This will be a short travelogue of our visit to Mukteshwar and Nainitaal in 1st week of December. The trip was for 4 days only and we kept it limited only to these 2 places. I still have about half of the Spiti travelogue pending and hoping to complete it by next month, if lucky.
I wasn’t even sure about being able to go till the last minute and booked the train tickets to Kathgodam only a day before. Our first plan was to visit Binsar and then to consider other options. Then it changed to 2 days in Muktehshwar and Binsar each. We called some properties in Mukteshwar and Binsar and asked a few questions to get some idea about the places. We caught the early morning Shatabadi train to Kathgodam. The train ride was uneventful except for some idiots throwing stones at the train near Moradabad. Seeing the kind of population living near railway station, it’s not a surprise to see that the vandals have little else to do except breeding like pigs, vandalism and rioting. Passengers raised some ruckus which forced some railways and police officers to check out and regster complaint at next station. Rest of the railway stations after that were very clean and in some ways, even beautiful. The area outside Haldwani railway station on other hand wasjust a huge slum area with too many mosques with too many loudspeakers blaring noise.
Kathgodam station was pretty neat and clean. As expected, there were a few taxi drivers on the gate asking if we needed taxis but nothing really annoying like in many other big tourist spots. The guest house we had called up previously had arranged for a taxi to take us there. We had a quick lunch and got in to the car. Roads were freshly laid but in few places there were signs of extremely shoddy work. It took us slightly more than 2 hours to reach Sitla, a small village near Mukteshwar where our guest house Roshan Villa was situated. The property is situated on top of the ridge and offers good view of the peaks of some famous Himalayan mountain peaks like Nanda Devi, Trishul Parvat and a few others. For some reason, people really like seeing the mountains from a distance and most locals and even tourists consider it to be an attraction. I could see Vaishno Devi hills from my house In Jammu and Shivalik hills nearby and prefer to be on the mountain rather than seeing it from a distance. Probably that’s why it’s not a big deal for me now. But most people I met including the guides and property owners tried to present it as a major selling point. Sitla used to be a small quaint village by the looks of it, but it’s getting spoiled just like most of Uttaranchal as outsiders buy up land, more hotels and guest houses are being built and the old time charm of the place is fast fading away. We barely saw 3 houses of old design and 1 of them looked like it was about to be demolished. The land on hill which was mostly farm or orchard land was being cut in to plots and was on sale. Rows f modern concrete houses, guest houses, hotels etc. were being built or were built already. Overall it is a nice place, but it wouldn’t stay this way for more than 2-3 years. It will turn in to another crowded concrete jungle like Nainitaal in a few years if construction is not controlled.
That being said, it is a nice place and thanfully wifey liked the property and immediately declared that she wanted to spend atleast 2 nights here which was perfectly fine for me. After a bit of rest, we walked out to take a walk outside. After the crowds and noise of Delhi, it felt nice to spend some time walking in clean, fresh air of the mountains. Lots of birds, interesting insects and a beautiful sunset. We had an early dinner as we were quite hungry but couldn’t sleep early. So spent some time reading and watching TV befor managing to sleep at the usual time of well past midnight.
Next morning, the taxi reached guest house as we were finsihing our breakfast. Destination was famous Mukteshwar temple. It was a drive of about 45 minutes through forest and pretty beautiful sights as signs of human habitation were few and far in between. When we reached the temple, 2 young men came up and offered to be our guides. It didn’t cost that much and I thought that they will be probably able to tell us a bit more about places of interest nearby, so hired one. He took us to a small paved path instead of stairs to temple. The path led to a steep ledge on backside of temple. There is a hole in one of the rocks which locals believe helps women concieve if they pass through it. Supposedly a sacred place, the rocks were covered with usual kind of graffity by literate idiots. But the view of the valley below were pretty good. Temple by itself was nothing special. Just the usual kind of hill top temple which was probably a nice place a few years back, now a place with ugly construction and babas, pujaris of all types. Saw one baba in a building near main temple sitting in a executive chair. So much for life of simplicity and penance as a sanyasi. Saving grace for temples like this is that the preists don’t behave like dacoits in temples of Mathura, Haridwar kind of places. They just leave you alone and don’t try starting a conversation or sales pitch unless you talk to them first.
