Rugged Road to Radiant Mountains

The rollercoaster of a ride to Spiti Valley

As the car started climbing up the winding mountain road from Manali, I could sense the rush of that familiar feeling of excitement and happiness – which surfaces only when I am headed to the mountains, Himalayas to be more specific. And this time I was about to explore the cold desert mountains of Western Himalayas.

We were on our way to Spiti, the land between Tibet and India. The name ‘Spiti’ literally means ‘The Middle Land’

Spiti had been on my mind for a long time now, right from the time I came to know about it, 7 years back. However, it happened rather suddenly when impulsively I asked my Manager for leave amidst extremely busy times at office not knowing that it would be granted and everything was planned in less than two weeks. And, then my sister offered to join in. Magic just happens, all you need is the intent!

The winding roads continued as we feasted our eyes on the green conifers shining in the early morning light. As we crossed Rohtang Pass, the green trees disappeared almost suddenly being replaced by massive rocky mountains. Almost simultaneously, the tarred road also disappeared and it was replaced by a pathway strewn with pebbles and loose mud.

The pathway got narrow and narrower and seemed to hang precariously on the mountain slopes. Further ahead, the pebbles were replaced by larger stones and there were huge rocks planted randomly here and there. Every now and then I thought we were about to hit a dead end but a hidden path would emerge from nowhere. On occasions we were asked to step out of the car and walk up a few meters only to reduce the load and make it easier for Raju, the driver of our car.

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Pic 1: A glimpse of the road!
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Pic 2: A test of your driving skills and your patience

We rode across several waterfall, which we learned are known as ‘Nalla’ in everyday verbiage in this part of the world. These constitute water coming from the glaciers and the quantity of water increases as the day progresses. Some of these were pretty risky. For us, it was sheer Adrenalin rush but not quite for Raju who had to manipulate his way carefully and at one time he even sent out a sincere prayer to the Almighty. He had already displayed his driving expertise, why did he have to do that! He revealed a couple of experiences – once when his car had gotten stuck at one such nalla forcing him to spend the cold night in his car and another when he saw his friend’s car skid and fall into the deep gorge, thankfully his friend was saved. Raju also entertained us with other interesting stories of the road – sudden snow falls, increased water levels in the nallas, traffic jams created by broken vehicles, etc.

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Pic 3: Back-breaking but views that more than compensate

The bumpy ride rattled every bone in our body but we weren’t bothered. Just one look out of the window is all it took to forget the tumultuous journey.

Humongous mountains fiercely stared at us revealing their might with river Chandra gushing below with its emerald green water. It’s difficult to comprehend that there can be so much splendor in the rugged and starkly bare sky-touching mountains. We marveled at the various shades of brown, black, white, and grey. Later on in Spiti, we also found splendid shades of peach, amber, orange, and yellow. The mountains were intricately patterned and curved and each one looked uniquely different. The impressive craftsmanship is attributed to the melting snow as it flows down towards the river.

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Pic 4: Those colours and intricate patterns curved out by melting snow.

It was the beginning of October and there wasn’t much snow around. Though the mountain tops did have some snow and some of them were fresh. Winter was just round the corner and soon everything would be carpeted in white. In fact, the route from Manali would also close down. The way from Shimla would however remain open.

We learn from our driver, Raju, that the route from Shimla is what we should have ideally taken. Usually people start from Shimla and end at Manali. Though getting to Kaza, the main town of Spiti through Shimla will take you upto 3 days as compared to just one day through Manali. However, that route will take you through the beautiful places of Kalpa and Chitkul of Kinnaur Valley. Also, the road from Shimla is a properly tarred one.  I realized in my hurry I hadn’t done my research well enough.

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Pic 5: The long and winding roads across fascinating landscapes
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Pic 6: One of the many magnificent bridges we crossed

The route though Shimla would have been wonderful but I don’t regret having taken the one from Manali.  It was definitely worth the experience in its entirety and it also appealed to my adventurous spirit. At one point we even landed at a place where the road was missing, a huge boulder had apparently fallen from the mountain taking along with it a portion of the road. We had to wait for a while and a make shift road was put in place by using stones. Another time a local villager stopped us asking if we could drop him to Losar, which was a village on the way. We readily agreed and had some interesting conversations on the way. Not just that, when we saw yaks grazing in the wilderness our excitement took over us and he drove one of the yaks towards us so that we could get a good picture.

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Pic 7: The villager chasing the yak for us
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Pic 8: When the herd interrupted us
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Pic 9: There were hundreds of tiny birds on this shrub, which flew away the moment we approached. I feel handicapped with my phone camera at such times!

