For the uninitiated, Uttarakhand is divided into two regions; Kumaon & Garhwal. As some of you might know, Garhwal has been grappling with a problem of migration to the cities. So much so that it is not surprising to come across entire villages that have been abandoned in search of livelihood. And this is where my latest trip came about : A sustainable travel company from Gopeshwar (that also runs an NGO) invited me to experience rural life in Garhwal.
In de facto terms; Garhwal was the more popular of the two in terms of tourism, courtesy of the Char Dham Yatra. In recent years, Kumaon has become a popular weekend getaway for Delhiites courtesy of the plethora of developing hill stations. Therefore, it is a big surprise to see Garhwal struggle with regards to tourism. Hence, I was very keen on the visit that had a clear focus on rural tourism and the challenge was to make it sustainable in the long run. That is the only way to develop tourism from the grass root level so that it benefits locals, and stops the migration in Garhwal.
Over the next few days, these are the prominent features of my experience with Fernweh Fair Travels.
Peaches & Pears Homestay – Near Ghingran, Gopeshwar
I was understandably tired arriving in Gopeshwar, after almost 24 hours of non-stop travel beginning in Jaipur. It was exactly like arriving at home when I reached Peaches & Pears Homestay. Poonam’s mom, Tulsi greeted me and offered ginger tea. The homestay was surrounded with greenery and had a view of snowy peaks of Garhwal Himalaya!
Evening time meant there was a surreal pink light on the peaks. I ate dinner and quickly dozed off as the wind rustled me to sleep. The room was simple yet comfortable and an old door frame decorated the rustic interiors.
The aloo paranthas in the morning were the best I’ve had, the ghee was home made and so was the curd. The guests, Peter & Rhonda (from Australia) also loved the parathas and we were almost bursting by the time we stopped eating! The garlic pickle and fresh mint chutney were the perfect accompaniments to breakfast.
There was a cute dog that would come unannounced and play with us; peach blossoms bloomed on a tree adjacent to the house; green peas clustered in a nearby field, a huge open terrace welcomed with immaculate views – and a lovely family to complete a perfect homestay. The greenery was a welcome addition with many quirks and colourful flowers. Most things that we ate at the homestay during our stay were organically grown in the nearby fields and there were a few peach trees, pear trees, lemon trees and orange trees among others.
Dessert during dinner was a traditional delicacy from Uttarakhand, jhangore ki kheer.
Highly recommend the homestay experience at Peaches & Pears B&B; away from the main Char Dham highway to Badrinath. In fact, Gopeshwar can also be accessed by the interior road of Ukhimath that runs to Gopeshwar through Chopta.
Day 1 : School Visit – Dasholi, Village Walk, Lunch at a Local Home, Hidden Waterfall Hike
On our first morning in Gopeshwar, after a leisurely breakfast we proceeded toward the remote Doongri Village and parked the sumo where the road ended. There was a steep footpath and after a ten minute hike we reached the small structure that was a primary school. It was a three room building and had only 15 students in total for classes till 5th standard. They were taught by two teachers out of which one was absent on that day.
We had brief conversations with the students and also a Q & A session in English! They managed it quite well. It was such an emotional time that one of the visitors with us broke down. She was a kindergarten teacher in Germany and wondered how content and happy these kids were despite all the poverty and troubles; and how in the western world the kids always wanted more and more.
The NGO run by the homestay family helps with the school and Poonam distributed stationery to the children in the form of books and pencils. Earlier they had donated benches and chairs to be used for the kids. It was heartwarming to visit this school and understand how even these small things can cause change. The kids sang and danced and waved us goodbye as we started walking to the village led by our local guide ‘Mausiji.’
Houses in the village were very old and were entirely built of stone. There were a few windows that caught my attention and the locals said that some of these homes were more than 100 years old. I was especially enamoured with the pretty door frames of these rustic two storey houses. Mausiji ushered us into a home where we had our lunch which consisted of hand pounded red rice, horse gram dall and local leafy greens.
The home where we ate lunch is a part of Fernweh Fair Travel’s empowerment project. Sunita (who served us lunch) was windowed at the age of 21 while being pregnant and had 2 daughters. Since then the Rawat and Ghariya family have supported her financially through the NGO and have also taken care of the education of the girls. Around 4 years ago, she was hired by Fernweh to be a part of the travel project. So via this participation she earns her own money and is an independent lady now. This is such a perfect example of sustainable tourism that uplifts entire communities.