Before leaving, our guide Dinesh told us about a few interesting spots including a short hike through jungle and a waterfall. He also told us about sightings of leopard in area which raised our interest. We took his number and promised to call him in case we wanted to visit those places. We walked for a while down the road and found a path leading to small Methodist church. I had read about people admiring the place, so walked down to see. It was a small ordiniary building and was closed at that time. Nothing really special or interesting about it. Reached the market, had lunch and asked driver to drop us back. On the way, he offered to take us to another place like Mukteshwar (can’t remember the name now) and then drop at Nainitaal in evening. But we liked the idea of staying in Mukteshwar to hike through jungle, possibly spot a leopard and see the waterfall. So before dinner, we called up Dinesh to arrange the trip. We had a very heavy lunch of multiple plates of Rajma chawal in Mukteshwar and ate a lot after reaching our guest house. Even after this, both of us felt hungry after a while. This exceptional appetite stayed with both of us all through the duration of trip.
Dinesh reached our guest house half an hour before the scheduled time and sat outside patiently waiting for us as we got ready. We walked on the road with a few shortcuts every now and then before entering the jungle. On the way saw an old abandoned house with some dried fruit trees. He claimed that the family was scared away by ghosts and many people saw ghosts at different times. The house seems like it was used by the village drunkards quite often. The path through jungle was a wide trail which was used by villagers as a shortcut. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, we didn’t see any leopard, though we saw 2 brown deers who bolted at the sight of us. I couldn’t even think of raising the camera to take a picture. Seeing them disappear so fast down the slope with trees and shrubs all over was an amazing sight. After walking on the trail for about one hour, we reached Mukteshwar and met a friend of Dinesh who informed us that a para-gliding team was offering the activity nearby. The day being our wedding anniversary, wifey was feeling a lot more adventurous than me and immediately said yes
After signing a disclaimer form and payment, we walked to the jump location. It was a sheer drop of 700-800 meters. As they were strapping up the gear, I asked the instructor who was going to jump with me about spare parachute. He laughed and said that if we ever needed one, we will crash long before we manage to get it opened. Awesome !
After strapping up, we waited for suitable wind. Standing a few feet from the cliff, I wondered if I had it in me to run up to edge and jump. Asked the instructor, how was I supposed to run with both of us strapped together and he said that the wind will lift up the parachute . We wouldn’t need to run at all. But the wind took it’s own sweet time and I started wondering if I felt afraid or not. I felt a lot more butterflies in stomach in Spiti near ropeway of Chicham village, but that’s a story for another day.
As I was standing there contemplating all this, the wind came up in suitable direction and we were immediately lifted and above the ledge. Everything seems small from a height, but a lot more smaller when there is no ground between the feet. We flew/glided/whatever it’s called for 8-9 minutes before we came close to landing spot in between some fields. Just then, a sudden gust of wind lifted us a bit and instead of landing on clear ground, we went rhough middle of a row of apple trees. Nobody was hurt though except for minor scratches here and there.
A man was tilling his land using a bullocks where we landed. Saw this thing after a long time. 3 excited children came up running and started helping us untangle the mess of tangles strings and fabric.
Wifey had to wait too before they had suitable wind. As their parachute came closer, we could hear her shouting excitedly. After packing up the parachutes, our instructors led us through the fields to road where a Jeep picked us and dropped us up the mountain. Dinesh and his friend were waiting for us there and we walked a small distance to a restaurant to have some snacks. They arranged a taxi to take us to the waterfall. Their proposal of hiring a bicycle was interesting but we didn’t have enough time and wifey didn’t like that either. The car dropped us at the start of trail which was being widened till some distance. I hope that the work didn’t progress much and the trail retained it’s original character. Don’t want yet another place to get “developed”.
