My 5-Year Sabbatical on Roads || Safari 'I AM EXPLORER' story

My 4-week sabbatical was about to expire. I joined Adobe Systems in May 2006 and at Adobe, every employee gets paid time off of 4 weeks after completing 5 years in service. So I was eligible for this holiday after May 2011. But there is a condition -- I had to use this sabbatical within 2 years. So on 1 May 2013, it would expire. During these two years, I kept thinking up various plans, but none really sounded exciting enough for a sabbatical. 

Finally I started the sabbatical, without any solid plans, on 29th April (just 2 days before its expiry), and left for Chandigarh as I had to do a photo shoot with a book cafe, which was pending for a long time. Till this time, I had no idea what I would do for the next 4 weeks. 

I have many friends from my schools, College & Photography circle, so thought of meeting some of them during the stay. During the same time, I happened to visit the Cantonment area where Indian Army has a beautiful campus and met Aneesh, who stays there with his Dad. 

He took me to Himalayan Expressway on his new KTM DUKE200. This expressway is few kilometers away form the Cantt and is a beautiful place to ride. We stopped at a Tapri and had few cups of tea. Kshitiz was also accompanying us on his Yamaha.

We also did a quick Photo-Shoot of Aneesh with his machine. And by the way, Aneesh's friends know him as 'Aneesh Airborne Awasthi'.  He is a passionate biker and an enthusiastic Motorsports person. He has been part of almost every premier Motorsports event of India, in different roles. Be it F1, Raid de Himalayas, Mughal Rally, Desert Storm, which are some of the xtreme motorsport events or Mountain Terrain Biking events in Himalayan ranges.

During this meeting, I asked him if he was free for the next few weeks?  He was not sure as he was expecting SSB medical call. After wonderful ride to Himalayan Expressway, hot tea on road-side, an unplanned portfolio shoot & lot of gup-shup, it was time to head back towards the Cantt. We had lunch at officer's mess and I took bus to come back to Mohali, where I was staying. 

Next Morning, I headed towards Shimla as I had a few photography related assignments to complete.The plan was to be there for a week or so. 

As I reached Shimla, I got call from Aneesh that his Medical checkup is scheduled in June so he is free during May. After a telephone call that lasted 40 minutes or so, we finally had a plan in our hands. So Aneesh had to start from Chandigarh in next 15 minutes. It was 9:30 in the morning. He reached Shimla by 12:20pm. (Note: Do not plan your Shimla trip based on the time Aneesh took to get to Shimla from Chandigarh on his KTM Duke.)

The quick plan was to head towards Jakhu Tibba, which gives a great view of Sanjauli, New Shimla & other parts of the town. This area has no roads and one needs to drive through rocky hills covered with dry leaves which can make the bikes skit. Sahil also joined for the ride and we had fun on the top.

We had a quick round on the Mall road during which he met some of his old friends. He was well equipped and brought a helmet for me as well :). The next items on the agenda was to explore Kinnaur, cross Kaza & hit Keylong, Trilokinath come back to Delhi via Rohtang Pass,  Manali, Kullu, Manikaran, Kasol, Mandi & back to Chandigarh. We bought some basic stuff & started our journey. 

Since there are many memories associated with Shimla, we kept stopping at different places and it was fun to have golgappas near St. Beads college. Just after Sanjauli, air became more fresh and fragrant and after some time it started becoming cold because of dense deodar forests on the way. 


On the way to Narkanda, we made frequent stops to capture the beauty of deep valleys in our TravellingCamera. In fact, the space around Punjab's Ex ChiefMinister's house was awesome. Amrinder Singh has a beautiful house on this highway, which is surrounded by dense Deodar trees and Apple Orchards.

Asia's highest Hockey ground is also on this highway. More details about this ground can be checked at - http:\\

After a beautiful drive, it was time to stop for lunch and we chose Narkanda for the same. There is a nice place in the middle of Narkanda Market - 'Himalayan Dhaba'. We asked for two special Himalayan Thalis and enjoyed our meal. After having delicious lunch, we were in full mood to take a nap at Dhomdi, which is a lush green ground in the middle of deodar forest. This is the place where many of the skiing events happen during winters. But we didn't have enough time to stop there, as the target was to reach Jeori on same day. In fact, we couldn't even plan for Hatu Peak which is one of the highest peak in this region.


