MY BIRTHDAY TREAT

ITMENAAN ESTATE, KUMAON HIMALAYAS

The trend to stay in non-hotels hotels was encashed on early by a few and Itmenaan was definitely one of them.  Inviting travelers to connect with local communities, explore the beautiful Himalayan trails on foot and stay in local homes has been a much awaited product that has finally seen the light of the day. Stressed corporate employees who seek solace in getting away from mundane routine, as well as travelers who want an active holiday need not look any further.

Having celebrated my birthdays in previous years drinking & dancing with my crazy friends, I wanted to ring in my 49th in a place where I could connect with my love for nature.  Not having had any luck in previous attempts to visit ITMENAAN ESTATE, this time it seemed a perfect getaway for many reasons.  Though the month of January poses its own challenges and I was warned of getting there in extremely cold conditions, my newly acquired 600mm telephoto lens and my cravings for walking in the mountains through small villages were convincing enough to ignore all advice.

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Those who don’t prefer driving from Delhi for eight to nine hours to reach this place, can opt to take the direct Shatabdi Express train to Kathgodam- the railhead for this and many other beautiful accommodations tucked away in the Himalayas.  My ride from Delhi to Kathgodam passed like a breeze as a healthy breakfast, newspapers, good views and good company ensured there was never any dull moment.

The driver waiting at the Kathgodam station promised to get us to the estate in three hours but the journey was slightly longer as we decided to take a much-awaited break for Maggi Noddles and hot tea at a roadside stall.  Here, braving the severe cold winds under the afternoon sun, I had the first smell of wet pine trees and all the lethargy due to an early rise disappeared in no time.  It was intoxicating to smell the forest and inhale the mountain breeze, so sought-after by the city breds like me.

Our friendly driver maneuvered the hairpin bends with extreme ease and stopped the car on the road, from where one has to walk downhill for 10 minutes to reach the estate.  Two porters were sent to us to carry our luggage.  We arrived the estate after stopping at every ten steps to absorb the beautiful views that unfolded a more amazing sight after every bend.

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The Estate is an old Kumaoni house tastefully converted into a comfortable cottage with all amenities inside that are otherwise found in a lodge/ hotel only.  In other words, the estate still looks like a village house from outside that has retained its original architecture, style and design, the inside has everything from study lamps to a cozy bed, from a wardrobe to side table for luggage, from running hot n cold water in the shower to windows that offer amazing views of the snow covered peaks.

We checked in by early evening when the views of the mountains were a little hazy and the light had started fading but one could still see the mountain ranges in their full majesty.

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The breakfast is served al-fresco just outside the room, lunch is often a packed one given people are always trekking around in the mountains, and dinner on shivering cold evenings is in a cozy attic below the room that the residents of Kumaon use as a barn for goats.

In the morning as soon as one steps out, a different world awaits with mountains shining in their full glory under the first rays of the morning sun.  I woke up to chirping of birds and came out quickly with my camera & lens, to be welcomed by at least ten different varieties of birds around me.  What a treat for a birder. My day was made.  I shot the birds to my heart’s fill and was later hypnotized by the uninterrupted views of the terraced farms, majestic Nanda devi peak and many trees laden with fruits.  The vibrant flowers were uniquely big in size and everywhere it was a sight to behold.

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After a relaxed breakfast we set out with the lodge’s in-house Sherpa (walking guide) for a 5-hour walk to a village where ITMENAAN had taken up a house for a village-stay experience for the discerning traveler. Many guests preferred to leave their luggage behind and trek with a knapsack carrying essentials for a night in a village.  This house, I was told had no electricity but solar lanterns were provided in the evening, till one was settled and ready to retire for the day.  Though the plan was to see the village house and come back to the estate, the walk was a little tough considering we were not conditioned for it and winds were strong.

We turned back from the mid-way point, a tiny village with just 100 odd people as inhabitants, having thoroughly enjoyed chit-chatting with locals, taking pictures of shepherds, lying down in a meadow admiring the tall pine trees kissing the sky, soaking up the sun and fully immersed in one of the best outdoor experiences.

It was already lunch time and while we were wondering how to get back in time as the Estate was a good two hours walk away, we sighted estate staff with picnic baskets.  Before we knew, a continental fare was laid down for us in the middle of nowhere.

On the way back we met school children who were chatty and giggled no end.  We spoke about the village, the school and what brought us here, which was a surprise for them.  It’s always the grass on the other side that is greener.  Little did they know what treasure trove they lived in, which drew people like us from far away.  Such innocent faces, smiles and attitude – very rare to find in the cities – made it so much fun and entertaining.

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Back in the Estate, supposedly a 100 year old house, we decided to spend the rest of the day reading, listening to music and just chilling doing nothing. The Estate has only three bedrooms which make it ideal for small family or friends, who want an escape for destressing and the clichéd far from madding crowd. Besides walking to the next village, there are number of other trails to be explored too that even include a short walk to some hot water spring nearby.  Ideally, one interested in slow-travel could fancy reading a book, painting a landscape or just unwind in the wide open, with birds, mountains and open sky for company.  The nights are spectacular for their star-spangled sky which is a rare sight for a city slicker.

One has to duck to enter the tiny dining room, where meals are served on the floor while one sits tucked in blankets and on Tibetan rugs. It is surprisingly warm inside and the great hospitality coupled with hot lentil soup to start with, makes it even cozier.  The food served is organic, super delicious and prepared by none other than local village cooks using many grandmother recipes.  The cuisine is primarily local, North Indian and occasionally continental with a lot of use of fresh produce from their own vegetable garden. Every spice & herb used in the food leaves a distinct taste in the mouth as these are strong in flavor, coming from the terrace farmlands in Himalayas.

A two night stay here in January was tough for it was cold, though the day trek was too good and made our stay a memorable one.  For me it was indeed the best way to spend a special day and when I left the estate the following morning with cool breeze hitting my cheeks, my misty eyes were happy to have made an everlasting sweet memory.

I was fortunate to be living my dream of spending my special day in the lap of nature and Itmenaan was the perfect host.

Vagabond shoes,
26 Jan’ 2016

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