Shimla’s echoing modern out-of-town bus station was surprisingly empty – though as it turned out, not so surprisingly, because everyone simply got on the buses at the much more convenient corner-at-the-top-of-the-hill instead. My bus was a ‘semi-deluxe’ heading to Manali, the status apparently coming from having wide-ish seats and the bus only taking its seating capacity of passengers, rather than picking up as many as could possibly be squeezed in. Liberally adorned with swastikas, the coach was of a modern design, with Indian characteristics – a slam door for entry and exit, operated by the conductor, a fully enclosed compartment at the front for the conductor’s specially selected friends, and leatherette seats that you slid out of whenever the bus braked sharply on meeting a lorry on a blind mountain bend. Which happened a lot.
We picked our way very slowly out of Shimla’s hilly sprawl, before breaking into the open mountains, winding our way over passes, through apple orchards and around peaks, with huge views over pink-or-turquoise-farm-dotted valleys, lined with bright green terraces dropping far below, the snow-capped mountains again visible. Progress was slow as long stretches of National Highway 88 were a single track carriageway, sometimes with a dirt strip between it and the precipice, sometimes not. In the midst of the greenery, we suddenly came upon a cement works of near-dystopian size and complexity.
Ambuja Cement, whose yellow advertising covered almost every shop in the area, giving the impression of a vast factory town, rejoiced in the slogan ‘Ambuja Cement Keeps Earth Clean And Green’, a bold claim as all they seemed to be doing round here was coating a couple of square miles in fine dust. Later, we would enter the domain of ACC Cement (‘Cementing Relationships’) who applied an equally proprietorial approach to branding every shop, though there were occasional forays into each other’s territories.
The bus began to descend, stopping every few hundred meters to let a convoy of colourful Tata trucks grind uphill on the narrow road. The driver was increasingly worried about his rear wheel, so pulled into a dusty truck-stop-tyre-works combo, where several trucks, many propped up on stones, were being leisurely worked on. The driver managed to jigger up some slightly more active help and nuts were duly tightened. Careering with slightly greater confidence down the incessant curves we finally reached a lush valley floor, golden with ripening wheat, where the road straightened and widened, at least until we crossed a huge hydro-electric project and began to climb again towards Mandi. The road passed packed Sundernagar (‘State Poultry Breeding Farm’) and we reasonably soon passed through the edge of Mandi, its temples clinging to the cliffs above the River Beas, whose course we now followed.
Swiftly after Mandi, road and river squeezed together through the impressive, deep Larji Gorge, a narrow defile between high mountains, the river far below tumbling over the rocky bed, hemming in miniature pure white sand beaches.
Waterfalls dropped in white streaks down the green mountainsides, while tiny cable cars to carry supplies to isolated farms high on the far bank were tended to by studious looking men. The road ducked and dived above the river, sometimes on a ledge hollowed out of the cliff-face, until finally a lengthy, dark tunnel turned us northwards into a broader section of the Beas valley, heading for Kullu. It was raining when we arrived in cramped Kullu, deep in the valley – I could tell as an umpire was just in the process of pulling stumps on a professional-looking cricket match. At the bus station, a major rural transport hub, the bus paused for a short break, allowing food vendors to climb aboard, including ones bearing a fine speciality of spiced chickpeas with diced onion and cucumber, plus lemon juice, eaten out of a one of folded newspaper.
Once past Kullu’s sprawl of shawl discount shops and a, frankly, unsustainable number of rafting operators, we were back in the rural valley, the green floor covered in blossoming apple orchards, the pristine snow fields now almost in reach above the lines of dark firs on either side of the valley. The Hindu scriptures describe the Kullu Valley as the ‘end of the habitable world’ and with the great snow-bound peaks now clearly blocking the valley’s head up ahead, their reasoning seemed reasonable. Though not short on habitation or visitors, there was still a bit of a final outpost feel to the valley – the National Highway, a sweeping clear yellow line on the maps, deteriorated fast after Kullu, often either a narrow rural lane between orchards or an unsurfaced track in danger of being washed away by the ferocious, braided River Beas.
Twenty-five kilometers before the terminus at Manali, the bus pulled to a halt in Patlikuhl, next to vegetable stalls that paid tribute to the valley’s fertility, and I hopped off. My final destination, Naggar, lay six kilometers uphill on the far bank. The guidebook confidently stated that auto-rickshaws could be hired for the trip, but having studied the topography and actually ridden in the things, I suspected that the more expensive taxi option might be required. Nevertheless, I approached the first, rather beaten-up auto and asked “Naggar Castle?” with a look that I hoped suggested that I wouldn’t question the driver’s masculinity if he refused. On the contrary, he immediately offered an acceptable price and off we set. We crossed the Beas then immediately began six kilometers of hairpin bends. The auto-rickshaw struggled. It croaked. It coughed. Twice, it gave up completely and had to be restarted, the driver explaining in great detail that was way beyond my motorbike expertise precisely what was wrong, presumably so I didn’t think it was his driving. Motorcyclists overtaking looked at us piteously. Nevertheless, we made it, up through the apple orchards, through Naggar’s diminutive bazaar and to the castle’s forecourt, where the driver departed clutching his hard-earned cash and with a parting jibe at England’s cricketing abilities.
