Category Archives: Mountains

Roopkund Chronicles – Day 6 Pathar Nachauni to Loharjung

Day 6: October 3

On May 12, 2005, high-altitude mountaineer Ed Viesturs reached the summit of Annapurna, the deadliest mountain in the world in terms of summit-to-kill ratio. In doing so, he became the first American and the sixth person ever to climb all 14 of the 8,000 m peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen.

Ed Viesturs [Photo Courtesy Pinterest, National Geographic]

Ed Viesturs [Photo Courtesy Pinterest, National Geographic]

He is famous for his conservative approach to climbing – he once turned around from a mere 300 feet from the summit of Mt. Everest!! He is also famous for a popular and inspirational mountain quote, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory. A lot of people forget about that. “. He wrote this in his memoir – No Shortcuts to the Top.

This should be the philosophy that underlies all mountain treks. After all, it’s only if you get down safely that you get to go back another time.

Pathar Nachauni camp

Pathar Nachauni camp

We were to begin our long ‘mandatory’ journey back from Pathar Nachauni to the base camp, Loharjung, today.  For going up the 22 km from Loharjung to Pathar Nauchani we took around 17 hours, spread across four days. The return journey was to be completed in a single day. We were to walk for 16 km and we were bypassing Ali Bugyal and Didna village and taking a different route via Bedni Bugyal, Patal Ghaeroli and Wan. We would descend from 12700 ft to 8028 ft (3908 m to 2447 m) in a single day. Incidentally, our return route was also the alternate route from Wan village to Bedni Bugyal.

This was our last day on campground. These tents had been our homes for the past few days. Even though I had some trepidation about staying in a “tent”, I was wonderfully proven wrong.

Our march from Pathar Nachauni begins

Our march from Pathar Nachauni begins

We started from Pathar Nachauni at 08.30 am. The first couple of hours were easy. We were retracing the same steps we had taken a few days back. We passed through Ghoda Lautani and passed onto the other side of the mountain.

The journey back – somewhere between Pathar Nachauni and Ghoda Launtani

With the promise of a much easier day on the trail with plenty of downhill stretches as opposed to uphill slogs, we thought we’d just sing and walk – we were proved wrong in a couple of hours.

On our way we met a lot of people headed up to Roopkund. There were frequent exchanges of “congratulations” and “all the best” amongst us.  At around 10 am, we got our first glimpse of Bedni Kund.

First glimpse of Bedni Kund

We had to climb down a moderately steep path to reach Bedni valley. We remembered we had seen a few trekkers from another group climb that route on our way to Roopkund. And we thanked ourselves that we did not have to climb that way. Climbing down was not that difficult. We had stepped on to the green carpeted Bugyal lands and were leaving the snow behind us. We passed the colourful camps we had seen on our way up and reached the Kund. Near the Kund were a couple of stone temples.

Stone temple at Bedni

Stone temple at Bedni

By 10.45 am, we had left the grass lands of Bedni behind. From thereon, begins the steep descent to Neel Ganga. The path was paved with cut stone.

The descent from Bedni begins here

The descent from Bedni begins here

Raj Bhaaiyya asked us to lengthen our poles. Climbing down was harder than we thought as we had to concentrate more, and had to keep a constant vigil on where we placed our foot. Descending constantly is not easy; it takes every ounce of energy and breaks your knees down. I was already feeling a bit sore beneath my toes.


The forest was dark and once in a while the sunlight took a peak through the canopy. But walking within the silent woods gives one an enchanting feeling…. the dry leaves crumbling beneath your feet to indicate your beautiful journey across the forest trail.

Oak forests of  Ghaeroli Patal

By 11.20 am we reached the forest camp in Ghaeroli Patal and had our mid-meal. After a quick rest, we were moving again by 11.45 am.

FRH at Patal Ghaeroli

FRH at Ghaeroli Patal

It was a shortcut time for a few – they abandoned the stone trail and went on a sliding spree across the mud and roots.

And I guess the ‘short cutters’ gained a lot of distance as we could see them far away down in the valley.

Spot the trekkers

Spot the trekkers!

There were small openings in the forest, and as you climb down, you get a peek of the villages through these openings. By 12.45 we got our first glimpse of Wan village…though it looked quite far off.

By this time we could listen to the rushing waters of the Neel Ganga River. We reached the river by 1 pm and spent around 20 minutes resting and dipping our sore toes in the cold water.

At Neel Ganga

At Neel Ganga

From the Neel Ganga River, it took another 30 minutes to climb to a ridge above Wan village. From there began the long journey across Wan village to a place where a vehicle would be carrying us back to the Loharjung base camp, 15 km away.

Walking into Wan Village

Walking into Wan Village

The village of Wan, with its numerous chickens, fluffy dogs and beautiful children with cheeks worthy of biting into, looked like any other Uttaranchali village.

We found villagers going about their tasks; it was evening, so most of the women and men were returning home after their chores. Children hovered around greeting us with Namasthes and then asking for chocolates and pens. One smarty guy wanted my water bottle!

Kids at Wan vollage

Kids at Wan village

As we neared the road head, we met a couple of ladies. One of our team members struck a conversation with them and one turned out to be the ‘Pradhaan’ (chief) of 8 villages, Usha Devi. She offered us fresh produce, juicy cucumbers from her field and tea. A head strong lady, she talked a lot about her life in the village and how she had worked towards getting a road built to the village, stopped people cutting trees on the mountainside, travelled to Lucknow to get her voice heard and to Delhi to give a speech on environmental issues.

Smt Usha Devi (left)

Smt Usha Devi (on the left)

By 3.30 pm, we’d reached the road head and our jeeps were waiting for us. We reached our camp in Loharjung by 4 pm.

When I finally limped up the staircase of Patwal Lodge and flung my backpack onto a corner of the dormitory, the realization that I had actually completed the Roopkund trek dawned upon me. At once, I felt fully drained, yet totally alive.

There was a special dinner ordered for us and we were given our certificates of completion, besides being asked to speak about our experiences.

The next day our jeeps came early and we began our long journey back to Kathgodam and then Delhi and back to our respective homes.

The full team at Roopkund [Courtesy Shivam Singh]

The full team at Roopkund [Courtesy Shivam Singh]

For the next few days, I was wincing whenever I had to climb up or down a step, a deep tan had taken over my face and my hands, my lips were chapped, and I had blisters on all my toes. I had walked 53 km in 6 days over mud, rocks, ice, grass, snow and horse dung, at low oxygen levels, with bare minimum amenities, without taking a bath and yet when I closed my eyes, I felt a calmness and serenity within. At night (and sometimes during the day!), I often hallucinated that I was marooned in a deep sea of white clouds, looking out at endless vistas of mountains stretching as far as my eye could see.

Our guides (clockwise from L to R) Amar, Pushkar and Raj

Our guides (clockwise from L to R) Amar, Raj, and Pushkar

This journey would never have been completed without the help of the friendly support staff from TTH – be it our guides, kitchen staff, porters and even the mules. Last but not the least these adventures wouldn’t have been as fun as it had been without the awesome company we had!

Uma, Ammu, Nithin, Ani, Sabari, Sree  and us – let’s climb another mountain!!


Day 6 in a nutshell

  • Day 6: Pathar Nachauni to Loharjung
  • Distance:  16 km
  • Altitude: 12700 ft to 7575 ft
  • Terrain: Gradual descent from Pathar Nachauni till Bedni Bugyal. Steep to moderate descent from Bedni to Neel Ganga. From Neel Ganga to Wan gradual descent.
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Time Taken: Around 7 hours


Roopkund Chronicles – Day 5: Summit Day

Day 5: October 2

What had become one of the longest days of my life would also become one of the most memorable days …. considering the way it all kicked off in the wee dark hours of a cold October morning. Today is the day we had been waiting for, preparing for, dreaming of, and believing in. Today is summit day.

Up and at it before 4 am, the nightmarish reality of having to deal with the cold weather, dark surroundings, slippery ground and the anxiety of the unknown became all too real. We had to start the trek to Roopkund early in the morning while the snow was still hard. As the sun comes out, by mid morning, the snow melts and becomes soft and your feet start sinking in. Also, as it gets warmer, the hard ice gets slippery and it slows you down.

The snowy trails

We got into our many layers of wool, gobbled down some breakfast, and strapped on our backpacks, head torches and crampons. We were not carrying much items today – just a few energy bars, an apple each and two bottles of water. By the time it was 5 am, there were already a number of groups ahead of us on the way to the mystery lake. From the camp till the Roopkund crater above, it’s a 3 km ascending hike through rock and snow.

It was scary in the beginning – it was dark and cold and we were not very sure of what lay on the path. We were advised to walk on the middle of the trail, and were told to try to step on the foot prints of the person in front which was difficult to find in the dark. The call “come on trekkers” from Raj Bhaiyya further boosted the confidence and determination to hit the target.

