To a born wanderer like me, a relaxing vacation means exploring new places, creating memories and of course to be as close to the nature as possible. Northern India has plenty of options to choose from when it comes to finding a cool, relaxed hill station to beat the summer heat. Last Monsoon season, I, along with some close friends embarked on one such weekend exploration to Himachal Pradesh and 'Narkanda' is what I discovered. It is a fabulous place situated amidst apple orchards, dense pine forests and a really pleasant climate at an altitude averaging around 9000 feet.
Getting to Narkanda is pretty easy and there are various options available depending on one's preferences. You can fly down to the Himachal Pradesh Capital Shimla and from there it is a scenic drive of about 65 kms to Narkanda or if you want to travel at your own pace, you can hit the road. That is the option that we took and we drove down from Delhi to Narkanda in about 11 hours with stoppages for meal breaks. You can also take a morning train from Delhi to Kalka and from thereon you can hop onto the toy train (a UNESCO heritage site now) to Shimla. From Shimla you can hire a taxi for Narkanda or if you want, you can take a bus too. This option is recommended only if you have plenty of time and patience as the toy train chugs at a pace of, well, a toy train :).
Road from Delhi to Shimla is in fairly good condition and the stretch after Kalka is where the hills start from. Driving becomes a bit slow after passing through Shimla, but, the beautiful scenery and the nice weather makes up for it. We left Delhi shortly before 5AM and took our early morning meal break at Murthal (about 50 kms from Delhi), a place that is really famous for its highway dhabas that serve delicious north Indian food. After replenishing our famished stomachs, we drove off on the National Highway 1. The drive was quite a breeze with the new Toll Plazas and flyovers that have come up and by 11 AM we were at Himachal Pradesh (Himalayan State) border. Rain clouds were getting ready to pour and despite being early July, the weather was pleasant enough.
Monsoon clouds promised a thundery welcome
After getting the vehicle refueled and a brief haggling (courtesy the local transport authority officials, who tried to fleece the driver on noticing that it was a tourist vehicle), we entered Himachal Pradesh via Kalka. Road became serpentine hereafter and with each turn the altitude as well as the surrounding hills started getting higher and picturesque. We stopped for a meal at a place on the NH 22 about half way between Kalka-Shimla. Looking down from the restaurant terrace, one could see the train track emerge out of a tunnel and after a brief glimpse disappear in a tunnel somewhere below the restaurant.
For a while the weather was bright and sunny and after a half an hour break we decided to drive off and to stop only at the destination. Soon we drove past Shimla and guess what, we were not able to determine which road to take as the road directions were not exactly accurate. After asking several locals, we drove on a road as told to us, but, even after a drive of half an hour, we couldn't spot a landmark that was supposed to have been seen after about five minutes on that road. Oops we had taken the wrong turn again, and we drove back to the previous point (saving grace being the beautiful green surroundings which ensured that we enjoyed getting 'lost' in the hills.
Once we took the right road, it was not difficult to reach Narkanda, though; the drive seemed to take longer than expected due to the not so good road becoming a bit more difficult due to the rains. We reached Narkanda about half past three. The very first glance of the surroundings brought two words to mind, 'beautiful' and 'desolate'. We had booked ourselves into a resort called 'Tethys' which is a fairly nice place in the mid budget (3500 rupees a night) category. We opted for the rooms in the main resort building, but, there is also an option of staying in cottages which are built a little higher on the slope housing the resort, towards the far end of the lawns. Even though, there are many other accommodations available at Narkanda, this place had an advantage in terms of the location. The rooms provided breathtaking views of the lush green hills and the valley. Rooms were clean and very comfortable, though; the place fails to score much on the room service or staff quotient. Food was ok and served in buffet style in the dining area only and one could survive if he/she didn't have a problem with eating the same dishes on consecutive days. The location of the resort is such that it has no neighborhood, but, absolutely serene and secluded forests. A narrow dust path from the resort leads to the main road which in turn connects to the outside world. After dark, there is no activity or movement outside the Resort premises and lawns and the staff doesn't encourage any venturing out/late night walks. One should remember that this secluded location also means possible unavailability of items on request and any unscheduled request for food or snacks is unlikely to be fulfilled.
On the first evening, we enjoyed sitting around the bonfire in the lawns and chatting in the pleasantly cool and thankfully dry weather. We retired early that night as the tiredness of the long drive proved to be overwhelming. I woke up very early the next morning. Though it was just about 5 am, the visibility was pretty good and I went for a stroll outside the resort lawns. The sun was still some distance from shining down on the valley and the air was soothingly cool. Dried leaves and twigs were scattered on the serpentine dust track that took one a little down into the valley below. I almost squealed with delight when my sight fell upon the first apple tree, laden with green apples (In July the apples were still some distance away from ripening for sale). As I looked around, I realized that the entire track was flanked by apple trees all around. After breathing in the unpolluted mountain air for better part of an hour, I returned to the confines of the resort. Though, I am not an early riser by any angle, I never miss the sunrise views whenever I am in the hilly region and I must say that the feel of seeing the very first rays of the sun, peeking from behind some lush green hill are always a sight to behold. The sky changes colors rapidly and then like the shining diamond of a ring, the solar disc gradually becomes visible.
