14th August 2015
Four of us my wife and I, Nikhil and Shivani had arrived at Chail, the previous night after driving around 360 kilometers from Amritsar on Nikhil’s car. We stayed at FRH Chail near Sidh baba temple four kilometers away from Chail. We had a nice time walking through the misty woods of Chail, Kali Ka Tibba and sidh baba temple.
with Hatu peak in our mind we drove to Kufri on the dark and misty forest road of Chail wildlife sanctuary in the afternoon. The route is dotted with many adventure resorts. Since we were bit late and Nikhil Shivani more interested in music, we did not stop anywhere on the beautiful route. We stopped for a while at Kufri for tea and snacks. For a change Kufri wasn’t as crowded as it usually is. There was neither any slush nor horse waste on the road. Instead road was newly tiled. Shops looked cleaner and better. It was misty and romantic.
From Kufri we drove to Narkanda after crossing Fagu, Theog and Matiana. By the time we reached Narkanda, it was almost evening and we decided to leave Hatu peak to our return leg. We tried finding suitable accommodation at Narkanda but again due to 15th and 16th August being holiday, Saturday and Sunday, everyone was asking way more price than we had expected. The PWD Chowkidar at Narkanda suggested us to try PWD Kumarsain (17 km) and/or PWD Thanedar.
We decided to try Thanedar first. The road to Thanedar was narrow but scenic. By now It was pitch dark and everyone in the car became somber. On the way we checked few homestays and a resort near Tani Jubbar lake. The tariff which they quoted was again way far above our budget. We kept on and reached PWD rest house Thanedar. The Chowkidar at the rest house told us that all the rooms were booked and advised us to try PWD rest house Kotgarh.
On the way we saw a board mentioning hotel. We tried calling but there was nobody. Soon a young man arrived and showed us few rooms which looked dirty, unused. Insects being the majority of residents. The view from the windows, however, was fantastic. Soon another tall, well built gentleman arrived. He told us that he has recently bought the hotel and was in the process of starting operations soon.
He rang up JE at PWD rest house Kotgarh and told him to arrange two rooms for ‘his guests’. The rooms got booked instantaneously. We were amazed at the manner the gentleman, Ranvir Mehta, helped us. We thanked Mr Mehta and were off to Kotgarh. It was now around 10pm and still 8 more kilometers to go. Most of the people in the hills go to sleep early. There was no body on the road to help us find the rest house. The road was very very narrow and steep. There was hardly any space for another vehicle.
After few kilometers, the road became more of a pedestrian path. It became very steep descend as well. We became doubtful whether our car could pass through it. At one point I asked Nikhil to wait and went walking in search of rest house. Found the place sooner than expected. While the Chowkidar unlocked the main entrance I hurried back on the steep road huffing, puffing and out of breath. Soon we were inside our rooms. Rooms were large and well ventilated but not as good as we found at FRH Chail.
We hadn’t eaten properly after breakfast at Chail. It was 10.30pm and Chowkidar told us that he could cook rice pulao only and also that he doesn’t have any other provisions. On our probing he admitted of having nutri but was not very willing to cook at that late time. Nikhil in the meanwhile offered to cook if the Chowkidar allowed him so. He had to agree. Soon Nikhil was inside the large kitchen cooking dry nutri while Chowkidar cooked rice pulao and nutri with gravy. Dinner was ready by 11.30pm. It was simple but good. We relished it a lot. After the dinner we chit chatted for a while and called it a day.
The morning at FRH Kotgarh was unique. The windows of the room were large and opened into a lawn overlooking apple orchards. The apples were ripe and ready to be plucked. We could see many varieties of apples and blooming flowers of varied colors right through our window. It was perhaps first time that we were in this kind of atmosphere. Chowkidar brought tea right at 8 am as he had promised last night. After tea I went walking around the rest house, clicked pictures. I saw some people chatting loudly from a nearby orchard. On closer look I found some city folks plucking apples from the orchard with lot of excitement.
I heard a voice calling me to come up at a vantage point and click pictures. I went up on the roof and met an old young man who greeted me with a big smile and a grand handshake. I felt as if bones of my hand would break in his strong grip. The man was 84 years old Rattan Dass. He has seen Kotgarh change from an army camp to a bustling apple country. He told me that he has a big family, three sons, one of them died of a heart attack at a young age after retirement from army. It was surprising to know a man who had been living in this healthy environment since childhood and then in army, die of heart attack so young.
