Nandikund: The Garhwal Himalaya (Sequel I)

Few among us are born restless, destined to reach out into the unknown. They do not know how to sit still; the calling is always upon them. To push the concept of “what is expected” is what always plays on their mind. I think I belong to this breed, for omnipresent is this urge to venture out, to hear the wind rustle in the trees and caress my body; to have the sun beat upon me and form wrinkles on my skin as reminder of the days spent in his company; to have the heart swell up with the feeling of lightheadness as something extraordinary presents itself in this ordinary life that we lead. To see vistas spread in front of me that make the eyes sparkle and the lips to utter a prayer of heartfelt thanks to the Maker above This is my tale of a quest on foot through the highlands of Garhwal Himalaya; this is the tale of NandiKund.

As with every tale, the origin of this also happened on a rusty rickety chair in front of a  laptop which displayed with the assistance of the world wide web a hazy tale and mention of a place nestled high up in the Garhwal Himalaya, away from the frequented paths of the touristic hordes who descend on to these regions come every summer. There comes a time when one is just drawn to something without any logical reasoning and this is exactly what happened with me, I was just drawn to two names – NandiKund and Sujaal Sarovar .

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As I dug deeper into the recesses of the web I did accumulate data about these places and names of local guides who could take me there. Thus was born the basic framework of #Nandikund Trek, which originated from a small village called Raasi and terminated at another village called as Urugam , requiring ascent of two high mountain passes along with three high altitude lakes and two out of the five Paanch Kedars.

The preparation for the trek I would say was broadly divided into the following categories: –

  • Clothing for a high altitude trek.
  • Baggage to carry the same.
  • Preparation of the itinerary in consultation with the guide.
  • Choice of photographic gear and equipment.
  • Self-learning tutorials on how to pack for a trek including a 12-day stay in the wilderness.
  • Leave requirements.

I would not dwell much on the above other than touching briefly on them, but let me say that it really involved burning the midnight oil. After lot of preparation finally I reached the day when the journey was to begin and as my preparations in terms of my backpack and equipment took shape I was pushed to the edges of self-doubt as to whether I would be able to walk with the total equipment that I had to carry for my body was groaning under its weight at mean sea level and I was supposed to lug it across undefined paths at altitudes in excess of 15000 feet. It is moments like these when the self-resolve is tested and the mind has to carve a path ahead and clear the self-doubt that starts engulfing the mind and heart.

The journey to begin walking had to be first covered by air followed by rail which thereafter changed into bus and finally a jeep took me to the place from where I was supposed to begin my walk . Lot of time to ponder on my decision of whether I can do this or not or was I being foolhardy in this quest. Hence from the sophistication of the international terminals of Mumbai and Delhi I descended into the chaos that was New Delhi railway station which soon gave way to the holy city of Haridwar where my train Nanda Devi Express (how apt a name) deposited me at four in the morning. Taking a deep breath I lifted the backpack and trundled across the sparse platform No 1 to exit the rail station.

My eyes hunted for a tea stall and uttered a heartfelt thanks to be born in India for lo behold there was one just outside the station , serving hot piping tea at four on this wintry morning . After two cups of tea I moved out and started walking towards the Bus Station in order to take the state transport bus to Rudraprayag which I knew departed Haridwar at 530 in the morning. The bus station was a throwback to the Eighties, passengers sleeping on the floor many of them devotees who visit this holy town . The buses all coming up and parking haphazardly and people like me stumbling here n there to find the correct bus to take them to their destination J but it was fun .

The bus started right on time and we were on our way with the driver zooming confidently on the mountain roads twisting and turning all the while , confident of every action with a swagger which denoted that out here he was the king and the road and bus his kingdom . I admired his personality as we zoomed onwards deeper into the highlands of Uttarakhand. The sun soon rose and the sunlight warmed my heart and gave confidence to me making me believe that I will be able to do this . I was the only non-local in that bus and it was so strikingly visible especially at the local stop en-route for breakfast, a fare which I enjoyed thoroughly at one of the dhabas on the way at a place wonderfully known as “Teen dhara”

Eventually I reached Rudraprayag and bid adieu to the bus and began the next chapter of catching another even smaller a bus which would be taking me further and higher up; to a place called Ukimath which if anyone would have read my earlier blog would realize is a deeply religious ancient town. It is here that I met the first member of my team, my guide for the trek Mr Umeid Singh Rana.It was a joyous meeting as I had trekked with him earlier so the familiarity was already established.

