Himachal Pradesh – Day 8 – A visit to Sangla Valley

The roof rattled in the wind as a thunder shower ensued. We woke up to the awe-inspiring sounds of heavy rains on the mountains. It passed soon enough and we got ready to leave for our next destination, albeit with a heavy heart.

Sangla Valley was not a part of the original travel plan. It was recommended that we also visit Sangla and cut short our three day stay at Kalpa to two and spend a day in the valley instead when we were in Shimla itself. As always it wasn’t the distances that made the travel time long, but the bad, curvy, and often dangerous, roads.

Leaving the mountains behind

Leaving the mountains behind

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Road to Heaven

The road to Heaven is never an easy one

On our second day at Kalpa, it was recommended to us that since we were going to Sangla, we should visit Chitkul from there.

Chitkul is the last inhabited town before the border outpost which can be visited by civilians. Further on, there is one more outpost which is out of bounds for the common man.

Chitkul

Chitkul

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The entrance to the walk way to the last outpost

The entrance to the walk way to the last outpost

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After a 6-7 hours journey, we arrived at Sangla and left for Chitkul immediately. It takes another two hours from there and the drive as bad on most stretches. A suitable plan had been chalked out even before we left Kalpa. Arrive Sangla, have a hearty breakfast (again stuffed parathas) and leave for Chitkul, take the three hour walk to the border outpost and back, and then have a sumptuous Punjabi meal at Thakur Dabba. Unfortunately we hadn’t carried our rain gear and even as we arrived, it began to rain dampening not only the terrain but moods as well.  Half-hearted attempts were made to convince the children to join us for a walk. Sid then walked off on his own and did some exploring even as hubby and I sipped on scalding hot tea at Thakur Dabba while the clouds pelted us with a mild but chilling drizzle, and by the time we were ready to walk down along the lovely river flowing from the mountains, he was back.  So much for the big plans. In the end, we managed a 30 minute walk down to the riverside and spent a few minutes there, taking in the amazing scenery and admiring the pretty rocks which I was tempted to pick up and carry back with me.

A patch of summer glacier

A patch of summer glacier

Since it was too early for lunch, we decided to return. On the way back, we realised that this seemed to be a favoured place for various camping sites. The area was dotted by many quaint little villages too. We noticed two tiny spots on a particular glacier on the way back and racked our brains trying to figure out what it was…for a pair of fast moving animal it was indeed and they seemed to be engaged  in play. Thereafter topping our list of future travel purchases is a pair of good binoculars. Meanwhile a wild guess we’ve unanimously made is that, those were bears, unless we can go wilder still and imagine those were cats of some sort!

Evening sun

Evening sun

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We took a short drive that evening and although the driver mentioned that we could visit the temple in the vicinity, it was vetoed by the boys. As Sid wanted to go down to the riverside, we tried to find a path towards it and finally gave up as each road seemed to take us further and further away from it. We got back in time for tea. The mood was sombre. The holidays were almost over.

Sailing low

Sailing low

Sutlej River

Sutlej River

That evening I stood outside and admired the clear night sky lit up by a million stars.

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 7 – What Kalpa gifted us

 

From the lawn of the guest house where we were staying, one could see the Shivling atop the peak known as Kinnaur Kailash.  A 1 ½ to 2 day trek can lead you to the Shivling and is visited by many. Although we did not go on the trek, if you look closely, you can just about make out its form. The colour changes from black to brown  to a burnished red as the skyline changes. The mountain peaks themselves are breathtakingly beautiful.

[The Kinnaur Kailash is not the same as the Mt.Kailash in Tibet which is also considered holy but no known attempts have ever been made to climb that mountain]

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We started our morning with a walk down the almost deserted twists and slopes. It made for a good work out what with the initial steep uphill climb itself that must have burnt up a lot of calories. We made up for it at breakfast time with the delicious…what else but stuffed parathas.

