Photo Credit on this post goes to my brother Vipul Bhagat who has an eye better than me!
I find it best to cover long journeys overnight. Though trains are much more comfortable, enrouting mountains you do not have much of a choice. In fact, sometimes I feel I have overdone the Delhi-NH1-Mandi-Kullu-Manali route until I figure out there is always an untouched detour that branches out to the lesser known regions of Himalayas from this highway that I would have not done before. In the socially super-active world that we are inevitably a part of, where every information travels and unravels at the speed of light. I feel glad to locate spots that are still claimed to be lesser known. Over time, I have also observed that there are certain periods when these places are lesser visited. Gushaini in the Tirthan Valley is one of them. Even though enough websites and blogs have sang the songs of praise for this hillock, it yet does not smell of tourism in its air.
Tirthan is an interesting detour on the Delhi-Manali route and is ideal for those who do not romanticize being on top of the mountain to savor its beauty. The beauty of Tirthan sinks deep into the mostly silent valley except for the monotonous sound of a fast and perennially flowing river in its lap. This monotonous sound you may also say is the lifeline of this valley. When you will reach this part of the valley in search of solace, you will find it only in the simple pleasures of life like the song of the river.
I reached here in search of rains, escaping from the otherwise hot and humid days in Delhi. While that took some time to happen, I relinquished my taste buds with the succulent and tempting trout fish freshly picked from the river. It is so soft and juicy that it melts in the mouth within no time but requires an effort to get rid of the sleekest of thorns. Worth the effort.
Fishing is a common activity here that anyone can indulge in, with the help of a guide and an official permit. There are also some unofficial yet authentic stuff to experiment upon in this valley. Found in abundance is the Marijuana plant here, which you may not even need to hunt for. Owing to the nature of this trip (annual family trip), I could not explore much of its variations. As a crazy family however, we did try “Bhang ka Pakodas”. Sad enough, it did not leave any impact on us.
There was something else apart from food that left an astounding impact on us. It was partly because of its grandeur and the rest because I had not seen one in a very long time. Chhoie Waterfall; a simple hiking trail on the way to Gushaini leads to this source of water falling straight from the heavens. The first part of this hike is straight forward and is mostly steps. It would take you to a tiny hamlet, which is surrounded by vegetable farms all around it. There are widespread and well organized farms ploughed with tomatoes, chilies and cabbage. Tomatoes were still unriped and in case you are lucky to spot a riped, juicy, shining red one, do not be tempted to pluck because the villagers take offence. A due offence for they are as protective about their crops as for their babies.
As you cross these farms, the mountain becomes a little sharp on its edges. You would not mind being extra cautious and taking some support with your hands as well. Keep walking for another twenty minutes and just when you start putting your mind into the effort that you have put already in the last one hour and yet not be able to see or hear anything, you would turn around a really sharp edge and see without quite believing your eyes, the great fall. It is white, it is tall, it is exclusive for there were no visitors except us. It is thatched with the wild shades of green all around. It is in every sense, a spectacular sight. You would wish to run towards it but instead you will be forced to take firm hold on your steps as the freshly unrooted trees, now a giant log of wood, would block your way. With tippy toes and wading through the wild bushes, we reached at the basin of the fall. As I let go of my socks into my shoes, I hurriedly put my right big toe into the water, it did not seem to be very cold. So I moved to settle myself onto a big rock and dip both my feet comfortably. For a good one minute I could not breathe. The water was bitterly cold. Now it was futile to even pull them out, I was too comfortable sitting on that rock. Gradually we moved closer to the point under the fall. Like those mist fans in the Garden or Roof top Restaurants, some of the water here was splashing all over like the mist. The rest was sprinting straight towards the ground. Somewhere in between was our head feeling crushed by the thrust that it was exerting due to the gravitational pull. It was loud and hence the only sound in our vicinity. It coordinated with the hubbub of the breeze and dominated all through the surroundings. These surreal moments lasted for no more than an hour. After dipping, drowning, sinking and singing, we decided to move back. The sun was atop us when we walked back towards our rest house.
A good hike and a great dip always results in lousy afternoons. I soaked myself into my Neil Gaiman book which talked of deep oceans while I sat on a roadside rock overlooking a tall standing mountain. The sound of the river accompanied me every moment. It asked what if this was the ocean that I was wondering about? Thankfully, it wasn’t. It was pure and undiluted; silvered by the sunshine, so sincere and soothing and yet ready to be submerged at its destination. It is not the destination, it is the journey. The journey so long and yet untiring, that carries within a tremendous hidden power.
That rock on which I sat was the ideal place to reach to the conclusion of my book. I continued sitting there for a long time until my mother announced the Maggi Moments for all of us. Meanwhile, the rain drops also started to spatter upon us. We did not intend to move inside our rooms; Maggi is best enjoyed with a view. Our dog Nandu, also seemed happy, even though we did not offer any Maggi to him. He had a broken front left foot but he was still playful and mostly obedient.
Before we could get any sad that very soon we have to say goodbye to Nandu and bid farewell to the mountains, some very exciting conversations kicked off. It was the discussion of dilemma on the return route that we would be taking to reach Delhi. While we had come from Mandi, Simla was not far from where we were then. If we decided to take the Simla route, we would gain even more altitude and cross the Jalori Pass at an altitude of 10,280 feet. That figure to me was thrilling. Besides, I was roused to fully encircle the mountain. In all our excitement we took that call.
The journey started at 7 in the morning. Instead of going straight from the Banjar intersection, we took the left turn and entered into the Banjar town. Gradual upwards, hairpin bends like turns reduced the speed of our vehicle. The valley had started to become deeper. As the valley was now deeper, the clouds were nearer and the deodars were taller. Taller than the tall standing mountains. We were slowly approaching the doors of heaven. Though it was scary as hell if we looked down into the valley or if the driver suddenly broke the momentum of his vehicle, it still comprised of the countless WOW moments at every blinding turn that drew us closer to the heavens.
The route to the highest point of the heaven, Jalori was led through a series of gateways:
Banjar → Jibhi → Sojha → Jalori → Aani →Sainj → Narkanda → Loohri → Simla
It is not at all surprising to know that there were hardly any human habitations visible in this area. The road was not concrete in all the places, while at some places they were not wide enough but surely these hamlets had a view. Each and every window opened to a carpet of blue sky teared over some areas and the cotton like clouds bulging out softly.
As we reached Jalori, we stopped for a cup of hot chai. Jalori Pass is also a popular route for mountain bikers. From here, we can hike towards the Serlousar Lake, at a distance of 5 kilometers from the Jalori temple. Another amazing moment worth the attention was a Mahindra Scorpio that was driven till the Himalayas all the way from Ahmedabad. They had hit the road five days ago and were mesmerized by the Himalayan beauty.
By the time we reached Simla, it was heavily pouring, which further slowed down our sped. Thank goodness, we had enough music and the flawless views that made our 18 hours in the bus worthwhile. 18 hours! Yes! The alternate route to NH1 is not long in terms of distance but in gaining the altitude, we do lose the speed.
By the time, we reached Delhi, we were drained, but in our mind, we had yet not come back. We were probably hiking somewhere amidst the clouds of Jalori Pass and plucking apples from the orchard belt of Himachal that was full of flavors, so juicy and rich and red and are meant to be eaten without using the knife.