As our bus took the last turn and pulled into the town of Ranikhet, all of us drew in a collective breath. Across the valleys, the majestic western Himalayas stood in all their grandeur. For millennia, the Himalayas have been guardians of the subcontinent and have captivated the heart of many a poet and traveller. For many of us, it was our first sight of snow-clad mountains, and we took out our cameras and cellphones to capture the moment.
Ranikhet falls in the Almora district of Uttarakhand, and the nearest railway station is Kathgodam, about 90 kilometres by road. The journey takes about two hours (or less), depending on how maniacal your driver is! The roads are smooth and with plenty of curves, every motorcyclist’s dream. As with typical mountain roads, there are plenty of steep ravines covered by dense woods and the occasional raging stream. Small settlements along the way often serve as rest stops for tourists and drivers. The ashram of a famous saint of the region, Neeb Karori Baba also falls along this route.
Ranikhet is a town where you can see the western Himalayan peaks from almost anywhere; homes, hotel rooms, shops, bus stops, anywhere you don’t have a tall deodar tree blocking your view! Among the peaks that are visible from here are Trishul, Nanda Devi (which is the highest mountain entirely in India), Nanda Kot and Neelkanth. There are several peaks, but the major ones are sometimes referred to as the seven sisters by some locals. A panoramic photo of the mountains can be found framed and hanging in almost every hotel room and shop.
Despite being a very popular tourist place, Ranikhet has maintained a lot of cleanliness with the help of the locals and the Indian Army. People, however, in typical Indian tourist fashion, were still littering the place and I had a spat with some of my fellow tourists over this. The hill folk are extremely friendly and very aware of ecological issues.
Anyone, armed with pretty much any camera, can take good pictures at Ranikhet. Situated at an average height of 1869 metres/6132 feet, the skies are bluer and the air much cleaner than our cities. Sunrise and sunset are spectacular. Trishul peak, in particular, looks dramatically different at different times of the day. The dense deodar woods, with sunlight filtering through them. The sky often forms bands of light blue, orange and purple-pink at sunset. The early morning and late evening sun rays over the valleys make them appear like layers through the mists, and as darkness falls, the glittering lights of the settlements look like a thousand shining diamonds on a velvety blanket. At night you may even be able to spot the faint outlines of the Milky Way.
As with any place at high altitude, there is a very vast temperature difference between the sun and shade. The strong sun may cause you to feel sick, and the shade may cause you to shiver uncontrollably. As one fellow tourist joked, you need both sunscreen and moisturiser. It is advisable to carry a pair of dark glasses to shield eyes from the glare. Some people may have problems with digestion, and a slight difficulty in breathing. The latter is more of a physical fitness issue and not the altitude or mountain air.
Just as I was beginning to fall in love with the place, it was time to pack our bags and head back to our cluttered urban lives. I left Ranikhet with a heavy heart and a lot of love for the people of the hills. Tourists come and go, and often leave the place littered, and yet the simple folk do their best to keep the place clean, and welcome many more tourists year after year, with open arms and genuine smiles.
The mountains are calling, and I must go…..again…