The scenic road from Bilaspur to Kasol tempts liberal breaks for tea and pictures. So we travelled, with little regard for the fact that the winter sun would set at 5.26pm. As the darkness thickened, we noticed to our horror that there wasn’t a single source of light anywhere in the hills other than our headlamps. With no hotel bookings, no Internet coverage, not even a clue if we were heading in the right direction, we drove on because turning back did not offer any solution either.
Mountains have always intimidated me—the magnitude of the Himalayas, the silence, stillness and darkness at night, broken only by the occasional, reassuring song of insects. It was the rustic life in the mountains, stories of the Greek lineage of the inhabitants of villages located in the valley, a desire to visit Tosh (the last village in this part of Himachal), and the urge to play in snow, which finally made me set out for the Parvati valley last December.
The eerie three-kilometre-long tunnel at Aut in Mandi on the Chandigarh-Manali NH21, the only way to reach the Kullu and Parvati valleys, is one of the longest in the country. I’ve always wanted to do it, but have never overcome my fears. I am a bit claustrophobic and I whispered a prayer when we entered the tunnel. The dust particles floating in the air and the occasional stream of water running along the sides were illuminated by our headlights. I found all of it a little spooky and looked forward to reaching the other end. I reflected on how mine workers spend time underground for extended lengths of time. The thought of the tunnel collapsing on us kept haunting me. My eyes frantically searched for the exit. We finally did see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and I was happy to exit into the cloudy night outside.
At midnight, we met a boy drawing water from a wayside pipe; he said the power outage could be temporary. I reminded myself that we were in the mountains and there was enough starlight to see by. We crossed more than six bridges as we approached Kasol from Bhuntar, but it was only the next morning that I discovered the last one was the prettiest I have ever seen.
After driving for more than six hours, we had nearly given up on ever finding Kasol. We thought of heading back to Bhuntar, or calling it a day and sleeping in the car. But luck favoured us and we finally saw a road sign that said ‘Kasol 1 km’. We accelerated onward without a second thought. Tired and hungry, we arrived at a crowded road full of cars, bikes, loud music and food vendors. I was so disappointed. We hadn’t come this far to party! What had happened to the virgin mountains and valleys? Feeling somewhat depressed, we gobbled up four plates of momos, the only food available at that hour. We escaped from the overcrowded and noisy mall and found a hotel closer to the end of the road. The window from our room opened to magnificent views of snow-capped peaks. Even though it was pitch dark outside, the snow glowed very visibly and gave the setting a halo.
My first day in the mountains started with panic. As had been forecast, it rained heavily the next morning. Slowly, the entire mountainscape was covered in a cloak of mist that enhanced its beauty and mystery. But soon, the delicate, petal-like droplets of rain fell like bullets, and the entire valley was engulfed in sheets of rain. Was this doomsday? I walk in the rain or jog in a thunderstorm confidently while in a city, but I did not dare risk such adventures in the mountains. “Yeh pahaari baarish hai,” said a tea vendor. “Das minute mein ruk jayegi.” (“These are mountain rains. They will stop in ten minutes.”) As if by magic, the rain stopped as abruptly as it had started, restoring the sky to its perfect blue. Reflections in pools of water on the mud roads captured a piece of the sky in all its glory.
Kasol has a few nice hotels by the Parvati River, and a small cluster of shops and bakeries. It’s ideal for a quiet stay of a few nights, with walks to neighbouring villages and short trips to nearby peaks, geysers and temples. Some tourists did not appear very comfortable with the hippie culture in town while others happily mingled with the ‘smoking gang’, which was ready to roll what looked like local weed. It appeared to me that the average age in Kasol was just 22 years. We too mistook a smoking joint for a café, but they were happy to serve us tea and excellent Maggi noodles. At 6,000 feet, with half-melted snow and a nippy breeze, the weather was cold, but very pleasant. Warning: it might take a while to clean up your vehicle’s frosted windscreen if you want a sightseeing trip early in the morning!
We set out to explore the picturesque village of Chalal, a 30-minute trek from Kasol.
We crossed the Mashairon bridge connecting the Kasol mall to the forests on the other side. As we walked, the river rumbled below, while birds chirped away as if in a well-orchestrated concert. All along, we had the beautiful Parvati River for company. My companion’s sole reason for choosing Kasol for the trip was the name Parvati!
I took a long look at the colours all around, and then I took a deep breath and closed my eyes to capture them in my mind forever. They ranged from the blue of the sky and the river, the burnt sienna and ochre from the path below, the green from the towering deodar trees, and the orange of the sun—enough to fill a painter’s palette. We walked for about three kilometres to reach Chalal, where towering trees give way to slate roofs. A comforting sign of life in a village is the smoke coming out of chimneys.
Chalal is a quaint village with a few homestays catering to tourists; a few of these establishments serve Italian cuisine. We chose to have lunch at Raju’s. The menu said pasta and pizza. I wondered what had happened to local food. We ordered a bolognaise pasta and a vegetable pizza. The latter was made on a traditional tava and served with a generous helping of cheese. It was the best pizza I have ever tasted!
Soon it was time to head back. Sunset in the mountains often reminds me of a Bollywood thriller. Fast-paced at the start, a lazy middle and a hectic end. As the sun is about to set, sleepy dogs start moving about aimlessly, otherwise lethargic villagers become active, ladies sweep ferociously, birds chirp louder, and then there’s a sudden blackout. The sun sets and darkness descends.
