Travel News

Mountain High

Everyone from the Beatles to the Beat generation has come to India’s Uttarakhand in search of a special kind of (legal) enlightenment. Kendall Hill decides he needs to inhale to understand.

Fallen rhododendron flowers line our path like random offerings to the gods strewn along a rubble road of limestone and mica that flashes and sparkles in the sun. The colours of the Himalayan foothills are crimson and silver against a spectrum of green - pine, cedar, eucalyptus, tumbling terraces of young wheat - and a powder-blue sky. There's a flash of rainbow in a tree to our right where a woman in a kaleidoscope-hued sari is harvesting leaves for fodder. She looks like a human lorikeet. The Himalayas are surprisingly colourful.
We are heading to a Shiva shrine 3km away from Leti village along a primitive alpine road that just three years ago did not exist. This is India at its most remote, 17 hours north-west of Delhi in Uttarakhand state, a land of forests and snowy mountains that is known as the abode of gods on account of its hoard of sacred Hindu sites.
The absence of roads means few tourists, so only the odd traveller has ventured into this isolated corner of the subcontinent at the gateway to Nepal and Tibet. That thought sharpens our sense of privilege and wonder as we perch on a ledge below the shrine and take in the epic panorama before us - the vast dimensions of the Ramganga Valley, the icy pole of the Hiramani glacier and the snowy crown of Nanda Kot, a relative pipsqueak peak in these parts at 6861 metres. Just beyond lies the 7816-metre Nanda Devi, once thought to be the highest mountain in the world. The valley below appears to fall away to infinity through a linear patchwork of terraces stepped up the sides of the Himalaya. Stairways to heaven.
The shrine itself is unremarkable - a simple, low structure on a rise reached by a series of mossy stone steps. But it comes alive once a year at Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva, when villagers from this part of the Kumaon Himalaya gather to worship their god and bathe his stone lingam in water or milk, leave offerings of food and burn incense. And they do all this while high on bhang, according to my guide Stanzin Thinless, who says cannabis is regarded as a blessing from Shiva in these parts and is so integral to the spiritual lives of worshippers that its cultivation and use are legal throughout Uttarakhand.
That explains the distinctive seven-pointed leaves we see flourishing like weeds in every field. It might also explain why Uttarakhand, particularly the meditation retreat of Rishikesh, has been a favourite destination of enlightenment-seekers since the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Donovan and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg made pilgrimages here in the 1960s. Or maybe that was just coincidence.
What is certain is that even the roving rock stars of yesteryear never ventured this deep into the Kumaon, nor did so in such style. From the moment I disembark the seven-hour overnight "express" train from Delhi in Kathgodam, I am cosseted at every turn by a small army of staff whose sole purpose in life, as far as I can discern, is my comfort and wellbeing.
Hiking in the Himalayas is nothing new but doing so at this level of luxury is. Chilled towels and refreshing juices are dispensed at disarmingly regular intervals, picnics magically appear in idyllic locations and nights are spent not in leaky tents but in charming village houses decorated with contemporary flair.
The inspired itinerary is the product of Shakti tours, a bespoke concept launched in 2004 by Jamshyd Sethna, an enterprising and erudite Indian travel agent-cum-psychoanalyst who spent his childhood in the mountains and knows the transformative powers of getting far, far away from civilisation. He leased traditional houses in remote villages, gave the interiors a snug and stylish makeover, and created a circuit of walks between them that showcased the natural beauty and human culture of the Great Himalayan range.
The first taste of those transformative powers comes when we arrive at Kathgodam, having escaped a wall of 40-degree heat in pre-monsoon Delhi for the cooler, greener existence of the hills.
"Now we are in a completely different world, sir," Thinless beams from the front seat of the jeep as I peer through the pre-dawn at shadow forests and a gibbous moon. "Welcome to the mountains."
Our first stop is the Kumaoni town of Almora, a hill station straddling a 5km ridge. There are no straight lines in the Himalayas so the 90km drive takes three and a half hours along a relentless series of hairpin bends and sheer drops into raging rivers. The best advice is don't look down or you might catch sight - as I did - of a passenger vehicle wedged nose-up in the riverbed far below.
Such petrifications and privations are almost instantly forgotten on arrival at Almora where the Shakti staff have prepared breakfast for us - cereal, fruits, puri bread and vegetable curry - on a verandah above a valley of pine and birdsong. Suitably restored, we set off on our first walk, from Almora to the village of Petshal, along a gentle path bathed in sunshine.
