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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

rohtang pass


We stepped into a furnace at midnight and the heat hit us like a bulldozer
Delhi Airport was just that in mid May ,when we planned our journey to the hills of Himachal Pradesh and to the Rohtang pass .
When we told our friends we wanted to see “the pile of corpses “ up in the mountains this summer they grimaced at our sense of a holiday ,but then they wouldn’t have known that “Rohtang “ in Tibetian language meant a pile of corpses would they ?
It got this macabre term because climbing the pass in those days resulted in many deaths .
Opened only for two months in the summer , this 13500 feet pass and gateway to Ladakh was reached after 59 km of winding narrow dizzy roads from Manali with icy borders and threatening boulders .
The Border Road organization maintains the road with their usual efficiency.
But that comes later
As we sped in our cool Tavera trying to overtake the lumbering trucks the Delhi night was slowly giving way to dawn .
sleep and exhaustion overcame us as the highway rolled towards Ambala .
It was early morning when we woke up in the Haveli a wonderful Punjabi style dhaba with an Ac toilet and a look alike Punjabi village with even a well for drawing water ..
At those early hours we sipped our morning cuppa to bhangra tunes in the restaurant which was decorated with the front of a lorry with all fittings including a burly sardar driver .
Our own driver was a robust Punjabi Sardar whom we started calling endearingly as Darjee. He was at home at haveli
We then sped past Panipat where we could almost hear the din of the battle ,clank of the swords and cries of pain , the barren plains in our drowsy state .The battles of panipat crowded into our minds from long forgotten history books .
Chandigarh was a pleasure with its planned roads and prosperous malls The morning crowds milled around with Schoolchildren smart in their uniforms ,huge matrons in churidars scurrying to the market ,robust sardars and comely lasses all of them looking like part of an ant colony moving with gusto.
we left them in peace and scampered along
Soon we approached the hilly areas of Himachal pradesh
.It was still hot when our Darjee switched off the music and Ac at the same time ,
“ No AC or music in hill road ,police catch “he declared without any emotion and .all my arguments was wasted on him ,I had to sit all boiled up glaring at him stupidly
Lunch at a way side dhabba and nothing much to write about , but Punjabi fare was at least edible , unlike the others we had encountered. in our earlier travels in the north
Roopnagar ,Bilaspur and Mandi came and went and so did so many other similarly sounding places .the topography and the people changed .
The houses were built of wood and stones most of them standing on stilt like supports with wooden beams ,though painted gaily they had seen better days as many of them were periliously close to collapse ,it was a wonder that people still lived in them .
Men had their himachal caps jauntingly tilted at an angle , women were pretty and perky in their churidars .
Apple trees were in plenty but alas only budding as it was summer .
We even passed a couple of marriage processions with the bedecked couple wreathed in smiles marching to the tune of curving pipes and cymbals looking delighted .
By evening Kullu valley spread its feast to our eyes ,it was nature preening at its best ,the fertile valley was rich in nature and culture ,more than 300 temples are located here and its people have a literacy rate of more than 70 %

the river Beas flows through the valley bubbly in its enthusiasm ,its path strewn with rocks and boulders dancing flirtingly and foaming in its turbulence .
The valley is the place for trekking river rafting ,skeing ,helirafting ,mountain climbing and gliding and many such adventure sports .
The undulating hill roads gave glorious views of snowcapped mountains pristine in their elegance .

10 km from Kullu was the Bijli mahadev temple with its towering shaft which is said to attract lightening and electrify the shivling inside .
We reached Naggar the ertstwhile capital of Kullu with its wooden castle Built during Raja sidha singh’s reign 500 years back part of it now is a deluxe hotel .

There is a small wooden temple in the premises called Jagatpati temple .

Another sight to be seen in Naggar was the Roerich art gallery .
This is the house of Nicholas Roerich the famous Russian artist, lawyer, humanist ,spiritualist, philosopher, poet, theosophist, archeologist , scholar ,writer , and explorer , who after a full life all around the world took solace in 1928 with his illustrious wife Helena in this cosy wooden cottage .
It had a stunning view of the snowy peaks .

