Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tour of Uttarakhand - Chopta Tunganath Part 6

Part 1  National Chambal Sanctuary
Part 2  Meerut - Lansdowne
Part 3 Joshimath
Part 4 Badrinath
Part 5 Auli - Tapovan - Kanchula Kharak
Part 6 Chopta Tunganath is here.
Part 7 Devariyatal (Deoriatal) is here.
Part 8 Kakdagaad Haridwar is here.

We hit the road at 0445 hrs with the chief aim of sighting some bird/animal life predawn on the drive to Chopta. No disappointment there… just after we drive out of Kanchula, we see a pair of Collared Blackbirds foraging at a grassy patch near the road but the light is impossibly low and the pictures are poor. 

White collared Blackbird

All the same, the excitement is now up with everybody keeping their eyes peeled for any movement in the shadows of the early morning. The Himalayan Monal also decides to give us ring-side views but scampers up the hillside as the traffic and blaring of horns on the road grows. High up on the inaccessible slopes are the Tahrs nimbly jumping from one craggy foothold to another in search of nutritious grasses at these remote places.
For breakfast at Chopta the options are very limited. Maggi or Parathas. So, parathas it is. After ordering 2 per head, we are shocked to discover the size. They are absolutely gigantic! Though delectable, there is no way on earth we can manage more than one each. The owner is very sweet and offers to cancel the second one without us having asked. Back home in the swish urban centres of so-called ‘modern’ India, this excess would have been wasted. Here, the local folk are more obliging and food is freshly cooked and served; therefore it is easy to cancel the remaining order. We make it a point to patronize this dhaba for the rest of our stay here.

In the cool morning air, the mist hangs so low that there is no visibility to speak of. We cannot even see the other side of the valley. In these conditions, we start our walk up the mountain. Of all the panch Kedar trek routes, Tunganath is the shortest at 3.5 Kms from Chopta. The trek is a moderate climb from 9600 ft to about 12000 ft. The first couple of hundred metres make us pant both due to the steep nature of the trail initially as well as the fact that it is a cold start. As the trail wears on and our bodies get warmed up, it is much easier going! Very soon, we come upon the most beautiful bugyal (grassy meadow) and the sun god also decides to smile down on us. Akin to the picture postcard images of Switzerland, one can only behold and admire that  glorious panorama.... no wonder Chopta area is called the ‘Switzerland of the East’! 


Entrance to the Tunganath trek

Wild flowers all along the trail


Chopta - Switzerland of the east

Chopta - Switzerland of the east




We stop and gaze in wonder at the unfolding scenery when two Himalayan Monals smoothly glide into the meadow and start foraging around. Spellbound, we soak up the splendour of the multihued Monals as they catch the golden sunlight.   

Himalayan Monal



Just then our attention is caught by a big bird which has just alighted on the top of one of the trees. The angle is perfect. The sun is shining on the bird and the height is right. Only thing is that the distance is slightly more than ideal. Even then, we are happy to click the Griffon basking in the morning sun! 

Himalayan Griffon

Griffon


The Chaukhamba is now visible as a very faint outline of silvery white in the north. To the left of Chaukhamba, we can hazily see the Kedarnath peak. We are hoping that the rising sun will illuminate the northern peaks better as it climbs higher in the sky. Unfortunately, that is not to be...even upon further ascent, the clouds and the perpetual mist hanging in the air puts paid to any chances of good views and thus good pictures of the famed northern peaks. This record shot of the Chaukhamba is all I manage... 


Chaukhamba... after much enhancement!

Very poor visibility

A little ahead we see the first shop on the track which is basically a place to have some tea, Buran juice (rhododendron juice) which is said to be good for the heart and some bottled water, biscuits and the like. Serves as a little place to catch your breath and soak up the picture perfect surroundings. Henceforth, these small shops pop up at regular intervals. We maintain a steady though slow pace and take very short breathers as we climb so as not to break the rhythm of the climb. Roughly half-way up, we take a longish break of 10 mins where we are treated to another lifer! We see a pair of Collared Grosbeak. The very bright yellow and black male is very conspicuous and the female is discovered only accidently when we notice movement close to the male. The long tailed Minivets, Flycatchers and Laughingthrushes are all around.


Collared Grosbeak (Female)

Collared Grosbeak (Male)


The treeline is just about here and hereafter, it’ll just be stunted rhododendron bushes or grassy meadows further up. The rhododendron is in full bloom and the sight is breathtaking! 

Rhododendron Flowers

Stunted Rhododendron bushes in full bloom


Soon, Devdarshini is reached from where one gets the first glimpse of the Tunganath temple.  

Devdarshini

View from Devdarshini down




Ganesh temple


Just ahead is the Ganesh temple from where we veer off the path to see the beautiful views on the right flank of the mountain. It is a sheer cliff and the gorge down below is really very deep and slightly unsettling when one stands on the edge as we were! Admiring the rugged beauty of the sheep cliff, we are amazed to see a few Tahrs perched on a little ledge, unmindful of the precipitous drop below or the absolutely vertical character of the precipice above! 

