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Down The Salvation Trail

This is National Highway 58 and I’m traveling on a DTC bus on my way to Haridwar. Today is 10th of June and I‘ve reached New Delhi at around 10 o’clock in the morning. With a heavy breakfast in my stomach headed for ISBT on a notorious Delhi auto rickshaw. Got a bus at eleven and heading for Uttaranchal now.........zzzzz.......feeling sleepy!

It’s my first trip to Haridwar! Although we had to cancel our trip to Dehradun and the beautiful little Mussourie due to time constraints...never mind...there is always a next time!

11th June, 2004
So done all the needful; didn’t climb Manasa and Chandi Pahar(I’m not supposed to ruin my holidays just by queuing up for so long) , watched the evening prayers and rituals of Ganga Pujan at Har ki Pauri(my bloody automatic camera betrayed me with its low flash power), traveled all the way to Rishikesh, visited Lakshman Jhula, Ram Jhula, Gita Bhavan, took dips on holy Ganges, swallowed enough Lassi to beat North Indian summer, smacked sumptuous Rabri (remembered unprivileged few back in Kolkata) and put my taste buds and appetite on a test of handling North Indian veggies and adding not to my surprise it responded in pretty positive note! Well I must mention about our staying place at Haridwar. Anyone traveling to Haridwar can certainly check out this place called Anand Niwas near Har Ki Pauri and I say; you would love the place!

12th June, 2004
On 12th we left Haridwar and headed for Rudraprayag on a TGMOU bus at around 6:30 in the morning. Reach Rishikesh just 24 Km away from Haridwar, cross the river Ganga and suddenly see the road starts climbing the mountains. It was a lovely sun drenched morning, on one side of the road the hills and mountains have rose tall and on the other the river flows down the deep gorge. It was summer time and the river was not so wild, otherwise the river Ganges near Rishikesh is much famous to adventure enthusiasts for white water rafting. Monsoon river is wild and belligerent, the cascades are real challenge!

After a brief stopover at Vyasi for breakfast the bus headed for Gourikund. The colours of the mountains are ever changing, sometimes it’s due to types of vegetation; the sub-Himalayan forests are nature lovers’ delight and sometimes the geological diversities are the reason. We crossed Devaprayag at around 10 o’clock in the morning. Devaprayag is the sangamsthal of Alakananda and Bhagirathi river. Not much happened on the bus. After traveling for around six hours, crossing number of sleepy villages and smaller mountains we reached Rudraprayag in the early afternoon.

Rudraprayag is famous as the sangamsthal (confluence) of two holy rivers; Alakananda and Mandakini. It is a small hilly town and district head quarter of jila Rudraprayag. You can find banks, police chowki, lots of hotels and all the hustle bustle of a typical Garhwali town. We managed to get an accommodation at Baba KaliKamli’s dharamshala located very close to the sangamsthal. A nice cozy verandah opens just over the rough and grey streams of Alakananda and you can see the green rapids of Mandakini embracing it downstream. The sound of the gushing waters was deafening. Annapurna and Jagadamba temples are situated right over the sangam. The temple of ‘Rudranath’ Siva is located next to them. Probably this has given the name ‘Rudraprayag’ to the place. The place is also the meeting place for NH 58 and NH 109. NH 58 is the road that leads to Badrinath via Joshimath and the other highway find its way through a tunnel after crossing river Alakananda towards Gourikund via GuptaKashi, SonPrayag. If you are traveling the places by car, can spend a day or two here and then you can visit Koteswara Mahadeva’s cave-temple and Gulab Rai’s Choti famous for its connection to Jim Corbett. Usually people traveling by bus don’t prefer to stay here. They like to head straight for either Gourikund or Badrinath. There is only a single public bus (daak gari) for a day that travels to Badrinath. And we have no other choice but to take it the next morning. Early bookings managed us some preferable seats although and left the place the following morning.

