Road Trip — Uttaranchal

Jan 19 - 23, 2005

Abhijit and I had been planning a confluence hunt for almost a month before my trip to India. By the time I reached Delhi, he had finished most of the spadework, digging up four confluences in the hills within a pleasant driving distance. Besides spending a morning in a reprographics shop to get our contour maps printed out, we did little in Delhi to plan for the trip.

I landed at Abhijit's place the night before, hoping to leave as early as possible, and slightly apprehensive about the forecast for heavy fog. The fog in Delhi is way more sinister than in the corny horror flicks. While the latter brings about a gruesome but quick reprieve, the Delhi fog leaves you driving around in circles (at 10kmph) or waiting in the airport lobby till the sun manages to break through late in the morning.

We left a little before 4 in the morning, and were lucky to find the roads clear of fog. Abhijit's car had been having trouble with its silencer, which he couldn't get fixed in time despite repeated haranguing of the various auto shops. My dad's car had to be left behind to keep him from being locked down in the house with my mom, so we were happy to commandeer Kalyani's (Abhijit's mom) car, a trusty Maruti Zen.

Barring the fog, I maintain that this is the best time to drive around in Delhi. It's an excellent way to beat the traffic, and in summer, the weather too. The drive through the city was mostly eventless apart from a couple of men seeking directions to Ghaziabad. Since that happened to be en route, we obliged by letting them follow, driving a little slower than we might otherwise have. In a little more than an hour we had crossed over from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh (its Eastern neighbor). The car with the men had dropped off, apparently deciding to chance it on their own.

We'd forgotten to fuel up in Delhi. As the fuel gauge began to drop on a somewhat sparsely populated highway with sunlight quite some hours away, we were getting a little edgy. Passing a couple of deserted looking gas stations, we found one after Ghaziabad that had an attendant and an ancient looking pump. Stepping out of the car for the first time since we'd left Abhijit's house, the cold rural air filled my lungs and various other nooks and crannies. Abhijit walked about as usual in his cotton shirt and shorts (which is also what he wears on a blistering summer afternoon). Abhi's nonchalance in the face of extreme weather gives you a false sense of confidence in the sturdiness of the human frame. I dived in the car to get my sweatshirt and corrected the error of my ways.

Sometime before we hit the petrol pump, Abhijit had let me take over the wheel. His mom's Zen doesn't seat his 6'3" frame very well. I doubt if he would have let me take the wheel so early if his knees weren't knocking against his chin. He probably also wanted me to get a hang of the car before we got to the somewhat trickier hill roads.

The plan was to shoot across Moradabad before the local traffic monster got out and about its terrible business. I suspect that we scraped the pre-morning rush when we drove through at 8am. Abhijit had probably seen the worst of the Moradabad chaos, and insisted that we'd managed to avoid it altogether. Before exiting Moradabad we managed to capture some navigational intelligence from local civilians regarding our route to Tanda and Suar.

29N 79E was the first on our hit list. 30N 80E was next. 30/79 and 29/80 were the other probables. The drive to Tanda was uneventful. Abhijit had taken over the wheel sometime before Moradabad. Having passed it, he made short work of the road, taking his eyes off it frequently to check the GPS. I watched the scenery and my legs slept.

All that checking with the GPS paid off. We located a dirt track running off from the road along pretty much the same bearing as 29/79. This close to confluence, school kids, buffalo carts, and bicycle men held no fear for us. Abhijit dodged these moving obstacles while I periodically hit the shutter on my camera. There was no stopping us until we got as close to the confluence as we thought the track would take us. If we were crows, it would have left us with 600m of farmland to fly over. As we were, it left us about a kilometer long network of narrow walkways through the local outdoor lavatory to navigate.

Abhijit insisted on recording the hit standing right over the confluence. This involved him taking some largish strides, even by his standards, into a field (what was growing there, I have no idea) and me doing my best hopscotch over his tread to avoid damage to the part of the crop that Abhijit had left unflattened.

Such strange rituals are bound to attract attention. Abhi was finishing up with some parting shots at the confluence when Chandrapal, Ashish, and Bipin walked over wearing inquiring looks. Abhijit explained that we were harmless in his best Hindi. They bought our rather roundabout stories of confluence hunting with good humor and helped us back to the car. Now that I think about it, maybe they insisted on it more than was entirely warranted.


We'd bagged the first confluence barely eight hours in to our expedition. Things had been going pretty well up to then. But life, like unrefrigrated poultry, rarely improves with time -- unless you have peculiar tastes.

