Saturday, 26 July 2014

Himachal Travel Diary - Part 2

Day 2: New Delhi – Manali

Travelling- it leaves you speechless then turns you into a story teller. – Ibnbatuta

I am used to waking up early during train journeys mainly I want to soak up as much of the on-way landscape as possible but mostly because you can easily get vacant and clean washrooms early in the morning. I woke up at 6 AM freshened up and sat looking out of the window.  Early mornings are so peaceful and beautiful, the romanticism at that time is really overpowering. I played along with the tid-bits of ideas for my next storyline. At around 7AM the pantry guys started waking up everyone and doling out the tea and coffee sachets along with the warm water flasks. I knew A would not wake up now. So I had my morning tea enjoying the book.

By breakfast serving time I woke up A. The breakfast was the usual non-veg fare of bread, omlette, finger chips and boiled peas. The train was on time throughout. We crossed Rajasthan by the day and saw a lot of camels on way. The rest of the journey was uneventful and the train chugged into the Nizamuddin station of Delhi around 11:15 AM. We had already contacted our driver for the tour to know his coordinates.

Delhi also felt equally unforgiving like Mumbai in matters of heat and humidity the moment we made our way out of the station. Tagging along the big suitcase was becoming a common problem everywhere.  It was a bee hive of activity outside and we were clueless as to which way we needed to proceed as everywhere we saw parked cars. Some anxious moments were spent in locating the cab. Our driver, Vijay was giving us directions on the phone stating landmarks but we were unable to locate any common landmark which both parties could see. Finally Vijay found us somehow. Thankfully the car was not parked much farther, as the heat and humidity was already killing us. Before getting into the car we saw some luscious looking litchis being sold on hand carts. A is a big lover of litchis so we bought some for Rs. 100. Rather steep price but at least we had something juicy to munch on during the long travel that lay ahead.

We had to travel nearly 600 KM one way. The plan was to reach Manali by 2 AM undertaking a long 14 hour journey.  I had calculated 14 hours considering very stringent stopping times and considerable traffic on the ghats. The travel plan we had made for the Delhi-Manali journey would not be preferred by most tourists but in order to save days that was the best possible option.

We drove from the Nizamuddin station through the ISBT cashmere Gate. We saw an old red brick fort on our left on the way and our gut feeling told that it could be the famous Red fort. We had guessed correctly and it indeed was the backside of the fort. We quickly snapped a couple of pictures on our phones. Initially while making the forward journey plans we had thought that we would stop at any small hotel nearby Nizamuddin or on the outskirts of Delhi to take a bath and freshen up for the long journey. It was a tentative plan which we had let Vijay know in advance and asked him to check out if some hotel room would be available for an hour or so. But after much speculation while we were in  August Kranti, we decided against it mostly because it would eat up our valuable travel time as well as the few hotels I checked were charging full day charges even for an hour long stay. However we didn’t intimate the plan change to Vijay and thought that we will tell him later on when we decide to take the lunch break.

The road was pretty smooth and the a/c buzzed in a comforting way. We were soon out of the city bound and buildings and people became sparse. Almost after an hour of driving Vijay told us that we will be stopping for freshening up and lunch in an hour from then. Its then that we informed him we will be only stopping for lunch. He seemed a little miffed at the news. These drivers actually get commission from any hotel or restaurant they bring in their customers and this was the very reason of our driver’s displeasure. The best part was he didn’t even try to hide his displeasure. That was actually the beginning of his “Big Attitude” problem throughout the tour. This was one private service person who didn’t believe in customer is the god saying. Throughout the tour we had to bear his temper tantrums and moodiness. We were at his highness’s disposal and he was the one who decided whether we should go for sightseeing or not. Will gradually come one by one regarding all the unpleasant situations we faced due to him.

Anyway the moment we told him that we weren’t going to stop for freshening up, his interest in giving us a lunch break ceased to a minimum. He had promised a stop in next one hour but finally we stopped near about 1.5 hours. I was really tired and had dozed off by then waiting for our stopover. I woke up when I felt the car stopping. As I blinked my eyes I saw before me a grand haveli standing in front of me.  It took me a couple of seconds to realize the name of the big architecture was actually Haveli. It was mostly the Haveli at Murthal, Sonipat – you see I am not very good at remembering the name of the places.  When we had started our journey A and I had decided that we wanted to taste the rural flavors of Delhi-Punjab in small Dhabad interspersed at small distances throughout the highways. These small dhabas served the best wholesome meal at dirt cheap prices. But the architecture that stared back at us looked pretty pricy and so it was!