The first 1 km was a gradual ascent and not very difficult. As I turned back I could see a serpentine trail of head torches stretched across the line. As we trudged up, the altitude did hit us, and some of us were finding it a little difficult to take deep breaths. The wind picked up and we were thankful to have the extra layers as we staggered through the high mountain gusts. At a few places, the snow had become hard and was cut into steps. Every time I go on a trek, I find myself grateful to those who have gone before me and have smoothed a trail for me.

The only range that matters is the Himalayan range

It was past 6 when the sun came out and hit the mighty Himalayan range. As for the view, it was magnificent. We could not see the rising sun but the rays glistened off the snow capped mountains and they appeared to be on fire. The Chaukhamba and several other mountains regaled in the most beautiful morning sky I had ever seen. The colours were different than anything I had seen before. And the feeble warmth acted like a cosy layer.

Spot the trekkers

We had to climb through some tricky switch backs (the zig-zag line we had seen from the base camp), then a steep granite step surface, and a final steep climb over a snowy flank to reach Roopkund lake. There were times when unknown hands came to help. This is the kind of camaraderie we found throughout the trek. There were guides and support staff, even from other groups, who were always ready to lend a hand of help. On one stretch of vertical switchback I was literally dragged across by a guide from another group for 10 m – that actually translates to 100 m on plain ground.

The switchbacks on the way

The last stretch was exhausting and where we found our strength for that, I do not know. For the first time I learnt something very important; during mountain treks one faces danger, but dangers of a special kind – the dangers within oneself – vertigo, breathlessness, muscle fatigue and allowing ones nerves to get the better of one.

There were times when I wondered if this trek would ever end, but it did and the feeling of relief was fantastic. After the last scramble, the slope leveled out and we arrived on a ridge. And then the moment came when you find the geodetic marker, this time it read “Roopkund Lake 0 km” – that was the moment we were working toward for the past several hours. It was exactly 8 am.

Roopkund – 0 km

All of us stood there panting in the crisp Himalayan air. I don’t know what the others felt, but amidst the high fives, handshakes and group hugs, I was having a bout of emotions – relief, happiness, excitement, a bit of hunger, and so much pride. I’d reached what feels like the top of the world both physically and mentally and it’s now mine to enjoy. Not just me – we were a group of 26 trekkers and all of us reached the lake. At 15700, this ain’t no Everest but it still is a summit of reckoning – and one we were all proud of having climbed.

We spotted a skeletal remain on the ridge – a heap of bones placed on a rock. Raj bhaiyya said that both human and horse bones were found around the lake. On one side of the ridge was a small stone temple with figures of Nandadevi and Bholenath inside.

Climbing down to Roopkund

Ahead of us below in a snowy crater appeared a few clear splotches of water – the Roopkund Lake – or whatever remained of the lake that was now partially frozen and covered up in snow. In summers, the bones and skulls are exposed – as of now they remained buried in the snow.

Team at Roopkund

To reach the bottom of the crater we had to climb down 50 ft. The steep crater walls had inches of snow covering the surface which deprived us of any sightings of more skeletons. We did find one skull arranged in the typical skull and cross-bone symbol near the lake. After a few customary photos and groupies we decided to perambulate the lake.

The 500 odd skeletons were discovered way back in 1942 by a park ranger. All the corpses had similar blows to the head and shoulders – short deep cracks on the skull and shoulder bones as if the blows had all come from directly above. It was found that the skeletons belonged to two kinds of groups. So was it a war that happened in the high altitude battle field?

As it turns out, all the bodies dated to around 850 AD. And DNA evidence indicated that there were two distinct groups of people leading experts to believe that the group comprised of pilgrims heading through the valley with the help of the locals. According to local legend, the King of Kanauj, along with his wife, servants, dance troupe and many others went on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine. While crossing Roopkund during a raging hail storm, the entire party of pilgrims were killed. The remains lay in the lake for 1,200 years until their discovery.

View of Junargali from Roopkund lake

As we climbed up from the lake to the ridge, we found that the sun had fully risen and the glistening on the whiteness of peaks had reached all the way to the valley. Junargali was ruled out for us as we had reached late. We knew that getting to Roopkund is meaningless if you don’t climb up to Junargali. Two of our early arrivers climbed up to Junargali, accompanied by a guide. Junargali is a sharp ridge line that towers over Roopkund –  a 250 ft steep climb from where we were standing. From Junargali , at 16,000 feet, you get clear views of Trishul and the adjoining mountain peaks.

We sat by the stone temple and had our breakfast.

The return journey was not very easy as we had thought; the snow had started to melt, making the trail slippery at a few places. One should be very careful when stepping on hard ice as it tends to get slippery. The snowy gradient looked dangerously sloping from this height, and the thought of climbing down those switchbacks was scary.

At many places we had to negotiate the snow by squatting down on the ice. And while we were struggling to keep up with the slippery snow, we found Pushkar Bhaiyya sliding down the snow flanks on his back!!!. A few of our adventurous fellow trekkers tried the same; some managed to slide past without tumbling, a few took a few soft tumbles.


In broad daylight the vistas looked so different. Did we climb up along these trails just a few hours back?

Dangerous steps on the way

But after a few vertical slopes, we reached back on level ground. We could spot our camp in a distance.

Bhagwabasa camp

By 11.15 we walked into Bhagwabasa camp. Had a quick lunch, gathered our things and set out to Pathar Nachauni, our night camp, where we had stayed a night before. By 12.30 we had reached Kalu Vinayak and by 2 pm all the trekkers had reached home.

Most of the evening was spent at the dhabha in front of the camp, mulling over our accomplishment over endless cups of piping hot tea and plates of bread omelette.

That night, sleeping under the stars at Patharnachauni camp, I kept tossing and turning in my sleep bag. What an impressive physical, mental, and emotional accomplishment! Up there somewhere, Roopkund lake lay unmoved by our valiant effort of getting to her, a frozen little droplet surrounded by snow decked with the bones of a tragedy no one knew nothing much about. Click here for Day 6.

Day 5 in a nutshell

  • Day 5: Bhagwabasa to Roopkund to Pathar Nachauni
  • Distance:  11 km (Bhagwabasa to Roopkund and back: 6 km; Bhagwabasa to Pathar Nachauni: 5 km)
  • Altitude: 14350 ft to 15700 ft
  • Terrain: Steep ascent
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Time Taken: Around 3 hours from Bhagwabasa to Roopkund. Return took 2 hours. From Bhagwabasa to Pathar Nachauni it took 1.30 hours








Roopkund Chronicles – Day 4: Pathar Nachauni to Bhagwabasa

Morning at Pathar Nachauni

Mountain view from Pathar Nachauni

Day 4: October 1

Having slept like a log through the night, I woke to the unmistakable sound of light rain falling on the walls of the tent. Not exactly music to the ears knowing that the morning’s hike upwards was now going to be done in the wet and slush.

Morning rain at Pathar Nachauni camp

We instantly knew it was going to be a cold day. The rain had stopped by the time we stepped out of our tents but the remnants of the wet weather clung onto our tent tops and sides, adamantly. When you’re in the mountains, morning chores become a stunted version of the more luxurious ones you are used to at sea level. First, it takes immense courage to brush your teeth and wash your face in the icy cold water: alternative – center-fresh and wet-wipes.

Clouds everywhere @ Pathar Nachauni

The rain from last night had turned to snow and the hills around seemed to look even more impressive covered in a fluffy white covering. The frost on the meadows was twinkling like crystals clinging onto the ground. The valley was shrouded with a cloudy mist, rising up in swirls – the effect was positively ethereal.

We had a tough trek ahead and the air was getting thinner. So Raj Bhaiyya decided we should have a warm up session before breakfast. The fun exercise did take away a little of the chill we had around us.

Climbing up from Pathar Nachauni camp

We started our trek at  8.30 am. Trekking up from Pathar Nachauni till Kalu Vinayak would be on a very steep trail. And we would be climbing up from 12,770 feet to 14,550 feet in the next 2 km.

Huffing and puffing up

The initial climb was gradual. We were mostly clambering over small hills and taking short cuts over grass land. And then the actual climb began – steep and slow. For the first time, nobody was waiting for nobody. No one spoke and we were just walking in single file, following each others’ footsteps. All of us were engrossed in our own struggles – some were struggling with their legs, some with their breaths and a lot with their minds.

The mist had not lifted and during some stretches we could barely see the person in front of us. We kept resting after taking 10 steps, but Raj Bhaiyya kept pushing us from behind with his reassuring words “take deep breaths through your nose, drink water”. A few had already complained of headaches and nausea the previous night, however, none of us had any serious health issue till date.

