Deorial Tal in Winters

The Garhwal division of Uttarakhand has been associated with spirituality for ages. The remote mountains of this region had been extensively traveled and documented by holy men and sages for thousands of years. The earliest references regarding Garhwal are cited in Skanda Purana and the Van Parva of the epic Mahabharata. Since then, this part of the state has legendarily been associated with the Gods.

Even if we discount the aspect of spirituality, a visit to Garhwal is a must for all those who love mountains and nature. Lush green valleys, vibrant streams, towering mountains, and heavenly bliss all around. Garhwal has it all to leave one wonderstruck amidst the bounty of nature. A beautiful landscape and a strong yearn to see it always end up meeting in a common corner of action – travel.

It was pretty cold in Delhi, and the news of snowfall in the hills was coming from all corners. It didn’t take long to re-kindle an old wish – traveling to Garhwal in the winters. As the gap between planning and action always produces fruitless results, we decided to chalk the ‘gap’ out of the equation and head for the hills on short notice. Getting a train ticket was out of the question, as the waiting lists were frightening, so we decided to do it the harder way – by bus, all the way from Delhi to a little-known Syalsaur, on the bank of the emerald Mandakini river.

The bags were packed in a flash and we set off for a quick weekend trip to the land of Gods, with the plan of setting base at Syalsaur and traveling as far as possible towards the beautiful Chopta valley.

Our plan for the trip was:

  • Day 1: Leave Delhi by the Delhi-Guptkashi UTC bus (leaves Del at 21:30 hours).
  • Day 2: Arrive at Syalsaur by 9 a.m. Rest for the day at GMVN Syalsaur.
  • Day 3: Move as far as possible on the Chopta road, and trek to Deoria Tal (if possible).
  • Day 4: Return.
Courtesy some beautiful weather we could follow our plan ditto, and had a very satisfying tour.
 

Day 1 and 2: The journey begins: Leaving Delhi and reaching Syalsaur​


Since the plan for the trip was sudden, I had to take care of quite a few tasks at the office before leaving the city. We were supposed to leave on Friday and needed to ensure the most vital aspect of traveling – peace of mind while I traveled. Thursday was a long day at the office (14 hours at a stretch) and Friday, although shorter, was a very busy day. However, this extra effort ensured a vital point – I would not be troubled by phone calls while I traveled.

We left home at 7 in the evening to board the 9 pm bus from Anand Vihar ISBT, anticipating traffic jams en route. However, courtesy of a Formula 1 auto driver we reached the terminus within 45 minutes and had quite some time to relish our boredom. The Auto driver was quite a character. I can’t comment on what ran faster – his auto or his mouth!! As he talked all the way while maneuvering and negotiating the roads in an act to imitate ‘The fast and the furious’, we shivered as the cold Delhi wind pierced us like arrows.

The Delhi-Guptkashi UTC bus looked too unimpressive for a journey that was potentially 14 hours long. Just like other ordinary UTC buses, it was cramped of leg space, which even my small frame found tough to fit into. However, I couldn’t complain, it was an educated decision to travel by this bus. I could have boarded a Haridwar/Rishikesh bound bus from Delhi and changed further from Rudraprayag, however, was not very comfortable about the idea of boarding off at Haridwar at 3.30 a.m in the morning. We had no other choice but to bear the responsibility of the consequences.

The bus left ISBT at 9.30 pm and soon started buzzing with snores from all corners. My co-passenger, a young man, led the team of the sound demons and almost ripped my tympanic membrane. I haven’t been to a remote African forest, but I guess I know by now, how it feels to be amidst a bunch of roaring lions. Even a dinner break at Khatauli couldn’t wake them up…and why would they? They had had their share of dust and flies through their wide-open mouths.

We reached Rishikesh by 4 am and hit the meandering mountain roads in no time. As the bus ripped through the darkness, a faint hint of the flowing Bhagirathi appeared to the right of the road. I oscillated between periods of semi-consciousness only to come back to an awakened state, courtesy of my co-passenger. My wife would later go on to declare that I almost looked like an animated pendulum while I slept. It was still dark as we crossed Devprayag, the confluence of the rivers Alakananda and Bhagirathi. However, it was all sunshine by the time we reached Srinagar, the district board of Pauri Garhwal and the largest town in the Garhwal division. The morning tea here tasted heavenly, and the brisk stop helped us restructure our skeletons.

