Sunday, July 29, 2012

Diary of a Traveller: My Experiences : Himachal Pradesh: Day 3: On the way to Manali!!

We got up early this morning and got ready also in no time. We knew it takes long time to travel in the hills and distance between Shimla and Manali is 270 odd kms. But that didn’t deter us from ordering tea at our suite. We got our luggage packed and asked the room service to do a favour to transfer it to our vehicle. Anita had just moved ahead and came across Shib Kumar who told her that there has been a problem on the way to Manali ahead of Kullu. She was panic stricken as I saw her while descending from the staircases. She came running to me and gave me this update. Bravo! What a start for the day! I tried to confirm that with few locals who had told this to Shib Kumar. I suspected some confusion with the Ladakh cloudburst.
Anita suggested if we could extend our stay in Shimla and I told her we are not entitled to do that. I decided to continue with the earlier plan with no changes to it. For the sake of confirmation, I dialed Shammi’s cell in Delhi (I don’t know if he may be cursing me like anything as it was a Sunday morning). Shammi told me that he is not aware about such development and we can proceed to Manali.
I heaved a sigh of relief and marched towards Palace Wing to have breakfast. We again had a sumptuous breakfast as we were unaware about the food we may came across on the way. In the restaurant, I spotted a lady who had a stark resemblance with Manish Gupta who was CNBC TV 18’s commodity expert. I told this to Anita but she disagreed. However, I was confident that she was the same person and I decided to ask her as soon as we finished our breakfast.
After we were done, I approached the family who were having their breakfast and asked the lady, “Hi. Sorry to disturb you. But are you Manisha Gupta from CNBC TV18?” By the time I had asked this question, I had realized that she was not Manish Gupta. She looked startled but politely said no. I apologized for barging into and made a beeline to the receptionist. Anita was giggling and saying that she was right. I cleared my bills and was surprised to find that the tea was not included. I was told that it was complimentary. Got another reason to come back to Shimla! J
Finally, we boarded our car and descended towards city. There was no drizzling but the fog was still suspended on the roads and the trees. We made a quick exit fro Shimla. I could recall few of the places shown in the movie ‘Jab We Met’ when Shahid Kapoor comes to find Kareena in Shimla. Being nestled in hills, this city disappears in a flash and our veteran driver suggested us to have a final look at Shimla before it disappears.
We moved out of Shimla. Our first destination of this dream journey was behind us. We were on our way to explore another beautiful destination known as Manali.
Shib Kumar told us that Manali is the most beautiful destination of our itinerary. Welll…I was also told before I started journey that Dharamsala should never be missed. Shimla was written off by many people as I mentioned in my earlier writing. And nobody seemed to know about Dalhousie. Mystery is beautiful always, isn’t it? But I was also least interested in comparing all the places with the same benchmark.
I am a person who enjoy every centimeter of my journey as everything is new for me. The flowers, the trees, the bushes, the animals, the people…everything is new as you keep on moving. Everything keeps on changing and you can’t take you eyes off. Beauty of the Himalayas is such that it takes you in to the world of trance. I really have no issues with people who prefer reading (when they are actually exploring new places…do they??) or the people who love take nap..! But I am not comfortable with both. Some people may argue that I was in Himalayas and that’s why I could see beautiful places throughout the journey. Well, deserts are also amazing with their changing patterns. Everything new is very exciting.
I recall a chapter from Alvin Toffler’s amazing study about the future called ‘Future Shock’. It says that human body is meant to live life monotonously without facing much changes. It doesn’t differentiate changes between good and bad. So changes make human body vulnerable and shrinks expectancy of life. I don’t know how it coincides with logic of taking a break from a monotonous life and make it happy. Another fine contrast with this argument is that the mankind in the last 60 years has experienced changes which are in multiples of the changes since Homo Sapien evolved and experienced till 1950 and the life expectancy in last 2000 years has increased from 21 years to 68 years. Wow!
  We knew where are we headed as soon as we came out of Shimla’s boundaries and we knew how beautiful the journey was! Anita was constantly enquiring about the height of the roads which we were supposed to cross on our way to Manali. Shib Kumar was helpless as he could say, “Mam, we will see the plains only when we will be ending our journey.” How promising! In contrast ways, for me and Anita! I suggested that I should sit next to Shib Kumar in front while Anita could occupy the back sit just for the sake of sleeping! I was fully geared to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Himachal on bright shiny day.
Barely an hour had passed since we had been at the outskirts of Shimla and we took our first pit stop. Actually we had our breakfast at Woodville and were not eager to put some more fuel but the sight of pakoras (fritters in english) being fried in Mustard Oil made an extra place in my belly. I and Shib Kumar binged on those pakoras and Anita did a good work of a photographer clicking interesting photographs of the sheer representation of hunger. J Shib Kumar knew every nuke and corner of the route. We were enjoying our journey.
Our Cox and Kings report told us that we should be enjoying our journey along the banks of the Beas River. I was also eagerly looking for it. The traffic was a bit dampner on our way to Bilaspur. Shib Kumar enhanced my general knowledge by telling me about cement factories in Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh and many trucks carrying the freight to Chandigarh. I could see Beas by our side. The water was murky as it was monsoon time and the flow of the water was pretty daunting. We reached a point from where a left turn would lead us to Dhramsala, our next destination after Manali in our trip and straight road would take us to Manali. We headed straight but we knew that we had to come back to the same point to make it to Dharamsala as there was no alternative. Tricky is the road planning in the hills!
The clock was showing 1.45 pm and we were hungry! (What? Even after having those pakoras some couple of hours back? That’s the answer…Couple of Hours Back!) We decided to stop at a small restaurant exactly situated on the banks of Beas called ‘Dawat’. This place provided a breathtaking view of Beas river flowing through the hills and mind you, Bilaspur is not a Hill Station!
I recalled an episode of Highway on My Plate where Rocky and Mayur were enjoying a hot breakfast in a small hut somewhere in Arunachal Pradesh. Though the food was not so great, the ambience got 10/10. I was also facing a similar situation. The food was pathetic but the ambience…wow!
Anita was rather very disappointed with food hence we enjoyed our time clicking photograph from the balcony of the restaurant.
After paying the bills (for the ill food), we drove towards Manali. But Bilaspur still had some places which made us stop and have a look at them. One of them was the Bilaspur Dam on Beas River. Only one gate was open at that time and water was gushing out with enormous strength from there. It somehow didn’t make any sense to click the photographs and I decided to do a video shooting of that sight. Interested people may contact me if you want to see that. For security reason, vehicles were not allowed to stop on the dam and mind you, no video shooting was allowed there.
