The Dreamy Desert Mountains

Sketches of my experience at Spiti Valley

It was dark in the room as I lay cozily tucked inside warm cotton quilts and blankets replaying the day’s events while my sister was fast asleep right beside me. It always takes me a while to fall asleep and this wasn’t unusual but today I wasn’t bothered as all I could see was the rugged roads and the radiant mountains. I smiled my way to sleep and couldn’t wait to be up the next morning.

The cold desert of Spiti Valley, with its austere barren mountains, deep gorges, emerald green river, ancient monasteries, gorgeous villages, and unique culture has given me a lifetime of memories and experiences. Here’s an attempt to capture the essence of Spiti through a brief outline of the places we visited.

Kaza – A Tiny Little Commercial Hub

Kaza brings memories of walking through narrow lanes of the busy little market area that sits right at its center.  Surrounded by jagged mountains, and situated at an altitude of 3,800 m. above sea level, Kaza is the capital of Lahaul and Spiti district. It is like a central place which connects all other places in the valley. On one side of the market area is a series of Chortens or Stupas that face the 14th century Tangyud Gompa. Just besides the Chortens is the only petrol bunk in the valley, which also happens to be the world’s highest retail outlet. The only ATM in the valley belonging to State Bank of India is also located in Kaza.

Solitude at Rangrik

While Kaza was bustling with activities, Rangrik’s solitude appealed to the nature-lovers in us. Situated at an altitude of 3699 m. from sea level, the quiet and sleepy village is marked by the large golden Buddha statue and prominent prayers written on the mountains. The village has a couple of good schools that attract students from all across Spiti. Our hotel, Spiti Sarai, was located a few meters away from the village homes just across Spiti river with sprawling open spaces. Initially we were disappointed about being 5 Km away from Kaza, but it turned out to be just as we would have wanted. We did things that we love to do, which wouldn’t have happened had we stayed at Kaza.

Walked in the open fields while watching the sun set behind the mountains; climbed up the long flight of stairs painted in white across the road to take a look at the Chorten up in the mountain but discovered a temple instead; clambered up the mountain looking for the cave with a magnetic rock that the hotel bell boy had talked about but took a wrong turn and ended up on a cliff overlooking the river on one side and the cave on the other and had to be satisfied with only a view of the cave from a distance. Most importantly, we spent a considerable time lazing on the banks of Spiti River.

Autumn Colours at Mane Village

The most notable thing about Mane was the vibrant Autumn colours in various shades of yellow and gold. Situated at an altitude of 2926 m, the village has a small Gompa that did not appeal much to us. Other than this, there is nothing much in this village. We spent  most of our time here interacting with the village kids. Later, we got to know that there is a lake known as Sopona Lake, which is a 2-3 Km trek away from the village.

The Buddhist Mummy at Gue

The intriguing mummy at Gue had captivated my imagination right from the first time I had heard about it. After I landed in Spiti, I could no longer contain my curiosity and kept asking about it to everyone I met. Finally, I was at Gue and as I knelt in reverence, it was a moment of awe that no words can describe. The remarkably well preserved mummy in a sitting position with intact hair and nails left us astonished. That no chemicals are used, the natural mummification just left us marveling. At a distance of about 80 Km and a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border, Gue is the furthest village from Kaza. Situated at an altitude of around 3200 m, Gue is famous for this 500-600 year old naturally preserved mummy of a Lama that was discovered by the army after an old tomb containing the mummified body had opened up following the earthquake in 1975. The mummy is now kept in a separate chamber inside a glass casing just beside the village Gompa. Locals believe that the mummy is of Lama Sangha Tenzin, who had sacrificed his life to free the village from a menace of scorpions. They say when the Lama’s soul left his body there was a rainbow in the sky and the scorpions had disappeared. Carbon Dating has scientifically established the mummy to be of a 45 year old Lama from the last quarter of 15th century. The Lama apparently belonged to Gelugapa order who are practitioners of Zogchen, the highest form of meditation. This is the only Buddhist mummy in the world and also the only known naturally preserved mummy in India.

Apple Orchards & Mud Monastery at Tabo

The extraordinary Mud Monastery at Tabo took us by surprise as I had not heard/read about this before. Tabo is situated at an altitude of 3279 m. and the monastery dates back to 996 CE, the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape, when it was founded. The monastery, consisting of temples and Chortens, is completely made of Mud and is surrounded by tall mountains that supposedly have a number of caves carved into the cliff face that are used by the monks for meditation. That’s why Tabo Monastery is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’. We read about the caves in the description provided in the signboard but didn’t have the time to go see them. We got to know that the Dalai Lama considers Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest and has also expressed his desire to retire in this ancient monastery. He has also held Kalachakra ceremonies here in 1983 and 1996.

