Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dayara Bugyal and Rishikesh: Snow trekking, river rafting, and a happy new year

"Vaaaaaiiiiissshhhhnavvvviiiiiiiiiiii", I shouted. My voice echoed in the quiet mountains. We heard no response from her. The others told me she must be right behind. We wondered how much more time we had left. It was beginning to get dark and we had to get back before it was too late. Yet, there we were. A bunch of enthusiasts on the verge of giving up. And give up we did. Our first attempt to get to Dayara Bugyal had failed.

I don't remember a time when I was not with my friend Nikhil Bangera on new year's eve. December 2014 was no different. Except that this time, there were 12 other people with us - 6 of whom were unknown to me. 

It all started when I left Sanpada an hour before my train to Haridwar was scheduled to depart from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai. Luck and me never got along too well but this was a bad day for vengeance. Crossing all boundaries of ruthlessness, she caused trains in the harbour line to run 30 minutes late. By the time I got a train and reached LTT, it was 5 minutes past departure time. I still ran as fast as I could with my heavy bag. A young lad approached me as I was a few feet away from my platform. "Haridwar Express ? It's already gone", he said. Disheartened, my speed reduced and I came to a slow halt panting and out of breath. That's when I got a call from Kedar saying, "Where the hell are you? The train has started moving!". I started running again and after a few seconds I could see the train. By the time I reached, I was on one end of the platform and the train on the other. I missed it. I hated myself for believing the guy on my way. I turned back and there he was again. "Don't worry Sir. I will drop you at Igatpuri, the next stop. Just Rs.4000." The weasel  had purposely lied to me so that I'd miss my train and he would make money off of me. I was pissed and went berserk at the station. I even gathered a couple of cops but the guy ran away before they got to me. After a couple of discussions with Ankur over the phone about taking another train to get to Karjat, I finally concluded that the only way to catch the train was indeed to take a cab to Igatpuri. I negotiated with another cabbie who settled for Rs. 2300 and three hours later, I was at Igatpuri station barely 5 minutes before the train got there. 

I knew almost everybody in the group waiting for me in the train except one girl. She wore glasses and quietly listened to my entire anecdote clubbed with my histrionics. She was then introduced to me as Sharanya, my friend Nikhil's classmate from APU. Nikhil's other friends from the Azim Premji University were to join us in Uttarakhand. I was meeting my buddies Swapna and Rakesh after a long time so we had loads to catch up. Ankur was an old friend too and I had met Arun in our Dapoli and Dharwad bike trips earlier that year. From there on, the whole gang got along quite well and the entire train ride was fun. I happened to hit it off with Sharanya who turned out to be as fun and friendly as Nikhil himself.

A day and a few selfies at random stations later, we reached Haridwar in freezing cold weather. We booked rooms to stay the night, enjoyed some cheese dosas and sandwiches at a local restaurant (dosa plaza) and took off for Uttarkashi the next day. This is where I first met the rest of the APU gang. Sridhar, the most enthusiastic, energetic, brilliant and yet modest guy you will ever meet, was one of the highlights of the trip. He truly always kept the spirits high. Lavanya, Vaishnavi, and Ishwarya seemed to be close friends. While Ishwarya was very sweet and easy to talk to, and Lavanya a delight to interact with, I felt from the very beginning that this girl Vaishnavi hated me. And I had no clue why! 

Nevertheless, we all got to know each other in the flat we were to stay. It belonged to an alumnus (Kapil) of APU who had kindly volunteered to help us out. Mayuri who joined us a bit later gelled well with the gang and became an important character in the story to follow. So there we were - 14 of us in one big house in the coldest weather I had endured in a long, long time. We sat on the matted floor with some extra cushioning provided by our jackets, poured our drinks in plastic glasses, and chatted away till we were extremely tired (or cold). One of the rooms had a heater and our survival instincts forced us to fight for a spot in this room abandoning all kinds of courteous behavior. As it turned out, almost 10 of us slept in the room with the heater ON and the remaining few slept in the adjacent room covered in woolen rugs!

Next morning, we took a short trip which put to shame all one-day trips I had ever taken! After early morning tea by the roadside, a little van took us through hilly roads and spectacular views of snow-clad mountains to our destination - Gangotri. From the spot where we parked to the temple was a walk on slippery, hardened snow and a little bit of crushed ice. After the customary snow ball fight and putting snow in each other's shirts, we walked up to the temple. While the temple was shut, the whole place was mesmerizing with the river flowing next to it and no soul present there but us. 