After all the adventures, as the sun was setting for the day, we reached Spiti. To our surprise, we were greeted by superbly tarred and smooth roads that were starkly contrasting to what we had endured so far. “This feels like butter!”, I heard my sister remark from the backseat. “Now, that’s cheesy!” I grinned from the front seat, where I had shifted to be alongside Raju a long while ago.

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Pic 10: Just when the roads were getting better 

Explore

Dhankar Lake – A Melody of Peace and Solitude

“Yehi best time hai ji!” (This is the best time), proclaimed Raju, our guide and driver for the past 3 days at Spiti.  As I looked at the way ahead towards Dhankar Lake with the afternoon Sun at its blazing best, I couldn’t stop myself from asking Raju if some other time would have been better.

This timing was the result of a tweak in our original plan for that day, which was to arrive at Dhankar village in the morning, visit the spectacular 1000 year old Dhankar Monastery, explore the village for a while and then make our way to Dhankar Lake. However, we changed our plan while on our way, did other things and landed here in the afternoon instead. It was about 2.45 PM, and by now we had learnt that afternoon is the time when it gets really really hot in this cold desert mountain.

Raju had informed that it would take us about an hour to climb up the stretch of about 2.5 Km. It is considered an easy hike but the steep climb in that altitude can make you breathless within a few seconds. It can be physically challenging if one is not used to steep climbs.

A muddy trail marked by the beautiful colours of Autumn welcomed us as we took our first step towards our destination. Armed with a bottle of water each, the three of us set off determined to reach the top in less than the stipulated 1-hour time.

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Pic 1: The spectacular fall colours against the deep blue sky

As we climbed up, Dhankar monastery and the village homes against the intricately designed surrounding mountains was a sight to behold. A particular patch looked like a termite hill, another had a tunnel like opening and looked like a secret cave leading way down to Spiti river, the new monastery was sparkling in its golden yellow colour, the meandering road snaking its way up to the village was clearly visible, dotting here and there were brightly colored shrubs in hues of orange, yellow, brown and green. It appeared like a scene of some other planet, straight out of a Sci-fi movie.

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Pic 2: That opening on far left is no doorway to a cave as it may seem so and that distinct pattern on the right is no handiwork of termites

Further ahead the muddy trail became steeper and gave way to loose pebbles scattered all along the pathway. One mis-step in the steep ridges and you will go down the rocky mountain. I thanked my foresighted decision of wearing my trekking shoes to Spiti instead of my normal sports shoes or any other shoes. Up here, the wind was pretty strong too.

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Pic 3: A small signpost showing the way
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Pic 4: Almost there, the lake is just behind that mountain

Dhankar lake lies hidden behind the mountains that surround the Dhankar village. Situated at a height of 4136 meters, it remains frozen and inaccessible for most part of the year. Dhankar lake is considered holy by the local people.

We made the climb in about 45 min. As we approached the lake, it looked like a tiny pool of water that totally disappointed my sister who had put in quite a bit of effort to make the climb. Raju chose to ignore the snide remark she made at this point, urging us to walk  along the side of the lake.

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Pic 5: As we approached the lake, it looked like a tiny puddle of water, much to our disappointment
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Pic 6: A signboard in broken English with the important instruction for travelers

As we continued walking, the colour of the lake kept changing and on reaching the far end of the lake we were speechless, mesmerized by the amazing view that lay in front of us! Stunned by the turquoise colour of the water and the barren mountains with their snow covered peaks in the backdrop, we were dumbstruck! To add to it, the azure–blue sky and complete silence. No sound rang out from the shimmering stillness of the lake other than the gentle whistling of the wind. The idyllic scene looked like nature’s amphitheater that simply took our breath away.

I felt complete peace and everything seemed utterly beautiful. There was nobody around at that time other than the three of us. Absorbing all the calm and serenity, we sat in complete silence and conversed in unspoken words as my mind and heart rejoiced with joy. Perhaps a manifestation of the divine presence in the lake, as believed by the locals.

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Pic 7: The colour of the lake was changing as we walked along
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Pic 8: And there it was, the magnificent view at the far end of the lake that took our breath away making all the climb worthwhile 
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Pic 9: The Stupa at one side of the lake

“Ab chale, Madamji?” (Shall we leave now, Ma’am?), Raju’s voice bounced me back to reality. I smiled and nodded in agreement. I had lost all track of time. A quick glance at my watch informed that we’d been there for more than an hour. With a huge deal of effort, I reluctantly rose to my feet to bid farewell to the soothing time and moment beside the calm and dreamy Lake. With the resolve to come back someday, I tied a prayer flag before I followed Raju retracing our way back.

