and it started drizzling. Clouds meant that when we do get to the lake, we would not be able to enjoy the views the lake is so famous for. On the brighter side however, it was a full moon night and when the clouds do clear it would be as bright as a slightly dull day. So lots to look forward to!

Prashant and Negi

In an hour or so the rains started to hold and we started on the 3 km uphill trek to Deoriya Tal. The path is very well-marked and more often than not, paved. On a clear day even the most unfit hiker (read: me) can cover the distance in around one hour. We however had to stop on several occasions due to rains and by the time we reached the top, we had taken more than an hour and a half. Even when you reach the top, you don’t see the lake right away. But once you are clear of the thicket, the lake unfolds and proceeds to take your breath away. Like I said, it was cloudy and the peaks were hidden but still the setting makes you stop dead on your tracks.

On the trek to Deoriya Tal and we leave Saari behind
An old temple in Saari. Love the fogged out valley in the distance
Errrr… speak softly and carry a big stick, i guess!
A little further up
Interesting rock
Dark and gloomy and Chandrashila
The last few steps to the top
And at long last…Deoriya Tal

The sun was just about to go down when we reached the banks of the lake. So without further ado, we decided to walk around the lake before it gets dark completely. At this moment let me tell you, the lake is much, much larger than it looks. A paved pathway runs along the banks of the lake and in the falling evening light, it had the air of mystery about it, especially the bit that goes through the woods.

Fallen Rhododendron
More fallen Rhododendron
Evening mountainscape
Slightly shaken, but love this pic!
Blossoms of spring – Rhododendron and Apple
Deoriya Taal – looking at the camps in the distance. The tiny yellow one on the extreme left was mine!

By this time Prashant and I had bonded even more  and we indulged ourselves in some random tomfoolery. But the tomfoolery was cut short by hunger pangs and we made our way back to Negi’s dhaba. Apart from Negi, two other villagers also run their dhabas at the lake and are open throughout the year. If you contact them beforehand they will set up camp for you and arrange for food as well. If you are on a budget, you can even crash in the dhabas, but I would suggest you get your own sleeping bag.

Prashant serenading the apple tree
Me showing him how it’s done

Not only had Negi found the most beautiful spot for us to camp, he had also arranged for some alcohol, all the way from Ukhimath. Now that the sun was down, the temperature started plummeting and the alcohol was much welcome. So a fire was lit, drinks were made and for hours afterwards, stories were exchanged.

My secluded camp

As we were lifting our spirits, so to speak, the sky cleared and the glorious full moon appeared. With every passing minute it was getting brighter and soon we saw what we had read about so many times on the blogs of travellers who had visited here – the spectacular 300 degree view of the Chaukhambha Massif with Nilkantha, Bandarpunch, Kedar range, Yellow Tooth and Kalanag.

By 9pm, the moonlight was bright enough to cast sharp shadows and one could even see Nanda Devi in the distance. We moved back to the dhaba for some dinner and here Prashant decided that he was too full (drunk, really) to go back to the tent and promptly slid in a sleeping bag and fell asleep.

Like I said before, the camera I was carrying is unfamiliar and unlike Nikons, the interface of Canons is always more complicated – a stumbling block for a tech Neanderthal like yours truly. So after wrestling with the settings for about half an hour, I managed to set the aperture and shutter speed to the numbers I was looking for and went in search for a tripod, or something that could act like one. A plastic chair was at hand and for the moment, it would have to do.

Chaukhambha in moonlight
A mere 10 sec exposure in the middle of the night
Couldn’t really resist!

By midnight, I was pretty much the only person on the campsite that was up and about. After all, how can you possibly fall asleep when there is so much beauty around you? The heady mix of unadulterated nature and adulterated alcohol did a number in my head and I sat watching the moon-shadows change place for hours. After all, you never know when you will be back here again. Sometimes, quite surprisingly, sleep becomes your worst enemy.

One last peek before i zip up for the night

P.S: I continue this questionable adventure of mine in the next post. Watch out for more snowy peaks, bad hair and breached whales! Will be back within a week. Promise!

Bird it Like Bharatpur


This post was long overdue. I was travelling a lot in the early part of the year. A family engagement took me to Kolkata, from where i branched off into rural Bengal. That was January. In February came one long trip across a hitherto unexplored swathe of Madhya Pradesh. Later, in March i found myself in Uttarakhand. In the middle of all these long travels, one weekend, me and my friend Imroz Adeeb visited the Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur over the weekend.

Being a history nerd, i could not resist the nearby Deeg, so we modified our route a bit. We followed the National Highway 2 to Mathura from where we turned right towards Govardhan and eventually to Deeg. After driving on the flawless but boring tarmac of the NH, the tiny, bumpy roads seemed like heaven-sent.

Route

But if you are driving on this road, don’t get too excited by the spreading mustard fields and the quaint hamlets around you. There are many unmarked speed breakers on this stretch and if you are not paying attention,   they might break your vehicles and you even. Although we went to Deeg first, I am going to move ahead and talk about Bharatpur. Deeg I will post later.

Somewhere on the road to Mathura
Dope gets a break

The area around Mathura is generally referred to as Braj bhoomi, or the ‘land of Krishna’. Mythologically speaking, this is where Krishna grew up and did all those things we remember him for (steal butter, steal clothes of bathing beauties, herd cows and lift a chariot wheel, among others). So, every now and then, the tiny road weaves through a tiny town, dominated by an oversized and multi-coloured temple.

We had left home quite early in the morning and as a result, reached Deeg before 10 am. We idled around the palace complex for a couple of hours before heading towards Bharatpur. Just as the dusty little town came into sight – DISASTER! The clutch cable broke off while I was doing about 100 kph. I somehow managed to bring down the speed to around 40 kph. I knew that if the bike stopped, we would have to push it for around 5 kms, so I downshifted somehow and continued towards the town. Asked a couple of passing motorcyclists about the location of a good bullet mechanic and as it turns out, one of them were on our way! I also had a spare cable with me, which was fortunate because finding a spare would be like searching for a needle in a dusty, crowded town!

Morning mist

We had initially planned to foray into the park for a little while in the afternoon and spend more time again the next morning. However, the clutch wire episode ensured that by the time we got into the hotel, it was already dark. For those who have not been to Bharatpur, the Park lies south of the National Highway 11 that connects Agra with Jaipur. As we had been to Deeg, we approached the town from the north, negotiated the endless crowded lanes and reached the southern part of the town where all the hotels are located within 500 m of the park’s entrance.

There are three ways of exploring the park – on a rickshaw, on a bicycle and on foot. We tried to hire a bike, but none of them were free. So we turned to the rickshaw, which in retrospect was a good idea. The rickshaw pullers are authorised guides and are pretty fluent in English. Our guide – Hardev Singh –  even surprised us by quoting Salim Ali and throwing at us almost unpronounceable  scientific names of birds.

Beams of light.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is largely man-made. It was developed in 1899 by Prince Harbhanji of Morvi in Gujarat as a duck hunting reserve.  He constructed bunds and dykes all around the saucer-shaped depression in the outskirts of Bharatpur and increased its water holding capacity. It remained a notified forest for years before being granted the status of a National Park in  1981. In 1985 it was designated by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.  It sprawls over an area of 29 sq kms.

Prime habitat

The park is a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetland. This diverse habitat is home to 375 species of avifauna. In addition to this, it also has 372 species of plants, 34 species of mammals and 14 species of snakes.  Right as you enter the gate, on both sides of the road are open grasslands and patches of bush. Around a kilometer from the gate, on both sides of the road, the swamps begin. The water is covered with red and green algae which is the main food for many of the birds as well as the park’s large deer population. Apart from being the foundation of the food chain, the multicoloured algae is spectacular to look at. Certain closed swamps, where the algae is cultured and eventually distributed across the park, look almost dreamlike.

The road ends near a temple and right in front of you in the large, main swamp of Bharatpur. Little mud islands, covered with birds, both endemic and migratory dot the swamp.

