WHY do Hills keep calling me?

It is just an after thought. I have been traveling for the last 20 years now and I have traversed varied landscapes including mountains, deserts, cities, villages, pilgrimage, plateaus, forests, river beds, beaches and ravines. Today, when I look back, the astonishing fact that emerges is that I have explored all these places, other than hills, only when I was visiting my friends or relatives, luckily I have many of them, and sight seeing was a convenient getaway from their places of residence. Other than that, all my trips have been to the hills, primarily Himalayas.

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The Hills

I always travel in the company of my family or friends. After some of the arduous itineraries I even promised my companion/s that I won’t be repeating the journey to the mountains at least for a while but whenever I had sat down to plan the next outing, rest assured the destination always had been HILLS. What is in those hills that fascinate me no end?

The Might: As I sit back and ponder, the first reason that comes to my mind is the apparent might of the Himalayas. As one ventures couple of hundred miles or more into the hills and the greens turn into grey then black and finally white. The road ascends beyond 2500 mts and more and loses its bind of mortar and you find less number of fellow travelers on them. The sound of the gushing water of the river along side the road or trail, if you are on foot, becomes deafening and the weather conditions become more and more unpredictable. The brightness is lost in the shadows of the high lofts of hills that are around you and you can see sun or clear sky only when you strain your neck up. All this and other such factors instill in you a sense of fear and this fear in self is what that I long for.

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The might

Many do not undertake such trips and treks just because they never had such an experience or they know it but do not want to experience it. I have experienced it but the question is why I wish to undergo it again and again.

The might factor is not so dominant just because of its physical impacts only it has some psychological impacts too. The fear in you makes you realize yourself. Ever thought why we have temples of different religions at such heights? If we ignore the accessibility factor that has increased manifold in recent years, the risks involved in reaching them are still aplenty. They are not there so that less number of pilgrims visits them but it is because of the self recognition of the individual.

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The Majesty

Self recognition means being with self. One’s mind is everywhere, in the job, in the family, in the social networking and in daily chores. It is in the state of extreme chaos in normal daily schedule. The fear of extreme weather conditions, the landslides and the other mishaps one is reminded of through various past incidents brings an individual closer to the self.

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Don’t Look Back! Give it a try

I can assure you from my past experiences of high altitude treks, that whosoever explores the difficult terrains and conditions of hills has high regards for nature. This respect for nature originates from that fear, I have talked about earlier. Do not misinterpret the fear with its negative form. Just give a thought and if you have not experienced it yet, go and do it NOW!!!!

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BINSAR: The forest trail

Preface: The trip was planned only a day before the departure. With the cancellation of a long car drive my friends, Atul and LK [aka Laxmikant] were clueless about what to do in their short winter vacations. Sitting together, I and Atul finalized a car trip to Binsar. We rang up LK and got his affirmation in no time. We had two more fellow travelers, my wife, Mukti and my 10 year old son, Aru. More than the destination we were excited about the long car drive of about 1000 Kms from Lucknow to Binsar and back given the fact that none of us had driven in the Himalayas and there was a height of 2600 meters to be attained.

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Preparations: I got my car washed and serviced and made sure that the packing was compact as the boot space of the car was not that huge so as to accommodate the luggage of warm clothing of five individuals.

Leg 1: Once again we started at night. Our route was through Sitapur [80 Kms] and then to Lakhimpur Kheri [another 40 Kms]. By the time we reached Gola Gokaran Nath it was midnight and the streets were deserted with occasional sighting of heavy trucks or tractors. Suddenly there was a thick fog as we were crossing the forest areas. I was reluctant to carry on and suggested that we should wait knowing very well that the fog won’t clear in a short time but my friends had other ideas. So we kept driving relying heavily on the car lights and horns.

Luckily the fog lasted for about half an hour or so. We reached Pilibhit and continued towards Tanakpur. At dawn we were at Tanakpur and I thanked God and LK, who was on the driver’s seat then, for driving us safely through the dense foggy stretch.

