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  • Anindita Das

UTTARAKHAND: WHERE THE MOUNTAINS KISS THE SKY

Updated: Jun 13

Every time we sit to plan for our annual long-vacation, we begin it by planning for a beach holiday. There is a reason behind it. The previous holiday and the one before that and all those that we had taken were mostly to the hills- the Himalayas more specifically. This year too we had initially planned for Vizag and Araku Valley. Tickets were booked. And then we changed our minds. The hills called us again. So we were headed north, again to the hills, again to the Himalayas. To Uttarakhand. Our first visit to the state.

Uttarakhand, geographically and culturally, can mainly be divided into two parts- Garhwal and Kumaon. We had decided on Kumaon. Here’s how we had planned our itinerary:

Day 1: Fly from Kolkata to New Delhi. Board the Ranikhet Express at 9:30 PM from Old Delhi Railway Station.

Day 2: Reach Kathgodam at 5:30 AM. Travel by a pre-booked car to Kausani. Stay overnight.

Day 3: Travel to Choukari. Stay overnight.

Day 4: Local sight-seeing. Stay overnight.

Day 5:Travel to Binsar. Stay overnight.

Day 6: Stay at Binsar.

Day 7: Travel to Nainital. Stay overnight.

Day 8: Travel to Kathgodam. Board Ranikhet Express in the evening.

Day 9: Reach Old Delhi Station. Board train to Kolkata in the evening.

Day 2: The Ranikhet Express reached Kathgodam almost on time. But I began the day by throwing up on the train. Acidity, gas, acid reflux- I had it all. Our medicine box came in handy. After popping a few antacids and avomine, we were on our way to Kausani. Tiwari ji, our driver, was already waiting at the Kathgodam station. It was pitch dark when we got in the car. The first thing that hit us was the cold. The blower in the car helped us to warm up. The car went uphill, snaking through serpentine roads. The hills on the other side were still twinkling. The night was in its last lap. We crossed Bhimtal at around day- break. The russet sky on the East had cast its shade on the lake waters and it made a picture for a perfect shot.

Our first stop was Ranikhet. Apart from a sprawling Military Academy, Ranikhet provides a stunning view of the Himalayas. There is a view point from where we took pictures. The sky was an azure blue and the winter sun was crisp and bright. However the lower reaches of the hills were blurred due to fog. Nonetheless, the first view of the Himalayas from Uttarakhand was spectacular. From here we headed to Kausani. Though I have travelled extensively in the hills of North Bengal and Sikkim, this was my first holiday in the Himalayas of northern India. I also noticed a marked difference in the terrain and topography. While North Bengal offers one vast swathes of tea gardens, here in Uttarakhand we got to see meadows and higlands with deodar, pine and coniferous trees, so tall that they seemed almost touching the sky. When we were passing through a small but picturesque village in Someshwar, we stopped to click a few pictures of birds. Uttarakhand as all know is a birders’ paradise. We got to click red-billed magpie and black headed jay.

Around 2 PM we reached Kausani. We checked in at the Nature’s Valley Resort. Our second floor room opened to a huge balcony that offered a clear, unobstructed view of the hills. The partially snow capped peaks glistened in the afternoon sun- Trishul 1,2,3, Panchachuli, Nanda Devi- all stood mighty tall kissing the sky. There is a Gandhi Museum in Kausani where one gets to see many historically relevant pictures of Mahatma Gandhi. We also visited the Shawl Museum where we shopped for a few woollens. We were back to the hotel at around 5. Our hotel stood at the Bageshwar Road. Just behind our hotel, facing the balcony were trees that saw many a bird come in the evening and early morning. I can only remember a few- water redstart, laughing thrush, striated laughing thrush, black-headed jay, common rosefinch, khaleej pheasant, red-billed blue magpie, great tit, etc. Next day our morning began early. The hills gradually turned from claret to orange to gold. With our steaming cups of tea warming our palms, we were trigger happy clicking photographs. After grabbing a hearty breakfast comprising butter toast and omlette we were headed towards Chakouri.

Day 3: On our way to Chakouri, we haulted at the Baijnath Temple in the Bageshwar district that stood on the flank of the Gomti river. This was an ancient temple carved out of stone, resembling the temples at Kedarnath. The deities too looked like monolithic sculptors. The temple was gloriously bathed in the winter sun and looked majestic. After spending a few minutes here we were off to Chakouri. We again passed through tiny hamlets and valleys with step farming that looked verdant green. We stopped at a place called Gagrigol to click pictures of a crested kingfisher and black-lored tit. We reached Chakouri at around 2 in the afternoon. We had booked the KMVM resort. Our room was in the first floor that faced the mountains. However one also has the option of staying in the bunglows which, with their red tin roofs, looked dainty. This KMVM Resort is a sprawling property with nicely manicured gardens. There is also a watch tower within the campus that provides excellent views of mountains and sunrise and sunset. We ate a simple lunch of rice, daal and vegetables and took a stroll in and around the campus. The campus was teeming with birds. We spotted bulfinch, Himalayan bulbul, bushchat (male and female), shrike, flycatcher, etc. It was getting pretty chilly around late afternoon. We had hot cups of tea with vegetable fritters (pakodas).