13th June, 2004
The road towards Joshimath gets Alakananda by its side all along as it passes through KarnaPrayag, NandaPrayag, Chamoli and lots of other smaller towns and sleepy little hamlets. I have traveled to different parts of the Himalayas over the years but the specialty of this particular trip is that wherever you wish to travel, you have to make very long journeys. To some it may seem a sort of botheration but I personally enjoyed every bit of it. All shades of brown and green, amazing landscapes, frightening landslip prone mountains and river down the bottomless gorges fascinated me! But you will miss the snow during this part of the year! On the way, Srinagar is a lovely place where the river opens up on a large plane valley. It’s quite a large town among the hills with all kinds of residential areas, bus stands and facilities of civic amenities. We reached Joshimath before noon and the driver assured us of arriving Badrinath by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But the destiny had its own plan!

AdiGuru Sankaracharya built ‘JyotirMath’ and ‘Nrisingha’ temple at this place during 8th century AD. The name subsequently changed to ‘Joshimath’ over the time. During the winter; for six months the idol of the Lord Badrinarayan is brought to this Nrisingha temple by a holy procession and the pujas and usual rituals are practiced. Apart from its religious significance it is also a busy town and surrounded by mountains on three sides. On a clear sunny day you will be able to see Nandadebi, Kamet, Mana, Nilkantha and host of other snow-laden peaks from this place. The journeys for a number of famous trek routes like Hemkund, Nandan Kanan, Kuanri Pass, also begin here. The famous skiing resort of Auli is only 14 kilometers away and those staying here for a day or two, which I strongly recommend, can get there by hiring a cab. Auli is also famous for its world’s second highest cable car way at a height of 3016 mts. Auli was not in our tour itinerary. But you can certainly have a handful of the picturesque mountains and green valleys down under!

After some funny goof ups by few fellow passengers the bus started for the rest of the journey at around 12:30 in the afternoon. Passed lovely looking small resorts, Garhwal Scouts’ (“mushkil waqt, scouts sakht”) barrack and lots of blooming gardens only to halt at a check post only a kilometer down the road. A long queue of buses, trucks and cars are waiting ahead of us! “What the hell has happened” everyone seemed to ask each other. And then it came out of the blue! Someone told us, there was a landslide down the road a few kilometers ahead and at least four people got killed.

We could see the road downhill; there were some movements of drazers, scrapers and caterpillars towards the landslip site. Our bus driver told that he would take the bus back to Joshimath so that we could manage some refreshments as and when needed. The bus went back to Joshimath and the waiting for the road to open started. Hours gone by and the driver suggested us that we should better look for accommodation here because if it gets delayed beyond four o’clock he would not be able to reach Badrinath today. The waiting was an experience itself. It was a quite afternoon. Some sort of ceremony was going on at a primary school nearby. The kids were singing some typical Garhwali song. I couldn’t understand their language but the tune reminded me of some good old Rajesh Khanna-Shammi Kapoor movies! Listening to the melodies of mountains on a tranquil afternoon…Ohh…it was blissful!

But just before four we suddenly heard that the road has cleared and saw cars and buses coming uphill towards Joshimath. Everybody took a sigh of relief! At last we left Joshimath and headed for Badrinath. The beauty of the road beyond Joshimath is beyond imagination of the people never been there. The mountains are fearsome, rocky, loose rocks hanging over the road and signboards put up by BRO on the way will make you feel the clear and present danger of landslide always. The river is wild and runs through deepest of gorges. Near the Hemkund Sahib famed GovindaGhat we crossed Vishnu Prayag where Alakananda has met Khiro Ganga river coming from west. Seen first few glimpses of mighty Neelkantha through the clouds and crimson lights of the setting sun. It was fabulous! We climbed few thousand feet very fast and all of a sudden the trans-Himalayan cold started knifing through my windcheater. The melting glaciers started to show up on the towering mountains around and we could clearly see the moraines coming down with the glaciers. At last we managed to reach our holy destination at around 7:30 in the evening after a never-ending journey that lasted for almost thirteen hours.

Badrinath is one of the oldest of the Hindu pilgrimage by the river Alakananda and is situated at an altitude of 3200 meters. This Vishnu temple is believed to be built by Adi Guru Sankaracharya. The mountains named Nar and Narayan are guarding the temple town on the west and the east. The snow capped mighty Neelkantha creates one of the most picturesque backdrops under the sun. The myriad facets of the gorgeous mountain under different light conditions are probably the most shot and sought after sights in the Garhwal Himalayas.

