24th February – 2nd March 2014
A room in the clouds
This week we planned to slow down and relax, up among the off season quiet of Mussoorie, a Hill Station about three hundred kilometres north-east of Delhi and in the Himalayan foothills.
We arrived on the Sunday, in the wheezing bus from Dehradun railway station. As soon as we arrived, we dived into our bags for an extra jumper or two. We set up a ‘base camp’ in the warmth of a nearby cafe and Prunella set forth and swept the hotels – eventually we settled on the faded grandeur of the Hotel India. This place is down a back lane, at the Library end of the rambling township that sprawls along a ridge overlooking the plains below, with a magnificent backdrop of snow capped hills to the east.
The room was big and clean – two double beds, bathroom, TV, balcony and at a healthy off-season discount – but as we settled down to our first night, we noted a distinct chill in the air, snuggling down into our sleeping bags and extra layers of clothing.
The landscape itself suggests a world far removed from the plains of northern India: the view from our balcony took in steep green terraced hillsides, blending into pine forested hill tops. Further still, away to the North and East, colossal peaks could be glimpsed on the clearer mornings: peaks that were covered with a permanent blanket of ice and snow, some clipping 7000 metres in altitude – by far the highest mountains we had ever set eyes upon.
Next morning we began what evolved into a week long routine of wandering the quiet, half closed town, watching the smattering of Indian tourists who were braving the cold weather to enjoy some escape from the big cities in the plains below. Mussoorie was just what we required: very quiet, and little to do. In these parts and stretching north the costumes and faces of India take on a new and more varying aspect – the landscape of the mountains host a large sampling of people who draw their ancestry from Tibet and Nepal.
Momos, hot chocolate and tea on the terrace
On the recommendation of our Dehradun couchsurfing host Harry, we stopped in at the warm confines of Kalsang Friend’s Corner, famous purveyors of momos (steamed or fried Tibetan style dumplings), including our first sampling of pork for months. Delicious enjoyed with cups of hot black jasmine tea! We were to pay this place several visits over our week long stay.
Tuesday afternoon we enjoyed tea with the owners of the hotel, a Sikh couple who have tended the timeworn rooms for several decades. They had many stories to tell, having spent many years in the area, and a few cups of chai and a host of nankeen (Indian snacks) disappeared over the course of a pleasant, rambling conversation.
Rally driving and snowballs
The weather slowly but noticeably cooled further over the week, and on Thursday a tremendous mountain thunderstorm lashed the town in the cold dark hours of the morning. Unfortunately it was this day for which we had bought tickets on a bus tour which incorporated some of the less accessible highlights of the region. As we got ready to venture out the enveloping cloud precluded any chance of the sweeping Himalayan vistas promised as one of the highlights…
Despite the brooding weather, the bus set off – first taking in the somewhat disappointing Kempty Falls – perhaps these are best seen in the monsoon, or perhaps we were spoiled by our superb waterfall experiences in Laos. Nonetheless the trip was not entirely a let down. The bus lurched back through town and wound along up to Dhanaulti, a high point further south, where pine trees cling to the mountain.
Here the snow was recent and thick in places: not enough to blanket everything, but enough to arouse the excitement of a certain trio of small boys who, hailing from a warm mediterranean clime, have never before seen the cold white stuff.
We sipped on a hot chocolate before heading outside to have a snowball fight, build a mini-snowman and freeze our fingertips.
It seemed that on the return trip the driver decided to indulge his dreams of rally driving, suddenly finding a new and unpleasant gear. We hung on as he swung perilously close to the edges, and swerved past slower vehicles on the tortuous road back to Mussoorie. A winding, half-hour nightmare later, we stumbled off the bus, along with a good majority of our fellow travellers., and staggered back to the hotel, slumping into our beds with spinning heads… quite why this sudden rush was necessary we’ll never know, but it somewhat soured the experience of a nice drive – we were more focussed on helping sickly boys and avoiding being thrown around the bus than admiring some of the spectacular mountain views along the way.
Meditating on Mussoorie
The rest of the week was spent in the calm, cool quiet. Occasionally a monkey would wander along the balcony, just as we would wander the Mall, Mussoorie’s main street. Venturing fully clad in gloves, beanies and jackets, we discovered great coffee and chocolate, the off-season quiet of trinket sellers on Gun Hill, and the strange, lonely solitude of the pine-forested cemetery, where Victorian-era colonials rest under neo-gothic gravestones on the shady, forgotten slopes below Camel’s Back Road. Our wanderings took in the Picture Palace, now host to a Haunted House and a 5D ‘cinema experience’, past an old hotel that is now a bank, and the Railway Booking station that was sadly closed due to power cuts. Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the famous Lovely Omelette stall, which, when we popped our heads in was (I kid you not) ‘closed for lunch’.
Mussoorie is a curious blend of colonial and modern India: the tourists snapping pics on their smartphones are set against the creaking wooden Mussoorie Library where the books on the shelves are leather bound titles of the Imperial era. Nearby, workers build a road extension around a cast iron bandstand where local regiments would entertain the residents on Wednesdays and Sundays (these were white residents only: a sign on the road used to proclaim “No Indians or Dogs” in the self-satisfied racism of a different era).
Even in the off-season, this place has found a new lease on life as transport networks make it a realistic weekend getaway for groups of Indian travellers from Delhi. Indeed our last evening was spent in the warm company of a group of such travellers, spending a well-earned few days up here exploring their own Himalayan backyard, listening to their music and laughing and sharing a drink and some good times. These energetic young people, employed in a call centre in the city, represent a new and welcome opportunity for the tired hotels and restaurants of Mussoorie, the “Queen of Hill Stations”.