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Week at Mussoorie

Rajiv Butalia writes about a summer holiday at Mussoorie, where he spent an idyllic week away from frenzied city living, delighting in the simple joys of nature walks and time spent with family and friends.

We ascend rapidly from Dehra Dun to Mussoorie, at a height of 2 kms above sea level, desperately seeking a respite from the reeling heat wave in the plains of North and Central India. We head for Camels Back Road, where we will be staying with a friend who has a cottage in a picturesque and relatively secluded part of this lovely town. It is one thing to visit a hill station as a tourist and quite another to stay as a resident and get a perspective of life in a town that is invaded by hordes of vacationers during the summer and autumn when all of India holidays.

Camels Back Road is a 3 km stretch that extends from Library Point to Picture Palace. We drive to the cottage just in time for a party being thrown for a bunch of kids studying at Woodstock School. The table is laden with goodies and we have an early dinner and retire to a dreamless sleep, tired after 6 days of cross-country driving from Mumbai 2000 kms away.

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The next morning we wake to find that there is an acute water crisis as there has been no water supply at all. The proliferation of hotels has put immense strain on the infrastructure and the permanent residents have to contend with the resultant problems. On most days the water trickles in for just 15 minutes in the morning. The hotels, meanwhile, attach illegal water pumps to the pipelines to suck up the meagre supply, or arrange for tankers from the river below at exorbitant rates. We realise that this will be a daily occurrence and a way of life and so relegate the problem to the background. Throughout the country, citizens have to take on responsibilities that the Govt has reneged on, be it provision of clean drinking water or providing electricity.


With a ravenous appetite from the fresh mountain air, we eat a large breakfast and sip coffee looking out at the pine and deodar covered hills in the foreground. We decide to go for a long hike. We want to avoid the overcrowded Mall Road and instead walk to the quiet wooded paths in Sisters Bazaar side of town, which fortunately retains much of its pristine quality and has not been destroyed by unchecked building activity.

We walk through Landour Bazaar, and stop for cold coffee at Char Dukan next to St Pauls Church. The shop, frequented by Ruskin Bond, sports several copies of his books for sale. The pace of living here is slow, still and peaceful. We dawdle for a while before we continue our uphill climb to Sisters Bazaar. From Char Dukan we ring up Dev Dar Hotel, 30 minutes away, and request them to have their famous pizzas ready in time for our arrival.


The walk around Sisters Bazaar is referred to as the 'chakkar' and has quaint cottages perched amidst pine, deodar and oak forests. We recognise some of the names on the gates. We walk past Victor Banerjee's cottage, which carries a warning, "beware of rabid thespian". Ruskin Bond too lives on this side of town and actor Tom Alter and his writer brother Stephen Alter also have a large cottage here. We carry on through Woodstock School spread out over two hillsides. In the school compound we traverse a long and narrow ledge on the hillside, aptly referred to as the "eyebrow". Monkeys and langurs scatter as we disturb their foraging for berries and plums.

We reach "The Mullingar" and are sorely disappointed at the state of neglect. This house, now in a decrepit condition, is the nucleus of this hill station. The history of the town goes back to 1823 when Captain Young, an adventurous military officer, had built barracks here. Since the place offered close access from Dehra Dun, more and more cottages came up and the town slowly grew.

At one of the local shops we ask for Rhododendron juice, a speciality of Uttaranchal, but none is available due to a shortage of flowers. However, they do have some wonderful cinnamon rolls, a large variety of baked biscuits and locally made cheddar cheese and peanut butter.


By the time we return from the walk it is evening and the Clock Tower area in the main market is bustling with humanity. It's a vibrant site with people crowding eating joints, video parlours and heading for pool parlours and the skating rink.

On a clear day the north side of Mussoorie offers great views covering hundreds of kilometres of the Himalayan Mountains. Many peaks tower over 20,000 feet. The south side of the ridge overlooks the Doon Valley and the Shivalik Hills. The range on which Mussoorie is situated marks the boundaries between the Eurasian and the Indo Australian tectonic plates. It is a seismically active region and the plates have moved 50 kms over the last million years. I idly note that some of the rocks I now tread upon were once below sea level and have been thrust 2 kilometres higher.

