The Financial Express

In the lap of the Himalayas

In the lap of the Himalayas

Sathpal Rathore hails from North Delhi. Nobody can ignore his masculine body structure. Driving is his profession and may be his passion also. His dauntless driving on the curved path in the mountain areas gives a feeling of thrill and excitement, though it sometimes arouses panic in you. The white Toyota Etios of Satpal seems to be a little demon with wheels. Its indomitable speed easily overtakes the preceding vehicles, then it moves on and on.

We were running towards Shimla, the capital city of Himachal. The short and stout Sathpal was very time conscious. As agreed last night, our journey started off at around 9 am from Hotel Red Castle, Delhi. We would stay in Shimla for two nights, then go to Manali for three nights. The kids were excited of visiting Manali as they long cherished of seeing the snow-covered land. They would make snowman, experience ice skating, roll over the snow and have lots of fun.

Our car had already crossed Uttar Pradesh and was running through the plain land of Haryana. The national highway with wide divider boasts of having six smooth lanes. One can see vast wheat fields on both sides of the road. Sathpal mentioned that the state produces huge amount of sugarcanes also. His statement appeared true within short time. We could see sugarcane juice vendors at short intervals alongside the highway. Many people were seen drinking the fresh juice on their journey to fight the heat of the summer in mid-April. We also wanted to taste the popular juice of North India. Sathpal took us to a vendor, whom he ranked as the number one juice seller on this highway, within twenty minutes or so. The veteran seller served us the sugarcane juice with ice cubes and mint leaves. Having the taste of chilled juice under the shadow of a large tree in the scorching afternoon was a unique experience for us. A jumbo size mug filled with the magical drink costs Rs.20 only.

Nonstop Hindi songs from popular films were being played one after another via youtube. Sathpal often lent his voice to the melodious numbers. The beautiful combination of speed and sound on smooth tracks made our journey joyful. We reached Pinjore Gardens, a historic summer retreat of the 17th century, located in the district of Panchkula under Haryana at around 2.30 pm. The complex built for the emperor Aurangzeb is around 260km away from Delhi. The gardens have been laid in several terraces, each offering a new landscape. You will meet the graceful Mughal architecture in the buildings like "Sheesh Mahal", "Hawa Mahal", "Rang Mahal", "Jal Mahal" etc in each of these terraces. Having spent an hour or so in the Pinjore Gardens, we enjoyed a camel ride in front of the main gate in payment of Rs.200.

No sooner had we resumed our journey, the horizon of mammoth mountains became visible. Sathpal switched off the AC since the car cannot provide the luxury in the hilly paths. The cool touch of fresh air made us feel that we were already in Himachal state. Our destination was still a journey of few hours. The car could not go at more than 40km/h as the roads were carved in the edges of the mountains. The surrounding environment looked heavenly during the twilight moments. The darkness creeped in. The distant Shimla city looked like a starry sky.

We were moving up and up, but the end point seemed unreachable. At last when we reached Hotel Summit Le Royale, it was already half past nine. Once we got out of the car, we felt the severe cold. The smart phone said it was 8.0 degrees Celsius. We checked-in quickly. Ours was a family suite of two rooms on the top floor. The wooden interior of the suite was inspired by the shape of the Egyptian pyramid. We had our dinner at the hotel restaurant where we met Mr. Ashfaque Ahmed, a Kashmiri youth working there as a waiter. The soft spoken Mr. Ahmed became intimate with us within minutes. He showed us the photos of his house, village and surrounding nature on the mobile screen, and also requested us to visit Kashmir at least once in a life. He told that one could be easily healed of one's sorrows and sufferings in the blissful environment of the Kashmir valleys.

Next day we as usual woke up early in the morning. Google said our hotel was on the altitude of 7500ft. It was located in the charming natural environment, completely free from city's hustle and bustle. We enjoyed the wonderful beauty of high mountains and their deep green valleys in the first light of the day. Then we had our breakfast and went out to visit the tourist spots in Shimla.

Our first destination was Naldehra, a fascinatingly calm and quiet hill station amidst long deodar and pine trees. The then Viceroy of British India, Lord Carzon was so mesmerized with the beauty of this place that he added the word 'Naldehra' to the name of his third daughter, Alexandra. We hired four ponies at Rs.1600.00 to enjoy the charming ambience of Naldehra. The ponies were walking across the steep paths of the mountains slowly. The local guides shown us the movie shooting spots, the hamlets in the deep valley, the snow covered peaks of the Himalayan mountains, the narrow line of Indo-China border, the Mahanagh temple, the golf-course built by Lord Carzon etc. The exciting pony ride lasted for one and half hour.

Our journey again started on the winding roads towards the next destination, Kufri which is about 20 km away from Naldehra. Sathpal dropped us at the parking zone. From there we went to Kufri Fun World Theme Park by hiring a 4*4 wheel zeep. Then we reached Mahashu Ridge and Peak, which is at the altitude of about 9000 feet, on foot. There were lots of arrangement for the tourists- wooden handicrafts, traditional costumes of Shimla, professional photography, telescope and so on. The Naag Temple stands on the peak. We shall cherish the memory of having tea with the Himalayas in our front for long time. After getting down from the mountain peaks, we visited the calm and quiet Himalayan Wild Life Zoo.

