Next morning, we were supposed to leave at 4:30 am, but managed to do so by 6 am. We had a Tata Sumo driven by a driver named Rana and our guide was Pammi.

Rudraprayag, where Alaknanda & Mandakini combine to form Ganga

Rudraprayag, where Alaknanda & Mandakini combine to form Ganga

There are two ways to do this trek. One is to start hiking from Deoaria Taal towards Chopata till Chandrashila and the other is it’s opposite. We took the second option and drove directly towards Chopata. On the way, witnessed the destruction caused by floods last year. Workers were working almost all along the route to repair the damage but it was huge. Some villages were completely wiped out and vehicles, houses and even bridges were lying toppled over like toys. People are getting too greedy, destroying eco-system and constructed houses and shops wherever they wish without caring about stability of mountains and greenery. A lot of the destruction could have been avoided if the construction was planned properly.

A destroyed village on the way

A destroyed village on the way

After Ukhimath, the area was less populated, greener and cool. We could hear a lot of bird calls but were able to spot only 2-3 of them. Unlike the places which saw significant damage due to floods previous year, this area was spared any such thing. The roads were more or less OK but had a few bumpy stretches every now and then. We reached Chopata a few hours before sunrise and stopped at a two-storied dhaba kind of place run by a family. Pammi’s older brother was already there resting after finishing up a trek with some other trekkers who were relaxing nearby. Upper floor had kitchen and eating area and the lower floors had a couple of rooms with beds for guests. 3 foreigners were staying there already and had just finished Deoria Taal to Chandrashila trek. We had a late lunch and went on a walk down the road. Tungnath Temple was just on top of the mountains we were at but not visible. Entrance to the visitor’s route was half a km from our place and had a few shops. There were a few other dhabas and shops which were still not open for the season. We were lucky to have visited just 2-3 days the temple opened for visitors. Otherwise the place would have been swamped with pilgrims.

Near Chopata

Near Chopata

Here we saw a number of mountain crows which are fully black and bigger than what we have in plains. They seemed to be much less shy and came as close as 2-3 feet of people. I fed them some biscuits and in no time, a group of 8-9 were sitting around cawing for more.

We walked for a couple of kilometers beyond the entrance area down the road. A very strong wind was blowing at the  time and it was getting colder every minute. Almost all trees in the area lean towards a certain direction due to these wins.  Views of the valleys and forests were pretty nice even in low light. A lot of mountains at some distance were

A shepherd and his puppy

A shepherd and his puppy

covered with snow. After we reached back, we huddled around the fire. Even in Rishikesh it was near about 40 degrees, but Chopata was cold. By this time, Pammi and Rana had set up tents and dinner was ready. It was simple meal of daal, chawal etc. After dinner, we took out stuff we needed for next day and went to sleep.

I was supposed to write this travelogue last year, but due to work, laziness and website not working, I couldn’t. Now a year later, I don’t remember all the details. So this one will be according to best of my memory and what can I remember from the photos.

Early morning view of river Ganga from Laksham Jhula

Early morning view of river Ganga from Laksham Jhula

I had last visited Rishikesh around 16-17 years back and didn’t remember much of it or places nearby except Lakshman Jhoola and beach near river Ganga. So visiting the place again was almost like visiting it for the first time. To reach there, we took a bus from Delhi and reached Rishikesh at sunrise. We had booked a room in Shiv Shakti Guesthouse near Lakshman Jhula and hired an auto to take us there. It dropped us on other side of the river and we walked across the bridge. The whole thing shook whenever a two-wheeler drove across it just like I remembered. The town was still asleep except a few temple bells ringing. Reaching the hotel, we changed and had a short nap. We woke up hungry and asked owner of the place Nitin for some suggestions. He advised us to check out a few cafes on the street. Unlike restaurants in Delhi and most other cities, eating joints in such places are very relaxed and slow. Guests just relax in their seats, enjoying the view, reading a book, listening to music and their orders take a long time to be ready.Some places don’t have chairs and tables, just some cushions on the floor. With a nice view like river Ganga flowing by, it’s a pretty good way of spending some time relaxing which we did.

