Neelima is a travel writer and a photographer. She has been travelling in India since 2008. She has travelled from the remote forests of Andaman and Chhattisgarh to the border areas of Nagaland and Kashmir. Her dream is to set her feet in all the states and Union territories of India by the time she turn’s 30.
Through the glass windows, I was looking at the night lift its cloak of darkness as a blue dawn fought its way through. The sun crept up the mountains that surrounded me as the first rays slowly flooded the room, the chirping of birds grew louder and I could hear the faint gurgle of the river below. I was still in bed as the orange light blinded me; I adjusted my position to keep the rays away from my face. While I have always loved the idea of waking up to first light gently falling on my face, it is not something that I got to experience a lot. But here at Kosi Valley Retreat, I went to bed every night anticipating waking up to bright sunshine.
I’m not a morning person on most days, but whenever I’m in the hills, I become one. It is impossible not to, when your cue to wake up is not the mechanized sound of an alarm ringing but the delightful cacophony of numerous birds singing. Plus, it helps to be well rested, in the lap of nature where your internal body clock resets itself (BBC: Can a week under canvas reset our body clocks?).
Here in this valley, outdoor enthusiasts who prefer a nature fix along with creature comforts can have it all.
My days largely comprised of hanging out with wild nature; Pine trees, Kosi River, Himalayas and its foothills, star-studded night skies, Red-Billed Blue Magpies, verdant green terraced fields and such were my constant companions. I spent a week here without encountering another tourist, which seemed to be a rather rare blessing these days.
On clear nights, sitting around a warm bonfire and listening to the screeching of thousand insects, I looked up into the heavens tracing the paths of numerous shooting stars. However, lazy mornings were spent in the balcony with a warm cup of tea in hand, watching the daring pigeons and hill mynas flutter close to the roof while the little birdies flew in frenzy in the farther trees. Afternoons and evenings were spent hiking in the pristine forest that surrounded the property and cycling in the pretty countryside of Someshwar Valley. But on some days when the serenity of the nature called to do “nothing”, I lazed under a pine tree watching the sunshine escape through its sparse canopy. In the age of sightseeing, it seems we forgot how lovely it is to sit under a tree.
But that doesn’t mean I spent my week in Kosi Valley largely doing nothing. My plan was to actually do nothing, and in fact the place is perfect to just laze around with a book or saunter aimlessly given the serene surroundings of hills, streams and forests. But both Kosi Valley and the team really caught me off-guard there, I had quite an active stay with long hikes and cycle rides on few days. However, the thing that I enjoyed most during my stay was the complete lack of a planned itinerary and how the valley let me in on its secrets, slowly, at its own pace, one day at a time.
Every morning, Shivraj (the manager) and I used to discuss what to do and made plans on the fly depending on my mood. Surprisingly, I found something to do every single day. One day, we made a date with the snowcapped peaks of the Kumaon Range. The next, we cruised along the gently winding roads on Mountain Bikes. On another, we just went hiking in the rain. There was no sightseeing, there was just experiencing the beauty of the valley, often ignored and overshadowed by the mountains that rise up from their sides. Fortunately, Kosi Valley Retreat offers you a rare chance to experience serenity in a valley that is off the beaten track.
On a cold chilly morning, my frozen hands and toes feeling uncomfortably numb, surrounded by nothing but the solemn silence of the resolute mountains, watching the lofty Himalayan peaks slowly turn pink at sunrise, I made a promise to myself that I will come back to these mountains as many times as I can. Because there’s no good reason in this world that justifies staying away from the joy of getting lost in the infinite beauty of the Himalayas!
In a forgotten valley between the famous hill stations of Almora and Kausani that have captured our imagination for long, I spent a week at Kosi Valley Retreat in the obscure yet picturesque Someshwar Valley where the River Kosi meandered quietly endowing the valley with all its might, impervious to all the attention the hills around were getting. The lower slopes of the mountains and the fertile plains between them were packed green with verdant terraced fields, amidst them children frolicked and women in colorful dresses worked. Hidden beyond the small mountains were the giants, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba and their ilk. Sparrows, magpies, bulbuls and many other birds flitted around in the branches of the pine trees but the river quietly flowed in between.
In this valley that is something like heaven, I spent my time day-dreaming under pine trees, cycling along winding roads, hiking in the hills, running after birds and talking to Himalayas. If there’s something like homecoming, this was it.
Having seen a lot of Himalayas before, I’m not one to be easily appeased by a quick peek of a peak above the ridges. I have hiked for days in its impenetrable valleys, crossed over several passes, camped in flower filled grasslands and have seen sun cast its first light on the big mountains from right under their noses. But here – in Almora – I am certain that I have never been this spell bound before.
When I saw the mighty Himalayas tower over the valleys and sneak up on the several layers of little pine ridges, when I could see the mountain rise from plains of the earth to reach for the sky and everything that’s in between, I knew was becoming privy to a beautiful secret!
While I have been longing for mountains all along, there’s a certain charm to the mountain-surrounded valleys that you cannot deny. Wandering in the verdant Someshwar valley, on foot or on cycle, I often wondered how did I miss this little detail – that valleys is where life is. This is where smiles flourish, laughter resounds, people live and birds chirp.
