Kedarnath Trip: Pure nostalgia from the past

No.. No!! do not read it is a travelogue. I say so because it is not going to help you in any of your future travel plans. I just want to take you back along with me to a unique, unplanned and amateurish excursion that we had had 20 years ago.

Those were the days when internet was new and raw, mobiles were carried by only those who could get a personal loan from the bank for it, call rates were high, PCOs were common and Pagers were status symbol [If you haven’t heard of the pager… just forget it]. Six of us decided to travel to unknown destinations of Badrinath & Kedarnath.

Unknown, because we had no clue where they were. In fact we were scheduled to go to some other place but because that place was already explored by four of us, these names popped up when we had already embarked upon our journey. The eldest brother, who had recently married, got so excited after listening to our plan that they [the couple] decided to accompany us late in the evening, a day before. There were no ATMs then so he had to borrow the money for the trip from his friend late at night.

We knew that the routes originate from Haridwar so early next morning we set off for the place in a car [not train because we had no reservations]. After getting our car parked at Haridwar we set out to search for a bus for Badrinath. At GMVN Bus stand we were informed that the couple of direct buses leave only in the early hours of the day. This meant we had to waste one precious day.

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Holy dip in River Ganga at Haridwar

That day we spent exploring Haridwar and had a nice refreshing bath in the holy river Ganges. Next day, even before the dawn broke, we were waiting for the bus. Once in, we came to know that as per the rule, only 3 persons were allowed for the entire journey so as to accommodate more of local passengers. That meant that three of us were given the ticket to Rudraprayag only which was later extended to Badrinath.

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Ganga flows silently at Rishikesh

One can imagine the ecstasy of most of us as we were exploring high mountains for the first time in our lives. Nausea, scary roads with hair pin bends, loss of appetite, roaring Alaknanda river along the road were some of the experiences that I can recall in the 14 hours journey that we had. After Joshimath there was a group of ladies who suddenly had asked us to instruct the driver to be careful. At this, the driver had turned around [while still driving] and asked the ladies to repeat their query. I remember they all broke into kirtan [religious singing] immediately and never they intervened again.

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We had reached the Badrinath bus stand at 7pm. It would have been the most beautiful and tranquilizing sight that we all had ever seen. It was raining and we still had our jackets in the bag. I can never forget the delight on the face of the cook at the bus stand as he provided the warm fried veg pakodas [an Indian snack] to the six shivering souls.

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Purchasing plain polythene body covers just before Badrinath [6 for Rs. 40, less than $1]

We arranged for our stay at Kali Kamli Ashram which was just near the bus stand. There were not too many lodging and fooding options then. Next day at Badrinath was a heavenly sight for our weary eyes. We had our darshans in the morning after a bath in the hot sulpher springs and immediately had set off for 7 kms trek to Vaasudhara falls.

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All 6 characters of the trip with the mysterious river Saraswati near Mana in the background

It was the first ever trek for all of us. Imagine our plight in the absence of any food and water throughout the entire stretch that we covered in 5-6 hours. Remember there was a lady [our sister in law]with us who had to be cajoled to carry on and that is an enough explanation for our slow pace.

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Magestic Vasudhara falls

Tired and hungry we were back at Badrinath at around 8pm. To our horror, all the few eating joints were closed. Luckily, we found a shabby and unhygienic eating joint that provided us with rice and lentils and you bet, we ate like pigs [not literally].

It was in the late hours of the night that we discussed that no one comes so far often so why not pay a visit to Kedarnath too. Early next morning we were at the bus stand enquiring for the mode of transport to Kedarnath. We were told that there was only one bus that goes directly there and it is named ‘Bhook Hartal’ [meaning hunger strike] and that too had already left early in the morning.

The name ‘bhook hartal’ had been give to the bus service because it was functional only due to the long hunger strike of the locals of the places enroute. The only other option that we had was to catch a bus to Rudraprayag and then look forward for another mode for Kedarnath. Our bus left the stand at 8 am and to our dismay, it was a ‘Dak Seva’[meaning Postal Service] bus.

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This bus would go to the bus stand of every village/ town enroute and then would go to the Post office of the place and exchange the sack of letters and parcels. An ancient but effective and the only method of carrying letters in those times in the upper Himalayas. Boon for some but for us it was so agitating. By the time we reached Rudraprayag which was only 150 kms away, the watch was already showing 6 of the evening.

It had started drizzling and no jeep driver was ready to drive us to Gauri Kund. Finally, one of them consented but only on the condition that we paid him for the full capacity of 9 passengers instead of actual 6. I remember it had amounted to Rs. 1700 then [around $28]. Very soon it had become dark and the route was through thick Kedarnath Sanctuary.

