The Hills Are Alive

There are two ways to drink nectar from a rhododendron flower. The first is to break open the lily-like buds and slurp it up. The other way is to gently pull out one of the buds, place the stalk on your lips and suck up the delicate drop of sweet liquid. It might not seem to be very different, but to the people of the Almora valley, it is as important as the correct way to hold a champagne flute. And why not? Even paradise has its rules.

A rhododendron flower. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

I was told this by Govind Singh, a one-time forest ranger and now the caretaker of the forest Guest House in Binsar, a forest spread over 47 sq. km, which has been converted into a sanctuary under the aegis of the Corbett National Park. The cool breeze of the forest was a relief after a hot and dusty drive up through the Uttar Pradesh heartland. Less than 500 km from Delhi, the drive to Binsar is like a 10-hour geography lesson, as you rise from the Indo-Gangetic plain and up through the terai forests and the foothills of Kumaon till you reach the Almora valley in Uttarakhand, dominated by the shaggy bear-like mountain of Binsar.

The Forest Rest House at Binsar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

Almora is a wonder. One of the greenest regions in the Kumaon Himalayas, its slopes are dotted with picture perfect little villages among the chir pine and rhododendron forests. Binsar used to be a summer retreat of the kings of the local Chand dynasty till the British annexed their kingdom. Many of their erstwhile properties are now charming little tourist bungalows within the sanctuary. I was staying in the Raj-era Forest Guest House, a huge bungalow within a cedar grove, built by the British in 1902. Home to leopards, mountain goats, martens and wild boars, as well as countless species of birds, Binsar has one of the richest ecologies in the Himalayas. But it’s not just the forest and its inhabitants that draw visitors. There’s also the little matter of the view.

The view from Binsar, with Trishul on the left, Nanda Devi's twin peaks in the middle and Nanda Kot to the right. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

At just over 7,500 feet, Binsar commands a panoramic view of the Great Himalayan Range, spanning the horizon from left to right like a surreal painting. There are massive ramparts of three-pronged Trishul, the peaks of the outer wall of the Nanda Devi biosphere reserve and then Nanda Deviitself, at 25,600 feet, looking like an outsized cathedral. From the watchtower of Binsar’s quaintly named “Zero Point”, you can see some 300 km of snow peaks, from the Chaukhamba and other peaks of the Garhwal on the left to the jagged Annapurna Range in Nepal to the right. Quite a sight, first thing in the morning.

Nanda Devi's twin peaks rear up behind Panwali Dwar. Picture by Priyodorshi Bannerjee

Binsar’s old forest teems with legends. As I trekked to the ancient temple town of Bageshwar, some 20 km away, Govind told me of the old Shiva temple where an old woman hermit used to live. Every full moon, a leopard would come to her for a bowl of milk and would lick her toes in gratitude. Since she passed away, a spectral shroud of mystery hangs over the place. Then there’s the 108-year-old Sitaram baba, a Hanuman worshipper and mystic, who looks a youthful 60. Legend has it that even the bullets of Kashmiri militants couldn’t slow him down.

En route to Jageshwar, we walked along the high ridges of the Almora valley, through forests and terraced farms, pine groves and past small animistic temples. Govind taught me how to evade a charging wild boar and detect the hunting patterns of leopards. There are plenty of these magnificent animals in the region, though all we could find were some leopard tracks and the carcass of a deer that it had killed the previous night. Jageshwar itself is a temple town at the bottom of a deep, narrow gorge best-known for the 1,000-year-old stone temples built between 7th and 14th century A.D. And from the ridge-top, you can see the eternal snows of the mighty Himalayas, sometimes shrouded in clouds and sometimes gleaming in the sunshine.

A temple in the old temple complex of Jageshwar. Picture by Bibek Bhattacharya

It should be noted, though, that this is a fragile paradise. As climate change continues, the delicate ecological balance of the region is burdened by the drying up of perennial water sources and deforestation. At one point, Govind closed his eyes in holy dread and told me how, a few days earlier, the Himalayas had turned black due to a lack of adequate snowfall, for the first time in centuries.

So enjoy the views, but tread lightly.

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