A wanderer. A person who travels.
(Hindi) Awaara. Ghoomakad.
It took a 9 day sojourn into the interiors of Uttarakhand for this girl to unravel a whole new meaning to the word ‘travel’.
We talk about experiencing local culture. Imagine living with them in their own homes.
We talk about taking tours and audioguides, so we can understand a place better. Imagine being shown around by people born and brought up in the same place, taking you through their homes the way they’ve lived.
We talk about sampling local cuisines. Imagine dining with families in their own homes, food they’ve prepared for you the way they do.
Imagine living like them, with them. Does it get more authentic? I don’t think so.
I spent 9 days in the Kumaon district of Uttarakhand with HOTs (Heart of Travellers) – a company building a network of hostels and homestays in places one isn’t likely to visit as part of a regular itinerary, but more likely to discover as an explorer, a traveler, a nomad.
It was with a bundle of nerves that I embarked on this journey, having turned up at New Delhi’s Anand Vihar ISBT without even a ticket in hand, on my way to a completely unknown destination with 7 people I’d never met in my life. But in the ambiguity lies the excitement, the thrill of possibility, the mild anxiety of not knowing what’s in store for you; and this uncertainty, although slightly unnerving, is also exciting. Wouldn’t you agree? 🙂
I was quite pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome we received. The entire crew of HOTs, along with the sponsors for the trip – Honda and Renault, Jeolikote – received us, and flagged off the trip oh-so-fancily. Felt like a great start! And so our journey began, as we sped away into the winding roads of the mountains to out first destination – HOTs Jeolikote.
Here’s what I love about hostels – the sense of community. It’s all about shared spaces, hanging together, bringing something new and different to the table, which creates a marvellous atmosphere of camaraderie. And it is exactly this that you will find when you’re with HOTs – right from the warm, traditional welcome we received after hiking through the mountain for 20 minutes, to the personal, comfortable ambience of the property; the roaring bonfires at night which had us huddling around it to escape the biting cold, to stories of who we are and how we came to be where we are today.
Tip: Ask one of the hostel folks to show you the ‘Om’ at night. Just ask. They’ll know what you’re talking about!
The folks at HOTs had told us this would be as offbeat as it gets, and as authentic as it gets. And boy, did they deliver! If you’re looking at exploring parts of Uttarakhand you’ve never seen before, you’re in the right place baby, keep reading 🙂
Our first stop from Jeolikote took us to Hawalbagh, a village just a little ways off Almora. We arrived at a lovely homestay called Innisfree (you HAVE TO stay here, it’s the BEST), run by a wonderful couple. Layt is the friendliest of people, and will make you feel at home instantly, and Julia is the most effervescent, bubbly, charming soul I have ever met. They’ve got 5 ADORABLE dogs who will snuggle into you as comfortably as if they’ve known you forever (but then, they’re DOGS. They’re the cuddliest, smushiest, sweetest, happiest things ever and we don’t deserve them, lol). The best thing about the property, though, is what we discovered when we woke up – it’s SURROUNDED by mountain views, unhindered, unimpeded. The sense of peaceful happiness it infuses in you is unbelievable.
I visited a traditional Uttarakhand household here in Hawalbagh. The residents – Arjun Ji and his parents – own two cows, two adult goats, two baby goats, a dog, and fish (in their own pond). They build and sell tools for a living, and Arjun Ji was more than happy to tell us about his daily life and plans for his future.
Arjun Ji accompanied us for the rest of the day, and took us to the local temple atop a hill and the markets of Almora. The markets are so colourful, and the architecture is just fabulous! I lost my sanity at the sight of those gorgeous, colourful doors and windows – they’re SO OLD, but that age just added a certain charm to it! Don’t you think so?
Our two nights in Hawalbagh ended beautifully – good food, good drinks, great company of all the other guests at the homestay, and sparkling conversation.
Travel, for me, will always be defined by interactions with fellow travellers, and that was definitely a highlight out here.
We made our way to this little village tucked away in the interior of Kumaon. We walked through fields of wheat gently swaying in the wind, hiked up a mountainside to get to the home we would be staying at. We walked right through the village, and I was surprised at how pretty it was. Every house is built in traditional Uttarakhand style. Two rooms on the ground floor on either side of the door, and a stairway leading to two rooms on top on either side. What really caught my fancy, though, was the uniqueness of the doors! These guys really love their colours. Shades of red, green, and blue dominated the architecture, and special care has been taken to ensure the doors to the houses are the grandest, most striking piece of art you will find. See for yourself!
