Kufri – Exploiting beasts for beauty’s sake?

Could a journey be a delight for some and dismay for the forsaken?

It had been a long drive from Chandigarh to Shimla by road. I was tired and sleepy, but the thought of sighting the mighty Himalayas kept me awake. The drive takes a good three and half hours, and I was greeted to the sight of tall, cone shaped, deodar trees or the cedar. It was as if they tried to reach the sky and spread a layer of shadow on the ground. Every direction that I turned, I could see civilization in clusters in the valleys surrounded by the coniferous trees. If you are lucky, the sun god could show his grace and give a peekaboo appearance in the cold winter days.

The morning after we reached, I walked on the narrow roads with layers of warm clothing for a glimpse and shower of the huge yellow star. It seemed as if it wasn’t very interested in appearing from behind the clouds. The temperature had dipped down to zero degrees Celsius. Water on the roads had frozen to form a thin sheet of ice. Shimla had received its first snowfall for the year and the talks around the town were Kufri had started to turn white.

In the distant I could see the snow clad mountains. I had traveled all the way from Pune with my nine year old son for the National Ice Skating Competition to be held in Shimla. He was all eager and perked up for his first sight of snow and cajoled me for a short trip to Kufri. Kufri is a hill station about fifteen kilometers from Shimla that could be approached by road, a skiing destination which was popular with the British during their rule.

Shimla, the queen of the hills and a quaint town in Himachal Pradesh, was quite intriguing. It had this old world charm all around it with its colonial architecture and structures with gabled roofs. Most of them were one or two storied and some of the rooms in the top floor hung out of the structure.

We took a taxi and headed on NH 22 for the first experience of snow. I was in for a surprise as I saw a sea of tourists eagerly waiting at the base to go up the hill. There was lots of commotion, a huge queue to park cars, and a long wait to rent gum boots. The only other way of conveyance to travel up the hilltop, other than walking, was by mules and hinnies. Hoards of mule (kacchar in Hindi) owners flock around and tourists are seen haggling with them for a better deal.

For a ride up and down the hill, you are charged close to 200 INR. The arduous ride starts with around 3 to 4 of these animals tied together back to back and one attendant to manage them. The climb traverses through curves that circle the hill, filled with mud, sludge and stones, and takes around thirty minutes after which you get to view the snow clad mountains.

People are seen playing in the snow, taking a dig into parathasbhajis, noodles and momos, or clambering on to a yak and taking photographs. You also could experience the flying fox and the various rides in the amusement park. People throw plastic bottles and waste all around with no proper facility for garbage disposal.

If you found the uphill journey scary then the downhill tread is multifold, with many riders falling off the horse and are seen being pulled for couple of meters by the mules. The slope is very dangerous and you are left worrying about your safety.

The state government could definitely work on the roads and also ensure rules are brought in on the number of animals per owner, as well as the number of trips per day. Sanitation facilities need to be set up, and to find a way to reduce the drudgery that the animals go through. I returned to the hotel room glad to be safe and in one piece, but the thought of the animals labouring day in and out under dangerous conditions didn’t seem to get off my mind. The entire ordeal had left me heavy.

Kufri is definitely not for the faint hearted!

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