Early that morning, Anand had decided on getting a bike for the day. We were out early enough but got delayed because the rentals were not yet open until 10. We hung around and checked with multiple rentals till we finally settled for 2 Avenger bikes. Bikes are a significantly cheaper option compared to the cost, availability and convenience of taking autos there.
Pramod wanted to visit the Beatles ashram and I, the Rajaji national park for a change of scene. We followed the map for a pleasant drive passing by a sadhu starving himself, plenty of greenery, and several other pilgrims. The ashram was taken over by the Forest department and the guard told us we may not really see animals, so both our destinations were the same. Just beside the entrance of the national park was an area with 5-6 sadhus and plenty of college kids. They were surveying the area for a college project, and just beside this was the Ganga, yet again. We spent some time there and Anand (the introvert?!) managed to get friendly with the sadhus who even offered him a smoke at their home at the cremation ground! We whiled away some time there and then returned. We agreed that the beautiful ride was worth it even without even checking out our original list of places.
We were quite hungry by now and headed to Nirvana Café that was rated quite highly online. And it delivered, a cozy bamboo cottage reached by the bylanes of the town and yummy food in tow. Note : They are generous with their cheese. So we were full before we knew it. And we loved their music.
As tempting as it was to spend all day there, we made a quick pit stop at Laxman Jhula but the weather was too hot for us to really enjoy it much. We packed up and headed to the Dehradun train station for our return to Delhi.
At Delhi the next day we had just enough time to make a stop for an hour to shop and then were happy to return to a place that will always be beyond compare, home.
We effortlessly woke up by 6 30 and revisited the temple, this time in daylight, so A could take some pictures too. A breakfast of eggs and poha later, we decided to do the trek to Tungnath, despite our earlier decision not to trek anymore this trip. We’d by now resigned ourselves to landslides being the new normal during the hours drive to the base of Tungnath.
It is the highest Shiva temple in the world and a 4 km trek didn’t seem formidable after what we’d done in the last few days. But well, it was a good lesson in how nature doesn’t care about your plans, she has enough of her own. It started raining the moment we alighted from our car. As we went higher, the cold increased and so did the wind. It was too misty to see anything around either. The place was mostly desolate except for a few tea-shacks that were still operational despite it being the off-season. The weather pulled our motivation levels down and by just about a km to the top, a couple of us had lost all will to push through and tried to keep one unwilling step after the next. Lout, Pramod and Prashant made it to the top and came down to tell us about it but also that the last 500 meters were steeper. The cold and the rains had not abated.
We decided we’d be happier just getting back down and half-disappointed, half-relieved, made our way back. Anand and I walked slower to be kinder to my knees and the others walked significantly ahead. And in just a little while, in a lovely surprise, nature decided we’d had enough.
The view cleared, the rain reduced to a very mild drizzle, and the harsh wind moved on too. We looked on in awe at a new bewitching scene at every turn – 4 gorgeous wild dogs who decided to accompany us all the way down once we fed them a few biscuits, a shepherd and his handsome mountain goats looking on suspiciously at the dogs with us, trees with trunks in all shades of red, clear meadows with horses grazing away aimlessly, the tall trees all leaning towards one side covered with just enough mist to make it seem like a scene out of Lord of the Rings. We walked down with smiles pasted on our faces unable to get over the sheer beauty we had just been able to witness.
Just look at that goat’s expression!
On the way back, we developed an increased respect for the ones clearing the debris from the landslides. They repaired it for vehicles to pass, often, in less than 15 minutes saving vehicles from being backed up for hours. We travelled on the side of the Mandakini river throughout to get to Rudraprayag. She supposedly gets violent in the monsoons, and we could definitely see potential in her waves thrashing and pounding throughout. The 2.5-hour drive seemed such a joy as we were simply lost in her enthralling company.
The lovely Mandakini
Our first view of the GMVN we were to stay at, was from across the river on the other side and it seemed like a town just made for a photo op with the exuberant river.To our utter glee, the GMVN rooms had an enviable view of the sangam of Alaknanda and Mandakini. Like most places we visited post the trek, we were the only guests here too and even got an off-season discount. We spent an enchanting evening watching the aarti from our perch on the balcony.
