Rosy cheeks, smooth roads, fresh paint even on shanty teashops, and oh dear, McDonald’s! There is a definite air of prosperity in the hills of Himachal. In all my travels around the country, this seems to be one region where the gorgeous landscape and the fresh air seem generously matched by a bountiful economy. Thanedar, our destination, is far and lofty, but this is where it all began and I’ve been promised Eden with the blossoms of spring.
It’s already dusk by the time we drive into the tumbledown lights of mainland Shimla. Three hours left for our destination and we are treated to shimmering views of serpentine rivers of light, twisting and turning with us in the valley below. My niece wakes up from a short slumber with a phone call, “Daddy, we’re in the sky and the stars are below us!” Sure they are, and moonlit snow on the surrounding mountains. What gives Thanedar its awe-inspiring view of the snowy peaks is its location on the ridge. Below is the Sutlej Valley and beyond, the snowy Kinner Kailash massif. The Narkanda Ridge, a short distance away, is the watershed between the Sutlej on the north and the Giri River in the south.
The morning at our Banjara Orchard Retreat reveals an ocean of apple trees, dotted with tents that turn out to be hailcovers! A couple of days ago, before this treacherous hail, these hills were a haze of lacy pink with apple blossoms. And now, no blossoms at all? But I’ve reckoned without our host and guardian angel Prakash Thakur, who now takes over.
The way to Eden
Such an enchanting trail must surely lead to heaven. All afternoon, sis and I’ve been following the guardian angel through the lush Saroga Forest, shaded by blue pine, silver spur, spruce, oaks, rhododendron…. The sparkling Sutlej below meanders through the deep valley. The mountains get steeper and the views even more breathtaking. Wild strawberries, raspberries, mushrooms, a cicada’s abandoned shell and the mention of hungry bears makes me wonder if one of my niece’s fairytales had come alive and we are walking through it.
Heaven is pink
“Almost there,” assures the angel as we leg up the last few feet to the top of Shilajan Peak, the promised land. In April, it snows candyfloss here! The sweet pink flakes cling temptingly to acres of apple trees. The air is heady with the intoxicating fragrance of the pink blossoms and wild bees bumble around tipsily, buzzing and whirring with hangovers from too much nectar. The blossoms are happy with the bees that play cupid — delivering billet-doux of pollen to their sweethearts, so they can pollinate and bear the luscious red fruit that was man’s first temptation. The wide-open sky, the crisp mountain breeze and the thrill of “paradise found” can drive one a little loony.
The angel knows it. So he lets us be as we lie under the branches soaking in the upside-down views, staring at the pink of the blossoms, against the brown of the branches, against the white of the snow mountains. Never have I encountered anorchard in a more perfect setting. Surrounded by the snow-clad Himalaya, looking into the sunset, then the moonrise, then, slowly turning into a silhouette of itself as the trees turn to a blur and all one can see for miles around are wispy sprays of pink.
Paradise can be addictive. Next day, I follow the sunrise with mum to the pineshrouded Tani Jubbar Lake, seeking out the pink fields that bloom for miles. Not sure if I’m trespassing, I tramp around the trees, inhaling the morning. A quizzical Himalayan magpie flits past. I bring out my camera and join the orgy of birds and bees and blossoms. Mum shouts, “Tea.” She’s made friends. We’re not trespassing any more. The lady of the house brings out her finest china to the open terrace that overlooks her orchard kingdom. Unpretentiously knowledgeable, she shows me around the acres of orchard she looks after.
Frolicking under blossoms can keep any girl happy but the youngest member of the crew wishes to play on the “snow mountain”. She means the temptingly snowy Himalaya of course, every time they pop up dramatically on our walks. It would be terrible to deprive a five-yearold of her first snowball, so to Hatu Peak we head. Fortunately, on the 14-km drive to Narkanda, we catch the fallen snow that has cloaked the hills on the roadside. Freezing as she moulds little balls for her snowman, she collects bits of wood for body parts and assisted by Nani has sculpted the world’s cutest little guy. We all feel a little sad, leaving junior behind to melt in the bright April sunshine.
Taking the turn to Hatu Peak, we decide to walk up the last 6 km to catch the ravishing views through the lush alpine forest. The flags of the Hatu Mata Temple flutter to let us know we’ve reached the top. At 10,288 ft, it’s the highest peak in the area. We’re almost eye-to-eye with the magnificent Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges.
The conventional and more adventurous way to reach Hatu Peak is to drive to Sidhpur, 10 km from the Banjara Retreat, and then climb up through the conifer and oak forests, where you might just spot a leopard, black bear, jungle cat or Himalayan weasel, or on a cuter note, flying squirrel, Himalayan pheasants like the monal, red jungle fowl, magpie robin, laughing thrush, minivets and whistling thrush. The climb to the peak with a small break for a packed lunch, generally takes about 3 hrs.
There’s nothing vaguely challenging about the 30-min walk down the hillside from the Thanedar bazaar, through apple orchards and conifer forests, past giant bales of golden hay that look like orangutans baskingin the April sun, finally to the perfect little white churchwith stained glass windows. A large tract of land was gifted to the British by the rulers of Kotgarh in 1815, in exchange for fighting the Nepalese General Amar Singh Thapa who had annexed large parts of the Western Himalaya. In 1843, a Mission Centre and the Gorton Mission School were set up and St Mary’s Church was built right next to it in 1872.
The original stone-and-wood whitewashed structure still stands today lending a British countryside aura to the landscape. Rudyard Kipling has called Kotgarh “the mistress of the Northern Hills” and based one of his short stories in Tales from the Hills on the church. St Mary’s was built with funds from both Christians and Hindus as it was here that Sadhu Sundar Singh had mystical experiences. It’s now being restored as a heritage structure to its original glory. Only 5 km from Thanedar, the church is accessible by road.
The Tani Jubbar Lake
A 6-km drive from Thanedar, this is perhaps the smallest slice of water to be ever called a lake. Surrounded by dense pine forests and splashed with pink orchards, this neat spot is rather romantic by dusk and dawn. I make friends with a tall, fair, bearded, handsome Himachali — an alpine goat, tied to a tree in front of the Nag Temple, where the morning worship rituals have begun.
Even today, the family house of Samuel Stokes, Harmony Hall, a twostoreyed house built atop the Barobagh Hill, stands proudly surrounded on three sides by snowcapped peaks. From the crest of the hill, at 8,000 ft, Thanedar unfolds as a magnificent panorama of mountains. The farthest of them are cloaked in snow, others are deodar-clad or draped in a soft blue haze. Around the house are the apple orchards of Barobagh where Stokes planted his first blossoms. Next to the house is an Arya Samaj Mandir with inscriptions from the Upanishads and Bhagvad Gita on the walls. This is private property, and you must obtain permission before visiting.
By Lipika Sen
Writer, artist and wanderer, Lipika Sen is an Indian born Kiwi. Now in New Zealand, she has also spent time in Siberia and Moscow.