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 – 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.

Travel Memoir : A Drive Through Clouds


Enchanting Himalayas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathtaking Jageshwar


 

With a passion for driving and a desire to explore new places, we decided to explore some untouched places around Ranikhet and Almora, region.
The whole area is dotted with remote picturesque places which can leave you asking for more .
We made Ranikhet as our base. The place has some power to hold you, be it any time of the season .It also is a second home to us so we could relax and workout which destination to select for a day trip .Jageshwar in Almora district came as a unanimous choice. A temple town buried deep in the heart of Himalayas.RANIKHET
AT 1829meters above sea level Ranikhet has the best combination of majestic Himalayas, lush green forests, hidden nature trails and lot of places of interest to visit. A
Perfect balance of old and new. It also offers an interesting mix of hill and military cultures. One can spend hours just admiring the majestic Bhagirathi peaks in the west to Nanda Kot in the east. The place has preserved its virginity and pristine charm
In every season there is something to come back to in this place ,be it the riot of colors in the skies during the sunset, variety of local flowers or trees laden with fruits of the season. The air is fresh and cool and one can enjoy the scenic beauty through mist and clouds and sun playing hide n seek among tall pine trees. Or one can add to the excitement with an evening of power packed volleyball or football matches between one of the stationed regiments, cheered by the local crowd.
An half an hour drive will take you to Chaubatia. The orchards famous for variety of exotic flora and delicious apples. The view is scintillating. The evenings are made even more serene by ringing bells of Herakhan and ancient Jhoola devi temples. A few kilometers from Ranikhet are the magnificent Kalika golf course.
The nights are also beautiful especially if it’s a full moon night. It casts a spell on you.
We decided to start early and packed some sandwiches for our two very exited kids. it was a great day for driving and we had a long way to go. We took the instructions from our army friends and set off to Almora reroute to Jageshwar.

ALMORA

Almora is nestled in the lap of nature with great view of Himalayas and lovely colorful houses built on the slopes, it also has great bio diversity. Famous for the local bal-mithai, Surrounded by thick pine forest, this place is unique in its traditions and culture.
Two lovely rivers Kosi and Suyal flow along Almora making it even more beautiful. Apart from the main Almora town one can go to BINSAR, JAGESHWAR, BAGESHWAR, BAIJNATH, AND GANNATH, known for its natural caves and Shiva temple. Almora is filled with scenic beauty and the town has maintained its ancient tradition which is different from other hill stations.

We filled the petrol tank full, as there is no petrol pump on the way to Jageshwar .The drive past the old Almora town, gliding on the long and winding road, was an experience I will remember for a long time .Lush green pine and fur forest on one side and deep enthralling valley with majestic Himalayan ranges as a backdrop lift us spellbound.
The fresh sweet smelling breeze brushing past the trees made a whistling sound, somewhere some bird call could be heard breaking the silence ,the small villages looked painted in rainbow colors ,full of vibrant seasonal flowers and bubbling brooks filled the us with awe.
A slight drizzle had started and the fragrance of the wet soil, mixed with the mountain air was intoxicating.
JAGESHWAR
It took us approximately three hours to reach pilgrimage town of Jageshwar, 5000 ft up in the Kumaon hills .As we approached the little settlement it seemed we have come in some other mythical world . Cluster of 150 Ancient Shiva temples made of gray stone built centuries ago, stood silently surrounded by the mesmerizing natural beauty.
The whole place gave me a feeling of spiritual calm and peace. Embellished with the tall deciduous deodar trees and winding river Jata Ganga, which finds its way to the side of the temple complex.
Jageshwar is the 8th Jyotirling among the twelve and has great religious value. Giant deodar trees stand as guards all across the area .the temples are of archaeological importance and one can spot signs put up by ASI everywhere.
The architecture of these temples especially the mritunjaya and jyotirlinga temples is worth a look the carvings ,the courtyard and ancient things like pots etc. brought out in excavations can kept us hooked for a long time. The archaeological museum has idols and exquisite statues dating 10th century. One can also take an excursion to virddha Jageshwar which is worth a look.
Apart from the religious aspect of the place one finds the old wooden houses pained carefully with vibrant colors and exquisitely carved panels all add to the glory of this place. The people are helpful and ever smiling. We stayed at Jageshwar for four hours and apart from offering prayers at al the temples, enjoyed the slight drizzle,a magnificent rainbow and cool water of the stream flowing nearby. It’s truly a magical experience which captivates you and holds you to the place.
With a heart filled with serenity, peace and calm we started our drive back to Ranikhet, pledging to return and stay longer.
On the way back we encountered a heavy downpour and driving through the rain on the serpent like road was an experience by itself. Visibility was poor but we had to go on to reach our destination before dark. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and we managed to reach Almora without any problem. Here we got some famous local mithai packed and had or much needed cup of sweet tea. As there was still a little time on our hand we decided to go down to Koshi River and spend some time enjoying the cool clear water. Children had great time playing with local kids, who were having a swimming competition .The water glittered with the golden rays of the setting sun and the beauty of the place increased manifolds.
We reached Ranikhet at night just in time for a good, home cooked meal, at the army guest house, where we were staying .The night was beautiful and cool and very quite. Here the nature’s beauty overwhelms you with its sheer abundance.
Though a very short trip we really enjoyed every moment of it .I would love to go back and spend a few days there exploring and reliving the enchanting experience.