We moved ahead and gradually crossed Rudraprayag (where the rivers Alaknanda and Mandakini meet. This is also the place from where the roads to Kedarnath and Badrinath bifurcate. We started our journey along the road towards Kedarnath, with a beautiful emerald Mandakini being our constant companion. After Tilwara, there's an abrupt change in the landscape as the snow peaks begin to appear. The journey brought back fond memories of my solo trip to Tungnath and Chandrashila in October’08. I have grown older in these 3 and a half years and life has changed quite a bit, however, the mountains that have stood for ages still stood as erect, the brook went on forever, even if men came and went! As we crossed Agastyamuni, the road took a turn and suddenly the giant Chaukhamba became visible. The huge four pillars dazzled in the morning sun and to its left lay a long stretch of peaks with Mt. Kedarnath at the extreme right. I was somewhat lost in such a beautiful view of mountains, till I saw a board with the sign ‘GMVN Chandrapuri’ written on it. We had almost made it. The tedious 11 hours journey had almost ended, and we were just a mile short of Syalsaur.

By the time we gathered our luggage, we had reached Syalsaur, and the beautiful GMVN cottages were ready to welcome us. I had contacted Mr. Pathak, the manager of the property and he had assured us about the availability of rooms on the said dates. We walked on a beautifully green carpet of trimmed green grass, topped with pearly dew drops. The soft morning sun flooded the area with its warm golden hue and the playful Mandakini tripped on scores of boulders as it made its way downhill. The gentle buzz of the river compounded with the chirp of innumerable birds. The lush green valley and the snow-capped peaks at a distance made Syalsaur look like a small piece cut straight out of paradise.

A blissful environment has a profound effect on the human mind and body, and it showed why. The magic of the mountains blotted all exhaustion of the long journey and sleepless night. We felt as fresh as the early morning dew on a flower petal. Every minute in this charming place was worth relishing; hence we freshened up quickly and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of aloo parantha and pickles, as we sat on the lawn facing the peaks. Syalsaur is home to a lot of avian species, and we lazily watched the busy oriental white eyes feeding upside down - a lone white-capped water redstart, and flocks of bulbuls looking for food and listened to some russet sparrows twittering.

We had an early lunch and went for a brief stroll. The blissful solitude was evident in every speck of dust of the holy land. Every footstep coincided with the footsteps of holy men who traveled extensively through these mountains. The fatigue of the journey had started to catch up with my wife by this time, and she decided to rest for a while. I, however, decided to go for a quick trip to Kakragad, which is yet another paradise for birders. I boarded a bus bound to Guptkashi and reached Kakragad in half an hour. The road was fascinating with wonderful views of the Kedarnath and Kedardome peaks near Bhiri. A lazy walk around Kakragad produced some good results considering the limited time I had at my disposal. I spotted a beautiful female scarlet minivet, a rock bunting, a couple of parakeets, and a pied kingfisher seemingly meditating on a rock by the Mandakini.

I realized that I was getting late, and could face a problem returning to Syalsaur and hence started walking. Although walking back to Syalsaur which was 7 k.m away from Kakragad was out of the question, I thought I could hop into any passing vehicle or grab a car from Bhiri in the worst scenario. I had almost walked for a mile without a glimpse of a single-vehicle. Although it was far from getting dark, the light had started to fade. Suddenly, a biker gentleman on his way to Chandrapuri stopped and offered me a lift. Yes, voluntarily. Gestures like these are unimaginable in the plains, and I was more than happy to accept his offer. We reached Syalsaur in 15 minutes, and the setting sun had started to paint the white snow in scarlet tones by then. No amount of thanks was enough to appreciate the help of the gentleman, and all he did was to nod, smile, and ride away.

Watching the sunset on the mountains is almost like seeing God - the experience is so divine. The entire valley was wrapped in a golden packet of soft light. The peaks changed color from scarlet to crimson which gradually turned into a faded pink before darkness engulfed the surroundings. It started to get cold as soon as it got dark, apart from the two of us, the only thing that reminded us of the terrestrial existence was the sound of the flowing Mandakini.

We had ordered for a quick dinner and didn’t take long to float into dreamland with the prospect of an exciting day ahead.
 

