Finally, there it was… Gangaji ka pul! We all let out whoops of joy as the bridge came into view. The hordes were making their way to the sandy bed to perform puja, apparently. We sped on and soon found ourselves back on the highway again.
Next agenda was … FOOD. Romy and Pranjal attacked their plates with relief and vigour.
Our joy proved to be short-lived though. Our next set of woes started at Rampur from where the apology of a highway set us back in time, mood, and energy. The road looked as if some origami expert had had a go at it! The torture continued for almost 20-odd kilometres non-stop. It’s a shame to have a highway in such a pathetic condition. Just when we’d given up hope and were cursing ourselves for having come on the trip at all, things improved. We crossed Pantnagar and the road took us through a forested area infested with monkeys. They were all over on the road and we had to drive carefully lest we ran over any. But the drive was beautiful.
We arrived at Kathgodam and had to ask for directions. On our way back we took the bypass, which proved to be a very smooth drive.
Just beyond Kathgodam the road forks into two and one can drive straight up to Nainital or take the Bhimtal road.
We took the latter as we’d made bookings for rooms there. We drove into Shikha Inn about 45 mins later and were welcomed by a skeletal staff — the others having gone home for Diwali. It was great to breathe in the fresh air after Delhi’s polluted one.
Wanting to make the most of the time on hand, we decided to visit Naukuchiyatal (‘tal’ means lake).
Grandly refusing the offer of dinner and intending to eat out, we took off and arrived at the lake in the gathering dusk. It was deserted and the few shops that exist on the fringes of the lake were closed. Some local men sat there playing cards and so we headed back for Bhimtal. It was the same story there too. Actually, we should’ve known it would be so — especially on Diwali evening. We admired the night view of the lake for a while and ordered tea and pakoras at one of the small restaurants there. By then we’d realized that if we tarried around much longer we’d have to go without dinner that night.
So back it was to the Inn but since all shops were closed by then we were told that we’d have to make do with simple vegetarian fare. The smiling, cooperative staff rustled up a piping hot freshly prepared meal for us and the poor waiter could hardly keep pace with the fast depleting stack of rotis!
After checking out the next morning, we drove down to Sat Tal. On the way we stopped at a ‘Fruitage’ outlet — one of the many that line the route offering jams, pickles (both veg and non-veg), juices, wax items, woollens, etc. I got talking with the lady at the counter and she took us to the back of the house to show us the one bedroom set they were renovating for homestay guests.
What a beautiful drive it is to Sat Tal! The road winds down through tall deodar and oak trees and the lake peeks out teasingly at places. The setting of the lake is ethereal and if one goes there in the off season as we’d done, one can escape the jostling crowds.
After a sumptuous ‘paratha’ and tea breakfast at one of the many dhabas there, we set off on a boat ride. Romy decided to wait for us on the bank. Probably, he didn’t trust the boat enough to hold his weight!
As our boatman, a local, filled us in on the legend of the lake, I couldn’t help thinking that he looked quite familiar. Sat Tal, he informed us, is actually a collection of seven lakes named after epic characters. Oh yes, he bore a strong resemblance to Himesh Reshammiya — the boatman, I mean.
It was good exercise paddling back to the bank. On to Nainital… roughly an hour away.
We parked our car in the parking area near the Nainital lake and wandered around aimlessly for a while, taking in the sights and sounds. The lake itself is beautiful and so are its surroundings. But I had this strong urge to take a giant duster in hand and erase all the ugly man-made structures in one sweep!
There’s a cable car ride that one can take to the hill top but one has to wait for one’s turn which can stretch to almost an hour. Once inside, the stern-looking elderly operator wouldn’t let us move. There was a group of foreigners with us and they seemed pretty much amused and one of them whispered “no moving…no breathing!”
The top came as an anti-climax really. There’re a handful of restaurants and souvenir shops and a complex offering entertaining rides and stuff. One can explore the surroundings of course but hang on. When you buy a ticket to go up there, you’re time-bound. If you overstay your limit, as we saw some guys do, you can be in big time trouble.
Back at the lake we explored the market nearby, manned mostly by Tibetans… feng shui items, folding fans, woollens, souvenirs, etc. Mintu of course made a beeline for the beads. As we spoke to the courteous Tibetan inside the shop, I was distracted by the music playing in the background. It was the famous Tibetan chant “Om Mani Padme Hum” which I hadn’t heard till then. I was filled with indescribable emotions as the sounds of the chant washed over me. In the middle of that little shop, I was far far away in a desolate windswept spot surrounded by ice-capped mountains and serene lakes and waterfalls. I just had to buy that CD. Unfortunately he didn’t have one but he said he could arrange for it in a day or two. But we were leaving that very day so I decided to check it out in Delhi (I found it in a music shop at Janpath bang opposite our office).
None of us wanted to stay in crowded Nainital so back to Bhimtal we went. Since we hadn’t a fixed agenda and bookings, we decided to try our luck at the dozens of hotels dotting the landscape. Pranjal and Romy were given the task of getting off whenever we came across a decent-looking place to make enquiries and we finally stopped at a place called Van Vilas nestling right next to Bhimtal lake.
Again, we were perhaps the only guests that night. The view from the rooms was excellent as they overlooked the lake. We had dinner that night in their open-air restaurant around a bonfire. “Jimmy” the resident dog gave us company.
Lazybones Romy didn’t join us for a morning walk down to the lake’s edge or in our explorations of the cottages in the hotel. The cottages had thatched roofs and were named after characters from the Mahabharat. Was it coincidence that the dorm was named “Draupadi”?
Romy did join us for a breakfast of poori-subzi. The view of the lake made breakfast very special indeed.
By then more guests started to arrive. It was time for us to leave and go back to the dusty plains and the daily grind. But we were going back with amazing memories of those friendly hills and lakes.