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Discovering Auli

Sumanta RoyChowdhury is a regular trekker with several high altitude treks to his credit. A keen photographer, he shoots both still and video. His visit to Auli was prompted by his love of high places and the desire to learn skiing.

I went to Auli in 1997 February as a participant in a 7 - day basic ski course conducted by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN). The place impressed me more than the thrills of skiing. While boarding the bus down to Joshimath I made a silent promise to come back with my wife Dipa, and my daughter Tania.

Right from October 1998 I was trying to organise this trip. The biggest hurdle was to book accommodation at Auli. Apart from dormitories for the participants in the basic and advanced ski courses Auli has some fine alpine type log huts. A peep into one of them during my last trip made me dream of a snowy evening outside while I sit in the cozy warmth of the hut with logs crackling in the fireplace.

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GMVN has a web site that allows you to email them. My email in October and in the first week of November met no response. I approached the Calcutta office of U.P. Tourism where a liaison officer of GMVN is available. The gentleman at first dismissed me outright saying that I would have to send a fax to Dehra Dun asking for accommodation. When I requested him to arrange it on my behalf on payment of necessary charges for fax etc. he told me to try my luck first and come to him only if I failed. Faxing my request to Dehra Dun proved very difficult indeed. The line was always engaged. Few days later I surrendered to the liaison officer.


Haridwar always fascinates me. No matter what time of year it is, Haridwar is always full of pilgrims from all over India.

He was very kind to me. Like a teacher who solves your difficult sum only after he is convinced that you have tried to solve it yourself he now took out a cash receipt book from his drawer and accepted my booking amount (100% payment in advance). I did not bother to ask him why he didn't do that in the first place and save me unnecessary trouble.During the last week of November I received an e-mail from GMVN informing me that I should send them a bank draft for the amount which I had already deposited at their Calcutta office. I emailed back giving the receipt number etc. - so much for tourist promotion. The first day of this year saw us speeding towards Delhi by Rajdhani Express.

Our friends were worried about the cold in Delhi. Somehow a sort of unknown fear crept into us. Daily reports of deaths in UP due to severe cold, rail and air traffic being thrown out of gear due to dense fog all added to a feeling of uncertainty. We reached Delhi 3 hours behind schedule. On 3rd January we woke up to find Delhi bathed in bright winter sunlight. The journey from Delhi to Haridwar was by Shatabdi Express at the insistence of my daughter and we checked into a pleasant hotel at Har - Ki - Pauri ghat.

Haridwar always fascinates me. No matter what time of year it is, Haridwar is always full of pilgrims from all over India. A large part of which comes from the great plains. If one has the eye to watch then one can see the true colours of this country. You find people of all kinds - rural folk travelling in large groups from Rajasthan, Bihar, Southern states, rich people who have come to wash away their sins, and of course a wide assortment of con-men with various imaginative modus operandi.

There is very little to do at Haridwar so I found a comfortable vantage point to watch the unrehearsed drama unfolding before my eyes. We Hindus can certainly teach even the greatest capitalists a thing or two about how to mix religion and economics. I found a group of people making a living in what must be one of the most inhuman ways to earn a livelihood. They were standing waist deep in the middle of the river braving the fierce current and freezing cold. They all had a piece of clear glass in one hand and a stick in the other. Using the glass to see the bottom of the river by holding it at an angle to the surface, they were fishing out coins that pilgrims had thrown in the water as a part of the various rites they were performing.

The sad revelation that skiing might not be
possible till it has snowed continuously for a few days to make it at least 2 to 3 feet thick was forgotten the moment we awoke to a sky with the snow ranges bathed in a surreal blue.
The sight of a small boy, much younger than my 10 year old daughter particularly saddened me. He was obviously finding the water too cold and deep for him. Standing close to the embankment he was shaking in the cold. When we throw our hard-earned money into the Ganga we fling it as far as our arms can reach. Naturally his suffering was in vain. I was tempted to give him something but checked myself. After all he was not begging like a hundred others were. I was later told that they are a caste known as ghotakhor and this is their only source of livelihood. The image of the child still haunts me.

We left Haridwar in the early hours of 5th January for our 281 km trip to Joshimath. Travelling through what is called the district of the gods we passed Deoprayag, where the river Alakananda meets Ganga. Further up there were Rudraprayag (confluence of Alakananda and Mandakini), Karnaprayag (confluence of Alakananda and Pindari river) and Nandaprayag (confluence of Alakananda and Mandakini).

