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.

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