KUMAON HILLS TRAVEL GUIDE
INTRODUCTION TO KUMAON HILLS TRAVELOGUE-NAINITAL TRAVEL BLOG
The Kumaon hills travelogue will explain about the cozy hill stations in the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. We had been on a ten-day trip to Kumaon Hills last summer with a plan to cover the top eight destinations of the region. They are Nainital, Pithoragarh, Almora, Dharchula, Jageshwar, Munsiyari, Chaukori, and Mukteshwar.
Our base travel location was New Delhi. We had multiple options to reach Kumaon from the country’s capital. We chose the night bus journey. It would be an overnight trip of roughly nine hours from Delhi to Nainital. But only after taking a city taxi, we realized that our boarding point was at Ghaziabad. It falls under Delhi’s NCR area and you need special permits for the commercial cabs to enter NCR parts with passengers.
We reached Kathgodam around six in the morning where the majority of the local passengers alighted. Little later, the bus took its first break at Ranibagh for tea which is located at the base of Kumaon Hills. Nainital would be an hour’s uphill drive from there. It was seven-thirty when we landed at Nainital – a heavenly British built hill town in the lap of Himalayas. Nainital is perched at an altitude of 6600 feet above sea level.
It boasts of some of the best resorts and bungalows of the country constructed during the British era. We had booked our stays with KMVN tourist rest houses at all the places on the trip except in Nainital and Mukteshwar. Though our hotel was little away from the Nainital market, we loved the grand view of Nainital Lake and the hill town from our balcony.
The natural freshwater lake is the center of all Nainital attractions as the whole city is built around it. From the top it looks like a crescent-shaped ink blue waterbody with a coniferous outline surrounded by a captivating Himalayan vista. There were three more lakes in the vicinity namely Bhimtal, Sattal, and Naukuchiyatal. But no doubt Nainital Lake was the queen of all the lakes of Kumaon hills travelogue.
Having a siesta for a couple of hours, we relished a leisure afternoon boat ride on the cold waters of the lake, clicked some memorable photographs. Then we took a stroll to the historic Naina Devi temple along the ornate boulevard. It’s a Hindu pilgrimage site located at the northern edge of the lake.
As per legends, the temple is one of the sixty-four Shaktipeeths of Hindu religion where the eyes (hence the name ‘Naina’) of Sati had fallen when Lord Shiva passed through the place with her corpse.
The temple houses four idols – Naina Devi, Lord Ganesh, Goddess Kali, and Lord Hanuman with separate sanctums for each deity. However, over the ages, the building had to be reconstructed several times due to its destruction by landslides. A sacred Peepal tree at the entrance is a testimony in itself of the temple’s prehistoric existence. The view of the lake from the temple courtyard was a treat to the eyes. We also fed innumerable Mahaseer fishes of the lake with the holy prasad.
NAINITAL SNOW VIEWPOINT AND GURNEY HOUSE:-
Our next stopover was the Snow View Point. It is however three kilometers away from the lake. We took a gondola (rope-way) ride up and down from the Mall road to the hilltop. Due to afternoon time, the view was that clear. But as heard from the locals, Himalayan snow peaks, Tiffin Top, China Peak could be seen on a sunny morning apart from the Nainital Lake, famous playground, and Raj Bhawan.
The gondola ride was one of the memorable experiences of our Nainital trip, though the viewpoint needed better maintenance and cleanliness.
Our best touchpoint in the entire trip was a short visit to Gurney House (a historic building that used to be the residence of famous tiger hunter Jim Corbett. The Varma family now owned it.
We did not choose to take photographs there as it was entirely private property. Way back, we savored our retreat through the evening free market shopping loads of chats, local sweets, woolen garments, and dry fruits.
TRIP TO DHARCHULA-NEPAL BORDER IN KUMAON HILLS TRAVELOGUE
Dharchula, one of the barely visited tourist destinations of Kumaon (Uttarakhand) circuit. It is a small trading hill town situated on the banks of Kali River perched at an altitude of only 3000 feet above sea level. No snow peaks are visible from here due to the truncated height of the river valley.
The hamlet got its name from two Hindi words – ‘Dhar’ meaning mountain peak and ‘Chulha’ meaning oven as the mountain valley of Dharchula closely resembles a clay oven when viewed from above.
The sleepy hill station experiences heavy footfalls only during the sacred Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra when the pilgrims take a night halt at Dharchula as their intermittent stopover. Otherwise, it’s not so frequented by luxury travelers or backpackers as there is nothing picturesque to see other than to explore the international border between India and Nepal crossed on foot over a narrow hanging bridge.