The mist on the way to Kalu Vinayak

As we huffed and puffed our way towards the top, our band of ever-amazing porters and ever-jingling mules began to pass us along the trail with relative ease, pushing our luggage onto our next camp.

A sole trekker enroute to Kalu Vinayak

Even in this cold weather, we were drenched in sweat but the air was cool.  Whenever we stopped for a break, we would get a chill from the cold sweat so we just kept on chugging along. We had been cut-off from the rest of the world long back, however, it was during this stretch, for the first time, that I had that feeling of solitude among the mighty Himalayas.

Unending trails from Pathar Nachauni to Kalu Vinayak

Through the thin air we could listen to a distant sound of ringing bells. Was it the sound of the jingling bells from our mules? To our relief, it wasn’t. Kalu Vinayak was only a few steps ahead and it was the simultaneous ringing of scores of bells by our enthusiastic ‘fast trekkers’ who had reached way ahead of us.

By 10 am the difficult part was over and we had caught up with them. We had reached Kalu Vinayak temple. Kalu Vinayak temple has a a black Ganesh idol enclosed in a stone shrine. As in most of the Uttaranchali temples found in the Garwal and Kumaoni regions, a lot of bells are hung around the temple.

Kalu Vinayak Temple

The feeling of relief on reaching the top was immense. As we waited for the rest of our group to complete the killer final climb, we had the opportunity to sit down and take a well-deserved breather. From Kalu Vinayak, on a clear day, the trail to Roopkund is visible. And a clear view of the the mountain ranges – Nanda Ghunti, Kali Dak, Trishul, Chanyakot and Chaukhamba. The clouds obstructed our 180 degree view of the Himalayas, but it was still one of the most beautiful feelings.

Trekker jam at Kalu Vinayak

From Kalu Vinayak the trek to Bhagwabasa was a cake walk because of the gradual descent. The path was paved with rocks, cut into small slabs and there was occasional snow along the path.

Rock trail to Bhagwabasa

Our destination Bhagwabasa was less than 2 kms away from Kalu Vinayak. On the way there was a cluster of stone huts and we later learnt that, earlier, those huts were rented out to trekkers for the night. However, now most of them were in a dilapidated condition and abandoned.

Abandoned stone huts on the way to Bhagwabasa

By 12 pm we walked into Bhagwabasa (14350 ft). The background was amazing – Bhagwabasa is set in a valley against a row of snow capped mountains. The sky was a deep blue and the white peaks were reaching towards the billowing clouds.

Rustic beauty of Bhagwabasa

The earth is in her glory here – you get to see some of the most magnificent peaks – Trishul, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba – and we suddenly felt so insignificant.  These mountains have lasted here for an eternity. They are the lords of the land and we were merely visitors.

Trishul rises @ Bhagwabasa

Trishul rises @ Bhagwabasa

The camping ground had several rocks that lay scattered all around. The whole area was uneven. There were around 20 tents, a couple of larger tents and a few fibre glass structures. Our tents were not ready as a few trekkers were yet to reach from Roopkund, and their luggage lay in the tents. By the time we had our lunch, the Roopkund-bound trekkers had returned and had vacated the tents.

Bhagwabasa camp

Bhagwabasa camp

By 2 pm the weather changed and it started to drizzle with small flakes of snow floating about. But not for long. Later, we were called into the mess tent and were given crampons – a plastic addon, with metallic spikes at the bottom, that would be providing us the much-needed grip while we trekked on the snow the next day. The trek leaders showed us how to attach the crampons onto our shoes.


Around 4.30, the clouds gathered again and snow began to fall, now with more force. The air was fresh and chill. Though, we were a bit worried about how this snow storm would affect the next day’s trek, we could not think of anything else except the present.

We had a little time pre-dinner to walk around the camp. The high clouds had already covered the tall peaks behind the Roopkund crater.


Bhagwabasa after the snow fall

Raj bhaiyya pointed out the trail going all the way up from Bhagwabasa to Roopkund Lake and further on to Junargali Pass. The trail was clear. We could even spot a zig-zag path that looked really scary from here. We were to cover this 3 km trail, early in the morning before the snow melted.

The path from Bhagwabasa to Roopkund and Junargali

The path from Bhagwabasa to Roopkund and Junargali

The setting sun was shining feebly across the frigid snowy landscapes far below and the expansive snow-capped mountains high above. The moon was slowly moving up now giving an almost blue-tinged tone to the snow.

Moonrise @ Bhagwabasa

Moonrise @ Bhagwabasa

The infectious support staff, with their friendly banter, helped to alleviate some of the aches and pains that were creeping into our limbs after a tough day’s climb.  Another great meal capped off a fantastic day on the trail en route to Roopkund.

Roopkund Lake lay only 3 km away from the camp. I still had to pinch myself knowing that I was just a night away from my dream encounter with the skeletons!!!! Tomorrow is summit day.

Day 4 in a nutshell

  • Day 4: Pathar Nachauni to Bhagwabasa via Kalu Vinayak
  • Distance: Around 5 kms
  • Altitude: 12700 ft to 14350 ft
  • Terrain: Steep ascent from Pathar Nachauni to Kalu Vinayak and downhill trek from Kalu Vinayak till Bhagwabasa.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
  • Time taken: Around 3.5 hours


Roopkund Chronicles – Day 3 – Ali Bugyal to Pathar Nachauni

Day 3: September 30

After a night of tossing and turning, we woke up at the crack of dawn.

Walk in the clouds

Walk in the clouds

Imagine waking up and rolling out of bed to be greeted by a misty mountain view, with the sun peeping out and pink skies above you. Well, in a tent you do not roll out, but crawl out. For the next few days we were to follow a few steps, or rather crawls and crouches, while getting in and out of a tent.

While getting out of a tent

  • Unzip your sleeping bag, which invariably gets stuck, the more you rush.
  • Sit in a crouching position.
  • Unzip the inner tent opening.
  • Crawl out till the inner tent opening, still struggling to free yourself from the clutches of your sleeping bag.
  • Now sit back down and stick your leg out so that you can put on your shoes.
  • Unzip the outer tent opening.
  • Lift yourself up still crouching and walk out of the tent.


While getting in

  • Open the outer zip.
  • Open the inner zip.
  • Have your back against the tent door and fall onto your rear (ouch!!!), your legs still jutting out of the tent.
  • Remove your shoes and crawl into the tent.

PS: And every time you remove/put on your shoes while you enter/exit the tent….arduous!

Armed with our tooth brushes we walked towards the fiberglass tents. Ali Bugyal camp did not have a running water source so we had to make do with the minimal water available which was stored in plastic containers. When you’re deep in the woods, miles away from the nearest restroom, it takes some extra effort to take care of your ‘business’ in a hygienic way. With generous dollops of hand sanitizer, tissue paper and wet wipes, keeping clean was often a struggle.  Without the modern conveniences we’ve become so accustomed to, keeping up with the bacteria, dirt, and grime was a constant challenge. At least, everyone smells equally bad on a high altitude trek. But it didn’t matter – we were all bundled up in many layers to smother the scent. And who actually cared – after all we were not there to take part in a beauty contest.

Misty morning at Ali Bugyal

In ten minutes we were holding onto our glasses of hot tea and taking in the vista in front of us. Green valleys spread out before us with a few clouds looming in the sky. A thick layer of fog hung throughout the valley, making it impossible to see what lay behind. Above the fog layer, the sky was a mixture of grey and pink.

Kalidak and Trishul [courtesy Ammu]

Kali Dak and Trishul from Ali Bugyal [courtesy Ammu]

The weather cleared slowly, the fog lifted and as the sun broke through the clouds, we could see the rim of the snow capped mountains, jutting out like vanilla cones sprinkled with dark chocolate – we were pointed out the Trishul peaks, Chaukhamba and Kali Dak.

Chaukhamba from Aki Bugyal [Courtesy Ammu]

Rolling mist and Chaukhamba from Ali Bugyal [Courtesy Ammu]

We spent some time on a vantage point taking snaps till the breakfast call came.

@ 12000 ft

Heights of posing @ 12000 ft, Ali Bugyal

By 8.30 our luggage was loaded onto the mules and the first set of trekkers were already on their way. We walked up from the camp, passed a stone temple and were now hiking on the huge Z mark we had seen the previous day. The hike was not tough as we were passing on plain trails.

Our next camp was Pathar Nachauni, 5 km away. The trail to Pathar Nachauni was along a mountain edge, a narrow path with mountains on one side and a sloping valley on the other side.

Traversing bugyal land

Traversing bugyal land

In half an hour we were walking by another Himalayan meadow – Bedni Bugyal. Bedni Bugyal lay down in the valley on our left. In the middle of the grass land there was a pond – Bedini Kund. Locals believe that Maharishi Ved Vyas compiled all the four Vedas in this valley. There were two small stone temples near the Bedini Kund. We could also see a camping site, complete with a dozen tents and a couple of fiberglass tents.

