Saturday, May 11, 2019

Uttarakhand - II - Delhi & Journey to Hardiwar

Chole Bathure
"Delhi should be declared the street food capital of  India", these were the exacts thoughts that came to my mind, as I munched another bite of the spicy chole curry with an extra soft Bathure, with fillings of Paneer within it. It was like a pleasant shock to the taste buds, which hadn't experienced anything like this for some time. Yes, Mumbai street food would come a close second. Delhi street food vs Mumbai street food - What is your take on it?

Airport Bus
Eating street food of Delhi has always been a regular feature of any journey to the North. As a matter of coincidence, we got a little extra time to try out the street food thanks to the Jet Airways fiasco. I had to rebook an early morning flight to Delhi. Others were reaching Delhi in the evening. Since I was reaching earlier, it was decided, that I proceed to Haridwar earlier, meet our travel agent, ensure all our arrangements were in place, and yeah, take a good night's rest too. I had to reach the New Delhi Railway Station from where I had a train to Haridwar. To reach NDLS from the airport, one could take a cab, airport bus etc. I decided to try the metro. If one needs to reach NDLS, via the metro, one needs to turn right after getting out of the airport terminal and then take the airport bus. The airport bus has a neat section to keep your large bags. It would drop you at the Aerocity metro station. From there, you can take the airport express metro to reach New Delhi Railway Station. I proceeded accordingly & reached NDLS without much trouble. The metro train was rather empty.

Since there was still some time for my train, I decided to try out some local cuisine. So, just opposite to NDLS, in Paharganj, is the famous eatery called RadheShyam Chole Bathure. I read some good reviews of the place. It is a roadside eatery, with no seating arrangement and no ambience to speak whatsoever. The only thing it was famous for was the authentic Chole Bathure. "Aur kya Chahiye?". (What else is needed?) No doubt, it was bursting with the flow of people - families, college students, office goers. The Chole Bathure was served with some raw onions, lemon and a very special chutney. The Bathure was extremely soft and had stuffing filled with paneer. The chole was spicy and the yummiest preparation known. A piece of the soft Bathure with the spicy chole tasted like heaven. I had a sumptuous meal topped with, of course, the thick Punjabi lassi with extra dollops of malai. Meanwhile, few friends who reached Delhi next had their meals at the airport cafe and went to one of their relative's place, even they had homemade Chole Bathure. Coincidentally, the last friend to arrive in Delhi, even he had Chole Bathure at Haldiram's. Guess, it was a Chole Bathure day for all. Later, they had all regrouped and roamed around Old Delhi. They had an overnight train. They took the pleasure to inform me that they were having World's best Rabri, Kulfi & Icecream at the Giani's. sic. 
Haldiram's
I had booked my ticket on the NDLS to Dehradun Jan Shatabdi Express. The train started on time and was a smooth ride. The train was filled with a lot of people, mostly tourists. My co-passenger informed me, during the season the whole of Uttarakhand is filled with tourists, yatris & foreigners. And so was the case in my train as well, there were different groups of tourists in my compartment, speaking Telugu, Marathi & Gujarati. And I was seated in the middle of all these groups, understanding what they were speaking, but choosing to remain silent. The rest of the journey was quite relaxed, rather, a short one. The train literally got empty in Haridwar.
Hotel Arjun, Haridwar

Before I came to Haridwar, my opinion of the place was that it was more of a temple town with not much of development, would probably be deserted by the night. But, how wrong I was, it was buzzing with people, almost like any suburb of Mumbai. I had booked a room for the night at Hotel Arjun. Thanks to Google Maps, I could easily locate the hotel. It was in the lane called Jassa Ram Road, just opposite the station, which had most of the hotels. The hotel lobby was filled with guests, hoping to get a room. It was that kind of season. I checked in to my hotel. I informed the manager that there will be a couple of guests in the morning, for which, he demanded extra payment. 

