Our first destination of the day was the village of Winter Lata, 30 kms from Auli on the road that leads to the Chinese border. In this region, every village is split in two. A set of houses are located high up in the mountains where the villagers farm terraced plots of land for beans, rajma, potatoes and vegetables. This part of the village is inhabited during the summers and monsoons – the growing season in the Himalayas. After Diwali, which comes right after harvest season, villagers pack up their essentials and move to another set of houses closer to the road below. This is where they wait out the winters and the snow takes over the higher village.
After we climbed down from Gorson, we took a small break at Auli, before continuing to the village of Lata, located about 40 kms from Auli, on the road to Malari (Map with directions). Where we actually stopped was the village of Winter Lata , which comprises of a series of houses on the right side of the road. To the left of the road is a small drop, a couple of levels of terraced fields and then the Dhauliganga river.
IMPORTANT: The Nanda Devi Outer Sanctuary (NDOS) is a restricted area, even for resident Indians. Entry into NDOS is restricted to 5 people per day and not more than 20 persons per week.For the permit, you will need to furnish one photograph along with a copy of a government issued photo identity card as such PAN Card, Voters’ Card, Driving Licence, Aadhar Card, etc. The entry fee per person is Rs 150 and on top of that, you will need to pay a trail management fee. You will also need to pay for your guide and porters. If you go with a local guide, he can get the necessary paperwork done for you in advance.
The trek starts from the edge of the road in the winter Lata village, at an altitude of 2,200 m, following a concrete pathway that leads to the Summer Lata village (2400m). The Ultimate destination was the log huts at Lata Khadak at 3,800 m, almost 13 kms away. The trek is doable in one day if one starts from the road at dawn. But since we were camping the previous night at Gorson, by the time we left the roadhead, it was around 3 in the afternoon.
For trekkers who are not at their fittest, it is best to break the trek from Winter Lata to Lata Khadak into two days. If you so choose to do so, you have Two possible camping options:
Bhelta: Deep inside the forest, this campsite comprises two narrow ledges to pitch your tent and a natural cave which can serve as the kitchen. Damp, dark and claustrophobic, Bhelta has that one thing trekkers and mountain travellers cannot do without – a water source.
Kanook: Kanook, also called Kanook Khadak is about 400 m above the Bhelta campsite and is a small meadow with a view of the Dhauliganga valley. While this clearly does not suffer from the claustrophobia of Bhelta, it does not have a water source. Since we had started the trek late and we were short of water, we chose to camp at Bhelta.
The 13 km long trek from Summer Lata to Lata Khadak can be largely divided into three section. The first part of the journey, one we had just completed, ends at the Bhelta campsite and is a gradual climb through dense forests. The next part of the trek is the actual steep climb that starts immediately after Bhelta and continues all the way to the treeline. The last and the third part of the trek continues steeply uphill above the treeline, all the way to the Lata Khadak log hut. In the rarified air and lacking the shade of the forest, sunburn is a real possibility here.
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary in general and this trail, in particular, is off the beaten track and we were the first group attempting this trail this particular year. This meant that in places, the trail was swallowed up by the forest and we could rely only on the directions of our guide and at times, some clever guesswork.
This was going to be a tough day for me as the climb looked almost vertical. In my mind, I had calculated that it would take me a better part of 8 hours to complete the 8 km stretch. We set off around 7:30 am from Bhelta and maintained a slow but steady pace. Every now and then the forest would thin out along a ledge and offer spectacular views of the Dhauliganga Valley and even the Gorson Meadows some 40 kms away, where we had camped to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude.
This trail has a unique way of reminding you how high you have climbed. Every now and then Summer Lata village would spring to view, growing increasingly smaller. Ditto with the Dhauliganga river. And this works strange magic on the tired body of the trekker. All of a sudden, you have a real sense of achievement. If I can climb this far, surely I can climb a little further…
What these photos do not capture, however, is the silence of the forest. This is one of the reasons I chose to get away to the mountains. There is something pure and therapeutic about this silence.