As I write this today, it feels like a dream and I long for the same feeling to take over my senses once again.

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Pic 10: The gorgeous shrubs at one end of the lake, which we saw while walking back

Note: All pictures are unedited, raw photos clicked through iPhone-6

Chandrataal – The Hypnotic Moon Lake

A slice of heaven on earth……

It was biting cold as we stepped out of the car. I have no idea of the temperature but the cold hit us hard especially out of the warm and cozy car. I felt like my body was about to convert into a mound of ice even after putting on additional layers of fleece. It was 8 AM by then and we had not expected it to be so cold at this hour. Regretting my decision of wearing yoga pants and not denims that morning, I couldn’t help wonder how it might have felt a few hours earlier, at dawn. The sun was glowing bright all along the edges of the snow-capped mountain tops but was yet to reach the base of the mountain where we walked. Our anticipation of what awaited us kept us going even as our teeth chattered and our limbs were near numb. Also, we knew the cold was temporary and it was just a matter of time before the sun would warm us up.

Our destination appeared like an unimpressive greenish-brown pool of water as we saw it from a distance. As we approached closer, the colour changed dramatically to a turquoise blue, and then a blueish green and then deep blue blending with the green edges. The magical crescent shaped Moon Lake or Chandrataal revealed its jaw-dropping gorgeousness. Its magnificence glimmered in the morning light – a slice of heaven on earth it was! It was kind of a lightening-bolt moment for us.

Chandrataal is situated in the Spiti part of the Lahul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. The name of the lake reflects its crescent shape (Chandra – Moon; Taal – Lake). It is fed by the Chandra Glacier, which lies within the Chandrabhaga range that overlooks the lake. Hidden behind the mountains and situated at an altitude of 4300 m, its pristine and clear waters is sure to put you on a trance.

I had never seen such profound beauty before and my heart and mind was captivated instantaneously. There was instant peace and calm. The hypnotic tranquility had cast its spell and it seemed too beautiful to be true. I felt like I was in a reverie as I tried to absorb all the divinity emanating from the surroundings. The water was still with the brown mountains casting their reflection on one side of the lake, the prayer flags fluttered on the other side, the sky a deep shade of blue – creating an atmosphere too good to be true.

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Pic 1: Our first view of Chandrataal with the the sun lighting up a part of it displaying clear reflections of the brown mountains and blue sky
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Pic 2: On one side of the lake the prayer flags fluttered gently

We just stood there speechless totally engrossed and don’t remember feeling cold anymore. If there is a heaven, it’s got to be like this. A few minutes and the sun was up, its golden rays spreading all across the lake.

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Pic 3: As the sun’s rays spread across the entire lake

We walked a few meters by the side of the lake, tad reluctantly, not wanting to disturb the divine magnificent tranquility we were soaking in.  As we moved on, another splendor unfolded, this time it was the reflection of the snow-clad mountains and the water had turned a indigo blue.

It was bliss! Words are falling short and I have no language to express my feelings. Is this real? If I am dreaming, please don’t wake me up! The more I saw, the more I wanted to see….it was just not enough. We kept gazing and even a blink seemed to be wasteful.

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Pic 4: The reflection of the snow mountains
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Pic 5: Reflection of another snow peak
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Pic 6: As still as a mirror

After walking for a bit, we sprinkled a little of the cold water on our face and sat down to absorb the quiet emanating all through the bluish-green expanse. One can also choose to do a parikrama around the lake, which takes about 2.5 hours.

No wonder this place is considered holy. Such glorious scene has to have a divine presence. We read the clear instructions provided at the start of our walk about maintaining the sanctity of the holy lake by observing silence and not littering around. The place was absolutely clean. Not sure if it was due to the handiwork of the local people or it was because of the travelers abiding by the instructions. I do hope with all sincerity that it is the latter. There was no noise either, however, there were very few people at that time. The ‘monastery-quiet’ had a soothing and healing effect. Vehicles are not allowed in the vicinity of the lake, hence the 1.5 Km walk. Kudos to whoever took this decision and implemented the same.

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Pic 7: Soaking in sheer bliss, the cairn is blessed indeed…

One can do a day visit to Chandrataal or can camp overnight. There is a place 3Km away from the lake which has an assortment of tents of all shapes and sizes. Most travelers camp overnight. During our visit in October, the night temperature was around -7 degree Celsius. Some people camp with the hope of catching a glimpse of the Milky Way, some for the sheer adventure of it, while some others expect a party-like atmosphere with bonfires and music. We had decided not to camp there as the idea did not appeal to us, it was full moon so chances of seeing the Milky Way was slim and parties don’t interest us anyway.

