Summer solution - Bob's Place, Kumaon

Summer solution - Bob's Place, Kumaon
Photo Credit: Ahtushi Deshpande
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A wonderful base to explore the charming Kumaon region of Uttarakhand

Mitali Saran
November 15 , 2014
10 Min Read

It’s been a peculiar year, weather-wise. That’s why the rhododendrons aren’t in bloom, barring a few blood-bright blossoms. That’s why it’s come down to 10 degrees Celsius in the last stages of March and why, after a summer of virtual drought, it’s raining in this consistent, earnest manner. Who would think it’s Holi? The rain suddenly turns to a drumming hail and Anand Kumar a.k.a Bob says, “If the ground gets cold enough, we could have snow!” He’s trying to put an optimistic spin on things because he’s worried that we might be bored, confined to the house for two days by incessant grey curtains of rain.

I’m not worried about being bored in this comfortable, cosy house made of 18-inch stone walls and enormous timbers holding a wooden roof over a pinewood floor, with shelves of books to read by the light of rice-paper lamps, sofas to sink into, fireplaces to stoke and stare into, desks to write at, a television and video player and most of all those enormous windows which stare upon the lushness of Kumaon. I’m looking forward to it. There’s nothing like a freezing rain outside to make a crackling fire, endless hot pots of tea, a steady supply of pakoras and a book seem like heaven. Besides, the rain is welcome in a place that depends entirely on it for its water supply; a couple of days of this and all the rainwater harvested will take care of the next few months.

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On the drive up from Kathgodam station the day before, the glorious Kumaon Himalaya hung in the sky like white fire, far higher than anything should rightly be. It’s the only glimpse we have of the high Himalaya for the next 48 hours; we eat a breakfast of cornflakes and warm milk, eggs, toast, juice and fruit on the lawn under a parasol to keep off the sharp sun, but by mid-morning I notice the light changing, becoming laden with shadow. It gets a little nippier and then the mountains disappear in a veil of cloud and a few grey-bellied clouds roll across the sky. For a while there’s that chameleon light with drizzle and sun at the same time, when all the greens stand up and shout at you — then it really starts to come down, the sky and the hill ranges losing definition in a haze of grey. You’d never know that the world’s mightiest peaks are floating in the sky behind the ridge.

Speaking of breakfast, I’m very open to the suggestion that fresh mountain air whets the appetite, and I’m happy to oblige. We’re at over 6,000ft, after all. I have cold to combat, and a higher metabolism to feed. I will do this conscientiously.

Writing at a pinewood desk in the common room, I give my eyes a break once in a while. If I look to the left I can watch rain pearling a beautiful pear tree still dusted with blossoms; to the right there’s an impressive sky scape made of thready clouds, snaking through more trees. The seaweedy arms of a couple of five-year-old deodar saplings, planted to screen the property from the neighbours’, extend through the mist like ghosts. It’s definitely moody; it might be spooky if it weren’t so pretty.

The two chipped-stone and pinewood cottages in which guests stay at Bob’s Place are next door to the little ivy-covered cottage in which Bob himself stays, along with his wife Poonam, when they come up from Delhi. The acre of land on which they stand is a fruit orchard filled with apple, pear, plum, apricot and peach. The three Kumaoni staff who tend the property have first dibs on the harvest as long as they keep the trees healthy. Bob’s Place, the commercial enterprise, is an extension of Bob’s place, the personal home in the hills frequently visited by friends and family. Bob and Poonam opened their home stay cottage to the world at the suggestion of friends who came, stayed, and loved it. And the personal touch of both is evident in every detail.

Bob planned, designed and constructed the whole place himself, while Poonam’s light touch has turned it into a cosy home. Ivy and wild rose creepers have begun a fragrant march across the façades of the cottages. There are cheerful, bright curtains and beautiful old carpets; tiny lamps warm up all the corners and modernist prints hang all over the walls. The place is filled with fireplaces and bukharis. The common room is dominated by a black-and-white painting, on tin, of Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Small ceramic creatures stand on the mantelpiece. In the garden there’s a bhumi devta shrine to Shiva, which Bob and Poonam left where it was when the priest told them they couldn’t move it because it’s very old. The size of the cottage defers to this pretty little shrine that has diyas, a bell and a trident. All Kumaon worships Shiva; and the shrine faces the grand scalloped face of Trishul.

Over two days of rain, beading off every visible surface, I’ve made good progress through my 1,000-page novel — fortified by the odd pakora. Every once in a while Narendra appears like a benevolent genie and presses more comestibles upon us. Neither he, nor the other two Kumaoni men who comprise the staff, think it’s bizarre to be serving a teapot full of tea every hour. This is a home stay, which means that the food is like home food. At lunch, we take our plates to the fireside to eat hot mutton curry and vegetables, daal and rice and rotis. I have two helpings — really, it’s quite cold and I have calories to make up.

