It was a fortuitous first time when I first crossed Sitlakhet in the year 2015. I had been unable to find a place in Ranikhet that I liked and started walking. I had seen some cheap hotels near the main market but they smelled of moss. In Ranikhet, the green and yellow apricots that I ate in the market were especially sweet and the shop-owner remarked that the apricots are from Sitlakhet which is a tiny but beautiful place. (Sitlakhet is also spelt – Shitlakhet).
Read from the epic 2015 trip to Kumaon :
I had no plan of where to go next and a stroke of luck meant I was sitting in a camper before it got dark. The camper guy mentioned he was going to Sitlakhet and I remarked I’d love to go there! It was already semi-dark when the camper had given me a ride and we crossed Sitlakhet in pitch darkness. That day the camper guy recommended that I should just get back to Almora and stay there for the night and then figure my plans with a fresh mind. This was in 2015.
In 2018, I’d read about Nayalap and thought about a visit to Sitlakhet. The visit would only materialise in 2021 when we are living in Kasar Devi. It is the month of January when we embark on a four day visit to Sitlakhet. From Kasar Devi, the road first descends to Kosi where we cross the Kosi river and bridge and take a left towards Sitlakhet.
We have left at about 930 am and the views of the Himalayan peaks are a bit hazy from Kasar Devi. As we near Kosi, the haze increases with the appearance of the Kosi river. We ascend crossing the sizeable village of Khoont and at one of the turns the full splendour of the Himalayan peaks is visible. Nayalap is located 3 kms before Sitlakhet in a hamlet by the name of Salla Rautela.
I am overjoyed with the view of the Himalayan peaks but the haze is back and my joy is short lived. We reach Nayalap earlier than expected. Nayalap offers luxury camping (glamping) and we meet the owners Tanuja and Anindya. It is nice and sunny in the open sit-out and the first look of the property is captivating. We are ushered into the luxurious setting and keep our backpacks inside.
We chat for an hour or so while enjoying the nice sunshine and decide to hike to Sitlakhet bazaar by a jungle path. The distance by road is only 3 kms but it makes sense to walk when you are in a nice forest breathing clean air. We first walk past the village of Salla Rautela and then start our hike on a lovely jungle path that has a winding ascent all the way till Sitlakhet.
Sitlakhet – An Introduction
Sitlakhet is a tiny hamlet in Kumaon, Uttarakhand. It has a few shops in the one street market and is located away from the main Almora – Ranikhet circuit. It is an offbeat destination and has been popular with the travellers of yore due to the vintage Forest Rest House in Sitlakhet that was built in 1873 by the British. Sitlakhet is rich in flora and fauna and the hills and jungles around the village are said to house more than 100 species of birds.
The hiking trail to Sitlakhet is well marked and passes through a mixed forest of pine, oak, deodhar, rhododendron trees, and also crosses an educational institution on the way. We also meet a few locals on the hike and exchange greetings. The sun filters through the trees and makes it a pleasant experience with the breeze staying away. We reach Sitlakhet bazaar in about 30 minutes and continued towards the FRH after a short peek at the market shops.
Forest Rest House Sitlakhet
The Forest Rest House (FRH) in Sitlakhet was probably built in mid 1860s and is located on a hillock that is at a distance of around 500 metres from the main Sitlakhet Bazaar. There’s also the KMVN TRH (Tourist Rest House) which appears just before the iron gate of the FRH. In front of the Forest Rest House, there is a small green meadow which would be a perfect picnic spot on a clear day when the Himalayas are visible. Some of the prominent peaks that can be seen from Sitlakhet are Nanda Devi, Trishul, Chaukhamba, and Panchachuli.
The Forest Rest House in Sitlakhet is a beautiful old building and has an enviable setting. We are unable to see it from the inside, as it is undergoing repairs with the wooden floors in the rooms being replaced. I could only have a peek from the window and saw that the interiors were charming and there are fireplaces in the rooms and the dining area as well.
Sitlakhet Bazaar comprises of a few shops selling necessities, a cute-looking post office, a pharmacy, a blue coloured tea stall, a local dhaba making samosas, and 2-3 hotels providing basic accomodation facilities. We continue on our jungle walk after visiting the FRH and a dog accompanies us from FRH Sitlakhet. It is around 4 pm and we are surprised to see a rhododendron flower blooming; even though it is only January.
It is a surreal sight to see an acacia tree in bloom, in an alluring shade of yellow. We are walking in a dense forest and the evening light makes the surroundings look even more beautiful. After a while, we reach a flat grassland and see some holes dug for water percolation by the Forest Department. It is a leisurely downhill hike thereafter to reach Naila village and come back to Nayalap. There is a small bakery in Naila village and it is fun to see biscuits and other products being made.