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As the afternoon bore on, I had deposited the backpack on the street side while we waited for the jeep which would take us to the final place from where the trek would begin, we sat at the nearby tea stall to sip cups of hot tea over animated discussion as to what the coming days would be like and soon nearby people joined in with their views on the terrain, weather and just about everything else. I was invited to their establishments and shops as they proudly informed me as to how they had set up their life in small places like these. So it was a great time waiting for the jeep. Eventually we started for the village called Raasi which would be the staging point for the commencement of the trek and also coincidentally the home of Mr Umeid. Hence for the night he was hosting me.

The journey from Ukimath to Raasi is generally covered in around two hours and passes through small villages en route called Mansuna ,Raounke ,Ulliana . The mode of transport to all these places is either the jeep or small mini buses. There is only one bus which goes every day to these places and for the jeep well one has to wait till respectable number of passengers are accumulated. Basically the pace of life is slow and involves lot of waiting and planning in case one has to move in these interior parts of Uttarakhand. This is not the place of android phones and multi-tasking lifestyle.

By 630 in the evening I was at Raasi and the walk from the road till Umeid’s house was a bit awkward as I was subjected to curious stares from just about everyone, as it happens in small villages the word spreads quickly that an outsider has come for trekking. Anyways with a smile on my face I greeted all those whom I met and soon I was at ease. The evening was spent in the company of the local school teacher and we had quite an engaging discussion on various topics. The stars, mountains, winter chill, warmth of the solar lamp and the knowledge of a great adventure on whose precipice I stood made the moments spent out there truly worth cherishing. After a simple dinner and meeting my head porter I turned in for the night with the anticipation of a great day tomorrow.

Raasi to Nanu

By nine we were off , I said a small work of encouragement to myself , lifted the backpack ,adjusted the weight and took my first step on the quest into the highlands towards a destination that I had only heard of ..

The path was narrow skirting the mountains that surrounded Raasi as we made our way to the first way point which was the village of Gaundar around 6 kms away. Enroute we came across womenfolk carrying huge bundles of grass meant for hay for the livestock. I think we made good progress and we were at Gaundaar by around 1030. The views of this walk were great as we could see the Chaukhamba massif all the while and then there were the forests of pines and birches which we walked into. At Gaundaar we rested and lunch was planned to be had here.

After a sumptuous lunch we departed forward , eventually we reached a place called Sartaza nearly 4 km ahead of Gaundaar where we rested for 30 min. The small tea house was run by a solitary lady who was all alone in this wilderness without electricity or phone connections or neighbors, tending to her small field, two goats and the tea house, living her life caring for her four sons. Her husband had expired in the 2013 kedarnath disaster. Looking at her bustling with activity and determined in the face of such odds … made me feel so conscious of the hardships that others endure and yet they still find the strength to go on …

We reached Nanu by five in the evening and what a feeling it was to stand without a load on my back on a narrow stretch of clearing on the edge of a big mountain inhaling the fresh mountain air and having the sense of accomplishing something .. the quest was underway and it was very much real. I had started and had survived the first day .. the hardest of all the days …

I just took my big shoes off and walked into the sunset feeling the bare earth beneath my feet and the wind rustling in the bushes. As night fell and the rains descended high in the mountains, we huddled in the kitchen of our hosts and the lady of the house treated us to a delectable dinner cooked over wooden fired chulahs in the glow of solar lamps. Tomorrow was to be a new day and a new goal.

Nanu to Madhmaheswar

Early in the morning I was up during the hour of the nautical dawn which is the period just before sunrise and set up the tripod to do some photography, standing in that small clearing at the edge of the mountain looking outwards across huge mountain ranges waiting for the sun to arrive and having steaming cup of tea .. a moment like this definitely finds its place among the most wonderful moments that this mortal eyes have seen till date …

Today’s target was the holy Madhmaheswar. The fourth of the Paanch Kedar . Soon after around two km we reached Maikuma Chatti, once again a solitary hut on a steep mountain slope with wild flowers growing all around. The hosts were informed that we would like to have breakfast and soon the chulah was firing merrily away. The weather deteriorated as we moved ahead and it was all mist n grey clouds which sapped away at my morale. I feel blue skies and warmth of the sunshine are great motivating factors. As we walked our way through the dense wooded slopes of mountains towards Madhmaheswar we met many trekkers who were returning after from  Madhmaheswar. The weather had deteriorated and I trudged in silence wondering whether the views that I so desperately wanted to see would be visible to me or not. My last trip to Uttarakhand also did not have great sunshine and though I was treated to a different genre of views yet this time I wanted to see blue sky and white peaks.

