It was Holi, and we were shivering in the pre-dawn chill, trying to keep our eyes open, while our taxi rushed up at great speed from Kathgodam, past the still waters of Bhimtal and the sleeping town of Bhowali. We were glad to have reached the hills before the world went a little crazy in coloured powder, and our driver was in a hurry to get back down to Haldwani. Turning up a narrow driveway off the village of Shyamkhet on the Bhowali-Ramgarh road, our car came to a halt in front of a breathtakingly beautiful villa. Three large mountain dogs came bounding towards us, their who are you barks turning pretty soon to pet us, pet us whines. We had arrived at Himalaica.
The villa is the holiday home of a Delhi-based couple, Shalini and Uttam Dave who built it, painstakingly, over a decade ago. The scourge of every beautiful holiday home, though, is maintenance, but the couple got around it by turning it into a vacation homestay and what a lovely home it is Basant, the caretaker and man Friday of the property, ushered us up polished wooden steps to our rooms on the first floor, and helped us beat the chill with some hot tea. Some spicy omelettes and coffee completed the job of waking us up nice and proper, just in time to watch the sun come up over the pine-covered ridge within which Himalaica is wedged.
Due to our enforced holiday, I got an excellent introduction to the charms of the house. That the Daves were deeply interested in architecture and gardeneing was evident from the many books, magazines and periodicals on the subject that occupied every available nook of the villa. What theyve created from all this knowledge is a sight to behold. I spent the day flitting from the glass-fronted study on the first floor to the living room on the ground floor to the beautiful all-glass conservatory that opened out onto the Bhowali valley. A small hill on the horizon marked the limit of my vision, while Himalaicas beautiful garden (another of the couples obsessions) spread out around me. Since neither Shome nor I were interested in playing Holi, such a fine day needed to be used properly. As faint sounds of revelry floated up from Shyamkhet, I made my way to the study on the first floor. Surrounded by glass on three sides to let in the sun and amplify the warmth, it was the perfect place to, well, study.
And so I did, first gathering up a few volumes of The Himalayan Gazetteer, a copy of the collected works of Jim Corbett, and a book on the famed Golu Devta, the deity par excellence of Kumaon, from the well-stocked library in the living room. It literally had all the books that one would want to read about the region, and more. The rest of the day was spent with my nose in the books, as Basant brought us endless cups of tea and coffee after he and his wife Madhavi had finished playing some very polite Holi with their friends in Shyamkhet. Occasionally, I got up to play with the dogsRaja, Lama and Cyberor study the Survey of India map of these hills that hung on the wall outside my room, or to just walk around the property.
The dogs followed me with the air of proud homeowners showing off their house. Cyber and I climbed up the terraced hillside behind the house. When we found ourselves at the back door of the study, he looked inordinately happy at having led me there and wanted me to let him in. I thumped him a couple of times on the head and carried on. Raja took over. The veteran old man of the pack, he accompanied me with a patrician air as I checked out the separate two-bedroom bungalow on the side of the main building, and the mini-nursery of seasonal seedlings all carefully labelled and stacked in their pots.
Uttam and Shalini evidently dont leave anything to chance. This meticulous attention to detail could also be found in the many decorative objects all around the house. The conservatory with its many owls, porcelain statues, a gorgeously carved metal leaf portraying a Samvara mandala, a tree tub in the shape of a giant bee, a huge carved stone mask over the fireplace in the living roomI couldve just spent an entire day looking at these (and I did). But I kept retreating to the study and its warmth, reading, as the dogs lolled around lazily. When Basant served up a delicious chicken for dinner that night, I felt that I hadnt done enough to deserve it.
The next day, I was ready to stretch my legs. We were up with the sun, and after a hasty cup of tea, we set out on a trail that ran up the hill behind Himalaica, through a chir pine forest. This formed a part of the Vinayak ridge that met the Maheshkhan ridge up at Gagar, and my ambitious plan was to hike all the way there, a saddle atop the junction, for a morning view of the Great Himalayan Range.