14th June, 2004
We stayed at Birla guesthouse here. The next morning we decided to visit Mana village, three kilometers off Badrinath town. Mana happens to be the last Indian village on the way to Tibet. The Sino-Indian border is 42 kilometers away from this sleepy little village.
Mana is famous for Vyas Gufa, Ganesh Gufa and Bhim pul. The river Saraswati has originated from a cave at Bhim pul and flows a very short distance, only to meet the Alakananda at KesavPrayag. A short trek of 5 kms can lead you to the famous waterfall of Basudhara. A number of famous trek routes like Satopanth glacier and lake, Kalindi pass, Gangotri khal start from here.We offered our prayers and puja at the temple in the afternoon and after having a hearty dinner decided to call it a day and relaxed at the hotel room.

15th June, 2004
Left Badrinath very early next morning after having last few glimpses of the mountains and glaciers amidst morning mist and the carrot sun. Tried to capture the majestic mountain, which was ‘burning bright’, in my automatic and pledged to come back more than once among these mountains, in my mind!

We reached Chamoli the district headquarter before noon. The bus turned here, crossed the river Alakananda and took the Vukh-Hartal route. At Gopeshwar we decided to have the lunch break. The bus then headed for Mandal. The road beyond Mandal is through very thick forests. Beauty of this journey lies in the smell of sub-Himalayan jungles, in the vast expanse of greeneries over the valleys, in the sounds of the unknown cascades through the jungle. We had by then entered the ‘Kedarnath National Park’ and this region is famous for ‘black buck deer’ or Kasturi Mriga.

We reached Chopta just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It is another beauty spot on the face of Garhwal Himalayas and recently came up us as a very popular travel destination. In the months of April-May Chopta gets draped by the beauty of blooming rhododendrons. The lucky few can get glimpses of wildlife in the surrounding forests. Chopta gets rainfall almost round the year and hence the velvet green on the surrounding hills are ever lasting. The horizon beyond the green hills are dominated by peaks like Kedar Dome, Gangotri, Neelkantha, Choukhamba, Bandarpunch and host of other anonymous mountains. We decided to beat the soggy chill of the afternoon with a cup of hot tea with lots of sugar, milk n elaichi, akka North Indian style. The famous pilgrimage of Tunganath (12,400 ft) is only 3kms away from Chopta. Those having a little bit of trekking habit can also move further to Chandrasila.

Our next destination was Ukhimath only 30 kilometers away from Chopta; on the way to Gourikund. Long ago this place was known as Shonitpur. Then it was named after the daughter of king Baneshwara, ‘Usha’ and over the years the place known as Ushamath changed its name to Ukhimath. Like Joshimath the place is also religiously significant. The bigraha of Lord Kedarnath is brought to this place for pujas during winter and taken back to Kedarnath Dham on Akshay Tritiya, the day of the opening of the holy shrine.

16th June, 2004
We decided to stay at Ukhimath as per our travel plan and managed to get an accommodation at the guest-house of Bharat Sevashram Sangha. The guest-house is located just outside the small town; hence you can avoid the clatter but can enjoy the advantage of the motorway. It’s an amazing place! You can enjoy the views of the mountains like Sumeru, Kedar dome, MadaMaheshwar, etc and also the bluest Mandakini hundreds of feet down the hills. The guest-house is located just on the slope of a mountain and apart from a school building beside it no other houses are visible nearby. Since Ukhimath is not located on the regular route of Gourikund from Rudraprayag visitors are very few in number. People traveling through this Vukh hartal route are the privileged few, I believe. Apart from the sevashram guest-house there is GMVN bungalow and only two to three smaller hotels around. The sight of small villages on the distant hills, number of shades of green down the glades, river Mandakini and the majestic Himalaya make a perfect milieu for an ideal getaway.

Those staying at Ukhimath for more than a day, which is again strongly recommended, can travel to Sari village only 10 kilometers away on the way to Chopta by hiring a cab. The mighty Choukhamba creates an amazing backdrop beyond the smaller mountains for a perfect celluloid scene. A small hiking through the jungles will get you to Deoria Taal. It is a nice little lake at an altitude of 2201 mts with crystal clear water. The reflections of all the four peaks of the mystic Choukhamba are clearly visible on the water of the lake. The place is calm and serenely poised beyond your wildest of imaginations.

