The trek to Dalhousie’s Cottage

“Would you like to visit Dalhousie’s Cottage?” asked Prithvi.

It was our first tour group’s first evening at The Hotel Grand Shangri-La, Kalpa and we were having dinner. Prithvi, the Managing Director of the hotel, was offering suggestions with regard to places we could visit.

“Dalhousie? As in Lord Dalhousie?” I asked.

“Yes, the very same. His cottage is about 8 km from here,” was Prithvi’s reply.

“But what was Lord Dalhousie doing here? I mean, he has a place named after him, Dalhousie, in another part of Himachal Pradesh, right? Or is this the Dalhousie you’re talking about? I’m a little confused now,” said someone from my group.

“Dalhousie, the place, is quite different from what I’m talking about. This is a cottage that Dalhousie built for his stay whenever he came to this region. Kalpa was his favourite hunting ground, you know,” Prithvi said.

“Hunting, as in, shikaar?” asked another person.

“Yes. Kalpa used to have a lot of wildlife, including snow leopards and Dalhousie was particularly fond of hunting them. He used to sail up the Sutlej and then set up camp in the area. The cottage was built later, when his wife came here. Local legends say that she had an incurable disease and was dying..”

“She must have had TB,” piped up another voice from our group.

“So, would you all like to visit Dalhousie’s cottage tomorrow? It is a nice level walk on winding roads and under beautiful trees… It is only after we cross Roghi village that the climb begins — just the last 2 km, in fact. Those who cannot do the climb can stay back and rest in the village,” Prithvi said most persuasively.

Our group didn’t need much persuasion and there was a resounding yes from all of us and next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set off for the trek with Prithvi leading the way.

Kalpa, Trek to Dalhousie's Cottage, Travel, Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur

Walking past brightly painted hotels in Kalpa. The yellow one in the background is called “Hotel Apple Pie” !

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The Grand Shangri-La at Kalpa

I am not fussy about hotels. No, really I’m not. A clean room, a clean bathroom, a convenient and safe location, a restaurant with some decent vegetarian options… and I’m a happy and satisfied customer of that hotel. Everything else — air-conditioner, spa, multi-cuisine restaurants, gym, room with views, wi-fi, etc. — are only add-ons for me and their presence or absence is not a criteria for choosing a hotel.

Sure, I like 5-star and luxury hotels, but while very nice, posh and what not, they tend to overwhelm me. An occasional heritage hotel has been known to tempt me, but it’s always because of the story it has to say, rather than the facilities they offer. While travelling, I’m always more concerned about the place I’m visiting rather than the place I’m staying in. So a basic hotel works just as fine as a not-so-basic or more-than-basic hotel. Like I said, I’m not fussy.

But last September, during a trip to Himachal Pradesh, I stayed in a hotel where I had such a superlative experience that I was forced to admit that the place of stay also adds to the travel experience. And 6 months on, I can even say that my stay at this hotel is among the memories that come to mind whenever I think of that trip. The hotel that has spoiled me for ever is The Hotel Grand Shangri-La at Kalpa in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.

The Grand Shangri-La, Kalpa, Hotel, Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh

The Grand Shangri-La

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The NH22 / Hindustan-Tibet Road

“We’ll take a 10-minute break here,” announces Doreen, our tour organiser and manager, as our convoy of 3 vehicles comes to a halt.

‘Here’ is somewhere on the road to Kalpa from Sarahan. It’s 10.30 am on a cold September morning and our 3rd day in Himachal Pradesh. As the rest of my group disperses to stretch their legs or use the washroom, I notice our drivers lock the vehicle with what seems like undue haste and almost sprint towards a temple that we have just passed.

That is when I notice many vehicles stopping and their drivers, and sometimes also the passengers, getting out and entering the temple. Curious to know more about this temple, I make my way towards it as well.

NH22, Hindustan Tibet Road, Himachal Pradesh, Taranga Devi TempleBy the time I reach the temple, the drivers are already out and on their way back to the vehicles. But on seeing me approach, Pawan (the driver of the vehicle I am travelling in) stays behind.

“What is this temple?” I ask.

“This is the temple of Tarandaa Devi,” Pawan replies. “She is the guardian deity of the road, us drivers, and all those who travel on this road. It is she who protects us and keeps us safe from accidents on the road.”

