Despite our arrival here in late June, it was nippy in the morning – the Him-nagari (or ‘Snow Town’, literally translated) in the rains. In the scarcely-lit KMVN cafe, we had a humble breakfast and left Munsyari early. We were hoping to make it all the way to Bhimtal driving through Monsoon ravaged roads in daylight. Expecting landslides on the way down, we took guidance from our Pahadi friends who directed us to a place called Dhaulchinna. We were not aware of such a place and the name didn’t sound very promising. Who wants to just spent a night in Himalayas for a halt so we were looking for a place which we can add to our resume! The way to Dhaulchina was via Tejam, Nachni, Thal, Udyari Bend and Berinag. About 180 odd KM away, a distance usually covered in 7 hours, it seemed like a great option to safely get down from remote town of Munsyari. Our friends were confident that it makes more sense to go to Dhaulchinna. Considering that we were with two kids, we were requested to make a stop at a place owned by Mr Mehra and then next day, we can head to ‘Sattal’, a place which has become almost akin to a 2nd home after my numerous trips (read 25+ and counting) over the last 10 years.
We reviewed our options. We were not keen on Almora, we had to go to Sattal if not that day then definitely the next so it was to be only a one night halt. So the decision was to go towards Udiyari and then decide on what we want to do. If it happens that we are able to cross Binsar by late lunch, we would attempt a final lunge at Sattal, same day, else we would break at Binsar.
So with full gusto, I rev-ed the engine and started back amid beautiful landscapes, away from the thoughtful and calm gaze of Panchachuli, the peak which was in the back yard of our stay. The journey from Munsyari to Birthi was spent gazing at mountains, standing tall and quite, looking at the occasional habitat along side the road with Pahadi folk wearing black topis, half jacket over long shirts and pajamas and throwing infectious smiles as they go through with their daily chores. Because of rains, the road was not in its prime so we were a tad cautious; but there was an natural desire to drive a little faster and be able to reach Sattal, which as per our friends from Pahad was not a realistic goal.
Plan : Munsyari – Udyari Bend – Bageshwar – Binsar – Almora – Bhowali – Sattal
We were lucky to not encounter any interruption induced by a landslide. By noon, we were at Udiyari Bend. We had two options – either we could go towards Berinag and after a 3-hour journey reach Dhaulachina, or we drive towards Bageshwar. We had reached Udiyari Bend via Berinag, one our way to Chaukori. Berinag-Udiyari was good connection but Gangolihat-Berinag was very bad. We were dreading that if Berinag-Dhaulchina is similar that it is not going to be a lot of fun. On the other had, we had never been to Bageshwar, Udiyari – Bageshwar’ road was supposedly the best tar in Uttrakhand and to top it all we actually wanted to go to Sattal, and finally if it gets late, we can always stop at Binsar. So putting all this together, we went against the advise and moved towards Bageshwar. I know it can be a bit stomach-twisting if you are not familiar with the area but so are Himalayan routes so I am just trying to get you closer to real experience.
In no time, we had passed the last shack in the area around Udiyari and were cruising towards Bageshwar. The road was more than what I had expected and I made full use of it. It was a brilliant drive and at couple of points, we were fortunate to see Himalayan Peaks of Kumaon viz. Trishul, Nanda Devi et al. At one place, I pulled along and one could actually smell the green chlorophyl all around, fresh and inviting. There was an old temple close-by and the whole setting was very nice. We stopped at some random places – such is the magic of Himalayas that you can virtually pull over at any sundry point and get lost in the beauty of hills. So coming back to my forte, which is driving cars, we moved forward. In our excitement, we didn’t realize that we are now losing altitude and it was getting warmer with every turn, as we kept on descending from an ASL Altitude of 2200 m at Munsyari to ASL Altitude of 800 m at Bageshwar. That is a pretty steep drop.
By 2 PM or so, we finally reached Bageshwar – sweating even under the good industrial level air-conditioning of my Mahindra. Bageshwar was HOT and since none of the us were expecting it (ill-informed tourists) so we were feeling even more warm than necessary. It was the end of June, rainy, so it was humid as well. And add to the fact that Bageshwar sees the confluence of Saryu river and Gomti river and is a prominent religious town, we were feeling more like in a crowded market of a big city than in quaint and quiet Himalayas. We were dying of hunger since the breakfast was light owing to high altitude drive. So it was a good time to take a break at Bageshwar. We had a hearty meal of all kind of Pahadi meat cuisines, vegetables, cereals and finally topping it with an urban ice-cream. With zero discussion, we were on the way to Binsar. Binsar was 45 odd KM away and we had by then realized that we could not reach Sattal, so it was decided that the night halt would be at Binsar. We had not booked any hotel for this since we were not sure on our exact itinerary, hence a couple of folks were given the mandate to do the hotel booking while I drove up and further, enjoying my drive throughly in the sleepy afternoon amid hills.
