Friday, 17 March 2017

Trails in the snow: part II


People seek different things when they travel to a particular place. Every place, on the other hand, has something different to offer to every person who visits it! My writer friend for instance, “observes crowds from a safe distance” wherever he travels (how exactly he manages to do it without getting trampled, is still a mystery to me). Silently eavesdropping on people’s conversations, taking a peek into their lives and looking for new stories is what he enjoys the most. I on the other hand, hate the crowds. I love solitude and the peace and serenity that comes along with it!
This is exactly why I choose not to pay any heed to unsolicited advises from local drivers who clearly think staying in Khajjiar for two days would be a complete waste of time. In the morning, while we are almost ready to leave for Khajjiar however, we are informed that the shortest road to Khajjiar which is via Lakkadmandi and takes about one hour to reach has been closed down owing to heavy snowfall. Clearing the road would take at least three days more. Now the only option that remains, is to take a longer route via Chamba, which is about 90 Km and takes four to five hours at least!
This time, we decide to share our cab with a couple who comes from Mumbai. Our driver cum guide assures us that he would show us all the “spots” on the way, now that we have decided to take the longer route.
After about fifteen minutes or so of driving us through an extremely crooked road, he obliges and stops the car near an old looking shed.
“What’s this?” I ask him curiously.
“This is ‘Gadar point’ madam ji! Can you see that river down there? That was exactly where they shot the border scene from ‘Gadar’ movie!” he says proudly.
Our travel buddies step ahead enthusiastically to click a snap of the ‘Gadar point’, while I thankfully and with considerable effort, manage to suppress a giggle!
The second halt he makes is apparently the ‘Taal point’; place where certain scenes from the Bollywood blockbuster ‘Taal’ were shot. I’m starting to feel mildly amused, as the trip seems to be turning into a ‘guided tour to 101 Bollywood shooting locations’!
I cannot help feeling a little uninterested as he makes the third stop. I’m rather expecting this to be a ‘DDLJ point’ or a ‘Lagaan point’. This time however, he genuinely has something interesting to show! This spot offers a spectacular view of the ‘Pir Panjal’ range. From amidst the array of skyscraping mountain peaks, stands the magnificent ‘Chamba Kailash’ thought to be the abode of the ascetic Hindu God ‘Shiva’. This peak and the adjoining ‘Mani Mahesh’ lake is a place where hundreds of Hindu devotees seek atonement of their sins through pilgrimage. This peak is probably the farthest of all, partly eclipsed by a veil of clouds that surrounds it; yet its divine radiance stands out, like the tranquil visage of an enlightened monk lost deep in meditation amid a knot of fervent disciples.
The dangerously narrow road that twists and turns like a snake leads us to the village of Khajjiar. Although I’m calling it a village, in reality it’s a mere assortment of some thirty odd wooden houses built on elevated platforms. About 2 km away from the village is an enormously spread out marshy grassland. At one end of this grassland, concealed within a maze of shops and restaurants stands an ancient temple dedicated to the “Khajji Nag Devata”. It is from this temple and the deity, that the place derives its name. A few paces away from the temple, at the center of the grassland, there is a pristine lake with clear, placid waters. The locals here believe that the abysmal lake is the home of the Serpent God.  At the back of the temple and along the edges of the grassland, the alpine ‘Deodar’ trees stand tall; like the proud guardians of the sacred sanctuary of the enigmatic Serpent Deity.
The place where I’m staying in Khajjiar is a lone cottage right at the opposite end of the grassland, away from settlement; along the very edge of the mysteriously dark forest. We spend the entire day admiring the mountain landscape. The night however, paints an entirely different picture on its canvas. The mountains, the forest and the lake fade into nothingness; as darkness brings along with it the most splendid display of a million twinkling stars above; a spectacle which is a rarity to someone like me accustomed to the razzle-dazzle of the glamorous city streets. 
Star gazing is something that I always look forward to; and though many people would find it weird and almost crazy; this is one reason why I wish for more frequent power cuts at night! While we admire the beauty of the clear night sky, my thoughts as well as our conversation take a more philosophical turn. Gazing at stars always makes me marvel at the expanse of the universe and the innumerable secrets it holds. Unraveling all those mysteries is perhaps beyond the scope of us humans, whose existence is like a mere speck in the eternal abyss. This is precisely why I have always felt, that anyone who has given a thought to the complexities of the universe could never remain an atheist!
The next day, we decide to be a little adventurous and try para-gliding from a height of 2200 meters; which turns out to be an absolutely exhilarating experience! The remaining part of the day is spent trekking up a snow-capped hill near ‘Jot pass’, located 15 km from Khajjiar. From here, one gets a panoramic view of the old friend- the ‘Pir Panjal’.
Two days at Khajjiar are over within the blink of an eye; and it’s finally time for a goodbye! When I happen to look back and think about my stay in the tiny village, I realize that this place isn’t one of those “sightseeing places” that you cram up in your itinerary and pay a hasty visit to, with the sole intention of ticking off one of the many items on your bucket list. Unless you take a lazy stroll along those serpentine streets; experience your share of adventure; rest for a while under the canopy of a star-studded night sky lost in thoughts; devour the warm and delicious ‘parathas’ and sips of coffee you would never really appreciate the beauty of the place!
The place is a paradise for lovers; Mecca of trekkers and adventurers; food for the thought of writers and poets and feast for the eyes of artists. Khajjiar is not merely a destination; it is an experience in itself!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Trails in the snow: part I

