A Road Trip to Auli

With the coming of the Internet age and the possibility to exhaustively research a location before visiting it, it has become increasingly difficult for a place to pack some surprise punches. Contrary to this, our Delhi to Auli road trip managed to surprise us, much to our own surprise.

Our itinerary that included Auli and a trek to Vasudhara falls (beyond Badrinath) was turned upside down. A place we were least interested in (Auli) managed to awe us with its beauty. Places which we least expected to reach (Malari - Niti villages) were in fact the easiest to reach. And a place where we never thought permits will be an issue (Badrinath) turned us away.

It is when the best-laid plans fail to materialize, and the unexpected takes over that a trip becomes memorable.

With a long weekend coming up it was time to search for a place in the mountains which was not too far off. Since both of us were Auli virgins, we decided that it was about time we visited this ‘tourist hotspot’.

Although the season for Auli was not an ideal one, April is the month when the snow starts to disappear on its ski slopes, it was ideal for non-skiers like us as it meant little tourist rush. Neither the pilgrims nor the summer holiday kids would be disturbing us making the ‘tourist hotspot’ a place of zen.

Since Auli was not our preferred destination, we thought of spending only a night there en route Badrinath and our trek from Mana to Vasudhara falls. We had also planned to visit the villages of Niti and Malari but the likelihood of getting permits for places so near the border was bleak.

Also, Uttarakhand being a ‘pilgrim tourist state’, tourists like us would hardly be entertained by the authorities, so we thought. So right we were!

  • The Travelers: Aarti & Harsh
  • The Machine: Our very own wild ass - Tata Safari 4x4 - affectionately called Kiyang
 

(Day 0 & 1): Delhi - Auli (Night stay at Haridwar) - 500km - 13 hrs​



Day 0​


With time also being an issue, it was decided that we would leave on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 3rd of April, winding up the office early so that we would be able to beat the traffic out of Noida and Ghaziabad. As it turned out, it was one of the better ideas of the trip.

We left at 4 pm from Noida, and quickly exited Delhi in the non-peak traffic hour. Chatting and exchanging work stories, we did not even realize when we reached the Haldiram and McDonalds on NH24. We broke there for a late evening snack and then moved on. We made it to Haridwar by 9 pm and checked into a hotel that Aarti had found on the net. Called La Casa, it was reasonably clean and affordable and good for a short night stay. We had some dinner in our room and then called it a night.

The route all the way to Auli


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Day 1 began at 4 am - it had to begin early. We had to reach Auli in time so that we could get ourselves checked into the few hotels Auli boasts of. We showered and packed and were on the road again by 5 am. We were pretty proud of ourselves since leaving so early gave us a no-traffic pass through Rishikesh. Breakfast happened at Byasi, 35 km from Rishikesh, at a dhaba on the side of the road.

At Devprayag, we stopped for the first photo-op of the trip - a shot of the lovely blue Bhagirathi meeting the slightly muddy Alaknanda to form the legendary Ganga. Srinagar posed the same problem it always does - too many people on the road! Maneuvering through the human traffic, we moved on. As we neared Rudraprayag, we looked for the stone on the side of the road which tells us how Jim Corbett had killed the man-eating leopard of Rudrayragag back in 1925, but as usual, we were unable to locate it.

Crossing Rudraprayag brought back the memories of our first road trip together (also our honeymoon) to Kumaon back in 2007. We even zipped our car across the Gauchar runway, the same way we’d done on our honeymoon, the difference of course being that now instead of Dhanno (our good old Esteem), we had Kiyang. Somehow it was more exciting doing the run on the runway in our pyaari Dhanno rather than Kiyang. Seems like we are moving a bit towards maturity.

The confluence of Alaknanda & Bhagirathi - A birth of a river - Ganga

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From my childhood trip to Kedarnath, I’d remembered Karanprayag to be a quiet and pretty town, so I was in for a shock when I saw the hustling, dusty town it’d now become. We were doing good on time and decided to stop for lunch at Joshimath, which we finally reached around 2 pm. However, as Auli was just 16 km away, we thought of further postponing lunch after the hotel was figured out.

So, we began the climb to Auli, which was quite charming with pine trees all around. The initial few kilometers have houses and an army cantonment, but thereafter the population disappears, and the road winds through a beautiful forest. Being closer to the river bed, Joshimath hardly boasts of any views, however as one starts climbing, one can see the location of the hill on which Auli stands. The view starts to open up with huge peaks all around, a feeling much akin to the climb towards Kalpa from Powari.

The drive all the way till Joshimath is more or less at the river level. The first view of the peaks came quite late.


