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Kanatal – An Odyssey of forests & Mountains

Kanatal – An Odyssey of forests & Mountains

Kanatal is a delightful little hamlet nestled in the Garhwal mountains about 50KMS ahead of Mussoorie. It’s altitude of 8500 feet ensures the weather is brilliant round the year. What’s more, there’s a fair amount of snow between December to February. If your idea of a holiday is a quiet place with verdant forests and towering mountains, then you cannot go wrong with Kanatal.

Getting to Kanatal

We started from Udaipur on 23 December, 2020 at 0600HRS. Following the straight and not so narrow, we reached Delhi by 1900HRS that evening. Admittedly, 13 hours seemed a bit much to traverse the 650KMS that we did that day. However, factor in a couple of halts to fix flat tires and accommodate unscheduled tea breaks. Add to that a 20KM detour to avoid road closures due to the farmer protests and the timing doesn’t seem all that bad.

After staying at the Holiday Inn at Aerocity for one night, we left next morning at 0930HRS for Kanatal. Now, there are two routes that get you to this part of the Tehri – Garhwal Himalayas. One goes via Saharanpur on the upper Ganga Canal route. This is 340KMS long and takes about 8 hours to cover. The other is on NH343 through Haridwar, Rishikesh and Chamba before getting to Kanatal. This route though 330KMS long, takes about 40 minutes longer.

Somewhere near Meerut our cars got separated. We ended up on the NH 343 route to Kanatal. The other car took the traditional route via Dehradun and Mussoorie. Up until Rishikesh we encountered a fair amount of traffic. The going was pretty brisk though. Other than the jams we encountered while getting through Haridwar and Rishikesh, that is. Once we crossed Rishikesh, it was as if we’d left modern civilization behind! Evidently, this isn’t the preferred route for the average traveler to Kanatal.

For the next two hours or so, we barely passed another vehicle. The road was surprisingly good, a 2 lane highway cutting through the rugged mountains. Either side of the road were beautiful mountains and valleys. Periodically we’d cross a small hamlet with curious kids looking at our car passing by. As we got closer to Chamba, the scenery gradually changed.

A path through the Kaudia forest
A path through the Kaudia forest range

It looked almost forbidding in the late afternoon sun. This was especially so each time we’d pass a particularly shaded section of the road. The shadow & drop in temperature meant the sense of seclusion was acute. It was absolutely brilliant and one could well imagine how it would be at Kanatal.

All of a sudden, we stumbled across a largish town in the middle of nowhere. Chamba. From thereon the road steadily wound up at a reasonably steep incline. Chamba is at an altitude of 1000 meters whereas Kanatal is at nearly 2600 meters. Effectively, you gain nearly 5500 feet in altitude over the 13 KMS that separate the two towns. This is of course marked by a commensurate drop in the temperature! By the time we got to the resort in Kanatal, the car thermometer showed the temperature to be 2 degrees C.

Surprisingly, though we made it to our destination by 1700HRS, the other car only got there by 1930HRS! The revolutionary filmmaker, Vivek Agnihotri was shooting for his upcoming film, Kashmir Files at Mussoorie. Naturally, everyone and their mother – in – law was out on the streets to see the shoot. The roads were blocked to accommodate the crew and accompanying crowds. That, and the fact that the Dehradun – Mussoorie road is naturally crowded, led to the other car’s delay. In hindsight, though we inadvertently took the longer route to Kanatal, we got the better end of the bargain.

Club Mahindra Kanatal

We were booked to stay at the Club Mahindra Kanatal. The property is right opposite the entrance to the Kaudia forest reserve. Right behind the resort is the Kanatal valley. Its location is absolutely brilliant, especially if you love the jungle like we do. Thankfully, for once Club Mahindra didn’t disappoint. We actually felt like we’d arrived at a resort. Although the rooms are housed in a ground + 2 storied structure, you don’t feel you’re in a concrete building. This is due to the fact that all the rooms overlook the valley and mountains beyond. A welcome relief after Club Mahindra Udaipur!

