Travel Tales – The Lakes Of Kumaon Hills


Travel Tales  – The Ranikhet Adventures 

I write this post as the rain douses the raging fire in the forests of Uttarakhand. Forests are the lifelines of hundreds of humans, flora and fauna and this kind of neglect is criminal in my opinion. To think that 3465.94 hectares of forest land lies ravaged by man-made fires is deeply disturbing. (number source Indian Express) The loss is immeasurable. Read this brilliant piece by Peter Smetacek about steps that can prevent future forest fires and sustain our forests. I hope some lessons will be learnt from the devastation caused by these fires and strict measures will be taken.

Flanked by lush  forests the lake district of Kumaon, Bhimtal / Sattal / Naukuchiatal, has some beautiful high altitude (3000 – 4500 ft ASL) lakes. The decision to go there was impromptu. We booked the hotel from Ranikhet and after a refreshing early morning drive arrived at Bhimtal just in time for a good breakfast by the lakeside. The sight of calm emerald water was soothing to the eyes. We lingered around for a while and then headed to Naukuchiatal which was to be our base.

Naukuchiatal

The valleys and the foothills of the Himalayas have a different charm all together. It was good to be back. Though the sun was bright and warm we were ready to explore the water bodies, winding pathways and the dense forests for the next two days. Solar panels on top of the roof of our hotel immediately gave it a few brownie points and the fact that it was right near the Kamal Tal or the Lotus Pond added a few more.

Kamal Tal or Lotus Lake

Flowers, bird calls, tall chir pines and mighty oaks, paragliders sailing in the sky and the floating leaves of the lotus plants were a good start to the last leg of our trip. I stood watching the vast spread of green water and an abandoned boat wondering how it would look when the lotuses would bloom.

Naukuchiatal

A walk along the road took us to the lake of nine corners or naukuchiatal, its iridescent bluish waters glistened in the mid-day sun. Mythology tells us that the lake was created by Lord Brahma and even today the parikrama around the lake is considered sacred by the locals. There is a little Brahma temple near the KVMN guest house right near the lake.

It was good that the lakeside wasn’t cluttered with the tourists that day. Naukuchiatal is the deepest of all the lakes in that area. It is nourished by a natural underwater spring. A few shikaras were drifting languidly on the glistening waters. It was an ideal setting for us lazy bones and we made the best of it.

The moment we hit the town we were surrounded by the people offering paragliding services. Later at the lake it was the boat owners who kept persuading but we politely declined much to the displeasure of Adi who of course wanted to do both. Some inner fear kept me away from such activities and I wouldn’t let him go either which resulted in some bad blood between us.

There is nothing that a chilled glass of fresh lemonade made from Hill lemon can’t resolve and we had a glassful each and soon we were happily ambling down tree flanked banks of the lake, teasing, laughing, talking and basically enjoying ourselves.

 

Many times we stopped to watch the colourful boats, kayaks and shikaras docked by the harbour swaying gently with the breeze or a kingfisher diving into still waters to catch a fish. Naukuchiatal, like its sister towns, is seeing a lot of construction and we could see the hills, that once were spotlessly green, were now dotted with buildings. While this region falls under ‘no construction’ zone, it is being ravaged by rampant construction work, undertaken by private builders. A little disheartening to see the how alarmingly adverse developments have occurred threatening the existence of this ecologically fragile region. The lakes too have high rates of sedimentation which isn’t a good sign.

After a long walk we sat down to simply gaze at the water. After a lot of persuasion I agreed to let Adi go for Kayaking. With heart in my mouth I waited as he made his way to the middle of the lake and back. Now, I love water but in recent times I have lost courage to venture into any such adventures. We lingered around the lake for some more time sipping lemonade enjoying our quiet Zen moments along with the anglers waiting patiently for some Mahasher to get caught in their lines. Fish reminded us of food and we walked back to the hotel for lunch.

In the evening, a stroll in the opposite side of the lake and up a winding path into the forested area left us mesmerized with its beauty. A tranquil walk amidst the Oak and pine forests have a distinct soothing effect on the mind and body. The place also has large number of fruit trees like figs, pear, guava, apples and hill lemon. Naukuchiatal has some 500 odd species of native and migratory birds besides butterflies, moths, and small animals, leopards are also sighted in the deeper jungles. We spotted a number of birds but the lack of good camera prevented us from taking photographs.

There wasn’t much time to explore the nearby villages and hike to the deeper woods so we came back before it got dark. Meal that night was at Mahindra Resort. It was a letdown that the town did not offer any local food. I was really hoping to find it here as much to our disappointment the only place in Ranikhet that served kumaoni food on request had closed down. The food at Mahindra was extremely delicious and value for money.

“Long have I watched the glory moving on over the still radiance of the lake below”- Sattal

Next morning we left for Sattal. The lakes at  Sattal are nestled in the midst of thick oak and Pine forests below the lush orchards of Mehragaon Valley.

Sattal has a larger area of conifers than Naukuchia and Bhimtal, whereas Nainital has more Oak trees because of the high altitude. Bhimtal on the other hand has more grassy patches. Naikuchiatal has a mix of all in small measures.

As we drove down the meandering road downhill I could see one of the lakes down in the valley peeping through the forest green. Do stop to admire the terraced farm, the distant hills, greenhouses, and pretty little hamlets in the picturesque Bhimtal valley en route to Sattal.

Sattal is  one of the many birding hotspots in this area of Kumaun. These forests rising from Bhimtal right up to Ramgarh boast a wide variety of birdlife.  More than 300 varieties of birds, including, oriental white eye, magpies, flycatchers, kingfishers, babblers, tits, bulbuls, warblers, woodpeckers and barbets are found here. You can see many of them from the roadside, sometimes chirping in a bush or perched on a distant tree. There are more than 500 species of  butterflies, moths and other insects. Sadly, rampant construction is slowly diminishing their natural habitat and I won’t be surprised if the actual number of birds could have dropped due to this.

When I first visited Satal many years ago there wasn’t much touristy stuff around the lakes. Five of the seven lakes were full and I think out of those five three were only accessible by foot. Surrounded by lush forest the area had more to offer than just the lakes. Treks in the woods, secluded natural waterholes for birdwatchers, quaint campsites, natural water springs to name a few.

Two of the seven lakes have dried up now and the biggest three interconnected ones, Ram, Lakshman and Sita lakes look like a replica of Naini Lake with the same touristy fanfare.

The Lakeside is encroached by food/tea stall owners and the “adventure sports/activities” groups catering to the tourists. A lot of people were engaged in kayaking, zip lining, and zorbing.

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I wonder how long before these gorgeous water bodies will become just memories. Though I agree that these interconnected lakes are much cleaner and flanked by more forest green than the ones in nearby Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal, the tourist activity was maximum at this lake.

The pristine beauty of the lakes is most magnificent during monsoons but even now the blue green waters offered solace to the eyes. We decided to leave the noisy stalls at the banks and explore the wooded areas on the other side of the lake.

The place is so tranquil and picturesque that one just wants to reach out and explore its deeper secrets. From the main road a small trail that goes to ‘The Studio’. Birdwatchers’ paradise, this place is often visited by many rare birds and they actually seem to pose for the camera hence the name Studio.

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There is a small lake there and often one finds the placid cows grazing around it. Tucked away in the forest the place is on the way to Subhash Dhara, a beautiful natural waterfall. We went up to the Studio but did not know how to proceed to the waterfall. Thinking it was wise not to venture on our own we trekked back to the main road. The rustling leaves, the music of the wind floating through the pines, gushing water, wild flowers and fruits, chirping of crickets and birds made the walk less strenuous.

We were hungry and decided to skip the Mission Estate, the Methodist Ashram and other ‘places of interest’. Out of all the lakes, I personally love the jade green garud tal. While there, do visit the Jones Estate. Frederic Smetacek’s butterfly museum at Jones Estate is a must see if you are in this area. We had visited it earlier so decided to skip it too. Lack of time was one of the reasons for not indulging in camping, hiking, nature walks etc. One needs to do a solo trip to this place to enjoy all this. Combining it with other places often leaves one wanting for more.

While returning we discovered a delightful cafe called ‘I heart Cafe’ located at the beginning of Bhimtal.

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One of my long cherished dreams is to own a cafe in the hills. This one won my heart. Everything from food to decor was just awesome. We had delicious German teacakes, shakes and sandwiches over a game of chess and then relaxed there for some time.

This was our last day of holiday and on way to the hotel we stopped again at Bhimtal lake, the largest of all lakes in Kumaun region.

Usually vivid green, the colour of the water changes with time and seasons. The colour comes from the glacier minerals washed down from the hills covered in mixed deciduous forest.  One can roam on the peripheral road fringed with Jacaranda trees along the lake to experience its beauty. have seen these trees in full bloom and the effect is mesmerizing. If you love the gorgeous Jacarandas you must visit in the month of June. Bhimtal’s climate is excellent for floriculture and one can see so many varieties of flowers in season.

The waters are unruffled and a serene sense of calm prevails here. A thriving ecosystem of aquatic species and birds is supported by the lake. Rich with aquatic life the lake is a boon for fishing enthusiasts. We saw anglers waiting patiently at a secluded point of the lake.

The little town of Bhimtal set on the slopes around the lake is slow paced and ordinary as compared to the other hill towns. That perhaps makes it beautiful. It has the least tourist activity at the lake as compared to Naukuchiatal and Sattal.

To have dinner at the hotel turned out to be a good decision as there was hail storm and rain that night. I guess it was a perfect round off to a great holiday for us.

