“Caution! Leopards on Patrol” read a faded white rusting board atop the dark towering deodar. Dusk may have already spread its drapes all over. The fresh blanket of snow from previous nights had been brutally crushed by strips of grey tarmac-imprints of giant tires whizzing past ruthlessly. An uneasy reminder of technology winning over all the battles of modern life. We were only two. A strange creaking sound had been following us since quite some time. The constant gush of wind had only deepened the quietude. We exchanged quick glances. Then to my wrist-watch. “Let’s go back…Now!” We spared no time in fleeing the scene. It was only after ten minutes of brisk walk that we were again welcomed by civilization, both humans and their other best companion- the ever-friendly dog.
No, not an inspired nightmare from Ruskin Bond’s “A Face in the Dark”. This was a few years back, perhaps 2011, somewhere amidst the eerie silence of the hills. Since then I have been squeezing out any opportunity to pack my bags and travel to Landour, at least once a year. Mention Landour- the misty imagery of floating clouds and the dreamy aura of an old-world charm become infectious enough to ruffle with a tingling sensation the travelling bee within.
Two reasons I love Landour and no-beating around the bush here. 1) Landour is no Kullu-Manali, where hiring bikes may offer some of the best panoramic visions of nature. Here, it is best enjoyed when one just walks. Yes, it’s your feet- those long, leisurely footsteps that will take one far far away from the maddening crowd. 2) Because one has got ‘nothing to do’ (for which many may ask for a valid reason to visit Landour), it is a ‘no-big deal’ to the pocket. Women and men, especially those who are still surviving on pocket-money, and who love to travel solo (a special shout out to the girls out there) may find some of the best solutions to hectic schedules, heart-aches, solutions to life-problems, listening to fascinating narratives or simply relish the sheer fun of self-discovery.
Landour- a small cantonment town stands at an altitude of 7,000 feet and just five kilometres away from the touristy mayhem of Mussoorie, Uttarakhand. For those interested in group activities, a range of attractions vary from trying out delicacies in the “Lovely Omlette Centre”, a munch at freshly roasted crackling bhutta (corn) by the road-side or trying out one’s luck in winning toys at the play-station zones in the ever-bustling Mall Road. For others, there are the Kempty Falls, the Bhatta Falls, the Picture Palace, the Gunhills Ropeway and mystic night views of twinkling lights draping the Doon Valley below. For me however, it has always been the quietude emanating from the sky-high deodars, the songs of the Himalayan Whistling Thrush singing its heart away atop a branch and the dried-up pine-cones lying abandoned and lamenting its fall-out with its magnificent parent- the gorgeous pine tree. To be one with the mossy smell of the hills, the pleasure has always been mine.
Since my first acquaintance with the sleepy town of Landour, it has remained no more of a marginal adjunct to “Pahadon ki Raani” (“Queen of the Hills”) Mussoorie- a more popular destination among tourists, especially those making their way from the vicinity of North India. In my itinerary, this offbeat destination palpitates on its own. The best part is- the more uphill one keeps on moving with a ‘no to-do list’ in mind, one can expect more surprises of breath-taking panorama. A journey to the interiors of a faraway time of bygone days from the colonial era.
How to Get There:
Landour has only advice for its visitors: keep it simple. And mine was a chance discovery. Reach Dehradun by train or by bus; I prefer bus. To wake up to a nipped morning, a pleasant splash of salubrious mountain air coupled with the anticipation that the hills are not very far away- well, that is an experience in itself. The bus journey to Dehradun also fits one’s pocket. Booking a ticket from discount providing apps like RedBus, Paytm or Make my Trip once landed me with a luxurious sleeper coach Volvo bus at as less a price as Rs.300/- (Disclaimer: Only if you are lucky enough!). Otherwise, one always has the cheap yet convenient choice of opting for semi-deluxe non-AC buses (tickets costing around Rs.270/-). Since I am often on an ‘easy-on the pocket’ trail, I also ensure to pack my own home-made food for dinner to add to the smooth sailing for the tummy. On reaching Dehradun, there are frequent buses plying from the Dehradun Railway Station to Mussoorie at very affordable prices (Rs.47/-). Shared taxis has the added advantage of providing comfort at a minimal cost (Rs.120/-). Depending upon one’s venue of stay, one has to remain alert in choosing from the two drop points- the Picture Palace or the Mussoorie Mall, Library. The two points lie at opposite ends of the spectrum and assumes quite a hike with the backpack behind (I had learned this as an amateur traveler who is lazy enough to do her research and thus forced to depend more on her impulses).
Opting out of fancy restaurants and exotic cafes that are crammed amidst the Mall Road hullabaloo, I tuck in for a hearty breakfast at Ratan’s Tea-Shop (near the SBI ATM of Clock Tower). Hot Steaming Momos dripping its aroma of freshly minced mutton, a sip of the foaming ‘less sugar-thick milk’ coffee and the warmth exuding from the coffee-glass (yes, no coffee mugs there) are good enough to dispel the traces of an overnight journey. Time to explore the evergreen woods, marvel at the yesteryear's stone cottages, to listen to crickets singing from unknown distances and as the poet says, “To never tire of looking at each other- only the mountain and I”.
