On 19th May, 2004 evening around 9 p.m. we left home for Delhi Railway station to board the Ranikhet Express. It was a very hot evening and moreover the Railway Station was over crowded and the consequent heat was intense. There was no relief even after settling on our respective berths. We wanted to get out of Delhi as soon as possible but as if to test our patience, the train started half an hour behind scheduled time. The heat continued to haunt us till the unearthly hours. However, by the time the train reached Kathgodam it was so nice that we forgot our unpleasant experience in the train. My feeling of deep affinity with the hills finally actualized into this trip.
As we came out of the Rly. Station with our rucksack, we saw a number of taxis and jeeps lined up to woo the visitors. On enquiry we found the cost was not within our budget. So we had to look for the bus stop. We waited at the bus stop for some time and boarded a bus to Bhowali from where we were told we could get some conveyance to Mukteshwar. As the bus moved ahead, the height of the mountain kept on increasing, sometimes coming down a bit and again going up while vegetation on the hills presented new panorama to the delight of the eyes and spirit. We enjoyed every moment of this drive. At Bhowali we found plenty of fruits being sold at a very cheap price (in comparison with Delhi of course!). We bought some Khurmani and found them to be sweet. To commute to Mukteswar we were advised to take a jeep/car as the next bus would be available only around 2.30 p.m. and it was only 9.30 a.m. So we decided to hire a jeep for Mukteswar. We had to bargain for a reasonable rate prevailing in the hills as rates with the plains differ considerably. The journey to Mukteswar was like flying through the fruit orchards and inhaling the sweetness of the fragrant flowers like birds. Every corner, every turn had something to present to us. The orchards at Ramgarh and the hills at a far off distance continued to show us the divine beauty of nature. Due to smoke and fog, the most thrilling site of the snow bound Himalayan ranges were out of our sight, this was the only sore point.
We reached our Guest House at 11.45 a.m. This guest house is run by Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) situated at a vantage point. Mukteshwar at a height of 2286 meter is one of the excellent locations of Kumaon Region that displays the Himalayan range with magnificent views. As we had our prior booking made through their office in Delhi, we were allotted a beautiful room overlooking the whole range. The cool breeze that blew there took away all our fatigue we were subject to during the train journey from Delhi. As if we were transported into a heavenly abode. With a cup of tea, we refreshed ourselves and placed order for lunch. In the meantime we went out to have a close look at the nature and the hills around. Next to our guest house was the PWD Guest House which had a well laid out garden with flowers blooming all around. The breeze was so refreshing that by passing of every moment we felt the touch of nature?s blessings in spite that we human beings are always trying deforesting to cater to our so called needs. I pondered over this ruthless cutting of trees for economic gains. A parallel could be drawn from the story of Kalidas before he became the Great Sanskrit Poet of India. One day he was sitting on a branch of a tree and cutting the same. It is the same situation with human beings now. The plants and trees are maintaining the ecological balance, a life line for all living beings and we are deliberately destroying them! However, we did not fail to enjoy watching a variety of birds flying here and there, the bright sun and it was a perfect day to enjoy.
After enjoying the sun for sometime, we came back to our guest house. We all had a quick bath and went down for lunch to the dinning hall. On completion of lunch we had an afternoon siesta and again went out for site seeing. Mukteshwar could hardly satisfy our hunger for seeing the Himalayan peaks as the visibility was very poor due to mist and smoke (we were told that the local people burn the fallen leaves for farming and that causes smoke). Mukteshwar had a unique feature overlooking deep ravine on one side and the beautiful town of Almora on the other. We also visited a desolate temple nearby and we could hear distinctly the rustlings of leaves as if the tall trees were whispering to us the secrets of nature. The night was very cool and the breeze turned stormy as the night progressed. After dinner I strolled for half an hour with a guest who came from Mumbai but I also found one poisonous scorpion trying to get into the guest house. It was just thrown out by one of the guest house staff.
Next day morning after a cup of tea and biscuits we trekked down the hill to Sitla. Sitla had abundance of fruit trees like Khurmani, Plum, Naspati etc. we also saw the famous red flower of the hill by name Rhododendron. We were told that during March-April this flower floods the hill side and it looks like the mountains are on fire. we could feel the silence of the nature which was often broken by the chirruping of the birds.
