Kumaon: Frozen in Time

Just as there is no free lunch, there is no journey without its hiccups.

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

A woman trudging up the hill at Kumaon.

A woman trudging up the hill at Kumaon. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In the dead of the Himalayan winter when all species seek warmer lands, I chose to go north to make up for the dull aching caused by a best-laid plan falling through. I felt numb inside and wanted to match the feeling externally in a cold environment. I planned nothing this time around, and ironically, it emerged as the benchmark for travel.

Sunanda, a friend also reeling with the uncertainties of life and a fogginess as dense as what envelops winter mornings, came onboard as my partner in misery. She helped design our way out of it as we charted our route through Kumaon, the eastern part of Uttarakhand that shares a border with Nepal on its western edge. We were repeatedly told by many that it could snow any time and it was not wise for two women to be road tripping alone on a 500-kilometre loop via treacherous routes in tough weather that was imminent. But we wanted to choose our journey, both on the road and from shadow to light, and we decided that there was no balm more soothing than a blend of crisp mountain air and long stretches of solitude.

The car loaded with essentials and the tank filled with fuel, we left from Kathgodam, the gateway to Kumaon. We intended to go all the way to Munsyari, the far outpost at the end of this stretch; the nondescript town is on the list of few travellers, and one that leads to imposing valleys and grand glaciers once you get off the main road.

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We had no fixed plans, and as we left the tarmac behind and discovered kaccha trails, our plans meandered with as much grace and effortlessness as the Kosi we drove alongside. We had planned to halt in Chaukori for the night but continued because we wanted to catch the colours of the setting sun. We ended up at a guest house much before the traditional halt at Birthi, on the outskirts of a small town that does not merit a stopover otherwise.

From Thal, we left the next day after a meal of the usual suspects on a pahari trail, aloo paranthas with piping hot chai, followed by a brief halt at Birthi to admire its iconic waterfall. By late afternoon, we were in Munsyari and a golden silence that is the gift of winter.

Our days were filled with hikes to places that I had previously only seen in summer and autumn, teeming with families, friends, guides, and other tourists. Our evenings were now filled with quiet walks, a bit of cooking and cleaning up of the space we had rented, and some downtime. I could not help but admire how fantastic women are at reading the room; we communicate in near telepathic exchanges, stemming from an inborn sisterhood.

Through the trip, be it managing finances or a flat tyre, or picking where to stay or picking up after ourselves, work was done without any delegation of duties, merriment was spontaneous, and space given just when the other needed it. But just as there is no free lunch, there is no journey without its hiccups.

The weather turned, as predicted. On the morning that we had to leave for Chaukori, we found ourselves blessed with the snow we had been waiting for. Our departure was delayed, but the spectacle of falling snow cast an unmatched spell. When we finally left, the 9,500-foot-high Kalamuni pass we had to cross was snowed under.

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It was the first time that I was stuck in a tough situation where solutions flowed easily with calm discussions and fortitude and minus the burden of machoism. Just as we planned to turn around to figure out another route, we were greeted by a friendly BRO (Border Roads Organisation) team that was astonished to come across two women on the pass in that snowstorm. With a little help from them and Sunanda’s excellent driving skills, we manoeuvred the car out of the dodgy patch and finally made it to our destination before nightfall.

The morning after was our last leg of the journey, when we watched the sun rise and fill the sky and our hearts with sunshine. We took turns playing our favourite playlists, and sang and laughed, finishing off with a cosy cabin-in-the-woods experience. We would leave the next morning and head off on our own journeys, but not without the healing touch of this cathartic drive that started with camaraderie and peaked with the gift of a snowstorm.

As the journey ended, so did the numbness in my fingers and my heart; I had thawed, inside out.

Shikha Tripathi is a writer footloose in the Indian Himalaya, specialising in stories woven around nature, sustainable living, changing ecology, and the outdoors.

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