Bharatpur Habitat
Bharatpur Habitat
Bharatpur Habitat
Window!
Bharatpur Habitat
Bharatpur Habitat
Closeup of the algae

If you are a budding bird-lover like me, the best time to visit the park is from November to February when you can see a large number of migratory birds. The park, however is open throughout the year and continues to attract serious ornithologists who come here to study the endemic species.

Painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) are the most visible birds in the sanctuary. This is not only because of their large numbers and large size, but also due to the fact that they make a tremendous racket. As the name suggests, the adult birds are quite colorful. The youngsters, on the other hand are a dull shade of grey and start putting on colour when they are about four months old.

Adult Painted Stork
Painted Stork in flight!
Painted Stork in flight!
Painted Stork in flight!
A colony of juvenile Painted Storks

Another bird we saw a lot of was the Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis). I grew up in rural Bengal where this bird, locally called neelkanth (blue-throat, a reference to its obvious colouration), is a common sight. Its only after i saw  it here, after so many years that i realised how beautiful it actually is. One i sighted on a low branch slightly off the main track. I successfully managed to tread the distance without disturbing the bird and captured a few shots.

Indian roller
Indian Roller – another angle
Indian Roller in flight
Drying the morning dew from its wings!

Being a marsh, there is an obvious abundance of kingfishers – particularly the Halcyon smyrnensis or the white breasted kingfisher. These birds appeared to be surprisingly bold and remained still even when i was barely an arm’s length away.  These brilliantly coloured birds are quick and one of the world’s most efficient hunters.

White breasted kingfisher
A juvenile
Hunter in the reeds

Of the many species of egrets, we saw three – Great egret, intermediate egret and the little egret.  The difference in these three are, as the names suggest, mainly in terms of size. But frankly i might have seen more but failed to identify as many of the egret sub-species vary very little in appearance and can be said apart only by the most expert ornithologist.

Little egret
Intermediate egret, landing on a mud island
Great egret
Great egret

Related to the egrets and herons is the ibis. Of the many varieties found worldwide, Bharatpur is home to two – Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and the black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus). Of the two we just saw the latter, and that too in large number. However although they were obviously many, all of them were concentrated on the farthest corner of the main marsh. Ibises have a beak that is curved forwards which helps it sift through the mud for small crustaceans.

A black-headed ibis with a coot in the background
Another stalks the reeds
Caught in the act
Ibis family

Also in the central marsh we saw two other beautiful water-birds. The first was the wooly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus). They are found across the globe fro m the grasslands of Africa to India and as far east as Indonesia. In spite of the vast geographic field and their ‘least Concern’ status in the IUCN list, we saw just one bird.

The other was the bar-headed geese  (Anser indicus) which migrate here every winters from the distant Siberia. There were a huge flock of these at the marshes but for some reason they never really took flight. As a result the desire to capture the image of a huge flock of birds in flight has to date remained  a fantasy. Interestingly, they are thought to be the highest flying birds in the world. Tagged individuals have been noted to have flown over Mt Makalu (8,841 m), the fifth highest mountain in the world.

Wooly-necked stork resting on a branch
Wooly-necked stork in flight!
Bar-headed geese roosting about
Bar-headed geese in flight

Apart from the main, circular swamp, the little marshes on the die of the main road also hold a huge population of birds, mainly painted storks, spoonbills  (Platalea leucorodia), grey herons (Ardea cinerea), cormorants (little and great), darters (Anhinga melanogaster ), etc. The waters are rich in algae and crustaceans and can support a large number of birds and the occasional nilgai and sambar.

The rich marshes
Roosting painted storks
More roosting painted storks
A grey heron stands guard
A lonely spoonbill
A darter dries its wings, waiting for the next dive
Now do you see why darters are also called snake-birds?
The beautiful colours!
Turtles!

Apart from the obvious water-birds, two other sightings record special mention. The first is the spotted owlet (Athene brama), and like the Indian Roller, i had seen a lot of these growing up in the village. It was nice to see them again.

Two of a kind!
Obscured by branches
And a clearer view!

Then there was the nightjar, which definitely was one of the highlights of the trip. Credit here goes totally to our guide who spotted it out of nowhere. These nocturnal birds rest during the daytime and often on the ground. It was so well camouflaged against the foliage that it actually took us some time to see the actual bird even though it was only a few feet from us. The particular species is not clear. Maybe the pros out there can help. Looks like it is a large-tailed nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)

Eyes as black as the night!
Clearer view

Other birds:

Please help me identify this one..
a common parakeet flies past a Rufous-tailed Shrike (Lanius isabellinus)
A yellow-legged green pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera)

I know the park is famous for its feathered residents, it also has a significant number of mammals as well and we did get to see some. One of the first animals we saw upon entering the park was a jackal  (Canis aureus). We kept getting glimpses of this slippery customer throughout the park.

Calling out to its mates
Feasting on a leopard kill!

Nilgais  (Boselaphus tragocamelus) are a common sight in Delhi and its outskirts and so it was not a big surprise to see it Bharatpur. But still, hand on heart, i’d rather see a pack of nilgais in the wild than a tiger in a cage.

Face-to-face with a female Nilgai
Another female basks in the morning sun
And the male waits a little distance away
Did come across some dead ones as well

We saw surprisingly little of the cheetals (Axis axis). Early in our trip, we noticed a Crested Serpent Eagle in the distance and decided to go towards it, and on the way, we were surprised by a herd of them (they also surprised the bird, who immediately took to the skies).

The herd!
Closer

In the middle of a forest, just before the main swamp is a shiva temple which gave Keoladeo Ghana National Park its name. Here, in a fenced off enclosure is a tiny canteen where one can buy chips, snacks and water. here we came across some super friendly squirrels who would eat the chips right off our hands.

The pretty little clearing… a nice place to rest a little
Would he bite the hand that feeds?
Imroz tries to lure one. Our guide couldn’t be bothered!
He was a good guide, though!

My most interesting encounter, however, was with a pack of wild boar. I was walking off the trail in knee-high grass when i was alerted by the sounds of grunting. I immediately turned to face a pack of wild boars which comprised on a few juveniles and the mother. All the wild boars we had seen so far were small and this was no exception, so i decided to take it lightly. When i moved ever so little, just to raise my camera to take a photograph, the mother charged. Fortunately for me, it was just a half charge, meant to scare me off and trust me, it had the desired effect. No matter what the size of the wild animal, never, even un-intentionally threaten the kids!

Warning! Wild boar crossing!
The standoff!

Another sight, and this time pretty, was a pack of Sambar (Rusa unicolor) grazing ion the marshes, feeding on the algae. We were just a few paces away and the animals were thankfully unmindful of us. The colours of the water and the grace of the animals made for a fantastic sight.

The sambar of Bharatpur
A female sambar
The leader of the pack keeps a close eye on possible threats!

It had been a good trip, and with the exception of the pythons (which, being February, must have been hibernating) and the sarys crane, we had seen almost all the birds and beasts we had come to see, and then some. What i enjoyed the most was that one could simply walk on the paths and spot wildlife. Sometimes its good not to have a tiger around! I am writing this almost a year after i went there, and already in my mind, i am planning a return. Can anyone lend me a telephoto (Nikon mount) for a weekend?

Leaving you with these two images:

Bharatpur tracks
Waiting to walk these roads!

Binsar the Beautiful


I left home with a tankful of petrol, Rs 3000 in my pocket and nothing in my bank account. Does not speak volumes of my financial acumen, but hey, i get by. This was the i’m-in-between-jobs-ride and i had nothing better to do in Delhi. So i thought that a ride would be the best way to spend the last of my cash. So i rode. It was one of the occasions when i did what i do best – travel alone.

I have made countless trips, visited many places known, unknown and little known, but even after all the travelling i have never been able to sleep the night before. The excitement of the impending trip is enough to keep me up all night and this time was no different. I hit the bed looking for some shut eye and it was a long time later that obdurate sleep did come. When i woke up, the watch told me that it was 4:22 AM. Shit! As per my original plan, i am already an hour late.

