Tuesday 26 Sep
Almora District Uttaranchal Province, India
Drinking tea with the gods.
What a difference a few days can make. Almora, in the newly formed province of Uttaranchal, couldn't be more different from Delhi. For a start we can fill our lungs with air without feeling we're shortening our life expectancy with every breath. It's like Snowdonia or The Lake District only more beautiful. Imagine yourself stood on top of Snowdon on a clear day overlooking the Welsh valleys, only with the snow capped jagged peaks of the Himalayas as your backdrop and you'll begin to understand just how beautiful it is here. It's simply gorgeous, so forgive me for waxing lyrical.
The people here believe you're closer to God in Almora than anywhere else in India. They've nicknamed it 'Heaven on Earth' which is probably why it attracts so many spiritual types. We met Swami Vivekanand (a Swami is a Hindu monk) at the Kasi Devi temple just outside Almora. He made us a cup of Chai (spiced milk tea) and we sat and discussed everything from Nostradamus to Islam whilst watching the sun go down over the mountains. Vivek believes the reason English and Indian people get on so well is because we both like to discuss politics, drink tea and appreciate a good newspaper?!
In Jageshwar, a temple complex dating back to the 7th century AD we met an elderly couple from Bombay. In their retirement they were touring all the temple sites of India. In their own words 'visiting all the gods.' A brilliant combination of holiday and insurance policy! Jageshwar was one of our favourite places, not least because the people were so wonderful. Especially Jeewan who made our stay all the more special. Jeewan makes about 1000 rupees (12 quid) a month as a farmer which he tops up with a little guiding. He showed us round for a couple of days introducing us to his family and every Swami and Sadu in the district.
In the past couple of days we've seen intimate Hindu rituals, been blessed by every holy man in Almora and touched so many Shiva lingas (phallic shaped stones symbolizing creation) that I think Rob is petrified I'm pregnant. We've been on some breathtaking hikes, stopping at people's homes and small hut restaurants for tea and biscuits along the way. We even visited Jeewan's old school, a 14 km round trip from Jageshwar which most kids walk. Set high up on a ridge overlooking the foothills of the Himalayas, it is probably the most beautiful setting for a school in the world. We visited the school in the afternoon so all the kids were having their lessons out on the lawn. I don't know how they do any work, I'd be continually distracted by the view.
I can understand why so many new age types are attracted to India. Hindu's are basically a bunch of peace and love, flower power hippies. When trying to describe the beauty of The Black Forest ( a huge pine forest in Jageshwar) Jeewan used these words:
Some love one
Some love two
I love this one tree
This is you.
I rest my my case!
When we haven't been hiking we've been blissing out gazing at the Himalayas and drinking tea, in the English gardens of the nearby hill station of Kausani. Built on a ridge with stunning views of the mountains, it is a very peaceful and relaxing place. It's also famous for being home to the Anasakti Ashram where Gandhi stayed in 1929, and invented Anasakti Yoga.
We've been getting about between villages in Almora via a network of shared jeeps that connect all the small hillside towns. The most people we've managed to squeeze in to an eight seater jeep so far is 18. It's a bit cozy but a good way to meet all the locals.
Our final stop in the Almora district was a place called Pithorogath, nicknamed 'Little Kashmir' because of it's green pastures, valleys, and similar looking people. The residents of Pithorogarth are competing for the friendliest people in the world award. We literally couldn't set foot outside our hotel door with out being swamped by well wishers wanting to show us round. People gave us lifts on the back of motorbikes up to temples, and a group of college kids even bunked off their English lesson so they could give us a grand tour of their home town. It's going to cost us a fortune to send all the letters and photographs we've promised to all our new friends :o)
On our last night the owner of the hotel, Yash Yanith, where we stayed invited us up to his apartment for food and drinks with his family. We were sincerely grateful for our first beer in 4 weeks in India. He was a real entrepreneur and quite a character. His next 'project' was to build a hotel near the Mynsauri glacier and he listened intently as we tried in vain to explain the intricacies of double glazing which he was convinced would fix his current architectural dilemma.
The kindness of people in Almora and Pithoragarth was quite overwhelming. It made our stay really special and we met some amazing people. The scenery was spectacular, and has really wet our appetites for Nepal. We will most definitely come back here.