Monday, December 26, 2011

Pithoragarh - the little Kashmir

Kumaon – Pithoragarh
View of Pithoragarh - the Soar Valley
Pithoragarh stands at a height of 1,851 meters in a valley, called the ‘Soar valley’ and is also known as the 'Little Kashmir'. It is the district headquarters that goes by the same name in northern part of the Uttarakhand state. The district is remote and borders both Nepal and Tibet (China). Although there isn’t much to see or do at this location, yet it is at a very strategic location, almost 130 Kms. from Munshiyari and thus, an ideal night halt point, since I was determined not to drive for more that six to seven hours on any given day during the entire trip, as driving is an arduous affair in the hills. Pithoragarh also houses the only airport in the area called the Naini-SainiAirport.
Going past Darkot
We started from Munshiyari early at 9.00 A.M after having some sumptuous breakfast and the staff at the KMVN Rest House were really courteous lot and on our request, packed some ‘Aloo Paranthas’ (local stuffed potato bread) for lunch. I was in two minds while deciding as to retrace via the Thal route and then head for Pithoragarh from Thal or else take the route through Madkot-Jauljibi-Askot for Pithoragarh. Another elderly academician Bengali couple, who had hired a local Alto vehicle/driver, had been advised by their driver not to embark on this route, as the road was in pretty bad shape. At the last moment, as I was about to embark upon by the Thal route, I came across a old driver of a Government Vehicle, who was ferrying some senior Government Officer and sought his advice. He graciously came out and saw the vehicle in which we were traveling and assured me that he had come through the same route the previous day itself, and stated that it would not be difficult for me to traverse the distance through this route.

First view of the Gori Ganga River
Spot the the white mountain goats on the mountain-side above

Heeding to his advice, we started off and the gradual descent of the road started towards Madkot, a small village known for its hot springs, situated on banks of river Gori Ganga, placed about 22 kms. from Munshiyari. As the descent began, the first village we crossed by was Darkot (about 6 kms. from Munshiyari), which has some interesting carvings on the doors & window sills of village houses and also is the base point for the ‘Nanda Devi trek’. As the descent became steeper, having negotiated a hairpin bend, we suddenly came across the Gori Ganga river running along the road. The river water sparkling in the bright sun, rippling along the uneven surface was a spectacular sight and after having traversed further for a few kilometers, we saw snow-white mountain goats descending from the valley above. Chatting and chirping away were birds, which we could only hear but could not see and by then we had reached the base of the valley and crossed the bridge across the river Gori Ganga andMadkot lay on its banks. Madkot is know for its hot water springs which are touted to cure an array of diseases ranging from skin related ones to Rheumatism, but owing to constraint of time I did not visit these springs. Taking the bye-pass route we went past Madkot and came across a really tardy piece of road, almost washed away during the rains or snow, whatever during the previous season.
Crossing river across Gori Ganga - just before entering Madkot

Letting the Jeep pass - waterfall right on the road after Madkot
Check out the road conditions
Having negotiated the treacherous stretch of road, we got onto a fairly even carriageway, but poorly maintained, with quite a few pot-holes. As we were carefully maneuvering vehicle, we suddenly came across a water fall right in the middle on the road, and the road being quite narrow, we had wait for a Jeep to cross over, before we could proceed further. Having crossed this waterfall with all the windows closed, having proceeding further down, we came across another tardy piece of road, almost washed away by water and running below a hanging bridge, connecting the villages across the GoriGangaRiver. Covering a further distance of 7 kms., we passed by Sheraghat, another 7 kms. journey took us past Banga Pani and further ahead 5 kms. past Mawani, some nondescript villages on this route. Having traversed another 16 kms., we reached Baramvillage, which was a bigger village than the ones we had passed by and we stopped here for a short break to quench our thirst with some cold drinks (only drinks marketed by Coca Cola Co. are available on this stretch). The shop owner spoke some Bengali, as he had worked in West Bengal before settling in his native village and informed me that during his spare time, he looked after his small cultivation fields & reared cattle for milk. After this brief sojourn, we again resumed our journey towards Pithoragarh and having traversed a further distance of 14 Kms. reached the Jauljibi bridge, from whence the road bifurcated. One road headed straight towards Jauljibi and the other over the bridge towards Pithoragarh. We decided to skip entering Jauljibi and continued with our journey towards the destination for the day. The road till now, if not totally smooth, was negotiable and coupled with it, as the road was running parallel to the river in the valley was much safer than the Thal route.
View of the Gori Ganga River

