A post that's late. Again.
This is about a trip that happened last October, during the Diwali holidays to be precise. We were dilly-dallying around Dalhousie-Khajjar but owing to the lack of impressive pet-friendly stay options, we decided to go off-beat - traverse the less explored valleys of Himachal, pitch a tent on the banks of the gurgling river and go trout-fishing in the Himalayan waters. Our plan looked like this:
Day 1: Start early from Noida and arrive in Mandi before sundown. It was Azal's birthday the next day and we wanted to have our little party in the night.
Day 2: Mandi to Jibhi. Drive to Jalori Pass. Hike to Serolsar lake. Spend the night in a wooden cottage in the rustic village
Day 3: Jibhi to Tirthan Valley: Camp by the river and go fishing
Day 4: Tirthan Valley to Kasol: Explore the hippie town and visit the hot springs in Manikaran. Stay by the banks of the Parvati river in a quaint little cottage with a private sit-out
Day 5: Drive back from Kasol to Noida
So, as per the plan, we arrived in Mandi by 3 pm when the Diwali festivities were in full spring. Our stay was booked at the Royal Palace Hotel tucked away in a secluded corner of the buzzing town. The beautiful garden restaurant and the chic ambience of the hotel came as a surprise. Right outside the gates of the palace was the most sought-after sweets shop in Mandi - I couldn't stop myself from getting a box of gulab jamuns packed for my midnight feast. We bought some beer and vodka for the birthday eve celebration and headed back to the hotel for a lavish dinner in the garden lit up with dewy yellow lights. I must say, that the restaurant served one of the best kebab platters I've had till date.
The distance from Mandi to Jibhi is not much but the road gets narrower and winding as it nears Jibhi, with the scenery getting a facelift every few kilometers. Green Alpine Resort, one of the newer homestays in the area, has beautiful rooms finished entirely in wood and even an endearingly quirky treehouse with the giant growth jutting right through its center. After checking in, we drove to Jalori pass - the mountain pass closest to Delhi and the first pass to open up after getting snow-clogged every winter. The abundance of deodars and rhododendrons rocketing into the clear blue sky painted a fairy-tale-ish picture for our tired eyes to feast on. The route is so incredibly scenic that you get drawn into a world where nothing but beauty exists. Even the ruggedness of the tattered path cannot get to you when you are encompassed by such rich imagery.
We parked the jeep at the top, hogged on some masala omelet from the roadside shacks and set out on our first long hike with Sammy (our pug). Even though we have traveled all around India with her, this was the first time we felt confident that she could handle a 10 kilometer trek through the forest. The weather was favorable and Sammy was at her fittest. So why not? We carried water and biscuits and took frequent rest stops to make sure she was fine. And she fared excellently well. I wouldn't be wrong if I said she enjoyed the trail more than us though it wasn't easy on her. We had her back and she knew it - whether it was guarding against bulls or getting across steep rocks or giving her a lift when she simply needed a piggyback. Two hours into the hike, we got to a fenced-in lake at the foot of a temple. The hills behind offered panoramic views of snow-clad mountains. Talking about chance encounters along the way - an old lady taught us how to share the narrow trail with a herd of bulls without intimidating them, a boisterous group of Malayali boys showed us that you ain't far from home wherever you go, and the uber-cool college kids rolling a joint in the middle of nowhere reminded us that the quest for meaning never ends.
