Travel stories

A Himalayan Holiday – Part II

After our 4 day stay in Bhimtal ending on a high note with the swim in the Sattal lake, we headed to Almora. The river Kosi runs along the road from Bhimtal to Almora. With the river bed dry in the peak of summer, we were not fortunate enough to listen to the sounds of the water accompanying us. Driving in the twilight on the verge of dusk, we couldn’t see the deep crevices on the river-bed either, but just imagining that they existed was exciting enough for us! The idea of the river’s mythological significance, featuring prominently as it does in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, did much to amplify our excitement. Most of us who have grown up with the epics will admit to sheer delight in having places and geographical features, imbued with a sense of grandeur by reason of their association with the epics, descend upon us quietly.

A good part of our drive was spent in negotiating rates with the driver, and my sister, inspired by all the films she has watched, effectively employed the weapons of ‘n’yaya’ and ‘dharma’ in impressive Hindi to get her point home. On a serious note, finding reasonably priced transport in the Almora district is a huge challenge, and you will be exploited owing to the lack of options. It would be advisable to get your resort to arrange a car in advance, or to hire one from Haldwani and retain it for the time you are in Almora.

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The view from our room! A sight to remember

We drove into Kalmatia Sangam late at night, worried at the lack of signage on the roads leading to it. It usually means one of two things (1) that the resort is run-down and and (2) the resort is so eclectic, it doesn’t look to publicize itself through signage. Thankfully for us, the second came true.

The warmth of Kalmatia Sangam welcomes us
The warmth of Kalmatia Sangam welcomes us

We were received at the lovely reception hall that doubles up as a reading and games room, by Narendra and Imogen. After a long day of adventure in the wilderness (at Sattal), and a tiring drive, we felt a rush of warmth seeing people around us doing all the things that define our idea of civilisation. It’s like walking into a home away from home – the picture of people dining, standing around laughing in groups, and children sleeping on the couch can be more reassuring than one imagines! A fresh and cold rhododendron (the state tree of Uttarakhand) juice welcomed us to the resort, and Narendra and Imogen who manage the property led us to our cottages.

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The view of the Himalayan Peaks from Kalmatia Sangam – Pic courtesy: Kalmatia Sangam

Kalmatia’s cottages are spread out extensively at different levels, each with a unique view of the hills and the Himalayan peaks. There is rich vegetation all around, and when you reach the boundaries of the resort, you realize the lines between the space and the forests themselves blur. There are a variety of trees growing in the area including pine, oak, cypress, cedar and rhododendron.

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Our cottages – Cuckoo and Hoopoe – Pic courtesy: Kalmatia Sangam

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Our cottages were lyrically named ‘Cuckoo’ and ‘Hoopoe’, one perched on top of the other, and each endowed with a huge balcony to take in the views. The decor is minimal and elegant and you will see a lot of wood, linen in ethnic designs, and delightful small touches like tumblers and water jugs in copper. The bathrooms are basic and clean, and stocked with organic soaps and shampoo made in Uttarakhand.  They sell under the brand ‘SOS’, an organization that makes cosmetics, herbal infusions, seasonings and grains, completely free from chemicals, artificial colours and preservatives. They come in unique fragrances like a Himalayan infusion, Forest Honey, Apricot Lemongrass, Peppermint and Rosemary. They’re worth stocking and you would do good to lay your hands on them wherever discovered!After an elaborate Indian dinner, we had a good night’s sleep, keeping the multiple windows open to catch the sounds of the birds.
In what seemed like a sudden stroke of luck to me, we decided to laze around at the resort for the first half of the next day, playing Boggle and catching up with our reading. We also got to know a bit about Narendra and Imogen. Narendra, we discovered, had spent a large part of his life in theatre in Bengal. Like all awakened souls with a strong sense of issues, he began to question the experience in a few years, wondering if his theatre made the kind of difference he had set out to achieve. He sought out a new chapter in Almora motivated to visit the place by what he had heard. He realized he had found his home. Eventually, Kalmatia Sangam found in him the right person to tend to and rear the precious place. And he does it beautifully. He knows every part of the resort like you would your home, gives you a range of ideas on how to spend your time at Almora, and ensures every small need is taken care of. Not in the manner a luxury hotel would – plastic and efficient, but with the warmth of family. Imogen is qualified and trained in reflexology. She discovered Almora when she visited the place for a meditation and therapy session, and was drawn to the place like most people are. She helps manage the resort and runs the reflexology-massage centre, which is less like a spa and more like a therapeutic centre that takes your body and its problems seriously. Her foot reflexology session is tremendously relaxing and insightful as she detects the problem areas in your body and helps you address them.