We got out of the car and immediately were lashed at by the strong heat wave. It was terrible outside almost like stepping directly into the frying pan from the freezer without thawing out.  We got to know from Vijay that the temperature had been a constant 48-49 degrees from the past few days. We half ran towards the entrance. Vijay locked the car and vanished within minutes telling us to be back at the same location after finishing our meal. It was a big campus area with a few other shops and restaurants. The other restaurants were closed so there was no other option than to go to haveli. An attendant wearing full Punjabi ensemble with pagdi and lathi et all ushered us in. In the few minutes we had spent in the sun we got almost blisters on our skin from burning. The A/C inside was buzzing with tourists most of whom were dressed elaborately showing off latest fashions in Armanis and Pradas. Elaborate upholstery and woodwork dotted every inch of the place. There was a central area with gadda wala sofas as well, but every inch of the place was occupied.  We occupied a corner table and sat down. The square table had 4 heavy wooden chairs. The menu was a delicately designed piece of pankha or fan. We opened the menu and got a double shocker. It was a pure veg restaurant and the prices were unbelievably steep. I gave A dirty looks due to the first reason. Almost an hour ago when we were having the lunch discussions I had told A to tell Vijay to stop at a non-veg joint specifically as I knew that many people in north were pure veg unlike the impression that every tourist has that most of them are non-vegetarians. But A had scoffed at me and told that “don’t worry most of the restaurants are non-vegetarian so he will take us to one”. I had half a mind to tell A the actual scene but refrained knowing he will not believe me unless he gets a taste of his own medicine. And now when the vegetarian menu stared back at us, I took it all out on him. We chose the least priced thali which cost a total of Rs.570 for two.  While we waited for the food I went to the washroom to wash my face which felt sticky due to the heat. The washroom was all the way down to the farthest end of the entire campus.  I am sure my body shade changed two shades due to sun burn just during the sojourn to the washroom.
Photo Courtesy : Web

The food had arrived by the time I came. The thali was huge. It had Daal, some curry, paneer subji, butter roti, rice, papad, pickle and sweet. The sight of the thick knob of butter swimming on the large roti was enough to give you an instant heart attack. We dug into the food immediately like hungry wolves. The taste of everything was nothing worth mentioning. It didn’t have the signature touch of the North Indian cuisine apart from the huge amount of butter. We can even get similar tasting fare back in Pune. Frankly speaking the food we had in Rajdhani the other night was far better than this sub-standard-high-priced fare. However when we finished the meal, we were stuffed till our necks.

The only thing it that would get full marks is the hygiene, ambiance and toilet facilities. There is ample parking space for the cars hence all the Armanis and Pradas with long cars flock this place.  So if you want to go into a glitzy highway restaurant for showing off the latest high fashions and food taste is of least priority then surely go to this place. Else give it a miss for any roadside dhaba, you will get the same amount, better tasting, light on pocket fare.

 We saw Vijay also having his meal inside Haveli only. It was not possible for a driver to dine at this fine dining restaurant unless he was given discounts and commissions for bringing his unassuming guests here. This was Vijay’s way for getting even at us for not stopping at any hotel to freshen up.

We continued our journey again.  After the small nap pre-lunch I was feeling much fresh and didn’t sleep for the entire leg of the remaining journey. Mostly the scene on either side of the road had barren lands, but at places we saw housing complexes standing in the middle of nothing. I wondered where all these people went to do their basic groceries being so far from the city. We saw a few engineering colleges as well on the side of the road. There was this one particular stretch of road which was an avenue and the tress on both sides had bent towards the middle of the road forming a continuous arch. It felt like we were going through a tunnel made of tress. Very pretty indeed.

As we traveled further we saw at many places roadside stalls were set up where hundreds of glasses were lined and a crowd of Sikhs both men, women and children offering those glasses to the passerby. Vijay told us that it was part of the SEVA the Sikhs did at this time of the year. Giving water to the thirsty passerby in this extreme heat was considered as a very noble act. The stalls were known as Chabbil and the drink they were offering was known as Chann. I was very tempted to ask Vijay to stop the car and experience the Chann but was afraid that it might bring on the displeasure of his highness, A felt the same way so we both kept quite. We kept driving for a while after which surprisingly Vijay himself asked us whether we would like to drink the Chann. I agreed at once. As soon as he stopped the car, few teenage boys blocked the car and offered us the glasses of rose milk. The milk was thinned with water to which mild rose syrup was added and topped off with ice. It was the most amazing and refreshing drink I have ever had and it immediately cooled our bodies. The boys kept standing patiently as we finished our drink. I wanted another glass but was not sure whether it would be uncouth to ask for a second helping hence dropped the idea. We thanked them and continued our journey.

