The sun appears like a cherry drop on the horizon, pushing the stars from indigo skies. Behind me, the Hiramani Glacier glints in the morning light; on my right, the vertiginous village of Gola drops into a ravine, while dead ahead is the broad Ramganga River, backed by the jagged peaks and pinnacles of the Nanda Devi mountain range, its snowy summits now rinsed in peachy-pink light. I raise my hands in prayer position and bow to the new day in what will always be for me the ultimate sun salutation.
This place of wonder? Shakti 360° Leti, a minimalist Himalayan hideaway with four luxe glass and stone lodges set into a 7,000-feet-high summit in the Kumaon region of India, deep in the western-central Himalayas. I’d arrived at Leti the previous afternoon, the figurative and geographic high point on a six-day walking tour accompanied by my very own yoga master, the serene Shivachittam Mani. “I am in a constant state of happiness,” Shivachittam tells me, most seriously, as we take the five-and-a-half-hour train journey from Delhi to Kathgodam. At the station, we meet our fellow travel companions: our guide, Rudy, is tall, handsome and rosy-cheeked, from Darjeeling, descended from the Nepalese and educated at a British Protestant school for boys; Ram, our driver, is a shyly smiling local man who honed his F1-worthy driving skills on the cliff-clinging mountain passes of Uttarakhand.
With another four hours of driving and a light hike ahead of us, we hit the noodle-esque road ahead. Stalls piled with apples, peaches and pears spill across the street, boys in parka jackets play cricket on the edges and honking motorbikes criss-cross in every direction like a terrifying mechanised game of tag. But as we sweep upwards and out of town, we’re soon plunged into a landscape of rippling mountains, forests of pine and wide sandy rivers. I won’t see another tourist for days.
The sun is just starting to sink as we pull into our first stop in the village of Deora. The skies have faded to baby blue, the hills are burnished gold, and the air is so pure and clean, it feels like breathing in medicine. The three-kilometre walk to the village comes as sweet relief after a day of fairly arduous travel, as does the sight of our welcoming committee – a squad of tiny girls with their hair in neat braids, each one sweeter and more curious than the next. They take turns twiddling my hair, squishing my nose and giggling like mad when I teach them how to take a selfie. No five-star hotel could offer a warmer welcome.
In these parts, tourists – and electricity – are still a rarity, and comfortable accommodation would be nigh-on impossible to find were it not for the marvellous local luxury tour operator Shakti Himalaya, which along with organising drivers and multilingual guides, has kitted out a clutch of beautiful old bakli houses with log fires, hot water, big puffy beds and trained chefs. Shivachittam and I settle in by the campfire to feast on fresh pickled spinach, creamy chicken curry, yellow dhal and almond mint rice before watching the diamonds of Orion’s Belt rise across a black velvet sky. That night, and for the rest of the week, sleep comes easier than it has in years.
When my alarm goes off at 6am, it’s pitch black and three degrees Celsius – and al fresco yoga time, apparently. Layered up and with double-socks, I reluctantly hit the mat. I hate the cold and whimper pathetically, but Shivachittam only smiles (the way one smiles when a child shows you a terrible painting they made) and fires me into round after round of asanas and pranayamic breathing until my blood boils like lava and my mind is clear of all thought. Thoroughly invigorated, I wolf down breakfast – bowls of ruby-like pomegranate seeds, thick yoghurt, warm roti and freshly laid eggs. I can’t wait to get out on our 10km hike, especially now that temperatures have reached a much more agreeable 23 degrees.
There’s evidence of settlers dating back to 2,000BCE in the Shivalaya Valley. “The Assyrians and Kassites, who fled here after the fall of Babylon,” the encyclopaedic Rudy tells me as we pass through sun-dappled forests of pine and rhododendron, their scarlet flowers just coming into bloom. On other stretches, there are cedar and cypress trees, oak and roses, and little orange Hindu temples. Women in pink and gold pichhora petticoats appear from nowhere in the middle of woods, herding cows while carrying enormous bundles of branches on their heads, conjuring scenes that have barely changed in millennia.
And so it was for the next few days, moving from one timeless vision to another; driving along Crank’s Ridge, where I catch my first awe-inspiring glimpse of the Nanda Devi mountain range with its sheer snow-covered cliff faces shimmering in the distance; swinging into the 800-year-old Jageshwar temple for a blessing in a psychedelic chapel pulsing with LED lights, sandalwood incense and ringing bells; picnic lunches in flowery woodlands with a lone black hawk for company; a stay in an adorable blue-and-white cottage surrounded by cannabis gardens in the bucolic village of Kana; and finally reaching Leti via a precipitous mountain road better suited to goats than cars.
Along the way, the entire trip is interspersed with a plethora of meaningful yogic practices; morning jala neti, a nasal cleansing practice said to lift the spirits; long stretchy hatha yoga sessions; bhastrika, an energetic breathing technique that comprises forced exhalations to boost your energy and burn toxins (“These mountains are holy – the air is very special here,” Shivachittam tells me); and coma-inducing candle-gazing meditations before bedtime.
On my last night at Leti, I wrap myself in a thick woolen blanket and lie beside the campfire on my lawn. I stare up, utterly bewitched by the Milky Way, its glittering mist appearing so close from my mountain perch that I imagine I could reach out and run my fingers through it. I see a shooting star – and then another – but I don’t know what to wish for. For at that moment, I have everything I could ever want.
This feature originally appeared in July/August print issue of #legend.