We wake up in the morning to a sky that’s washed clean and beautiful—so clean that we can finally see a range of stunning snow-capped peaks way off to the right. The sky’s a lovely blue, the mist only lingering on the far-off peaks. The electricity still isn’t back, so it’s just as well that we’re moving on. Despite that, we’re pretty unhappy to be heading back; Thanedhar’s been a lovely, idyllic little place. We set off at about 10 A.M, but first we take a detour to Kotgarh, home to a historic 1843 church and mission which Rudyard Kipling used as a setting in his story Lispeth, about an orphaned village girl who’s brought up by the priest and falls in love with an Englishman.
We end up taking a wrong turn on the way to the church and go down an impossibly steep incline—but end up just near the church. A path leads through orange tiger lilies and pink and white roses, all growing wild, up to the mission school and the church. The church, to our utter disappointment, is being renovated at the moment, and there’s almost nothing except the stone doorway that’s anywhere close to intact. The church is a mere shell, with workers clambering all over, putting up wooden beams, cementing together stone blocks, gazing curiously at us. I don’t know what the church will look like when it’s finished—whether even it will resemble the original (though, considering it’s been around for more than 150 years, it’s hardly like to look like it did in 1843; there are bound to have been numerous changes ever since).
We set forth for Narkanda, beyond which it’s a two hour drive or so to Kufri. Sharmaji’s already told us that the road to Chail diverges from the National Highway at Kufri, so we’re looking out for it, and duly turn onto it when we arrive at Kufri. What we don’t realise until later is that Kufri’s main tourist area lies along the road to Chail. Kufri, in the good old days, was a major ski resort but has now been overtaken by Auli—and what’s left is a seedy, ugly place that’s thronged by tourists for whom the ultimate thrill is to ride a pony, eat spicy chaat from roadside stalls, and shriek happily at each other.
The result is a kilometre or more of vehicles—cabs and tourist buses—parked bumper to bumper along one side of a steep, narrow road. The travelers themselves flock around the numerous souvenir stalls and pony-wallahs (along with smelly ponies in tow). It’s a crazy, noisy, dirty and unbelievably crowded stretch of road, and by the time we make our way through it, Tarun and I (even though I’m not driving) are tense and irritable.
The road, 28 km of it, up to Chail, somewhat makes up for the utter horridness of Kufri itself. There are deep, dense woods of oak, pine, deodar and rhododendron all through, and some of the rhododendron is even flowering, the blossoms a brilliant red against the varied greens of the forest. We see a barbet up in a tree; a partridge; and lots of jungle crows, magpie robins, and white-cheeked bulbuls.
We reach the Chail Palace at around 3 PM, and have lunch before we’re taken up to our deluxe log hut. The setting is perfect—deodar woods all around—but if this is the deluxe log hut, I shudder to think what an ordinary log hut would be like. The room smells of mice, the carpet is faded, the bedspread stained, and the bathroom looks as if it was made when the Maharaja of Patiala built the Chail Palace, and hasn’t been renovated since. It isn’t obviously dirty, but there’s a certain shabbiness about it that makes even the Peterhoff look luxurious.
Tarun asks Reception if there’s another room we can get. There isn’t, but the guy at the front desk is curious to know why we want to move. Tarun says the room is awful. "It can’t be," the man exclaims, obviously horrified. "It’s got wall to wall carpeting." We give up. Thank heavens, we’re in Chail only one night.
We try doing some sightseeing—Chail, after all, is home to the highest cricket ground in the world—but the road leading up to the ground is so steep, there’s no way our poor car is going to do that climb. Let it be, we decide. We’ll go back to the hotel—the palace part of it—and while away our time there. Which we do.