Written by Siddhartha Krishnan | 5 Min Read
Clear skies and a soothing breeze embraced us as soon as we exited the Chitai Temple. The day was inching towards noon, so we planned to have lunch at Garam Pani, a village en route Bhimtal, at an hour’s distance. The NH109 route that we took was a scenic one, and for most of the journey, we had the Kosi River towards our right and the green alpine hills all around for company. Since it was the dry season, the river was quite shallow and the boulders on the riverbed resembled Colonel Buendia’s pre-historic eggs from that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. Construction work was underway at a few places, mainly to widen the road and build bridges. So the drive to Garam Pani took us an extra half hour.
Garam Pani, also known as Khairna, is a small hamlet in Nainital district on the banks of the river Kosi. The name Khairna comes from a namesake bridge, which connects the two sides of the Kosi River. We stopped for lunch at a small roadside joint called Tribhuvan, that had the river flowing beside it. We could walk to the river from there but were advised not to. The food was the usual fare that I had come to expect in Kumaon. To be honest, my taste buds were craving change, but, since the hotel at Bhimtal had promised variety, I asked my hankering tongue to show some civility.
Just outside the restaurant, we noticed a small temple. Beside it was a drinking water fountain that was supposedly sacred. I cannot vouch for the holiness of the water, but coming from the mountains, it was surely refreshing. I recalled seeing a similar water fountain in Antargange, in Karnataka, where the water jetted out of an idol of Nandi (the bull vahana of Lord Shiva). The locals there had claimed that the perennial water source of the fountain was a mystery.
I wondered, if there were hundreds of such fountains around India with such fascinating stories associated with them? We drank the sweet water of the fountain, cleansed our faces with it; and were now exuberant as ever.
Midway to Bhimtal from Khairna, on the Bhowali-Ranikhet (NH109) road, we halted at Kainchi Dham, a Hanuman Temple that is also the ashram of world-renowned spiritual guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Known among his followers simply as ‘Maharaj Ji’, Neem Karoli Baba came to be known to the rest of India and the world, when a few famous Americans came to learn from him in the 1960’s and 70s. In the years to come, his teachings influenced the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Julia Roberts and many more.
A staunch devotee of Lord Hanuman (some even claim that he is an avatar of the God) the guru built the temple in 1964 and spent the last decade of his life there. However, he died in Vrindavan in 1973, and his samadhi shrine was built within the Vrindavan ashram complex.
The temple is located on the other side of the Kosi River, and devotees must cross a bridge to enter it. It is not vast in terms of acreage, but there is always a steady crowd at this place. Tourists heading towards Bhimtal and Nainital stop by at the temple before heading towards their destinations. We went around the premise, learnt a little more about the guru, his teachings, and his influence among the masses. His picture is in almost every house and establishment in this area.
The crowds surged as the clock struck three, and we felt a slight chill in the air as the sun began to lose its glory. We got into the car to head to Bhimtal. A 45-min drive from Kainchi took us there, and we were at our hotel well before sunset.
Named after Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers, from the Hindu epic Mahabharata; Bhimtal is a charming hill station within Nainital district, located at an elevation of 1370 metres. It is believed that Bhima had visited an old Shiva temple at the bank of Bhimtal lake during the period of vanvas (banishment from kingdom) of the Pandavas. Some also believe that the place could have been part of the ancient silk route.
The region boasts three hill stations, namely Nainital, Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal, that are built around beautiful lakes. The most bustling of which is Nainital. But we wanted a quiet place; quainter and more relaxed. So Bhimtal was a simple choice.
Our stay for the night was at Fisherman’s Lodge, which is located just beside the lake. On either side of the lake, there are several hotels to choose from. The hotels at Bhimtal are more city-like in terms of their decor, amenities, comforts and service. The restaurants are mostly multi-cuisine, although you may not get everything you would like.
