Himalayas are a distant world. One where cell phones don’t work. Where the only network is made by woods and flowers, meadows and mountains , waterfalls and streams, ice and snow – the trek to Roopkund is hard, but the beauty that greets you at the end makes it worth it.
As a saying goes, “If you make the mistake of traveling to the Himalayas even once, you are entangled for life.” Why? Because they keep calling you back. I decided to test the adage and came back a believer. The splendor of the mesmerizing bugyals and towering peaks brought tears to my eyes – an experience that neither images nor words can capture. This is the story of my blossoming love affair with the Himalayas.
DAY 1: RIDE TO LOHAJUNG ALTITUDE: 8,000 FT
5 PM: Dark rain clouds gather furiously overhead. Hidden in our Alto, we rode for 10 hours. The last thing I remember was an oily samosa Karn Prayag , a city clinging to the mountain on the banks of the fast-flowing Alaknanda . That was over two hours ago. The steep climb and switchbacks made me car-like, to quell the uneasiness and keep the nausea at bay I threw in an Avomine. We should have left Kotdwarat 5 a.m., but Manoj (my army officer’s officer) waved off for two hours, ignoring my pleas to start early with his usual nonchalance, “What’s the rush?” Soon we were on a lonely mud road in the middle of a forest. There was no cell phone coverage in that area and not a soul in sight to tell us if we were on the right track or not. I felt nauseous, sweaty and worried. The car AC had to be turned off, because the little car refused to climb with it. It started to rain, as Manoj turned to me, took a deep breath and said, “Hope we’re on the right track?” Before he could finish the sentence, the cell phone rang. It was our guide Mohan. He was worried because we hadn’t reached Lohajung, in fact, we still had an hour and more to go. Instead of yelling, “I told you so,” I clenched my teeth and sat staring out the window in a gruff silence as the rain splashed onto my face.
After a few turns, the air cooled, as did my mood. When we reached Lohajung market , a sprinkling of a dozen strange shops, Heera Singh Bisht, Mohan’s second in command, was waiting for us. He directed us to the lodge of retired Subedar Major Dayal Singh Patwal – a quaint hilltop village with an apple tree hanging over the stone steps to the top. To my dismay I found the toilets away from the rooms. But they were clean and Patwalji’s daughter Geeta had kept half a bucket of hot water (heated on firewood) there for my bath. The bath was followed by a piping hot meal, which I ate with relish and the large and furry dog Brownie (pronounced Brawny) nibbled crumbs at my feet, I returned to the room and surrendered to sleep.
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DAY 2: ROAD TO BEDINI BUGYAL .
DISTANCE COVERED: 15 KM.
ALTITUDE: 11,700 FT.
5 AM: I woke up, tossed the thick cotton rajai (quilt) and opened the creaky wooden door of the room. Outside, the deadly remains of strange critters and giant mosquitoes strewn on the ground, I deduced they had met their end sometime in the night, after stabbing themselves against the yellow lightbulb. I looked up and stopped dead in my tracks. Directly in front of them was a snow-capped peak, high above the mountains that blocked the sun. Sunlight filtered between the peaks and the blinding rays slid over the woods and villages on the hillside. I felt big and intimidating Nanda Ghuntialmost laughing at my misconceptions about the importance of my tiny existence. I walked in embarrassment to the green apple laden trees, looked at the pretty pink roses coming out of a broken tin and gave Brownie some fudge I found in my pocket. He happily ate them and became my faithful follower. I went to the kitchen and saw Geeta chopping some fresh green spring onions. I asked her to give me “dwui gilas chai, chinni kam” (two cups of tea with less sugar). Then I woke up Manoj and led him outside. We sat there quietly, bathed in the splendor of the Himalayas, while Brownie yawned and fell back to sleep.
6 AM: We stopped in rotis and pyaaz ki sabzi made in mustard oil (which reminded Manoj of his mother’s cooking), said goodbye to Patwalji and his family and got into the jeep commanded by Balwant Singh (yet another) Bisht. The rickety old jeep crossed some pretty fields, villages and women to collect firewood. Balwant knew them all by their first names. The jeep finally rumbled to a stop and a slender man with a sunburnt face and extraordinarily white teeth, a wide grin on his face, approached us. He was Mohan Singh Bisht our guide saab for the trek. When he found out that I was also a Bisht, he insisted on calling me Didiji and Manoj, Rawatji, and giving him the exalted status of jawaiji (son-in-law). Throughout the journey, Manoj received a number of VIP treatments, including having tea and soup in the tent and piping hot rotis during meals. The rest of us got rice and peeli dal.