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Sunrise at Tanakpur

My son, as expected, started to have nausea feeling and there was a strong need felt among all the group members for a halt. After going through another 76 Kms of twists and turns we decided to give ourselves and our car a lengthy and much needed rest at Champawat. We chose a newly constructed Shivam Hotel on the main road to stay.

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Roadside snacks just before Champawat

Champawat: A small but an important town of Uttarakhand that lies on NH-125 that connects Khatima to Pithoragarh, is nestled amidst thick forest and at a height of 1650 mts gives a panoramic view of the lower Himalayas. It also has some historical relevance as it was the capitol of Chand rulers. 10 minutes walk took us to Baleshwar temple that is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

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Compound lawn of our hotel at Champawat

The thing that appealed to me the most was the soulful calmness of the place. Sitting in the hotel lawn and watching the monkeys play I could clearly hear the rhythmic rattle of motor engines of the occasional car or scooty that would pass by the road that was about a kilometer far. The food at Champawat is cheap but delicious.

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Calm and quiet Champawat

Leg 2: After a good night rest we started off for Binsar via Almora along NH-309A. Atul had been on the wheels since the hilly terrain began. The reason behind was that he was the only one who had driven, although only a little, on the hills before. Encouraged by the fact that the road was devoid of any traffic whatsoever I expressed my desire to drive my car for the very first time on the mountains.

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Joyful ride through the forests enroute Almora

Once in the driver’s seat my admiration and the joy increased manifolds. With my son on the front seat and his nausea all long forgotten and the thick cover of oak and deodar trees along the route we all were exclaiming praiseworthy adjectives for the serenity of the nature. The only thing missing were the food joints or the road side dhabas.

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The Almora Champawat was dotted with numerous temples.

It was 4 pm by the time we reached Almora. We were hungry by now and were frantically looking for a good restaurant but we realized that we have crossed the whole of Almora main market searching for a parking space which we could not find. We found a small Chinese restaurant at the fag end of the market and as the saying goes beggars can’t be choosers, we decided to satisfy our hungry stomachs there only.

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The first glimpse of Almora city

Almora City: Perched at around 1800 mts in between a small crust of two hillocks it gets its name from a small plant named Kilmora. It is also known as the cultural heart of Kumaon.

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We ate to the satisfaction of our appetites. The Maggie and the Chowmein were a delight to our eyes as well as to our taste buds. The Coffee though was much more of a chocolate milk but all this at Rs. 410 [around $7] add to it the smiles and love of the person serving it was an astonishing experience.

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Binsar Forest Reserve entry gets closed at 5 p.m.

Luckily, we could see the road to Binsar climbing right in front of the restaurant and with only 22 kms it was presumed to be an hours drive only but we were at the gate of the Binsar forest reserve in about half an hour with 10 kms yet to be covered. We were told by the old man at the gate that the entry is not allowed after 5 pm.

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Evening fires at Hotel Dolma, Kasar Devi

I had assumed Binsar to be a small town but at that moment I felt we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. The old man came to our rescue and advised us to go to Deenapani which is about 7 or 8 kms and stay in any one of the many hotels and rest houses there. Without wasting any time we turned back and soon came across hotel Dolma at Kasar Devi.

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Beautiful sunrise from our Hotel Room. Also notice the moon still in the sky.

Surprisingly the hotel was along the main road and rooms were reasonably priced. Not luxurious but they were clean and tidy. The food was good too but the best part was that the rooms opened towards east and that gave some beautiful view of sunrise, a delight for camera lovers.

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The dense forests of Binsar

Next day, after offering our morning prayers at Kasar Devi temple, which was adjacent to our hotel, we set off for Binsar. The tickets costed us Rs. 150 each. The next 10 kms drive is a steep incline through dense forest. Some patches of the drive were literary scary but luckily Atul was on the wheels. I must admit I might have chickened out because at one place our tyres did slip because of the incline. We took an hour to reach the Tourist Rest House of KMVN from where 3 Kms trek route originates.

