Uttarkashi by winter
25 December 2003


The Himalayas by winter! It sounded at once daunting and fascinating. A few days ago, we decided to take the plunge, and make a cautious foray into the Uttarkashi area in late December.

Ganga is formed of the merger of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda which takes place at Devprayag. Upstream of Devprayag, the left fork is Bhagirathi, but many people seem to treat her as Ganga. A beautiful road runs all along the river from Tehri upwards, all the way until the source - at Gangotri. (Yes, even though the river is called Bhagirathi (and not Ganga), the source is called Gangotri).

It is one of the most interesting roads in India, and makes for a great road trip. The road is spectacular, and there is something intangibly but palpably special about going up to the source of the Ganga. One can't help admire the engineering challenge that the Border Roads Organisation fights against, in building and maintaining this road. In winter, the road is generally closed at Harsil, and sometimes before that also. So you can only go all the way to Gangotri in summer.

Here is an overall map of the region. Click on the map and you'll get a high-res version.

Map of Bhagirathi upstream of Tehri

Starting up

We drove up from Delhi to Rishikesh one afternoon. We stayed in the GMVN place named `Rishi Lok' at Rishikesh. It's a good place. There were 65 rooms, roughly all empty at this time. There is good cell phone cover at Rishikesh, but not beyond. Beyond Rishikesh, there is BSNL cell cover at Chamba and at Uttarkashi, but BSNL doesn't seem to have roaming contracts with anyone else.

From Rishikesh, the road goes up to Chamba. There is an excellent small GMVN place at Chamba, which has just 6 rooms. Chamba is at a decent altitude, of 1524 metres. (It is at the bottom of the map above). Chamba is also accessible from Mussoorie, where you'd drive from Mussoorie to Dhanaulti and beyond to Chamba, but that's the longer route.

From Chamba, the road goes up to Tehri, where we get the first glimpse of the river. Image
First glimpse of Bhagirathi (looking upstream)
Image
Looking downstream at Bhagirathi

Uttarkashi town

The town of Uttarkashi is right under big hills. It is low for the region - only 1158 metres - but all around it, there is sharp height-gaining. This lack of altitude also makes Uttarkashi relatively warm, and a decent choice for a base where you can spend nights and explore the region.

A few months ago, there was an avalanche here, which wrecked the building on the left. A tenuous road had been recreated in the centre. Image
Road through avalanche rubble
This isn't much of a road, but it's used by all the traffic, including pedestrians and horses. Image
Road through avalanche rubble
Here you see one of the big boulders which smashed into the building. It must have been quite terrifying, when the avalanche came in. Image
Boulder smashed into the building

At a point 13 kilometres upstream of Uttarkashi is the town of Maneri. At Maneri, there is a dam, which captures Bhagirathi. This water is sent down through pipes to Uttarkashi, where there is a hydel plant. In the middle stretch - after Maneri but before the hydel plant - we have effectively killed off Bhagirathi. I couldn't help feeling this was a sad thing to have done.

Image
Uttarkashi town, with hydel plant in foreground

Nachiketa Tal

At a distance of 29 kilometres east of Uttarkashi, there is a village named Chaurangi Khal. From here, a short walk of 3 km takes you to pretty but small lake named Nachiketa Tal.

Chaurangi Khal is at 2310 metres altitude, so this is a steep climb out of Uttarkashi, on a road full of hairpins that could make you seasick.