We followed the Delhi-Panipat-Karnal-Ambala-Chandigarh route. NH-1 is full of diversions due to the ongoing road work everywhere. One cannot attain much speed because after every Km there is a diversion. The toll taxes were being paid by Vijay(included in package).  Drive from Ambala to Chandigarh was smooth due to the expressway. The hill road starts from Swarghat. As I had mentioned I have an acute problem of motion sickness on ghat roads, I had calculated to take Ondem (anti vomiting medicine) before the ghats began. Note: Ondem is better than Avomine since it doesn’t make you sleep. We asked Vijay to stop for a tea break 15 minutes before the ghat road started. We stopped at a roadside dhaba. There were many people having snacks and tea. I was however not in a mood to eat anything; the food from Haveli was still not digested and it’s always advisable to travel through ghats on partially empty stomach to avoid giddiness. I took the medicine while A bought some chips and cold drinks for the journey.  I also took out the Himachal Tourist Road atlas that I had carried with me from Pune to understand the road better. The evening was setting in slowly.

As soon as we touched the borders of Himachal Pradesh to enter the hills the road condition deteriorated. It got all bumpy and broken with loose gravels.  I had expected green vistas to greet us but instead we were greeted by a convoy of trucks and ghastly white dust. The moment we entered Swarghat Vijay switched off the A/C even without asking or intimating us, it wasn’t a steep climb but he would not let the A/C run. So now we were stuck inside a car with all windows closed, A/C off sweating in the heat. We couldn’t open the windows to get natural air too because it was all smoky outside.  The four cement factories in this stretch of road contributed to the environment pollution of this place. It was a smoky, slow, sweating and frustrating journey through the ghats. The more we proceeded the more trucks we saw lined up before us.

Throughout the trip we gave in to Vijay’s temper tantrums due to only one reason – he was a very good driver, deftly maneuvering his car even in the worst of the roads. He cut his way through the lined up trucks, sometimes going off-road and sometimes overtaking from the wrong side. He knew his roads well so we didn’t say anything. We were going at a decent speed even in the narrow road blocked with trucks. But then at one point we came to an abrupt halt. There were two-three tourist cars already lined up in front of us. First we thought it was the usual stop for giving way to the traffic coming from the other side, but when we were not moving for a while we understood the matter was different. Vijay stepped out of the car and went up to the few people gather at the hairpin bend ahead.  A and I came out of the car to stretch our legs. The scenery had turned a muted shade of dark grayish blue. We took a few snaps of the traffic. Even as the sun came down the temperature was still high and it was extremely humid. Vijay came back and informed us that this was going to be a long haul as a Truck had its wheels caught in the trench that ran parallel to the road and now couldn’t get back on the road. Tow trucks were already trying to pull it up but since the truck was very heavy with the goods it was taking a lot of effort.

The rule on hilly road to avoid traffic congestion is to maintain lane discipline and follow in a single line both ways. Even in this situation some smartass tourists overtook the rest of the cars and made a double line along the oncoming traffic direction. People tried in vain to tell them that it would cause further traffic snag. But they were drunk and blatant not ready to hear anyone. We were almost held up for an hour before the truck could be pulled out. But then due to these rowdy tourists it took some more time for us to be able to move. By then the darkness had already set in. Loosing 1 hour was a very big deal when we had a tight schedule. Vijay told us that if no further accidents are there on the road we would be able to reach Manali on time.  Our expectation soared a bit but luck was not on our side that day. We had crossed the Niana Devi mod at 7 PM, the place where the truck had got stuck. As we moved ahead we saw swarms of trucks and tourist vehicles clogging the road from both sides. It was bumper to bumper traffic and no one was moving. Even when we were moving it was at a snail’s pace. The window was open but there was no air to sooth us and remember Vijay was considerate enough to switch off the A/C already.  Vijay told us he was driving for so many years but hasn’t seen such a bad traffic snag anytime. More and more time passed and we were still in the middle of nowhere. If things were going right we would have reached Bilaspur by 10 PM.

