Himalayas: Mountains, Meadows & Mysteries

Himalayas are a distant world. One where cellphones don’t work. Where the only network is made by forests and flowers, meadows and mountains, waterfalls and streams, ice and snow — the trek to Roopkund is difficult but the beauty that greets one at the end makes the effort worth it.


As a saying goes, ‘If you make the mistake of venturing into the Himalayas even once, you are ensnared for life.’ Why? Because they keep calling you back. I decided to test the adage and came back a believer. The magnificence of the mesmerising bugyals and towering peaks brought tears to my eyes — an experience that neither pictures, nor words can capture. Here’s the tale of my blossoming love affair with the Himalayas.


HEIGHT: 8,000 FT


5 PM : Dark rain clouds furiously gather overhead. Holed up in our Alto, we’d been driving for 10 hours. The last I remember eating was an oily samosa at Karnprayag, a town clinging to the mountain on the banks of the fast-flowing Alaknanda. That was more than two hours back. The steep climb and hairpin bends were making me carsick, to suppress the uneasiness and keep the nausea at bay, I popped an Avomine. We should have left Kotdwar at 5 AM but Manoj (my Army officer husband) whiled away two hours ignoring my pleas to start early with his usual nonchalance: “What’s the hurry?” Soon we were on a lonely mud track in the middle of a forest. There was no cell phone coverage in that area and not a soul in sight to tell us whether we were on the right track or not. I felt sick, sweaty and worried. The car AC had to be turned off, because the small car refused to climb with it on. It started raining, as Manoj turned to me, took a long breath, and said, “Hope we are on the right track?” Even 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. Rather than yell “I told you so,” I clenched my teeth and sat in sullen silence, staring out of the window as the rain splashed on my face.


After a few turns, the air became cooler as did my temper. When we reached Lohajung market, a sprinkle of about a dozen odd shops, Heera Singh Bisht, Mohan’s second in command, was waiting for us. He directed us to retired subedar-major Dayal Singh Patwal’s lodge — a quaint hill house with an apple tree drooping over the stone steps leading up to it. To my dismay, I found the toilets set 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 as the Patwal’s large and furry dog Brownie (pronounced Brawny) nibbled crumbs at my feet, I returned to the room and surrendered to sleep.




Patar Nachauni


HEIGHT: 11,700 FT.


5 AM: I woke up, threw off the fat cotton rajai (quilt) and opened the creaking wooden door of the room. Outside, the mortal remains of strange bugs and giant mosquitoes lay strewn on the ground, I deduced they had met their end sometime in the night after dashing themselves against the yellow light bulb. I looked up and stopped dead in my tracks. Right opposite was a snow-covered peak, towering above the mountains that were blocking the sun. Shafts of sunlight filtered through from in between the peaks, and dazzling rays spilled over the forests and villages on the hillside. I felt the large and intimidating Nanda Ghunti almost laughing at my misconceptions about the importance of my puny existence. Shamed, I walked across to the green apple-laden trees, checked out the pretty pink roses rising from a broken tin can, and fed Brownie some toffees that I found in my pocket. He ate them happily and became my loyal follower. I walked over to the kitchen to find Geeta chopping some fresh green spring onions. I requested her to give me “dwui gilas chai, chinni kam” (two cups of tea with less sugar). I then woke up Manoj, directing him to the view outside. The two of us sat there quietly, soaking in the splendour of the Himalayas while Brownie yawned and went back to sleep.


6 AM: We tucked into rotis and pyaaz ki sabzi made in mustard oil (that reminded Manoj of his mom’s cooking), bid 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 out to gather firewood. Balwant knew all of them by their first names. The jeep finally rumbled to a stop and a slim-built man with a sunburnt face and extraordinarily white teeth, displayed in a wide grin, approached us. He was Mohan Singh Bisht, our guide saab for the trek. When he found out that I was a Bisht too, he insisted on calling me didiji and Manoj, Rawatji, giving him the exalted status of jawaiji (son-in-law). It got Manoj some VIP treatment throughout the trek which included having tea and soup served in the tent and piping hot rotis at mealtimes. The rest of us were fed rice and peeli dal.


