The story starts in flashback. 1990. Class V. St. Francis Convent School. Bareilly, U.P. This is where I met Dr. Arya for the first time. He was my partner in Maggie Quiz Contest held in school. A simple guy with specs, who had a frail figure, like mine. After the quiz got over, I realized that not only he matches me physically, our IQs were similar too, since our score remained zero from start to finish of the quiz. We were like two happy-go-lucky back benchers oblivious of what goes on in class. Our friendship dates back to those golden school days when he wasn’t a Dr. and I wasn’t an engineer.
We visited Bhopal in January where he currently practices medicine and together with our families we explored Pachmarhi and Mandu. Old school days were re-lived over rum and we promised to take another vacation soon with double of everything – fun, duration and quota of booze. Little did we know that for almost a year, there would be no outing together. When we spoke over our birthdays in November, we discussed the pending travel and thus was born an idea to again travel together, but this time somewhere in North India. It was when his wife desired to see snow, we all deliberated and finalized Chail-Kufri-Narkanda-Hatu circuit.
Since Dr. Arya had a medical conference to attend at Park Plaza, Zirakpur during 26th Jan long weekend, we decided to drive to the mighty hills during winters. Upon checking the internet we got to know that it being a relatively off season, and Chail being a unexplored location, we had all the luxury to book the cheapest hotel available and buy an expensive booze.
So, the itinerary was finalized as follows:
22nd Jan (Friday) – Dr. Arya and bhabhi to reach Delhi
23rd Jan (Saturday) – Leave for Zirakpur, Dr. attends the conference while we enjoy lunch; Leave for Chail by 2pm, reach by 6pm
24th Jan (Sunday) – Explore Chail
25th Jan (Monday)- Explore Kufri, Narkanda, Hatu and Tani Jabbar Lake. Return to Chail the same evening
26th Jan (Tuesday) – Drop Dr. Arya to New Delhi Railway Station and then return to Gurgaon
Not only most doctors are cacographic, few of them have additional talent of being late, always. My buddy has both qualities which I loathe. He reached my place as late at 21.00 hrs. At the same time, our self-drive car rental guy came to deliver the XUV5OO. Me and Dr., went downstairs to receive the car and returned only after thorough inspection of the vehicle. I wish we were so sincere always, he while diagnosing his patients, and me while checking engineering drawings, phir yeh life kuch aur hoti. Alas! we are thorough only when we spend money, not when we earn it. While coming back to my flat we deliberated whether our mammoth luggage will fit in XUV or not. We dumped the thought since we could not reach any conclusion. Well, the clock also read 22.00 hrs by then. So finally, we ate dinner over chit-chat and continued to be seated at the dining table till 23.30 hrs, when suddenly we realized that it was too late and we needed to get up by 4.30 am. There was no more luxury of ‘sound sleep’ but a quick nap only.
Before going for sleep, I kept a bottle of rum and scotch in my bag. Can’t afford to forget, you see! Booze is relatively cheaper in Haryana than in Himachal.
We woke up before the alarm disturbed our sleep. Time read 04.00 hrs. Since it was cold and I didn’t want to take bath so early, I thought of conserving water. Took a semi-bath (no hair wash, no water on back) and quickly dressed up. By 5.30 am we were almost ready to leave for our trip when we realized its foggy, and its getting dense. Mussoorie trip driving flashed across my eyes and that gave me a lot of false confidence. Our luggage was humongous, as if we were relocating. Other than woollens, clothes and eatables, we were carrying blankets and blower for my son. Even XUV’s boot could not swallow everything and we were forced to keep smaller items on the back seat. Finally we said good bye to Gurgaon at around 06.00 hrs.
Since Delhi offers cheaper fuel and XUV is a gas guzzler, we decided to get a tankfull there at an IOCL petrol pump. Why IOCL? Well, Citibank Credit card offers extra fuel points on Citi card and I dont have to pay up front. I was on a conservation mode, saving water, saving money on fuel and booze which gave me a high already.
