Beas Circuit... A Road Trip Across the Dev Bhoomi

Tuesday, June 07, 2011



Out of the many trips I have been on, this one trip across Himachal Pradesh was one of the best (Wait... let me think... ummm... hmmm... OK - it definitely was the Best!!). And this time my travel companions were not Friends. I was with my Family and the trip was sponsored by Dad (Best!! Like I said...). So, after the hot and sweltering Agra trip, we decided to taste the chilling air of Himachal Pradesh and hence started another road trip across the Dev Bhoomi, till Rohtang La. (It was April 2007 and I had just finished my Bachelors.)

Day 1: We started from Pitampura, New Delhi early in the morning at 5 a.m. and after few minutes' drive, landed on NH1. After crossing the towns of Sonepat and Panipat, at around 8 a.m. stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant, somewhere close to Karnal. At Ambala, we left NH1 and entered NH22. Rather than taking the road to Shimla, via Chandigarh, we decided to halt at Chail for the night. We thus drove through Panchkula, and at around 11 a.m., we made another stop at the Pinjore Gardens, on the Chandigarh - Kalka road.  We spent an hour exploring the well planned Mughal garden, followed by an early lunch at the open air restaurant there.

We were back on the roads again at 12.30 p.m., soon crossing Kalka and entering Himachal Pradesh at Parwanoo. After Solan, we took a detour from NH22 at Kandaghat and started driving on a road that leads to Chail and Kufri. We reached the secluded Chail by 3 p.m. and checked into the Himneel cottage - a division of The Palace Hotel. Chail, by far, is one of the most enchanting place I have ever been to. One can clearly see why Maharaja Bhupinder Singh choose this small town as his summer capital when he was exiled from Shimla. Surrounded by majestic deodar forests and chir pine trees and situated at an altitude of about 6000 feet, this picturesque hill station felt like paradise.

Image Courtesy : Google
Chail is spread over three hills - The highest Rajgarh hill hosts the Maharaja's Palace, now owned by HPTDC and run as The Palace hotel, the second hill has a park and The Residency hotel and the third is where the main town and the bazaar is located. We visited the Palace to see the ornately decorated Maharaja suite and the Maharani suite. The palace has retained its old world charm and one could see royalty in every part of the palace, whether it's the rooms or the cottages or the elegant lawns.

Left: Chail Palace, Right: Palace Hall
While coming to our cottage, which was a level down from the Palace, we were greeted by a chilly drizzle which prompted us to put on our jackets and sit by the fireplace. We were told there would be a power cut exactly at 8 p.m. for an hour - a regular event to save electricity, so we finished our dinner early at a restaurant in the town. When it was dark all around for that one hour, we could see the gleaming lights of Shimla at a distance across the valley from our cottage.

Day 2: We checked out from our cottage at 8 a.m. after a sumptuous English breakfast and drove to the Chail Cricket ground through a winding mountain road which was bordered with thick deodar and pine forests. The ground has the highest cricket pitch of the world, at an altitude of 7500 Ft. and is mostly used as a playground for the cadets of the Chail Military School, which we saw on our way to the top. We could just take a peek into the ground as it is not open to the tourists.

Image courtesy : Google
After descending back to Chail, we started driving towards Kufri. At one point we passed very close to a forested area of the Chail Sanctuary. The valleys were so verdant that I could have stood at a point and gazed at them for hours in admiration, but just the thought of tumbling down those valleys gave me goosebumps. An hour's drive took us to Kufri, a tiny hill station 13 km before Shimla. This place is famous for its winding ski tracks during winters. We took a yak ride in the nearby Himalayan Nature Park.

After sipping hot chocolate in a nearby coffee house, we started for Shimla. It was less than an hour's drive to Shimla and we were back on NH22. I was just wondering whether it's called Shimla or Simla, when we reached the commercialized ex-summer capital. After parking the car with much difficulties, we walked through the crowded street and boarded the Lift near the Combermere hotel to reach the Mall road. May be this is the only place in the world where roads are connected with lifts. We walked till the Scandal point, the highest point on the Mall road and back. After coming down, we spent few more minutes in a local shop buying some heavy woolens and jackets.

We left NH22 after Shimla at around 12.30 p.m. and drove through NH88 for an hour and a half before reaching Bilaspur. We had lunch at a restaurant at the city, before continuing our journey on the NH21. It was when we reached Sundernagar when our driver suggested a night halt at Mandi, as it would be pretty risky to drive on the winding roads at night. We checked into Hotel River Bank after reaching Mandi at 5 p.m.. Our hotel was very close to the Bhiuli bridge and we could clearly see the Bhimakali temple on the opposite bank of the Beas river. The best part about the hotel was the wide picture window in my room through which I could see the gushing blue water of Beas and the green terrains on its other bank. We spent the evening visiting the Bhimakali Temple and Gurudwara Palang Sahib on either side of the Bhiuli bridge.

Day 3: We left the hotel at 9 a.m. and started driving towards Kullu on NH21. We crossed the Pandoh Dam on the way, which also acts as a bridge between the two banks of the Bias river. All throughout, the Beas kept flowing by the sides of the highway, as if it were another travel companion. At one point before Aut we crossed a long tunnel, so long that I felt it was never going to end. When we reached Bhunter, our driver pointed out to a narrow bridge on the right that lead to Manikaran, which was not a part of our plan. But when we heard about the hot springs, we couldn't control our curiosity and asked the driver to turn the car. We reached Manikaran at 11.30 a.m., via Kasol - a place famous for its charas cultivation. First we visited Gurudwara Manikaran Sahib and the pool of hot spring inside its complex. We saw people taking bath there and heard that the Gurudwara even cooks the langar food in the hot water. The water was indeed steaming and I almost let out a Whoa! when I dipped my hands in it. It felt tough to believe that this place is so near to the freezing Beas river.

