Travel Tales – Of Wild fruits and Pink Lotuses


Recently I took a short weekend trip to the mountains. The idea was to simply get away from the scorching heat and the pressures of city life. After a lot of research we settled for Bhimtal, Uttarakhand and we took off early morning in a friend’s car. Summer is a bad time to visit any of these tourist destinations and I would have preferred a quieter offbeat place at this time but the time constraint and other factors made it impossible. So, as it is with every road trip there were old songs and conversations, reminiscence of  good ol’ days and dhaba food as we drove to our destination.

We made our first stop at Gajraula for a late breakfast or rather brunch of Hot aalu parathas, curd, pickle and kulhar tea. The place had good washrooms as the huge signboard declared. You can read about the entire route in my previous post HERE . We again stopped for tea at New Amritsariyan Da Dhaba just for sentimental reasons. The place isn’t the same since the old sardar ji passed away. One can see the next generation halfheartedly carrying out their duty. Though the food is still better than many places. The dhaba is very close to Rudrapur.

We reached Bhintal late in the afternoon but the Airbnb homestay we had booked took away all our tiredness.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This property owned by Sanjay and Ekta is nestled among the Pine, Oak and a few fruit trees very close to the lake. They started this venture for the love of travel and food last year.  I had booked The Woods on a recommendation from a FB friend Kalyani Mirajkar who runs a beautiful eco-friendly Bhimtal Birdsong Cafe just a little further away down the road.

The two member staff was exceptionally helpful and immediately arranged for some lip smacking homely food for us even though we had reached past the lunch time. Good food always wins my heart.  Himanshu needs special mention for this and for guiding us about local places. Despite heavy rain and other demands we always found him smiling and eager to help. The property had all the amenities and the beautiful deck overlooked the lake. It was raining and I found the setting extremely beautiful as we sipped our excellent chai and munched on hot bhajias. We could see the lake from our room window too. 

The rain drenched Bhimtal lake

The approach road is slightly steep but in good condition. We were given clear directions by the owner who was very gracious and helpful at all times.

I also visited Kalyani’s Birdsong cafe but unfortunately could not eat the fantastic Kumaoni thali the cafe offers among other things. The little cafe is tastefully done and is surrounded by pear trees. She also grows some vegetables and one can always see the place full of seasonal flowers. I recommend both these places to everyone travelling to Bhimtal. 

Another gorgeous property is The Retreat owned by Paddy Smetacek. It was booked when we contacted Paddy but she was extremely helpful and I totally love the work she and her family are doing there for local women and environment apart from running such a lovely place.

Let me completely the food story before coming to the two lovely surprises that awaited me.

On our way to Sattal we stopped at I Heart Cafe Himalayas. It was wonderful to meet Liz again and savor the delicacies she and her team makes. I will do a separate post on it in a few days. Don’t miss the place in Mehra Estate on Bhowali Road if you are in that area. The cafe is what I would have loved to owned in a quaint hill station.

You can read about the three lakes of this area in my post HERE. Not much had changed since we came here two years ago except that the otherwise quiet Naukuchiatal had a lot of water activities going on this time. It was a real heartbreak to see these beautiful places slowly losing their natural charm to these touristy activities. Sattal had already succumb to huge crowds, noise and eateries that have mushroomed at the lakeside.

 

What caught my eyes were local vendors selling the summer fruits. I was elated to see kafal, hisalu, small local yellow and orange apricots, the tiny babbugoshas (a pear variety), peaches and the deliciously juicy plums. Some other wild fruits that I remember from the past are bedu, ghigharu, kirmoli etc. but one doesn’t see much of them these days.

While the others enjoyed the scenic view of the lake waters I decided to gorge on these.

The Kumaon and Garhwal region of  Uttarakhand are known for these awesome local wild fruits. Many of them have medicinal values too.

