Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Chopta - Tungnath - Chandrashila Trek







Five days of holidays in the beginning of October was god-sent for many people to make a beeline into their favourite destinations; we too planned to make best of this golden opportunity, since it does not happen very often that one gets constellation of holidays falling together. If I have to plan, what better place than go for a quick visit to the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Chopta and Tungnath had been in my mind for a long time. I made enquiries and found this was a doable trip in five days. Vasu, after some hesitation, agreed to accompany me, and then I asked Shariff, who approved the plan (of course, after consulting Malini) without hestitation. What bothered me was the road condition. After last year’s devastation due to fury of floods in Uttarakhand, esp, in the region of Kedarnath, I was a little wary, since Chopta and Tungnath fall in the close vicinity of Kedarnath; afterall, Tungnath is one of five Kedar temples. I contacted GMVN’s offices in Rishikesh and other places to get the updates. They all assured me that people were going regulary to Kedarnath and other dhams (Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri), and in the first week of October, with rains almost stopping, there was no risk of fresh landslide. I must say one thing about the GMVN, they are sure to respond once you ring them up. Finally I could also track one medical officer from Haldwani, who had just returned from Kedarnath after spending some time in a medical camp. He confirmed roads were decent enough, and some rough patches here and there were part of the journey in the mountains.
The route to Chopta-Tungnath-Chadrshila goes like this: Delhi-Haridwar-Rishikesh-Devprayag-Shrinagar-Rudraprayag-Ukhimath-Chopta. It is the same route till Rudrapryag that goes further to Joshimath, Govind-ghat (for trek to Valley of Flowers and Hemkunt Sahib) and then Badrinath. At Rudraprayag, you take a left U-turn to go towards Kedarnath, and before Guptkashi, turn towards Ukhimath and Chopta.
Something about the legend of ‘Panch-Kedar’, since there are five Kedar (Lord Shiv) temples in that region: Kedarnath, Tungnath, Madhyamaheshwar, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar. The legend goes like this: after the Mahabharat war, Pandav brothers felt extreme remorse and guilt over the kilings of their own brothers and other kinsmen, Guru, and many great warriors. They were advised to seek penance from Lord Shiv, who was very angry with them and unforgiving. In their quest, they reached Mount Kailash, but Shiv disappeared from there. They could trace him to Garhwal Himalayas, where to dodge them, Shiv assumes the form of a male buffalow and joins a herd. Pandav brothers recognize him and try to capture him, but Shiv disintegrates himself in five parts, but Pandavs catch hold of his back and worship him for penance. Shiv is satisfied with their devotion and repentence, and finally grants them pardon. Each temple signifies one of the five body parts.
On our first day, we left home after doing Durga-ashtami puja, since it was Durga Ashtami that day. We aimed to reach Shrinagar on our first day, though I was a bit apprehensive about the road condition after Rishikesh when hills begin. But the problem was exiting NCR only. It took nearly two hours to cross Ghaziabad. At Khatauli, we stopped for tea; the well-known Chital Grand does not exist anymore at its original site. It was known for its efficiency, standard of cleanliness, and very rich greenery and landscape. We went to one of its clones, which has a long way to go to come near Chital. We did not stop at Haridwar, as we wanted to reach our next destination on time. We crossed Shivpuri, known for river rafting, where the entire stretch was full of parked cars. The Dilliwalas had made good use of this long weekend; I cannot complain, we had done the same. The road condition was not as bad as I had feared except for some stretches. We thought of Devprayag for our overnight stay, but then Shrinagar was not far off, so we decided to continue. We had covered almost 340 km. Shrinagar is an important halt on this route for going to Kedarnath (via Rudraprayag), Hemkunt Sahib and Valley of Flowers, and Badrinath (via Joshimath). It is home to the Garhwal University and now has a medical college too. One could still see some signs of fury of floods last year.
On second day, we had planned to reach Chopta via Rudraprayag, Agustmuni and Ukhimath at a distance of 60 km. We had been recommended to stay at Syalsur guest house of the GMVN for the beauty of all the landscape around it. However, this guest house was washed away in last year’s floods, and the repair/construction was not yet complete. On this stretch, new road has been laid, and the drive was a pleasure, with a fantastic view of moutnains and tall trees all around. The river, terraced fields and mountain peaks made all the efforts worthwhile. The air was refreshing, and I inhaled deeply to clear my clogged alveoli of all the pollutants accumulated over last few months in Delhi. At Duggalbitta, a few kilometers before Chopta, we got down from our vehicle to stretch our legs and give ourselves some practice to walk at an altitude of 9000 ft in preparation for tomorrow’s trek, which was to take us to 13,500 ft. From Duggalbitta to Chopta via Baniyakund, the entire area is a huge meadow (bugyal), and offers huge opportunity for camping. Now a days a number of corporates organize for their young executives such camps where they get some exposure to excitement of adventure and group living. The village of Chopta is spread over a largish area and is sparsely populated. The centre of the village, where all the tourists assemble, is a stretch of less than 1 km with eating and staying places located on either side of the road. At this time, the entire stretch was jam packed with cars and motorcycles, and the eating places were full of noisy tourists. Majority of the tourists were young people, and it seemed as if the profile of pilgrims had changed from elderly group to younger crowd. It looked like as if the younger lot had descended (or ascended) to Chopta instead to a mall. Since the staying places were limited, we hurried to book our rooms before settling down to anythingelse. The evening brought sudden fall in the temperature, and with limited lighting options, tourists and pilgrims had to retire early into their beds. At dinner we met with a very interesting couple from, wherelse, but Kolkata. The gentleman had almost taken upon himself the task of popularizing soya in India almost with a missionary zeal. He explained to us in great details how and in what form soya has to be consumed to be useful to human system. We at our home consume soya by mixing soya flour in wheat flour, but that is not the best way. Could not sleep very well, may be because of altitude, or due to anxiety of next day’s trek.
We had planned to stay overnight at Tungnath for our 3rd night’s stay and tried to book some room in advance; however, we were told all the accommodation were taken up already, and the place was looking more like a railway platform. In the morning, we left early; we were to walk about 4 km and gain a height to nearly 3500 ft, making it a steep climb. I gave myself 3 hrs for this trek; I was a bit anxious, so maintained a slow but steady rhythm for my climb. The tree line was thinning all the way up; there were pine, oak, rhodendrone and birch trees. But all disappeared as we gained height. It was cloudy, so could not have a clear view of the peaks. We reached within time; and after having darshan, we headed for Chandrashila peak at a height of 13,500 ft.