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Now, back in the malicious heat of Delhi, my heart wants to escape to the mountains again. you can not have enough of it. There is a constant pull, a constant call of the mountains that will haunt you until you pack your bags for another adventure. Let us see what time holds for me.. Right now my heart is set on Kasol. Praying that this trip works out.

 

This marks the end of the three part series of our travel to Uttarakhand. We will be back soon with more adventures. Keep watching this space. 🙂

Travel Tales – 2 – The Ranikhet Adventures


Travel Tales – 1 – Road To Ranikhet 

Unlike many of the travelers and tourists we weren’t carrying any expensive DSLR cameras so all the pix are clicked from the mobile cams. Also, the sky remained hazy and we were unable to view the snow clad higher range throughout our stay which was a bit unfortunate but then mountains are mysterious and moody and that’s the beauty of them.

The 180 degree view of the majestic 330 kilometers of snow clad Himalayan peaks (Nandaghunti, Trishul, Mrigathuni, Nandadevi, Nandaghat, Nandakut, and Dangthal) , the refreshing pines, oaks and deodars, little hamlets , natural water springs, vast expanses of green, the ever smiling, helpful locals, kumauni food, churches, ancient  temples and most of all peace of mind is what draws travelers and tourists to the cantonment town of Ranikhet but for me there was another very important reason to  revisit this quaint little place way back in 2002.I wanted to see if my elder son would fall in love with the serenity that unfolded before him and want to study there. A tough decision but an essential one too.  It was a call he had to take on his own and he did. From 2002 to 2009 he studied at the Birla Memorial School in chillianaula and during those years the little hill town became our second home.

We explored the nearby towns  and villages of Majhkhali, Upat and kalika, Tipola , Pilkholi, Almora, Kausani, Kosi, Binsar, Jageshwar, Mukteshwar and many other whose names I have forgotten with time. Often we would detour and drive off to Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal, Sattal or Nainital. Each trip was a bitter sweet memory laden with the sorrow of parting and joy of receiving.

Ranikhet is the base for many trekking expeditions to Pindari, Valley of Flowers, Roopkund, Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary etc and also for pilgrimage to sacred places like Jageshwar and Vriddha Jageshwar, Binsar Mahadev, Mankameshwar etc. Our reason for returning now and again to this place is purely for cleansing our mind, body and soul. Just wander and gaze inwardly as you gaze outwardly. Though on earlier visits we made in a point to drive down to nondescript villages dotted across the mountains.

Katarmal Sun temple was a rare find. Remote and tucked in the forests of Almora district the small place has relatively rare Sun Temple. A must visit for the beautiful architecture.  You can explore a lot of hidden villages like Goluchhina, Dunagiri, Chitai ( we went there while on way to Jageshwar), Deora, paliu village, sokyatal, dhur  and many others  to get a glimpse of village life and see the old style stone houses and exquisitely carved wooden houses among other things.  The virgin beauty of these places is worth experiencing.

Once Adi passed out from the school I never went back to Ranikhet but a part of me lingered in that unforgettable  mountain town.

Apart from a few very early visits we never stayed in a hotel in Ranikhet. It was either the Tourism Guest House or the accommodation arranged by some army official in the quiet cantonment area.  That ensured a lot of walking along the roads shaded by pines. This time too we stayed in Army Holiday Homes, Suite 7, which was a little down in the valley from the main road. Surrounded by mighty pines the place was a complete unit with a working kitchen.  A small cottage just to ourselves. This area is part of one of the walking trails in Ranikhet (Jhula Devi Temple – Chaubatia – Bhalu Dam – Army Holiday Home – AMU Guest House).

All my travel fatigue vanished at the sight of  beauty around it. Bird sounds welcomed us as we stood gazing at the skyline through the pines. The only issue was the bad phone signal.

After resting a bit we climbed up to the main road, walked past the church and the stadium to reach small teashops at the start of the ridge where the local rustic market called sadar baazar is located. I noticed that the little birds that made nests in the front wooden frames of the old shops in the market were no longer there. Maybe not the nesting season. Things happen at their own pace in these mountain towns.

The life is hard but people are ever smiling. They laugh easily, engage in friendly chat without any inhibitions and even their joys are simple. The market doesn’t offer anything exotic here. Just the usual stuff for daily needs.

We bought some bal mithai from Tiwari sweets and it was heartening to converse with the owner who had a faint memory of Adi as a school boy. (He used to get sweets for us while returning home from the hostel). The beauty of these hill towns is that nothing much changes in its lanes and by lanes. While that is true of the main town, the outskirts are marred by rising urbanization. New hotels, residential complexes have sprouted there. Eyesores as compared to the pretty colonial houses and the old fashioned military atmosphere.

Though, for now, the town has been able to take the substantial development without losing its pristine beauty, I wonder how long before the nouveau-riche and the building sharks convert it into concrete jungle like most of the hill stations. As the town is maintained by Indian Army I still have some hope that they will definitely work to keep the unspoiled beauty of the place intact.

 

It is surprisingly beautiful how the rolling verdant greens, tall chir pines, Cyprus, oak, Deodar actually blur these changes in the landscape. The silence and sense of space is overwhelming as you walk away from the hustle bustle of town into the forests or walk down the hill slopes into nothingness. Small villages with a cluster of traditional houses with trees laden with fruits are the best places to experience the real essence of this place so if you are traveller not looking for the usual touristy things step away and walk the unexplored paths and as you do you may just come across the gorgeous long, unbroken arc of snow peaks at a distance.

I have witnessed some of the most breathtaking sunsets and sunrises here. Throughout the day you will find yourself surrounded by the sounds silence carries. Roosters, bells on grazing cows, cricket symphonies, bird-songs and whistling wind in the trees.

A friendly mountain dog may join you as you explore the landscape.

Hardworking, intrepid local women doing their daily chores, carrying firewood, tending cattle, cooking meals on a mud stove or harvesting fruits, crop is a common site there. In the hills it is the women who do most of the work, outdoor as well as indoor.

Taking the short cuts we went to see the century old churches, one atop a hillock and the other slightly off and down the winding cantonment road.

We have seen these churches umpteenth times but every visit is a new experience. When the evening shadows folded themselves and the dark began to descend on trees we made our way back to the lovely Army run holiday home cottage near the Ranikhet club.

There was a section 144 applied in the town due to some political upheaval some of the areas were inaccessible. Tourist inflow is usually manageable in Ranikhet so the place is never really flooded with people. We skipped Chaubatia Orchards and Bhalu Dam as we had been there many times but decided to trek down to Rani Jheel instead. A kilometer or so down in the valley from the cantonment area, the small artificial water body’s still waters are very pleasing to the eye. Unlike the big lakes in the lake towns around Ranikhet this one is a quaint little escape into nature’s lap.  Just go there and sit gazing at the water for a complete zen moment.

Our purpose for this trip to Ranikhet was mostly nostalgia. We wanted to revisit certain places and soak in the memories of those places. We did pay a customary visit to the ancient Jhoola Devi and the Mankameshwar Mandir among others for sentimental reasons.At some of the temples photography wasn’t allowed.

Nearly 700 year old Jhula Devi temple is near Chaubatia, Ranikhet. The present complex was constructed in 1935. Devotees offer bells once their wishes are fulfilled by the Goddess who is placed on a swing hence jhula devi. You can see countless number of bells here. The priest told me that he removes old bells every once in a while to make place for new. Like every other temple the place is slightly commercialized but the sight of wishes tied to the bell clusters is amazing. There used to be small tea shack near the temple which sold excellent tea but that is now a big shop that sells bells n other offerings to the devotees n tourists. There were no barricades earlier by the army so the Congo command station is a recent development.  From Chaubatia one can see the gorgeous view of Hathi Ghoda peaks, Nanda Devi and Panchachuli peaks on a clear day.

While walking down the roads we often stopped to watch the activities in the three major grounds in Ranikhet. Somnath Ground (the main parade ground), Nar Singh Ground, which is flanked by the gorgeous St Peter’s Church and the Presbyterian Church on both sides and is the center of all cultural activities, and the Shaitan Singh ground which is a army training ground. Often there would be an engaging football match in progress watched and cheered by the locals.

As we were staying in the cantonment  we crossed the Club, the war memorial, and the Army Museum daily. One must visit the exquisite army museum to know about the military history and the heroic accounts of the brave regiments of this land.

As we weren’t doing the touristy things we headed to the place very close to our hearts for different reasons. For Adi it was revisiting home away from home. Revisiting old school is always full of nostalgia. The school is located in Chillianaula.  Just before you enter the cantonment town of Ranikhet town there is an Army check point and a road diversion from there takes you to the pristine village nestled in the valley of chir pines forest on Dwarahat (Karnaprayag) road . The five km road meandering through the pines is breathtaking. The best way is to walk through the slopes soaking in the fresh pine scented air but you can also cycle or drive down.  Do stop in between to admire the picturesque landscape.

The old village still has traditional carved wooden houses but mostly the new age construction has filled the once serene village like arrows in quiver. I had not seen this rapid rate of construction around this area earlier.

We crossed the village and came to the Birla School in Birlagram. The colour of the walls had changed but as I gazed down the downhill winding path leading from administrative bloc to the hostels I could see my little boy standing there looking at us as we walked away leaving him behind. It also brought back memories of happy visits for annual day and other occasions.

We took permission from the Principal to walk around the school campus and were about to go when Adi spotted his music teacher riding up the path on his scooter. He stopped to fill the register at the gate and that’s when saw us. The connect and remembrance was instant and the old student teacher reunion brought a lump in my throat. After his blessings we went to administrative bloc and saw Adi’s house boy who is now Principal’s PA. Another emotional meeting and a surge of nostalgia. The middle aged man was mighty pleased to meet an old student. The two exchanged a lot of news about the school. They say you seldom age in the hills and looking at Trilok bhaiya we felt the same. The man looked exactly as when remembered him from 2002.

