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Uttarakhand: Trekking in the land of gods

Uttarakhand is one of the most well-connected trekking destinations, and trails are plentiful. Plan a trip before winter ends to avoid the tourist rush

The Shivling peak in the background on the Gangotri Tapovan Trek. Photo: Sanjeev Ganju
The Shivling peak in the background on the Gangotri Tapovan Trek. Photo: Sanjeev Ganju

Of the five distinct trekking regions of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand is by far the best known. Pilgrims used to trek to religious shrines atop mountains there, long before the word became fashionable for the rest of us. The Char Dham Yatra—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath—ranks right on top as the most favoured trip. The state boasts of many peaks of religious significance, such as Shivling, Trishul and Nanda Devi; places of worship such as Rishikesh and Haridwar; and the Ganga, the most sacred of Indian rivers, which originates from Gaumukh, at the Gangotri glacier.

The area is well connected: there is an airport in Dehradun and railheads such as Haridwar and Kathgodam that take you to the base of the mountains. Buses and taxis ply frequently from these places. If you are planning a quick getaway, this helps. Winter treks are doable and some easy trails or a stab at skiing could work well as a winter vacation.

There is nothing quite as magical as a winter holiday in the mountains. Find a hilly hideaway with a roaring fire all day, sign up for a trek with clear views across hundreds of miles or check into a resort with access to quiet forests and secluded picnic spots. Stay off the beaten track and give a miss to the hordes of summer travellers. The brisk and clean air acts like a tonic. Snow is a great attraction but you can stay below the snowline and have just as good a time.

Despite the intense religious interest in the region—which could translate into noisy travellers and crowded routes—there are many rewarding treks. Remember, though, not to travel during local festivals like Kumbh, mini Kumbh and Nanda Raj Jat Yatra, and avoid religious trails if you’re not interested.

Climbing up from Sankri on the Hari Ki Dun and Ruinsara Treks. Photo: Sanjeev Ganju

Nearly two-thirds of Uttarakhand is covered with oak and pine forests and more than a dozen rivers and tributaries flow through it. At 7,817m, Nanda Devi is the highest mountain peak in the state (it is also the highest mountain peak which is completely within India). Trekking trails are plentiful: Valley of Flowers, Kuari Pass, Har ki Dun, Ruinsara, Dodital, Gangotri Tapovan take you to empyrean heights. And if you are looking for something a bit spooky, try the Roopkund trek where you ascend to a lake littered with the skeletons of humans and horses who are believed to have died here due to landslides or an epidemic, more than six centuries ago. Incidentally, many of the trails in this region were used not just by local people but by British civil servants and explorers as well.

Perhaps the best-known trek is the Valley of Flowers—the best time to see the flowers is during the monsoon, which paradoxically is not the best time to travel since there could be landslides and road blocks, not to mention a rained-out trek. But the sight of the hundreds of species of wild flowers and ferns that grow at a height of 3,000m is said to be worth every discomfort. A Unesco World Heritage site—the Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Park—lies between the Zanskar and Greater Himalaya ranges and boasts of not only orchids and rare alpine flowers but endangered wild animals too.

The four-day Chopta Trek is recommended for first timers—it offers just the right amount of challenge and rewarding scenery. There is a pristine lake en route at Devariyatal with the mighty Chaukhamba (7,138m) massif in the background. A short trek up to Chandrashila peak affords a 360-degree view of the snow-capped peaks of the Kedarnath range. The 1,000- year-old Tungnath temple is an added attraction.

camping out on the Chopta trail with the Kedar range in the background. Photo: Sanjeev Ganju

If you are looking for a quiet, quick but demanding trek, the Pindari Ridge Trek offers five days of trekking in a tranquil part and touches an altitude of 3,700m. You walk in deep forests and along the western ridge of the Pindari valley, with views of high peaks. Most people prefer the Pindari Glacier Trek, described by one trek operator as a “full-course meal, suitable even for families". But I would carefully assess the fitness level of the family before plunging ahead with this trek, which has both gentle walks and tricky trails in lush forests and, finally, a few crossings later, the mighty glacier beneath your feet. Good views of Nanda Devi (7,817m) and Nanda Kot (6,681m) are on offer.

I wouldn’t recommend the Dodital trek for a simple reason: corporate team-building exercises are often conducted there. Located in the same area, however, at Sangamchatti, above the rushing Assi Ganga, is the outdoor outfit Kuflon Basics. Owner and host Anil Kuriyal is a veteran trekker and you can have him customize a trek for you.

The Kuari Pass (3,650m) trek is an absolute delight and perhaps the best window to the 6,000m- and 7,000m-plus peaks spread in a 270-degree arc. There is a certain romance to this trail, once called the Curzon Trail in honour of Lord Curzon, who journeyed it in 1905. The old forests, wide meadows and quaint villages appear to have been there from time immemorial. I also found this trail’s campsites very well-spaced, leaving one enough time to relax during the day while enjoying the spectacular views.

Before you leave, spend a few days white-water rafting on the Tons or Ganga. Enjoy a day of solitude in the Lower Himalayas.

Plan a trek before winter ends. Nothing can rival long walks during daytime in the mountains, and huddling next to a glowing fire at night.

When in Auli, ski

Auli is a well-known skiing destination, and although facilities here are not as good as Gulmarg and Solang, its remoteness makes it a picturesque location. The average elevation in Auli is around 2,700m. For a long time, only paramilitary forces used the slopes for training—until the government turned it into a skiing station. Dense forests of oak and deodar surround the slopes and check the wind-chill factor. There are many hotels and resorts and the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam conducts courses for both amateurs and experienced skiers. The best season to visit is December-March.

Nanda Devi and nuclear fuel

About 50 years ago, alarmed by China’s testing of nuclear missiles, the US government in coordination with India wanted to place a plutonium-fuelled monitoring station atop Nanda Devi, which would give an unobstructed view of China’s testing locations. The amount of plutonium needed was 5kg (6kg was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945).

The ascent was timed too close to winter and, as the team neared the top, the threat of an avalanche became certain. The porters found a large rock and secured their load under it, planning to return in better weather. When they returned, however, the scene had changed: An avalanche had wiped out all signs of the plutonium cargo.

Almost immediately, and for no obvious reason, the Union government declared the entire area a protected sanctuary, off limits to everyone.

To this day, it has not been found—a ticking bomb of nuclear fuel buried under snow and melting glaciers. The Ganga headstream—Rishi Ganga—is fed by the melting ice of the Nanda Devi glacier, a chilling thought.

The government maintains there is nothing on the mountain.

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