My niece Thea has always been enamoured by stories of my road trips to the Himalayas. Right from the time when she was three years old , I have cast aside conventional storybooks in favour of adventurous accounts of my trips to these majestic mountains, often telling her about the food and my friends in the region. In fact, her first look at snow was through a video call I made to her while on a road trip in Kashmir a few winters ago. Thanks to Peppa Pig, her first reaction was “Are you going to build a snowman?”
The pandemic put paid to my plans to take her for a road trip when she turned five and consequently lockdowns and virus manifestations slaughtered successive plans through the spring and summer of last year. Finally, a window opened when winter had already come, and we decided to not let the opportunity pass.
The two places I had in mind were Thanedar and Sangla in Himachal Pradesh. But the temperature would be well below freezing, especially at Sangla. And Thea being a Bombay girl, I was a bit apprehensive because I didn’t want her to have a cold and miserable first experience of the Himalayas.
The words of my guide when we were trudging up a mountain during heavy snowfall in Chamonix came to my rescue. She had sagely said, “There is no bad weather, only inadequate gear.” So, Thea and I made a trip to Decathlon and on the way there I gave her the lowdown on layering up and its importance. Once there, we shopped for heat retaining inners, a lightweight fleece and a heavy-duty down jacket and also waterproof, ankle-high trekking shoes, gloves, a beanie, a muffler and sunglasses.
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With all this gear in tow, we arrived at Thanedar where the sun was shining and the temperature was hovering around five degrees Celsius. This little perched hamlet that is 80km from Shimla and 20km from Narkanda, is one of my favourite places in the Himalaya. It is here that Samuel Stokes, an American from Philadelphia, who came to the region in the early part of the 20th century, fell in love with the people and the land and never went back. He went down in history as the man who introduced the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious strain of apples to Thanedar. Today, the apples that grow in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Bhutan are the progeny of the saplings that he planted here in Thanedar.
During the day we spent here, staying at the lovely Banjara Orchard Retreat, Thea’s introduction to the hills was by way of a 3.5-km hike from Saroga to Thanedar through forests of sal and deodar. The trek started off on a tarmac road and then progressed to narrow trails hugging hillsides often with trees fallen across. These had to be climbed over and she did so with aplomb. Her first encounter with snow was in the higher reaches of this trek where the first snows, fallen a week ago, had not yet melted. With her walking stick for extra support, I guided her in the techniques to extract maximum traction on slippery snowy slopes and soon she was taking them in her stride.
During the course of the walk, my talk about layering up also paid in practicality because as the sun became stronger and body heat went up, she dumped her down jacket in her backpack at the 2-km marker, followed by the fleece at 3km.
On the five-hour (145km) drive from Thanedar to Sangla, mostly along the Sutlej River, we took a pit stop at Pappu’s Dhaba at the 111-km mark at Tapri. I have stopped here often and besides the basic but tasty food, it is Pappu’s service and courtesy that has made this place my preferred halt. The ‘khaana’ is Rs. 100 and is served in a thali. The food is unlimited and served hot and fresh. Pappu himself fastidiously floats from table to table ensuring everyone is cared for and content. Thea declared it as her best mountain dhaba meal ever–so what if it was only her first mountain dhaba meal ever?
Sangla, sitting in the Baspa Valley in the Kinnaur district at an altitude of 9,000 feet, was shivering at -6 degrees Celsius when we arrived and this is where it could become worrisome. But I fretted for nothing because the Banjara Retreat where we were staying had electric blankets and bukharis to keep the indoors temperature toasty.
Thea though ditched the cosy confines of the wood-and-stone lodge in favour of a sunset walk with the local bhutia dog with whom she’d promptly forged a fast friendship.
The next morning, the temperature had dropped to -11 degrees when we drove out to Rakchham, 10km away. We crossed the bridge resplendent with colourful prayer flags over the Baspa River and found the road snowed out. Thanks to my car’s 4×4 capability, we could continue up this road and that led to an unblemished field of fresh snow. This meadow sat ringed by Christmas trees and with staggeringly high snow-clad massifs on either side. Fluffy white clouds decorated the deep blue sky with the sun cheekily peeping out from behind them. That morning was filled with friendly snowball fights – cheering loudly at direct hits to the face, trudging through knee-deep snow, sitting on an exposed rock, munching on chicken and cheese sandwiches and swigging hot chocolate, and yes, building a snowman.
Any apprehension I had about her not being able to handle the cold dissipated on that snowfield. Good gear and a genuine fondness for the outdoors reduced the bone-chilling cold to a trifle. In fact, on our way back, when we stopped in Chandigarh to have lunch with my old friend Teddy Singh and his son Hari Singh, a T-shirt clad Thea was disdainfully commenting on how hot it was in Chandigarh, never mind that she was flanked by Teddy and Hari both bundled in their fleeces.
It isn’t true I did not have minor misgivings about embarking on a trip like this with a seven-year-old who has never experienced temperatures below 15 degrees Celsius or winding roads and high altitudes. But good planning and a few precautions make this trip quite easy to execute.
First of all, plan short drives no longer than six hours and factor in a leg stretch and/or refreshment break every two hours.
It is fascinating how time will fly for a child if their choice of music is playing. So, take some time out before starting the drive and curate a playlist together.
Sometimes, kids who are prone to motion sickness can feel better sitting on the front passenger seat. But do remember to turn off the passenger side airbag if your car has that option when the child is seated in the front.
Start early, reach well within daylight hours and don’t plan your trip such that every day is a driving day.
Never let a child clamber up a glacier or step onto a frozen water body unless it is designated as safe for walking because the ice is thick enough.
Also, sudden snowfalls, landslides and power outages are all possibilities. Take it in your stride and encourage children to treat it as a heaven-sent opportunity to spend even more time in the mountains.
For this trip, I broke the journey at Shimla on the way up and Theog on the way back. We stayed at Ballyhack Cottage and Daafi House respectively. Both properties are managed by Vista Rooms (www.vistarooms.com)
In Thanedar and Sangla we stayed at The Banjara Orchard Retreat and Banjara Camps and Retreat respectively. Both are Banjara properties (www.banjaracamps.com)
At Sangla though, there is no running water and hot water is supplied in buckets (since the water freezes in the pipes).
All the above properties have electric blankets which mean that the nights will be toasty and comfortable irrespective of the weather outside.