Saturday, April 26, 2014

Another Himalayan Trip

This Saturday afternoon was not a lazy one after all. We had to pack our bags with necessities other than food, enough to last at least for ten days, board the evening flight to the capital and then, embark the northerly journey.  The flight arrived later than scheduled at Delhi Airport (T3) and there was a connecting train (HWH-KLK Mail) to catch from Old Delhi Station (Chandni Chowk) within an hour. Thanks to Aerocity Metro and some quick decisions, we could dodge the big queue in NDLS (Delhi Metro) to arrive at Old Delhi-Chandni Chowk, from where there was this train to Kalka (Haryana). As usual for Indian Railways, HWH-KLK Mail was not so express after all and it did arrive two hours late entering the station like a sloth. It took six to seven hours to reach Kalka, from where there runs a toy-train (narrow-gauge) to Shimla. However, being unable to book two tickets in any of the connecting toy-trains, we had to content ourselves with a cab till the Mall road in Shimla. The cabs till Shimla usually cost around 1500-1800 rupees for 90 kms, but one has to check with hotel reception about the proximity point where the cab can drop you, else there might be a longer climb uphill on foot. DSC_0231The advantage was that a cab can save around two and half hours from the journey time. The toy-trains run in excess of five hours to reach the point from where one has to take a taxi and then a public lift to reach the mall road. Cars are not allowed until certain points in Shimla. However, the cab ride from Kalka to Shimla with two brief tea-breaks took us through scenic mountains, copious amounts of unadulterated air, a bit of drizzle, a surprisingly speeding yellow Nano ascending through the mountain roads  and lush green slopes everywhere else. An ensemble of motley of colours of the trees did fill our hearts with wonder. Having booked our stay at a hotel we found it quite frequented by British tourists. The climb towards the hotel was a bit steep till the ground level from where one has to take a lift till the 4th level, where the reception was located. The people at reception could understand our fatigue due to the arduous journey and promptly took us to the waiting room, till our allotted room was checked-out and cleaned.
After breakfast and a brief nap, walking along the mall road sometimes climbing a few uphill diversions, we reached the Viceregal Lodge, Shimla. DSC_0288The walk took us around an hour and a half through many army cantonments, shops, buildings and streets. Passing the market places, The Gaiety Theatre, The Town Hall, it seemed as if we have waded right through history, as in Rudyard Kipling’s stories. The Viceregal Lodge did house the Viceroys of British India, Mountbatten being the last. The Shimla Agreement was signed there. It looks splendid in size, construction and design perhaps since the British era, with the tri-colour fluttering above it instead of the Union Jack. Next was a guided tour through history, inside the giant mansion and we were introduced to walnut ceilings, 100-year old piano, ambitiously high chairs of the Viceroys among other things. The German switches and the wax-sealed fire-sprinkler system are said to work till date, since the 1880s. The architectural flamboyance seemed to be centred upon English Renaissance intertwined with the construct of Castles of Scotland. Interior designs of the mansion constitutes of dark Burmese Teak supplemented with walnut and cedar wood. As the tour-guide told us, post independence it was renamed to Rastrapati Niwas (Presidential Residence) and later made IIAS (Indian Institute of Advanced Study) dedicated to academic research in the field of humanities and sciences. However, the most difficult part was of course the return walk. With some dinner, I did drop dead on bed and didn’t wake up until 9:30 am on the next morning.
This was the second day at Shimla and the plan was to go downhill to buy some woollens in the chilly Shimla wind, for we did not carry any. Then we took a local tour to nearby Kufri Valley and other places. It was around 15 kms from the Mall Road. Booking an independent cab cost us 600 rupees, instead of taking the local bus tour. DSC_0311Realizing that a lot of money could be saved and the independence of choice of places and duration of visit, made us take a cab. We paid short visits to Kufri, Fagu Valley and a local zoo near Fagu. While climbing up a small mountain in Kufri, it gradually unveiled a sequence of mountains till the snow-capped Shivaliks, with a splendid assortment of vibrant wildflowers down the green valleys. The white snow-caps, were preceded by brown mountain ranges with minimal vegetation and in turn ran the green ones with dense vegetation of pine and cedar trees, like the one on which we were standing. Clouds could be seen drifting beyond the valley, kissing the snow-caps as if the mountains were breathing white smoke. Taking some snaps we then took the car towards Fagu valley, the actual spot being at a distance 3.5 kms upslope, off the main road. Either you can brave the muddy terrain of 3-4 kms on foot, else you take a pony ride. Two ponies cost us around 800 rupees, but the ride through mud and mountains was worth it. The only intimidating part of the pony ride was that these Himalayan ponies preferred ledges in the mountain slopes rather than the main road. So, if you come back alive, you might be able to fight acrophobia with panache. 
Once we reached the top, there was a plethora of activities going on starting from sliding down the rope-way, photo-shoot with garments custom to hill-folk, taking ‘On the Yak’ pictures while holding a unloaded airgun (which some even held in a sniping stance) on awfully bored animals with minimal emotions to walking down quietly up and down the slopes and taking pictures, which we did. It was amusing to watch people posing for a world-war soldier portrait on the back of a yak, sometimes with that of a sniper’s eloquence. Had people really done this in the past wars, the side that would have used yaks as transport would have definitely lost.  In a span of an hour with some maggi noodles, it was time to return downhill, again on those two ponies. The ride was like intermittent jumps on the ledges and it seemed that the ponies were more eager to come downhill than us. After the bumpy ride, it seemed like Petrificus Totalus, a full body bind curse of Harry Potter eminence. The village boy handling the ponies shouted, “Keep leaning backwards, else you might reach downhill before your pony.”
Later on, there was a nearby zoo (in Fagu valley) having some Himalayan deer, leopards, bears (both black & brown) and pheasants among others. It was on our way back to the Mall Road, when we went through the famed Lakad Bazar of  Shimla, where beautiful handmade wooden-crafts are available at throw-away prices. Once these reach cities like Mumbai, the decimal point usually erases itself. From there, we went to Ladakh handloom & khadi shop where varieties of shawls, stoles made out of Pashmina wool were available at quite decent rates. The salesman explained some rent-a-blanket with exclusive gifts concept to us and showed us a few newspaper articles on the killing of the Chingu goat, the goat that rears pashmina wool. We got a stole with some pashmina wool in it and thankfully post the pashmina ring-test. Somewhere else, having heard the concept of rent-a-blanket being fraudulent and fake, so we didn’t want to take a chance on it. Then it was time to go back to the hotel and get some rest for an eventful morning, for the next destination was a remote village in the Himalayan valleys.
Tirthan Valley
A very hasty breakfast, a hurried cab-ride to the bus-stand with only 30 minutes to spare, and finally boarding the bus that kind of has a precise departure time the country, got our day started. It was a Tata AC bus run by H.R.T.C. The drive was northwards to a place 20-25 kms from Mandi. The way to the village Dehuri, was connected by a side-road near the tunnel of Aut, which is incidentally the longest road tunnel in India (NH-21, 3 kms).  The bus journey lasted around 8 hrs through places like Bilaspur, Sundernagar, Mandi and Pandoh with a fleeting tiredness perhaps induced due to the freshness of pure-air. Then, from the start of the Aut tunnel, we took a tourist vehicle which was booked by the Riverside Resort at Tirthan Valley. The journey made us muse through everything associated with the wild mountains and valleys – the mountain goats, the cow-herds, the fire-wood collecting girls with their big straw baskets, the quiet landscape, the gushing crystalline water of Tirthan river below and finally we could believe our luck. Everyone seemed to be at peace carrying our their chores with a pleasant smile, even the Sun was gentle and the wind was kind. Amazing is the illusion of success, which can turn even kindred spirits into demons of avarice and vanity. After around two hours, we reached the resort right in the lap of Himalayas in the middle of nowhere but mountains. Between the resort and the road, surged the pristine water of Tirthan river, and the two sides were connected by a rope-way carrying a small basket. Manually operated through nylon ropes and iron loops from both sides, the basket could carry at most one adult person at a time. DSC_0533The slow but gradual basket ride, the chilling breeze, the  flood of swift pristine water below did stimulate a sense of unwavering calm.
Ropeway Travel at Riverside Resort

