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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Hindustan Tibet Road – An Engineering Feat by Sanjay Lakhanpal 

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