Binsar the Beautiful


I left home with a tankful of petrol, Rs 3000 in my pocket and nothing in my bank account. Does not speak volumes of my financial acumen, but hey, i get by. This was the i’m-in-between-jobs-ride and i had nothing better to do in Delhi. So i thought that a ride would be the best way to spend the last of my cash. So i rode. It was one of the occasions when i did what i do best – travel alone.

I have made countless trips, visited many places known, unknown and little known, but even after all the travelling i have never been able to sleep the night before. The excitement of the impending trip is enough to keep me up all night and this time was no different. I hit the bed looking for some shut eye and it was a long time later that obdurate sleep did come. When i woke up, the watch told me that it was 4:22 AM. Shit! As per my original plan, i am already an hour late.

The problem was Moradabad. The previous day, there were some communal clashes and a curfew had been imposed on the city and some surrounding villages. I have never travelled in this route before and i did not know how close the highway went to the affected areas. So the idea was to cross it before sunrise. And now i have through pass through violent rioters in full daylight. Awesome!

Anyway, coming back to my leaving home with a tankful of gas and a handful of money… I had been in touch with a certain Sundar Singh, whose number (09410590980) i found on a very helpful site on travel in India. The post said that he arranges for homestays in the villages in Binsar and also acts as a guide in longer treks. A  quick check on the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) revealed that Sundar was giving me a room in his village for half the price of the cheapest room in the KMVN Rest House and the price included all meals. I was sold!  Also, the village was supposed to be in the middle of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary!

The first roadblock on the way was the bridge over the Ganga at Garhmukteshwar. The ancient two lane bridge was fed on both sides by four lane highways and it created one hell of a bottleneck. In spite of the fact that i reached Garhmukteshwar by 6 AM, it took me over 45 minutes to negotiate the nightmare. There are two ways to get to Binsar, and while going, i took the Moradabad – Bazpur – Kaladhungi – Nainatal – Almora route.

Route

Barring the bottleneck at Garhmukteshwar, the road from Delhi to Modarabad is pretty good. Just before entering Moradabad, it is recommended that you get on to the Moradabad By Pass road. You will pass a couple of toll plazas and at the end of the bypass, you take a left (feels more like a U-turn) and ride on heavily potholed roads till Kaladhungi. After that, it was a different business. The Corbett National Park was making its presence felt and through it ran a black ribbon of a road.

Immediately after Kaladhungi
Patchwork on the road. Signs of Corbett all around!

Right after Bazpur, i could see the mountains and with every passing kilomete, they grew closer and closer till suddenly i was halfway up one. In front of me lay the expanse of the plains and the green carpet of Corbett, which i had just skirted. It was bang in the middle of monsoons so the greenery was unbelievable.

Finally, the hills!
Here i come, you sexy twisty road 😀

The roads were practically empty and the tarmac was perfect. I was a bit apprehensive about riding hard as my rear rubbers were almost without any tread. But the thing with roads like these is that once you start the cornering, you forget everything else… the lean rules your world. Thankfully all went well. Very soon i was within 40 kms of Nainital and i decided to take a break after riding non-stop for around 240 kms.

Road to Heaven
Glee!

As i said earlier, the route i took was less frequented by the touristy lot, who preferred to come to Nainital via Bheemtal and Bhowali. The ride was fantastic and since this was my first time in Kumaon, the greenery was refreshing. The mountains were spectacular and the gain in altitude was perceptible. Khurpatal appeared suddenly to my right reminding me that i was in the Lake District.

Mist-topped
Khurpatal!
I don’t need to go to no Switzerland

Very soon, the otherwise empty roads showed signs of automotive presence. Nainital was close and it welcomed me with a massive traffic jam. Once the jam cleared, i took the Mall Road by the side of the Naini Lake and i must admit, for a touristy place, it was very nice. Like Darjeeling, where i practically grew up, Nainital had a charm of its own. I wouldn’t mind coming here for a relaxed weekend if the company was right.