NEPALESE BORDER IN DHARCHULA:-
Politically, Dharchula falls under the jurisdiction of Pithoragarh. It shares an international border with Nepal and is known by the same name on either side. A stark significance of the town is that free pedestrian movements across the international border are permitted for both Indian and Nepali citizens without any identity verification or visa.
This very fact thrilled us to visit Dharchula during our midsummer Kumaon trip. We came across two superfluous rivers during our drive to Dharchula – Gori Nadi (White river) and Kali Nadi (Black river). People have named them so as their water colors are silvery and greyish respectively. Whatever be the shades, both had their own beauties. Spending splendid moments along their banks were the most memorable moments of our road trip to Dharchula.
The driving distance from Pithoragarh was only 83 kilometers. But the roads were in pathetic condition at some of the places, stretching our journey time way beyond our theoretical calculation on the basis of road distance. As we drove to Dharchula, we also stopped at multiple intermittent spots and waterfalls which looked photogenic.
KMVN GUEST HOUSE IN DHARCHULA:-
We reached our destination by 2 pm after a four-hour strenuous road excursion. Surrounded by high mountains, the Indo-Nepal international border was just a stride away from our KMVN rest house. We dumped our luggage in the room and at once left on foot to witness the one of its kind border crossing experience.
It was hardly a five-minute walking distance from our hotel. The road went gently downhill as we kept nearing the banks of Kali River. We could not believe our own eyes when we reached the border check post. Undeniably, it was going to be an unforgettable experience.
There was a simple hanging footbridge made of Walnut timber and iron rods, under the surveillance of BSF (Border Security Force), serving as the international border between two lovely countries – our own India and sweet neighbor Nepal across the Kali River. However, there were photography restrictions at the crossing point.
KALI RIVER IN KUMAON HILLS:-
The gurgling sound of the Kali River beckoned us so much that we decided to touch the chilly waters before walking to Nepal. It was quite shallow comprising of a transparent rocky waterbed.
After reaching the river bank we realized why the water appears darker here. It’s because of the abundance of shiny black pebbles scattered all along the see-through riverbed. We could not stop ourselves from picking up a few of them. Unbelievably, one of those pebbles resembled a naturally crafted Shiva Linga.
After spending a refreshing hour at the Kali Riverbank, which forms a beautiful natural border between the two countries. We climbed the stairs up the hanging bridge to go for an afternoon walk to Nepal. The checking seemed quite lenient here as they did not verify any of our credentials before allowing us to step onto the bridge. Needless to say, they willingly accepted both Indian and Nepalese currencies on either side at equal valuations.
It was such an astonishing experience altogether to cross the international borders on foot without visa or tourist permit, have lunch in Nepal and come back to India for tea. Evidently, there was a soft blend of Kumaoni and Tibetan cultures in the tiny hill town of Dharchula.
TRIP TO MUNSIYARI IN KUMAON HILLS TRAVELOGUE:-
After Dharchula, our next stop in Kumaon tour was at Munsiyari – one of the finest tourist destinations in the entire circuit positioned at an average altitude of 7500 feet above sea level. The cozy hill station is situated at a restricted area bordering India, Nepal, and Tibet.
Nestled amidst the Pancha Chuli peaks, it offers a stunning view of the snow-capped mountains of higher Himalayas from sheer proximity. The range borrows its name from a couple of Hindi words, ‘Pancha’ meaning five, and ‘Chuli’ meaning chimney. It’s named so as the five peaks of the range resemble a burning oven during dusk when the setting sun’s orange glows lighten up the snow peaks.
On a clear sunny day, other beauteous peaks like Nanda Devi, Nandakot, and Rajarambha could also be seen evidently. The breath-taking vistas of the elegant treasure trove, Manik Glacier, and Darmaganga valley in one frame got its nickname – the Little Kashmir.
Munsiyari was just a 100-kilometer unceasing uphill drive from Dharchula. The road conditions were good enough to reach within five hours. In transit, we took quick halts at the famous hot springs of Sera and Madkote. The sulphur-rich waters had magical healing powers. Our weary feet felt rejuvenated at the soothing touch of the warm minerals.
MADKOTE IN MUNSIYARI:-
Our destination was not very far from Madkote. Our guide suggested to us for a quick lunch at a roadside restaurant since upon reaching Munsiyari we might not get heavy meals at that odd hour.
He himself went on to order Maggi with vegetables for all three of us. Just before entering the hill town, we hopped at a native cottage industry where local women knit woolen shawls, carpets, and various other items on a small scale.
They also walked us through their loom and showed their artworks. We were lucky to purchase a handful of awesome works directly from the artists behind the show. However, photography was restricted inside the loom. We reached Munsiyari by 4 pm. Of all the hotels, KMVN’s location was no doubt the best.
