Himachal Calling: The Land of the Mountain Gods
As the Pachim Express chugged out of the Bandra Terminus, excitements were clearly beaming in our faces. Our sojourn was to - the Land of the Devas - Himachal Pradesh, nested amidst the majestic snow clad Himalayas.
Sharing our AC- 3 tire compartment were a mixed bag of co-passengers - a "happily married" Punjabi couple with their mischievous little two-year old kid along with their sweet five-years-old daughter. A highly energized elderly person probably in his late sixties and a middle age man who cozily tucked himself to his allotted upper berth for maximum time of the journey accompanied us too. Unseen and unknown to each other till that moment, the ice was gradually broken as the train chugged ahead.
Soon our hesitant smiles made way for healthy discussion with topics ranging from cricket controversy to politics. Each time as the pitch of our discussion heightened, it was invariably silenced by the shrieks of our Punjabi co-passenger's naughty little brat. His every demand was meekly attended to by his ever caring parents - a sure spoiler on the making!
From Steam to Chip!
Our decision to undertake this hilly outing was not planned - it just happened all of a sudden. Till 9 pm of the previous night, we debated whether to travel up North or down South. Impulsive as I'm, recall calling up our friend Hari in Chennai that we might be visiting the city and from there visit either Ooty or Kodaikanal. Browsing through the Indian Railways website, we could not find any available ticket for a Southern sojourn for the next day, so Mitali, my wife, started checking ticket availability status for the North.
But which destination in North was the next question. Finally, we zeroed down our choice to Himachal Pradesh. I could see her facial expression dampen as she could not find ticket availability on the Mumbai-Delhi route, with her eyes constantly fixed to the laptop monitor. Finally, I suggested her why not try the Chandigarh route and as destiny had perhaps planned, to our heart's content, she discovered two vacant berths in the Pachim Express that goes to the Kalka Station.
Immediately, she blocked an e-ticket to Chandigarh and we took the print outs of our virtual railway e-tickets. Technology has surely become a true enabler; no longer is the need to stand in long queues for hours on end in the railway reservation center. Just sit down in the comforts of your home and procure your ticket to ride - courtesy the Internet. Thanks Lalu - Indian Railways has truly covered quite a distance from steam to chip! (Lalu Prasad Yadav is the Indian Railway Minister).
Similarly, we blocked our return journey tickets on the Rajdhani Express from Delhi. The tickets being taken care of, we now needed to pack our baggage. Going up the mountains means extra load of warm wears. Pulling out the long jackets and heavy pullovers and not to forget the monkey caps and the mufflers, we geared ourselves to match the expected snow and rain away from the heat and dust of Mumbai. Our packing continued late into the night as we didn't wanted to leave anything for the morning. Well past midnight our bags were finally packed; we had our dinner and called it a night.
Finishing the last minute errands the next morning, we took a Cool Cab and asked our Sardarji friend behind the wheels to hurry us to the Bandra Terminus. We were a little late to start from home and I was literally behind his back and kept pleading him to hit the accelerator. Pachim Express leaves Bandra Terminus at 11.35 am and it was already 10.55 am when we were trudging through the Sion traffic after passing smoothly through the Eastern Express Highway. Finally, we reached Bandra Terminus at 11.25 am and hurried to our coach A7.
Best Punjabi Ride Ever!
Chugging through parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Delhi, and Punjab, our train screeched to a halt in Chandigarh station at 3.45 pm the next afternoon. The moment we boarded down and made our way out of the platform, we were hounded by cab and auto drivers each promising the best Punjabi ride ever! We finally obliged to an innocent looking auto driver who promised us to take us to the bus terminus.
But hardly driving through for about five to six minutes, he stopped in front of a palatial building and announced that the bus to Manali goes from here at 7.30 pm in the evening. As I walked into the reception I realized that it was a hotel and a well-built north Indian named Mr. Sethi greeted me.
He informed me that a deluxe bus to Manali will be leaving from the hotel gate at 7.30 pm and meanwhile we can check into a room and freshen up. "Ideally the room tariff is Rs. 1200 but since you'll be staying for only about 3 hours, I'll charge you Rs. 400. And as far as hotel booking in Manali we can get it done from here. Food, lodging, and sightseeing included. I'll give you the package in Rs. 4500 for four nights for a couple. Moreover, you'll have chauffeured driven Santro car to take you around," Mr. Sethi said.
