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Kumaon: Big Rock Candy Mountains

Text and photos: Jivitha Crasta

1 July, 2007:

At 8000 feet, Mukteshwar in June is buffeted by rain-laden winds that can chill you to the bone. It's not as though the monsoons are really here, but one can sense it champing at the bit in the occasionally dark skies. The mountain views, that are supposed to have seduced Jim Corbett, are bewitching. The mornings are drenched in mist but by mid-morning the soupy skies clear up in the blink of an eye and I can see Nanda Devi riding on a sea of clouds.

The valley in between is dotted with pine and rhododendrons. There is really not much to do in Mukteshwar if you are the sort inclined to lots of see'n'do. If you like quiet ambles, there is Chauli ki Jaali, a jagged outcrop of rock with unbelievable views, just 500 metres from the KMVN resthouse. I did amble rather ungainfully (the short uneven trail is dotted with mica rocks and pebbles) to Chauli ki Jaali and scaled the rocks only to stop short of a sheer drop. Not very good for the heart, this sudden appearance of the valley.

After a hearty kumaon lunch, I walk down the main road looking for interesting trails in a happy-tummy haze. An old guide falls in step with me and starts to tell me about the local history, Lord Mukteshwar, and so on. He wants to show me the temple. I politely decline when I see the never-ending steps one has to climb. And I never was into temples, anyway. Old guide gets my measure and offers to show me apple orchards. He leads me down into the valley, through a trail that looks suspiciously non-existent. I slip and slide and huff and puff and endure the 70-something-old guide's derision.

The apple orchards are not quite what I expected them to be. For one, there are not too many apples. Untimely showers got them, I'm told. Still, there are a few trees with rosy apples. A couple of guards sun themselves lazily next to the orchards. The orchards belong to the IVRI (Indian Veterinary Research Institute) which boasts of a sprawling campus ablaze with flowers. We head back up the trail and after what seems like a really long time, I realize we are lost. Old guide says we should double back. I glare at him but the views as we climb are worth it. We stop at his place en route to the top and I meet his brood of children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and admire his vegetable patch and flower garden.

In the evening, I wait for sunset with my Nikon D50 in hand and hope the mist clears up. At 7.15 PM, I am rewarded with a picturebook perfect sunset. At dusk, I lounge in an armchair and enjoy the twinkling lights of Almora in the distance.

Heading for Binsar

After two days in Mukteshwar, we take a taxi to Binsar. The driver, Atik Mohammad, who had ferried us from Kathgodam to Mukteshwar is your typical warm-hearted hillsman. He advises us to stock up on necessities before we drive up to the KMVN forest rest house in the heart of the Binsar sanctuary. I buy some emergency chocolate and a torch. There is no electricity and running supply of hot water in the forest rest house in Binsar. I plan to spend four days here and have been repeatedly asked whether I can manage without electricity for four days.

For now, I am just glad to be out of the dusty heat and noise of Almora. Although I had been to Binsar eight years ago, the magic of the densely wooded forest still comes as a shock. The stillness is punctuated only by birdsong. The road, if you can call it a road, is kuccha. Twelve kilometres into the jungle, the brightly colored KMVN resort stands out in the dense green of the jungle. Outside the gate I bump into Puran Singh, a birdwatcher/nature guide I had met in Saatal last year. Puran looks very delighted to see me as I him, of course. But, Puran's delight seems a little too ardent. Later, I understand why when a Bengali uncle accosts Puran and says, "Chalo leopard dikhao!" Puran tries to tell the Bongling that he cannot produce a leopard on request. Later he grumbles that to sight any animal or bird one needs to venture into the forest and wait, which most tourists don't want to do.

This might give you the impression that I am a true-blue trekker and bird watcher. But the truth is that I am at best enthusiastic and at worst not exactly bursting with stamina. On the plus side, I don't ask Puran to conjure up leopards and bears. Though to be fair, birdwatching treks with Puran are not exactly easy. Extremely demanding, is our Puran. I hate to tell him this but there are times when I have nodded off waiting out a laughing thrush or a black-tailed, something-winged, bird.

Binsar's KMVN forest rest house

The KMVN rest house's reception area is thronged with mainly Bengali and Punjabi families who have turned up impromtu and are very disappointed when they hear there is no electricity and only two buckets of hot water per room irrespective of the number of occupants.

The staff of the rest house is used to this reaction but still look very unhappy. Later, the salt-and-pepper haired suave manager tells me that most of these tourists end up depressed when they stay in Binsar and that depresses him. Most people cannot appreciate solitude, he says shaking his head.

The rest house itself is clean and well maintained with a terrace garden that provides excellent views of the mountains. The garden has lovely flowers and pretty butterflies. I take a few pictures and settle in the garden with a book, after an exceptionally good lunch. In the evening, I tramp to Sunset point with Puran. The point is at the edge of another bungalow owned by KMVN, which has now been thrown open to the public. The mist and clouds ensure that there isn't much of a sunset. Pretty soon, sunset point is buffeted by really cold winds.