Nainital

When you drive through the Mall Road, the Lake is to your right. From the intersection where the lake ends, you have to take a left for Almora and eventually, Binsar. Road conditions, barring landslides is generally good and even if you are driving lazily, you should reach Binsar within three hours.

From Nainital, Kosi shows you the way to Almora
Clad in green
Amazing drive!

Around 30 kms from Nainital, at Garampani the road splits into two. The one heading heft across the bridge on the Kosi, leads to Ranikhet while the one going straight leads to Almora and eventually, Binsar. You can also reach Binsar via Ranikhet and Jageshwar. This route, although much longer is more often than not, in a slightly better shape (this i heard, no first-hand experience though)

My first knowledge of Almora was imparted through the Jim Corbett stories. As a kid i was fascinated by the man and how he trudged through the mountains and waited all nights on the branches of trees for the elusive man-eating tigers. There was a sense of foreboding. With the years of images superimposed on my mind, i almost did not expect Almora to have any resemblance to a modern town. I was thinking more in terms of pack-mules, muzzle-loaders, khakis, sola topees and mem sahibs. Sigh!

Almora’s sole soccer ground!
The town and its strange light
Another view of Almora Town

Once you reach Almora, Binsar isn’t far away – a mere 30 kms. Since Almora is the last big town on this road, the traffic too gets even thinner and you start enjoying the drive even more.  Roughly halfway between Almora and Binsar is Deenapani which has a KMVN Guest House and many smaller private cottages. If you do not find accommodation in Binsar, Deenapani is your best bet.

Somewhere close to Binsar
Man’s best friend. Dope takes a well-deserved breather

Interestingly, not many people know that Binsar is not a place / village / town per se. It is the name of the wildlife sanctuary that was once contiguous to the Corbett forest belt. The sanctuary in turn owes its name to the 9th-10th century Shiva temple that can still be seen today. The manifestation of Shiva worshipped in the temple was called Bineshwar, a name which the Brits later corrupted to Binsar. Today the temple is called Binsar Mahadev.

The entry to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is on the Almora-Jageshwar road (State Highway 37). You need to register your vehicle at the gate and pay the dues. You can only enter or leave between 6am and 5 pm and once you enter, preserve your ticket and the receipt as it is valid for three days and during this time you can enter and exit multiple times.

Entry to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary

From here, a narrow road branches off and snakes its way up the mountains all the way to the Travellers’ Rest House (11 km). The Binsar Mahadev Temple sits at the end of a small meadow 7 kms from the entry gate, by the side of the road. Sundar Singh had been guiding me on the phone all the way and i was supposed to meet up with him at the TRH and then proceed to his village, 4-5 kms in the forest. Since this road is access controlled, the staff of the TRH as well as the forest officials have a hard time getting any transport. So when one of the forest guards asked if he could hitch a ride with me, i obliged. If someone approaches you for a lift, please do.

Clear skies… no pollution…
Binsar roads
Somewhere close to the TRH

At the TRH, i was welcomed by Sundar Singh, who turned out to be a strapping young fellow and not a middle aged man like i thought he would be. He is an expert trekker and guides amateur trekkers to Roopkund, Milam, Sundardhunga, etc. It was also revealed that i would actually be staying at his house in his village.  Before the trek to his village, i wanted to relax for a bit and so i went to the terrace of the rest house, famed for its view of the snow capped Himalayan peaks. Unfortunately, as it was the middle of the monsoons, the clouds had covered almost all of the peaks. So much for the view!

What i did see, however was a cluster of a few houses, deep in the valley below surrounded by a sea of green. Sundar Singh pointed to one of the houses as his! I was looking at my destination and i was thrilled.

Peak peeks!
Peak peeks – II
Looking towards Nepal
My destination. One of the houses you see here is where i spend the next two days

I used this break to down one entire pot of sweet milk tea. I needed all the energy for the trek even though all of it was downhill. Immediately after leaving the TRH the trail plunged into some of the deepest forest. It was drizzling and everything was wet and glistening. At certain places the forest was so thick that it was almost dark.

