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Sunday, April 26, 2015

To Deoria Tal and Tungnath - The Long Road

Monday, 16th March, 2015
Day 1 of the trek featuring Goga
The waking up part at 4 in the morning was easy. Sleep is usually good at Deoria Tourist Lodge, Lakhpat Singh Negi's flagship offering at Sari (or Saari) Village. It was my third visit to this place, first in 2011 along with my colleagues on a trip to Deoria and Tungnath, and then in 2014 along with my cinematographer friend, Shyam MS.
Why go to the same place three times, you might ask. Truth be told, it was not even in my plans till February this year, but through a common friend, I got connected to Jonas Böttger, a German Mechanical engineering student who had just completed a paid internship in Bangalore. He checked if there was a short Himalayan trek which he could do before returning home to Saxony, and I had just the shot he was looking for - a trek that will take the long road to Tungnath from Saari Village via Deoria Tal and Rohini Bugyal. It was perfect for me too since I had anyway planned to be in Rishikesh by the second week of March.

We had reached Saari village the previous evening after having been picked up by Lakhpatji in his Maruti Swift (a vehicle which almost cost him his hearing-we will talk about that later). The skies had stayed overcast all through the car ride that lasted around 7 or 8 hours, with the occasional drizzle that got me worried.

That day, our plan was to start the 3 kilometer trek to Deoria Tal at 4.30 AM so that we could reach just in time to catch the sunrise hitting the high peaks and the reflection in the lake. Those hopes were squashed in a jiffy with a simple peek at the cloudy skies from the hotel window that morning. I called up Lakhpat as well as Devender (Lakhpat's relative and our guide for the trek) and both of them confirmed that the early start was pointless given the moody weather.

Jonas went out to for a walk to capture whatever he could in the bleakness while I crept back into the warmth of my blanket for another 90 minutes of shut eye. I was out by 6 and soon caught up with Jonas trigger happy with his phone and camera. The usual mornings here, like most mountain hamlets, are extremely tranquil, but this time around we could hear the sound of horns and bells coming from the distance. We saw little kids roam around pathways in the fields below in a procession of sorts. I could only conclude, quite inaccurately at that point, that they must be on their way to school.

From the local tea shop owner, we soon heard a word hitherto unheard of - Goga - a village festival where little kids wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning, take bath in freezing water, collect flowers, and carry small palanquins of sorts chanting, ringing bells and blowing conches, and go to each house in the village - for seven mornings in a row. A phenomenon like the Christmas Carol, of course after changing a LOT of variables in the equation. On the seventh day, all the villagers go up into the forests and have a feast and festival out there. No one cooks in the village on the seventh day. Damn neat.

A sleepy little girl came out of the door wondering what the commotion was all about.
 And soon, she, along with us, got the first sight of Goga.
Everyone carried these little baskets with rhododendron flowers in them. Quite adorable and not camera shy.
Having delayed the start of the trek, we decided to explore the village and Goga a little more. Soon, we discovered that there were multiple processions, all that would converge in an hour or two at a central point in the village. 
Saari (6500 feet) is a beautiful idyllic Himalaya hamlet where you can a spent few days in peace without doing anything in particular. As for accommodation, you would come across a few homestays and lodges, most of which have sprung up in recent years. I checked out one homestay, but it was nothing much to write home about - just an extra concrete room added to an old house for the sake of business. If the house in the pic below was ever made into a homestay, I would book out a room on the top floor for a week or two every year.
 

While walking around the village, we were invited into a house by a lady for a cup of tea. While we sipped the delicious tea, she doled out laddus made in her native village - Ransi. I had been to Ransi village a few years ago on another trek, so there was something to talk about. I declined the second laddu as it was too sweet, saying that I should worry about diabetes and things like that considering my age. She agreed that I should, saying people in their mid-forties should worry about health. I almost choked on my tea and told her that I'm only 37. She said it's possible (that I'm 37) adding that she couldn't tell initially, because, khaathe peetha ghar ki ho na, is liye. (I looked like the guy from a well-to-do family). I dropped the matter altogether. Her daughter studying in school came in and touched our feet. I think it was a first for Jonas, but not the last from the kids that day.

