Amar – Our Little Genie From Nepal

It was nearly dinner time and we were all set to hit the streets once again. We couldn’t wait to explore all the restaurants and cafes that we had seen earlier. If you have been to Pokhara, in Nepal, you will know exactly what I mean. As we stepped out of our room, I heard my sister say, “I miss Amar!”. Amar had dropped us at Pokhara that afternoon and left for Kathmandu. We had really gotten used to Amar and this statement was repeated multiple times in overt and covert ways over the next 2-3 days, till we left Nepal.

Missing Amar happened out of blue this morning, once again. We wondered if all was okay with him and his family during this global Covid 19 pandemic. We googled to find out how Nepal was coping with the pandemic. Amar’s phone didn’t connect. So, we left a message in his boss’ mobile, who got back letting us know all was good and Amar had left for his village before the outbreak.

Amar Gurung was our trek guide, who guided our Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek last year in October.

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Pic 1: A selfie somewhere on the way.

ABC Trek has a well-marked trail and the risks of losing your way or getting stranded somewhere with no help is minimal. The tea houses along the way make it even easier as you don’t need to put up in tents. This trek can be easily done by yourself and you don’t need a guide. Also, trekking in Nepal is very organized and the experience is very different from treks in India.

However, I chose to go with a guide for two primary reasons – First and foremost having a local guide means you are exposed to the local culture through fascinating stories and folklore, which you otherwise never get to know. Second, is related to logistics as the guide helps carry the backpack and you can trek with a smaller day bag; takes care of tea house bookings, which can be tough during peak seasons. Also, it’s a way of contributing to the local economy.

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Pic 2: Somewhere in the lush green forests on the way.

There are numerous trekking agencies in Nepal and selecting the right one can be quite a task. I decided to go with Nepal Alternative Treks & Expeditions (P.)Ltd, a trekking agency recommended by fellow blogger, Indranil Chatterjee – do check out his blog Break Shackles. In fact, I did no research and did not even try to look for other options. The reason being, Indranil had trekked ABC the year before along with his 8-year old daughter. His posts fascinated me as trekking with your child in the uncertainties of the Himalayas is no mean feat. Hence, I looked no further. My job became easier.

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Pic 3: Posing with the the graceful, majestic, and divine Annapurna range.

Through Indranil, I connected with Tej Bahadur and planned my trip. When Tej introduced us to Amar in Kathmandu, we were pleasantly surprised as he looked too polished to be a trek leader. His attire and appearance gave the impression of a regular office-goer than a trek guide. Well, looks can be deceiving and that’s what was happening. Amar was like our little genie, taking care of us and always fulfilling our wishes and desires. Amar’s unparallel hospitality often left us feeling uncomfortable, we aren’t always used to someone being at our disposal. At every step he treated us like his personal guests.

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Pic 4: A tea break somewhere along the way.

A perfect gentleman, Amar holds a Post Graduate degree in Mathematics from Kathmandu University. He was planning to start working on his PhD soon. That first appearance wasn’t all that deceiving, you see! Amar belongs to the mountains and trekking runs in his genes. It was because of Amar that our ABC Trek experience became so much more enriched and memorable.

And, it is because of Amar that if/when I go trekking in Nepal again, it will be through Nepal Alternative Treks & Expeditions (P.)Ltd.

Mt. Annapurna – Up Close and Personal

Contd. from Annapurna – The Journey Begins

There had been no more rains since last evening and clear blue skies greeted us in the morning. The Sun was shining up in the mountain tops but was yet to reach the valley, where Bamboo, our tea house, was located. As a result, it was cold at Bamboo.

Through the Bamboo Forest

After breakfast, we started off for the day. The walk through the forest continued. This time, it was a dense and damp forest dominated by Bamboo trees. The Bamboo Forest was even more beautiful and enigmatic than the forest we had walked the day before. Not surprising, I found myself completely lost in a world of my own.

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Pic 1: The enchanting Bamboo Forest

The trees and shrubs, the bushes and creepers, the roots and leaves all seemed to be interacting with me as though telling me unknown tales of their mysterious wonderland. Each and every leaf exuded radiance, shimmering in the morning freshness. The renewed sparkle can be well attributed to the rains that had happened the day before. “Don’t they seem to have just stepped out of a beauty parlour, massaged and manicured with some essential oils,” I remarked. My sister gave me a scornful look, rolled her eyes, and walked on.

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Pic 2: Somewhere in the Bamboo forest

Dovan to Himalaya

Enjoying every bit of the walk we leisurely reached Dovan, the next tea house where clear views of Macharepuchare peak greeted us. We took 2.5 hours instead of the expected 1.5 hour to get here. Thanks to our frequent stops in the forest to admire the flowers, caress tree trunks, marvel at the leaves of various shapes and sized, inspect the moss-covered boulders, etc. What’s the hurry! Somewhere we even crossed a stream through a rickety broken bridge.

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Pic 3: Precariously crossing the rickety bridge over a stream.

The forest continued beyond Dovan and soon we hit upon a relatively wide footpath that can be well described as the rustic version of a cobblestone pathway. At the start of the pathway a notice was displayed with clear information about maintaining the sanctity of the place as a highly revered temple lay ahead in the forest. Soon, we landed at the temple. It was a Shiva and Parvati temple. A tall jagged mountain stood behind the temple adorned by a cascading waterfall that spread across the breadth of the mountain.

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Pic 4: The rustic version of a cobblestone pathway

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Pic 5: The notice displayed on a tree about a kilometer before the temple.

Beyond the temple was a steep set of stairs that continued all the way almost upto Himalaya, the next tea house. The stairs were well defined at the beginning only to be replaced by rustic boulders later. At Himalaya, we took a tea break. Dark clouds filled in the sky and it started drizzling. We slipped into our rain jackets and continued walking.

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Pic 6: The Shiva-Parvati temple with a waterfall cascading on the mountain behind it.

Gray Langurs at Hinku Cave

The climb continued after Himalaya but the forest started slowly thinning out. Multiple waterfalls strewn here and there from the mountain tops drained vertically down into Modi Khola that thundered somewhere in the deep gorges. In some places the trail was very narrow and we had to be cautious with our footing. In all such ascends, I would mostly be alone as my sister walked slowly way behind with Amar, our guide.

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Pic 7: The bunch of Gray Langurs at Hinku Cave

After sometime, a short but very steep climb got us face-to-face with a huge overhanging rock. This was Hinku Cave. All over this huge rock, were a large number of Gray Langurs – young and old, babies and families. We paused for a while to watch the over-energetic playful bunch hopping around before continuing our walk towards Deurali.

Surrounded by Waterfalls at Deurali

Soon we spotted the tiny blue tinned roofs of the tea houses in the far distance. Finally, Deorali was in sight though it was still quite a walk away. Simultaneously, Modi Khola made its grand appearance gushing away in leaps and bounds through the gorge. After a while we crossed a bridge and yet another set of steep stairs stared at us that would take us up to Deurali – our stop for the day at 3230 m.

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Pic 8: When we first saw the Himalayan Sunflower just before Deurali

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Pic 9: Crossing over Modi Khola just before arriving at Deurali.

We reached Deurali in the afternoon. The sun was shining bright when we arrived, but it lasted just for 10-15 min. No complaints, as it was enough to dry our partially wet clothes. There were several waterfalls all around us – in the valley in front and the tall mountain behind. We couldn’t enjoy the view for long as thick fog descended and progressively it got very cold. However, the evening sky was kind enough to put on a show of some gorgeous display of colours breaking the monotony of the drab foggy afternoon. A peak in the surrounding mountain resembled Lord Buddha’s face and we got to see that only the following morning, all thanks to the fog.

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Pic 10: Numerous waterfalls trickle from the mountains all around Deurali tea house. 

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Pic 11: The evening sky puts up a show of colours breaking the monotony of the drab foggy afternoon.

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Pic 12: The Information Board at Deurali looked good and was worthy of a picture.

Her Very Own Flower Garden

As we left Deurali, we stepped into a valley guarded by tall mountains on both sides. The morning was cold, and the sun was yet to reach the valley. We passed through few easy ascents and descents through the rugged trail with Macharepuchare staring at us from the right. The familiar fish-tail shape was missing and I could not recognize the peak until Amar pointed it out.

After a while a picturesque sight greeted us. The snow-clad Gangapurna made an appearance at the horizon glowing with the first rays of the sun even as the valley still remained in shadow.

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Pic 13: Gangapurna glows with the first rays of the sun while the valley is still in shadows.

Gradually, the valley opened up and we walked through a flat stretch of winding trail as Modi Khola gushed away right beside us. After the forest, I fell in love with this section of the trail. The entire area was carpeted with multitudes of unique flowering plants. The bushes on either side were sprinkled with yellows and purples and whites and reds. Every few steps we were compelled to halt, not just for admiring the colours but the shapes and structures of the flowers. This place felt like Mt. Annapurna’s personal patio, a place she personally nurtured. No other explanation seemed plausible enough to justify such divine beauty.   