We walked for 15-20 minutes alongside a small stream, crossed a few huge rocks to reach a waterfall about 9-10 meters high. I was expecting something generic, but this was way better than that. It looked a lot better in real life than it does in these pictures. It was too cold to do anything with water, so I consoled myself with wetting my hands, but wifey took off her shoes to stand for a while in ice-cold water. According to guides, there is a lot more water during rainy season and a lot of generic idiotic tourists during monsoons and peak season which get drunk, litter and makea nuisance of themselves. We saw a few styrofoam plates and plastic junk on the way anyway. Indian tourists will never learn to behave themselves.
We stayed there for a few minutes and started walking back as it was getting dark. Had to take a long route back as the shorter one passing through jungle is closed off after sunset. Dinesh had talked about another similar hiking trail and offered to take us there next day, but we eventually decided to visit Nainitaal.
We booked an old heritage property kind of property in Nainital the night before but had some confusion as it had recently changed ownership and names. Anyhow reached Nainitaal without any thing strange. After driving alongside the lake, first thing that welcomed us was the loud noise coming from the huge mosque with a tower solely built for housing 4-5 loudspeakers. What kind of person thinks that blasting so called prayer through such loudspeakers annoying everyone else is a good idea !! Thankfully our hotel was up the hill at quite a bit distance away away from this noise atleast.
After some rest and snacks, we walked to the town below and walked alongside the lake looking for a place to eat. Contrary to what I was expecting, the town was pretty clean with dustbins and well maintained publiic toilets every few meters. Later on found out that the authorities burn all the rubbish just a few km from the town in mountains. Still better than junk everywhere, I guess. A small stream which flows in towards taxi stand’s direction from the hill nearby was thankfully not converted to a sweage dump but still had plastic waste every 2-3 feet.
After lunch, we had a boat ride like all tourists do.Wasn’t bad and I actually enjoyed it as the weather got colder and a mist descended all around. Couldn’t see any fish though. Walked back to the hotel for dinner and sleep. Caught the same train back to end the journey.
Next morning, we got in to the car and drove for 10-15 minutes. It left us at some point, I don’t remember what it was called and we entered in to the jungle to start our trek to Deoria Taal. We found a trail and kept walking led by Pammi. The jungle itself was pretty beautiful with old trees all over. There were a few small trails here and there which are used by locals and lead to different
villages nearby. But we kept to the main trail which was pretty easy to walk upon till 35-40 minutes.On the way we came across a mountain stream and there was a small concrete bridge to cross it.
We rested there for a while. Water was ice cold as most of it was coming from melting snow high up in the mountains. After this point, the terrain got relatively difficult with many steep ridges on the way. But the weather was pleasant and walking was enjoyable except for a few difficult stretches. It did get a bit hot later on though. Our hike took us through some dense jungles with trees, wild flowers and grass all around. This area is habitat of a few wild animals like leopard, wolves and Himalayan bears, but we never saw anything.
On the way, we stopped in a grassy area, somewhat like a bugyal to rest. It looked like some place straight out of picture postcards. A few minutes later, a few young girls walked in with their buffaloes to add a local touch to it. Pammi told us that the villagers nearby will take their livestock to different grazing grounds when snow melts and those girls were probably doing the same thing.
After a few minutes of walk in grassy area, we entered jungle again, but by this time we had climbed down quite a bit and the trees were different. The path was covered with fallen leaves in most of places and was slippery. It was still beautiful and peaceful with many interesting sights on the way.
On our last stretch, we climbed a very steep incline and then walked on a ridge which had a rocky path and some kind of silly boundary wall on both sides. Saw some Himalayan Griffons and a kind of lizard which was fairly common in this area. Locals had a funny name for it, but I can’t remember it now.
