Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Sitla state of mind

I tagged along with Karen a couple of months ago to a lovely little place tucked up in the mountains of Uttarakhand called Sitla. Though I didn't initially intend to write about it, I enjoyed my trip so much that I wanted to write something. It came out a few days ago in the Hindu Metroplus, and it was nice to get back into some travel writing, which I haven't done for a while. I've included the original version I sent in, which is just slightly longer. Of course I left out bits - like Karen charging ahead at the train station and leaving me behind, both of us clambering on at different points, wondering if the other had also boarded or not. Or Karen waking me an hour early to jump off the train in a panic thinking we had reached, only to discover we were at the wrong station and luckily clambering back in. Other than Karen being a panicky train traveller (I'm not much better, I have to admit), it was quite the perfect getaway.



“If you see a leopard, just keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re singing, keep singing. If talking, keep talking, etc”. Solid advice from longtime Sitla resident and owner of Sitla Estate, Vikram Maira, who was patiently responding to my rather silly question on the sensible thing to do if one were to bump into the big cat. And at Sitla, that could be a possibility. Awash in green with wisps of cloud drifting through, this tranquil village up in the mountains of Uttarakhand is truly magical. With panoramic views of the Himalayas, fruit laden orchards, deep forests and soothing calm, Sitla lends itself to agenda-less days. For city slickers, it’s easy to appreciate, but hard to first adjust to the boundless silence, staggering beauty and the vast expanse of time that just stretches lazily ahead. Used to running around from pillar to post or swearing your insides out at traffic, the silence can be distracting and I was quite restless and fidgety on my first day. But by the evening, my restlessness stilled and I felt calm. It was three days of doing whatever I wanted.  True luxury!

Sprawled over 40 acres is Sitla Estate – a veritable mountain kingdom owned by Maira. Quitting the bright lights and the big city over two decades ago, he decided to return to his family home in Sitla. Since then he has opened it to visitors, inviting them to experience the warmth of his home amidst this idyllic and magnificent setting. We watch the resident kitten, which the team has christened ‘Toto’, dart in and out through apricot trees, silhouetted against the glorious mountains in the background. And Toto, we’re definitely not in Kansas (or in my case Delhi!) anymore! Gazing down from the sit-out area, dotted with stone benches under the dappled shade of apricot and plum trees, there is a vast expanse of green as far as the eye can see. Layers of blue and purple mountains rise up in the distance, and when the clouds clear in this monsoon weather, the dazzling snowcapped Himalayas magically appear.

We laze for hours sprawled under the trees, gazing out at the orchards and forest. Our noses became increasingly sun burned as it’s difficult to look away from this hypnotic view. With a book in hand, a chilled beer or gin and tonic (or a poison of choice) in the other, you could play some music or let the birds orchestrate a concert for you. The hours pass by in a heady mix. And that isn’t the G and T’s, but just the drunken feeling you get taking in your surroundings.  One tends to vocalize the reaction to a great view or something you really like with a sharp intake of breath in a loud “sssssssss”. And boy, did I hiss a lot in Sitla. In greedy gasping amounts that left me rather breathless most of the time!

One of the mornings we set off on a bird watching trail following our guide, Raju, through a part-road, part-forest path. The non-resident dog, Tiger, who appeared to be quite the favorite by everyone we passed along the way, accompanied us and disrupted our bird watching several times as he bounced gleefully among spotted doves and nervous sparrows.  Slippery slopes were interrupted by gradual paths through lush greenery and generous hordes of cannabis, which Raju told us is a hot favourite with the parakeets. And once they’re in this stoned haze one could even reach out and catch them! There were black eagles soaring above, barn swallows perched atop electric poles, spangled drongos dashing between trees, bushes quivering with red belted bulbuls and long tailed shrikes looking at us seriously. There were black headed munias, rusty-cheeked scimitar babblers and spotted doves; there were shrieks and chirrups and peckings and whoops and tweets! It was a beautiful walk and we were back in time for a glorious breakfast of perfectly fluffed crescent omelets with homemade bread and preserves and jams – all proudly derived from produce of the estate. Tiger joined us for nibbles of toast interspersed with a mad dash up and down the terraced orchards in pursuit of a family of jackals.

You can interrupt the lazy pace with guided jungle treks through the lush forest, walks through the village or a spot of retail therapy at some of the NGO outlets like Kilmora, which sell a range of hand woven and knitted apparel and charming dolls and toys; preserves and pickles; and an apricot skincare range. Sitla Estate also has its own shop, which sources from Kilmora as well as other local NGOs and we came away with considerably heavier bags than when we arrived.
Slightly further out and great for day excursions are trips to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary for some birding, trekking and wildlife spotting. More spiritual pursuits could include a visit to neighboring Mukhteshwar Dham – a 350 year old Shiv temple perched at an altitude of 2,312 meters with great views all around. The cluster of 124 temples and statues in Jageshwar is a tourist hotspot and the ancient temple complex makes for a fascinating wander.  Nainital and Bhimtal are about an hour away if one might like to take in some of the sights at these more popular hill stations. 

We took advantage of our time at Sitla Estate to take a tour of the private orchards along the sloping terraces. Professional parakeet chasers whoop and yell intermittently through the day, shooing the green flocks away from nibbling on the fruit. The orchards and greenhouses are spilling over with everything from apples and purple cabbage, to basil and zucchini – much of which ends up on our plates at meal times.

Despite the lazy pace, the time does seem to end much too quickly. We spend much time tucking into a glorious selection of food at Sitla Estate, which includes everything from perfectly seasoned eggs, vegetables that almost jump off our plate because they are so fresh, “chocolaty” bal mithai – a local favourite; and elaborate four course dinners replete with elegant twirls of spaghetti in fresh pesto; aromatic herbed fish baked in paper; a hearty bacon wrapped chicken roulade; apple crumbles; and so much more. Evenings are well spent in fiercely competitive rounds of scrabble, our vocabulary becoming more inventive with increasing amounts of rum and coke.

We walked back to our rooms and look up to gasp involuntarily (very loud hissing!) at a sky awash in silver stars. It’s the perfect end to our visit.  Sitla is utterly captivating, making us wonder why we’re roughing it out in the city, when one should be fleeing to the mountains. Of course, then places like Sitla would hardly be an escape. For isn’t that what we all need? Somewhere to just let our minds luxuriate in being still, only to be interrupted by sharp gasps at an achingly beautiful starlit night.
 
Getting here:

Sitla, at 7000 feet above sea level, is in the Kumaon region of Nainital District in Uttarkhand. With panoramic views of the Himalayan peaks - Panchachuli, Trishul and Nandadevi - and filled with dense jungle and verdant orchards, the area makes for excellent trekking or more gentle rambles with trails of different grades; and birding opportunities. 350 kilometres by road from Delhi, the closest train station is at Kathgodham. The Shatabdi operates between Anand Vihar station in New Delhi to Kathgodham and there is the overnight Ranikhet Express from the Old Delhi Railway Station. Taxis from Kathgodham will ferry you to Sitla in a little under 2 hours.

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