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Face-to-Face with Macharepuchare

A relatively steep trail started soon after the flower garden. After about an hour or so, we reached the Macharepuchare Base Camp (MBC), at an elevation of 3,700 m. It was a bright and sunny day. The sky was azure blue but some frivolous floating clouds appeared from nowhere and decided to spoil the show. On one side was the pointed-tipped Macharepuchare and on the other side Annapurna South. The clouds flirted with the both the mountains leaving us high and dry with only occasional glimpses. After a cup of tea, we headed towards our final destination – ABC.

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Pic 15: A quick glimpse of Macharepuchare before the clouds came in.

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Pic 16: A glimpse of Annapurna South from MBC

Towards Annapurna Base Camp

As we started climbing up towards ABC, the floating clouds got thicker. The blue sky disappeared and everything around us was completely white-washed. A strong wind started blowing and it was getting really cold. Slowly and steadily we climbed up the winding pathway greeted by meadows, flowers, glacial streams. We could see only our immediate surroundings, the thick white blanket allowed no more.

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Pic 17: A herd of sheep laze around just as we started climbing towards ABC while the clouds start slowly moving in.

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Pic 18: Towards ABC while the surroundings are slowly and progressively whitewashed.

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Pic 19: Just before ABC, Annapurna-I and the tea houses are seen in the background. This was clicked when we were leaving, the weather was clear that day.

It was no different even an hour and half later when we arrived at Annapurna Base Camp. We could see nothing at all, which was disappointing to say the least. And, we all know how adamant clouds can be in the mountains when they arrive in the later half of the day. We made peace, oblivious of the miracle that would unfold a little while later.

Continue Reading In the Lap of Mother Divine.

Seven Days of Paradise at Kashmir Great Lakes

“Agar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto, hami asto!” – Amir-e-Khusru Dehluvi                    

[If there is paradise on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here!]

Long walks through colourful flower-embroidered meadows punctuated by gorgeous alpine lakes; frequent hopping through boulders small and large; sporadic companionship of sheep and goat along with shepherds, and quite often migrating shepherd families; obtaining permits at the Army Camps; and all through being in a dream-like state of disbelieve spellbound by this heaven on Earth!

That’s how I would describe Kashmir Great Lake (KGL) in a nutshell.

Besides, it was quite thrilling to imagine being so close to Pakistan!

I have already written two posts on this trek – one on the lakes and another on the meadows. This one is a day-wise description. Here’s the links to the other two:

Day 1: Sindh River and Thajiwas Glacier at Shitkadi

Situated just a few kilometres ahead of Sonamarg, we arrived at Shitkadi after a drive of about 4 hrs from Srinagar. Shitkadi was our basecamp. The Sindh River and Thajiwas glacier amidst the lush green surroundings served as the perfect trailer to the gorgeous beauty that we could expect to unfold in the days to follow.

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Pic 1: Shitkadi campsite with Sindh River flowing by against the backdrop of Thajiwas glacier.

Day 2: Bhoj Trees on Way to Nichnai

Technically we started the trek on this day as we walked towards Nichnai, our first campsite. The initial few hours consisted of an arduous climb as we huffed and puffed towards a place called Tabletop. Being breathless is normal as we had just started walking and our bodies was just getting used to it. At Tabletop, we rested at a Dhaba run by a Kashmiri couple. The omelettes, tea, bread, biscuits, and munchies gave us the much needed energy to continue with our walk.

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Pic 2: As we proceed upwards away from Shitkadi

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Pic 3: Sheep grazing on lush green meadows, note the shepherd huts in the distance.

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Pic 4: A shepherd couple beside their hut at Tabletop

Through a lovely dense forest of Maple trees, we soon landed on a carpet of green lined with Bhoj Trees or Silver Birch. The bark of these trees were used by Rishi/Munis in ancient India for writing and that ensued excited chit-chatter in the group. I couldn’t resist the urge to carry back a tiny portion of the whitish brown bark to show folks back home.

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Pic 5: As we proceed towards the meadow lined with Bhoj Trees or Silver Birch.

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Pic 6: Just look at that! This was at Tabletop, hundreds of sheep dotting the green carpet.

We proceeded and walked precariously through a section of rocky terrain with Nichani Nalla gushing by as if in great hurry to join Sindh River. The rocky terrain gets abruptly replaced by a green meadow and after crossing that we reached Nichnai. It started pouring the moment we landed at Nichnai. Thanking our lucky stars, we rushed into our tents and remained there for the next one hour as the rains continued to splash.

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Pic 7: The rocky terrain alongside Nichnai Nalla, note the people blending into the surroundings.

Day -3: Vishansar – The First Lake

This was a very special day as we encountered the first lake of the trek – Vishansar. We started by crossing a nalla (stream) by hopping through stones and then walked  through a beautiful lavender meadow towards Nichnai Pass or Vishnusar Berry. At an altitude of 13,500 ft., Nichnai pass remains surrounded by jagged tall mountain peaks and the climb to it is not an easy one.

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Pic 8: The beautiful lavender meadow on way up towards Nichnai Pass.

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Pic 9: Just before the steep climb towards Nichnai Pass.

After a well-deserved rest, we descended from the pass through a tricky rocky terrain and landed onto stretches of grass with red flowers springing on our path. Thereafter, we encountered two more nallas, a big waterfall splashing down the mountain cliff, an utterly green meadow devoid of flowers and a certain stretch of heaven-touching barren tall mountains looking down upon us. It was the fag end of monsoon, so we didn’t see much snow, though snowfall would start off soon.

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Pic 10: At Nichnai Pass – silent conversations of sharing without talking bound by mutual feelings of divinity and grace. 

Just before arriving at the campsite, we crossed a rather wide nalla by hopping over stones. The campsite is situated on the base of a small hill, on the other side of which lies Vishansar Lake – my favourite lake of the trek.

Day 4: Colourful Meadows Make for a Pretty Day

This was the longest and prettiest day as we moved towards Gadsar Pass, the highest point of this trek at an altitude of 13,800 ft. We started off with a gradual ascent leaving behind Vishansar and went right up to Kishansar, which is the second lake of the trek.

After Kishansar the trail became very steep, challenging us both mentally and physically. The narrow muddy strip that we climbed for almost 2 hours to reach Gadsar Pass was very strenuous. Thankfully it was a sunny day, I can only imagine the scenario on a rainy day. The magnificent view of the twin lakes of Vishansar and Kishansar greeted us at the Pass, which instantaneously dissolved all pain of the arduous climb.

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Pic 11: Huffing and puffing through the narrow strip towards Gadsar Pass. Phew! It was tough.

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Pic 12: Just turn back and you have all the motivation to make through the arduous climb.

An equally steep descent through loose mud and scree followed. My descending demons started raising their ugly heads but this time I had made up my mind to tackle them head on. And I surprised myself by actually descending without any help and quite fast with a little bit of downhill running too!

We found ourselves at the meadows even before we knew it and in we were for a visual treat of red, blue, purple, and yellow, meadows. Every turn threw up a different colour and these multi-coloured meadows just continued one after the other for 2-3 hours. A fellow trekmate rightly commented – “I can imagine little girls walking ahead of us with  baskets of colourful flowers sprinkling them on our path.”

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Pic 13: The meadows to die for – pictures don’t do any justice as you can imagine

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Pic 14: Red, yellow, white, purple, and multi-coloured meadows, a different colour at every turn.

The meadows slowly give way as we crossed yet another nalla and landed at Gadsar Lake – another pristine and gorgeously elegant lake. I ranked it as my second favourite though many in our group thought Gadsar was the best lake. After spending a good amount of time at Gadsar, we continued our walk once again through the colourful meadows towards our campsite.

We arrived at the campsite just after crossing an Army campsite – the first one in the series of three along the trail.

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Pic 15: At Gadsar Campsite. Horses make their way home as the lights fade, at least 50 of them

Day 5: A Glimpse of Nanga Parbat

It was an adventurous start to the day when we had to take off our shoes and wade through knee deep ice cold waters of a gushing stream. This was followed by a very steep ascent. We were off from the normal route as the snow bridge that is used to cross the stream had broken. Nothing alarming as that’s not an unusual thing for this time of the year.

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Pic 16: Taking on the icecold waters and navigating underlying slippery stones

On this day, we walked through a never-ending lush green meadow that went on and on. There weren’t many flowers on this one but it was lined by variegated barren undulating mountains on one side and sheep grazing in huge numbers almost everywhere. Sheep and shepherd are common all along the trail but this one was special because the huge stretch of green meadow was literally dotted by these grazing fluffs of white balls.

Somewhere on the way, we  were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Nanga Parbat even though the sky was not all that clear. Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world located in Pakistan, the visibility of which depends on the weather.

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Pic 17: The unending meadow dotted with clusters of grazing sheep was nothing but sheer delight. My phone camera was not equipped to capture Nanga Parbat that we saw somewhere here.

At the end of the meadow, we climbed a hill to report to Satsar Army Camp. After the Army Camp, we walked along with huge flocks of sheep and goat, maneuvering large boulders and reached Satsar Lakes. We were able to see three of the seven Satsars, one at each turn of the winding mountain trail.

That night the sky broke down into heavy showers that continued way into the morning nearly messing up our plan for the day but before that it rewarded us with a magical view of the Milkyway.

