This was second year in a row that we thought we will spend the Christmas holidays in isolation at Hyderabad, especially when Ayush said he won’t be able to take any holidays as he had already planned a trip to Delhi for his roommate and close friend’s (of 4 years of college) sister’s wedding in the first week of January. However, Sangeeta Basu, our very dear and expert in organizing vacations had other ideas. She worked out a program for 3 nights 4 days at a place called Vanvasa Resort near Lansdowne. I checked the place and it happened to be in the midst of Corbett Jungles. We were elated to be in the lap of nature and possibility of meeting some wild friends.
Sadly, we had to cancel that keeping in mind the high voltage dramas enacted by the opposition parties across the country in the name of citizenship amendment bill which actually is simply to accommodate the persecuted minority population from the three neighboring (declared) Islamic Countries and does not affect any existing citizens of this country irrespective of their religious faith. The surprising part of this agitation was that it all happened in the BJP ruled states; the states where Congress is in power were absolutely calm!! Anyways, we decided to explore alternatives in the peaceful areas and Sangeeta came up with Prakriti Farms, an hour drive from Chandigarh in Ropar or Roop Nagar, Punjab.
Deepika and I left for Delhi on 25th morning. As we came out of the Indigo aircraft, the chilly air of Delhi gave us a warm welcome; we have been missing this winter air for last 2 years…
Our home was quite clean and livable, courtesy Deepika’s friend Sumita, who had graciously agreed to get the place cleaned as often as she can and had it cleaned just a couple of days before we reached. There was a marked difference in the weather from 24 degrees of Hyderabad and around 8-10 degrees in Delhi. I was wearing my jacket after 2 years!!
In my last visit to Delhi in October, I had sold my car, Duster which was a diesel vehicle of 6 years old having only 4 years of life left as per the new motor vehicle laws. Therefore, I had booked a Hyundai Creta from Zoom Cars for our upcoming trip to Prakriti Farms, Roop Nagar and I went to fetch it from the pick-up point. This was the first time that I was using Zoom vehicle and was bit apprehensive about “no human interface pick-up”. But to my delight it was very smooth and took me less than 20 minutes to go through the formalities using their Mobile App and soon I was driving the Creta.
We, (Deepika, I and Sumita) left for Prakriti Farms around 7:30 am on 26th December with trusted Google Maps as our guide and it predicted approx 5:30 hours to the destination. We met up with Basus & Dutts at our favourite meeting point at the Bharat Petroleum Station at Moolchand crossing. In all my previous road trips, notably 5 trips between Delhi-Hyderabad, I had comprehensively beaten Google Map by at least an hour, so I was confident it will be same this time too. What I had not considered are 2 things – (1) I was driving a commercial vehicle & (2) the new system of paying Toll through FasTag and resultant long queues at the “Cash Booths”. The Creta was registered in Punjab and I knew that I will have to pay “Entry Tax” to Haryana RTA. However, we couldn’t make out when and at what point we crossed into Haryana as there was no RTO Toll Collection Booths to be seen.
We stopped over at Garam Dharam Dhaba at Murthal for breakfast. Apparently the great bollywood actor Dharmendra had inspired the owners so much that they have named it after him. The place was huge hall with counters for different kind of street foods both savory and sweet besides thirst quenchers like tea, coffee, sodas and lassi. The food was decent (at least my Amritsari Kulchas), the Paranthas looked appetizing. However, the tea wasn’t to the standard we are used to.
The first Toll Gate came after about 5 km and we experienced the first of many “toll gate jams”. The private vehicles with FasTags sailed through the gates smoothly while all the commercial vehicles including cars, autos and trucks jostled at the cash only gates numbering just 2 against 8 gates for the tagged vehicles. This I found a bit ridiculous because since the tagged vehicle doesn’t have to stop at the gate, the lesser number would have worked just as well. The commercial vehicles are not going to put the FasTag and shall continue to suffer, going forward.
Hardly a kilometer after the Toll Plaza, I was stopped by a posse of Police. A young constable came and asked for the papers which I promptly showed him. He flipped through the document file and asked for the Haryana Entry Tax receipt. I told him with full honesty that even though I looked for the tax collection booth but couldn’t find it. He said the fine is INR 10000 for illegal entry. I pleaded with him that it was the first time travel for us in a commercial car and we will pay the tax at the next available booth. After lot of haggling and negotiation, I settled it for INR500 for his Chai-Samosa in the December Chill. He was courteous enough to provide the details of the next RTO but it was not very clear. In the hunt for the RTO, a bus brushed passed the rear right door but luckily there was no dent. We found the RTO just before Panipat on a side street and paid the tax for 5 days. We lost an hour in the process while Basus & Dutts in their own vehicle plus FasTag had moved on and was at least 50-60km ahead of us. There was also a speed restriction on all Zoom Cars, my limit was 126kmph but I kept the speed at 100-112kmph and finally caught up with them on the Chandigarh By-pass road. Now, we were in Punjab, so no more state tax issue and all three vehicles cruised along together. We reached Prakriti Farms around 3:30pm, a clear 2 hours later than Google Map prediction.