Despite this Rattan Dass looked very positive, strong and lively. He told me many things about Kotgarh. He pointed finger towards a building and told and me that that used to be a court. The area behind the building used to be an army line and that the area where we were standing had an army camp and was still called chhavni (Camp). The old man bade goodbye and left, but not before shaking hand with iron grip. I wonder what his hand shake would have been in younger years. I suppose most people would have dreaded shaking hand with him as he would have broken many a bones. I was told, later, that Mr Dass does most of his work himself and is not dependant on others. What a man!
After a wonderful encounter with old young man I walked to a nearby lane and into an orchard. There, I saw two young girls washing clothes. On eye contact, the girls smiled and asked me where I was from and what I was looking for. After hearing from me the girls told me that they were studying in 12th and graduation respectively and that the younger one was in 12th while the elder was doing graduation from Solan. They told me to pluck apples from their orchard. I told them that my wife is fond of orchards and would love to pluck apples. I promised them to be back with her soon.
It was 10am now, time for breakfast. Chowkidar asked us for breakfast. We waited for Nikhil and Shivani for sometime and then ate breakfast comprising aloo ka paratha, butter, pickle and tea. After packing luggage in the car and dropping message we went exploring the area. As promised we walked to the nearby lane and into the orchard of those sweet girls. The girls were still there washing clothes. On being asked for permission to pluck apples, the elder girl got up and plucked lapful of apples and gave to my wife.
From the orchard we went walking to nearby school and church. The walk was through a beautiful orchard. Near the church we were greeted by a very gracious lady Anita, who was a teacher and wore a sweet smile. She directed a man to open the gates of the church for us and told us not to leave before having tea with them. The man opened the gates of around 150 years old church built with local wood and material and still in great shape. He also showed us an old piano which was still in use. The atmosphere inside the church was very peaceful and soothing.
After spending some time in the church we came out and joined a group which was gathered in veranda of an old building which the old young man had described as court, and which was now the residence of current priest. We were greeted by everyone in the group. It was Sunday, 15th August, the 68th independence day of our country. They were gathered for prayers and distributing sweets. We were also offered some sweets. After a little while Nikhil and Shivani joined too. We sang few songs and talked at length about the people and the area. The people of the area are very beautiful, open hearted and welcoming. Woman seems to enjoy equal respect.
Little after I went inside a big orchards and saw hundreds of apple trees spread all over. There was a pathway that lead to beautiful farm house and godown. The entire path was lined up with overloaded ripe apples covered with hail nets and full bloom flowers of various shades and colors. The walk was a memorable one, infect a dream come true.
We took leave from the lovely group at Kotgarh and drove to Tani Jubbar Lake. The lake and the area looked very beautiful in daylight. The same looked dreadful in the night. We had nice time walking, resting and clicking pictures around the lake. From the lake we drove towards Thanedar. The road to Thanedar was lined with apple orchards. The apples were so close that one need not get down from the car to pluck them. We, anyhow, parked the car on one side of the road and plucked few. So the saying came true for us that day, we not only plucked the apples but ate them too.
While surfing the net to know more about Satyanand Stokes, I came to know that he was a son of a very wealthy American businessman and came to india in 1904 at the age of 22 to work at a leper colony situated at Subathu (Shimla) as he felt more joy in serving others than making money. In 1912 he married a local woman, purchased a big chunk of land and settled down in the area. In 1916, he brought a new strain of apples developed at Louisiana (USA) as being suitable to the Shimla hills and began cultivating them on his farm.
In 1932, he converted to Hinduism and became active in India’s freedom struggle for independence. Stokes had the rare honour of being the only American to become a member of the AICC (Indian National Congress) along with Lala Lajpat Rai, he represented Punjab. He was jailed for sedition and promoting hatred against the British government in 1921, becoming the only American to become a political prisoner of Great Britain in the freedom struggle.
Soon we reached Thanedar market. On the way we met Ranvir Mehta, the man who had helped us book PWD rest house at Kotgarh. Thanked him from core of our heart and moved down to the market. In the market we hanedar aad nice veg momos. The chutney served with momos was awesome. I wanted to walk up to the Stoke temple but the group was not in the mood to walk. So leaving the temple aside and a cup of tea later we drove down to Bithal.
These two days have been amazing and different. We were travelling first time with another couple and that too half of our age. Also we had a broad idea of where we were heading but not very sure of where we were going, what we would be doing and what was our agenda. Certainly apple country Kotgarh, Thanedar and Tani Jubber were never on our list.
We were sure of misty woods at Chail in the monsoons and had a great time there but we never thought we would be among acres and acres of ripe apple orchards in the apple country and have a time of our life!!!