High up in Uttaranchal, Vaishna Roy discovers one of those secrets the British kept to themselves.
I am fast asleep in the car that’s taking us up to Binsar Valley from the Kathgodam railway station, although I’ve just woken from a perfectly sound sleep on the train itself. Cars do that to me. Every now and then, I wake up and peer blearily at the landscape slipping by. Two things make an impression — the placidly beautiful Bhimtal Lake. And, as we get higher, flashes of a bright red that stab through a landscape that’s getting steadily greener. Later that day, when I am capable again of human interaction, I ask my hosts what the red was. I half suspect I dreamt it but no, I have just missed drinking in one of the most spectacular sights in hill country — the rhododendron in bloom.
I am in Binsar in March, when the rhodos have just come into their blazing own. When, in fact, the entire valley is slowly waking up to Spring. Apple, plum and peach trees glow softly with the palest pink, green and white cotton candy. Oak, deodar and pine surround us, my room has a view of the jagged white teeth of the Kumaoni Himalayas, and everywhere nature is flowering feverishly. The first two days, I leave my camera in the room. I can’t focus on the sights or stories because of my constant fidgeting with settings and lens. But on the last day, out it comes, and it’s just as I feared. I am soon doing my famous impersonation of a Japanese tourist, clicking away madly — flower, fern, view, lichen, moss, view.
The Binsar Valley is one of those secrets, unknown to most except the well-travelled, that the British kept to themselves. In 1988, the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary, which continues to protect the place. The average tourist’s Uttaranchal itinerary is pre-set around the Rishikesh-Badrinath-Kedarnath dhams or the Dehradun-Mussoorie-Nainital hill stations. Strangely, the lovely Binsar gets overlooked. I am not complaining though. It means we see no honeymooning couples in matching tees, no crowds on a mandatory Mall Road, and no hillside spilling over with ugly concrete. In fact, we don’t even get electricity through the day. Instead, the sharp woof of barking deer punctuates our lazy conversations, and we find porcupine quills and leopard pug-marks during our treks.
The superb Puran Singh, our trek guide, brims over with knowledge and amused mockery as we stumble and gasp behind him. He teaches us to chew on rhodo petals for a startling and tangy burst of moisture, and finds medicinal value in almost every leaf. Basking in the warmth of early March, it’s hard to imagine that as lately as mid-February the valley had a severe snowstorm. We see evidence of it everywhere in fallen tree trunks and broken branches. A cedar lies across our path, and Puran shaves off a bit of the white wood and makes us smell its sweet aroma, and we instantly recognise the bath soap back in our rooms.
That’s one of the things I love on this trip. A lot of the flowers and leaves around us end up on our tables or in our beauty routines. I discover lemon verbena tea, a golden brew that comes from a bush just outside our rooms. Wild hill lemons are cooked with jaggery to become Nimbu saan at dinner, and there’s rhodo face cream in our bathrooms. Later in the year, no doubt there will be plum jam and we will dare to eat a peach. For now, the walnut trees are so stark you wouldn’t think they would ever bloom again, but peering closely we find every bare branch tipped with satiny green shoots and buds tinged a dull red.
We are on an ancient pony track that shines silver with the mica. The meandering trek finally reaches Jhanda Dhari, the point from where you get a spectacular view of the snow-capped Himalayas. Puran Singh reels off names like a chant — Trishul, Neelkanth, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba, Mrigdhuni, Chanbhang. The mist suddenly lifts and the classic triangle of Nanda Devi also appears. Now we are done. We collapse on the grassy verge, but our lessons are clearly not done yet. Puran crushes the leaf of a tiny plant and introduces us to the spicy scent of wild oregano.
The next day’s village trek is a longer but gentler walk through some very beautiful country. It takes us to tiny villages with picturesque names like Dhaulchina and Shaukiyatal. At the end, we fall ravenously upon a traditional Kumaoni lunch cooked by a local family who run a guesthouse in a tiny cottage with carved doors. In the garden, a flashing glimpse of red high on a tree turns out to be a woman gathering tender leaves for her cattle. But the highlight of this walk is when we stumble upon a Dhatura bush with its spiky berries. It’s the famous toxic hallucinogen, also called Kanak, the stuff of poetry, witches’ brews and painful suicides.
Intoxication recurs like a leitmotif. One of the main ingredients in the mint chutney and the Nimbu saan is roasted and ground marijuana seeds. The villagers say its bitter-tangy kick is a perfect warm-you-up in the chilly mountains. I am warmed up and more than intoxicated, and the food has nothing to do with it. I blame Binsar instead.
Nearest airport Pantnagar, 150 km; Nearest station Kathgodam, 100 km; Nearest big town Almora, 33 km
Things to do
Visit the ancient Jageshwar Shiva temple complex with 150 shrines in different architectural styles.
Do a village walk for glimpses of Kumaoni art, culture and food.
Try the longer and more challenging Pinari or Milam glacier treks (contact www.oneplanet.co.in)
Things to buy
Munsiyari sheepskin rug or handmade lamb's-wool stole.
Rhodo syrup, plum chutney, cedar oil soaps and apricot scrub from Himjoli, the handicraft shop
Things to eat
Nimbu Saan, a dish of hill lemon and roasted marijuana seeds
Spicy potato and mustard raita at any tea shop (it’s spicy!)
Places to stay
Grand Oak Manor (Rs.8,500 all-inclusive)
KMVN Tourist Rest House (Rs 2,400-3,300 room + 2 meals)
Dalar Eco Camp (Rs.1,500 all-inclusive)
(The writer was a guest of Grand Oak Manor.)