After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest, we found ourself suddenly above the treeline. The path now snaked through ankle length grass swaying merrily in the wind. This was the last stage of the trek to Lata Khadak. The trail, however, was still unforgivingly steep. At this point, our guide, irritated by my slow pace had decided to abandon me. ‘Ab toh asaan hai‘, he said. ‘Just look out for the laal jhanda (red flag)’, he said. On and on I went till a red flag mercifully revealed itself at the top of a hill. As I climbed towards it with a zombie-like intensity, a long, green, timber structure revealed itself.
At last, I was in Lata Khadak (3,800 m), our destination for the day, and shelter for the next three.
Lata Khadak is located on a high plateau, surrounded by even higher mountains. One of my favourite travel bloggers, Sadanand Kamath describes the location best:
On the south-west side is the Dhauliganga valley from where our climb started. Further left to the Dhauliganga valley is the Rishiganga gorge followed by Ronti nala. On the south side, we could see our trekking route– Gorson bugyal-Talli-Khullara-Kuari Pass and a part of descend to Dhak road head. A small ridge connects Lata Kharak with Saini Kharak and Jhandidar. On the north-eastern side, the prominent peak visible is Dunagiri (7,066 m) and some distanced peaks on the Indo-Tibet border.The closest peaks to see from Lata Kharak are Bethartoli Himal, Nanda Ghunti (south face), Ronti, and Hathi Parvat .Nanda Devi, Devisthan I and II peaks are not visible from Lata Kharak as their views are blocked byJhandidar ridge. These peaks can be viewed only from Saini Kharak.
One of the best things about Lata Khadak is the stunning view of Dunagiri. When we arrived the northeast sky was covered by scattered clouds, but within about an hour, the clouds were gone and there stood the mountain, seeming almost an arm’s reach away.
Once my battered body was coaxed back to life with a gallon and a half of steaming tea, it was time to explore the immediate surroundings. Just behind the cottage a narrow pathway leads to the ridge that connects Lata Khadak with Jhandi Dhar and Saini Khadak. The late September sun was at its golden best, colouring the already spectacular surroundings in a shade of honey.
After two days of hard walking, it felt great to just sit soak up the last rays of the sun from such a spectacular spot. Not a sound was to be heard save the chirping of the crickets. In front of us lay a great big icy wall, the kind that would put the great northern wall of Westeros to shame. This formidable wall was made of mountains including Bethartoli Himal (6,352 m), Nanda Ghunti (6,309 m), Ronti (6,023 m), and Hathi Parvat (6,727 m).
In my experience only mountains, and the Himalayas, in particular, can make you feel so utterly insignificant that it shakes you out of the self-centric bubble we tend to live in. This is the ultimate surrender – knowing how powerless you are against the sheer force of nature. You come back a grounded and a more rounded individual.
The long day, which began deep in the forests of Bhelta, was slowly coming to an end on a sunny rock overlooking some of the deepest valleys in Garhwal. The golden light had, by now reached the icy wall of Himalayan pinnacles. The stunning Bethartoli, now bathed in the yellow light resembled a mountain made of gold. The tiredness of the body was forgotten… pain in the limbs suddenly felt very inconsequential. All we could think of were the promises of the next day.
The skies were still overcast as I stood on the steps of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam guesthouse in Auli contemplating the trail that lay in front of me. It looked steep… very steep. The steepness of the trail was further compounded by the rotundity of my mortal body. Thus began a conflict that was to play out every moment for the next few days – the battle between the steep slopes and my heavy self. It was under these circumstances that the unstoppable force of my enthusiasm (for what I lack in physical fitness, I make up for in sheer drive) met the immovable Himalayas.
The morning had begun on a pleasant note though. The sky was still overcast, which meant that Nanda Devi was still out of sight, but there were no aches and pains from the ride from Rishikesh the previous day. Went out for a pre-breakfast walk, and promptly ran into a Khaleej Pheasant. Even though the forests in Auli are rich in bird-life, the overcast skies and the constant drizzle meant the bird activity was low. And then we were to start for the trek to Gorson and we did not have the time to lie in wait for the few birds that did decide to brave the damp weather.
