Varanasi! : An ancient mystery in modern era!

Characters: I, LK & Atul.

Last weekend I along with my friends decided to visit Varanasi. A city that I had heard so much but never had a chance to have a glimpse of it. Somewhat like a hindi movie, Sholay. Wondering, what a simile? I saw it when I was 18 and it was released when I was born. When I saw it I knew each and every dialogue of the movie but was experiencing it for the first time in visual form.

Varanasi is different. It is historical, majestic, spiritual, classic, aesthetic, pious… [… running  out of adjectives]. Before even I had embarked upon the journey I felt as if I knew the place inside out. The only apprehension was whether the city would live up to its aura pre etched in my mind. With lots of expectations we all left Lucknow at night.

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The route that we took was via Sultanpur and Jaunpur. As per the maps it was the shortest route but as the saying goes, ‘shortcuts are the longest routes’, we all realized it the hard way. Hardly 300 Kms but that took us good nine hours, thanks to the horrible road conditions especially after Sultanpur.

Varanasi, earlier known as Banaras or Kashi[city of lights] is a holy city in literal sense. Not only because of Kashi Vishwanath temple that also finds mention in our Skand Purana but also because it also witnessed the beginning of Buddhism when Lord Buddha gave his first sermon way back in 5th century BC. Ram Charit Manas was written here, the two icons of Bhakti movement, Kabirdas and Ravidas were born here and Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s visit in 15th century played an important role in the founding of Sikhism.

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Holy waters of river Ganga

Although famous for being on the banks of river Ganga, it derives its name from two tributaries of Ganga namely, Varuna and Assi that form the precincts of the city. As we approached the city, the tinkling of temple bells and the religious chants, amplified through loud speakers, seemed to welcome us on our arrival to the consecrated place.  When we entered the city it was already 8 am.

Driving through the chaotic traffic of Varanasi is a test of patience of the person on the steering. You need to have a firm grip on the break paddle as anyone can pop up from anywhere as it is not two way traffic, it is multidirectional. Adding to the woes was the fact that the all the city roads and sanitation work is going through a major renovation.

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We reached our hotel, hotel Ajay in Gawdolia at around 9 am. The city has either high end hotels at its outskirts or it is dotted with dharmshalas and guest houses. Economical hotels are hard to find and you will have to work hard to locate one with a decent parking space. In fact parking is a big problem in whole of Varanasi.

After a short sound sleep in the cozy hotel AC room that costed us Rs. 2000[$30] per night we set off to have our first sights of the river Ganga. The river was 3-4 Kms from our hotel and we took an auto [best option in Varanasi] to reach there.

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First glimpse and you realize that Varanasi, the city and Varanasi, the river along with its ghats or banks are two separate entities. The yellows, the blues and the dusk all around created an aura which weighed upon my mind and heart rather than just being pleasant to my eyes. An hour long boat ride from Bhonsle Ghat [a relatively new ghat] was eventful, memorable and something that I will cherish life long.

We passed through Mankarnika Ghat with numerous pyres illuminating the river in the fading lights. The ghat is famous for cremations in hindu community as it is believed that as the river at the ghat flows out of its normal course and heads in the opposite direction, in the same way, cremation here means the soul moves away from the infinite cycle of death and rebirth.

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As the sun sets and the lights come out, the serenity can be experienced amidst the reverberations of hundreds gathered at various ghats. It is a mass amalgamation of rural, urban, traditional, rich, poor, locals, tourists and foreign nationals into one gigantic solemn and yet vibrating ethos that thinks inwardly and philosophically.

As the aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat began the crowd came to a stand still. There were more lights and chanting as the eternal essence dispersed in the air. I stood there not as a hindu but as an individual trying to search for my own self. The city makes you think that way.

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The commotion began immediately as soon as the Aarti concluded. As I was returning I wondered… Why so many peoples come here? Why the place has an incomparable aura of its own? What do they seek here? Why I felt the way I felt? Why? There is so much of crowd, there is so much of filth, bloated floating dead bodies can be found around some of the ghats [I saw one] then why so many peoples come here from all over the world?