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The forest trail is scenic and thick cover of trees adds to the splendid view. Word of caution, go to Binsar if you wish to love serenity and nature. Do not expect even a chance sighting of any wildlife, big or small. Not even Birds though the locals will never tire of telling you that they have seen a leopard on the prowl a day before.

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Distant Snow Capped Mountains as viewed from Zero Point

Only the silence and solace stands out at Binsar. The zero point, which is the end of the trail, does give you a good but distant view of snowcapped mountains. This year being the hottest ever, we felt robbed because forget the snow even the chill was missing in the air as we stood atop Zero Point at the height of 2600 mts.

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The descend

The descend was relatively comfortable. We decided to enjoy one more evening at Hotel Dolma because of its food and the fire that they lit in the courtyard. Another fact, they do not sell alcohol nor is there any shop nearby and never ever purchase it in black coz it won’t be good enough. We found this out the hard way. The evening we spent showing the zoo to Aru which was 3 Kms downhill.

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Just trying to hold the sun!!!

Next morning we were heading home this time taking the Almora, Bhowali, Bareilly, Sitapur route to Lucknow. We purchased the Bal Mithai from Almora as the sweet is not available anywhere else. After 13 hours drive we were back home safe and with pleasant memories.

SUNRISE: A Daily Spectacle

aSun rises from the East…… A very usual and natural reasoning but it gives apparently a wrong notion that the sun is moving while our earth is stationary. The fact is totally the opposite but then who cares about the science when you are witnessing the majesty of the morning sun in it’s bright golden glory breaching all the obstacles of darkness of the night.

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Sometimes you often ponder how weak and frail is the darkness as it is literally knocked out by the initial first few rays of the sun. Sunrise is that initial moment when the sun just appears on the horizon. Suddenly the whole sky is full of hues of red, orange and yellow. No blue or green thanks to their short wavelengths as their absence fill up the eyes of the beholder with delight and appreciation.

c.JPGSunrise is the phenomenon that fascinates everyone no matter what the backdrop is. There must be millions of zero points, sunrise points or they may go by any other name that promises a good view of the moment. They are spread across the mountains, desert stretches, plain fields, sea beaches, islands and forests.

d1.jpgAdmiration is maximum for the sunrise on the hills, just because of clarity and may be because right from pre primary classes we are used to drawing the sun rising between two mountains. For a philosopher it is a symbol of a new beginning that reoccurs every 24 hours giving one a chance to initiate anything afresh. For an artist, a nature lover and a lens man it is a spectacular view. For a commoner it is an imposing act of authority of the Lord Almighty.

d.JPGFor me it is a new day and I pray the lord Almighty to give strength and longevity to the eyes of all my friends, including myself too, so that we all may see this manifestation for as long as we live !!!!d2

Why Travel?

Travel if you can because life is short and the world is too large a place to explore in a life time. So, do not confine yourself to your nest, soar high and see your surroundings. That provides you with the awareness that no book, blogs or any other write ups can provide.prize

Common Reasons: Traveling ensures that you get away from your regular 24 hour day long schedule. You break that synchronous daily cycle and give time to yourself. You explore new and different civilizations, landscapes, terrains, habitats, life styles, socio economic structures and living creatures.DSCN6717

Other Reasons: Ever wondered that the sun even rises at the place you dwell. Then why need to see the sunrise on hills, on sea beaches, in deserts etc. What is so fascinating when the process is same just the background keeps changing? Reason lies in the deep desire of breaking the monotony. We want to see it differently that makes it worth giving a watch.

The same thing can be explained through another common phenomenon. When you visit another place or a city, you wish to look different. Somehow, you want to make it apparent that you do not belong to that place. This makes you see the place you are visiting differently while the local resident may not find anything worthwhile in the local sights. That is the reason why a traveler analyzes the things better.DSCN6689

Traveling enhances your self confidence. It augments your belief in yourself, your planning and your decisions. It makes you wise enough to take instant decisions, which sometimes may go wrong but they are important lessons for the life time.

Travel for the sake of passion. Not everybody gets enlightenment meditating at a place but to enlighten oneself he/ she needs to rove so that he/ she may have experiences, good or bad, that will add on to his/ her wisdom.