Prakriti Farms is situated inside the village Rail Majra in the district Shahid Bhagat Singh, 7 km from Ropar city. It does provide a slice of Punjab (village) as you take the narrow patch of earthen road from the NH 205 and cross the village to get to the farm. It is nestled in the foothills of Shivalik and about 15 minutes drive away from the Ropar wetlands. The accommodation is basic but comfortable. We were housed in three cottages, 2 of which had 3 beds and the other double bed. The 3-bedded rooms were really big and needed 2 heaters to warm up with outside temperature plunging to almost 0 degrees at night. However, to our charging the moment we switched on the second heater in our room, the power went off but fortunately the bed lamps worked. There was no intercom phone in the room to call the housekeeping, so I went out with my phone torch to hunt for the MCB switch but couldn’t find one. It was around 10:30 pm but the place looked as if it was midnight. We were very tired and slept wearing the woolens.
I normally get up around 5:30 am in the morning after finishing my morning chores, looked through the window to the outside still in midnight mode, dark and silent. I returned to my bed and slept till I could hear voices outside. It was 7:30 am and both Deepika and Sumita still in deep slumber. I went out to find the bonfire has been lighted and tea is about to be served. Normally, in these kinds of places they serve readymade tea which is prepared in milk and lots of sugar. Since most of us are averse to taking sugar in our tea, we had asked for tea with separate serving of milk and sugar. Sunil, the Man Friday at the Farm was efficiently arranging the cups n saucer and got two thermoses full of tea and milk. Santanu was there with Princess Chewbacca (adorable Shih tzu) as was (Dutt) Uncle and soon the ladies joined us at the bonfire which was lighted up every day of our stay in the early morning and kept alive till we called it a day. Sipping the hot tea (must mention that the tea was excellently brewed with some special herbs as per Sunil), we discussed the course of the day and finalized on visiting Bhakra Dam and Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara which were roughly 2 hours drive from the farm, after breakfast.
The breakfast consisted of 2 kinds of Paranthas – Aloo and Gobi with farm made fresh curd and achaars besides toast and egg. The paranthas were out-of-this-world kind, at least ten notches above what we had at Garam Dharam, Murthal. Till about 15 days prior to our visit, the farm had over 50 chickens and the eggs used to come from there but due to age issue, those were sold off and the new batch was yet to come, so they relied on the commercial supplies when we visited. However, the food preparation was so good that foodies like Santanu and myself couldn’t find anything to crib!!! Santanu even conceded that the Coffee made with normal Nescafe was too good and he could never get the flavor even from the Nescafe Gold (superior version) coffee at home. We concluded that it was because of the unadulterated fresh milk that boosted the taste of the coffee.
Post breakfast we quickly took our bath got ready for Bhakra via Anandpur Sahib. While on the road, we changed plans and decided to go to Bhakra first which needed permit to visit and that office closes around 3pm for public. Sangeeta went inside to get the permit while Santanu cleverly utilized the break to smoke and I tried the “Pocket Kulcha” from a street vendor. It is the same “Matar-Kulcha” with a different presentation but couldn’t match the taste with the Delhi variety.
Though we associate Bhakra-Nangal as one and with Punjab, the reality is they are 2 different dams; Bhakra is in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh while Nangal is in Punjab. The latter is inaccessible to tourists.
The dam, located at a gorge near the (now submerged) upstream Bhakra village in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh of height 226 m. The length of the dam (measured from the road above) is 518.25 m and the width is 9.1 m. It’s reservoir known as “Gobind Sagar” stores up to 9.34 billion cubic metres of water. The 90 km long reservoir created by the Bhakra Dam is spread over an area of 168.35 km. In terms of quantity of water, it is the third largest reservoir in India, the first being Indira Sagar dam in Madhya Pradesh with capacity of 12.22 billion cu m and second Nagarjunasagar Dam in Telengana State.
Described as “New Temple of Resurgent India” by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, the dam attracts tourists from all over India. Bhakra dam is 15 km from Nangal city and 20 km from Naina Devi town.
Nangal Dam is another dam in Punjab downstream of Bhakra Dam. However, sometimes both the dams together are called Bhakra-Nangal Dam though they are two separate dams.
As we approached check-post, I asked the policeman where to pay the “entry tax” for Himachal Pradesh. He had a incredible look in his face and laughed at me saying not to bother about it as the permit itself is what is required. I was still apprehensive as the INR 10000 challan still rang on my head but I couldn’t see a single booth for toll collection. There was a checkpoint nearer to Bhakra manned by Indian Army but even they had cursory look inside the 2 vehicles and the permit and let us proceed.
