Absolute solitude, rewarding hikes, and the revival of a village
NEW DELHI :
The game plan to deal with Delhi’s pollution, while hoping that winters will arrive soon, is simple. Run to the nearest hills. The only dampener? Even though summer is on its way out, you may still encounter crowds from the National Capital Region’s malls on Mussoorie’s Mall Road. Unless you veer off the Mussoorie-Rishikesh road, towards Saur, in which case you won’t encounter anyone at all. Except maybe the odd shepherd who points to the deodar forest and declares that the air there is the best in the world. Or the sprightly village elder who leaves the dust flying as he bounds up the rough-hewn hillside, with a toothless but encouraging grin in your direction.
At 5,600ft, this pastoral village in Uttarakhand’s Tehri district ticks many a holiday bucket list—the “rustic getaway", the “step back in time", the “back to nature" break—all minus the trappings of modern-day city life. The approach road is surprisingly good—a product of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana—and belies the remoteness of the village. There are no shops, restaurants, or activities other than the ones you create, and therein lies its charm.
The road falls away to the west, into swathes of terraced fields, where Saur is situated. Until a generation ago, many joint families lived here in their traditional pahari homes. The indigenous style incorporated sloping slate roofs, pinewood columns, mud-plastered walls, and ground-level quarters to house cattle. Today, only around 15 families remain. Residents left in search of work, their homes have fallen into a state of disrepair.
Escaping a particularly stifling Delhi weekend, a couple of friends and I headed to Saur, where we came upon these lonely-looking structures during our walks. Shells of their former selves, they had a wistful air about them. “Ghost villages" are not uncommon in Uttarakhand—the state has more than a thousand of them, with few to no inhabitants. Saur was on the verge of joining this list until DueNorth, a community tourism initiative started in 2010, started changing the status quo, slowly but surely.
DueNorth restored some homes, maintaining the traditional style; we stayed in one such hut from the 1930s. Locals continue to own the properties and get rent, with some being employed as cooks or guides. The community-based model has prompted a reverse migration of sorts—some families have actually returned to Saur.
We ourselves couldn’t have asked for a better weekend pad. The two days passed swiftly. Mornings were spent on the porch that looked out on to the sweeping valley and foliage-wrapped hills. Wholesome meals were served in the communal dining room. We gorged on chicken and vegetable curries, dal and roti. The produce was farm-fresh, and the simple preparations tasted heavenly.
A short hike away was a nearby stream, where we sat on flat rocks with picnic baskets of puri aloo and boiled eggs, packed by the folks at DueNorth.
We chilled our drinks in the icy water, occasionally wading further downstream to explore little caves and tadpole-filled rocky pools.
Thunder rumbled ominously across the valley, and we hurried under a bridge for shelter as a herd of fluffy goats hurtled down the mountainside to share the space with us.
Once the rain had stopped, we climbed the rocky mountain path towards the Nepali farming family’s fields, until we were level with the spindly tops of coniferous trees. There, atop a pinecone-littered grassy patch, we could see Saur in its entirety; the whistling wind and muted clang of goats’ bells serving as background soundtrack.
A more arduous trail cuts straight up the hillside to the village of Jadi Pani. Several Saur inhabitants have moved to it, since it’s close to the highway. And there, we spotted a massive ebony mongoose bounding up in giant leaps.
It’s really just about the simple things.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros.