Himachal Revisited. November 2006

 Himachal By arunchs
I had been to Himachal Pradesh twice. In fact, Manali & Shimla are defined as Himachal in the common tourist’s definition. This November was different and so was the trip. The destinations had been carefully chalked out and age had something to do with it. I was seeking the lesser known locations. Not for the thrill of adventure but for the solitude it offered.

We (my sister Bubu & brother-in-law Niels from Sydney, my husband Digby & I) left Mumbai on November 2nd 2006 by the morning Jet Airways flight and reached Delhi at 9am. After loading 8 pieces of baggage (mostly heavy woolens, quilts etc) & a case of mineral water we got into a spanking new Travera & headed straight for the hills at 10am. The flu bug was irritating me so I crept to the back seat and lay down while the car sped through old Delhi through to Panipat, Panchkula with a short 30 minutes break at a dhaba for lunch. Roti, dal, mixed vegetables, tea for all 4 was Rs 86. After crossing Ambala the road forked, showing a right arrow to Amritsar and left to Shimla.

Delhi to Barog 325kms 6 hrs 2nd Nov’06

The NH22 commenced and we took the route to Shimla. Parwanoo was the entry point to Himachal at 3pm and the land elevation and vegetation saw a dramatic change. The road started climbing and the dusty trees of the plains turned to occasional pines. Even the monkeys sitting casually at on the road side were furry long haired. It was a straight road until we reached a bazaar which showed a right turn to Solan and a left for Barog. The road to Barog was through the market place. An unobtrusive turn, unless you are on the look out for road signs saying Pinewood Hotel which indicated you were on track. Barog was a 5 shop hamlet and the drive in to the hotel was a drive up to the left side of the NH22.The hotel was sprawling, wrought iron settees on the grassy patios, rose bushes and yellow chrysanthemum hedges. A glass house with seating arrangements to be used on a hot day or during the rains. Amenities well marked- conference room, billiard room, steam & sauna, bar & restaurant, open air café & rooms. Our rooms were away from the main building, very private and overlooking the hills. Rs 800 + 10% tax tariff included a large ground floor twin room cottage with a common sit out. The room had a small dressing room, attached bathroom with a geyser and a run down rod heater which worked well. Dinner was disappointing as the tandoori chicken felt dry & stale. We should have stuck to the vegetarian fare.

Barog to Fagu via Solan- Chail- Kufri 3 hrs 3rd Nov’06

Set out at 8.45am on a crisp & cool morning after a hot cup of tea at the open air café replete with chirping of birds. Stopped at Solan to buy a case of mineral water and reached Chail in an hour’s time. On the highway was a cute 12 roomed hotel, the Chail Residency (tariff for super deluxe & deluxe rooms Rs 1200/1500 on season & 50% off during off season commencing 15th July). This hotel was on the Kandaghat Chail road very close to the Chail town. Hotel Chail Residency. Chail 173217.Phone 01792 248210, 248612.Chandigarh office phone- 0172 2705418. Cell: 98140 44828. Email: only4sunil22@hotmail.com

The rooms overlook the valley below. The hotel was building an extension for conferences. We stopped for parantha & alu jeera breakfast & drove on. Stopped again at the Eco Park at Kufri to stretch our legs while Bubu bought a pretty woolen cap for Rs50 & Digby a Himachali topi for Rs 90! He looked like lama wearing it and our laughter made him take it off saying he had bought it for the sake of buying a souvenir. Another 4kms drive and we reached Fagu at the Peach Blossom hotel. We would have over shot it as once again the drive in was a drive up on the highway itself. A large hotel with large rooms (Rs 1200 + 10% tax) and a large garden like a bald open field. A 180 degrees view of the mountains at a distant but at this point covered with the afternoon haze. I was disappointed and suggested we go spend the day at Shimla (22kms away). We had deliberately omitted this city because of the crowds. But Fagu felt so bald that after a cup of tea at the hotel we back tracked from Fagu- Kufri- Dhalli – Shimla.

