Less than three weeks after our road trip to Nathuakhan, we hit the road again! The One above was being kind. So where to this time? The weather was turning warmer; we needed to escape to the mountains. But we had just been to Kumaon. Driving on the same roads and seeing the same region was not exciting.
The fact that even the hills were sweating made the search more excruciating. Apart from Kumaon, we had either Garhwal or Himachal. Garhwal still brought back memories of the devastating landslides & floods that hit it. Himachal, of course, was a tad too far away.
After days of Googling, we chanced upon a place called Kanatal. Sounded suspiciously like Nainital, Bhimtal etc. However, surprisingly, it was neither in Kumaon nor had a ‘tal’ (lake). It was located in Garhwal, quite close to the Tehri dam.
The weather here seemed salubrious; it seemed away from the hustle-bustle of the typical hill stations. With a belief in what Paulo Coelho said, “Everything that happens once can never happen again”, we opted for Kanatal.
Three of our friends were keen to head out too. It was a long weekend for all; well, there was no reason needed to holiday. But now we had to find a place to stay – something that fit in with my love for home stays. There were not too many options in Kanatal. The most appealing property, The Terraces, was quite expensive. We did not have the inclination to splurge. When you travel as much as we do, you do need to keep it frugal.
The other options we got were of camps. A big no! The ninth or tenth search result threw up the name of Saur Cottages. Sounded interesting! So Saur Cottages are a home stay – like accommodation run by DueNorth, a group promoting tourism adventure in Uttarakhand. They aim to foster rural development, heritage communities and local crafts in the natural environment.
The Cottages are located in Saur Village, which is about five kilometers from Chamba on the road that leads to Tehri dam. The cottages themselves are restored ‘pahari’ (mountain) houses with extensive use of bamboo, mud, stone & wood.
When we saw the pictures online, we knew this was where we wanted to stay. We left Delhi NCR in a Mahindra XUV 500 at almost 9 am. The roads were buzzing with activity already; we knew it was going to be a long day, long drive.
We drove amongst buses, bullock carts and cycle rickshaws. It was only the promise of what awaited us in Uttarakhand that kept us energized. We looked out of the window to the children playing in the mud, the village elders having their ‘chaupal’ under the banyan tree, the village women going about their daily chores. In the midst of this, a few brand names dominated the semi-urban and rural landscapes – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Airtel, Idea and Vodafone.
Entering Uttarakhand always brings a smile on our faces. We crossed the Ganges at Haridwar with a silent prayer on our lips. We saw hundreds of vehicles parked – folks were washing away their sins.
The road till Rishikesh had been jam-packed. It seemed a whole section of NCR was off river-rafting. It eased up after Rishikesh. Three of our passengers had their Google Maps open. All three gave contradictory directions. It was quite amusing.
Once we crossed Chamba, we kept our eyes open as a narrow road took us to the Saur Village. If we continued on the main road, we would end up in Badrinath. Not sure if we were feeling so religious then!
The narrow road came under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. About 12 kilometers on this road brought us to the very pit of the valley. Nestled amongst lush green terrace farms & protected by mountains on all sides, sat pretty the picturesque village of Saur.
It was a forgotten village, abandoned by its inhabitants and dying a slow death, before DueNorth took it up and started the restoration work. DueNorth had restored one of the village homes to a set of cottages where tourists could stay. Additionally, it works to improve the livelihood of the village people, specifically women, through local produce & handicraft.
At almost the end of the road, we left the car and walked down to the cottages. This was a descent through vegetable gardens; we could already feel a part of the place. We peeped into the cottage that was to be our home for the next two days. It was rustic in every sense and in a good way.
Orange-colored with wooden frames supporting it and a roof thatched with bamboo, the cottage had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a sit out. Descending to the basement brought us to a large bathroom, the size of which was comparable to a flat in Mumbai!
The rooms had mellow lighting and furniture made of bamboo and pine. Innumerable blankets were plopped on the beds; so we knew it was going to get cold.
We ended up chatting with the cottage in charge about our travels to Uttarakhand. She told us about her work with the village women, teaching them to use pine needles in crafting products. After our chat, we pulled out our woolens, and settled in.
It was getting quite cold; we were enjoying it. After a hearty dinner, blissful sleep followed!
Day two, we headed to the Tehri dam. We had heard a lot about it, especially how it saved lives during the floods of June 2013. And prior to that, the extensive debate on it being a threat to the environment and it displacing people from their homes.
Well, there will always be two sides to any story. We do not have an opinion. We just wanted to see the architectural marvel that it was. The dam is on the Badrinath road and 45 minutes away from Saur Village.
Close to the site, we started seeing the sparkling blue water. It reminded of our first glimpse of Pangong Tso. Our excitement had known no limit. It was almost the same this time. Turning around curves, we inched closer to the dam.
