I recently got back home from a refreshing holiday in Uttarakhand with family and friends. We travelled through Delhi, Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve, Kausani, Nainital and Binsar. Of all the wonderful experiences on our journey, one called “Khali”, was memorable beyond any other. Yes, Khali, meaning empty in Hindi; actually an estate we stayed at in Binsar, is what I am referring to.
As a hospitality professional, I’m always thinking of ways that restaurants and hotels can improve their guest experience in terms of their food, service and ambience. Yet this place somehow encouraged me to accept everything just the way it was... No changes. I must be losing it, I thought. After all, it’s just a hotel and things can always be improved. How is it that this place is leading my mind instead of the other way round? What is special about it? I replayed the memories of our experiences....
Our driver of a few days had been acting up quite a bit, despite a large advance. Earlier that day he decided to actually stop the car in the middle of nowhere and hold us to ransom on his “revised” terms. Rather fed-up and tired, we telephoned our next host, Khali Estate, for help. “Just reach here somehow and we’ll take care of everything”, they said.
With little other choice, we soldiered onward to Khali. Just before entering the property we were surprised to see a toll post. Was this another money making scam? I looked at the receipt which said Corbett Tiger Reserve. But hadn’t we left that behind miles ago? The guy at the post confirmed that it was indeed a part of the Wildlife Sanctuary. Ah, I thought, at-least it’s nice to stay inside the forest once again, as we did at the Gairal Forest Lodge in the main Corbett park.
The Khali team was waiting at the entrance to greet us. While some of them quickly unloaded our luggage and took them to our rooms, others remained close almost cordoning us off protectively from the errant driver. From time to time, they politely asked if we required any assistance with him. I couldn’t have trained them any better myself, I thought, even as we settled matters with our driver and let him go. As we walked through the trees to our cylindrical cottages, I realised that the team wore no uniforms but spoke to us with a warmth and regard that befitted some of Khali’s illustrious earlier residents, whom we would learn about only later.
“I’m Madan,” said the white-haired bespectacled gentleman. “Do drop by at 7:30 this evening at the main bungalow”, he pointed. “I have a history session, something about the place I’d like to share with all of you.”
That evening, about twenty guests of various nationalities gathered around the fire place and listened with rapt attention as the storyteller told us the charming tale of Khali’s rich and interesting heritage – from how it got its name & its electricity, how it passed on through its varied promoters and the challenges it faced, how it had housed Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram and also residents from the Nehru family.
“Who owns Khali now?” someone asked. “Himanshu, the one who received you along with Kewal and Ghanshyam”. Talk about having no airs, this owner truly considers himself simply a custodian of the place. His father Pandey also known as Mamaji, spoke of how over the years, they’ve resisted many large corporations keen on acquiring the property.
The food was quite simplistic but somehow seemed to taste better with their genuine home-style hospitality.
The next day, we opted to walk a village trail that they’d suggested. The path took us deeper into the experience... to a tiny ten-house settlement called Dalar. At one point, the only way to continue the journey was to step over a dead calf that blocked the narrow road. “It’s a leopard’s kill”, Joshi the guide explained. “Don’t worry, we aren’t in any danger, they are nocturnal creatures. Though we could come back at night and watch quietly from there”, he said as he pointed upwards towards the motor-able path. Leopard or no leopard, the excitement of the possibility was enough to keep us engaged and looking for more. “The sweet extract of the red Buransh flowers are known to have health benefits including helping asthma”, he explained.
Khali took care of our onward road travel as they’d promised. Through our stay, we experienced many other niceties of the place that I could continue writing about, but should you ever choose to go there, I’d rather not rob you of your own experience.
It is possible that my great experience was simply circumstantial or lucky, but I doubt it. City dwellers from the world-over stay here for weeks and often return to experience the Magic of Khali. Its secret may lie in its simplicity, its ever-present genuine hospitality, its effect of time standing still, its ability to offer genuine contact with wilderness. It was these things that we really wanted for ourselves and for our kids. After all, nature has the power to rejuvenate the most tired minds, minds exhausted with the stress and speed of today’s world.
The place exudes a sort of aura which even kids seem to sense. There is a solidity to everything both outside and inside the property – from the surrounding snow-capped Himalayas to the rich dense forest; from the dark stone cottages, to the respectful people... everything seems just right.
Khali was called so because it was originally devoid of trees which were subsequently planted there by the hundreds; but I believe that what Khali did for me, was empty my mind to allow room for fresh thought... like any good holiday should.