Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Trek to Chandrashila Top – The Spectacular Sunrise

The early summer trek to Tunganth and an overnight stay at one of those cottages sans much amenities will be worthwhile if one attempts the mini-Himalayan peak of Chandrashila, the next morning before the dawn breaks. Tunganth located at 12,500’ elevation and Chandrashila at 13,200’ elevation leaves one to climb height of 700’ over a distance of 2 km, not a bad deal at all for trekkers.

At Tunganath we did not have not much to do except shiver in cold and watch the Himalayan panorama, roam a little bit beyond the temple compound and recce the track to Chandrashila for the next day’s morning trek. We hit the hay early in order to wake up at 4.30 am the next morning. One of us four trekkers did the needful of waking us up at the appointed time. I came out of room, shivering to have a look at the sky. The innumerable twinkling stars, augured well to indicate that we were in for a bright sunlit day when the sun rose. We quickly got dressed up and took to the trail on a dark night yet to end, with light barely enough for trekking. We had torch in us, in case we needed one. We walked on a gentle upward trail on a stone paved track for almost one km, then the broad trail ended. Sans any guide we were not sure which way to proceed. As happened in all our Himalayan journeys, we did not have to wait for long till we came across on a local resident. He showed us the purple colored flag on the hill top and asked us to follow it. Thus we hit a very narrow muddy trail with the flag on Ganga temple acting as our polestar. At places, the snow and mud formed a mixture through which we had to make our way.

We arrived at the Chandrashila Top just before the dawn and found the Ganga Dham temple at the entry to a small table land

Ganga Dham Temple

We squeezed past the temple, to reach the place and were amazed to find at least ten more tourists have managed to reach here before us, a few of them had blankets wrapped around them to combat the cold at 13,000’ plus altitude! The photographers professional or otherwise, set up their tripods and battery of lenses to supplement their camera, were all in position and waiting for the sunrise in a cloudless sky.

At Chandrashila Top

Before even sun would peep from behind one of the snow peaks, the Chaukhamba peak had a crimson glow, which gradually spread to other peaks. 

Golden Glow On Chaukhamba Peak

The sun rising from behind one of the Himalayan peaks showed the outlines of the mountains, in various shades of bright luminosity. 

Sunrise View

The climbing down from the table land was a rather simple exercise, which brought us back to Tunganth, where after breakfast we set for Chopta to board our car for the next destination.

Important Info for trekkers:
1) The trek is not a very steep one; it is necessary to start early from Tunganth to reach Chandrashila before sunrise.
2) No ponies are available in this trek. Ponies are available from Chopta to Tunganth only.
3) It is very cold in early morning at the top; need all the woolens one can muster.
4) The saffron flags on top of Ganga Dham temple on hill top act as a guiding point; one should follow the trail leading to it, if one is without a guide.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sri Tunganath Yatra in Garhwal Himalayas

Those who have made the Do Dham Yatra or Char Dham Yatra in Garhwal, the scenic place called Chopta is not is not unfamiliar on the Kedarnath route. The Himalayan panorama from Chopta is awesome to say the least. The signboard on the main road reads ‘The Mini Switzerland,’ is an understatement. The place abounds one of the densest of forest, greenest vast expanse of Bhugyals (green meadows.) This place  still remains one of the under developed regions in Garhwal. There are no worthwhile accommodation facilities; the tele-communication is lacking. But the discerning visitors who are able to take all this into stride will have a whale of a time in this Garhwal Himalayan destination at 9.000’ altitude.
Chopta View
From Chopta, a devout can take a giant step forward in other words, trek a distance of 4 km, in that process climbing 3,500’ and arrive at Tunganath - one of the Panch Kedar

Since 1984, when I first ventured to Do Dham Yatra, I passed by Chopta at least three times, with a break of 30 minutes in one of the occasions. In May 2007, I along with three of my friends, planned to trek from Chopta to Tunganth in course of our 10 days journey through Garhwal region. We pick up the threads in a rainy afternoon when we landed at Chopta and looked out for hotel room for four of us. We got two rooms in Neelkanth hotel, near bus stand after entering the divine arched gate with bells hanging. The room had good clean linen with attached bath. A solar powered lamp was the only other facility it had. From the verandah of the hotel, the vast Himalayan panorama could be seen, within some trees offering a minor obstruction. 