Bedni Kund [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Bedni Kund [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

We would be cutting through the Bedni Kund on our way back. There are two approaches to the meadows of Bedni Bugyal from the plains, one from Loharjung via Didna, Tolpani and Ali Bugyal – which we had taken – and the other, a steep climb directly from Wan village. We ascended through the first and would descend the other way.

Near the Kund, we could see a line of trekkers from another group. They were struggling as they climbed from the valley along a steep zig zag path to reach the main mountain trail we were moving on. We did thank our stars that we did not have to go through that steep climb in the morning. On our way back we would be taking that path down.

Trekkers climbing up from Bedni Valley

Trekkers climbing up from Bedni Valley

The trek today would take us through Ghora Lautani before we reach our camp at Pathar Nachauni. Ghora Lotani stands at a height of 3945 m and is about 2.5 kms from Ali Bugyal. It gets such a name because horses would never go up from this place – the place from where the horses returned home.

@ Ghora Lautani

@ Ghora Lautani

By 11 we reached Ghora Lautani. As there was a chance of rain, we were instructed to get into our rain wear immediately. The clouds had started to build over the mountains and there was an occasional peal of lightning accompanied by a flat rolling roar. Till now the nature Gods were pleased with us and we had not faced any showers, hail or snow.

Never ending trail to Pathar Nachauni

After Ghora Lautani, we had now moved onto the other side of the mountain. There were signs of major landslides that looked really scary.

Landslides at Ghora Lautani

Landslides at Ghora Lautani

The valleys looked browner than green, a sign that we were gaining altitude. The valley was covered with clouds which shielded the white peaks of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti.

Brown valleys at Ghora Lautani

From Ghora Lautani to Pathar Nachauni (1.5 kms), the trek was easy, almost going downwards. After 30 minutes or so we could spot a campsite on the right side, which belonged to another trek company, amidst an extensive alpine meadow down in the valley. The camp looked colourful with a dozen yellow and orange tents. Our campsite was further up on a ridge on the left side of our trail. By 11.50 we trickled into Pathar Nachauni. We were now standing on ground that was 12766 ft (3900 m) above sea level.

Reaching Pathar Nachauni camp

The camp consisted of two rows of 16 tents, 8 on one side bang opposite to each other. There was a huge mess tent, a few fibre glass tents and a shed for the mules. The toilet tents were placed further away up on the ridge. There was a small dhaba right in front of the camp.

Pathar Nachauni Camp

Pathar Nachauni Camp

We had barely reached the camp and it started to rain.

Slushy camp @ Pathar Nachauni after the rains and hail storm

The food provided throughout the trek by TTH was of top quality. Our menu was never repeated, and we were served with a variety of dishes. After a sumptuous lunch we thought we’d explore the place with Raj Bhaiyya. The rain had stopped now, but the whizzing Himalayan icy winds were on the prowl. Pathar Nachauni is a brown meadow, sprinkled with rocks – small and large.

Rocks and meadows @ Pathar Nachauni

Raj bhaiyya told us story, a popular folklore associated with the name of this place. A local King, on a pilgrimage to Nanda Devi, stayed at this place. He was traveling with a large group which also included a few dancers. The King got so lost in their performance that he finally forgot about the pilgrimage. Nanda Devi cursed the King and turned all dancing girls into rocks – thus the name Pathar Nachauni. An interesting story indeed.

The trail from Pathar Nachauni to Kalu Vinayak

The path from our camp led up to a steep hill and we were to follow this winding path tomorrow. The small temple of Kalu Vinayak lay somewhere amidst the mountains ahead of us. The trail between Pathar Nachauni and Kalu Vinayak is considered as the most difficult stretch to cover, because of the steep climb and altitude gain.

Team @ Pathar Nachauni...and don't miss the pink gloves [courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Team @ Pathar Nachauni…and don’t miss the pink gloves [courtesy Ani & Sabari]

 Tomorrow we would be camping higher – at the highest camp of this trek – Bhagwabasa. And tomorrow we would also get the first glimpse of our destination – Roopkund lake – or at least the mountain where Roopkund lay hidden in a shallow crater. Tomorrow is always better than today.

Day 3 in a nutshell

  • Day 3: Ali Bugyal to Pathar Nachauni via Ghora Lautani
  • Distance: Around 5 kms
  • Altitude: 11520 ft to 12700 ft [3510 m to 3900 m]
  • Terrain: Gradual ascent from Ali Bugyal to Ghora Lautani and downhill trek from Ghora Lautani till Pathar Nachauni.
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Time taken: Around 3.5 hours



Roopkund Chronicles – Day 2 – Didna to Ali Bugyal

Room with a view

Room with a view

Day 2: September 29

We woke with the consciousness that we were into Day 2 of the trek. Though a bit chilly, we knew it was going to be a much warmer morning as compared to the ones we will wake up to in the next few days. There was yet another consolation in store – this was the last of the genuine (read non-pit) toilets for the week ahead – so there was quite a beeline for the toilets – both Indian and European for that matter –  already. By 7.30, we were all ready, breakfasted and even through with Raj Bhaiyya’s morning drill.

View from Didna

We set off at 7.45 am. There was a “slow trekkers” group formed on the basis of the performance that the guides made out on Day 1. They had already left about half an hour back and the rest of us also set out in trickles of small groups. We took our first unofficial stop in 10 minutes at a brook to top up our bottles. It was also the first time we were filling directly from a natural source – a sign that we were now high up and the water pure.

The climb, to begin with, was fairly steep and got our limbs working immediately. The ground was slushy, but navigable, and in no time our Quecha trekking shoes were smudged and dirty.

The entire walk is through a mixed forest covering the whole range of oaks, pines, deodars, and fir interspersed with broad leaved ferns and some brightly coloured mushrooms too. We must have ploughed on long enough to feel relieved at reaching a more level ground. As we walked out of the forest cover we spotted swirls of smoke – an evidence of inhabitation.

Walking into Tol Pani village

Walking into Tol Pani village

We had reached the small village of Tol Pani by 9 am, our first official stop for the morning. Though the trail was completely shaded we did feel thirsty after the steep climb. As we trudged through the village, we noticed the water source Raj Bhaiyya had mentioned during the morning drill. We were supposed to fill our bottles as this was the last water source before we reached our camp site, Ali Bugyal. The forest village comprised of a row of thatched houses interspersed with fields containing different crops. The forests provided not only fuel wood but also extensive grazing land for the livestock.

The beautiful forest village - Tol Pani

The beautiful forest village – Tol Pani

After Tol Pani, starts the almost vertical but zig-zag climb that passes through dense oak forests. We tried taking a few shortcuts, clambering across the tree roots, instead of walking along the well tread bridle path. But we realized that these shortcuts we took, shortened the journey, but the energy required was often greater than the time we saved.

We kept asking Raj Bhaaiya “How much more time?”, more due to our hunger than our tiredness. Whenever we asked our guides “How much further?” they would reply with, “Just half an hour more.” We would continue with renewed vigour and end up walking for more than 2 hours. Our incentive in the form of paranthas and boiled potatoes/eggs waited for us at Tol Top. There was just one agenda for us at the moment, to reach Tol Top and have our packed mid-meal.

By 10 am the difficult part was over and we reached a more level ground. The sun was barely trickling through the trees which had grown tall and bent over to form an extended arch. There’s nothing more enchanting than walking through a tree lined pathway carpeted with a permanent cover of moss and dry leaves, with the light spilling through the branches. For a few minutes we even forgot that we were at a height of more than 3000 m.

An archway of trees

An archway of trees

By 10.40 we emerged from the trees and walked onto a small ridge. We had reached Tol Top, the starting point of the famous Himalayan highland meadows. We flung our backpacks onto the grass and took in the views around. The faster trekkers had already munched onto their mid meals and were lazing around. From the ridge, the villages, houses, paths and fields appeared below. Everything looked so small from this height.

View of the villages and road from Tol Top

View of the villages and road from Tol Top

After all we had touched 3000 m. On a sunny day, you get clear views of Nanda Ghunti. Today was not our day; the mountains were hidden by a few low adamant clouds. Raj Bhaiyya pointed out a road in the distance – the road from Wan village which we would take back on our return journey.

 @ Tol Top with a furry friend

@ Tol Top with a furry friend [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

We had lunch at the beautiful overlook, it just seemed like a good place to stop and eat.  After lunch, it seemed like too good a place to leave, but we had to move on.

Entering bugyal land [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

This would be the last sign of forest cover we would see for the next few days. The bugyals spread out in front of us, strewn with tiny mountain flowers in all their beauty. We continued to walk through the charming meadows, for the next few hours, literally amazed by the beauty of this green expanse. The meadows were occasionally flanked by pine forests at the fringes. A line appeared to have been drawn by a ruler, separating the bugyals from the pine forests.

