A sweet and short trip to the Kumaon Himalayas as we explored the scenic enviornment of the scenic Himalayas...
31.10.2013 - 06.11.2013 14 °C
Similar to our travel plans as always, destined to happen at the very last moment, this time too was no exception to this golden unwritten rule. Winter was gradually setting in. However, Mumbai and Winters are perhaps not synonymous.
The last 10 years, living and grinding within the corporate whirlpool of this sleepless city, we never recall wearing a sweater; well, well, may be a sweat-shirt or at the most a half-jacket in late December is the ultimate winter gear. The long jackets & pullovers hanging along in the wardrobe as if shriek out loud, "wear us also" and to wear them, where better than to walk in the Himalayas.
To not venture out for a couple of months our feet would agitate and our mind turn restless. We saw a glimmer of hope arising out of the blues - the Diwali holidays. Though basically it was suppose to be a 2 days affair, but, thanks to our office management they announced holiday from Friday onwards (with a Saturday and Sunday in-between) making it 5 days at a row. Immediately decided to add one of the two remaining balance casual leaves and making it six days in total - to be away from the claustrophobic office cubicle.
Boarding the Mumbai Rajdhani Express, we chugged off from Mumbai Central station that fateful Thursday late afternoon. Soon the platters of servings followed and we kept munching along. It was an apt opportunity to read through the Chirta Banerjee's "Palace of Illusion", which I was contemplating to finish reading since long. The captivating tale of Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi kept me glued till dinner was served. Sleep eluded me for sometime but soon the fast rhythm of the chugging wheels as if lullabied me to slumber.
Woke up in the morning and after a quick freshen up in the 'not so stinky' Rajdhani Express washroom, we soon reached New Delhi. As planned, we boarded a cab and were off to Faridabad, where we had to meet a dear friend of mine and finalize a Himalayan dream, about which we'll discuss some other time. Checked ourselves in the posh NHPC Officers Guest house near Suraj Kund (courtesy my friend) and moved out for our scheduled lunch meeting at his office.
Wrapping up later afternoon, we drove back to the guest house and as evening set in, we could feel the nip in the air. At our request the cook prepared a delicious spicy mutton masala which, we savoured with some hot rotis and some fresh green salad. Thereafter, we called it a night.
After a sumptuous breakfast next morning, we lazed around the serene NHPC campus and early afternoon, moved out. Our first halt was Sarojani Market where we reminisced our earlier outings when we were staying in New Delhi working in The Asian Age newspaper as journalists. The market is all the same as it was earlier was and that day being the eve of Diwali half of Delhi as if was shopping there. Young girls in fancy attires haggling with the shopkeepers to secure the best deal for the "oh, so cute dress" and hawkers at the top of the voices urging people to buy tops, shirts, trousers, shawls, and what not at never before prices. Mitali did her bit of haggling and of course shopping - the usual dirt cheap priced tops, jeans etc which I'm sure would not last more than a couple of months.
Thereafter, we took a quick turn and moved to the Delhi Haat - to experience a mini-India within its elaborate campus - of all India states representations through arts and crafts in numerous colourful & vibrant stalls. After a thorough rendezvous, picked up a beautiful Madhubani painting and feeling the hunger pangs in the stomach, headed straight to the Nagaland food stall. The taste of the roasted pork rib that I gorged last time was still fresh and without any second thought ordered a plate of roasted pork rib with the 'bhut jalokia' chutney (world's hottest chilly) accompanied by some noodles. Awesome - out of the world, is the word, same taste, same zest...
After that early sumptuous dinner, we headed to the Old Delhi railway station and boarding the Ranikhet Express chugged out of Delhi. Early next morning, it was still dark as I was awaken by my mobile phone's vibrator. "Sir, Hemant here, am waiting for you in Kathgodam station," the voice spoke as i picked up the call in a half-awaken state. "Thanks Hemant, we'll reach in half an hour," as checked the time and confirmed.
Soon the train stopped by at the platform no 1 of the Kathgodam station. As we boarded down, we could feel an icy wind swept past our faces. "Wow", time to pull out our jackets. 'Welcome Winter, Welcome to the Himalayas', a though passed by my mind as we trudged our suitcase towards our waiting Trevera vehicle. "Welcome sir" Hemant greeted as he helped us with our luggage and off we were on the Himalayan Highway yet again. Dawn was slowly breaking as we gradually started snaking through the serpentine path amidst lush green mountains.
