On a clear Sunday morning we left Delhi for the Himalayas, a drive that is as romantic as it can get, the road winding past green mountains and valleys, venerable deodar trees and snow-capped slopes. As we imagined, there was a lot of romance in this ride and all those wonderful things that advertisements tell us are priceless and yet free: fresh air, beautiful views of jagged mountains, forests to get lost in, snowflakes on the car’s windshield and breathtaking glimpses of the mystical Nanda Devi Peak.
But in this dreamlike holiday sequence there were also a few shocking observations: a traffic jam created by protesting political workers, bad roads and stretches where even water was difficult to find. What’s more, hill driving is something that will test even the most skilled driver.
We had a driver for most of the trip, who most reluctantly steered the Qualis’s wheel towards the far end of the ride.
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Nainital was the first stop of our drive, where we spent two days in bliss wondering what it would be like to live there. This could possibly have been because I was far away from the chaos of The Mall, staying high in Ayarpatta where I took endless walks in the forests, slowly getting used to the mountains. From there, we drove to Almora, and the views were stunning. Every place we crossed was like a perfect postcard, every sight a photo opportunity: streams, valleys and deodars give way to oaks and pines, and somewhere, even a forest fire. However, Almora itself proved to be a fairly uninspired stop.
The next day we reached Binsar, where everything was beautiful, and although the accommodation itself was not very nice – the toilet was terrible – the woods were so enchanting that you didn’t want to leave it behind. I walked around the hilly jungle terrain and returned to visit the forest after dinner, in absolute darkness. Our next destination was Kausani, or so we thought. Drive past Bageshwar and Baijnathwith lush green hills and streams beside it, we reached Khandar, where we encountered a roadblock that was probably not cleared for a long time.
previous Kausaniwe went to instead Gwaldam. The roads were bad and we were terribly hungry and tired by the time we got there. We headed straight to the GMVN Guest House, which was just good enough for omelette and pakoras. Troubled, we considered turning back. However, we soldiered on and it was a good thing we did, although the next part of the journey passed in a blur. Karnaprayag and Joshimath beyond seemed like mirages, places we thought we could never reach, driving along the nasty road of Gwaldam. Wherever we stopped, locals reassured us that the road would continue to improve. More than their assurances, it was our search for good food and water, and to a lesser extent our fascination with the Pindar River traveling with us to Karnaprayag, that kept us going.
We have crossed Karn Prayag in the dark and Joshimath was still on the road for about 2 hours. Finally the road improved, and at Chamoli, we feasted on omelettes, paranthas and tea. Thus fortified, we pressed on, grabbing bags of chips as insurance against emergencies. We reached Joshimath after 10 am and checked into a hotel. It wasn’t until the next morning on the way back that we saw what we had driven through: it was dangerous mountainous terrain, with hills on one side and a steep slope on the other, with the Alaknanda River flowing past. One wrong turn and we would have plunged deep into her. We wouldn’t recommend anyone to drive here at night.
There were other reasons to celebrate life that day: Joshimath was simply amazing and offered us beautiful views of the Nanda Devi Peak and the Great Himalayan Range. We drove on to Auli and at some point realized that it was better to take the last stretch to the Cliff Top Club instead of driving. The next part of our drive was from Joshimath to Ranikhet, a long drive made frustrating by a protest march in Chamoli that had kept us stuck for hours. Once past, we reached Karnaprayag in time enough for lunch. The road ahead was a barren stretch and we were short on fuel and no matter where we stopped and asked, we were told that Ranikhet was still 50 km away. Finally after 9 o’clock we reached the place, where we had a delicious dinner and slept in cozy log cabins in the Holm Farm. The last leg of our journey was from Ranikhet to Corbett, a sunny drive through the hills, with steep gradients on both sides in places. We didn’t get a chance to stop at Corbett as we were short of time and when we reached the heat and dust of Delhi we realized that the mountains were getting used again.
On the road
I learned some invaluable lessons on this ride. These include: avoid night riding on any stretch – hill riding and night riding are two different types of adventure, meant to be enjoyed independently of each other; bring plenty of food and water – at certain stretches you may be lucky enough to even get a packet of crisps; fill up wherever you can – you might not see another gas station for miles; and remember that mobile phone connectivity is mostly after Nainital. An Idea connection was the only one that worked during our ride.
If you are leaving from Delhi, start as soon as possible. Drive towards Ghaziabad via Nizamuddin Bridge and Akshardham Temple. In Ghazipur, NH24 Bypass sets off towards NH24 via Kaushambi and Sahibabad to reach Mohan Nagar junction; once there, keep going straight until the turnoff to Meerut (this is marked by a huge green sign). Then take the first street on the right. You are now on NH24; go all the way to Rudrapur. Although most of it is a double carriageway, construction for flyovers is underway in many parts and you may find yourself on a single carriage. The roads are generally smooth. There is one toll barrier at Babugarh and two at Moradabad. This stretch is a comfortable ride – with petrol pumps, dhabas, restaurants, toilets and car repair shops at regular intervals.
At Rudrapur, turn onto NH87 and start the hill drive as you leave Pantnagar. Driving at night is not recommended here because the roads are not well lit and it is not safe. From Nainital to Almora, you are on NH87E. The road is extremely bad in patches. Stalls selling a few snacks are often found in the hills, but real dhabas are difficult to find. Gasoline pumps and repair shops are usually found in relatively larger cities. Almora to Binsar is a dusty drive through forested areas. If you plan to stay in Dhaulachinna, you will have to endure 13 km of dusty jungle trail. Otherwise the road is in good condition.
After Binsar, leave the national highway and take national highways till Karnaprayag. While the road is bad only in small stretches up to Kandhar, it is all bumpy driving. The road between Kandhar and Karnaprayag is miserable to say the least. At Karnaprayag you get on the NH58, which is generally a good road. Then you are on NH58 till Joshimath. The drive to Auli is not tempting and can be dangerous for your car. You will encounter not only stones, pebbles and rocks, but even boulders. It is advisable to take the GMVN ropeway from Joshimath to Auli and back, instead of taking the boring drive. On the way back, from Karnaprayag to Ranikhet, you will take NH87, which is a bit tricky for the first few kilometers. After Gairsain it is a smooth ride. The good roads continue past Ranikhet, almost all the way to Corbett National Park. However, this stretch should be avoided at night as there is no lighting and no guards to protect you from the deep valley to the side. Even during the day, it’s best to go slowly. From Kumeria to Ramnagar it is a jungle road, which turns into NH121 somewhere along the road (near Mohan). The road widens after Ramnagar, although it is a single lane all the way to the Moradabad bypass, where you rejoin NH24.