After breakfast we went to see the Rogi Suicide point. It is not so difficult to see why it is called that. The fact is that the sheer drop is almost nerve-racking and I had my heart in my throat till we left the place. At a corner of the projection into the gorge is a spot from where you can take a peek into the ravine. Hubby ventured to sit there and take pictures.

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A sheer drop from here to nowhere

A sheer drop from here to nowhere

Rogi Point

Rogi Point

We went further down the narrow road until we reached Rogi village. Homes out here are built in a unique architectural style using wood mostly. Also fascinating was the peculiar tiles used to cover the roofs. The view from here was marvellous as  it is from everywhere in this beautiful village.

A typical Rogi home

A typical Rogi home

Rogi village

Rogi village

Frozen

Frozen

We visited Reckong Peo town after that. A quick Google search revealed that the town is named after a group of people who used to own the place. This pretty little town has a lot of character and is presided over by the statue of Thakur Sen Negi and several quaint old buildings. We visited a local store to pick up some nuts that are similar to almonds but are slightly smaller as well as dried apples. Then we had lunch at a local eatery.

Reckong Peo town

Reckong Peo town

Busy and beautiful

Busy and beautiful

A quick detour on our return journey took us to the Koti Devi temple. It is a beautiful shrine and it being afternoon, was deserted but for a Bulbul that had come to eat the leftover Prasad.

An interesting old structure

An interesting old structure

A field

A field

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Koti Devi temple

Koti Devi temple

You can never have enough of the outdoors but as it began to rain that afternoon, we went to our room to put our feet up for a while. Even as it stopped raining, we decided to go for a walk. I was the last to step out but even as I got ready with my jacket and walking shoes, Abhi scampered into the room, saying, “Come down soon. There is something you have to see.”

We get excited by sights as varied as a tiny beetle, a nesting bird or a descending airplane, so it could have been anything.

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Sky show

Sky show

And yet, the sight that met my eyes was astoundingly beautiful beyond imagination. Stretching out before the magnificent snow covered mountains was the rainbow in all its polychromatic  glory. We stood and watched for as long as the rainbow lasted. We went for our second walk of the day and we took many long pauses to admire the beauty that seemed to surround us every moment in time.

On the edge

On the edge

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Silver streaked stones

Silver streaked stones

The evening ended on a pleasant note even as we packed. There had been a lot of expectations as we left Mumbai for Himachal Pradesh…especially about Kalpa. And I have to admit, we were not disappointed.

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 6 – Beautiful Kalpa

When there are multiple destinations, usually there is bound to be a highlight. There is one place in the entire trip that promises to be better than everything else. For us, it was going to be Kalpa on this trip.

We stopped by the little town of Sarahan that morning after an early breakfast, hoping to pick up some shawls. Fortunately the shops were open. We found a store run by this very soft-spoken salesman who showed us some very pretty stuff. The more popular weave we were told is typical of the Kullu regions.

Kinnouri Shawls

Kinnouri Shawls

After that we began our journey towards Kalpa. We were sufficiently warned. People we know who have visited Kalpa had mentioned that the roads towards our destination were quite dicey most of the times. Sand-slides, landslides and shooting stones(as several road signs on the route warn) are a common occurrence on this route. And frequent heavy rains ensure that the roads are bad most of the time and at points there isn’t even any road. But funnily enough what we didn’t bargain for,  what slowed us down on more than one occasion was not this aforementioned hazards but  humongous flocks of sheep and goat. Many of them were so ravenous that they tried to climb onto the rocks on the side of the road and reach out for the little tufts of grass growing from it.

Road block ahead

Road block ahead

You couldn't rush them, no matter what

You couldn’t rush them, no matter what

After several hours of being on the road, we were even starting to wonder whether we’d get anywhere. Most of the time we were travelling along the Sutlej river, passing by quite a few hydroelectric plants. Somewhere along the way, we saw a  landslide on the other side of the road even as it happened. It is both breath-taking and awesome at one and the same time. Even as we turned into the road that led up to Kalpa, the roads turned narrower and at certain points, an oncoming vehicle required us to back up and make space for it, or vice versa (For this I thank our amazing man-at-the-wheel). Along the roads, stumps of tree roots stuck out precariously and one could only wonder at the immense strength with which they held the soil to remain there. But then again, all it would take was a minor mudslide to dislodge them.

