October 28, 2017

THE HILLS ARE ALIVE

Words: Sandra Edmonds

“The beautiful snow capped Himalayas got me halfway across the trek”

A few days of soul searching and facing my biggest fears in the wilderness at the base of the Himalayas

It all started when our editorial director, Sirish Chandran, handed me a sticker with ‘Wanderlust’ scrawled across in white against an icy-blue backdrop. I stared at it, contemplating if it was a sign from the gods. Merriam Webster defines wanderlust as ‘a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering’. And so I took the plunge. Made a few calls, got a few friends on board and booked my flight to Delhi. It helps if your friends are as weird as you and more importantly, in-sync with your impulsive decisions. Since Goa had been done to death— and then some, these past few years, we decided to plot a different course. We decided to head north. After the usual scouring online and speaking to people, we chanced upon a cottage ‘Once Upon A time’ in Kasol, which is owned by veteran seaman and one of the nicest people, Arvind Goswamy. As the photographs online would have had us believe, it was a cute, little cottage, which was bang on the banks of the river, Parvati. Delhi to Kasol is approximately 500km and that meant it would be a good 12-hour drive.

The Manikaran Parvati valley (© Image: shutterstock.com)

For those of you who aren’t aware, Kasol is a village that enjoys the bustle of pilgrims going to Manikaran and touristsas well as trekkers from all over the world, who want an escape to lesser known hilly getaways. Enveloped in the most scenic natural beauty, it is the base point to some of the most beautiful mountain ranges. For our journey, we drove down from Delhi and took the route crossing Shimla and Mandi. You don’t really need a fancy SUV; we were in a Ritz, which actually worked to our advantage as we made our way up these rugged, narrow, winding mountain roads. Although there were some rash drivers, I must applaud the incredible road sense of the truck drivers, who while maintaining lanes, would also signal and guide us to overtake them when the other lane was clear.

The rooms were cosy and well appointed

To reach ‘Once upon A Time”, you need to walk a short 200 metres inside the forest. When we finally got there, it was everything we had hoped for and more. The gushingriver Parvati gave us a vociferous greeting, the water hitting the rocks, a constant song we couldn’t turn off but it added to the beauty of the place and was a welcome change from our everyday city sounds. Our rooms were on the second floor and mine had a charming little fireplace. During winter, temperatures can fall as low as one and two degrees with a little bit of snowfall during peak winter nights. The only request Arvind made was to avoid drugs. (You get very high quality hash around here sold at a fraction of the price elsewhere.)

The ambience in the cottage was warm, charming and inviting. The writer in me imagined that I was Snow White who’d just stepped into the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs. The cottage possessed an air of homespun comfort. Everywhere I looked I saw elements strewn across the rooms that would make a house a home. Case in point, the wall hangings adorning the walls, the doodads artfully scattered across the rooms, the pretty tableware looked inviting and the colour co-ordinated linen in the bedrooms made you relax and smile. The people of Kasol are friendly and charming. Our hosts were the perfect representation of the village people’s kindness. Not only did they prepare the best five-course meals for us, they also advised us about the places to see and treks we should go on during our visit. A couple of hours later as we were discovering the wonders of the place, we received word that a landslide had taken the lives of nearly 50 people in Mandi where everyone was on their way to celebrate the long weekend. To think we were just a few hours away from a disaster like that, really put things into perspective! I love being in the lap of nature but I prefer to relax and enjoy the views around me rather than trekking for hours on end to eventually reach my destination.

The cottage nestled in the woods.

But this time I decided to push my body to its limit. We managed to complete the beautiful Chalaal trek, which is an hour-long trek across the river from our cottage. With a few beers tucked into our backpacks, we walked along the river and into the forest with the slippery green moss paving the way for us, surrounded by pinecones and mighty conifers and in the distance, a view of the majestic snowcapped Himalayas. It was definitely worth the effort. That evening, we went shopping for local fare. Most things here are handmade and if antiques and jute bags are you thing, you’ll be in shopping paradise. They are reasonably priced and PAYtm works just as well (thank god for modern technology). If you’re a momo lover, walk across the main bridge, and snuggled in a corner you’ll find a quaint little food stop called Diamond momos. Dig in to the most delectable, steaming hot, chicken and pork momos that melt in your mouth. The red chutney is delicious and so different from what we get in the city. A plateful of these little parcels of goodness on a cold, rainy evening definitely hit the spot.

Steaming hot momos to warm the soul (© Image: shutterstock.com)

If you are in the mood to embark on a food trail of sorts, I’d recommend a few eclectic eateries dotting the market street, like the Evergreen cafe, Sasi café, Jim Morrison and of course, the German Bakery.The next day, we decided to do the Kheerganga trek. In all honesty I was tricked into doing this one, but the beautiful snowcapped Himalayas got me halfway across the trek — and then I stopped at the first café I saw! I was careful not to walk too close to the edge of the path because it’s nothing but deep dark valley on one side and my fear of heights was not helping matters.

The gushing Parvati at the feet of the Himalayas (© Image: shutterstock.com)

Nonetheless, I still managed to see the glorious Himalayas and let go of all my cares breathing in the icy cold air, surrounded by the thick, green pine forest. Our faithful companion, Parvati, had bynow gotten so rapid, merely crossing the bridge would get you cold and wet. Heading back to our last night at the cottage, all I could think about was a good soak to ease myweary muscles. But what (wo)man proposes, God disposes. As I walked into the heart of the cottage, the kitchen… there. Right there… was the biggest huntsman spider I had ever seen in my life. Another irrational phobia! Its long, thick, hairy legs moved stealthily across the wall and its piercing eyes glared at me. I froze, too afraid to call out for help. Just then, my friend walked in, with our housekeeper, and burst into peals of laughter upon seeing the look on my face. Within seconds she gracefully guided the spider outside with a broom. It took me a while to recover and but I eventually managed to unclench and unwind by a cosy fire by nightfall. We’d been here a week and ‘Once Upon A Time’ felt like home, one I was very sad to be leaving. My entire week of peace and quiet, of feeling at one with nature, almost like a gypsy had come to an end, but I was filled with memories to last me a lifetime.

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