Sunday, June 17, 2012

Diary of a Traveller: My Experiences : Himachal Pradesh: Day 1 On the way to Shimla!

Back from The Heaven…and I was not DEAD!

Prelude

Since childhood, I have always been feeling an amazing attraction for Northern India, especially the Himalayas. I don’t know what was the reason to feel this bond for a terrain which I had just read about or had seen some pictures or dear doordarshan transmitting the picturesque videos. Ironically, I could never cross the northern limit beyond Pune or Nashik. Ahem, it means I was in Maharashtra state only.
I actually put my efforts together during my MBA days and made all the way to Ahamedabad and was actually relishing the fact for many days that I finally broke the jinx and got out of my home state from northern boundary. But I was thousand kilometers away from Himalayas.
So the point is…My wait was over recently to get into the lap of the mighty Himalayas. Anita and me finally decided to visit Himachal Pradesh almost 1.5 years after our marriage. I studied some packages offered by many tour operators and finally chose the Scenic Himachal package by Cox and Kings. Following is the detailed account of our trip to Himachal Pradesh describing the places, the people, the incidences which have been permanently carved on our minds. I 110% back HP Government’s punch line for Himachal Pradesh – PADHARIYE HIMACHAL, MANNBHAAVAN HAIN HIMACHAL (Welcome to Himachal, she wins your hearts)  

Day 1 – 6th August 2010

Enahancing my comfort, my flight schedule was changed and hence, the JetLite flight which was supposed to take off at 6.30 a.m. in the morning was combined with the 7.20 a.m. flight. Guess what?...This was the same flight we took to Jammu to attend Meenu’s (my sis-in-law) in last November.
So we got up at 4.30 a.m. in the morning. All pumped up! Actually we had finished our luggage packing at half past 12 last night but managed to get up early without any feeling of being dragged from the bed (Wonder what happens to me daily when I have to go to gym and if I skip that then the office…I guess the later is culprit..;))
We got ready. However, I was bit nervous about receiving Meru’s SMS giving me details about the chauffer and the car. This special feeling because twice in the past the cab didn’t come and I was in an absolute limbo. Finally the SMS beeped at 5 and I was deeply relieved. The cab arrived at 5.30 a.m. as per schedule. I actually take a lot of pleasure in getting into a cab in casuals and heading all the way to airport. Because many times I am strictly in formals on my management visits.
It doesn’t take much time for a cab from my place in Tilak Nagar, Chembur to domestic airport and we managed the distance in flat 20 minutes. I really like Meru’s Cab services and gave an EXCELLENT feedback this time. In the mean while, Anita got the trolleys and we entered inside the Mumbai Airport.
We didn’t waste much time and straightway headed for check-in. Few tech-savvy readers may raise their eyebrows wondering if I am aware about the process called web check-in. Well ofcourse I am; but since ours was a rescheduled flight, we didn’t have the luxury to do the web check-in. It was early in the morning and as usual was pretty buzzing. After collecting our boarding passes, we cleared the security check and walked towards the lounge. In the lounge, we bumped into Mr. Anantpadmanabhan Sarma, former EVP of IDBI Capital where me and Anita worked as research analysts. We greeted him and had an informal conversation (probably first time after I left IDBI Caps almost 3 years ago). Anita gave him an anxious moment by saying that the flight had been rescheduled without mentioning which flight! He was panic stricken for a moment as he had a business commitment in Delhi. I clarified that Anita was talking about the 6.30 flight while the current flight was very much on time. Probably to avoid more anxious moments like this he steered away wishing us a very happy journey. (So nice of him!)
A Tip – If you are flying by a no-frills airlines, please make it sure that you buy a multigrain vegetable sandwich from the CCD shop. It is very tasty, fills your stomach properly and is always cheaper than the white bread sandwich they sell on flight. J
So we bagged our couple of sandwiches to be eaten in the air …very much up in the air!
