I visited Nainital, along with my family in the month of June, a week or so before catastrophic floods devastated the beautiful state of Uttarakhand. Coming as it did, just a few days after we had the most wonderful time in Uttarakhand, the news considerably saddened me.
Photo from Flickr
I grew up in Dehradun, the capital of the state of Uttarakhand; therefore the scenes of destruction that unfolded on the TV screen deeply saddened me. However when we were there that delightful June week, there wasn’t the slightest hint of the trouble that was to come. Of course Nainital being in the Kumaon region and not Gharwal(the two principal regions of Uttarakhand) where the floods happened, did escape practically unscathed.
Unlike in the past where I usually would drive to destinations in the two hundred and fifty to five hundred kilometer range of distance from Delhi, (Mussoorie, Shimla, Agar, Jaipur et al), we decided that we would go by train. There is a Shatabdi Express that leaves Delhi early morning and reaches Kathgodam, the last rail-head before the mountains begin, in about six hours and from there we would take a cab to cover the thirty odd kilometres to Naintal. So there we were that muggy June morning at the Anand Vihar railway station, all ready to board the train. I usually quite enjoy taking the Shatabidi series of trains. These are fast, modern and comfortable and you get breakfast or lunch and a newspaper to read. I must confess that we were rather dismayed to realize that the particular train they had deployed was probably the oldest of the Shatabadi fleet and well past it sell -by date. The roof was leaking, the air-conditioner worked intermittently making you alternately profusely sweat and shiver with cold. Add to that the service was sullen and the quality of food left much to be desired. The piece de resistance was the waiter waving a tray of aniseed under every passenger’s nose, expecting them to drop a currency note in it. I dropped a ten rupee note partly out of disgust and partly out of resignation and waved him away.
This one journey destroyed years of pleasant experiences of traveling in the Shatabadi. I earnestly hope that was a one off and an exception and one can look forward to many delightful journeys on the Shatabadi in the future. In any case we reached Kathgodam in a slightly grumpy mood, but no sooner did the cab start climbing the delightful Kumaon hills, our spirits soared. Very soon it started to drizzle and we rolled up the windows and sank back further into our seats taking in the grand Himalayan vistas (something I live for). En route we had piping hot mountain tea at a road side shack along with some hot pakoras. Pure heaven.
Soon our cab was cruising on the Mall Road beside one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, the pear shaped Naini Lake. We got off near the roap-way station and clambered up the steep steps to our hotel a little above the roap-way station from where one takes the cable car to the Snow View Point(the highest point in Nainital). The hotel’s terrace overlooked the ever stunning Naini Lake, and one could spend hours taking in the vista over many cups of hot tea.
We were of course refreshed and ready to hit the town in no time and we headed right into the hustle and bustle of the Tibetan Market. There were lots of things up for sale, ranging from woolens to decoration pieces, stoles and lovely shawls. Then there would be those enterprising fruit sellers who would pester you to buy their imaginatively arranged platters(made of dried leaves) of a variety of fruit-cherries, peaches, plums and apricots. You ended up buying one at an exorbitant price, only to realise that there was actually a tiny quantity of fruit in the platter. But what the heck?! The guys had to make a living, and this was peak season for them. They had to earn for the rest of the year. Soon we walked over to the ancient Naini temple, being drawn by the melodious pealing of the temple bells. We deferred entry till the next day, choosing to walk down the Mall Road instead.
Now walking down the Mall Road is de rigueur at any of the hill stations of Northern India, as any old hand would tell you. In the British days, these exclusive pathways were the sole preserve of the ruling European classes, and the Indians were not encouraged to hang out there unless they were part of the extensive India royalty. Remnants from those colonial days in Nainital are visible in the shape of the grand colonial houses, (many of them converted to hotels), the famous Yacht club, and the old churches. Ironically there are hardly any Europeans to be seen among the milling crowds that throng the Mall Road. Most of the visitors these days are middle class Indians having come from all parts of North India, and as far away as Gujarat. You would find some well heeled people too mostly come to drop off their children who study in some of the famous schools of Naintal like Sherwood College(Amitabh Bachhan is an alumunus) and St. Joseph’s. The rest of their ilk would probably holidaying in London. You wouldn’t miss the school children of course. Trouping up and down the Mall Road, clutching their rucksacks and happily chattering away among themselves oblivious of the world around them.
The next day we went boating in the traditional Naintal boat with an expert Kumaoni oarsman in charge. In a welcome change from our last visit many years back, we were all made to wear colorful life-jackets for our own safety. Very soon we were cutting across the cool and green waters of Lake Naini, taking in the breathtaking views all around us. At one end of the lake was the Naina Devi temple and the Mall Road with all its shopping establishments and the Yacht Club ran parallel on one flank, while the other flank comprised of a hill which rose up considerably from the shore with a road snaking right up its side all the way up to Sherwood College and St. Joseph’s School. In the middle of the lake all you heard was the swooshing sound of the oars slicing the water, the breeze making your hair flap, and the clouds and mists rolling into the lake from the surrounding hills. Every once in a while a yacht with a bright sail would distract you as it sailed by gracefully. We disembarked at the Naini Devi temple where we paid the customary obeisance to the deity and marveled at the spiritual energy of the place. You could almost feel the power of the Mother Goddess protecting everyone who came to her.
Soon it was dark, and as we walked down on the beautifully lit up Mall Road to have dinner at our favorite restaurant we were caught in a sudden downpour and took shelter under the awning of a nearby shop, beside which a conveniently located aloo-chatt vendor was doing brisk business! It was then that we noticed that the shop we were standing outside, was selling oversized umbrellas to whosoever would care to buy. Quite enterprising the Nainital tradesmen and shopkeepers, one had to admit.
The nest two days we did the usual taxi round of the nearby hills, and also took the cable car up to snow-view point. Unfortunately the sky was draped in a very fine mist, and we didn’t get much of a view of the distant snow clad mountain peaks, but this was more than made up by the bracing mountain breeze, and lovely walks in the woods. My twelve and a half year old son tolerated all my talk of the magnificence of nature quite stoically, but I could see that he was quite intrigued at the sight of a go carting circuit on top of the Snow View hill. Equally he enjoyed his hand at bowling and an assortment of other video games. Now I fully understand why there is a plethora of these at Indian hill stations. I have to admit though he did love the boat rides(we had several) on Naini Lake, and was quite eager to try his hand at rowing. As regards my wife, she indeed did have her tryst with shopping, buying among other things, sweaters, stoles and pickles(apparently this place is quite famous for them).
All good things come to an end and soon we were headed back home; thankfully this time in a cab(considering our not so pleasant Shatabadi experience), driving through some spectacularly beautiful pine forests.