30N 80E was our next order of business. We'd decided to drop 29N 80E from our itinerary due to ... well, because of its geography. The bloody thing fell clearly in to Uttar Pradesh, and all routes were carefully guarded by a team of fearsome traffic monsters. (I did mention them before, didn't I?)

It takes an adventurous sort to venture in to dangers unknown. But it takes one of a truly brave and stupid kind to run in to hazards whose perils are clearly known. Abhijit and I, who are both familiar with what lay ahead in Uttar Pradesh; agreed that we practice enough of both bravery and stupidity in our daily routine and, this being a vacation after all, decided to disappoint 29/80.

Instead, we intended to zip to Bilaspur via Suar by the shortest road on the map. Unfortunately, the road turned out to be more representative than functional. I am sure we wouldn't have found any signs of a road anywhere under or around if we dug for its remains, although someone had clearly been looking very hard. Some way on, the thing below our wheels (I don't know how it ended up on the road map) was just rocks the size of coconuts thrown together to define a winding strip. We slowed down to a crawl behind a bullock cart at the next village. I jumped off to take a look at the situation up ahead and Abhijit caught up with me at the end of the village where I'd decided to head back to his rescue. It got worse from there on till Suar. Rocks here lolled about in mud; much like crocodiles, although I doubt if the latter would have been as much trouble.

On a good day Abhijit and I could have trekked faster. By this time the sun had climbed up all the way and was pretending that it was summer. It gave a very convincing performance. As it caused the kind of brain dissolution generally associated with a sixth glass of scotch, I decided to take over from my legs and slipped in to semi-consciousness. Abhijit continued to mutter under his breath and my head bounced along with the car at a quarter-phase lag.

I came to around the same time as Bilaspur went by. The driving improved as the roads did. We covered some ground relatively faster between Bilaspur and Haldwani. We hit the hills at Kathgodam. Our appetites had been rather keen way before we reached Haldwani. We'd been scanning the roadsides for a reputable dhaba with our hopes pinned on an omelette and parantha lunch. But our appetites got the better of our tastebuds and we stopped at a roadside stall beyond Kathgodam selling sandwiches. These sandwiches were the kind of affairs that come with a slice of cucumber between lightly buttered slices of bread with the crust removed. Obviously they didn't do much for our appetites. But it gave us chance to stretch our legs, spread our maps, and discuss the strategy for cornering 30/80.

Being truly in the hills now, the driving slowed down a bit. Kathgodam serves as a gateway to some rather popular tourist hotspots. Buses, vans, and cars plying their usual fares rumbled past. We stopped at a rather popular looking joint right after the sandwich shop and stuffed ourselves with some heavy duty paranthas, dal, and veggies. Deep down, the cucumber sandwiches were no doubt feeling a little embarrassed in the company of food that knew its business.

Opting to go to Almora through Bhimtal rather than the more crowded and noisy Nainital, we swung right on to road. We stopped only twice on the way; once to purchase several bottles of apple juice. It comes in 750ml beer bottles, and the shopkeeper wraps them up in newspaper to complete the picture. We halted again in the middle of a busy town square to ask the traffic policeman for directions. He set us on our way, paying no attention to the beer bottle that I was waving around to punctuate my questions.

We may have been pushing it a little when we decided to make our way to Almora by the first day. We'd passed Bhimtal in a hurry but it must have been past 6pm when we landed in Almora. The KMVN guest house was easy to spot with its largish gate bang on the main road to Almora.

We checked in to one of the deluxe rooms on the ground floor and managed to get the staff to smuggle out some leftovers from the kitchen. Our luck with the KMVN ran out around that time. The bathroom reminded me of my days in the DCE hostel, and the bed covers had the appearance and texture of used bandages. Abhijit and I stepped out and headed towards downtown Almora. The temperatures were quite decidedly sub-zero, and we weren't expecting a choice of shops to browse through. We stepped in to the first shop that seemed to stock the stuff on our list, a small one to two room establishment you'll see often in small towns in India: it serves as pharmacy, grocery store, phone booth, and candy shop. We made some quick calls home, brought a couple of torches, Dettol (antiseptic), and soap. We went a little bit further until, with the help of some useful directions from passers-by, we found an internet cafe and looked up some more maps of what lay ahead. Once back, we set ourselves to cleaning the toilet. It was a miserable job; we didn't have anything but our hands and the anti-septic we'd just brought, and the water was colder than ice.

It was almost not a surprise to find that the geyser was not working. The bucketful of cold water that was my bath was the icing on the cake of my misery. Abhijit, I am afraid, did not let the cold water bother him too much. For bed, Abhijit bundled himself in to his sleeping bag. I had borrowed his mylar sheet and spare sleeping bag.