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A few twists and turns and the magnificent peaks, which were not visible so far, make their presence felt.


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As we entered Auli, we first came across the GMVN, but bypassed it to go check out the Clifftop Resort, hoping to get a good price from them. Off-season should’ve meant a 90% discount, or so we desperately hoped. The climb to the resort is rather steep, and one leaves the tarred track to jump upon a dirt track with a decent incline. During monsoons, I don't think anything but a 4WD would be able to manage this incline. Thankfully this was a dry season and 4x4 did not need to be engaged, but who cares, engage we did. It was a bit embarrassing though, that Altos were doing this incline where I’d engaged 4H, but at least it was a hassle-free drive up.

We got a good shock upon reaching the Clifftop Resort. Indeed, it was off-season and indeed they were ready to give us a GOOD discount. However, the discounted price was 7500 bucks a night! With this discounted price, I did not even bother to ask about the actual room tariff. Hunger pangs were striking us, so we went to a dhaba nearby and ate maggi + omlette to our hearts’ content. Pretty soon we were found checking in at the GMVN below, which although does not have killer views from its rooms but is pretty affordable at 1600 a night.
 
A snippet about the GMVN at Auli: It was renovated recently to accommodate the visiting sportspersons for winter games. It was done at a lavish budget, but the architect who did the design must be off his rockers. All the rooms are designed on the BACK side so that there is absolutely no view from and sunlight in those rooms and the corridors have ample light and views! Such a stupid design I tell you. Anyway, these new rooms are pretty expensive at 4000 and 3000 a night respectively.

We checked into the relatively cheaper tin shacks at 1600 a night. Being GMVN, their rates are fixed. The room was pretty tiny but decently clean as one would expect from GMVN. We were tired by now and decided to have a bit of shuteye. The views were blocked off by clouds, so there was nothing else to do then. After a refreshing nap, we went off to see the sunset over Nanda Devi (which was now clear of clouds) at a meadow at the end of the tarred road from where the climb to Clifftop begins.

The sun had set but the view from that meadow was absolutely wonderful. With rain happening near the Nanda Devi region, the entire panorama had cleared and one could see the huge peak vividly. It was a fantastic evening spent with the goddess of the peaks. It reminded me of our evening spent in the meadows of Munsiyari with the 5 brothers towering above us. Only this time the goddess was way taller. It was getting darker by the minute and we soon returned to the hotel to have a decent meal and then a good night’s rest.

The next day was going to be a bit tougher - we were scheduled to climb all the way till the Gorson top.

The sun sets on the peaks visible from GMVN - towards Badrinath


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The clouds clear over from Nanda-Devi peak - The lovely 7000m+ one of the region


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It was quite cold there - in that wide meadow at that time of the evening.


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Nestled in the lap of Himalayas - bidding adieu to daylight

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5th April (Day 2): Auli - short hike to Gorson top - Auli (3 hr trek)


We got up at 5 to see the sunrise over Nanda Devi at the meadow from where the view was good, but not excellent. We then decided to go to higher ground and took the track going to Clifftop Resort. We stopped halfway up this track on another meadow and watched the sunrise with a couple of horses grazing next to our car. What a feeling! The rays of the sun hitting the tips of the mighty mountains surrounding us and the golden glow of the morning brought a deep satisfaction to our hearts, and we were then more than ready for an adventurous day ahead.

A horse grazes in the meadow watching the sunrise over Nanda-Devi - with us.


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The gradient beyond GMVN was pretty steep actually


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The first rays of the sun hit the majestic Nanda Devi


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Hathi Parvat also gets lucky with some rays hitting it too.


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A view of the peaks towards North - i.e. - Badrinath


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The golden sunrise!


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Some of the peaks had just the right amount of cloud hovering over them.


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The view of the peaks back at GMVN.



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We went back to our hotel to get ready and have breakfast. Thereafter, around 9:30, we got back into Kiyang again and drove to a point beyond the Clifftop Resort which was the maximum one can take a car to. From there we began our hike to Gorson top. For the first 15 minutes, the hike is an absolute ascent as one walks next to the non-functional ropeway. While the ropeway usually works in the winter to ferry skiers to the top, the locals told us that it didn’t last season due to some damage. There is a small shop at the ropeway junction from where we bought some chocolates, chips, and water, and then moved on. The shopkeeper urged us to rent snowshoes so that we could walk easily on the snow which he said we would encounter as soon as the forest began. However, they looked uncomfortable and we decided against hiring them.


