I just came back from a trip to Uttarakhand, the land of the Gods or Dev Bhoomi. The Himalayas may not have anything special if I compare it to the Alps but what makes the difference is the spirituality of the places and its links with Indian mythology. Here are the sources of the Ganges, the sacred mountain of Nanda Devi and then the Kailash, the Indian Olympus, which is a little higher up in Tibet.
I like best the world seen from above and in particular I like to watch it from the top of the mountains. I am here in Uttarakhand, where I see exemplary Himalayan peaks of the likes of Nanda Devi which, which with the 7817 meters of height, is the second highest mountain in India.
Most treks in Uttarakhand are quite easy and offer a vast amount of different landscapes and views. The Uttarakhand trek that I carry out is starting from 2300 mt to reach the 4000 mt of the Chandrashila peak. We sleep in tents and in areas where we camp there is no electricity, nor water other than the natural one of the streams.
Day 1: Mussoorie
After Pushkar, its multiple temples and its colors, we decide to change our route. Until now we have never retreated and faced the alleys. We did not take refuge in the big boulevards and the big tourist hotels. But at the end of the trip, it becomes very difficult to live.
But we continue to travel closer to the premises. So we change the stage of Benares and opt for a break and decide to go to the North to breathe clean air of course. After a night by bus, we arrive in the early morning at Dehradun. About twenty kilometers before Dehradun, the Ganges plain ends and the road rises in the first hills of Shivalik. We take a minibus. Crossing Dehradun is quite difficult with heavy traffic. After a winding road, we climb to the peaks.
At an average altitude of 2,000 meters, Mussoorie is surrounded by green hills. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, about 30 kilometers from Dehradun, the city is known as Queen of the Hills. We arrive by a bright sun and are amazed by the discovery of snowy expanses. The name Mussoorie is often attributed to a derivation of mansoor, a shrub from the area. The Dalai Lama established the Tibetan government in exile in Mussoorie before shifting to Dharamsala.
The city is reminiscent of other hill resort towns in colonial India like Shimla, Darjeeling and others. As usual, first we start looking for a guest house. We find without difficulty a rather nice colonial hotel with a superb view of the Himalayan range. I take a hot shower quickly, with a freezing temperature outside. After a good breakfast we go to get a closer look at the mountainous horizons.
We drive to the former residence of George Everest, 6 km west of the city by winding roads. We find it in full fog, abandoned and it's a bit gloomy. From the hill of Gun Hill, which we finally climb in the heat, the slope is steep. The summit is at 2350m. We see dozens of snowy peaks. The mists of heat do not allow a very clear visibility for the photos. This trek has heated us enough.
We try another point of view. After walking about 5 km on foot we climb a path that leads us to a beautiful panorama on the Himalayan range. It is a place of sublime beauty. Before me is the intoxicating void of a deep valley surrounded by snowy peaks in the distance. It's breathtaking. Sitting on my rock, I stay there long moments, won by intense emotion. After the desert, it's another great moment of indescribable emotion.
On the way back, I decide to continue the ride alone and climb a path that leads me to a village made of sheet metal barracks. A woman sees me in the mountain. I am greeted with big smiles. The sound of my presence circulates and soon a whole group of children and women are around me, probably intrigued that someone comes to see them.
They ask me the usual questions of where I come from and my name. They give me a chair. They prepare for me a chai. It was a very touching moment. They even offer me the homemade momo to eat. As the night arrives soon I start my return journey. Children accompany me to leave their camp and show me an easier path to find the road.
In the evening there was a sudden drop in temperatures. Fortunately the hotel has quilts and blankets and a room heater. We take shelter under the duvet early. It will take me several hours to warm up anyway.
Day 2: Sari
The night was cool. We leave Mussoorie at 08:00 to the east by the SH 8 road. It is a beautiful mountain road, narrow and winding. It crosses several villages but our main interest lies in the forest landscapes when the fog rises. 25 km after Mussoorie we cross the small tourist town of Dhalnoti. 2 or 3 km further, we leave the car for a short walk in the forest, always in the fog but with beautiful tropical species of altitude.
