Stop before crossing the border

Our roadship took a long time to pull out of the gravitational attraction of Chandigarh. After a couple of hours dodging the motorbikes and tractors in its accretion zone, we were poised to take off into the hills. But then Soni ran out of fuel. “You have to eat before you leave Punjab,” he told us, “There’s no food after this.” We coasted to a halt outside a dhaba which looked like it came out of the sets of Jab We Met. An ensemble from rural Punjab was captured in the middle of a bhangra right in front of the dhaba.

We stretched our legs and The Young Niece strolled in to check for a fix of her sugary aerated drink. The rest of us got our caffeine with less added calories. I paused at the gate to take a photo. There was a pair of strangely understated lions welcoming you into the establishment. It seemed that The Family had convinced The Young Niece to try out the lassi instead of the usual bottled drink. Since 10% of Punjab has diabetes, I’m not sure that the calorie content was lower, but at least this drink had some protein in it.

I strolled around the courtyard looking for the toilets. The dhaba seemed to be a franchise, with several different shops set up within it. At one I found this wonderful statue of a well-educated specimen of the genus Pan. I wasn’t sure whether a smile on the face of a chimp was supposed to be reassuring or threatening. It wasn’t showing its teeth, but I thought it wise to retreat after taking a quick photo.

A second gate was flanked by horses ready to set out on a wedding procession. It seemed to be taking some time saying goodbye to a strawberry man. Is that a better argument, or a sweeter one, than a straw man? A sugar high from a sweet and milky tea can set you thinking of strange things.

The Family wanted to take a look at the food shops around the entrance. Before I could enter, I found a sign which caught me. Kitsch is not just visual. The idea of a chocolate paan is as kitschy as that of the chimpanzee reading a book. Soni had finished his breakfast. He complained that the parathas were not as good as they were the last time he stopped here. We belted up. Nothing stood between us and the hills now.

Driving to the doors of the Himalayas

The drive from Chandigarh to the tunnel at Aut swings back and forth from near the Sutlej to the Beas: two of the five rivers which give rise to the name Punjab. This is an area of massive geo-engineering projects from two generations back. The city of Chandigarh can be considered to be one of these projects, since it was planned and built in roughly a decade. Our road up to Aut passed very close to the Bhakra-Nangal dams, one of the projects which was called a “temple of modern India” By Nehru, and which completely transformed Punjab’s agricultural economy. It turned out that the topography of the hills was such that we would not have a view of the dams. In fact, we seemed never to come very close to the Sutlej river; the featured photo is one of the closest views we had of the river.

Soni, who was driving our car, stopped just outside Chandigarh at a petrol station. This was the heart of rural Punjab, and I saw a tractor pull up to the pump to refuel. That’s not something I get to see often. This part of the highway was full of tractors and motorbikes. These thinned out as we began to climb up the slopes of the Sivaliks. These are the foothills of the Himalayas, never rising beyond 3 Kilometers above sea level, but carved up into twisted ranges by meandering rivers. There was an abrupt climb immediately after we fueled, and we left behind the unseen lakes formed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam.

We stopped for an early lunch. Across the road I could see a temple of contemporary India being built (photo above). We saw lots of them along the way. The older temples are off the main road, and require a bit of climbing to get to. The new temples are all built to be easily accessible by car. A little market was growing up in this narrow shelf around the road. I poked my camera into a little saloon and caught the photo you see below.

The road continued to stay close to the Sutlej. We would cross some of its larger tributaries every now and then, as the road jumped from one ridge to another slightly further north. Soni was one of the most uncommunicative persons I’d come across, but he realized that we were interested in rivers. So he stopped at a point where we had a grand view of a trickle of a river through a wide valley. A long bridge spanned the valley, but this was not the Sutlej. The far away glint of water which you can see in the photo below is the Sutlej.

The slopes were gentler now, but we were climbing continuously. The houses began to change character. The simple whites and greys of the lower slopes were giving way to different colours. I noticed that cheerful pink roofs were more common as we climbed. Sloping roofs with this colour of tiles was clearly a specialty of Himachal Pradesh. We would see more of these roofs as we went higher

The external paint on walls also began to take on the colours of advertisements for paints that you see on TV. Do advertisements follow life, or the other way around? In these days of viral culture seeping through cables, the difference between life and ads is probably inconsequential. We forged on.

I began to look for doors: not the metaphorical ones which we were headed for, but the honest-to-goodness doors which are the Norm. There was a profusion of windows, but precious little of doors. This roadside eatery, with its lovely rank of dekchis lined up on a counter is an example. There must be doors here, but they are lost in the gloom below the terrace. All I could see as we passed by were windows.

Then, as we passed over yet another stream, The Family shouted something that could be “Eureka” or “Rubicon”. She had the map app on her phone active all this while, and it told us that we were crossing the Sutlej. From here we were headed towards the Beas. Soon enough, we reached the little district town of Mandi.

Mandi looked like a typical hill town: precarious structures leaning on each other, cut through by narrow streets, hemmed in by slopes. They spread laterally along slopes, rather than in circles around a town center. I liked the cheerful pink colour of the town. We’d originally planned to stop here for lunch, but we’d eaten already. So we sped by the town.

We were almost a kilometer above sea level now, and the typical Himalayas houses began to show up along the road. Like in the photo above, you see a single story from the road. But if you walk up to the house, you would find another story or two below the road, snuggling into the slope. Often the level at the road is used as a shop or a garage. This one had its shutters down (doors at last!) but it was clearly neither.

In no time at all we reached the last of the major geo-engineering projects along this road: the barrage at Pandoh. This connects the Beas and the Sutlej rivers, and utilizes the difference in altitude between them to generate electricity. The gentle Pandoh lake stretches behind the dam, curving through the valley which the Beas had carved out ages ago. The road went along the river all the way to the 2.8 kilometer long tunnel to Aut. This is truly the doorway to the high Himalayas, one which we would not push through.