Birla school has a lovely campus and as we walked past academic block, the mess, junior hostel and then down to the senior hostel we merrily chirped about all the years spent there. Much has changed now, most of the old staff has left, the number of boarders has gone down drastically and the reputation has gone down a bit but we remembered the good old days as we listened to the evening breeze whistling through the trees.

From the school we checked out the small Maggi Point. What used to be just a shack was now a swanky little shop. The landscape evoked a lot of memories for us. It is amusing how even a tree or a vintage point can take you back in time.

Leisurely we ambled to the famous century old Herakhan Temple. Now, I am not a temple tour person but this place draws me in every time. The fruit trees, the peaceful environs, the marbled front yard with majestic view of the valley flanked by the mighty Himalayas, the melodious bells and the sweetness of the devotional songs sung in the evenings can fill you with a feeling of Nirvana. On clear days everything else blurs with the beauty that unfolds across this valley.Unlike other Hindu temples, this  shiva temple is unique in every way.  It was late evening on a not so clear day so we just sat there listening to the aarti.  The arti is sung by a British lady and the place is party managed by the British and European devotees of Babaji.

There are small shops around the temple that sell things for daily requirement. One can see the followers (both Indian and foreigners) going about their daily chores with a smile on their faces. Everything, everyone radiates a calm.

The dogs and the children are infectiously friendly. We spent a lot of time with them. Unfortunately we did not spot the langurs or the monkeys but if you stay in the kmvn rest house, Himadri,  you may get the opportunity to view breathtaking skies, a lot of mountain birds, langoors etc.

If you are an avid bird watcher then you may also see  Great Himalayan whistling thrush, Himalayan tree pie, red-billed long tailed blue magpie. A secret life exists in the forests of this pristine town  where move hyenas, foxes,  barking deer, jackals, leopards and flying squirrels.

No trip to Chillianaula is complete without tea at Kumaon Restaurant, a small local shop that sells bhajias, matthi, tea etc.

Bhim Singh ji, the owner is a humble middle aged man and makes awesome adrak wali chai.  We stopped to have a glassful and then headed back to Ranikhet.

The valley looks breathtaking at night. Unlike Shimla and mussoorie here in Ranikhet the lights look like fireflies. One can sit gazing at them for hours. Now I wished I had a good camera to capture the magical view.

Next day we drove to Almora to look at some old houses and savor bal mithai, singhora, singhal and other local delicacies. Also, we were looking for traditional kumaouni meal as the small restaurant that served it on demand had shut down. Unfortunately, we were turned back from the check post that’s just before Almora city. The regional capital of Kumaun was facing a massive jam and due to police barricades etc no tourists were allowed beyond certain point. The pedestrian only cobbled bazaar is a fascinating place to stroll and learn about this small horseshoe town. We could now either go to Binsar or Kausani but dejected as we were we decided to turn back and come down to Majhkhali and Upat kalika, the high altitude nine hole golf course maintained by Indian army. It is Asia’s highest golf course and offers panoramic views of the Himalayas.

It was a bright day and we were hungry. The best bet was to stop for some great Aaloo parathas at the banks of kosi river. We gave up the thought of visiting Kartarmal due to bad road and we were in mood to trek in the sun.  If you have time you must go visit the ancient sun temple here.  Lush forests and enchanting view of mountain peaks add to the beauty of this area.  Kosi is the lifeline of Almora district and I have fond memories of spending time on its banks watching its pristine waters.

Most of the river was dried up and on inquiring we found that a dam was coming up one kilometer downstream. The river is very unpredictable and prone to flood during monsoons.

After a small meal of parathas we ambled along the bank watching kids splash around on the other side of the bridge where the river’s green water shimmered in the mid day sun.

Just where our car was parked a family of goats gathered to see us off. Stately and calm as their surroundings they watched us as we got into the car to head back to Ranikhet.

Majhkhali is a small town nestled ob the highway that connects Almora and Ranikhet. It is about 11 kilometer short of Ranikhet. Serene and calm, it is perfect place to view the majestic Trishul and Nanda Devi peaks. Unfortunately for us the sky was hazy and even after waiting for a few hours in hope of getting a glimpse of the mountain ranges we couldn’t actually see them this time. On previous visits we have seen the patterns change on the snow clad Sonya peaks all through the day. The valley beneath them  is thickly forested and even if one doesn’t get to view the higher ranges , the play of sun and clouds on the lower ranges is breathtaking. The terrain is perfect for hiking and we crossed some small settlements.

We walked down the narrow forest path shaded with mighty Deodars and pines listening to the bird-songs. The sun was still high up but it was a  very pleasant day. A lot of women passed us carrying firewood on their heads.  We didn’t venture towards Ashoka Hall Girls School and skipped the Himalayan Village school too. We had seen them before. Majhkali too has got some new resorts but the place still looks as  picturesque as before.  Cloaked in mist, covered in a blanket of snow or brilliantly lit in the early summer sun, Majhkhali is any day a better option than the nearby towns for a quiet stay.

 

At Kalika Estate we stopped for lunch at the Windsor Lodge, a welcome heritage property. The original Windsor Lodge was a hunting lodge that was gutted in fire around 1948. It was renovated and raised from ashes almost half a century later.

The property is situated on a hillock surrounded by trees and offers great views of the snow peaks, tall pines and cedars and the golf course. We had a sumptuous meal at their coffee shop and soaked in the history that the place displayed.

The lush green Kalika golf course is so refreshing to the eyes. Flanked on all sides by the pine trees the place is perfect to relax. The water bodies were dry and some horses and mares had found them to be best grazing grounds oblivious to the presence of a few senior citizens playing golf under the summer sky.

We watched the game for a while then headed back to the cantonment for a nap.  We have always been travellers in search for solace. walking down the nondescript mountain trails, sitting at the edge of a rock  overlooking the valley or just laying on the back under the tall pine trees taking in the changing sky and listening to the music of the wind.

In the evening we ambled through the thandi sadak in the cantonment area. One can see the red rooftops of the houses and little shops of the sadar bazaar from some points but mostly the road is shaded by trees and quiet.  This road has been a constant feature of all our trips to Ranikhet. As we walked past school children, village elders and a bunch of army commandoes doing their daily jog we remembered how on one occasion Adi and I climbed up to thandi sadak very early on a rainy morning just to eat the delicious éclairs and cream rolls at the Pathak bakery.

Pathak Bakery is a small shop run by an ex-army person and apart from chocolate éclairs and cream rolls he keeps oven baked biscuits, pastries and other things. Our last meal that night was at the Ranikhet Inn. Delicious and simple.

While returning to our holiday home cottage the night surprised us with an enchanting view of the valley. The entire valley was dotted with lights that looked like fireflies. Unlike the other hill towns like Shimla and Mussoorie  here the valley is sparsely lit and looks divine. We stopped to take in this beautiful view of our last night in Ranikhet. Unfortunately we weren’t carrying any camera to capture the view. A hoot of an owl echoed through the silence of the night as we took a narrow turn on a motorable trail towards our cottage.  It was time to fold and tuck the memories under the pillow and let the sleep take over.

Early next morning after breakfast we drove towards our next destination Naukuchiatal. We decided to make it our base to explore the nearby lake towns of Saat tal, Bhimtal  and surrounding areas. You can read about it in the next post.

As we bid adieu to Ranikhet I made a promise to myself to come back in October and stay outside the town for a few days of wonder and peace all by myself. It is a town I would love to settle down in. Let us say what the universe has planned and go with the flow.

In the next post we will travel across the lake towns and see what beauties it opens up for us.

Travel Tales – 1 – Road To Ranikhet


“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.

Travel Diary – Part -2 – Kinner Camps Sangla And A Visit To Chitkul


Continued from –  Travel Diary – part -1 

Kinner Camps Sangla – 2,800 meters 

I woke up to the bird calls and checked my watch. It was still very early in the morning. Inhaling the fresh fragrant mountain air I stretched and gazed admiringly at the “posh camping” we were experiencing at Kinner camp at about 2800m. The Swiss tent had cozy beds , a clean attached toilet and the sight of my little one snuggled inside a warm quilt made me extremely happy. I tiptoed out into the clear daylight and the view simply took my breath away. Surrounded by the high mountains of Greater Himalayas from all sides the camp site was one of the most beautiful I had stayed in all those years. Twenty sleepy Swiss style luxury tents  stood in the midst of flower beds and dewy grass. Neat pathways lined with pebbles on both sides led to each tent and to the kitchen and dining area. A lovely patchwork on the ground. I walked up to a big boulder and sat there, silently taking in the view. I could hear the Baspa river gushing down the valley and felt like going for a walk to meet its sparkling waters but the rest of the group was in deep slumber and I didn’t want anyone to panic on not finding me there when they woke up.

So, barefoot I walked around inside the camp connecting with the earth’s energy . Major ( the friendly resident dog) came up to greet and trotted along.

The location of kinner camp at Sangla is just perfect. Nestled between the apple orchards with the river running just a few yards away, the campsite has a huge jagged mountain at the back which protects it from direct sunlight and in the front are snow-clad peaks and the river.

I watched the snow peaks slowly waking up to life with a blush as the sun rose in the sky. It was a great day to take nature walks and explore the lush green forests of cedar and pine, with the magnificent Kinner Kailash peak towering over the quaint village and campsite.

