The turn of the year this time presented everyone with an extended weekend at the very outset, an invitation enticing enough to lure even the hardened couch potatoes out. We added a couple of days and planned a trip to Mukteshwar, a little village in the hills of Kumaon, to usher in the new year in calm and serene environs of Himalayas. It was also going to be our first experience of putting up in a home stay booked through Airbnb named which added a hint of curiosity to the excitement we already had about our vacation.
Quite uncharacteristic and almost sudden was the way winter chill eased out just before the day we were to travel. The weather therefore, in the early hours of the day we started, was quite pleasant. We had managed to leave just before the sun rise, quite a feat as our 10 month old daughter was also travelling with us, with all her amenities and supplies. With no sign of a fog, we drove through our national capital, there were contrasting pictures as usual. The posh and beautiful lanes of the “Lutyen’s” and areas of East Delhi bordering UP are like chalk and cheese, as distinct as possible and a glaring evidence of the disparity which needs to be resolved. Nonetheless, one advantage of being out there at such an early hour is that you exit the city without being caught up in the chaotic peak hour traffic. In about an hour, we were cruising on NH 24. That is when we also had an interesting revelation. Our driver “Bhaisaahab” boasted of going to Nainital only “once upon a time”, that too from Agra , which explained why he was not able to suggest us a place to stop for tea. So the feeling was like “Jai Mata Di is baar paar kara dena” (can’t really translate the feeling in English but it was like a prayer to good lord to get us through the journey). We spotted a “dhaba” near Hapur and stopped their for some tea and perspective. It had become chilly again, we were getting closer to the mountains.
We reached Rampur in around 4 hours that is where we left NH 24 and took a left turn on to NH 87 which takes you to Haldwani via Bilaspur and Rudrapur. Of course we had missed the turn at first and gone further towards Bareilly, luckily sanity prevailed and we cross checked with a local who sent us back. I asked my wife if she had enough battery back-up ,it was time for Google Baba to come to our rescue, our driver was demonstrating that he had been to our destination only “once upon a time”. By now the hunger pangs were also getting stronger and we needed to refuel ourselves. A few kilometers after passing through Rampur we spotted the “Amritsariyan Da Shere Punjab Tourist Dhaba” and stopped. The rustic setting was a welcome break, gave us time to relax and soak in the freshness. At a time when the life in the city would have already become noisy and frenetic, it was easy, calm and peaceful here, like a tonic. The hot and generously stuffed Parathas and freshly brewed tea was like an icing on the cake and set the tone for the day ahead.
The drive further to Haldwani took us around hour and a half, travel time was extended due to a lengthy halt at the border to pay entry tax to the Government of Uttarakhand. Google helped us navigate through the town of Haldwani, one of the gateways to the hills of Kumaon. As we came out of the town on the other side, the foothills of Kumaon were there in front of us. We went past the Kathgodham railway station, the last frontier of the “Bhartiya Rail” in the region, crossed a narrow bridge over the river Gaula and our ascent up the hills began. Our Airbnb host Rajat Shetty had advised us to come via Bhimtal which is where we were headed to. The climb up the hill was steep, in a matter of 30 kms we were going from 1300 feet to 4500 feet. The turns were sharp and steep, each one giving you goose bumps. Suddenly after one of the turns you get to see Bhimtal, one of the lesser known gems of Kumaon, a serene body of calm blue water trapped in the laps of the towering mountains all around. We drove to the other side of the lake and got off for a short vigil. This calm blue lake with a mountain in the backdrop should make even a stone cold man fall in love with nature. We took a stroll along the road which flanked the lake. There were only a few boats out there in the lake at the time,majority of them rested near one of the banks. Although the place was not really bursting at seams with people but it still had a buoyant feel with small restaurants and stalls where people huddled together, enjoying, making the most of the time here. As we reached back to our cab more tourists arrived in buses, ticking off this beautiful lake in their itinerary.
The short pit stop at Bhimtal left us enchanted and refreshed and we moved on to the last leg of our journey to Mukteshwar. We were banking on Google maps and we took a route via Dhanuchali. A call was also made to Pandit Ji, our caretaker at the home stay we were heading to, informing him about our arrival. I realized that the number of vehicles on the road was gradually reducing and the condition of the road was also worsening. I felt a little eerie, the sun set was close, not the time to lose directions in mountains. So we reverted to our very own Indian navigation system, stopping at every junction taking directions to reach Mukteshwar. We did manage to reach our home stay called the “Irish Cottage” before dark .Later in the trip we would realise that Google “baba” made us take the shortest but not the popular route. The best way to reach Mukteshwar from Bhimtal is via Bhowali and Ramgarh, preferred route as of now, no wonder we found no traffic on our way to Mukteshwar.
Irish cottage was actually in Sargakhet, about 5 kilometers before Mukteshwar. A little below the road , a narrow and steep staircase was the way to reach it. While I was handling the luggage my wife had already checked it out. I asked her the obvious question and she answered “Just as we imagined”. Situated on cliff this cottage gave you a fantastic view of the valley. Inside the love and care which the owners had put in to furnish the house was clearly evident. It was a duplex with the bedroom downstairs and the living room upstairs .Vibrant choice of colors, artistic furniture, great coffee table books and neatly crafted spaces for lounging made it a perfect choice for a holiday in Himalayas. Soon the sun set ,another day in the mountains was getting over and a soothing stillness was all that was around.
We settled down and asked Panditji if some tea could be served ? ” Yes” , he replied.