Room at Club Mahindra Kanatal
Hotel Units at Club Mahindra Kanatal are large enough for a king-size bed & some furniture

 

The rooms are quite spacious. Even the hotel units are large enough to accommodate a king – sized bed with a coffee table and chairs. All rooms are equipped with a decent – sized balcony overlooking the valley. Very pleasant and comfortable. Most importantly, the rooms are equipped with powerful heaters ensuring you have a comfortable stay. On comfort, the place scores pretty high. On it's environment - friendly approach though, it leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, they are brilliantly located to avail of the ample sunlight which could power the heated water supply in the bathrooms. Unfortunately, solar heating is glaringly conspicuous by its absence.

Balcony at Club Mahindra kanatal
Balcony's at the Club Mahindra Kanatal afford beautiful view of the valley beyond. Beware of monkeys though!

 

Besides the rooms, the property boasts of a very pretty coffee shop. This is the only F&B outlet and has large glass windows overlooking the valley. The food is way above average and service excellent. Each time I visit a Club Mahindra property, I come away with the impression that one may fault them for the design and layout of some resorts. However, they score outstandingly well on the service levels. No two ways about that! One thing that does work in their favour though is the picture windows. These huge apertures allow ample sunlight into the room. So much so, that it provides natural lighting and heating, doing wonders for the resort's carbon footprint! We checked in, looking forward to exploring the place over the next two days.

At the Club Mahindra Kanatal
The Club Mahindra Kanatal sports a pretty snazzy coffee shop with huge picture windows

 

Kaudia Forest Range

Right across the road from the Club Mahindra Kanatal is the gate to the Kaudia Forest Range. This is a beautiful forest reserve with an 8KM long walking path. In addition, it has a few cattle – paths that meander up and down the mountain face. While everyone stuck to the walking path, a few of the more adventurous in our group took the smaller paths to venture into the forest.

Views in the Kaudia range forest
The sunset as viewed from the Kaudia forest range

 

The reserve is a dense fir, deodhar & rhododendron forest. You find the Garhwal Himalayas peeping through from one side, majestic in the cold winter light. The other side houses small hamlets nestling in the Kanatal valley. With the temperature hovering in the 2 to 10 degree range, walking was an absolute pleasure. For the next three days that we were in Kanatal, Shradha, Ritika and I spent every waking minute walking through this jungle. Of course, that was when we weren’t trekking elsewhere.

Trekking through the Kaudia forest range Kanatal
The kids go off the beaten path at the Kaudia forest range Kanatal

 

An added advantage was that though the Club Mahindra Kanatal was filled to capacity, not too many people were interested in venturing into the jungles. This meant we had the place more or less to ourselves! Each time we went in, nature put up a new show for us. 

The mornings would have the sunlight dappling through the foliage. Look through the trees, and you could see it lighting the adjoining valley in a wash of bright light. Beyond that, the Trishul peaks sat atop the Himalayas, clearly visible in the crisp winter sun. It seemed like Lord Shiva’s trident had decided to grace us with a private audience. An audience that we could get whenever we wanted. All it needed was for us to venture through the scented forests of the Kaudia range!

This is a wonderful green lung in the mountains. While the other side of the highway houses hostelries of all shapes and sizes, the fact that this is a reserved forest goes a long way in preserving the fragile mountain ecology.

 

Garhwal Himalayas
A view of the Garhwal Himalayas from the Kaudia Forest Range

The evenings on the other hand would have an entirely different story to tell. We could feel the cold rapidly creeping up on us as we walked between the tall firs. On one side was the valley awash in the orange light of the setting sun. Smoke rose lazily from the chimneys of the houses as their inhabitants went about fixing the evening meal. Walking on the forest path, we’d suddenly encounter the hint of wood smoke, probably from a cooking fire.

On the other hand were the Himalayas, reflecting 3 different hues of orange. The lower reaches looked a dark orange, having surrendered to the oncoming night. The upper slopes bravely fought a futile battle though, looking resplendent in a lighter shade of orange, that faded as our gaze went up towards the peaks. Only the Trishul peaks stood out, aloof in a contrasting white. The entire scene was peaceful, beautiful, pristine and promising. Like the day gone by was merely a prelude for something grander to come.

