Chronicles Of A Solo Biker- Malari Tales

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(By Suraj Dutta) The long April weekend was approaching, and I was earnestly looking forward to an Uttarkhand getaway. A travel buddy from Dehradun had posted snaps from his recent ride to Malari and the snow capped peaks of the Nanda Devi biosphere had me spellbound. The landscape looked serene, without a single soul in sight. The tough roads and the seeming proximity of Malari to the Indo-Tibet border instilled that sense of challenge in a ride which I had been longing for since long.
Malari and the higher region of Niti Pass had always mystified me. Chiefly, it was due to the lack of knowledge in circulation in the net about it. While gazing at the local map of Uttarakhand in my previous trips to Chopta, Badrinath and Mana, I had gazed at the road markings leading higher away from Joshimath (adjacent to the Joshimath-Badrinath road), marked as “To Malari”. No more information was available nor provided in the guide map. I researched online. Not much information was available other than a Wiki article and an age-old travelogue in the e-Uttaranchal website which though well-written didn’t divulge much logistical information. I came to know that an Inner Line Permit (ILP) was required from the SDM of Joshimath to travel upto Niti village which is at a distance of about 12 kms from Malari; whereas Malari didn’t require a permit and was at a distance of about 65kms from Joshimath. I didn’t fret much about the permit since Mr. Nautiyal, the then SDM of Joshimath was familiar and an approachable person. Locals informed me that permits beyond Malari should not be an issue, depending upon current conditions.
DAY 1:
The day passed by in a haze as I skipped my workplace early to prepare for the trip. The plan was to leave Delhi late that night, arrive at Haridwar by 4am, have a dip in the Ganges and rest for an hour before the final push to Joshimath. The bike was gleaming after a thorough service; the side basket consisting of all the spares and tubes was fastened with L-clamps, the travel bag was packed with warm clothes and dinner for the first day on my mother’s insistence, Glucon-D, chocolates, biscuits, namkeens (salty snacks) along with a few small packs of real fruit juice and water. The first aid box was re-checked and re-packed as it was quite some time since I last travelled. The laptop and camera bag went in along with my trip diary for maintaining all the expense entries and trip logs. Finally, everything was ready but I was getting late. From my planned departure of 9:30pm, it was already 10 and I had only 1 hour of sleep, as opposed to the 3 hour long sleep that I planned to before embarking upon the night long ride. An ultra-light meal was tucked in to avoid feeling sleepy, re-checked my rucksack, secured the trekking stick to the side of the bike, synced my playlist and plugged in the earphones while popping on a chewing gum, I bade goodbye to Delhi at exactly 11:30 PM.

It started raining intermittently at about 1:30 AM when I was crossing Muzaffarnagar. Taking short breaks on the way, I reached Haridwar at 4:30 in the morning. It was still pitch dark, but people coming from all over India had started mobilising to perform the surya-pranaam after the morning bath in the Ganges. I rested till 6am after which I had a quick dip in the Ganges, clicked a few pics and started packing the bike for the journey ahead. The cloudy weather wasn’t boding well for the onwards trip. The dhaba boy confirmed that the previous night rains were the first of this season. Not wanting to risk it any further, I beat a hasty retreat from Haridwar at 6:30 AM. The conditions were serene for riding.

The mountainous roads were just starting and yours truly was fully rested for the ride ahead. The weather soon began to lift; maybe the riding gods were in a good mood.

First view of the town of Rishikesh

Finally, I came upon the Shivpuri bridge overlooking the camping site at 8:05am, the odometer read 280 kms.

The higher one goes, the better the view gets. Soon the rockface mountain road welcomed me into Devprayag periphery. The mountains were lighting up with the fresh morning fog and light. “Musaafir” was playing on the headphones and I couldn’t help murmuring a few lyrics:

Ek raah ruk gayi to aur jud gayi
main muda to saath saath raah mud gayi
hawa ke paron par mera aashiyaana..
Musafir hoon yaaron…na ghar hai na thikaana
Mujhe chalte jaana hai…..bas chalte jaana.

