Transitioning from the plains to the Himalayan mountains, Himachal Pradesh offers a most relaxing break away from sea level and yet manages to leave you out of breath with the beauty of the Himalayas.
Our journey began on the evening of Friday, 11th March, 2005. After a quick discussion that same morning, a couple of pages flipped in Outlook’s “52 weekends getaways from Delhi” and we had found the perfect place to visit. So the bags were packed, the meetings rescheduled and we were off.
Leaving Gurgaon around 8 p.m. we reached the outskirts of Delhi around 9:30. A few more kilometers later we stopped at Ahuja Dhaba. This stretch of the highway (NH 1) is known for its dhabas. A ‘Dhaba’ is no ordinary restaurant. From delicious rotis to Pringles to Compact Flash memory cards, it is a one stop shop for every traveler. A few naans, biryanis and three different sabzis later we were off.
Finding a place to halt for the night proved more difficult than expected. After rejecting a exorbitantly prized but very lonely cottage resort we chanced upon Hotel Shagun, close to Pinjore. Comfortable, and fitted with basic amenities, it was enough for a night stop. (Cost: Double room – 900Rs/night)
The morning was quick to come and we were off and into Himachal Pradesh. The first sight of the hills brought back sweet memories of Pennsylvania and the greenery that I have missed so much. Soon we were wrapped in steps, folds and rolls of sloping hills. We drove on, knowing, soon the hills will grow to mountains.
Reaching Kandaghat we took a detour of the highway and followed the mountain trail to Chail. Chail is a quaint hill station about 50 km from Shimla and at a height of 2150m. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala incurred the wrath of Lord Kitchener when he kissed a British woman in Shimla and was banned from entering the hill station.
Not to be shamed, he decided to build his own palace and Chail was his spot. The Palace is now a hotel and the hill station still remains un-commercialized and maybe even undiscovered. From the palace grounds you can see a wide section of the Himalayas including Kinner Kailash at 6050m. You can also get a breathtaking view of the Choor Chandini peak. (Official site)
After a regal lunch at the palace we continued on to Kufri. Having heard of recent snowfall at the Kufri peak (2500m) we decided it was well worth the effort to seek it. Along the mountain, we got our first glimpse of the snow clad slopes and we stopped for some friendly and yet biting snowfights. The sun shining through the trees, the snow glistening in the rays, all made for a glorious view. Kufri about 14 km from Shimla is one of the highest peaks in the region. From a base camp, we rented horses and rode (actually were drawn) up the slope to the peak. A little more commercialized than Chail, the Kufri peak was filled with tourists and innovative salesmen making a quick buck.
There were men with yak, willing to let you pose for money, a group building a gigantic snowman again letting you pose for Rupees and salesmen with telescopes and costumes that you could try. Kufri during the peak of winter is perfect for skiing. From the top we get an expansive and unhindered view of the Himalayas all the way up to the Indo-China border. Kufri is a must see for any traveler to Himachal. (Official site)
From Kufri, we proceeded to Shimla. As soon as we entered we could see the difference between a quiet hill station and a very exposed one. Tens of people crowded the car asking if we needed taxis, hotels, and tour guides. After soliciting help from one of them, and not finding a decent place to stay, we found on the main road, Hotel Leela Regency. Rates were slightly steep but given the slope we were on, we didnt argue. (Cost: Double Deluxe room: 2100Rs./night) We did get a discount though.
After relazing for a few minutes we stepped out for a night stroll on Mall Road, Shimla’s main and only attraction. The shops ranged from small mom and pop shops to Barista and Dominos pizza. The roads were winding with shops on either side and the hill side was spotted with the sparkle of living room lights. Towards 11 we retired for the night.
The morning came with the first light drifting through the thin curtains into the bedroom. Parting the curtains just a little not only let the light in but gave us our first real view of the densely packed slopes of Shimla.
Houses of various shapes, sizes and color adorned the hillside. Picture San Francisco in the Himalayas. This was motivation enough for us to leave and we made another trip to the Mall Road. A very historic town, Shimla gives you a great introduction to rural struggling India, exploding Indian population, the natural, beautiful Indian landscapes and the ever increasing influence of Western culture into India. A stroll through the small roads gets you acclimatized to the thinning air, and India in just a few steps.
The only other picnic spots in Shimla are Kufri and Chail and hundreds of tour operators will ask you hundreds of times if you want to rent a taxi and visit these places. Having been smarter and having seen it all, we politely declined. We were happy to just be in Shimla. (Official Site)
We left on Sunday afternoon and on the way stopped at Parwanoo for a ride on a cable car at Timber Trail Resorts. Starting from 3000ft we rise across the valley to another peak at 5000ft. The ride lasts for 8 min one-way but the views will last for a long time in our memory. If you are scared of heights and scared of closed places this is one trail you can skip. Around 11 on Sunday night, three weary but thoroughly satisfied travelers returned to base camp. Good old, Gurgaon.