Saturday, April 25, 2009

Uttarakhand, Jim Corbett National Park, Agra, and Delhi

I returned from my road trip through some parts of states Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi about a fortnight back. As I had foreseen in my last post, I did feel too lazy to post about the trip the minute I got back to Mumbai and then a couple of days later, the office sat up and clamored for all my attention. A couple of weeks of that and I find my memories of all the places we visited are in broad brushstrokes (my senility is the only thing in my life that seems to be on an upward curve day by day) and worse — I find I have very little time to put anything down.

But as promised earlier, there are loads and loads of photographs. My two friends were busy with their cameras through the trip and we did have a substantial number of pictures. Over the last two weeks, we sneaked in a few minutes every day to weed out and sort and then optimize these photographs for the web. The last weekend was used up to upload them and order them and then over the week we again snatched a few precious minutes as and when we could, to caption them. The captioning took time as we had to refer to books and websites to find the names of the numerous birds we saw in this trip. That task is finally done, though there are a couple of birds that we haven't been able to identify yet. Before linking to the photographs, I wondered if I might have a stab at describing the trip. . . or whatever I remember of it. Let me try to at least give you the rough sketches of the places we visited.

We landed in Delhi late in the night on 27th March and drove overnight to our first destination, Bhimtal.

Bhimtal: Lovely lake. And that about is all that there is to it. The drive from Pantnagar to Nainital en route to Bhimtal was awesome — early morning, swirling mists, fields, and soon the hills, and the conifers. As was the drive to Bhimtal from Nainital. Deep valleys on one side of the road and thick forests on the other. At Bhimtal we found a place to stay overlooking the lake. Bhimtal's lake got its name from a locally believed myth that Bhima from the Mahabharata had smashed his mace here forming the lake.

As I said earlier, there is nothing in Bhimtal apart from the lake. But it is a quiet spot and has none of the mad and noisy crowds that characterize Nainital. One can take nice long walks around the perimeter of the lake and if like us you are interested in birds (or "birding"/bird watching), Bhimtal won't disappoint you. The lake and the area around it is a haven for birds — stonechats, sunbirds, warblers, swallows, and the lovely Himalayan Tree-Pie.

Mukteshwar: Was where we stayed next. We however took a detour and first went to Nakuchiatal which is another small village around a lake with nine corners (hence the name "Naku"). It is scenic and is an even quieter place than Bhimtal. We brought the rains with us as we entered Nakuchiatal and after a really cold and wind-whipped hour around the lake we decided to head to Mukteshwar.

I totally recommend the drive up from Bhowali to Mukteshwar. The drive climbs steadily up winding round and round the hills. On one side, as you spiral up, you see these picturesque villages and small streams and rivers forded by bridges and on the other thick conifers with loads of birds and above the bluest skies you will ever see. And just when you feel this can't get better, you enter Mukteshwar. And is it lovely! I think I fell in love with Mukteshwar as we drove through the forests that surround it to enter the small town. Soft sunlight filters through the deodar pines. If you step out of your car you hear the crunch of pine needles. The air is chill, fresh and smells green. It was to me the loveliest place we visited in our entire trip — serene, calm, and breathtakingly beautiful. Mukteshwar has lovely views of the Himalayas from one end of the town. We first explored Mukteshwar for sometime before looking for a hotel. And like in Nakuchiatal, we brought the rains along with us to this place. You can imagine the effect of the rains on a place which is about 2500 meters above sea level and has a steady wind blowing in from the Himalayas. That night each one of us burrowed under a thick rug and a blanket and that was the about the only way to stay warm.

The next morning we went trekking in the woods at one end of Mukteshwar and it turned out to be another great place to see birds. There is a trail that goes to some craggy overhanging rock cliffs called Chauli-ki-jali through these woods and that is where we went. The trail from the cliffs then takes a sharp upward turn and after meandering, and climbing steadily through some more lovely woods, deposits you at the top of hill on which sits a quaint wood and stone temple dedicated to "Mukteshwar" (Lord Shiva). The temple is small but lovely and its premises are covered with small bells that devotees leave behind as offerings when their prayers are answered.