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This is faith and determination! This lady is about to complete her 14 kms trek to 3300 mts high Kedarnath temple!  Salute to her will!

The driver didn’t want to miss the 8 pm gate so he was driving fast. The rain was coming down hard and the visibility was low. I don’t remember who was clutching my hand hard then but I can recall that there was a pin drop silence inside the vehicle. Just a kilometer before the final destination, we encountered a small landslide. The slush and the debris had formed a small mount on the road. Our driver decided to drive over it. It was then that the jeep skid horizontally and just stopped near the edge of the road. The silence inside was so deafening that one could clearly hear the heartbeats. 5-7 minutes of careful maneuvering and we were through.

We reached Gauri Kund late at night. The place was too congested and the rest houses too shabby and ill maintained. The trip had been so eventful and occupying that we all were in no mood to have dinner. Early next morning, we had to begin our 14 kms trek. To our surprise, when we woke up, the only elderly couple [not literally, just the eldest amongst us] was gone. Their trek had already commenced and they might not know even yet, but we were happy for them that they had saved us of our energies which would have been unnecessarily wasted in coaxing them to continue with their walk.

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Kedarnath Trek

We got up, had our bath in the tapt kund and rushed off. With every bend we expected to have the glimpse of staggering couple but they really astonished us with their continuous visual absence. It was only after 6-7 Kilometers that we could catch them at Rambada. We had a hearty brunch there.

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Kedarnath Trek

The trek was a visual splendor throughout. The snowcapped mountains, the river Mandakini alongside, the hanging clouds and the aura of the place was heavenly. Another experience worth mentioning is that we covered the entire stretch in anticipation that at some place the stink of the ponies’ excreta will die down but our expectations lasted longer than the route itself. During the trek we all had made a point to chide every single youngster who rode a pony for their physical incompetence.

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Kedarnth temple!!! Then!

Our leisurely high altitude trek ended at the sight of magnificent Kedarnath temple standing atop a platform at the end of the small lane in the snowy backdrop. It was around 2:30 pm and we were the last ones to enter the temple. After offering our prayers we sat on the banks of Alaknanda. It was only after 4 pm that we decided to walk back.

Hardly had we walked down 1 kms that it had started raining but we carried on. Very soon we realized that the entire route was deserted with occasional sighting of a pony with his master. All the shops were closed and one of the passerby even questioned our wise decision of returning so late [no wisdom, we never had any idea] and is if to add to our jitters he also added a wild animals presence as a reason.

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Kedarnath Trek

In no time it had become dark and we were not carrying any torches. The rain had intensified and we all were walking, drenched to our skins, in the pitch dark trek route 3000 mts high. Luckily we had two sticks so we formed a straight line. The leading brother would bang the stick hard on the ground and announce loudly whether it was alright, staircase, hair pin turn or whatever. We all were engulfed with varied emotions like fear, weariness, companionship and valour throughout.

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The trek!!

The only other thing that we encountered in our return trek was a dead horse [or a pony] whose body was spread across the route. After four hours of careful walking we finally could see the distant lights of Gaurikund. All that had happened was soon forgotten and the feelings once again had sudden drift away from everything to pure ecstasy. I still remember the screams of delight at that moment. Finally we were back, safe and sound.

I do not remember how we returned from Gauri Kund to Rishikesh, must have taken a bus or maybe…. but it has been a long time but no other trip ever after has been so eventful and nostalgic.

Munsiyari: A place with snow!

Munsiyari… the name itself brings back the nostalgic memories of my first visit to the place way back in the year 2000. It was not that well known a tourist destination then, but it was the base of my Milam Glacier trek 15 years ago. I was going to relive those days with my family that too in the winter month of February.

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Munsiyari! Here I come again!

We started off early and by the time the sun gained height we were crawling through the traffic jams of Ghaziabad. Beyond Ghazibad the drive was smooth and it took us about one and a half hour to cover 60 kms distance from Delhi to Hapur [Byepass]. Another hour and we were crossing holy river Ganges at Brijghat near Garhmukteshwar. From here the drive on NH24 till Moradabad needs to be mentioned in superlatives as the highway was unexpectedly too good.

It was afternoon and we had our stomach fills at one of the roadside dhabas on NH24. As we turned left for Kashipur, all our good memories of good roads seemed to be of some another day. Next 50 kms tested the fitness of our car and all its inhabitants. Thankfully beyond Kashipur the roads are better. We reached Jim Corbett National Park in the evening.

