TD Tries Out: Glamping in Kumaon

The magic of the mountains in winter is unparalleled. Add to that like-minded friends, chatty hosts, cosy tents, local yummies with village mummies, wildlife trails, snowy vales, and a moody dog… and you can’t possibly go wrong. We head out to Sitlakhet in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand to get a glimpse of this homey paradise.

The Bagdogra Express pulls into Kathgodam at around 10 am. Winter is closing in on the hills, and I’m glad to have an extra layer on my back. An Alto waits outside the station, ready to take us further up and deeper into the folds of Kumaon; our destination, Sitlakhet, a two-hour drive away, somewhere between Ranikhet and Almora.

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
The call of the mountains is strong. Image: Courtesy Nayalap.

The blue waves of the Uttarakhand mountains engulf us as we make our way over a stretch of highway that snakes through Sal and Bakli forests for a while. Rounding a sudden bend, the road reveals a chilly breeze and a takeover by the oaks, pines, and deodars. Next to me, Avani is making videos on her phone and humming an Imtiaz Ali number and knows that our girl trip is going according to plan. The plan is to find a corner of the world where one can sit in peace with oneself. 

The highway slants off to the gates of Nayalap, and we find our host Anindya waiting for us at the entrance. He leads us through an oak-shaded trail to an open ground, where we hang around for a bit, letting the shockingly clear glimpse of the massive Nanda Devi range wash away our travel fatigue.

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
Spacious tent suites that provide all the comforts city slickers seek. Image: Courtesy Nayalap.

Delicious afternoon

Our plush canvas tent and its invitingly soft bed beckon us to settle in. We have just brewed refreshing cups of flower-flavoured green tea when Prem walks in, followed by Chandan, both holding trays of steaming delicacies. A lunch made of soul-warming bowls of soup brewed from the indigenous bhatt ki daal, along with light-spiced potatoes flavoured with crunchy jakhia seeds, served with mandue ki roti (ragi flatbread) drenched in home-made butter; just what you want after navigating hill roads.

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
Soul food served in style. Image: Courtesy Nayalap.

We spend the rest of the afternoon sprawled out on the lawn, soaking up the remains of the day’s sunlight and listening to Tanuja’s (co-owner of Nayalap and Anindya’s spouse) tales of growing up in the hills. Stories of picnics with cousins, treks up hilltop temples, afternoons spent with family and visiting relatives over cups of chai sipped with chunks of jaggery. At Nayalap, the flavours of Kumaon and Uttarakhand surround us.

Come on outside, it’s Kumaon!

The morning starts early, hunched by the fire raging outside the kitchen over a cup of tea or in the backyard of our cottage on camping chairs watching Rambo (the neighbouring dog) lose his wits over some low-flying magpies. With the day spread out before us, we pick the village walk as our morning agenda and set out along with Tanuja. 

She’s been here at Sitlakhet for over three years now and knows everyone from the village. She’s from Nainital, and her aunt lives in Ranikhet, so this is her land. And she takes immense joy in sharing it with us. The old mud houses with their mossy roofs. The small triangular openings in the walls for birds to perch and keep homes bug-free. The tiny hole in the wall for bees (a beekeeping technique now lost to concrete buildings). Sitlakhet reveals a love of coexistence.

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
Exploring the old mud houses of the village. Image: Courtesy Nayalap.

“Aja chai pi le…,” a warm voice makes us turn around. Tanuja smiles and waves back at a wrinkled woman with a headscarf. She asked us to come join her on the roof for tea. The porch of her house is speckled with Malta trees bending over with the weight of their fruits. We walk up a narrow staircase, down a wooden ramp, to a sunny opening where we settle for a plate of pue (fried sweet snacks made with semolina) and steaming cups of tea served the traditional way. 

The house, the trees, the farm, and the cattle, are managed by our host and her daughter-in-law. The men of the family are either in Haldwani or Delhi for work. Not just in this house but almost the entire village comprises a population of women, children and the elderly. Besides the occasional shops by the highway and the income generated from farming, there is little else to earn in the villages, leading to Kumaon’s migration (Palayan) problem.