Though we stayed many a times in Ranikhet, where were currently heading as our first stopover, but I do not recall writing in details of this serene heaven. Would describe its beauty later as we reach. Driving along the traffic-less highway early morning we soon we passed by the serene Bhimtal Lake. With the rays of the early morning sun striking the waters, the greenish hue it created amidst the evaporating frost was an awesome sight. We stopped by the lake shore and clicked a few treasures. En-route further ahead we have a few permanent places where we usually halt for refreshments. How can one pass by Khairane without munching along a few ban-muska ( a simple bun toasted with butter, but simply amazing taste that stayed the same though the years passed by) and not to forget the delicious pakodas to sip along-with some masala tea.
Having done our bun munching rituals we headed ahead. The serenity of the mountains were clearly felt by us as we drove along the gushing waters of Koshi river that sunny morning. By 9 am we are approaching the cantonment township of Ranikhet. We decided that before we move ahead, we stop by at the ancient Jhula Devi temple - the bell temple - to pay our obeisance situated about 7 kms from Ranikhet. Every-time we are in Ranikhet we try and pay the Divine Mother a visit seeking her blessings. We took a diversion ahead and moved along.
Driving past the lonesome road through the pine grooves and the occasional oaks trees was a awesome experience. Soon, we were at her doorsteps and as in case of most Hindu shrines, Jhula Devi temple too has its own share of legends. The main deity of this temple is Goddess Durga and is a believed that Jhula Devi - the temple deity has the powers to fulfill the wishes of all her devotees. All around the temple are rows after rows of bells of different sizes hanging along reverberating her powerful presence.
It is said that any devout whose prayers are answered comes back the next time to thank the Holy Mother and ties bells around the temple - an admission that their prayers has been answered by the loving Mother. According to legends, this temple was built to seek Mother Durga’s protection for the wild animals in the place.
Some 700 years ago around the forest of Chaubhattia abound with wild animals. Leopards and tigers frequently used to attacked people and took away their live stocks. People felt harassed and prayed to Mother Durga for protection and it is said that the holy mother appreared in the dream of a shepard and asked him to dig a particular place where he would find an idol. On digging an idol of Maa Durga was excavated and the villagers constructed a temple at that very site and installed the idol. Soon, people were freed of harrasment of wild animals and shepards roamed the area freely. Childrens use to merrily play on the swing (Jhula in Hindi ).
It is said that Maa Durga again appeared in someone's dream and asked a 'jhula' for herself. The devotees thereafter placed the diety on a wooden 'jhula' inside the temple sanctorium and from that time onwards the diety came to be know as Maa Jhula Devi and the temple as Jhula Devi temple. This explaned that fact that despite the presence of leopards and the ocassional tiger in this area, villagers and cattle roan freely inside the chaubhattia forest. The present temple was constructed in 1935 and the countless bells that hang around the temple bears the testimony of the fact of Maa Jhula Devi's divinity and healing powers. Amidst the soothing clangs of these bells we were transported to a different spiritual plane as we bowed our heads seeking her blessings.
After that soulful experience we moved ahead. Nearby to the Jhaula Devi temple is the Chaubatia Garden and last time we were here we missed exploring, so this time we decided to give it a quick visit. We had to make our entries at a check-gate manned by the Army personnel and thereafter drove along a lush forested road. Soon on the left horizon we could see the entire range of the Himalayan peaks standing tall all in a line. We boarded down from the vehicle and took a long stroll across the vast expanses of the Chaubhatia garden which abound around a fruit orchard and colourful flowers all in full bloom. Apple, apricot, peach, pine, sliver oak, deodar, weeping willow trees were all to be seen.
However this not being the fruit season, the apple trees were without leaves as if getting ready for the long Himalayan winter hibernation. Late December onwards we were told this entire area get covered under a blanket of snow. Soaking in all the possible solitude we felt a soothing feel in our inner minds as we gazed at the mighty Himalayas peaks for a long period. No words were spoken; simply the silence of the forest was all we felt within. Soulful indeed...
Reluctantly we slowly trotted back to our vehicle and made our way towards Ranikhet. Situated in the Almora district, Ranikhet is a cantonment township with the headquarters of the Kumaon Regiment and the Naga Regiment. Set at average elevation of 1,869 m (6,132 ft) the cantonment is spread across two ridges, the first, called the Ranikhet ridge, is situated at an elevation of 1,824 m and the second, the Chaubattia ridge, is at an elevation of 2,116 m.
Ranikhet, literally means Queen's meadow in Hindi. It derived its name from a local legend, which states that it was here, that Raja Sudhardev won the heart of his queen, Rani Padmini, who subsequently chose the area for her residence, giving it the name, Ranikhet, though no palace exists in the area.
