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Home in the Himalayas

A holiday in the hills that is truly off the beaten track has much more to offer than just a pleasant change. It has more to do with ‘total change’: what’s it like to fall asleep in a cottage with only the soft whisper of swishing pines to disturb the sound of silence; to see the heavens lit up in all their beautitude on a night with only a flickering candle as a distraction; to be in the midsts of simplefolk – no treachery for miles around; not to even mention the sheer joy of fresh, pure air, and eye-soothing nature all around….

Many tourists,Indian as well as foreigners,are looking towards lesser known and frequented destinations which offer a complete break from the daily monotony and pressures of city life.

My wife and I set out for Chaukori (2010m above MSL),a small, quaint hill station set amongst the looming peaks of the western Himalayan range,in the Kumaon region of Uttar Pradesh. Chaukori is around 273 Kms from Kathgodam,which is fairly well connected by rail to the rest of the country.Our journey begins there,one cold winter morning, in the last week of January,2000.The route takes you via Almora,Bageshwar and Binsar.A total journey of around 7 hours,with excellent road conditions which make it very enjoyable. The gradient is gentle, the road very broad, and finished smooth by a paving machine. The 93 kilometre journey upto Almora doesn’t offer any dramatic scenery though you’ll start noticing the fresh air and crisp sunshine now. Almora is a big district town with thinner tourist traffic than Ranikhet and Nainital.After a quick and rather hurried breakfast,for we wanted to carry on,we moved towards Bageshwar After descending from Almora the road winds its way mostly along the valley and we had the constant companionship of lush green paddy fields, luxuriant vegetation all around and an occasional rivulet. The famous Devit emple at Kainchi, with its bright safron and red colours made for an excellent picture. So did the varying patterns of paddy fields in contrasting greens and browns.

We stopped here for a brief “darshan”,and were struck by the serenity of the place,its absolute stillness…… Our next step was Bageshwar,for lunch,around 108 Kms from Almora, named so after its famous temple of Bagnath (Bag being the Hindi word for tiger). Yes, at one time this entire area had a sizeable population of tigers, leopards and panthers. lt was Jim Corbett’s hunting grounds all right. Built beside a rivulet, it is a custom for devotees wishing for a boon to tie a bell in front of the Bagnath temple. It was a drive of around 3 hours from Almora.Bageshwar is the headquaters of the Pithoragarh district,set in a long winding green valley.We had lunch in a small “pahadi” dhaba.Hot, fresh chappatis and sabzi accompanied with steaming mugs of hot chai..Chaukori,as our driver told us,was just 2 hours(60 Kms) away.Our excitement,along with our weariness,was mounting.

The next 2 hours were a steep climb,set amidst some of the most beautiful mountain scenery its been my pleasure viewing.Smooth roads,bright sunshine,looming peaks all made for wonderful company. But, of course, luck doesn’t smile forever. Just five kilometres short of Chaukori, the sky turned menancingly dark and a major storm was imminent any moment. The big question was: whether we would make it to Chaukori first or would the storm overtake us before that. Luck chose the former. Our booking were at the KMVN(Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) guest house,which we had booked from Lucknow,and which we discovered later was the only accomodation available at Chaukori.The choice had been between rooms and cottages,we had chosen the later.

Finally,8 hours,some 273 Kms later,we reached our destination.although it was only 4:25 pm,the sky was quite dark.The tourist bungalow is a large sprawling place,with the cottages set some distance away from thr main building.The cottages are large,well furnished with all modern amenities apart from telephone,cause Chaukori itself,we were to discover later ,does not have telecom facilities.There is however a wireless set at the guest house,which can be used during emergencies.The manager ,Mr. Tiwari,was a most affable person,personally asking me and my wife to contact him for any help,however small.

Next day,we woke to clear skies,awesome ,looming,snow clad peaks. Even as the sun rose higher, the panorama of mountains including the Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, and Nanda Khat stood out against the blue sky. Imagine,an entire range of peaks,set over an angle of 120 degrees.I had been to Patnitop,Rohtang pass,Manali,Kinnaur,Yumthang,Nothing,nothing compared against this. It was the stuff that my dreams are made up of.

Hurridly pulling on our wollens,we rushed out,still bleary eyed,but very excited.The mountains were there,almost within touching distance,with the golden colored peaks slowly turning white as the sun rose.The grass underneath our feet was still white,due to frost,and slippery.Our breath came out as smoke.Promptly we climbed the viewing tower and sat there ,just looking ,gazing,each lost in his private domain.From here we could see the whole of chaukori,which was this guest house,3 small shops,an abandoned tea garden to our left,a small village some 2 kms away.78 people,we were to discover later.And yes,one policeman,on shifting duty.After breakfast,we ventured out.Walked into the tea garden,up several small hills.Chaukori was very different from the other places we had been to so far.Nothing to see except nature,no tourist taxi drivers hustling you for sightseeing points,no one looking at you while you roamed around.Safe,secure,serene and incredidly quaint.

