Not a year had passed and we were again craving to see fresh snow. Since winters was approaching, Dr. Arya and myself exchanged calls and planned a trip to upper hills at McLeodganj on the New Year Eve. However, during these days, my kid was going to Bangalore and then to Rameshwaram with my parents. So, this time, it was only us adults embracing the snow and chill of the hills.
I prepared the itinerary while he booked the tickets to-from Bhopal. The plan was as follows:
30-December night: Dr. Arya reaches Delhi with bhabhi and stays with us.
31-December early morning: We leave for McLeodganj
1-January: Triund Hill trekking
2-January: Bhagsunath and Dharamshala sight seeing
3-January: Return to Gurgaon with a stopover at Bhakra Nangal Dam
Little did we know that all this impeccable planning to would go haywire once we start the trip…but ‘the best trips are those unplanned’, and this trip was going to be an open testimony to this adage. We booked the cheapest hotel on the outskirts of McLeodganj in a tiny village called Bhagsunath for meagre Rs 900 per day per room on advice of my ghumakkar cousin Praveen. Rs 900 per day for a room anyday was a steal deal.
This time, we booked duster instead of XUV as we wanted to test drive it. With only four persons, we thought of going for a smaller vehicle. With woolens packed and hotel reservations in place, we were eagerly waiting for the day. On 30th December, Dr. Arya landed at Delhi as per the plan and we reached home by 21.30 hrs. While the dinner was being served, we saw a bottle of wine, still unopened lurking from a corner of house, staring at us. So, as a good starting omen, we opened the wine bottle with the new wine bottle cork opener bought recently and gulped it down with delicious food served at us. Now, I realized why ‘wine-n-dine’ is a perfect slogan. However, us mortals cannot afford wine daily else even staple ‘food’ will ‘dessert’ us. By the time we cleared the kitchen and slept, it was beyond 23.30 hrs.
The journey begins
Unlike last year, it wasn’t so foggy, which meant we could relax a bit more and leave a little late from home but sleep eluded us and we were in car by 6.15 am, raring to go as the journey was long and the route was unknown after anandpur sahib. This time, we just had tea at home and planned to have breakfast at Murthal dhabas.
Having driven XUV, it seemed Duster lacked power, however its suspension was super smooth and it just glided over potholes unlike XUV which grunts and displays its displeasure at every given opportunity. Since it was 31st December morning, a Saturday, Delhi roads were deserted. It took us barely more than an hour to reach Narela and may be another 15 mins to reach Pehalwaan dhaba. It was around 07.30 am and it seems the aroma of hot aloo parathas had already intoxicated the highway. We decided to go for an early breakfast. Expecting the dhaba to be empty so early, we thought that service would be slow, but I was wrong and I was glad to be proven wrong. It was a busy hour as people were hogging on parathas so early. Coupled with elaichi chai, the combination was a hit. The moment we stepped out of vehicle a sudden gush of chilly wind hit us… the heater inside the car had kept it bearable. We preferred table ‘inside ‘ the dhaba and soon ordered the breakfast. The service was quick and meal was delicious. Within half an hour, we were ready for the long journey ahead. Next planned halt was near Ropar for a quick chai or early lunch.
Delhi-Chandigarh highway is amazing. One of the best India has. Duster soon reached triple digits speed and then stuck with it. Sooner than we had thought, we crossed Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala. Then there was a bifurcation for Chandigarh or Jammu, along the NH-1. We took the way to Jammu and soon we reached Shambhu barrier and took a right turn towards Ropar. We cruised through arterial roads of Mohali and Kharar and reached Heritage Haveli on Ropar expressway.
Time showed 12.00 noon. It looked too early for lunch and too late for another round of breakfast. However, time seems perfect for a cup of tea. We had a quick break, stretched our back and sipped hot tea with some punjabi folk music. Still, we had a long distance to go, so left the place by 12.30 pm. Our next scheduled stop was Anandpur Sahib for lunch and if possible, a quick darshan.