After a while the entire resort started warming up to the day and we had a fairly sumptuous breakfast which I must admit tasted better than the dinner the previous night. The day’s itinerary included going to Hatu peak and roaming around the area. We decided to hire a local vehicle instead of trying to drive up the hill. The vehicle chosen was a Mahindra pickup truck which afforded the option of standing in the open back and savoring the unhindered views as the vehicle negotiated hair raising bends. By the time we started our journey, rain clouds had enveloped the entire area and it was an extremely pleasant weather, though, it robbed us of any chance of seeing the snow capped peaks of upper Himalayas which as per the claims of various websites and the resort staff, are easily visible on clear weather days. During the drive uphill, I discovered the direct relationship between fear and singing and I must say that singing is a very potent reliever when you try to overcome your fears. The bottomless free fall options that greeted us at almost every 100 feet of the uphill drive were not exactly the ideal views for the faint hearted and some people in the group preferred sitting in the cabin which did provide some feel of safety. We saw some shepherds who were out grazing flocks of sheep and the narrow road uphill was flanked by flowering shrubs, cherry and apple orchards, lush green forest patches, not to mention the clouds floating around at and below the eye levels. It was simply an incredible experience and a memory to cherish.
Singing/praying/singing we reached the peak. The actual summit was some 100 feet above where the vehicles stopped and we ran helter-skelter towards the top as soon as we got out of the vehicle. I am sure the locals would have considered us to be some crazy lunatics let lose, but, being crazy was the real fun.
The view from the Hatu peak beat all that we had seen from the resort compounds or on the way to Narkanda. As far as the eyes could see, there were lush green hills, clouds floating in the valleys below and dark grey rainclouds forming a constantly leaking canopy above us. The slopes were covered with wild flowers, pine, spruce fur and some other kind of trees. One could witness the ‘echo’ effect which is always so much fun to do in the mountains. No wonder one can live without cell phone signals as all you need to do is to yell out and the receiver would hear every word even half a mile away :P. There is an ancient Hatu Mata temple on the peak and it has quite a following among the local population (In my opinion all the accessible peaks in Himachal are topped by a temple anyhow as I find the hill people to be quite superstitious and God fearing. It also gives a mystery and story feel to the places and might be instrumental in getting more tourist traffic). People were queuing up, seeking blessings for various reasons, getting their new vehicles, children or cattle blessed or to seek curing of physical ailments, personal issues and also to seek protection from the Goddess. The old temple was a very small one built of stone, but, there was a new elaborate and quite ornate wooden structure under construction (must be operational by now as it neared completion). The wooden carvings on the upcoming temple’s pillars seemed to be a perfect mix between the lion and the Chinese dragon. We were shocked to know that the practice of animal sacrifice was common there and we refused despite the pundits asking us if we wanted to offer a sacrifice to the Goddess. We just prayed, sought blessings for us and for the animals and after spending sometime frolicking around, decided to drive down for lunch. It was pouring quite steadily and the path on our way downhill was covered in thick fog at most stretches and I must say that it was really a correct decision on our part to rely upon the local driver for this trip because the driver was absolutely aware of the track. He comfortably drove through what seemed to be a curtain at many points. We had lunch at an outlet in the Narkanda market and though the food wasn’t anything to feel great about, there were no worthy options either.
Later in the day, we went to another local ‘landmark’ as suggested by the driver, but, it turned out to be just a shallow artificial pond built on a flat clearing amidst the thickly wooded area. The setting was quite picturesque and the rain which was quite heavy by now, added a chill to the air. It was all extremely peaceful and an ideal setting for young couples/honeymooners. By the time we left this place, the rain and fog rendered it impossible to expect any further excursions. Back to the resort, we spent the remainder of the day savoring the sights from the premises, chatting up and interacting with the staff and other tourists. There is a snooker table and a small library to help kill the time while being holed up inside the premises. Around dusk the weather cleared and we were able to see some splendid light play on the hilltops surrounding us. We took a walk towards the apple orchards and had fun plucking some apples from the trees. The dust track was very slushy and difficult to tread upon, thus the darkness forced us to curtail any further walks and return to the safe indoors. We were scheduled to leave early next morning so this in effect brought to an end, our exploration of this magnificent and easily accessible place.
Overall, Narkanda comes across as a place where you can simply laze around throughout the day, enjoying the views, romance and the pleasant weather. There are no tourist crowds, no vehicular sounds, just dense green forests surrounding you. If you are a romantic couple, a writer or a poet, you would never get tired of this place. It is said that this area receives heavy snowfall in the winter (a fact that I hope to verify in the coming winter season :)).