Himalayan Tahrs

Vertical Cliffs

Centre of the pic has the Tahr

Sheer Cliffs

Ravan Shila is hypothetically the place where Ravan, the King of Lanka prayed to Lord Shiva. The peak of this mountain, Chandrashila is where Lord Ram also is supposed to have prayed to Lord Shiva. Legends abound in this ‘Abode of the Gods’!


Entrance arch to the Tunganath Temple

Ravan Shila
 We reach the temple complex and the small cluster of hotels and guesthouses around with a sense of achievement.  The next thing to do is to find a place to stay at for the night which we haven’t booked in advance. The Kali Kambli Dharamshala is full. A couple of others are also booked. The last one up towards the temple, Ganesh Hotel is where we get a room. He also has just the one room left with 6 beds. It is a medium sized room with the beds all set out together so that one has to crawl onto the outer bed to get to the inner ones. A very rudimentary toilet is attached. No running water, just the Indian style toilet which is quite clean and a small window which allows light in to see by. No electricity anywhere in these parts anyway. Suits us. As long as the toilet is clean, we are not finicky.

I perch myself on the flat rock outside the Ganesh Hotel to warm up in the meagre sunlight and watch the devotees go by with puja thalis up to the temple to offer prayers. 


Pilgrims with puja thalis

It is an enchanting old temple. Painted brightly on the outside it is without the customary intricate carvings adorning the exteriors as seen in most temples that I have seen. The peace that surrounds the entire area is palpable. It is said to be the highest Shiva shrine in the world and the highest of the Panch Kedars. The temple is believed to be 1000 years old and is second in the pecking order of the Panch Kedars. 

There is a nice tale attached to this.  Mythology states that Maharishi Vyas advised the Pandavas that since they were culpable of slaying their own relatives (Kauravas, their cousins) during the Mahabharata war, their act could be pardoned only by Lord Shiva. Consequently, the Pandavas went in search of Lord Shiva who was avoiding them since he was convinced of the guilt of the Pandavas. In order to keep away from them, Shiva took the form of a bull and went into hiding in an underground safe haven at Guptakashi where the Pandavas chased him. But later Shiva’s body in the form of bull’s body parts rematerialized at five different locations that represent the “Panch Kedar” where Pandavas built temples of Lord Shiva at each location, to worship and venerate, seeking his pardon and blessings. Each one is identified with a part of his body; Tungnath is identified as the place where the bahu (hands) were seen; the hump was seen at Kedarnath; the head appeared at Rudranath; his navel and stomach surfaced at Madhyamaheshwar; and his jata (hair or locks) at Kalpeshwar.

The handful of shops cum hotels there sell puja thalis also among other basics. We proceed to buy a puja thali and go for the darshan. The pujari, Pandit Maithani, a local Brahmin from the village of Makku close by does the pujan for us. A refreshing change from most temples is the complete lack of any pressure to make any donations either to the pujari or in the box kept at the site. The nagging overt and/or implied pressure to make monetary donations taken out of the equation enriches the experience and makes me feel genuinely blessed! 

Tunganath Temple with the Pujari Pandit Maithani


We place a lunch order as we check into the hotel so lunch is ready as we come down after the pujan. Freshly prepared dal, roti, subji and chawal are delicious! Some of us elect to take rest, two others decide to go back down to Chopta and climb up again... just for fun and for lack of something to do! I am loathe to waste my time indoors so I take a turn around the meadow carpeted with beautiful wild flowers and a few tourists enjoying the views. The southern face has the sheer cliffs we have seen on the way up... a large flat stone on the edge of the cliff beckons and I settle myself on it. This is pure bliss! I spend a pleasurable couple of hours there in solitude.
The chill wind gusting up from the valley coupled with the hide and seek of the sun (more hide than seek!) makes the air unpleasantly cold. I walk around to keep warm watching the numerous jungle crows waiting for opportunities to grab a few morsels from a few picnicking folks. The two members of our group have already arrived from their second ascent.
Now and again, a Griffon or a Lammergeier is visible riding the wind currents keeping a sharp eye out for a careless Pika or any other prey. The little birds are out for a last forage around before it turns dark. We watch the redstarts hopping around when we spot the Lammergeier perched on the distant rock facing the hotel. The crows chase it off but not before we manage a few shots... 

Lammergeier

Lammergeier or the Bearded Vulture

White capped water Redstart



The sky darkens and within minutes it is raining hailstones. The few of us who are out rush indoors to the safety and warmth of the cooking fires. The conditions are positively frigid by now and for the rest of the evening, I am obsessed with trying to keep warm. 

Cooking in candlelight

The almost frozen dewdrops on the flowers and leaves in the morning are a sight to behold! Like little pearls shining in the grasses... The Pikas are out nibbling at this banquet laid out as if just for them! 



