Saturday, August 13, 2011

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

Part 1: Deoria Tal

What do folks from an office do when they feel they feel they have a bit of time on their hands? Take a break, right? That’s exactly what 16 of us did in March 2011. We took an extended break for 9 days, went to the Himalayas, did two treks, camped three nights, came down to lower altitude and did whitewater rafting in the Ganges for 2 days.

This is our story.

It was not always the 16 of us. When we first announced the plan in September 2010, there were 20 of us. Some people vacillated, some people pulled out, and when the time came for booking tickets, there were only 10 of us. I was getting a bit worried, because the ideal numbers are either 6-8 or 15-16, because of conveyance costs and economies of scale. We were stuck bang in the middle.

Slowly, but surely, momentum built up inside the office after we made flight bookings, and by February, 16 had made the cut. Happily, we put up posters around - the "16 to the Mountain" campaign.

One person dropped dead at the nth minute, but VJ Sai volunteered to come, and we were back to four squared.

The plan was to fly to Delhi and then go for treks to Deoria Tal, Tungnath & Chandrashila, and finally raft in Rishikesh. Before we started off, we were receiving constant updates about snow conditions from Lakhpat Singh (our guide for the Deoria Tal trek and Tungnath trek), and it worried us a bit. As much as we wanted to play in snow, we were not quite warmed up to the idea of trekking kilometers in deep snow. It snowed even in early March in the hills of Uttarakhand in 2011, something quite unusual compared to trends from previous years. Anyway, we decided to take our chances, did some group shopping for thermals and other gear, picked up our company flag, and off we went.

[Photo courtesy: Shriti Mitra]

This was our original plan.
Day Plan
0 Friday Reach Delhi by 10.30. Travel overnight in a minibus
1 Saturday Freshen up at Rishikesh. Full day journey. Stay at Ukhimath GMVN
2 Sunday Reach Saari Village - Trek to Deoria Tal. Overnight camping.
3 Monday Trek back to Saari Village. Reach Duggalbitta near Choptha. Overnight camping.
4 Tuesday Trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila and back. Stay at Syalsaur GMVN.
5 Wednesday Reach Rishikesh and idle at camp on the river Ganges.
6 Thursday Rafting and camping
7 Friday Rafting. Reach Haridwar by evening.
8 Saturday Play Holi in Haridwar. Overnight to Delhi.
9 Sunday Delhi to BLR flight.

We reached Delhi on time and packed into the minibus that would take us to Rishikesh in the morning. We had dinner at 2.30 in the morning from Bikaner House. The food was good, but they can use some cleaning help with their restrooms. [Interestingly, I learned on a more recent trip, that this is a regular halting place for long distance buses. No wonder the restrooms are sad.]

Around 3 in the morning, we hit a dead patch, with what seemed like the mother of all traffic blocks. Our bus would move a couple of meters and then stop – the rocking motion was repetitive and possibly helped our sleep. When most of us woke up (around 7), the traffic block was still in place, and we were stuck in Muzaffarnagar, around a 100 kms from Rishikesh. Incidentally, we had hoped to be in Rishikesh by 7.

Traffic cleared up soon enough and we reached Rishikesh by around 10 in the morning. Naveen, who runs Shubh Yatra Travels (our conveyance) had arranged for some rooms to freshen up. Had some yummy food from a roadside stall and the next leg of our journey began. The traffic snarl during the night would definitely throw a spanner in our works of reaching Ukhimath that night. But we decided to press on, and travel as much as possible during the day. Travel is not advisable in the hills after sundown.

Most of the day was spend in dozing off in the bus. We stopped at Srinagar for lunch. Srinagar (in Uttarakhand) is mostly a military township, with a healthy sprinkling of educational institutions. Nirmal hunted out Cozy Restaurant, the best non-vegetarian outlet in town.

After a decent, albeit delayed, meal at around 2.30 PM, we continued our journey. This was a grueling experience. No one had really slept for the past 30 hours, as we came in to work, then flew to Delhi, and then the overnight journey. Fortunately, none of us complained, because we had agreed as a team early on, that we would make this mad dash so that we will have plenty of time on our hands later on.