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Pic 8: A view from the mountain top as we reluctantly traced our way back

We could have spent an entire day sitting beside Chandrataal absorbing its divine splendor but our plans to go back to Manali on the same day restricted us and we had to leave after spending about 2 hours. We were truly lucky to be able to witness the perfect reflection on the lake. The reflection depends on the weather conditions and is not always visible. The mountain Gods had ensured a blue sky with very little wind.

I feel blessed to have witnessed such immense beauty and I bow to Mother Nature in gratitude. Chandrataal gave me moments of perfect bliss and left me yearning for more. With a sigh, I traced my way back with the resolve to return to this halcyon paradise some day again…..

Magical Christmas at Kuari Pass!

When the Himalayas came calling again…

A corner of my mind and heart now stand permanently reserved for the enchanting Himalayas after my first rendezvous with the majestic snow-clad magnificence.

I was back from Kedarkanta Trek with millions of tales to tell and I’ve been told a couple of times that each time I reminisce the Himalayas my face lights up and my eyes sparkle – a comment that doesn’t fail to amuse me!

I had deliberately planned the next trek during the Christmas week in the month of December. This was to be my second Himalayan trek in the year 2016. This time my friend, Papia, was joining me and I was delighted. Papia always nurtured a sincere desire to trek the Himalayas but felt she couldn’t and it took me quite an effort to convince her. Once convinced, there was no looking back and she plunged wholeheartedly into it. She even got her brother’s family and two other people with her. A colleague of mine also joined in. So, this time we were a big gang of 7 people from Bangalore.

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Pic 1: The gang of 7 delighted with the crystal clear water of mother Ganges, which is sharply contrasting to how  we have seen her in the cities of the plains.

Thoroughly satisfied with my previous experience, I once again decided to trek with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). We had chosen Har-ki-Dun and it was the prospect of walking in snow that excited many in our group. While we were busy planning Har-ki-Dun, destiny had something else in store for us.  Just a fortnight before the trek, we got to know Har-ki-Dun was cancelled as the government had decided not to allow winter trekking in the area. IndiaHikes gave us the option of taking our money back or trek Kuari Pass instead. We chose the latter as we already had booked our tickets to Dehradun. I for one, was totally disheartened and my enthusiasm subsided considerably. The reason being Kuari Pass wasn’t rated amongst the top 10 Himalayan treks by IndiaHikes. Well, the saying ‘whatever happens is always for the best’ revealed itself later during the trek.

This time, we traveled to Joshimath from Dehradun. Needless to say this was yet another journey that is etched in our memories forever. As we passed through the ‘Panch Prayag’ (Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag) one by one with Mother Ganges in all her glory for constant company, it was a journey through paradise. By the time we reached Joshimath, dusk had set in. However, even after travelling for 12 hours on road there was no exhaustion whatsoever.

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Pic 2: Confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers at Devprayag – notice the distinctive colours, while Alaknanda is greyish, Bhagirathi is dark greenish

The following day, a 45 min drive took us to Auli, considered as one of the best ski destinations in India. The season’s snowfall hadn’t happened and Auli bore a barren look much to the disappointment of many in our group. After all, it was late December and Christmas Eve for heaven’s sake! We climbed the Auli slope for a little more than 2 hours. The rugged mountains in the background with glimpses of snow gave us some respite from the barren slopes and noisy tourists.

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Pic 3: As we climbed the barren slopes of Auli

As we left the slopes and moved higher, Mount Nanda Devi made a brief and grandiose appearance bringing in the much needed excitement to all of us. Very soon the much awaited Oak forest greeted us. The interplay of sun and shade, the ground strewn with fallen leaves, and the gradual climb made for a mesmerizing walk that I will cherish for the rest of my life. In a tiny clearing at the edge of the woods is ‘Padiyar Devta’ temple. The serene and tranquil temple seemed to be in perfect harmony with the calmness and silence of the surrounding woods.

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Pic 4: The forest floor strewn with dry leaves
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Pic 5: Padiyar Devta temple – locals believe the deity protects wildlife in the jungle

We reached Gorson Bugyal, our camp site for Day 1. The group of 18 odd people from various walks of life were slowly getting to know each other – a bunch of young scientists from ISRO, an ophthalmologist from AIIMS, an executive from a well-known MNC, the tech engineer duo, entrepreneur couples, instructional designers, and last but not the least a computer scientist with degrees from top-tier institutions across the world, who quit his high-flying career to be with the Himalayas.

