Hairpin Bends: Winter in the Kangra region

22nd Jan 2016
Day 1
Photo of Delhi, India by Priya Ray Chaudhuri

We were three girls travelling together to Dharamshala and Mcleodganj from Kolkata. The trip began by flying into and spending a day at Delhi, shopping, eating and roaming around. We had bought overnight bus tickets online earlier and boarded the bus from the famous I.S.B.T.

The bus journey was initially exciting. Seats were great (Volvo Himsuta semi-sleeper A/C buses operated by Himachal Road Transport Corp. for 1100/- per person) and we even had a mobile charging point so everyone was happy. The temperature inside the bus was many many degrees higher than the freezing 5 degrees of the Delhi winter outside and promptly the word for the trip became: TOASTY. This was to indicate the state of being that was desirable within as opposed to the bone-chilling cold that existed without.

Mission Impossible V, ridiculously dubbed in Hindi, was playing on the TV screen at the front of the bus which made it quite difficult to sleep. However, our fatigue got the better of us and we dozed off. Trouble started after 3 a.m. when a member of our group started being violently sick because by now the bus had begun climbing up the ghat roads. Our driver was a near-maniac, not caring that his passengers were being flung around like beads inside a rattle was tackling the hairpin-bends without ever considering speed reduction. Soon one-third of the passengers began throwing up and this being an air-conditioned bus it became impossible to escape nausea. My other friend and I moved to the front of the vehicle to get some fresh air and to avoid being sick ourselves. It wasn't a good night and the journey was anything but pleasant. Words of advice post-suffering: prepare to be sick, take medication prior to the journey, carry plastic bags and tissue paper.

As dawn broke on the mountains, I viewed an orange and pink sunrise through the windshield of the bus as by this time quite a few passengers had gotten off and I was sitting on the very first seat right behind the driver. The conductor was overheard saying that our stop was approaching so I got up and exhorted my troops to Up Up and Away! Thankfully both were awake. Soon the bus stopped and with a loud "Dharamshala!" the conductor opened the door and jumped off. I let my friend know that I was going to get our luggage from the belly of the bus and they should get off after me.

I got off the bus to greet a chilly morning in Dharamshala. We were on a bit of mountain road that had a taxi stand on the gravel shoulder and the main bus station loomed over us. Clearly this wasn't going to be the last stop for our bus because it had not entered the bus station but was still on the road. I collected three pieces of luggage (one trolley bag for each member) and then before I could say a word the conductor got onto the bus, shut the door and the bus rumbled away down the hillside with my friends still inside it. I was so shocked at my predicament that I started laughing uproariously.

When my hysteria had lessened, I called one of the girls and found out they had managed to get off albeit a couple of kilometres away and were now trudging towards me. I waited for what seemed like a very long time before they finally appeared; all sheepish smiles and plaintive excuses. Our reunion, however, was rudely cut short by the discovery that in their hurry to get off they had forgotten one of their backpacks on the bus. Not the best start to the trip!

It wasn't something that could be given up so we walked up to the bus station explained our predicament and asked for help. Not one, not two but three damsels in distress was just too exciting for the bus station authorities who insisted that we wait there for them to contact our bus conductor, locate the bag and then have it brought down. Tired and in need of a bath, I impudently asked if we could come back later for it but no...that was not going to happen.

We had had the good sense to hire a taxi to take us to our home-stay and had left one member of the trio seated in it with all our luggage. It was she who suggested we scrap the waiting and chase the runaway bus with the red bag in it. It sounded like a plan so we started our journey to Mcleodganj where the bus apparently had been in such a tearing hurry to get to.

Day 2

We reached the bus station and found our bus. She was empty save a grumpy janitor who was cleaning the interiors. I did not envy that man his job! We asked him to go in and look for a red bag kept in the luggage rack above our seat numbers but he came back to us with the news that there was no red bag there and the conductor had left for the Dharamshala bus station with something similar just a while ago. We were tired of the wild goose chase and decided to stop by at the Namgyal Monsatery home of His Holiness The Dalai Lama which was just 5 minutes away.

Photo of Namgyal Monastery, McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India by Priya Ray Chaudhuri
Photo of Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by Priya Ray Chaudhuri
Day 3

Next morning we set off for Dalhousie in an upbeat mood. First stop was the Dharamshala Cricket Stadium which is the highest stadium in the country. Beautifully kept and fringed by mountains, it provided numerous photo-ops for tourists.

On the mountains every hairpin bend, every curve, throws up a different dimension of the view. The scene keeps shifting so there's never a dull moment. The movie business churns out hundreds of songs each year but all the hill-stations in the Himalayan region of India are caught in a time-warp of 1990's Bollywood cheesy romantic numbers. Unfailingly, if the taxi/car you hire has a stereo, the driver will play these almost-forgotten songs. One such ditty stuck in our heads like chewing gum would not come off till we recorded a dub-smash duet rendition of it. A bit of crazy on the trip!

Photo of Chamera Dam, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, India by Priya Ray Chaudhuri
Day 4

Dalhousie is palpably more colonial in flavour as compared to the strongly Buddhist feel at Dharamshala and Mcleod.

