A nomad is someone who has no home or rather someone who does not prefer a permanent one. Being a traveler, I am a partial nomad. I seek places filled with warmth and people with smiles which stretch from one ear to another. These places, I call home. Homes that hold a part of my heart in the short span that I stay there. These are the homes that are more so than my actual home. Why so? Well, there are many reasons for it – first and foremost they are closest to my love interest, THE MOUNTAINS!!, they are more organic and the locals are extremely warm and welcoming. I don’t have many places to call home but the ones I do are truly so. By the end of my story you might understand why, and maybe you, too; would like to visit my home.
The best part about planning a trip is virtually exploring places on the maps zooming in to check the connectivity of roads, availability of cafes and of course, accommodation!! So, it wasn’t just me on this trip, I was planning this with our gang of 4! The 4 of us seeking some “snowfall and adventure”, yet leisure simultaneously; so we decided to head to Dharamshala. A place that has a perfect blend of food, civilization and mountains. Dharamshala is also synonymous to the ‘Triund Trek’. The sky Gods did not actually grace us with the snowfall scenes but we did enjoy a beautiful sunset, magnificent night sky and a mesmerizing sunrise.
From Triund we came straight to the McLeod main square to pick up our rental bikes and move promptly to Guler. Now, why Guler, leaving Mcleodganj and Dharamshala we opted for a place 50 km away from the hot spots?! Are we nuts? It’s natural to be thinking as such. Despite being eccentric about the path we venture out on, our gang prefers to intimately interact with locals with the hopes of experiencing the local culture away from the chaos of the main towns that everyone knows of, where everyone is too busy riding from one viewpoint to another. Guler is one such place which has a hidden gem called RAADBALLI.
The route to Raadballi is picturesque, winding and just blissful. The empty roads flaunting their curves off to you would intimidate any amateur rider but at the same time make you lust for more. As we entered the gate we saw two prominent and gleaming faces. One of who was Sumit bhaiya (host and owner of Raadballi Retreat) and the other, his Grandpa. Grandpa was so enthusiastic and happy to see us, it doubled our excitement as well.
After, a nice, long hot water bath on the cold winter evening we gathered around the bonfire to relax and warm ourselves and savoured the taste of some Himachali Chai. Grandpa accompanied us and enlightened us with his knowledge and experience. We talked about a lot of things and of all sorts, from how this retreat was made, to what and where we are headed with life. Sipping on Himachali black tea and moving between different topics about religion, education and life itself, we realised how much it all varies from urban dwellers like us, we felt humbled at that moment. Soon it was dinner time.
Our chef was Sumit bhaiya himself, he surprised us with a lot of Himachali cuisine during our stay there. He served us with mutton, rajma with chapatis and rice. Despite the cold, the food was piping hot and extremely delicious. After this sumptuous meal, all we had left to do was slip into our cosy beds and wrap ourselves in the heavy warm blankets and enjoy a good night’s sleep because the next day was going to be exciting!
Destination – Pong Dam! It’s a huge reservoir, “Maharana Pratap Sagar” or Pong Dam, created in 1975. Pong harbours a lot of fishes like Singhara, Rohu, Mahseer, etc. that are native to this place. It is, also the safe haven for a variety of winter migratory birds. Over lacs of birds across 200+ species grace their presence at Pong every year, and these numbers are gradually rising. Sumit bhaiya gave us a book, published, in-house named “Wild Wings – Pong and its Birds” a night before, not only giving us insights of all the things we should keep an eye out for and all the hot spots on the map for birding but also tipped us to talk to the local fishermen there and buy the fresh catch of the day . This elevated our excitement even more.