A fling of cheery weariness did creep in later, once we had satiated our mouths and hearts with soupy maggi noodles and spice-tea, sitting beside the gushing water of Tirthan, a sound resonating with innocence. The faith of Hill-folk on the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva pervades the entire atmosphere, right from those images in buses to the numerous small temples among the hills, and perhaps the basis of entire lives of these men and women.  And these people do seem quite resistant to ageing without using any of our anti-ageing creams.
                  The caretaker along with his wife managed the resort. We had delicious home cooked dinner prepared by Bhuvan’s wife. Night had crept in silently, our tired muscles got relaxed into a world of dreams, when the outer world had already painted an exquisite portrait for our eyes.  Next morning, we decided to take a trek to a nearby waterfall, which would be around 4-5 kms uphill. With a comfortable pace, one can reach the waterfall in two hours. Quite surprisingly a mountain dog followed us at first and then afterwards, led the way to the waterfall through a major part of the trek.DSC_0475 As we climbed up towards the source of the waterfall, the village settlements diminished gradually unveiling clusters of amazing settlements which vividly complemented the scenic mountains, the background view of Jalodi snow caps, the curvaceous roads and intermittent herds of white furry goats and sheep. Various birds like Himalayan swifts, russet sparrows would materialize and vanish instantaneously, leaving their twitters echoing among the trees.

