Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Trek to Har Ki Dun Valley - Part 1

A good traveler has no fixed plans
And is not intent upon arriving.

- Lao Tzu

There are some journeys where you have no idea where you are going. This was one of them. The original destination was Har Ki Dun (HKD), a valley nestled at an altitude of around 3,550 metres, in the Himalayan ranges. However, online reports a few days before our journey suggested that the valley may not be accessible in the week we were planning to go. Two teams had to turn back because of accumulated chest-deep snow in mid-March. Unsuccessful attempts by these teams made us consider an alternate trek – to climb Kedarkantha, a 3,810m trekking peak in the same vicinity which had been climbed by one or two teams already in the same period.

Thanks to my extremely limited weather knowledge, I had never dreamt that the Mediterranean Sea could set us up in the Himalayas. The winter was long over, but the western disturbances had not had exacted their fair share. Originating in the Mediterranean Sea, these low pressure weather systems lead to a good amount of snow and rain in India.  And this year, the western disturbances were more acute.

Some people I spoke to had already postponed their HKD trek plans because of the uncertain weather situation. We decided to stay put and continue with the journey and decide which trek to make once we reached Sankri in Northern Uttarakhand, the base point for both HKD and Kedarkantha treks. I called up Kishan, a trek guide based in Uttarkashi, after discussing the journey with two other trek guides, just because I’m comfortable with his services. Kishan said that we can definitely give HKD a shot. Har ki Dun does not usually need a guide or a support team, as accommodation/food is available till the very end of the trek. Unfortunately for us, none of the accommodations beyond Taluka were open during the period.

We reached Delhi on the morning of 28th, March. The original idea was to take the train from Delhi to Dehradun (DDN), but that thought vanished soon as we realized that AC train tickets were not available. The sweltering heat pushed us to hire a cab to DDN. It's funny how one thing leads to another.

My trek buddy, Randeep, was my senior in college; and we had connected after a 14-year absence of communication in mid-2012. We did a trek to Madmaheshwar in Nov, 2012, and another trip to the Kumbh Mela in Feb, 2013. Surprise, surprise, we ended up starting a learning company together along with another culprit toward the end of 2013!

In Dehradun, we caught up with the third person for the trek, Mr. Biju Govind, another CETian.  We had never spoken to each other in college (mostly because he never came to the college, and though I went to college, I rarely attended classes), but we made up for it over the next 10 days. Biju was the unknown, with Randeep as our common friend. Here's a pic to prove that they, at least, were good friends.

Dehradun must have been a fun place, but we did not venture out more than 500m from our hotel. In the evening, we had some fine wine till the establishment shut down for the night, leaving us to wander around for dinner. Randeep took a fancy to some gory-looking non-veg food at a dingy shack that night, something he would regret over the next few days (in the exact same way I regretted during my trek to Dodi Tal in 2013).

Day 1: 29th March, 2014 DDN to Sankri to Taluka

We started our long drive to Sankri by around 8.45 in the morning. Arjun, our Indigo driver, was a bit late, but with plenty of time on our hands, we did not mind it one bit.

The DDN to Mussourie stretch is beautiful, but flex banners and hoardings spoiled most of it. In our push to Sankri, we gave the fine hill station of Mussourie a pass - without even stopping. It’s ironic that popular tourist destinations do not even cause a blip in your radar when you are on a bigger journey.

Snow-clad hills started to show up in the distance from Mussourie onward. A sight that should warm the hearts of any traveler had the opposite effect on us, serving as a reminder of fresh snowfalls.

This is the "famous" Kempty Falls a few kilometers from Mussourie. People have managed to construct hotels and resorts on every patch of land available nearby -and in some instances, inside- the waterfall.

Have you seen pictures like this on FB? Couples on a vacation to the hills, clad in local attire?

Shops like this are the root cause of all those pics. They even have a mountain backdrop, printed on ...................flex.

Till around the township of Purola, the road is the same that you take for Yamunotri, one of the four major centres of Hindu pilgrimage. The drive as well as the weather was pleasant and the roads were in decent shape with light traffic. If I had to vote on the best drive in Uttarakhand, this would be it, the 9 hour long drive from DDN to Sankri. Proof to follow. 

Here are some school kids in Purola.

The sight that never fails to still my heart.

At Mori, the place where most mobile networks start to become moribund, we stopped to have lunch. I was wandering around, waiting for lunch to be prepared, eyeing the broiler chicken sitting in cages by the roadside, when someone jumped out of a bus and yelled my name. It was Kishen, with his support crew, traveling in a bus to Sankri from Uttarkashi. We greeted each other, had lunch, bought live chicken, and chicken masala, and resumed our journey.