The journey back to Dharamshala the next day was uneventful. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel we did not even need to stop for lunch but one member of our party who was sick on the way from Delhi decided to skip the bus jorney and fly back. We said our goodbyes at the Dharamshala airport and then made our way back to the very same cottage we had occupied a night ago as the caretaker had very kindly agreed to rest there for an hour or two before we caught our bus back to Delhi.

The return journey to Delhi was much smoother than the onward one, not least because the hairpin bends and ghat roads were over by 10p.m. and after that it was just any other normal bus journey. 

I wanted to record the dinner stop on this route. The bus pulled into an imposing driveway and in front of us stood a palatial building called Haveli built in sandstone. It was eerie and weird...exactly the sort of setting for a low-budget horror flick where a bus-full of passengers disembark in the middle of a lonely highway and one by one inevitably they die. As we walked up the 50 or so steps into the grand main hall and had our dinner the feeling of eeriness and unease never left us for a second. As I kept teasing my friend, it seemed as though many skeletons were literally buried in the closets of this house. We felt infinitely better when we were back on the road.

The bus reached Delhi at around 4:30a.m. and dropped us off at ISBT Kashmiri Gate. This was the end of our trip and we headed homewards. The memories, however, will stay with each one of us.

The monastery complex was diffrent from any that I had ever seen. There was a statue of a burning monk outside commemorating martyrs to the Tibetan cause but all in all it was simple and austere. Felt like a house more than a monsatery and the golden Buddha statue had a head painted cobalt blue. I know it might sound blasphemous but I did not feel an iota of the calm cool innner tranquility that other Buddhist places of worship exude. This, notwithstanding the fact that we were literally surrounded by maroon-clad monks and the monsatery was replete with prayer wheels and people in various postures of salutation in front of the main shrine room.

That done we found a cafe called Coffee Talk with just one empty table, always a good sign, peopled with monks foreign tourists and the like. We sat down and ordered food and were surprised by the quality. Their pancakes are absolutely the best I have ever had: soft, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth served with local honey. The Lemon Yoghurt Cake was the star of the show: a light airy sponge with just a hint of lemoniness. It was exactly the pick me up we needed. It gave us the strength to get into the waiting taxi and travel the 10 more kilometres back to Dharamshala and to our lodgings, Cloud's End Villa.

A heritage property belonging to the Maharaja of Katoch and fondly called Chandresh Kumari Kothi (I imagined an aquiline-nosed elderly regal matriarch) near the library, all the drivers seemed to know it well. Ours was Cottage no.4 which the smiling caretaker/manager Mr. Raghubir showed us into. Dining table with chairs, sitting room furniture, a double-bed with a darling patchwork coverlet, a well-appointed kitchenette and a dressing area leading off into a tiny but neat loo....we were more than happy with the cottage. (

We ordered lunch at the cottage itself, too lazy to go into town again for it and enjoyed the homecooked but delicious meal of rice, chapatis, dal, sabji and chicken curry that was provided. Our plans of going paragliding the next day were thwarted as the governement had ordered all such activity to be cancelled on account of the Republic Day and threat to security in the Himalayan region. Refusing to let this dampen our plans, we decided to cut our stay at Dharamshala short and head to Dalhousie by road the next day to return the day after in time for our bus back to Delhi. Raghubir ji was kind enough not to crib, complain or ask for extra money when we told him of our change of plans and we whispered amongst ourselves about the innate goodness of hill-people, once he was out of ear-shot.

Photo of Hairpin Bends: Winter in the Kangra region by Priya Ray Chaudhuri

That afternoon after lunch we hired a cab and went to see the Bhagsu falls, (terrible waste of time trying to locate a trickle of water far away amidst the rocks and boulders) the Dal lake (nothing to do with the majestic lake in Kashmir and renamed Dull Lake) and the Naddi viewpoint (the one redeeming factor). at the viewpoint we were entertained by a telescope-wielding gentleman, who in exchange for 10/- per person showed us the army base camp, snow on the mountains, village belles doing their chores and a substantial waterfall, all of which were far far away but seemed so near.

Photo of Hairpin Bends: Winter in the Kangra region by Priya Ray Chaudhuri

The bracing cold wind kept nausea at bay and we reached Chamera Dam around 3 p.m. The water looked blue from above when we spotted the lake but by the time our car had wound it's way down to the dam level, it looked like liquid onyx. The Army personnel guarding the dam (also a hydro-electric power project hence the safety requirements) asked us where we came from and spouted a few lines in Bengali saying that he had been posted for a few years in the Kidderpore docks in Kolkata.

When we reached Snow Valley Resort in Dalhousie the sun had set but the imposing 180 degree panorama of the snow-covered Dhauladhar Range was bathed in a pinkish-orange hue. One wall of our room was made of glass and provided a breathtaking view and we went shutter-crazy for a while. After being seated inside a moving vehicle for the better part of the day all of us wanted to walk. So we layered up and went out to the town and browsed the shops. My friends bought mementos and edibles for home while I just soaked in the winter night in a quaint little mountain-town that retained the flavour of the Raj in it's buildings.

Photo of Hairpin Bends: Winter in the Kangra region by Priya Ray Chaudhuri