The mountains and valleys of Uttarakhand never fail to spring surprises on the traveler in search of the picturesque. This summer vacations another dream came true for me, it was the first time I saw snow!
The place was called Chopta—a tiny hamlet in Uttarakhand yet unexplored by travelers offering the most splendid view of the imposing Himalayan range including Trishul, Nanda Devi and Chaukhamba. It is located at an elevation of 2680 mts above sea level.
I owe a lot of information included in this post from the book “Roads to Mussoorie” by Ruskin Bond that was my traveling companion.
Chopta is easily accessible as it is located on the road connecting Gopeshwar with Guptkashi. For me, it was the best 8-hour drive by car in a long time!But if you are the one at the wheel, you need patience and a good navigator. At many places we had to halt for the earth movers to clear off small landslides, while at other places, we had to trust to map as we traversed ways where roads were extinct.
And this is where we camped for two nights in a tiny guest house that still used firewood to cook the meals and solar heating for the single bulb in the room.
Chopta is also the road head to the ancient temple of Tungnath (3886m), one of the Panch Kedar (five abodes of Shiva).
The next morning was an early rise for the trek from Chopta to TungnathThe trek from Chopta to Tungnath is only three and a half kilometres, but in that distance one ascends about 3000 feet and at times it is a feeling that you are on a perpendicular path. Or what Ruskin Bond calls it, “a ladder to heaven”
Despite its steepness, there are some hardy souls who would still attempt a shortcut, clawing up tufts of alpine grass, and at time retracing your steps to a better path… a true game of snakes and ladders.
The temple of Tungnath, at a little over 12,000 feet, is the highest shrine on the inner Himalayan range. Ironically Tungnath Mandir the highest amongst Panch Kedar is easiest one to reach.
It lies just below the Chandrashila peak. Some way off the main pilgrim routes, it is less frequented than Kedarnath or Badrinath, although it forms part of the Kedar temple establishment. Tungnath’s lonely eminence gives it a magic of its own. To get there (or beyond), one passes through some of the most delightful temperate forest in the Garwal Himalaya. Pilgrim, or trekker, one comes away a better person, forest-refreshed, and more aware of what the world was really like before mankind began to strip it bare.
This is a tiny guardian-temple dedicated to the god ganesha that spurs the tired pilgrim on. But in the cold fresh air and verdant greenery all around you feel intoxicated and least fatigued.
You see all this as you cross a dense rhododendron forest, where in the right season, one can spot at least three species of this flower: the red-flowering tree rhododendron (on the lower slopes), the almatta with light red flowers and the third chimul or white variety at the highest points.
As you approach Tungnath the tree line ends and there is nothing between earth and sky except grass, rock and tiny flowers amidst melting snow.
What was most surprising was that at a height of 13500 feet there were crows to welcome us! And waited for us to throw them scraps of food. I think after cockroaches, crows are the world’s greatest survivors. Another survivor up here is the pika, a sort of mouse-hare, with tiny ears, no tail, grey brown fur and chubby feet.
They emerge from their holes under the rocks to forage for grasses on which to feed. The Garwalis call this little creature the runda.
Finally, we made it!
… and I was in the snow!
As I looked around, I couldn’t help but wonder at such a panoramic view of the Himalayas!
When we did arrive at Tungnath the sky was clear lending a very pleasant and sunny backdrop. To some, the name ‘tung’ indicates ‘lofty’ from the position of the temple on the highest peak outside the main chain of the Himalaya. The temple though not very large, is certainly impressive, mainly because of its setting and the solid slabs of grey granite from which it is built..
On the way down, tea shop owners beckon and we did stop for a brief moment, to savor the view again
The morning view from Chopta is invigorating when the crimson rays of sun kisses the snow laden Himalayas. It was time to return home again.
It was here that I came to realize how close Hinduism is to being a nature religion. Rivers, rocks, trees, plants, animals and birds, all play their part, both in mythology and in everyday worship. This harmony is most evident in remote places like this where gods and mountains co-exist. Tungnath yet unspoilt by a materialistic society, exerts its magic on all who come here with open mind and heart.