Home 4Q2015 Trek to Kuari Pass (The Curzon Trail)

Trek to Kuari Pass (The Curzon Trail)

by Jogesh Motwani
Trek to Kuari Pass (The Curzon Trail)

September 21, 2002, Mumbai – New Delhi {The Journey}

The twelve of us left by the Golden Temple Mail (10:20 pm, Mumbai Central). A group of climbers, attempting to scale the Kedar dome, were also on board. We intersected till Haridwar, where they took the high road.

September 22, 2002

The train journey took us through surprisingly verdant Rajasthan. Past Mathura, was fortunate enough to spot a pair of Sarus cranes (playing hookey from Bharatpur?), their maroon collars in sharp contrast to an otherwise grey plumage. The wire squatters – doves, rollers, drongos, etcetera, were visible throughout. As we neared Delhi, peacocks and peahens could be easily sighted.

As one gains height, the lazy majesty of the lower Himalayas slowly begins to hypnotise, and the first sight of a snow-capped peak far in the distance promises of days of enchantment.

A tedious switch from New Delhi to Old, to catch the overnight Mussourie Express to Haridwar (the Rishikesh bogey is shunted at Haridwar, and stays put for three hours before being picked up).

September 23, 2002 , Haridwar – Nandaprayag

A 26-seater GMOU bus to Badrinath was leaving at 8 am, and we were conned by Gaylord Travels into paying Rs. 170 for a Rs.135 seat to Nandaprayag. Beware the smooth talking Gaylord Travels proprietor, who makes a living ripping-off the devout.

Haridwar to Nandaprayag is a 7-hour journey along the Ganga and its grand tributary, the Alakananda. The road takes one past the four great sangams, Deoprayag, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag, and Nandaprayag. (Of the four, only Nandaprayag is worthy of a second glance. The other three are typical, yatri-centric, Hindu hell-holes). The captivation begins with the air turning clean and crisp, the sky turning a striking electric blue, and the river humming an ancient pahadi dhun. As one gains height, the lazy majesty of the lower Himalayas slowly begins to hypnotise, and the first sight of a snow-capped peak far in the distance promises of days of enchantment.

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At Nandaprayag, we were booked at the GMVN guest house, but of course, they had not received word from the Mumbai office (where we had booked three weeks ago). Luckily the dorm rooms were empty, and Gyan (our guide) and his men provided us with tea and biscuits.

We spent the evening at the Nandakini-Alakananda sangam. Alakananda meanders, roars, and merges with the gently rippling Nandakini. Our trek will take us east, upstream the Nandakini for a while, and then we shall head north-northeast.

The trek – Nandaprayag to Joshimath (Tapovan) via the Kuari Pass

The route is also called the Curzon trail, in honour of the Brit viceroy Curzon, whose expedition ironically did not make it across the pass. An irate bunch of native bees foiled this relatively modest attempt at colonial domination.
I personally think that the height of a mountain is among the most asinine of statistics – numbers certainly have their place, but shouldn’t they be limited to expressing the distance between railway stations, or one’s dimensions while getting a pair of trousers tailored? However, for the linear minded, the heights of various points have been included.

September 24, 2002, Nandaprayag – Chefna

Morning spent packing, checking provisions, etcetera. After lunch, we left Nandaprayag by jeep for a 19-km ride along Nandakini, to Ghat. (Ten years ago, transport on this road was not easily available and the trek began at Nandaprayag.)

Ghat – Chefna: a delightful 5-km level walk. The soothing roar of Nandakini accompanied us all the way to Chefna, where we camped for the night. We had one halt at a Shiva temple by a bridge, and appropriately enough, Shiva’s divine plant was growing unhindered all along the way.

September 25, 2002, Chefna – Ghuni

Awoke at 6. A porridge breakfast. Began walking at 8. A long ascent to the village of Ghuni, visible far in the distance. Nandakini leaves us, as we head northwards (she originates at Homkund).

First halt at 9:20. First sighting of Nanda Ghunti (the Devi’s veil) and other snow-capped peaks. Ascent continues through several villages to Ghuni. Reached at 11:45. Cold, even at noon (Ghuni is at 2500 m). Camped near the school, under a grove of conifers. Magnificent vistas all around. (Ramni, the neighbouring village, was the halting place for Madhu’s trek ten years ago).

