Musings from the new Home : Winter in Kullu Valley

As regular readers of this blog, you would know that I have shifted (along-with my partner) to Kullu Valley. This development has an interesting story and came about after spending a memorable 5 months at Yuthok Homestay in Kullu Valley. We ended up staying in Manali for a week to get used to a life of normal travel again. After that we boarded a Volvo Bus to Delhi and when it was announced that there was no mandatory test required for entering Ladakh by flight, we booked (on 23 September) a one way flight to Leh for 6 October. The return flights were shown to be quite expensive and we thought of keeping it flexible and then see if we wanted to return by road or by flight. Little did we know that even before September ended, a thought had given birth to an idea – a dream of living in Kullu Valley.

Even though we stayed in Raison, Kullu Valley for 5 months – we had never ever thought of shifting here (or anywhere else) for good. The semi-nomadic style of being able to live for a few months in any place we wanted did feel very appealing but after having stayed out of the rented Delhi home for almost 1.5 years, and paying the rent and salaries was too much. It was as if the stars had aligned when our friends were also keen on moving to a better place in the nearby area of South Delhi. When all four of us discussed this possibility; it resulted in a mutual decision of giving the landlady a notice of 1 month and that we would empty the Delhi home by 31 October.

Of course, none of us had even looked at a home yet and it was a bit easier with regards to home searching in Delhi with brokers around. The real struggle would start when we had to go home searching in Kullu Valley. I began by calling a few homestay owners in the 10-15 kms stretch from Bandrol to Katrain because that is where we were keen to live. We were not keen to live on the Naggar side of the road because that was where the outsiders of the valley lived and also it would be too cold for the winter. A few locals were encouraging and asked me to meet them when we came to Kullu Valley; the common consensus was that we would only find a home we liked if we found it ourself rather than hoping for divine intervention.

We went to Leh and were surprised to see it packed with tourists even in mid-October. It was a lucky journey when we were able to make it to Manali by a shared taxi from Leh on 15th October. It snowed on the high passes in the evening and the Manali-Leh road was promptly closed for vehicular traffic. Our aim was to find and finalise a home in 10-12 days and then head to Delhi so that we could empty the Delhi home. Thakur bhai (from Yuthok) had arranged our stay at his relatives homestay that was located adjacent to the road in the centre of Kullu and Manali. He was correct in figuring that a conveniently located home would enable us to explore more options. We started going and seeing prospective homes and finally after a week had shortlisted 2-3 options. The kindness of the owner triumphed over everything else and we finalised a 2nd floor home located in an orchard – conveniently located just a minute away from the NH3 in Dobhi Village, Kullu Valley.

7 November : Autumn feels, the trees had begun to shed their leaves and the wind was piercing cold everyday; as if it was preparing us for the colder winter. The skies were a shade of dark blue and the days were nice and crisp. The sunshine felt nice but the time of sunrise started to shift. There was a massive temperature change from the plains to Kullu Valley in the first week of November. The diwali pollution had got me in trouble in Jaipur/Delhi and the sudden cold after reaching Kullu Valley in the night caused a troublesome chest congestion that would only go after a few weeks. The house had been properly cleaned and we just had to come and start living. Of course, to make it feel like home we were to set it up and hang paintings on the walls. We had carried some paintings with us and got lucky when the electrician who came to fit the television agreed to drill the holes for the paintings. Since it was a brand new home and we were the first people to actually live in it – we were not keen on hammering the nails since all it would do is damage the paint on the walls.

Home in Dobhi, Kullu Valley

Online e-commerce had done well with all the companies delivering products and groceries in Kullu Valley as we had experienced last year in the lockdown. It made sense to create an order for basic necessities so that we would have a ready supply of groceries even before we reached. Basically, when we got to our home, a package with tea leaves, sugar, pasta, poha, oil was already there and we had carried the rest of the necessities like wheat flour, masalas, grains and pulses with us in the car in a small package. It only added to our happiness quotient when we saw that the kitchen was well stocked with utensils, casseroles, plates, gas connection with a cylinder, and all the other necessary accessories one might need. We had also carried a variety of teas; like Darjeeling tea, green tea, nettle tea, bergamot tea, and other local herbal teas procured from Uttarakhand.

