'We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure.
There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.’
Guru, my miracle man, my guiding light, once came up with the idea that instead of solely exploring birding rich areas in and around our city, we should begin travelling to other parts of the country. I was only just getting comfortable with my gadgets in my bird photography journey and wasn’t sure if I was ready to go beyond my comfort zone, but this suggestion ignited my passion for adventure. He suggested travelling to Chopta, a small region in Uttarakhand which also happens to be a part of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.
Located at an altitude of 2700 meters, Chopta is referred to as mini-Switzerland for its meadows, lush green pastures, and immense natural beauty. It is the base camp for the Chandrashila peak with the hike itself being one of the most adventurous one a travel enthusiast could opt for. This steep trek takes you through Tungnath, which is one of the highest Shiva temples in the world. Being rich in flora and fauna with dense forests of Rhododendron and Deodar trees, it is a paradise for bird lovers. The state bird of Uttarakhand, the Himalayan Monal, is a resident of this place. Other birds to look out for are the Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Russet Sparrow, Koklass Pheasant, The Bearded Vultures, Himalayan Blue Tail, Tickell’s Thrush, Golden Bush Robin, and the Yellow Rumped Honeyguide, to name a few.
We decided to take a road trip that would take us a little more than 6 hours, covering a distance of about 200 km, from our hometown Dehradun to this so-called mini-Switzerland. We started out early on a cold, foggy morning in February of 2020, covered from head to toe in warm clothing with the only skin showing around the eyes. It was still dark, and I fell asleep as soon as we hit the main road but was woken up by Guru as he stopped the car to take a fresh breath of air and take in the absolutely mystical and spiritual feel of Rishikesh. With a huge statue of Lord Shiva next to the river Ganga flowing in its full splendour, Rishikesh is also famous as the yoga capital of the world. We were travelling towards the east and after about 2 hours we reached the surreal locales of Devprayag, a town in Tehri, Garhwal, famous as the fifth and final union place where the Alaknanda River joins the River Bhagirathi, thereby forming the River Ganga. The beauty of nature is a joy in itself, and we were mesmerised, and awe struck by the views.
It was here, by the Alaknanda River, where we stopped for lunch. The chirping of birds was the only commotion breaking the stillness of the quiet surroundings, and the sight of the reflection of the peaks in the crystal-clear waters was spell binding. Each milestone was getting more and more overwhelming as well as mind blowing. Not once had we kept our cameras down and it was amazing how nature was unravelling its wonders one after the other.
Soon, we crossed Rudraprayag, the fourth confluence between the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. The scenes that materialized before me were unparalleled, with rows of mountains giving the effect of a miraculous maze, streams amalgamating into rivers or unifying into lakes, and the sun playing hide and seek while illuminating the landscapes in different shades.
Despite being a very basic accommodation, our guesthouse, ‘Honey Guide Homestay in Ukhimath, was surrounded by breath-taking views. I could see the meaning behind a saying from our Hindu Shastras, “Har ek prahar ek naya roop dikha raha tha.” We hardly went into our rooms because the common balcony had become our dwelling for the next few days.
We captured some stupendous landscapes, had some excellent bird sightings, and witnessed some beautiful views. While trekking to Tungnath, we made our way through the super slippery slope, walking through knee-deep snow. Struggling through the snow, my breath condensed into water vapour and escaped as frost smoke from my mouth almost immediately. We were trying to reach the edge of the cliff to attempt to capture the colourful Monal against the snow-white background. I was filled with wonder by the spectacular panorama view that unravelled before me. The rays of the setting sun were scattering on the undulating contours of the snow adding a dreamlike dimension to the whole place. I was clicking away non-stop, in-spite of having a winter red nose, and freezing fingers, all the while singing, ‘Yeh haseen wadiyan, yeh khulla aasman…’ It was an enthralling experience that I’ll never forget.
The mountains offer an extraordinary environment of biological, cultural, and atmospheric diversity. Standing tall, firm, and vertical, while defying gravity and challenging people and animals who try to scale them, they amaze us, just as much with their height as with their steepness. We tried to cover as much area as we could, travelling to Pokhri, Ukhimath, Mandal, Duggalbitta, and Makku Math. We shivered looking at icicles, while some mountain goats comfortably grazed at remote inaccessible areas. We had some close encounters with the Lammergeier (bearded vulture), some other scavengers and birds of prey, and even clicked two Steppe Eagles fight. Each destination had some exotic birds, and some spell binding views to offer.
Reading about a place and physically visiting one are two completely different things. Why had I not taken this trip earlier, I wondered.