We again entered a densely wooded area after this and then walked out of it to reach Deoria Taal lake. It’s a beautiful little lake with green wooded area on two sides and grassy on rest. It’s not too
big but too large to be called a pond. The water is a dark shade of green and apparently not safe to drink. Some workers were putting up stones on lake bank and some others were doing it on the path which connected lake to the village below. We stopped at a small eating joint for rest and to eat something. While we were there, Pammi had arranged for our tents to be pitched near the lake.
We were tired and just rested for a half hour before walking back towards lake. There was a path around the lake in between all the trees and a very small place of worship. Later on we came to know that the locals come here for some ceremony and pour milk in to the lake from that point. We spotted a few birds including a pair of magpies making quite a ruckus. The lake was full of frogs, dragon flies hovering all over and some strange fish like creatures which came to surface every now and then but moved too fast. We completed a walk around the lake and went to that small
eating joint for dinner. There a local guide from village down the hill joined us and started telling us some tales and legends associated with the place. According to him, this is the lake mentioned in Mahabharat where Pandavs were tested by a Yaksh and only Yudhisthir passed.
It had rained a bit after we reached Deoria Taal and the weather was a bit cold. After we had dinner, we went off to sleep. There isn’t much to add after that. We climbed down the mountain next morning in to a village from where we drove back to Rishikesh. Stayed there for 2 days instead of 1 planned earlier before going back to Delhi.
Next morning, we woke up just after sunrise to a very cold morning. A shepherd had brought his flock of sheep and goats downhill and was sitting outside dhaba waiting for a cup of tea. He had a few dogs with him, each one wearing a thick metal collar meant to protect it from attacks from leopards which live in forest. I have heard that these dogs are fiercely independent and not very friendly towards strangers. I had even experienced it first hand during my visit to Spiti. But these two were friendly and after we fed them some biscuits, wouldn’t leave our side. They did go off barking towards a heavily wooded area nearby to scare away some monkeys (I guess).
I walked on further before breakfast was ready and spotted a few birds and some pikas. Latter are sluggish in mornings and very active during day. After breakfast, we fed a few crows again and then started walking towards Tungnath Temple. A stone and cement track is what most pilgrims visiting temple usually take. There are a few
shortcuts, but owing to whatever I know about such “time savers” we preferred the longer route.
It was fairly easy but we flat footed city dwellers were out of breath in no time while Pammi walked on happily.
The view from the route was fairly interesting with number of trees all around. There were a few shops and grounds which are occupied only during summer season and lay vacant during winters. Trees in the area were covered with lichen and some kind of cotton thing.
After hiking for about 50-60 minutes, we found some snow lying here and there. But most of it was hard as ice. We could see Chandra Shila and it looked beautiful covered with snow. After a while, we probably crossed the tree line and from that point onwards, the vegetation was limited to small bushes, grass and a few wild flowers. It was sunny but a chilly wind was blowing.
After a hike of about 2 hours and 3-4 rest stops, we finally managed to reach temple area. There was a small dhaba where we had something to eat, don’t remember what. Or may be we ate after coming back.
The mountain from that point onwards was covered in ice and snow apart from the places where it was cleared by people and it was melting too. Water was every where and stone path was very slippery. We walked up carefully to reach the temple. A few workers were preparing for some religious ceremony of opening the temple for visitors, 1 or 2 days later. Tungnath Temple is the highest Shiva Temple in the world at 3860 metres.
But our destination was Chandra Shila, peak of the mountain at about 4000 meters. The small path was covered in water from snow melts every where and was a bit difficult to walk upon. Last stretch which was a climb of about 80-100 meters was steep and completely covered in 2-4 inches of hard snow. I followed Pammi’s lead as he hiked up but struggled to keep up. But after a while managed to reach the top. There was a small temple on top of the peak where a family was doing some kind of prayer ceremony. Another very small temple kind of place was built on other end. Didn’t expect that there. But considering the annoyingly prevalent religiosity of people, I should have expected that. As is the norm with all almost all religious people, the plastic bags and sweet boxes were chucked away casually down the hill after their apparently holy religious deed was done. When I asked the purpose, the guy answered that it was for the jungle goddess. Goddess which loves plastic bags and plastic lined cardboard boxes.
