Sunday, November 17, 2013

Munsiyari, Chaukori & Dhaulchina

“Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.”
― Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination

Munsiyari, which means a ‘place with snow’, had been on my travel agenda for quite a while. I had heard a lot about the views from Munsiyari and I had kept it stored in my mind as one of the places I wanted to visit when I had the time. The only thing stopping me was the amount of traveling I had to do to reach Munsiyari as it is about 270 kilometers from Kathgodam. I am a bad mountain traveler and a long drive through the meandering mountain roads do not do my stomach too much of a favor.

Anyway, on the 22nd of October, on the night of Karwa Chauth, I and two friends set out for Munsiyari. We had booked tickets on the Ranikhet Express which leaves Delhi late at night and we were soon asleep getting some sleep before the real journey started. We were in Kathgodam by 5 AM. Dressed in shorts and t-shirts the first sensation was that of early morning chill. Suitably adding on sweaters we were soon on our way, in the Innova that we had booked in advance.

We stopped for tea somewhere before Bhimtal and watched the colors of dawn spread over the sky. We did not know it then, but for the next week or so this watching the sun-rise and sun-set was to be the one habit that we were going to follow, abandoning our urban habit of staying late in bed. The habit was to have its own reward, as we were to find out soon. We stopped by between Almora and Dhaulchina to watch the mist in the valley below. The early morning heat had steamed the waters of Ram Ganga which hung like mist over the valley. At the height we were in, it looked like the tree-tops were floating in mid-air. There was nothing in front of us, except a blank white carpet, pock-marked with the tops of conifers, Oaks and pines.

We stopped for a late breakfast at Dhaulchina. Over a sumptuous meal of Gobhi and Aloo paranthas, spicy omelets, coffee and fresh oranges we surveyed the mountains with all the eagerness that you expect on the first day of a long journey. The mountains were green and the air was crisp and fresh. We made up our conversations around some of the beautiful cottages that we passed on the way… all places that we wanted to buy or take on lease to start a ‘resort’ of our own. We stopped by a gentle stream and sat and soaked our feet in the cold waters listening to the cacophony of birds in the bushes. Autumn was around us and we were dazzled by the foliage which was an ensemble of red and orange, interspersed with great tracts of unending green.

In about 5 hours of leisurely driving, having crossed the green waters of Seraghat, we were there at the famous Udiyari Bend, where our first stop Chaukori was just a few kilometers away. We stopped for a lunch of Maggi and Omelet and feasted on oranges and apples that we had stocked up on. The Panchachuli and other peaks were already visible in the close proximity but the clouds were playing truant, We checked into the KMVN Chaukori. The cottages were neat and reasonably well-maintained. This was the season of flowers and there were roses and marigolds blooming everywhere. Bees and butterflies swarmed the green lawns and it was bliss to sit on the wooden bench with a steaming cup of tea in hand watching time go by.

Soon, we were up and running, exploring the sleepy hamlet. The tea garden was dead and the tea factory a glorious ruin. There were cherry trees in bloom and the pace of the place almost like a frozen painting. We befriended a young shepherd boy who showed us around the forest and water holes where animals and birds often show up. We stopped, had a small picnic, experimented with tea-stalls and made up activities to while away the time. The clouds played hide-and-seek with us, showing glimpses of the peaks but not revealing them completely. We watched the glorious sunset which had become our staple diet and went indoors to watch the peaks from the warmth of our beds. We were advised by the staff and the police to stay inside the complex as a leopard had killed a cow a few days back in the vicinity of the resort and was expected to be on the prowl. We stayed in.

Next day, after an early breakfast we set out for Munsiyari. On the way we crossed Thal and stopped by the brilliant green waters of the Ram Ganga where we bathed to our heart’s content. It was one of the most picturesque river-sides that you can imagine and it was deserted, but for the three of us. The journey kept getting more and more interesting. We crossed beautiful waterfalls and hair-pin bends till suddenly we were in Birthi. Birthi is a spectacular waterfall and just a 5-10 minute walk from the road. We ordered lunch at the KMVN Birthi and set out for a second bath of the day. The sheer drop of the water was mind-numbing and the water was freezing cold. Again, there was no one around but us. With careful steps we walked down to the base of the waterfall, under a spectacular rainbow that the spray had conjured for us. We screamed and shouted and bathed in the lovely cold waters and in the pool at the base of the fall. India is so beautiful and it has such lovely places which, thankfully, remain off-limits for the casual traveler.

