Saturday, December 1, 2012

Madmaheshwar Madness - Part 1

It was about 8 O clock on a Wednesday evening, precisely speaking, the 14th of November 2012.  After completing a bunch of chores at work that would leave me relatively free for the next few days, I was idling in front of the computer. Having cancelled two treks in the last four months because of work related nonsense, I was feeling a bit antsy. With the winter fast approaching, some of the good trekking routes in northern Uttarakhand were already closed, or were in the process of being closed as I procrastinated.

Online, I found a good thread on Madmaheshwar - nothing strenuous, but a decent 4 day trek outside mobile coverage, for the most part. Madmaheshwar is located in Garwhal region of Uttarakhand perched on a hillside at an altitude of about 3,000 metres. On Indiamike, the discussion was active with a bunch of people planning to visit the place before it shut down on the 24th of November. One trekker named Aman was even more ambitious wanting to trek further up from Madmaheshwar to Kanchni Tal, an icy lake burrowed in the heights of the lower Chaukhamba peaks. I envied his energy and time, and decided that I was going atleast to MadM. I picked up the phone and dialed Randeep, a senior from college who had expressed interest in joining a trek. The conversation was simple: "I'm going this Sunday for a trek. Are you  coming?" He said he would be interested, and would confirm in some time. At 11 in the night, I received a text from him which said "Macha, I'm in. Book the tickets." Very efficient and to-the-point communication.

17th November, Saturday
We met at BLR airport in the morning, pretty much after 13 or 14 years and it was just like old times. By noon, we found ourselves in the cab on the way to Haridwar or Rishikesh where we planned to halt for the night.  The plan was to stop over, and reach Ukhimath, another 200 km up in the hills by late afternoon the next day. Just like in college, we were good at planning, but bad at implementation. In all the fun and frolic and jokes, we found ourselves going further up from Rishikesh, because we reached a bit early. At 7 or 8 in the night, we stopped at Srinagar to have the much forgotten lunch. We gave the advance at a hotel in Srinagar, had "lunch", and then realized our driver was game for driving further up that night. We were beyond care, said "what the hell, yeah", took back the advance and went further up. We thought we would stay in Rudraprayag or Chandrapuri, but one thing led to another and we moved on in pitch darkness, with a Delhi driver unfamiliar with the terrain.

The darkness was a good thing as Randeep realized on the way back. Anyway, at around 11 or 12 in the night, we found the headlights of our car focused on a leopard crossing the road, and we decreased the speed. The animal was so confident, he/she crossed the road slowly, curved around a milestone and stared at us. I remember texting a few people - the "you don't know what I just saw" type text. One response I received said "please stay safe", and I was like yes - an unknown driver in an unknown terrain, darkness, bumpy roads, steep drop on one side, landslide prone rocks on the other, add a leopard to the mix - and yes we will try to stay safe.

Long story short, we reached Ukhimath at around 1.30, but there was one small problem. Most of the lights were out, and the road signs were a bit confusing. We remember walking out of the car checking out the place asking loudly "Where the hell is Ukimath?" laughing hard at the irony of the whole situation - you are in Ukhimath, but you just cannot figure out, where it is. We drove back and forth a bit, knocked on a few doors, before finally getting some accommodation. And you would think after 20 hours of travel, we would sleep, correct? Nope! We decided to party (again) because we gained a lot of hours because of our journey straight to Ukhimath. An hour into that animated conversational party, two foreigners who stayed behind the balcony of our party venue got irritated. We apologized, and shifted to the open terrace. I remember Randeep telling me, "she sounded like a German!".  Time will tell. We went to sleep at 4.30 in the morning promising to wake up at 7 or 8 to be on our way to Uniana village, 22 kilometers away, which is the starting point of the Madmaheshwar trek. It would be easy to get jeeps in the morning, we told ourselves, before drifting off to sleep.

18th November, Sunday
Yawn...aaah...and I see Randeep horsing around and I asked him what the problem was. The problem was simple, it was already 11.30. Ooops...we promised ourselves to get ready in a few minutes, but there was another problem - we had to have tea. After the elaborate ritual of tea drinking, packing/unpacking, freshening up, we found ourselves having breakfast at around 12.45. Here are some views from the hotel room. Ukhimath temple. Pic 2 below is the town of Guptkashi in the distance.

There was no jeep in sight, but a gentleman told us that he could take us to Uniana village on the back of his pick-up auto. We decided not to wait for a jeep and grabbed the offer. It was easily the best decision so far!

The wind in you hair, cool breeze, early winter sun, unobstructed view of the surroundings - this was turning into a beautiful affair.  Except, the breakfast guy called our driver! We had fogotten to pay the bill in our excitement. We settled the bill with our driver.