The same compound also has the new monastery, which is concrete and of modern architecture. We were fortunate to attend a prayer ritual that was happening at the new monastery when we were around. Tabo Gompa houses many ancient and priceless Buddhist manuscripts and is considered second in importance to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet.

Tabo also fascinated us with its apple orchards, which start off many miles before reaching the village and continue many miles beyond it. To top it all, the apple trees were covered with ripe red apples and it was with great difficulty that we controlled our desire to just go and pluck off a few. Even the monastery has a garden of apple trees with the tonnes of apples hanging from the trees.

The Quaint Villages of Kibber, Lhalung, & Chicham

We experienced the local culture through our homestays at Kibber and Lhalung village. The enriching experiences at the homestays demanded a separate post altogether. An important highlight worth mentioning here is catching a glimpse of the red-eyed fox on our way to Lhalung as it quickly passed by our car and went down the mountain.

While at Kibber, we went to visit the newly inaugurated bridge that connects Kibber to Chicham village – a bridge that took 17 years to complete. It is unnerving to think that before this bridge, people would use a trolley tied through a ropeway between the deep gorges at a drop of about 150 m. to go to Chicham. It’s not surprising that many people have lost their lives during this commute, which was the only mode of connectivity to Chicham.

Dhankar Gompa from a Distance

Dhankar village is famous for the 1000 year old Dhankar Gompa and the mesmerizing Dhankar lake, which can be reached only after a steep climb of about 3 Kms up the mountain. The quiet and solitude at the lake made all the climb totally worthwhile.

The Dhankar monastery is built on a high spur of the mountain overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Dhankar was the traditional capital of Spiti Valley and the monastery is like a fort that also served as a prison. Dhankar literally means fort on a cliff (Dhan: cliff, and Kar: fort). Most of the fort is in ruins now after the 1975 earthquake. A new Gompa has also been built but the old one is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore the fort and had to satisfy ourselves with the view from a distance. However, we were lucky to have spotted a few blue sheep grazing up in the mountain on our way to Dhankar. You can’t have it all…can you!

The Pristine Beauty of Pin Valley

Pin Valley mesmerized us with its gorgeous landscape. Pin River, with its majestic greenish-blue color runs throughout the length of this fascinating valley before merging with Spiti River. Pin also houses the ‘Pin Valley National Park’. We took a drive down the valley upto Mud village but did not have enough time to visit the National Park.

Our Pin Valley drive can be summed up as a sunny day with azure blue sky alongside the graceful and sinuous Pin River through the enchanting silence of miles and miles of isolation accompanied by stunning views of the mottled desert mountains.

We crossed several villages on the way of which Mikkim is worth mentioning as its population of only 30 amazed us. We also walked on a hanging bridge over the river and visited Kungri Gompa on the way. Kungri is the second oldest Gompa in the Lahaul and Spiti Valley and has the distinction of being the only monastery, which belongs to the Nyingmapa order of Buddhism.

Looking for Fossils at Langza

Situated at an altitude of 4400 m., Langza village is dominated by a large statue of Lord Buddha, overlooking the valley. Langza is also the place to find fossils of marine animals and plants, which is attributed to Spiti Valley being submerged in the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. We expected to see a few but got to know that they can be found only if we trek higher up in the mountains.

Seabuckthorn Tea at Komic

Situated at a towering height of 4587m, Komic’s distinguishing feature is that it is the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road. However, our memories of Komic is associated with Seabuckthorn tea as this was where we had tasted it for the first time.  Seabuckthorn are orangish berries, the shrubs of which are scattered all over Spiti Valley. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin-C and due to their therapeutic properties are used in traditional medicines. The dried and crushed form make amazing organic tea that tastes like hot Fanta though we enjoyed eating them right off the plants too!

Posting Letters at Hikkim

Hikkim was super special – after all not everyday you get to post letters from the highest post office in the world. We sent post cards back home to our parents, which they are yet to receive and which is a surprise. Can’t wait to see their reactions. We also posted cards to our own addresses in the city and which have already arrived. At an altitude of 4440 m., Hikkim also has the highest polling booth in India. While driving back from Hikkim, we got lucky again and this time witnessed two Ibexes looking down at us from the mountain top.

Praying at Kee Monastery [or Key Monastery]

Picturesquely perched on a hilltop, Kee Monastery appears like a fortress with its haphazardly stacked rooms and temples. At an altitude of 4,116 m., the over 1000-year-old monastery is the oldest training center for Lamas and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Besides invaders, it has also dealt with natural calamities of fire and earthquake. It has a vast collection of ancient murals, books and centuries old thangkas. We had expected to see a flurry of activities in the monastery with Lamas of all age groups busily carrying out their daily activities. None of that happened and the monastery wore a barren look as all the Lamas had gone over to Kaza that day for attending a ceremony. Also, we had plans of spending a night at the monastery but our amazing homestay experience resulted in swapping it with another homestay instead. So, we explored the monastery, prayed, and chatted with the only Lama available and headed for Gette.

