Friday, March 12, 2010

On the trail of Gods - Part I

With a Western Ghats – Sahyadris as they are known in Maharashtra – fixation, I was never too keen to explore Himalayas. Neither would I really comprehend the obsession people having been to the Himalayas show about the mountains which are said to have formed due to erratic behavior of terra firma. So I didn’t exactly jump to the idea from Hrishi to go to the Garhwal Himalayas. Add to that my new startup, financial concerns and the guilt of indulging myself in ‘exploratory luxuries’ when I should be looking after my new baby and I tried to pursued Hrishi the other way. As it turned out at the end of this sojourn, I was about to be proved wrong and a new beginning be made.

I had little idea about our itinerary. I thought it would be fun not to worry about it and learn as we go traveling. I would just tag along Jayesh and Hrishi. Our journey till the starting point of our circuit would not be very exciting. The only factor that would make the journey a little bearable was a beautiful company we would have till HNZM. One would wish one was good at sketching.

Delhi to Hrishikesh and then to Helang would be Part I of the most tiresome and seemingly unending parts of our journey (Part II would come a week later). It would consist of hot and dusty bus rides, seemingly fearless and rash drivers and absolutely eccentric and drunk conductors. To worsen my misery I was seated next to the driver facing rearward.
Jayesh and Hrishi were gracious enough to let me sit throughout the journey while they switched turns to do ‘Standup Travelers’. It was an experience in its own right though. Just when I had started thinking that I have had it, Helang arrived and we took the whole travel so far, as a necessary and unavoidable prelude to the exciting five days to come. All good things come at a price I guess.

We were already late by our calculation. So we decided to have a cup of tea to refresh ourselves and look for a taxi. As it turned out, we were not to get one and had to start walking right away. Having tea was a welcome break for me as I was pretty dizzy with the motion sickness thanks to the curvy roads all the way from Hrishikesh to Helang. In retrospect I wonder how I survived that 9 hour journey in the ghats. Also, this is where we got our first glimpses of snow clad peak. We had arrived.

With a little information from the tea vendor and some locals there, we set out towards Devgram, our first destination on the circuit and the halt for the night. A suspension bridge across white gushing waters that are so signature to this region and we were on a road to Devgram.
We had barely walked 500 mts when a jeep comes from behind, much to our delight. However, the joy was short lived as the jeep was laden with villagers, some even sitting on the top. The driver agreed to drop the locals and come back for us. With a faster transport having been arrived we decided to climb down to the stream and indulge ourselves with some ice cold refreshment. We emptied our water bottles and filled them with fresh and cold water. To hell with mineral water. While climbing down Hrishi and I brushed ourselves against what is locally known as ‘Bichhu kata’, a shrub with transparent broken-glasslike thorns. It immediately gives a burning sensation, same as when one is stung by a scorpion. Thus the name. Down at the stream we washed ourselves with the ice-cold water and vroom went the burn. Healing waters, literally.

With me keeping a slow pace, checking out different sorts of cones from the coniferous trees, trying to identify – to no avail – the birds and clicking an occasional snap and Hrishi keeping a slow pace thanks to his weight, Jayesh would constantly prod us to pick up the speed as the jeep had not turned up till then and we had started to get a feeling as though it never would. We had to make our way all the way to Devgram on foot. On one turn we met four shepherds with their herd of at least 100-150 goats and sheep and some 5-8 dogs.
I’m not sure what their breed is but Garhwal Shepherds or Shivalik Shepherds would be an apt name, wouldn't it? Everywhere we went on our trekking route, we came across the same kind of dogs. Black with dark brown on the throat, at times with a golden tinge and obviously very hairy. With their friendly demeanour they were an adorable lot. As the shepherds guided, this is where we left the road and took up a trail through woods having made our way right through the flock. We could still see the road though and after walking up a little we saw the jeep going down the road. It was obviously beyond catching any signal from us. That wasn’t very encouraging. Clouds had begun to appear, thus making it even darker in the woods. Concerned that we would be caught in the rains on the very first leg of our hike, we hurried.

The first hamlet we came across was Salna. And we went past the house of the very same people who were traveling in the jeep. They greeted us with a ‘Pahoonch gaye(arrived finally)?’. This is how we would be greeted every time we reached a place on our entire itinerary. They showed us Devgram, located across a couple of hillocks. It seemed far, but it was reassuring to know from them that we would not encounter any ascents thereon. We would mostly be traveling on flat ground or climbing down slopes. Another hour through the woods and we arrived at Devgram. Little children – lots of them – would greet us with a ‘Namaste’ and Jayesh started giving a poppins to each of them. I was quite amused by their courteousness until Jayesh pointed out that it wasn’t just a ’Namaste’, but ‘Namaste, toffee do’. Though not all children would do that, it was quite disheartening to see them greet in this ‘beggar-like’ way. I wonder where they learnt that from.

