Travel Tales – 2 – The Ranikhet Adventures


Travel Tales – 1 – Road To Ranikhet 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel Tales – 1 – Road To Ranikhet


“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

 

Road journeys are the best way to bridge distances. If my health permitted I would leave it all to travel to the hills and far off places. Even money would not be an issue then as travel requires less expenditure than tourism. For many years we took road journeys to different places and then it all stopped. The relationship with the mountains became a distant love affair. Both of us pining for each other but hardly meeting. After the Shimla, Mashobra, Tatta Pani trip I was longing for the hills again but the mundane routines of urban life weren’t loosening their grip.

Ranikhet and nearby lake towns of Bhimtaal, Saatal and Naukuchiyatal were on our mind since some time. Finally on a bright spring morning we drove towards an adventure of a lifetime.  We were going to this area after a gap of 13 long years.

This is the first post of the three part series on our journey to the Uttarakhand mountains.

It takes 7-8 hours to reach Ranikhet which is about 350 Km from Delhi. The roads are much better than what I saw earlier and driving is mostly smooth if you leave early in the morning. We started at around 6.30 and were there by 2.30 in the afternoon. Fortunately we did not encounter any traffic jams. We decided to take the route via Hupur- Garh Mukteshwar- Gajraula- Moradabad Bypass towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur, Pant Nagar and Haldwani.

There is an alternate route also via Kashipur- Ramnagar (Corbett), Mohaan, Taarikhet  onward. This route is less crowded than the one we took and more scenic too.

Traffic can slow you down for hours sometimes at Brij Ghat at Garhmukteshwar especially if there is some religious festival on the day of your travel. It is the closest to Ganges one can get from Delhi. After that the drive is usually smooth.

We Stopped a little ahead of Garhmuktehwar for breakfast. I think it was somewhere near Gajroula. The dhaba was clean and the hot crisp Aaloo Parathas tasted  sumptuous with a dollop of butter, curds and mixed pickle.

Dhaba food is what one looks forward to while on highways and though this area isn’t flooded with dhabas that serve lip smacking food like when you travel to Chandigarh on NH22. Clean toilets and good food are two things one looks for while travelling. This place had both.

Dhabas are the lifeline of National Highways and every traveller has some favourite dhaba to talk about. We looked out for our favourite Amritsariyan da dhaba at Rudrapur but couldn’t spot it in the midst of all the new construction. Disappointed, I decided to simply gaze at the summer sky while Adi listened to the music .

Another thing was the absence of shops with boards advertising Chilled beer all through the National Highway. Those liquor shops have been shut down on govt. order  to prevent drunk driving. A good decision I thought. During hot summer days we used to often pick a few bottles from these shops but the person driving the car never drank. Frankly, I kind of missed it but what the heck we were headed for a different high altogether.

We took the Moradabad bypass (NH24) , continued to Rampur then turned left here towards Bilaspur, Rudrapur…

We didn’t go into the Rampur town which was immortalized by Jim Corbett for its verdant jungles. (Man Eaters of Kumaun).

As we neared Rampur – Rudrapur road I was amazed by the changes that had taken place in the last decade. The 68 Km of NH58 has considerably improved since I travelled last but urbanization has changed the serene landscape to an eyesore. After cruising through the periphery of Udham Singh Nagar district’s rolling green paddy fields one gets jolted at the sight of something like a chaotic miniature version of Gurgaon.

I was appalled to see stores of big brands, a huge mall, high rise buildings and swanky hotels along the road. The flatland of terai region is no more a dusty town that vanished in a blink of an eye as we zip past it.It is a concrete jungle in the rapidly developing foothills of Himalayas.  Instead of the wild leopards and tigers it now hosts the corporate tigers running this industrial hub. The place that once had paddy, sugarcane, wheat and soya fields adorning the landscape especially  from Bilaspur to Rudrapur now just has a few patches of green. At least it was heartening to see the locals selling guavas alongside the road. The few orchards were full of mango blossoms. I dreamed of luscious mangoes in the dripping heat and dozed off.

As one approaches Pantnagar one  is filled with the excitement of being close to the hills. The roads are usually crowded here and continue to be so till on crosses Kathgodam.  We made our way through the congested town of  Haldwani to reach Kathgodam from where the hills begin.