Tying Prayer Flags at Gette

Dozens of prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind tied around an old Chorten on a hilltop is what greeted us at Gette. Surrounded by tall mountains and situated at a height of 4270m., it is also a viewpoint for Kee monastery that lies on one side of the valley.  On the other side is the Gette village, which has only 2-3 houses. There was nobody other than us at Gette at that point of time and we spent our time leisurely tying prayer flags and clicking selfies while reveling with the wind in our hairs.

Kunzum La and Chandrataal

It was afternoon and the wind was blowing strong when we reached Kunzum La on our way to Spiti. The prayer flags were fluttering and the landscape around it breathtaking. Situated at an altitude of 4,590 m. Kumzum La is the gateway to Spiti being the only motorable route that connects Kullu valley and Lahaul Valley with Spiti Valley. It also offers a spectacular view of Bara-Sigri, the second the longest glacier in the world. A series of Chortens and prayers written on flat stones are prominently displayed. All vehicles passing by this route stop here and pay respect to Kunzum Devi. The stunning Chandrataal is at a distance of 9.5 Km from Kumzum La and the more I say about Chandrataal the less it is and definitely demands a separate post.

Spiti Valley feels like a dream. The surreal landscapes that remain cut-off by snow from the rest of the country for at least 7 months a year is a different world altogether and has completely enthralled me. I have already written so many posts on it but it still feels like I have so much more to share…..And now I can totally relate to Rudyard Kipling’s description of Spiti –

“At last entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here.”

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)
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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.

 

 

A Date with Leeches at Kudremukh

A lush green montage of rolling hills, sprawling grasslands, and tropical forests….

“Good Lord, Eewwwwww!” I shrieked. A swollen wobbly leech just fell off from my upper arm as I took off my rain-jacket. Stuffed and all pumped up after a sumptuous blood meal sucked out of my arm, the hale and hearty leech was wriggling on the ground trying hard to move around. Sounds gory, isn’t it? Not quite! Leeches are creepy but pretty harmless creatures, something I learnt after I trekked to Kudremukh peak in Western Ghats.

I soon discovered that there were three more leeches – one on my stomach and two on my feet that were happily feasting on my blood while I was engrossed with all the wonders of Mother Nature surrounding me. I had managed to dodge tonnes and dozens of them all the way and these were the lucky four that secretly found their way onto my skin. And it was not until I was back from the peak that I discovered them.

I’m still not sure if I have overcome my fear of leeches – not fear, rather the uncomfortable creepy feeling associated with these creatures. However, these wriggly-wiggly creatures surely added to my overall experience of Kudremukh.

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Pic 1: The green mosaic of thick vegetation, vast grasslands, rolling hills, and dreamy clouds

Trekking in the lush green Western Ghats had been in my wishlist for a long time now. Kudremukh was an obvious choice to experience Western Ghats for the first time after having seen mesmerizing photographs of the chain of rolling hills laid out in a mosaic of sprawling grassland and dense forests.  It was with this motive that I had started following Tranquil Voyagers on Facebook and it’s been more than two years now. However, life is paradoxical and I landed up discovering Himalayas in the far north while I kept contemplating Western Ghats, which is right next door.

Tranquil Voyagers is a trekking company in Bangalore run by Shravan Kumar. Having observed them on Facebook for quite a while I decided to join them in my quest to discover the beauty of Western Ghats. Being with the right people is extremely important when it comes to hiking, trekking and exploring nature and I must say I am quite selective about that. Shravan himself leads all the treks conducted by Tranquil Voyagers and they exceeded my expectations with their idea of fun combined with high levels of energy, responsible trekking, and ecofriendly practices. I highly recommend them. (http://www.tranquilvoyagers.co.in).

It was early monsoon in the month of June. We reached Kudremukh National Park at dawn and were put up in a homestay with very basic amenities. Surrounded by tall trees, thick vegetation, and green hills, it was nothing but heavenly. Soon after breakfast, we started out towards Kudremukh peak.

Kudremukh or Kudremukha is a peak in Chikkamagaluru district, in Karnataka, located within Kudremukh National Park. The name ‘Kuduremukha’ is derived from a view of a side of the mountain that resembles the face of a horse. ‘Kuduremukha’ is a Kannada word meaning ‘horse-face’.

