Written by Siddhartha Krishnan | 7 Min Read
(Note: write-up contains links to help potential travelers with route maps and details of places, things etc.)
At the start of the year, it had dawned on me, that I haven’t written enough travelogues considering, that I have traveled somewhat in the last two years. I’d like to travel more this year; but this section titled ‘travel diaries’ is an attempt to revisit some of my travel stories from the past year and share them with you. In doing so if I am to help prospective travelers to these places, so be it.
To celebrate Christmas and New year last year, we as a family had made a journey up North to the ‘Land of the Gods’ or what the natives call ‘Dev Bhoomi’. Uttarakhand is a North Indian state that is crossed by the highest as well as the youngest mountain range in the world — ‘The Himalayas’. Divided into two regions—Kumaon and Garhwal, the state borders Tibet to the north, Nepal to the east, and Indian states Uttar Pradesh to the south and Himachal Pradesh to the west and north-west. My wife’s ancestral origins are in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Hence, saying that we didn’t get a chance to visit this beautiful state in the 12 years of our marriage is a shame. But that’s how luck would have it for us.
Our Himalayan sojourn was planned for 4 days (25th – 28th Dec 2022). Since my wife was the only one to have a body memory of living in cold climates as this, and that too a long time ago, we didn’t want to be too adventurous, at least with our on-road travel plans considering we had an eight-year-old who becomes nauseous 2 hours into any drive. So early morning and night drives was off our list.
There are innumerable hill stations in Uttarakhand, and hence covering all in just one or two visits is impossible. We had charted out our destinations, keeping in mind that the travel time between these destinations should not exceed 3 hrs. Moreover, due to the paucity of time, we had to be wise with our selections.
We zeroed in on 3 locations for the 3 nights that we were to spend in the hills, and they were—Mukteshwar, Kasar Devi and Bhimtal. We decided to hit the highest and coldest place on the list first and work our way down to more pleasant temperatures. In this blog, I will share my travel story at Mukteshwar.
We began our journey from Haldwani, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas and is the largest city in Kumaon region. The town is well-connected by road and rail to all major cities in North India. It was established in 1834 as a mart for hill people to visit during winter. To reach here, we had taken a 2.5-hour flight from Bangalore (our hometown) to Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. We reached in the afternoon of 24th Dec. From Bareilly to Haldwani is around 100 kms which took another 2.5 hours by car. My wife’s aunt stays in the town, and she played an excellent host treating us to some delectable home-cooked food. On Christmas day, we left Haldwani after breakfast around 9 am, and planned to reach Mukteshwar by lunch time.
At 2171 metres (7500 feet) above sea level, Mukteshwar is one of the highest hill stations of Kumaon located in Nainital district of Uttarakhand. The drive to Mukteshwar from Haldwani is a pleasant one. The road (Bhatelia – Dhanachuli – Bhimtal Rd to Dhari – Bhatelia Rd/Dhari-Pokrad Rd/Link Rd) is largely good, but in case you are not used to driving in this terrain, I would suggest taking a cab the first time, like we did. Without stops it takes approximately 2.5 hrs to reach Mukteshwar from Haldwani. Since our check in time was at 1 pm, we decided to stop over for refreshments on the way. What we got was a local favorite—Potato and onion pakoras (fritters) with ‘bhang (hemp seeds) ki chutney’. Don’t worry the hemp seeds do not have psychoactive properties like the leaves. The ‘pakoras’ are also served with a tangy pomegranate chutney. A perfect snack for the weather.
We reached Mukteshwar town around 12 noon. One thing, that you need to be prepared for when visiting this part of Kumaon, is the absence of multi-cuisine restaurants en route to the hill stations. The restaurants here serve local cuisine which mostly comprises lentils indigenous to the area along with roti or rice. Other than that, you are bound to get your choice of parathas and … oh yes, Maggi! If you are lucky, you might see noodles or fried rice on the menu at these quaint roadside joints. Also, since these hill stations house sacred Hindu temples, so don’t expect too many non-veg options on the menu. At the most you might find one or two chicken dishes since the locals are mostly vegetarians. This was true of even the resorts of the area. I wasn’t complaining as long as I had that one chicken dish and eggs on the menu, to satiate my protein cravings.
We stopped over at a joint that gave us a splendid view of the valley. Post a light lunch we left for our abode for the day. El Sueno by Saffron Stays is a two-room cottage located within step farms where the locals grow apples, peaches, plums and apricots, in a village called Darima. The place is 13 kms downhill from Mukteshwar town which takes around 30 mins to reach. Since it is in the middle of nowhere, it is easy to miss and drive past it. My suggestion would be to contact the property manager for the exact location.
The cottage resembles houses typical of the area with a few creature comforts. Don’t come here looking for five-star facilities despite the slightly steep pricing which was accentuated by the holiday season. It is the experience that they are selling you. The rooms were unlike anything I had seen before. It had carpeted mud floors, wooden ceilings, stone walls and a fireplace. The owners have done the interiors tastefully, and I was happy to find a stack of books near the bed.