River Alaknanda in its full flow and grandeur of colors

After a few hours of continuous riding, I crossed Srinagar at 01:45 pm (373 kms), Rudraprayag at 02:45 PM (410 kms) and Gaucher at 03:45 PM (433 kms). As usual, the entry-exit points at Gaucher were in absolute shambles with huge sand pits. I always have the most nightmarish experience on this stretch, since it would either be irritatingly sandy in dry season or extremely slushy during rains.
Apprehensive of the rain boding clouds, I reached Chamoli at 5 PM (476 kms.) and immediately bought a pair of barsatis (light polythene raincoats that provides flimsy protection from the mountain rain). Reaching Pipalkoti by 5:20 PM (492 kms), I felt as if the the old peepal tree was waiting to welcome me to my favourite mountain destination.

The snow covered peaks were appearing nearer and nearer and I got the first proper view upon crossing Helang at 5:40 pm (500 kms). All of a sudden, my mind was filled with new found zeal and renewed excitement. I had this child-like fantasy of gazing at snow bound peaks which always egged me on to ride to highland areas; I guess my heart belongs in those mountains. All the exhaustion of riding throughout the day was forgotten; reaching as close as possible to those peaks became the sole goal for me for the day.
Imagine living in that small cottage, hanging by the mountain side … rising every morning to the amazing view of the peaks right outside your window. The sight of the cosy cottage in the laps of mother nature, high up in the Himalayas was giving me some serious yearning to renounce the city life and retire to those mountains.
After a tough day of riding, I reached Joshimath at 6:30 PM. Checked in safely to Hotel New Kamal for the night and went to sleep by 10 PM so that I could wake up by 7 in the morning. The plan for day 2 was to leave for Malari (at a distance of 65-70 kms from Joshimath) by 8 in the morning, so that I could return to my hotel room by evening of the same day.

Sleepy me couldn’t wake up early as planned. By the time I fully woke up, it was well past 7. It was not for nothing that I couldn’t wake up; the weather was chilly and I was greeted by this stunning sight.

It was raining and the sleepy town of Joshimath was covered under cloud. The constant drizzling rains had wreaked havoc on my early departure plans. Soon it was 11, and I did another quick recce of the weather. The rain has lessened and the view outside had become breathtaking with the clouds clearing. The winding road towards Badrinath was clearly visible, but my plan was to take the opposite road towards Malari and Niti Pass.

This is the peak view that one can see from Joshimath. The local name of the peak is Kag Bhusandi. I came to know that the locals climb all these nearby peaks without any climbing equipments whatsoever in search of medicinal insects/herbs, commonly known as keeda-jadi (caterpillar fungus).

Keeda-jadi is found in the higher regions of the Himalayas and easily fetches amounts north of 10 lakhs per kilogram in the international market. It is illegal to trade in keeda-jadi but the jail term doesn’t serve as deterrent to the unemployed youth, esp. the ones who are adapt at climbing. Soon it was 12:30 PM but the drizzling hadn’t stopped, further dampening my moods. I could do precious little than clicking snaps and fuming that the rains had turned this trip into a Joshimath trip rather than a Malari trip. Having nothing worthwhile to do, I decided to hit the bed after a light brunch.
Don’t know exactly what abruptly woke me up, maybe it was the sunrays streaming through the window. On checking the clock, discovered that it was already 2 in the noon. I could sense that it was sunny outside. Venturing out, I could hardly contain my excitement seeing that there was no hint of rain and the sun was shining as though it was a clear day since morning. A plan propped into my mind; if I depart immediately for Malari, I had a fighting chance of reaching before darkness falls. Taking the rainy condition and bad roads into consideration, if I ride at even the slowest of speeds, I could still reach Malari in three hours, i.e. by 5-5:30 PM.
I set about assembling a few essential supplies and decided to leave the rucksack behind as I won’t be needing all the things in it; so no use lugging dead weight. Tucked in a bottle of water inside my jacket, followed by a real juice packs, biscuits, roasted grams, snacks and a pack of glucose inside the DSLR bag. The walking stick and blankets were already on the bike so bidding goodbye to Ravinder ji (the caretaker), I sat out for Malari by 2:15 PM. Ravinder warned me that roads near Saraithota might be closed due to a fatal accident a few days ago involving some road construction labourers. I assured him that I shall inquire with the taxi drivers going towards Malari about the road condition and shall proceed accordingly. The cabbies informed me that the road ahead was moderately good and I forthwith took the higher road leading away from the Joshimath taxi stand towards Malari. The road was in good condition, albeit a bit slippery due to the recent rains. I lost my net connectivity soon thereafter but the view kept motivating me to ride on undaunted.

