All Hail the Hail Stones!

Less than three weeks after my road trip to Nathuakhan, I hit the road again! Truly, the One above is being kind. So where to this time? The weather is turning warmer and I need to escape to the mountains. But we have just been to Kumaon. Driving on the same roads and seeing the same region is not exciting. The fact that even the hills are sweating now makes the search more excruciating. Apart from Kumaon, we have either Garhwal or Himachal. Garhwal still brings back memories of the devastating landslides & floods that hit it last year. Himachal, of course, is a tad too far away.

After days of Googling, I chance upon a place called Kanatal. Sounds suspiciously like Nainital, Bhimtal etc. However, surprisingly, it is neither in Kumaon nor has a ‘tal’ (lake). It is located in Garhwal, quite close to the Tehri dam. The weather here seems salubrious, and it seems away from the hustle-bustle of the typical hill stations. With a belief in what Paulo Coelho said, “Everything that happens once can never happen again”, we opt for Kanatal.

Three of N’s friends are keen to head out too. It is a long weekend for all. And, well, there is no reason needed to holiday. But now I have to find a place to stay- something that fits in with my new-found love for homestays. There are not too many options in Kanatal. The most appealing property, The Terraces, is also quite expensive. I do not have the inclination to splurge. When you take as many holidays as I do, you do need to keep it frugal. The other options I get are of camps. A big no! Probably in the ninth or tenth search result on Google throws up the name of Saur Cottages. Hmm! Sounds interesting!

So Saur Cottages are a homestay-like accommodation run by DueNorth, a group promoting tourism adventure in Uttarakhand. They aim to foster rural development, heritage communities and local crafts in the natural environment. The Cottages are located in Saur Village, which is about five kilometers from Chamba on the road that leads to Tehri dam. The cottages themselves are restored ‘pahari’ (mountain) houses with extensive use of bamboo, mud, stone & wood. When I see the pictures online, I know this is where I want to stay.

A different car this time- Mahindra XUV 500- picks us up & then proceeds to pick two others. By the time we leave NCR, it is almost 9 am. The roads are buzzing with activity already and we know it is going to be a long day, long drive. There seems to be no national highway as we drive from Ghaziabad to Muzaffarnagar to Meerut. The towns overlap and we continue to drive amongst buses, bullock carts and cycle rickshaws. It is only the promise of what awaits us in Uttarakhand that keeps us energized. The roads are fairly bad too. I have vented enough about the disaster that Uttar Pradesh is; hope the new central government, having got a decisive mandate in UP, will do some to improve the situation. Interestingly, our big car, XUV 500, manages to be a small car in front of all the Safaris, Innovas, and Sumos & Endeavors. Of course, for most of UP, a car has to go with one’s physical/ political clout. Party names and symbols of the Bahujan Samaaj Party and the Samaajwaadi Party are proudly flaunted. Most of the people inside these large cars are men. Most of these men look evil. I would not want to be left alone after dark in any part of this state.

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Pic 1: A small waterfall on the way to Saur

Travelling with four boys, I have pretty much zoned myself out as they speak of cars, cricket, gadgets & their old college days. I have my book for company but a fairly boring one. I look out of the window to the children playing in the mud, the village elders having their ‘chaupal’ under the banyan tree, the village women going about their daily chores. In the midst of this, a few brand names dominate the semi-urban and rural landscapes- Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Aircel, Airtel, Idea and Vodafone. It is good to see these MNCs penetrating ‘Bhaarat’.

Entering Uttarakhand always brings a smile on my face. It is then surprising to myself that till I married N, I had not ventured to Uttarakhand, except for a solitary trip to Nainital. I cross the Ganges at Haridwar with a silent prayer on my lips. I see hundreds of vehicles parked- a lot of folks are washing away their sins. Onwards to Rishikesh, I ask N to show me where he used to come for his river-rafting. I keep encouraging myself to take the plunge but I am too much of a chicken for this. Maybe, in another life…

The road till Rishikesh has been jam-packed. It seems a whole section of NCR is off to river-rafting. It eases up after Rishikesh. Three of the boys have their Google Maps open. All three give contradictory directions. It is quite amusing. I do not involve myself. I enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Once we cross Chamba, we keep our eyes open as a narrow road takes us to the Saur Village. If we continue on the main road, we will end up in Badrinath. Not sure if I am feeling so religious right now! The narrow road comes under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana- One of the few that have been built and wonderfully so. While it is a one-lane road, there is no traffic on it. It culminates in the village, and sees perhaps four-five vehicles a day. Consequently, it is in great shape too.

