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Discovering Gangolihat & Pithoragarh

Discovering Gangolihat & Pithoragarh

Discovering Pithoragarh, where the Misty Mountains is located, wasn't really a priority for us. We were more inclined to spend time at the Misty Mountains resort. However, we are thankful for getting over our inertia and visiting the Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave complex. But more on that later.

Misty Mountains Jhaltola - Pros & Cons

If you’re thinking of vacationing at the Misty Mountains, here is a quick table on what to expect:

PROS CONS
Hospitality. Few places come close Insulation. The rooms are freezing at night
Seclusion. It is a piece of heaven in its own little corner Electricity. Not enough voltage to power all heaters and blankets
Food. Outstanding local delicacies  
Madhur. The Misty mountains is like an extension of the person he is. Welcoming, serene, warm and one with nature  
Nature, mountains, fresh air, peace, tranquility, sheer beauty, Super - low carbon footprint. Misty mountains has it all, in abundance!  

Clearly, the pros out – weigh the cons by far. However, bear in mind that if you come from warm climes (like we do), then the poor insulation in the rooms and the inadequate heating can be a major issue. Each room is equipped with heaters and electric blankets. The problem though is if the heater is put on, then the blanket is ineffective, and vice versa.

Worse is that if someone in the adjoining room puts on either appliance, then none of them work. Apparently, this is because the electric voltage isn’t sufficient to power all the appliances simultaneously. I don’t know the technicalities of this but Madhur explained it, the poor quality of power supply means that you can either run the heater or the blanket.

Given that the rooms all have a single layer tin roof, instead of the insulated roof that would be required for such extreme weather, it gets very, very cold at night. Eventually we had to resort to wearing two layers of clothing and huddling under 3 blankets to get through the night.

On the upside, the Misty Mountains has a brilliantly low carbon footprint. Jut for that reason, you should stay here if you're out discovering Pithoragarh. For one, all rooms have solar water heaters. For another, the place seamlessly melds into the local eco - system, rather than disturbing it. The estate is overrun with natural forests, adding much needed diversity to the local flora. Most vegetables are grown by Madhur and team on the estate itself. Naturally, this is all organic.

So should you hazard a visit to the Misty Mountains? The answer is a resounding 'YES!' If you're still wondering why, just read on.

A room with a view

 

We woke up next morning, not much the worse for the cold. As is my want, the first thing I did was to draw the curtains of our room. A stunning sight greeted me. We could see the entire Nanda Devi range framed in our ‘L’ shaped bedroom window! Gazing out, it was as though we were looking at a picture of the mountains through a glass frame. That early in the winter morning the skies were a clean, clear blue, affording uninterrupted views of the entire range. There are no words to describe the breath – taking beauty of what we saw. In a matter of moments all thoughts of the cold were banished from our minds!

View of Nanda Devi range from the rooms in Misty Mountains Jhaltola
The view we woke up to each morning!

 

As I sat sipping on a steaming cup of tea out in the lawn, gazing at the mountains, Aditya came across to me with his own cup of green tea.

“Bro, can we check out of here and go to Nainital?” he asked.

“Today?” I asked back, incredulous

“Maybe not today, but tomorrow?”

“Why?”

“”It is unbearably cold bro. And the heaters aren't very effective.”

“Let’s speak to Madhur and see what he can do.”

So of we went, looking for Madhur and a solution to our problems. The man was sympathetic to our problems. He was candid enough to admit that he was always reticent to let his cottages out to Mumbaikars in the winter months because of our inability to deal with the cold! I in my turn was candid too in telling him that Ritika and I absolutely loved whatever time we had spent thus far at his property. However, the rest of our group wasn’t too comfortable. They couldn't quite come to terms with the cold weather, lack of insulation and errant heating equipment.

After giving the conundrum some thought, Madhur came up with a solution.