Since Dr. Arya was at the wheels now, I thought of checking a good place for lunch. While googling I saw pehalwaan dhaba at Anandpur Sahib and its reviews for butter chicken were amazing. We decided to skip darshan as we planned to hog on butter kukkad. We reached Pehalwaan dhaba by 13.30 hrs. To our astonishment, the menu had only veg items listed. What a shock! All our dreams of relishing a punjabi kukkad in butter went flying. Reluctantly, we ordered dal, chawal, roti and some subzi. What a grin it was on the face of bhabhi and Ravinder… we all eating veg on vacation. However, the smirk didn’t last long enough. While using a tissue to wipe her face, bhabhi noticed that ‘Pehalwaan Dhabha – veg/non-veg’ was written on the paper napkin. When she told us about it, we fancied our chances and soon ordered a full butter chicken. Who wants to eat veg now, said my heart. However, with tummy full, we could not eat more than one piece each. So we got it packed and planned to have a feast over dinner. Anandpur Sahib being a religious place, the owner didn’t include the non-veg items in menu and we didnt’ ask him for non-veg out of hesitation. Silver lining was that we got our dinner packed already. Our next scheduled stop was to find a wine shop and get white bacardi rum. Time read 14.45 hrs.
After a heavy lunch, we started driving towards our destination McLeodganj. The road was curvy though good. I was at the wheels as we still had around 170 km of driving left. Google maps showed we’d reach by 18.45 hrs, which was quite comfortable. Little did we know what awaited us ahead. Finally, just before entering McLeodganj, we saw a dimly lit wine shop which was working overtime on 31st December. We bought our quota of booze and headed in the city to our hotel.
Just before turning towards McLeodganj city, on an incline, our Duster lost its breath and the front tyres spun against the ground. The more I pressed the accelerator, the more grip it lost. I pulled the hand breaks and a fellow car driver drove it for us on the incline. Upon inspection, we found that road had loose gravel and front tyres of our Duster were almost bald with worn out Tyre tread. Moreover, Duster being a Front Wheel Drive vehicle, easily slipped back due to lack of grip.The minimum tyres tread should be 1.5 mm, however, the focus of self-drive car rent company is more on churning money than to maintain the fitness of the vehicle. Utterly disappointed we were with Revv and I made it a point to mention it to them when we returned the car.
However, when we were about to reach hotel, around 3 km before, there was a huge traffic jam on this jungle road which was quite narrow and opened up at McLeodganj’s main market before turning to Bhagsu. Google maps showed blue ironically. Perhaps, it was drunk too, just like everyone on 31st night. It took us more than 2 hrs to cover a distance of barely 3 km…and by the time we reached hotel, it was almost 9pm. Had our butter chicken been alive, it would have died of hunger again.
McLeodganj / Dharamshala
The hotel room was nice and cozy and we could see glittering Bhagsu town down the slope, dressed up like a bride for 31st night… loud music was playing at a distance. Entire town was waiting for gong to strike 12 o’clock. However, our focus was unwavered. We had tasks to do… the rum bottle and butter kukkad were silently screaming for our company now. We celebrated the New Year in our style. After chicken and 2-3 drinks, the town looked so quiet and even the lights seemed fading away. We dont remember when we slept. We stepped into 2017 peacefully sleeping. The first streak of sunlight of 2017 woke me up around 7am. As I stepped in balcony, I could see that the view of Bhagsu valley was good, if not great. Soon, Dr. Arya joined us and as we planned for Triund Trek, we had our breakfast. I clicked a pic of valley form inside the room and sent to my family whatsapp group. Soon, I got a personal message from my sister saying that I must be careful as the pic clearly displayed a big bottle of bacardi. She said she zoomed it to checked how much we had gulped down in one night. Damn. Meri jasoos behen. Looks my hangover is still there, I thought. I should have been more careful while sending pics on family whatsapp group.
