We are always in lookout for something new, something unexplored. There is a constant desire to unfold a mystery or discover something hidden. Probably it’s driven by the same thirst that took our ancestors all around the world. But sometimes on your quest, you stumble upon a place so innocent, so beautiful that you wish it was never discovered. The magic of the place lies in its secrecy itself. And that’s how Chopta made me feel.
|On my way to Tunganath|
Chopta had been known to trekkers for a long time as it falls on the route of a longer trek starting at Sari village. But recent publicity through social media has brought it to other’s attention as well. I wish I could say otherwise, but that’s how I got to know about the place. And probably many others did too. While tourism is still quite low, it’s slowly increasing and it won’t be surprizing to see the place completely transform in next few years. But for now Chopta is wonderful, with its green meadows, pine trees, grazing sheep, water streams and the snow-capped mountain peaks. In monsoon the place is green and alive, in summer it’s pleasant and in winter it’s covered fully in snow. The best part of Chopta is its eco-tourism. Having no electricity or mobile network makes it perfect for a vacation from our busy lives.
Far, too far it was. 1,800 KM and I wanted to squeeze it in a long weekend. So some compromises were to be made. It required catching a flight for Delhi on a Friday, meaning navigating through the Friday night traffic to reach airport on time. We were also gifted with a little rain, making it a bigger traffic than usual. Then there was the late night transfer from T1D to T3 terminal in Delhi. This part went smoother than I expected. You go out of the airport, reach the shuttle pick-up spot, show your boarding pass and next flight ticket and then you get a free ride to the other terminal. Usually you need to wait for the shuttle to arrive. But lucky for us we were right in time for the next bus. So we went ahead on our short journey through the sleepy city, while listening to the constant metallic noise coming from the bus which was surprisingly easy to get used to.
|Delhi Airport after midnight|
Then there was the wait. We reached T3 at around 1:30 am and our flight to Dehradun was at 6. So we had time to kill. We had tea at a stall outside the airport. Then we went inside, crossed security and were allowed to roam around the big airport for next few hours. Good thing is that, Delhi airport has a lot of food joints. Bad thing, they close up at night. So we were left with McDonalds to satisfy our hunger. Still, something’s better than nothing.
The wait wasn’t too bad. The seats were comfortable and at places handles were removed, probably intentionally, making a longer space for people to sleep on. We didn’t have to sleep. It was an easy four hours and soon we were on our way to Dehradun.
Dehradun airport to Chopta is around 220 km. Up to Rudraprayag (156 km), the road is same as the one we took last year for Joshimath/Valley of Flower. From there another 40 kms on Kedarnath Road and finally 24 kms on Chopta-Gopeshwar road will take you to the destination. We hired a car from airport for Rudraprayag and following the road curved out of hills we moved ahead towards our destination keeping river Ganges on our right. It took us 5 hours to reach Rudraprayag, with only one short stop for breakfast. In Rudraprayag, we finished our lunch at a small hotel, where they served quite enjoyable vegetarian thalis.
|Road to Ukhimath|
After lunch we walked to the banyan tree in the middle of market, which people had directed us to for getting our next vehicle. There was a crowded bus heading to Ukhimath and another shared vehicle with a few available seats. After a bit of confusion, we went for the shared vehicle and boy, was that a wise decision! The driver took us through those almost fatal roads with an accuracy and speed of a pro. The car moved so smoothly that I couldn’t grasp how narrow the roads were or how steep the fall would be. So I enjoyed the wind on my hair and view of the velvety water of Mandakini flowing down in the valley. We reached Ukhimath in about 1.5 hours and it was close to 2:30 PM.
Upon reaching Ukhimath, we realized connectivity to Chopta is not remarkable. There is one bus daily and it had already left. There are no shared vehicles, only way to go is by booking the whole car. Luckily there were two other groups wanting to go to Chopta and together we booked a car for 1,100 bucks (~150 bucks per head). This road ran through mostly forest and we could feel the weather getting chilly as we went ahead. Finally after one hour of this journey, and almost 20 hours since we had left home, we were dropped at the campsite that I had booked online. There were sheep grazing in the green meadow where our tents were and there was a mark of a river through the pine trees on the hill behind. As the vehicle pulled away, the silence slowly settled in and all I wanted to do was to sit down and relax.
|Campsite at Chopta|
The alarm rang at its pre-specified time – 4:00 AM. Last night had been chilly when we went to bed, but when we woke up in the morning cold was bearable. Still, getting out of bed and getting ready took most part of an hour and by the time we went outside it was 4:45. We were taken aback by the view outside. Sun hadn’t made an appearance yet and the hill behind the tents was still swallowed by darkness. The pine trees could not be made out separately from the hill and so it looked like a giant dark head with pointy hairs sticking out toward the sky. And oh the sky! It twinkled with millions of stars making kind of a dome above our head. We stood and admired the view for a bit and then started off on our journey.
