"I love to travel, but hate to arrive." ~ Albert Einstein


Mountain Biking Down the Kosi

Harpreet Dhillon bikes down from Nainital to Ram Nagar along the Kosi river of Kumaon to be enthralled by the magic of Sita Bani. Spirited adventure of many kinds and a tongue-in-check humour mix readily with a deep sense of reverence for the Himalayas and all that goes with it.

The fascinating thing about rivers is that they flow. Without being pulled or pushed, they simply flow with a natural sense of direction and purpose. In a world moving frenetically, where everything is rushing by, pushed to it limits, the river's natural pace is therapeutic. Like life itself, flowing freely without a care, turning randomly wherever it feels like.The river has no deadlines to meet and no rules to follow.

The Kosi originates in the middle Himalayas of Kumaon, Uttaranchal, India. Kosi literally means "river" and is one of the few major Himalayan rivers that does not have a glacial source. As a result, the waters are comparatively warmer than the glacial rivers. It originates in the high ridges around Kausani, draining a fair share of Kumaon's abundant monsoons, leaving the hills at Ram Nagar. The Kosi carves for itself a beautiful valley, still unspoilt, probably because for long stretches it does not run parallel to a motorable road.

More on Uttarakhand

Corbett Park


Pilgrim's Trail
Pindari Galcier

near the mandir We had done a canoeing expedition down the Kosi a few years earlier and had always wondered if it was possible to Mountain Bike down its length. On a fine November morning the inimitable Gauri Rana and I loaded our bike carriers with goodies and set off from the flats of Nainital, down the road to Bhimtal. Gauri's brother, Shiva Dai, flagged us off somewhat apprehensively, given the dilapidated state of Gauri's bike. On a fantastic freewheel from the end of the lake, we relished the cool breeze as we zipped down curves, settling comfortably into Expedition mode. Down, down, down, past Bhowali, we went onto the Ranikhet road. Leading the descent high above the valley floor, I spied a spectacular mandir on the side of the road. It was painted a bright red and yellow with the signature red Hindu flags fluttering in the cool breeze. We stopped and paid our respects to the local deity, before we sat on the mandir veranda hanging out over the cliff edge. There was an exhilarating feeling of space beneath our feet and we sat silently, lost in our own thoughts. The pujari came out of nowhere and sat down with us. He explained that the mnadir is located on a particularly nasty bend on the road where many vehicles had gone hurtling down the cliff in the past. The local people decided to appease the local deity through this shrine, which has worked.

First night's campFinally we reached the bottom of the valley and our first interaction with the Kosi. It was from here that we hoped to follow the Kosi down till it leaves the hills at Ramnagar. We stocked up on food and inspiration (Rum!) at the shops before crossing the bridge over the Kosi onto a broken gravel track along the river. At the first bend in the river, the scenery changed dramatically: the valley closed in and the mountain slopes grew into a sheer sided gorge with lots of scree slopes marking land slides. It was deathly silent with only the river's smooth gushing providing audio relief. It was nearing dusk and we found a nice, sandy spot near the river to pitch tent. Gauri set about making camp while I took the bikes to the river and gave them a good scrub, having a wash in the process. It was a beautiful evening: no one was around, the camp was set up, the Kosi gurgled away. It was time for the rum! We had a wonderful evening of songs, laughs, stories and noodles...falling into a deep and peaceful sleep under the stars.

BridgeWe woke up to a chill in the air and waited for the sun to hit camp. But the gorge was so deep, we realized it might take a couple of hours till the sun shone down on us. We decided to break camp and hobbled around with our hands in our pockets, trying to get each other to do most of the work. Getting underway, we discovered the sun was shining high and bright around the next corner, 200 m from our camp! In high spirits, pedalling along briskly in the crisp morning air, Gauri was humming away in front of me, jumping up and down on his pedals to negotiate steep climbs. He had a bike with no gears and I stared at him in disbelief as he negotiated steep climbs on loose gravel without dismounting while I puffed and fiddled with my gears, chugging along at walking pace. The guy has thighs of steel! Crack! A loud metallic sound pierced the air as Gauri fell off his bike to the left. He stood up with a sheepish grin and a pedal in his hand. The pedal had sheared off the crank.


Luckily there was a small village ahead where I munched on biscuits and tea while Gauri jogged back towards the road head to get the pedal welded back on the crank. The tea stall was the local hangout place and village elders sat around discussing the latest election results. We discussed local politics, development efforts and the devastating effect of fishing with dynamite and electricity. On the whole it seemed like things were going in the right direction for the village. That didn't seem true for our expedition though, as they said that the road we were currently on would peter out after a few kilometres and the bikes would not be able to get through to Betaal Ghat, where we were hoping to reach at night.

