Sunday, August 21, 2011

Once upon a time in March (Deoria Tal, Tungnath, Rishikesh Rafting) - 2

Part 2: Tungnath
[Part 1 can be found here: Deoria Tal.]

After freshening up at the guest house in Saari Village, we idled around for a bit, sipping in the tea along with the village scenery. By 11, we were in our bus for the 20 odd kilometer trip to Duggalbitta. Duggalbitta is a few kilometers away from Chopta, Chopta being the usual starting point for the trek to Tungnath. The road between Duggalbitta and Chopta was still snow covered for the most part, which explained our decision to camp in Duggalbitta. 


Energy levels were high during the short trip, with people dancing and singing inside the bus.
Here's us waiting for the camp to be set up.

Sathya and Reuben -attempted smilies. [Most photos in the post are courtesy Sathya, unless stated otherwise.]

We went for a short stroll to be greeted by snow.
  Post lunch, most of us just plonked on the grass to relax. The sun was pleasant and helped nullify the chill factor to a considerable degree. MTV was turned on with Saurav and Reuben taking turns in entertaining everyone with a good mix of rock and Bollywood. Those couple of hours was the most relaxing moments of the entire trip.  
Here's a snippet:

The panorama in front, the best weather one could have bargained for, the occasional leg pulling laughter, the feel of nothing TO-DO today, the sound of wind and guitar strains. And then there was this steady thumping of Royal Enfields, not one, not two, but close to 20 Bullets. We turned around to see those Enfields steadily streaming in, with their machines shattering our reverie. Those men stopped at Duggalbitta with the idea to camp there. They were the crew of INS Viraat, India’s flagship aircraft career. The sea men were on a mountain travel spree, with their military truck in tow, with all the camping gear and necessary gigs. 
The Viraat men did some scouting and decided to return the next day, as it was next to impossible to continue the mechanized journey, with the snow conditions further ahead. They camped on the other side of the meadow. The world is in fact a small place, as I managed to find that I had a common friend with their communications specialist. (Yes. I like to show off.)
Toward evening, all of us walked up a bit, and decided to conduct a snowman making competition -and it had to be men versus women. 

Here's the Happy New Year fellow from the previous post.
Nirmal, Syed, and Sudheer, with what men can do.

Marj and Shriti with what women can.Though it is not evident in this photograph, their's was the better creation and they won the day.

This is our video log of the event.This should be conclusive proof that women were better.

And while returning, we saw a bus that was stuck in snow. We decided to play the rescue crew.
Two campfires were lit on the meadow that night. One by our Navy men and one by us. 
ANSR split into two teams and played games like Rock, Paper, Scissors and some other stuff. The prize was a buffalo head [sans the flesh] that Nirmal had foraged from the neighborhood. A pity, we forgot to bring it to Bangalore. Ni-et won the sing-a-song-but-not-in-your-native-tongue competition by singing an old Malayalam classic. It’s an unbelievable feeling to listen to a South Indian song coming from someone with definitive chiseled North-East Indian looks. [That's a wrong stereotype at so many levels, because South India is so different, as is the North-Eastern part of India, but I hope you get the drift.]

We decided to start early for Tungnath and crashed for the night. It was a good day, marred only by reports from Lakhpath about disappearing flaura and fauna. The famous musk deer that used to walk these hills are no more. The last one died a year back or so. I hate to think what would be left of this place in another 20 years.

The next day, we woke up and got ready by around 7. Our Navy men were leaving. We were sipping tea, while they said their goodbyes, and started their bikes. And before revving up, they let out one of the loudest war-cries I have ever heard – Bolo Bharath Mata ki Jai - bone chilling and hair raising. Hats off to them supermen. Even in these "peaceful" times, they are involved in combat at some level with their anti-pirate operations.

Before we start the Tungnath episode, some background information. The road from Ukhimath to Chopta, connects the two big pilgrimage spots of Kedarnath and Badrinath. [Please see a cartographer’s nightmare image below.]

It’s sort of a short-cut. Most travel (government buses too), however happens through the more circuitous Rudraprayag route. In fact, there was a time, when no buses plied on the Chopta route. The people of this stretch then went on an indefinite fast, before the government obliged and gave them their bus. The bus, even now is quite aptly called the Bhookh Hartal (hunger strike) bus. I travelled in the Bhookh Hartal bus, the first time I came to Uttarakhand in 1998. We passed by Chopta, and I did not get down because my destination was Badrinath. It was rather weird that I did not get down then, because it was the image of a snow clad Tungnath that appeared in the final page of the Indian Express (along with a 100 word write-up) that really prompted me to come to this hill state.

When we started the planning, Tungnath, along with Deoria, fitted neatly into the idea of an office outing. Nothing heavy-duty. Chopta to Tungnath trek is around 3.5 kilometeres. Chandrashila, if we were attempting it, was another kilometer from Tungnath. But, during the planning phase, we had not factored in the Duggalbitta to Chopta hike of around 1.5 kilometers, hoping the roads would be clear in mid-March.

