Alaknanda to Mandakini
Next morning was chilly though the Sun was out in its full glory. We had our usual Breakfast (again in a dhaba ;~)) and moved on from Srinagar towards Rudraprayag. After 34 kilometres of riding on a wide mountain road hugging Alaknanda all the way, we reached the ‘Tapobhoomi’ of sage ‘Narad’, Rudraprayag. More famous for the confluence of the rivers Mandakini, coming from Kedarnath and Alaknanda, it is here that the routes to Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines get separated. Rudraprayag has a Shiva temple, Rudranath, near the confluence point. We made a brief halt at the main bazaar to stock us up with packed eatables but I couldn’t stop myself to stray over a small bridge nearby. The jade Mandakini roaring down from deep rocky gorge and bringing with it unsustainably forceful wind made me soon hurtle down back to the bike.
From Rudraprayag, the road to Kedarnath is a narrow state highway along the Mandakini river but the traffic is very high during the ‘Yatra Season’ (From April end to mid-November) we met a vehicle at almost every turn. I kept the horn blowing as a measure of caution and safety. The route was dotted with the violet flushes of do-you-know which flower and yellow blooms of Bottlebrush trees. Passing through the villages of Tilwara, Agastyamuni, and Syalsaur to reach the road junction called Kund. Here a small road to Chamoli via Ukhimath, Chopta and Gopeshwar bisects from the Kedarnath state highway.
This is one of the most spectacular routes we have ever traveled. The riding experience on this route was simply amazing. As we proceeded further from the Kund, a steep incline ensued and the scenery changed from the constant views of Mandakini winding on the left and terraced fields on the right to an all-encompassing dense forest, mainly comprising Oak, Spruce, Fir, Pine, and Rhododendron trees. Our first halt came earlier than expected.
Just 5 kilometres off Kund is the winter seat of the Lord Shiva at Kedarnath. During winter months Kedarnath becomes snowbound and inaccessible. Therefore, the idol of the lord is ceremoniously brought at Ukhimath after the closure of Kedarnath temple on the day of ‘Diwali’ (no-moon night of Krishna paksha in the month of Kartika as per Hindu calendar). It is worshipped at Ukhimath throughout the winter months and on the day of ‘Akshaya tritiya’ (in the months of April – May) is reinstated back at Kedarnath. Ukhimath (1400 m) is a small village and is located slightly off the road to Chopta. Route is picture-perfect. Yellows of bottlebrushes and blood-reds of ‘Tota’ flowers were sprinkled over the entire hills amidst red and pink flushes of Rhododendrons.
Our riding destination for the day was Saari village from where we were to embark on the trek to Devariya (also called Deoria) Tal. Around 20 kilometres after Ukhimath, we took a left uphill turn on a 3 kilometre long diversion to Saari village. This quaint village is only 40 – 50 household strong and is spread over a sloping plateau against the wall of an almost vertical mountain. The main occupation of the inhabitants seemed to be the agriculture as the entire village was surrounded by agricultural fields.
TREK – I: DEVARIYA TAL
I parked the bike before the first shop of the village and went inside to enquire about the route and facilities at Devariya Tal. Mr. Negi, the owner greeted us into his shop affably and informed us that this trek is getting popular with tourists. Cashing on its popularity the villagers have joined hands with administration in establishing eco-tourism centre at the village under the Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) scheme so that the tourists and villagers can mutually be benefited by the facilities. Under the scheme they have given contracts to two villagers to establish their tea and food shops, and tents at the Lake. Now this was good news for us for we had our one and a quarter year old daughter, Reyvika, with us.
At Mr. Negi’s shop, we arranged the bag for the trek in a jiffy and packed all excess luggage in another bag to be safely deposited with Mr. Negi and that too at no extra cost. After a simple but tasty meal Mr. Negi showed us the way for the climb to Devariya Tal. Porters and guides are available on request at a nominal expense. One should hire them for they apprise us with local information which otherwise is very difficult to gather.