On reaching village Ghuni, passed their paan-chakki (water-driven mill), which is used to grind grain. A wonderful example of appropriate technology and collective living. Was spectator to a stunning display of advanced aerodynamics by shikras – their wings flap so rapidly that they freeze in mid-air, before diving gracefully towards their prey.

Noon to 2 was lunchtime at the school, and the older kids played volleyball. The younger ones lazed in the sun, and found the antics of us aliens, like pitching tents and unpacking, most fascinating.

First bath in an Himalayan stream – applied the Waghulde Theorem of Bathing by Parts . Wash the head, dry it. Then the torso, dry it. Then finally the limbs. Excellent method to avoid hypothermia.

Our mules rested beneath the pines. The evening was spent listening to the India – SA semi-finals (ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka). Walked to a nearby vantage point to watch the sunset and the changing hues on Nanda Ghunti. The route to Roopkund via Sutol was also visible.

Thirty-two 9th standard kids from Navjot Singh Sidhu’s school in Mohali camped nearby. They left a trail of aluminium foil wrappers all the way to Kuari Pass (and all the way back to Mohali, no doubt). Shetal and Madhu did their best to mitigate the effects of our nation’s elite educational institutions, collecting what they could. If someone could just wrap Sidhu up in aluminium foil, wouldn’t that be a significant contribution to society!

September 26, 2002, Rest day at Ghuni

Luckily the school was closed too (so we were spared the relentless curiosity of the congregation). Watched the sunrise from the vantage point. Did some eye exercises, while Uddhav and gang photographed to their hearts’ content.

First bath in an Himalayan stream – applied the Waghulde Theorem of Bathing by Parts . Wash the head, dry it. Then the torso, dry it. Then finally the limbs. Excellent method to avoid hypothermia. Make sure the sun is up, so that the body can warm up after the chilling, head-shrinking dip. Always one of the more enthralling moments on a Himalayan trek, when one immerses one’s head into a sparkling, chilled Himalayan stream. No trek is complete without it.

Lunch was Maggi noodles in the big tent (a 6-sleeper, with modified fly-sheet to withstand Indian rains). Experienced hail for the first time. The heavens kindly relented by late evening.

Pre-lunch walk to Ramni via a horticulture centre. The village was deserted, as the entire population was working in the fields.

September 27, 2002, Ghuni – Jhinjipani (Sem Kharak)

Started at 7:45 a.m. Two ascents from 2500 m to 3010 m (Chechni Vinayak is the highest point, providing stunning views). Then a descent through a thick forest, with streams abounding. Shikras and hawks hovered during the ascent. Camped at Sem Kharak (a clearing above Jhinji) enveloped by trees, which we reached at 1:15 p.m.
Spent the afternoon eating walnuts and listening to the Lanka – Aussie semis. A pack of langurs frolicked nearby. The sun vanished behind the hills at 4:30 p.m. Clear, cold night.

September 28, 2002, Sem Kharak – Panha

One hour descent to Jhinjipani village. Walk past the school to a stream. A long pause as a river of sheep flows past. Mother sheep bleat frantically, running against the flow, sniffing all to identify their young ones. Bringing up the rear are the tiny tots, some barely able to walk, and some stuffed in saddle bags, with their tiny heads peering out in newborn bewilderment. It is the onset of winter and the shepherds are returning to their villages from the buggials (grazing grounds) higher up. Rugged men leading tough lives – six months of wandering in the mountains with their flock.

Past the stream, we crossed the suspension bridge across the Birhai Ganga. Madhu, the science teacher, measured the drop to the river to be 4-5 seconds. That’s around 300 feet (for the superstitious, the mantra is d = 16 t 2 ).

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A sapping ascent to Panha-Irani (twin villages). The sun was blazing down, and it took us 2½ hours to reach Panha. Camped a bit above a delightful waterfall.