A group of 18 of us walked along chit-chatting with the early morning sun shining brightly and adding cheer to the newly found acquaintances. An important topic of discussion was the leeches that we knew we would be encountering and everyone had their own theories and stories to tell. All of this was doing little to drive away the discomfort I had at the very thought of the slimy wriggly-wiggly creatures. I had done my own research and had read up quite a few articles but the knowledge I gained did nothing to ease my apprehension. Very soon we started encountering them. And as we stepped into the forest, they were all over. It took me a while to recognize them as they can be easily mistaken for twigs scattered amidst the big brown leaves all across the forest floor, until you see them moving and stretching all around looking out for potential unsuspecting victims.

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Pic 2: Refreshing shades of green

Keeping aside the leeches, the wide variety of landscapes throughout the trail was a source of constant delight. The green carpets of grasslands would merge into smooth hill slopes with a very few or no trees at all. Patches of shrubs and bushes would appear intermittently. This would quickly give way to stretches of evergreen Shola forests with foliage so thick that the sun rays could hardly penetrate. (Shola is the local name for stunted tropical montane forest in South India). Once in a while the gurgling streams showed up gushing through the forests complementing the humming cicadas and chirping birds creating a surrealistic experience of dream and fantasy. Crossing the streams was great fun as we carefully made our way through the stones and pebbles, some of which were slippery due to the moss, lichens, or algae covering them.

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Pic 3: Walking through the shadowy groves of ‘Shola’ forests enjoying the leafy canopy and trickling sunlight
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Pic 4: The giggling stream greeted us as it happily passed through the forest
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Pic 5: The stream smiles, lit up by sun rays piercing through the thick jungle foliage.                               Pic Credit: Nikunj Amipara

It rained every now and then, adding to the enchanting aura created by the varied landscapes. The National Park houses a variety of wildlife and herds of sambars, spotted deer have been seen on the trekking route. However, we weren’t that lucky but we did see a couple of birds including a few peacocks. Not to forget the leeches though! To make sure that the creepy creatures didn’t catch us, we literally ran across the leech-infested forest floors and didn’t dare hang around to admire the pure serenity of crackling leaves, crunching twigs, and rustling foliage. There was no escape, whatsoever! Every now and then we would have to stop to remove the slimy creatures off our clothes and shoes. Once they sneak in and attach themselves to our skin, it gets tricky. Then, it’s important to take them off along with their suckers or else infections may set in. I was armed with a packet of salt but contrary to my knowledge, I learnt that sprinkling salt on leeches is not a good idea at all as that not only entails killing the leeches mercilessly but can lead to severe skin infection. Apparently, once the creature attaches to your skin, leaving it there and letting it fall off after it’s done with sucking your blood is a safer bet. Of course, I have no idea how you can do that without psyching out at the very thought of it.

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Pic 6: Carpet of green stretching as far as one can see  – a real treat for the eyes

As we were nearing the peak, after a few stretches of steep climbs, it started raining and a thick layer of fog engulfed us. I felt like I was walking in a vacuum of white as I couldn’t see anybody or anything ahead or after me. The heavens were not kind enough and by the time we reached the peak, the rains intensified. Along with that, the winds blew strongly and it was really cold. Drenched from head to toe, our raincoats provided little respite. The thick fog ensured that we got no view at all.  Shivering and trembling in the cold coupled with disappointment of not being able to see anything, we decided to descend. After a while, the rains stopped and the fog cleared just for a few minutes and that was our only window to catch a glimpse of the hypnotizing rolling hills undulating in all shades of green.

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Pic 7: The thick fog of grey that engulfed us as we approached the peak
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Pic 8: The window that opened up for a few minutes provided a glimpse of the undulating green hills that lay behind the clouds

The rains lashed hard again and didn’t stop till we were back at the homestay. Some areas, especially while climbing downhill had become slippery, forcing our concentration on the path ahead of us leaving us with no opportunity to stop and admire the enthralling surroundings. Though a few of us did stop at the clearing that was lined up with mango and jackfruit trees. With the raw mangoes hanging low, we couldn’t resist gobbling up a handful of them with salt before the salt was washed off in the rain.

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Pic 9: Happiness is walking into clouds through a soothing stretch of green
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Pic 10: ‘Onti Mara’ – The Lone Tree stands tall in the barren hillside undeterred by the thick fog.

Back in the homestay, after clearing the leeches, we bathed in hot water and feasted on onion pakodas and hot tea. The hot water bath was quite a luxury I must say!

It was an experience of a different kind, even though we couldn’t see anything at the peak. The journey is always more important than the destination and the beautiful and varied landscape we experienced made for an enchanting experience.

However, I have to say that having experienced the Himalayas, nothing else truly makes a mark upon me. Though, I know it’s unfair and I should not compare a hill with a mountain!

The leeches turned out to be harmless but something else almost killed me that night after I was back to my city in Bangalore but that’s another story. You can read that here – When my Immune System Overreacted

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.