Panorama from Chopta
The next morning was a bright sunlit day, when we came to the road and re-entered the arched gate and one by one and rang the bell to announce our arrival at Lord Shiva’s kingdom. A darshan at a temple near the gate set the tone for our trek through the upward winding stone paved path. As in all the upward treks in high altitudes, the initial half a km is very tough, till the system gets used to the need of increased oxygen to our leg muscles. We took the opportunity to take a few minutes rest and soothing our eyes on the vast expanse of Bhugyal ( green meadows ) to our left side; a few pilgrims were riding ponies to reach Tunganath as fast as possible and return on the same day. We had no such ideas as we had our mind to spend one night at the altitude of 12,500’, the abode of lord Shiva considered to be Hindu temple at the highest elevation in Himalayas.

As we resumed our trek through the steep gradient, a few ponies loaded with goods were going up or coming down; that being the only mode of transport for carrying food and supplies in this Himalayan region. We reached alpine field station with a signboard indicating with arrow towards the landscape full of pine trees and Bugyal and at a distance a few cottages. After nearly four hours of trek, we sighted the Tunganath township with a two storied ugly looking shack reading Ganesh Hotel. Somewhat on higher elevation, the  boundary of Tunganth temple compound and the upper portion of  the temple could be seen.

We checked in at a shack named Chandrashila Hotel with two bedrooms with cubby holes of an attached toilet, with no running water. No doubt, very few pilgrims visit this shrine; those who visit try to return back to Chopta on the same day.  After half an hour, the body heat generated due to trekking dissipating, it was shivering time. We donned all the woolens we had and sat on plastic chairs in the frontal potion of hotel, watching Himalayan panorama. After a while, we climbed up the stone steps to have a darshan at the Tunganath temple. 

Way to Tunganath Temple
The view from Tunganth temple compound, down below, showed a few of the dilapidated shacks which had some stone layers; the ravages of the Himalayan weather had done the needful. The two storied, pink coloured Kali Kamli Dharmashala looked good in this place. The distant landscape with Himalayan panorama and the frontal layer of hills with clouds caressing their crests added the grandeur. To add divinity to this heavenly place, a colorfully robed sadhubaba sitting on the temple compound boundary, was all calm and composure in his meditation.
Meditation in Himalayas
Back to the hotel, we found the  dhaba cook was busy preparing khichdi and potato fry for us. The piping hot food, freshly prepared, tasted heavenly in the chilly weather. 

As we were standing near the shack, a nonagenarian priest walked up the slope and met us. He claimed to trek daily from Chopta to Tunganth to help pilgrims offer puja at the temple. We, after a brief chat with the pujari, decided to have a snooze in the afternoon, the weather being inclement for sightseeing around Tunganth. It must have been about an hour, when the pitter patter on the shack roof brought us awake and outside to witness the sleet fall accompanied by rain. The sleets are ice globules coming down at as high velocity to strike the ground surface, then get molten in no time. We were too overawed to capture the phenomenon in our digicam.
Tunganath by fog and mist
The Himalayan mood seemed to change again, with rainfall abating, the clouds migrating to a different destination. The Himalayan panorama was getting gradually unveiled to offer us awesome view.
Snow View from Tunganath
It was time to visit the neighboring hill where the glacier molten water was flowing down in a cascade, with scattered wild flowers and colorful moss on the rocks. The snow fall in the not so distant hill was apparent, as we spent some time shooting the landscape. In the evening, after a cup of tea and some snacks, we ventured out to do a recce of the trek route to Chandrashila Top, where we proposed to go the next day early morning. Post dinner, we went to sleep hoping for a cloud free day, at the crack of the dawn to get a best possible view of sunrise over Himalayas at Chandrashila Top.

