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There’s something otherworldly about the Himalayan mountains. Backdropped by the snow-dusted peaks of India’s Nanda Devi range, the hilltop region of Almora is overflowing with the bounties of spring. As SUITCASE searches for solitude, the veil between this world and the next seems just that little bit thinner.
Waking up in the Himalayas is ethereal. Streaks of sunlight and birdsong lure me out of sleep. Staggering across the hotel room, I roll up the blinds to be greeted by a sparkling view of the snow-covered Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain.
Located at the edge of a ridge, The Kumaon hotel offers guests a front-row seat to pine-covered valley, perfect sky and powdered Himalayan peaks. Sitting in the striped shade of my stone-and-bamboo building, I savour my morning coffee and inhale crisp mountain air. There’s no one else but the horizon and I – and the hotel’s resident turtle doves. To experience such solitude and unadulterated nature is a quiet luxury I once thought impossible to find in a country of 1.4billion people.
Early in my travel writing career, I’d read an article that said to get somewhere truly isolated you needed to take at least three different modes of transport. It’s a theory that was verified on my arduous trek from Mumbai: I travelled 25 hours by air, rail and road before reaching my destination of Almora.
The journey started innocently enough, with my girlfriend and I hopping on an afternoon flight from Mumbai to New Delhi. We ate an early dinner in the village of Hauz Khas and rose at dawn to catch the Shatabdi Express train. On arriving at New Delhi Railway Station, confusion ensued. With less than 30 minutes before departure, we’d arrived at the wrong gate – our correct one was 2km away.
Piling into the next available cab, we experienced the most stressful 20 minutes of our lives. Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic we anxiously counted down the minutes before reaching the correct entrance with just five to spare.
We hailed a station worker to help with our bags and started sprinting – thankfully he knew a shortcut. Following him blindly down back alleys and over tracks, we jumped aboard the train, lungs burning, just in time for departure. As the train made its five-hour journey through the dilapidated outskirts of New Delhi and across the mustard fields of Uttar Pradesh and into Kathgodam, our racing hearts finally settled.
Kathgodam is a base town from which travellers proceed into the mountains, and our final leg was to be a winding three-hour drive. As we ascended, the vegetation began to change around us; cool air felt like soothing balm on our weary faces. When the car finally came to a halt at The Kumaon, waiting staff took our bags and pointed us down a long dirt path.
To enter this hotel is to embrace real soul; there’s a certain consciousness in every detail. The Kumaon was brought to life by Pradeep Kodikara and Jineshi Samaraweera of Colombo’s award-winning Zowa architects. Like an homage to the mountains, floor-to-ceiling windows are used across the property, from the dining room to each of its ten bedrooms. Local materials – fly-ash bricks, indigenous pinewood, linen woven nearby – are married with a modern, minimalist aesthetic. Sustainability plays an important role too: the hotel harvests rainwater, hires its staff locally and celebrates the region’s local culture across its service, food and activity offerings.
The first day we simply drank it all in, mesmerised by the natural setting. We caught a glowing sunset, sipped wine on our terrace as the stars came out and ate home-style goat curry, lauki-chana (bottle gourd with chickpeas) and kheer (rice pudding) made with local millet. Over the following days, we set out to explore the region. I was struck by how different Almora was from typical Indian hill stations. Its forests were cleaner, roads less crowded and its natural beauty was not yet overrun by unplanned development.
Our first expedition was a walk through the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. We hired a local guide, Puran Singh, who pointed out the local flora and fauna as he talked about the region’s biodiversity. It was spring and the pine forest was in full bloom; the velvety, crimson rhododendron trees were a feast for the senses. Singh taught us how to differentiate between green and silver oak tree leaves, pointed out blackberry flowers – who knew they grew in India! – and helped us identify a pine marten scurrying through the grass. After a two-hour amble we ascended to Zero Point, the sanctuary’s highest vantage point, where an elevated gazebo offered panoramas of the Nanda Devi range and birdwatchers were spotting steppe eagles.
Later that evening, we regrouped on the sanctuary’s border near the Gairar Golu temple, where Singh told us it was possible to spot leopards there at dusk. While we didn’t catch sight of the big cat, we chanced upon mountain goats and gazed through binoculars at red-billed blue magpies and whistling blue thrushes flitting around the pine and oak trees.
On our second excursion we visited the Kosi River, a ribbon of white threading through the Kumaon hills. En route we passed the market of Hawalbagh vibrant with sari shops, vegetable vendors and chai stalls displaying piping hot aloo-daal pakoras with bhang (hemp) chutney. Neeraj, our guide from the hotel, chose a secluded spot away from the town and we tiptoed on rocks to reach the oak-lined banks. Under a cloudless sky, the roaring river was punctuated by mammoth boulders. We spent a lazy afternoon picnicking with the sun hot on our backs and our feet dipped in the cool water.
By the time we returned to the hotel, we were hungry for the dinner chef Dhirendra Singh had prepared. We feasted on bhatt ki churkani (a local soybean stew), a chaat dish incorporating papaya, and a tangy condiment called sana hua nimbu made with limes and yogurt. All the breads and rice were made with local grains including maduwa and jhangora.
Despite living in India for most of my life, I had never tasted these dishes before. Instead of the typical hotel fare of curries and kebabs, The Kumaon exposes its guests to a cuisine rooted in the region’s bountiful ingredients – fitting when our meal was backdropped by the enigmatic Nanda Devi range at dusk.
Poetically, our most outstanding encounter happened on our final morning in Almora. Just three kilometres from the hotel, the quaint pink Kasar Devi temple is, according to the American psychologist Timothy Leary, one of just three places on earth – the others being Stonehenge and Machu Picchu – that falls under the gaps in the Van Allen belt, a sphere radiation trapped by the earth’s magnetic field. Believed to be imbued with cosmic energy, the temple counts scholars and artists from across the world among its former visitors including Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, Bob Dylan and D. H. Lawrence.
As my girlfriend and I walked back to the hotel to pack our luggage and prepare for the tiring journey back, I felt truly happy and centred. Whether it was because of some celestial intervention or simply our heart-warming experience in Almora, I’ll never know. Frankly, it did not matter.
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