 May be the answer lies in the same dirt and grime. May be it takes them away from all the worldly and monitory things. May be it forces them to think deep about life, about pain and sufferings. May be…! With all such thoughts cluttering my mind we travelled up to Malviya Bridge which is said to be the last point to which the River Ganga flows in the opposite direction.

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We had the famous baba thandai at Gawdolia Chowk [the plain one] and had a hearty dinner nearby. Next day we went back to the ghat early morning and experienced the silent harmony of the same ghats that were so vibrant and noisy in the evening. We also went to Kashi Vishwanath temple and Kaal Bhairav Mandir. I did not carry any camera as I was told that nothing, not even watches, belts or wallets are allowed inside some of the temples but I was unaware of the fact that nearby shops do provide temporary lockers for the same. I do not know how Gods are affected but humans are, but then, let them all live with their faiths.

In evening I started my return journey, this time via Faizabad. The route was better and smooth just like my mind. You can say the after affects of Varanasi. I will visit the place again for sure…. When? Why? I do not know!

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

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.

Bike Ride to Tungnath : Shiva rules

In the Lap of Shiva

Characters: Me, Umesh Kaul or only Kaul, Lalit Kumar or Lalit, Atul Kumar Singh alias Atul and Laxmikant Shukla aka LK. We all have been riding on our bikes all the way from Lucknow [for details check: Biking to Badrinath]. While traveling on NH58 we reached Chamoli in the afternoon and decided to have a small detour to Tungnath temple.

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Tungnath Temple [The highest Kedar]

Leg 1: [Chamoli to Gopeshwar, 8 Kms. 40 minutes]: At Chamoli we crossed over the bridge over Alaknanda and left the river trail. The road ascends and reaches a small market where there is a junction of a road to Gopeshwar town and Chopta, or rather Okhimath road. At this market we took out some money from ATM as we knew that there is no ATM or petrol pump beyond this point till Okhimath.
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Forests on the way

Leg 2: Gopeshwar to Chopta [40 Kms, 3 Hours]: Beyond Gopeshwar, after about 4 – 5 Kms, the road enters the thick Kedarnath Forest Reserves. The road is narrow and the traffic is limited to one or two cars or SUVs that may pass you by otherwise you won’t encounter any movable thing enroute except some occasional sighting of monkeys.

Click here for a glimpse of drive through the dense Kedarnath Forest Reserves

The initial phase was mesmerizing. The narrow curling and ascending road, the thick surrounding of oak and pine trees, the solitude, the clear chirps of forest birds all added to the aura of the Mother Nature then but as the clock ticked 5 pm, it grew dark and we could smell rain in the air. We knew we had to be quick as there was still around 16 Kms to be covered but we could not and you are wise enough to know the reasons.

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Road within Kedarnath Forest Reserves

In no time it started drizzling. We could hear the droplets hitting our jackets but soon we realized that we were not getting wet. On closure look we found that they were not drops of water but tiny particles of ice that were bouncing off after striking our clothes. Gradually the intensity of rains increased and it started pouring in. Very soon we were all drenched to our teeth.

Shivering in the sub zero temperatures none of us dared to stop as it was dark and we were in the middle of thick forest. Fortunately, at a bend, there was a clearing and we took shelter there. It was frosty and we could barely stand. Shaking from our bones, LK took some petrol out of his bike while rest of us collected some dry straws and lit a small fire. We literally shoved our hands in to the fire to warm ourselves.

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Clouds hanging around

We waited for about 1 hour but realizing that the rain is going to be unrelenting, we decided to move on. Before that we ensured that we extinguished the fire that we have lit. In this last stretch of apparently unending 4 Kms we had to make our way amidst heavy rains. The road maintained its ascend except for the last 300 mts. The relief that we had on seeing couple of lights [or lanterns to be precise as there is no electricity in Chopta] can not be expressed in words.

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Clothes spread out inside hotel room for drying at Chopta

At Chopta there are not too many options for stay or food. We stayed at the hotel that was just opposite to the main gate of the Tungnath trek route. The tea at the hotel was refreshing and you can well imagine our state. So much so that we could not stop shivering even while we all held our hot tea glasses in our hand and it was spilling all around. Standing near the fire of the earthen pot gave us some reprieve.

