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 2708 meters or 9000 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 the 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 was in for an ethereal experience. The weather was absolutely clear and the small town busy with activity. The blue sky framed the dazzling snow-capped peaks. Though the snow clad ranges of the Himalayas are visible from the town itself, the view from the top of Hatu peak, just 7 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.
Narkanda, at 2708 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 2-3 hours to reach 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 1,200-1,500 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.
Hatu Peak stands proudly atop a ridge at 3,400 mts and seems aloof from any occluding ranges around, offering a panoramic vista spanning almost 360 degrees. The peak is accessible by a motorable road that passes 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 4 kilometres 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.
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. I did the course twice on consecutive days. There was considerable snow on the last two kilometers and near Hatu peak, there was almost 4 feet deep snow. The place was full of bear pugmarks. 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. Be warned: Between 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. 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 the signboard, ‘Hatu Temple’.
The temple atop Hatu peak is dedicated 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. You can also pay a visit to the ancient Hateswari Devi temple on Hatu.
Located among fragrant forests, Narkanda has a ski resort at 2,700 m. 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.
The small village of Daru is nestled peacefully in the mountains across from Hatu peak, amidst apple orchards and Deodar trees. It is a tiny settlement with just 15 to 20 homes. I decided to walk to the village, after I noticed a colourful structure that looked like a temple when I was sitting on Hatu peak. A local in the distance gave me directions to the temple, pointing to a steep, downward-sloping, narrow path off the road towards the homes.
The colorful structure I had seen from the top was actually a traditional chowka, a seating place for poojas and rituals of the village. The temple was a small, white-washed structure next to the chowka. It had two small niches where crude, stone images of Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva were placed – they must have been hundreds of years old.
Apple belt - Thanedar-KOTGARH
Kotgarh stands around 15 km from Narkanda. Thanedar is connected to Narkanda through a bypass and the entire area is filled with apple orchards, as well as potato and pea farms. Actress Preity Zinta’s family is from here and some of them still own apple orchards.
Tani Jubber Lake
You pass many apple orchards on your way to Tani Jubbar – a small lake. It is 4 km from Thanedar. It is surrounded by pine trees which reflect in the clear waters and create a beautiful pattern like some painting done by the almighty himself. The last stretch has to be trekked for merely 10 minutes. The placid waters are silhouetted by snowy mountain peaks and weeping willows stand guard.
Hatkoti is an idyllic valley formed by the mingling of River Pabbar and two other mountain streams, Bishkulti and Raanvati. The Pabbar river arises from Chandernahan Lake in the region of south Kinnaur and finally joins the Tons river in Uttaranchal. Hatkoti valley is full of apple orchards. The area provides excellent fishing for trout. Seema, near Rohru, is also a haven for anglers. Near Khara Pather, is the royal palace of the Rana of Khaneti with ornate wooden pillars and ceilings and also the Khaneti Darbar. It is also the valley of stone temples – some magnificent ones are lying in a derelict state. The Hatkoti temple in Rohru is named after Hateshwari Devi and was built between the 6th and 9th century AD. There is also a Pandava Temple in a two-storied pagoda style structure, believed to have been built by the Pandavas during their exile.
Jallori pass is a famous scenic point situated around 90 km away from the town of Narkanda. Visitors who want to go to Jallori Pass from Narkanda can go through the Sutlej Valley, crossing Luhri, Ani, Khanag, through one of the most scenic landscapes in the Kullu Valley. A 30-minute level walk from the Pass takes you to Sarolsar Lake, among deep forests. firewood. The best time to visit Narkanda is from December to March (for Skiing) and April to June (fruit season).