Day 4: We set off for Patal Bhubaneshwar today in the morning. I must mention here that the complimentary breakfast provided by the resort was hot and filling, though nothing elaborate. Patal Bhubaneshwar is a place of religious worship of about 35kms from the resort. The first 20 kms are along a well laid out road. It is the remaining 15 kms that is really bone-rattling. The road is still being constructed, apparently for years as informed by our driver, dusty and makes for a bone-rattling drive. However this drive again provides for a spectacular view of the Himalayas. Legend and folklore have it that the Pandavas had lived in hiding in Patal Bhubaneshwar. We were cautioned by our driver but nothing had prepared us for what we were about to see and experience. As the name suggests, one has to crawl and drag oneself to patal or underground. Initially I was apprehensive. It is a cave. Though well lit, it is the steep and suffocating nature inside that is so intimidating. Iron fetters run on either side of the vertiginous descent. We held on to the chains and descended somehow- about 150 metres. But we reached, it was a completely different world. Geologists will have explanations for every rock formation, for every hue of a stone. Yet the description by the guide seemed so credible as though the gods and goddesses really resided here. We offered our prayers to Lord Shiva- a small stone formation. However it is advisable that one visits this place early in the morning. As the day progresses, tourists increase and the cave becomes all the more claustrophobic. We came back to our resort in the afternoon. The evenings and nights get pretty cold in Chakouri.

Day 5: We started early for Binsar on day 5. Located at a distance of about 110kms approximately, it’s a long journey driving up the meandering roads. We also stopped in between for lunch. We finally reached Binsar in the afternoon. We had already booked a room at the KMVM resort, tucked in the top of the hill. In the middle of nowhere, this resort provides excellent view of the snow-capped hills. The room in the KMVM resort was nice and cosy. Carved out of wood, it has a British feeling. This resort has no power supply. Till the time dinner is over which is around 9 PM power is supplied, thereafter one has to be dependent on candles provided by the resort staff. Around late afternoon we trekked along a path to a place which provided beautiful views of the setting sun. We had asked our driver to pick us up for the return journey. This is recommended since it gets dark after twilight and there are no street lights on the road. It also gets freezing cold after sundown. However one of my most memorable memories of Binsar was watching the night sky. The wind in the terrace can biting cold, so I packed myself warmly in woollens and stood under a cloudless sky watching the Milky Way galaxy. Dinner and breakfast came complimentary in the resort. Dinner was warm and tasty.

Our initial plan was to stay 2 nights in Binsar. My husband, being a birding enthusiast had hoped to photograph many varieties in this birding haven. But we were disappointed to learn that during winters most of the birds descend to lower altitudes to avoid the cold. So instead of staying in Binsar for the next night we decided to head to Sattal. We transferred our KMVM Binsar booking to KMVM Sattal.

Day 6: This day greeted us with a bright sun. The view of the hills from the terrace was spectacular. Binsar provided us with the best view of the snow capped peaks. And the peaks glistened as they were kissed with the crisp winter sun.

We headed for Sattal in the morning anticipating a long and tiring journey. And long and tiring it was. By the time we reached Sattal it was almost evening. The KMVM resort of Sattal is just opposite to the lake. It’s quiet, quaint little town. However owing to it being the 31st of December there was a party going on in the small eateries lining the lake. The KMVM resort is an ill- maintained, shabby, in-want-of- repair resort. As soon as I entered our room, it seemed as if I had entered a haunted house. The television set wasn’t working. Moreover the room got so cold in the night that we had to ask for a room heater. But even that wouldn’t work. However the staff (about 3 of them) was very helpful In spite of the limited resources they made every effort to make the guests fee at home. Dinner was sumptuous with roti, palak paneer, alu gobi, roasted papad and kheer for dessert. However we could hardly sleep that night. The guests next to our room partied all night in the tiny hotel complex and loud music played all night.

Day 7: The next morning when the entire town was still sleeping, my husband and I ventured out to sight birds. Immediately we spotted a white-rumped water redstart. Just a few yards away from the hotel was a birding area that is popularly referred to as the swimming pool. However though we could hear the birds chirp, we could hardly spot birds amidst the dense undergrowth. We were lucky to see the red-billed leothrix, greenish warbler, magpie and a few other species. We spent about an hour there and headed to our hotel. After having our breakfast we left for Nainital. On the way we went to Naukuchiatal, the lake with nine sides. A quiet place the place is lined on one side by a bushy area. We walked along it and spotted many a bird. From here we drove towards Nainital.

As soon as we entered Nainital, we realised we were no more in a secluded zone. It was teeming with New Year tourists and the Mall Road was cramped with bumper to bumper traffic. We checked in at Hotel Krishna situated on the Mall Road. Though a nice hotel, providing lovely views of the lake, guests have to climb about a 100 stairs to reach the reception area. And a few more from there to reach one’s room.

After having our lunch, we strolled down the Mall Road. Then we went for a boat ride in the Naini Lake. Though the winter sun shone in all its glory, it was still cold. Nainital is one of the prettiest hill stations I have ever been to. Not only does it have that old world charm with its British architecture and reputed boarding schools, the tourists make it look like a cosmopolitan hill station. Numerous shops line both sides of the Mall Road and it is definitely a shopper’s haven. Because it was the first day of the new year, Nainital was brightly lit up, specially the Mall Road area. As the lights from the surrounding hill reflected on the lake water, it made for a spectacular sight.

Day 8: We checked out from the hotel at around 10 in the morning and went for local sight-seeing. We first visited the Eco Cave Garden. The only thing we enjoyed here was the view from the top. If one is not interested in taking stairs, there’s no point in visiting this place. From here we left for Kilbury, which is supposed to be a birder’s paradise. The drive to Kilbury was breathtaking. Situated at an altitude above Nainital the place is indeed beautiful. It was terribly cold outside though. We did spot the elusive Himalayan woodpecker here. On the way back we did stop at a few view points. We came back to Nainital and had our lunch. We also packed for dinner. Late in the afternoon we left for Kathgodam. We took the Ranikhet Express from there to Delhi and a bag full of memories.

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© 2020 By Kuntal Nandi and Anindita Das