 There were many interesting people in such places from all over the world. One of them told us his life story about his life since he discovered India. He worked 4-5 months in Italy and spent rest of his time in India living off his savings.

The day outside was sunny and getting hot. We strolled through the market which is just like most other markets in a touristy place with shops selling silly touristy clothes, knick-knacks, signboards of massages, cooking classes, yoga and so on. In Rishikesh though, Yog and meditation classes outnumber everything else by a fair margin. We kept on walking till we reached Ram Jhula area. The ghat there (river bank) is fairly crowded all day long due to temples nearby. 2 restaurants with a man dressed like a cartoonish pandit sitting on a high chair are popular with vegetarian people.

Welcoming committee

Welcoming committee

We walked to the beach and spent some time there. Saw a lot of rafting boats floating by and people practising kayaking. Kids were making sand castles jumping in water. The river looked placid but the current was very strong. Rishikesh is the place where Ganga enters Indian plains for the first time. It felt nice to stay in the water with the hot sun just above our heads. We walked along the beach for a while and reached the streets just beyond the main road we had walked upon earlier. The area had a a number of small houses, ashrams kind of places and lots of greenery. After reaching back to our hotel for rest and washing up, we considered our options. We liked Rishikesh, but wanted something cooler for a while. Asked Nitin about it and he suggested that we do the 4-5 days Chopata Chandrashila trek. It seemed interesting and he made the arrangements for it for next morning. 

This being done, we walked across Lakshman Jhula to explore other half of the city. On the way, we saw a young white guy playing bagpipes. He lived on the money people gave away and selling some kind of herbal tea. I bought a pack and used it for a while. The herbs were from northern Europe and supposedly helpful with sleep. I’m not much of a connoisseur but it was good.

We found a dhaba kind of place and had dinner before walking back to get ready for next day.

The bagpiper

The bagpiper

Next morning, we started the drive at 9 am towards Haripur Dhar. The area ahead is sparsely populated with a few small villages here and there. The roads are not in a great condition. Few patches are good, some with a few potholes and in some stretches, there is just a dust track. The ride was smooth and bumpy accordingly. Along the way we kept speculating the location of Habban valley. On the map, it was marked about half way on our route with a small river marking the spot. We came across two such possible spots, but it looked nothing like Habban valley with peach and apple orchards the HPTDC people promised us. We asked some locals who were waiting for a bus and they informed that Habban valley is near Rajgarh but on a very route leading somewhere else.

A waterfall we came across

A waterfall we came across

They also pronounced it slightly differently. I never like this thing of writing words of one language in to another script, specially Hindi in to English.

The villagers were mostly farmers who had just harvested their crop of garlic. Apparently this area is a big producer of garlic and the smell was in the air almost everywhere. The markets in every village were overflowing with garlic being sold at Rs 25-30 per kg, less than one-fourth of price in cities.

Along the way, a grey wild cat crossed our path. It was an interesting looking animal with different fur and facial structure from ordinary house cats. It stared at us for while vanishing in to the bushes near the road. The road near Haripur Dhar was very new for a stretch of 9-10 kilometers. The driver informed us that this was the first time that a proper road was laid there. An obvious exaggeration, but understandable. Another driver had claimed that all cherries in the world are infested by some kind of worm which one can see by peeling away different layers carefully.

Haripur Dhar Temple

Haripur Dhar Temple

We reached the town at 12:30 pm. The temple is 10-12 minutes drive from there on a hill overlooking the town and nearby area. One side of the ridge is in Shimla and the other in Sirmaur district. Whatever information I could find about the place on internet indicated that there was one PWD guesthouse and one hotel in town and another guesthouse in temple premises. I had called PWD guesthouse previous day, but the relevant staff was gone for the day and they asked me to call next morning. We had decided to either stay in Haripur Dhar or go back towards Rajgarh to spend the night. There were some hotels on the way which could be used if there was no accommodation available in the town.
The temple had a huge parking area and a few dhabas and small shops selling temple offerings of coconuts, puffed rice etc. One of the dhabas offered rooms for night stay. There was a small guesthouse just outside temple area which seemed interesting due to it’s location.