After our breakfast we had to repack our rucksack for the next journey to Jageshwar at a height of 1870 Meter. We thought of trek to Sitla bus stand to short cut our journey but it added to our woes and suffering. We three started after saying good bye to the staff of the guest house and enjoyed our trek for an hour. But as the sun slowly heated up the road going got tough. However we managed to reach the bus stand but we missed the bus by a whisker. We had to wait for a lift at least up to Almora. Finally we got a Maruti Van and the fare charged was a reasonable one and we reached Almora around 2 p.m. We thanked our good friend for dropping us at a convenient point. Our daughter was already hungry and we were told that a particular sweet shop is famous for its sweets. My wife took some time off to buy some sweets. But in the meantime a jeep bound for Panuwa Naula enroute Jageshwar left and we had to wait for the next one. The next one did come and by the time we got into this jeep the clouds started gathering in the sky unnoticed. It was about 2.30 p.m. our jeep started. It move at a very high speed but picked up people on the way. I felt the driver was driving very rashly and that too the jeep was over crowed and I advised him to drive with moderation considering the extra wait it was carrying. But the driver would not listen. However, my apprehensions came true when our jeep collided with another jeep coming down the hills. After a long debate on who was on the wrong side and who should compensate whom the urgument dragged on with generous contribution from the passengers, the jeep started again. By this time the sky was overcast with black clouds and very soon it started raining. The rain took a dangerous turn with iceballs falling with tremendous force. The thunderous sounds following the lightnings across the sky made us feel as if the earth will be deluged (the mythological concept of deluge before the new creation) and our small jeep would be teared to pieces. We were out in the open inside a small jeep for an hour! To compound our problem a tall tree fell on the road closing the it completely. It became so dark that we could not see anything. Slowly the vail of clouds moved away but rain continued with strong wind sweeping across. After an hour the rain turned into a mere drizzle and we had no other way than to vacate the jeep as the driver refused to go any further. We got down with our Rucksack and walked across the stretch to the other side where the tree fell. We requested some people who were coming from Panuwa Naula to give a lift but they would prefer to wait till the blockade is removed than help people to commute to a convenient point. We again hired a jeep and we had to bargain very hard to bring down the charge to Rs. 250/- for 6 k.m. only! We had to hire this jeep as we were very hungry and it suddenly became very cold we wanted to reach our guest house as soon as possible.
Reaching the guest house was like entering our home, as the drizzle continued and we were wet, a cup of tea with snacks was a refreshing one. My wife got busy with the wet clothes that were to be dried. There was no electricity at that time and it did not come back till the next day. We had to manage with candles as the solar lamp the guest house provided us with did not work. By 8 p.m. we had our dinner at the dinning hall. The food was good as well as the soup. It was a candle light dinner at Jageshwar. Jageshwar is at a height of 1870 meter and is famous for 12th Century A.D. 120 Temples. It is 34 km from Almora. As we were very tired we went to bed very early.