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Pic 18: The flocks of sheep and goat that walked alongside us at Satsar.

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Pic 19: At Satsar campsite. There was no Sun for the entire day yet a visual treat at dusk and then it poured through the night that continued way into the morning.

Day 6: A Risky Boulder Hopping

We almost thought we would have to stay back at Satsar campsite. It was 8.00 AM and the rains showed no respite. Heavy rains are no fun in the mountains especially when it continues incessantly. Around 9.15 AM, the Rain Gods showed some mercy and the showers lightened till it ceased altogether. We packed up and started moving around 10 AM, which was a good two hour delay from our planned time.

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Pic 20: The risky boulder hopping section, the picture doesn’t capture the magnitude of difficulty.

The highlight of this day was hopping through a boulder section that constituted large boulders, some of which had good enough gaps in between. This tricky boulder section lasted for a little over an hour and was an Adrenalin rush for everyone in my team but not me. The boulders were wet due to overnight rains and that didn’t make life any easier for us. My legs wavered and I was very scared. I literally clung on to our guide for the entire section and somehow made it through.

Boulder hopping is common in KGL trek but this one was risky. In fact, on 3 days of the trek we had a horse accompany us, which was the designated ambulance for any uncalled for situations of twisted ankles or fractured legs.

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Pic 21: The steep descent through sharp stones from Zajibal Pass demanded focus & concentration.

Beyond the boulder section, we maneuvered mild and steep ascends and arrived at Zajibal pass. Once again, we were swept off our feet by the glorious views of the twin lakes of Nandkhol and Gangabal against the backdrop of Harmukh Peak.

The descent from Zajibal Pass was very steep and stony demanding a lot of caution and focus. One misstep could result in serious injuries. As we descended, Nandkhol and Gangabal appeared closer and closer, but they were still far away. It took us another 2-3 hours to arrive at Gangabal first and Nandkhol after that.

Day 7: Descending Through Slippery Muddy Trails

This was supposed to be a rest day, however as a team we decided to not take the rest day and instead carry on towards Naranag. This was the last day of our KGL Trek.

Through steep and gradual ascends and descends, and passing though meadows, we arrived at the final Army Checkpost. Thereafter, we walked through a well-marked trail passing through traces of civilization, and arrived at the point where the final descent begins. This descent was literally back-breaking and a killer on the knees.

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Pic 22: Climbing down the steep trail that was slippery and muddy due to rains took a toll on our knees.

We had just started descending when the weather that was by our side all along decided to turn against us and it started raining quite heavily. No complaints as it was the last day and we didn’t have to bother about wet socks and muddy shoes. However, the difficulty we now encountered going down the muddy trail, is just anybody’s guess! The thick Pine forest all along could not do much to protect us from the rains. The descent seemed to take forever as we had to tread slowly and cautiously.

Drenched and tired with jittery knees we finally arrived at Naranag, which is a tiny little town separated from the forest by Wangath River, a tributary of Sindh River. With the trek coming to an end, we celebrated with a quick lunch, and drove off to Srinagar.

Note: Once again these are unedited pictures clicked through iPhone-6. For exclusive pictures of the lakes and meadows, look up the links provided at the beginning of this post.

My Very Personal Opinion on KGL

The KGL trek entails very long walks, it isn’t difficult but the long days of endless walks through meadows, boulders, and moraines does test your mental strength and perseverance. The breathtaking landscape keeps you engaged and does a great job of diverting your attention all through.

However, there exists predictability in the exquisitely beautiful surroundings that you encounter each day and this may sometimes lead to monotony. I felt this was the flipside of KGL, which is unlike all the other Himalayan treks I have done so far. This became more pronounced for me as I had been to Rupin Pass just three months back where there were surprises at every turn.

Take this as no discouragement though as I am quite certain there is no match for the awe-inspiring rustic vistas of KGL. And if you are a nature-lover like me, this trek is an absolute must do.

The Army Camps

Gadsar – This was a small Army Camp in the form of a hut, housing a handful of Army Men. Our National Flag fluttered proudly at one end. We had to provide our original identity proofs and the detail of everyone crossing the camp were checked and recorded. This also included questions on where we were traveling from, what job we did, etc.

Satsar – This camp was small also but was larger than Gadsar. It is situated on top of a hill, and quite a climb it was. When we arrived, a large crowd of migrating shepherds with their families were also waiting to cross over. Some groups were moving with their horses, there were about 40- 50 horses. Then there were others with their flock of sheep and goats and these were huge groups probably in hundreds. We learnt that the horsemen have to wait longer as each and every horse is checked thoroughly before being allowed to pass. It’s easier with sheep and goat as only their owners need to pass the security checks. It’s the common man who always ends up paying the price.

Before Naranag – This camp was larger and much closer to civilization. There wasn’t any detailed interrogation here. We just had to provide our identity proofs, no interrogations.

 

 

 

Rupin Pass – Nine Days of Paradise

The Mystical Himalayas Beckons Again – Part 2

As we moved on from Jiskun, the true essence of the Rupin Pass trek started unveiling itself. (Read Day 1- Day 3 here)

Day 4: Udaknal – Passing Through the Hanging Village of Jhaka

We walked through the narrow forest trail as we left Jiskun. The greenish-blue Rupin River seeping and dribbling as it merrily swerved through the tall mountains appeared much closer today. On any other day, my heart would have been dancing immersed in nature’s gorgeousness but not today. My right ankle was hurting with every step and I felt helpless wondering how I would go on. The dreaded steep climb towards Jhaka was here and I struggled with every step. Loosening my shoe lace, as suggested by our Trek Leader, turned out to be immensely helpful. Once again I was my sprightly self and found myself at the beginning of the team.

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Pic 1: The houses in Jhaka Village are literally stacked one on top of the other on the steep slope

The village of Jhaka, situated on a steep slope of the mountain was extraordinarily beautiful. The villagers are staunch believers of the ways of Satsang and are strict vegetarians. Even the mention of animal food is blasphemous here. We spent some time at a home in the village before continuing our onward journey towards Udaknal.

This day wasn’t easy as it consisted of steep ascends and descends. However, the long stretch of the magnificent fir forest with towering pines and a forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles was tonic to the eyes and mind.

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Pic 2: Stepping into the forest with tall trees watching us silently

My forest happiness was short-lived as we soon encountered the steep slope consisting of loose soil that goes down to the Rupin River. My mind-block with such terrains made me jittery as I cautiously took steps fearing that I would slip and fall to my doom. Hell, I’m here to enjoy and not to go back with an injury! The burbling water of the dazzling river down below came closer with every step and that’s what kept me going one step at a time.

Soon we reached Udaknal at 10,100 ft. The yellow tents stood bright amidst the lush green surroundings as Rupin River hurried through the valley down below and the elegant mountains stood tall and watched us gracefully. The evenings started to get really cold.

Day 5: Dhanderas Thatch – Nature’s Grand Amphitheatre

I was told that Rupin Pass is a trek where each day only gets better and there are surprises at every turn. And, here I was witnessing that and soaking in the ever-changing landscape of Rupin Valley.

We left Udaknal and started climbing up through yet another forest trail, the irregular blocks of stones here made it different from the other forest trails we covered so far. A trekmate had a slower pace than the rest of us and almost always lagged behind. On this day, she was recommended to start half an hour before the group by our Trek Leader. I decided to tag along, fearing my ankle problem could slow me down. Slowly and steadily the three of us walked on.

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Pic 3: The calm and poised Rupin with dark clouds looming large

Very soon dark clouds loomed in and it started raining. Almost simultaneously, we encountered snow for the very first time on the trek. By then the group had joined us and many in the group were overjoyed, experiencing snow for the first time. Snow fights (hitting each other with snow balls) ensued notwithstanding the rain that had just started. Our raincoats and ponchos were out, and the trail got a tad slippery slowing down our pace.

My ankle was in a very bad shape causing me to limp and that was a distraction, diverting my attention from the exceptionally brilliant surroundings – the earthy fragrance of wet mud, the rugged mountains, the green meadows interrupted by sporadic bursts of yellow flowers, the sudden calm and poised Rupin.

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Pic 4: A carpet of green with bursts of yellow flowers against the first patches of snow made for an utterly gorgeous view

A little while later we crossed two snow bridges across the thundering Rupin one after the other. This was my first experience of a snow bridge, I didn’t even know such a thing existed! And crossing it was thrilling to say the least.

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Pic 5: As we crossed a snow bridge clad in colourful ponchos and raincoats

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Pic 6: Another snow bridge – fascinating to say the least

The rains had stopped and a wide green carpet adorned with blue and yellow flowers welcomed us at Dhanderas Thatch. The wide expansive valley of Dhanderas Thatch at 11,680 ft. was a perfect melody of snow-clad mountains, green meadows, several cascading waterfalls trickling down from all sides, and the ever present elegant Rupin River.

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Pic 7: Dark clouds, snow wrapped rugged mountains, green meadows – dreamy surroundings

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Pic 8: A green carpet welcome

The main waterfall was a three layered one that distinctively stood out right at the center and it’s the first thing that you notice in the valley. And, we would be climbing up to the mouth of the waterfall, looks daunting and undoable today. The Dhauladar Range was clearly visible beyond the waterfall.