Front row seats for the aarti
Day 10 :
I woke up to the lulling music of the river from outside our balcony and realised I could easily get used to this. I sat and tried to soak up the view – the ephemeral mist on the surface of the water, the subtle line ahead of the point of merge of the rivers- still separating them till they melted into each other, the gentle waves cuddling up to the rocks on the river banks, the winding roads on the opposite side, and a monkey doing a balancing act on the railings of the bridge across the Mandakini- seeming to pause occasionally to appreciate the view himself. The lone priest in the temple walked down the steps towards the water, braving its icy force. He filled a couple of pots from the water pouring one over himself and took another for the day’s prayers. Moments like these make you wish you had more poetic abilities. Or maybe for some experiences, words will always fall short.
A breakfast of puris and parathas later we headed off on a walk through the busy town that was going about its everyday. We tasted the local sweet called Baal Mithai which was like a halwa coated with tiny pellets of sugar. Since we had to leave early we only walked up to the bridge to the other side. As we stood there we had a sight we almost missed. Shiva’s head peeping out of the water while the rest of him was inside. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the picture of the complete statue even after my return. Reminded me strongly of the story of the King Tantalus. Suitably amused we hung around a bit and headed back to the room. The weather was now slightly warmer and more pleasant than the other places. But we had to leave by 11 to get to Rishikesh avoiding weather changes. Our driver was also looking forward to getting back to his home after these days with us.
We reached Rishikesh and decided to give Haridwar a look since it wasn’t too far off, and was supposedly the point where the Ganga leaves the mountains and reaches the plains. We checked into our hotel and figured we could make it in time for the Ganga aarti since it was just 20 km away. Anand, Pramod and I stayed on, while the rest left Rishikesh with other plans. We took a shared auto to the bus stand and then a bus to Haridwar. And oh, how wrong we were about the time we’d take! There was a traffic pile up the whole duration. By the time we got there, we had just missed the aarti, but decided to explore the place a bit. The Haridwar temple spans a huge space mostly to accommodate the crowds all through the year and specifically during the Kumbh mela. After getting there, I was a little glad to have missed the aarti simply because the place seemed too crowded for my liking! During the aarti with everyone trying to huddle closer to it for a view may have been worse, but that’s just me.
We strolled around, with poojaris regularly offering us their own aartis and some more who were actually annoying by insisting we do a random pooja for our families/ let flower buckets into the Ganga for a fee. The extent of commercialization needs to be seen to be believed. We managed to find the actual temple amidst it all where we were the last visitors of the day before it was closed by the calm priest. We had the prasad and continued to walk around. The place was full of tourists taking selfies on one side and pilgrims dipping in the cold water and ardently trying to keep up with the priest’s prayers on the other. After a while, we were hungry and decided to eat there since most places would close early even if we got back to Rishikesh. Just out of sheer food-home-sickness we ordered a masala dosa and it served us right that it was not what we expected though they did their best. The batter itself was made with the local rice that tasted different and a thin layer of potato stuffing was spread over. Nevertheless, eat we did, and then with some difficulty managed to get an auto back to our hotel.
We had to send our luggage with the mules since the chopper even if it happened, would only carry a total of 5kgs in addition to us. And if we were walking down, we couldn’t carry it without further ruining our knees. We came in early but it was too foggy to fly. We waited for over an hour waiting for the weather to clear up but it didn’t seem promising. However, just like that, it did actually make way.
We bundled into the chopper and what a view it was. The top view of all that we’d seen and loved over the last few days. The mountains, the milky cascades at every turn, the meandering river, the clouds embracing the mountains and just every shade of green one could think of. It was possibly one of the most scenic places to have one’s first chopper ride. If any, its only flaw was that it was really short, just 3.5 minutes in all.
We got off and went to the restaurant next door to the helipad where I easily devoured a breakfast of a vegetable stuffed omelette when a gentleman there informed us that Badrinath was closed. Our plan had been to visit Badrinath and Mana village over the next couple of days. We had been hearing noises of it being blocked but were hopeful till that point. Even then, we decided to think of a different plan at the time we leave if it was still blocked.