Thinless offers occasional natural history and culture lessons en route, remarking on the native agave that villagers crush and toss in the river to stun fish to the surface; the nettles used for soup and tea; the potted cacti perched on every roof to discourage evil spirits. He mentions in passing that the hills are home to wolves, leopards and wild boar but the only dangers we face are the occasional stinging nettle or thorny barberry.
As we amble through cypress and casuarina forests, along dry-stone terraces planted with wheat and barley (and plentiful wild cannabis), past comical clumps of hay strung from trees like something from Dr Seuss's The Lorax, we come face-to-face with villagers tethering livestock, bearing baskets of kindling on their heads, gossiping by the water pump, and always ready with a smiling "namaste" for the strangers in their midst. The contact is so intimate it seems rude to point cameras but Thinless reassures us. "The local people are dearly fond of pictures, sir," he tells the photographer. "They will give you different poses."
In a she-oak glade, one of the Shakti staff, Kailash, materialises with glasses of rhododendron juice (sweet and crimson, just like hibiscus) and chocolate bars. Hospitality ambushes become a defining motif of the Shakti experience - staff conjure the most unexpected treats in the most unexpected places.
Wandering this countryside and connecting with the locals ("What is your name? What is your village?") is such a pleasure that our three-and-a-half-hour hike passes in a happy haze of fragrant coriander, shy goatherds and grinning children.
It is another hour or two in the dodgem cars before we arrive at Jwalabanj, pulling in outside a lone roadside shop for the short walk down a rhododendron-fringed track to our lodgings.
The two cottages stand alone in a clearing hemmed on all sides by oak and pine forest. The pick of the pair is a new stone pavilion with a pot-belly fire, ensuite bathroom and alfresco patio for high-altitude observations. The main, original house is a simpler two-storey affair with one bright room above and a darker, low-ceilinged one below that we dub the man cave. Showers and toilets are in an attached block. Common to all rooms are superbly cushy, customised king beds with posh linen and thick wool blankets that I, for one, can't wait to snuggle beneath.
After hot showers we reconvene on the terrace where a ledge has morphed into a bar stocked with spirits, mixers and beers. Pine logs blaze in a brazier. The staff fix the drinks as aromas of onion and ginger escape the lean-to kitchen where chef Diwan is marshalling dinner. A procession of plates - cabbage pakoras with tomato and ginger chutney, mustard greens, dhal, chicken, spinach and peas, rice and chapatis - invades the gingham-clothed dining table.
We dine by candlelight and moonlight, and while it's hard to see the food, the company is good and the setting memorable. You forget how genuinely comforting the simple things in life can be.
It is easy to understand why enlightenment-seekers flocked to this charmed corner of India in the 1960s and continue to do so today. Inner peace comes easily here. After a week in the mountains I don't recognise this blissed-out person who lazes in bed reading, feasting on views he still can't believe are real, and monitoring the moods of the weather. Whatever happened to the deadline-driven stress-head I left back at home?
Thinless suggests inner peace is not the only reason Almora and surrounds are so popular with "hippies and backpackers". "They are mostly coming for the marijuana," he says, "because it's legal and because it's beautiful [the region, not the drug]."
He reckons many families in Almora would produce about half a kilogram of cannabis to sell each year. "It's a good source of income for the people, especially for the women." And he mentions, in passing, that it's much cheaper to buy dope in Leti where there are virtually no tourists.
As it happens we are heading to Leti, a tidy village 2200 metres above sea level that is home to 50 families and 360° Leti, Shakti's purpose-built lodge set on a spur above the Ramganga Valley.
You don't get to heaven without a little bit of hell. The drive there proves a nerve-wracking, bone-juddering journey of at least six hours, not including stops for photos and lunch. I try to focus on the horizon to ease the queasiness but the horizons here are vertical and swim before the eyes as we climb ever higher.
A guestbook comment at Shakti 360° Leti describes it as a "brave and inspirational place", and it is that. Brave because the ride here is an ordeal of scarifying cliff drops. Inspirational because, once you've arrived, you realise that if a place this spectacular were any easier to reach it would be overrun with tourists. It should be noted, too, that Shakti staff will do anything humanly possible to make the journey more enjoyable, including slipping guests a travel-sickness tablet to knock them out for the duration.
Leti's five dry-stone buildings hug the edges of an alpine meadow, their glass walls capturing dramatic perspectives at the very top of India. Sethna discovered this remarkable place by offering his guides a 5000-rupee ($87) incentive to find the perfect site for Shakti's showpiece lodge. The village walks were doing well but he wanted to take the Shakti Himalayan experience to the next level, so to speak.
