Today is our last day at the Sunrise Villa in Shogi. Over the past 2 days we’ve managed to explore Shimla thoroughly. So today we decided to go a little further to check out the small villages of Kufri and Fagu. Mrs. Aggarwal, as usual, gave us exact directions on how to get to them using the local buses. So after a hearty breakfast of Parathas, we set out on another daytrip from Shogi.
Kufri is 14kms east of Shimla and Fagu, 6kms further out. But they all fall on NH22, so connections between them are quite good. As usual we took a bus to Shimla from Shogi bazaar. Unfortunately, today it was super crowded and we didn’t get a seat. As the bus lurched through the winding highway, Madhu and I struggled to stay afoot. When the conductor came by, Madhu could only hold out his wallet in one hand as the other hand was holding on tightly to the railings above. I tried to help by extracting some rupee notes from Madhu’s wallet with one hand and handing it to the conductor, but it took a lot of effort. Seeing our discomfort and the amount of time we were wasting with all this juggling, the conductor grabbed the wallet from Madhu’s hand, placed the tickets and the remaining money back in it himself and handed it back to Madhu . We couldn’t help chuckling ! Back in Bombay, the impatient conductors of BEST would have definitely lost their temper at us; here the people are far more patient and a whole lot friendlier!
The bus dropped us off on the highway near the city center. However, the bus to Fagu leaves from the bus stand near Lakkar Bazaar, which is northeast of the city center, some 3 to 4kms away. So we took another bus to there. Now this bus had an extremely friendly conductor as well . As soon as we got in, he struck a conversation with us enquiring where we were from. Since the bus was quite empty he had plenty of time on his hands . Having lived in Bombay before and used its public transports, he complimented BEST’s bus system as being one of the best he has ever seen. He felt that the drivers there were all much disciplined and operated the system efficiently. We agreed with him; we’ve not seen a better public transport system either. He asked us what we felt about Himachal and we sincerely expressed how much we have started to adore this region. When I mentioned that we really liked the people too as they are very warm, he agreed and added that they are also polite and beautiful J. We couldn’t deny this either. We’ve seen quite a few examples of their politeness. In crowded buses, seats are always offered up to elderly people or women with children in tow. Even when in large groups, Himachali folk speak softly and never create a ruckus. Women seem to be extremely well-treated as well. And, of course, as for beauty, Himachali women are definitely good-looking; Madhu whole-heartedly vouches for this ! They are petite with delicate features, great skin and hair, and a seemingly good sense of dressing. So the conductor was definitely spot-on!
From Lakkar Bazaar we immediately got a Theog-bound bus, which would stop at both Kufri and Fagu. Since Fagu was further out we decided to go there first. It was to be just a 20km ride but it felt much longer as the bus driver turned out to be a Formula 1 racer . He drove like a crazed man swinging the bus wildly at every turn. Madhu and I could barely keep our butts connected to the seat as we held on tightly for dear life. Funnily, the others in the bus didn’t seem to be as affected – I guess one gets used to these things over time !
Fagu is a tiny village overlooking the Giri Valley. It’s famous for its 3 Kali temples and also for being less crowded and more relaxing than neighboring Kufri and/or Shimla. We decided to visit just one temple and picked Maa Sherawali temple as it is atop Deshu Peak and offers great views. The bus dropped us off in the chowk, which had a couple of tea stalls and some general stores. To refresh ourselves from the crazy bus ride and to fill up on some energy before the trek up Deshu peak, we gorged on Samosas and piping hot tea at one of the dhabas .
Deshu Peak is atop a hill just behind the chowk and is at about 11,500ft! This is the highest we have been at so far in Himachal Pradesh and could feel the difference as we lugged ourselves to the top. Stone steps built into the hillside lead all the way to the temple. As we got closer to it, we felt like we were tiring much more than we had while trekking in and around Shimla. We felt short of breath after almost every few steps; it may have been because of the altitude. It took us about half an hour but we finally made it to the top at around noon. En route we had passed HPTDC’s Peach Blossom hotel, which looked quite inviting with excellent views of the area around. Talking of views, this trek has probably the most stunning ones ever. The altitude adds to the magic of the place; Madhu and I were tired for sure, but completely enthralled!
Maa Sherawali temple is famous in the area as an Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Hindi film, appropriately called ‘Maa’ J, was shot here! The temple itself is not architecturally special but has a simple, quiet, serene air! We paid our respects here and at an adjoining Shiva temple. One thing about the temples in Himachal is that they are not commercial at all. There are no stalls sending pooja-items or plastic toys. The priests here seem genuinely sincere about their role; there is none of the dakshina-seeking behavior that we’ve seen predominant elsewhere in India.
Apart from the steps that led us up to the temples, we found another set, at the other end of the peak, leading down the hill. Since we weren’t sure if it would lead us away from Fagu village, we decided to ask around before trying it. We saw a man sitting near a rectangular mud-house, which was just by the Shiva temple. When we walked up to him and asked about these steps, he said that they would indeed lead us east away from Fagu. So our best bet was to go back the same way we walked up. But before we could thank him for his help and leave, he asked us if we had had any lunch. When we said no, he said that we were more than welcome to partake in the Langar that is prepared everyday by the temple volunteers. Madhu and I hesitated for a second, not sure why. Seeing this the man immediately said that the food would be very simple, so we should eat only if we are okay with such no-frill meals. Apparently, others in the past, after having eaten the Langar, have complained about its simplicity! Such jerks! Madhu and I immediately assured him that we would love to eat the Langar and would only love simple food. He then asked us to remove our shoes, wash our hands and enter the mud home. Madhu and I followed his instructions and embarked on one of our best meal experiences ever!
