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Kumaon Road Odyssey

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The Kumaon odyssey starts in earnest the moment the overnight Ranikhet Express from Delhi pulls into the little town of Haldwani at the foothills of the Himalayas. From here one embarks on what is probably one of the most scenic drives through rugged terrain. As the vehicle purrs over the twisting mountain road, every bend has a surprise – dense aromatic forests with misty blue hills in the distance, a lonely hilltop temple, and mirror-smooth lakes that fielded reflections of the surrounding loveliness. The divine palette boasts a spectrum of colours in the mountains – blue sky, white marshmallow clouds, green fields, dark green heaven-needling pines, and jade-green rivers restlessly rushing to their destination.

Occasionally one may run into a rural traffic jam – thanks to boyish shepherds herding their flocks of goat and sheep from one green meadow to another. After a long wait punctuated with a few impatient honks, you are on your way once again. The first stop is at Kainchi Temple – a brilliant daub of red and white that rises against the mountains with an air of defiance. Like most Kumaoni temples, it was wreathed in mountain magic, spirituality and legend.

Indeed there is something miraculous about driving in the Himalayas – not only does the backdrop take your breath away but the driving skill of the man or woman at the wheel can be a source of awe or distress. Fortunately the drivers here know the mountain roads well and take the dizzying drops and hairpin twists with the philosophical sangfroid of those who have total confidence in their maker. They never take the mountains for granted, and never assumed that others of their ilk would know what they were doing.

The second stop was at ethereal Bhimtal, 1,371 m above sea level. A tranquil lake with an almost surreal beauty, this is the largest lake in the district (even larger than Nainital’s Naini Lake) and is unabashed about its beauty. With a quaint 17th century hill temple, walks along lonely forest trails and substantial accommodation, Bhimtal is a pleasant getaway. One may branch out here and drive on to Nanital or push on to Binser further to the north east.

Whichever route one takes driving in Kumaon is a breathtaking experience. Sadly it exacts a price for carelessness. On the way one will invariably see mangled remains of vehicles driven by a young man who did not respect the mountains.

With renewed respect for your driver’s abilities, you may relax and enjoy the all-enveloping scenery embellished with roadside dhabas and little hamlets that cling to random ledges and precarious mountain peaks. Rolled down the windows and inhale the champagne-like freshness of the air in greedy lungs full.

Occasionally the vehicle will follow the course of babbling brooks or swift flowing rivers whose banks are carpeted with ripple smiling green fields. You will cross a succession of ridges and nameless towns before arriving at Almora, the former capital of Kumaon, which is perched on a 5 km long saddle shaped ridge that commands a view of the snow peaks of the Himalayas.

From here one pushes on to Binsar, past the fork in the road that branches out to Binsar Sanctuary. Bed down for the night here before setting off the following day on the next leg of the Kumaon odyssey that will take you to the one street settlement of Chaukori which not only as has ring side view of the Himalayas but also serves as a base for the amazing cave temples of Patel Bubaneshwar. Sleepy and romantic Kausani, colonial Ranikhet, the bustling lake district of Nainital and Sattal… as you drive through the picture postcard landscape dotted with ancient temples it does not take you long to realize that the journey is the destination. In fact you can round off the journey by stopping off at the Corbett National park, one of the finest wildlife game reserves in the country.