Question: What happens when you are stuck in a rut, exhausted with the mundane, and feel like your life has come to a complete standstill?
Answer: You go jump off a mountain!
And jump off a mountain I did with Wonderful World’s three-night getaway to Andretta.
Nestled among the Dhauladhar range is an idyllic artists’ colony and the village of Andretta. Established in the 1920s by Norah Richards, the Irish theatre artiste and environmentalist, Andretta has, over the years, attracted many noted artists, painters, and more recently potters. Steeped in culture and a bedrock of Punjabi theatre, this quaint little village in the Kangra valley exudes a charm that is second to none. I was about to get a deep dive into all this and more during my three-night stay in this beautiful village.
It’s 5 p.m., my flight has landed at the Delhi airport, and I make a beeline to the taxi stand and instruct the driver to take me to the bridge near Majnu ka Tila, where all the buses for Dharamshala convened. With some Arijit Singh and A.R. Rahman for the company, I reach my destination without much fanfare. The bright green Bedi Bus against a full moon on a yet-to-be-inaugurated bridge made for a striking setting. I meet the rest of the group. While we wait for the other passengers to board, we put this time to good use and get to know each other—the four other lovely ladies with whom I’d be spending the next few days.
At dot 8 p.m. the driver signals that we are about to move. Once on the bus, I doze off to the din of Judwaa 2 playing on the screen in the foreground. Although I’ve travelled on a sleeper bus in the past, this one was a unique experience. I thought I was in for a bumpy ride, but lo and behold I slept like a baby during the entire eight-hour journey. The full moon played hide and seek as the bus trudged around the winding hills once it left the city limits.
My beauty sleep was interrupted by the conductor’s announcement at the crack of dawn the following day. ‘Chalo Bhai, Dharamshala Walley utro!’ We had reached our destination.
Dharamshala is situated in the Kangra valley, at an elevation of 4,780 feet, in the shadow of the majestic Dhauladhar mountains. It is the second capital of Himachal Pradesh (the first being Shimla), and the residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the centre of the Tibetan exile world in India.
It was late October and the early flurry of snow on the majestic Dhauladhar signalled the onset of winter. As a desert dweller, the white carpet of snow was a sight to behold! The crisp air and the early morning sun instantly began to work its magic on us. A quick breakfast of aloo parathas and masala chai from a roadside restaurant and we were on our way to the Mirage, our wonderful homestay in Andretta.
The Mirage was one of the key highlights of our Andretta trip. The property is owned and run by Denis Harrap and his fantastic team—including Sweety, the friendly German Shepherd who kept us company throughout our stay, accompanying us even on our hikes and market walks—who made sure we had a lovely time and gave us a taste of the pahadi lifestyle. Built in 1948, the property is the perfect hideaway to soak in tranquillity and rejuvenate those frayed city nerves. It has a stunning yoga room and a swimming pool (under construction). The rooms are well appointed, with unique artefacts curated from across the world, giving us a glimpse of Denis’s extraordinary travels across the world. We stayed in the White House, a two-storied Himachali mud house with a cosy fireplace. Reproductions of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings made for a striking look against the whitewashed walls, and so did the vintage calendars and posters from the bygone era.
The Mirage is a labour of love, and this is evident in the attention that has gone into creating this beautiful haven—right from the name-sign on the cottage gate to the dinner plates and bedside tables, all managed efficiently by Denis’s hardworking team. My favourite bit about my room—amongst many others—was the bed-heating blanket, chanced upon accidentally. While it wasn’t too cold to use it, I found it was an excellent remedy for aching knees and sore muscles.
After taking in the surroundings over a cup of masala chai and locally made butter biscuits, followed by a delicious Himachali lunch of dal, chawal, and sabzi, we head straight for our 2 p.m. appointment with Shubham at the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society. The next two hours go by in a swirl at the potter’s wheel, throwing and moulding, and getting the clay to yield to our command. The entire experience was therapeutic, from turning the wheel, to the cool clay awaiting its destiny at the potter’s hand, I walked out of the centre in a state of zen.
Next came the village walk with stops at Sobha Singh Art Gallery and Norah Richards’s house where she taught students how to perform plays in a small theatre outside her courtyard. Her house has recently been renovated by the Punjabi University, Patiala, with the skills of local artisans. The courtyard theatre is still in use by the Punjabi university students, where plays are performed every year on 29 October to commemorate Norah’s birthday. As I explored the 1935 mud house, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu—this was a world so far removed from mine, yet it felt like I belonged here.
Under the now-waxing moon the five of us, with Sweety in tow, spent the rest of the evening exploring the nooks and cranny of this beautiful little village and mingling with its warm and hospitable locals. We kept things simple and easy today because tomorrow we were all set to face our mountains and needed to be in the best form possible.
At 4 a.m., our trip lead, knocks at our door. ‘Wake up, it’s time to rise and shine!’ Little did she know my roomie and I were all set—suited and booted—ready to take off. After a hot cup of masala chai, we carefully tread the winding steps and make way to our car waiting to take us to Bir-Billing, one of the best paragliding sites in the world. The half an hour drive to the take-off site at the crack of dawn is scenic, and witnessing the first rays of the rising sun on the Dhauladhar range is mesmerizing.
