Places to see in Kumaon

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People of Kumaon
Kumaon is amongst the most beautiful regions of India. It combines adventure, spirituality, religion and nature as few other. People are very helpful and roads good. The name Kumaon is derived from "Kurmanchal" which means Land of the Kurmavtar (the tortoise incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Preserver of Mankind).

I planned to drive through Kumaon but did not have an idea of the route or places to see. Went to the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) office in Mumbai where the officer told me what to see and importantly advised me on the shortest possible route. Super advice!

Reached Delhi from where took a night train, Raniket Express, to Kathgodam. It leaves Old Delhi Railway station at 10.30 pm and reaches Kathgodam by about 5.30am. It is important to select the right vehicle. Go for petrol one since diesel cars take time to start in the morning. Maruti Alto is the most popular car in the region but it is small, low which could hurt when the roads are bumpy. If you are tall and like space suggest a Wagon R. Comes at Rs 1800/ per day. It is advisable to share your travel itinerary with the driver to avoid any problems later.

The route taken and approximate driving time is -
1. Kathgodam to Mayavati Ashram 5-6 hours.
2. Mayavati Ashram to Pithoragah 4 hours.
3. Pithoragarh to Narayan Ashram via Dharchula 5-6 hours.
4. Narayan Ashram to Munsyari 5-6 hours.
5. Munsyari to Chakauri is 5-6 hours via Patal Bhubhneshwar.
6. Chakauri to Kausani via Bageshwar and Baijnath temples is 3-4 hours.
7. Kausani to Dunagiri is 2 hours.
8. Dunagiri to Raniket via Dwarhat is about 2 hours.
9. Raniket to Almora via Sun Temple is about 2 hours.
10. Almora to Jageshwar Jyotirling via Golu Devata Mandir is about 1.5 hours.
11. Almora to Binsar is about 1 hour.
12. Binsar to Nainital via Mukteshwar is 3-4 hours.

It took me nineteen days to complete the trip. I am sharing select pictures through this travelogue.

Swami Vivekananda visited Mayavati Ashram in 1898 and meditated here. Since then it has become a place of pilgrimage. Only serious seekers must visit. Also see ancient temples of Champavat ie 22 kms away and Abbot Mount i.e. enroute to Pithoragarh. (amidst thick forests it is noted for its scenic grandeur and breath taking view of the Himalayan peaks).

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Narayan Ashram 2440m
Pithoragarh is called mini Kashmir. It is a beautiful valley with a rich tradition of folk dance. Trek for an hour to Kapileshwar Mahadev, a cave temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Earlier Sadhus etc meditated in the cave.

The drive from Pithoragarh to Dharchula is very scenic - you can sense the change in altitude and temperature. Dharchula is on the banks of the Kali river with Nepal and India being on either side of the river. It is an important camp along the Kailash Mansrovar, Adi Kailash routes and an army base camp as well. It has a number of good restaurants run by husband/ wife duo and number of schools too.

Beyond Dharchula along the road to Tawaghat is Tapovan i.e. famous for Taptkund or hot-water spring. You need to walk downhill for 15 minutes to reach the spot. An employee colony for employees of NHPC’s hydro-electric power plant is next to the kund.

A two hour drive takes you to Narayan Ashram. It was established by Narayan Swami in 1936 and runs numerous educational institutions in the region. It is the last point to where a vehicle goes on the Kailash Mansrovar yatra route. You get a spectacular view of the Himalayas. We got some excellent pictures of sun-rise and sunset. For a nominal fee you can stay at the Ashram but need to make a booking in advance. Good place to be silent, meditate and come closer to nature.

The ashram has a wind mill, solar panels and a computer driven machine which measures wind speed / rainfall.

We trekked five kms on the Kailash Mansrovar route to one of the villages. Thanks to DTH most villagers had a television set and were clued in on the latest national and cricket news.