At Uniana, we decided to hire a porter to carry things. It was Randeep's first foray, and he was  worried because a sense of nausea had kicked in, possibly because of the long journey or altitude (I suspect another source for the discomfort, but then, there is no literature in mountain lore to support it).  We negotiated a steep settlement of Rs. 500 per day for the porter, more so because we were in a hurry.

We started at around 2 in the afternoon. Today's trek was going to be simple.We aimed to reach Ransi village, about 1.5 kms away, and if light permitted, push to reach Gaundar village, another 6 km from there.
Kids in these terrains are beautiful - some come with attitude, others with innocence, and a lot of other pretty shades. Want proof?

And her sister joined!

He carries a good fraction of what his mom carries!


 We reached Ransi by 4 in the evening and decided to call it a day. Idols at Ransi village!

Iskool! Ransi village also has a better maintained high school.
It was the season for weddings. We knew of at least 3.  2 in Ransi, and one in Goundar, a few kilometers away.

This groom was on his way to Goundar to find his other half! We would see him again the next day.

There was a wedding happening above our lodge the next day, and the music had started playing. We were determined to barge in to the pre-wedding festivities just for the experience. We asked Ranjit, our porter, if there was a chance of getting invited, and he said he would try. We were quite not comforted by that and decided to take law into our own hands. In our hands we packed them cameras - a Nikon D90, a point and shoot, a Kodak Sport, a Flip, a Samsung Galaxy. And off we went.

First innocuously, to the village temple above the house. Perpetual flame in the temple at Ransi.


 The house where the wedding was happening.

Carroms is pretty much a national sport here!

 Rice being prepared for the festivities.
Ransi brats. The one in the front is not so innocent as he seems. He was happily calling the one in green outfit a BC!

After coming back from the temple, we blatantly started shooting pictures.

We kept clicking pictures till the point the groom's dad came out and insisted that we attend the dance party in the evening. We need not have done any of that drama, but it was more fun that way. We went back to our room and did some preparations for a dance for the stiff legged. They were kind enough to send dinner to our room. Looking back, I can only say, thank you so much for the kindness.

After the dinner, we walked up, and witnessed a dance and song event that would put rave parties in Goa to shame. No trance, no techno, just pahadi and Hindi beats, but the sheer energy of kids, guys, girls, middle-aged, and old.

 Here comes the hot steppa!


This pretty girl so wanted to be photographed!

I was busy shooting all of this, and then it happened. She came to me, and asked me if I will stick around for 5 or 10 more minutes. I said I might. And then she said "Good, then wait, because I would like to dance with you." And I was like okkk, partly because I don't know how to dance, and partly because I really don't know how to dance. 

And she promptly came back in 5 minutes and we had a swell time for the next few minutes. All of 78 years, she is a big shot around, into village politics and stuff.

With the groom's dad!

We spent some more time in their company, took a lot of pictures before settling for the night. Well, settling was a long way away! Randeep's Vodafone line was active and it became a cultural nightmare. We discussed how Shankaracharya came all the way from Kerala centuries before and set up a divine infrastructure of sorts - parts of the Char Dham circuit. A big chunk of that night for him went on a call with a Bengali friend - a showdown of sorts - between Shri Shankaracharya and Swami Vivekananda. Who's the big daddy kind of call. I looked at the nonexistent signal indicators of my Airtel line and rued the moment I started the godforsaken conversation about the saint from Kaladi.

19th November, Monday
We woke up and got ready by 9 in the morning. The weather was pleasant, but a bit sunny for the trek. We started walking by around 9.30.

The tentative target for the day was Goundar village about 6 kilometers away. There was a look of sheepishness on our faces as most of the village seemed to recognize us from the previous night's gatecrashing.

Kids on the way to school in Ransi.
The load looked light now.
The first 1.5 kilometers from Ransi was a straight walk. Rumor has it that a tarred road will be coming soon till this point once the bridge at the beginning of the trek is built. His shop is at the very end of the potential tarred road.
After the first 1.5 kilometers a gentle long descent starts for the most part of the way till Goundar. I did not particularly like this descent, as it would mean a climb up on our return journey.

On the way to Goundar village!


We reached Goundar by around 12.30 and decided to have lunch. Goundar is a picture postcard village set on the banks of the Madhu Ganga river, complete with orange trees, native construction, and it's own little temple. Perfect for an idle lifestyle (for an outsider).

We had our share of oranges with salt and chilli. Here's Ranjeet, our porter, with freshly plucked oranges.