The clouds were dark grey with hints of a noon shower. It was a wonderful feeling, sauntering over the bugyals, running down a lot, clambering up a few, with only the grey misty skyline around.

The Ali Bugyal meadow stretched out far and wide ahead, but the camping areas are limited to the fringes of the bugyal, where there are sources of water.


By 1.00 pm we could spot our campsite in a distance. The campsite was located just on the side of a small mountain which had a huge ‘Z’ mark on it.


It took us another 20 minutes to reach the camp site – our first tented accommodation of the trip. We had walked for 10.5 kms today, climbed 1000 m and were now at an altitude of 11520 ft/3510 m. Our Ali Bugyal camp had 11 tents, 1 bigger mess tent, three fibre glass tents and a couple of toilet tents.

Further down, we could see a clutch of tents where a few Americans had parked themselves. By the time we had booked our tents by marking our territory with our back packs, we were called into the mess tent for a glass of warm lemon juice.

A lot of us wanted to sleep off our tiredness, but Raj Bhaiyya was not in favour of an afternoon siesta. Light exercises and activities during the day are better than sleeping because respiration decreases during sleep, exacerbating any altitude sickness symptoms. So to make us work out a bit, he decided to have a campfire that night. We would already cross the tree line by tomorrow and it would not be possible to find log and wood from next day onwards. Carrying those oak branches and wooden logs from a nearby forest was the acclimatization task for that day. We spent the evening playing games and singing around the bon fire.


The mountain views were still obscured by the clouds and mist. Somewhere in the distance Nanda Ghunti, Trishul, Kali Dak, Chaukhamba, and Neelkanth, were staring back at us.

It did get cold in the night, however, we all had our thick woolies on and sleeping bags. It was the first time for a lot of us – sleeping in a sleeping bag in a tent. It was easier said than done. But after a struggle, we could finally squeeze into the tiny space and lay down, two in a tent plus our 60 L back packs and 30 L day packs. We looked like a bunch of modern Egyptian mummies. The night went sleepless inside the tent, without being able to toss and turn. But just to realize that we were sleeping on a Himalayan meadow @ 11500 ft – priceless.

Tomorrow we would move to a higher camp, where the mountains are nearer, stars are clearer, air is thinner and the earth is colder. Tomorrow we move onto Day 3.

Day 2 in a nutshell

  • Day 2: Didna village to Ali Bugyal
  • Distance: Around 10.5 kms
  • Altitude: 8530 ft to 11520 ft [2600 m to 3510 m]
  • Terrain: Uphill trek from Didna via Tol Pani to Tol Top for the first three hours. Easy trek from Tol Top to Ali Bugyal for the last two hours.
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Time taken: Around 6 hours including a mid-meal break


Roopkund Chronicles Day – 1 Loharjung to Didna


Nanda Ghunti glistens [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Day 1: September 28

Now, if you were to ask me just which were the most memorable moments of the whole Roopkund trek, I wouldn’t have to think too hard. Crawling out of the rajai on the first morning and staggering out on to the balcony in the morning chill to see the sun climb over the Nanda Ghunti peak is, chronologically, the first.

The second, obviously, has to be just after the last step up to the Roopkund lake and the first glimpse of the expanse of snow flecked by a tiny speck of water in the middle…dotted further by the clumsily trodding trekkers around it and, certainly not the least arresting, the sight of the bones propped up inelegantly here and there.

Finally, it would have to be the sight of the unsightly jeep that stood waiting for us as we completed the Roopkund trek and sauntered onto Wan village’s sparsely populated main market – signaling the end of the mission.

The team [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Repacked and breakfasted, everyone trooped out animatedly, on to the common area. The TTH poster on the balcony confirmed we were at a height of 7575 ft (2300 m). We stood in groups chatting, our backpacks sent away for loading on the ponies. Yes, we were part of the sub-group that opted to walk with only our day packs. There were moments in the trek when we, unconsciously, let it rankle us but I can assure you the occasions were few and far between as we negotiated steep ascents, thin air and tired limbs.

Soon, there was a staff member who thrust some chocolates, biscuits and bananas into each hand – fuel for the walk ahead. Finally, the time came when the trek leader, Raj Shahi, a handsome, affable and supremely fit Nepali mountaineer, sounded the whistle and, in a jiffy, had everyone’s attention.

After a show of raised arms and cries in solidarity and resolve, the group took to the path that marked the start of the Roopkund trek. It was 8.45 am. With our day packs on our back and the trekking poles pecking holes on the path, we were now on our way.

Starting point [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

 Our lungs were full and our limbs strong and we walked in twos and threes and some in larger sets and some still solo. Some were chattering away, some cracking the one off remark and some still in total silence.

From the village we started by descending down a mountain track. There were loose rocks and small streams flowing across the trail. We got our first lessons on how to climb down a slippery trail. Stay completely focused on where you place your feet. Instead of pointing your feet straight downwards, point your feet sideways and edge down slowly. Lengthen your poles, if you are carrying hiking poles.

[Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

The down hill path [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

We descended in a file, first with just a few steps separating each of us. In time, that was to yawn further and as we walked the trek, there were some way in front, most others filling the middle and a few that brought up the rear.

Countryside [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Trekking through the countryside [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Our three guides, including the trek leader Raj Shahi, spread themselves too – Pushkar, a cheery 40 something, stockily built Uttaranchali, was in charge of the front, Raj Bhaiyya with the larger lot in the middle and Amar, a young, lean local shepherding the tail.

The high of a trek had just begun and was working like a shot of energy drink and we did not quite require many a pit stop. We passed a stone bridge on the way, took a few snaps.

Stone bridge on the way [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Stone bridge on the way [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

It was a sunny day, and the heat was already taking a toll when we did stop for our first break at 10 am. Off came a few layers. We had taken this break at a clearing as much to rest as to take a few burst of snaps. Around us were the tall mountains that were only going to get taller as we pressed on in the next few days.

[Courtsey Ani & Sabari]

Our first official pit stop [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

An hour’s walk and we heard the gush of water. It was the Bedni Ganga. We hop scotched across a few rocks on the river bed to get to the other side.

Crossing Bedni Ganga [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Crossing Bedni Ganga [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Later we paused at the Raun Bagad bridge for a few snaps. We could also see a high water fall nearby.

Raun Bagad Bridge

Raun Bagad Bridge

From there on, things became more business-like and metamorphosed from a hike mode onto a trek. After crossing the bridge,  it’s a steep never ending uphill climb to Didna. This is physically one of the most challenging stretches in this route. The grueling trek up continued for another 1.5 kms.

Panting and puffing

Panting and puffing

At the end we had walked into the surroundings of our first night’s halt – Didna village. As we walked up the concrete pavement that led to the village, we found out that there were not too many people and houses around, but we spotted a shop selling basic stuff and a camp of another trek company.

Walking into Didna

Walking into Didna

Further up, a few hundred metres away, we trudged up to see a welcome sign, of our camp. It was 12.45 pm, exactly 4 hours after we had left our base camp. And we were @ 8530 ft/2600 m above sea level

Team at Didna [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

Team at Didna [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

The early arrivals were already catching their breath and the views around, chatting up and taking snaps.

Our camp @ Didna

Our camp @ Didna [Courtesy Ani & Sabari]

 Our camp was a typical Utharanchali stone building with two short storeys that had dormitory style accommodation waiting to be occupied.

And here comes our luggage

And here comes our luggage

We caught a bed each and rushed out to the lunch laid out on the table outside. Soon, the others too had trooped in and the whole team of 27 had reached ‘home’.

Beautiful Didna village

We spent the evening sauntering about, taking in the views of the hills around, walking around the village which had a dozen thatched houses and vast expanses of ‘Ramdana’ (a local crop) fields. The red sprawling Ramdana fields looked quite pretty from a distance. We also chatted up with Raj Bhaiyya about his exploits in the Himalayas, and, of course, the rest of the Roopkund trek.

In and around Didna

In and around Didna; Ramdana fields

Dinner was a happy affair – as much for its being a wholesome treat as also because we were happily hungry. Crawling into our cosy quilts, we could hear voices high and low, cracking jokes, talking of the experiences of the day and about what awaited us on the morrow. The best part about finishing the first day of any trek is the warm glow of having taken the initial step but also the delectable angst of what lay ahead. Go to Day 2

Day 1 in a nutshell

  • Day 1: Loharjang to Didna village
  • Distance: Around 6.5 kms
  • Altitude: Not much gain. 7575 ft to 8530 ft [2300 m to 2600 m]
  • Terrain: Downhill trek from Loharjung till Bedni Ganga for the first three hours. Steep uphill trek from Bedni Ganga to Didna for the last one hour.
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Time taken: Around 4 hours
















Roopkund Chronicles – Prologue

Amidst the blinding white lay a clump of bones, propped up more inelegantly than it ever had been inside of a human frame, ages ago. Just how it came to pass that it still lay there in fresh snow in front of a troop of panting but relieved trekkers who braved the cold, the distance, the altitude and the reputation of a mysterious lake to stand and stare at it, is the stuff that great adventure trips are made of.

