Tour De Punjab with Manisha Sathe Gowaikar

Womendiaries

By Manisha Sathe Gowaikar



Wandering around with unknown people to offbeat destinations and that too on a driving entourage is a far fetched dream for many, but not for our author of the day, Manisha Sathe Gowaikar. Early this year, Manisha took a road trip from Punjab to Himachal!  Read about Manisha’s maiden roadtrip across Punjab to Himachal!

 

Punjab Himachal Road Trip (January 2021) 

This has been a trip of many firsts for me –

first time by myself!

First time self-drive!

First time crisscrossing a state in a car!

First time with unknown people!

Let me begin by giving a little background information:

Sujal Patwardhan and Medha Joseph run a travel company that is operating since the last 5 years. The dashing duo has won many accolades like the ‘The Times She unLTD’,  ‘Entrepreneur Award 2020’ for Best Women Entrepreneurs in the Travel & Experiences category.  They organize road trips via cars and bikes across the globe to offbeat destinations like Peru, Mongolia, the Silk Route, Baltics, New Zealand, Scotland and more. They themselves  have done Mumbai-Moscow-Morocco and Mumbai-Spain – two month long trips, all by road. Within India, Punjab is their signature and they are soon planning North East trip in April this year!

Travel has undergone a dramatic change due to the Covid Pandemic. Road trips are gaining popularity and travel that have done their recce and homework well, will undoubtedly ace this new travel business model.

I found out on a social media platform that a self drive trip through Punjab and Himachal is being proposed. Since the dates were matching with my semester ending, I signed up with minimum fuss… This trip was just coincidentally an all women trip – their trips are not necessarily so!

Sharing the experiences means reliving them. I had maintained a journal of my trip which now I would like to share with you all…

Day 0:

Me and my tripmates reached Chandigarh individually, at our own timings. Pickup at the airport had been arranged for, and also lunch or tea at the hotel, depending on the time we reach. By 5.00 p.m., the group was all there – 2 from Pune and 2 from Mumbai, and after freshening up, we decided to venture out on foot. We were staying at the Taj in Chandigarh, so the famous Sector 17 market was close by. We headed there for a delicious kulhad vaali chai and then just window shopping, getting to know each other and ice breaking.

We headed back to the hotel, where travel organizers had organized a surprise for us. One of our group members was celebrating her wedding anniversary that day – in fact this trip was an anniversary gift – and the travel company extended their hospitality by arranging a cake and champagne….what a wonderful way to connect with clients!

The company offered a briefing followed by more ice breaking sessions that night. They very thoughtfully distributed goodie bags that contained sweatshirts, thermos flasks, tea bags, bag weight check, Pee safe shields, sanitisers, masks, sanitary napkin disposal bags and all required gear for a good road trip. Another client delight moment!

We called it a night after dinner!

Day 1:

Started the drive from Chandigarh to Amritsar, which is approximately 225 kms. We were ready from 9 a.m. but there was heavy fog, so had to wait. Finally started at noon in two cars – A Brezza and a Creta, and a support vehicle.

At about 80 kms. out of Chandigarh, we went off the highway for about 10 kms to eventually rejoin it. Basically to see the countryside, the lush greenery, sarson ke khet (mustard fields), and of course, to take a few pics – our own DDLJ moments… Stopped for kinnow juice on the way. Kinnow is a citrus variant, developed in the US, cultivated in Punjab, among other places in the world. Seedless, juicy and delightfully tart and sweet!

Reached Amritsar eventually much later than expected because of heavy traffic.

Checked in at the Ramada, freshened up and walked to the Golden Temple for the night view. A truly majestic sight – indescribable! The sight of the lit up structure and its reflection in the surrounding water – unforgettable!

Food at the world famous Bharavan Dhaba, just outside the temple. Brothers and Bharavan – famous dhabas outside the temple… The kulchas, the dal and the chole….all to die for….

Crashed out eventually, with the promise of the next day!

Day 2:

The next morning at Amritsar – it was a beautiful day. Just the right amount of cold to warrant a light sweater, and sunny. After breakfast, we headed to the Golden Temple again for the day darshan. Stood in the queue for a couple of hours, and finally got the darshan. The beauty during the day is very different – these are things that no camera will do justice to – our mind captures it and stores it forever! The Kada Prasad is again something that is revered worldwide, and it truly is like that! While I am religion neutral, I do get positive vibes in any place of worship – maybe it is the architecture, or the collective faith or whatever….

After the darshan, we spent some time in the lanes, of course, clicked pictures, tried our hand at a tuk tuk, which is a rickety, precarious three wheel ride and then went for lunch at Kesar da dhaba – a dhaba that is more than a hundred years old, in one of the seediest lanes of Amritsar. These lanes are not for the faint hearted, I tell you! Narrow as narrow can be, and packed with vehicles….

The food again – to die for – Punjabi kadhi is one of the best kadhis I have ever tasted! Post lunch, it was SHOPPING time…. 5 ladies and no shopping is impossible, right? Got some amazing phulkari stuff and juttis – how much practical those juttis are, time will tell….