Post that we trekked back through the woods, had some piping-hot Maggi noodles at a roadside shop and then headed to Almora/Binsar.

Almora/Binsar: The drive to Almora from Mukteshwar, as you can expect in this district, is lovely. But while you anticipate a lovely small town at the end of it, you find yourself in a crowded single-street town called Almora. It was noisy and even had traffic jams! We however had to stay in this place. It was the only major town for miles and our car needed some repairs badly — its fuel tank was leaking. Also our real destination, the Binsar forest reserve, was 36 Kms from Almora. Binsar does have a few hotels (3, if I counted right) but charge about Rs. 5000 a night to stay.

So we stayed the night in Almora and the next day drove to Binsar. And then hopped off the car and hiked through the woods for about 7-8 Kms, taking our time to stalk birds (with cameras only). Occasionally the woods would clear to reveal a view of the Himalayas covered in thick clouds. Binsar Reserve is a nice bit of forest and while the locals say the some wild animals (including the snow leopard) are seen in the reserve, we didn't seen any on our walk.

Kausani: From Binsar we headed to Kausani, about 70 Kms away. This was to be our base for the next couple of days. The last 30 Kms of the drive were magical — ripening fields on one side
and us climbing up the mountains on the other. A river and some streams flow through these fields and this stretch, apart from the sheer beauty of it, is a great place to catch sight of hoopoes, pied kingfishers and other birds.

At Kausani we found a hotel which assigned us a room with a balcony. All we had to do was step

into the balcony or open a window and see the Himalayas stretched from one end of the horizon to another. The Himalayas, changed color through the day with the changing position of the sun and glowed softly in the moonlight when it was dark. One can sit and watch this play of colors and take a lifetime to tire of it.

From Kausani we went to Baijnath which has some 6th century temples. The temple complex is home to a Parvati idol and two of the loveliest Ganeshas carved out of stone. The temple complex is next to a river which slows down here and forms a deep pool. The fish here are considered sacred and fed by the devotees and the pool swarms with fat, huge fish. And maybe that is the reason why so many people come to sigh over and look so wistfully at the water — so much food and . . .

Kausani, like the places we visited earlier, too has a nature trail. We dutifully trekked it and had a nice picnic lunch of various biscuits sitting on moss covered stones and tree stumps next to a stream, shaded by huge deodar pine trees. Kausani was also the place where we sampled some buransh squash — made from rhododendron flowers. Yummy.

Ranikhet: After two days at Kausani, we drove the 80 Kms to Ranikhet. Ranikhet wasn't in our earlier tentative plan. But having spent a day less in Uttarakhand's lake district, we had an extra day to spare before heading to the Jim Corbett National Park. So we decided to give Ranikhet a try (the choice was confirmed on coming to know that Corbett was only a 125 Kms from this place). And were we thankful that we visited it! First of all the drive from Kausani to Ranikhet is mind blowing. We took over 4 hrs to cover the 80 Kms. The roads to Ranikhet pass through some of Uttarakhand's loveliest vistas — woods, ripening fields, streams, small valleys. We often stopped the car to stalk and photograph birds or simply as an excuse to stretch our legs in the beautiful countryside.

Ranikhet is a lovely army cantonment town. After finding a hotel, we decided to head through its forests to a place called "Bhalu Dam" — a trek of 9 Kms. When we reached the head of the trail, we found ourselves surrounded by a few guides who insisted that we couldn't enter the forests and hope reach Bhalu dam without the help of an experienced guide — that there are so many paths that we would soon be lost. They were so insistent that we thought they were attempting to take us for a ride and we gave them a miss. 2 Kms into the forest, 20 minutes later we realized, we indeed had no clue where we were heading. We had stopped in a clearing in the forests and I found my cell phone had a signal. So we called our driver who was waiting at the head of the trail and asked him to send a guide to us. He handed the phone over to a guide and after we described our surroundings, the guide turned up in some time. We then pressed ahead to Bhalu dam on the way passing a loggers' hut.