Closer to Sankri, there are no "roads" in a lot of places. Some stretches are quite  H2Oish, as you can see. We had to get out of the cab to navigate this irritant. 

In hindsight, an Indigo was a poor choice for our journey to Sankri. Most people prefer the Boleros and the Scorpios of the world to navigate such terrain.

The stretch that we crossed.

At a place called Natwar, you have to stop and deposit some permit fees at a Forest check post. It's a simple 3-minute process of filling out a register. The permit amount came to 1,100 rupees for the three of us. The terrain made the going slow, but we managed to reach Sankri by around 4.30 in the evening. I felt bad for the driver who rued the return journey.

Even though the season was yet to start, Sankri was bustling with trekkers, guides, and porters, most of them eyeing the Kedarkantha trek. Companies like Indiahikes and TrekTheHimalayas have, in recent years, contributed to an outdoors boom of sorts. Some companies also promote out-of-season trekking, which is not a bad thing for the local economy.

About ten kilometers from Sankri, sits the village of Taluka, the actual starting point of the trek to Har ki Dun. Jeeps run till Taluka, but not in all seasons. Thankfully, the route was open and we were spared the 10 km trek to Taluka.

While waiting for Kishan and Company who were still in the bus, we met Ramlal, the resident guide for Har ki Dun. Despite a few teams not making it, he assured us that we could make it till HKD, if we were just persistent (and if the weather held out). Thank you, Ramlal, for the advice, free piping tea, and hospitality. Kishan and Co. reached a while later and arranged for a jeep to take us to Taluka.

With an overdose of deep gorges, rickety roads, waterfalls, rocks, and ex-landslides, the ride to Taluka can be quite scary for some people. 

That's Ranveer and Bikram on top of the jeep (not the faint-hearted, for sure), Kishan in front, Randeep trying to get in, Biju in the rear seat, and the driver where he is supposed to sit. After the "scary" ride which took about an hour, the driver got some of the best hugs available in this world, from both Randeep and Biju.

Posing while traversing another waterfall-crossing.
Nice perilous terrain.  


We reached Taluka by 6 in the evening. More on this kid and her sister, Kajol, later.

Taluka kids. Everyone had a runny nose.

The Forest Rest House in Taluka was not yet open. But, we found a nice camping spot for the night. Here's a pic from our camp.

Biju had bought a JBL speaker just for this trip - excellent quality with a 12 hour battery life. We dubbed him the gadget guru, for bringing some stuff I cannot recognize, as well as a Geonaute solar charger, that was to become a walking joke. We played some good mix of music beneath the starry sky as the chicken warmed up in the kitchen with a South Indian sizzle. Dinner and zzz.

Day 2: 30th March, Taluka to Gangar Village, 9.5 kilometers

Our campsite had a few visitors the next day morning. Like these kids to start with. They came asking if we had pills for stomach aches. I'm not sure if we gave any, but a few minutes later, an elderly gentleman came around with the the tale of his son suffering from a bad tummy. We did give him some tablets along with dosage instructions, but little did we realize that we were going to be doctors-without-borders for a good number of people in the valley that lay ahead.

We started at around 10 in the morning. Usually, most trekkers go to Seema/Osla on day 1 of the trek, about 12 kilometers from Taluka. And a good number of them complete the trek in 4 days. 

We had a good 6 days for the trek itself, thanks to our decision to take it easy, reduce the snow uncertainty, and squeeze every ounce of thrill out of it. This was in line with a new philosophy Randeep and I had agreed on - add a day or two to any trek to just chill out. Thus, we decided to target Gangar Village, just about 9 kilometers away. Gangar was suggested by Kishen. Gangar, such an uninspiring destination that I had never heard about, I thought.

This is the starting view of the trek trail from Taluka. Not quite impressive, but it only got better, with the passage of time.

Looking back at Taluka. The green domes are the ones of the Forest Rest House, behind which we had camped.
The picture below cost me my sunglasses. The farmer was busy tending his Rajma (kidney bean) field, and I was busy shooting him, after having kept the sunglasses on the trek path. I forgot to pick it up, and realized it only 10 minutes later into trek. I hurried back only to find it missing. A few people had crossed us by then. Karma, it must be, for I had received abandoned LP sunglasses on my trek to Kedar Tal a few years back.
We met some cops on the way. They checked our permits (one of them checked it as I would check my Engineering marks list) and wished us luck with the warning that HKD will not be possible due to snow.