Some might raise their eyebrows over my choice of destination. While most people would opt to travel to better known locations as Shimla or Manali, I prefer their lesser known and comparatively unexplored counterparts- Dalhousie and Khajjiar. Also, instead of the more popular routine of staying in Dalhousie for three to four days while visiting Khajjiar, Chamba and adjoining places from Dalhousie itself; I opt for a longer stay at Khajjiar which is a village located about twenty five kilometers from Dalhousie.
On the very first day, my journey begins with a bit of a turnoff. Train from Delhi to Pathankot is already late by an hour and a half. From Pathankot, we need to hire a cab to Dalhousie, a journey of about three to four hours. This means, that I’d reach my destination by about 3.00 pm instead of 1.00 pm as planned earlier. The train delay allows me only a few hours of sightseeing before sunset.
While the local cab drivers and hotel managers advise us to visit the local market, I decide to venture into trekking at this odd hour. Dainkund peak which is located at the outskirts of Dalhousie is supposed to be a paradise for trekking enthusiasts.
But apparently, February is not the appropriate time. The narrow street that leads to Dainkund has been blocked because of heavy snowfall. Although parts of it have been cleared by the army using snow cutter machines, it’s still a dangerous path to take; hence entry to vehicles may require permission from army officials.
Despite this, our driver does as promised and drives us as far up as he can. From here, we are on our own.
“Don’t try too many stunts. If you feel the path is blocked, turn back right away. I’ll be waiting for you right here” We are warned by our driver.
We battle our way up the hill, trying to neglect frostbitten toes; laboriously dragging our torpid feet through the thick quilt of fresh snow interwoven with dark patches of slippery mud. After what seems like an eternity, it turns out that we have quite successfully tackled the terrain to reach the very top, where we are greeted by four army officials who seem quite surprised.
yahan kya dekhne aa gaye aap?” they ask us earnestly, “idhar koi nahi aata”. (Why did you venture up here? Nobody walks up here in this rough weather).
I catch my breath and look around. Being quite unapproachable to masses and hence untouched by the noisy crowds that usually surround us in the cities; this place is what could easily be described as pure bliss!
The mighty Himalayas stand ahead of me with the last incandescent sunbeams gently caressing their snow clad peaks. The ‘Pir Panjal’  range looks ethereal; like a dreamy eyed bride clad in her snow white attire; with the golden gleam of the tiara softly encircling her serenely beautiful face.
The top of the hill houses a small temple dedicated to the local deity, the entrance to which has been blocked due to snowfall. I take a moment and silently bow my head before the mysterious and ever elusive ‘Creator’ who for now, has chosen to dwell in isolation; caged in his own realm within the confines of self created barriers.
Shadows of Deodar trees become taller as evening closes in. By this time, our driver has managed to stumble into a friendly army official and with his help, gained entry into this restricted zone, making our job easier. We get into the cab and take a way back to hotel.
On the way however, I cannot resist the temptation of a steaming cup of ‘chai’. We halt at a tiny tea-stall by the side of the road. The tea-stall owner and a couple of friends are warming themselves up around fire, catching up with some of the latest gossip over a hot cup of tea. With a friendly “hello”, they invite us to join in.
“Are the temperatures this low all through winters?” I ask them an obviously foolish question.
isse bahut zyada thand rehti hai madam ji” replies one of them; “barf ubal ke peene ka paani banana padta hai!” (it’s way colder than this. Even water from pipelines freezes; so we have to melt ice to make drinking water).
“Roads are all blocked. We have to stay at home most of the time” adds his other friend.
“You must be having electric heaters at home then!” I ask curiously.
ghar pe to chulha jalta hai” (We have a fireplace at home); they reply.
“We hardly need any electrical gadgets here. Temperatures are never high enough to necessitate the use of a fan or air conditioner and we have ample firewood” says the stall owner, as he serves each of us a bowl of freshly prepared ‘maggi’.
 “Have you ever tasted the ‘roti’ made on a ‘chulha’ ? It’s way more delicious than the one you make using LPG cylinders!” he remarks fondly.
I silently muse over an entirely different perspective these mountain people have about comfort and happiness as compared to us city dwellers. These are people who sweat it out (okay, that’s a mere figure of speech!) all day, savour their warm ‘rotis’ along with family sitting beside the warm ‘chulha’  and in the evening enjoy their little chat session with friends over a cup of ‘chai’  and a puff of ‘beedi’.  They are people with minimum needs. Simplicity is the essence of their lives. It is this very simplicity that makes them genuinely happy people who perpetually seem to sport an effortless smile over their weather beaten faces.
Dense fog soon begins to obscure the already blurring dark silhouettes of towering deodar trees. It is finally time for us to bid goodbye and leave this merry little gathering. Our cab takes the little path that meanders down the hill, back to the warm comforts of the hotel.

My heart however, is still lost somewhere amidst those solitary mountain peaks. My footprints in the snow must have already been wiped out; memories of Dainkund however, have been etched till eternity!