“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
Road journeys are the best way to bridge distances. If my health permitted I would leave it all to travel to the hills and far off places. Even money would not be an issue then as travel requires less expenditure than tourism. For many years we took road journeys to different places and then it all stopped. The relationship with the mountains became a distant love affair. Both of us pining for each other but hardly meeting. After the Shimla, Mashobra, Tatta Pani trip I was longing for the hills again but the mundane routines of urban life weren’t loosening their grip.
Ranikhet and nearby lake towns of Bhimtaal, Saatal and Naukuchiyatal were on our mind since some time. Finally on a bright spring morning we drove towards an adventure of a lifetime. We were going to this area after a gap of 13 long years.
This is the first post of the three part series on our journey to the Uttarakhand mountains.
It takes 7-8 hours to reach Ranikhet which is about 350 Km from Delhi. The roads are much better than what I saw earlier and driving is mostly smooth if you leave early in the morning. We started at around 6.30 and were there by 2.30 in the afternoon. Fortunately we did not encounter any traffic jams. We decided to take the route via Hupur- Garh Mukteshwar- Gajraula- Moradabad Bypass towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur, Pant Nagar and Haldwani.
There is an alternate route also via Kashipur- Ramnagar (Corbett), Mohaan, Taarikhet onward. This route is less crowded than the one we took and more scenic too.
Traffic can slow you down for hours sometimes at Brij Ghat at Garhmukteshwar especially if there is some religious festival on the day of your travel. It is the closest to Ganges one can get from Delhi. After that the drive is usually smooth.
We Stopped a little ahead of Garhmuktehwar for breakfast. I think it was somewhere near Gajroula. The dhaba was clean and the hot crisp Aaloo Parathas tasted sumptuous with a dollop of butter, curds and mixed pickle.
Dhaba food is what one looks forward to while on highways and though this area isn’t flooded with dhabas that serve lip smacking food like when you travel to Chandigarh on NH22. Clean toilets and good food are two things one looks for while travelling. This place had both.
Dhabas are the lifeline of National Highways and every traveller has some favourite dhaba to talk about. We looked out for our favourite Amritsariyan da dhaba at Rudrapur but couldn’t spot it in the midst of all the new construction. Disappointed, I decided to simply gaze at the summer sky while Adi listened to the music .
Another thing was the absence of shops with boards advertising Chilled beer all through the National Highway. Those liquor shops have been shut down on govt. order to prevent drunk driving. A good decision I thought. During hot summer days we used to often pick a few bottles from these shops but the person driving the car never drank. Frankly, I kind of missed it but what the heck we were headed for a different high altogether.
We took the Moradabad bypass (NH24) , continued to Rampur then turned left here towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur…
We didn’t go into the Rampur town which was immortalized by Jim Corbett for its verdant jungles. (Man Eaters of Kumaun).
As we neared Rampur – Rudrapur road I was amazed by the changes that had taken place in the last decade. The 68 Km of NH58 has considerably improved since I travelled last but urbanization has changed the serene landscape to an eyesore. After cruising through the periphery of Udham Singh Nagar district’s rolling green paddy fields one gets jolted at the sight of something like a chaotic miniature version of Gurgaon.
I was appalled to see stores of big brands, a huge mall, high rise buildings and swanky hotels along the road. The flatland of terai region is no more a dusty town that vanished in a blink of an eye as we zip past it.It is a concrete jungle in the rapidly developing foothills of Himalayas. Instead of the wild leopards and tigers it now hosts the corporate tigers running this industrial hub. The place that once had paddy, sugarcane, wheat and soya fields adorning the landscape especially from Bilaspur to Rudrapur now just has a few patches of green. At least it was heartening to see the locals selling guavas alongside the road. The few orchards were full of mango blossoms. I dreamed of luscious mangoes in the dripping heat and dozed off.
As one approaches Pantnagar one is filled with the excitement of being close to the hills. The roads are usually crowded here and continue to be so till on crosses Kathgodam. We made our way through the congested town of Haldwani to reach Kathgodam from where the hills begin.
It is beyond this point that the drive becomes scenic and you get the first glimpse of the lower hills. The air changes considerably , becomes fresher and cooler. The sight of the mountains is always exciting and we gazed at them with longing eyes, ready to be embraced by them. Flowering trees, the simple mountain village folks, pretty houses and a long and winding road was such a joy to behold. Like children we chatted and pointed out different things we noticed as the landscaped rolled past us. The sun was bright and warm but not torturous.
On the Bhimtal –Almora National Highway, just ahead of Bhowali, is the famous Kainchi Dham. The seat of Neem Koroli baba who was revered as an incarnation of Hanuman, of whom he was a devotee.
That was our first stop in the mountains. Not for the Ashram and temple but for our long time favourite Mohan Restaurant which is right across the temple complex.
Many people headed to Ranikhet and ahead stop here for delicious food and clean toilets in the little shopping complex on the temple side of the road. There are two hairpin scissor like bends on the road hence the name kainchi mod. (Kainchi – scissor, mod- bend) Many celebrities like Julia Roberts, Marl Zukerburg and Steve Jobs came here to stay in search for Nirvana. Located at the banks of the rivulet Shipra, which merges into Kosi river as it meanders northwards, this Ashram is visited by thousands every year. You can find more about it from Google. I love the place for its scenic beauty. Tall conifers, green houses at some distance near the rivulet’s bed, hundreds of birds and flowers make it such a blissful place. Even with the place being a stopover for many tourists and travellers for food etc the serene peaceful Kainchi mod and surrounding areas are so welcoming. You will find local villagers selling Plum, Peaches, Apricot and other seasonal fruits. There are a few small eating joints along the road.
Mohan restaurant is one such eating joint. Unmistakable with its pink walled interior and a shed on top , the place is owned by a kumauni family. In all the years that we have stopped at this place the quality of food hasn’t changed a bit. Simple, homely and delicious kala chana and pooti, Aaloo sabzi and poori, parathas, bhajia and tea, maggi and a few other things are part of the menu. They are all made fresh by the lady of the house. The highlight is the pahadi cucumber raita and tangy spiced up jalzeera or lemonade made with Hill Lemons (Khatta).
In season one can see trees laden with these hill limes at many places on the way and in the villages. The fruit is an integral part of the kumauni cuisine. We had chana poori and raita and after freshened up. There are clean bathrooms available across the road. We needed to stretch our legs so we walked around the area soaking in the smells and sounds only mountains can offer.
Again on the road we crossed khairna bridge( there is a bifurcation here, one road leads to Almora and another goes to Ranikhet), Garam Pani and other small villages with lovely houses. The winding road is well maintained and the view simply enchanting. Look to your left for a magical view of green knolls, terraced fields , meandering river down in the valley, lush forests and cleanse your smoke choked lungs with the sweet smelling cool mountain air…bliss.
Far from the madding crowd we were driving now among beautiful tall trees and wild wayside flowers. The valley below to our left was bathed in sunlight and looked absolutely gorgeous.
Soon the sign boards and toll point indicated that we were right at the threshold of the unique slope town of Ranikhet situated on the upper ridge of the lower Himalayas. We took the higher of the two ridges flanking Ranikhet. The Chaubatia ridge, among orchards and old churches, has the army cantonment where we were going to stay for the next few days. Within minutes we were outside a lovely British style cottage which would be our home for the next few days.
It was a lovely day and we were ready to explore our favorite haunts.
We will continue with our adventure in the next part of the series. Keep watching this space.