My state of mind was completely the opposite to what was in the morning. The colourful vistas that had sprung up catapulted my spirits to the highest realm. Definitely, it was no time for slow music … time to savour the beautiful scenery with some fast paced rock music.

I came upon the first village settlement: Tapovan and wondered at how many ‘Tapovans’ were there in Uttarakhand. I had already come upon four – one at Rishikesh and the others at Gangotri, Vishnuprayag Power Plant and this. ‘Tapovan’ was clearly the most common place name in Uttarakhand just like ‘Ramnagar’ was for entire India.

My destination was only 48 kms away and it sent a new adrenaline rush in me. The village of Niti is about 12-15kms ahead of Malari, so the ‘Niti’ indicated on the signboard should be the Niti Pass as it was 22 kms further from Malari. According to my information, civilians with permit is allowed only upto Niti village. The Pass was out of bounds even if you possess an ILP. The geographical representation of the Sumna village was a contradictory one. Though the locals and authorities maintain that it is the last village on the Indian side (out of bounds for civilians, only forward post of the army/ ITBP), google map shows it as across the border.

This is the exit of Tapovan, leading to Saraithota. As evident, this was the worst stretch on the entire motorable road. In some stretches, the bike simply refused to budge due to the slush from the recent rains coupled with the incline.
It was nearing 4pm and the radiant sun was taking time off behind the veil of some very beautifully sculpted clouds. The Dhauli Ganga River flowed peacefully beneath the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally I reached ‘Saraithota’ (hindi meaning: beak of bird) at 3:50 PM, nearly 1.5 hours after departing from Joshimath. Saraithota is at a distance of 16 kms from Tapovan which is at a distance of 18 kms from Joshimath. So, it took me 1.5 hours to negotiate these 35 odd kms.  The ‘A class’ metalled road starts from Saraithota and ends about 5 kms before the village of Jhellum. The road was well maintained and curvedly straight. To say the least, this stretch was a BREEZE. Hardly 10 minutes was needed to cross this stretch of 20 odd kms.

 

At the entry point of Jhellum, I didn’t see any inhabitants. All the houses seemed locked and only a few GREF men were seen in the entry-exit points where road maintenance work was going on. They eyed me like an alien from outer space. I must have been quite a site in my full riding gear to these mountain folks.
Next, I reached the ‘Dronagiri Parvat’ view point which has a special mention in the Ramayana. When Laxman was struck by a poisonous arrow of Ravana’s son – Inderjeet, Rama sent Hanuman, his most trusted lieutenant to fetch the sanjeevani booti (a medicinal herb that can be used to grant life to a near dead person) from the Dronagiri mountain. Now Hanuman, as it would be was unable to locate the small herb on the peak. So what does the king of monkeys do in the absence of a telecommunication device? He uproots the entire peak and carries it across the ocean to Lord Rama in Lanka so that the Lord can find the much-needed medicine himself. This is the old folk lore behind the Dronagiri Parvat and its significance in Hindu mythology.

Dronagiri Parvat

Meanwhile, the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds and was about to bid adieu to the day. No way was I going to miss capturing such a breathtakingly memorable moment!