 The metal roads were superb and the winding forested drive was pretty all the way to Chhota Shimla (3kms before or after Shimla depending on your approach). Drove on till we crossed a 2 storey commercial parking lot & just 50 meters ahead on the right corner just before the road turns left was a hotel with an external capsule lift. The traffic policemen had told us to take the tourist lifts from there. There was a car park space and we queued for tickets (Rs 7 per head valid for an hour) for the elevator ride. I had never been on this and was wondering where this would lead to. From where we marked we could see church steeples and red roofed colonial houses on the hill way above. The tourist lift as it was called had 2 buttons denoting one and two. It took us to the 1st floor and stopped. We got off & were directed by a sign board showing way to 2nd floor. Reached the 2nd floor where the lift stopped and read a sign showing To Mall.

The Mall Road led to The Ridge. The Ridge is what is commonly known as the mall area in other hill stations. An open long stretch from the main road at a 50 meters incline with view points of the Shimla town and mountains. The entire area is a non smoking zone no make it eco friendly. The Ridge was bustling with confectionery, ice cream, soft drinks shops. And the mall road filled with restaurants, bakeries, small shops selling organic products like marmalades and other fruit preserves, home made chocolates, bookshops, clothes shops, dim sums selling at 50% off at the “happy hour” 3.30pm to 6.30pm & of course beautiful colonial heritage buildings now converted to government offices of the municipality standing as a reminder of the Raj.

I loved the sight, smells and the hustle bustle. Made me feel young again. I wandered around on my own, ate an ice-cream cone, browsed in the bookshops, bought The Ghost Stories of Shimla, a packet of assorted chocolates and a small jar of bitter marmalade. The former two being gifts for Digby’s birthday the next day. Left at 7pm after sunset and drove back to our hotel for an early dinner. In our excitement we had forgotten lunch!

Fagu to Chindi 75kms through Naldhera 3 hrs 4th Nov’06

Digby’s birthday. Woke up before sunrise and the two of us decided to explore Fagu before we left. Stood at the garden & watched the morning mist lift and the sun rise behind the snow clad peaks. It was a magnificent sight. All the peaks and ranges that were hidden the day before was showing up in all its glory. I chanted the omkar and gayatri mantra & made Digby repeat after me. Silence all around, not even the chirping of the birds. Just the golden rays of the rising sun melting the grey morning mist to show clear blue skies. It was a different way to start the birthday celebrations. Felt still & calm within as we walked down hill from the hotel onto the NH22 towards the village shops which were shut. Found a by lane and was told by the lone passer by that it led to the temple. Perched on a hillock was a Devi temple (Durga). As we went in the priest appeared and when we told him it was Digby’s birthday he chanted a prayer, gave us Prasad & marked our forehead with a red tilak. We returned feeling happy and joined Niels for a cup of tea in the garden. He was discovering the sights with his powerful field glasses and we saw the mountains at a closer range this time. Fagu was pretty at this point in my opinion but too much of a transit location to feel rested. Unlike Barog which was secluded with trees, Hotel Peach Blossom compound, though elevated from the highway had no tucked away feeling

We left at 9am, once again back track to Kufri to Dhalli. At Dhalli there was a sharp turn to the right- the state highway commenced while the main road carried on to Shimla. This turn led towards Naldhera. The route was of a winding pine forested road with mountains to our right. Before reaching Naldhera we stopped at Mashobra & had breakfast at the Rock Heaven Hotel. A marvelous secluded scenic spot. Though on the road to Naldhera, the tree shaded tiny patio before the hotel lent an air of a fairy tale house of Hansel & Gretel. Hotel Rock Heaven, Mashobra, Shimla 171007. Mobile 9816056448. Telephone 0177 480141. Season 15th April to 15th June. Room tariff Rs1000/750 + 10% tax. Off season 25% off. Room 303 & 304 are the best. Great views, window seat can double up as a 3rd bed, very clean tiled bathrooms. And the highlight was the restaurant having its own cappuccino machine! So far the coffee we had had was so watered down that we stuck to sipping sugary tea. We celebrated Digby’s birthday with a grand breakfast of omlette and toast and cut a persimmon (which we had bought in Shimla off the local fruit vendor) in lieu of a cake! The breakfast was concluded with a great cappuccino each. Warily we had asked the waiter if they had instant or filter coffee and he said he had a “machine”. We took a chance and awaited the machine coffee and were delighted when we saw mugs of frothy cappuccino with a sprinkling of chocolate on top. All for an exorbitant sum of Rs 10!!

