Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Family Trip to Himachal Pradesh


Had to wake up early at 4:30 because flight was at 7:30. Left the house at 5:45. First, we took an Air Sahara flight to New Delhi. It was more or less on time. Our seats were right next to the wing so we had a restricted view of the “scenery”. Anyway since we were cruising at an altitude of 36000 feet it hardly mattered. We reached Delhi airport around 10:30.

On board the Air Sahara flight, there was a bidding competition for various items. Arun bid and won a Swatch wrist watch for Rs. 2000, while the MRP is over five thousand. He flaunts it like anything. Any discussion involving him has to begin and end with “isn’t it a steal???”

The connecting Indian Airlines flight to Chandigarh was delayed by about an hour. We reached Chandigarh around 2:45. The taxi to the bus stand took hardly 20 minutes (but cost us Rs. 250). Here, we caught a bus to Shimla. I have a lot to say about this 4 hour journey from Chandigarh to Shimla.

The first hour was great with totally straight and flat roads. And then, the climb started. Right from the moment we entered Himachal Pradesh at Kalka, the NH 22 climbed all the way to Shimla, about 80 kms from Kalka and 115 from Chandigarh. The climb seemed never-ending. The roads are totally curving and climbing. Its not really that steep, but very very round about. I guess the road distance is more than 3-4 times the the distance “as the crow flies”.

Every time you feel “This is it. This mountain is the last one. Shimla must be atop this hill”. And every time, you are proven wrong. You just continue climbing till you reach Shimla, 2100 mts above sea level.

The “towns” along this NH 22 are almost all the same – Barog, Solan, Dharampur, Kandaghat etcetera. All these towns are set on the hill slopes, all have little lanes which they like to call “roads”, and the center of town is the blind-curves-ridden NH 22. The Kalka-Shimla toy train track goes along this road for quite a long distance.

As we neared Shimla, we saw evidences of landslides and mudslides. A traffic jam somewhere in the hills when we were hardly 10 kms away from Shimla ensured that we were delayed and by the time we located the IOB guest house, it was almost 9 pm.

The idea of a “city” here is totally different from our concept. Again, totally steep and curvy roads, the houses and buildings set into the hillsides. On one side, you have the hill and on the other side is a railing, followed by sheer drops. There are frequent “gaps” in the railings which are pre-cursors to “cross-roads” (which are nothing more than a fork in the road) or steps.

After settling down into our room, we set out in search of dinner. A 20 minute walk took us to the “mall”, which is the center of town. There we found a veg restaurant (Guptajee’s Bhojanalaya) which served very good food at extremely reasonable prices. We returned to our room and hit the sack by 11:00.

DAY 2 – SUNDAY, 24TH JULY 2005

We decided this would be our “rest-day”, mainly since we had had so less sleep during the previous couple of days. We woke up lazily around 10:00. By the time we had breakfast (room service), and got ready it was almost noon. We set out for the only sight-seeing of the day – the Jakhoo Hanuman temple.

This temple is set atop the highest hill in Shimla. We climbed on foot, taking more than an hour. The legend regarding the temple is that Lord Hanuman rested here during his quest for the Sanjeevani herbs.

The peak was not really a place of scenic beauty. The monkeys here outnumbered the tourists. One of the monkeys even searched the pockets of a man looking for something to eat. The monkeys are becoming somewhat of a nuisance here. I could clearly observe some kind of group behaviour among the monkeys. When anyone offered them anything to eat, an old monkey (which appeared to be the “leader”), first ate it. Only when he left did others converge for “the kill”.

We took some snaps here and there, but since we were among the clouds (read “thick mist”), we could not take long distance snaps. I wish we had a digi-cam so that we could experiment.

The other thing I observed was the vegetation – typical of such high altitude, low temperature places (or so I’ve studied). Majority of the vegetation consists of coniferous trees – tall trees shaped like an upturned cone, the leaves being slender and long, pointed at the ends. This design helps them survive the cold and “shed” the snow. There is also an abundance of cacti.

