I delayed the start from Shimla to experience the magic of the morning sky. It was nothing like what I had experienced yesterday. It is quite something to watch the mountains transforming from being clothed in the darkness of the night to being bathed in warm and glorious sunshine. The variety that Mother Nature can display is stunning. The clear sky made for a very cold morning following the night temperature of 3oC. A hot cup of tea is what I wanted to get the ‘frozen’ fingers moving over the steering wheel. The caretaker of the ORH obliged and I shifted gears by 7.15 am.
I took NH88 to Bilaspur (HP), which is also the route to Manali. Himachal Pradesh is a State with a large number of hydro-electric projects. The River Beas that meanders through Bilaspur is one of the projects. There has been a lot of debate about the pristine cultures and habitats being compromised in the wake of these large hydro-electric projects, even though they are one of the cleanest sources of energy. Short of Bilaspur the NH21 from Chandigarh joined the NH88 and the condition of the road became better.
Just beyond Bilaspur I made a half hour stop for breakfast at the ‘New Punjabi Dhaba’. The owner of the Dhaba was a loquacious young man, who came across as well up on current affairs and curious by nature. He had a lot of questions on Kerala and the places I had visited. All this was done when he was dressing the vegetables for the Aaloo Paratha. In a short while he served me hot parathas with plenty of Amul butter and a bottle of mixed veg pickle. It’s all I needed to layer the blubber around my waist! When I concluded the meal with an omlette and tea I took leave of him. He sounded genuine when he said, “Aap se milkar bahut khushi huyi” (I felt very happy meeting you).
Mandi means market and this town was an important trading intersection on the east-west trade route in the past. Mandi, which reportedly has over 80 temples, is at the confluence of the Beas River and Suketi Khad stream. To its east lies the Kullu valley and Kinnaur and I headed west to Palampur on the Pathankot route. The paragliding locations of Bir and Billing are deviations off the Pathankot road, close to Baijnath. The incarnation of Shiva as the Lord of the Physicians is the reigning deity of the Baijnath Temple. Further up from the busy Baijnath town you pass the Taragarh Palace Luxury Hotel, which was the summer palace of the last Maharajah of J&K.
When I did not see any sign board for the railway station in Palampur I stopped to enquire. The chap asked me incredulously, “Railway station yehan kahan hai?” and said, “Maranda jao, wahan railway station milega”. (Where is the railway station here? Go to Maranda, you will find the railway station there). I was confused, crosschecked the information and was told the same thing once more. I drove further on and came to the ‘Palampur Himachal’ railway station, which is 6 kms away from the Palampur town.
The ORH in Palampur is fabulously located with great close up views of the Himalayas. In keeping with this the ORHs are called Him Darshan and Dhauladhar View. With the season for snow in Himachal moving to January and February the hills are bare now. The railway station is a quaint narrow gauge stopover between Pathankot and Jogindarnagar, the heritage Kangra trail. The Station Master called my attention to the fact that the bus fare to Pathankot is Rs. 129 while the rail fare is just Rs. 20. Hence, the 6 pairs of trains are almost always full.
Being a Sunday the streets were deserted and most of the shops were shut. I asked for some food to be packed from a wayside eatery. While that was being done, a chap came into the shop and started a monologue with great gusto addressing all around, most of it to me. I could not follow anything of what he said, but the nods and the smiles were all that the chap needed to continue with greater energy. As soon as I had paid for the packed food I beamed at the chap and darted to the ORH, afraid that he would pursue his best audience!
As it was too cold to do anything outdoors - three layers of clothing was adequate once between the quilt! - I warmed up indoors with the rest of my travel mate, the trusted Old Monk.