The first day's trek by the side of Supin River is straight out of the postcards. Supin is a tributary of the River Tons.
Bridge over the River Supin.
Today's trek was just long, not hard. There were few elevations in our path. Right after the bridge, you can look forward to some serious drudgery.

By 12.30, we found ourselves digging into our packed lunch of aaloo parathas.  Yummy food is another reason why I prefer to have Kishan as my trek guide.

Somewhere along the trek post-lunch, we came across a family with it's newborn making his first foray into the mountains. Here's the dad carrying his 4-month old baby to his home for the first time.

I cannot imagine any of our families walking up like this. We caught up with the family at a rest-break. I asked him what the baby's name was and he asked me for a name recommendation! Maaar daala!

By the time we reached Gangar Village, we were all in agreement with Kishan's choice for a night halt - this is it, this is home. Tiger's Nest of India! The village was custom-made: a mountain backdrop, a river flowing by the side, colorful trees, wooden buildings, and a cute little wooden bridge to the boot.

By around 3.30, we plonked our tired butts in front of Gangar Village.

Feeble reminder of another wonderful trek to Dodi Tal, with the exact same T-shirt.

Gangar kiddos.

Idling by the path, while Kishan and Co set up the camp and prepared tea and sides, we met half of the village that evening. We made it a special point to chat up with every single kid that passed our way.

These kids were on their way back after cutting firewood.  The one with the weapon on Randeep's head is a real smooth talker.

A word of advice for those traveling to these parts. Carry lots of toffees and chocolates, as every village kid you meet is bound to ask you for it. Toffees come a close second only to medicines. The healthcare situation around here is pathetic. Villagers stock up on whatever medicines they get from travelers, and self-administer them as need be, when the time comes. After a point, we started saying no to medical requests.

Sample conversation:
Do you have any medicines for tummy aches?
No, we don't have medicines for tummy aches, we only have some stuff for fever.
I know someone who has fever. Please give it.

Here's a tiny goat herder.

After a fine cuisine dinner with soup, papads, and dal/roti, we sat around a bonfire, till everyone in the support crew got tired and retired to their tents. That night was really chilly. There was something wrong with the zipper of my sleeping bag, and I tried to fix it. My hand-motor coordination wasn't great, so after trying for about 5 minutes, I figured I could use my sleeping bag as a bed sheet.

Day 3: 31st March, Gangar Village to Osla/Seema, 3.5 kilometers

We woke up to a fine morning, but I was freezing because of my new-found bed sheet adaptation. The "sleeping bag as a bed sheet" idea had not worked the way I had reasoned the previous night.

To dampen our spirits, we met a family going back after their HKD sojourn - 2 girls, wife, and hubby. They too had to turn back because of snow OD.

Today's walk was going to be a stroll in the park. Therefore, we took it extremely light, waking up late, waiting for the sun to warm us, sipping enough tea to raise forward prices at the mandi (local commodity exchange) , and making sure we had enough and more of the porridge/bread breakfast (while one of us was busy with multiple visits to the open-air restroom). We only had to walk about 3 kilometers to Osla/Seema, and started by 11. Shamelessly, we called it THE rest and acclimatization day.

A look back at Gangar Village.
Filling water was mainly Biju's responsibility. Here's him collecting mineral water from one of the 100's of streams along the way. There's one advice that I have for any trekker - keep drinking water, loads of it.

The weather had stayed pleasant to our liking throughout the trip. The days were warm, but we were not complaining. We made amateur jokes about how many inches of snow would have melted in HKD with each sunny day.

Rest stop, for our crew. The weights these fellows carry are amazing. That evening Kishan challenged me to lift Ranveer's backpack (slightly more voluminous than mine). Truth be told, I could barely lift it above the ground. Later, I asked Ranveer how he manages it; his answer - "Practice, practice. I started with smaller loads and kept increasing it over a period of time." 

Wait a minute, what eez it? So I decided to get inside and investigate.

 Le Chakki, used to grind wheat and maize.
This simple mechanism above the flour-mill regulates the water flow to the mill.  These mills with a hydraulic back-end are critical to the survival of most villages with no access to electricity and little access to the outside world.  The payment system for the mills is also basic. The villagers hand over a portion of the flour to the person who owns the mill, and everybody's happy.

We were not carrying toffees, and our medicine supply was also looking bleak. Sensing that, the kids moved on to the next best thing - caps. How do people from plains explain to these kids that you badly need your only cap while walking under a blazing sun? 
This is how!
 Randeep Hari taking etiquette training to a bunch of kids listening with rapt attention.