By the time we walked down to the mall and had lunch, it was past 3 and by the time we returned to the room, it was 3:30. By this time we noticed the complete absence of auto rickshaws in Shimla… we had to walk all the time.

Arun and me watched F1 German grand prix the entire afternoon, while mom and dad tried (unsuccessfully because of the TV volume) to get some sleep.

Since it was drizzling slightly in the evening, dad and mom decided to stay indoors, while we 2 set out again to the only logical place to go in Shimla – the mall. We set out around 7:30 but the light outside would suggest its 5:30!

We checked our mail, strode aimlessly around the mall for some time, tried to locate the Airtel office (I was not able to make outgoing calls) and found it closed (obviously – its 8 pm on a Sunday). Finally, we had softy ice cream.

We really liked the weather and the ambience. A taxi driver had told us that this year the tourist influx has been less. But it did not take us long to realize that he was wrong. Shimla is a round-the-year tourist destination. The entire crowd around us consisted of tourists. I saw hardly any locals.

We returned to the room by 9:30. We ordered dinner to our room. A word about our “host” – Kailash. This person, apart from being really helpful and co-operative, is a thousand people rolled into one. He manages the IOB guest house, cooks, serves, arranges the tour schedules…you name it.

Another observation about Shimla is its “parking” facilities. We Bangaloreans should take a leaf out of Shimlaites’ books. They have to park precariously along the road, at very awkward angles. It looks as if a strong wind will blow the vehicle over the gorge. Only the privileged few have "terrace parking" – which is quite difficult to explain!

We slept around 11:00, totally famished. So much for “rest-day”.


Today was Shimla local sight seeing. It’s not much actually. We came to the conclusion that there are not many “places” to “see” around Shimla. But the natural beauty is everywhere.

We left our room at 10:30. We went straight to the mall where dad had some work. In the meantime Arun and myself headed to the Airtel office. We finished our work and left the city around 11:00, headed for Kufri.

Our first stop was a spot along the road, 2400 mts above MSL. This spot offered a spectacular view of the “Green Valley”. We clicked a couple of snaps and were on our way. We stopped a few more times to look at Deodhar and apple trees. We reached Kufri, 17 kms from Shimla, by 12:30.

There are lots of supposed tourist attractions here, but most of them require you to go horse back riding or walk 4-5 kms. We rejected both these prospects and decided to just spend time at the Indira Gandhi Park. We did not do much here except have some snacks and click couple of snaps, including one of what we hope is a potato plantation.

Next stop was the Helipad. This is very close to an exclusive school where children of eminent personalities study. The helipad is nothing but a huge plateau, about 100 mts by 25 mts, perched atop a hill. The view of the surrounding hills was just too great here. We also got our first glimpse of yaks here. From here, we went to Mashobra valley, primarily to kill time before reaching Shimla. Here, we got our first clear view of apple orchards.

We were back in Shimla by 3:15. Needless to say, we went to the mall, lunched at our favourite restaurant and walked back to our room. We rested in the afternoon. Then again in the evening, parents went shopping, while we twins roamed aimlessly before returning to our room at 9:30.

Arun had really come to like the mall, me too. It’s a really great place. There is a main “Chowk” and a few roads around which go up and down. The thing we liked best here is that there are no vehicles allowed here – 24 hrs. The ambience is just too good. Crowds milling freely, kids running around and general festive atmosphere.

Anyway, we had to bid farewell to the mall, because this was our last day at Shimla.


Our plan on this day was to go from Shimla to Manali, with sight seeing on the way.

We vacated our room and left by Maruti Alto taxi. Our driver-cum-guide was Bablu. We left by 9:45. We took NH 88, which is a good road (by HP standards). We stopped at a small Hanuman temple by the roadside, and then continued on our way. This road is mostly descending into the valley. The vegetation, though still consisting mostly of coniferous trees, thins out to some extent. We also saw more of shrubs, bushes and cacti. Some clumps of trees had become golden-brown in colour, the effect of drying out.