Rained heavily all afternoon. The tents were being tested for the first time and were found wanting, so some delicate repositioning of sleeping bags and sacks was required. Gyan and Ashok dug trenches around the tents to prevent flooding from below, but fortunately the skies cleared towards evening. Another cold night.

September 29, 2002, Panha – Sartoli – Domabiti

The trudge began at 8, as usual. Panha cultivates Chuha (Ramdana) in this season – a millet with striking red stalks. These red carpets accompanied our ascent, and provided a lovely contrast to the assortment of greens. Reached Sartoli after 3 ½ hours of winding ascent.

Sartoli is a buggial from which one gets the first sighting of Kuari Pass. We rested at an overgrazed hillock (it’s the end of the grazing season, and all buggials are in a state of overuse), snacked on the dry-fruit mix, which is a wonderful high altitude pick-me-up, and gazed at our destination, beyond the treeline on the next range.

An hour’s walk through deep forests (including thick bamboo groves) brought us to our camping ground (Domabiti). A group of shepherds, on their way home, had occupied the spot. After some sweet-talking by Rahul (and a peace offering of aachaar to go with their lunch), they consented to move to Sartoli. This was extremely considerate of them, since it entailed decamping, rousing their dogs, re-saddling their ponies, and moving their flock of several hundred sheep.

While the parleys were in progress, two rams were locking horns – rushing at each other and battering heads in a skull-splitting collision.

While the parleys were in progress, two rams were locking horns – rushing at each other and battering heads in a skull-splitting collision. (A renowned naturalist has claimed that this is a mating ritual devised to protect the combatants from serious injury. The blood-splattered foreheads certainly convinced me of the truth of that theory!)

It began to rain as we pitched tents (around 1:30 p.m.). Lunch was Maggi noodles in the big tent ( a 6-sleeper, with modified fly-sheet to withstand Indian rains). Experienced hail for the first time. The heavens kindly relented by late evening.

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Trekking tip: Finish your walking by 1 p.m., and be settled for the night by 2 p.m., since it usually rains in the afternoons. Walking in the rain is not advisable – visibility is poor, and the temperature falls rapidly.

Very beautiful clear night, but too cold to be appreciated. Clear nights are accompanied by stunning skies. The Milky Way is easily visible, it’s that clear! We stayed indoors, playing Black Queen. Seeking a scenic squatting spot to commune with one’s digestive nature was difficult, since the Bicchu Butti (a vicious ivy) were prolific.

September 30, 2002, Domabiti-Dhakwani

Dhakwani was on the next range. We had to descend, cross a gully, and ascend.

Began at quarter-past-eight. A winding descent to a stream took ¾ of an hour (it was severely cold till we met the sun around 9:30 a.m.). Crossed it, and continued the descent through a landslide-marred path to a beautiful stream (the gully) flowing amid strawberry patches. A delightful waterfall fed this stream. The brave ones had a bath – Lakshmi and Shetal experienced their first Himalayan-dip high.

The painted marker at Kuari Pass reads 3565 m. The height in the official GMVN map is over 4000 m. So much for the unerring accuracy of this, the scientific age.

After crossing the stream via a judiciously placed tree trunk, we began the ascent to Dhakwani, a field of bamboo at the base of Kuari Pass. Met a shepherd heading for Tapovan (he had started from Panha that morning, and would reach Tapovan by evening). The ascent took less than an hour. Sartoli was visible, and seven layers of ranges behind it.

Dhakwani is an important acclimatising halt, and we rested a day before heading for the Pass. The water source was a stream running through a gorge close by. On the other side of the gorge were caves where the ponies rested. Kuari Pass wasn’t visible from Dhakwani, as the rhododendron just above us obscured it from view. Clouds threatened all afternoon, but dispersed as they came over the nearest range. The flickering fires in the caves made a pretty sight to fall asleep to.

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October 1, 2002, Rest day at Dhakwani

Lazed. Eight members went to the Pass and photographed away. In the evening, Deepak conducted an impressive Acupressure class. He’s been working on my sprained back and Shetal’s damaged knee throughout the trip, with good results.

