Risky Job on a Rocky Couch
In the early morning of a Sunday, my dear friend woke a taxi driver up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and beatboxed a sick Punjabi bassline to his bewildered ears over the phone...
I have been fortunate to travel around India since childhood. But I was yet to travel with a group of friends without "adult supervision." It was the summer of 2012 when I convinced a few parents to let us, "kids" take a train to the Himalayas and explore the beautiful hill station of Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh. Technically, we were all adults. But of course, our parents had serious doubts.
Anyway, the four of us: Arpit, Mansi, Desmond Hashish (actual name withheld due to national security reasons) and I finally booked our rail tickets to Pathankot, Punjab. Train journeys are fun...except when it comes to sleeping. For some reason, the Indian railway always manages to turn your compartment into the Arctic and the "blanket" is prejudiced against some third of your body. That being said, we didn't sleep much. We played poker - without any currency. We wired money from our cerebral bank accounts with unlimited buy in's. You'd think such (absence of) rules would compromise the sanctity of the game. Au contraire, it was intense. Flush vs. Straight? Someone lost a lot of (non-existent) money.
We did catch a few winks though. I couldn't resist the hypnotic rhythm of the train. The following morning, we arrived in Pathankot and prepared ourselves to be quoted an exorbitant taxi fair to Dalhousie. It didn't take us long to find an enthusiastic dude with a "modded" Chevy Tavera to take us 50 miles up into the mountains. We agreed on ₹1600. I do not know who got the better bargain. We were too excited to give it much thought.
Apparently driving on Himachali roads was no ordinary task. The windshield of almost every vehicle with a yellow license plate announced the risk factor entailing the job. Written in bold: "Risky Job." The word risky pronounced as "riksky", mind you. Furthermore, the dashboard of our "pimped" out ride proclaimed a succinct but esoteric message: "Rocky Couch". Was couch a metaphor for the comfort of his ride? But rocky would suggest the expression was a paradox. After some deliberation, we came to the conjecture that the driver's name was "Rocky" - probably an alias for Rukhvinder or something. Couch could be the unfortunate misspelling of "Coach". So, Delhi to Pathankot on the Dhauladhar Express. Pathankot to Dalhousie via Rocky's Coach. Rocky negotiated the curves with ease...and that's when we first heard it.
A melody. A staccato melody that unknowingly became the anthem of our trip. I do not know what the song is called but I can hum it to you.
It took us a couple of hours and a bit to reach our lodge in Dalhousie. The weather was expected - overcast and foggy. No, it was not depressing but rather rejuvenating. August is the period of monsoon in India; not the best time to visit most places in the country. The rainfall in hill stations leads to poor visibility and landslides. However, Dalhousie is an exception. The rain is not a hindrance. It is benign - much like a sophisticated lawn sprinkler.
We checked into our rooms and boy, such coziness! I parted the curtains and opened the window just as the clouds parted to reveal a stunning valley below! As if on cue, our masala chai arrived in those quaint glasses. I took mine and perched on the window sill. The feel was ineffable - you need to experience it for yourself!
We then took care of our ablutions and proceeded to lunch. Hot phulke with paneer ki sabzi. We didn't forget the ghee. Our comrade, Hashish refused the cottage cheese medley as a precautionary measure to not fall sick. He ordered some plain lentils instead. To each his own. Anyway, that meant more delicious paneer for the rest! Finally, it was time to explore!
On our menu: Khajjiar, Chamera Dam Lake, Kalatop, Dainkund Peak, and Panchpula. The weather was misty marvelous! A light shell and you're set!
The hotel concierge had arranged a ride for our sojourn in Dalhousie. A smiling Vicky received us in his compact Indigo, which also subscribed to the Risky Job school of thought. Of course, our first destination was per Hill Station Tourism protocol: the mall road. Every hill station in India has a "mall road" - the main commercial street. As we lowered the windows, Vicky turned up the audio. We heard it again. That beat, that crescendo. "Dhu-Dhu-Dhudhun..." Gradually, we were acquiring a taste for it.