It is beyond this point that the drive becomes scenic and you get the first glimpse of the lower hills. The air changes considerably , becomes fresher and cooler.  The sight of the mountains is always exciting and we gazed at them with longing eyes, ready to be embraced by them.  Flowering trees, the simple mountain village folks, pretty houses and a long and winding road was such a joy to behold. Like children we chatted and pointed out different things  we noticed as the landscaped rolled past us. The sun was bright and warm but not torturous.

On the Bhimtal –Almora National Highway, just ahead of Bhowali, is the famous Kainchi Dham. The seat of Neem Koroli baba who was revered as an incarnation of Hanuman, of whom he was a devotee.

That was our first stop in the mountains. Not for the Ashram and temple but for our long time favourite Mohan Restaurant which is right across the temple complex.

Many people headed to Ranikhet and ahead stop here for delicious food and clean toilets in the little shopping complex on the temple side of the road. There are two hairpin scissor like bends on the road hence the name kainchi mod. (Kainchi – scissor, mod- bend)  Many celebrities like Julia Roberts, Marl Zukerburg and Steve Jobs came here to stay in search for Nirvana. Located at the banks of  the rivulet Shipra, which merges into Kosi river as it meanders northwards, this Ashram  is visited by thousands every year.  You can find more about it from Google.  I love the place for its scenic beauty. Tall conifers, green houses at some distance near the rivulet’s bed,  hundreds of birds and flowers make it such a blissful place. Even with the place being a stopover for many tourists and travellers for food etc the serene peaceful Kainchi mod and surrounding areas are so welcoming. You will find local villagers selling Plum, Peaches, Apricot and other seasonal fruits. There are a few small eating joints along the road.

 Mohan restaurant is one such  eating joint.  Unmistakable with its pink walled interior and a shed on top , the place is owned by a kumauni family.  In all the years that we have stopped at this place the quality of food hasn’t changed a bit. Simple, homely and delicious kala chana and pooti, Aaloo sabzi and poori, parathas, bhajia and tea, maggi and a few other things are part of the menu. They are all made fresh by the lady of the house. The highlight is the pahadi cucumber raita and tangy spiced up jalzeera or lemonade made with Hill Lemons (Khatta).

In season one can see trees laden with these hill limes at many places on the way and in the villages. The fruit is an integral part of the kumauni cuisine.  We had chana poori and raita and after freshened up. There are clean bathrooms available across the road. We needed to stretch our legs so we walked around the area soaking in the smells and sounds only mountains can offer.

Again on the road we crossed khairna bridge( there is a bifurcation here, one road leads to Almora and another  goes to Ranikhet), Garam Pani and other small villages with lovely houses. The winding road is well maintained and the view simply enchanting. Look to your left for a magical view of green knolls, terraced fields , meandering river  down in the valley, lush forests and cleanse your smoke choked lungs with the  sweet smelling cool mountain air…bliss.

Far from the madding crowd we were driving now among beautiful tall trees and wild wayside flowers. The valley below to our left was bathed in sunlight and looked absolutely gorgeous.

Soon the sign boards and toll point indicated that we were right at the threshold of the unique slope town of Ranikhet situated on the upper ridge of the lower Himalayas. We took the higher of the two ridges flanking Ranikhet. The Chaubatia ridge, among orchards and old churches, has the army cantonment where we were going to stay for the next few days. Within minutes we were outside a lovely British style cottage which would be our home for the next few days.

It was a lovely day and we were ready to explore our favorite haunts.

We will continue with our adventure in the next part of the series. Keep watching this space.

Monday Memories 8 – Chaubatia Gardens – A View From The Top


“The animals have the right of way” 

A signboard greeted us as we drove towards the famous Chaubatia Orchards 10 Km. from the town of Ranikhet. The gentle drizzle,  the breeze carrying the scent of sweet pine on its back, the call of Blue Whistling Thrush was not something new to us but each trip on this long and winding road brought a new sense of adventure.

While Kid 1 studied at Birla Memorial School in Majhkhali , we visited Ranikhet at least two to three times a year  and  always explored places nearby. Most of the time our stay was complimentary at the Army mess located away from the hustle bustle of the main town.

Chaubatia Orchards have around 200 variety of fruits and flowers trees , some of them exotic and rare. The place also had the Government Apple Garden and The Fruit Research Center. Surrounded by silver oak, rhododendron, cypress, cedar,  and pine forests this is one of the most beautiful spot in that entire area. One can trek or cycle through the quiet road leading to the orchards in the midst  a serene silence sometimes broken by a bird call.  We have been to Chaubatia in almost all seasons except deep winter and each time the experience is more exhilarating than the earlier.