About 12 kilometers on this road brings us to the very pit of the valley. Nestled amongst lush green terrace farms & protected by mountains on all sides, sits pretty the picturesque village of Saur. It was a forgotten village, abandoned by its inhabitants and dying a slow death, before DueNorth took it up and started the restoration work. DueNorth has restored one of the village homes to a set of cottages where tourists can stay. Additionally, it works to improve the livelihood of the village people, specifically women, through local produce & handicraft.

At almost the end of the road, we leave the car and walk down to the cottages. This walk is a descent through vegetable gardens and I can already feel a part of the place. It is dusk and night will be upon us swiftly. We peep into the cottage that is to be our home for the next two days. It is rustic in every sense and in a good way. Orange-colored with wooden frames supporting it and a roof thatched with bamboo, the cottage has two bedrooms, a kitchen and a sit out. Descending to the basement brings us to a large bathroom, the size of which is comparable to a flat in Mumbai! The rooms have mellow lighting and furniture made of bamboo and pine. Innumerable blankets are plopped on the beds; so we know it is going to get cold.

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Pic 2: The cottage lit up in a mellow yellow light

The Cottage In-Charge greets us. I end up chatting with her about my travel to Jeolikot, Dhanachuli and Nathuakhan. She tells me about her work with the village women, teaching them to use pine needles in crafting products. Meanwhile, the boys waste no time in getting down to business. After my chat, I pull out my shawl and book, and settle in. It is getting quite cold and true to myself, I am enjoying it. Dinner is a hearty fare of rice, dal, chapatti and two vegetables. And then, a blissful sleep!

Day two is when we intend to head to the Tehri dam. I have heard a lot about it, especially how it saved lives during the floods of June 2013. And prior to that, the extensive debate on it being a threat to the environment and it displacing people from their homes. Well, there will always be two sides to any story. I do not have an opinion. I just want to see the architectural marvel that it is.

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Pic 3: The River blocked in its path by the Tehri dam

After a breakfast of ‘aloo paratha’ and bread-omelet, we start off for the dam. It is on the Badrinath road and probably forty-five minutes away. Close to the site, we start seeing the sparkling blue water. It reminds me of our first glimpse of Pangong Tso. Our excitement had known no limit. It is almost the same this time. Turning around curves, we inch closer to the dam. At the same time, the temperature is dropping furiously and it has started drizzling. None of us have raincoats and at best, flimsy sweaters.

At the gate of the dam, we are stopped. We do not have the permit to go inside. Such a dampener! But there are other tourists and they plead their way in. We are happy to follow suit. We are told by security to just go till the bridge and return. We are almost freezing now. The wind is harsh and the rain is soaking through our sweaters to chill our bones. At the bridge, unfortunately, the dam gates are closed currently. So on one side is the water filled to the brim, and on the other side is the machinery visible for us to see how the water runs its course.

After shivering for a few minutes and being scolded by the security guard at the second check post, we head back. It has been a good visit. We are assured of the good work being done by Tehri. Last year, the dam stopped the river from unleashing its fury on Rishikesh and Haridwar. At least, some damage prevented. I shudder getting reminded of those images on television. But I do not blame nature. It is wholly and solely the folly of human beings. If you usurp what belongs rightfully to Mother Nature, she will stake its claim sooner or later.

So what is the plan for lunch folks? The thought of The Terraces comes to our mind. We could not stay there due to it being prohibitively expensive but we can certainly have lunch there. So we find The Terraces on Google Maps and drive on. About 20 kilometers from Tehri dam but in a different direction is the town called Kanatal. It is high up in the mountains and experiences snowfall in winters. The legend says there used to be a ‘tal’ (lake) here but now it is dried up.

