"Truly exotic" is a gross understatement. If you want the true feel of Gadval, RoopKund is one trek you ought to do. Quick rating: Memorable, Pleasurable and Moderately tough.
Here's a quick day-wise recount of things that happened.
== Day 1. Delhi To Haridwar ==
Delhi heat kills. As outgoing as I am, and as inviting as that Bikaner Sweets place is, I hardly found much motivation to get out of the room we had taken in Pahad Ganj. I originally planned to attend a couple of catch-up sessions and BarCamps that were to be scheduled in Delhi at that time, but I gave up soon. Grand Madras Cafe at Pahad Ganj should be a good example of What-South-Indian-Food-Shouldn't-Be but is, everywhere up in the North.
Come evening, and we duly took a train to Haridwar. A word of mention about the Old Delhi railway station - It is by far the dirtiest I've seen in a long time. Earlier, we ate to our hearts' gluttony at Haldirams, Chandni Chowk. And oh, We met a few Tams in the train who proved the popular myth that you can't get by in North India without Hindi, completely wrong.
The journey to Haridwar was uneventful, except ofcourse the initial hassles of interchanged seats and allotment of new seats by the TC, thanks to Laloo's introduction of extra seats in every compartment.
==Day 2. Haridvar to Gwaldham ==
The train journey proved to be a nightmare, With arbitrary people incessantly coming in and out of the train. I took to the door, post Ghaziabad and kept awake for the rest of the night.
It's something about Haridwar that evokes pleasant emotions in me, and I've found that this isn't the first or second time I've felt so either. It's probably the sight of Ganga perhaps. Nonetheless, it was a huge relief to reach Haridwar in the morning. Our friendly neighborhood person Karan Singh was waiting for us at the Railway station. We set off as soon as we offloaded from the train. I would've loved a quick dip in the Ganga (or atleast some food at Mathura-vala), but it wasn't to be.
We set off towards Gwaldham late in the morning. For people who don't know, Gwaldham is a popular (and cheap-ish) hill station in the Gadhwal. It is some way ahead of karNaprayAg, about 8000ft above sea level, and has excellent face-on views of both NandAgunTi and Trishul.
The ride was bumpy, torrid and strenuous. But traveling anywhere in the Himalayas is an experience like no other. I've often wondered what makes it so special, but I've found no answers that are conclusively reasonable. Each element in the unchanging landscape of mountains, some high and some low.. some close and some far, some white and some green, the omnipresent Ganga whose flow rages on as mightily as ever and almost makes it seem like the mountains have moved out of their way(s) to accommodate her in there. Is it a conglomerate of this remarkable geography or is it something further more symbolic? That the Ganga is more than just a river to us? That it represents the unchanging fabric and culture of this land, amidst the winding roads of time and the incessant landslides that have come forth?
Whatever it may be, The Ganga and her tacit flow through the holy mountains, the unending trail of her origin in every direction, the grace in her stride through every crevice and opening she flows out of, evokes an extremely personal feeling of emotional intimacy to me. The Ganga and the Himalayas are rightfully so deserving of the place they hold in Indian spirituality.
== Day 3. Gwaldham to Wan ==
The arrival at Gwaldham was so late the previous night that we had taken no time to hit the sack (and stick to it). Our skeletal assemblies had taken quite a beating already and the pleasant bone chattering cold at Gwaldham managed to provide us absolutely comatose sleep. After a sizeable Gadwali breakfast, We got back into our Vehicle, for the onward journey towards Lohajung.
If the route was exotic the previous day, wading through the populated himalayan valleys, Today it was, well. Out-of-the-world. Trishul and NandagunTi were in full Majestic view all through the route and the scenes through the journey were spellbinding.
We managed to get to Lohajung towards the afternoon. Although this was only 50KM or so, we had a couple of stoppages thanks to a flat tyre, as well as a landslide at one of the places along the way.
Lohajung was also the 'last' of a bunch of things - viz. Civilization as such. Or, settlement rather. Not to mention, any kind of motorable road, as well as Cellphone signal (My Cellone signal was the only one that survived till Lohajung in the first place).