Continuing east, we descend in the early afternoon to Chamba where we take the NH 94 to the south which leads us to Rishikesh. Here I meet my guide who will accompany me on this trek in Uttarakhand. In the car we move towards Sari the point from where the trek begins. We have to travel for 7 hours. The roads are quite tortuous and sometimes impassable, but the scenery is spectacular.
We stop at Devprayag, a historic city located at the confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river. We reach the village of Sari and without losing time we take an uphill road. Here begins the trek to the first stage that will be the Deoria Tal lake.
The route is completely uphill at times with stone staircases, sometimes through rocks and roots of trees. It is not easy, but I am helped by the scenic beauty that I admire while walking. There are valleys entirely cultivated from which emerge small houses with some cows and goats.
The road is very narrow and make the journey slower. Then there are the continuous mountain side stops to let the cows and shepherds pass by with their livestock. After a last narrow path and then suddenly the space before me opens and is dominated by a lake that leaves me speechless.
We arrived at Deoria Tal Lake. I remain a little stunned to see so much beauty and then I lie down on the ground, on the grass and do a little stretching. I run to bath in the stream before the sun drops. We then start putting our tent.
As evening descends we have hot tea with biscuits under the stars. These are the most beautiful moments, those in which I pull out my strongest emotions and share the joy of being in a place like this.
After dinner I sit down a bit on the lake with the others. Despite the darkness, with extreme ease I take a beautiful picture with the phone, which I will often return to admire. There is no electricity, no internet, just us and our torches. I close the tent curtain and fall asleep. Tomorrow begins a new stage.
Day 3: Chopta
The alarm rings at 06.30. Without thinking too much, as soon as I open my eyes the first thing I do is to jump out of the sleeping bag. I get out of the tent and see the lights of dawn that touches the Himalayan peaks. The show is unique. It reminds me of what I saw in Nepal years ago.
The team that accompanies us on this trek has already prepared breakfast. We disassemble the tents and we leave for this second stage with our destination being Chopta. It is a gradual trek, perhaps the most demanding of the 4 days, but the views of the surrounding landscapes are worth the effort.
We pass through a thick forest and immediately after beautiful alpine meadows to my surprise I see different types of flowers. Along the way our guide tells me about the places he has seen. What he tells is magnificent as just hearing about it makes me shiver with emotion, let alone live it in person!
I'm happy with this conversation. I do not know why but when I walk in the mountains and talk to someone, sharing is stronger. I speak differently, and do it with a different intensity. The mountain makes this effect to me as it frees me.
Traveling is sometimes difficult, when it rains, but offers the opportunity to breathe the smells of the earth. In the endless stops for a chai, I met dozens of people, from peasants wearing beautiful jewels to pilgrims and Sikh devotees with orange turbans going to the shrine of Hemkund.
And then I see many students on vacation or fleeing the heat of the city or middle class families with Maruti, who reminded me of the outings of my childhood in the mountains. But the most beautiful encounters were with the sadhus, who do the Char Dham trek on foot, with the Trishul as a stick, a blanket on his shoulders and the metal mess tin in his hand. One of them was wrapped in a leopard-skin cloth.
We arrive at Chopta and we camp. At night we have a hot meal near our tent and then we start the game that best suits the situation to play antakshari. We had a blast! Those are the moments that I will always remember! I then go straight to the tent to sleep, because tomorrow we have to go higher.
Day 4: Chandrashila Peak
Today we wake up really early at half past five. We must reach the summit in time to see the panoramic view of the high Himalayan peaks. This last part of the trek in Uttarakhand is mainly a gradual climb through the dwarf rhododendron bushes. I admire most of the important Himalayan peaks of Garhwal. I see the Chandrashila peak, Nanda Devi, Kedarnath, Trishul, and Bandarpoonch.
During the journey one of the important stops is at the stop at the Tungnath Temple dedicated to Shiva. It is a temple that is among the most important in the area. The journey is still uphill, and the temple seems far away. My guide friend tells me a legend of Pandavas, Shiva and Parvati linked to this temple, which is a bit strange but interesting.
As the story ends, he points out to me that the temple is visible from a distance. I always see better the shape and the many fluttering Tibetan flags. I hear the first tolling of the bell at the entrance, which everyone does as a sign of blessing. There is in front of me, an even steeper climb of twenty meters and an arch with the bell.