Time read 07.00 am. The road to Delhi-Sonipat looked unfamiliar in fog. Fortunately, the GPS lady reminded us every now and then when we missed any turn. Slowly and steadily, we reached Sonipat by 8 am. The sun started playing hide-and-seek with us. We matched our vehicle speed with its game. As our beloved spiderman says, with great power, comes great responsibility, I started driving more responsibly may be because XUV5OO has great power and overtaking hatchbacks was pretty effortless. Sooner than we thought, we crossed Karnal and stopped for bio-break and break-fast at Mayur Dhaba. Needless to say, the aroma of hot parathas, butter and tea stuffed all our senses. A glass of tea was followed by second one and soon another one-by-two followed. Since we had to cover a lot of distance, grudgingly, we left the dhaba for Zirakpur. On the way, we saw RTO Tax counter for Punjab. Since our vehicle had a yellow number plate (self-drive rental), we stopped and paid the amount for entering Punjab state (we didn’t know that return journey slip too could be issued by paying the amount in advance, neither did we ask…you’d know later why I am mentioning this here, and please learn from our mistakes doston). At Dera Bassi, we were stopped by Punjab police and they checked the RTO tax receipt.
Around 12 noon, we reached Park Plaza and dropped Dr. saheb there for having five-course-meal (oops, conference it was). The following two hours went uneventful and we too had our lunch. Post-lunch, we picked up Dr. Arya and sprinted to Himalayan Expressway. Time read 14.00 hrs. In a jiffy, we crossed the Chandi Devi toll plaza and bypassed Pinjore, Kalka and Parwanoo to join the Shimla highway. Wow, the air was fresh and it was getting colder as we climbed the hills. We had wasted a lot of time due to fog and stopovers, well, why not some more since we only had time in abundance (money, fuel, booze, all come in limited quantities). It was going to be dark soon, but still we pulled over our car multiple times and tried hands on photography. Terrible pictures in dim light we took, and blamed it on poor camera and surroundings. Clock read 17.30 hrs when we reached Kandaghat. From here, we had to take a broken road (State Highway-8) for Chail via Sadhupul. Its just 30 km I said. Should take max 45-50 mins…I smiled. Somewhere above, God laughed.
It was a horrible cratered road as BSNL had dug up entire stretch to lay cables for 4G… hain! 4G… by BSNL… “kya achche din aa gaye”, was all I could think of. A few times, I had to take the car back and forth as it was too narrow for two vehicles to pass.
The journey was uneventful till we reached Sadhupul. Last time when we had been to Chail, there was a bridge over River Aasan. My eyes kept searching for it, but couldn’t see any. Upon asking fellow drivers we were told that it got washed away during rains and a temporary dusty narrow road has been built. Well, we had no choice but to follow the kuchcha road. I was confident that XUV’s 2200 CC engine had this brute power to climb up effortlessly. However, a Himachal roadways bus ahead of us got stuck on this narrow road and was unable to climb up further. This resulted in losing our precious time (so what we have time in abundance, its not free!). After joint efforts of driver of various piled up vehicles, finally, bus got its way and traffic jam eased out. We entered Chail around 8pm looking for our room at Rashi Resorts (booked through oyo). The final cut for Rashi resorts was the loneliest stretches I have ever driven, too narrow, too dark and lonely. The passage was just enough for XUV to keep both side tyres on road. The long journey which we started at 6am, ended around 8pm.
As soon as we opened the doors of XUV, chilly wind hit us from somewhere. Boy, its cold outside. Immediately another layer of jacket was put on and caps were worn. We were welcomed grandly by barking dogs and dimly lit reception. Then somebody perhaps heard the dogs barking and opened the main gate of resort. Wow! what a welcome. We were the only guests they had that night and I presumed they’d leave no stone unturned to keep us happy, since we were the only one who could tip them. Well, we got two rooms overlooking a gorge. Since it was dark, we could not see the view, if any. We rented another blower for Dr. Arya’s room and used the one we carried for us. Time read 9 pm and temperature outside was -5°C. After ordering tea/ milk for ladies and kiddo, men went down to business. It was cold and time for some rum with Chilly paneer pakoda, some fries, chip and coke. Absolute bliss. By the time we were done, our dinner had frozen. Fatigue, coupled with booze, made us lose our senses and we swallowed chilly dinner without fuss. Finally, we hit the bed around 10.30 pm.
