Wednesday, July 05, 2006

High at 13050 Feet!

Argentina had created history by being unceremoniously thrown out of the Soccer World Cup 2006 by Germany. It was another humid late night in office soon giving way to a four day weekend on account of the 4rth of July when the Stars and Stripes shine brighter than ever celebrating the spirit of Freedom & Independence since 1776 AD, 230 long years ago.
On the evening of 29th June, Brij & Raj intercepted me like Sidewinder missles would home in on a F-16 fighter that had made the mistake of giving its cover away. All they asked was if I owned a Rugsack and immediately as I nodded a yes, I was asked to pack them for a long trip without asking any further questions. I had consented to go to Manali, Rohtang and Shimla with the fraternity on the morning of 1st July, 2006.
And then came the date and the appointed time when we had decided to hit the road to this oft heard paradise which I so much wanted to visit over the years that had gone by.
Having left Gurgaon at 04:41 am that morning, we criss-cross parts of the National Capital, into Haryana, Punjab, back to Haryana and then once again Punjab before finally entering the state of Himachal Pradesh. The drive in itself was an exemplary display of India's vast, unique yet diversified culture and their connections with each other in making our land the largest democracy in the world.
My brush with the mountains during this trip came with the arrival of a small stopover called Aount. A narrow but well made road cut across the mountains into the valley with the River Beas hugging along.
The huger than huge mountains with pristine vegetation was not like anything I had ever seen before. Perhaps, on screen in J. R. R. Tolkein's middle age saga series of the Lord of the Rings, was the only time I had seen something so huge and imposing. Can you imagine Earth the size of Jupiter, and then, the huge mountains that would grow into the skies? Phew!
Absolutely overwhelming and breathtaking is a gross understatement to qualify the attribute of beauty that is so closely a part of the place and its surrounding terrain and topography.
Finally, day 1 had another wonderful easter egg surprise rolled for us to bask in. And that came as a place called Span Resorts which is a few miles from Manali. Situated in the outskirts of the town far away from the mechanical humdrum of a place such as Delhi, Span offered a soothing comfort combined with a sense of timeless relaxation which every human being would in some manner or the other appreciate with a rich sense of aesthetics and penultimate bliss.
Walking barefoot on the well manicured lawns and into the unassuming chill of the ever flowing Beas was a treat second or parallel to none. Finally, when we did reach Manali a few miles uphill, the day had accounted for a journey well begun, one that will in all prospects be remembered for a very long time to come. For a person like me, who has had a very shameful record of travelling, this was paradise.
Manali literally means the 'Home of Manu'. Manu is the mythological character who is supposed to have survived when the world was drowned in Flood. He then came to Manali and recreated human life. Thus, the area of Manali is sacred and Hindus treat the temples over here as pilgrimage. Leading up to Manali from New Delhi are the towns of Panipat and Ambala in Haryana, Chandigarh (the Union Territory), Ropar in Punjab, and Bilaspur, Sunder Nagar, and Mandi in Himachal.
The towns of Kullu and Manali are dotted on the scenic Beas river valley. In a stretch of 100 km, Beas is joined by scores of tributatiries or "nallahs" which are known to cause flooding during the monsoon season. It is precisely because of its everflowing snow fed waters, that Manali is so fertile. This has meant that over a period of time there has been a constant flow of inhabitants into the valley. However the culture and diaspora has remained symbolic to the region.
The earliest history can be tracked down in the folk-lore of Mahabharatha, but more importantly in the local folk-lore which is not very well documented.
The valley was sparesely populated in ancient times and its inhabitants were known as literally "rakshas", the non agricultural hunting and wandering communities. The next arrivals were the shephards which came in through the Kangra valley and settled to take up agriculture. Some of the earliest and the most indigenous inhabitants of the regios are the 'naur' or 'nar' which is a caste unique to Kullu. Only a few naur families are known to exist now. A naur family in the village Soyal near Haripur on the left bank of Manali was famous for the vast land they owned and their practice of having 'rakshas' as their labourers.
Britisher officers were the first documented visitors to the valley. Some books written by travellers have the earliest pictures of Manali dating as far back as 1920. The British were also responsible for bringing in cash crops like apple and fish like trout which was not native to Manali. It is said that when apple trees were first planted the fruits were so plentiful that often branches, unable to bear the weight would collapse. To this day apple along with plum and pear remains the best source of income for the majority of its inhabitants.
However, tourism in Manali received a real fillip after the rise of militancy in the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir in late 1980s. This once quiet village has now been transformed into a bustling town with hundreds of hotels and restaurants that have mushroomed all over Manali to serve the ever increasing influx of tourists.
That night, at 6662.50 feet, I slept a peaceful and very relaxed soul knowing that this indeed was a journey of a lifetime, one that is so valuably gifted to a human being with the sole intent of discovering a connect between the creation and the creator.

