Monday, July 30, 2007

Himachal Diary

Nestled between Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, is the state of Himachal Pradesh. It lies in the lap of the majestic Himalayas and is often called Dev Bhumi (land of the Gods). Characterized by pristine woods, majestic snow capped mountains, rapidly flowing mountain streams, and beautiful and hospitable people, Himachal has something for everyone. Blessed with some of the most spectacular and beautiful landscapes anywhere, it is a travelers' paradise. Lofty snow peaks, deep gorges, lush green valleys, fast flowing rivers, enchanting mountain lakes, flower bedecked meadows, beautiful temples and monasteries steeped in time, Himachal has it all.

I had been thirsting to visit Himachal for a long time, and when opportunity presented itself in the form of an invitation from a friend to spend one week with him in the pristine locales of Himachal, it was too good to resist. After applying for and getting a week of leave from my office, I set off on a voyage of discovery. As it turned out, the voyage of 8 days, across a 1500 km route, with mind blowing scenery and back breaking roads, changed my life in more ways than one. We started off on the 16th of June and returned back on the 24th.

16th June :

Caught an early morning flight from Pune to New Delhi. The flight landed at 11:30 am due to delays in landing, but we were left with sufficient time to have lunch and navigate to ISBT (Kashmiri Gate), in time to catch the 4 pm bus to Recong Peo, capital of Kinnaur district. The weather Gods were kind to us, and Delhi was much less hot than it usually is, around that time. In fact it had rained just the day before, and puddles of water were visible in certain parts of the town. The bus itself was an HPTDC one, which while not in the league of a Volvo, was comfortable enough.

17th June :

The crescent shaped capital city of Shimla had arrived sometime in the night, and when we woke up early morning, around 6 am, we were already in the laps of high mountains. The majestic Sutlej was to keep us company for several hours. Beautiful river, dramatic landscapes! We reached Karchham around 10 am in the morning, and wishing to start our itinerary with the enchanting Sangla Valley, we got down from the bus there. From Karchham to Sangla is an hours journey by bus or car, but since buses were infrequent, and we had missed the previous one by a few minutes, we decided to hire a Tata Sumo.

Sumos ply on a shared basis, between the two points regularly, but the drivers are loath to commence, until they get at least 10 passengers, the fare being a paltry Rs 30 per person. Not wanting to wait till the requisite 10 passengers arrived, we struck a deal with the driver. We would rent out the entire vehicle, and pick up what passengers could be found on the way and once we reach Sangla, we would compensate the driver for whatever shortfall he incurred. As it turned out we picked up 7 more passengers on the way, and we had to pay up only 90 bucks for the 2 of us.

A house in beautiful Sangla

It was nearly 12 noon by the time we reached our destination. We had booked a double bed room in Prakash hotel, with geyser, TV and a nice view for 800 per night (taxes not included). After a lunch of aloo paratha and mixed veg, we set out for exploring. Two kilometers downhill was the lovely Baspa river, surrounded by several mountain peaks, most of them heavily forested and some of them snow capped.

18th June :

We set off early (or as early as one can get up on a holiday), and started towards the market. Located a kilometer downhill from our hotel, we could see a lot of construction activities going on. Migrant labourers from far off places like Bihar and West Bengal frequently come here in search of work, and since heavy snowfall post October prevents outsiders from staying here, they finish off their work by September and leave.

The river Baspa in Sangla

We had a brunch of delicious steamed momos (a large plate of 10 for Rs 30) and veg noodles in Tibetan cafe and we were all set for a day's exploration. Apple orchards and lush green alpine orchards were enough to keep us enchanted, and further ahead was the beautiful Baspa river with crystal clear water. We tried climbing some mountain peaks and were rewarded for our efforts with some breathtakingly scenic views.

19th June :

We left for our next destination - Kalpa. Since no direct transport was available for Kalpa, we had to improvise. We took a cab to Karchham and at Karchham boarded a bus to Recong Peo. From Recong Peo, we boarded another bus that would take us to Kalpa. We had booked an HPTDC hotel room in Kalpa, which was so far from the Bus Stand that it took the better part of an hour to reach there, along with much effort, considering the heavy travel kits we were saddled with. But the climb was well worth it. At Rs 1200 for a night, the room was fabulous, with a king sized bed, carpeted room, TV and a captivating view.

A visual from breathtaking Kalpa

Kalpa is located at an altitude of 2759 m and also offers some fantastic early morning views of the Kinner Kailash. According to legends, Kalpa is the winter abode of Shiva and all the gods of Kinnaur assemble before him during this time for an annual conference. And when the supreme god himself seems to be so impressed by the beauty of Kalpa, how can human beings be far behind?