In the year 1869, the British established the headquarters of the Kumaon Regiment here and used the station as a retreat escape the Indian summer heat. It is said that at one time during British Raj, it was also proposed as the summer headquarters of Government of India, in lieu of Shimla. Ranikhet previously was under the Nepalese Rule, and the Kumaonese (people of Kumaon Region) won it under the leadership of their able General Kashi Nath Adhikari with the assistance of Britishers at around 1816.
As this town is managed by the Army, undoubtedly it is one of the cleanest hill station that we have visited so far. Ranikhet, I do not know always charmed me, be it's cute market place, the slow pace of life of the locals, the scenic surroundings, the cute cottages, well the list can go on endless.
Passing by the neat mall road we stopped at the market as I had to look for a local delicacy not found in Mumbai. It is the humble "lai shak" (a type of green like spinach). Walking downhill I soon located a vegetable vendor selling the fresh greens and I laid my hand in 4 bunch-full which I intend to hand it over the cook at Vimoksha Resorts (where we would stay) to prepare the awesome delicacy for lunch.
We soon passed by the greens of the famous Ranikhet Golf Course, one of the highest in the world. The lush carpet of neatly-trimmed grass all along the hilly terrain would fascinate anyone to try tee a few wild swings. We also saw groups of young army cadets jogging around with their instructors.
Couple of miles from here we reached our destination the Vimoksha Resort. Set within a lush pine forest with cute cottages dotting the surroundings in the backdrop of the 180 degree view of the Himalayan peaks it is a place seen to be believed.
Checking ourselves into one of the independent cottages, we placed ourselves in the upper floor with awesome views from the room itself.
After a quick warm bath we decided to visit the nearby revered Kalika temple which we had missed visiting last time. The day being Diwali we felt blessed to visit the Kali temple - Goddess of Shakti. Situated amidst a lush forest of deodars we bowed our heads at her shrine as the priest chanted a few Vedic hymns purifying and blessing us.
Thereafter, we came back and lazed around the elaborately spread out Vimoksha campus till we savoured a delicious lunch served in our cottage. Late afternoon we explored the nearby areas and with the sun-set the chill kept us indoors as we warmed ourselves in the cute fireplace situated in the living room of our cottage. Dinner was served early and we soon called it a night.
Woke up early as dawn was breaking and it is a sight to see the Himalayan range from here. As the rising sun-rays hits these Himalayan ranges the plethora of colours emanating is sheer bliss to the inner eye.Major peaks that can be very clearly seen includes the Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda khat, etc. Sitting in the warm morning sun in the green lawn of our cottage and sipping a cup of tea amidst the chirping of birds and flowers all around is experience on its own. This place abound by birds including the Himalayan forktail, magpie, bulbul, etc.
After a heavy continental breakfast we bid good bye to Vimoksha and move out to our destination next. We took the not oft travelled road through Sitlakhet as we made our way towards Almora. The drive in the late morning was smooth as Hemant manuvoured the vehicle effortlessly. Passing by the serene landscape we soon approached the pine grooves of Almora.
We stopped by for a cup of tea at a roadside stall and Mitali relished some chana allu (a spicy curry of green grams alongwith meshed potatoes). Thereafter, we moved along and after crossing the Kharab bridge took the road leading to Mukteshwar. A huge mountain was our first sight on the road to Mukteshwar, thereafter the scene changed and all along the road the Himalayans peaks stood out loud. With the deep blue skyline and the whitish peaks in the backdrop it was a sight to relish. We passed by many a countless sleepy hamlets where the locals lazed around basking in the warmth of the forenoon sun.
Thereafter, we entered a silver oak forest patch which stretched for long. It was a deeply wooded forest and we could experience an eerie silence as we drove past. The foliage was so thick that the sun rays were hardly penetrating within. Rolling down the window we filled in our lungs with the fresh oxygen. As the forest patch ended, we saw habitation ahead, and, yes, we reached Mukteshwar.
It is said that Jim Corbett, the world renowned hunter and nature lover came to shoot a tiger here and fell in love with its natural beauty. Set amidst the conifer forests and orchards, Mukteshwar offers the most majestic view of the Himalaya and its snow bound peaks. Abundant with apple, plum, peach, and apricot trees, this place is a hidden beauty, mostly unexplored.
We drove through a few kilometers ahead. I called up my local contact Mr Manoj Mehra, inquiring about the direction to Somerset Lodge, where we had had booked our stay. With his quick navigational direction, we soon reached our destination. We were bowled out at its location, more so with the heritage appeal that Somerset Lodge holds. It is a 99-year old property the typical colonial-style cottage with flowers in full bloom all around its well spread campus that extends to a huge apple orchards down below, christined Gahana Orchards . A neatly manicured lawn in front of the cottage, serving as a sit out and up ahead in the horizon the panoramic view of the Nepal Himalayas - what else could we have wished for.
