We were born in the plains and have lived there for as long as we can remember. At best, we’d see the waves of the Arabian Sea crashing on stony rocks with rolling hills watching over. Perhaps, that’s why, the mountains have always been a mystery to us. Towering, snowcapped, and eerily silent; they seem to have a strange magnetic pull, calling us towards them, and we, following blindly without thinking twice of the perils involved in the journey. The Himalayan belt of northern and northeast India has been one of our favourite travel destinations in India. Add to it, the distinct flavour of the Himalayan cuisine and scores of peaceful Buddhist temples; there’s little left to wish for.
In a departure of sorts, during the year end holiday break, we planned a trip to Himachal Pradesh. I’ve always resisted travelling during winter, to any location that has a possibility of the temperature dipping below zero. And although, I may not entirely love double digit temperatures, I truly love the sun (no surprise considering where we’re from), and detest the cold. And that was the first challenge of this trip, embracing the cold.
Our connecting flight via Delhi to Dharamshala was delayed by an hour. As a layer of fog slowly creeped and spread across the boarding gates, I dreaded what I had been coaxed into. Unlike our earlier trips, I was unusually calm, despite feeling mildly unwell. That was about to change, when I saw our propeller plane. Calm gave way to panic. If the fog was anything like this in the mountains; I wasn’t sure how great the landing would be or if we’d be able to land at all. Basil and our co-passengers didn’t seem bothered. And I tried to muster some courage in their indifference. A boisterous family holiday group seemed more concerned about their baggage and seating. I mused if I had accidentally stepped into a local bus.
We reache Gaggal Airport at four in the evening. The landing was pretty smooth considering the weather was warm and there were no mountains visible. After collecting our luggage at the conveyor belt, we headed outside the airport. Taxis are readily available and seem like the best mode of transport – when you’re tired with the journey. McLeod Ganj or Upper Dharamshala (1830m) is a 30 minute ride from the airport. I had momentarily forgotten how squeamish I get along winding mountain roads. As I tried to hold whatever I had eaten in the day, inside me, I tried to divert my mind. But, sadly, there was little to divert my mind with. The background was largely uninspiring, I couldn’t see mountains, and there was more sound than I could process. The main town square was packed with cars from all over the country. It was the wrong time to travel. I felt crushed.
Our hotel was located at the bottom of a winding road with the view of the mountains and valley for comfort. Villa Paradiso was Spartan, but, had all the trappings of a cosy Himalayan getaway.
The flip-side was the long winding walk (upwards) towards the main district. After unpacking, we began our ascent to grab a bite to eat. It does take some effort and I had to take few halts. Fortunately, at the end of the road, we saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Temple making the walk worth it.
We headed towards One Two Cafe, and had Gyathuk (Tibetan mixed vegetable soup) and ginger lemon tea. By 6 pm, it was pitch dark, the temperatures had dipped and most of the roads wore a deserted look.