We steered clear of the dam and lo behold…Shib Kumar unveiled another beautiful sight.
I still don’t know what was so magical that every scene in Himachal was taking our breath away and we were feeling like every ounce of life is being rejuvenated here. My jealousy for Himachali people was increasing with every meter of my journey. This was not the case with Anita though appreciated the beauty in honest manner. I am not as lucky as Anita. She has spent her childhood in Kashmir, while during her teenage, she had stayed in Kumaon, Uttarakhand
As we were being carried away appreciating the natural beauty over there, Shib kumar reminded us about the distance we had to cover before we reach Manali. Shib Kumar seems to be a big fan of Manali. He told us that Manali is the best place to visit in the whole itinerary of Himachal and that’s why 3 days have been dedicated for stay in Manali, the maximum.
After an hour of journey, we crossed another famous place called Mandi. Mandi is famous for its mines of rock salt. We didn’t enter the city hence I have nothing much to write about it. The rock salt part was just to flaunt my general knowledge. J This was the route which kept my mobile phone busy with video recording. There were so many landscapes that I just didn’t want to miss and it was getting difficult everytime with my Sony Cybershot T-90 to capture it. Soon after we crossed Mandi, we reached a toll plaza beaconing our entry in the Kullu District. We had to pay green tax here as we are suspected to litter ‘possibly’ during our stay in Kullu district. No my dear friends, I hate to litter but I am still happy paying the green tax. Use of polythene bag is strictly prohibited here and is a grave offense to break this code.
Soon after we crossed a big tunnel, we were greeted by a temple of Goddess Amba. Shib Kumar religiously stopped the vehicle to seek her blessings to make our journey safe. We also did the same.
After some time, we were in Kullu, barely 40 km away from Manali. We made a pit stop at the shop of Mr. Chandraprakash Thakur. Chandu Thakur is a good friend of Shib Kumar. He has also rented a place next to him for a shop called SINGH SHAWLS. Kullu’s shawls are famous everywhere. We had our tea and also had look at the shawls and other garments in the shawl shop. We actually had been speaking about buying shawl, jackets, sweaters etc etc throughout the journey. We decided to move ahead though we confirmed with Mr. Thakur that he will take us to the apple orchard he owns, situated right on the hill top and also enquired about traditional Himachali dishes like Babru and Shidu. Damn! I should have seen Rocky and Mayur visiting Manali in one of the HOMP episodes.
We moved ahead after we finished our tea and I started sensing Kullu. The traditional Himachali houses built with wood, the feisty Beas in her teens, the greenery, the lovely air, finally people dressed in traditional Himachali attire and not for the sake of getting clicked. J. Kullu is also famous for its white water rafting though monsoon is the season when it is actually avoided. But still some people were inviting to try it out but I was eager to check in our hotel. We made another stop at Trishla Shawls, probably the biggest in Kullu and very famous since almost every vehicle in the radius of 200 km flaunted sticker of Trishla shawls. Our vehicle was not an exception.
I was tired. But Anita’s enthusiasm at such places is commendable. Though I am blessed that my better half is not a shopaholic, she is finally a girl. We entered Trishla’s premises and Anita was bowled over by the patterns of the shawls and other woolen garments. We did a breezy shopping but it lasted for more than an hour. And yes Anita really got some good sweaters, number of shawls for everybody back at home and yes, I got a very smart sweater. Another big bag was added to our array o luggage. This was complimentary from Trishla for doing such a good shopping.
It was getting darker and I was getting tired. Anita sensed that and we hurried towards Manali. I didn’t have a slightest idea that all my tiredness was going to evaporate in matter of minutes.
Shib Kumar was praising Manali like anything since we started our journey. He also told us that because of this, the stay is maximum at Manali compared to other places. The stretch from Kullu to Manali is tiny 42 km. You get the hint of Manali from the apple trees which are on either side of the road. And lo & behold….that was the season for apples getting ready on trees. Never in my life I have seen such a beautiful (and juicy??..yes yes) sight. There were more apples than leaves on all apple trees. The color showing they were perfectly ready. Actually many tourists coming to Himachal and especially Manali are longing to see apples on trees. But the tourists season is such that it never happens. We were very lucky….to see apples on trees and not to see tourist crowds on the street. J
I could see Anits’s joy multiplied compared to the earlier incident where we saw apple trees at Kufri near Shimla. This was just out of the world. Anita in that swing of happiness was asking Shib Kumar to stop and let her pluck some apples. I know her childishness but Shib Kumar was terrified and he said that that would have some serious consequence. But he promised that he will take us to an apple orchard another day.
Again, the simplicity and beauty was very apparent here. Flawless smiles stretching to their eyes, simple clothes, beautiful wooden houses. No wonder every average Indian mind thinks that his best holiday is going to be in Kullu and Manali. J
Darkness was apparent now and we had entered the city. Our hotel, Quality Inn River Country Resort was located in a place called Rangri and it was on the banks of Beas River. I was pleased with the location. We took our baggage out and checked in. Relatively, the resort was empty apart from few tourists probably from Japan were there.
Although the journey was very beautiful, I must say that it had been 10 hours since we had left Shimla in the morning. Obviously, we were tired. We made a beeline towards our room. Hmm..this time we were not that lucky to get a suit like Shimla but this one was also a nice accommodation. A coffee maker was there on the table. Anita was quick to make coffee and I was quick to open the window. And wow…the gushing sound of Beas’ bubbly water was quite a music to our ears. It was flowing right in front of our window.
Switched on the TV. There was a local channel playing the Himachali songs. Overall, I was pitying at the picturisation, the lead actors, the choreography and the music. Music in the mountains is so wonderful and what that video was showing was absolute c**p. Switched to HBO..watching Kevin Spacey’s K PAX.
After having a hot water shower, it was apparent that we were hungry. River Country was the only place on our itinerary where our tour manager a.k.a. Cox & Kings had promised us to feed with the dinner during the stay. That’s promising! So River Country has got a restaurant with a funky name called ‘Curry By The River’! Actually, for this resort, everything was by the river…parking by the river, guests by the river, stay by the river etc. As I mentioned that it was not the peak tourists season and we were lucky to chose the table of our own choice. The items of the menu card were fixed for us as part of our package. We ate it, enjoyed it and went to sleep!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A few inches away from heaven..... (My review of The Binsar Retreat on