The 3.5 km trek from Auli GMVN to our campsite on the Gorson Meadows can roughly be broken down into two halves. The first part of the trek follows the ski slopes (complete with ski lifts and the ropeway), all the way to an ancient forest. The next half of the trek takes you through the silent forest that opens up suddenly into the meadows.
The climb starts right from the GMVN itself and continues uphill for a quarter of a kilometre to a tea shop and a luxury hotel before plateauing out for about half a kilometre or so. Here, to your left is an artificial reservoir, used to store water to make snow for the ski slopes during winters. On a clear day, the waters of the reservoir reflect the surrounding peaks.
A few hundred metres from the reservoir, the trail starts climbing again towards the last point on the Joshimath-Auli ropeway. This terminal has a small tea shop where you can, if you find yourself huffing and puffing, recharge yourself with a cup or four of super sweet tea. This is also where you leave all forms of human construction behind. The trail continues upwards behind the terminal, and after another few hundred metres, you find yourself standing at the edge of Mirkwood an ancient forest populated by tall trees.
The forest stands tall, solemn and sentient – like an army of mythical giants. These are ancient trees and every one of them is covered with ferns and moss. As the trail snakes through the forest, you come across the occasional fallen tree; but even in death, it is teeming with life, in the form of colonies of mushroom feeding on the carcass of the fallen giant. In this forest, nothing goes to waste. Also, did I mention the silence? Apart from the deafening chorus of the cicadas, that is.
The forest suddenly opens up into a clearing and at one end of a paved courtyard, stands an old temple. My guide tells me that when the bakharwals or the nomadic sheepherders take their flock to graze on the meadows, they generally make an offering of a red flag and some cash at the temple. Apart from the occasional shepherd, the temple also offers salvation to the tired, out-of-shape trekker as it signals the end of the trek.
Just a hundred metres beyond the temple, the trees suddenly give way to a grassy avenue, at the end of which lies the undulating expanse of Gorson. The meadows form a part of the popular Kuari Pass trek, frequented by the teeming patrons of IndiaHikes. Our guide had one clear instruction: to pitch our tent as far away from the IndiaHikes campsite as possible. As soon as I emerged from the forest, the IH campsite came to view. With at least a dozen double tents and the accompanying kitchen, dining and toilet tents, the site looked less like a campsite and more like a small village.
We had chosen to camp about 200m uphill from the IH village, on the edge of the forest, next to a small water body. As we were approaching our tents, the rain picked up again. Thankfully, it was only a steady drizzle – enough to keep the IH crowd in their tents and not enough to keep us in ours.
It was getting colder every minute and thankfully the kitchen tent was up. The cook was quick to brew up some strong tea. Anoraks on and for-tea-fied against the drizzle, we set out to explore the meadows. The entire expanse of the meadows was empty except a couple of shepherds, their dogs and their sizable flock. Dark clouds were sweeping across the upper reaches of the meadows creating a magical landscape that sent one’s imagination into a tizzy. This is the sort of setting, one imagined, where a dragon suddenly emerged out of the mist.
Reality check: There were only sheep.
Here’s a little time-lapse video I made of the sheep grazing on the meadows:
That night, the skies opened up with an unprecedented fury. Lying in my glorified nylon bag, I was at one point of time even worried about the tent collapsing under the sheer weight of the rain. Thankfully the rain fury soon subsided and settled into the steady drizzle. The gentle rhythm of raindrops on the nylon dome of the tent soon soothed me to a deep sleep.
I opened my eyes to tent awash in bright blue light and stepped outside into a sparkling morning. There were still clouds in the sky, but there were also big blue patches… and they were getting bigger! The promise of a bright day and the downhill trek added a much-needed dose of energy to my aching body. By the time we had finished breakfast and packed up, the sun was out in all its glory. Gorson Meadows is known for its stunning view of Nanda Devi, Trishuli, Hathi and Ghoda mountains, Dunagiri, etc, but that side of the sky was still covered with clouds.