Came back to the hotel pretty late – this being a core tourist area, everything is open till late

Dinner at night though, was Chinese, as our stomachs indicated their satiation with Punjabi food!

Day 3:

The next day was 26th January – we were to reach Hoshiarpur today, with a triangular detour at Ferozepur. Amritsar Ferozepur is about 130 kms and Ferozepur Hoshiarpur is 170 kms. Ferozepur is a border town, and we were privileged to visit the Shaheed Bhagat Singh memorial built there.

Apart from this, there is a train track that has been preserved carefully. During the partition, tracks were deliberately destroyed from both sides, so that trains couldn’t ply. The remains of the tracks and the structure which bears bullet marks are testimony to the suffering of millions of people. It is a chilling reminder of our history! Ferozepur bears importance from the wars of 1965 and 1971 too.  Felt extremely humbled and grateful to visit these memorials and the remnants of the war that day.

Left Ferozepur after lunch and then a late evening drive into Hoshiarpur. A beautiful sunset, dhabe ki chai and long train tracks along the greenest of fields. Very picturesque! The sudden drop in temperature made it worthy that we had gotten our big guns of jackets along….till then, we hadn’t needed them.

Checked into the Citrus County – Firdaus resort at Hoshiarpur – a beautiful property nestled in tall trees and very private. Harkirat Singh, the owner, made it his personal priority to ensure that we were taken care of, and left no stone unturned over the next two days to wow us as his guests!

A crackling bonfire under a cold, star studded sky, whisky shots, lovely food, lots of introspection and then dinner and sleep…

Day 4:

We had reached Hoshiarpur pretty late the earlier night. I remember seeing boards of towns like Kapurthala, Gurdaspur, Kartarpur etc. on the way. The highway leading to Hoshiarpur was quite narrow, as there was construction of over bridges going on, and that had delayed us for quite a bit. Otherwise also, Hoshiarpur is a sleepy little town with large stretches of orchards and farms.

The next morning was a lazy one – we woke up late, went for a walk – the property is lovely, with walking trails, and vegetable garden patches.

Had our breakfast in a beautiful setting and helped with lunch being cooked on a chulha, with ingredients all foraged from their property and spent time playing with Mufasa and Rustom – 2 adorable lab puppies. Post lunch, went to a kinnow orchard, did some fruit picking and drove a tractor too! So much diesel dhoor and dhad dhad noise – but when you sit on that hard seat and maneuver that large steering wheel, trying not to look at those huge rolling tyres, and turning it, it is a different experience altogether….

A bonfire session again at night and lots of chitchatting and masti…songs in the background…

Day 5:

The heart was a little heavy – after so much planning for the trip, we realized that it is almost coming to an end and we would be en route our last destination today.

Left the beautiful Hoshiarpur property for Palampur in HP. Approximately 140 kms.

Till now, the driving had been very smooth – on highways, and even if we went off highways in villages on single lane roads, it was the quintessential rural areas, and never tiresome because of the lush greenery. Driving was not a drudgery, as we never encountered too much traffic in the smaller areas. Highways would get packed once in a while with traffic.

Another point to note was that throughout our driving in Punjab, or even in Himachal, we did not come across any other women drivers. Not just on the highways, even in cities! Neither two nor four wheelers. This was a little surprising for me, as in Pune and Mumbai, we are so used to seeing many women driving.

This of course, gave rise to the typical male nature of drivers on highways – when women are driving, the behavior that can be observed – can be funny at times, irritating at times. Highways of course, were trucks and cars. In rural areas, pedestrians, tractors, carts and two wheelers, people were just awestruck– not troublesome. We anyway drew a lot of attention wherever we went – all women drivers, and cars with the Embarq logos.

Driving to Palampur was a different experience. Technically, Palampur is based in the Kangda valley. It extends from the foothills of the Dhauladhar mountain ranges of the Lesser Himalayas to the south of the Beas river. While driving from Hoshiarpur to Palampur, there was a sharp ascent and then a descent into the valley. Beautiful, scenic, narrow roads winding up the mountains, with the signature bends and curves. It sure was fun driving up that road…

Reached the Wah Tea Lodge around lunch time… a superbly simple, yet most flavourful lunch served and check in… This again, is a very private property, owned by golfer Surya Prakash, and his father, the tea magnate Deepak Prakash. Frequented by celebrities, like Vidya Balan and Saifeena, but the hosts ensured that we were treated like them too…. Beautiful, quaint wood cottages, very tastefully decorated, aesthetically used colors and a lovely garden outside.

A round of their tea plantation after lunch, and a tour of the tea factory. Interesting information about how tea came to India (stolen from China), how the machines are more than a hundred years old and made by companies that made parts for the Titanic too (though fates are poles apart, touchwood), and the explanation of the processing of tea – plucking, withering, rolling, drying. We ended the tour with a delightful tea tasting session. The tea estate was peppered with humorous and quirky tea related boards – some pics have been attached.

