Life is better in Landour....is the saying that has haunted me since I moved to New Delhi in 2013. Having planned and cancelled the trip twice in 2 years, I was keen on making it happen this time. Finally, the Easter Weekend of 2017 offered the perfect window to visit Mr. Ruskin Bond's home. Now I had been to Mussourie back in 1997 and was not impressed as a 11-year old. So the plan was not to stay in Mussourie whatever the cost. However, accommodation in Landour was not easy to find, made doubly difficult by the Easter Weekend bookings. The three prominent establishments, viz. Doma's Inn, Rokeby Manor and La Villa Bethany, were all sold out or beyond budget. Lady Di spent an entire day calling home-stays across the little cantonment to find a place. Where did she find a list you ask? Here: http://landourlanguageschool.com/accomodation.html .
We (she) finally settled on a place called Woodside Cottage where the proprietor Mrs Bhatty made no fuss to take in two random kids from Delhi. There was a verbal agreement over phone that we will arrive on 13th April morning and pay cash. We booked ourselves into one of the more expensive rooms for INR 4,000 a night - but more on that later.
Our journey began with the Super Luxury Uttarakhand State Volvo bus from ISBT Kashmere Gate on 12th April. The fare was INR 781 per head one way till Dehradun (https://utconline.uk.gov.in/). The plan was to catch a cab from Dehradun ISBT. Cheaper options from Delhi were available to take us directly to Mussourie, but both Lady Di and I are pampered silly that way. We were booked on the last bus of the day at 11:59 pm. Being mere wannabe backpackers, we arrived well ahead of time, found a bench right next to the allotted bus bay and tried hard to look like seasoned travelers. So much so, that we might have missed the bus had it not been for Lady Di's timely prod to check on a bus which had been standing there for a while. For the benefit of novices such as ourselves, the buses are usually parked way ahead of time. So we were comfortably seated by 11:40 pm, offered our complimentary bottles of water and pleasantly surprised by an on time departure. We were stopped right outside the terminus by what turned out to be a true-blue backpacking couple, who stopped the bus, negotiated two seats on the spot and got on. We were in awe of them for the rest of our trip. The bus journey was mostly uneventful. I nodded off promptly like all well-fed Bengalis do. If anything happened, Lady Di will have to write about it. I was woken up around 5:30 am next morning to realise we were almost at Dehradun ISBT. We reached at 6:00 am. This put a proverbial spanner in our plans. The scheduled arrival as per the Website was 7:00 am and we had planned our trip to Landour from Dehradun accordingly. Having arrived a good one hour earlier, we were at a loss as everything was shut. Thankfully, the Taxi stand was open right within the ISBT gates. From Dehradun ISBT to Landour Sister's Bazar was a fixed rate of INR 1550 (Mussourie was a couple of hundred bucks less). We got a Swift Dzire for that money and made a comfortable journey in a little above an hour. Here, we were in a dilemma. Sister's Bazar essentially is 3 little stores - Landour Bakehouse, Prakash's Handicrafts and a grocery store (more on each later). But nothing opens before 8 am and our watches showed 7:20 ish. We weren't sure if we could check-in so early at our homestay where we had indicated an arrival of 11 am. Left with no other option we called Mr. Jagdish, our homestay caretaker, who was supposed to meet us at the Bazar. After some trouble, we patched through and he asked us to wait. What we expected to be a short wait, turned out to be a good 15 minutes. It was when we started to follow him back that we realised why. Woodside Cottage is not on your main road. A mountain trail veers off a little ahead of Landour Bakehouse and climbs down to the cottage. For someone whose daily exercise involves several walks up and down from the office smoking area, this revelation was a bit shocking. Lady Di was not excited either. We made our way down carefully, following Jagdish-bhaiya. It took us a better part of 20 minutes to drag ourselves down to the Cottage. And we knew everything was worth it- the climb, the money, the frustrations. It was just the kind of place we were looking for. A lovely old cottage in Red and White, nestled away on the slopes - no cars, no traffic, no hawkers, no selfie-stick wielding groups of mammals. Serene, lush green, birds chirping and clear view of the valley.
We were greeted warmly by a concerned Mrs. Bhatty. What a woman! I won't go into great details about her but to get an idea, you can read her autobiography (http://www.amazon.in/Purdah-Piccadilly-Muslim-Struggle-Identity/dp/9351508242). She deserves a separate blog altogether. One rarely comes across such characters in one's daily lives. She laid down the house-rules for us, which weren't really too onerous for city-bred folk like us. After a home-made breakfast by Bina-didi (Jagdish's consort), we went up to our room and a had a nap. The room was gorgeous! Spacious with a Queen sized bed, a terrace and a balcony. The bathroom was well-fitted and bigger than my bedroom. Possibly bigger than my Mumbai apartment back in the days. Over the course of three days that we stayed, a large part of it was spent enjoying the room. I am keen to head back there during monsoon sometime and just sip on tea and coffee sitting on the balcony and reading the whole time.
