Auli is planned in the fore noon and Tapovan (for the Hot Springs and the much-admired close-up views of the Nanda Devi from the Niti Valley) in the afternoon for today. A half day for each destination is quite inadequate as most people will say but we are treating this as a recce tour for when we find more time to give to this place and hopefully do the Kuari Pass trek too! The intent is to set out for Auli early and to stop at any suitable place along the roadside for a breakfast of fruits which we are carrying. As we climb the mountain towards Auli, it becomes clear that the haze in the atmosphere at this time of the year will spoil our chances of a good view of the Nanda Devi from the top.
The route is very pretty… a fairly well paved road with quaint houses on the slopes, most boasting of gardens absolutely bursting with flowers that a plains-dweller can only dream about! Even the roadside is not bereft of them. The verge also sports beautiful blossoms!
Half way up, we come upon a wide-ish stretch of road where we decide to have breakfast. What a treat it is to be surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks on all sides, the constant chirping of the birds around and the beautiful town of Joshimath nestled way down on the slope. Perfect place for a break!
Expectedly, there is no view from the top… at least not of Nanda Devi. That will have to wait for another time though Auli has been planned with the express purpose of viewing the highest Indian peak (Nanda Devi is the highest peak entirely in India, Kanchenjunga is part in Nepal) from there. The other peaks closer are visible. We do some birding there… a Red-billed Blue Magpie, Mistle Thrush, Blackbirds, Blue capped rock thrushs, Verditer Flycatchers being the most abundant along with the Himalayan Bulbuls.
Back for lunch and a short rest, we set off for Tapovan and the hot springs by late afternoon. The road leaving Joshimath for the Niti Valley has been damaged in portions to the point where driving is a treacherous, laborious experience. After about 3 Kms, it becomes better though there are patches all along which are extremely bad.
All along the Dhauliganga which flows deep in the valley below are new Hydel projects coming up completely ruining the beauty of the place. It is now just a concrete jungle networked with dusty narrow roads where tens of trucks ply for the construction needs of the corporations and a blatant disregard for the very fragile ecology of the region. Now one can understand the reason for the scale of the disaster that hit Uttarakhand this June.
Both sides of the valley are dotted with small hamlets high up on the mountain sides with neat little terraced fields of golden yellow grain ready for harvest. Fields extend to impossible slopes and dizzy heights.
When we reach Tapovan, we expect to see some road sign for the Hot Springs but see nothing. On enquiry, we were told they are further up the road by about 3 kms. The sky is getting overcast and the road condition is worsening but we decide to go ahead. The magnificent views from this route are all veiled due to the haze and the clouds rolling ominously lower. We round a rather sharp bend and abruptly come upon the Sulphur Springs.
There is no signpost but the smell of sulphur hangs strongly in the air. I am surprised to actually see the water bubble up through the many vents and boil over the edges and flow across the road (I am witness to a hot spring for the first time!). No amount of info both visual and bookish can prepare one for the actual sight of such a spring. It is to be seen to be believed! Some distance away, the natural runoff from the spring is collecting in a little Kund (man-made) where one can attempt to have a bath with these medicinal waters. By now the water is just ‘very hot’ from ‘boiling’ a few metres away. The medicinal waters duly collected, we turn back. A very interesting place indeed!
An early dinner and bed sees us ready for destination ‘Kanchula Kharak’ tomorrow.
A comfortable 0700hrs start sees us leisurely driving back towards Chamoli, across the bridge over the Alaknanda and on towards Gopeshwar, the capital of Chamoli district. Gopeshwar is at a fair height and the road winds up rather steeply towards it.
The roads are very narrow and at times badly in need of repair making our progress slow. As we take the road out of town in the direction of Mandal, Chopta and Ukhimath, we realise that we are probably on the narrowest roads we’ve encountered on the trip so far. On the one side of the road is the steep hillside and the other a drop of maybe ten thousand feet! Very picturesque though and would be even more enchanting but for the heavy oncoming traffic from the Chardham Yatra (this is the shortest route between Kedarnath and Badrinath).
Somewhere on this path, a mountain stream has been channelized into a pipe making a water point. On the road for 8 days now, the car is truly screaming for attention. Not one to miss such opportunities, we take a halt and wash our car at this readymade ‘car-wash’.
The winding road hugs the high mountainside where the vegetation is very sparse and one can look down at the thick green cover on the lower slopes. It eventually starts descending through Mandal and then through very dense forests to Kanchula Kharak.
Kanchula was a forest dept. Musk Deer breeding centre which is now non-operational. This is a very remote place with no habitation around but there exists a very nice bamboo cottage with two bedrooms and a common dining-drawing area for eco-tourists. [The cost per double-bedroom is Rs 650/-, making the cottage worth Rs 1300/-] This can be booked through the DFO, Kedarnath range, Gopeshwar. Definitely worth it!
On reaching we realize that there is no provision for meals and one has to drive to Chopta about 8 kms further away for food. We drive there and have lunch at a dhaba which is quite good. Situated on the Gopeshwar-Ukhimath road, Chopta is a beautiful little hamlet situated at the highest point on this road (2900 m). This route to Chopta offers a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains and deep wooded valleys. This area gets copious rainfall annually and also sustains very high humidity levels giving a distinct character to its vegetation. The trees are moss laden and support good varieties of moist temperate plant life.
When we reached Kanchula a couple of hours back, the snow capped peaks in the north were visible though not bright and clear, but now the mountains are wearing misty shrouds. The sun is loath to come out and the air is turning positively cold making us shiver. Reluctant to call it a day as yet, we bundle up and spend the evening walking up and down the mountainsides around Kanchula bird-watching and generally getting the feel of the place. What is turning into a sore point is the numerous bugs around which bite and leave me completely itchy, prickly and inflamed. I cut short my trail and head indoors…
In spite of that I manage fairly good pictures of some common birds there.
By dusk, an icy cold wind is blowing leaving most of us scurrying for the warmth of our quilts. Tomorrow is going to be a big day. We need to leave at 0430 hrs to be stationed at the meadow enroute to see some wild life on the way to Chopta. Predawn is the best time to sight Monals and Tahrs we’re told, so we aim to be ready and waiting!!