Kinner camp is managed  by professional team of locals headed by Mr. Pradeep Negi. A wonderful person with years of experience about the terrain and culture of that area. it was through him we had arranged this whole trip. As the days passed we experience the best of hospitality, food, knowledge about the fragile Himalayan eco system and the efforts of Mr. Negi and others in preserving the local kinnauri culture and lifestyle. We also came to know about their work in balancing the rapid imbalance of ecology happening in that area especially due to the building of dams.

The jagged sunrays, uncommon colorful birds and crisp cool breeze filtering through the trees led me to the clearing behind the dining area from where I could watch the Baspa thundering through the boulders. The icy water cascading down from the snowy peaks of the northern Himalayas. On the other side the landscape was green and inviting. I spotted a few birds like the Himalayan whistling thrush, Sun Birds and Barbets chirping merrily on the trees in and around the campsite.

The time had stood still till I heard a familiar voice informing me that the kid was awake and needed breakfast.

After a quick shower and super delicious breakfast we discussed about the possible local trails and sightseeing around the area. It was election time and the village road was abuzz with sounds of vehicles and campaigning.

Some people from the group were still rattled by the last night’s adventure and wanted to relax, the kid was excited about the dog, food and back rides and I, who didn’t want to sit around and laze, was spoilt for choices.  A village trip seemed like a great idea. We sat watching the meandering river from the road talking to Mr.Negi about various things and then trotted off to the village remunerating about the place where Gods once lived.

Women is kinnauri attire went about their daily business around their beautiful wooden houses with slate roofs. The kinnauri homes are built in traditional Kath-Kuni style in which the alternate layers of wood and stone are used in masonry work. Each an architectural wonder.

Kids, happy to tag along and get clicked, posed with smiling faces and the men watched the world go round as they sat smoking in groups or kept an eye on their livestock grazing on fresh grass.

A hot cup of Himachali tea warmed my fingers as I soaked up the flavors of Kinnaur. I could see the influence of Buddhism on their lifestyle because of the close proximity to Tibet.

We returned to the camp for lunch, a scrumptious spread laid out by the camp kitchen. Courteous staff and finger linking food is one of the plus points of Kinner Camps.

A few of us wanted to doze off. Seriously? How can anyone not want to go down to the river? I wondered. The temptation was too much to resist.

After lingering around the camp looking at various medicinal plants and other exotic trees and vegetation of that area finally we made it to the river. A large coke bottle filled with a pre mix of old monk and cola was stacked neatly in the sand between two rocks in the icy water. Each one of us found their place for a private commune with nature.

The effect was spellbinding and trust me no picture or video can give you a true experience of what it is like to be there in the middle of enchanting beauty and silence.

We sat there beside the roaring Baspa till the sunlight began to fade. Sipping the fiery mix from the bottle now and then to keep us warm. I had my Handy Cam switched on to capture the scenic beauty as closely as possible but at times you just want to switch off and blend into the serene calm around you. That’s what I did.

It began to get cold and we decided to make our way back to the camp. We had already asked Mr. Negi to give us a guide to cross the river and go to Batseri village. I was also looking forward to the walks through  the forest and meadows. As we had only three days we  could not undertake any hikes or explore other villages like Kamru, Nako and Kalpa. Chitkul was of course an exception.

We relaxed before the dinner discussing various things and enjoying the carefree time with each other which is usually a rarity in the hustle bustle of Delhi. I was thrilled beyond measures to be there and missed my elder son who would have been a perfect companion for nature trails and other adventures. None of the other adults were too keen to step out of luxury that the camp offered and the kiddo was too small for such impromptu adventures.

After dinning under the starlit sky we circled around a campfire with our drinks and smoke listening to the night sounds and watched the moon glide over the mountains. It was a blessing to have a clear night. I had forgotten how a star-studded sky actually looked. Words cannot describe the beauty of that first night at Sangla.

It reminded me of another night in the mountains, the YHAI trekking camp at Kasol. The rich night sky, wind’s hushed whispers to the trees, moonlit mountainsides, sounds of cricket and crackling fire keeping me warm. We stayed up late that night and when the fire began to die we headed back to the tents. The kid was fast asleep in the comforts of his bed.

Sleep took over soon with a promise of another day of exploring the spectacular terrain. We woke up early and after breakfast headed straight to the river to venture into what lay across its raging waters. Mr. Negi had provided us with packed food and a trained guide who told us about the stories , myths and facts about the Kinnaur and Baspa valley. The rickety wooden bridge unfortunately was broken and half-submerged in the river. All our plan to get across drowned then and there. Though the guide said we could still go across no one wanted to risk the rapid  flow of Baspa. We walked along the river side for a long distance and the guide pointed out many glaciers and known hiking trails along the mountains. He also showed us some rare flora and fauna typical of that region. We had our food beside the river and returned to the camp through another path in the meadows.

That afternoon the group split and some of us decided to go to Chitkul. I left the little boy in the care of a friend who wanted to explore the area for medicinal herbs and shilajeet.

Three of us got into the car to go to the last inhabited village near the Indo-Tibetan border. Chitkul is the first village of Baspa valley and last on the old Hindustan -Tibet road. It is also the last point in India where you can go without a permit. Tibet lies across the Zaskar peaks in the east, while the peaks of Greater Himalayas cross between the Zaskar and the Dhauladhar ranges and pass through the middle of Kinnaur. I certainly want to explore that entire region before it’s too late to travel.

Chitkul – A visit to the last Fairytale Village bordering Tibet

The 26 km road from Sangla to Chitkul (3,450m) passed through an unforgettable landscape of cold desert mountains, snow-clad peaks, lush rolling greens and farmlands. Way down in valley we could see Baspa slithering silently.

The moment we left Sangla it seemed we had stepped into a fairytale. Though I had been to many virgin places in Himachal and Uttaranchal but this was the most spectacular drive so far. Known for its scenic beauty Chitkul is also a junction for many trek routes. The weather was cool and there was no sign of clouds though we could see them wandering over the higher ranges. The landscape dramatically changed as we drove along the serpentine road. We did not stop at Rakcham as we wanted to spend more time at Chitkul but we spotted many farmers and Shepherds  in the sparsely populated village. The architectural beauty of the wooden houses was enhanced by the surrounding potato fields, wild flowers, mossy pastures, grasslands and a scenic backdrop of mighty mountains. I felt like Alice in wonderland.

From the height we were travelling the cattle grazing in the valley were just black and white dots a carpet of green The road was a bit treacherous from Rakcham to Chitkul and resembled a dirt track. Many streams cut across the road and one had to carefully navigate through them.

We stopped at  ITBP check post at Mastarang crossing which lies along a  beautiful stream flowing through a small Pine Forest The stream flowed right across the road and stepped out of the car to soak in the sweet-scented air. The slope on the right side of the road was dotted with flowers. The water was cold and each polished pebble that lay at its base told an unspoken story. The clock was ticking and we had to move on. I made a promise to myself to visit again for a longer period. This is not a place for a quick visit. A large group of mountain goats and sheep greeted us a little ahead. A young shepherd gave us the way waving and smiling at us. A picture of a happy and content life. Matarang is another beautiful valley of Kinnaur district and a place that can hold you captive with its virgin beauty.

I had never seen such beautiful colors of the sky. The late noon sun was milder now and the air was getting crisper with chill. Perennial glaciers that feed the river shimmered like gold and the shadows were lengthening on the mountain ranges. It was a surreal experience to say the least.

We saw a gate welcoming us to Chitkul. We had reached our destination. At 11,320 feet I was in a dreamland. We stopped our car in a clearing near ITBP check post. There were not many people around and the wind had gathered momentum. At that moment nothing mattered. The cold did not bother me as I walked around the village that was too beautiful to be true. An ITBP personnel told us about the history and significance of the strategically located village. He pointed to where the road ended almost half a kilometer ahead. One could see the old group of blue tin roofed ITBP barracks. The road closed 90 km before the China border.

We drove to that point and watched the valley open up in front of us in all its splendor. The sky by now was a pallet of unimaginable colors. Till now I had the movie camera recording each moment. Somehow it didn’t seem right to look at the beauty through the viewfinder and I switched it off.

Sitting on a rock I sipped the hot sweet milky tea as the men talked to the people around. I needed to be with myself. The teashop also sold hot Maggi like many others in that area so we ordered that too just to keep us warm. The steaming noodles full of flavorful veggies tasted excellent.

Rapidly the temperature changed to icy cold and the strong wind added to the discomfort. The villagers, unperturbed by the freezing cold, went about their daily routine. The women were remarkably beautiful in their traditional attire. Many wore the traditional silver jewelry and colorful scarves. Almost all the men wore colorful kinnauri caps.  I noticed that everyone had a smile on their faces.

We walked in silence observing the wooden houses, a small monastery, Kagyupa Buddhist temple, an exquisitely carved temple of a local deity and a rare treat – a water-mill. I had not seen one since my YHAI trek in Parvati Valley. It was a small one built right at the stream. The wooden mill was perched on big stones stacked on top of each other and had a tin roof. A few rocks were placed on the roof to prevent it from flying off in strong wind. The old wooden door  was bolted and plies of firewood were stacked behind the mill.

It was closed so we walked ahead to the govt. school  and gram panchayat buildings. The sides of the roads were piled with river stones. A lot of firewood was stacked near each house.  We also saw many small grain storage huts. The use of tin for roofs  increased in past few years and there were many cemented buildings too though the old world charm of the ancient village was  still alive. This colorful small village of Chitkul,with just a population of  around 610,  is a National heritage village and rightly so.