Important Info for trekkers:

1) Chopta to Tunganath is a steep gradient trek; mercifully the distance is only 4 km to climb over a stretch of 3,500’. The entire route is stone paved, so water accumulation on route is not a problem.
2) It is better to start as early in the morning as possible, since one tends to perspire a lot even in the early summer as the sun rises.
3) Tunganth being at 12,500’ elevation, it is biting cold. Jackets and woolens are a must.
4) Ponies are available at Chopta, for those who cannot foot it out.
5) No palkis are available in this route.
6) The accommodation at Tunganth is a) Kali Kamliwali Dharmashala, the pink coloured two storied structure one cannot miss b) Chandrashila hotel, single storied shack c) Ganesh hotel, a two storied shack. The amenities are very elementary in all the places. Power is solar and candle is provided during night.
7) The Tungnth temple does not see many visitors, but view from temple compound is a nature lover’s delight.
8) The time to visit Tunganth is from mid-May till September end.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Gangotri to Gaumukh trek – Garhwal Himalayas

Those who have had the experience of Char Dham Yatra including Gaumukh in Garhwal Himalayas, will recount the hectic scheduled itineraries involving a lot of traveling by road and some 72 km of trekking. The to and fro Gangoti - Gaumukh trek of 36 kms of one and a half days duration will leave an impact like no other trek in this travel circuit. In May 2006, we began our day as usual at dawn, at Gangotri, haggling with the ‘pittoos’, for taking our backpacks in this trek. The guy who took luggage of three trekkers, for a sum of Rs. 600/-, a young Garhwali boy, appeared to have know of the travel tracks to Gaumukh. Our official guide of the entire circuit, did not accompany us during any of the treks. He did give some tips and told a lot of mythological stories on Char Dhams, when we were in the bus. 

We hit the trail going up through a mud track, for a short cut, instead of a gentle gradient stone steps constructed behind the temple. The chill in the early morning air did create blocking of nose and breathing trough the mouth was the only way to combat it and get more oxygen in the lungs. The first half kilometer was the toughest before we hit the regular stone paved trek route. Our first target was Cheerwasa also called Chidwasa at a distance of 7 km from Gangotri. The landscape so far was barren of any vegetation, only brown hills and dead grass.  The river Bhagirathi, a small stream was flowing in the gorge between two hills and was supposed to keep us company till the very end, right up to its source at Gaumukh. The first sign of Pine trees and Cheer trees gave an indication that Cheerwasa was not very far off.  By this time having done some three hours of trekking, the jacket was tucked away as the sun was beating harsh, the atmosphere was heating up and we were sweating. With the arrival of Cheerwasa, it was a great relief to get a breather. The alpine grandeur at his place is worth remembering, with some of the Himalayan peaks being visible through the Cheer trees.
View from Cheerwasa
We came across a lot of overseas tourists on their return treks from Gaumukh. In this route the overseas tourists outnumber the inland tourists, such is the aura of Gaumukh, the source of river Ganges, throughout the globe. We took a breather at this place in cemented shade constructed for the tourists. The sun beats down very harsh in this region as a result the exposed part of the skin gets a reddish hue.

Our next destination was Bhojwasa, where, there is a gmvnl guest house and also tented accommodations which we will be occupying for the night stay after return from Gaumukh. The trek is some downhill and some uphill, not taxing us very much except the heat which was disturbing. The three make shift bridges over the flowing mountain stream going downhill, which we had to cross, was somewhat challenging. 
Make Shift Bridge
The terrain was becoming gradually vegetation less, full of stones of different sizes and brownish grey hills on sides. We got a glimpse of some wild life in this lifeless place. A pack of Bharals also called Himalayan Blue sheep were visible on mountain slope. Their movement made small pebbles and mud particles roll down the hill slopes. At some places the route was partially blocked. The workers engaged in road repair work quickly got on to the job to clear the path. The Himalayan peak Shivling made a glorious appearance on the right hand side in the back drop of a perfect blue sky. 
Shivling Peak
We completed the 14 km trek by afternoon, to get a look at Bhojwasa dwelling from top. There are three cluster of  guest houses;  green roof topped one,  run by gmvnl, white roof topped one by Lal Baba known as Lal Baba’s ashram and yet another one with gray roof top. The place around was all dead grass and grey colored stones, gravel and dust. 
Bhojwasa View From Top
The appearance of majestic Bhagiarathi massif after some more walk, made us feel that we were  not very far from Gaumukh -  the source of river Bhairathi, more popularly known as Ganges. The terrain was becoming more and more like a lunar landscape as we approached. Only apparent was stones of various sizes. Soon there was no proper track; we were just following the porter. Some places, we had to squeeze between rocks and sometimes walk over make shift narrow track of width about 2’ or so. The landscape looked magnificent, with gigantic Himalayan peak, Bhagirathi looming ahead. 
Trail to Gaumukh
After crossing a makeshift temple without any roofing, we sighted Gaumukh with a very narrow stream of gray colored silted stream emerging from beneath the glacier. The giant Bhagirathi Massif towering above in the backdrop gives it grandeur, to otherwise mundane looking landscape. 
Bhagirathi above and Gaumukh below
A close up of the cave shows the glacier, coated with gray colored dust.

