It had been almost three months in Kasar Devi near Almora and since the coldest months of the winter were behind us and spring was fast approaching, we thought why not head to Munsiyari just before the Holi festival holidays! We were in the third week of March and the post-pandemic era of travel meant that the bus service to Munsiyari was not operational and that necessitated finding out details about the shared transport options from Almora to Munsiyari.
I started by asking at the local shared taxi area in Almora and they were clueless about a direct option from Almora to Munsiyari. Someone suggested that we first take a shared taxi from Almora to Bageshwar and then try our luck for another shared taxi from Bageshwar to Thal and then figure another shared taxi from Thal to Munsiyari. Another idea that locals figured was to take the morning bus to Pithoragarh and then find a shared taxi from Pithoragarh to Munsiyari. The trouble with both these options was the probability of spending a night in transit in either Bageshwar or Pithoragarh and while both these places are tourist destinations in their own right, we were in no mood with a break journey.
I reminisced about my grand summer of 2015 in Kumaon, and recollected sketchy details about direct shared sumos that plied between Haldwani to Munsiyari and left from Haldwani at about 6 am. They would cross Almora at about 9-10 am and reach Munsyari in the daylight around 5-6 pm. I was able to find out more details about the shared vehicles from Haldwani to Munsiyari through local contacts in Almora and they confirmed that it was indeed the best way to reach Munsiyari from Almora in one day. My local contact shared the phone number of the daily service and these days a tempo traveller plied on this route.
The charges were fixed at INR 1000 per seat from Haldwani to Munsiyari and after some negotiation, we were able to finalise 2 seats from Almora to Munsiyari at 700 per seat. Since we had booked in advance, we were able to secure excellent front seats. On the day of the journey, we came to the bypass road near Almora and even though the tempo traveller was about 30 minutes late from the estimated time, we were overjoyed to sit in a direct vehicle that would reach Munsiyari before night fell! It was a smooth ride despite multiple tyre punctures; with excellent food stops on the way. As we reached the highest point of Kalamuni top – the scintillating array of Panchachuli peaks with a surreal pink sky welcomed us among the candelabra of jagged white peaks.
We were keen on staying in a homestay in Munsiyari itself for 3-4 days and directly taking the same shared sumo / tempo traveller back to Kasar Devi, Almora. It had been a while since I had tasted the delicious and unique dishes of Johar Valley which is a whole lot different than the usual Kumaoni food available elsewhere. A basic search on the internet revealed that all the homestays in Munsiyari seemed to be located in Sarmoli village and while the initiative was excellent, as always I was looking for a raw and novel experience.
The perfect adage of ‘what you seek is seeking you’ worked when the owner of the tempo traveller had recently started a homestay and on the phone he welcomed us to stay and promised home cooked meals. I was a bit skeptical because there were no pictures shared but the fact that it was a newly built homestay meant that it would have the modern conveniences that we looked forward to since we were already living in a pretty basic setup in Kasar Devi. We reached Munsyari and were dropped close to the bazaar where the homestay was located in a quiet and peaceful lane. The owner Pankaj was soft-spoken and kind and we agreed on a price of INR 1000 including basic home-cooked meals.
The homestay was a new building some 2 minutes walk from the original home of the owners. The room was spic and span with an attached washroom. As night fell, we were asked to come to the original home for dinner. It felt quite cold and our joy knew no bounds when aunty ushered us into the warm confines of their old home. We were seated on the dining table adjoining the kitchen and she served us hot food with chapatis straight from the tawa. The food was yummy and we ate well, thanked her for the same and requested her if it was possible to savour different varieties of local food over our course of stay.
She was happily surprised to have guests who understood how a home-run kitchen works as the first stayers at their homestay. We told her to not get hassled about our food and that we had no untoward demands and would be happy to eat whatever was being cooked for the family if aunty was busy! Since Holi festival was around the corner, aunty told us that she might have to go and attend a few get-togethers and that we should be prepared to eat a meal or two at a local dhaba if she was not around.
Pankaj Bhai told us that someone will bring us tea in the morning at the homestay itself – we filled our water bottles, wished them good night and walked back to the homestay. It was fully dark at this point and the stars shined in their full glory with the Panchachuli mountains providing a great backdrop. We woke up early next morning and went to the roof for a legendary one hour Munsiyari sunrise! It was freezing cold but well worth it to see the sun come from behind the snowy mountain range and the rays scatter in all directions in the blue sky.
Over the course of our stay in Munsiyari; we walked around town and went to the usual places like Nanda Devi Temple, Darkot village, Tribal Heritage Museum, saw the colourful holi festivities of the locals, and explored the local market, but the highlight of the trip was the hike to Khaliya Top. The entire trail beginning from Balati Bend was filled with pink and red rhododendron flowers in full bloom. We had started very early in the morning and the views of Panchachuli peaks were extremely clear in the cloudless sky. It remains an unforgettable memory walking in the forest with the splash of colour everywhere the eyes could see.
As we climbed higher, the views kept getting better and after we crossed the KMVN Guest House – it felt even more surreal while climbing to Zero Point. It was almost a 360 degree view. We savoured some dry fruits with the magical sights around us and even as a rousing wind started blowing, we lie down in the meadow. There was some unmelted snow in some parts as we neared Zero Point. In hindsight, it felt like luck was on our side as clouds started gathering as soon as we started our descent at around 1-130 pm.
The rhododendron delight made me wonder if it would be a good idea to visit Munsiyari for the autumn colours!