But alas, the joy was short-lived! I encounter the first road block of the trip. Though small in size, it was big enough to stop me from riding any further. I was in a fix……what to do? I neither wanted to jeopardize my safety nor wanted the time and resources invested to reach this point go to waste. The watch showed 5pm and I had ridden about 58 kms from Joshimath already.

The mountains towering above seemed to be leering at my predicament. Maybe they were testing and challenging me with a few hurdles before revealing the jewel in their laps. I sat for a short while contemplating the situation I found myself in and soon took the tough decision of abandoning the bike nearby and start trekking towards Malari, since I remembered crossing a milestone a short while back indicating that Malari was only about 8 kms away. If I started trekking immediately, I had a good
chance of making it to Malari by 8 PM which implied about an hour of trekking in the dark. I was comfortable with it since I had a torch handy and there weren’t many clouds in the sky, indicating a moony night ahead.

Accordingly, I dislodged my walking stick from my bike after parking it at a relatively clear space free from falling rocks, packed the refreshments and water bottle inside my jacket/ trouser pockets and started trekking by 5:15 pm. I wore the gloves to be on the safer side as the night might get colder due to the altitude gain, as well as the helmet as it was convenient wearing the helmet uphill rather than lugging it. It would also serve as protection should some falling debris come my way. For some strange reason, I didn’t want to leave the helmet behind; maybe because a helmet is a lot easier to be stolen by miscreants than a bike, high up in these remote mountains.

Just about half a kilometer of trekking, and I was presented with views such as these. Readers are free to fill in the adjectives for this beauty.

I was finally in the laps of those snow capped mountains I had long dreamt of. I sat there for a good 15 odd minutes till 6, relishing the scenery before me while being all alone in the wilderness. The dying lights of the setting sun provided a picturesque silhouette to the whole frame adding more charm to the white beauty before me.
Soon, I encounter the second roadblock. It was a lot bigger than the first and the large rocks which had cascaded down the mountain side were covering the road completely. I had to carefully climb the boulders and slowly negotiate towards the clear road lying ahead. Soon thereafter, I started encountering snow in the form of melting snow-walls along the trail.

 

Trudging further uphill, I see the road bending towards the right at some distance. It meant that I was nearing Malari. But the uphill climb was taking its toll on me. The gaining altitude and my not being in the best of shape resulted into me frequently grasping for breath like a fish fresh out of water. I was taking breaks every 200 meters of uphill trekking to recover my breath. But the mountains were silently encouraging me to keep trekking onwards without losing hope. I was taking breaks frequently although the darkness was fast approaching. There was abundant presence of snow on the route as it was still early-April and the thawing season well advances into the months of May-June at times.

I lay down on a large rock to rest my aching back and wonder at the view above me.

It was 6:50 pm already and true to my calculations, darkness had well settled in by now. I encounter the third roadblock which was considerably bigger than the second. It was so pitch dark by then that the camera flash was needed to illuminate the frame.

I reach the final hurdle: a glacial snow block stretching from one side of the road to the other in its entirety. I could barely make out the structure under the faint moon light. Taking a photo completely skipped my mind mainly because of the darkness and me pondering on how to cross the icefield.
Negotiating through all that snow was a lot trickier and riskier than crossing the roadblocks, mainly because one looses foothold much easily on ice than on rock surfaces. To top it all, there was not much natural light. No point of carrying the torch in one hand as I had to keep one hand free while clutching the walking stick with the other. Finally after securing everything to me firmly, I started crawling across the slanting snow wall on all fours, the way a mountaineer climbs a road face sideways. One step at a time….strengthen the grip….balance….a foot forward….repeat….slow and steady, and I was finally across bringing an end to the prayers on my lips. There wasn’t a single soul in sight.
I saw a few lights shining at the distance. From their formation, I assumed them to be coming from a military establishment. So the camp should be before Malari as there was no sign of the village between me and those lights. It was a welcome sight for me as it signified that there was no need to trek any further in the dark. I just needed to seek shelter for the night from the Army guys and shall set out for Malari in the morning. Honestly, it was becoming a little eerie trekking alone in that darkness in those mountains. I was yearning for light and the company of fellow humans.
I reach the Indian Army camp at exactly 7:15 pm and gave out a warning shout to the sentry posted at the enclosure gate. He was immediately upon me with two guard dogs inquiring who I was, where I was coming from, where I was going to, what was my purpose, why I was wearing an army camouflage corduroy, why anyone would like to travel to such remote places in high mountains, I must have some other motives, etc. etc. in a matter of few minutes. I was bemused and answered each question sincerely. There is no bigger a convincing power than sincerity is what I always felt. It took me another good 10 minutes to answer all his pertinent questions. I produced my IDs to validate my points. Finally looking a bit convinced, he left with my IDs asking me to sit by the gate till he was back from inquiring with the Camp Commander about what can be done.
He kept me waiting for about half an hour and on return, he apologized to me and informed that they will not be able to provide shelter for the night due to “security reasons” and because of the proximity of the camp to the border. He advised me to trek another kilometre and that I will get shelter at either Malari village or the ITBP camp.

