Saturday, September 18, 2010

Toredoramio - on the bull to Murudeshwara ....

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An impromptu decision may mostly always result in pleasant surprises, at least it well and truly did in this case. In this case it got me, who never have ridden a Royal Enfield Bullet before and who almost never believed he could kick start it, to drive one from the word go for a straight 1000+ kilometers over three days and in the process fall in love with it too.

On this second week of September 2010, as soon as the confusion cleared up and it was declared that Friday the 10th is a Holiday, I called up Ajin and said we'll go to Goa. He was more than game and even more so when I said we will go on his Bullet. But he had to leave for Chennai on Sunday night. Bangalore to Goa and back in less than three days on a bike seemed to be quite a bit of stretch. I still, nonetheless, went ahead with the plans. But Thursday saw the plans changing the destination to Murudeshwara, a pleasant beachhead along the west cost of Karnataka, and a much shorter target distance wise.

So Friday morning at 5.30 am Ajin came on his bull and with his friend Sanal on his Pulsar. As we were about to start, out of the blue he asked me to drive the bullet, saying something like there is dust in his eyes or so. I was more than reluctant, but yeah, right, impromptu, thought why not! I'm not sure if Ajin regrets the offer, but I never gave the handle bars back to him for the entire trip :-D

As Bangalore was slowly waking up to a holiday mood, we started out on the National Highway 4 to Tumkur. The plan was to reach Tumkur, proceed to Shimoga, to Sagar, visit Jog falls, to Honavar, Mrudeshwara and back. But plans are meant to be broken :-)

Not too far were we on our journey when a minor glitch happened. Me, a real novice, did not really know how to control this massively powerful beast machine that well. We were stopping by the road side to check something, there was some loose sand on the road, and as the whole thing was about to come to a standstill I think I went slightly aggressive on the breaks and the horizon suddenly tilted. I saw that the bike was skidding and falling. We, me and Sanal who was sitting behind, both fell to the side, at almost 0 kmph. Thankfully nothing much happened, and I blatantly refused to get off the handle bars :-) and we resumed the journey shortly after.

So as the sun was slowly rising further up in the skies, it found us cruising blissfully on the golden quadrilateral expressway to Pune. This road mostly makes an amazing straight line disappearing into nothingness far far away. There was not much of traffic, save a few trucks coming to sight at the horizon occasionally and gliding past us in some minutes. I was sort of overwhelmed by the feeling the Bullet evoked. The continuous thudding beat and the direct sensation on my palms reminding me of the massive power growling in the engines below. I guess most Bullet owners refer to it as bull, maybe assigning some sort of male characteristics to it. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of her as a girl, not even a lady, a girl, as wild as the wind and fire. Not a usual girl, but a girl with some much deeper might, that you can't take chances with her, still someone with whom you can gloat in complete harmony once you know how to handle her. A teenage lioness maybe?

We stopped on the way at the foot of a small hill. There was a mustard field by the side of the road, but there was no apparent way to enter the field. It was separated from the road by a trench covered with shrubs. I could finally figure out a way to squeeze in after scouting around it for sometime and it was kind of worthwhile. I spent some time with my canon inside the 'deserted' field.

Crossing the road there was an areca nut plantation. This was a peculiar sight. On one row of trees, all of them were strapped with some contraption looking like a coil of TV cabling. I could not figure what it meant. In a short while, intrigued by some random guys encroaching his farm and pointing cameras at various places a farmer came up to inquire what is happening. He seemed to be under the impression that we were from highway management authority and were taking pictures of parts of his farm next to be taken away for the highway! Once that was cleared up he kindly explained that the wired contraptions were for drip irrigation!

Somewhere further on the road, we again stopped by the roadside where people were drying areca nuts. I went and chatted with the aged man who was spreading the nuts. He said they sell it in Tumkur and get Rs 14000 per quintal, which was not bad. Taking a fancy to me wielding the camera over the nuts spread out to dry, they invited me to a shed by the roadside, where they were grading the nuts. Another weird contraption sat there, a big boiling cauldron, straight out of a magician's dungeon. Nuts were being boiled to get rid of the brownish color. There were lot of kids there, on a holiday today from school. They asked me to take their snaps and show it to them and I happily obliged. Soon they were all over me, laughing and pushing, enacting various poses, making me take snaps, and they'll come running and then burst out laughing looking at the snaps. I was thus drowned in laughter for quite sometime. My friends sitting at the road side thought I was being boiled in the cauldron for offending the farmers!

We reached Tumkur around 11.30 am or so. My friend had warned me of missing the highway exit to Shimoga. As we were getting over a fly over we saw a road sign on the road below showing Shimoga 210 Km off to the left. Confused we asked a moped guy on the flyover. He confidently said you can go to Shimoga if you continue straight on this highway itself! We were more than happy not having to turn around and continued on the highway! This turned out to be a defining moment of the trip! While the guy was probably right, when coming back we found out that there was a small deviation to the Shimoga road right after the fly over ends, but we naturally missed it now.

Thus we were en route to Pune looking for Shimoga. But I can't say I ever really regretted this decision anyway. Riding on this highway was pure pleasure. It was almost absolutely empty. The sun was bright and cool. The skies were a dazzling blue, dotted with puffy white clouds. Moreover, I had successfully established a good relationship with the lioness and she was happily purring under my caresses.

We were expecting that anytime we will come up against a big intersection with sign boards indicating take left for Shimoga. But that was not to happen. In fact we missed various deviations we could taken to get back to the original route. I was not complaining, except that our plans of exploring Jog falls today seemed to be already jeopardized. Finally after talking to numerous soothe sayers we decided to take the exit to Hiriyur, had some tea on the small market at the intersection and entered Hiriyur town. The auto drivers in Hiriyur told us that the road to Shimoga from there is really bad and advised to continue on the highway till Chitradurga and go from there. So we got back on to the highway and went on.

Soon we hit upon some sunflower fields, an obvious spot to stop and wield umm, the canon :-). Half past noon the flowers were already sort of drooped, but yeah! I have never been on a sunflower field before! This was the right kind of setting for something I was searching for over some years now. Theres a Malayalam song that has some lines that go like

meaning - "like two butterflies searching for flower fields". I wanted a snap for this line, to make something like this for that song. The flower field was here, I just needed the two butterflies and make them pose for me! I think I spotted two, for a second, or maybe I was hallucinating, they were never to be found again after that. I did find one lazy guy or girl? flying around quietly after sometime. Maybe she ate him after mating!!! Do flies do that?

Continuing on the highway we rode towards Chitradurga. There were some vast fields of windmills by the side of the road on distant hills. The wind here was very strong indeed. As we neared Chitradugra the highway was turning at the foot of a hill. There were two old windmills on that hill. They looked huge from that nearby. Riding on towards them I felt like Don Quixote, mounted on his aging horse and charging at the giant monsters!

Chitradurga provided us with lunch, and a dusty ride through a buzzing town. We dropped the idea of visiting the Chitradurga fort, hoping we could at least get to Sagar before night. Bidding adieu to durga we entered NH13 to Shimoga from there. Though it is termed a national highway, its a small two line road, with no dividers, going through lot of farming villages full of corn fields and areca nut plantations. This stretch from Chitradurga to Shimoga was on of the most appealing parts of the trip.

The road meandered though endless corn fields glistened by the afternoon sun. Once in a while some country bus services blasted past kicking up lot of dust on their path. We slept under a tamarind tree by the roadside when we were tired. The bikes were thankfully accustomed to being two tyred :-D We had tea from a small hut shop in a village intersection. The old guy wondered why I could speak to him in Kannada while my two friends could not! We drank up all his tea in the hot flask, tea is served in minuscule glasses here! He offered to go to his house and make and bring fresh tea, but we were already running kind of late :-)

As the sun began to settle down for the day, a new kind of traffic started appearing on the road. While nearing each village, we encountered cows and oxen and sheep herds returning to the village for the night after grazing along roadside grass fields. I had to exert strong control over the lioness to keep her from biting off a beef leg or two. We stopped by a large canal from the Badra reservoir and freshened up a bit. It was already 5.30 in the evening and I felt that we would have to halt at Shimoga today.

Sometime later, Ajin noticed a slight aberration in the beat of the Bullet. Inspecting further we figured out that the gasket around the silencer housing had come off. Probably it was an effect of the fall. This posed a hurdle. We needed to fix this at Shimoga. Seeing us crowding around the bullet, one guy came in a moped towards us and said he's a mechanic and that he can fix the gasket if we went with him to his village. So we followed him. He got off the main road and took us through some narrow country roads, lined on both sides by exuberantly green paddy fields. When it was not paddy fields, it was rows of old houses and wildly colorful free ranging chicken on the road. Finally he stopped in front of a house which turned out to be his. He went in and came out with nuts and some tools and fixed the gasket. The sound of the beat was better now, but he said we had to replace a washer that had gone bad to get back the original sound. So we decided to scout for a bullet mechanic after reaching Shimoga.