Bob joins us over meals to have a chat. He’s a tall, fit, gregarious man of 58 who sold his garment export business in 2000 and bought his little cottage in the hills. He knows how to enjoy himself, which is what you’d infer from a fellow who has left work at 1pm to play golf every single day since 1981.

In the evening we share a nice bottle of Chianti with a delicious meal — salad with a homemade dip, pasta, toast with garlic butter and roast chicken and potatoes done to perfection. Then we descend in a fog of satiety to our bedrooms, which have already been warmed up with a glow of coals in the bukhari and a hot water bottle under the blankets, to fall on our faces and sleep like the dead in an utterly silent night. I don’t think I would have woken up if a man-eating leopard had burst into my room, done a tap-dance and begun to gnaw at my leg.

There is such a leopard, apparently, roaming the hills around nearby Hartola. It has clocked four human lives, and at least one attempt on a woman who was cooking in her kitchen, and it has brazenly attacked people in broad daylight. The Forest Department has not been able to catch it yet. Bob has cut out the item from the local newspaper, framed it and nailed it to the wall to prove to sceptical wildlifers that there are still leopards in these hills. On the second night I step out on the deck to see stars glittering in a clear sky with a sumptuous moon gilding every leaf, and have to remind myself that that leopard hasn’t been seen for a week. We’re not far, after all, from where Jim Corbett shot the man-eater of Mukteshwar.

On the third morning, after bed tea, I step out and find that the world is a real spectacle; the sun is shining brightly and the sky has fallen into the valley in a huge fluffy sea of white; a cloud-river in spate which has made islands of the hills. The sun will burn it off eventually. A beautiful blue bird flashes by — a fairy bluebird? A verditer flycatcher? A couple of tiny green bee-eaters are poking around in the trees. It’s time to work off some of those pakoras.

A couple of kilometres down the road from Bob’s Place, past the little market in Nathuakhan (which, by Bob’s estimation, supplies an area of 40 square kilometres), is a walk down through fruit terraces to a little green stream that burbles along a boulder-filled defile. It only takes about half an hour there and back at a leisurely pace, but it’s a nice little picnic spot if you choose to sit around at the bottom. The Maheshkhan forest reserve is just next-door.

One kilometre up the road from the cottage, towards Mukteshwar, is Reetha, from where a 15-minute walk through dappled forest takes one to an old sarai built on an outcrop that overlooks the valley, in a grove of deodar trees. A small shrine has also been built adjoining it. The grove is a great spot to while away a mild afternoon with a book or nice company.

But we’ve really eaten a lot of pakoras and decide to do penance on a slightly harder walk which starts from Ora Khan, a kilometre and a half further from Reetha, on a sweet-scented forest trail that soon splits in the directions of Mukteshwar and Sitla. Mukteshwar is a hard hour-and-a-half trek with no respite. We decide that we didn’t eat that many pakoras and haul ourselves in a gentler walk to Sitla in 40 minutes, with the scent of the forest in our noses and the shine of pine needles in our eyes.

I can understand why honeymooners never leave the cottage, and I can see why some people use the cottage as a base to explore beautiful Kumaon. We’re so loath to leave Bob’s Place that we set off for Kathgodam station too late for the liking of our driver, who keeps up a steady grumble about how we’re supposed to build in a time margin for, say, a punctured tyre and if we don’t, well, how can we expect to make the train? Sadly we do make it, with seven minutes to spare.

The information

Getting there
The drive from Delhi to Nathuakhan can take up to 9hr, via Rampur-Kathgodam-Bhimtal-Bhowali-Malla Ramgarh-Talla Ramgarh. But most convenient is the Ranikhet Express (leaves Old Delhi 10.45pm, arrives Kathgodam 6.30am; Rs 601 on 2A). A taxi sent by the hotel will pick you up and deposit you at Bob’s Place by 9am.

Bob’s place
The cottage currently offers four rooms spread over two buildings. The suite has a double bed and a sitting area downstairs with a twin bed and an open-air sitout upstairs, both with bathrooms attached. The cottage has two double rooms with bathrooms (one attached, one in the lobby) downstairs; upstairs is a large common area, a kitchen, a small dining area, and a large balcony. Another two rooms will shortly be added. For bookings contact Anand Kumar (Bob) in Delhi at 98110-34861; in Nathuakhan at 05942-285510 or email bobanand@gmail.com (www.wah-kumaon.com).

Around & about
Amble down the road through Nathuakhan market for 2km until you hit the path that takes you down through orchard terraces to a pretty little stream that makes a nice picnic spot. The walk takes about 30min from the roadhead. Another 1km up the road from Bob’s Place, towards Mukteshwar, is Reetha village from where a gentle, shady walk through forest takes you to a charming old sarai in a deodar grove. A lovely place to while away an afternoon. Another 1.5km further up the road from Reetha is Ora Khan village, from where you can take either a stiffish 1hr30min trek up to Mukteshwar, or a gentler walk to Sitla (40min), both through a dappled oak and chir pine forest. both through a dappled oak and chir pine forest.


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