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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

Travel Diary – Part -2 – Kinner Camps Sangla And A Visit To Chitkul


Continued from –  Travel Diary – part -1 

Kinner Camps Sangla – 2,800 meters 

I woke up to the bird calls and checked my watch. It was still very early in the morning. Inhaling the fresh fragrant mountain air I stretched and gazed admiringly at the “posh camping” we were experiencing at Kinner camp at about 2800m. The Swiss tent had cozy beds , a clean attached toilet and the sight of my little one snuggled inside a warm quilt made me extremely happy. I tiptoed out into the clear daylight and the view simply took my breath away. Surrounded by the high mountains of Greater Himalayas from all sides the camp site was one of the most beautiful I had stayed in all those years. Twenty sleepy Swiss style luxury tents  stood in the midst of flower beds and dewy grass. Neat pathways lined with pebbles on both sides led to each tent and to the kitchen and dining area. A lovely patchwork on the ground. I walked up to a big boulder and sat there, silently taking in the view. I could hear the Baspa river gushing down the valley and felt like going for a walk to meet its sparkling waters but the rest of the group was in deep slumber and I didn’t want anyone to panic on not finding me there when they woke up.

So, barefoot I walked around inside the camp connecting with the earth’s energy . Major ( the friendly resident dog) came up to greet and trotted along.

The location of kinner camp at Sangla is just perfect. Nestled between the apple orchards with the river running just a few yards away, the campsite has a huge jagged mountain at the back which protects it from direct sunlight and in the front are snow-clad peaks and the river.

I watched the snow peaks slowly waking up to life with a blush as the sun rose in the sky. It was a great day to take nature walks and explore the lush green forests of cedar and pine, with the magnificent Kinner Kailash peak towering over the quaint village and campsite.

Kinner camp is managed  by professional team of locals headed by Mr. Pradeep Negi. A wonderful person with years of experience about the terrain and culture of that area. it was through him we had arranged this whole trip. As the days passed we experience the best of hospitality, food, knowledge about the fragile Himalayan eco system and the efforts of Mr. Negi and others in preserving the local kinnauri culture and lifestyle. We also came to know about their work in balancing the rapid imbalance of ecology happening in that area especially due to the building of dams.

The jagged sunrays, uncommon colorful birds and crisp cool breeze filtering through the trees led me to the clearing behind the dining area from where I could watch the Baspa thundering through the boulders. The icy water cascading down from the snowy peaks of the northern Himalayas. On the other side the landscape was green and inviting. I spotted a few birds like the Himalayan whistling thrush, Sun Birds and Barbets chirping merrily on the trees in and around the campsite.

The time had stood still till I heard a familiar voice informing me that the kid was awake and needed breakfast.

After a quick shower and super delicious breakfast we discussed about the possible local trails and sightseeing around the area. It was election time and the village road was abuzz with sounds of vehicles and campaigning.

Some people from the group were still rattled by the last night’s adventure and wanted to relax, the kid was excited about the dog, food and back rides and I, who didn’t want to sit around and laze, was spoilt for choices.  A village trip seemed like a great idea. We sat watching the meandering river from the road talking to Mr.Negi about various things and then trotted off to the village remunerating about the place where Gods once lived.

Women is kinnauri attire went about their daily business around their beautiful wooden houses with slate roofs. The kinnauri homes are built in traditional Kath-Kuni style in which the alternate layers of wood and stone are used in masonry work. Each an architectural wonder.

Kids, happy to tag along and get clicked, posed with smiling faces and the men watched the world go round as they sat smoking in groups or kept an eye on their livestock grazing on fresh grass.

A hot cup of Himachali tea warmed my fingers as I soaked up the flavors of Kinnaur. I could see the influence of Buddhism on their lifestyle because of the close proximity to Tibet.

We returned to the camp for lunch, a scrumptious spread laid out by the camp kitchen. Courteous staff and finger linking food is one of the plus points of Kinner Camps.

A few of us wanted to doze off. Seriously? How can anyone not want to go down to the river? I wondered. The temptation was too much to resist.

After lingering around the camp looking at various medicinal plants and other exotic trees and vegetation of that area finally we made it to the river. A large coke bottle filled with a pre mix of old monk and cola was stacked neatly in the sand between two rocks in the icy water. Each one of us found their place for a private commune with nature.