We reached Shimoga half past six in the evening. The town was very much crowded with people coming out in droves to shop for the Ganesh Chathurthi festival tomorrow. We asked many people - auto drivers, automobile spare parts shop guys, guys at some work shops - about any bullet mechanic. Finally one guy directed us to Bullet Mechanic Venu. After beating around many roundabouts through thick crowds, we finally spotted the Bullet garage. The mechanic was Murugan not Venu though.

Quick Gun Murugun was a typical Bullet mechanic. These guys are like little feudal lords in their own setup, with a bunch of assistants - the chotas in the workshop. He soon set to work. He fixes a little bend in the handle with some kicks and a soft hammer. He sits on a short stool near the bullet and extends his hand to thin air. One chota places a tool in his hand. He undoes the nuts the village mechanic had fixed. He extends his hand again into thin air and mumbles something. A chota replaces the tool with something else. He looked like a specialized surgeon performing a complex operation, the chotas replacing the surgeon's scalpels whenever he extends his hands into thin air.

We had him fit front and rear crash guards also to the Bullet. The sound of the beat was back to normal. We were happy. He has happy that we gave him a good tip over what he asked. He directed us to a good place to stay for the night. It was already 9.00 pm. After dinner we slept in deep dark oblivion.

Morning we started at 5.00 am and took the road from Shimoga to Sagar. It was still dark around. We stopped at the first teashop that opened and drank some fuel. It was very pleasant to ride as the morning was waking up. On the way we had couple of short stops, which mostly saw me trying to impart photography gyan to Sanal. This empty road was in stark difference to what we will experience while coming back on this during the day when it had lots of vehicular traffic. Sagar gave us brake fast and fuel for the bikes and set us on course to Jog falls.

Some constant companions to our trip after we left Shimoga were the massive high tension towers carrying the power lines from the Badhra dam power project. Sometimes they stood like rows of faithful sentinels along the side of the road towering into the grey morning sky. Sometimes as we descended into lower planes we could see them making criss crossing patterns across the land in a fractal geometry; splitting huge trunks into branches, the branches to twigs, the twigs to leaves and then running out of sight to far away lands. Once we stopped near a mini forest of Acacia trees. A smaller tributary of the power grid was passing right overhead here. I stood on the grass patch under the electric line and was focusing my camera at the trees. The road was devoid of any vehicles. All was silent in the world. Standing underneath this power tributary I had a queer sensation, there was a constant buzz in the air, like a swarm of bees. I looked up and realized that it was coming from the power lines. An invisible humming. All those electrons surging through like a swarm of bees along the wires. It had me spellbound and frozen like a statue for sometime.

Ghat section of roads began soon after. Driving the bullet through ghat sections was another experience. With its massive body combined with two people riding, the momentum this beast acquires is too huge and you can't expect to really curb it quickly if you go fast, plus I had learned my lesson from the skid in the beginning. But we did not encounter any problem and had a nice ride and hit Jog falls eventually.

I had been to Jog before, long long back, at a time when it was rather dry. I remember trekking down through a slippery hillock into the gorge where the fall descends and spending hours in the gorge at the bottom of the falls sitting under the spraying water droplets. Parking the bike I got down from it and climbed on to the culverts overlooking the gorge. I could not keep me from smiling rather stupidly. It felt like meeting and old friend. A friend who was not doing that well when you used to know her. But now she has done well and is doing really good. Jog was gushing in almost a full flow and she was simply beautiful. I am not ashamed to smile in situations like this :-)

The Jog management authority has constructed a flight of steps now, all the way down to the falls bottom. I don't really know if its a good thing or bad thing. We went down the steps to the bottom. Its a drop of about one and a half kilometers down. There were lots of people, this being a holiday. We spent about an hour or so at the bottom, me mostly sitting on a high rock and looking at the spray, not wanting to wade through the populace.

Climbing down and up all those stairs did not go down well with the light sprain I had sustained on my feet from the fall yesterday. But I did not find it a deterrent enough to get me off the handle bars. It was around 2.30 pm when we started from Jog to Honaver. Soon after Jog, we passed through a forest department check post which marked the beginning of some of the most testing stretches of roads we encountered. Ghat sections, completely winding downwards, almost 360 degree hairpins and some of them ending in gaping pot holes where once road used to be.

Making the lioness go easy on these slopes was another game. Probably it might be apt to say that she took on more of bull characteristics than that of an agile cat. She was all massive and powerful and charging; raring to tear down the slopes under the pull of her own weight and that of the two of us sitting atop. It was a long drawn out fight. Me holding on by the horns and using all my might to make her slow down, and she growling and fidgeting and trying to break free. I could not let her go, for beyond the next blind hairpin might lay a complicated pot hole system. Navigating some of them without finding yourself in the ditches was 'almost but not quite, entirely like' solving the travelling salesman problem. Probably if my mind was not too much preoccupied with the thoughts of what it means to be a control freak, I could have tried fashioning some proofs for P ≠ NP or otherwise out of this whole experience.

After fighting like that for couple of hours, we reached better roads and she was back to all cat. We made some quick time here aiming to hit the Murudeshara beach before sunset. We reached Honavar just after 5 pm in the evening. Its a typical coastal, fishing, port city that I usually instantly take a liking to. We passed through an unusually long bridge across the Sharvathi river. Riding the bullet on that bridge when the road is almost empty makes you feel transported to some imaginary world. Its all water and only water around, and in the distant horizons, all of it merges with the grey skies, in a broad continuum, with very little giveaways to tell you where water ends and sky begins, and in front of you stretches this grey patched road of asphalt and concrete extending to infinity.

We reached Murudeshwara after 6.00 pm. It was awfully crowded, the day being a combined burst of Ganesh Chathurthi and Eid. Moreover the universe blatantly refused to treat us with a breathtaking sunset; Like an over conservative bride, she pulled her thick cloud veils across her magnificent jewels and sat with a drooped head! We went to the beach nevertheless. It was nice and sultry and windy, the evening sea driving up constant surf and spray in to the air turning everything foggy. A towering, meditating, and impeccably calm Murudeshwara (Shiva) watched over the sea and the beach and the people, spreading a palpable aura of silence and peace and permanence. The night fell shortly. A thin crescent moon was born in the sky. The darkness was filled only with the sounds of the sea fondling the land playfully with a thousand of her fingers. We sat on the beach till it was very dark, till the surf started coming up and nipping at our backpacks which were comfortably lying on dry sand sometime back.

We had dinner at a beach side resort and checked into a hotel for the night and slept instantly. Sunday morning 6 O' Clock saw us getting ready and mounting the bikes for the return journey. We had a tight deadline to reach Bangalore by 7.oo pm or so. It was a long and tiring day. We retraced most our route, but this time we took the shorter route to Tumkur directly from Shimoga. We did not make as many stops compared to the onward journey, on one of which I tried to befriend a pet cat in a village chai shop, with little success though, she was probably scared by all foren guys suddenly interested in her. We were delayed by various things, a police patrol checking all bikes for most probably for a windfall loot in fines, bike running reserve and having to refill, and a huge traffic jam on Tumkur-Bangalore highway that permitted us to wash ashore in Bangalore only at around 10.30 pm in the night.

But I was very satisfied with the impromptu decision :-)

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Roopkund and Kuari Pass - walking over mystic heights ..

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The mystery skeleton lake high up in the Garwhal Himalayas, Roopkund lies at the height of around 17,000 ft. It lies there alone in a remote, treacherous and uninhabited place; frozen mostly throughout the year and unreachable leaving a month or about in September when the snow melts.

The mystery and myths about this high altitude lake is around the hundreds of skeletons of men, women and horses discovered around and inside the lake in 1942, well and truly preserved in the rarefied air and snowy heights. Folklore tells the story of King Jasdhawal, the king of Kanauj who undertook a journey to the Nanda Devi mountains but only managed to invite the wrath of the divine upon his entourage. The Goddess Nanda, enraged at the outsiders who blemished her pristine domains, rained death upon them from the sky in stones of ice as hard as iron and threw them to the cold depths of the lake. Later investigations have concluded that the skeletons date back to 9th century, and are of people who perished in a violent hailstorm. But it is not clear what they were doing in the lap of the high himalayas far away from human settlements.

