Real & Surreal

, Breathe

The lush green surroundings and snow-capped Himalayan peaks make Kalatop one of the most pristine destinations of Dalhousie, boasting some of the best kept secrets of the wildlife sanctuary

Sometimes when your trip doesn’t go as immaculately planned, there is disappointment looming large on every sharp bend. Our trip started with a couple of disasters – an accident, rainy weather, submerged bridges, treacherous routes as alternates, and the final 3 kms marshy lane snaking through Kalatop. But upon reaching Kalatop National Park, magnificent vista that opened up in front of us seemed well-earned.

Nestled in a sleepy quarter of Himalayas, Kalatop is just 8 kms away from the small but quaint Dalhousie (Chamba district). It’s a wildlife sanctuary that boasts of a variety of flora & fauna. One could encounter black bears, Himalayan yellow-throated martens, deers, jackals, langurs and even leopards. But these sightings aren’t frequent and if one is staying at Kalatop Guesthouse, it’s difficult to spot any.

The steep uphill drive to Kalatop provides aerial views of Dalhousie, often shrouded by the swirling mist. Leaving behind the cacophony of bazaars and towns, as we reached at the gates of the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary, we gasped. The air had become crisper, colder and more refreshing. We could smell heaven.

Lakkar-bazaar welcomed us at the gates with its old-world charm and the perfect portrayal of a bucolic life.

The 3 km stretch of swampy road zig-zagging along the thick forest may sound like a fun drive, but requires full focus of the driver if it’s raining (adventure seekers can hike to this place without much difficulty). It’s a complete change of world as the muddy track ends at the entrance of the forest guest house. A well-manicured garden envelops the land thereafter.

The grandeur of this place lies in its seclusion from the outside world, which is further accentuated by the serenity that transcends even its alpine heights. Caught in a time-warp, Kalatop Forest Guesthouse is packaged in vintage glory. The chalets here have a bloodline descending from the British. Built in 1925, these chalets must have been the architect’s realised dream.

The huge complex houses just three chalets, which sums up six rooms in all, apart from a large guesthouse that’s reserved only for forest department officials. Each chalet has two rooms and a lawn in front of it. The lawn is lined by an exotic variety of flowers blooming in full splendor. This was the sole purpose of Himachal Forest Department to rent out these chalets and promote eco-tourism. Sunflowers headline the bloom here, as one could witness large sunflowers splashing a bright yellow on the green backdrop.

When the real and surreal overlap, there’s bound to be an extravagance of heaven. An overdose of bliss. This is what we experienced when mist enwrapped this place. We could see its origins – forming from a mystic place far away, under the hills, shrouding those tiny wooden houses that rest in serenity. Then the gait of the mist changes, expands everywhere, and charges towards you. It is poetic. You can hide in your room sipping adrak chai or your instant brew. But then, what’s the fun if not welcoming something rushing forward to meet you with excitement, eager to purify your senses; cleanse your mind, body and soul.

The theatrical performance by the mist wasn’t the only highlight. After the sun drowned past the horizon after a hectic day playing peek-a-boo, the crimson sky started dissolving into the hues of blue and purple. It was followed by a purple sky that turned ink blue later. The stars that were distant seemed just a few light years away, dazzling in a new avatar.

The chill had settled in every nook of this forest. The conversations weren’t going to end. So we called for food and coffee from the forest canteen, a small room just few steps down. The pahadi khaana served was oozing with simplicity of flavours and freshness of ingredients. The canteen is popular for people coming to Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary for hiking or just picnicking.

The moon threw light on the nearby peaks and painted them hazy blue. The silhouettes of the mountains and trees looked like an artist’s canvas, full of hidden stories. Before we would freeze, we went inside the room and slept. The chalets are wooden painted in bright green, while the interiors are subtle yet suggestively vintage. It’s a cozy room with comfortable bed. Nothing like a good night’s sleep, tucked in quilt, moon teasing you from the window, comfortable pillows whispering lullabies, dreams inviting you to another world, a world very close to where you are right now. Heaven!

Next day, we woke up with an animated spirit. With this kind of spirit, one would indulge in adventure sports. But there wasn’t any scope for that. So, we did nothing. Well, nothingness has many facets. Doing nothing meant long walks through the wilderness, discovering en-route cherries, foot-steps and paw marks, taking off-route paths to thick forests, hoping to arrive at a magical land, a hamlet maybe, maybe a waterfall, a barn, a pond, or who knows, we might find a tribe celebrating a new birth, praying to the sun god, dancing to the drums, eating exotic fruits.

Doing nothing also included listening to croaks and hums of flies, birds and animals. An experience different altogether. This cacophony was music to the ears. Buzzing yet tranquil. Feeling closest to the nature, we kept quiet for a long time. Some friends basked in the sun, some played badminton, some sang songs of yore. Some told tales of ghosts and spirits, and the long history of mountains and their proximity to the unheard world.

Well, this was nothingness. Just another night, another coffee session and endless conversations. This time we ordered Maggi noodles, and just with that we were content with life. This is life. For that particular moment, yes.

We caught-up with nature at its surreal best. We got back the zest that was missing. But the proverbial truth came knocking on our doors, all good things have to come to an end. With heavy heart and fresh faces, we left heaven.

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