We booked flight tickets to Uttarakhand for a family trip about six months ago, long before nature ravaged the state. Once news of the floods broke out, chances of it materialising seemed dim.
But I prayed that it would. Why? I really wanted to see the situation on-ground for myself. Unsure till 15 days before the trip, we had no plan. We just packed our bags and took off for Dehradun on September 26.
We first explored the Kumaon region with Naukuchiatal as our base--trekking through a jungle, pulling leeches off our legs; ferrying to the nearby island aquarium in the middle of Bhimtal, and visiting Sattal (seven lakes) for river crossing and delicious rajma, rice and kheer. We spent an entire day at Nainital, twisting and turning through the caverns of Cave Garden, horse riding on the hills, shopping at the Tibetan market, boating on Lake Naini and gorging delicious street chaat. Jim Corbett National Park wasn't too far either, so we stayed there overnight and after dreaming of roars and howls, we did the safari next morning.
The world of exotic and colourful fish at Bhimtal's island aquarium
Kumaon showed no physical signs of damage, but the topic of floods always came up; we anxiously checked with locals whether it was safe to go to Garhwal for the Valley of Flowers trek and a short stay at Auli.Unsure about the real situation, people speculated about landslides and road blocks. Not convinced, I called Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN). Officials confirmed: trek routes were open, roads were motorable and it was safe! Friends adviced me against wasting a day in travel, but the decision was made. We headed to Garhwal.
And I’m glad we did. The route from Jim Corbett to Joshimath via Karnaprayag was mind blowing. Thehilly terrain had scenic views of a variety of trees, open cloudy skies and lovely waterfalls. The village life was engaging too--women carrying sticks on their shoulders and heads and school kids at their playfull best, even asked us for a lift. Close to a hairpin turn, some boys played at a makeshift throwball court with the net tied to trees at two ends of the road. I loved their passion, but worried that one wrong step and ‘Jack would tumble down the hill’. The driver assured, “unke ghar pahad ke beech mein hote hain, unko aadat hai.”
He was a chatty chap, but as we neared Garhwal, his anxiety was obvious. He recalled post flood images and began pointing out badly affected areas, like a guide points out tourist attractions. At this, my father visibly tensed, his hands clutched the car's upper handle. By 8 pm it was dark, but Joshimath was far, so we halted at Karnaprayag for the night.
Our room overlooked the confluence of rivers, Pindar and Alakananda, on one side and repair work in the flood-damaged section of the hotel, on the other. Reality began to sink in and on reaching Auli the next day, it hit us with full force.
Of Auli's three hotels, one was temporarily shut, another was empty and the government ski resort we stayed at had no other guests. Could off-season be part of the reason? "No" The manager said, “we have good occupancy throughout the year, but tourists aren’t coming after the floods.”
At first, the deserted feel of the hotel dampened our spirits, but soon we were enjoying the benefits. We got the best rooms without prior booking, that too at a good bargain. The manager did his best to give us a great experience. Not expecting guests, the kitchen wasn’t well stocked--we placed dinner orders at lunchtime and lunch orders post dinner, but he arranged a difficult-to-find kali bhat ki daal, and made a spicy tomato chutney for us. Surely such special treatment wouldn't be given in the normal scenario.
Even though we made it to Garhwal, the Valley of Flowers trek wasn’t meant to be. The thin air didn't suit mom. What now? The manager saved the day again! He arranged for a shorter trek in Auli and insisted, “You’ve reached here, you must go to Badrinath.” The road to the shrine was still shut, but he made inquiries and arranged for our stay.
Beauty and the beast walked hand in hand en route Badrinath. Thickly forested mountains were disturbingly bare in landslide affected spots. The rest of the rubble was headed down, but seemed like it had frozen in time. Workers were clearing the path and rebuilding it. The low body of Etios had our driver holding his breath. He feared that if hit, the damage to the car would be great.
The route had just opened, so the only others plying were people whose cars were stranded there since June.
Mountains smoke fog at Mana village
At the temple town, one could barely see a soul and the hotel had been opened only for us. Expecting a meal would mean asking for too much. After checking in, we immediately headed to Mana (small village 3 kms away) on the manager's recommendation. Its villagers consist of the Bhutia tribe, who live in Mana for six months and migrate to Gopeshwar once winter sets in. It shares its border with Tibet, and the local language is similar to Chinese. As we walked around the village, locals spontaneously helped with directions, but also lamented about the dearth of supplies and tourism since June. If Auli had splashes of flourescent green and snowy Himalayan peaks, at Mana the mountains seemed just a touch away. History buffs should check out the 5321-year-old, Vyas Gufa (cave), where Rishi Ved Vyas composed the Mahabharat, and Bhim Pul (bridge), built as Bhim lifted a huge rock to help the Pandavas cross river Sarawati. Glassy blue falls gushed near Bhim Pul and mountains smoked fog beyond the stone houses.
Putting your hands together at Badrinath Temple
Badrinath temple was surprisingly full during the evening aarti; worshippers and pundits alike told us how lucky we were, “Aap aur kabhi aate, to do minute ke darshan bhi nahin kar pate” Dinner was at a thali place near the temple.
The count down to Mumbai began, as we left for Rishikesh, our last destination. If going uphill was tough, backtracking from Badrinath was tougher. Influx of vehicles worsened the road in one day. Our collective weight further lowered the car’s body, so we got off at bad patches and hopped back in, on reaching less treacherous parts. At one spot stones started falling off the hill, and ahead a truck got stuck under a rock, holding up the traffic for 30 minutes.
Sighting a leopard as it jumped from the hill and crossed the road, near Rishikesh, made up for the bumpy ride. The famous Shiv idol there is known to drown often, and couldn't escape Ganga's wrath even this year. Our guide recalled rescuing people on his raft; water filled upto eight feet in his house. Rafting, as usual, was amazing. I even dived from a cliff 25-feet-high, my next target is to dive from 45 feet.
Phew! This is where the trip ends. We returned home after an adventurous and unforgettable trip, loving every breathtaking and heartbreaking bit of it.
Images by Pooja Bhula
Image of Bhimtal island aquarium by www.nainitaltourism.com