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Monday, November 23, 2020

With darkness brought by the pandemic, chasing light in the mountains

After months of relative isolation, a rejuvenating trek in Uttarakhand’s mountains

Written by Shyam Saran | November 22, 2020 6:45:23 am
Nanda deviNanda Devi at sunrise (Photo: Shyam Saran)

After months of being hunkered down in relative isolation to escape COVID-19 infection, there was an incipient stirring of life last month. I normally head to the mountains every autumn. So, the minute the trekking agency, whose services I often avail of, offered a brief trek in the Garhwal Himalayas, I grabbed at it. The trek, of course, had an impressive list of safeguards to protect against the virus. From temperature, pulse and oxygen saturation checks every morning and evening to daily sanitisation of trekking gear and a masked-and-gloved crew. Our group of three braved the early-November winter to head towards Matiya Bugyal in the north Tehri region.

These alpine meadows, at an altitude of 3,500 m, are framed by an amphitheatre of high snow-clad mountains, with the massive Chaukhamba at one end and the breathtaking Nanda Devi at the other. In the November sunrise and sunset, the mountains looked majestic. The pleasant, sun-filled bugyal (high-altitude meadow) was a most picturesque place to camp at. For two nights, we made Matiya Bugyal our base, taking shorter treks to some of the higher ridges, where the views get more dramatic.

Matiya Bugyal Horses grazing near Gujjar gravestones in Matiya Bugyal (Photo: Shyam Saran)

The road from Dehradun to Ghansali village in upper Tehri goes along the lake created by the Tehri dam — the highest in the country — before ascending towards Chamba. What used to be a sleepy little village just a few years ago when I last visited was now a substantial town spilling over the adjoining ridges. Ghansali, too, is an urban sprawl in the making. We spent the night at a small guest house with modern facilities. These routes have benefitted from pilgrim traffic once the towns of Gangotri and Badrinath became accessible by road. Pandemic notwithstanding, there was a fair amount of traffic on the roads. We learnt that this year Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath were to remain open until November 15 as the weather had been warmer than usual.

uttarakhand Shepherds descending with their flocks (Photo: Shyam Saran)

From Ghansali, we headed out next morning to Gwan village, where the road ends and our trek would commence from. It was a short two-hour drive. Our crew of guide, cook, helper and porters stood waiting along with a team of five ponies and their minders to carry our baggage. With the ponies loaded, off we headed into the mountains. The village had to be crossed before hitting the mountain trail. It was a typical Garhwal village with terraced fields of coarse grains, potatoes and mustard, with cattle and sheep grazing along hillsides.

Our first day’s trek was short but a steep ascent. We moved from a zone of subtropical vegetation to forests of golden oak and rhododendrons. This must be one of the few remaining stretches of oak in the country. One suspects that with more road-building, these pristine forests will inevitably be lost to the imperatives of development. We set up camp at a small clearing in the forest called the Gwan Manda, with lush greenery around its perimeter. Looking down into the valley in the clear afternoon sun, we could see the villages we had left behind.

The first day of walking had left us tired. Dinner was served early but, despite the cold, the view of the night sky kept us from crawling back into the tents. One of the great delights of mountain treks is gazing up at a sky studded with an incredible density of twinkling stars, to see the Milky Way stretch across the horizon as a river of bright silver, a sight which remains a distant dream in the polluted cities we live in.

Nanda Devi Nanda Devi and adjacent peaks rimmed with gold at sunrise (Photo: Shyam Saran)

Our trek next day took us to our destination, the Matiya Bugyal, over a gentler, less-inclined path, threading our way through forests of oak and occasional pines. The snow mountains came into view, dominated by the Khatling, as we reached the open and rolling expanse of the Bugyal soon after noon. There is a route to Tapovan and Gaumukh across the Khatling glacier. The Khatling is followed by the Bhrigu Patthar, Thalay Sagar, Chaukhamba, Neelkanth and, finally, rising above all like a queen, the Nanda Devi peak. As the day advanced from sunrise to sunset, myriad hues mantled the Chaukhamba — mountain of four pillars — whose views commanded our camp. Not far from the camp were graves of nomadic Gujjar shepherds marked by rough-hewn stones. This is where shepherds graze their flocks of sheep in the summers and migrate to the lower valleys in winter. We met a flock on its descent to greener pastures.

Chaukhambha Chaukhambha from Matiya Bugyal (Photo: Shyam Saran)

On our last morning at Matiya, we went up a nearby ridge, Panwali Kantha, to get a panoramic view of the entire range. The sun, however, struck at an angle which put the main peaks in a light haze. It was still a grand sight. The ridge had several small shrines — visible from our camp — constructed by villagers in the memory of their deceased elders.

We couldn’t leave without having witnessed the sunrise over the Nanda Devi, so off we went up Jagdi Top ridge, freezing in the cold. The peak was silhouetted against a flaming orange and then bathed in golden light as the sun rose higher. It was an ethereal sight.
The descent to our camp, next to the village of Gwan Malla where children were playing cricket as curious villagers paid us friendly visits, was uneventful. On our drive back to Dehradun the next day, passing through Dhanaulti near Mussoorie, we caught a lovely view of Bandarpoonch mountain, which seemed to float against the deep-blue sky. With our spirits elevated, we were ready to face the troubled world again.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and an avid trekker

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