Amit and Meenu, the husband-and-wife duo, meet us at the landing site at Bir. Once a corporate slave, Amit and Meenu decided to leave their city lives behind and moved to the mountains. Certified paragliding pilots with more than 700 hours of flying experience between the two of them, they now run BeOutdoors, an adventure eco-tour agency.
A short drive uphill to the take-off site at Billing, followed by some final instructions from Amit helps keep my mind occupied from the unthinkable. ‘Look straight ahead, don’t look down, just straight ahead and run, run, run … keep running, don’t stop,’ Amit instructs. Standing at an elevation of 7,900 feet, I have an epiphany: I wonder if Amit’s words are the antidote to my stuck-in-a-rut life situation.
My heart starts to race, Good lordy, what was I thinking, what did I sign up for? Perhaps a spa day would have been a better solution to drive away the blues!
Eddie, my tandem pilot, is cool as a cucumber and his calm demeanour doesn’t help soothe my frayed nerves. Eddie has been setting up the glide this whole time. He then ties me up, straps me up. I’m hooked and booked from all angles possible. There’s no way out. Eddie signals it is time to run. I take in a deep breath and with all the courage that I can muster I run. Six steps in, and suddenly there is no ground beneath my feet. I’m up in the thin air, sitting nicely on the glider’s seat, as Eddie navigates the bright orange glide. That was it. I spend the next twenty minutes taking in the views—the rising sun, the majestic ranges as far as the eyes can see, down below little villages with freshly tilled farms, red-tiled roofs where perhaps the inhabitants were just about waking up to the new day. Bliss!
The warm rays of the sun and the cool pahadi air made for a heady combination of ecstasy, hysteria, and a deep sense of gratitude. Tears streaming down my face, I had another moment of great realization. You see, I have a natural affinity to complicate things—whether it was jumping off a mountain or going about my daily life. Sitting on the glider, balancing a Go-Pro in one hand, and holding on to a plastic strap for my dear life I made a note to myself, to keep it simple, always!
We land at Bir, which I can only describe as a warm knife slicing through a block of butter. Utterly smooth.
Exhilarated, we make our way to Apoorva’s coffee shop, a few metres away from the landing site, for some delicious coffee and carrot cake. With our tummies full, we proceed to visit the number of monasteries along the way and stop for lunch at one of the monastery canteens for some thukpa and thenthuk.
Mind, body, and soul aligned, we head back to our homestay, and, as if it was a done thing, I turn on my bed heater to the max and go in for a four-hour snooze fest! After a relaxed dinner, we call it a day.
It’s day three now, our last and final day before we take the overnight bus back to Delhi. Excited to see what the day holds, my roomie and I are up bright and early as always—suited, booted, packed. There’s a village hike on the itinerary, followed by a scrumptious breakfast, then on to the HPCA cricket stadium in Dharamshala, and finally to Mcleodganj, with a visit to a church and the Bhagsunag waterfalls.
I’ve done many hikes, this should be a walk in the park, I tell myself. And it sure turns out to be one—except for the last leg of the walk when my sedentary knees decide to make a point. Ssshh, bad timing. Be quiet. I say and trudge along. Although slightly difficult in bits and places, the views of the surrounding ranges and the idyllic villages at its foothills are stunning.
Hike done and feeling mighty accomplished, we head back to a beautiful breakfast spread of besan chila, scrambled eggs, a gorgeous fruit platter, and an assortment of homemade jams and pickles. Breakfast devoured, we say our goodbyes to our wonderful host and hit the road to Mcleodganj. The rest of the day is spent sampling more thukpas and shaptas, exploring Mcleod’s meandering alleys, coffee shops, and dipping our tippy toes at the Bhagsunag waterfalls.
It’s now getting dark; the last ray of the setting sun demonstrates her final act across Mcleod’s skies—a kaleidoscopic display of brilliance in all shades of red. What a showstopper! This has been a magical day! We take in the panoramic view and get into the waiting bus.
As the bus begins its descent from Mcleod, I assume a comfortable position and doze off, this time to the backdrop of Happy Bhag Jayegi!
It’s 4 a.m. now. We’ve reached Delhi, I can tell by the heavy smog-filled air. Now comes the toughest part. The goodbyes. The bond we shared over endless cups of chais, crispy onion pakodas, buttery biscuits, and countless selfies, the five of us will shortly go in five different directions. I don’t know what it is, but I feel a gnawing pain deep within. I remind myself we live in the digital age and just a DM away. I instantly feel better. My attempt at ‘keeping things simple’ is working!
Tight hugs and promises to stay in touch, we go our separate ways. I turn back for one last look. Three days ago on a full-moon night we met; three days later batteries fully recharged, with new-found hopes and inspiration, we march ahead carrying the spirit of adventure in our hearts and the search for our next big mountain.
Until then, here’s to sisterhood and our travelling plans!
Priscilla Stanley travelled to Andretta with Wonderful World in October 2018. She does not travel often by your average standards, but when she does you can rest assured that she is doing so to break free from life’s mundaneness that has set in at a tiresome pace. This was Priscilla’s fourth trip with Wonderful World. Previously she has travelled with them to Sri Lanka, Chikmagalur, and Puducherry, all of which she says has been life-changing and transformational.
Photographs courtesy of Madhula Banerji