The sweet and sour Kafal or Kaafal is called Bayberry in English and is a drupe. Considered as the king of wild fruits in Uttaranchal it matures in month of April to June. Kafal resembles the raspberry but has a big seed and thin layer of flesh. Mostly its eaten with rock salt and red chilly. We also make sharbat from them just like the phalsa sharbat. Slightly acidic in taste it has a high amount of Vitamin C. Mostly the fruit is grown between the altitude of 100-2000 meters above the sea level  in the foothills of Himalayas and has a very short shelf life. It also indicates the change of season. In local kumaoni language this fruit is called kaafo and is celebrated with beautiful songs and stories unlike any other in the region. The vendor was selling 10/- a cone and I saw many kids happily sucking on them near the lake. I ate them after a gap of many years so it was a real treat. I came to know that it is also found in Nepal. A poet friend from Shillong told me it’s called Soh phi in the Khasi Hills.

I was telling the couple friend we had gone with about these fruits and wondered if we would be lucky enough to savor the other fruits too and we were. At Sattal I saw some vendors selling Hisalu. I had not seen them since so long. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes as the season for these berries was about to end. I bought a few cones to relive the memories of those simple pleasures of my youth.

 

Soft and tangy Hisalu is also known as the Golden Himalayan raspberry or the yellow Himalayan Raspberry. These are the actual “Organic” fruits. Straight from the trees. These little berries used to be the source of energy to the travelers going uphill in olden days. The fruit is juicy and very flavorful. It is difficult to describe its taste as it unique to the berry. People make jam from it just like the raspberries. It usually ripens from in March-April and perishes very quickly after being plucked. An old friend from Rawalpindi told me that he found some of these fruits during an off track hike on Margallah hills a few years ago. So many stories came up when I shared the pix earlier on FB and Instagram.

I also happily snacked on the locally grown small and juicy plums, apricots and peaches. I saw a few fruit laden trees in the villages but we were on the move so couldn’t take photographs.

The Woods, where we were staying, had pear trees but the fruits were yet to ripen.

A monkey brigade one day decided to indulge themselves on the deck facing the lake and the staff had to drive them off with sticks. Unafraid these moneys have become a menace since the langoor money population has dwindled. The two don’t see eye to eye.

There was a Timla (Ficus auriculata) also called Elephant fig or wild fig tree right opposite the property but the fruit was unripe too. Timla produces a unique fruit which is actually an inverted flower. It is an important fruit in the hills and has medicinal benefits too.

The I Heart Cafe had a Lychee trees along with pomegranate, figs, pear, guava, apples etc.

I

I saw some unripe lychees on the magnificent that looking tree in one corner and couldn’t resist to click a photograph. There were also some gorgeous Hydrangeas spreading a riot of colors in their soothing green back garden. Here’s a favorite

The other juicy treat were the tiny babbugosha pears we picked from the local hawkers. Absolutely divine in taste. One can never eat enough of these luscious fruits.

A friend who was visiting Sattal at the same time managed to get hold of these very rare berries. I asked around for some information about them but couldn’t find any.

I had eaten these way back and never bothered to ask the name. Paddy Smetacek told me that these are quite rare Gyuwaaien which used to grow in her forest but disappeared from there. She is trying to grow them again. I have used this photograph with permission from Nandini Rathore. Both the photographs ( one here and the other in the link) are credited rightfully to her.

After a long research via FB, Google search and WhatsApp to experts I found that this particular berry is indeed Giwain in local vernacular. It’s botanical name is Elaeagnus angustifolia Linn. The berry has many medicinal benefits and the carotenoid, lycopene content in these is sometimes seven to seventeen times higher than that of tomatoes. It is known for its anti inflammatory, analgesic,antimutagenic and antioxidant properties.

It is also known as Russian olive or Japanese Olive as someone mentioned. It is a shrub found in mid hills. The fruit is eaten raw or ripe.

As if the joy of relishing these fruits wasn’t enough. To my surprise Kamal Tal or the Lotus Pond was flooded with pink water lilies or gulabi kamal. The sight was breathtaking.

On our last visit the taal was in bad condition but this time it looked clean and well maintained. The boat we saw last time had sunk in the midst of lily pads. You can see its edges in the photograph.