The valley looked beautiful from where we stood. The banks of Baspa river covered with pebbles of all sizes and shapes gave it a unique perspective.

We bid adieu to the charming village and drove back to our camp taking with us unforgettable memories. The view that  lay ahead of the tricky bend we maneuvered was simply out of the world. No sunset ever could match the one we saw that day. The image has stayed with me since then. Shades of magenta, pinks, crimson, cream, blue  and gold filled the sky in front of us. It was difficult to take the eyes off.  I hurriedly switched on the handycam to capture the miracle unfolding there.

I wish I had some still shots to share but even they could not have brought the splendor of that day. The blushing snow peaks, the deep shadows , the clouds and the molten gold made the drive a magical experience.

On reaching the camp we saw  one of our friends waiting anxiously for us. She told that the kid had his own adventure hike and followed her husband on steep climb without his knowledge. Now both sat on a rock jutting out from the rugged face of the mountain near the road. The furious Baspa flowing right below. It was a sheer drop if any of them slipped. The camp dog was right there guarding them and he began to bark as we approached the scene. For a moment I did not know whether to cry or laugh. There on the rock sat my little son clinging on to our friend. He, however, was rattled and held tightly to whatever he could hold on to. This was the first time he had come on such a trip and obviously this episode had shaken him completely. Slowly they got down finding footholds on crumbling muddy gaps between the rocks. He heaved a sigh of relief and in one breath narrated the incident. The kiddo seemed happy at his achievement and happily settled in his dad’s lap.

Now that the fiasco was over we went to the camp and had an early dinner and then sat around the campfire , happily listening to the local stories from the staff. We roasted some locally grown potatoes in fire and had them when they were still hot. Kinnaur is known for its potatoes among other things.

It was a cold full moon night and everyone just relaxed with a drink or smoke.  When the wind began to rise we decided to move into the tents. We all gathered in one tent and decided to play chess. As the two men from the group played we watched and cheered. Everyone was a little too happy and  the locally brewed alcoholic drinks made the night even more cheerful. The alcohol is distilled from grapes, apple, pear, barley and wheat. The kids slept soundly, his father stepped out to meditate and watch the moon glide through the sky. I stayed inside engrossed in the game that was taking longer than usual time. Sleep was slowly casting its spell on us and we wrapped up for the night at about two o’clock.

It was our last night there and we all needed sleep before the long journey back home. We woke up early, packed our bags and took leave from the ever courteous staff of Kinner Camp. Mr. Negi had been a very generous host and after thanking him for the hospitality we began our journey on the road we had travelled at night while coming. For the first time we realized what could have happened to us had we run into trouble that night. The sheer magnificence of the old silk route took our breath away. We could now see why it is called “the deadliest road” in the world. Full of hairpin bends, blind curves, the C-shaped incisions in the overhanging cliffs and the broken patches of the road and the dumper trucks that resembled dinky toy vehicles fallen into the valley were enough to tell us never ever to drive on it at night. The road looked like a ledge cut out on the bare rock face of the mountain. The sight of deep Sutlej Gorge in daylight scarred the wits out of us. I remembered how we had mistaken a broken section of bridge for a road and as I peered into the gorge I knew exactly where our pieces would have been scattered. We stopped at the shrines on the way and this time made sure to take the right road to Shimla and from there to the sweltering heat of Delhi.

 

Recommended Reading – 

bNomadic –  On road through the trans-Himalayan Region 

All about Chitkul 

Travel Diary – Part-1 – A Night Drive On The Old Hindustan Tibet Road


It was the summer of  2006 and time again to travel to the mountains. Kinnaur district was one of the areas we were considering because of its raw beauty and diverse landscape. A quick research and availability of stay at Kinner camps (situated at about 2800m) at Sangla was enough to make it final. The very idea of camping in this strikingly beautiful high-altitude Himalayan district tucked away in the northeastern edge of Himachal Pradesh, rubbing shoulders with Tibet seemed exciting.  Still not so popular with the tourists, Kinnaur is a Mecca for travelers and backpackers. The region faces a splendid isolation in the heartless months of winter and was once referred to as “the valley of the shadow of death” by Andrew Wilson.

Sangla or Baspa valley is one of three enclosed valleys in Kinnaur district and is named after the Baspa river, a tributary of Sutlej, that flows through it. This is where we were headed.

It was long journey of  about 977 km / 15-17 hours and we needed a good vehicle. The only car available to us was an Indica. Five adults ( three men , two women) and a kid in an Indica? That too on such a long journey ? I wasn’t getting a good feel about the thing but the best part of an adventure is the surprises that come with it. The couple who was travelling with us had no exposure to such adventurous road trips to the mountains.  That made the matter worse but somehow everything got settled and in the middle of the night when the world was asleep we stuffed our bags, bottles of Old Monk and Coke, a package of eatables and ourselves in the car and began the most memorable journey of all times.

Travelling on highways during the night has its advantages. The traffic is less, air is cool and one doesn’t waste the daylight on familiar routes. We reached Narkanda via Chandigarh – Solan- Shimla and Fagu at around mid noon after stopping for a filling breakfast at one of the highway dhabas. In approximately 8 hours we had covered a distance of about 435 km.

Situated at an altitude of  2708 meters on the Hindustan Tibet road (NH – 22) Narkanda was our first glimpse of the gorgeous Shivalik Ranges, deep green forests, apple orchards and fruit laden Cherry trees. We stopped at Hatu Hotel for lunch and to stretch ourselves before the next phase of the journey.  It was our first visit beyond Shimla and the sheer beauty of the place ceased all our tiredness. The snow peaks were clearly visible beyond the stretch of moss-green valley. After an hour or two we drove towards Rampur which was once the capital of princely state of Bushahr, a major center on the old trade route to Kinnaur, Tibet, Ladakh and China.

Intoxicated by the beauty around us and listening to the old Bollywood songs of Kishore and Hemantda we drove on until  one of us realized something was amiss. We were going uphill instead of downhill and the road condition was not very good either. On enquiring we found it was a longer route via a feeder road through the upper villages and the distance had just doubled. We couldn’t turn back so looking down at the meandering Sutlej and the valley dotted with houses we kept going. On one side rose the mighty chiseled cliffs of the cold desert mountains and on the other side the fruit laden trees lined the landscape sprinkled with wild flowers and grass.

The sky was getting overcast and the destination was still far. At a high point our car began to fume. One could see the smoke coming out of the bonnet and two of the tires. Cursing our luck we parked the car under an Apricot tree and with least of tools the men struggled to replace the tires. And then, it began to rain. Somehow I managed to cover the luggage and my ten year old under a plastic sheet. We had no clue how far we had to drive to reach the camp. Visibility was near zero and the cold rain fell like dead bullets and showed no sign of stopping. After an hour-long struggle the car finally started and we drove down to Rampur with no further trouble. I could feel the nervousness and discomfort of the couple of travelling with us. The child and his father were unconcerned and our friend with whom we had done most of our trips tried in vain to convince the scared couple that they were safe with us.

At Rampur Bushahr  we topped up the tank, got the car checked and started again. The mighty Sutlej thundered along the road. With the Sony handy cam perched on my shoulder I ignored the continuous grumble inside the car and immersed myself completely to the scenic splendor outside.

The rain had stopped and one could see the rose-tinted snow-capped Shrikhand Mahadev Ranges in the backdrop of the lovely town. The only sound we could hear was the roar of the river on our left.

We stopped to eat Thukpa, the noodle soup, at a roadside stall run by a Kinnauri woman wrapped in Dhoru (Kinnauri shawl). It was a simple, fragrant and hearty meal in a bowl good enough to sustain us for a long time.

The sun was setting behind the mighty snow-capped peaks as we drove towards Sarahan crossing Nathpa – Jhakri, the largest underground Hydroelectric Project situated downstream on Sutlej river, owned by SJVN Ltd. The peaks glistened like liquid gold at places while some others had the most unusual shades of crimson flowing down their tops.

It was rapidly getting dark and by the time we maneuvered our way to the little hamlet of Sarahan it was about eight in the night. An argument broke out and the group was soon divided in two, one who wanted to continue on the treacherous stretch of Hindustan Tibet Road that lay ahead and the other who wanted to spend the night at Sarahan. The kid slept through the entire melodrama. It was election time and none of the hotels had a place to offer so the only option was to move on which made me very happy. There is no greater adrenaline rush than to face the unknown.

The locals were not too comfortable about our driving down “the deadliest road” during the night. The child and his dad relaxed in a comfortable snooze, the couple snuggled close to give each other a feeling of security and comfort and I hopped into the front seat with my friend at the wheel ready to take on the 106km road distance to Sangla which was our destination. The estimated time locals had given was about two and a half hours but it was pitch dark and the only thing which could throw light on the road were the car headlights.

Guided by the car lights knowing in our hearts that it will eventually lead us to our destination we silently drove on. None of us had any idea when that will happen. Being a single lane road there seemed less chances of taking a wrong turn. In the darkness we crossed the famed Taranda dhak literally carved into the perpendicular cliffs without really realizing the jaw dropping effect it had on travelers during daytime. For us each blind turn, each hairpin bend was as awe-inspiring as the previous one. We did not meet any traffic except one or two trucks on the way. The thought of car breaking down in the middle of nowhere was something no one wanted to dwell on.

The only thought running collectively in our minds was to reach Kinner Camps. We informed the camp owner of our whereabouts and took directions.