The announcement was made and we boarded on the bus which shuttled towards the airplane.
Anita is always nervous at the take-off time and she avoids sitting next to window. And I am an absolutely opposite animal. I love it when the plane takes off and love to see outside window as if I have my own wings and I’m flying in the air.
I can’t talk much about the journey in the air. Its always going to be monotonous but sometimes (or many times) the clouds are so beautiful that you just can’t take your eyes off them. Delhi’s arrival can be easily concluded as the plane descends JJJJ and we could see the geometric shapes of the fields underneath.
Our plane finally landed on the runway of IGI Airport and headed towards the newly inaugurated Terminal 3. We were very eager to get down and to enjoy some paranthas or chole bhature at any of the Delhi’s popular eateries. However, the pilot actually drove the plane for almost 20 minutes on the tracks to reach the Terminal 3 of IGI Airport. The plane was  Jammu (my in-law’s place) bound and for a moment, I thought that the plane is going to be driven all the way to Jammu. JJJ.
We finally entered the lounge of IGI Airport and were waiting at the conveyor belt to claim our baggage. I called Shammi, who received us at Delhi on behalf of C&K, about our arrival.
The conveyor belt took some time to start operation when the bad news was being flashed on the TV screens. Ladakh had witnessed unexpected flash floods due to cloud burst and many places were washed away. I couldn’t fathom the graveness of this news till I read the news paper next day. I really felt very very bad. Ladakh is one of the most beautiful places I have ever known and was actually contemplating between Himachal and Ladakh. I still don’t know if I can be labeled as lucky and I don’t care about that. What I care is if we are not the victims then certainly, we must be the helping hands. Do help these people. This tragedy has happened at a very wrong time as soon the ruthless winter will descend over this beautiful terrain.
In the meanwhile, Shammi Thakur approached us. We collected our luggage and headed outside the lounge. Shammi actually saved my effort of combing operation for searching the placard bearing my name. But a person was still religiously holding the placard with my name on it. He was Mr. Shib Kumar. Very interesting personality and happened to be my chauffer during the trip. His references will keep on coming frequently as I keep on elaborating about the trip.
Though it was the first week of August, it was very hot outside and I was wearing a jet black T-Shirt. I was very eager to get into the car and switch on the AC. Most of the India cab service providers prefer Tata Indigo as the sedan and we got the same.
I was thrilled to be on the roads of Delhi. I knew about the places…have read about them, have heard about them and well, this time I was there. I clearly don’t remember the places through which we drove but I can certainly say that Mumbai has got places to go.
We were on our way to
Connaught Place
where Shammi’s office is located. He told us a very interesting story in the meantime, may be if our politicians from both the countries are listening….
Shammi had gone to Russia on one assignment. To be specific, he was in Moscow and was flying back to India and he had to get down at Tashkent. He was in a fix as he was desperately seeking for a help but communication was a big problem since the people over there understood only Russian and no scope for English. And he got a helping hand from an unexpected person. The guy saw Shammi in trouble and told him where the consulate was located. And guess what…the stranger was a Pakistani. Shammi thanked him and headed towards consulate when the Pakistani fellow hesitantly approached him and said, “ Well, I have a request and I hope you will not mind. I have never embraced an Indian in my lifetime. Can I embrace you once?” Shammi was bowled. The reply was obvious, “ ARAY EK BAAR KYON? DO BAAR GALE LAG JAA YAAR!” This incidence really flashes like a ray of hope in the age of darkness as far as the relationship between India and Pakistan goes. I should not go ahead to discuss this issue. Because by the end of my analysis, I will be labeled as softest or extremist.