I shared the news with Gauri when he came back, but with a newly welded pedal and the whole day ahead of us, he was raring to go and said, we'll take it as it comes. I was more than happy with that line of thought and along we went down the sweeping valley of the Kosi. Through green fields of vegetables and terraced hills of paddy. But after a couple of hours of lovely riding, the dirt road turned to a walking track and then even the track got lost in the fields. We stopped, exhausted, at a local house, just beside the river and asked for directions.The house owner ran a tea and biscuit store. We sank down on the floor and slurped on tea and chomped on tea saturated biscuits. Gauri, as is his habit, got into an interesting conversation with the young man who owned the house while I gave him stern looks to remind him of the expedition to complete! The next 10 kms were anything but cycling. More like an ironman competition. Carrying bikes and rucksacks up steep hills, down gullies and through fields. The local kids came out to watch us slipping and puffing through the village, dragging bikes through potato fields. Finally we managed to hit a sort of track that led us to the road to Betaal Ghat. We were tired and ravenous by the time we got there, and forced an overwhelmed shop keeper to cook everything he had in his shop. I think we wolfed down 10 eggs, heaps of rice, a bucket of Daal and 6 bottles of Pepsi between the two of us! We burped in unison and headed off at a leisurely pace out of Betaal Ghat.

Betal The road climbed steadily and we enjoyed beautiful views of the Kosi valley as it opened out and was probably a kilometre wide at this point. The setting sun put a mellow shadow on the valley and we both plugged on in silence, the only sound coming from the squeaking of the Billy hanging off Gauri's rucksack. It was a funny sight, Gauri riding his bike and the Billy hanging off the right side off his rucksack attached to the bike carrier, swinging wildly. It suddenly struck me that this was it! This was what I came for. To be lost, to be anonymous, to be swinging wildly, to be free. I was free. It was one of those rare moments of extreme clarity, like you've just figured it all out! That's the beauty of travelling. Inspiration strikes you at the most unexpected places - panting like a dog cycling up a steep hill in the middle of undiscovered Kumaon. You just cannot predict or pre-arrange it.

We set up camp along the Kosi in the gathering dusk. This was leopard country. There are plenty of stories floating around of leopards carrying away women and children and even mauling men in these areas. I collected firewood quite nervously as Gauri set up camp and kitchen in the lee of a large boulder. More than once I scared myself by stepping on a branch causing rustling in the bush. I gulped down the glass of rum handed to me by Gauri, savouring the warmth searing down my throat. Soon we were laughing away discussing the idiocies of the day and the wild stories of other adventures. With Gauri in your camp, you can never be bored. The slightest whiff of madira gets him in the mood and well into the night you'll be begging him to stop as your stomach is hurting from laughing too much.


In the morning I discovered we had pitched camp in the middle of the track used by tractors engaged in harvesting rocks from the river. We made breakfast of bread and butter with some delicious tea. It was such a perfect spot with sunlight just beginning to filter in over the mountains. The Kosi flowed invitingly and we couldn't resist a dip. We ended up diving and frolicking in the river before soaking in the sun on the rocks. We climbed back up to the lodge where we had left our bikes the night before and continued the Gauri-Harry Kosi Mountain Biking expedition. We didn't have much time to settle down because within an hour we were confronted with some awesome landslides. A whole mountain seemed to have caved in on the road. With a combination of pushing, dragging and carrying the bike over landslips, we reached a tea shop next to a dry river bed of boulders. There were boulders of all shapes and sizes strewn across the whole 100 m width of the river bed. It seemed like the river had carried away the insides of the Himalayas in one terrific wild surge of passion. The old man at the tea shop said the river did this every monsoon. We sipped the sweet tea in the miniature glasses that all Indian tea shops seem to have an endless supply of.

Bend in the KosiAfter the pit stop there was even more devastation. Huge trees lay uprooted across the road, mountain streams flowed freely where the road was supposed to be. It was an exhausting 2 hours of hauling that led us to the final obstacle, a 100 m wide expanse of a fantastic near vertical landslide. By the time I reached it, Gauri was already across, sitting comfortably with a smirk across his face. I sucked in a deep breath and set off hesitantly. I had to lift the bike with my left arm and it dangled over the edge looking down 1000 m to the river, as I shuffled nervously along a 6 inch wide crumbling path. Halfway across I froze, rocks were hurtling down the slope above me and I spied ghost like figures darting across the vertical slide. Langurs! I watched as they playfully jumped from rock to rock, sending clouds of pebbles and rocks on their way down the terrific slope to the river far below. I managed to get across without incident and victoriously raised my arms as Gauri happily snapped away. There was a huge bend in the Kosi here. Straddling the bend was a beautiful village with lush yellow wheat fields and fresh white-washed cottages. I envied them their idyllic paradise in an unknown fold of the Himalaya.

