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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Postcards From Indian Highway : A Slideshow


Journey By Road In India

Road travel is fun and apart from the regular local flavor one gets to see beautiful landscape too. We usually love to explore unusual places especially in the hilly region of Uttaranchal, Himachal etc. Each time it is a new experience. These snaps were taken on way to Jim Corbett National park in Northern India. Driving down on an Indian national highway can be a very interesting experience. Every few miles the terrain, flavor, sights and sound change. The trucks, the local people, dhabas ( local roadside eatery), the food and landscape, everything tells a story.
Come take this journey with me ..

Enjoy!!!

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Quench your thirst with Aam panna made out of raw mangoes. The drink is a coolant and is medicinal also. One can see the mango leaves on the side of the cart.

A lovely village woman with her colorful display near the temple. The local hill people are warm hearted and very helpful

Just another turn in the village . The goats were amused to find an early morning visitor clicking their snaps

Indivine post .. Vote here

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.