Just when it was about to go completely dark we reached Negi’s lodge. Thankfully Negi was also there. Turned out to be quite a talkative guy. We dumped our luggage and sat out in the ‘balcony with a view’ to sip hot tea and to enquire a few things from Negi. Wow…cold air, hot tea and a million dollar view. Who needs five star hospitality?! It couldn’t get better than this.
After the tea and little chit chat after, we decided to take some nap till the dinner was ready. The room was a cosy space with walls adorned with displays of various certificates, medals and trophies. On the walls opposite the beds, Gandhi and Nehru were an odd sight between the posters of Rani Mukherjee and Preity Zinta. About an hour later the dinner was served in the courtyard of Negi’s house. Roti with a local variety of vegetable called ‘lengde ki sabzi’, rice with sprouts and dal accompanied by salad and pickle. We filled ourselves to our hearts’ content and again headed to the Balcony to take in the starry sky which is a sort of luxury for us, the city dwellers. After identifying a few constellations and stars that we could, we headed off to our cosy comforts and quickly dozed off having exhausted ourselves after months.

Next morning before we were up, Negi had already started preparations for our breakfast – roti and bhindi ki sabzi. Kuldeep, our guide for the next four days was already there. It would be unjust to call him a guide for he turned out to be quite a friendly and interesting fellow. We refreshed ourselves, had our breakfast while watching feisty Kalchilada
across the courtyard and headed off for Kalpeshwar, one of the five Panchkedar where Lord Shiva’s jata (tresses) are believed to be placed. A couple of Kalchiladas, lots of roses and gerberas and two langurs almost the size of an average sized man later we were in the temple, a cave actually. The cave lay underneath an overhang and some 50 mts above the stream. These places are truly steeped in tranquility and spirituality. No wonder Gods chose Himalayas and Shivaliks as their home. After paying our respects we headed back to Negi’s place.

Soon as we reached Negi’s, we settled our bills and with Kuldeep in the lead started towards Dumak. He pointed to a distant pass in the mountains which we had to cross to start climbing down to reach our next halt. Steep ascent till then. Potato fields, apple orchards and akrod trees flanked our way for first 2 kms or so. Ah! And shrubs of ganja as well.
At one point we stopped to fill our water bottles and plucked a few leaves off the shrub. That is one fragrance I tell you. We decided to carry the leaves with us and make a roll of it to smoke. Crazy idea. But as they say, when in Rome….. As soon as we entered the alpine woods, the surroundings suddenly came alive with bird songs. Whistles of thrush interspersed with a katkhor (woodpecker) drumming on tree bark in search of a meal. As we traversed through the alpine forest, there would come a clearing where there would not be any trees and we could see snow clad peaks in the distance. Such infrequent and little glimpses were provocative and would give us an idea of things to come.

We stopped by one such place, a meadow really, and filled our water bottles and munched on some chikki to energise ourselves again. Instead we found another source of energy right under our feet. Bhuila as it is called, probably since it grows very close to bhui (earth / ground) is an ultra-small shrub with small berry like fruits which look and taste exactly as strawberries. A little sweet, a little sour - as the song goes in Taare Zameen Par ¬– those were really fun to be plucked from the ground and tossed in one’s mouth. And quite refreshing too. It became quite a routine for us to pluck the berries as we climbed the ascent towards the cusp. After much effort during the last 30 mins of the climb thanks to steep boulder strewn climb, we were at the narrow pass on the top from where we were to start climbing down towards Dumak. Kuldeep lit a bidi to energise himself (I guess chikkis didn’t punch enough kick for him). Five minutes to catch our breath and we took out our meal for the afternoon. The wind was blowing like crazy and it had started to get cold. So we looked for a little sunny spot and had our lunch of roti and bhindi ki sabzi. The small portion of the meal didn’t last long. Neither did the sun. Clouds had already gathered in the sky and threatened to drench us. We had another at least 2 hours of walk. So we hurried and started to climb down with bhuranch trees lining the trail.

Playing hide n seek with rain we reached a hamlet called Jakhoda where curious children flocked us and we took a few snaps. Kuldeep had gone ahead in the meanwhile and arranged for a tea at one of the households. It was place with a courtyard with a view across the valley. A few more snaps with Hrishi with kundi slung on his back (that was quite a sight and the village folks enjoyed themselves to the hilt), the cattle in the barn and yes, a beautiful flash of sunrays through the clouds, illuminating a spot on a mountain across the valley which was otherwise dark with overcast sky. We had our tea and biscuits and moved on. Rest of the hike wasn’t very eventful and we reached Dumak well before sunset, thereby allowing us a lot of time to settle ourselves in a room at Bhandari’s lodge. It had started raining by then. So we rolled ganja and warmed ourselves a bit. As it stopped raining we decided to explore a Lord Shiva’s temple right opposite the lodge. Unfortunately, the temple was locked, so we sat outside on the temple wall and cracked some jokes for a while. As the sun went down, we retreated to our cozy room. Meal was already ordered and it arrived an hour later. Though we didn’t feel like getting out of the warm blankets, food was necessary, for the next day would be our toughest of all. As on the previous night, food was heavenly having exhausted ourselves over the 14 kms from Devgram. Dinner over and off we went into the dreamland (though there was really no room for any dreams). Good Night Dumak!

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  1. nicely written! i went thru the trek again while reading the blog!

  2. nicely written... mast mast .. mast..... i feel like visiting this place in near future