Here's the Duggalbitta to Chopta stretch.
In our team, whoever prayed for lots of snow made it tough for everyone else. (I’m yet to spot the imp  amongst us, but will do so before the next trip. :-)

We were tired when we reached Chopta in an hour or so, but nothing beyond repair. We had tea and snacks, stocked up water and chocolates, and took some pictures.

Lakhpath briefed us about the trek for a short while.

The trek was not going to be easy, as some stretches had too much snow. As a team, we reached an understanding that anyone feeling excessive difficulty would stop, rest for some time, and then turn back. No room for bravado.
The path from Chopta to Tungnath is well laid out with stone steps. That’s the usual image you will get if you Google it out. But this time, right from the start, the stone steps were snowed out.
We did make some mistakes, like splitting up. I think there were three teams in all – I started off with the bunch in front with Lakhpath, Shruthi, Saurav, Kruthi, Ni-et, VJ Sai, and Sucharitha. Soon Lakhpath pointed to a short-cut and I said - no way. Lakhpath went ahead with the sporty Sucharita and VJ Sai.
There is no point detailing walking in 3 feet snow. I was always trying to play catch up, and at one point, I saw Marj walking towards us.

I remember asking her this question – Tell me again, why are we doing this? To which Marj responded – Exactly my question.
The day was not exactly turning out to be a light-medium duty trek. Some of us matched mountain goats and went up, but then not all could manage the toil. Soon, a hoard of trekkers from Chamoli joined the mayhem. There were 30 or 40 of them and they set a scorching pace – men and women. They were extremely courteous, and pulled a couple of us up on a few occasions.

That's Saurav walking on air.

After this stretch, as a team, we made one more mistake - in assuming that a structure that we saw in the distance was Tungnath. For future trekkers, one word of wisdom – Tungnath does not show it’s face until the last few hundred meters or so.
Most of us were tired beyond recognition. But we still discussed the possibility of Chandrashila, but Lakhpath remained noncommittal in his response. He kept on saying, first, let’s do Tungnath. And I’m sure he was thinking “This irritating bunch from Bangalore does not have the mettle to do Tungnath, but has the balls to talk about Chandrashila in these snow conditions.”
Some of us decided to call it a day. One note about this place. I had started off as part of the leading team in the morning, but when I reached here, I was the last, all our teams reached before me.

After this point, it was like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m talking about my jacket. The sun is burning down and you’re sweating like crazy. So you take it off. Then, you’re freezing with the cold winds icifying your sweat. So you put it on again. It’s torture.
To add salt in to injury, I was alone on this stretch. One team turned back, the other was way ahead. I could see them waiting for me, but how long can someone wait? They move on, and with every passing step of theirs I continued to lag behind. I saw them pausing at the structure that we mistook for Tungnath and moving on again. I shouted out and heard Reuben’s response “We reached Tungnath, we’re going for Chandrashila”. And I was like “Great, Let me at least reach Tungnath.”

And then, they passed a corner, and it was me all alone, walking 10 footsteps and resting for a minute or two.
In some time, I reached this structure that we mistook for Tungnath, and realized it wasn’t the one.

Misery continues. To add to the list of woes, my water bottle was getting empty. That’s when I met two good samaritans from the Chamoli team on their way back. They told clearly that Tungnath was a bit away after the bend in the distance. They looked at my pathetic state and said I could walk up to the bend, see the Tungnath temple from a distance, and if Tungnathji (Shiva) wishes, he will drag me up. I thanked them, while thinking “Why did you have to bring faith into the picture? I just want to be there.”
Soon enough I crossed the bend, and I saw Saurav, Sucharitha, and VJ Sai waving from above. Yes ABOVE, the last few hundred metres are no joke.

That's the edifice of Tungnath from a distance.

All said and done, all of us rested for some time, and took these snaps.

The guy on the right side of the picture thought the photographer was on the other side.

Lakhpath was against the idea of pushing Chandrashila, which was another vertical path in snow, close to a kilometer. The snow was deep, and I do not think anyone argued. It was already 1.30 in the afternoon and we were supposed to be going down, reach Duggalbitta, and then on to Syalsaur GMVN. The party in the mountains is over, drudgery of walking down, or so I thought.

That’s when Lakhpath asked us to slide down. Oh the beauty of it. Btw, this video captures all that's been written above.

We were down in Chopta after sliding down all the monstrous elevations in about 90 minutes.

We rested for a bit at Chopta, and then walked down to our camp at Duggalbitta. I remember walking up again to make a call to the office. Mobile connectivity is erratic here. It was 5 in the eveningwhen we all reached camp and was ready to go. There was a problem, because it is not advisable to travel in the night. However, we had made bookings at the picturesque Syalsaur GMVN about 50 kilometers away.
Somehow we convinced the driver, bid adieu to our Duggalbitta camp and Lakhpath, and sat in the bus. The stinky wet shoes were kept on top of the bus to dry.
Problems soon started. One puke after the other – I think 8 out of 16 were holding their mouths close to the window of the bus that day. Our driver was driving real fast, and we thought the bouncing around was adding to the problem, and I told him to slow down, and he went in the other direction – total crawl – that I felt like puking :-).
We reached Syalsaur GMVN by around 8. Perfect place. Dine, wine, switch off.

Part 3 can be found here: Rishikesh Whitewater Rafting.

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