Like many other parts of India, Kumaon’s history is that of constantly shifting borders. Recorded history tells of migrations and the intermingling of a variety of people, including the Rajputs from the west and the Gorkhas from the east. In 1815 the British took this district from Nepal. As one can see from the remains of colonial bungalows and estates, this became a favourite haunt of Raj-era expatriates even after the fierce fighting during the 1857 war. Writings from that era seem very racist. The gentleness of Jim Corbett came much later. As a result, there is very little recorded about Kumaonis going about their ordinary lives.
One of the interesting things about traveling is people watching, and Kumaon is as good a place for that as any other. When you are an obvious tourist, you are watched pretty closely yourself, so there is not much chance of you catching a person totally unaware of you.
The person whom I first watched in Kumaon was this man rowing his boat quietly across Bhimtal. The lake was deserted and quiet at sunset, and the only sound was that of the water gently lapping on the shore, and the muted splashes of these oars.
On the day of diwali, we were returning from Kausani to Almora and passed a little village where people were enjoying their holiday. These three pensioners were chatting outside a shop. When I stopped to take a photo one man sat up straight while another started looking theatrically at his newspaper. They relaxed and smiled back at me after I’d put my camera down.
A day later we were on our way to Ranikhet and stopped for chai at a dhaba on a cross roads. This old man was sitting near the stove waiting for a bus, chain-smoking and coughing away. He would have been aware of me, but I think he did not know exactly when I took his photo.
These children were noisily eating at the same dhaba while their mother stood outside at the bus stop. One of them had finished his plate of Maggi noodles and was clearly eyeing his brother’s plate. When children are caught up in their lives they are completely themselves.
I found women in Kumaon were shy of the camera. They would either turn away or cover their faces when they saw me taking a photo. Since their reaction was so extreme, I did not try to photograph them from far away.
The sky was clear, but the view was murky, when our alarms went off fifteen minutes before dawn. We gamely waited for the sun to rise, and saw the Nanda Devi peak faintly. As we sipped our early morning tea, the man who brought it told us that the view was brilliant a couple of weeks ago, but had turned murky since cyclone Hudhud struck the coast. I’d taken a record shot of the peak, and a little image processing could elicit this view.
We left for the Binsar sanctuary immediately. Just before we got into the car, The Family spotted a gray-headed warbler. It was a twenty minute drive to Binsar, and we had to wake the gatekeeper once we reached. There is an entry fee to the park but it turned out that you have to read the fine print carefully and argue the interpretation of the various rates at the ticket counter. We did not know this, and just paid single-entry fees. Just as we prepared to drive in two yellow throated martens streaked across a meadow in front of us. I thought to myself “Mongoose”, but did not voice it because I knew it was too large to be one. We identified it by a chart we found at the gate.
The gatekeeper told us to go to the Tourist Department guest house where we could find a guide and walk up to highest point in the sanctuary: Zero Point. We drove up slowly, keeping an eye out for the birds we could hear all around us. Most of the way the road stuck close to rock walls, allowing only limited angles of view. We saw a couple of whistling thrushes before we arrived at the beautiful sunny meadow you see above. There was water trickling down one side, and the combination of trees and open grass meant that this could be a good spot for birding.
It was. We kept coming back to the place and saw a large part of our eventual bird list here. I see that we noted down mountain hawk-eagle, Himalayan buzzard, Himalayan vulture, gray-backed tit, brown-fronted woodpecker, scarlet Minivet, streaked laughing-thrush, white-throated laughing-thrush, rufous Sibia, great Barbet and a dark-sided flycatcher as being in this one place in one day! Three of them were lifers.
We approached the meadow from three different directions on the succeeding days with our guide around Binsar, Sundar Singh, and saw black-headed Jays, Eurasian Jays, red-billed blue magpies, green-backed tits, a crested serpent eagle, and a white-tailed nut-hatch. This was also the meadow where I lost my footing and slipped down a slope to sprain my leg and bring the holidays to an end. But that was four days later, and just a day before we were supposed to leave.
But on our first visit we continued up to the guest house and asked for guides. One told us to order our lunch before going off on our walk. We did that, and then he told us to have tea before going on a walk. It was getting pretty late, and we were impatient. While we had tea The Family asked the chaiwalla whether there was a guide who could take us up immediately. That was how we met Sundar Singh.
