The rain-drenched hill station in the Himalayas brings out the romantic in you
Mussoorie, shrouded in the mist at dawn
A viewpoint on Happy Valley Road
Locals at the Mall in Mussoorie
The historic Library building in Mussoorie
The view from Lal Tibba, Landour
Outdoor seating at Padmini Nivas hotel, Mussoorie
Kempty Falls, 15km from Mussoorie
Couples at Kempty Falls
It’s midnight and everyone in Ruskin Bond’s household is asleep. He sits in front of the mirror, painting his face and hands and all visible skin black, to match the all-black cat suit he is wearing. When he is done, only his light, shining, nocturnal animal’s eyes can be seen. He tucks in a small wooden board (black) under an arm, a portable ladder under another, opens the well-oiled window and jumps out on rubber-soled boots with practised ease. He makes his way down the misty night, his black gum boots gleaming in the rain. The devdar tree next to Shemrock Cottage is the destination tonight. A good location, well visible from the road. He climbs the ladder, unburdens himself of hammer and nails, and affixes the board to the tree just above a tall man’s height and climbs down to squint at it. The tree now says to the world at large: “Can you hear yourself speak? Won’t you listen to us?” A good one, thinks its author. Pleased, he dusts his hands and goes home to a good night’s sleep.
Or so I believe. This is my private fantasy-explanation of the eloquent boards, enjoining silence upon the visitor that can be found sprinkled on trees around the beautiful Landour area of Mussoorie, where Mr Bond famously stays. And if it isn’t true, it ought to be.
In the story of Mussoorie, Landour is where It All Began. Two centuries ago, this was just another Himalayan pastureland, where they let out sheep to graze on the abundant mansur shrub, which gives Mussoorie its name. When the Gurkhas took over Garhwal in 1803, they became the reigning overlords. And when the British fought the Gurkhas in 1814, the area — cool, higher than 7,000ft, full of game, and just right for homesick British armymen — became the emerging haunt. The first house, called ‘Mullingar’, was built in 1823 by the Commandant of Landour and can still be seen. Soon a convalescent depot for soldiers came up; the area is still called Sisters’ Bazaar for the nurses who looked after them.
The introverted beauty of the cottages and estates of those times still makes its presence felt all over Mussoorie. Even at the height of tourist season, the Irish nostalgia of a long-dead officer embodied in Shemrock Cottage, the Scot’s wistfulness in Scottsburn, or the English sigh named Connaught Estate or Hampton Court, stand like 150-year-old islands in a whirlpool of humanity. As much a part of the ineffable hill station-ness of Mussoorie as its heritage buildings — Christ Church on the Mall or the landmark Library building — the cemeteries that cling to the slopes, the valleys stretching out in front of you or the interminable walks that lead away from the Mall into increasing loveliness.
But all this is about Mussoorie the space, while ‘rediscovering’ Mussoorie needs to be about time. August-September and October-November (ignoring Durga Puja holidays) are the fourth dimension of Mussoorie. The summer revellers have gone, the Dussehra frolickers can be avoided, and the Christmas holidaymakers are at an arm’s length. The weather is too rainy for most and later a bit too cold for many. But, “there’s something in the air of the place, especially in October and November, that is conducive to romance and passion” (that’s our Mr Bond again).
The hill station looks like a frothy confection of fog, mist, clouds and disembodied ghostly pine branches. Of cold frosted sweat on glass surfaces. Slick and glossy roads gleam under golden lamps that stick out their necks inquiringly and peer down at them. Brightly painted benches with oh-so-curlicued backs sit by themselves on the Mall, chin on knees, and ponder upon the Doon Valley below. The writer briefed to look out for hidden gems of the hill station, has no work to do; every tree is a hidden gem, in fact something of a secret miracle, cunningly hidden by shrouds of mist. Under the shroud, Mussoorie has changed clothes, personality, character, and no one is the wiser.