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Do not make excuses of not having time or money to travel. Travel does not mean month long outings neither they are long car drives with stays in good resorts. If you are really busy still you can find 2 days off for traveling. Generally, very busy peoples feel that relaxing at home for that short period of free time will charge them up before their next round of hectic schedule. That is not a correct foresight. Instead, just initiate a small getaway. The rest will follow suit.

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As for the money, I personally have traveled on bike, an ordinary 100 cc bike, on state roadways buses, local hiking and on cars too but whatever the mode may have been, my memories of different trips have been extremely sweet and distinct. You can easily plan your trip that may fit in your financial constraints. That is the wisdom of planning. So get started …. Give up excuses … and start off. And yes… keep the company… family, friends or anyone, two or three, avoid travelling alone because that improves your wisdom regarding coexistence.

BIKE RIDE TO BADRINATH

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Characters: Me, Umesh Kaul or only Kaul, Lalit Kumar or Lalit, Atul Kumar Singh alias Atul and Laxmikant Shukla aka LK. We all are teachers at a private school in Lucknow and surely we need some zing in life. We decided to have a long bike ride just to quench our desires of some thrill and also to negate the belief that only peoples of Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune and Bangaluru are insane enough to go in for such endeavours.

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We put our faith in them [the bikes] & in Lord Almighty

Preparations: We got our bikes serviced, got all the required documents of the bikes, kept some cash, packed our bags with all the required things including medical necessities, toiletries and warm clothes. While packing we kept the things compact and light. We used slings to tie our bags on to the bikes ensuring that they won’t budge at all throughout the journey. Another important advice, wear long sleeved shirts, full pants with socks etc even in summers and Helmets [for drivers as well as pillion riders] are mandatory. We also kept our cameras, mobiles, goggles etc handy

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Toll Road Lucknow to Sitapur

Leg 1 [Lucknow to Sitapur, 95 Kms, 2 Hours with two 10 minute halts]: We all started off in the evening. We wanted to avoid the day rush hours and to cover the maximum distance. By 7 pm we had hit the NH24, Lucknow, Sitapur highway. It was a toll road and smooth as a whistle with some crowded junctions especially at places like Itaunja, Kamalpur, Sidhauli and Nemisharanya Mod [turn] but overall this stretch is good and you notice lot of greenery alongside the highway. Do not expect lot many eateries along the way.

Leg 2 [Sitapur to Shahjahanpur, 91 Kms, 4 hours including a dinner break and two 15 minutes break]: All our pleasures of a long drive just vanished once we drove past the sign board that read ‘Toll Road Ends’ at Sitapur. Immediately we found ourselves amongst potholes, bigger potholes and even bigger potholes. We were no longer riding instead we were jumping around on our seats with the construction of the road in progress adding to our woes.

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Stomach fill at Maigalganj

The halt for dinner at Maigalganj [falls under Lakhimpur Kheri district], 30 Kms from Sitapur was a welcome respite from the treacherous stretch. The place is a must halt for foodies but make sure that you eat at the famous joints only as there are many. Beyond, our despair continued so much so that the road even accepted the sacrifice of the wheel apron of one of our bike. We reached Shahjahanpur around midnight and continued for Bareilly through Bypass.

Leg 3 [Shahjahanpur to Bareilly, 90 Kms, 3 hours]: This leg was uneventful. The road was same as before and it drained our energy and did cause some harm to our lower backs too, remember we are on bikes. We reached Bareilly at 3 p.m.

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Beautiful Expressway from Bareilly to Moradabad

As we were to bypass Bareilly, to our big surprise we found the dirt ridden, bumpy road turn into a pleasant expressway. Smooth as silk I, have’nt seen such a road ever. We were driving at 100 Kms/hr and to our surprise we could feel the chill even in month of June. At daybreak we were at Moradabad. We searched for an AC hotel near the railway station and got one. To our horror at around 10 a.m. the AC went off and we were told that the AC does not work during scheduled day power roasting. Nevertheless, we were tired to our ribs and we slept like sloths.

