If Kashmir is a paradise on earth, Palampur has its own heavenly charms. And if Darjeeling is the Queen of the Himalayan Hills, Palampur may be likened to a rosy cheeked princess that rules the Kangra valley of Himachal Pradesh.
The comparison comes to the mind of someone like me who has seen the Himalayas from its north western awe-inspiring beginnings in Afghanistan to its very scrawny hill ends that taper gently towards the south in the north eastern part of the country. And across the expanse, the majesty of Darjeeling and the beauty of Kashmir remain permanently etched in mind.
However, in many ways Palampur goes beyond the Vale and combines in itself what is perhaps the best in Kashmir in the north and Darjeeling in the east. It is a delectable combo, offering the best of both the sites minus the concrete and crowd of Darjeeling and the long travel time of Kashmir.
But like Kashmir, this small town in Himachal Pradesh offers a soaring pyramidal snow-clad skyline that is within touching distance; much like the crest of the Pir Panjal that crowns the valley in the neighbouring state. The almost perpendicular granite mass of the Dhauladhar range rises suddenly from the meadows and spurs of the Shivalik hills to offer an imposing view of the great Himalayas from the pleasant height of Palampur valley (about 1200 metres). Almost through the year, the Dhauladhar's forehead remains dusted with snow and the blueish-grey of stone contrasted with pristine whiteness of snow against a brilliant blue of the sky creates its own magic of soft ever- changing hues.
Indeed, the worm's eye view from the hill town to the mountain tops invariably offers a rich riot of colours--- the dark green of the deodar forests, a lighter shade of green of the pasture lands, the vigorous fluorescence of mustard yellow, grey hills and patches of trees about to shed their gold brown leaves etch themselves against the spotless blue of the sky thereby creating a veritable visual feast that can be savoured endlessly.
Like Kashmir, Palampur is a land of gushing rivulets and gurgling streams. They run through the town like arteries and can be delightful companions on long walks along their banks. Almost every where, the water of these streams is still unpolluted and fit for human consumption.
On the outskirts of the town is Neugal Khad, a huge chasm through which flows the Bundla river. The boulder-strewn bed and the rushing pale green waters of the river strongly remind the visitor of the charms of Pahalgam. Like the Kasmiri tourist spot, any place in and around the Khad is a picnic spot and there can be no greater delight than bathing in the cold waters of Bundla and then lying on the sun-warmed rocks before a hearty lunch.
Perhaps, it is here that the west merges into the east and gives Palampur its own special appeal. Surrounding the Pahalgam-type Khad are tea gardens merrily hugging the mildly inclined hill sides, passing over the horizon and then rising again from the sides. Like Darjeeling, Palampur is a land of tea gardens and narrow gauge railway. Like Darjeeling, it has a rich pastoral life and a hint of colonial influence.
In fact, Palampur was founded by British planters as a tea estate and though it did not become as famous as its north-eastern cousin, Palampur tea or Kangra tea has its own share of admirers. The gardens are both outside and within the town and give it the ambience of a huge tea estate. There is no place in town where one doesn't find tea bushes growing in neatly cropped rows. The bazaar itself is surrounded by tea gardens and a casual walk through the main thoroughfare of the city is akin to a tour of a tea estate. Concrete has, of course, encroached upon vacant spaces in town and brick and mortar structure are now pre dominant but the presence of these gardens all around take away much from the harshness of urban clutter.
The town itself is picturesque. It is situated on a gently elevated spur and is hardly a noticeable climb from the valley floor. It is neat and clean and through the year has pleasant weather conditions. It is not very cold in winter like Shimla and is pleasantly warm in summer. The monsoon again is a good time to visit Palampur for the rain is intermittent and rarely heavy. Fog conditions do occur but almost never for long durations. The season for Palampur is therefore all 12 months of the year.
One can approach Palampur from Delhi via Jalandhar which is well served by several super fast trains. From Jalandhar to the hill town is a drive of about 175 km. For those wishing to travel by road, an alternate option is to travel to Chandigarh from Delhi, a four-hour drive, and then proceed to Palampur via the famous Bhakra-Nangal Dam route. The drive through Punjab along the verdant greens of its lush croplands is a balm for eyes tired of the urban greys. The vast expanses of tree lined avenues as one motors along the highway and the endless fields of wheat or rice force even those in a hurry to stop and stare at the landscape.
The hills begin to rise as soon as one crosses into HP at Una. However, through the journey, even after the mandatory hairpin bends and twists, there aren't any stomach-churning climbs for the weak hearted. Each little hill range dips into a valley and the rise and descent is rarely more than 500 metres at any place.
The main highway forks out from Kangra. The main road goes to Dharamsala while its subsidiary branches off at Mator towards Palampur. A dozen km on this road and the beauty and serenity of Palampur valley starts to unfold.
Palampur, mercifully, has hardly had the benefit of being developed into a tourist town. There are no starred hotels here though budget accommodation is available at the tourist department run, T-bud hotel. Yamini, located short distance away, is hardly luxurious though for those willing to adapt to a few inconveniences, it offers an attractive site in the middle of the town.
The jewel in Palampur's crown, however, is the Taragarh Palace Hotel located about 8 km away from the city on the road to Baijnath temple. This heritage hotel was developed as a summer estate in the 1930s by the then Nawab of Bhawalpur over 14 acres of land. Taragarh Palace offers all that is best in terms of old world charm and modern conveniences. It is surrounded by forested area which is fringed with tea estates. Within its campus, it has a swimming pool, gym and walk ways. Every aspect of good living and an easy holiday has been well sculpted. It is a private retreat from which one can emerge for long walks down the gushing streams or along the meandering slopes of the nearby tea estate. In other words, it is an idyllic place amidst an equally idyllic surrounding at a moderate cost.
Palampur, unlike most hills stations in North India, fascinates one with the numerous opportunities that it offers, almost at your doorstep, for long drives or leisurely walks. Anywhere you turn to, the path opens up to lead you from one scenic splendour to another and from silences to the music of the brooks. Here, one doesn't need to consult local guides or tourist books for a picnic spot or a trek towards the imposing Dhauladhars. Take the metalled road, a cobbled path or a dusty trail and you end up being rewarded with delightful natural scenes, pastoral sights or by simply finding your own special place under the sun. In fact, cosy twosomes cannot ask for more privacy than what is on offer here and families can't ask for more fun and frolic in the gardens, along river beds and streams and in wide open spaces which beckon here with their friendliness.
The narrow gauge railway line is a must-do on a Palampur sojourn. The 163-km line starts from Pathankot and terminates at Jogindernagar. Its serpentine run through the vall