Well fortified with food in our bellies, we drove on non stop to Chindi. Naldhera, Seoni, Tattapani, Dhamaur, Chindi. We stopped just once as we climbed the mountainous route to admire the valley below. We were entering the “lesser known Himachal”. No traffic, not a human in sight, the occasional monkey watching as we drove by. The drive to Chindi through the heartland of Himachal is fascinating. Forest and mountains and the ribbon of a road winding through narrow hair pin bends. The road started to dip as we approached Tattapani and touched the river level and then started climbing again. Chindi is paradise tucked away in the beautiful Karsog Valley. The apple valley of Himachal. The pines had been replaced by miles and miles of apple trees. Though bereft of fruit at this time of the year, the valley has its quiet charm and triggers the imagination of even the less romantic. I promised to return in spring to see the riot of colors with the apple blossoms.

The sign board display to the HPTDC’S Hotel Apple Valley Resort Mamleswar was spotted about 9kms prior to the site. The PWD bungalow, also open to public, with its booking office at Karsog, was sighted first. Then awaited us the Swiss chalet type resort on a tiny hillock with a small terrace garden & 3 seater swing…The Apple Valley Resort. The hotel had apple trees all around it. The west wing deluxe room no.204 for Rs800 + 10% tax on the 1st floor just below the pine wood suites (Maharani Suite no.304) was beautiful. Even the ordinary room no.203, next to the deluxe room for Rs750 was very comfortable and large. The difference between the deluxe and the ordinary was that the latter didn’t have a sitting room attached. We upgraded the east side deluxe room which had its view blocked by the roof of the dining hall below. Took the Maharani suite as a birthday treat for Digby. The pinewood paneled room with its sitting room and balcony had a sloping wooden roof. The biggest treat was we were the sole occupants of this lovely hotel on November 4th 2006!

The hotel was landscaped in 3 levels. The entry point where our car was parked on the curb of the road, the 2nd level was the terraced garden and swing along side the dining area and reception and the 3rd level was entry to the rooms with a tiny patch of green in front & old pine trees with a hammock.  After throwing in our luggage, we rushed down to this patch of green where a small tea table & chairs had been set up for us. There were rose bushes all around with roses still blooming and the stray gladioli blooming tall and straight by the hedges. A hammock had been strung up between the pine trees in front of the hotel garden. I lay on the hammock staring at the setting sun over the apple trees and said aloud, I would love to be buried here. It was not a morbid thought but felt with a deep sense of satisfaction as Gerald Durrell had written something about wanting to be buried under the rose bushes in Corfu. An idyll that was Chindi!

We went for a long walk behind the hotel, up Lover’s Hill then down the main winding village road to the local Chindi temple. It was an old structure made of wood and the door had to be pushed open as no one was around. The stray village child, an old man, two women carrying bundles of firewood was all that we saw of the village population. There were three shops near the temple, the village grocer, the improvised saw mill and the local tea stall. We turned back towards the hotel, went past it towards the PWD bungalow 300 meters from the hotel. A long drive in a large house which was shuttered down. The chowkidar looked at us casually and asked no questions as we strolled in and found wooden garden chairs to sit on. We were surrounded by trees, flower beds, flitting colorful butterflies and the long blue tailed Himalayan magpies flying low & gracefully from the branches of one tree to the other. We thought they were swallows initially. All this was set in the back drop of the setting sun. Chindi looked like the artist’s imagination of the Garden of Eden, except there were no apples, the trees were bare.

Chindi to Manali 215 kms 5TH November’06

Though I had suggested the Chindi to Manali via Sundernagar route, the driver wanted to take the shortcut direct to Pandoh, through the state highway and “other” roads. A disastrous choice and we a victim to hours of back breaking driving.