After freshening up, I decided to venture out to explore Haridwar. Jassa Ram Road, where the hotel was located, was quite crowded with tourists, Indian as well as foreigners, babas, shops, roadside eateries & even rickshaws passing by. On some occasions, there was hardly any space to walk. There were a lot of ashrams, bungalows converted into hotels. There was a constant sound of aarti & bhajan happening in the place. Surprisingly, there were a lot of Gujarati restaurants & shops there. I had my dinner at Dosa Plaza Punjabi Tadka. It was a quaint little family restaurant. The food was ok. Meanwhile, the rest of the friends had boarded their train Delhi-Mussoorie express and were on their way.
Jassa Ram Road, Haridwar

I located our travel agent’s office, which was just opposite to Haridwar Railway Station. After a brief introduction, we discussed our plans for the next day. I enquired about any washrooms to freshen up for my friends, he informed, as you exit the station, as you walk towards the left, there were public washrooms which were well maintained, with clean restrooms, bathrooms with geyser facility at nominal charges. Regarding the journey itself, He advised us to start early to avoid traffic, as it was a long day of travel & most importantly travelling in the mountains can be unpredictable. We had to reach Rampur, which was close to Sonprayag, the base village for the Kedarnath yatra. It was going to be a gruelling 8-9-hour journey in the mountains. With that news, I decided to wind off for the day & bid farewell to our agent. I went back to my hotel room, hoping for a good night's rest as the next day was going to be a hard and long day of travel.

Public Washroom, Haridwar Station
Note - This blog series on Uttarakhand journey, is not the usual one with details on how to go, places to see, etc. Although the details are very much there, I have covered over the course of the blog along with the experiences. Hope you like it. Enjoy reading !!

Uttarakhand - I - The making of the journey

Kedarnath trek
The mobile phone, which was idle for the most part of our journey, rang suddenly. The call was from a friend who had gone ahead. The friend who was along with me picked up the phone and put it on speaker.

We answered in somewhat of an excited manner, "Hey man!!!, Where have you reached ???".

Our friend on the other end spoke in a sombre tone, "There is a piece of good news and bad news".

I answered, "Hmmm...OK, What is it ???".

Our friend on the phone said, "The good news is, I have reached the base camp !!!".

"Wow!!!! Cool man!!!", we exclaimed.

Our friend not being affected by the euphoria from our end, responded calmly, "The bad news is, our cottages are 6 more km from here".

My companion friend and I looked at each other with disbelief, "How could that be ??", we enquired.

Our equally despondent friend said, " I have enquired with someone at the base camp, and they advised, our prebooked cottages were far and it would be better to stay put in one of the tents at the base camp".

We were perplexed, what to do, the sun had almost set for the day, we ourselves were quite behind, and to make matters worse, it started to drizzle & the call got disconnected as the network died.   

Such were the scenes from our trip to Kedarnath early this year. It had been 8 long years since our trip to the North. Over these years, whenever we met, the discussion always came up, whether we shall ever be able to replicate our North trip of 2011. We have had some family trips, but, never the Himalayan journey - a trekking expedition, which always seemed elusive. There were many such conversations of returning back to the Himalayas. One who has been there will admit a certain unexplained feeling that makes you want to go, experience the Himalayas again. We always wanted to do the Amarnath Yatra again, this time from the Pahalgam route, since, some of our friends had missed the magical and out of the world experience of the Pahalgam route. But, looking at the state of affairs in Kashmir in recent years, we dropped the idea. It turned out to be the right decision, because, Amarnath Yatra was called off this year mid-way.

There were clearly two distinct trains of thoughts among the group - Adventure & Spiritual, which made the core basis for the choice of the destination. Our most adventurous friend often said, "Let's go somewhere, where there is trekking involved". He had his priorities clear. Whereas, there was another line of thought, the destination needed to be a spiritual one, which anybody could do it. Which I agree to an extent, I often wondered, a journey without a spiritual exaltation, how exciting could that be, reach some mountain top and return back. May be its fun, but, I feel something is amiss. After going through a lot of difficulties, crossing one's own boundaries, physical and mental, to reach the lap of God is an experience, no other journey can ever match. Perhaps, its an experience from our own journey to Amarnath caves, that I relate to.

