Mountains have always fascinated me. There is something about those towering peaks that has intrigued me and attracted me. Well, I am a Pahadi (mountain people) and I have lived most of my life in the valleys surrounded by the Shivaliks. And I have grown up listening to the stories of my grandmother and father. Stories about how they used to toil day in and day out with the hardships that come with the beauty of the Himalayas. Stories about how they used to walk many kilometers to bring wood and fodder. So, recently when I got the chance to trek on Panch Kedar route, I couldn’t resist the temptation.
Beautiful Urgam Valley
This is a moderate trek trailing through the middle Himalayas with heights ranging from 1000 to 3500 metres. I had an armyman for the company, an elder brother by relation. It was all his idea and I just tagged along. But as we came to know while trekking, ‘only that happens what the Shiva desires…’. So as it came to pass, me and him left Dehradun on 19th of September for Helang in Chamoli district. We expected to reach Urgam the same evening but couldn’t because of the unavailability of vehicle. The halt at Helang was luxarious by any standard. Its a station on Hrishikesh- Badrinath National Highway and hence the facilities. The toilet of the motel is what I will remember for my life!
Bathroom in Helang
The next morning we started on foot as the timing of vehicles on village roads is not very regular and so started our eleven day long trekking sojourn. Needless to say, the Himalayas offer so many beautiful sights that one could easily lost track of time in her lap. So, the first day, we hiked for around 7km along the road and were lucky enough to get a ride with a carrier truck for rest of the 6km. The local villagers were kind enough to offer us seats with the driver while they sat on the roof. And so we were in the beautiful valley of Urgam by noon. This valley is most famous for its large production of Apple, Rajma daal, Ram Dana and Potato and the picture perfect views that can easily take your breath away. This village ‘Devgram’, where we found our porter cum guide, can easily be a model village for development in the hilly areas. Our guide was happy to host us at his own home for the day and we couldn’t have missed the chance to enjoy some authentic Pahari delicacies.
That day, we visited the first of the Kedars on our list, Kalpeshwar Mahadev, where the locks of the Lord are worshipped. The temple, most of it under an engorged rock, is at a 2km walking distance from Devgram. River Kalph-ganga on the left and a beautiful waterfall form its boundary. The priests here are local villagers of Rajput caste (a rare phenomenon). We also met some Sadhus living there who were lost in ‘Shiva’. They offered us tea and sudden rain gave us few more hours to enjoy their company and the strange calm of a religious place. I had experienced this exact same calmness and peace at Jama Masjid in Delhi before. A visit in the evening to the Dhyan Badri ( Lord Vishnu in meditation) temple in nearby village called it a day.
Myself in front of Kalpeshar Temple- the engorged rock can be seen in background under which the main temple is located
The next day, we started for Rudranath where the face of Lord Shiva is worshipped. It takes three days to reach their and believe me when I say that these three days could offer you some of the most memorable moments of your life. The trail passes through the dense Deodar and Rhodedendron forests full of a number of big and small streams, and mesmerising meadows (local: bugyals) with beautiful lakes. Snowclad mountain ranges make for a great companion along the whole trail. The shear excitement of sighting wild animals including leopards, black bears, musk deers and birds like Monal peasants, mountain vultures, etc keep you on your toes and your fingers on the camera button.
Our trek started with the trail entering into the dense jungle just above the village. The forest was full of numerous water streams, this being the immediate post monsoon time. About two kilometre into the trek, we crossed an ashram cum temple by a big stream belonging to Urva Rishi, on whose name the whole valley is called Urgam Valley. After that, it was a continuous 6km upward stretch through the forest with a few occasional grassy patches giving us some time to catch our breath. The brilliant view of Chaukhamba and other mountain ranges helped as a distraction to the tiring upward walk. We had our packed lunch at the top of the peak and after a much needed break, we resumed our trek. We still had 10km to go till Dumak village, our night halt. But now, much to my happiness, it was a continuous downward walk on the opposite side of the peak we just ascended. This was also the point where we saw our next day’s complete trek till Rudranath. We were to go to the bottom of the mountain and then again climb the next one for most of next day to reach the Panar Bugyal. We had a much fulfilling tea at Kalgot village where we saw some large plantation areas of cannabis. Local people export this to Kumbha Mela and other places. One headsup for first timers is that don’t wish for too many downward treks as I came to understand. They can be a horror to you toes.
Chawkhamba as seen during trek
With few ups and downs and a few more streams, we reached the Shaileshwar Mahadev temple, the village deity of Dumak and that also marked the boundary of village. Soon we were among the population. A beautifully settled village on a vast low altitude meadow and many cheerful faces welcomed us. We went straight to the relatives of our guide who were to play the host for us. Their lodge is in final stage of construction so we were invited into their family home, a traditional Pahari house.