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Almora – Meditative Calm

Their natural gravitation to Almora seemed to reinforce what Mahatma Gandhi & Swami Vivekananda felt. Gandhi is said to have remarked that Nature’s hospitality in Almora eclipses all that man can ever do, and wondered if the scenery of the hills and the climate would ever be surpassed by the beauty spots of the world. Swami Vivekananda, enchanted by the hills, is said to have told the people of Almora that he dreamt of it becoming a centre of the calmness of meditation, and peace.
We realized the truth of their experiences ourselves. One of the first routes to realization was the village trek we took. The path starts from Kalmatia Sangam, through initially a dense forest and then roads that take you through the village. You see houses dot the hills at various heights, and neighbours casually converse without the difference in elevation being much of a bother. The houses are small, painted in bright colours, and inevitably have a vegetable garden. Most of them rear cows, and the milk they produce and the vegetables they grow are just about enough for sustenance. The villagers are friendly, sprightly, and talk to us about the problems that plague them. Women and children walk up and down the hill carrying pots to fetch water from a distant source, something that surprised me in Almora considering the picture I had conjured of the Himalayan springs and green pastures.

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The houses doting the village – taken during the village trek

Narendra attributes the water scarcity to lack of planning and tells us how much rainwater harvesting can make a difference. Kalmatia itself has done extensive RWH, constructing water tanks with a capacity of 1.2 million litres, enabling RWH on a large scale.
The trek is by trekking standards, considered ‘mild’ but you can be out of breath if you have ignored an exercise routine for the rest of the year. The path is not so much about stunning views as about integrating with life on the hills. There are enough pretty sights cropping up though, like old houses with quaint doors, small streams, and a variety of birds and insects.

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Looking through their door!

Halfway through out trek we lost our way. My sister’s spirit of adventure didn’t allow her to consult a map and she logically tried to reason that some path in some direction would eventually lead to the road. I was not impressed. The warmth of the evening sun had sunk my stamina, and I complained endlessly of having every holiday of mine turned into an endurance test. We shouted across the hills whenever we spotted a local, and they confirmed at some point that we were on the right track. The landmark we were looking for was a ‘Mohan’s Café’ which seemed increasingly unreachable to me. In the last few steps I was goaded, chided and cheered till we reached the elevated road on which the elusive Mohan’s Café supposedly existed. We collapsed at a small store which thankfully had cold water.  The sign of Mohan’s Café seemed visible at a distance. A small place with some decent masala chai I presumed.

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Mohan s cafe

We entered and were blown away. The Café has a bohemian feel to it, with the most splendid outdoor seating. There are tables placed at the very edge, poised to let nothing come between you and the Himalayas except some great food.  Smooth jazz plays in the background while you browse through an eclectic menu with some great varieties of tea, Iranian food and the most delicious pizzas made with fresh ingredients. If there’s a way to experience the Himalayas, this is it. No luxury resorts, no spas boasting of views. All it takes is a small (and extremely popular) café – unpretentious and an almost lyrical expression of those who run it. The place is a melting pot, evident in the composition of the people who visit. There are hippies, adventure travellers, families looking for a quiet stay, and young people from different parts of the country. The busy internet parlour the café runs indicates Almora’s appeal to young people who come there to discover themselves. A little like Auroville.
After the immensely satisfying evening, safe in the comforts of Kalmatia, I was almost proud of myself. Knowing there were no further treks scheduled for our trip, I triumphantly discussed the possibility of a longer 5-6 day trek in the future. Inwardly, I was cringing at the thought. Imagine the number of hours I would have to spend in the gym just to get into shape. And still feel like a failure halfway through the trek!The visit to the Jageshwar temples was one of the items on the schedule I looked forward to. Temple visits are thrown into the agenda for most of us wherever we go. Even for those of us who are most pronouncedly against the external manifestations of faith, they have something special to offer. Perhaps it’s the art and architecture of our temples. From the biggest and most famous to those around the nook, there’s always some aesthetic experience in store. Or maybe the thought that these places are filled with the hopes, aspirations and prayers of thousands like us who came before. Any which way, those of the older generation who believe that temples are largely ignored in our experience of the world, have reason to think again.