I resumed trekking at 7:45 pm, but the almighty seemed to be sympathizing with me when suddenly the night was filled with moon light as the moon withdrew from behind the cloud’s veil to illuminate the path ahead of me. The sense of eeriness disappeared with the onslaught of the moonlight.

I saw a few lights shining at the distance. From the light formation, I assumed it to be coming from a military establishment. So the camp should be before Malari as there was no sign of the village between me and those lights.

The lack of lights from the village was slightly worrying me but considering the fact that mountain folks sleep early in the evening and it was already 8 which eased me up a bit.
The camp seemed to be at some considerable distance away and I was in no mood to trek all that distance in the dead of night that too through unknown territory. Given the option, I would prefer spending the night at the village and thus started briskly trekking downhill towards the village.

I reach the village at 8:15 pm and true to my suspicions, it was deserted!! All the doors were locked and I could gather that the villagers hadn’t yet returned to their village from their winter retreat/ get-away of Joshimath and Chamoli. The thought of spending the night at a deserted village high up in the mountains was a spine chilling thought but a decision was needed to be taken at the moment. I was in no state of mind to trek any further to the next ITBP camp settlement which was at some distance. After the debacle with the Army guys, I wasn’t much sure of asking for shelter from the uniformed guys guarding our borders. If anything, they seemed to be more fearful than us civilians.
Accordingly, I scouted the village all alone for suitable accommodation for the night. But the principal obstacles in my path were the big iron locks hanging on each of the doors. Don’t know what exactly they were protecting in such a remote location but going by their size, one can only imagine about the riches they must be guarding so high up in the mountains (pun intended). I remembered reading somewhere about arctic villages in Greenland where the villagers leave their doors unlocked and the fireplace ready with woods when they leave their villages when it snows in the winter, so that any stranger venturing into their village in the cold can save their skin. Clearly, I wasn’t so lucky. Each house had at least three doors and all were guarded with the monster locks. It took me a good 20 minutes to find a house with a single door on the lower side of the village which had a weak link. Immediately, I put a foot across the lock hinges and after three mighty shoves, the lock came off. I knew technically it was ‘breaking and entering’ but the need of the hour dictated my actions and I planned to compensate the owner for the broken lock-link later.
As my luck would have it, it was a barn where straw and poultry baskets were stored. But beggars can’t be choosers and hence I decided to make it my shelter for the night. There was a makeshift bed with quite a few warm blankets for the night. I dusted and made the bed, deposited my things on it and exited the room for the dust to settle.

I reclined on the balcony for some 15 mins. studying the surrounding ambience and checking to see if the ruckus I created while entering the house had alerted/ disturbed any living being. Clicked the above picture from the balcony of the road via which I had arrived at the village. Once convinced that everything was in order and it was reasonably safe, I had some refreshments and retired for the night at 9:00 after barricading the door from inside.