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Munsyari 2135m
We left Narayan Ashram at 6.30am to reach Munsyari (means place with snow) at 2 pm. We gave a lift to a local lad who told us of how many locals collected a particular insect from high up in the hills and then sold them to the Chinese through a Nepali agent. The insect has some medicinal properties hence has big demand. Each family earns between Rs 5-15 lakhs per annum. Since such sale is illegal villagers cannot deposit the money in the bank but keep it at home. I asked him whether they were not worried about the money being robbed. He said everyone in the village has similar sums of money so why would anyone rob.

Yet the young man, barely out of his teens, wanted a government job because it gave him respectability in the village. He boasted of recent buys – a LCD TV for Rs 50k and a Bajaj Pulsar. Seeing him neighbor went and bought a TV for Rs 60,000/.

7 kms before Munsyari is a village Darkot i.e. well known for woolen products. We went to the village and found every house made woolens. They sold pashmina shawls, sweaters, mufflers and angora caps. Rabbits are the source for angora wool. Most villagers have rabbits in their homes. The angora caps are warm and the envy of my friends today. Regret not having bought a dozen.

Ladies knit woolens effortlessly. Saw some of them cooking, looking after child or chatting with me and knitting simultaneously. The elderly ladies referred to Tibet as if it were next door. It made me realize the close interaction between the people of Kumaon and Tibet before Chinese occupied it.

Munsyari is known for getting the closest view of the Panchhuli peaks. It is a group of five peaks in the Darma valley of Kumaon. The group's name is derived the legendary Pandavas's "Five Chulis" (cooking hearths), where they cooked their last meal before proceeding toward their heavenly abode.

Do visit the Tribal Museum. It is an excellent collection of tribal lifestyle by a local historian Dr Sher Singh Pangtey. A must see!

Recommend spending 3 days at Munsyari. It is far away so cannot keep on going there. It is also the base camp for treks to Milan, Ralam and Namik glaciers. Stay at Pandey Lodge – it is a value for money hotel.

Note that the hotels run by the KMVN are very good. However, cheaper and equally good hotels are available.

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Chaukori 2010m
From Munsyari we drove for about six hours to reach the Patal Bhubhneshwar temple complex with a natural cave. The lime rocks inside the cave have taken fascinating shapes that can be related to various symbols of Hindu worship and culture. The cave is believed to be the abode of the deities of the Hindu Gods. Entrance to the cave is through a very small entrance – you literally have to slip down the rocks. Chains are provided on either side to enable devotees to enter cave. The cave is a large area i.e. fortunately well lit. A guide takes you around and explains the significance of each symbol. Amazing experience to say the least! Those who have breathing problem are advised not to enter the cave.

A two hour drive takes you to Chakouri i.e. known for breath taking view of sunrise and the snow clad Himalayan peaks of Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchchuli. It is a small hill station but there is something very special about it. KMVN hotel has rooms, cottages and a viewing tower.

Suggest spend two days at Chakouri. Is an excellent place to relax, here birds chirping or read a book.

From Chakouri went to Kausani with stop overs at Bageshwar and Baijnath temples. Bageshwar is the base camp for treks to Pindari glacier and a beautiful valley.

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Dunagiri 2658m
A two hour drive from Kausani took me to Dunagiri. The drive is amongst the best during the trip. As I entered Dunagiri could feel strong spiritual vibrations. A friend wrote ‘In an analogous dimension below Dunagiri, is the cosmic plane of Gyanganj, peopled by many Siddhas, who have been meditating there for hundreds of years. It is a closely guarded place, where Babaji created the golden palace for his disciple Lahiri, and gave him initiation, as described by Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi!”.

Five kms from Dunagiri you drive to a point from where you can trek to Mahavatar Babaji’s cave (app one hour) or trek five kms to Pandukholi (where the Pandavas are believed to have spent agatvyas).

The trek to Babaji’s cave is through dense forests and tough. We saw a couple of groups returning back because they found the trek never ending. It is adviseable to take a guide or else one might chose a wrong path. It took us slightly over one hour to reach the cave i.e. virtually at the top of the hill.

Cave is quite big. When I sat to meditate went into a different orbit. I could spend only an hour there since it was getting late. Recommend that you go there before noon so can spend atleast a couple of hours there.