Back in the room, Sammy munched on pedigree kibbles after a gap of almost one year and suffered a severe bout of diarrhoea. We realized early on during the trip that she should stay away from packaged dog food and go natural like us. So we fed her a bowl of wholesome homemade yoghurt and she went to sleep in peace. Less than a kilometre from our cottage, there was a secret waterfall - so called because it is hidden from sight by a tantalizing approach road laden with tiny bridges and dense vegetation. We managed to get a quick glimpse of that surreal surprise of nature before the night fell and darkness swept over. Green Alpine served us some amazing dinner, hot and fresh from the kitchen before we called it a day. The next morning, we drove to Cheni Kothi or Cheni Fort - antiquated twin towers made of stone and wood, looming over an other-worldly village filled with apple orchards and walnut trees somewhere up in the hills. We parked near the Sringa Rishi Temple and climbed up. Though we lost our way a few times, we made it to the top in an hour's time. Clicking away with not much of an interference from the handful inhabitants of the village, we could not help but notice their aloofness and cold demeanour. Just then, a shabbily dressed old woman who looked like the poorest soul in the village, beamed at us through her wrinkles. "Would you like some apples?", she asked in Hindi and we nodded a yes. She disappeared into the house behind us which was still under construction and came out with a bunch of apples in her saree fold. She told us her story. Someone burnt their house down, she and her daughter were building a new one all on their own. Azal being Azal, asked her how much he had to pay for the apples. She smiled and refused, "No, I don't want money for the apples. This season was good, we got plenty of apples. Who knows if it would be the same next year!". She asked us to wait and went out of sight again. I looked around and found her in the lower chamber of a run-down house, digging out from her stash of walnuts and persimmons. She was embarrassed because I glanced at the insides of the dingy chamber which was occupied by buffaloes on one side. She signalled that I should stay outside. A few minutes later, she handed those walnuts and persimmons to us, saying those were gifted by her family. We had to give her something and all we had was money. We forced her to take it saying it was 'Shagun ka Paisa' (good luck charm).
We drove back to Green Alpine just in time for some freshly prepared Aloo-Parathas. I loved their food so much that I went into the kitchen and commended the cook. We checked out and headed towards Tirthan Valley, 45 km away from Jibhi. In spite of getting stuck in the election rally en-route, we managed to get to our campsite by noon. Our luxury tent pitched in the shade of a flourishing persimmon tree overlooking the Himalayan waters, was arranged by a homestay in the region. We had to cross the river in a dangling carriage to reach the tent. The rest of the day was spent in leisure, fishing and eating and drinking. Angling in the Tirthan river was an interesting experience indeed - call it beginner's luck, Azal managed to catch one Himalayan trout right at the start of the guided session but nothing after that. Sammy, on the other hand, had turned into a total maverick, going away on her own little expeditions and refusing to come to us when called. We moved to Kasol the morning after and checked into Parvati Kuteer, a delightfully pleasant string of cottages situated by the banks of the Parvati river.
Kasol was unlike anything I had expected it to be. For long, Kasol has been iconized as the epitome of the hippie culture feeding on the lull of the crystalline Himalayan waters and the headiness of the most potent marijuana grown in its untainted valleys. When we arrived there, I realized that Kasol in itself was nothing mindblowing. Don't get me wrong, the town was lively with cosy little cafes, shopping alleys and breathtaking views far beyond - but we had been feeding on the charm of Himachal for four days and Kasol didn't strike me as extraordinary. There are picturesque places like Kheer Ganga beyond Kasol which are accessible only by foot. We did not have enough time to accommodate a two-day trek into out itinerary; so we decided to just hang around Kasol. Before checking in, we had some sandwiches and waffles at Moondance Cafe - the eat-out best known for its crunchy waffle corner. Later in the day, we drove to Manikaran about 5 km away to visit the hot springs watering the religiosity of the Gurudwara and the Shiv temple in its vicinity. We walked around, bought walnuts and raisins for half the price we pay otherwise and savoured hot pakoda and chai at a Punjabi shack. On the way back we stopped at the flea market in Kasol to buy warm clothes for the coming season. While relishing almond cookies and yak cheese at the German bakery, we got acquainted with a German lady who remarked that the bakery was more American than German in its offerings. We left her to enjoy an early dinner at Evergreen Cafe, one of the best restaurants in Kasol with ample space, both indoor and outdoor. It was a pleasure to be back in our wooden cottage at Parvati Kuteer for the night. They lit up a bonfire in our private courtyard where we drank to the joys of love and life. After an early morning hike to the river gushing below, we bid goodbye to our little haven, biting wistfully into the apple crumble and cinnamon cookies packed from the German bakery in the heart of Kasol.
This one - this offbeat Himachal trip that almost caught us unawares - was definitely one of our best outings of 2017.