As we were getting out of the car, we saw one family with a young woman walking up the stairs. She kept on screaming every 2-3 minutes. Driver said that she had a “saayaa” on her (she was possessed) and coming to the temple of a powerful goddess is bothering the spirit which was troubling here. Later on we saw that family sitting in temple courtyard and a priest claiming some cure. She still kept on screaming every now and then and looked pissed off.

View of Shimla side just off hiking route

View of Shimla side just off hiking route

THis temple was more or less just like Kali Ka Tibba we had visited the previous day but was much filthier. The complex itself was clean but the wooded area nearby was covered in plastic and styrofoam waste. The visitors and shops nearby dump their waste wherever they feel like as long as it’s not inside the temple. The view of surrounding area was good but nothing special. The rant which I wrote in previous post about places of worship holds true for this place too.

We had lunch of rice and daal in one of the dhabas which was served in styrofoam plates. The state govt. needs to ban this nuisance too. It’s as bad as the plastic bags.

For nightstay, we first considered going to PWD guesthouse we saw on the way, but decided to check the guesthouse on top of the hill. The building itself is just a house with 3-4 rooms rented out to guests and a small hut outside divided in to two units. No rooms were available and we took one hut for Rs 500, which was a ripoff made amply clear by wifey. But it was out of town in a peaceful location and apparently starting point of some trekking routes. The caretaker seemed uninterested in his work and knew nothing about this except pointing out random hills in a vague manner.

A shepherd gathering firewood

A shepherd gathering firewood

After resting for a while, we went up the rocky path going up the hill. It was dug up probably a few weeks back and was full of rocks and rubble. After 10-15 minutes, I found a small goat trail up the hill and abandoned the path to climb up. We kept on walking up and met an old shepherd gathering wood. He asked us if we were visiting “kilaa” which was just on other side of the ridge. I had no idea about any kind of kilaa or fort and was intrigued by the possibility of seeing some ruins in such a place. He gave us some general directions and we went on our way. First landmark on the way was a concrete water tank which was still under construction. Tree cover was really thick at this point and there were some places which rarely if ever saw any direct sunlight.

We found a few goats and some cows grazing on other side of ridge presumably owned by the old shepherd . We kept walking on the ridge and came across a stone house under construction. Later on, I found out that it was an office kind of thing for forest department and was called kilaa by the locals. No fort or anything similar there.

Goat herd and Haripur Dhar town in background

Goat herd and Haripur Dhar town in background

The trail ended there with more wooded area up ahead. Wifey at this time was crying bloody murder and demanding that we go back. But I persuaded her to bear with me for a while. Along the way, we some beautiful groves which can be really nice camping sites. The goats had vanished down the hill and there were only a few cows wandering in between the trees. It was a few minutes past 4 pm and we started walking back to our hut.
Walking back I declared that going back the same way we climbed up was against my principles and I almost never do it. hehe. It was not appreciated much by  wifey though. We took a different route which was more or less made by the rain water flowing downhill and comparatively more difficult to walk upon. We reached back to the hut to wash up with ice cold water and have something to eat.
It was a nice walk, not as long or challenging as I like but not too bad either.

Called the driver to take us to the town. Bought some snacks for next day and walked around the town square.

Just a random stack of stones

Just a random stack of stones

Places like this can be covered by foot in 8-10 minutes. I wanted to check out the local meat dishes so I walked in to a small eating joint with just 2 tables. It was owned by an old couple who answered my questions about the place. Menu was daal chawl and mutton chawal. Latter cost Rs 80 and was fairly good. Wifey had her meal in a vaishno vegetarian dhaba nearby. During most of our trip, we were drinking tap water or spring water, whatever the locals were drinking instead of bottled water and never had any problem.

After the meal, we reached back to our hut and packed for next day. Evening weather was cold and the views were nice. When night fell, we were really happy to see thousands of stars up in the sky. Living in cities, it’s impossible to see more than 20-30 stars , but here the stars covered almost every bit of night sky. After wifey went in, I stayed outside trying to take some pictures, but I don’t know much about this kind of photography and didn’t have any suitable equipment either, just an old 18-55 lens and no tripod either.

