Travellers look for lesser known and unfrequented destinations that offer a complete break from the daily monotony and pressures of city life. My wife and I were looking for just such a destination. Chaukori (2010 m) is a small and quaint hill destination set amongst the looming peaks of the western Himalayan range in the Kumaon region of Uttaakhand. Chaukori is 275 kms from Kathgodam, which is fairly well connected by rail to the rest of the country. Our journey began there, one cold winter morning in the last week of January.
The route takes you via Almora and Bageshwar. It is a journey of around 10 hours, with excellent road conditions. The gradient is gentle, the road very broad and finished smooth by a paving machine. Though the 93-kilometre journey up to Almora doesn’t offer any dramatic scenery, you start perking up with the fresh air and crisp sunshine. The famous temple at Neem Karoli Baba Ashram at Kainchi, with its bright saffron and red colours made for an excellent picture. We stopped here for a brief darshan and were struck by the serenity of the place and its absolute stillness.
Almora is a big district town with thinner tourist traffic than Ranikhet and Nainital. After a quick and rather hurried breakfast, we moved towards Bageshwar. After descending from Almora, the road winds its way along the valley and we had the constant companionship of lush green paddy fields, luxuriant vegetation and an occasional rivulet. The varying patterns of paddy fields in contrasting greens and browns made a perfect picture.
We stopped at Bageshwar for lunch. A four hour, 108 km drive from Almora, Bageshwar is named after the famous temple of Bagnath (Bag being the Hindi word for tiger). At one time this entire area had a sizeable population of tigers, leopards and panthers. It was Jim Corbett’s hunting ground for maneaters. Built beside a rivulet, at the Bagnath temple devotees wishing for a boon tie a bell at the entrance.
Bageshwar is set in a long winding green valley. We had lunch in a small `pahadi’ dhaba. Hot, fresh chappatis and sabzi accompanied with steaming mugs of chai. Chaukori, as our driver told us, was just 2 hours (60 kms) away. Our excitement was mounting, keeping our weariness under control.
The next 2 hours were a steep climb amidst some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I have viewed. Bright sunshine and looming peaks made wonderful sights. But, of course, luck doesn’t smile forever. Just five kilometres short of Chaukori, the sky turned menacingly dark and a major storm was imminent. The question was whether we would make it to Chaukori before the storm overtook us. Lady luck smiled at us and we made it to the KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) guesthouse, which we had booked from Lucknow. The choice had been between rooms and cottages, we had chosen the latter.
Although it was only 4:25 p.m. the sky was quite dark. The Tourist Bungalow is a large sprawling place, with the cottages set some distance away from the main building. The cottages are large and well furnished, with all modern amenities. The Manager, Mr. Tiwari, was a most affable person, personally asking my wife and me to contact him if we needed any help.
Next day, we rose early to see clear skies and the awesome, looming, snow clad peaks of Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, and Nanda Khat framed against the blue sky. An entire range of peaks, set over an angle of 120 degrees. I had been to Patnitop, Rohtang Pass, Manali, Kinnaur and Yumthang, Nothing, nothing compared to this.
Hurriedly pulling on our woollens, we rushed out, bleary eyed, but very excited. The mountains looked almost within touching distance, with the golden coloured peaks slowly turning white as the sun rose. The grass underneath our feet was still white with frost. Our breath came out condensed. We climbed the viewing tower and just sat, looking, gazing, each lost in a private domain. We could see all of Chaukori, which was this guesthouse, three small shops, an abandoned tea garden to our left, a small village some 2 kms away and only 78 people. One policeman, on shifting duty. After breakfast, we ventured out into the tea garden and up several small hills. Chaukori is different from most other hill stations, there is nothing to see except nature. No tourist taxi drivers hustling you for sightseeing points, no one looking at you while you roam around. Safe, secure, serene and incredibly quaint.
A short walk along a kutcha (unmetalled) road took us through the garden of nicely pruned tea plants to the other side of the hill. From here the panorama was different and the foreground had rolling hills dotted by tiny shiny specks made by slate tiled roofs reflecting sunlight.
The nearest town, Berinag is 10 kms away. One of the places worth visiting nearby are Patal Bhuvaneshwar, an underground limestone cave and ancient temple, supremely sacred in Kumaon. It is a fascinating and unique temple which you have to crawl into the bowels of the earth to enter. There are many legends and stories and it is believed to have been a place where sages meditated, and Adi Shankaracharya visited. Patal Bhuvaneshwar is around 30 kms away and you can either hitch a ride to Berinag and carry on from there in a shared jeep, or can hire a vehicle from Chaukori.
The Kasturi farm, where deer are bred, is on top of a hill, a steep walk of around 3 kms. The farmhouse is clean, well maintained and everyone there including visitors, can get involved in the work there. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
By the time we returned to the guesthouse we were tired and hungry. After a late lunch and some sleep, we decided to celebrate with a bonfire. Some wood was soon arranged and split into small pieces by my intrepid wife (who is ex-NCC). And we soon had a roaring bonfire going. This promptly turned into a cook out. However, the dishes were a little spicy and too oily, but then, who cared. The smell of cooking, burning wood and soft `pahari’ songs were enough to enthral us, aided with a glass or two of brandy.
And then suddenly the heavens themselves were all lit up. The embers of the fire were still glowing. The last time I had seen such a starscape was in the Thar. The Milky Way lived up to its name. The Great Bear, usually prominent enough to be visible in city conditions, was now lost in this exuberant display. It was only three days past full moon, so the moon only came up only after we’d tucked ourselves in the extremely warm thulmas – sheep wool blankets made on village looms.
Next morning, we took our customary early morning walk through the dense forests around. The tree trunks covered with moss were pointers to the fact that Chaukori received a fair amount of rain. After spending 3 idyllic days at Chaukori, we reluctantly packed our backs for the journey back home. beyond Almora, the flora, the weather and the air changed. It was back to familiar territory for us. Computers, smog and pollution.