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Pic 9: The cascading three layered waterfall with the Dhauladhar Range behind it                           [P.C. Arunesh Srivastava]
Day 6: Dhanderas Thatch – Lazing Around

We spent the next day at Dhanderas Thatch. It was our acclimatization day. An entire day at such heavenly abode – oh what bliss it was! I for one was so looking forward to this day – a day of thoughtless moments doing nothing but soaking in the depths of nature and admiring the divine Himalayas. My ankle got the much needed rest too.

We spent the day chit-chatting, playing games, practicing walking on snow, building cairns along the river while making secret wishes, sitting by Rupin quietly listening to its rapid gurgling sound, wandering aimlessly admiring the various waterfall, and watching the shepherds pass by with their sheep and sheep dogs. The rain and sun played hide and seek on this day forcing us in and out of our tents. Brief moments of hail happened too.

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Pic 10: Those purple flowers. [P.C. Vineet Prajapati]
 

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Pic 11: And. one of them poses for me

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Pic 12: Soaking in the sun with the morning cup of tea

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Pic 13: The cairns alongside Rupin River entrapping secret wishes and desires.

Day 7: Upper Waterfall – The Wonderland

We woke up to a bright sunny day. Once again a team of three of us started off early. This was going to be a short and difficult stretch. As we approached close to the waterfall, the boulder strewn tall mountain stared at us rather menacingly. The 2.5 Km. climb was steep and not easy by any means. We had to carefully maneuver our steps through small and large loose rocks. With slow and measured steps, we trudged over the snow patches and the snow bridges as we gingerly made our way to the top.

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Pic 14: The top later of the waterfall, just a little more to go. [P.C Sachin Vidyasagaran]
In between the adventurous moments, I paused and gaped at the thundering waterfall, which was our constant companion on this day. The valley below that we just left looked spectacular and the gushing Rupin now appeared like a branched out narrow canal meandering its way through the valley. A deep sense of admiration filled my heart with nature casting its spell and my soul bursting with happiness and joy.

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Pic 15: Navigating precarious sections with great caution [P.C Sachin Vidyasagaran]

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Pic 16: A section of the waterfall with yet another snow bridge

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Pic 17: The valley we left behind, where we had camped the day before.

At the top, we were greeted by an amazingly serene and picturesque campsite. The melting glaciers from the heaven-touching mountains flowed down gracefully and quietly moved towards the waterfall. Much of the tall mountains flanking either side were draped in snow. The vast blue sky was in perfect harmony with the surroundings. The soft grass on the banks of the river was moist displaying the first signs of green, an indication of just melted snow. The warm sun beckoned us and everyone was lazing around on the soft grass. Peace and tranquility reigned here, and I loitered around feeling like Alice in Wonderland.

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Pic 18: The wonderland of dreams and fantasies

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Pic 19: The cold water therapy for my ankle

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Pic 20: Our tent opened to this!

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Pic 21: A well captured reflection [P.C. Vineet Prajapati]
Day 8: Rupin Pass – The Grand Finale

This was the day we were all waiting for – the day we climb up the ‘gully’ to Rupin Pass. ‘Gully’ is a 250 m. stretch of 70 degrees inclination that leads to the Pass. A team of two technical guides armed with their ice axes joined us on this day. They were qualified mountaineers who we met the day before and who had briefed us on the do’s and don’ts of the big day.

Just as the past few days, a team of four of us started off earlier than the rest. While the group started at 5.30 AM, we had started off at 3.30 AM. Our aim was to reach the Pass by 8.00 AM so that we can climb the ‘gully’ before the sun finds its way through. Once the snow starts melting, it gets difficult.

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Pic 22: Our tents reduced to tiny colourful dots as we climbed up

It was still dark when we started walking with anticipation and excitement building up at every step. The initial climb was a grueling one through the rugged mountain where we had to be cautious not to step onto the thin film of ice that made its appearance every now and then. There was a precarious frozen section of a thin layer of flowing water that we had to cross where the technical guide made good use of his ice axe.

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Pic 23: A precarious section of frozen flowing water crossed only with the help of an ice axe

Soon the vast rolling snow fields took over and we walked endlessly and silently in one straight line. All I could hear was click clack of microspikes that provided the much needed grip on snow. It was dawn by now and the larger group had caught up with us as we were engulfed in a sea of white with our clothes being the only specs of colour.

After walking for a while, we paused to take a break. The air was thinner and we were rapidly gaining altitude. At this point, we spotted the ‘gully’ and excited chit-chatter filled in the air.

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Pic 24: Walking in one straight line towards the mountain pass [P.C. Rajiv Namathirtham]
Once we approached the base of the ‘gully’, the technical guides arranged us in one straight line with the ladies at the beginning. I turned out to be the first one following the technical guide, who was making steps for us through the snow.

The arduous ‘gully’ climb and the most exciting part of the trek begun. The 250 m. distance felt like a lifetime as we climbed up with focus and concentration one step at a time. I could see the sun shining bright at the top of the ‘gully’ and couldn’t wait to get there. It must have taken us 20-25 minutes to reach the top but I can’t say for sure as I had no track of time.

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Pic 25: The rather vertical climb through the ‘gully’ [P.C. Surjo Dutta]

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Pic 26: Nearly arriving at the top through the ‘gully’ 

Once on top, I squealed in joy. I couldn’t believe that I had done it.  It was an exhilarating experience at 15,380 ft. The breathtaking panoramic landscape left me spellbound. I felt like being immersed in a huge bowl of vanilla icecream with a few chocolate chips inserted here and there. The mountains blessed us and the weather was perfect. The deep blue skies seemed to be rejoicing with us as the morning sun smiled at us warmly. There was no sign of the expected gusty winds. The razor sharp Kinnaur Kailash was distinctly visible in the horizon.

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Pic 27: At the Pass – a huge bowl of vanilla icecream!

I silently bowed to the mighty Himalayas and expressed my gratitude for enabling me to experience such splendor. While we were still immersed in the intoxicated surroundings along came the herd of sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. Could we have asked for more? It was PERFECT!

Day 8: RontiGad – Time for Celebrations

It was time to start descending. We slid through the snow in two stretches and it was the craziest thing we had ever done. No amusement park in the world can match up to the Adrenalin rush we had here. We screeched and hooted and laughed and cheered as each one of us went down one by one.

After walking on snow for some more time we arrived at a sharp descent that goes down to meet a stream below. As always, my descending demons were back making me extremely slow and cautious. Not surprising, I was the last one to reach the stream.

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Pic 28: Walking back after reveling at the Pass and after sliding down

This was a very long day and the walk seemed unending. My knees were hurting and I couldn’t wait to reach the campsite. At every turn I expected to see the bright yellow tents but it was only after walking for 6-7 hours, we arrived at Ronti Gad and had descended to 13,100 ft.

At the campsite, it was a relaxing day for everyone. We basked under the sun laying over the green meadows just outside our tents. In the evening, we celebrated, shared experiences, and received certificates. Before long, night descended and we retired into our tents with a sense of accomplishment.

Day 9: Sangla – Time to Bid Goodbye

This was a day of mixed feelings. We were on our way back. As much as I looked forward to going back home, a big part of me was also saddened about all of this coming to an end.

It was a gradual descend towards Sangla, situated at 8,600 ft. We walked leisurely and were in no particular hurry. Deliberately, I chose to trail behind the group to savour the last bit as much as I could. It was a beautiful walk through vast green meadows where yaks and cows lazily grazed. There was no snow in the path, only very little at the mountain tops. Slowly we approached civilization as we passed through tiny lanes of small hamlets dotted with apple and apricot trees. Stony pathways with pine forests on either side formed connecting links between these hamlets.

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Pic 29: The first glimpse of civilization

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Pic 30: For some reason, this reminded me of ‘King’s Landing’ from ‘Game of Thrones’!

After walking for about 6-7 hours, we arrived at Sangla. Here we bid goodbye to each other with promises to keep in touch and traveled to Shimla in smaller groups based on our respective travel itineraries.

Another fascinating rendezvous with the enchanting Himalayas comes to an end with cherishing memories for a lifetime. They say the Himalayas are addictive and I tend to agree. I know I will go there again. I feel fortunate and blessed to have experienced their mysticism yet another time. It’s the mountains who decide who steps on them and experiences their grandeur from close quarters. I am immensely grateful and bow with sincere reverence.

For some more stories on Rupin Pass, click here.

Here are links to my past experiences with the majestic Himalayas.

Rupin Pass – Nine Days of Paradise

The Mystical Himalayas Beckons Again – Part 1

Am I dreaming or is this for real! I questioned my wakefulness trying to comprehend the unbelievably gorgeous milk-white sprawling vista that lay before my eyes – a widespread fluffy blanket of untouched snow, sharp and pointed peaks of the Dhauladhar range, clear blue skies with no cloud in sight, early morning warm sunshine, and not a hint of the expected gusty winds.

The ecstatic bunch of us hooted and cheered at 15,380 ft. Our child-like innocent glee reverberated in the pristine surroundings. We couldn’t have asked for more but the mountains were extraordinarily gracious that morning and had another delightful surprise in store for us. A herd of sheep came strolling by with their shepherds and sheep dogs only to exhilarate the already intoxicated us.