20th June :

Time to leave for Kaza. This journey necessitated getting up at 5:30 in the morning to catch the 7:00 am bus from Recong Peo. As the bus left Recong Peo we soon left the green, forested hills and got on a narrow, bumpy path that was to stay with us for the next 8 hours. The landscape was bleak, desolate and harsh and miles would pass by before we would see any human. On the way we saw several glaciers, many of which were progenitors of mountain streams, which would coalesce hundreds of miles away to form distributories of the river Indus.

The harsh and barren landscape of Kaza

At Kaza too we stayed in an HPTDC hotel (which was named rather unimaginatively, Hotel Kaza). Kaza being remote, and located at a very high altitude, had a topography similar to Ladakh – barren, arid and desolate. But it had a charm all of its own. On the flip side, power supply was in acute shortage, and on the second day of our stay, we encountered a power cut of 10 hours duration. Water too was scarce, and the hotel staff would supply us water in buckets.

21st June :

Spent most of the day exploring the unique topography of Kaza on foot. As neither of us had been to Ladakh, Kaza held a novelty for us. Trees were a rarity, and we learned from the locals that post October, the roads to Kaza are blocked due to heavy snowfall and landslide. To deal with the next 6 months of seclusion, the inhabitants of Kaza hoard supplies of essential commodities, including food items and medicines, and wait for the winter to get over.

22nd June:

Our next and final stop was Manali. After making enquiries we came to know that there were two Manali bound buses from Kaza, one at 4:30 in the morning, and the other at 7:30. Not wanting to waste our time sleeping, we decided to board the earlier bus. The bus was going to pass in front of our hotel at 4:45 which spared us the trouble of going to the bus stand so early in the morning.

The journey to Manali took us through some of the remotest places I have ever seen. The journey from Recong Peo to Kaza paled into insignificance compared to this one. We passed through roads that were so close to icebergs that we could extend our hands out of the windows and touch them. And midway through the journey was the famous Rohtang pass. Located 4120 metres above sea level, it was snow covered and choc-a-bloc with tourists of all hues – honeymooning couples, families, hikers and students. For honeymooning couples, writing their names on snow seemed to be a favorite activity.

Manali was only 51 kms from Rohtang and after a brief halt for lunch, we sped towards our final destination. We reached Manali at 5 in the evening. Our hotel - another HPTDC outlet, called Hotel Beas, because surprise, surprise it was located on the banks of the mighty river Beas - was very close to the Bus Stand and due to traffic congestion on the bridge we were able to get down just at the gates of the Hotel.

23rd June :

The sound of the river Beas was a constant companion to us during our stay at Manali. The constant gushing sound of the river, which is very different from the slam dang sound of an ocean, acted as a therapeutic on our senses. By now the realization had set in that our journey was about to end, and that realization made the remaining few hours even more precious.

We caught a paraglider on camera en route to Manali

The morning was spent visiting the Hidimba temple, which was 2 odd kms from our hotel. Despite a variety of transport facilities available, we preferred to walk down there. Majestic Deodar and pine trees shaded the entire journey, and the temple itself was breathtakingly beautiful, built in the Tibetan style. However, the temple being a favorite tourist spot, there was a long queue for darshan. Being short of time we could not afford to spend too long to get inside so we decided to skip going inside the shrine. Also close by, was Ghatotkach temple (the son of Hidimba and Bhim, for the uninitiated), which again we had to skip for the aforementioned reason.

Manali pleasantly surprised me as a hill station, because I was under the impression that popular tourist spots in India (particularly hill stations), quickly degenerate into crowded, unaesthetic places, with plastic bags and garbage strewn all around. Manali was surprisingly clean and very green. The roads were spotless and devoid of any garbage, the tourist spots were well maintained, and there was no rampant deforestation to cater to the obviously large no of tourists frequenting the place. This was thanks in no small measure to the initiatives taken by the local people and the government. Manali was a treat for the eyes. The only problem I saw was with traffic congestion, due to narrow roads, but I am sure this is something that can be worked out with dedicated effort.

The return journey

23rd evening and it was time to return. We took a DTC Volvo from Manali to Delhi (the tickets had to be booked in advance) and reached Delhi around 10 am the next morning after a relatively uneventful journey. Needless to say, the journey back was anticlimactic and not unmixed with sorrow. The weather Gods were kind to us on our return as well, and we did not get to suffer the famed scorching heat of Delhi.

I caught the return flight to Pune in the afternoon, and while landing I noticed that Pune had been visited by the rain Gods in my absence. There was a wet and green look pervading the city landscape, which helped lift up my gloomy mood by a bit.

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