October 2, 2002, Dhakwani – Kuari Pass – Khullara

Left at 8 a.m. for the pass. Spotted a flock of grey-and-white pigeons flying in unison. The ascent is scree-ridden. Reached the pass at 9:30. Symphonic first view – an orchestra of snowy peaks.

A flat walk for half an hour (with the major arc of mountains on our left), crossed a trickle, and perched atop a rocky outcrop (junta named it Panorama Point) to drink in the view. Hathi and Ghoda Parbats, Nilkanth, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba, etc. A raging debate on whether Nanda Devi was the one afar – sadly, Bill Aitken says it isn’t visible from Kuari Pass.

The painted marker at Kuari Pass reads 3565 m. The height in the official GMVN map is over 4000 m. So much for the unerring accuracy of this, the scientific age.

Continued on the flat walk, then an hour’s descent to the treeline along a lush, carpeted meadow (Khullara). A path laid in stone leads down to Tapovan. We camp a half hour into this route, in a clearing among pines. Madhu and me suddenly feel the effects of the altitude change, and the fatigue hits us as we reach camp around 1 p.m.

Trekking tip: Altitude sickness can affect one anywhere beyond the treeline (if trees wont hang around there, surely we shouldn’t either – after all, they’re much smarter than us). Hence the advisability of acclimatising periodically, as at Dhakwani.

The campsite provides a wonderful view of Nanda Ghunti, with the veil being itself veiled and unveiled by clouds. A gentle stream flows nearby, with grey wagtails cavorting. Tents are placed to face the ever-changing moods – opening eastwards.

October 3, 2002, Khullara – Tapovan

The night was freezing cold. Awoke to find ice condensed on the tents. The sun arrived early, and one could thaw. Until then everyone huddled around the fire provided by the muleteers. They keep the fire going all night and take turns minding the mules.

Began the knee-jerking, toe-crunching descent to Tapovan a little after 8. (I did this descent in 1983, and recall rushing down in youthful abandon. I paid for my folly nineteen years later – even two knee-bands and the crutch of a bamboo stick couldn’t mitigate the agony.)

The path runs along a stream, through a glorious pine forest. Huge root systems create a natural stairway (the roots also prevent soil erosion – if it wasn’t for them, Tapovan would be buried in silt). The forest ends at village Regdi. It was 11:15, and we began our last leg to Tapovan. Inhaled the stench of civilisation at 12:45. Had chai and biscuits and juicy apples (courtesy the foraging Keri) at the jeep stand, and switched to sandals for the rest of the trip. The Dhauli Ganga flows past Tapovan, which also boasts of a hot water spring.

Three jeeps to Joshimath (Rs. 150 for us tourists, though Rs. 100 is the usual rate), with a halt outside Tapovan to gaze at Nanda Devi. At Joshimath, we parked at Hotel Sriram, next to the GMVN office. Haggled 12 beds for Rs. 1000 (4 rooms). Said our goodbyes to Gyan and Co.

October 4, 2002  {Epilogue}

Eight leave for Haridwar early. Four of us (Deepak, Uddhav, Lakshmi, me) stroll around Joshimath for a while, and take a 10 am savari jeep for Chamoli (Rs. 35 per). Road widening slows us, and we reach Chamoli at 12:15. L and I switch to a Gopeshwar-bound jeep (Rs. 10 per), while D and U head for Shrinagar (their destination is Uttarkashi, where they plan to team up with Gyan and head for Gaumukh-Tapovan). L and I will do the Panch Kedar, culminating at Chopta and Tungnathji (the highest Shiva temple in the world).

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1 comment

Sudhir Sharma, MetE, '62, H1,3 January 22, 2017 - 12:07 am

I would like the author to know that his use of the term “Hindu hell holes” in describing the three towns is highly offensive. This has a religious connotation and has no place in any article.

I wonder what exactly the author means by ” Hindu hell holes”? To the reader this is highly offensive – does the author know what a “hell hole” looks like let alone describing it as a Hindu hell hole? Would he have written this for any other group. No matter what the author means it has a bad connotation and it should never have been printed in any magazine let alone in an IITBombay magazine. I am sure the residents of the three other towns besides Nandaprayag will take issues with the author. After reading this para I lost all interest in other wise interesting looking article.

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