The problem was Moradabad. The previous day, there were some communal clashes and a curfew had been imposed on the city and some surrounding villages. I have never travelled in this route before and i did not know how close the highway went to the affected areas. So the idea was to cross it before sunrise. And now i have through pass through violent rioters in full daylight. Awesome!

Anyway, coming back to my leaving home with a tankful of gas and a handful of money… I had been in touch with a certain Sundar Singh, whose number (09410590980) i found on a very helpful site on travel in India. The post said that he arranges for homestays in the villages in Binsar and also acts as a guide in longer treks. A  quick check on the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) revealed that Sundar was giving me a room in his village for half the price of the cheapest room in the KMVN Rest House and the price included all meals. I was sold!  Also, the village was supposed to be in the middle of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary!

The first roadblock on the way was the bridge over the Ganga at Garhmukteshwar. The ancient two lane bridge was fed on both sides by four lane highways and it created one hell of a bottleneck. In spite of the fact that i reached Garhmukteshwar by 6 AM, it took me over 45 minutes to negotiate the nightmare. There are two ways to get to Binsar, and while going, i took the Moradabad – Bazpur – Kaladhungi – Nainatal – Almora route.

Route

Barring the bottleneck at Garhmukteshwar, the road from Delhi to Modarabad is pretty good. Just before entering Moradabad, it is recommended that you get on to the Moradabad By Pass road. You will pass a couple of toll plazas and at the end of the bypass, you take a left (feels more like a U-turn) and ride on heavily potholed roads till Kaladhungi. After that, it was a different business. The Corbett National Park was making its presence felt and through it ran a black ribbon of a road.

Immediately after Kaladhungi
Patchwork on the road. Signs of Corbett all around!

Right after Bazpur, i could see the mountains and with every passing kilomete, they grew closer and closer till suddenly i was halfway up one. In front of me lay the expanse of the plains and the green carpet of Corbett, which i had just skirted. It was bang in the middle of monsoons so the greenery was unbelievable.

Finally, the hills!
Here i come, you sexy twisty road 😀

The roads were practically empty and the tarmac was perfect. I was a bit apprehensive about riding hard as my rear rubbers were almost without any tread. But the thing with roads like these is that once you start the cornering, you forget everything else… the lean rules your world. Thankfully all went well. Very soon i was within 40 kms of Nainital and i decided to take a break after riding non-stop for around 240 kms.

Road to Heaven
Glee!

As i said earlier, the route i took was less frequented by the touristy lot, who preferred to come to Nainital via Bheemtal and Bhowali. The ride was fantastic and since this was my first time in Kumaon, the greenery was refreshing. The mountains were spectacular and the gain in altitude was perceptible. Khurpatal appeared suddenly to my right reminding me that i was in the Lake District.

Mist-topped
Khurpatal!
I don’t need to go to no Switzerland

Very soon, the otherwise empty roads showed signs of automotive presence. Nainital was close and it welcomed me with a massive traffic jam. Once the jam cleared, i took the Mall Road by the side of the Naini Lake and i must admit, for a touristy place, it was very nice. Like Darjeeling, where i practically grew up, Nainital had a charm of its own. I wouldn’t mind coming here for a relaxed weekend if the company was right.

Nainital

When you drive through the Mall Road, the Lake is to your right. From the intersection where the lake ends, you have to take a left for Almora and eventually, Binsar. Road conditions, barring landslides is generally good and even if you are driving lazily, you should reach Binsar within three hours.

From Nainital, Kosi shows you the way to Almora
Clad in green
Amazing drive!

Around 30 kms from Nainital, at Garampani the road splits into two. The one heading heft across the bridge on the Kosi, leads to Ranikhet while the one going straight leads to Almora and eventually, Binsar. You can also reach Binsar via Ranikhet and Jageshwar. This route, although much longer is more often than not, in a slightly better shape (this i heard, no first-hand experience though)

My first knowledge of Almora was imparted through the Jim Corbett stories. As a kid i was fascinated by the man and how he trudged through the mountains and waited all nights on the branches of trees for the elusive man-eating tigers. There was a sense of foreboding. With the years of images superimposed on my mind, i almost did not expect Almora to have any resemblance to a modern town. I was thinking more in terms of pack-mules, muzzle-loaders, khakis, sola topees and mem sahibs. Sigh!

Almora’s sole soccer ground!
The town and its strange light
Another view of Almora Town

Once you reach Almora, Binsar isn’t far away – a mere 30 kms. Since Almora is the last big town on this road, the traffic too gets even thinner and you start enjoying the drive even more.  Roughly halfway between Almora and Binsar is Deenapani which has a KMVN Guest House and many smaller private cottages. If you do not find accommodation in Binsar, Deenapani is your best bet.

Somewhere close to Binsar
Man’s best friend. Dope takes a well-deserved breather

Interestingly, not many people know that Binsar is not a place / village / town per se. It is the name of the wildlife sanctuary that was once contiguous to the Corbett forest belt. The sanctuary in turn owes its name to the 9th-10th century Shiva temple that can still be seen today. The manifestation of Shiva worshipped in the temple was called Bineshwar, a name which the Brits later corrupted to Binsar. Today the temple is called Binsar Mahadev.

The entry to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is on the Almora-Jageshwar road (State Highway 37). You need to register your vehicle at the gate and pay the dues. You can only enter or leave between 6am and 5 pm and once you enter, preserve your ticket and the receipt as it is valid for three days and during this time you can enter and exit multiple times.

Entry to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary

From here, a narrow road branches off and snakes its way up the mountains all the way to the Travellers’ Rest House (11 km). The Binsar Mahadev Temple sits at the end of a small meadow 7 kms from the entry gate, by the side of the road. Sundar Singh had been guiding me on the phone all the way and i was supposed to meet up with him at the TRH and then proceed to his village, 4-5 kms in the forest. Since this road is access controlled, the staff of the TRH as well as the forest officials have a hard time getting any transport. So when one of the forest guards asked if he could hitch a ride with me, i obliged. If someone approaches you for a lift, please do.

Clear skies… no pollution…
Binsar roads
Somewhere close to the TRH

At the TRH, i was welcomed by Sundar Singh, who turned out to be a strapping young fellow and not a middle aged man like i thought he would be. He is an expert trekker and guides amateur trekkers to Roopkund, Milam, Sundardhunga, etc. It was also revealed that i would actually be staying at his house in his village.  Before the trek to his village, i wanted to relax for a bit and so i went to the terrace of the rest house, famed for its view of the snow capped Himalayan peaks. Unfortunately, as it was the middle of the monsoons, the clouds had covered almost all of the peaks. So much for the view!

What i did see, however was a cluster of a few houses, deep in the valley below surrounded by a sea of green. Sundar Singh pointed to one of the houses as his! I was looking at my destination and i was thrilled.

Peak peeks!
Peak peeks – II
Looking towards Nepal
My destination. One of the houses you see here is where i spend the next two days

I used this break to down one entire pot of sweet milk tea. I needed all the energy for the trek even though all of it was downhill. Immediately after leaving the TRH the trail plunged into some of the deepest forest. It was drizzling and everything was wet and glistening. At certain places the forest was so thick that it was almost dark.

As the trek started…
Forest walk
Dead and red
Sundar Singh leads the way
Forest walk
Dark and wet and beautiful!
And the occasional clearing in the forest
The road leads on…
Nature’s carpet

The downhill trek did not take much time and within 40 minutes, the village was in sight. It was called Gaunap and was more like a cluster of 10-12 houses on a slope arranged neatly around terraced fields. In all, the village was home to not more than 50 people. This is as remote and quaint as could be. I was already loving it. Sundar Singh turned out to be as much of a talker as i am and very soon i learned that the nearest town is Dhaulchina, 10 kms away. The kids go to school there, walking for 20 kms everyday.  On their way back sometimes they carry groceries and other supplies often weighing as much as 10-15 kilos.

