My first solo road trip experience in the hills
It's been a year since I last made a solo trip to Manali, and I'd been getting restless at home. I'd wanted to make a long-ish trip with my car for quite some time now, and the heat of North India started to take a toll on me. I've made quite a few trips by myself and with friends, and I don't necessarily prefer one over the other. Both have varied experiences, but this time I was definitely itching to go somewhere quiet, where I could get the most driving pleasure. And so I chose, Naddi, a village near Dharamshala. It's about a 20 mins drive from the very touristy McLeodGanj (Upper Dharamshala). I'd found a lovely guesthouse via Airbnb and booked it after talking to the hosts.
Started the trip early morning at 5:45 from my place in Faridabad. Although that isn't relatively early to start, I was able to make decent progress before the city woke up. I've travelled quite a few times on this highway (Panipat - Karnal - Ambala), and I prefer to stop at Haldiram's at CHD Developers Daana Paani for breakfast.
Energised me with a good breakfast and some masala chai (my favourite thing while travelling). I floored the pedal (not literally, there are police patrolling vehicles throughout NH-44) and made good progress till Ambala. The fun part of the road trip starts now, with wide roads traversing the state of Punjab. Sprawling large sunflower fields make for a good sight on these roads.
Stopped just before the Nangal-Mehetpur checkpoint (where you need to pay some toll tax to enter Himachal) for a fuel + stretching break.
Hilly roads finally begin in Una, the main entry point to Himachal when you're coming from Punjab. The streets are wide enough to enjoy the driving for now, and it's around 2PM. I wasn't feeling particularly hungry for a packed lunch, so I kept driving at reasonable speeds and wanted to reach my destination asap. Dharamshala was around 2.5 hours more, and I expected to arrive before 5PM, sleep for a while and only have dinner.
The last ~1 hour or so did test my driving and patience skills. Saturday/Sundays are the worst days to visit any hill station in India. Long queues of cars from neighbouring states, all wanting to find peace in hills while blaring horns (the irony).
I was overwhelmed by driving through umpteenth hairpin bends and really steep curves from Dharamshala to Naddi; I was glad I made it safely to the Airbnb.
After unpacking my bags, I decided to explore the local area for a short while before settling into sleep as it was still evening. I went to Dal Lake; sadly, the lake was all dried up in the scorching heat of May. However, the tall Deodar trees are a pleasing sight and made the 10hr journey completely worth it.
Had a quiet dinner and night's sleep that day. My plan for the next few days was to visit the local areas of Naddi and McleodGanj. Since I was WFHing during the trip, I only had weekends to explore other parts of Kangra valley.
The following day, being a Sunday, meant a lazy brekkie - preferably brunch. I impromptu decided to drive to Palampur and further go up to Bir and Billing valley. I've heard a lot about tea estates in Palampur, and the drive was really spectacular.
I didn't want to drive a lot this day, so I chose to skip Bir and go straight to Billing for brunch. The roads to Billing valley are pretty narrow and crowded, so I decided to park my car in the first open parking lot I found. Two locals approached me and insisted that I pay them 50 bucks for parking without giving me any ticket. I obviously knew it was a scam, but after driving for 2.5 hours and semi hangry, I just gave them the money after resisting. A few steps further in the valley, I found the "proper" govt parking lot. Meh, shit happens. I devoured a nice cheese omelette with some ice tea at one of the local cafes in Billing. There are plenty of food options, and I've heard there are good pizzerias. Since I was by myself, I sure couldn't eat a whole pizza, so I, unfortunately, had to skip it.
Billing had a different vibe to it. I wish I could spend more time here for a few days. Definitely gonna come back again in future and explore Bir as well.
Over the next few days, I roamed around Naddi and gave my car a bit of rest. Luckily I'd visited Mcleod in my car during a weekday, and suffice to say that driving on the weekend inside Mcleod is an activity that is best left unexplored. I tried a Tibetan thali at Tibet Kitchen, a popular eatery in Mcleod and loved Ema Datshi. Laphing was another thing that I loved, despite being hot AF and me being someone who hates spicy food (I make certain exceptions, like Meghana Biryani).