A few spotlights in the valley indicated that we were crossing the Karcham Wangu Power plant owned by Jaypee Group. The road from Wagtu to Karcham was a shabby dirt track with no sign of tarmac. All one saw was scary rocky face of the mountain jutting out from the left and the perpendicular drop to river Sutlej which snored like a sleeping dragon in the valley below. There was a pin drop silence in the car. I could see the tension building up as an empty bottle of Pepsi was cut in half and a premix of dark rum and cola poured heartily. The two men gulped the fiery liquid in quick succession while the lady mumbled some holy mantras.

The couple  was definitely not liking the adventure they had embarked upon and the terrain was giving them a fright. I remembered reading about the freak cloud burst of 1987 that had wiped out Wangtu completely and it sent a chill up my spine. The bridge, the road and the village were swallowed by the lake formed by rebellious waters of Sutlej.

It is from Karcham, for about 25-km, that the Sutlej is in its most ferocious and challenging moods – boulders, rocks and rubble are tossed around in its foaming rapids, the loose strata of the ranges on the flanks further adding to the debris. At night the rumbling sound of the river rides on the darkness all along.

Eyes glued on the hairpin bends of the narrow road slithering in eerie silence our car slowly edged forward. A few meters ahead the friend who was driving asked me if I could see a turn and a bridge. I could faintly see the bridge to our right. The car lights could only show certain stretch ahead, the rest of the road just melted into dark. I nodded, slightly unsure, and in a hushed voice told him to go slow and look before turning.

Just at a crucial moment he stopped. There was nothing ahead except a broken section of an old bridge hanging over the drop of about 2000 ft into the Sutlej gorge. Sheer rocks rose vertically up from its left bank. The road looked like an incision made by blasting a ledge in the hard rock . For a moment our hearts stopped. The very thought of what could have happened if we had turned blindly sent shivers up our spine. We looked at the other passengers from the corner of our eyes. They were oblivious to the incident and the potent rum cola mix had anesthetized them into a comfortable slumber. My friend was an experienced driver and I had complete faith in his ability to drive in difficult situations. Slowly he reversed the car and we started off again on the deathly road. The river growled even more noisily below us.

My little boy shifted in my lap and then went back into deep slumber. The weight was beginning to numb my legs and I kept wriggling my toes to keep the blood circulation going. We were at the worse stretch of the entire road ruined by the work carried out by the hydro power projects running in that area. As a rule it certainly wasn’t a good idea to take the night and apparently we were the only ones on that road that night. For me it was the best adventure life could offer.

A little ahead, across Karcham bridge, the road forked to mark the accent along the blue-green waters of the Baspa river and headed towards Sangla which lay 16 km right of the Hindustan Tibet Road that ad started from Shimla and went up to Kaza. Sangla valley is just 120 odd km before the Indo-Tibet border and we were about 18 km from Sangla town.

Karcham is the confluence of beautiful Baspa and the mighty Sutlej and is considered as the gateway to Baspa valley. The roar of the river rose from the shadowy depth of the deep dark valley mocking at the rugged rock jaws that peered from above.

All the muscles in our body were strained from peering into the dark abyss. We had been driving  without a proper stopover for about 580km. Sleep more than hunger was on our mind. Thankfully the road was good and ahead of us lay days filled with exquisite beauty and starlit nights that were just a dream in big cities like Delhi.

After what seemed like eternity, much to our relief, we saw the board of Kinner Camp and Mr. Negi the owner waiting for us looking visibly concerned. He waved at us from the gate of the gorgeous campsite nestled between high range mountains from all sides.

One could hear the slow hum of Baspa river that ran very close to the camp. After almost 12 hours of strenuous drive we had finally reached our dream destination. The good man had kept the food ready for us and after a good hearty meal we collapsed on our beds inside the luxurious Swiss tents with dreams of new adventures the morning would bring to us.

 

Part -2 of this post covers our stay at Kinnar Camp, a trip to Chitkul and some other adventures including the return day drive on the old treacherous Hindustan Tibet Road.

It has been a while since the trip so if there are any errors in reporting the factual details please let me know in the comment section and I will correct it.

 

The must read Posts with pictures and videos  for this region and specially the Hindustan Tibet Road are 

Hindustan Tibet Road – An Engineering Feat by Sanjay Lakhanpal 

And from my fellow Indiblogger bNomadic On Road through the trans-Himalayan region  (He has one of the best travel blogs I have come across. Most recommended.)

Ajmer – A visit to the shrine of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz


Travelling – at first it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’ – Ibn Battuta

I feel incomplete and yet there is this immense sense of inner peace that I am carrying within since I returned from the dargah of Hazrat khwaja Moinuddin Chishti , lovingly addressed as Gareeb Nawaz (Benefactor of the Poor) . The wish to tie the mannat ka dhaga (the thread of wish) took eighteen long years to get fulfilled and the whole visit was like a spiritual trance. Before I knew I was there inside the dargah filled with the combined fragrance of crimson roses and white mogra (jasmin) blossoms.

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The kind Khadim (Duwago) of Huzoor Khwaja who was guiding us made sure that we weren’t jostled around by large gathering of  devotees from all over the world. These Khadims have maintained and preserved the secular and glorious culture of the holy place alive for more than 800 years now. We bought the flower basket and the Gilaf or chadar to offer at the Mazar and he made sure we could do our prayer in peace and hand over the offerings at the mazar. The sea of devotees was swelling as it was not just Sunday but also a full moon night.  Once the ritual of offering was done it was time to do a parikrama of the shrine  and tie the thread of wish (mannat ka dhaga). The orange and yellow thread was separated in three strands of which two were put around our necks and the remaining third one I tied to the laced marble lattice that covered the courtyard of  the shrine.

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This is the entrance to the mazar The exquisite craftsmanship of the shrine and the colorful gold inlay work is breathtakingly beautiful. The porch known as Begami Daalan was built in 1643 AD by Princess Jahan Ara Begam, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan. The stunningly beautiful marble pillars and the ornamental detailing apeaks highly of the Mughal architecture. The door of the entrance to the mazar are mounted with heavy silver plate .and look gorgeous in the shimmering lights of the huge chandeliers.  The gumbad mubarak ( the white marble dome) buit in 1464 AD is another specimen of craft one can gaze at for hours together.

Inside the dome there is silver canopy inlaid with mother of pearl which was presented by emperor Jahangeer. The ceiling is covered with exquisite velvet chatgiri . The place totally enthralls you once you are inside. I felt as if I was removed from my earthly body and became one with the cosmic divinity.

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 Cameras are prohibited inside the shrine and I could take a few pictures with my mobile phone as a token of memory.

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There is a strange pull in this place which holds you captive. Something engulfs you completely as all your masks are shed in total surrender to the the sufi saint. One can feel the love , compassion and the inner peace that flows from the mazar and lingers all around the compound. The feeling can’t be described in words, it can just be felt.

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Once I tied the thread it was time to quietly sit and absorb the serenity and spiritual fragrance of the place. We were hard pressed for time and something within me did not want to go from there. I decided to shut myself off from the cares of the world and connect with the benevolent  khwaja hazoor.

with moist eyes and hands folded in prayer I listened to the Qawallis sung in the courtyard facing the shrine. Sama (spiritual music) or Qawalli singing is one of the practices of chishtiya order of  sufism.  The beauty of the harmonious blend of voices, musical instruments and the rhythm of the spiritual songs rendered for the love of the creator leave you spellbound. They take you to another level. Music is the food of soul that connects a person to self and the creator. There is a certain kashish a pull in those melodious voices of the qawaals or the singers as they sing in praise of allah and their love for him.

I was reminded of the famous and one of my favorite qawallis chap tilak sab cheeni re mose naina milayeke .. In every song the relationship between the supreme creator and the devotee is that of a beloved. A spiritual love that is unconditional and giving.

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Kid 2 with Syed Kalimuddin Niyazi urf chotu miyan khadim huzoor gareeb nawaz . We were blessed to have him as our duwago. Our heartfelt thanks to him for making our visit a smooth one.

Now that we are taking of Kid 2 let me  tell you a story. I was pregnant with my second baby and almost everyday I would dream of visiting dargah Ajmer Sharif . It wasn’t clear who was with me but I saw myself carrying the gilaf to the shrine and actually felt the presence with all its sounds, scents and sights. The whole experience was so overwhelming that I kept yearning to go to Ajmer shrif but somehow every time I planned the visit just did not happen.

It was destined to be at this time and with my son. It was a calling for him and me. Kid 1 had been to dargah many times but he could not accompany us. Maybe it was a mother son bond which was to be strengthened here at the door of gareeb nawaz. It is said you visit only when he calls. I had wept at the mazar of nizammudin aulia, a spiritual cleansing and the khadim there had told me the visit will take place around one year from then. ( we visited it in May2012) Sometimes one has to believe in the miracles of life and the universal energies.

After  the prayers we saw the two degs (cauldrons) which are used to cook niaz (kheer or pudding made of  rice, ghee, nuts, saffron & sugar) IMAG1139

The niaz is cooked twice from the offerings made by the devotees and this small deg gifted by emperor Akbar can cook 2,400 kg of food at one time. The big deg can cook 4,800 kg of food. The food is cooked by the zaireen (devotees) and distributed after morning and evening prayers. The blessed food is called tabarruk if I am right.

We did not wait till night so missed many things. A visit is due again in winter and this time just to the city of Ajmer. A longer stay in the city of faith. I want to experience the magic of evening prayers and the roshni (lighting ceremony at dusk).

Our time at the dargah was limited and soon it our duwago led us out of main gate. With a heart filled with prayers I promised to return to the shrine.

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This is the picture of Nizam Gate which was erected by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1911 AD.