All these towns are now congested, dusty and filthy yet when one stands at the point from where the confluence can be seen the sheer beauty of the place makes you realise why temples are built here. Our ancestors saw god in all manifestations of nature, even if it were as simple as the meeting of two rivers.

We reached Joshimath in the late afternoon. About 40 odd kilometers before Badrinath, Joshimath is a reasonably big town with a large presence of the Army and Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). We had a day spare before our hard-won booking at Auli, and we took full advantage of it by hiring a jeep to go to Pandukeshwar. A small village, Pandukeshwar is the place where Badri Vishal is worshipped during the winter months. The road from Joshimath comes down the sides of the steep gorge that has Joshimath on one side and the mountains that have to be crossed to go to Badrinath on the other. From Joshimath, the river Alakananda flows a few thousand feet below in a silver ribbon. The jeep went along the road to cross Alakananda and enter another gorge through a gap in the hills that stands in front of Joshimath.

A little ahead was Vishnuprayag, the confluence of Alakananda and Dhauli Ganga. I have been through this route before and have always felt a sense of excitement at the approach of Badrinath. The beauty of it is breath taking. The surroundings assume a supernatural dimension as if preparing for the climax, 30 kilometers away - Badrinath.
By late afternoon the sky cleared again and we hurried to see the last rays of the sun on Nandadevi. There was a cloud above the peak and the crimson rays of the setting sun painted a vivid memory I will return for, God willing.

In the winter months Badri Vishal is worshipped at Pandukeshwar. The main stone deity of Badrinath is not moved, a small deity of Uddavji is brought from Badrinath and kept in one of two very small temples. The jeep stopped a little before the village and the driver pointed to the temples. It is a little way off the motorable road. Walking towards the temple through an otherwise typical calm and quiet Garhwali village, I was thinking about the millions who throng this area during the 'season' to visit it. Now iit was very peaceful, and the faint sounds of the Alakananda flowing at a distance only added to the calm. The priest was surprised and happy to see us and took us to the sanctum sanctorum, while explaining the winter arrangements. On our way back we stopped briefly at Govindaghat from where Dipa and I had trekked to the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib, 12 long years ago.

After lunch at Joshimath we decided that although bed looked quite inviting, an afternoon nap in this cold would only make us miserable in the evening . We started to move aimlessly around the town : the old temple of Shankaracharaya, a Kalpa Briksha, Army camps. There was a piece of disturbing news though - no snow at Auli. "It's all in the hands of the Almighty", remarked the manager of the GMVN tourist lodge philosophically.

Here I must mention a few facts that all intending travellers to Auli will need to keep in mind.

1. Auli is situated at an altitude of about 9,000 feet. People from the plains might need to acclimatize. Staying one day at Joshimath (6,150feet) is a sensible idea.

2. The distance from Joshimath to Auli is 16 kms on a non - metalled road for the most part. The road is not very dependable and it takes very little snowfall to close the road to all but Army vehicles with chains attached to the tyres. The other and more alpine option is to take a cable car ride from Joshimath to Auli, but the catch is that the cable car takes you to the top of the ski slope, a distance of about 3 kms from the resort. There is an intermediate stop but even that is more than a kilometer from the resort. During my last trip in 1997, I found tourists struggling on the snow slopes with their luggage to cover the distance. Most arrived at the reception of the resort with the pleasure of the cable car ride long forgotten after the wearisome trek. Some were covered with mud and snow - signs of involuntary ski practice without the skies. That year being short on cash I had missed all the fun having taken a jeep from Joshimath to Auli for Rs.25/- per seat.

3. This year the decision was taken for me by GMVN. I was told that the cable car is out of order and will remain so for the better part of the skiing season. The jeep drivers of Joshimath were cashing on this by charging as much as Rs.300/- for that 16 km ride. GMVN was of course blissfully oblivious of the plight of tourists and never bothered to inform it's offices around the country.

On 7th morning we started from Joshimath accompanied by a slow drizzle. Few kilometers ahead the drizzle turned to white flakes - the first snowfall of '99. By the time our jeep stopped in front of the resort,snowflakes were blowing almost parallel to the ground. The jeep driver was anxious to go down before the snowfall became heavier. I ran up the 50 odd stairs to the reception clutching my hard earned booking slip to confirm the accommodation before the jeep returned. The gentleman at the reception,sitting close to a room heater looked almost reluctant to receive the booking slip from my hand. By the time he finished scanning about three registers without looking at me, I was expecting him to say that there is no accommodation. Finally he looked up with a defeated look in his eyes to admit that there is indeed a wooden hut reserved in my name. I rushed out to find Dipa and Tania huddled close and shivering in the chill wind. The driver had already dumped my luggage and was waiting impatiently with his engine running. He didn't even bother to count the cash that I handed to him.

