“So you’re going on a trek to Tungnath with five complete strangers, and you’re only seventeen?” asks Ravi, a fellow passenger on the bus to Rishikesh. I nod slightly, wondering what he’s talking about. “I hope you know that this really isn’t the smartest thing to do. I’ve heard about many trekkers who lose their way and then are taken advantage of by the locals.” I start imagining the various ways I could perish in the mountains.
And so I embarked on my trip with great optimism and confidence. I get off the bus at 4.30 am, on guard to flee from the thugs and rowdies of Rishikesh, but these superficial fears disappear when I rendezvous with my adventure-seeking fellow travellers and guides Archit, Bianca, Suman and newbies Swati and Shwetha. Our objective over the next six days is to scale Chandrashila, located around 4,000m above sea level in the Garhwal Himalaya region in Uttarakhand.
We spend most of the first day driving up to Sari Village, getting to know each other over the twists and turns of the Shivaliks. The Border Roads Organization keeps us entertained with quips such as ‘If You Are Married, Divorce Speed’ and ‘Drive Like Hell & You’ll Be There’ as we pass by the Alakkananda River, a popular white water rafting location.
The actual trekking starts the next day as we make our way to Deorital Lake. We encounter trios of women on our ascent, hauling baskets of leaves and foliage on their backs, moving in single file, with smiles on their faces as they nod in acknowledgement. In rural Uttarakhand, more often than not, the women support their families while the men stay at home. To obtain fodder for their livestock, these women climb on treetops without any equipment and hack away at the highest branches. Accidents that result in broken backs and limbs aren’t uncommon around here.
When I signed up for the trek, I imagined a week of camping in snow blizzards, obeying orders of stern middle-aged guides and scraping through oatmeal tins and canned fruit. I have a wild imagination. Archit, Bianca, and Suman are chilled out adrenaline junkies, in their mid-twenties, who are extremely patient and helpful with tasks. As for the food, they stuffed us with luxuries like banana fritters, pasta and pancakes. So much, we thought - both amused and thankful - for the grittiness and squalor of the outdoors!
The higher up you go, the more you leave civilization behind. Which is why when we reach Chopta there is no one around. It’s a small ghost town covered with snow, and we take refuge in an abandoned beer bar (no abandoned beer though). It has the look and feel of a movie set (as does every other location in the region) and I half expect the entire town to suddenly fill with people singing and dancing a Bollywood tune.
As I trek through the snow, one step at a time, I see two different worlds in front of me, as if I were part of two parallel universes in coexistence with each other. One universe is what I actually see, a world of white with pockets of green and brown and a non-existent civilization. The other universe is what lies underneath all that snow, the summertime world, where there are roads and railings and steps that lead upwards and rock and soil and flowers and life. The snow preserves this world for another time, but it feels quite uncanny to tip toe between these two planes.
Trekking isn’t about the destination so much as the journey. We reach Tungnath on the fifth day, but we aren’t able to make it to Chandrashila in the time we have. Though going back downhill looks daunting at first, it’s much more fun because we slide down the snow for most of the way. A ten-hour uphill journey becomes a three-hour downhill one just like that!
This trip connected me with the simple pleasures of life, like warming oneself next to a fire or gazing at soaring vultures as they circle overhead or answering the call of nature while enjoying a spectacular view of the mountainside. The silence that cocoons the Himalayan region makes you think, instead of being distracted incessantly by different noises and people. No wonder it attracts sages, philosophers and confused people searching for enlightenment.
As we drive back to Rishikesh, while I dread the long trip back to Chennai, I also wonder whether I will come back to this part of India again. Then again, why not.
Geck and Co offers packaged trekking trips to North India throughout the year.