We went up to the rocks near the river, each one occupying a rock for himself, and clicked a lot of pictures against the backdrop of the river and the snow-clad mountains. An agglomeration of white snow, brown rocks, the bluish green river and our multi-colored clothes made for a picturesque setting. I would not be exaggerating if I say - it felt like a dream!

Rakesh had promised me a portfolio, most of which was shot at this location. After several attempts, Sharanya finally got one picture of kicking the snow right! We then got together for a group picture, and finally, reluctantly, went back to our van which drove us back to base.

The drive to the base of Dayara Bugyal was not a very long one - just around 90 minutes. But the thing with mountain roads is, even short distances make you very tired. By the time we reached, it was dark and we were starving. Mercifully, our kind hosts at the Dayara Bugyal resort at Barsu greeted us with hot tea and some scrumptious dinner.

The dorm we were staying in was the most perfect setting a group like ours could have asked for. It was a huge room with around 14 beds, which were really cold to climb into but warmed up with time. We all stuck close to each other under our rugs (yeah, very funny!) and chatted away in the dark mostly making fun of Sharanya's desperately sexy tone of voice and hilarious, scooterish laughter (which was quite adorable actually, but we never told her that!). This fun and frolic in the middle of a cold night in a beautiful, far-off destination with people I hadn't even met till a few days ago happens to be the most fascinating and cherish-able memory of this trip for me!

Finally, it was the day of the trek we were all here for! After a little commotion to use the bathroom in the morning, we were all ready to leave pretty early. Those who were ready to leave before the others made good use of their time clicking pictures in the early sun. We decided that we will go forth without a guide as we were all experienced trekkers and we had it in us to find our own way. It took almost a day, several explored routes, a couple of half-way drop outs and loss of sunlight to prove us wrong. We were fine till we could see a little trail but once the mountains decided to screw us, we had no choice. Mayuri had to return mid-way and Kedar, being the gentleman that he is, decided to accompany her. The kid was quite quick. He actually managed to escort her back to the base and join us back way sooner than we thought he could. Meanwhile, another group of people including Vaaaisshhnavi and Lavanya were falling back a bit. We were also out of water so Swapna, Sharanya, Nikhil and Shridhar went looking for some and an alternate route to reach the Bugyal. Meanwhile, Rakesh, Ishwarya, Kedar and me just sat amidst the trees watching the light fade slowly. I thought it was worth checking if the girls were catching up. That's when I shouted out a name I was made to rehearse over the past couple of days - "Vaaaaiiissshhhnnnaaavvvviiiii".

A few minutes later, we all got together and realized that it was a lost cause and it was time to head back and try again the next day. We started our descent like wounded tigers who will strike back with a vengeance. Except that I was literally wounded. As I climbed down, I realized that my knee was hurting terribly. The pain grew with every passing minute. By the time we reached our base, the pain was so excruciating that I began to give up all hope of going for the trek the next day.

Nikhil, Swapna and Rakesh advised me to apply some Relispray on my knee and cover it to keep it warm. I did not listen to them simply because I was too lazy to take off the hundreds of layers of clothes I was wearing to protect myself from the cold. We spent the night in the dorm with 14 people chatting away (again), narrating anecdotes, laughing aloud at the day's events. We even cooked up a story to pull a practical joke on Mayuri who had missed the day's proceedings.  However, we pushed it too far by introducing characters like disappearing blue men and polar bears! Covered in rugs and laughing out loud as we battled the cold, the day came to an end.

Once again, day 2 started early. Some decided to give the trek a miss. I was unable to take a call on whether I should go ahead as my knee was still hurting and it was an all-day trek. Like so many other times in life, I looked towards Nikhil for advice. He said that I should give it a shot as this trek was the whole point of the trip. I could return whenever I felt it was getting too much. This was just what I wanted to hear. I put on some Relispray, covered my knee with a tight crape bandage, wore my track pants, and then my jeans over it to keep it warm. We were all ready to embark on our adventure once again - only this time, we were wise enough to go with a guide. As we started, we saw that the guide took us from a route which ran along the route we took the previous day for the first 20 steps. And then, it turned left towards a concrete route of stairs. It was right there - a clear, obvious, concrete, guiding trail towards Dayara Bugyal. It turned out that we had started wrong the previous day and continued on a wrong track altogether! 