Everyday troubles when you live in the mountains

Finding a home to live in Kullu Valley was difficult alright, but what seemed even more difficult was managing the workload. The 3 meals have to be cooked, the utensils have to be scrubbed clean (did I mention the freezing water), the house has to be made in order. Every little detail had been taken care of in the 3 bedroom home; viz. mattresses, bedsheets, quilts, sofa set, chairs and tables, bed-side tables, utensils, pots, pans and boxes in the kitchen, mosquito nets on the windows and doors. Our kind homeowner had even set the home with carpets and bed runners, extra bedsheets and even towels. We were floored by their gesture and ultimately ended up returning the carpets and bed runners (we had carried our own), the extra bedsheets and the towels. It is a testament to the kindness of these local Kullvi folks that they end up doing so much for strangers; even though they are not obligated to do so.

The sun rises from behind the mountains opposite to our home and directly hits the bedroom at about 815 am. Only when the sun lights up the room, do I rush to get up from the bed and quickly wear the jackets to start making the tea. Winter months mean there is less availability of cow milk and we make regular enquiries with the locals for 1 litre of fresh cow milk everyday. The first few days we take the easy way out by buying the 1 litre milk tetra packs. The kitchen feels quite cold and my hands freeze when I wash the ginger and then grate it with the cheese grater. It takes 15 odd minutes for the tea to be made and that is enough time for the kettle to warm up the drinking water and set up the table with biscuits/accompaniments for chai. Good morning tea is the pre-requisite for a nice day and I take extra effort in ensuring it always turns out good.

Chilling in Manali (as locals)

Even though the plant nursery guy doesn’t recommend buying money plants since there is every likelihood of them not surviving the cold; we buy a couple of money plants and also get a few succulents planted in earthen pots. The aim is to just feel that there is a bit of life around us. Thankfully, our friends are still at Yuthok Homestay when we arrive here and they come every few days so that we have a bit of non-fussy social life without making an effort. Once or twice, we go to Manali for live music and beer at Johnson’s Café and spend a nice Sunday afternoon at Martin’s in Shanag. It is nice to head to these places for a change.

Even though the sun is strong and shining in the balcony and we sometimes drink chai while soaking in the sunshine, the chilly wind would soon ensure that it became rare to sit peacefully in the outdoors for tea. Breakfast preparations would be simple and quick and it would usually be poha, upma or seviyan. We would take utmost care to use as less utensils as possible and would mostly eat breakfast from the pan itself (if practically possible). The wooden roof in our room traps the warmth of the sun and makes it nice and cosy. It is soon work time and we work on our respective laptops; the third room has been converted into a work room with a study table (and the storage cabinets serve a very useful purpose for ‘Indilocal.’

We would try to keep a very simple menu for lunch in the form of either dall or some vegetable to be eaten with rice or roti. I was in charge of figuring and planning the lunch and barring a few hits and misses we managed well. Making rotis was a big challenge and it was soon decided that the best idea was to eat rice for lunch and occasionally go to the nearby dhabas / restaurants / eateries whenever we missed roti too much. We have plenty of options with regards to eateries within our walking distance. The sun would shift to the big balcony at lunch time and if the wind was in control, we would try to enjoy lunch in the abundant sunshine. Post lunch, we tried to go for a customary 30 minute walk/stroll while the sun was still out. Evening time after 5 pm meant a rousing cold wind and we would have to make sure to wear an extra jacket and cover our head with a cap.