 

As I mentioned earlier, Shammi’s office is located at
Connaught Place
. Just two days back, I had seen my worshipped icons, Rocky and Mayur of Highway On My Plate on NDTV Good Times making their way to Wenger’s at
Connaught Place
. Both of them recommended this place very strongly. I will never take any other opinion if Rocky and Mayur are recommending the eatery. I asked Shammi about Wenger’s and his eyes lit up. I was not surprised. However, Shib Kumar, our driver and guide, ws nt in favour of going to
Connaught Place
. Thanks to the murkier work of CWG (Common Wealth Games) Committee, the whole place was dug up very badly resulting in unexpected traffic snarls. We respected Shib Kumar’s judgement and let Wenger’s go off our way. BOLD NOTE – I am again gonna make a trip to Delhi just to savour food at all the famous places, MIND IT! J. We dropped Shammi just outside the
Connaught Place
. He wished us a happy journey. Well, the gravy train had already chugged off!.
Shib Kumar informed us that it will take another hour to exit from Delhi. I started conversation with him asking about his whereabouts etc etc. He became very comfortable. I asked him if we can have tea somewhere but he suggested that we should have it once we exit from Delhi. I agreed and said , “Sab appke bharose hain, Sirjee!” and no doubt he was 110% right.
Finally, we left Delhi and started our journey on the famous Grand Trunk Road. I have been reading about this road. But being on this road was another dream come true. Soon we crossed the Delhi and entered in Haryana. My colleague, Ashish had suggested a place called Haveli at Karnal to dine at. I asked Shib Kumar if that is feasible. Shib Kumar suggested that it would be too distant and we had a better at choice at Sonepat itself. I had to agree him and mind you, what a wonderful place it turned out to be!
Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba – This is the name of the food haven I was referring too. For beginners, if you are vegetarian and really wary about the non-veg food getting served on the next table or doubtful about the kitchen, do look for the suffix VAISHNO after the dhaba’s name. It suggests that it serves veggie food.
So coming back to Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba, we were very hungry. It has a very good AC arrangement so you need not sulk about the dust and the sound and the heat outside. Btw, it was very hot outside. We settled at our place and a simple menu card was handed over to me. I was spoilt in choice though before entering, I had made up my mind to try the Pyaaz Parantha and Anita preferred the generic Aloo Parantha. We ordered curd separately thinking by the Mumbai standards, ;). How could we miss Dal Makhni, amazing cooked lentils with spices and whipped with creamy white butter….! In the meanwhile freshly cut onions, green chillies and white butter in a big bowl! We were bound to get bowled! The serving of curd was 5-6 times the portion they serve in the restaurants of Mumbai and yeah, it was also 10-12 times delicious than what we get in Mumbai! J
First, my Pyaaz Parantha arrived. Crisp and Hot! I was salivating, I am salivating and I will keep on salivating whenever I remember that parantha. I took generous amount of butter and curd to savour the parantha. In the meanwhile, Anita also got her aloo parantha. Normally, Anita is not a voracious eater as me but I was surprised to see her finishing the aloo parantha quickly…taste creates magic, you know!
One recipe which I ordered just out of curiosity was Raj Kachori! I hadn’t tried it earlier but it was a love at first sight…or bite! ;) It’s stuffing is very rich and outer crust is pretty crunchy served with sweet curd and sprinkled with pomegranate kernels. It’s hard to keep on writing about it when it’s time for dinner.
Bowled by such a fantabulous start, we went on to order Rajma and Kaali Daal with steamed rice and no wonder…we went on for finishing. Shib Kumar got his first installment of blessings from us. I am normally a generous guy and offer a good tip especially when I like the food. I actually couldn’t resist myself and had ourselves clicked in front of the Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba.
Note – If the reader happens to be belonging to my fraternity i.e. financial services industry, then there is a possibility that you might have come across an extensive report published by CLSA India in March 2008 with the title CLSA On The Road – People, Politics….something like this. The report has a photograph of a bill at a dhaba in Haryana mentioning that the dhabas have started paying VAT now. The bill belongs to Gulshan Vaishno Dhaba. J
The sun was really blazing over our heads. So we quickly got into our car and started our journey towards Shimla. Mind you…it’s a flat 8 hours traveling time without including your lunch/dinner/tea/snack/garden/breakdown/traffic jam breaks. And we had just started. First day of your journey is always the most pleasure giving day. You always experience ecstasy every moment…..many examples….I am not at office, the road is so good, nobody is gonna grab my collar for pending assignment, the air is so fresh, I am not sweating, I am not waiting for some vehicle, the vehicle always waits for me…there are so many examples. I can actually go on with this. But I am not writing this travelogue to describe all these things.
As I had mentioned about Haveli at Karnaal, Shib Kumar probably thought that it should be his duty to make us visit Haveli. My idea was actually to have a lunch at Haveli. So we pulled in the parking zone of Haveli at Karnal.
Haveli is thematic premise depicting the culture of a typical Punjabi village. There would be some mannequins of a farmer with a bullock cart or a young woman fetching water from the well etc etc. You will have an option to sit on a ‘Charpai’ and sip your tea. We never had that option as it was intolerably hot outside and we had to take the shelter of the AC premises. While entering, the Sardar greeted us with ‘Sat Sri Akal’ with the thump of his laathi. I also greeted him with ‘Sat Sri Akal’ and sneaked in. It was quarter to 3 in the noon and we had a very little space in our guts. So me and Anita decided to got a cup of tea after studying the Menu Card.