Once we emerged from the forest on the open ground above the Auli ropeway, the entire landscape looked completely different from the previous day! The slopes were bathed in bright sunlight while on the opposite side the jagged, toothy mountains looked less sinister now that they were being viewed through the ‘dappled sunlight’ filter. The grey of the previous day was replaced by a thousand shades of green and blue. Mordor had suddenly turned into the Shire.
True to this change, the birds were up and going about their business. We had particular luck with a kestrel that was hopping from bush to bush in hope for a scurrying Pika or two. Further down, we also emcountered a Himalayan Griffon vulture waiting at the edge of the cliff for the thermals to rise.
The trek to Gorson had one purpose: to acclimatise us to the altitude before we push deep into the Nanda Devi National Park. In my younger days (I can officially use this term now), the altitude had little or no effect on me, but during my ride to Ladakh in the summer of 2016, AMS hit me like the holy ghost. Memories of a sleepless night in a carelessly erected tent in the middle of the windswept plain of Sarchu (13850 ft) prompted me to visit the doctor and medicate myself in advance. Cannot be going through that agony again!
A car would be waiting for us at Auli, ready to take us to the village of Lata, from where the trek to Nanda Devi National Park actually began. Unlike the well-trodden Kuari Pass trail, this route is off the beaten track. In fact, if your guide is to be believed, we were the first person to venture on that route in 2017.
A strange darkness had started to creep in. I had always counted myself rich with an exciting job, a best friend of a wife, three of the cutest cats a person could have ever wished for – yet, there was this big gaping hole in the soul. It was as if I had been kissed by a dementor, a kiss that had sucked all the joy out of my life.
A chance conversation with the wife helped me reach the root of the problem. Partly it had to do with the phenomenon called ‘adulthood’. Over the last three years, I had landed myself an exciting, albeit stressful job, gotten married, and like Jude of the song, had taken upon my (not so) slender shoulders, all the weight of the world. Unlike my pre-adult life, there were no mountains; no rides on my trusty ‘Dope’, and barely time to be alone with the voices in my head. And it was this absence of this connection with myself, that had made me liken my then existence to a dementor’s kiss.
Coming to this realisation was a massive change in itself. It was as if a weight had lifted off my chest… I could breathe easy… the fog of despair had lifted. Now that I knew what to do, I needed to move on to the next step: where to go? Easier said than done. Every road called out to me. Every Himalayan valley seemed to sing a siren song trying to lure me into their deepest recesses. A week’s plan soon became 10 days, and finally grew to two whole weeks. It was settled then: I would do a trek inside the Nanda Devi National Park. To do that I would need to first get to Auli, near Joshimath. This is where my motorcycle, Dope comes in.
I have been on this route a few times, and from the very beginning, it was clear that Joshimath / Auli could not be reached in one day. So I decided to set off from Delhi around noon on the D-Day. The plan was to reach Rishikesh by the evening, rest up and start for Auli the next day at first light.
The road till Meerut was chaotic as usual, but once the by-pass starts, it is a clean six lane cruising all the way till Roorkee. I took to the saddle after four years with a lot of apprehension. Would I be able to ride for long? Will my back give up? Would I have to turn back with my tail between my legs? Turns out nothing of that sort was going to happen. It was like fish in the water. The miles just started tumbling and the first and only break of the day came after 216 kms of riding. Once a biker, always a biker.
I had booked myself into Hotel Green Hills in Rishikesh. A secure parking was absolutely essential for me and this establishment had it. I also got an airconditioned room for the night at Rs 700. Another advantage of the hotel was its location right on the highway. All I needed to do in the morning was tie down my luggage and leave.
Within ten minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself finally in the hills. The monsoons had just about ended and the mountains were carpeted in a million shades of green. On my right was the young Ganga – green and eager and utterly oblivious to the abuse that lies ahead. With every turn of the road, I could feel the mortal energy return to the husk of a being I had let myself turn into. The roads were blissfully empty and the metronome-like engine note of the large single-cylinder benignly threatened to transport me to a meditative state.