Thankfully we had a kettle because it was almost necessary to drink warm water all the time. The sun would go behind the mountain at about 330 pm; and the funny part was that there would be abundant sunshine till 430 pm only 10 minutes walk from our home. Life here felt like a perfect mix of urban and rural; we had the highway if we wanted to go anywhere to Kullu or Manali or we could just go in the big balcony on the other side of the house and be blissfully away from civilisation. Professional work would always get done like it does; evening tea making was a point of debate and although we would want to drink it – the fact that we had only 1 tea pot meant someone had to wash it! Sometimes, we would bicker and fight and tell each other ‘It’s your turn, it’s your turn,’ because the tea pot had to be cleaned and it was almost stupid to start the next day without chai first thing in the morning.

Thankfully, our landlord had installed a semi-automatic washing machine because if washing clothes is a task, then it is an even bigger task with cold water in the winters! Of course we had geysers in both the bathrooms and the kitchen as well but the mix of hot and cold is never really perfect and within a few weeks my fingers started having minor cuts as a result of the mix of the hot and cold water!

On top of it, as soon as we reached the Kullu Valley home, I fell sick – I was anyway not feeling quite well due to the pollution. So the burden of unpacking and setting up the home felt even more troublesome and I tried to compensate for it after 3-4 days when I started feeling a bit better. We ended up charting a plan for our daily activities and divided the work so that we would fight less and enjoy more! Of course, it was enriching to be able to experience autumn colours and watch the paragliders float in the evening sky while we sipped our tea. After 10 days or so, our landlord helped us by asking one of his relatives to deliver 1 litre of fresh cow milk to us every morning. We were overjoyed! I have always believed when you live somewhere, it is very important to do things like a local and a daily supply of milk is an important part of life here.

Eateries in Kullu Valley

We kept making plans for short day hikes and even ended up discovering a few village paths for going on walks. It is no fun to walk with vehicles passing you by and we enjoyed the joys of ambling along on different local trails. After settling into life in the new home in Kullu Valley, we began to enjoy the new routine and also started going out to the nearby eateries. Sometimes, if we felt like eating paranthas we would go early in the morning to the roadside Shubham Dhaba for piping hot tandoori aloo, mooli and paneer paranthas served with curd and chickpeas curry. There would be days when we would seek the indoor warmth of Crimson Restaurant for dinner and have a simple vegetable with chapatis. When we went on our walks, once we saw a new roadside eatery that had just opened and ended up eating delicious siddus with chutney and ghee.

We had kept the lookout on for a help who would come and cook a meal for us and do the utensils but it seemed that such luxuries were hard to come by in Kullu Valley. Wherever we asked, it was understood that here everyone did their own work and that the concept of house help did not exist at all. I had known that it would be difficult to find someone to do the house work, but had no inkling that it would prove to be almost impossible. We were pretty clear that we didn’t want a full time help because it just becomes too much of a hassle to make staying arrangements for the help. Since the windows and the doors would largely remain closed through the winter, the house wouldn’t accumulate much dust and there was no real need of regular cleaning.

As the days progressed into weeks and we completed our first month of living in the new home, we felt a proud sense of accomplishment. We had somehow managed to organise our daily lives, figure the food, wash the utensils efficiently, go on long walks everyday; and still make time to enjoy the sunset colours with the evening chai. The weather turned colder in December but we were prepared for it; and were really looking forward to have our friends from Dehradun visit us in the end of December. We had planned to go on holiday in the second half of December and perhaps it was that happy feeling that enabled us to sail through the first two weeks of December. Or maybe it was the new OTG that we had ordered that really seemed to make life easier!

Baking = Happiness

The aroma of baking would spread around the house and there is no better feeling in the world than the warmth and coziness of a home during the winters. We had put table lamps with warm lights around the hall and in the bedrooms as well and coupled with the wooden roof, it exuded a calm and welcoming feel. The nearby Roots Café made excellent ragi bread and bajra bread and sometimes we would pick the multigrain bread from Bread of Life Bakery close to Manali. The vegetables in November were mostly locally grown (radish, spinach etc) and tasted better than their counterparts grown with pesticides in the Indian plains. Open toasts made with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and paneer were turning out to be quite amazing and to make life easier we would eat them straight from the oven tray. The paneer in Kullu Valley is especially good and always freshly made.