Next morning we paid a visit to the Mahakaleshwar Temple. There is a beautiful rivulet behind the temple which comes to life whenever there is rain. The vegetation was thick and green. We took few snaps of the temple and the nature around it. We also visited a museum displaying idols of 10th to 12th Century stone work. After coming back to guest house we had our breakfast and also placed order for lunch. In the meantime we repacked our luggage and I had to look for a jeep or car which would ferry us across to our next destination 'Sitlakhe'? I found one Jeep was ready to take us to 'Sitlakhet' and it was agreed at Rs. 750/- so the deal was finalized. After some time the guest house boy came to our room and told me that some one was waiting at the reception to meet me. I was wondering who could that be. I hurried to the reception and found the driver who a few minutes back agreed to take us to 'Sitlakhet' was there. He told me that he was cancelling the deal without giving any explanation. Howsoever it may sound unpleasant for me this time, I had to swallow. We decided not to look for a car or jeep again instead we will trek some distance to catch a bus. As we were busy preparing ourselves for the next journey, our daughter slipped out of the guest house to play outside. After some time she came running, Father, there is one fellow who had a car and was willing to take us to Sitlakhet. I went out with her and spoke to the fellow who was ready to take us at a lower cost, Rs.650/-. So I told him to park his car at the guest house and the time given was 1 p.m. We reached Sitla Khet around 3 O'clock. The weather was so nice here, cool, breezy and quiet. We were the only family occupying the guest house then. Before evening we went round the Sitlakhet and saw the Scouts and Guides Training Centre and a post & Telegraph office and a few shops and houses. It was a very quiet place which I liked very much. The mountain fruit trees were everywhere with fruits hanging around. As the evening came clouds started gathering in the horizon and soon it started raining. We all enjoyed the rain more so because at that time Delhi's temperature was hovering around 44 degree Celsius, we thought. Around 10.30 p.m. the rain stopped and we could see the lighting of the Almora City as if it has been garlanded with twinkling starts . Next morning we had a plan to go to the Shyahi Devi temple and also to pay a visit to Discovery training centre up in the hill. But early in the morning it again started raining and it stopped only around 9 a.m. So we postponed our programme to 3 p.m. That too had to be canceled as our daughter continued to sleep and we did not want to wake her up. At 4.30 p.m. we had our tea and snacks and we went out along the jungle path. On the way we met a group of 16 volunteers of Scouts and Guides heading towards the Temple. They offered us to take along with them to the Temple if we were ready. We asked our daughter whether she could take such a long uphill walk, she readily agreed. So we stared for the Temple. The trekking was unforgettable not only it was presenting excellent views at every height, the volunteers made it so interesting that we became a part of the team. The soothing coolness of the mountain was entering into our every cell and the self was getting dissolved into the natures bounty. The nature around us was silently vibrant with life, the tall trees, the creepers, the sky, the clouds and the chirping birds all in harmony presented the cosmic beauty of God.
The trekking was stiff and ascending was becoming increasingly difficult. What could come on the way to stop our progress when we were determined to reach the top. To add to our discomfiture, a ferocious looking dog started following us on the way. We were scared but we were told that the dog was a very nice one. It was going with us with a hope just to get something to eat. After quite a stiff trekking we finally reached the Temple. We had darshan and puja of the Shyahi Devi and the volunteers sang a few Bhajans and danced. I remembered to have read in the life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern and Western Disciples that he visited this Shyahi Devi temple on Wednesday, May 25,1898 and he stayed there for three days incognito as he wanted to be in the silence of the forest. Imagine this place before 106 years what could have been the thickness of vegetation and silence prevailing at that time. We felt honored to have come to this place which was once trodden by the Great Swami Vivekananda. I was going round the temple and looking at the surrounding hills. There were so many bells hanging from the temple pillars perhaps to fulfill the desires of the devotees. Does it really happen? I do not know.
Temple visit being over, we all assembled to have a hot cup of tea with biscuit which Krishnaji distributed. The most spectacular thing came from the unexpected quarter. The dog which followed us now started requesting for biscuits by pulling the cloth of the distributor. It was a wonderful sight to see how even an animal develops certain habit seeing human actions. After Tea, we all started descending fast. It was getting dark. We were told that some times leopards are seen in this jungle. So we all started trekking down in two groups. The moon was out in the sky like a sickle spreading softly its light. By the time we came down to Sitlakhet it was 8 in the evening. The volunteers asked us to visit their training centre which we promised to do next day in the morning. We were thinking how good it would be to introduce this Scouts and Guides programme in every school in India the warmth of which we just now experienced. This will definitely develop into creating social harmony and friendship among the youth of our country irrespective of language one speaks.
Next day morning (May 23, 2004) we had our tea and went out for a walk. Of course our aim was to visit the Training Centre of Scouts and Guides and meet the volunteers personally. As soon as we entered their Centre they all welcomed us with open heart. We went round the Centre and found it was quite big but the infrastructure was very poor. We met personally everyone and asked about their daily schedule. The schedule is quite a busy one. We invited them to pay a visit to our home in Delhi and share their experience as a volunteer. It was their breakfast time and naturally we were offered simple breakfast and tea. This again made us very sad seeing the quality of breakfast. It was not enough, nor nutritious for youngsters. We felt people should voluntarily donate for such good cause and help raise the quality of training. With a heavy heart we had to take leave of them as we were to go back to the guest house and get ready for the next destination Binsar and they too had their scheduled programme to follow.
