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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.