12th December, 2014, Friday
I usually looked forward to the final day of any trek with a sense of excitement, something normally reserved for the return to normalcy. In this case, it was because of a different trek route for the return journey. The three days it took us to reach Khullara from Auli would be short-circuited by a 9.5 kilometer walk to Dak Village and an 8 kilometer jeep ride to Joshimath. New vistas, new experiences - much better than retracing steps you are familiar with. It was a first for me, and I hope, it is not the last.
Day 5 of the Kuari Pass trek
Shibu told us that it should not take us more than 3 to 4 hours to cover the distance, since it was mostly downhill.
We soon reached a small bridge over a stream that was not flowing anymore. Nothing except stones were used in the construction. You can see the ice patch towards the top-right corner of the picture. #AlmostEngineerLovinIt
A small Ganesh Temple on the way.
Some stretches like these were a breeze.
One of the many pit stops that we took. We took it at a relaxed pace as the distance was not much, and there was almost zero elevation gain. The weather stayed cloudy for the most part of the morning, a stark change from our experience for the past few days. The worry was the rain prediction for the day from AccuWeather.com (made 5 days earlier, but they were close to being good). I hoped that they were off-target.
The path was well paved for the first few kilometers. I'm not able to make up my mind whether I really like stone-paved paths. They feel hard on your feet when you compare it to walking on bare earth. That said, walking on a stone path is much better than boulder hopping.
Dunagiri, yet again. I hope you can see why it's so easy to fall in love with this mountain.
Monkeys inhabit these woods. Most of them sat out there in the branches just content to watch us stop and pass, while a few cocky ones moved around jumping from tree to tree in what could have been an attempt to move closer. This was no zoo with barbed wires, so we moved on.
The sun had come out by 11, and most of us started un-layering.
First sight of civilization! From here, the conversation changed. Our initial plan was to reach Joshimath that night. It was only 11 in the morning and we had made good progress. Egged on by inputs from the support guide that we only had to walk an hour or so further, we started toying with the idea of heading on to Rishikesh, even if it meant reaching at 12 in the night. Rishikesh is a good 10 hour journey from Joshimath, which itself is about a 30 minute drive from Dak Village - where our legs would stop doing bulk of the work. The idea of avoiding a cold night at Joshmath and not having to spent the next day in a bus or a car sounded very appealing to all of us at the time.
The Indian Maple, shorn of all its leaves, seems to epitomize the spirit of winter. Come to think of it, it should be a lot of work for the tree to grow them all back when the spring arrives...year after year after year. The evergreen pines and the deodars that thrive in these places must be feeling smug about the whole affair, but I'm sure there is a trade-off somewhere. Fresh and youthful look every spring for the maple? May be.
My prayers to walk on dry earth were answered as it replaced the stone path. It did not make life easier though. If the steep descent was not painful enough, fallen leaves and uncharted routes made it onerous. Often times, we would take different routes and would yell to the others in front "how the hell dijju do that?".
Btw, try spotting the mules in the pic below.
Abhishek mentioned that Dak Village was just beyond a small settlement called Ragadi village....which was...you guessed it....just around the corner. Rishikesh, here we come, we said in our heads, and trekked on, rubbing our happy tummies.
The zig-zag path that never seemed to end was a true knee-jerker.
Look, look, a village! Finally, we were getting somwhere.
Conduits like these provide water collected from the streams above for irrigation to the villages. Simple and practical!
It was already 12, and we questioned our support guide Abhishek to spit out the truth. He pointed to Kharchi Village, about 30 minutes away (by our walking standards), and then to a small construction (a resting spot) on a bend in a hill far away. Just beyond that bend was Dak Village. Yeah right! I started questioning the Rishikesh outcome in my head.
Onward march to Kharchi Village, where else?
The last Communist in these parts of the world, Mr. Sandheep. He was so exhilarated at the thought that temple flags could be red in color (for the uninitiated, they are usually saffron). He was not the best walker that day, but he decided that he can climb a bit down and up to get near the flag and shout Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live the Revolution!).
Children at play in a school on the way to the village.
After a rest session at a house in the village. Cough!
The streets of Kharchi!
The village looked self-sufficient, growing cauliflower and other vegetables in the limited space available. No better place than this to put to test, the concept of production possibilities frontier in your Economics text.
It was 2 in the afternoon by the time we left the village. Another 30 minutes of walk was through these kind of level paths. At some point, a few of us walking behind started to get worried that we may have lost track. We had lost sight of the small construction marking the bend in the hill, and there were also a few not-so-prominent detours. We finally sorted out that worry by looking at the distinctive shoe-marks on the dusty path which could have come only from our crew.
This construction at a bend in the hill was what I was referring to. From here, one could see the Dak Village with its tarred roads and parked vehicles. Alas, it was easily an hour of walk for the slowest of us.
The route to Dak wasn't enticing - with its damaged path, stone slabs, and a wee bit of boulder hopping. Or may be it just felt bad because it was placed at the wrong end of a trek day. There was one patch where the path had given way thanks to a small landslide. Thankfully, there were people at the other end to haul us up.
Inside Dak Village, after a long day of walk.
You know you have arrived in the civilization zone when....
Village kids on their way back from school.
While sipping tea, waiting for the last team members to come up, we had a major debate session. The Rishikesh aura had not left all of us. It was nearing four in the evening and some of us thought that it was a bad idea to get to Rishikesh that evening - I mean the whole process sounded cumbersome - reach Joshimath, find conveyance, and then sit in a jeep or bus for a 10 hour journey after a tiring day of walk. Others felt that we should get the hell out of the cold climate at whatever cost - even if it meant reaching Rishikesh at 4 in the morning the next day. Like I said, December madness! Looking at the state of general health, and the clock, we finally decided to settle for Joshimath. A parting shot. Does it look like we just argued? :)
The jeep ride to Joshimath took us around 20 minutes. At the Snowcrest Hotel, like all others, I too had my first shower in 5 long days. Shampoo never felt so good, I should add. How refreshing!
After dinner, we had an hour or two of hilarious dumb charades (yes!) under moderately liquid conditions before hitting the sack. As I lay my head on the pillow, I remembered Jamshid's suggestion of adding a small inflatable pillow to the list of trekking essentials. Inside the sleeping bag, the last few days were pretty rough, with the corner of the backpack serving as a neck-twisting replacement for a pillow.
13th and 14th DecemberWe went in search of a conveyance and manage to book out a 27-seater bus. The journey was uneventful, with most of us preferring to loll our dreamy heads to the unpredictable rhythm of a rickety bus on an uneven road. We reached a cold Rishikesh by 5 in the evening. Just like in the hills, the weather had turned another page here. It even rained the next day, before the last of the gang of 13 left the madness to the "sanity" of humdrum.
That night, to provide a send-off to a small contingent that left for New Delhi, we sang a few songs in a pitch/frequency unheard of in good music, and we signed it all off with a no-holds barred "Hotel California." That was when an NRI family from South Africa checked into their rooms above us, and they promptly checked out. Sorry about that Bijendra, may your Hotel Shivansh Inn overflow with visitors after reading this!
A day later Shibu called me up with fresh news. The last 2 days had seen heavy snowfall in Khullara and all the areas around it. We had missed it by a whisker, something that would have made for a perfectly mad ending. Well, that's precisely why there is always another time!