It was an impossibly early train from a station impossibly far from my house. But there is something about leaving with your bags when it is still dark out. It is the promise that when the darkness of night descends, you will find yourself at an altogether different setting. You will find yourself at the destination. So between the darkness of the dawn and the eventual darkness of dusk lay what I enjoy most – a journey.
Those of you who excel at the subtle art of looking at maps would have noticed that the destination is somewhere in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was in fact, a tiny slice of heaven called Jilling Estate. The real journey starts when the train deposits you in the quaint, single platform Kathgodam Railway Station.
What follows is a one and a half hour journey on the winding hilly roads to the village of Matial. I say Village, but What I actually mean is two general stores and 5 houses along a bend on the road. We see off the taxi guy and start the climb on foot. Yes, there are indeed no motorable roads to Jilling and that is precisely why we chose to come here.
The cluster of buildings that makes up Matial
That’s about the whole village. I promise!
During the colonial times this swathe of the Kumaon Himalayas was owned by a single apple farming sahib. Post independence, the property was divided into various parts and the Lall family bought around 100 acres of this prime Himalayan property. Steve Lall, the bullet-riding, dog loving ex Mig-21 pilot decided to build 4 secluded cottages across the property and invite people to come stay there.
The cottages vary in size but all are slightly rustic, yet not lacking the creature comforts that we city slickers are used to. The food is mostly organic and home cooked, delivered to you piping hot by the estate employees who also double up as fireplace technicians, guides, bird identifiers and storytellers. Jilling is not a hotel. Neither is it a resort. It is one man sharing his little slice of heaven in exchange of some money. If you are in sync with his view of ecotourism (no TV, no motorable road, no noisy neighbour, complete seclusion), you are welcome. Otherwise, bugger off to your favourite Nainital concrete monstrosity.
The distance from Matial to our destination – the topmost cottage – is just north of 2 kms but man is it steep. At the cost of repeating myself I am, to put it politely, a giant ball of lard and the climb, albeit punctuated by a thousand breaks, was arduous. Here is the cool part though, if you lack a spine or if you are old or otherwise disabled, you can hire a pony to the top.
The higher you climb, the prettier it gets
The entire route is paved with stones
Someone has built my dream house. Damn!
Taking a breather, right in the middle of the path
Of the four cottages in the estate, we chose the topmost. When we had spoken to Steve earlier, we had requested for something secluded and it was this cottage he suggested. The cottage is a simple two room affair with basic furnishings. The only disadvantage is the toilet which is not attached to either of the two rooms. While during the daytime, it is absolutely okay, at night when the stillness around you is broken only by the otherworldly scream of a wood owl, stepping out of the cottage to go to the loo feels like the beginnings of a grisly horror movie. Also it does not help if you have read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaun cover to cover a dozen times.
Climbing up, this is the first view of our cottage
waiting for lunch to be served
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Sunset from my porch
Two absolutely glorious days and somewhat terrifying nights later we decided to enquire if some of the other cottages were free. Turns out they were. So we decided to move to the main cottage, about 100 m below us. In the middle of the 19th century, this building served as a warehouse for Jilling’s apples. When the Lals bought their slice of the estate, they turned this warehouse into the bungalow it is today.
This was a world apart from the rustic charm of the bungalow on top. It had a large dining room, a small sitting room with a stocked book-shelf, a spacious bedroom, an ante-room and a kitchen. This was more like your own cottage in the hills, complete with veranda, daisy filled lawns and an ancient tree guarding it all.
Our home for the next few days
The tall tree guarding our hill house
Daisies, daisies everywhere
The Path to our new home is lined with daisies
The small living room
The incredibly airy and well-lit dining room
Between you and me, this level of comfort is new to me. I am used to roughing it out on the saddle of my motorbike, shacking up at the end of the day in a budget hotel – my very definition of travel. But this…this was different. We had rooms, heck, a full bungalow. The bungalow came with Naveen, an extremely polite gentleman who brought us our food, lit our fires, took us for long walks and even helped me identify bird calls. Now, this I could get used to. This was my first “vacation”.
The days passed in a glorious haze of sunshine, birdsong and delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The nights were a collage of twinkling lights on the distant hills, star-gazing and reading till the crickets chirped no more. In between all this, we had time to dream of our own little cottage in the hills. Not much – a couple of rooms, a small garden to grow some food and a group of furry, unruly mountain dogs. I do not want to climb the Everest neither do i want change the world. All I want is that little house in the hills and that, ladies and germs, is the very extent of my ambitions.
To cut a long story short, thanks to Jilling, I now know what my dream looks like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’).
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.
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.