Just past noon, we joined NH 21. The road is a delight to travel on (maybe not for the driver because of the curves). For the first time since reaching HP, we saw flats (well, atleast something resembling plains). We even saw auto rickshaws for the first time. The ACC cement factory is at Barmana along the highway. It’s really huge. This setup reminds me of the curving NH 17 and the huge Ballarpur Industries factory near Binaga.

We lunched at a highway-side Dhaba. Then we saw the Sundernagar Lake (which is not exactly Sunder). There are lots of “juice bars” here. They are small scale industries which have their own juice extraction and bottling unit. We purchased some juice bottles from a company called PICK. It was really refreshing and the prices are very reasonable.

Next stop was Pandoh dam. This dam is across the Sutlej river. It’s a good picnic spot, but photography is restricted since there is s hydro electric power generation station here. That didn’t stop us from clicking a couple of snaps.

So far we were traveling along the Sutlej-Beas link. Now onwards, the highway travels along the Beas river, all the way to Manali.

After Pandoh dam, we stopped at a couple of spots where breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls (small ones) emerge from high in the mountains and flow into the river below. We clicked a couple of snaps here.

The road was getting increasingly narrow as it was carved into the side of a rocky hill. Our next stop was Hanogi Mata temple. Actually the main temple is on a hill across the river. The one on the highway side is just a scaled-down small temple. Bablu told us that this main temple is only accessible by boat. This was just a brief stop.

Next was the tunnel incident. The NH 21 goes through a tunnel about 1 km long. About half a kilometer into the tunnel, a truck had been parked across, blocking the road. We assumed there was a traffic jam of some kind. When we were waiting for the “jam” to clear, we heard a deafening blast, the walls of the tunnel shook slightly. We boys quickly realized that it was a dynamite blast probably for expansion of the tunnel or something. But you should have seen our parents’ faces. Dad thought it was a terrorist attack and mom thought god-knows-what. There was an audible sigh of relief from both of them when we emerged from the tunnel.

We reached Kullu by late afternoon. We did some shopping at Namdhari shawl factory’s showroom. Kullu is a district headquarters but there’s not much here except shawl factories and showrooms. We shopped for about 20 minutes and then were on our way again.

There is a Vaishno Devi temple in Kullu. We stopped here for about 15 minutes. Next, we stopped at Kullu fruit bazaar to purchase some fruits. The prices are almost throw away – apples, peaches and plums all at less than Rs. 20 a kilo!

Then was one of my favourite spots of the entire trip (well, the second-favourite spot!). It has been named the Manali Picnic Spot. It’s basically an apple and plum orchard. The owners have also opened a small restaurant in the orchard. The spot is on the other side of the river. We have to cross it by trolley. It’s really amazing. The orchard itself is also calm and quite. We spent around half an hour here and had tea. The owner gave us a couple of apples free.

By now it was around 7. But the light was still good. We reached Manali (2050 mts above MSL) at night and went directly to the hotel (Hotel Prince). Since we were all tired, we just ordered dinner to our room and turned in early.


This was what we had been waiting for – the trip to Rohtang pass. We were very excited at the prospect of seeing snow. We left around 9:45. We were given a cloth bag to use as dust-bin – no plastic bags are allowed anywhere here. A very good measure I should say. We took warm clothing – coat, shoes and gloves – on hire. It’s Rs.100 per head. The distance from Manali to Rohtang is 51 kms. But it takes almost 3 hrs because the road is very twisting. This stretch is also the most beautiful place I have seen in my life. The roads here are built and maintained by the Border Roads Organization.

We start off along the Beas river. The first 10 kms or so, we saw very rocky landscape. Then it started changing. We could see the peaks of the Shivalik range. The mountains around didn’t have too many trees. The vegetation was very short grass, which looked more like algae from the distance. We could see snow (well ice chunks is a better way to describe it) somewhere in the distance – we didn’t even realize it was snow until Bablu told us. The whole way is full of unimaginable natural beauty. There are no words to describe it – you have to see it to believe it and to experience it.