Spring is a lovely a time to be in the middle Himalaya. The sky was a dazzling blue, and the brilliantly sunlit tops of the pines stood out like badly photoshopped cutouts. There were birds everywhere, and their sweet cacophony increased in intensity as we climbed towards the sun. A little way up, a giant oak stood alone in a thicket of chir, home to much avian activity. What looked like black-faced parrots were buzzing around the leaves, noisily waking up to a crisp, cool morning. Shome was busy taking pictures and I moved ahead up the faint track towards a rise. Cresting it, I came face to face with a startled fox.
It was a beautiful creature, gigantic furry ears backlit in the sun and a pointy face with laughing eyes and a very wet, black nose. But before I had time to take a picture, hed vanished, darting into a thicker oak jungle above. We passed a loop on the main motorable road heading up to Gagar and Ramgarh, and continued up the ridge, this time heading into thick bans oak and rhododendron forests, and the ground became steeper. Soon Shome was unable to continue, a combination of inappropriate shoes, vertigo and thick undergrowth rendering him hors de combat. Thankfully, we had a Plan B. This was the car that Uttam had arranged for us for the day. I gave a call to Rakesh, our leather-jacketed driver. He was with us in a trice, and off we went up the ridge, winding through the forests up to Gagar.
The small hamlet was still waking up when we reached the top of the saddle of the watershed ridge, and there was the famous Kumaoni view of the Great Himalaya. Its a sight Ive seen quite a few times by now, but it never ceases to give me goosebumps, nor did it now. The horizon was lit up, end to end, by a dazzling array of snowy spires, ridges and pyramids a great arc of peaks running from Nanda Ghunti in the west to the Api-Nampa group in Nepal in the east. Right in the centre rose the twin peaks of Nanda Devi. The rising sun had set the triple spires of Trishul on fire, and the serrated peaks of the Panchchuli group in eastern Kumaon seemed distinctly like a fortress, inaccessible and remote.
The following day we commandeered Rakesh and his car, as well as his friend Deepu, and after a brief visit to the bell-adorned Ghorakhali temple of Golu Devta, set off for Mukteshwar, to visit the famous scene of Corbetts life as a hunter of man-eaters. But first we did a detour for a little-known spot called Tagore Top. Rabindranath Tagore was a frequent visitor in Kumaon, and although Almora is best known in connection to him, he came once in 1903, a year after the death of his wife, with his ailing daughter Renuka and son Samindranath. He stayed in a bungalow high up on the wind-swept ridge-top of Maheshkhan above Gagar at a height of over 8,000 feet. We walked past fallow orchard terraces up to the spot. Today, only ruins remain, with the forest having reclaimed whats left of the stone walls. We walked up eerie stone steps from the bungalow into a rhododendron and oak thicket. The view of the Ramgarh valley and the Himalayan range was out of this world. Tagore wrote the poems for the childrens collection Shishu aka The Crescent Moon as well as the first verses of what was to become Gitanjali when he was here. As lammergeiers rode the swift currents of a strong wind, it seemed like a pretty wild place to write poetry
Running from a vicious hailstorm that chased us down to Gagar, we continued our slow crawl to Mukteshwar, via a pit-stop to meet a chacha of Deepus, a crorepati owner of acres of fruit orchards (according to Deepu) who supplied fruits to Mother Dairy. Soon, Mukteshwars famous cliff, the zig-zagged sheer face of Chauli-ki-jali (so named because the rock striations make it look like a net), were looming over us. Our car juddered up numerous hairpins before finally hitting town. Apart from the Shiva temple after which the town is named, the bulk of Mukteshwar comprises of the gigantic Indian Veterinary Research Instituteit pretty much owns the hundreds of acres of forest on the Mukteshwar mountainand colonial-era bungalows, the two best known of which are the Post Office and the PWD Guest House. The former had recently been whitewashed to such a degree that to look on it in direct sunlight might actually blind you. The latter, located atop the highest point of the mountain, at around 8,500 feet, commanded a magnificent panorama of the Great Himalayan range, apart from the swelling sea of middle-Himalayan ridges that swept out in every direction.
A cloudy sky denied us the views, but sitting on the porch of the guest house, where Corbett had savoured a long breakfast gazing upon the scenery before embarking on his hunt, was transporting enough. An old and chatty caretaker, Dhan Singh, showed us around the bungalow, and made us tea in a heavy, iron centuryand-a-half-old kettle. We thanked him for his kindness, and gave him a hefty tip for his troubles.