“How about this – I will have a sigri placed in every room at 3PM and replace it again at 7PM. You just need to ensure that the doors aren’t opened too frequently after 5PM. The rooms will anyway get moderately comfortable with the afternoon sun. That, and the heat from the sigris will ensure that the rooms remain comfortable through the night. Next morning before you get out of bed I will have a fresh sigri placed once again in the room,” he suggested.

Aditya and I looked at each other at the incredulity of this suggestion. Mind you, this isn’t a regular hotel we’re speaking off with elevators and corridors and trolleys that ease transportation of things. It's a collection of cottages built on the side of a mountain. Getting from one cottage to any other building on the property is no mean feat and akin to a moderate trek. In fact, just getting to the dining area from the rooms was enough to build up an appetite and the return was taxing enough to get you hungry again! On this terrain, Madhur was suggesting he would have the heavy iron – buckets loaded with burning coals brought to each of our rooms, thrice a day! The sheer thought of the logistics involved was mind – boggling.

“Alright Madhur, if you think you can pull this off, we’re game,” I said to him with some trepidation.

After breakfast we lazed around the property. Some of our group soaked up the sun on the lawns outside our cottages, lolling before the Nanda Devi. The rest of us, which was Simran, Ritika, Shradha all the assorted kids and I trekked off to a plateau higher up in the property.

Speakeasy session
A few of the gang decided to stay back and bask in the sun!

Snow and the temple

The Misty Mountains is built on a 1100 acre apple orchard, now overgrown with forests. While the resort itself is spread over 5 acres or so, Madhur is in charge of the entire orchard. Given our penchant for trekking, we figured exploring the estate should be the first thing we do in our quest for discovering Pithoragarh.

With one of his staff leading, we wound our way further up the mountain. Cutting across dense undergrowth, we broke upon a rudimentary walking path. This continued up a steep incline of nearly 40 degrees, for about 3KMS.

We walked up in single file, breathing in the brisk mountain air. Our walk was on a path with views of the valley on one side and the dense jungle on the other. For once, even the kids were quiet, taking in the scenic beauty of the trail we were on. After climbing for a little over an hour, there was a discernable drop in the temperature.

Kids trekking up to the snow bank
A moment of respite on the steep trek, 4Kms, one way with a 35 - 40 degree gradient

 

For the next 20 – 30 minutes the trail wound through dense foliage on either side. Like I said, this is a diverse forest and not an orchard. The sheer variety of trees that have naturally spouted here is brilliant. Once can only imagine the positive impact this has on the local eco - system!

By now, we were shivering slightly in our clothes. They were damp with perspiration from our exertions. We were still ensconced in a pair of thermals, T shirt, sweater and down jacket, each. Forget feeling hot, we'd get the shivers the moment we got out of the sun.

Suddenly, the path broke onto a clearing, completely covered in a carpet of snow, packed at least two feet thick. On one side was a small Shiva - Shakti temple and the poojari’s humble homestead on the other. The place looked ethereal, like something out of a movie set. The entire clearing was about 30 feet across and 100 feet long. A canopy of stately tall firs bordered it on all sides.

Snowland!
Small Shiva - Sakti temple & the poojari's home in the background

 

Our shoes crunched silently on the ice, as we walked up in reverential silence. The ground was undisturbed, save for the imprints left by a rubber slipper. Evidently, this was the poojari's footwear. The man himself was nowhere to be found. A quick enquiry with our guide revealed that the geriatric gentleman was probably out looking for firewood, or foraging for saag for his next meal.

After they got over their initial shock, the kids rushed with glee over the snow, with Shaurya and Dipika witnessing the white stuff for the first time. We spent about thirty minutes at this picturesque site, taking pictures and playing in the ice.

Kids play with snow before the Poojari's home
For some of them, this was the first time they'd seen snow

One image which will remain with me forever was the insides of the poojari’s home. It was all of 10 feet across and 6 feet wide, with a roof that was no more than 4 feet high. The shelter housed a small cot, about 6 inches off the ground, covered with 3 torn blankets (I counted them). Outside the hut under an extended overhand were some utensils and a clay oven. This served as his kitchen I guess.

