Chalni Cheena – An unexplored Himalayan hideaway
A little hamlet, nestled in the Kumaoni region of the Himalayas, Chalni Cheena offers a varied range of avifauna to pique the interest of even the most jaded traveller.
Somewhere near Almora and on the way to Pithoragarh, lies the quiet village market of Chalni Cheena. The closest settlements of Naugaon and Deopar are both a couple of kilometres away on opposite sides. Besides these, all that surrounds this quaint and rural part of Kumaon are forests, mountains, streams, and largely terraced farmlands, interrupted in many places by cliffs and gorges. The forests go back in time, reminiscent of Corbett’s Kumaon when maneaters walked this wilderness. Although there are no tigers here, the shy and elusive leopard continues to prowl over its realm.
When I first arrived at this remote region of Kumaon, a leopard had struck women and children thrice in less than a month in the village of Lamgarah, around 16 km from Chalni Cheena. I am not sure what exactly happened to the cat after, but many say that it was tranquilised and captured by the forest authorities. Since then, there have been no leopard attacks on humans till date, although leopards continue to thrive on local dogs and domestic goats.
A naturalist’s delight
But Chalni Cheena’s real beauty lies in its towering mountain peaks and its rich avian fauna that includes the Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, the Eurasian Jay, several tits and finches, along with the gregarious barbets and the continuous chatter of the Red-billed Blue Magpies. With the onset of March, the summer visitors arrive—when Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Verditer Flycatchers and Fire-tail Sunbirds, among many others, drop by to the valley.
Although this part of Kumaon shares a loosely attached corridor with the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, the forests of Thikalna and Naini about 40 kilometres away, Chalni Cheena itself is no National Park or sanctuary. Yet, during my nine-month tenure as a naturalist, I found, to my delight, some indigenous Himalayan fauna, including the Bearded and Himalayan Vultures, the Red fox, and some of the last remaining Gorals. Barking deer and Wild boars are not very uncommon although still very elusive and shy. Some even rarer sightings were of the Kashmir flying squirrel and the Himalayan pit viper, while the butterflies were seen included the common Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, and Common Maps. Mountain streams revealed Spotted Forktails and White- Capped Redstarts in plenty, while open spaces were a favourite haunt for the munias and bushchats. I also spotted fireflies, the Hummingbird Moth and the handsome Kashmir Rock Agama.
Follow the martens
Looking for animals in this region, and that too on foot is no easy game. On my very first day, a Yellow-throated marten showed itself on the terraced farmland below but was gone in seconds before I could get a decent look at it. Almost all Marten sightings ended in this manner, except once. I had trekked up the hill from a waterfall created by a gorge below when I found not 1 but 3 of them together. Keeping a low profile and not getting too close seemed to pay off, as I managed to follow them for quite some time, before having to give myself up to their agility. I did manage to get some photographs of this beautiful and native Himalayan mammal, and also observe their playful nature. I remember one taking the nectar from a blooming Rhododendron flower in the process.
However, I needed to brave many nights for the search of the Kashmir flying squirrel. Although I did have two very short sightings of this elegant rodent, it was only after five months, that I got my third sighting, and from there on managed to sight a pair on three consecutive occasions, with one sitting comfortably on a nearby branch for a good 10 minutes. Many a guest who toiled hard and walked with me on these forest trails were awarded sightings of Red fox, flying squirrels, martens and gorals.
The simple life
These temperate coniferous forests of Chir-pine, rhododendrons, deodars, and oak, and the many fruiting trees and shrubs such as walnuts, pears, apricots, raspberries, and apples, with the Nanda Devi, Trishul and Panchachuli peaks as a backdrop, provide fabulous photographic opportunities. For a layman, visiting the place just for its untouched natural beauty is a reason in itself. But for those willing to walk the extra mile, the lesser-trodden trails offer a glimpse into the timeless world of Kumaon; a place that holds many stories within its dense landscape. While autumn is a season for butterflies; winters, although extremely cold, are when the peaks are at their spectacular best. They seem to change colour with the change in time of day or night.
During my time there, winter rains had given way to six inches of snow in a single night. The landscape was covered by a blanket of white. While sipping a hot cup of chai, I heard stories of previous winters as recounted by the locals. The simple life of the hospitable Kumaonis, many of whom I had come to know personally, formed an unforgettable part of my stay, as did these massive mountains that hide many a secret within their dense stillness.
How to go
Chalni Cheena is best accessed from Kathgodam, a station town 5 km from Haldwani. The easiest way to reach is to take the night train Ranikhet Express which would reach early morning. Else, the early morning Shatabdi from Anant Vihar Station reaches Kathgodam just before mid-day. From here, it is almost 100 km drive up the mountains via Bhimtal, Padampuri, and Sehraphatak which could take about four hours in total.
When to go
Chalni Cheena can be visited almost throughout the year except during the monsoons when the rains make it landslide prone. Winters provide some excellent opportunities for landscape photography while summers are great for seeing indigenous wildlife and for pleasant treks and hikes. Bird watching can be done almost throughout the year, although you are likely to see more during the warmer months. The months of March and April are a good time to see the blooming Rhododendrons.
Places to stay
Although this can be a day’s visit form Almora, the best way to explore the region, is by residing here for a few nights. At present, the only place to stay at Chalni Cheena is Itmenaan Estate, which offers packages and stays at reasonable rates. The estate, keeping to the rural Kumaoni style of architecture, blends in well with the natural environment. It serves simple and yet a wide variety of food in terms of choice.
Things to remember
Because this region is a mountainous terrain, do carry your trekking boots or good shoes for hiking. During winters, temperatures can dip to as low as minus four degrees, so carry warm clothes. Sunscreen is highly recommended as the sun can be harsh during the day.
Cover Photo: View of Naugaon village from Chalni Cheena, clicked during the winters after a heavy snowfall. Mist can be seen rising at the back.
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