Himachal Pradesh lies in the Himalayas- beginning in the foothills and extending to a few thousand metres above sea level, to cold desert regions. It's a land of woods- pine, cedar, oak and red-flowering rhododendron; ice-cold rivers; lakes, slate-roofed village houses, apple orchards, and medieval temples. Our itinerary would take us to Himachal's lovely Kangra Valley. The Valley lies against the backdrop of the mighty Dhauladhar ranges, and swarms with old ruins, tea estates, Tibetan monasteries and more. Our itinerary was:
Day 1: Delhi-Chandigarh, 238km This stretch is the longest, but also, in proportion to the distance, the one covered the quickest (about 6 hours). That’s because this is one of India's best roads, National Highway 1, better known as the Grand Trunk Road. The Delhi-Chandigarh stretch passes through Panipat (famous for a spicy pickle known as `pachranga’); Karnal, and Ambala. Look out for:
1. Gulshan’s dhaba at Murthal. Dhabas are roadside eateries that serve typical North Indian food. Gulshan serves splendid parathas, layered panfried breads stuffed with lightly spiced vegetables.
2. The delightful signs that exhort drivers to go slow- “An impatient on road is a patient in hospital”, and other gems.
Day 2: Chandigarh-Mandi, 205km After checking out from the hotel, we left Chandigarh and took the road to Mandi, past green fields, stands of poplar, and rivers that are a vivid jade in colour. The first few towns- Ropar, Rupnagar, Kiratpur- lie in the Punjab plains; the rest- Swarghat, Sundernagar, Ner Chowk, and Bilaspur- are in the foothills of Himachal.
Look out for the view before Bilaspur- the Beas river is awesome.
Day 3: Mandi-Palampur, 94km This is a relatively short stretch, but it takes up to 4 hours, since the road is narrow and mountainous. To compensate, the view's terrific. Look out for Himalayan birds- the blue-throated barbet, Himalayan bulbul, yellow-billed blue magpie, little egret, and spotted dove.
Although one can stop en route to see the 13th century Shiva Temple at Baijnath, we decided to defer the trip to later.
Day 4 and 5, at Palampur The place where we stayed- Taragarh Palace- is pretty enough to encourage visitors to spend all their time at the palace. But we did manage to spend the first half of each day touring the nearby sights. On Day 4, we visited the temple at Baijnath, the Tashijong Tibetan monastery, and the artists’ village at Andretta; the next day, we drove down to the town of Palampur, and visited the Palampur Co-operative Tea Factory and its tea gardens. See my journal, Palampur: Everybody's Cup of Tea, for more.
Day 6, Palampur-Dharamshala, 30km This was a lovely stretch of road: terraced fields, apple orchards, pinewoods, mountain streams, and tea gardens. Unfortunately, this was where things started going wrong: I broke my ankle, and it sent our entire schedule haywire.
Day 7 and 8, at Dharamshala Our itinerary had originally included the institute for Tibetan arts and crafts at Norbulingka; the War Memorial at Yol Cantonment; the church of St John in the Woods; and the Tibetan market at MacLeodganj. Our actual itinerary ended up being Dr Khanna’s Diagnostic Clinic and the Rajendra Prasad Medical College!
Day 9, Dharamshala-Pragpur, 60km This drive took only about two and a half hours. It’s a sudden descent from the cedar-clad heights of Dharamshala, to almost-in-the-plains Pragpur. The road passes through Amb and Una before reaching Rupnagar, beyond which it's the Mandi-Delhi road. A long drive, but smooth once you reach NH1. Look out for the lotus ponds around Pragpur: we saw one covered with dozens of exquisite pink blooms.
Someday we’re going back, to explore Dharamshala, Pragpur and Garli. Someday, with an intact ankle, I'll see it all- and write it!