With the help of the Guest house care taker we found a Maruti car with a driver to drive us upto Binsar KMVN Guest house. We had once more breakfast at the Guest House as we had already ordered for it before going to the Scouts and Guides Centre. I did some editing work on 'Wise being of the East & West' which I brought with me for doing whenever I would get time. We planned an early lunch and move out of Sitlakhet around 1 p.m. Accordingly , we got ready by 12 noon and had our lunch. My mind became heavy with the thought of leaving this place, an isolated spot of serenity which we all enjoyed for two days. After clearing our dues with the Guest House we started for Binsar. Binsar is situated at a height of 2412 meter. We had go via Almora once again and the drive through the reserve forest of Binsar presented a rich variety in bio-diversity with thick forest cover. We reached there around 3.30 p.m. and went to the reception. We were allotted a super deluxe room. Once having settled, we went to the refreshment room to have a cup of tea and sandwich. But we found the services provided by the staff were very slow. However in the meantime, a number of family came there to have snacks and tea/coffee. There was a family from kolkata Mr. Samanta, his wife, a son and two daughters. We became very friendly over a cup of tea. Our daughter Shivani found two good friends, my wife became a friend of Mr. Samanta's wife and myself enjoyed the company of Mr. Samanta and his son who just appeared for the 10th examination conducted by West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. For a while we went out to have a look at the forest around. Here again our daughter found another healthy doggie to play with, wherever she would go the doggie would follow. She enjoyed the company of the dog immensely. After a little while we came back and found Mr. Samanta and his family was going to the Sun set point and we also joined the group. Let me tell you here Mr. Samanta and his son, Partha, both are good amateur photographer and it was also delighting to see how intensely these two photographers were observing their objects of photography. After about half an hour walk uphill we reached the Sun set point. There we found a PWD Guest house and as far as sight could go there were thick forests and a few isolated houses here and there. A number of photographs were taken at this place.
As soon as the sun set, the darkness started enveloping the whole area. We had a torch and moreover the crescent moon was out in the sky. When we came back to the guest house it was getting cold outside. We had to put on sweater or had to carry warm wrapper. In the moonlit night we walked about half a kilometer down the road. It was dead silence all around, only the rustling of the leaves, and howling of foxes could be heard. The cool breeze became colder. We were told by the guest house people that Leopard could be seen in the night. So we walked back to the guest house.
At the dinner time, the dining hall was almost full. It was warm inside. We finished our dinner early and we went to the roof top of the Deluxe rooms from where a vast stretch of area could be seen. In the night the starts were looking so big and so near. Generally in Delhi we see only a few dull starts due to pollution in the city. But at Binsar inside the sanctuary there was no electricity, enhancing the beauty of nature manifold. It was so cold that we could stay outside for long. Promising to meet next day early morning, we took leave of Mr. Samanta and his family. The room was so warm and inviting that very soon we were asleep. At 4.45 a.m. in the morning we were up and there comes a knock on the door. Mr. Samanta is ready with his camera. Our daughter continued to sleep but I went out with Mr. Samanta. The whole of Himalayan range could be seen not very clearly but gradually it became clear. The sun rose, all the picks were visible only for few minutes. From nowhere the clouds came rushing bringing down the visibility to zero.
After breakfast we trekked through the forest reaching the base of the famous tower with a guide. The guide told us that the tower was not very strong and we were advised not to climb the top most floor keeping in view the safety factor. I was the first person in the group to take the risk followed by Krishna and another elderly couple.
