Wednesday, June 29, 2005Share
For a change this time I was not driving and instead had preferred to travel in hired Qualis. Roads up in the hills are normally not that good for driving and are so very tiring. We had a large enough group to fill two Qualis and one Indica. Though not homogeneous and like-minded, we had 17 people to make the group, a real pilgrimage troupe. I found the Qualis an excellent car for hills. It had enough power to pull 8 people up with 50/60 kmph speed. The charges for a Qualis is Rs.6000/- per trip from Dehradun. Indica costs a little lesser at Rs.4500/-. This includes all tolls and parking fee, etc. We had to do a bit of bargaining with 2/3 travel agents to ensure that our cost was the cheapest available. Though the best way to travel to Badrinath is hired cars, there are also regular buses from Haridwar. Do not take package tours; they are very costly.
The route :
Starting from Dehradun, we proceeded via Rishikesh, Byasi, Devprayag, Karnaprayag, Gaucher, Nandaprayag, Chamoli and Pipolkoti, in that order to reach Joshimath. This serves as a kind of transit point for visiting places like Auli (just 5 km via a ropeway), Govindghat (21 km) and Badrinath (44 km). Govindghat again serves as the starting point for going to Hemkund Sahib, the famous Sikh shrine and the Valley of Flowers. As I was not driving, the distances mentioned here would be that of road signs. On day 1, you are expected to cover 300 kms upto Joshimath. On day 2, you visit Badrinath. After performing darshan, we proceeded to Mana village which is just 3 km away. Mana is the last point of Haridwar – Mana highway and is also the last human habitat on this part of the world. One important thing to note is that driving in hills is not allowed after 8 pm. Police will not listen to any plea and you may left stranded on roads. So, decide your night halt before clock ticks 8.
Joshimath to Badrinath:
This stretch of road remains open to traffic only for six months from May to Oct / Nov. It remains snow bound for the rest of the year. The road has gate systems at both ends and opens for one-way traffic only. There are specific timings for opening of gates and so you have to be there on time. The gates open at 6:30, 9:30, 11:30, 14:00 and 16:30. If you have halted at Joshimath, you need to get up at those uncomfortable hours to be ready to catch the 6:30 am gate. As the gates opens at same time from both ends, there is a second gate midway at Pandukeswar where one has to wait to give pass to the traffic from other side. Do not stray or left behind too much from the procession of vehicles, else you may have horrible time giving pass to traffic coming your way. It normally takes about 3 hours to travel this 44 km between Joshimath and Badrinath. The road is terrible, a real nightmare for about 20 kms from Vishnuprayag onwards. It is dusty rock bedded terrain where maintaining road is not possible. You are forced to travel with closed windows. On the way you may get traffic jams at Govindghat. The place bustles with thousands of sikh pilgrims on their way to Hemkund sahib. They arrive here in all forms of vehicles – from two wheelers to trucks, buses and luxury cars. The pilgrims leave behind their vehicles here for 3 days creating irritating traffic headaches.
There are many hotels in Joshimath to provide you cheap and comfortable accommodation while in Badrinath there are fewer hotels, I saw only two there, one belonging to GMVN. However, there are many dharamsalas where you need your own beddings to avoid discomfort. We had apprehensions that it may be tough to find accommodation during this peak yatra season. But we found accommodation easily at Joshimath. Normal hotel rates are around Rs.500 to 650. Do not dither to bargain. Only place we found fully ocupied was the old GMVN rest house, however accommodation was available at the new GMVN rest house (01389-222226). But we found that none of the rooms has provision for fan. In mid June it was too hot to sleep without a fan and so we had avoided it. There are luxury hotels as well viz. Dronagiri (01389-222221) and Uday Palace (01389-222004) which quoted rates of above thousand for double rooms. Do not bother for TVs as your tired body will ask for sleep and rest.
