MOUNTAINS, MAGIC AND ONE LONE PARTRIDGE

It’s difficult not to be seduced by Satoli, a tiny little village that lies in a lone corner of the Kumaon hills.

Satoli? The name didn’t really ring a bell when a friend suggested we go there… Mukteshwar, the hill station that lies in its vicinity certainly did. But not too keen to visit the road oft traveled, we decided on Satoli — a small village tucked away in the majestic hills of Kumaon.

It was a comfortable drive past Ghaziabad, beating the morning hour rush and then moving past several sleepy towns like Rampur and Haldwani — each having a charm of their own… and when the serpentine road into the hills started, the air turned clear and crisp — and blissfully cool. We felt blessed to be heading for this break and giving our city lungs some respite from the polluted air they are forced to inhale all the time. Finally, a steep little climb that the driver of our car, Lalit, manoeuvred with aplomb, took us to our destination — One Partridge Hill. A charming cottage, we say as we get off giving our tired limbs a break. But then, with a brand new road that had recently being laid in these parts minus the pot-holes and stony stretches, the journey was, one must confess, fairly smooth.

Intrigued by the name of this cottage, we check with the host, Shivendra Kundra, and he smiles, “Well, when I first came to take a look at this little hillock, a lone partridge was flitting around, probably looking for its meal. As it flew off, I knew that this winged creature had given me the name of my new home.”

Walk up the two short flights and a little haven opens up — no, this is no exaggeration — for the well-combed gardens with the most amazing varieties of exotic flowers and plants here are a sight for sore eyes. Walk in and you realise that the ‘bird’ theme — well, the partridge has been the inspiration behind this cottage’s name, after all — springs from every corner — be it the artefacts, the linen and the crockery. There’s even a stretch on the floor — a tiled area in the main hall that, in its execution, takes inspiration from a cathedral in Italy.

It was just great sitting around at the cottage…in fact, the rain ensured we did just that. It was difficult initially, as with most city folk to just hang around doing nothing, but we soon got used to it — and in keeping away from our laptops and social networking sites, savoured the quaint, old-world charm of the place with its sit-outs that stare at the Himalayan ranges and lush-green forested valley right opposite.

Sipping hot cups of tea, we enjoyed not just the vistas of the valley that seemed to change its look and hues every hour of the day, but also the clouds as they wafted past and, sometimes, even enveloped us into their folds. And then suddenly, as a bit of a sun peeped through the clouds, we spotted a rainbow — such a delight that was as we shared notes on when we had last seen one… too far back to even remember (sadly). As a new day dawned, we decided to drive down to Mukteshwar. Going along a road that snakes its way past vistas that seem straight out of a picture postcard, we reach the sacred abode of Lord Shiva in Mukteshwar. Housing a white marble Shivalinga with a copper yoni, the temple is believed to be over 350 years old and stands atop a hillock 2,312 m above sea level. Needless to say, it offers great views of the valleys around.

We walk around in the surrounding vicinity and come across many interesting buildings including a post office that goes back to 1905, a ‘human hospital’ and some charming homes of people, that boast facades that have been beautified with simple things like stones and flowers grown in pots and pans, old dabbas, etc.

Keen to visit the local NGO, Aarohi, that’s close to One Partridge Hill, we walk down collecting pines along the way; and sitting in its office, learn about the amazing work this organisation is doing — not just offering employment to the locals to create organic products but also by providing medical services to people around. It also has its own ambulance that goes to the neighbouring villages giving help to the sick and needy.

Walking out, we meet a group of foreign students who are here on an exchange programme. 17-year-old Ryan Rodriguez from Chicago who is working on a project to study public health in community development says Satoli can be described in just one word “fascinating.” Also part of his group is Aspen Blair from Colorado who wants to work on international health when she grows up. Dressed in salwar-kameez that she picked up from Delhi, she says, “These are so comfortable — I have three more of these. And I will pick up some more,” she laughs.

The other highlight of our trip to Satoli was the drive towards the stretch where the River Kosi flows by. Pointing towards a hair-pin bend, Lalit tells us that it was here the evening before that a car being driven by some local lads had gone down. “Fortunately, no lives were lost but one person’s hand and another man’s ribs were broken,” he says. And no, it wasn’t because of the rains. The accident happened because these men were high both in and on spirit! “Surya ast, Kumaon mast,” Lalit adds as we all have a hearty laugh.

All set to leave the next morning, we ask the gardener to show us the place that he so lovingly tends to. Other than the rain-water harvesting wherein water is collected underground with the help of long chains in huge tanks at different points in the house, we also visit the poly house at the rear end of the house. “When the weather turns cold, we grow many veggies here as the temperature inside is a few degrees higher,” he says pointing to the variety growing inside, from cucumber, brinjals and cabbage to capsicum, cauliflower and broccoli.

As the snow-topped mountains in the distance turn a burnished orange, we sit next to Tara the beautiful statue of the goddess outside the entrance of OPH, waiting for the place’s star attraction — a flying squirrel — to make its appearance. It flies across pine tops every evening, we are told. That sighting would surely have been a perfect icing on the cake, but this little creature preferred playing truant. It probably wanted us to have something special to look forward to on our next visit to Satoli.

After more than three decades in mainstream journalism, it is back to freelance writing for Purnima Sharma who enjoys writing about people, places… and just about anything that touches the heart.

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