We strolled around the narrow streets of dargah bazaar taking in the colors and aromas drifting in the air from the tiny shops. I bought the famous Sohan Halwa from one of the shops recommended by our khadim. It was amazingly delicious. Sohan Halwa is specialty of Ajmer.

Unfortunately the mobile battery died and our camera was locked up in the car far away from where we were so we could not take more pictures.

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Once you visit the dargah of gareeb nawaz with a prayer in your heart it is always answered. I am not a religious person but I believe in the power of meditation and reverence to the universal energies, in love and compassion, forgiveness,  gratitude and releasing all that is negative, all those basic human qualities that seem to be slowly fading away.

I will go back there when there is a calling but I am humbled by this spiritual quest that took away so much that I was carrying within me, for the for kadambosi and hazari at the heart of the shrine.  One day I want to attend the annual urs of Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer. I am carrying the intoxicating whiff of rose petals and mogra mixed with itr and incense sticks  in my heart.

I have returned to the hustle bustle of daily grind but a part of me in deeply saturated in prayers at the feet of khwaja gareeb nawaz and I know I am safe and blessed.

Monday Memories 5 – A Walk Through Enchanting Beauty And Silence


I had just turned fourteen when dad took me to YHAI office in Chanakyapuri, Delhi. Each year YHAI holds National Himalayan Trekking Program and I was about to enroll for the ’82 batch for a trek to Khauli Pass(12,800 feet/3750 mts,) situated in the Dhauladhar range (the white range or the silver range) of Himalayas. This small pass situated in Kanwar wild life sanctuary is snow bound for almost seven months in an year. This particular trek was later discontinued due to massive landslides.

Some feeling are so overwhelming that they can not be described. It was my first trek and first journey alone. Dad always wanted me to be fiercely independent and despite of protests from mom, he stood firm on his decision to let me explore the world on my own. A lot of preparation went through in preparing for the trek and one thing that such programs teaches you is, discipline and planning.

I was part of the Mumbai group and one beautiful summer night in May I boarded the bus with my haversack to Manali. After a night long journey I got down at Bhuntar, delirious with joy and nervous too. I was fit, strong and rearing to go. Buntar is a base camp for registration and initial training. I had  the advantage of being youngest in my group and the team leaders and instructors made sure I was not uncomfortable. They took extra care to get me adapted to long treks and camp life.

The precipitous valley road from Bhuntar to Kasol was under repair. It is one of the most thrilling road trip with all its blind turns and narrow stretches. One could see the lush Pin Parvati valley and the  thundering Parvati river meandering like a thread deep in the gorge.

I have very fond memories of our base camp in Kasol (1640m). Nestled in the midst of conifer woods at the banks of Parvati river this beautiful mystical place is a heaven on earth. It is also known as Little Israel of India and one can spot  large number of Israeli tourists among others but our camp was situated a little away from the main Kasol village.   Kasol and the neighboring villages of Tosh(3000 m), Malana and Jari are the home to supposedly the best Hashish in the world –“The Malana Cream” and some of these gorgeous villages are tucked away so deep in the mountains that they didn’t really figure on tourist map for long. They were frequented mainly by travelers looking for serenity and calm and of course the Malana cream. I have already written about the gorgeous beauty of Malana , the solitary village in Malana Nala to the side of Parvati Valley.  It is the lat of the hippy settlement in that region.

Awestruck by the verdant valleys and the crystal clear water of Parvati river I walked around the woods and village, crossed the gushing mountain streams and even paid a visit to nearby pilgrim town of Manikaran famous for its hot water springs.

Even after so many years the memory of that first night in the base camp is so fresh that I can ear the sound of wooden flute echo in the silent mountains. The time stood still as under a star-studded sky one of the trekkers from another group played the flute. Kasol was a training camp so usually there were four to five groups based there, either returning or going to higher camps. It was an adventure and I was already feeling like Alice in wonderland. I had never seen such pristine beauty of the Himalayas from so close and it sure was breathtaking.  We did some nature trails during our stay.

The sweet smell of pine forest, apple orchards,  wild horses and herds of sheep and mountain goats, the gargling white waters of the river, the treacherous mountain nallahs which eventually merge into the river, the swaying wooden and natural rock  bridges, the tranquility and the silence is enough to enchant any traveler. As I write this I am actually transported back to this gorgeous place.

This is where I learned rock climbing, rappelling, river crossing on a rope and other skills essential for a trekker. The entire route of the trek was dotted with places which could cast a spell on anyone by their virgin beauty. It is hard to explain it in so few words the feeling of walking in such enchanting beauty and silence (This was the name of the trek report I wrote after completion).

I vaguely remember some of the names of the camps like Grahan (7700ft), Padri (9300ft) and many more. Each camp welcomed us with fresh food cooked on wood fire by the locals. Each camp night was made memorable by the bonds we created over songs and adventure stories, laughter and night walks around the camp.

We went through blooming meadows, forests, along the river banks, up the jungle trails, crossed the snow-covered landscape, walked through the glacier and the most amazing part of the trek was that we did this all at our own pace.The area is covered with thick canopies of deodar and fir trees that prevent views of the sky.This is what makes the trek in this area enjoyable and challenging.

Although I carried my haversack and sleeping bag on my back most of the time there was no sign of tiredness. There were times when a fellow trekker would carry my pack during steep climbs. It was all about brotherhood. The friends I made are somewhere out there and if any of them reads this I want to send my love to them. Prashant, Haresh, Johnny, Kalpana and many more who were always there in times of difficulty. I guess my training as a basketball player and athlete paid off during those strenuous long stretches.

The instructors and team leaders of the group and in the camps were extremely helpful and I remember at one camp they even sent a search party to look for me and Prashant as we had decided to rest along a river bank surrounded by wild flowers and pine trees. The search team met us half way to the camp and I dreaded that I would be told to return to base camp for breaking the rules but I guess the wild excitement in which I narrated the scenic beauty and my adventure melted the camp leader’s heart and I was left with a warning never to venture on such escapades alone. Prashant was a seasoned trekker and that helped too. Later, when he and some other friends came to drop me home I found he was my second cousin from mom’s side. :D. No wonder we clicked despite age difference. (He must have been in his thirties).

In those ten days of walking through the splendorous Himalayas I learned to appreciate  silence of the woods and streams. I learned to recognize the sounds of the forest and the saw some of the most amazing birds, flora and fauna. I did not carry a camera but the images are still fresh in my mind. For the first time I saw the bear in its wild habitation. ( Two bears came in the middle of the night at the last camp before we hit the glacier. They explored the camp site as we watched their silhouettes from inside our tents.)

I had my first experience of crossing a glacier holding on to a rope  tied to pegs pushed through the snow.  The adrenalin rush, the beating of heart, the careful maneuvering of each foot step and the final ascend to a spot which left me spellbound. You have to go there to see what nature can offer when left in its virgin state.

Most of my collection of things which included a big frozen black beetle, almost entire discarded skin of a python, bark of the bhoj patra  tree, pressed flowers,copies of  photographs clicked by my friends, an autograph booklet with some memorable messages got lost after my marriage. I am still searching for the identity card and my article which was submitted to YHAI office after returning.   The only thing which I still have apart from the lovely memories is this certificate which was issued to us.

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We could not reach Khauli Pass as the weather drastically changed and we had to return to the camp. Within minutes clouds can turn a shiny sunny day into a deathly dark nightmare. With great difficulty we fought through bitter cold and rain and managed to return.

Most of the group went back to Bhuntar base camp but our little gang of friends went on a little adventure to Mandi and from there back to Delhi. I would love to connect with anyone who was there during this trek. Feel free to leave a comment and connect.

I could do this post in many parts and still feel inadequate in describing the inner serenity and calm this experience brought in my life. I am thankful to my father who never discriminated between his son and daughter and in fact let me explore the various facets of my life and go for my dreams.

I did the Chandrakhani pass, Pindari glacier and the Triund trek after this one and then stopped. Its been almost two decades since I have done any serious trekking though I took many trips to the mountains in past years.

I wish to start again and fulfill my long lost desire of exploring the much desired places in the mighty Himalayas.  So, here’s to adventures and star lit nights.

Monday Memories 4 – The Wild Encounter


The summer holidays had begun and I was eagerly waiting to get enrolled in the Summer Program conducted for teenagers by National Museum of Natural History in Delhi. The program consisted of museum studies, discussion sessions, outdoor nature explorations, individual project assignments and exposure to the ecosystem in a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary in India.

On one fine summer morning twenty of us got into a deluxe bus with four staff members and attendants and took off to Corbett National Park. I was fourteen year old and looking forward to my first ever visit to any wild life sanctuary. I remembered how each time time read one of Jim Corbett’s books I would long to visit the reserve which was named after him after his death.

It was late afternoon when we reached the National Park. For most of us this was a first visit to the reserve and the excitement was clearly visible.  After the usual formalities the bus entered the park and soon we were on our way to Dhikala where the campsite was set up. We still had an hour’s drive to reach our destination. The dense Sal forest greeted us on both sides and soon we spotted herds of spotted deer and monkeys.  It was hot and the forest was seeped in a strange silence but inside the bus we were all chatting away happily.

Dhikala chaur is the largest grassland in Uttarakhand.  Dhikhla is the core area of the reserve and located right in the center so we were hoping for a tiger sighting. The bus had approached a precarious section and was slowly moving on a narrow path. We were told to remain quietly seated. On one side one could spot the serpentine Ramganga river  deep down in the valley and on the other side lay the picturesque and mysterious grassland, home to various species of birds and animals including the Royal Bengal Tiger.

