It was the beginning of the year 2012 and the month was January. It was the first week itself and one day in office, one colleague, Anand, was walking around with a brochure that looked quite interesting. It had a map of Binsar, Uttrakhand, outlining all the interesting things to see and do there.
He said he lived inside the “Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary” and that his brother was a tour guide there. It is a protected area and one needs to pay a fee to get inside the sanctuary and the gate closes at 7:30 pm. At lunch we discussed the idea of a trip to Binsar and everyone got so excited that it got finalized quickly.
So we decided to leave on the coming Saturday, 7th Jan 2012 morning as quickly as possible, enjoy the evening, night and the next afternoon and return on Sunday; so that we could be back for work on Monday if possible. I know it was crazy timings, such a short duration for a trip, but we were so excited that it seemed like an excellent idea then. And it was.
The day before we leave, I got my car serviced, tyres checked etc. I was setting the MapMyIndia GPS and looked for the place using the Hotel Name, but it did not fetch anything as it was a protected area and not in their map database. So I got the coordinates from Google map and set the GPS using that. Though Anand said he could help with directions, but I was not so sure and did not take any chances.
The weather was bad, and it had been raining off and on the whole day. There were times when the thought crossed my mind to cancel the trip, but the thought of how excited everyone else was, kept me going. We decided it was best to leave at around 3:30 in the morning and by daylight we would have crossed the maddening city rush.
So as planned I picked up most of the people who stayed near my house, which is in and around Dwarka, New Delhi, by 3:30 am and by 4:00 am we had picked up Shinki as well from Janak Puri. It was raining cats and dogs and she was waiting at a predetermined spot with her brother under an umbrella.
The video below is when we are on our way to pick up Shinki:
So we are all set now and all we have to do is concentrate on driving. I was driving and could not see much outside, only the road ahead. It was good we started early, otherwise we definitely would have got stuck in the city traffic for hours on end. The traffic gets really bad, especially when it rains. The road and highways in India are not anything like the West, where you drive within the city for some time and then you are out on the highway cruising to your destination.
Cities in India are big, when I say big, I mean, really big and overpopulated. Then you have the outskirts of the city, dotted with smaller cities, which are equally congested. Therefore, not only do you need to cross the city but the adjoining cities also if you want to avoid the rush and get stuck in traffic. In India, it is not as easy as taking the highway and getting off it when you reach your destination. It is a network of roads that you need to keep changing every now and then. Therefore, GPS proved to be the most important thing at that time. It gave us turn by turn instructions through small roads, roundabouts etc. until we reached the highway NH24, and beyond of course.
We had to travel many miles straight on to that road, traffic was scarce except for a few cars and trucks here and there. There was a sudden fork in the road and I asked Anand if he knew which one to take. He wasn’t sure, so we decided that we will henceforth trust the GPS mostly, as none of us knew the way and there was no way you could ask someone when there was no one around. We did not know what was ahead but the anticipation felt good. Snacks and eatables were brought out of the bags and everyone was enjoying and munching on something else or the other.
We have been driving for a couple of hours now and expected the sun to be out now, but that did not happen soon. We could only see a glimpse of the sun around 8:00 am. After a while we were supposed to take a left and leave NH24, and that’s what we did. It was a long time ago so I don’t remember all roads etc. I think we were on the Rampur road or something, when we noticed a filling station there. We all got off as we were filling up the tank and used the restroom there, you never know when you will find the next one. So use it when you have the opportunity.
The GPS was taking us through the Ramnagar > Kaladhungi > Nainital > Bhimtal > Almora > Binsar route. Perhaps there was a better route, but since we did not know, we followed our GPS religiously. Within a few minutes of our driving out of the filling station we noticed that the landscape was quite different than what we are used to in Delhi, so we decided to get down again and take a few snapshots, as you can see them below:
The road ahead was quite treacherous, not something we were expecting. According to the GPS we were to travel around 60 km on that stretch. Sometimes it was congested, sometimes the road was not driveable and sometimes both; and the rain had made it even worse.
