Retreats in the hills
Travel to Himachal Pradesh to experience the quaint world of its rest houses, says RAJNISH WATTAS.
At Banikhet, Dalhousie.
WHEN the world gets too much with me I just escape to the hills for spiritual rejuvenation. And my romance with remote rest houses started in childhood, when we children often accompanied father on his official tours. Most of the canal rest houses that we stayed at were well appointed. It was not unusual to find the rest house pantry still possessing some very fine English crockery and silverware. But the flush system was rather a rarity in the toilets, so the ubiquitous commode or the "thunder box" (as known in the colonial parlance) came to our rescue. Electricity, too, was not always available and one had to make do with hurricane lamps or just gaze at the starlit-sky in wonderment.
In more recent years, I have travelled extensively in Himachal Pradesh and taken every opportunity to stay in the quaint rest houses, which have a charm of their own, located amidst scenic settings. Some of them remain etched in the heart as memorable experiences.
I fondly recall, the rest house at Sarahan, located nearly 180 km from Shimla on the legendary Hindustan-Tibet road. On reaching there, after an arduous and long drive, the sight of the cottage-like rest house atop a landscaped hill, seemed most inviting. After checking our valid permits, chowkidar Phul Singh, was all courtesy and charm. He refreshed us with piping hot illaichi-chai served in the veranda of the rest house, which commanded an enchanting view of the snow-spangled Kinner-Kailash mountain range. Soon the veranda became our favourite place to sit and chat, as besides the view, it also had those large, antique lounge chairs the likes of which, one may now only see in some old railway retiring rooms or MES Inspection Bungalows. These chairs have long arm-rests, from whose undersides one can extend out another set of arms, to rest one's feet on or just balance a precarious chotta peg! They epitomise the very spirit of repose and warmth, which perhaps only a rest house has.
Another rest house that I would like to visit again is at Chail. It's a beautiful timber-framed construction with a sloping roof in iron sheets; it is on this on which you can hear the raindrops falling at night or the sudden "thud" of a monkey jump, startling you. We were lucky to have been allotted the VIP set with an attached lounge-cum-dining room, commanding a panoramic view of the deodar-clad hills especially at night, when they twinkle with the distant lights. Gian Chand the courteous chowkidar, makes such tasty allu-paranthas, served with achar; that we came back especially to have them on our way back from Shimla also.
The rest house at Sarahan near Bhimkali Temples.
Chowkidars can be both: kind or rogues; depending on your luck. And you have to usually "humour" them with oblique hints of a good tip or a bottle of rum. On our recent stay at the Kothi rest house on the Manali-Rohtang road amidst the most beautiful alpine meadows and snow-capped peaks the first jarring note in such Nature's paradise, came when the chowkidar just couldn't be found in spite of our valid permits and proper notice of arrival. Finally, when Dina Nath did materialise; he had a sob story to tell. His wife was "critically sick" almost dying and also there were no rations with him; as no officer ever complied with his requisitions. Initially, we were dejected and nearly "bought" his hard luck story; but a little questioning gave away his sheer malingering. "What's your wife suffering from?" asked my wife who works in a medical institute. "Maybe, I can have a look at her?" On hearing this, the pallor of his face turned yellow. And the entire story then changed like a good Bollywood script after intermission. Finally, we not only had a comfortable stay with great food, but also very useful tips for trekking and sightseeing.
Architecturally, one of the most beautiful rest houses that I know of in Himachal Pradesh, is at Chamba. This stone structure with sloping roofs, is located right on the bank of the Ravi river. At night, when all else is quiet, you can hear the tumult and the roar of river even inside the place! The huge dining hall has sepia-tinted, old pictures of majestic hill scenes and of Jawaharlal Nehru's historic visit to the town. The mix of local and colonial architecture of the rest house; and its beautiful gardens along with the river view makes one's stay there quite unforgettable.
Besides these rest houses there are many other good ones at Banikhet, Narkanda, Kumarsain, Khajjiar and Manali also. But it's extremely difficult to get accommodation there during the summer season, with the new policy of Himachal Pradesh Government.
By closing their doors to the timeless, weary, traveller, these rest houses will never to be the same again. And I presume that the Burra Sahib up there; would not be too happy either!
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