The Corbett Tiger Reserve-An Introduction


This is an introduction to my visits to the most beautiful national park of northern India ..

Jungles can never run out of magic and awe and Corbett TR (Tiger Reserve) is Undoubtedly the most beautiful picturesque National Park in North and Central India, it is also India’s first National Park.. In 1957, the Park was renamed after Jim Corbett, the famed hunter-author-photographer-naturalist.
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Jim Corbett is famous for his exploits in the jungles of Nainital and Kumaon, where he shot many man-eaters. On the road to Nainital from the Park is Jim Corbett’s home, it’s now a museum.

The national Park is situated in the Himalayan foothills, amidst forested mountains that range from 400m (1,312ft) to 1,210m (3,970ft) in height. Ramganga river flows through the park creating breathtaking landscapes. Dhikala, Gairal and Bijrani are some of the main places to stay in the reserve. though Dhikala is popular spot for regular tourists ,Gairal is the place to stay for those who want to enjoy the serene beauty of the place

This awesome TR is just 300km to the northeast of Delhi and well connected by road.

Corbett National Park has more than 50 species of mammals, 585 species of birds and 25 species of reptiles, but the Park is known for its elephants and leopards, and unfortunately not its tigers. Many kinds of deer, namely chital (spotted deer), sambar (Indian stag), chinkara (Indian gazelle), pada (hog deer) and muntjac (barking deer) abound in the Park.Tiger sighting is rare, in spite of a lot of alarm calls from monkeys and deer. Elephant herds comprising tuskers, females and calves are commonly seen.An elephant herd with calves is perhaps the most dangerous encounter in the wild, for elephants are very possessive of their young and do not hesitate to charge at intruding human beings.Leopard sighting is even rarer than that of the tiger, as they confine themselves to the higher reaches of the Park. Other feline species found in the Park are leopard cats, jungle cats, the rare fishing cat, and caracal, to name a few. Sloth bears, wild boars, monkeys, dholes (wild dogs), jackals and ghorals (mountain goats) are also seen in the Park.
The aquatic reptile population in the Park consists of mugger (Crocodylus palustris) and gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) crocodiles, while Indian rock pythons, Russell’s vipers, cobras, king cobras and common kraits are some of the snakes found in the Park. Bird life includes parakeets, flycatchers, babblers, cuckoos, robins, bulbuls, Indian and Great Pied hornbills, warblers and finches.

Corbett national park provides invaluable experiences for adventurous and wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and anglers. Elephant rides for wildlife viewing, in the mornings and evenings or the jeep safari is the best as walking without permission is an offense.

Going into CORE AREA is prohibited and swimming is also not allowed in the Ramganga river due to the ghariyal population .

Apart from its enchanting wildlife, the park is also known for its diverse variety of flora.Ranging from the evergreen Sal to , Sheesam, dhak , bael and other flowering trees . The Sal and the Sheesam, are the two most important timber trees of north India.

In addition, there are many forest trees such as palas ( the flame of the forest), the lovely amalatas (Indian laburnum) and kachnar that burst into bloom during spring season, providing an enchantingly beautiful look to the Corbett National Park.

Exceptionally rich in its avifauna the park is a delight for bird watchers. There are about 600 birds species here which include domestic as well as the migratory birds. Cormorants, the Darter, the Grey Heron, Egrets, the Cattle Egret, the White-necked and Black-necked Storks, the Spot bill, the Large Pied Wagtail and White-capped Redstart can be spotted easily. Great Crested Grebe, Graylag Geese, White Storks, Black Storks, Sandpipers, Snipe, the Great Black-headed Gull, about 15 kinds of ducks, and a variety of Wagtails. Another water-bird in the park is White or Rosy Pelicans occasionally noticed.these water birds are a feast for nature lovers.
Crested Serpent Eagle, the Black-winged Kite, the Indian Shikra, the Himalayan Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, Himalayan Vultures and Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles, Hawk-Eagles, the Crested Honey Buzzard and the Black Eagle are the common birds of pray to be found here .
The migratory birds of prey include the Osprey, the Peregrine Falcon, the Booted Hawk- Eagle and the Steppe Eagle.
Over 18 kinds of owls identified in the Corbett National Park including the Spotted Owlet, Fish Owls. The nightjars in the park include the Jungle Nightjar, the Franklin’s Nightjar, the Stone Curlew and the Great Stone Plover.
One can also see Green Pigeons, Parakeets, Cuckoos, Hornbills, Barbets, Woodpeckers, Orioles, Drongos, Pies, Babblers and Thrushes. Among the ground-birds (woodland) are the Peafowl, the Red Jungle fowl, and the White-crested Kalij Pheasant.
Black Partridge, Doves, Bea-eaters, Rollers, the Hoopoe, Shrikes, Larks, Mynas, Bulbuls, Warblers, Tailor Bird, Robins, Chats, Redstarts, Bayas and Finches are commonly sighted .
The famous Indian Alpine Swift, Crested Swifts, the Dusky Crag Martin, Striated (or Red-rumpled) Swallows, the Indian Cliff Shallow, and the Wire-tailed Swallow are some of the other species found here.