This year the summer was agonizingly hot and our vacation to the hills of Kumaon planned in May was a pleasant respite from the scorching heat of Kolkata.
We boarded the Bagh Express on Friday night for Kathgodam with great anticipation. The ride to the Howrah station was not less exciting too. Though we started from our home with plenty of time in hand, our cab just stood still in an immobile traffic situation created by a political party’s meeting, for what it seemed like eternity back then and at one point of time we even feared of missing the train. But thanks to our elderly Sardar cab driver’s wisdom and acumen, we could finally reach the station with more than thirty minutes to spare.
Due to late booking, our berths at the train were quite all over the place but that was not the only problem at our hand. I had heard before not many good words about the train but the experience turned out worse. There was no pantry in the train and the food that was available was pathetic. To add to our woes, the train was running late by a few hours from the beginning. So after 2 nights’ and nearly forty hours’ journey when we finally reached Kathgodam, we felt relieved.
Our car, which we had booked from Kolkata via KMVN, was waiting for us at the station to take us to Nainital, our first stop in Kumaon. Later we found out that KMVN charged much more than the usual market rate and it would have been wiser if we could book a cab directly.
The lake city of Nainital (at1938 metres above sea level) was waiting for us at an hour’s drive from the station. We started our journey from the small picturesque station of Kathgodam and soon covered the 34 kms to reach our KMVN hotel at Sukhatal. The roads were admirably well maintained and according to our driver Puran, the road conditions and other facilities had improved considerably in Uttarakhand after it split from the large state of Uttar Pradesh. When we first entered the city of Nainital, a gentle soothing breeze welcomed us and we soon noticed the lake. Puran informed us that it is known as the Tallital part of the lake and after a brief ride through the Mall Road we reached Mallital, the other part. Our hotel was further up beside a dried up lake (hence the name Sukhatal) which fills up with water during the monsoon. On our way to the hotel, we went passed by the high court and the university. We decided to take a tour of the city after freshening up and taking our lunch at the hotel.
After lunch as we commenced our sightseeing. Puran drove us further up instead of down where the lake was. When inquired he told that he was taking us to a lake view point wherefrom we can have a panoramic view of the lake.
Indeed it was magnificent to look at the lake in entirety and Puran pointed out that the lake had the shape of a mango. I also realized how big the lake was. There were some telescopes available on rent at the place for those who cared to have a closer look. Rishi, my nephew, peeped through one of them for a few minutes. Afterwards we took some quick snaps of ourselves with the lake as the backdrop and were set for the next point which Puran mentioned as “himalay darshan” or a place wherefrom we could see the ranges of the Himalayas and its snow capped mountains. Unfortunately the day was cloudy and we could hardly see any peak from there. We felt a little cold, for the first time since we stepped in Nainital. Rishi meanwhile was enjoying himself posing as a cowboy on top of a horse. For the rest of the day he was drooling about how he enjoyed being on top of the horse and even compared himself to “Indiana Jones” his latest favourite movie character. We conferred the name “Pangla (thin) Jones” to him and instead of being annoyed he took it in good spirit and kept calling himself by the newly earned title.
The next place to visit was a view point of the Khurpatal. Though the view was a bit hazy perhaps due to smog, but again the panoramic view was breathtaking. The calm green water of the lake and the serene surroundings was alluring but Puran told us that the car would not be able to go that far and we have to walk on foot for the last few kilometres. That discouraged us from pursuing our desire to take a closer look of the lake. And Puran’s hint that the lake actually does not look so appealing from near made us more dispirited.
Now I am not so sure if that indeed was the case. Because later on we realized he was happy to follow a tour itinerary of his own with very little scope of change and whenever we mentioned any new place he discouraged us with the pretext that either the place was not accessible by car or it would require a very lengthy detour that would adversely impact our basic itinerary. For example, he did not mention anything about Kilbury which I read about in the pamphlets later on and the place seemed quite appealing. The view point of Khurpatal looked like Lands End but he did not confirm. And when inquired about Cheena Peak, again his defense was that it could only be visited on foot or on horse back and the way he described the place would not interest any person to take the pain.
On our way back we stopped for a short while to have a look at the Sukhatal from the top and then drove straight towards the Naini Lake.
And yes, Puran took us to another point on the way called Lover’s Point or Suicide Point where one can only experience a mediocre view of the mountains and the nauseating smell of horse shit. Suicide point it definitely could be but calling it lover’s point is obscure enough unless the lovers are so much engrossed in each other’s love that they become oblivious of the surroundings.
