Chail is one of my favourite weekend destinations. I first discovered the sylvan charms of Chail while pursuing post-graduation in communication studies from Panjab University in the City Beautiful Chandigarh. Back then, we would often make weekend trips to Chail on our motorbikes. I vividly remember the first spicy smell of pine trees and the scent of those charming wild roses as we rode from Chandigarh to climb the higher foothills.
Just before the current monsoon season, I was in Chail again on a weekend to escape the summer heat of plains. Sitting in the courtyard of the decrepit Junga Palace while sorting out my knickknacks to gear myself up for the day’s hike to the cooler environs of Chail, I ruminated about my earlier escapes from Chandigarh on weekends. I remember how beautiful Chail looked; how cool and scented after the heat and dust of the plains. Wild flowers, chirpy birdies, pine needles and wood smoke; Lovely!
One of the memories for which I consider myself to be fortunate is that I have been visiting Chail from the days when just a few vehicles travelled to this part of the Himalayas. Minus any fuel fumes, no loud bangs, blaring horns or screeching tyres, no SUVs or transport trucks belching reeking clouds of diesel exhaust, and pedestrians walking carelessly, it was total peace. It was wonderful. Those were the days that continue to inspire me for weekend outings.
The settlement of Junga, an erstwhile princely state, is surrounded by green hills with Shimla in front. The green environs of Kufri are to the northeast and the rich Chail Wildlife Sanctuary is towards the south of Junga. The rich forest cover comprises trees of kail, deodar, pine, cheel and ban, etc. The settlement of Junga is the midpoint and a popular stopover on the traditional trail between Shimla and Chail. With the advent of roads in the area, the trail is, however, seldom used these days except possibly by herders, runners or for soft adventures, which is what we planned to do.
Starting from Junga at breakfast time, we planned to reach Chail by evening tea time. The length of the trail from Junga (1560m) to Janedghat at Chail (2224m) is a little less than nine km. Having packed our lunch and some fruits in our day backpack plus two litres of water, full of energy we left for Chail. It was a sunny day and in the initial hour of walk we were sweating profusely. The trail passes through some quaint hamlets and then proceeds on to the densely forested slopes of the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary. The shade of wooded ridge after the second kilometre gave us some respite from the heat. The entire hillside of Shimla including the neighbouring Shoghi was clearly visible. Not only the capital Shimla but the picturesque settlement of Junga with several interesting olden buildings and structures can also be plainly seen from the ridge we were skirting.
Owing to its proximity and richness, the forests of Junga we were passing through used to be one of the preferred hunting sites for the officers in Shimla during the British rule. During those times, Junga, the capital of the erstwhile Keonthal state surrendered many villages to form the present station of Shimla. The gazetteer adds that the chief of Keonthal used to be called a Rana but in the mutiny Rana Sansar Sen behaved most loyally giving shelter and hospitality to many Europeans who fled from Shimla when it was feared that the Gurkha regiment stationed there had become disloyal. The title of Raja was conferred on him in perpetuity for these services.
Once a retreat of a few solitude loving British officials, hunters and explorers, the hillside we were walking through is fast turning into a preferred holidaying destination. Although devoid of any snowy view, the Chail Widlife Sanctuary is truly a walker’s paradise. The wooded charm of this region will be a pure delight for a birding enthusiast. On my walk, I spotted 27 different species of birds and pheasants including a lifer. As we gained height, the weather became cooler. All the seven hills of Shimla including the tall red statue of Lord Hanuman atop the Jakhu hill were clearly visibly from the trail. We lunched at one of the several meadows we crossed on the way. It took us nearly six hours at a leisurely pace to cover the distance between Junga and Janedghat, a popular trailhead located three km before the hiker’s paradise of Chail.
The route we took was part of the centuries-old Shimla-Chail trail and was much frequented before the roads forayed into the lush green hills. The trail, mostly unmarked in the confines of the sanctuary, climbs over 700 m to reach Chail, once the summer retreat of Maharaja of Patiala and now spread over a cluster of three popular hills Pandhawa, Rajgarh and Sidh Tibba. Today, the sleepy hillside of Chail stands as a faint reminder of the times of how the salubrious environs of Shimla would have looked before the British forayed in.
Offering a peaceful vacation, Chail does not have a Mall or a shopping arcade; though a huddle of shops that double up as a bus stop include grocery and vegetable vendors, dhabas and chemists. The chief heritage attraction of the town is the HPTDC run Palace Hotel. The hillside became accessible to visitors after the Patiala royals handed over the 75-acre property, where Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala spent six months in a year, to the government in 1972. The Palace is popular with honeymooning couples and weekenders who hop in for a day or two of princely excitement. On weekends, it would be nearly impossible to get a foothold in the Palace. On weekdays, enjoy the tranquillity of the surroundings and countryside.
Ever since its inception, the palace is said to have reverberated with the sounds of partying and merry-making. The gazetteer notes that couples drank from sidecars and smoked cigarettes leaning against staircases while listening to tunes played on a grand piano. Inside, the peeling, water-soaked walls; worn, musty carpets; dilapidated woodwork and furniture; dusty chandeliers, etc. might add to the disappointment but on the positive side, the exteriors are, however, surprisingly well kept. Sitting on the white-painted wrought iron benches in the lawn, muse over the gossips and stories of the Palace and hear innumerable accounts of Maharaja’s personal life.
Another attraction, Sidh Baba Ka Mandir is placed atop a ridge sandwiched between Rajgarh and Pandhawa hills. Part of the army cantonment area, the temple is built near the cricket stadium. The site is nearly 4km from the market square and is surrounded by a dense cover of woods. One more temple of repute is the Kali Ka Tibba, located a little further; six km from the market. The prize catch would certainly be the evening view from the Kali Ka Tibba – with foothills on one side, sinking down in line after line until beyond them you could feel the plains stretched out; and on the other, the Churdhar; as also the high Himalayas.
The hill-station of Chail is 25 km from Kandaghat on the Kalka-Shimla highway. Chail to Kufri on the Shimla-Theog highway is 31 km. The approach from both sides is fairly easy. The road distance between Junga and Chail is 21 km.
Average Altitude: 2000m
Best time to visit: Round the year, avoid holiday seasons
Travel Lure: Himalayan views, heritage and sylvan charm