17th June, 2004
It was a dull and cloudy morning with chilly wind blowing across the mountains and the pine forests on the slopes. The sky started getting clearer as we took down the road of GauriKund. The road to GauriKund is via GuptaKashi, ShonPrayag. The 1500 years old and religiously significant temple of Madhyamaheshwar is some 12 kms off the road. We reached GauriKund just after 10 o’clock in the morning. It was a real shocker! The gateway to Shiva’s adobe is of immense spiritual importance and thousands of pilgrims from all over the country throng the place on the bank of river Mandakini round the year barring a few months of winter. This simply turned the once a pristine small village to a shanty town full of ponies, porters, dhabas and dharamshalas. Best way to avoid this ordeal is to reach the place late in the afternoon and start your journey for Kedar very early next morning.

18th June, 2004
We spent the night at the sevashram guest house. The Kedar Dham is a 14 Km walk from GauriKund towards north. For the uninitialized it’s a pretty decent ascend during which you climb from an altitude of 1800 mts to 3600 mts. We had a plan to start as early as five o’clock in the morning but the overnight rain and the fear of rock fall deferred it till six.
The walk to KedarNath is along a cobbled path known as cheh-footiya or six-footer. It’s a continual ascend which is quite tiring. The path is quite busy with pilgrims, horses and dulis. The river Mandakini down in the gorge is a constant companion along the way. The slopes on the other side of the gorge are full of thick pine-birch-oak forest with occasional waterfalls. In the north on a clear day you could see the Kedarnath peak shining with all its glory. The trail eases at Ramwara (7 Km from GauriKund). Although you have to take a lot of small breaks on the way uphill but it’s a place where you can rest your heels for some more time and sip a nice hot tea. Try to drink a lot of water and keep dry-fruits or biscuits handy. In the later half of the journey you’ll feel the real need.
Try to walk in a group of two or three people. Otherwise you will feel more tired. I myself found two nice fellas from Indore as companions. Although the vistas around me were getting more and more exciting with every paces I walk but the altitude and the thin air were really forcing me to gasp for breath. When you do feel such low look at the mountains around you, look at the surreal Mandakini Valley much below and suddenly realize you are on an altitude of more than 12,000ft above msl. Take heart and move ahead. The road just before Kedar Dham flattens. After a continual ascend for more than seven to eight hours it’s a welcome break. The moment you cross GarurChatti and enter the Kedar valley the splendor is waiting for you! The moraines, snow, river and the majestic KedarNath massif behind the 9th century AD temple of Lord Shiva, all are waiting for you. The lush green grassy slopes soaked by number of small streams below the snowline will pose the perfect contrast only the nature could offer.

It was getting cloudy in the afternoon and when I reached the KedarNath after an endless walk that lasted for more than nine hours it started drizzling. All the snow and the grandeur of mountains were behind the cloud curtain. I hurriedly rushed to the Birla Guest House where we had a previously made booking. There is very little to talk about the night when the hell bent over us with an incessant rainfall and mercury touching the freezing point. The only good thing was that we managed to have some hot khichdi , papad and pickle to survive the night!

19th June, 2004
The next morning we woke up early. It was still raining and dark outside. Offered our Puja in the temple and strated our journey back to GauriKund! We were pretty apprehensive about the weather and the imminent landslides that happen under such conditions. The news of bad weather conditions in BadriNath multiplied our fear. But the journey back was not all that bad as the weather condition improved considerably. I was a bit upset because couldn’t make a trip to Vasuki Taal or Gandhi Sarovar nearby. Reached GauriKund within five hours and settled for a hearty lunch at the sevashram.

20th June, 2004
The next day we boarded the morning bus to Haridwar and reached by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Spent the evening at Har ki Pauri, gulped down some nice cool lassi and went for a much needed sleep.

21st June, 2004
11 o’clock in the morning. Again I’m on the NH 58, traveling on a DTC bus…heading for Delhi. The farm houses, ganne-de-khet, telephone towers, thandi beer ki dukan, dhabas, pretty faces on the hoardings, Horn-OK-Please symbols on the trucks…..zzzz…feeling sleepy!

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