From bad roads to no roads to roads like these

From bad roads to no roads to roads like these

Cruising along the Sutlej

Cruising along the Sutlej

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And then we were there.

And we are there

And we are there

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And to know that whatever we’d seen so far, the beauty, the magnificence were just sneak-peaks of this marvelous sight. The Kinnaur Kailash mountain stood right before our eyes and you can keep staring in wonder and never have enough of it. About half an hour later I went to our room to freshen up. That’s when it began to rain. The wind rattled the roof loudly and it looked like we were going to stay put in the guest house. But it passed within half an hour. The weather though had turned quite cold after the showers.

As rustic as it can get

As rustic as it can get

All afternoon, Sid and Abhi were outside checking out the littler paths and routes around the guest house. By evening, they claimed that they had discovered a walking track, a shorter route to reach a particular point than the usual tarred road. Encouraged by the staff at the guest house, hubby and I went with the boys to walk down these tracks. It is not difficult to see how the local people manage to stay this fit despite their staple diet of stuffed parathas for breakfast. The paths were steep, to say the least, and as always it’s never the uphill climb which is strenuous but the downhill climb which is difficult to negotiate that is tougher.

Later tea on the lawn, watching the beautiful Kinnaur range and a little sparrow that had made its nest in a lamp post pole which had been damaged by strong winds, or maybe snow, made the evening that much more amazing. After that we took the short drive into a nearby town and returned past many apple orchards. We were back just in time to admire the marvelous twilight.

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 5 – Enroute to Sarahan and there

We were prepared for what lay ahead. Some very bad roads, a few treacherous paths but the end result was going to be fabulous. We left Shimla that morning with some idea as to what to expect. Just after we left we stopped by the Kufri Zoo. Enormous yaks stood by the road outside the zoo entrance and for a price one could mount these gentle monsters. We unanimously decided we’d skip it.

The Kinnaur range beckons from a great distance

The Kinnaur range beckons from a great distance

Instead we got tickets and looked around the zoo. There were barking deer, sambar deer, black bears, Himalayan brown bears, pacing leopards, the gigantous Tibetan wolf that looked straight out of a Harry Potter movie, several birds that included the Cheer Pheasant and Monal, and lastly, a whole bunch of very badly behaved and noisy visiting human beings. A very awkward conversation I started with a timid-looking monkey ended when he began to climb the fence and I realised he wasn’t exactly among the caged animals. Worried for my phone and camera as I was, I beat a quick retreat. Although we prefer animals out and open in the wild, this wasn’t very bad either. In fact, little children would love the place.

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A very bored deer

Oh Deer !!!

We started our drive to our next destination Sarahan. The first part of the drive was uneventful and the roads were mostly good. In the far distance, you could see a whole range of snowcapped mountains. The Kinnaur range…and that’s where we were headed. Somewhere along the road, we began to cruise alongside Sutlej river.

The Sutlej river keeps us company most of the way

The Sutlej river keeps us company most of the way

A Hanuman statue guards a temple on the way

A Hanuman statue guards a temple on the way

A taste of things to come

A taste of things to come

Our search for a good place to lunch ended with everyone unsatisfied but truth be told, there weren’t too many eating joints  or dabbas thereabouts. At a place called Rampur, we turned onto a road that took us up along almost narrow roads until we reached Sarahan. In two hours we were there.

For us Sarahan was the ideal stop over before starting our journey towards Kalpa. But Sarahan itself is a charming little town with much to offer. It is mostly known for the Bushahr palace and the famous Bhimkali temple. The palace is supposedly 2000 years old. Entry into the palace premises was not allowed at the time we visited. Apparently it is still in use by the erstwhile royal family of the Himachali kingdom. The temple it seems boasts of a secret tunnel that was used by priests from another village in the olden days.