A few kms of exciting downhill riding followed. It was particularly exciting for Gauri because his brakes had pretty much given up the ghost. The road widened and we saw a jeep for the first time since Betaal Ghat. A small village followed where we ate a spicy Daal-chawal or rice and lentils, cooked up by an ex-army man who had lost an arm at battle in Kashmir. A grant from the Army had helped him to setup his Dhaba and he was quite happy with his lot without an ounce of regret for having lost his arm for the nation. I was left gasping at the man's courage as well as the spice in his daal! The spice in my stomach helped propel me up the steep incline out of the village. I was really enjoying this bit, screaming down the track, singing wildly in my exuberance. I left Gauri biting dust. After some exciting mountain biking on rough dirt tracks through tiny picturesque villages, we finally hit the tarmac at the Ram Nagar-Ranikhet road. We had our standard stop at a tea stall before we set off towards Mohan, where we hoped to camp or get into the Forest Rest house.

After two days of rough riding on dirt tracks or no tracks at all, we went nuts with joy on the smooth tarmac. We screamed down the highway, overtaking disbelieving scooters and dumbfounded buses! Better sense prevailed when I spied a huge pipal tree by the side of the road. Its branches hung down to the ground and it seemed as ancient as the Himalayas themselves. We stood in its majestic presence seeking its blessings, immediately humbled. People stopped us on our way down, thinking we were part of a movie crew shooting a Bollywood movie in the Corbett National Park. I wanted to tell them, "We're not pretty Movie Stars doing a scene Mate, we're the REAL THING!!". We're not going to get into an air conditioned car and drive away after cycling up and down a 100 m side lane. We are the "Gauri-Harry Kosi Mountain Biking expedition" and we make our own way! Hahahaha! I felt truly heroic!

At Mohan, where Jim Corbett shot one of his 12 legendary man-eating tigers, we were firmly into Tiger country. In the gathering dusk, village dogs morphed into snarling tigers. In my nervousness, I overshot the Forest Rest House and then while turning back, I dropped the bike in the middle of the road, much to the amusement of Gauri and a couple of passing village belles. The location of the forest house must have been fantastic at the time of Mr. Corbett. Now it was just on the road - though the road, to be fair, was in the forest. It was set amidst large lawns with an air of quiet tranquillity about it. Despite Gauri's incredible sucking up to the Chowkidar, he didn't open the locked rest house for us. I was very surprised as Gauri has this uncanny knack of being able to get his way. Finally when we cried and said, we would get eaten by tigers out in the forest, he took pity on us and opened a small dusty room at the back of the rest house. The room seemed to have last been opened at the time of Mr. Corbett himself and our lungs had to work hard to sift out the oxygen from the aerial dust hanging around in the room. We set off with the Chowkidaar to find some booze and food in the middle of the forest. Our desperate search led us to some unlikely places including the general store, the police post and a night cattle market. To no avail. Finally, a passing truck driver took pity on us and gave us a couple of pegs from his "one for the road" supply. Somewhat satisfied, we wolfed down some vegetable stew and roti and sulked back to sleep in the dust bowl.

The dew was thick and fresh on the trees next morning as we enjoyed our morning ablutions in the forest behind the rest house. I set a blistering pace down the road to Ram Nagar, showing off my 18 gears to Gauri! I overtook an overloaded three wheeled scooter rickshaw, much to the driver's consternation and his passengers' amusement. A little boy raced me on a bike taller than himself, as little chickens dived for cover away from the road. I stopped just outside Ram Nagar and waited for Gauri to catch up. We stocked up with food and inspiration (!!) at RamNagar and also performed some running repairs on the bikes at the local cycle repair stall. It's amazing how the village cycle repair guy anywhere in India can fix up your bike to make it go anywhere!

We ate a delicious chicken with countless fresh tandoori rotis at a dhaba in a small gully. Another little wonder of India, tucked in every nook and gully! The owner was telling us of his disappointment on seeing Vivek Oberoi, the bollywood star. "Koi personality nahee hai uski, aapki achhee personality hai uske saamne to!" My chest swelled beyond even my bulging stomach and I paid an extra generous tip. We again burped in unison (it was a sort of expedition motto now!) and set off lazily, crossing the barrage across the Kosi and turning onto the road towards Sita Bani. This area is in a non touristy part of the Corbett National Park buffer zone, with small villages cleared in patches out of the thick terai jungle.

We cycled along merrily, stopping occasionally for pictures. Soon the gradient turned upwards and we puffed and sweated up the hill. The tarmac was almost new but there was absolutely no traffic. We had this patch of paradise all to ourselves. It was a beautiful ride, if a little hot. As I was straining up a particularly steep and endless slope muttering abuse at Gauri for dashing off up ahead, I spied him standing at a locked gate looking cautiously inside. This was a small entrance to the Corbett National Park. We did not have permits to go into the Park so I was wondering what Gauri was upto. As I pulled up beside him, he winked at me and walked on inside towards a small derelict cottage in the middle of the forest. As I poured water on my head to cool down my boiling brain, he came back with a huge grin on his face. "I've fixed em up, let's take the shortcut!"