The road from Chindi to Rohanda up to Rohanglu was beautiful. This was the compulsory part of the route to take the turn to the national highway. We drove through dense pine forests, deep valleys and the silence that envelopes the heartland of this magnificent state. At this juncture instead of driving straight towards Mandi through Sundernagar, we took the right turn to Chachyut going by the TTK road map. The road signs showed Chalchauk till we saw a sharp right denoting Chachyut. The road was broken and we actually took a full circle to enter Chalchauk. From this point we followed the road signs to Pandoh. A 30kms drive, through dust, bare mountains, the afternoon scorching sun, barren, cracked lands and dusty trees. The occasional sign of human habitation was the lone one storied villager’s house, drying corn on the rooftop. We had left Chindi at 9.15am anticipating reaching Manali by 3pm. It was 4.30 and we had not even entered the Kullu district.

We reached Manali at 6pm, tired, hungry and disappointed that the Beas looked like a stagnant stream, full of moraine. The hydel power projects had diverted the flow of the river and the Kullu Manali stretch had the beauty of mountains closing in with still expanses of green glacial water brimming at certain points only.

We had our accommodation booked at the Circuit House. This was located across the Mall Road on an acre of land. It must have known better days but at this point, our cottage had tatty carpets, tables and chairs with the ply wood peeling off and a geyser which spouted hot water from both the hot and cold water taps. The market area was a short 1km walk and we had a hot meal of thupa (Tibetan soup) and dim sums at a small local restaurant and retired for an early night. The rod heater was effective and sleep engulfed me as soon as I lay down.

Manali 6th Nov’06

Woke up early, and saw the distant snow clad peaks, peeping through the pine tops. It was a clear day and the circuit house grounds looked lovely. Blue skies and some crimson autumn leaves hung loose on the trees. It was a pleasant 15 degrees temperature.

We decided to go to Kothi (a spot en route to the Rohtang Pass) for a picnic. The MSN web site had predicted a sub zero weather forecast that day. We carried thick jackets and woolen scarves and set off for the day. On the way there were several shops displaying fur coats, hats and boots on hire for Rs100. I laughed at the tourists getting conned into hiring these sets. The day was warming up faster as we drove on. Our Travera was not behaving well and emitting black fumes as the road ascended. The road was broken in parts and the mountains were bare and brown. As we drove on we sited signs saying Kothi’s Café. 22kms of driving through bare mountain tracks we stopped at the café for breakfast. What a breath taking sight awaited us. A medium sized café with an open air sit out, a 360 degrees view of snow sprinkled mountain slopes and cobalt blue cloudless skies above. It was an artist’s dream. The road to Rohtang winding in loops, a lone eagle soaring in the skies,  the mountains and a still silence all around, broken occasionally by the sound of a tourist vehicle heading towards Rohtang. It was too tempting not to head towards the Pass. We were just 37kms away. Hushiar, our driver, was confident that our car could reach the heights without a problem. Later we realized that he did not want to miss the opportunity to see the Rohtang Pass and the car could have had an engine seizure at any point. The turbo engine needs a minimum 20 seconds idling time on starting and shut down. Far from following this procedure, the driver had been revving the engine on switching on the ignition and turning off the power. We chugged slowly up the mountain road, gaining height from 6000ft to 11000 ft. The drive up was beautiful. Past the Rahala falls (the water was a dribble at this time of the year), a wind surfing point with men waiting with a huge red parachute struggling to keep it at bay against the strong wind that swept the mountains, Himalayan eagles soaring in the sky and snow laden slopes visible as we approached closer, after a 21/2 hours drive up. The base of the Rohtang pass had 2 tea stalls and horses for tourists to be taken to the higher levels of the snow field. There had been a snow fall a fortnight ago and we were promised 12 inches of snow sighting if we ventured further. There was a strong chilly breeze blowing and as we stepped out of our car we felt frozen. Digby and I hired 2 horses paying Rs450 each for a trek up to the snowfield. During season time this place is full of tourists. At this time there were only 40 odd around. Going on horse back is no joy ride over boulders and slushy pathways. On reaching the snow field after 25 minutes of clutching on to the reins, we felt like 8 year olds. There was snow every where and we actually made snow balls to throw at each other, oblivious of onlookers. The others around were honeymooners and young couples with children. And here we were in our late forties, giggling like teenagers and feeling good to feel silly. It was freezing cold out there. We should have hired the fur coats and gloves after all.