The Bushahr Palace

The Bushahr Palace

A private shrine outside the palace

A private shrine outside the palace

An amazing view of the town

An amazing view of the town and its Bhimkali temple (right)

Later that evening, we took a short walk into town and looked around.  The apples of the Kinnaur range is supposedly the best in India but sadly it wasn’t apple picking time. A couple of yellow billed blue magpies flit by but it was too dark to get a clear picture. As twilight descended, we went into the inner sanctum of the temple for which one needs to climb to the second level and participated in the ceremony that followed. All in all, it was an ethereal experience. But then I’d never been this close to heaven.

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 4 – Another day in town

A front view of the grand Vice Regal Lodge

A front view of the grand Vice Regal Lodge

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Stairs leading down to a little cell.

Stairs leading down to a little cell.

Once we’d seen the Mall the previous afternoon, we’d considered leaving a day sooner than planned.  I’m glad we stayed back instead.

The next morning we first visited the magnificent Vice Regal Lodge. There is enough and more to admire within those premises and while we waited for the conducted tour to begin, we looked around the sprawling garden admiring the lovely roses and other blooms.

Built during the time of the British rule of India, the massive structure dates back to the 1880s and was occupied by the British Viceroys who ruled the country those days. Look inside and you’ll see beautiful antique furniture, portraits and photographs of much historical import and any bibliophile’s dream, a fabulous library. Photography though allowed in the lawn, is not permitted within the mansion.

Pink and pretty

A little further away from the Vice Regal Lodge, you’ll come to the bird park.Enter this small enclosure and take a walk with different kinds of pheasants and their disciplined brood trooping behind their mater…the cheer pheasant, the Monal bird with its iridescent plumage and even the reserved peacock!!!

Pheasants Caught napping on the job is a Monal bird

We stopped at the State Museum next. With exhibits which date back to as early as the 8th century to modern times, this museum makes for an interesting visit. The building itself was built during the late 19th century. After that we visited the Military Museum where one can walk down the patriotic path and view weapons, photographs, uniforms and even portraits of famous generals and other officers.

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This was followed by lunch at a popular pizza outlet at the Mall. We’d have preferred a good Punjabi meal but the boys wanted their fast food fix. Although the husband and I’d have loved to look around the Mall and visit the library and theatre, we could sense that the boys had had enough of sightseeing. After indulging ourselves with an ice cream treat, we went back to the guest house. The two of us returned to the Mall an hour and a half later, hoping to see what was left of the Mall, but sadly most of the places of interest were closed to public by then. We walked from one end of the Mall to the other and stopped at Ashiana restaurant which has a lovely view of the hills all around. Though we stopped for tea, we ended up having cold coffee and pakodas. The rest of the evening went in repacking and preparing for the next day’s long drive.

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PS : It would make sense to stay in a hotel or resort on the outskirts of the town while visiting Shimla and take a day or two to see the sights there…that way you’d have the best of both worlds.

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 3 – Shimla

We took a nice long walk that morning exploring roads that lead onto smaller roads, going up windy bendy paths to sometimes end up where we started from. We passed cottages that form part of the hotel we were staying at. At times you come to a spot on your path from where you see just valleys and hills for miles around.

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After breakfast , we checked out of the Chail Palace and began our drive to Shimla. Time has wrought many changes in this old favourite holiday destination and the erstwhile Indian capital of the British conquerors. If you are looking for peace and quiet, this is not the place for you. Yet the bustling town holds much by way of historical import and some architectural structures are not worth missing when you are visiting the area. It would be a good idea to stay in the outskirts and take a day or two to look around.

On the way to Shimla, we’d decided to visit the zoo at Kufri. But it was closed that day and we made our way past scores of holiday-makers sitting aloft ponies that were to take them to a temple further uphill. We arrived at our room and as we were yet to have lunch, we headed towards the Mall.

