Traveling in style or traveling with all the arrangements made two month in advance is not our thing, however, traveling light and impromptu is.
Last time it all started with a phone call to a friend during coffee break on Friday evening while at I was at my summer job. The result – in the coming 50 hours, we explored Almora, Binsar, Bhawali and Nainital, and returned back to Delhi to make it to work on Monday.
Almora is a small hill town, yet to be spoiled by tourist influx and noise on one hand, and yet to realize its true potential on the other hand with bad maintenance of major attractive spots. Walking around barely took us half a day. There is only one rickety old state transport bus that plies between Delhi and Almora. If you are lucky enough, you will catch it before it leaves casually before its scheduled time if its full. We got the last two seats,located at the rear end of the bus and our backs begged us to stop the anguishing journey all night.
The charm of the uphill drive on mountains, with rocks on one side and the populace and greenery on the other never fails to delight me and I forgot all about my back pain and the steep, very steep, and dangerous turns the bus was taking once we got a view of the rising sun and inhaled the fresh mountain air. Over-hearing our anxious comments (read: shrieks) at every turn, a fellow traveler, a young working professional who grew up in Almora but now works in Gurgaon, re-assured us that this is normal and that the driver is not sleepy or drunk as we might speculate. Apparently, it is precisely because of the sharp turns of this route that no Volvo/Deluxe bus runs between Delhi and Almora.
Talking to co-passengers is my favorite part of any journey. Getting to know where they are from, where they are headed, getting a small peek into their complex lives – I almost crave it as soon I have a rucksack on my back. We were discussing our possible trajectory once we reach Almora and the weather conditions in Uttrakhand when a toothless old man interjected to add this insight – Paharon mei baarish aur thand kabhi bhi padh sakti hai (in the hills, rainy and cold weather can arrive anytime) And, man was he right!
We reached Almora at the crack of dawn, to be greeted by a chilly weather and deserted roads. We had to hunt for a hotel for an hour, primarily because of the early hour, and because we were two unmarried friends who were traveling together. The lines of morality, permissibility and promiscuity are rather sharply drawn for Indian backpackers, and on which side you fall depends on the assumptions of the staff and the place you are traveling from. We had to convince the staff that we were just regular back-packers, looking to explore the state, and there was nothing ‘shady’ about us. (Add to this R’s picky behaviour about washrooms and whatnot, but more on that later). We finally got a clean room on the second floor, with a wonderful view from the window, in a friendly hotel. We decided to get some sleep first, after that harrowing journey and room-hunting and finally started our day around noon.
Stop 1 was Binsar, which is a Wildlife Sanctuary around 35 kms from Almora. It took us more than an hour to reach. It has a small entry fee, on which we got a discount with our student i-cards. (Tip for all students – travel as much as you can on your student i-cards. Every tourist destination offers discounts!). We really wanted to stay at a Homestay in Binsar but due to the last-minute plans, couldn’t get a booking. If you are around Almora or Binsar though, you must check this option out. Another option is the KMVN Tourist Rest House which located 10 kms inside the Wildlife Sanctuary but has a limited number of rooms, at steep rates.
We reached the KMVN Tourist Rest House in time for the lunch buffet and had our fill of Kumaoni Daal called Bhatt with lots of papad, sabzi and roti. It was delicious! Just after a cup of chai, when we decided to walk to the Zero Point, it began to rain and the weather became really cold! After all, Paharon mei baarish aur thand kabhi bhi padh sakti hai! But that didn’t deter us. We took some detours on our way to the Zero Point, tried identifying the humongous variety of flora that we encountered and took shelter under big trees. Every time we would come across a tree with a particularly dense foliage, R would stop to narrate Harivansh Rai Bachhan’s famous poem from Agneepath – Vriksh ho Bhale Khade!
He really doesn’t get tired of it. Ever.
Vriksh ho bhale khade moment
I can’t quite put to words the joy I felt walking around unrestrained, smelling in the gilli mitti, that familiar smell of monsoon on wet soil and treating my eyes to BluRay-level of greenery. The fact that it was a rainy day also meant that we were the only two souls out there, and we could hear every crunch of a twig and every rustling leaf as we walked. I could almost hear the silence that surrounded us. On rainy days, I still can.
After loitering around for a few hours we walked back to the KMVN Rest House where our cab was waiting for us. How much I wish I had stayed overnight at Binsar, in the middle of nowhere! But that is for another time. This trip had far more adventurous things in store.
We reached our hotel around 5 pm, half-drenched, and decided to buy umbrellas straight-away! Our hotel was located adjacent to Laala Bazaar which is famous for copper items and chocolate barfi. Mind you, chocolate barfi is not made of chocolate, but of burnt khoya! We learnt this when we chanced upon a 151 year old sweet shop, called Joga Shah Halwai whose owner proudly showed us the invitation card for lunch signed by Jawaharlal Nehru that his Grandfather had received. The nationalist pride augmented his persona when he was telling us the history of chocolate barfi and baal mithai and the house which the family has owned since over a century. The front part of the house serves as a shop in Laala Bazaar, where we stood tasting sweets.
Chocolate barfi was alright, and NOT as heavenly as I had imagined it to be. But our best buys were the absolutely fresh and delectable apricots, locally known as khumanis and fresh peaches! I was so delighted by their abundance and their affordable rates that I decided to buy a huge bunch of Khumanis and munch them for the rest of the journey! We walked up and down the road, discovered a deserted, dirty and ill-maintained sunset point and I wondered how would it have been to grow up here. Or to live here now. My reverie was broken by R when he spotted a old church hidden away behind a tree and called out to me for attention!
We decided to sleep early that day, which in the hindsight was the best decision because the next day was packed with Nanda Devi temple, fruit-stop at Bhowali, evening around Naini Lake and missing the last bus out of Nainital.