Well, as we got ready, I remembered my Mussoorie trip where we gave up climbing Suranda devi temple on top of hill without even trying as it was too steep. Today, we were planning to trek to Triund, which I heard had a much steeper climb. The Triund pics I saw on facebook and tripadvisor were amazing and I so much wished there was a chopper which picked us from hotel and dropped us there. Wishing to trek is one thing, and the stamina to do it another. Rather, poles apart. Anyway, we booked a cab which dropped us to Galu temple. Rest of the journey was to be covered on foot. We started trekking around 10.30 am. Within half an hour, I had gulped down more than half bottle of water and already taken a few short breaks. Well, my companions were no better. They too, were enjoying their quota of water and rest. Imagining that we’d all reach Triund top and come back the same day was out of question. Perhaps, we were too old for trekking now, I thought. Unanimously, we decided to turn around and explore Dharamshala city instead. We called our cab driver again to pick us up and drive us around the city. The comfort of a car is so comforting… 🙂
We explored the monastery, Dharamshala cricket stadium, tea gardens and Naddi sunset point. Out of the entire list, I loved the cricket stadium the most. What it would be to play right in the center of ground and hitting a six as high as the mountains around. It would be such a daunting task for batsmen to take eyes off the view and focus on the swinging ball. It was simply amazing. The cool air added to fun and fanned our hunger.
Just outside the stadium, there were a few thelas serving lip smacking munches. Dr. Arya even found his alternate profession, and mind you, he was better at secondary profession than his doctory. Just have a look at his pic cleaning and arranging utensils. So happy.
It was a long day and we were tired. So, after exploring the city we returned to hotel by 6pm. Now, we had one spare day as we had kept 2 days at Dharamshala (one day for Triund and one day for local sightseeing). Now we had two options – either to stay put at hotel, just hog on delicious food and relax…kill the day lazily ( I prefer this as I had my eyes on the bottle of rum) or there was another crazy plan to cover Khajjiar and Dalhousie, stay there and return via Pathankot. In case of latter, we’d have to give up our reservation at the current hotel as running booking cannot be cancelled mid-way. Moreover, the plan to cover Bhakra Nangal Dam upon return would go for a toss. The debate was futile and we decided to vacate the hotel the next day. We searched for a hotel on goibibo and found a cheapest deal at Hotel Highland, Dalhousie. So, the plan was to leave early next day, drive to Khajjiar, have lunch there and by the evening reach Dalhousie. Then travel the next full day in reaching Gurgaon via Pathankot. The trip was getting hectic. Just had a drink and off we slept. Clock showed 22.00 hrs.
Khajjiar / Dalhousie
The third day into the trip looked hectic as we had to leave early. We got up at 5.30 am on January 2nd. It was cold and dark. I so much wished we could still dump the plan and get back to the warm quilt. Grudgingly, we got ready, packed our stuff and bid final adieu to our hotel. Time read 07.00 am. The drive from McLeodganj to Khajjiar was around 3-4 hrs via Lahru. The weather was cold, road was winding and all passengers were still sleepy. What we badly needed was a sumptuous breakfast. We stopped mid way at a roadside eatery, don’t remember the exact place, but what I remember is that the food was delicious, tea was hot and view was terrific from terrace.
We thought of stuffing ourselves as we wanted to spend more time exploring Khajjiar. By the time we left the eatery it was 11.00 hrs. As we approached Khajjiar, we could see some snow along the road. The air was cooler here as we had gained a lot of height. Can’t tell you how elated we felt on seeing white all around. Perhaps, we Indians still have fascination to white complexion, whether its mother nature or people.
Time read 13.00 hrs when we reached Khajjiar. To me, Khajjiar is an over hyped place. Consider it as a valley with vast expanse of grassy ground all around. With minimal eateries, unhygienic public washrooms and with nothing much to do in this weather, I felt that it would have been better had we stayed at McLeodganj and rested ourselves. With nothing much to do, we clicked a lot of pics with pine trees in the background giving different poses, however, they all looked to be the same. Finally, at around 16.00, we decided to drive to Dalhousie where Hotel Highlands was awaiting our arrival. The drive from Khajjiar to Dalhousie was scenic, though the road desperately needed a repair. I was impressed by the suspension of Duster, it just glided over potholes without a fuss unlike my XUV. I so much wish we could assemble our cars by taking best features from automobile we desire, just like assembled desktops of old days. The power of Fortuner, comfort of BMW, safety of Mercedes, suspension of Duster, features of XUV at a price of Nano.
