I woke up last month to an apartment filled with smog. Thick, hazy curls that clung to my curtains and depressed my dahlias, the ominous cloud travelling to my kitchen until finally halting above a pot of khichdi. When moving to Delhi from green suburbs in Bengal, I’d mentally prepared for this moment. But actually soldiering through the gloom proved difficult. Heading to the new ‘oxygen bar’ in town seemed a tad dystopian, so I packed my bag for Shimla—more accurately, the tiny, terraced town 32 kilometres away, called Theog. Look it up on a map of India. It’s a slender, boot-shaped strip perpendicular to the Capital.
Nestled amid five ghats—Rahi, Deori, Prem, Janoghat and Bagaghat—Theog is an erstwhile princely state that offers all the adventure activities and summer haven moments of Shimla sans the noise, crowds and resource crunch. A neat weekend getaway from Punjab, Haryana and Delhi NCR, this hamlet of less than 5,000 people is well-connected to the rest of Himachal Pradesh via National Highways 5 and 705. This makes it particularly surprising—and all the more exciting—that barely anyone I talk to has ever heard of the place.
Enclosed by dense deodar forests, the drive up to Theog crosses endless orchards of apple and walnut. My mind wanders to gucchi, the prized yellow morel mushroom, that grows in these parts. I stick my head out to spot any lucky clusters. The local I am travelling with looks concerned, and breaks bread to make conversation. Literally. He fishes out a tiny dabba which holds three bites of ghee-soaked sidu—a local bun, usually steamed but sometimes baked, stuffed with spicy walnut and cottage cheese. I eye the sweet version—filled with apple and fig—in the container, but then he points at our first stop, and I turn to look.
En route to Hatu Peak, the second highest in Shimla, is an artificially-fed lake beside a charming meadow. The view beyond is astoundingly cinematic— terrace farms, temple towers, the lush Shivalik range with the snowy Himachal silhouetted behind. A Himalayan griffon glides above. It’s a dreamy picnic spot, but we can’t do more than linger and laze around. We’re told we need permission from villagers to camp at the spot, so we treat it as a Ghibliesque pitstop, and move on. There’s also a serene hiking trail to the top that comes highly recommended, but the idea of silent leopards watching us heave and huff didn’t feel reassuring. We stuck to the car.
Hatu Peak turns out exceedingly well for silent introspection—there’s a single bench, an unused PWD guesthouse, and maybe four people staring into the distance—but most come for the Hatu Mata mandir. Much like Olympus, the devbhoomi had to be at the summit. A pahari form of Kali, the pandit there informs us that the inner sanctum was created during ‘the reign of the Pandavas’, but the external structure was rebuilt and taken over by a trust seven years ago. They seem to have aced maintenance and design, for the temple’s walls hold not just Hindu carvings—of Vishwakarma, Hanuman, Brahma, Kali and so on—but also Tibetan Buddhist influences in the form of twin dragons. Look up, and a golden chandelier is flanked by painted relief of tragopans, the state bird. I spend 30 minutes here, strolling around the outer corridor, wondering if panditji would be offended if I started to etch out a frottage.
On the way down, I stop at Negi Dhaba, a quaint haunt for those heading to and from Narkanda. The stereotype of Bengalis and Gujaratis being everywhere turns out to be true, as I am joined in line by groups of both to buy apple and grape preserves from a women’s collective. A lady bombards me with newly-learned trivia: the round topis that are so ubiquitous here actually vary in design according to your origins. Our driver confirms this, grumbling about how the calm Kullu green has been unnecessarily politicised by a local leader.
Theog has modest budget stay options scattered around its ghats, but make sure you visit the main village and see the oldest house. I’m told it’s over 300 years old. Most dwellings here—including a recent luxury entrant—use the rural kath kuni style, where slabs of wood and stone interlock to create an insulated, earthquake-resistant foundation. Do carry a good lens if staying with locals for some brilliant astrophotography— one can spot Orion’s Belt with the naked eye, as well as shooting stars and low-orbit satellites. Coming from Delhi, where one can barely see the moon, this was the mental postcard I chose to take home.