The effect was spellbinding and trust me no picture or video can give you a true experience of what it is like to be there in the middle of enchanting beauty and silence.

We sat there beside the roaring Baspa till the sunlight began to fade. Sipping the fiery mix from the bottle now and then to keep us warm. I had my Handy Cam switched on to capture the scenic beauty as closely as possible but at times you just want to switch off and blend into the serene calm around you. That’s what I did.

It began to get cold and we decided to make our way back to the camp. We had already asked Mr. Negi to give us a guide to cross the river and go to Batseri village. I was also looking forward to the walks through  the forest and meadows. As we had only three days we  could not undertake any hikes or explore other villages like Kamru, Nako and Kalpa. Chitkul was of course an exception.

We relaxed before the dinner discussing various things and enjoying the carefree time with each other which is usually a rarity in the hustle bustle of Delhi. I was thrilled beyond measures to be there and missed my elder son who would have been a perfect companion for nature trails and other adventures. None of the other adults were too keen to step out of luxury that the camp offered and the kiddo was too small for such impromptu adventures.

After dinning under the starlit sky we circled around a campfire with our drinks and smoke listening to the night sounds and watched the moon glide over the mountains. It was a blessing to have a clear night. I had forgotten how a star-studded sky actually looked. Words cannot describe the beauty of that first night at Sangla.

It reminded me of another night in the mountains, the YHAI trekking camp at Kasol. The rich night sky, wind’s hushed whispers to the trees, moonlit mountainsides, sounds of cricket and crackling fire keeping me warm. We stayed up late that night and when the fire began to die we headed back to the tents. The kid was fast asleep in the comforts of his bed.

Sleep took over soon with a promise of another day of exploring the spectacular terrain. We woke up early and after breakfast headed straight to the river to venture into what lay across its raging waters. Mr. Negi had provided us with packed food and a trained guide who told us about the stories , myths and facts about the Kinnaur and Baspa valley. The rickety wooden bridge unfortunately was broken and half-submerged in the river. All our plan to get across drowned then and there. Though the guide said we could still go across no one wanted to risk the rapid  flow of Baspa. We walked along the river side for a long distance and the guide pointed out many glaciers and known hiking trails along the mountains. He also showed us some rare flora and fauna typical of that region. We had our food beside the river and returned to the camp through another path in the meadows.

That afternoon the group split and some of us decided to go to Chitkul. I left the little boy in the care of a friend who wanted to explore the area for medicinal herbs and shilajeet.

Three of us got into the car to go to the last inhabited village near the Indo-Tibetan border. Chitkul is the first village of Baspa valley and last on the old Hindustan -Tibet road. It is also the last point in India where you can go without a permit. Tibet lies across the Zaskar peaks in the east, while the peaks of Greater Himalayas cross between the Zaskar and the Dhauladhar ranges and pass through the middle of Kinnaur. I certainly want to explore that entire region before it’s too late to travel.

Chitkul – A visit to the last Fairytale Village bordering Tibet

The 26 km road from Sangla to Chitkul (3,450m) passed through an unforgettable landscape of cold desert mountains, snow-clad peaks, lush rolling greens and farmlands. Way down in valley we could see Baspa slithering silently.

The moment we left Sangla it seemed we had stepped into a fairytale. Though I had been to many virgin places in Himachal and Uttaranchal but this was the most spectacular drive so far. Known for its scenic beauty Chitkul is also a junction for many trek routes. The weather was cool and there was no sign of clouds though we could see them wandering over the higher ranges. The landscape dramatically changed as we drove along the serpentine road. We did not stop at Rakcham as we wanted to spend more time at Chitkul but we spotted many farmers and Shepherds  in the sparsely populated village. The architectural beauty of the wooden houses was enhanced by the surrounding potato fields, wild flowers, mossy pastures, grasslands and a scenic backdrop of mighty mountains. I felt like Alice in wonderland.

From the height we were travelling the cattle grazing in the valley were just black and white dots a carpet of green The road was a bit treacherous from Rakcham to Chitkul and resembled a dirt track. Many streams cut across the road and one had to carefully navigate through them.