Snow-capped mountains, above Uttarkashi, on the drive up. Image
Looking down on Uttarkashi on the drive up to Chaurangi Khal
Here, on the right, you see the near-zero flow of the Bhagirathi river that now comes down from Maneri. It merges with the flow out of the hydel plant, and then we get back the full flow of the Bhagirathi. Image
Bhagirathi, reborn out of the hydel plant
Image
Terraced fields
Chaurangi Khal is a friendly little village. There isn't much to do for the locals, so they serve up astonishingly cheap and nice meals. Image
Cooks at a little dhaba at Chaurangi Khal
Main Street is lined with little dhabas on both sides. In the centre, there were children playing cricket with a plank for a bat and some sewn rags for a ball. If you're going there, try to take a cricket bat and some tennis balls - they will love it! Image
Main Street, Chaurangi Khal
From Chaurangi Khal, it is a pretty walk up to Nachiketa Tal. It is a steep climb, and the destination is probably 2750 metres high. Image
Forests on the way up to Nachiketa Tal
Image
Views on this walk
At Chaurangi Khal, which is 2310 metres of altitude, there wasn't ground-level snow. But a little height gaining put us in the snow. Image
Looking down on path to Nachiketa Tal
Nachiketa Tal itself is a rather small lake, with a temple on one side. The water is shallow, but extremely clear and attractive. Image
First glimpse of Nachiketa Tal
Image
The lake was teeming with fish
The water was clear enough so that one could easily see the fish swimming in the lake :-) Image
Fish in Nachiketa Tal
There was ice on the far bank, and one could see clear reflections of the clouds in the water. Image
Nachiketa Tal
Image
Ila by the lake
Image
Cold path back from Nachiketa Tal
Image
Back to lower altitudes on the walk back from Nachiketa Tal
Chaurangi Khal is so cold, the stray dogs have to have a healthy coat of fur. Image
Street dog at Chaurangi Khal
At Chaurangi Khal, there is a PWD bungalow, which could fit into certain travel plans. It was roughly Rs.200 a night for fairly tacky rooms, with reservations (required) from Uttarkashi. Image
PWD bungalow in the background
Image
The locals were fascinated by the digital camera
Image
Sunset colours on the way back from Chaurangi Khal

Maneri

As mentioned earlier, 13 km. upstream of Uttarkashi is the village of Maneri. Here, a beautiful lake has been formed by damming Bhagirathi. The waters of the Bhagirathi are taken through pipes to the hydel plant at Uttarkashi. The most remarkable thing about Maneri is the colour of the water. The pictures here don't quite capture it...

Image
Ila by the Maneri lake
Image
Sunlight and the lake
Image
Ila by the Maneri lake
We probed north to find a way to access the shore of the lake. Image
On the lakeshore

Upstream beyond Maneri

At this time in the winter, the road stops at Harsil; it does not go all the way to Gangotri. We were able to ride up till Bhatwari.

At many points on the river, there are pretty suspension bridges. Image
On a suspension bridge north of Maneri
As you can see, the winter flow of the river is much smaller than the river-bed. One can visualise how big the river would be, at this point, in summer or in the monsoons. Image
Bhagirathi
Upstream of this, there are places where the road soars very high above the river (while always hugging the river's flow). This waterfall was photographed using a tele lens, from a point roughly 1000 feet above it (on the road, looking vertically down). Image
Waterfall on the Bhagirathi
It was a beautiful day, with a dramatic interplay between clouds and sunlight. Image
Clouds and light
Image
Clouds and light
Every few kilometres, the road offers breathtaking views of the river and the mountains. Having the clouds and the sun on that day was just a bonus. Image
Bhagirathi valley
Image
Clouds and light
Image
Bhagirathi valley

Chilla

Our last stop was near Haridwar: the village Chilla, which is adjoining Rajaji National Park. It is just 220 km from Delhi, and hence works as a good last-night-of-the-trip.

This is dreamy winter fog terrain. Image
Ganga canal in front of Chilla
Image
Traditional Gujar huts
There is a network of dirt roads in the park, and 4WD is not required to wander in them. Image
Chital
Image
Vulture

Rajaji Park is an impressive array of 820 sq.km. of biodiversity, including tigers, leopards, elephants, etc. We did not put in time on this trip to do these well.

Overall

Uttarkashi is generally a way station on the way up to Gangotri. In winter, you can't do Gangotri anyway. But it's worth visiting Uttarkashi in some such visit. Apart from the things described above, there are a few additional things worth doing:

In short, Uttarkashi by winter seems daunting, but it's worth doing. The world feels different in winter. The hotels are cheap and empty, and the paths are uncrowded, for the religious folk are absent. It's possibly the best time of the year to be with Ganga.

A few suggestions


Ajay Shah
ajayshah at mayin dot org