Back after my trip to beautiful Himachal. It was short but a truly memorable one.
We set off on the Bengali New Year's Day (15th April) from the Chitpore/Kolkata Station and travelled for almost two days to this small station in Punjab called Chakki Bank near Pathankot. Unlike the dreary ride we had imagined, and in spite of the temperamental Jammu Tawi train (which has a habit of stopping in the middle for nowhere quite frequently and apparently for no reason at all!) and the terrible train food (roti-dal-rice and terrible tasting curries for lunch AND dinner for two days!), we met interesting people and saw some great sights (try peacocks and nilgais and vast fields of corn and golden wheat!)
From Chakki, we took a taxi to Pathankot station. From there, we rode the early morning toy train (on a single gauge rail) across mountains, picturesque rivers and mountain streams and fields of green wheat to Palampur. Do not let anyone dissuade you from this 5-6 hrs ride – yes, the train is crowded with locals and often overbearingly so, but it is so worth it. You should not miss out the amazing scenery on offer and the locals are a fun (and mercifully clean) lot. Our attempts to photograph everything caused them huge amusement and we had to hear some good natured jibes. The women are impeccably dressed and the men at least make an effort to be clean; the kids are an absolute delight with bright eyes and lively curiosity about everything. There is a general feeling of camaraderie and do not be surprised if you end up carrying someone's bags or clutching a couple of babies!
From Palampur, it was a short one hour drive to Mcleodganj. We had already seen the Dhauladhar from the train and now was the time for a formal introduction! The snowcapped multihued hills made for a wonderful backdrop to each day we spent in the area. And it was a different Dhauladhar we saw every day. One day shrouded in clouds and mists, distant and unreachable and another day, resplendent in its own overwhelming beauty – bright and sparkling, green or blue or mauve and twenty other shades in between.
We stayed at Mcleodganj for a couple of days, first at the heritage HPTDC Hotel Bhagsu and then at the non-descript Hotel Annexe nearby. Mcleodganj offered a heady taste of the Tibetan subculture in the area. The quirky town is essentially rustic but with cafes and souvenir shops catering to the mostly foreign crowds at every corner. The Namgyal Monastery is the nerve centre of the town, the residence of the Dalai Lama when he is in India. The population consists of mostly expat Tibetans, a smattering of Punjabis and local Himachalis and Europeans of all denominations with a healthy number of Americans. From "tourist-types" to hippies and scholars to lotus-eaters – Mcleodganj has something for everyone. The shopping is phenomenal – with a variety of Tibetan and Tibetan-inspired junk and silver ware, colourful beads, hunks of quartz, clothes ranging from the curious to the truly functional, incenses, herbs and spices, woolens in a variety of styles, quilts, bags, umbrellas, rucksacks etc. The prices are inflated but the quality is more or less standard. There are charities all around mainly running on foreign funds and catering to all manner of Tibetan causes – hospitals, children's SOS villages etc.
The food scene is eclectic to say the least. Not surprisingly, Vegetarianism is major and European (and Continental-inspired) cuisine is very popular. Of course, Tibetan momo-makers sit with their steamers and woks and a range of fragrant momos at every street corner. Be sure to ask for spicy food at the restaurants since almost everything is cooked bland to cater to European taste buds. Try the Tibetan thukpa and the aubergine Parmagiana Pizza at the Pema Thang, and the bruschetta and thenthuk (basically a flat noodle variety of the thukpa) at the Tibet Kitchen. Also recommended is the sweet non-alcoholic fruit beer and the delicious hot ginger-lemon-honey drink we had at both these places. Do try the lafik (vegetarian pancakes smeared with spicy red chili paste and spring onions) from the stylish lady who sits in front of the new monastery building every afternoon. I also had a fantastic spinach quiche and chocolate cake at Nick's Italian Café. Mcleod's central square area is also home to a number of confectioneries with tempting desserts overloading their shelves. However, I would suggest that you visit the Tibet bakery near the Post Office and try the innovatively named chocolate Nanoma Bar and the Chocolate and Yak Cheese cake. We breakfasted at Sharma's Tea Stall near the Bhagsu with delicious hot aloo parathas and piping hot milky chai. The German Bakery near the Bhagsu Falls is also recommended for their yummy sandwiches.