On a clear day a panoramic  300 km wide view of the snow-clad peaks of Nanda Devi, Nilkanth, Nandaghunti, and Trishul can be seen at the horizon. One can sit there watching the gorgeous mountains from dusk to dawn and not tire of the sight. Chaubatia once had more than 36 variety of apples but due to lack of funds and mismanagement most of them are extinct now. The other fruit trees include peaches, plums, and apricots. In September – October the place becomes a paradise for bird watchers. One can find the Himalayan bulbul, Oriental whiteye Brown fronted woodpecker, Long tailed minivet and some other of the same species, Himalayan woodpecker, Black headed jay, Blue whistling thrush, White throated kingfisher, variety of tits, Owlets, finches, Red headed vultures, wagtails, Barbets and many other species.

Spread over the area of 265 acres the orchards look majestic during these seasons. We would often carry our picnic basket and relax there, taking in the scintillating  beauty of the place. During our visits we met a local guide who took us on a tour of the orchards explaining about  diversity of flora and fauna there. I saw a tree whose leaves smelled of five different spices. It is amazing how they have grafted various plants. There were many herbs and medicinal plants that I saw for the first time.

On one occasion we took a two and a half hour trek to Bhalu Dam which was constructed by a British Viceroy some 200 years ago to source water for the town..  The route to the dam is precarious and one has to be extra careful during rains but once you reach the spot  the majestic sight of the mighty Himalayas in all their virgin glory is mind-blowing.  It was a trek worth doing though the path was slippery and not maintained at all. Maybe that’s the reason few tourists venture in that area and the pristine beauty is retained even now. It had rained all morning and just as we returned to Chaubatia the sun made and appearance and with that a spectacular rainbow stretched itself lazily across the valley . An unforgettable sight with a backdrop of mountains draped in mysterious shimmer of haze. Spellbound we sat on the bounders watching the stairway to heaven as it slowly dissolved in the mist that enveloped the valley below.  The raindrops precariously hung on pine leaves , each one a prism of nature’s magnificence .

There are so many memories attached to Ranikhet and Chaubatia Gardens. The laughter of children , the sharing of silence between friends, the conversations over hot tea and bhajias, the digging into ripe luscious fruits and soaking in the gorgeous view around. Priceless.

There were times when we would take small trails into the pine forest and immerse ourselves in the serenity that city life lacks. There i  a certain energy that seeps through you when you interact with nature at a close level and it is healing in more than one ways. Maybe this is what one calls escape into nothingness. Where you are one with creation and nothing else matters. The entire 2,116 mts of chubatia ridge which along with the Ranikhet ridge makes the quaint town of Ranikhet has a scenic charm that can draw you like a magnet.

Sometimes the bells of  ancient 8th century AD Jhooladevi temple  of Goddess Durga would echo in the quietness of  cool evening filling the nearby forest with a musical melody.  Local people believe that Ma Durga fulfills the wishes if one prays at this temple with a pios heart. Once the wishes are fulfilled devotees tie bells there. One can view hundreds of beautiful bells hanging there. They believe the temple acts as a protective shield from wild animals. I am not a religious person but the  aesthetic beauty of this ancient temple is worth seeing. There is a little tea stall a little ahead of the temple and we would often sit there at the side of the road watching the day merge into the night and the changing colors of the sky.

I watched many a sunsets with my son here and I guess every one of them was as spectacular as the other. Those trips to Ranikhet were always filled with mixed emotions. A joy of meeting and a pain of parting with a hope that made all the difference to living each day.

I have not been there since Adi came back to Delhi but my heart is still wandering in those forests and beautiful hills with a carpet of mossy green over them.

Someday I wish to take that route again and venture ahead to Mukteshwar and some other places high up. I always regretted not taking my camera during those journeys but I guess some of the best images are those that are in our hearts. No camera can capture their beauty.

 

Monday Memories 7 – Kumaon Hills and Local Cuisine


I have traveled extensively in the hills of Kumaon in Uttarakhand and the beauty of the landscape of this sub-Himalayan region is breathtaking.  From Nainital, Almora, Haldwani, Binsar, Kausani, mukteshwar , Ranikhet and to Jagewshwar it is a remarkable road journey. I have yet to go explore Pithoragarh and many other virgin places nestled in the ethereal Himalayas.