We decided against taking a boat ride that day since evening was already setting in and after hanging around some time beside the lake we started walking along the Mall Road. We had heard before that Nainital is famous for designer candles and after inspecting a couple of gift shops we finally settled on one of them and indeed we were amazed by the variety of show pieces crafted out of wax. There were candles in the shape of different fruits and animals as well as figurines of deities and even dancing statues. Both me and my cousin sister Runa purchased quite a number of wax items and returned to our hotel.
The next day we had our breakfast and were waiting for Puran to report to duty. Since we had around half an hour’s time at our disposal, we decided to take a look into the Cave Garden which was within walking distance from our hotel. This is a new addition to the list of tourist spots of Nainital. It comprised some natural caves with some interesting names such as Tiger Cave, Panther Cave etc and a garden surrounding them. Though there were no animals within the caves, a tour amongst them was quite adventurous and again Rishi was the one who enjoyed most.
By the time, we finished our tour of the Cave Garden, our car had come to our hotel and we started for the Naini Lake. First we visited the Naina Devi Temple which is located just beside the lake. The temple is one of the Hindu Sati-Piths; the eyes of Sati fell here hence the name.
There was a Gurudwara next to the temple which was absolutely deserted. But the musical instruments present within the prayer hall suggested that probably grand gatherings for worshipping takes place there in the evening. There was a mosque as well in the vicinity across a large ground. The ground is used as a playing ground but the coarse pitch made us wonder how come young kids could play there. Later on we noticed even a small church on the Mall Road very near to the temple complex with a signboard indicating that it is the first Methodist church of India established in 1858. So the place can well be described as multi dimensional in terms of religions or an epitome of different beliefs with so many diverse places of worship within a radius of one km.
Since it was almost noon by then, we decided to take our boat ride along the lake in the late afternoon when the sun would not be direct over head. And as it was Monday, the local zoo (Govind Ballabh Pant High Altitude Zoo) was closed. Nobody was game for the ropeway ride either. So we had nothing else to do as such with plenty of time to kill. We decided to roam around the Tibetan Market that has grown up around the temple. There was a small building bearing the name Capitol Cinema. Perhaps it served as a movie theatre at one point of time but presently it houses a handful of shops. After some time as we were getting bored roaming around the shops, we had our lunch at a nearby restaurant and went for a gentle stroll along the side of the lake but on the opposite side of the Mall Road. This was a quieter road or more of a pathway devoid of the hustle bustle of the shops. Only a few candy-men were there on that road and a small temple at the end of the road after which there was no way forward. Probably the road is still under construction. Soon we left the Mallital (upper part of the lake) and reached the Tallital (lower part of the lake) and when the sun was not so strong we decided to go for boating at last.
Though there were some paddle boats available, we chose a canoe shaped boat which came with a boatman who steered the boat with a couple of oars. We had to wear life jackets before commencing the ride. Slowly the boat went around the lake for about an hour or so. The lake is a natural freshwater one with a maximum depth of about 90 feet and is the source of drinking water for the whole of the town. The boat ride was very much enjoyable with the mountains on one side of the lake and a whole range of hotels on the other which seemed smaller and smaller in size as we drifted away from the shore towards the middle of the lake.
After we completed our boat ride we wandered back towards the Mallital along the Mall Road. We stopped for a couple of times in between to have a taste of the road side eateries. The “Golgappa” was quite different in taste from our very own “Phuchka” that we are accustomed to in Kolkata. On our way we came across a Municipal Library which had a bungalow pattern structure typical to the hills and the building seemed very old. Just opposite that was the Methodist church, which I mentioned earlier. However, it was closed then. Since traffic was closed in the Mall Road, it was engulfed with tourists and people at large.
By the time we reached the Naina Devi temple complex, evening had almost set in and it was the twilight stage. We relaxed on one of the many benches built along the side of the lake and looked on to the lake. The last of the boats were returning to the shore. The boatmen were busy piling up the life jackets that were still scattered haphazardly on the flight of steps. Some people were playing with their kids in the ground in front of the lake and some even were engaged in race with their dogs. A vagabond was sitting idly with an aimless gaze with perhaps all his belongings in a tiny bag beside him. A few local children were enjoying themselves running after the pigeons who took shelter in a dome shaped structure beside the lake. The lake which was a busy business hub just sometime back was slowly being deserted. And the small eateries and food joints across the road were coming up to life with their agents calling out to the tourists and passers by and reading out their menu. We were feeling a little hungry as well. We had a small meal in one of those food joints and headed back to our hotel.
After spending a couple of days in Nainital, our stay had come to an end and we were looking forward to the rest of the places to visit starting with Ranikhet. Next day we planned to start off for Ranikhet right after breakfast. But then it is a different story which I will share in my next post.