We met Lakhpat on our way up who told us what was to happen with Goga later that morning. The kids carrying the palanquin would go into a trance and would play with and even eat bichhu ghaas, without getting affected a bit. I was like, what ghaas? And he showed us the plant. Bichhu ghaas (bichhu of the scorpion fame) or stinging nettle can cause a burning sensation if you touch it, thanks to the hairs that come off and act as needles laced with chemicals on your skin. The locals cook it, but that's a different story. Trance or no trance, we were intrigued that the kids would play with nettles without getting stung, and decided to walk down again to see that happen.
The calm before the storm.

 And then there's action, with flowers thrown up in the air and at each other.
 And soon then they run up to collect nettles.
 Crushing the stinging nettle with both hands.  We did see some kids chewing it too.
While all of this is going on, a child poojari (priest) carries the dhoop (incense) to get them out of their trance. It's not easy as the kids do not stand still to face the dhoop. Here's a shot of the last of the spirits getting exorcised. 
The whole affair lasted for about ten minutes after which the assembled crowd dispersed. Exams were going on and most kids were on their way to school soon; and we on our way to the trek.

Deoria trek looks daunting when you stand there in the village and look up, as in the picture below, but it ain't that hard. The lake sits on the other side of this hill.
Pic@Jonas 
The skies looked angry even at 9.30 when we started our stroll up.
Deoria Tal hike is truly a rhododendron trail, and they were in full bloom at this time of the year. Jonas seemed particularly happy with these rhododendrons, since the same species back home in Germany do not grow beyond the height of a bush. I'm going to take pictures of these and show them to my mom so that she knows what rhododendrons should actually look like, he kept saying.

The hike was easy and in two hours we reached these ugly structures perched at the "entrance" of the lake. I call them ugly but I'm also guilty of spending a cold night inside the green house on the right about a year ago. 
From here, it is a few minutes of slightly downhill walk to the lake. We took a break to ingest a dose of noodles peppered with green chilly and a steaming cup of chaay that hit the spot. The shopkeeper was not sure about the green chilly for a "white guy", but then Jonas is not your stereotypical westerner who shuns spicy food. On multiple occasions during our sojourn he had to tell the cooks that chilly and spicy are ok - and every time the cooks would give him a ok-but-don't-blame-me-later look.
We reached the lake by 11.30. Our lenses and senses had to be satisfied with just the reflection of the trees on the placid water. While spending some time under the cloud cover, Jonas got invites from a small group of Indian tourists who wanted to be photographed with him, something which he cheerfully obliged. I was predictably and thankfully left alone. :)

The last time I was here, there was a movie shooting going on. A low-budget Bengali movie titled "Saddhna" with a story-line that was a peculiar blend of corny and holy. Here's the lady playing the lead role in the movie taking lessons from her dance master.

We took the dirt path on the left side of the lake to start our long journey to Rohini Bugyal. I remembered looking at the time - it was 11.45, and I reckoned we should reach our camp site by around 3 or so. 
Only the sounds of the wind and the occasional birds were to be heard, with even our footsteps silenced by the damp leaves on the forest bed.
Devender kept talking on his walkie talkie with Lakhpat updating him on our progress. Lakhpat and Suraj had started from the village a little while after us, but they were taking a different path to Rohini Bugyal that bypassed the lake.
The clear path vanishes after a point but there were rocks and markers that would keep us on the right track. We kept moving at a steady pace on the uphill route, taking just a few short breaks. Soon enough, Devender called out to us from the top of a hill asking us to pick up some speed. The weather was turning bad.
Not to be outdone by the elements, we made it to that point in quick time.
Over here, at Kiridhaar, the highest point in the vicinity of the village, we finally stopped to have our packed lunch of oranges, bananas, boiled egg, aaloo ka paratha, and pickles.
Saari village from above - do not be misled by the camera zoom - this one is really a long way away.