The museum opens a page into this great soul and his passions .his living conditions are dutifully preserved and one could get a glimpse of his antique car in its shed .
Svetoslav Roerich his equally talented son had stayed here with his celebrity wife Devika rani .
The museum was meant for lingering without the constraints of time for one could drift back into the past .
The gallery presented many of the artists paintings on the Himalayas .sculpture pieces and even traditional kullu dresses
As dusk closed in on us and cold creeped in we wound our way into Manali and the sterling resorts .
Slipping under the blankets in our cosy room we fell into a much needed slumber .
Morning woke us with the sun streaming its welcome through the patio windows and the rolling hills with its white caps lost in the cotton wool clouds was a sight to gaze for eternity .
A hearty buffet breakfast where we tucked in the best of south ,north Indian and continental delights to the satisfaction of the observant chef ,
we had to fortify ourselves for the exertions the day promised .
in sterling lobby

Our Sardar was all ready brimming with energy which probably his morning lassi had filled him with and raring to get behind those wheels .
we clambered to Hadimba temple through steep roads and culverts
.The Godess of Kullu rests in a four storey wooden temple built in the fifteenth century , located in the midst of a forest called Dhungiri van vihar
It is said that the pandavas in Mahabarath after escaping from the wax palace came to this place which was ruled by a Rakshak called Hadimbh after killing him Bhima the strong man among the pandavas promptly fell in love and married his sister Hadimba and they had a child ,later when the son grew big and started ruling the fiefdom , Hadimba retired to the forest for penance and became Hadimba devi
The temple is of the pagoda style and is set in a serene wooded area ,tourism had brought vendors and yak rides in its wake .

We descended down into Manali town .
Legend says that Manu + Ali from which manali came into being was the place where India’s own Noah , “ Manu “ drove his ark or boat during
The great deluge and took refuge
The colourful Tibetian market around the serene monastery sold knickknacks by the dozen.
We strayed into the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department and strangely for a government office was met by a courteous and helpful officer who piled us with brochures and information .
After a sweet and hot cuppa tea we were back in Sterling in time for the campfire .
We left it and the roaring crowd to walk down the road to a Tibetian dhaba and its mommos served lovingly by Auntyjee a comely plump matron who took delight in feeding gluttons like us who descend in hordes every summer .
Early to bed we went as the next day would be a strenuous one as we planned to leave for Rohtang pass 59 km high above manali and 13500 feet into the air .
The gateway to leh and ladakh this pass opens only two months in a year .
The road wound up giddyingly with yawning crevasses for borders ,icy rocks threatened catostrophy but our able sardar maneouvored his way up with ease .
All along the road were woolen rentals with numbers painted gaily ,the owners calling out to us to stop ,
Darjee had other ideas as he knew shop no 104 and glided into its precints .a sweet smiling lady welcomed us with an assortment of coats ,boots ,gloves and caps and in a short time we metamorphosed into Artic explorers . Suitably suited and booted we climbed up clumsily with other grinning hooded characters gazing at the spectacle from their vehicles .suddenly every tourist looked exotic in his costume and all around were salman and sharukh khans
We climbed up .
Slowly and steadily the thin air got to me and a splitting headache with nausea made me lose all interest in the pass which was another 8 km ahead .
By then the feared traffic block had happened and fuming vehicles were clogging the narrow road .We climbed down into the slippery ice and snow and climbed up a small hillock to do some sking and skating in sledges throwing the mandatory snowballs at each other . The fine snow flew into our faces and a slow and steady snowfall blew wispy secrets .
Climbing down to our vehicle proved a daunting task and getting into it in the bone chilling cold gave no respite till the heater stated warming us .huddled inside for more than three hours we waited for the traffic to clear as an army officer bulldozed with all sirens into the confusion creating cacophony .
All I remember on the pass this time is the headache which is unfair because everybody else seemed to have had a whale of a time taking their snaps sitting in ice hovels conveniently dug for them with shovels and love messages as dressings all for a fee of course .
I was a bad sport and remained grumpy as we shed our coats in the shop and then sped down to the warm springs of Vasisth .
I coiled up in the backseat of our tavera as the others left for the springs ,after a restful slumber I doused the embers of my headache with a pure grape juice
Rohtang the pile of corpses made me feel like one .