After some delicious cherries, we thought of taking some rest around Tani Jubber lake. This is a beautiful lake near Kotgarh and is located around a small village of Shimla. More about Tani Jubber Lake can be checked at http:\\

We started our downhill journey and saved considerable fuel during this drive :). On the way, a lot of cherry vendors were sitting on the highway and we also thought of tasting the fresh cherries from Kotgarh region. Kotgarh is popular for its good quality Apples and cherries. And I must say that I had never tasted such delicious cherries in my life -- amazingly juicy and big in size. After talking to these folks, we realized that most Indians don't get to eat this kind of cherry, as most of these are exported. These localites try to sell on highway, because profit margins are high when they sell them directly to customers. We wanted to pick a few boxes for our families, but could not as we could not afford to make our luggage any heavier.


Soon after, it started getting dark and we were still at quite a distance from Jeori. So we had to be ready for a continuous drive now, till we reach Jeori. And the road from Rampur to Jeori was very scary. High hills on one side and deep river on other side. The road was also in a very bad state, and was very dusty. This was not the time to be overenthusiastic though we would have liked to explore more. The good part was that we hadn't made any advance bookings, because that restricts us many ways. Now we had the option to spend time as per our wish and there was no need to rush to the next destination. 


Upon reaching Rampur we called some of our friends who could guide us about appropriate options to stay. We connected with Nitin Sharma, who arranged for us to stay at the HPPWD guest house, which is a beautiful place located on a hill top, from where the snow-covered white peaks of Kinnaur were clearly visible in the night. The sky was smattered with stars, and their light was making the snow-covered peaks shine.

It was time to celebrate the conclusion of the first day of our crazy journey! Nitin also came to the guest house and invited us to join him for a village wedding where local liquor would be served along with some local snacks. Though we were tired, this offer was too tempting for us to resist. 

Next morning we saw a huge group of people, playing local music and singing folk songs, going towards a nearby temple. They turned out to be the family and friends of the bride. The photograph below shows the local bands that were playing the music.

The agenda for the second day was to go to Sarahan, which was not on the way to Kinnaur, but we didn't want to miss it. There is a steep climb to Sarahan from Jeori, and it takes 45 mintues on a vehicle. Sarahan is surrounded by high hills and boasts of amazing views to deep valleys, Orchards of Apples/Peach/Cherry/Almond etc.

Driving through various orchards and some army stations, we reached the quiet and peaceful Sarahan town. It is a very small place but is very popular because of Bhimakali Temple.

After reaching Sarahan, we visited the Bhimakali Temple first, which is shown in the above photograph. To know more about this temple and its importance, check out a full story at -

Bhimakali Temple has beautiful views of snow covered hills of Kinnaur which were on our itinerary for the next morning. Excited and happy,  we were feeling great about the idea of coming to this region during the month of May.

Sarahan is also popularly known for its old kingdom. Raja Virbhadra Singh has a huge property in Sarahan, which is basically one of his old property. His family does not stay here now, and it is currently maintained by a local family along with a few helpers. We explored this huge campus as well. One of the most noticeable fact was that this palace had an exclusive entry to Bhimakali Temple. So essentially there are two main gates to enter into Bhimakali temple - one is for the common man and the other is for Raja Virbhadra Singh and his family. In fact, one part of the temple is closed and can only be opened by Raja Virbhadra Singh.

It was time to relax and have some food. There are some basic shops in the town and a few food corners. We had a thali for lunch and food was average. Got some snacks packed and drove further towards Hawa Mahal and the Bird Sanctuary in Sarahan. We were disappointed to learn that the bird sanctuary remains closed during the month of May, so went up to Hawa Mahal, which was a good place to spend some time in peace and enjoy panoramic view of snow-laden Kinnar Kailash mountain ranges.

It was time to go back to Jeori. We were very tired because of numerous small treks and random walks/runs we indulged in enroute. As we started driving down, the rain started, but for some time we didn't stop. Then it started raining heavily and we had to take a halt. After a good break, we started again and stopped again before Jeori.

This whole journey is very close to my heart and I shared some part of it in small versions. Here encouraged me to share the whole exploration for a contest called 'I am Explorer!'.

Upon reaching Jeori, we thought of spending some time in the market before going to our guest house. We talked to different shopkeepers and met some interesting personalities. We also got to know about their local products, which are made wholly in this part of the state. We bought some very basic stuff from here and got a small gift for the caretaker of the guest house.

We got a disappointing news as soon as we entered the guest house and reached the dining hall. The caretaker brought a newspaper and pointed out that Chitkul Valley is unreachable now because of landslide, and roads to Kaza are also temporarily blocked because of multiple landslides on the way. There were two contractors sitting on same the dining table and one of them assured us that Kaza road will open up in the next 3-4 days, but Chitkul will take a lot of time as it was badly damaged. This effectively ruined our dinner. We came back to our room and had few drinks...