DSC_0529Sometimes we had to cross a series of houses by narrow plain dirt roads, sometimes jump between ledges to go uphill. The views seemed to be taken right out of an artist’s canvas, the colours seemed to be vibrant and the pristine air dismissed tiredness without much pomp. DSC_0497As the images would say for themselves, you might  end up yearning for a house among these mountains. Once we reached the waterfall, spending some time on the nearby rocks silently gazing at the radiant flowers, the fall of the stream and listening to the sounds of those little birds, evoked a sense of longing for the life in the hills. Then around 3:00 pm we started our descent and reached the resort in an hour. Energy is one’s friend during ascent but when one descends down the slope, one has to adopt caution. Once we reached the resort, lunch was served which included home-made chappatis, yellow dal, aloo-gobi fry. Aloo-ke-paranthe breakfast was perhaps the best thing one could have up there. Meanwhile, it had already started to drizzle with a chilling breeze and a greyish shade started enveloping the area. For the next morning, we had a cab-booking till Mandi and Rewalsar, post which we had to reach Chandigarh or Kalka. (The cab cost till Rewalsar was Rs.2500)

A three-hour journey from Tirthan Valley began with an ineffable coloured chaos among the white-studded mountains along the breezing sound of the meandering river Tirthan. Rain had stopped and the Sun had started taking steady command. Passing by places where an occasional waterfall complemented the mountain-decor, series of lively houses stepped up along the mountains, we finally reached Mandi in two and half hours. Rewalsar is a hill city at a scaling of 24 kms from Mandi. The whole city is like a fort built around a lake known by the name of Tso Pema Lotus Lake which is abundant with both fishes and reed. There are three Buddhist monasteries, Temples of Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva and a Gurudwara among the hills surrounding the lake. The lake is said to be mystically created from ashes when the great teacher Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rimpoche among Buddhists, had been put through the flames of a pyre along with King Vihardhara’s daughter Mandarava. From the flames, he was seen dancing on a lotus flower that had emerged out of the newly-created lake along with Mandarava.DSC_0570 Guru Rimpoche’s spirit is said to reside in a tiny island of floating reed.  It’s said that wishes of the one who circles around the lake comes true, due to the grace of Guru Rimpoche. We found an ensemble of colourful Buddhist prayer-flags hung beside the lake, which are said to represent each of the Five Pure Lights. (Blue - sky and space, White - air and wind, Red - fire, Green - water, and Yellow – Earth). DSC_0566
Later, we entered one of the monasteries, but the doors were locked for lunch session. One of the monks compassionately opened the doors when he saw us waiting in front of the door, and thus allowing us to have a gratifying glimpse of the Buddha. Two monks were kind enough to explain us the forces revered in Buddhist philosophy, in an adjunct praying area. DSC_0573After having lunch at a local restaurant in the lake-town, we finally journeyed back to the town of Mandi through a majestic view of snow-clad Shikari Devi mountains dancing among the clouds.
From Mandi, we took a rickety H.R.T.C bus to Chandigarh at 4:30 pm which reached at around 1 am in Chandigarh bus-stand. And it was the end of our beloved Himalayan trip and time to come back to mortal senses.

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