3 kilometers is a small number to negotiate and we misunderstood the ascent as any other person would. It’s a steep climb of 2.5 kms and only the last 0.5 kms is level walking. Trek is beautiful though, through a thick stand of Rhododendron forest. Despite being late for the Rhododendron blooms we could find a few flowers but there were several other flowers on the way including wild white rose. A shortwhile after the start, we arrived at a temple made in hill architecture with lord Shiva as its presiding deity. After the temple, steeper ascent ensues. As we puffed our way up on the solitary trek, a mighty Himalayan Griffon hovering high over us kept a close watch on our movements. To our utter disbelief, there was a midway ‘Chai’ shop. We didn’t find a single soul on our way up, how the owner was surviving through that Chai shop, we wondered.
After a tiring climb of about 2 hours, we reached the level walking route which meandered along the edge of the hill to lead us straight into a beautiful uneven meadow. It was a visual feast. We were awestruck. The Tal is cradled at the far edge of the meadow with a thick stand of trees on its eastern side. The Chaukhamba Peak looms large at the Northern horizon while west and south directions are mainly occupied by the crests and troughs of a beautiful meadow. We found many references in the tourism literature about reflection of the Chaukhamba Peak in the waters of the Devariya Tal and here it was, live before us. It is truly a breathtaking sight which made us forget our paining legs.
Since the area falls under the aegis of Forest department, we paid Rs. 20/- towards our entry into the forest and stay. The entry ticket is valid for three days. The two shops at the Tal, operating under CBET scheme provide food, and camping supplies. One of them has put up three tents and a toilet.
The place was perfect for camping and how much was I praising myself for the decision to lug the tent all the way up. After circumnavigating and taking a few quick shots of the lake under the fast-fading sunlight, we engaged the tent gear. The location had to be right beside the lake and we chose to have the entry towards the east so that we can watch the rising moon. Soon our “aashiana” (residence) for that full-moon night was in place. Incidentally, this was our first chance to sleep in a tent and the location couldn't have been better. As soon as we got Reyvika into the tent her euphoria was a sight to be witnessed. She jumped from one corner of the tent to the other and we just watched the spectacle, intervening many a times to control her or the whole setup would have had come off. That night dinner was great and full-moon rising from behind the hill made it all the more special. The sparkling waters of the Devariya tal reflecting moonshine coupled with a dim spread of light all over the meadow gave a surreal look to the place. It was very cold so we asked the shop-owner, Mr. R.P. Singh for an extra quilt which he gave us without charging for it. We even got the milk from him as Reyvika loves to have milk in the night. Camping, good food, full-moon, Devariya Lake right next to us, a grassy meadow bejeweled with copious wild rosemary flowers, rhododendrons adorning and Chaukhamba guarding! What else do you ask for?
We sat outside the tent enjoying the moonshine and soaking in the beauty and aura of the place. Those soothing moments are indelibly etched in our memory for forever. We did not want to sleep but the sheer exhaustion soon took over and I don’t remember when we fell asleep. Around midnight, we were woken up out of our sweet slumbers by animal calls. I peeped out, only to see the shop owner shooing the animal away. We came to know later next morning that it was a pack of jackals that often stray into the area.
The morning had a surprise in store for us. We slept to a clear sky and woke up to the pit-a-patting of falling rain. To our delight, it stopped soon after and we came out to enjoy the fresh morning alongside the Devariya Tal. After spending about an hour ambling and enjoying the beauty of the place we prepared noodles by taking hot water from Mr. R.P. Singh. Sipping the noodles sitting beside the lake which reflected the jade foliage of the dense forest bedecked with shiny raindrop jewels was rejuvenating and exhilarating fun.
When I narrated our desire to visit Tungnath, Mr. Singh gave us references of his relatives having shops at Chopta and Tungnath. We noted the details and thanked him for all his help and concern. The total experience was invigorating and enchanting. We are in love with the place and won’t let go any chance to revisit it. But next time, let there be some snow thrown-in!
On the way down, Reyvika spotted a tiny fledgling on the ground and it took us a while before we could search for the nest, handpick it, and place it back. Descend was rather easy and fast paced and in less than an hour we reached back to Saari village. We packed our luggage on bike after collecting our extra luggage from Mr. Negi. One unfortunate thing happened during packing. The camera bag spilled over on the ground damaging zoom and focus of the lens. So now I was limited to only 100 – 300 mm.
Back to the main Chamoli road, the ride through the dense Oak forest continued on the way up to Chopta. A sustained ascent on curvy roads led us to Duggalbitta, famous for the Rest House where Late Mrs. Indira Gandhi once stayed.