Its difficult, amongst the many hotels and tourists and cars and metalled roads, to think of a time a hundred years ago when this entire place was covered in thick forests and a tiger could terrorise the neighbourhood. However, as we drove down through the private tracks of the IVRI-protected forest back to Himalaica, it didnt seem too fanciful to think of tigers and leopards skulking in the thick undergrowth. That evening, I gave the study a miss and settled into a comfortable sofa in the TV room, reading the venerable Gazetteer and a book on Himalayan forests, kept company by the three blessed out furry musketeers. Basant had come up with a different, and equally delicious, chicken preparation, and we ate with great relish, before passing out.
On our last day in Kumaon, I was determined to explore the middle Himalayan forests some more. Driving through them had only whetted my appetite. I wanted a walk. Basant obliged, and set us up with a guide who also worked as a part-time gardener at Himalaica. Our plan was to continue where wed left off following Shomes vertigo attack. So we drove up to Kulethi, a clearing halfway up to Gagar, and started on the trail which veered up steeply through the rhododendron and oak forest. Soon we cleared the top of a rise and a wide southern vista opened up below us. The houses of Bhowali looked tiny from here and ridge after forested ridge stretched away towards Ghorakhal and tiny Bhimtal to the south. Slightly to the west, the giant ridge enclosing Nainital stood out, while just below us the Maheshkhan forest stretched down to the valley like a green carpet, and the road to Ramgarh snaked through it, far below.
A friend of mine at Gagar had told me that an interesting sadhu lived on the summit of the ridge, called Jhandidhar, beside a temple. Soon we came upon the brightly painted small temple, and a small, wiry old man dressed in a tattered jacket and warm leggings, complaining that some kids had dunked his transistor radio with coloured powder on Holi. I gave him a cigarette, and he looked a little less sad and more open to conversation. Hailing from eastern Nepal, sadhu baba had left home when he was young and had worked in Delhi for twenty years. But then he gave it all up and headed up here thirty years ago. Behind his humble dwelling, lay the peak, one of the many where the invading Gurkhas had hung their victorious flags two hundred years ago. Standing on the tip of the summit, looking out at the great sweep of the middle Himalaya, I had no flags of conquest to fly. Every ridge had its own story, and a world of ridges and valleys remained to be discovered. I waved at the distant snows, and went off to say goodbye to the dogs, Basant and to lovely Himalaica.
The nearest railway station to Shyamkhet is Kathgodam (35km), about an hours drive via Bhimtal. The nearest airport is Pantnagar (55km). You can hire a taxi from Kathgodam or Pantnagar to take you to Shyamkhet for 1,000.
Built in 2003, Himalaica (www.himalaica.com) was turned into a homestay last year. There are five large bedrooms in all, which can host up to twelve people (4,500 per person per day all inclusive). There is a study, a large living area with an excellent library with a fireplace as well as TV room with cable and a collection of DVDs. You could relax in the all-glass conservatory, do some birdwatching in the garden or just do nothing at all. Basant, the caretaker at Himalaica, can arrange for sightseeing trips in the area.
What to See & Do
Shyamkhet is well located for a number of activities in Kumaon. Its proximity to the lake area makes it a perfect spot to explore Nainital, Bhimtal, Sattal and Naukuchiatal. Apart from this, visit the Golu Devta temple in nearby Ghorakhal, as well as the organic tea estate. You could drive to Mukteshwar (35km) for its Himalayan panorama, or to Jageshwar (85km) to see the 1,000-year-old temple complex or to the forest in Binsar (81km). Closer by, you could visit Gagar (12km) for a Himalayan sunrise and hike up to Tagore Top. Ramgarh, the fruit bowl of Uttarakhand, is 15km away. Make your way to Talla Ramgarh (20km) to see some beautiful traditionally carved old Kumaoni houses. Shyamkhet is perfectly placed to explore the middle Himalayan forests. The Maheshkhan forest (6km) with its teeming wildlife affords excellent birdwatching opportunities. You could also do the moderate hike from Kulethi to Jhandidhar.