It was by accident; the first encounter that I had with these mountains. The ensuing romance however is deliberate, enduring and lifelong.
On a cold, cold day in February of 2007, my better half and I gathered our bags got into our Santro and zipped forth to the Uttarakhand Himalayas. We had passed through Nainital earlier without ever staying there. This time, we wondered, if we could make it beyond and head to Mukteshwar. We had heard it was beautiful this time of the year. Let’s try it, we said and started off. First of course, there was the tire puncture.
At the first tollgate soon after crossing Ghaziabad, we started to feel a little drag in the car and upon investigation a flat tire was discovered. In the biting cold, and foggy visibility (we could see only as far as an outstretched hand), the flat was inflated and we moved along. In 2007, there were not many pit stops one could take. We knew of the government run Rahi Hotel near Garh Mukteshwar (a couple of hours from Delhi) which since has been abandoned by us completely after a slightly greenish looking thing was passed off for coffee, but that time we did stop there to get refreshed . We didn’t know much of the route but we were equipped with the latest edition of Outlook Traveller guides of Weekend breaks from Delhi that showed the route fairly well. We were also relying on the same guide for getting us a hotel upon arrival. Yes, we had not booked anything although this was a planned journey.
Today there are plenty of road signs all the way telling you which way to turn and go. Even in the hills. In 2007 though, it was a different story. We carefully drove uphill, it being virtually our first major drive in the hills. Today, the route I take is Bhowali – Ramgarh – Mukteshwar. That time, and I still haven’t figured out how, we took the Bhatelia – Dhanachuli – Mukteshwar. Till date I have returned on that route only once, to get connected back at Bhimtal. It was a very picturesque route indeed. Pine covered mountainside, looked down to see gushing brooks cutting across the deep crevices. The sun was warm and the skies were clear and with a song in our heart we moved on. Then, we saw something white on the sides of the road casually strewn as some frothy rubbish; we indeed thought that was washing powder foam! When that “foam” became more continuous we stopped for inspection and realized it was snow! Oh my god, wow!
The faraway mountains across the valley, that had been brown and green till now, turned dappled white. The sides of the road, thus far dirt tracks were now piled with snow shoveled off the road.
We didn’t know where all to look and marvel; it was all around us and as white as…well… snow! We just had to stop and sink our hands into the fresh and soft snow.
The KMVN (Kumaon Mandal – government tourist lodge) is at the very end Mukteshwar. It is land’s end. Beyond you can see the mountains and town of Almora and the valley in between. One cannot get lost in Mukteshwar for sure. End to end the town must be 10 odd kilometers wide running on a narrow ridge full of apple orchards and pine, oak, rhododendron forests. By the time we traversed this distance and reached KMVN, the snow around us was knee high; the air was misty; wind was biting every exposed body part and hunger was gnawing us from inside.
Even so, we posed for pictures as packed up in our jackets as we could and I even managed to make and hold a snowball in my hands.
As we climbed up the steps of KMVN, a rather surprised caretaker greeted us. Go back he said, stay at Nainital, Mukteshwar will get snowed in and blocked anytime now. Wouldn’t that be thrilling, we thought. We won’t be able to inform office folks of this unexpected leave cause we would be snowed in and all. The caretaker was absolutely adamant that our advent was bad news and we must leave. Kind of like some horror movie story – go back else it wont be good for you. Anyhow having come this far and seen all this snow we weren’t not going to stay.
Seeing the unflinching determination of the caretaker, we turned back to look for greener pastures. Starving, as we were, food and shelter, the primal needs, really took a stronghold on us. Slowly driving past the snow clad tapris, we saw a light flicker and on closer look, we saw a young lad preparing some tea on a gas stove. He was amused to see tourists at that time of the year. We enquired for food and all he could offer was Maggi. Gladly we accepted. The tapri was located on a ridge between the two mountainsides (this is in front of IVRI as I know now). In the crosswind on the ridge, the cold here was unbearable. In spite of that, we hastily stepped out of the car into the snow and wind and ate hot soupy Maggi. Best Maggi of my life! What a lifesaver. No this is not another “meri maggi” story…it was the weather, the snowcapped hills, the falling snowflakes that added to the taste that still lingers fresh in our memories.