An acclimatization walk in the afternoon followed by an abundance of ghost stories around a bon fire marked the other highlights of Day-1. The temperatures dropped as we retired for the night amidst a bright and twinkling sky with millions of shining stars. Our wishes for snowfall intensified and someone even sent out a fervent prayer to the universe. We hoped for a miracle as the weather prediction didn’t mention snow for the next one week.

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Pic 6: Gorson Bugyal with our tents in the background

And miracle did happen…..

All night long we thought we heard rain drops splattering across our tents. It was cold and the thought of rain was enough to dampen our spirits. Just before dawn, Papia put on her headlamp and opened the tent to inspect the rain…..and she squealed out in joy as all she saw was white flakes all around. It was the season’s first snowfall and it was Christmas morning. What could be more magical than this! We felt we were nature’s chosen ones and this was special. It was Papia’s first experience of snow as was for most others in the group.

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Pic 7: The first sight of snow at dawn as a tent is lit up from inside by a headlamp
(PC: Soumik Sarkar)
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Pic 8: The snow-covered Gorson Bugyal looked completely different

It snowed intermittently as we walked making for a very special Christmas Day, Day-2 of our trek.  It was a cloudy day for most part. The sun did make brief appearances during the morning half but it lacked the usual warmth. It was freezing and the cold seemed to seep in through our skin. The snow mountains peeked through the clouds once in a while allowing us glimpses of Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri. The twin peaks of Haati-ghoda had become our constant companion right from the time we had spotted them for the first time on our way to Joshimath. The setting sun had painted them a bright orange that had stolen our hearts in an instant.

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Pic 9: Taking a break while admiring the peaks that surrounded us

Walking right ahead with those at the beginning of our group, we approached the ridge, which was an adrenalin rush for many but not for me. My heart froze as I saw the narrow trail with the almost vertical cliff on one side and the deep valley on the other.  Khusiji, our guide, offered a hand and I covered the entire 1.5 Km clinging onto him. I couldn’t concentrate much on the mind-blowingly beautiful stretch with shades of green, brown, yellow, black. It had started to snow once again while we were midway onto the stretch, which intensified as we were towards the end. At the end of this stretch, I sent out a small prayer of gratitude to the Almighty for enabling me to cross over to the other side safe and sound. Simultaneously, my mind raced to Papia and the rest of my gang who were trailing behind wondering how they were faring. It was not until later that night I got to know it was just as challenging for them as well.

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Pic 10: The narrow ridge that scared the hell out of me!

Passing through the gorgeous Tali lake that was half frozen, we entered the fascinating Oak woods once again. This time, it was even more magical as the entire place was covered with snow. It was a surreal feeling of fantasy as I could imagine Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer passing by with Santa’s sleigh and leaving behind an illuminated trail for us to follow. My joyful mind quietly hummed the Christmas Carol (Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer…..) and I felt I could hear the jingling bells all around me.

As the temperatures dropped further, we reached Chithrakantha camp site, situated in the heart of the forest. It had gotten extremely cold and I have to admit that we were feeling miserable despite the layers of warm clothes we had on. Some sat around a fire while others wouldn’t step out of their tents. I felt my blood was freezing and was in no mood to even talk to anybody – a behavior alien to the otherwise exuberant me.   We retired for the night apprehensive about the weather next day and wondered how deep the snow might be higher up where we would trek the following day. The sleeping bags kept us warm and cozy but we couldn’t sleep well, which was for the unevenness of the ground rather than the cold.

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Pic 11: The snowfall had intensified as we crossed Tali lake (PC: Padmanava Sen)
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Pic 12: We camped in the middle of the enchanting snow-covered oak forest  (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

It was Day-3, the summit day and we had started early. The Mountain Gods had smiled and a bright and sunny day greeted us, which lifted our spirits considerably. There was sparkling snow all around us and we couldn’t be happier.  The terrain constituted several steep ascents and steep descents. The snow peaks glistened at the distance and their elegance and splendor kept multiplying with every ascent. Once again, it was Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri along with the spectacular Neelkanth that were most prominent peaks accompanying us all the way.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for me and Day-3 felt tough especially the stretches of steep ascents. Despite that, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the good weather had a lot to do with that. I was intermittently sending my gratitude to the Mountains for giving me this opportunity to experience their supreme splendor.

