By Kay O’Sullivan
The Kumaon region in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas is a remote and beautiful place. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising – few outside of India have. It’s a vast tract of hills and wilderness close to the border of Nepal in the mountainous northern Indian state of Uttaranchal.
Gandhi, who knew India like no other, loved the Kumaon. He loved its cool oak forests, its aquamarine lakes, terraced hillsides and remote rural villages. He also had an abiding reverence for the Himalayas which mark out the far reaches of the region.
Tourism has always been part of the cultural mix in the Kumaon. For Indians, it is a place of pilgrimage. It is called the Land of the Gods and temples bearing witness to Lord Shiva’s greatness abound. The source of Mother Ganga is nearby. During their tenure on the sub-continent, the Brits of the Raj flocked to the region’s lakes and hill stations looking to escape the scorching Indian plains and the travails of governing.
The hippies of the 1960s came to the region’s capital Almora looking for something else. Enlightenment maybe, but marijuana certainly. The weed is spread far and wide over the region. It’s legal, freely traded and the key ingredient in a chutney regarded as a Kumaoni delicacy. Counter-culture guru Timothy Leary, he of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” manifesto lived in Almora. Bob Dylan visited.
More recently, Western tourists have been largely of the backpacking/trekking ilk, i.e. Hardy types not put off by the degree of difficulty both getting there — 11 hours from New Delhi, eight of them on the train and then three more on roads that veer from treacherous to deadly — and then finding somewhere comfortable to stay.
For many, roughing it isn’t on the travel itinerary. Solid shelter, a comfortable bed, good food, plus hot and cold running water are common must-haves for travellers – and while these luxuries would once have been an impossible ask in a region as rugged and traditional as the Kumaon, they are now available for all.
The Shakti Kumaon Village Walk is the creation of Indian travel entrepreneur Jamshyd Shethna, who grew up surrounded by mountains. The Kumaon walk, along with similar enterprises in Ladakh and Sikkim, is his way of sharing that passion with those who cheerfully admit to a preference for a soft landing at the end of every travel day.
Sethna might have provided the wherewithal, guidance and training, but the Kumaoni people own it in all ways. The tourism is deliberately low-key with numbers limited and profits going to a dedicated trust fund for the villagers. It’s worth noting that the Kumaoni villages were the first in the Himalaya to use solar power and grey water courtesy of the fund.
The Kumaoni walk winds its way between the hill villages of Deora, Jwalabanj and Kana. In each, visitors stay in a village house renovated to accommodate Western ways, including bathrooms with plentiful hot and cold running water. Kumaoni life have been honored through the use of local textiles, furniture and artifacts.
Lovely touches abound, from pressed sheets to a water bottle swaddled in a pashmina that warms the bed. A pot of tea with biscuits is delivered to the doorstep of the Jwalabanj house prior to a hike to watch the sun rise over the 7800-metre Nandi Devi, thought for a long time to be the tallest mountain in the world. Multi-course dinners prepared and served by villagers offer delicious food aplenty.
In the mornings the songs and laughter of two village children, Brenna, 7, and Hisute, 5, playing outside their home fills the air. A visit to the children’s school in the village of Jwalabanj reveals how the government actively encourages education for girls.
Walking, not trekking, is the order of the day. As with all facets of the experience, the walks are shaped to suit individual guests. Shakti guide Rudi emphasised walkers move at their desired pace. Over the course of three days we walked through villages of less than a handful of houses, through impossibly green forests of pine and oak trees and alongside slow-moving streams.
The still and quiet of the steeply terraced hills was only broken by greetings from those we encountered along the way, be it an elderly man tilling soil on the terraces, a young mother doing the family’s washing, an older one sorting mounds of marijuana for sale or school boys cheekily edging each other on to ask where we were from. “Australian? Please say hello to Mr Brett Lee.”
IN THE AIR
Given the distances between the villages, there is a lot of driving along roads that are narrow, winding and with drops to infinity. Shakti 360° sits on a plateau overlooking the Ramganga Valley. You can visit as part of the Village Walk experience or make it the sole focus of your journey. It’s a feet on the ground, head in the clouds experience.
The peaks of the Greater Himalaya range surround the property, hence the name. We hike down to the village Leti, where the villagers welcome us as part of the family. The accommodation is incredible, with separate dry-stone and glass cottages each facing their own chunk of the Himalayas. Dinner is a multi-course Indian banquet that the location and mountain air demands. A breathtaking breakfast is served right on the edge of the plateau.
Shakti Himalaya’s founder Jamshyd Sethna says that in the mountains everything drops away. He describes it as three months of therapy in three days – and he should know, considering he was a psychoanalyst by training before he got into travel. After walking in the Kumoan, I have to agree with Gandhi’s assertion that the region leaves nothing to desire.
The seven-night Shakti Kumaon Walk including four nights’ accommodation in the three villages, three nights at Shakti 360°, dedicated guide, cook, porter, support guides, meals, drinks, transfers from Kathgodam station and car and driver while in the region is USD $5977 per person.