Our lives have drastically changed in the wake of the pandemic. Though most of us have happily adapted to our new routines, there are still a few things about the pre-coronavirus life that we miss, travel being an integral part of it. I remember being nestled in the comfort of the hills, around this time last year. Well, here's a trip down memory lane and an ode to that last pre-pandemic vacation.
The morning before Diwali, I racked my brains about how to escape Delhi. While the festive spirit was in full force, you could barely see the twinkling skyline amid the blanket of smog that had descended over the city like clockwork. Thus, in the evening, I found myself boarding an overnight bus to Manali from Kashmere Gate.
After travelling for 11 hours, I got down in a small town called Aut, which lay about 68 kilometres before Manali. It was around 5.45 in the morning and still quite dark. Barring a tiny sweet shop, most of the town was still fast asleep, with sudden gusts of cold air swirling through the empty roads. On enquiring at a tea stall, I found out that local buses only started operating around 7.30am, meaning I had more than an hour to while away before boarding a bus to Banjar, which led to the famous Tirthan Valley. With occasional directions from the one or two locals puttering about at the crack of dawn, I made my way towards the local bus stand, and waited.
The sun soon rose from behind the silhouette of the surrounding hills. I sipped on a piping hot cuppa of chai, and watched the bus stand start filling up with people, while the drivers washed their beloved rides and decorated them with flowers for Diwali.
In around an hour, the overstuffed bus made its way to Banjar in the Seraj region in Kullu district. I got down and boarded what I hoped would be my last bus ride. The final destination? Gushaini, a small village in Tirthan Valley, and my latest weekend getaway. I think most aren't familiar with this quaint and picturesque town, for Himachal Pradesh already has so much to see and savour. It is probably why the bus wasn't as crowded in the final stretch. After another 45 minutes through some crazy hairpin bends, I reached Gushaini, at the entrance of the Great Himalayan National Park.
I hadn't exactly planned the trip's logistics, especially lodging, so I asked villagers for advice. Immediately, one name came up: Raju Bharti’s Guest House, to be found without Google Maps. “Walk for a few minutes in the direction you came from, and you will come across a wooden bridge. Cross that and you will reach Raju’s cottage," instructed a local. I did as told, and soon found the tiny wooden bridge spanning the Tirthan. Gingerly going down stone steps to reach the river bank, I made my way across its rickety expanse, nervously feeling every old, crudely-cut wooden plank, while the river gushed underneath. Climbing up the stone steps onto firmer ground, I was welcomed by a wooden facade abound with climber plants and a captivating aura. It was one of the most attractive cottages I'd ever laid my eyes upon.
Raju’s son showed me into a small, cosy room on the ground floor of the property, the small single bed looking particularly warm and welcoming after the strenuous bus shift saga. But the allure of Gushaini was a little too arresting for me to fall asleep. Instead, I gorged on a late breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs in the cottage's charming dining room. The place was filled with drawings, paintings and notes from the people who'd visited the cottage in the past, and I was filled with a keen sense of contentment at seeing all the artists that had passed through.
Childlike excitement soon bubbled forth, and I could barely wait to run to the river. The water was freezing, and I could barely dip my feet in, but the surroundings were too mesmerising to go back to the cottage. It wasn’t like I was on a junket, or pressed for time anyway, so I hiked upstream along the river, climbing onto boulders with much character, and skipping stones. Occasionally I sat balancing stones. An eight-rock pile took me about an hour, but I barely felt time go by. By the time I returned, lunch was ready, and I dug into a wholesome meal of rice, dal, a delicious chicken curry and fried trout (a freshwater must-have in the Himalaya). Sleep finally hit, waging a war as my eyelids attempted to put up a stiff fight. But it was a war I lost. Cocooned in a sweater, socks and thoughts of a morning well-spent, I slipped into dreamland.
My eyes finally opened around 7pm. A campfire had been set up in front of the cottage, and I joined the two other guests at the cottage. They were huddled around the fire to keep themselves toasty. I don't know how it began, with brief conversations breaking the gurgle of the river, but the night ended with this trio of strangers singing old Bollywood songs around the campfire.
I had to leave for Delhi at six in the morning the next day. Wanting to thank Mr Raju and his family for their generous hospitality, I decided to illustrate their cottage: one, to add the drawing to their collection in the dining room, and two, to keep as a memento. Who would've thought a Diwali away from family, friends and a glittering city could be so fulfilling?