We had got into the habit of early dinners and also figured with time that if a special dish was being made, it made sense to make extra quantity of the same since it was cold and nothing would go bad. It made wonders with the dash of confidence after the successful cooking experiments and that enabled us to successfully make thukpa (from memory, having seen the preparations umpteen number of times at Yuthok). The black peas were procured from Spiti Valley and there was one time when the thukpa we made lasted us for 3 evening meals! During the cold winters, there’s nothing like an early evening soupy dinner that warms you up from the inside and is not heavy as well.

Persimmon in the Winters

The stiff breeze in the afternoons caused the remaining leaves to fall off the trees and that also meant that the last hanging ripe persimmons on the trees had to be picked up or risk getting rotten. I bought 10 kg persimmons (that turned out to be 7.5kg) from the fresh picking going on in an orchard close to our home. These were safely kept aside to be eaten as 1-2 pieces everyday in the sunshine. Persimmons can cause a cold if eaten in inclement, stormy weather and I had to be especially careful with the not-yet-fully-cured coughing. The fact remains that persimmons are super healthy fruits (largely pesticide free) and make for a nice snack in the afternoons.

Things would get really chilly when it rained every few days and we would see snow on the nearby mountaintops with every spell of rain. The locals said it was a a sign of an early winter when the daffodils / nargis flowers bloomed earlier than usual and we were merry with arranging a vase full of daffodils gifted to us by our landlord’s son! The nargis flowers had a peculiar, sweet fragrance and lasted us for a full 25 days. Of course, there is a lone flower seller in Kullu and we would occasionally buy flowers from there for decoration. One of the days, we also entered Reliance Smart Point in Kullu and that also meant we would use e-commerce very sparingly from now on for groceries, as everything was available at a much cheaper price than amazon.

The cold meant there was no possibility of us trying to set the curd, so we would make kheer every now and then. When we felt the need for more sweets and snacks, I researched online and found some companies delivering namkeens from Jaipur, Mysore Pak from Almond House (Hyderabad) and I personally made a few phone calls to get a few kilos of desi ghee sweets straight from Jaisalmer. India Post is quite reasonable for couriers with sizeable weight. We had carried a number of gajak boxes from Jaipur for near and dear ones as a diwali gift and due to unavailability of a few of these folks who had gone elsewhere, we always had healthy sesame and jaggery gajak from Narayanji, Jaipur!

The trees slowly but steadily shed their leaves and were rendered bare by the middle of December. The views of the snow capped mountains kept getting better as it got colder and with the floating paragliders the evening sky looked especially enticing. It was a strange sight to see the bare apple trees surrounding us and for a change even seeing the vehicles on the road gave us a semblance of belonging. We could clearly see the road from our front balcony now that there were no leaves on the trees. It was fun to see the tourists come in droves in the packed Volvos even as the threat of covid resurfaced again. The news of our friends arriving from Dehradun post-Christmas brought a wave of cheer and we began setting up their room in anticipation.

Holidays in December

We went on long walks on the holiday, baked recipes like persimmon bread, cookies, muffins (for Nilza), pesto pasta with fresh basil procured from Manali, Chettinad egg curry, ate chole puri at Behl Sweets in the rain and at Sapna Sweets in Kullu, spent lazy afternoons at Roots Café in Bandrol, made and drank a lot of mulled wine, watched a lot of movies, stayed warm while it kept raining continuously for 4-5 days. On one of the long walks, it was a memorable time when we remembered to buy a Christmas tree and decorated it with pine cones. The days got shorter and shorter and I remember that the sun rose at 8:50 some days and would set at 2:50 in the afternoon.