We could watch a charming view of the sunset from our room’s balcony. We witnessed the perfect weather and a panoramic view of the entire Pancha Chuli range splendidly visible in naked eyes. For better viewing, we upgraded to the highest category in the second floor and it was worth paying the additional tariff. They served hot and fresh dinner. However, they offered only vegetarian cuisines in-house.
The next morning was a little cloudy and hence the view of the sunrise was not so great. Little down on our expectations when we went for breakfast, our guide insisted us to go for nature walk around the place.
And he was up to play the role of an educated guide. He also plucked a bunch of blooming Rhododendron flowers for us on way to the viewpoint. Following him, we hiked three kilometers to Munsiyari’s Nanda Devi Temple uphill. It is dedicated to Goddess Nanda (a form of Parvati). The natives consider it as the holiest temple of Munsiyari. A lot of devotees offer prayers to the deity on specific days of the Hindu calendar. There was hardly anyone when we reached the summit, but we enjoyed the trek to the fullest.
PANCHACHULI PEAKS VIEW:-
There was a small bazaar at the heart of the town. We bought locally manufactured raw noodles and a few biscuit packs; came back shortly before lunch. Our hotel boys were very cooperative too. They showed us a shortcut to a downhill restaurant ‘Hotel Pandey Lodge’ which served nonveg foods.
The restaurant was on the top floor. Climbing the steep stairs was not very comfortable but in the hunt of food, it was accomplished. Getting there we realized, it was a Bong maintained hotel. Hence the menu had authentic Bengali dishes. What luck! We preferred to sit at the open terrace so that we could breathe in the fresh air and enjoy uninterrupted views of the Panchachuli peaks.
The next morning it was a clear sunny day. We enjoyed a panoramic view of the entire Pancha Chuli range from our balcony – perhaps the best moment of the tour so far. The hotel garden bloomed with beautiful flowers which added an ethnic touch to our stay at Munsiyari and we promised our nomadic self to come back here again after a dozen winters and springs.
TRIP TO BINSAR VALLEY IN KUMAON HILLS TRAVELOGUE:-
Binsar valley was the second penultimate stopover in our Kumaon tour itinerary with a two-night’s stay plan. We planned to start a little late as the distance was comparatively less. The road was also better. We had to check to pass a forest entry gate before entering the Binsar forest. Beginning the onward journey by 11 am, we reached our destination by 3 pm.
The most stunning thing of Binsar the disparate flavor of the place. It is located at an altitude of 8000 feet above sea level. Binsar has hosted a wildlife sanctuary on top of the Jhandi Dhar hills and the KMVN forest resort was located right inside the natural reserve. A wild bull sitting lazily welcomed us in front of the hotel entrance which set the tone of our thrilling night out at the forest bungalow.
Binsar used to be the summer capital of the Chand Kings during the early 11th to 18th centuries AD. It was later declared as an eco-friendly conservation center of broad-leafed Oak forest in 1988. Since then, with the sole intention of not disturbing the residing wildlife with artificial sounds and lights, electricity connections have not been strictly installed inside the sanctuary. A few solar panels lit up the rest house only during dinner time, that too just for a couple of hours.
KMVN RESORT IN BINSAR VALLEY:-
In our entire trip, it was the only KMVN resort that offered buffet dinner as complimentary services. And the food tasted really yummy, especially the starters. The menu was not very wide, but the taste was worth appreciating. They served hot and fresh right on the table. Enjoying steaming foods in an icy cold climate under low voltage solar lights was a different experience altogether.
The next morning we woke up very early. Tourists visiting Binsar valley were likely to enjoy the natural isolation of the place far from the bustling human inhabitations.
Binsar valley was also a trekker’s paradise. A narrow non-motorized rocky road disappeared among the towering Binsar greens tempting us for a lifetime nature walk at the dawning hours.
There is a popular local belief surrounding a particular species of moth available in the Kumaon region; if any wish is prayed while it sits on a person’s palm, the wish gets divinely granted. Every Kumaoni child believes in the folklore, but with time as the harsh truths of life engulf their childhood, their beliefs to start waning.
The walking trail was not so steep like Birthi Falls and Chaukori Musk Deer Park. We went up to Zero Point. It was a flattened hilltop with resting chairs available along the cliff. Luckily it was a crystal-clear weather best for sighting a panoramic view of Kedarnath, Shivling, Trishul Parbat, and Nanda Devi peaks.
It took us comparatively less time to come back to the hotel. Breakfast was ready by the time we arrived. It consisted of a delectable palate of bread omelet and cut fruits served with refreshing Buransh followed by hot beverages. Weary of the tour fatigue, we preferred to take a lazy break for the rest of the day. I would recommend a trip to Binsar valley to every nature lover.
