Waking up early is always such a drag, more so in winters, but for a trip to the hilly terrains of Uttarakhand one can’t help but be exceptionally punctual. I began around 5 in the morning, catching the rajdhani at Nizamuddin station. I reached Kathgodam around 12 P.M. It was high noon, as I tiringly deboarded, preparing myself for the rustic adventures in the wilderness of Kumaon.
Uttarakhand, is also known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ and rightly so as one can spot a temple or a shrine every few kilometres. But religiosity aside, what really keeps me bringing back to Uttarakhand is the ruggedness of its terrains, the friendly locals and nature, undiluted and pure.
From Kathgodam I took a cab to Kosi Valley Retreat (KVR), a stay-away located in the hills. The four hour drive from Kathgodam to KVR was phenomenal, a subtle glimpse into all that the valley had in store for us. Dusk crept in slowly as the cab meandered uphill through the thickening woods, I could feel the temperatures dripping outside, the wind getting colder and a soft blanket of fog setting lightly over the valley dimming the brighter hues of noon into the softer shades of blues and greys.
KVR was a delight, a ‘home away from home’ only more peaceful. Located in the midst of dense pine forest, the sweet lullaby of Kosi flowing nearby is bound to fill any nature lover’s heart. I spent the evening lazing around, finishing small preparations for the treks that were to begin tomorrow. At night, after a little chit-chat with other guests over the bon-fire, I called it a day. Retiring to my room, I cozied up in the warmth of the quilt with a book; sleep came to me tip toeing. It was a dreamless night and I believe someone has rightly said that the dreamless nights are indeed the most peaceful ones too.
In the morning, the sunlight teasingly sauntered in through the windows, an invitation to get up I believe. And even though I can’t remember a cozier bed, I shrugged of the laziness and got up.
Setting up the First Camp
Post breakfast with lunches packed and our camping gear ready, Kamal, Shivraj (Managing staff at KVR) and I ventured out for the first day’s expedition. We had a 9km trek ahead of us to reach our camping site. We crossed the cold, shallow waters of Kosi which is not in full flow during the winters. The water streamed gently around the rocks and across the river one could spot a primary school: cute little kids dressed in brilliant red uniforms sitting row-wise performing their morning prayers in the verandah. One might have a hard time defining ‘harmony’ but to come upon a view such as this one knows: the soft river flow, the warmth of the morning sun, the rituals of study, the innocent dedication and the old bridge where I stood taking a moment to let it sink in.
We trekked through the forest covered in pines, eucalyptus and oaks; taking steep shortcuts wherever we could, to cover more altitude that would leave us all breathless, almost gasping for air but more so feeling alive.
Along the way I met many local women fetching wood from the jungle, balancing enormous weight on their heads and still walking with relative ease. And here I was sweating with my small backpack. I wondered how people become like the places they belong to. These women were rugged, wild and fierce like the landscapes that surrounded them.
Three hours of hiking finally brought us to our camping site in the high mountains. The jungle surrounded our tents on all sides and long stretches of pine trees were all I could see. At this height, the wind blew fiercely rushing through the dense canopy, the rustling of the branches reminded me of the soft crashing of sea waves against the shore.
After the tents were setup we feasted on the packed lunch and then left for a short 15 minute trek to the nearby Gananath temple. It is amazing how small temples in the woods become part of local lore. There were a couple about Gananath that locals shared with me. A spring of water flows through the temple throughout the year. The locals believe that the water has great healing properties and could cure people who stammer. According to another story, years ago the temple had a spring of milk flowing in its premises all year long, till one day someone tried to take some away and milk turned into water.
By the time we got back to the camp, it had gotten really cold, so we gathered some wood and lit up a warm, cosy fire. Ah! Perhaps there can be no greater bliss that sitting by the fire on a wintry night in the mountains. The day came to a close after a homemade meal with a local family who lived close to our camp.
Witnessing the peek-a-boo game between The Sun and the Himalayas
Next afternoon we left for Aidhadev temple, a 20 km drive from KVR. Road was really treacherous which was one of the reasons why very few knew about this temple except the locals. Shivraj kept telling me about the incredible view of the Himalayan Range from the Aidhadev camping site and I could not hold my excitement anymore. We were to camp literally adjacent to the temple premises; another first adding to my list!
On our way we came across a bunch of sparsely populated hamlets. I wondered how they managed a livelihood in such secluded areas, to which Shivraj told me that most of these villages are self sustaining with little reliance on the outside world.
Aidhadev was another 20 minute hike from where the vehicle dropped us. We reached the site just in time for the sunset. And there were the mighty Himalayas lining the horizon, its snow clad peaks sparkling in the light from a subdued sun getting ready to bid good bye. It was sublime, incomparable to anything I had seen before. At such height there were no trees barring our view and the wind blew fiercely in our faces.
We lit a small fire and had tea settling down for the magical sunset already underway. The sun dipping teasingly over the horizon cusp, the colors changing from bright yellow to a soothing orange to a brilliant red. Already we could see a crescent moon and few stars gathering sparsely. And gradually, the entire sky was covered in twinkling white, as light from the stars illuminated softly the temple silhouette. In the valley below, little lights were coming up here and there. And all of this was outlined by the majestic Himalayas in the distance, making Aidhadev heavenly by their presence.