The bustling Mall

The bustling Mall

The Mall, along with the Ridge, is popular for its shops and restaurants. It also has some old structures like the Gaiety Theatre, the Town Hall and the Library. The Christ Church on the Ridge is the second oldest church in North India. Vehicle entry is restricted in this area. So one has to walk along those steep sloping roads.

Time to pray - Christ Church

Time to pray – Christ Church

The amazing stained glass windows

The amazing stained glass windows

After lunch at Baljee’s, we walked to the Kali temple. Then we began our drive up to Jaku Hanuman temple. This temple boasts of a giant Hanuman statue that stands at 108 feet and can be seen from the Mall and most other places in Shimla. A diversion on the road led us onto narrow roads that were inconvenient when there was oncoming traffic. This was followed by a steep climb a flight of steps. The temple complex was definitely worth a dekko and the Hanuman statue is spectacular.

 

The library

The library

That evening, hubby and I went for a walk taking a steep path that led up to the main road. This part of town isn’t particularly suitable for that kind of walking and unless there is an absolute need for one to walk, it is avoidable. It was twilight by the time we returned and with no street lights to brighten up the paths, we tread carefully till we reached the room.

Note : Beware of monkeys in areas like these. We were warned not to make eye contact or carry anything in plastic packets.

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Himachal Pradesh – Chail – Day 2

The weather was perfect for a sleep in but instead I found myself awake well before 6 AM. This seemed to be the trend through out our stay in Himachal Pradesh. That morning, it was the monkeys that woke us up. They ran noisily on the roof and in a state of half sleep, I realised it was pretty bright for that time of the day. Hubby and I went for a short walk that morning, taking in the sights from the edge of the lawn from where we spotted Shimla looking like a miniature town. We were told by Ms.Chopra, whom we’d met the previous day that one should look in the evening after the sun has gone down and the lights have come on in that bustling town. Hopefully the evening would be a clear one.

The lobby of the Chail palace

The lobby of the Chail palace

After a heavy breakfast of stuffed parathas and chole bature, we took a drive up to the Chail Kali temple which is on one of the higher peaks. Look beyond the temple complex and you can see for miles around. An eagle swooped by towards its nest further away as we gazed at the neighbouring peaks and little towns.

View from the Chail temple

View from the Chail temple

Following a futile search for a wildlife reserve, we arrived at a breeding centre for the endangered cheer pheasant. Shy and timid by nature, few among the fledglings survive the frequent stormy weather that the region is exposed to. Out of every batch, as many as five or six chicks grow into adulthood. A blue bird much like the ragtail we saw in Aanavilasam flew past us as we left. We headed next to see the cricket ground which is supposedly the highest in the world. The ground though was closed for public and there were a few school children playing there just then. As we wove our way through the many narrow roads after the mornings visit, we saw the Chail palace at a distance.

The shy cheer pheasant

The shy cheer pheasant

It was now time for lunch. We landed at a very ordinary looking Soni Dabba in a little nearby town. The food here comes strongly recommended and after the first few bites it was not hard to see why. The owner of the dabba himself came to greet us. “No menu card,” he said when we asked. Could he just make the food, he asked and we said ‘why not?’. It took but a quarter of an hour for piping hot and delicious looking food to arrive at our table one after the other. There was chole (chickpeas in gravy), paneer(cottage cheese), black dal and a dry potato dish to be had with warm and fluffy phulkas that came straight out of a wood fire. I’d rate this wide but simple spread the best of that entire trip and one of the best we’ve ever had. The owner’s daughter sat and cooked in the adjoining area. I got to see the open wood stove (no pictures unfortunately).

Grub to die for at Soni Dabba

Grub to die for at Soni Dabba

Back in the hotel, I wanted to put my feet up and maybe catch a few winks. I retired to the room while the rest of the family went to the billiards room. I closed my eyes thinking of the many stories those walls must hold and the people who must have occupied these rooms in the days gone by and suddenly I was not sleepy anymore.