The return trek was 4 km to Bhojwasa for the night stay. The twenty two km trek in a day, so far, will rank as the one I walked maximum in my life, in a single day. The tented accommodation at gmvnl complex was elementary with eight beds in each tent with one electric lamp. The water connection was absent in this area. The tourists, had to manage with the help of stored water. The next morning we had a clear view of a few Himalayan snow peaks from Bhojwasa. 
Snow Peak Enroute
The 14 km trek from Bhojwasa to Gangotri was through a hot sunlit day. We could make it by 2 pm to catch our bus for a trip to Bhatwari for the night halt.

Gaumukh Trail Visual 

Important Info for trekkers:
1)  Presently the number of visitors to Gaumukh is limited. Permits can be obtained from following offices:
a) Chief Wildlife Warden, Dehradun ( tel: 0135-2644691)
b) Director, Gangotri National Park, Uttarkashi (tel: 01374-223693 )
c) At Gangotri, if the quota of 150 persons per day has not been exhausted ).

The fee for Indians is Rs. 150 for first two days and Rs. 50/- for per day per person thereafter. Permit is issued only for the first two days. Additional amount is charged on your way back at the gate of the Gangotri National Park. The fee for foreign national is Rs. 600 for first two days and Rs. 250/- per day per person thereafter. In case of package tours offered by travel companies; they will arrange the permit for you.
2)  The one and half days for trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh is strenuous. If one is planning one’s own itinerary, additional half a day will be worthwhile.
3) One can trek to Tapovan beyond Gaumukh but the gradient at some portion is very steep. The guide is a must.
4) A lot of sun burn will happen in this trek, if it is a sunlit day. The skin will be a few shades darker, after this trek. Full sleeved shirt is better with sunscreen lotion applied to exposed part of the skin
5) The facility at Bhojwasa is very elementary, a few rooms with common toilet facility. The tented accommodation is available adjacent to guest house with clean linen, quilt and blankets.
6) The final two km to Gaumukh is not covered by ponies if one hires one from Gangotri. One has to foot it out.
7) The gradient in this trek route is not killing. One traverses heights ranging from 10,000’ to 11.000’.
8) One has to be cautious on the trek route, at some places, the width of road is narrow.
9) Enough water needs to be carried to avoid dehydration. Better to take a porter who knows the route.
10) Some food along with is handy; in early summer, in mid May one may not find too many eateries on the way.  

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Yamunotri Trek & Vanishing Glacier

My first visit to Yamunotri was in the year May 1985, when I availed of Yamunotri – Gangotri travel package offered by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Linited, Rishikesh. Some noteworthy recollections are worth mentioning. We trekked for 18 km in a single day, on a gentle upward gradient track, for a round trip starting from Hanuman Chatti via Jankichatti to Yamunotri and back. The first impression I had was the scale of importance of this Himalayan shrine when compared to Badrinath and Kedarnath those days.There were hardly any pilgrims on the trek route to Yamunotri. I and two of my office walked on a variety of terrains, some stone paved, some mud track, some with stone steps. Finally after reaching Yamunotri, we found a makeshift temple, a huge glacier, an open area hot water springs; one of them  was used for bathing and hardly 50 people in whole of the town. The glacier and hot water springs co-existing side by side was one of the nature’s great creation. 

