Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Trek to Darma Valley-Panchachuli Base Camp : The Details

Myself and K Srinivasan (KS) have just returned from the trek to Darma Valley-Panchachuli Base Camp ( July 10-19). For me, it was an unique experience as the home stay enable me to understand the cultural ethos of the Rungs as they are known as such ( they dislike being called as Bhotias). This is an easy trek except for some scary spots between Dar and Nangling. After Baling, it is more or less a straight walk mostly through fields and bugyals. In terms of the degree of difficulties, this trek is slightly difficult than Pindari Glacier (my view) but easier than Milam Glacier trek (KS view). From Nangling onwards, on clear days, you can view Panchachuli group of peaks, the Nangling group of peaks and a couple of unnamed peaks. Since the highest altitude on this trek is 3470m at Panchachuli Base Camp (PCBC) one does not feel the altitude problem. There is a lot of vegetation even at this altitude.

This trek has all the ingredients of an ideal trekking destination - a bit of adventure ( at least a dozen odd major landslides and rock falls points apart from walking 1 km of rock cut narrow path on a perpendicular rock base sending shiver in the spine, at least for me), forests of silver oak, rhododendron, pines and birch trees, Dauliganga river flowing right of the trekking path with its deep gorges in some places, at least a dozen bugyals on the way, varieties of wide flowers from Sela onwards ( in July-August only), snow capped mountains, Meola glacier ( if one is willing to trek 3-4 kms more from PCBC and take calculated risk of crevasses on it and rock falls), the scenic villages especially after Nangling with table top flat farms, houses with rare wood carvings, some of them as old as 100-150 years old and many more.

There is no need to carry tents and provisons in this trek as there are home stays in villages in this route. There are many water sources en route. As mentioned earlier, Some of the villages especially Baling, Son-Dagtu, Dantu ( and likewise Filum, Bon and Gow villages on the left bank of Dauliganga) are located in scenic places and worthy of spending at least one day each. In my view, this trek is a photographer’s delight as there is a lot scope for photography in this trek.

KMVN is in process of construction its Rest Houses at Urthing, Baling and Son ( as usual in good locations). Once these are complete, I am sure this trek route will become more popular ( may be even crowded during season) than what it is now.
Based on our experience and the information gathered from the local villagers, KMVN and our guide/porters, some basic details of the trek are as under:

The Best Period

The best time to undertake this trek is May-June and September-October. Summer at lower altitude - say up to Sela can be intense as we have experienced. Hence, it is better to carry sun lotion. Monsoon season can bring a lot of misery on the trekking route especially between Tawaghat and Nangling which have about a dozen landslides/boulders/rock falls points. Furthermore, the chances of viewing Panchachuli and other peaks are low during monsoon. However, monsoon is the time when there are all round greenery with plenty of wild flowers from Sela onwards. September-October period will generally have clear sky most of the days for good view of peaks. For those who are fond of snow, one can trek during March-April and November-December. Our route guide told me that this year, he had taken a group of trekkers to PCBC in the month of April. On returning from PCBC, they slided on the snow all the way to Meola river bed and trekked towards Dagtu/Dantu.

Dharchula- the Base for the trek

Dharchula is an ideal place to make preparatory arrangements for Darma Valley trek ( also for Adi Kailash trek through Byans valley). It has a big market, good connectivity to various places in Kumaon and the broad-band cyber cafe. You need to spend one night here to get the Inner Line Permit (ILP) from SDM’s Office, the next morning. It is, however, surprising that Dharchula is yet to get the mobile connectivity though mobiles with roaming facility can pick up signals from Nepal towers. The rail heads for onward journey to Dharchula are Kathgodam and Tanakpur from where there are early morning daily buses to Dharchula, From Kathgodam, one can reach Dharchula by evening by taking share-jeep which departs between 5.00-6.00 a.m. The fare per head is Rs.350/-. The share jeep will not take more than 10 passengers and it halts only 3-4 places en route for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Hence, there is not much of a discomfort in travelling in share jeep except that 12 hours journey for oldies like us can be tiresome.
Inner Line Permit (ILP)
One need to take ILP to enter Darma Valley beyond Sela. The one page application form ( in duplicate) together with a copy of photo identity documents (PAN Card, Voter Identity Card, Passport and two passport size photographs are to be submitted to SDM’s Office in Dharchula (located on the main road). SDM’s Office opens at 9.00 a.m. Since the SDM’s Office is closed on Sundays, 2nd and 4th Saturdays and Central Government holidays, one has to plan the trek schedule accordingly. We personally visited the SDM’s Office at around 9.30 a.m. and submitted the application to SDM. After verifying the contents of the application, he directed us to meet the section officer for further actions. We got the ILP by 10.00 a.m. and we were in share jeep for Dar by 10.45 a.m. In my view, submission of applications for ILP in persons to SDM (rather than through guide/porters) hastens the process.

