Chasing the rhododendron blooms - by Priya Krishnan Das
I had first read about rhododendrons in T. Lobsang Rampa’s book. He writes about how a dish made of rhododendron flowers was a delicacy amongst the elite in Tibet (before the Chinese took over). That kindled in me a desire to see the rhododendron trees. Later, I read about an entire sanctuary dedicated to the rhododendrons in Sikkim. So last year, during April, I had intended to visit the Barsey Rhododendron sanctuary in Sikkim and combine it with some volunteering activity. But that was not to be. I had to see the rhododendrons having come so far.
So, I discovered a trek that passes through dense oak and rhododendron forests. Without a second thought, I signed up for the trek with GIO Adventures. (www.GIO.in).
The trek was the Deoritaal-Chopta Chandrashila peak trek over five days, out of which three are for the trek itself. While reading up more about rhododendrons, I read that even the juice of the flowers is made and sold in those areas. I was delighted and told my trekking coordinator that I had to have the juice at any cost. I’ll tell you later how I managed to get it!
Just one week before the trek, the coordinator called me to say that no other people had booked the trek and since I would be alone, I could cancel it if I wanted to. Alone on a trek? I was thrilled at the thought! So, much to his disappointment, I told him that since my flight tickets were non-refundable, he had to organise the trek even if it was only me.
But to make it cost-effective for them, they promoted that trek on social media and managed to get three other people (Thank God there weren’t more!).
The meeting point was Haridwar. So, I flew in a day early to Delhi, took a train to Haridwar and stayed overnight. The driver of the trekking company picked me up from the station along with one other person (who got really high on weed, but more on that later) and later two more people from Rishikesh on route and we drove to a place called Kund, where we were put up in lovely lodges by the river Mandakini. The drive was lovely too, following the course of the rivers, Alaknanda and Ganga, and finally, the Mandakini.
The location of the lodge couldn’t have been better. There were birds chirping and greeting us everywhere. I’m a novice bird watcher. I couldn’t identify some birds, some I did on my own and some with the help of a book- The Eurasian Blackbird, the Oriental White Eye, the Black Lored Tit, Black Bulbul, Red Throated Flycatcher, the gorgeous Yellow Billed Blue Magpie, to name a few. Their chirping along with the music of the waters of the Mandakini made the experience very memorable.
I walked down from my lodge and sat by the river for some time. It was blissful.
AND THE TREK BEGINS
The next day, in the morning, we were dropped at a village from where we were to begin our trek. The initial climb was pretty steep and since it was sunny, we were sweaty and panting in no time. We passed through villages all along the steep climb, passing through terraced fields, smiling women carrying wood or hay on their backs and children prancing around. Once we climbed sufficiently, I lay my eyes for the first time, on the very thing I had come to seek- the Rhododendron tree. But this wasn’t even one percent of the beauty that I was to experience later. This is because in places that are inhabited, people pluck the red rhododendron flowers from the lower part of the tree to eat them and make juice. So, all the trees looked as if they had a crew cut with a shock of red hair!
Once we had crossed the villages, it was beautiful in the forest carpeted by olive green and yellow leaves and acorns from the Oak trees. We stopped on and off to sip some water, to refuel ourselves with dry fruits, nuts and chocolates and also for lunch and to take in the beauty of the surroundings. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Kund was at the height of 1350 meters above sea level. So, after trekking for around 6 hours, including breaks, we reached Deoriataal at the height of 2438 meters above sea level. We were greeted by the sight of the beautiful Deoriataal lake with the Chaukhamba Mountains at the backdrop.
The lake derives its name from the references in the Puranas (ancient scriptures) to the Devas (Deities) bathing in the lake, hence the name Deoriataal (pronounced as Deva-ria-taal), ‘Deva’ meaning Gods and ‘taal’ meaning lake.
The Chaukhamba peaks are named so because they look like four pillars- ‘Chau’ meaning four and ‘khamba’ meaning pillars.