Cattle pen in Barma village
Just as we had negotiated the bridge over Gori Ganga River and accelerated around the curve on the steep climb ahead, we came across our first major obstacle. The road ahead was being broadened and in the process the mountain side had been blasted with dynamite and ensuing pile of mud & stones was being cleared by a BRO bulldozer. We were stunned and were weighing the pros & cons of going ahead, we clearly had no other alternative but to push ahead as it was not practically possible to drive back to Munshiyari & then take the Thal route. One of the Jeeps ahead turned back and this demoralized us further, however, another Jeep traveling downhill from Pithoragarh side made across. I got down to conduct a reece and advised the driver of my vehicle to fall behind the bulldozer and follow on the track laid down by it, but he either did not understand my directions or did not heed to it intentionally, I do not know, but he tried to head straight and the vehicle got stuck in a sand/mud bank and could only move with great difficulty. After he had negotiated the stretch, moving uphill, I could perceive and bad smell of burning leather/rubber emanating from the vehicle. I immediately directed the driver to park the vehicle on the road side and after fetching some water from a nearby stream of water, poured it on the crank shaft/clutch plate side to cool it down. After waiting for about 15 odd minutes, we started our onward journey and I was so perturbed that the thought of filming this stretch completely skipped my mind. As we moved ahead we found that the entire road stretch was being expanded and a double lane road was under construction. Looking at the pace of work and the length of the project, it is advisable that tourists in their own vehicles should avoid this route for another two years or so, especially because there is no advance information about such road block occurrences at the Rest House or township from whence one starts.
Passing by Jauljibi
The confluence at Jauljibi
Having traveled about 13 odd kilometers from Jauljibi bridge, we reached Askotwhich originally was known as ‘assi kot’ meaning eighty forts and was being ruled by Pal dynasty. Askot is a reserved forest area and also mining of minerals like copper, zinc, silver & gold takes place here. Apparently, it is a very desolate stretch and the all enveloping silence being broken by trucks running errands for road building. All of sudden, a fox, which is usually a nocturnal animal, suddenly came in front of our car and got confused, but before I could take out my camera it has scampered on the hill side above the road and disappeared. It was a very thrilling experience for the kids, who had seen a fox in the wild for the first time. After traversing through Askot, we reached a small road junction called Ogla, wherefrom the road bifurcates for Didihat & Pithoragarh. Being a road junction, the commercial vehicles (read jeeps) usually stop here for the mid-day meal or other breaks. We too bought some cold drinks and savored the ‘Aloo Paranthas’ that we had carried all the way from Munshiyari, sitting in the Car, a sort of mobile Picnic. We did not rue our decision of carrying fooding from Munshiyari, as the entire stretch is bereft of any good fooding joint. After crossing Ogla, we traversed another 18 kms. to reach Kanali China, from whence another 7 kms. took us past Satgarh and further 7 kms. ahead, we reached Nanipatal, all small villages on the road. Just beyond Nanipatal we found that the road conditions were bad and explosion for road expansion was underway, we were urged by the workers to quickly go past the region as blasting was imminent. As soon as we crossed the bend the road was closed for vehicular access for blasting, we missed being caught in the ensuing melee by a whisker. After traveling for about 5 kms. we reached Salmora village, we stopped over a small break for having cold drinks and found that a lot of construction activity was taking place in the vicinity. The shop owner had a small grape vine growing in his house and my son was thrilled and started to shoot photographs of grapes growing on the vine. Crossing Salmora and further traveling for another 6 kms. took us to Pithoragarh.
Passing by Askot
Passing by Ogla
Nearing Nanipatal
Grape vine in Salmora village - just before reaching Pithoragarh
It had started raining at Pithoragarh - view from hotel room
As already stated above, Pithoragarh is in the Soar valley and it was reasonably warm by the time we reached at the Tourist Rest House run by KMVN at about 4.30 P.M. We immediately ordered some Pakoras and Coffee and to our dismay found that there was no electricity and consequently no water in the rooms. However, the things changed for better and within a few minutes of occupying our rooms the electricity was restored after about 20 hours or so. The staff pumped some water, albeit after some constant coaxing and we washed ourselves and just then a strong wind brewed up in the valley and dark clouds started gathering and in no time it had started raining. This sudden change brought down the temperature considerably and raised the comfort levels. There are only two tourists spots in vicinity of the township, first being Chandak, which houses the famous temple of ‘Mostamanu’ is situated and the second being ‘Thal Kedar’ housing a famous Shiva temple, placed about 16 kms. from the township. Other than this there is nothing much to see here and due to paucity of time we visitedChandak only, which during the early spring and autumn offers majestive view of the peaks of Nanda Devi group, Trishul, Panchachuli etc.
View of Pithoragarh by night

Main gate of temple at Chandak

The view of temple in Chandak
To get a first hand feel of the route taken and township of Pithoragarh kindly watch the video –

© S Roy Biswas., all rights reserved.

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