As the trek started…
Forest walk
Dead and red
Sundar Singh leads the way
Forest walk
Dark and wet and beautiful!
And the occasional clearing in the forest
The road leads on…
Nature’s carpet

The downhill trek did not take much time and within 40 minutes, the village was in sight. It was called Gaunap and was more like a cluster of 10-12 houses on a slope arranged neatly around terraced fields. In all, the village was home to not more than 50 people. This is as remote and quaint as could be. I was already loving it. Sundar Singh turned out to be as much of a talker as i am and very soon i learned that the nearest town is Dhaulchina, 10 kms away. The kids go to school there, walking for 20 kms everyday.  On their way back sometimes they carry groceries and other supplies often weighing as much as 10-15 kilos.

Gaunap in sight!
My home for the next two days
And my little grumpy neighbour
And thus ends the day

Like most other villages in the forest, Gaunap has no electricity.. forget about running water. The government has given each house a solar panel to recharge some batteries so that they can at least run a few bulbs. In Sundar Singh’s house, he has done up four rooms which he lets out to travellers like me. The food is cooked by his mother and other than the rice, everything else comes from the family’s fields.  If you were to follow on my footsteps and find yourself in the dining room of Sundar Sing’s house, do not forget to ask for the desi ghee. Just add half a teaspoon to your dish and enjoy the heavenly taste!

You stay there as a part of the family. So if you can help these people with their work. I for one, was so excited on seeing a rajma tree for the first time that i immediately proceeded to harvest two of them. I was later told politely that the second plant was not ready to be harvested as yet.

Dinner-time
After dinner sky!
After dinner sky -II

It had been a long day. Began with a long ride, then was followed by a long walk and all i needed now was a long sleep. People do not lock their doors here, and i am glad that neither did i. I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the loo and realised that i could not see anything. A minute later i figured out that the clouds that were coming from the valley below had entered the room through the open door. So i slept , for the rest of the night in a room full of cloud!

Morning came in the form of Sunder Singh’s brother Mahesh bringing me a whole pot of some amazing herbal tea. I went to the balcony outside my room and finished the gallon of tea over the next hour and half while looking at the clouds moving around in the valley in front of me. Even the herbal tea was made from plants in the family’s garden.

View from my balcony. Good morning, folks!
Cloud-play

After i was well tea-d and well fed, Mahesh and i went out to survey the nearby mountains. Both days we spent hours walking across mountains and resting on rocks by the many streams. In the afternoons, i would have another gallon of tea, spend some time in the family’s fields undoing much of their hard work and then come back to my room and write reviews of the international edition of the India travel guide by candle-light.

Mahesh Singh replaces Sunder Singh
I’ll follow you into the mist..
.. and the mist is gone!
So what if there are no trails.. just scramble up!
The snow clad pics are still hidden by clouds
An old Shiva Temple near the village

The walks were purely aimless. Mahesh knew the hills like the back of his hand so i could go anywhere i liked. We spotted some exotic bird species, some mountain goats and once from a great distance, a leopard. The forest around the village was composed mainly of tall pines and the ground was covered with pine needles. The rains had washed them clean and the red needles lay in fine contrast to the bright green of the freshly sprouted grass. Sometimes it would rain, then in a matter of minutes the sun would come out. Often, the clouds would come rushing in and i would lose sight of Mahesh. So i would wait where i stood and shout at the top of my lungs like a little girl until Mahesh found me.

On a more serious note, if you are ever trekking in these hills, especially in the hills, be careful of something the locals call bicchoo ghas (stinging grass). Although it is technically not a member of the grass family, the first part of its name is true. Even the slightest touch to exposed skin feels as if a red hot needle has been pushed in. I learned the hard way, so you just stay the hell out!

Looking at somebody’s village. A patch of green in a larger sea of green
Clouds above me… clouds below me..
Discarded pine needles and the emerging juvenile grass
Walking on pine needles, all day long

On our walks, we would never carry water because we knew that we would encounter a gadhera (a mountain stream in Kumaoni language) every 200 m where we could quench our thirst. It was also fun to wade into the almost waist deep pools and try to catch the little fished that swam around in then in lightning fast speeds. Many of these gadheras mergee further down to give rise to larger streams, locally known as gadh (rhymes with ‘bar’).