Life is defined not by the number of breaths you have inhaled but by the number of moments which have taken your breath away
The Binsar Retreat nestled in the midst of The Binsar Sanctuary gives you an ample opportunity to measure your life in a true manner. Binsar had always been on my mind and one must appreciate Club Mahindra’s efforts to increase the awareness of Binsar as a preferred hill station in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. So having zeroed down on Binsar for our longest stay at any place as tourists, it was important for me to select the place which will make the most of it. Few wonderful minds would already have started pondering and should have come to conclusions for MAKING MOST OF IT like 7 course meals, a small theatre with ‘n’ number of Hollywood and Bollywood flicks, clean swimming pools, Jacuzzi, gymnasium, discotheque and the list goes on. For these minds, we actually have all these things available in our cities (if you happen to be from big city) and what’s the point in living the same life if you want to run away. Ahh, did I forget to mention about carrying the laptops and blackberries and cringing about not able to finish the office work on vacation! GET LOST!
Well, that’s how The Binsar Retreat defines your experience in its resort! COME AND GET LOST! The GET LOST here is a milder version and talks about the experience while the conclusion of earlier paragraph by me was instructive and rude  ! So for a person like me who is madly in love of nature and its beauty, it was not a difficult choice to make. Reviews by the fellow tourists on, The November 2011 issue of The Lonely Planet magazine, a failed attempt to sneak into insipid Club Mahindra Resort prompted me to finalize The Binsar Retreat as my preferred stay in Binsar and booked four nights. I was lucky to get the most in-demand Tent No.1 (check the November 2011 issue of the Lonely Planet) from where you can get the awesome view of the jungle and the snow peaks of Himalayas. Heartfelt thanks to Mr. Mahendra Singh Rana, the manager of The Binsar Retreat for allotting me this tent.
After we had left from the beautiful Kausani with slightly sunken hearts due to no-show by the Himalayan snow peaks, we had kept our fingers crossed for Binsar. The snow peaks are normally not visible in the summer due to clouds as well as smoke on account of forest fires (both manmade and natural…..what’s that?.....I guess it’s mostly man-made!) So it is unfair to blame it on snow peaks for their no-show as they are always visible but you need the vision to see them. This can be applied to life also. There snow peaks, there are clouds and there is vision. Wise minds must have understood and the not-so-wise minds must be grinning over the fact that they have not understood.
The grazing area of barking deers
So, the Binsar Retreat is situated atop a hill and is probably the nearest to be at the epicentre of the wildlife sanctuary. You would wonder at the use of the word ‘epicentre’ which is generally used for describing seismic actions but when I couldn’t resist if your civil life is about to be turned upside down. It is no less than a ‘good’ earthquake!  From the entry gates of the Binsar Sanctuary, it took us good 20-25 minutes to reach the ‘parking zone’ of The Binsar Retreat. The road is tricky inside the sanctuary and two big SUVs coming opposite may lead to a massive traffic jam (another civil phenomenon) inside the sanctuary  The parking zone is the convergence point of The Binsar Retreat and another resort, Grand Oak Manor! The beautiful Binsareshwar Mahadev temple is visible and is at a walking distance from this point! Make it a point to visit this temple if you love clean temples. Also check the well in the nearby area with eternal source of mountain water.
So at the parking zone, we parked our car. It was only our car in the parking zone technically indicating that we were the only guests at the Binsar Retreat. A Mahindra 4X4 pick-up truck was waiting for us to shuttle us to the resort. The road to the resort is not for the faint-hearted and kudos to Mohan, the Kumaoni version of Michael Schumacher (or Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton etc etc) who aptly drove the truck and made it a success story to reach the entrance of The Binsar Retreat. We walked on the dusty path shadowed by the dense forestation to reach the reception area of the resort. Refreshing glasses of the sparkling ruby red drink, Buransh (Rhododendron Juice) were waiting for us. Unfortunately, it was not the season of Rhododendron bloom otherwise we would have been astonished by the sheer site of red rhododendrons surrounding the resort.
Reception Area, The Binsar Retreat
The reception area is simple but classy. Cane furniture inside the room with enough amount of books in the shelf makes it an ideal place after the lunch if you are not in the mood of siesta. We headed towards our tent and I actually felt like marking the places to come back to reception. The resort sprawls in the huge area (which I couldn’t measure) and it is actually a hearty walk if you are strolling around within the resort itself.
When we reached our tent (the famous Tent No.1), the first thing which came from my heart (and not actually from my mouth) is “Oh My God” – Remember Farhan Akhtar exclaiming after seeing the red car in the parking lot in ZNMD?