After a 'Chinese' lunch at Lohajung, We started off on a Bumpy Jeep ride through till vAN, which was to be the node-de-starte for the trek. We met a couple of people (bikers, actually) who had attempted RoopKund a couple of days back and had run into no dearth of troubles. (It supposedly snowed heavily at Bedni Bugyal - Camp #1).
We reached vAN late in the evening, pitched tents and interacted quite a bit with locals, especially the exceptionally cute Gadvali children. Dinner was served at 9PM, on a night which gave us quite some idea of how cold it gets in the Himalayas. Out of casual interest, I tried introducing a few people into Astronomy and Observing which happens to be a pet obsession for me. Atleast the pointing-out-constellations part was received well by the group, which was pretty heartening. I later found out that a couple of people in the group were also part of The Goan Astronomical Club(?), but had lost their hobby for a while now.
The sky remained crystal clear through the night.
== Day 4, vAN to Bedni Bugyal ==
The trek begins, officially. The rules are simple. Carry your own load of happiness (in my case, this was a load of 12 Kilos, which I regretted ever so much), and climb. vAN is a cozy little himAlayan village at a height of about 8,000 ft. The closest place for anything necessary (as in medicines, cellphone range, Lays chips, Pepsi..:P) is Lohajung which is 20KM or so away by road (if you assume that it is a road, that is).
The first destination from vAN is Bedni Bugyal, where we were to camp for the night. Now, Bedni is at a height of about 12,000 ft. So that's a 4000ft 'lift-kara-dEy' that you need. It's actually harder than that because you will be descending and ascending at a lot of places.
I tried (in vain) to keep the pace up, but found myself straining hopelessly. Quick word of experience. Drink lots of water and donot gain height faster than you take it, for that'll lead to severe altitude acclimatization issues.
The perspiring 4000ft gain on day 1 of the trek certainly gets your engine revving, but for the faint hearted amongst you, it also could give you no dearth of fear, uncertainty and doubt about whether or not you could do the next two days.
Ultimately, it's an exotic experience to reach Bedni Bugyal after all that. I managed to reach only late in the afternoon, but it's relief right at the first instant, I tell you.
== Day 5. Bedni Bugyal ==
In Gadwali, A 'bugyal' means a pasture. Now Bedni Bugyal is a high altitude pasture, at about 12,000 ft. All you see here are endless grass pastures on up-and-down hilly landscapes, the snow clad mountains in the far background, incessant depressions in between the hills carving out little valleys here and there. You'll also notice the steeply receding treelines below you at about 11,000 ft. Bedni bugyal also has a couple of 'Gujjar huts' which is where people camp. There's also something of an artificial water body around this place, where I managed to get some excellent pictures of Trishul and NandagunTi reflecting off the evening sun.
Bedni is the first place on the trip where you get the tangible feel of the himalaya. As mentioned previously, the grasslands are so inviting that you'd want to roll all over (uh..at the risk of falling off something though). The silence is apparent and almost overwhelming at times.
Right on arrival, Bedni made me go into one of my moods. Apart from sheer exclamation at the picturesque scenes around me, it made me ponder what I had been doing all these many years, taking as many years as I took, to find my true callings in life. Gradually, (possibly due to exhaustion and hunger), this feeling metamorphosed into something of a peaceful contentment.
It had snowed in Bedni two days before we went there. There were snow flakes still lying about.
Night time temperatures went chillingly low. If skies were excellent yesterday, today it was a few integral times better than the previously used adjective. Unfortunately, I found it exceedingly difficult to stay out for very long. The only refuge was that of the tent and the sleeping bad inside it.
I was later informed that the temperature was around 2 or 3. I din't fare too badly for a first timer, born and brought up in Bangalore's safe weather shell.
== Day 6. Bhagwabhasa ==
You need to make the move early, to Bhagwabhasa. That means that you need to be done with daily particulars early. Have no insistence on water, and be generous with the toilet paper, lest you want a frostbite. There was a freezing cold stream very close by that we all took to.
After a formality of a breakfast, we took to traversing across the Bugyal. Toughened up, both physically and psychologically, we were prepared to have a long day today. After a descend through the Bugyal for more than an hour, we finally climbed back up to the trail that would lead us to Bhagvabhasa.