Celebrities, Story-tellers and the Brightly-Colored Iron Bench:
After a good half-an hour slow trek, the iron bench- in its bright yellow, green and red hues facing the Doma’s Inn seems like an oasis. The rhythmic cacophony of wind-chimes waltzes to the invigorating breeze around the hotel. Painted in radiant traditional Tibetan thangka illustrations, a “Built to Ride” signboard hanging outside and the mean machine- Harley-Davidson is parked just by its side. One can often catch glimpses of non-Indian tourists talking among themselves and relishing some fine delicacies inside the restaurant. What they talked about, I could never hear. Only visible were moving lips, some nodding and slow movements of cutlery. Unfortunately, I also came to learn that a stay at Doma’s Inn did not fit my budget-travelling. But that iron seat facing the colorful dragon impressions which were diligently carved in the façade of Doma’s had much more to offer. It silently watched over film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj’s holiday home, which shared its walls with the myriad travelers who leave behind trails of memories within the Inn. It also witnesses the passions of the writer who weaves magical stories from behind the D-shaped brown window-panes of Ivy Cottage. Mr. Bond- Yes we are talking about Ruskin Bond- the “Indian Wordsworth” as he is lovingly called. As I mentioned above of surprises, seated at the same bench, I also had the privilege of once listening to the seductive tunes of “Jawan pe laga” (from the movie ‘Omkara) from the singer-Rekha Bharadwaj herself. Such little pleasures may be tempting enough to convince one to lazily hang around in the curious crossroads surrounding the Doma's Inn.
But by this time, urbane human companionship gets slowly replaced by friendly smiles from the wood-cutter, a simple affirmative nod from the taut mule-driver or jovial camaraderie from our Hanuman langur friends. One also realizes that the mountains beckon to witness one of its distant yet majestic snow-covered peaks. So, out of the two roads forming the T-point, one may choose from the motor able drive-way and the steep and thus a little arduous walk-able road that leads uphill. Ensuring that I have company for the journey, I carry books often from Ruskin Bond’s collections that are easily available with his own autograph at the Oxford Book Store near the town cinema at the Mall Road area.
“It isn’t the Mountains Ahead that wears you out; it’s the Grain of Sand in your Shoe”
Rows of tall pines surround the St. Paul’s Church. Its stained window-glasses curiously reminisces its 19th Century heritage. Adjacent to it is the hub formed by “Char Dukan” (literally “four shops” and hence the name). A bowl of hot soupy Maggie (Rs.60/-) at Anil’s Café provides the much-needed respite to the weary traveler. The steaming sweet aroma of freshly baked pancakes with maple syrup also comes at much affordable prices (Rs.150/-). Short intervals punctuated with glimpses of cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and his wife sharing a picture frame with the stall-owner himself may make one feel privileged enough to be sitting there and sipping in cups of ‘strong-coffee’. The scent of brewed coffee and pleasures of reading at a cozy corner while basking in the mountain sun makes for a cherished memory sprinkled with flavours of the hills. By the afternoon, the restless traveler keeps twitching to move beyond, to be one with the red Rhododendrons and gaze lazily to the distant peaks from Laal Tibba- the highest point in Mussoorie. In my earlier visits, the tibba had lovers watching the sunset together while discussing their life-journey over a cup of cutting chai. The ‘New Laal Tibba’ however, as its name suggests, has chargeable binoculars, high-end tea and coffee (once I was charged Rs.80/- and I swear never to have a sip there again). Punctuated with bargaining noises to try out Pahari dresses and pose for couple photographs, the 20 meter tall tower now reflects its fraternity with the noisy talkies and bazaars downhill. For the love of leisurely solitary walks amidst forest-greens, I prefer to rather move past the tibba during days of heavy tourist traffic.
There awaits the lush green mountain lanes brushing its shoulders with cottages peeping out of lanky pine trees. Gracing the entrances are weathered green boards that read in black bold letters “I’M KLEEN” (Keep Landour’s Environment and Ecology Natural). One among them is ‘the Parsonage’- actor Victor Bannerjee’s residence. Carved out of finely polished brown woods and white-colored wooden railings, it is picture perfect in its sepia post-card frame. However there is hardly a soul in sight. One is rather greeted by the sky-piercing bark of the Alsatian and white chimney-smokes. Walking past the eerily beautiful terraced Landour Cemetery of the 19th century which was once guarded by a baba, we eventually wake up to civilization again at the turn where stands the cemented Landour Language School with its green windows and doors.
A Bazaar of Only Two Stalls:
The Sister’s Bazaar, named after the nursing staff who took care of the convalescing needs of the British Military Hospital, has only two stores today. In the vicinity of the Institute of Technology Management, Prakash Store boasts of its clientele ties with the Nehru family and well-known for its range of organic jams made from local fruits. Sharing its wall is Prakash Handicrafts abounding in woolen garments, herbal products and little knick-knacks. A walk around the Landour Chakkar descends towards the Rokeby Manor- a large stone building which hosts celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar while boasting of its proud gaze overlooking some of the best views of the Doon valley. Aware of its strict caution towards trespassers “to not even dare to park” within its vicinity, the weary traveler’s feet begins moaning for rest and the walk downhill remains easy but loaded with the scent of nostalgia.
The Highway Moments:
Languishing in Landour doesn’t end here. I have just begun to diversify my route towards the densely forested Woodstock School, one of the oldest in the region, the Tehri Dam roadside and once I also bike-rode towards the hamlet of Dhanaulti. From the beginning of it, I have realized that the processes to reach the destination have much more to offer. It is the journeys of those beautiful walks rather than the destinations that have become memories of a lifetime. After all, “Mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.” I think Ruskin Bond has spoken for all the mountain-lovers out there.