I wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills…”
Just like William Wordsworth, who begins his poem Daffodils with these lines, I started my trip pondering upon the loneliness that comes with being alone amid hilly meadows and silent among birdcalls and whooshing gusts. However, my March visit to the slopes of Uttarakhand took me to a quaint-yet unique village filled with gregarious folk. As I stayed there, the poem continued in my head—“When all at once I saw a crowd/ a host, of golden daffodils…” I wondered, perhaps, Wordsworth speaks of a literal flower, but also intends for us to find company in nature, and ourselves.
I reached Naikana village (1,940m), which lies about 35 kilometres east of Almora town, on a spring afternoon. My route was fringed with trees bearing pinkish flowers that danced with the breeze, as if chuffed to fruit apricot, peach or plum the next month. The village, though, was in a slightly arid region. I wasn’t exactly headed to the main hamlet either—my destination lay on the opposite hill, at the seven-month-old boutique homestay called Kot Naikana by Mountways, run by the bubbly Dinesh. This 30-something fellow does not belong to these parts, but going by his knowledge of the place, he might as well have.
I realised this when he spotted and identified many species of birds that sat perched on the wires, or even hid in the surroundings forest. Only the scarlet minivet was prettier than the blue-as-an-ocean verditer flycatcher, but the Eurasian hoopoe and the black drongo, too, made for stunning sightings. “A nature photographer friend once identified 70… no, 80 kinds of birds here,” he told me. Given the plenty of vistas, birding was a breeze here. Even as I sunbathed in the restaurant area, I spotted two swallows play a cat-and-mouse game.
I quite liked the restaurant’s aesthetic—sand coloured, built in mud brick, partly alfresco, strewn with cane chairs and lined with wooden tables and a book rack. A lot of the décor had been fashioned by local wood carvers and purchased from nearby craftsmen. Indeed, local was the keyword: the material, the labour and, most importantly, the design.
The cottage, which looked ordinary on the outside (although, it was sizeable and had a nice stairway on the frontside), was a whole different ballgame indoors. Each room had a unique theme—‘Birder’s’ was done up with green cushions and curtains, and decorated with bird photographs and bird-themed paraphernalia; the blue-toned ‘Hillz’ had a mountain theme; the purple-toned ‘Biker’s’ seemed perfect for the motorcycle enthusiast; and Blossom had a vibrant yellow flower-themed look.
It was immediately evident that Dinesh had put his heart and soul into the project. It had a serendipitous story of origin—his chef, Dhan Singh, learned that an old village house was up for lease. The timing was right, and Dinesh decided to give his highland dreams a chance. One thing led to another, a painstaking revamp and rebuilding process ensued, and Kot Naikana came into existence.
Dhan Singh’s serendipity also extended to his food, which was spectacular and your best bet for miles. He was seamless with Kumaoni fare, whether it was the bhat (a soybean-like lentil), mooli ka raita (yoghurt with radish) or an interesting chutney made of hemp seeds (no, it didn’t get us high). Dessert included bal mithai (made with khoa) and singori (again khoa, but less roasted). For other meals, we enjoyed familiar delicacies like the Kumaoni chicken and curd mutton, but desserts such as ‘banoffee in a jar’ and the continental delicacies proved to be underdogs.
But after these hearty meals, what was a good way to burn calories? The answer was obvious—hiking. Turns out, there were plenty of trails to follow, and a nice one was a 40-minute downward walk to the well-known Jageshwar temple complex. Considered home to one of the12 Jyotirlingas (or a devotional representation of Shiva), it has a centuries-old history and consists of 125 temples.
We stumbled upon a procession of villagers on the walk to the Jageshwar temples.
We took a winding path from Kot Naikana that was heavily canopied with oaks and pines. The descent began, which continued all the way till Jageshwar. (This, obviously, foreshadowed a tough uphill climb for the way back.) Along the way, I saw a group of people participate in a procession, perhaps headed to another temple. I remember thinking—“there’s a spiritual air about this place.” And I hadn’t spoken too soon because Jageshwar was abundant with a pronounced air of spirituality. Or, maybe, I was just too overwhelmed by the sheer number of temples. One Deodar tree, someone said, was over a thousand years old. I even learnt the history of Naikana, which was once home to barbers (or nais), and later taken over by Jageshwar’s Nath priests.
The next morning, we set off for the second hike. It reached a climax right at the onset: we almost had to slide down the hill, headed towards the river below, clutching onto trees for support. I proved to be pathetic at this. We crossed a bridge across the river and found ourselves at a deodar forest, rife with towering trees. From here, it was uphill till Naikana village. As we gained the metres, it was a delight to watch the scenery unfold—eventually, the lake formed a ‘U’ shape.
Naikana turned out to be a lush agricultural wonderland, with everything from wheat to banana. It formed a bit of a plateau, and each house looked more fascinating than the last. The villagers were cheery, though shy (especially the girl whom my fellow traveller Puneet greeted. She blushed immediately). Atop, we sat by a temple and enjoyed tea, which Dinesh had been kind enough to arrange before we headed back.
Our final trail, held just the evening before my departure, was perhaps the most memorable. It started quite enigmatically, as Dinesh made sure my expectations took a pitfall. “Oh, we’re just headed up the hill, an hour away. You’ll get a good view of the sunset.” “Sure,” I responded, halfheartedly. Luckily, this proved to be quite a good path. Wide and not-so-steep hills were lined one after the other as I walked across each and gained a bit of an elevation every time. I figured out which one was the destination hill, but it wasn’t until I was completely on the top that I saw a table laid with wineglasses and a bottle of rhododendron wine. “Surprise!” Dinesh roared cheekily, but I was already reeling with excitement. He poured us the drinks, we cheered, and then enjoyed them by the hilltop, as the sun slowly disappear into the horizon. Daffodils came to my mind once more, but in the part that goes—“ A poet could not but be gay / in such a jocund company…” I agree with Wordsworth.
Images: Puneet Paliwal
Location: Naikana, Jageshwar, Bhanoli, Almora district. Approx. 400km (9.5hrs) from Delhi
Accommodation: Four rooms
Contact: [email protected], mountways.com