The White Peaks , Part 1 – Mukteshwar and a short hike up the hill in Gagar

This post is a continuation of the series documenting our travels through a small part of Kumaon, Uttarakhand, India. We had started in Sattal and spent 2 days mostly photographing myriad birds of different sizes, shapes & colours. We had also done the usual touristy thing of visiting all the lakes in the region. ( Except Nainital! – More on that later.) Now we were headed for our next destination the small village of Gagar.

Before you say that you have never heard of Gagar, let me add that before researching for this trip neither had I! I was searching for a place to relax in between the two planned birding destinations of Sattal & Pangot. The better half suggested Nainital, but knowing what a concrete jungle that had become I was very reluctant. In one of my countless netsurfing sessions researching for this trip I came upon a place called ” The White Peaks” in Gagar. It was a bungalow that you could rent and came with a caretaker cum cook and all meals included. The location was great, just off the main highway but isolated enough to avoid the crowds that plagued Nainital. The bungalow itself looked very tastefully furnished & the caretaker cum cook meant that we didn’t have to bother about finding a good meal. The icing on the cake was the great view of the Uttarakhand Himalayas from the bungalow itself. Most importantly it seemed to be a great deal for the price that was advertised.

Being the eternal pessimist that I am, I was sceptical about renting a bungalow. Too many things could go wrong, it might look totally different from the photos, the caretaker might make awful food, the view might be from one corner or one room! Inspite of all the scepticism I finally decided to risk it & contacted the owner for availability and booking. The owner promptly replied and I had researched it to the ground for a few days and found nothing bad about it online. So before I let my pessimism get in the way I completed the booking. In hindsight it was a decision that I am super glad that I took.

Coming back to the trip itself, we left Sattal after a great morning session at the Sattal Ashram hide. (Sattal, Part 2 – Enjoying the lakes and the birds of the Lake District of Uttarakhand). It was gloriously sunny by now and we were soon winding up the hills from Sattal.

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A glorious sunny day in the foothills of the Himalayas

As we still had some time before the White Peaks would be ready for us, we decided to visit the nearby temple of Mukteshwar. The caretaker Mohan had helpfully called me enquiring about my time of arrival & dietary preferences, my scepticism had started to fade!  We winded around the hills and got to Mukteshwar Dham after two hours of Mussarat bhai regaling us with his eclectic selection of Hindi songs.

Mukteshwar Dham is a 350 year old Shiva temple situated on the highest point of the town of the same name. I am not a very religious person but the better half is, so it had to be on the itinerary plus the nearby cliffs named Chauli ki Jaali promised great views. That made it a good proposition all round.

We got down at the parking lot and huffed & puffed our way up the stairs to the hill top where the temple is located.

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In sight of the temple after a short climb up from the road

The temple structure, as in most temples of this region is very simplistic. It is the location and not the architecture that makes these temples memorable. We reached the temple and the better half went in to pray. I noticed two rhesus macaques (monkeys) waiting patiently outside the temple while the better half was in. Soon the bigger of the two monkeys started getting restless and I motioned the better half to get out before he got aggressive.

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A Rhesus Macaque waits outside the temple

As soon as the better half exited the two monkeys swooped in and started enjoying the offerings kept in the temple. The bigger one even came out once to growl at us, warning us not to interfere again! We didn’t need a clearer signal and we moved away from the temple leaving the monkeys to enjoy their plunder.

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The simple hilltop temple at Mukteshwar Dham

After descending the stairs we made our way around the path through the woods at the base of the temple that led to the cliffs. This was more my cup of tea, beautiful trees filled with the sounds of birds high above, small flowers in the grass below and a view to look forward to.

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On the path to Chauli ki Jaali
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A beautiful flowers on the way to the cliffs

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Wild flowers of various shapes

After a short walk interrupted by a few stops to take photos of the flowers or sight a woodpecker hammering away at a tree, we reached the cliffs. The uninterrupted view of the foothills from the cliffs was a superb sight, rolling green hills dotted with villages and a winding road that could be seen at places.

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A panorama of the view from Chauli ki Jaali

The cliffs themselves were the only barren island in a sea of green hills. Being the only rocky part of the hills around these cliffs were home to a large number of Himalayan Rock Agamas (Lizards with denims!). On every rock was a lizard enjoying the sun at most times oblivious to the people!

 

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Himalayan Rock Agama sun bathing at Mukteshwar

Before I changed lenses I took a few photos of the spectacular view on display.

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Enjoying the cliffs at Mukteshwar

Then I put on the trusty 300mm and concentrated on these beautifully coloured lizards who seemed to be more than willing to pose for the camera.

