The trip was planned only a day before the departure. Clueless about what to do in the short winter vacations [Remember, We all are teachers] we finalized a car trip to Binsar. So it was decided, I, my wife, my son and my two friends were going to Binsar the next day [or night to be precise].Some of the reasons behind zeroing upon the place were – a long car drive of about 1000 Kilo meters from Lucknow to Binsar and back, nearly 500 kilo meters of which was going to be in the hills touching the altitude of 2600 meters from sea level [Binsar is nearly 8500 ft from sea level] and none of us had an experience of driving at high altitudes.
I got my car washed and serviced and made sure that the packing was compact as the boot space of the car was not that huge so as to accommodate the luggage of warm clothing of five individuals.
Once again we started at midnight [I don’t know why I always give in to that suggestion]. The drive to Sitapur [80 Kms] was a smooth one and understandably so because it is a toll road but there after till Lakhimpur Kheri [another 40 Kms] and beyond was relatively bumpy. The stretch was lonely and devoid of any traffic [Reminder, we were driving at night] except for occasional sighting of small distant fires in the pitch black night. More than the sight it was the smell that confirmed the ongoing process of melting of jaggery in the nearby fields.
By the time we reached Gola Gokaran Nath it was late in the night and the streets were deserted except for some trucks or tractors that would pass by.. Suddenly there was a thick fog as we were crossing the forest areas. I was reluctant to carry on and suggested that we should wait knowing very well that the fog won’t clear in a short time but my friends had other ideas. So we kept driving relying heavily on the car lights and horns. The road markings and the tail lights of vehicles ahead helped us too.
Luckily the fog lasted for about half an hour or so. We reached Pilibhit and continued towards Tanakpur. At dawn we were at Tanakpur and I thanked God and my friends for seeing us through the heavy weather. As we entered the foothills, our eyes were laden with sleep but the clear sight of the rising sun had its mesmerizing effect. The drowsiness was all gone and had given way to a new freshness.
My son, as expected, started to have nausea feeling and there was a strong need felt among all the group members for a halt. After going through another 76 Kms of twists and turns we decided to give ourselves and our car a lengthy and much needed rest at Champawat. We chose a newly constructed Shiva Residency Hotel on the main road for our stay.
It was a blessing in ignorance. Champawat, a small but an important town of Uttarakhand that lies on NH-125 that connects Khatima to Pithoragarh, is nestled amidst thick forest and at a height of 1650 mts gives a panoramic view of the lower Himalayas. It also has some historical relevance as it was the capitol of Chand rulers. 10 minutes walk took us to Baleshwar temple that is dedicated to Lord Shiva.
The thing that appealed to me the most was the soulful calmness of the place. Sitting in the hotel lawn and watching the monkeys play I could clearly hear the rhythmic rattle of motor engines of the occasional auto or scooter that would pass by the road that was about a kilometer far. The cool breeze, the smoke rising up from far off houses announcing lunch being cooked, the hill slopes covered with green, the bright sun shine and big orange lemons hanging of small green lemon trees scattered all around. What else one can presuppose of a dream stay?
The food at Champawat is cheap but delicious. We had lunch at a road side dhaba, enjoyed chicken soup at Rs. 20, tasted bal mithai [a local sweet of evaporated milk solids with tiny sugar balls sticking to it], strolled in the main market and even purchased a woolen jacket at Rs. 1000 [excellent deal at $18]. We had dinner at the hotel.
After a good night rest we started off for Binsar via Almora along NH-309A. My friend had been on the wheels since the hilly terrain began. The reason behind was that he was the only one who had driven, although only a little, in the hills before. Encouraged by the fact that the road was devoid of any traffic whatsoever I expressed my desire to drive my car for the very first time on the mountains.
Once in the driver’s seat my admiration and the joy increased manifolds. With my son on the front seat and his nausea all long forgotten and the thick cover of oak and deodar trees along the route we all were exclaiming praiseworthy adjectives for the serenity of the nature. The only thing missing were the food joints or the road side dhabas. Upon sighting one we had scrambled eggs and bread enroute.
It was 4 pm by the time we reached Almora. Almora City: Perched at around 1800 mts in between a small crust of two hillocks it gets its name from a small plant named Kilmora. It is also known as the cultural heart of Kumaon.
We were hungry by now and were frantically looking for a good restaurant but we realized that we have crossed the whole of Almora main market searching for a parking space which we could not find. We found a small Chinese restaurant at the fag end of the market and as the saying goes beggars can’t be choosers we decided to satisfy our hungry stomachs there only.
We ate to the satisfaction of our appetites. The Maggie and the Chowmein were a delight to our eyes as well as to our taste buds. The Coffee though was much more of chocolate milk but all this at Rs. 410 [around $7] add to it the smiles and love of the person serving it was an astonishing experience.
Luckily, we could see the road to Binsar climbing right in front of the restaurant and with only 22 kms it was presumed to be an hours drive only but we were at the gate of the Binsar forest reserve in about half an hour with 10 kms yet to be covered. We were told by the old man at the gate that the entry is not allowed after 5 pm. He also told us about an HPTDC hotel at the top inside the reserve but we decided to stay somewhere outside [a wise decision given the fact that they were quite expensive].
I had assumed Binsar to be a small town but it is just a forest reserve with only couple of expensive hotels inside. There is nothing around and at that moment it felt as if we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. The old man came to our rescue and advised us to go to Deenapani which is about 7 or 8 kms and stay in any one of the many hotels and rest houses there. Without wasting any time we turned back and soon came across hotel Dolma at Kasar Devi.
Surprisingly the hotel was along the main road and rooms were reasonably priced [Rs. 800 per night]. Not luxurious but they were tidy [not very clean though]. The food was good too but the best part was that the rooms opened towards east and that gave some beautiful view of sunrise, a delight for camera lovers. The hotel owner and staff is quite friendly. Their arrangement of bonfire in the compound of the hotel was exemplary.
Next day, after offering our morning prayers at Kasar Devi temple, which was adjacent to our hotel, we set off for Binsar. The tickets costed us Rs. 150 each. The next 10 kms drive is a steep incline through dense forest. Some patches of the drive were literary scary but luckily we made it through. I must admit I might have chickened out because at one place our tyres did give us a slip because of the incline. We took an hour to reach the Tourist Rest House of KMVN from where 3 Kms trek route originates.
The forest trail is scenic and thick cover of trees adds to the splendid view. Word of caution, go to Binsar if you wish to love serenity and nature. Do not expect even a chance sighting of any wildlife, big or small. Not even Birds though the locals never tire of telling you that they have seen a leopard on the prowl a day before.
Only the silence and solace stands out at Binsar. The zero point, which is the end of the trail, does give you a good but distant view of snowcapped mountains. This year being the hottest ever, we felt robbed because forget the snow even the chill was missing in the air as we stood atop Zero Point at the height of 2600 meters from the sea level.
The descent was relatively comfortable. We decided to enjoy one more evening at Hotel Dolma because of its food and the bonfire that they lit every night in the courtyard. Another fact, they do not sell alcohol nor is there any shop nearby and never ever purchase it in black because it won’t be good enough. We found this out the hard way. The evening we spent seeing the nearby zoo which was 3 Kilo meters downhill. Late night was fun sitting under the star lit sky, enjoying the fire and listening to exaggerated tales of wild animals, unnatural happenings and snowfall that happens in that area [we never experienced any].
Next morning we were heading home this time taking the Almora, Bhowali, Bareilly, Sitapur route to Lucknow. We purchased the Bal Mithai from Almora as the sweet is not available anywhere else. After 13 hours drive we were back home safe and with pleasant memories.