Ever imagined a place where you can view snow clad mountains the minute you open your eyes at sunrise? Well, I found the perfect place, high up in the Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand, India.
This place – Jilling Terraces – owned me. Apart from its sheer beauty and spectacular views, it also offered that peace and tranquility that is the trademark of lesser known places around the world – those not yet stamped upon by hordes of tourists. Add to this the excitement of this being my first solo trekking trip in India and I was well and truly hooked.
The Train Experience
I flew from Oman (my base) into New Delhi, stayed overnight with a friend and took the early morning Shatabdi Express train to Nainital in Uttarakhand. Let me confess. This was also the first time I was traveling solo by train within India, so I had my fair share of fears. Stepping into the first class compartment though, I felt pretty foolish. The interiors were spotlessly clean and had plush, pushback seats (much better than the low-cost flight carriers). My fellow travelers were businessmen, yuppie backpackers, honeymoon couples and tourists visiting India. That long six hours journey flew by seemingly in a couple of hours, as I was served snacks and lunch (all included in the ticket price.)
The Drive to Matial Village Base Camp
The train chugged into Khatgodam Railway Station at noon and a cab driver from Jilling Terraces met me as I walked out. From here it was a one-hour 15-minute drive to Matial Village Base Camp. About 45 minutes into the drive, we stopped at the Bhimtal Lake, the largest lake in Nainital. The rest of the drive was all uphill on winding roads with hard mountain terrain on one side and a sheer valley drop on the other. My driver was obviously an expert but that didn’t stop me from having some heart-stopping moments when we approached blind spots or braked to let a couple of teetering trucks drive past. The challenge, however, began only when we came to a stop at the base camp, where my first hike began.
The Road Less Traveled
The porter/guide who met me gave me a quizzical once over as if to say – “Hey boomer lady, are you sure you’re up to this?” He, I discovered was as nimble as a goat – even with the weight of my backpack on his shoulders, he was off climbing the path that led steadily upwards. I followed and about ten minutes into the hike, I was treated to beautiful views of terraced fields, storybook houses, high mountains and emerald valleys. At first, my stops were simply to shoot pictures, but soon they became more of a respite to catch my breath.
Thirty minutes later, I faced those typical challenges that all hikers learn to expect. Under my feet was a rock-cut narrow path that screamed for attention. One wrong move and I would go slipping backward. I hugged my Nikon protectively against me and labored upwards, my breathing tortuous and loud in my ears. At a corner I came across my guide sitting on a ledge, waiting for me. He offered me fresh lime juice which I gulped down in a flash. Then I fished out an apple and energy bar from my backpack and after a few minutes rest we were off again; or rather he was off and I trudged behind, munching my apple and thinking alarming thoughts. John Muir came to mind – “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” I sure hoped, at the top, along with nature’s bounties, I would also get a comfortable bed that I could just collapse on.
About forty minutes into the trek, I realized the forest had thickened around us. No more expansive views now, just rows and rows of thick foliage and vegetation. My guide pointed out varieties of trees and flowers – the blood-red Buransh, yellow wildflowers, Kafal trees, white plum blossoms – in a months time this forest would have a profusion of colors, he explained. The beauty and the silence were therapeutic and as I began to breathe in the pure oxygen I felt a sense of rejuvenation and hope. I didn’t know what I was hoping for, but it sure felt good to be alive.
Towards the last leg of my climb, I was joined by two adorable canines from a nearby village who begged to share my energy bar and trekked alongside for a short distance. Finally, after walking for what seemed like an endless eternity, my guide announced we would be reaching in about five minutes.
My first view of Jilling Terraces was partially eclipsed by a magnificent view of the mountains. Directly opposite the property and rising to a height of over 7,000 feet, is the Nanda Devi (bliss giving goddess) Himalayan mountain range. In the glow of the evening sun, the snow-capped peaks seemed to be undulating in a mesmerizing wave – or was I just feeling giddy with relief that I had finally reached the top? Gratefully, I drank the cool water that was offered to me by my gracious hosts and turned my attention to Jilling Terraces.
The Chestnut House, according to the hotel website, is 80 years old and was built by a Sanskrit scholar for his Polish doctor wife who was pining for the cool climate of her home country. The present décor of the Colonial style bungalow is an intriguing blend of contemporary and rustic design – pretty easy to get lost in the ambiance of bonfires and bookshelves as I discovered in the next couple of days.
The rooms are all designed with local fruit and flower themes. I was staying in the Buransh suite, so everything in my room was fashioned after the red Buransh flower, from the deep red lounger to the red motifs on the headboard and the wall art. The vase of fresh Buransh flowers on the coffee table lent that final personal touch.