I ring the bell and enter a small hall dominated by this temple. There is silence. There is recollection. Each of us lives the moment with its intensity. I sit at the edge of the temple where I have wonderful peaks in front. I look as far as possible. I want to get more and more to the remoteness!
We continue the journey, higher and higher. At 4000 meters we reach our destination. The final stage of this trek, the highest and most exciting is the Chandrashila peak. We are high up. Around us nothing and nobody prevents us from admiring an extraordinary show.
The majesty of the Indian Himalayas is all here for us! I start to turn on myself at 360 degrees without stopping and dreaming. On this peak there is a stone above which is placed a small statue of about 10 cm of Hanuman, a monkey-like Indian spirit. It is colored with orange powder, the same with which our guide mark us on the forehead as a sign of protection and blessing.
We resume our journey back to Chopta. As we reach tired in the evening a hot snack awaits us as always. At night we have an excellent dinner and we have a last night of party spent together in the tent.
Day 5: Almora
I wake up another time here in the heights of the Himalayas. I do not want to leave and above all I want to get a little higher, where the world looks even better. In a typically cultural and spiritual journey, the trek only does me good and give me the right charge and drive to deal with the following days once again with an open heart.
I know it's not the last time I see these mountains, I know it's not goodbye. Here I'm fine. Here the world is how I like it. Before getting into the car and getting to Nainital, I lie down and look at the world from above and with the nose up. I see the sky supports the earth. I feel that my heart really beats!
Today our road follows until Chamoli and goes without incidents but it is slow. It takes us 4 hours to reach the small town of Karnaprayag after 100 km of road. Despite the accumulated delay, we decided to go through Nainital as we had planned and branch south-east along the NH 87E road.
It is a very narrow road that sinks into almost deserted wooded valleys. It is not unpleasant but the night arrives and the question of the lodging starts to be posed with acuity. While the mountains visited so far were touristy and well-stocked in hotels, it's not the same here. We arrive at the village of Adibadri.
A surprise awaits us in a few seconds. There is a beautiful old temple with several small pavilions. We have lunch mid-slope to enjoy a little more of the cool mountains. We leave for Ranikhet that takes place in a succession of hills. Some are covered with forest and quite deserted. However, there are also many villages surrounded by terraced fields.
A new good surprise awaits at the village of Dwarahat. We see two temples of the 11th century of Mrityunjaya and Badrinath. After reaching Ranikhet, the road then becomes wider. It remains rugged, through hills where pine and eucalyptus dominate.
We arrive in Almora and the smell is immediately unmistakable of marijuana! It certainly does not put a bad mood! From here we also clearly see the high mountains peaks, but the clouds of the monsoons allow us only for a few minutes, leaving us still open-mouthed. We visited a small temple where Vivekananda spent time meditating.
From Almora we move to Jageshwar. Here, in a very mystical 7th century temple, surrounded by smoke and fog among gigantic pines, we witness the sacred rites, surrounded by monkeys. I must say that it is quite impressive. In the midst of these gigantic Himalayan cedars, there was this tangle of small and large buildings of worship within the general enclosure. All in stone often covered with moss, generally with a square plan (sometimes with a small atrium, the large ones) with a high dome-shaped pyramid shaped roof over it, with a strange round gable on top.
Behind the fence was a really gigantic double cedar, and a column of smoke rising up beside him. Inside the fence a lot of people, walking, doing ceremonies, trying to get us involved, knotting a string bracelet. In the enclosure, between small and large, there are more than hundred buildings. They all have the same square-based shape, but there are one-and-a-half meter high ones and 15-meter ones. The decorations are fascinating, and I took a lot of photos.
But what cannot be photographed is the overall fascination of this place with the forest in the background. We see the gray color of the rock, with all the bright colors of women's clothes, the smells, the sounds of the ceremonies (drums, bells, chanting voices). The collective involvement ends up taking us so much that at a certain point I feel almost suffocating, as if I had reached the saturation of the senses. The overall effect is still that of a strangely engaging cacophony.
After making friends with a family, I am asked to be married to the daughter. I smile and thank, but I go on my way. When we left from this labyrinth of temples, we entered a restaurant. Then we left the village to go see the other temple, the only temple of the ninth century. A much smaller enclosure, with just a dozen buildings. But there was almost no one there.