 Lunch! Maria's prawn chutney.

The groom we saw last evening was marrying a girl from Goundar. The atmosphere was filled with a mix of wedding drums, the flowing river, and the chirping of the little birds that abound here. We saw the wedding party on their way back after marriage. I had my camera on, determined to capture the bride and groom. But something stopped me. The bride was being carried in a small palanquin (doli) that was swaying wildly to either side. Above the din of drums I heard a wailing, ghoulish, ghastly, and painful. The bride was being plucked away from her roots in this picturesque village, for  transplantation in a "city", so to speak. So agonizing was the cry that I forgot to take pictures. The groom who had a stiff look the previous evening, now had an embarrassed-cum-stiff look. After the party passed, I asked Randeep if he managed to take a pic, but he too had not, despite the camera that was ready in his hands.   

After lunch, we decided to trek till Bantoli, about a kilometer away, and if our legs held out, try to push higher. It's a slight downhill descent from Goundar to Bantoli.

There's a confluence of two streams of the Madhu Ganga at Bantoli.

From here on, it's an uphill journey, a punishment of sorts for all the downhill descent that we enjoyed till now.

At about 2.30 we reached a guesthouse, the second one in Bantoli. They tried their best to make us stay there. They warned us that accommodation or food may not be available in Khatara Khal, 2 kilometers further up. They kind of tried to dampen our spirits a bit saying it was a steady uphill climb from there. They even made tea for us (that sucked big time). They even...ahem ahem.

But we would not budge. The accommodation here looked shabby - and I'm not a stickler for good lodging, but this one was too bleh. We decided to push our luck for two more hours and promised to come back if we could not find lodging. We weren't short of time anyway and there was nothing else to do in the lodge from 2.30 in the afternoon.

So, off we went on an uphill climb that lasted a good 2 hours.

We took the Dimholt road.
The sun was setting this tree ablaze.

Khatara Khal accomodation is very basic.

We found two places of stay and decided to park our bags at Panchwati Hotel, the most basic accommodation that you can think of, run by Fateh Singh, a man in a constant dreamy state. If you're coming with family, we recommend that you stay in Goundar or the lodge in Bantoli next to the bridge near confluence of the rivers. Above Khatara Khal, there is a place to stay in Nanu village, about 2 kilometers further up, but the place was shut down in November, as its inhabitants had sounded the retreat before the onset of winter.

A word about Fateh Singh. Despite the extremely basic setting of the lodge and the remoteness of the place, you can rely on him for the best service. At night, after a delicious dinner over a candle/chimney light , when we were foolish enough to ask him if he had any sweets, he was kind enough to prepare the yummiest sooji halwa for us. He would check on us every 30 minutes to see if we needed tea. If we said yes, he would prepare two cups of tea. If we said no, he would still make a cup and insist we share it. Here's Fateh with my friend.

The setting sun predictably changed the color of the hills.

Some time in the evening, the lights of Guptkashi township were switched on in the distance. From this vantage point up in the hills, Randeep christened the lights in the hills afar, "the necklace". We did not try to photograph it, it was beyond capture. It was like the stars of a civilization blinking in the distance, its heavenly aura in a naturally starlit night not enough to pull us back into its siren madness despite the psychedelic allure. I remember standing there and looking at it for hours - the necklace. Fateh Singh's wife reached by around 7.30 in the night and sat at the doorstep, like a fixture, while he toiled away in the background preparing dinner. Her work of collecting and carrying hay and grass must have been backbreaking.

It was the coldest night of the trip but a truly chilled out (chill-umm) one. It was a hard day's work for us walking a total of about 8 kilometers, and I remember sleeping like a log in water - tossing and turning, yet peaceful.

Part 2 can be found here.


  1. Superb mate, thoroughly enjoyed the read and was there with you all the way....the unwritten, still read portions included. The pics rocked although missed the shaadi procession one, do upload the party pics, this seems like a very very sober trip currently lol

    1. Thanks Paddy. Some pics are not for public consumption. ;) Will share it when we meet next. And yes, you're right - it was a so-bar-trip.

  2. Nicely written! I am half envious and I am half envious. Sigh. And I loved that it took you all of three days to pack and leave... amazing!

    Took me straight back to the trek I did August 2011. Already a year and more. Time for the next one!

    1. Thanks Surabhi - Don't get envious, get even. Did you write about the Kailash Manasarovar trip? I don't remember seeing it.

  3. Very happy to read abt the MadM trip. I feel a spark within me!

    1. Thanks Suman. Makes me want to write about the rest of the trip.

  4. Salute ur wit, humour and ability to make hard things seem easy