Although our primary mission is to search for sophisticated hideaways, occasionally we like to take a break from private pools and gourmet cuisine to experience something simpler, and ideally, to get some serious exercise. And so on our recent trip to India, we decided to spend a few days hiking in the Himalayan foothills.
Over the past 30 years, we have been on numerous Himalayan treks — chiefly in Nepal — and they have afforded us both the best and the worst of times. Slogging up a steep, slippery path for four hours in the teeming rain is no fun at all. But gazing at the glaciers and snowfields of a major massif just as the rising sun gilds the summits of the peaks can produce a feeling of intense euphoria, a joy in being alive that is completely overwhelming.
Whether the experience is wretched or transcendental, trekking is physically demanding. Which is why, on this occasion, we found the idea of a gentle stroll at low altitude very appealing. And rather than tents, we would stay in traditional village houses converted to an acceptable level of comfort. Not the classic Harper trip, to be sure, but a chance to clear our heads and to shed a few pounds amid the most inspiring scenery on earth.
The hill station of Almora lies 200 miles northeast of Delhi at an altitude of 5,400 feet. Today, it is a military town, an important recruiting center for the famous Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army. Few traces remain of the raffish 1970s, when it provided a base for counterculture guru Timothy Leary and a childhood home for actress Uma Thurman. The surrounding region of Kumaon is virtually untouched by tourism. Indian pilgrims flock to neighboring Garhwal to visit the sources of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, but Kumaon remains a peaceful place of terraced fields interspersed with stands of pine and backdropped by a serrated line of snowy peaks 60 miles to the north.
We arrived in the town at lunchtime after a four-hour drive up from the plains and were escorted to a simple cottage on its outskirts. It was a warm day, and so, accepting the offer of a cold lime soda, we sat in the garden listening to the birdsong and resting our eyes on the intense greens of the valley below. Suddenly, we became aware of two strangely solid and stationary clouds, which, on closer inspection, turned out to be the twin peaks of India's second-highest mountain, 25,643-foot Nanda Devi, floating on a quilt of haze.
The Indian travel company Shakti was formed in 2004 with the stated aim of introducing sophisticated travelers — people entirely familiar with the world of five-star resorts — to "the rejuvenating effects of remote surroundings." We were interested to see how this ambition was translated into practice. So, after a leisurely lunch, we set off with our amiable Nepalese guide Sid (short for Siddhartha, apparently) along a smooth, dry path between the rice paddies.
After no more than 15 minutes, cars, power lines and blaring radios had disappeared and we found ourselves immersed in a timeless rural world. Women in crimson saris worked amid fields of acid-green shoots, and agile children in sandals hopped from rock to rock as surely as the diminutive goats in their charge. Small irrigation channels lining the path ran with clear water. The air was so pure that just breathing felt actively therapeutic.
The four-hour walk itself was not especially arduous — well within the capacity of any reasonably fit person — as the uphill stretches were neither steep nor particularly long. Only once did we find ourselves out of breath, after we had climbed to the top of a small hill to visit a picturesque 1,000-year-old temple. Although deserted that afternoon, it held blackened images draped with fresh garlands of orange marigolds. Next to the temple, Sid pointed out a rough stone shelter constructed for itinerant holy men and meditating hermits, who would be fed by the local people for as long as they chose to remain.
It was about 6 p.m. when we arrived at the village where we would spend the night. Its sturdy houses were all constructed in traditional style, with whitewashed brick walls, ornately carved shutters at glassless windows, and slate-flagged courtyards piled with drying hay and occupied by an eclectic assortment of domestic animals. Unlike Indian towns, which are generally filthy and litter-strewn, the village seemed clean, tidy and well-swept.
The houses restored and converted by Shakti were simple but charming, and sufficiently comfortable. At the top of a flight of steep steps, we discovered a sizeable room with a beamed ceiling, sisal mats and two beds with cotton sheets and heavy tan-colored blankets. Its electric lights were strong enough to read by, and wall sockets enabled us to recharge our camera batteries. A separate structure about 50 feet away provided a clean shower with plenty of hot water, and a flush toilet.
After unpacking, we sat with a glass of wine in a wicker armchair and enjoyed the life of the village, listening to its barking dogs and lowing cattle and watching the shadows deepen on the surrounding hills. Dinner was set out on a table beside a wood fire and consisted of a delicious chicken curry, with chapatis, dal, rice biryani and a number of vegetable dishes, including one of spinach and garlic and another of potatoes and cauliflower. Tired, relaxed and well-fed, we soon retired and slept for 10 hours until we were roused by the village cockerels.
Shakti's usual Kumaon itinerary consists of four days of relatively easy walking and three nights, each spent in a different village. The converted houses subtly vary from one another, but the level of comfort they provide is directly comparable.
Undoubtedly, the experience will appeal to a minority of our more energetic and adventurous readers. But for those in need of a brief sabbatical from the modern world, it is one we can recommend with enthusiasm. On our return to Almora, we felt renewed and invigorated. Treks, even short ones, bring not just tightened muscles and a trimmer waistline, but a feeling of calm and ineffable well-being. The journey is as much mental as it is physical.
SHAKTI Three-night package, from $1,245 per person (October 1-April 30), all meals, beverages and activities included, plus English-speaking guide, private chef, porters and return transfers from either Pantnagar Airport or Kathgodam train station.
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