THE NIGHT

It was not an easy night. I had retired early for the night as there was nothing much I could do in the deserted village. The angel of sleep had always been kind with me and within five minutes of wrapping myself in the blanket that I found in the barn, I fell into deep sleep.
It was 10:30 in the night, when I woke up suddenly. With all my senses awake, I tried sensing what had disturbed me. It was a rustling sound that was coming from somewhere near. The sound was either coming from the outer walls of the barn or from somewhere near my bed. It sounded as though something was dragging itself on the ground around me. My first reaction was to freeze with my heart pounding like a deer trying to escape a predator. I was not the type who believed in ghosts and stuff but I bet, strange sounds in an environment where one is all alone had the potential of striking terror in the hearts of the bravest among us. Taking care not to even let out a single breath, I froze at full alert and tried to pinpoint what it was. The source of the sound was peculiar; it never came from the same place from where it was last heard. It kept coming from different directions all around me and was never continuous. There would always be a pregnant silence between the occurring. My first guess was that it might be a snake, and as it was a barn, it would not be very uncommon. Snakes come to barns often to prey on birds and rats taking shelter in the barn. But soon, I realized that the fast rustling movement can only be made by a far smaller animal and a snake would hardly venture all around the place. So in all probability, it should be a bird inside the barn. But I was proved wrong again because on pinpointing the sound, I discovered that it came only from the floor which was heavily covered with straw. A bird generally perches on the rafters of the barn and has no business on the ground. Finally after an hour of following the sound and patiently waiting, I heard the rustling sound from beneath my makeshift bed when the animal tried to get on my bed. And then it hit me; ah ha…..it was a barn rat that was attracted towards me because of the smell of the food that I had unpacked, eaten and repacked. I felt as if someone shifted a dead-weight from my heart and set it free.
I shooed off the damned rat, pulled the covers back on my legs and dozed off into an uneasy sleep. But the possessed animal didn’t want me to sleep peacefully. It repeatedly tried approaching my bed and everytime it was near, I was forced to create a small ruckus to drive it away. As the night flew by, it’s attempt began to be punctured by longer breaks but I remembered waking up at 12, 12:30, 1:45, and 3 to
frighten it away. Every time I woke up, I could feel the mountain cold creeping up through my legs as they got exposed from the cover of the blanket. The cold made me shiver throughout the night and I was forced to wear my boots on the bed to prevent the cold from affecting me too much. All in all, I wouldn’t term it as a particularly easy night!! From around 3 in the morning, I was sleeping soundly without any disturbance. My alarm went off at 5am, and on peeping out of the covers, I saw that the morning light hasn’t yet set in abundantly and hence hesitated in getting out of the bed. It was by 5:40am that I was fully awake and came out of the barn to enjoy the beauty outside.

Yours sincerely, outside the humble shelter of the night.

 

The peaks in the distance, directly facing the village bewitched me.
The structural-pattern of the blue house reminded me of the houses in the Spiti valley

My eyes kept roving towards those peaks. Try hard as I may, but I couldn’t help but keep gazing at them imagining what it would seem like to stand on top of the highest peak and surveying the landscape before me. The landscape was both scenic as well as rugged.

My plush 5-star accommodation for the night
The locked door that I had to break open the previous night to take shelter.

A quick breakfast later, I set out at a brisk pace towards the border on the road passing through the village of ‘malhari’ leading towards Niti Pass.

The entrance gate of the Hiramani Temple is located between Malari village and the ITBP camp. It was about 6:45 in the morning and as I advanced through the village, I started encountering guys coming from the opposite side who gazed at me intently. Though not in uniforms, the way they conducted themselves I was damn sure they were either from Army or ITBP.
The Hiramani temple was used both by the locals as well as the ITBP guys for worshipping. The name came from the practice of sheaving diamonds (hira) from the sands of the dhauli ganga flowing nearby.