If you're lucky enough to have clear days, you will also get to see fantastic views of some other major himAlayan ranges through the trek. We were pretty lucky, to say the least. We got some stunning peeks at Chaukamba, Neelkanth (The one near Badrinath) through the trek.
The first notable place that you'll hit on the route is 'The View point'. Well this place does have some name to it, which I can't seem to recall, but you normally get there within an hour or so. This is where the bugyal-ous hills around you make way for a panoramic view of Trishul.
After spending some time here, we started off on a rapid descent for the next hour and a half or so. The climb after this patch was tough and super steep. If it was the quantity the previous days (A net 4500Ft ascent), today it was the quality. The speed was painstakingly slow for all the humans, excepting for the kachchars (the mountain goats) and the locals (no pun intended).
Garhwali people are the same as Kumaoni (excepting linguistically, ofcourse) and much the same as all mountain inhabiting tribes. They are small(by height) and stockily built and immensely strong and made for the mountains. Fiercely patriotic by tradition, the Gadwal Rifles are the pride of Indian Army and to this day, joining the Army is nearly a matter of tradition (and occupation) in here. Agriculture is scarcely possible, if at all, on lower altitude terraces and slopes.
Nonetheless, after a stride-counting climb of 3 hours or so, we finally managed to reach Kallu Vinayak pass, and amidst a drastic weather change that fogged up visibility to a few metres too. Now, getting to Kallu Vinayak pass (the name comes from the statue of Lord Ganapati that's here), is nearly 90% of the work, for hereinafter it's a level road or a gradual descent towards Bhagvabhasa.
The snow line too, begins abruptly from Kallu Vinayak pass. The air is noticeably thin, and the weather gets bone-hurtingly chilly. Somebody in the group noticed that the snow was bad this time around, in comparison with the previous time he made it here. In conclusion, Donot go to Roopkund in the last week of September. Go there in the first week instead. After an hour of snow kicking, we finally made it to Bhagwabhasa where we found some amazingly stinky stone huts well laden with Kachchar-dung.
== Day 7. To RoopKund and back to Bhagwabhasa ==
I'll assume that I was talking compartive degrees so far. All the superlatives are reserved for Bhaghwabhasa. Now it got really really really cold the previous night. So bad that somebody in the group lost a nut (maybe other things too) and had a bad altitude-fit (read as temper).
Later, I found out that the nightly temperature was about -15 or so. That we were camping on snow hardly helped the cause, and sleeping without socks or gloves was impossible. Water was scarce and some people had already done the unnecessary mischief of trying to 'eat' ice as water. This is a bad thing (TM) to do since it erodes more heat from your body and can exhaust you really quick.
Nonetheless, the very thought of having to spend two nights at Bhagwabhasa was depressing enough. Sleep never came by. The wait for daylight (and some dayheat) was agonizing. The early start wasn't hard to make, in here.
We set off for the RoopKund ascent (15,600ft) from BhagwaBhasa (14.200ft) at about 8:30AM in the morning. Thankfully, we carried no loads (we were to make it back to Bhagwabhasa by evening) excepting for cameras and water. Kicking through snow on normal boots was hard, as we found out soon enough. My progress was steady and fast, until one point where I tried to traverse the curve linearly, instead of the common-sense path (curvi-linear). I soon found myself drifting down towards a 2500ft drop, screaming for help. Thankfully, somebody just ahead of me was in hearing range and I was heroically saved from certain death. I too, on my part (after the initial lack of common sense) found myself sensible and strong in crisis, in that I managed to gather all strength and will power in me to dig my right knee into the snow wall and stay stuck for a couple of minutes.
After that Near Death Experience however, I found myself terribly shaky in the legs for the next hour or so. People who had stayed behind caught up by then, and I too reluctantly egged on towards the final destination now well within visibility.
What was to come ofcourse, was the toughest part - An 80 Degree (uh.. 70 maybe?) incline to separate you from the top. Going four legged was no longer an embarrassment, and eventually I made it to the top in an hour. It was well past mid-noon by then.
RoopKund ofcourse, remained the highlight of the trip. The lake itself was completely covered in snow. We din't dare go down to the lake at the risk of causing an avalanche. Unfortunately there weren't any skeletons we could see, and neither were any bones. Most of them were possibly within the confines of the glacial lake, which we could barely make out. The only souvenir we found was a lone skull, which we promptly posed with, for all the photographs.