Pic@Jonas 
After the top it was mostly downhill walk for an hour - something that I detest in any trek. I mean why do I have to climb all the way up only to climb down - the thought itself hurts because you know that you will have to climb it all the way up again and more, before the entire affair is over.
The cloud cover was still there, but we could finally see a few mountains in the distance.
Soon enough we started receiving some minor hail and rain - a combination that does wonders to your pace. We walked up, down, and level through forests and across hills for hours - a journey that never seemed to end. The kilometers that I had read in the literature about this trek did not seem right, and that added to my frustration.

Devender kept a beedi (Indian version of a cigarette) as an offering at this little temple of sorts for a forest deity. I wondered if the Gods might dig it.
The hail and snow petered off. It was around 3, the time I had set to reach the camp, but all we managed to reach was the first patches of snow. It was the first Indian snow for Jonas, and we laughed about it. Residual snow became a consistent fixture of our path from there on.
On an unrelated note, a friend told me that "some" of her foreign colleagues were surprised that India received snowfall - apparently they go, "Oh, I did not know you guys had snow in India". The response shuddabeenlike "Oh, I did not know your geography was bad. We do have rather tall formations called The Himalayas in India."
While approaching the Bugyal, I somehow managed to slip while negotiating a boulder and landed on my butt, but only some microseconds after my right elbow "single-handedly" took the entire force of the fall. In the thirty seconds it took for me to regain my composure, I wondered if I had finally succeeded in breaking a bone or two. I felt my elbow up, and it seemed alright. Thankfully, the searing pain was soon gone, and I motioned to Devender and Jonas, who were rushing down, that all was well.
It was 5 in the evening when we finally reached the Rohini Bugyal campsite. It was beautiful, but the skies made it melancholic. I prayed for the weather to change at least the next day.
Bugyals or meadows are prime grazing grounds for cattle - usually sheep, goats and buffaloes. We came across a few abandoned shepherd huts known locally as chhannis. These are relatively sturdy wooden and stone shelters - but some are no match for the volume of winter snow. The shepherds remake these settlements once the monsoon rains are over and stay here for the entire season.  Just before the winter starts, they go down to the valleys with their flock, and the snows take over, destroying these establishments partially or in some cases fully. The centuries-old process repeats every year.
Lakhpat and crew were going to stay inside one of these channis that was in relatively good shape while our tent was to be set up outside.
Pic@Jonas
The entrance to the hut is small, may be about 3 feet high...and it meant that I had to virtually sit in instead of stepping in. We were greeted with tea, biscuits, paapad and a crackling li'l fire. A light snow started outside. We asked if we could chuck the tent idea and stay with them inside the hut and they asked why not.

Surprisingly, the smoke from the fire was not a problem when we were sitting down. There was no chimney, but the architecture of this hut ensured that the smoke found an easy exit through the stone slabs on top. Suraj, the mule herder, went out and got his beasts inside the hut, safe from snow and wild animals. The mules stayed with us that night. 
Before serving dinner, Devender flattened some dough into a rough roti shape, put some burning coals on it, stuck two incense sticks, and kept it outside the hut. He explained it as an offering to a one-legged forest deity that roams these parts. Apparently, without the offering, people would not be able to sleep - weird noises, wild animals roaming, mules getting terrified at night - all sorts of messed up stuff happens. Devender even promised to show us single-leg footprints the next day. Lakhpat kind of summarized it...not that the vandevta (forest deity) eats the offering or anything. For all you know, crows will be feasting on it in the morning. For us, it is a custom, a way of saying thanks to a higher power for taking care of us in these wild parts.

The conversation moved Jonas to say his prayers to the Lord before having dinner.

So, what about the beedi that you offered at the little rock temple, was that for the Gods too? I asked Devender. He smiled. No, that was for the lone random villager out in the hills and out of beedis. It would be a great relief for someone like that. The odds were stacked against success, but it was a nice gesture, nonetheless.
Happy inhabitants of the shepherd hut - Jonas, Suraj, Devender, and Lakhpat.

For dinner, there was chicken which we had purchased the previous evening from near Ukhimath; marinated and frozen at Lakhpat's home. I insisted on the masalas and it was made true to form -spicy curry, with some gravy; quite unlike the watery dish with floating meat that most hill people usually prepare. While Jonas was having dinner, Lakhpat kept insisting that I also eat. I resisted and asked them to carry on and have their dinner because it was too early for me. No. Only after you eat, sir, he kept insisting. It was getting on to my nerves. I know Lakhpat from multiple treks, and I pushed back sternly - no, you guys have to eat. I will eat later....that too, if I feel like eating.

