This travelogue was published in Kitaab International in December, 2023.
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
This quote by T.S. Eliot has been my credo for as long as I can remember. And this is precisely what goaded me into packing my bags and setting off at a pre-dawn hour for what was going to be a 12-hour journey to reach the exotic mountains of Himachal Pradesh. My destination was a village called Naddi in the Kangra subdivision, situated at an altitude of 2180 metres (7152 feet) above sea level. An uninterrupted view of the mighty Dhauladhar ranges to the north and the lush green Kangra valley in the south, acted as my travel lodestar as I weighed multiple options and finally zeroed in on Naddi. This was my second solo travel to the Himalayas and I was raring to go!
An early morning flight from Bangalore took me to New Delhi where I had a layover of about three hours. Taking a shuttle bus at the Indira Gandhi International airport and changing terminals was a new experience for me. A steaming pot of caffeine and a loaded cheese sandwich helped quieten my empty stomach that had started growling audibly in protest. As I eased myself to a seat in the designated wait area for my connecting flight, I felt a strong sense of thrill and anticipation overpower me. The upcoming ten days held a promise of unlimited natural beauty and an unhurried pace of life, far removed from my city hustle.
A compact ATR flew us into the Gaggal airport, popularly known as the Kangra or Dharamshala airport. A whiff of cool, fresh air greeted us as we stepped out of the aircraft – a welcome change from the autumnal sultriness that pervaded the cities. The airport, though small in size, was well maintained and generated warm, welcoming vibes. I had already coordinated for an airport pick-up with the travel partner of my booked property. As we left the airport precincts and set off for Naddi, I kept my phone camera ready to capture the charming view that accompanied us.
The property at Naddi was everything I had hoped for and more. I had browsed the Internet for days, and finally selected the first-floor corner room at this particular resort. The private balcony afforded a panoramic view of the mountains all around. In fact, I could view the sunrise and the sunset right from the comfort of my bed! As a traveller – solo or otherwise – this factor tops my priorities while deciding on a destination and property. I need a stunning outside view to be visible from the room itself. That is largely because my itinerary is never an action-packed, adrenaline-heavy one. On the contrary, my sojourn to the mountains aims to be an immersive, introspective experience where I alternate hectic sight-seeing sprees with lazy mornings and relaxed afternoons, deep-diving into that delightful realm of wool-gathering!
The first two days were spent exploring the property and the surrounding areas. Naddi, by itself, is a small sleepy Himachali hamlet where the Dhauladhar range seems to be within touching proximity. The village is dotted with numerous shacks selling hot beverages and snacks, with Momo and Maggi occupying pride of place. Luxury hotels are few in number as people often prefer staying in the more commercial towns of Mcleodganj and Dharamshala. And that is probably the reason Naddi has managed to retain its virginal beauty, silence and solitude, that attract true-blue orophiles like me. The crisp, morning air punctuated by the woodsy smell of deodar and rhododendrons…the first rays of the sun illuminating the snow-crested peaks…the hill face with its green carpeted look…the tintinnabulation of the temple bells on a nearby slope…the fluttering and chirping of sparrows heralding a new day…and the inimitable experience of sipping on a hot cuppa with biscuits and a book in the balcony — this was the closest I could get to a dream mountain getaway!
The View Point, famous for its sunset spectacle, was located barely 500 metres behind our property. One evening around 5pm, I carefully trekked down the steep approach and the kuccha, barely-there steps leading to the spot. By 5.40, the sun started its westward descent, splashing the entire landscape in molten swathes of pink, purple and tangerine. People all around were busy clicking pictures and selfies. I stood mesmerised, trying to freeze the surreal view in my mind’s eye for posterity. No mechanical gadget could do justice to the splendour or essence of those magical moments. I rushed back to the hotel, just in time to witness the Alpenglow – a phenomenon where the snow-clad summit turns absolutely ruddy due to the scattered rays of the setting sun. The scene reminded me of a goldsmith’s foundry. As the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, a soothing tranquility permeated the nippy air.
I had done my homework well in advance and drawn up a list of places I wished to cover. This was all the more important since I would be the lone passenger in my cab and hence, needed to know the routes well. I started with a visit to the Dal Lake, not to be confused with the one in Kashmir. This is a medium-sized lake in Himachal with emerald green water, thanks to the dense deodar forests overlooking it. After a ten-minute halt there, I headed to the 5000-year-old Bhagsunag Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple is revered by both the Gorkhas and Hindus. A spring-fed pond housed inside the premises is said to possess miraculous healing powers for human beings. The no-fuss, antiquated, minimalistic setting here imbued me with a deep spiritual vibe. The Bhagsu waterfall entails a two-hour trek and was clearly out of my radar. The narrow road leading towards the temple and the waterfall trek beyond, housed a vibrant Tibetan market. It was flanked on either side by numerous small shops plying junk jewellery, colourful utility items and various kinds of tchotchkes. I picked up a few, as mementoes for family and friends.
