Millennium Post

Shitalakhet: The soul of Kumaon

Tucked away from tourist gaze, Shitalakhet provides stunning panoramic views of the snow-clad Himalayas while the cosy town abounds in natural richness and adventure activities

Last month, I was on a planned trip to the Kumaon hills in Uttarakhand. The destination was a remote place called Shitalakhet in Almora district. It is not the kind of place that is significantly noted on the tourist map and that, I guess, was bliss or me. This place goes by completely unnoticed as it is slightly off the route from Ranikhet.

I, personally, enjoy going to the unexplored or less frequented places in the hills as the heavy tourist crowd flocking to the mountains can become quite jarring for my quiet, peace-loving mind. So, when my friends planned for this unexplored territory in the Kumaon hills, I immediately packed up and started out.

Shitalakhet is a part of Kumaon tourism and the languages spoken here are Kumaoini, Garhwali, Hindi and English. The best time to visit Shitalakhet is when the plains in north India are being scorched by the summer sun from May to October, and the cool and pleasant weather of the hills provide the perfect respite

We took the Shatabdi from Delhi to Kathgodam, the last rail head in Uttarakhand, and began scouting for a taxi, haggled for prices and finally settled on a four-wheeler. The driver, like most drivers I met, was not too enthused with our choice of destination because it was non-commercial and against their monetary benefit. He, naturally, began his cribs in about 5 minutes of the commencement of the journey. Why did we chose Shitalakhet, no one goes there, there is nothing to see, the guest-house is the only hotel etc. To his surprise, all those protests doubled our enthusiasm.

We continued and drove for four hours from Kathgodam and for about 30-45 minutes from Ranikhet. Like most hilly road journeys, it was a jerky ride, accompanied by a terrible collection of songs in the cab. Nevertheless, the journey was enjoyable as we began ascending the hills. The best part of any journey to the hills are the winding roads, the thrill of the twists and turns never decreases.

When we reached, I found the town to be rather small and compact, only a few houses lining the road leading up to the KMVN guest-house located on a fabulous edge, offering a remarkable view of the town of Almora and the peaks beyond. I started feeling despair as the sky was quite hazy that day and I couldn't manage the view I desired.

But our final destination was not the town of Shitalakhet. We continued further on a kuccha road – uphill and very treacherous. After some time, we finally reached the campsite by early evening. I set out to explore the place, which seemed incredibly immersed in tall trees. It was one of those deep forests, asleep and dreamy; few people moving around in slow, drawn out, almost floating movements. I walked and reached a flat area to enjoy the gentle evening breeze. As the sun began to set, the sky took on a bright glow; the air took a sharp chill and forced me to return to the campsite.

The snow line, though attractive, wasn't visible owing to the haze. According to locals, Shitalakhet offers one of the most spectacular 200 degree views of the great snow peaks of Himalayas in Kumaon. So, I just hoped that it would clear out and I could catch a glimpse of the peaks.

It might sound stupid, but it was a fact that I was praying to God to send some rains to the area for at least a few minutes in the night, so that the visibility improves the next morning. But this was not to happen for the next three of four days that I was planning to camp here.

Next day, after breakfast, we set out for a trek to the famous Siyahi Devi Temple which was about 3-4 km from the camping site. The trek was very easy, with gentle slopes at places and also steeper climbs. On the recommendation of the locals at the temple, we trekked to the Khoont village, which is the ancestral village of the Indian freedom fighter Gobind Vallabh Pant. The landscape on the way to the village was awesome. We rested at the village for a while and then started on our journey back.

For the next two days, in the evenings and mornings, I indulged in small treks around the area and engaged myself in activities with the locals, walking, then resting, and again walking and exploring.

The whole region is abounding in fruit orchards. The place is famous primarily for plums and apricots, and you find them everywhere in the forest – unguarded, unclaimed. One gentleman, an IT professional hailing from the area, has started organic farming here since the last six years or so. At the farm, one can experience rose farming and extraction of rose water and rose oil, taste and buy some naturally grown pulses, spices, fruits and flowers.

At Shitalakhet, I found wilderness in its prime. The place offers camping activities for adventure enthusiasts and a

spectacular view of the mighty snow covered Himalayas. With a tranquil setting and thick forests around, the camp offers complete relaxation of the body and soul. All in all, it is an ideal short holiday getaway to escape the everyday grind and rediscover yourself and nature as an individual, couple or simply have a great time as a family.

Visiting a campsite in the hills and not enjoying adventure activities – that's not possible here! And we indulged in rock climbing, rappelling, zip line, trekking, etc. There are plenty of other options available even if you prefer to be just by yourself and enjoy nature – like bird watching, wildlife watching, enjoying wild Himalayan flowers etc.

Playing hide and seek with mountain lizards and chameleons became one of my favourite activities at Shitalakhet. The chameleons also seemed to enjoy the rare human company as they entertained me with their gimmicks and colour changing abilities.

I am sure, for those visiting Shitalakhet for a short holiday, it will definitely be very difficult to return! As the yearning to return to the camp remains alive and kicking within me!

Selected photo credits: Abhinav Singh

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