Alcohol-induced wisdom prevailed and we decided that it wasn't the time to be sad, but   to think through the options we had. It was time to change our path. We were already enjoying the road journeys and didn't want to bring down the spirit, even though the plan we had charted up in Shimla now had to be shelved. We were not even considering moving ahead as one of the most beautiful part of Kinnaur was not accessible. We decided to go back and move towards Jalori Pass regions and reach Mandi to explore another region of Himachal Pradesh which touches Kangra district. Since Kinnaur was not possible now, we were not very keen on going towards Kullu after Jalori Pass, as we have been to that region many times. So the idea was to move towards Jogindernagar from Mandi and hit Mcleodganj through Baijnath, Palampur, Kangra and  Dharmshala.

With renewed enthusiasm, we started dreaming of the new terrains we would encounter and the exciting journey towards Jalori Pass and further. Aneesh was more excited about Jalori Pass as compared to other places. The plan was to spend some time at his home town, Palampur.

Next morning, journey continued on a different route and next destination for us was Kotgarh where we wanted to spend the night. We wanted to explore more of the orchard hills which are in abundance around Kotgarh.

On the way we met one of the Himalayan Devtas. Priests were taking the Idol from one place to other and it seems they had to carry the idol till the temple without putting it on the ground or on any other surface. The two of them were in the process of exchanging the idols. To know more about local deities of Himachal Pradesh, check out - http:\\

We hit Kotgarh hills quite early in the noon and enjoyed fresh fruits from the orchards. Above photograph shows Aneesh on his bike and cherry trees in the background. All these trees were covered with white net, probably to save the fruits from birds. Initially we were hesitant about entering these orchards as we had heard a lot of stories of dangerous dogs that watch these orchards. After wasting some time thinking, we gathered courage and went up to pluck a few cherries. And I can't explain the experience. Those big sized cherries were amazingly juicy.

At Kotgarh, we had to meet some of my friends. My friend Gaurav owns a resort known as Sheetalvan which has beautiful cottages of new & old style. All these cottages are surrounded by orchards of Apple, Kiwi, Pear and Almonds etc. Check out more about Sheetalvan HERE

After spending one night around Kotgarh hills, it was time to move towards Jalori Pass. Destination of the day was planned as Mandi. So we started early in the morning. It was a downhill till Baghipul which we hit at around 10 am and had our breakfast there. Baghipul is an interesting place which has beautiful views of Shirkhand river. The terrain for the day was quite challenging, as most of the roads were under maintenance and there was a lot of dirt on the roads. Initially we thought of taking a dip in the river but the water was chilled and we were repeatedly saying no to each other. Then we had another cup of tea and thought of taking a dip and moving ahead. While at Baghipul, we thought of going up to Kullu-Sarahan, but then we would have had to take a halt there. And since we had already visited that place, we through of exploring new places. On reaching Jalori Pass, we enjoyed tea & Maggi and now it was time to start our trek towards Sarolsar Lake. 

There is a beautiful trek from Jalori Pass to Sarolsar Lake. We covered half of the way on the bike. I know it sounds crazy, but yes. At that point in time, I was very scared but had full confidence on Aneesh :). The whole terrain was hilly without any paved road, as we usually see in a typical trek. There is no shop on the way and it almost took 1 hr to reach the lake. If one starts from Jalori Pass on foot, then it takes approximately 2 hours to reach the lake. Near Sarolsar Lake, there is a beautiful Temple with a huge open area around it. For more details about Sarolsar Lake, check out

It was time to head back towards Jalori pass and continue with the journey. We wanted to reach Mandi by night and we had already booked a guest house there. We crossed through Shainj & hit the highway near Aut. From Aut, the drive to Mandi was comparatively very smooth. Mandi was just an overnight halt and we didn't want to spend much time there. It was a good place to spend time and start the next day.

We started the day a bit late and had very heavy breakfast at Pandit Jee's near Ghanta Ghar. He had very tempting dishes in the morning and we couldn't resist. Probably this was the best food we had during the whole road trip. We got some sweets packed for the way. That day, our destination was Baijnath. On the way, we had to visit Jogindernagar, some old temples around it, the Monastary at Chauntra, Bir Biling & Shiva Temple of Baijnath. But again the plans changed and someone suggested us the best destination of our trip and a great exploration site. Barot, it was! The photograph above shows the unmatchable beauty of Barot. This is a small village with almost zero commercial activity. There is no Hotel in this village, but there are a few home stays. To know more about this beautiful place, check out -

So we spent one night at Barot, which was definitely most memorable stay of our road journey. Barot is naturally rich place with clean environment. An ideal countryside experience! In the morning we started for Palampur. 