So thats where we decided to go - this being my second real Himalayan trek. The place is in Chamoli dstrict of Uttarakhand, northern India. We were a gang of seven, me, Abhijit, Jomy and Shanti - old time trekkers and Mahesh, Adiga and Vikram - the bacha log :-) and we were going to be under the guidance and patronage of Bal Bahadur sab, who's 52 years old but yet nimble as a 'Bal' - child - guide from Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand (Contact details at the end)

Picking a right time for this journey is crucial. In September when the snow melts the lake looks like a pathetic ditch of about two meters deep and the mountain is just a desolate ocean of rocks. You can't reach there when the whole place from couple of kilometers down is covered in thick snow till about May end or June beginning and it starts to rain from the middle of June, violent Himalayan downpours that last till almost September. But unless it rains the breathtaking Bugyals - high altitude grasslands - won't be having their green splendor, the grass to be still not awakened from their dormant sopor. So if you time it correct you will pass through the splendid green grass meadows just after the rains, will have moderate to mildly treacherous snowscapes to climb through and a breathtaking emerald lake shrouded inside the snowy white lap of the mountains to top it off. That time is around the last two weeks of June; after the first rains, just before the torrential downpours pick up, and just after the snow forts have lowered their impregnable defenses.

But air tickets have to be booked at least a month back to keep the costs in check and you certainly can't beat the weather department in predicting the Monsoon, which apparently decided to not hurry up visiting the Indian peninsula this season. So we reached Delhi on June 20th Saturday for our two weeks journey, the monsoon much delayed and not yet gracing even the distant southmost shores of Kerala, and the capital city languishing in the blistering hot sun at 40 degrees. Our journey will start from Haridwar, holy pilgrimage place of Hindus, where Ma Ganga - the holy river - starts embracing the planes of northern India, and which is the dwar - entrance - to 'Devbhoomi', land of Gods who dwell in the mystic and mighty Himalayas and beyond.

Dizzyingly crowded and buzzing Haridwar at almost half past midnight ...

A jam packed Dehradun Jan Shatabdi express deposited us in Haridwar railway station at around half past eight in the night. My legs were aching from having to carry the backpack on top of them in the awfully crowded train. We came out to a dizzyingly crowded city whose narrow lanes had almost ground to an absolute stand still in a chaos of rikshas, autos, jeeps, pilgrims, vendors, and cows. The guy who followed us for an hour trying to get us to go with him and see rooms told that coming Monday is a no moon day and the crowd is here just for that, and the place will be empty two days later! But we are here today, and I for one certainly like a full moon on the contrary! Finding a room turned to be an impossible task. Bal Bahadur called from Rishikesh, another pilgrim town a little higher up and booked rooms for us in the hotel of his friend there. We dumped our luggage on the road in front of a Dhaba and had dinner - which was recompensingly good - and after haggling with auto drivers for the better part of an hour secured a ride for us and our forbidding luggage to Rishikesh. We met Bal Bahdur at the hotel and quickly retired to the rooms. It was hot and we were quite tired, before even starting the trek.

Next morning, the rest of the gang went off for rafting in the Ganges while I decided to meander through the alleys and bathing ghats of Rishikesh. Rishikesh, the land of rishies lies along the banks of Ma Ganga, a smaller town compared to Haridwar but appeared very much crowded and uncomfortably hot. Wandering aimlessly for quite some time I found myself to be in Thriveni Ghat, one of the bathing ghats along the Ganges. The lanes and the open concrete steps to the river were dotted with casual pilgrims and resting Sadhus. The supreme Lord Shiva manifesting himself in a reinforced concrete form watched over his devotees washing their sins away but looked apparently perturbed by some domestic altercations between his mistress Ganga and a not much amused lady of the house, Parvathi.

Shiva, his mistress Ganga and a not so amused Parvathi ...

I sat down by the lanes and later chatted with a young yogi who was sitting beside. Bhuvan Jogi Ram was from some remote village in Nepal that lay on the other side of the Himalayas and said he's been a sanyasi from age fifteen. He has traveled far, to Rameshwaram, a pilgrimage center at the southern tip of the peninsula, taking twenty four salagramas - prehistoric marine fossil rocks with curious shapes and markings worshiped as manifestations of Lord Vishnu - from the Gandaki river in Nepal and installed them on various holy places en route. This place is abound with sadhus, draped in saffron and leading a mendicant's life. But its probably debatable how much of it is a spiritual endeavor than just an escapade from life. I saw one sadhu picking up and carefully adjusting a slightly broken pair of sun glasses thrown by a casual tourist pilgrim.

I transported myself to Lakshman Jhula squeezed in a share auto that jostled through the mile long traffic snarl. Its a hanging bridge over the river Ganga and is also where many temples and bathing ghats are situated. Here one fellow started coming behind me wherever I ventured - a guide - Bhushan Sharma. Some time later I relented and conceded myself to his die hard pursuit. He took me around the temples there while filling the air around with his descriptions of Sankaracharya, Kali Kamli Wala - a sage of more modern times, Pandavas, natural shiv lingas and rudrakshas. I rather like to listen to someone who is talking like that :-)

Am agnostic to all these ...

Back at the hotel in the afternoon, rest of the gang was already there from the rafting trip. Our destination was the village of Mundoli and Wan, a village that is higher up which will be the starting point of our trek. Mundoli is about a ten or twelve hour journey by road from Rishikesh and we have to split it in two days. So today the aim is to reach Rudraprayag, another pilgrim place on the route to Badrinath from Rishikesh. We left Rishikesh in a jeep, along with Bal Bahadur and some provisions he bought in Rishikesh. He told that the rest of the porters will join us on the way at Karnaprayag. Bal Bahdur is one who believes more in porters than mules to port stuff - his reasons, mules can only port and do no other work and need to be looked after lest they drop everything off the cliffs. Morever, thus he can provide employment to many who come to him for jobs from Nepal, himself having migrated long back and now established and doing good as a professional guide. He used to teach at the Nehru Mountaineering Institute in Uttarkashi, now visiting the school as a guest teacher sometimes. And since our journey was not to end at the place we started - we were planning to start from Wan, trek to Roopkund and continue our journey to Kuari pass and end up at Joshimath - carrying mules was troublesome.

We travel on Shivalik, road maintained by BRO (Border Roads Organization) and dotted with their snappy traffic signs like 'Be gentle on my curves'. The road cuts through the shivalik mountain ranges along the deep gorges where a vernal ganga and her tributaries tear through the terrain. The road was in bad condition at places being repaired from damages caused by landslides and made our progress slow. On top of this the jeep developed a flat tyre. Driving in the night is banned on the mounatin roads for safety reasons, but we managed to pull up at Rudraprayag before the barricades were down. The night was spent in the dorm of Garwhal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guest house at Rudraprayag with the roar of rivers in the background, Alakananda and Mandakini merging just below the cliff on which the hotel stood.

Next morning the road trip continues to Karnaprayag. Stock up more provisions, meet with the porters and by late afternoon we reached Deval - a small mountain town where our driver left us and a more rugged mountain faring jeep took over agreeing to take us till Wan. Asphalted roads degrade to a mud track somewhere on the way and the jeep slowly and steadily chugs along scaling the mountain. Concerningly the land looked torrid and dry. There has been no rains. We are going to miss the green splendor of the bhugyals, bad. Stopping over at Lohajung for lunch, I talked to the old folks gathered around the town square tree. They confirmed there's been no rains but kindled some hope telling me it might have rained in the higher reaches. The first distant sight of snow peaks from the mountain tracks ahead caused wild excitement among some of the bacha log :-)

They want to eat the camera now ...

The evening found us at Wan, a remote village nestled in a magnificent valley. The landscape looked reassuringly greener and we were greeted by an assorted group of kids. They were skeptical when I ventured among them with an ominous looking camera and mostly looked on with caution. But droop down and show them the pictures on the screen and the snow melts in a snap. Now they are grinning into the lens, pushing me and come running to me whenever I remove the lens cap! All of them go to school but now its holidays. We parted with the kids and climbed up a small hill to the forest guest house, a gorgeously green little building tucked among lawns and wild dahlias.

Bells of the Latu Devatha ...

Wan is home to Latu Devatha, the body guard of goddess Nanda Devi who accompanied her in her journey to the home of lord Shiva. The small temple in the hills, Latu Devatha mandir in Wan is adorned with the many bells devotees have offered to Latu for blessings. A huge bell hangs in the main entrance. Ring it and the chimes last for a full twenty six seconds reverberating across the hills and the sleepy devdar trees. Merciful Latu Dev, guard us as we venture into the magnificent lands of your mystic realm.

Night descended slowly on Wan bringing out thousands of stars in a moonless black sky. The lit up sky hung like a speckled dome over the seven of us lying on sleeping mats out in the lawn.