We had started very early in the morning as we had plan to reach Joshimath by 4:30 pm. After a quick stop for breakfast at Byasi, we started the climb up the hill. The beauty around with the gushing white water of the Ganges accompanying on the right side of the road was breathtaking. On the way you get Kaudiyala, a resort known for white water rafting. We had stopped at Devprayag to enjoy the confluence of river Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. These two rivers meet here to assume the name of Ganga from here onwards. We continued along Alaknanda up the hills. On the way we had passed Kirtinagar and crossed Alaknanda for the river to take your left for the first time. Hereafter you would be crossing the river n number of times all along the road for the river to be on your right or left. But the river will keep your company till Badrinath. We found policemen monitoring speed of vehicles at Kirtinagar. The speed limit on the hills is 40 kmph. The driver was smart enough to spot the policemen from distance and slowed down. Next comes Srinagar which is probably the biggest town of the entire road. We had bypassed the Rudraprayag town and had lunch on a small dhaba just outside the town. Out in the hills you cannot be fussy about food. Eat what you get or stay hungry. After passing through Gauchar, Karnaprayag, Nandaprayag, Chamoli and Pipolkoti we finally managed to reach Joshimath at around 6 pm. We were 1 ½ hours behind schedule. As we had missed the last gate, we decided to put up at Joshimath which actually turns out to be a good option. In the evening we went to the Jyortirmath. After almost 12 hours journey, we all had a nice sleep.
We got up early to catch the 6:30 am gate next morning. The queue had around 30 vehicles. From Joshimath we started going down to Vishnuprayag where the Jaypee’s are constructing a hydro project taping the river Alaknanda. Dust track starts here punctuated by good stretches. The road was bad but view was imposing with the river coming down with all its might along the road. After making our way through the traffic at Govindghat, we had to stop at Pandukeswar, the mid point of the road, where there is a second gate for crossing of vehicles from both side. The Adi Badri temple, one of the five Badris is located here. We missed it as we were to travel with the procession. On the way we had stopped to enjoy the site of a glacier feeding Alaknanda. You see several of them on the way. Seeing the river one has to imagine how much water mother earth is producing daily to feed these gushing rivers. Finally we made it to Badrinath after 2 ½ hours.
The Badrinath Temple:
The temple complex is beautiful with intricate brightly coloured artwork that resembles mughal style architecture. The King of Garhwal built this modern temple complex in the fifteenth century. Queen Ahilya of Indore donated the golden chatri which is installed in the temple. The Garbhagriha is in its ancient form. The temple is on the Narayan Parvat (mountain) on the southern banks of Alaknanda. The Nar Parvat is located on its opposite. The Nilkanth Parvat with its snow-capped peaks is overlooking the temple providing a magnificent view. The shrine is said to exist here since Satya Yuga when Lord Vishnu mediated at this place. It is said that the original statue was thrown into river Alaknanda to stop it from falling into the hands of Mangolian invaders. Adi Sankaracharya later recovered the statue nearly 2500 years ago by diving into the dangerous Narad Kund on the Alaknanda near the temple. The statue is in the form Shaligram Shila and there is no description of its origin. Adi Sankaracharya also had appointed one of his companions from Nambodiri caste (belonging to Kerala) as head priest. The head priest of this math, called Rawal ji, is still from the same Nambodiri caste. There is a hot water spring called the Tapt Kund, few steps below the temple, which has mentions in Puranas as well and where many pilgrims take bath before darshan. Alternatively, you can take a bath in the icy cold waters of Alaknanda. We had to stand in queue for about 2 hours for darshan of Lord Badrinarayan.
What you should not miss:
Mana Village : This small hamlet is located just 3 km away from Badrinath. A Mongolian tribe inhabits it. It is the last human population on this part of the world. Beyond it you may find stray sadhus trying penance in kaliyug. Here you find a cave called Vyas Ponthi inside which Maharshi Vyas is said to have written the epic Mahabharata. The Saraswati Udgam and Bhim Pool is a magnificent site one should not miss. The mythical river Saraswati is seen emanating from under a mountain with very powerful force before merging into Alaknada just a few meters below. It is said that Saraswati is seen only here and it flows underground to this point. There is a big stone called Bhim Pool lying over the river. Mythology says that the Pandavas went to heaven through this route. Draupadi got scared to cross the Sarswati and so Bhim had placed this stone for her to cross the river. Two km from here lies another mythological fall named Vasudhara. This track leads one to what is known as Swargarohini, the point till which Yudhisthira traveled for going to heaven on foot. It is said that this is the only road where man had ever gone to the heaven on foot. This journey to Satopanth sarovar needs special permission from local authorities. It is very tough 3 days trekking and only a handful can make it.
