I’ve been asked why I haven’t written about Dharamsala, my hometown, as yet. I say, very selfishly, that I don’t think Dharamsala can take any more people & I wouldn’t want to contribute to its transient population even an iota. It is no doubt breathtakingly beautiful with the Dhauladhars giving an ethereal backdrop to a sweeping panorama that is the Kangra valley but as is the problem with all hill stations, popular or obscure, there are just too many tourists, an urbanization explosion & almost no waste disposal mechanism. It all either goes down the slope or into a stream. With this toxic cocktail on every mountain top & valley one needs to find places off the grid to get a clean green high.
So during one such visit home we decide we need to get far from the maddening crowds at Dharamsala. A visit to Barot is long overdue so some phone calls are made. We had planned a trip there sometime back… actually more like couple of decades back! But the trip had to be cancelled last minute because some big-wig decided to go for an angling trip & given that at that time there was limited government accommodation available & that too strictly by pecking order, we were given a short shrift. (Not only appropriated our idea but our rooms too! We never forgave the nameless holiday saboteur!) The best accommodation is still with the governments – Punjab’s & Himachal’s. So be it the FRHs (Forest Rest House) or the Hydel project guest rooms with their prime locations, booking is still a chancy affair if someone in Chandigarh or Shimla decides to breathe some fresh air. Still..we managed rooms in the FRH.
So after a rather winding drive through the picturesque Kangra valley, making halts at Andretta to see the art gallery of the famous artist Sir Shobha Singh & the pottery studio run by Mansimran Singh & the tea factory of Palampur ( I love the tea grown in Palampur. It is not for everyone – a very exacting tea that requires all your attention while brewing. The reward being the most divine smokey flavoured tea but one additional minute of seeping & it turns wrathfully acidic & bitter.) we stop for the night at Bir. It has a special place in my heart. More on that another time. The next morning after a long walk through the village followed by a hearty breakfast we start for Barot. We have a word with the caretaker again (once bitten…!) & are told that lunch would be catered for & the menu mentioned makes everyone’s mouth water. If there is one thing better in the mountains than the greenery around, it is the delectable greens in the plate. Throw in that chicken on the side &…aah..bliss! We cross the Funicular trolley track in all it’s gravity defying angle near Jogindernagar to take the turn off the highway for Barot. The trolley was commissioned when the construction of the Shanan Hydel project started. It is still in some sort of use this side of the slope but on the other, near Barot, it looks decidedly neglected.
We take a break after climbing a bit at a turn with a bus stand and flat ground. There is a massive Chinar tree & a herd of the biggest goats I’ve ever seen with shaggy coats & twisted horns, more satyr than goats, resting under the deodars & I marvel at their good genes & diet. We chance upon this clearing with the barest remnants of a bungalow which would be anyone’s dream house location even now.
The rest of the journey till Barot is on a narrow road along river Uhl, lively & frothing over boulders. The valley itself is curvy, sylvan with pines which give way to the mighty deodars, with ripening wheat in the lower & fallow potato fields in the upper regions. The dam dominates the centre of town & a narrower valley heads off on the right from town towards Lohardi & the snowy reaches of Bara Bhangal. The road suddenly seems to be a mud track towards the upper end of town near the FRH. We are told that two nights back there had been a cloudburst & it has taken down a huge portion of a stream, corners of couple of buildings, the wall & one sewage pit of the FRH & deposited bits & pieces all along the road as a warning to all those who cross that nature must be respected with a capital ‘R’.
In a comedy of errors we discover that the FRH & more pertinently the lunch we have been talking about is actually across the range back at Bir & still awaiting our arrival! It is not this one with it’s slightly cantankerous incharge & there is no chicken or greens waiting to be had definitely. But thankfully this one is empty & we are grudgingly given beautifully wood paneled rooms by the harassed caretaker who is busy trying to get the swanky loo going which is a no-go courtesy the cloudburst. Fortunately there is a decent though basic room available in the adjoining homestay. As we settle down the weather packs up again with a vengeance & we are left praying that an encore is not in the offing. The sound of heavens opening up on a tin roof is, if nothing else, deafening.
The next day dawns scrubbed & sparkling & there is something to be said about the smell of deodars after the rains. It is as invigorating as it is sensual. The valley is preening it’s luminescent greenery. We spend the next two mornings & evenings discovering the walking paths to the villages tucked away in the higher reaches, stopping to chat with women getting their potato fields ready. We give up any pretense of walking & flop down on the edge of the fields to watch the valley spread below as we ruminate on life. The days are spent by the stream (For some reason still marked as the Uhl only.) going up to Lohardi, angling with picnic lunches thrown in. We hire the rod & other paraphernalia there itself but decline the help of a guide as there are self professed experts in the group. We catch nothing more than a certain fervor for the activity! The only thing on the menu for us is the local trout & thankfully the locals are better at hooking the fish than us because left to us, we would have been on a starvation diet. We feast on sumptuous fresh catch everyday at the small eateries near the FRH. Though the weather generally packs up in the afternoon, a common enough phenomena during summer, we take a drive up the Lohardi road & walk up to this village across the stream. There is a kul ( The water channel system in the hills.) & a flour grinding contraption powered by it. We see the snow clad Bara Bhangal heights through a misty veil of rain heading in our direction.
The last morning of our stay & we are all loaded to head back & I am chatting with the proprietor of this restaurant, who I’ve noticed earlier tipping all the waste into the river right in front of his place. He bemoans the lack of any coherent disposal system ( True. Sadly.) & I try to give him a pep talk on self help because no one wants to come to a see a nullah (stream) turned nallih (drain) no matter how pristine the setting! The onus of preserving the scenic environs is on the locals as much as on us. I head across the road to the edge of the river where he has put out some tables under these sun umbrellas. Suddenly I spy this old lady & I mean old, bent, leaning on a half a twig passing for a stick type, on the slip of a bank below the wall lining the river. She seems to be getting into the river. I watch aghast as she gets into the water trying, it seems, to ford across the shallows. She slips, tries to get her footing but flounders. I am shouting & running towards her. She seems to be getting swept away right before our eyes! I am overtaken by this strapping young cop who till now had been lounging & reading a newspaper on a chair nearby. He is down the wall & into the water in a heartbeat, fishing the old lady out along with some locals & us. She is carried up, handed a hot cuppa & given a gentle chiding by the cop who tells her that there are saner & safer ways of getting across. Phew! That has been unnerving…
As we hit the road crowded with the monster goats, we marvel at the tiny valley packing a punch – comedy, high drama, blissful tranquil moments & the serendipitous catch saved for the last!
Fact File – A permit is needed for fishing in the Uhl from the Fisheries Department. It is available at a nominal amount. The person hiring out the rods generally helps in getting one.