Perhaps in my dreams I realized that we didn’t make any plan for tomorrow. Didn’t even ask when we’d get up. Who cares, said my heart, Chail is a small town, we’d manage somehow.
Neither we got up early, nor the alarm buzzed. Finally, at around 8am, perhaps a nightmare woke me up. Thought of checking the view from balcony. Amazing! Who would have thought that we’d get such a nice view room for Rs 1150/- per day which includes breakfast. Since oyo claims that WiFi is given free, I thought of checking it. Nope, hard luck. No WiFi data signal. Once, I thought of calling oyo and seek refund for failure to provide WiFi, but then thought otherwise. After all, Rs 1150 was too little amount to demand all amenities in working condition.
The view from Dr. Arya’s room was better so we thought of ordering breakfast there itself. Good view, tasty breakfast and sunny weather outside. Perfect beginning. After hogging and getting ready we were ready to explore Chail. Time read 10.30am. Our first stop was Kaali Ka Tibba. The road to the temple was simply non-existent after 2 km of drive uphill. My driving skills were being put to test. If this was prelims, driving to Hatu was actual board exam. Time read 11am when we reached the temple.
Well, the view from Kaali ka Tibba was stunning. A 360° view of the valley from this point offers plenty of chances to sharpen skills as a photographer. Since none of us were religious ‘devotees’ , we were done by 12 noon, after clicking numerous pics. Our next stop was Chail cricket stadium.
It took us another 30 mins to reach cricket stadium. None of the stadium gates were open, in fact they were locked. Couldn’t squeeze through the grill gate either. Realized we weren’t skinny anymore. We squeezed our hand through the grill and clicked a few pics of the ground. We had to finally satisfy ourselves by posing with a sign board which read “Highest Cricket Ground”. Anti-climax ho gaya yahan toh. Time read 13.00 hrs. Our last destination for the day was Chail Palace. Remember, 3 idiots movie, the house of Ranchhoddas Chanchad in Shimla? Does it Ring a bell? Yay, the same house. It is Chail Palace. Entry ticket of Rs 100 per person is a rip off though, should have been free. Anyway, the sprawling complex has a huge garden with lots of green trees and black monkeys (langurs). It also has a bar and restaurant which serves delicious food (non-veg was yummy, hope they serve veg too, which is decent).
After the food, we thought of taking a stroll in the garden. Since we just had food and it was sunny, we thought of taking our jackets off and keeping them in our car. As I went to keep these items and opened the trunk of XUV, out of nowhere a monkey pounced and picked up a few oranges and bananas kept in the car, after all, it was his lunch time too and he didnt have any money to buy. I panicked and closed the boot with a thud. Before even I could seek help, monkey climbed back on a tree top, savouring the loot. After having seen so many episodes of crime patrol, in a crunch moment, I wasn’t alert enough to prevent the loot of fruits. Such a shame. All those late night watching of crime patrol on youtube was a waste. Time read 16.30 hrs when we finally bid goodbye to monkeys. On the way back I bought fresh quota of rum. Himachal Bacardi white costs Rs 20 more than that at Haryana for a quarter bottle (this is FYI). By the time we got back to hotel it was 5pm.
The ladies decided to rest while the men thought of skipping evening tea and have a longer happy hours. My kid found company in Chota bheem on TV. All booze quota had to be consumed as we had to drive back home on 26-Jan and tomorrow we’d be late, I knew. Finally, we were done drinking by 8pm, had dinner and planned to leave early the next day.
I was awake very early, even before the birds got up. Checked the temperature on google baba. It said -6°C. Damn. Mussoorie was warmer than Chail on Jan 1st, I thought. Still, we had to get ready as the drive was long today. No breakfast before 7.30am, said the guy at reception last night. We played smarter, ordered him breakfast last night and asked him to bring it by 7.30am. Got our breakfast on time and finally, after lot of pushing ourselves, we were ready to leave for Kufri by 8am. The road to Kufri was via jungle and google maps showed lots of twists and turns. Took us almost an hour to reach Kufri. No snow here.