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Friday, July 24, 2009

Wan to Bedni Bugyal and Patar Nachoni - endless grasslands ...

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Durga Prasad Bahadur, the cook in our porter gang proved to be an expert hand in the culinary art making me dump any concerns of not being able to eat from previous himalayan trek experiences. In fact I was of the opinion that just the salad he served before dinner simply beats everything the previous guys whisked up over many days. Next day we are to trek to Bedni Bugyal, a high altitude grass land that lies at a height of about 11000 ft. Bal Bahadur said we will start around eight in the morning for this six hour trek and wished us good night. I made a curious resolution to not look at the watch or attempt to know the time unless absolutely necessary and to deposit the watch in the backpack instead of wearing it. Curious this indeed is, as I, am a creature that wears a watch even while it sleeps.

My faith in Durga sab's cooking exploits reinforced with a yummy morning breakfast we started somewhere around the time Bal Bahadur intended us to start. Soon after taking the trail we were welcomed by the mirthful resonating chime of cowbells on the hillsides. Occasionally we crossed paths with the village dwellers venturing out to the fields or to graze cattle on a beautiful bright day. Alongside the trail I saw many pitcher plants, my first encounter with any carnivorous organism lacking the power of locomotion, nonetheless a passive variety that digests insects falling into its pitcher.

The killer pitcher plant ...

Couple of streams run across the trail but most of them have dried up due to lack of rains. The path gradually veers into deciduous forests on the hill slopes and stretches filled with evergreen Devadarus and towering pine trees. Lot of Rhododendron shrubs grew scattered on the way but sadly very few retaining the blossoms from an almost forgotten spring. I stopped often on this rather easy trail listening to the breeze rustling the dead leaves on the high canopy. At times when the wind picks up, a thousand leaves drizzle down from the skies immersing me in queer sensations of realms beyond the grasp of the written word. Realms of burnt ochre, memories of leafless falls, unicorns and apple trees and blossoms of spring descending on an autumn tree branch.

By afternoon we reached Doliya Dhar, a ridge marking the beginning of the grasslands. The green bugyals of Bedni were visible on the higher slopes dotted with an occasional cow or a mule. Villagers leave their mules and cattle over here for months in summer when grass is scarce in the valley. They will come to pick them up when it starts to rain. We leave the tree line in ascending to these grasslands. Shrubs give way to oceans of tiny flowers in assorted crayon colors. Cropped green grass, endless stretches of it, cover these rolling hills. They looked so green notwithstanding the continuing drought, thriving on the moist land wetted by the descending mist and fog in cold nights. I could only imagine what magic spells of charming green a touch of rain can cast over these splendid landscapes.

On the green meadows of Bedni ...

Our tents were erected at Bedni by late afternoon and Durga sab pandered us with tea, soup and snacks. Lazing on the grass beds I looked at the snow clad peaks of Trishul and Nandaghunti shrouded in thin cloud veils. Roopkund lies in the laps of the Trishul massif behind a rock strewn peak that looks like a perfect pyramid rising up in the sky. A mild evening sun warmed the meadows. I walked around the bugyal to Bedni kund,  a fairly large enclosure to retain rain water but which now lay barren and dry. The grass fields are split by deep ravines that looked like tectonic fault lines. Crossing one such gorge we climbed up a small hill for a better view of the snow peaks. On a vast green field beneath, a large herd of cows grazed lazily in an almost perceivable golden brown glow rendered by the sun who had started descending on the bugyals.

Darkness falls slowly in these late June days making us retire into the tents. In there the newcomers are introduced to the all engrossing card game of fifty six. This is just the first day among the many to come when we'll be blissfully lost in this addictive game deep into the nights. But only till Birendar announces dinner. Birendar is the frontend guy of the food department with a charming smile and a heartening manner. The high altitude and cold is getting in the way of people's eating capacities.  Durga sab, nontheless, continued to not disappoint. Coming out of the tents in the late night I saw Milky Way, the magnificent river of stars flowing between the horizons of a pitch dark night. I counted and this seems only the second time am seeing the Milky Way in such splendor on a clear moonless sky. Bedni was cold enough to make you shiver if you venture out in the night but cozily warm inside a sleeping bag.

Shrine on the bugyal ...

The sun has risen early, very early, I said to myself crawling out of the tent to a bright but misty morning the next day. Today we trek to Patar Nachoni - a place of huge collapsed rock boulders. Probably patar in this name does not mean stone but is the name of an old tribe of courtesans or royal dancers, but I could be wrong. This is the place where Raja Jasdhawal and his ill fated retinue spent the night centuries ago. Probably all night the royal courtesans sensuously gyrated to keep the king entertained. The sacrilegious performance incited Nanda Devi, the supreme mountain Goddess who commanded a violent hailstorm to descend upon the convoy as they passed through Roopkund the next day. Patar Nachoni is also about a six hour trek from Bedni during which one gains a thousand more feet of altitude.

The chula roti cooked on burning firewood tastes soft and yummy when taken as it is being made.  A hot cup of tea completes the ensemble, the warmth tingling my fingers through the mittens. We start somewhere around the same time as we started on the first day. The steep climb from the meadows of Bedni to the ridge trail leading to Patar Nachoni is a harsh breathing workout. Your lungs and body have to try hard to adjust to the higher altitudes and rarefied air. A more relaxed schedule should spend a day at Bedni for acclimatization. Once you climb on to the ridge trail the walk is easier, progressing through much slower gradients. The trail goes through vast grass covered mountain slopes and occasional streams of broken boulders. The winding path is visible for miles ahead. Its debatable whether that is a deterrent or something supposed to egg you on.

The Thrishul massif ...

We are walking around an imposing mountain to reach the other side. The pyramid shaped peak is closer and more clearly visible from here. We rested at the inflexion point of the ridges and had lunch. Time being a commodity available in plenty, we spent lot of it here tucking ourselves amidst the tall grass and gazed over the vast mountainscapes ahead. Here we shouted in to the huge valley, and heard the echoes last for a good few seconds. Even after your voice dies down, the echoes keep coming from far away mountainsides, caused by multiple reflections. Walking further, some steep cliffs tower over the trail dwarfing the minuscule human forms passing under them. The miles long trail continues, but now it is looking like a mirror reflection of the paths we left behind.

By late afternoon we reach Patar Nachoni and tents here go on a thick green meadow decked with a million of tiny flowers. Apparently the flowers are not fragrant but just have their brilliant colors and swarms of tiny bees floating over them falling for this luscious display. Getting water was problematic with all nearby streams running dry. There has been no rains yet. Rashtrapathiji is the main water gatherer of the porter gang, so known for his name coinciding with that of Nepal vice president Parmananda; He is also the oldest member of the gang. Water has to be brought from a stream running deep in the ravine, a good thirty minutes climb down and up. The stream flows down from the snow mountain and is kept alive by the melting snows above.

Tents on flowerbeds ...

The Kalu Vinayak ridge visible from here is the first milestone the next day. It tops off a steep 3000ft climb from where we are camping and from here almost the complete trail can be clearly seen winding up the grass laden mountain slopes. Towards the end the trail dwindles down to tight zig zags that exactly resemble a big hair pin stuck on to the flowing green mane of the mountain. Another small group from Mumbai is also camping here, consisting of a father, mother and their two sons. The father though retired is the most enthusiastic of them all, the mother wanting to brave nature's hurdles though she has had some ligament surgeries and the elder son the fittest in the group. As night falls it gets very cold here, and the game of fifty six can't go much deep into the night as tomorrow we have to start early . Tomorrow will be a ten hour trek of going up to Roopkund and coming back to the camp site at Patar Nachoni. After dinner, inside the sleeping bag, I touched down to levels of semi consciousness. As sleep engufled my thoughts I hoped Nanda Devi won't be considering playing cards as something sacrilegious and she would bless us with some good weather tomorrow.


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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Roop Kund - The emerald lake ...

