The old clock at CST station took no liberty of speeding past to 11.30 pm as I waited there, getting flanked in each direction by stranger...

Travelogue: Into The North

The old clock at CST station took no liberty of speeding past to 11.30 pm as I waited there, getting flanked in each direction by strangers, for the Amritsar Express. Contained in this sea of anonymity, forty were the ones I was going on a 10-day long trip of a lifetime to the mountains with, on a day's notice. 'Nervous' shall be the word people would use to define the state of being of a person in that very situation. But honestly, all my nervousness vanished and indifference took over as soon as I arrived at CST for the days ahead.

Long-distance train journeys are a chore, generally, yet every time they end up being an adventure worth recalling. This one was no exception: from finally understanding the game of cards to almost missing the train at Itarsi, everything 90s happened during the rail yatra which concluded at Ambala Cantonment. Packing light was the biggest favour I did to myself on the trip, and that I realised as I glided past the 40 and into our bus with my sole backpack.

The bus zoomed past my new environs on butter-smooth roads. I would be lying if I said I wasn't in the awe, for I never anticipated streets this charming in North India. Typical Mumbaikar thing, I know. The first halt on our tour, Chandigarh, arrived in under an hour. For those not in the know, Chandigarh is the first modern planned city in India and an absolute delight. During my time there I ate my way through the Sector-22 market (Chandigarh, your streets rock. Your street food? Absolutely not, sorry!), saw an impromptu bhangra dance party on the road (something I saw more of as the tour progressed), explored the famed Rock Garden, and kicked-back at the man-made Sukhna Lake.

There isn't much to write about the tourist attractions in Chandigarh as they happen to be more of leisure spot for locals instead of wow-inducing spectacles for sightseers. But I am not complaining because, for a person from Mumbai, the entire city is a sight to behold! The cleanliness factor is outlandish and so is the orderly conduct of the city. Frankly, I liked the city enough to want to clamour for an additional few days there, but when the hills call you just go. Yes, our next stop, nestled in the mighty Himalayas: Manali!

After a night-long roller-coaster ride on the serpentine mountain roads towards Manali, the dawn of the new day brought spell-binding views of the rising sun and the glistening greenish-blue waters of the river Beas (or Vyas, if you prefer that). So mesmerised was I of the setting I was in that I kept myself perched firmly on the window-seat, basking in whatever my eyes could see for over 4 hours! No kidding.

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Manali was...cold! And for a person from the tropics (Me! Me! Me!), it was bone-chilling. So much so that it acted as a deterrent throughout my #ManaliDiaries. The bitter cold kept me confined to the heated hotel room at nights instead of being out in the open, gazing at the twinkling stars. The bitter cold made me trash my decision to have ice-cream for dessert, in order to not freeze to death. The bitter cold capped my capability to wake up before the sun for long walks on meandering paths lined with giant pine and deodar trees. Yet, I need to thank that bitter cold for my newfound definition of cosy- the one encompassing numerous cups of tea, hotel room heater, random conversations, and, being burrito-ed in a thick blanket.    

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We covered the usual tourist haunts in Manali: the same old Hadimba Temple, Vaishist Springs, Mall Road, and Solang Valley. Our hopes of finding snow were dashed by the weather forecast which showed no snow for a week. I was disappointed, naturally. Although all it took for my sadness to wither away was a day at Kullu. After seeing the overtly commercialised Manali town, Kullu was a breath of respite. It was there that I took a walk to remember with no soul in sight but leafless coniferous trees and ground crowded with all the hues of autumn. It was there that I dozed off on a boulder on the banks of the river Beas under the soothing winter sun. It was there that I finally gave in and had my overpriced Himachali Maggi which, for the record, wasn't even Maggi! 

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Kullu was fantastic to me, but the road called again, and there we were, on the highway to Amritsar. Now this leg of the trip was the one I was looking forward the most to. Being the forever hungry being that I am, Amritsar and its food kept calling out to me. And it did not disappoint. The stuffed crispy kulchas, the perfect piping hot jalebis, the luscious phirnis, the glass-fulls of creamiest lassi, and the indulgent kulfis simply stole my heart. I am not exaggerating when I say that I wouldn't mind travelling to Amritsar just for the food! Amritsari people are another aspect of that holy city which made me fall in love with itself. Every individual I made a small talk with exuded a warmth which cannot be paralleled. Punjabi hospitality is not overrated.

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Along with the food trail, the mandatory Wagah Border experience, Jallianwala Bagh, and the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) were ticked off the list too. Honestly, I didn't get to soak in the spirit of these places due to the 'Virar-bound train during peak hours' crowd still they ended up being experiences to cherish! There is a lot more to tell about this trip of a lifetime (yes, I have just touched upon the tip of the iceberg) but let's put a full stop to it right here. After all, I need to end, right?

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