The meadows of Panwali lie 4000 metres (13000 ft) above sea level on the traditional Kedarnath Gangotri pilgrim trek. Unadvertised, this place is a paradise for trekkers as also for cameramen. Just across the far horizon rise the gorgeous Himalayan peaks – Kedarnath Bhagirathi, Meru and many others. Most of these remain snowclad till late July.
The famous Khatling Glacier and Masuri Tal are in the vicinity. The 300 km Gaumukh to Kedarnath trek – passing through Gangotri, Harsil, Bhatwari, Belak Pass, Buddha Kedar, Ghuttu, Panwali, Kinkhola Pass and Trijugi Narayan – is an endurance test on one hand and a sheer joy on the other.
Snow covered for a major part of the year, Panwali springs to life in the last week of May, when a ‘Iala’ of Satyyara village downhill opens the only Dharmshala (Kali-Kamali). He is soon followed the Panwali Alpine Meadows ‘Gujiars’ who come to camp here with their herds of sheep and cattle. The landscape becomes animated with ponies, sheep and cattle grazing the undulating lands, the sound of the cattle-bells and the bleat of sheep.
Reaching the base for Panwali is easy. An early morning bus from Rishikesh arrives in the afternoon at Ghuttu, a tiny settlement on the banks of turbulent Bhilangana. From here begins an 18 km strenuous climb to Panwali. A local says: “Panwali ki Chadayee German Ki Ladayee”. Negotiating sharp gradients, 45 to 60 degrees, one has to attain an altitudinal increase of 2500 metres (8000 ft) in an arduous climb of 18 km.
The alternative route from Sonprayag in the east is equally tough and longer by 9 kms. The additional reward of this trek is a visit to the historical settlement of Trijugi Narayan. Guttu as well as Trijugi Narayan, have temples almost as old as Kedarnath. Shiva and Parvati were married, according to a legend in Trijugi Narayan.
It is advisable to start early in the morning to be able to reach Panwali before sunset. For the first two kilometre the slope gradient is zero. Here ‘Hisalu’, an orange coloured berry, grows wild in early summers. Its peculiarity is that it tastes the sweetest in early morning hours.
The trekker then has to zigzag his way through a dense forest of, amongst others, Chirpines (Pinus Longifolia) at lower altitudes and humus and bacteria. Then route remains ill-defined from May to July, owning to little human and cattle movement. This makes shortcuts hazardous, even fatal. An aerial search failed to locate two trekkers who recently lost their way here. Blood-sucking leeches and tiny flies abound. The itch remains on the bite spot for a couple of days. Cameramen should carry sufficient number of film rolls and filters, such as polarisers, which become necessary at times.
The high altitude and chilly night winds blowing from the snowclad ranges make sleeping bags necessary. On the other hand, the day temperatures and the strong rays of the sun at this altitude can tan and chap the skin.
May, June and September are the best months for a visit to the area since July-August is the rainy period. Winter begins by September end. It is time, then to move to lower altitudes.