Everyone enjoyed it and off we went again beginning our descent to the place where the vehicle was parked.
Back on the main road; we started our hike to the hidden waterfall and immediately realised it wasn’t going to be an easy one. After stumbling and making our way where none existed, all of us realised it was better to be safe than sorry and came back to the starting point. There was an easier path on one side to reach the stream and we spent some tranquil moments there. We were in the shade and the guests from abroad were more than happy to sit with their feet in the pristine water of Himalayas. This was another feature of simple yet enriching rural life in the villages of Garhwal.
We went straight to the homestay and watched the mountains in a shade of pink while we drank our ginger chai.
Day 2 : Handicrafts Naini Village – Untouchables, Lunch at a Local’s Home
It was decided that our next day be a bit leisurely (keeping in mind the couple’s age) and we set off for Naini village. Like yesterday, we went in the sumo as far as the road would go and started walking. Today the path was more uphill and the distance that we had to cover was much more. As we neared halfway, I was quite surprised to know that we were in an untouchable village.
All my years of studying in India and living in villages hadn’t prepared me for this : I had clearly not experienced this before. An actual village inhabited by people of untouchable caste who were not supposed to touch the upper caste people. This village was located above all other villages and was clearly demarcated.
The reason that we were here was to meet the locals, witness their art of making handicrafts, and possibly buy them as well. At the first home we visited, the women told us that all the men of the village had gone to the cities to work and that the handicrafts didn’t sell much so they had no choice. (This is a classic Garhwal problem.) Men migrating to the cities and sooner or later the women would migrate too. And thats why sustainable tourism in Garhwal is a big tool to bring change.
After that we walked further and arrived at main Naini village. It was a gorgeous sight to see the valleys on the other side as we were on a rooftop. Our arrival had caused a festive atmosphere in the village and the locals served us chai. Men of the village were experts in making baskets and other products from bamboo and we instantly bought the baskets they had on offer. We also had a live basket making session where we fiddled with the craft and learnt some nuances!
Kirstin, the German with us told me that these hand made things in Germany would be at least ten times the price. Poonam, chief of Fernweh Fair Travel also spoke to the villagers to make it a long term proposition for the handicraft products so that the art is kept alive.
One old man brought some hand made woollen jackets for me to try and I was overjoyed with the gesture. We said our goodbyes and walked back from a different path to arrive on the road. The skies had turned stormy and a stiff breeze blew as we reached our pretty lunch place that was organised at a local’s home! Lunch was super tasty; my favourite part was the malta oranges that came from the family orchards.
Evening was a crazy experience when the wind blew so hard that we felt we would get blown away! It had suddenly become cold and it was apt when a bonfire was lit in the open air region of the homestay. Everyone shared anecdotes and stories from the past as the warmth made it worthwhile to sit and enjoy the pleasant weather.
Day 3 : Anusuya (Ansuya) Mata Temple & Atri Muni Cave Waterfall
We were all supposed to go to Chopta and trek to Tungnath today but Peter and Rhonda were tired and in no condition to trek. After leaving early from Gopeshwar, we decided to have breakfast in Mandal village. The weather was overcast and our main man, Pushi suggested that we could hike to Anusuya Mata Temple instead. Since I was had already hiked to Tungnath & Chandrashila at roughly the same time last year, it made sense to see a different place!
We set off for the mild trek to Anusuya Village Temple and Atri Muni Cave waterfall. Pushi told us that the waterfall will be an unbelievable sight and that we would have to crawl through a cave to get there! Mandal is a pretty village with gorgeous green terraced paddy fields and streams flowing past. The distance from Mandal to Anusuya Mata Temple was around 6 kms. The trail was clearly marked and most of the route was cemented. The same trail also continues to Rudranath, one of the Panch Kedar pilgrimage sites.
We met a pilgrim family en-route and no one else. Rhododendrons were in full bloom as we crossed a dense jungle on a never ending ascent in the middle of the trek. There was also a 6th Century inscription on a rock just before reaching Anusuya Village. After around 2 and a half hours of walking, we reached the temple.