Naggar castle is a stunning early 18th century construction sitting on the precipitous hillside beside its village, the seat of the Raja when Naggar was the valley’s diminutive capital. Built of a layered stone and wood method that is supposedly earthquake-proof, its main building and courtyards are ringed by covered wooden galleries, any of them covered in intricate carvings. The Himachal Pradesh Tourist Board has converted much of the building into a ‘heritage hotel’ and I installed myself in the River View Room for a short break from being constantly on the move. Confusingly, the view of the River Beas itself from what was effectively my private balcony was mainly blocked by a budding tree, but the rest of the vista was superb, looking straight across the valley to the forested, pastured and snow-capped peaks opposite, with the valley-head mountains beyond Manalli shimmering to the right. Looking straight below ere the green orchards and fields of crops, dotted with wooden-galleried farmhouses, sporting the valley’s traditional roofs of massive slates (even a small stone mandir behind the castle had had such a roof incongruously balanced on top, like an ill-fitting hat). The sun dropped slowly behind the mountains to the west, illuminating each ridge and gully on the peaks and bathing snowfields in pink.
As the mountainsides darkened, high up on the slopes where the summer pastures lay, the dancing orange dots and plumes of smoke of the fires in shepherd’s encampments began to show. It would be cold up there tonight. Even down here on the lower slopes, I felt a slight chill for the first time since touching down in India. Time to pull the jumper from the recesses of the rucksack.
Making the short walk back from a good dinner in the hotel’s restaurant on the balcony above mine – the valley now full of lights, but the village behind silent but for a waterfall – I paused on the gallery to admire the view. I found that I had stood in a large bat’s hunting circuit, to the brief consternation of both of us – it flew so close I felt the disturbed air against my face. The bat might a slight course adjustment on it next insect-scooping sweep between the carved balustrades and normal business was resumed.
The next day began with a gentle awakening by the occasional ringing of the prayer bell in the castle’s pretty little temple, which abutted my room, the wooden tassels on its eaves waving gently in the breeze beside my door. The sun, rising behind the village, had already struck the mountain tops on the western valley wall, creating a vista of dazzling white snow peaks contrasting against a dazzling blue sky, with the high tops attracting just occasional horse-tail wisps of cloud.
The day continued in a simple, delightful fashion, aimlessly wandering the mountain tracks and paths that hairpinned gently up and down the slopes, through fresh-scented pine forest at first, then out into the blossom-filled apple orchards that coat so many of Himachal Pradesh’ s lower slopes. It was easy to see why a Himachal Pradesh Agricultural Development Board kiosk flogging Himachal apple juice at 10 rupees a glass was a fixture of every decent sized Indian railway station. The irony was that Himachal Pradesh itself lacked any decent-sized railway stations to have kiosks on.
I sought out temples hidden among the village houses and high up in the woods, many topped with three-tiered wooden roofs on their mandirs, a snow protection now evolved into a distinctive Himachal decoration; and intricate stone and wood carvings on every surface. I passed isolated, brightly painted farms and through villages of wooden-galleried, slate roofed houses, where the visage of the local communist candidate smiled down from the shop beside the village mandir.
Brown doe-eyed calfs stared from the shade of their wide-eaved barns; mule trains carried produce and building supplies along narrow paths; an eagle swept low over the orchards, its mighty wingspan casting a wide shadow and briefly silencing the chorus of yellow-faced common mynah birds and long-tailed jays.
Walking this tracks on a brilliantly clear day, a slight breeze regulating the heat and locals waving from their fields and orchards was heavenly – high Himalaya peaks on three sides, the play of sun and cloud revealing the details of their snowfield’s topography; far below the lush valley, the glinting Beas and the castle sitting on the end of its spur.
A shopkeeper in Naggar assured me that the castle had been the seat of the region’s British assistant commissioner. “Typical,” I replied, “We nicked the good stuff for ourselves.” “Oh, I don’t know sir. You gave us democracy.” Unsure how to respond to this, I ventured that maybe we were also responsible for the railways. He seemed less sure of this. I should have stuck with suggesting cricket. Mind you, I doubt the assistant commissioner ever had to put up with 30 rupee paying tourists straying onto their semi-private balcony, the ‘For Inhouse Guests Only’ Notice being studiously ignored, as all good Indian Notices are. And who could begrudge others a share of the stunning view of evening sunlight on the mountains and wheeling crows?
Rather than ordering Caruthers to clear the natives off the balcony and bring me another pink gin, I became unofficial photographer for tens of couples (“Sir, could you click us once?”) and at one point a promoter of the hotel to a gentleman who was, in his words, “staying in a pretty shitty hotel in Manalli.” I assured him that the rooms did indeed have “wood, and all that crap” in them, posed while his wife took a photo of us both and they wandered off. If it was to check in, then I await my commission cheque from the Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Board. Who, as it happens, really shouldn’t have an almost empty hotel of this uniqueness and quality in early summer. But if they’re happy to carry on being rubbish at marketing such a fantastic place, I’ll happily continue to wander the almost deserted courtyards of the castle after the day-trippers have gone home to their pretty shitty hotels in Manalli, watching the lively valley below, the beautiful, somnolent village around and the serene snowpeaks above.