In search of the mystique
It had been a long time, since the last time, I had ventured out of my place in search of new horizons, new places, to meet people I had not met before and to get an altogether different experience of the world we are living in. With Dusshera holidays falling in between and a weekend, I decided it was the perfect time to move out. At least a few days of traveling and sight seeing in the Himalayas would be tranquilizing, energizing and an educating experience. I spread out the map of Uttarakhand and closely scrutinized the area from Askot to Arakot. Trying to identify, which destination would be the most suitable for this time of the year. Finally my gaze was locked on a road on the map, which led towards further north of Joshimath and then suddenly disappeared and had the comment “To Malari”. As far as I can recall, I had my introduction with Malari almost 25 years back. Had heard that it was very far off and the climate was quite hostile for other than those who actually lived there.
Malari, behind and beyond the scene!
Malari, a non-descript village and one of the last outposts on the Indo-Tibet (China) border, lies in the district of Chamoli Garhwal. Lodged in a narrow valley at an altitude of 10,000 feet from mean sea level and surrounded by giant and perennially covered snow peaks. Malari lies beyond the snow covered ridges of the Greater Himalayas as seen from Mussoorie, Pauri, Khirsu, Nainital, Kausani and Choukodi. For most of the people and even among the Uttarakhandis, the general perception is that the ridges of the greater Himalayas are natural boundaries separating India from Tibet. But what they actually do not know that Indian Territory extends far beyond the snow covered peaks, which have been worshipped and revered by the Uttarakhandis and other Indians for almost five thousand years. Malari is approximately 60 kilometers from Joshimath and lies en route to Niti village, the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border. Motor-able road goes all up to the village of Bampa and from there you have to trek 6 kilometers to Niti village. Niti pass is just a few kilometers from Niti village and no one apart from ITBP and Army is allowed to go to Niti pass.
Dehradun to Nandprayag, the tranquil drive!
Starting from Dehradun at 9:30 am and negotiating through the Dun roads, choking with traffic with vehicles varying from two wheelers, cars, mini truck, mini bus, trucks, buses, cart (driven by bullock) and tractors. The intersections on both sides of the Raspina bridge are jammed as there are no traffic lights, no policemen to control the traffic during the peak hour. Somehow, after patiently moving through the maddening traffic chaos, I finally get out of the city and traffic starts to flow with relative ease. The travel time between Dehradun and Nandprayag is almost 6 to 7 hours long. The drive was quite uneventful and nothing much was happened except the work currently going on for broadening of New Delhi – Niti Pass National Highway. The story remains the same for most of the part of the journey. Restaurants and dhabas coming up on the NH, in full violation of building bye laws and NH conventions. Almost all the towns of Uttarakhand have one thing in common, unchecked growth and unregulated construction activities going on. Without a proper Town Planning blueprint and getting buildings approved without getting proper permissions and clearances from the various government, the towns of Uttarakhand are fast collapsing into the slums of 21st century. But, I have said enough about this in my previous travelogues and as such I would refrain from this as much as possible. The road widening is still going on at places and Border Roads Organization (BRO) is the one looking after the maintenance and activities. The slip at ‘Kaliyasaun’, between Srinagar and Rudraprayag has stabilized to a great extent and now doesn’t pose much of a problem to the BRO and the commuters.
Karnaprayag, which is situated at the confluence of Alaknanda and Pinder (source: Pindari Glacier in Kumaon) is another sleepy town of Uttarakhand. From Karnaprayag one can go straight to Simli, Adi Badri and Gwaldam or one can cross the Alaknanda and go to Nagnath Pokhari. Since neither Simli route nor Nagnath Pokhari was in our travel itinerary, we crossed over the Pinder via the new bridge and went to Nandprayag. After a long day’s drive and feeling completely exhausted, it was decided to have a night halt at Nandprayag. Nandprayag has Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam rest house and they provide good quality of accommodation at fairly reasonable price.
After all, it's Himalayas! Reaching Joshimath.
