I boarded the Shivalik Express at Kalka station and started chugging slowly up the hills on the centuries old railway line. It was still early in the morning. I sipped my cup of hot tea and gazed at the hills dotted with pine trees, interspersed with red, yellow, pink, purple and white flowers.
The destination was Shimla, from where I was on my way to Narkanda, a small hamlet on the Hindustan-Tibet road, bound by the Shivalik ranges. It is at an altitude of 2,708 meters or 9,000 feet, with spectacular views of the Srikhand and Kinner Kailash peaks of the Himalayas and the Kullu ranges. Tourists travelling from Shimla to Rampur or Sarahan hardly visit Narkanda and I too was unaware of its divine beauty I was about to experience.
I left Shimla after a quick breakfast. As the car moved on ahead, nature began to unfold all its beauty. Undulating, vivid green mountains and clusters of pine trees looked as if they were touching the sky on the horizon. Kufri, the winter spot that tourists flock to for skiing, was absolutely beautiful with its pine and deodar trees.
Then there is Fagu where you are treated to a picture postcard view of tiny hamlets, orchards and neatly terraced fields below. Pine and cedar trees offer a breathtaking view with the blue sky above and greenery all around. Despite being impatient to get to Narkanda I could not resist the temptation to stop for a cup of tea and to click snaps of the beautiful landscape.
One by one I passed through tiny villages like Theog, Koti, Matiana and Silaru. There were apple orchards on the way and I could easily pluck apples from the trees by the road. There were trolleys on the slopes below, fitted with wire ropes to cart the apples away, and apple cartons were being loaded into trucks, on their way to big markets in Delhi and elsewhere. You had to buy the entire carton for Rs 600 so I decided to save it for the way back. If travelling makes you thirsty, you can stop at a road-side water spout, which gushes clear, drinkable mountain water. The state government has setup several of these along the roads for thirsty trekkers.
At Narkanda, I inhaled an ethereal experience. The weather was absolutely clear and the small town busy with activity. The blue sky framed the dazzling snow-capped peaks. The Himalayan tapestry hung before me like a magical forest, with the luxuriant presence of conifers like spruce, blue-pine and oak. Though the snow clad ranges of the Himalayas are visible from the town itself, the view from the top of Hatu peak, just seven km away, is simply breathtaking. From Hatu peak, one gets to view Pir Panjal, Dhaula Dhar and even some trans-Himalayan ranges in their crystal-clear beauty. Some visible peaks include Hanuman Tibba in the Dhauladhar range; Shri Khand Mahadev and Friendship Peak in the Pir Panjal range; and Hathi Parvat in the Trans-Himalayan range. You can witness the Himalayan stretch right from the Srikhand range in the east to the Kinner Kailash range of Kinnaur in the north-west, leading up to the peaks of the Tons. The vast snowy wastes and densely forested paths of Narkanda are a trekker’s paradise.
The ridge running from Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, through Jakhu peak to Mahasu peak, terminates at the Hatu peak in Narkanda. This ridge is of great importance as it drains into the Indus in the north-east and the Gangetic basin in the south-west through river Sutlej and Pabbar, a tributary of the Yamuna. The divide is also home to the unique flora and fauna of the western Himalayas. While working for Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department, Sir Norman Frederick Frome (1899-1982) wrote extensively in the journal of the Bombay Natural History Society on flora, fauna and birds in the Mahasu-Narkanda-Baghi area. Reaching there Narkanda, at 2,708 mts, is a small hill station on National Highway 22, also called the Indo-Tibetan Highway, between Shimla and Rampur.
It is 64 kms from Shimla and takes two-three hours by car, depending on the road conditions. It invariably proves to be a bumpy joyride. Taxis are available from the taxi stand in Shimla and charge Rs 1,200-Rs 1,500 for a drop. One can also board buses going to Rampur and Sarahan, but journey by car is always preferable as it allows you to stop at any point and take pictures. Narkanda is a destination for all seasons except for a short period in winter when the highway may be closed due to heavy snowfall. The monsoons also worsen the road conditions.
HATU PEAK VANTAGE POINT
Hatu Peak stands proudly atop a ridge at 3400 mts and seems aloof from any occluding ranges around, offering a panoramic vista spanning almost 360 degrees. Lieutenant Hogdson put up a trigonometric station at Hatu peak to calculate the height of the Himalayan ranges. The peak is accessible by a motorable road that climbs through woods of cedar and spruce.