My most endearing memory of Wan is of a one-roomed Aanganwadi school I peeped into by mistake. A little boy with apple-pink cheeks was perched on a chair twice his size. He was reading a lesson that his four students — as cute as him — were repeating after him in sing-song voices. ‘A for appil, appil maane seb; B for bwaay, bwaay maane ladka.’ When he stopped for breath at ‘H for hauj, hauj maane ghar,’ I asked him the whereabouts of his teacher. ‘Madamji, bazaar jayin chin,’ he told me curtly in Garhwali and continued with the lesson. Their shrill voices rang in my ear as I stepped out to find a bwaadi wearing a pahadi sari and guluband just like the one my long-departed grandmother used to wear. It is now my most prized piece of jewellery. The woman’s face was wrinkled but very attractive. When I told her about my grandmother, she gave me a warm hug and got on with spreading wheat out to dry on the open roof.



Bedini Bugyal (Photo by Rajesh)


10 AM: We began climbing up to the old temple near the guest house. The path was interspersed with small terrace fields cut into the slopes. Women were busy threshing wheat in their houses while the kids played. Some little ones approached us with a namaste and asked for mithai (toffees). We stepped across a shallow stream and found some pretty ghaseries fetching leaves in large cane baskets. I tried picking one up but my back bent under its weight. The strain of the climb had just begun to show. Each time I stretched and folded my leg I could hear a creaking sound in my knees, as if it needed urgent oiling. 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 heart beat, almost wishing I never had to get up again, I spotted a flash of red. It was the 62-year-old fellow trekker Narayan Chaudhari from Mumbai moving ahead with a winning smile. Gritting my teeth, I got up. In Manoj’s eyes I could see that he was dying to catch up with this Amitabh Bachchan of trekkers and show him what strong stuff Army officers are made of. But husbandly responsibilities restricted his aspirations. He handed me a walking stick and urged me to keep walking to prevent my body from getting cold. For once, I followed obediently.


Bedini, Bugyal:  11,700 ft. In about five hours, we had left the forest behind. Lush green undulating meadows stretched out as far as our eyes could see. Right ahead stood a small stone temple. We saw an old woman appearing from behind it with a ferocious looking bugyali dog. It had untidy matted hair and a ‘don’tmess- with-me’ look in its eyes. The woman was actually grazing animals on the cold, windy slopes and that too without wearing socks! Late that afternoon, it started raining and it became freezing cold. We quickly retreated to our tents and braced up for the long night ahead. In the darkness, a thunder storm hit us and for nearly an hour the rain lashed on our tiny tent so fiercely that I thought the tent would come down on us any moment, leaving us soaked to the skin in the freezing temperature. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.


Of myth & mystery


The Patar Nachauni campsite falls in a place which is between Ghora Lotani and the Kalu Vinayak temple. The locals have lots of stories to tell about these places. Ghora Lotani is said to be the place after which 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 mates beyond that place. At Patar Nachauni, the king ordered his dancers to dance and entertain him. All the dancers went underground on their own, as a curse by Goddess Parvati for disobeying her rules. The bones found around the Roopkund lake are also believed to be of King Dhawal’s soldiers, who were punished by the goddess


Reflecting pond


Just a few paces away from the Bedini Bugyal campsite is the Bedni Kund, a water body which is created by rainwater every year during the monsoon. The place has enchanting views of the undulating meadows and the majestic peaks of Trishul, Nanda Ghunti and Mrigi Thoni around it. Bedini Kund holds a lot of religious value for the locals as the reflection of the Trishul peak can be seen on the water and is believed to be very holy. More so because, Trishul is believed to be the place where God Shiva actually lives and that his immense powers are the reason why no successful expedition has been made to the peak till date. A climb to Trishul is banned because only a handful of expeditions have tried it and none of them were successful.



Bedini Kund


The glacial wall


The Roopkund glacier is the one on which the glacial lake resides. The whole of the snow wall starting from the Roopkund lake right up to the ridge is the glacier whose presence looms large. The ridge is known as Junargali. Cimb up to Junargali is much more difficult than any of the other days during the duration of the trek. This particular stretch requires a guide and some technical skills on the part of the trekker. The climb requires the trekker to be almost on allfours and the last stretch requires tricky rock climbing with ropes. Some trekkers dare to take on this climb through treacherous snow, while some trekkers even cross over and go down to Shila Samudra, which is visible from Junargali. From Shila Samudra, one can go ahead and trek for another few days up to Homkun







6 AM: Mohan called out and asked us to start walking. Two of the trekkers decided to drop out at Patar Nachauni where there were shelters for the night and the rest of us continued to walk. It was (well, almost) a completely uphill trail for the next few hours. Very strenuous, to say the least. Just when I thought I could take it no more and was on the verge of bursting into tears, I heard bells ringing. Up ahead, enveloped in mist, stood the temple of Kalu Vinayak. We were told that the climb would end there. Mohan and party, who started almost two hours after us, had already overtaken us to reach it. They were sprawled on the rocks like lazy lizards. Mohan handed me a bottle of water and a roti with some bhindi ki sabzi. I ate eagerly while Manoj, who was feeling unwell, refused to eat. After another hour of walking we spotted snow and loose rocks scattered along the hill side. The scattered stone pathway had opened onto some fascinating crudely-built stone huts perched at the edge of a slope where the mules were grazing and the kitchen party was busy singing songs and pitching tents.