This was the moment we were waiting for and all the days of long walks, difficult climbs, and cold weather was more than worth it.

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Pic: It was magical at the Pass

I was back to the Himalayas and this time I was trekking Rupin Pass, a notch higher in the difficulty level as compared to the others I had done so far. Moreover, this time I was alone. I was nervous as I signed up and was not sure if I could make it. My nervousness ensured that I was putting in an extra effort towards fitness – more on that later.

It was an early May morning, when a bunch of us huddled at Dehradun railway station. A quick round of short introductions and the vibes were positive. I was already feeling comfortable with the gang. It’s been sheer coincidental that so far all my treks to the Himalayas started from Dehradun. Hence, I was familiar with the route and even have a fair idea of the good eateries on the way. We bundled into tempo travellers and Boleros and proceeded towards Dhaula.

Day 1: Dhaula – The Beginning

At 5,100 ft, Dhaula was our campsite for Day 1. We arrived at Dhaula late in the evening after a long ride of 10 hours. Deep valleys and thick Pine forests kept us engaged all through the journey. The characteristic bright yellow tents of IndiaHikes were ready for us. (I chose IndiaHikes, once again.) The rapidly flowing water and the gushing sound of Rupin River was music to our ears taking off all the tiredness from the day’s ride. After a quick briefing by our trek leader and a more formal introduction with one another, we retired for the night with countless anticipation for the next day and the days to come.

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Pic 2: Our camp at Dhaula

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Pic 3: Rupin River gushing away in great hurry at Dhaula

Day 2: Sewa – Getting to Know Each Other

We started early and this was technically the first day of the trek as we walked up towards the village of Sewa. It was a long walk of 11 Km. through patches of undulated terrain surrounded by tall trees and a couple of steep ascents. Most of this day however, was through a rugged pathway, which is a road in the making. The surrounding greenery with the Rupin River appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in the deep valley made for an interesting walk even though the the sun beat down on us relentlessly.

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Pic 4: As we started off from Dhaula

As we trudged along, the large group of 24 people chit-chatted, breaking barriers, and learning more about each other. There were people from all walks of life. A big gang of young engineers who just completed their graduation and were yet to start their first job; a group of three men from Chennai led by an inspiring 57 year old, whose fitness regime put the rest of us to shame; a group of three friends from my city of Bangalore; the ‘Gujju’ trio who weren’t from Gujarat and who were teased mercilessly for all the eatables they got; and the rest, including me, who were solo travelling from various parts of the country.

However, very soon it was forgotten who belonged to which group as everyone easily blended into one large group.

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Pic 5: Towards Sewa – a section with the deep valley on one side and a narrow pathway on the other

At 6,300 ft. Sewa was a peaceful village surrounded by tall green mountains where we stayed at a small and cozy wooden homestay. However, what I remember of Sewa is the unique two-storied pagoda-like village temple that had medals and coins adorning its wall and the crazy mosquito bites leading to itchy rashes that affected most of us and healed only after we got back home after completing the trek.

Oh yes, I had a splitting headache too that resulted from walking in the sun all day long without putting on my sunglasses.

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Pic 6: The Pagoda-like temple at Sewa Village. Note the medals and trophies hanging on its wall. 

Day 3: Jiskun – Luxury at the Homestay

As we left Sewa, the pleasant walk descending through the forest trail delighted most of us. The trail took us straight to Rupin River that sparkled in the morning sun splashing the stones and pebbles as it curved gently to make its way behind the tall mountains. We spent a few refreshing moments beside the river before continuing our walk through the forest. And, now it was time to step over to Himachal Pradesh from Uttarakhand through the wooden bridge hidden in the jungle that separates the two states.

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Pic 7: The glimmering Rupin River in the morning sun

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Pic 8: The wooden bridge  between Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. On the right is Himachal Pradesh and left is Uttarakhand.

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Pic 9: The group posing on the bridge. Thankfully it didn’t give way under our collective weight.         [P.C. Sachin Vidyasagaran]
Soon after, we landed onto a dusty track snaking through the mountains, which was again a road in the making. The sun was merciless and I made sure to put on my sunglasses. My ankles had been hurting since morning and it got worse. It was the sides of my shoe that was rubbing against the ankles making it quite difficult for me to walk. I chose to ignore thinking that it would go away. I would discover the next morning how wrong I was!

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Pic 10: View of the valley as we walked on the dusty track towards Jiskun.

After a 10 Km. walk we arrived at Jiskun. At 7,700 ft., Jiskun was again a beautiful and simple Himalayan village, where everyone you meet greets you with a smile and a ‘namaste’. We stayed at a homestay, which had several very sunny and airy rooms – quite a luxury at a trek. The guys huddled into two rooms, even though there were several rooms lying empty. The four girls were smarter and selected two rooms giving them a lot of space to relax for the rest of the evening.

So far the trek seemed easy even though I struggled walking the long distances with my sore ankle. Next day onwards, it was a different ball game altogether.

Continued here…

My other Himalayan Treks:

Chasing Frost on a Cold December Morning

It was 4.00 AM on a cold December morning just two days before Christmas. Groggily my hand reached out for the phone to switch off the alarm, which just went off threatening to wake up the entire house. The intense December cold hit my bare hands as the rest of my body was warmly tucked inside two layers of quilt and blanket. Not giving in to the temptation of drawing my hands into the warm layers, I gingerly dialed my brother-in-law’s (BIL) number as promised the day before. BIL and my cousin sister live a couple of miles away in another part of the town.

“Good Morning! Will be there in 30 min!” BIL announced energetically, indicating that he’s been up for a while now. I called out softly to my sister who was in the next room, careful not to wake up the rest of the family. I found her already peeping into my room with her half-closed eyes. “We’re leaving in 30 min”, I told her.

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Pic 1: That’s us – BIL, my sister, and I

I was in in my pretty little hometown, Shillong for Christmas. Fondly known as the ‘Scotland of the East’, it is the capital of the North Eastern state of Meghalaya. Christmas has always been special in Shillong, given the majority of Christian population. However, the magnitude of Christmas celebrations in this quaint little hill station has drastically changed over the years.

I recall Christmas being a very quiet affair during my younger days when I lived there. In recent years, Shillong has evolved to be one of the most sought after Christmas destination in India. And, this time it was no different. The tiny little town brightly illuminated with yuletide decorations, smiling Santas, and carol singers, was brimming with Christmas fever. It’s no wonder that the hill town was throbbing with tourists despite the cold winter season.

This December, however, the cold was less than usual, which was not only surprising but a little strange this being the Christmas season. Back in the days, I remember waking up to frost in our home garden at this time of the year. The winter temperature falls below zero degree Celcius but it never snows in Shillong. This drop in temperature causes a layer of frost to form over the leaves and grass and can be seen during the early hours of day. This time the temperature wasn’t that low and consequently no frost formation happened. What else but Global Warming at play!

BIL had informed that we can see frost at Mylliem if we are game to wake up before sunrise and go there. And, we were completely all for it. Mylliem is a village Panchayat located at a distance of 17 Km. uphill from Shillong. It did feel a little strange that we had to travel that distance to see frost but the freshness of the early morning drive more than made up for it.

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Mylliem looked gorgeous in the early morning light. The entire area was covered in a thin sheet of white as though it had wrapped a blanket around itself trying to wake up in the cold winter morning and soak in the first rays of the Sun.

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Pic 7: Mylliem looked gorgeous as dawn breaks in

We reveled in the beautiful scenery around us for a while. The sun was coming up and we decided to go further ahead and enjoy a little more of the early morning drive.

So, we went up to River Umtyngar. ‘Um’ means water in the local language. The river with its greenish water had a layer of mist over it. The mist was slowly moving as the Sun’s rays tried to reach the river though the canopy of trees around. This unexpected delight made for a splendid view and we were absolutely thrilled.

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Pic 8: River Umtyngar – note the layer of mist over it

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Pic 9: The mist disappearing slowly and steadily as the Sun’s rays fall on the water.

Waking up early in the cold December morning was completely worth it. What made it even more fascinating was that there was nobody other than the three of us. We watched the mist disappear slowly and steadily being replaced by the Sun’s rays that caused the emerald water to sparkle and glisten as though it was pleased to finally feel the warmth of the sun.

The early morning drive turned out to be heavenly and when it comes to views like these, I can even stay awake the whole night!

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Pic 10: A pond enroute, note the layer of mist over it.

Frigid

Har-Ki-Dun: The Hypnotizing Wonderland

Trekking the Himalayas for the Third Time in a year…

It was the month of April, my favorite month of the year. The reasons are many – because it’s spring; because it’s my birth month; because it was in this month that I had fallen for the mountains all over again.

This was that time of the year when I had a promise to keep, a promise I have made to myself the year before about spending my birthdays with nature and experiencing its supreme splendor– the only thing that gives me utmost joy and happiness. With a corner of my heart now permanently occupied by the majestic Himalayas, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

This time I was off to explore Har-Ki-Dun. Also known as Valley of Gods, Har-Ki-Dun is a cradle shaped valley and the legends of this trail go back to the Mahabharata*. It is said that the Pandavas had taken this very route on their way to heaven after the great war of Kurukshetra. The trek goes right up to Swargarohini, the peak which is supposedly the pathway to heaven.