I walked a bit further and rested taking in the views. Chandra Shila is one of the highest peaks in the region and views were really great. Saw a few crows flying at even this altitude and a few pikas on ground. A very strong breeze was blowing at the peak which made even standing there a bit difficult.
After enjoying the views for 20-25 minutes, it was time to go back same way we had climbed up. But on the way, I slipped, landed on my ass and started sliding downwards. On the way, I crashed in to Pammi and he joined me in the impromptu snow slide ride. We managed to stop after a few meters. Nothing was hurt though except for a light snow burn and uncomfortable wet feeling.
Walk down the mountain was uneventful, except for the fact that we took a shortcut. It wasn’t all that bad since we were going down and reached our campsite in about 80-90 minutes. After a hot cup of tea and snacks and resting our limbs, we went on another walk up the road and came back just before dark. While we were in dhaba, an interesting incident happened. There were two foreigner hippy backpackers, by their attire and looks eating something. They were staying in one of other places up the road. After they paid the bill and left, one of them came back searching for his half full water bottle. He claimed that he had left it there. Dhaba owner, just gave him a funny look and handed him a new water bottle. Few minutes later, that man was back again apologising that he had found his original bottle and gave the new bottle back.
I wonder what would have happened in any other place.
Whenever I am in a place like this, away from city lights, I spend some time star gazing. But the night was cloudy with strong breeze. So I just crawled in to the tent to sleep. We had a longer trek to do next day.
Next morning, we started the drive at 9 am towards Haripur Dhar. The area ahead is sparsely populated with a few small villages here and there. The roads are not in a great condition. Few patches are good, some with a few potholes and in some stretches, there is just a dust track. The ride was smooth and bumpy accordingly. Along the way we kept speculating the location of Habban valley. On the map, it was marked about half way on our route with a small river marking the spot. We came across two such possible spots, but it looked nothing like Habban valley with peach and apple orchards the HPTDC people promised us. We asked some locals who were waiting for a bus and they informed that Habban valley is near Rajgarh but on a very route leading somewhere else.
They also pronounced it slightly differently. I never like this thing of writing words of one language in to another script, specially Hindi in to English.
The villagers were mostly farmers who had just harvested their crop of garlic. Apparently this area is a big producer of garlic and the smell was in the air almost everywhere. The markets in every village were overflowing with garlic being sold at Rs 25-30 per kg, less than one-fourth of price in cities.
Along the way, a grey wild cat crossed our path. It was an interesting looking animal with different fur and facial structure from ordinary house cats. It stared at us for while vanishing in to the bushes near the road. The road near Haripur Dhar was very new for a stretch of 9-10 kilometers. The driver informed us that this was the first time that a proper road was laid there. An obvious exaggeration, but understandable. Another driver had claimed that all cherries in the world are infested by some kind of worm which one can see by peeling away different layers carefully.
We reached the town at 12:30 pm. The temple is 10-12 minutes drive from there on a hill overlooking the town and nearby area. One side of the ridge is in Shimla and the other in Sirmaur district. Whatever information I could find about the place on internet indicated that there was one PWD guesthouse and one hotel in town and another guesthouse in temple premises. I had called PWD guesthouse previous day, but the relevant staff was gone for the day and they asked me to call next morning. We had decided to either stay in Haripur Dhar or go back towards Rajgarh to spend the night. There were some hotels on the way which could be used if there was no accommodation available in the town.
The temple had a huge parking area and a few dhabas and small shops selling temple offerings of coconuts, puffed rice etc. One of the dhabas offered rooms for night stay. There was a small guesthouse just outside temple area which seemed interesting due to it’s location.
