I almost sit on R’s head every weekend and cajole him to drive me to the mountains. And not, to his utmost displeasure where he drives for at least 8 hours straight, has this been an easy task for me to do. Quite evidently, R is not a travel freak. But my relentless persuasion to make him believe as to how lucky we are residing on the outskirts of Delhi, and how we can take to the Himalayas rather frequently has only made him a little receptive of what I always keep blabbering about TRAVEL – something very dear to me! Not always but sometimes I have managed to hit the bull’s eye scoring an average of 2 out of 10. It seems as though he now secretly looks forward to me initiating a trip because he wouldn’t propose that all by himself for sure. No, that’s not him. But we have both gradually discovered his growing fondness towards travel as we now hit the road ever so often. Not that I am trying to take credits for this revelation of his. Lol.
So this was one of those planned but ‘not supposed to happen’ trips, like always. Contrary to what we always do, i.e. start early, lazy bug bit us and we weren’t out until 10 in the morning. Then when R finally said that he would drive, I was on my toes packing my stuff like how you see a movie being fast forwarded. I packed everything I could lay my hands on, including a pair of woollens to help us combat the cold, just in case. This was mid-October and moderately cold in Delhi NCR, so we had to be prepared.
Everything done and with GPS on, we set out towards Chail which meant that we would cross Chandigarh and zoom past Simla at the parallel. We are housed at NH 58 ourselves and staying on a highway constantly reminds me of its value and my travel bug bites me more than often. Even the weekend traffic jams attract me and I indulge myself in catching the chaos of those SUV’s packed with giant suitcases on the road and kids popping their heads out of their windows. Uttarakhand state busses with people clambering in back and forth, sometimes getting down to have a cup of tea. A group of friends embarking on their long-awaited extended weekend trip. This mesmerizes me. I want to be a part of that humdrum, my heart says! I want to intrude into one of these groups and make my way to Himalayas. The Himalayas, because there is nowhere else this road lead.
We took the Eastern Peripheral road, National expressway 2, crossing Sonepat, Panipat, Karnal and Kurukshetra. The drive was scenic and uneventful except for our GPS going haywire at times. We decided to not take a pit stop for lunch as we had begun late and wished to hit Chandigarh well in time. We had our fill of food already and got some packed to tackle an unearthly hunger pang. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, though I had R obstinately cursing me for only sitting next to me and not being able to drive. Something he has persistently asked me to learn. But I think I am not made to drive. I am an imaginative creature and my reverie knows no ends, no bounds. So it’s only fair to not have a daydreamer like me handle the steering as it will cost the world a lot of innocent lives. Not advisable at all.
An evening full of adventures awaited us. The trip was unplanned and hence we had no stay booked. Though I was confident that I would easily find one like I always have on the trips before this. But you can’t undermine the importance of planning and you don’t always get lucky. Adventure has its own charm but you got to have an eye of what could probably happen if you were to think about extremities. And this time we were in a fix. We were in Chandigarh by 5 in the evening and I had zeroed on a few OYO rooms as I had heard they were quite decent. But reality hit us hard when we saw most of them being located in really brutal places, to say the least. The roads of Chandigarh would never tell you what actually lies in some of its closets. One room at the motor market, another on the seclusions of Sukhna, with zero influence of humanity.
At 6 pm, the grey of the sky grew black and our excitement started declining. Out batteries died soon too, which meant we could no longer look around for hotels. God knew what was in store for us next. We would have dropped the trip ahead, if it weren’t for B & E, a couple who also happens to be our family friends, coming to our rescue. They were on their trip to Kasauli and had made a stopover in Chandigarh for the day. They were already booked at one of the villas by Airbnb. We were to meet them at Sukhna lake and when we had almost decided to sleep in our car for the night, B out of nowhere arranged one private room through the same owner as his. They were to go to Kasauli the next day, which was 50 kms ahead of their stay and we, to Chail. We first thanked B & E for being our serendipity in disguise and then our stars! They were accompanied by one more friend of B and we decided to meet for dinner at Garam Dharam at sector 26. Oops sorry, first at Elante Mall and then to Garam Dharam!
We checked into our room and were not expecting anything ornamental. A roof over the head would have sufficed for the day. But I instantly fell in love with the place. Now I can’t blabber about it in a way that would make one curious to know more about it. Just that it reminded of my old home that I was born in. There was a particular style with which houses were built back in 80’s and 90’s. This room that we were to stop for the night was a homestay itself. It wasn’t room so to say, but almost a studio apartment, with a lobby, dining, kitchen and bathroom attached to it. It was definitely not built to let out or to be converted into a hotel, in the first place. And I have always been fond of old-style homes, un-marbled floor of concrete and those yellow walls barring any fancies. It had a wooden showcase with a glass dragger, exactly like my own old home; a rack full of Himachal travelogues and maps; an ancient style 5 seater sofa set with a magnificent lamp tucked so beautifully between the single seaters. The room prize opened to a very cute balcony covered with jute blinds and a rush of cold breeze soothed my face. The house had a comforting and cosy vibe. I could live in a place, as simple as this, forever. It was shared by a Brazilian who we never got to meet. The balcony overlooked a plush colony with pressure cookers whistling away and smelling yummmm! It was dinner time and I was hungry – hungry and tired.