The protected oak forest of Binsar is not where you go to view mammals. Rather it is a lovely place for birds and insects, and walks. The easy 500 meter walk to Zero Point was a good start. The shaded path is bordered by mossy trees, and in the leaves and mud around, you can spot insects and slugs, if you pause to look. The morning’s haze had got worse when we reached the top, about 2500 meters high. The high Himalayas were not visible at all. In fact, we never got a good view of the Nanda Devi range during the week. We walked back in time for lunch. As we waited, we saw an Eurasian Jay for the first time in our lives, and a black-headed Jay soon after.
Being able to spot something in the wild is a matter of practice. In the last decade The Family has grown adept at spotting birds. I forget to look unless I’m with her, and even then I often do not spot the odd colours and shapes that are tell-tales for her. But I’ve become used to following a butterfly with my eye as it flutters by to see where it lands. As a result I managed to photograph this pale clouded yellow (Colias hylae) while telling her to look at it. She looked at the camera display and back at the bush before she saw it.
We loved Binsar and kept going back to it. The next day we climbed up to the Zero Point and then followed Sundar on a six kilometer hike through the forest and back to our favourite meadow. After the first view of the martens we did not see any mammals for a long while. From Zero Point we heard the distant cough of a leopard in a valley. Occasionally we heard the bark of the Muntjac. On our fourth day in Binsar we saw a leopard kill by the road. A family of jackals was feasting on the remains but ran away when it saw our car. I tried very hard to take a long shot of the jackals, but they were too wary.
Instead we saw more birds: spectacular Koklass pheasants with their green heads stalked a slope, unaware of us standing on the road to watch them, and two scaly-bellied woodpeckers, the male with a red head easily told from the black-headed female, foraging in the grass, unconcerned by the car standing nearby. There were many butterflies to be seen, from the ubiquitous Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), sulphurs, grass yellows, to the unsual and unidentified. Binsar remains a place which we could visit again.
Bhimtal during the day did not look nearly as romantic as it did during the sunset. We left it behind and took the road to Bhowali, where we wanted to join up with the main Nainital-Ranikhet road. Not having researched Bhowali, we did not know that it has a “beautiful fruit market which offers to the tourists [a] rich variety of fruits” as a tourism website puts it.
We stopped just before the crowded junction of the Bhimtal-Bhowali and Nainital-Ranikhet roads, just out of the zone where traffic policemen were enforcing a no-parking rule. On one side of the road was a little stream which had become a sewer, but the other side was lined with shops selling a staggering variety of fruits and nuts. We stocked up on many things which we recognized, and one (see the photo above) which we did not. It was mildly astringent, and could have been unripe. Can anyone help with this? What is it called?
A couple of hours on we found that one side of the road dropped away into a reasonably broad river valley. The river itself was running pretty dry in October, when we visited, and the banks were full of tumbled rocks. The hillsides had mixed forests. So this was bound to have great diversity of birds. Unfortunately there was no way down to the river. We stopped for lunch after crossing a high bridge and passing the confluence of two rivers (see the photo above). Lunch was delicious and fresh: rotis hot from the oven served with pungent onions, a simple but delicious moong dal with lots of local greens thrown into it, and a chutney which incorporated some other local herbs. Of the four or so tables in the tiny dhaba two had tourists carrying long lenses, and the others seemed to be full of Kumaonis.
There was no network, so we could not figure out which river we stood by. Later we found that the river was not even marked in Google Maps, although switching to a satellite view does show the river bed. We figured from the infrequent signage that this was either the Kosi river (and clearly not the flood-prone Kosi which runs through Bihar) or a tributary. Interestingly, this Kosi does not figure in Wikipedia either.
After lunch we loitered for a while trying to spot birds. This is the kind of landscape where we would expect to see the brilliant blue-green plumage of Verditer Flycatchers. We scanned the trees and rocks. No sign of flycatchers, nor of redstarts. By now we had left the mixed forests behind and were inside pine forests, and I suspected that this was the reason we found no birds.
The chir pines are local, but were first systematically cultivated across the region by the British. Even now economics continues to dictate the spread of pine forests in Kumaon. One problem with this is that pine forests reduce the diversity of species growing within them. As an example, there are very few pests of pines, which is good for those who cultivate it, but which also means that there is little for birds to feed on. As a result, birders and butterfly or moth enthusiasts would do well to avoid these. Some villages have begun to make efforts to repair this destruction of habitats by replacing pine forests with more productive forests anchored by the local varieties of oak.
