Monday, 18 November 2013

First Lap of Maiden Himachal Tour – Shimla, Fagu & Sarahan

My maiden visit to Himachal Pradesh in June 2013 went awry midway through the trip and the unforgettable second half of the story has been told in earlier blogs. The first part of the trip being smooth sailing, it is worthwhile recounting it now. Arriving Chandigarh airport from Mumbai in morning of 12th June, expecting a hot and dry weather and not finding it, was a pleasant surprise.  Our hired car driver dutifully came to receive us at airport, hauling a part of our luggage, informed us that the rainfall the day before made the climate pleasant for the trip ahead.  Settling down in front seat of Tavera, with my two travel mates occupying back seat, we were cruising through National Highway NH 22.  We had our first break near a road side eatery after passing through Kalka. We had a bite to eat and picked up some mineral water bottles. Some tourists prefer traveling Kalka – Shimla sector  by rail route to enjoy the toy train ride. 

By 2.15 pm, after a smooth four hours drive, we reached outskirts of Shimla town, with driver announcing that we have reached our first sightseeing place at Shimla – Sri Sankatmochan Hanuman Mandir.  We eagerly disembarked for half an hour break to visit a few temples in a large compound. The view of Shimla town situated in slopes of the hill looked gorgeous.  However, we had decided to pass through Shimla town, taking breaks at a few sightseeing places on way to Fagu for the night halt.

Sri Sankatmochan Hanuman Mandir

Shimla - the summer capital of British India and now capital of Himachal Pradesh, has no dearth of civil construction going on over the years resulting in schools, colleges, reputed educational institutions, hotels and private houses. The busy roads, bazaars and the pine trees lining the roads and colorful houses in hill slope keeps one glued to the scene. Our driver parked the car somewhere near Lakra Bazar and we were asked to foot it out to the Mall supposed to be happening place at Shimla. Window shopping during our walk, we let ourselves in a small restaurant and had Veg. Momos and tea to wash it down.  My two travel-mates made purchase of Himachali cap from shops stocking clothing items. A short walk and we were climbing a narrow gradient towards the Mall. The sheer variety of fresh and juicy fruits by the roadside made us purchase some for our day’s consumption.  The fruit season in summer having started in lower altitudes, the assorted fruits - cherry, peach, plum and apricots from hills and a mix of other fruits like Papaya, Bananas and water melons  from plains; the vendor made a brisk business.

Assorted Fruits

Arriving at Mall we were in a huge open area bereft of any vehicular traffic, humming with various human activities.  The statue of Dr. Y.S. Parmar founder of State of Himachal in a small park is an input to our knowledge base. In the same garden, local photographers were doing brisk business by attiring  tourists in traditional Himachali dresses and taking memorable photo shoot. The tourists, on their part, did not feel shy of giving happy, cheerful poses. 

Dr. Y. S. Parmar statue

Memory Photo Shoot

A few good restaurants like Punjabi Rasoi, Goofa and Ashiana  ( Himachal Tourism ) and Ashiana Restaurant were inviting but we resisted our temptation.  However, I could not deprive myself of apple juice drink from HPMC apple juice outlet.

HPMC Apple juice outlet

Shimla Mall View
Walking along aimlessly, like other few hundred tourists, we came across a huge auditorium which was staging shows by magician Samrat Shankar.  The Punjabi Rasoi located in large area was holding a food festival with the list of delicacies luring the patrons which we casually glanced and moved on.  The view of the Shimla town on hill slopes looked charming. The downhill roadside had vendors selling various memorabilia.  We returned back to our car retracing our path through crowded Lakra Bazar, for our onward journey to Fagu for our first night halt in Himachal tour.

I take the liberty of breaking continuity of my journey recount by including my return journey via Shimla ( so that there is continuity in Shimla story)  taking a night halt at Hotel Meridian. Early morning of 25th June I hired a car to take me to the Upper Bus Terminal for boarding a bus to Chandigarh. A negotiation with the driver for including a sightseeing trip to Jakhu Hill, saw me at the highest location in Shimla town. Before entering through the arched gate to the temple complex, I was warned by the driver to take care of my spectacles, which were prone to be picked by the innumerable monkeys present near temple area. It was drizzling while I took the steps through the tunnel like path. On arriving at the top, one cannot miss the gigantic 108’ Hanuman statue, which was erected in 2010.

