Friday 11 June 2010

HIMACHAL PRADESH – In search of snow...

I’d been keen on going to Himachal Pradesh for almost 6 months when my friends and colleagues suggested we take a trip together. They found an interesting tribal circuit and we decided to go. Our main focus was on: Snow. Our sheer desperation to see snow and be around it was what encouraged us to do this trip and hell, it was so worth it!

Before I begin, I want to make certain things clear:
  1. This trip took us to 5 different places within 5 days. 
  2. Irene, Soumi and I went from Mumbai and joined Prachi (Soumi’s friend) in Delhi. But Prachi joined us only till Shimla. Sadly, she couldn’t get enough leave for the rest of the trip. She was dearly missed.
  3.  The post will be long, since it’s about 5 different places. But I promise it will be a fun read.
  4. I have demarcated each place by mentioning appropriate heading for each, so if you want to read just one part, you can 
  5. There is a section at the end called Fact File that is filled with useful information for anyone who wants to visit the same places. 
  6. Lastly (phew!), enjoy :)

Our trip essentials: A camera, a backpack and a guidebook!

We left on a Friday, and predictably so, went to work and got late leaving for the airport. En route, Irene suddenly asks me if I got my hair dryer. I remind her about the time she said she’d carry hers. So we realise we got nothing. She insists we pick it up from her place that comes on the way to the airport. After much sarcasm and laughter we pick it up. Now you’re thinking what’s so important about a goddamn hair dryer? Well, as you’ll read further, you’ll see that it played a crucial role on this trip.

Moving along, we board the flight on time and giggle with excitement all the way through. Oh and also stare dreamily at the cute steward onboard; so rare these days! As we approach Delhi airport (so we hoped) we begin discussing the unnerving thought of how close our flight and train (to Kalka) is scheduled. We were to land at 8 pm and get on a train that leaves at 9:45 pm. Well, our flight got delayed by half and hour, and so began our adventure...

Catching the train...literally
We rushed to the station as fast as we could manage, all the while hoping against all odds that it would get delayed. We got lucky...but a bit much. It got delayed for 4 hours, which meant it would now leave at 1 am! We then called every person we knew in Delhi, combined, so that we had company to stay out that late in Delhi, which is considered unsafe. After several calls to ‘busy’ friends, finally my sister and her husband came by. We went out to a dhaba, filled our stomachs with finger-licking food, digested it with pan and headed back to the station...only to find the train to be delayed another half and hour!

Somehow we found something to amuse ourselves with. We had a little contest. Here’s how it went:
1)     We each had to weigh our backpacks + additional bags on the weighing scale at the station
2)     Then, we’d check whose bag weighed the most.
Purpose? To determine the poor sucker carrying the most weight on their shoulders!
Prizes? Well, the winner would not only get loads of sympathy, but also lesser jokes would be made about her. The runners-up would however have to bear the brunt of the winner who will now not stop cursing the, ahem, witches that she’s carrying the biggest load. The winner also refused to share any of her belongings with the others thereafter.

The coveted train finally graced us and we fell into deep slumber. The next morning, we reached Kalka and hired a taxi to Shimla, sharing it with a doctor couple (who were super enthusiastic to be here). Fighting off typical haggling porters at Shimla’s bus depot, we set out to find a hotel. We found a Hotel Dalziel and were shown this tall ceiling-ed, spacious 2-double bed room that fit well within our budget. Okay, I’m lying. It was dirt cheap! (Especially since we were 4 girls sharing the room) It cost us Rs. 200 each (I can see some of you cursing me now, take it back!). An overtly sweet cup of tea later we had hot showers and headed out to the ever popular Mall Road (also one of the only interesting places to see in Shimla).

This was right outside our hotel in Shimla

On my previous visit, I fell in love with the Indian Coffee House here and hence, insisted we go there. Half an hour later, I’m at the end of a whole lot of unpleasant words that I cannot tell you all about. Why? Well, Irene said her noodles tasted as though they were laced with petrol and Soumi’s coconut chutney (to go with the Uttappa) tasted (and looked) like cement paste. In my defense, the coffee was awesome! 

The Indian Coffee House

The awesome coffee at he Indian Coffee House

Walking along, we visited the Christ Church. Its lemon yellow structure is famous for being the backdrop for many a Bollywood film. 