It was a village of around 10 houses and had two guest houses as well. We quickly visited the ancient looking temple and wandered in the courtyard to spot some really old statues. The temple priest explained that this temple is revered by childless couples, who come here to pray for a child.
Pushi was a chai lover and we kept having chai everywhere along the way! We ordered our lunch at a small dhaba and continued towards Atri Muni Cave Waterfall that was another 1.5 kms away. From Anusuya village, there was a pretty trail leading into the forest, and after we crossed a stream there was a bifurcation with one path on the right leading to the meditation cave of Atri Muni which also has a hidden waterfall.
It was a scary experience to climb up that slender path with the help of a chain, and then crawl beneath a small cave to reach Atri Muni Temple. The waterfall was in front of us and we were supposed to walk right behind the curtain that it had created. The water fell from a great height and made a turquoise coloured pool. Since it was a sacred place, we were required to be barefoot and had to return via a long path after crossing the stream. It had started drizzling too, and that made it even more adventurous!
We decided to keep our cameras inside as it had started raining. Close to the stream, there was a cave where a baba was staying. Pushi knew the baba and since it was raining it made sense to sit for a while. It has become one of my favourite experiences in retrospect, especially after listening to the english speaking baba. He made the best chai in the world and in the impeccable setting of a cave, it rivals Hello from the Coolest Chai Café in India from Bundi!
We rushed after that and reached Anusuya Village, quickly had our lunch, met an interesting lady who told us about sunset at Kartik Swami Temple near Rudraprayag. The drizzle was becoming heavier and as we neared Mandal village, the old stone and slate-roofed houses among terraced fields with a stream flowing past felt like a fairytale come true. There was an occasional dash of colour with peach blossoms. It must have been around 430 pm when we reached the dhaba at Mandal village.
We were all very hungry and I took the initiative to ask for some bun omelette and taught the dhaba guy to make it with ginger and green chilli and also to lightly fry the bun as well. The rain continued pouring as we had steaming cups of chai after the tasty bun omelette while our taxi arrived. We were driving to Chopta where Pushi owned a rustic guest house / homestay!
Chopta Mud House
Mandal to Chopta has to be one of the best drives in this region! It was gloomy with the cloud cover and rain around. It was fun when it turned out that our driver was a local Michael Schumacher. I was having the thrill of my life; the forest greenery was enchanting and the denseness of it was making it even more enjoyable. The distance from Mandal to Chopta is only 24 kms and Pushi’s Mud House was 3 kms before Chopta in a place called Bhulkan.
The rain got heavier and heavier and one of us wondered about the possibility of snowfall in Chopta as the road climbed higher. When the taxi took one ascending turn after another, we saw a white mountain in front of us! Shining white and gigantic; I screamed in delight. The others went mad as well, I was adamant that we stop the taxi there and click pictures. It was almost dark and there would be no possibility of good pictures thereafter. It was not to be!
We were almost at the Mud House, snow flakes were still coming down from the sky. It felt like a fairytale. I shot a slow motion video in low light on the iPhone and took some shots from the dslr. It had become quite cold and we all struggled to take our bags and hide in the dhaba. The entire landscape was covered in a sheet of white. Over more cups of chai, I walked in and out of the dhaba and enjoyed the snowfall.
Chopta looked even more prettier after the snow stopped. We put on our flashlights, continued slipping on the downhill path and walked to the Mud House. It was a small mud structure with 3 rooms on the first floor and a hall with kitchen on the ground floor. We put our bags and Pushi lit up the traditional bukhari fire to keep us warm. Dinner was memorable with tasty dall made by Pushi himself accompanied with veggies and mandua roti (finger millet).
The stars were shining brighter as the weather cleared. I saw a shooting star and wished for more snowfall. When I looked up, a flurry of snow flakes headed my way again. I danced. No one was watching. It didn’t matter.
The circle in Garhwal was complete : Read My own episode of ‘Jailed Abroad’ in Garhwal Himalaya
Note : I was invited on this trip by Fernweh Fair Travel (Uplifting Communities) based in Gopeshwar. The founder; Poonam Rawat-Hahne has also established the Peaches and Pears Homestay and the NGO – Bachan Charitable Trust Samiti – Developing Rural Tourism and empowering the underprivileged. Contact details are : email@example.com. They practise responsible tourism and as a professional blogger it is nice to associate with travel companies that are doing meaningful work.