All of us were glued to the windows taking in the breathtaking beauty of the place when suddenly the expert from the museum told us to remain absolutely still and quiet. The bus had stopped in the middle of nowhere. At first we could not understand what had happened but slowly as we watched the huge male elephants sauntering towards us from the front a chill went up our spines. There were five or six of them. Large amount of Musht flowed down their temples as they menacingly approached us. The driver had stopped the engine and was muttering some mantras under his breath. I was sitting on the front seat and had a full few of those majestic animals with huge tusks, their trunks swaying rhythmically from one side to another. I had never seen an elephant in wild  and the sight took my breath away.

The girl next to me sobbed uncontrollably and held tightly to my hand. Mesmerized, I just stared at those magnificent creatures who were just a foot away from the bus and had almost surrounded it.

Everything had become still. Not even a blade of grass moved. Male adults are usually solitary beings especially when undergoing a phenomenon called ‘Musth’ so it was surprising to find a herd even though it consisted of only five or six of them. Their sheer daunting size was extremely overpowering and though I had seen elephants in the zoos and cities,  this was nothing like those experiences.

Bull elephants are highly dangerous  and violent at the time of “Musth’ and can cause great harm. I could see the smelling fluid, rich of testosterone, running down on their cheeks as they gazed at us. We held our breaths and avoided eye contact. I bet everyone was sending prayers up there to the 300,000 Gods  for the ordeal to end and for the gift of life.

Those ten minutes that the bulls inspected our brightly painted bus with us rooted to our seats frozen in fear we realized how close we were to death. They could overturn the bus in an instant and send it hurling down the valley. Every time they flapped their huge ears our hearts skipped a beat.

Somehow they took pity on us and giving a last look turned and walked away into the forest.

For those few moments when they moved we thought it was all over.  It was a strange moment in time where the thin line that separated life from death seemed to have dissolved.

Many of the kids were crying and laughing at the same time unable to come to terms with what had taken place on their first adventurous trip to a National Park.

I can remember my heart beating very fast but somehow I hadn’t felt the kind of fear that had possessed others. I continued to look the direction in which those mighty animals had gone and disappeared in thick foliage of the forest and wondered what must have made them almost charge at us and then change their minds.

The incident is still fresh in my mind and every moment I thank the universe for small mercies. This was the third time death had come t close for comfort and left.

The incident has not changed my attitude towards either the elephants or any other animal.  Humans have encroached their land and destroyed their natural habitats and they sure have a right to cut us down to size at least once in a life time.

Monday Memories 3 – Memories From A Distant Meal Or One Moment In Time (Part 2)


I promised to bring some sizzle with this post but you know I am a wimp when it comes to divulging such details.  Though I can assure you some nice leisurely Monday reading  that will make you nostalgic about those good old times when life cruised along at snail’s pace and we had time to smell the flowers and watch the sunsets and of course savor good food morsel by morsel.

Indian highways are dotted with Dhabas and theka’s (liquor stores) that sell “child(chilled) beer” . When you are on National Highway and you  know your dhabas  then only you can call yourself a true blue traveler. They can be one of those famous ones like Puran Singh Da Dhaba at Ambala, Sukhdev Da Dhaba near Karnal, Chaupal near Ambala, Pahalwan Dhaba at Murthal (vegetarian)  and if you are traveling in the blistering summer heat then 1-2 kms after Modinagar to Meerut, is Jain Shikanji  where you get amazing lip smacking shikanji (lemonade) and to-die-for paneer pakodas with tangy chutney. Anyone who has driven on NH-58 will tell you about this awesome joint.

Be it NH-58 or NH-1 we discovered some lesser known dhabas which serve food that makes you yearn for them. They may not feature in Travel blogs, Food shows or magazines but still they are on the list of all those zipping past on these highways.

We took NH-24 very often for our trips to Uttarakhand and every time visited some new dhabha  to satisfy our hunger for fresh , wholesome meal but the Amritsariya Dhaba just ahead of Rudrapur became our favorite stop. The place is owned by an old sardarji who became an integral part of all our journeys. It wasn’t just the delicious food that he served or the charm of the rustic ambiance the place offered but the unconditional love with which he always welcomed us. Sometimes all it takes it a nurturing, caring attitude to end all your troubles, all your stress and tiredness. There was a special magic in his thin wrinkled fingers, in his trembling voice, in those  delicate lines on the face and in the eyes that lit up when he saw our car approach to a halt.  Each visit gave us a sense of homecoming. As he artistically spun the dough for those soft, aromatic tandoori rotis he would as us about our journey, Adi’s hostel stay and the remarkable thing was that he never forgot anything we had earlier mentioned to him. There was a joy in the simple things he did.

The aroma of the Dal Tadka and the chicken gravy that he made with a secret spice mix still lingers in my mind. He never allowed his staff to prepare Rotis or Parathas for us. He would roll up his sleeves and do the honors himself. If you have ever eaten food in Dhaba set in the midst of fields of rice with the fresh water hand-pump gushing out clean chilled water then you will know what I am talking about. Most of the time the tea would be complimentary and so would be the packed food. He always packed us some food on our trips to Adi’s hostel in Ranikhet. A gesture that warmed our hearts. He even gave me a packet of freshly made “secret” masala for his chicken gravy and always called me “Puttar ji” (a loving word for daughter).

I know this is a food post but food is made special by those who cook it with love and passion. We recommended the place to many and everyone came with similar tales of love and caring. They all told us how much the old man missed us. A bond made over authentic rural food, sweet sugary milky tea and big glasses of sweet or salted lassi / shikanji  in summer. A bond that warms our hearts across miles that stretch between us.

The other story comes from ancient picturesque town of  Bhagsunag in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. It is place I have visited many times and each visit became memorable for more than one reasons but one thing that remained forever etched in memory is the variety of delicious food from Tibetan to Israeli to Mexican and the list goes on.

It was a beautiful summer night when we decided to dine at the German Bakery. I have eaten in may German Bakeries all over Himachal Pradesh and never tasted such good food anywhere. It was managed by two young men from Goa and between them they churned out the some of my favorite dishes. Be it lamb steak or baked beans on toast,variety of grilled and plain sandwiches, freshly made burgers, pastas, pizzas that left you longing for more, authentic Israeli dishes like shwarmas, falafel, crepes,sabih etc with accompaniments , two types of English breakfast,  mouth-watering apple crumble and apple and walnut pies to name a few things.

That one last night was made special by the crescent moon that lazily trailed holding a hem of cottony clouds.  It was a rather nippy night warmed by dark rum that we had carried with us. A chess board spread across the table, notes from guitar and hushed laughter filling the night, an orgasmic blend of aroma rising from the joints the hippies were smoking in the corner table, low lights just enough to spot what one was eating.. it was heaven on earth.

The boys had to go to bed and were whisked away by their dad to the hotel but I decided to stay back with a friend who has accompanied us.  Some times are made memorable just by sheer magic of the place and words often fall short when one tried to capture those feelings much later in life. We played a few games that stretched for hours but neither of us had our heart in the game of chess. After finishing our food we just sat there gazing at the beautiful night and entranced by what surrounded us.

The owner, a friendly chap,  brought us some more snacks, this time on the house. We thanked him and settled down for a midnight feast of delicate flavors and tender bites over coffee shots and dark rum. It was amazing to find traditional pies done to perfection. Each bite was  full of crispy pie and hot apple chunks flavored by spices. Unforgettable to say the least.

Around 2 o’clock in the night we took leave from the friends who had made our stay in Bhangsu so special and headed for the hotel. Fingers linked together we maneuvered the narrow winding lane and walked on the moonlit path leading to the hotel. The rest of the gang was snoring to glory and we, still intoxicated by the sumptuous food and drinks, sat on the terrace till the clouds took over the little town and it began to drizzle.  Among all my travel food memories I cherish this one a lot. I somehow never managed to go back and now as I write this my heart is yearning to escape to those lovely hills. My room seems full of those aromas from the kitchen of that fantabuous German Bakery. Maybe it is time to pay a visit.

I will come back next Monday with some other recollections from the past , till then bon appetit.

 

26th Annual Garden Tourism Festival – A Slide Show


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At this time of year as the winter bids adieu and spring comes knocking at the door, all the streets, roundabouts, public parks and landscaped and home gardens are a riot of color with spring blossoms.

Flower Girl Delhi opened its doors to the 26th Annual Garden Tourism Festival last Friday even though the chill of winter made a sudden comeback with all its fanfare of rain and thunder. I was sure my plans will be washed away but the scent of spring was too potent to drown in the winter rain. On Saturday, the second day of fest, I decided to venture out hoping the universe will support and it did.

A nip in the air and slight drizzle continued all through my visit to the sprawling lawns of Garden of Five Senses spread over 25 acres of peaceful and tranquil greens. The whole place was alive with multitudes of gorgeous seasonal flowers like exquisite Dahlias, Petunias, Gazanias, Carnations, Roses, Cinerarias, Candytufts(Iberis), Sweet Williams, Poppies, Pansies,  etc. There were beautiful bonsai, cacti and succulents of all kinds on display and for sale.

A section was entirely devoted to garden enthusiasts who wanted to buy saplings, bulbs and seeds apart from all kinds of garden tools and equipment.

Even with slight rain large number of people including children had come to watch the uniquely arranged flowers.

Joyfully wet and our senses filled with the exquisite colors and delicate fragrances we spent an entire day taking in the amazing beauty of Delhi’s floral treasures. As the evening sun smiled for a while from behind the gray clouds we left this oasis of serenity to head again into the hustle bustle of city life.   Here is a slide show of the event.

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