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Mountains calling – Trip To Chopta – Part 1

When a slim opportunity presented itself in the guise of a 3 days weekend, I knew we’d head out to the mountains. The question was how far would we reach, given the time we had plus that wifey is not comfortable driving the beast on the highway or in the hills.

So we thought, and we thought some more, and then decided to just drive. To hell with destinations and time, roads and traffic, tiredness and sleep. So with that in mind, we decided we’d try to reach Chopta, but we knew we’d be happy in the hills, anywhere it may be.

We left Noida at 4:30 AM on Friday, excited and looking forward to the trip. The route was going to be
Noida >> Meerut >> Bijnor >> Najibabad >> Lansdowne >> Satpuli >> Pauri >> Srinagar >> Rudraprayag >> Ukhimath >> Chopta
Early morning, the roads were empty, and we made good time. So much so that I didn’t even realize when we reached meerut and accidentally took the bypass (you need to go via the city to head to Bijnor, unless you wanna go via Khatauli, more on that later). So we turned right and headed into the city. Soon we were on the Mawana bypass road to Bijnor. I had travelled this road in 2011, and it was in better state then. Still, it wasn’t half bad. By 6:30, we were at Monty Millions Dhaba, near Miranpur. Stopped for a cup of tea and to stretch our legs.

We headed of towards Bijnor, crossing the Chaudhary Charan Singh Barrage. We stopped here to cluck a few pictures of the barrage, shrouded in early morning mist. Little did we know that this was the end of the good morning we were having.

The romantic mist soon turned into dense fog, and continued all they way till just before Kotdwar. 60 kms of driving at 20, straining to see the road, other vehicles and turns. 60 kms done in 2.5 hrs, and this cost us later on. Anyway, as we approached Kotdwar, the fog didn’t thin out…. its just disappeared. Just like that, we crossed a small bridge, and we were hit by brilliant sunlight. We decided to celebrate the last 2 hours of hell with a breakfast of samosas and Pakode. Kotdwar is the gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas. As soon as you cross the city, you start climbing.

Cross kotdwar, reach Duggada and turn right for Lansdowne. The road is brilliant, but we spot a dirt track heading down to the stream below. The beast manages it easily and soon she is bathed in sunlight, standing on the shores of the stream.


Having had our fill of the stream, we move on to Lansdowne. The road is brilliant, the mountains are just awakening, I turn off the stereo to listen to the soundtrack of the hills. We drive for a while, we stop, we listen, we see, we wonder. Repeat.

3 Kms before Lansdowne, I drive over a ridge and I have to brake hard, and am stopped dead in my tracks. The road in front of me is fine, neither is there any oncoming vehicle, nor human, nor animal. What stops us is the view of the mighty himalayan peaks, covered in snow. There, right in front of us.

Now I’ve been to Lansdowne a few times, and Ive travelled extensively in Uttarakhand, but I have never seen the peaks, so clearly, from so far away. I understand seeing them from Munsiyari or from Kalpa, but Lansdowne? So complete was the surprise, that a “whoa” escaped my lips and we just stood there, in the middle of the road. City dwellers, stunned into submission. When we recovered, we went nuts with excitement. If we could see the peaks so clearly from Lansdowne, what would we see from Pauri, from Ukhimath… from Chopta!!!

The sight of these lofty peaks rejuvenated us, and we pressed on, higher towards Lansdowne. We pass through the checkpost at the Garhwal Rifles Gate and enter the town. Lansdowne is quiet, clean, pretty and brings back memories of my childhood, spent in army cantonments all over India. Everything seems familiar. We stop at every turn to gaze at the peaks and admire their majestic beauty, and before we know it, we’ve passed the town and are on our way to Satpuli. The peaks are our constant companians now, but not for long. Soon we descend to Satpuli and leave the peaks behind, for some time

Satpuli is 30 odd km from lansdowne, at the base of the valley. Its a nice drive, and the road is smooth. At Satpuli you cross the river, and come across a proper 2 lane highway till Pathisain. After the last 70 km, twisting and turning in the hills, driving at 25kmph, this is a welcome break, and you can let rip. But not so fast, there’s beauty along the valley too, and it makes you stop, and stare.


After Pathisain, there are two roads leading to Pauri. On the left, across the river, is the main highway. Its 2 lane in places, and generally good road. On the right is a narrow road that is at a higher elevation generally and more scenic. We took the main highway, in interest of time. We reached Pauri at 3 PM, and since lansdowne, we had not seen the peaks. The excitement had subdued a little, lack of sleep was kicking in and I was feeling tired. Wifey had caught a few winks. Just before pauri, this road intersects, in a T-junction, with the road coming from khirsu, along the ridge of the mountain. As soon as we crossed the ridge, sprawled in front of us was the Garhwal range of Himalayas.