We stopped at  ITBP check post at Mastarang crossing which lies along a  beautiful stream flowing through a small Pine Forest The stream flowed right across the road and stepped out of the car to soak in the sweet-scented air. The slope on the right side of the road was dotted with flowers. The water was cold and each polished pebble that lay at its base told an unspoken story. The clock was ticking and we had to move on. I made a promise to myself to visit again for a longer period. This is not a place for a quick visit. A large group of mountain goats and sheep greeted us a little ahead. A young shepherd gave us the way waving and smiling at us. A picture of a happy and content life. Matarang is another beautiful valley of Kinnaur district and a place that can hold you captive with its virgin beauty.

I had never seen such beautiful colors of the sky. The late noon sun was milder now and the air was getting crisper with chill. Perennial glaciers that feed the river shimmered like gold and the shadows were lengthening on the mountain ranges. It was a surreal experience to say the least.

We saw a gate welcoming us to Chitkul. We had reached our destination. At 11,320 feet I was in a dreamland. We stopped our car in a clearing near ITBP check post. There were not many people around and the wind had gathered momentum. At that moment nothing mattered. The cold did not bother me as I walked around the village that was too beautiful to be true. An ITBP personnel told us about the history and significance of the strategically located village. He pointed to where the road ended almost half a kilometer ahead. One could see the old group of blue tin roofed ITBP barracks. The road closed 90 km before the China border.

We drove to that point and watched the valley open up in front of us in all its splendor. The sky by now was a pallet of unimaginable colors. Till now I had the movie camera recording each moment. Somehow it didn’t seem right to look at the beauty through the viewfinder and I switched it off.

Sitting on a rock I sipped the hot sweet milky tea as the men talked to the people around. I needed to be with myself. The teashop also sold hot Maggi like many others in that area so we ordered that too just to keep us warm. The steaming noodles full of flavorful veggies tasted excellent.

Rapidly the temperature changed to icy cold and the strong wind added to the discomfort. The villagers, unperturbed by the freezing cold, went about their daily routine. The women were remarkably beautiful in their traditional attire. Many wore the traditional silver jewelry and colorful scarves. Almost all the men wore colorful kinnauri caps.  I noticed that everyone had a smile on their faces.

We walked in silence observing the wooden houses, a small monastery, Kagyupa Buddhist temple, an exquisitely carved temple of a local deity and a rare treat – a water-mill. I had not seen one since my YHAI trek in Parvati Valley. It was a small one built right at the stream. The wooden mill was perched on big stones stacked on top of each other and had a tin roof. A few rocks were placed on the roof to prevent it from flying off in strong wind. The old wooden door  was bolted and plies of firewood were stacked behind the mill.

It was closed so we walked ahead to the govt. school  and gram panchayat buildings. The sides of the roads were piled with river stones. A lot of firewood was stacked near each house.  We also saw many small grain storage huts. The use of tin for roofs  increased in past few years and there were many cemented buildings too though the old world charm of the ancient village was  still alive. This colorful small village of Chitkul,with just a population of  around 610,  is a National heritage village and rightly so.

The valley looked beautiful from where we stood. The banks of Baspa river covered with pebbles of all sizes and shapes gave it a unique perspective.

We bid adieu to the charming village and drove back to our camp taking with us unforgettable memories. The view that  lay ahead of the tricky bend we maneuvered was simply out of the world. No sunset ever could match the one we saw that day. The image has stayed with me since then. Shades of magenta, pinks, crimson, cream, blue  and gold filled the sky in front of us. It was difficult to take the eyes off.  I hurriedly switched on the handycam to capture the miracle unfolding there.

I wish I had some still shots to share but even they could not have brought the splendor of that day. The blushing snow peaks, the deep shadows , the clouds and the molten gold made the drive a magical experience.

On reaching the camp we saw  one of our friends waiting anxiously for us. She told that the kid had his own adventure hike and followed her husband on steep climb without his knowledge. Now both sat on a rock jutting out from the rugged face of the mountain near the road. The furious Baspa flowing right below. It was a sheer drop if any of them slipped. The camp dog was right there guarding them and he began to bark as we approached the scene. For a moment I did not know whether to cry or laugh. There on the rock sat my little son clinging on to our friend. He, however, was rattled and held tightly to whatever he could hold on to. This was the first time he had come on such a trip and obviously this episode had shaken him completely. Slowly they got down finding footholds on crumbling muddy gaps between the rocks. He heaved a sigh of relief and in one breath narrated the incident. The kiddo seemed happy at his achievement and happily settled in his dad’s lap.