After taking a rather heavy breakfast we started from Nandprayag at around 07:00 hrs towards Chamoli. We were soon greeted with sights of mighty mountains with their peaks, coated with perennial snow, thus indicating the start of the snowline area. Situated down at the abdomen of the mountain was the town of Gopeshwar, which is becomes visible just a few kilometers from Chamoli. Chamoli is not much to talk about as it is situated in a narrow valley and there is nothing special worthy of mention apart from the fact that it is a district headquarter. A few kilometers from Chamoli is a place called Birhi, which is just another place on the route that does not deserve any mention except that years ago there was lake, called ‘Birhi Taal’. The lake was formed when the falling rocks and debris obstructed the flow of one of the tributaries of Alaknanda. The lake remained in existence for several years and then in the late 1970’s, a cloud burst knocked off the barriers and the lake caused inundation and devastation along the Alaknanda valley. Now no trace of the lake remains today, but still I watched a group of Bengali tourists on their way to Birhi Taal.
Since it was only the second week of October, there was not much traffic on the road. With the onset of winters and the date of temple closure approaching fast, the volume of pilgrims had lessened down to a great extent. Though, one could still see buses carrying pilgrims to and from Badrinath, there was not much traffic as one would see in May-June.
Just when we were about 10 kilometers from Joshimath, where the road starts its climb, one is greeted with an unadulterated view of ‘Haathi Parvat’. I must confess, I feel some inclination, nostalgic though. It reminds me of the days gone by or rather years, almost 25 years back, when I was told about the name of the peak. This particular peak and ‘Chaukhamba’ peaks have since been hard burned in my mind. I had always gazed at these peaks with awe. I always harbored the dreams of observing them from a close distance. Though Haathi Parvat is not the tallest and mightiest peak of the greater Himalayas, still it looks massive and daunting. It was well past 10 ‘o’ clock in the morning, when we reached Joshimath. Though the day had clear skies, it was quite cold. I went to the SDM‘s office, as I was advised that anyone going to Malari has to procure a permit first. The SDM, however informed me that going to Malari as such would not require a permit, but if one has to go to Niti village, then a permit must be procured. Issuance of permit takes no time and one has to carry his/her identification proof along with him. While waiting for someone at the bus stand, I saw a stray Himalayan Shepherd Dog (HSD) sleeping peacefully under the carriage of a truck, unmindful of the prevailing noise, hustle-bustle and chaos in sheer yogic calm. I really envied his peaceful sleep and wished if I had the same peace of mind. But anyway, some of our earthy companions are luckier than us, the human beings.
Himalayan Journey, let's keep it up!
Just 2 kilometers from Joshimath, we encountered a slip on the road. A few guys were standing there undecidedly, whether to drive their Maruti car though the rubble. We tried a couple of times, but our vehicle’s wheel got stuck and kept spinning at one place. We backed off for the moent as there were other taxis behind us waiting to get through. Talking to the guys, I came to know that they were going to Bampa, the last village, which can be reached through motor able road. Now, on this route, the word motor able becomes relatives. It depends, what type of vehicle you are driving. I felt like driving back to Joshimath and was all prepared to give up my plans of visiting Malari. As I was sizing up my options, the guys got in their Maruti car got in their car, reversed a little and then putting the car on lower gear and foot on accelerator, managed to drive through the slip and went ahead. Motivated, I too reversed my vehicle and drove full throttle over the rubble and cleared off the slip area to the other side. Sighing with relief and smiling on having been through ‘probably worst part’ of the trip. What I did not know, that it was only a trailer of things to come.
As we got farther away from Joshimath, we could see the snow capped mountain peaks in front of us, on the right and the left. On reaching Tapovan, we bought some groceries and meat. Who would want to eat daal-subzi in a cold place like Malari? Nothing tastes and works better than chicken or meat in higher altitudes. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is busy constructing a hydro-electrical dam on Dhauli (Vishnu) Ganga river. Though, the power would be produced though hydro-electrical means, the word ‘Thermal’ in NTPC is a misnomer. Up to Suraithota, the road is in good condition and painted. You drive along the valley for most part of your trip and the gradient doesn’t rise sharply. At Suraithota, we stopped for a cup of tea and snacks. The sun was already on the verge of getting behind the mountain range and a strong cold wind was blowing through the valley that prompted us to put on our jackets and cap. From Suraithota, looking east, one can see the north/west face of Nandadevi, not seen from anywhere but at Suraithota. Generally from Pauri, Mussoorie, Almora one can see only the south face. This meant that we were way past the Nandadevi ridge. Nandadevi looks much closer than Mussoorie looks from Dehradun. An ITBP truck, which was carrying supplies to the ITBP outpost at Niti, stopped by. The ITBP personals had their tea and biscuits and they left the place before us. After we had our tea and snacks, we too left the place only to face one of the biggest challenges as a driver in my entire driving career.
