Mountain Walking

Himalayan Homecoming: Life in the Fast Lane

In the year 2000, after spending my entire life growing up in the Shimla hills, I had headed out into the “big world out there” to take a shot at better opportunities and a bright future. And it so happened that I ended up joining graduation college in Hassan, which was approximately as far from the southern end of India as Shimla was from the northern end. This meant that I had to spend almost 10 months in the plains, away from my mountain home. As soon as vacations would start, I would rush back home at the earliest – just that in my case the “rush” meant a 4 hour bus journey from Hassan to Bengaluru and then a gruelling 42 hour train journey just to reach Delhi. In spite of the tiredness from the train journey, I knew that each and every minute of the vacation counted as I would get to spend just a month in the mountains. And so, being fully aware of the hardships of undertaking such a hectic journey at a stretch, I would immediately take a bus to Shimla (entailing another 9 hours of journey).

The first view of the hills would appear around Pinjore and here I would get my first feel of being close to home. But Kalka (ahead of Pinjore on the highway) had real narrow and clogged roads dotted by old houses on either side of the “highway”. This would cause frequent traffic jams and if these jams extended for too long, the excitement of hitting the hills at the earliest would cause some increased impatience in me. The roads till Kalka were all flat with a few turns but no gradients. At the end of the Kalka market, the road to Shimla would take a right turn and then a left and then there would be an immediate change – one would be out into the open and the first of a non-ending series of slopes and twisty turns would start. The hilly region would also start but till one passed the industrial town of Parwaano, concrete jungles were more widespread than their natural counterparts.

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Such are the sights that refresh the body and soul, on the Chandigarh Shimla National Highway 22 near Solan, Himachal Pradesh; Photo: Ameen Shaikh, March 2016

A few turns above Parwanoo and the entire hustle bustle would be gone by. The specially selected window seat on the right side of the bus would provide nice views from a good sitting height. The bus travelling at moderate speeds in this hilly terrain would give me ample time to see the open roads curling away ahead, and more of hills, trees, bushes, flowers and grass to enjoy rather than concrete structures. The bus would normally stop at one of the numerous road-side dhabas between Jabli and Dharampur for a food break. And it is here that I would get the first chance to get down and experience my hills after the 5 month stint away. The moment I would get down from the bus, I would just stretch, spread my arms wide open and take a deep breath – “Aah… NOW I’m back home… The freshness of the air is intoxicating…”

Even after moving to and settling down in Pune, my innate connection with the mountains always kept calling me back and I visited Shimla and the higher mountains several times. But in the year 2014, while travelling in a car (life had given me the luxury to skip the atrocities of bus travel) I came across a new change in the Chandigarh Shimla Highway of yesteryears – The Himalayan Expresssway had come into existence. This new route entirely skipped Pinjore, Kalka and Parwaano. The fast pace of city life normally has the associated thought process of reaching the destination as fast as possible – and this suddenly made me feel that the time spent at Pinjore and Kalka in traffic in earlier years was a complete waste of time. This Expressway had huge retaining walls along the hill sides and bridges and although some of the turns were really tight, this road was flat, and fast. The Expressway directly rejoined the old highway near Timber Trail Resorts and then the regular old highway started with its standard twists and turns and double lane roads. And I was back to enjoying the open roads, seeing more of hills, trees, bushes, flowers and grass than concrete structures – but with lower seating position and at faster speeds. And then I carried out the regular routine of stopping at some roadside dhaba (of our choice), getting down, stretching, spreading the arms wide open, taking in a deep breath and uttering again – “Aah… This really IS home”

By the time I returned to the area in December 2015, further development initiatives had started in the form of Four-Laning of the Chandigarh Shimla highway. So as soon as we came out of The Himalayan Expressway at Timber Trail Resorts, I was alarmed by the sights of huge earthmoving equipment cutting into the hills. Huge steel barricades all along the side of road had caused the highway to become too narrow.

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Receded tree lines and mountains cut away on the Chandigarh Shimla National Highway 22 near Dagshai, Himachal Pradesh; Photo: Sanjay Mukherjee, March 2016

This time round, there was no time to enjoy whatever was remaining of the open roads, hills, trees, bushes, flowers and grass – I was more worried about the speeding oncoming vehicles ramming into us at some old untouched sharp narrow turn on the highway. Driving in the mountains is a special skill-set and I was not very sure of the mountain driving instincts of the drivers of the oncoming vehicles. A few turns above Dharampur, I saw a very grim sight. An erstwhile wide left handed turn had turned into one of the narrow patches of the highway bordered by the steel barricades. And here, a fully geared biker riding in a group had rammed head-on into a car. The impact was so severe that the middle of the front of car had all gone inside. The biker was lying unconscious in full gear with the helmet on. A small fleet of vehicles had already stopped and the biker’s fellow riders and other good Samaritans were trying to revive him. A few kms further ahead, we crossed a wailing ambulance rushing down at an even faster speed. It seemed as if the ambulance guy was out to pick up a few victims of his own en-route to the scene of the accident. All this was really disturbing and it wasn’t until we crossed Solan that the “I’m back home” vibe cautiously came back to me.

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A lone survivor tree watches the remains of its friends on the Solan Bypass section of the Chandigarh Shimla National Highway 22 near Solan, Himachal Pradesh; Photo: Ameen Shaikh, March 2016

March 2016 brought even more surprises. I was dumb-struck by the amount of environmental carnage all over. Now the roads were WIDE, but most of the hills, trees, bushes, grass that I used to cherish earlier were all gone. Quite a lot of the hills (and trees on them) were now cut away to such a great extent that new patches were being made either above or below the old highway. Landfills and huge retaining walls on the gorge side of the highway were being put up to clear away the twists and turns and reduce the gradient. This was really disheartening for me as I used to love the drives in the hills with the frequent gear-shifting performance modes on all the twists and turns and the gradient. This new “development” on the highway also caused traffic to stop once in a while, and here I saw the “Speed” mania all over – Freshly fallen trees were being cut down into small logs using power saws. This was the new avatar of the “Need for Speed” – Speed up cutting of trees, speed up clearing of roads, speed up travel time to Shimla, speed up life, speed up the world… As I was embroiled in all this mayhem around me, I wasn’t too shocked when the normal vibe I used to get in this region changed to “Hmmm…. Is THIS home?”

This latest experience with all the risks to life on The Himalayan Expressway and the under-construction four-lane highway made me think – does one go to the mountains nowadays to maintain the speed of their city life, quickly get done with the trip and come back… Or slow down and reconnect with the roots? Well I realized that I fortunately belonged to the latter breed. And for the likes of us who are in no hurry to reach our destinations (or other places beyond), I’m sure the Kalka Shimla Railway (UNESCO World Heritage Site) seems to be the best option. The toy train takes a leisurely 5 – 6 hours to reach Shimla. It runs on the same tracks as 120 years ago, which means that oblivious of the “development” elsewhere in the region, the hills, trees, bushes, grass are all the same. And then one has the additional benefit of 103 tunnels to rekindle the child inside you, the hooting horn of the small locomotive engine, the quaint little railway stations en-route, arched bridges. As the train slowly climbs around the hills into Shimla, one has enough time to settle down into the relaxation mode necessary to enjoy the mountains. And so, while this mode of homecoming transport ensures that I get my “Aah… NOW I’m back home… The freshness of the air is intoxicating…” moments at every railway station on the way, for a lot of you readers out there it saves you the hassle of motion sickness associated with high speed scary road travel…

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Catching the colourful coaches of The Kalka-Shimla Railway train over one of the numerous arched bridges on this UNESCO World Heritage site; Photo: Ameen Shaikh, July 2014


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