How does it feel when a long-standing pain goes away suddenly? That’s how I felt back in the year 2003. I was going through months of stress in my professional career and on one fine day, suddenly everything fell into place. On such occasions, you normally strive for something more than trivial. That’s when I thought of visiting the hills of Kumaon. I’ve been to Garhwal and Himachal for a few times by that time, but Kumaon was still out of reach. However, I wasn’t new to the place, thanks to the literature of Edward James Corbett. I opted for the upcoming long weekend of Holi (a festival of colors in India) but faced a problem of plenty when it came to selection of places. After speaking to some of my friends and relatives who have been to the Kumaon region before, I narrowed down on Kausani (a picturesque hill station in the Bageshwar district) and Chaukori (in Pithoragarh). Stories were ripe about amazing sunrise and sunset views from Kausani and Chaukori was famous for its proximity to the famous Himalayan peaks (some Bengali travel magazines had phrases like “If you throw a stone from Chaukori, it might land up on Nanda Devi”). Hence, quite obviously, my expectations were high and that was one of the reasons of sheer disappointment of this tour.
Me and my wife boarded the Ranikhet Express from Old Delhi railway station at about 10.30 PM in the night and found ourselves at the Haldwani station, the next day, at about 6 AM. Haldwani is one of the main entrance points of Kumaon. We hopped on a share jeep that was headed to Almora and from there, boarded another one for Kausani. The serpentine hill roads after the last railway head Kathgodam had its impact on me and I was nauseating. However, it subsided after sometime and we reached Kausani at lunch. The KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam – the tourism wing of Uttarakhand state Government that handles the Kumaon region) rest house was about 2-3 km beyond the main market of Kausani. But the northern skies were filled with clouds and there were no traces of the Himalayan peaks. We settled in our suite and had lunch. Afternoon didn’t prove to be better either. We just saw glimpses of the Trishul but soon clouds covered it up. In the evening, we asked the staff at the rest house about commute options to Chaukori and that’s when they dropped the bomb shell! From what transpired, it became apparent that during the Holi festival, almost all vehicles go off roads and we’d find it very difficult to hire one. They suggested we immediately get down to Nainital and spend the rest of our vacation there because it is near to Kathgodam and it would be easy for us to get a transport to the railway station. Our entire plan went for a toss. We were to stay 2 nights each at Kausani and Chaukori respectively and I was not ready to spend all these days at Nainital. The next day, against the advice of the hotel staff, we ventured out for Chaukori. We woke up early in the morning hoping to see the sunrise but were disappointed. That’s the first time, we experienced this strange phenomenon. The sky was devoid of any clouds and we could see the dark outlines of the distant Himalayan range but as the sun started to come out, they just started fading away in the bright sunlight. Much later after we came back from this trip, we came to know the reason behind this. In this time of the year before the onset of summers, the villagers set grasslands (and often forests) on fire with the aim of clearing up fields for cultivation. Land is scarce in this part of the world and no bit of arable land lies unutilized. The pressure of growing population continues to have its effect in terms of depleting forest cover. Such “wild fires” result in generation of a lot of smoke and fills the air with dust particles, thereby creating an invisible screen that prevents clear vision. The months of October and November and the winters are the best time to visit Kumaon.
Coming back to my story, we boarded a bus from Kausani to Bageshwar, followed by a shared jeep to Chaukori. It took us about 5 hours to reach there. The cottages of the KMVN rest house at Chaukori was spread out over the slopes of a hill that offered magnificent views of the Himalayan peaks of Kumaon region “provided” the sky was clear. The word “provided” weighed upon us very heavily on this trip and Chaukori was equally disappointing. We piggybacked with two other families who were kind enough to accommodate us during our return journey from Chaukori to Nainital where we reached in the evening.
The disappointment of this trip resulted in a plan of visiting these regions again during better times and that was in late October in the same year during the vacations of Diwali (another important festival of India). This time around, when we reached Haldwani, the atmosphere was visibly different. There was chill in the air and the vegetation bathed in bright sunshine. My mother was with us this time around. We started off in a Tata Indica from Haldwani. The vehicle was to stay with us for the entire trip that involved staying one night at Chaukori, followed by 2 nights at Munsyari. It would then drop us at the Kathgodam railway station from where we were to board the Ranikhet express for Delhi. As we moved ahead of Kathgodam, roads started spiralling. We crossed Bhimtaal, Bhawali and stopped at Khairna for breakfast. I engaged myself with the route. We gradually crossed Almora and The Himalayan peaks started to appear. Things weren’t going very well with my mother She was nauseating. We had to stop frequently for her where shed would wash her face before starting again. We crossed Dhaulchina and reached Berinaag by afternoon. A few km after Berinaag came Udyari bend. Chaukori was 5 km up from this place. I was praying hard for the road to end as my mother was in a sorry state. Her eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. We finally reached at the KMVN rest house. After the formalities at the reception desk, we were allocated a cottage. It was an isolated wooden cottage with a bedroom and an attached toilet. Its windows opened to the majestic views of The Himalayas. The sky was crystal clear with the rays of fading sun acquiring a touch of pale yellow. One could see unobstructed views of Trishul, Nanda Devi (the largest peak in India before induction of Sikkim as a state, which is when it passed on the baton to Mt KangchenDzonga), Nandakot, Nandakhat, Pawalidwar, Rajarambha and many other peaks. The group of five Panchachuli peaks was at the eastern end of the horizon. After having tea, we went outside the cottage and the stage was set for a marvellous sunset. The mighty Himalayas were set ablaze by the setting sun.
My mother went through an abrupt change as soon as she got off the vehicle at the end of our long journey. She was feeling surprisingly well, especially after having tea and the splendid sunset pumped her up. We roamed around carelessly with our eyes firmly on the Himalayas where the sun was spraying colors galore. No one seemed to be in a hurry, both tourists as well as locals. Life seemed so easy and simple in this lazy evening. Birds flew back to their nest with their purchase for the day. There were no targets to be met, no need to uplift yourself at the cost of others.
We came back to our cottage and spent time gossiping till it was time for dinner which was served at the dining place. As soon as dinner was over, there wasn’t anything to do and we slid into bed under the warmth of the blankets. Sleep embraced us with both hands and we were soon into the world of dreams.
The Himalayas makes me rise early and Chaukori was no exception. There was a watch tower at the KMVN lawn. We climbed to its top while the sky was being sprayed with scarlet. There were some clouds in the sky but that only added to the beauty. Their lower edges burned like a fire as the sun popped up as a golden ball from behind the hills.
As we turned to the North, The Himalayas were rising from last night’s sleep. The twin peaks of Nanda Devi brightened up and as the sun came out in its full glory, they turned into silver.
After spending sometime at the tower, we came back to the cottage as it was time to prepare for our next journey to Munsyari. After having bath and breakfast, we settled our bills at the rest house and headed out for Munsyari, 90 km from Chaukori.