Hidden treasure

Hidden treasure

A majestic peak hidden away in the hinterlands of Himachal Pradesh, Hatu has become a popular getaway. Sanjay Austa recalls fond childhood memories of traversing beautiful forests to climb the peak.

As soon as my jeep clambered to the top of Hatu Peak (3,400 metres), I felt a disquieting pang. I knew I had shortchanged the mountain. I had first climbed Hatu as a toddler with my 65-year-old grandmother. We had made the steep 10 km or so ascent to Hatu from our orchards deep in the valley. Along the way, we met relatives and friends who became fellow travellers, all of us heading up for the Hatu festival (celebrated annually around June 20, according to the Hindu calendar).

On our yearly Hatu trek, we would see the orchards disappear and the rhododendron, deodars, spruce and pines take over. We had to cross a wide swathe of a thick coniferous forest to reach the summit. Those days, the jungle still had some wild animals and our elders pointed out to their dens in the overhanging cliffs. No one saw any predators, but fanciful stories about them kept us close together in single file.

There were trickles of glacial water streaming the mountain sides and my grandmother taught us how to cup our hands and drink without wetting ourselves. There were wild mushrooms in the dank loamy forest floor, and we received lessons in picking out the good ones from the bad. There were ancient stops along the way where everyone rested, shared food and exchanged gossip.

Many hurdles

A trip to Hatu was indeed like Canterbury Tales come true. It was a veritable trekkers’ paradise. Unfortunately, today it is difficult to distinguish it from the numerous tourist dens that litter Himachal’s hinterlands. What transformed Hatu from an idyllic picnic spot into a crowded summit was the six kilometre asphalted road constructed right to the top.

Now, you can zip up to the peak in less than 20 minutes from Narkanda (the nearest town). The road is surprisingly well constructed for a hill road in these parts. Contractors have been known to do a shoddy job of the roads here and after a few years, the thin layer of tar washes out leaving huge potholes. You have to just get on the Narkanda-Baghi Road to see for yourself.

But the order for the Hatu Road came right from the top. Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, a man given to all manners of religious ceremonies and rituals, doesn’t miss his annual visit to the Hatu temple. Walking up the steep mountain was out of the question for the CM, who is now pushing 79 and revered as Raja by the locals. Hence the smooth, flawless Hatu road. Hundreds of trees were put to the axe and a road carved out for this stately pilgrimage. The recent devastation at Uttarakhand has shown what such brazen deforestation and construction can do. Hatu Road is one such bad reminder.

Seasonal rush

In summers, when Hatu Peak receives its maximum rush, there is a clutch-plate burning jam on this road. The road, though tough, is narrow, and if a vehicle comes from the opposite side, it takes a lot of backing up before you can cross each other. Despite these troubles, most tourists prefer to ride it out in their cars. The locals have no time to make the climb either. For any religious ceremonies, they make their way up with the sacrificial goat, the cooking pots and pans, the priest — all in their powerful 4wd-equipped SUVs.

But there are always a handful of enthusiasts who make the wonderful trek to the peak. The trek is rewarding for it takes you through a dense forest rich in high-altitude trees. There are gurgling glacial streams, nomadic shepherds, and wafting smells of wild mushrooms; just as in my grandmother’s trekking days.

Hatu is the highest peak in the area so once you reach the top you are rewarded with a 360 degree, awe-inspiring view of snow-capped Himalayan peaks. There was a small ancient temple of historic value at Hatu, but in a typical show of reverence and a disregard for history, the locals demolished it to make way for a newer, bigger temple a few years ago — all with the blessing of its devout patron, the CM, Virbhadra Singh.

The tiny rain shelter at the other end of the Hatu peak has thankfully remained untouched. It is from here that you can see the orchard valleys of Kothgarh, Thanadar, Baghi and Ratnari. From here you can see the effect of wind erosion on three gigantic rocks below. The locals, of course, know them as the Pandav Bhim’s chulla. Along the flanks of these stones, you can see winter’s snow as late as in June, depending on how heavy the snowfall was that year.

How to get there: Hatu is 66 km by road from Shimla and eight kilometre by road from Narkanda. There is a six kilometre motorable road to Hatu. It is advisable to leave the cars behind and trek to the top.

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