I frequented Mcleod over the next few days but got acquainted with a friendly Subway guy after getting bored with the local food. Yes, I'm that guy who likes Subway even though it's somehow a cool thing to hate it, but yeah, whatever. I did try chicken momos from a streetside vendor, and being brutally honest - they were awful. You get better momos than that crap in Delhi. I felt a bit disappointed, but I guess you've to make peace that almost all popular/touristy destinations have almost everything average. You've to set your expectations reasonably at that level.
The following weekend came, and I was excited to drive more in the hills. Somehow my favourite thing about this entire trip was driving. I discovered a lovely cafe in Dharamshala and happily spent half of my day here. Everything was top notch: the food, the vibe, and the people running this cafe. Discovering this place is easily one of the highlights of my trip.
The next day, I decided to do a few touristy things. I went to War Memorial in Dharamshala. The person at the counter was super shocked to know that I was alone. This place is really well maintained, has plenty of quiet, peaceful spots and a beautiful garden to take a walk-in.
Roamed around for a bit and decided to head to Masroor Rock Cut Temple. I'd heard a lot about this from my Airbnb host, and since it was a drive that meant I could explore other parts of the valley, it interested me. The roads in Kangra valley will definitely excite you. The hairpin bends take some time getting used to, but damn, they are fun. Although, something that seems to be the norm in the hills (but was new to me) was that some drivers will turn on the indicators, signalling that you can overtake them from that side. This was obviously confusing initially, but then it's all about getting used to it.
I reached the place and was surprised to see that the ticketing system was entirely online, and there was no cash counter. Scan the code, pay via UPI and enter a temple built in the 8th CE. If this is not a brilliant display of post-modern India, I don't know what is. Oh, the monolithic rock-cut temple was darn impressive. It was initially a complex of 19 temples; however, only a few remain after the devastating earthquake in 1905 that hit the Kangra valley. Out of the 19 temples, 16 of them were carved out from a single rock!
I had some delicious Maggi from a stall on my way back, and you'll find many such on hilly roads. Placebo effect or not, Maggi is best relished in the hills.
After exploring almost all of Naddi, Mcleod, and Dharamshala the following week, I found it boring over the weekdays. My original plan was to stay here for a bit longer, but I decided to cut short my trip and this week being my last week. I visited Andretta Valley, and boy oh boy. This was the most beautiful part of the Kangra valley, just a few km away from Palampur. This small village had all my heart with its tranquil and relaxing vibe. The roads towards Andretta were newly constructed, and I was cruising at 70-80 in the hills. After driving in Mcleod's busy markets for 2 weeks, I'd almost forgotten that my car's 5th/6th gear also exists. The experience was surreal; I sat here and did nothing, just observing these folks' slow and peaceful lives. There are no tourists here, and I didn't particularly find any shops here either. The more I write, the more I want to go back and experience it again.
And with that beautiful drive, it was time to pack my bags and bid this lovely place a final goodbye. I couldn't sleep properly at night because I had a weird excitement about going back home, eating home food and sleeping on my familiar bed. I guess 2 weeks of travel does this to you.
I started the journey in the wee hours of the morning, around 4:45, with a laser-sharp focus to just reach asap. Yeah, I don't like to take a lot of breaks when driving; I know many people prefer it the other way, but for me, even the food breaks shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes. Else I feel I wasted a lot of time. An advantage of driving so early was that I could exit Himachal in just three hours or so, which otherwise would have taken 4+ hours because of traffic etc. Also, look at the pretty sunrise somewhere in Kangra! I stopped for a quick brekkie, but in my true essence, instead of having something light, I packed on a nice Chole Bhature and, of course, the tea.
Cruised along the NH44, reminiscing all the sweet memories of the trip but a euphoric feeling of getting back home. I reached by 2:30 PM, had lunch and fell into a deep slumber.
Overall, I had a lot of fun, and yes, some things didn't go right (in terms of adequately planning beforehand). But, I guess the point of solo trips is not that they've to be picture-perfect, but instead, how you deal with situations thrown at you, all by yourself. I skipped visiting a few places I had in mind, I could have planned a better stay where I could meet other fellow travellers, but I don't regret this trip even a bit. I got to finally drive my car on the hills solo, which gave me a lot of confidence to make much more challenging trips in the future. Hope the hills beckon me soon!