 The Jakhu Hanuman Mandir is located by the side of a park in calm and serene environs. A dozen of devotees in early morning climbed the steps of the temple to pay their obeisance to Lord Hanuman. The temple looks to be an ancient one with some smaller structures around it.

Hanuman Statue at Jakhu Hill

Jakhu Hanuman Mandir
Finishing my sightseeing, I was in the process to retreating when I happened to see a guy feeding the monkeys in a lawn adjoining the temple. It is a ritual which is followed every morning.  Hanuman being the presiding deity of Shimla, his ‘Vanar Sena’ get some special treatment as well!


We are on the way to Fagu, about 22 km drive from Shimla. Arriving, we check in our ground floor room in Hotel Apple Blossom managed by HPTDC. This could be only hotel worth staying at Fagu - a sparsely populated hill station. Some avoid staying at Shimla because of it being a crowded bustling capital city of Himachal – akin to staying in a big town in plains.  A few days halt at Fagu enables one  to see all of Shimla driving to and fro yet not taking too much of his time. The large open space in the hotel compound as we come out through side gate is conducive for pleasure walk and see the Himalayas on a clear day. Some take their cup of tea and morning breakfast seated on steel chairs soaking into nature. Down below in lower altitudes, the scenery is enchanting with villages having terraced agri-plots and apple plantations. Some apple plants are covered with nettings to protect the fruits from damage by vagaries of freak weather. The not so distant Jai Ma Durga temple looks imposing which we plan to visit the next day. 

The Apple Blossom
Jai Ma Durga Mandir

Snow View from Fagu

Landscape at Fagu

 The next morning a short walk on the back portion of hotel takes us to a few shops located in a small market place for some purchases. Some distance away we visit the Durga Mandir by going through the arched gate and climbing some steps. We had the darshan of Ma Durga deity through the grilled door which was locked.  The climate looked a little cloudy but rainless; it was a good sign for our onward trip to Sarahan.

By 11 am we were on way to Sarahan a distance of 107 km.  After about  40 km drive on the NH 22 ( also called Hindustan – Tibet  road), we pass through the township of Narkanda. This is yet another place where tourist can stay in peaceful environs in order to escape the crowded Shimla. We included a stay at this place in our return journey  and do some sightseeing as well.  Some distance later, a number fruit bearing trees leaning  by the side of road with ripe fruits tempted us to take a break. The forbidden fruits namely peaches, tasted more sweet and juicier than normal! 

Apple tree
Yellow peach

Red Peach
Sutlej valley

By 12 pm we were passing by Sutlej valley, with river Sutlej, flowing down below the terraced fields at various elevations made the view enchanting. 

By 3.30 pm we entered the fringes of Sarahan town. We passed by Bhimakali temple bang in the middle of town and checked in at our allotted room in Green Valley Resort.  The hotel is located in slopes of the hill and we were allotted room in floor minus one. The good portion of Himalayan snow view can be seen by just lying down on bed and glancing through open window. The small balcony gives a view of astounding landscape with abundance of greenery and a few colorful houses.  The cloudy weather notwithstanding, we had fairly good view of almost all the mountain peaks including Srikhand.

Green Valley Resort
Snow View from Sarahan

Bhimakali temple in early morning

Bhimakali temple in evening
We sauntered to the Bhimakali temple compound by evening.  The temples in Himachal have a architecture of their own – a Buddhist influence, shall I say. The temple compound has lodging facilities for tourists. There is a small canteen stocking mineral water, beverages, biscuits and snacks. As customary, we ordered for our dinner in advance. The simple vegetarian meal  turned out to be simple, good and economical.   

Next morning was a good time to take our sightseeing trip to Bhimakali temple, a five minute walk from hotel. The armed security guards, at first floor of temple structure,  ensure that tourists keep all their belongings including bags, wallet, purse, camera and mobile in a free locker provided by temple authorities. Tourists are also required to don a saffron cap provided at same spot, before proceeding to upper floors to visit the temple. 