Royle's Pika


The views are veiled by the persistent mist therefore we do not tarry there but decide to head back straight after breakfast. The walk downhill is easier though a little hard on the knees. We reach Chopta without incident, have lunch at the dhaba there and retire to Kanchula for the day.


Tomorrow is another big day as we go to Devariyatal covered in the next post.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tour of Uttarakhand - Auli - Tapovan - Kanchula Kharak

Part 1 National Chambal Sanctuary is here.
Part 2 Lansdowne is here.
Part 3 Enroute Joshimath is here.
Part 4 Badrinath is here.
Part 5 Auli - Tapovan - Kanchula Kharak is here.
Part 6 Chopta Tunganath is here.
Part 7 Devariyatal (Deoriatal) is here.
Part 8 Kakdagaad Haridwar is here. 

Day 7

Auli was planned in the fore noon and Tapovan in the afternoon for today. Set out for Auli early with intent to stop at any suitable place on the roadside for a breakfast of fruits which we were carrying. As we climbed the mountain towards Auli, it became clear that the haze in the atmosphere at this time of the year will spoil all our chances of a good view of the Nanda Devi from the top.

Found the route to be very pretty... a fairly well paved road with quaint houses on the slopes, most boasting of garden absolutely bursting with flowers that a plains-dweller can only dream about! Half way up, we came upon a wide-ish stretch of road where we decided to have our breakfast. What a treat that was to be surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks all around, the constant chirping of the birds around and the beautiful town of Joshimath nestled way down on the slope. Perfect place for a break!

Expectedly, there was no view from the top... at least not of Nanda Devi. That will have to wait for another time though Auli had been planned with the express purpose of viewing the highest Indian peak (Nanda Devi is the highest peak entirely in India, Kanchenjunga is part in Nepal) from there. The other peaks closer were visible. Did some birding there... a Red-billed Blue Magpie, Mistle Thrush, Blackbirds, Blue capped rock thrushs, Verditer Flycatchers being the most abundant along with the Himalayan Bulbuls.

Blue capped rock thrush

Verditer Flycatcher

Grey winged Blackbird (f)

European Goldfinch

Spotted Dove
 Back for lunch and the set off for Tapovan and the hot springs. The road has been damaged in portions to the point where driving is a treacherous, laborious experience. All along the Dhauliganga which flows deep in the valley below are new Hydel projects coming up completely ruining the beauty of the place. It is now just a concrete jungle networked with dusty narrow roads where tens of trucks ply for the construction needs of the corporations and a blatant disregard for the very fragile ecology of the region. Now one can understand the reason for the scale of the disaster that hit Uttarakhand this June.


Niti Valley

Hydel Projects under construction

Golden fields ready for harvest

Harvested crop





When we reached Tapovan, we expected to see some signboards for the Hot Springs but saw nothing. On enquiry, we were told they are further up the road by about 3 kms. We rounded a rather sharp bend and abruptly came upon the Sulphur Springs. There is no signboard there but the smell of sulphur hangs strongly in the air. I was surprised to actually see the water bubble up through the many vents and boil over the edges and flow across the road. Some distance away, the natural runoff from the spring was collecting in a little Kund (man-made) where one can attempt to have a bath with these medicinal waters. By now the water is just ‘very hot’ from ‘boiling’ a few metres away.  Very interesting place!


Sulphur spring at Tapovan

Hot spring at Tapovan


Came back to Joshimath and got busy packing for destination ‘Kanchula Kharak’ tomorrow.

Day 8

A comfortable 0700hrs start saw us leisurely driving towards Chamoli, across the bridge over the Alaknanda and on towards Gopeshwar, the capital of Chamoli district. Gopeshwar is at a fair height and the road winds up rather steeply ascending towards it. The roads are very constricted and at times badly in need of repair making our progress slow. As we took the road out of town in the direction of Mandal, Chopta and Ukhimath, we realised that we were probably on the narrowest roads we’ve encountered on the trip so far.  On the one side of the road was the steep hillside and the other a drop of maybe ten thousand feet! Very picturesque though and would have been even more enchanting but for the heavy traffic from the Chardham Yatra (this is the shortest route between Kedarnath and Badrinath). 
Car wash point!

Gopeshwar

Road out of Gopeshwar towards Mandal

The gently meandering road took us through Mandal and then through very dense forests to Kanchula Kharak. Kanchula was a forest dept. Musk Deer breeding centre which is now non-operational. There is not much there but for a very nice bamboo cottage with two bedrooms and a common dining-drawing area.


On reaching we realised that there is no provision for meals and one has to drive to Chopta about 8 kms away for food. Drove there and had lunch at a dhaba which was quite good. Spent the evening walking up and down the mountainsides around Kanchula bird-watching and generally getting the feel of the place. The bird watching was very good... lots and lots to explore here...!

Touring officers rest house, Kanchula Kharak

Dense forests enroute Kanchula Kharak

Moss laden trees

Royle's Pica

Bar throated Siva

Black throated Tit

Himalayan Monal

Monal

Variegated Laughingthrush

White capped water redstart