Leg 5: [Bareilly to Haridwar, 171 Kms, 4 hours via NH 74]: We started off in the afternoon after lunch. The road to Haridwar is two lanes but good. We went via Nagina [do not take the other route] and had evening snacks just opposite to the Nagina Railway station. The place serves mouth watering eateries, especially samosas and lassis. The last stretch along the canal that connects Kotdwar road to Haridwar road was picturesque. We reached Haridwar at 8 pm and manoevouring through the heavy traffic we finally reached Shiv Murty hotel [opposite Haridwar Railway station] at around 8 pm.

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Moradabad to Najibabad: Brakes needed  look in

There were few incidents in between where we had to get the disk brakes of one our bikes corrected. One of us… ok, I, forgot a bag and had to travel 20 kms to retrieve it. The night dip in the holy river Ganga washed off all the tiredness of the long bike ride that we had just completed. We had many more miles to go but we knew that now on we will be in the lap of mighty Himalayas and we will enjoy the sights that will make us forget the weariness of bike riding.

Evening Arti at Haridwar

Evening Arti at Har Ki Paudi, Haridwar

Haridwar [or Hardwar] is one of the gateway for entering Garhwal, the other one being Kotdwar. It is one of the holiest places In India as it is said that it is one of the four places where the drop of Amrit fell while it was being carried over by Garud. It is also considered to be the gateway to Badrinath, one of the four dhams of India.

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Devprayag, Holy Ganga gets its name here

Leg 6: [Haridwar to Devprayag, 3hours, 100 Kms]: Although we left Hairdwar in the early hours of the day but we could not escape the city rush of Rishikesh, friend readers are advised to take the bypass road. Even beyond Rishikesh the adventure sports transport services kept us slow. After couple of tea breaks we reached Devprayag in the afternoon. Devprayag is the first of the 5 prayags[confluence of 2 rivers] enroute.

The Bike Ride on NH 58

Devprayag is the most important prayag as it is here that the holy river Ganga is formed and gets the name through the confluence of Mandakini and Alaknanada. If you are interested in ancient temples do ensure to visit Raghunath Temple at Devprayag. a (39)

Prayags !!!! One of the many

Leg 7: [Devprayag to Karnaprayag, 100 Kms, 4 Hours] Beyond Devprayag, the river ascends and so does the road that we have been following. The weather does become pleasant but it is not cool yet. The landscape too remains consistent except for some old bridges, some ancient temples, some construction work on the river bed etc. As you pass through Srinagar, you get the feel of summers of the plains.

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The road follows the River Alaknanda

We had our lunch at Rudraprayag [confluence of Rivers Mandakini and Alaknanda]. The place is full of commotion and rightly so because it is a junction of Kedarnath and Badrinath routes. The noise of the confluence of the two mighty rivers adds to the aura of this place which gets its name from the tandav [dance of destruction] by Lord Shiva. After some snacks at Gauchar we reached Karnaprayag at around 2 pm.

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Chamoli, from a distance

Leg 8: [Karnapryag to Chamoli, 35 Kms, 1 hour 30 min]: Karnaprayag is the confluence of Rivers Alaknanda and Pindar. It is a relatively a quiet confluence as River Pindar is not that mighty and turbulent and same can be said for Nandakini that merges with Alaknanda at Nandprayag. Around 4 pm we were at Chamoli. The good thing about Chamoli [or bad for some] it is a smoking free district. Had I mentioned earlier that entire route being of a holy and religious one you won’t get any alcohol? At Chamoli we had a detour to Tungnath. [Click Here for detour details]

On our return leg from Tungnath we arrived at Chamoli in the evening next day and instead of planning any stay there we decided to continue our onward journey. Crossing Vishnuprayag, the confluence of river Alaknanda and Saraswati we reached Pipalkoti. It was getting dark so we took a hotel near the bus stand for overnight stay. I had stayed there before and I remember that the place would be overcrowded but that day there were hardly any tourist. We had vegetable pakoras at the bus stand and on enquiry our doubts were put to rest. After the Kedarnath disaster two years ago, the tourists are not going to the higher destinations and there fears have been further compounded by the last year’s Nepal earthquake. I do appreciate that it is helping the nature but on the other side you have sulking eyes of these local residents who are searching for whatever benefits they can have from the brave tourists still trickling in.