We continued the climb, and soon reached the forest, where, as we’d been told, the snow began. This was basically the snow that hadn’t melted since the trees do not let enough sunlight through. Initially, it was possible to walk around the snow since it was only in patches, but gradually as we moved higher it became increasingly difficult to avoid it. It wasn’t that bad, but just a bit tricky to walk on it.

An hour or so later we reached a temple. An American couple on their way to Kuari pass were resting there. We chatted a bit with them, had some water and chocolates, and then moved on. After the temple, the forest ends, and a meadow begins which extends all the way till Gorson top. There was little snow here, and it was much easier to walk, although the incline increased a bit. We spotted a small pond on our left and recalled how a bunch of our friends had spotted a bear at that same spot last year. We were hoping to also catch a glimpse of the hairy animal too, but of course, it wasn’t there!


The hill on which Auli is located and waypoints of places we covered during our hike.


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Just to give one an idea of what one views from the trek - On google earth - on a clear day. That's Dunagiri on the left, and Nanda Devi to the right



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The hike begins - we reach the baseline of the forest and look down where we began (The red pole far away)


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The walk through the jungle was a tad difficult - with melting snow.


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The jungle itself is quite beautiful and thick.


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Soon one reaches the temple, just before the clearing above.


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And the forest gives away to a vast meadow at the top.



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We walked to the base of the final ascent to the top and stopped. We couldn’t go any further because from that point the snow was thick and very difficult to walk on. We were also pretty satisfied with where we had reached, and the view was excellent. Clouds had, again, played spoilt sport and hidden the peaks from us, but the panorama was nevertheless divine. We basked in the sun and the beauty around us for a while. Aarti even took a short nap! We snacked on our chips and chocolates and wondered about the trek to Kuari pass; we spotted two much-in-love mongooses running about, but couldn’t catch them on camera; we had fun clicking a couple of shots with our tiny tripod, only to later delete most! All in all, we spent a good hour at the spot and then decided to walk back down.

We stopped at the temple again for a couple of shots and then resumed our return. On the last leg, just before hitting the ropeway junction, Aarti slipped twice in the mud. She didn’t get hurt, but the mud soiled her clothes, which according to her was much worse! Boy, talk about getting your priorities correct!

Finally, around 2:45 pm, we reached Kiyang. The whole hike had taken us about 4 hours - two hours up, 1 hour at the top, and 1 hour down. We were tired, but not exhausted, and were very happy at having done the short, fun hike.

A panorama at the top


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A macro trial shot.


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The two dots you see are people trudging towards Kuari pass, the peak above is Gorson top! Still a good hour away.


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Clouds block our view of Nanda Devi at this hour.


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Aarti takes a short nap. This is not a pose!


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And we reach back - almost!


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Our royal steed awaits us.


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The parking lot itself was a fantastic place to idle around.



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We drove down to Clifftop Resort and had Maggi for lunch at our favorite dhaba (which stands opposite the resort).

We then went back to the hotel, rested and freshened up a bit, and were back at the same spot around 5:30 pm to watch the sunset. Sunset and chai happened at the dhaba, after which we returned to the restaurant in our hotel for a leisurely three-course dinner - soup accompanied with looking through photographs of the day, main course, and dessert!

With satisfied tummies and tired legs, we hit the sack, planning and plotting the route for the next day as we dozed off. The initial plan was to do the Vasudhara trek from Mana village. However, with reports of the road being blocked at Hanuman Chhatti, it was highly unlikely that going all the way to Badrinath would be possible. We nevertheless decided to give it a shot. Little did we know that in this land, if you are not a religious tourist, you are not important!

Sunset views could have been jaw-o dropping, but alas clouds rob us of a killer view

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The dhaba near the cliff-top resort which is a perfect place to sit around.


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The super-expensive cliff-top club resort.

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6th April (Day 3): Auli - Hanuman Chhatti - Joshimath - Part 1​


Our plan for the day was to go as far as possible on the Badrinath route, and do the 5 km Vasudhara falls hike if possible. Keeping this in mind, we’d checked out from the hotel. We left around 6:30 am, without breakfast, and were at Vishuprayag (which is around 10 km from Joshimath) in an hour. The confluence of the Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers at Vishnuprayag looks ethereal, and we were more than happy to capture the lovely sight on our camera.


