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Sam’s travel story: Exploring a hidden corner of the Himalayas

by Sam Clark

This story was written by ETG co-founder, Sam, on his latest adventure in India. He veered off the beaten track, as ever, to explore a little-visited, spiritual area in the Himalayas: the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Here’s his story.

I stood alone at 6am on the terrace outside my Nine Furlongs cottage in Binsar National Park, tears streaming down my face.

I had been here a few days, with the summer haze obscuring the view of the peaks. It was still a gloriously beautiful spot, with dramatic views of the alpine peaks and thick forests populated by leopards, wild boar and amazing birdlife. I was quite content without seeing the famous peaks in the distance. Still, hearing storms in the evening my host, Binita, advised me that there was a good chance the peaks would be visible first thing. So dutifully, I stumbled out of bed on awaking and out onto the wide terrace in front.

It was then I found myself aback by the emotion and an overwhelming energy that I couldn’t quite place.

Was it finally getting a glimpse of the Nanda Devi range of the mighty Himalayas, 200 miles to the north? Was it the thin air I was breathing at 2,400 metres? Or was it something… well, more mystical?

My cottage at Nine Furlongs (Kakarkot – The Forest Bungalow)

When our partner in Delhi suggested we visit the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, I was surprised. We had little demand from our travellers, and it’s a relatively unknown region for foreign tourism in general. Why should people visit? I wanted to find out. Given that I only had a few days, the relative accessibility was also attractive.

I’d heard there was something magical about the region. Still, it wasn’t until I stood outside in the gently warming summer sun that I realised quite how special it was.

The Himalayas are the most obvious draw. From where I stood that morning, the magnificent peaks of Nanda Devi and her immediate sisters, Trisul and Nanda Kota, are high—very high, at over 7,000m. (In fact, Nanda Devi, the 23rd highest in the world at 7,816m, was once thought to be the highest in the world).

Apart from the sheer, bonkers height of them (even at 200 miles distance, they seem to tower over you), they look like mountains should do and dominate the surrounding view. It’s little wonder that Nanda Devi is sacred. During the winter, from October through to March, they are visible in all their blue and white glory the majority of the time.

As the summer heat rises from April into May and beyond, the haze obscures the view. Most of the time.

The peaks of Nanda Devi peeking through the haze (taken on my camera phone).

I was staying in Nine Furlongs in Binsar National Park. As you trek around the park, the forest canopy opens at many points, offering mind-blowing views, most particularly those from Point Zero and Hunter’s Rock.

It’s much more than views. As you might expect, there are many local treks from Binsar that wind through the surrounding countryside. The scenery changes from alpine forests with deodar and rhododendron trees and streams cutting through the undergrowth to cultivated valleys with pretty Kumaon houses with low ceilings and tiny doors – as homes are considered sacred places, the small doors encourage people to bow down for entry. Along the way, you pass goat herders, oxen-pulled ploughs, and village vegetable gardens. Walks range from gentle downhill strolls of a few kilometres to full-day hikes with challenging climbs (and descents!).

While the walks themselves were glorious, stopping for lunch and overnight at a village house was an exceptional experience I won’t forget in a hurry. Learning how their landscape has shaped the local culture was an eye-opener, and the hospitality was everything I’d heard about from a Himalayan community. Even without that moving view on the final morning, my trip to the Kumaon region would have been incredible.

Setting up a lovely lunch at one of the village houses in Kumaon

While this region might be a relative unknown from a tourism perspective, spiritual seekers have been visiting for hundreds of years.

During my stay at Nine Furlongs, a new resort based on the former residence of an Indian philosopher and his Belgian wife, (who attracted a bohemian crowd), I discovered the “Bob Dylan tree” – where the young musician strummed his guitar in the 1970s. A young Uma Thurman also stayed here with her father, the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. More recently, the Italian writer Tiziano Terzani spent his final years here with terminal cancer and wrote a series of famous letters to his son about mortality, solitude, and the deep stillness and peace he found in Binsar.

A little further afield, Almora and the famous Kasar Devi temple have attracted a remarkable roll call of spiritual seekers and philosophers, too. From Swami Vivekananda and D.H. Lawrence to Cat Stevens, Rabindranath Tagore, George Harrison, Danish mystic Alfred Sorensen and Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary (known for popularising LSD)… and many others, including less well-known Western seekers and travellers. (Funnily enough, the hill next to the temple is nicknamed ‘Hippie Hill’ or ‘Crank’s Ridge’ to reflect this).

Nearby, the world-famous guru Neem Karoli Baba established an ashram. Legend has it he once chucked an apple at Steve Jobs’ head – shouting, ‘What are you still doing here? Go and do something with your life!’ or words to that effect – though rather boringly, it appears unlikely to have actually happened! A disciple, Sri Siddhi Ma, remained living here to the end of her natural life, and both gurus are spoken about in the present tense by devotees who stop to pay their respects, today.

Arriving at the Kasar Devi temple

While it’s clear that Kasar Devi enjoys a magnificent position and an air of spiritual permeance and tranquillity, I couldn’t help but wonder what attracted so many people to Almora over the years.  The hill town seemed to have its share of intellectual life, with a strong Brahmin culture that exported teachers all over India. But this isn’t unique to this location in India – far from it. Nor are the views and the scenery, though they most certainly contribute to the special atmosphere.

The answer given by many locally is that Kasar Devi and the surrounding area sit under the Van Allen Radiation Belt, apparently a highly charged magnetic field which has a strangely peaceful effect on visitors and is found in two other places in the world; extraordinarily (if accurate), Machu Picchu and Stonehenge.

True or not, the place does appear to have tremendous energy; and perhaps that’s the real reason I found myself crying first as the sun rose in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas.

I couldn't resist sitting down to meditate in this spiritual spot

Tempted to visit this tucked away and often-overlooked region of India?

From the colonial hill station of Nainital with its beautiful lakeside setting and the philosopher’s town of Almora to Binsar National Park and its scenic surroundings, there is much to see and explore here. And, in Indian terms, the Kumaon region isn’t even too difficult to reach; a train journey of five hours from Delhi and a few hours of driving will get you to most places in the area. Visitors also come in from tiger spotting at Corbett National Park on the Garhwal side of Uttarakhand.

Experience its special energy for yourself on this holiday: The Golden Triangle & The Himalayas. (It’s a good’un – think the Taj Mahal, tigers, and exploring these magnificent mountains).

Exploring Nainital with our wonderful in-country partner, Vikas

Would you like to chat some ideas through for your next adventure? Just get in touch and we can set up a time to talk!


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