The journey downhill was faster and so was the return to Manali. We drove to old Manali, to the Vashisth temple area. This temple boasts of hot springs and the out let pipes from the temple were steaming with hot water. The locals were washing kitchen utensils with this water and some were bathing in the enclosed open bath area. Old Manali had its old world charm of narrow lanes, German bakeries, shops and hotels all crowded over each other. It was November and most of the bakeries and hotels were shut. Off season time we were told. Thirsty for a hot coffee we returned to the German bakery on the mall road. It was 4.30pm and in our raptures over Rohtang, we had skipped lunch. We were famished.

The German bakery was a huge disappointment. Coffee was served in glass tumblers and a piece of dry banana cake was Rs50. From the road the shop appeared to be like a European brassiere. In fact it was run down, slightly hippie style of décor, expensive and the service was very poor. We left disgruntled and hungry.

Just 100 meters from the circuit house was the Johnson’s café and hotel. We were wary now of it. The restaurant had an open air cafeteria with checkered table cloths and the restaurant had a cozy look about it. We headed for an early dinner and were delighted with our choice. The waiters were efficient and friendly and the restaurant had log fire heating. The continental food was delicious and the portions generous. Foccacia with cheese and herbed tomatoes for starters, baked trout, smoked chicken for the entrée and a flaky apple crumble with hot custard for dessert. Chocolate cake with walnut sauce was another option. We ordered the whole lot and ate a bit of everything that was served.

Johnson’s Café was not easy on the pocket by Manali standards but highly recommended for a cordon bluer meal.

Manali to Gushaini 7th Nov’06. 3 hrs.

Our plans to stay in Manali for 4 days were altered on the spur of the moment. We were visibly disappointed with the Beas. I had done some research on the Beas circuit and had wanted to add the Tirthan Valley in our itinerary. This area was known for trout fishing and on the Google search on angling; The Himalayan Trout House had popped up. The ideal route should have been through the Jalori Pass, which connects the Shimla district with the Kullu district. Paucity of time had made us delete this destination. Now that we had extra days in hand we decided to go for it. A quick call to Christopher Mitra who ran the Trout House confirmed our stay there. Rs 1600 per couple, with breakfast & one vegetarian meal included.

The route was simple. Drove through to Kullu and after crossing the Pandoh tunnel took a sharp left immediately at the exit point which had a sign board saying Banjara. A 30km drive to Larji towards Banjara and just 2 kms before Banjara there was a sharp left turn to Gushaini. We had to ask the locals for reconfirmation of our track, as we drove along the inner roads of the Tirthan valley. The road was along the Tirthan River which meandered lazily all along. The river was not in full spate which was expected at this time of the year. But it was a river nonetheless. The drive to the Himalayan Trout House was exciting. We had gone off the beaten tourist track and there was not a soul in sight for miles. Just the river, thick vegetation on the mountain slopes and us. A 9km drive from Gushaini and there was Christopher awaiting us at his idyll. The Himalayan Trout House is run by Christopher and his wife Shefali. Chris was an ex school teacher in Delhi and his passion for fly fish angling made him give up the pleasures of a city life and realize his passion and dream in the wilderness of the Tirthan valley. The main house where they stayed had two guest rooms. We were allocated the “mud huts” on a slight elevated hillock, terraced. The mud huts were twin cottages done up tastefully in a rustic style. Red brick walls, wooden rafters, a large 150 sq ft bedroom with a toilet attached. The bathing area had a glass roof, giving an atrium effect. There was a small wood heater for the bedrooms but no running hot water in the bathrooms. The bathroom walls had a rough surface finish with hand painted fish on it. There was a service door on the rear side of the bathroom which was opened to take in hot water provided in buckets. The windows had bamboo blinds and the clean stone floors had pretty durries. The dining area was along side the main house. This was designed on a shamiana style with a central wood fire heater and a tin roof. Leading on from the dining area was a tiny patio with hand made low wooden chairs. Christopher was the architect and his wife, the artist. He had built a play school for his son Kabir and was educating him along with 3 local children. The play school was designed to look like a concrete winding slide from the exterior. It had a tiny door and a couple of windows. It looked like the Old Woman who lived in a Shoe. Except this was not a concrete shoe but a fully equipped play school.