I woke up in the morning to find myself sliding around in sweat inside the mylar bag. When we climbed down to where we'd left the car, we found it frozen over with ice. A couple of trips to the hotel and jug of hot water later the car was thawed and we were on our way again with Abhijit complaining about the gears sticking due to the cold.

An hour later he let me take over the wheel. We made slow progress over the next stretch as I grappled with my first hill roads. I can lay the blame at Abhijit's feet, though, for he kept insisting that I slow down to what, in my opinion, was crawling speed on such empty roads.

All in all, this was for me the best part of the drive. We stopped thrice before reaching Bageshwar. First, for the much coveted omelette and paranthas at Takula. The sun was out and we had a lazy breakfast in the company of some sunbathing dogs who paid us no attention. The second stop was to stretch our legs at a bend in the road that some may describe as prominent, though what was prominent about it, I can't put my finger on. We spent some time there looking for pine cones The altitude began to drop as we headed towards the valley that was home to Bhageshwar, and our speed seemed to improve from that point on. The third stop was the shortest; a mere reduction in speed to give a ride to a senior hiker whose name I could have provided if certain people charged with the responsibility of remembering names had not forgotten to write it down.

Bageshwar turned out to be just as bad as Abhijit's dad had made it sound. Traffic in the town was murder, but despite our hurry to leave we had to stop at the last gas pump before Shama; and enlightened by our experience at KMVN, we decided to get blankets and sheets of our own. Abhijit left me parked in the car at the end of a busy street bazaar while he went looking for blankets. I spent a good part of an hour waiting for him to return, thankfully the constable kept me busy moving the car from one spot to another. He waved his yard stick and blew his whistle as I tried to hide the car in the few empty square-feet between the pedestrians.

By the time Abhjit returned the traffic had worsened. The road out of the town that went to Shama was not exactly an expressway. It was a 20-ft lane with the river banks to the right and ancient retaining walls to the left, and it accommodated two-way traffic in much the same way that a python accommodates a deer. At a delicate point on this alimentary canal two trucks were staring each other in the face, a hundred horns on either side encouraging them to drive in to the other or the river. It took a good while for the mess to clear up. Once we were out, Abhijit drove with the bloody-mindedness of a frenetic terrier.

Despite a wrong turn at Kapkot Bridge and a couple of stops to give lift to a bunch of homebound school kids, we made good time on the last stretch of the drive to Shama. At some point around halfway to Shama, the traffic thinned out until it had just us to boast about. With the sun going down and the altitude going up, we sighted the first signs of frost on the road side. We made a stop to stretch our legs. And soon afterwards Abhijit was pulling up to the roadside again to examine more closely a peculiar fungus on the rock face. It was the most unusual orange color that Abhijit attributed to high altitude evolution.

We reached Shama late that evening. There were no signs of electricity and most of the place seemed to have gone to bed. After a full day of driving, the breakfast at Takula was only a distant memory, and we were definitely on the worse side of peckish. We were lucky to find a small single room hut, the residence of Mr. Trilok Singh Kurunga, where we had the most delicious meal of our journey (of dal, chapattis, and bhindi, if I remember correctly).

We had been in two minds about going to Leeti or staying in Shama that night. But having had an uncomfortable amount of sleep the night before, we decided to bed in the car at a little nook we had found on the road some way off from Shama. As a kid, I'd found it scary to walk in the mountains in the dark. Now, it's one of my favorite things to do when I get the chance. So Abhijit and I went for a little stroll down the road. It wasn't as a dark as I would have liked; the moon was out, the sky was mostly clear, and some of the effect was needlessly punctuated by a dog barking periodically in some far off place. Still, I would have liked to stay out a little longer and meet the wolves. However, it was uncomfortably cold for me. I suspect we were both more tired than we let on, and we wanted an early start in the morning in order to see the sunrise, which was now only a few hours away.

Abhijit did the best he could to make room for himself in the car and I nearly got totaled when he pushed the front seat back, down and then stretched out. We survived the night; Abhijit had to get up once or twice to switch on the heater to prevent the windshield from freezing up like it did in Almora. On the way to Leeti, the sky turned all shades of blue and we got our fantastic view of the sunrise somewhere in between where road was high.