Other important places en-route:
Joshimath (1890 mtr): There is a temple called Jyotirmath. This is the winter seat of Lord Badrinarayan. The idol is broght here during winter when the road to Badrinath is closed. It is one of the four monasteries set up the Adi Sankaracharya, one in each direction to further the cause of Hinduism. Adi Sankaracharya, born as Chandramoulli Shankar in a Kerala village, came to Badrinath at the young age of 11 to perform penance. This was nearly 2500 years ago. The current temple was built in the forties. There is a huge tree called Kalpavriksha, under which Adi Sankaracharya performed penance. Though exact age is not known the tree is proven to be very old. A visit to this tranquil temple complex, located very close to the town centre should not be missed. There is another temple complex known as Narasimha Temple for which we could not find time. The winter ski resort of Auli is connected to Joshimath by a ropeway, which is dubbed as the longest ropeway in Asia. The charge per person per trip to Auli is Rs.300/-. But Auli is worth visiting only during winter.
Govindghat (1828 mtr) : 21 km from Joshimath, this is the transit point for going to Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers. Both the places are around 19 km trekking from here. The trek leads one to Ghangharia, around 15 km away, from where one trek goes to hemkund Sahib and another to Valley of Flowers.
Devprayag : It is one of the panch prayags. Stop here for a while here to enjoy the confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi that gives birth to Ganga.
Rudraprayag : It is also one of the panch prayags. Here you can watch the confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini.
Pipolkoti : Normally on your way back, you should stay here rather than staying at Joshimath.. This 31 km from Joshimath. If you catch the last gate from Badrinath, you will able to reach here before 8 pm. However, there is no guarantee that the last gate will open exactly at 4:30 pm. We had waited in the queue from 4 pm, but the gate was finally opened at 6 pm. Thus we could made it upto Joshimath only.
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Thursday, June 23, 2005Share
These brave men truly embody the rough and tough image of a warrior community. They have come from various places in Haryana, Delhi, but mostly from Punjab. Those from Punjab had taken the route via Poanta Sahib à Dehradun à Rishikesh and those from Delhi / Haryana have come via Haridwar. Each way it is at least 250 kms upto Rishikesh. From Rishikesh the climb up the hill begins. Mother Ganga, lay like a white chaddar, flows with thundering roars along the road upto Devaprayag, the confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi giving birth to the Ganges. Beyond Devprayag, it is Alaknanda that keeps your company along the twirls and curves of the road giving you a real feel of white waters, quite different from the muddy polluted waters of the Ganges we see down below. The road upto Joshimath can be called good for a mountain road for most of the places but punctuated by stretches of real bad patches. It is still called motorable because you are sitting in a car and someone else is bothering to maneuver those rocky terrains. These are landslide prone areas where roads got damaged so badly that you constantly get thrown from one side to the other inside the car. The road between Joshimath and Badrinath is a nightmare. It is kuttcha and dusty from Vishnuprayag onwards for about 20 kms. As the road has a gate system which opens for one-way traffic, 50 / 60 vehicles moves in a cavalcade raising a virtual dust storm. Visibility reduces to 10 / 20 meters at times. Imagine getting trapped in such roads in a bike. You get a thick white layer once you come out of it.
To add to the bad roads, there was the mid June sun blazing down unrelentedly coocking up steams in the bared mountains. You could feel the hot loo even in higher areas like Nandprayag. But none of these was deterring these brave sardars. Some were going up and equal numbers were returning greeting each other by raising hands. Some are found repairing themselves punctured tyres or the engine that has given up. One scooter was even seen pulling another with a rope whose Bajaj scooter had given up. Have you ever thought of traveling 1200 kms on two wheelers, 600 kms of which will be in the mountains? My impression was that you have to be a real brave heart or stupid to try this. But now add one more to that list – a sardar can also do it.
