The summers are here. The sun is scorching. And you need to escape the heat. If you are living in the north of India, there are many places in the mountains you can escape to. But the problem is, you will find all the more popular destinations crowded with visitors, and the roads are likely to be jammed with vehicles making their way up. So where do you go?
This month’s driving destination is truly a ‘driving’ destination. It’s low on tourist conveniences, but high on driving pleasure with a mix of broad national highways, great mountain roads and even a dirt track that would get a rallyist excited. To complete the circuit from Delhi in two days, you need to make an early start on both days. The circuit is Delhi – Ambala – Nahan – Renukaji – Haripurdhar – Chail – Ambala – Delhi. It’s about a 800km loop and the high point of the trip, literally, is Haripurdhar, located at above 8000 feet. From Haripurdhar, you drive to Chail. The purpose of driving to Chail is not to visit the place, but to drive through the fantastic 100km back road. But more on that later.
As we always say, leave as early as you can. Getting out of the city before the morning rush starts can save you as much as an hour of driving time. Forget having breakfast because 50km from Delhi you will reach Murthal, where you will find a line of dhabas serving hot parathas washed down with hot tea. There’s a lot of road work in progress, so you cannot make as good a time as the road promises. At Ambala you have to turn off to NH72. And this is where, for me, the real drive begins. About 50km down the road is Kala Amb, where you enter the Himachal border and start making your way up to the hills.
The road will take you past Nahan to Renukaji. The road to Renukaji is good, though narrow. When driving in the hills, use your horn on every turn. And drive like there is a speeding truck hidden around every bend. Renukaji, essentially a temple complex that houses a lake and a small zoo, is named after Renuka, wife of Rishi Jamadagni and mother of Parasurama, one of the 10 avtars of Lord Vishnu. The shape of the lake resembles a woman’s profile and has a circumference of 2.5km. This placid stretch of water is fed by underground springs. Around the lake are enclosures that house the animals – a couple of lions, a leopard, some bears and deer. Pay Rs 250 and you can take your car inside, but a leisurely walk is a more apt way to enjoy the place. The Parasurama Tal lake at the base of Renukaji Lake is teeming with large mahseer fish. Since these are considered to be holy, they are not fished. It’s a delight to see hundreds of these large fish swimming up to you to be fed with pieces of dough.
The only place to stay at Renukaji is Hotel Renuka run by Himachal Tourism. Plus there are a few guest houses around here. Or you can stay at Devocos Plaza at Dadahu about 2km away. The journey towards Haripurdhar is a steep climb. There is not much traffic on the road except for State buses and the odd car or motorcycle. If you want to enjoy the scenery, either pull over or let someone else drive. Just before you enter Haripurdhar, you will find a helipad on your left. Pull over here if it’s a clear day, for a gorgeous view of the area.
Haripurdhar would be your destination for the day if you want to return to Delhi the next day. If you have an extra day, Chail is a good place to simply take in the sights. Haripurdhar is a one-street town, and has pristine surroundings that have not been littered by tourists. The disadvantage is that this one-street town has one basic hotel. But you can always stay with the locals. Just ask around and someone will point you to a homestay. Haripurdhar is a great place to chill, literally. The air is fresh, and the mercury stays low. Don’t forget to pack in your woolies. If you are a trekker, this is paradise. But make sure you take someone to guide you around. If you prefer a more sedentary holiday, go for some leisurely walks.
From Haripurdhar take the Solan-Meenus MDR02 to Chail. It is a fantastic driving road with spectacular vistas and hardly any traffic. On this 100km stretch, there is no tarmac on about 40km. It’s a narrow dirt and gravel trail hanging off the mountain edge with steep climbs and sharp turns – pray that there is no car coming from the other side while you’re driving this stretch. Chail is known for two things – one is the boast of the highest cricket ground in the world. And the other is the peccadilloes of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. After being banished from Shimla, the Maharaja decided to create a new summer capital which would be ‘better’ than Shimla. And out of this bruised ego was Chail born. And ‘better’ than Shimla it still is. Not as crowded or as polluted, Chail still retains the charm of a hill station. If you are to stay in Chail, what could be more appropriate than the Maharaja’s palace, which is now a hotel run by Himachal Tourism. A day’s pass to look around the beautiful premises costs Rs 100 and is worth the money.
The drive back to Delhi should take about eight hours. The roads are wide and smooth all the way down to the plains. From Chail you have to take the road to Kundarghat where you will touch NH22 that will take you to Ambala. The newly opened Zikarpur-Parwanoo express bypass has made the mandatory jams at Kalka and Pinjore a thing of the past. Now you just fly through. From Ambala it’s a home run to Delhi on NH1.