I think I was still in my late teens when I first heard of Kinnaur. It was perhaps from the fruit seller who had arranged his prime fruits of the season on the top of his cart. Back in the mid-’90s in Bombay, the Washington apples had still not made their way to the top of his cart. So when I came home with a bunch of apples and gave my mother the account, or the heesaab, I said with the same pride as the fruit Wala had said earlier. “Sahab, ye Kinnaur ka apple hai, thoda mehenga hai par Swaad yaad rakhoge”. These are apples from Kinnaur, they are a little expensive but you will never forget the taste. I might have forgotten the taste though. It took me 25 years and a trip to Kinnaur to get it back in my senses.
The Pandemic had eased out a little and India had just got out of the Delta wave. So, when I was able to get both my shots, I decided now is the time. Not that it was in the planning, but like everyone everywhere in the world, I just wanted to get out. It was June, and with the international skies still shut for commercial traffic, a flight to Chandigarh from Bombay was the longest I had taken in about 15 months. I got into the cab of someone I had given a rough idea about my travel plan. The plan was to get on the road to Kaza for a week. The drive from Chandigarh to Simla was not new to me. I was doing it after maybe a decade or more though. Roads were wider and the restaurant billboards uglier. The traffic made sure that you still went at the pace you did twenty years ago. Everyone was trying to get to the mountains after the lockdown. Thankfully, 90% of those only had Simla and a little beyond on their mind.
When we crossed Kufri, a little more than 20 km away from Simla, the number plates on the cars got more HP’ish (local) than the DLs, UP’s and PB’s that dominated the road from Chandigarh to Simla. The driving too got slower. It was like suddenly we were in Kinnaur even before we were in Kinnaur, I thought to myself. Our stop for the night was unknown, i like it that way. So, when the driver, Salim asked me, Raat Kidhar? where do we rest our backs for the night? I said wherever you feel you can’t continue anymore. To which he said, he can drive to Kaza if it is what it takes. Kaza was still 250 km and 5000 Feet above and away, and Salim was
being nice or just letting the driver in him do the talking. I, on the other hand, felt like was on a mission. It felt normal like how it felt before on the road, after 18 months and I was going to keep going, I thought. The early dusk stop, however, nearly made me change my plan. It was a homestay I had read about, the pictures were inviting but to get to it with the background of the setting sun behind the mountains was something else.
We got to Grandma Stokes, the homestay in Thanedhar at around 5 pm, and I only left coz I had to continue on the road. The owner sat with me over a glass of tea and we spoke about a possible itinerary for the next couple of days, amongst other things. I was completely new to this region and this was the first local I was having a face-to-face with. He even asked me to stay back, but I think we concluded that this piece of construction with 6 rooms all overlooking the Himalayas and the Sutlej valley might be a little too much price-wise for me at that time. Also as I left I thought, it is too less inventory-wise, when it came to getting a tour here. I left the homestay with a couple of cherry seeds still in my mouth from the plantation. I had no idea that the Grandma Stokes will single-handedly define the course of my Kinnaur Spiti tour to come. The, ‘only 12 people per group’ thought came from the only 6 rooms at this lovely spot of apple and pear orchards
Salim’s wheel descended into the Sutlej valley from Thanedhar, and as the night fell on us the road started its parallel journey with the river Sutlej’s sound. With an altitude difference of 3000 ft between our night stop at Rampur and Thanedhar, there was an immediate change in temperature and a need for both beer and an air-conditioned room for the night.
The next morning was an early departure as we would enter the interiors from Kinnaur. The apples were still a couple of months away. I saw them on a random walk in a village. They were small although they had started to develop color. I couldn’t resist and plucked one. I wanted it to be a souvenir. What if I never came back to the land again? It was too soon. Too soon to pluck the apple and to think that perhaps I might not come back again.
It happened in August of 2021, the end of August. The first apples from low altitude Kinnaur came to refresh my taste of Kinnaur and with them our first group to Kinnaur.