We had tea at a place called Mhadi. By now we were among the clouds. The mist rolled in every now and then. At Mhadi, we saw people para-gliding. The scenery was by now extremely beautiful. You could see the patches of green around, and if you lokked up, you could see the peaks with ice chunks around them, obscured in the mist. What a sight!

By 1, we reached a spot where chunks of ice were along the roadside. This was our first real glimpse of snow. Then we reached Rohtang pass (3950 mts above MSL). This was definitely the peak, the high point of our trip (no pun intended).

The snow here is not freshly fallen, in fact it is snow which had fallen in last winter, but which has not yet melted. Arun was disappointed. It was not what he had pictured in his mind - meaning it was not glistening white snow in the sunlight. In fact it was “dirty” snow.

Nevertheless, we had lots of fun there. Sliding in the snow, falling, throwing snowballs at each other. There was a huge crowd there. People were taking photographs sitting on yaks, zooming around in the snowmobile, just having a hell of a time (or should I say heaven of a time?).

But one thing we missed sorely here was the sunlight. There was a huge mist. So we couldn’t even see the other side of the pass, which supposedly offers spectacular view of the Himalayas and of the Lahaul and Spiti valleys. Imagine what a photograph that would have made.

Our hotel clerk had told me that it normally doesn’t rain at Rohtang – that when it rains in Manali, it snows at Rohtang. He was wrong. By 2:30, it started drizzling at Rohtang. It also started getting so cold that our fingers got numb. So we left Rohtang by 2:30. The journey back was another adventure in itself.

To start with, there was so much mist that we could hardly see 20 feet ahead of us. When we were around 7-8 kms back, the mist cleared, but there was a traffic jam. We were stuck for about an hour. Bablu says this is common since the roads are very narrow and two heavy vehicles cannot pass easily. Not that we minded the traffic jam – we were stuck at a spot where we could see another peak playing hide-and-seek behind the clouds. Simply awesome!

The authority here is the Army. The traffic jams are cleared by the Military Police. They are very efficient. Bablu told us that it’s because “Army waale bolte kam hain aur maarte zyaada hain”. I didn’t believe him, but we got proof of his words 15 minutes after he had uttered them. Because of the rain, streams of water coming down the mountain had blocked the road with rocks. All vehicles fell in line and waited, while one smart-ass decided to break the line and go ahead. He was given a good beating by the Military Police and told to go back and wait in line.

The road block was worse than we thought it was. We all had to get down from the car and cross the damaged “bridge” on foot, while Bablu maneuvered the car across it. We found water logging on the roads at several places since then but none was as severe. All along the way, Bablu fascinated us with his experiences of Kinnaur region. Kinnaur is the most cut-off of the districts in HP state. Bablu says it’s also the most beautiful and that it’s a must-visit. Arun and I have already made up our minds to visit Kinnaur, Leh and Lahaul within a couple of years.

We finally reached Manali by 6:45. We did some shopping again, had dinner and reached our room by 9. The restaurants here are very expensive I must say. Even Internet browsing is Rs. 50 per hour! Manali exists because of tourism – that’s the reason for this madness.


Manali local sight seeing. Started a bit late around 9:45. Had breakfast in town in what turned out to be a pretty expensive restaurant. Our first sight seeing of the day was Hidimba temple. The temple is supposedly of unique architecture with three tiers of wood surmounted by a metal umbrella. There are really huge deodhar trees in this area. We heard that many movies including Roja were shot here. People were taking photographs holding really fluffy rabbits.

We moved on next to Vasishta bath. This is a sulphur hot water spring. The water is too hot to even touch. We were astonished to see people actually bathing in this hot water, especially since the weather itself was very hot by this time. Next, we went to the club house. I can’t even imagine why this place features on the tourist spots list. Its just a normal club house with sporting facilities – TT, tennis, badminton, pool, carom, chess, squash and what not. Other than that, there are a few shops here, that’s all.