At Leeti, we parked the car at the far end of the road which had ended abruptly at the village boundary. What went beyond was a track, which we followed until where it was blocked by a serious looking landslide. It wasn't an entirely useless exercise, though, because it roughly outlined where we were with respect to 30N 80E, and we confirmed that the track wasn't going to lead us any where nearer to it. On the way back, we browsed the rock faces for fossils. According to Abhijit you can find them relatively easily, especially with the mountains faces beings blasted to make way for the roads. Besides a friendly looking sheep dog and faded milestone pointing the distance to Gogina there wasn't much else we found on the track. No fossils either.

Back at the car we decided to take a break before what we expected to be a tough climb over the mountain side. Abhijit seemed to be showing some symptoms of altitude sickness (something that he contests); though I am no expert, it could just have been physical exhaustion. He had done almost all of the driving and had very little sleep over the last 48 hours. I wasn't bouncing off hillsides myself. We'd had about four hours of sleep the night before we left and it had gotten worse since then. By this point, feeling the cold more than usual, I had bundled myself in my sweatshirt and my jacket, a measure which I would consider extreme even on the coldest days in Chicago. Abhijit meanwhile remained slumped behind the wheel for a good part of an hour.

Before we started the climb we were lucky to run into the village pradhan (mayor-like person), D. S. Kora on his way in to the village. We got some pointers about which track to take and a generous offer for a guide. We took the pointers, declined the guide, and started off at the easiest part of the trek next to stone fence outlining a sheep farm.

The easy part soon gave way to some rough climbing and we were soon using our hands as much as our feet. Moreover our track was taking us right towards and along an ugly looking scar on the mountain face - a huge scree slope that separated the heavy cover of pines on either side. The bald spot was the steepest side of the hill. It looked unstable and was most definitely unclimbable even with the right kind of equipment. We kept with the track until we were some way up along the right side of the scree. Nothing promising seemed to be coming up along this way. If we were feeling short of limbs before we were by now definitely short of breath as well. We decided to make a sharp right and went along the face rather than up for quite a long way.

After a couple of hours of jumping ditches and rotting trees we found ourselves at a mini plateau of sort. It was a good looking spot and we spent some time mucking about. But we were nowhere near crossing over to the other side of the hill. The area straight up was steep and dense with vegetation. We made another attempt at going along the contour to the right but didn't see any way leading up and across the ridge from there. Turning back and retracing our steps, we made another attempt going up, but just ended up in a thick tangle of bushes and trees.

It was around this time that we gave up on the confluence hunt and decided to roll down to the car. The journey back was a lot easier on our legs and lungs. A posse of langurs watched us from the pine tops and I tried my best to appear harmless. Langurs in my opinion are much worse than the feral monkeys that terrorize the touristy sorts in Himalayan resort towns, for they are much larger in size and just as mean in temperament.

We made it back to the car without falling off any rocks and a quick breather later we were off. It was already late in the afternoon and light seemed to fade fast in these parts. We stopped for our meal of the day at Mr. Kurunga's establishment and stuffed our stomach with the lunch specials. Before leaving our favorite lunch spot we picked up two men and a pup looking for a lift to Bageshwar. On reflection, we should've also picked up some food, as the men and the pup got away soon afterwards.

Two hours later, at 6:23 pm, we were there. Abhijit, for the second time in two days, decided to set a speed record for the stretch between Shama and Bageshwar. This time around going downhill and with no wrong turns we must have indeed set a record of some sort. The men and the dog, scarred by the drive, scrambled out as soon as we reached Bageshwar. We decided to use the phone services in the town to say hello to our parents. Bageshwar's traffic monster was putting in some overtime and there were still some trucks and such about.

It was way past twilight by now, and a long way to go to Almora. Somewhere on the way we decided to aim for Binsar instead, a local wildlife sanctuary conveniently placed on the way to Almora. It would save us an hour of driving in the dark, and the lodge at Binsar would probably be more hospitable than the inexpensive hotels in Almora. I would have been happy to take over the driving but Abhijit was still apprehensive about letting me drive in the dark. Besides it started raining pretty heavily and put the question to rest.

It kept raining intermittently the whole way. I wish I had been more alert to enjoy the drive, for it was quite nice despite the low visibility. We caught sight of a couple of jackals on the side of the road in our headlights and passed through the ghost of a cloud somewhere between Takula and Binsar. The unrelenting sleeplessness over the last three days was showing on both of us. I almost fell asleep while Abhijt had to resort to some Simon&Garfunkel to stop him from dozing off behind the wheel. When we did arrive at the gates of our sanctuary, all we found was a locked gate (the kind they have at railway crossings) and an abandoned guard house. I stepped out in the rain to investigate the possibility of getting through, but a big sign announcing that visitors were unwelcome before sunrise and after sunset killed my short sleuthing opportunity.