The Srikhand
Shanti Kunj

Common Hoopoe
Yellow Billed Blue Magpie

Still some more time to spend in the morning, I visit The Srikahnd, the single storied hotel run by HPTDC. The hotel looked good with a grand mountain view from back side.  A small walk and we were at Maharaja’s palace, named as ‘Shanti Kunj’. The palace looks imposing but out of bound for the tourists. As we enter the arched gate, the compound has good lawn on one side and apple orchard at the other.  This is where the huge surprise was waiting. Never  thought, I will have extended view of colorful birds like Yellow Billed Blue Magpie and Common Hoopoe right in front of me. It was a great pleasure to capture the activities of the birds in lawns and among the trees for images and videos.
By midmorning we bid good bye to Sarahan for our next destination Rakcham………….

Readers can have visuals of the places visited as per the above blog by taking the following captioned links.


Thursday, 29 August 2013

Trek to Sangla & Helicopter Evacuation – Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh

The saying goes, ‘man proposes and God dispose’. The summer of 2013 will rank as one of the worst experiences to the visitors to Uttarakhand and to lesser extent the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. Having watched the extreme vagaries of Himalayan weather, in the same period, from Rakcham in Kinnaur district of Himachal, we were getting restless, unable to start our journey through the blocked roads to Sangla. Sangla was only 14 km, yet so far as there was no sign of road clearing of the huge boulders fallen from hills, for resuming of regular vehicular traffic. Finally, on 20th June, we were told by hotel manager to trek 14 km to Sangla to avail of the helicopter service for Rampur for further journey. Our tour itinerary having gone haywire did not bother us anymore; we wanted to reach Mumbai - our home town as early as possible.

By 8 am in the morning, biscuit packet and water bottle in me and a porter to carry our back pack, we three were on the weather ravaged road for trek to Sangla. A 14 km down the slope walk through motorable road did not appear too taxing till we approached our first obstacle – road covered by mud, stone and boulders. To our dismay, we had to encounter 7 to 8 more obstacles - noteworthy among them was two uprooted huge pine trees lying across totally blocking the road. We surmounted one by going beneath it’s huge trunk and the other by scaling over. Almost reaching Sangla, the last obstacle was the most difficult one with scattered boulders occupying the entire road width, with a lot of mud entrenched in between, with no easy way to squeeze through. The porter’s advice came handy and commanding all my resources and cautiously on all the fours, by the edge of the road, dragging myself across was really scary and taxing. A minute’s rest thereafter enabled us to recover our wits to cover the final stretch to Sangla bringing us cheers!  We were surprised to have made the whole of 14 km in 2 hr and 45 minutes. Following frames show the road blocks we encountered shot by my travel mate S Rajagopal. 