The thing with the hills is unless you are on top, your view is obstructed. The thing with the valleys is that the gorgeous views are unobstructed, despite being at the bottom! This is the typical landscape in the Someshwar Valley.
My tryst with hiking in the Himalayas had unexpectedly started in Gharwal, marvelling at the very same Trishul that was standing in front of me here in Kumaon. That was 6 years ago, yet looking at the crest of the mountain peaking above the Someshwar Valley, it felt like meeting a long lost friend when I hiked up the small hill in front of the retreat one evening.
The inimitable romance of walking in pristine pine forest listening to the sound of rustling pine leaves that feels like swelling waves of an ocean and basking in the sunlight streaming through the punctured canopy is exactly the kind stuff that dreams are made of. For two days, hiking in the hills overlooking Someshwar Valley, I let myself fully immerse in the little joys of being in the outdoors. There were bigger rewards as well, but life is made up of many of such small moments too.
That night after a tiring climb through pine valleys and ridges, rhododendron filled pathways and countless Himalayan views, we came to a holy temple atop a hill. We spent the night at a forest resthouse. For the record, I was in a cottage. In reality, I was sleeping under the stars!
It was breathtaking alright but it was more heartwarming to see the mountains here without the deep gashes and ghastly bruises inflicted by humanity in the name of development. There is no greater joy than seeing undisturbed forests, even more so in a country like India where we are encroaching into every inch of wild spaces left!
Some of you who were followers of this blog for few years now might remember that there was a time when I was crazy about cycling! I climbed 36 hair pins bends over mad gradients, rode 140kms in a single day, soaked myself silly cycling in the rains and even attempted to ride in the Himalayas. All that was behind me though, it’s been ages since I cycled and last year I even sold my trusted bike! But here in Someshwar Valley, couldn’t resist the temptation looking at the lovely roads of Almora and the mountain bikes at the place where I was staying.
On the first evening, I took the bike out for a short spin – an easy 10km ride in the valley along side the fields. The itch had come back, few days later, we cycled all the way upto to Kausani, 20kms from the valley. The weather was delightfully overcast with cool winds to keep me company, the climb to Kausani was gradual and gently making the ride very pleasant. The cherry on top, however, were the breathtaking views of green valleys and pine mountains.
On the last day, before leaving the valley that gave me so many fond memories, thought it only made sense to hike up the hills one last time to bid goodbye. It rained that morning, heavily. As I made my way up the village into the pine forest over the ridge, this unbelievable sweeping view of the valley welcomed me. As the rain reduced to a drizzle, I stood over a slippery rock wondering if this was Kumaon’s way of saying farewell to me, by delighting me one last time. I walked further ahead on the trail lost in the view when two wild boars grunted and lunged into the forest startled by my presence, reminding me that the forests here as wild as they are beautiful. I scurried back in fear, to the retreat where I was staying. A smile stayed plastered on my face though, how wonderful was it to encounter life in the forests, abode of the wild, the beautiful, and the reckless!
Sometimes, our greatest gifts come in strange packages. Who would’ve thought staying in valley will get me closer to the mountains? Who would’ve thought ignoring the hill station viewpoints will take me to secret hideouts only the locals know about? They say Uttarakhand is known as Devbhoomi, meaning a place where gods live, because of the numerous temples that dot the state. But looking at these mountains and valleys, I have no doubt that in that claim because who else can create a place so exquisite?
Make it Happen – Accommodation:
Kosi Valley Retreat is a stone bungalow set right by the Kosi River side in a valley between Almora and Kausani, offering 4 rooms on the top floor, with a dedicated balcony for each room which allows you a close look at the very active birdlife in the surrounding pine forest. The building constructed with stone and pebbles in typical mountain style is atmospheric, and the large glass windows and doors are a delightful touch because you can see the mountains and forest right from your bed.
What to do:
Situated in a pristine corner of Uttarakhand, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails around the property. I went on 2 rides and 3 hikes during my week long stay there. Talk to the team at Walk to Himalayas who can suggest a good itinerary for you. If you love outdoors you are in for an absolute treat as the retreat is stocked with outdoor gear like rock climbing equipment, mountain bikes, camping gear and all that jazz. There are enough activities to keep you occupied for an entire week and more, so plan your days well in advance so you are not disappointed that you have to leave out certain treks or cycle rides due to lack of time.
A small team of friendly staff from nearby villages manages the retreat and they take care of you quite well. And, like me, if you hate the oily atrocity that is thrust upon us in the name of Indian food in most touristy places, you will love the simple and delicious Kumaoni food served here. The produce used for cooking is mostly organic, coming from the kitchen garden within the premises.
Kathgodam is the nearest railway station and Haldwani is the closest bus stop. You can get shared or full taxis to take you to Almora from Kathgodam, it takes about 4-5 hours to reach.
Note: My stay and activities at Kosi Valley Retreat were sponsored by Walk to Himalayas. Opinions, as always, are honest and mine.