The view of Madhmaheswar is truly fantastic as one emerges from the tree line and comes across a clearing in the forest and lo behold one sees the magnificent Madhmaheswar ji outlined against the backdrop of the forest behind. It was a totally awesome feeling I must say. We reached Madhmaheswar by around 12 in the afternoon and I was able to get a darshan as I was the only outsider there barring the priests and few individuals who run an odd homestay/restaurant.

After the darshan and lunch we decided to move towards Budha Madhmaheswar, which is a hillock and a favorite of many who come here for the summit is flat and offers spectacular views of the Garhwal Himalaya including Chaukhamba , Kedar dome on one side while on the opposite side views of distant towns in the valley like Raasi and Ukimath are seen

It was a cloudy evening as I saw the porters setting up the kitchen shelter as the skies spoke of the oncoming rain . Those moments spent that evening were a mix of freezing rain interspersed with bouts of shafts of sunlight as the wind moved the clouds revealing the brilliant mountain peaks that surrounded us I wandered here and there with the camera in hand marveling at the play of light and clouds in the sky which was creating an electric atmosphere all around. It is a place to see and to be. The night was spent in trying to do some night photography as the weather cleared and with the promise of a clear sky as I so much wanted to see the glory of the Himalayan peaks from here which I had so much read about.

Budha Madhmaheswar to Dhola Khetrapal

The morning was a splendid visual treat as the sun rays shone the mountain peaks of the Grahwal Himalayan range making them glitter in the morning sun like beacons of divine light. I had a great time freezing these moments as the day slowly came upon me … soon it was time to break camp and move ahead. Today’s goal was to reach Kachni Dhar but as we were preparing to leave we could see small whiffs of cloud up in the sky and that implied that the mist was coming up and that we better hurry. So we started descending towards Madhmaheswar as Umeid my guide instructed the team to come behind with all the gear while he and I moved ahead.

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From a height of close to 3497 mts we descended and then after reaching the base we turned northwards and headed into the tree line behind Madhmaheswar. Soon the forests engulfed as we moved ahead on a barely discernable path, one step after the next. The mist and fog had by that time come quite close as we moved ahead through the shadows of the forests … The path was as lonely as they come .. with no soul in sight this late into the onset of the winter.

The climb was brutal to say the least as I struggled to move slowly but continuously my lungs working all the while trying to supply oxygen that was in great demand. The mist engulfed me as I moved ahead. Soon I reached a way point called Rikhana and took shelter beneath huge rocks as the rains had descended by this time. The rest of the team had caught up by now and we huddled close to each other.

This area was strewn with parts of a helicopter that had crashed in the sixties but the parts were still here, reminder of the harshness of the place .. the inhospitable terrain made more so by the fog and mist that swirled all around. The GPS read as 3564 mts . This was in every sense a desolate place .. a barren hard cold and I don’t mean only in temperature but there was a sense of heaviness about this place. Soon after around 30 min we started the climb again, a very very brutal climb, the target was Kachni Pass but the steepness of the climb in this weather was too taxing and soon it was snowing. So here we were individuals walking in the snow, one step at a time, this high up in the mountains.

For me it was for the first time that I was actually walking in snow and the setting was as real as it could ever come by. Eventually we reached another way point called Dhola Khetrapal and we decided to call it a day and make camp here itself. The GPS  read 3900 mts . In a day I had gained 400 mts and the best was yet to come.

We pitched two tents against a huge vertical rock and the porters got busy erecting a make shift kitchen and brewing hot tea to warm up the soul within. The weather deteriorated as the afternoon wore away and by evening it was snowing consistently. A different world was presented in front of me from the one which was there in the morning. The whiteness was everywhere now and visibility was around 20 mts.

I refused to stay inside the tent rather spent time clicking pics of this eerie world that was in front of me … there was something intoxicating and pulling about the whole moment. The porters and team were huddled inside the tent whiling the time.

