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Lost horizons found

In his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, British novelist James Hilton transports the reader to a mystical, harmonious valley of serenity and simple pleasures, hidden away deep within the Himalayan mountains. It is a magical, utopian place centred on a magnificent monastery where the monks live simple self-sufficient lives in harmony with their idyllic surroundings under the benevolent and caring eye of the High Lama.

It is said that the ageing process slows here in Shangri-la, for it is none other than this supposedly fictitious paradise that Hilton was describing. Over the ensuing years, many adventurers, mystics and intrepid travellers have sought in vain to find the way though impenetrable mountains to reach this paradise.

But the search may well be at an end – for us, anyway, as we believe we have found such a place: it's hidden away within the foothills of the mighty snow-capped Himalayas, in northern India not far from the borders with mysterious Tibet and the kingdom of Nepal.

The journey to paradise begins with a most inauspicious start, amid the noise, bustle and colour of Old Delhi railway station (below), a seething mass of humanity, screeching whistles and clanking trains. Seemingly chaotic, yet amazingly ordered in a way that only Indians themselves can understand: everyone has a place to go, striving to get there despite the overwhelming odds.

Follow your porter – he knows where he’s going and, before you know it, you’re safely ensconced in your reserved seat watching the chaos with bemused interest through the grime-streaked window, while your fellow passengers wrestle with bulging luggage, heavy bags and smiling, curious, wide-eyed children.

Order is restored as the train slowly pulls out of the station on its five-and-a-half-hour journey northwards. You chat with other passengers and share their food, excited about what lies ahead, as the countryside streams past the window, taking you ever closer to – Kathgodam, a small town in the Nainital district of the state of Utterakhand.

Kathgodam grew from the small village it was in 1901 to a bustling town after the coming of the railways saw the region's logging industry rapidly prosper – the name Kathgodam means ‘timber depot’.

But the journey is not yet over. Paradise comes at a price. From Kathgodam, you now face a 4-hour drive over increasingly rough roads which lead deep into the forested hills of the remote Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. A flash of colour in the trees and a flock of brightly coloured parakeets make their presence known, while laughing thrushes shriek unseen in the splendid foliage of flowering rhododendrons. A rustle of leaves behind – and you glance round to see the shimmering iridescence of a monal pheasant darting into the undergrowth – always alert, always an eye open for the camouflaged spots of that most stealthy of forest dwellers, the magnificent leopard.

Just as you are beginning to feel the fatigue of your long journey, you sense a change in the atmosphere – the air is fresher, the flowers more perfect and aromatic – and a sense of inner calm begins to slowly wash over you. This is it – you have arrived at your destination. Hilton’s Shangri-La – the Khali Estate – as close as you’ll get to paradise on this earth.

Walking holidays in India, supporting community tourismThis fascinating house (below) was built in the late-19th century by General Sir Henry Ramsay (left), colonial Commissioner of the Kumaon district of northern India. He already had an estate nearby and bought the land here – khali means ‘empty’ – later building a bungalow in a clearing in the virgin forest. Sadly Ramsay left for Britain before he had time to take up residence but a fellow Englishman called Wilson bought the house and redeveloped it over the next eight years, creating his dream house with sandstone pillars, seasoned pine floors, granite walls – and many fireplaces for those cooler nights.

Walking holidays in India, supporting community tourismSuch was the peace and calm that this extraordinary house exuded – surrounded by tranquil orchards of luscious plums and peaches – that Mahatma Gandhi established an ashram, or spiritual hermitage, here which lasted for five years. Gandhi was succeeded by the Nehru family who were also enchanted by Khali, spending many memorable holidays here over the years.

Now it’s your turn to witness the magic of Khali as the sun creeps over the horizon, casting its golden beams along the shimmering snow-clad peaks of the jagged Himalayas (below), and gradually bathing Khali’s hills and valleys with a majestic beauty that is normally reserved for the Gods.

Today, the estate is an exclusive mountain lodge where you stay before and after a walking holiday in India in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary or the remote Saryu Valley.

Paradise? We certainly think so, and I think Hilton would have thought so, too.
Walking holidays in India, supporting community tourism

Posted: 28/05/2013 11:56:24 by | with 0 comments
Filed under: heritage, India, journey, media, nature, opinions, slow, transport, wildlife


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