Another must do trek is to Pandukholi. It takes slightly over an hour from the base point and is through dense forests. There is an Ashram on top of the hill (app 9,000 feet) where you can stay. You get a spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks and sunrise from here. From there we trekked another 10 kms one way to Bhatkot where Lord Ram’s brother Bharat is said to have meditated. A very tough trek! Only those with trekking shoes and regular trekkers should do the trek.

In Raniket, the drive through cantonment areas is lovely and visit Haidakhan Wale Baba Ashram. Visit Sun Temple while driving from Raniket to Almora. Almora is a big town and the cultural centre of Kumaon.

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An ngo CHIRAG partnered with B2R Technologies to start a BPO i.e. close to Mukteshwar in district Nainital. The BPO started in September 2009, employs 250 and has 5 locations. They do XML coding, Calling Services; Outbound Calls etc. 234 of the 250 employees are from Uttaranchal. I spoke to the BPO employees and was impressed with their approach to work. They are as good as you will find elsewhere.

CHIRAG (Central Himalayan Rural Action Group) works in the field of education, health care, natural resource management, livelihood and technical support. It works in 4 blocks of Nainital district, 2 blocks of Almora district and 1 block of Bageshwar district.

They run a school in association with the Krishnamurthy Foundation. Also run a shop Kilmora which sells herbs and a variety of woolens like shawls, mufflers, coats, caps etc. I bought a muffler and gifted to a friend who has not stopped thanking me.

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Binsar 2412m
One hour’s drive from Almora is Binsar. Enroute do stop by at the Kasar Devi Temple where , amongst others, Swami Vivekananda meditated. Place has very positive vibrations and a super view.

Make it a point to enter the Binsar Forest Area, drive 11 kms to reach the KMVN hotel. From there walk two kms through dense forests to reach Binsar Point. From here as well as the KMVN hotel you get, probably, the best view of the Himalayan peaks of Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda kot, Panchchuli and the Nepal peaks. On a good day you can see Kedarnath, Badrinath and Gangotri.

On moonlight nights the view of the sparkling peaks is an unforgettable experience. Recommend spend a night at the KMVN hotel.

Even if you are staying outside the forest area make it a point to spend a day at Binsar Point. Take food along with you since the KMVN hotel does not serve ala carte meals. Guides are available to show you the way. The weak hearted might get scared of walking through dense forests with not a soul in sight so taking guide is recommended. Costs Rs 250/.

The walk through the forests and view of peaks was one of the highlights of my trip.

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Jageshwar Jyotirling 1870m
Jageshwar is about an hour’s drive from Almora. It is surrounded by deodhar trees. We reached about 7.30pm and it was freezing. During peak season accommodation is not as easy to find.

It is a cluster of ancient temples from the 8th to 12th century A.D. The complex consists of 124 temples and is famous for its craftsmanship as also for its Swamyambhu Lingam Naagesh. The main temples are dedicated to Maha Mrityunjaya, Mahisasur Mardini, Kedarnath, Surya, Navagraha, Navdurga etc.

Jageshwar is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas and Adi Shankaracharya also meditated here. A km or so before Jageshwar is the Dandeshwar group of temples and about 12 kms away is Vridh Jageshwar (the earlier temple). Do visit both these temples. From the latter you get a very good view of the Himalayan peaks. There is a small hotel there where one can spend a day.

Do visit the highly revered Golu Devata Mandir where devotees make written requests to Golu Devata, some on stamp paper, to make their wishes come true.

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The Yatra ended at Nainital. Inspite of being very crowded recommend two days in Nainital. On day one you can trek to Naini peak (8600 feet) from where you get a great view of Nainital. It takes slightly over an hour and you get a good view of the Himalayan peaks enroute.

All through the trip I ate at small roadside restaurants and never drank mineral water. Not once did I have a stomach problem. I looked for restaurants where husband wife duo cooked – they were invariably the best.

Those who visit Kumaon should be willing to walk and have shoes that support their ankles.

And so ended a trip that I shall remember forever!

The author is a travel photo journalist and founder

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