Our Tent, Tent No.1, The Binsar Retreat
Our tent was situated at one end of the resort giving an unrestricted view of the green jungle and the hills. It was just quiet. What I could hear was some bird chirping in the forest beneath or my own breath when me and my wife were silent. I actually took some time get in sync with that amazing peacefulness which is absolutely extinct in our civil lives. We turned lucky the next morning itself with the Himalayan snow peaks like Trishul and Nandadevi becoming clearly visible in the morning. It was just the matter of opening the tent and they are visible. They are so grand and beautiful that you can actually watch them for hours. We keep on worrying about so many trivial things in life and somehow miss the grandness of the world. The Himalaya reminds you this fact. Enchantingly Beautiful! This is called as luxury and it doesn’t come from 7 course meals or discotheques or movie theatres!

The ‘View Point’ which is the highest point in the resort (Mind you, the resort itself is situated at 7500 feet above sea level!) gives a fantastic 360 degree view of the sanctuary and further stretches to the horizon. It is the best place to have your evening tea especially if you are accompanied by Mr. Mahendra Singh Rana, the manager of the resort or Mr. Prashant Singh Bisht, the owner of the resort! We were privileged to have the company of both of them while watching the brilliant sunset over a refreshing glass on lemon tea. The view point is also the best place to explore some wild life of Binsar sanctuary which normally leads a covert life. Everyday we spotted the barking deers which come to graze in the greenery after the sunset. They actually gave us goose bumps on the first night  as they kept on making the typical sound in the night and was actually breaking the calmness.

