You don't have to be a skier to enjoy the charm of Auli, or for that matter, see the snow capped Himalayas. As luck would have it, I decided to drive up to Auli which nestles, rather cozily, at an altitude of 2,500 to 2,050 metres above sea level, in the month September. This was a time when it was bereft of snow, the much publicised ropeway was under repairs and there were no visions of glamorously attired skiers with fit bodies, gliding through picture perfect ski slopes, as shown in most tourist brochures.
After having navigated Uttarakhand's treacherous winding roads from Dehradun to Joshimath earlier during the week on work, this 14-km stretch to Auli, from Joshimath was a dream. The best part was the smooth ride, with just a handful of purposeful visitors, not aimless tourists or excited backpackers. The roads were empty and one could feel the majestic Himalayas literally "coming on to you."
As our confident and chatty hill driver, Bhushan, drove the Tata Sumo up the final curve, smoothly onto the hilltop, one blinked and blinked once more to take in the sight. On one side across the valley was a 180 degree panoramic view of the majestic Himalayas, some lit up under speckles of sunshine, and others with grey dancing shadows, creating intricate patterns on the snow capped peaks. Right in front of us were the famed ski slopes, framed by lush coniferous and oak trees, which though without the snow and skiers looked a tad dismal and deserted but still reached out in an inviting sort of a way.
Auli, might be one of India's few well known ski destinations and at par with some of the best in the world, but the way it appeared at first glance, it was hard to imagine the rather abandoned and deserted little place, buzzing with activity that must accompany the many international skiing championships and festivals it hosts. I still decide to spend an hour, ambling around, and allowing the place to get under my skin, literally.
I could see the range of the Garhwal Himalayas that define the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Not too far away is the religious shrine of Badrinath, in the vicinity of the mountain peaks of Nanda Devi (7817 m), Mana Parbat (7273 m). Dunagiri (7066 m) and the rest, as in, Trishul, Kamet, Beethartoli, Nilkanth and Hathi Parbat. Auli, too carries some of the aura that allows you to visualise and experience a kind of coming together of the adrenalin rush of speed, excitement and adventure with the quietude and feeling of expansiveness that only nature at its best, can bring. Auli stands for 'Bugyal' which means meadow in the regional language and I can see that it actually is like a meadow right out of one of the Enid Blyton books where little English misses head out for a Sunday picnic. Well, legend has it that the revered Guru Adi Shankaracharya visited Auli during 8th century AD and built a math at Joshimath. This is still intact and is rechristened as the Sankaracharya Tapastali, attracting droves of pilgrims.
As the eyes get accustomed to the near barrenness of the place, a solitary tea stall catches your eye. Clearly, that is the place where the action is in these lean, non touristy months - a kind of place to congregate, gossip and generally chat on local politics. A few local herdsmen shephard their goats and a couple of employees of the Army regiment, the skiing federation and the tourist lodge, sun themselves since work is slow, in what is the last trimester of the non-tourist season. You order your cuppa masala chai and glucose biscuits (Britannia and not Parle G, since the son is with the former and insists on brand loyalty) switch off the mobile and settle down to just watch the Himalayan range. The air definitely has a strong chill factor, its breezy and the tea is more than welcome and before you realise it, you have downed three cups.
Rahul, a scruffy lad of about 18 years of age, volunteers to take you up to the slopes which descend from 3049 to 2915 metres and are flanked by stately conifers and oaks, which according to him, cut wind velocity to the minimum. He is usually hired by people to hold their equipment, woollens and lug around their stuff and is paid anything from Rs200 to Rs. 500 a day. He tells you that most houses at this time of the year are locked since families have moved to the plains or to lower altitudes to pursue an alternate vocation or simply recoup, plan and get back for the tourist season in December. He decided to stay on because he loves it here and he also gets to run odd errands for the Himalayan Institute.
The conditions for skiing are perfect at Auli. A 500 m long ski-lift and an 800 m long chair-lift links the upper and lower slopes, and snow beaters and snow-packing machines maintain the smoothness of the slopes. Skiers can enjoy almost 20 km of virgin slopes, which also provide great opportunities for cross-country, slalom and down-hill skiing events.
As you descend down the slopes, minus the skis, you cannot but help visualise an Asha Praekh or a Saira Banu with their impossibly well coiffered hair do's serenading a Shashi Kapoor or better still a Shammi Kapoor, belting one of the spirited songs of the 1960's on what must be these very ski slopes in Auli or another in Gulmarg, Kashmir. And with that enduring image you leave, hoping to return for a longer duration, enroll for a skiing course and gliding along Auli's ski slopes. Another one on your to-do list!
Nearest airport: Jolly Grant, Dehradun, 273 km from Joshimath, 17 km from Rishikesh
Nearest rail head: Haridwar, 299 km from Auli
By Road: 13 km from Joshimath; State transport buses ply between Joshimath and Rishikesh (253 km), Haridwar (277 km) and Delhi (500 km). Taxi and private cabs/coaches can be arranged for groups
Cable Car: Runs for 3km. The ropeway offers a panoramic view of the snow capped mountain peaks and alpine forests
Season: End December to end March
Things to do: Visit nearby pilgrimage spots of Narsimh Mandir and Sankaracharya Tapastali of Joshimath, Nandaprayag, Rudraprayag and Pandukeshwar Badrinath Mandir; go to Gurso Bugyal, Chattrakund, Kwani Bugyal, Hot Spring Point and Chenab Lake; undertake excursions to Hemkund and Valley of Flowers
Must carry items: Woollens, snow/gum boots, wind proof jackets, torch light, cold cream, dark glasses; ski equipment is available on hire
Weather: Moderately cold in summers (need a light sweater, cap and muffler) and in winters can drop to -10Â° C
Where to stay: Auli resort run by the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN), apart from providing accommodation also provides all facilities for skiing
Tips on skiing: Use long, narrow and flexible runners with curved front ends turned up and pointed; aiding the process of acceleration and balancing, a pair of poles with leather strips on the top and sharp metal tips at the bottom are used to prevent the skier from sinking
Training courses in skiing: These are conducted in modules of 7 and 14 days. Training is imparted to the enrolled persons in modern skiing techniques by qualified instructors from Skiing and Tourist Resorts, Auli and Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering, Gulmarg. The 7 days course is non-certificate course with a total of 25 seats. These courses are conducted in January, February and March. The 14 days module is a certificate course, each with about 15 seats.
Taru works in the development sector on communications and is gradually succumbing to wanderlust as she finds the light-footed traveller in her