Exhausted we slept like children back in Sterling .
Morning saw us leaving Manali to Simla .
We went for river rafting in the Beas .
I was apprehensive remembering my Rohtang day but it turned out to be the best part of the holiday .
Wearing life jackets and helmets we hung for dear life to the rubber dinghy as we careened down the swiftly flowing Beas .
Our pilot a grinning Bruce lee look alike took pleasure in driving us almost into huge boulders and made us as wet as“umbrellas in kerala monsoon
The rapids were of grade four he told us during one of those peaceful lucid intervals when the dinghy sailed placatingly along only to suddenly crash into those boiling rapids .
At one moment we were wet and the other we were dried by the bright sun and felt cool and collected ,darjee who had droven along the parallel road stopped at vantage points to become a gymnast occupying dangerous perches to photgraph us for posterity .
The photos when they were developed were nice but all that could be seen was a choppy boat and some wet heads so much for his skill in photography .
14 km of exhilaration and we landed in dry land and toweled ourselves .
The boat was loaded on a Maruti van and Bruce lee left for a repeat perfomance ,.all in a days work for him.
Ravenously hungry after the aquatic antics we chose a quite dhaba and found a not very enthusiastic cook asking us for the menu , it was late in the day for lunch and the man was probably bugged seeing us invading his fiefdom .
A nearby shop had a sleeping owner whom we woke up for some toffees,this proved to be our lucky day for this was the real chef and the moment he woke up things started happening .he invigorated a battery of helpers who went into a frenzy of chopping vegetables and boiling water The great man himself took charge of the frying pan and with great finesse added the ingredients with panache ,he sautered garnished roasted and fried for us like a mother would , this man loved his job and had taken an oath to feed us in style .
As the ambrosia of his creations tickled our palates we sat down in a table facing a mountain stream . Chappatis rolled on to our table from the fire hot and puffy with pride, we dipped them into the red tomato filled paneer masala and crunched and crackled our fried cauliflowers looking at him with endearing eyes like grateful dogs .this was food for the Gods indeed and we praised him volubly
The silent cook watched us eating with gusto ,pride and happiness.
An artist enjoying his creativity ,
profusely thanking him we left with a volley of belches as our parting gift

A wayside kulfi treat was a fitting finale to this exotica .
We sped towards Simla, it was warm and the roads were dusty
Simla proved a concrete monstrosity with preying brokers who like a pack of monkeys strung on our van for their commission .
we landed in a hotel late at night and in a small room made big with mirrors everywhere ,seeing many images of ourselves wasn’t very attractive and so we left the place in the morning to a nearby homestay managed by two women a mother and daughter .The Fontainebleu .
The mother told us that fontainbleu became their house when they migrated from Lahore during partition ,as their own house back in Lahore would have been usurped by someone else .
we were also informed that the present Afghan president kharzai had stayed in the very room we occupied during his young days .
Great people same places .
The best part of the house was it was close to the historic Mall and had a homely feel .
We even had a friendly kashmiri vendor who good naturedly impressed us
to buy his wares
The mall in Simla is its best kept secret .
Desmond morris would have been delighted at this place as it is ideal for people watching
Evening brought men and women in hordes not only tourists but also the locals who gracefully went around wishing their friends with traditional namastes and elders by touching their feet even though many of them were dressed in designer outfits .I sat admiringly at this habit .
Four to five kilometers of unhindered walkways as no vehicles are allowed in the mall and with shops by the dozen selling everything from pizzas to pins the place was ideal if one had nothing to do and a lot of time .
Wicker iron benches facing scenic mountains could make one sit for hours with the cool air nipping serenely .
Globs of icecrams came handy for the occasion .
I silently blew a thanks to the British for making the mall ‘
A far away hoot from Simla railway station and a glimpse of a mist covered engine huffing down the mountain broke us from our reverie and made us realizethat it was night and time to leave
And thus ended another great holiday in the hills .

Dr .Harimohan MBBS DMRT

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