Reaching Sangla market, we were waiting for our driver, who started late from Rakcham through an alternate short cut route. He was supposed to meet us and find for us an accommodation at Sangla. Finding no trace of him and our hunger pangs getting preference, we climbed the steps to first floor restaurant in the name of Sonu Tibetan Café and settled down on the verandah overlooking the street, so we could keep an eye on other tourists arriving from Rakcham. Sangla market is one street entity, with all possible types of shops lined up. Our ordered veg. Momo came within no time. As we were digging into our food, in came Sonu the driver and he was tad surprised to see us reach here so early.
Market Place, Sangla
Sangla is a small town with most of it consisting of market place and administrative buildings located some distance away. Most of the good hotels are situated 1 to 2 km from market place. Some shops doubled up as information source for hotel accommodation for tourists. Sonu took us to a shoe shop across the street and the guy made some enquiries telephonically and informed that there were rooms available at Praskash hotel. We took the taxi service offered by same shop and landed atleast two km from market, through the very same road which we traversed earlier on our trek. After dumping our luggage, it was urgent need to book our helicopter service at Tehsildar’s office. We left in post haste taking our driver along in our taxi, who, having kept his vehicle at Rakcham was eager to reach home at Shimla. After crossing the Sangla market we arrived at Tehsildar’s office situated at a higher elevation reached by steps. At the office we found Dy. Tehsildar managing or trying to make a show of managing tourist evacuation by Helicopter. We were told to write our name in a plane paper and it became part of many such papers scattered on his table written by tourist who came earlier. There was no proper registration or date of entry or any receipt of any kind. We were told that there is a huge back log and will be informed telephonically, as and when our turn came which could be after 3 to 4 day. A group of foreign tourists squatting in the same room were assured of a helicopter service the very next day; must be instruction from top administration. 
Prakash Hotel, Sangla
Hotel Prakash turned out to be a spacious and comfortable, with entry through dining room. Reception provided us with Room 205 at the rate of Rs. 900/- for a double room plus Rs. 200/- for additional bedding, on first floor with a clear view of Sangla valley on one side and apple orchard on the other. The room had unhindered view of Hills, with snow peaks becoming prominent after the recent snowfall. For a change, our double room was provided with additional bed consisted of folding cot with full beddings, whereas most of the hotels as our experience show, provide with only beddings spread on floor. 
Snow View
Coming out of hotel and overlooking the valley is a large open cemented place for tourist to sit and soak into the nature. Two cars were parked, with its 18 inmates staying in the same hotel for past four days. They had their own cook to provide the delicacy with a lot of raw materials carried by them. They were chatting and enjoying but lurking within was the worry that they had no news of their turn coming up for helicopter pick up for further journey to catch train at Kalka. Daily twice a day they made it a ritual to visit Tehsildar’s office for follow up.
Sunset From Sangla
The evening sunset was a spectacle. With the recent unseasonal snowfall, the additional snow-packs on hills reflected the setting sun; it was time to get some footages.
Apple Blossom
Next day dawned into a bright sunlit morning. An early morning walk is the most pleasant experience in the midst of the greeneries at Sangla which the tourist just enjoy. One goes along the main road with both sides full of trees like Apple, Pears , Apricot, Plum and Cherry. The numerous fruit gardens owned by local residents lie in close vicinity, with colorful birds not to be missed. I had a catch of a yellow bird named Indian Golden Oriole during my walk.
Indian Golden Oriole
The breakfast in hotel had a number of good choice menu and cost was most reasonable compared to that I came across other towns in the state. Having settled down, it was time to explore more of the place. A walk of 2 km to market place for purchasing medicines which were supposed to last me upto 20th June and withdrawing cash from SBI ATM counter was a priority. Sangla in this respect offered basic requirements of every tourist. My two friends walked to Tehsildar’s office for updating on helicopter service. As usual the officer was in no position to guarantee any service immediately. The tourist backlog was in hundreds. Our Rakcham hotel manager had entered our names along with other inmates of his hotel the day before and we were told the serial number of round 142. The helicopter service being erratic, one could not hazard any guess about length of our captivity in this Kinnaur town.

22nd June was a hugely disappointing day. For the entire day no helicopter flights were seen. The hotel was a scattered with cluster of tourists discussing the bleak prospect of getting out of their forced hibernation. My travel mates were equally anxious contemplating of trekking through the valley for Karcham a distance of 14 km through some unknown terrain. However, I was in no mood to undertake the trek and join them. I had made up my mind to stay put in safety of hotel till I was able to take my helicopter flight. Most of inmates of the hotel were equally worried about their important dates and reluctant to wait for the copter service. All through the travails at Sangla, the long walks through the scenic place, photography and videography kept me somewhat calm. 

23rd June did not bring any cheers either. There was no whining sound from blue sky nor any sign of helicopters. My two travel mates, having made up their mind, hired a porter to take their luggage, set off at 7.30 am in a hired car for a distance of about 5 km from where they were to resume their trek. I gave them company and saw them off upto a point where the road had collapsed, stopping the road bound traffic. They promised to send me the info after reaching Karcham, from where the road were supposed to be in order for further journey.

Back to hotel for hot water bath – thankfully the electricity was restored.  As I was loafing around the hotel after breakfast, the Bengali group like other tourists were fidgety and were slowly getting mentally prepared for the trek. By 10 am with still no sign of copter, they could not take it anymore and just boarded their cars and drove off bag and baggage, for a trek to unknown with a hope in heart to come out of the strangle-hold and reach Kalka to catch their train. One could not blame them as they were exasperated of visiting Tehsildar’s office time and again with no assurance of copter flight. The administrative lapses and unsystematic approach by them was apparent. Otherwise, how the group members were stranded in Sangla for past six days?