Coming down from Barot, we hit huge hills of salt. There is a place called Guma, where most of the hills have raw salt known as 'Guma Namak' and it seems that it is used in many of the medicines. Then we reached Jogindernagar which has one of the oldest railway station in India. This railway station was build by Britishers to bring raw material for Hydro projects. We visited Jogindernagar Railway station and we were just in time to witness a train start its journey towards Palampur. We decided to reach Palampur before the train reaches. This was definitely a very easy target as toy trains move very slowly. But we also needed to stop at many places on the way.  After crossing Jogindernagar town, we hit Chuantra which has a huge Monastery. While coming back from Barot, we could see this Monastery from a high point. The Monastery of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche Institute at Chauntra is an important educational institution. Just in front of this temple there is a huge building and we noticed some monks moving around the place. It looked like a hostel, with some parts dedicated for studies. While in this campus, we were tempted to explore the possibilities of coming to this place and learning meditation, if possible.

At the monastery, we met some folks who suggested us to skip Bir Billing as some trees had blocked the road and there was no alternative route to go up to bir. Now our main destination of the day was Shiva Temple of Baijnath, apart from visit to Taragarh palace which is under Welcome group now, Tea Gardens of Palampur and Neugal Cafe. The final destination was Aneesh's home in Palampur. 

Above photograph shows the popular Shiva temple in Baijnath, which comes on the way from Jogindernagar to Palampur. This temple has historic importance. Dussehra is not celebrated in Baijnath because of the Shiva temple here. There is a beautiful view of a river from this temple. River is just behind the temple but is quite deep. We had fun at Baijnath. The amount of time we spent at Chauntra & Baijnath ensured that we couldn't catch the train at Palampur. Anyways, we were not in hurry as well.

Finally we reached our destination where Dhauladhar Mountains were pretty clear & white snow was shining bright all around. Tea gardens were more than welcoming although most of the leaves had been plucked during the month of April, which is main season of Kangra Tea. On reaching Palampur, we first went to Aneesh's house and dropped our luggage and took bath. After a few minutes, we moved to Neugal Cafe which is beautifully located near Neugal water stream having clear view of dhauladhar mountain ranges and surrounded by tea gardens. We had another round of tea at Neugal Cafe and moved towards the market. It was quite relaxing day as compared to other days and roads were super awesome all through.

Next day was one of the lightest day of this trip, when we were not carrying anything with us. Me, Aneesh, KTM and my Travelling-camera. We took nagari route to go to Dharmshala, via Chamunda Devi. This was again a beautiful terrain which was full of tea gardens. First main stop was Mcleodganj. On reaching Mcleodganj, we parked our bike near the church and started walking toward HH Dalai Lama's Temple.

Mcleodganj is a unique town in itself, with a very different culture with completely different environment. Mainly a Tibetan colony and popular tourist destination for foreigners, and an amazing place to try different kinds of food and learn about this culture. There are some popular Yoga & Meditation centers around Mcleodganj. There is a another place called Naddi which has beautiful landscapes. We also climbed up till Bhagsunag waterfall and this time, we had to skip Triund. After a round of Naddi, we again came back and had lunch at Mcleodganj.

This beautiful church is on the way from Mcleodganj to Dharmshala. Dharmshala also has a beautiful Cricket Stadium and we also planned to have visit it.

Today we had to move back to Chandigarh to plan our next road trip. The route was Una, Nangal, Anandpur Saheb, Kiratpur, Ropar, Mohali. Rather than hitting Una through shortest route we chose to go towards Masroor village, where ASI has a beautiful site called Masroor Monolithic temples. These temples are carved out of a huge hill. This is an offbeat place in the middle of a village without any commercialization. There is a very small shop near this temple and a government school.

When we reached Nagrota Surian, everyone suggested to go near Pong Dam Lake and this decision of turning our bike towards the lake made us make this place as a halt. We stayed at Nagrota  and spent a beautiful day around the lake. This was overall a great exploration venture with Aneesh and his new KTM Duke.

It will remain as one of the most memorable trips of my life and I hope to plan something similar soon. Exploration should never end.

Throughout the trip, I was the cameraman but I managed to sneak in one picture of mine with the bike !!!

This PHOTO JOURNEY is inspired by the ‘I am Explorer’ contest sponsored by Tata Safari Storme on Indiblogger.

View Shimla to Mcleodganj via Jalori Pass in a larger map

(Updated again on 11th Dec, 2013 with photograph below | One of the winning Blog-post)

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