Sidh Baba temple with its pretty garden

Sidh Baba temple with its pretty garden

The weather was perfect for a cup of tea that evening. So we took a drive down and sipped on sweet masala ‘chais’ out of glass tumblers at Anand Bhojanalay. The samosas beckoned, but better sense prevailed and we let it pass. Then we drove from there to Sidh Baba temple, an ancient temple that dates back to the times of the Maharaja. There was immense peace to be found within the shrine and the garden surrounding it.Just outside the temple there is a water tank that was also built during the Maharaja’s time and still serves its purpose well. We spent the rest of the evening in the lawn until Ms.Chopra mentioned how she’d spotted a leopard in the morning on the way to the Chail Kali temple. We decided to try our luck. But when we reached the small lake by which the leopard had been sighted that morning, we only found a few locals hanging around there.

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After dinner hubby and I took a little walk and far away in the distance, one could see the twinkling lights of Shimla. It’s not just white light but sometimes you can also spot a red or a green or a yellow light winking from afar. Then I remembered to look up at the sky. The previous evening had been too cold and cloudy for that. The stars were out alright and I’d forgotten there were so many where the city lights of Mumbai subdue most of it.

And if a tree could tell its story

And there was a time and day in the lives of men when they didn’t know why the stars twinkled, why the moon waxed and waned or why the sun went to sleep every night. And it made them wonder and think and pray!

A beautiful end to a fascinating day

A beautiful end to a fascinating day

PS: Although a few locals said there was no wildlife reserve in the area, I believe there is one indeed (or so says many travel sites on the internet).

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 1- Chail

In all the time we’ve travelled I’ve never been to North India barring a visit a long time ago to attend an interview at New Delhi. We love Goa; Coorg is fabulous and Kerala has always been a favourite destination. But this once we single-mindedly focused our attention on what North India had to offer and the options and combinations were endless. After weighing the pros and cons, we zeroed in on Himachal Pradesh.

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Before I begin my account of our wonderful experience in that peaceful and gorgeous state, I’d like to mention that there were many people who helped in making this one of our most delightful vacations ever. A big thanks is due to everyone, right from the person who recommended our destination and those that took us around there, our skilled driver who kept us safe on some very scary roads and of course the preemptive set of homeopathic medicines that kept altitude-related discomfort at bay.

Our flight on the 25th morning of May was slightly bumpy. The seatbelt sign was on most of the time. Through the airplane window, we espied as we neared our destination, various mountain ranges.

“Are those the Sahyadaris?” Sid asked. I was not very sure. I never was very good with places and maps. And then we began our descent into Chandigarh, one of the first planned cities in India. As we left the airport, we drove past various army cantonment areas until we were on roads that twisted and turned making its way into the state of Himachal Pradesh and by the time we were halfway through to our destination we had already passed through the union territory of Chandigarh and the state of Haryana. When we set off from Chandigarh, it was hot. It was still warm most of the time as we slowly ascended the hilly state of HP.

Mid-way, we stopped for a lunch at Gyani Dabba. A dabba is a place that serves quick and delicious Punjabi fare. The place was packed and the tables were full. More people were waiting around the large room for their turn. The waiter pointed at a four-seater that was occupied by a couple who were in no particular hurry as they finished their meal and began to sip post-lunch tea in a leisurely manner. We were seated after a good fifteen to twenty minutes wait. We were ravenous by now but thankfully the butter chicken with naan that the children have ordered and the paneer do pyaaz and roti that hubby and I were having arrived in no time. And I’d decided on dessert even before we were seated at the table. ..the stick kulfi on the advertisement I’d been eyeing since I arrived there. Even before we finished our meal, a family with a little kid were waiting to occupy our table when we were done. In a way, they were breathing down our necks without being too obvious just like we had the couple who were there before us.