Of the 16 people who set out initially, only 8 people made it to the top. Considering the fact that they put up reasonably well with the drudgery of the first two days, RoopKund might rank as a trek on the tougher side of things. One particular person, an elderly one (60!) at that, could have made it to the top, in my opinion, But she too gave up some way beyond Bhagwabhasa thanks to the scary opinions she received from one of the porters.
We had very limited time to spend at RoopKund, and we found out why as soon as we reached. Himalayan weather, as unpredictable as it is, took a sudden turn for the worse, and the visibility
again zeroed out, with the fog thickening and snow starting to come down. We instantly got the chills about the victims of RoopKund, who were killed by a hailstorm, one several times worse than the one we were in, but symbolic of the unforgiving himalayan climate all the same.
Beyond RoopKund, About 500ft beyond a steep snow wall lies the Junargali pass, at an altitude of about 16,200Ft. And beyond that (and a 4000ft drop) lies ShilAsamudra. Although we couldn't get to do that route (which one guy in our troop had done before), all of us agreed that this was going to be another thing on the ToDoList, as well as an excuse to do RoopKund once more.
The descent was quick (atleast for me), and I made it back to our camp at Bhagwabhasa by late afternoon, amidst murky weather and flaky snow. RoopKund had finally been conquered, but spending the night again at Bhagwabhasa would still give us the blues for times to come.
The skies at Bhagwabhasa were stunning and beyond words. These were truly class I on the Bortle scale of sky gradation. M33 - The triangulum galaxy was easily visible naked eye, even without the use of averted vision. It was probably the altitude, that I couldn't think of attempting M81 aka the Bode's Nebula in Ursa Major. Whatever the skies maybe, the only thing that you'll see in Bhagwabhasa is some warmth, which we scarcely found, even in our sleeping bags with 3 layers of clothing on us, and a cup of hot chai - which too wasn't possible that night, thanks to our gas reserves running out.
1 week into the trip, Amidst a lot of fear, uncertainity and doubt, Roopkund was a place that provided us much to hope for, and managed to live up to every bit of it.
== Day 8, Ali Bugyal ==
We were happy to be 'delocalizing' from Bhagwabhasa. Two nights there had taken quite a lot out of us. Originally, we had a reserve day for Roopkund, just in case things went wrong. Fortunately for us, everything had gone according to plan, and even the folks who couldn't make it to RoopKund on day one showed no further enthusiasm to make it, but on the contrary, were happy to be making the downward descent.
Here, I'll deviate to iterate some more mountain-common-sense. Never ever ever go anywhere in the snow without snow goggles. A friend of mine and I became involuntary guinea pigs of this ridiculous experiment, and the consequences thereinafter spoke for themselves. While we did safely make it back to camp the previous day, We only realized the worst was yet in waiting.
Through the night, our eyes watered like there's no tomorrow. It wasn't just the bucketfulls of watery discharge, but uncontrollable burning to go along with it. So it's like this: You keep your eyes open and they'll discharge. Keep them closed and try to sleep? They'll burn. So we had to endure this torture for the next 3 days or so, before it resolved itself. By this time, I also had skin peeling off every part of my face (Thanks to being overtly 'manly' about it), and a bad cold to deal with.
We quickly passed by Kallu Vinayak and descended all the way until Bedni by afternoon, only to run into more bad weather and a sprinkle of a shower. Well, atleast the good part was that it wasn't snow any more, but getting wet wasn't too inviting either. Thankfully, the weather bettered over the next couple of hours and no drastic action was necessary.
We decided that we would utilize the reserve day flexibility to go straight to Ali Bugyal - one more picturesque pasture a few kilmetres away from Bedni. And so we did. Ali Bugyal is at about 11,000 ft, and far more greener than Bedni and with more outstanding views of Trishul. The receding treeline is far closer and our starting point - wAN was actually visible from here. We camped close to a water source, thanked our stars for the excellent trek until now and slept a comatose sleep.
The world (read: temperatures) felt bearable again.
