For an idyllic view of the Himalayas, head to Narkanda
It was January, the coldest month. Winter was in the air in Delhi. The crisp winter air tempted my friends, who had never seen a snowfall in their lifetime, like anything. They wanted so badly to go somewhere, where it really snows and revel in the fluffy snowflakes, dance in snow and engage in a snow fight.
Gulmarg in Kashmir and Oli in Uttarakhand came to my mind almost instantly. Both the places are extremely beautiful and equally famous for skiing. But I decided to try quite a new place as I had already visited both the destinations.
Then, after much pondering, I zeroed into Narkanda in Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh, situated at an altitude of 8000 ft. Dhumri slope in Narkanda is also famous for skiing. A verdant hill covered with a luxurious growth of pine and deodar trees intermittent with apple orchards. The very comfortable road from Delhi to Shimla was, of course, another attraction. And the road up from Shimla was also more or less in good condition. Narkanda is an apt choice for a weekend trip.
We decided to stay at Fagu on top of Shimla and Kufri and proceed to Narkanda from there. As we were travelling with children, accommodation and all were given extra care and booked rooms online in advance in a hotel run by Himachal Tourism Department in Fagu. While we were busy picking up things for the trip information came from Himachal Tourism Department that all road routes up from Shimla are closed due to heavy snowfals and if we prefer we could change our reservation to some other hotels run by the department. This information caught us unawares though; we decided to go ahead with our plan if it is not Narkanda then some other place. And we shifted our room reservations to Naldehra.
Naldehra is 22 km away from Shimla and at a height of 6700 ft from there. The place also boasts of the oldest golf course in India coming straight out of the colonial era. The beauty of the place, the snow-capped mountains spotted with the thick deodar growth instantly attracted Lord Curson, the then Viceroy of India. And the place continued to be a weakness of Lord Curson and he even went to the extent of naming his third daughter, whom his wife Mary Victoria conceived here in Naldehra, as Alexandra Naldehra. He camped very often in Naldehra and designed a golf course with nine holes here. Later on, it was renovated and extended to 18 holes.
On our way to Naldehra, we have seen that several places were under a thick blanket of snow and we took pit stops at these spots and took photos and played in plenty of snow to our hearts' content. The hotel of Himachal Tourism Department was in a quiet pristine place. It is a golf lover's favourite pick with its peculiar slopes and turf.
It was quite an experience sitting at the top floor of the hotel, built completely with wood, sipping pipe hot tea, in the very cold temperature of Naldehra, glancing occasionally to the vast distance of golf course extending beyond a single glance.
The very next day, a happy news reached us that the route to Narkanda was almost cleared and immediately we contacted the tourism office there. They confirmed the news but cautioned us that we had to walk almost 200 metres from the main road to the hotel which was still under the cover of snow. The information rendered us more than happy as we had decided to come to the place itself to play in the snow. Santhosh, who drove our tempo traveller, was quite a pundit in his job and steered the vehicle with utmost care, passing behind the numerous vehicles which had been completely buried by the dense snow. On our way, we spotted the snow sweepers clearing the road more than a couple of times. On the almost deserted road, we went ahead enjoying the winter. The trees on either side of the roads were fully clad in the pristine white orb of snow. Quite an unforgettable spectacle!
But, by the time we reached Narkanda, our boundless exhilaration was somewhat mellowed by the numbing cold, which began to have its effect on both our body and mind. The hotel is located a bit away from the main road. And the small road to the hotel is completely under thick snow. We began to walk to the hotel and many a time we have to inch or way strenuously as our legs were drawn knee deep into the snow. Near the hotel, a few people were trying hard to pull their jeep out of the snow using iron chains.
That walk of 200 meters was quite taxing, each step needed tremendous energy and effort. After every couple of steps, we bumbled; we managed to stand on our feet with the entire luggage only to be down with all of them again. We, who yesterday, hilariously played with the muddy snow on the sides of the road, now only wanted to escape from the immaculate white snow somehow.