And that is what Roopkund is all about. Months of preparation and expectation, the bone chilling weather, the difficult mountain, the 4800 m (16000 ft) summit, the 53 km trek over 6 days, the wonderful company (of course!) and something that no other trek can promise – the unsolved mystery of untold deaths and the hundreds of human skeletons that adorn the rims and bottom of a hidden lake in the high Himalayas.

Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing our Roopkund Chronicles. Stay tuned for our moments of exultation, our lapses of consciousness, blissful mindfulness, fights with breathlessness, and being one with the precious stillness. The trek to the mystery lake begins here…..

For day wise stories click on the links below

Day 0: Kathgodam to Loharjung

Day 1: Loharjung to Didna

Day 2: Didna to Ali Bugyal

Day 3: Ali Bugyal to Pathar Nachauni

Day 4: Pathar Nachauni to Bhagwabasa

Day 5: Bhagwabasa to Roopkund to Pathar Nachauni

Day 6: Pathar Nachauni to Loharjung





At Gurudongmar Lake

Somewhere between my last post on Sikkim and this one, many a thing happened. I lost a shoe in a Kudremukh monsoon trek – not to mention that I almost ‘drowned’ my phone too, found a friend in Cambodia, used a dry pit on the way to Roopkund, learnt to bargain in Thai in Ayuthayya, …… the list never ends.

I also got so caught up in the mundane grind of every day life. I’ve been off the grid lately, between trying to complete one assignment and starting another.  My life has been preoccupied and I have discovered that the normal rhythm of my routine was thrown out of the kilter.  Those rhythms revolved around my identity as a blogger. For these last couple of days, I was trying to be one. This is where I left off…


There is a lake up there in the Sikkim Himalayas. It’s not easy to get there. Nor is it, mercifully, impossible. But content with the fact that this emerald, bluish-green or icy white droplet (depending on the month you visit it) of incredible beauty lies at 17,100 feet (5148 m) and over 16 hours and a night’s stay away from Gangtok makes for an unforgettable journey, not just the destination.

This lake could well be the focal point of your Sikkim trip…maybe, of even your Eastern Himalayas itinerary. Gurudongmar Lake is one of the highest lakes in the world. It lies on the northern side of the Khangchengyao range in a high plateau contiguous to the Tibetan plateau. A stream emerging from the lake is one of the source streams of the Teesta River – the life line of Sikkim. The Sikkimese believe that this lake has been blessed by Guru Padmasambhava – the founder of the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. And it is he who lends his name to this sacred lake. The entire lake freezes in the winter with the exception of one small portion. When the ice melts in the summers, the waters are a clear, sparkling blue.

A visit to North Sikkim is the most popular circuit among visitors to Sikkim. The journey takes you from Gangtok through the hilly terrain of Mangan to Chungthang, a nodal junction. From here the road bifurcates for the Lachen and Lachung valleys. The road to Lachen takes you further up to Gurudongmar Lake, while the road to Lachung leads you to the Yumthang valley and further up to Zero point.

On a misty morning in April 2014, we left a rain drenched Gangtok and started our journey up on the winding roads that led to North Sikkim. Armed with a Mahindra Xylo and an enthusiastic driver, Farooq, we were on our way from the North Jeep stand in Gangtok.

We had decided on a 3 night/4 day package to Lachen and Lachung, which included a visit to Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang Valley and Zero point. To go to North Sikkim, Indian citizens need a special Inner Line Permit from the Indian Army and Sikkim Police Authorities. This entire region is under the control of the Indian army and you need special restricted area permit to visit this lake. One can get a permit from the tourist information centre which is situated at MG road in Gangtok. Permits can also be easily arranged by most of the local travel agencies. We had decided to go with a travel agency which we had booked through the hotel we had stayed at – Hotel Sagorika. Foreign nationals are not permitted to visit the lake due to security reasons.

The drive was slow. The roads were bad. There were remnants of landslides, every now and then – small, large and sometimes massive. Sikkim is an earthquake prone zone. Here the mountainsides are brittle, leading to frequent mudslides, sliding rocks and boulders breaking loose. The earthquake in September 2011 was devastating and the National Highway 31A was badly hit. The landslides get timely cleared by the diligent Border Roads Organization (BRO). Or could we have travelled this far?

Apart from this distraction, the roads were quiet. There were no blaring horns. But on this stretch, honking could even trigger a landslide.  And why honk at all? There were hardly any other vehicles on the road. We were also witnessing a sea of colors – colors which were very different from those on the omnipresent prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The political battle in Sikkim had intensified to a war footing with assembly elections in the state just a few days away. Flags from both the parties – the veteran player Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) and the one year old Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) – dominated the road sides. SDF has been in power for an uninterrupted 20 years.

There was an unprecedented fervour and enthusiasm in the air….and the candidates kept smiling from posters and hoardings all along the way. We came across a few political gatherings at some of the towns we passed. It was the last few days of campaigning and the candidates were making the most of their last chances. We made a stop at Kabi Langchuk, 17 km from Gangtok, on the North Sikkim highway. This is the place where the historic treaty of blood brotherhood between the Lepcha and the Bhutia community chiefs took place. The spot where the ceremony took place is marked by a memorial stone pillar.  Decorated with prayer flags and found amidst the cover of dense forest, this place is worth a visit.

The entire route was extremely picturesque and green. A lot of waterfalls dotted the hills and we stopped at one of the famous places to admire the Seven Sisters Waterfalls. In terms of ‘Sikkim Tourism’, one of the most standout features in Sikkim is the vast number of beautiful monasteries. Most of the monasteries are high up in the mountains and are adorned with some really bright and colorful paintings. We did not want to miss out on the rich cultural, heritage and religious traditions of Sikkim. Phodong Monastery is one of the six major monasteries in Sikkim and was located on our way. We had travelled around 35 km from Gangtok on the highway, when Farooq took a sharp right turn and started climbing a small hill.

Labrang Monastery

We passed the Phodong Monastery first to first visit the Labrang Monastery, which was located further up. At Labrang, Buddhist prayer flags fluttered serenely in the mountain breeze. A few younger monks sat talking animatedly on the lawns. The monastery was small and stone-walled. The monotony of the grey stones were broken by the bright colours used on the prayer wheels and window frames. It looked ancient and it was… built in 1884. We walked towards the huge doors only to find it closed. Seeing us standing there knowing not what to do, two young monks came running to us. They had the key to the monastery. This is what happens in Sikkim. Monks are happy to receive visitors and to show them around.

Around Labrang Monastery

Around Labrang Monastery

We entered the dimly lit prayer hall. The monks explained to us the various idols of Bodhisatvas that were arranged in the prayer hall. Colourful Thangkas and murals adorned the walls. There were wooden racks holding ancient manuscripts. We walked around taking in the mystical smell of ghee and incense.The monks also showed us to an upstairs room which had a green deity sporting a necklace of severed heads – Taradevi – a tantric manifestation of Durga.

Inside the Labrang Monastery

Thanking the monks we proceeded to the Phodong monastery. This was a bigger monastery and was bustling with senior monks in deep red robes walking around clutching to their ubiquitous prayer beads. Here, again, the prayer room was closed.

Phodong Monastery

Phodong monastery

Our next stop was Mangan, the district headquarters of North Sikkim. In Mangan we showed our passport and finished other formalities. We were now driving along roads that were hacked out from the fragile mountains.At some places the roads looked like partially closed tunnels with protruding ledges overhanging. The ledges looked as if they would crumble at any moment.

We were now headed for Chungthang. This is one of the main towns in North Sikkim and is situated at the confluence of Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu.  ‘Chu’ means river in Tibetan. The Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu together form the Teesta River.

Chungthang is located at a distance of 95 kilometers from Gangtok, at an elevation of 1,700 meters (5,600 ft). Chungthang is a major sub division in North Sikkim, and a nodal junction. Here we saw an ongoing work of a hydroelectric project.

From Chumthang, Lachen is about 27 km and Lachung is about 20 km. From Chumthang there was no tarmac on parts of the road and sometimes the jeep had to wade through streams that ran right through the road. As we moved further, the hills seemed to get taller and the valleys deeper.

We reached Lachen by 7 pm. Stepping down from the car we felt the chill. Lachen is built on a series of hills. It was necessary for us to stop for a night at Lachen to acclimatize before starting on our journey up. Accommodation was at Hotel View Point Lachen. The hotel was clean and comfortable and the food was simple but tasty.