Mist was creeping up between the mountains in thick swirls and I knew that it was planning to sneak up quietly and put its damp, cold fingers on us. Inside one of the stone huts, cook Heera (not to be confused with guide Heera) made us some coffee. We sat with our steel glasses cheering trekkers who were walking in wearily, as there was a sense of achievement all around. Mule boy Kunwar Singh Negi, with a hairstyle that I suspect comes from not washing the hair for at least a month, broke into a Kumaoni song that mingled with the chatter of the trekkers. At 5.30 p.m., we were served dinner, a piping hot plate of rice and dal.



The Roopkund Glacier






It had rained off and on throughout the night. The end of my sleeping bag felt colder than usual and it took me a while to realise that some rain water had already seeped into it. Luckily, it was at the foot end and by moving my head right up and not stretching my legs all the way down, I managed to avoid the wetness. That was the only time I have felt happy about being short in height. I couldn’t get sleep though and asked Manoj if he was up as well. He was. It was 2 AM. Shortly, I heard Manoj snoring. I wanted to walk down to the toilet tent but the fear of an encounter with a bear or leopard acted as a big deterrent. I distracted myself by carefully contemplating all the calamities that could kill us right there in the cold, dark night (earthquake/wild animals/landslides) and wondered who would be the best person to take care of Saransh (our kid) if both his parents were to disappear that night. Drifting in and out of those thoughts, I finally woke up to the chatter of the boys preparing tea. It was 4 AM already.


We were told to hurry since we had to reach Roopkund before the snow started melting, making the climb more treacherous than ever. We walked on the stone path crossing stretches of ice where Mohan made us footholds by walking first and then stayed back to ensure that everyone had crossed over safely. On virgin snow, we spotted pug marks that caused a lot of excitement as Mohan pointed out Brahma Kamal plants that bloom in September. He also showed us the glacier where a 24-year-old boy had died on the last trek while trying to negotiate the tricky slope on his own. We stood there for a while listening to the story of his helplessness.


The climb was tough and there were slippery patches of ice where footholds are hard to find, but in two hours plus, we managed to reach the summit. Surrounded by snow-covered slopes, Roopkund lake stretched out before us in a pale blue circle of frozen ice with a pile of bones and a cracked skull lying in one corner. Old man Bakhtyar Singh (Mohan’s dad) pointed out that landslides had buried rest of the skeletons and some, he said, lie buried inside the lake. According to National Geographic, more than 500 travellers were caught there in a hail storm hundreds of years ago. He sounded a conch shell at the temple and told us that the route we had taken was the same as the one gods Shiva and Parvati took on their way to Kailash. At this point Parvati felt thirsty and Shiva created a lake for her. When she bent down to drink from it, she saw her reflection in the water and realised how beautiful she was and what a tramp she had married. That didn’t deter her though and she followed him all the way to Mount Kailash. The lake was thereafter named Roopkund. Manoj climbed halfway up to the Junargali pass to see the mighty Kailash that stood on the other side.


Finally, after some biscuits and a photo shoot, we set back for Patar Nachauni, where the two trekkers who’d dropped out were waiting for us. The next day we walked back 19 km to reach Wan and after a night-halt with Patwalji we started back for home. Right at that moment, we knew that we’d have to come back. Like I mentioned earlier, once you visit the Himalayas you are destined to return. They have started calling me back in my dreams already




Lohajung (8,000 feet) is your base camp for the trek.


Getting to Lohajung:


By train: From Old Delhi station, take the Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam All trek organizers can arrange for a pick up from the Kathgodam railway station at ` 800 per person.

By bus: If you are unable to get a ticket on the Ranikhet express, take a bus from Anand Vihar ISBT in Delhi to either Haldwani or Kathgodam. You can negotiate a Sumo to Lohajung for around ` 5,000


By Reema Bhalla