Travel stories

A Himalayan Holiday – Part 1

The proposal for a Himalayan holiday was received by me with a healthy dose of scepticism. I don’t exactly enjoy sweating it out on long hikes and the thought that I could be lazing on a deck chair in some beach resort sipping a Mai Tai troubles me every minute of any hike. I was chided for being an urban bumpkin by an over-zealous sister who doesn’t believe in measuring distances while taking hikes, and an equally adventurous husband. Good things come to those who labour, they promised.

After several confusing visits to numerous websites and travel blogs (my head often reels at multiple windows and I wonder how everyone is a whiz at multi-tasking on the Internet), we decided on Bhimtal and Almora. I hadn’t heard of Bhimtal before, and guessed with my little knowledge of geography beyond the Vindhyas that it was close to Nainital. I turned out to be not too far off the mark! Almora, everyone I spoke to remarked, was the very definition of beauty. I tried to imagine what this meant. High peaks surrounded by green with some sparkling water body nearby? It’s funny how even our images of beauty are influenced by what is circulated in mainstream consciousness. Postcards from Switzerland, travel brochures, and pictures of the Alps in advertisements play a not so small part.
 We began our journey at the new terminal of the Chennai airport, which is not even old wine in a new bottle. Old wine in an old bottle washed temporarily perhaps. We thought we’d reached the airport well in time. Apparently not, as we weren’t lucky enough to get seats together. Two middle seats in the same row required us to play throw-ball across the aisle with home-made sandwiches, books, ear-phones and a hundred odd things we felt we needed to get through the flight. Predictably, the requests to our co-passengers for an exchange of seats were met with brusque responses. They held on to their prized window and aisle seats like the last drop of water left of the world’s oceans.
Delhi welcomed us with atrociously hot weather as if to make us realize the value of our home-city. Having met our two co-adventurers from Bangalore in the airport, we set off. All the time, I kept telling myself that our responses to the heat emerged from a certain state of mind. What if I pretended the heat was lovely and enjoyable?
 The route by road from Delhi to Bhimtal is Delhi-Ghaziabad-Gajraula-Moradabad-Rampur-Bilaspur-Rudrapur-Haldwani-Kathgodam-Bhimtal. If you are wise, you will leave Delhi early in the morning to reach Bhimtal at a sane hour. If you are wiser, you will penetrate the IRCTC system and get yourself train tickets to Kathgodam. After a relaxed meal at a friend’s place in Delhi followed by some great chai and conversation, we left at around 3 p.m. The journey upto Moradabad was relatively peaceful with good roads, music and exchange of gossip. We eagerly looked out for the Bikanerwala in Moradabad, as funny signs kept telling us the time left to reach there, in a promise of good food. The halt is a must for some explosive chaat, and the best Kulfi ever twirled around a stick and eaten like a bar of ice-cream.  The place also has some really clean toilets, something many of us will be glad for!
The stretch becomes terrible from Rampur, as parts of the road are closed and you will be forced to take a narrow alternative to reach Rudrapur. If you’re stuck on this road at night like we were, it’s a positive nightmare. It is choc-a-bloc with trucks, and traffic cannot move in both directions at the same time. We heaved a sigh of relief as we reached Haldwani, the largest industrial base close to Almora district. We were eternally grateful for the DVD player in the car, but for which we would have ended up clawing each other in irritation.
Kathgodam is the foothill, and Bhimtal is about 20km up the hill road. We reached our resort (Fisherman’s Lodge) at the earthly hour of 2.30 AM, to the welcome of the entire staff of the establishment anxiously waiting to see their guests, whose existence they had begun to doubt.

The hotel just overlooks the Bhimtal lake, and despite our exhaustion from the journey, we couldn’t resist taking in the views of the lake at night with the still darkness punctured by beautiful specks of light on the hills. The staff at Fisherman’s Lodge in a measure of utterly homely hospitality had a hot meal ready for us at 3 AM, right from warm soup to steaming gulab-jamuns for dessert. It reminded me of the number of times my mum would stay up waiting for my return after a late night flight, and heat up the food to serve me at an unearthly hour.