Christ Church - inside and outside

A little shopping for thermals followed and then the search for a good dining place. Embassy restaurant was our pick of the night. A quaint little restaurant with a talkative yet interesting owner—who had put up rows of sheets with handwritten quotes from various inspirational people—Embassy also offered really yummy food. Although, we found the menu to be priced on the more expensive side for a restaurant in Shimla. A meal for 3 people cost us Rs. 1000 . I can hear you screaming, “Are you kidding me? You call THIS expensive?” But yes, this was the most ‘expensive’ meal of our’ll see :)

The Embassy restaurant - the view from the wood-panelled window was beautiful. We just gazed outside and watched as the entire town lit up.

Irene and Soumi happily posing for me.
Our walk back to our hotel was incredibly long as we were dining on the opposite end. It was almost 11:15 pm, and we deemed it to be rather unsafe, so we thought of a plan; just in case something went wrong.

Things that could go wrong: We could be surrounded by a predator/s being just a group of girls.

The plan: We all would start screaming and laughing at the same time and mutter foreign language words; somewhat Monjolika-style (Vidya Balan’s evil character in Bhool Bhulaiya where she goes crazy and starts muttering Bengali words and acts totally insane. On second thought, it wouldn’t have worked for me as I was the only one who didn’t know Bengali in the group).

*The alternate plan: We would combine all our skills and kick the predators’ asses.

Our skill set:
1) The Distractors: Soumi can laugh on command, so she would start laughing like a mad woman giving us time to prepare for the next move. Irene on the other hand has a loud laugh so she could also incite fear into them, whilst shaking her hair madly (she has lovely long hair) and scare them further.
2) The Kick Boxer: That would be me. Since I have learned to kick someone’s ass professionally, it would be perfect to experiment on a live subject.
3) The fit one: Well, since Tanu seemed to be the fittest, we hoped she would be able to taken at least one of them down by kicking them in the shin.
Needless to say, we didn’t get the opportunity to show-off our skills. I think our aura itself proved to be enough to keep predators at bay.

Shimla - bathed in night-light

The circuit begins...
The next morning, we set out on a drive to Sarahan. En route we saw snow, giggled like schoolgirls and halted. This was the first time Irene had ever seen snow, which was reflective in her Julia Roberts smile.
The first sighting of snow!

Shri Hanuman being bathed.

A quaint little monastery en route.

A few photos later, we resumed our journey. After a pleasant five-hour car ride through curvaceous roads, filled with 90s Bollywood music and idyllic vistas, we reached the Bhimakali temple at Sarahan. Built with layers of stone and timber—to absorb the force of earthquakes—this grand temple complex is situated at the centre of the town. Since this was our stop for the night, we checked into the temple’s guest house. Our room was clean, spacious and basic. The cost? A mere Rs. 300! I know, we rock :)

The Bhimakali Temple Complex 

 The view of the temple from our room.

Our tiring night ended with a stroll along the town admiring the simple homes with touches of Tibetan architecture, and a dinner of spicy momos, kadi chawal and a steaming hot cup of tea at a local dhaba. Oh, and a little piece of jalebi too!

Soumi, the ghost who disappeared in thin air, leaving Irene shocked.

The following morning, we paid a visit to the revered temple. The complex houses four different temples, namely, Raghunath Ji, Narsingh, Lankravir and the Hanumanji temples. Before you enter the main Bhimakali temple, you have to leave your camera and any leather goods with the guard, or in the lockers they offer, and wear saffron-coloured caps (also provided) to enter. The complex is a bit of a maze and we kept losing our way to the top floor where the deity is housed. After offering our prayers and gulping our second cup of tea—which provided some heat to our now frozen palms—and taking a few pictures, we headed to the verdant Sangla valley.

 The view of the mighty Himalayas from our room.

We’d read about the empowering beauty of the Sangla valley in every book and webpage we came across during our research. However, the route that led to it made skeptics out of us. The roads were rough and dusty, with stones strewn all around due to the ongoing work of the hydroelectricity project in Karcham. But the contrasting landscape of the growing snow-covered peaks on our left and massive rock formations dauntingly staring over us—some even formed a tunnel—on the right made for a visual treat.

Haha, gotcha!

The 'rock'y path that led to Sangla

As we drove on, the ridiculously hilarious 90s' music kept us entertained. We even played a fun guessing game (which song is from which film); even bugging our driver into being a forced participant! The song list went something like this:

a)    Aane wala pal ek sapna hai – from Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi
b)    Aankh mare – from Tere Mere Sapne
c)    Zara zara – from Main Khiladi Tu Anari
d)    Almost every possible song sung by Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik during the 90s

However, the most amusing thing was how all of us knew every song! Embarrassingly enough, we knew some of the lyrics too. We all laughed like crazy all through!