The terrible jam near Naina Devi

At 8PM Nishant of Drifter’s Inn (owner of our hotel at Manali) called me to know our coordinates so he could arrange a boy accordingly to receive us when we reach. When he heard we haven’t even touched Sundarnagar yet he said in a matter-of-fact tone that you guys won’t be able to reach before 5 AM! Things were looking grim to grimmer as more time passed. It’s more difficult for ladies because there is no washroom facility around. You will only get washroom facility in the few dhabas that are there in the ghat section. But then every time we were crossing a dhaba we were in moving traffic. Finally when we stopped by a small temple due to traffic I quickly got down for taking a leak. I couldn’t see any washroom around however it was a dire emergency situation for me. So I did what anyone in emergency would do. Amidst A’s protest I ran to the backside of the temple avoiding the eye of the priest through the precariously placed stone steps opening into a small stretch of clearing by the edge of the mountain. There was not a speck of light thankfully. I said a sorry to the almighty for doing such an uncouth action near his premises and thought that god would eventually understand the emergency and forgive me. I quickly relieved myself and returned with a happy face much to the disbelief of A who was shocked with what I had just done!

We continued our journey and at every possible situation Vijay kept telling the driver coming from the other direction that he was at Nanda Devi mod at 7PM and yet stuck in traffic. He was surely relishing the expression of horror from his counterpart on listening to this piece of news.  There was a time when we were not moving for 10 minutes Vijay got out of the car and sat on the road side culvert chatting with a fellow driver. The drive wouldn’t have been so taxing that the weather been a bit cool. A started getting a headache due to the heat and dozed off. Truck drivers who were travelling long distance had started to park their vehicles by the side of the road and go to sleep as they understood it was virtually impossible to move in this traffic. This was causing a snowballing effect and traffic became slower as the parked trucks obstructed the narrow road further.  After a while Vijay’s patience ran out and he began to overtake the long chain of trucks parked at every possible chance. The turns he took to overtake and the speed at which he did had brought my heart to my mouth.  I hung on for my dear life as Vijay made the unbelievable superman stunts in total darkness. I felt jealous of A who was sleeping like a baby oblivious to the fast and furious movie unfolding before me.

I finally breathed normally when we touched Bilaspur. It's 40 KM from Swarghat. We had taken 2 hours to cross just 20 KM which was going to cost us dearly. It was already past 9PM by them and felt hungry. But there was no point in stopping, because that would again make us loose precious time and put us back by a few hundred vehicles. So we kept moving on.  Next we crossed Bilaspur one of the major towns. Now we were almost 120 KM away from our destination. I was dead tired and could doze off to sleep anytime but forcefully kept awake as it could make the driver sleepy if all passengers dozed off during a night drive. So I kept myself awake occasionally indulging in talks with Vijay to keep him awake as well.

As we neared Mandi, the beautiful Beas joined us to follow till Manali. Even in the scanty lights I could make out that it was a rough river interspersed with strong rapids all through. Just a week before we traveled to the Himachal the most unfortunate event of 25 Hyderabad students who had come for a excursion to Himachal and drowned when the dams opened waters without warning had happened. Vijay pointed out at the location of the disaster. I felt really bad for the kids, a little moment of carelessness had cost so many lives.

Pandoh Dam

There are two attractions near Mandi. The first one was the Pandoh Dam – the infamous dam which had released the waters resulting in the death of the students. The dam is situation just by the side of the main road. A also woke up by then. We saw two lock gates open and releasing water.  IT’s a man-made beauty with the milky white frothy waters rolling down the lock gates. It looks magical at night and magnificent by the day. Gallons and gallons of pristine white splashing around. The roar of the gushing waters was creating a dolby digital effect in the silence of the night. The area is surrounded by mountains and pine trees standing like a night sentinel over them. The mercury dropped noticeably while we drove around the Pandoh lake. Finally we felt a nip in the air.

The second attraction of the area is the tunnel called Mandi Dwar or Aut Tunnel – the gateway to Kullu-Manali. It is the longest road tunnel in India with length of about 3 km. It’s a two lane tunnel.  Before entering the tunnel we never noticed its distance. When after travelling for a considerable time the tunnel didn’t end we took notice of things. Its well illuminated but still light shadow areas are there. Moreover the phone signals are totally lost once you enter it. It’s a magnificent piece of human engineering, cutting through the breadth of such a long stretch of mountain.  Finally after travelling for a rough 5 minutes or so we came out of the tunnel. Outside we saw the tunnel length was written as 2800 meters.