Eden-esque
Another one
I had to wade through knee deep, ice-cold water to get there for the shot!
A stream’s eye view
Mahesh, my best pal in Binsar

The night before i was supposed to leave for Delhi, the heavens opened up. It rained the entire night but held for a moment in the morning. Mahesh needed to get back to Almora where he studies in the high school and i was more than happy to give him a ride. So, the moment we left the village the rains came back and in spite of the rain gear, i got drenched in a matter of minutes. On top of that was the trek back to the TRH which was now uphill the whole way. Eventually after much huffing and puffing i managed to reach the TRH and by the time i left from there it was already 8 AM. That evening, i reached home  at 8:30 and it had been raining the whole way. This time, from Almora i went straight to Bhowali and from there i passed through Bheemtal, Haldwani, Kathgodam and Rudrapur and joined the Delhi highway at Modadabad.

Return Route

The greenish blue Kosi river that you had seen earlier in the post was unrecognisable. The muddy waters roared and frothed and fumed while from the mountains above me fell a steady stream of rocks and loose earth. I had to get out of there before there was a major landslide as I was to begin my big new job the very next day. So i drove 400 kms in pouring rain. In the process, i lost my glasses, ruined my mobile phone and spoiled the  magnetic strip of my debit card. Still, no regrets because i knew that while i was hating it that very moment, in the future (which is now) it will be another experience to share with you.

I have not yet decided what the next post is going to be. This new job takes up too much of my time, but i would love to get back to my dearest Madhya Pradesh.

So long then…

Fatboy in green hills!

Oh and i still had Rs 270 left!

Reaching Chauragarh


Around a year ago, work took me to Pachmarhi. As usual, our organisation was asked by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Developement Coporation to write a travel guide to Pachmarhi. This is the first step of an elaborate plan that ends in the declaration of Pachmarhi as a UNESCO World heritage site. To be honest, i have only heard mentions of Pachmarhi and had no idea whatsoever of what surprises awaited me. In my initial research, it was clear that it was a hill station of sorts (come on, having spent a considerable amount of time practically next door to Darjeeling, the tag ‘of sorts’ is only fair). What interested me more were the hills on which Pachmarhi was located – the Satpuras.

The landscape is dominated by rugged hills, plunging ravines, and ancient monoliths that resemble the tough hide of some colossal primeval beast deep in an eternal slumber. Dense forest covers the land and paints it in swathes of a thousand shades of green, broken only by the deep brown of some of the most ancient rocks known to mankind. At every possible point in this landscape, mountain streams tumble down the steep slopes to give rise to cascading waterfalls.

Although the main photo-journal of my Pachmarhi trip will come later, i could not resist giving a standalone mention to one of Pachmarhi’s most daunting attractions – the Chauragarh Temple. Located on top of the Chauragarh Peak,at an altitude of 1,330 m, the temple can be accessed after a 3.6 km ling trek. Just when you are thinking that the three-and-a-half odd kms is not really a big deal, let me just tell you that the last kilometer is basically 1,380 steps cut on the sheer rock face.

View of the Satpuras from Forsyth Point. Look closely at the top of the highest hill on the right… what you see as a little pyramid is the Chauragarh Temple, my destination for the day
Wish you were here!

You can take your car upto the Mahadeo Temple, 9 kms from Pachmarhi town. From there begins the trek to Chauragarh. For the first kilometre, you climb up and down a number of small hills till you come to the base of the main hill. See, the thing is, i USED TO be a fit guy when i was in college and played sports regularly. The lesser said about my present state of physical fitness, the better. So i hired a guide (read: porter) who would carry the water and the extra camera. For people planning to go there, please carry your own water as there are no vendors on the way. A few tribals set up shop here and there selling gutkhas, cigarettes and nimboo paani. For the last item, they mostly use a lemon that grows in the wild and makes a nimboo paani unlike anything else you have tasted. Must-have!

