Delhi’s weather in March is a breeze, literally and metaphorically so. There is still that slight nip in the air and the sky gets clouded momentarily bringing down unseasonal yet welcome showers – signs the winter is bidding goodbye. However, its conniving pleasantness in March also effectively holes up the impending harshness of its horrid summers and its extremely dry and punishing days. March, hence, is the season for road trips.
Almost rubbing shoulders with the foothills of mountains, Delhi is flanked by the hills of Uttrakhand and Himachal Pradesh and Himalayas is only at an arm’s reach. Or say a few hours’ drive, the only gripe being that the drive extends outside the well-laid highways of Delhi and into the hinterlands of UP’s non-existence road infrastructure. A Delhi – Nainital road trip was never in the scheme of things but when I had a few spare days left and when Delhi’s weather turned drippy like a sick child’s runny nose, I decided to hop on a ride with a friend.
He wanted company, a riding partner, I sought adventure and our interests boded well. It was his first long-distance mountain ride after he purchased his Bullet 500 and he naturally thought having a pillion rider will provide moral support in the event of a breakdown. His greater fear, though I discovered later, was that the dreaded man-eater tigress Mysterious Queen that was in the prowl in the sugarcane fields in the villages around the Corbett Reserve Area. In the off chance of an encounter, he did not want to be alone. She had already devoured about a dozen humans.
Suddenly, his mundane question about what I prefer during my travels, the journey or destination made so much sense to me. I told him it was the journey because it is filled with experiences, stories, people and so on. Looks like, there will be drama too.
We left Delhi around afternoon and reached Ghaziabad a little later than lunch after beating Delhi’s weekday traffic. After filling up on aloo – pyaaz paratha in a nameless dhaba off Ghaziabad, we rode into the mid-day sun. A Google map suggested diversion took us from Moradabad through Tanda, which was god awful to say the least. There were potholes where there should be a road the size of lunar craters filled with slush from the recent rains. The bike moaned but never gave up on us and brought us to NH47 but we couldn’t take it anymore. We decided to give our battered bodies and rattling bones rest and stayed the night in Bazpur.
But it was update time and Adamya called his mother with the latest. “You should see Prathap now, he looks like a raccoon,’ I overheard him tell his mother. I quickly slipped into the bathroom to inspect my face in the mirror and found myself staring at a face resembling not unlike a raccoon’s – caked in layers of grime, except the area of the skin hidden under the sunglasses. Sure, raccoon sounds apt. A raucous wedding party in the next building and half-decent beds notwithstanding, we slept like babies that night.
The next day we started from Bazpur and rode through hordes of wheat fields and as we gained elevation, terrace fields, grazing cattle, river deltas came into view. Before reaching Naini, we ate a hearty plate of Maggie and bread omlette for breakfast. Adamya wanted to know if Maggie tasted better in high altitudes to which I answered Maggie tastes like Maggie, no matter the altitude.
With tiny alleys overflowing with shops, roads congested with four wheelers and shops announcing paraphernalia from hill products to high-end clothing, Naini has all the makings of a hill station. I sat in the bench by the tear-drop shaped lake and stretched my legs, basking in the sunlight while Adamya went hunting for a room. That being a weekday, it wasn’t difficult to find a hotel. For a decent rate, we found a place that also offered a slice of the view of the lake. After a while, we hired a pedal boat and went into Naini. The sun was at its peak and cormorants dove into the water for fish.
Soon enough it was time for the ultimate Naini attraction, the cable car. We bought our tickets and hopped onto one. The driver, an elderly gentleman, operated our car and when it reached the destination he let the vehicle ram into the pillar next to the platform. Not so much because he wanted to, but there is no other way to ensure precision while landing. That explains the hundreds of scratch marks on the car. I flinched but for him it’s all in a day’s work. On the way back, I got bunched up with few women whose convivial banter with each other bordered on morbidity, mocking the safety of the car. What if this thing snaps and tumbles down? One asked. As a manner of addressing their husbands, another one answered: ‘saalon bachch jaoge’. You’ll be saved fellas. Perfect, I thought, this trip has so far been all about threats and humiliations.
Naini town is charmingly unassuming and its attractions range from lakes (Bhim Tal, Naukuchia Tal, Khurpa Tal) to many other strategic regions in the Kumaon Himalayas. Thanks to its history and heritage steeped in colonial times, Nainital also has picnic spots (tiffin top), summer homes (Gurney House) and the astronomical institute of ARIES on Manohara Peak. We rode to Kilbery and found the season’s last snow piled up on the road. Adamya, from Delhi, couldn’t resist the snow and dove straight in asking his pictures to be taken in various poses.
We rode further up to Pangot and returned after tea. Chatting up with the chaiwala at Pangot provided us with the knowledge that there exists an alternate route to Delhi that reduces the possibility of us encountering lunar craters on the road by more than half.
The rapid increase in tourism – Nainital being the quintessential honeymoon destination – is increasingly spelling death knell to the town and the lake’s eco-system. Conservation efforts by the district administration and municipality seem to have yielded results at least in the Naini Lake. The lake is not cluttered with plastic waste and recent studies have suggested that pollution levels have drastically reduced in the lake improving the quality of the water. It is a good start but with increasing tourism activity, the problem though is sustainability of these measures. Of which I sincerely hope there should be no dearth.