Which brought out the whole truth...sir, we like the the chicken dish watery, like soup. We were waiting for you to finish so that we can pour more water and have it the way we want. I laughed for a few minutes and asked them to water it down with pleasure. That night, I had soupy chicken, and I quite liked it, probably because of the masalas.

By 9, we spread our sleeping bags on all sides of the fire and called it a night, before promising to be up and running by 8 in the morning. It was the first time I was sharing my room and roof with mules. Well, in a broader sense, we all share the same roof with every living being in this planet every single night. Tonight isn't particularly different, barring the proximity of the animals, I thought before going to sleep. That felt like a profound philosophy then, but not while I am typing it out now. Must have been the altitude. Could not have been the temperature, the burning embers took care of that all through the cold night.

Tuesday, 17th March, 2015
Day 2 of the trek featuring Mule Trouble

We woke up at around 8, with Lakhpat offering me tea while I was still inside the sleeping bag with only my head and one hand jutting out. Outside, the weather had taken a pleasant 180 degree turn.
All of this was being denied to us the previous day. The unfairness of it, tell me about it. 

Posing time with the mules. Oh, did I tell you already that Jonas is actually Harry Potter? He recounted an instance when some of his friends convinced a salon owner in Bangalore that he was the actor on a new movie assignment in India. 

The view from the campsite.
Despite our assurances of getting out at 8, it was 11 by the time we started our journey to the Bhrujgali camp. 
From left to right....Kaali (the dark one), Gori (the brown one), Suraj, Jonas, Lakhpat, and Devender. Notice how Gori is in front of Kaali. We will talk about the significance of the positioning later. 
 
It was white magic, from the word go. 
The going wasn't easy, as you can make out from the picture below. Snow was deceptively deep in some places and you could easily go drown a few feet. I yelled out to Lakhpat to see if he could find a different route, but he did not hear me. It was not the distance between us. An accident partially destroyed most of his hearing a few years ago - he was teaching his sister to drive his new Maruti car, and it fell into a 12 foot deep ditch in the process. The new car was smashed, his sister escaped unhurt, but he paid for it with his hearing. He did spend a few lakhs on remedies till now, but nothing has worked - in fact it has gotten worse from the last time I met him. 
Never mind the headgear.

If it was tough for us, it was horrible for the animals. 
The poor beasts had to literally swim to get out of trouble. I was having serious doubts about using them on treks, especially the snowy ones.

After the tough snow stretch, the going was relatively easy through level ground. We came across another beautiful camp site on the way.
And no, I wasn't running.
 Pic@Jonas
 Pic@Jonas
Most of the walk for the day was through the woods.
After some elevation gain, we found ourselves going down again. Gaah! And unlike yesterday, this was one was a rather steep descent.

Pic@Jonas
We found our crew idling here, waiting for us to have lunch. We had only walked for an hour or so, but it was time for food, thanks to the late start.
Once you cross this pretty little bridge, the path winds up to compensate for all the descent. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                      Pic@Jonas
A light drizzle started which turned to snow in a few minutes. We took the ponchos out, but then decided to move on without them.
By the time, we were done with the elevations, the weather had done another 180 degree in less than an hour. Bleaky!
We decided to camp at Chopta for the night rather than Bhrujgali because of the snow levels. Lakhpat told us that we only had a kilometer left in the trek for the day, but most of it looked like this. I wondered how the mules managed these zones. They were much ahead of us with Devender and Suraj for company.
A little while later, we caught up with the mule party. The sturdy animals had finally decided that enough was enuff and refused to move further into snow. Our crew tried everything. They took the entire load off them and pushed and pulled and kicked, but they just would not budge. Lakhpat tried to shovel off some snow to entice them to take a few steps, but then the shovel handle broke.
 