We woke up early, packed our cameras, put on our gloves, jackets, caps, etc and hopped on our bikes for a chilly morning ride and headed to Pong Dam!! It was a challenge to ride the bike with frozen hands. Even though the dam is just 10 km from the retreat, being amateur riders it seemed like 20 km or even more, to us but we did make it there and it was well worth it in the end. While we had barely reached the vicinity of the dam, we were greeted with the chirping of so many birds and flocks of geese trotting around. There was no one at the gate as we entered the dam. Luckily, the place was deserted of human presence and we were the only ones there along with some local fishermen trying to earn their livelihood.
We dove into action, setting up the tripods, getting our cameras and phones ready to shoot at every chance we got to capture birds in their natural habitat. The four of us spread out in all directions to make sure we don’t miss out on anything. We spotted black cormorants, geese, pipits etc. We spent almost 4 hours before our stomachs started growling and alarmed us to head back to the retreat for a delicious, mouth-watering, lip-smacking, sumptuous, wholesome brunch cooked with loads of love and warmth by the one and only Sumit bhaiya.
After a lovely meal and basking in the sun, we decided to freshen up and pack our bags as this was our last night there. We showed grandpa the 1000s of photos of our birding as we discussed and exchanged our individual experiences of birding. Soon, it was time for sunset, and Sumit bhaiya knew a hidden spot to witness what we remember as, ‘a magical sunset ’. It was a 20-25 min walk up to a jungle, 10 mins of a jungle walk and climbing atop a huge rock. Indeed, it was the most picturesque, serene and the most surreal sunsets. The dense forest underneath our feet, the horizon at eye level and the mesmerizing sunset hues above our heads along with sounds of the monkeys and barking deers in the background. Nature’s blessing in the most mystical way possible!
Life couldn’t have been better, we were almost tempted to stay back for a more couple of days; Almost! We got back and cosied up next to the bonfire as soon as possible. The train of talks and laughs continued, we called it, ‘The Raadballi Express’. As suggested by Sumit Bhaiya, we had negotiated with a local fisherman at pong and bought a fish from his fresh catch. Sitting at the bonfire we saw Sumit bhaiya live in action. He slowly cooked the fish on the traditional earthen chulha for over an hour. This method of cooking takes a lot of patience, a calm mind and steady hands all of which most urban dwellers like us miss out on.
We were spellbound and appreciated the effort he took to serve us the best and local cuisine of Himachal. No wonder the food was so impeccably good! After our dinner was done and everything wound up, Sumit Bhaiya had to go out to drop Kuku bhaiya (his assistant) at his home a few miles away and offered us a midnight ride-along. We graciously accepted the offer, who would want to miss out on the midnight adventure in a rural and remote land of Himachal Pradesh, right? I won’t lie, it was spooky but definitely fun.
We got back to the retreat had some nice and hot midnight Himachali tea next to the bonfire as we sat and talked about Raadballi little more before we leave the next day. Soon after we went upstairs to sleep. This morning we woke up late, freshened up quickly and gathered for breakfast, parathas and the works! Treasuring each moment, scouting around the backyard, checking the fruits and vegetables that are grown there fresh that we’ve been eating. We clicked a lot of pictures filling our cameras and our minds with as many memories of the place as possible. After we were done clicking pictures to our heart’s contents we finally got our bags out to the car and had to say the goodbyes as we left.
In just a matter of two days we all were so attached to the place, Sumit bhaiya and Grandpa that it was hard for us to leave. We all promised them that we would visit again soon with family, new friends or just by ourselves, or when we miss the food or the place or the peace or the people. We bid adieu to the place one last time before we sat and took off for McLeodganj to drop off the bikes.
Raadballi Retreat instantly ranked up to the top favourite places to stay, for all of us. We enjoyed thoroughly during our staycation with only and purely good vibes! Raadballi Retreat is a sanctum of natural beauty, calm, positivity and tranquillity. As if a realm of utopian dreams that came true. It’s been over a few months and all the memories of this place are still so fresh as if it was just yesterday that I was there and yet at the same time missing the place so much that I wish I could drop everything and go back there. Raadballi, a place I left a part of my heart, a place I call ‘Home…!’
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