We drove for a large part of the afternoon and reached Almora in good daylight. We did not need to go into the town, but we did. After taking a long drive through Almora we came back to the Almora-Binsar road and continued on to our hotel. We completed our check-in as the sunlight turned to liquid gold. Our rooms faced Nanda Devi, but there was too much haze to see the peak clearly. What we saw was a Verditer Flycatcher! There was also a Great Barbet sitting in a tree near the balcony. Our tea arrived as we soaked in the atmosphere.
The sun set as we finished our tea. Before the light faded from the sky we decided to take a little walk in the woods around the hotel. During this walk we spotted an uncharacteristically quiet Himalayan whistling thrush, and a chattering Himalayan bulbul. A grey-backed shrike posed for us on a little post next to the road. Then, just as the light was about to fade completely, a fluttering in the bushes caught my attention. There was a jewel, a day-flying burnet moth, the Campolytes histrionicus. The bad light forced me to use an image enhancement setting on my camera which blurs the photo a bit. But it was a good end to the day.
Naukuchiatal is a terribly short drive from Bhimtal. The sky was still pink when we climbed past the kitschy Hanuman mandir and the Club Mahindra resort on to our B&B. We were greeted by two dogs: Sherry and Brandy. A third, named Tarzan, opened an eye and inspected us from its comfortable place on the rug when we entered the living room.
There was a nice big deck overlooking the lake. Naukuchiatal means the nine-cornered lake. The local belief is that if you see all nine corners from one spot you are going to be specially lucky. With a little craning of necks we thought we could see more than half the corners: semi-lucky us. The Lotus plopped down on one of the chairs on the deck and stretched out his legs. We had the second tea of the evening, and The Family brought out the cakes and biscuits she’d got from the bakery in Haldwani.
We sat there in the cool silence, watching the sky turn dark and little lights spring up all over the hills. The crickets kept chirping as mosquitos in large numbers tried to trade our blood for a soporific. The cook had prepared a wonderfully heavy dinner designed to knock us out. The Family supplemented this with local chocolates she had found in Haldwani.
We took a little walk after dinner. The road was pitch dark. People sleep early in the hills. The only place open was this restaurant which also did duty as a taxi rental and travel agency. Our driver passed us on his way to a pre-dinner tipple; he and the cook had agreed to eat late. We made our way back by starlight and phone.
In the morning we found that the stairs by the deck led all the way down a jetty on the lake. The water looked crystal clear. On later reading I discovered the enormous effort that goes into keeping the lake waters fairly unpolluted. We appreciate now that the battle is slowly being lost, but on that morning we were happy. Almost the first thing we saw in the morning was the bright blue of a Kingfisher; you can see it sitting on the rope near the boat house in the photo above.
As we climbed back up we saw a brightly coloured bird in front of us: bright orange breast and a brilliant blue top, colours like a Kanjeevaram silk saree. We had never seen anything like this before. It hopped around from tree to tree, defeating my camera. It was a blue-fronted redstart.
We had not given ourselves a lot of time in Naukuchiatal, which is great for birding. We saw a familiar sight near the water: a white-capped water redstart. We could hear the maddening cry of a whistling thrush, recognizable as a lovely tune which is cut off abruptly. A gray-backed shrike put in an appearance. As we had tea on the deck of the house, we saw a Himalayan bulbul and a yellow-breasted tit. We walked along the lake again and saw a tribe of monkeys grooming each other.
The lake district is around 1900 meters high. We planned to go a little higher. Our destination near Almora was not far off, but the road would be slow. At breakfast we realized we had crossed over to the country of alu parathas. We had to leave in a hurry because we had an appointment with Peter Smetacek. His book on the butterflies of the Kumaon is a much-needed addition to the small canon of nature writing in India. Peter runs a small but very good butterfly museum out of his home in Bhimtal; it is well sign-posted and easy to find. He turned out to be a very articulate man, passionate about nature. We had an instructive hour-long conversation with him. Then we were on our way.
The terrain changes around Haldwani. The endless plains of Uttar Pradesh begin to crinkle and rise. We travelled through the plains in the heat of the day. As we climbed, the afternoon lengthened into evening. We stopped at a bakery in Haldwani for tea. Two schoolgirls discussed their new young physics teacher. A couple drank tea with their heads so close that their cups were in danger of clinking against each other. Three young men carrying their biking helmets chatted over a large plate of cakes.