Our hotel, the Chopta Meadows Heritage Camp, was 5.5 km away from main Chopta, where the trek starts from. But we were told of a shortcut which reduces the distance to less than 3 km. So we had decided to walk the whole distance. Later we figured it would have been a bad idea since firstly, it would make us late for the sunrise and secondly, we would never have found the shortcut in the night given our inexperience. Luckily, our camp owner stopped us from this mistake and offered to drop us till Chopta. And so we reached there slightly after 5 and could be on our way to Tunganath.
|View of the hills|
Road to Tunganath is well-defined starting with an concrete gateway in the beginning of trek. It was still dark when we started and had to use a torch to see the way. It was mostly quiet except for the sound of mules in distance as we moved ahead on the dark path through trees. It must had been only 200 metres or so when the forest abruptly vanished and the road opened into a big open space. We could see the hill sloping upwards on our right, although couldn’t make out the top of it in darkness. In the downward slope on our left we saw dim lights of a camp at some distance. It seemed like a perfect place to put your tents in.
We started to climb the zigzag road on the hill. As we went upwards there were lesser and lesser trees, but the whole hill was covered in thick green grass. Darkness was fading slowly and a foggy morning was coming into view. We could hear faint voices coming from the top. Knowing there are trekkers already ahead of us and that the morning was about to break, we picked up our speed. By the time sunlight reflected on the first snow-capped mountain in the horizon, we were quite high up on the hill. We noticed that the road ahead took a swift right turn to go around the hill and rushed towards this spot to stop and take a few good snaps of the sunrise.
|Sunlight on snow|
That’s where we first met up with another group of trekkers. There was small tea shop at this place. It hadn’t opened yet, but the owners were busy cleaning up the place. We stood at the corner of the road along with other trekkers and enjoyed the sunrise. The first peak that we saw earlier had retained its white colour by then and now next peak towards west was glowing orange with sunlight. The sunlight was illuminating one peak at a time and moving onto the next after few seconds. Pretty soon it was a day and in the horizon beyond the green and the blue hills we could see a series of white mountains standing upright.
We pressed ahead on the road which appeared to be going straight from there on. In a few more minutes we reached the entry to the village around Tunganath temple. We stopped at the first shop for breakfast and sat on a charpai inside, staring into the view of the mountains. The aloo paratha was tastier than I expected and the tea was such a pleasant treat at that moment. It wasn’t extremely cold out there, but just the right amount what one can enjoy with a hot cup of tea.
|Trekking route to Tunganath|
After breakfast we moved ahead on the road through shops and houses, towards the temple. There were few guest houses there, where trekkers come and stay in the previous night to catch the sunrise. Apart from that people had put personal tents in the empty grounds as well. There were no permanent tents like the one we were staying at though. Many shops were selling puja related accessories for offering in the temple, but we were not interested in that. Just before reaching the temple, the road got split into two – one on the left went directly to the temple and the other went around the hill towards Chandrashila peak. We took a pit stop at the temple before heading towards Chandrashila.
The road to Chandrashila started off as just a flat road on the edge of the hill. But pretty soon it got steeper and after a bit more we could see the top of the hill, where we were heading to. The rocky path that we were following was merely drawn on the mountain side to provide a route to walk on, otherwise one could start climbing directly towards the peak as well. Which is what we did once the road got too small and broken to walk on. It was a 1.5 km trek and we completed in 40 mins.
At the end of our trek, we reached a flat summit of length of about 200 ft and 20 ft of width. There were sufficient people out there, even though we had seen many descending on our way up. We too found a spot on one side and sat down on the ground where there were no rocks. The view was undisrupted on all sides giving a whole 360 degree view of the mountain. Unfortunately for us, by that time (it was 8:30 am by the time we reached) it had got cloudy hiding most of the mountains from view.
We waited there for cloud to clear up and made friends with a flurry black dog. We also met two solo traveller there one of whom wanted to should out all the things he loved from the mountain edge. But at the end we had to get going even though the cloud never cleared.