It was like Lansdowne all over again, only bigger and prettier. We had a panoramic view of the snow clad Himalayan peaks of Bandar Poonch, Swarga-Rohini, Jonli, Gangotri Group, Jogin Group, Thalaiya- sagar, Kedarnath, kharcha Kund, Sumeru, Satopanth, Chaukhamba, Neelkanth, Ghoriparvat, Hathiparvat, Nandadevi & Trisul.


From the Ridge, we descended towards Pauri, stopping at every 200 mts, to gaze at the mountains, growing bigger by the minute. Pauri is situated at an elevation of 1814 mts. above sea-level on the northern slopes of Kandoliya hills, and is the headquarter of the district Pauri Garhwal and the Garhwal Division. Its crowded and traffic is a pain, but we breezed past all that, and headed onto Srinagar. The road from till Srinagar is beautiful, smooth and winding. The valley was a riot of yellow and brown, even this late in the winter.


We made quick time till Srinagar and reached at 4:15 PM. By this time, we were hungry as hell. Remember we only had breakfast till now, and that too at 8:30 AM. So we stopped for a late lunch. During lunch, we had to face the fact that we may niot be able to reach Chopta, or even Ukhimath tonight. It would get dark soon, I was tired and I had never driven beyond Rudraprayag. I had save the phone numbers of the GMVN guest houses at Rudraprayag, Chanderpuri and Syalsaur. so I called all of the them. The guys at GMVN Rudraprayag said they could not arrange a bonfire, so even though this GMVN provides an excellent view of the confluence of mandakini and Alaknanda, I wasn’t too keen on it. We confirmed with the GMVN at Chanderpuri that they had rooms, and could arrange a bonfire and decided to drive on as far as we could.

We left Srinagar at 5 PM, and headed to Rudraprayag. The road is atrocious, bumpy and ridden with landslides. We filled up on fuel just before Rudraprayag and drove on. At Rudraprayag, evne though I was very tired, we decided to drive till Chanderpuri GMVN. By now it had become dark. We stopped to ask for directions and an old lady requested us to drop her till Augustmuni. We said yes and pressed on with our new companion.

We reached Chanderpuri at 7 PM. I was spent. 15 hours and 440 kms had taken its toll. I stepped out of the beast, wanting only a bed and some sleep, but the hills had other plans. As I walked down the steps to our room, I could hear the river. I was surprised to see that we were right on the banks on the Mandakini. I looked up and I could see far up the valley, the snow capped peaks glistening in the near full moon. I knew then, the sleep would only come once I had gazed on this beautiful scenario for hours.


We settled in, ordered some tea and dinner. By this time the staff had a roaring fire going on outside. Sitting by the fire, under the stars, listening to the roaring river and gazing on the snow clad peaks, we were at peace. This is what we wanted and it made the 15 hour drive worth it.

 

 

Tommorow, we’d go to Chopta. Whether we reach or not, is for the mountains to decide

Up, Up and away : Binsar

You know that trip, the one where you start off heading to a particular place but end up reaching a totally different one? Yes, this was one of those, in more ways than one. The plan, initially, was to go to Haridwar, but it all changed while we were driving there … and we decided to go somewhere we had not been before, Binsar, in the Kumaon region of Uttaranchal.

We started around 2 AM, and headed to Moradabad. The highway is pretty good till about 10 km before Garh Mukhteshwar, where road work is going on. The going became slow and rough, and we stopped altogether as we hit the mother of all traffic jams a kilometer before the bridge over the Ganges. We were stuck there for 4-5 hours, and during that frustrating time, the feeling was that the trip was doomed. Anyway, this post is not about the frustrations, but about the awesomeness later on. So suffice to say, that come morning, the traffic gods smiled and we crossed the river, and hit a beautiful piece of tarmac, that goes on till Moradabad. It had been more than 6 hrs since we left, and we had covered just 100 km.

Tired and hungry, we spotted the perennial Mecca of all road travellers, the golden arches, McDonald’s!! Quick pitstop while we polished away most of their food and we were off again. Since we had lost so much time, and had not slept for over 24 hrs, we decided we would stopover in Nainital and then head to Binsar. Post Moradabad, we came across two options. The road signs said to head to Nainital via haldwani, while google maps offered a route that skirted Corbett Park and went via Bazpur. No prizes for guessing, we took the road less travelled and headed to Bazpur. Twenty minutes into the trip and we were regretting the decision. The road was AWFUL, especially around Tonda. To be honest, there wasn’t much of a road at all. It was a single lane highway, going thru populated towns and villages. It took us 2 hrs to complete the 50 KM stretch to Bazpur.

