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Off the beaten trek

(Travel piece in the wknd. magazine of Khaleej Times dated 20 Jaunary, 2023)

Among the many fall outs of two years of Covid confinement was a sudden rise in the number of people transiting airports and crisscrossing the world to get the ennui of the pandemic out of their system. It was christened ‘revenge tourism’. Travel plans overflowed with destinations of every kind and all the saved-up money went into getaways, many of them randomly fixed at short notice. The only intention was to blow fresh air into their covid-worn lungs.

People I know rattled off familiar names of places from the far east to the American coasts. They wanted to see places and knock off items from exotic bucket-lists. I too longed to break the monotony that had set in the pandemic years, but not in the manner that most people in the world did. I didn’t want to see the big cities and bring home urban memories. I wanted to do something that wouldn’t be just snazzy insta treats. I wanted the real results – a boost to my psyche, a shift in perspectives, a genuine new path to get out of the morass of death, doom and destruction that the world had sunk into.

I looked out for options to do an off-beat tour to some place the world hadn’t heard about much and I found a little destination no one I knew had ever visited. Pokhri, a town tucked in the folds of the Himalayas, at an altitude of 5900 feet above the sea level, in the Chamoli district of Uttarakand in India. It was as remote as I could realistically get from the noise of the world and be immersed in birdsongs and beautiful mountain views. It wasn’t a tourist spot, per se. It wasn’t a place that people located on Trip Advisor. It was a place that only those with a soul will seek and find.

Spurred by an instinct to escape to a hideaway that will not have many of the tourist trappings, I booked a homestay cottage, Birdsong and Beyond, in the Guniyala village of Pokhri. As per, Guniyala has an estimated population of only 83 people with 15 households. Such anonymity and isolation may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it seemed perfectly tailor-made for me, although it was my first outing of the kind, and I had no clue what to expect from such seclusion from the mainstream.

The place is 210 kms from its nearest airport in Dehradun. Although there are helicopter services that can take us faster to Gauchar, a helipad that is 45 minutes away from Guniyala by road, I arranged a cab from Dehra. My journey would last an estimated six hours, winding through the hills, passing by rivers, crossing many a significant point of interest. An hour into my ride from Jolly Grant airport, I was greeted by the grace of the Ganges in Rishikesh. A pitstop here would have given my impending tour an added impetus, but the thought having 210 kms to cover by road made me shelve the idea.

The next point that I wanted to register in my tourist diary was Devrayag, where the clear, light green Bhagirathi, coming from Gangotri and the muddy brown Alaknanda coming from glaciers beyond Badrinath, merged like two souls in love to give birth to what flowed further down as Ganges. The Sangam of the two rivers symbolized a holy communion. It was solemn moment that I absorbed both into my consciousness and camera for posterity. Pictures may be useful reminders of experiences, but it is what the eyes absorb in the moment that remain etched in the soul.

The sun had nearly set at that point and Guniyala village was still a long way off. Steering up the Kedarnath highway towards a destination about which neither me nor my driver had much clue about, we passed Srinagar and Rudrapayag. Had it been a day drive, Alaknanda would have glistened throughout the journey, but a full moon that shone on it was enough to compensate on that long, lonely drive.

Leaving many miles behind across rough roads and unmanned terrains, I reached my homestay in Guniyala late in the night, two hours behind ETA, where Kamla and her husband, Ramesh waited for me eagerly. They were people I hadn’t met or known previously, but it was for this experience of connecting with the simpler threads of life that I had gone to that place. Nothing could have been more welcoming that a piping hot dinner with rotis, dal and sabji that the caretaker couple served me with such care and love that I knew they were going to be part of my life forever.

A pinewood cottage with French windows was going to be my lodging place for two weeks, and I settled in cozily, eagerly looking forward to daybreak. What vistas waited to present themselves before me outside the windows, I couldn’t say because of the darkness, but I knew it was going to be life changing.

Although not an early riser, a unique birdsong that I had never heard before awoke me around sunrise, and the view that I saw outside wasn’t breath-taking. It was heart stopping. A whole range of the Himalayas clad in snow was emerging into view in the early morning light and the sun slipped out from behind giving me a sparkling solitaire moment to capture on my camera. This bounty is what I woke up to every morning. My evenings were graced by the golden glow of the sun falling on the snow crown of the distant mountains. The time spent between the two spectacles at dawn and dusk were to be to my daily staple for the next two weeks.

As I was sufficiently briefed by the owner of the Birdsong cottage, Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, there was very little to do in the place. I chose not to go trekking, nor did I go to bigger places of tourist interest. I didn’t want to ‘see’ places or tick lists. I merely wanted to experience the present moment in the pristine confines of nature and some naïve hearted people.

I spent my time wandering in the hills aimlessly, meeting the locals, making friends with them and enjoying their love in oodles. The essence of rustic life and its simplicity, the love of the common people, the joy of idling in the mountains and the release of the spirit into nature couldn’t have come to me at a better time.

Kamla, Ramesh and her sons soon became my extended family, and pampered by their home-grown food, love and care, the stay at Birdsong and Beyond turned into more than a holiday. The boys and girls I befriended there became my children, I celebrated Diwali with them, shared stories with Kamla and others and watched a new script for life unfold in front of me. Guniyala, I believe, has now adopted me as its foster child for such is the bond I have formed with it and its people. It is where I will return whenever my spirit needs nourishment. And that, I presume, will be oftener than I think.

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