My most endearing memory of Wan is of a one-room Aanganwadi school I accidentally looked into. A boy with apple-pink cheeks sat on a chair twice his size. He read a lesson that his four students – cute as he was – repeated behind him in singing voices. ‘A for appil, appil moone seb; B for bwaay, bwaay moone ladka. ‘When he dwelt on ‘H for hauj, hauj moone ghar,’ I asked him where his teacher was. ‘Madamji, bazaar jayin kin,’ he told me curtly in Garhwali and went on with the lesson. Their shrill voices rang in my ear as I stepped outside to find a bwaadi wearing a pahadi sari and guluband, just like my late grandmother’s. It is now my most prized piece of jewelry. The woman’s face was wrinkled but very attractive.
10 AM: We started climbing to the old temple near the guest house. The path was interspersed with small terraced fields cut into the slopes. Women were busy threshing wheat in their houses while the children played. Some little ones approached us with a namaste and asked for mithai (fudge). We stepped across a shallow stream and found some lovely ghaseries picking leaves in large wicker baskets. I tried to pick one up, but my back arched under the weight. The thrill of the climb was just beginning to show. Every time I stretched and bent my leg, I heard a creaking sound in my knees, as if it urgently needed oil. We walked for four hours through dense forests with twisted gnarled roots that looked like tortured souls in hell.
As I lowered myself onto the grass and took a deep breath to calm my heartbeat and almost wished I never had to get up again, I saw a flash of red. It was 62-year-old fellow trekker Narayan Chaudhari from Mumbai who continued with a winning smile. I gritted my teeth and got up. In Manoj’s eyes I saw that he was dying to catch up with this Amitabh Bachchan of tractors and show him what strong things army officers are made of. But husbandly responsibilities limited his ambitions. He gave me a walking stick and urged me to keep walking to prevent my body from catching a cold. For once I obediently followed.
Bedini, Bugyal:11,700 ft. In about five hours we had left the forest. Lush green, rolling meadows stretched as far as our eyes could see. Ahead of us was a small stone temple. We saw an old woman appear from behind with a ferocious looking bugyali dog. It had messy messy hair and a don’t-with-me look in my eyes. The woman actually grazed animals on the cold windy slopes and that too without wearing socks! Late in the afternoon it started to rain and it got freezing cold. We quickly retreated to our tents and braced ourselves for the long night ahead. In the darkness a thunderstorm hit us and for nearly an hour the rain pounded our little tent so hard that I thought the tent was going to come down on us at any moment, soaking us to the skin in the freezing temperature.
Of myth and mystery
The Patar Nachauni camp falls in a place between Ghora Lotani and Kalu Vinayak Temple . The locals have many stories to tell about these places. Ghora Lotani is said to be the place where horses, women and leather items were not allowed as it is ruled by Goddess Parvati. But King Dhawal of Kannauj broke the rules and took his wife, horses, dancers and the queen’s comrades beyond that place. In Patar Nachauni, the king ordered his dancers to dance and entertain him. All the dancers went underground alone, as a curse from Goddess Parvati for ignoring her rules. The bones around Roopkund Lake are also believed to belong to King Dhawal’s soldiers, who were punished by the Goddess
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Just a few steps away from the Bedini Bugyal campsite is the Bedni Kund, a body of water created by rainwater every year during the monsoon. The place has an enchanting view of the rolling meadows and the majestic peaks of Trishul, Nanda Ghunti and Mrigi Thoni surrounding it. Bedini Kundhas a lot of religious value for the local people as the reflection of the Trishul peak can be seen on the water and it is believed to be very sacred. All the more so as Trishul is believed to be the place where God Shiva actually lives and his immense powers are the reason why no successful expedition has been made to the peak so far. A climb to Trishul is forbidden because only a handful of expeditions have attempted it and none of them have been successful.
The Glacier Wall
The Roopkund Glacier is the one on which the glacial lake is located. The entire snow wall from Roopkund lake to the edge is the glacier whose presence is great. The border is known as Junargali . The climb to Junargali is much more difficult than the other days during the duration of the trek. This particular piece requires a guide and some technical skills from the puller. The climb requires the tractor to be almost on the entire field and the final stretch requires tricky climbing with ropes. Some trekkers dare to take this ascent through treacherous snow, while some trekkers even cross and descend to Shila Samudra, visible from Junargali. From Shila Samudra, one can go ahead and go to Homkun for a few more days
DAY 3: BEDINI BUGYAL NAAR BHAGWABASA .
DISTANCE COVERED: 11 KM (14,100 FT).