Bazpur lies at the border of UP and Uttaranchal, and as soon as we entered Uttaranchal, the tarmac became friendly, and more importantly, smooth as a baby’s bottom. The road twisted and turned through the beautifully wooded Corbett Reserve. As we reached Kaladhungi, just before it, we could see a small road heading off into the reserve and towards the town of Kotabagh. For no reason, we decided to head there and take a look see. Couple of miles into the road, we saw a dirt track heading into the jungle. It looked just about big enough to accomodate the beast and again, no surprises, we headed into the jungle. It was beautiful, the entire forest floor covered in yellow orange leaves, a testament Autumn left behind. The trees themselves were dressed in that brilliant green of new leaves. We headed deeper into the forest where we met a couple of folks who told us about this old temple, alongside a fresh water stream, a couple of miles further along, which was also frequented by the local wildlife. As we headed deeper, the road became a dirt path will some serious off roading capabilities. I would not recommend coming here in a sedan.

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We reached the temple, which wasn’t much more than a hut, but the surrounding are with the stream and the dense forest was worth the trip. After some pictures we headed back to the main road and towards Nainital via Kaladhungi. The great north Indian plain extends till Kaladhungi, and from here the mountains start. Its almost a surprise because one moment you are on the flat straight roads of the plains, then you take a left and strat ascending a hill. Its quite brilliant. The drive upto Nainital is very nice, what with the thrill of finally reaching the mountains coupled with the smooth and intensely curvy road. The air also gets cooler exponentially and soon our overworked AC got a break. Nainital (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nainital, lies at an elevation of 1,938 metres (6,358 feet) and is a beautiful part of the world. It seems less crowded than other hill stations like Shimla and Mussoorie and much much cleaner. The central attraction is the Naini lake, which shines a brilliant emerald green. we descended down the slopes and toewards the centre of town, the Mall Rd. Soon, we had people trying to sell us everything from strawberries to boat rides. It wasn’t hard to find a hotel, and soon we were all settled in Hotel Prashant. The hotel was just a couple of hundred feet above The Mall, on the zoo road. A pretty comfortable place, reasonable too, with a super friendly staff (ask for Ganesh). The hotel also has some parking spots and provided free shuttles to and from the Mall (brilliant!!)

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We whiled away time walking around the Mall, boating, eating, going up the ropeway etc etc, generally relaxing. Which is quite a novelty for me since most of my vacays are hectic do-this, see-that kinda affairs. Good food and a couple of drinks later I was ready to hit the sack. In the morning, we head towards Almora, and eventually Binsar. The drive to Almora is fine till the town of “Garam Pani”. This is where road forks, and one heads to Almora while the other heads to Ranikhet. By now we were at the bottom of the valley, and being accompanied by this gorgeous river. Needless to say, we found a good spot on the road, parked and headed down to the cool waters. Sitting there, my feet in the water, a bright sun making me squint, and the gorgeous gurgling sounds of the water over the smooth rocks, was surreal.

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Twenty minutes and ten km down the road I realized I had left my camera by the river. We turned around, and my buddy drove back like a maniac. It was some of the best driving I have seen, even including the driving I have seen him do in car rallies. I rushed down to see that the camera was not there. There were some guys hanging by the river side, and as I approached them, one asked me if I was missing something. You can’t imagine the relief, when he handed over my camera (bless the blokes). To be honest, if I hadn’t gotten it back, the trip was probably over. I would have been most upset about the loss of the amazing pictures I had taken so far. The camera could have been replaced (I just had to rob a bank), but not the pictures. Well, all’s well that ends well.

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We reached Almora (the road’s bad…. BAD), and after getting some lunch and buying the local speciality, “Bal Mithai”, headed to Binsar. Now there’s a main highway that heads that way, but we took the more scenic (and steep) route via the Kasar Devi temple. With each mile we rose into the clouds, the air became colder and the scenery breathtaking. Soon though, the heavens opened and it started pouring. Though we were very comfortable and dry inside the beast, we decided that cup of tea, at a roadside shop, with barely a roof capable enough to keep the water out, was a great idea. And it was!!! The most awesomes setting to have some hot tea, if I say so myself. Hot being the operative word, since, you see, I in my infinite wisdom had forgotten to carry a single piece of warm clothing with me (not even a full sleeved shirt/tee), and it was freezing. We drove on and reached the Binsar reserve forest, which is marked my a forest check post. I think the entry to the reserve was Rs 400. The distance from the check post to the KMVN guest house on top is 11 km, and the road is just brilliant, just bloody brilliant. Now everyone may not agree with my opinion here, since the road was barely wide enough to accomodate my beast. Everytime a car approached from the opposite direction, one of us had to back up to the nearest possible passover point. On top of that, the road turned and weaved like a bronco on acid. See… brilliant.