Waking up the next morning, we were simply spellbound by the sublime beauty of the Lachen valley. Lachen, at 2750 m (9500 ft), is a small settlement. The village has a few houses, a lot of them converted into homestays, and a few lodges, all catering to the crowds visiting Gurudongmar Lake. There were barren mountains around with snowy peaks peeping higher behind them. Other than the houses and lodges there is a Gompa, the Lachen Gompa, where the footprints, a water-carrying utensil and a robe of Guru Padmasambhava are preserved. Over the years Lachen has transformed from a sleepy town to a bustling tourist destination.

Lachen at dawn

Lachen at dawn

It was only 5.00 A.M and we were ready to set out for Gurudongmar Lake. Yes, the journey from Lachen to Gurudongmar starts very early in the morning. Driving through the larch and spruce forests of the upper Lachen Valley we could witness the most dramatic transformation of landscape. The trees were tall, may be centuries old. There were green meadows carpeted in wildflowers that ran for miles. There were rhododendron bushes as well, all waiting to bloom.  During the months of May and June, the whole of Sikkim is transformed into a flush of myriad hues. We were a bit early. In April, the Rhododendrons were still in the buds. As we ascended higher, the terrain started getting bleaker and browner. We were leaving the greenery behind.

With each passing bend, we gradually gained altitude – the road got worse, and the climate got colder. We were driving along the right bank of Teesta River. Teesta had been our constant companion, sometimes running alongside and at other times a shimmering ribbon in a gorge deep below, rushing the through the rocks and boulders on its way down in the valley.

The further east we travelled the more the Teesta changed from a docile escort to a ferocious usher. The force with which it flows in these parts is the reason why there are so many hydroelectric projects on it. But, alas, these projects have taken away the charm of these places. The vegetation began to thin. Huge trees gave way to dwarf juniper and scrub jungles. Clouds hung heavy overhead and lay scattered all over the valley as the green cover gave way to sheer barrenness.  In another two hours of steep ascent we would touch the Tibetan plateau.

We reached Thangu village by 7.00 am, two hours after we had left our cosy hotel in Lachen. Thangu, a small hamlet at 14000 ft, is the breakfast stop for all the travellers travelling to Gurudongmar. An ITBP camp is located here. Here, most of the houses double up as kitchen rooms where basic breakfast is served.

The last vestiges of sleep were dissolved by a piping hot bowl of spicy Maggi served with a few slices of buttered bread. It was warm inside the kitchen. There was a wooden pillar in the middle of the room which had a few coal ambers burning at its base. There were wooden planks arranged around the burning coal and we huddled around it savouring the hot Maggie. We also bought a few popcorn packets that were supposed to help combat altitude sickness.

We were rejuvenated to tackle the road again. The drive, the pace, the landscape, everything changed from here. The terrain now resembled a rocky wilderness. There was a rustic beauty to this place. A brown setting with a few spots of snow visible in the distance.

Our next pit stop was at the army check-point at Giangong.  Here we had to show our permits and ID cards for security reasons. This place has the “The world’s highest cafe at 15,000 feet”, managed by the army. The journey from Giagong to Gurudongmar passes through one of the highest cold deserts in the world.

The craggy mountains stand out against the frozen streams and dusty roads. There were yaks grazing in the distance. The lake was another two hour drive from Giangong.

We were now driving into the treacherous Tibetan Plateau. Treacherous? We did spot a few army bunkers which were well camouflaged.

We also saw a few fenced mine areas. Army trucks and jeeps kept scuttling around. We were not very far from the border. But what scared us most were a few boards that had “This road is being watched by China. Do not stray” on it. With no clear roads it was easy to stray indeed; and any deviation from the roads would have led us to China!

The lake is just 5 km away from the border.  Due to its proximity to China border, this area is very sensitive. This entire region is under control of Indian army.…… India truly feels far away.

We were driving on non-existent roads, so broken down that it would be illegal to call them roads. Farooq must have been channelizing his experience and his driver’s intuition to drive ahead.

Suddenly the surreal movie depicting the mountain scenery of the trans-Himalayan path came to an end. Our bone-jarring ride had come to an end. We tumbled out from the Xylo, ready to pass out from the lack of oxygen. Even if we had fainted, the reward of this glorious view of the lake would have woken us up instantly. In front of us was the most awe-inspiring sight.

Gurudongmar Lake

It is very difficult to imagine a lake of this size situated in the middle of a cold desert. It took us a few moments to register the beauty of the place. Right in the middle of the alpine snow flanks was a lake covered with a thick layer of ice. And as the legend said a small portion did remain without ice.

Gurudongmar lake is said to be fed by melting glaciers. The lake is surrounded by the peaks of Chomiomo (6829 metres) and Kangchung Tso (6750 metres). Due to the sheer height of these mountains, the monsoon clouds cannot cross and get trapped on the mountain as snow. It never rains here, it seems. We were quite relieved to be not stacked amongst hordes of tourists. We were standing at one of high points of the globe. Colourful prayer flags were fluttering in the breeze. We walked towards a flight of stone steps and slowly climbed down. Standing by the lake, listening to the howl of the wind and the crackling of the ice on water, it was hard to describe what all this felt like. As the ice glistened and the water sparkled, it didn’t take long for us to fall under the spell.

Totally bewitched at 17000 ft. The sun was getting brighter. It is mandatory to wear sun glasses under such conditions. You could go blind from the reflection of the white snow. The wind began to blow hard and was cutting through our numerous layers of woollies. After a few snaps, we started to climb up. Due to the increase in altitude and very less oxygen, every step appeared to be a huge challenge.The thin oxygen supply can leave you wanting for more and more air all the time. It does curious things to your mind and brain. Time stops. Your heart slows down. Despite the acute discomfort and slight headache, there was a desire to stay on. We trudged towards the Sarva Dharma Sthal.

Sarva Dharma Sthal

The army maintains this tiny shrine that is found on the shore of the lake. For the past 1 hour we were finding it difficult to adjust to the cold weather and high altitude over here. The soldiers who patrol this area have to stay for a stretch of 20 days. We had to make it back to the army check-post before 12 pm, the deadline for visitors.

Chopta Valley

We began our descent. On our way back, we made a short stop at Chopta Valley. The rocky terrain gave way to a lush green wide expanse as we got to the top of the valley. Foreign nationals are only allowed till the Chopta valley.

Our journey back was uneventful. We reached back in Lachen by 3 pm. We did a quick visit to the Lachen Gompa, situated on top of a winding road.

Lachen Monastery

The Lachen town and its Gompa have been in news ever since Divya Khosla Kumar shot a a few scenes of her movie Yaariyan here.

Back at the hotel, we stood on the balcony looking out at the sleeping town and the swirling evening mist that was already eating into the hills behind it. Gurudongmar was somewhere in that whiteness but shining deep within us.

Sikkim has always been an enigma for me. There is so much hidden here, as much as is revealed. I ‘m not sure what I came searching for in Sikkim. Was it my quest for redemption, or my path to inspiration or maybe my test of spirituality….time will tell.


Panchachuli – Close, Closer, Closest

I will never forget the first time I saw the Himalayan range. It was my first visit to Nainital and we were staying at the Swiss Hotel, which sits a fair way beyond the high court on the upper Mallital side. We knew there was a Snow view point that could be reached by a cable car, but we wanted to avoid the crowd. Then somebody at the hotel told us about a more secluded, off beat view point. We got the directions and started off by following a path right behind the hotel which took us to a flight of stone steps. We climbed the steps which led to a road. We started walking or rather climbing the road. When we passed some tourists coming down the road, we knew that we were on the right path. There were villagers carrying wood and calling out to each other rushing pass by us, small kids on their way to school taking short cuts. It was a bright sunny day, but the road was  shady due to the thick canopy. We must have walked for about 20 minutes when we came to a sharp turn. And there in front of us lay the Himalayan range, gleaming in the sun. The mountains gave a clear white picture against the clean blue sky. There were a handful of tourists, mostly foreigners enjoying the view from a watch tower and basking in the sun. A couple of small shops selling tea, water and biscuits were also around.

The Himalayan range as seen from Nainital

The Himalayan range as seen from Nainital

We had with us a postcard carrying all the names and altitudes of the mountains, visible from Nainital, for our reference. From the left there was Nanda ghunti, Trishul, Mrigthuni, Maiktoli, Nandadevi and its peaks, Pindari glacier, Nanda Kot, Panchachuli and then the peaks of Mt Api in West Nepal. But what stood out, for more than one reason, was the Panchachuli range. The name, the myth, and the simple reason, for the way it looked.

