Like restless kids, we were flapping our penguin-like wings the moment we set foot in this inebriating land. Look there! Look here! Look at that! Oh my God! Seriously, what were they thinking when they partitioned Uttar Pradesh to carve Uttarakhand? I mean, is it even legal to be so impeccably, immeasurably exquisite? The land rises from the wet jungles of Terai, through wooded doons and low hills to towering, glaciated peaks. Uttarakhand offers some of the best of the Himalayas- the landscape is so stunning your jaws will drop- and welcomes all travellers, from thrill-seekers to leisure-lovers. Endless trails thread through the mountains- beneath thick, dripping canopied forests, across expansive meadows strewn with flowers, past lakes and villages with pretty cottages and terraced fields. Wild rivers gush through valleys and gorges cut deep into the womb of the earth. No matter where you look, whether it is out from your window or down from a parachute, everything appears like a rendition in watercolour. We have picked our favorite things to do in this fabulous county. Read, Explore, & Be a Gypsy to enjoy the best that Uttarakhand has to offer.
Uttarakhand is a trekker's paradise. The land rises gently up from the Terai to the lower Himalayas and finally to the jaw-dropping heights of the Greater Himalayan ranges. Dense forests swathed with swirling mists, deep valleys, alpine meadows laced with flowers and glass-water lakes hide in the folds of these mountains. There is something for everyone here, be amateur trekkers or experienced mountaineers. The most popular treks in Uttarakhand are the Roopkund Trek, Dayara & Gidara Bughyal Trek, Chandrashila Trek, Rupin Pass Trek, Kuari Pass Trek, Nag Tibba Trek and the Har ki Dun Trek. And if treks frighten you (though trust us, they are nothing like the images "trek" draws to your mind), go on long walks through quiet woods with the sun filtering through leaves and birdsong for company.
Vistas in Har ki Dun
Needless to say, the glaciated mountains birthe numerous rivers and not one of them are restrained, demure creatures. They tear the rugged landscape, rushing in ruthless eddies down to the plains. Each year, these unbridled rivers of Uttarakhand draw enthusiastic rafters. Rishikesh and Mussoorie are the prime locations but the interiors of the state, adorned with countless glacial streams, are slowly opening up to travellers. The Kali River along the Indo-Nepal border presents one of the best rafting experiences. It hurtles down through thick semi-tropical forests, past sandy banks and tall mountains with a village or two perched on the cliffs.
Rafting in the Kali River
Community Eco-tourism has recently been drawing an appreciable number of guests. Experiences include staying with a local family in the countryside - and the countryside is beyond beautiful - joining them in everyday activities like farming, gardening, fruit picking, foraging and the like, and partaking of local food. You can also volunteer at local schools and grass roots organisations working to make living conditions easier in the high mountains. Binsar & Rudraprayag offer excellent opportunities to mingle with the local communities and understand their life. Saryu in the Pindar Valley is another destination to soak up the culture and customs of this magical land.
Kids in the Saryu Valley
The two regions of Uttarakhand - Kumaon & Garhwal - have distinct cuisines. Local spices like gandreni, the dried root of wild celery, and jumboo, a variety of high-altitude chives add flavour to usual dishes. Wonderful preparations of dals and broths accompany a wide variety of breads like bedu rotis, lesua rotis and choli rotis. Bhaang ki sabzi is widely eaten. Aromatic chicken and fish curries are part of most menus. For those with a sweet-tooth, there is bal-mithai, lapsi, singhal and singori, sweet made from evaporated milk cooked in sugar and coconut and served wrapped in a malu leaf. In Garhwal, the staple is rice. Bhaang-jeera chutney is a popular condiment. Typical Garhwali dishes are Phaanu, Kafuli, Bhatwani, Chainsoo and Jholi. Kachmauli, goat flesh smoked in an open fire and seasoned, is a favourite of the Garhwalis.
A delicious Kumaoni spread
The world's holiest river, the Ganges, originates from the massive Gangotri Glacier in the mountains of Uttarakhand. A well-marked footpath frequented by pilgrims starts from the temple town of Gangotri - the Ganga aarti here is nothing short of mesmerising -, and clambers up the mountains to the glacier's snout at Gaumukh, so named because before the glacier receded, it resembled the mouth (mukh) of the cow (gau). Trekkers can go further, climb over the glacier and proceed over moraines and debris, to reach the gorgeous meadows of Tapovan. Sprawled in the shadow of the Shivling Peak, Tapovan is a beautiful flower spangled meadow with sparkling streams criss-crossing it. A number of sadhus meditate here.
The snout of the Gangotri Glacier (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Auli is deemed to have some of the finest skiing slopes in this part of the globe. From January to April, the slopes are covered with over 3 m of thick, white snow. A drop in elevation of 500 m attracts skiing enthusiasts from all over the world. A long Ski-Lift connects the lower slopes to the top. The thrill of hurtling down snowy slopes with the icy wind lashing at your face is unmatched. The world's highest man-made lake is also located here.