At the same time, the temperature was dropping furiously; it had started drizzling. None of us had rain coats and at best, flimsy sweaters. At the gate of the dam, we were stopped. We did not have the permit to go inside. Such a dampener!
But there were other tourists; they pleaded their way in. We were happy to follow suit. We were told by security to go till the bridge and return. We were almost freezing. The wind was harsh; the rain was soaking through our sweaters to chill our bones.
At the bridge, unfortunately, the dam gates were closed. So, on one side was the water filled to the brim, and, on the other side, was the machinery visible for us to see how the water ran its course.
After shivering for a few minutes and being scolded by the security guard at the second check post, we headed back. It had been a good visit. We were assured of the good work being done by Tehri.
In the past, the dam had stopped the river from unleashing its fury on Rishikesh and Haridwar. At least, some damage was prevented. We shuddered getting reminded of those images on television. But we do not blame nature.
It was wholly and solely the folly of human beings. If you usurp what belongs rightfully to Mother Nature, She will stake Her claim sooner or later.
What was the plan for lunch? The thought of The Terraces came to our minds. We could not stay there due to it being prohibitively expensive but we could certainly have lunch there. So we found The Terraces on Google Maps and drove on.
About 20 kilometers from Tehri dam but in a different direction is the town called Kanatal. It is high up in the mountains and experiences snowfall in winters. The legend says there used to be a ‘tal’ (lake) but it is dried up.
The Terraces was certainly a beautiful property. Perched high on the mountain, it commanded a view of many peaks. Unfortunately, it was clouded and raining. A sumptuous lunch in the warm restaurant warded off the cold for us.
The best was yet to happen. We could feel it, though it was impossible to feel anything beyond the cold. On our way back to Saur, we saw vehicles covered in a layer of white. We were excited. Just a little ahead, we discovered the secret.
It was raining hailstones. Or should we say it was hailing cats and dogs? Hail stones as big as pebbles hit our car, making a metallic sound. Hail stones as small as grains of rice fluttered into our outstretched palms. We had not seen a more spectacular scene.
The road was covered in sheets of white, making the path a tad slippery. We had felt this excited when we encountered snow for the first time, en route Khardungla. We sensed the same flutter of excitement. The road covered in white brought about a sense of awe.
There was a renewed respect for nature. How easily nature transforms water to ice, to snow, to vapor, to mist-each with its own beauty! Moreover, how easily we plain – walas get excited seeing snow and ice. The mountain folk are probably sick and tired of these but we transform into kids.
We slowed down and took in the spectacle. We clicked photos to capture this for eternity. However, more than the pictures, it is the memory that will keep us company.
As we descended into the valley to get to our cottage, the hail stones converted to a drizzle. The sky had opened up; the valley was a mix of green and white – green where the water had washed off the dust, and white where the hail stones had settled. This was a brilliant time to click photographs.
The temperature was dropping rapidly. By night, it was 3 degrees Celsius. We were unprepared for this kind of cold. We snuggled into the bed under two layers of blankets. It was our last night here; the shower of hail stones had made our holiday worthwhile.
We also shopped! The small room beneath our cottage had the handicraft goods created by the village women. Pine needles earrings, baskets, table mats, table runners, cloth dolls, cloth key chains – it was an interesting assortment but was clearly the work of people who were still learning. The finish was not that great but given the softies we are, we ended up buying quite a few things.
Morning gave no hint of the weather the night before. It was bright, sunny and warm! It was time to return – to monotony, to the daily grind, to the banal existence. Holidays should be the rule, not the exception. Well, we should not complain. We take holidays at every opportunity we get.
One last magic awaited us before the road ended. On our way back, with the sky completely devoid of clouds, we saw an entire Himalayan range, sparkling a brilliant white. We had murmured that sitting in the valley, we had missed out on ‘views’. But here they were – tall, grand, gleaming, white, covered with layers and layers of snow, and inviting. Sigh!
We recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights to Garhwal:
Delhi – Mussoorie – Saur Village – Delhi
Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Mussoorie by tea time. Spend the night at Pine Hill exploring the premises, specially the club, reading at the library or sipping a local brew in the sit out
Day 2: Spend the day sightseeing or trekking. Mussoorie may be overrated but once in a while, it is okay to be a part of the hype!
Day 3: Checkout and head to Saur. Check in at Saur Cottages. Take a walk around and experience village life at its best
Day 4: After breakfast, head to Tehri dam. Good to get a permit beforehand. Head to Kanatal from Tehri and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the yet-undiscovered hill station. Back to Saur for dinner
Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi
Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter in Mussoorie and Kanatal, so be prepared for the cold!
Recommended eats: Thukpa soup at Mussoorie; Rhododendron juice anywhere
Recommended buys: Shawls from Mussoorie, pine needle decorations from Saur
We are planning our next holiday in Himachal Pradesh. Any recommendations?
Images courtesy our talented friend TB