LEE COBAJ dis­cov­ers the ma­jes­tic splen­dour of the Hi­malayas at Shakti 360° Leti

#Legend - - CONTENTS / JULY | AUGUST -

Dis­cover the ma­jes­tic splen­dour and dreamy tran­quil­lity of the Hi­malayas at Shakti 360 º Leti

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 snow­cov­ered 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.

Shakti 360º Leti is 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 |

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