Loneliness suddenly hits you. The feeling becomes more apparent when you think whether it was a wise decision to stay put in a hotel, which everybody vacated? Around 12 pm, I was having a chat with Mohan Prakash, the young hotel owner who sensing my state of mind asked me to take walk across the slope above hotel Prakash Regency ( another of his newly built luxury hotel ) to pass my time. He also suggested that I should talk to his father who has lived all his life at Sangla and will be able to provide much info for my Sangla blog. 
Prakash Regency, Sangla
The fruit orchards and flower garden behind Prakash regency kept me occupied for a while and at around lunch time I was back to hotel and found Mohan Prakash’s father taking his lunch. My conversation with Mr. Om Prakash Aswan Negi on overview of Sangla Social life was very revealing and interesting.
Helicopter Sortie
In afternoon, while resting in my room, I heard the welcome whining sound of helicopter. Peeping through window it was apparent that the helicopter service was resuming. It was 3.30 pm. Our hotel was empty save for me. From other hotels, tourists made their way to helipad some 5 km away. I was not so sure of securing a place in today’s service considering the backlog; the same thought was shared by Mr. Mohan Prakash. In any case I was not in a mood to reach Rampur in evening for undertaking further journey. At 5 pm, Mohan Prakash informed me that there was some chance of getting into today’s flight. However, I had made up my mind of staying for an additional day and check out by next morning. Meanwhile the last helicopter flight left at 5.30 pm. In evening there was info that, at the helipad our names were called for the copter flight, as many tourists had left Sangla by trekking route. Seeing my chance lost, I decided that come what may I must leave Sangla by next morning.
Copter Against Sky
On 24th I got up early, had a bath, sans breakfast, checked out of hotel to reach helipad by 8 am. Already some 20 tourists were waiting at the helipad gate. Some were coming back after not being able to avail yesterday’s flight and others who were hoping to get into today’s flight. Only 20 tourists were allowed to go right upto the helipad which is situated at a higher elevation and were made to line up on the road around the central landing site. Around 8.30 am we were allowed to go inside and made to sit on a tarpaulin spread on floor near the warehouse like structure. Still, no copter in sight.
Helipad, Sangla
Around 9 am we climbed the stairs to the elevated area and were allowed to wait at a place from where we could see all the action like helicopter landing, tourists boarding and take off. Munching biscuits and just loafing around till about 10.30 am when I could hear the welcome drone of copter sound and gradually to our relief copter landed and immediately huge amount of cargo was removed. Tourists who were lined up were made to board, about 20 of them. After an hour the second sortie also took off. 
Helicopter Landed
I was in third list and at 1.30 pm, we were asked to sit near helipad on road. By 2.30 pm copter came and landed. We were seated so near the helipad that, the landing process of copter, rotating blades blowing a storm around it, as if it will blow one away. Seated on the road with my back to the copter, I had to hold tight on my cap lest it gets blown away. The copter rotor coming to standstill, door opened and what followed was unloading of cargos meant for Sangla and beyond.
Tourists In Helicopter
Getting inside the Copter was the most relieving and happy moment of my present trip. The sideways seat inside copter left space in the middle for keeping luggage. After a few minutes, I took off for the first ever copter flight of my life. Flying at low altitude very near to the hill slopes and green cover, view of rivers flowing and narrow hill roads, was a visual worth capturing. 
View From Copter
Most of the tourists were shooting through window and enjoying; I had my Handycam busy to capture the exciting half an hour. The slight discomfort could be whining noise of the rotor blade. Reaching Rampur was like coming out of captivity and the roads to lead me for further journey to Shimla.

Sangla Footages can be accessed from following captioned link:

Important Informations:

1. Accommodations:
a) Hotel Prakash: Owner – Mohan Prakash
Cell Nos. 098162 83268 / 091805187680 / 0730770 82136
b) Prakash Regency – same as above
c) Shruti Guest House : Owner – Shrawan Kumar
tel:01786 - 241394 Cell: 098165 14461
d) Banjara Camps: Cell Nos. 09816119871 / 09418758111
2. Sightseeing:
a) Local: Sangla Village & Baspa river: 1/2 km from market
b) Rakcham: 14 km & Chitkul 24 km
3. Communication: BSNL & Airtel network
4. Climate: During Summer May / June, hot during day and pleasant during early morning and evening.