Since arriving in India we have come to realise that we aren’t really that good at the actual “travelling” part of travelling. Setting up camp for a couple of weeks in each special place we come across means that we can find peace and comfort amongst the chaos. Hitting the road every 3 or 4 days is tiring and leaves us with little opportunity to really get to know the people we meet and places we stay.
With the helpful advice of two fellow backpackers, we headed off from Rishikesh to Almora, by way of taxi along the perilous, dusty and very noisy mountain roads. Drivers consistently needed to blast their horns to make sure we knew they were coming round the corner and after 13 hours we felt car sick and had throbbing head aches. Future advice: take the train instead (its also much much cheaper) and if travelling long distances on the roads is unavoidable – carry ear plugs!
Hidden out of the way, 8km along the road from Almora, is the quiet hilltop temple of Kasar Devi. At 2100m above sea level, the main temple overlooks the small villages dotted over the hillside as well as the great valley below. To the far north are the epic Himalayan peaks, capped with snow and beaming in the bright sunshine. On a good day it is possible to see into the carvings on the mountains made by the shadows, and peaks such as Nanda Devi – India’s highest – proudly rise over the land.
Each morning, a new sunrise sets the pace for the day, with a view that takes our breath away, replacing it with fresh energy for the day. When we arrived at Kasar Devi (the name is just for the main road that runs along the top of the ridge and the temple at the top of the hill) it was dark so we stopped at the first simple guesthouse we came across. The New Dolma guesthouse, run by a Tibetan family, offered good cheap food and a clean room with a massive double bed for 400 rupees a night. The best deal was by far the view from the front balcony which perfectly captured the sunrise over the Binsar ridge. The colour flooded our room and waking up with a rainbow of dawn light cleared the air around us. The terrace out front was perfect for breakfast and we caught our first glimpse of the snowy peaks in the distance.
It wasn’t hard to find other travellers who pointed us in the direction of the main market and guesthouses, a short walk along the road we had come along. It had been a while since we had felt any luxury in home comforts so we decided to spend a couple of nights in the more expensive hotel, Mohan’s Binsar retreat. It was pretty great to be able to enjoy hot showers, an immaculate comfy bed and room service for a change and after a good deal of bargaining we settled on a fair price within our budget (1200 rupees).
There was, however, something strange in the air and I almost felt guilty for staying in such a posh set up. We craved simplicity again so come the end of the week we moved along the road to Ram Singh’s, after some helpful advice from the lovely couple at Baba Cake.
This small family-run guest house had only a few double and single rooms with a shared bathroom and is very basic but with a beautiful atmosphere and roof top terrace with a view of the Himalayas, it was a bargain for 250 Rupees a night. Anand and his family cooked fantastic thali for us every night (for a very low price compared with the restaurants round abouts) and talked to us about the local area and India. They were extremely courteous and provided everything we needed from the little store below, such as water and snacks or muesli as well as hot water in a bucket or laundry done by the local women in the stream below.
Baba Cake is a small chai shop on the main road which is owned by a retired holy man – Baba – and his wife Isabelle, who is originally from Germany. They make such a fab little family and they have a little 1 year old girl who smiles at everyone and makes new friends with all the travellers who stop by. Isabelle makes amazing cakes and it feels like such a luxury to sit and have them with our chai and the mountain view! One afternoon we met a group of four Israeli backpackers who had been staying in Baba’s spare room for a week with little intention of leaving. Yotam and Noah became good friends and we enjoyed listening to the stories they had to share about their home and their own travels in India. We were even given tips on making the perfect hummus – good quality chickpeas and good quality tahini.
It was so relaxed in Kasar Devi and meeting chilled out fellow minded people was easy. Most of the tourists in Kasar Devi were a few long-term europeans, staying for six months at a time, a few short staying Israelis and the odd Indian family escaping the plains to the south and east.
Our neighbours at Ram Singh’s when we arrived were an Italian lad named Alessandro and Thomas, from Austria. They had met on the bus to Leh and had decided to share the last leg of their Indian trip together. They both had such a chilled out vibe that we hit it off right away and spent most days smoking local charas on the rooftop in the lazy sun! After so long travelling as a couple, Ralph and I have come to really appreciate new company and a change in the rhythm of the days.