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A Rock agama in all its coloured glory
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A sleepy agama allows me to get close

After I was satisfied with the lizard photos I put away the camera and we sat and enjoyed the view for some time. We then returned to the parking lot where Mussarat bhai was waiting for us.

It was lunch time now and so we backtracked back to Gagar where lunch awaited us at “The White Peaks”. We called Mohan when we reached Gagar, he came down to the road to receive us and soon we were on our way up a steep sloping path  to the bungalow itself.

First sight of the bungalow and I heaved a sigh of relief, it was exactly as shown on the website. We were greeted with boisterous barking by the house dog Kali. ( She would become my favourite thing about White Peaks by the end of our stay!). We quickly freshened up in our bedroom as our food was laid out in the dining area below.

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The customary room selfie at the White Peaks, Gagar

As we sat down for lunch the last of my fears evaporated. The food was simply awesome. Freshly made veggies & dal with just the right amount of spices & piping hot phulkas to go with it. It was the best food that I had eaten on this trip and it would continue to be so for the remainder of our stay. I am sure we gained a kilo or two by the time we completed our stay.

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A hot, delicious freshly prepared lunch

With that much food in us we had to rest for a while. But we are restless people and after resting for an hour we were asking Mohan if there was any place for a short hike around. He pointed us up the hill and told us about a temple there & soon we were off with cameras in hand.

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The path up the hill from the bungalow

There were birds chirping away in the trees around. Having being spoiled rotten by the birding hide in Sattal, I was finally doing the more challenging thing of birding in the open woods.

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Waiting for the birds to sit still!

There is no need to say that you can never get as good photos in the woods as sitting in a hide, especially of birds that are smaller than sparrows. But still I had to give it a go, especially when I spotted the black throated tits and lord tits that were unlikely to visit any birding hide. Small flocks of these birds flitted around high in the trees. Even though I could spot them easily enough, getting them to sit still enough to get a clear shot was a different story altogether!

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A black throated tit flys off
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A lord tit high up in the trees shies away from the intruders

After getting frustrated with the tits I found a more willing subject, a nuthatch foraging around in a tree covered with moss. The pretty little bird seemed more than ready to pose for me and gave me some good photos.

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A Nuthatch peeks from the moss
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My most willing winged subject at Gagar

That little bird made my day, and I left it in peace and moved on the path up the hill. Soon there was the unmistakable sound of a woodpecker literally banging his head on a tree. We scouted around and there was a Himalayan Woodpecker up in the tree ahead. We waited for it to move around to a suitable position and thankfully it did! The evening light was perfect and I got a good shot or two of this pretty bird.

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A Himalayan Woodpecker at Gagar

We wanted to get back to the bungalow before it started getting really dark so we picked up our pace. As we approached the temple I could here a rustle in the woods. This area is known to be frequented by leopards and I certainly didn’t want to run into a leopard now (or ever!). I slowed down and as I took what was the final turn around the hill to the temple, standing there looking right at me was a barking deer!!

Luckily I was the one who unfroze first and got away a shot or two on my camera before the deer gathered his wits and ran away into the forest.

 

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An unexpected sighting of a barking deer at Gagar

Relieved at the noise being just a deer and nothing more we quickly went to the temple and turned back to return to the bungalow.

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The path along through the forest with the small temple on the right
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The temple at the end of the short trek
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On our way back to the bungalow as the sun sets

We returned to the bungalow in much faster time, as by now the light was too bad for any photos. Mohan and his helper Pawan had kept piping hot coffee ready and we enjoyed the coffee on the porch with Kali and her stray friend for company.

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Kali – My friend from the White Peaks, Gagar
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Kali goes down for the first of her many belly rubs!

It was the perfect end to a great day in Gagar. We enjoyed the view till it got dark & cold and then moved inside where it was warm and cosy.

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Enjoying the view from the White Peaks, Gagar

The bungalow is full of books of all genres and we picked up a book ( Alright I picked up a whole stack !) and plonked ourselves down on the sofa while Mohan lit a fire for us in the fireplace. That was bliss after the long walk.

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Enjoying the fireplace with a stack of books!

By the time the fire died out it was time for dinner. Mohan had prepared an excellent Kumaoni Chicken curry for meat eating me and a palak paneer for the better half. At the risk of repeating myself one too many times it was delicious!

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Delicious dinner at The White Peaks, Gagar

Tummies full we retired for a peaceful nights sleep. It had been a great first day at the beautiful ” White Peaks ” in Gagar. We had left the decision about the next days sightseeing to Mussarat bhai.

Where he would take us is a topic for another post, some other day, some other time as I have exceeded my self set limit again.

Till next time.

Bye!

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