My plan for the day was to ride non-stop (photo breaks don’t count) at least till Karnaprayag. The annual yatra season had ended and I wasnt expecting a lot of traffic. The road itself was in remarkable shape. Except for a few landslide-affected stretches (inevitable in the Himalayas), the road was a poetry in smooth tarmac. Never had I seen a mountain road, (and a highway no less) in as good a shape.
This is no ordinary road. For thousands of years, long before humankind had mortar and asphalt, people have travelled on this road; on foot, on animal-drawn carts and even on the backs of other people, in search of the divine. Not only does this road lead to Badrinath, one of Hinduism’s most sacred temples, along it also lie the five holy confluences, or prayags – the Panch Prayag.
Dev Prayag: Alakananda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet here, the first of the prayags, giving rise to the Ganges. In terms of riligious significance, it is second only to Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Saraswati meet the Ganga to form the holiest prayag and hence the site of the Kumbh mela.
Rudraprayag: The meeting place of the Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers. At Rudraprayag, one comes across a fork in the road and the two prongs each follow the rivers. I continue to follow Alaknanda towards the next prayag. I turned left on the fork here to follow the road running next to the Mandakini on a previous journey to Deoriya Taal and a trek to Chopta and Tungnath Temple.
Karnaprayag: 34 kms upstream of Rudraprayag, the Mandakini is joined by the Pindar river. Legend has it that Karna, one of the pivotal characters in the Mahabharata, prayed to his father Surya at the prayag here and in the process received the kavach (shield) that made him near-invincible in battle. Here, you cross the bridge over the actual prayag and continue along the left bank of the Alaknanda towards Joshimath and Auli. Another road branches off from the bridge towards Tharali and Gwaldham into Kumaon, a road I took on my way back and immediately went on to have one of the most fun few hours of mountain riding i’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. More on that later.
Nandaprayag: 23 kms upstream, the Nandakini River meets the Alaknanda River at Nandaprayag. Unlike the other prayags, the confluence isn’t visible from the road here. What you can see is a maze of concrete structures and have your senses invaded by noxious diesel fumes emenating from the bus terminus.
The road thus far has the river for company and follows a gentle enough gradient; but as soon as you cross Nandaprayag, things get more interesting. The roads are not as wide as you have experienced before and switchbacks appear with increased frequency betraying a rather steep gain in altitude.
Vishnuprayag: The last of the prayags was the only one I did not visit. This is where the Dhauli Ganga river (this river will make its appearence in a future post) meets the Alaknanda, a few kms upstream of Joshimath town.
During the course of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary trek, we would be hitting altitudes in excess of 4,500 m (14,700+ feet), so it is recommended to complete an one-night accimatisation trek. We had chosen the Gorson Meadows above Auli for this very purpose. To reach Auli, we had to take a small road turning right from the highway, a few kms before Joshimath town. This tiny little road snakes through thick forests and a couple of Indo Tibetan Border Police encampments for 14 kms and ends at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouse in Auli, at an altitude of 2,500 m.
If the sky is cear, Auli offers the visitor a clear view of the iconic Nanda Devi peak (7,816 m / 25,643 ft). But this was not to be. The sky had gotten overcast as I took the turn for Auli and by the time I was unloading my luggage, it had started drizzling. The clouds, however, did little to obscure the unique jagged-edged mountains around Joshimath and Auli. In the dying light of the day, the dramatic mountains looked like the exposed teeth of a long dead leviathan, bared menacingly skywards upon death.
As a couple of plates of maggi, followed by some excellent chilli chicken whipped up by the good cook at GMVN slowly soothed the body into a state of temporary hibernation, the mind drifted across the jagged shadow mountains towards Mordor the deep Himalayas. What adventures lay ahead? Will the goddess Nanda Devi open her bounties to this humble traveller? If only I had a window into her divine mind…
It is not an overstatement to claim that the Indian subcontinent is a creation of the Himalayas. As a barrier, it has protected this landmass from being encroached upon by the cold northern deserts, and has nourished it by harnessing the potential of the Monsoon winds. The rivers that flow down it has, over the years, created a vast plain which supports at east a 10th of the world’s population.