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Roopkund lies in the laps of the Thrishul massif and is mostly frozen year round. The triple peaks of Trishul start to rise from the banks of this lake, the highest of them reaching up to 23000ft. In mythology, Lord Shiva conjured up the lake by brandishing his trident - The Thrishul - for his beloved wife Goddess Nanda to quench her thirst. The lake also doubled up as her dressing chamber mirror. Goddess Nanda was very pleased with her reflection seen on its jade waters and hence the name roop (form) kund (lake). Nanda Devi is the patron goddess of the Garwhal Himalayas, and the story of her journey to her husband lord Shiva's abode in the Himalayas is deeply ingrained in the culture and religion of the people here. Roopkund lies on the path of Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yathra or the Royal Pilgrimage of Goddess Nanda. The Raj Jat is a festival of very large proportions that takes place roughly once around every twelve years. The Goddess Nanda is carried by foot from a village named Nauti in Chamoli over 300 kilometers up through Roopkund and over the high snow clad pass of Junargali adjoining the lake and to Homkund, another lake at 13500 ft. According to legend every twelve years a four horned ram mysteriously takes birth in the fields of the ancient king of Garwhal; Ants infest the rice announcing to people that it is time for the Raj Jat. The ram is believed to be Nanda Devi's messenger to lead the pilgrimage which depicts her bridal journey to her lord's domicile. Four horned rams are indeed born in the Chandpurpatti region near Karnapryag and are carried along with the procession and freed up at Homkund. The rituals and mythology of central Himalayas is studied in detail by noted anthropologist William S. Sax and described in his book "Mountain Goddess: Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage". He also went along with the Raj Jat of 1988. The last Jat happened in the autumn of the year 2000.

We woke up early today, but the sun was already up and about. It kept on fighting a valiant battle with the mist from the mountains till it rose cleanly over them. I think Nanda Devi did not take that lightly to playing cards after all, the pyramid peak was shrouded in clouds of varying degrees of gray and the morning was very misty and cold. We must have started around 7.00 in the morning. I had my watch and started looking at time again :-)

Swargarohini path ...

Climbing up to the trail through the huge boulders strewn across the mountain side was an ordeal. Once on it, the trail to Kalu Vinayak ridge did not seem as difficult as it looked from down below. We made slow and steady progress and rested at a few places along the climb. From here the path we've come reminds of the myth of Pandavas climbing the Swargarohini Parbat and disappearing into the heavens. The sun was high up in the sky and it was warm, but the snow clad regions where we eventually have to head to still looked bad covered in gray masses of cloud. We hit the tight zig zags pretty soon and ascended onto the Kalu Vinayak ridge around 10 am. Kalu vinayak has a small shrine with a black Ganesh and many bells. The whole area remains covered in snow till late in summer but now the Ganesh was peacefully casting his divine gaze over the valley. The Thrishul peak is very clearly visible from here in all its majestic splendor. A fairly large group from Northern Railway Mountaineering Club were coming down from Roopkund and met us here. They had camped in Bhaguabasa the previous day and reached Roopkund early morning. Bhaguabasa is a rocky place further ahead from Kalu Vinayak. Some of the descending group members warned us of the deteriorating weather. The Mumbaikar gang also climbed with us but they were staying in Bhaguabasa for the day.

We should reach Rookund by noon so that trekking down we can reach the camp by six or so in the night. The forward runners gang had started ahead - Abhijit, Mahesh, Adiga and couple of guides; Bhandariji and Raj Bahadur. Rest of us started a little later. There are a bunch of stone huts in Bhaguabasa where you stay if you are camping here. Heavy winds here may take out your tent if you pitch it on open terrain. A little flat terrain follows after Bhaguabasa and we walk over a trail of stones where its easy to twist your ankle unless you watch your step. The sky if full of clouds now, but thankfully most of them still white. I'm now immersed in a circle of rising peaks with scattered white snow lanes on them like streaked hair. We are passing the snow lane, the first snow lump on the trail felt cuhsy and crackling as I stepped over it. The forward runners were quite ahead, I could not see them anymore. Bal Bahadur was with us though. And soon we hit the first frozen snow stream. The snow was hard, but I could almost hear water running beneath my feet as I walked over it. The stream felt like a frozen palm ending the outstretched snow laden hands of the mountain, and I was in the palm, walking over its criss-crossed lines. A Lilliputian palmist trying to read the lines of Gulliver's palms as he lay unconscious.

Mighty glacial hand ...

The rest of the gang had fallen behind by this time. They had couple of guides with them, so I tried to catch up with Bal Bahadur who had gone ahead a bit by now. Looking up at the peak, I could not figure out where the lake would be or what path we are taking to go to the top. It felt as if we were nowhere near the top. The watch showed its already 12 noon. The rareness of the air is almost palpable now. I had to stop and breath every five six steps. Obviously, Bal Bahadur was much better of, far more accustomed to this. He was going out of my sight now, and I was walking all alone.

The path has gotten far steeper now. As they say, no shortcuts to the top. Most part of the trail is covered in snow and loose rocks. I must have walked for about half an hour like that, placing each step carefully to not slip and watching out for boot marks to not lose my way. I felt the presence of the mountain very much around me. In the virgin snow sheets that lay around, in the cold mist that surrounded me, in the gray scrunching clouds above and in the awesomely blue tiny patches of sky visible at random, the mountain was looking at me, touching me and softly whispering in my ears. It was not angry, nor was it trying to scare me. It felt more like an aged grandfather, gentle and kind, with flowing white beard, looking down at me through his half moon spectacles and urging me to go on.

Sometime later I looked up and saw the black silhouette of someone waving to me from a steep cliff above; they must have reached the top! But the sight soon disappeared in clouding mist. I kept on climbing slowly. Maneuvering through some more steeper and loose rocky terrain I came upon a vast stretch of now. This looks like almost stretching to the top and am not seeing anyone here. I shouted and presto! the reply came from somewhere to the right but still a little more up. I crossed the snow field and through the fog I could see the silhouettes of the forward runners group perched on a rocky ledge. The lake lay behind that, hidden from you until you reach this very place. But everything was covered in mist now. Abhi said it had cleared twice when they were there and the view was awesome.

Snowy slope ...

I stood there and waited as it seemed to start clearing up a bit. The fog lifted slowly. I watched in delightful wonder as the form of the lake emerged from its gauzy white veil. It looked so large and round, swirls of emerald and dapples of white frost interspersed, almost popping out from the snow laden slope like a huge eye of he mountain. Fumes of mist kept on rising from the swirling eye. The mountain did not wait long before shutting its eye with layers of mist, just when I was starting to break off the spell and clicking snaps.

It was almost 1 O'clock now. Shanti and the rest of the group have not reached yet. I doubted if she will be able to make it. But we waited. At about 1.30 we heard some shouts and Shanti and group emerged from the fog. She had made it finally! In spite of low hemoglobin, and an affliction of altitude sickness, puking and almost running out of steam she had ploughed on and did reach the top, Kudos! And as soon as she reached, she uncontrollably broke down in tears putting us photographers who were ready with flashes in a dilemma of whether to take snaps or not! :-D

The sky remained overcast and the mist never really cleared up after that. We started the descent at about 2 pm. In the initial really steep parts, we climbed down in pairs and triples in a line holding hands. Sometime later rain started as a slight drizzle, but gratefully it subsided soon. The forward runners went ahead in the descent also and me and Bal Bahadur ended up forming a middle group. We reached Kalu Vinayak ridge by 4 and waited for the rest of the gang to arrive. They came much late and it was almost 5 when all of us started descending from Kalu Vinayak. By the time we reached the tents at 7 in the night, the day had been a real long trek of twelve hours!

Walking to the top ...

Tired and grateful, as I was falling asleep I thanked Nanda Devi for letting us through her mesmerizing kingdom and keeping us safe.


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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pathar Nachoni to Bhuna, Kanol and to Dikundar - through villages ..

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With the toughest day of the trek behind us, we have a couple of relaxing days ahead. Today we trek from Patar Nachoni to the village of Bhuna. Our next major destination is Kuari pass at an altitude of about 14000 feet. The kuari pass trail is also called Lord Curzon Trail as the then viceroy of India Lord Curzon trekked this route in 1905. The traditional trekking route starts from the village of Ghat and moves through villages of Ramni, Jhenji Pani and beyond. We will be joining the trail from a lateral route somewhere before the Jhenji village. The trail to Bhuna from Patar Nachoni mainly goes through narrow ridges cutting across mountains. This will be a five to six hour undertaking.

To cut the trail short, we were not going go around the mountain by retracing a bit from Patar Nachoni and following the normal trail to Bhuna. Bal Bahadur said we will cut across the mountain on this side itself and join the trail when it comes around the mountain. Thus we started walking from Patar Nachoni cutting across the green mountain without much of trail existing in our path. It was again a misty morning, giving a general feeling that the rain is finally intending to enter this northern mountain regions. We walked mostly on level altitude, across spongy bushes of untrodden grass, over short streams of broken boulders and regions covered with tiny flowers. Bad weather seemed to follow us in the form of mist and fog rising up from the valley. But the shortcut proved quite effective in quickly transporting us to the trail this side of the mountain.

Blue flowers on the way ...