I informed him that my preference would be a cottage type accommodation a little away from the hustle and bustle of the central mall. To my delight he said, "We have cottage type accommodation situated one and half kilometer from the main mall." He showed me a brochure of the cottage type accommodation. The cottage in its idyllic setting portrayed in the brochure looked appealing but I told him that I'll decide after discussing it with my wife.
Checking into the room, we freshened up and since we had about two hours to spare, decided to visit the famous Rock garden of Chandigarh. Hired a cab and drove about six kilometer to be amidst a rocky surrounding situated in Sector 4. The rock garden is indeed an artistic marvel created by Nek Chand. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it was build entirely out of industrial waste and thrown-away items. Figurines ranging from humans to animals, abstract objects to artificial waterfalls all adorn this rocky jungle. After spending about an hour, we speeded off to the posh Sector 17 market. Doing some window shopping and some actual last minute shopping , we headed back to the hotel only to realize that the bus does not goes from there and we have to go to the bus station to catch our so called luxury bus.
A Back Breaking Bargain!
As we were leaving the hotel, Mr Sethi again approached me and inquired about my nod to his package in Manali. I bargained and managed to bring down his package rate to Rs. 4000 for four nights and paid him Rs. 1000 as advance. Of course, I added the condition that if the place is not what it is suppose to be, I'll move out and arrange my own accommodation in some other resort. He provided me a receipt of Rs. 1000 and gave a mobile number of Raju, his local contact in Manali, with the promise that he would be there with the car to pick us up at the bus stop. Contemplating that it was a good bargain, we boarded a cab and rushed to the bus station to finally take us away to Manali.
The distance between Chandigarh-Manali is 265 km; the route was via Ropar-Mandi-Kullu-Manali and we were supposed to reach Manali early in the morning - a journey of about 9 hours. Little did we anticipate that this over night journey would be an ordeal of 20 long hours. It was a two-by-two 20-seater bus and the passengers were mostly newly married couple venturing out for their honeymoon, and a few foreigners including a funky Japanese, a rugged Mexican, and a quiet Israeli couple.
Driving about 80 odd kilometers passing by the Ropar town in Punjab, we all heard a loud thud coming from below our moving bus. The driver halted and got down to inspect what had happened. To our respite, he soon boarded back saying nothing was wrong and we moved ahead. At about 10 pm, the bus came to halt at a roadside dhaba and we were told to have our dinner. Dhabas are small motels by the highway.
Having a sumptuous Punjabi dinner consisting of Makai ka Roti and Saarso ka Sakh, we made our way to the bus only to realize that the engine bearing of the bus was broken and there were no mechanics nearby to repair the damage. The driver kept pleading that in all probability we'll have to spend the night in the bus and only in the morning another bus will take us to Manali.
Anger and excitement was clearly visible among the passengers as they continued to argue with the driver as well as the conductor. There was another bus parked in the dhaba which was also going to Manali, but there were no vacant seats to accommodate us. The feat of anger among the passenger knew no bounds and heated arguments followed. Some passengers demanded that their money should be refunded and they would try to stop some Himachal State Transport Corporation Bus that ply on that route. Meanwhile, the bus driver boarded the other bus and said that he'll be go fifty kms ahead and come back with a mechanic in a couple of hours. A few disgruntled souls including me desperately tried to stop a few Himachal State Transport bus but none of them even cared to stop - they just speeded away.
Night in the Cabin!
Finally, bowing our heads to destiny, one after another, the passengers boarded the bus and as the long night proceeded ahead, tried to catch on some slumber. Myself and another local of Manali traveling together with us waited outside the bus squatting in two chairs sharing a few myths and realities of Himachal Pradesh.
We watched the bus handyman dismantle the engine, starting from the bonnet and the radiator. After dismantling the engine, he too perhaps got tired. Soon he boarded the cabin of the bus and covering himself from head to foot with a blanket and dozed off. I and my friend from Manali continued our chat till we ran out of cigarette stock. Finally, he too suggested that we should try and get a wink.