Tip : Have a backup plan or be flexible in places to visit on a trip to Uttarakhand. Landslides are as common as traffic jams are in Bangalore. They are frequently harmless but can leave you blocked if you insist on going that way. Trust locals and get an idea from them at each leg of the journey. However changed plans are not at all a downer here, since it’s so easy to find other places that are just as inviting. 🙂
We walked over to the Gurudwara in Govind ghat to pick up the prasad that we’d paid for at Hemkund. We picked it up and sat for a few minutes at the gurudwara. Though stuffed, still sat for the langar as lunch so we wouldn’t have to stop again. Anand and I were intrigued by the fun contraption they used to fill up glasses of the seated devotees while standing themselves.
We waited not-too-long for our luggage to arrive on the mules (ours arrived on one named Deepa,I had to ask), picked them up and bid a warm farewell to our impeccable guides. Dinesh also bagged us a driver for the rest of our journey – Diwanji. We have to recommend our guides simply because they went above and beyond. Do check with them if you’re looking for Himalayan treks.You can find them here. We headed towards Badrinath and the jam had built up to just 3 mins away from where we started, so finally gave up and headed towards our other option, Auli.
Auli is a skiing resort, so we were initially hesitant since it was off-season there with no snow. Nevertheless, we headed off in that direction and got there in an hour except for a case of motion sickness.
Tip : Do not look at your phones in transit if you’ve any history of motion sickness. Even the anti-nausea pill didn’t work when I happened to do so. And try getting a seat facing ahead and keep an eye on the drivers driving.
The Auli Ski resort won us over even as we just got there. A quick enquiry of the rooms and we were happy even with the basic ones. And off-season meant we literally had the whole resort to ourselves – a private hideaway.
With a renewed sense of appreciation for flowers post our treks, we noticed there were those we’d not seen before that seemed local to the place itself. To make the best of the clear weather and visibility, we immediately headed off to enjoy the cable car- Asia’s longest at 4km. A short walk up the resort and a climb of a few floors of a tower later we sat first in the chair-lift up the slopes and then into the cable car. Even the operators were sweet natured and friendly.
We had an exceptional view from atop. My favourites were the pines that looked wispy and dreamy. Kids waving to us from below, imposing trees in deep green, apple trees heavily laden with crimson fruit, the Himalayan mini sunflowers and dahlias in all hues effortlessly brightening up the yards in homes, endless layers of mountains in the distance made up some of the sights. It was a perfect ride to get lost in the view and just gape in wonder.
Once on the other side, post a swig of rhododendron juice (tastes like a toned down cough syrup, in case you’re wondering), we headed off in search of a legendary creature we hadn’t seen in all the past days. An ATM! We were all close to broke and needed one. Mercifully there was a functional one in the town and we left with happier wallets. We strolled around the town and Pramod and I went ahead looking for the Shankaracharya temple. However, by the time we reached it, we just had enough time to return to the cable car before its closing time and so gave it up. We enjoyed the return in the cable car too, and after some rest, had a lovely dinner pre-ordered (since we were the only guests in the place)- stuffed potatoes were delicious but peanut masala simply stole the show! It was amusing how open-mouthed everyone looked at the lone TV in the restaurant, simply because it had been that long we’d seen a TV on our trip. I, for one, was not complaining.
Tip : You can blindly book GMVN rooms across this part of Uttarakhand. We’re huge fans post this trip. We had good service and clean rooms throughout. In case of weather or other issues, they even let you transfer your booking to other GMVN hotels in the state for a fee. The fee was waived for us since it was the monsoons. Also, their support is fantastic and we received clarifications/resolutions with remarkable agility.
Day 8 :
While A and I lazed around in the one day after a while that we didn’t “have” to wake up early, Lout and Pramod had a short walk to the temple within the resort. They had stunning clear views of all the surrounding mountain ranges with the Nanda Devi and even a rainbow to add a touch of colour to the scene.