We reached the H.T.House just before lunch. We had coffee sitting on the log chairs and tried to absorb the unique ambience of Gushaini. The host and his wife joined us for a hot home cooked vegetarian meal and asked us to place our order for the a la carte dinner. Smoked trout was the obvious choice.

The beauty of this place was its secluded location, tucked away in the valley, surrounded by cherry, apricot and orange trees. This was not the fruit bearing season, though there were some trees with tiny oranges on them. The river was barely 40 ft away and we gazed at its meandering course, sipping hot coffee under the warm afternoon sun. Gushaini was not cold. It was about 12 degrees at night and a pleasant 22 during the day.

Before sun set we decided to go down to the river and scrambled over huge white boulders and the partially dry river bed. We found some comfortable rocks to sit on and gingerly dipped our fingers into the running water. It was cool to the touch. Here we were down below at the river bed, with tall mountains looming on either side & the silence broken only by the sound of the river flowing. The rocks strewn around were pale jade and white combination. I collected a few to bring back home for my geographer friend, Shoma. Her standing instruction to all her friends is to bring rock samples from our travels.

The day light was sharply dropping. We decided to take a long walk down the main road and follow the course of the river. Although the topographical description of this area is a “valley”, to me it appeared to be a gorge. Steep mountains on both sides and the ribbon of a river cutting through. The trout fishing season had just finished and Christopher informed us that there was a “wily one” hiding under the flat rock where we had been sitting. He knew the trout of his area by name it seemed.

We returned to our mud huts and a warm wood fire was lit by the helper boys. The fire was lit in hand made tin bukharas, of a very thin gauge. The heat was not retained as the dry logs burnt to cinders. Fortunately the night temperature had dropped to only 9 or 10 degrees.

We had dinner of a smoked trout platter and were regaled with stories of fly fish angling by Christopher. The portions in the platter were more than meager but less than ample. The bright log fire in the dining area, the sound of the river flowing and the information about different baits, starting from rabbit ears to fur, kept us wide eyed. We had an early start the next day. The car pick up was giving trouble and we had decided to head back to Delhi. Getting to sleep was easy. We were tired and after adding some fire wood to the dying embers, we slipped into oblivion. After a couple of hours I found myself wide awake. Digby had switched on the lights and was staring at the door which was ajar. City breeding made him jump to the obvious conclusion- some one had broken into our room. We looked around and found the culprit, fast asleep. Curled up next to the warm bukhara was Christopher’s night guard Bholu, a huge black hill dog.

Having shirked his night duty, Bholu woke us up at 5am to be let out and returned to his post.

Breakfast was a choice of Indian parantha and bhaji or eggs, toast & coffee. The cook even asked us if we liked the fried eggs sunny side up.

It was time to leave and we lingered over our coffee as Hushiar loaded our suitcases in the car.

Gushaini to Swarghat 142 Kms 8th Nov’06.  hrs turned to 9

There was hardly any conversation as we started our downward journey to the plains. As if on cue, the car started to protest after every kilometer. The turbo was giving trouble and the silencer pipe threw black fumes. Gushaini, Larji, Pandoh. The familiar names passed by as we approached NH21 and took the route to Mandi. Now our focus was not on the scenery but the health of our car. What should have taken 6 hours took us 9; as we limped to Swarghat at 6pm. fortunately we got the last 2 vacant rooms at the HPTDC Hotel Hill Top. The hotel was right on the highway and a convenient overnight transit stop.

Swarghat to Delhi 9th Nov’06

The journey back with a crippled car was not the befitting end to the marvel that was the lesser known Himachal. We thanked our guardian angel that the outbound trip was without any hiccups. We reached Chandigarh and called for another car. Our flight was at 7pm from Delhi & it was nearing 2pm. We bid farewell to Hushiar at Chandigarh, gifted him with our jumpers & shawls which we would certainly never use in Mumbai. With a lighter load to carry we sped towards Delhi…

P.S. we had done a lot of internet surfing to draw up our itinerary. Some of the pages we saw were: 1)     www.hptdc.nic.in 2)     www.Mapmyindia.com 3)     www.IndiaMike.com 4)     www.himachaltourism.gov.in 5)     and of course a thorough study of the ttk Discover India Series Road Guide to Himachal Pradesh.