Salla Rautela – A Typical Kumaoni Village
On one of the afternoons at Nayalap, I am accompanied by Tanuja and Anindya to take a walk around the Kumaoni village of Salla Rautela. It is an old village and the houses are spread across the valley. Salla Rautela is a typical Kumaoni village with pretty houses, mostly barren fields, dwellings with heritage value with carved doors and windows in likhai craft, exquisite door and window frames, and a few vintage houses made from stone can also be seen.
Some of the designs on the door and window panels are quite exquisite, while one can spot a few dilapidated, crumbling homes too. Some of these homes are locked, presumably to return later while some seem to be locked forever. I experience a feeling of unparalleled joy upon seeing a field of daffodil flowers (nargis flowers) blooming in one part of the village. Their scent is light but memorable and I wonder if it is available in bottled form.
Palayan – Migration in Uttarakhand
When I turn around, my eyes are facing a bakholi (a common village home) of 9 houses, which is a huge structure in a crumbling condition. 2-3 homes out of the 9 are in dire straits and the walls on the lower floor are already collapsing. Some of the home owners have shifted closer to the road and have built a home there.
The fields that the villagers own are mostly left uncultivated. The reasons are manifold – water issues, monkeys and pigs destroying their crops, young generation doesn’t want to farm anymore, everyone wants a job. Since jobs in the hilly regions of Uttarakhand are few and far between, the youth ultimately ends up migrating to the cities in search of work and slowly the families move out of the village preferring to live an ‘easier’ life.
There were also a few glimmers of hope, I saw one traditional Kumaoni home being rented by a Nepali family with kids playing in the courtyard and another one with pretty doors rented by a couple from Bageshwar. Most of these doors and windows are painted in different colours, predominantly in shades of blue although I also spotted some green ones too.
On the informative walk, I was pleased to be shown tiny holes in the walls of houses that were meant for bees. The entry and exit would be controlled by the house owner ensuring a small quantity of real honey. Next day when I went again, I met 2 brothers sowing potatoes in the fields; they were planning to tie a dog near the field so that the monkeys wouldn’t dare to come near the crop.
We sat near the nargis flowers (daffodils) and said our namastes to the local women carrying fodder for animals. The aipan designs outside homes were especially beautiful but it was a little sad to see a number of the homes locked. Apparently, the locals had moved out and migrated to the cities. Salla Rautela village has about 90 homes and around 40 of them had already migrated leaving some of those locked homes and some of the others crumbling.
Tanuja is a local from the Kumaon region and was concerned with the mass exodus of the Kumaoni youth towards the cities. That was the idea that gave birth to Nayalap; the word migration in english is palayan in hindi. Palayan read backwards is Nayalap – and that is what Tanuja and Anindya aim to do with Nayalap is to start the reverse migration and bring back Kumaoni youth back from the cities. Nayalap also endeavours to convert old Kumaoni houses into homestays and give a sustainable earning model to the locals by way of tourism.
Nayalap is a boutique luxury stay consisting of 4 glamping tents, that are spread out from each other for privacy of the guests. If I have to summarise Nayalap in a nutshell – there are multiple pristine hiking trails in the jungle, luxury camping (glamping) in the midst of nature, gorgeous furniture with pleasing interiors, warm electric blankets, excellent food with Kumaoni dishes, use of the local sheep wool blanket Thulma, evening lights of Almora and the moonrise when the moon appears red. They employ local Kumaoni staff from the nearby villages.
The weather is hazy which is unusual for the winter and that means we have a clear view of the mountains for just one day. According to the locals when the views are clear, the sight of Himalayan peaks from Sitlakhet is surreal. The luxury tents at Nayalap are set on platforms and have a jungle feel as there is ample space for each of them surrounded by trees and they are not cloistered together which is usually the case with luxury tent properties. What that means is that we wake up to the sounds of birds. Evening bonfires with home made ginger wine are welcome with a dazzling view of the stars in the night skies.
Furniture – Every tent is equipped with a dining/work table with ample space for 4, and a comfortable contemporary settee lined with gorgeous cushions. Side tables, a rack for keeping bags, a clothes hanger, and a vintage looking cabinet. Flooring is bamboo mats woven by local artisans. Choice of teas is excellent, bottles of green tea, masala tea and coffee are kept and a strainer is given. The tea mugs look custom made and feel very pretty. Curtains are in the form of bamboo blinds.
Even though it is thick in the middle of winter, the temperature is comfortable inside the tent even after it gets dark. The heater does its job and we have dinner on the table in the tent itself. A happy surprise is the electric blankets and we turn them on 30 minutes before getting in the bed. That means the bed is nicely warm and coupled with the thulma blanket, it is a cosy night’s sleep.