After  fiddling with different camera settings for a while, I too went off to sleep.

After waking up early next morning, me and wifey  got our stuff ready for the journey. Taking a bath in Himachal demands that you use hot water. Wishing for a hot shower in May is not what I am used to. A normal shower in Delhi is almost always a hot shower these months and in Himachal, we had to use geysers.  After getting ready, we said good bye to the family and started our journey to Rajgarh. Our plan was to drive through Chail, stop at Kali Ka Tibba and reach Rajgarh for night stay. The road took us through some interesting places with just trees around with no human settlement for a long distance. It was a relief from the hot and crowded concrete jungles of Solan, Shimla and nearby areas.

On road

Our first stop was at Kali ka Tibba, an important temple for the people in the region. I am not religious and places of worship aren’t generally high on my list. To top that, Himachal and most of India is full of useless places of worship all over. Places like this Kali Ka Tibba (and the temple we visited next and countless others ) used to be quiet,scenic spots where religious folk could meditate or worship in peace away from the crowds. Idiotic religiosity of people however means that these places need to be changed to something gaudy, flashy and more like a commercial enterprise rather than a place where spiritual people can find a less distracting sanctuary. So they will cut all the trees, level the place, cover it with concrete, erect huge buildings and call it a peaceful place of worship. If this is not one of the biggest example of idiocy, I don’t know what is.   Even now, one could have guessed what a majestic place this used to be before it was all covered with marble and turned in to a temple.
To be fair, the temple was clean and unlike the greedy priests that one sees in places like Vrindavan, Haridwar, we were not forced to “donate” money, though wifey did give away more than what I thought was fair.  Unlike non-Hindu places of worship, money donated to Hindu temples goes to government which then uses it to finance “secular” measures like Haj subsidy. So, I am always in two minds here.

Friendly temple guard

Friendly temple guard

Views of the nearby hills was good though and quiet except for an occasional ill maintained motorcycle coughing down the road somewhere nearby. The only source of any sound were large number of birds, bees,a few other insects and strong wind. The butterflies in this region are mostly the type shown here. Saw them all over the region. Mcleodganj had a different one with yellow wings. Seems like each region has one special one in large numbers.
We had breakfast of some sandwiches in the parking area then started driving to our next destination Rajgarh. The drive was uneventful and we reached our guest house Tourist Inn run by HPTDC by noon. Rajgarh is just another small hilly town with 100 or so houses, a nondescript market  and too much construction going on. The guest house itself was nothing special but had huge rooms and bathrooms. Some places I know have crammed 4 rooms in to same floor area. The staff was courteous, friendly and efficient.  Call me a skeptic, but I was pleasantly surprised. We had some tea and pakodas as it was too early for lunch and rested for a while. Our plan was to visit a jam factory in Bhuira to see if it could be included in our offered tour plans.  It is a small plant staffed by local villagers and they make very good products. More on this in a later post.
 
But at that time, I didn’t feel like taxing my brain too much and just went on a walk. Our guesthouse was near the edge of the town and we took the road up ahead. There was not much to see there and it mostly felt like a waste of time. Wifey made it clear very soon, but we kept on walking for a while. Finally after walking on the road covered with potholes for about 50 minutes, I called driver to bring the car to take us back. Just then, we reached a small comparatively flat ridge area which had two mobile phone towers near road and pine trees just behind. Someone was harvesting resin from the trees and all of them were marked. Curious, we walked in to the wooded areas and found that almost all the trees were like that. There were some birds high up in the branches, but I was unable to see them properly or take their pictures. 
We were hungry by this time and asked the driver to take us to Rajgarh market for a late lunch. There were 4-5 eating joints, each one marked “vaishno” vegetarian or non-vegetarian marked as meat dhaba or something like that. We went in to a small place run by a woman and asked for a plate of rice, daal, chane and momos (dumplings). The food was OK to eat and very cheap. I walked in to a sweet shop to buy something to eat as dessert and spotted something like a brownish laddoo. But the shopkeeper refused to sell it saying that the batch was stale and not good enough to eat.
We still got some ghujia and laddoos from another sweet shop and went back to our room.
There wasn’t much to see or do after this and we just watched some TV and went to sleep soon after. Next day was not as boring.

