I haven’t seen another tourist for a week. In fact I haven’t seen many other people at all. Which is pretty amazing for India, one of the most populous countries on earth. For the past five days I’ve been well off the beaten track, staying in a family guesthouse outside Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. The only way to get here is to climb a steep track up the mountainside. It’s another world from the pizzas, apple pies and wifi of Dharamsala, yet only a day’s bus ride away.
From McLeod Ganj I caught a direct bus to Dalhousie at, yet again, the crazily early time of 6.30am. It was a local stopping bus, mercifully uncrowded for a change, and I was the only passenger going the whole route. Dalhousie is another British hill station, named after its founder. It’s just a ridge lined with houses and hotels, without a real centre or soul, and I found it a rather dull place, lacking in character. It’s very popular with weekending Punjabis though.
The next day I moved onto the small town of Chamba, a couple of hours away. At less than a thousand metres above sea level it’s the lowest I’ve been so far. The cool Himalayan towns were far behind me now. Here was the heat and dust of India, the exotic Hindu temples, the open drains, rubbish scattered everywhere. And the stares. I’d forgotten how much Indian people stare at tourists, completely unabashed. But then there’s also the warmth and friendliness you encounter and genuine curiosity.
After a night in Chamba I was ready to move up the Saal valley to the Orchard Hut perched high up on the mountain. It’s been the perfect place to wind down for a few days and feast on fabulous home cooking. It’s away from the road, but there are a few small villages and farmhouses on these slopes. Much of the land has been terraced and irrigated with local spring water. Corn is a main crop here and thousands of ears can be seen on rooftops lying out to dry. Down below on the road, milk is delivered by a guy on a motorbike with two churns strapped to either side.
The Dhami family that run the Orchard Hut also have an organic vegetable farm, as well as fruit orchards. By employing local people, they provide an income for up to twenty families, so it’s great knowing you’re supporting such a venture. There is also a trekking hut right at the top of the mountain, a thousand metres higher up with excellent 360 degree views including the Pir Panjal range and across into Kashmir. I couldn’t resist the opportunity of hiking up to spend the night there.
Sometimes you chance upon a place where you want to linger, especially important when you’re travelling for a long period of time. I think I’ve recharged my batteries sufficiently to tackle the chaos of Amritsar, home to the famous Golden Temple, my next destination. If you want to stay at the Orchard Hut, you can check out their website here.