The only downside to my road trip to the scenic village of Choj in Himachal Pradesh was the difficulty posed by the condition of the roads. Heavy snowfall last year had caused most of the roads here to cave in. So it wasn’t the smoothest of drives getting here.
Around 520 kilometres from Delhi, Choj is a picturesque little paradise surrounded by the mountainous landscape of Himachal Pradesh, with the Parvati River flowing through it. Though in peak summers, many of the hill stations and towns of Himachal Pradesh get run over by tourists, its remote villages are still little known. Choj is such a place, a quiet sanctuary in a bustling region.
Choj is situated in the middle of two well-known places: one of them is Kasol, a favourite destination for summer tourists and expats; and the other is the Gurudwara Manikaran Sahib, a pilgrimage site for Sikhs and Hindus also famous for its natural hot water springs. Both these destinations are only a few kilometres away from Choj, making it an ideal base for those looking for a quieter retreat after spending a few hours sightseeing.
But Choj itself is worth seeing. The setting is serene and the surroundings beautiful. You can’t help but envy the locals. I asked Kashi, the owner of the home stay I was putting up at, about what everyday life was like at Choj. “We don’t buy many things from markets elsewhere,” he said. “We try to utilise what we have here, and make most of what need ourselves. For examples, my wife makes whisky at home using jiggery. She also makes wine using plums and peaches. And beer using rice. We are pahadis and we like to drink a little to keep ourselves warm.
Later that day, I went over to the river bank, where I found some kids enjoying a swim in the clear waters of Parvati. There were some others waiting on the banks as well, with their fishing lines elaborately laid out for the trout.
The forest trail is not far from the river. Crossing the bridge, and walking under the green cover of the huge pine trees, I trekked towards Challal, a nearby village known for its cafes and apple, plum and peach orchards. Challal has also emerged over the years as a popular party destination in the region.
It was almost sunset by the time decided to head back to Choj. Around me was the calming noise of wilderness: the music of the flowing river, wind in the trees, crickets singing.
Mornings in the mountains are the most beautiful and refreshing. You can feel the energy of a new dawn, a purity in the air. Wanting to experience a mountain sunrise, I woke up early the next morning. But alas, it was an overcast day, with a heavy cloud cover. Kashi took me that morning to pluck apples from a nearby orchard, and he made apple pie for my breakfast, to get my spirits up.
Since it was the right kind of weather for a dip in a hot water spring, I decided to travel to Manikaran Sahib with a friend. We took a bus ride, which cost us Rs 10. We reached our destination within 5-7 minutes and stepping out, I saw a crowd of devotees waiting to get inside the gurdwara.
The feeling of stepping into the hot spring was nothing short of heavenly. Hot springs are rich in mineral content and are good for the skin. These lakes are also a handy source of heat, if you want to get some underwater cooking done, as I saw some people doing. They came with little rice bags which they dipped in water, and in a few minutes the rice was cooked and ready to be consumed and distributed as a holy offering.
My plan was to return to Delhi that same day but I was not yet done with this place. So I stayed for a few more days, exploring the wilds and even camping by the riverside. The best thing about Choj is that it is still away from hubbub of commercial tourism. But for how long? A few decades ago, the nearby Kasol was similarly remote and quiet. And today, it has turned into one of India’s most happening tourist destinations. Locals fear that something similar might now be in store for Choj.
“I am afraid that Choj will become like Kasol soon,” Sarita, a local housewife, told me. “But we don’t want our home to turn into a famous tourist destination.” It might still be some years before Choj becomes the next Kasol, but for me, it will always remain a quiet and enchanting rural paradise.