The motorbike journey ends at Govindghat, about 20 km from Joshimath. Probably it takes three days for them to reach here from their hometowns. There you leave your vehicle and joins the crawl up the mountain on foot. Hundreds of pilgrims arrive at Govindghat everyday in all forms of vehicles – from trucks to luxury cars. Their numbers should be at least thrice that of Hindu’s going to Badrinath everyday. The 19 kms trek from Govindghat to Hemkund Sahib takes you from 1890 metres to 4329 meters altitude. It takes three days for one to return to Govindghat. The sight I had on my way to Badrinath of endless antlike lines of Sikh piligrims going up in the mountain was unforgettable. There were small babies, kids and aged ones amongst the crowd. Everyone was getting ready to embark upon this tough three days trekking on foot. Your heart fills with sheer respect for their religious faith and this extraordinary attempt to pay obeisance to the god almighty.
Many of the Sikhs even makes it to Badrinath after returning from Hemkund sahib. Badrinath is about 24 kms from Govindghat. My body was aching from the constant swaying it had received for 3 days in the Qualis we had traveled Badrinath from Dehradun. I just can’t think of the condition of those brave sardars on two wheelers. They will certainly be exhausted, but their faces tell of determination. I had taken few photographs of these brave men to tell others back home and believe it. Their images will be one of the unforgettable memories of my trip to Badrinath.
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Thursday, June 16, 2005Share
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Monday, June 06, 2005Share
The passage had a kind of mysterious look into it. I bet few would have dared to enter it alone or had it not been a tourist spot. It is appropriately named Robbers Cave. In our childhood days when there was only the radio to entertain us, we had patiently listened to a play named ‘Surangar Seshat’ meaning at the end of the tunnel where robbers fled through a tunnel and police were after them. Robbers Cave would have an good setting for such a chase scene had it been a movie. I had tried to take a few snaps. Though I had a 400 roll, I had no tripod to take care of the very low light. Lets see what happens. I also saw a big owl up in the tree, the biggest I had ever seen in wild. It looked to me about 1 1/2 feet size from down below. But again I did not carry my 300 mm lens. Next time I will come here with my tripod.
Once you leave the main road, you will face a very steep narrow road where two cars can barely pass. Going down in place within Dehradun, you will wonder that Dehradun is actually up in the hills. Only bad thing about the place is that it is not properly maintained and promoted. But you still will enjoy it.
Next week a trip is being planned to Chakrata. It is located at a higher altitude than Mussorie. Lets see if it materializes.
Wednesday, June 01, 2005Share
Recalling that trip to Tawang still gives me fond memories of thrill and excitement. It was 5 days of pure fun and adventure. Tawang, now major tourists spot, is a lovely little town in Arunachal Pradesh almost at the China border. Its altitude is 10200 feet. But to reach there you have to cross the Shela Pass at an altitude of 13714 feet. We traveled 585 km from Sivasagar to reach Tawang. From Guwahati, it will be roughly 540 km. It is really a lifetime experience and is recommended for everyone unless you have problem with high altitude or any other medical complications needing regular attention.
Planning for the trip : The car
We choose to stick to the Ashimda’s dependable Maruti 800 because you could be sure to have a servicing center for Maruti even in the Himalayas. But if you are in-group of 6 or more opt for a Tata Sumo or similar vehicle because they are best suited for such a long journey on the hills. For other cars servicing facility, if required, may leave you in soup. In any case, if you decide to try out your car, then have a through servicing. Special attention should be given to coolant and radiator. Strengthen feeble horn. Check belts, etc. Get a pair of good fog lamps. Two stepney is highly recommended. God forbid, if your car deceives, you will be left stranded in the hills where the nearest help may be several hills away. Summing up, get yourself satisfied that the car is fully fit for 4/5 days strenuous journey. Also get your Inner Line Permits (ILP) and Tourist Lodge bookings at Bomdilla, Tawang and Dirang confirmed beforehand. Prefer to stay in the Govt. run Tourist Lodges rather than in hotels. ILP can be obtained from the Arunachal Bhavan in Guwahati or there is a office near Jail in Jorhat. The fee per person is about Rs.25/-.
The ideal period is 3rd & 4th week of March. You can be rest assured to find snow at Shela Pass and PTSO. We started our journey on 25th March. We had plenty of snows at Shela and we could hardly made it to PTSO because of snow. However, it should be remembered that snow melts very fast – two days of blazing sun and all the snow is gone. Not surprisingly on our return there was hardly any snow at Shela. But to our good fortune we experienced snow fall at Shela. To be in the out feeling soft droplets of cotton like snows raining down on you was a grand finale to our trip.