Leg 9: [Pipalkoti to Joshimath, 52 Kms – 2 Hours]: Next day we started early and we reached Joshimath at around 10 am. At Joshimath gate our names and our vehicles were noted down by the concerned officials. From the gate the road descends sharply through hair pin curves till it reaches down to the bridge over the river the Alaknanda. One can also admire the construction work in Joshimath by the Jaypees and also their Hydro electric project.

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Salute to BRO for their continuous efforts

Just as you cross the river the roads starts ascending again. It is here that you realize the extent of damage done to the roads by the torrential rains 2 years ago. We salute the BRO [Border Roads Organization] and their workers for their painstaking continuous efforts in keeping the roads worthy of traffic all the time.

Click here to view the work in progress

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Almost there

Leg 10: [Joshimath to Badrinath, 57 Kms – 5 hours]: As the destination gets closer the going does get tough. Till Govindghat, the road was in good condition and we would get occasional company of sikh tourists riding on bikes to Hem Kund Sahib on the road. At Govindghat the trek to Hem Kund Sahib, the holy shrine of Sikhs, commences.

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Sign Board on the way

As we crossed Govidghat the air was chilly with rain clouds ready to spoil our ride. The roads were more or less washed off and at some places the restoration work was in progress. Just about 3 kms short of Badrinath the rain began to come hard and we were forced to take shelter. The wait was 2 hours long but the site opposite to us was worth the wait. There was a small water fall and some lush green slopes which just turned white when the clouds over them lifted.

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Waiting for the rains to get over

As if it was not enough, one of the bike got punctured. We had no option but to ride along as there was no other option. After crossing 14 – 15 feet high ice walls we reached the last turn from where we had a clear view of the Badrinath bus stand. Moving slightly ahead we had the first glimpse of the eternal Badrinath temple shining brightly amidst the dark snow clad backdrop. The Nar and Narayan mountains were not green that day, as I have experienced them in my earlier trips, instead they were grey and covered with snow and Neelkanth peak towering atop was all white and nestled in between was the colourful temple glistening as if radiating in its own holiness.

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First Glimpse of Badrinath Temple

Our bigger concern was to find a tyre tube mechanic at Badrinath as we were told that there was only one and he was not ready to do the needful because of the frosty conditions. The other mechanic shop was 24 kms far at Govindghat so we had to cajole him for the repair works. He agreed when we were relentless in our efforts.

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Jai Badri Vishal

We stayed at the hotel just opposite to the temple. I have visited Badrinath thrice before but never before I had the luxury of walking into the temple without being in the queue but this time there was no crowd at all neither was the commotion in the market ways. We also had a bath in Tapt Kund [the hot springs] before we offered our prayers to Lord Vishnu [Badri Narayan]. One thing I can assure everyone, eat anywhere you want you are sure to get good food at Haridwar and anywhere all the way to Badrinath. There are langars [where food is served for free as Prasad] organized for the pilgrims going to Hemkund Sahib or Badrinath. We had a good bath in the sulpher springs in the Tapt Kund along side the temple before we offered our prayers at the temple.

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Return… All good things do come to an end

Click for beautiful road stretch near Badrinath

Return Leg: It is understood that when you return, the same stretch that was so picturesque turns uninteresting. It was no different with us. We started off in the morning and reached Haridwar after 11 hours of journey with very few halts. Our backs were literally on fire with towels on our seats providing no cushion anymore. Next day we continued the same routine from Haridwar to Lucknow with halts only when the back burns were unbearable. The most tedious and painful were the last few kilometers as they seemed unending. Finally at 10 pm we were at home with some awesome memories for lifetime. Ps: We did not ride a bike for next week or so.