My next stop was the newly installed Dharamshala Skyway – a 1.8-km-long ropeway that aerially connects the cities of Mcleodganj and Dharmshala. It would be an injustice here to not mention the squeaky clean, well-equipped terminals on either side. Sitting inside the cable car and gently gliding over the verdant deodar groves and mountains, with the human settlements looking like disjointed parts of a colourful Rubik’s Cube, I couldn’t stop myself from humming the iconic Carpenters number – I’m on the top of the world lookin’ down on creation…
Dharamkot is a place that figured high on my must-do list, and I chose a bright sunny morning to visit it. Just a few kilometres away from Naddi, this quaint village boasts of stellar views of the majestic Dhauladhar ranges. It also forms the base for the onward treks to Triund and the Indrahar Pass. Known as the ‘Tel Aviv of the Hills’, Dharamkot has a large Jewish presence and is a favourite haunt of Israeli tourists and expats. My cabbie dropped me at the entrance of ‘Trek and Dine’ – one of the most loved cafes of Dharamkot – as there are no motorable roads beyond this point. I walked aimlessly down the single path that traverses the village, soaking in the calm, laid-back feel of the place. Single-storey colourful houses with simple hill folks, pet dogs and goats lazing outside, completed the picture-perfect visual. Several attractive cafes, some sporting Hebrew signages, catered to the large number of foreign backpackers and hikers that thronged the village. The hippie vibes of the place were unmissable. I spotted the revered Vipassana Meditation Centre which attracts peace-seekers, both domestic and foreign. As the day wore on, a dense fog played hide-and-seek with the snow-topped peaks, giving a mystical appearance to the mountains. All this ambling up and down the steep roads whipped up a massive appetite in me. I checked into ‘Trek and Dine’ for lunch and tucked into a sumptuous Mediterranean fare that adequately tingled my gustatory senses.
The drive back home was another sensory delight. On the lower slopes, the pines reigned supreme, crafting a green filigree on the azure skies. As the cab ascended, we navigated unending vistas of green with the mighty deodar trees vying for space on the hillside. The nemophilist in me was euphoric! It was late afternoon – the temperature was dipping. The cool breeze caressing my face, the gentle psithurism, the cacophony of our home-bound avian friends, and the splendid gloaming – all combined to make it an unforgettable drive for me.
On my sixth day at Naddi I was greeted by an overcast sky and fierce winds. There was no birdsong or barking of dogs. The goats and mules tethered to a village hutment nearby, too, had fallen silent. An uneasy stillness rent the air. Instead of having breakfast in the large, hill-facing deck outside, I was cooped up in the room, adding to my layer of woollies, and monitoring the scene outside through the large window panes. A blanket of dense fog descended. But the whooshing winds soon chased and blew it away, giving way to torrential rains lashing down the hills and valleys, shrouding everything in view. I had never witnessed rain in the mountains before this, and it appeared both awe-inspiring and a tad alarming too, given the terrifying visuals of the recent flash floods and landslides in Himachal.
The rain continued in spurts over the next twenty-four hours, pelting at times, drizzling at others, before giving way to clear skies, peaks powdered with fresh snow, and a sliver of sunshine the following afternoon. We all exhaled in relief. I still had some ground to cover. Palampur, McLeodganj market and Dharamshala were done over the next couple of days, but that’s a story for another day.
The Dhauladhars, for me, are not a lifeless towering mass of rocks and boulders. They manifest as a living, breathing entity, a protective bedrock that is home to the burgeoning flora and fauna. They form the source of life-giving rivers and springs. They are the silent sentinels, watching over the local denizens.
My brief hiatus in Himachal is over. I’m back to being the city slicker that I intrinsically am. Now, I only have a multitude of photographs, and a cache of indelible memories that remind me of the unforgettable ten days I spent in the lap of the Himalayas. Where I beheld beauty in the most ordinary things. The initial sense of shock, curiosity or apprehension that I, as a solo woman traveller evoked, soon gave way to affability, warmth and respect – be it among the cab drivers, restaurateurs or even guests at the property. I felt loved and special; my soul felt nourished and pampered.
For now, my fernweh is quelled and satiated…until a new peak beckons me from afar and I rush towards it with an unbridled urgency. Because the mountains whisper stories. And every time I hear them, I learn something new.