We reached Sangla around 2:30pm, and settled in at the PWD guest house, also for Rs. 300 (I know you’re all jealous, but you won’t be for long). The room here however was way more spacious and came with a dressing room area, as well as, great mountain views; which aren’t so hard to find in Sangla because everywhere you look, there’s a snow-covered mountain (trust me, you’re jealousy will vanish in no time). Greeted by smiling locals and cheery kids, we began our tour of the town. We were directed to the Bering Nag monastery that lay 2km downhill into a village. Surrounded by rows of prayer wheels and vividly coloured thangkas, the monastery had a wide courtyard filled with children’s laughter as they scuttled around playing games. As the sun set, temperatures dropped, so we retired for the night after a scrumptious meal of banana chocolate paincakes (that’s how they were spelt here. And, the paincakes looked burned on sight, but tasted fine) and aromatic ginger lemon tea at Sonu Cafe. 

The view from our room at the PWD guest house.

The Bering Nag monastery

 My favourite flowers! The locals call them palam.

Check out the spelling errors!

The one big hitch of staying at the PWD guest house was that they didn’t have any all, in the rooms. So, we had to take out bucket and get it filled from the kitchen and carry it to our room. We managed, somehow. Oh, and you probably remember the hair dryer that we’d picked up from Irene’s place while racing to the airport? Well, it proved to be super helpful to us. Not only did it help to dry our wet hair, but also some wet clothes, and it kept us warm.

But what ticked us off was the jackass who began charging us absurd amounts of money the next morning while we were checking out. He tried charging us for an extra day because we were leaving at 1pm (due to the water problem). He even tried charging us for helping carry the bucket of water once to our room (we carried it thereafter, which was about 4-5 times as three of us had to take a shower) and also for three spoonfuls of butter. We fought like hell and didn’t pay any more than we really owed him (see, I told you, you won’t feel jealous for long).

The last stop on the trade route to Tibet, Chitkul is around 20 km away from Sangla. We finally found what we had set out for: SNOW! The entire route was covered with snow, leaving only the narrow road we meandered through in our car. However, what found us squealing with joy were the mighty mountains with snow dusted on them and little trees stuck on them like pins. Once we got there, we began walking around and fell upon a wide playground, completely bathed in snow. In a few seconds, we’d jumped in to have a snow fight! The cold, crumbling snow we’d so desperately wanted to see and feel was now all around us. Our every attempt to walk in it failed as we fell flat on our faces...smiling ones though. We even lay down on the snow on our backs. It felt soooooo good! I took off my thick jacket and spread out my arms as if embracing the mind-boggling beauty around. Loads of pictures later, we finally left...reluctantly so. Even though we spent the least amount of time in Chitkul, it remains the most memorable. 

 Snow all around the road leading to Chitkul.

Our first view of Chitkul...mindblowing!

 Cute kids we chatted with

The view...

 Snow fightttt!

 That was Irene and I :)

 That's us :)

When you reach a place that is located at an elevation of 2,960m, late at night, after circling around a steep zigzag road uphill, fear soon becomes a small word to describe your true feeling. To add to the madness, it was pitch dark with not a single human being in sight. We tried looking for hotels, but there were no lights to spot any. There was one that had lights on, which provided immense relief. But when Irene and Soumi found it completely empty—though there was lingering smell of food and drinks—we thought it better to just leave. No human in was getting freaky. 

Fortunately, that feeling vanished as we fell upon a luxury suite at Kinner Kailash, an HPTDC-run hotel. We entered to check for a vacant room, any vacant room (by this point we were ready to pay any amount of money just to get a room). The cost was Rs. 1300 for a 3-bedroom; we took it. It was, well, AWESOME. The best room we’d had so far. It was spacious, had 3 beds, running hot water, TV with cable, extra dining room with a table and chairs and a heater. Oh, and it was completely wood-panelled, like a log cabin :)

Kinner Kailash Hotel - our room was on the top floor 

The next morning, we were in for a big surprise. Since we reached Kalpa around 10pm at night, we had no idea of what the place looked like. As we drew the curtains at dawn, we found ourselves gaping at the incredible view that lay just ahead of our windows. The majestic snow-clad peaks of the Kinner Kailash range that now had a crimson glow on the tips gleamed gloriously under the sun.

The view from our room at Kinner Kailash
The morning sun dances around... 

