That the valleys of Himachal are flooded with tourists paragliding, rappelling, river-crossing, demolishing aloo-parathas in un-quaint roadside dhabas is no surprise. How could the nation vying for the status of 'most-populated' behave any differently?
That the apple-tree studded places you visited less than a decade ago are strewn with potato chips packs, bottles and the filth of human invasion is even less surprising. How could a nation of people who think nothing of flinging rubbish from their car windows behave differently?
It's the power plants that still bring a lump to the throat. Dry mountains with the life-force dynamited out of them to make mega, mega quantities of electricity (for you and me?). Miles upon miles of slippery tracks alongside once-roaring rivers that have been bent into submission - from beside the mountain into a tunnel through it. Harnessed, tamed and tragic.
And then sometimes after bumping over slippery tracks where bulldozers rule, you chance upon a place like the Tirthan Valley. Tiny, tucked neatly inside an envelope of mountains, it is eactly the 'scenery' I used to draw when I was five. Mountains stacked one behind the other, river rushing from right of page to left, fish, lonely house-shaped rectangles with sloping roofs and trees much bigger than them. There's really nothing here for the Volvos whizzing towards Manali. Thankfully.
On a good-looking road to nowhere, next to the pristine green-white Tirthan gushing hurriedly from somewhere is the Himalayan Trout House. Here Christopher Mitra greets us with stone-oven pizzas being served in his very quaint gazebo. Chriswa, his half-blind dog runs around as we take in the place. Apricot, plum, apple and pear trees are scattered around mud cabins and some more-permanent looking structures.
Everyone's drinking beer. House rules forbid soft drinks post-noon, Christopher tells us. When the sun starts feeling mellow tippling from the river, we clamber down to where Christopher and some of his guests are fly-fishing. The river is bursting with fish and they are knee-deep in the freezing water. When they do catch a small trout, they let it free. 'Making the fish smarter,' says Christopher, and no, his research shows that these encounters don't injure the fish.
A helper knocks at our door sometime in the evening and gives us the menu. We need to place our dinner order by 6.30 so the kitchen can gear up. We tell him we'll let him know. 10 minutes later, I glance out of the window to see him standing under the plum tree gazing sadly at our window. Oh no! Maybe the instructions are that he can't step into teh kitchen untill he's taken all the orders! Between much laughing and feeling sorry for him, we decide. Of course, I want trout. Of course, it is very good, with minimal ingredients to keep its flavour intact.
Night-time is when the bonfire is lit and the guests gather. Kids play, older folk get progressively slurry-er and the smell and sounds of the outdoors mingles with that of food - cicadas chirrupping, cutlery tinkling, soft voices and...the river roars as the guitar trembles out a few notes.
The village of Nagina in the Tirthan Valley is like that.A walk around shows very few dining options. The first day is very like the next and the next. It's an easy rhythm to get into. Waking up to sunlight streaming in through skylight in the roof - ufffff- Breakfast with everything thrown in - eggs, cutlets, poori-aloo, a walk to the waterfall or over the bridge or down the road or to a spot jumping with fish or a visit to some far-off eating place (FiFFFFFTEEN kilometres away!), visit to the river, drinks on a stone table with stone stools, dinner, some night-gazing, river-through-apricot trees-spotting.
In between is much idle toe-dipping, freezing-water-wading and tucked-between boulders-reading with the river-roaring an inch away. And the idle excitement of watching a tourist-group attempting to cross the river holding on to a rope tied to a boulder. Boulder shifts, tourists tumble, we run to help! It all ends in a sodden mess and a drenched teenager crying at the riverside. Some of Christopher's regular guests who return like homing pigeons every season look tearful too - the paraphernalia of tourism is making its first threatening appearance in the valley.
And of course, we see the folklore-ish Raju's Cottage and the rickety bucket on a wire, sitting in which you cross the river to this homestay which is always, always booked out. And we eat Siddu and Nettle Soup and sweet Rajma but that's a story all by itself.