People usually go to Chandrashila early in the morning for a sunrise, when all the peaks bask in the golden sun. One can have a 270 degree view all around. But it was a cloudy day since early morning, so did not have a clear view of the peaks.
After climbing down, we headed for Ukhimath, where we had decided to stay overnight. I had already tried the GMVN guest house telephonically, and there was no vacancy. We tried the PWD guest house; mostly these are located at a place from where one can see a good view of the landscape, and secondly they charge very reasonable rates. At Ukhimath, all the rooms were vacant, but the caretaker was one of the laziest persons around, and when we saw the condition of one room, we could not believe one could maintain a room in such a filthy condition. It appeared straight from a horror movie. But we got good rooms in a private hotel, which was situated on main road. The rooms were clean, nice beds, and running hot water. Ukhimath is a small town with Shri Omkarnath temple where Bhagwan Kedarnath makes a temporary abode when the Kedarnath shrine closes on the Diwali day for the winter season. It is in Ukhimath that the Lord is worshipped through the winters.
Next day after a good night rest and hot water bath and a breakfast of hot puri-aloo subji, we headed for Devria Taal. We parked our car at Sari village, from where it is a moderately steep trek of about 3 km. The trek passes through a temple and dense forest. The lake is famous for its view and the reflections of sunset and surrounding peaks like Chowkhambha. There is tented accommodation available, and if one is inclined, it is a quiet and serene place for overnight stay. We spent couple of hours amidst a noisy group of tourists, who were neither aware of PM’s appeal of ‘swachch Bharat’, nor respectful to the sanctity of Himalayas. We left for Rishikesh and reached there soon after sunset.
Fifth day was our last day of journey. We headed for home, but not before taking a dip in the Ganga. We were happy we could accomplish a visit to Chopta, Tungnath and Chandrashila in the given time. This is again one of the many destinations in the Himalayas where one would like to go again.

Some important telephone numbers:
GMVN Delhi – 011-23326620
GMVN Rishikesh – 0135-2431793
GMVN Dehradun – 0135-2740896
GMVN Joshimath – 01389-222118
GMVN Badrinath – 01381-222212
  





Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SUMMER VISITORS





Till the middle of the month, the mornings in Delhi had remained unusually cool for the month of April. It had been heavenly to have early morning tea outside in the back courtyard of our house. We are blessed in having a few trees around our house. In between the silk cotton tree (semul) and drum stick tree, you can easily spot at least 15 species of birds on your lucky day. Thus, we have usual birds like sparrow, myna, brahminy myna, dove, blue rock pigeon, wood pigeons, rosy pastors, wabblers, sun bird, robins, bulbul, crow, kite, parakeet, sun bird, etc.




The wood pigeons had come and gone away, stopping only for a few days for face presentation; the flock of noisy rosy pastors was in the process of leaving;  white-cheek bulbul, kingfishers, and grey hornbills were also making occasional appearance; every morning tree pie is trying to imitate other birds; barbets, large and small, were heard more often than seen with their continuous, monotonous ‘thuk…thuk…’. We do not have roosters around us, but koel has assumed its function with its shrill call rising in crescendo and then suddenly going quiet. Unfailingly, it gives its call at 4 am, and sometimes at 3! Where was it all throughout the winter? Soon we shall witness crow chasing away a female koel from its nest, but many a koel would succeed in throwing away eggs in the crow nest and laying their own.




Gone winters, the trees have become mad house of activities with birds of all color and hues, shapes and sizes. The mornings occupy them with their frantic search for food and building material. All through the winter, they had gone on sabbatical, and now they have made their appearance to reclaim their rightful place among trees and bushes. The insects, which had remained conspicuous with their absence, have suddenly become visible almost in sacrificial mood, allowing us to witness hide and seek with birds, who dart down from some invisible spot in the tree to hunt them and insects or moths scurrying in the grass or fallen leaves for their lives.

The mornings are no more pleasant any longer, mosquitoes are perhaps envious of seeing us enjoying our morning tea, and won’t let a single second pass without their sting hitting us at some unreachable spot of the body, but the call of the birds is still fascinating making us endure all the oppression of heat and mosquito bite.