And thus irrevocably turned away from Binsar, we dragged our tired souls along the road to Almora. But these hill towns seem to have a knack for playing dead on us. Almora was in its bed, fanning its feet by the fire with its doors firmly latched for the night while we stomped outside in the rain.

We had the names of a few hotels from signs on the roadside that sounded more promising than the KMVN. Finding them was far from a walk in the park, unless we are talking of one of those palatial garden mazes designed by medieval kings to harass their garden party guests. When we did find them, the front desks were closed. After half an hour of frustration we found the inconspicuous Hotel Shikhar (having already driven past it countless number of times). Soon after checking in, dragging our bags in to the room, and treating ourselves to lukewarm baths we settled down to the serious business of sloth. A quick search of the available channels on the TV brought us to rest our eyes on Dementieva and Hantuchova at the Australian open. Dementieva struggling with her serve as usual and, if I remember correctly, winning despite it by dint of a heavy artillery of groundstrokes.

We had decided to spend the next day at Binsar and, on account of our bedraggled state, wanted to get a good night's sleep first. I stumbled in to the bed and sleep in quick succession. I woke up hungry and way past the time we had planned. By the time we had finished with the breakfast that we had for lunch, we were in danger of being beaten by Binsar's sundown curfew.

The rain from last night had turned to snow but the car was mostly frost free. By the time we arrived at Binsar a little before 4pm a heavy slurry of rain and snow was coming down steadily. The gate was barred and the guard house was empty, but we managed to find a group of men in a cluster of cottages close by. Despite their warnings about the road being bad, we decided to press on.

About half way up to Binsar the car began sliding around on the road like a figure skating ballerina, albeit with a total lack of grace and far less control. About 6 km from Binsar we decided to stop tempting fate and the steep fall into the jungles below the hillside. The forest outside looked like something from a spooky fairytale. We decided to abandon the car on the roadside and explore the enchanted forest on foot. Armed with umbrellas to combat the snow which continued to persist with its tired pro-gravitational theme, we walked a fair bit on the white road to Binsar.

The heavy pall of snow and the heavier silence combined to make quite a spectacle of the whole forest. I won't attempt to describe it in words and the photographs probably won't do it much justice, but this for me was by far the best part of the journey. The frozen lake and stream next to the empty temple were the kind of places where the idea of ghost stories must have first been born. We continued to walk amongst the wildlife at Binsar with thoughts of the native Himalayan bear not too far from our mind. But all we came across were some pheasants, langurs, and trails of some other birds that Abhijit expertly identified, but the names of which are missing from my notes and memory.

At 3 km from Binsar we decided that with the car abandoned halfway back, there was no point in walking all the way to the lodge. The mostly downhill way back to the car was faster and once in the car, we slipped back through the forest, which looked even better now that the light was fading. We made it back before they could lock us in to the forest reserve.

Back at Almora, we decided to eat at the restaurant in the hotel. The snow had begun to come down in earnest now and it was definitely getting colder. And the hotel being unheated, we were looking forward to a hot meal. While we waited for our order we toyed with idea of requesting the establishment to switch on the ceiling fans. Though the servings were somewhat below our expectations, we were hardly to be put off by such minor setbacks. We over-ordered and stuffed ourselves to the capacity, falling short of our mark marginally.

Another long night's sleep and two cups of tea each later we were ready to head back. We stuck around some more to watch some more tennis as Agassi battled it out with Baghdatis. The snow had really piled on the night before and it did not look a good day for driving. However, there was little else to do and by 9:30 am we were packed, checked-out, and on our way.

We started out badly by losing our way in Almora and we got out only after a loop around the town. The road was much smoother after that. Everyone was skidding along nicely and the trucks around us only threatened to slide on to us occasionally. By the time we had got out of the hills we had pilfered another cache of apple juice. We made it back by nightfall stopping only once for guavas.

It's been a year and a half since then. Abhijit and I are planning our next trip and I think I've done well to get this travelogue off my list before then.

Glossary

Dhaba
A semi-permanent roadside shack that serves as a rest-stop on the highway.
Paranthas
"Indian flat bread" would be an inadequate definition. You have to try them the way my mom makes them.
KMVN
A state run chain of hotels for the Kumaon region. Most Indian states own a chain of hotels, usually run by the tourism department.
Dal
Lentil soup.
Chappattis
A poor cousin of the paranthas.
Bhindi
Okra.
Langur
A large grey monkey with a black face and an unnaturally long tail.
Gaurav Rai <rai@toroid.org>
2007-12-24