The next day, it starts to pour in the wee hours of the morning. I am up at 5.00 and I muscle my way into the kitchen where the cook and his boys are having tea. The cooks gives me tea but shooes me out of the kitchen as it's a restricted area for guests. I am to meet Puran at 7.00 AM but I doubt he can make it in the relentless rain. By 12.00 PM, I am sitting under an awning in the garden when suddenly the mist in the distance clears up and I see my first close-up view of the Himalayas. I am stunned to see the entire mountain range with such clarity that I can even see the new, slushy snow. We, the straggly few on the terrace, sit there transfixed and then I am galvanised into action as I run for my camera. I am pretty sure this is not going to last.

Jungle Jaunts

The rain lets up and I set off on a jungle trail with Puran. We go really deep into the jungle, Puran in his military fatigue style garb and me in a bright blue raincoat. Not the best way to meld into the background and creep up on fauna, I realise too late. I lag behind letting Puran do all the hush-hush stalking and creeping. Puran shows me a Black-throated tit, a grey-crested tit, a blue tit, a green-backed tit--altogether too many tits (There are birds called tits, okay? I am not making it up.)

We are lucky to see a barking deer after much more of the hush-hush guerilla movements. I realise I can never make it as a camouflaged operative because I am given to much stumbling and crashing, and trees don't really do that. We round off the trip with the sighting of a bald eagle and a laughing thrush. In the evening, we trek to zero point, which also provides great views but is not as good as the KMVN terrace as a vantage point. I get a couple of good pictures, though. The next day we trek some more and I manage to see a langur, a snake, slugs. Small change, but I also get to see a whole lot of herbs growing wild, oregano, thyme, parsley, lavender, and vajradanti. Clearly a flora day.

Back to Kathgodam

It's time to head back to Kathgodam and I exchange numbers with Puran this time promising to be back for a longer jaunt. We stop at Bhimtal for the night. The KMVN cottages are dirty and eerie to boot. We should have stopped off at Naukuchiyatal I chide myself, but I wasn't sure I would get any place to stay. The next morning, I can't wait to be off. Atif takes us back to Kathgodam stopping at Saatal, Naukuchiyatal, and Jeolikot. I hear it has been raining incessantly at Binsar and Mukteshwar. As I step into the Ranikhet Express, it starts to pour in Kathgodam. I feel as though I am being chased by the monsoon. It finally catches up with me, as I walk out of the Old delhi station in a sharp drizzle. It's the first day of the monsoons in Delhi.



By Road: Delhi-Mukteshwar is around 355 Kms. You can drive to Mukteshwar from Delhi via Hapur, Moradabad, Rampur, Rudrapur, Kathgodam, and Bhowali.

By Train: You can take the Ranikhet Express from Old Delhi station. The train departs at 10.40 PM and reaches Kathgodam by 5.30 AM.


## Your best bet is the KMVN tourist rest house. It is cheap, clean, offers good food, and has the best views to boot. The staff is friendly and helpful.

Phone number, Mukteshwar KMVN TRH: 05942-286263

For bookings from Delhi:

Phone number, Delhi office: 011-23712246, 23746433, 23746431

For other details, go to www.kmvn.org

KMVN's site allows you to book online but the payment system is frustrating and not very reliable. It is advisable to book in person at the KMVN offices.

## PWD rest house: This colonial rest house with lovely gardens overlooking the valley is just a few steps away from the KMVN rest house. For reservations, you can contact the District Magistrate of Nainital.

## Mountain Trail Resort: If you like your creature comforts, you can try the Mountain Trail resort. The rates are on the higher side. See http://indoexpedition.com/mountaintrail.html


Taxi fares are on the steep side in the hills. A taxi from Kathgodam to Mukteshwar will cost you Rs 600-Rs 900.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: March - May and September - November



By Road: Delhi-Binsar is around 418 Kms. You can drive to Binsar from Delhi via Hapur, Moradabad, Rampur, Rudrapur, Kathgodam, Bhowali, Almora.

By Train: You take the usual suspect, Ranikhet Express, from Old Delhi station. The train departs at 10.40 PM and reaches Kathgodam by 5.30 AM.


## The KMVN tourist rest house is in the heart of the Binsar wild life sanctuary. An excellently run rest house, the Binsar KMVN TRH provides great food, excellent service, and clean accomodation. The resort also arranges for forest guides who can take you for nature treks through the forest. The KMVN terrace has the best view of the mountains. The TRH does not have electricity as of June 2007 and no running hot water supply. If you are particular about your creature comforts, you are better off at the Khali estate that is located 10 Kms away.

Phone number, Binsar KMVN TRH: 05942-

For bookings from Delhi:
Phone number, Delhi office: 011-23712246, 23746433, 23746431

For other details, go to www.kmvn.org

## Khali estate (also known as Mountain Resort): You can stay in the main bungalow or cottages. The resort has a great library and 24-hour supply of hot water. Details of the tariff can be found at http://www.resorthimalaya.com/

BEST TIME TO VISIT: March - May and September - November





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