Since our childhood right from the text books to other pictures, Bhakra dam had seemed to be a gigantic structure however, in reality it looked like a “wall of a fort” that spread across two hills. All along the route, signage said “No Photography” so we refrained from taking any but saw many others stopping and taking selfies at will. The Govind Sagar Lake was awesomely huge, one couldn’t see the other side even with Sun shining bright. The water was clear blue and I am sure if we were any closer, we could have seen the fishes swimming. There were steps to go down to the banks and Deepika, Sumita and Sangeeta went down to click some pictures. I calculated the steps to be at least 70-80 if not more; going down is not a problem but climbing up would have been a big challenge especially when one has to drive. We drove up further on the road to capture more panoramic view before making our return journey.
There were kiosks selling Fish Fries, Santanu and Sangeeta being Fish Lovers, decided to pick up some for evening snacks with the drinks. The supplies came from the Govind Sagar itself so the fishes are always fresh catch of the day.
As we approached Anandpur Sahib, it was already 4:30 pm and I told Deepika that she has only 15-20 minutes to complete her “darshan” as it would get dark by the time we are anywhere near to Prakriti Farms and it would be challenging to negotiate the narrow rough village roads in the darkness. We parked our vehicles and followed the sparse evening crowd to the Gurdwara. I and Shenjit stayed out on the courtyard guarding the footwear and purses while Santanu accompanied the ladies inside. I had expected them to come out in 20 minutes or so but they came out within 5 minutes. They were obviously disappointed by the size of the Gurdwara and lamented as to why it is so famous? Even the “kada Prasad” was neither good in quantity nor in taste (having been to many Gurdwaras, I can safely say that the helpings are large and tastes heavenly).
On our way out to the parking, we tried the “Stick Kulfi” from “Verka”, it tasted more of “desi ghee” than “malai”. Once upon a time, Verka used to be what Amul is to Gujarat but because of management failure or even political neglect has remained a local brand while Amul is now an international brand.
Santanu had parked at a place from where he could easily take the first exit from the parkinf lot but our car was parked a little ahead and we had to go some 300 meters ahead to take the u-turn. As I was negotiating the turn, I noticed a large structure on my left and casually asked Deepika to see it. Deepika immediately screamed “Oh shit, we went to the wrong Gurdwara. This is the real Anandpur Sahib”. By that time my turning back was complete and Santanu’s vehicle was at least half a kilometer ahead of us and more importantly, darkness was falling rapidly on the horizon. After a teleconferencing with Basu’s, it was decided to let go of real Anandpur Sahib as all homes of the Almighty are equal!!!
While going to Bhakhra, we observed lots of vendors selling Kinnows also called Tangerine so we stopped by at one such vendor to have Kinnow juice to quench our thirst. We also picked up some “moomphalee” and “gajjak” from the vendor next to it.
As I had expected, it was completely dark when we reached the Prakriti Farms after missing a couple of turns and taking detours through harrowing roads of the villages. But we all agreed that it was overall a great experience that we shall remember for a long time.
In the evening, we devoured the fried fish from Bhakra along with farm fresh pakodas with our scotch and wine. The dinner was simple (as per our wish) consisting of yellow tadka dal, aloo-gobi sabji with chapatti and jeera rice.
Though we had planned for a few rounds of TwentyNine (card game invented by Bongs) but the main players including me were exhausted and we called it a day. The darkness was so deep that you will feel you are in the middle of nowhere, one could see the stars twinkling in between the light cloud and could hear the howls of dogs in the distance. We guessed the temperature to be near zero and quickly entered in the warmth of our room. Deepika & Sumita wanted play cards (Rummy without money) and invited which I politely declined and went inside the heavy razaai.
Early in the morning, I woke with a feeling that it’s raining heavily probably a thunderstorm. I got up with an effort to look through the window but there was no rain, only a thick layer of fog. It was 5 am and still a long time for others to wake up, I decided to freshen first and then dive back under my razaai once more.
Mr. Kaushal, the owner of the farm, joined us at the morning tea around the bonfire and suggested we take a guided tour of the estate with Sunil which we promptly agreed. The estate included a hill in the distant along with a large spread of jungle. Sunil said that till about couple years ago, leopards were present in the jungle and would visit the farm for food. Now only some deer and wild boars are remaining other than birds. We did see the poop of both on our way to the Kinnow Orchard inside the jungle. We were warned by Sunil to avoid the thick shrubbery as pythons might be waiting there to strike the unsuspecting prey. There has been incidence of python slithering in the bird cage to devour the chicks during the monsoon.
On our way back we saw the guava orchard and the organic farming of vegetables besides the cattle shed from where the freshest milk comes for tea/coffee, desi ghee and curd.
