Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

March is that time of the year when the bitter cold has ended but the merciless Delhi Sun is still at least a month away. Being the winter lovers that we are, we wanted to hold back a slice of the frost & this made us think of Himachal Pradesh over the 2019 Holi long weekend. Mashobra had been on our radar for ages. So, why not?

Not a marked trail. Finding our own path. Guessing which turns to take…

We took the Shatabdi to Chandigarh. After road, train is our preferred transport mode. From Delhi, places like Ajmer, Bhopal, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh, & Uttarakhand get good connectivity.

It took us barely four hours to reach Chandigarh. We had booked a MyChoize self-drive from Chandigarh. Over the last couple of years, our best discovery & adoption have been of self-drive car rentals in India.

Rather than abandoning destinations because they are too far or because they do not have proper connectivity or rather than depending on local taxis, this is a much better alternative.

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

We have tried many self-drive service providers till now but MyChoize & Revv have come up tops among all. The company guy delivered the car to us at the Chandigarh railway station, checked our papers, completed the formalities & handed over the car to us. The entire process would have taken 15 minutes at most.

We then drove from Chandigarh from Mashobra halting at HPTDC The Pinewood, Barog for lunch. The hotel was on the highway with ample parking available. It had a nice garden. The building was reminiscent of the British Raj.

It was drizzling which added to the ambience. The Chicken Masala & Mutton Biryani were delectable & adequate in portion.

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

We then continued to Mashobra. We had booked Khanabadosh for our stay; more on it later.

The First Evening

It was evening by the time we reached. As we were in a village called Purani Koti in Mashobra, there was not much to do once the Sun set. Moreover, we had had an early start to the day; so, we were happy to lounge in the cosy living room of our home-stay.

Our kind of place!

We had not expected the chill to hit us; so, we were happy to sit next to a blower & sip on warm tea. Geetika, the friendly owner of Khanabadosh had kept her home & hearth warm. Blankets, blowers & shawls strewn here & there helped us ward off the chill.

We scoured the well-stocked library to find something suitable to read. A house with books is a house we love! Geetika gave us company in the evening. We chatted away until the real owners turned up – Sultan & Gabbar. Being dog lovers, we were pleased as punch to greet the two Golden Retrievers.

The evening culminated in a dainty dinner served by the warm Kalam Singh, fondly called Pen Singh.

Fascinating bit about mountains – difference in temperature between Sun & shade

The First Full Day

The cold did not go away in the morning but became bearable. We stepped out of the warm cottage gingerly. The garden was full of colorful flowers, a Buddha statue & knickknacks. A wreath donned the front door. Christmas feels!

Geetika shared with us the concept of Khanabadosh. It is a wandering house. Every three years, she packs up her bags & moves to a new destination. Our dream life… Sigh!

Weeping Willows have been a part of our childhoods, thanks to them featuring in umpteen stories. We’d a vague image of a willow in our minds… Finally a chance to see it!

We basked in the Sun while cuddling with the two pooches but soon managed to tear ourselves away from them & stepped out for a walk. There are umpteen forest trails near Khanabadosh but be ready to huff & puff.

Those who know us know well that we’re dog people. These two gentle giants were absolutely cuddly…

We chose a trail that took us through an unforgettable pine forest. It was not really marked; more of finding our own paths & guessing which turns to take. Clearings in the forests brought spectacular vistas which made the huffing & puffing worthwhile.

We spotted a blue sky, a cat, birds, children playing cricket, lots of greenery, our first Weeping Willow, village folks at work, & wildflowers! We have heard people ask – “What’s there to do in the mountains?” We agree. The whole point of mountains is you do nothing; just surrender yourself to nature…

Happiness is… A blue sky!

On turning back, we opted for the road instead of the forest trail. Purani Koti was exactly our kind of place! Few people, more animals… But we are cognizant of the problems remote areas bring.

It is easy to get enchanted as a sightseer, but different to live there!

After the tiring walk, we recharged our batteries with an expedition to Fagu & Theog. We drove on till Theog, turned back & halted at Fagu for lunch. We were first surprised, then thrilled to see snow on the mountainsides in March – end!