In one word, Hotel Highland was a nightmare. It had damp rooms, double bed seemed dingy. Sofa had stains and a few plug points weren’t working. Total disaster. Only thing which worked our way was that they served amazing tea. After having tea,all my complaints vanished. The owner was from Gurgaon and we chatted about every pro and con of Gurgaon – traffic, MNCs, Malls, bad roads, hotels, office, heat, dust and what not. The guy was helpful and he replaced the bed sheets and gave me a multi pin plug to charge our phones and camera. He even helped us park our Duster at the main gate so that we may leave early morning the next day without trouble. After dinner, we went for a walk to sleepy Dalhousie downtown. It was dark and cold. Time showed 22.00 hrs. Temperature was -2°C. The sky was clear and it was studded with stars. The wind was chilly and we could not bear it anymore. We had to cut short our walk. Not a soul was present on streets. All shops except a few were open. They all wore a deserted look though. Enough of walk in chill…I was desperate to be back in quilt. By 22.30 hrs. I had changed and was ready to sleep. An eventful day which started at McLeodganj, followed by Khajjiar and now Dalhousie, finally ended.
I was awake before even birds started chirping. It was dark outside. Time read 05.00 hrs. Time to get ready, eat something, pack our stuff and drive on to Gurgaon via Pathankot. It would be a long day and a very long drive. Though it was early, my new friend, the owner of hotel ensured that we get atleast a bread-omlette and special tea before we hit the highway. I guess he was afraid I’d put up a nasty review on tripadvisor. Either way, I was not complaining.
We left Dalhousie by 6.30 am and took the beautiful road to Pathankot. Serpentine roads, morning fog and chilly mountain air. Maneuvering Duster under these conditions looked difficult but I was enjoying it thoroughly. Mountain mornings are so fresh. So rejuvenating. Soon we climbed down the hills and reached Pathankot. Time read 8.30am. The town was beautiful with lots of greenery and well tarred roads. It being a wintery morning, road had less traffic and soon we merged with NH-1 to Delhi. The milestone marker showed about 480 km and good 8 hrs drive ahead…and further 1-2 hours to Gurgaon depending upon traffic. We planned to take a quick break for tea and munches which we were carrying with us. There were a lot of dhabas along the highway which were open and were serving parathas and tea. We stopped at one of them and had our morning tea and breakfast. The backdrop of NH-1 provided a perfect canvas for snaps. We clicked a lot of pics and once we satiated the photographer within us, we resumed our trip. Now, Dr. Arya took the wheels whereas I took the role of navigator. With nothing much to do, I kept on gazing at the endless road ahead of us. This definitely is one of the best Highways produced by India. Perfect smooth road, good dhabas all the way, steady speed and no fuss whatsoever. Only if the tolls were a bit infrequent…
Rest of the journey was uneventful with normal traffic and we reached Gurgaon by 19.00 hrs with a quick break at Jalandhar Haveli for lunch and then near Panipat for tea. We clicked the customary pic at Haveli thinking about ‘aao kabhi Haveli pe’ meme. Overall, a nice trip with childhood friend, though our plan changed at the last moment and we included Dalhousie and Khajjiar in our itinerary. Having travelled on Jan 1st since last 3 years (Pachmarhi in 2015, Chail-Narkanda in 2016 and now McLeodganj- Dalhousie in 2017) it feels good to start the year with a vacation. No matter how tough the remaining year is going to be, at least the start is with a vacation. Both me and Dr. Arya joined our work with a pledge to meet soon over some other vacation, at some other place, hopefully on January 1st 2018.