It did get cold at night and a wooly jumper was needed as well as a snug wooly hat and socks we bought in Almora – the closest town. On one occasion we joined our israeli friends on a shopping trip into town. It was a pleasant 8km walk along the pine lined mountain road but little did we know that day was the day of one of Almora’s biggest festivals. When we arrived the streets were packed with Indians celebrating with huge paper-mâché floats if gods, beautifully decorated veichles and people, drummers, dancers and street sellers. We were still able to find the things we needed and get a few souvenirs although it took most of the day to force our way through the crowds. As we looked at the huge painted statues it seemed that tge crowds were much more interested in us, everywhere taking our pictures and beconing us to join thier dances. The next day we were sitting drinking chai when Baba showed us our picture in the local newspaper. Beside the picture it said something along the lines of ‘foriegn tourists come especially to see Almora festival’ as Baba translated it.
The area is perfect for trekking and we managed to successfully go on 4 walks into the villages and jungle without getting lost, kidnapped or eaten by leopards. On our 2nd day we took the path down in front of Mohan’s cafe to the small river and waterfalls in the valley below. It took us an hour or so to meander down through the houses and fields, having already been harvested of the rice and grass that grew in the rich monsoon soil. The gardens here that are attached to each home are blooming with bright orange marigolds, large red chillies and cannabis plants that reach high into the sky, more like trees. There is also the seasonal veg such as mustard greens, spinach, cauliflower and potatoes which fill our thalis (meals) in the form of palak aloo and aloo gobi.
The pine trees that make up the forest here were planted by the British when they chopped down the native species for wood to be used in the railways. Instead of jungle all we can see is dense evergreen forest, strangely resembling Alpine landscapes and reminding us of home. As we walked along the rough dusty paths I noticed a few trees had grooves cut into the bark about 2m from the base of the trunk. There was a central vertical groove running straight down to a small conical metal flask, with other straight grooves cut at a diagonal angle punting down into the mid-line. This was to collect the sap, which is used in all sorts of things out here. The smell of the sap is amazing and fills the air. Down by the stream we could hear children playing and the bells of herded cattle. We found a small pool to have a quick dip in, because the water was cold enough to rival a Scottish loch in December!! Brrrrr… Refreshing and energising. Spotted a crab of all things, loads of massive spiders delicately spinning their homes and lots of birds which looked a lot like magpies as well as a lizard basking in the afternoon sun.
Both Ralph and I wanted to take a day out to do a bigger walk but it seemed that the longer hikes needed the assistance of a guide and a hefty sum of 4000 rupees to pay for him, a taxi to pick us up and food for the walk. Most of that must have been the commission that the hotel took for booking the damn thing! When we failed to find anyone willing to share the costs we decided to organise our own treks and take our chances. Baba Ji kindly offered to show us the way down the path on the other side of the ridge to a really neat place for swimming. If he hadn’t come along i am pretty sure we would have gotten seriously lost in the jungle of houses, farmland, forest and pathways going in all directions. Ralph, me and Yotam set off with him on an 8km adventure down the hillside. He led us passed his home, through small villages and rice paddies, showing us the local spring where the villagers collect water every morning. We started drinking the same water to save on all the plastic bottles that already litter the streets and were perfectly fine. Baba explained that this spring was always running unlike some of the other water points on the ridge and was the best to drink. Walking through the villages we went right through the courtyard of a school and the kids found us very interesting, playing peek a boo with us from behind the wall. They all shouted “hippies” as we passed, a name that caught on during the 60’s hippie boom in India. Nowadays the name just refers to any foreigner and Kasar Devi is even nicknamed “Hippy land” by the locals due to the tourists that come here. After a dip in the freezing, crystal-clear river at the bottom of the valley we ate dal and rice in a small dhabba, a shack made from stone with a tin roof and a wooden door both turning black from the smoke of the cooking fire. We caught the bus back to Almora and the taxi to the hotel got me back just in time as some dodgy street food left me with the urge to vomit all the way back along the bumpy road to Kasar Devi. A trip to India wouldn’t be complete without some sort of stomach problem!!
Our next adventure took us away from Kasar Devi and along the Binsar ridge to the holy village of Jageshwar, named so due to the large collection of stunning temples that cover the small portion of valley. A dense network of over 120 temples and shrines occupy the main bazaar with a large central Shiva temple in the heart of the complex.