Low visibility of Himalayan Peaks
The wildlife sanctuary is known for the variety of birds residing and could be regarded as an ornithologist’s haven. The main animals are the barking deers, the mountain goats (Ghural as they are known locally) and the most evasive and most sought after animal, the leopard. The resort also arranges a jungle trek with a local guide. Our guide was Hemu Upadhyaya whose village was situated in the sanctuary and was aware about every nuke and corner of the sanctuary. We managed to have hearty jungle walk as well as trek and saw the Himalayan peaks like Trishul, Nandadevi, Nandaghunti, Dangthal and Panchachuli from the ‘Zero Point’. Since we started our walk slightly late (by 9 AM), we couldn’t spot too many birds and the condition was further exacerbated by the forest fire which has eaten up their habitats. So it is recommended to set off early in the morning for curious bird watching. You are guaranteed to spot barking deers and mountain goats on any day. I can’t guarantee that for leopards. We spotted its pugmarks as well as errr.. droppings but not the leopard itself. Generally, it is said that the big cats see you more than 20 times before they are visible to you. I suspect we were not visible to the cat for more than 20 times during our stay and hence, couldn’t spot the beautiful animal

And I forgot to mention the most important part of the Binsar Retreat (or in general for all the resorts situated inside the sanctuary). The Binsar retreat is an eco lodge which means it respects nature. There is no electricity available inside the sanctuary and hence no TV, fridge, AC, bulbs, tubes, playstation etc etc. So the day may look good but the evening turns out to be more thrilling. We were accompanied by 2 kerosene lanterns kept in the porch of our tent and had a solar rechargeable light inside the tent and a solar lantern. The sight of fire (though in the flame format) and the smell kerosene is enough to fend off the wild animals. But this reason was not convincing for us and I actually was awake for a long time on the first night of our stay trying to capture every sound around my tent  But the other days were fine and I had a very sound sleep for all the nights. After sunset, the footpaths are illuminated by solar lights to make the environment less challenging.

As I mentioned that there is no electricity means there is no fridge means there is no storage means what you eat is freshly cooked! Rameshji, the head chef with apt instructions from Mr. Rana keeps on dishing out wonderful stuff all the time in your platter. The food is never heavy on spices and hence, very friendly with your guts. But still the traditional cooking makes it a delicious affair. The morning starts with hot cups of tea at your place or at the view point. It is followed my sumptuous spread for breakfast like paranthas, toasts, Kumaoni jams (plum, apricot etc etc), macroni, baked beans. What a beginning! Rameshji’s culinary skills are impressive and he’s ably helped by all the staff of the resort. We were so impressed by his cooking style that my wife has taken his phone number and wishes to call him whenever we are cooking food in Kumaoni style.

It is not only the place but the people who make your stay most memorable. I can vouch for the staff of The Binsar Retreat. This is the best staff I have even come across during my stay anywhere till date. Led by the very friendly and approachable, Mr. Mahendra Singh Rana, the staff is a big asset of this resort. We spent a lot of time having conversation with Mr. Rana over sunset. He takes utmost care of all his guests. I really appreciate his skills. I believe he should be called as a CEO of Resort than manager. It is certainly difficult to manage a resort in the midst of jungle and yet provide all the comfort. Salute to the vision of Mr. Prashant Singh, the garrulous (this is an apt word used by one of the fellow tourists and I couldn’t find a replacement to it!) owner of this wonderful resort. We also spent a good time talking to him about his adventures about going solo on bike in Ladakh, going to Man Sarovar and many of his adventurous trips across India. My aspiration to make such adventurous trips is being fuelled by such kind of individuals and their stories! The description is not complete without mentioning Mr. Rana’s man Friday, Ravi. Probably the youngest amongst staff, he’s always on his toes so that you have the best experience at Binsar Retreat. He’ll be the first person to say Good Morning to you with the kettle of hot beverage, he’ll serve you the food when you are in the dinig room, he’ll welcome you in the resort with the refreshing glasses of Buransh, he’ll bring you maggi and veg pakoras when you feel tha pang in your stomach and he’ll accompany you in the night to you tent if you are scared of the dark!

We had an experience of life time at The Binsar Retreat. Plucking the plums and apricots from trees, appreciating the beauty of the wonderful flowers, staring directly at the barking deers, appreciating the Himalaya for hours, sweating our way through the jungles! Life couldn’t get better than this. We were probably few inches away from heaven itself

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Diary of a Traveller: My Experiences : Himachal Pradesh: Day 2 Excursion to Kufri

Giving all respect to Shib Kumar’s request, we got up early in the morning. In chronological definition, it may be called as 7 am ….still its early. It was cold. I was jumping in the bathroom due to cold flooring while brushing my teeth. Anita was dead tired but I managed to wake her up and I knew what would be the immediate demand…a hot cup of tea!
I obliged it instantaneously as I was also getting the KICK for tea. The word kick has been strictly restricted for the harmless beverages.
We headed toward the Palace wing after getting ready to have our breakfast. There was a multi course breakfast but nothing specific and again generic. Curd and Paranthas, Freshly Cut Fruits, Corn Flakes and Milk, Bread, Jam and Butter. Let me again confirm this thing for you. When you are in hills and if you are normally having a good appetite, make the most of it. Your guts behave as black hole for most of the offering on the platter. No wonder I got everything on my plate (TWICE!!) and gulped down a large mug of tea to announce I am happy!
I came out and was cherishing the beauty of the landscape of Woodsville Palace and thought I should click one pic without wasting a moment. Here it is…