Just couple of kilometers from Suraithota, a stretch of road, nearly 4 kilometers long was washed away by a glacial avalanche. Since the road is under maintenance of Director General of Border Roads (DGBR), they have cast away all the norms which should be observed when constructing roads in the hilly area. Driving through the dried up river bed, with all those sharp and pointed stones jetting up, I was afraid that those stones might damage the chassis and the under carriage. Slowly negotiating between the leak and the ridge, it was the ultimate test of patience and driving skills. Through careful driving and steering clear of any obvious danger, we finally emerged out of river bed. The gang employed by DGBR was busy cutting a fresh road on the mountain through blasting and drilling. Though, I was told that this is unnecessary (cutting a new road), as it takes years to stabilize a new route and DGBR could have done better by diverting the river to the other side by putting up a levee of stones, which are found aplenty in that place and the whole work would have been finished in just 1/10th of the cost. But who cares for expert’s advice. Driving through a freshly cut road is not a cakewalk either. The road was full of loose mud and small sharp stones. The road had a steep uphill and downhill gradient and one wrong turn of the steering, one slip of vehicle’s tyre on the rubble and you would be going down with your vehicle, hundreds of feet into the narrow gorge and then death is inevitable. Some of the turns, like 'hair-pin bends', were too small and the ITBP truck moving ahead of us had to reverse and cut three times, before the truck could completely negotiate the turn. The road is so narrow at points, that we saw one of the two-tier rear wheels of the truck hanging in air, as it drove through. Driving a loaded 3 ton truck with no power steering is test of the strength of your arms. I really salute the spirit of those unknown ITBP soldiers, who continuously endanger their lives and live through hazardous conditions everyday. Probably their safety isn’t a matter of concern to our political masters. Even if they die, while traveling on such dangerous roads, they would sadly become a figure in statistics. After that awful stretch ended, from then on nothing could have been as worse as what we just had. Driving on the roads where the belly of the mountain has been cut into, where the rocks are hanging overhead and you just wish they don’t fall over you unexpectedly. It is an experience, where you negotiate closely between life and death. If this experience leaves you sweating, don’t complain because it really sweats you out and drains your energy and shreds the false sense of security you have with regards to your own life.
The Final stretch: Reaching Malari!
Finally we arrived at Malari, our destination, before it got dark. Malari is situated just above the valley of Dhauli Ganga at an altitude of 10,000 feet from the mean sea level. We retired for the day at a PWD inspection house. Contrary to my expectations, the inspection house suit had brand new furniture and clean bedding. The watchman cum housekeeper got us some nice warm tea, while we got cozy on the sofa. As it was getting dark, I thought of capturing some of the nature’s wonder. Walking down to Malari village, I noticed that almost every house had electricity, though only a bulb was lighted. I wondered if they were getting electricity from the government. On asking a local-ite (with whom I quickly acquainted myself with) Arjun Singh, I was informed that some NGO and the village committee had established a mini-micro hydro-electrical generating unit, which is sole provider of electricity for the entire village. The villagers who have electricity connections are charged a nominal fee of Rs.20 per month. The total capacity of the hydro-electrical unit is 45 KW.
With the onset of winters, the villagers of Malari, Jelam, Bampa and Niti were busy preparing migrating to the lower Himalayas for the winters. While for seven to eight months a year, they do their agriculture farming and then for the winter months they come down Nandprayag and Chamoli. Women take up knitting while the men folk either take up menial jobs of labor or just sit around. Children played cricket unmindful of the cold winds, which had suddenly picked up speed and intensity. For I could not stay out in the open any longer. I made a hasty retreat towards the inspection house and had a few drinks and a sumptuous non vegetarian dinner and then wrapped myself up in the my sleeping bag and dozed off to a peaceful sleep.
Article presented by: Anurag Bist
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