On a Himalayan high


Published on 4 October, 2015 in Mumbai Mirror

From waking up to unobstructed views of snow-capped peaks in Munsiyari to exploring rafting stretches on the rivers of Pancheshwar, a week in Kumaon makes you want to abandon the city.

An American operatic soprano once said that there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. The quote comes back to me every now and then, especially when challenges in life demand wordy inspiration. But all that concerns life in the city, and this week is about life away from it. Even so, the quote, quite literally, is now all set to justify the expedition I’m about to undertake over the next few days.

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A rainy welcome

It begins to pour by the time I reach the far-off town of Munsiyari in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand; the untimely and steady downpour gradually brings tufts of clouds and a blanket of mist with it. The Panchchuli peaks that this part of Kumaon is most famous for, seem to be shying away behind them.

Nestled at the base of the great Himalayan mountain range, at an elevation of about 2200 meters AMSL, Munsiyari is strategically located near the tri-borders of India, Tibet and Nepal. On my first morning there, I gulp down my coffee and set out for an intra-day trek to Mehsar Kund. The route begins right behind the Himalayan Glamping Retreat, where I stay, and takes me a little more than an hour to trudge up to the lake. The sun is out, the clouds have disappeared and the mist is gone, and greeting me are the majestic Panchchuli peaks. The proximity is so incredible that it’s unbelievable — there’s nothing between you and snowy peaks, and just behind the range is another country, another part of the world. It is believed that the five tall peaks have been named after Draupadi and the five Pandavas who set up their five “chulis” (cooking hearths) there before their final destination to heaven. Right next to these are the Hansling Peaks, equally majestic in sight. It is these peaks that determine most of the treks around Munsiyari, the two most important, albeit difficult ones, being the Nanda Devi base camp and Milam Glacier. Not to mention the overnight trek to Khulia Top, equally popular among serious trekkers depending, of course, on how many days one if coming for and how much one can walk.

I, however, due to the lack of time have no such plans. Instead, I spend the day in the retreat hoping to spot a few Kumaoni birds. With a little help from my host, I manage to identify the Jungle Babbler, the Black-Lored Tit and the Magpie. Munsiyari, like several other Kumaoni regions, is a birder’s paradise, but what makes this place more interesting is that while other regions like Almora or Binsar are frequented by leopards, Munsiyari is home to the black Himalayan bear. Dare you stroll into the woods unarmed and you’re sure to return, if you’re lucky, with a part of your face missing, just like the old lady next door who, after being attacked by a grizzly, now walks about the jungle with a sickle in her hand.

Pancheshwar Fishing RetreatFishy waters

A seven-hour-long drive later, I find myself facing the Saryu River in a completely different part of Kumaon. This isn’t Pancheshwar, not just yet. This is the Ghat, informs Raj da, the curator of the 3-hourlong white-water rafting trip I’m about to embark on to reach my riverside camp at the Pancheshwar Fishing Retreat. The life jacket has been strapped, the helmet has been worn, and we are afloat. The Saryu River, I am told, gushes down for a few miles and meets the Mahakali River after a short while, after which the rapids get bigger and scarier. Accompanying me is a group of professional anglers from Sri Lanka, but they’re not so fascinated with the rapids. Their interest lies in catching the Himalayan Golden Mahseer, an elusive species of fish which isn’t found in too many parts of the world. It is the most-sought after game fish for anglers across the world, all the more because it is an endangered species. The large freshwater fish is therefore immediately released, if caught.

Coming back to rafting, it has been about two hours of paddling, spotting several pairs of Kingfisher birds and a huge bare bark of tree with as many as 12 Woodpecker nests, crossing at least six grade two and three rapids, and halting at a shore to try my luck with luring the Mahseer. What’s interesting is that Kumaon has very long stretches of river that one can choose from to float on, but that also means there’s no turning back. Once you’re on the river, you cannot scramble back to land, for the expedition begins at one ghat and ends on another. Unlike common rafting experiences in Rishikesh and Manali, the river here isn’t followed by a road on the side. Rafting in the Saryu River and Mahakali River is serious business, and I realise that only the next day after my arm muscle begins to protest in pain.

The discomfort will go away, but the experience won’t. Such is this magical place called Kumaon, full of varied landscapes where if you look up, you’ll have the Himalayas staring back at you, and on looking down, you’ll be welcomed by the flowing rivers.

It is, after all, true — there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

BEFORE YOU PACK

Fact File: Munsiyari

Getting there: The nearest railhead is at Kathgodham, about 14 hours away by road. Break your journey at the KMVN Tourist Rest House in Chaukori (207 km, 6-7 hrs from Kathgodham) and set out for Munsiyari the next morning. The drive from Chaukori to Munsiyari takes about 4 hours.

Where to stay: The Himalayan Glamping Retreat (www.himalayanglamping.com) has 6 well-appointed luxury cottage tents, complete with all plush amenities and attached baths. Tariff: INR 15, 000 per night on double occupancy (includes all meals) Best months to visit: March to June and October to December.

Must dos: Plan the day for short treks. Drop into the local markets for Pashminas.

Fact File: Pancheshwar

Getting there: The nearest railhead is at Kathgodham, about 7 hours away by road.

Where to stay: Pancheshwar Fishing Retreat (www.pancheshwarfishingretreat. com) has six well-appointed Swiss tents by the riverside, each complete with plush amenities and attached baths. Tariff: INR 6, 500 per night on twin sharing basis

Best months to visit: For fishing and rafting, between October to November. For general birding and riverside chilling, December and January are good.

Must dos: Rafting on the Saryu and Mahakali rivers, fishing and angling.

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