Chopta, a small silent village in the mountains of Uttarakhand, had only a few shops and hotels. This place is the base camp for the trek to the Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in the world and one among the paanch kedars, and further up to Chandrasila.
By 12 noon, on reaching the place, we booked one room for three of us which costed mere Rs.300. As soon as we got our bags and all settled, without waiting, we got out for our trek to the top. The room will have no electricity until evening and we saw small solar panels in front of our hotel and other shops as well. Electricity is valuable here.
The hotel guy asked us whether we needed horses to go up the mountain, and we solely refused saying we were young enough to take the walk. He passed us his phone number and told to feel free to call in case we needed. But why? Tungnath was only 3.5 kilometres away from here. Anyhow, we thanked him and started walking, while the horses tied near the hotel grinned at us as if making fun of our enthusiasm.
A few distances away, we passed several grey-coloured-black-faced large and small monkeys, who looked curiously at us from either side of the pavement. They occupied the trees and rocks around that particular spot only, and weren’t seen in the further walk.
We walked a little more and the grass meadows on our left looked gorgeous. Running into the fields, I got my sweater off and felt energetic, with tiny flowers adding to the beauty of the place. Soon the place got covered by the mist that got carried here and there by the wind, and we got back into the trail.
On the way up, we tried to reduce the walking distance by running the valley up to avoid pavement that went in zig-zag order. And while doing that, I lost the trail at once and one of the natives asked me why I am going via the assumed short cuts when the Government had made such a good path for the pilgrims.
Soon I was feeling tired too, like the other two, but only a little more than them. I began to lie down often and take rest. We were going upwards and perhaps the oxygen level was getting low, making it hard to move forward.
Sometimes a few people were heading back downwards; otherwise the trail was almost empty most of the time.
In between, we heard a voice of a woman from somewhere top as if calling for someone, and a girl replied from below. She walked hastily and crossed me swiftly; the mountain girl was of about sixteen years of age, and she walked with utmost ease, avoiding the curvy path and ascending the valleys straight up, and soon vanished into the oblivion of mist.
I walked again losing the sight of my friends, and too tired to move even a few distance. To be true, every fifty or so metres forward and I became completely tired that I lied down, before walking the next few metres and repeating the process.
I took my heavy shoes and carried them on hand, to avoid dragging them along, and reached my friends who were waiting on some concrete seat made for relaxing. There it was, as if a scene from the novel, The Alchemist: a lot of sheep grazing on the grass fields, accompanied by two shepherds carrying long sticks, and beyond them the pine forests and the mountains. There was nothing else to do first other than pose like Santiago, the protagonist from The Alchemist, the book that I carried with me during this journey and had read about a dozen times altogether in my life.
We talked a while with the shepherds, took snaps, rested, and even ran into the nearest hill top and back out of craziness, forgetting our tiredness.
It rained at times and we wore the cheap plastic raincoats bought from Rishikesh (Read: If peace is your goal, then Rishikesh is your destination), and when the rain got a bit heavier in between, found solace and a cup of tea from a shop, where that mountain girl was present along with her elder sister, and an elder couple too, possibly their parents.
The rain subsided, and we dragged forward again, fighting the gravity that tried to pull us down again and again. Two pilgrims passed us on horsebacks, lead by an horse guy,and the horses grinned at me again; now I knew why the hotel guy insisted on taking them.
After hours of tiresome trekking we finally saw the Tunganath temple, and felt better at having finally reached the destination number one. Before going further, we got to a shop nearby and ordered hot noodles. Hot maggi was served; we ate it with gratitude sitting on chairs placed on a high platform above the pavement, facing the view ahead.
After the body warming meal, we visited the temple passing some more shops and finally ascending the steps to the highest Shiva temple in the world. I looked at the time, it was past 6 pm. We had been trekking for almost six hours to cover the 3.5 kilometres from Chopta, and were now 12000 ft. or more than 3600 metres above sea level.
We rested for a while, around the temple premises enjoying the evening, thereafter started trekking to Chandrasila further up. The path was not paved, but stones and slippery rock pieces filled them. To reach there, we had to walk another one kilometre, and to get back to our hotel room in Chopta, we had to walk all the way down. And darkness was about to seep in either.
But then everything changed…..
To be continued.