The dining area has 3-4 tables and is set amidst trees, surrounded by succulents, other flowers and greenery and has a rustic yet welcoming feel. There is one table kept in the open space that receives the maximum sunlight and is the preferred place for breakfast and lunch. The small verandah outside each tent comes with a portable small table and mobile chairs (quechua). The tents itself have white curtains on all sides on the exterior. Inside the tents, the white curtains can be drawn to separate the living area from the bedroom part to make it a more intimate space. We had carried fairy lights to make it look more warm and cosy and homely!
The mobile network and internet connectivity at Nayalap is excellent and they also have wifi. There’s also a dog at the property by the name of Ludo. It is refreshing to see school kids every morning as they cross through the open area to go for their tuition. One can see easter egg decorations and pine cones painted in the open space. Nayalap’s natural feel brings out the artist in visitors and proof of that is in a watercolour painting gifted by a guest. It can be seen outside the kitchen wall.
At Nayalap, their food offerings are varied and are a nice mix of Indian, continental and Kumaoni food – Thatwani soup (black in colour) made of 3 beans, bhatt ki churkani, bhatt ka dubka, bhangjeera ki chutney, sana hua nimbu, bhaang ki chutney, jhangore ki kheer, salad of thatwani, aloo ke gutke, gahat ki dall, mooli salad in mustard oil, gaderi ki sabzi, mandua ki roti, fresh paneer made in the village, pumpkin soup. In short, every meal felt like a feast and they customize the food according to the guest’s preferences.
The staff from nearby villages has been trained well and food is served hot in fine serving vessels with accompaniments like ghee, raita, salad and local Kumaoni salt. I quite liked the innovation with the mandua halwa and gaderi toast. During breakfast time, there was a choice of fruits everyday, and fresh made juice or milk shake and a word of appreciation for consistently excellent masala chai.
A Day Trip to Ranikhet – Walks in Ranikhet
The distances in Kumaon are small, and that meant we decide to explore Ranikhet on a Saturday! We leave from Nayalap at about 11 am and totally enjoy the drive amidst the thick forests and minimal traffic. On the way, Tanuja pointed out a jackal right in front of us – then we realised it was a pair of jackals, and multiple steppe eagles on the road. There might have been a dead animal in the vicinity as we see more steppe eagles on the next turn.
We cross Majkhali and drive past the Army Golf Course and reach Ranikhet Cantt. after an hour or so. It is somewhere close to the Nar Singh Stadium where we start our walk. We climb a short set of stairs and arrive at a point to see the first dwellings or barracks where the English soldiers first started living. It is an Army Cantt. area and there’s a temple in front of the KRC (Kumaon Regiment Centre) woollens workshop in an old Church.
I had heard about the wonderful initiative of Kumaon Regiment Centre Woollens but had never expected to see a Church being converted to a workshop. It felt quite an amazing idea to maintain the church and preserve the heritage! There were about 20 looms installed in the interiors and a signboard which detailed about the variety of shawls and woollen products made at KRC Woollens. I met a guy from Pithoragarh here and he told me about the variety of products made here.
The shop section of KRC woollens was located in another Church which was hardly a five minute walk from the first Church. There was another smaller workshop in the second Church and we had to rush to the shop since it was about to be 1 pm when the staff would shut shop for their lunch break. We entered at 1250 pm and were happily surprised with the excellent quality of stoles, mufflers, jackets, tweed cloth, shawls and other woollen products. There were also handicrafts in traditional Kumaoni designs made by war widows.
The best part was that prices were fixed and the staff was ok with us seeing the products even when it was 5 minutes past 1. I kept the solitary shawl aside (to see later) when the staff actually wanted to go for lunch. There was also knitted stuff, and AWWA Asha cards, some SOS cosmetics and also Purkul Stree Shakti products.
Heritage Walk in Ranikhet
We begin our walk in the Cantt. area in Ranikhet and lose the main road. It is pleasing to walk in the dense greenery and we cross Rani Jheel from where the gently ascending trail begins. We cross a few crumbling and dilapidated Churches on the way; Canossa Convent School, and the walking trail ends at Ranikhet Club. We are happy to amble under a verdant canopy of deodhar, walnut, chestnut, oak, pine and cypress trees.
Ranikhet Club is a regal building established in 1884 and is located on The Mall Road. The dining room, bar, interiors with fireplaces, rooms overlooking expansive patches of greenery and a lawn tennis court are wonderful spaces. I really like this part of Ranikhet and it surely must be the quietest Mall Road I have ever visited!
Ranikhet was a summer establishment for the British since the late 1860’s before it became home to Kumaon Regiment after independence. Since Ranikhet is a cantonment town, construction is not permitted and that ensures Ranikhet doesn’t look like a concrete jungle like most other popular hill stations turn into. In the present day, it is a mountain town dominated by the Army Cantonment area that gives Ranikhet its unique character.