Gaunap in sight!
My home for the next two days
And my little grumpy neighbour
And thus ends the day

Like most other villages in the forest, Gaunap has no electricity.. forget about running water. The government has given each house a solar panel to recharge some batteries so that they can at least run a few bulbs. In Sundar Singh’s house, he has done up four rooms which he lets out to travellers like me. The food is cooked by his mother and other than the rice, everything else comes from the family’s fields.  If you were to follow on my footsteps and find yourself in the dining room of Sundar Sing’s house, do not forget to ask for the desi ghee. Just add half a teaspoon to your dish and enjoy the heavenly taste!

You stay there as a part of the family. So if you can help these people with their work. I for one, was so excited on seeing a rajma tree for the first time that i immediately proceeded to harvest two of them. I was later told politely that the second plant was not ready to be harvested as yet.

Dinner-time
After dinner sky!
After dinner sky -II

It had been a long day. Began with a long ride, then was followed by a long walk and all i needed now was a long sleep. People do not lock their doors here, and i am glad that neither did i. I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the loo and realised that i could not see anything. A minute later i figured out that the clouds that were coming from the valley below had entered the room through the open door. So i slept , for the rest of the night in a room full of cloud!

Morning came in the form of Sunder Singh’s brother Mahesh bringing me a whole pot of some amazing herbal tea. I went to the balcony outside my room and finished the gallon of tea over the next hour and half while looking at the clouds moving around in the valley in front of me. Even the herbal tea was made from plants in the family’s garden.

View from my balcony. Good morning, folks!
Cloud-play

After i was well tea-d and well fed, Mahesh and i went out to survey the nearby mountains. Both days we spent hours walking across mountains and resting on rocks by the many streams. In the afternoons, i would have another gallon of tea, spend some time in the family’s fields undoing much of their hard work and then come back to my room and write reviews of the international edition of the India travel guide by candle-light.

Mahesh Singh replaces Sunder Singh
I’ll follow you into the mist..
.. and the mist is gone!
So what if there are no trails.. just scramble up!
The snow clad pics are still hidden by clouds
An old Shiva Temple near the village

The walks were purely aimless. Mahesh knew the hills like the back of his hand so i could go anywhere i liked. We spotted some exotic bird species, some mountain goats and once from a great distance, a leopard. The forest around the village was composed mainly of tall pines and the ground was covered with pine needles. The rains had washed them clean and the red needles lay in fine contrast to the bright green of the freshly sprouted grass. Sometimes it would rain, then in a matter of minutes the sun would come out. Often, the clouds would come rushing in and i would lose sight of Mahesh. So i would wait where i stood and shout at the top of my lungs like a little girl until Mahesh found me.

On a more serious note, if you are ever trekking in these hills, especially in the hills, be careful of something the locals call bicchoo ghas (stinging grass). Although it is technically not a member of the grass family, the first part of its name is true. Even the slightest touch to exposed skin feels as if a red hot needle has been pushed in. I learned the hard way, so you just stay the hell out!

Looking at somebody’s village. A patch of green in a larger sea of green
Clouds above me… clouds below me..
Discarded pine needles and the emerging juvenile grass
Walking on pine needles, all day long

On our walks, we would never carry water because we knew that we would encounter a gadhera (a mountain stream in Kumaoni language) every 200 m where we could quench our thirst. It was also fun to wade into the almost waist deep pools and try to catch the little fished that swam around in then in lightning fast speeds. Many of these gadheras mergee further down to give rise to larger streams, locally known as gadh (rhymes with ‘bar’).

Eden-esque
Another one
I had to wade through knee deep, ice-cold water to get there for the shot!
A stream’s eye view
Mahesh, my best pal in Binsar

The night before i was supposed to leave for Delhi, the heavens opened up. It rained the entire night but held for a moment in the morning. Mahesh needed to get back to Almora where he studies in the high school and i was more than happy to give him a ride. So, the moment we left the village the rains came back and in spite of the rain gear, i got drenched in a matter of minutes. On top of that was the trek back to the TRH which was now uphill the whole way. Eventually after much huffing and puffing i managed to reach the TRH and by the time i left from there it was already 8 AM. That evening, i reached home  at 8:30 and it had been raining the whole way. This time, from Almora i went straight to Bhowali and from there i passed through Bheemtal, Haldwani, Kathgodam and Rudrapur and joined the Delhi highway at Modadabad.

Return Route

The greenish blue Kosi river that you had seen earlier in the post was unrecognisable. The muddy waters roared and frothed and fumed while from the mountains above me fell a steady stream of rocks and loose earth. I had to get out of there before there was a major landslide as I was to begin my big new job the very next day. So i drove 400 kms in pouring rain. In the process, i lost my glasses, ruined my mobile phone and spoiled the  magnetic strip of my debit card. Still, no regrets because i knew that while i was hating it that very moment, in the future (which is now) it will be another experience to share with you.

I have not yet decided what the next post is going to be. This new job takes up too much of my time, but i would love to get back to my dearest Madhya Pradesh.

So long then…

Fatboy in green hills!

Oh and i still had Rs 270 left!

Summer Backbreaker ride – Day III


Sorry for the cliffhanger (literally!) at the end of the last post, folks! We arrived back in Delhi in one piece, but the same could not be said about Dope, my bike. As I already said in the last post, the seat cover was ripped open by monkeys from hell and this time it was the turn of the crash guard.  Call it carelessness on my part or the ruggedness of the terrain, or the rust that had colonised the once chromed-out guard, the thing was past its prime. I had thought of replacing it when the bike would be serviced next after the ride, but clearly i overestimated its life. So one fine evening as I was riding from Rohru towards Narkanda, I heard a metallic ‘clang’ and looked back to see one half of my crash-guard rolling downhill. Leave something behind, as they say!

Good morning! 😀

The previous night I had ensured a miserable morning by consuming way too much semi-country liquor in the form of  ‘Officer’s Choice Premium Whiskey’. I woke up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth and a drum-line in my head. Damn! Its going to be worse in the morning, and it was. I am sure I don’t need to explain a hangover to you good people, but this situation was a bit unique. I had to ride on some of the worst hill roads with this. As we left the city and the potholes started appearing, I reduced my pace. Even then every jerk, every stone on which the tires passed was magnified 10 times in my head. Nightmare!

A typical Himachal village, with the temple in the centre!

After 20 kms of driving, even the cool morning air was no match against the throbbing headache. So we decided to stop at a village on the way for some food. The shops were just opening, and we helped ourselves to some tea and bun-omelettes. While we were waiting for our food to arrive, we noticed villagers sitting by the side of the road, waiting for their vehicles (bus / shared jeeps) to arrive and take them to their respective destinations.  I had seen this all along our current journey and on the previous ride on the hills. These people wait patiently for hours at times and, always with a smile on their faces.

When the wait is over and the inevitably overcrowded vehicle arrives, people immediately make seats for the new passengers and their luggage. Kids sit on the laps of total strangers and if someone opens a box of food, it is usually passed on among all the occupants of the car. We city-folk are impatient and always craving the ‘space’ that we all love. Sometimes I feel, that I must dump the bike and make at least one trip to the hills travelling like the locals do. Maybe then I will discover the secrets behind their happiness.

Waiting for the ride

Anyway, moving on to my unhappiness, my massive hangover refused to abate even after a full breakfast, do I decided to ignore it (try to at least) and move ahead. I was riding a bit ahead of Sumantra and after about 18 kms from our breakfast stop, I stopped at the fort on the road at the village of Sungar where the road forks in two. The one on the right leads to Rampur, 62 kms away and the other to our destination, Narkanda, 40 kms away.

