The reDiscovery Project: Experiencing Uttarakhand through Kumaoni food, shared taxi rides

Editor’s note: You may have heard the saying ‘the journey is the destination’, but some travellers actually put that philosophy into practice. Presenting, #FTravellers — on-the-road (or air/sea) dispatches from travel enthusiasts on long journeys.

The travellers we're now featuring are Ambika Vishwanath and Hoshner Reporter of The reDiscovery Project. Ambika and Hoshner are doing an in-depth journey through Uttarakhand, and will be sharing their travel journals on Firstpost.

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Dispatch 4

Text by Ambika Vishwanath | Photos by Hoshner Reporter

It was the sort of sun that you seek and embrace — the sun that warms your insides when the weather is cool and the breeze has a nip in it. The kind of early winter sun that brings the woolens out, the weather when boots and scarves are matched. Except it was peak summer, not winter. At 2 pm at an altitude of about 2200 metres, I was wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, quite amazed that I was loving the sun in the middle of May.

After days of vegetating in Kasar, we had made our way a little further north to the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and Forest and were staying at the beautiful Grand Oak Manor, a 160-year-old English country house. I was lying down in the lawn with my book but I spent more time gazing at the summer flowers, towering cedar trees and broad oaks all around me.

The 150-year-old Grand Oak Manor is the former home of Henry Ramsay, British commissioner of Kumaon, credited with 'rediscovering' Binsar

The 150-year-old Grand Oak Manor is the former home of Henry Ramsay, British commissioner of Kumaon, credited with 'rediscovering' Binsar

We had trekked to Zero point, which at 2500 metres is the highest point in Binsar, earlier in the morning with Hem, the manor’s guide and naturalist. A native of the forest, he was from one of the villages that still remained within the boundaries of the sanctuary along with the seven original estates that have settled here. The walk to Zero point is rather easy, steep in a few parts but mostly gradual and shaded all the way by oak and rhododendron trees which are shedding the last of their beautiful red flowers along the trails. Hem, who has trained with the forest department, was a great guide and pointed out medicinal herbs and edible plants and berries as he talked about life in the forest, away from the maddening city.

Hem, our naturalist, on the trek to Zero point

Hem, our naturalist, on the trek to Zero point

Trekking through the oak and rhododendron forests of Binsar

Trekking through the oak and rhododendron forests of Binsar

On a clear day, zero point offers panoramic views of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, but we had no views from the top. It seems our luck had run out and the summer haze was back, but the trek itself was lovely and we returned to the manor — truly grand as its name suggests — for lunch.

Built by General Sir Henry Ramsay, the British Commissioner of Kumaon in the mid-1800s, the manor brims with natural beauty and man-made heritage. It is said that Ramsay fell in love with the Kumaoni hills, a region that reminded him of his village in the Scottish Highlands thousands of miles away, and he scoured the area for years looking for the perfect place to set up a home and grow old. The colonial-era mansion is named after the large English-style Oak that catches your attention as you drive up to the house, perched on the edge of the ridge with snow-capped mountains and miles of green hills and and valleys for company, and nothing else in front. Now owned by the Gangola family, who bought it in 1931, the stately manor exudes charm and warmth.

A scumptous traditional Kumaoni meal, served in centuries-old family thalis

A sumptuous, traditional Kumaoni meal, served in a centuries-old family thali

For lunch we were treated to a fantastic Kumaoni meal, with traditional horse gram lentils, mutton, vegetables, bhang chutney and fried nettles (which itch for hours if you touch them uncooked). We were excited to finally taste some local food and stuffed ourselves silly. A nap in the sun was warranted.

Besides gorging on a mix of sumptuous Kumaoni and English-style cooking (a welcome break), we spent our time in Binsar walking around in the 40-acre estate, listening to birdsong and chatting with Shikha and Sindhu Gangola, the wonderful couple who call the Grand Oak Manor and this forest their home. It was a blissful few days of old world magic and slow forest life, one we quite happily settled into after the last couple of weeks of ‘roughing’ it out, eating in roadside dhabas and travelling in stuffed share taxis.

Views of the Uttarakhand Himalayas from our room at the Grand Oak Manor

Views of the Uttarakhand Himalayas from our room at the Grand Oak Manor

Somewhat rejuvenated and loath to leave, three days later we found ourselves on the main road outside the gates of the protected forest, waiting to hitch a ride to Chaukodi, for a ‘night halt’. We were heading further north to Munsiyari, a drive that is doable if you have your own car, but share taxis are rather slow and don’t travel more than 40-odd kilometres at a stretch. Which means that unless we took a bus or booked our own taxi (which we can’t afford on our budget), a journey this long will involve four or five changes. Some journeys are great, with interesting people to chat with, entertaining kids or half-empty taxis with a few passengers. The taxi from Chaukodi involved a delightful conversation with a young passenger who declared in Hindi, “Some people think I look like my father, others say I look like my mother.”

“What do you think”, we asked, amused.

“I think I look like me!”

The young passenger we encountered

The young passenger we traveled with in a taxi from Chaukodi

The drivers are slow and careful, dismissing the fear of these roads and the need for nausea pills, allowing you to take in the thick forests and tree-lined mountains, with rhododendron giving away to pine and other spindly tress whose names I didn’t know. Many play Punjabi pop, some will stop for tea if you ask and if you’re not stuck at the back, the rides are quite nice. We made it to Chaukodi, where it hailed and stormed in the night, dispelling the summer haze. As we jumped into our share taxi the next morning heading to Munsiyari, we were greeted to partially snow-capped peaks with our morning coffee. The drab town of Chaukodi, only famous for its geographic location (you can see the entire range from Trishul to Annapurna in Nepal), seemed brighter as we moved ahead on a yellow road on Google that ends in Munsiyari.

Beautiful Binsar sunsets

Beautiful Binsar sunsets

Five hours and four changes later we reached the village of Sarmoli, a couple of kilometres outside the main Munsiyari town. Run by a group of strong-willed determined women, the homestay programme in Sarmoli places guests in village homes and also manage a variety of other programmes that aid the locals. We were looking forward to spending a few days in the village not too far from the glaciers that were once part of the old Silk route, learning about this remote part of Kumaon, maybe trekking up 12 kilometres to Khaliya Top and chatting with the women who have spearheaded positive change. Stay tuned for the next dispatch on our time in Sarmoli, the disaster that was Kausani and our first real trek in the mountains.

Read more from this series here.

Writer Ambika Vishwanath and photographer Hoshner Reporter are the team behind The reDiscovery Project. Follow their journey here.


Updated Date: Jun 13, 2018 19:22 PM

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