We drove off Raj Bhavan Road to enter in the main city. As I described earlier, Shimla looked beautiful at night and really doesn’t make you unhappy in the morning (unless you are from other cleaner hill station!). I stay in Mumbai and I actually feel like admiring every other city looking at the current plight of Mumbai. True, it earns me the bread and butter; but that doesn’t mean that it has stopped stinking. Before I invite wrath of my fellow Mumbaikars, it’s pretty cool and hap city, HAPPY??
My watch as well as Anita’s and Shib Kumar’s and the car’s electronic watch showed that it was half past ten, it felt like it was 8 in the morning. The air was cool and fog was still suspending on the huge deodar trees and sometimes on the road also. I just wanted to fill my lungs with the air so that I can take the reserve back in Mumbai and survive for some another 8-10 months.
It seems that mornings in monsoon are bit lazy in hills. It had drizzled lightly in the early morning. People were just opening their shops. Most of the dhabas had opened the shutters and were serving hot paranthas with curd. People were out for shopping buying fresh vegetables (to be used for that day only J) from vegetable markets. The roads were bustling. Since it was a Saturday, there were many co-travellers who were heading towards Kufri/ Mashobra (must be the lucky Club Mahindra members J)/ Chail or if somebody knows this then Theog! There are many places but one road. Our package was programmed to lead us to Kufri which is actually a skiing haven for winters when it snows heavily (I am just dieing to be here in winters but this year seems unlikely!).
As we moved out of Dhalli, on the outskirts of Shimla, we were greeted by thick greenery covering the hills and valleys by Deodars and Pines. We were just admiring this beautiful nature while we were speeding towards our destination when we heard somebody calling “Sirji! Photo!!”
We anyways had thought of doing a pit stop to savour the nature by our eyes and picked the right spot. No wonder that spot was already picked by a local photographer who would click the photographs of the tourists in traditional himachali attire. Actually, Shimla is one of the favourite honeymoon destinations amongst newly married couples. So he seamlessly got all the customers at the right place. We agreed to get ourselves clicked in Himachali Attire. Anita though wearing himachali attire looked like a postcard Kashmiri girl with the bouquet of flowers in her hand. I don’t want to talk about mine. Unfortunately, those pics are not in digital form!
After the brief session of photography, we proceeded towards Kufri. One important thing to note while traveling in the hills is the unexpected delay due to weather. The roads are narrow and landslides are very common especially in monsoon. So always keep a cushion of time by your side and set out early in the hills. I am telling all these things because we hit a traffic jam just before reaching Kufri. But the jam was not so unpleasant as we were in the lap of nature. August – September is the time when the famous Himachal apples are ready to be transported across the globe and heavy traffic of trucks carrying apples had resulted in traffic jam. Be happy, let the world eat the apple and be healthy!
After the traffic snarl got over, we proceeded swiftly and on our way we saw one hotel management and catering institute and Central Potato Research Institute. Two questions came to my mind…
1.      Why in the past I didn’t generate sufficient interest to study hotel management and catering, by hook or crook, I would have got myself in this institute….
2.      Why did I never consider making my career in analyzing tubers instead of stock markets?
Many questions kept on coming in my mind as I explored Himachal in the coming days. I would talk about them as and when the situation will be described in writing. J
And finally, we reached Kufri. There was a good amount of crowd at Kufri Hill Base. Thanks to the Saturday and Shimla’s proximity to Chandigarh. One has to hire a horse to go on the top of the hills in Kufri that of course comes with a guide. I would say that road towards hill in winter could have been something like a dreamwalk…but ahem….during monsoons, the road is absolutely marshy. If you decide to take a walk in the knee deep mud, you are in a big trouble (or rubble??). So pay the people who will take you safely on the top of hill safe and sound!
The road is very tricky and sometimes you just pray to god when your horse takes you on the edge of the rough road and a deep valley gapes at you. You have to rely on your guide’s instruction. Just one tip from my side…Always lean forward on the back of the horse if you are climbing towards the top and always lean backward when you are coming down.
Finally, we managed to reach the top of hill and was surprised to see the plains at such a height! It was just like a fair though I heard that there is actually no place to stand if you happen to come by summer vacation. Good..we didn’t! There were many people who were getting themselves clicked sitting on Yak. And déjà vu! People were getting themselves clicked in the traditional himachali attire.
We decided to take a stroll as the landscape was very colourful with the vivid flora. One very interesting  thing I have noticed in Himachal Pradesh is the consumption and brand equity of Maggi Instant Noodles. Though I may say that this brand equity is dwarfed by Lipton Tea’s brand equity among Kashmiri Pandits. If you happen to add sugar and milk in the concoction you have prepared, it is bound to labeled as LIPTON CHAI (you better pronounce this way as I have written) by a red blooded Kashmiri. It doesn’t matter which brand (or absolutely unbranded) of tea has been used while preparing the tea…the end product is always ….LIPTON CHAI! Just a small tip….if you happen to be a tea lover and really crave for good taste then I will suggest you to try the Lipton Yellow Label tea. This happens to be the tastiest tea I have ever tasted. And now I don’t wonder about the reason KPs call it Lipton Chai!
We decided to make way for Kufri Fun World, an entertainment complex situated atop the hill. En route, I came across a creature who has terrorized the mankind with sheer presence…Python! But it was tamed and I dared to get some pics clicked with that python. Python is heavy, the skin is not smooth and we can feel its strong muscles when we grip it with our hands. Always get yourself clicked with a tamed python, don’t try this in the wilds otherwise python will be writing a story about you telling how weak the muscles of that human being! J    