We freshened up and had to leave but I wanted to explore that heaven a little more. I decided to get up early the next day and experience how mornings felt like. Off to Elante Mall as decided, B, E and their friend waited for us. We got there in no time and then I don’t know why it was decided that we were going to Garam Dharam, all of a sudden. I was hungry like a dog and could have fainted at any moment. I could sense E feeling the same. Neverthless, I persisted. Another 30 minutes and we gorged on tandoori platters, chicken, mutton and what not! The names of the dishes – I don’t remember. I needed something to put my bonkers head at bay and Mr. Monk definitely knows how to do that the right way. 30 ml into my body and I was at peace. I could travel for another 250 kms after that (no offence to R here). We had the time of our lives, ate till our throats and marked the day, a gentle reminder. We bid bye to our saviours and came back to have a good night sleep.
We were to leave by 6, the next morning and managed to pull that to 7 somehow. Now, that’s a great victory, and someone who is not an early riser would understand this best. We paid our dues to the landlady, a very humble woman in her late 60’s and left. Now our stars were in for a play again and thanks to Google Map for this. In the name of showing traffic-less routes, it leads you to some bad and very risky paths at times. It treated us to an hour of treacherous alleys floating in mud and water. There were potholes, open drainages and dusty terrains. Calling it a drive would be an insult since what we were doing was hover over the bumps to avoid any possible accident. Right when we were gently steering through the streets covered with jungles at both sides, we saw a man coming towards us. He was accompanied by two small girls dressed for school and requested us to drop them till the main road, from where they would walk till their school.
More than the audacity, we were shocked at his agreeability to send away his daughters with complete strangers. Either he was too naive or too calculative. R was moved by his gumption to give them a lift and so we did. Also, we knew that the girls were aware of the path and would help us get to the main highway. Plus they seemed harmless. I was fine but conscious of the whole ride and kept checking on the girls every now and then, only to find out how diligent and studious they were. It’s not a regular feature that you see girls from these remotest regions speak English and being highly aware of their surroundings. Not only they showed us the path but discussed the problems they face on a daily basis while commuting back and forth, at length. They got off at the stipulated place and we thanked them for showing us the way. They thanked us back with a smile.
We were told the drive to Chail is not going to hunky dory. B& E too faced many hiccups on their way to Kasuali and warned us well in time so we were a little cautious. But never for once did we lose hope. R, being the daring self that he is, rush past our beast (Read Alto K10) on the bouncy roads with all his might. Some patches were scenic beyond words and some really tested our patience. The parts of highway that were fully developed stretched in 6 lanes and those that were under construction brought us to tears. Yes, they were that bad. Two hours into this and we were finally onto NH 22 that we should have been an hour back only, via Madhya Marg.
We crossed Pinjaur, Soorjapur, Chakki Modh before finally hitting Dagshai cantonment which posed yet another challenge to our diminishing spirit (or my diminishing spirit). The roads ahead were nothing but a pile of stones leading to excessive grime & dust. BRO, no doubt is doing a commendable job in converting these narrow alleyways to full-fledged roads but were in a fix. Suffocation and breathlessness prevailed and we had to switch the AC on, though it is not really recommended when driving in the mountains. It was 10 in the morning and hunger banged our bellies hard. We decided to halt and devour a scrumptious bowl of Vegetable Maggi.
That’s when B called to check on us and cautioned us yet again. Unsure of what should be done next, I suggested R to head back. But to my surprise, R didn’t seem a little perturbed by the whole fiasco and had already decided to continue. We spoke to the owner of THAKUR MAGGI STALL and he suggested that we should take the market road instead of taking the bypass at the next nook. He said it will be a little chaotic but would connect us straight to the Chail Kufri Road. And Thank GOD he told us that. We adhered to his advice only to find out how apt and accurate he was. Sometimes God does send us Angels and on this trip, we had actually experienced that. First, B & E and then Mr. Thakur. We had 57 more kilometres to conquer and R had already rubbed his energy over me.
The rest of the drive was immensely beautiful. It’s like when you make up your mind face difficulties and then you don’t end up facing any, it doubles the happiness. The roads from here onwards were a little tapered but gave us ample opportunities to indulge in magnanimous mountain views. We crossed the Pine Grove Landmark and were now on Mandir Marg, from where Chail is another 24 Km after crossing MDR 8. The lifestyle of villagers was no different than what it generally is, in the mountains. Same old cattle and herd rearing; farmers engrossed in sowing and nourishing their crops: ever beaming faces of women with piles of fodder tied to their heads; and kids hustling through their mundane school, play & eat thing. The oscillation never stops and the energy renews on a daily basis and what an energy! It’s infectious. And you are in for a treat if you get down and get to talk to one of these candid humans. Honest, truthful and sincere. Simple as that.
