Thursday, 20 August 2009

Memories of Himachal

According to many travellers, of all the mountains in India, the beauty of the mountains in Himachal Pradesh is the most spellbinding. From my little travel experience I will agree with all that is said in praise of the Himachal. It is here that you find nature in abundance, snow capped mountains, green valleys, beautiful lakes, fruits orchards; they can leave you mesmerized. Apart from bounties of nature there are many temples in many parts of Himachal; this varied mix of attractions draw diverse tourists to this region.

I've been to Kalka, Shimla, Kulu and Manali and I'd love to revisit these places! I think the feelings are the same with my family as well; we took this trip together.

We took the Rajdhani Express from Howrah Station to go to Delhi. After reaching Delhi we checked into Hotel Ranjit, a nice 3-star hotel. The next day we took the Kalka Mail from Delhi station to go to Kalka to start our journey to the beautiful Himachal. We chose to go to Kalka as the town is situated on the foothills of Himalayas and is an entry point to Himachal Pradesh.

The next morning after reaching Kalka station, my father quickly went and booked tickets for the four of us on the toy train to Shimla. I had travelled on a toy train when I was a kid, in Darjeeling. But, I hardly remembered anything about that trip. Therefore, the toy train ride was something I was very excited about.

"The toy train connects Kalka at a height of 656 meter to Shimla at 2076 meter from mean sea level. The coaches are equipped with reversible cushioned chairs, foldable table for serving food, wall-to-wall carpeting and wide glass windows. Windows can be opened. There are toilets in each compartment. The train starts climbing the hill within five minutes of starting the journey. With a speed of not more than 25 Km / hour it reaches Shimla." All this was part of the write up that we picked from the ticket booking counter!

I don’t remember how much the tickets cost but I do remember that they were very reasonably priced, especially, considering the breathtaking view and experience that one could enjoy during the train ride. We managed to get the deluxe tickets as we were a little too late for the fancier version of the compartments. Nonetheless, we were happy with our compartment. We had a few foreigners travelling with us. It was nice to see the kind of enthusiasm that people from the west show to know about our country

The railway track between Kalka and Shimla is the only meter gauge track opened in India. The distance of 96 KM between Shimla and Kalka passes through 102 tunnels and 87 bridges. There are around 900 curves and sharpest curve is of 48 degree. All this data was in the pamphlet we had with us. I tried counting the number of tunnels we passed. After some time I lost track. It was a five hour journey. Outside the train the sight was beautiful, throughout the journey there were beautiful valleys and hills.

After passing through tunnels, rivers and valleys we finally reached Shimla which is the last stop for this train and end of the rail track. It was still morning and quite crowded. Coolies (porters) came running to carry the luggage. My parents spoke to a couple of them and handed the luggage to the most reasonable one. These coolies can fleece you if you don’t handle them carefully.

The main city of Shimla was a little higher in level from the train station. There were two options, either to take a taxi taking a longer route or walk uphill a little. We decided to walk up as we thought it would be fun climbing the mountain road; this is a rare experience for people from the plains. My sister and I paced along with the coolie, but my parents found it a little hard climbing. So, we stopped at a point for a little while and resumed climbing till we reached the main road.

We hadn’t booked any hotel in advance. My parents love unplanned trips. I am the kind of person who would rather have the hotel room booked. There was no point in getting into an argument, so I got around walking with them. Fortunately, we met one agent on the way and he showed us a really nice hotel. It was called Hotel Gulmarg, a budget hotel, but it had facilities of a good hotel. So, we chose to stay there.

We booked a taxi for our entire trip to Kulu, Manali and back to Kalka. The driver took us around Shimla. What makes Shimla distinct compared to other hill stations is its colonial charm. While driving around we saw stylish buildings, beautiful gardens, a beautiful mall with British style buildings; on the whole, a beautiful place to be.

We went to Manali from here and it was the most interesting and exciting part of the trip. It was my first experience in a land covered with snow.

The road to Manali was quite dangerous. We drove along River Beas almost all the way. The driver told us that the course of the river keeps changing and rocks from the mountains keep tumbling down, making the roads dangerous for driving. Though we understood that the journey could be dangerous our spirits could not be deterred. Work to repair the bank of the river was in progress. Throughout the journey we ensured that the driver drove slowly, and I kept looking out in order to see if any rock was tumbling down or not. Looking back, what could I have done to save ourselves! Fortunately, nothing happened to us nor did we see any accident on the way.

It was afternoon when we reached Manali. We went past a few tiled roof houses and stopped to ask the way to the mall. Since we had been travelling for a long time all of us got off the car. As we stepped out we saw something like foam on the ground and on the roofs of the houses. To figure out what it was we moved a little ahead and saw some more lying on the ground. I went up and stamped on it only to realise that it was snow. Oh my God, that was snow! One had to see me, my mother and my sister, as to how crazily excited we were finding snow all around. The locals said that it snowed after many years at this time of the year. Guess we were really lucky!

We found a hotel as we drove past the mall. A little away from the crowd, yet not so far to feel lonely, laced with the bounty of nature. The hotel did not look very fancy, looked more of a house. It was made out of wood, somewhat like a cottage from the fairy tales. By the time we checked in and went to our rooms I had already fallen in love with this place.

We freshened up and rested a little and after having a snack we went to the mall. There were lines of shops on one side, there were some vendors on the streets, and there was somewhat like a camp on another side. We went all around to check things out. I picked up T-shirts with Tibetan designs on them and some junk jewellery which my friends had ordered for. My parents also bought some souvenir for friends and family.

The next morning when I got up I lazily pulled the curtain while still tossing and turning on the bed, with no idea about what I was about to see. You have to be lucky to see a sight like that. Outside the big glass window I saw the pristine snow covered mountain shining in all its splendour. It seemed as if our room was cradled by the mountain. It was such a beauty that it could only be captured by the camera of the mind. I have managed to preserve that picture in my mind, and I wish it stays forever.

After breakfast we set out to go to see more snow. The driver suggested that we go to a place called Solang as going to Rohtang pass was not possible because of the heavy snowfall. On the way to Solang we drove past Vashishth, a small peaceful town on the other side of the river from about 3 km from Manali. Many foreign travelers stay here, some, for long periods too. There are a few small temples, Hidimba temple being the most famous, and some hot springs for bathing. I heard from some friends that good quality hash is sold here, in fact, there is hash plantation all around. Some of them even tried to convince me to bring some for them; I very strongly refused.

We reached Solang in a couple of hours and we literally got off on snow. This place was ideal for skiing, though we didn’t see too many people around. We were not prepared to experience snow like this; therefore, we did not have appropriate footwear with us. We found a stall renting out gumboots and jackets. Since that was the only choice we had we chose to take the boots on rent, not paying heed to who all may have worn them earlier.

We played in the snow like children, all four of us, making snow balls and throwing at each other a lot like what we saw in old Hindi movies. Just that in the movies the locations were either Kashmir or Switzerland, for us it was Manali.

Our next destination was Kulu, a quiet, beautiful valley. We thoroughly enjoyed the drive to get to Kulu. Since we had been travelling constantly for about a week, Kulu turned out to be a great place to relax and rest.

After spending a couple of days in Kulu we drove back to Kalka, from where we took the train to Delhi. We stopped over at Mandi for lunch, yet another lovely place! Of all the places I visited in the trip, Manali turned out to be my favourite!