Finding my seat in the Himalayas

Discovering Mukteshwar

“Everyone has a seat in the Himalayas. You have to find yours.” Sagnik takes a small sip of his whisky before continuing. “For me, it’s Mukteshwar. You’ll find yours someday. You’ll know it when you get there.”

It’s 11.30 at night and a cold wind is blowing. I’m in Sitla on the terrace of a small lodge where the three of us are put up for the night. I take a long sip of my rum and light a cigarette, pondering his words. It’s a full moon and I look north to the mountains. On a clear night, you can see a part of the Himalayas from here. We’d caught glimpses of the snow-capped peaks in the distance as we were driving up here earlier that day.

A view of the Himalayas from Sitla

Sitla is a small village — a strip of houses on the side of the road — just after Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand. It’d taken us 8 hours to drive up here from Delhi. Despite the onset of summer, at 7,500 ft temperatures drop to below 10 after sunset, and if you’re at the top of a peak, like I was, it could get quite windy. I was glad for the heavy coat I had on.

The drive up is in itself somewhat of an adventure. We’d decided to not take the usual route, but rather taken a more circuitous affair that took us through a forest of lush red rhododendrons that led to the hamlet of Bhatelia — from where we again took the usual route to Mukteshwar.

Only, we didn’t actually go on into Mukteshwar. We missed a turn, asked folks for directions, doubled back to what we referred to as the ‘Tourists’ Mukteshwar’ (which was essentially a string of expensive resorts) and came back to a forest check-post. We told the guard that we wanted to go to Seetla, and he took down our vehicle details in a register and waived us through into the forest.

I was iffy about the road (considering I was driving my Swift and not a hardy SUV or off-roader) but it was bumpy only in parts. The dense forest sloped to our right and I gingerly took the car over the potholes. A couple of cars which were coming from the other direction bolstered my confidence (if a Honda City could, the Swift could). The road gradually sloped down and opened up to a patch of tar and we found ourselves in a terraced valley with a few homes and farms.

This was the IVRI land, and we figured that these were all part of projects they were working on. Some of the housing we passed by later definitely looked like staff quarters. I glanced to the right and saw the mountains rise beyond

A view from the road through the IVRI forest

The tar disappeared again and we found ourselves climbing through dense forest once again. A couple of locals on cycles passed us from the opposite direction and then a few ladies carrying small loads of wood — no doubt headed for the village we’d just passed. 3km more and we found ourselves at another checkpost. The guard nodded us on, figuring correctly that we’d registered on the other side.

We’d come out on a narrow road with houses on either side — some still under construction. The road climbed and opened up onto a small patch of houses and some handicraft shops. We made a mental note to check them out later and carried on, keeping an eye out for any signage of the hotel we’d booked ourselves into. The road then wound down and we came to a string of resorts. We passed these by and, once more, called the manager of the hotel we’d booked: were we on the right track? Yes, he assured us. Just come down and he’d be out on the road.

We kept going and soon saw the signage for the property on the right. I was glad there was ample place to park and turn the car — which could be a rarity on these slopes.

The place we’d booked turned out to be a cozy place with about 5 rooms that was run by the owner with the assistance of a skeletal staff comprised of a cook and a steward.

We’d called ahead and told him we’d like to have lunch when we got there; there had been hardly any restaurants open on the way there. After all, it was the day of Holi and we’d taken advantage of the long weekend to make the trip up here.

He invited us to freshen up and said lunch would be ready whenever we were. The rooms we had were comfortable and simple. The piece-de-resistance was the balcony that opened out to a view of the Himalayas.

Admittedly, the food wasn’t very good. It was a simple meal — some dal, roti and potato curry; it was freshly made, but lacked the flavours one comes to expect when eating in the hills — where you can taste the freshness of every ingredient. Still, we were hungry and wolfed it down. They didn’t have a bar, but we’d come prepared; a bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum for me, and a bottle of scotch for Sagnik & Aparna.

Aparna said she wanted to take a nap while Sagnik and I decided to stretch our legs with a walk to the shops we’d passed on our way here. I grabbed a light jacket and my camera and we set off on foot. The climb was steep, but the settlement was just about half a kilometre away.

The settlement was a collection of about 10 small houses with a some shops facing the road. There was a small grocery store, two handicraft stores and a tailor. The lack of stores had surprised me earlier as well. Most places had a small cafe and a liquor store — but not Mukteshwar.

We decided to check out the local handicraft stores first. The first one we walked into — Kilmora — was the larger of the two there. It had various items including clothes, spices, preserves and some stuffed toys — very similar to the sort of stuff you’d expect to find at a FabIndia store. There was no one else about at the time, and we browsed their ware at leisure. Sagnik, an expert on most things handicraft, explained to me about the various materials and skills required to make some of the items.

The second handicraft store we visited, Panchachouli, was far smaller and looked downright rundown from the outside. Once inside, however, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of cloth on display. Unlike Kilmora, they specialized in clothing and weaving. The man behind the counter showed us stoles and shawls of various types of wool with prices ranging from Rs.5,000 to Rs.25,000. He explained that they were largely into exports, and sourced material from across the world. There were tweeds and fine wools from as far as South America. If you’re fine with the prices, then this is definitely the place to get material for your winter-wear.

Stepping out, we decided to check out a small grocery store that we’d noticed on the way up. It had advertised some quick eats and snacks, and we both wanted a decent cup of tea. The grocery store stood squarely in the middle of two resorts. The owner had a small stove inside his shop and asked us to wait while he made the tea.

The tea was piping hot, and felt good as it went down. A slight breeze had picked up and the temperature dropping fast. We finished the tea, picked up a bottle of Coke (for my rum) and walked back to the hotel.

Aparna had woken up and the three of us settled down on some chairs in the balcony, poured our drinks, and looked at the mountains ahead. Somehow, the rum tasted better than usual. The sun went down fast and the valley below and the hills in front of us were suddenly peppered with lights of homes.

Yet, even in the darkness, the Himalayas rose, masked by the clouds, but profiled in the moonlight.

A view of the Himalayas at dusk

The sight silenced us. There’s not much that has the power to take your breath away — but this view did. And after a few pronounced moments of silence, we glanced at each other and smiled. There was an unspoken feeling that couldn’t be described by any of us. It was part awe, part spiritual.

Dinner is a quick affair. Nothing fancy. Some rotis and chicken curry. It wasn’t the best we’d ever had, but food wasn’t the reason we were here. The day’s drive had been tiring, and it was catching up with us. Sagnik and I went up to the roof for a drink before dinner.

There were no lights on the roof, and we preferred it that way. It was cold, but I didn’t mind the piercing breeze. There was a table and a few chairs. I made the drinks and handed one to Sagnik, taking in the view.

Below us, in the distance, I saw the lights of Almora. It puts the height of Mukteshwar in perspective. I’ve never looked down on another hill station before. It brings to the fore the might of the Himalayas like I’ve never experienced before. I begin to understand their magnetic appeal.

Behind me, Sagnik says “Everyone has a seat in the Himalayas. You have to find yours.”

I have no doubt that this would simply be the first of many trips that I would make to find mine…

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