As I boarded the bus, it was as if I have entered a snoring competition arena. Even Mitali, for that matter was happily snoring away. I pushed her a bit and tried to stretch my legs and get some sleep but slumber just eluded me outright.
After spending some agonizing moments amid the heavy sound bites, I got down and thought that I as well try to get some sleep in the bus cabin in the comfort of a small bed i.e. the flat seat behind the driver's seat. I pulled open the driver's door, entered the cabin and placed myself in the flat seat and closed my eyes only to be hounded by a swarm of mosquitoes happily singing their chorus aloud.
I thought to myself one hell of a night-out we all were having. I envied how blissfully the handyman was sleeping on the other end of the flat seat. I looked around the cabin and discovered another blanket. I just grabbed it, covered it in a similar fashion as the handyman and closed my eyes. The next thing I realize is someone waking me up. It was our driver. I opened my eyes and lo, it was morning and there was another bus parked adjacent to ours to take us to Manali.
Snow Melts Our Pain!
Pulling out all our bags and placing them in the replacement bus we started around 7 am. Soon the hills were in view as we started leaving the plains behind. After driving about three hours crossing the Mandi town, we stopped at Sundarnagar for breakfast. Remember to pick up a few wine bottles manufactured by Sutter House and exported to the USA from Sundarnagar. Variety of wines ranging from apricot, plum, apple, pineapple, strawberry to Resberry is available here at very reasonable prices.
Freshening ourselves, we had a heavy breakfast and our journey resumed. Moving up the serpentine path, we gradually scaled ahead through the majestic mountains. With the mountains in the backdrop, the bluish green water of the meandering Beas river flowing alongside the road provided a mesmerizing view. As we moved into the Kullu Valley, the apricot, plum, and apple trees were in full bloom. Being the flowering season, all the fruit trees were covered with pinkish-white flowers. Rows after rows of this flowering heaven were simply breathtaking.
After crossing the hustling bustling Kullu town, the weather turned cloudy and it soon started pouring. Someone in the bus suggested it must be snowing in nearby areas and soon to our delight; we had the first glimpse of a snow capped mountain beyond the layers of the ever moving clouds. The sight of snow filled excitement in the air and everyone's pain of the sleeping in the bus the previous night just melted away. We all realized that we would have missed all the wonderful views and sceneries had the bus come as per schedule at night. It was perhaps a blessing in disguise.
Cottage Amidst the Woods!
It was pouring cats and dogs as our bus entered Manali around 3.30 pm. I called up our local contact Raju and he immediately responded saying that he was waiting for us inside a black color Santro just parked a few meters ahead of the local bus stop. Braving the thick drizzle we boarded up the car and moved towards our pre-arranged accommodation.
In ten minutes, we entered the compound of a desolated picture perfect wooden cottage situated amidst apple, apricot, and pine trees. It was just the cottage, I had visualized and parking our luggage in the wood paneled cozy room with a nice fire place, the chowkidar cum caretaker cum cook Vijay Singh, prepared some delicious noodles, hot and spicy - typical mountain style. The wind and the rain continued outside and we decided not to venture out anywhere and just rest and relax ourselves after the long back breaking journey.
Raju arrived early next morning to take us for sightseeing in and around Manali. We were supposed to go to Rohtang Pass some 52 kms away but the road to Rohtang was closed due to heavy snowing. To our delight, he informed us that we have to go just 23 km up to Gulaba where there has been fresh snowing. Passing by old Manali, as we moved up we were soon amidst snow-filled mountains.
Gearing for the Snow!
The white snow reflecting in the sun provided a scintillating view. We stopped the car countless time to store the mesmerizing landscapes in our memories as well in camera. About 10 kms before reaching Gulaba, Raju had stopped the car on a way side shack to hire the snow gears including fur jackets, hand gloves, and rubber boots. In fact there were numerous shacks lined up the road displaying snow jackets and boots for hire.
Gearing ourselves with the fur jackets and long rubber boots, we made our way ahead. Suddenly thick clouds moved in and to our utter delight snow flakes poured in. As we made our way to the snow point in Gulaba, we saw numerous people already merrymaking amidst the snow. There was five to six feet of fresh snow all around and we enjoyed ourselves to our heart's delight.