A Culinary Experience like no other
The cuisine of the Kumaon (Mountain) people distinctly reflects their Indo-Aryan, Indo-Iranian ancestry and during my stay at Jilling Terraces, I got to experience some authentic cuisine by native Kumaoni cooks. Everything that comes to the table is sourced from local farmers – simple yet delicious. In typical Asian fashion, there is a deep bond between the heart and the stomach.
Crispy Okras tossed in pepper and onions, Red and yellow Lentils immersed in seasonings, Mint flavored aromatic chutneys, Cottage Cheese, and Eggplant delicacies, Chestnut Parathas, Spiced potatoes – all aimed to delight vegetarian taste buds. The meat lover in me found inspiration in Chilli Chicken and succulent pieces of mutton stewed in a copper pot with fragrant spices. The Italian Pizzas and Pasta should have clashed with the Chinese Momos and Manchurian, but surprisingly they didn’t. I washed it all down with the juice of the Buransh flower, which incidentally is a cure for heart ailments.
Certain Kumaoni sweet dishes are native to Uttarakhand – Singori (sweetmeat in a leaf), Bal Mithai (Caramalised fudge made from cottage cheese) or the evergreen flaky melt-in-the-mouth Son Papdi.
Though I didn’t get to taste it at Jilling Terraces, this mountain region is also famous for its Bhaang (Cannabis) Chutney made out of ground hemp seeds – yes, you read it right.
The Hiking Experience
At the end of every hike (and there were quite a few) I wanted to plant my own little flag of accomplishment – except I couldn’t muster up the energy to do so.
I had heard of Leopard sightings too but was told they were not common. According to my guide, Bedh Prakash, the last leopard was spotted in November 2017, near the villages. He also made light of the threat a leopard would pose, adding that a human was much more dangerous. True mountain logic that. Still, I didn’t want to put it to the test, not when Bedh was only armed with a thin walking stick and a flask of ginger tea.
The hiking trails took me through natural paths, dense forest areas, makeshift temples, some steep climbs and sinuous river streams.
Kanarkha Hiking Trail: Distance – 8 km, Difficulty – Medium, Hiking time – 6 hrs
This trail is at an incline of 70 degrees all the way to the mountain ridge where you are treated to panoramic valley views, terraced fields, and vegetable gardens. The city of Nainital is also visible in the distance. This is also the place to head to if you want to view a spectacular sunset. The Nanda Devi Himalayan Range is always visible – icily stoic and unmoving – as if mocking the transience of lesser beings.
To get to the Kanarkha Village, take the downhill path from the ridge and walk for another hour until you reach the simple yet idyllic village. You can meet the people of this village and experience their content lifestyle.
Panyali Trail: Distance – 6.5 km, Difficulty – Medium, Hiking time – 5 hrs
A comfortable hike with less inclination than the Kanarkha trail, this trail leads you through the thick forest to the picturesque Panayali Village. This is village hospitality at its best. Surrounded by pine and deodar trees you can continue walking uphill and have a picnic at the top ridge of the mountain. A 360-degree view of the valleys around is an added treat.
Gaula River Trail: Distance – 6.5 km, Difficulty – Hard, Hiking time – 8 hrs
This is a strenuous hike and only experienced hikers are encouraged to walk this path. Once you get to the Panayali Village, continue downhill until you get to the gently flowing Gaula River. Chirping birds, Perennial streams, cascading waterfalls and clear natural pools are in plenty, however, the rocks that lead to these water bodies are slippery and caution is advised. Once you get to the pools, you can take a dip (not during monsoons). This is where you feel thankful for the packed lunch and refreshments carried by the guides.
The Return of the Lone Traveler
When I finally bid goodbye to my mountain retreat, it was with a sense of deep self-actualization. I had found the colors of my spirit in those deep forests, walking alone through crooked paths, where everything seemed straight, through misty weather, where it was all crystal clear, in the dead of silence, where I heard everything and on paths strewn with dead leaves, where I felt completely alive.
My return trek down to the Matial Village was done in an easy 45 minutes. Again a drive and the 6-hour train journey back to Delhi.
I was briefly disoriented as I stepped into the bedlam of Delhi traffic at 9.30 pm – honking cars, screeching tires, dodging auto-rickshaws and the jostling impatience of people all headed somewhere.
My peaceful time up in the mountains seemed like a dream.
Inescapably, I was now reconnected to life.
This article was first published here: https://myitchytravelfeet.com/hiking-in-the-himalayas/
All pics by author, unless mentioned otherwise.