Now that the fiasco was over we went to the camp and had an early dinner and then sat around the campfire , happily listening to the local stories from the staff. We roasted some locally grown potatoes in fire and had them when they were still hot. Kinnaur is known for its potatoes among other things.

It was a cold full moon night and everyone just relaxed with a drink or smoke.  When the wind began to rise we decided to move into the tents. We all gathered in one tent and decided to play chess. As the two men from the group played we watched and cheered. Everyone was a little too happy and  the locally brewed alcoholic drinks made the night even more cheerful. The alcohol is distilled from grapes, apple, pear, barley and wheat. The kids slept soundly, his father stepped out to meditate and watch the moon glide through the sky. I stayed inside engrossed in the game that was taking longer than usual time. Sleep was slowly casting its spell on us and we wrapped up for the night at about two o’clock.

It was our last night there and we all needed sleep before the long journey back home. We woke up early, packed our bags and took leave from the ever courteous staff of Kinner Camp. Mr. Negi had been a very generous host and after thanking him for the hospitality we began our journey on the road we had travelled at night while coming. For the first time we realized what could have happened to us had we run into trouble that night. The sheer magnificence of the old silk route took our breath away. We could now see why it is called “the deadliest road” in the world. Full of hairpin bends, blind curves, the C-shaped incisions in the overhanging cliffs and the broken patches of the road and the dumper trucks that resembled dinky toy vehicles fallen into the valley were enough to tell us never ever to drive on it at night. The road looked like a ledge cut out on the bare rock face of the mountain. The sight of deep Sutlej Gorge in daylight scarred the wits out of us. I remembered how we had mistaken a broken section of bridge for a road and as I peered into the gorge I knew exactly where our pieces would have been scattered. We stopped at the shrines on the way and this time made sure to take the right road to Shimla and from there to the sweltering heat of Delhi.

 

Recommended Reading – 

bNomadic –  On road through the trans-Himalayan Region 

All about Chitkul 

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.)

Travel Guide: The Valley of Flowers National Park, A Himalayan Treasure


The enchanting Valley of Flowers National Park is nestled at the altitude of 3,250 m. to 6,750 m. above the sea level in Chamoli district of Garhwal hills of Uttaranchal. The reference to this secluded heaven can be found in ancient Indian literature like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In Indian mythology the valley was named valley as ‘Nandan Kanan’ (the Garden of Lord Indra, the king of Gods). It has many stories attached to it and is revered by Sikhs as well as Hindus.

Full of Silver birches, sparking brooks, gushing streams and flowery pastures, this beautiful valley is protested by magnificent snow peaks. For many centuries advent of summer brought riots of colors to this frozen valley with millions of flowers adding to the beauty of the place. Untouched by humans, the valley only came into focus when mountaineer, botanist, and explorer Frank Smith discovered it in 1931.

Valley of flowers which stretches over expanse of 87.5 sq km was considered by the locals to be inhabited by the fairies and nymphs soon became a National Park and a World Heritage Sight. The local Shepard grazed their sheep there but the place was generally avoided by locals to keep its serenity and celestial magic alive.

It has a heterogeneous landscape which ranges from low-lying plains to steep slopes, forest meadows and stream banks and also snow bound areas.
The soft sensuous fragrance of exotic flowers, rare birds, verdant plains and pure fresh air makes it one of the most sought after places for nature enthusiast, botanists, zoologists, ornithologists, and trekkers.

This U shape alpine valley is a result of retreating glaciers. June marks the beginning of splendor. Many exquisite flowers like the Brahmakamal (Saussurea obvallata), the Blue Himalayan Poppy, the Cobra Lily, Straw berries and Rhododendron, Aster, Morina, Marsh Marigold, Geranium, Calendulas, Daisies, Sun Flowers, Delphinium, and thousands of Marsh orchids are some of flowering plants found here. Arum is one of the most stunning flowers flower found here. With its cobra like head it grows in isolated colonies and can be spotted from a distance. Brahmakamal is a cream color flower with brown and red stamens in the center. These flowers grow up to six to eight inches and has lotus like petals.