Whenever I have been on an early morning or a late evening walk in the mountains, a dog has always appeared from nowhere to give me company and protection, as if sent by god. This time too, one did. He was happy to pose for a portrait as well. I treated him to biscuits. A pack of mules gave us company on our way back to Kasol, sombrely trudging with bowed heads. I patted them and moved on for the comfort and warmth of our hotel. We were happy when we called it a day. “A mountain walk a day keeps a city dweller happy, healthy and wise,” I thought.
We headed for Tosh village the next morning. The last village in the valley, Tosh is at a height of 7,874 feet. It is a land blessed by Shiva, they say, and the local priest asserts to visions of the lord with his consort Parvati when snow falls. The drive from Kasol to Barshaini, which is the last stop on the bus route to Tosh, is fairly smooth, but from then on, the path is treacherous. The last few kilometres to a destination are often the most exciting as its beauty comes into view. However, here we felt like dolls bobbing up and down the uneven road. In some places, we had to abandon our vehicle and literally run to save ourselves from loose stones falling from above.
It’s also possible to trek to Tosh from Barshaini in about 45 minutes. Thanks to the road, and the trekking trail that passes through irregular growths of cannabis, Tosh is a preferred destination for hippies. We just needed to breathe deeply to get a whiff of marijuana.
We hadn’t realised that Tosh was at the heart of the Parvati Hydel Project and faced severe threats from mining and deforestation. One part of the landscape looked like a huge construction site, with some mountains dug open. Instead of the unique flora they once had, all we could see was concrete mixers, trucks, drillers, and men in yellow caps. Snow across the vast mountainscape managed to mitigate the unflattering sight. A dark green Parvati was winding through the landscape far below. From the top to the valley below, I gazed upon the most spectacular landscape I’ve ever seen. I stood as tall as the mountains, and meadows rolled beneath my feet.
Getting there: Most people confuse Kasol for Kasoli or vice versa (both destinations are in Himachal Pradesh, but separated by a couple of mountain ranges). So make sure you are on the road that takes you to Kasol!
The nearest airport is situated in Bhuntar in Kullu district, which is 30km from Kasol and 10km from Kullu town. HPRTC’s luxury buses connect Kullu-Manali to Delhi, Chandigarh and several other cities. Most buses go to Manali via Kullu, and visitors heading to Kasol can get down at Bhuntar to a take a local bus (about Rs 50) or taxi (anywhere from Rs 2,000-5,000) to Kasol. Kiratpur Saheb in Punjab and Una in Himachal are the nearest railway stations; both are about 150km from Kasol. But it’s best to go by road after reaching well-connected Chandigarh.
If you are driving (Delhi to Kasol via Bhuntar is 535km), take the NH1 up to Chandigarh, and the NH21 thereafter, via Bilaspur, Sundernagar and Mandi. We halted for a night at Bilaspur (140km, 4hrs to Kasol). It’s advisable to top up fuel at Bhuntar. The road is narrow, uneven and broken at places and it takes approximately two hours to reach Kasol.
Once you cross the main junction and enter the valley, you are surrounded by thick forest cover.
Where to stay: We stayed at the hygienic and clean Hotel Sandhya (from Rs 2,000 for doubles; www.sandhyapalace.com), away from the crowded mall. Rooms to the rear have views of snow-capped mountains.
There are cheaper hotels like Kasol Inn, Moon Dance Café and the Sun N Wind with rooms from Rs 750. However, two of the hotels at which we wanted to stay, but couldn’t find accommodation, were the pretty cottages of the Himalayan Village (from Rs 6,000; www.thehimalayanvillage.in) located near the Parvati River, and Parvati Kuteer (from Rs 4,000; www.parvatikuteer.in), which is booked throughout the year by foreign tourists. Rates vary significantly depending on the season.
If possible, spend a night in Chalal. Ask at any local dhaba, coffee shop or even a house, and they’ll gladly point you to a room or two. Accommodation is generally neat, though it’s best to carry your own sheets and blanket. I didn’t notice any chemist, so carry your basic supplies of medicines.
Things to see & do: Meditate to the sound of the Parvati River and see the colours of the rocks change with the position of the sun. Or head to the Gurdwara Manikaran Sahib, a 20-min drive from Kasol, which is also popular for its hot springs. But it gets quite crowded. Walk around the Kasol Mall and study the architecture of wooden houses—they have some of the best designs and colours.
Trek to Chalal, a 30-min hike from Kasol, and as you walk, you will be transported from the hustle-and bustle of Kasol town to a mountain village—hens, mules, apple-cheeked children and birds give you company. If you are lucky, you may get to play a game of gilli-danda with the local kids. En route, get a funky haircut at the nomadic ‘Village Saloon’ (for no one is sure where its next the stop will be). They offer some exciting hairdos—from dreadlocks to mohawks—as well as a good Kasol-style head massage.
Drive to Tosh, the last village in the Parvati valley (30km; 4hrs from Kasol at 1,640m; the last 3km stretch from Barshaini is in terrible condition; there’s also a 45-min trekking trail to Tosh from Barshaini). Tosh boasts of some breathtaking views of the Himalayas. It’s full of budget hotels and homestays. You can spend a night here.
Where to eat: Bhoj Café, Moon Dance Café andLittle Italy are definitely worth a visit.Try the momos and thukpa availableat most restaurants. The GermanBakery has some delicious cakesand pastas (and the outlet outside ithas the best momos).