We’ve spent nearly a week in Almora, more time than I might have imagined we’d want to spend in a town of perhaps 36,000 people whose most famous monuments are mostly outside the town.
But Almora has a lot of charm. The town is spread out along a ridge in the lower area of the Himalayan range north of Delhi, with houses and terraced fields spilling down the sides of the mountains. Views from nearly anywhere in Almora are lovely, even during this monsoon season when it’s often too misty to see the Himalayan range.
There are loads of walks you can take along the narrow residential streets that hug the mountainsides. Houses are built on terraces because of the steep slopes, and there are lots of staircases winding between the houses. It’s fun climbing up and down these, looking at gardens and people hanging laundry on their roofs, and sifting rice or preparing vegetables on their verandas.
I especially enjoy the old houses, particularly the ones with traditional thick stone roofs. These remind me of rural Welsh houses with slate roofs. There’s also a certain Welsh quality to the dry stone walls and forest paths that make up so much of the town.
The older houses also remind me of my earlier travels in the Himalaya region back in the early 1980s, when these traditional buildings were far more numerous, and when there were very few of the concrete buildings that now dominate the built environment.
All streets are narrow here in Almora, whether they’re motorable roads or for foot traffic only (which sometimes means motorcycles, too). The Mall – the long main street that winds through Almora, where many principal businesses are located – is a tangle of trucks, buses, motorcycles, cows and pedestrians. It’s certainly interesting, and often amusing, but it can get tiring to walk on the Mall.
That’s when it’s good to climb up one of the steep paths or staircases to the pedestrian mall. The pedestrian-only mall starts at the Mall itself, just opposite the Shikar Hotel, and meanders for a couple of kilometers uphill to a small temple with a large tree and a deep holy well where people come to fill their water bottles.
Everything you can imagine is sold on the pedestrian mall, but there’s a heavy emphasis on fruit and vegetables, clothing, bangles, makeup, sweets, medicines and jewelry. During the day most of the shops are closed, but in the afternoon and evening, everything’s open, and the trade is lively.
The pedestrian mall does get crowded, but with the exception of the occasional scofflaw motorcycle, the traffic is just people, cows and the dogs who lie around all over the street, with people obligingly stepping around them.
The pedestrian mall’s human scale is very pleasant, and it’s fun to look at the older houses in the middle of the mall, with their carved wooden windows looking out onto the street.
I enjoy seeing kids and adults, too, looking out of these old windows, watching the activity on the street below. Sometimes kids call out to us, practicing their English – “Hello! How are you! Where from?” We always answer.
You can do some people-watching of your own, sitting in one of the tiny tea-and-snack shops along the mall. It’s fun to sip tea and watch the parade of giggling teenagers, shopping housewives and career women on their way home from work, cool dudes in sunglasses and graphic t-shirts, children on bikes, businessmen, and the occasional sadhu in traditional orange.
And all day, from early morning to late in the evening, there are the porters. People here use the term “coolie,” which falls hard on my ears, because it’s so redolent of the racism of the British Raj in India and China. Nearly everything that arrives in Almora is carried to its destination on the backs of these porters, because Almora is built on the slopes of a mountain ridge, and many of its streets are impassible for anything but foot traffic.
The porters are invariably small, very thin and astonishingly strong. They come from the surrounding mountain villages around Kumaon, and they know how to carry heavy loads. Each man has a burlap sack on his back to protect him from the load rubbing against his shirt, and every load is wrapped with burlap straps. The load rests on the porter’s bent back, and is supported by a burlap sling wrapped from the bottom of the load up and across the top of the porter’s head.
It’s astounding to see just how much weight these men bear on their bodies and heads. I’ve seen washing machines in their cardboard cartons on the backs of men walking carefully down (or up) steep flights of stairs.
Loads consisting of bags of concrete, bricks, or several heavy bags of flour, are completely routine. So are plastic cartons filled with mangos, potatoes or other vegetables.
I have seen some porters whose hair at the top of their heads is extremely thin, worn away by the burlap slings they use. I can’t help but think of the damage that’s being done to these men’s necks and spines, let alone their hips, knees and ankles, and the pain they must bear as they grow older.
The other morning, we took a walk up into the cantonment area of Almora, a beautiful, quiet section with residences for military folk tucked here and there through the forest.
We were making our way down through the market to the Jageshwar road for an early lunch at our favorite tea-and-snack place. A young porter stopped to talk with us. He asked where we were going, and Alan told him, “the Jageshwar road.”
“Come,” the porter said, gesturing for us to follow him. He was going in the right direction, so we just followed him. He guided us a little way along, looking back and smiling at us every few steps. Finally he stopped and pointed down a path, showing us the way to the Jageshwar road.
We actually weren’t lost, of course, but this kindly young man clearly assumed we were, and went out of his way to guide us. As he turned back uphill, and we turned down, we thanked him. He put his hands together and gave us a sweet smile in return.