Early on, our plan was to visit the orchard early morning as the trees were supposed to be sprayed with insecticide. But due to nearly continuous drizzle, that was postponed and we decided to visit after 10 am. Needed the sleep anyway.

Road leading to orchard

Road leading to orchard

The orchard is about 25 minutes drive from their house, just beyond Kufri  in a very picturesque setting. There are a number of apple and pear trees in addition to some walnuts, plum and a few others. Most of the fruits including apple were very small and still about 3 months from getting ripe. Apple trees were covered with nets to protect them from hail. Additionally, they have a very interesting way of rearing bees. A small hole is made in to the wall of a spare room which is connected to a box. It also keeps the bees safe from weather and most predators. The owners need the bees for pollination and also benefit from harvesting honey.

Little Apples

Little Apples

As mentioned earlier, they were thinking of building a few log huts in the orchard. A small resort of log huts or tents when built here in between the trees will be a great attraction. The views of the valley are awesome, it’s sufficiently far away from the road so that there is no noise and the weather is cool. Their plan is to keep it as natural as possible with minimum construction, so it should be good. It should be a nice place to spend a few days in mountains or a rest stop whenever someone is visiting Shimla and places on the route.  We did a bit of brainstorming over this.

As we started to go back, it started raining heavily again. We drove for about 45-50 minutes through some very narrow streets with very high inclines to reach Shimla. The rain had stopped by the time we reached the city and the weather was cool enough to make us wear sweaters. We walked around the typical touristy places like the Mall Road and nearby market.

Inside the orchard

Inside the orchard

For the first time in my life, I visited a state tourism office (run by Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation) on Mall Road and asked for advice. The staff there was pretty helpful and advised us to visit Rajgarh, Haripur Dhar, Habban valley and a couple of other places on the way. It turned out later that some of the places like Habban valley are marked wrongly on the map and most people don’t even know about such a place. So please don’t trust the maps 100% and confirm with multiple sources. Wifey had first wanted to visit Kasaul, but as it is very near Kullu Manali area and we plan on visiting the place 2-3 months later, we agreed upon the plan suggested by tourism officials. We booked a room in a guest house run by HPTDC in Rajgarh for about Rs. 1000 from there.

Wild flower

Wild flower

Later, we walked around a bit in the market taking in the sights. As almost everyone has been to Shimla, there is not much to write about. I just don’t like the uncontrolled construction which has led to the hills being stripped of their green cover to be replaced by ugly buildings all over. Our walk was nice as it had rained only about a hour before and was still cloudy. Doing the same thing the day before in normal mid May weather would have been out of question.

While walking, I noticed a small shop selling old books and felt curious. The place was just covered in books of all genres, but with a majority from British times. Few of them were in good condition while the others had pages falling out or crumbling. I found one book written by an explorer in Tibet and asked it’s price. The shopkeeper answered with Rs 9000. Haha. Even with the antique value, he is charging just whatever comes to his mind as the books weren’t even restored at all. Just picked from trash and put on display on shelves and sometimes bins.

Rainbow on way to Shimla

Rainbow on way to Shimla

There was another similar shop but with lesser number of books a few meters ahead. Didn’t feel like buying stuff but still ended up buying an out of print edition on Indian Ordnance Corps for Rs 300. An excellent bargain considering the mint condition of book and contents.

If someone remembers this artwork installed there, the young man in front posed as model

After getting back, it was time for dinner and packing for next 3 days. The car we arranged for was scheduled to arrive at 6 am. So we packed everything hurriedly and went to sleep soon after.

Memeorial to Lt Gen Daulat Singh on Mall Road

Memeorial to Lt Gen Daulat Singh on Mall Road

 

Taking Shelter

Taking Shelter

Same boy in different attire 15 years later

Same boy in different attire 15 years later