Peak.... By Piyush
My husband and I take about 20-25 days off every year and travel. The last few years we did road trips in our car to Karnataka, Rajasthan and Leh. This year we decided against taking our car to Uttarakhand, as we stay in Mumbai and the journey to and fro Delhi costs us 4 days..So we flew to Delhi instead.

We reached Haridwar the next day, taking a bus from ISBT Kashmere gate. The evening was spent absorbing the sites and sounds of Har-Ki-Pauri and participating in the ganga aarti.

Next morning, we were off to Rishikesh (by bus again). We stayed in the GMVN, Ganga resort, which has a terrific location on the bank of the ganges. The rooms have huge balconies, from where u can see the beautiful ram jhulla swinging across the majestic ganga. In the evening, we took a vikram to laxman jhulla, crossed across to Trimbakeshwar temple, walked till the ram jhulla, took a ferry across the ganga, reached the Shivananda ashram on the opposite bank. The ganga aarti was going on..it was spiritually more uplifting than the one in Hardiwar, as it was more personal. (absent were guys trying to make a buck in the name of religion, extolling u to donate money). The floating diyas on the ganga are a sight to behold.

 

It was extremely humid and hot in Rishikesh and Hardiwar, as these are still the plains. We were dying to head higher into the mountains. Next morning we set out to Rudraprayag. Once we left Rishikesh, we left the dense civilisation behind, the road was coursing along the Alaknanda river, the scenery mesmersing. At Rudraprayag we stayed at the GMVN, which gives u a great view of the Sangam of Mandakini and Alaknanda. In the evening, we visited the temple at the Sangam.We waited initially at the temple for the evening aarti. The temple houses an extremely devout sanyasini. However, as there was no electricity after dusk, we headed back to our room and we too watched the aarti from our balcony across the temple.

To continue our narrative, next we headed to a homestay- Peaches and Pears on Ghingrana Road, which is 4 kms from Gopeshwar (We got to know of this place from Indiamike.com.) However, unfortunately my husband twisted his left ankle badly at Rudraprayag on the way to the bus (which some 20 days later on returning to Mumbai, we discovered was a fracture). We took a bus upto Gopeshwar via Chamoli and then a local jeep from Gopeshwar. The homestay at Peaches and Pears was a delight. Our room overlooked a vast valley with the Kaliganga river in the background. We were served home grown vegetables. Next morning, we got our first glimpse of the snow capped Himalayas.

We rented a Mahindra Maxx for our next leg of journey. Set out to Badrinath next morning, got the 11.30 gate at Joshimath. The valley beyond Joshimath is breath taking, driving amongst the high altitude trees, breathing the crisp cool mountain air and following the beauty of the Alaknanda is magical. We put up at the Devlok GMVN at Badrinath, nice clean place within walking distance of the temple. The temple itself is stunning with beautiful mountains in the background. Being off-season, we were able to visit the temple many times without being rushed and partook in the evening aarti.

Next morning, we got to see a magnificient Neelkanth behind the temple. A sight to behold!!We drove to Mana village, explored it and finally headed back to Joshimath, we visited Adi Shankaracharya’s ashram there.

 

       

Continuing, We decided to stay at Okhimath that day, so we drove there via Chamoli and Gopeshwar through the Kedarnath Musk Deer sanctuary. The road was relatively narrower, however the traffic was also scarce. The drive was excellent through a heavily wooded area; we got to see quite a few birds without trying too hard. There aren’t too many villages en-route unlike rest of UA. The GMVN at Okhimath is great place to stay in with nice cottages overlooking the valley, big garden with various colorful flowers. It was extremely serene there and we got to see the snow clad Kedarnath peaks the next morning.

We headed to Kedarnath next morning. Took us 3-4 hours on kachhars to reach on top. (had sore back and legs for some time after that). Stayed at the GMVN there. The water in the room was ice cold (? glacier water). Said our prayers at the Kedarnath temple. The temple is of stone and appears beautiful and ancient. The lingam inside is said to be in the same shape as the Kedarnath motif behind. Though there weren’t many pilgrims, the pandas made sure there was enough pushing and shoving and were more interested in “their brahmin’s dakshina”.