The entrance to the house opened into a rectangular hallway with many small rooms at the opposite end. We were led into one of these rooms where a man sat eating. We later learnt that he was the cook for today’s Langar. We were warmly ushered in and asked to sit on mats that were placed on the floor. Before us were large, empty, flattened, 50-kilo grain bags that would serve as our place-mats. The food, in large aluminum vessels, was placed in the center of the room. The room, itself, about 10’x10′ in size, was quite bare with some cooking equipment at one end and a lovely sun-roof of sorts that filtered the afternoon light into the room beautifully. It was just a fantastic setting!
We were served a Moong Dal Khichdi (cooked mixture of rice and lentils), Chapathis and Dal (lentils) with potatoes. It was extremely yummy! And that’s still an understatement because the ambiance of the place took our experience to a completely different level. As we ate, we conversed with the man who had served us. He is a Nepali, working in Himachal for the past 12 years. He spoke about traveling to Nepal once a year to meet family. Apparently, at the India-Nepal border, hoodlums try to loot the men going home, knowing that they are returning after having earned some money in India. To avoid this, he takes a longer route, going east, before entering Nepal. This increases his travel time by almost a day but it has to be done to avoid losing his hard-earned money. We were saddened by his story¦
After some refreshing tea at the end of the meal, we thanked the temple staff profusely and left. Our Fagu trip had ended up being one of the nicest experiences of our trip!
From the chowk below, we took a west-bound bus to Kufri, our second stop for the day. After alighting at its bazaar, we asked around for directions to Mahasu Peak, Kufri’s main attraction. During winters it is a very popular spot for skiers. During summers such as now, it offers horse rides to the top, pictures with yaks and a place to picnic with family. Just by this description, we should have known better than to stop by here ¦
At the base of the hill leading up to Mahasu Peak, we were accosted by several men asking if we would like ride to the top on horseback, for Rs.250 each. The climb up to Deshu Peak had tired us a bit, so the thought of trekking up another hill, that too in the afternoon heat, was not very enticing; horseback it was! We had to walk uphill for a few minutes to a tea stall where we bought tickets (state-govt authorized) for the horse ride. The horses are all lined up a few meters further uphill near a parking lot, but, thankfully, 2 of them were brought down to meet us near the tea stall. Astride, we rode up towards Mahasu Peak, enjoying the reprieve to our tired legs. But the enjoyment, sadly, didn’t last long.
As the horses brought us up to the area where all the horses and cars were parked, we couldn’t believe the chaos there! Horses and cars vied with each other to either park, go uphill or find customers. And there were more tourists around than we had seen during the whole of last week combined J! Almost everybody going uphill or returning was on horseback, creating a huge dust-storm as the horses trotted along. Our horseman informed us that there are nearly a thousand horses available for hire at Kufri and during peak season they each make around 8 to 10 round-trips a day! Unbelievable!
After a steep climb for about 10 minutes, the horses brought us to Mahasu Peak, which was quite crowded. The horseman asked us to alight here and take our time exploring the place. Whenever we wanted to return, we were to go to an area where all the horses were lined up and present our ticket; we would be assigned 2 different horses to take us back down. This seemed like quite an efficient system.
Mahasu Peak is like a typical, small-town fairground. There were food stalls and those selling jewelry and woolens. There were a few sad-looking yaks on which young men sat to have pictures taken; cowboy hats and fake guns were provided to add to the effect ! There was a man with a large python draped around his neck and shoulders; visitors can have it draped over themselves and have pictures taken. One stall provided traditional, Himachali outfits in which visitors can pose and take pictures. Under a large canopy built on a slight elevation, visitors can gaze out into the valley thru powerful telescopes. And then, of course, there was the mandatory temple at the highest elevation with quite a few stalls selling pooja-items and other knickknacks. We were quite disappointed with all this . The views from the peak were undoubtedly fabulous but the afternoon heat, the dust and the crowds made the whole place feel quite annoying! We walked around a bit, took pictures and drank some cold soft-drinks before going back to find horses to take us back.
I think Kufri is definitely worth visiting but definitely not on a hot summer day, that too during a long weekend (it was Good Friday two days ago). It was almost like all weekenders from North India descended on Kufri for the day . Someday we would like to come back when it’s more peaceful and when there’s snow. I’m sure, in winters, the view out to the surrounding snow-capped mountains, is breathtaking!
The Shimla-bound bus from Kufri dropped us off at the ISBT bus stand and not the one at Lakkar Bazaar. This was heartening because we could get a direct bus from ISBT to Shogi without having to change in between, which would have been the case had we been dropped at Lakkar Bazaar. We got back to our hotel around 7pm with a bottle of Himachal’s fruit wines – a great way to relax after a tiring day !