Pic@Jonas
The mule pair shared a special dynamics.  Gori is a leader and Kaali is a follower. Kaali  will not move unless Gori moves, and much to everyone's discomfort, Gori had already made up his mind.
We were in a fix, because going back was not an option for anyone, including the mules. But the mules didn't know that. Lakhpat called up some people over his phone (thankfully, his phone was alive) to come and help us ferry the load through snow.
After about twenty minutes of trying, Devender had a three-pronged brainwave (animal rights activists, please forgive - there was nothing that we could do to get out of the spot that day).

He took a rope and placed it under the front legs of Gori and yanked it forward and Suraj pulled the rope tied to its saddle, while Lakhpat administered a few beatings from behind. (I know it's cruel.) Thankfully, it worked and Gori moved on. Once that happened, Kaali meekly followed with just a wee bit of nudging. Only the problem of our luggage remained, but help arrived from Chopta in a little while. The road to Chopta was just a few minutes walk away.
Devender almost collapsed as soon as we hit the road.
Pic@Jonas
He looks drunk, but was definitely not. Just exhausted.
Pic@Jonas
The two people on the left were the ones who arrived to get us out of trouble. The guy with the ice axe in his hand was running through snow as though it was a synthetic track.
Finally, a view of Chopta from a distance.
Soon enough, we walked into a fortified shepherd encampment, one in a much better shape. For some strange reason, I was reminded of games like Blizzard's Warcraft, which had managed to obliterate a year or two of my engineering education. You feel like you are walking into something that belongs to a different age, a primitive way of existence. The romantic notions become stronger because if you walk a bit and find the right spot, you could also get mobile coverage - best of both worlds. We reached by 5, just like the previous day.

Pic@Jonas
This was four star material compared to the previous night's accommodation, and we told our team to forget about the tents. Neatly arranged stones made up the wall that covered the "facility". The gate itself was a huge stone firmly in place forcing us to jump over the stones to gain entrance to the courtyard of the shepherds. 
This one belonged to a villager from Saari and like everyone else, he had closed shop and gone home for the winters. Our team had evidently yanked the door open...with what, I do not know...I had walked in a bit late. After a little while, a villager yelled at us from somewhere above and Lakhpat settled the issue over a phone call with the owner of the hut. We thought that was the end of it. 
The integrity of our folks were in full display. Lakhpat and Co did not even use the firewood neatly stacked in place inside the hut. They went out and got the wood needed for the fire. Hum kisi ka kuch nahin lenge; raat ko sar rekhne ke liye jagah chaahiye, bas. aka We will not take anything from anyone....we just need a roof over our heads for the night
Pic@Jonas
Suraj was upset over the way he had to treat his mules and he kept chastising himself....for a few thousand rupees, I'm putting them to such dangers...what if they fell down? And I had to hit them today, without even feeding them properly...

Over the fire, I asked Lakhpat what he was doing about his hearing. I suspected the faint glimmer of a tear in the eyes of the man while he explained that the last round of treatment had actually gotten it worse. He has asked for a device from the US, which should improve the situation.

He does not go out on treks much these days, preferring to arrange and manage stuff for travelers from the comfort of his house or lodge in Saari. In fact, I had to push him to walk along with us this time around. He kept asking why, because Devender and Suraj were sufficient for our efforts. I did not give him a proper answer, preferring to use the evasive "just come no, Lakpathji". It worked.

The solemn discussions received a jolt as Suraj broke into a pahaadi song. No, it was not grief that went into his head, but something more liquid. And his singing is worse than mine. Devender took a plate and spoon and started to drum alongside hoping to silence him into shame. But no, there was no stopping him that night....Suraj was on overdrive and the song lasted a full seven minutes.

After dinner, we crept into our sleeping bags around the fire while Suraj placed his bag next to his favorite mules and went to sleep. He had asked me to make a website for him and his services, and I did not have the heart to tell him then that I failed to see the point in it. Lot of people have taken my phone number during the treks, but they have not done anything (online) for me, he said.