The night at the GMVN was eventful. As dusk fell, there was no electricity and the whole village was in sheer blackness (not darkness). We managed to head back to the hotel with the help of our small torch. It was extremely cold by now. Having no alternative but to sleep, we were off to bed by 8 pm. Few hours later, there was distinct shuffling of feet in our room (something like somebody walking around with slippers), plus we had some parle glucose packets along with Haldiram packets on the table, rustling of plastic bag in which these were was also heard. We both awoke with a start, my husband flashed his torch around the room asking “who is there?” We could see nobody. This pattern repeated itself 3 more times in the night. My husband pacified me by saying that they are rats. But I was terrified in that pitch darkness and was only too glad to run from there at the break of dawn. (Later I reasoned if it was a rat wouldn’t the biscuit packets be broken in to or the plastic torn?)

We then walked down the 14 kms till Gaurikund (unfortunately without much regard for my husband’s ankle). Drove back and spend the day resting in Okhimath.

     

In the next segment of our trip we decided to explore the Kumaon region. We started off to Gwaldham early next morning. We got to see some magnificient views of snow-covered peaks at Chopta and Dugalbitta (have attached some photos). The road from Karnaprayag to Gwaldham follows the Pindari River initially, and is really narrow (only one vehicle can pass at a time). Also there are many army trucks passing so the going is relatively slow. We settled in the Nature’s treat hotel at Gwaldham. It has nice clean rooms however, doesn’t have a kitchen and the manager (the whole and sole of that place) orders food etc from GMVN for you.

Next morning, we headed out to Benatoli and trekked upto the kali temple with views of the vast Kayturi valley with its terraced fields on the left. Couldn’t see many mountains peaks on the right due to cloud cover. A local dhaba “Chandan” provided my husband with much happiness, as first time in this trip that he got some good non-veg food (I am a veg..but the constant cabbage-lauki-black dal routine was too much for me too..thats the menu at most hotels).

The road to Debal village from Nature’s treat is lined with beautiful pine trees and provides for a good evening walk. We were rewarded with a stunning view of the Trisul. The rays of the setting sun colored the Trisul pink.. It was magic.

     

Our next stop was at Chaukori. We visited the Baijnath temple on the way. The drive from Gwaldham to Bageshwar is a breeze, the road well tarred and without many curves but from there on till Vijaypur, the road deteriorates considerably and there is a lack of sign boards. It is easy to get lost (and we did). From Vijaypur however, the road is lined by large pine trees and air is cold and fresh. (The Wayfarer resort is situated here and seems like an excellent place to stay). We continued onto the KMVN at Chaukori, it has nice wooden cottages that feel like log huts. It rained the whole day and night at Chaukori and we could see nothing but overcast skies. We did venture out for a walk in the evening, on a path behind the KMVN, but a little distance later, we met some villagers who warned us about a bear who was in the vicinity since two months and had attacked some villagers…since meeting a bear over dinner (his, not ours) was not on our itinerary, we headed back.

The incessant rain at Chaukori was getting to us, so we headed off to Munsiyari. The rains had caused the fields to host every possible color of green. We drove through fog and clouds in the Pine forests till Thal. From there on till Munsiyari, I think is the best drive I had in UA so far. The Ramganga river and its valley is breathtaking and more. Although initially the valley is not deep, there are trees, trees and more trees. After Tejam village, the ascend gets steeper and road narrower. Deodar trees, banana plants, waterfalls are seen everywhere. At a point, the road is so circuitous that it reminded us of the Jalebi turns on the Manali-Leh road. We stopped at the KMVN at Birthi falls for lunch.

 

The drive further on is even more dream like. The road (well tarred) climbs and climbs through forested land, (u see a number of colorful birds sitting right by the road) till Kalamuni Pass (at 9000 feet). Beyond this pass the scenery changes from forest like region to a more valley-bugyal area. Then you descend about 1500 feet till Munsiyari.

The KMVN there was under construction, the Zara lodge full, the Wayfarer retreat empty but there is a steep climb to its huts with no road access (cumbersome unless u don’t want to come out of your room often), we stayed in Vijay Tourist lodge (wasn’t fancy, no geysers but they give bucket hot water). The manager was a nice guy and but seemed a little obsessed about cooking food. His meals were decent but never on time. But there aren’t many options in Munsiyari, the market area doesn’t have a single decent eating place. We ate in ‘Chanda’ the next day; it came across as a booze place for the locals.

We were unable to get clear views of the complete Panchachuli range; only 1-2 peaks were visible at a time. The verandah of lodge overlooks these mountains and is a perfect place to spend time reading, writing or contemplating.