A panorama of the GMVN rest house at Auli

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Hathi Parvat was clearly visible today


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Bidding adieu to Nanda Devi one last time

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As one descends from Joshimath and crosses over the Alaknanda river, the road broadens and has a fantastic tar. The wide and excellent tarmac stays the same all the way up till Hanuman Chatti. We moved over this lovely tarmac at a fairly good speed, all the time troubled by the fact that locals were pretty confident that we will not be allowed to go beyond Hanuman Chatti. We reached Pandukeshwar in good time and stopped for some tea and breakfast. However, the only Dhaba that was operational at that time did not have anything except buns for us. A nearby grocery shop was open from where some butter, eggs, and onions were imported and the raw material was handed over to the lazy dhaba owner. A beautiful breakfast of omelet and buns followed satiating us to the fullest. We proceeded further up the Alaknanda gorge praying all the while, hoping against hope that we are allowed to go till Badrinath.

Upon reaching the police barrier, we found that there was ample space in between the barrier for us to pass through and speed away. However, we tried to resist our temptation of breaking the sacred law of the land. A conversation began with the officer-in-charge there, and he denied us permission to move ahead. He mentioned, after ample persuasion - reluctantly, that the road ahead till Badrinath was fine and open now. However, since the “putt” (gate) of the temple had not yet been opened, no one was allowed beyond this point. I found this to be a ridiculous rule! Why would the opening of a road be dependent on anything that has to do with religion? I tried to reason with the dude but he was resilient. Finally, he gave up and said that the only way to proceed ahead was to go back to Joshimath and speak with the SDM to allow us to proceed further. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. So with this hope, we proceeded all the way back towards Joshimath, hoping.

The confluence of Dhauli Ganga & Alaknanda rivers at Vishnuprayag

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The drive towards Badrinath is through a narrow valley


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The views towards the interiors are of high-altitude peaks


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Ghangaria: From here begins the trek to Valley of Flowers & Hemkunt Sahib


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The valley actually becomes a gorge at a lot of places.


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Some ladies working it out, carrying a lot of load but still pleasant when we chatted them up. This photograph needs to be couriered now.


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An aerial "google-earth" view of the region


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The SDM office at Joshimath was a bit difficult to find, and the SDM himself more so. Being Friday and that too Good Friday, the SDM had gone off to Dehradun to enjoy the extended weekend. We did meet his personal assistant though and tried to push our agenda for permits. He was vehement and actually appalled by the very concept of going to Badrinath before the “putt” (gate) was open, frustrating me even more. This is probably why Uttarakhand has never been able to capitalize on its true tourism potential. It still remains a distant second cousin to its neighboring state Himachal.

Once it was clear that the permit for Badrinath was not a possibility, we requested for permits to go up till Niti village. For the uninitiated, see the map above. Also, Niti is the last village on the road going towards Tibet, beyond which the ITBP guys trek. Upon hearing the request, the officer started laughing loudly and mentioned that even the villagers of Malari (a village before Niti) were not being allowed back in their village - to aap kis khet ki mooli hai. After some persuasion he relented and said, you can go as far as they don't stop you! Now, these statements can be quite dangerous sometimes and we took his verbal statement on its face value and sped towards Niti.
 
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The road at Joshimath diverges into two roads, one that goes towards Badrinath, and the other one which is marked as Malari. Malari is a village situated quite close to the international border with Tibet and lies on the way to Niti, which is the last village on that route before Tibet. Malari (3000 m) is about 65 km away from Joshimath and Niti (3400 m) is another 20 km from Malari. Beyond Malari, the road goes north towards Niti and then further climbs to Niti pass - which is the de-facto Indo-Tibet border. To do this, one has to cross over the Dhauli Ganga river. However, there is another road - relatively lesser-known - which goes east to a village called Sumna, about 20 km from Malari. I am not 100% sure if the village lies in the Tibet region or not. If you see the map below you will probably understand why I’m confused. Google maps mark this territory as Tibet; however, I think it is in India. I could not find references over the web too about this village.

Coming back to the story, we left Joshimath at about 11:15 am for Malari, without permits and without a clue on what lay ahead in store for us. It was almost noon and there were no major clouds in sight, except the ones on the peaks ruining the impressive view that we would otherwise have had. It was getting pretty warm, and with the windows rolled up in our Kiyang, the heat effect was doubled, so much so that we had to switch on the AC almost all the way to Malari. The road climbed initially to give us a fantastic view of the villages below. Tapovan was the first village - it is famous for a hot water spring and is also the culminating point of a trek-route to Kuari pass from Auli. The road was smooth with the tarmac having been freshly laid. Apart from the heat, it was a pleasant drive.

The first roadblock came just before the village of Tapovan, when we had hardly driven for about 30 minutes. The PWD guys were laying the road up ahead with tar, and thus we had to wait. Thankfully, there was a shade or else it would have been a pain to have waited for what turned out to be close to an hour.

