Those who like to live by the quote, “the journey is better than the destination”, have probably never travelled to the higher parts of Uttarakhand, like Auli. But little do these people know, they are missing out on a great deal of untouched beauty that the Himalayan mountains and valleys have to offer. I can vouch for that, for I had the opportunity to visit Joshimath and its surrounding places in the Chamoli district like Auli in Uttarakhand this December.
It takes almost about one full day to reach Joshimath from Delhi. The first leg of the journey includes taking a bus, train or car to either Haridwar, Rishikesh or Dehradun from Delhi. Being a spontaneous traveller, I did not have time to book train tickets and so I boarded an overnight bus from the Inter-State Bus Terminal at Kashmere Gate in Delhi, to Haridwar. My favourite part of travelling is the lessons it gives me to make me a better traveller, every time I step out of my home. I got my first lesson of this trip only upon arriving at Haridwar. I realised getting off at Rishikesh would have been a better decision as it is cheaper, and nearer to Joshimath, as compared to the other two towns. Half asleep and almost freezing, I reached Haridwar even before the break of dawn and straightaway boarded a local Uttarakhand Roadways bus going to Joshimath. Now, this was perhaps one of the other, biggest mistakes I made during my entire 4-day trip, as I was soon about to learn that the driver of this bus had no intentions of stopping at all throughout the entire journey till Joshimath- the bus stop nearest to Auli. As the sun rose higher, so did my hunger pangs. Besides the plate of Maggie noodles, I hurriedly gobbled during a 5 minutes washroom break, I had to live on packaged chips for those 12 hours, that I had thankfully stocked up on before I had begun my journey. For most of the stretch, the roads were almost non-existent, as they usually are in higher altitudes, but the views from my bus window made up for all the things that were going against my favour. Now I don’t know if the journey was better, but it surely did reward me with the destination.
The cool, early evening winter breeze that welcomed me at Joshimath almost healed me of the fatigue. After freshening up and stuffing my face with some piping hot idli sambhar at a local dhaba, I set out in search for some cheap accommodations. Another disadvantage of planning your trips spontaneously is that you lose out on some really good lodging options. But the experience of meeting different people and seeing the dingy, shady places in search of accommodation makes up for it! GMVN Tourist Rest House is a really good, cheap guest house maintained by the government but it was all booked out, including the other government guest houses. I finally ended up paying 950 rupees per night for a pretty nice lodge that had running water, electricity, water geyser and a television set, along with a double bed. December being peak season in Joshimath, this was the cheapest bet I could find after bringing it down from 1500 per night. The town thankfully has a number of eateries to choose from- from small shacks and dhabas to full-blown restaurants, they have it all. These places open at around 8 am and close as late as 11 pm, while the rest of the town is asleep by 9 pm.
The next morning I took the Auli ropeway and started out for the Gorson Bugyal trek. The ropeway cost me 750 bucks for a round-trip journey. I chose not to pay the 600 rupees fee for a guide, despite the forest ministry officials suggesting me to hire one, and this decision thankfully worked out in my favour.
The trail is not too difficult to find and throughout my journey upwards, I only got lost once, after entering a majestic forest! But the crunch of the dry leaves under my feet and the sound of the wind gushing through the tall trees above me made it all worthwhile.
There was fresh snow everywhere in that meadow in Auli from the day before and even though the slope wasn’t too steep, it became a little difficult to walk on. Once I regained my trail and exited the forest, a beautiful little temple adorned with bright red flags welcomed me. After halting there for a while I started again and after crossing a massive expanse of pristine white fluff, I finally covered the 4km distance in an hour and a half and reached the Gorson Bugyal (Bugyal means meadow in most pahadi languages). It was here when I finally realized that the journey I made from Delhi to Auli was worth every single penny and every single hunger pang I had to go through. The view of the Nanda Devi peak from the top juxtaposed against the lush green dense forests below looked like they were straight out of a movie. Up there, at 3,056 metres above sea level, I felt breathless and exhilarated. After a point of time, I couldn’t feel my ear lobes because the wind was so strong and chilly but I paid no heed to it, for seeing that white fluff for the first time in my life excited me and I forgot about all else.
There were some enthusiastic people still going higher up to climb another peak. Had I carried a tent and sleeping bag with myself, and didn’t have the constraint of the gondola ride back to Joshimath stopping me, I would’ve still gone further up. But I believe that is the beauty of visiting a place for the first time. You visit a place for the first time and you make mistakes and learn. The second time you try to do it better, and by the third time the place becomes your home and slowly the list of your homes keeps increasing. That’s what travelling does to you, slowly but surely you start feeling closer to the land you were born in, and very soon homeland for you doesn’t mean political boundaries anymore. Homeland becomes mother earth and everywhere you go, the soil beneath your feet becomes your home. What a beautiful feeling it must be, to feel at home at all times!
On the second day of being around Auli, I decided to hire a taxi and visit nearby places suggested by the owner of the lodge I was staying in. I first went to the Tapovan hot water spring and found kids from nearby villages boiling eggs in the steam of the spring. The water from the spring was channelized into public baths with each bathing cubicle having its own supply of hot water through pipes jutting out from its wall. A little further away from the origin of the springs was a small temple complex that inhabited a tiny population as well. In the middle of this complex was a common bathing pool, whose water was supplied from the hot spring itself. It was a breath of fresh relief to see a small, remote area of a politically turmoiled country, thriving on nature’s bounty and living harmoniously.
My next stop was Vishnuprayag, one of the Panch Prayag (five confluences) in the Garhwal region of the Uttarakhand state. Vishnuprayag is the confluence of the Dhauliganga river with the Alaknanda river. The stark difference in the colours of the rivers was breathtaking. While the water of Alaknanda was more earthy and brownish in colour, Dhauliganga had pristine, crystal blue water. Above the confluence, there hung a gorgeous bridge leading up to a small trail up a hill and I decided to follow it. After climbing for about 2 kilometres, I found some locales cutting wood and stopped to have a chat with them. One woman told me they live in a small hamlet which sits right at the top of the hill. They come down to collect firewood every week. They offered me some chai upon reaching the top but the taxi I had hired was running out of time and hence I had to refuse the kind people and start downwards.
Even though it was a very short trip and I couldn’t complete everything on my to-do-list (I had planned to visit the Valley of Flowers as well but upon reaching Joshimath I found that it only opens during the spring and summers), it taught me how even though the journey might not be all rosy, it does teach resilience and patience, while the destination gives the traveller something to look forward to. One is not greater than the other, for, without either, you can never come home satiated.
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A twenty-something solo adventurer, Avantika finds comfort in learning about various cultures, its people and listening to age-old folk tales. When not on the road, she can be found cuddled up with her dog in her room, with a book in her hand.