Just a little later the 2 of us also made our way to it. It is a small Hanuman temples with rows of brass bells inside. By the time, however, the clouds had decided the show had closed and so the hills were barely visible. Nevertheless, it was quite a charming spot to just stare into nothing for a while with the mild breeze and the flapping temple flags.
A breakfast of fries, sandwiches, eggs and a repeat order of peanut masala later we relaxed around the place reading, clicking photos indiscriminately and exploring. We had requested the cook to make local dishes for us for lunch and he obliged with Jhangora ki kheer(a pudding of barnyard millet) and Thechwani (a dal like dish made with potatoes). The staff were very accommodating with our food requests and even suggested next places for us to visit based on the weather. A even got a juicy apple in return on tipping them before we left 🙂
We had to leave to reach the next pit stop before dark (rains are more frequent in the later half of the day too) and Diwanji agreed to take us around for the next few days. Over the next few days, we’d appreciate him immensely. He was an expert driver, calm and collected with no shows of bravado but only quiet confidence that we were grateful for over and over again over roads that were sheer drops on one side, on roads that were just parts of water streams, roads with boulders recovering from landslides and narrow roads with 2 way traffic.
On the way back, who should we meet, but our own 3 guides from the trek who were on their way to Auli. It was such a warm reunion and they gave in their 2 cents on the rest of our trip too. After assessing options, we decided to make a stop at Ukhimath. The route was long but breathtaking in more ways than one. – waterfalls spilling over to the road ever so often, horses grazing in grasslands amidst the woods in a photo-ready-scene, terraced gardens over the hills, tiled houses dotting the majestic mountains, moss covered trees dripping with the remnants of the drizzle, rivers gushing with unbridled energy and empty roads that seemed paved for us- we barely saw 2-3 vehicles on our way in our 5 hours on the road.
We finally landed at our small GMVN hotel that had just 2 rooms and a dormitory [A whole new building was under construction where the rest of this hotel had been]. We took all the rooms to accommodate all of us and the driver for the night.
We then went on a short walk to the nearby Omkareshwar temple. We were intrigued seeing writing in Kannada in a place so far from home. As it turned out, the priest was Kannadiga and had a chat with the group about the place too. The idol of Kedarnath is brought here during half the year, so our group was in agreement that we could consider half a Kedarnath visit done! The temple though not too large has an interesting bunch of stories around it [http://www.kedarnathindia.com/Ukhimath%20Temple.html]. Inside the temple, at a lower level is the platform where the wedding of Usha(daughter of Banasur) and Anirudh (grandson of Krishna) is supposed to have been conducted.
Once back, since we were again the only guests, we had the luxury of being asked what we wanted to eat and had picked something we were all craving- bhindi and chicken curry[Most places had only vegetarian food]. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and then spent the rest of the evening watching agonisingly bad Telugu movie scenes that had been dubbed in Hindi.
The weather in the past 5 years had been playing up with my travel plans to the Valley of flowers, and this year’s monsoons and stories of landslides in Uttarakhand didn’t help calm my nerves. However ,a friend had just returned and a quick call with her the night before gave me a bit more hope than I could have mustered myself. Getting on the flight I knew I had to have luck on my side since the great Rajnikanth was everywhere we looked! Painted on the neighboring flight and even “the movie”‘s music on our own. Prashanth, Shwetha, A and I reached Delhi and after a few jumps across Metro lines, reached Karol Bagh where Lout was waiting for us while doing his trek shopping, him being the last day addition to the trip. We picked a few rucksack covers and other miscellaneous items and decided to keep our luggage in the railway cloak room so we could roam the city a lot lighter since we had been carrying the unfamiliar weight of rucksacks with 10 days’ worth luggage.
Such a simple plan but of course, life lessons need to be learnt
New Delhi railway station has 16 platforms and we’d gotten in at the 16th one. The waiting rooms were in platform 1.
The cloak rooms will refuse to take your luggage unless you have a lock on it. It can be a flimsy lock and need not even need to actually lock all sections on your bag. But a lock needs to be present.
You will not be allowed to sit in the waiting room unless you are less than 2 hours away from your train’s departure time.