The temperature slips to sub-zero at night occasionally during the last week of December. And early mornings and evenings will see temperatures close to zero. So don’t bother with the portable heaters; the fireplace is the only refuge. We had no reason to complain because we had sought this adventurous, rustic and off-beat experience. Moreover, the verandah of our cottage provided a lovely view of the surrounding step farms, which I was told, looks spectacular during snow and during full bloom. I could imagine what it would look like.
After a quick break, we took a stroll down the hill to the farms. The staff at our cottage were local villagers. Our property manager’s uncle guided us through the step farms. He was generous enough to indulge us; tell us stories of the land and give us a peek into the local life by inviting us for a cup of tea to his house. It was fascinating to hear his stories. Of, how life had changed for him over the years, from the days when he used to walk from one hill to another to reach a school or market, as a child, to now seeing electricity, roads and other facilities come to his village. As a storyteller, I couldn’t have asked for more and the excitement in his eyes was unmissable. The one thing that I did realize was that these are proud people. They are proud of their heritage and culture and in no way consider themselves inferior to city folk—I liked that.
As the sun began to set, we felt the temperature plummeting. So, we made a dash to the cottage and ordered a few snacks. If you pay a visit here or to any farm stay in the area, please be mindful of the low night temperatures. It is, therefore, not right to expect the staff to be at your disposal all night. Be kind.
You might also not get an exhaustive food menu. What you are assured, though, is scrumptious homely food, clean air and a nice rustic vibe. My wife and I, spent the evening near the fireplace, sipping wine, telling each other stories of such fireplaces and bonfires from our past, while gazing at the waves of tiny shimmering lights that had draped the hills of the horizon. Our boy had quickly learnt how to keep the fireplace going. He lent a helping hand, and it kept him busy through the evening.
At Bangalore, I was doubtful when my wife had told me about the innumerable hill stations in Uttarakhand. I thought they were all part of a continuum. In the South we are not used to seeing so many hill stations within such close proximity. But I was wrong! Uttarakhand, I can now conclude is the ‘Goa of Hill Stations’. Every 30-40 kms a hill station crops up, out of nowhere, that has its own unique terrain, culture and history. It will take a number of visits to see all of it.
The next day after breakfast we left for Mukteshwar town to do some sight-seeing. On our list was the Mukteshwar Dham Temple, a short trek through a nature trail and a scenic spot called ‘Chauli ki Jali’. A 7-min drive from Mukteshwar town takes you to the Mukteshwar Dham temple area. It is within this area that all the other scenic spots are to be found. The whole sight-seeing exercise takes around 2 hours; that is if you are interested in exploring all of them. We took a guide to help us around for a fee of Rs 300. Let me give you a quick rundown of what to expect here –
- Mukteshwar Dham Temple – This 350-year-old Shiva temple is located on top of a hill. Typical of the temples here, it is a small shrine, and a flight of stone stairs take you to the deity. Lord Shiva is believed to have slayed a demon here and granted him salvation (Mukti), hence the name Mukteshwar. Please expect a crowd at this place especially on weekends and holidays. And a waiting time of 30 mins is to be anticipated to see the deity because only one family is allowed within the sanctum at a time. Food stalls selling Malta juice (indigenous to the place), Kadhi Chawal, Rajma Chawal, Parathas and Maggi line up the area leading to stairs of the temple.
- Nature trail–After a visit to the temple you can go on a trek through a nature trail around the temple. It doesn’t feel exactly like a forest, but more like a nature reserve of fruit orchards and coniferous trees. A serene place for nature lovers to take photographs.
- Chauli Ki Jali–The name literally translates to a hole in the rock. According to local legend, if women wanting to have children climb this rock and put their heads through the hole, they are blessed with healthy offspring by the gods. I don’t how true that has turned out to be for the believers, but our guide had warned us not to climb the rock without assistance since accidents have been frequent lately.
- Viewpoint–Next to ‘Chauli to Jali’ is a vantage point that provides a splendid view of the valley. There is a telescope on offer here to view a Himalayan peak for a measly sum of Rs 20.
- Adventure Sports–If you are an adventure enthusiast, you can go for paragliding or zip lining options available near ‘Chauli Ki Jali’. Zip lining is allowed for kids as well, so my son (that’s him in the video) and I had tried it out. I found it safe enough to take the plunge despite a fear of heights. It costs Rs 600 per person.
We spent close to 2 hours at the Mukteshwar Dham temple area. At the end of it, we got what we had expected from the place—nature, adventure and a taste of something new, so we were happy!
In the next chapter of Travel Diaries – Uttarakhand | Chapter 2 – Kasar Devi
- We take a 3-hr drive from Mukteshwar to Kasar Devi. A fascinating journey through a forest reserve offering spectacular views of the Himalayas.
- En route we stop at a 200-year-old house which happens to be my wife’s maternal home. A place she hadn’t visited in 25 years.
- The next day we visit Kasar Devi temple, a place believed to be endowed with a cosmic energy similar to Stonehenge and Machu Picchu.
This and more, coming up next week.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also a passionate blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, you can find his travel diaries, food stories, book recommendations and movie reviews.
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That looks lovely, Sid. A great journey.
Very well described dear….i felt that I also visited with you…ha ha ha … lovely pics u posted here and adventurous video of 36 seconds as well…. eagerly waiting for your next experience…..i really loved it..
Thank you! Glad you liked it having known these places well.