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Now there are a couple of places to stay in Binsar, but the KMVN guest house is at the most elevtion and the cheapest. That said, it has its eccentricities. There is no electricity, well, only two hours a day. Thats because they use solar power and generate just enough. You get hot water only in the mornings, at 6 AM. All meals are communal affairs, where a fixed menu is served in the dining hall, and there’s no TV. Nature is the entertainment. Its government sponsored eco tourism. I, for one, liked it. I wouldn’t recommend it if you were trying to go all out and pamper your girlfriend/spouse, but if you want a real travel experience, this is it. We reached the guesthouse at 4 Pm, checked into our room, and sat down to do …. nothing. Now I have been on a lot of vacations, but this one had a lot of firsts. For the first time, I actually relaxed and did nothing. I mean nothing. Lying on a chair by the window, seeing the clouds drift by, and some of them come into the room. For the first time on a vacation, I slept at 9 PM. For the first time on a vacation, I woke up at 5 AM.

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So post dinner, I braved the cold and went out to see the stars. Millions of them, lit up the sky like a south delhi house hosting a marriage. I took some pictures and decided to hit the hay, before the crown jewels froze and fell off. Next morning saw us waking up in a hurry, to go catch the sunrise. The sunrise was all you expect it to be beautiful, peaceful, ethereal and simply fantastic. Not even the little kids jumping around and nosey housewives discussing the gastrnomical delights of the previous evening could dampen the experience.

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Next we decided to trek up to the peak of the mountain, a moderate trek of around 5 km, to a place called ‘zero point’. This presents a majestic view of the Himalayas – a 300 km stretch on famous peaks which includes Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nanda Devi, nanda Kot and Panchchuli. On a clear day you can see the entire kumaon range, and even into Tibet. Unfortunately for us, the day wasn’t so clear, but we still got a glimpse of Trishul (22970 ft) and Nanda devi (25643 ft) peaks. Words fail to describe the sheer awesomeness of the view. The peaks reaching for ths skies while the lower valleys hidden from the view by a bed of clouds. After recovering from a bout of snap-happiness and maxxing out my camera’s memory card, we headed down to the resthouse, and out of Binsar

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If you’re looking for a place to relax, unwind, get some physical activity and simply enjoy some of the best scenery India has to offer, you should try Binsar. I cant wait to head back!

My First Car Rally – Western motorsport’s The Monsoon Ride

The last 3 years have been spent listening to my buddies wax eloquent about how motor rallying has grown as a sport in India. I’ve heard endless stories about the amazing  adventures and fun that they have had at these events. So when I moved back to India, it was a no brainer that I would be going to Western Motorsport’s Monsoon Ride, any which way possible.







The ride this year, was truly a “monsoon’ ride. Jaipur greeted us with a sudden downpour on the day of scrutiny, which later translated to a persistent drizzle. Not that we were complaining, but then again, getting those stickers to stick on a wet surface was a challenge in itself



With the scrutiny and drivers briefing done, we headed off to the hotel to get some rest. Though i must say, I was too excited to sleep much and spent the night watching TV with M and chatting about the rally. 3 AM, and 2 cups of tea each, quick shower and shave and we were ready to race. The scenes at Parc Ferma was one of restrained excitement, coupled with drooping eyelids from lack of sleep. It was before dawn and the lake around Jal Mahal gave the whole place a very serene feeling. Soon, the night would shatter with the sounds of free flow exhausts.










Flag off!!! There we go tearing down the street, at a sedate 45 Kmph, and encountered our first mistake on the second turn. Thankfully, we backed up a little and then took the right turn. Never imagined that jaipur and its surrounding countryside could be so beautiful. Rain glistening on the trees and the fields, hills with their peaks shrouded in mist, the smell of dirt after fresh rains, and a dawn aching to break. Rally and peaceful don’t often go together, but on that morning, they did.





After an hour of negotiating side roads, we were approaching a turn off into a field, which promised the begining of the off road stretch for the first leg. We hit our first time check (TC) soon after this turn, but a 100 yards down the line we had to turn back because heavy rains had washed the track away. Chaos ensued while all cars were stopped, turned and re-lined up. The rally restarted from another point down the route.