We reached Rudraprayag, a major district, by around 7 in the evening. Inquiries at Rudrprayag GMVN left us in a quandary. The rates sounded steep for a party just wishing to crash and sleep, and then move on early in the morning. GMVN, by the way, stands for Garwhal Mandal Vikas Nigam, the travel and tourism arm of the Uttarakhand government. Uttarakhand is divided into two zones – Garwhal and Kumaon (Jim Corbett fame). Kumaon has a counterpart to GMVN – called KMVN – no prizes for guessing the expanded version.

Thankfully, Rudraprayag GMVN folks guided us to Chandrapuri, an inexpensive proposition on a remote hamlet, set on the banks of river Mandakini, a few kilometers ahead. It was late, and we had to coax and cajole our driver to go a few kilometers further in the night. When we reached Chandrapuri, it was pitch dark. The accommodation was basic, but for the really weary travelers that we were, it didn’t matter. Despite the fatigue, we managed to sing and party till around 10 in the night, when dinner was served. The only thing I remember about the dinner is full-boiled eggs floating in spicy curry – lots of them in big bowls.
I knew that we could see mountains early in the morning, from our location. It was a great moment for a lot of us from the south, who had never seen snow clad peaks.

In the morning, the weather was clear, the waters were beautiful, and in the distance, you could see the gigantic peaks of the Himalayan range.

The night’s sleep helped in reducing the fatigue, and some of us even went for a short climb nearby.
We started early, and by around 9 O clock, reached Ukhimath. We chose our breakfast from this exotic menu, which included froot snakes.

By 11, we reached Saari Village, but not before we saw the peaks of Chandrashila up close and personal, from our bus.

In Saari, I was happy to meet Lakhpat ji in person, after months of tele contact. A wiry man in his forties, he is a respected figure around here. Sucharita, a diminutive but energetic girl in our bunch later on gave Lakhpat ji a new name – Lucky!

We checked in at his hotel in Saari, dumped our luggage, took basic necessities, and soon started our trek to Deoria Tal. The trek is 2.5-3 kms long, and is paved with stones for some distance.

Our lack of fitness showed early on itself. Reuben experienced a puking episode early on, but still managed well. Barring a few, we were taking ample breaks every five minutes.

Shot of the picturesque Saari Village from above.

Lakhpat Singh Negi.

A stone-roofed house.

Rhododendron flowers in full bloom.

While some of us were having difficulty, a bunch of us like Shruthi and Sucharita, were literally dancing their way up. Above our sighs and pants, we could hear the girls dance and sing in the distance. It sounded eerie, when their voices and laughter floated to us with the mountain winds.

One of the first to reach was Sudhir, our finance controller. It was surprising, because his only exercise in life is the few steps from his car to the office lift! Hats off.

After around 3 hours, all of us reached the camp site. From here, we could view some majestic Himalayan peaks. Deoria Tal was still a few hundred metres away, and was not visible from our Reflection Resort camp site.

We decided to have lunch and then walk up to the lake.

Shots of Deoria Tal.

Deoria Tal is situated at an altitude of around 2,300 m. Every brook and rock in Uttarakhand has a mythological association to it. It was here apparently that Yaksha asked the wandering Pandavas those deadly questions that would have sealed their fate, barring the last minute appearance of the eldest of the lot.
We walked around the lake, and found some dirty leftover ice to play around with.

(In a sweet display of retaliation, snow and ice would play havoc with us in the next two days :-)

We came back to the camp, lit a bon fire, and started a party that would go on for hours.

VJ Sai basking in the twilight sun.

Saurav, Shruthi, and Ni-et:

The fire wasn’t bright, the mercury was dipping, but we had enough fire in our bellies to last some good hours. Satya joined the cooking efforts of the local people, and the dinner-satisfaction-index shot up by a couple of percentage points.

Early morning, I was greeted with a “Happy New Year, Sirjee” cry from one of Lakhpat’s associates. I responded happily even though it was not that time of the year, for some funny reason which I cannot recollect now. He would become Jesus Christ of sorts in snow, in a day or two.

All of us soon walked up to the lake to catch a reflection of the mountains. Early mornings are ideal for this purpose, as the winds would not have not picked up steam, giving us the best still waters to function as mirrors. We trekked back to Saari Village after an hour or two, ending what was one of the best nights at a decent altitude.

Part 2 can be found here.

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