We covered the 325 Km distance from Almora (1890 m elevation) to Dharchula in 2 days. We made a leisurely 8am, post-breakfast start – a luxury we were not to have for many days after this. We climbed down from Almora to the valley with the the little town of Kosi and climbed up to Kasauni (1900m). The countryside was in all its post-monsoon greenery, with scores of bubbling streams, fields of young paddy with colorfully clad women working in the them.
The group of 55 had 22 women, and 6 married couples – representing Gujarat (15+), Delhi (10 or so), Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, W Bengal, Tamilnadu, Andhra, Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka. So it was a real pan India group, as I believe every KMY group is, ranging from 28 to 69 years in age, and with all the differences in temperament that such a group would have. Besides the married couples, there were friends making it together; but, many of us were just on our own! On that first day, there were some ‘push-shove’ and grumblings about the bus seatings – the back seats being bumpy!! Ravi, our young LO (the Liason Officer, is a Government of India rep, who is the team leader), had the first taste of his role in trying to calm the ruffled feathers.
The stop in Almora was to see the Gandhi Ashram, a place set up in memory of his visit there in 1929. The response of the group was interesting, the more senior folks full of reverence and interest, the younger ones not so bothered (there were exceptions)!! This is a spot I have visited a few times in the past and has one of the finest views of the mid and western Himalaya ranges. Unfortunately, August is not the time of year when you can have this view – in fact, we were mostly nestled among the clouds and had only a few metres of view.
We stopped for an early lunch at the KMVN hotel at Kasauni and headed for the valley again, towards Bhageshwar. En route we stopped at Baijnath, a group of 12th century Shiva temples built by the Katyuri kings, who ruled the area from the 7th to the 12th century. This is a cluster which again I have visited before, and of particular interest to me, as they are dedicated to ShivaVaidyanath, Lord of physicians. It is situated at a very picturesque spot, on the banks of the Gomti. Although very humid, everyone enjoyed the sunshine, after a the incessant rains of the previous day.
Of course, while we enjoyed the beauty of the spot, the local children had other things to enjoy!
We reached Bhageshwar late in the afternoon. This was a small hill town with had the typical charm of such towns in the early 90’s when i first saw it. Over the last 2 decades, I have passed through this town many times en route to Mankote and have been watching it grow to its current, tacky, congested, ever expanding concrete mess. It lies at a beautiful spot, at the junction of the Sarayu and Gomti Rivers. After a visit to the temple at the Sangam, we drove on to Chaukaori where we spent the night. The KVMN hotel at Chaukori is one of the better of their hotels, located at a nice spot with nice cottages.
The next day we had the usual early morning start – it had been raining all night! We drove via Berinag to Patal Bhubaneshwar. This is the site of a cave formation, the entry into which is a really scary experience. It is wet and slippery, and you have to climb down the 200 or so metres holding onto the chains that are provided for the purpose. The poojari (priest) who guides you, provides as mythological connection for every formation. As per their lore, all the 33 million Gods and Brhama, Vishnu, Shiva + many hundreds of Shiva Lingas, Airavat etc. etc. are all here. All this needs a very fertile imagination to appreciate – and the awe with which many of my companions were actually looking at the formations was quite interesting. But the mythology apart it is among the most amazing things I have see! Unfortunately they dont allow photography inside!!
We then proceeded via Didihat to Merthi, which is the headquarter of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) 5th Battalion. Here we were given a second briefing by the ITBP staff. The difficulties we were to face, was once again emphasized and the security issues in China highlighted. We were told that we should not take pictures of the camps and roads on the Indian side, as the Chinese often take the camera at the check post and may download some of the pictures. In fact, we were advised that we should deposit the memory card of the camera at the last camp and collect it on our way back. We were also warned that we should not be seen trying to take snaps of Chinese security set ups, as they can become aggressive. It had happened in the past!
From Merthi, we drove along the Dholiganga river to reach Dhrachula around 7 pm.
The KMVN hotel in Dhrachula is located on the River which forms the border between India and Pakistan. At Dharchula, you can walk across the bridge between 7am and 7pm – and free trade carries on between the two sides. This was our last night in the ‘civilized world’ as we understand it – that is with cell and internet access.
The rest of the evening was spent in frantically rearranging luggage, a crucial activity. Over these two days of bus journey, we had slowly started to know each other, make bonds, discover each others interests etc.. And from the repeater yatris, we had learnt of the niti-gritties of the days we were to face and how we could manage our luggage. It was too late to acquire stuff (some peope did in fact dash to the bazzar to get last minute stuff) – but what we had, we had to re-organize. More of that later – as we hit the bed as we once again had an early start ahead of us!!