In India we often find it a little uncomfortable entering Hindu temples as tourists, and without much knowledge of how we should act when inside, sometimes we feel like we are being disrespectful. The baba at Kasar Devi temple told us that there is no need to do anything special in these places of worship. If you like you could make an offering of flowers, fruit, a little money or a small prayer but it is not obligatory. Just like within churches at home we can simply be at peace in these places and absorb the pure energy that flows. Nevertheless, Ralph and I felt a bit nervous in the awe of such magnificent structures. We finally decided that, after coming all this way, we weren’t going to let a little self doubt spoil a unique cultural experience so we dropped off our shoes at the gate and explored. The main shiva temple contained a large stone lingam and many praying men, who found us fairly interesting. We were blessed, our foreheads smeared with paint and rice and given a bracelet of red and yellow thread in return for our donation to the temple. The ruins of the 7th century monuments are beautifully carved with images of deities and cows and numerous gods associated with each shrine. There is a temple or shrine devoted to each particular god and a kindly dreadlocked baba sits near the front steps sharing chilums with curious travellers.
After a bite to eat at a local dhabba, stuffed with more thali than you could feed to an elephant, we climbed the steep 3km path to the top of the ridge for sunset. As we climbed there were jokes of being eaten by leopards and getting lost in the jungle on the way back, even though we knew our safety was under no risk. At the top, with little air left in our lungs and energy drained from our legs, we used what was left to run to the best viewing point as the golden sun set its flames for the evening. On the opposite side of the ridge, the moon could be seen rising full and mystical over the panoramic skyline of the snowy Himalayas. Clouds were just beginning to collect on the top most peaks but the sight was stunning, creating a humble feeling in our hearts at the sheer power and awesomeness that is nature. I decided to opt out of the return hike to catch sunrise the next day and was happy to return to Kasar Devi after a hearty breakfast of fresh stuffed paratha.
Back in Kasar Devi, Ralph and I organised a trek into the Binsar park. We had been quoted 4000 rupees for s guided tour through the park and this didn’t include the 600 we would need to pay each to enter the gates. Instead, we hailed down a jeep early morning and had him drop us at the last village before the park. We then walked a short cut through the small farms and houses that lined the hills, before joining the main road just before the park gates. Here we managed to find a path leading up the side of the hill, up to the road heading away from the entrance into the heart of the park. Making sure no one was watching us, we hopped over the wall and carried on our trek without the unfair bill. (Most of the time Indian nationals pay a fraction of what foreigners pay, for example 100 as opposed to 600 rupees in this case. If we could afford the support this twisted government rule we would think twice instead of avoiding it but with a corrupt system in place to greedily gain wealth from a nature reserve I don’t feel guilty in hopping the fence). It was a magic walk through the jungle, reaching higher and higher onto the top of the hill in search of ‘zero point’ where we could gaze upon the full view of the mountains and the land below. The jungle became more and more dense with mainly native trees instead of the pines that had created more of a forest around Kasar Devi. Monkeys were shy this time, scrambling away from us as we passed and many exotic birds with long beautiful tails sang to each other over head. After 10 km of climbing the road we arrived at the shiva temple not far from zero point. The lonely baba there brought us some chai as we rested under a beautiful oak with the horse man and his animals, chatting small talk and explaining our adventure so far. He kindly showed us our path up to the top of the hill and I can safely say that I have never sat down for a packed lunch with such a magnificent view. The Himalayas were clear that day and glowing bright white in the sun. An epic epic day.
To complete our stay in Kasar Devi we decided to offer a gift of art to baba cakes to thank them for the friendship and the amazing tea and sweets. A day of painting brought us close again and we both had a wicked time planning the little design to complement the bare wall. After we had finally managed to find some complementary paints and working brushes we spent the afternoon getting messy, fully furled with apple crumble and coffee, smiling well into the evening after the sun had set.
Good byes were hard and it had become a home for us there under the shadows of the great mountains. A true haven, hidden from the chaos in the cities and far enough from the tourist trail to have peace and quiet with a few friendly faces for company. Our next stop was Ramnagar on the fringes of Corbett national park. This was the closest place to get a direct train to Varanasi. We managed to get out train tickets booked from the post office in town center. We were alao told that buses to Ramnagar leave Almora Daily at 6:30am and take three or four hours to reach Ramnagar.