== Day 9, TolpAni ==
After some 'Maggi Noodles' for breakfast and a really lazy morning, we started for TolpAni - our next destination really late in the morning. This was partly due to our laziness (as I already mentioned), complacency (Hey.. We did RoopKund!) and admiration (Ali Bugyal is super-beautiful).
Even though it was to be all-descending, our knees were unwilling to pick up pace..Well, atleast mine was. Nonetheless life went on, and this proved to be a huge mistake.
The net descent was more than 4500ft on this day, and the descent seemed to go on and on and on. So we saw mountains initially, and then it was just the bugyals. We swooped into the forest treelines and the bugyals were no more. Even the forest vegetation changed in variety as we pressed onward on the downward descent. Water was no longer a problem, for we found pleasant streams and a couple of waterfalls along the way. The only problems were: The fatigue, and the second one being that some people lost their way. Thankfully, both these were self resolving and the tiresome day came to an end not before nightfall, until we were safely camped in tolpAni.
The trek was nearly nearly over. Some people chose to celebrate, raising the toast of chAng (a local brew) to the success of our exploits.
As a non participant, I was a little worried that somebody might topple over, considering that we had camped on a steep ledge.
== Day 10, Gwaldham ==
Last day of the trek. It was a 4 hour walk from TolpAni back to 'Lower-jung' (the not so pronounciation savvy had taken to calling it that..Bedni was 'higher-jung'). Honestly, even I was a little overcome with nostalgia, But I was happy to be going back.
All my life, I've believed that roaming pointlessly in the himalayas would be my ideal early retirement refuge, But this trek somehow told me that, I'm probably not capable of that, just as yet. Only the previous day in Ali Bugyal, despite knowing that the next cellphone signal on the normal well-trodden route would be only a day and a half away, I still endured in gluttony for torture - to coax one of the gadvali guys to guide me to a 'cellphone-point' somewhere 2 and a half hours uphill. The ultimate relief did come through when I found out that all's well my loved ones.
As much as the himalayas can be reflective of your insignificance, and the anti-objectivisitic desire to believe in the super natural, I believe what makes your day, or saves your day could be something very much from your daily scheme of things. If I ought to see pleasure in dispassion, I believe I'll be taking quite some time to acquire that taste.
Back to Lohajung, finally - Where we had started off a week back. The detour from the original plan of coming back the same way we went up was a timely one, for we got to see more facets of the Himalaya than we would have, otherwise.
We got into the same bus we had come in - and confined ourselves to the same posture crippling seats and savoured a few more torturous moments, before we made it back to the warm hotel in Gwaldham, which felt a lot warmer since the first time we made it there.
== Day 11, Rishikesh & Haridwar ==
Early start from Gwaldham, and an emotional parting from the upper himalayas and the views of Trishul. The only stop was at karNaprayAg for lunch as well as the SBI ATMs.
We managed to reach Rishikesh 'Marine drive' at about 6:00 o clock, and we were just in time for the last batch of raftride seekers. I unfortunately, couldn't be a part of this, owing to my bad knee. In retrospect, it wasn't all that bad, excepting for my paranoia.
Nonetheless, rafting in the Ganga is one thing every thrill seeker should do. Another friend in the same group and I made our minds up that we would do the 'real' thing - A rafting camp spanning 7 days, from RudraprayAg, all the way until Rishikesh next year. This is yet to be fulfilled.
We reached Haridwar precariously close to 10:00PM, the time our train was supposed to leave. After a scuffle with the local rickshaw-wallahs, we finally did get into our trains, but not without the initiall fright of having lost our tickets. After nearly making up our minds about trying to bribe the TC or preparing ourselves psychologically for being deboarded, we found relief in finding the tickets again. The story was symmetric in that we managed to muster up no sleep yet again.
== Day 12, Delhi ==
Back to Delhi early in the morning, and back to our Pahad Ganj abode. My days in Delhi would be hectic for the couple of days to come - Taking part in that Astronomy workshop, That Star Party at Haryana, The Meetings, The BarCamp, Pointless wandering in The Delhi Metro and further pointless trips to Saravana Bhavan in Karol Bagh. Inspite of all these temporal indulgences of everyday life, and now - nearly one half of an year after RoopKund, the calm and peace of Bedni Bugyal continues to haunt.