Soon after we hit on the trail, it started descending quite steeply into deep gorges most of them partially covered in fog. And of course we have to climb all this distance up in a few minutes as the trail starts to go up the next hill. The planes in between were covered with flowers. Lots of blue flowers dominated often as opposed to the tiny yellow verieties in Pathar Nachoni. By noon we reached a cliff from which the trail could be seen almost dropping down to a ravine where probably a stream will run in the rainy season. The trail then rises steeply up the other side of the cliff. I could see the porters sitting at the bottom with some other guys who looked like shepherds. From here a distant village was visible on the mountain side which was Bhuna. We will not be going into the actual village, but camp in a higher spot as next day our journey will continue from the top again.

Climbing down was sort of easy. Looking up from the bottom of the ravine, we seemed to be stuck inside a Jurassic era crater inhabited by Pterodactyls and Dragons. But sadly none came flying around, so plans of hanging on to their legs and maneuvering to the top had to be shelved. The climb was slow. On top we met the group who we thought were shepherds. They were in fact a group of local people who scour the mountains often for herbs and medicinal plants. There was a small stone shrine atop the cliff and lots of cows and buffaloes grazing. Some of them were perilously moving through the thin edges of the cliff. Coming down we hit the tree line again and reached the camping site by 3 in the afternoon. The tents here were set in a small clearing inside the forest and the porters were able to find water nearby.

Cowherd on Bhuna top ...

As we were settling down in the tents a shepherd passed through the nearby trail with his flock of sheep. His large brown guard dog took a fancy to the colored tents and people and came down to visit. He seemed quite friendly, moved around among us, ate all the snacks we gave him and bonded with people. Meanwhile Bal Bahadur and gang negotiated with the shepherd and bought a sheep. Sheep is for dinner. Protein is always welcome, as Bear Grylls advices.

Night was cold. Probably it also rained in the night, going by people who claimed to have heard rustling of the tent roof but I must have been in too sound a sleep for that sound to permeate. Morning was very foggy, but the forest seemed to be much alive with all sorts of unseen birds chriping. Today we will descend to Kanol, which is a fairly largish village. There is supposed to be a forest guest house in Kanol and a small river flowing by. So we are hoping to have a bath after five days and some solar powered electricity to recharge the camera cells.

Surprise visitor from the village ...

Kanol is about three hours from Bhuna. We started descending around nine in the morning from Bhuna top. The captivating harmonics from the gang of cowbells resonated in the grassy slopes. Leaving the herd behind we entered into a luscious green forest. The sun was still hiding in the fog cover and the dew was almost palpable in the air. The leaves and trees were moist and green. Everything is so fresh, you feel a spring in your stride, a smile on your lips and a tune in your breath? well, maybe thats because the nose is partially blocked! Quite soon the sun drove the mist away and set the tree canopy awash with bright light. We were descending by the side of a fairly largish stream which was but only a trickle now. I saw a huge brown rock face which had three thick black vertical lines on it. Is this where Pandavas used to play cricket?

As we were nearing Kanol, we met some traffic in the trail in the form of people going up to gather firewood. We emerged out of the forest by 12 noon into a grass land where the forest guest house at Kanol was situated. Durga sab sprung up a refreshing little surprise in the form of black lemon tea instead of the normal one. After settling down few of us made a reconnaissance trip to the village. Lot of houses seemed to have solar panels on top. There were couple of shops and one of them had a wireless telephone. He offered to recharge the camera cells from his solar-battery-invertor setup. Here also a bunch of kids flocked around me in my endeavors with the camera. Potatoes seemed to be the main cultivation here with the small fields all flowered up now.

Sleepy forest in Bhuna ...

We returned to the guest house for lunch, and after that started playing cards in a siesta mood. Two little girls I met in the village came to the guest house. They sat on the lawn and watched us play some queer game. Pretty soon a bunch of kids formed a motley gang of spectators around the low stone walls of the guest house, all watching the alien visitors indulged in some queer activity. None of them were brave enough to come in though except the two kutti girls. In reward the kutti girls got a share of the hot and crispy pakoda coming out of Durga sab's stables. Glory to the brave. The pakodas tasted so good, all of it was gone in the blink of an eye.

We had baths, washed some clothes and generally rested. This was a pleasant day. By night a thin moon came out and seemed to be smirking at the black night. The man in the moon makes faces as the moon makes phases. The sky was partially cloudy with not many stars. A bunch of village girls were returning from the forest with firewood. I could not see them or figure out through which trail they were coming down. But they were singing, singing with such gay abandon. An unknown mountain song. Their voices rose and fell and reverberated in the darkness. The song merged with the chime of cowbells seemed to be filling the whole night sky. I listened in silence. The enchantment and the undulating chorus slowly died away as they approached the village.

Kutti girls ...

I slept well after a refreshing day. Sixth day of our trek, today we'll travel through a melange of village trails to Dikundar, another small settlement. It should take four to five hours to reach Dikundar. We started around eight in the morning. As we crossed the village, a special group joined us on the trail. A new born calf and its mom cow were being taken to another nearby village by a family. This probably is the baby's first real day out. It was walking skeptically, huddling close to the mom. Shortly thereafter a confusing traffic jam occurred as the calf refused to move further when faced with an oncoming herd of cows and a protective mom blocked the way. People interfered with the bovines and helped them resolve their differences, slowly clearing the way. Kanol seems to be an amalgam of settlements than a single village. The man walking with the cow family told us that it consists of 26 villages and 365 families.

Once the cow family went off the trail towards a settlement on the way, we had an empty path ahead. By this time the trail started descending into a deep valley and the roar of a river could be heard. River Nandakini crosses these mountains through this deep ravine. Nandakini emanates from near Roop Kund and the Shila Samudra glacier close by. The descending trail was tiresome with lots of loose and flaky rocks. The mirage like roar of the river seems so close but every turn just appears to end in another turn down the slope. Scrambling through this trail for 15-20 minutes, we reached the bottom. Nandakini, her waters dull gray and frothing white, was tearing through the valley. A mild stream of crystal clear waters joins Nandakini here and a small bridge is built across this stream. We rested at this confluence for some time, dipping feet into the refreshing and cold flow of the small stream.

Nandakini ...

Walking further, we crossed Nandakini over a bigger bridge built across it further ahead. After this starts a climb, a steep and tiring one where we regain the altitudes lost in climbing down to Nandakini. Once over the top, houses and fields in a settlement were visible. Some electric power lines and poles could be seen criss crossing those areas but Bal Bahadur said they are not active yet. Soon we reached a small stream. There was a short waterfall by the side of the stream and a small building almost beneath it. Bal Bahdur said its a Gharat, or a device for grinding grains. We went inside and tried to figure out how to operate it. Water was redirected from top of the waterfall into the building through a wooden slope that ended on the leaves of a wheel under the building. On the floor of the building, the wheel is attached to a round stone wheel that can rotate on top of another such stone wheel which is fixed. Everything was in place, water was flowing in through the slope,but the wheel was not rotating. Finally we discovered that at the top of the falls the inlet to the water diversion was closed with a wooden plank except for the water seeping through. I climbed up and removed the plank and presto! the gharat started rotating. Feels great to solve any puzzle :-)

From here Bal Bahadur took a short cut to the top which was a fifty degree steep climb for couple hundred meters! It was really hot and these lands were arid and dry except for the stream below. We took a long time in getting up this incline and reached some narrow lanes with houses on the sides. It was about 1 O'clock now. Moving further we met the porters gang and the tents pitched in a small clearing at the end of the village. There seemed to be no sign of water. The village kund, enclosure to retain rain water, lay dry and parched nearby. Water had to be brought from the small stream that we left at the very bottom! A tiring prospect for the rest of the day for Rashtrapathiji and friends. Moreover this place had no shade and an unrelenting sun was burning down on us.

Gharat - complex simple machine ...

After the lemon tea made rounds we found a walnut tree at some distance across the kund. The sleeping mats there shifted there and we sat down underneath the tree and em .. , started playing cards :-D Even here we attracted a group of kid spectators though small compared to Kanol. But here, they climbed up the tree and were watching the sport from the gallery, clinging to the branches right above us! Bal Bahdur and Bhandariji decided to go shopping to nearby village of Sithel as we were running out of provisions. They promised to bring a chicken and Bal Bahadur sab agreed to our demand that we ourselves will make a barbecue out of it.

The walnut tree was our shade and shelter till the evening when Bandariji came and announced that the chicken is cut and ready. A co-ordinated effort ensued in which people collected wood to build a makeshift barbecue rack, dug a pit to burn the fire, made masala and marinated the chicken and cooked it lightly in the pressure cooker. Only thing left was to light the fire and set the meat on it when the rain started. We waited in the tents for long, but the rain showed no intentions of winding down. At last the compromise of simple roasted chicken had to be accepted and we called it a night. The rain continued for long, deep into the night, a much needed respite from the scorching heat.