We finally reached Chail at 12 noon and were proud of ourselves. Chail is not a quintessential hill station one would pick for their vacation. Neither has it been looked upon as some tourist destination. It is also not that attractive if you are just looking out for means of recreation or fun, owing to minimal to zero commercialisation. It runs parallel to Simla and is only crossed if one is designated to reach Kufri, which is 25 kms from here. It’s untouched. It’s quite. It’s raw & virgin. The roads aren’t the best roads and you only come here with a purpose.
And hence, my only purpose to visit CHAIL was to meet this man called Mr. Sharma, lovingly known as Panditji. This fellow in his early sixties had been running this food joint called SHARMA DHABA for past two decades. As imprudent as it may sound, the fact did form the premise for this trip of mine. R was taken aback when I disclosed this to him. “The dhaba better be good and worth all the pains you’ve put me to, to get here,” he said. I had come to know about this place in one of the episodes of ‘Highway on my plate’ (HOMP), a travel show I had been addicted to through my twenties and still can watch the recorded episodes in the loop. Honestly, I can’t write pompous things about this place because it doesn’t have any. You got to go there and experience yourself. You would know. All I can say that I was floored with this man’s humility and the way he, despite being so famous, served food with his own hands to the customers. It is a place that one would miss at the blink of an eye unless it is your destination. And it is a destination worth travelling 400 kms.
We keep blabbering about strategies to run a business, which seemed too small a word to what this man does. A decent amalgam of simplicity &honesty, his love for cooking is what seemed to be his only strategy if there had to be one. He was covered by Rocky and Mayur, of HOMP fame 5 years back and I had seen him so many times on TV otherwise too, that I had to know why is that people keep coming back to this place in a circle. And now I knew why…? Mr. Sharma is supported by his wife in cooking and his younger brother does the local errands. I asked him why he hasn’t gone for developing the small shack into a decent restaurant if he knew that he was getting visibility and could amplify himself into a famous hotelier. ‘Log yahan saalon se khane ke liye aate hain aur mujhe khana banane mein khushi milti hai, ismein business kahan se aa gaya. Jitna mehngai badhti hai, us hisab se thali ka rate bhi badha dete hain, isse zyaada our Kuch Nahi chahiye’. I felt too small in front of him.
The lunch was a simple spread of 5 dishes served in small bowls. The vegetables were freshly procured and cooked in a homely style. We could get unlimited quantities for just Rs. 150. The walls spoke a lot more than Mr. Sharma did. Handwritten testimonials hung on each of them where visitors had expressed their love & gratitude for the dhaba & its food. The customers kept coming in alternation and some were even getting the food packed. A lady had come from all the way to Simla to get lunch loaded for her journey forward. The food was cooked every morning and finished by the time clock hit 5 in the evening. There were never any leftovers.
“Who travels 400 kms to just meet a stranger?” asked my mother on the phone. “Me”, I replied. I only wished she was there with me that moment, so she knew why I was there. Nevertheless, we had to head back to find a room and find it beforehand. The best thing about Chail is that it is scarcely populated and there are more homestays than hotels. We quickly finalised on one under our budget and slept like babies for a good 2 hours or so. It was decent cold and we were thanking ourselves to not have skipped on stuffing a pair of jackets into our bags. We had already anticipated the drop in the temperature by night and hence were well wrapped when we stepped out for the day at 4 pm. We were out on the serpentine roads again to have our evening tea and Maggi. Now there is one story with Maggi. R has always detested the consumption of Maggi in general as he doesn’t consider it to be a healthy meal option. But when in mountains, he is the one looking around for it like a kid every two hours and can have as much as 2-3 plates in a go. Crazy fellow!
We drove a little ahead and then a little more. My eyes turn a big piece of sponge when I am in the Himalayas and soak it like I will never come back here again. This love for mountains is eternal and one of the weaknesses I never want to get rid of, at least in this life. Every time I confront them, I feel empowered, protected and strong. I belong to the mountains and I boast this with all the pride I have in me. So much so that I have made this clear to my family that when I die, I should only be buried in the Himalayas. My Himalayas.
We kept goofing around till 8 in the night and admiring the weather. The roads were narrow but the negligible traffic made our stroll pleasant. After our legs starting acting up, we decided to head back. It was 9 degrees and the jackets alone couldn’t combat the cold for long. We had ordered for lunch in our homestay only and the land lady cooked it herself. The room was spacious and well equipped. The family was so warm and welcoming. The kids in the family brought us our dinner and we devoured over delicious Matar Paneer. The sleep came a little earlier than expected and we retired for the night. Started early in the morning and got back to the city by evening to serve our respective duties, the next day.
This one is for keeps!