It was all pine woods from here on. Here and there, the roads were lined by trees with purple or dull orange blooms. There were apple orchards every where. Further up we rolled our windows down and listened to the birds and smelt the fresh air even as we drove up the hill. As we neared our destination, clouds began to gather in the sky which had been clear all along and a light drizzle broke out. It was raining as we checked in. By the time we arrived at our large spacious room, it was pelting not cats and dogs, but little hailstones the size of tiny pebbles. Some of them landed inside the room through the windows that we’d opened and they began to leave little puddles on the floor.

“Please don’t leave this open,” the attendant said as he closed the window, “They’ll come inside.” And we gathered he was talking about the rain.

The view from our room

The view from our room

We’d booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel at Chail a few weeks before we left Mumbai. The room we’d opted for was the Rajkumari (Princess) room. It was large and spacious with a chimney that goes alive during winters, by request.

Thanks to the rains, the weather cooled off considerably and the warm clothes were taken out without further ado. The ground floor of the palace is open to public viewing during the day and on display are several beautiful pieces of furniture that includes a grand piano and a billiards table that is placed in a separate room and can be hired by the hour. The Chail palace was the summer retreat of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. Much of the old world charm has been retained.

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Even as it grew darker, a few monkeys that dwelled on the rooftop began to congregate here and there and we now knew what the attendant was referring to when he closed all the windows. For a while they scampered on the rooftop just outside our window noisily.

Sleep came fast that night. It had been a beautiful start to a great holiday.

Twilight

Twilight

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Rising…shining

It was ten years after my last visit that I arrived in Mumbai on a late evening flight in November. At this time Mumbai is usually experiencing its second summer that precedes the slight chill in the air that passes off for a Mumbai winter. The city-that-never-sleeps was still wide awake and my husband pointed out the Ghatkopar hills and many other landmarks as we descended into the city. Friends had come to pick us up and take me to my new home that on a good day would take about 20 minutes. The roads were fairly empty.

Think Mumbai and this is what comes to mind ... Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus which was once known as Victoria Terminus

Think Mumbai and this is what comes to mind … Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus which was once known as Victoria Terminus

My first impressions of the city were though very confused. Images that flashed into my mind when I thought Mumbai were huge high rises and sprawling bungalows (Bollywood seemed to say so). Instead I found old buildings that refused to rise above six or seven stories high and in the locality where I began my new life, the buildings were old (most of them at least 40-50 years at the time), charming and pretty! I remember losing my way on one of the many bylanes thinking it would take me to another road and being hopelessly lost. And I kept walking until I reached another road that I knew. But that’s how it used to be…every building, every road looked the same.

Funnily enough soon after I arrived in Mumbai, an era of redevelopment of old properties began. It took days to bring down the old buildings. Those were load bearing structures with walls that were three times thicker than what we see today. The rooms were placed in a haphazard format. People didn’t believe in privacy and privates spaces obviously. You lived in large joint families and the more space there was for the family to spread out and sleep and wash and eat, the better. So basically you had more space and fewer rooms.

Flyovers have made distances shorter

Flyovers have made distances shorter

A visit to the suburbs to meet certain family members was always a revelation as to how quickly the city was spreading and growing. Each time we went that way, my husband would point out something new and say, “This was never there. Do you know a large part of this space was barren land?”

In 1998, I spent a weekend with my uncle and aunt in Powai in the same house they used to live earlier. The trucks and cars that plied the road all through the night kept me awake. It was the same room through which just about a decade ago, I’d peeped out and admired the Powai lake from and the same road that then had been so quiet and nearly empty even during daytime.

An old talkie that is yet to feel the onslaught of time

An old talkie that is yet to feel the onslaught of time

Powai, as people living here would know, is these days a pretty up market part of Mumbai and like several other areas in the suburbs have grown to be self-sufficient irrespective of its distance from ‘town’ as we call the lower tip of the island city that once signified ‘Mumbai’.

And this city that doesn’t sleep doesn’t actually need its beauty nap to grow and thrive. In the last nineteen years the city has seen more tall buildings, plush housing complexes, freeways, malls and flyovers coming up. And it is not without its disadvantages. Read ‘more cars on the road, more pollution, more people, less space’ !!!