Alternatively you can choose end October, if the summer has already subsided in the plains. Probably you will find snow at least at PTSO. Without snow the joy of the trip will be halved. Nov. to Feb will be too snowy to visit.
Get yourself sufficient warm cloths. You will need everything from sweater, jacket, cap, muffler to gloves. It can really very cold up there. You will feel the change in temperature once you cross Nechifu Pass.
The whole journey will take at least 5 days. Your itinerary should be as follows:
Day 1 : Travel upto Bomdila. Halt at Bomdila
Day 2 : Travel upto Tawang. Halt at Tawang
Day 3 : Local sightseeing at Tawang
Day 4 : Return from Tawang. Halt at Dirang /Bomdila
Day 5 : Return to Nazira / Sivasagar
You may add one more day for an additional day’s stay at Dirang or Bomdila for sightseeing.
The journey begins
Start as early as possible, preferably around 0630 hrs. Your first destination is nearly 400 KMs away out of which 100 kms will be in the secluded hills. Take some light foodstuff which will be handy on the way. You would be better off having your breakfast on the way rather than wasting time in the morning. Keep in mind not to make your halts longer than 30 min. Your last stretch will be up on the hills trying to climb upto 8134 feet. The more you get delayed on the way, the more difficult will be for you, driving on unknown hilly territory.
After leaving Tezpur town, you travel through Namdapha Reserve Forest to reach Bhalukpung. This is an elephant infested area and so be careful, specially on rainy days. At the Bhalukpung border, you will be required to produce your Inner Line Permit (ILP). There is a petrol pump here. Refill your tank. Petrol is relatively cheaper in Arunachal. After passing through Sesa you will climb to the Nechifu Pass at 5694 feet. Nechifu is about 50 km and requires 2 hours drive from Bhalukpung. You will find fog-warning signs there. Clouds get trapped here within the hills to form fog here. On our onward journey, there was no fog. But on return, there was so dense fog that visibility was hardly 4/5 meters, that too around 3 pm in the day. Your next destination will be Tenga. The road between Nechifu and Tenga is very treacherous. There are stiff slopes. Keep checking your wheels. There is every possibility that breaks will get heated and start fuming. In fact, the whole stretch upto Bomdila was built prior to the Chinese invasion and so the design and laying is terrible. There was a stretch where you feel like going down a roller coaster from a 4/5 storied building. About 20 min. from Nechifu you will find a string of roadside hotels and a Puncture Repairing Shop. On your return you have to have your lunch here. Remember, in the hills, you cannot afford to choose where you dine. Dine where you get it, else you may end up driving for hours without even a roadside dhaba.
At Tenga, there is a large military establishment. It is a small town with hotels and restaurants, though not of good standard. But there is a shop where you can get good momos. Tenga is at 4884 feet. Thereafter, your ascend to Bomdila starts. Bomdilla is at 8134 feet and is about 45 min. drive from Tenga.
Bomdila your first destination and halt for the night. There is a hotel named Shiphyang Phoo and a Govt tourist lodge for comfortable stay. The hotel is costlier. Better to stay at the tourist lodge. You have to pay extra for lighting the Fire Place in your room. It is the largest town in your whole trip. There is a market and several restaurants. Most important for you may be Garages and the Petrol Pump.
Start early again next morning, preferably around 8 am. After driving for about 2 hours, you will reach Dirang at an altitude of 5500 feet. Because of the low altitude, it is much warmer and so comfortable to stay at Dirang. Halt here on your return from Tawang rather than staying at Bomdila. There is a Tourist Lodge and a Hotel side by side. Book while going. Ther also is a petrol pump at Dirang, next to the hotel. We spent an extra day here and really enjoyed it with a picnic. There is a hot water spring, which is to be avoided as you will not get into that dirty pool. So avoid climbing down and up those 100 plus steps. But there is a sheep farm, which is worth visiting to see the large horned Russian breed sheep.