Ranikhet's deodar and oak forest is surprisingly silent — we hardly heard any insects much less a bird. After walking to the dam, we decided that we needed to see another part of the forest where possibly we could see some bird and animal life. So we asked the guide to take us back from another route — he did. All of it uphill. Can you imagine a person of my size, walking up steep hills for Kms?! Phew! I and as did the others suddenly found the plants to be frequently interesting and often stopped to admire a leaf or even a thorn. In my case I collected oak acorns as I climbed up, taking my time over each choice.

Finally when we reached our vehicle again, the guide felt we had earned a reward and suggested that we visit the army's garbage dump outside Ranikhet if we wanted to see eagles. We gave him a skeptical look, but he was insistent. We thought he was pulling our leg but decided to give it a shot anyway. The guide was right. The small garbage dump is tucked behind a clump of pine trees just off the road 4 Kms from Ranikhet. And the trees are covered with eagles — huge ones. And walking in the dump were Egyptian vultures! We even spotted a jackal.

But it was on our way back into Ranikhet that I had one of the best experiences of this trip — the magical sunset over Ranikhet. The sky had colors in layers — gold, red, blue, black and white. And then there at one end was the Himalayan range glowing beatifically in the setting sun's light. We stopped the car and then sat on milestones watching the sun go down and the mountains changing color.

Ranikhet to Ramnagar: The next morning we started very early for Ramnagar which is the staging town if you want to visit Jim Corbett National Park. We were under strict instructions to be in Ramnagar by 13:00 as we had to be inside the forest by 14:00. The drive again was lovely. You descend from 1300 meters to around 300 meters in about 4 hours. And for most of the drive you feel that you are driving through Ladakh, so similar to it is this landscape. Bleak hills and valleys, bare but for a few trees, sharp chilly winds (we had some sleet on our way out of Ranikhet) and harsh cries of kites, shikras and droves of parakeets. Do this drive sometime in your life.

Corbett: Jim Corbett National Park was all that we hoped it would be and much more. Thick,

really thick forests of sal and a lush undergrowth of lantanas, and jungle jasmine and kadi patta, and stretches of grasslands. We stayed in rest houses deep inside the forest — the kind of rest houses that had electricity only for 3 hours in the evening. The first day we stayed in Bijrani. After an evening safari on elephant back, the next morning we ventured deeper into the forest in an open gypsy. We had a close brush with a king cobra. The snake was sun-bathing and acquiring a tan next to the trail, minding its own business only to find that our gypsy had slowed down right next to it — about a couple of feet away. Even as we were slowing down, it had started stirring and was about to take a keener interest in us when our driver realized what was happening. He immediately pressed down the accelerator and took us a further few meters away. When we turned around the magnificent beast was slithering away into the forest's undergrowth. Was it lovely!

That afternoon, we moved to the Gairal rest house. On our afternoon safari, we saw our first tiger, across the Ramganga River that flows through Corbett. It walked nonchalantly out of the thick forest and settled into a pool of water to cool itself. After half an hour of soaking, it got up and just as nonchalantly walked away.

Corbett is however noted for its Gharial crocodiles, wild elephants and huge variety of birds. We saw over a 100 variety of birds in this place — from the impressive changeable hawk-eagle to the ugly red-necked vulture, from the minuscule sunbird to the Kalij Pheasant. And in a range of colors — red, green (we even saw a green and yellow dove), black, blue, crimson, and yellow. We saw 4 types of woodpeckers and kingfishers — including one little fellow which caught and swallowed a fish that seemed as big as it was and then found that its meal was so heavy it couldn't fly. And another one which had caught a snake for dinner. We saw a couple of 6-7 meters long gharials on the banks of the Ramganga and also spotted a mugger croc.