* The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic poem revolving around Pandavas and Kauravas, the two branches of a family who fight the Kurukshetra War for the throne of Hastinapura. The Mahabharata includes Bhagavad Gita and with 100,000 verses it is the longest epic poem ever written. (Read More)

I was once again trekking with Indiahikes. This time, my sister was accompanying me. All geared up for yet another extraordinary experience, we arrived at Sankri. I was back to this tiny little beautiful village situated in the lap of the Himalayas exactly after one year. Last time I was here during my trek to Kedarkantha Peak.

Crossing the Nallahs on way to Taluka

After spending a night at Sankri, the group of 20 of us boarded two Boleros to go to Taluka, situated 12 Km away from Sankri. The entire route with lush green valleys, hanging cliffs, forests with tall tree all around, sporadic waterfalls here and there was simply spellbinding. The broken road passing through these waterfalls kind of interrupts their flow leading them to convert into streams before continuing their fall on the other side of the road. These streams are known as nullahs by the locals. As we crossed the nullahs, our Boleros tossed and jerked with the cliff on one side and a vertical fall on the other. Those were moments of additional excitement laced with a tad bit of nervousness for many of us – the city-bred delicate darlings!

Camping Beside the River at Puani Garaat

From Taluka, we started our trek alongside River Tamosa. The bright crystal clear turquoise water of Tamosa lifted my spirits the moment I laid my eyes on her. Tamosa was to be our constant companion flowing, dribbling, and swerving through the trees and hills while glistening and smoothing the already shining rocks and boulders. The flowing water seemed to be in constant hurry and always playing hide and seek with us, disappearing sometimes only to reappear again.

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Pic 1: River Tamosa meandering across the lush green landscape

We had walked beside the river for close to 6 hours maneuvering countless twists and turns alongside a constant interplay of light and shade caused by green forests of tall Chestnut, Pine, Walnut, Cedar, Oak, and others. Finally, we arrived at our first camp site, Puani Garaat. The exhaustion from the 13 Km. walk disappeared the moment I saw our tents pitched in a tiny little clearing right beside the river. The constant sound of gushing river radiated an energy that was highly contagious touching the soul and soothing the mind. It was not the least monotonous as one might presume. The sound of the river magnified at night but its rhythm served as the perfect lullaby as we drifted into a deep sleep.

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Pic 2: River Tamosa dazzling with the early morning sunlight.

Charming Osla Village on way to Kalkatiyadhar

The trek route passes through a couple of ancient villages, most noteworthy being Gangaad, Osla, and Seema. These tiny villages left us bewildered with their remoteness and exclusivity. As we passed by Osla village, the wooden homes of the village arranged haphazardly on the mountain slope captured our imagination. Seeing our enthusiasm, our trek leader suggested that we could stay at the village on our way back. And, that we did leading to an experience of a lifetime. [I’ve described that in a separate post.]

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Pic 3: The village of Osla with River Tamosa flowing below

It was the second day and we covered the 7 Km. trail through some level walks, few steep sections, and finally a continuous ascent through a gradually increasing incline. As we approached Kalkatiyadhar, the stunning views of the Bandarpooch and Pir Panjal ranges of mountain was just what we needed to sooth our tired mind and body. The magnificent Kalanag or Black Peak was also clearly visible just before arriving at this campsite.

Kedarkantha peak also provided a brief glimpse somewhere in this route. As dusk approached, Kalkatiyadhar displayed a dramatic sequence of changing colours with the sun painting the sky in myriad hues of bright oranges and yellows as it slowly departed for the day and set behind the horizon. (I miss having a camera at such times! A phone camera is largely insufficient.)

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Pic 4: Just before reaching Kalkatiyadhar, Kalanag can be seen in the backdrop

Getting Closer to Our Destination – Har-Ki-Dun

The entire trekking route had multiple steams, some we crossed directly by jumping over boulders and stones while some others through rickety wooden bridges. Besides the streams, on this day we encountered two fascinating waterfall as well. One cascaded in a narrow single flow with a great force and from a great height, the other was mildly spread across falling from a much lesser height. The latter enticed us and we waded across the stream to go right upto it, washed our faces and even filled in our water bottles.

Once again, passing through a forest dominated by pine trees with a sizable number of rhododendron trees we ascended and descended, walked through some flat land, and crossed some narrow ridges with a valley on one side and a cliff on the other. As we passed by a bend in the mountain, Har-Ki-Dun peak and Hata Peak made their grand appearance inducing a dose of instant happiness and delight.

The entire route, right from Taluka was as picturesque as can be. It truly lives up to its name of Valley of Gods. The meadows and the mountainsides were sprinkled with colourful spring flowers of varying shades though yellows, pinks, blues, and violets dominated. Not to forget the pink and white rhododendrons that illuminated portions of the forests.

Once in a while shepherds with their flock of sheep or mules would appear bringing in a sudden pause to our walking rhythm as we let them pass. Women of all age groups in their traditional attire and ethic jewellery from the villages would appear every now and then – some of them collecting wood, some on their way to Taluka, smiling and greeting everyone on their way. Sometimes giggling young girls and playful children would merrily pass by making us envious of their carefree demeanor.

Unveiling of the Scintillating Wonderland:Har-ki-Dun

We walked for about 5 hours and arrived at a steep incline. It was tiring in the hot afternoon sun as we inched along. The thought that this was the last climb for the day kept us going. As we approached Har-Ki-Dun at an altitude of 11,500 ft, it was a moment of disbelieve. The phenomenal valley was like an amphitheater and revealed itself bit by bit before my eyes. I felt that I was stepping into a wonderland. Was this real? Am I in a dream? Valley of Gods it indeed is! If there’s a place where Gods live, this has to be it.

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Pic 11: Har-Ki-Dun Valley as we first laid our eyes on it

The soothing sound of the rippling Har-Ki-Dun River with a patch of green on either side strewn with rocks and boulders that effortlessly blended into tall mountains all around was a sight to behold. On one side of the river stood tall jagged bare mountains adorning various shades of green, grey and brown with a rocky and stony surface. Their counterparts, on the other side, were elegantly dressed in a cloak of pristine white snow.

I stood there for a while drinking it all, trying to fathom all that lay in front of me. This was God’s perfect painting. I had seen such scenes only in calendars and posters. Words are failing me and I cannot do justice to that moment of picture perfect brilliance.

Spending my Birthday with the Mystical Swargarohini

While others went to their camps to rest and change, my sister and I had no patience for all that. We dumped our bags and rushed to the river bank to take off our shoes and dip our feet in the alluring river water. Fed by melting glaciers from the mountains, the water was very cold and we couldn’t keep our feet in there for long. It was around 1.00 PM in the afternoon and we had the entire afternoon and evening to ourselves. Moreover, we would be here the next day as well – a thought that made us ecstatic. We had enough time to explore the entire fairy tale like land. This was brilliant, I couldn’t have asked for more!

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Pic 12: The mystical Swargarohini

As we sat by the river facing the snow-clad mountains, for the first time we wondered which one of these was Swargarohini. It turned out that Swargarohini wasn’t right in front of us, rather up in the corner.  Swargarohini, covered off and on by clouds, did stand out as being starkly different from the other mountains and had a mystical charm to it. We walked ahead for a closer look. I could imagine the Pandavas and Draupadi walking up the peak and falling off one by one. Yudhishthira reaching the top with the dog behind him, a ladder dropping from the sky, and they climbing up to heaven.*

* The Pandavas were five brothers and Draupadi (also known as Panchali) was their common wife. After the war of Kurukshetra the Pandavas and Draupadi renounce the world and go to the Himalayas where they finally start ascending the Swargarohini peak towards heaven. A dog who had befriended the Pandavas during the journey also accompanies them. During the ascend, one by one everyone falls except the eldest of the five brothers, Yudhishthira and the dog, who are the only ones to go to heaven. (Read More)

This was my perfect birthday, my kind of happiness and joy. With that thought, my lips curled into a pleasurable smile. I did keep my promise!

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Pic 13: Few minutes of rest just before reaching Har-Ki-Dun

It was evening and I realized that I hadn’t seen my sister in a while. We were both sitting beside the river after lunch soaking in the afternoon sun. While I kept expressing my thoughts and feelings, she was relatively quiet. I then went off strolling around and was too busy taking in everything around to pay any attention to her. But now afternoon had given way to evening.

I walked back near the river looking for her and caught her sitting in the same place – all alone. I approached her only to find her weeping. Overwhelmed by the mountains, she felt very insignificant and small. This does happen to many people, so I wasn’t surprised. Her eyes were swollen and she just couldn’t stop the flow of tears rolling down her cheek. I sat beside her for a while and then let her be.