Another charm, but also that very appreciable. And then, does anyone know if it is just a coincidence that the decorations of these temples have various points of contact with the decorations of the temples of the Maya? It must be a coincidence, but the likeness, here and there, is not small.
We reach Almora around evening. We ride it unfortunately in bad conditions by a thick fog. The streets are very narrow and the smallest square centimeter is occupied. Here it is all green with woods and meadows, even though everything is rather steep, and the streams are rivers.
I reach the hotel, a country guest house with few western guests. There's a small party. More western boys have arrived from nearby guest houses. There is a nice climate. The smoke flies. About ten kilometers from Almora there is a place called Kasar Devi, which has attracted foreigners for over a century. Kasar Devi and Almora were a bit like Rishikesh where the Beatles retreated between drugs and holy men.
Day 6: Kausani
This morning at 8 am the clouds finally broke, and we saw, down there, the great whitewashed peaks, those between 7000 and 8000 meters. We took the usual shared taxi and move towards Kausani. Our first stop is the nearby Baijnath, along a road immersed in a thick forest mostly coniferous. Here is a complex of temples of the ninth century, which I expected to be similar to that of Jageswar.
Unfortunately it was much smaller, and less exciting. The group of temples of Baijnath stands next to the river Gomti and the buildings are made of stone. They were built in spire, in Nagara style, between the ninth and twelfth centuries. The main attraction of the group is the temple dedicated to Shiva, the Pancharatha Temple, with inside a large stone statue of Parvati, surrounded by 26 sacred images.
Inside the Pancharatha Temple, an old Indian woman is celebrating the ritual of water, a ceremony that also takes place here, as in Almora, during this period. The woman lights incense and turns it with her hands, turning herself around a large jug of water hanging from the ceiling; at the bottom of the container there is a small hole from which a drop comes out that wets the inserted grass.
The woman pours several buckets of water onto a kind of big metal lie that lies beneath the hanging sacred container. At the end of the ritual, throws some rice both on the Parvati statue and around the large pitcher. I walk on foot the two Kilometers that separate Baijnath from Garur. I walk along the main road that follows the river path in parallel. The main part of Garur develops on a hill and the central street is animated by numerous shops and stalls.
I go in the direction of Rudradhari Temple. At the entrance of the deviation from the main road I get on a collective taxi that leads me to the beginning of the path to the sacred place. People who live in houses scattered on the hills, among the terraces planted with wheat, potatoes and legumes, travel on the taxi.
Along the way, at times appears the enchanting scenery of the expanses of wheat in the different stages of maturation, which moved by the wind continuously change color depending on the direction in which they sway. There is a priest on the staircase that goes down to the temple.
He is busy sweeping the dried leaves that have fallen from the trees. When he sees me he goes to sit on the floor, next to the altar, the place from which he distributes the sign of Shiva on the visitors' forehead. I go back to the village and along the path I meet a young couple of Indian tourists accompanied by a local guide.
Farther down, on the same side there are other grazing cows. I stop at the restaurant in the village where the path to the temple begins. Here there is no choice for lunch except that of the spaghetti noodles in an envelope with some fresh vegetable inside. Walk for about 3 Kilometers along the road that leads to tea cultivations. In this area there are several shops that sell both tea and other local products including rhododendron jams and juices, dried tulsi leaves, body creams, shawls, rugs, jackets and woolen fabrics.
Missing the bus by a hair, we go again by taxi to Bageshwar. There is an even smaller temple there though it is fascinating too. There's nothing more to do and it's still noon. But the last bus has already left, and there are no taxis going there. So, we return towards Almora. We can easily find the shared taxi, but the journey seems to never end, with holes and streams. At least it's not hot.
We stop at Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, located at the top of the Jhandi Dhar Hills. Among the green stand out, numerous, large rhododendron plants in bloom that in the area are used for packaging jams and in homeopathic medicine. We pay, enter and walk. After a couple of hours of walking we arrive at a small temple of Shiva. A lady is also sitting there, with a distinct look. She greets us with an unusual greeting, and we start talking to her. She tells us that the temple is from the 14th century, and that she is the owner of a resort, almost at the top of the mountain.
