Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eating crow, part two

I have a soft spot for Kumaon that I cannot really explain; these are not the highest or even the most breathtaking hills to be had in this large and lovely country, but they are far and away my favourites. It has something to do, I think, with scale—Kumaon is hardly gentle hillocks, but the Himalaya bares its really serious teeth at a comfortable distance.

Still, some bits are lovelier than others. I’ve always thought of Bhimtal as the dregs of Kumaon, a murky lake surrounded by construction, lying at the bottom of a hill-sided bowl. I’m not saying it’s completely hideous, but my favourite way to experience it has been as a blur on the right as the car drives past at high speed towards higher, prettier places. Nonetheless, this week I’m taking the opportunity to beg pardon of Bhimtal, much as I ate humble pie about Shimla this summer, and admit that it can be quite nice.

Part of why it was nice is that just getting out of Delhi is always such a relief. (There’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of the great blue shadow of the ranges above the plains; I always expect the pleasure and excitement to wear off but it never does.) But it was largely because we were staying with Bunti Bakshi and Bindu Sethi at their Fishermen’s Lodge hotel right on the lake. Frankly, when you’re sitting by a crackling fire with a nice warming beverage, good conversation and Mark Knopfler on the music system, and excellent food and drink on the large, European-style deck overlooking the lake, which is quite blue and pretty after all, it’s hard to be grumpy.

Plus, they drove us around so that we got to see a little bit of the region around Bhimtal, which I’ve never stopped to see before. Sattal is one such place—a series of seven pretty mountain lakes that reflect green trees and blue sky deep in forested hills. You can walk between the lakes through the forest, or go boating in the water that connects six of them. Much of it is on land owned by the Christian Ashram; you can walk to the ashram complex which is crowned by a strange little circular church furnished with nothing but mattresses to sit on.

We sat for a while by the edge of Panna Tal, the emerald shine that is the only self-contained water body among the seven. It’s the site of the tiniest and by far the most beautiful open-air church I’ve ever seen: a series of curved benches by the lakeshore, with a small circular platform and a tiny pulpit (submerged when we were there); the forest behind the congregation and the lake spreading in front, with a small white cross standing on the green hill across the water. There’s nothing but birdsong, breeze, and the smell of leaves and flowers. If you can’t summon up any religious enthusiasm, a cold beer and/or a book works just as well.

We also drove up behind Bhimtal to Jungalia Gaon, en route getting a bird’s eye view of pretty nine-cornered Naukuchiatal lake. From Jungalia Gaon you can fly back down the mountain road on a bicycle, assuming you’re not me. If you’re me, you roll along the downhill bits competently enough, but when the road inclines upwards by a hair, you get off the bike and push it, pretending that that was the plan all along, and that the huffing and puffing echoing through the valley is really just the breeze. Either way, it’s a particularly delicious way to get back down a mountain.

So there you are, I was wrong again. Go see for yourself.

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