In between, our earlier milk lady had sold her cow and after a few days break; with the help of a neighbour we were able to secure supply of fresh cow milk from another home. Since there was plenty of extra milk, our friends from Dehradun taught us how to make ricotta cheese. With this new skill under my belt, we made ragi and bajra bread open toast sandwiches. After wondering where to go in the touristy rush of the new year, it turned out to be a fabulous trip to Jana when we decided to stay at a cottage in the woods with a grand view of the snow mountains. When we went for a walk in the evening, the weather gods fulfilled our wish as we witnessed a fresh flurry of snowfall. In no time, the road turned white and after enjoying the snowfall for a good hour we returned to the warmth of our cottage when it was still daylight. It was a memorable evening with copious amounts of Morpheus Xo and an adrenaline rush next morning to drive back on the slippery road in the snow.

Day trip to Lahaul

In a first, there was the added thrill of having a Kullu number Thar and everybody decided that now that we had a 4*4 wheel drive, it made sense for me to learn driving on snow. Even though we knew that there was a huge possibility of a traffic jam while going and coming back from Lahaul – we decided to go! Of course there was a massive traffic jam at Solang Valley, the fact that we had a local number car meant we weren’t stuck for too long and reached the other side of Atal Tunnel soon. The road was totally snow bound and I engaged the 4 wheel drive for the snowy and slippery stretch. It was bone chilling cold in Lahaul and we were pleased to eat paranthas and momos for brunch/lunch at the only open eatery in Keylong.

The original plan was to stay in a nice homestay in Jispa / Keylong but when we reached Jispa it turned out to be a scene of a locked village and there was not a soul to be seen. We did enjoy the drive though and were greeted by a number of frozen waterfalls amid the blue skies. The traffic jam while coming back was a pointer to the scene while going back and we tried to be smarter by leaving early from Lahaul. It didn’t really matter though and we were stuck in Solang Valley for another 2 odd hours and were so tired that I didn’t want to sit in the car even for going to a restaurant for dinner! Nevertheless, we had a gala time observing the behaviour of the tourists who were piling snow on their stationery vehicles and a lot of tourists looked funny with the jumpsuits in bright colours.

First Snowfall in the Kullu Valley home

After this adventure, we decided to spend a few quiet days at home so that we would not get stuck in more traffic jams! Our friends left for Sainj Valley on 2nd January and we missed having them. It was back to routine now and the holiday did feel like a welcome break once it was over. The two meals a day routine was on and finally it seemed that the days started getting bigger and sunrise time was advancing by a minute every few days. Our Dehradun friends had really wished for snowfall and it seemed their wish was a bit late in coming true when the weather started turning bad from 8th January. It rained continuously for 2-3 days and became frighteningly cold and since we were unable to go out, we baked apple crumble from the apples given by the neighbours. On 9th January, it started snowing on the nearby mountains and the nearby village was shrouded in a blanket of white. In the night, I kept looking out of the window but it seemed as if there was no activity.

When we woke up next morning, it was eerily silent – I pulled the curtains and saw the most astonishing sight. It was snowing heavily and we were in the midst of a white landscape. We called our near and dear ones on video call and shared the joy of the first snowfall in the new year with everyone. It stopped snowing in the afternoon but the white landscape remained till the next morning. Once the snow melted, it lent a fragrant feel to the surroundings and it was magical to go on walks nearby when the sun was out and the views were crystal clear. We had a memorable time celebrating ‘Saja’ or makar sankranti when we were invited by Yuthok Homestay Thakur family for lunch. I had a minor discomfort of a strange skin infection that would stay with me for the next month or so!

On one of the many walks, we ended up venturing to Palrabling – a Tibetan colony in Dobhi located by the river. It was a pleasant surprise to visit the monastery and meet old Tibetan men and women. The sky colours were turning dramatic during sunset whenever the weather was stormy. I was terribly missing fresh haldi ki sabji and my wish was answered when the vegetable seller in Manali had fresh turmeric! One of the days we invited Yuthok Homestay family and sister for lunch and were able to make spinach and ricotta quiche and a snack! They liked it and thankfully we had the Jaisalmer ghotua remaining. We were glad that they came and asked uncle and aunty to definitely come next time. In the last week of January, we saw the first signs of life when we noticed fresh yellow flowers sprout from the ground where there was plenty of sun.