There are no tourists. The locals walk about with black umbrellas, constantly stopping to chat with acquaintances, sometimes sharing a hot bhutta or a chai, for this is Mussoorie and everyone knows everyone, and the evening can always be stretched a bit. But on the roads leading away from the Mall you hardly meet a soul.
Near the Library end of the Mall starts the Camel’s Back Road, which you can walk or sail gently down in a cycle-rickshaw. In August, this is a series of heart-stopping photographs in dark-and-fog, and you feel you are travelling to some mystical point of origin. From eternity to here, no shops or a restaurant on this long stretch, so even in high season it’s something of a lazy pleasure. Also beginning from the Library is the Happy Valley Road, another slow floaty stretch that goes past some hotels, the IAS training academy, old men in coats on their constitutionals, giggly Tibetan school children and ends in ‘Company Bagh’. Or there’s the road leading from Library to Cloud End, a point 6km away that defines the end of Mussoorie. Here you pass thick woods and increasing solitude, till you end up at the area protected as Binog Wildlife Sanctuary. Not just a bird watcher’s delight but so delightful that in the right season it can make a bird watcher of anyone.
Actually, strolling on the Mall itself is a pleasure in these months. Having done its bit to maintain its crowded reputation and the local economy, the Mall is now on a sabbatical. It gathers up the aforementioned road, lamps and benches, the pines and poplars, the quiet hotels that you have to reach climbing up and the cosy cottages you have to reach scrambling down, all its paraphernalia into a foggy quilt. The bhuttas lying in stacks to be warmed — under the fog. The monkeys waiting to snatch one and run — under the fog. The brimming constellation of fairy lights of the Dehradun valley below — under the fog. And sometimes glimpsed through the fog, the watercolours of setting sun, brooding clouds, darkening trees, and gentle hills. It is the cold and fog that turns the soft prettiness of the Shivaliks into the haunting beauty of the Himalayas.
So you can start at the Library and amble down to the ‘jhoola ghar’ (embarkation point for a trolley that takes you up to Gun Hill), looking at the Doon Valley all the way. From here, Kulri Bazaar thickens and turns around you and your glimpses of the horizon get fewer. But this is the land of pleasure and commerce: Tibetan food, Chinese food, bakeries, Barista, restaurants, bookstores, shops selling shawls and hot water bottles, shops selling clothes and designer jackets, shops selling magic cards...seek and you shall find here. Kulri Bazaar gives way to the Picture Palace end of the Mall. And from here Landour Bazaar starts, climbing unsteadily up to Landour cantonment.
So then there is Landour. The central point here is called Chaardukaan because there have always been four dhaba-cum-provision shops here. The shops haven’t increased, no hotels have come up, no construction dots this horizon, and the place hasn’t grown at all. For, in keeping with its origins, this is still cantonment area and building regulations are strict. Here are the changes at Landour over the years: A shop has acquired broadband Internet connection. The loveliest devdar tree in the world, set in the Devdar Woods hotel, has grown a little older. The boards painted and put up secretly on trees (by Ruskin Bond, that secret midnight voluptuary) have faded and come a bit askew. But that is about all.
At Chaardukaan, a foreign student sits having tea. She is here to learn Hindi at the Landour Language School set up in the late 1900s to teach the local languages to American missionaries. As part of her study, she is now trying to teach the local dhaba owner’s wife how to say and perform ‘cheers’ with their cups of tea. This is accomplished but ‘bottoms up’ is tougher, but they are helped along by flamboyant gestures and wild giggles. On the path to Lal Tibba, another tree says, “If we liked noise we wouldn’t live here, if you like noise you shouldn’t be here” (he’s not usually so curt at all). At Lal Tibba, a famous tourist spot for its sights of Himalayan peaks, the telescope lies packed and locked and there is no tea-seller. But you can hear and sip the wind, as you can’t anywhere else. It carries the sound of bells on horses from villages lying below. At the cemetery, content spirits rest looking over thick devdar forests. Then the rain starts falling and coats it all with a transparent polish of shine and richness.