Skiing down snow slopes (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The mountains of Uttarakhand are home to some of the world's most spectacular glaciers. These icy beasts are massive tongues of rocks, ice, stone and other debris wedged in between ranges. Most of India's rivers originate from glaciers. The most well-known glacier treks in Uttarakhand are the Pindari & Kafni Glacier Trek, Milam Glacier Trek, Sunderdhunga Glacier Trek and Khatling Glacier Trek. Each one of them boast of indescribable beauty. The trails skirt the bases of glaciated peaks and wind through dense forests, wind-swept grasslands and picture-postcard hamlets.
The Kafni Glacier
Mountain biking is an exhilarating sport and the rugged terrain of Uttarakhand provides ample opportunities. Biking along long empty stretches over the undulating landscape, past quaint villages, flowering rhododendron and bauhinia trees, orchards and lovely waterfalls is enlivening. The air is so fresh and cold it stings. A lilting bouquet of fruits and wildflowers perfumes the atmosphere. Vast expanses of ancient lichen-encrusted trees rule the land. A ride through the Kodia Forest in Kanatal is refreshing. The views are stunning and there are such views all over the place.
The Kodia forest in Kanatal
Uttarakhand has some of India's most revered pilgrimage centres. Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Tungnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri are some of the subcontinent's holiest temple towns. India's primary river, the Ganga, originates in these mountains. Most of the region's temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction. According to mythology, when Ganga fell from the Heaven at Gangotri, she got entrapped in Shiva's hair and he let her out in small streams. The evening aarti at Gangotri and Rishikesh are spectacular.
Ganga aarti at Rishikesh
Is there a better reason to visit Uttarakhand? Rusty's creator and one of our favorite authors calls the hills of Landour, near Mussoorie, home. Each Saturday, Ruskin Bond signs books at the Cambridge Book Shop. Wake up early and join the long queue snaking outside. The Indian Council for Child Education recognised his pioneering role in the growth of children's literature in India, and awarded him the Sahitya Academy Award, 1992 for Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra. And then there is Landour! Lush inclines peppered with colonial era buildings, forests of deodar and red rhododendron flowers and pretty ivy-covered cottages transport you into a time warp. The solitude and the moist, cool breeze is invigorating.
Ruskin Bond (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Rishikesh is known as the Yoga Capital of the World for all the right reasons! Each year, travellers come to the wellness centres here to meditate and practice yoga. Away from the din of the temples, Rishikesh is quiet and the solitude prods you to embark on some soul-searching and healing. The woods, the birdsong and views of the raging Ganges provide numerous opportunities for meditation. The fresh, cold mountain air is rejuvenating.
A sadhu practicing yoga by the Ganges in Rishikesh
Since its serendipitous discovery in 1862 by Col. Edmund Smyth, the Valley of Flowers has seen an increasing number of romanticists, impressionists, surrealists or simply travellers. Each year, in the monsoon, the otherwise green valley erupts in a incredible number of flowers. Over 600 species of angiosperms and 30 pteridophytes in the valley and surroundings have been recorded. The uncommon Himalayan maple is the predominant tree here. A mind-boggling assortment of flowers like orchids, poppies, primulas, marigolds, anemones, daisies and campanulas carpet the valley floor. The sparkling Pushpawati River flows through the valley. The trek to the park starts from Ganghria. Situated nearby is Hemkund Sahib, the highest Gurudwara in the country.
Valley of Flowers
Uttarakhand's Lake District is top draw with tourist but let not the crowds be a downer. Naini Tal, Naukuchia Tal, Bhim Tal, Satt Tal and Khurpa Tal are the major lakes. The deep blue lakes surrounded by tapestries of thick, velvety green forests are mesmerising. I remember reading in a story - I forget the title - how the lights sparkle like a necklace along the lake shores and the air gets heavier as the night advances. At daybreak, the mist rolls her sleeves back and the gold of the sun flickers on the still surface. Boating in the lakes here, in the quiet hours of dawn, can melt the hardest of hearts.
The Naini Lake at Nainital (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
India's oldest National Park was named after Jim Corbett, a legendary Indian hunter and tracker-turned-conservationist, author and naturalist, who was famous for hunting tigers and leopards. The park is home to the endangered Bengal tiger. The landscape, dominated by Terai forests, is enchanting. Vast tracts are under sal forests. In autumn, the colours of fall create a surreal scenery. Open grasslands blend into the foothills along the horizon. Large herds of elephants can be spotted here. Leopards, jungle cat, fishing cat, barking deer, sambar deer, hog deer and chital, sloth and Himalayan black bears, Indian grey mongoose, otters, yellow-throated martens, Himalayan ghoral, Indian pangolins, langur and rhesus macaques among others are residents here.
Deer at Corbett (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Para-gliding is swiftly gaining a broad fan-base. Precipitous slopes, dizzying valleys and views to die for make Uttarakhand a hot bed for the adventurous. Para-gliding over Rishikesh gives you the chance to look at the otherwise crowded town in a completely different way. Swathes of thick vegetation, unplanned concrete agglomerates, and the river flowing gracefully beside ancient temples assumes a look of a meticulous illustration. A little farther, the forests take over and in between fields of wheat and barley glow golden in the sun. The evening aarti, seen from high up, is a treat not only for the eyes, but also for the soul.
Uttarakhand has us mesmerised and we cannot wait to go back in the strong arms of the mountains. When are you coming?
Article by: Mohana Das