When he first came to check out Leti, Sethna was not convinced this grassy promontory with views to some of India's tallest peaks was the ideal spot for his model lodge. "But there was something spiritually magical about the place," he recalls. "It grabbed me. It kept saying 'Yes, yes, yes!'."
Building 360° Leti was a logistical hell involving portering every material and fitting - including leather lounge suites, a dining setting for eight, each pane of glass, every bed base - across the valley from Leti village. One Nepali man carried a generator for four hours down and up the mountain, and then went back to fetch a refrigerator the same day.
Shakti's 360° Leti welcomed its first guests in 2006 and has been wowing tenacious travellers ever since. There are six scheduled walks on offer, from the easy walk to the Shiva shrine to an overnight stay on a mountain ledge with sunrise views of Nanda Devi and nine staff at your disposal. Yoga and massage can be arranged with a bit of notice. But the great pleasure of the place is in simply existing.
In the candlelit evenings we drink wine and cocktails by an open fire in the rustic but chic main lodge, and then feast on delicious Indian banquets prepared by Yeshi Lama, a former monk from Arunachal Pradesh who now spends his winters cooking at 360° Leti and summers leading Himalayan treks.
Lama is an excellent baker - his breads and biscuits are wonderful - and an engaging personality. His eyes sparkle with mirth. "I have jumping English," he apologises one day when we're chatting beside the fire pit under a million stars, chowing down on home-baked cheese sticks. "Leti is like small heaven. I worked with many company but I have never served this long period. The location, the weather, everything for me is perfect."
It's hard to disagree with him when each day begins, for me, like a dream. At sunrise the impeccable Harish arrives in his thick jerkin and spiffy quiff to deliver bed tea and biscuits. I savour them while wrapped in a pashmina bedspread watching sunrays lend their Midas touch to the houses of Leti on the neighbouring spur.
At breakfast I take my seat at a white-clothed table on the edge of our mountain and inhale the view, which is equal parts astonishing and anaesthetising. Magnificence is everywhere from the snow-lined Hiramani range to the more distant peaks of the Api chain in neighbouring Nepal. Not a bad way to greet the morning.
It would be impossible, I thought, ever to improve on nature's glory with a puff of augmented reality, but given there is cannabis growing all around me - including in the barley field outside my window - I decide it's time I got some "local perspective" on the Himalayas. So I make a shopping expedition to the village of Kapri, a good hour's walk down the slope (and a not-so-good 90-minute slog back). Halfway down I come to a village store where the owner and his family welcome me like an honoured guest. His wife looks marvellous in a silver patterned skirt, a striped hoodie and an iridescent red tilak that flares from the tip of her nose all the way up her forehead and into her part.
A bottle of something dark and deceptive sits on a small shelf at the front of the kiosk. It looks like rum but the proprietors inform me it is "the blessing of the cow". Apparently some local people, Thinless later explains, like to splash cow urine on their faces in the morning to purify themselves. "I prefer to use soap," he smiles.
In Kapri I am invited into a relatively prosperous home made from stone blocks, the mortar painted white to look almost English. It has two floors - the top one, with its fancy carved likhai windows, for humans; the animals below.
I am ushered into the good room, seated beneath a monstrous poster of Kali, the destroyer goddess, and then plied with sweet treats. The matriarch of the family shuffles in to retrieve something from a cupboard recessed into the wall. When she closes the door a bouquet of marijuana hits me in the face and reminds me of my mission.
Without going into the mechanics of the deal, I manage to score a sizable stash - enough to last me, oh, a lifetime - for 100 rupees. That's about $2. As I traipse back up the mountain I belatedly ponder whether marijuana possession and use are legal for foreigners as well as locals. God forbid I become the Schapelle Corby of the Kumaon.
Do I inhale? Of course I do, several times over several days. I can't say that being stoned necessarily improves the view from on high, but it does encourage new perspectives. (My diary entries from those episodes are florid rants I won't bore you with here.) What the experience really teaches me, however, is that the Himalayas don't need stimulants.
On my final afternoon at Leti the weather turns all sulky. The clouds shrouding the mountains grow heavy and maudlin, the wind whips into a sharp gale and rain begins pelting the glass walls at a 45-degree angle. The Great Himalayan range is subdued to a harmless lilac silhouette as the elements rage outside my snug stone cabin at the top of the world.
I can't imagine myself in a happier place, not even with the help of Shiva's finest.