 

The views of the Himalayas from Kanatal were as spectacular as what we’d got from the Misty Mountains in Jhaltola. Yet, there was still a subtle difference. Jhaltola had seemed at the very edge of civilization. Wherever one looked, there were only the mountains and valleys. No signs of habitation, whatsoever. At Kanatal however, the night would reveal lights twinkling all over the valley. 

You are alone within your immediate surroundings. Still, you know that all you need do is look up, to be greeted by the comforting sight of lights twinkling in the darkness. Or the annoying presence of other homo sapiens in your immediate vicinity. Depends on how you look at it. The thought seems rather selfish. But you have to factor in that we humans tend to only depreciate the value of a place, not add to it. And all this by our mere presence!

Surkanda Devi Kaddukhal

On our second morning we decided to visit the Surkanda Devi temple. This is one of the Shakti Peeths, at a distance of 5KMS from the Club Mahindra Kanatal resort. As we drove towards the temple, 2KMS before our destination we saw a small gateway arch constructed on the mountainside. The locals informed us that this was the old jungle route to the temple. Eschewing the tried and tested tourist route, we decided to venture on the path through the jungle. 

An 11 year – old local boy, Piyush, accompanied us as our guide and mentor for the trek to the temple. “Only 2KMS” was his cheery reply when we asked him how far the temple was. In a few short minutes we’d left all semblance of civilization behind and were trudging along through the mountain pass. Typically, the term ‘path’ indicates some sort of a throughfare which is convenient to walk on. What we were walking on was anything but that.

Piyush, our intrepid guide
Piyush, our intrepid guide

 

There were boulders of all sizes and shapes that line the walking path. Again, I use the term ‘path’ very loosely. It looked more like a dried up stream. All around us, the place still retained some of the snow from the snowfall of 2 weeks back. In places this had turned to black ice and made the going quite treacherous. After about 45 minutes of navigating what seemed like a stream bed, we asked Piyush how much more remained. “Only 2KMS” was his cheery response. If nothing else, at least the chap was consistent! Reminded me of the thermometer at the Club Mahindra Derby Green resort in Ooty. It consistently showed the temperature to be 13 degrees C for the duration of our stay!

Treacherous black ice
Treacherous black ice lined the mountain path to Surkanda Devi temple

 

After about an hour of negotiating the steep 30 degree incline and sharp switchbacks, the less fit members of our group decided to turn back. I tried dissuading them. After all, we had “2KMS only” to cover. However, better sense prevailed, and save for Ritika, Shradha, the kids and I, everyone returned. This is when the real fun started.

By now, it was nearly 2 hours since we’d been trudging up. Below us was the forbiddingly beautiful valley and before us was the unrelenting face of the mountain. We’d run out of water. The children were all thirsty, hungry and exhausted. We had certainly covered the “2KMS only” that Piyush had promised, and then some. Our tired group halted at a knoll to catch its breath and ration out whatever little water remained in our bottles. “How much further?” I asked Piyush, who seemed none the worse for his exertions. “Just beyond this cliff” he replied cheerfully.

Trekking up near 40 degree inclines
Trekking up near 40 degree inclines enroute to Surkanda Devi temple

 

I looked up at the cliff he’d pointed at. The bloody thing was half a kilometer away, if anything! Whatever semblance of a path existed so far, soon disappeared. We were trekking on the mountainside now, finding footholds where we could. The incline was easily 40 degrees or above. In fact, at several places we were crawling up on all fours. If not for the lack of water, this would’ve been a fantastic hike. As it was, I trudged up gamely, pulling Avantika, my 9 year old, with one hand and Shaurya, Shradha’s 8 year old, with the other.

 helping the kids trek up to the Surkanda Devi temple
A helping hand

 

To give credit where it is due, the young ‘uns used my help only for the steeper parts of the climb. Other than that, they stuck to it with admirable gumption. Bear in mind that we’d now been climbing for over 2 hours. Of this, the last 30 minutes or so had been without water. Only Aditya, our 10 year old, seemed none the worse for it. He kept up a constant stream of chatter, skittering up the mountain with nary a care in the world. Finally, after nearly 2 and a half hours, we reached our destination!