Day 3: A day full of adventure – Trek to Deoria Tal and walking on the way to Chopta​


Our plan for this day was to trek to Deoria Tal, a long-cherished destination, and travel further on the way to Chopta. There are quite a few legends associated with the lake – it is believed that the Gods (devtas) used to bathe in this lake, hence the name. Some legends also suggest that a saint called Deoria Baba had meditated beside the lake, and this is also supposedly the site where Yaksha quizzed the Pandavas. However, more than the legends, I was keen to experience what this lake is famous for – the reflection of a long range of snow-capped mountains on the water of the lake. I had seen many photos of the famed reflection, and always wanted to experience it first hand, hence the mind was made up. The only concern regarding the trek (or a hike in my books) was my wife, who had never walked on a rugged mountain track before.

The view of mountains the previous day had raised the bar of expectations. I was anticipating a beautiful sunrise, something which I always look forward to during my travels. Nature seemed to have other plans though. Although it was not gloomy, the dawn was far from being clear and the mountains hid behind a vale of mist. My wife preferred enjoying leisure, and I decided to take a walk towards Chandrapuri.

I passed through the serpentine road with thick woods to my left and the ever-gorgeous Mandakini to my right. The soft morning sun rendered a golden hue to the river. Nature’s opera had started for the day and it was like walking through the corridor of an art gallery with DaVinci’s pictures on display and Mozart playing in the background. I reached Chandrapuri in half an hour with quite a few photo stops en route. Enjoying my leisure at the sleepy hamlet for some time, it was time to return to Syalsaur.

We left for our day’s trip at 9 a.m. Amardeep, the driver of our car was a jovial man and for the first time during all my travels, I came across a driver who was taking his wife for a tour. “Sir, socha mai bhi apni biwi ko barf dikhaun” (Sir, even I thought of showing snowscapes to my wife), he said with a smile. We moved ahead and reached Ukhimuth, the winter seat of Lord Kedarnath, in an hour. As usual, the road was excellent and we reached Sari in a short time. Sari, an insignificant hamlet marks the start of the road to Deoria Tal. Although I was quite sure that there would be no view of the snow hills up there, yet decided to have a go, I could at least see the lake.
 
The hike to Deoria Tal is as easy as it gets. A well-laid 1.9 kilometers long stone path leads up to the lake. Patches of snow started appearing on either side of the road about half a kilometer before the top, and by the time we reached the lake, there was snow aplenty. The lake itself is nothing spectacular, however, with the reflection of the peaks in place, it must be a different view altogether. We were not fortunate enough to see even a slice of any snow massif, and although there was much snow around, the effort of the uphill trek and the bright sun made me sweat – definitely not sound reasons to waste time anymore. We spent the minimum time required to relax our tired muscles and started downhill.

Plates of fuming Maggi satiated our fierce appetite and we set off for Makku bend, the last place till which the vehicles were plying on the Chopta road. A turn of the road took us to the hill which faced away from the sun, and the kingdom of the snow God started. As we moved ahead, the amount of snow on road gradually increased. We saw two bikers on their way to Chopta, visibly struggling to prevent their bikes (Bullets) from skidding. By the time we reached Makku bend (the place from where the road to Chopta and Makkumath bifurcate), there was plenty of snow all around. The fresh foliage of the trees, contrasted with the dazzling white snow made the place look like a dreamland. There were no people in sight, and we decided to take a walk on the road towards Chopta.

Every step of this walk reminded me of my trip to Tungnath a few years back, and the awesome view of the snow peaks I got en route and from Chandrashila. This time, the road was the same, however, the experience was entirely different. A gentle breeze blew intermittently and made the snow on the leaves fall on the ground. A sudden gust of wind almost acted like an avalanche and made us cover entirely with snow. The sun peeped from behind the cloud alternatively, and suddenly it started snowing.

For people like us, who live in the plains of a tropical country, experiencing a live snowfall is something to boast of to friends and family. I had experienced a much heavier snowfall than this before in Yumthang, Sikkim. But to my wife, it was an entirely new experience. Standing under the canopy of countless trees, with hazy bluish afternoon embracing us, we soaked the experience as the drizzle of snow hit us. This was an unexpected gift, and although nature was not kind enough to show me a glimpse of the reflection in Deoria, she compensated with another treasure in her armor of beauty.

The walk back was as beautiful as the uphill climb, and mindless discussions like a plan to cross one hill after the other to reach Ladakh, made it look even more beautiful. It was time to return to Syalsaur, and time to bid farewell to the land of inexplicable wonders. The return journey to Syalsaur was uneventful, barring a seemingly never-ending bhajan enlightening us on the story of how Ganga descended to the plains.

It was an eventful, hectic but highly satisfying day. We were drained out after such unusual efforts and slept early after an early dinner.
 
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