After the bath and a quick lunch we were in the last part of our journey. The 30 odd kilometers from Birthi to Munsiyari is a scary one-lane drive. Slowly our Innova trudged its way past sheer cliffs and thousand feet drops to Kalamuni Pass. There we stopped for our customary tea and paid a short visit to the MahaKali temple. By now, the Panchachuli seemed a stone’s throw away almost within our reach. By the time we reached Munsiyari, marveling and stopping at every waterfall and stream, by every green bugyal and grove of conifers, it was already darkening. We stopped and booked a room at Milam Inn and we were glad of this decision. It was a well-maintained resort with a great view and lovely food. The service too was top class. We watched the sunset from our balcony lording over a grand view of the Panchachuli range till night slowly settled in on the sleepy hamlet.

The next day we set out for the Khuliya top. Khuliya top is a 7-8 km trek (one way) that takes you to the very top (3700 m) of Munsiyari. It is a trek through the green forest in a trail where you are likely to meet few people, if any. In the company of invisible green goblins and singing birds you cross over near the Balati Potato farm, past a gentle stream and walk straight in to the trail that takes you to Khuliya. Being unfit for any strenuous activity I panted and made heavy weather of the beautiful trek. My friends had a great time, and we were in no hurry. The sun had warmed us and we had a guide to carry our packed lunches and woolens. As we climbed the view became more and more stunning and the forest cover thinned out till we were in the grasslands, above the tree line. I, being seriously obese, paused about 2 kilometers before the final summit along with our driver (who had accompanied us) but the others went ahead. We had a lunch of Paranthas and sandwiches along with hot coffee and cold water from a running stream. I lay down in the grass and slept with a magnificent view in all directions. My friends had an even more eventful time where they played, like kids, in the green bugyal amidst strangely shaped rocks, marveling at the beauty of nature… kings on top of the world. By the time we were back it was almost evening. This is a trek I will advise almost everybody. Do not go by my inability to finish the trek… most people can and will. Even if they do not, the journey and views are too enjoyable and spectacular to miss.

Munsiyari offered us more pleasant diversions. The Nanda Devi temple was beautifully spiritual. No one but us (if you like temples, but not crowds then this is for you) in a small temple, nestled in the shadows of the mighty Himalayan peaks, amidst wild flowers and a green grassy bugyal, the temple was spirituality personified. Just sitting on the balcony spying on the local folk and chasing birds was pleasant enough.

On the way back we stopped the night at Dhaulchina and had a most fantastic breakfast later on a green grass lawn amidst a host of roses, marigolds and Chrysanthemums. There were trekking trails everywhere and the views were all special. Everything was a picture post-card worth framing and the food and hospitality warm and memorable. My phone was switched off mostly (network, unfortunately, was never a problem). We picked fruits off trees and sat in green farmlands for long hours watching the silent mountains and far-off valleys.

As Bertrand Russell wrote in The Conquest of Happiness, “To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level”. If you want to walk to the very edge of the horizon, finding peace in the quietness of the mountains among warm and happy people, Munsiyari is the place where you must walk the trail. 

Soon somebody out there will build easier roads or maybe create a helipad making such far-off places more accessible to the  general public. Man will change things which need little improvement. Go there before you find malls and ice-cream parlors everywhere in places where a drink straight from the mountain stream suffices today.

October 2013 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

My Binsar Trip

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We all have our weaknesses, or passions if you so prefer to call it. Travel is one of those with me. As Augustine of Hippo wrote, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I intend to read as many pages as I can in my brief existence.

Do not mind these literary quotes for I shall try to avoid them for fear of boring you, my reader. As it may be slowly becoming clear, books are that other passion with me (as is photography) and I shall try and focus mainly on travel destinations and photography and keep my literary genius at bay.

While I love to travel to any place and see new things and meet new people, I have a special love for the mountains. Ironically, I am quite a bad mountain traveler. I have mountain sickness and I tend to throw up on people and by the road-side just when the mountains get most scenic and the journey most interesting. Still, it is the mountain that pulls me more than the seas (I think there is something akin to love in all of this… we yearn for the most difficult objects, what we cannot have me must seek). I will update you during the course of my future travel accounts how I have managed to not only contain this problem, but in view I have actually mastered it.

I had been down with the usual corporate nonsense for a while and I wanted to take some time out in the mountains, once again. So it was with a very short notice that I decided (along with my hapless sister, and my enthusiastic brother in law) to leave for Binsar. On 17th November, 2011 the three of us boarded the Anand Vihar- Kathgodam Shatabdi which leaves early in the morning (I think around 7 AM). After about a 5 hour journey we were at Kathgodam by 12:00 noon. We had hired a Tavera in advance and the smiling driver was waiting for us. After the usual pleasantries were exchanged and we stocked up on the usual snacks we set out early for Binsar which is about 115 kilometers away.

