THE HIMALAYAS An impulsive trip throws up sights of a furiously fast brown-blue Ganges, steep climbs and unforgettable views of countless snow-capped peaks. ANUSHA PARTHASARATHY on the five-day journey
It’s almost December when, on an impulse, we decide to make a trip to the Himalayas. The imposing stature of the Garhwal Hills held much promise, and we choose a few locations we had never heard of before — Syalsaur, Jakoli, Chopta and the better-known Ukhimath. Bhagat Singh, our rather quiet guide and driver waits for us at Rishikesh at dawn.
Wrapped in shawls and covered in sweaters, we’re ready for the six-hour drive to Syalsaur through the untouched beauty of the Shivalik ranges. The roads are dotted with errant rocks — the result of landslides, and on a few stretches, they have been eaten away by falling boulders so badly that there’s barely enough space for vehicles. But Bhagat Singh drives on without batting an eyelid.
We follow the Ganges up the hills and reach Dev Prayag in about three hours, watching rivers Alaknanda and Bhagirathi converge to form the furiously fast Ganges. We find a few pilgrims bending to touch the rushing water, just before darker ones merge with the copper-tinged blue.
The forests that envelop these hills in sloping canopies consist of tall birch, teak wood and rhododendron, with generous sprinklings of pine trees. There are small temples, streams, waterfalls and wayside villages and a few km from the small town of Chandrapuri, we catch the first glimpse of a snow-capped peak at a distance.
With eyes still on the snow peak, we reach our Syalsaur resort on the banks of the Mandakini. It’s almost sundown and we sit by the river bank, watching Himalayan bulbuls and Himalayan magpies flitting around, even as the sun slowly drains the sight of the distant peak. Our layer of clothes increases as night settles in, and we turn in with the soothing rush of the river playing continuously outside.
We leave for Ukhimath the next morning, passing narrow mud stretches that make up for roads. There are some frighteningly rocky climbs and steep descents, but Bhagat Singh manoeuvres the car with practised ease. We reach the Omkareshwar temple just in time to see one of the panch Kedarnath deities reach its winter abode. We also visit the site where Usha and Aniruddha (Krishna’s grandson) were married. The temples dome against the backdrop of misty mountains is rather stunning. We see more peaks far away, almost hidden in a flurry of clouds.
Chopta is about 40 km away, and it takes us a good two hours up rocky roads, by a magpie farm and through a few stretches where roads are being laid to reach the Chopta viewpoint, situated at a height of 9,500 ft.
From the viewpoint, we see a thick shawl of mist settling around one peak while other ranges are green and purple, stretching out far into the horizon. We rest awhile before trying to take up the Tunganath trek, only to be told that the route is closed for winter. But spotting ground frost makes up for the lost trek, and we’re happy just taking pictures of icy sheets on our hands.
Jakoli creeps up on us too soon. It is our last stop before we descend the Shivalik range, and we’re not quite sure if we’re done yet. Jakoli is about three hours from Syalsaur. Its rather remote location leaves us wondering exactly where it is and even Bhagat Singh, for once, is not entirely sure of the way. But up we go, past lazy cows at regular intervals, through a pine forest, up a rough patch of roads, and into the small village of Jakoli. After a steep climb up to the peak, and we finally reach our rest house, located right on top. As always, the local food is basic, but piping hot and fresh.
It’s cloudy, and an hour later, the rains bring down the temperature considerably. The day ends as early as 4.30 p.m. and we’re left in the dark, but content with playing cards, watching TV and sipping on hot tea.
The next day, we’re back on the road, leaving the hills with a heavy heart. As we pass the Tehri Dam project and bid farewell to the mighty hills, we’re rather affected by the plastic bags that litter the winding roads on our way back. A crow pecks at a packet of chips, and Bhagat Singh sighs as he leads us back to the valleys.