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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dikundar to Jhenji Pani, Pana and to Dakwani - Approaching Kuari pass ...

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The long awaited rain had cast a freshening touch to everything around over the night. The village kund has some water in it now. The improvised system of rain water harvesting installed by the porter gang consisting of a ditch and a polythene sheet in it has collected a good amount of clear water, saving them the labor of going down to the stream. But the bad news was that Bal Bahadur was not able to get any vegetables from the village yesterday. No rains, no produce. We got wheat and rice, and for vegetables will have to look to the wild today. Today the plan is to reach Jhenji Pani, the village on the Lord Curzon's trail to Kuari pass. This would be a longer day, warranting seven to eight hours of trek.

We left Dikundar at around 8.30 in the morning and continued on a trail used by villagers. Soon the trail started climbing up a steep hill. We saw a few large vultures circling the sky often coming quite close to the ground. Further climbing up we found a bunch of them perched on rock ledges above. A little more time on the way up revealed why they were stationed here. There was the carcass of a dead cow on the trail which probably fell to its death from the trail above. Nature's garbage cleaners at work. Small groups of villagers also were moving with us in the trail.

The day was very hot again. Climbing up and down through couple of steep hills in the heat was quite tiring and there was no water to be found anyway in the path. Later we passed through the villages of Ala and Bhora. Thankfully the village water fountains still had running water. Somewhere by the village trail we found a beautiful looking house which had an inscription on it saying it was built in 1957. The ladies sitting in the courtyard wondered and asked us where we were going in this unbearable heat. Here as you pass by, the bunch of children sitting everywhere seemed to be asking for "007" instead of chocolate. For quite some time I could not figure what they were asking. Were they really true when they said more than half the population of the world has watched a James Bond movie? :-D

Vulture in flight ...

Explanation came from Bal Bahadur later. It seems foreigners when they come on the popular Curzon's trail distribute lot of ball pens to kids. The kids are in fact asking for 'Reynolds 007' the ball pen, not for the renowned spy. But then the pen is 'Reynolds 045' not '007', what is this? Did those guys distribute really old models or what? :-D

We again crossed two more tedious ascends and descends across large hills and by two in the afternoon reached another small village with lot of potato fields. We had the packed lunch here. From this place Bal Bahadur seemed to be going to climb up a hill with no signs of a trail anywhere on it. In fact it was a path through which water flowed down the hill when it rained. Oh my! was it steep! We had enough of climbs for the day! Now I knew what to expect when Bal Bahdur says "Aage aur bas thodi si chadaai hei". This should be some path which few people take I thought, till I was surprised by a villager coming down the path with a huge log of wood on his back! Scrambling up through this hill for quite some time we entered a thick forest. In fact this trail seemed to be one very less used going by the absence of mule shit on the way which is an omnipresent feature of the village trails.

The forest was enchantingly thick and had a dense canopy blocking the scorching sun. The path was still fair bit of a climb through the cushion of dead and dry leaves. We asked Bal Bahadur who was up ahead to stop and sat for sometime on a huge fallen tree trunk across the jungle floor. There was a change in the weather now. Dark clouds could be seen wading through the tree canopy. It started drizzling soon. Gentle and mild prickling rain which cools the air and fills your spirits with freshness. Its getting late now, the watch showed 4 O'clock already. Probably we'll have to camp somewhere before Jhenji Pani. We crossed the forest and reached the top ridge of the hill. The ridge is called Binayak, for the Ganesh temple somewhere ahead on the ridge. We saw a family here, staying in a hut with their herd of buffaloes. It seems during summer months people come up these hills with their cattle and mules. They build closed corrals here to keep them which are called Gharaks. The families also will live alongside in small huts. Going down further on the mountainside, we reached some plane land with a bunch of these gharaks. This place is 'Seem Gharak'. Porters had stopped here and pitched tents some distance below. While we walked down, Bal Bahadur showed us a wild fruit that was edible. Ripe red small berry like fruits close to the ground, he called them 'kaaphal'. The ripe ones tased like the cream on top in a fruit salad.

Making the roof while the hay is yellow ...

We were halting here. This place has water and Jhenji Pani is another one and a half hours below. And this place has large flower beds, dominated by little white flowers for a change. We met a really talkative young guy coming down a stoned trail. He talked non stop. He told about Binayak, the temple, the annual small Jat - religious procession that happens here, the stone paved trail till Kuari pass which was built by Britishers and various other things. He and his brother were coming from Ghat village visiting their parents who were staying with their gharaks a little further down. We bid him good bye, and promised we'll meet him tomorrow morning when we go down. Today we have dinner with the last of the vegetables we are carrying. Lets see what we get tomorrow. After the usual night session of fifty six I fell asleep fast quite tired from todays exertions.

Eighth day of the trek, today we will cross the village of Jhenji Pani and reach a hill near the village of Pana. We started at the usual time of around 8.30 in the morning. The trail is indeed stone paved all the way as the talkative Ghat guy said. We met him on the way down, but escaped another long verbal session as he was about to go gathering firewood. The descend was easy. We passed through green forests and couple of streams and reached the Jhenji village soon. This is one of the stopovers in the Curzon's trail. There are a couple of guest houses here mainly targeting foreigners. Past the village we continued to get down in to the valley. A river called 'Jhenji Nulla' flows through this. We cross the river at a considerable height above it by way of a hanging bridge across the river. We sat on the bridge and rested for a while. The river raging deep below was a scary sight as I sat on the edge of the bridge with my feet hanging down from it.

After the bridge is again a steep climb. For more than two hours from that point we went thorough ascends and descends similar to yesterday and passed through many village regions. Group of children everywhere would shout "Namasthe" as you pass by and obligingly you respond the same way. Whats funny is they will keep repeating it, long after you have past them just to see how long you would keep responding back :-) Pleasant green forests and a waterfall marked the approach to Pana village at about four in the evening. Across the valley we could see a huge and old landslide region on a mountain. Almost the whole face of the mountain has come crashing down, wiping out all trees and vegetation and any human settlements that could have existed there.

At work in the fields ...

We bypassed the village and climbed a bit on the ascending path and the tents were pitched on a small grass land up the hill. The porters gang had collected some plants from the wild to work around the vegetable shortage. One was a short serpentine looking plant which they called 'Ninguda' and they had also collected some yellow colored mushrooms. Bal Bahadur and Bhandari went to the village here also looking for vegetables but returned empty handed. It started raining quite heavily in the evening which lasted well through the night. Thankfully the tents held on and the insides did not flood. The Ninguda subji was surprisingly yummy to taste. After dinner when the rain stopped and the skies cleared, a brilliant bright moon rose in the sky. The whole place was glowing in moonlight. It was so bright, the moonlight cast a clear and sharp shadow of me on the ground.

We woke up to clear blue skies next morning. Here and there fluffy little clouds made myriad patterns against the shimmering blue. The Thrishul and Nanda Ghunti peaks are visible from here again, immediately identifiable by the thin long ridge of the triple peaks. Today we trek to a place called 'Dakwani', half way up the hill to Kuari pass. This will be a rather short stretch of four to five hours. We have to reach there early and pitch the tents as it can start raining heavily by afternoon. The trail kept on climbing up the hill through foresty regions for about an hour or so. Abhi claimed he saw a Paradise Fly Catcher and spent some time in vain trying to photograph one. Well, It would be bad if there really were flies in paradise, I think.

After the climb and some plane terrain we suddenly emerged on top of a steep cliff. The visible depth was really breathtaking. The forward runners group and Bal Bahadur sitting on a bridge across the stream below looked like tiny ants. The stream had a frothing white waterfall also which at an unusual angle from this elevation appeared very queer. The whole scene looked like a display pane straight out of some 3D modeling software, as if I could pan, zoom, rotate and look at things whichever way I liked and from far away POVs. It took us quite some time to trek down to the bottom and midway we saw couple of beautiful dripping fountains falling from the cliff side.

Thats too far deep ...

After resting for sometime on the bridge, we walked again climbing the hill on the other side. On the top of that climb there was a vast area of dead pine trees. I wondered what could have caused all of them to die, maybe some sort of spreading disease? We crossed another small stream set in a shallower ravine and reached the grassy ares of Dakwani by two in the afternoon. It was completely covered with clouds. It felt like it can rain any minute. Thankfully the porters had reached before and pitched the tents well in advance. It started drizzling almost as soon as we reached.