Our stay at Dumak village
The next day was going to be the most tiring but exciting part of our whole journey. We were aiming to reach Panar Bugyal by the end of the day. The day started with a downward 3km trek till the base of the mountain and we crossed the roaring Maina gaad (most probably named after the mother of Goddess Nanda in local traditions). After this, the trail again got lost in the dense forest of deodar, baanz and rhodedendron and we had to climb uphill for the rest of the day. With small meadows in between (vis-toli and ban-toli, as they were called locally) through out our trek in the jungle, we reached Toli Bugyal for our lunch.
Beautiful Toli Lake and Bugyal
By this time, we were almost ready to call it a day. The continuous ascend had taken the best out of us or that we thought. The remaining 7km till Panar were also steep climb and the clouds had started covering the sky. With enough strenght from lunch and two rounds of tea at the only shelter house of local shepherds, we were ready again. The shepherd, an old man of 85 and his brother in his late 50s were more than anxious to host us for the night, mostly, I assume, for money but also for the company they would have got in such a lonely place. He even lured us with the promise of pure buffallo milk and curd in dinner. But we had enough time and long distances to cover. So, at around 2pm, we left the beautiful Toli bugyal behind us and entered into another dense jungle. This was the most ardous part of our whole trek. Our guide also informed us about a local saying that goes, ‘german ki ladai aur panar ki chadai bahut kathin hain’….meaning ‘the ascent of Panar is almost as difficult as the fight with Germans…’
Trail through the jungle
We couldn’t take much breaks in the jungle as it was surely going to rain and paths were already very slippery. By 4:30pm, we saw the trees getting less dense and grass started becoming visible. We knew we had reached the end of tree line and the start of Panar Bugyal. The height was around 3000m and it was becoming difficult to breathe. After a brief rest, we started the remaining 1.5km of straight walk along the top of the ridge. It was windy and the fog was covering us on all sides. It was a treat to watch how the nature can play with so many hues and colors. By 5:30pm, we saw few orange-yellow flags waving in between the fog and it declared the end of our journey for the day. A beautiful local Bhutiya puppy welcomed us. Our halt for the day was a make shift lodge that doubled as a kitchen. The owner had goats and sheeps, numbering in hundreds, surrounding the lodge. As soon as we kept our bags down, it started raining so heavily that we had to immediately go inside. ‘Only that happens what the Shiv desires..’ We were lucky enough to cross the most difficult part of journey without much difficulties.
Panar bugyal in the morning
The morning, as far as I could remember, was the best of my life. The visibility was best after a night of heavy rains. Snow led mountains like Chowkhamba, Nanda devi, Nanda Ghunti, etc were clearly visible on one side of the ridge and the beautiful Alaknanda valley on the other. We had our breakfast of half cooked chick peas, which gave stomach ache to our guide, at around 8am. That day, we had a straight walk of 8km along the top of the ridge till Rudranath Shrine. The only problem was difficulty in breathing due to scarcity of oxygen. My partner told me stories from his experience of high altitudes in army and I shared with him some of the local folk lores of Garhwal that I had heard since childhood. So thats how we kept ourselves busy along the long lazy walk of the day. We were joined by a group of four Bengalis who were also aiming for the same Panch Kedar trek. We passed through Pitra Dhar (literally, the slant/pass of the ancestors), one of the highest points of our whole trek at around 3100m. Locals and travellers keep a stone here in memory of their ancestors. Ancestors have always attained primacy over Gods in local Garhwali traditions. Along the path, we saw a few Griffin vultures flying high above the clouds. We reached Panch-Ganga bugyal for lunch. We left our bags here before proceeding for Rudranath, which was 3km from here, as we were aiming to return back for the night stay.
The first sight of Rudranath shrine complex was a divine experience. It had started raining a little. We had our tea at the only rest house and waited for the temple doors to open after the day time rest. The temple here is a cave temple with the Garbha griha (Sanctum sactorum) inside it. Only the outer part is built with stones and wood. The natural phallus was completely covered in Brahma Kamals (the Prasad of Shiva’s temple) and it was a sight that could easily mesmerise anyone.
After some time spent around the temple complex and some pictures clicked, we headed back for Panch Ganga but only after another round of tea as it had already started raining heavily. Only that happens what the Shiva desires. We reached Panch ganga before dark and had a fulfilling dinner.
The next day was a back journey till Panar and then a straight downward walk till Sagar ( named after the ancestors of Lord rama), a roadhead town.
So, this was my long travelogue of the first leg of our journey from Kalpeshwar to Rudranath, the first two Kedars. Further parts of the trekking will follow soon. I will also try to share the brief itenerary and map of the trek for people who would like to experience the trek first hand in further posts. More pictures will also follow soon.