We left CTR (Corbett Tiger Reserve) on a heavy breakfast morning and moved towards Nainital (actually,Nakuchiatal) in a rented taxi. Enroute, Jim Corbett’s home in little Haldwani was the last post linking the fabled hunter to the reserve that carries his name. However, the land that waited upon us – Nainital, Almora and beyond – was the hunting ground of Corbett and I truly anticipated catching up on many more stories of Jim Corbett in the hills.
It’s roughly a 90 mins drive from the plains to the hills of the 7 lakes. Beautiful, slow, nice and green roads. It’s a serene, sublime sleep in any vehicle when you are suddenly jolted awake by the shrill shouts for “paragliding” as soon as you enter Bhimtal. Bhimtal was once known for Leopards and leopard nuisance got right into shops and houses. Now it has been replaced by hundreds of street sellers peddling “paragliding” from 1000 to 3000 bucks for 10 minutes.
For the uninitiated, this is a simple activity. You are taken up to a high hill and strapped to a parachute like wing. You also have a pilot like person who is strapped behind you and who sorts of controls your flight path into a field below near the lake. Strapped so, you run down or jump of the hill and then leave your destiny fully in the hands of the illiterate, skinny, smelly, half-hungry human who is your pilot. For countless many tourists before and after us, this jumping off the hill was their moment with God. And God does like a little fun, for no sooner than I had jumped off, I found my parachute gliding above the hill range and getting into the other side of the valley. My pilot, who was perhaps 40% of my weight, was clearly having trouble with the wind and me. Then something happened; I found myself in a circular free fall for about a minute or so. My fear was that the ropes of the parachute had entangled and now we were 120kg of human mass falling at the speed of gravity on a house, a field or water depending on the wind. Class 6 th Physics became so precisely clear in a minute – no wonder we emphasize practical alongwith theory classes in schools so early on. The next 1 minute in air was spent making a mental will, longing to see my son one last time and making an imaginary call to my parents. Again, God intervened and by the end of that minute, I saw that we were finally descending into a marked field at a pace that was perhaps like Lewis Hamilton in 2 nd gear. We touched down, dragged the cameramen at the ground that was filming us and fell nicely into a good soft wheat field…what joy life is.
I recommend this activity to everyone. If ever there was an exercise that linked the spiritual to science, this was it. If you are above 80kgs, do choose your pilot and the parachute wisely. As for me, I proceeded to live life with more relish for the next few days in the hills.
The region is made up of seven lakes – Bhimtal, Sat Tal, Khurpa Tal, Naukuchia Tal and the most famous of them being Naini Tal. Named after the region of Goddess Naina Devi, and the mountain that can be seen from there, Nainital is as old as the British since the mutiny. It has a fantastic lake, and compared to what has happened to lakes in other hill stations like Ooty, the Nainital is wonderfully kept. On the shores of it is a long and winding Mall Road. It has a cricket ground, a movie theatre, a Mosque and the famous Naina Devi temple along its water lines. There is mostly a constant breeze flowing through the lake, from the wind tunneling effect of the surrounding mountains, which makes it an awesome place even in the summer sun. The customary book shop on the Mall has many local collections including a mammoth one on Jim Corbett and the shop next to it sells handmade candles and incense which are an instant hit.
Nainital is a fantastic hill station any time of the year. We were though bound for a different place; a little bit beyond Almora – the hills of rising sun and the land of Cobras. We were going to a place on the road to Munsiyari, a place relatively few stop by, a place which we found so romantic and quiet. A place named Binsar.
Binsar has a bird sanctuary, perhaps one of the highest one in India to its name. From the topmost point of the sanctuary, unimaginatively named ‘zero point’, one gets a spectacular view of the Himalayas – the Trishul range, the Naina Devi range and the entire lower Himalayas. The view is so silent and pristine that it is indescribable. Add to it the charm of blossoming rhododendrons on the way and the faint possibility of spotting a leopard on a tree as you walk. For the nature lover, KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) has a traveler rest house on the top for one to check in. With electricity just being an hour a day there, you will literally be as close to nature as you can today.
We were romantically inclined to stay a different place. The CMH at Binsar Valley – high up a lone hill – which takes a 4×4 SUV 20 mins to climb. Oh what a place! On the top of a high hill, with spectacular views to all sides, there are neatly arranged log cabins overseeing a massive cliff drop. Swaying trees outside your windows give you the perception that your cabin is swaying and will fall down any moment.
Amongst the cabins on the hill are a restaurant, a fun zone, a place for a bonfire, enough sit outs to take a look at the sunset while sipping your tea and enough lazy chairs to cuddle up with a book. I spent almost all of my 3 days at the resort never stepping out of it unless it was extremely urgent to do so.
This today is my favorite Club Mahindra Property! I will go out of my way to recommend this to everyone. We also took a morning ride to Jageshwar, on a different route from Almora. The place has ancient 9 th century temples, built in the indigenous style of the local rulers of Kumaon. Jageshwar has a temple complex devoted to Shiva while Almora has a temple complex devoted to Agni the Sun God. Assembled by locking only stones, the temple complexes are serene, clean, comforting and nuisance free. The route to Jageshwar is one of the best hill roads in the country with amazing beauty at every turn. While Almora quivered at a temperature of 34C, Jageshwar and the locale was around 22C owing to the green forest cover.
One is extremely tempted to be in the hills with experiences like this and continue on till Munsiyari where you come face to face with the snow clad Himalayas. Alas, corporate world calls time out now and then to such temptations. It had been a 6 days in the hills and we needed to get back. So with a very heavy heart we bade goodbye to the hills, their people, their food, the railway station and our pilot. It was a blessing that our pilot was an excellent hand at the hills as well as extremely patient with kids. We were lucky again on this trip.
If you are planning for a trip to these hills and are looking for beyond a tourist’s tale to tell, then I have a few suggestions for you, first hand…
- Rail roads from Delhi touch down into these hills from 2-3 directions – Ramnagar, Kathgodam and even Rampur. Thereafter, it’s a drive. So you can safely do a mix and match of rail + drive, or you can easily drive down from Delhi or Dehradun. The roads are in very good conditions, except a few patches here and there.
- If renting a car, choose a good driver. Set expectations around speed, distance and stops during pre- booking. Prefer SUVs and petrol powered cars if you have a choice.
- While online aggregators may not get the right ranking on hotels to stay in this region, they are mostly bang on in terms of places to eat. If eating outside, plan your big meals basis the locations you wish to visit that day.
- Pace yourself. Tourism isn’t probably checking off a list of places to see, but to spend time with these places and yourself. 1 day in Nainital v/s 3 days in Nainital have completely different experiences attached to them.
- Walk. While a destination may be the place on the list, but getting down here and there in exploring a wheat field, a rhododendron jungle, a little of pine cones to collect, or sit down near a small brook a little away from the road are priceless experiences. Avoid the honking speed rush to reach a place and find a small temple and an even smaller Maggi noodles joint.
- Carry bottled water, sunscreen, Polaroid shades and wet tissues. Polaroid is a must and the greens you see through them are the priceless hues nature provides free to your eyes.
- Wi-Fi is almost everywhere, but charging points are not. Keep it in mind and recharge your devices every night.
Jim Corbett never caught up with me and his stories beyond Haldwani, much to my disappointment. But, I found the hills very charming and the people equally sweet. These hills slowly give way to the spiritual heaven of the Hindus (Manasarovar – the Tibetan border being 200km away) and you are sure to find a reason and a corner of your own, in one of those hills. Make yours, every travel is worthwhile.