Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sitlakhet – a destination of snow & solitude

Sitlakhet – a destination of snow & solitude
Snowfall at Sitlakhet
The name ‘Sitla’ in Hindi means ‘Cool’ and ‘khet’ is ‘farm land’, so the trans-literation of name would be ‘Cool farm land’ or more appropriate would be ‘farms in cool climes’ and during my recent visit I found that it does fits its literal translation.  Sitlakhet is an unspoiled nature’s treasure trove nestled on the lap of a hill, the top of which is occupied by the famed Shyahi Devi temple, overlooking the valleys below it and bestowing it with a nature’s gift unparalleled in the annals.  Perched at an altitude of 1785 meters i.e. the exact elevation of the Tourist Rest House or TRH for short at Sitlakhet, managed by KMVN, which translates to around 6000 feet above MSL (Mean Sea Level).  However, the famed Syahi Devi temple would easily be touching 7000 feet above MSL.  If you search the net for the destination, it would throw up results in name of ‘Anant Rasa’, a resort being run by the famed photographer from Nainital, Sh. Anup Shah.  The place also houses a camping site run by the ‘Discovery Channel’.  The entire verdant valley is cocooned in dense forest of Oaks, Silver birch, pines et al and is nature’s treasure trove in all its splendour. 
Taking a selfie en-route at Mukteshwar
The small market of Sitlakhet
Tourist Rest House run by KMVN at Sitlakhet
            We had started from Padampuri late in the afternoon, as the train was delayed and we had taken a break to have some snacks etc. as detailed in my previous blog.  We headed on the road towards Dhanachuli, but just before reaching Dhari, the driver took a detour through a village road and he took the diversion at Boranshi, being a short cut that runs through small hamlet named Chaukhuta and reaches Kasiyalekh and therefrom through Gangachor to the junction called Bhatelia.  From Bhatelia the road leads towards Mukteshwar and this distance is about 20 odd Kms.  The weather had turned inclement as we commenced with our journey from Padampuri and by the time we approached Mukteshwar, it had started snowing and the children got excited and alighted from the Car at the forest checkpoint to click a few photographs.  The road distance from Mukteshwar to Almora is about 32 Kms. via Sheetla – Khawarbpul.  Having gone past Almora, we headed downstream towards Kosi, a further distance of 10 Kms. and therefrom having crossed the bridge, we headed towards the road leading past the ITBP Camp and the barrage built on Kosi River for supplying drinking water to residents of Almora.  After having gone past a small hamlet named Deoli we reached another nondescript little village named Kharkuna wherefrom the road bifurcates and the straight one towards the right hand side leads on towards Dhali and onwards to Sitlakhet, the total distance being about 27 Kms. from Kosi bridge.  Thus, it was a long haul of almost 80 Kms. that took about three & half hours’ drive because of the weather & road conditions.  As it was getting late, I decided to explore availability of boarding in the TRH and got one as it was in the middle of the week and it usually gets its guests on weekends.
Snow on a tuft of grass
As it snowed intermittently from the evening in Sitlakhet 
The morning after the snow fall in Sitlaket
The author out for a shoot 
            After having checked into the four bedded room, we ordered for some bread pakoras and coffee and as the evening started setting in, the cook Ganesh asked for the dinner order, as the TRH is at an isolated location and Sitlakhet itself is a very small hamlet and thus, in order to procure non-vegetarian or any specific vegetarian food, one has to book well in advance, so that the procurement may be done from either Kathpuriya, Majhkhali or Ranikhet.  Accordingly, we placed our orders and just as we had started enjoying Pakoras & Coffee it started snowing at Sitlakhet.  As the evening slowly merged into the night, the intensity of the snowfall increased with every passing minute, but the children were enjoying the experience immensely.  News came in late in the evening that the person entrusted with the job of procuring our order from the nearby road head was struck in the snow and thus, the order may have to be revised.  The staff of three that runs the TRH had lighted a small bonfire to keep themselves warm and as the electricity got disconnected due to the snowfall, we made a beeline for the space behind the kitchen where the fire wood had been lit, to keep ourselves warm.  However, at around 8.00 P.M some good news poured in that the person assigned the task of procuring Chicken had finally made it to the TRH and we could therefore, relish our next order of hot Chicken soup, that was prepared quickly and served piping hot and for dinner we got served ‘Garlic Chicken’ preparation with rotis/hand baked breads.  The cook Ganesh has some exceptional culinary skills and enjoys his work, which in turn results in some lip-smacking snacks and/or main course meals.
The Shahi Devi temple complex at Sitlakhet
Close up of the Himalayan ranges as seen from Sitlakhet
Panoramic view of the Himalayan ranges as seen from Sitlakhet
Panoramic view of Almora from Sitlakeht
        Bereft of electricity and with a solitary candle light flickering in one corner of the room, we all retired for the night in the cold climes of Sitlakhet and being tired over the day’s journey, all of us fell asleep quickly.  I was the first one to wake up in the morning and immediately peaked outside, although the sunlight was all around, yet the sunlight was only filtering through in patches, as the clouds were in motion in the deep blue sky above.  I got up quickly, completed the morning ablutions and moved out to get some shots with my camera.   As the cloud cover became thinner with passage of the day, by 9.00 A.M. a lot of birds started chirping all around and I had a fabulous time shooting to my heart’s content.   Later in the morning I moved towards the market and headed towards the Shyahi Devi temple.  However, the road that leads to the temple top is neither paved with concrete nor is its surface tarred and hence the vehicles run only for the first half of the journey of three Kms. i.e. one & half kilometres and the remaining half has to be completed on foot by trekking.  Due to the snowfall the vehicles too were not plying or going up the trail and it was not possible to trek up to the temple in the slushy & snowy conditions and therefore, I had to give up any hope of making it to the temple top, however, for the benefit of the readers I am providing with a link to the photographs of the temple -
Himalayan Yellow finch enjoying the Sun after nights snowfall
Return of the Himalayan Griffon - flying high in Sitlakhet
            Not being able to accomplish my target of visiting the temple, I returned back to the TRH and after having partaken the B’fast that is part of the tariff charged for the room, we headed for my pad and en-route went past many a small hamlets till we reached Kathpuriya, which is another small hamlet on the State Highway from Almora to Ranikhet and at a distance of 10 Kms. from Sitlakhet.  On the way I struck up a conversation with the driver of the taxi hired by me Mr. Chandan Singh, who is a local resident and resides near the temple at the hill top and he informed me that Sitlakhet had abundant water being blessed by Shyahi Mata and a natural spring takes care of all local requirement of water and also supplies water to Almora township.  He also informed me that the temple was surrounded by about seven Deodar trees, which appear in shape of two tigers when seen from Almora or other nearby hilltops.  Another small snippet that he provided was the fact that a small village, about 2 Kms. from Sitlakhet called ‘Khoont’, is the ancestral home of the legendary freedom fighter & politician Late Sh. Gobind Ballabh Pant.  As we reached Kathpuriya, one enters the state highway running from Almora to Ranikhet, one has to turn left and head towards Majhkhali and thereafter reach Ranikhet, which is about 18 Kms. from Kathpuriya.  From Ranikhet we rambled down to Ganiadoli, where we made some purchases for daily needs/use for our home and then headed further via Tarikhet to our final destination to our home in Timila.  Thus, ended the winter vacation break journey for the year.
Here is the link to the video for the destination -

© S Roy Biswas