But surprisingly the rain stopped and the skies cleared in half an hour. There was no sign anymore of the huge rain clouds that covered the mountain slopes. A gleaming sun brightened the blue sky. The towering round cliffs up in the mountain marking the entry to the pass could be clearly seen now. We spent the rest of the afternoon outside, me taking time out from the game of cards to catch up on the pending days' travel notes. Moon rises early, its still only just more than half way through its journey to becoming a full moon. The continuous roar of a stream could be heard nearby. We could have camped a little higher, but from this point up the stream is underground and there is no other water source.

Tomorrow morning we should start early. The famous view of snow clad peaks from Kuari pass could be seen only if the skies are clear and even as early as nine the skies start to get clouded these days. For dinner, the Ninguda Sabzi continued for the second day in a row. But Durga Sab's department did not give us the wild mushrooms fearing it will upset our stomachs. The night was much colder here compared to last few days. We finished dinner and slept early hoping to start soon after sunrise tomorrow.


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Monday, July 20, 2009

Over Kuari Pass to Tali, Auli and to Joshimath - ending the fortnight ...

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I woke up at five. It was incredibly cold though a little bit of sunlight was there. We were all ready by 6.30. But we could not start as it was very cold and misty and breakfast was late. We could begin walking only around seven when the sun was really up and about. Some brisk walking helped to warm up the bodies. We reached the bottom of the steep climb to the pass relatively fast. In here one feels surrounded by awe inspiring tall and ridged steep cliffs. Bal Bahadur had gone ahead in the trail. His shiny orange pants appeared as a bright spot against the green backdrop of the cliffs.

It took about an hour more for us to complete the climb and we were over the pass by sometime half past eight. Sadly the sky was not very clear. But yet, we could see that the whole skyline up ahead was composed by majestic snow clad peaks. These are some of the tallest peaks in Garwhal Himalayas and in India. Kamet, Neelkanth, Hathi-Ghoda parbat, Choukhamba etc are some of the major peaks visible. We had lot of time to spend here. Today's destination, Tali, is just about three hours walk from here. A bunch of local people were on the pass. They were climbing down to the villages where we came. We waited at the top for quite some time to see if the clouds will clear up, but they were rather obstinate.

Going up to Kuari Pass - The orange spot is Bal Bahadur ...

Later we walked across the pass to the other end. Across the path we found couple of small streams. Theoretically one can camp here, but the gale force winds make that rather impossible. All the while we hoped that clouds will clear offering a better view of the majestic peaks. But sort of shattering such hopes, we saw huge masses of clouds rushing up from the valley behind and spilling over the pass. Porters and Bal Bahadur had already started on the trail to Tali. Me, Jomy and Shanti stayed on top of the tall rock pillars here for quite long. Blankets of clouds came down and settled on the pass almost covering us from all sides. The wind fought with the clouds viciously, slicing and squeezing and driving lumps of white and gray mass all around.

Around 11 we lost all hopes of the sky clearing up again and started walking down the trail. Some distance down there is a fairly large stream and a bridge over it. We saw a bunch of tents here, probably of groups doing the Kuari pass trek from this end, starting from Auli. The grass fields here are patrolled by large flocks of Himalyan crows. These are interesting creatures as far as crows go. They have pink feet and yellow beaks! And their cry is something slightly effeminate and nasal compared to the rock rubbing 'kkraa' of their cousins in the planes.

There behind that mountain lies Tali ...

Tali is generally approached through a more or less level trail over ridges from Kuari Pass. It was considerably hot by noon. On the way we saw a large natural cave and went down to investigate. There were signs of people having stayed in this cave. A strange phenomenon was on display here. Through the narrow break in the ridge near the face of the cave, wind was blowing across with incredible force. Some kind of funnel effect was driving the air from the other side of the ridge through the narrow break. A little more later we came down to a clearing and a grassland. A forest began at the end of the clearing. The camping site was a bit further into the forest. Trouble of finding water followed us here also. The stream here was almost down to a trickle.

This being our last day in the forest, Bal Bahadur declared that we will have a bonfire. There were lot of dry fallen trees around. In a short time, the porter gang gathered enough firewood to burn for two three days on a stretch! It was about three in the afternoon by now. They decided to light the fire now itself. As if it was waiting for it, soon after the fire was lit rain began to fall. We abandoned the fire and retreated to the tents. Rain continued for more than an hour, but it was not heavy. Amazingly the fire did not die! After the rain it began to really burn up spreading a warm fuzzy feeling through the chill air.

For dinner we had a makeshift subzi with the last of the vegetables and whatever remaining. Great food has been an excellent feature of this trek. I would happily go trekking with Bal Bahadur again just for the food part itself! The last night in the forest was calm and rustled with the occasional drizzle of night rain.

The Dhouli Ganga Valley ...

Eleventh and last day of our trek, today we walk down from Tali through Garson top to Auli. The view of the snow clad peaks from Garson top is also supposed to be amazing, but I doubt if the clouds will let us see anything. We started late, about after eight. Auli is a three hour walk from here. The trail mostly goes through high ridges again. Once near Garson top though the clouds blocked our view of the mountains, they in turn staged a more dramatic scene to compensate this. The deep valley through which the 'Dhouli Ganga' flows was lit up in amazing hues by light falling through the clouds flanking the valley on both sides. Sometimes for a minute or two, the very distant peak of Nanda Devi was visible through the clouds.

Walking under the tableau of clouds for an hour or two, we reached the plane grasslands from where the rope way towers at Auli were visible. Crossing the grasslands we entered the last stretch of forest in our path. Inside the forest is the shrine of Patiyar Devata, probably the guardian of the forest. A big bell hangs at the entrance of the shrine. I rang the bell, again and again and again. Eleven times for the eleven days we spent in the lands watched over by the mountain Gods, in the yet unblemished lap of a loving mother, The Good Earth.

As soon as we hit civilization, the tryst with the complications of worldly travails began. Auli is a breathtakingly beautiful hill station in the winter months. But now it resembled some godforsaken hot and burning bland hill. Securing a vehicle from here to Joshimath ended up being a much more complicated task than we expected. Joshimath is the ending point of our trek. It is a pilgrimage place that lies on the route to Badrinath. By the time we sorted out the logistics it was close to three in the afternoon. We reached Joshimath by four. After finding a decent hotel and dumping our stuff, we bid adieu to Bal Bahadur and gang. Until next time.

Cloudwalkers  ...

Joshimath is the place where Sankaracharya established the first of the four Mutts that he founded across India. After baths and some rest couple of us visited the Mutt. I did not venture into the Mutt as it did not seem to be living up to the image I had conjured up in my mind. Instead I stood outside and gazed at the really tall bare mountains right across his small hill town. Could they have been standing just same way for the hundreds of years since Sankaracharya meditated in the jungle cave here? Standing in front of these towering peaks is so awe-inspiring and humbling, no wonder the mighty Himalayas elate you to levels when you feel one with the Universe. I sat down near the Kalpavriksha where Sankaracharya is believed to have meditated. It is a Mulberry tree, supposedly 2500 years old. But I really doubt if Mulberry trees could live for that long. I sat there and watched as the priest of the small shiva temple under the tree quarreled with a local youth for constantly filling water for his house from the tap belonging to the temple. A little group of small children running around the Kalpavriksha with chappals on as they played. An aged Sadhu staying in a hut opposite the temple coming limping with a stick and chasing the kids away. A mother coming running and slapping her little boy for mocking the slow moving aged Sadhu. A domestic dog who came and took shelter around my feet while running away from the house boy trying to put it inside the kennel. Minuscule pieces of enlightenment.

We had dinner from one of the numerous Dhabas here; Hot and wholesome food. One another task was to arrange for a jeep to take us and our luggage to Haridwar in time for the Dehradun Shatabdi Express at 6.00 O'clock in the evening next day to Delhi. Touching a spongy bed after a long time, I slept like dead till the alarm woke me up at 5 am. Joshimath to Haridwar is again an eight to ten hour journey by road. The jeep guy was late, but thankfully he did not ditch the appointment. Most of this day we spent in the jeep in various stages of sleep and consciousness, till he dropped us at Haridwar railway station by four in the evening.

This was again some or the other important day for pilgrimage and Haridwar was again crowded and incredibly hot! The only place open for eating and which had air conditioning at this hour was a dosa plaza. There we gorged on lot of, yes, you guessed it! dosas and generally lazed in the coolness. But filling ourselves up so much turned out to be more of a mistake as we could not do any justice to the pampering snacks and dinner catered in the Shatabdi express! We reached New Delhi by midnight, got taxis to the airport and spent the night inside the airport terminal. In the morning, the huge white flying vessel of Go Air patiently swallowed us all in its bowels, flew over great distances across a sub continent being stir fried by the sun, and regurgitated our half sleepy selves at the Bengaluru international air port.

Bal Bahadur - Contact Number : +919411399316

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