A porter took the luggage to our hut and lit the fire in a small tin drum (called Bukhari by the locals) with an exhaust leading out of the cottage. Within minutes the small hut became warm enough to enable us to take off our down jackets. Whatever anger and frustration one feels during the journey to Auli will certainly disappear the moment one looks away from the face of the front office man to the 180o panoramic view that Auli offers. It is certainly one of the finest tourist spots in the country so long as material comfort is not the yardstick for judgement.

For a change, you will find Auli much more than what the brochure proclaims as it's sheer natural beauty. It snowed for the better part of 7th January so that movement outside the hut was restricted to rushing out in the snowstorm and running the short distance to the restaurant. The restaurant in the resort is centrally located and is always kept warm by a giant sized Bukhari.


The sad revelation that skiing might not be possible till it has snowed continuously for a few days to make it at least 2 to 3 feet thick was forgotten the moment we got up from our beds on 8th morning. The sky was clear of all clouds. The snow range ahead had a surreal bluish appearance in the faint pre - dawn light. I woke up Tania and Dipa and led them out to the most heavenly sight that Auli offers. It was white all around and just to the right of our hut was a short path leading to a ledge in the slope.

Three of us stood close together, trying to draw warmth from each other and looked to the east. I do not have the literary skills to express the beauty of the snow plume flying off the majestic Nandadevi peak (25,639 feet)to form a halo around the summit with the sun rising in the background. My small Pentax camera was too weak to catch the unfolding drama and was blinking away its requirement for a flash. Manually turning off the flash I braced myself against the side of the ledge to take a timed exposure.

Slowly the peaks to the North were lit afire - it was a heavenly celebration. By the time the entire hill side was covered in bright sunlight we came back to the warmth of our hut. My eyes were hurting due to continuously peeping through the viewfinder of my still and video cameras. We were too dazed to speak. In the very first hour of daylight the Himalayas had offered so much.


After breakfast we decided to trek high up the slopes. It was warm enough to permit the luxury of moving around in a windcheater over a t-shirt. Carrying my cameras in a small backpack we moved up the slope. Past the chair lift station, past the small temple on top of the resort, past the water treatment plant run by the army. The snow was barely ankle deep and very soft, slowly we came on top of the ridge that forms the lower part of the ski slopes. Nandadevi was by now wrapped in a thick blanket of clouds - much like a white shawl, around her graceful shoulders.

Stopping to absorb the beauty, we looked further up to see giant construction work going on right in the middle of the slopes. I was later told that one of the time-share resort companies is building their latest resort. I felt a little confused at the wisdom of the authorities in allowing it.

Coming down proved a bit tough. The snow had become slushy and we tried glissading down the slope which was great fun. So long as the sun was beating down on us, we were tempted to wear only a t-shirt, but the moment the clouds obstructed the sun's warmth, the temperature would plummet by a few degrees and coupled with the wind-chill factor, would have us run for the comfort of our warm log hut or the restaurant. Lunch was a simple fare of dal, sabji and chapati. By the time we were out of the warmth of the restaurant clouds had covered much of Auli.


Our plans to explore the western part of the resort with its terraced agricultural fields covered in freshly fallen snow had to be postponed. I was enjoying an after lunch smoke sitting on the small balcony of the hut when snowflakes started drifting though the air. It was white all around and felt like sheer heaven.

The wind grew in intensity and soon the smoke from the burner was pushed back through the exhaust into our hut turning it into a small gas chamber. A special request to the reception produced an electric room heater and soon we were happy to see the fire in the Bukhari go out for want of attention.

The GMVN facilities at Auli offer precious little by way of material comfort: the huts are small, for the better part of our stay there was no water in the toilet, if you ask for something from the reception it takes ages to reach you. But the shortcomings are compensated by the behaviour of the staff who work so hard that you can't help but empathise with them.

By late afternoon the sky cleared again and we hurried to see the last rays of the sun on Nandadevi. There was a cloud above the peak and the crimson rays of the setting sun painted a picture for which I will return again God willing.

Photo Credit:Sumnta RoyChowdhury

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