Some way further down, we were going over this bad stretch of road and suddenly heard this loud scraping sound. We stopped and hurried to see what was wrong. The protective iron plate, that protects the engine chamber from underneath, had come loose and was dragging on the road. Panic ensued as we tried to tie the thing off with anything we could find. Luckily, we found an old scooter clutch wire, which seemed strong enough.



We had barely gone a 100 yards when the thing came loose again. We tied the plate again and started, but heard this loud screeching from the front left tyre, and even after checking everything, we couldn’t find what was wrong. Tempers were flaring, disappointment was in the air. So much anticipation and we were going to be out of the rally in the first leg! We decided to try one more time and we found that the plate was scraping against the back of the brake shoe. We fixed it, but by this time we were 15 minutes behind schedule, a huge deficit when it comes to rallies. many participants had crossed us while we were bent over fixing the car. The next 30 minutes saw the best driving I have seen in a while. Racing along at 130 kmph, on traffic laden roads, overtaking everything from rally cars to bullock carts, we made up the time, minute by minute. By the time the next TC came along, and the end of the first leg, we were on track again and had a penalty of only 11 seconds. An amazing feat, all things considered.



The one hour lunch break saw us refuelling and tightly tying the plate again. We barely had time to eat before the next leg started. The afternoon stretch was an exercise in patience, with the thermometer climbing, lack of TC’s and the slow pace. We were happy to see the off road section and as soon as we started, we hit the first TC of the leg. Post the TC, we realized we were a little behind and had to make up time. Those 15 minutes of crazy offroading were the best parts of the rally for me.




When we ended the second leg, we knew we had done well, but nobody said anyhting for the fear of jinxing it. The provisional results placed us second and that started the beer flowing. It was reward well deserved. We had a total penalty of 1 min 24 seconds, which was incredible since we lost so much time because of the car failure.


It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me, and to the organizers, I have to say well done. We all know there were a few shortcomings but all said and done, it was a very fun experience …. and we’ll be back next year


Till we meet again

There’s nothing like getting together with good friends to make you realize what really makes a place “home”. Sadly, it also reminds you how much you are going to miss all of them.

Thanks to Pooja and Sonali for organizing a farewell bash for me. It felt very special, and seeing all my close friends one last time was great.

It takes a minute to say hello and forever to say goodbye. I don’t especially care for goodbyes, never was any good at them, so I prefer “Till we meet again”.  Life’s not as short as we think and the world’s smaller than we imagine, so hopefully our paths will cross again. So till that time, I thank you all for being my family away from home, and wish you love, peace, happiness and prosperity.

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes – Henry David Thoreau

Up Up and Away

So the decision has been made, to move back to the motherland. The “why” is difficult to explain, so lets just say that a change was imminent and leave it at that. I hope this change will provide the motivation to indulge more frequently in an activity that I enjoy, but have ignored for long, writing.

This is the start of something new, and hopefully, exciting and revitalizing. So I am determined (ignore the crossed fingers behind my back) to record the thoughts and events in my life from now on, in this, the most humble of blogs.

First up, Moving to the USA was so much easier!!! I had 3 pieces of luggage, a plane ticket and a mind buzzing with anticipation. Now, I have a plethora of “belongings” that hurt too much to leave behind. So every day is a constant struggle, trying to decide what to take back and what to dispose off. Obviously the monster TV, XBox and PS3 are on the top of the “take back” list, but what about the hundreds of books, collected over the past 5 years, languishing in my umpteen Ikea bookcases, that beckon to me with wistful glances and ruffling paper noises every time I walk past?

Then again, I can’t explain the constant craving to buy every gadget I can possibly get my hands on, before I leave the shores of the new world (of course, I blame Amazon for this, for the ridiculous ease of shopping).

Between all of this constant back and forth, there is the small matter of actually arranging the shipment of all this “important” stuff across the seven seas. If you’ve ever navigated the world of Air/ocean freight, I imagine you have an amused expression right now and almost feel sorry for me.

The next few days here will be a melange of dinner and coffee dates with friends, last minute raids on Ikea, Walmart and Macy’s, and a mad dash to eat at all of my favorite places before I leave.

Now, all that said and done, I am more excited about getting back than I thought I would (surprisingly). I guess coming home is always this way. I am looking forward to this and if you’re reading this in India, lets plan to meet up when I get there🙂

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BRP_HDR_23, originally uploaded by sporadic.

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BRP_HDR_23, originally uploaded by sporadic.

Blue ridge parkway