I have traveled to many hill stations around India and there is a common saying that all the locals keep telling us that the village is better than “Switzerland” when it snows in the winter. I have heard this some many times that I have actually started ignoring this whenever I am traveling to hill stations. So when I was traveling in the Bloggers Bus along with six other bloggers from around the country on a trip organized by Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board in coordination with GMVN (Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited) I was not expecting something different when I was told that this Harsil is the real “Switzerland of India”.
We left Uttarkashi early after breakfast and drove around mountains with the river Bhagirathi accompanying us all the way. If you do not know it is this very river Bhagirathi that goes till Devaprayag and joins river Alaknanda to ultimately form the mighty Ganga (Ganges). The winding mountain roads in this part of Uttarakhand is a bit different from what we have been seeing all the time as we could see pine and spruce all around us. At the distance, we could also see the snowline thus we were quite high up as well as near the main Himalayan range.
The steep mountain slopes were displaying a riot of colors and sometimes I could see shepherds along with his goats and sheep searching for fodder. I wonder how they reached that precarious mountain ledge in the first place. Our initial plan was to go for a trip to Gangotri and for lunch we would stop at a GMVN Tourist Rest House (TRH).
The Bloggers Bus reached a small village called Harsil just after mid-day and we were told that it is here that our lunch would be served. I was hungry and was eager to head straight to the dining area. While walking I stopped and looked around, we were in a valley surrounded by high mountains all around. There something strange in the air, I stopped walking and since I am a slow walker I was all alone and then the sound of silence hit me. It was peacefully silent with only the sound of water flowing around the stone boulders and sometimes the mystical howling sound of the wind rushing down the mountain towards the valley. The air was cold, really cold so much so that when it was hitting my face I could feel it like needles piercing my face. It was not painful but wonderful. I was feeling the nature I was one with nature at Harsil.
Harsil is located on the banks of Bhagirathi River. The valley is surrounded by Matri, Kailash, Shrikanth Peak and Banderpunch mountains. Harsil is connected to Chitkul through Lamkhaga Pass.
We were welcomed by the manager at the TRH – Harsil and on asking about this village he seemed very excited he promised to tell us the story right after lunch. We were served Matar Paneer, Daal, Bhindi Bhaji, Rice and Mandwa ki roti and for desserts, it was Jhangora Ka Kheer.
The Maharaja of Harsil
After Lunch the Prem Ballabh Semwal the TRH manager and made us sit at one of the glass house from where we could see the hills and the river he then started narrating the story of Harsil. The story revolves around an Englishman named Frederick E. Wilson also sometimes referred to as the Pahari Wilson or Raja Wilson. As the story goes Frederick E. Wilson was an army deserter and had escaped from his regiment during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, after escaping to the mountains he ended up at Harsil and fell in love with this place. Since Harsil was a remote village to Frederick E. Wilson thought he could stay here undetected by his regiment. He fell in love with this place so much that he decided to stay here permanently and even married a local girl from a village nearby known as Raimatta.
Frederick E. Wilson and Raimatta did not have any children, unhappy he still continued to live in this village and started a timber trade which grew in abundance here. One fine day he met a beautiful 16-year-old village girl named ‘Sungrami’. She had a nickname as Gulabi since she had blush pink cheeks. At once Frederick E. Wilson fell in love with her and got married and lived in a grand house at Harsil. They both had three children named Nathaniel, Charles, and Henry.
With timber trade, flourishing Frederick E. Wilson became rich and decided to invest further into farming and then introduced Apples into this region. This changed the whole history of Harsil as Apple is basically a cash crop with the climate of Harsil just being perfect making this region produce some of the best apples in India till date.
Now, this was getting interesting but we had to move on as our ultimate destination was Gangotri. Luckily for us, we had just enough time to go around the village a bit. Harsil was like a time capsule, as per law no new constructions can be done in the village even repairs need prior approval. This made the village look as if it was for decades frozen in time.
Raj Kapoor and Harsil
Harsil has another secret which made this place more interesting. This was the very village where Raj Kapoor had shot the mountain scenes of Ram Teri Ganga Maili. One piece of the puzzle that still stands and still remains exactly what it was nearly 30 years ago was the village post office. The first thing that I did once I returned to my house was to watch the movie again and its exactly what it was some 30 years ago. In fact, some of the village shops still feature posters of the movie giving the visitors a reminder of its history.
Harsil is also the base of Mahar Regiment (2nd Battalion) thus you do see a lot of military presence on the way. In reality, Chinese outposts are very nearby thus this presence of the army. The walk around the village took us around some of the most picturesque places that I have ever been to. Old houses, streams, iron bridges, Bhutia dogs and last but not the least the majestic mountains surrounding us.
How to Reach Harsil
Harsil is one of the base camps for Char Dhaam thus pilgrims going towards Gangotri have to come to Harsil. From Uttarkashi its about 72 Kilometers so it’s not far but the mountain roads make things slow down. There is also a direct helicopter service from Dehradun to Harsil Helipad.
It was time for us to go but my mind was stuck here at Harsil. I am sure going to visit this place when the snow covers it up making it a traveler’s delight. I will travel when the apple orchards are full of red ripe apples. So the next time when I am visiting a hill station and the locals tell me that this is the “Switzerland of India” then I will tell them that I have actually seen the real Switzerland of India and its none other than Harsil.
I traveled to Harsil along with fellow bloggers Rangan Dutta, Namita Kulkarni (Radically Ever After), Anindya Sundar Basu (Pickturenama), Swati Jain (Buoyant Feet), Amrita Das (Travelling Ides of March) and Upendra (Vagabond Images). We were supported by Prakash Khatri the District Tourist Officer along with Anurag Jain and Sukanya Kimothy, last but not the least out bust driver Heera who drove nonstop during the total duration of the Bloggers Bus journey.