     

Our next stop was Patal Bhubaneshwar. We returned via Thal and took the turn to Berinag, 8 kms before Chaukori. The road from here till Gangolighat provides for a great drive too. I read about this place on Indiamike and many recommended it. But nobody prepared me for what was in store. I had imagined an underground cave with normal steps to walk down. What I found out was there are no such steps, but rather there is a tunnel in which irregular stones are placed on each other haphazardly on which one has to slither down like a snake literally. The cave below doesn’t have an even ground, it is undulated and slippery with muddy water at your feet and nothing to latch onto on the sides. Bats are flying on the top. Also the oxygen levels are relatively low. The guide took us on a tour. Told us that visiting this place was akin to visiting the Chardhams and if one came here, one needn’t go to the Chardhams! The climb up is through the same path and even more difficult, the side iron chains were the only things that made it easier. By the time we crawled out, our jeans were covered in mud. This whole tour took only half an hour.

I personally think it is not advisable for a person with claustrophobia or with certain medical conditions like asthma to venture into the cave.

 

The KMVN in Patal Bhubaneshwar is also designed like a cave and the rooms are below ground level. The views from this place are awesome and though in the evening we couldn’t see a single mountain peak (only a pretty rainbow in the valley), the morning was something else. The skies cleared. We got to see an entire Himalayan Range from Trisul to Nandadevi and Nandakot. We felt truly blessed!!

       

 Our second last destination was Almora. We stopped at the Jageshwar temples en route. These temples have a beautiful idyllic setting amongst the tallest trees I have seen. The temple architecture is similar to that of Bajinath as well as that Katarmal sun temple. Probably since it has all been constructed by the Kayturi Kings. They are stone temples without much carving. However, it is a very peaceful place.

The priests are a little pestering especially since there are so many shrines and they move to each of them with you and keep asking for money.

We also visited the Kuber temple nearby.

We stayed in the KMVN at Almora. I found Almora to be nice city without the normal hustle-bustle of touristy hill stations (maybe because it was off-season). There are lovely walks in Almora. One nice path is behind the KMVN, around the Tagore Bhavan till the market area.

Next morning, we visited the Katarmal sun temple. The initial ride along the kosi river is fine, but the last 1.5 kms (left after Govind Vallabh Pant Institute) is on an uneven mountainous dirt track uphill. A little scary without much room for errors. Luckily there is little area on top where the vehicle can take a u-turn. Otherwise it would have been a disaster. There is a 1 km further walk till the temple. The temple is similar to Jageshwar temple and some parts are under restoration. I disagree with Outlook traveler Uttarakhand, on few issues and this is one of them. They say about Katarmal Temple, that on visiting and exploring it u feel like Indiana Jones. I felt no such thing.

We later drove till Kausani. It seemed kind of dead in the afternoon. We visited the Anashakti ashram and then drove to Giria’s tea estate. On one of the bends before the tea garden, an enterprising guy has put up a shop selling tea and has planted few tea plants. He told us that these are the only tea gardens in Kausani and the tea factory is not working. The actual setup was in fact just less than 500 mts ahead. Kausani on the whole was quite disappointing.

         

 

Our last stop was at Nainital, to accustom us to civilization again. Past experiences have made us wary of well-known hill stations due to their crowds, but luckily Nainital wasn’t crowded (sounds ironical coming from somebody who stays in Mumbai). After a thrifty trip so far, we decided to indulge ourselves, so we stayed in the Grand Hotel at Mallital. It’s a very nice place overlooking the lake with nice big verandahs to sit in. This was a blessing for us, because whilst we were there it rained non-stop for 48 hours. Still, the bare autumn trees with the last few leaves dancing in the wind, the fog slowly creeping up on the lake and the mountains behind was a treat for the eyes.

When it finally stopped raining, we visited the Nainital Zoo. I was impressed with the animals they had there (probably since I have seen the Bombay zoo). We did the customary boat and cable car ride. The water in the lake was filthy brown with a lot of floating dead fish and according to the boats man the sewage from all the hotels enters this lake. The locals are now taking measures to get the water clean with the help of some Australian agency.

Last day, on the way to Kathogdam railway station we visited Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal and Sattal. Of the three, only the last deserves a mention, because the lake had the greenest and cleanest water. Forests and mountains, reflecting their color on the lake, surround the lake. Boating here was a pleasure.

Last 5 hours we spend on the Kathogdam railway station, me reading and my husband playing chess with the staff at the station, who incidentally are all state/national level players working with the railways.

Now back at our routine we impatiently await our next magical holiday.

         

 

 

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