Anyone can be perky about driving through the clouds on the roads through the Himalayas but fear is a factor. One may still adore and admire the feeling of water vapours creeping through the windows of the car caressing your face. But those careening H20 kisses are soon forgotten because of what follows after the adventurous drive.

The misty mornings of a tiny hamlet in the not so distant Kumaon fascinate like mysteries of life. The slow pace of life in those quaint Himalayan villages still holds on to their charm: the evenings are pretty with sights of flocks returning home from the high-land pastures; the tinkling sound of sheep-bells reminds you of the poetic twilight scenes from anthologies; smoke rising from the chimneys of small village houses that are not ashamed of merging with the milky white background of the snowy peaks.

Can we ask for anything more? It’s hard to find, but there are some hidden treasures of Himalayan beauty that still offers a more than awesome hiding place for those seeking some serene sanity. The Misty Mountains resort in “Jhaltola Estate” is one such destination which may bring a ripple of joy to travellers who went to embrace the snowy Himalayas without risking their lives. And that risk discounts seeing leopards, deer, wild boars and Himalayan birds.

Jhaltola Estate, which is 492 km north from Delhi in the Gangolihat sub-division of Pithoragarh district in Eastern Kumaon, quenches your thrust for being in the lap of nature and pampers you with good food and a sterile stay supported by modern amenities.

Before reaching there people prefer to stay overnight at Nainital or Almora, but we decided to drive non-stop for 13 hours, which in hindsight turned out to be wise decision. After a night’s drive on NH 24 we were in Bhovali in the morning. Things are very simple, though the drive may not be. Hit the pedal on a normal hill drive on wide road till Almora via Khairna and take a right turn before entering Almora town for Pithoragarh. The road is comparatively smooth till Badechina which is 16 km from Almora, turn left on the uphill road to hit upon the beginning of a journey to the mystique Kumaon.

Nain Singh was presented with an inscribed gold chronometer by the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) in 1868. This was followed by the award of the Victoria or Patron’s Medal of the RGS in 1877

It’s a newly laid hotmix road passing through thick pine forest and negligible human population, endless green slopes, mountains of paddy step-farms, small streams coming down from the higher reaches that add transcendence to the drive.

Sneaking through a narrow but charming valley 16 kilometres from Badechina we reached Dhaulchina, an oasis that emerges without warning on an otherwise lonely drive. The ubiquitous name Hill View is a stopover restaurant that surprises everyone with its delicious Punjabi, Chinese and Kumaoni cuisine that is least expected in such a remote location.

Well, food is never a priority during such a trip. Dhaulchina to Rai Agar is again a dream drive via Sheraghat passing through small Kumaoni villages and paddy fields. The endless row of pears and mango trees hanging down on road from both sides is delight on the wayside.
After reaching Rai Agar one need to climb up to Ram Mandir for 6 km on an uneven road but this is where you may first get the first glimpse of the snowy peaks of higher Himalayas. A two km drive from Ram Mandir to the Misty Mountain Resort is no less than a challenging jeep Safari. It’s a vertical drive on an unpaved road with sharp bends and narrow stretches. Therefore, all the vehicles coming in are escorted by a pilot vehicle to a well-spread resort over five acres in the middle of hundreds of acres of thick oak forest in Jhaltola Estate.

All cottages have a breath-taking Himalayan (if you can call it that) view through large glass windows. A huge multiactivity hall can accommodate over 200 people for a theatre show or can give way to endless indoor activities like badminton, painting, board games etc.

But those could be the last of your interests at such a place because your thoughts would stealthily skim across to the breath-taking views of Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Panchachuli and other peaks standing tall in front of you.

It was fascinating to know there are leopards around and they make an occasional visit to the resort, barking deer and wild boars were easy to spot on a walk into thick forest all around. An endless number of Himalayan birds nestle on nearby slopes and they could be your favourite companion as you focus your attention on your lenses.

We were lucky enough to be invited for a gentle evening hike with the owner of the resort to another side of the hill. The hill is where his gracefully aging 200-year-old house stands. That trek opened one’s eyes to the hitherto unknown legacy of the Jhaltola Estate. These hundreds of acres estate belong to the family of Pandit Nain Singh Rawat who was a legendary spy explorer of India. One was not a spy but one still could not resist the temptation of exploring further. Nain Singh was a Tibetan-speaking headmaster of a school in Milam, in the upper Himalayas.

In the last half of the 19th century, the British Survey of India made several abortive efforts to map the land that lay beyond Tibet but the emperor of China had closed the Tibetan border to foreigners. Several men of the Survey died in this attempt, until Thomas G. Montgomerie hit upon a brilliant plan. He thought of sending Indians disguised as itinerant lamas to literally “spy out the land”. Nain Singh walked 1200 miles in the employment of the British Secret Service.
Dressed as a pilgrim, he was dispatched to survey the road to Lhasa in 1865. Singh was specially trained to walk every pace at exactly 33 inches. His pilgrim’s rosary, on which he counted several million of those paces, was used to click off the distances. The rosary had only one hundred beads on it instead of the sacred 108. Had any of the innumerable guards, police, and customs officials bothered to count he would have been instantly killed.

Singh’s pilgrim outfit had a few other special modifications. His tea bowl was used to hold mercury to find the horizon. His walking stick held a thermometer, which he would dip into the tea water just as it came to a boil and thus determine the altitude. By measuring the boiling temperature of water, he calculated the altitude of Lhasa to be 3240 m above sea level — an astonishing precision achieved when one considers that today we believe it to be 3540 m above sea level! From the angular altitude of stars, he then calculated the latitude of Lhasa. But Nain Singh’s extraordinary coup was his prayer wheel. Inside it was ingrained his route survey — careful notes that showed the altitudes, the landmarks, and the distances that he walked. The route survey was brought back to Dehra Dun. His maps provided the only definitive information on these parts for almost half a century.

Nain Singh was presented with an inscribed gold chronometer by the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) in 1868. This was followed by the award of the Victoria or Patron’s Medal of the RGS in 1877. The Society of Geographers of Paris also awarded Nain Singh an inscribed watch. The Government of India bestowed two villages as a land-grant to him of which the Jhaltola Estate is a part.

The hills have a history. Often it is lost because of the scenic splendour that it offers. The story of Nain Singh turned out to be an overwhelming climb into the peaks of history, Himalayas. Seldom can you pretend to be a sky explorer.

Article appeared in The Economic Times