TRAIN: The nearest railhead and interstate bus stand is situated 35km away in Dehradun. The Mussoorie Express (leaves Old Delhi station 10pm, arrives Dehradun 8am) is the most convenient option. ROAD: Mussoorie lies over 250km from Delhi and it will take about seven hours to reach by road.
Mussoorie is a long stretch of ridge on a hill, much of which is the almost-3km-long Mall. You enter either at the western end of the Mall, called the Library end, or at the eastern one, called Kulri Bazaar end or Picture Palace end. Landour cantonment is a steep 1,000ft higher than the Mall. Kulri Bazaar is the modern market and abutting it is Landour Bazaar, which is the traditional one for locals. Barlowgunj is tucked away a little south of the Mall.
Mussoorie is small; hire a taxi to zip around to Landour at one end (Chaardukaan, Sisters’ Bazaar, Lal Tibba) and Cloud End at the other, to mark the spots you want to return to at leisure. Taxis drop you to Chaardukaan and you can saunter down later. Motor vehicles are not allowed on the Mall but you can use cycle-rickshaws.
Where to stay
The British did not allow the poshest of the Indian royalty to live in Landour, so the maharajas’ retreats — Nabha, Kapurthala, Baroda and Kasmanda — were around the Mall. Many of these are now charming heritage hotels. The Claridge’s Nabha Residence (www.claridges.com) towards Barlowgunj is arguably the best. The Kasmanda Palace (www.kasmandapalace.com), perched above the Mall near Christ Church, has extensive views, gardens and some royal rooms. More affordable, and with a very gracious heritage ambience is Padmini Nivas (www.hotel-padmininivas.com), near the Library end. The original rooms are elegant, the new rooms comfortable, and the cottages are very nice. Two personal favourites at either end of Mussoorie offer complete getaways, great character, but no luxury; take your own comforters like hot water bottles or wine bottles along. Devdar Woods (2632544/2644) is a 150-year-old cottage in Sisters’ Bazaar, Landour. It is special for being the only hotel in lovely Landour. Cloud End Forest Retreat (09412050242, 2632242, www.cloudend.com) is a bumpy 6km from the Library, in the wilderness. A totally unmanicured, slightly dusty property surrounded by the Binog Wildlife Sanctuary. You can even see a French coffee grinder from 1876.
What to see & do
Mussoorie has certain standard ‘sights’. For great views of Himalayan peaks, go to Lal Tibba in Landour cantonment and Gun Hill, higher than the mall and reachable from it by a 400-metre ropeway ride. For a family picnic, there’s the reasonably high Kempty Falls (15km) where you can splash and boat. Company Gardens (boating available) are popular for a noisy but close-at-hand picnic. Camel’s Back road is in-demand for sights of a ridge that looks like a camel, hump and all. Horse rides down the Mall and along other roads is the done thing. The Binog Wildlife Sanctuary is best accessed with the cooperation of guides from Cloud End resort, who help in hikes and horse safaris.
Where to eat
Kulri Bazaar has the best options. Old favourite ChicChoc has added scrumptious film posters of Brando and Bond to their delicious sandwiches, rolls, pizzas etc; try the brownie with ice cream and their chocolates. Next door, Casa Mia gives very affordable and tasty food on the go: pasta, small pizza, salads, muffins, pastries and breads. Right opposite the gorgeous SBI building, newcomer Kalsang has taken over as the best Tibetan food joint; great momos. Chaardukaan continues to give satisfying sandwiches, paranthas and spiced-up Maggi. The Pizza at Devdar Woods is internationally famous. And Prakash Store nearby continues to make the best cheese. They sell homemade jams as well.
The gothic-style Christ Church was built in1837 on the Mall and is known as the hill town’s first church. Though an imposing landmark, the church lay in shambles for many years. It is now being painstakingly and beautifully renovated. It’s a pleasure to be among the vivid stained glass windows, as the morning sun lights them up. The church is worth a visit and the chowkidar will help. Don’t miss it.