While I waited on the crossroads for Sumantra to arrive, I got a phone call instead. He had broken his clutch wire and was stranded by the road. I took a U-turn and headed back and found that he was barely 4 kms behind me. We were carrying spares, but not a set of pliers that you need to fix the cable. So off I went to the nearby village and the helpful folk lent me one. Sumantra’s bike is new and has the new UCE engine. Unlike my bike, you dont need to open the gearbox to attach one end of the cable. You just need to connect it to a lever of sorts that sticks out of the integrated gearbox-cum-crank case. It sounds simple, but in reality, we were stumped.. After going at it for like half an hour, tired and embarrassed, we decided to roll back towards Rohru.

Fortunately for Sumantra, around 95% of the road towards Rohru was downhill so he could just roll down. While he proceeded towards Rohru, I went back to th village to return the set of borrowed pliers. We reached town in under an hour, all thanks to Mr Gravity and began searching for a mechanic. We did find motorcycle mechanics, but none would touch a Bullet. So I asked Sumantra to wait by the road while I went ahead, found a mechanic and brought him back to where he was waiting. Bike fixed, we then stopped for a quick bite and left Rohru for Narkanda for the second time in the same morning.

Towards Narkanda

The 40 kms from Sungar to Narkanda was by far the worst roads we had come across during the entire trip, and that’s saying something. It actually took us more than 2.5 hours to cover the stretch and we barely stopped for photographs.

Stoned!
Check out the surface… and this was the ‘good’ stretch
Butt-break!
Switchbacks

All along the way, re rarely encountered any traffic and except for tiny 10-house hamlets, there has no habitation. The first town on this route was Baghi, from where Narkanda was another 15 kms. Except for the stretch in the town, the roads continued to be bad, but there was a drastic change in scenery. The Pine forests were back, and oh how I love them!

Pine-d
Yes, my roommate is a Blackberry addict!
The final few miles to Narkanda

Very soon our trials came to an end as we joined the National Highway 22 for the last few kms towards Narkanda. I had a booking at a hotel here but i was interested in getting accommodation at the Circuit House here. This is the thing about government properties.. they are usually in the best places and more often than not are housed in colonial properties. So just before entering the town, we took the road leading off left towards the Circuit House. We found the manager and as usual he went off on the you-need-permission-to-stay-here rant. The thing is, you actually need permission to stay here from the District Collectorate, but if rooms are empty, you can usually coax the manager to spare you one. And that’s exactly what happened.

Narkanda Circuit House

The old building had been modernised rather tastefully, although I wouldn’t mind if they would have preserved the original projecting balconies. The smartest thing here is that most of the appliances like the water heaters, corridor and lawn lights, etc run on solar power.

Lounge area just outside our room
The room itself. Notice the curious room heater on the left. Dint get to use it though!

One of the main attractions of Narkanda is the temple  to goddess Hatu, on top of a peak with the same name. A small road, branching off the NH 22 takes you to the peak. In the span of a mere six kms, this road takes you from a height of 2300 m to 3400 m.

Hatu Peak, as viewed from the lawn of the Circuit House

Sumantra was feeling tired after the ordeals of the day and decided to stay back and relax in the room while I went off exploring Hatu peak. Right after the point when the road branches off from the highway, the steep climb begins. Thankfully, the entire road to the top, although very narrow, was metalled.  I had left my luggage at the circuit house and being significantly lighter, had no problems negotiating the steep climbs and the hair-pin curves.

The road to Hatu branches off from NH 22
On the way to Hatu
On the way to Hatu
On the way to Hatu
On the way to Hatu

After around 20 mins of enjoyable climbing up this steep road, I finally reached the top. It was in the dying lights of the day, and most of the tourists for the day had descended, leaving behind piles of rubbish. It’s very sad when you see that even educated people today totally devoid of respect for the nature. It completely beats me how one can litter in a place as beautiful as this.

Angst aside, the temple did disappoint me. It was a new structure and though the woodwork panels might seem appealing to some, for people who have seen older temples in Himachal and Uttaranchal, this is quite mediocre. I would, however be glad to spend a night at the tiny, one-room PWD rest house here at the peak.

A night here, what say?
Bullet in the blue sky! I Love this goddamn machine. Love it to death!
From the bird’s-eye

I was a bit apprehensive of the setting sun and after like half an hour on the peak, I slowly started to make my way down. Now it must be said here that I am severely scared of heights. In fact, I travel to the hills so that someday I will be able to get rid of it. So while climbing was not an issue, but going downhill was. I could literally feel the heart thumping in my chest, louder than the exhaust note on the silencer. This was not the fear that later translates into a rush. This was pure, unmitigated terror. I remember finally, after what seemed like years, when I reached the NH 22, I realised that my mouth was totally dry. I wasn’t so scared even when I was descending down the Rohtang Pass on a road covered by a layer of 8-inch thick sludge.

My constant fear was the rear wheel locking or me going off the edge after miscalculating the turn on a hair-pin. So I stopped regularly when there was the rare flat yard or two, and honked frantically around the corners.

On the way down
Village down below!

I finally reached the room when it had just started to get dark. A refreshing hot bath later, i was happily tucked in the blankets.

The next day would be, and was tough. We had to cover around 500 kms to reach Delhi. On top of that the we would not have the comfort of the cool mountains. The next morning, we started from Narkanda by 7:30 AM and hit the plains at Kalka at 12:30 pm. From there on it was a drive through the scorching NH1 all the way to Delhi. It was almost 45 degrees in the open and the air hit you like a blast from the furnace. We had to stop every 30-40 kms to hydrate. You could actually feel the sun sucking out all the moisture from your body.  We finally managed to reach home at 8:30 pm, dirty, dusty and severely dehydrated.

And now for the best part. While descending from Narkanda to Delhi, i got a fuel economy of 42 kmpl on the Machismo 500. That too when we were going at a constant 80 kmph in the heat. Eat dirt, Jap-crap!

Memories of the distant hills!

In the next post, we travel from Himachal up north to Madhya Pradesh at the very heart of India and explore two small towns with two very distinct vibes, both on the banks of the Holy Narmada!

Come with me as I receive enlightenment and a nice oil massage by the river!

So long, friends…

Chandrataal: The Real Adventure


Well, I am back with this post earlier than anticipated, but trust me there is nothing like a bunch of people telling you that they liked your blog and they were waiting for more. One more thing, the thing i mentioned in the previous post – the personal tragedy – well, i shall not talk about it after all. The more you talk about it, the more it pinches you and also i dont want to bother you guys with the sob story. So, only good vibes from here!

So where was I? Yes. Thanks to Rohtang we reached Batal just before sundown. It was weird though, how the darkness descended so abruptly. One moment there was light and the other moment – darkness. After stripping off the luggage from the bikes, there was the customary cleaning of spark plugs and the tightening of chains. Wolf actually went a bit further; he disassembled his carbaurator in order to increase the air and fuel intakes. While it was a bright idea, a bit of cold sweat did appear when after attachinig the re-tuned carbaurator, the bike refused start. But you know the thing with those old cast iron bullets…there is nothing a good, hearty kick or twenty wont fix.

It was also decided that we would have to modify our initial plan a bit as going back to Manali would take as much time, if not more. So the idea of camping overnight by the lake went for a toss and we decided to make it a day trip.

We Left the dhaba as soon as the sun had started to warm the rocky hills. We could have taken our bikes down the road to around 2 kms from Chandrataal, but we decided to park. For most part, we had not yet fully recovered from the previous day’s ride, but there was this little voice inside all of us saying that we would like it more if we went a a bit closer to nature. Hence we hike!

Morning in Batal
From the bridge on the river Chandra

From Batal we started walking on the road to Kunzum La. 2 kms down is a fork on the road with a board indicating that the road branching off to the left leads to Chandrataal

Nature’s canvas
One of the little streams that feeds the Chandra river
The drama continues
Shortcut!
‘I am the master of all I survey, My right there is none to dispute’

There are just two water crossings on the way to Chandrataal as compared to the dozens we encountered on the drive from Rohtang to Batal. Also, this time, we were on foot, so off went the shoes and the socks and up rolled the trousers and the hikers bravely waded through the ice cold water.