The last point meant that despite Delhi’s terrible heat (relative measure to folks pampered by Bangalore’s weather), we didn’t have the option of hanging around in the cooler waiting room neither did it support our initial plans of being touristy and visiting a few places. So we headed off to Connaught Place to kill some time.
A little after we got there, Prashant managed to see far off on the distance a structure, and A was convinced it was Humayun’s tomb. My interest in the Mughals notwithstanding, I was too dehydrated to want anything other than a drink at the time and so deserted them and headed to a coffee place nearby with Lout. Prashant, A and Shweta headed off in that direction. Just as we recovered, they headed back narrating their own adventure of following the sight on foot and not finding it, a rickshaw driver told them that what they’d seen was just a decorated entrance of a big sweet store there 😀 Ah well. So they joined us and some chaat , momos, photography and dinner after which we got back to the railway station.
This time, we were close to our train’s time to be allowed into the waiting room. A chat with a sweet Punjabi couple ensued who made for interesting conversation.After the long day, as soon as our heads hit the train berth we dozed off in exhaustion.
Day 2 : Rishikesh
We woke up as the train chugged into Dehradun and picked a bus just outside the station, to reach Lakshman Jhula at Rishikesh. Mercifully our hotel let us have an early check-in and we all could freshen up and feel human again after the previous day’s grime. We then headed off in search of a meal. Though it was the season to visit Valley of Flowers, it was not the season for Rishikesh. And restaurants though seemed open, informed us they weren’t. After several false starts, we stuffed ourselves silly at Hotel Dev Palace. It was also hot and humid here and so we decided to head back for a short nap. Early evening the rest of the group had arrived and we visited them at their hotel.
We decided to walk to Ram Jhula for the day’s aarti. The place had a decidedly hippie feel to it. A mini-goa with Sadhu’s, cows and yoga classes added to the mix. It wasn’t too crowded, for a religious place. We ambled along and found spots to sit/stand for a good view of the aarti. The air rang with sounds of chanting for about an hour and people had plonked themselves all around that point. We saw a wide platform jutting into the enchanting Ganga river and wondered what it was for. The aarti was performed facing the platform and the water, though enticing, was bitterly cold.
A quick search later led us to know that the platform had held a tall statue of Shiva in the seated posture but was washed away in the 2013 floods. Pictures show it to be a gorgeous structure but it’s quite a lesson in nature doing her thing. The aarti itself was not as dramatic as that in Triveni Ghat or Haridwar but it had a more intimate air to it with a smaller crowd.
Across the temples by the Ganga that we’d visit in the following days, we’d see folks selling plastic cans so people could fill in water from the Ganga and take it back home. The irony that they are polluting the same water by putting in huge amounts of flowers, incense, lamps and themselves in it before they do so, seemed to be blissfully lost on them. The place has people with varying levels of curiosity and devotion – from tourists hoping not to offend anyone, to people in a trance at the chanting at the aarti time. While I could appreciate the allure of the chorus filling up the air, personally I preferred the silence after it was all done. With the waves splashing up against each other, the murmur of people seemed far behind as we paused to really savor the natural treasures of the world we live in.
We took the prasad from the temple (sweetened water and some sugar) and walked back along the busy lane. We stopped at a makeshift oven on a cart for freshly made piping hot nankhatai (butter cookies) that were luxuriously crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth at the same time. The rest of them even tried some hot badam milk from another vendor and we went on foot in search of the German bakery recommended by Neethu.
It was a very long walk. Our first lesson in not trusting the hardened locals when they give estimates to places that they find easy to walk to! We walked and walked, past narrow bylanes, badly lit spots, seemingly endless pathways, and deserted areas. These towns close down early and so there were fewer and fewer people as we got there. There are multiple “German Bakery”s on the way and we were told to search for the Devraj Coffee corner German bakery. We finally got there and the walk was completely worth it. Lasagna, fruit and vegetable salads, vegetable steaks, fruit juices without sugar, and my French onion soup. They all got a thumbs up from the group and we were completely satiated. Another long walk and a shower later we embraced easy slumber.