6 AM: Mohan called and asked us to go for a walk. Two of the trekkers decided to head out to Patar Nachauni where there were shelters for the night and the rest of us kept walking. It was (well, almost) a completely uphill path for the next few hours. Very strenuous, to say the least. Just when I thought I couldn’t help it anymore and was about to burst into tears, I heard bells ringing. Before him, shrouded in mist, stood the temple of Kalu Vinayak. We were told the climb would end there. Mohan and the party, which had started almost two hours after us, had already caught up with us to reach it. They lay sprawled on the rocks like lazy lizards. Mohan gave me a bottle of water and a roti with some bhindi ki sabzi. I ate eagerly while Manoj, feeling unwell, refused to eat. After another hour of walking, we saw snow and loose stones scattered along the slope of the hill. The path of the scattered stones had provided access to a number of fascinating rough-built stone huts perched on the side of a slope, where the mules grazed and the kitchen party engaged in song-singing and tenting.
Mist curled between the mountains in thick vortices and I knew it intended to creep quietly and lay its damp, cold fingers on us. In one of the stone huts, Heera (not to be confused with guide Heera) cooked us coffee. We sat with our steel glasses cheering tractors walking around wearily as there was a sense of accomplishment all around. Muleboy Kunwar Singh Negi, with a haircut I suspect is due to not washing hair for at least a month, broke into a Kumaoni song that mingled with the rattle of the triggers. At 5:30 pm we were served dinner, a piping hot plate of rice and dal.
DAY 4. BHAGWABASA TO ROOPKUND AND BACK TO PATAR NACHAUNI .
DISTANCE COVERED: 15 KM (ROOPKUND 16,400 FT):
It had rained and rained all night. The end of my sleeping bag felt colder than usual and it took me a while to realize that some rainwater had already seeped into it. Luckily it was at the foot end and by moving my head straight up and not stretching my legs at all I managed to avoid the wetness. That was the only time I felt happy because I was short on height. However, I couldn’t sleep and asked Manoj if he was awake too. He was. It was 2 AM. Soon I heard Manoj snoring. I wanted to walk to the toilet tent, but the fear of meeting a bear or leopard acted as a great deterrent. I have distracted myself by carefully considering all the disasters that beset us there in the cold, dark night (earthquake / wild animals / landslides) could kill and wondered who would be the best person to take care of Saransh (our child) if both his parents were to disappear that night. As I pushed those thoughts in and out, I finally woke up to the chatter of the boys preparing the tea. It was already 4 o’clock.
We had to hurry because we had to reach Roopkund before the snow started to melt, making the climb more treacherous than ever. We walked on the stone path over patches of ice where Mohan set our foot down by walking first and then stayed back to make sure everyone had crossed safely. On pristine snow we saw pug stripes which caused much excitement when Mohan pointed out Brahma Kamal plants which bloom in September. He also showed us the glacier where a 24 year old boy had died on the last trek while trying to climb the tricky slope alone. We stood there for a while listening to the story of his helplessness.
The climb was tough and there were slippery ice surfaces where the footrest was hard to find, but after two hours plus we made it to the top. Surrounded by snowy slopes, Roopkund Lake stretches out before us in a pale blue circle of frozen ice with a pile of bones and a cracked skull at one corner. Old man Bakhtyar Singh (Mohan’s father) pointed out that landslides had buried the rest of the skeletons and some, he said, are buried in the lake. According to National Geographic, more than 500 travelers were caught in a hailstorm hundreds of years ago. He sounded like a shell in the temple and told us that the route we had taken was the same as the one God that Shiva and Parvati took on their way to Kailash. At this point, Parvati felt thirsty and Shiva created a lake for her. As she stooped to drink from it, she saw her reflection in the water and realized how beautiful she was and what a bum she had married. However, that didn’t stop her and she followed him all the way toMount Kailash . The lake was then called Roopkund. Manoj climbed halfway to Junargali Pass to see the mighty Kailash standing on the other side.
Finally, after some cookies and a photo shoot, we set sail for Patar Nachauni, where the two tractors that had disembarked were waiting for us. The next day we walked back 19 km to reach Wan and after a night stop with Patwalji we went back home. Right at that moment we knew we would have to come back. As I said before, once you have visited the Himalayas, you are destined to return. They have already started calling me back in my dreams
Going to Lohajung:
By Train: From Old Delhi Station, take the Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam. All trekking organizers can arrange pick up from Kathgodam railway station at 800 per person.
By Bus: If you cannot get a ticket on the Ranikhet Express, take a bus from Anand Vihar ISBT in Delhi to Haldwani or Kathgodam. You can negotiate a Sumo up to Lohajung for around 5,000