Passing through Chitrakantha top with a panoramic 360 degree view we arrived at a ridge with gradual slopes. Here, the strong winds threatened to throw us off and we struggled to maintain our balance.

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Pic 13: Clear skies and sparkling snow with Haati-Ghoda as constant companions
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Pic 14: Strong winds sweeping off snow atop the majestic Haati-Ghoda
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Pic 15: As we approached the ridge where the strong winds almost threw us off balance

Passing through a part of the legendary ‘Lord Curzon’s Trail’ we reached the breathtaking frozen waterfall. Precariously we made our way down through the sides of the waterfall with crampons attached to our shoes that provided the much needed additional grip.

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Pic 16: The frozen waterfall – notice the people climbing down through the side

Finally, we reached Kuari Pass! We were overwhelmed at 12,516 ft and each one of us rejoiced in our own way. While some of us preferred to sit in complete silence, others got busy clicking selfies and freezing the moment forever through their lenses.

As I sat there absorbing every bit of the surrounding gorgeousness, my mind ran to Papia and I wished we could enjoy this moment together. Papia, along with a few others had opted out of the summit and had instead descended to Khullara, our next camp, where I would meet her later that day. The miserably chilling conditions of Day-2 drove them towards this decision.

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Pic 17: As we trudged along nearing Kuari Pass  (PC: Soumik Sarkar)
Kuari Pass - Neelaanjana Paul - At the summit with a wee bit of snow on my shoes as a testimonial to the snow-laden path we just traversed
Pic 18: A moment at Kuari Pass – a wee bit of snow stuck on adamantly to my shoe

With the summit over, we retraced our path and proceeded towards Khullara. While most of the people moved ahead, a group of five of us decided to take it slow as we rested, chatted, clicked pictures, and made the most of our descent towards Khullara.

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Pic 19: Descending towards Khullara as another amazing day was coming to an end
(PC: Padmanava Sen)

Khullara was the most beautiful campsite of this trek. It was a small clearing, surrounded by forest slopes and mountain ranges. The brilliant sunsets and sunrises we witnessed here across Neelkanth, haati Ghoda, Dronagriri and other peaks was a feast for the eyes. People who chose not to go to the summit ended up having a wonderful time exploring Khullara and it was not a bad bargain after all.

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Pic 20: The sky at dusk – twilight is astounding in the mountains
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Pic 21: Neelkanth glowing with the first rays of the sun (PC: Soumik Sarkar)

Starting early the next day, we commenced our journey towards Joshimath through the Tapovan valley. During the onward journey as always, I was way ahead with the group of people who were always at the beginning. On the return journey, I chose to go slow, stay behind and relish each and every moment. Who knows when I’ll be back again!

Another fantastic trail of about 9 Km awaited us as we pass through forests partially covered in snow with steep descends in some places, overlooking the snow-mountains all along. Towards the end of the trail we passed through a cluster of hamlets that provided a glimpse of the lives of the local people. As we passed through one such village, someone remarked “How lucky are these people to wake up to such a view of the Himalayas everyday!” It took us a good 60-70 minutes from the village to the nearest motorable road. Joshimath was a 45 minute drive from here. Are the village people really all that lucky? And to think that they don’t have a hospital.

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Pic 22: Descending towards Tapovan through the steep forest slopes
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Pic 23: A village viewed from a distance

My second Himalayan trek had come to an end. Captivated and spellbound I was once again. Additionally, this time two realizations dawned upon me. First, a Himalayan trek is about feelings and experiences that are beyond all words.  You have to go there to know what I mean. Second, the belief that our desire and intention is nothing before the mighty Himalayas (and perhaps all other mountains). The mountains decide what they want you to experience. If the mountains concede, only then you get to set foot on them to experience their majestic grandeur and I bow in reverence.

 

 

When Kedarkanta Happened!

My First Tryst with the Himalayas…

The year 2016 was particularly difficult for me. Certain things happened that negatively impacted my personal environment changing the course of my life, perhaps forever. Alongside something else happened. Again impacting me, but in a positive way.  Even though this cannot compensate for the other things that have gone so wrong, I feel fortunate and blessed.  And here’s what happened – I undertook two fascinating journeys discovering the intriguing beauty of the majestic Himalayas as I trekked to Kedarkanta and Kuari Pass in Uttarakhand.  In an attempt to share my wonderful experience, I am penning down the story of my Himalayan sojourn.

Let me start with Kedarkanta…

I am not getting into the details of how I landed up deciding to go on a Himalayan trek.  It was a very impulsive decision and how grateful am I for that!