TRIP TO ALMORA AND ABOUT BURANSH:-
We were on a road trip via Almora to Pithoragarh. It was a drowsy picturesque hamlet at a distance of 170 kilometers from Nainital, bestowing a nice view of the majestic Himalayas. Situated at an average elevation of 5000 feet above sea level, it got the district town status after separation from Almora.
There was nothing much to see at Pithoragarh. But the journey from Nainital via Almora was the most enjoyable part of the trip. As the crowded hill station had various charms of its own which added colorful pages to our memories.
We stopped at Bhowali for breakfast. It was a swarming local marketplace within just eleven kilometers from Nainital. It was a bright morning when we reached. But within a few minutes, the weather reversed, so much so that we had to wait there for more than an hour to avoid drenching in the sudden heavy hailstorm. After such downpours, hilly roads become extremely slippery. So, we preferred to halt for a considerable time for the ice particles to melt.
Then we reached Almora. It is a beautiful hill station in the Kumaon range by eleven in the morning. Taking a break at one of the local sweet shops, we purchased ‘Baal Mithai’ on our driver’s recommendations. It was very special of Almora made of yummy dense khoya (dried whole milk) with white sugar balls like an unusual topping. Must say, it was such a mouth-watering sweet dish tasted ever in my lifetime.
BURANSH AND BAAL MITHAI:-
We also purchased a bottle of ‘Buransh’ (Rhododendron squash) another specialty of Almora. The red liquid acted as an energy drink for us during the tiring drive. The natives say the drink have medicinal value for cardiac and neurological patients.
We visited the legendary Golu Devta temple on way about ten kilometers ahead of the Almora district town. The deity is considered the creator of the Kumaon region. The natives worshiped the deity with deep faith and belief. There is a tradition of tying metallic bells while vowing prayers. We saw thousands of bells of varying sizes tied all over the temple premises.
A priest shared a very interesting Kumaoni legend. When Golu Devta grants someone’s wish, that person’s respective bell starts ringing and that he gets to know about it in his dreams. Our gestures perhaps reflected our skepticism. Hence, he added his personal story in favor of the popular belief.
JAGESHWAR TOWN IN ALMORA:-
Not sure how much we still believed even after listening to his account. But undoubtedly it added an unforgettable touch to our voyage through his appealing narratives. En route, we also hopped at the Hindu pilgrimage town of Jageshwar. It is believed to carry the Nagesh Jyotirlinga, located 36 kilometers North-East of Almora.
It comprises of a cluster of one hundred and twenty-four stone temples, dating back between 9th to 13th century AD. Some of the prominent shrines are the biggest Dandeshwar Temple, the oldest Mrityunjaya Temple, Chandi-ka-Temple, Kuber Temple, Nanda Devi Temple, Nava Graha Temple, and Surya Temple. Since our driver’s ancestral house was very near to the Jageswar temple complex, he knew the place thoroughly and guided us to a local shortcut meeting down near the river valleys of Nandini and Surabhi streams.
The remaining road conditions until Pithoragarh were pathetic at some places. Hence, the long drive took us longer than our estimation. Before checking into the hotel, we decided to visit the ancient Patal Bhuvaneshwar temple on our way.
It was a prehistoric cave temple which enshrines Lord Shiva along with all the thirty-three crore Hindu deities at a depth of ninety feet beneath the ground level. This is one of those rarest places which have precise mentions in all the three epic Yugas (ages) of Hindu mythology.
It is basically a small cave within a series of cascading caves. Limestone depositions for ages have formed stalactites and stalagmites along the entire fissure creating impressions of various Hindu Gods on the walls. Due to optimum illuminations, we could complete the 160 feet underground pathway with ease. However, photography inside the cave temple was strictly forbidden. Undoubtedly, it was one of the most spiritually treasured points of the entire trip.
By the time we reached KMVN rest house at Pithoragarh, it was already evening. Since we pre-reserved the rooms, there was no hassle checking in but dinner went for a toss. They could not arrange anything more than fresh Tawa Rotis and Green Salad due to our late check-in. All thanks to our driver, he drove us at the dead of night to the neighboring downtown to pack a plate of vegetable curry for us.
The room was very spacious with wall-size glass windows on all three sides, just like a dreamy illuminated glasshouse. From the setup, we could assume, perhaps the morning will enthrall us with a grand view of the sunrise. Our expectations did not go in vain. It was perhaps one of the unforgettable sunrises of our life. A mesmerizing view of the Himalayas lightened by fresh glows of the morning sun illuminated the room from all three sides. The divine sight left us spellbound for hours.