Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On The Road, To Himachal

We just returned from a six day trip to Himachal, of which about three days were spent on the road - Delhi- Chandigarh- Kullu- Naggar. Our final destination, the tiny village of Naggar, stretches peacefully on a mountain side flanked by the great Himalayan range.

The road trip was interesting - it had been over a decade since we had travelled in this area and the highway had undergone a transformation. The road to Chandigarh is straight and smooth, bypasses have been created at most towns along the way, which makes driving very easy. An enterprising Cafe Coffee Day stands alongside the highway, further down, near Chandigarh, the inevitable American Mc Donalds serves mc aloo tikki (potatoey stuff) and of course, we head further on, looking for a roadside dhabba to eat.

Punjab is always a good option for a food stop - the road is surrounded by green fields (yellow at this time, filled with mustard flowers), the people are welcoming and always serve everything with spoonfuls of fresh butter. We generally stick to thick rotis, fresh from the tandoor, and dal.

After Chandigarh, the road visibly deteriorates. The Kullu road twists up into the hills and we look on in pleasurable anticipation. Finally - we bid goodbye to the plains! But, to our dismay, we are greeted by a convoy of trucks - in both directions on the tiny one lane (each way) road. It is a choked, smoky, slow and frustrating drive of over a hundred kilometres more until we reach the outskirts of Kullu. Why, we wonder, have things changed so much in the last ten years?

Cement factories! There are four cement factories now in this stretch - which have all but taken over the road and left nothing but dreadful, continuous, irreversible pollution on the once pristine hillside. It is moments like this, when one comes face to face with blatantly bad governance and utter disregard for the environment, that one's heart breaks. It doesn't help. Those fragments of hope are just buried deep under rubble, and crushed to dust as development rumbles on.

Therefore, next time, we may take the Simla road instead of the Kullu one, even if it is a detour. Anything to escape the trucks - and the heartbreak.

We stop for the night at Bilaspur - there is a small rest house run by Himchal Tourism. It stands on the highway, but fortunately is built downwards, into the mountain side, which shelters us from the incessant noise and diesel fumes. I promptly have a migraine and retire until next morning, when we continue towards Kullu.

Kullu is now all concrete and so is Manali, but our destination lies in between. A good by pass helps us avoid both towns. We soon find ourselves winding our way upwards, alongside the just-thawing Beas river, towards Naggar, which was once the capital of the region of Kullu.

There is an old palace, where the royal family resided. A glorious little structure of solid stone and giant, carved beams of wood. This has been taken over by the state (Himachal) tourism department and this was where we stayed - in a large, airy (somewhat cold) room that looked out onto the apple orchards (now bare and dry) and the great mountains beyond. Luckily, we had brought our own quilts, hot water bottles and brandy- and we gradually settled into our temporary new home.

Apart from a few Russians (the extraordinary Russian artist Nicholas Roerich settled here in 1929, this village is very much on the Russian tourist map) and some honeymooners, there were very few tourists and we were left alone with the calming mountains and the bracing air and the soundless nights that lulled us into a state of contemplative peace. But more on that later!

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