After spending more than two hours in Gulaba, we came down to the Solang Valley. We were just speechless at the heavenly beauty of the valley. Local youngsters with their yaks and horses allured us to take a ride. Finally, we took a yak ride to the famous Shiva temple wherein we prayed at the naturally formed ice lingam. Lingam is a holy idol of Lord Shiva in India.
Thereafter, we moved back to Manali and got down at the mall for a shopping spree. The mall is a paradise for woolens cloths. Shawls, jackets, sweaters of different types abound this place. It was almost evening, by the time we reached our cottage. The downpour continued outside and I asked our caretaker to alight the fire place. We just lazed away the evening besides the warm fire.
Bathing our Body & Soul!
Woke up in the morning and was delighted to see the sun in its full glow. The dark clouds have moved away and from the window of our room, it was just wonderful to see the snow clad mountains in the backdrop of the clear blue sky. Sipping my bed tea with such a beautiful view across the window was simply blissful. I wished in my heart, if only I can stay back in this heavenly place for the rest of my life away from the rat race of the city life.
Soon, Raju arrived and after a sumptuous breakfast, we ventured out. Our first stop was at the famous Hirimba temple. This ancient temple in the honour of Hirimba, wife of Bhima of the Mahabharata days, is situated amidst rows of deodar trees. It is a revered temple and visited by tourists as well as locals alike. Hirimba Mata as locals call her is a respected deity. Besides her temple is the Ghatotkoch temple. Ghatotkoch was the son of Hirimba and Bhima who was killed in the Battle of Kurukshetra by the Kauravas. Outside the temple premises are rows of shops selling shawls and carpets.
Thereafter, we moved to the Manu temple. Manu was the legendary sage, who had written the Manusmriti, the base text of all Hindu laws. It is said that Manu used to meditate in this place and after him countless other sages over the ages used to assemble in this place to meditate. Offering our prayers in the Manu temple located in old Manali, we made our way to Vashisht. This place is unique for the hot water springs. Water in these springs are said to have medicinal properties beneficial for the skin, arthritis, and other ailments. A hot bath in the community bath is a must do agenda for everyone visiting this place. One really feels rejuvenated after a hot bath here both of body and soul.
Tracing the Lost Jewel
The next day we moved out down to the Kullu valley and visited a handloom shawl factory. We saw meticulous locals making hand woven shawls in their own looms. I was informed that a simple shawl with basic design ideally takes about four hours to weave, but richly designed shawls takes days on end. Available in different price ranges, these shawls surely make good gift items to the near and dear ones back home.
From Kullu we ventured into the interiors of Himachal Pradesh and made our way to the religious shrine of Manikarni, holy both for the Sikhs and Hindus. This place too is famous for its underground hot water springs. Legend has it that Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati used to meditate in this place. Once Parvati's ear ring (Mani meaning jewel and karni meaning ear) fell into the hot water here. Shiva instructed his followers to find the earring but they could not find it. Enraged Shiva is said to have open his third eye. All the underground water in that area boiled at his wrath and along with water the lost jewel of Parvati is said to have come out from the earth. Since then the water in this area became hot. And it is still hot today. Scientifically these hot springs are due to the underground volcanic activities.
By the time we reached back Manali, it was quite late and as instructed in the morning, sweet Vijay Singh was ready with another delicious hot mountain dinner.
The next morning, we woke up with a bad mood because it is our last day here. Our bus would take us to New Delhi at 4 pm. We decided not to venture anywhere far and instead just tracked to a Himachali village situated up the mountain wherein we were staying. The simple hospitable villagers were the sweetest people to be with. Their village, located high up in the mountain provided a panoramic view of entire Manali. The innocent village folks going about their daily chores were indeed a nostalgic sight. We further went up to the Kartikeya temple, which was as if hanging in a cliff. We simply sat down there and enjoyed the scenery. It was bright and sunny and we kept gazing at the snow capped mountains because we never knew when we will able to see them again.
With utter reluctance, we boarded the bus to take us back and early next morning we reached New Delhi. Spending two days in the capital city in the company of my dear friend Biplob, we boarded the Rajdjani Express to our home in Mumbai. As our train chugged back we reflected the beautiful Land of the Mountain Gods we just visited which got stored in our memories forever.
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Published on 7/13/06