We reached Mall Road and I immediately liked the peace. Off-season has its perks: more intimacy with the surroundings and less human adulteration. We took a promenade under a shared umbrella (I chose to enjoy the rain) and explored the Gandhi and Subhash Chowk areas. Then, we looped back to the beginning and settled into a cafe for some hot beverage and snacks. Mr. Hashish chose to purchase some apples instead, which he sliced with a knife he appropriated from somewhere. Precautionary health meaures, he justified.
The following day, we drove to the "Switzerland of India" - Khajjiar. About an hour east of Dalhousie, the road curved around pines and several cascades. I could immediately see why Khajjiar got its nickname.
A velvety green meadow with a lake nestled in the middle of a forest. We declined the rather persistent equestrian offers and chose to simply walk around.
Khajjiar also boasts a restaurant whose name sets a clear expectation of culinary pleasure: Sher-e-Punjab (translation: Lion of Punjab). Butter Chicken. Pure non-vegetarian goodness. Pharaoh TotenHashish steered clear of the delicious rich food and opted for some unassuming rice and veggies. You should realize by now that food played an essential role in the success of our trip!
With all our senses pleased, we then headed for the lake at Chamera dam where we took a boat ride. We were not done eating though.
At the lake, the refreshing monsoon weather warranted for some hot street-style Maggi noodles and chai. Yes, the Maggi took more than 2 minutes to make. No one cooks the 2-minute noodles in 2 minutes.
Back at our lodge, post dinner (more food), we opened the windows and snuggled into our blankets. Cool, fresh mountain air. The sounds of the forest. A firm mattress under a warm blanket. I had one of the best sleeps ever!
The agenda for the following day was to drive to Kalatop and hike to Dainkund Peak. A sanctuary, Kalatop is covered in Fir and Deodar trees. Another jewel of the Dhauladhar mountain range! With more mountain air in our lungs, we went onward to Dainkund Peak. I could not tell if we were hiking through fog or clouds; the trail felt surreal. The misty rain kissing our faces; it was superb!
The moderately difficulty hike was not very long. We reached the summit, the highest point of Dalhousie that housed a temple offering a 360 panorama of the mountains. How epic was that?! On a clear day, you could see for miles-and-miles.
The Dalhousie area hosts several waterfalls. On our returning day, we detoured through one - Panchpula (meaning "five bridges"). However, I abandoned the bridges. Instead, Mansi and I navigated upstream, climbing over cascading water and slippery rock. Hashish The Great kept his contact with the cold water to a minimum. He was committed to living the adage of prevention is better than cure.
Anyway, the challenge going up the waterfall wasn't just the waterfall itself. I had slung my camera bag around my torso. It needed to be protected. We climbed quite far up, leaving the other bipeds far down below. The surroundings kept getting better! A thrilling end to an amazing trip!
On our drive down the mountain to Pathankot, the catchy Punjabi chanson played again. If only I had just asked its title then and there. But no. We reached Delhi by train the following morning, loaded our bags into the car and turned the radio on. The music just did not cut it. It kept playing in my head. The yearning was mutual among all of us. With an expression of desperation, I asked Arpit to call Vicky and ask about the song.
I've made my friends do some ridiculous things on my behalf. This probably rated with the best. Arpit proceeded to call our Dalhousie chauffeur and inform him of our safe arrival. That was odd in itself. Well, he needed some small talk to ease into what would transpire next. In the early morning of a Sunday, my dear friend woke a taxi driver up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and beatboxed a sick Punjabi bassline to his bewildered ears over the phone. He then asked him if he recognized it.
The conversation did not last very long. Arpit was suspiciously elusive about the details of the exchange. He summarized with a succinct "he doesn't know."
Till date, the anthem remains elusive. It's been a perennial search since. I could voice the tune to you - much like a haunting melody that refuses to relinquish its memory. But what I do know is that I would love to return to Dalhousie (experience a different season). What makes Dalhousie special is the absence of boisterous tourists that plague the major hill stations of India. Additionally, you can visit it any time of the year. Each season has its own welcoming flavor!
Oh, and by the way...despite enjoying the rain, waterfalls, and local cuisine, we were home unscathed...except for one. Hashish fell sick. Very sick. Fever, throat infection, flu - the whole assortment. Who was to blame?