Initial stages of the trek.
Signs of His presence

Almost halfway through the trek, you begin to wonder why on earth did so many people spend so much verbal bytes on how difficult the trek was going to be. I was making good time and there was no sign of any challenging climb. At one point of time i was even thinking that MAYBE i was not as unfit as i thought i was…MAYBE i am in fact the superfly and that i would conquer Chauragarh in no time.

Anyway, condescending thoughts aside, halfway through the trek, you encounter a large cave. The opening is rather wide and as one ventures inside, it gets narrower and the roof gets increasingly lower. At the end of the cave was a deep pool full of what seemed like the most sinister looking water that ever was. If i was in a pulp detective novel, this was the kind of place i would find the remains of the victims of a Dahmer-isque serial killer. But that was not to be…all i found was an idol of Shiva!

My guide decides to take a nap while i explore the cave!
Shiva at the end of the tunnel

After the cave, the track finally starts winding upwards. On one side of the road was an unrestricted view of the Satpura valley, most of which is part of the Satpuras National Park and Tiger Reserve. As you trudge on higher and higher, the scenenery begins to unfold under you. At this point of time, you begin to wonder if this view looks stunning, what would the view from top be like.

Onwards…
The valley that was
A little further up

Two-thirds of the way up, i started feeling the pinch of the climb. Heavy breathing graduated into discernable panting and at the first sign of the real climb began to show itself. I was standing at a point where the hill had risen sharply. The moderately inclined road had come to an end and the stairs had started. They were cut into the side of the rock and each of them was almost twice the height of the ones we encounter everyday at home or in office. At some places, the steps were almost vertical it was almost like climbing up a ladder.

This should give you an idea of what i am talking about.
View from almost halfway up the hill.

After the first 300 steps, relief came in the form of a stretch of level road. Chest swelling, muscles aching, i stopped here for a breather. It was amazing how silent it was. Due to the difficulty of the climb, not many people attempt the trek. It had already been almost one and a half hours since i started from the Mahadeo Caves and i had seen not more than a dozen souls on the road. All i could hear was the rustling of leaves and the occassional chirping of a bird.

The rare level road. The little shop sold some very refreshing nimboo paani
Still a long way to go..
It was all very silent
Where the god resides
Halfway up yet another climb

After what seemed like an endless climb, i finally reached a terrace of sorts. It was almost at the neck of the hill, with one final flight of moderately high stairs (for a change) to the top. I rang the bell here in all my earnestness to thank the lord that the ordeal was almost over.

Almost there
The final climb

The temple courtyard is stacked with thousands of trishuls, some weighing over three tons and standing nearly 5 m tall. On the occasion of Nagpanchmi and Mahashivaratri, devotees come here in droves, lugging up these heavy tridents or trishuls as offerings. These are then stuck in the ground around the temple creating a forest of trishuls. It is generally believed that the wishes of anyone who offers a trident here will be fulflled.

A giant heap of divine weaponry
And then some more
The real pilgrim

The temple itself is a half-built modern structure with an idol of Shiva in the garbhagriha. A small hut by the temple serves as the residence for the two priests. A conversation with one of the priests reveals that the hill was held sacred by the local adivasis long before ‘outsiders’ came. An assimilation of cultures let to the identifcation  of a tribal deity with Lord Shiva.

I will not describe in words the view from top. Here, see for yourself:

The view from top. You can clearly see a part of the road leading to the temple.

The climb down took almost a fraction of what it took me to reach the top. I calculated that from start to finish, the entire trek took me around 6 hours. My guide thought that i was rather quick compared to the numerous others he had accompanied. Having said this, he added that this 16 year old nephew was known to do the round trip in under an hour. I wouldnt want to meet the lad though.

on the way back

This remains, to this day the most physically demanding trip i have ever undertake. I am not much of a trekker and given a choice, i would let by Bullet do the walking. But if any of you guys are planning on going to Chauragarh, give me a shout. I might just come along. This was special.

Amundsen..well, almost!