It was the third week of April, the week of my birthday. Accompanied by my friend, Partho, I embarked on my maiden venture to the Abode of Snow with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). Kedarkanta peak is located in Govind National Park and the trek starts from a tiny village called Sankri, tucked away well within the park.  We started from Dehradun and the entire route to Sankri was a picturesque one, making the 10 hour drive really pleasurable.  Sankri is a tiny little beautiful village with a population of just about 300 offering some stunning views of the mountain ranges in Uttarakhand.

I was trekking for the first time, though I had gone for a day trek in Bangalore before but I don’t consider that to be of any significance. Kedarkanta is considered an easy trek but for people like me with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, it wasn’t all that easy. I did have an edge though – at least that’s what I would like to believe. After all, I belong to the mountains, having spent the first 30 years of my life in the Eastern Himalayas in the beautiful little hill station of Shillong. My hometown, fondly known as the Scotland of the east, the capital of Meghalaya – abode of clouds!

We were in a group of 25 people of all age groups with the youngest being 9 years old. Most of us were first timers. There were three families and half the group constituted members of the same family.  However, by the end of the first day, the entire group had become like one big family.

As we climbed up towards Juda-ka-Talab on Day 1, it was raining intermittently.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the steady ascent through the forests of pine, deodar and oak trees. Occasionally, we would pause to admire the rhododendrons that were blooming all the way.  We even plucked a few to satisfy our curiosity of tasting the flower petals. This was totally new to me. I had no clue that we could eat rhododendrons!

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Pic 1: Our colorful raincoats blending harmoniously with the surrounding forest.

The changing landscape kept us engaged all along – forests with shades of all kinds of green with tinges of yellow and orange; trees with intricate trunk patterns having roots that spread far and wide; occasional green meadows irresistible to our already aching feet. We also came across one or two shepherd huts that appeared abandoned. These are places where the shepherds spend the night when they come up grazing their sheep as they cannot go back on the same day. We later learnt that the shepherds of the adjoining villages usually move around in team of twos armed with ‘kukris’ so that during the night while one rests the other watches over the sheep, protecting them from wolves and bears.

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Pic 2: Multiple hues splashed across the forest creating a divine aura.

After a continuous climb of 4 Km for about 4 hours through countless pines and oaks, Juda-ka-Talab revealed itself as a small pond in a tiny little clearing amidst the lush green and dense forest. Legend has it that Lord Shiva opened a little of his hair and water flowed out to form this small pond.

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Pic 3: Behold, the impressive Juda-ka-Talab!

A little after we reached Juda-Ka-Talab, the rains intensified, forcing us inside our tents.  After a continuous spell of about an hour or so, the rains disappeared without trace and a bright and sunny afternoon greeted us.  We didn’t see a frozen Juda-Ka-Talab as the ice had melted just a week before we had arrived. No complaints, especially with the snow-clad mountains around us and the reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the ‘talab’ making the entire place an ecstatic visual delight. With our minds and hearts overwhelmed, we retired for the night as the stars shone bright and beautiful making the whole experience blissful and magical.

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Pic 4: Upside down or downside up!

We looked up and saw the Kedarkanta peak at a distance that was partially covered in snow.  It was Day-2 and we had just arrived at Kedarkanta base after a very short and steep climb. The quick ascent left us pleasantly surprised. While most people were delighted with the thought of being able to rest and relax in such heavenly abode, I was excited about the prospect of exploring the adjoining woods. Being the naturally energetic person that I am and with my mind busy fantasizing the witches and fairies of the woods that surrounded us, I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day just idling around the tent.  At the same time, I couldn’t master enough courage to venture into the woods all by myself. I found the 55-year old Vinod for company whom I had befriended the day before, and who amazed me with his stamina and fitness, passion for trekking, his grit and determination, and his love for the Himalayas. We shared our common love for yoga.

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Pic 5: Time for a break!

Time stood still as we walked through the enchanted forests of oaks and pines, admired the lichens and mosses, listened to the rustling of dry leaves below our feet, took note of the birds calling out every now and then, discovered streams and waterfalls, relaxed in the meadows, clicked selfies, talked to the occasional shepherd appearing from nowhere with his flock of sheep and disappearing in the same way, encountered the extraordinarily friendly mountain dog, and chatted about our lives and experiences. I was living in a picture postcard. Life seemed perfect!

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Pic 6: Time stood still as we lay on the soft green just below the Kedarkanta Peak…
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Pic 7: The extraordinarily friendly mountain dog.