Waking up from a night long slumber, especially after a long journey with the added comfort of natural airconditioning, is never an easy task but then the piece de resistance of the journey lay ahead in the day. The ride to Rohtang pass was something not a lot of folks get to do and since I was on for it, I jumped out of the snooze and into a new day. At about midday when the air was slightly warm we had gathered our bikes and readied to hit the track upto Rohtang and when we finally did, the clock announced 01:46pm. We were late a few hours and any change of weather up there would mean a stall in the journey which eventually would delay our return or most certainly bring a pitch dark night long before we could return. Nevertheless, none of these dampened our high spirits and we set off to make the historical journey, historical for a person like me who has over time learned to value even the smallest of happenings time has so considerately thrown for me to be a part of.
Riding past the Snow & Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) and the Indian Army's transit camp Himank one can enjoy some of the most picturesque mountain ranges known to man.
Situated at a height of 13050 ft, Rohtang Pass is a mere 51 kilometers from Manali.
The Pass itself once served as a crucial trade route, and still is the gateway to the Lahaul and Spiti valleys and the second entry (or exit) point to the tribal region (the other being Shimla). With its snows Rohtang is a major tourist attraction. A two-hour drive from Manali to Rohtang offers sledging, skiing, and tobogganing and a chance to frolic in the snow. The road up to the pass opens only when the snow has melted.
The road to the pass is only open from June to October, and has a well-deserved reputation for being very dangerous because of unpredictable snowstorms.
Just beyond the Pass are the Sonapani Glacier and the twin peaks of Gaypan. The Beas Kund, the source of the River Beas, a holy site for Hindus, as the sage Vyas is said to have meditated at this spot, is also accessible from the Rohtang Pass. There is a beautiful Dashohar Lake left to the pass, where pilgrims go every year on the auspicious day of 20th Bhandon. This is the only access to Lahaul valley.
Up the winding roads we went with Rohtang as the destination for the day and enroute we also chanced upon a bicyclist who rode all way long from France, via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh onto Ladakh and above. A superhuman effort equalling that from the Earth to the Moon!
The road to Rohtang along with many others is one of the many gifts the Border Roads Organization (BRO) bestowed upon this great nation. With the motto of Creating, Connecting and Caring, this premier one of a kind organization works alongside the Indian Army in c0nstructing some of the highest motorable passes in the world, much of which lies in the Northern tip of India. The BRO is probably one of the few unarmed uniformed civilian organizations modeled and trained on a military pattern. The following is an excerpt published in the Mirror Magazine in July 1975 exemplifying the BRO and its objectives;
"Let us not forget that roads in this difficult terrain have been built not only with mere cement and concrete, but also with the blood of men of the Border Roads Organisation of India. Many lost their lives for the cause of duty on the project. To these men, who always play with danger and laugh at death, duty comes first. These fallen heroes came from all parts of Mother India, to contribute their might to the defence of their mother land and prosperity of their neighbours”.
And as of date, this wonderful establishment has recorded 44 years of excellence in contructing fully laid access roads in some of the most treacherous conditions on Earth. Once again, thankfully, Earth isn't the size of Jupiter.
The biting cold enveloped me soon after crossing Marhi (Mad-hi in Hindi) and I resorted to a warm jacket and a pair of gloves even though the winters had a long journey to make. Nevertheless, I wasn't one bit ashamed! And finally when we reached Rohtang at 05:07 pm I saw one of the most beautiful sights my eyes had ever seen.
It was then I realized that the Human Being is perhaps one of the least important element in a system that has been created naturally. However still, we have continually established our superiority over other beings for a long long time perhaps out of the fear of our own insecurities that have emerged as a result of many thousand years of evolution.
We reached Manali later that evening exhausted yet relaxed and were set to leave for Shimla the next day.
Shimla is the capital of the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh and was the Summer Capital of the Nation under the erstwhile British Raj. The Brits orginally named it Simla and with the passage of time it came to be known as Shimla. It is also a significant part of the Indo-Pakistan relations as it was witness to the historic Shimla Agreement signed by the two nations following the surrender of Pakistan in the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
A Scottish Civil servant by the name of Charles Kennedy built Shimla's first summer home in the year 1882 and by the later half of the 19th century the town had become the summer capital of the Crown's establishment in India. Many British soldiers, merchants, and civil servants moved there for roughly half of each year due to heat and disease at India's lower altitudes.
Shimla is dotted with monuments; imposing buildings with a Victorian aura and often referred to as the hallmark of British rule in India. The Kalka-Shimla rail link, one of the few narrow gauge tracks still operational in India, bears testimony to the engineering excellence of the British.
Shimla is named after Shyamla Devi, an incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Kali.
The last leg of our journey began on the afternoon of 3rd July 2006 and after navigating winding roads, a minor landslip and a nasty traffic jam we reached the cold expanses of Shimla well past nightfall. Arindham Joshi a.k.a Joey runs the Spars Lodge which is a Guest House situated in the heart of a rich green belt which is designated 'protected'. The ambience and the look and feel was incredible. I must thank Joey for the absolutely wonderful hospitality that he extended to us and more so for the wonderful person that he is. A man of extraordinary intelligence and a remarkable ability to comprehend life in the simplest possible manner, I do not for even a brief moment doubt the man's ability to be a superstar in today's Ultra Corporate world of business. But then setting priorities right is the most demanding and challenging tasks and Joey it seems has gotten that very right.
On the evening of the 4rth of July we coasted back to Delhi leaving behind the wonderful places we had set foot on. I will forever carry very fond memories of this fantastic outing and hope to God for many many more for nothing makes a man better than being well travelled and well read. Many thanks to Brij, Bodhi, Uttama & Raj for making this happen.

I can't help, but remember and quote from one of literature's most famous work of art;
Paradise Lost - John Milton (Book 6)

"With joy and acclamations loud, that one
That of so many Myriads fall'n, yet one
Return'd not lost: On to the sacred hill
They led him high applauded, and present
Before the seat supreme; from whence a voice
From midst a Golden Cloud thus milde was heard."

Following is the link to the set of pictures that I shot during the whole trip.
I must state that my old 2.0MP digicam devoid of zoom capabilities whatsoever would in no way do justice in portraying the exquisite beauty of the wonderland we travelled across, nevertheless, I did enjoy each and every one of them

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