Saturday morning and we were out of Delhi, soaking in the morning light. The Okhla Subzi Mandi abuzz in all its glory, a train chugging and crossing over the Red Fort’s ramparts. Freedom!
Conversations spanned feminism (an obvious topic where I am there), impending general elections, the experience of being a lady driver on an Indian highway (well, this one’s a whole different topic now!), PILs and RTIs, the upcoming trip to ‘Heaven on earth’ a.k.a Kashmir, and of course our stop for breakfast. Early morning drives almost always make one ravenous, don’t they? Guilt-laden aloo pooris and relatively guilt-free idlis, and of course tea at a roadside stop!
Chandigarh always works for me. A peaceful town, bold and audacious people, uncluttered streets, an unmistakable greenery, and of course the booze! Something inside me was already jumping with joy. Crossing the cantonment has its air – a challan for over-speeding at 70 in a 65 km/hr zone added to the sense of mischief we share on drives.
Following Google Maps out of the Chandigarh traffic, we hit the Shimla route. Turning left onto NH22, the road almost immediately opened out to sights that promised rewards. Tantalizingly, it took us farther away from the city as the clouds playing the perfect companions, created just the right balance of shade and sun.
Pristine blue mountains in the distance against a grey sky – I held my breath. Moments later I had broken into a wild chatter of exhilaration – a familiar attack of insanity when I am approaching the mountains. What met our eyes next wasn’t something we had come expecting in our ‘short’ break. A digital signboard welcomed us onto the magnificent Himalayan Expressway. I remember the thought crossing my mind – this is what royalty must feel like!
The Himalayan Expressway has a four-lane construction which noticeably pits the best of technology against a bewitching backdrop. Though this reduces the drive time between Shimla and Chandigarh by not more than an hour, bypassing the congested roads of Kalka and Pinjore, the Himalayan Expressway leaves you clamoring for more of the sheer luxury of the stretch and the rolling landscapes in the distance. As we gobbled up the miles, I stared in awe at the massive hills that had been blasted through to create passages through and held back bravely by mesh that looked rugged enough and yet didn’t take away from the dignity of the mountain.
It was pure ecstasy to drive that stretch, each bend revealing many more such intriguing passages cut through. Reminiscing now, I do not recall a better constructed hill road in north India. I have always loved my journeys better than the destinations. But this stretch added another level to that idea!
It took us a good kilometer or so to deal with our exhilaration at the stretch’s majestic presence ahead of us! And then almost right after those 10 wonder-struck kilometers, the Himalayan Expressway ended ever so abruptly at Parwanoo. But in those few kilometers, Jaypee has packed in a punch all right.
The road up to Barog is sure to evoke passion in you, particularly when it rains on the hilltop next to the road you are driving on. An experience inexpressible! It almost challenged us to reach out and feel the drops and yet stayed just playfully out of reach. Blackish skies against specks of blue.
Passing up the Timber Trail point (offers a cable car up to a nearby peak), crossing the numerous tunnels of the Kalka-Shimla toy train on the way, we reached the point where we needed to decide. Dagshahi, a quaint colonial-era cantonment town, which may be reached by taking a road up from Barog, was part of our plan. But it had started to rain. Not sure of the road quality ahead, we decided to return for this little treat next time.
It was evening. It was drizzling. The golden hour fuels passion inadvertently. Those delectable bhuttas by the roadside we had noticed earlier at comfortable intervals all along the way up to Barog could be all but missed. Passing by a few vendors crowded by impatient customers against strangely patient surroundings, we scanned till we found that lone boy selling his wares against a relatively quiet meander in the road. Tall trees framed his open shop. He was seated on the ridge of a cliff that plunged intriguingly. Buying two soft bhuttas, and requesting him to lather it up with lemon and salt, we hung around for a while, enjoying the waning sun and the melting flavour on our lips. Bhuttas make me nostalgic – remind me of the ones I had with my school friends on rainy days wearing shoes that squished when we walked.
Revving up, we were almost at the bottom of the hilly stretch again. I soaked in every gust of the moist winds that broke through our car, wishing myself to get drenched. It was raining in the distance yet again. Still at an elevation, we saw the imposing Expressway below. It looked unreal snaking through the mountains unfaltering against menacing grey skies. Just then, as we turned a bend, we gaped at what lay in front of us. The Himalayan Expressway rambles along the Ghagghar river, painting a perfect synergy. The Kaushalaya dam reservoir and its peaceful presence reflecting the ominous skies in the distance, against the impressive Expressway, made an imposing sight. We stopped.
Life had been redeemed.