It is better to plan for staying in Dharchula for two nights as it is possible that SDM may be out of his office on a visit to nearby villages or some other official duties. For instance, when our guide went to SDM’s Office immediately after reaching Dharchula in the afternoon, SDM had gone with a batch of Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims to see them off at Mangti. Sela is the first village where trekkers/visitors are required to show ILPs at ITBP camp for registration. Similar procedure is followed at Baling and Tidang. There is no ban on photography at least up to Tidang ( our last trekking village).

The Other Logistics

One does not really need a guide for this trek during season as all the routes are well marked by PWD with distance in kms from Tawaghat painted every km. Even if some one has digressed from the route, he would ultimately join the main route within a km or so. There are home stays in every villages on the trekking route who provides basic accommodation and the breakfast of Aloo Parathas, Puris and some places Omelette, lunch/dinner of rice/roti and dal/vegetables at reasonable rates. Normally, the rates for overnight stay in these villages are Rs.50/- per person and Rs.100/- if the bed is provided. Lunch/Dinner will cost you between Rs.30/- per thali which may go up to Rs.50/- as you go further up. There are toilet facilities in some home stays at Bongling, Sela and Nangling. Since most of the home stay do not provide mattresses, it is better to carry sleeping bags with mats and one bed sheet. In most of the villages, there are one or two shops which stock Maggie, biscuits, cigarettes, batteries, beverages etc. We carried some assorted varieties of soup powder packets which came very handy during the cold evenings. It should be noted that all villages from Sela upwards are summer settlement villages during May-October who migrate from their winter places in early May each year. Hence, those who wish to undertake this trek during November-April will have to make their own arrangements for stay and food.

Electricity and Communications

Dharchula has fairly good power supply. There are power supply lines up to Bongling but villagers say that there is no power supply most of the days during day time. There is no electricity beyond New Sobla though Bongling had, one time, night power supply but some dispute between the villagers and the service provider had led to the cutting of the power for the last two years. There are solar lights installed at Sela which is available between 7.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. ITBP in Sela and Tidang have generator facilities at night during which time you can get your camera/mobile batteries charged free of cost from them.

The mobile phones does not work beyond Ogla unless one has in his mobile the roaming facility in which case, it may pick up signals from Nepal in some places like Dharchula and Sobla. BSNL’s satellite telephones facilities have now been installed at Sela, Baling and Tidang which are operated by ITBP and charge @Re.1/- per minute. There are plans to install such telephone facilities in other villages also. The last place in this part of Kumaon having the broad-band cyber cafe is Dharchula.

Alternative Route

For adding more adventure in the trek and for those who do not wish to go through the 'tyranny' of repetition of places while making a return trek, there is an alternative route from the left bank of Dauliganga river ( direction in terms of origin of the river). After crossing a wooden bridge over Lasser Yankti river, at Tidang, the trek to the left goes to Marchha and Sipu villages while trek to the right goes to Gow village. Somewhere before Gow village, this path meets the trek route to Bidang which goes from the upper slope of the mountain. The lower slope continues towards Gow , Bon, Filum and Chal villages. Between these villages, there are 2or 3 wooden bridges over Dhauliganga for accessing the main trekking route. Although, this trek route is visible from the right bank of Dauliganga, I have not seen any villagers walking on this route ( may be I missed seeing them) except at stretch between Gow onwards towards Bidang. A shepherd told me that the stretch in some places between Bon and Chal so narrow that only hardy villagers venture on this route. One may try this route only after getting a detailed information about this alternative route. Perhaps the villagers in this part of the area may be the best to provide proper guidance.
Part-1 of the trek report covers trek from Dharchula to Baling
Part-2 of the trek report covers trek from Baling to Panchchulu Base Camp, Tidang and back.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Trek to Gangotri - Gaumukh and Yamunotri : May 1989

After doing four Himalayan treks during 1984-87, annual Himalayan trekking had become an addiction for me. Sometime in March-April every year, our trekking group would meet in one of the Udipi hotels in the Fort area to finalise the next trekking destination. During one of such meetings, we decided on Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan trek. The fascination of viewing Bhagirathi river originating from the Gaumukh and spending a night in Tapovan at the Shivling base excited us. I had already collected some information on this trek including those from Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN), Rishikesh, who were prompt in replying to my various queries. At the second meeting of our trekking group, it was decided to do this trek during the middle of May as the period was convenient to all of us. We kept 2 extra days in our itinerary to take care of delays on account of road blocks etc.