Our first stop was Bhimtal which is a 45 minute drive. Sitting by the lake, feeling the cool freshness of the mountain air we had a quick lunch. Very soon we were back on the road crossing places like Bhowali (where we picked up some fruits), Kainchi Dham, and after enjoying the company of the beautiful Ram Ganga we were soon in Almora. The total time taken to Almora from Kathgodam was two and half hours (without the lunch break) through a beautiful road in the shade of pines and other coniferous trees. After Almora we took the Bageshwar road and in less than a hour we were at the gates of Binsar Sanctuary. After paying the fees we were soon climbing in a single lane road deep inside the forest.

The climb was steep and the road meandering and precipitous. Most interestingly, the vegetation was changing rapidly. We were losing track of the conifers and finding more and more Oaks and Rhododendron trees. The silence was punctuated by the chatter of insects and birds. In the ten-twelve kilometer drive we passed the Binsar temple but our destination was the KMVN Guest House which rests at the very end of the road. By the time we stopped at the KMVN, it was getting dark (it was winter) and very chilly. The KMVN is an old bungalow and some additions to that, not very well maintained. But what it does not offer in terms of infrastructure it more than makes up with its location and atmosphere.

Let me explain. As we checked in to the Guest House I was directed to the terrace. The view there is one to die for. The full panoramic view of the Himalayan peaks… Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Ghunti, Panchachuli, etc. took my breath away. It was not the cold but the uninterrupted view of heaven, in absolute sub-zero temperatures, a cup of steaming tea in hand, as the stars slowly appeared one by one was the closest thing that one can have to a spiritual experience. Though it was freezing we sat, cups of tea and pakoras flowing, watching the constellations unfold. Things that I had long forgotten about the night sky and the galaxies and stars which had seemed invisible in the neon haze of urban life… all came alive in that forest in Binsar. You have to be there to feel as connected. I cannot explain that in words.

Anyway, the dinner was nice and warm. Nothing fancy but lots of greens and boiled egg curry. There was hot sweet dish in the end and the rotis, rice and papad were all warm and in abundance. The soup which was thin still tasted delicious and my hunger seemed insatiable. The rooms were basic and once I found my spot under the quilts and blankets I gradually started feeling warm again. One point you must remember: there is no electricity or running hot water in KMVN Binsar. Electricity is available for a few hours to charge your gadgets. Obviously, there is no TV (who needs it really) and the only distractions are people in your room, the great view and the sounds of the forest. Sleeping in the light of a candle is a pleasant experience and if you can avoid phone calls (nothing works except BSNL) it is an ideal getaway. I had my books, my iPod and my solitude. It more than sufficed.

At dawn we went to the terrace to steal a quick view of the peaks. The mist which had gathered lifted to reveal all the peaks which looked lifted from a surreal painting in the early morning light. After having a quick cup of tea and some biscuits we rushed off to the zero point trek, the idea being to catch as many birds as possible in their morning abandon. I had forgotten my ‘bird lenses’ and had the basic 18-105 and the 70-300 with me. So for me, photography was far lower on priority versus watching the sleeping forest wake. With a guide who was quite knowledgeable and who knew all the trails, the three of us went exploring. The forest did not disappoint: the singing birds like orioles, thrushes, nuthatches, jays, blackbirds and even parakeets were there in plenty. We caught a cuckoo hawk doing his best to merge with the vegetation. There were owlets and woodpeckers and lots of species of unknown birds. We also got to see a number of beautiful butterflies. At the end (or somewhere along the very short trek) we reached the zero point. Once again the range was visible in its glory although slowly the clouds were wafting in, obscuring parts of the view.

We spent the next two days looking at sun-rises and sun-sets, ambling through the forest doing nothing, listening to the birds and the breathing forest. We soaked in the sun, catching up on our reading, sleeping in the lawn with our feet touching the grass. We ordered food when we had nothing to do and the smiling caretaker and his staff did not disappoint.

When I look back and try to explain what we can really do in Binsar I find it difficult to put that in words. You cannot define lazing as an art form. As Bill Watterson, the creator of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes puts it, “There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” Binsar is a place where you catch up on all the nothings that you have sacrificed. Eat, read, think and remember what it is to be happy just to be in the sun. It may be all that you need, really, in this beautiful world.