We decided not to waste time and head towards Narkanda which was still about 2.5 hrs drive from Kufri. Road was smooth and wide. Soon we reached Theog. Time read 10.00. From here there is a diversion for Rohru and Chanshal pass. I really wish someday, I’d drive to these places, taking the same road. By the time we reached Narkanda, it was 11 am. No sign of snow here too. Too bad. We decided to have something before we drive to Hatu peak. There was HPTDC Hotel Hatu on the right side, so thought going there. Big mistake. Just for some sandwiches and tea, it took them 1.5 hrs. By the time we started driving for Hatu it was already 12.30 hrs.
A narrow uphill road of 6-7 km connects Narkanda to Hatu peak. This is the toughest stretch I have driven till date. Last time I had an i10 when I came, but this time it was broad XUV, which had a better engine but a bulky body. I showed a brave face to my co-passengers but from inside, I was a tad bit worried. As feared, soon a traffic jam followed. Road was narrow and cars were big. Innovas, XUVs, Scorpios and long sedans. Looks everyone wanted to test their driving skils. After driving for about 3.5 km, we finally saw snow and a frozen lake where skiing was being done. Thats it. We decided to park the car and enjoy the snow. Time read 13.30 hrs. Fortunately, there was a maggie joint and it was more crowded than points where there was snow. We too followed the masses. Cold weather, snow view, frozen lake and garma-garam maggie. Beat that.
By 15.00 hrs, we were ready to slide back from Hatu road and head for Tani Jabbar Lake near Kotgarh. Traffic jam followed us like cell phone network and for the entire stretch, we had to take our car back and forth many a times, to squeeze space out of nowhere. I remember once I asked Dr. Arya to get down from vehicle and guide me. As he opened the door, he couldn’t find ground to place his feet. We were so close to the edge of the hill. Thrilling or scary, whatever you call it, it was pure adrenaline gush. Finally by 16.00 hrs we came down from Hatu road and sprinted to the lake. On the way, there was lots of snow around. It took us about 30 mins to reach the placid lake (no, there was no crocodile, as shown in the movie). Water was very clear. There was no boating. With nothing much to do, we decided to click some pics quickly and head back to Chail as it was good 3 hrs away.
With night falling quickly in winters, most of the driving was to be done in head light. By 4.30pm, we started back for Chail. However, on the way back, again, we took several stops to click pics. Spent about 30 mins in total over pics. Still, I tried to drive a bit faster to cover maximum distance in day light.
By the time we reached Kufri it was dark. Time read 6.45pm. For a moment, we thought of taking route via Shimla-Kandaghat-Sadhupul but then it would have been a 3 hrs drive from here via BSNL 4G highway. Bad idea. The jungle route takes just one hour to reach Chail. We decided to choose the latter. Unfamiliar terrain, deserted road, pitch dark, jungle and winding of curves. Fortunately, there was no fog yet, phir bhi Darna Zaroori Hai. After driving for about 30 mins, I stopped the car on side of the road turned off the lights and killed the engine. More than darkness, it was the silence which was scary, really spooky. To add to the flavor, we started talking about horror movies, spooky stuff and various what if scenarios. Fortunately, we met no ghost, no hitchhikers, no car breakdown. Uneventful drive (thank god). Slowly and gradually we reached Chail Palace road by 8.15 pm. I swear Chail is such a sleepy town, not a soul was seen on the road. Our GPS lady was alert and was guiding us to the hotel , when we saw a wine shop open. Understandably, in a jiffy we bought wine , plum flavoured , since booze quote was finished. Upon reaching hotel, we decided to finish the wine first and then eat the dinner. Ehh, it was pathetic. One sip and I was done. However, my buddy had invested money and didn’t want to give up. ‘Subeh tak khatam kar doonga’ was all he said. And he did. Am proud of you Dr. Arya. We were tired but still did some packing and finally hit the bed. We planned to leave Chail by 10am tomorrow.
