With a sigh of relief I boarded a DTC coach at the Sector-43 bus stand in Le Corbusier’s city beautiful! I had finished my work two days ahead of schedule and could now head for my favourite destination - the ever-beckoning hills of Himachal. It was a Tuesday afternoon when I commenced my journey and had time only till Thursday evening to whet my appetite for the hills. I was booked on Friday’s Rajdhani from New Delhi to Mumbai.
The Gods have an extra fondness for this land of five rivers and the granary of India was at its best. Roopnagar, Kiratpur - those delightful Punjab towns with their typical houses, lanes, shops and of course dhabas - passed in quick succession and then the bus started its ascent into Himachal. I was now travelling through an intrinsically mountainous region; unique in its Himachali character - a concept easy enough to understand for the Himachal buff, but difficult to explain. The landscape was extremely beautiful: the serpent-like road sandwiched between a forest on one side and a deep valley on the other; a small lake or reservoir trying to make its presence felt amongst awesome mountains which in turn played host to the simple folk in their simpler dwellings. The cool mountain air, causing the trees to sing, was a bonus!
Twilight saw me descend on the pretty Sundernagar and just when Edison’s gift to mankind started dotting the horizon, came the first hint of rain! What began as a harmless pitter-patter soon assumed gigantic proportions and accompanied by that very unique fragrance of wet earth, the heavens burst. People scurried for cover, road-side vendors desperately tried to cover their wares, animals tried to share a roof with humans and children-gloriously naked- took to the streets in wild abandon! The icing on the cake was provided by a mist that came up suddenly and swiftly from the valley and enveloped all in its passionate embrace! The bus came to a grinding halt, visibility having been reduced to near zero. For a while time seemed to stand still, then the mist lifted as suddenly as it had appeared and things returned to normal. It was a sweet reminder, if one was needed, that man is totally impotent against nature!
I reached Mandi; that delightful gateway to Kullu valley and my intended halt for the night; amidst a light drizzle. Willingly wet and cold, I checked into Hotel Mandav, one of a large chain of hotels run by Himachal Tourism (HPTDC). I must add that with HPTDC, hospitality is indeed a way of life and their service may put many a star hotel to shame. Courtesy and promptness are second nature to them, in stark contrast to the stiff upper lip (euphemistically termed “professional”) attitude of most other hotels (higher the star, stiffer is the lip!), whose services improve dramatically when their guest is about to depart!
Daylight streaming in through the window broke my sleep at 5 O’clock the next day and I sauntered on to the terrace to be confronted by an incredible sight! Down below was unrolled a huge green carpet: a maidan, locally termed “chogun”, surrounded by the main roads of the town. The ground was circumferenced by some of the pretty trees of Himachal; the elderly in their traditional costumes and colourful caps were enjoying their early morning stroll, youngsters were enjoying a game of volleyball and a couple of horses was helping itself to the abundant grass. There were hills on all sides of the town, some providing home to the locals, others to the pines and deodars! On the left was a small stream, running through the town. It was so heavenly and peaceful that I regretted the paucity of time in allowing the ambience to sink in.
From Pandoh the serpentine mountain road became narrower and the bubbling river came closer, as if challenging me to jump into its inviting arms and in such a situation, with our driver covering the bends at almost 60 kmph, I almost ended up accepting the invitation! For the driver it must have been routine, but I had my heart in my mouth at times! The Kullu valley starts from Bajaura, a cute village 15 kms. before Kullu and 28 kms. from my destination. Bajaura houses the Bhuttico shawl weavers’ association and from here the valley extended on either side of the road, giving way to lovely fields and pushing the naughty river away. I was now passing between lush green fields, which housed the compact dwellings of the local folk. Mountains on either side also housed some dwellings resembling tiny dots. I wondered how people managed to reside on a mountain with seemingly no access from terra firma and admired their courage at willingly leading a hard life. The scenery was so magnificent, that I pinched myself a couple of times to ascertain that such a place existed on our planet. To the city dweller - brought up in an environment of cement, concrete, dust, sweat and exhaust fumes; not to mention a sea of humanity; - the Kullu valley was no less than heaven. In the cities we exist, in Kullu valley they live!
Passing through picturesque Kullu town with its famous Dussehra grounds, colourful markets and tiny dhabas offering mouth-watering parathas with curd; I reached Raison with the now calm and sweet Beas rejoining us. Raison offers adventure sports like river rafting, ballooning and camping, in summer. I finally reached Katrain, one of the lesser known but more beautiful of Himachal’s gems. This quaint little village is hardly half a mile long and half a mile wide but easily surpasses its better-known siblings in serenity and simplicity! The village is surrounded by apple and plum orchards housing cute wooden dwellings and on either side stand great mountains, guarding this little hamlet. To the north one gets a glimpse of snow-clad peaks, one of the best sights in life! From the main road I followed a pretty, cobbled path in the direction of the river and within seconds reached HPTDC’s Cottage River-View, an old stone bungalow converted into a hotel. The location of the cottage was as follows: facing the cottage was a great line of verdant mountains (east), to the left towered a snow-clad peak standing out amongst other mountains (north), at the rear -beyond the orchards- loomed another line of great mountains (west) and to the right lay the Kullu valley, partially hidden (south)! As the hotel was situated at some height, I went up to the front compound wall to view the river and what a sight it was! The blue Beas, flowing from left to right between the cottage and the facing mountain, amidst marble white stones and rocks, provided a striking contrast to the surrounding greenery! I could have just stood and stared for hours, without tiring. Moving away from the compound wall and returning to the cottage, I lost sight of the river but its ominous flowing roar was a constant reminder of its presence. I brought out one of the chairs from the room and easing myself into it on the verandah, surrendered myself to nature!
It was late afternoon, when, after persuading myself to leave the comfort of the chair, I took a simple stroll through the orchards, trying to imagine the scene when the trees would be full of the delicious fruits. Occasionally I came upon a bunch of bright schoolboys and giggly schoolgirls with cheeks as red as apples, staring at me. They probably thought I must be mad, to have been wandering aimlessly! In a sense they were right, for I was indeed mad after Himachal! As I returned to the cottage I saw a group of kids enjoying a game of cricket in the abundant compound of the adjoining cottage. To my delight, the kids invited me to have a go! I had a whale of a time - it is not everyday that one is fortunate to enjoy a game of cricket (or any game) in such a setting: near a flowing river, sandwiched between mountain ranges and with a snow-clad peak towering in the background! It mattered least that I was run-out for nought!
Towards late evening the sky darkened and to my utter joy a light drizzle started. This was all that was needed to make my stay at Katrain a rewarding one. Within minutes the scene changed dramatically, like the changing of a set on stage. The mountains turned gray, the snow-clad peak vanished, the river turned a nasty brown and a light mist started rising. The clouds descended; came lower than the mountains; and presented a stupendous sight ! I was now convinced that I was indeed in heaven and the term “Abode of the Gods” made complete sense!
I left Himachal that evening with a heavy heart but also with a promise to return.