Umeid my guide and head porter prem singh ji though were worried as they just were not very confident moving towards the pass in this weather for we were actually not carrying ice axes or pitons as weather deterioration was not anticipated. I could sense their uneasiness though they did not say much to me. The mercury kept falling as the minutes ticked away and the cold was getting to me seeping in through the clothing that I was wearing. By this time, I was wearing thermals, additional jersey followed by outer jacket and lower. My head was covered with a cap while my hands had gloves and my feet were in one pair of socks and outer shoes

Dinner was served at around seven in the evening and it was a delicious fare of hot dal and roti… what more can one ask followed by hot tea as I ate peering into the darkness beyond the realm of the solar lamps knowing that the snow was piling up slowly. It was intoxicating and I cannot explain the feeling. It was extremely cold in the night and I was grateful to the preparations that I had done in the choice of gear that I had selected and that was paying off now , the warmth of my clothes and the sleeping bag made all the difference in confidence within.

The day had been hard as we struggled against the weather right from morning and it was important to keep the motivation level high in the junior porters as the danger to mortal life is all too real and it’s important to not lose heart out here, so a good hot meal inside the belly and a warm bed for a good night sleep does wonders.

My second night in the tent and was just not getting any sleep, I was aware of the night and struggled to get a better position inside the sleeping bag for comfort. However, the night was spent tossing and turning having weird hypnotic visions. I think the altitude was getting to me or maybe the body was having trouble adapting but whatever the case I did not have a deep sleep. As the morning approached I was awake just as the sunrise crept in.

There is something magical in the moment when you open the tent flap and step outside, there is absolute stillness all around, the wind is nonexistent and the world is so quiet that one can hear a pin drop. It is a moment difficult to describe, it needs to be experienced.

The snow the previous day had clothed everything in white and what a sight it was, to see the sunrays coming over the mountains. It just was magnificent and I have seen some great sunrises in this life but this was a separate category altogether. In some time Umeid too was up and looking at the sky he was hopeful for a good day ahead.

The team was soon up and about and the tea was boiling away , I made it clear to my guide and Premsingh ji that I was not going to turn back unless they saw or felt something that they had just not felt in the entire life spent out here. Hearing me confident and willing, they too felt a bit relieved and we decided to press ahead towards Kachni Dhar pass and beyond.

Dhola Khetrapal to Launtri Khark.

My head porter and me pressed ahead immediately after breakfast to take advantage of the morning hours followed closely by my guide while the rest of team would break camp, have breakfast and then catch up with us. I would like to mention here that it is just not possible to move in these areas without a knowledgeable guide, an outsider to these areas would be highly confused and most likely to wander off and perish without a trace for years to come.

So I followed my head porter as our boots crunched in the snow as we moved ahead, cautiously feeling the path for everything was hidden. The white snow was everywhere and the entire landscape had changed overnight. The first stop was known as Nand birari where we stopped to click a few pics and In about two hours we reached Kachni Pass and by this time the mist had caught up and it had started snowing.

The path was definitely perilous and just before the pass there was around two metres of path that was very tricky, one wrong step and one would be hurled into the depths of the pass without any chance of recovery, just thinking of it even now makes me squirm in my chair. Somehow I made it across slipping and sliding much to the relief of my guide. As the snowfall had increased by this time we took refuge underneath some huge rocks at the pass itself and waited out the falling snow.

By this time the remaining team had also caught up and all of us huddled close to each other under the rocks, making conversations and exchanging stories. I came to know a bit about the life in these parts, the source of livelihood and the working culture, marriage rituals and other related stuff. I on my part tried to explain to them about life in the city and how it works.

After close to an hour, the snow fall abated and we ventured outside, a small prayer was offered to the guardian deity of the pass and then we descended to the other side. The GPS read 4176 mts above sea level. It was close to noon by now as we moved ahead. Our destination for the day was Launtri Khark. Khark in the local dialect means a clearing used by shepherds to pass the night when they roam these lands in the summer.

We finally reached the place by three in the afternoon and no sooner did we stop that it started raining again and the tents were pitched hurriedly and we all settled inside waiting for the rains to stop. The entire day bad weather had plagued us and I struggled to keep myself motivated. In the evening the weather relented and hot maggi with tea was prepared as lunch was not had today. GPS read 3951 mts.

As darkness approached I huddled back into my tent, recharged the batteries and waited for yet another night to pass. Hot dinner was cooked by the porters and served at around eight in the evening. I would like to bring out that it is important to have a good and willing team so that the morale and mood in the camp remains upbeat especially in trying conditions like these and I was grateful that Umeid had selected a good and reliable team.

Hence concludes PART I of this two part tale , do stay on for the next part of this Uttarakhand sojourn

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