Just because we had come here, I and Arun decided to play TT for half an hour (that cost us Rs. 30). I won the first game quite comfortably; probably because Arun was rusty (he had not played TT in 4 years). Then, he unleashed his game beating me in the next 5 games till the half an hour was up.

From club house we went to the Buddhist monastery which is almost in center of town. We dint spend too much time here. But we did spend about an hour in the next place – Ban Vihar. This is somewhat like a “garden” of deodhar trees, which looks more like a forest. Real nice place. Calm, cool and peaceful. Then we had lunch and went to our room.

In the evening, we went to town again to do some last minute shopping and for general time pass. After having dinner, we returned to our hotel room around 9:15. We did some packing because we were to leave early next morning for Chandigarh.


We vacated our Manali room pretty early in the morning. By 6:30 we were on the road. This time Bablu took some other road to Kullu. All along the 1 hour journey we could see only apple orchards on the roadsides. We got kind of bored of all the apple trees! This road is along the other bank of the river. Finally, we joined NH 21 at Kullu. Bablu had breakfast there while we had bread and tea (the place was not really clean). Then we hit the road again. Just after noon, we had reached Ghagas, the point where we had joined NH 21 while coming to Manali from Shimla. Actually this highway goes all the way to Chandigarh, but we wanted to see Pinjore gardens on the way, so we had to take a detour from Ghagas onwards. We bought some fruit here and were on the way again.

About half an hour from here, we had a tire puncture, thanks to a huge nail. Poor Bablu toiled for 10-15 minutes to replace that tire with the spare. When we were about 60 kms from Shimla, we took a diversion. Bablu had warned us that the next couple of hours would not be exactly pleasant because the roads are narrow and full of curves. Somewhere along the way, he had the puncture patched. The roads started getting better from a town called Kunihar. Then we passed through a predominantly military establishment called Subathu. This village was really unique – full of similar military buildings and children in uniform walking around. Bablu told us that this place is full of Nepalis.

By 5:15, we hit NH 22 at Dharampur. From here it took hardly half an hour to reach Pinjore gardens. This town is famous for 2 things – the gardens (built by the Mughals) and the HMT factory there. Unfortunately, we had reached the Pinjore gardens very “early”. As it was July and the days are longer, they hadn’t switched on the fountains and the lights. But we could imagine that in full splendor, the place would look somewhat like the Brindavan gardens at KRS.

We had fruit chats and left around 6:30 or so. Reaching Chandigarh around 7:15, we decided to stay at the Transit Lodge right inside the State Bus Terminus. The prices were not really reasonable but were better than most other places in this center of city. We had tea and had to say good bye to Bablu. After settling the final payments, dad offered him a generous tip, which he refused initially, being the gentleman that he is (what a stark contrast to drivers here). Only after forcing did he accept!

It took us hardly any time to settle down in the room and then we were off again to explore Chandigarh. We were put up quite close to the shopping area –Sector 17. Chandigarh is a perfect example of a planned city. I don’t think any existing city will come anywhere close to having this infrastructure. All straight roads, all right angle intersections, wide medians, everything is so planned. Of course, I have my own doubts about the city’s capability to cope with a surge in population (like the one experienced by Bangalore because of IT).

We did some shopping – Chandigarh is famous for bed sheets and such stuff. The prices are really low. We did some purchasing and then had dinner and went to sleep.


We saw on TV that an Air India flight had overshot the runway at Mumbai airport because of the rains. So Dad and I headed straight to the Indian Airlines office to confirm that our 3 o’ clock flight to Delhi was on time. The reason was that our flight was to come from Mumbai via Delhi. We were assured that the flight was on time but still they took my mobile number to inform us of changes.

Now we were relieved and started our Chandigarh sight seeing by around 11. We had planned to see Rose gardens, Museum, Rock gardens and Sukhna lake before being dropped at the airport by 2 p.m. So, we vacated our room and set off in a taxi.

