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.