The old and the new...a balloon vendor looking for a customer hangs around outside a branded store

The old and the new…a balloon vendor looking for a customer hangs around outside a branded store

But it still shines bright and beautiful…much like that first vision I had peeping out of the aeroplane …twinkling delightfully and beckoningly at one and all.

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Ever Changing – First Impressions

I remember arriving in Mumbai with my parents and brother when I was a little girl. We visited India every 3-4 years and home-coming was always a big event.

Our flight usually took 3 – 3 ½ hours to arrive in India…that plus check-in, security and the usual 1 hour wait to board the flight. The first sight of Mumbai, Bombay those days, was the one I got peeking out of the plane window. Two or three men in overalls, looking somewhat like half-baked spacemen would be lumbering along the aircraft. I don’t remember what exactly they did, but it just meant that we would be out of the plane and stepping into arrival lounge of the airport soon enough. We’d have arrived in the wee hours of the morning, probably 5 AM, but after the longish immigration and customs procedure of those days, we’d be out only by 7 or so.

A lot of shopping was done prior to the trip and I almost always carried a talking doll with me. The doll never traveled back though getting a new owner in a cousin or some other relative. I was a naughty kid and liked to pretend that my finger had accidentally got the doll in singing, laughing or maybe just a chatty mode. And inevitably I also almost always got frowned upon by my dear parents. Poor them! How embarrassing it would have been to have that sweetly mechanical voice say something smart even as they approached the severe-looking immigration official.

“Hi! My name is Jenny. Will you be my friend? Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Our halt in Mumbai lasted for about four days. After that we took another flight to Kochi (Cochin those days). Passing through Mumbai, we stayed with my uncle and his family in Powai within the college campus where he taught. Funnily my earliest memories of Mumbai were therefore the quiet, scenic and laid-back streets, open spaces and buildings of the campus. There was a park right below their building and there were always lots of children to play with in the evenings. On each visit, my uncle and aunt would take us for two very essential activities — meeting a handful of friends and relatives and most importantly shopping. I’m not sure where my aunt took us for shopping but the streets were always crowded with cars, buses and autorikshaws (I am guessing it was either Bandra or Ghatkopar). My mother must have shopped for friends back in Kuwait and even for us. She probably bought sarees, clothes, shirts, trinkets, accessories, the works. I always had a great time even if it was only for three days because I had my two cousins to play with when we were in the house and when we went shopping or visiting too they’d tag along which meant loads of fun on the road or in houses where I was not likely to know people.

We’d also visit a cousin who lived next to a film star’s home. I had a serious crush on this actor and would peek down from their flat into the actor’s yard hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Obviously he wasn’t there to wave out like I’d hoped in my mind. You see, no one told him I’d be looking out for him…

And then there were those things that shocked me. Living in Kuwait, one never came across poverty the way you did in our country and especially in our city. I remember stepping out into the pick-up area and heading towards the taxi my uncle had hired to take us to his house. The airport was not too crowded those days. An old man in rags began to follow us holding an arm out. The pitiable look on his face both scared and saddened me. I waited for my uncle to give him something. But he didn’t and even as we were getting into the car, a security guard with a lathi arrived to chase the beggar away. I still remember the alarmed beggar hastening away.

Then there were the crows. For a little girl who saw only the non-intrusive sparrows where she lived, the crow seemed a fascinating creature with both its scraping voice and unattractive appearance. Standing in my uncle’s balcony, I’d watch each one swoop onto the grill where it stood by boldly, very close to me and cawed demandingly.

Till my cousins got back from school I’d while away time peeking out of the window in the guest room. From not far away the Powai lake would gleam back at me and on the road between the lake and the building, a single autorikshaw or truck would rattle by noisily once in an hour or two.

So the Mumbai I saw as a little kid was a far cry from the noisy polluted crowded and glitzy images that one heard of or saw in still pictures or movies. It was spacious and quiet but for the crows. 

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