The train had pulled into Pathankot station and I wasn’t very sure where to go next.
Day 1: Khajjiar : The ‘Mini Switzerland’ (Oh no, not again!)
It was the 23rd of December and Delhi was in a festive mood. We bought some cookies, plum cakes and a few bottles of wine to be safely packed for celebrating Christmas and boarded our train to Pathankot from Gurgaon station. Our co-passengers were college kids from Kashmir, who were studying in Jaipur and were pretty excited as it was their first train journey. We chit-chatted for a bit and said our goodnights as the train sped through the northern plains.
It was 6.00 am as the train reached Pathankot. The sleepy town was waking up as we stepped out, still undecided on our destination. We took a shared auto to the bus stand and boarded a bus for Banikhet. There were many HRTC (Himachal Road Transport Corporation Buses) at Pathankot bus stand. December meant that many roads were closed due to snowfall; therefore our tentative plan was to go wherever the road takes us. The first bus that was leaving was for Banikhet, which is a small town before Chamba. We jumped in happily!
The bus started its uphill journey. A mixture of cold mountain air coupled with the adventure of not knowing where we were heading invigorated our spirits. When the bus made its mandatory stop, we had a hearty breakfast of fresh aloo paranthas and chai at a road-side dhaba. It was around 10 am when we reached Banikhet.
The locals told us that the road to Khajjiar (via Dalhousie) is closed and thus going there seemed out of question. The distance between Banikhet to Dalhousie is only 8-9 kms and from Dalhousie to Khajjiar is 22 kms. The alternative was that we had to go by a longer route to Chamba, and then get lucky to find a bus to Khajjiar (If that road was open). This route meant our distance was more than doubled; Banikhet to Chamba is 46 kms and from Chamba to Khajjiar is a further 22 kms.
While the locals weren’t sure if the road was open, we gave ourselves the benefit of doubt and boarded the next bus to Chamba. Although we were quite hungry after reaching the crowded bus stand, the sight of the full bus – Chamba to Khajjiar was reason enough to board it. It was around 130 – 2 pm and this was supposed to be the last bus of the day to Khajjiar. The bus left us some 4 kms before Khajjiar as the road ahead was closed due to snowfall. We managed to find a shared alto with 3 other tourists for Rs. 30 per person which took us to Khajjiar. As soon as the car started moving, we realized how cold it was.
Also read : Lessons of Life at Pangong in Winter
It felt like a dream, with the Dhauladhars on one side and thick pine forests on the other, and everything in a white landscape. The quaint hill station of Khajjiar beams in silence during winters with minimal tourists around and most shops/restaurants closed. As soon as we reached near the main meadow (the most famous part of Khajjiar), we saw signboards of ‘Switzerland of Himachal Pradesh’.
How Khajjiar came to be known as ‘Mini Switzerland’?
Mesmerized by the beauty, Vice Counselor and Head of Chancery of Switzerland in India, Mr. Willy T. Blazer, declared Khajjiar as ‘Mini Switzerland’ in 1992, thus making it a popular tourist destination and bringing overnight fame to Khajjiar.
It was almost 4 in the evening and we were happy to have made a nice decision to arrive here. As we already had made a long journey from Delhi, we decided to find a place to stay before venturing out for a long walk amidst the greens and whites of the grassland. Probably one of the most scenically located accommodation option in Khajjiar, Hotel HPTDC Devdar is located overlooking the grassland meadow with the small lake.
Yours truly, in his own style of budget travel, couldn’t have stayed in an expensive hotel, no matter how tired he was even after the 18 hour journey through various means of transportation.
We started walking towards the quieter side of Khajjiar to look for an economical place to spend the night in. As soon as we stepped out of the main square, we could feel the quietude hit us. It was serene beyond explanation and that is exactly why I am a big fan of off season travel. The devdhar forests were tranquil and there was an endless view of the snowy mountains through the forests.
There is also a Public Works Department (PWD) as well as a Forest Rest House (FRH) adjacent to the meadow. One needs to pre-book these to enjoy the luxury of staying in this unparalleled location (we tried our luck to convince the guard but couldn’t crack the deal).
We managed to find an economical hotel which was still open (we thanked our stars many times during the trip after having managed to find places which were open to tourists in the bitter cold). The room was almost freezing but had an exquisite view of the Dhauladhar Himalayas. The room had a balcony too! We soaked in the chill and decided to relax for a bit. It was around 5 pm when we stepped out for a walk toward the meadow of Khajjiar which also has the Khajjinag temple.
As we were walking from our hotel, what we saw was beyond imagination (the pictures say it all). The entire Dhauladhar range was a bathed in a shade of gold. It was a rich and incredibly gorgeous sunset (with a peeking moon rise) and it still lingers in the camera of my eyes. Our balcony had a prized view of the sunset and it also promised to be a fantastic morning in prospect!
The lake had almost dried and there were only a few tourists to be seen. The golden grass had a different charm as compared to the lush greenery during the summer months. Walking around the circular meadow with a lake ringed by a pristine forest – a rare combination to find, we felt so energetic and ecstatic. The temperature was easily around -10 degrees Celsius and with the sun now gone, it started to feel even more colder!
Khajjiar is a part of Kalatop Khajjiar Wildlife Sanctuary and is surrounded by thick pine and devdhar forests. There were a few dhabas around serving basic snacks, we had multiple cups of much needed chai and decided to go back to our hotel.
We decided to eat an early dinner and go back to our room. Rest of the evening was spent indoors and the room felt much cozier now. Maybe it was because of the delicious plum cake and Chenin Blanc that we were savouring! A walk to the farthest end of the meadow, near the cottages was pending for the next morning.
We woke up quite early and were all geared up to brave the cold. Spectacular colours of the morning were witnessed while we let the sun warm our bones. It felt much much better than yesterday and quite a lot warmer too. We had decided to spend some time walking around Khajjiar and leave for Chamba in the afternoon.
The Khajjinag temple was originally established in the 12th Century and was renovated in the 16th Century. It is a temple dedicated to ‘Nag Devta’ and has fine and intricate wood carvings. My feet almost froze when I had to take off my shoes to enter the temple. The Khajjinag temple is said to have been constructed by the king of Chamba and is dedicated to snake worship. It is located quite close to the Khajjiar Lake, near the few buildings which are rest houses and restaurants.
There’s a famous legend associated with Khajjinag Temple : Among the 4 nag devta temples that were formed by snakes on top of a mountain, Khajjinag is said to be the most powerful and locally revered. The lake is said to be very deep and the water never dries up, according to the locals. Pandava statues made of wood were installed in the temple in the 16th Century. There are many fabulous and ancient wood carvings in the Khajjinag temple.
Some locals had recommended us breakfast at a particular place. We were happy when they laid a table for us in the sunshine and served us delicious aloo paranthas and rajmah. A glass of chai felt perfect while marvelling at the spectacular scenery. There were a few guides asking if we wanted to try paragliding.
When we walked to the other side, some kids who were rabbit keepers were still around with their pretty snow white rabbits. It a popular activity for kids (Read family tourists) during summer season to get pictures clicked with these rabbits that are beautifully placed in wicker baskets of colourful flowers. We played with them for a while, clicked a few photographs of the charming HPTDC cottages surrounded by white snow and then left for our hotel to pick up the bags.
Check : Rustic Luxury in the Himalayas
It was a new day and a new destination was waiting to welcome us. Where did we go next? I shall link it to the next post whenever the heart decides to pen it down.