This is the second part of my memories from a holiday in Uttaranchal a couple of years ago. Read Kumaon journey 1 first.
Moving on half-heartedly from Kausani, we then made our way to Binsar. We had been warned that travel to Binsar included a steep incline on a one track road for the last twenty kilometers or so, and we were looking forward to that.
From Kausani to Binsar, we drove through some of the most beautiful countryside; every turn of the road producing a new surprise. On the way, we cross quaint bridges, and stop at the banks of little streams that crisscross all over the valleys. We catch the distant snow-covered mountains play hide and seek with us and we play along. They travel with you all through the way, now you see them and now you don’t.
We passed through the Baijnath temples, situated on the banks of the river Gomti. Morning prayers were going on in one of the temples containing a large idol of Goddess Parvati. The remaining idols have been kept in the local museum; this is the only temple where the deity is worshipped everyday. These temples date back to the twelfth century and in the early morning quiet, it is almost possible to close your eyes and feel transported back in time. Stepping down to the river banks, it is a pleasure to watch the fish come out to feed. Breakfast time, folks!
And we seem to have saved the best for the last. Binsar was in a word: spell-binding (or is that actually two words?). As you drive up the narrow, steep, single-lane tracks, the view gets better and better. A short two km trek along shaded paths with tall oak and rhododendron trees lining the way, takes you to the top. At 8000 feet above mean sea level is a rickety looking watch-tower. Steel your nerves, take a deep breath and climb on. For, the view from the tower is that of a 300 km stretch of the Himalayas, all the way up to Badrinath and Kedarnath on a clear day. Our guide even tried to point out his house on the China border but then you know what tourist guides are like.
The entire region is a protected bird sanctuary and home to a large number of animals including leopards and wild boar. As you trek up, you can almost hear the laughing deer and growling leopards above and below you. The guide tells you abut the wild animals that come out on to the roads you are walking on at night. You glance nervously around you and note that there are no other humans in sight and that you have been hearing strange noises for a while.
Away from civilization as we know it, near the top is a KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) guest-house. Stay there for an out-of-this-world experience – the guesthouse has no electricity! We wanted to stop for the night there but opted out on the advice of our driver – Aap Bombay se hain? Aap ki toh kulfi jam jaayegi. Binsar, we were told, is cut off from the rest of the world for two to three months a year. The employees of the guesthouse stock up on their needs by end of November and stay prepared awaiting the bitter winter months.
Incidentally, throughout Kumaon, you can safely stay at the KVMN guesthouses everywhere. They are decent and well priced, and are built at the best locations.
Stop at the Khali estate either on your drive up or down from Binsar. Soak in the views and have the famed Gujarati thali if you are there in the right season. And reflect on the fact that the estate is called ‘khali’ not after some local deity but to signify ‘empty’… Imagine the place as it would have been fifty years ago, isolated and completely khaali… That is such a humbling experience in itself.
A word of caution here: if you are the types looking for touristy ‘sight-seeing’ things to do, you’d do well to stay away from Kausani and Binsar. The only sights here are those of the magnificent mountains, which one can never tire of…
Coming down the hills, we stopped at Naukutchiatal on our way back to Kathgodam for the train. You would do well to overlook the more crowded Nanital and Sattal and head straight for this peaceful spot. This lake with nine corners is the perfect place to just relax and savour those moments before heading back to city life. Amble along the walks on the banks, take a slow shikara ride and chat with the boat-man about the region, take a pony ride or just hire a boat and row out into the lake yourself.
Kumaon is a place where nature completely takes over… where else would you see a signboard saying ‘animals have right of way’. Through your journey in Kumaon, you will hear the tinkle of temple bells; these are offered to the local deities here in return for divine favours sought and bestowed. As for the smells, we caught only the waft of alu parathas in winter, but in peak season, the smell of apples and rhododendron flowers accompany you. And of course, through the year, the smell of fresh and clean mountain air stays with you… And leaves you longing for more.