We spent half an hour at Rose garden and had just spent another half hour at the museum (by the way I liked the museum better), when I got the dreaded call – The Indian Airlines flight to Delhi had been cancelled. We were told to get to the airport by 12:30 and that a bus would be arranged for us to take us to New Delhi.

We got really tensed and rushed to the airport. It was now 12:30. Shortly after, the staff of IA arrived in a bus. We explained our predicament to them – we had a connecting flight (that too Air Sahara – not IA) from New Delhi at 1905. They immediately offered to arrange a taxi. We asked whether it was possible to accommodate us on the 2:00 Jet Airways flight from Chandigarh to Delhi. We were told that it would be a risk since the Jet Airways authorities may or may not agree.

Not wanting to take any chances, we agreed to be “transported” by taxi to Delhi. We were told that it would take 5 and half hours from Chandigarh airport to Delhi airport. So we left by 1:00 in an air-conditioned Tata Indica. We were also told that we would be fully insured and all – that it was exactly like traveling by flight, except that we were traveling by road! We were even given the water and food that we would have been served on board.

The distance from Chandigarh to Delhi is 240 kms. Once you are out of the Union Territory of Chandigarh, till the time you enter the state of Delhi (30kms from the airport), you travel through the state of Haryana. You only see wheat fields all around you – the terrain is 100 % flat! The first 40 kms to Ambala was NH 22. It was a two lane road, but good nevertheless.

From Ambala onwards, you hit NH 1 – the Grand Trunk road. This road is so good, I was actually pleased that the flight got cancelled and we got an opportunity to travel on this road. It’s a 4/6 lane road all the way to Delhi (200 kms). You frequently have stretches of 5-6 kms which are absolutely straight, followed by very gentle (almost un-noticeable) bends. Drivers regularly cruise at speeds in excess of 120 kms/hr here. You can very easily maintain an average speed of 65 -70 kms per hour. In fact, we reached the Delhi border by 4:20 – that means we had covered a distance of 210 kms in 200 minutes. An even better stat is – after hitting NH 1; we had covered 170 kms in 140 minutes! This highway is a must-drive for every driving enthusiast.

From the moment we entered Delhi, the traffic started swelling and we took more than an hour to get to the airport, but we were not complaining. We had been told the journey would take 5 and a half hours, whereas we had completed it in 4 and a half hours.

Thanking the driver profusely, we headed for security check and then, we started watching the cricket match in the TV at the waiting lounge. Our flight was more or less on time. This time, we were cruising at an altitude of 37 thousand feet. Captain Anila Bhatia also informed us of the course of the flight – she said something like we’ll be heading towards Bhopal, where we will take a deviation to fly over Hyderabad and then bank right to reach Bangalore. I read for most of the flight since it was dark outside and we were way too high to see anything at all.

We reached Bangalore airport by 9:45. After claiming our luggage, we hired a pre-paid taxi and reached home by 10:45. The driver actually asked us to pay him 20 rupees more than the stipulated amount! We immediately thought about the contrast between him and the simple, hard working and honest people of Himachal. What a disgusting end to a relaxed and fun filled tour!


itsme said...

looks like you are totally jobless

please share my workload :)

Mayur Bhatia said...

Thats a nice description. I am planning to go on a Honeymoon trip in July this year to the same places as mentioned in your travelogue. Just want to confirm if rain was too much a hindrance/restriction in you trip? I have been told my honeymoon will be washed away with rains. So I am scared.

Kiran said...

@Mayur Bhatia:Rain was not at all a problem for us .. in fact the slight drizzles added to the ambience :D. The only time we faced a problem because of rain was on the way down from Rohtang pass to Manali. That, not because it was raining where we were; but because it was raining somewhere higher up in the hills; and that water gushing down created problems for us.

I would however suggest you to get information from locals prior to the trip; since there is lot of unpredictability in the region - small rains can sometime cause landslides which in turn cause road-blocks and stuff like that.