Gurudwara Manikaran Sahib
We were running behind schedule, so after a lunch stoppage at Kullu, we headed towards Manali. We reached Manali at 4 p.m. and checked into Hotel Shingar Regency, located very close to the Hidimba Temple. Without any delay we headed for the Hidimba Temple - a temple built in honor of Bhima's wife Hidimbi. Just near the entrance to the temple is a children's amusement park named Appu Ghar, which reminded me of it's namesake in Delhi. Surrounded by cedar trees of the Dhungiri forest, this ancient wooden temple stands on a higher stone structure and has a four-tiered pagoda style roof.

Hidimba Temple, Manali
Image courtesy : Google
I did not enter the temple. While the others went inside, I trotted around the Dhungiri forest on a hired horse. While leaving we saw few local women charging Rs. 10 for posing with large Angora rabbits. The rabbits were so fluffy that they looked like huge balls of snow white cotton. By the time we returned to our hotel, a snow flurry had started.

Day 4: Surprise awaited us in the morning as we looked out of the window. Apparently it had snowed the entire night and there was a thin layer of snow all around.

Manali after snowfall
Our hotel manager advised us not to leave for Rohtang on this day and wait for a day or two for the snow to melt. With our plans foiled, we decided to visit Manali's highest point instead. We passed quite a few beautiful log huts on the way to the point. There is a luxury hotel at the highest point, the Apple Country Resort, apparently owned by the late veteran actor Rajkumar. The peak where the hotel is located gives you a nice view of the valley below and the majestic snow capped mountains at a distance.

After spending some time in the awe-inspiring surrounding of the peak, we descended and went to spend some time near Manali's Clubhouse, where flows a tributary of Beas river. This tributary mostly carries the mountain meltwater once the snow above starts to melt after the winter season. The water of the stream was spine chilling cold and so, we decided it would be better to sit on the huge boulder like rocks at the bank and admire the sparkling water from a distance.

Stream near the Clubhouse
Next on the list was Vashist - another place where runs hot water springs with curative potentials. It took us around 30 minutes to reach there. After parking our car at a distance, we took a walk in the village to reach the Vashishta temple where the hot water kunds are. There are separate tanks for men and women and we saw many people taking dips  in those. Not being a hardcore religious person saved me from taking a complete dip there, but I did sit by the side of the tank and touched the water to feel the warmth. I could understand how comfortable it would be to take a dip there, considering it was shivering cold outside.

Day 5: We have been simply lazing around the whole day, occasionally taking walks around the snow covered streets and once visiting the Tibetan market to buy some woolen clothes and souvenirs. By the end of the day, the snow had started to melt...

Day 6: The weather was perfect for a drive till Rohtang Pass. A cup of hot chocolate set the mood as it was freezing cold outside. We left at 7 a.m and started driving on NH21 - the Leh-Manali highway. For the first 30 minutes, we drove through a gentle sloping road with tall mountains on both the sides covered with deodar forests. Sooner, the roads became steeper, the turns blind, the mountains majestic and the verdant slopes gave way to the snow covered surfaces. Since we started quite early, we could avoid the traffic (At pick season, Rohtang Pass has as much traffic as on Mumbai roads). We stopped on the way at a shop to rent heavy fur coats, gloves, boots and walking sticks. After another hour, we took a stopover at the Marhi snow point. The first thing we did after getting down from the vehicle was throwing snow balls at each other. And damn, they did hit hard! We were (not) surprised to see quite a lot of people around - many of whom who have never seen snow before were as excited as their kids were.

Left: NH21, Right: Marhi snow point
Satisfied with the snow ball fight, we resumed our journey towards Rohtang Pass. Post Marhi, the crowd died down a bit. The landscape that met our eyes was - I don't know what to say - it was beauty beyond comparison (Well, I haven't been to Kashmir yet). Sans the traffic, I could have named it The Road to Heaven. As we neared Rohtang, it suddenly started to snow. At 10.30 a.m., we reached Rohtang Top - Altitude 13,050 Ft.

Rohtang Pass

We ran around (and fell a lot), threw balls of snow when the other person was least expecting a hit, slided on the thick snow like kids, skidding on rented sleighs and made snowman (and his family) with the thick snow. And then I suddenly felt it... Frost bite on my feet - Man!! It was painful. When I checked I found layers of snow inside my boots, thanks to the ongoing snow fall and my feet were almost turning into a shade of blue. It was my awful condition and the driver warning us about unpredictable snowstorms, that had us drive back towards Manali. 

The return trip had many stoppages due to the traffic on the road. There were vehicles moving both uphill and downhill on that narrow stretch of broken road. We stopped for lunch at a dhaba close to Vashist. The steaming food offered some comfort in the teeth chattering cold and my feet were almost back to their normal state and color. The rest of the day was spent lazing, roaming around the streets and of course, some more souvenir shopping.

Day 7: We checked out from our hotel at 7 a.m. and started for Chandigarh. Travelling through NH21, we passed through Kullu, Mandi, Sundernagar and Bilaspur. We reached Chandigarh at around 3 p.m. Chandigarh is perhaps the best planned city of India - divided into sectors (which looked identical and confusing to me). We visited the Rock Garden - a park entirely made of recycled materials and Rose Garden - the largest rose garden in Asia.

We left Chandigarh close to 7 p.m.. Five hours on the road and we reached Delhi by midnight - End of the fabulous road trip.

About Himachal Pradesh, Rudyard Kipling had said - "Surely the Gods live here, this is no land for men". Though we have covered only a part of Himachal Pradesh, it was enough for us to realize that in the lap of Himalayas, at the abode of snow, we had actually been to the valley of Gods, following my road to Heaven

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