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