Glad that we didn’t have to drive through this

The walk to Chandrataal is long but gentle. All you need is a lot of water and if you were to learn from my mistake, something to cover your head with. It is very windy all along the road and if your head is uncovered and in my case, shaved, you better get some cover or get ready for a nasty headache.

Like i said, its a good, clean walk!
Cloud capped glacier
lets play catch-up

People know know me, know that i detest physical exercise of any form and i have a beer belly to prove it. But i am also known to walk a bit from time to time. I love mountains, and i love being close to nature, but hiking is not my thing. The thing with hiking is, you can never get past the horizon and more often than not, you can actually see your destination before you reach it. Hell, you’ve had one eye on your destination all day long. Not my kinda thing. I am big on surprises.

must…reach…lake
see, what i was saying..HEAD COVERED!
The only way i could get my photo taken!
There was some green too!
Trail to Chandrataal
Trail to Chandrataal
Trail to Chandrataal
On the final stages of the walk!
And voila! Its Chandrataal in all its turquoise glory
Move aside, sheep!
Now, the entire trip was so worth it!

Chandrataal is located at an altitude of 4,290 m and remains frozen for 7 months in a year. For the remaining five, it charms tourists and attracts the bhedis, local herdsmen who flock (literally!) to the meadows around the lake with their sheep and sheep-dogs. As the summer wanes, they head off from Spiti towards the meadows of Kangra Valley, where their sheep can graze without having to worry about the snow.

May your flock increase!
The otherside

After resting on the meadows by the lake and for a long time just getting used to the brilliant sparkle of the water, we walked around the perimeter of the lake, adding 2 kms to our walk-load for the day. Chandrataal is a holy spot for the nomadic herdsmen of Spiti and they believe that in the clear blue waters of the lake resides a Devi who grant the pure at heart, their deepest, most sincere wish. I didnt catch a glimpse of her, but then again, who said anything about me being pure at heart!

Pilgrimage
Chandrataal
and some more!
Chortens and prayer flags
Stopping for a breather
One of my favourite shots!
More signs of prayer!
The lonely pilgrim.
Heaven must look like this, no?
It must!

An ideal way to complete the Chandrataal experience would be if you follow a slightly uphill trail from the lake to Kunzum La. People say that the views from this route are better, but then if you ask me, what is not beautiful in a place like this? Once you reach Kunzum, its all the way downhill to Batal.

One thing we did miss out on was camping by the lake. God knows how awesome it would have been. But if time permits, and if the company is right, i shall return again. After all, thats the wish i made to the goddess in the lake! So now, just wait… and watch!

Chandrataal: Adventures on the way


There was a time when Ladakh was an adventure. To many, it still is. I am sure the day i start my ride to Ladakh, it will still feel like the biggest thing. But in my heart i knew that the Lahaul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh is more adventurous and far more desolate than the fanfare that is the Manali-Leh Highway.

Present circumstances would not have allowed me to explore the valleys like i would – taking my time over each place, pouring through the thankas at Tabo or resting for a day or two at Dhankar. So it was decided to catch a glimpse of it first time around. After a lot of reading and consultation with seasoned travellers, a name emerged – Chandrataal. Located at an altitude of 4,300 m at the entrance of the Spiti Valley, near the Kunzum La Pass, it would both give me my first glimpse into the region and also ensure a week-long ride from Delhi.

This post is the first in a two-part series through which i intend to detail the entire adventure.

The idea was first to ride solo, but sense prevailed and in time i was joined by my friend Saumya Tyagi, who was between jobs and needed time for his thoughts before plunging back headlong into the rat race. We gathered at my place on the night of 6 August so that we could ride out by 4 and cross the city limits before the first light. I had thought that we would be able to catch a few hours of shut eye before starting off, but anticipation ensured otherwise.

Sleepless, we trudged through the diversion filled National Highway 1 to Ambala. Except for a small malfunction on Tyagi’s bike which was fixed at Kurukshetra, we were making quick progress. From Ambala, we changed over to National Highway 22 and continued via Chandigarh, Ropar and Kiratpur Sahib. A little after we took the right turn from Kiratpur Sahib, and were about to hit the hills, we were stopped on our tracks by a heavy downpour. We took shelter in a cow shed and had a fidgety buffalo and its calf for company. The rains lashed on for almost and hour and by the time we resumed the ride, we were way behind schedule.

The 41 km stretch from Swarghat to Bilaspur was marred by bad roads and heavy and slow moving truck traffic. This along with regular stops for rains meant that our dreams of reaching Manali by nightfall was steadily receding to the distance. Both of us were not keen on driving on hill roads at night as apart from the obvious hazards, we did not want to miss out on the beauty of the ride. The rains held after Bilaspur and we were able to drive to Mandi (110 kms from Manali), with a short stop at Sundernagar before sun-down.

Sunset at Sundernagar

Next day, the ride resumed in a relaxed fashion as we had a little more than a 100 kms to cover. The road from Mandi to Manali follows the Beas, which was tumbling down in resounding fury, fed by the plenitude of the monsoons. Road conditions, barring a few stretches which were affected by recent landslides, were excellent and soon we were leaning on the turns and breaking into  careful bursts of speed in the empty, straighter stretches.

Dope in the valley
Tyagi rides on.

Before long, we crossed Bhuntar and two hours into the ride, we entered Kullu. We had forgotten about the Kullu by-pass road on the other bank of the Beas and headed straight into the city. At the chowk in the middle of the city, i spotted  a small and colourful procession and stopped to investigate. A group of priests from a neighbouring village were carrying on their shoulders images of their village deity. The deity was being taken to visit the god of Kullu who is said to be the most powerful of them all.

When the Gods go for a walk
Devta!
one more for the Gods!
Kullu!

Immediately after Kullu, we entered the apply country. On both sides of the road were apple trees full of fruit.

Laden with fruit
Not so quiet flows the Beas
On the road from Kullu to Manali
On the road from Kullu to Manali
On the road from Kullu to Manali

We reached Manali by 4 in the afternoon. The drive from Mandi to Manali was extremely relaxed and we stopped at every place we wanted to. It was important to take it easy as the next day we had to drive to Batal, from where we would commence on the trek to Chandrataal. We went straight into Dragon Guest House in Old Manali and got a double room there for 700 bucks. A quick hot shower later, we were ready for lunch.

@ Cafe Shesh Besh, Old Manali
My sizzler arrives.
Arbitness!

At first there were lots of varied opinions on whether the road to Chandrataal was open or not, but then it finally appeared that it was, although we were warned that the state of roads in Rohtang were deplorable. We did not realise the full gravity of the situation until we reached Marhi, from where the climb to the pass begins. It was extremely cloudy at the road level and it reduced the visibility to around 30 feet. Added to this was incessant rains, landslides at regular intervals and the resultant knee deep muck and of course the famous traffic jams.  The  state of this stretch can be surmised by the fact that it  took us over 6 hours to reach Rohtang Top, which is 51 kms from Manali.

On the way to Rohtang
Somewhere near Marhi

We had to make a pit stop at Marhi from where Tyagi picked up a funny overall which, coupled with the heavy helmet made him look like an astronaut. It was not strange when he started referring to himself as a ‘space monkey’. Also at this dhaba, we met Wolfgang Maehr. He is an IT professional working for the last two years in Chandigarh. Wolf was also headed to Chandrataal and we decided to stick together. It was a wise decision on our part as from here on, he was responsible for taking turns in saving our asses at regular intervals – fixing Tyagi’s bike, pulling me and my bike out of  a stream, lending woolens to Tyagi, and supplying me with a canister of oxygen when i was literally gasping for breath.

@ the dhaba in Marhi
The fog lifts just a little bit
Condition of the road @ Rohtang

One of the brightest points en route to Rohtang was sighting what seemed like a Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). Due to loss of habitat in the plains, they are becoming a rare sight these days. In the Himalayas, however, they thrive, riding on the thermals and ridding the mountainside of rotting carrion. I tried to get as close to the massive bird as possible but eventually it flew away into the mist.

