Thursday, November 22, 2007

A weekend in the Hills...

I had been planning forever a holiday in the Hills. Ruhi had never seen the mountains...come think of it she has never seen the sea either but the mountains seemed closer by. My friend Sridevi is the quintessential traveller and for years now I have made vivid pictures of her mountain trips in my mind as she recounts her numerous sojourns in the hills. She now lives in Bombay and passes through Delhi whenever she goes up to the Himalayas to visit a piece of mountain land that she has bought to build a house. She always invites me to come along and I always have something more important to do. This time around when she invited me on her yet another trip to Kumaon, I was more than tempted to go along. Sri, Richa, Ruhi and me took a train to Kathgodam late on Friday night. I had no clue where we were going except that it was called 'Sitla'.

I had got our seats reserved at the shortest notice by calling up Manobendra, my childhood friend and now a senior Indian railways dude ! He is always my saviour at every last minute crisis. We took the Ranikhet Express from the dusty 'Old Delhi' Railway station which Richa said was very 'scenic', had 'character' and all that blah !! We reached Kathgodam early next morning - the station is a sweet little place and in anticipation of the hillside chill I tucked Ruhi under 3 layers of clothing and a woolen cap which she stubbornly kept taking off.

There was a white Maruti van waiting for us to take us to Sitla. We passed the Bhimtal lake and after about an hour of driving stopped at a small Tea Stall at Bathuakhan to have our breakfast of hot aloo paranthas and tea. There was a nip in the air and the usual pleasantness of the morning in the hills and i picked up a monkey cap, some vicks vaporab and hair oil (!) on thw way. Ruhi seemed thrilled and she pulled out two tiny plastic buckets disclosing with great earnestness that she had brought those along to carry back some snow from the mountains for her class teacher. I told here there would be no snow and those snow peaks staring at us from afar were thousands of kilometers away. She fought with me bitterly for letting her down - she had promised her friends to bring back the snow.

The rest of the two hour journey was most frightening for me. The road uphill was very narrow and as we moved up, the excuse of a stone railing that I saw also disappeared. each time there was another car coming from the opposite direction, the van would come dangerously close to the edge. I am scared of heights. Escalators, narrow bridges, open staircases frighten me like crazy. I become numb and immobile even if I peer down from the third floor balcony of my brother's house. The ride was crazy. Ruhi was sleeping in my arms and I was wondering what if...we were to fall off into the valley. The road was lined with pine and rhododendrons and Richa said we should take back some local rhododendrons squash, which of course we forgot to.

Sitla Estate turned out to be a 100 years old Apple Orchard ! It had a small and quaint British Bungalow overlooking the orchard which a long Sun facing lawn in front of the 5 cottages that have been added to make it a commercial resort. The lawn is in fact the common room of Sitla Estate since its a place for Breakfast, Lunch, Tea time and everything in between till sunset. In the backdrop is a fabulous view of the snow capped mountains - the legendary Peaks - Nanda Devi, Trishul and Panchauli standing together, almost peering down at you. In between the mountains and you is a very green and forbidding valley.

Two huge dogs got up lazily to greet us and then disappeared again. Tea was served to us right there in the Sun and a very suntanned man who turned out to be the owner and Sri's friend, Vikram Maira came and introduced himself. It was obvious soon enough that Sitla is a one man show. Vikram is the Chef, the housekeeper, The Manager & the accountant here. He lives alone in the main Bunglow and has literally adopted the Sitla village, runs a small school on his estate and employs a dozen of the villagers in his resort. Vikram is kind of a 'Robinhood' of Sitla and everyone we met later on our small trip to Mukteshwar seemed to know him with a sort of an awe. I envied him and his living an utopian dream of running his kingdom in the best of places with most modern amenities. I noticed he had a rather fancy music system in his room and that he had CNN blaring on his TV at night. Another story though that our mobiles deserted us up there.

Our large room with a small sitting area had a fantastic view of the mountains from the large bay window in the bedroom which was like a gigantic TV screen all day except at sunset ! I particularly liked the cowdung plastered floors and it seemed he gives a fresh coat of plaster before the arrival of every guest. There was a sawdust heater in the corner of the room with a chimney built into it to let out the smoke and Ruhi sat at the couch next to the Bay window and took out her Pandora's box of crayons and color pencils to draw mountains, sunsets and houses like always.

Sri and Richa sat in the sun and gave each other head massages with the hair oil we picked on the way. Vikram said he could serve us the elusive drinks in the evening in case he gets a free head massage which Richa promptly obliged with before it was Lunch time !