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Pic 14: How insignificant and tiny we are before the majestic Himalayas

The next morning we trekked 3 Km, up the mountain to visit Maninda Taal, which is situated behind the mountains. We were back by lunch time. After lunch, my sister and I took off once again voraciously absorbing all that we could of the valley on both sides of the river. We crossed over to the other side, walked till the edge of the valley, climbed up the mountain towards the forest rest house and visited the Shiva Lingam located in its premises, climbed up another mountain to get a better view of Swargarohini, interacted with other people we met, and so on.

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Pic 15: The Shiva Lingam with a glimpse of Swargarohini behind the mountain

The next day we woke up early while it was still dark, as we wanted to have some more time with the valley before leaving. Once again, we went for a walk while waiting for the Sun to rise.

Soon it was time to go. As I started to walk away, unknowingly I turned back for a last glance of the gorgeous breathtaking landscape. A feeling of gratitude took over as I felt fortunate for having had the opportunity to spend a few moments of my life on this slice of heaven on earth. My soul is blessed to have had Har-Ki-Dun charted in my destiny! With this thought, I happily turned away to trace my way back with precious memories etched in my heart and mind forever and ever….

A Few Addendums

  • Indiahikes, the group I trekked with, follows a principle of eco-friendly and sustainable trekking with minimum impact on the environment. They take several measures to make that happen, one of which is handing over an eco-bag to all trekkers. Any waste we generate while trekking goes into that bag. Not just that, if we find any litter on the trekking trail, we collect them onto these bags. On this trek, I had collected a lot of garbage and often went out of my way to do so. Indiahikes awarded a special certificate in recognition for this and, I was absolutely elated!
  • We bought Rhododendron Juice on our way back from Sankri, which was a huge hit with our friends and colleagues in Bangalore.
  • The gorgeous Tamosa river is formed near Osla by Har Ki Dun and Ruinsara Nallah. Flowing through Taluka, Tamosa merges with Supin River at Sankri. Supin river then joins with Rupin River to form Tons River at Netwar.
  • The valley houses rich Himalayan fauna, like Black bears, wild boars, Barasingha, Langoors, Golden eagles and massive Himalayan griffins. The colourful Himalayan monal, the state bird of Uttarakhand also thrives here. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any of these except the horses and cows grazing in the meadows. However, during the night at Kalkatiyadhar, we got to know of a mule calf being attacked and killed by a wild animal possibly a leopard.

The Calm and Composed Maninda Taal

Its Silvery Serenity was Beyond all Imagination…

A bright and sunny day with sapphire blue skies stretching right through to the horizon is what greeted us that morning. There wasn’t a single cloud in sight. It was spring time in the month of April, hence no surprise. We were camping at the gorgeous Har-ki-Dun valley where we had arrived the day before. The more I talk about this heavenly place, the less it is. For now, I am parking that for another post.

Having an entire day in this valley, gave us the opportunity to hike up further beyond and see a lake called Maninda Taal hidden behind the mountains. Taal refers to lake in the local language. The night before at dinner we had a discussion on the two places that we might want to visit that day – Maninda Taal, located around 3 km from the campsite and Juandhar Glacier at around 10 km from camp site. Most of the votes went for the lake. I wasn’t sure, as I wanted to go to both but on enquiring got to know that wasn’t a possibility.

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Pic 1: As we climbed up there were patches of snow and the mountains appeared really close

It was still early in the morning when we started walking up the mountain. It was a steep climb through a loose muddy trail with sparing vegetation. As we neared the top, the gorgeous snow-hooded mountains spearing up to the sky surrounding the valley appeared unusually close. They seemed to be gazing at us scrutinizing each and every move we made. A little ahead, we came upon a place that was covered with fresh snow. The blanket of white seemed unending in every direction and this continued for the rest of the trail with no sight of animals or plants.

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Pic 2: The snow fights had started

The snow fights (throwing snowballs at each other) had already started and it intensified along the way and all hell broke loose when we took a bend and landed onto a mound of snow. This mound was created by an avalanche that must have taken place in the recent past. I for one hadn’t seen such heaps of snow before. It reminded me about those calendar pictures of *Shiva and Parvati sitting in a cloud of snow with Ganesha on their lap.

*Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha are Hindu deities, Parvati is Shiva’s wife and Ganesha their son with the head of a elephant (Read More).

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Pic 3: The mound of snow caused by a recent avalanche.

Everyone was engrossed with snow fights and unconsciously divided ourselves into two teams. We had to reign in ourselves by reminding that the lake was our destination and not the snow fights. We walked across the knee deep snow for some more time while the strong mountain sun continued blazing above us.

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Pic 4: We continued walking through knee deep snow.

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Pic 5: I just love this pic!

Finally, the lake was in sight! And, what a spectacular moment that was! I could feel utter joy surging up my heart. The silvery shining water of the lake lay still with occasional small ripples as though surprised to see the sudden curious onlookers.  The gravity of the greyish-blue water was sending out invisible rays of energy that was gently piercing my heart filling me with contentment and happiness. The snow-draped mountains around the lake seemed to understand my feelings and I felt they were graciously smiling with acknowledgement. As my eyes dropped to the water for a deeper look, I noticed how divine and sparklingly clean it was. I was compelled to bend down and feel the water with my bare hands.

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Pic 6: The calm and composed lake

As I looked up from my cupped hands, my gaze moved a little beyond and fell upon the tall wall of a mountain that appeared to be on one corner of the lake. I could see our trek guide sliding down the snow from the top. How did he reach there! This was an adrenalin rush and I knew I had to go there too.

After spending a few more moments beside the lake and capturing some of it through my mobile lens, I started walking toward the tall grand mountain wall that seemed to be eagerly reaching out for the heavens above. A few people joined in. My sister, who was on this trek with me, also came along. Going over to the tall mountain wasn’t all easy as the snow was really deep. It was only with help and support from my fellow trekkers that I could make it there.

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Pic 7: Walking up the mountain wall only to slide down

We walked up the mountain wall and then sitting on our water proof jackets, using them as props did a slide down. And, oh what fun that was! Some of us repeated the act several times as we slid individually and slid in small groups together with others. We captured videos for one another, clicked photos, and laughed our hearts out!

After all the fun and laughter, it was time to go. Bidding goodbye to the charming lake that exuded such elegance and grace was not easy. I felt I could just keep staring at her for the rest of my life.

Maninda Taal, I remember you with fond memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Lots of love to you…..

Imagination

Up Through the Forest Wilderness

An Arduous Climb Alongside Nohkalikai Waterfalls

We climbed, climbed, and climbed along! Will this ever end! At every turn, I hoped to see some flat land but there wasn’t any and every turn only revealed another steep climb through the same set of rugged, uneven rocks. I glanced at my watch and it was 2.30 PM. That means we’ve been climbing constantly for 3 hours now. “Just 10 minutes more to the top”, said Droning, our guide.  I knew I couldn’t take his word for it. As a 15 year old village boy, he can easily do it in less than that time.

We were tracing our way back from Nongriat after visiting the Double Root Bridge and the Rainbow Falls. The usual route is a pathway constituting 3600 concrete steps but we were on a different route. The path where we were walking, rather climbing, was right beside Nohkalikai Falls, which happens to be the tallest plunge waterfall in India, falling from a height of 1115 feet (340 metres).  And, that very well explains the steep climb. It was like walking up a vertical wall of that height.

We got carried away when we heard about this route and embarked upon it without putting much thought onto it. To top it, we had missed breakfast and had hardly eaten anything. Not just that, we ran out of water pretty soon. And, I for one didn’t have a single sip as I was saving it for my cousin, who needed it more.

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Pic 1: The steep climb laid out through rustic moss-covered stones

We had no clue about this route and got to know about it from some travelers the night before at Nongriat. The jungle route appealed to us and we had decided in an instant to go through that route instead of the usual concrete pathway. A quick chat with Droning to gauge the safety of the route with respect to wild animals and if it would be slippery was enough to seal the deal. Droning, however, miscalculated our capability and estimated that it would take us 2 hours to reach the top. He had said it takes him an hour, so by our standards it would be 2 hours. How wrong he was!

Also, it was only later that we discovered people climb down the route but seldom climb up. It’s not a very popular route and many people don’t know about it. Backpackers, trekkers, and adventure seekers walk down this route to go to Nongriat and then go back up through the concrete pathway.

Rajat and Ashwin, two of our newly made acquaintances had joined us too.

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Pic 2: Resting a while to catch our breath

The jungle was alluring and too glamorous for words! The initial 2 hours was simply fascinating. I felt the five of us were like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five unearthing a secret trail attempting to solve a dark and deep mystery. Tall trees and thick shrubs adorned either side of the steep rustic moss-covered stone steps. The sun passed through the miniature openings in the thick foliage making varied patterns on the path we walked. The entire pathway had a generous dose of Bay leaves scattered all over.

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Pic 3: The climb continues through as the sun’s rays filter through the thick canopy. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Every view appeared unique yet the same, all at once. Once in a while we came across these huge and delicate spider webs housing an elegant spider, proudly sitting right at the center. Gorgeous velvety butterflies fluttered every now and then spreading a blast of colours across their path. Some were tiny while most were really big, almost the size of a man’s palm.