Given that this place was still covered in a blanket of snow, I imagine it was decidedly colder than the resort proper. Without having met the man, my regard for him went up more than a few notches for the living he was eking out in this formidably hostile environment! Certainly an intriguing aspect of discovering Pithoragarh, or India for that matter.

Ramble through the estate

The return trek was easier (and faster), getting us back in time for lunch. Eschewing a siesta post the wholesome meal, we decided to trek in the other direction from the resort later that afternoon. Guests from a couple of other cottages too joined in for this.

Posing before the erstwhile estate manager's residence

 

Soon, we were a motley group of nearly 20 persons that set off at around 1500HRS. To ensure we didn't lose our way, Madhur deputed another of his boys to accompany us.

The intrepid trekkers

 

We spent a blissful afternoon exploring the rolling mountainside, hiking up and down steep paths, crossing a placid lake, visiting the ruins of what used to be the plantation managers bungalow in a bygone era and generally hiking over nearly 6KMS of the beautiful countryside.

Posing before a lake on the grounds
Posing before a lake on the grounds - the photographer is standing by the lake :)))

 

Patal Bhuvaneshwar

The Patal Bhuvaneshwar is a cave complex which is as old as the earth itself. This fantastic relic dating from the Satyug denotes the story of the world as enshrined in Hindu philosophy and is a must – visit destination for anyone traveling to Uttarakhand. Discovering Pithoragarh cannot be complete without it. Dedicated predominantly to Lord Shiva, the cave is also home to all 33 Koti demi – Gods in Hindu belief. That is 33 unique Gods – not 33 crore, as ‘koti’ is typically confused with. 

Patal Bhuvaneshwar is barely 11KMS from the Misty Mountains. On 31 Dec. Sanju, Simran, Ritika, Aditya (our 9 year old) and I hopped in to the Pajero to continue our quest for discovering Pithoragarh. Add the 3KM trek down and up the Misty Mountain trail, and it was a 26KM drive in all. Once we got onto the main road, instead of heading to Raiagar, we continued onwards on highway AH 309 which goes to Pithoragarh.

The drive is very picturesque affording panoramic views of the Nanda Devi range nearly all throughout. Over a distance of 10KMS, you descend from 2100 to 1350Mtrs, which is the altitude at which the cave is situated. We may not have ended up discovering all there is to Pithoragarh. However, the drive itself was a spiritually immersive experience.

Entering the cave is nothing short of an adventure in itself. The doorway is a small crevice that you crouch through. Once through, you are greeted with a 90 feet plunge down a steep 50 – 60 degree decline. Given the low ceiling, most of the path down must be covered crouching. If it wasn’t for the length of thick chain lining the pathway, I am pretty sure none of us would have made it down with our bones intact.

Entrance to the Patal Bhuvaneshwar Caves
Entrance to the Patal Bhuvaneshwar Caves. No photography is allowed beyond this point (without permission, which we didn't have)

 

The Patal Bhuvaneshwar finds mention in the Skand Puran originally. In the 11th century AD, Adi Sahnkaracharya ended up re - discovering it when he visited Pithoragarh. I don't know if this is 'the' Adi Shankaracharya though. For if he is, then the dates are way off. Apparently, he lived much before this date.

I can well imagine how he would’ve navigated his way down with no lights or assistance of any other kind. If you don’t believe in divine intervention, you should visit the cave yourself. Try imagining getting in with no material or Godly assistance! 

Steeped in Myths

Once inside, the cave is a marvel in itself. Right from Sheshnag, the king of serpents holding up the three worlds on his flaring hood, to the story of the Pandavas, tales of the Shiv Puran and various other deities, they all beautifully play out on the natural tapestry of rock formations on the walls of the cave. None of it appears to be manmade, yet, all of it makes perfect sense. In fact, it all seems extremely plausible when narrated by a well – informed guide. We'd set out on discovering Pithoragarh and ended up on touring a microcosm of the universe as stated in Hindu philosophy!