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Jageshwar Temple

Jageshwar has a cluster of small and large temples, and is about an hour’s drive from Almora. Most of these are shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the architecture is somewhat similar to the temples of Angkor Wat. We start with the Dandeshwar temple, small and slightly dilapidated. I loved the austerity in contrast to the glitz of South Indian temples, and it was delightful to peep into each sanctum, cool and dark with a little illumination for the lingams. There’s ample space around the temple to float around, sit, contemplate, and it illustrates the idea of temples as public spaces you can get away to, even for much needed solitary contemplation.

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We proceed to one of the larger and more populated temples. Like the Dandeshwar temple, it has structures of varying sizes distributed across the space. The temple is a centre for flourishing spiritual commerce, as pujaris in every shrine try to sell us various pujas intended to offer different benefits. Part of it must be fashioned spontaneously based on their assessment of you. Guessing we were not particularly praying either for marriage, wealth, or kids, they decided to tap the historical route for us. Each one of them tossed out numbers, trying to impress with the antiquity of the idols. After passing around some notes, and rapidly running out of change, we decided it was time to get away. Feeding into the exotic images I had built of sadhus smoking ganja/weed/cannabis, were a bunch of them rolling their breakfast, looking relaxed and content. This was spirituality to them, the act of preparing their fodder with meditative calm, dedication and focus, as also the new worlds it plunged them into.
The evening was dedicated to a trip to Almora town. We were given a choice between a point with a sunset view, and the bustling Almora market. We chose the latter. The market is the very picture of throbbing life and activity. The roads curve up and down, lined with shops on either side. Everything, literally everything from vessels, spices and household items to hairdressing and tailoring services sell here. Hundreds of people walk through the market, stopping to exchange a word with the vendors here and there, and packing in a steaming hot jalebi in the gap.

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The spice stores entice you with the colours and shapes on display, and no one bats an eyelid as you stop to get a free taste of what’s on offer. This is the original idea of the ‘marketplace’, putting out things that you require to carry on with life (like bathroom mugs!) which you would never find in a large departmental store

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You interact, with other members of community who happen to vend for a livelihood, and do not transact like you would in a branded supermarket. This is not just an urban me romanticizing the ‘other’. I have grown up listening to the life stories of the shopkeeper down my road, and what big chains like Walmart do is not just wipe out their livelihoods, but destroy a community space, a piece of the universe which you and the shopkeeper have shared.
We treat ourselves to some jalebis, fresh and juicy oranges, and stop at the Panchachuli outlet on our way back.  The Panchachuli Women Weavers project is a development programme, aimed at economic and social empowerment of the women of the Kumaon region. The initiative has helped a wonderful tradition rich in creativity flourish, while empowering the women to exercise their rights and become political agents. When you touch and feel the softness of the shawls, finely woven in a rich palette of natural colours, you cannot but wistfully hope that the tradition survives and thrives.

We drove back to Kalmatia, disappointed that our trip was nearing its end. We celebrated with a few drinks (vodka and rhododendron juice is an explosive combination!) perched on the balcony attached to Kalmatia’s restaurant. In a place like that, even the darkness can seem special and expansive. The next morning, after a homely breakfast we were set to leave. Narendra insisted on a session of chai and conversation, and regaled us with more tales. He also showed us a picture of the snow-covered Himalayan peaks as visible from Kalmatia, the sight we never managed to catch. I sensed a collective pang of disappointment around me. Come back, said Narenda with a smile. I thought to myself if a holiday would be as wonderful if it met all your pre-determined expectations. See the snow peaks. Spot atleast one leopard. No, you can’t plan ‘life’, and you certainly can’t plan for nature. That’s perhaps the understanding we need to truly live life and discover joy.

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