We reached Osla by 1 and had a lot of hours to "rest and acclimatize". We soon learned that Maggi makes for an excellent lunch when you have pieces from spicy prawn pickle floating in it.
We stayed "in front of" the GMVN accommodation at Osla. The GMVN was not open yet, but they were doing it up to welcome the first batch of occupants in the next few days.

Here's where we spent the bulk of the time. Da durbar. Music, songs, and lots more.

Villager footfalls were less compared to the previous evening, but we managed to catch up with a few people. Here's someone we chatted up with. She took a particular liking to Biju's woolen socks kept outside, which he gave away.
Keeping Randeep's advice about a safe restroom location in mind, I walked all the way to the bridge and behind it, only to be booed by a bunch of kids sitting somewhere up in the hills. Damn it!

We could have pitched tents. But then, we had found this comfy wooden house where we could stay for the night. Hey, when there is no front door, what do you do? Just walk in and occupy, correct?

We kept our backpacks as sealants against the wind howling in through the cracks. It did not work.

That evening, we came to hear and sense a lot about katchi (raw), the local brew. They also refer to normal booze as pakki (refined). By the time we heard about it and saw some people sway and swear to it, it was a bit late, as the actual village of Osla where we could source it, was a good climb up.  And, since the next day was going to be the most punishing so far, we voted in favor of an early retirement for the night.

Day 4: 1st April, Osla/Seema to somewhere before HKD, about 9 kilometers

Two routes diverged in the woods. One went to Ruinsara Tal, and another to Har Ki Dun. We took the one to the left at around 9 in the morning.
The view of the HKD route taken from the bridge. The trek route is along the left side of the river. Take a good look at this picture, for another one taken two days later can tell you how fast things can change around here. (The trek trail is also visible if you click on the pic and get a bigger version.)
Elevation gain greeted us on the other side of the bridge. You have to walk up for about 20 minutes, and from there on, it ain't that bad.
View of our Osla/Seema camp location taken from above.

The trek route for a good chunk of the day.
 A temple on the way with nice play of colors.

Supin flowing merrily to our right.
The climb became a bit tough and we took our first pitstop.
 On our right, the trek path to Ruinsara Tal was completely snowed out.
I need not have rued much about the Ruinsara Tal route, because we hit our first patch of ice, and our ruin, pretty soon.
 Supin looking more icy than before.

Every step from here on was worth a price, however tiring it may have been. Like this one, the view of the Black Peak.
Or the entire range, as in this one.
The trek route can be seen chiseled on  the hill side. This is visible all the way from Osla. We were looking forward to the bend, as our resting place was a kilometer or so beyond it. Lunch was done some time ago looking at this bend.
Beyond the bend was another world. We had to walk a bit through slushy ice and snow, but it was not tough going. The weather had stayed great so far.

Only, so far, the weather had stayed great. Clear skies completely gave way to this. I hoped in vain that it would not turn worse.

 Scouting for camping ground. 

You can see our tents being made on the edge of the minor cliff - the only piece of real estate available. Later, we made jokes about woozy guys out to take a leak in the night tumbling down the cliff, just to keep us alert. :P

It started to snow lightly - small round particles of snow, shaped like globes you would extract from a sheet of thermocole.
From inside the tent, I kept clicking pictures of the trekking poles to get a sense of how much it would snow.

Soon it became this. I searched for the blue pole, but Kishen had apparently taken it away to use as a reinforcement tent peg.

We weren't sailors, but stuck inside the tent, we came up with quite a few polite names for such mountain features.

Thankfully, we were supplied with tea and other gastronomic paraphernalia, despite the inclement weather.
 Going, going, gone!

It kept snowing at a steady pace, despite Kishan's reassurance that snow accompanied by wind is bound to die down quickly. I did get out of the tent for a wee bit by around 6 in the evening to "inspect" the situation.

It wasn't a badass blizzard or anything, but our little tent was really buffeted by the strong winds. 

This is what bleak looks like.

By dinner time, the snowfall abated. In a matter of hours, a lot of the good work done by the few sunny days had been undone by at least a few notches. Kishen tried to tell us that we will give it our best shot, and all the good things like that. Hmmm. I wondered if some of the other trekkers had done the right thing by postponing their trip. Or if, good weather had lured us till here to be suckers on April 1st. Western Disturbance, my foot. The fact was, Har ki Dun Valley was very near, but still far.
Sleep came easily, given the circumstances. And it was not too cold, thankfully, but that in itself did not warm us enough. There were other things, like music, for example.

Part 2 can be found here.