As we were getting out of the car, we saw one family with a young woman walking up the stairs. She kept on screaming every 2-3 minutes. Driver said that she had a “saayaa” on her (she was possessed) and coming to the temple of a powerful goddess is bothering the spirit which was troubling here. Later on we saw that family sitting in temple courtyard and a priest claiming some cure. She still kept on screaming every now and then and looked pissed off.
THis temple was more or less just like Kali Ka Tibba we had visited the previous day but was much filthier. The complex itself was clean but the wooded area nearby was covered in plastic and styrofoam waste. The visitors and shops nearby dump their waste wherever they feel like as long as it’s not inside the temple. The view of surrounding area was good but nothing special. The rant which I wrote in previous post about places of worship holds true for this place too.
We had lunch of rice and daal in one of the dhabas which was served in styrofoam plates. The state govt. needs to ban this nuisance too. It’s as bad as the plastic bags.
For nightstay, we first considered going to PWD guesthouse we saw on the way, but decided to check the guesthouse on top of the hill. The building itself is just a house with 3-4 rooms rented out to guests and a small hut outside divided in to two units. No rooms were available and we took one hut for Rs 500, which was a ripoff made amply clear by wifey. But it was out of town in a peaceful location and apparently starting point of some trekking routes. The caretaker seemed uninterested in his work and knew nothing about this except pointing out random hills in a vague manner.
After resting for a while, we went up the rocky path going up the hill. It was dug up probably a few weeks back and was full of rocks and rubble. After 10-15 minutes, I found a small goat trail up the hill and abandoned the path to climb up. We kept on walking up and met an old shepherd gathering wood. He asked us if we were visiting “kilaa” which was just on other side of the ridge. I had no idea about any kind of kilaa or fort and was intrigued by the possibility of seeing some ruins in such a place. He gave us some general directions and we went on our way. First landmark on the way was a concrete water tank which was still under construction. Tree cover was really thick at this point and there were some places which rarely if ever saw any direct sunlight.
We found a few goats and some cows grazing on other side of ridge presumably owned by the old shepherd . We kept walking on the ridge and came across a stone house under construction. Later on, I found out that it was an office kind of thing for forest department and was called kilaa by the locals. No fort or anything similar there.
The trail ended there with more wooded area up ahead. Wifey at this time was crying bloody murder and demanding that we go back. But I persuaded her to bear with me for a while. Along the way, we some beautiful groves which can be really nice camping sites. The goats had vanished down the hill and there were only a few cows wandering in between the trees. It was a few minutes past 4 pm and we started walking back to our hut.
Walking back I declared that going back the same way we climbed up was against my principles and I almost never do it. hehe. It was not appreciated much by wifey though. We took a different route which was more or less made by the rain water flowing downhill and comparatively more difficult to walk upon. We reached back to the hut to wash up with ice cold water and have something to eat.
It was a nice walk, not as long or challenging as I like but not too bad either.
Called the driver to take us to the town. Bought some snacks for next day and walked around the town square.
Places like this can be covered by foot in 8-10 minutes. I wanted to check out the local meat dishes so I walked in to a small eating joint with just 2 tables. It was owned by an old couple who answered my questions about the place. Menu was daal chawl and mutton chawal. Latter cost Rs 80 and was fairly good. Wifey had her meal in a vaishno vegetarian dhaba nearby. During most of our trip, we were drinking tap water or spring water, whatever the locals were drinking instead of bottled water and never had any problem.
After the meal, we reached back to our hut and packed for next day. Evening weather was cold and the views were nice. When night fell, we were really happy to see thousands of stars up in the sky. Living in cities, it’s impossible to see more than 20-30 stars , but here the stars covered almost every bit of night sky. After wifey went in, I stayed outside trying to take some pictures, but I don’t know much about this kind of photography and didn’t have any suitable equipment either, just an old 18-55 lens and no tripod either.
After fiddling with different camera settings for a while, I too went off to sleep.