We (myself, Sriram Deshpande, Jumbukeswaran and Vasant Ghag - all my office collegues) reached Rishikesh via Delhi and Haridwar for overnight stay ( Hotel Hari @Rs.40/-). The day's activities included a bath in Ganga and a walk over the Shivanand Jhula to visits temples and ashrams on the other side of Rishikesh. In the evening, we visited the GMOU bus stand ( called Sanyukta Rotation Bus Stand) and our enquiry revealed that there was a bus at 6.00 a.m. for Gangotri for which there was no need to reserve the seats.

Rishikesh across Ganga. On the left is Shivanand Jhula
Day-1 : Rishikesh-Gangotri (245 kms)
We reached the bus stand about an hour early to make sure that we get the right seats. The bus started sharp at 6.00 a.m. with some seats still remaining vacant but these were filled in by the time it reached the check post at Rishikesh. We all were excited as it was our first journey beyond Rishikesh and we would soon have river Ganga of the mountains as our companion until Gaumukh. At Tehri ( now old Tehri), the bus took a diversion on a make-shift mud road as the main road was blocked probably for Tehri dam project. It was a dusty journey of 2-3 kms with heaps of rocks and mud lying on both sides of the road. The entire area looked like as if it had gone through a major devastation. It was a bit of disappointment for all of us to witness Bhagirathi river with its muddy water and being striped off its green surroundings.

The other impressions about this road journey still fresh in my mind were a long lunch stop at Uttarkashi and the discussion amongst the passengers that the bus will eventually go up to Gangotri. The reason for this uncertainty was that even though the road from Lanka to Gangotri was thrown open some time in 1986, there had been many occasions when the buses to Gangotri had to be terminated at Lanka/Bhaironchatti as the condition of newly opened road was still fragile and sometime unfit for the bus journey. Maneri was a scenic place mainly for its lake formed from the water discharged by the dam constructed over Bhagirathi river. I also liked the Harsil area with Bhagirathi flowing clamly, though at that time I felt that with army's presence all over this place, it may be out of bound for tourists. The road journey from Lanka to Gangotri was very scenic. Here onwards, Bhagirathi river was in full force finding its way through rocks and gorges. If I recall correctly, one of the deep Bhagirathi gorges was somewhere in the vicinity of Bhaironchatti. We reached Gangotri at around 6.30 p.m. completely tired by the 10-hour long and jumpy bus journey. We stayed in Gangotri Temple Committee room (@ Rs.50/-).
Day-2 : In Gangotri (3048m)
It was a rest day for us mainly to get acclimatise for the next day's 14 kms trek to Bhojwasa. After breakfast, we walked about 2 kms on the Chirbasa-Bhojwasa track when we noticed an Ashram to the right of the path. As we entered the Ashram, we saw an elderly Sadhu sitting in the veranda. We sat with him and chatted for sometime. Disillusioned with material life, the Sadhu took to sanyas some time in early 50s and eventually settled in Gangotri. The old age coupled with loss of his eyesight had made him virtually dependent on his disciples. In the last few years, he has been sustaining only on fruits and berries available in the nearby forests.

Sadhu at his Ashram at Gangotri
It was a bright sunny day when we returned from the Ashram. After a dip in ice-cold water of Bhagirathi river, we visited the Gangotri temple. Apparently, the pilgrimage season was yet to gather momentum as there were very few pilgrims in the Gangotri temple. In the afternoon, we visited Gourikund falls of Bhagirathi river. It was interesting to see Bhagirathi river suddenly taking a plunge like a waterfall, flows through a narrow gorge and settle in a pond before moving further. The entire area around Gaurikund fall was very cold and windy. We chose the comfort of our Temple Committee room which was relatively less cold due to it being insulated by wooden planks from all sides. In the evening, we met a guide based in Gangotri and agreed to engaged him for our Gaumukh-Tapovan-Gaumukh trek.

Gangotri temple

An army helicopter taking off at Gangotri towards Gaumukh/Tapovan side

Monolith stone at the shore of Bhagirathi river at Gangotri

Bhagirathi's Gaurikund fall.......