“The importance of a place change with time, the human habitat makes the nature’s creation undergo metamorphosis,” this was focal the point of my curiosity, when I went for my second trip to Yamunotri availing of  Char Dham Yatra travel package from Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited in May 2006. The early season did not see more than 15 tourists in our 28 seater bus starting from Rishikesh, Muni-ki-reti. A window seat in the bus and wielding a small Canon digicam, I was looking forward to all that Garhwal hills had to offer. Leaving Rishikesh, hitting the hills on a winding path and climbing, we came to a point where the signpost indicated the diversion points, one road leading in the direction of Kedar – Badri another to Yamunotri – Gangotri. As per the guide who accompanied us we were negotiating the Yamuna valley after switching over from Ganga valley earlier from Rishikesh. The blue water of Yamuna river and lush green terraced fields, through the window and the photo clicking was for the asking. 

Yamuna Valley

By evening, we reached Sayanachatti, very close to the river Yamuna for the night halt. The gmvnl guest house rooms were modest with minimum amenities. The roar of river Yamuna could be heard all the time;  weather cloudy and drizzling hence there was not much scope for sightseeing. The dinner was at a typical Garhwal hill village dhaba, very modest and vegetarian. We being in Devbhoomi, were mentally prepared for the vegetarian fare for the ten days of our travel. The next day greeted us with a cloudless and bright sunlit day. We took the opportunity of visiting the steel bridge over river Yamuna next to our guest house, and watch the river view from close proximity.

Yamuna River at Sayana-chatti

Depositing our luggage in cloakroom at Sayanchatti, we took a small backpack with essentials and boarded a share jeep for a bone jarring ride of 45 minutes, through a gravel road, to a scenic place called Jankichatti, which is the place for starting the Yamunotri trek. 

Janki-chatty Landscape

Breakfast under our belt from gmvnl canteen at Jankichatti, we were ready to hit the 5 km trail for Yamunotri. We joined the stream of pilgrims some on foot, some on ponies and others on palkis. The trek route was one of the best I had seen till then in the areas of Himalayan shrines. The smooth cement laid road was very steep, which I realized in no time. It took a lot of efforts in covering every single stretch of upward climb, before taking the next one. There was only one dhaba on the roadside selling mineral water, soft drinks and other eatables. I took some 3 hours to reach the fringes of the Yamunotri town and  tried to compare the vista from the site, with one photograph I carried for my 1985 Yamunotri trek album. The difference was glaring as would be apparent from the following two photographs. 

Yamunotri 1985
Yamunotri 2006

From above photographs, It is interesting to note the following differences with respect to certain criteria:

                          May 1985                                                                    May 2006
1. Lack of vegetation, the terrain is mostly rocky   1. The hills are full of small bushes.
2. The huge glacier on the left side of the temple   2. The glacier has vanished; flowing river instead       
3. The temple Is makeshift type                           3. The temple looks very tall and conspicuous.
4. The hot water springs are open; people taking   4. The hot water springs are fully covered.
    bath in one of them

The temple town was packed with pilgrims from different regions of India; some even came from abroad. Maximum congregation was near the temple and the hot water kund ( spring ) area. On the left side of kund area, a roaring river Yamuna was cascading down the hill, where once a huge glacier existed. Some people were taking bath there. We had a darshan at the temple and had a simple fare for lunch in one of the dhabas in the bazaar area.
The return journey in the afternoon was just going down the steep gradient. I had meanwhile secured a bamboo stick for support compensating one I lost while climbing. By early afternoon we reached Jankichatti guest house and had an adda with other tourists seated on plastic chairs on the lawns. The sunlit day gave the Himalayan vista which was a treat to watch and enjoy. 

Important Info for trekkers:

1.  The trek route is the best among all the Himalayan shrines. Cement paved track is perhaps the steepest when compared to other Himalayan shrine tracks. Mercifully the distance is only 5 km; so one makes it comfortably in three hours or less.
2. Jankichatti is the place to start the trek. There is a gmvnl guest house where one can stay. Mostly tourists stay at Sayanachatti.
3. Ponies and Palkis are available for those who cannot foot it out.
4. There are a few eateries on the 5 km stretch, where one can buy mineral water, soft drinks and other eatables.
5. Best time to visit is May/June after the temple opens. 

Next Blog will be on ‘Gangotri to Gaumukh trek – Garhwal Himalayas’