My pupils have dilated and like a four-year-old, I have pressed my face against the frosted window. Large fronds of ferns and stunted cycads crowd the narrow strip along a rivulet running parallel to the road. Beyond that is uninhabited wilderness— an undefiled, sacred land ruled by Aranyani, the mother spirit. Ancient trees with colossal scabrous bodies shoot up and disappear in the dripping clouds. A grotesque piece of bleached tree trunk poses strikingly amidst the intimidating green.
Post Anni, the clouds clear and I find myself perched high on the mountainside with a near vertical drop to my left. Far down an unfatigued river cuts its way through the rocks. Stunted pomegranate trees bearing red half-opened flowers challenge the monotony of conifers. The glossy road snakes down until we reach Kandugarh, a tiny hamlet with two-storied slate roofed stone huts and a pretty post-office veiled with creepers. And then without warning, we meander into a belt of purple wildflowers. Bewitched, I put my book aside. That purple and green could complement each other so magnificently I had never imagined.
Like I hadn’t had enough, a couple of kilometres away the forest erupts in a magical flame of bright orange, russet and pale green. The roadside is carpeted with fallen chir leaves. As if the pigments were bleeding into each other in the rain! Near Chauhani, the forest thins. Scattered blue-pines disrupt open grasslands. Fences of wild roses protect apple orchards. The terraces are golden with wheat and barley. The emptiness of this part of the state is startling. The only vehicles we’ve encountered until now are an SUV winding its way up the gorge near Kamand and some washed-out tractors.
A sudden hush descends as we take on the mud trail up Jalori Pass. Slivers of sunlight float through the filigree of foliage. The Japanese call it komorebi, sunlight filtering through trees. The lichen encrusted forest floor is dappled with pools of light. Tiny white flowers mat the slopes. Birdsong runs its fingers over the face of stillness. The sillage trembles and is soon written over. Glossy brown oaks take over the terrain as we near the pass. From 3120 m, with the cold sunshine painting my dehydrated skin, I watch the serrated tops of countless ridges floating over the swirling deliquescence. The camping site is empty today. There is a revered Mahakali Temple known as Jalori Mata Temple crowning the pass. Because we reached at peak tourist hours, the temple was crowded and we didn’t enter.
After a short walk around, I warm myself with a steaming bowl of Maggi. The stall owner asks if we are from Bengal. “From Kalkatta (Kolkata),” I say. “I’m from Bihar.” I enquire how many months a year does he run his business. I’m astounded when he says year round. “In winter, the firangi (foreigners) trekkers come. Everything is snowed under. All the stalls are shut except mine.” “Eggs are exorbitantly priced in Himachal Pradesh- we had to cough up INR 25 for one- is it because one has to carry them all the way up from the plains?” I ask. “Hamare yahan to madam ji, das rupaye mein hi milte hain, (it is INR 10 an egg here in our shop)” he retorts adding that operators rip-off unsuspecting tourists here. We chat awhile over a cup of milky tea before starting downhill. The descent is notoriously steep.
A large signboard cautions against sharp curves and advises to drive only in first gear. The soil is soft clay and the rain has rendered the thoroughfare so slippery I am apprehensive if the tyres will hold up. We spot an HPTDC bus stuck in the mud and passengers towing their big bags and chubby-cheeked kids up the pass. Not so confident anymore, we drive cautiously down the escarpment. More purple wildflowers jazz up the greenery. Unnerving conifers, their bases in the ravine below, stand with their heads in the clouds. The barks have ridges of hardened amber. The canopy is so dense that sunlight appears like thin strands of gossamer. The mist hangs like the grey underbelly of a monstrous bird. We drive through the Acchuru Valley, past isolated villages glowing in the spring sun to reach Tirthan.
A sparkling river welcomes us. I sit down under a tree with frizzy white flowers, gathering beauty in the folds on my shawl. The sky is decadent cream. This is Jurassic World; I have finally given in.
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