The mercury has touched the higher 30s here in Bangalore and there has only been a slight respite in the form of short drizzles. With very few destinations in south India that offer an escape from this heat (even the Nilgiris record temperatures in the high 30s during summers), the mind wanders on its own to north India and its blissful summer escapes. Images of snow capped peaks, the gorgeous yellow evening sunlight lighting up coniferous forests, sparkling morning dew drops and emerald green rivers flowing over rounded white stones keep cropping up every now and then. Such is the longing to get away from this prickly heat that the mind often conjures up an imaginative land from memories of time spent in the lap of the Himalayas.
We spent about two weeks in the hill stations of North India back in 2012. Roughly, the itinerary covered the erstwhile British Raj’s summer capital of Simla, the honeymooners paradise of Kullu-Manali, the seat of the Dalai Lama – McLeodGanj in Dharamsala, a stopover at the Sikh religious city of Amritsar, the hippie-haunt cum Hindu religious city cum yoga capital of Hrishikesh followed by a day and a half’s halt at Nainital.
But this post is not a narrative of the trip, just an attempt to outline the characteristics that add so much romance to the mountains up north.
The Kalka-Simla express. A relic from the colonial times, this rail line was inaugurated in 1891 and enjoys a good fan following even today. Meant to be a first choice of transport for Britishers wanting to escape the heat of the plains, the train climbs up into the hills passing numerous viaducts and tunnels on its way. The early morning ride hits you in the face with that chilly wind, but you still manage to smile at the vistas that unravel, one after the other; a splendid sign of the things that await you up ahead.
While our vehicle made the climb, a friend started feeling the effects of high altitude. Halting at a ‘dhaba’ so that he could rest awhile, I thought it would be a good idea to buy some oranges from the nearby store – Best decision ever. Nowhere in India have I tasted oranges as sweet as these. We continued to buy them wherever we found them through out the journey. What a pity that the apple harvesting season had passed by long ago when we were there.
Maggi noodles are ubiquitous in north India. Hot tea and a hot plate of noodles (ask the vendor to add extra masala and vegetables if you so desire) provide enough ammo to attack any leftover pangs of hunger drummed up by the cold weather. Lipsmacking-ly good, particularly when its piping hot.
I have yet to see it raining heavily in the hills. It might too, but mostly it just drizzles. Lending a freshly washed look to everything you look at. Sometimes though, you have to agree that it feels good to have a roof above your head and a fire in the hearth, particularly when the elements conspire.
That first sight of snow covered peaks and of snow lying by the roadside is a delight. Turns grown men and women into kids for an instant. Until they get out of the vehicle that is. Because that is when they experience the biting cold, like the 2 men here. Noses start leaking, palms start rubbing against each other and the nose grows cold like a stone. But the eyes remain bewitched at the magnificence in front.
The first snowfall is even better. At Solang valley in Manali, it started snowing heavily and one of my friends remarked that it felt like somebody was sitting high above and showering little gifts in the form of snowflakes. True. It is manna from heaven for fairy tale lovers and the romantic in all of us. Although, on second thought, there is more than a touch of melancholy to snowy winters as well. Ahh…nothing that some first time witnesses to snow can’t bear.
There is a mall road in almost every hill station in India. And more often than not, we found this road in Manali perpetually wet. But the street came alive at night, with tourists shopping for woollens and souvenirs, newly-weds walking hand-in-hand, food cart vendors heating up their stoves and the locals ambling along.
The sun never shone for the 2 days that we were put up in Manali and it grew uncomfortably cold sometimes. All we could see was a grey sky and white snow. On the 3rd day however, when we woke up, the sun lit up Manali and was it the grandest scene ever! Freshly laid snow on the mountain peaks, pine trees, bare trees on the banks of the sparkling Beas river which continued on its way – unmindful of the cold or the people enjoying its charming beauty.
Sometimes, everything just comes together. The chill is already present in the air. The gently bristling leaves of the pine trees make you feel the presence of the wind. The clouds lend the rugged face of the mountains some more drama. Like in the photograph above – shot at a tiny hamlet near the Dhauladhar range.
Taxi drivers and the rowers in Nainital will regale you with tales of film shootings and getaways where the rich and famous once stayed. Pay some heed, for the town indeed has a lot of stories to tell. At the center of it all however, there will always be the emerald green waters of the lake, with its own stories and its own charming way of glistening in the morning sun.
Idle boats at Bhimtal lake – waiting for repairs and the crowds to come in during the peak season. Picturesque in a queer way maybe. But adding to the charm of the hills nevertheless.
I will leave you with one last photograph. The scale and the magnificence of it all comes together in this one and makes me wish I could go back once more, exploring further into the mountains. On second thought however, I think it shouldn’t be a wish. It should be a promise.
Adios, till the next blog post, faithful reader. And I hope you get a chance to go somewhere you desire to go as well, if you haven’t yet.