While booking rooms on the internet, often what we get is deception. The pictures are either exaggerated or ancient! Hence, we had cultivated the habit of keeping our expectations low, so that we aren’t too disappointed when we get there. But we were in for a pleasant surprise. The rooms were exactly as we had seen in the photographs. Clean and spacious, with tastefully done interiors. The furniture, fixtures, furnishings and equipment were all of high quality. Something you would only expect in a 5-star hotel, and not a 4-star setup.
Another unique selling point of the hotel is its restaurant, that has an open-air seating area which gives an elevated, unhindered view of the lake and surrounding hills. Once I had eye-balled the food menu while checking-in, my restless tongue let go a sigh of relief as well. The poor fellow had forgotten the taste of Chinese food.
We settled into our room, took a quick shower, and rested for a while. The sun had set by then.
Around 6pm we decided to take a stroll around the lake. Our hotel was located on the less crowded side of the lake, while all the frantic activity was happening on the other side. There are several cafes and restaurants on that side which explained the hustle. The most famous among them is the Aquarium Island Café, which is located on the lake itself. A boat takes you to the Café for a charge. We had plans at our hotel, so we gave these places a miss. However, we walked around the lake for a while, recalling all that we had experienced in the hills over the 3 days.
We returned to our hotel to be welcomed by the strumming of a guitar, and a soothing voice that was humming familiar tunes. While checking-in we were made aware of a musical performance in the evening. We noticed two youngsters getting warmed up for their act under a tree on the deck. So we took the table to their right next to a bonfire. Smoke bellowed from the open grills, spiraling into the night sky to create a haze over the moon. It was a starry, dreamy night. The music slowly tugged at our heartstrings. We hummed, tapped, and swayed to the tunes. The young singer who was singing unplugged versions of popular songs, old and new, was gracious enough to take our song requests as well.
A wonderful last night in the hills it had turned out to be! One to remember for years to come. What’s more, we got our favorite delicacies for dinner too.
The next morning, we had an early breakfast and checked out of the hotel to explore Bhimtal Lake. It had the vibe of lakes of most hill stations in India, but not so frantic. I come from a city of lakes and gardens, but there is something about a hill station lake that is unmatchable. They are pristine, and the surrounding landscape makes them even more alluring. Bhimtal lake was magical that morning and its turquoise waters were inviting. We opted for a paddle boat and took turns to paddle around the vast expanse of the water body. We got a closer view of the hills from the lake, and roads that snaked through it that were invisible to the naked eye from the hotel room.
After paddling for 30 mins, we snacked on noodles and pani poori. There are many street vendors selling food items near the lake. You can also pick up souvenirs from the many shops selling handicrafts.
At this point, we had originally planned to bring our Himalayan sojourn to an end. But our cab driver had other ideas. He suggested that we take a small diversion to Naukuchiatal which was just 20 mins away. It was only 11 am, so we had time on our hands. Hence, we went ahead to see the unplanned addition to the itinerary.
On the way, we saw a Hanuman Temple, quite famous in the area, that housed a 52 feet tall statue of the God. We stopped to have a look. The temple, like the many others in Kumaon, provided a scenic view of the valley. In the skies, we noticed a few adventurers paragliding. We had run out of time, so that adventure had to wait.
We reached Naukuchiatal shortly after. The place was much quieter, and it felt like a younger brother of Bhimtal. There were far lesser shops and establishments here. But the place was no less charming. It, too, had an idyllic lake as a prized possession. This time, we opted for a shikara ride that costs Rs 600 per family. The boat was beautifully decorated. We glided in the pristine waters, listening to the stories of the boatman, and making most of the little time we had left in the hills—singing songs, stroking the ripples and taking photographs.
Once done, with a heavy heart, we resigned to the fact that our brief stay in Dev Bhoomi was over. There is so much more to do in this Himalayan paradise. But it cannot be done in just a few days. Uttarakhand, the land of mountains, of temples, of faith, folklores and history, needs multiple visits to explore its diversity, heritage and culture. And as we sat in the car to head to the plains, we made a promise to come back, sooner than later. And if things worked out, maybe, just maybe, build a house within the alpine forests and its perfumed air someday. Well, humans and their lofty dreams.
About the author –
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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