Opt for roads through forests…

Charles Dickens has captured March well – “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” Anyhow, the snow transformed Fagu into a magical world.

The crisp spring air did us good. We stopped at HPTDC The Apple Blossom, Fagu for tea. It had an excellent location & ample parking. The hotel gave a ~360-degree view of the Himalayas.

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

While we waited for tea, we walked around taking in the snowy sights. The tea was good too! We chose to have lunch at a roadside kiosk & returned to Khanabadosh for more doggo love!

King of this jungle! It watched us curiously for a while & then stealthily moved away…

The Second Full Day

For a change, we woke up to see the sunrise. Purani Koti was yet to come to life but little birds were up & about. The feathered creatures were proving the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Sultan & Gabbar had stirred too & were off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

Later in the day, we headed to Chail. Kufri, as usual, was a mess. Dirty & overcrowded! We still do not understand what fun tourists derive from riding mules!

Once we crossed Kufri, we began to spot the snow-capped Himalayas. This mountain range has been our source of happiness for decades. Every time we visit the Himalayas, we understand better how people become spiritually enlightened here.

Our first stop was HPTDC The Chail Palace – a childhood favorite! The humble Palace holds its charm. The green lawn outside is a perfect spot for tea while sunbathing. The opulent interiors are full of artifacts of the bygone era. Time travel!

Time travel!

We had Hot Buttered Rum in the Royal Bar followed by lunch at the palace restaurant. The Fruit Cream & Saag Mutton were appetizing. The service was great. Lunch time is crowded as day visitors drop in. Plan your day/ time accordingly.

In the past, we have stayed in the Maharani Suite & in the log huts. The Maharani Suite, of course, was exceptional. We would love to return for another stay.

Our next stop was the Chail Cricket Ground. It is the highest cricket ground in the world, but we doubt regular matches are played here. It is inside a cantonment area; you’ve to fill in your details in a register to enter. & the moment you step inside the cantonment, smooth roads appear. The Cricket Ground, unfortunately, can be seen only from its gate.

Just so you know we’re not fibbing!
Rhododendron – synonymous with Himalayas…

On our way back to Mashobra, we spotted snowy peaks & rhododendrons. The Himalayas are our happy place! The drive to Theog & Chail had been appealing. Soulful music added to the allure!

The Last Morning

Morning scenes made our hearts grow fonder of Mashobra. Sultan came up to say a sad goodbye while Gabbar showed his anger by keeping his back towards us. I so miss these beautiful doggies… Sadly, Sultan died this February. Now, Bruce Lee gives company to Gabbar.

Wildflowers… Enid Blyton books would be full of their mention.

We drove back to Chandigarh stopping at Falcon Cafe Lounge, Panchkula for lunch. The lounge had a relaxed vibe. There was a birthday party going on but because it was a separate area, it did not trouble us.

The Arabic Hummus Chicken Sandwich, Juicy Chicken Burger, Paan Ice cream & The Great Chocolate Shake were good. The service was great too.

At the Chandigarh Railway Station, we returned our MyChoize vehicle & caught the Shatabdi to come back to Delhi NCR.

Maybe it was spring, maybe it was winter. If the weather hadn’t confused me enough already, the trees complicated the matter further…

Accommodation

When researching accommodation options for Mashobra, we were torn between Khanabadosh & Mahasu House. The latter was tried & tested by friends, & highly recommended, but the former had doggies! That clinched the deal for us.

Being frequent travelers, Khanabadosh was out of our budget, but Geetika was generous & gave us a discount; we adjusted some too. We knew then that we had made the right choice as things started falling in place.

Bird lovers, please help identify. Is it a Brown Thrasher?

All our interaction took place on email. Geetika was prompt & clear in her answers. She kept in touch with us till the day we traveled. On our actual travel day, we used Google Maps without any hassle to reach Khanabadosh.

Geetika’s home was a ground + 2 expansive yet cosy building made of stones, reminding you of the English countryside mansions you read about in childhood. A quick tour, a warm chai, & scores of conversations quickly made us feel at ease.