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Pic 4: Little hailstones dotting our path

The Terraces is certainly a beautiful property. Perched high on the mountain, it commands a view of many peaks. Unfortunately, it is clouded and raining, and we are unable to view any of them. A sumptuous lunch in the warm restaurant wards off the cold for us. The best is the chicken noodle soup- tasty and warm. The boys predictably want to eat Indian. What is it with men and their stickiness for the known?

The best is yet to happen. I can feel it, though it is impossible to feel anything beyond the cold. On our way back to Saur, we see vehicles covered in a layer of white. We are undoubtedly excited. Just a little ahead, we discover the secret. It is raining hailstones. Or should I say it is hailing cats and dogs? Hail stones as big as pebbles hit our card, making a metallic sound. Hail stones as small as grains of rice flutter into our outstretched palms. I have not seen a more spectacular spectacle. The road is covered in sheets of white, making the path a tad slippery.

I felt this excited when I encountered snow for the first time, i.e., last year en route Khardungla. I sense the same flutter of excitement. The road covered in white brings about a sense of awe. There is a renewed respect for nature. How easily nature transforms water to ice, to snow, to vapor, to mist-each with its own beauty! Moreover, how easily we plain-wallahs get excited seeing snow and ice. The mountain folks are probably sick and tired of these but we transform into kids. We slow down and take in the spectacle as me move along. We click pictures to capture this for eternity. However, more than the pictures, it is the memory that will keep us company.

As we descend into the valley to get to our cottage, the hail stones start disappearing. They convert to a drizzle rather. The sky has opened up and the valley is a mixture of green and white- green where the water has washed off the dust, and white where the hail stones have settled. This is a brilliant time to click photographs. The temperature is also dropping rapidly. By night, it is 3 degrees Celsius. We are unprepared for this kind of cold. I snuggle into the bed under two layers of blankets. It is our last night here and the shower of hail stones has truly made our holiday worthwhile.

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Pic 5: Our breakfast spot

I also shop today! The small room beneath our cottage has the handicraft goods created by the village women. Pine needles earrings, baskets, table mats, table runners, cloth dolls, cloth key chains- it is an interesting assortment but is clearly the work of people who are still learning. The finish is not that great but given the softy I am, I end up buying quite a few things. Of course, N is furious!

The morning gives no hint of the weather the night before. It is bright, sunny and warm! It is time to return- to monotony, to the daily grind, to the banal existence. Holidays should be the rule, not the exception. Well, I should not complain. I take holidays at every opportunity I get. One last magic awaits us before the road ends. On our way back, with the sky completely devoid of clouds, we see an entire Himalayan range, sparkling a brilliant white. We had murmured that sitting in the valley, we had missed out on ‘views’. But here they are- tall, grand, gleaming, white, covered with layers and layers of snow, and inviting. Sigh! I wait for my next tryst with snow.

I have not travelled much in Garhwal but if I had to recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights, it will be something as below:

Delhi-Mussoorie-Saur Village-Delhi

Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Mussoorie by tea time. Spend the night at Pine Hill exploring the premises, specially the club, reading at the library or sipping a local brew in the sit out

Day 2: Spend the day sightseeing or trekking. Mussoorie is a little overrated but once in a while, it is okay to be a part of the hype!

Day 3: Checkout and head to Saur. Check in at Saur Cottages. Take a walk around and experience village life at its best

Day 4: After breakfast, head to Tehri dam. Good to get a permit beforehand. Head to Kanatal from Tehri and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the yet-undiscovered hill station. Back to Saur for dinner

Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter in Mussoorie and Kanatal, so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Thukpa soup at Mussoorie; Rhododendron juice anywhere

Recommended buys: Shawls & stoles from Mussoorie, pine needle decorations from Saur

My next holiday is in sight but not anytime soon. Will it be the beaches of Goa or chugging up the hills on the Kalka-Shimla toy train? You will know soon!

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