The d├ęcor of Haveli again very much resembles the coutryside of Pujab.Even a truck is there inside the restaurant. The thaali and sarason ka saag with make di roti are the recommended dishes over here. We sipped the tea and made our way out of Haveli.
It was very hot out there. Shib Kumar had strategically parked our car in the shadow. He asked me to suggest him some good audio CD at the shop in Haveli. I asked him his preference and he told me that he would prefer the songs in early 90’s. I was certainly not surprised and fortunately we bumped into an album which was a collection of hit songs from early 90’s.
We started our journey onwards. Shib Kumar enthusiastically started playing the newly bought CD and his enthusiasm soon faded rapidly as he was disappointed with the choice of tracks the album had.
The road was pretty clear and we were cruising at a good speed. We saw huge amount of grains rotting by the side of the road just because of the stubbornness of few politicians. What an irony….in my country, few people can’t get proper food twice a day, children dyeing of malnourishment and here, tons of grain was allowed to rot.
After Ambala, we paid the road tax for making entry in the state of Punjab and bid adieu to the historic
Grand Trunk Road
for that moment as we again said HI to it in Amritsar while concluding our journey after 8 days. We celebrated our entry in Punjab by…well just having a cup of tea again…J. I was pretty excited to be in Punjab, the land of five rivers as it can be literally translated, land of supreme abundance, land of green fields. You may think that I might have recalled some of the cult tunes of Punjabi music and even I thought so …but what strummed in my mind were the songs of Dev D. Seems like Amit Trivedi is taking over all the other musicians.
After having tea, we moved towards Chandigarh, the first planned city of India. However, we couldn’t enter the city as our route diverted towards Kalka off the outskirts of Chandigarh…may be next time. Continuing of NH22, we zoomed past Panchkula. It was getting dusky but before it was dark we reached Pinjor. We decide to visit Pinjor Garden. The weather was still muggy and I was sweating.
The garden is beautiful, spread over a huge area. The garden must be belonging to some royal family in old days which was very evident from the structures inside. I didn’t show any patience to understand who the royal family was. We got few pics clicked over there and rushed back to our car.
By the time we crossed Parwanoo, it started getting dark. It had been a long time since we started our journey in the morning. We were slightly tired and were absolutely running behind schedule. Mind you first timers to Himachal, when your brochure says 8 hrs distance from Delhi to Shimla, it means the actual traveling time and not your breaks.
We crossed Solan after a while and it started drizzling. It cooled the air and Anita in few moments dozed off. But I am some different kind of animal. Even though it was dark, I was just cherishing my presence in Himachal. I couldn’t see anything but the vehicles which were either overtaking us or were appearing at scary speed from opposite side.
Shib Kumar says that the people who are accustomed to driving in the mountain territory find it hard to drive straight on the road like our favourite
Mumbai Pune Express Highway
. Very true!
We finally reached Shimla at 9.30 p.m. The shops were getting closed and few people were strolling on the streets. It appeared absolutely beautiful before entering the city (and actually it is!) But many people are skeptic about Shimla’s beuty. But I must agree with Mark Tully who says in its book India In Slow Motion (a must read book!) that except for Sri Nagar, every hill station in India is actually invaded by land sharks. Shimla is one of  the good examples. But I decided to think about it in the morning. Shib Kumar in the meanwhile got his dinner packed and we headed toward our destination – Woodville Palace (http://www.woodvillepalacehotel.com/ ) on Raj Bhavan Road.
Nestled in the upper side of Shimla amongst the dense deodar trees is the heritage property called Woodville Palace. The palace belongs to the royal family of Jubbal State. The family still stays in the palace while part of it has been converted into a heritage hotel.
I was just dieing to check in. The manager informed me that the diner will be served till 10.30 pm. We had a little margin of error. Out luggage was promptly shifted by the courteous service staff who wore the traditional Himachali attire. You can’t stop yourself from giving tips to them for their promptness and politeness. We were allotted a big suite in the Heritage Wing of Woodville Palace. It was pretty cool out there. We got ready and headed towards the Imperial Banquet Hall situated in the Palace Wing. Few weeks back, I had seen one program on NDTV Good Times where the chef of this very hotel was preparing a traditional Himachali bread called BABRU. I was fantasizing about that while I walked towards banquet hall. Disappointment! It was serving pretty generic stuff. Blame it to the low season…lower occupancy means basic choice! I inquired about Babru to the staff and they were heartened to see that a non-himachali is aware about the himachali speciality. I thought the overflowing love, awe and respect would lead to me getting a BABRU in my plate but that vicious cycle…low season and hence no choice. Still the preparation was very good and we liked the Amchuri Bhindi very well. Anita was prompt enough to collect the recipe.
After we had filled our stomach properly, we went back to our suite. It was pretty cold but we also had thick blankets. Shib Kumar had instructed us to be ready by 9 in the morning as we were scheduled to visit Kufri. We were anyways tired and went to sleep easily.