It was already 5 pm when we returned to our hotel. We relaxed for 30 minutes or so and again went out to explore the surrounding areas. This time we had to move on foot as those places are off limits to the vehicles. The Ridge, the centre of Shimla's cultural activities lies just below 500 metre from our hotel. The area boasts of having a church of Neo-gothic structure (1857 A.D.), Geity Heritage Cultural Complex (1877 A.D.) and also a library building of Tudorbethan style (1910 A.D.). There is a gigantic water reservoir of 10 lac gallons, built in 1880's, beneath the Ridge. This reservoir is still playing a crucial role in water supply in the city. The road on the western side of the Ridge leads to the Mall Road, a shopping paradise. The intersection of the Ridge and the Mall Road is known as 'Scandal' Point. A widely popular story tells that the daughter of the then Viceroy of India eloped with the King of Patiala in this way in 1892. Currently there is a statue of the great Indian warrior Lala Lazput at the Scandal point. The road across the eastern side of the Ridge took us to Lakkar Bazar, well known for wooden handicrafts. We returned to our hotel at around 9 pm, had our dinner and went to bed quickly. The next morning, we shall start for Manali.

Manali is about 260 km away from Shimla. The whole journey is through the twisting roads curved at the edges of the mountains. As soon as we were on the move, it began raining heavily. The surrounding areas darkened within minutes. Sathpal didn't stop, rather he grabbed the opportunity to show his driving skill. The rain didn't take time to go away. The nature wore a fresh and bright look quickly. We were simply mesmerized at the visual melody of the mountains. We crossed the Pandoh Dam Hydroelectricity Project situated in Mandi District at around 3.30 pm. The project having production capacity of 990 megawatts was inaugurated in 1977. The fascinating landscape of this place will enthral anybody. Our next destination was Jhiri, a river rafting point beside the Kullu highway. The rafting on the swiftly flowing Beas river started at around 5 pm. The snow melted water from the Himalayas was splashing over us now and then. We had to pay Rs.6000.00 for this thrilling experience of about 40 minutes. Sathpal again inserted key into his favourite toy. The car was then running through the enchanting Kullu valley. In the evening, we visited an outlet of a local shawl factory and purchased some warm clothes. Finally, we reached Gezellig Inn - Tree Hill Cottages, our hotel in Manali at 8.30 pm. It was then 7 degrees Celsius in the town.

We woke up early in the next morning and witnessed a magnificent view from the hotel balcony. The snow laden silver peaks of the mountains were calling us. We were just awe-struck for moments. We had our breakfast and got ready quickly for our first-ever expedition in the land of snow. Sathpal took us to a local tour operator from whom we purchased a package of Rs.8000.00 for a voyage towards Hampta Pass. After crossing 32 turn-offs on the breathtakingly steep roads in 2 hours, we reached the sea of snow at the altitude of 14000 feet. A couple of deodar trees were standing there in a meditative mood. The boys didn't take time to play with snow. Also there was rain all on a sudden. The cold drops were trying to get the warmth of our body through the snow jacket and trousers. Nevertheless, we continued our skiing, sliding etc. When we returned to the car of Sathpal, it was already 4 pm. We had our delayed but delicious lunch at "Taste of India", a restaurant with exceptional interior. Our next destination was Vashisht Temple. The Hindu mythology tells that the temple was built by Rishi Vashisht, one of the seven sages and also an instructor of Rama and Lakshman, somewhat 4000 years ago. The temple houses the famous hot water spring which is widely believed to cure skin and other diseases if someone takes bath there. The village of Vashisht always remains vibrant with the tourists and the Hindu pilgrims. After the temple visit, we returned to Hotel in the evening amidst drizzling.

Yesterday we saw the snow on the high mountain, today we shall see in the valley. The popular Solang Valley is 15 km away from Manali city centre and its altitude is about 8000 feet. Sathpal dropped us at the parking zone at 10.30 am. We hired two ATV Quad Bikes to reach the centre of the snow covered valley. The shining beauty of the valley in the morning sun was simply a stunner. The boys became busy in making snowman. The tourists were trying to capture the memories from different angles. There was good arrangement of many sporting activities like zip lining, paragliding etc. We left Solang valley after spending three hours or so. We had our lunch on the way towards Club House, a popular tourist spot for food, shopping and sports, in Old Manali. We purchased a beautiful jute-made wall mat from a souvenir shop. Then Sathpal took us to Hadimba Devi Temple, built in 1553 AD. The king Bahadur Singh built the temple in memory of Hadimba Devi, wife of the mighty Vim of Mahabharat. In the late afternoon, we went to Van Vihar National Park adjacent to Mall Road. The park encompassed by the sky long deodars is a unique place in the heart of the town to feel the silence of nature. The Tibetan Monastery is just opposite to the Van Vihar. The tourists throng to the place for varieties of handicrafts. Lastly we visited the famous Mall Road of Manali where we met an ancient guitarist with hat. The white gentleman was singing popular Hindi numbers one by one with a smile in his eyes. The passers-by stood or sit for a while and listened to one or two songs; many of them took selfies with the singer in the background. We enjoyed fresh 'rosogolla' and 'jilapi' while standing beside the oven. We went back to hotel at 9.30 pm. Next day was our return journey.

Sathpal drove us a long way of 550 km from Manali and dropped us at the Red Castle Hotel in Delhi at 10 pm. Our Kolkata flight was early in the morning. We had also an overnight stay in Kolkata. While we were driving towards home in Dhaka from the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport on a hot summer day, the cool and calm feeling was still active in our imagination. This feeling cannot be described in words. 

The writer is a banker.
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