Though it’s been six months since I got back from my first solo leisure trip, the memories of the journey are still afresh. It feels as if I have just set my foot back in Pune from the serene and beautiful Kumaon. I was so overwhelmed with my trip that I could not find the right way to re-share my experience until now. So here is my travel story from the foothills of Himalaya, in 10 best pictures and anecdotes:
- The quaint little town of Bhimtal and its hardworking women: My stay in Kumaon further validated my impression about women in small towns and villages. They are the unsung heroes who earn a living, take care of household chores and yet look so stunning, brimming with energy. Light pale skin, boxed faces and unadulterated smile is how I remember them from Kumaon. Meet Prema and Hema, two farmers from Bhimtal, who were diligently sowing seeds while I was strolling in their paddy field.
It was about sunset. The duo pleasantly looked up when I called them “Didi” (elder sister) to start a conversation. Hema quickly introduced me to both of them while Prema continued her work silently acknowledging my presence. They were winding up the day’s work. When I asked them if they weren’t afraid of snakes and other animals in the dark they said “We are, but if we keep being afraid of them who else would finish our work. Snakes have bitten us before but that doesn’t stop us from earning our bread and butter”
Every time I meet farmers I pledge not to waste food. Every grain on our plate comes after months of their toil and hard work.
- Hiking through mysterious narrow paths: My hiking trips in Bhimtal raised my love for the activity to another level. When I was planning my trip to Kumaon, I was very sure that I will tuck myself in a cosy room with a book and coffee. An unplanned hike, to give some fellow travellers company, introduced me to these mystery trails which can lead you anywhere – a jungle, an army habitation, paddy fields or yet another village!
You will certainly find blood sniffing leeches hidden in the twigs and soil, but the mystery you will unfold while following these tracks is worth the bites.
- Reinvented comfort food: “Pahadi Maggi” is the first thing on the menu at any road side Dhaba in Bhimtal. I heard so much about it from the beginning of my trip that I had to eat the best one in town. Here is how a sumptuous plate of pahadi maggi looks like:
It was a delicious mixture of all local vegetables cooked with some oil. It was nothing exotic, but if you are a hungry traveller you will relish every bite of it. I have heard about pahadi Maggi and its presence across the Himalayan region. I guess we all know how delicious a piping hot bowl of Maggi tastes in colder weather. Team it with a local plate of Rajma Chawal and thank me later.
- Hidden lakes: Bhimtal is famous for its lakes. There are around 4-5 beautiful lakes which surround this town. Sattal (seven lakes) is a famous tourist spot but our hiking group was more interested in Garudataal (Vulture lake), which only the locals seemed to know. After a long walk and a lot of guidance from school kids heading back home, we reached the lake (there wasn’t a sign of a single vulture, but the silence in the air was definitely morbid).
The green color of the water matched perfectly with the trees laying shadow on its still water. We found an open church right at the shore of the lake. I have never seen a church, amphitheatre style, before. There was a lone altar facing several arched stairs. It looked like the place had just heard a sermon from the bible. This lake is also used by priests to baptise couples and children. As I sat by the stairs of the church and gazed at the lake, it looked like the place held a lot of untold stories which sneak out in the dark.
- The local affair: Fairs were a part of my childhood when I lived in a small town in Gujarat. As I moved across various cities, I never saw them again and thought they are already a chapter of history. One of the mornings at our guesthouse in Bhimtal, the cook told us that there is a fair in the town. The same evening I decided to visit it. It was exactly how I had last seen it. Women glittering in their studded sarees and jewellery, men sitting in a circle and discussing local politics, teenagers dressed to impress their dames and shops selling everything from food to toys and household knick-knacks. The shops looked like apes who were progressing towards modern-day civilization. A fading history on its own.
- Letters to the god: My next destination after Bhimtal was Shaukiyathal. A village closer to the foothills of Himalaya. On my way I met the beloved God of Kumaon, Golu Devta. He seemed particularly fond of bells because his temple was full of them. There were A4 size pages attached to each bell, some were handwritten and some typed. I am sure I broke a hell lot of temple rules but I couldn’t stop myself from reading those papers. These papers were letters or more so written prayers. Job, property disputes and marriage ruled the subject of writing whereas some wanted the god to free them from lust so that they can focus on their studies. I am sure Golu Devta is a very busy god. His temple seemed nothing less than a government office with piles of papers waiting to be addressed since ages. I left with a smile and reduced the deity’s burden a bit by not asking for anything.
- Picturesque views: If you are in Shaukiyathal, rest assured to never see a site which would leave you unimpressed. From distant slow clad Himalayan peaks to playground on ridges and stretches of green, you will see it all. If you want to really know what “pin drop silence” means, this is the place. You can catch plenty of meditative solitude here while you sip some chai made on mud stove and gaze into infinity.
- The lifestyle: Farming and cattle raising is the primary source of livelihood here. So you would see goats, buffalos and harvested crops occupying the patio of every house. People live in mud houses and have belongings only to meet basic needs. The houses are two storeys painted in blue and white; the lower level is for cattle and the upper level is their residence. People in Shaukiyathal are never in a rush. After the day’s hard work women get busy cooking meals while the men assemble at the local tea shop and chatter about politics, business and how hospitality will raise their incomes in future.
- The plight: Farming being the primary source of income for the villagers, they invest most of their money on their farms. One natural calamity or rummage by wild animals ruin the profits for one entire harvest season.
The picture is of a small potato farm which faces regular nuisance from monkeys. A dialogue with the farm owner left me worried. He said “For tourists like you, Wild life sanctuaries are an attraction but for us they are a curse. The leopards eat our cattle and the monkeys eat our crops. This leaves us with such little produce that it is difficult at times to even manage a meal for our family”. I saw another example of an unending battle of man v/s wild.
- People in Shaukiyathal and nearby villages are extremely welcoming. A wave and a smile are usual when you pass by a house. Don’t be shocked if people invite you to share a cup of tea or a bowl of fresh yogurt with them. It took me a while to get used to it. Nicety from strangers is so scarce that I found it unbelievable that people were sharing food and life stories, in exchange of nothing but a hearty conversation and laughter.
I also visited the wild life sanctuary at Binsar, which is around 50 kms from Shaukiyathal. Because of rain and dense fog I couldn’t click any pictures but I did hike across the forest for few hours. Introduction to local flora and fauna, sight of a barking deer and a glimpse of Vikram Seth’s (the famous writer) house gifted me another walk to remember.