Sunday, April 26, 2009

Over to Uttarakhand: Auli - The Abode of Snow

Nanda Devi - seen from our resort in Auli

Our resort - overlooking the Nanda Devi at sun down

Twin peaks - Gauri & Hathi Parbat as seen from the Gorson's Meadows, Auli

Dunagiri peak

Auli was the final destination for us in the Uttarakhand trip. Auli is a very unconventional tourist place in India. It's for sure not in the popular tourist circuit in India. Unless it's a pilgrim place, in general, the main bulk of tourists in India stick to places that are most easily accessible and provide ample scope for 'conducted tours'. If any place is covered in any popular 'package' then that's an added advantage. Auli is neither a pilgrim spot, nor easily accessible. It also doesn't feature in any of the see-Uttarakhand-in-seven-days or Himalayan-bonanza type of package offered by the types of Cox & Kings or Thomas Cook or SOTC. To add to it is the fact that not much option is left for accommodation there. All these factors have ensured that the serene surroundings of Auli are not cluttered with plastics and other excreta of the insensible Indian tourists.

There are indeed several unique features of Auli which have made it quite popular in blogosphere. Perhaps the most important feature of Auli is that it has the most popular ski slope in India. It’s claimed that the slopes of Auli are among the best in the world. I read a lot about Auli for quite some time and finally decided to include it in our itinerary though skiing is one of those many things which look nice to me only in TV and it can never be the deciding factor for me to select a destination for vacation. An added advantage for us was the fact that there’s a Club Mahindra associate hotel – the Clifftop Resort – in Auli. Ever since we took the Club Mahindra membership we’re always motivated to explore destinations in and around places that have their hotels. All such places we had been in the past offered quite enjoying vacations to us. So we’d expected something similar in Auli. We thought it would be just another place with a good hotel and decent sightseeing. We never expected that Auli would be one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen on earth. Just to summarize, we saw better mountains and more snow from Auli than our entire Switzerland trip in 2004.

Our itinerary was something like this – directly go to Naukuchiatal from Delhi – stay there for 2 days – reach Binsar on 3rd day – stay there for 2 days – go to Corbett on the 5th day – stay again for 2 days and then go to Auli in the 7th day and stay for 4 days. I did a little mistake in creating the itinerary. We should have first gone to Corbett, then to Naukuchiatal towards North, then to Binsar, further north and then to Auli which is very close to the Tibetan border. This way we could have optimized a bit in road travel. I didn’t quite understand that before confirming the hotel bookings. While studying the map in more details just before our trip I discovered my mistake, but that was too late to change the hotel bookings. So we had to stick to the original itinerary. But it was very clear that it’s almost impossible to make a direct journey of more than 300km from Corbett to Auli in a single day. So we decided to break the journey at Ranikhet, which is little more than 100km from Corbett and can be done in a few hours. The next day early morning after the breakfast we started for our journey to Auli from Ranikhet – a distance close to 200km.

At Ranikhet we got the first glimpses of the fascinating snow capped peaks of the grand Himalayas. It was a mesmerizing view of a huge stretch of the Himalayas extending from the peak Trishul in the west to Panchchuli in the east – a stretch of a few hundred of kilometres. The nearest part of the stretch is something like 150km from Ranikhet. The most fascinating thing of the entire stretch is obviously the Nanda Devi, the highest peak of India, if you discount Kanchenjungha, which is partly in Nepal. Within the next 8 hours of the journey from Rabikhet to Auli we gradually came closer and closer to Trishul and Nanda Devi. Finally from the Clifftop Resort in Auli we’re within 50km of Nanda Devi which stayed in front of your eyes for the entire duration of our stay at Auli for 3 days. Nanda Devi is one of the most fascinating peaks I’ve ever seen. It has a wonderful shape that stands out even from a distance of 200km. From anywhere Nanda Devi is visible it’s so easy to identify the peak even amongst a crowd of many other peaks.

The journey from Ranikhet to Karnaprayag – a distance of about a 120km – through Dwarahat, Chaukhutia, Gairsain and Adi Badri is not anything that can be called very unique. The condition of the road is also not very good in many parts. The condition becomes quite bad towards the last stretch after Adi Badri, a site of very old temples dating more than a thousand years. Close to Karnaprayag the river Pindar joined us from the right. Pindar gave us company till Karnaprayag where it merges with Alakananda. For the remaining part of the journey till Joshimath Alakananda was always to our left. We took our lunch at Karnaprayag – a beautiful place of confluence of Pindar and Alakananda – the two rivers whose water flow into Ganga. Alakanada, merged with Mandakini at Rudraprayag, finally meets Bhagirathi at Devaprayag further down, close to Rishikesh and is known as Ganga from there. Karnaprayag, though a beautiful place, and also an important pilgrim place for the Hindus, doesn’t have any good hotel or restaurant. It’s really interesting to know that millions of people visit each of the confluences every year but very few complain about the lack of the basic amenities. Perhaps that’s a part of the austerity involved in pilgrimage.