The road, open in the summer and autumn, should be taken by only experienced hill motorists with powerful but small vehicles, as the initial four km is an ultra-narrow metal road, fraught with hairpin bends, and you could easily collide with oncoming vehicles. The best way to climb this stretch is on foot, though it is quite rigorous. There are no turn-offs from the road. You can remain ploddingly loyal to the narrow road or branch off at your peril. Hikerss will love the alpine green trails. Oaks, walnuts, yews, cedars, fir, spruce and rhododendrons are some of the trees one encounters in the forests. Wild flowers, ferns and medicinal herbs abound in the area.
In the summer, one can indulge in miles of bushwhacking, snaking through dense pine forests that carpet the rolling hillsides. The whistling wood is another experience for city-slickers. Kharu and rai trees are seen draped with lichens and ferns. Try munching a bright red rhododendron flower. You will enjoy the sourness burning your throat. You can find many medicinal plants like Thelitrum, Selvia, Campanulata, Geranium, among others, if you go with a knowledgeable guide. Rare and endangered species such as Dioscorea and Podophyllum are also found here.
I tried the Narkanda-Hatu trek on the Ides of March. One can get there in a two-hour uphill trek and be back for dinner. There was no soul seen after two-three km of traipsing along. I did the course twice on consecutive days. There was considerable snow on the last two km and near Hatu peak, there was almost four feet snow. The place was strewn with bear pugmarks, putting me on tenterhooks.
Candid confession: I had strayed from the designated path as there was heavy snow around. There was absolute silence amidst the mountains surrounded by the thick woods and right behind me were the snow peaks of Shrikhand and the famous Kinner Kailash. I sat on the benches atop the peak to enjoy magnificient vista of undulating meadows, snow peaks and valleys, with sheep and horses grazing in the distance. Birdcall echoed through the valley. Forests with a smattering of maple, aspen and cedar trees hug the wooded trek route. The skiing slopes are close by. Hatu’s flank holds stretches of apple orchards and acres of wild flowers.
Be warned: From December to February, trekking to Hatu peak is extremely difficult. During winter, Hatu peak receives an average of 12-15 feet of snow. During summer, instead of climbing the metal road, you may take shortcuts across the switchback turns. Do not try this when the snow is deep.
To enjoy the atmosphere of Hatu ridge at night, camp out al fresco under the starry skies.
All necessary equipment, provisions, porters and guides can be arranged at Narkanda. Should the urge for spending the night on the mountaintop arise on an impulse, tented accommodation is available at two scenic spots and saves you the hassle of carrying loads of tarp. Narkanda Camp Resort is just six km away from the peak. Hattu Peak is a famous camping site as it offers spectacular views of the sunset. There is a strategically located Narkanda Circuit House at the end of a little saddle on the ridge, and a small road branches off bearing a signboard, ‘Hatu Temple’.
The temple atop Hatu peak is devoted to goddess Hatu Mata, supposedly Mandodari, the wife of Ravana. Local lore says that the Pandavas during their agyaatvaas (13-year exile), spent a year on Hatu peak. There are two giant stones here, shaped like a chullah (stove), now called “Bheem Chullah,” where the Pandava brothers prepared and cooked their food during their exile. There were hardly any tourists at the temple save for a few foreigners. The pujari opened the temple door and offered prasad and a stick of small yellow flowers. Carpenters and woodsmiths were busy creating exquisitely carved temple pillars as the temple was under renovation.
You can also pay a visit to the ancient Hateswari Devi temple on Hatu. The temple is the venue for a colourful annual May fair. Walk through the jungle track from the temple to reach a mountain top meadow called the Joh Bagh.
Located among fragrant forests, Narkanda has a ski resort at 2,700m. The skiing season starts at the end of December and goes on till early March. There’s a choice of slopes ranging from a beginner’s run and basic slalom to sharper descents for the experienced skier. Courses are conducted by Himachal Tourism and by a couple of local operators. Deep furrows streaking across the valleys offer captivating vistas and excellent sites for skiing during winter. Girganga, some 87 kms from Narkanda, is another excellent but unexplored site for skiing. A short trek of seven km from Girganga leads to the source of the river Giri.