A sweet jungle fragrance filled the air and our eyes feasted on multiple shades of green, sometimes interspersed by few browns.  Wild flowers of myriad vibrant hues scattered here and there were a source of constant delight uplifting our spirits and minds. I felt transported to a different realm. I wished I could take this jungle home and make it part of my everyday life but I couldn’t and have to make do with potted plants in my tiny little balcony.

There was nobody other than us in the trail making it even more enigmatic. The only people we met was a British couple going down the path towards Nongriat. They had come driving all the way from England and were exploring the remote corners our country.

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Pic 4: Delighted to meet people from across the continent (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

As we started walking, we found plastic bottles, chips packets, chocolate wrappers scattered all around. Though this path was less littered compared to the concrete pathway but it was disturbing nevertheless. Even a place like this, which is not touristy and less frequented was not spared. Initially, we just exchanged discontent about this among us.

Soon the discontent got the better of me and I started collecting them in a spare bag I had and by the time we were done with the climb, my bag was full and there was no more space in it. It was a great feeling to find the British couple doing the same and they were stuffing garbage in their pockets. I had another extra bag, which I handed over to them.

After about 3 hours of continuous climb, we were drained. The tiring uphill trail coupled with an empty stomach was increasingly becoming tough for everyone. Our water supply of 2L was almost exhausted, which was anyway insufficient for six adults. We had expected to find a water source enroute in the jungle but there wasn’t any. Our focus had shifted from the enchanting surroundings to ourselves. The enthralling jungle was failing to divert our attention anymore and was becoming more of an ordeal that we wanted to get over with.

All of us were pushing ourselves. My backpack felt heavier than it was and with no water my throat was parched. My sisters were struggling.  While one of them kept complaining about a supposed hamstring in her thigh muscles, the other was finding it more demanding than the rest. She kept drinking glucose water and spraying Volini on her calves to keep her going. She was getting me worried if she could at all make it to the top. At one point where I was further ahead, she even napped for a few minutes somewhere in the trail – I have no clue how she managed to do that on the almost perpendicular flight of rocky and uneven stairway.

To keep myself going, I devised my own strategy. I started counting the steps and set myself a goal of 30 steps at a time. After 30 steps, I would rest for a few seconds and start towards another 30. I would silently congratulate myself for completing 30 steps and heave out a sigh of relief of having progressed a little ahead.

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Pic 5: We just reached the top, the azure blue sky is just fascinating

Towards the end I was so dehydrated that it was getting increasingly difficult for me to move on. Desperate, I requested Droning to run ahead and get some water for us as we continued our climb. After an arduous 4 hour climb, the jungle gave way to tall brown grasses on either side indicating we were almost at the top. A little while later the hilltop appeared in the form of a vast and sprawling meadow. What a moment that was! Phew! At the same time Droning arrived with a bottle of water. We guzzled up all the water in split seconds like raindrops on a parched land. After quenching our thirsts, we moved ahead and soon spotted Nokalikai falls shining in the bright afternoon sun.

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Pic 6: The direction shows you can walk down this path, and we walked up instead!

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Pic 7: Nokalikai Falls – note the steep wall beside it, that’s the path we walked up!

Today, as I look back it feels good that we had chosen to walk that path. Several memories besiege me –

  • Agony of the 4-hour near vertical climb winding through the thick green canopy
  • Stepping through hundreds of fallen dry leaves strewn over moss-covered rustic stones
  • Maneuvering billions of crisscrossing gnarling roots that even God himself cannot map
  • Feasting our eyes on the myriads of colourful flowers and butterflies
  • Mushrooms and lichens of various shapes and sizes
  • Amazing and unusual insects by the dozens
  • And much more……….

All of this I wouldn’t have known had I taken the concrete pathway.

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Pic 8: We encountered several such gorgeous beauties. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

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Pic 9: A stick insect, insects that camouflage like twigs (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

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Pic 10: The skeletal remains of a leaf (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Constant

In Pursuit of the Elusive Rainbow

I stepped out of my room and looked up at the sky. The moon shone brilliantly and looked like a perfectly rounded sphere of white radiance sailing in the cloudless night. Millions of twinkling stars accompanying the moon seemed to be looking at me knowing exactly what I was thinking.

We were spending the night at Nongriat in a homestay, which was right next to the double root bridge – a bridge that epitomizes the harmonious blend of Nature’s abundance and Man’s hard work. Braving 3600 steps, we had arrived at Nongriat earlier that day.

Later that night, we befriended four travellers staying at the homestay. Gautam and Om were from Mumbai and were biking in the North East while Rajat and Ashwin were solo travellers. Rajat came from Delhi and Ashwin all the way from the city of Mysore in the South. I was with two of my cousin sisters and we were exploring our own home state. Our destination for the next day was Rainbow Falls and we decided to go there together as a team. Our guide, Droning was quite amused to find the three sisters multiply into this little army in just a few hours. Droning lives in Nongriat and is a young 15-year-old lad, who is preparing to appear for his school final this year.

Next day started early for us. We were up by 5.30 AM and left the homestay at 6.00 AM with our newly found acquaintances. The sun wasn’t up yet but the skies looked clear. Soon, we found ourselves crossing a shaky iron bridge that threatened to throw us off as it swayed to and fro while we crossed it one foot at a time. We had encountered such bridges the day before as well, but I for one was still not used to them and could feel my knees quiver. This particular one was worse as the iron was rusted in places. After a while, we crossed another root bridge and the root bridges are so much more stable!

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Pic 1: Another precarious hanging bridge, this one had few rusted iron rods making it scarier!  [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 2: Another hanging root bridge, this particular one was supported by iron rods. Root bridges were much more sturdier. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]

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Pic 3: Towards the end of the root bridge as we stepped into the jungle. Isn’t that glorious!

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Pic 4: Through the jungle trail, one step at a time. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 5: Sis takes a break. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
The sound of running water of the falls teased us for a long while as we continued walking and expected to see it at every turn but the falls kept eluding us. Then, in a flash it suddenly emerged from the thick green envelope. There it was! Rainbow Falls – a hidden treasure in the deep jungles of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya. The mighty roaring water was spectacular leaving us transfixed for a moment.

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Pic 6: Rainbow Falls as it emerged through the dense green thicket.

I stared at it from the top of the hill for a while before convincing myself that this was not a dream. Only then, was I able to descend the final flight of steps towards the falls. As I looked on, I noticed the enormous force of the water as it pounded its way right into the pool below. The pool was a brilliant sparkling blue and looked serene and calm, unaffected by the torrents of water pounding on it with such great force.

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Pic 7: I just had to admire it for a while before making my way down.

The sun was just about making its way through the tall hills around the falls. So, we would have to wait a while to see the rainbow that appears on the falls. It’s this permanent rainbow across the falls that makes it unique and gives it the name.

I found myself a comfortable seating area from where I could view the falls in its entirety. One of my sisters joined me. The rest were already making their way down through the huge formidable boulders. We watched them go down. Two of the guys couldn’t control their urge and very soon plunged into the crystal clear blue waters of the pool below. The water was so clear that we could see right through into the pebbles at the bottom.

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Pic 8: The pristine blue water was just too alluring!

The dazzling blue water was too inviting. My sister could hold herself no longer and decided to climb down.  The huge boulders intimidated me and I wasn’t sure. It’s my short height that limits me, shaking my confidence at such times, as I know my legs will not reach out to all places. I felt quite comfortable where I was but my sister insisted. Soon, Droning was summoned to give me a hand and help me navigate my way down to the blue pool.

Down below, the falls was magnificent but at the same time terrifying and unnerving. I stood there for a while watching the rest of my gang braving the chill and swimming and wading in the water. At one point all of them climbed up a huge boulder that had a ladder against it for a closer view of the falls. I wasn’t able to muster the courage.

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Pic 9: The  clear blue water through to the pebbles below. The water was comparatively shallow, as it was Winter season.

Another sparkling green pool of water amidst huge rocks and boulders glistened in the morning sun and lay quietly away from the falls. While the others went towards that, I decided to go back to my comfort place and again not without Droning’s help. One of my sisters and Rajat joined me too.

We chatted and waited patiently for another hour and a half as the sun’s rays slowly descended down the falls. The rest settled in a place down below after they had their fill of exploring and posing for photographs of kinds. We didn’t know at what point the rainbow would appear and every now and then imagined seeing colours when there weren’t any.

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Pic 10: Sis poses at the crystal clear green pool at the far end of the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 11: At my comfort place overlooking the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
And when the rainbow actually appeared, we literally shrieked in unison. It was so sudden that I felt as if an invisible fairy godmother had touched it with her magic wand. We reveled in the enigmatic beauty of Mother Nature for a while.

It was almost 10.30 AM. A few more people had now started coming in and it was time for us to leave.

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Pic 12: Do you spot the rainbow? We had to wait till the Sun’s rays reached that point just before it touched the pool below.

In our anticipation of the rainbow, we had forgotten that we had missed breakfast. Having been up for more than 4 hours with quite a bit of physical activity, our stomachs had started growling. The girls had meticulously packed in a few bread slices from our Homestay the night before. The boys had none. The food was far from sufficient and we still had a long way to go. We had decided not to go back to Nongriat, instead follow a jungle trail that goes straight to Cherrapunjee.

We had already invited trouble, just that we were still unaware…. (Continued)