The temple, though now very old, marks the spot where Sati’s head is supposed to have fallen. The legend of the Shakti Peeths goes that Sati had married Lord Shiva against the wishes of her father, Daksh. So when Daksh held a Yagna, he didn’t invite Shiva for the same. In a fit of anger, Sati hurled herself into the holy flames of the yagna, thus desecrating the site. Shiva was inconsolable at the loss of his wife. After serving Daksh and his minions their just desserts, he left with the burnt body of Sati. The tale goes that Shiva started the Tandav Nritya with his wife’s corpse in his arms. 

Surkanda Devi temple Kanatal
Surkanda Devi temple Kanatal is a relatively new building housing an ancient idol

 

Naturally, this would’ve led to an untimely end of the world. All the Devas beseeched Vishnu to do something about it. Evidently, all their prayers to Shiva to stop had fallen on deaf ears. Lord Vishnu used the Sudarshan chakra to strike Sati’s body. Her body was cut in 51 pieces and she dropped from Shiva’s arms. This ploy had the desired effect. Lord Shiva stopped the Tandav, choosing to go into a meditative trance instead. The 51 Shakti peeths are the spots where Sati’s body fell. Surkanda Devi temple is the spot where the head is supposed to have fallen.

Whatever the legend says, the fact remains that the temple has a ‘feel’ to it. Right from the time you enter the outer courtyard, till the sanctum, there is a spirituality to the place that cannot be denied. Also, we found most of our missing co – habitants from the Club Mahindra Kanatal at the temple. So this was what Kanatal is most famous for! 

After quenching our thirst, both spiritual and otherwise, we headed down from the normal path. This is a cemented walkway, part ramp and part stairs. As it turned out, this route was actually “2KMS only”. We managed to get back in about 30 minutes!

The Terraces Kanatal

Upon recommendations of a friend, we headed to The Terraces Kanatal for lunch. The terrace restaurant was highly recommended. The place has a brilliant view of the valley below. This restaurant features a menu that serves Continental, Indian and Chinese cuisine. We ordered a mixed bag of stuff, right from grilled chicken to hakka noodles and butter chicken. Unfortunately, the service was abysmal, to say the least. There was no regard to what course was to be served when. It took the better part of an hour for the food to arrive and the noodles were served post dessert. The icing on the cake was the invoice though. We had to shell out 13 grand for the gastronomic torture we had to endure! 

Lunch at the Terraces Kanatal
Lunch at the Terraces Kanatal

 

If you ever happen to be in Kanatal, please give The Terrace a wide berth. You’d be better off eating in one of the dhabas that line the highway. The food is fresh, prepared in the local style and they won’t ask for your hide in return for feeding you. What’s more, you can walk in, order, eat, pay and leave, all in under 60 minutes.

Christmas Eve at Club Mahindra

The Club Mahindra Kanatal staff had put up a program for Christmas, which was mandatory for house guests to attend. Of course you could give it a pass, but you’d still have to pay for the ‘gala dinner’. Left with no choice, we decided to attend. The program itself was a revelation!

The staff had choreographed a variety entertainment program. This largely featured singing and dancing, performed by the staff themselves. And what a show they’d put up! We were dazzled by the sheer talent on display. Whether it was a fusion Kathak performance, or the local Garhwali dance, they aced it all. Given that they would’ve had to practice despite working 12 hours a day, the effort was nothing short of brilliant! Hats off to the super – motivated employees who put up this mind – blowing show. To top it, they were all back at work the next morning, smiling as always! I guess it is their people that makes Club Mahindra the winner that it is.

After three eventful days, we were all set to head to Kausani, the next leg of our roadtrip. The distance is only 280KMS. However, the entire drive is through the mountains, crossing over from Garhwal to Kumaon district. Google Maps indicated that the drive would take 9 hours. Not wanting to take a chance with the weather and road conditions, we decided to leave at 0600HRS the next morning. As is routine on days prior to a long drive, we packed up early, to be fresh for the next day’s journey.

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