We chatted up with some GREF personnel who were also waiting for the roadblock to clear. The driver of the jeep they were traveling in lost his patience and decided to go back to Joshimath. We offered to drop them at their base at a place called Suraya Thoda. Apparently, this is the place from where the climb begins to Lata Kharak and goes beyond into the Nanda Devi national park. We were now pretty close to the peak itself. However, being at the river bed level, there were hardly any views. The valley was pretty wide initially, and the road was okay till Suraya Thoda with minor stretches where it turned bad.

Beyond Suraya Thoda, the road condition further deteriorated to an almost non-existent road. However, since we were still at the river bed level, there was hardly any steep gradient during our entire drive till Malari. The river was beautiful down below, but the valley was getting narrower and narrower. With little knowledge about Malari and what to expect out of it, and to add to that the sun beating down upon us, and with the windows rolled up, we were getting a bit impatient. We even thought of turning back and returning to the comfort of Auli. We had hardly moved for about an hour from the previous jam at Tapovan when we found ourselves stuck at another roadblock. This time a JCB bulldozer was clearing a landslide and it made us wait for a good 30 minutes or so before we could move ahead.

The roads are beautiful immediately after Joshimath

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Heading towards Tapovan - one can see the peaks inside Nanda-Devi national park as the backdrop

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Some quaint villages such as these mark the highway heading towards Malari

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The road is quite nice till Surya thoda and a bit beyond it too as well

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This was the final set of loops beyond which the roads have not been built yet - thus bad

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Roads turn to this - the spot where we wait for JCB to clear the landslide

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Surprisingly, not even a single vehicle joined the queue on either side of the blockade in those 30 minutes, and we had also not seen any vehicle cross us in either direction ever since we had left Suraya Thoda. Also, given the road condition, it did not feel like the route was used much in any case. Just after the blockade, we crossed over to the left bank of Dhauli Ganga where the road thankfully turned slightly better. However, it was now narrower, so I’m guessing they are trying to broaden the entire stretch to the international border. The valley was still narrow though, with limited views, and we crossed a few interesting villages with white and pink colored trees surrounding them. It was getting pretty monotonous and the day was seeming to be lost cause when all of a sudden the wide valley of Malari opened up after a turn. What a sight it was!

The narrow valley opened into a huge one where the mountains were a mix of brown, green, and even a bit of pink! Nestled in that huge valley was the very tiny village of Malari. The entire scenery was pretty close to what one gets while entering Ladakh/ Spiti. One can actually feel the transition happening from the lush green valleys of Uttarakhand to the deserted highlands of Tibet which lay up ahead. There were huge fields just below Malari, clearly indicating the source of livelihoods of the people of Malari. As we ambled along and reached Malari, we could see that all the houses in the village were locked. Not even a single door was open. It was as if it were a ghost town. This seemed pretty strange to us, given that there was no apparent reason for the isolation. We saw some ITBP officer but fearing that we might be stopped in our pursuit towards village Niti, we marched on. After all the “bada babu” at Joshimath had said: “You can go as far as you can, unless you are stopped”.


A wonderful mix of white - pink - mauve - violet and all kind of colored trees in a village across the mountain


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The Malari valley - Malari village is at your bottom-right corner - up ahead on the road


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Huge agricultural fields lay thereafter we've already crossed Malai


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The road beyond Malari was pretty bad and was layered with stones with sharp edges. We have not changed the tires of our Kiyang ever and were hoping to not get a flat tire. Our progress was slow but steady. Upon a bend on the road, we saw a road going down towards the river with a bridge over it and another one going straight up ahead. Not having researched the place at all, we assumed that the road going towards the other bank - over the bridge - must be a random one and the one going straight must be the road going to Niti. We continued, only to see another ITBP / GREF camp ahead. With no barriers in sight, we again rambled along, hardly believing our luck that we were just about to reach Niti. The weather had also turned for the bad by now and dark clouds were upon us waiting to open up and shower. The entire aura was very eerie. My heart was beating pretty heavily in anticipation of reaching the end of the road and Niti. Reach the end of the road we did, however, it did not terminate at a village but rather at a huge landslide that had not been cleared up yet. By the looks of it, it seemed to have happened a long time back and maybe the ITBP guys were waiting for summer to kick in before removing the rubble. The abrupt end left us high and dry and we had to take an about-turn and head back towards Malari.

The road beyond Malari kisses the Dhauli Ganga throughout - at least as far as we went


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The landslide which was yet to be cleared - made us take a U-turn


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The weather was turning for the worse - hardly any sun now


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