Hiramani Temple

It was at this point that the guys who crossed me previously and were now returning towards the camp, accosted me. They inquired where I was going, who I was with and where I had stayed the previous night. After answering all the questions, I came to know that they were part of the recee group of the nearby ITBP camp. They saw me in the morning while in their rounds to the village and presumed me to be an army photographer due to my camouflage dress and the DSLR. They further informed me that the road ahead is in a fragile state and for my own safety, they can’t let me pass their outpost. This is so because in the event of any mishap occurring, they would be held responsible for letting a civilian pass through their camp at a time when even the villagers hasn’t yet returned to their villages.

House on the upper side of the town as seen from the road leading through the village

 

Malari Village
Wooden thatched huts of Malari

They ITBP guys were a friendly lot. Unlike the army, they follow the police system of hierarchy, i.e SI and Inspector instead of Lt. and Captain. I was requested by the SI whose name was MN Deori to escort them to their camp, have some warm breakfast and then leave the area. I was also requested not to click any more pictures of the camp site as it was a border area. He along with another jawan accompanied me to their camp which was about 1.5kms ahead of Malari and served me a breakfast consisting 4 chapatis, cabbage subji and a cup of steaming hot tea. Though I don’t usually drink tea, I couldn’t say no to these extremely hospitable guys guarding our borders. I relished having warm breakfast under the open sky surrounded by snow-capped mountains with the chilly wind blowing while chatting with the jawans.
The SI belonged to Dehradun while the accompanying jawan was from Karnprayag. They told me that they get leaves to visit their homes for very few days but every two-three months. It was the beginning of April then, and snow thaws completely only by mid to end of May. The villagers starts coming back to their villages of Malari and the higher villages of Gamshali and Niti by 20th of April or beginning of May depending on the weather. They cultivate potatoes and apples during the season and descends to the towns of Joshimath and Chamoli when it starts snowing heavily by October for alternate means of employment. The main inhabitants are the Rongpa community who lives only in the trans-Himalayan regions of India-Tibet border. The name “Rongpa” is derived from the word “Rung”, which means valley and “Pa” means inhabitants. Rongpas are generally founds in the Chamoli district.

The village square housing the local makeshift post-office

The SI asked me for my ID and address proof while informing me that the Asst. Commandent of the camp – one Mr. Ravinder wanted to talk with me. Upon completing my breakfast, he escorted me to the camp of the Asst. Commandent who was immediately upon me with a barrage of questions. The only difference was that he was more bewildered and less hostile/ inhospitable than the Army guys. He was bewildered that a civilian had been able to come up to Malari during this out of limit season and that civilians are allowed only up till Tapovan. I mentally disagreed with him as no one including the army guys had informed me about this. He expressed shock that the Army guys had let me pass their outpost the previous night and that the international border was less than 50 kms. away. Again, this was another point of contention because later when I reached Joshimath and made inquiries with a mechanic who had been till Farkya to repair one of the army vehicle batteries, I was informed that it would be no less then 150-200 kms. in the minimum. Maybe the Commandent was trying to impress upon me the gravity of the situation by exaggerating the facts a bit. But overall, he was a decent guy. He also asked me if he could check my camera for the pics I had clicked as it was a sensitive border zone. I obliged and after deleting a couple of pics revealing the position of the temple and the camp, he requested me not to click any more pics on my way back.

First view of the ITBP camp

The commandant soon ordered an Asst. SI to escort me back till Malari. Meanwhile, they discussed among themselves about the making of some report and I came to know that during off-season, the ITBP was required to make a report of every person who comes/ cross their camp and if it seems suspicious, they had to power to arrest such person(s) and hand them over to the administration in Joshimath under Chamoli district. Finally, they decided against the preparing of the report as they were sending me back and told me that if anyone inquired how I reached Malari, just answer casually that I was trekking and incidentally reached here. He was gentle enough to apologize for the inconvenience and asked me not to feel bad due to the ITBP not letting me venture further, that it was for my own good, to come back when the season was more stable and shaking my hands, bade me goodbye and luck for my return trip.