All good things come to an end. Even vacations. All mundane things continue. Office.
Well, we got up lazily, had breakfast, got ready, did our final packing, paid the bill and left for Gurgaon. As we were crossing Himachal state, I asked my wife and Dr. Arya to keep looking at RTO Tax booth for Punjab state. Didnt find any. Soon, we were cruising on Himalayan Expressway and crossed Pinjore and Chandi Mandir. We had all the intentions to pay the road tax but didnt see any booth. Just before reaching Zirakpur, a traffic policeman signalled us to stop. I got down, showed him all the papers but he insisted on road tax receipt. I explained to him that there is no road tax booth while coming from Himachal (to which he agreed) but he insisted that we should have paid the return journey road tax in advance, while coming from Delhi. Meanwhile, my wife got down from the car and explained to policeman in punjabi that she is from Mohali and we had all the intentions of paying but didnt’ find the road tax booth. Reluctantly, he agreed to let us go after paying Rs 200 in cash. To avoid paying up again upon getting caught in Punjab near Dera Bassi, he drew a ‘chidiya’ on my palm and asked me to show it to the next policeman who asks us to stop. Dr. saheb immediately clicked a pic of chidiya, in case hand sweat fades the drawing. Yaar, yeh banda intelligent hai, I thought. Clock read 13.00 hrs.
At Dera Bassi, we were pulled again by traffic cops and were asked for tax receipt. This time we were armoured with chidiya symbol. I just showed them my palm and voila, we were asked to go without paying again. No doubt, Money makes the world go round. Heard many times, believed now. Soon we entered Haryana at Ambala. Now, the journey will be smooth and we’d leave Dr. Arya to New Delhi station by 19.00 hrs latest. Somewhere above, God laughed again.
Soon after we crossed Kurukshetra around 14.30 hrs, we saw a huge traffic jam on the highway, few vehicles were taking kejri on the wrong side and a few were jumping on the slip road which was 1-2 feet below the highway. Our beloved google baba was bleeding red on map. Soon we got to know that there has been an accident and locals have blocked the highway. Damn. We may miss the train, I announced, if we stay here unmoved. Soon, map book was out and I was also exploring google maps to find an alternative way. It was then when I saw a kuchcha road through a village named Rumba which connected NH-1 to SH-7 coming from Ladwa to Karnal. So, if we could drive to Rumba and then join SH-7, it would join back our highway NH-1 again at Karnal. Sounds a good idea, however, there was a slight difficulty. The slip road which could take us to Rumba was about 1-2 feet below the main highway. Could XUV jump 2 ft? I asked Dr. Arya. It can easily jump, since it’s rented not ours, was his reply. His words gave me courage. I got out of the vehicle and saw the ground conditions like a batsmen inspects the pitch. Its grassy and damp, a bit rocky but we will stand our ground, I thought. While Dr. saheb got down and guided me to the road below, I grabbed the wheels & one, two, and three. XUV got down to slip road without any underbelly hit. I was impressed. After all, Cheetah is called king of the jungle for nothing (well, its Lion, whatever!). Rumba village road was potholed and dusty. After lot of detours, we finally joined SH-7 which led us to Karnal. Time read 16.00 hrs. Remaining journey was uneventful and we touched Delhi border by 18.30 hrs owing to traffic. From Azadpur to New Delhi station it took us another 1.5 hrs. We finally dropped Dr. Arya and Bhabhi at New Delhi railway station by 20.00 hrs. Finally, the exciting trip and eventful drive came to an end. Once again, we promised to make another outing plan soon. We reached Gurgaon by 21.15 hrs and within an hour by 22.00 hrs, the rental agency guy came to pick up XUV.
This drive not only tested but pushed so many limits for me. Continuous drive on tough terrains like Kaali ka Tibba and Hatu Peak, staying in freezing temperatures, driving on hills at night through jungle, increasing the capacity of booze were the highlights of trip.
The ‘bar’ is always raised every time. When is the next trip? Dr. Arya, sun raha hai na tu?