Catchment Area of Pandoh Dam
Outside the road became narrower.  After driving for so many hours Vijay started getting cranky by the minute.  He wanted us to stop over at any nearest lodge for the night and then continue the journey in the morning. I didn’t want to stop and unnecessary spend more bucks at some unknown highway lodge compromising on security factors as well. But by that time A’s headache had intensified and he was getting impatient sitting inside the car unable to stretch himself.  So at that point I had two cranky people to take care of and both of them wanted to stop somewhere anywhere right then. Since A was almost in half sleep mode I was not able to talk to him regarding my security concerns over putting up at an unknown place. By the time Vijay suddenly parked his car by a shabby looking restaurant cum lodging and started asking for room. He didn’t even ask our permission whether we wanted to stop over there or any other relatively decent looking hotel. I was quite irritated by his behavior but opted to remain quite – we had 7 more days to spend with him. Thankfully the lodge was full and we had to move. That’s the time I became resolute of not stopping anywhere before we reached our hotel in Manali. I paid no heed to A’s misery or Vijay’s tantrums and instructed him to keep driving. Vijay’s irate comment was “This is not the way you plan your trips. People usually don’t book hotels on the forward journey; they stop at any hotel whenever they feel tired and then continue the journey afterwards”.  To that I mumbled a “hmmm” and nothing else. We kept driving past sleeping towns. Finally Vijay decided to stop at a ‘proper’ dhaba near Aut. Our temperamental driver only gave stops when and where he wanted; what we wanted never mattered anyway.

It was a very run down dhaba by the side of the highway. I was thankful to Vijay for letting me give the opportunity of stretching my legs which were cramping by then. A didn’t feel like eating anything so I went inside the dhaba to check out what was on the menu. The cooking counter was by the side of the open sitting area. It looked greasy and patchy. The manager at the counter gave me a few options; I choose to have Roti and paneer ka subzi. Vijay went to the covered section of the the dhaba and began eating. I tried not to look at the kitchen area fearing that might take away my remaining appetite. The boy at the counter handed me a plate of roti and a bowl of paneer subzi with a obscene amount of butter floating on it. I brought the plate inside the car and started eating. The subzi was tasteless and paneer smelly. I only ate the roti and returned the plate. There were a lot of people eating at the dhaba even at half past 1. While Vijay ate I took a short stroll by the side of the highway. The zooming cars broke the silence of the night occasionally.
Once Vijay was done we resumed our journey. My body was fatigued but mind was enjoying the beautiful Beas accompanying us. The night was sublime. There was no light on the road but it was a full moon night. The soft moon light falling on the water made it look like a river of milk. There was a bright heavenly aura created around the rocky sides of the river.  The sparkling silver waters were very unruly and danced in parallel along the highway with us. It felt like the most romantic thing I had felt in a while. The sound of Beas at the night seemed like lullaby. For once I felt like telling Vijay to stop the car so that we could walk down to the shore and witness the beautiful night and the gushing river. And I eventually dared to tell as well but he simply said we can’t stop here on the highway. I silently wondered why because we were the only souls travelling at such an unearthly hour on that road but preferred not to argue. It’s pretty unfortunate that I couldn’t even take a snap of the beautiful scenery as Vijay was moving very fast.

The town of Manali is spread out a long way outside the actual city limits. The watch showed almost 4 AM. In another hour the entire city would start waking up and we were still on road. I really empathized with Vijay’s state of mind because we were getting tired just by sitting there for such a long time and he was the one who was actually driving and doing the hard work.

As we closed in on Manali town we saw many cars zooming out in the darkness from Manali. Vijay said that those were the cars headed for Rohtang sightseeing.  From what I had heard as suggestions for Rohtang, it was good to start by 2.30 AM so that you are among the first 200 vehicles headed for Rohtang for the day. 4 AM was certainly late by that standard. I mentioned it to Vijay that we would like to leave by 2.30 AM the next day for Rohtang so that he didn’t complain later on. Surprisingly for once he agreed to my suggestion.

Soon we crossed a deserted mall area of Manali and drove through the steep accents to reach Old manali. Narrow serpentine cobbler stone road led us into the charming world of Old Manali. There were stores lined on either side of the road which were closed at that time. I could imagine how beautiful it would look when they were all open. We had some trouble locating Drifters inn as we tried to read every sign board outside the hotels. Finally we found our abode. As decided with Nishant I called him to let him know we had arrived. He told me that his boy would come down to receive us. There is a small parking area right in front of the hotel where one can park their cars. Vijay parked over there for the remaining of the night. We told him that we would go for Manali local sightseeing by 11 AM. We took our luggage out and the boy came down to help us check into our room. The check-in procedure would be done next day by Nishant himself the boy informed.

After entering the room I could only see one thing – the huge bed and wanted to crash on it just then. But I arranged a few things, freshened up a bit and then we both called it a day. The alarm was set at 10.30 AM, we knew it was impossible for us to wake up before that. Everything went into oblivion the moment we hit the sack. We needed a long sleep before we felt any alive.

Image courtesy: Drifter's Inn website

Continued in Himachal Travel Diary - Part 3.

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