The room was low roofed, dim lit with battery bulbs and dingy but appeared heavenly at that moment. Moving on priority lines, we first changed and tied ropes, laces and whatever was handy, all across the room to dry up our clothes. We had hot dinner and went shivering into the warm quilts. It is at the moments like these that one forgets all the luxuries and realizes the importance of basic amenities.

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Lovely, bright sunny morning at Chopta

The morning was bright and sunny but the chill was there in the wind. The view was divine as down below, behind our hotel rooms were the green bugyals or meadows and in front were the tall blooming rhodo trees laden with light purple flowers. We quickly spread out all the wet clothes and shoes near the hotel for drying and enjoyed our breakfast of mouth watering parathas. After taking bath [remember, we are on pilgrimage] finally at around 10 am we began our 4 Kms trek that was going to take us from 2450 mts [Chopta] to 3850 mts [Tungnath] and maybe beyond to 4000 mts [Chandrashila peak]

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Bugyals below the hotel Rajkamal, Chopta

The trek ascends rapidly but there are no risks involved as the route snakes through green bugyals. Far, one can see the Okhimath on one side and snow capped mountains on the other. The trek has some small shacks that provide you with tea and packed snacks. Quickly we had our cameras out and it was some stupendous click time.

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Bugyals or Meadows alongside the Tungnath trek

Atul had some problems and was the slowest while Lalit and LK were always ahead taking numerous short cuts. I was, one can say, not too slow but steady. After couple of hours we came across Alpine Research Station which is a high altitude plant physiology research centre accredited to Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, Srinagar, Uttarakhand which was hardly few meters away from the trek route. One can just say … lucky researchers !!!

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Sign Board of the Research Station

We also came across Ravan Mukh, a hillock that has a fall which resembles the face of an angry Ravan. Mythology says that Ravan prayed for Lord Shiva in these hills. It also says that Lord Rama prayed at the Chandrashila peak. From here we got the first glimpse of the majestic Tungnath temple but the incline was so steep that it took away the enthusiasm of two of us. Finally we were there and performed our puja. Sorry, but cameras were not allowed inside the temple.

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Ravan Mukh [Ravana’s face]

Tungnath: It is the highest of Panch Kedars namely, Kedarnath [3600 mts], Tungnath [3850 mts], Madhyamaheshwar [3500 mts], Rudranath [2300 mts] and Kalpeshwar[2200 mts]. It is said that they are to be worshipped in the same order, strictly.

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After the darshans at Tungnath temple

Mythology holds that after Mahabharat, the Pandavas [five brothers] wanted to repent for their sins of killing their own brothers so they set out in search of the Lord Shiva but Lord did not want to meet them so he disguised himself as a bull, Nandi. Bhim recognized Lord Shiva at Gupt Kashi and before he could go underground, he caught him, or the bull, by its tail. To evade him Lord Shiva, or the bull dispersed and the hump fell at Kedarnath, arms at Tungnath, the navel at Madhyamaheshwar, the face at Rudranath and the hairs and the face fell at Kalpeshwar.

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Some fun with the snow at Tungnath temple

There were few other pilgrims or trekkers too at the temple. There was lot of snow [ya! even in June] around. Climb to Chandrshila peak took another 40 – 45 minutes. At 4000 mts, from here we could get a view of Gopeshwar on the other side too. After all, it is seldom that you see a helicopter pass by below the place you are standing, we did !!!. We played a bit in the snow and after an hour of stay decided to return.

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Onward trek to Chandrashila peak

Coming down is easy but it seemed as if the rains were following us. Since afternoon we could see the clouds originating from the snow caps of the peaks around. By then, they had grown in size and at around 3 pm they were raining themselves out. We took shelter in a small shack enroute that was a shop and a home too to a family. Within an hour we were at Chopta. After lunch we set off for Chamoli with sweet memories of an eventful short detour.

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The click of tea on the boil on our return leg.