I woke up to the barking of a stray dog. I could see the moon – still shining brightly – on a clear starless sky. But, nothing beats the anticipation of waiting for the sun to rise – outside your balcony window. The dog had already done the damage. So, I waited patiently for an hour. Basil shifted in his sleep and wondered why was I awake.
The winding, queasy journey of the previous day was still on my mind. I wanted to do something light. Stroll around town. Basil wanted more. After few inquiries, we settled for a small hike in Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary. The travel coordinator of Hotel Mongas arranged for a cab to take us there. We had an hour to spare before our trip to the sanctuary. So, we aimlessly walked around. St. John’s Church wore a morose look. It’s grey tiles didn’t do much for it. Being a Sunday – the church was open. We stole a glance from the outside.
At 11 am, our driver, a young man in his early twenties, arrived at the hotel. He drove along the winding mountain roads with a sense of urgency. I didn’t quite understand the need to honk and play loud music – at the same time. There wasn’t anyone on the road. But, I didn’t say anything. It’s never wise to tick off your driver, especially, on a mountain road.
After we passed Dalhousie’s famous residential school and made it nearer to the top, there was a traffic jam. I had come to the mountains – to escape the traffic. Clearly, there are some things that you can never run away from. A group of hikers, from YHA, walked along the mountain road with rucksacks on their back. The journey from the base (town) to the sanctuary measures 12 km and another 3 km in the sanctuary – to reach the guest house.
Now, there was no way our car would move with the incoming traffic clogging the road. Here’s the thing with fear – if you are one of those who gets easily fazed – it tends to have a paralysing effect. As I got out of the car, I could see the depth of the valley below. The road was too narrow for comfort and it’s sides were caked with ice. As panic slowly started winning over reason, fear seemed to be debilitate me. So, I took a few deep breaths and tried to get accustomed to my surroundings. I strangely felt safe on my feet. I ignored irate travellers who’d been promised ‘snow’ or cars ramming into crystallized ice. I wasn’t exactly jumping, but, my legs didn’t feel like jelly any more.
After the long wait of 20 mins (can feel like eternity), we were back in our car, and chugging up the mountain with loud blaring music. There is no entrance fee to walk in the sanctuary. Looking at all the revellers, I hoped the government would introduce a fee in the future. Our driver told us to take our ‘time’ in the woods and didn’t mind the wait. We asked, repeatedly, that we would take some time. He nodded dismissively.
Now, most tourists come to see ‘snow’ at snow point. Snow point, as the name suggests, is an area buried under a blanket of snow. Tourists gleefully threw snow balls at each other. There is an alternate route that leads to ‘Khajjiar‘ (known for its lush green meadows resembling Switzerland) from here. It was closed due to the snow.
We had to walk a 3 km stretch to reach the the top and another 3 – to get back. We’ve walked more before. Never on a curving mountain road and high altitude. I was pretty sure I wanted to enjoy every bit of our walk. I let groups of noisy or chatty tourists get ahead of us. There in the woods, with towering pine tees and plunging valleys, I think I found what I was looking for. And when you listen carefully – the forest literally comes alive. Signboards indicated a rich wildlife. But, loud sounds made by most visitors, would ensure, we’d see none.
The walk took us through countless moments of solitude. The muddy forest path, often, passed through dense cover with hardly any sunlight . With no one around – it was intimidating. In these pockets the temperature dipped significantly. The scenery kept changing. Through the gaps of foliage – we could see the mountains. On other occasions, layers of cultivation.
As we got deeper, and higher, in the forest, we started seeing more snow. It wasn’t cold, because, there were lesser trees here and sunlight was shining directly. We stopped for a bit. Looked around and I had to pick some it.
We walked further and I was ecstatic when I saw the board that we’d made it to the top. At the top, we could see a fantastic view of the mountains. The walk had been worth it.
Our joy was short-lived with the driver calling repeatedly. I wish he’d found another time to haggle about the cost or time. I didn’t care about the additional 200 INR. I rushed through our Maggi (never mind the lead content) and let of some steam before heading back. Anyway, the journey back was faster. It was nearing 3 pm.
Oddly, when we made it back, our driver didn’t seem irate. I was happy to have completed a hike of 6 km. It was a start. A very small step – in the right direction. The mountain roads blended perfectly with his devotional songs to the Goddess. And then, he started to play loud, popular music. I couldn’t care less.