We drive to the resort to have lunch. There they immediately offer water, then a tea, and then, after a while, a great lunch. We see a beautiful but much more spartan luxurious villa above, with a view of the great peaks. On the way back we make a detour to get to the top of the mountain, and we almost lose ourselves.
It was a real emotion to retrace these same paths on foot and see those same landscapes, even though in this season we do not see the snowy peaks and rhododendrons are not in bloom.
We continue walking around the top of the hill and reach the Zero Point, where there is a high building from which you can admire the peaks of the Himalayas: the Kedarnath Peach, the Shivling, the Trisul and the Nanda Devi. There is an intense energy up here and a silence interrupted only by the song of some birds.
The pine is dry and the mountains look autumnal, a bit sad. I was completely alone in the woods, strangely silent, not even the birdsong, just the rustle of the wind and the sound of my boots on the dry leaves. Every so often I stop to listen as I believe I have heard the roar of the tiger. The rhododendron trees around are enchanting. Every now and then I stop to pick up the big red flowers fallen on the dirt road. We take the car that take us home. I walk and follow the road of the market, deviate to another climb and arrival at Nanda Devi Temple, dedicated to Shiva.
We have chosen to be in a town in Paparsali, three kilometers from the city, of Almora, in a kind of community tourism. People are quiet, gentle and smiling. The women under the long black hair and their timidity hide a well-known force of a mountain woman. The millet and rice fields are filled with colors.
The fabrics that women wear reveal their body hidden behind the plants in full mowing season. Rice and mill beans are raised from the ground and transported to the era. Located fifty feet away, I see this wonderful show in which women are the protagonists, from the field to the table.
The Himalayas welcomed me with the most extraordinary ceremony of nature. The limpid mountains up to Nepal, the blue sky and the moon first as a white tissue paper, then phosphorescent, grandiose, like an insoluble jewel. The pines and the cedars became black, the orange sky, then violet, the valley was silent and the silence was broken only by the distant barking of the dogs. What a welcome!
At sunset we go on the hill where is the ancient Kasar Devi temple, carved halfway into the rock and dating back to 2000 years ago. From up here, we can admire a splendid panorama. On one side is the hills of the Hawabagh Valley and in the distance the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. On the other side we can enjoy the view over the city of Almora.
There are very many guest houses scattered along a path that reaches up to a stream; they are all perched on a hill that opens onto a splendid panorama towards the Himalayas. Kasar Devi is immersed in a forest composed mostly of pines and firs planted by the British during the colonial period. In the late evening we walk to the most central part of the village characterized by a multitude of hotels, guest houses, restaurants and a series of small grocery stores.
Day 7: Nainital
I leave to Bhowali and from there take the bus to Nainital, a well known and beautiful site around a volcanic lake. The bus descends from the hill and reaches a flat area mainly cultivated with wheat, onions and potatoes. We are in Someswar, a commercial town with the sides of the streets animated by shops and stalls. The bus stops for a long time here, on the square. Down below we can see the water flowing from a river with the beginning of a long staircase of terraces cultivated with rice, wheat, potatoes, courgettes, vegetables and alfalfa.
The road goes back into the forest and then comes down again; one arrives at a low plain with expanses of ripe wheat and among the spikes numerous women who are cutting it with a sickle. Further on, a group of sheaves appears, with the straw of the past season, arranged around the trunks of the trees.
We arrive in the Binsar forest that many times I walked on when I was in Kasar Devi. I get excited when I see the road signs indicating the village and the town of Almora. It is still about 60 kilometers to Bhowali, an hour's journey. In Bowali, the bus to Nainital is leaving.
At Nainital, I immediately find the cheapest guesthous, led by a very young manager and a series of helpers, his peers. Nainital is a town located at an altitude of 2084 meters, perched on the slopes of the Kumaoti hills, around the Naini lake, with streets that branch off on the slopes, enlivened with shops, restaurants and hotels.
The part of the elegant and expensive hotels develops around the lake, especially towards the North-East, on the Mal Road, on a pedestrian path that runs parallel to the road with traffic. Along the Mal Road, particularly when it is closed to traffic in the evening, a large crowd of Indian tourists pours for a walk through the town's shops, restaurants and elegant hotels.
There is also a games room on the way, and it is full of young people busy with the machines, while, simultaneously, on the street, a multitude of porters, even children go back and forth with huge loads of goods on their shoulders. I walk along the east bank of Lake Naini and reach the great temple called Naini Devi Temple.