Of course, we were dying to meet the pooches – Gabbar & Sultan. What affectionate rascals they turned out to be! Gabbar, the naughty one, kept us regaled throughout with its antics. While Sultan taught us the meaning of love all over again.

Bird feeders! Geetika has made her home welcome not just for people, but for animals & birds too.

Over the next couple of days, Geetika gave us great ideas on where to go & what to eat.

Our post would be incomplete without a mention of Kalam Singh – the pocket-sized dynamite who fed us till we exploded, & still had a long face we did not eat enough. Isn’t that the feeling you’ve at home? Not for a moment we felt we were in a stranger’s house.

Nothing we say about Kalam Singh’s culinary skills (or managing skills) would do justice. We hogged on parathas, omelettes, chicken, fish, & myriad kinds of vegetables.

Sultan & Gabbar off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

If you like bird watching, you can keep an eye out in the garden of Khanabadosh around sunrise. We saw many little feathered creatures. The decor was outstanding. Geetika has painstakingly collected artifacts from her travels. These gave a richness to her home without ever seeming ‘too much’.

Shawls were kept here & there if you suddenly felt a chill. A bowl full of chocolates at the door ensured we gained a few pounds, as if Kalam Singh’s food were not enough.

Our room was comfortable with enough blankets & a heater. Khanabadosh is a home-stay in the truest sense. It is Geetika’s home & she has opened it to strangers. Moreover, Khanabadosh welcomes animals & birds too. Yes, it is pet-friendly!

Feathered things proving the saying – The early bird catches the worm.

We cannot wait to visit Khanabadosh again at its new location.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Chandigarh to Mashobra is 122 KMS & took us ~five hours with stopovers.
  2. Mashobra is barely 10 KMS away from Shimla yet has a completely different character. Instead of staying in the bustling Shimla city, make Mashobra your base. You can easily visit Chail, Fagu, Naldera, Shimla, Shoghi & Theog from here.
  3. Mashobra is a sleepy little town. Please do not expect ‘touristy’ activities here. Instead, expect a lot of calm & nature.
  4. If you like hiking/ walking & bird watching, then Mashobra is the place for you.
  5. Mashobra gets snowfall in winter. For the winter chill & snowy magic, go from October to March. But even during the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant.
  6. Mashobra can be reached via –
    1. Jubbarhatti airport, Shimla
    1. Kalka Railway Station
    1. Shimla bus stand
    1. Well connected by National Highway 5
  7. Please be prepared for patchy connectivity. Disconnect!
  8. Do not feed the wild animals & birds.
Linesmen at work!

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Beauty in Barrenness

There is such an emphasis on adornment. Cakes are expected to be decorated. Clothes are required to be embellished. Girls are supposed to be ornamented. Presentations are expected to be beautified.

Amidst all these trimmings, we forget about the innate beauty of people, of places, and of things. We do not, for a second, imagine there can be attractiveness in simplicity. In our estimation, a plain Jane cannot be beautiful.

Unless we garnish our dishes and make them look pretty, we are dissatisfied. We purchase knick – knacks to be kept around the house; these will, presumably, make our dwellings worthier.

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Emu in such an unlikely place…

When we are conditioned thus, it was exciting to find beauty in barrenness. We had had our eyes set on the Rann of Kutch for quite a while. The white salt desert was enticing. We found the miles of nothingness inviting.

But, going to the Rann of Kutch needed time, and we were not getting any holiday which was of more than three days. So, patiently, we waited. October threw up an opportunity and we found ourselves on the path to Gujarat.

Rail journeys have caught our fancy as we realize it is quite convenient to undertake them as long as we can book in advance. And, well, our travel planning is in ADVANCE! So we booked ourselves onto the Ahmedabad – New Delhi Rajdhani and sat back for a comfortable ride.

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This beautiful thing wanted a ride.

From Ahmedabad, it took us about four hours to reach Dasada, a hamlet on the edge of the Rann of Kutch. We had booked ourselves at Rann Riders, which turned out to be one of the best places we have stayed at. But, more on that later.

We cannot even begin to describe the beauty of the Rann. And, mind you, we were at the Little Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch is supposed to be grander and prettier. We went to the Little Rann for a sunset safari; everything they show in photographs and movies is cent per cent real.