From Karnaprayag the Army maintained NH58 always skirts along Alakananda which comes so close at many places that you can even see the pebbles under her water, and at times goes so deep down that you just see a narrow line of sparkling water through a dangerous gorge. The road becomes quite dangerous at times with the deep gorge starting abruptly from its edge. At many places there’s even no barricade at the edge of the road. A little mistake in diving can lead to a really fatal accident. The mountains and the gorges become very barren at places with not much of greenery around. Passing through Nandaprayag – the confluence of Nandakini and Alakananda, Gopeshwar, Chamoli and Pipalkoti the road moves up slowly providing innumerable fascinating vista points at every curve and bend. A major problem is that you would just miss a wonderful view while busy taking a snap of another one in your camera. Sometimes I feel the cameras are the most irritating things that anyone can have in such wonderful trips where every nook and corner is photogenic. It’s much more relieving and enchanting to preserve the picture in your own eyes rather than trying to capture it in a few millions of pixels. Soon after Pipalkoti the twin peaks of Gauri and Hathi Parbat start playing hide and seek with you. The beauty increases proportionately with the danger of the road. Passing by Helang we reached Joshimath around 4pm - almost seven hours after we’d started from Ranikhet.

Joshimath holds an important position in the history of Uttarakhand. It’s from here that the Katyuri kings, one of the earliest rulers of Garhwal and Kumaun, started their kingdom sometime in 6th century. Joshimath is also the place where Adi Shankacharya came towards the end of the 8th century and founded one of his four 'Maths' (centers for learning and propagating Hinduism) – the other three are in three other corners of India – southern Sringeri in Karnataka, western Dwarka in Gujarat and eastern Puri in Orissa. It's really fascinating to know that someone had travelled the length and the breadth of our country on foot some 1200 years ago with a missionary zeal. Joshimath shot to fame mainly due to its association with Adi Shankacharya, who hailed from Kerala and finally died in Kedarnath. The temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath, both of which have been well referenced in ancient literatures and mythologies as holy places, are believed to be re-enshrined by Adi Shankacharya, though the present temple buildings at both the places were constructed much later.

In most part of the year (except April and November) Auli can be reached from Joshimath in cable car – claimed to be the largest in Asia – which remains out of operation in April and November for maintenance purpose. The cable car looks very much like the one in Mt. Pilatus, in Switzerland. I learnt that the cable car was installed by some European firm and hence the resemblance is no coincidence. As we’re travelling in April we’d to take the torturous route from Joshimath to Auli on our Tata Indigo. At many places it was mentioned that a four wheel drive is required for the 17km road journey from Joshimath to Auli. But we could do it quite well in our Indigo. The last 3 km to the Clifftop Resort was really bad and we did think many times that we should have hired a four wheel drive, at least from the centre of Auli to the resort.

The most fascinating part of Auli is the Nanda Devi, visible all the day in front of you from the resort. We got some of the best snaps of Nanda Devi and other peaks. I didn’t come across a better snap anywhere in the internet. There’s a serenity in the beauty of Nanda Devi that ought to instil a sense of spirituality in everyone’s mind. We’re finally close to the peak that we’ve been seeing for more than a day from various places and distances and angles. Everywhere Nanda Devi always stood apart from any other peak. It had already aroused a sense of suspense in us about how it would look like from a close distance. And here we were, standing just within a stone’s throw (well, assuming that the stone can travel some 50km) from Nanda Devi.

Close to the resort, within a 3km trek is the Gorson’s Meadows the other most fascinating thing about Auli apart from the Nanda Devi. I went twice to the Gorson’s Meadows and got some of the best pictures of Dunagiri, another wonderful photogenic peak visible from Auli.

The three day stay at Auli was one of the best vacations in our life. We perhaps never were so much mesmerized by the beauty and charm of a mountain. Even after weeks of our return the view of Nanda Devi still lingers in my mind. I can still feel the magnificent peaks standing in front of me.

We chose to break our journey back from Auli ro Delhi at Binsar. The way back is same till Karnaprayag, from where we took the route towards Baijnath. Pindar gives a constant company from Karnaprayag till a place called Tharali. Pindar never goes so deep as Alakananda and hence at every turn and curve it fascinates you with its charm. Pindar never goes away of your sight till Tharali after which you move a little south towards Gwaldam and Pindar moves northeast towards the Pindari glacier. Along the way we saw the gorgeous and colourful Vaishakhi celebrations of the local people.

From Baijnath we took the longer route to Binsar through Kausani – another wonderful place in Kumaun. Kausani offers some of the best views of the Himalayas and the valleys. You’re never alone in these routes. Soon after Kausani you’re greeted by Koshi, which gives you company till Almora from where we took the deviation towards Binsar. We stayed in Binsar for two days after which we returned back to Delhi – the plains – after a two weeks’ vacation in Uttarakhand.

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