Sunday, August 19, 2007

After ages…a trek

It had been so, so long since I have been on a trek, that I’d actually forgotten where it was that I had last gone on a trek. Unfortunately, I still can’t remember, except that I can put it down to around 2001-02 or thereabouts.

But with a clutch of friends agreeing on a specific date for travel, we hit the Tunganath trail recently – Ajitha’s first trail ever, my first in ages.

The connecter is little Chopta, that you reach after a seven-hour drive from Hrishikesh. Tunganath is one of the five Kedars, and is along the route to Kedarnath and Badrinath, except that it breaks off from around Rudrapayag (of Corbett’s man-eating leopard fame, an event that is 'immortalised' by a single small rectangular plaque in the middle of nowhere). Then on to Ukhimath onward to Chopta.

Chopta is interesting, in that it’s not really a ‘place’. It’s just a group of temporary stalls/shops and a couple of quaint rest-houses that vanish in the off-season only to resurface when the tourist season starts. We were the first tourists of the season – which starts only around late August – and that meant a lot of very happy hosts who were willing to do a little more for us than they would otherwise.

There’s little else to Chopta in terms of tangible attractions, but if you are a mountain person, there are a couple of rolling valleys and meadows and walks – and you can catch a beautiful sunset if you’re lucky – we weren’t, it was cloudy.

The four-kilometre trek to Tunganath starts from Chopta itself – from just behind our rest-house actually – and while it doesn’t sound like much as far as treks go, it’s a steep upward climb that takes close to three hours (at least for us huffing, puffing, middle-aged sorts). The skies weren’t clear, overnight rain had left a lot of rocks a’slippery, and there was more than one serene spot that begged us to sit down and light up a smoke. Ajitha proved to be a surprisingly steady walker, while our regular trekkers like Mangar and Toy kept good pace. I stuck to a steady last spot.

Confession: We had taken along a couple of khacchars – ostensibly to carry our luggage, but often to carry members of our troupe.

Having started at about 9.00am, we reached Tunganath at around mid-day, the last stretch a bit wet as the skies opened up.

But what a stunning place Tunganath is! The Kedar itself is a small temple, but the rocks around it were brilliant. On one side of the temple is a valley with its share of meadows, while on the other, there’s a rocky mountain slope with some of the steepest cliffs I have ever seen. Prayers were not priority, but figuring out all the sights certainly were. And the few hours post lunch were spent exploring the valley, and catching a bit of shut-eye (okay, I was the only one doing it).

Incidentally, at a height of 3865 metres in the Garhwal Himalayas, Tunganath is one of the highest temples in the world, if not the highest.

Back again to Chopta in the evening with the promise of leaving early the next morning for Sari gaon, and then on to another trek up to Deoriya Taal, highly recommended by Sangeeta, another fellow traveller.

Now, while Tunganath and Chopta don’t have any electricity, Sari gaon is quite an advanced village with a lot of your usual modern amenities and, importantly, electricity. The trek to Deoriya Taal starts from Sari gaon itself, and is a shorter but comparatively steeper trek than the Tunganath trek. But having done the longer trek the day before and having rediscovered our mountain hooves, it wasn’t too tough. All right, I was still lagging some distance behind everyone else, but that’s as maybe.

I don’t think there’s a single mountainous place in the world that is anything but stunning, and Deoriya Taal was no different. The walk leading up to the Taal was the most glorious part, with a Kalatop-ish stretch just before you come face to face with the Taal. Varuni suggested that there’s no way a Taal could exist there, right at the top of the mountain, but there it was.

Admittedly, it’s become a bit of tourism-friendly place, with a clutch of dark green dustbins and manicured stretches, but the Taal itself is breathtaking. Deep forests surround it, rolling meadows cup it, and green, green water flows inside it, making it about as picturesque as picturesque gets.

Then of course, it was time to return – obviously, after spending the night at Sari gaon… and waking up to a day of weaving through the blasted kanwariyas…!

PS: Have got some superb photographs, but again, in the old format. So maybe after we are done getting them scanned, I will put them up. These stills are from the Net.