The view from the top was breathtaking. The green stretch extended as long as I could see. Of course at the end the 300 km. stretch of the Himalayan view unfortunately hidden by the clouds and mist. On the way back I took a number of short cuts through the untrodden path and it was quite a thrilling adventure. Our daughter kept on telling me to avoid such ventures. Around 9 a.m. we were back to the Guest House and had a sumptuous break fast. Then it was time to wind up our stay at this beautiful jungle retreat and head for Kausani via Almora. Mr. Samanta offered us to take upto Almora as he had already hired a jeep. We gladly accepted his offer. So the journey back to Almora started around 10.15 a.m. My mind became heavy while leaving the place and my daughter felt sorry of her wonderful companion, 'Sheru' Again Almora city. We looked for the bus stand and were told there was a bus started around 12 noon for Kausani. We had some time in hand and we bought some sweets for the journey. When the bus came we could barely manage our seats amidst a number of passengers. The river Koshi ran along the route and the changing landscape kept our mind refreshed.. Around 3 O'clock we alighted from the bus at Kausani at a height of 2000 meters and at distance of 53 km. from Almora. On enquiry about the KMVN Guest house, we were told that it was up the hill about 2 km away from the bus stop and we needed to hire an auto or taxi to commute this distance. The charge was Rs. 50. We thought of trekking the distance. However, a taxi was found at Rs. 30/- after we covered a little distance. We gave in to the demand of my wife and daughter. The sun was bright then but gradually clouds started gathering by the time we got our cottage and settled. After washing we took a light lunch as it was late in the afternoon and retired to bed for rest.
I took up my papers for editing work as I could not get sleep immediately. After a while it started raining. The weather changed dramatically. I did not know when my eyes got closed and soon fell into a snooze. Suddenly I woke up and saw in front the clear range of the Himalayas with all its grandeurs. It was a wonderful sight so clear so near as if I could catch it with my own hands. I called Krishna and Shivani to participate in this visual treat so wonderful and so elevating. We kept on gazing at the icy picks of the Himalayas while the cold wind kept on beating, chilling even the bones inside.Once again we ordered for a cup of tea and with the warm touch tried to keep the body steady. We went out for a walk. The wild flowers blooming everywhere looked so refreshing that gave a real worth of our coming to the hills. Soon the darkness fell and the mountain range slowly disappeared from view. But the mind refused to come back from the distant horizon flying in the breeze absorbing every bit of natures bounty. I had to rein in my mind and had to look for physical needs for the night. After a light dinner we withdrew into our cottage under blankets.
Next morning, after breakfast we trekked to Anasakti Ashram also known as Gandhi Ashram where Gandhiji in 1929 stayed for 14 days completing his Anasakti Yoga. The panoramic view of snow covered peaks of Nilkanth, Trisul, Panchaculi, Nanda Devi, Chaukhambha, Nandagunti from this vantage point was really a rare gift of nature which we had the opportunity to view and enjoy. On the way back we discovered a restaurant serving Bengali dishes. Naturally we decided to have our lunch there before leaving for Ranikhet. The return trek was as beautiful as the morning one except that we felt little warm as the sun was very bright and we had to take off our sweaters.
After a bath and packing our luggage and clearing our dues with the Guest house, we were again ready for the road. We got a ride to the restaurant noted earlier and we decided to have our food there. We enjoyed the dishes but it was lacking in cleanliness. After waiting for a while at the bus stop, a crowded bus appeared and we had to squeeze in as there was no other bus following for the rest of the day, we were told.
The mind became heavy as we were leaving Kausani but we had to think of the next destination Ranikhet. Ranikhet situated at a height of 1829 meter above sea level and at a distance of 49 km from Almora. The market place of Ranikhet is not quite clean but the area administered by the army is very well maintained and clean. Our guest house was situated on the Mall road amidst vegetation and we had the opportunity of watching a number of unknown birds. We could also listen to the whistling of birds creating a symphony of the nature. Some of the isolated houses located here and there in the woods where nature and human meet in solitude to communicate with each other. Here from such remote places we could view the Himalayas and it really gave us immense joy . We walked a long way into the woods and enjoyed the serenity that prevailed there except chirping of the birds which acted as nature's voice. The two days that we stayed passed off very quietly and saying good bye to the Guest house manager, we headed for Nainital, the last destination of our summer tour of 2004.