It's a mule thing, my friend. The world needs mules, but would not make websites for them or the mule herders. Zzzz

Wednesday, 18th March, 2015
Day 3 of the trek featuring Florian and Junglee Babloo

We woke up at 6.30. The weather was perfect. After a quick breakfast of noodles we started our walk with Devender for company. Lakhpat and Suraj promised to meet us at Saari village later in the day.
It was awfully cold and my hands were shivering inside the gloves.
Delightfully, the roads of Chopta were clear of ice and snow.
The gate to El Tungnath. We were stopped by a cop from proceeding further as we did not have a permit. The cop was worried...cannot let you go....dangerous..foreigner is also there, he said. I found it quixotic because a permit will not solve anything, foreigner or Indian. A phone call with Lakhpat who promised to deliver the permits in a while settled it.
The route was predictably filled with snow. It was another 3 or 3.5 kilometers of walk. Onward, the journey was easy as we made good time on stretches of frozen ice. We could hear the scrunch-scrunch noise our shoes made on the hard ice as we trudged on.
The Bhrujgali sector. Had we camped here the previous night, our journey would have been shorter.


For me, it was nostalgic, having walked through the same path a few years ago under similar conditions with 15 of my colleagues (now ex). This time, it was just me, Jonas, and Devender.
When we walked up this point minor effects of altitude began to show up. Jonas felt like taking a bit of rest just below the railings.
While waiting there, we noticed a guy gaining on us. He was alone, and we had already spotted him an hour ago, as a moving speck from down below. He had made good progress to catch up with us.

Here's how our conversation went...
Hey...
Hello guys, how you doing?
Good, good....How about you? Alone? (silly, I know)
Yea...ok I guess..Heavy bag..and I'm not used to this stuff....
Hahaha....that does look heavy...where are you from?
Germany.
Germany? Germany? There were two responses to that, one from myself and another from Jonas.
And I heard the best dose of German from Jonas after that.
There was distance to be covered, but we plod on. Jonas and Devender went ahead, while Flo (Florian) and I talked about cigarettes and other things that make middle-aged men tired. 
The final frontier was tricky. Devender asked if we should turn back, but I was happy to push it till we turned the corner. I was here before...and I believe that if you know how far you have to go, it makes the decisions easier.
But it was all worth it, as we were there at El Tungnath in under twenty minutes.
Devender, Jonas, and Florian.
And, do not forget me.
The weather was turning bad real quick, and we did not make the mistake of hanging around there or pushing for Chandrashila summit, another kilometer away.

The trek down was uneventful - sliding down on snow or slipping down the path are not events anymore. There was a jeep waiting for us at Chopta, which we reached at 2 in the afternoon. We had to drop off the rented snow boots at Baniakund. I walked out of the jeep to see this...another movie shoot - this time a Garwhali film.
I love them cheesy moves and movies!!!
And the cinematographer giving an all-ok sign. After I returned to Saari village and showed Lakhpat the photos, he cried out...this is Junglee Babloo, the camera man! Sorry JB, I did not get a good look at you!
We dropped Florian at his lodge - Magpie Holidays or something - and reached Saari in an hour. From there, the peaks of Tungnath seemed a long way away - tough to look back and think you were up there a few hours ago.
With nothing else to do, we walked around the village, till I saw something, and decided to push it. It did not take too much of a pushing to get our prayers answered. A bike ride through the hilly roads. Man, was that fun?
It's over. :)

3 comments:

  1. Hi Satish!

    I loved this article of yours. I liked the fact that you have used so many pictures to give us a better understanding of the route. Deoritaal trek indeed seems to be beautiful and you have made it even more interesting. Not once did i take my eyes off the screen while reading this one. I was so engrossed in reading the minute details you have put in ! good piece of writing. Would you suggest visiting this place in month of September. Would it still be snowing then? or more of vegetation?

    Regards
    Shailaja

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    Replies
    1. Hi Shailaja,
      Thank you for those encouraging words. :) As for your question, September will be more of the beautiful lush green variety. Snow views of the distant mountains are there throughout the year but there will be no snow-walks (unless you get an unlikely weather change).
      Sajish

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  2. Hi sajish,

    Looks amazing especially Rohini bugyal.
    I am planning a solo trek to deoarital-Rohini bugyal-Chandrashila in dec 3rd week.
    Can you provide me with guide details and the cost.

    Thank you.
    Hemanth

    ReplyDelete