The Shivalik hills rise suddenly and abruptly after Haldwani. Nainital lies just 40 Km ahead- A beautiful hill station blessed with a serene lake struggles to retain its charm with the rising demands of tourism and the concrete establishments. It’s sad to see this British colonial hill station become a victim of its own beauty. The sacred Naini lake- a revered Shaktipeeth(Parvati’s eyes fell here after she was cut in 52 pieces by Vishnu) is getting smaller and dirtier with time, just like any other well known hill station in India.
Fortunately that is where the reach and imagination of most of the vacuous tourists ends, leaving the places like- Kausani, Binsar, and Almora- clean, unadulterated, facade free, appealing and affordable for the more simple and less imposing travelers like me.
Almora lies just 90 Km from Haldwani and sits at an elevation of about 1700 meters- is the ideal base and en-route point for destinations like Munsiyari, Gwaldam, Chaukori, and Pindari Glacier.The most ancient town of Uttarakhand, was at one point a full fledgling cultural mosaic , and the capital of Kumaon under the rulership of the Chand dynasty.While Dehradun -the current capital feels and looks more like a crude caricature of the big and congested cities of India, Almora still retains much of its warmth, history, art, and heritage inside its pristine pine crested hills.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain
Education and arts is given prime importance over orthodox practices and bigotry, for girls enjoy the same privileges and support- so easily extended towards boys in the family, all over India. I am yet to encounter a girl in rest of the hilly regions with the same sharp knowledge, education, pride, and who could carry themselves with such extraordinary confidence and flair, as a girl from the Kumaon Himalayas.
Almora must not to be mistaken for a quaint hill station with a paucity of people and establishments. The town is crowded with locals and people native to Kumaon. There is not much to do within the confines of the main market, for it is bustling with shops, motor horns, bikes and taxis.You might get toppled by a cow if not alert on the crossroad, or if one is lost marveling at the Snow clad peaks.
Peaceful Mountain views can be enjoyed a little further, and one needs to head out 7 km, towards Kasar Devi.It lies on a secluded cliff encompassing incessant Pine trees,,birds, and silent corners harbouring serenity, stories, myths, and incessant foreigners- swarming every cafe and shop in the vicinity. Hunched up against the snow and chilly air coming from the Himalayas, it offers a stark contrast and great relief from the hustle and bustle of the main market road of Almora.
Named after the beautiful Kasar devi temple that adorns it’s quiet and sacred corridors, it opens to great views of the majestic Himalayan peaks like- Mt. Trishul, Maiktoli, Nanda Devi, and Nanda Kot. Swami Vivekananda, Tagore, Bob Dylan, Geogre Harrison, and D.H Lawrence- all were drawn to its allure.Crank’s Ridge, colloquially known as Hippie Hill, which lies ahead of Kasar Devi became a popular destination in the 70’s. It became home to several bohemian artists, writers, and mystics like- Anandamayi Ma.
Swami Vivekanand meditated here and the morning he was to leave, he expressed his fascination for the place to one of his disciples in the following words- “As peak after peak of this Father of Mountains(Himalayas) began to appear before my sight, all the propensities to work, that ferment that had been going on in my brain for years, seemed to quiet down, and instead of talking about what had been done and what was going to be done, the mind reverted to that one theme the Himalayas always teach us, that one theme which reverberates in the very atmosphere of the place — renunciation! The Himalayas stand for that renunciation.”
I have been here 5 times and it just seems like this place belongs to a different time, space and consciousness.One cannot help but feel a strange sense of clairvoyance and nothingness- as if there is no point, no where, and no need to go beyond this place.
Just 30 km ahead lies Binsar and its dense forest and the wildlife sanctuary.Situated a bit high at an altitude of 2400 metres, it enjoys an extended stretch of cool weather, flora and fauna. Binsar is always a wonderful place to come back for it is still unknown to the common man, but sees a small influx of tourists in summers and New year.It offers much better views of the Mountains and a luxurious stay at an extremely reasonable cost.
KMVN guest house is the ideal place to stay, for these government rest houses occupy the best locations and offers grand and open views of the snow clad peaks. I went for a small trek with my friend inside the forest reserve. The Himalyan blue jay, a small flycatcher, and a blue whistling thrush were few of the birds I was able to recognise along with territory claw marks of a leopard on a Rhododendron. Although it is almost impossible to spot a leopard in the wild, there is a greater possibility that the leopard spots and stalks you without the faintest of smell or sign. We both found it wise to retrace our steps back to the rest house in the absence of a local or a guide to accompany us.
Kausani is a gratifying and picturesque drive of about 50 km from Almora. I along with my friend rented the entire Suzuki Alto for ourselves- for a mere sum of 1200, and it is by far the best 1200 rs I have ever spent, for the road zigzags along the snake bends, passing through paddy fields, sunflower beds, and incessant rows of pine trees.Flanked on either side by the rivers Kosi and Gomti, the path offers the ideal road for a short, colorful, and pleasant road trip with the gifts of nature running parallel all along till the very end.
With only 250 habitants, Kausani is a small town with few hotels and fewer distractions. The town arrives abruptly on the curved road leading up to Gwaldam. Juts a sharp left turn, and 10 shops, 12 restaurants, and a temple later the road opens to an astounding views of the Great Himalayas. By taking a 100 meter walk from the Chauraha(Crossroads)- which lies at the heart of Kausani and moving towards the front and than back in the opposite direction, one would have covered almost 90% portion that encompasses the town.
Just 20 meters ahead of the crossroad the cliff ends and the path opens wide and long with the valley of Baijnath below, and jaw dropping views of the Great Himalayas above. It came as a big surprise and made us stop in our tracks , for the sheer closeness, and the uninterrupted wide view of the snow clad peaks is supremely overwhelming. We were flabbergasted. It was a sight to behold and bookmark inside the eyes and the memory lane. The tiredness just disappeared. It was 5 in the evening. The dusk was about to conquer the surroundings, and the sun had just sunk below the hills, leaving a faint, rosy alpenglow on the snow clad peaks.
Next day was spend lounging in the morning sun having a cup of tea and some delightful toasts which the cook at the hotel had to conjure up over the wooden stove as there was no electricity.The peaks were initially covered under white clouds, but with the first rays of the emerging dawn, the crown peaks of Mt. Trishul and Nanda Devi revealed themselves in full glory- as if performing a spiritual striptease for the rising sun.
We left for Gwaldam at around 10 a.m stopping at the numerous tea estates that lie scattered on either side of the road. Kausani produces the high flavor” Girias Uttaranchal tea” over 200 hectares. We picked up some tea and jam produced locally from seasonal fruits. Gwaldam offers an astounding view of Mt. Trishul at close quarters. It is a view to behold and capture, no matter how many times you come across.Even an Atheist couldn’t resist to revel in its magnificence and might be forced to ponder- How can such grand panorama exist without the touch and blessing of the divine?
If you have gotten used to the cumbersome walks on the congested, loud, and crowded mall roads, lined up with redundant cafes, choked lanes- swarming with people and automobiles-both struggling with each other to occupy the coveted and famous sight seeing spots of the regular commercial hill stations, then these towns and places are not your cup of tea.
But if you like solitude, and clear mountain views without any noise and distraction, then these 3 places can prove to be a vacation heaven.
If one is wise enough to leave the baggage of expectations and assumptions behind and just let the heart and time slip into the magical stupor of the ambience, and embrace the solitude and serenity- these places so humbly and easily offers to every soul passing by its pristine corridors, one would be more tolerant of his limitations and the world
And what about you? Have you been a witness to the glory and magnificence of the Kumaon Himalayas? Comment below and share your experience.