When I stepped out of the car, the first thing that struck me was that the air smelt different. Having come from Mumbai where the Eau de City is a mix of vehicular fumes, rotting garbage and overwhelming reminder of the constant presence of the sea hugging the coastline, the crispness of the autumn air was a welcome change. It smelt of bonfires, of crackling autumn leaves, of fresh chilly wind blowing down from the Himalayas, of a world I hadn’t yet experienced too well, except for a brief four day holiday to Darjeeling when I was in grade nine.

The drive up was through market places, and houses clinging precariously to the edge of the road as it snaked up decidedly. The houses thinned out and the trees changed from deciduous to coniferous as we went higher.

I arrived at Dhanachuli, in Uttarakhand, after a long winding journey by road uphill from the railway junction of Kathgodam. The morning Shatabdi from Delhi had arrived here in the afternoon to a flurry of porters and cars and calls, and the railway junction was much the same as it had been in Delhi, a warm dry October heat that wasn’t the debilitating one that May presented, but searing in its own way. The drive up was through market places, and houses clinging precariously to the edge of the road as it snaked up decidedly. The houses thinned out and the trees changed from deciduous to coniferous as we went higher. The road forked. One road would take us to the temple town of Mukteshwar. The other fork led us here to Dhanachuli, a mountain village with barely a handful of residents. Most of the village has long been abandoned by the residents and I would learn that later, after a trek down to the village.

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The air up here, in Dhanachuli, it was completely different from what it was in Kathgodam. The air was decidedly nippy, and for an afternoon it was chilly. I would learn later, that the nights would be cold enough to warrant the lighting of bonfires and fireplaces, and that frost would make the stone stairways going up and down the property we were at rather treacherous to navigate without a good strong torch.

Dhanachuli
Kiran Manral writes on her trip to Dhanachuli.

I was at Te Aroha, Dhanachuli junction, a boutique hotel owned by Delhi based eminent lawyer, Sumant Batra and his wife Asha, on his invitation for a three day retreat with a mixed group of authors, artists, photographers and poets from across the country. I had forgotten completely the call of the mountains, all these years I had been away from it. The sight of the dawn breaking over the magnificent Kanchenjunga on a November morning had been tucked away into the recesses of my memory and it was only now, as I stood at the parapet at Te Aroha, looking across the expanse of mountain tops to a distant jagged silhouette of the Himalayas staring back at me that it all came back. Their impassivity and their omniscience was terrifying.

Far away from the buzz of the more touristy spots of Nainital and Bhimtal, I discovered the joy of isolation and the sense of time ticking by at an unhurried leisurely pace. This, I realised, was true luxury.

We would go into Mukteshwar the next day, to the genteel and yet imposing Mukteshwar temple that the town gets its name from, see the old post office built back in the days of the Raj and maintained impeccably even today. Sit by the shade of the deodars, and watch the monkeys scurrying around making a right nuisance of themselves, warm our hands by the bonfire as we discussed words and thoughts and our writing. Far away from the buzz of the more touristy spots of Nainital and Bhimtal, I discovered the joy of isolation and the sense of time ticking by at an unhurried leisurely pace. This, I realised, was true luxury. Of not being slave to the clock.

Dhanachuli
Image Credit: Kiran Manral

As I settled into my rather lovely rooms at the hotel, I spotted the houses that dotted the slopes across. At great distances from each other, they stayed, poised precariously on the slopes, secluded and aloof from each other. From the chimney of one of the cottages a plume of smoke curled forth languidly, making interesting curlicues as it went forth into the ethers. I wondered at that moment about how someone would live in such splendid isolation, with no one as an immediate neighbour, with help a fair bit of a walk away, with provisions and rations a right trip to be made. I looked at that house and I wondered who could it be living in that house. Somewhere, somehow, on that trip, the seeds for what would eventually become The Face at the Window were sown. The mountains never quite stopped haunting me after that, they’ve been part of two of my published books, The Face at the Window and Missing Presumed Dead. And feature in a third yet to be published one. When folks ask me which boarding school I went to in Darjeeling or Nainital, and how many years I lived there going by the setting in my books and the detail, I laugh and tell them I’ve probably not spent more than two weeks in total in the mountains. The rest is all research, yes, and the mountains that continue to haunt me even here, in the city, as I sit to write my books.

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Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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