Even though here we went about what was now our usual routine—visiting a monastery, eating hot momos, sipping masala chai and lying back gazing at the mountains—it was a lot more relaxing as this was our last stop on the circuit. At night, we ordered a lavish dinner, gulped some drinks and watched lots of TV. The best thing we found was a local channel displaying music videos of local singers. They were so incredibly hilarious that we continued laughing for over an hour! Almost all the singers’ surname was Negi, and the extras (dancers and others) were the same in more than 2 videos. How’d we know that? Because they were wearing the same clothes!!!

Some of the monasteries we saw at Kalpa

  A naughty kid peeking out of his window. His parents by came after a few minutes and dragged him in!
  Soumi and Irene stare at the broken road uphill to our hotel and wonder how our car will make it.
We left for Shimla the next morning with mixed emotions of happiness and sadness all at once. We stopped at Recong Peo for a little shopping, and then headed straight to Shimla. Our journey was coming to a halt, but the memories remain fresh even now. Not only did we 3 make good friendships to last a lifetime, we also collected interesting stories and visions to share with the world.

Until another rocking trip...

Getting there:
You can take a flight up to Delhi. Then either hop onto a bus or book a train ticket to Kalka. Shimla is about 96km (approx.) from Kalka. Our shared taxi from Kalka station cost us Rs. 1800 for an SUV.

We had hired a car from a tourist office located adjacent to Hotel Dalziel itself. We travelled during March, and so the prices were fairly low. It cost us Rs. 9,500 to rent an Alto for a 5 day trip. The circuit covered was Shimla-Sarahan-Sangla-Chitkul-Kalpa-Shimla.

Shimla – Hotel Dalziel. It is located at the end of Mall road, just next to the State Bank of India building. We paid Rs. 800 for a 4-bed room.

Sarahan - Bhimakali temple rest house. We stayed on the rooms on the first floor that cost us Rs. 300. There are dormitories that cost less than Rs. 100 also, so if you are travelling in a huge group, maybe that would suit you better. They have a canteen here which serves food and snacks. But you should try some of the local restaurants, located 5 minutes away, where you get delicious home-cooked meals.

Sangla – We stayed at the PWD guest house for Rs. 300 for a 2-bed room. However, since our experience was rather unpleasant at the end, we would recommend the Baspa guest house. It is (at least as of now) a loud purple and green coloured building; unmissable. We met a foreigner couple who were staying there and they felt it was value for money.

Chitkul – We didn’t stay overnight here as there wasn’t much to see here besides the view of the snow-clad mountains. However, there are 1-2 places you can stay back at. One of them was the PWD guest house (my honest opinion would request you not to judge this one by the Sangla experience, but just be clear with them on the money matters in the beginning as a precaution).

Kalpa – We stayed at the Kinner Kailash Hotel. I would say it was perfect, in every way. I would highly recommend everyone to stay here because the room is great, the view is even better and the food is very tasty. All in all, a place worth a visit.


Unknown said...

Hey Ruchika,
wonderful account of the whole trip. really liked the personal touch maintained throughout the post, made for interesting read. was good to read about spots that are not there on the regular touristy circuit. The photographs were amazing.
well im sure that this is not the last time i will be coming on this post:P
take care

Ruchika Vyas said...

Thank you, thank you :) This was really one of the best trips I've ever taken, guess that just reflected here :)

Chennaitravels said...

Hello.. i seen ur blog and i hope u enjoyed your whole trip..!

Ruchika Vyas said...

@ Chennaitravels: Yes, I very much did!
@ Emilie: Wow, I'm humbled. Thank you. I shall email you.

Diti said...

truly mad, truly magical :)

Ruchika Vyas said...

So it is :) btw, Sachin told me about your blog, nice stuff!

Fuming Plume said...

Totally love your blog. It's entertaining first-hand accounts (who wants to know technicals right?) and stunning photographs that make you want to be there.

Ruchika Vyas said...

Thank you so much Fuming Plume; realy appreciate your kind words :)
And sorry about this late reply!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience of Himachal. Finally your snow search completed and totally worth it. I think Himachal Pradesh is the best hill station in India. All pictures are amazing but Shimla and Sangla totally forced me to visit there. Mountains mesmerize me a lot. Thanks to share..

Ruchika Vyas said...

I couldn't agree more :)

ChennaiSrinivasatravels said...

Hi Ruchika,

I think you enjoyed whole trip. those pictures are really awesome especially monasteries in kalpa buddha statue, architectures in wall.

Thank you for sharing you trip experience.

Ruchika Vyas said...

Glad you liked it :)

Unknown said...

the way you presented your heart satisfying work in the form of travel blog is just so catchy ...