Kufri Fun World is a nice place to spend time. There are apple orchards, fun rides, nicely maintained rose garden, a beautiful temple and a breathtaking view available at all angles.We were actually blessed to be in Himachal when the apple orchards had the lovely scent of ripe apples. Me and Anita were ecstatic. I was dumbstruck at the ‘first in the lifetime’ site of apples on apple tree and Anita was nostalgic. I couldn’t take my eyes off this view. Such a beautiful site!

 A new question – Why am I supposed to own a home where I work? I never thought it was necessary and now, after I have been to Himachal, I am 200% sure.I MUST NOT! J
The roses in the garden were so impeccably maintained so that you get an answer to the FAQ…Why roses are red??  And then you have bewildering array of colors in roses along with red. I should not post every pic in the travelogue …you better go visit Himachal Pradesh! J
We were enjoying our time in Kufri Fun World though I couldn’t get the site of the beautiful hills as it was very misty. And then one moment came, before we could realize we were engulfed by clouds. Fortunately, I was not clicking the pics but was shooting the whole process of being in clouds. I really know what it means to be in clouds. We thought it was an appropriate time to have some coffee. It was 2 o’clock and we were still not feeling hungry.
On the way to the restaurant which is situated in KFW, we spotted a Kashmir Emporium and the shopkeeper spotted us. I should not dwell in to what we purchased and what was shown to us. I and Anita just hate anything which has got to do with hunting of animals. Such a rage going on in HP about selling Chingu, a blanket made of silk. The guy tried to convince us a lot but we didn’t. It took us almost an hour there.
We came out of KFW and thought of having some food..we had choice of maggi (instant noodles) and aloo tikkis. Maggi is an all time favourite of us and we normally stack up good inventory of maggi at home but aloo tikki was very tantalizing. Was an easy choice. Served with shredded cabbage and sweet and sour chutney, it is a must have on foggy day on a hill top!
Finally, we bid adieu to this lovely landscape with a promise that we should be visiting this place in winters when it will be snow clad and turns out to be a skiing destination. The descent was not as strenuous as the ascent but was little scary. Finally, we reached the bottom and got settled in our car. Shib Kumar promptly drove to next destination which was again a tourist spot. We had enough of tourists and spots so we asked Shib Kumar to take a U turn and drive towards Shimla. Meanwhile, we felt a ‘pang’ in our bellies..correct! Aloo tikkis were not sufficient. Shib Kumar took us to a restaurant in the nearby area. The restaurant’s name was Sher-E-Punjab. This name always gives you a comfort and invariably, good food! How could we miss Shimla Mirch (Green Bell Peppers) while being in Shimla. Ordered for a stuffed Shimla Mirch with another dish of paneer (cottage cheese) accompanied with pyaaj parantha. I am a fan of this bread now subject to the chef knowing how to prepare it! J
We had our bellies full and it was quarter past five in the evening. The air was getting cooler. How many times have you thought about having a cup of hot coffee after you have had a sumptuous meal? Anita felt we should have it and we thoroughly enjoyed the small cup of Nescafe.
I was actually wondering with every sip that why a Nescafe is not a rage as its sister brand Maggi. Well..doesn’t matter…you must not think about this. Your life keeps on throwing thousands of little moments of joy to you. Just enjoy them. Why dream of being a millionaire? How many people in the world had the privilege of enjoying Nescafe at Sher-E-Punjab in Kufri? That puts me on the top of the world. (Some Hrishikesh Mukherjee fans may say that I have violated copyright dialogues of Rajesh Khanna from one of his best performances in BAWARCHI. But little joys truth was very much known to mankind, isn’t it?)
We started our journey back to Shimla. The landscapes in Himachal are so beautiful that you normally prefer to keep your mouth shut consciously or unconsciously. The fog had started suspending from the deodar trees. It was getting cooler. Shib Kumar was telling us about his experiences in Himachal. He is a preferred chauffer for Cox and King’s Himachal trips. He knows how to drive in these hilly areas in all seasons.
Just when we reached Dhalli, on the outskirts of Shimla, we saw crowd gathering at the edge of road. A car had slipped in the valley breaking the barricades with four passangers. Monsoon makes the road very tricky. We had a very sensational experience on our way to Dalhousie from Dharamsala about the roads. I shall explain that later. You need to be very careful while driving in hills and preferably have an ABS equipped vehicle which ensures higher safety.
On our itinerary of Day 2, we were supposed to stroll on the famed
Mall Road
of Shimla. You would find a road named as
Mall Road