Spread over several acres of mountain terrain, Gahana Orchards located in Sargakhet Village in Nainital district of Uttarakhand, is the ancestral home of the Mehra family. It was built by ADC Bacchi Singh Mehra, aide to the Maharaja Jind of Patiala, from 1942-55. The property, which lies 3 kms ahead of Mukteshwar, was opened to visitors some 20 years ago. It has two guest houses – the Somerset Lodge and Oak Chalet -- that are today run by Bacchi Singh ji’s grandson Manoj.
Around is home to wild cats such as leopards and various mountain birds including the Chakors, Magpies, Mynas, Jungle fowl, Babblers and Whistling thrush.
As Manoj out with a group for some rappelling activity, promising me to catch up in the evening, his uncle Mr Raju Mehra welcomed us as we checked into this awesome property soaked in history. The high ceilings, the cute fireplace, the antique furniture, the well stocked library located in the reading room - the overall feel as we entered our suit, as if took us back a hundred years. Soon a hot lunch was served.
Late afternoon I took a hike down the road going down-hill from the property through the forest to discover their other jewel - the Oak Chalet. The walk through the oak forest inter-speared by the apple orchards through this beautiful Gahana Orchards was so very refreshing. A young soul guided me through the narrow forest trail and in about 20 minutes amidst the lush forest stood out the Oak Chalet - an all-stone and wood construction - the typical Kumaoni style structure.
It is an imposing structure having four warm rooms, fitted with all the modern amenities. A separate unit serves as the dinning area. Just ahead of the chelet was a nice all wooden sit-out where the bonfires would light up the night sky and warm up the souls. The caretaker took me around and also showed within a five minutes walk ahead a few tented camps that guest can also use to stay. In fact, I met this gentleman from England, who comes here every year and stay put in one of the tents for six months at a row.
Having a through rendezvous of this unique forest dwelling, I returned back to the Somerset Lodge. Early evening we drove to the cute local market and loitered around for sometime. After watching a heavenly sunset we returned back as the chill started setting in. Manoj came late evening and had a long chat with him till from topic ranging from trekking to spirituality. For dinner the awesome cook prepared a very tasty dry chicken dish which we savoured with hot rotis.
Woke up early next morning and stepped outside to take a hike around the main road. Witnessed the laid back environment as the locals were on with their usual chores. Freshening up, an elaborate breakfast was laid in the lawn, and, we enjoyed its every bit basking in the warm morning sun. Thereafter, we decided to explore Muketshwar.
Our first halt was the Mukteshwar temple area. A youth came up offered his service to show us around. We took the paved path which offered an awesome valley views. We walked to the Chauli ki Jali - an over hanging cliff - a natural latticework on the rock. As per local legends it is believed that if a childless women touches this jali she usually is blessed with a child soon. It is at this rock cliff most of the rappelling and rock climbing is carried out. Its panoramic views are sheer magic difficult perhaps to capture its beauty is mere words. We sat at this place for quite some time as we watched a pair of lamagier gliding along the deep blue sky.
Thereafter we took a shot walk through a small forest path and visited the Mukteshwar temple. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and has a 'lingam' made of white marbels. The idols of Brahma, Vishnu, Parvati, Ganesha, Nandi & Hanuman surround the lingam. In fact, Mukteshwar gets its name from this 350-year-old temple of Shiva, known as Mukteshwar Dham, situated atop the highest point in the town, on the Indian Veterinary Research Institute's campus. Bowing our heads in obeisance to the Lord we sat in the serene environment for quite some time meditating.
Our next stop was perhaps the ultimate spot of Mukteshwar. The PWD guest house is located on a ridge and beyond which is sheer wilderness in the backdrop of a jaw dropping views of the almost 280 degree views of the Himalayan snow peaks. Lines of peaks stood out including the Nanda Devi (25,646fts.) Nanda Kot (6926mtr.) Nandaghunti (6380mtrs.) Trishul and the Panchachuli range. Even beyond the Nepal Himalayan ranges can be clearly viewed from here. We soaked in this heavenly environment for a long long time connecting ourselves to the higher self.
On our way back we stopped by and took a short hike and visited a British-era church located on a cliff with some awesome views.
Late afternoon we reluctantly made our way back and after thanking Manoj and biding a warm good-bye, we checked out of Somerset Lodge making our way back towards Kathgodam.
En-route we explored the Sat Tal forest region and enjoyed some tasty curry chawal by the serene Sat Tal lake. Late evening we reached Kathgodam via Bhimtal to catch the overnight train to New Delhi. Early next morning we flew down to Mumbai contemplating the pure magic we experience each time we walk in the high Himalayas.