The GIO staff had already put up tents and had prepared plates of piping hot pakodas (gram flour fritters) and masala Tea.
I’m not sure if it’s because of the location or because we were tired, the snacks eaten on treks always taste of the world. I had decided to make the best of the evening. I had books on my Kindle and my sketch book. I sat down under a tree, admiring the beauty and sipping tea.
Little did I know that the evening couldn’t have been more dramatic?
In under ten minutes my contemplation was broken by loud talking and noises made by another group who were camping nearby. I decided to ignore them. After an hour, when the loud talking was combined with loud Bollywood music and hooting, I couldn’t take it anymore. I told my trek leader that I am going to tell that group to behave themselves. The trek leader, Yashpal Singh, an amicable person who made the trek such a memorable experience told me that he would himself go and talk to the trek leader of the other group.
He returned and in five minutes the loud Bollywood music had thankfully stopped but not their chatter completely. I was told the group is from India Hikes. After returning from my trip I sent an email to the founder of India Hikes about the bad experience with this group. He was quick to apologize and assured it wouldn’t happen again. I don’t understand why on earth people would go to such scenic locations to play loud music and party, when they can very well do that in the cities. The thing that infuriates me most about this is the disturbance it causes the birds and animals in the area. It’s like desecrating Nature.
Anyways, this was not the end of the drama. While having dinner, another member of our group started behaving funnily and talking incoherently. I didn’t know then but another gentleman in our group told me that he is behaving this way because he has smoked weed. Now, this was a new experience for me. I had never met anyone who got high after smoking weed or anything else for that matter, so I observed him with curiosity and interest. His behaviour turned weirder and weirder with each passing minute. He refused to have dinner (it is important to eat to replenish the body with energy during treks), wanted one of us to come and sing a lullaby for him in the tent, and within an hour he was sooo high, he said he wanted to die and started stripping in the near zero temperature and wanted to jump into the freezing waters of the Deoriataal.
Yashpal, along with the two cooks had to restrain him and bring him into the kitchen tent, from where he escaped at 3 a.m. I realized this when I heard a hushed voice asking “Are you awake?” from the tent next to mine, which happened to be his. In the stillness of the night, even the hushed voice sounded loud. I did not reply but grabbed my trekking pole and was ready to hit him on the head, if he attempted to come near my tent or open it in his intoxicated state. Luckily for him, that didn’t happen. I was told that he had managed to get weed from another camper nearby.
THE DAY TWO
Next morning, we were up and awake by 6 am, had a hearty breakfast and were ready by 7.30 to trek to Chopta. It was as if the Nature fairies were compensating for the previous day, but this day was the highlight of the trip.
We were to trek 16 kms from Deoriataal to Chopta (which is called the ‘Switzerland of India’) and climb from 2438 meters to 2800 meters above sea level. We walked through dense rhododendron forests and everywhere that I looked seemed like postcard picture. We crossed alpine meadows, all dusted with pretty, tiny flowers. Nature is so whole, even a fallen tree in the forest looks so poetic and beautiful. Since this was a higher altitude, there were only pink rhododendrons. Higher the altitude, the paler is the colour of flowers because of the oxygen levels. Thus, in very high altitudes, the trees would be stunted in growth and the flowers almost white. Just imagine, all the trees around you, dressed in their best blushing pink rhododendron attire.
Emerson had said, “The Earth laughs in flowers”, and I felt the full impact of that line in this place. How did the laughter sound? Like a harp playing in my own heart. This is the sight I had come for and I was thrilled to bits. Every few steps that we took, we encountered more beauty with the landscape awash with multiple shades of green and pink, with the blue canopy of the sky above flecked with clouds. We stopped at Rohni Bugyal, a meadow, for a break, and I lay down in the grass to absorb the beauty. Was I in heaven?