in almost every hill station of North India. I was actually least interested in this part and so was Anita. We were here to enjoy the freedom from the maddening crowd then why to join back the crowd? So after taking the lift which lands you on the way to Mall Road (this is an interesting experience. People of Shimla use to commute to different levels of city by using this lift) and on a Saturday evening, that was bound to be buzzing.
As soon as we reached the exit of the lift, we had two choices, either we cold have lead to
Mall Road
or the opposite direction was directed towards our abode for 2 days, Woodville Palace. We decided to move towards Woodville and must say it was a lovely walk. It was 6.30 in the evening and was getting darker and foggier. We were very tired but still we insisted on walking (and we had no choice) At one point, I think that only me and Anita were there on the road and a very thick blanket of fog was suspended on the road and around the trees. What a beautiful scene it was! I tried hard to capture every possible scene with the help of my camera. The fog was somehow making the task difficult. But managed to capture few good pics. Living in Mumbai, I have been actually longing for such moments. Never in the last 5 years at Mumbai, I have ever felt the need to wear a sweater. Forget the jackets.
As I mentioned, we were damn tired and was relieved to be at the entrance of Woodville Palace. We decided to rest at one of the benches in the garden there. A cup of hot tea is always welcome in such moments. Anita was actually craving for it. Hence, she took the initiative to go to the reception and order for tea.
Woodville’s garden has appeared in few bollywood flicks like BLACK (Fountain with a white statue of a lady) and 3 IDIOTS (Kareena’s marriage scene).
By the time our tea arrived, it had started drizzling. So we preferred to go inside the Palace Wing and sip the tea in a relaxing mood at the ‘Tiger Lounge’.
This area sports three Tiger Trophies which were hunted in the states of Jhalawar, Kota and Bundi (presently all in Rajasthan). I am not comfortable with that. Hence, I’ll skip the discussion. There is also an interesting collection of photographs autographed by the Hollywood celebrities who had stayed at  Woodville Palace at some point. These include Clark Gable, Michael Caine, Tom Cruise, Sean Connery, Brook Schields and Anna Nicole Smith.
We had a small chat with the receptionist who was present there. We spoke about the royal clan to whom the Palace belongs. The guy was very down to earth (which is very typical for the people who live in hills) and spoke to us at length about the royal family and Shimla in general. We were aware that the family stays in the same premises in the restricted area and looks into day to day operations of the palace. While having the chat, phone at the desk rang and receptionist answered, “Yes, Maharaaj!” and we knew who was on line. According to the guy, Shimla may be a wonderful place to stay but may not be a great place to make lives. So they have to move towards cities…I mean big cities! Sometimes I wonder over a fictitious (or may be a real) situation where an unlucky has left everything in the beautiful town to make it big in big city and returns as a TOURIST to his hometown. Our teas were finished by this time and the drizzle had subsided. We decided to move back to our suite.
In the meanwhile, we were summoned by the program director, Mr. Shib Kumar for being ready by 9 AM as we were heading to Manali. We had our bellies full with the late lunch (or early dinner??) at 5 pm helped with generous amount of tea and coffee. We decided to skip our dinner and go to sleep. The calm in the night is so relaxing that you are just out of the world.
People have many views about Shimla. Most people I heard were very critical about the buzz, the infrastructure etc etc. I am in total disagreement with these people. Its not Shimla’s fault to be in proximity of big cities like Chandigarh and Delhi and to be in the purview of the roving eyes of land sharks. This lovely city still maintains its innocence which is apparent on the faces of the people who stay here. These people are happy with what they are doing and what they are up to. They are fine with a basic breakfast of Dahi and Parantha and need nor cringe about a seven course breakfast. They don’t belong to the community of people who dare to call food “F**k All” if they don’t like it. These people need not crave to be staying in the high-rises. They are naturally placed on the top of the world. There is no high-headedness, there is no pomp, nothing grotesque. Just simple, humble and lovely people as the weather is. J I don’t think I have got the intellect to see flaws in these people, this weather and this city. Himachal always had a special place in my heart and this position was strengthened by my first visit to Shimla. I knew that I had started heavenly journey on the earth itself. The night was getting cooler and calmer and I surrendered myself to Nidra Devi.