It was 3.00 AM in the morning and we were already on our way to Kedarkanta peak with headlamps and torches lighting our paths. It was cold and we walked in silence in one straight line being led by our trek guides.  The cold eased a bit as twilight approached giving us hope and making Day-3: the Summit Day seem a little more achievable.

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Pic 8: As dawn broke, there was magic everywhere! 

As twilight gave way to early morning, we were delighted to see patches of snow glistening with the first rays of the sun.  There was some fresh snow indicating that it must have snowed the day before.  The terrain constituted patches of steep ascents and continuous gradual ascents as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top. In some patches, the snow had turned to ice making it a slippery and risky affair.

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Pic 9: The choco-vanilla landscape is a complete contrast to the lush green landscape!

Finally, after a climb of 6 Km for 6 hours, we reached Kedarkanta summit standing tall at 12,500 ft! The 360 degree panoramic view of some of the famous snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges was simply jaw dropping. Swargarohini, Bandarpoonch, Black Peak, Gangotri and the Yamunotri range, Chanshil Pass and Kinnaur Kailash ranges were clearly visible. Keeping my eyes wide open, I was gorging on every moment as my heart and soul danced with joy.

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Pic 10: I could have sat there forever!

Climbing down was tricky at times especially during the initial descent where the slope was steep and in those places where there were patches of ice.  We also did a slide in one patch that had some good amount of snow. It was some real fun as we twisted and turned, rolled and slipped, amidst hooting, laughter, and cheer!

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Pic 11: The slide!

After a brief rest at Kedarkanta base camp, we continued walking down towards Hargaon. While I was always amongst the top five people while climbing up, I was mostly lagging behind while climbing down – a clear sign that my knees needed some workout. Once again a spectacular trail through oaks, pines and streams led us to a meadow laid out in a carpet of green where we were camping for the day. It was a sunny afternoon with clear skies and we spent the rest of the day chit-chatting, reveling in the beauty of the surrounding snow-clad mountains, watching the horses grazing in the distance, walking barefoot on the soft grass, and playing cricket.

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Pic 12: Sunsets are gorgeous anywhere and more so in the mountains!

As Vinod and I basked in the sun along with a few others, a shepherd we had met the day before passed by with his flock of sheep. It was a moment of mutual delight. This time we chatted longer and learnt more about their lives and it was by no means an easy one. A pang of guilt hit me slightly as my mind did a spontaneous comparison of the kind of life I lead with all amenities at my disposal and here was someone whose life was a constant struggle oblivious to all the comforts that modern life has to offer.

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Pic 13: Picture postcard it was!

Starting early on day-4 and revisiting our rhododendrons through the forest floor laden with dry pine needles and cones, we descended back to Sankri, the village where we had started.

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Pic 14: The forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles.
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Pic 15: Rhododendrons – Yes we did pluck and gobbled a few!

At Sankri, we further explored the village, visited the ancient wooden temple of Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Shiva), mingled with the locals, bathed in river Supin, watched young children play joyfully without a care in the world before finally calling it a day.

It was the end of my first Himalayan trek. However, for me this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a newly discovered love and passion for the mountains.  I was spellbound – the enchanting Himalayas had captivated my soul. It was intoxicating and I knew I would be back very soon, which I did…. (Kuari Pass Trek)

The Mythology of Kedarkantha

Uttarakhand is considered to be the land of Lord Shiva and Kedarkantha peak has its own mythological story related to the Lord. The word Kedarkantha means Throat of Lord Shiva. The story goes back to Mahabharata. After the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were looking for Lord Shiva to atone for the sins committed during the war. First they went to Varanasi, Shiva’s favorite city, which has the famous Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Lord. Infuriated by the death and dishonesty at the Kurukshetra war, Shiva wanted to avoid the Pandavas. So, he assumed the form of a bull (Nandi) and hid in the Garhwal Himalayas. Not finding Shiva in Varanasi, the Pandavas went off to the Himalayas. Bheema spotted the bull and recognized it to be Lord Shiva. He held on to the bull not letting it go. In the resultant struggle, the bull was torn into five parts that appeared at five different locations. This resulted into the Panch Kedar: Kedarnath – Back of Lord Shiva; Kalpeshwar – Hair of Lord Shiva; Rudranath – Face of Lord Shiva; Tungnath – Arms of lord Shiva; and Madhyamaheshwar – Navel of Lord Shiva. Locals believe that during that time, the throat of Lord Shiva fell at Kedarkantha peak and that’s how the peak got its name. A small temple dedicated to the Lord is situated at the summit.