Kamal taal is located in one corner of the Naukuchiatal. Enjoy some of the photographs from there. Some people compare them to the lotuses that bloom in Mansarovar lake. It seemed like Monet’s painting The Lily Pad. The photographs don’t really do justice as I have a not so good phone camera.

We had a plan to visit some other places beyond these lakes but due to heavy tourist inflow, traffic snarls, rain and a fair at the Kainchi Dham we decided to return early.

As we still had a whole day to us we decided to take the longer yet scenic route via Corbett National Park ( Corbett Tiger Reserve). We stopped at the Corbett Museum and spent some time remembering the childhood favorite, the legendary hunter turned environmentalist Jim Corbett. The museum was one of his homes. The other one is in Nainital. Beautifully located in Kaladungi, Choti Haldwani it is surrounded by a lush green compound that has a souvenir shop in one corner near the entrance. I will do a separate post about this place.

The heat of summer was catching up as we hit the plains so after lingering for a while we headed back to Delhi via Bazpur, Kasipur – Moradabad route. We stopped at Bazpur, Udhampur for a delicious meal at  Gill Brother Dhaba. This is a longer route but has less traffic and is scenic too.

There were some things that got left undone. Perhaps I may plan to trip again when the trees get laden with apples and the sunsets become more breathtaking over the snow clad mountains. Some time needs to be spent with a few friends who live in this region and in the next trip I just night do it

For now I am back in Delhi and the grind of daily life in the city where summer has taken a permanent refuge. My eyes are glued to the skies for the monsoon rains.

Meanwhile I am painting with water colors and other stuff to add some color to the mundane gray that is lingering like mist somewhere between the seen and unseen.

I have some poetry news and other things to share too. Stay tuned.

 

 

Advertisements

Crossing The Threshold – A Poem


 

 

in the half light of dawn the breeze-

laden with the scent of mango blossom-

drifts in from the courtyard,

calling her thoughts to the waiting river;

quietly she leaves her bed,

gathers her unkempt hair in a loose bun

then pauses for a moment,

listens to her husband’s measured breathing,

then silently tiptoes out,

tucking in the corner of her sari at the waist

she hastily collects the fallen Parijatak in her pallu

placing a few in her hair at the same time,

the red from their stalks rising to her cheeks;

beside the well the empty pitchers wait,

nearby the battered clay stove

recalls her own scars,

for a split second she wavers, then crosses

the threshold, her heart frantic with haste,

leaving behind the walls

that had risen around her brick by brick;

the river hears her hurried footsteps 

with rapt attention, at its bend

under the shade of the mangroves,

a boat and a promise patiently wait

ready to carry her away.

 

Poem – At The River Ganges


First published in Learning & Creativity magazine in August 2015.

 

Time stands still on the stone steps by the river;
a silhouette takes a dip and emerges from its waters,
hands folded in obeisance to the rising sun.
A moment of transition from mundane to divine.
A marigold garland drifts by with ash in a plastic bag.

With a conch’s cry, the temple city quivers to life,
a flower boy approaches and with him a frail form
in white, a prayer basket trembling in her hands.
Oblivious, she faces the river, chants mantras,
lights the flower lamp and sets it afloat.

A song comes as a boatman begins his day.
The sun rises from the saffron tinted waters,
lifting the veil from Shiva’s abode. The air thickens
with smoke from funeral pyres and cooking fires,
the skyline of soot-darkened temples their backdrop.

In the sacred city of Varanasi a union of opposites—
suffering and liberty, birth and death, sacred rituals
and the unfolding of daily life. I walk the ghats,
that are alive with rhythmic sounds of cleansing
as washer men thrash laundry against stone slabs.

A holy man—his body smeared with ash—
lifts his hands above his head in prayer,
another, with Shiva-like dreadlocks,
sits in deep meditation at the sunken temple.
The air echoes with the clamour of temple bells.

Pigeons take flight. I sit beneath a canopy
and watch the river of life gasp for breath
at the confluence of the city of light and death.

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.

Exif_JPEG_420

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.

Exif_JPEG_420

Exif_JPEG_420

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

0_o

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. 🙂