We stayed in a village home, with the locals. The folks from HOTs gave us an experience straight out of their childhood – the boys went fishing after sunset, spearing the local fish with harpoons and coming back with quite a catch! We went picnicking up in the hills, among the pines. Cooked a meal on firewood. Lay there under the trees, listening to myths and legends of the village, stories from a different lifetime, reflecting on how life is so different in two parts of the same country. We met the locals of the village and spoke to them about the life there.
Turns out migration is a bit of a problem. A village that once housed close to 3000 folks, now retained only about 300. Lack of opportunity made the youth leave, but they were none the happier in the cities they went to! Its truly commendable, the efforts HOTs is taking to set up a homestay network in Chaukhutiya. Not only is it great for the locals, but trust me when I say this – if you want to spend some time in the mountains, live like a local with some of the sweetest people I have ever met, experience a life opposite to the one you’re used to in a city, you will want to go here.
Think Manali, but way less commercial. Think hipster, chill, laid-back, and you’ve got Kasar Devi! This is the very place Bob Dylan wrote his famous song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. I saw the best sunset here – the sky was shot with purples and pinks and the pink haze that covered the mountainside and villages added a beautiful rosy glow that gave me some of the best pictures I could ask for. Check ‘em out 🙂
If you’re in Kasar Devi, you can’t miss Baba Cake on Hippie Hill. The popular cafe is known for its spectacular apple crumble, and is run by a guy who used to be an ACTUAL BABA, and his Israeli wife. You’ll meet some amazing people here from around the world.
I met a fellow traveler and spent an evening with him exploring the village of Kasar Devi. We took off on a mountainside path and conveniently got lost, only to find beautiful views in the dying light of the sun. We eventually found the village and got stung by the ‘bichhu’ plant in the process. Fair warning, that stuff HURTS, and it will remind you of its existence every now and then for a week or so!
Fun fact: Kasar Devi temple is known to be located in a very strong magnetic field, so much that NASA has researched the existence of this for two years.
Oh also, the folks at HOTs have their hostel in the BEST spot. You climb onto the terrace and there’s NOTHING between you and the mountains! Blue skies, green mountains, snowcapped Himalayas in the distance, what more can you even want?
Balaut Adventure Camp and Resort
A little bit of luxury never hurts anyone, eh? After a week of roughing it out in the hills, cold showers (for some, that also meant not showering :P), getting our hands dirty, exploring as much as we could, and living with absolutely basic means, the plush property of Balaut came as a much welcome oasis.
It’s a gorgeous property located on the side of a mountain (them breathtaking VIEWS, omg) and offers tents, rooms, and a bunch of fun activities you could take part in. There’s offroading, mountain biking, birdwatching, paramotoring, rock climbing, rappelling.. Anything you would need to quench that thirst for adventure you’ve got, you nature-lover, you! Or if that’s not your thing, enjoy the property! Take a walk and watch the ducks playing in their little pond, grab your camera and get yourself some nice snaps, or sip a coffee at the property’s cafe!
You might want to walk down 500 m to Bubu Cafe, and if you do, try they cold coffee. It’s divine 🙂
This basically spelt the last leg of our unbelievable journey, and as we returned to our base camp in Jeolikote, we couldn’t help but look back at what a fantastic journey it had been. We’d returned with memories and stories which would stay with us for a lifetime, and for that we had HOTs to thank.
This one week in the interiors of Uttarakhand opened my eyes to the raw, untouched beauty that still lies in parts of India that are not commercialised. It gave me stories that came straight from the locals. It introduced me to the true meaning of the word ‘authentic’, and in today’s day and age, authenticity is something we all chase.
For that alone, and if the reasons this piece has outlined aren’t enough, you need to visit Uttarakhand the way I did, with the folks I did. Trust me, it will be an unforgettable journey.
Go. Be #DOI.
You can reach out to the folks at HOTs here – http://www.hotshostel.com/
Or call them at +91 9193323331 to make your bookings.