The area of the temples is located north of Lake Naini and is surrounded by a vast market of stalls and shops, hotels and restaurants that extend up to join the streets that rise to the towns of the hills. Among the stalls there is an area animated by the Tibetan flags, but the Buddhist temple stands high up on the hill.
I enter the big white temple of the sick community: the caretaker invites me to put one of the orange hats at the entrance, in a cardboard box.
The interior is very bare apart from two musical instruments lying on the altar. I ask some explanation about a kind of sarcophagus placed in front of the window that opens onto the lake, but the caretaker does not answer me. I start towards the Naina Devi Temple: I move among a multitude of sellers of balloons, girandole, necklaces, hats, umbrellas and haberdashery of all kinds. I have lunch in one of the many restaurants in the market area that stands opposite the Naina Temple.
Further up, along the lanes of shopping, I arrive at the great mosque, now open for the midday prayer. Going further, I climb into an area full of steep, narrow restaurants, hotels and stairways that lead to the houses above. I go slowly back to the old city through the magnificent long lake between the way, go of fast cycle rickshaws that transport tourists in both directions.
On the lake, there are several positions of boats in the shape of duck, canoes and many pedal boats now invaded by tourists. It's a hot afternoon and it's time for more activity for renters and boatmen. Returning to the guest house I stop to listen to a large group of women intent on playing and singing inside a temple dedicated to Shiva. They invite me to be part of their group, they guide me through the altars with images of goddesses and gods of the temple, they show me the pitcher of water dripping on the linga of Shiva.
They greet me by giving me a small package containing two sweet balls, two minds of sugar, a flower. In the evening I get the message from the Nainital hotelier, known in Varanasi.
He proposes to move me by bus to Bhowali, half an hour from here, tomorrow, where he would reach me by car to have lunch together and visit the Sattal lake area. I reply by thanking him, greeting him and wishing him so much happiness.
Today I go to the south, in the direction of the temple Hanuman Gadh which is on another hill, 3.5 kilometers from Nainital. I walk a long way on the main road behind an old man carrying on his shoulder buckets and bags hanging from the two ends of a wooden arch. An Indian with two plastic bags in his hand is going to the Shri Leela Shan Ashram which is located above the Hanuman Temple. The man, invites me to follow him through a shortcut that enters the forest and avoids the long busy road. While I'm having lunch with the guy who is the night watchman at the temple, I look up and see a video screen with framed the various areas of the building.
While I'm having lunch with the guy who is the night watchman at the temple, I look up and see a video screen with framed the various areas of the building. After coffee, I go up to the Shri Shitlade Temple and the Sri Leela Shan Ashram which are a little higher up in the forest.
I go back to the Naina Devi Temple, but going along the Tandi Road, the road that runs along the western side of the Naini lake. Along the way there is a large temple, painted red and white, dedicated to Lord Shiva. On the left of the portal, where the street that leads up to the temple begins, is the sculpture of a black deity dressed in clothes of the same color. It is Bhairav, a priest will later tell me.
I climb along the alleyway that arrives on the main altar where a young priest is placing the red marks on the forehead of a whole family. Going down the lane to head for the main street, but another priest is opening the door of the temple next door and inviting me to enter.
Inside there is the sculpture of the goddess Saraswati. Along the whole Tandi Road there are numerous small temples painted in white and red, with inside each one a priest who recites mantras. While he prays, the priest draws circles of smoke in the air and rings the bell he holds in his hands for a long time.
I climb the steep steps and narrow lanes leading to the houses perched high up on the West hill. Here the houses are grouped and aligned, but the houses seem very small. In every outdoor space up here, but also in the palaces of the lower plains, you can see painted tin cans and plastic jars with geraniums and other plants in bloom.
I descend again and find myself in front of an apparently uninhabited building with a very linear architecture. Further down, I arrive at the back of the large church with the school attached. I go out on the Tandi Road, reach the intersection and head towards the road that leads to Almora. I descend along a staircase and through the bridge that connects the two banks of an almost dry river. We head to the Jim Corbett National Park, the jungle of Mowgli with the desire to see elephant and tigers and all the animals we can see.