While resting on the roadside rocks on the way back, I saw a military truck approaching me from the ITBP camp side and remembering their warning not to click pictures, I started off briskly. Their way I had traversed was marred by small boulders covering the road which cascaded down the mountain, but it required the men only about 10 mins. to clear the small boulders and reach me. One of them identified himself as the IO (Intelligence Officer) and asked me if I could produce my identity card and the details of my bike that I had left downhill. He noted all the information down minutely in his diary and asked me to take a hitch in their truck which was going downhill to refill water. I joined the men and they were a merry lot. I was welcomed by Mohit from Sirsa, SK Sandhu from Amritsar and Rathore from a distant district of Punjab, made to sit in their midst and shared my story about how I managed to reach Malari at this time of the year. Mohit shook his head repeatedly and told me mischievously that I was there for some other motive to which I kept a straight face and denied the possibility of any other motive other than travelling and exploring.
Soon we crossed the Army camp and came upon a big fresh water spring next to the camp where the truck reversed and the men descended to fill the water tanks. Mohit and co. shook hands with me warmly and he remarked “Zindagi mein maine bohot logo se mila, lekin aap jaisa insaan se pehli baar mila hu” (I have met a number of people in my life, but I have met a person like you for the first time) as a parting compliment to me; a compliment which I shall remember for the rest of my life and smile at the memory of the foolhardiness.

Trekking downhill, I reach the ice-spill area that I traversed the previous evening.

And as I descended, I came across the first team of laborers and GREF officers working slowly uphill clearing the roadblocks. They inquired as to how many roadblocks were there uphill and at what distance while I inquired from them whether they crossed my bike while coming uphill. They answered in the affirmative and told me I choose a good place to park the bike. Emboldened by the news, I started descending with renewed vigour towards my trusted steed.

The view from the valley around as I descended.

As I reached the first landslide zone, I saw that the roadblock was cleared by the JCB workers neatly and spotted my bike parked at a distant exactly where I left her the previous evening. I kick started my bike and departed for Joshimath at sharp 11 AM.

I reached Tapovan at 12:50 PM which was about 16 kms. from Suraithota and reached Joshimath at 1:15pm (another 9kms). I planned to sleep for 2.5 hours till 4 PM, pack and leave Joshimath for Delhi by 5pm. I was right on schedule when I left Joshimath at 4:50 PM but as luck would have it, just 3 kms. downhill from Joshimath, my bike chain gave up. With darkness fast approaching, I called Ravinder from Hotel New Kamal telling him about my predicament. He assured me that he shall send a mechanic friend to help get the bike back to Joshimath and repair it further. The mechanic soon got the bike towed back to his shop at Joshimath. After paying him 1200 bucks for the chain and 500 for the towing, I left for my hotel after enjoying a warm plate of Maggi in the market to narrate my Malari adventure to Ravinder. I guffawed when he expressed his bewilderment at my experience and remarked that he wouldn’t dare sleep the night at a deserted village even though he is a localite.

I left Joshimath the next morning at 10, after collecting the repaired bike from the mech. Reached Delhi at 11 in the night bringing to end one of my most adventurous trips to the Garhwal himalayas. Until the next one, adios. Ride safe!

TRAVEL INFO
Located in Dhauli Ganga valley at a height of 3048 m, Malari is a small village near Indo-Tibeten border in Chamoli district, of Uttrakhand.
HOW TO REACH: Malari is at a distance of 66 kms from Joshimath. Niti village is further 12 kms from Malari.
NOTE: Inhabitants of Malari village moves to lower regions during winters due to heavy snowfall. Recommended time to visit Malari is April to November.
Permission from SDM (Joshimath) is required to go further from Malari village.
Suraj ‘Sufi Traveler’ Dutta likes to think of himself as an avid traveller with a sweet tooth for trekking to less explored trails. A lawyer by profession, he was introduced to the unlimited vistas of travelling by means of long distance biking expeditions. Solo biking till date remain his preferred means of travelling and considers the Enfield Thunderbird as his most prized possession. Trekking the Everest Base Camp remains at the top of his to-do list.

 

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