Early February this year, in one such conversation, Kedarnath - Badrinath came up. We felt this could be a trip where the contrasting ideas could converge. Kedarnath has a good 16 km trek, with a lot of options including horses, helicopter, pitthu, palki options available. And Badrinath can be reached by car. This could be the right destination. We quickly bounced the idea around. And luckily, it fell through with everyone. Quickly an itinerary was formed. We also included the Chopta trip with the famous Tungnath temple trek added to it, with the disclaimer, whoever has the fuel to make it after Kedarnath could go ahead. Those, who wished to take rest could enjoy the hotel stay. We included Rishikesh in the itinerary, as a place to relax after the intense & physically demanding days preceding to it. There was an option to do some river rafting as well. Here is the itinerary that finally took shape. One may think the itinerary is quite tight, considering there is no room for any unexpected delays, especially travelling in the mountains.
Itinerary map
  • 11th May Reach Delhi
  • 11th May Delhi to Haridwar overnight train
  • 12th May Reach Haridwar, sightseeing, leave for Sonprayag
  • 13th May Kedarnath yatra, Overnight stay at Kedarnath
  • 14th May Return from Kedarnath, proceed to Chopta, Overnight stay at Chopta
  • 15th May Trek to Tungnath temple, Return back, proceed to Badrinath
  • 16th May Badrinath Darshan. Proceed towards Rishikesh, Overnight stay at any mid-point (Karnaprayag/ Srinagar)
  • 17th May Reach Rishikesh, overnight stay at Rishikesh
  • 18th May Relax at Rishikesh, sightseeing, Ganga aarti, overnight stay
  • 19th May Travel to Dehradun. Dehradun to Delhi by train. Night flight to Home
We booked airline tickets and train tickets. Our stay at some of the places was also booked. Our rooms were booked at GMVN Rampur ( Ph No. - 9868006646). This is close to Sonprayag. We booked the Kedardome cottages - near Helipad (Ph.No. - 9412045813) at Kedarnath. It was said, it is quite close to the temple. In Chopta, we had booked our rooms at a hotel called Mayadeep Chopta, which offered a spa, herbal massage. After, the strenuous trek of Kedarnath, we felt, this could be a good place to halt. Rest of the places, we decided to book based on the fly, based on where we were at that point. We also registered ourselves for the yatra on the GMVN website.  For our travel itself, we reached out to GMVN tourism, however, their package didn't work for us. It was with stay and travel all-inclusive. However, we opted with a travel agent based out of Haridwar, Yatracare Tour and Travel (+91 9897 63 6681, +91 9045 33 7002, + 1334 22 0999). The office was just opposite to the Haridwar Railway Station and run by a person named as Gurvinder. And the estimates stated by him were found to be reasonable. But, this was only for the vehicle and travel. And any sightseeing was separate costs.

And with that, after eight long years, our journey to the Himalayas was set in motion. Each one of us, started some physical preparation, a little bit of running, walking, yoga etc. We used to egg each other on to keep up the good work. The motivation for the journey was enough to leave all the laziness behind and try to be in good shape for the event. As the event came closer, some of us, who had booked on Jet Airways found ourselves in a quandary. The airlines went bankrupt and got shut down. We had to rebook our tickets on another airline. We made all the purchases for the journey, right from warm socks to trekking shoes, rainwear, even a head torch. The night before is always the longest one, last-minute packing, deciding what to keep, what to leave out is never easy. There was excitement, at the same time some anxiety. A lot of things have changed in these 8 years, are we ready for the task? But, we all knew within, we were better prepared this time, as we knew, one key thing about these journeys, "Always expect the unexpected".