This time round, we just followed the guide as he took us through the stairs, leading to a shaded rocky terrain amidst green hills followed by loads of hard, slippery snow (which I peed on writing my name in yellow :P) and finally the last but vast stretch of snow that we had to climb sinking our feet into the snow. My 4K Quechua shoes that I had bought especially for this trek were proving to be a worthy buy. After trekking through loads of snow, we reached the frozen Barsu lake which was our first (and my only) achievement.

The Dayara Bugyal was another couple of hours from there and we had to be real quick if we wanted to touch it and get back to base before it was too dark. I decided not to go any further as it would mean that I would slow down the entire group. At least that's what I told them (didn't want Swapna and Sharanya to think I was weak :P)

Rakesh and Kedar stayed back with me at the lake where we built a fire (mostly them actually, I just lied down on account of my injured knee, looking at the lake, enjoying the ambiance) after collecting dry twigs from all around. It was just amazing. At such a height, far away from our daily life - the wide, vast expanse of mountains, snow, greenery, the lake - all in symphony - it was nature at its best! And so quiet! Kedar stepped on the edge of the frozen lake very carefully and clicked a few pics there. Rakesh strolled around the place before he came down and sat next to the fire. As I lied down on the grass hearing my own breath, absorbing every bit of the peace and quiet this place offered, I did not realize when I dozed off.

A few minutes later with no sign of Nikhil, Swapna, Shridhar, and Sharanya, we thought we should get going as we would need a head start anyway (due to my knee). On our way back, we met a couple from Delhi who was on a short vacation (cool place to camp with your girlfriend I thought) and two other guys from Kolkata one of whom we had met near the lake. They had found and returned a camera lens cover which one of us had lost. Happy coincidence! As we trudged along, we kept calling out once in a while to check if the others were somewhere nearby. An hour later, they answered our call and we were reunited. The rest of the climb down was all happy and with the contentment of having completed the trek.

We got back to Uttarkashi and booked a couple of hotel rooms. Sharanya, Nikhil and me packed some food for everyone and while we all ate and drank merrily, the clock struck 12! It was January 1, 2015. We all hugged (no kissing in India) wishing each other a happy new year!

The next day was meant to be a relaxing one but we ended up going on another little trek to a lake. Swapna got scolded by a sadhu at the lake for stepping where she shouldn't have. I continued posing for pics in the snow to add to my portfolio. Sharanya, as usual, couldn't figure out a way to tie her laces in a way that they wont come undone every 5 minutes. Later, I hypothesized that this was just her way to find a reason to stretch so all the guys would notice her!

After a long discussion about our future course of action the next morning, 7 of us left for our final stop - Rishikesh. We decided to go for an overnight camp and experience the famous white-water rafting at Rishikesh. Unfortunately, Sharanya was to leave us to resume work in her school in the village of Bhor where she was a teacher. After some local breakfast and handing over some cheap presents I had promised her, Sharanya bid goodbye to us.  We carried on to the forest camp which we reached in the dark. Arrangements were made for our stay n tents and dinner and a bonfire. We ate and drank for the better part of the night and crashed in our tents after a few selfies. 

Next morning was when we could actually see what a beautiful place we were at. The river was right in front of us (had to cross a few rocks though) and we had trees all around us. It was the perfect forest camp set up. A couple of hours after we soaked up the morning ambiance, we packed our bags and left to be taken to the starting point of the rafting. 

Few minutes later, we were in our boat with our instructor shouting "Forward"! We had experience rafting at kolad but this was a different ball game altogether. the rapids were way stronger and for the portion I was sitting at the front, what I witnessed cannot be explained in words. 

Battling through the rapids in such fashion got me all excited about taking a kayaking course in the future! Jumping from a little cliff into the freezing water was a part of this experience. Each one of us ended up doing it thrice. After we ended the ride, we dried ourselves and changed in the adventure company's office. That was it. It was the end of our new year trip!

We left for Delhi where we bid goodbye to Sridhar with a heavy heart. He was to leave for Madhya Pradesh where he taught in a rural area. The rest of us got into our train for Mumbai and came back to our routine lives.

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