Delicately graceful blue poppies grow along the banks of Pushpavati River giving it a magical look. “The Nag Tal” or the Poisonous patch near the left bank of this river has a variety of poisonous plants which can prove to be fatal if touched, crushed or smelled. Visitors are advised to lay off these flowers. Wild roses grow in abundance all over along with hundreds of other plants, some 500 species, which are native of this valley only. The Valley is also known as the Scotland of India for its immense variety of flowers. Many of he flowers have medicinal value.

Apart from the flowers one can find a huge variety of insects, butterflies, birds and animals like Musk Dears, Snow Leopard, red fox, Mountain Goats, and Himalayan Bears etc. Among the birds one can see the Snow Partridge, Himalayan Golden Eagle, Snow Pigeon, Himalayan Monal, Griffon Vulture, Himalayan Snow Cock, Sparrows and Hawk.

The valley opens for tourists from late April when the snow melts and the warmth of the sun brings out innumerable shoots of flowering plants. The whole valley pulsates with life with high altitude alpine flowers and the scenic beauty of the valley is worth viewing. Approaching Monsoon and the moist turf provides the plants to burst into colors as the season advances into summer.

The heavenly French blue of the Primula covers the terraces. Its soft scent and dew covered petals fills one with such awe and wonder. White Anemones fill the verdant meadows and the valley is dotted with pink, red, violet colors along with the yellow, purple and white colors of the season

Valley of flowers is at its best from July to August and the sight is magical at this time. As the new varieties of yellow flowers mingle with the earlier ones and the aroma drifts with the gentle monsoon breeze through out the valley, one can not but admire the gift nature has given us in such abundance.

In September, with the coming of autumn, the plants stat to pod and brown becomes the dominating color. Soon the crystal clean rain washed mountain ranges where sparkling streams flow into sun-kissed pastures, gets ready to be covered in spotless snow-white.

The trees especially Oaks, Blue Pines and the rare Birch trees (known as Bhojpatra, the bark of these trees was used for writing scriptures) get covered with ferns and look stunning. Asmanda fern can be found here in abundance unlike other Himalayan valleys.

As there are no tracks for walking in the valley, one has to wade through the knee-high flowers or stand on a vantage point to inhale the subtle fragrance and view the glory of the Valley of Flowers in its full splendor.

The area is perfect for trekking and as one crosses the Lakshman Ganga ‘Forget -me- not’, roses and Primulas greet us amidst shrubs and thick foliage along the track.

One has to cross the serene and beautiful Alakhnanda River (a tributary of Ganges) on a hanging Bridge to reach Govind Ghat from where the 14Km.trek to Ghanghria begins. The mule track takes one through the terraces and dense vegetation. A breathtaking Lakshman Ganga cascades down to meet the Alakhnanda around Pulna and from here the real trek starts.

On the journey from Pulna to Bhyundar village one comes across cool cascading water falls and marvelous scenic beauty. Amidst the flaming red, rosy pink and green shrubs one can stop for a hot cup of tea at the many tea stalls. From Bhyundar the trek to Valley of flowers along the Lakshman Ganga takes you in an enchanting world of nature’s splendors.

Ghanghria is the base camp for pilgrims headed for Hemkund Sahib and for tourists who want to walk the trails to Valley of Flowers. Camping is not permitted in the Valley of Flowers. Even ponies are not allowed so one has to walk through along the serpentine trails shaded by green mossy trees.

A log bridge, 3 Km. from Ghanghria marks the route to the Valley of flowers. 400 ft. downstream the Laxman Ganga meets the Pushpavati River. Glacier bridges can be seen at many places over the river but they are too dangerous to use for crossing over. Flanked by majestic Himalayas, the Valley of flowers is mainly on the east-west direction of the mighty river. All visitors have to get an entry permit at a nominal fee available at the Forest Check post at the entrance to the park. The pass is valid for three days. One also needs a special permit to carry any kind of photographic equipment.

One can take the Rishikesh, Srinagar route or the Haldwani, Ranikhet, Karna Prayag route to reach Govind Ghat.

A visit to the Valley of Flowers provides a great opportunity to learn about the rich diversity of flora and fauna. So listen to the bird songs, watch the rare exotic flowers, experience  tranquility and peace and set your spirit free in this paradise set in the Western Himalayas.