But everyone thought it as good adventure, at least we were safe in the car. It took us many hours to get past that stretch, and as we reached near Jim Corbett National Park, we got off again for a few more snapshots. The landscape by now is totally different and we could see the hills around covered with dense forest.
We could see the road taking a sharp turn on the left on the GPS screen as we drove on. As we reached the turn, to my surprise, we were going up the hill. Yes, it was a surprise to me. It was the first time I would be driving on the hills now! I did not know we were supposed to be going on the hills. The roads were narrow and dangerous, most of the time there were no guardrail or barricades along the road to stop you from falling off the mountain. This took us by surprise, but we decided to move on. The roads were narrow, dangerous and slippery due to rain.
You know before planning this trip, I did a lot of research on the net on Binsar and everyone said it is heaven on earth. No doubt it is, but I was surprised to see no reference of the road conditions on hills! Not once did anyone say that they were dangerous.
I have been to places like Switzerland, but never do you find a place that makes you unsafe. I guess the reason is because people get accustomed to their surroundings and they accept things as they are. It is not like my fear is unfounded and without reason; buses and cars fall off these mountains on a regular basis. Unfortunately, human life is given very little value in India, perhaps because they are in plenty.
People travel on top of trains and buses and people do fall off and die, but it does not seem to affect anyone. Even I have driven on hills after this trip, and felt less afraid than the first time. So you see, it is easy to get accustomed to your surroundings.
You constantly have to turn your car to the left and then to the right, and roads going uphill or downhill at the same time as you turn left and right. Presence of guardrails throughout the hills would have made me fell a lot safer and confident. Nevertheless, I always believed in my good driving skills and they were definitely put to test that day. We reached Nainital around 1:00 pm that day. We took a break and walked along the shops alongside the beautiful lake and had something to eat there.
We continued our journey along the route to Bhimtal, Almora, and then finally to Binsar. It seemed like a never ending drive on the hills from Kaladhungi to Binsar. We reached the wildlife sanctuary gates at around 8:00 in the evening, and the gates were closed.
We were told we are late and cannot go in. I argued that we have come a long way and that we needed to go inside, but they wouldn’t listen. Then Anand spoke to them saying that he lived inside the Sanctuary and that we were all going to his house.
The guards, I think knew everyone in the village as it is a small sleepy village and very few people lived there, so he asked his father’s name and after he was satisfied he opened the gate for us and let us go inside. I also don’t remember paying any fee at the gate which everyone has to pay, except for the villagers, which was a bonus for us; though it was a nominal fee and I wouldn’t have minded paying it had he asked for it.
Anand’s brother, who was a guide there, was to meet us, and Anand was coordinating with them over the phone. We were in thick dense forest and it was pitch dark outside and the car’s headlights were piercing through it. But it did not seem enough, it was like the darkness was winning.
It felt like we were in a place where we shouldn’t be and the darkness owned this place and it belonged here. The roads were even narrower now and we were still going up. We drove for about 10 minutes into the uphill jungle road, when we saw headlights approaching us. I asked Anand if it was safe in here. He said, the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area and that it is very safe in here. The villagers and local people are very friendly and can be approached anytime for help.
As the headlights approached us, it slowed down and stopped, and signed us to do the same. A person stuck his head out and asked us what on earth we were doing out here at night in the middle of the jungle. I told him we were travelling to the KMVN Resort at the top of the hill. He said that was not possible as around 5 km uphill, near the old temple, there has been snowfall, and the vehicle could skid off the road; they themselves had great difficulty driving down.
I wasn’t going to take the risk now, and decided to drive up to the point where Anand’s brothers had lit a fire and were sitting and waiting next to it. Within a few minutes we reached the spot and parked my car off the road, thankfully there was ample space to park my car there, and we got out and quickly introduced ourselves. The fire was burning brightly and I kept my headlights on.
It was eerily dark all around and we could hear the quietness, except for the wind as it blew over the pine trees. I have not head a sound like that before, it was akin to a jet engine running at low speeds. I asked Anand if it always sounds like this here, and he said, yes.