A short walk along a kutcha (unmetalled road) took us through the garden of nicely pruned tea plants (all remnants of the Raj era) and to the other side of the hill. From here the panorama was different and the foreground had rolling hills dotted by tiny, shiny specks which were actually slate tiled roofs reflecting sunlight.

The nearest town is Berinag(10 Kms away) .The places which are worthwhile seeing are “Patal Bhuvneshwar”,a temple of the Lord Shiva in a cave,and Kasturi farm,a place where deer are bred.The former is around 30 Kms away ,and you can either hitch a ride to Berinag and carry on from there thru a share jeep,other wise the other option remains of hiring a full jeep from Chaukori.Kasturi farm,however,is on top of a hill,a walk of around 3 kms,and should only be attempted by the fit.If however ,you manage to reach the top,its worthwhile spending a day with the animals.The farm house is clean,well maintained and everyone there ,including visitors,can get involved in work there.We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

By the time we returned to base camp(excuse me,the guest house),we were tired and hiungry.After a late lunch and some sleep,we decided to get a lil innovative.Since the place was rather large,we reckoned we could start a bonfire besides our cottage.We asked for and were readily given permission by Mr. Tiwari,the KMVN guest house manager.Some wood was soon arranged,split intosmall pieces by my intrepid wife(who is ex NCC),and soon we had a roaring bonfire going.Another brainwave,why not cook here.out in the open.Something we city dwellers always dreamt of doing,and almost never managed to.A dressed and cut chicken was arranged from the guest house kitchen,and yours truly went to work.The end product was a lil spicy,and too oily,but then,who cares.The smell of cooking meat,burning wood and soft “pahari” songs were enough to entrall us.Along with a glass or two of brandy.

And then suddenly,something caught our attention.It was 8:30 pm,the ambers of the fire were still glowing.

The heavens themselves were there to be seen. I only remember having seen such a starscape in the Thar. At last, the Milky Way lived up to its name. The Great Bear, which is prominent enough to be visible in city conditions, was now lost in this overexuberant medley. It is tempting to try a few long exposure shots provided you don’t have an unwary fellow-guest pointing his flash light at you.

Since it was three days past full moon, Mr. Moonshine was taking his time rising. He finally came up only after we’d tucked ourselves in the thulmas – sheep wool blankets made on village looms and extremely warm. They are markedly warmer than blankets and not too heavy either.

Next morning, we took another of our customry early morning walks through the dense forests around. The tree trunks covered with moss were pointers to the fact that Chaukori received a fair amount of rain. And yes, the forests are not only pine groves. Apart from the bright red bottle flower trees, it was difficult to identify the other flora for me.

After spending 3 idyllic days at Chaukori,we reluctantly packed our backs for the journey back home.

Though the manager had coaxed us more than once to stay back, we decided to retrace our steps and proceed to Binsar by late forenoon. We’ll probably always repent not staying on. But then city dwellers like us have such weird concepts like time, schedules, deadlines and paid leaves added on to their vocabulary. None of these made sense in the lap of nature. Chaukori to Binsar is an up and down drive via Bageshwar and Taluka. The Great Himalayan peaks will be a constant companion till Bageshwar. Then they appear only intermittently.

After Almora,slowly the fauna,the weather,the air changed.It was back to familiar territory for us.Computers,Mutual funds,smog,pollution and yes……the color and allure of money.

Background Information: The Kumaon Himalayas lie next to the Garhwal region and are situated on the Great Himalayan Range. Kumaon is often confused with the Garhwal region itself. Kumaon comprises the three hill districts of Nainital, Almorah and Pithoragarh. It is bordered by Mahakali (or Kali or Kali Nadi) in the east towards Nepal and the districts of Pauri Garhwal and Chamoli to the west. Tibet lies to the north and the Terai to the south. The Mahakali River, running along its eastern boundary, forms the Indo-Nepal international border. Moving westwards, one comes across the Panchchuli Massif, the Gori Valley, and the Pindari and Sunderdungha valleys at the western end of Kumaon. The Kali River and its valley are prominent in Kumaon. At one time, the Kali Valley was the standard trade route from India to Tibet, crossing over the Lipu Lekh pass. The Mahakali originates north of the main Himalayan range, carves its way through the Greater Himalayas and merges with the Ganga (Ganges).

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