Most of my visits were in and around Nainital and Almora districts.   Apart from exploring he places yet to be exploited by tourists we always looked for authentic Kumaouni cuisine. Unlike other states one can not find a single place which serves the local cuisine. At least we could not find it in all our visits. As one goes up to Almora one can eat the delicious local sweets (mithai) . Almora is famous for its Bal -Mithai , a fudge made from milk and dotted with tiny sugar balls. Without the sugar balls it is simply known as chocolate maybe because of its chocolate color. Bal Mithai is available throughout the region but noting compares to the one you get in Almora. Among other sweets my favorites are  halwa (semolina pudding), she pooas, singhal. All these are traditional preparations which are available in the sweet-shops in Almora. Another very interesting and delicious sweet is milk based  singodi  which is served wrapped in fresh green leaves of the local oak tree. Unbeatable for its taste I love it the most.

During one of our visits to the cantonment town of Ranikhet which had become our routine destination for five years while my elder son studies in Birla Boys School I decided to find some source of local cuisine.  A  small quaint café along the road to the golf course had become one of our favorite joint to watch the gorgeous  western Himalayas on one side and the vast green landscape on the other side. We would usually go there for either breakfast or evening tea and laze around in the small clearing where the owner had placed picnic tables and chairs. Not many people stopped by there so it was perfect place to spend some time together. Usually there were friends with us  and that made the little outing even more fun. We would split and go for walks while others would just gaze endlessly at the serene surroundings.

One day the owner joined us for tea and his stories  ranged from tigers to tourists and his plans about the food joint he dreamed of having someday. I just casually asked him if there was a place which served local cuisine. Amazed how I knew the names of local dishes he got interested and I told him about my association with the place. Was it nostalgia or just an overwhelming pride to serve the food of his region the man offered to specially cook the next day’s lunch for us. I was so excited that we planned a menu together and as it was a special request he asked us to pay some amount in advance in case we do not arrive at the café for lunch. I had to coax the rest of the group to agree and we paid up.

The lunch he prepared was unforgettable. It was after ages I had tasted something so delicious and it had just the perfect blend of spices and local products. The food is simple, mainly vegetarian and highly nutritious. The region has forests of Oak , Deodar ,Sal and Sweet Pine  coupled with terrace farming and trees of fruits like apples, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, apricots which grow in abundance there.  Rice is an essential part of every meal.

Our food was cooked over a charcoal or wood fire in iron utensils. Bhatt (a variety of Soyabean but black in color was used in some of the preparations. Another rust brown lentil  called gahat which is known as kulath in Himachal and Maharashtra was also used as sar or clear soup and made into a delicious traditional dal. We were served badis made from large cucumbers which are typical of that region or from petha ( green pumpkin) . These savory little delights are prepared , dried and stored in summer and used as staple diet when fresh greens and vegetables which are not available in the winter. They provide a good source of nutrition along with Bhatt and gahat when the cold sets in. The most amazing preparation was aaloo ka gutka,  a potato preparation infused with a Tibetan herb called jumboo, red chillies, cummin seeds and hing. The locals also use another interesting spice called Bhanga (hash seeds) to temper yogurt and some other dishes like Iye , a kind of green leafy vegetable similar to Chinese Mustard . It provides a unique flavor and aroma to the dish. We had some amazing apricot chutney and Bhaang chutney with our food. in the dessert we had Jhangora kheer , a pudding made from millet. The taste of this sweet dish still lingers in the memory.

It was such a heartwarming experience to be served authentic local cuisine in a home like environment and to be appreciated for appreciating the  food and culture of those simple loving people. No food from any swanky restaurant can replace the taste and aromas of that meal we had. We invited the owner to share the meal with us but he refused saying he was the host and for him the guests are like gods so he can’t eat with us but he did tell us a lot of interesting stories about the food and other traditions of the particular region. It was worth every rupee.

The owner also gave us some of the spices and herbs as a token. I used them at home in many preparation for a long time.

There is nothing like experimenting with the local cuisine when travelling. I wonder if the café is still there or if one can still get the local food anywhere apart from the kitchens of local residents. I am glad I was able to introduce my friend and children to such a lavish   lunch. Something they may never experience again.

Now  that we are talking of food in Ranikhet one can not forget the mouth-watering chocolate Eclairs and cakes of Pathak Bakery on Thandi Sadak. Adi and I had some memorable times digging into the finest , freshest bakery products made in a wood oven. On one occasion we even braved the morning rain and cold to sneak out to the bakery and have a hot cup of flavored tea with freshly made biscuits. Simple pleasures of life and the moments made unforgettable by the bonding you share with the one you love.