You will cross Sapper and Sange (9177 feet) in about 1 and ½ hour from Dirang. We found a roadside hotel after crossing Sange where we had lunch. There was no food joint after Sange for hours together. So, we also had dinner at this very dhaba on our return. Your final assault on Shela Pass starts at Baisakhi at 11218 feet. Road from here is not black topped as melting snow makes maintenance difficult. We had a tyre puncture here. It is worth mentioning that we could get it repaired at Tawang only. We just prayed that misfortune of another puncture should not stuck us. And, fortunately God listened to us.
Located at 13714 feet, Shela Pass is the Gateway to Tawang. It was all snow there. Named in the memory of the local damsel who helped Jaswant Singh in keeping Chinese at bay for days. There is a temple here and also a lake. You may be lucky to see the lake half frozen. We saw it. We also got to experience snowfall here on our return. Beware! weather changes very fast and it can suddenly turn very cold and scarry. So do not stay here for long.
You will badly want a cup of hot tea after chilling out at Shela pass, which you can get at a small settlement just when complete the descend from Shela. 15 minutes from Shela, you reach the Jaswantgarh monument. There is a temple here built in the memory of Jaswant Singh, who bravely fought the Chinese. If you wait here to pay homage at the temple, you will be offered tea and pakoras by army unit stationed there. Few army personnel are always posted here who lives in 2 bunk houses stationed there. You can also see the bunkers used in the 1962 war around this place. The Chinese had reached Bomdila in the 1962 invasion and people had even started leaving Tezpur fearing further inroads.
Another 15 minutes descend and you will see the Jung falls, made famous in the movie Koyla. The fall is about 1 km off the main road. Better visit it on return. But must visit it. There is a hydel power plant here. You should go to the base of the fall to feel how big it is. I have never seen a fall as tall as this. The fall is so powerful, that you will see the rainbows formed by the sprinkled water particles. Tale care of your camera.
You will reach Lowe and Bomdir before finally reaching Tawang. For your record, Lowe has a garage for repairing punctures. At Bomdir (8827 feet), there is a tinali. One road goes to Lumla and other to Tawang. Read the road signs properly as you may not find anyone to guide you. From Bomdir you start ascending again for Tawang at 1020 feet. It took us about 3 ½ from Shela to reach Tawang.
As we had bookings in the tourist lodge, we slipped into the comfort of the warmth of our rooms. Let me tell you, it was real biting cold. The lodge was renovated for the flim Koyla. It has two suites, one named after Madhuri and the other after Shahrukh. At Rs.750/- per day they were not that costly.
Our sightseeing started next day around 9 am. We first went to the Tawang monastery said to be the second largest in Asia. It is more than 350 years old. A monk, Mera Lama, a contemporary of the fifth Dalai Lama, founded this monastery. The sixth Dalai Lama was born in this monastery. The Tawang Monastery is also known as the 'Galden Namgyal Lhatse.' Photography was allowed inside the main shrine. The young little monks sitting in lines quietly chanting some hymns was quite a site.
Thereafter we proceeded for the PTSO lake. PTSO stands for Penga Ten Tso. This lake was also extensively shown in the movie Koyla. The lake is about 15 km up from Tawang. On its base there is an army outpost where you need to enter your details and video cameras are prohibited. After going a few kilometers, there just snow and only snows. The lake and its approach were covered in at least 3 / 4 feet of snow. It was fresh unlittered snow. Snow is why people travel to far away places. But it can be seen at just 500 kms away from Guwahati. We slid, jumped and did anything we could in knee-deep snow. There was no one except us. Few kilometers up from here, you can actually see Chinese army outposts.
We came back to the town for lunch. The place has more army personnel than its local population. All supplies come from Tezpur. There is very little option for dining. There are garages, which also repair punctured tyres and a petrol pump which is on the outer end of the town. We spent the rest of the day in relaxing.
A memorable journey was coming to an end. On our way back we stayed for two nights at Dirang. We were peacefully cut off from the hardships and pains of the rest of the world with no newspapers. We bought the entire catch from a fisherman who was angling in a rivulet in the hill. After driving all day and most of the night, we finally reached home at 2 am in the morning. Even now, whenever I drive on a cloudy day in the hills, specially through the Kaziranga National Park, memories of that trip to Tawang keeps coming back. It was five days of pure thrill, fun and adventure.