“The temple seems like a recent construction. Is it new”?

“Well, the construction is new, but there has always been a temple here. And the Tarandaa Devi idol is hundreds of years old.”

“Do you always stop by to pray here?”

“Always. No matter how rushed or how late, I always stop here. Tarandaa Devi has protected me and my family for many, many years. I was born in a village close by and have a very close association with this road — the NH22.

“Really? Tell me more about it.”

And over the next few days, in bits and pieces and fits and starts, Pawan told me about his association with the NH22 or National Highway No. 22.

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Moonrises, sunsets and sunrises at Kinner Kailash

Before my trip to Himachal Pradesh, everyone who knew I was travelling there had something to tell me about the place. More so because this was my first trip there and also because I would be seeing the Himalayas for the first time.

So, I got to hear about the weather, the roads, the people, the rivers, the food, the vegetation, the various mountain ranges, the monkeys, the treks, the hotels, the temples, the local culture, apples, snow, wildlife… But all of them missed out on telling me about the breathtaking Himalayan sunrises and sunsets or for that matter, Himalayan moonrises and moonsets.

The first set of sunrises and sunsets that I saw were at Fagu and Sarahan respectively. They were beautiful and I may have even termed them as spectacular, if I had not gone to Kalpa and seen the sunrises, sunsets and moonrises over the Kinner Kailash range; they redefined the words “spectacular” and “breathtaking” for me.

On my first evening at Kalpa, our group visited a gompa at Kalpa village. Our visit ended around sunset after which we were generally wandering about. Suddenly I heard Doreen, our tour leader, call out to us in an urgent voice to hurry and see the moonrise.

We all rushed to where Doreen was standing and saw the moon peeking from behind a mountain peak and getting ready to make its appearance for the night. And over the next few minutes, I was witness to a moonrise like none that I had seen before and, perhaps none that I am likely to ever see.

Kinner Kailash, Kalpa, moonrise

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Serene Sarahan

Sarahan, Apples, Himachal Pradesh“Have you had Himachali apples?”  the three women ask. “They are really good, you know. The best.”

I am at Sarahan in Himachal Pradesh walking around and exploring this pretty little town, when I meet the 3 women and get into a conversation about apples with them.

“I know. I’ve had them in Mumbai,” I smile.

“Oh Mumbai,” the first woman says in a dismissive tone. “After all the travelling the apples do, they won’t taste the same.” The other two women laugh.

“Yes, they won’t,” the second woman insists. “You must have Himachali apples here. In Himachal.

“Would you like some apples?”asks the third woman.

“Sure,” I say. “I’d love to have an apple.”

Within minutes, I am biting into an apple that one of the women gives me. It is fresh and juicy — a little sweet, a little tart — just the way I like my apples. And the women are right, the apple tastes like nothing I’ve had before. “They’re perfect,” I say to the women.

That is the cue for the women to give me more apples and before I know it I am clutching a paper bag full of apples and saying thanks and goodbye to the 3 women. They refuse payment from me and say that my appreciation is payment enough and send me on my way !

Sarahan, Apples, People, Himachal Pradesh Continue reading

Dear Himachal Pradesh…

I dreamt about you yesterday.

It was a lovely dream where my 10-day trip to Fagu, Sarahan, Kalpa, Sangla, Narkhanda and Chail in September was relived all over again. I usually don’t remember my dreams when I wake up, but this one was so crystal clear and real that I’m pretty sure that I must have spoken in my sleep !

I dreamt of the trip of many firsts — the first time I visited your state, the first time I saw the mighty Himalayas, the first time my under-graduate and post-graduate classes on Himalayan Geology came alive, the first time I saw apples on trees, the first time I tasted a yellow plum, the first time I saw the confluence of two rivers … and so much more.

Himachal Pradesh, FaguI dreamt about the rainstorm you welcomed me and the group I was travelling with. And how in the space of a few hours, we went from hot and humid Mumbai to cold, almost freezing, weather in Fagu. That night, I slept under two blankets and had a heater in the room.

I dreamt of that first morning I woke up to in Fagu. Clouds had covered the entire valley and I delighted in watching the clouds vanish like wisps of vapour as the sun rose in the sky to reveal the distant snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. And closer, much closer, was the vegetation associated with the Himalayan ecosystem. Not that I could identify any, but still… :-)

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