Delhi – Haridwar – Barsu
There was much for us to be thrilled about, even in terms the departure from Delhi, which is usually sweat-soaked and hectic; a Shatabdi ticket, 9 days of imminent cold weather and the prospect of frolicking in the mountains by the same afternoon.
4.5 hours, a few sadhus, many beggars and a larger than life statue of Shiv later, we found our ride out of the still sweltering plains.
Our rest-point for the day, and the base for our trek, is far removed from the regular tourist and highway map. And just to prove that point, a 3km link road cuts away from the Gangotri highway to end at Barsu (2200 m). The next day, we would continue on foot.
Barsu – Dayara (around 3300 m)
We woke up to tent-tea, a certain ritual we would get used to, over the next week. Having met the six crew members in the darkness of the previous night, we had to ask for a re-introduction to the team, which included Raja (the leader and cook), Harsh, Pathan, Viki, Ashish and Aryan. All, apart from Raja, are shy. As the trip unfolded, the crew abandoned its inhibitions as the trail got tough. But all ice was broken, literally and otherwise, when we fished out a pack of playing cards.
Post a muesli-and-eggs breakfast, the three of us departed ahead of the rest, knowing very well that they would soon catch up and overtake. We wandered for a bit in the village, which clung to side of the mountain, and waited for the rest to catch up. They did and so did the rain.
It was a zigzag uphill trudge. The first hour of our trek was a big test on my lungs. Clouds started pouring in like mist from all directions, and thanks to an oversized poncho and persistent rain, my glasses started to fog up. It was not an easy task to hold up a poncho daintily like an Armani gown and ever so often wiping glasses, and all this, while climbing.
The path remained stubbornly uphill and after about three hours of walking, some wet and some super wet, we turned pros at poncho-packing (imagine stuffing a cow in a handbag). We panted a bit less at the Barnala Meadows. Drooling at the possibility of some piping hot Maggi, we continued up, till we reached a pagoda (a sort of umbrella like shelter point), which offered views of a mini lake, MughdhaTal and wide swathes of rolling meadows. Slivers of sunshine managed to breakthrough a Teflon layer of pregnant clouds momentarily, both warming and teasing us.
And then there was more uphill and now, a new adversary, snow. And finally we reach our first night halt: Dayara Bugyal. The stretches of undulating white landscape still bore a look of winter. There was very little to cherish that evening, except the crackling warmth of our bonfire inside a shepherd’s hut. Snow fell soundlessly and thickly outside, as our tent sulked by itself 200 metres away.
Post dinner, we had to trudge reluctantly to the tent, which was by now buried under the snow and hard to find. And we spent the whole night slapping the tent from inside, hoping it doesn’t cave in.
Dayara – Ghagoru – Morapara
Tent tea and we zipped the tent open to see fresh snow all around. Scenes so incredible, I suppose, appear very rarely in one’s life. Everything was enveloped in snow. My feet were the first to squish through the virgin snow. And trees lazily dumped the snow on them in dull thuds. All this while, the Bandarpoonch range and the Swargarohini peak looked down mightily from their icy heights.
The second day’s trek will always reign at the top trek days of all time; in terms of danger, fear and intentions of giving up. The initial high spirits, thanks to a glorious morning, slowly started to give way as the path got steeper, narrower, and scarier. And the shoes got wetter. Keeping Bandarpoonch company on a crystal clear day, we conquered paths we never thought possible. Two steep ascents, and two similar descents later, we felt like we had been punched in our stomachs. My compatriots even lost some feeling in their big toes temporarily. The first few hours snatched away my initial confidence and reduced me to a quivering, hesitating, failing pulp of a Delhi girl. Sometimes I was down to knee-deep snow, and sometimes I was slipping down towards the valley.
During a lot of breaks, our guide pointed out to various points on the opposite valley, but my mind was lusting after a bonfire, and a warm sleeping bag.Though snow, rock-bottom confidence and hunger, however, we reached our second night stop, Morapara.Over the day, rain and snow clouds had built up to a looming storm. The evening was spent in quiet bonhomie as we lounged around a bonfire, drying our shoes, munching buttered popcorn and sipping hot tomato soup.But, night-time inside the tent was a living nightmare. Precipitation in all forms possible, in huge quantities, coupled with the thunderous lightening was an apocalyptic monster in our dreams.
Morapara – Bebra
This was the easiest of days, and the most beautiful of trails. We walked through moist green canopies and carpets of moss and grass, stopped at bridges over pretty forest streams to click calendar shots and for the very first time met the river Assiganga (80 ganges). Legend holds that when 80 hermits were meditating around this valley, they became thirsty and they asked God for water. God obliged, and gave them 80 rivulets, which join and form the Assiganga River.
Beyond the river, lurked a steep climb, which meets the ‘trekking highway’ leading from Sangamchatti. Two more kilometres of level walk from here, a bit of a climb and we found ourselves at our lodge for the night, fully equipped with mattresses for beds and a family of three-inch sized spiders.
Bebra – Dodital
This was the day we were to reach the lake. Tingling with the excitement of being able to rest our eyes on Dodital today, we made our eager way up the 14-km stretch. We were told that today’s trek was a predominantly level walk, only to find that the initial stretch till Manjhi (nine kms) was a gradual climb, and levelled out only after Manjhi (3150 m). The path is bright and rich, with rhododendrons, various kinds of fungi, unidentified white and purple flowers, and packs of Langurs.
The last five kms tested our patience, annoyed us, depressed us, and in a whole lot of ways, created a vacuum, which only a view of the lake could fill. It wasn’t so much about the ups and downs of the trail as its never-ending nature that was frustrating. After two dhabas at the lake, a bright green mini-bridge crosses over the stream originating from the lake. Right when you stand next to the bridge, the lake in its entirety is in front of you. On the left is the brightly painted Ganesh Mandir, which is the beginning of the path circumventing the lake.
Dodital, situated at a height of 3045 metres, is surrounded by lush forests of deodar, rhododendrons, oak and pine. It forms the centrepiece of a mountain bowl, sometimes glistening, sometimes reflecting, at one end gulping down a stream, and at the opposite end giving birth to the Assiganga.
A few Forest Department constructions dot the surrounding area, leaving a suitable flat land good for a match of cricket. Our trek to Darwa-Top (4150 m) was abandoned in favour of a rest day and more publicly due to the five-feet snow en-route. There was cricket, there was music on the radio, there were deep discussions about kheer, there was gaddha-patti (literal translation being Donkey-Cards, a local card game, we learnt on a previous trek, found to be equally popular here), and many cups of chai.
Dodital – Bebra – Agoda (2250 m) – Sangamchatti (1350 m) – Kuflon
The next two days are spent walking down to lower altitudes, to villages with cable equipped TV, flies, heat and cars. The return slog also throws up a surprise in the form of a chance meeting with an old acquaintance from Delhi. Who would consider the possibility of exchanging business cards on a trek?