The Panchachuli peaks are a group of five snow-capped Himalayan peaks lying at the end of the eastern Kumaon region. The peaks have altitudes ranging from 6334 m (20,781 ft) to 6904 m (22,651 ft). The name is derived from the legendary Pandavas’ “Five Chulis” (cooking hearths), where they cooked their last meal before proceeding toward their heavenly abode.

When I saw the Panchachuli peaks lying there at the end of the graph, five peaks, one after the other, I had this sudden urge of seeing the peaks a little closer.

In the following years we made several trips to the hills. Binsar, Mukteshwar, Kausani being some of the destinations. The mountains never changed nor did the sheer excitement of seeing them. But that clear picture of the five peaks eluded me.

Once while visiting a photo exhibition, I came across a photo of the Panchachuli peaks taken from Chaukori. There were these pretty green cottages arranged in a neat row in a beautiful garden with the mighty Panchachuli peaks in the background. If the photo itself was breathtaking then I could imagine how the real place would be.  While admiring that photograph I was already making  plans to visit Chaukori. Chaukori, at a height of 6,595 ft, is a beautiful tourist spot with great views of the snow-capped Himalayan range.  The entire area has a lot of  tea gardens and fruit orchards that are simply great for treks.

Catching the sun on the way to Almora

Catching the sun on the way to Almora

So on a cool November evening we boarded the Ranikhet express from the old Delhi station to Kathgodam.  We reached Kathgodam by 6.30.  Before 7 we had already caught a shared taxi to Almora. The sun was already peeping through the pine trees and we slowly started climbing our way to Almora. We passed Bhimtal and Bhowali, and then stopped near Kainchi ashram around 8 to have breakfast.

Kainichi ashram

Kainchi ashram

By 9.30 we reached Almora.  Mist was hanging prettily over this hilly town. We had to walk  through a maze of small bylanes and markets to reach the taxi stand. From there we took a shared jeep to Berinag.  The jeep was over crowded and cramped. And the driver was still looking out for prospective passengers. At each bump the entire jeep groaned and shrieked. And to add to the agony the agarbatti fumes were making me sick. Though the journey was uncomfortable,  the scenery was beautiful and at its best. The mountains were playing hide and seek all the way.

On the way to Chaukori

On the way to Chaukori

The jeep stopped for lunch, that we conveniently skipped, at Dhaulchini.   By 2.30 we reached Berinag. Chaukori was just a half an hour drive from there. We reached the KMVN guest house by 3.30.

KMVN's cottages

KMVN’s cottages

And there right out of my picture postcard stood my favourite peaks. The trees from the picture had grown and were obstructing the peaks a bit.  A watch tower was conveniently placed on the grounds of the KMVN guest house. We climbed the watch tower and took in the scenery.

and the peaks

and the peaks

The sun was already going down and  the Panchachuli peaks looked pretty in the evening light. Tired and hungry from the jeep journey, we had dinner and slept early. We decided to get up early and explore the premises.

Panchachuli - before sunrise

Panchachuli – before sunrise

We got up before sunrise. Chaukori was slowly waking up to a lazy early winter morning.  We took a small path behind the guest house and walked through a tea garden till we reached an open space that dropped down to a terraced valley. From here the Panchachuli peaks definitely looked more spectacular than I had imagined.



The sun had started to peep over the Himalayan range on the Nepal side on the eastern side. Our camera was doing over time and clicking away.  The sunlight had started  to fall on the mountains and they  looked refreshingly new with every passing minute.  The mountains were definitely closer, but I wanted more. We decided to go to Munisiyari for the  closest view.

View from the watch tower

View from the watch tower

The journey from Chaukori to Munisiyari took almost 5 hours. We changed vehicles three times.  From Chaukori we took an overcrowded bus to Udiyari bend. From Udiyari bend we took a jeep to Thal. Here most of the journey was downhill. From Thal we crossed a bridge over Ramganga East, walked by a stone Kali temple  and came to a bazaar and from there we caught another jeep to Munisiyari. We were starting to climb the hilly road now.

Following the Kali river

Following the Ramganga river

The drive took us past some of the most beautiful valleys and the Ramganga river was accompanying  us all the way. Every bend brought a fresh view, often better than the last one. It was amazing how the slightest change in elevation altered the perspective completely.

Munisiyari, situated on the banks of Goriganga river, is a favourite destination for  high altitude trekkers and nature lovers  and is commonly used  as a base camp.  By 1 we reached Munisiyari.

KMVN Munisiyari

KMVN Munisiyari

The guest house was a  building with green roofs right out of the Raj era. And to add to the beauty of the guest house was the magnificent sight of the Panchachuli peaks.

Panchachuli from our room

Panchachuli from our room

We checked in, and our room had excellent views of the 5 peaks.  After lunch we decided to see the local Nanda Devi temple which promised us better views of the peaks. It was a 45 minute walk from the guest house. Our walk first took us through the crowded market lanes. After getting directions from a shopkeeper we continued looking for a petrol pump. From the pump we walked straight into a meadow.

On the way to Naina Devi temple

On the way to Nanda Devi temple

Right ahead we could see a wooded area beyond which were the the steps to the temple.  Perched on the edge of a small hill was the Nanda Devi temple with the peaks in the background.

On the steps of Naina Devi temple

On the steps of Nanda Devi temple

There were deep valleys with houses ahead. We could see the Goriganga river at a long distance in the valley.

Naina Devi temple with the peaks

Nanda Devi temple with the peaks

There was no one around, other than some grazing cattle and langurs in the woods behind. But there was this eerie feeling of being constantly watched. Maybe the peaks were watching us.

Watching and being watched

Watching and being watched

We sat there for about an hour, gazing at the peaks, taking photos, inhaling  the sweet mountain breeze and enjoying the silence.  While walking back to the village we passed a lot of women with all their wares on their backs going back home after a busy day at the market. We walked up from the village to the school ground which also serves as a helipad.   By then the sun had begun to set and the peaks were changing colours from gold, to orange, to red and finally pink.

From the helipad

Peaks seen from the helipad

The ground was bustling with all kinds of people. There were other tourists who were enjoying the sun set and a lot of kids who were playing cricket on the grounds.

Enjoying cricket

Enjoying cricket

We had planned a day trek for the next day.  So we had our dinner early and slept.

Golden peak

Golden peak

The next day after having an early breakfast, we started from the guest house around 7 am. We had packed lunch and snacks with us. Bhuvan, an employee at the KMVN guest house, had agreed to accompany us on this trek. Being a localite he knew well about the area and had done the trek many times before. From Munisiyari we took a jeep to Balati bend. From there Khuliya top was 8 km.

Setting off on the trek

Setting off on the trek

We started the trek around 7.30.  We took a stone path from the road that led us through some pretty woods. Steps were made into the path wherever necessary. The climb was fairly easy but we were panting in no time. But the cool mountain air could only energise our spirits. We rested in between, took photos and enjoyed the scene.

View of the village and the peaks during the trek. The helipad is seen on the extreme right.

View of the village and the peaks during the trek. The helipad is seen on the lower extreme right.

From certain points the whole village was visible. We could even spot the helipad and the Nanda Devi temple we had visited the previous day.  It has snowed 2 days back, so we had to walk over snow at some places on the way. The snow had started to melt and it was soft and slushy.

Walking along the snow

Walking along the snow

The woods had a  luxuriant mix of Pine, Deodar, Oaks, Spruce and Cypress, but the main vegetation we came across as we gained height were the Raapta trees.  In spring the whole jungle turns red with the rhododendron flowers. We were not lucky enough to see them in full bloom.  We spotted some monal pheasants and langurs on the way.

The guest house under construction

The guest house under construction

Around half way on the route is a guest house. When we took the trip in November 2008, the guest house was under construction and to be completed before new year.  We sat on the steps for a while, had tea and snacks and continued our walk. As we climbed up further the vegetation suddenly changed. The woods gave way to  grass lands. The air was getting cooler and we knew we were approaching the summit.

Finally at the top

Finally at the top

and somebody was here before us

and somebody was here before us

Suddenly we came to a pastureland. The snowcapped mountains were fringing the skyline on one side and on the other side were these endless undulating hills.

Snowy mountains on one side

Snowy mountains on one side

Hills on the other side

Hills on the other side

It took us 4 hours to reach the top. We sat there for an hour and had our lunch.  The descent was more easier.

The climb down

The climb down 

We took shortcuts and reached the road by 2.30.  We waited for a jeep for an hour and then decided to walk down to Munisiyari.  Instead of following the road we took shortcuts and passed through villages and fields and finally reached the guest house at 5.

The sun was about to set and this was our last day with the peaks. Was this the closest I could ever get to the Panchachuli peaks?  I knew there were treks to the Panchachuli base camp and even further up for the adventurous. I don’t think I’m ready or equipped to climb a mountain. But a trek to the base camp sounds interesting.  There is always a next time….

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