In the evening we sat around the fireplace in an ancient living room while Vikram conjured up a lip smacking chinese meal for us. The house is a 100 years old and I spotted the tail of a Yak in one corner of the adjoining 'baithak'. Vikram runs treks and expeditions in the Himalays, particularly to Leh during the Monsoons which he said was the lean season at Sitla. Dinner is served in a large dining hall with several big and small tables.

When we came back to our room, the sawdust heater had been lit and the room was very warm and cozy. Richa woke me up early next morning to watch the sunrise from the window. Ruhi woke up as well and lay down against the window staring at the sky with fascination...I love all the sights that I watch through her eyes.

We had breakfast of eggs and freshly baked bread in the lawn and went up a pine scented road for a trek to Mukteshwar. Little Ruhi ran up the mountains without her usual fuss. It was a very exciting trip for her. She gathered wood roses and pine cones on the way and Sri nicknamed her the 'little mountain goat'.

The coal tar road ended near a handpump and we went up the rocky path to Mukteshwar. As I found later, 114 years ago the British had bought 3000 acres of land under the Shiva Temple at Mukteshwar in order to shift the Imperial bacteriology Lab from Pune to the Kumaon Hills. The same Lab was renamed to Indian Veterinary Research Institute or IVRI, post independence. We saw the gate of the IVRI at the round about called Choufil just ahead of the Mukteshwara temple. I noticed 2 Guards in spanking new uniforms sitting at the gate which I later found out is out of bound to the public. Right opposite IVRI was a road leading to the Methodist Church. There is a sleepy little market called the 'Mall' ahead of a quaint hospital and post office. Both were locked - it was a Sunday afternoon.

Sri broker her slipper on the way and dragged it till the Mall where we found a cobbler under a tree. We spotted a local Mithai shop and asked for lunch which he cooked for us promptly. Paranthas and Aaloo baingan with fresh onions, radish and Bal Mithai in the end.

It became very cold as we started our journey back to Sitla. The clouds had covered the sun and Ruhi was finally tired and cranky. As soon as we reached Mukteshwara Temple an old man came up to me and invited us to see the temple. I was trying to ward him off when he said we should take the shorter way back instead of going down that road. Though Sri stared suspiciously at him, I convinced them to follow him so that he could show us the way. He offered to come half the way with us and even lifted Ruhi on his back which was such a huge relief. It was a scary way down and we slid and toppled over to follow him. On the way like a true Guide he kept telling me tales about every part of the trail and showed us the prom ontory called Chauthi Jaali, and the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam guest house, with the PWD Inspection Bungalow below it. But I was hardly listening and in my mind I was hallucinating about the eventuality that he would take us to a secluded spot where his gang would rape and loot us. I kept staring at that 'no network' sign on my mobile with great despair. Suddenly we reached a small house in the middle of the jungle and a dog barked. A woman shouted a pleasantary to him and I realisded I had a cynical and suspicious city mind and that he was after-all the friendly Hill Man whose Kids went to College in Nainital like he had been telling me. At an open spot where the worst part of the forest seemed over he dropped Ruhi from his back and went his way. I gave him a 100 bucks which he happily accepted.

Ruhi and Me were way ahead of Sri and Richa because of the old man and we reached Sitla a good 20 minutes before them. I rushed up to the room to pack our bags while Ruhi loitered around the lawn showing off her a new found bravado. I smiled to myself as I saw her chatting up the kitchen staff but I was cursing myself minutes later. She petted one of the dogs and then when he whined it seemed she got scared and ran. He clawed her leaving her thigh bruised. Poor thing was numb with fear and I kept cursing myself for leaving her behind.

A chatty young man took us back the Station and I bid adieu to Sitla promising Vikram that I will come back again to watch it snow so that Ruhi can fill her tiny buckets to carry back home !


Leonard Blumfeld said...

Beautiful description of a trip. Made me want to go there.

Sri said...

Preeti, I bumped into this while surfing........and could not recall a thing of that trip except carrying ruhi on my shoulders....of which I have a pic.

I didn't know you wrote......just like I don't know so many things. I read some of your others posts too. I have no exposure to blogs and blogging. But it feels like a nice thing to do. Giving expression to those countless journeys within and without. Baring the soul, the heart. It must be therapeutic.

The good thing about the past is that it,s gone. The good thing about poor memory is that it does not return. And experiences seem to leave just that wee bit of a scent.....the scent of fresh dew, which evaporates as a new moment begins. Vanishing, taking with it everything one wants to cling to.

More blogging power to you