The Family selected cakes. It took little thought to choose tea over instant coffee. I was impatient to start: we were going to miss the golden hour, that couple of hours before sunrise when the light is so beautiful that you can make a great photo out of a garbage heap. The remainder of the drive took longer than I had estimated, because we had to leave the main Haldwani-Nainital road very soon for a smaller road to Naukuchital, where we planned to spend the night. Then, just before sunset we arrived at Bhimtal.
The lake district of Kumaon is almost 2 kilometers above sea level. Bhimtal is the biggest of the famous lakes in this region. I’d flicked through images of Bhimtal before leaving, so I recognized it immediately from the little island which houses an aquarium. We never managed to visit this, unfortunately. That’s one thing we must work into our next trip.
I grew up on stories of Kumaon’s lake district. A grand-uncle had a bungalow there for many years, and would make a yearly trip alone up to the mountains. On his return we would spend dinners mesmerized by stories of him meeting Nilgai on walks from Sattal to Bhimtal, and what to do if you ever meet a leopard (shine a torch at his eyes; not something I plan to do), and how green chilis, which he crunched with his dinner, were much better in the hills. The quiet and nearly deserted lakeside of Bhimtal brought back echoes of those memories. But times have changed, the boatman rowing nearby had reminders of modernity on his boat.
Just after the Almora-Gopeshwar road crosses the Kosi, a little road-side bazar has sprung up, invisible on maps and satellite photos available to you and me. For a couple of hundred meters, the road is lined on both sides by shops. The owners walk here from nearby villages early in the morning and leave late at night. The shops were just opening as we came by at 7 in the morning. We had passed a kill some distance down the road. The shop-keepers told us that the cow was prey to a leopard which had been seen in the area several times that week. In the animated conversation we were told the puzzling story that leopards drink blood. Could this be a misinterpretation of the reason the leopard hangs on to the neck of its prey? A leopard kills by holding the prey by its neck until it chokes to death.
We found three eateries next to each other and checked out possibilities. If you read Hindi you can see in the photo above that the menu is limited. Breakfast is the most varied: pakodas, puri-chhole or alu parathas with tea or coffee. For lunch you can get rice with vegetables and kadhi or with rajma beans. Dinner is just roti and vegetables with yoghurt. This man was just starting up. He had tea on the boil, but the dough was still being kneaded by the old gentleman at the back. Another helper had finished peeling potatoes and was rapidly chopping up a kilo of onions. Large bowls of yogurt had set overnight, but the huge containers were still to be filled with the day’s vegetable curry.
The process had reached further next door. The table by the road was already taken, but the inside room was empty. We sat down next to a Pepsi cooler full of an eclectic collection of things which need to be cooled. Those large clay bowls you can see next to the window are used to set yogurt. We opened out the window so that we could look out to the trees next to the river. We saw a lesser yellow-naped woodpecker just sitting here: a lifer for all of us.
Meanwhile our patron was busy making fresh parathas with thick layers of potatoes inside. The yogurt was thick and fresh, and the mixed sabji which came with the parathas was hot and spicy. If we had breakfast like that every day at home we would be spherical in no time. We’d asked for tea, and we found that our three cups were bottomless. It was a lovely roadside breakfast, and one that lasted longer than the time we had allotted. The morning’s birding here was the best we had that day.
We went on to Kausani, where we saw no birds. There was a cloud cover so we never saw Nanda Devi or any of the other peaks either. On the way back we stopped again at the same shops in Kosi Bazar and had our afternoon tea. The birds were still there.
We decided to go live outside Almora for a week last diwali. Childhood stories had primed me to expect long walks along forested hills. Even though I knew that things would have changed since, the reality was like being hit on the nose by a fish. Almora sprawls across a horse-shoe shaped mountain wall: all the way from the crest to the bottom, and laps up several lower hills in the surrounded valley. It can be picturesque from a little further away at sunrise (above) and sunset (below). The district is beautiful, and we had a lovely holiday living in a hotel 10 kilometers further down the highway towards Binsar.
On diwali night our driver insisted on filling up the tank, and we drove around until he found a satisfactory petrol pump. We walked on to see the lit up town of Almora sprawled in front of us. As I took photos, a family running a shop nearby invited us to their balcony for the view. It was lovely, and became even more charming when the man pointed out that the humps on the ridge look like a dinosaur’s back. Indeed they do.
From Srinagar in the west to Dambuk in the east, the hills are alive with the sound of construction. But the mess is full of friendly people living out their lives like you and me.