Back to the lodge, and a bonfire and a chat with the gracious host. The food that was served after that was the Kangra Dham – Dham is food, or offering, which started off as a traditional feast served in weddings, and evolved after that. It basically is rice, served with varied dals – with several notes to it – Madrah, Maash, Khatta and then Mitha. Madrah is chole, rajmah, moong mostly, Maash is urad, masoor and chana, khatta is kaddu cooked with tamarind and jaggery and then mitha – sweet rice. There is also a unique dish named Sepu badi, which is made of spinach, dill, urad dal, curds, ginger and ghee. The food is mostly cooked without onions and garlic – is satvik – but the simple flavors are out of this world. A lot of dahi, dhaniya powder and ghee is used in the food. Each of these courses complement each other in taste and utility to the body.

Tried the eclectic Himachali fruit wine that night – different flavors of peach and kiwi – it was pretty nice!

The next day would be our last one in Palampur, and then the day after we would leave for Chandigarh.

Day 6:

Our last day and then night in Palampur – the realization that this was getting over way sooner than we were ready for it, was hitting hard!

I started my day with a walk in the tea estate again – couldn’t get enough of the mountain ranges. Crisp morning air and a clear view of the Dhauladhar ranges!

Didn’t know what was planned for the day – the only information we had was that a pick-up had been arranged for 10.00 a.m., so we were to be ready by that time. Breakfast was while delightfully basking in the sun as usual, and the normal bread and egg was also presented so well – Egg Kejriwal, apparently this dish – a reference to the Willingdon Club in Mumbai, where it has been named after a patron by the name of Devi Prasad Kejriwal, who ordered it to be made like this. In simpler words, it is eggs on toast with chillies and cheese.

A Maruti Gypsy picked us up – (one of my favorite cars), and then up up up the mountains we went – we first took a halt at the Himachali Vindhyavasini temple. Set on a cliff, mid mountain and with a gurgling water body behind it, it is the perfect setting! We kinda went mad there, dipping our heads into the super cold water… it was extremely refreshing, and invigorating.

Again loaded ourselves into the Gypsy, and further up the mountains…. A picnic had been arranged with the complete taam jhaam – in the middle of nowhere, on a cliff – staring at the mountains, and down the valleys!

Zen moments – only memories can hold them.

Back to the hotel, and a quiet evening in the room – was too cold outside…. Dinner was Khichadi with an assortment of other things – simple, nourishing, soulful!

Day 7:

Left Palampur to go back to Chandigarh – a scenic 6 hours drive, pretty low on traffic at most stretches. Our last drive with tharki songs and some really bad singing along. Reached the Taj in Chandigarh by 6.30 p.m. with a sense of fulfillment and elation at having completed the drive successfully, but also an anti-climatic feeling that we disperse the next day and go back to our own worlds.

Celebrated with the leftover eclectic assortment of drinks and reminiscing the moments on the drive. Each one of us, in our 40s, with our own idiosyncrasies, our ups and downs, personal experiences and individual takeaways. Laughter, tears, joy and somber moments!

The Pune gals were the first to leave at 5.00 in the morning, but the night had never ended, so as I sat in the plane typing this out, I was yet to come out of that beautiful feeling that had engulfed me like a warm cozy blanket.

Some miscellaneous thoughts:

The travel company that arranged this whole experience ensured that every little need and wish was accommodated – not as an adjustment, but with the truest of intentions of making this trip as memorable for us as possible. If there was ever a little difference of opinion anywhere, win win solutions were thought of.

Cars were daily replenished with snacks, water bottles, and had fully functioning walkie talkies for communication. On the road, there were always checks about needing washroom breaks and hunger levels. Absolutely no scrimping when it came to food – it was anyway one of the highlights of the trip – a variety of food! Also, the aim was to give us a pleasurable driving experience – navigation, routes and other things are carefully recced, never giving us a feeling of wtf!!

Simple things like room shuffling between us ensured that we interacted with and befriended everyone.

Luckily we did not have any moments that were not in our control – touchwood.

No – we did not have any moments where we regretted coming on the trip.

No, we also did not face any issues because of the farmers’ protests going on. We saw a lot of them on all routes, but never had any problems.

Yes, the travel company had an action plan ready if there was a car breakdown – thankfully we did not need it. All of us were strong, stable drivers and took our turns behind the wheels in rotation. A smooth, well planned and brilliantly executed driving trip.

As I wind up my travelogue here, am already counting days for when I can join them for another trip, or do my own road trip again – it is like an addiction! I pretty much think I am becoming a hodophile – time will tell.  Travel far enough, and you will meet yourself one day!

So it is au revoir for everyone here – hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed the trip and writing this. So long, till I go somewhere again! Making memories, one road trip at a time….

P.S – For everyone who wonders if this is doable – IT IS. I have also been in a dilemma for long about road trips, solo trips, and trips with strangers. Trust me, it is the best way to travel – corroborating my belief that “vacation with family could be just change of location” 😉 Just kidding – to each his / her own! But seriously, these kind of trips are very liberating and yes, addictive too! Go out there, be on your own and with yourself, live in that moment, and feel the magic!

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