Travel Poem – Memory 2


This poem was first published in Cafe Dissensus blog as part of two travel memories.

 

the stone steps lead to a clearing

on the slope of the mountain
but today I’m taking a trail into the unknown,
I listen to the shifting silences of the trees,
the leaves spiral down and dance
to an imaginary music along the pathway,
they cling to my worn sneakers,
my gaze follows two pairs of wings
chasing each other in the clear blue sky
as I shift the weight of the backpack
onto the other shoulder, I pause
between Cedars and Oaks
taking in the shifting rhythms of the landscape,
the path gently passes through the forest, then dips,
the sound of falling water only makes the silence apparent,
here,  there is no such thing as time,
I inhale the hot fragrance of the day
and share my breath with you,
in your mind I may be only a memory,
in my mind, you are a pause between my thoughts

 

Travel Poem – Memory – 1


This poem is from a set of two travel memory poems first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.

 

 

 A window opens through time
scented by Deodars and Pines,
as I lie on the wooden balcony of our cottage
my eyes linger on the shadow stencils
of the Dhauladhars rising beyond the valley,
the leaves murmur as the breeze tugs at them,
the sun, forgetting to set,
filters through the swaying branches
and meanders along forgotten paths,
a twist of smoke rises to meet the sky,
I breathe deeply, eyes closed,
inhale the aromas that we once shared,
the crackling warmth of wood stove,
the tang of our salt-laced bodies
with their steam rising into the stillness
like the echo of dreams haunting this house,
outside my window time advances slowly

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.

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.

Travel Memoir : A Drive Through Clouds


Enchanting Himalayas

Traveling by road in the majestic Himalayas is treacherous at times. The spectacular network of these remote rugged winding roads can give you a big adrenalin rush at any given time. The hair pin bends, gorges, steep valleys, narrow slushy muddy tracks that take sheer courage to maneuver and some times the unfriendly terrain make it an adventure which only the brave can afford to go through. A little distraction or error in judgment can lead to a disastrous end.

The rain and snow add to the drama that unfolds at every tricky turn. There are always chances of land-slides; road blocks and one must know the basic of mountain driving to avoid mishaps. The worst comes when you are caught off guard and have to trust your ability as a driver, a cool mind and the intuitive powers to help you navigate the snaking trails.

For us who love to venture into unknown territories, the roads journeys from Rampur Bushahr to Kinnaur and Khajjiar to chamba in Himachal Pradesh have been really breathtaking and the extremely difficult to maneuver till now. At both times we went ahead without earlier study of the area and were fortunate to come out alive.

Dalhousie is the gateway to the Chamba valley. The best way to explore the charismatic beauty of the region is to hill-walk or trek. The tranquility, beauty and the exquisite scenic surroundings are an unforgettable experience. After out enchanting stay at Khajjiar it was time to continue our journey to Dharamshala via Chamba.

We decided to follow the Khajjiar – Chamba road and vaguely asked the locals for the directions. It was raining heavily and most of the valley was covered in low clouds and dense fog. The rain had brought down the temperatures too. Our car glided through the unknown serpentine rugged mountain road in near zero visibility.

It is not a drive for the weak hearted. As we looked down the deep gorges and steep ghostly valleys enveloped in a cloudy mist, we realized the height at which we were traveling. The habitation in the valley below resembled small dots of blue and black. The roads were hardly visible but sometimes we could see a gray black line crisscrossing along the lower mountains.

We thought that this was going to be our last road adventure as we carefully maneuvered the hairpin bends, depending solely on the gut instinct.

Visibility was nil and there was not a single soul in sight. It was truly a drive through the clouds. The tension was mounting and a silent fear had gripped all of us. We had no idea even if this road was the right one and there was no turning back. We had to go on.

After an hour of cruising through the unknown under merciless rain and bone chilling cold, our alert eyes saw a roadside kiosk emerge out of no where and all our stressed out muscles relaxed at once. We found that it was a tea stall and the locals thought we had completely lost it. No one dares to drive in weather like that on an unknown high mountain road like that one.

We decided to drink a cup of hot sugary tea and wait for the rain to stop but it continued to pure ceaselessly. We scanned the deep dark valley below and shuddered at the thought of dropping down hundreds of feet down in that abyss. It was spine chilling

The time factor was very crucial as we still had to cover some distance to reach Dharamshala before dark. A 220 Km. six-hour journey and the weather made it very clear at least two to three extra hours were needed.

When you surrender yourself to nature, it takes care of you. This is one fact we always believed in. We drove on in absolute stillness. Half way down the road we saw a few workers repairing a damaged road in cold, rain and muddy slush. They advised us to go very slow and wished us good luck. It was good to see those dedicated courageous human beings who make our journeys safe.

Suddenly our friend who was driving the car stopped the car. The spectacle that greeted us was astounding. Right in the middle of the road was a flock of at least 9-10 huge vultures, majestic creatures so rare to see these days. Unfortunately the bad light and rain prevented us to click pictures. It was  experience of a life time and the kids watched the raptors with awe. Our day was made.

Those were the famous Himalayan Griffon vultures. These birds of prey are a dying species and we held our breath to savor the moment. Griffons are about 41-43 inches long and have a wingspan of 260-289cm. and are the second largest old world vultures. Slowly we made our way on the road and the knightly creatures decided to give way to us. Mystified by the beauty of those birds we continued towards our destination.

After a drive of half an hour the sky cleared and we could again see beautiful green valley dotted with tiny houses and thin zigzag maze of mountain roads below. We had managed to cover the most difficult part of the road. It was an enchanting sight. The rain had completely stopped. The riot of colors that flooded the mountainsides also became visible now. Wild flowers in all colors blossomed as far as we could see, oblivious to the human existence.

We were relaxed and happily chatting. The kids kept talking about the big birds and soon we entered the picturesque Chamba valley.

It was a journey through timelessness, an adventure which would haunt us all our lives. It remains a true Himalayan odyssey and an enchanting drive through the clouds.