We got up a little before lunch time and got ready to head out. As we stepped out, we were greeted promptly by Barfi, the youngest member of the family, eagerly sizing us up on all fours and giving me a good lick. The climb up was harsh for our plump figures, but we did eventually get up to Sister's Bazar. The rest of the day basically involved leisurely walking around a sleepy village, exquisitely clean by Indian standards. It was only Thursday and the Good Friday folks were not yet in. We stopped for lunch at Cafe Ivy near Char Dukan. Then walked around to Lal Tibba, Victor Banerjee's house and back to Landour Bakehouse. Do not miss this place. Sitting there, I could have written a poem - ok maybe just a rhyme- but you understand the emotion. We were tempted enough to ask if they have any place to stay but they don't. The nearest place would be the Pinewood Cottage by Rokeby next door, which is more expensive than the market price of my old sedan right now. So that would have to wait. We had to head back soon to our cottage to avoid navigating the trail after dark. The rest of the evening we lazed around, listened to Mrs Bhatty narrate her life and had a home-cooked dinner. I should mention here that lunch and dinner are charged separately (INR 350 for non-vegetarian). The room charge includes breakfast. Next day morning we woke up early, had tea, breakfast and set out for Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. Once again, we had to climb back up to Sister's bazar. Keeping the bazar at your back, take the left side road from the Y-point. Stick to it and after a couple of turns you will come across a narrow mountain trail snaking downwards to your left (ask if in doubt - it's easy to miss). It's a lovely downhill hike through quiet, old trees. Both Lady Di and I are overweight. I smoke and have back problems. So it took us almost an hour to get down at a leisurely pace with a couple of breathers. If you are fitter, you can probably do it much quicker. But the leisure pace allowed us to enjoy the scenery. Your call really. Finally you emerge at Jabarkhet village, where we took a tea and pakoda break at Cafe Hill-e-Ishq. The proprieters have proudly put up pictures of Tom Alter on their walls, who I gather is a regular there. Rejuvenated, we started on the last 10 minute walk to the entrance of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. At the gate, one has to pay a entry fee of INR 300. And then, it you vs nature. A virgin, privately owned, nature reserve that can be explored by seasoned hikers in a few hours. Absolutely in the heart of nature with plenty of flora and fauna to keep the serious nature lovers engaged. We mostly wandered along the Leopard and Rhododendron Trail. Do carry water and a snack with you (if you know how not to litter that is). You won't find any once you are inside. We took our time and explored till we felt our limbs couldn't take it anymore and headed back. Took us about two hours in all for only one half of the reserve. We climbed back to the village and luckily found a shared cab which took us to Musoourie for 40 bucks. If you are unlucky, you will have to walk again. In Mussourie, we lunched at the Clocktower Cafe and made a must-visit trip to the Mall Road which was utterly unnecessary in hindsight. Remember we were now on Good Friday and all DL, HR and CH number plates were lining up rapidly. A visit to the bookstore, a few books heavier, we headed back to the taxi stand and had a harrowing ride back to Landour. The traffic and noise sucked away all the peace and quiet of the previous two days and we were a little crestfallen. Barfi cheered us up as we went back in and we called it a night soon.
Next day started late and slow. We stepped out only around 11 and made our way to Rokeby Manor (Emily's) for lunch. Great food. Shit crowd. Must go back when it's quiet. We trudged along to the churches but everywhere we went, it was crowded. We had to miss Anil's Char Dukan place as well. Having saved it assiduously for the last day, we found no place. But the walk and the sights of the return route from Lal Tibba was rejuvenating and quieter. We came back to Landour Bakehouse and basically lazed away the rest of the afternoon there (try the hot chocolate). We did a bit of shopping at Prakash's picking up the fabled peanut butter, jams and marmalade for people back home and trudged back to our cottage. We were quite used to the hike by now. A customary stop at The ZigZag villa was also necessary to pet the saddest Labrador this side of the Equator. He is apparently called Mutthu and peeks out under his fenced garden for passersby to pat him. Barfi, of course, does not approve. The evening was lazy again mostly reading and chitchatting. Mrs Bhatty has plenty to share and you can just listen to her. The following morning, i.e. Easter Sunday, started quickly but lazily. We took our time to finish our tea and breakfast, did some packing and headed up to the Bakehouse. A quick lunch and short walk later we came back to the cottage and headed out around 4 pm for Dehradun. To note here, we had call ahead and arrange for a taxi. It was supposed to pick us up from the gates of Woodstock School which was further downhill from our place. So with luggage, we avoided the climb up. We had to wait for a few anxious minutes till the cab turned up. Fare again was pre-negotiated at INR 1560 (not sure why the extra 10). The driver was chatty and happy to answer our questions and pointing out sights. Once again, we reached Dehradun ISBT well ahead of time. We had Maggi for dinner at one of the restaurants inside - very basic but does the job. There was some confusion on the bus - to this date I am not sure if it was a Super Luxury Volvo but it seemed to have better leg space. We boarded around 9 pm from Dehradun. Sadly, on this leg, I couldn't sleep at all. We made excellent time thanks to some rash driving by the driver and reached Kashmere Gate around 3:30 am. As I was awake, I can verify that the bus made two stops and you have enough time for a midnight snack or smoke.
Overall, it wasn't a budget trip, but a trip worth remembering. It delivered everything it had promised and nothing more. A lovely place which I would hate to see ruined by commercialization. A place untouched thanks to army and the bourgeoisie. Elitist as it may sound, it is perhaps the single reason why this little hamlet has not become a McLeodgunge today. I hope it stays this way. And I hope I can head back there soon.