After Rohtang, we had to take the Leh highway till Gramphoo from where we turned right on the road leading to Kaza. The destination for the day was a small camp at Batal which is the base for the Chandrataal trek. As soon as we were over Rohtang, the sky cleared and for the first time we got a glimpse of the Lahaul Valley. Snow covered peaks dominated the upper horizon while closer to us were the steep and precipitous mountainside carpeted with patches of grass, broken by the occasional tumbling stream fed by the melting glaciers on the higher reaches.

You cross Rohtang, and..ta da!
The road ahead
taking in the first views
Much needed break both for man and machine after ploughing through the knee-deep muck, driving rain and crazy traffic of Rohtang

We drove down the winding switchbacks on the other side of the mountain from Rohtang and reached the valley of the Chandra River. We were to follow the Chandra or the Chandrabhaga all the way to Batal. It originates from Chandrataal and swells in volume fed by the streams of melting ice. In Kashmir it is known as the Chenab and ultimately drains a wide basin in Punjab (both in India and Pakistan, before merging with the Indus.

Tyagi and Wolf thump on
On the way to Gramphoo
After Gramphoo..the Chandra flows alongside
Such a pleasure to drive on

The roads here defied all explaination. There was tarmac, but only in patches. For most part it was either gravel or  dirt track – the kind of roads where motorcycling is real real fun. There were stretches where streams crossed the road. You have to drive through  these streams of ice cold water without any idea about the size of rocks under the water.  On one occassion, Wolf’s engine died, then both Tyagi and I got  stuck in the rocks. No matter how good or tall your shoes are, the water will find a way in and once it does, will chill you to the very bone.

is it a stream or is it a road? Well, its kinda both!
Advantage of crossing early: Catch others in the act
Wolf on Bull battles the stream

During the whole stretch, i was lagging behind as i kept stopping for pictures. The landscape kept changing dramatically. the more we went, it kept getting more and more barren. For miles we could not see any signs of habitation. Occassionally you pass a jeep full of tourists and the rare Himachal Tourism buss ferrying people from Kaza to Kulu. The landscape keeps stealing your breath away. Mountains you had seen in photographs suddenly spring forth in front of you and the scale of things hits you like a punch on the face. All you can do is stop the bike for a while, turn off the engine and revel in the stillness of nature. In due time, it knocks back on your mind that you have a destination to reach and it is then you push on ahead, anticipating with eagerness what sight the next turn in the road brings.

And the landscape gets wilder and wider
Sun kissed rocky meadows
The lonely chorten
That’s the road to the right of the photograph
Peace, Indeed!

17 kms from Gramphoo and half a dozen small and big water crossings later we arrive at Chhatru. A small village with a population of 120, it has a couple of dhabas where wary travellers like us stretch their legs and sip on some much needed chai. Batal, our destination was 32 kms away. Given the nature of the ‘roads’, it would take us another 2 hours. so reenergizing is a must.

Chhatru
Wolf aka Wolfinder!
looking towards Batal from Chhatru

When we started towards Batal from Chhatru, the sun had already begun its descent behind the mountains. The magic evening light cast a marvellous hue on the already breathtaking surroundings. Added to these were the numerous herds of wild horses along the way. They scatter at the sound of the oncoming vehicle but some of them actually gallop alongside you. Trust me, there is no prettier sight. I would gladly exchange my Bullet for one of these beauties.

Magic light!
Wild horses – This one for some reason in one of my favourite photographs of this entire trip
Ride on!
Was there ever a better gateway?
The wild river Chandra
Summer bloom!
the steely rides
In the evening light
In the evening light
In the evening light
In the evening light

Finally, at the end of a whole day of riding, we reached the camp at Batal. Unlike Chhatru, Batal is not a village but a collection of two dhabas. Here, apart from dal-chawal, eggs and maggi, you can rent a bed for Rs 50 a night. We would spend the night here and in the morning embark upon the trek to Chandrataal.

The camp at Batal
Inside the Dhaba

The next part of the blog, which will be published shortly would describe the sights and sounds of the actual trek to Chandratal, and a personal tragedy encountered on the way. Till then, happy reading!

Roadtrippin to Pushkar


It has hardly been a week since i came back from the Andamans. Normally, people would not feel like travelling, let alone on a motorcycle so soon. But then you know me! Where normal people stop, i begin!

The idea of doing a weekend ride occured to me as Aamir and I were sitting and chilling at my place. We had two days off and i had some (very little, mind you) spare cash. I could have saved it, but the amount was so insignificant that i decided to fuck it. I thought that if i did the ride, the experience would be much more worth it than the money in the bank. There were two major hurdles to the successful completion of the trip. First, to get Aamir (who’s fast approaching thirty and has the mentality very similar to, say, a turnip) up on his ass and preparing him for the trip; and secondly the constant nagging voice in my head which said that Pushkar and back in two days is impossible.

All doubts laid to rest, the day of the trip fast approached. By the time i got home after work, sorting out small mechanical issues on the bike, buying spares and collecting back-packs, it was nearly one in the morning. As per plan we were supposed to be out by 3:30, so we packed fast and settled down for an hour’s sleep.

Thanks to calls from a very supportive girlfriend and a very worried mother, we were up an running on schedule. Our first stop was at the ATM near IIT. From there we hit the NH8, which we would be following all the way to Ajmer.

Dope at the ATM
Dope at the ATM

We crossed Gurgaon at 4:15 in the morning. The expressway is a pleasure to drive in even during peak traffic and at this godforsaken hour of the day when we were practically the only people on the road, it was a whole new feeling altogether. The needle on the speedo stayed still at 120 kmph. Originally (and i attribute it to a late waking-up habit) i had thought that the sun would be out by five, around the time we are out of the NCR and hit the open stretches. But 5 rolled to 5:30 and 5:30 rolled to 6 and there was no signs of the sun. At one point of time i was even thinking that maybe we left at 2:30 instead of 3:30. But anyway, the sky lightened sometime after 6 and by 6:30, we were already within a 100 kms of Jaipur when we stooped at this dhaba for tea and smokes and some photos.

Shameless poser!
Shameless poser!
You know you are in Rajasthan when....
You know you are in Rajasthan when....

As we approached Jaipur, the highway got prettier and prettier. The landscape was increasingly getting rugged and we started seeing the first signs of the Aravallis.

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Delhi - Jaipur Highway
Aamir's helmet is too big for his head!
Aamir's helmet is too big for his head!
Bodhi on Dope!
Bodhi on Dope!

Soon we hit the turn which would allow us to by-pass Jaipur and continue on our way towards Ajmer. As soon as we hit the by-pass, the shy darkened and it started drizzling. I was seriously disappointed…first Andamans and now this! The rains must have a serious issue with me. No! Not this time, i pressed on the throttle and began speeding away…. for the next half an hour, we literally outran the storm brewing behind us. What a feeling!

Thats the feeling you get when you outrun the storm!
Thats the feeling you get when you outrun the storm!

If the Delhi-Jaipur stretch of the highway is ‘smooth’ then from Jaipur to Ajmer, it is a veritable Autobahn. Hills flank the wide tarmac on both sides and for the longest stretch, the surroundings were devoid of any human presence. I have never been on roads like this. The road eventually leads to Mumbai which is 1200 kms from Jaipur. The urge was great to keep driving and not stopping till i reached Mumbai…but not this time. Very soon, though!

NH8, somewhere between Jaipur and Ajmer
NH8, somewhere between Jaipur and Ajmer

By the time we crossed Jaipur on the by-pass it was 9:30 in the morning and our stomachs had started to growl in symphony. Aamir at this point started acting like a bitch that he is. He rejected all the highway dhabas that i wanted to go to. He wanted a nice, sanitised, clean, ‘family’ place. So after much searching, we stopped at this dhaba and got ourselves stuffed on some awesome pakodas and paneer paranthas.

