Narkanda (2,708 meters), at the base of Hatu, offers a spectacular view of the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas. It stretches from the Srikhand Range in the east to the Kinner Kailash of Kinnaur in the northwest, and all the way across to the peaks of the Tons and Yamuna catchment in Uttarakhand. Narkanda is famous for its ski slopes. A sub-centre of the Mountaineering and Allied Sports Institute of Manali runs adventure activities here and ski equipment is available in winter. In summer it is no more than a refuelling stop for travellers to the land of the big apple in Thanedar nearby, or to grab a few winks before moving on to Kinnaur and Spiti. Preparations for our trip began in April. We booked seven rooms at the Hotel Hatu run by the Himachal Tourism Development Corporation for four nights beginning 19th July. We arranged for a 12 seater Tempo Traveller and on the day of the journey our party numbered 13, with me gingerly replacing the cleaner!
We had quite an interesting team led by Ammaji in her late 70’s! By 3 am on the 19th we rose to make idlis and sandwiches; collect loads of knick knacks; put together boxes of clothes, cameras, iPods, mobile phones and their respective chargers; not to forget medicines, umbrellas and Ammaji’s walking stick. By 6 am the vehicle had been loaded and we were off. I took the cleaner’s seat by the side of the driver, Ammaji in the front row, the children at the rear and others in the middle. Singing, joking, narrating anecdotes, munching snacks and biscuits that were brought out proliferously, by mid morning we arrived at a dhaba near the Karni Lake at Karnal where parathas were downed as breakfast. The vehicle then took a right turn onto a diversion after Shahbad. Traffic was sparse on this stretch the road narrower and at times broken – but we could go straight to Panchkula bypassing both Ambala and Chandigarh. After crossing Pinjore Garden and Jhajjhar River (perhaps what remains of the mighty Saraswati) we stopped at the check post at Kalka where our ruse was blown. They charged us a hefty penalty for carrying me in place of the cleaner! Lunch was at Giani Dhabha at Dharampur and by 6 in the evening we crossed Shimla. The two who were distressed by travel sickness had settled down by now. It had begun to drizzle and by 8.30 pm we arrived at Hotel Hatu in Narkanda. Travel weary, hungry, thirsty and irritable, we devoured the sumptuous dinner before being allotted candle lit rooms – not to install a sense of charm but simply because there was no power supply. Rain continued through the night and by daybreak the air was fresh and tingling. During a short walk for masala chai at the lone shop near the clock tower, we learnt that trees had fallen over the road blocking our route to Rampur. The team decided to take it easy – a varied spread was ordered for breakfast and soon we were off to explore the market for fruits and trinkets. We picked up bread, pakoris and cherries for lunch, washed it down with hot tea and opted to drive up to Thanedar – the big apple country.
Twenty kilometres from Narkanda on a nearly level road through pine and conifer forests, this fruit bowl of India has a special reverence for an American Missionary who headed to these hills in 1904, married a Himachali girl and planted the first apple trees in Kotgarh. In fact, Samuel aka Satyanand Stokes is a household name in the entire region of Shimla. The apple boughs laden with unripe green apples adorned every hedge along the road interspersed with cherry trees bearing a bountiful harvest of ripe red fruits. After passing the PWD Rest House and the Satyanand Stokes Hostel we sighted the mighty Sutlej River 1,000 feet below. Walking up a side lane we landed in a cherry orchard whose affable owners was not only happy to show us around, but even encouraged us to pluck fistfuls of ripe fruit directly from the trees. Aditya took a great fancy for the technical aspects and entered into detailed discussions as though he was contemplating to start a fruit business after he finishes his degree course on business management.
On our return from the cherry farm we alighted at the road head to trek to the Tani Jubbar Lake. In 15 to 20 minutes we were by the Lake – a luminous pearl in the middle of nowhere. We paid obeisance at the Lakeside temple and took pictures of the magnificent view. We met a young man from the nearby village – presently studying abroad. His aged parents found it difficult to manage their family farm and orchards and he confessed that he felt torn between his studies and filial ties. On the way down we spotted a couple of brilliant blue Jerdon’s flycatchers.
At daybreak on the 21st, we geared up to trek to Hatu Mata Temple atop Hatu peak. After an hour of walking past the driveway to the Circuit House through rich coniferous forests we reached the tea shop resting on a saddle that marks the start of the ascent. For the rulers of the erstwhile hill states, Hatu Peak was of great strategic importance because of its commanding position. Gorkhas captured it early in the 19th Century and built a fort. Later, the British ousted them.
We began the trek at a jaunty pace and covered the first 3 km in about an hour. The easy walk is along a jeepable road, through a mixed forest covering the whole range of high altitude conifers: blue pine, deodar, fir and spruce interspersed with the broad leaved moru. Then Kharsu oak, rhododendron, walnut and horse chestnut replaced the firs. Shaded for the most part, the climb still made us feel thirsty. It was useful to take a few short cuts in the beginning. At about 9 am the jeep carrying Ammaji, Rajni Bua, Chetan and breakfast crossed us and we knew we could expect hot food at the top. Anushka, the youngest of the lot, held on quite bravely until the final 2 km when the ascent became steep. In the end she managed to climb, to everyone’s relief.
The temple is on a ridge aligned from north to south. At the northern end of the ridge is a small shelter constructed by the PWD, where the ‘jeepers’ were waiting for us. From here we enjoyed a 360 degree panoramic view. The snow-capped Himalayan peaks extend in an arc in the north, while the hills and valleys of Rohru, Theog and Shimla spread out on the south and the east. The villages of Kumarsain, Kotgarh and Nirmand could be seen in the west amidst dense forests, terraced fields and apple orchards. We ambled back at a leisurely pace, examining views, foliage, edible ferns called lungru, colourful drowsy butterflies, Jerdon’s flycatchers – collecting pine cones and other souvenirs. Just about halfway down we came across a Gujjar kotha with a little pond and pasture land, where the nomadic Gujjar camp temporarily, during summers. By 2 pm we arrived at the tea shop on the saddle and found the Tempo waiting to take us back to the Hotel.
On the morning of the 22nd we took the Tempo Traveller down to Rampur Bushair – a pleasant 20 km drive through dense forests to a point where we could spot across the hill opposite signed Hamara Bharat Mahan Hai in bold relief at the heart of an outline map of India. Further down the road we arrived at the Sutlej View Point from where we could get a clear view of the mighty river which arises at Kailash Mansarovar and traversing through north India, joins the Indus. We could also see the village Sainj by the river bank, where an ancient Sun temple is situated and the section of the road that crosses over to Jalori Pass. It is said the Pass abounds in iris flowers that blooms in summer and forms a blue carpet on either side. The Hindustan-Tibet Road carries on further beyond Rampur and a little beyond Jeuri, it straddles the immense Nathpa Jhakri Hydel Project. It is an engineering marvel that harnesses the fury of the mighty Sutlej. During construction of the project heavy machinery had to be transported from the plains and the roads had to be widened. This led to massive landslides upsetting the delicate ecosystem of the region.
By 6 am on the 23rd we boarded the Tempo for our return journey. Retracing the route, we took a diversion from Solan in the direction of Barog. We arrived at the scenic Himachal Tourism Hotel by 11 am to have a travelling brunch and reached Delhi by 6 pm.