.......then Bhagirathi moves down in a narrow gorge......
........thereafter the calm Bhagirathi in Gaurikund and moves ahead.

Day-3 : Gangotri-Chirbasa-Bhojbasa (3792m, 14 kms trek)
We left Gangotri around 8.00 in the morning for Bhojwasa along with the guide who was to take us to Tapovan. There was hardly any pilgrim on this trek which was well marked with pine trees on the slopes ending at the shores of Bhagirathi river on the right side. Some of the pine trees were lying uprooted on the slopes. In a couple of places on the trekking route, temporary wooden bridges were built over the streams joining Bhagarathi river.

Pine trees on way to Chirbasa
Bhagirathi river near Chirbasa

A wooden bridge over a mountain stream on way to Chirbasa
Trekkers and pilgrims on way to Chirbasa

As we crossed Chirbasa, the tree lines started depleting and after a couple of kms, the slopes to right were almost barren except for some isolated patches of trees and shrubs. Apart from rampant cutting down the trees for fuel purposes, one of the reasons for depleting tree lines could be the uprooting of trees due to mud slides and rockfalls. The whole valley looked more like a desert. The hills on the cliff side were a mix of mud and pebbles which were fragile. Our guide told us that every year on the start of summer, the trekking path to Bhojbasa gets damaged due to melting of glaciers and accumulated snow which results in mud slide and rockfalls. The name Bhojwasa would suggest that at one point of time, the area was full of bhoj (birch) trees. In Wandering in the Himalayas - a travelogue of Swami Tapovanam of his travel in the Himalayas during 1920-30s, he had mentioned that "ten or twelve miles up (from Gangotri) there is a forest called Bhoorjavanam (birch trees forest). It is the favorite resort of saints and sages". Surely, once upon a time, Bhojwasa was a forest full of birch trees.

Rocky cliff close to Bhagirathi river on way to Bhojwasa

After Chirbasa, it is a trek mainly through hills of mud and rocks

A camp in Bhojwasa for the personnel connected with scientific research of Gangotri glacier

We reached Bhojwasa at around 2.00 in the cold afternoon and checked in GMVN Rest House [dormitory @Rs,25/- per bed]. Since the room was very cold, we decided to sit out in the sun and that gave us an opportunity to view the valley from GMVN which was on the upper side of the valley. The Bhagirathi peaks were in front of us.
We at the GMVN, Bhojbasa

Bhagirathi peaks as seen from GMVN, Bhojbasa

It was a very cold night at Bhojbasa. The woollen blanket and a thick razai were insufficient for me to cope up with the cold. I was also experiencing some breathing problem due to sleeping at a high altitude (3700+ m) with low oxygen. During the whole night, I felt as if some weight had been kept on my chest. All these discomforts made me to spent sleepless night at Bhojbasa. I was really worried about my ability to take the next day's trek to Gaumukh and to Tapovan. With great reluctance, I got up early in the morning. However, after morning corus and a cup of hot tea, I felt as normal as the previous day.

Day-4 : Bhojbasa-Gaumukh (3892m) -Gangotri ( 5+18 kms Trek)

We commenced our trek to Gaumukh (4 kms) at 6.00 in the morning so that we cross the Gaumukh glacier for Tapovan before the glacier start melting due to sun heat. The ascend to Gaumukh was gradual which we could complete in about 2 hours. There were heaps of snow - may be 15-20 feet above the ground level from where the Bhagirathi was flowing. It was again a bit of disappointment for us to see the muddy water flowing below the glacier. The glacier snout did not resemble that of a cow's mouth. The mud and moraines sliding from glacier getting deposited in around the snout had made the Bhagirathi water muddy.
On way to Gaumukh. GMVN Rest House in the background

There was always a speculation about the source of Bhagirathi. There was a view that Gaumukh was not the source of Bhagirathi but it originated somewhere along the sub-glacial path - may be leading to Gangotri glacier itself. Just a couple of years before we visited Gaumukh, an european expedition team visited Gaumukh to study the source of Bhagirathi. The team entered the mouth of Gaumukh and walked hundred of metres inside the sub-glacial grotto with water flowing below the sub-glacier ceiling until the ceiling became so low that they could not walk further.
Gaumukh glacier