And on our last day we came across wild elephants. We spotted a few of them — only their heads but could make out the sounds of the herd trumpeting inside — the forest is so thick that it can even hide elephants from view. Soon after, we spotted another tiger. And then on the banks of the river, walking through a fire line (clearings made in forests to control forest fires) we saw this solitary elephant walking majestically towards us. We were right in its path but the magnificent animal didn't change its direction at all. We finally made way for it and the elephant passed a few feet behind our gypsy. Our driver had kept the vehicle running in case the elephant took undue interest in us and charged. We later came to know that an elephant from the herd we had sighted earlier had charged a cantor that morning after we had left the area. But watching that elephant walk towards us was easily the standout experience of Corbett.

Agra: The drive from Ramnagar to Agra is easily the worst in India (or nearly the worst). For stretches there is no road, except a series of holes — and when I mean stretches I mean stretches at least 20-30 Kms long. And mind you, this road is a state highway.

Agra itself is dirty and for a town that has much to be proud of, obnoxious. Except for the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort the rest of the town is a dump.

I have been to Agra earlier, about 5 years back and so this was my second visit to the Taj. And I like to visit it for 2 reasons:
1. The first sight of the Taj Mahal as you step in through the huge red sandstone entrance — it takes your breath away in that first 5 seconds.
2. The two red sandstone structures on either side of the Taj — a masjid and a meheman khana. Hardly anyone enters these buildings and they are the best places to sit and watch and contemplate the beauty of the Taj.

From the Taj Mahal we headed to and explored the Agra Fort — which given its rich history and numerous beautiful buildings — the Diwan-i-Am, Khas Mahal, the Jahangiri Mahal — is a wonderful place to walk around. Our initial plan was to stay in Agra for two days and visit Fatehpur Sikri as well. But post the Taj and the Agra Fort, we decided that we had enough of Agra's dirt and headed straight to Delhi.

Delhi: On a colleague's recommendation we ended up in Delhi's Paharganj which (make no mistake) is the inspiration for the neon-lit landscape of Las Vegas. Lane after lane in this area is packed with hotels — neon signs blinking away merrily in the night. That place could easily have a 200-300 quality hotels in a locality that looks like it can't decide whether it should degenerate into a slum or rise to something better.

The next morning we headed to Jama Masjid, India's largest and best known mosque. It is a lovely serene place — a huge stone courtyard framed in with stone walls and with a magnificent red mosque at one end. That early in the morning, there were quite a few visitors but so huge is that courtyard that it looked quite empty.

Delhi's Red Fort is opposite the Jama Masjid and it is a hollow shell. There are a few structures inside, a couple of them are marvelous but overall the Red Fort is disappointing. The afternoon was however nice. On the recommendation of a friend who now stays in Delhi we visited the Akshardham temple in Noida. Add this temple to one of the places you have to visit. The carvings on this biggest temple in the world are so exquisite they inspire a sense of awe — that something this beautiful can be made even in these times. You should see the expressions on the faces of the statues — they look alive. The main temple is delicately carved with petals and leaves on the inside. If you stare at the ceiling, you feel that flowers and leaves are gently falling down on you like blessings. We rounded off the day with a visit to India Gate and then in the evening explored the crazy Connaught Place.

The next day was the last day of our trip. In the morning we visited the Qutub Minar, the world's tallest brick minaret. The Qutub Minar complex is also home to the Ashoka Pillar, a metallurgical curiosity. This iron pillar, cast centuries ago, doesn't corrode.

From Qutub Minar we headed to a friend's place (the same one who had recommended visiting Akshardham) and stayed over for lunch and evening coffee before heading to the airport. A few hours later, we were back in the sweltering heat of Mumbai and already wondering where to head for the next trip.
Here are the links to pictures (you might have to allow sometime for the pictures to download and display, depending on the speed of your Internet connection). Hope you enjoy them:

Uttarakhand: Pictures | Slideshow

Jim Corbett National Park: Pictures | Slideshow

Agra and Delhi: Pictures | Slideshow


abhijit said...

Whenever I come back to India I will definitely pile on for your yearly trips... Man at last you have started walking and trekking...

Priti said...

Fabulous....what is your next destination?

Dhanashree Phatak said...

hi mandar...........

amazing snaps...........especially the flower snaps...........

mandar talvekar said...

Hey Dhanashree,
Thank you.