But this post is about the winged little beauties that the lower Himalayas support. From Pangot in Uttarakhand to Eagle Nest in Arunachal Pradesh, the thick forests that carpet these slopes make some of the most diverse bird habitats in the world. Couple of months back the girlfriend and I took some time off and trudged up the pugdundees to the wonderfully secluded Jilling Estates in the Kumaon Himalayas. The aim was to spend as much time as possible far from the ‘civilised world’ and of course look for birds.
One of the most common birds in these parts is the green-backed tit (Parus monticolus). One colourful individual had his eye on a hole in an apple tree right in front of the bungalow we were staying in. Unfortunately, a pair of Russet sparrows (Passer rutilans) had already moved in. Not willing to give in without a fight, the tiny tit tried its best to dislodge the sparrows and failed. Undeterred by this failure, the tit returned every morning, only to be driven off.
Displaying the green back
Green backed tit
After a sudden shower
After a sudden shower
The male Russet sparrow and the tit’s tormentor-in-chief
Sparrow guarding the hole which was a source of much bickering
The hills around the cottage were also home to quite a few verditer flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus). Electric blue, with an almost zorro-like black mask around the eyes, they appear as mere blue streaks darting through the foliage. Thanks to my utterly slow lens, photographing an individual up close (or any other bird for that matter) is next to impossible. These are what I managed to shoot:
Playing hide and seek in the thicket
The classic pose
The biggest surprise at Jilling was how the birds seem to come to you, right at the doorstep. One morning, I looked up from my thriller to find two black eagles riding the thermals right above the bungalow. I ran inside to grab my camera, determined not to miss the eagles like i missed the red-billed leiothrix earlier that very morning. Fortunately as I reappeared, lens in hand, the eagles were still airborne and I managed to get a few shots off before they disappeared over the ridge, graceful in flight.
The bird I had the most fun chasing after was the flamboyant Indian black-lored tit (Parus aplonotus). Bright yellow, with a kohl-black streak down its breast, this bird carries around a large crest, not unlike Jim Carrey’s character in the Ace Ventura film series. The first couple of days at Jilling I could see them darting around the apple orchard… never still, never resting. Eventually i did run into a rather restive individual who did not complain as I got close to him. If only all other birds shared this one’s virtues….
My first shot of this colourful friend
And i find this one exploring the courtyard
What a lovely little bird
To be honest, I am better at spotting birds in the jungle than shooting them. I am still honing my skills at being a photographer of birds, but I am limited by my equipment. So here’s a look at the other birds I managed to shoot while at Jilling.
Female Ultramarine Flycatcher
another Female Ultramarine Flycatcher
A very distant and massively cropped shot of a male Ultramarine Flycatcher
A black shouldered tit
Green tailed sunbird
Blue-headed Rock Thrush
Rufous-bellied niltava. This shot was taken from a distance under very low light conditions. Lucky to have even seen this bird
Black headed Jay eating village leftovers
Red-billed blue magpie
Little Pied Flycatcher – I had never heard of or seen this bird before. A first for me
Great Barbet – The rainbow bird of the mountains
Great Barbet posing
The ubiquitous Black drongo
Grey hooded warble
Grey hooded warble
Rufous Sibia, a record shot. It was all around me but never got a decent shot. Al;waus restless, darting between trees. Doofus Sibia, more like
For every bird I shot, four got away. If you love birds but love the mountains even more, you must go to Jilling. I wish I never came back!
It was an impossibly early train from a station impossibly far from my house. But there is something about leaving with your bags when it is still dark out. It is the promise that when the darkness of night descends, you will find yourself at an altogether different setting. You will find yourself at the destination. So between the darkness of the dawn and the eventual darkness of dusk lay what I enjoy most – a journey.
Those of you who excel at the subtle art of looking at maps would have noticed that the destination is somewhere in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was in fact, a tiny slice of heaven called Jilling Estate. The real journey starts when the train deposits you in the quaint, single platform Kathgodam Railway Station.