Without wasting much time at Gaumukh, we marched further on the top of the Gaumukh glacier and moved towards Tapovan (4460m) which was about 6 kms away. Although we crossed the Gaumukh glacier, the moraines and scree on the trekking path made it difficult to know whether we were still walking over the glacier or accumulated snow. I did feel couple of times a bit of shaking ground - more or less the similar feeling I had experienced in Mumbai during the tremors of Koyna earthquack in 1966. Throughout the first 1 km trek from Gaumukh towards Tapovan, we saw some minor mud slides and occasionally some pebble falls. As a result of this, we were were constantly watching the cliff side for possible mudslides and rock falls and then moving forward. At one point, we witnessed a big rock falling from the cliff side on our trekking path some distance away from us and finally tumbling down from the slopes to the valley. As we looked ahead, the situation seemed to be no different. After discussion among ourselves, we felt that there was no point in continuing the trek under constant threat of mud slides and rockfalls. Our guide's silence on this issue also did not give us confidence that we could continue the trek. We decided to abort the trek to Tapovan and started return journey around 9.30 a.m.
Over the Gaumukh glacier covered with rocks and scree

While we were returning from Gaumukh, we met a group of about 15 trekkers who were going to Tapovan and Nandanvan. They belonged to one of the well-known Pune-based trekking organisations. We told one of them the reasons for aborting our trek to Tapovan. Later, when I returned home after the completion of the trek, I came to know, through Times of India of the tragic death of a girl trekker belongong to the same Pune-based trekking organisation due to rockfalls somewhere between Gaumukh and Tapovan.

As we were halfway mark towards Bhojbasa, our guide told me that some trekkers take an alternative route which involved crossing the Bhagirathi river between Bhojbasa and Gaumukh and taking a steep climb to Tapovan. However, river crossing was possible only when the water level was around knee level and there wais not much force in the water. There was no question of our taking this route particularly when Bhagirathi was fed by the melting snow and glacier. We reached Bhojbasa by 10.30 a.m.
Tapovan side seen from Gaumukh glacier

After a tea break at Bhojbasa, we commenced the return trek to Gangotri which took us about 4 hours to complete. The evening was spent by visiting a couple of Ashrams in the vicinity of Gangotri temple. It was one of the interactions with one of the sadhus we were told that we were a fortnight too early for the Tapovan trek.

Day-5 : Gangotri-Uttarkashi (100 kms )

Since we had extra days in our hand, we decided to visit Yamunotri. We took 8.00 morning bus to Uttarkashi. We reached the place at around 1.oo in the afternoon by which time the only bus to Hanumanchatti ( the last road-head to Yamunotri) had already left Uttarkashi. We checked in Hotel Bhandari [@60/-] and visited some temples in the evening.

Day-6 : Uttarkashi to Hanumanchatti (2400m, 117 kms)
We got into 11.30 a.m. bus and reached Hanumanchatti at around 5.30 p.m. Hanumanchatti was full of pilgrim crowd. With great difficulty, we could get a room with 4 beds in Hotel Chauhan (@150/-). The common way to all the rooms on the first floor was made of wood planks some of which was loosened. It was very risky to walk on the planks as there was no light. A false step could have dropped down to a stream flowing below the common way.
Day-7 : Hanumanchatti-Yamunotri-Hanumanchatti (13+13 by trek)
We started for Yamunotri (3148m) at 6.00 a.m. Our intention was to reach before noon and stay overnight at Yamunotri. The trek up to Janakichatti (7 kms) and further 2 kms after Janakichatti was easy one with gradual climb. The next 3 kms of trek involved steep climb over the loose stones under the forest cover. The last one km of trek upto Yamunotri was , more or less, a plain walk. We reached Yamunotri around 1.00 p.m. The place disappointed me as, in my view, it did not have a serene atomsphere like Gangotri and there was not much to talk about the temple itself. After spending about an hour or so around the temple complex, we decided to return to Hanumanchatti on the same day instead of staying overnight as planned. We did the non-stop return trek within 4 hours to Hanumanchatti and stayed for the night in the same dingy hotel.

Sadhus in the cave on way to Janakichatti

Me on the way to Janakichatti

One of the villages on way to Yamunotri

Pilgrims take bath at one of the hot water springs in Yamunotri
Day-8 : Hanumanchatti-Dehradun-Haridwar (227 kms)
We got into 8.00 a.m. bus bound for Dehradun. At Damta, we had the best thali lunch of the trip in one of the hotels near the bus stand. The bus took a longer Yamuna Bridge-Herbertpur route to reach Dehradun at around 5.30 p.m. We took a share jeep to Haridwar for a night halt.
After spending two days in Haridwar, we returned to Mumbai via Delhi.
All photos by the author