All the four sides of the hotel were covered with thick snow. The front of the main door to the hotel was a little bit cleared to allow in and out the people. The hotel, The Hatu, is one of the very good hotels of Himachal Tourism department. Its manager told us that a group of tourists who were trapped in the hotel because of the heavy snowfall had been able to leave the hotel just a few hours back.
We all felt a bit relieved in front of the heater in our rooms. All the chairs and tables arranged in front of the hotel, which was selected with a good taste, were covered in snow. The sights outside the hotel dragged us out very soon and we found ourselves playing in the snow once again. The view from inside the hotel, the valleys hemmed by hills was capped by a turquoise blue sky, and further, beyond that, the sky and the hills, unite to a single form in the firmament. The sights were quite eye-capturing.
One of the photos I clicked there later bagged the first prize in a photography contest of a famous photography magazine and another picture, which was taken on our return trip, was selected as the cover photo of the book, Himalaya Ragangal by MG Radhakrishnan, published by Green Books.
We had arranged an accommodation facility in the same hotel for the driver also, but he refused and instead decided to stay in the vehicle itself because he had to wake up in between several times to start the vehicle, otherwise it would create problems in the morning. Diesel will freeze much faster than petrol though its freezing point is much higher than that of petrol. But the adulterated diesel will solidify much faster. If there is water in the radiator along with the cooler then it becomes a solid mass, the moment the engine is turned off. Then there is no hope.
Before the fall of evening, we managed to have a very quick trip through the main roads of Narkanda. Not a single vehicle throughout the road. Though the shops were opened, no customers were spotted. One of the shop owners told us, pointing to certain heaps of snow on the roadsides that they were all vehicles being parked there, and all had gone under the snow.
Meanwhile, an old man in a torn out military uniform caught our attention. He was wearing a coat, which badly needed a wash for months and his shoes almost came off. He was limping behind us for long; his appearance was enough to evoke unequivocal sympathy. After a while, I went to him and managed to start a conversation. We talked about the climate and lifestyle of the people there in general. All the others in our group also gathered around curiously listening to our talk. Like any other retired military servant, he also enthusiastically talked about Indo- Pak war and the injury, he suffered on his leg during the war. We were all ears to his stories though we were damn sure that most of them were fictitious, my sympathy towards him increased as he continued his talk shivering in the cold. We couldn't offer anything much to help him. Finally, I went to a wine shop near and bought a pint of brandy for him. His face brightened with happiness. He hugged me close. Almost stupefied and confused, I knelt down and bowed before him. His eyes shined in a very peculiar way, which might be the pride he still nursed for being served as a sepoy in the Indian Army long back. That facial expression still remains alive in my memory.
Darkness had almost fallen. We actively discussed on how to set up a campfire in the hotel. The hotel proposed fancy rates for firewood. But we were all overwhelmed by the prospects of enjoying the comfort of a campfire in that climate. We spread an iron sheet over the snow and lit up a fire and gathered around it, singing and dancing. As the night grew darker, the cold also increased boundlessly. All the body parts except which were very close to the fire had gone numb. The cold began to have its effects on our bodies very quickly and we fled back to the hotel rooms to find shelter before the heaters.
Was not sure why, but I couldn't sleep. My head weighed very heavy. Uneasiness persisted. Disturbing thoughts came to me one after another. The thought that another heavy fall could trap us in the hotel for days together began to nag me like anything. I remembered how the villagers hold small pots filled with burning embers close to their chests to keep themselves warm while once I visited Kashmir. With this thought, I suddenly found it very difficult to breathe there. I turned off the heater and opened the windows for a while letting fresh air into the room to compensate for the amount of oxygen burned out by the heater. Then again I went back to the bed but closed the eyes only at early morning.
The next day almost everybody complained of problems with sleep. Might be because of the high altitude.
The sun slowly came out of the cover of clouds -- only light without even a trace of the heat. All were silent, as our vehicle started its journey back. Could be the temperature or the blues of a return trip, all sat in the vehicle casting their eyes to the sights outside through the windshields.
Translated by Madhuban Geeth