Evenings at Chopta
The first day we reached Chopta, it was probably the busiest day Chopta had seen till then. It was Dussera weekend and due to recent rise in popularity, it attracted quite a few tourists. According to our hotel manager, he hadn’t seen that much crowd since he had been there. So the first evening we were in Chopta, it didn’t go as I expected. During sunset the place turned into a picnic spot with children playing in the ground and adults indulging in noisy discussions. After the darkness spread, the music began and the noises got louder. It wasn’t pleasant and as our hotel manager assured it wasn’t a usual night in Chopta.
|View from the road|
On the next day we returned back to the camp in the afternoon after our trek and found the place empty and quiet. All the camps seemed empty except for some of the hotel staffs playing cricket in an empty area in between. After freshening up we sat outside resting our tired bodies and watched the evening fall slowly. It was cloudy, so we couldn’t see the sun setting. But the sky slowly turned orange and then dark. The silence got deeper with nightfall.
|Evening at camp|
Even though most tents were empty that day, lights had been switched on in a few tents to light up the area. We went for a walk to experience the complete darkness. As we walked ahead towards Chopta direction and away from the tents, the darkness became deeper and silence was replaced by the melodic sound of water flowing through rocks. We enjoyed the atmosphere for a while before returning back to camp.
By 8 o’clock all staffs also had retired inside and the ground was completely empty. After a while a mule with a bell around its neck came grazing grasses and the faint sound of its bell whispered through the chilly night air. We had a long day ahead. So we ate early and went off to sleep while still listening to the sound of bell traveling through the silent night.
My anxiety started on the previous night itself, when I heard we wouldn’t get a car to hire from Chopta for our return journey. The fact that Chopta is so poorly connected with Ukhimath didn’t help. One part of me knew we would never reach Dehradun airport on time for our flight, which was scheduled for 5:50 PM. But try, we must.
|Our dog friend at Chandrashila|
So in the next morning, with help from our hotel manager, we reached a spot 5 km from the camp towards Ukhimath, from where we would be able to catch shared vehicles coming from two directions. We were dropped at that point and with a rising hope we bid the hotel people goodbye and started our wait. As the car left, we figured how lonely the place was. We were at the intersection of three roads surrounded by trees and waiting for the sound of a vehicle, any vehicle. First vehicle was carrying grasses and it went on towards the direction we had come from. The second came in a while and didn’t bother looking at us. We were starting to panic by then. We saw a couple of bikes passing and we got the idea of hitchhiking. When the next car came from Chopta side, we asked for lift and to my surprise we actually got it.
There were three guys in the car, one of whom was driving. They were Dehradun residents returning from their weekend trip at Chopta. With relief we got inside the car and started towards Ukhimath while listening to some Hindi raps.
We wanted to get to Ukhimath and take a bus or shared vehicle from there. But they had different offer for us. After chatting up about the place and our hometowns a bit, they were kind enough to offer us to drop till Rudraprayag. The offer was too good to refuse and the company was delightful. On top of it all his driving was absolutely impressive. So we stayed. After about two hours, a little before 10 we were dropped at Rudraprayag. Having private vehicle, they had to take the bypass and hence they dropped us at a point outside Rudraprayag town. But a lot of buses were standing there loading up people for different destinations. We got into one that was heading to RIshikesh.
|Shivling at Chandrashila|
The bus started at around 10 and slowly moved ahead through those narrow roads. The twists and turns did not bother so much, but the slowness started to scare us soon. Every time we checked Google maps, the estimated time of reaching was further delayed. Soon it started to get logically impossible for us to reach on time. We reached Teen Dhara at 1:30 where the bus stopped for lunch. This meant we had come 80 km in 2.5 hours and we had 60 more km left till Rishikesh, from where we would need to find another vehicle to take us till the airport. So we changed our plan.
Upon getting down from bus we spoke some people in the restaurants for hiring a vehicle and after a bit of search one guy from Devprayag (which we crossed 12 kms back), agreed to come and take us till Dehradun airport for 2.5k. So with this happy thought we went in one of those restaurants to have lunch.
We started at about 2:30 from the restaurant after lunch. It was the same kind of jeep that are used for shared commuting purposes. We had to cover 77 km in 2 hour and 25 minutes in order to make it for the flight. It started well. The driver was good and he drove with good speed through the mountain roads. We reached near Rishikesh before 4 o’clock. But that’s where the traffic started.
|View from Tunganath|
Next 45 minutes were agonizing, where we sat and waited while the jeep moved extremely slowly through traffic. We were told this happens every Sunday, although that didn’t help make our mood better. Sometime during this period we did web check-in, knowing very well it would be useless without the boarding pass print. Finally we took a detour from the traffic and went through a narrower route, got some more traffic elsewhere and finally hit the highway where we could go freely. All these while we looked for a printing shop, but we couldn’t. We were still on the way when the clock showed 5:05, meaning time for check-in to close. But by this time we had given up hope.
Finally we reached airport at 5:20, rushed to the counter for boarding pass, ready to do whatever it takes to convince them. But to our surprise, Indigo staffs were cool about it. They happily printed our boarding passes and led us to the last bus which was waiting for us. When we reached inside the aircraft in our dirty clothes and tired body and sat down on our seats, I could finally believe that I was reaching home that night.
|Pensive mood at Chandrashila|
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