A few trips to Garhwal Himalayas in the past years had pretty much convinced me that the region is as close to the heavens as it can get. When gliding down swiftly on snow-filled ski slopes of Auli, the views of Nanda Devi far away in the east and the deep ravines of Alaknanda to the north form a contrast that effectively render the scale of the mighty Himalayas into the mind. In the years after my initial rendezvous with Garhwal, I have explored the length of the Indian Himalayas on journeys that have taken me through Ladakh, Zanskar, Pir Panjal, Khangchendzonga ranges and the mountains of Arunachal. They all have awed me to no end, each of them unique and standing distinctly on their own, each peak effusing its unique character with pride.
In all these years, I was clearly aware of my itineraries keeping out Kumaon – Garhwal’s cousin to its south. The region comes with sufficient fame to its name, with the hill stations that have charmed the rulers in the days of the Raj to snowy peaks and glaciers that have attracted the adventure oriented today. Not to forget the legendary Jim Corbett who spent most of his life wandering the foothills of Kumaon with his endearment to nature and wildlife, and at the same time being saviour of the natives from the curse of man eaters. A sense of curiosity and respect for this region has always lurked in a corner of my mind, leaving a growing intent to visit and know its mountainous terrain. Milam and Pindari glaciers, Nainital and Ranikhet, the green and calm lakes of Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal, Binsar and Munsiyari are just some of the names that I have heard time and again in travel stories that have kept me fascinated. When I received an invite from Club Mahindra to visit Binsar, there was no thinking left, but to just accept.
Alighting Ranikhet Express in Kathgodam on the way to Binsar, it is evident that we are up to something beautiful. Foothills rise abruptly from the edge of the last train station, adorning thick greenery on their slopes. Rising peaks, dipping temperatures and pleasant wind welcome us into their territory as we drive up the hills, leaving the town and the clear waters of Golu River behind.
The first surprise greets us as we drive past a mountain pass: Bhimtal lake suddenly appears unannounced round a bend, with the road skirting the bank of the calm and green waters of the large lake. Driving round the lake and taking a short detour from the highway, we head to Naukuchiatal Lake, our first destination for the day. The largest and deepest lake in the region, it derives its name from the nine corners that confine its waters. From the edge of the lake where I stand, only few of those nine corners are visible, as the lake stretches away from me and disappears into a bend on the opposite end. Green hills surrounding the lake keep the wind at bay, letting the still waters of the lake reflect the encircling greenery. As I sit and scan the length of the lake, a loudening trotting sound makes me aware of horses running along the lake shore. I wish to be up on the back of one of them, but our stay here is brief and we have a long way to go before we get to Binsar.
Naini Lake, Nainital
The breakfast at Club Mahindra Resort on the lake shore has us replenished from the long journey from Delhi, and gets us ready for the drive ahead. Atul, the manager at the resort tells me that people go swimming in the lake, making me wish I had more time to spend here. Adding to my longing is the news of commencement of paragliding sessions only the day before we arrived.
Tourists on boats at Naini Lake, Nainital
Images of Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal linger in the mind as we drive away. But nearby Nainital, which we visit on our way back is a complete contrast. Urban sprawl of the town dominates the hills around the lake. Hotels crowd the lake-shore and occupy every inch of free space available. The shrinking lake doubles up as sewage dump for the town, and its waters have gone dark and visibly polluted. But all that apart, there is an undeniable charm that pulls in crowds to Nainital’s lakeside town. Its foggy environs create an appeal, and the sail-boats and row-boats that spread along the lake surface give it an air of romance.
The Hills of Kumaon
The drive to Binsar takes us through ever-green vegetation in the lower region that gives way to pine forests and shrubbery as we go higher. A dip in temperature is apparent as we climb up. The road from Kathgodam to Almora meanders up along the bank of Kosi river (This is not the Kosi that flooded Bihar earlier this year). Its waters are clear and inviting, and is so dark green that it could very well merge into the vegetation around it. Her flow appears gentle but is deceptive. On the day we drive back from Binsar, we put ourselves to test against the flow, as we stop for lunch by a riverside restaurant and use the time to dive into river and swim against its current. Can’t think of a better way to come out refreshed.
Almora’s urban sprawl almost comes as a shock after long hours of driving in the countryside seeing green mountains and only small villages that appear along the valley once in a while. We run into urbanscapes, traffic trouble and blocked roads – things that we have been trying to run away from. But it doesn’t take long to put Almora behind and enter pine forest that stretches endlessly. The scent of pine is not apparent in this early winter but a faint perfume rises in the air once in a while. Clear blue skies, tall conifers spreading along the mountains, a carpet of green grass and meandering roads – recipe for a perfect drive. Once in a while, the road rides on the high ridges revealing deep valleys on either side and giving a feel of a high as I look below. It was six good hours on the road before we made it to Binsar.
Continued in part II