Temperature was not that low, may be around 4-5 degrees, but the strong glacial wind made it really nippy. Fire was our last resort to fight the cold and of course to cook ourselves some food to eat. A second round of tea followed the dinner. I cannot remember now how long I sat besides the fire staring at the night sky. In those moments on the hill top under the starry sky with a warming fire, in the temple overlooking the valley and the Himalayas I seemed to forgot everything else. I wondered if this is where God’s found a place to live, they must have their reasons. Perhaps I could tell why.
Around 11pm we called it a day and retired to our tents. The night was chilling despite many layers of clothing and sleeping bags. Sleep would arrive in short intervals interrupted by cold winds that would somehow find its way into the tent. Around 4am I called it quits. I later gathered from Shivraj and Kamal that they themselves slept very little and all of us were up early in time for the sunrise. We lit a fire and waited in anticipation.
A tiny ball of red climbed the horizon sill and occasionally one could hear birds chirping across the hills. The glory of Himalayas in the morning was breathtaking and around me the valley spread like a scenery drawn to perfection.
Wilderness of Udri – Himalayan village with only eight homes
After a quick breakfast we left for a nearby village named Udri. It was a 4 km downhill trek from Aidhadev. As we passed through the forest, I spotted trees with black charred stems, a sign of recent forest fires in the region. A way through the woods was the only one to Udri, a small village of just eight homes. Most natives as I found out later had left in search for better opportunities to the cities.
It took us an hour and a half of hiking through the woods to reach Udri. From a short distance one could easily could all the eight homes that constitute the entire village. There was one freshly painted in white and blue, where we halted. The woman of the house, a cheerful soul greeted us politely and offered tea. Later she plucked fresh oranges for us from the tree planted outside the house. I would not be lying if I say that those were by far the best oranges I have ever tasted till date.
Due to lack of proper transport facilities the homes are mostly self-sufficient. They grow as much as they can and rear livestock and dairy cattle. Solar panels have been installed with state subsidies for electricity. The village is known for tigers from nearby jungle prowling around for cattle. “ Bagh aa jata kabhi kabhi ghar ke bahar. Hamari gaay kha gya” (Tiger comes outside our home sometimes. He killed our cow), the woman told us somewhat in jest. For a moment I wondered if she was messing with us only to realize later that she was not. Living in the wild, these people were making the best of it.
The Kadhi (thick gravy based on gram flour, butter milk or yogurt and added spices) and rice she made for lunch were lip-smackingly delicious. As we finished our lunch, I found out that she was leaving for Someswar (90 minutes downhill trek from Udri) to attend a local Kumaoni Wedding. She asked me if I would join her for the wedding and of course I said yes straightaway. From the minute I had set foot here I had wished to attend a Kumaoni Wedding having heard so much about them from my friends. This was a dream come true!
While we were descending for Someswar I saw that Udri also offers the beautiful view of the Himalayan range. Without doubt lives of the locals are difficult as children have to trek for hours to reach school, medical care is not available during emergencies and even the basics are difficult to manage. But with Himalayas as the backdrop, the unpolluted fresh air to breathe, close knitted community living, fresh fruits and vegetables from the backyard and the liberating feeling of independence that comes from being self sustainable, living in wild is distinctly rewarding for those who have over the years adapted to the inconveniences of the terrain.
Dance of Colors at Kumaoni Wedding
Rekha ji was like a long lost friend to me. We chatted throughout the trek, swapping stories. On our way we stopped number of times to chit chat with people. Apparently everyone knew this new friend of mine.
The mind numbing routines, the everyday, and the ordinary, all of these one mostly forgets, but some moments stand out and they keep a place in your heart long after you forget the rest. These find a way into your memoirs, into little interesting stories one shares occasionally with the close coterie of friends. As we were nearing Someswar, I came upon a group of elderly women lazing under the afternoon sun, laughing together as only old friends do. It was such a delight talking to them about my travel, the local places, the villages and to laugh along. As I was leaving one of the elderly women blessed me lovingly, a slight tap on the head. The sheer simplicity of the gesture was overwhelming. This I knew would remain with me for the rest of the trip and for many more to come.
The high noon was slowly fading away by the time we reached the venue of the wedding. The newly painted house was decorated colorfully and local music played in the background as family and friends gathered for the ceremonies. Kids jazzed around and danced excited by the occasion. And the ladies looked beautiful in bright saris. According to the Kumaoni customs, all married women have to wear big nose-rings and drape themselves in a red & yellow stole. Though the custom is no longer followed by many in the younger generations yet most elderly upheld the same religiously.
The day of Leave taking
Our encounters are transitory, our stays brief, but a sense of belonging remains if time spent is spent well. Uttarakhand was full of pleasant surprises. From the cosy confines of KVR to the wilds of Udri, I relished every moment of my stay here: the wintery nights, the long treks, camping in the woods, bon-fires to cook and keep warm in chilling weather, the phenomenal sunrises and sunsets over the Himalayas, the glorious pines, the soft music of Kosi veering through the rocks, a chance attendance at a Kumaoni wedding…
Coming here, I could not tell the shape my adventures would take. But as I am leaving I can assure anyone out there with the sincerity of a satisfied soul that the Land of Gods will give you more than your bargains and surely you’d find reasons to revisit…As have I.