What follows is a one and a half hour journey on the winding hilly roads to the village of Matial. I say Village, but What I actually mean is two general stores and 5 houses along a bend on the road. We see off the taxi guy and start the climb on foot. Yes, there are indeed no motorable roads to Jilling and that is precisely why we chose to come here.
The cluster of buildings that makes up Matial
That’s about the whole village. I promise!
During the colonial times this swathe of the Kumaon Himalayas was owned by a single apple farming sahib. Post independence, the property was divided into various parts and the Lall family bought around 100 acres of this prime Himalayan property. Steve Lall, the bullet-riding, dog loving ex Mig-21 pilot decided to build 4 secluded cottages across the property and invite people to come stay there.
The cottages vary in size but all are slightly rustic, yet not lacking the creature comforts that we city slickers are used to. The food is mostly organic and home cooked, delivered to you piping hot by the estate employees who also double up as fireplace technicians, guides, bird identifiers and storytellers. Jilling is not a hotel. Neither is it a resort. It is one man sharing his little slice of heaven in exchange of some money. If you are in sync with his view of ecotourism (no TV, no motorable road, no noisy neighbour, complete seclusion), you are welcome. Otherwise, bugger off to your favourite Nainital concrete monstrosity.
The distance from Matial to our destination – the topmost cottage – is just north of 2 kms but man is it steep. At the cost of repeating myself I am, to put it politely, a giant ball of lard and the climb, albeit punctuated by a thousand breaks, was arduous. Here is the cool part though, if you lack a spine or if you are old or otherwise disabled, you can hire a pony to the top.
The higher you climb, the prettier it gets
The entire route is paved with stones
Someone has built my dream house. Damn!
Taking a breather, right in the middle of the path
Of the four cottages in the estate, we chose the topmost. When we had spoken to Steve earlier, we had requested for something secluded and it was this cottage he suggested. The cottage is a simple two room affair with basic furnishings. The only disadvantage is the toilet which is not attached to either of the two rooms. While during the daytime, it is absolutely okay, at night when the stillness around you is broken only by the otherworldly scream of a wood owl, stepping out of the cottage to go to the loo feels like the beginnings of a grisly horror movie. Also it does not help if you have read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaun cover to cover a dozen times.
Climbing up, this is the first view of our cottage
waiting for lunch to be served
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Two absolutely glorious days and somewhat terrifying nights later we decided to enquire if some of the other cottages were free. Turns out they were. So we decided to move to the main cottage, about 100 m below us. In the middle of the 19th century, this building served as a warehouse for Jilling’s apples. When the Lals bought their slice of the estate, they turned this warehouse into the bungalow it is today.
This was a world apart from the rustic charm of the bungalow on top. It had a large dining room, a small sitting room with a stocked book-shelf, a spacious bedroom, an ante-room and a kitchen. This was more like your own cottage in the hills, complete with veranda, daisy filled lawns and an ancient tree guarding it all.
Our home for the next few days
The tall tree guarding our hill house
Daisies, daisies everywhere
The Path to our new home is lined with daisies
The small living room
The incredibly airy and well-lit dining room
Between you and me, this level of comfort is new to me. I am used to roughing it out on the saddle of my motorbike, shacking up at the end of the day in a budget hotel – my very definition of travel. But this…this was different. We had rooms, heck, a full bungalow. The bungalow came with Naveen, an extremely polite gentleman who brought us our food, lit our fires, took us for long walks and even helped me identify bird calls. Now, this I could get used to. This was my first “vacation”.
The days passed in a glorious haze of sunshine, birdsong and delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The nights were a collage of twinkling lights on the distant hills, star-gazing and reading till the crickets chirped no more. In between all this, we had time to dream of our own little cottage in the hills. Not much – a couple of rooms, a small garden to grow some food and a group of furry, unruly mountain dogs. I do not want to climb the Everest neither do i want change the world. All I want is that little house in the hills and that, ladies and germs, is the very extent of my ambitions.
To cut a long story short, thanks to Jilling, I now know what my dream looks like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’).
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.
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.