We continue walking on The Mall and are transported back in time with Army Guest Houses, old lampposts, rhododendron trees in bloom (in January!), heritage hotels, old estates and bungalows, and the air smelling of eucalyptus trees. It is quite refreshing to see a fresh growth of greenery in the dense jungle, a testament to how strict Ranikhet is with regards to the tree cover.
We go to Chevron Rosemount – which is a nice heritage property. The garden is a great place to sit with cast iron chairs, and the immaculately maintained lawn makes for a great lunch idea in the winter sunshine. Since we are carrying an elaborate picnic lunch setup with us, we continue our explorations of Ranikhet.
Even though The Mall Road walk is on a road, there is no car that passes us by in the 4-5 kilometres walk. The road joins the main road at West View Hotel and we see a signboard that Nehru also walked here. We set out for a picnic lunch near Chaubatia and find a secluded sunny spot under the pine trees. It is around 330 pm and the breeze blowing is already quite cold. On our way back we cross the Jhula Devi Temple lined with bells.
There are a number of hiking trails in Ranikhet and we spot the jungle paths in the Cantt. area and also near the West View Hotel and Jhula Devi Temple. Ranikhet seems like a lovely town for a longer stay!
We spread the dhurrie and unpack the bamboo basket. It feels like a treasure hunt as I am not aware of the menu. My joy knows no bounds when I am served delicious methi puri, black chana, jhangora (barnyard millet) khichdi, spicy pumpkin with jakhiya, and the signature Nayalap chilly pickle. It is akin to a feast and after trying to click the perfect instagram shot, we dig in! The food is yummy and the picnic setup is perfect.
If you are in the region, I highly recommend exploring Ranikhet with the Nayalap folks! It is a perfect way that Ranikhet should be seen, on foot.
We begin our return journey from Ranikhet and cross the majestic evening sights in Majkhali. A surreal sunset seems to be brewing and we catch glimpses of the valley view on our return. We stop at a bamboo artist near Sitlakhet – he is a gifted guy and makes excellent stuff from bamboo. Nayalap works with him and you can buy products handcrafted in bamboo like a magazine stand, coasters, fruit box, lamps etc from their website.
Hike to Syahi Devi Temple
The Nayalap folks had saved the best for the last! On our last evening – we start our drive at around 330 pm and reach the parking place ahead of Forest Rest House by around 415 pm. There are three different trails to go to Syahi Devi temple, and all of them are well marked. We decide to take a round hike by walking on one trail and coming via a different one. It is quite interesting to know that the locals have named some of the houses – Bhutan, Singapore, Nainital courtesy of the connection that these house owners have with these places!
The trail to Syahi Devi temple passes through dense pine and oak forests. The temple is located at an altitude of approximately 2300m. There is a nice opportunity for birding enthusiasts here and the trail is accessible throughout the day. On the way to Syahi Devi temple we also came across many fruit orchards for which Sitlakhet was well known at one point of time. On a clear day it is possible to have a majestic view of the Himalayas and see all the way till the mountains of Nepal.
Tanuja shows us lichens growing on trees in an upper part of the trail, lichens usually grow in cold areas with zero air pollution. For the uninitiated, lichens are also used in Hyderabadi biryani. After crossing one fence, we enter someone’s private estate and spot rosemary and local tea leaves growing. Some locals inform us that they practice mushroom farming, and one house even has an essence making unit.
We continue to the temple and cross a few houses located on the sides of the hill that comprise Syahi Devi village. There are young kids playing basketball in surreal evening light. The forest department has put nice signboards on the nature trail, and a signboard at the temple informs us that Swami Vivekananda meditated for 4 days at Syahi Devi Temple. We pay our respects at the temple and sit for a while.
The Syahi Devi temple is locally revered and surprisingly looks newly built. The house adjacent to the temple seems quite old and the door frame there has been carved in stone itself. There are a few shops selling religious paraphernalia and also a few houses of the residents. The locals believe that Syahi Devi temple was built more than 200 years ago.
It is time to be enthralled by the magic of nature – We witness a surreal sunset from a high ridge that is a 10 minute walk from Syahi Devi temple. The sun is setting behind the hills, and we have hot tea in thermos as we savour the sight of the sun going behind the mountains. The after-sunset colours are also very nice but since it would get dark soon, we start our hike back through a different trail. It is all downhill and we make it to the car in good time.
We cross Bora Estate, and Pine Cliff Youreka Camp, a property – Anant Rasa and some more recently built cottages. The way downhill is pretty easy and passes through a stunning dense forest and we reached the car in semi-darkness.
How to reach Sitlakhet?
Distance of Sitlakhet from Ranikhet is 30 kms. Distance from Sitlakhet to Almora is 36 kms. Shared sumos and buses ply for Sitlakhet from both these towns. If direct buses/shared taxis are not available, then Kosi is the junction from where shared taxis to Sitlakhet will be available. From Delhi, reaching Sitlakhet will take approximately 10 hours.