Now we needed to decide what to do next. I thought if it was safe here, then why not camp here? A few can sleep inside the car and a few can sleep outside! It did not go down well with other fellow members as they had many apprehensions out here in the open.
A few other suggestions, were that we walk a few kilometers in the dark to Anand’s native village where we could stay comfortably at his house. But I seriously did not want to walk in that dark night, you don’t know what could be out there in the jungle. I asked them if there were any other resorts out there nearby that we could go to. I was informed there were, but since most of them were not accepting tourists at this time, they would charge double the rate to accommodate us. I asked them to inquire and let me know.
Both of Anand’s brother went off and returned half an later and informed us of the prices and that we could stay at the resort. The manager of the estate had a wooden house to himself, and he agreed to let us take the top floor, which had two rooms, and a bathroom. Perhaps, he was not allowed to do so, therefore, I am not going to name the resort. But I was grateful to him for letting us stay. So we drove up a steep pathway and parked inside the resort.
I was told food would not be available, to which I objected. And Anand’s brothers and the manager had a discussion, after which they informed me that Anand’s brother would arrange the food for us. They will cook in the kitchen; they were guides, but they turned cooks that day.
It was near zero degree Celsius, so you can image how cold it must have been. We were shown our rooms and there was a cozy fireplace there. Soon it was lit up for us and we were all huddled near it as we chatted and discussed the day’s events and shared other stories.
There was a small window next to the fireplace that did not close properly and cold breeze rushed in through it, which made us huddle near the fireplace more. Soon tea arrived, and it felt like the perfect thing to have at that time. We were told that food would take some time, which gave us ample time to share stories around the fireplace.
We were soon joined by the manager of the estate as he came in to say hello and wish us a comfortable stay. He stayed for about half an hour as he discussed how he came to work for this resort, a little historical background of the resort and its importance, and how many important people have stayed there during their summer vacations. He spoke of his children and that they were of our age and how and where they are studying now and so on.
He was a nice man and did all he could to make our abrupt stay comfortable. He said he is downstairs and that we can reach him anytime, should we need any assistance. 100% vegetarian food was served and we had nothing to complain, we were lucky we were getting food in the first place; and in fact I really enjoyed the food. It sure was an adventure for all of us to remember and we soon retired to bed. That ended the day.
I am usually a late riser, but the next morning we woke up pretty early, around 6:00 in the morning and started wondering in the orchard inside the resort. Some pictures below:
Then it was time to get ready and walk a few miles to Anand’s house as he had invited us to his home for lunch. The manager gave us company for a few hundred meters into the jungle as we walked towards Anand’s house. He was carrying a stick, when Anupam, who had become a good friend of the manager in a short while, asked him why he was carrying the stick. To which the manager replied, leopards.
That scared us, we thought what? Leopards? We asked, do they attack humans? He said no, you can shoo them away with your stick. So we all picked up one, also because it made us look like we were trekking, which in a way was not entirely incorrect.
He showed us a few burnt pine trees and explained how they get burned during lighting. Soon he went back to the resort and we went ahead with our journey, enjoying the landscape, trees, wind, birds, mountains, etc. Some walking trails were very narrow, and it gave us a sense of adventure all throughout the walk / trek. Few pictures below:
Anand’s family was very hospitable and we had a variety of dishes at his place that they eat locally. He asked me if there was anything I would like to eat at his place, and I told him, whatever they eat regularly; so that I could taste the local cuisine.
He told me that most of the houses are vacant as young people often leave for cities to work and to earn a living. Not much to do here, except agriculture, which is quite difficult in such a hilly terrain; and tourism, of which they don’t get much, only during particular times of the year. He said I could stay at any of the vacant houses for as long as I want and also could use their land for cultivation or agriculture if required. Quite an interesting idea I thought.
Anyway, it was time to trek back to the resort now. A few snapshots on our way back:
It was already past noon when we reached our resort. Quickly we prepared to leave for Delhi and to our surprise it started to snow. If we did not leave now, it would be impossible to leave if the snow piles up on the road. We quickly started our descent from Binsar towards home now and it took us an almost the same amount of time to reach home as it took us to reach here.