This day, we had decided to visit another resort nearby (approx 50 km away) called Kikar Lodge for our lunch. Post breakfast we lazed around and played with Chewbacca and realized I do not have the stamina to match the one year old Shih tzu. I also missed Rolf who would have loved to roam around in the cool chimes of the farm. There were some 7 dogs of mixed breed, friendly with humans but Mr. Kaushal had put them in the kennel because of Chewbacca.
In the afternoon we left for Kikar Lodge and this time Uncle-Aunty and Chewbacca also joined us. We religiously followed Google Maps through the winding roads of interior Punjab till it took us to a point of nothing-ahead!! Luckily we found a local guy who guided us back to a more drivable road and Google Map too picked up the cue and guided us to the Kikar Lodge which was at the edge of village Kangar, Nurpur Bedi, Punjab spread over 1800 acres of forest and luscious green splendor. It offered activities like swimming, horse-riding, outdoor games and quad-bike rides for the residents. We had booked for lunch and proceeded straight to the poolside where tables were set for guest dining. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon which prompted us to discard the jackets and scarves and order for chilled beer. The food was quite good but restaurant quality unlike the homely food at Prakriti Farms. We took some snaps with the quad bikes as prop before leaving for the farm.
We checked with Kikar Lodge people if there is any better route and they guided us to the highway that would take us to our destination. We switched on the Google Map once we hit the highway and this time it showed us the right directions. Closer to the Prakriti Farms, about 5-6 km away we stopped at the roadside vendor selling Kinnow juice. As we were waiting for the juice, we noticed some commotion next to the piles of kinnow and realized one of the guy was pulling out something with the help of a bamboo stick that had a kind of blunt sickle at one end. When it came out in the open, we remained open mouthed looking at the huge, at least 8-10 ft long python. Fortunately for the poor thing, they did not kill it but pulled and dragged it to the other side of the road which had a marshland and forest where it slithered off. We were happy having met at least of the wild friends during the trip.
It was our last evening at the farm; we decided to play Dumb Charade, our favorite evening activity whenever we go out in large group. We were joined by Mr. Balvinder Singh with his wife and two children besides their handsome Labrador called Bolt (named after Usain Bolt). Mr. Singh had checked-in during the afternoon when we had gone to the Kikar Lodge. Quite amiable person and soon we became friends and they were more than happy to join us in the game of Dumb Charade. It was a sweet coincidence that his daughter was in the same school that of Shenjit Basu aka Mingo. It turned out to be a memorable evening with lots fun and merriment around the bonfire which was kept alive with regular supply of wood and the expert handling by Sumita.
After dinner, Deepika, Sumita and I played few rounds of Rummy and needless to say I lost hands down.
We had decided to start early for our return journey to Delhi but the weather god had thought otherwise and we woke to a dense fog all around the place. I have driven on NH1 (now NH44) earlier under dense fog and know how nightmarish it can be!! We were having our tea when Mr. Kaushal came over and suggested that we should wait a while and leave around 10:30/11:00 am by which time the weather will clear up. We agreed but decided to get ready and load up the car so we don’t waste any time once the fog lifts.
We left Prakriti Farms around 11:30 am and all three vehicles were cruising in tandem till we reached the first toll plaza from where Basu’s and Dutt’s moved ahead courtesy the FasTag while we had to clear the long line of vehicles at the cash lane. Then came the inevitable twist in our journey, Deepika was navigating when we reached a fork where the right lane was taking curving flyover and the left going straight and she read the Google Map wrong and we took the left lane to enter the very crowded and potholed city road instead of the bypass. There was no option but to go forward and took the road to Mohali city and after lots of left-right turns finally hit the NH205 once again.
While going we had noticed makeshift shops on the highway selling fresh jaggery and had decided to pick up some on our way back. We stopped at one such shop where Sumita picked up 5kg and Deepika 2kg and I bought 500gm of freshly made peanut-jaggery gajjak.
Rest of the journey back was uneventful barring the fact that if Google Map decides to take you through a particular route, howsoever you may try to avoid, it will surely guide you to that route only. Upon entering Delhi, I wanted to take the eastern side of the Ring Road via Alipur-ISBT-Kashmere Gate-Rajghat while Google wanted us to take the western part of the road through Ashok Vihar-Wazirpur-Punjabi Bagh-Dhaulakuan and it smartly managed to do that eventually as in the darkness of wintery night I did not wanted to do any bravado and be lost in the foggy weather.
We reached home around 7:30pm and even after much cajoling Sumita didn’t stay back and left for her home in Gurugram. Deepika & I went to see her ailing uncle residing nearby who was delighted to see us and after spending an hour there we came back totally exhausted but happy holidaying with friends.
It was good that Sumita left for her home in the evening itself because the following morning fog descended with a vengeance!!!