Legend has it that originally the cave had four entrances. With the passage of the Yugas, two doors have been shut. The ‘Paapdwar’ was shut first with Ravana's death. The ‘Randwar’ was shut next at the end of the Mahabharata war. This left just the ‘Dharmdwar’ and ‘Mokshdwar’ open to humanity now.

Deep inside the cave is a passage which reduces in size till you can go no further. Or actually, wouldn’t dare go any further! Apparently, this is a subterranean passage connecting to the Kailash Parbat. The Pandavas took this route to get to Lord Shivas abode, and ascend to heaven from thereon. Or descend to hell, basis their karma.

There is a similar passage which descends down to hell, according it the nomenclature of ‘Patal Bhuvaneshwar’. This passage too is not accessible now, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure none of us would like to read inscriptions of “Bunty loves Sweety” scratched on the walls when we’re descending down the passage at the end of our mortal lives! 

The time to explore the cave and see all that it has to teach takes around 60 to 75 minutes, with one of the Bhandaris acting as a guide. Every one of those minutes is worth it. This is a priceless gem of Indian history, culture and heritage. You can't miss it if you happen to be on a quest of discovering Pithoragarh. Strangely, the monument isn't being marketed. Or perhaps I should say, thankfully it isn't!

New Year 2021

True to his word, Madhur ensured that we weren’t wanting for either hot water, or sigris in our rooms. To boot, Raju, the man who was perpetually placing fresh sigris and removing old ones from one of our rooms or the other, always had a broad smile on his face. The way he dashed up and down the mountain side, bearing the heavy loads which the sigris were, was a sight to behold. It suddenly struck me, that here is a man who loves what he is doing, loves his home, the mountains, and is actually happy! Then, looking around, I realized that was the case with pretty much everyone at the Misty Mountains. Especially Madhur and Ambika. Clearly, it was a case of doing what they love.

A game of pre - dinner Tambola
A game of pre - dinner Tambola in the sigri - warmed room

 

That evening Madhur’s wife Ambika had prepared a feast for New Year’s eve, and we got chatting over dinner. As it turned out, Madhur had quit his typical executive job in New Delhi and moved back to Nainital, his hometown with the intent to start a retreat. After scouting for the ideal location and topography for three years, he finally came upon this corner of the world. From there it was a matter of getting into an agreement with the existing owners of the rundown orchard and putting the resort together, one cottage at a time. Given the inaccessibility of the location, one can but salute Ambika and Madhur’s spirit for having made the Misty Mountains a reality!

New Year's eve dinner at the Misty Mountains Jhaltola
New Year's eve dinner at the Misty Mountains Jhaltola

Today, they are very clear that this is their life and there is no question of returning to the big city. For Madhur, even going to Nainital or Haldwani for work is nothing short of a task, and he can’t wait to get back, in his own words. When Ritika asked him how he’d take care of his daughter Suroohi’s education (she was about 3 when we met), true to his nature Madhur just looked into the distance, before smiling and saying with a shrug, “Maybe I’ll just start a school over here.” That was one more thing to add to the list of places to see for future travellers on a quest of discovering Pithoragarh!

That one statement sums up the spirit of the Misty Mountains! If any place comes close to the spirit of the Misty Mountains, perhaps it is the Jungle Hut in Masinagudi.

After a memorable stay, on 1 Jan 2021 we reloaded the cars, heading to our next, and final destination for this edition of our Road Trip. We keep promising ourselves that we should return here, and we will. Discovering Pithoragarh was never our intention. However, I'm glad we did.

Reading next

Misty Mountains Jhaltola - Finding Oneself
Exploring Nainital – Things to do

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