With Mcleod as our base, we visited the nearby Bhagsu Nag Temple and accompanying Bhagsu Falls. It is a relatively easy hike to the waterfall – even someone as hopelessly unfit as me was able to make it to the base of the falls. My fitter friends trekked to the very top of the falls. As par the course, there are cafes tucked into every conceivable corner here as well. We enjoyed our sandwiches and dipped our feet into the icy water in front of one of these cafes. The cafes offer free seating and even have a cache of books (we saw Osho's Sex and the Superconcious at one!) which you can enjoy at no additional cost.
From Bhagsu Falls, we went to this trail called Triund, and managed to walk to the halfway point. My trekker friends made the whole trip to the top the next day. The road is motorable, at least to the halfway point but it's a thrill walking the mountain paths lined with pines and rhododendrons and breathing in the cool mountain air. From there, we drove to the church of St John in the Wilderness. The church is a small one but it has beautiful stained glass windows. There is a small but well maintained cemetery as well. You should be able to spot the memorial for Lord Elgin, which has been declared as a heritage landmark, here. The paths are lined with beautiful iris just coming into bloom.
From Mcleod, we motored to Lake Parashar in Mandi. Our driver was the young and infinitely patient Amit. We were really lucky to have him with us. He never speeded, was extremely polite and very very considerate of most of our photographic requests!
It's a good 6-7 hrs drive to the lake which is located above the snow line. The roads are mostly fine except for the last ten kilometers or so which were broken or were just slightly better than cattle tracks. We had booked rooms at the Forest Rest House there, which is one of the three rest houses in the area. There is almost no other local population here. There is an ancient 13th century temple dedicated to Parashar, father of Veda Vyasa who wrote the Mahabharat.
We were caught in a hailstorm the evening that we reached there. It was a fantastic experience seeing hail stones fall and cover everything in white. This also meant that the temperature dropped quite a bit and we had to spend a chilly night! Do note, there are no local eateries here and you have to request the caretaker specially for your meals. The nearest market is quite some distance away and since they have to foot it down there, it's best to give them ample notice of your arrival. Santoshji kept us well fed with parathas for lunch and a simple but delicious spread of rotis, dal, rice and cauliflower sabzi for dinner. There are also frequent power cuts in the area. Luckily the caretaker was kind enough to fix the electricity for us (I think he was concerned about our lack of warm clothes and our chattering teeth rather than our pathetic threats that without the heater, he would wake up to 3 kulfis the next morning!).
The next morning was a complete surprise with achingly bright blue skies and a warm sun! My friends trekked to the lake and saw the beautiful lake and temple. I was not brave enough to test what seemed essentially like goat tracks, so I plonked myself on one of the benches outside the rest house and marveled at the Dhauladhar which seemed to be at arm's length!
Later we drove down to Barot, famous for trout fishing (in season of course) and a bird reserve. The drive was fabulous, once again the 6-7 hours passed before we realized.
Surrounded on all sides by mountains, Barot is a valley with a river running through it. We were booked into the Sachin Homestay here, which did not have much going for it except for the fact that it had a divine view of the river and a spotless loo! Not sure how long the view would be there since there was some construction already underway. We were not offered any dinner here but were treated to cups of tea on arrival. Since this was not trout fishing season, the village was relatively empty and very peaceful. You can walk down a goat track to the river below or enjoy a walk to the reserved forest and see the tragopans and partridges.
The morning after was spent in bird watching and long walks till we finally left at around noon for Chakki Bank. On the way there, we managed to locate a nursery near Palampur and bought a number of plants for the folks back home – including cucumber, tomatoes and roses!