  The hotel is intimate and cosy. The interiors are typical of a hill-station, with wood being one of the dominant elements. Hues of green cover the entire place, in tandem with the colour of the Bhimtal lake. The rooms are very well furnished with large comfortable beds and bathrooms with lovely natural lighting. The view of the lake is spectacular, as we discovered the next morning, and every room is endowed with a substantial balcony for expansive views of the hills and the lake.
On the first day of our stay at Bhimtal, we predictably headed to the lake for a rowing expedition. The lake is absolutely clean – a refreshing change for those used to the muddied waters of Ooty and Kodaikanal. Boating during the day is not so much fun though, as Bhimtal can get pretty warm in summer and is not at a very high altitude. The sparse population of tourists, though, is extremely comforting, and we could count the number of boats that adorned the lake on our fingers. Bhimtal is largely undiscovered by the tourist, in sharp contrast to crowded Nainital and this lends the town a somewhat ghostly air at night.
 Having sighted posters in the local restaurants for adventure sport, we headed that evening to Naukuchiyatal, another beautiful emerald-green lake. It is also a popular spot for paragliding. Not being an adventure junkie, I refused to take the plunge advancing detailed arguments on the levels of safety, and emergency measures etc. I was met with cold responses, judged as a sucker for first-world snobbery and effectively pressurised to join the rest of my group. My hands twitched nervously as I signed the disclaimer form, and for once the lawyer in me couldn’t view it simply as a legal document. The group that conducts the paragliding is however completely re-assuring and thoroughly professional. You can see from their demeanour that they have done it predict the vagaries of nature but can definitely give you an idea of whether you stand a fair chance. If you are a snow-freak, January-February is probably the best time to visit.
We were a little disappointed, but the nice lunch that followed elevated our spirits a little. Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop on Mall Road offers some really good and homely pizzas, burgers and Thai food as well. The desserts are gorgeous and you get to scan an entire window lined with colourful pies, cakes and soufflé, to have your pick. The Banana Pie, and varieties of chocolate cake are a must-try!
The Mall Road is also a nice stroll, lined with shops including a charming book-store where you will find a lot of locally contextualized literature. I for one was induced to pick up Corbett’s ‘The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag’, the fascinating tale of an entire village’s experience with an elusive leopard.  I would personally recommend to all avid readers, that you try to get some local literature into your list wherever you travel. It heightens your experience of the place and also widens your palate of reading.
 Boating in the Nainital lake was one of the conventional must-do’s. You understand why it has endured as one of the most favoured activities in the hill station. A lovely cold breeze keeps you company throughout, as you sit back and stare at the hills surrounding you – a rich lush green, interspersed with colonial bungalows.
Our next halt from Bhimtal was the Jungle adventure camp at Sattal. Our original plan was to stay at the camp, but horrified at the thought of a rather rudimentary bathroom (there are some compromises you cannot make beyond college life!) I managed to convince my group to spend just the day at the camp to pack in all the activities they offer. The drive from Bhimtal to Sattal is itself very scenic, as you discover lakes around every nook and corner. Garudtal is particularly magical and pristine, as it appears to be completely untouched by human presence. We crossed the river on a ferry to reach the jungle camp in Sattal.  
We were received by Amdy, who has evidently enjoyed the wilderness for a large part of his life. With a sense of determined purpose, he lead us into dense forests, the site of our activities. The first of these activities was rappelling down a rock of about 30m in height. Once I was able to conquer the fear of looking down a practically vertical rock from a height, I discovered that rappelling can be a lot of fun, a great way to get familiar with the terrain of the place, and most importantly, a wonderful workout! You can also get some river crossing on to the agenda, though in summer, the river was largely left to our imagination.

The high point of the day was the swim at the Sattal lake. The waters of the lake are delightfully cool but not freezing, and sparklingly clean. You can float on your back and stare at the hills surrounding the lake, a setting straight out of The Wind in the Willows!
The day at Sattal ended our sojourn in the Bhimtal area, and we began the second part of our interesting trip to Almora, with mixed expectations of the place.
(To be continued…..)
            Fisherman’s Lodge, Bhimtal
            Getaway Jungle Camp, Sattal

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