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Welcome Gate of Jim Corbett National Park

We had already booked Club Mahindra Resorts located in the Dhikala zone of the park. Jim Corbett National Park is the oldest national park of India established in 1936 to protect the Royal Bengal Tigers. Named after the famous British hunter, Jim Corbett, the park is divided into five different zones namely, Dhikala [famous for tigers], Jhirna [famous for bears], Bijrani [famous for flora & fauna], Durga Devi [famous for birds & fishes] and Sona Nadi [famous for birds & snakes].

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Kids getting ready for a Canter ride

After a hearty meal we went to bed early as we had the 6 am canter safari scheduled for the next day. Except for few birds and occasional sighting of playful monkeys, there was nothing worth mentioning but this was expected in short 2 hour ride. This meant that after brunch we were off for our next destination in the afternoon.

After 120 Kms of journey through hills of the lower Himalayas we were at Almora [via Ranikhet] at around 6 pm and decided to have night halt there. Unfortunately the dinner was bit of a disappointment but then any trip has its share of experiences.

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Scenic roads of Almora

We started off early the next morning. The stretch from Almora to Berinag was perhaps the most serene, scenic and soulful. The road was deserted as it meandered through thick green forests of deodar and chir. As we moved farther away from Almora we could smell the rain in the air and pretty soon the hanging rain clouds were giving us company.

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Clouds on the way

It was afternoon by the time we reached Berinag. The rains were making us there presence felt. We took an hour long break at Berinag. The weather was getting a bit scary but with only a slight drizzle and our final destination not so far off, we decided to move. Barely had we driven 30-40 Kms till Thal that we got to know that the road to Munsiyari was blocked and the reason was quite apparent as we could see the landslide from a distance.

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Landslide clicked from far

Understandably so,  we were forced to take about 40 Kms detour to reach Askot on the way to Munsiyari. Beyond Askot the road was narrow but scenic. With every passing turn it was getting dark as the road started gaining height. Just 30 Kms short of Musiyari we ran into another landslide and now there were no detours.

We were stuck in a small village named Daranti. It was dark and villagers told us that they did not have any accommodation for one complete family and we were not in any condition of going all the way back to Thal. We even contemplated spending the night in our car.

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Roads no longer avaialble

I was moved by the concern of the villagers that had gathered there. They were discussing the best option that they might come up with for us. Finally, one of them agreed to accommodate us in his house. It was basically a barn in the basement of his house. It was warm and the blankets ensured that we were safe from the sub zero temperatures outside.

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It gets really dark

The khiichadi [a porridge of rice and lentils] that he provided us that night will remain one of the best dinners that we all have had in our lives. It is in moments like these that you realize that humility and humanity still makes the life exist and thrive on earth. Neither He nor his son, Harshu, who was most enthusiastic throughout, will ever know how many blessings they might have received from us. Through their one act of gratitude they have become a part of our lives.

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Salutations to the BRO for their daunting task

Next day, as the weather cleared and BRO and ITBP once again completed another daunting task of clearing the road, we were off to Munsiyari. Within an hour we were there with beautiful snow clad Panchachuli peaks welcoming us as we made ourselves comfortable at KMVN rest house. It was quite apparent that the place had snowfall a night before as it was white all around. Surprisingly, only little had changed in the last 15 years and I was not sure whether it is good or not so good for the locals.

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First glimpse of Munsiyari

Munsiyari is a small sleepy town at an elevation of 2200 mts. The name itself means the place of snow. It is mainly inhabited by shauka tribe, also called upon as Bhotiyas by non shaukas. The locals take pride in proclaiming that it used to be an important ancient village on Indo Tibet Silk route which went through Milam Village along the Gori Ganga river. The locals also boast of the fact that there is no poverty in the region as the place is a hub of medicinal plants.

It has mythological relevance too as it is said that Panchachuli peaks are the routes to heaven which the Pandavas took. One does get surprised as Pandavas have some significant presence in the folklores of nearly every destination in the Himalayas.

Next couple of days were spent in enjoying doing nothing in the true literal get away style. We visited local handicraft factory, enjoyed campfires with another family from Almora, played with snow, visited Nanda Devi temple and enjoyed the simple but excellent food.

On our return journey, we decided to try out the Tejam – Bageshwar route. As we neared Kalamuni the ascent got bit steep. The roads too were in bad shape and some of the turns were literally scary. My brother who was on the steering had a vertigo [an inappropriate reference to fear of heights] and we had to take a halt midway. There were no proper food joints on the entire 100 Kms stretch and we had to satisfy ourselves with whatever we could get. The rest of the journey to Delhi was relaxing. This revisit to Munsiyari was yet another satisfying experience.