Later, Anindya tells us that is how they named their property Nayalap, a palindrome of palayan. Setting up a glamping experience at Sitlakhet is a way for the couple to keep up their end of the effort by encouraging reverse migration in the valley. They are hopeful that with time, tourism will provide better earning opportunities to the locals. Like how it fetches Pooja Rawat a steady source of income from the homemade pickles and flavoured salts she makes for Nayalap and its guests. And Mahesh Arya, who gives a modern spin to Kumaon’s traditional bamboo products for Nayalap. 

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
At Nayalap, the flavours of Uttarakhand surround us. Image: Courtesy Nayalap.

Hidden treasures

The next day finds us in the busy and ancient streets of Almora. Walking past a historic sweet shop, the Nanda Devi temple, and a happy crowd around a bagpipe player, we trek down into the porch of one of Almora’s oldest houses to meet Namita Tiwari, who runs a training and craft centre. Supported by Uttarakhand Handloom and Handicraft Development Council (UHHDC), it’s dedicated to reviving the dying art of Aipan. 

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
Stopping at the historic Nanda Devi temple. Image: Shutterstock/Roop_dey.

Traditionally, religious and nature motifs were drawn on a red ochre base with rice paste on the walls and floors of households and temples. Now, printed stickers are replacing this art form, leading to collective amnesia regarding the way of life presented through these indigenous designs.

At Almora, over the last 15 years that she has been involved with Aipan, Tiwari has found a way to rescue these motifs by painting them onto fabric, creating a stunning collection of sarees, handbags, cushion covers and diaries. The more religious layouts are kept for framing and find many takers around the country, mostly by migrant Kumaonis keen to hold on to their heritage.

Without these modernisations, Aipan might find a fate similar to Likhai — a Kumaoni tradition of intricate wood carvings used to adorn houses and temples. A 2017 article in The Hindu mentions Ganga Ram, ‘the last surviving master craftsman of the fading Likhai woodwork tradition of Kumaon’. The octogenarian passed away in 2019 and is survived by Lalit, a disciple in Diyari village. However, the intricacies of the Likhai carvings can prove costly, and a cement-and-brick house is cheaper and faster for the locals. Naturally, Lalit finds few patrons for this craftsmanship. 

Glorious nights

Later at night, we sit by a bonfire outside our tent, making the most of the winter evening with warm glasses of mulled wine. Tanuja has added a ukulele to the mix, calming Rambo’s spirits and he sits by the fire in a pensive mood. In the dark of the night, we hear what sounds like a drumbeat.

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
The night sky here is like sequins sparkling on dark velvet. Image: Courtesy Nayalap.

Maybe there’s a wedding in the village? “It’s the neighbours chasing away a fox or wild pigs from their field. They are saving their crops,” she says.  The conversation here veers into the depths of the Binsar forests as Tanuja tells us she has so far spotted 17 leopards on different occasions around the region (mostly during night drives). Naturally, the next day’s agenda includes treks through the forests and a picnic basket. 

Forest forays

The jungle in these regions is a messy mix of rhododendrons, oaks (the silver ones not as abundant), and acacias hanging heavy with their drizzle of yellow flowers, before the trails open up to pine clearings on hilltops, making for picturesque sunset spots. We spot the grey nightjar, the blue-throated barbet, the Himalayan cuckoo, the Indian hare, and even the yellow-throated marten. It is a rather lucky day as Tanuja tells us spotting the swift hare and the shy marten on such short notice is rare. 

Glamping, nayalap, sitlakhet, kumaon, uttarakhand
Forest trails that reveal some really interesting birds and animals. Image: Courtey Nayalap.

Nightfall brings in stinging cold winds and we find ourselves tucked in the folds of the warm hand-woven thulma (sheep-wool blanket), rubbing our feet on the radiating electric blanket beneath. A dinner of gajaik (mashed pumpkin cooked with Jakhia seeds) along with a serving of pahadi chicken curry and steaming bowls of yellow daal readies us for what’s to come next.

Winter wonderland

We wake up the next morning to a stunningly white Sitlakhet and spot Prem standing outside the kitchen under an umbrella. “It started snowing at four am,” he offers. And we take it as a cue to abandon all caution, and trudge out into the open wearing shoes we know are bound to get drenched.

After all, it’s not every day that life gives you fresh snow to play with. Rambo however has taken the day off and is nowhere to be seen. Cups of hot coffee arrive from the kitchen even as we take turns posing against the misty backgrounds of Nayalap for that picture-perfect winter moment we came looking for. 

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