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Pakodas
Pakodas

After this dhaba stop, we had to go on for another 80-85 kms where a state highway branched off from the NH8 towards Ajmer, and guess what… we completed this stretch in under 40 mins.

Giving Dope a breather

I got sun on my face!
I got sun on my face!

Aamir had been a very good boy to this point. But when he saw a Cafe Coffee Day outlet on the highway, he just could not resist himself. He started flailing his arms about, jumping on the backseat, threatening to jump off if i did not stop. So i had to. He marched in, sat on the most comfortable couch and ordered a cold coffee! Road tripping with such people is such a pain, i tell you!

Aamir finally finds 'his kinda place'
Aamir finally finds 'his kinda place'
Me in 'Aamir's kinda place'
Me in 'Aamir's kinda place'

Once we took the turn from the National Highway into the state highway, ther was a perceptable change in the landscape. Dhabas and petrol pumps were few and far between, as were the villages. Soon we reached Kishangarh, which marks the beginning of the ‘Marble Belt’. For centuries the hills in this area have been quarried for their white marble. 4o kms down the road branching towards the right are the fabled mines of Makrana, that supplied the unblemished white marble used for the construction of the Taj Mahal.

These hills were once very high. On the outskirts of Kishangarh
These hills were once very high. On the outskirts of Kishangarh
Kishangarh fort in the Distance
Kishangarh fort in the Distance

Soon after Kishangarh, we entered Ajmer. It is a rugged yet serene town located along the base of a line of lofty hills. At the centre of the town is the sprawling Maharana Pratap Sagar lake. Our plan was to go to the Dargah Sharif before continuing towards Pushkar, 15 kms from here. The Dargah is located insuide of the Ajmer’s busiest markets and since it was also Diwali, the crowd was unbelievable. So we decided to skip it and continue towards Pushkar. We would come back for the darshan the next day, on our way back to Delhi. We stopped for some time on the lawns beside the lake and took some pictures

Maharana Pratap Sagar, Ajmer
Maharana Pratap Sagar, Ajmer

In Pushkar, we were booked into the Pink Floyd Cafe, where the decor is psychadelic and the rooms are named after Pink Floyd albums. As Luck would have it, we were given the room called “Animals”. Anindita had a good laugh when i told her about it!

Pink Floyd Cafe
Pink Floyd Cafe
Interiors - First Floor
Interiors - First Floor
Interiors - Second Floor
Interiors - Second Floor
The Lounge
The Lounge

The hotel was spread across three floors. All floors had a hall into which all the surrounding rooms opened. The top floor was the restaurant cum lounge and on the terrace there is a landscaped garden as well as another seating area. The terrace provided amazing view of Pushkar and the surrounding hills.

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Pushkar From the terrace
Pushkar From the terrace
Pushkar From the terrace
Pushkar from the terrace
Pushkar from the terrace
Pushkar from the terrace - The Savitri Temple atop the hill watches over the town. We climbed the 700 steps leading to the temple in the evening
Pushkar from the terrace - The Savitri Temple atop the hill watches over the town. We climbed the 700 steps leading to the temple in the evening

When we reached the hotel, we were quite exhausted having slept for hardly an hour in the last day and a half. Aamir was all for going to sleep and i had to push the old man along. So tired of me prodding his ass, he came up to the restaurant where we sat flicking through magazines and taking pictures while we waited for our lunch to show itself.

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You talking to me?

The best part about the hotel though was this little girl called Appu. She is hardly two years old and is all over the place. She, without hesitation enters rooms of strangers and every half an hour, there is someone or the other returning her to the reception to her dad. She came to me and settled down on my lap and narrated me a story in her own language, made up of a lot of different undistinguishable sounds and hand gestures.

Appu!
Appu!

After a rather satisfactory and surprisingly delicious lunch, we went off to explore the town. To our great dismay, the lake was quite dry except for a puddle here and a puddle there. But on the upside, the ghats were gloriously deserted. There were hardly 10 people there and the architecture was brilliant. It is like Benaras, scaled down, built around a lake.

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There are more than 52 ghats at Pushkar. Each of the ghats leads either to a temple and in some cases, the courtyards of rich landowners and merchants.

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The deserted ghats at Pushkar
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A moment of quiet reflection
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Two people and a whole lot of piegeons - the recipe for serenity

Among the larger things in the picture like the clear blue sky and the deserted ghats there were these innocuous little corners which are equally attractive. This jaali window once had a view, but has since been blocked up by a wall of bricks.

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People have various methods of making a wish. In this case, some leave hand prints of themselves on the walls in vermillion. The last place i had seen this was at the Mmahamaya Temple, a shaktipeeth near Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh

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This babaji claims to have walked down from Rishikesh!

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This tree was the trippiest thing in all of Pushkar. Reminded me of the gnarled tree on the ramparts of the Hall of Gondor in Minos Terith.

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The old man was feeding his piegeons. Sometimes they ate from his hands while others sat on his shoulders and sometimes even on his head.

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Thats Aamir surveying the scene from his vantage point on the ghats

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More signs of worship!

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From the ghats we wandered off through the markets to the Brahma temple that makes Pushkar so unique. Apparantly, it is one of the only four Brahma Temples in the world. I thought it would be different from the other temples i had seen, but i was grossly disappointed. It was as commercial as any other big temple. There was nothing striking about its architecture too. I preferred to stay out while Aamir went in.

Outside the Brahma Temple
Outside the Brahma Temple
Hanumana himself!
Hanumana himself!
A rare sombre face on a festive day!
A rare sombre face on a festive day!
Goodies at the Pushkar Bazaar
Goodies at the Pushkar Bazaar

We walked a lot through the markets and the bylanes. I have seen lots of markets like this and there was hardly anything unique about it, except for the stalls that were selling a vast array of swords, daggers and other hacking / slashing / cutting paraphernelia.Owing to the huge influx of Israeli tourists, a lot of the shops had hoardings or posters in Hebrew! I hace heard about stuff like this in Himachal..but the first time that i am seeing one.

Before i came to Pushkar, i read some blogs and all of the raved about the malpuas at the sweet shops. So we decided to check it out. The sweet shops had spilled into the streets and there were heaps of Bangali sweets in makeshift stands in front of the shops. A little conversation with the halwaii inoformed us that Pushkar sweets are so famous that people come here from Ajmer. We asked for two plates of malpus and that stuff was outright delicious. I am not a big fan of sweets and crazy as it may sound, i hate if my sweets are… well..too sweet! But not this. It was soft and chewey and just the right amount of sweet. It was excellent. Aamir wanted to pack some for home, but as usual, he forgot!

The Pushkar Bazaar
The Pushkar Bazaar
from the 'Dali Shop'
from the 'Dali Shop'

From the markets, we drove to the base of a hill on the top of which is a temple dedicated to goddess Savitri, Brahma’s consort. A board at the base of the hill where the stairs start, informed us that we would have to climb 702 stairs to reach the temple. In the beginning the steps were of concrete and very comfortably spaced. About halfway up, the concrete disappears and the stairs are just made of the hillside rock, chiselled to have footholds. And very steep!

Didnt know back then how excruciating it would turn out to be
Didnt know back then how excruciating it would turn out to be
Pushkar viewed from the initial stages of the climb
Pushkar viewed from the initial stages of the climb
The valley...the road from Ajmer passes through it to reach Pushkar
The valley...the road from Ajmer passes through it to reach Pushkar

As you climb on, more and more of the surrounding wastelands show up. You can see the gap in the mountains through which the road from Ajmer enters Pushkar. You can see the town, so tiny that it seemed to fit in the fold of your hand. On the other side of the saucer shaped valley where Pushkar is located, you can see hills, one of them even topped by a temple. As you go higher, you can feel the vertical distance between you and the town increasing. What a place to build a temple!

and we climb a little higher
and we climb a little higher