On our way back, we crossed a small board that said Somerset Lodge. The rather British sounding name caught our fancy and we went in and asked for rooms. The place was closed for renovation so no luck there. Subsequently that became a favorite haunt. In face I have not stayed anywhere else in Mukteshwar. They even lovingly attended to my dog during her countless stays at the Lodge.
(Lounging in the gardens of Somerset on a winter afternoon)
In 2007 however we went to Mountain Trail. We were the only residents there for the 2 nights that we checked in for. Maybe the only tourists in all of Mukteshwar. They gave us lovely food and attended to us with great care. What a contrast to the KMVN caretaker! The hotel also told us to get up early and watch out for the golden peak of Nanda Devi as the sunrays fell on it at dawn. We did that. At 6 in the morning, with eyes barely open, I pulled the blanket closer around me and stepped outside my warm room. The chill was biting and the view; Nanda Devi bathed in golden light, basking in the morning sun; it simply took my breath away. That is the moment I think I can say I fell in love with the mountains. The square tip of Nanda Devi was sparkling gold like a bride donned in jewels. It was an enchanting start to our day.
After the golden peak, there were more surprises in store for us. We found our dear car frozen in the night. There was a silvery icing on the car. Having never experienced something like this, we used a bristled brush to gently remove the ice coat and revved the engine to life. Once again we were on our way to KMVN. This time though we went into the PWD guesthouse opposite KMVN. They have made a viewing point there and in winters one can see the entire Nanda Devi – Trishul Himalayan range clearly. If a single peak was that enchanting, can you imagine the effect of seeing snow capped peak after peak. I have viewed this range from other places but this spot surely commands the best view of in the entire region.
Mouth agape you marvel at the beauty before you and wonder how it has all been created. You have a 180-degree view of not only the peaks but also all the hills and valleys in between. With the passing of each hour, the mountains don a new avatar and each is more spell binding that the earlier.
You feel as if the Himalayan highs are no more than a few kilometers away while in reality it is hundreds of kilometers away. Now, it is a regular feature to go there and start remembering which mountain follows which and naming them. Upon failing, we refer to the information panel that is there and sigh saying of course that’s how it.
(Mamma Papa arguing about the specifics)
The next stop is Chauli ki jaali. Mukteshwar is made of mica and sandstone and at chauli ki jaali erosion has made cliffs here with sheer drops. One false step will drop you into the lap of Ramgarh , 2500 feet down in the valley. This knowledge is of course useless since one still belly crawls to the tip and peers down praying fervently that the cliff holds.
(not to be attempted again! ever! )
Coming down from chauli ki jail, the IVRI forest area is on the left side of the mountain. This must have been the hunting ground for Jim Corbett’s ‘Muktesar man-eater’ and this flat land here finds a mention in his book. Even today, leopards are known to roam the forests in IVRI and surrounding habitat as well just as the post office mentioned by Corbett still stands witness to history. Keeping largely to them, it is always a good idea to remain on one’s guard especially if after dark. IVRI is Indian Veterinary Research Institute and entrance into their premises is not allowed. Once while staying at Somerset Lodge, we did go on a small hike into the mountains surrounding IVRI. The thick forest with its oaks and rhododendrons hardly let any sunlight in even during high noon. Such roads are endearingly called Thandi Sarak (Cold Roads) in the hills. These forests are excellent birding areas with good chance of spotting fork tails and warblers, magpies and jays. Even if one finds it difficult to spot birds in the thickets, just take a stroll in the apple orchards that abound here. If not seen, then the surely you will hear the tweets and chirrups of the birds aplenty.
My love for the mountains has only become more intense with the passage of time. If not be there all the time, I definitely wanted frequent access. A few years after the first visit, I bought a small cottage in these hills. Although Mukteshwar is now 30 kilometers away and we no longer go there for night halts, a visit through the winding thandi sarak is always on the itinerary. There is always a reason to go back to the hills such is the pull of the Himalayas.
One sunrise and a series of pictures showing a moon rise beyond Nanda Devi