Patal Bhubaneshwar: A Gateway to the Belly of Earth


My thirst for travel took me to one of the most amazing ancient creations in the Himalayas. A legendary cave complex is full of natural stalagmites and stalactites which is a must watch for any traveler to this region. The caves are made of limestone.

We were staying in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand when the wanderlust lured us to this beautiful place called Patal Bhubaneshwar situated at the height of 1350meters in Pithoragar district known as “Dev Bhumi” (abode of Gods) and “little Kashmir” for its virgin natural beauty. Its distance from Ranikhet is 115km. and the nearest town is Gangolihat. The drive is awesome as the roads are smooth and the view captivating.

Mesmerizing landscape, exotic flowers, the sweet scent of pine and mighty Oak trees were the first welcoming sights as we maneuvered the twisting, turning, dusty so called road from the main town. We had gathered enough information and were really excited to see the nature’s wonders.

Patal Bhubaneshwar (Patal means Hell) is an ancient cave temple complex, a subterranean shrine of Shiva. The place was retrieved by Adi Shankaracharya in around 8th or 10th Century A.D. It is believed to be the replica of the mythical underworld of Hindu religion. One has to go through a narrow tunnel to view the underground stone carvings. It is about 200steps and straight 90 ft down. The place is said to be abode of thirty-three billion Hindu Gods and Goddesses.

We had to crawl in a single line by holding the protective chains through a very narrow crevice to reach the cave. The lights are feeble and Photography in any form is not allowed inside the cave so one has to see it to believe it.
The whole place is enshrined in mystery and mythology. I was enchanted by the giant birds, serpents, ghostly figures and human forms which looked so seemingly alive. It was a sight I will never forget. We were bare feet as shoes are not allowed and the slippery ribbed floor gave us an eerie feeling. I thanked my stars that we had an ASI guide with us, for the place sure gave me goose bumps. The only drawback of having him around was the constant flow of legends and stories which distracted us from observing the amazing beauty of the place.

The main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and one can also see the Narsimh (half lion half human) incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Legends say that Lord Bramha comes to this place with the other gods to worship Lord Shiva who resides in this place. A little ahead is the natural rock formation of Sheshnag holding the heaven, the earth and the world beneath. There is a thin stream of water along the tunnel. One has to go through several small caves to reach the sprawling interiors. Each cave unmasks some deep secret buried in its belly. The lime stone stalagmites that emerge from the walls all over the complex are known as the Jatas (locks) of Lord Shiva.

The sanctum sanatorium gives you the feeling of being at the center of the earth. It is said that the tunnel is the backbone of Sheshnag the mythological serpent God with thousand heads. As we reached the middle of the cave we found a beautiful Ganesh statue. There was a lotus flower engraved on the ceiling right above it and water tricking from the lotus fell directly on Lord Ganesh’s head. The water made different shapes and the legend says that these shapes are that of various Gods and Goddesses from Hindu Mythology.

The cave has the replicas of Badrinath, Kedarnath and other four important religious places and due to this it is highly revered by the Hindus. The place also has some features from the Indian Epic Mahabharata. It is believed that the Pandavas stayed and meditated here during their last journey to the Himalayas.

The priests of this complex, who have been part of the shrine for more than twenty generations, are a treasure-house of legends, folklore, anecdotes and information about this holy place.

Some of the stone carvings of Gods and Goddesses depict them in erotic forms. It sure proved to be a surreal experience. The sheer unspoiled charm of the area that surrounds these wonders is awe inspiring.

After this breathtaking experience we came out to inhale the fresh air fragrant with the scent of incense sticks and flowers. We decided to walk about the place and after going just a little further got a spectacular view of Himalayas stretching over the horizon. It was an enchanting view
of almost 600 km long mountain range stretching end to end from Garhwal to Nepal. Apart from the magnificent mountains our hearts were also captivated by the terraced fields and houses in the valley.

A hike in the Deodar forest revealed tiny caves scattered here and there that were the mini replicas of the big cave. It was a journey worth taking and we enjoyed every moment of it.

The evening sun was in its splendor and we relaxed on the green carpet of soft grass to enjoy the most beautiful sunset we had ever seen. It was also our last one for the trip. Filled with nostalgia and awe we drove back to Ranikhet. Silently watching the dark misty landscape.

The whole experience left unforgettable memories in our hearts.