We only had a small electric heater in our home to combat the winter cold but we would rarely use that and preferred to be clothed well and snuggle under 3 layers of blankets. Landlord uncle came to the rescue when they installed a tandoor bukhari in the glass room upstairs. It was fun to sit in the warmth of the tandoor when it was snowing outside!

On 31st January, we were out for our everyday walk and had an epiphany – that we should try going to a nearby cottage and asking the staff there if they were looking for part-time work. It was a big stroke of luck that we found the caretaker couple who were out of work the same day and the guy agreed to come for work to our home the next day. He turned out to be a fantastic cook and seemed to be the answer to all our troubles! He told us that either him or his wife would come everyday and we were very happy with the excellent food that they made and the ease with which the utensils were getting done.

Driving to Manali in snow

We had more bad weather as February started and now that I had successfully driven the thar on the snowy roads of Lahaul, we made a plan of a staycation in Manali and booked 1 night at a nice English cottage. It snowed and snowed for 2 days and when we left for Manali from Dobhi, it was snowing heavily like a snowstorm and we actually wondered if it made sense to go. Then it dawned on us that this might turn out to be the last snowfall of the winter for us and it was now or never! The locals in Manali were really kind and helped me navigate the slippery snow and we somehow made it to the snowed out English cottage! I heaved a sigh of relief after we parked the car and noticed that it had snowed about 3-4 feet and the cars parked 2-3 days ago were completely covered in snow. We had a grand time in the snow and I was very happy to see a properly snowed out forest in Manali.

It took a lot of manoeuvring and patience to drive back from the slippery roads of Manali next day and again I thank the locals who helped me navigate the car in my slow speed! Once we were back in Dobhi, it felt like the weather had shifted. It was only the first week of February and the grass was green everywhere now that the rain had watered the ground and the sun enabled growth of new life. We baked an apple pie in celebration and it turned out to be quite amazing! The nights were even colder once the skies cleared but the days were nice and warm and the sunshine in the big balcony felt like a lifesaver. We ate our first palak patta chaat of the season at Roots Café and started going out more during the day to make ample use of the sunshine. Now finally we thought that the house work was being managed well and that gave us a chance to enjoy more. The arrival of strawberries and raspberries in the markets of Kullu – Manali gave us a lot of cheer and we made breakfasts of chia seed bowls!

From Kullu Valley to Tamil Nadu in March

We were missing South Indian food very much and ended up booking return flight tickets to Chennai. The plan was to relax and enjoy the relatively warmer weather of Pondicherry-Auroville and explore Chettinad and Madurai or Trichy. It was furiously cold when we sat in the Volvo bus to Delhi; took a cab directly to Delhi airport and reached quite early for an afternoon flight. Once we got down in Chennai, the heat turned out to be so much more than we anticipated and I was having an especially difficult time. The months of living in cold weather meant I wasn’t sweating and the body was just getting overheated. We figured it would be better to take it slow and thats what we did throughout the trip – ensuring a calm but memorable experience.

When we had left from Kullu Valley the trees were still barren and there was the anticipation of the plum blossoms turning the entire valley white in 2-3 weeks. We didn’t want to miss it for the world and planned our holiday around it. Our landlord called us when we had landed in Delhi and said, ‘The plum blossoms are here and if you don’t come soon, you will miss them!’ We were overjoyed on hearing this and told him that we were returning the next day.

We are welcomed by the most epic sight of the white plum blossoms and the occasional pink peach blossoms the next morning after reaching Kullu Valley. Our house help tells us that the weather had suddenly turned appreciably hotter once we left for Chennai. I am happy to be sweating again in the pleasant and bearable Kullu heat.

When we meet landlord uncle, he says, ‘You have spent the entire winter in Kullu Valley, so you totally deserve the joys of spring now!’

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3 thoughts on “Musings from the new Home : Winter in Kullu Valley”

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