Apparently he had bluffed the local chowkidaar into believing we had the permits to go to Sita Bani and before the poor fellow could recover from the Gauri effect, we had pedalled far out of sight, into a jungle so thick, it swallowed up even the sounds of the tyres crunching the gravel. It was a mystical ride through thick Sal forest. Magic rays of sunlight escaped in through the high forest canopy. I half expected a majestic tiger to emerge out of the thick undergrowth and saunter across the road. A couple of hours of cycling got us to the Forest Rest House of Sita Bani. It was the most magical location in the thick jungle with no roads. The only signs of human habitation were the Rest House and a small mandir below it. The rest house itself was on top of a small hill and had fantastic views down to the Kosi. The old Chowkidaar was a jovial fellow with glasses so thick, his eyeballs seemed to touch the glass. We boiled the billy with some tea and the old fellow warmed up to us. He was happy to have some company and with a little prodding, opened the locked doors of the Rest House for us.

Tale of Two CyclesIt was early evening. We took a leisurely bath in the stream flowing nearby. As I lay submerged in the cool water, a couple of langurs galloped across the stream. We went back totally refreshed and ready for a night among tigers and leopards. I think our loud and rather drunk rendition of Kishore Kumar and Nepali classics kept the big cats away. The stars did peep out from behind the clouds to have a look at what the fuss was about. It was an absolutely gorgeous night that I can surely never forget. We woke up groggy and surprised that the chowkidaar hadn't come to kick us out after our shameful display of the night. Going bush in the morning was fraught again with visions of an amused leopard chancing on me as I squatted on the steep slope holding on to my pants with one hand and a bush for support with the other. I hoped that the leopard would have a sense of humour and roll onto his back and break into uncontrollable laughter, which might be my only chance of escape!

When we were ready to leave, we went down to the small mandir. There was a single sadhu there. He was an enigmatic ascetic with the relaxed manner of one who has seen and experienced much. Once a year there is a large mela here, when villagers from all over the Kumaon Terai come for darshan. The rest of the year, it is ideal for a quiet and contemplative existence. The place had a strange energy and I felt the overwhelming urge to meditate there. I still regret that I did not. I was sure I would return one day to explore my connection with this magical place. As we pushed ahead on our way, Sita Bani cornered a quiet place for itself in my heart. The place was like no other. It is one of the most special places for me in the Himalayas.

We pushed on in meditative silence along a deeply rutted four-wheel drive track. Soon we were out of the foothills and came onto the wide flood plain of the Kosi. We followed the now placid river along a jungle track to Powalgarh, another place made famous by Jim Corbett during his hunting forays. At Powalgarh the beautiful forest finally gave way to the farmer's axe and fields of rice and wheat rose up hesitantly at first, and then bloomed in the full glare of the sun. It was Diwali and the little town was decorated with tinsel. The halwais were doing brisk business selling huge boxes of sweets. We ate breakfast at a small dhaba and celebrated the beautiful day with laddoos and jalebis.

It was plain sailing now as we got onto the highway connecting Kashipur to Kaladhungi. Gauri kept us entertained with jokes and stories, half of which he seemed to have come up with at the spur of the moment. A scooter with a young couple skidded out of control in front of us as they landed heavily on their shoulders. We stopped as a crowd collected out of nowhere. Thankfully they were all right. We continued on with greater awareness of the traffic. Soon we were at the T junction of Kaladhungi deciding whether to bike up the 30 odd kilometres to Naini Tal or catch the bus. It was afternoon already and we wanted to get back to Gauri's place at Bhim Tal before nightfall so we could enjoy this night of lights and laughter among friends. The bus came and we heaved the bikes onto the top of the bus as we sat on top, among a group of happy school kids. Just as we climbed the final hill into Naini Tal we heard a loud Thud behind the bus. A mangled piece of red metal lay in the middle of the road. Gauri's Bike had fallen off. Right at the last curve! Before I could yell out, Gauri was already down the ladder and running back towards the bike. The bus stopped and I got my bike and our rucksacks off it. Remarkably, his bike had survived the fall but the front wheel was a wreck. It was so twisted that the bike wobbled like a drunk man making his way home.

It was a sad end to a remarkable expedition but then, things are never perfect. Gauri hailed a jeep and stuffed his injured bike and our stuff into it as I decided to freewheel down to Bhim Tal. As the setting sun filled the sky with its dying orange glow, I reflected on the days gone by. A satisfaction filled my being and I stood on the pedals, rocked my head back and let out a loud cry of the victor.YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAHhhhhhhhhhhhh!

I was ready for Diwali!

Photo Credit: Harpreet Dhillon

Home | Back | Top | Feedback

Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.