For miles and kilometers and a few more miles, there was nothing except the parched land of the Rann, crusted white due to the salt deposits. This was immediately after the monsoon. We cannot imagine what the land would be like during summer.

IMG_0459
A Black-Shouldered Kite

At the far end was a lake, on which the Sun was slowly setting. A flight of flamingos brooded on the lake, wondering surely what we humans found so interesting in them. Or, perhaps, they wondered, how after destroying their natural habitats, humans create sanctuaries to ‘protect’ them.

No matter what the flamingos thought, they were a sight to behold. The curved beaks, the pink bodies, the slender legs- all proving, yet again, what a great artist the One above is.

Coming back to the Rann, the precise barrenness was what we found beautiful and calming. We are so used to chaos around us, and the need we feel to be constantly doing something, that these moments, and these spots, where time stands still, are rare.

IMG_0482
An international sales conference in progress

We felt at peace with ourselves. We felt one with nature. For our eyes, there was the Sun, mellowing down to a soothing yellow. There was the lake, shimmering against the rays of the Sun. There was the earth, cracked and white, and yet moist underneath.

There were shrubs, providing a splash of green in the somber setting. The only sound around us was the patter of the hooves of the wild asses running around. (The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary.) And, once in a while, when the flamingos took flight, their wings flapped to create a symphony.

The only smell we had was of the dry, salty earth. The only taste we had was the salt on our lips. And the only sensation we had was of pesky insects trying to bite us. But we felt complete. All our happy memories rushed back to us to make us smile.

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This one we know. We made friends with one in Jammu and Kashmir.

All our pain disappeared for that moment. And yet, we neither felt great joy nor great sorrow. We just felt peaceful.

The Rann wildlife was another aspect that caught our fancy. We could not imagine a landscape as arid as that supporting any kind of flora and fauna. But, surprise! God must have thought- let me make a few patches of earth unfit for human survival, but let me create a few gorgeous animals who will thrive in the same ecology. Good move God!

Among mammals, you can see the most gorgeous wild asses, nimble desert foxes, shy rabbits, and even more shy nilgais. We are not great at identifying birds but we had some help from our safari guide.

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The gorgeous Wild Ass. Not an iota of fear from the hoomans… It knew this was its turf!

You can easily spot ducks, flamingos, and francolins among many others. Of course, they are all wary of human beings, and will fly away the instant you step closer to them.

Lastly, our resort- Rann Riders- was a delight to stay at. We were in the midst of a lush green setting, making us wonder how such verdure could survive the harsh weather condition.

Acres of plants and trees, the names of which we would take a lifetime to find out, surrounded us. Playing hide and seek in these trees were a plethora of animals – dogs, cats, horses, ducks, peacocks, emus, monitor lizards- all living in harmony with each other and with us human beings.

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Flying flamingos… Ooh! Alliteration!!

Our dwelling was a little mud hut called ‘kooba’, a typical village house but with modern amenities. We woke up to the sounds of the animals and slept to the gentle hum of the air conditioner. Truly a step in the Eco-tourism direction!

We are all the more determined now to visit the Great Rann of Kutch, but it will have to wait, and also for the winter months. Even October smoldered here…

 

We suggest a four days, three nights itinerary to the Rann of Kutch and surrounding areas:

Day 1: Arrive in the morning at Ahmedabad. Take a cab to Dasada; you will arrive here by afternoon. Time permitting, take an evening safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Overnight at the Rann Riders.

Day 2: Take a morning safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Come back, refresh & head to Modhera & Patan. You can spend the day gaping at the Sun Temple in Modhera and the Rani Ki Vav in Patan. If your pocket allows, indulge in a Patola sari at Patan. Overnight at Rann Riders.

Day 3: After breakfast, checkout & head to Ahmedabad. Try to get to Agashiye for a typical Gujarati Thali. Spend the evening sightseeing through the Sabarmati Ashram & the Sabarmati Riverfront. Overnight at Four Points by Sheraton.

Day 4: Morning will be a great time to check out the Sarkhej Roja. By afternoon/ evening, prepare to leave Ahmedabad.

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