Though Bageshwar came out as a surprise and probably we were not in the right season, the drive till Bageshwar and then from there to Binsar made up for it. We were now again climbing from the ASL Altitude of 800 m at Bageshwar to ASL Altitude of 2000+ at Binsar. It goes close to 2500 if you go inside the park.
We reached Binsar by late afternoon and booked a night for us at ‘Binsar Eco Camp’ after doing our due diligence by reading some reviews on web-enabled mobile phones and looking up some of the pictures. While one of us was trying to get a good deal over phone, and the other was checking the ratings at their favorite sites, I was instructed to keep driving. I was out of Binsar and was close to ‘Deenapaani’ when the deal happened. The pics in the reviews looked good and we were instructed by Mr. Kesar Singh of ‘Binsar Eco Camp’ to take the left turn, after the ‘Binsar National Park’ . So I took a U turn and took a right towards the ‘Binsar Maata Ka Mandir – Pracheen’. I have been to Binsar a couple of times before and was a little familiar with overall topology but i didn’t know about this connection. Technically, this seems like a great short-cut to the other side of Binsar Park which does not exist on maps.
It was late afternoon now and we were driving along side the National Park. It was woody, birdie, lonely, bouncy and very quiety (Binsar ECHO Camp:-) ). The cabin crew was quiet and a bit anxious. There was no one on this road, save for a very occasional passer-by who when asked about ‘Mr. Kesar Singh’s’ place would demonstrate much more confidence and would point us to somewhere in Southern Hemisphere. We kept driving, marveling at the Jungle, fancying a lucky sight of wild Cat, getting excited by watching birds of all hues and then suddenly growing awfully quite. It was a semi-pucca road, we were going very slow and steady and no camp whatsoever was to be seen.
It lasted for 3 centuries before my alert driving brain sensed a big town road, not too far from where I was. And you cross few furlongs of 300 year old wise route and find yourself next to black and shining hot-mix (that is what the regular tar road or the pitch road is called there) road. We could not believe ourselves! We actually utilized a short-cut which is not very popular. Mr. Kesar Singh was standing there, patiently waiting for us in his Blue Chevvy Spark and after a short mud-track-climb, we found ourselves at the camp. It was dusk when we moved into our rooms after a long drive of about 9 hours.
The camp was buzzing with action. There were no tents at that time so it was a pucca accommodation but a new setup. After settling down, I caught up with Mr. Kesar Singh and asked him about this ‘hot-mix’ road. I was told, as a matter of fact, that it connects to Berinag, 70 odd KMs, is what he said , which is equivalent to a drive of about 2 hours. I ensured that I do a good job of remaining calm and utilized my old training to not show any surprise (the truth is that we were stupid!). I asked more and did mental calculation and concluded that we could have been to this place at Lunch and would have saved the long drawn circular drive. That was not all, after more conversation I shared the names of my Pahadi friends from Sattal/Bhimtal area. He knew them and it was not long before I made another discovery that I have actually landed at the place which was advised to me when we started from Munsyari. Mr. Kesar Singh was actually Mr. Kesar Singh Mehra!!!
Once again, I had manifested my foolishness and ensured that we drive more and sustained the sweat of Bageshwar – only to come back to Dhaulchina! Wow. Super. I won’t disappoint you by stopping here so there was still some light left at the end of the day.
It was time to explore the camp and adjoining places. We were very happy to have made it without any trouble in this kind of weather. I would write a separate review of ‘Binsar Eco Camp’ with pictures and videos. But if you are still not tired, then let me take you to a small 10 minute hike, which is right in the backyard of the camp.
On the way, our guide who is Kesar Singh’s nephew, introduced us to certain herbs and that rejuvenated us. As we finished the hike, we found us sitting atop the mountain, soaking in un-interrupted views of the Himalayan peaks. We were in the most un-appropriate season and the visibility was very poor but it was sheer bliss enjoying the serene views, the never ending thick green forest and those peaks looking like shining jewels adorning the blue sky. We walked around, clicked pictures and took a longer circuitous return trip to camp (now that we were more confident on our ability to do longer routes). On the way, we were shown a number of herbs and we were experiencing these for the first time in our lives. We plucked rosemary, oregano, lemongrass, various varieties of tulsi and mint, and then many more whose names I had not heard of (the real ‘jarhi-booti’ from upper Himalayas). We learnt later that Mr. Mehra specializes in this and within the camp, there are a lot of magical herbal plants.
We wrapped up the day with the customary bonfire and called quits in good warm quilts. A day well spent.