We resumed our trek and reached Chopta at around 5.30 in the evening, where we camped in tents. I’ve always been a morning person, but mornings are special when closer to Nature. I make it a point to wake up and watch the sunrise when travelling to such scenic locations. Sunrises never cease to amaze me. It’s magical watching the sun slowly peeping out from behind the mountains, imbuing everything around with golden light and the flora and fauna, especially the birds, welcoming another day with their musical orchestra.
It was a freezing night in Chopta, after we had some rainfall, after which the temperature dived further down. But I slept as well as I could, and after a breakfast of broken wheat boiled in milk, we set out at 7.30 am to Tungnath and then Chandrashila. The trek saw us climb from 2800 meters from Chopta to 3680 meters to Tungnath and then to 4000 meters to Chandrashila peak.
Tungnath being a popular pilgrim destination, the way was well paved, and it was beautiful with a denser concentration of rhododendron trees. But, somehow, I preferred the previous day better, walking through the undulating forests and natural trails.
Being at a higher altitude, this area is known for the sighting of the reclusive and shy Monal bird. Yashpal said, we would have to keep looking. I pleaded with the Nature fairies to bring a Monal in my line of view. The way, although well paved, was steep and that combined with the high altitude, left me breathless after every few steps.
There are benches along the way to stop and catch one’s breath.
And as I was doing just that, I heard a squawking sound in the air, right above me and when I looked up, it was the Monal bird, flying away. I was thrilled. It looked so beautiful, with colours, radiant and bright as in a peacock, only the tail was much shorter.
After an hour of walking, I was lucky to see another Monal in the shrubs at a distance.
We reached Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in the world. The temple was closed, as the deity and the priests had moved to Mukkumath, which is the winter residence of the deity. In May there would be a ceremonial procession for the return of the deity from Mukkumath to Tungnath. We went around the temple and payed our obeisance. The temple is believed to be 1000 years old and built in stone in the Nagara style of temple architecture. After the break we proceeded to the Chandrashila peak, which offers splendid 360 degrees view of the surroundings.
The walk was steep and breathing was more difficult as we approached 4000 meters. There was snow in several places so we had to watch where we put our feet.
Once we got to the top, we were again breathless, but this time, because of the views. The landscape stretched out like an oil painting, with greens, pinks, browns, reds, and the paved trail unspooling under the blue sky. We had our sandwiches and enjoyed the quiet.
Hats off to Yashpal. He had been carrying almost 25 kgs on his back each day, comprising our food, first aid and his own jacket. And he was always smiling, egging us on and making sure all four of us were comfortable at all times.
After we had our fill of the beauty, we started our descent. This turned out to be more difficult as my toes, in an attempt to balance the body on the steep descent, kept hitting the stone way from Tungnath onwards and felt sore by the time I reached down. Our vehicle was waiting for us. We proceeded to our lodge in Kund, with a stop at Ukhimath, another ancient temple and the winter residence of Lord Kedarnath.
We reached Kund, and it was amazing to have a hot shower and a sumptuous meal. After resting well at night, in the morning I bade farewell to the Mandakini river, the birds and the amazing staff who had made my trip so memorable.
Before the trip, I had told my trekking coordinator that I wanted the rhododendron juice. Yashpal had sent his staff to look for it in the market, but they were out of stock.
So, as a touching farewell gift, he gave me a bottle of juice from their own stock. That was like the icing on the cake for me. I was already high from the sight of the flowers, and then this juice made me totally drunk on these flowers.
After having thanked each staff and tipping them, we proceeded to Haridwar, where I stayed overnight and took the train to Delhi the next day morning and then a flight to Pune.
A superb trip it was!
A few more words about the staff and GIO.
They had organized the trip impeccably well. Right from initial communication, to updating me on various things, to logistics, the accommodation, the food, the cooks, staff, everyone did their best to make this trip memorable.
Yashpal was an excellent guide, always mindful of the varying paces of all four of us, always cheerful, talking off and on but never intruding into your space and quietude.
I would surely go with GIO again and more so, if Yashpal is the trekking guide.
You may check their website www.gio.in for more details.