Garhwal region in which Mussoorie stands is the source of the Ganga and the Yamuna, two of India's mightiest rivers. The area around Mussoorie offers some interesting hikes ranging from easy to moderate and difficult. There is a wide variety of flora and fauna to be seen on the hikes. On the more remote ones there are barking deer or "kakar" on grassy wooded slopes at heights below 2200 metres. The langur and the rhesus monkey are of course to be seen everywhere. If lucky, one can spot the reddish brown Flying Squirrel gliding between trees. At sunset, they are at their most active in oak and deodar forests and we keep ourselves alert for the low monotonous call that sounds much like that of a cat. The hills of this region are home to many varieties of deer and antelope. There are also porcupine, Himalayan silver fox, jackals, civet and jungle cats and the leopard cat which is often mistaken for a baby leopard. The leopard roams free as does the much rarer black panther and the Himalayan black bear. The area around Mussoorie is covered with Chir Pine and at heights above 1800 metres pine gives way to oak forests, and the hillsides are lush with deodar.


While at Mussoorie, we enjoy hanging out at Char Dukan on the way to Sisters Bazaar or Cozy Corner on the Upper Tehri Road, where we stop for refreshments on our way back from the walks near Woodstock. Recommended eating places are Dev Dar Hotel at Sisters' Bazaar for pizzas, and on the Mall, Four Seasons for Chinese and Indian cuisine, Green Hotel for Indian food, Madras Café for dosas and idlis, and Nirankari Mandal Canteen on Camels back Road for a variety of parathas, halwa and Kawa. Himalayan Haat at Landour Bazaar has great cinnamon bread and a variety of bakery biscuits. Prakash's at Sister's Bazaar offers brown bread, cheese bread, cheddar cheese, peanut butter, an assortment of authentic jams and bakery products, apart from being exceptionally well stocked for palettes that crave the unusual. The internet Cafés have slow connections with frequent interruptions but the best one, in terms of the most apologetic owner, is on the way to Landour bazaar. The bookshop to visit is Cambridge Book Store, where the owner is the typical old-style bookstore owner, who is great to chat with and where the books are stacked so close together one on top of the other that only one person at a time can go through the narrow rows in between.

We enjoy our weeks stay at Mussoorie, slipping easily into the rhythm of having lived in many hill-stations. We are soon familiar with the waterworks department (which, after we complain, actually ensures that we get a supply of water), the newspaper vendor, the vegetable and fruit seller, and all the other people you interact with when you come to a hill-station, not as a tourist, but as one who slips into the daily routine and walks the residents' trail, albeit briefly, on the way to other destinations.

For the activity-oriented holidaymaker, there are some wonderful and easy hikes around Mussoorie. A word of warning: Unless you are relatively familiar with hill trails and can easily navigate your way back, do take a guide, as these trails are uncharted lonely paths where a city dweller used to road signs and people to ask the way, could lose one's way.

Witches Hill or Pari Tibba: A 2-hour trek from below Woodstock School. Cross the Tehri Road and descend via the steep staircase that leads past the Sagar Estate and curves left towards Dhobhi Ghat. From Dhobi Ghat one climbs the hill passing an abandoned mine on the way. The entrance to the mine is so small that if I had not known about its existence I would have missed it. We try to enter but a flapping of bats deters us. After the mine, we head right and make our way along the wooded trails till the clearing at the top. The hill has repeatedly been struck by lightning and is best avoided on stormy nights. As I write this, a group of friends tells me that they trekked there last night by starlight.

Flag Hill: A one-hour trek that starts from behind the Woodstock School. Walk along the Upper Tehri Road past Jabbarkhet and you will find the hill on your right. The trail leads past a small spring (which might be dry during summer) and then on to a slight break on the ridge from where it climbs left towards the hilltop, at one time, gaily decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. When we reach there, we are disappointed to find the fluttering prayers in the wind missing, and instead, prayers written on pieces of paper scattered on the hilltop. Traditions change, but somehow the pieces of scattered paper seemingly lack the solemnity and sanctity of prayer flags and are a sad substitute for the gaily coloured flags that grow ragged with time.

Clouds End Bungalow: This bungalow was built in 1838 and was one of the first four buildings in Mussoorie. It is now a Hotel. The 6 km walk starts from the west side of Mussoorie, from the Library. The pleasant walk offers a good view of the Yamuna River.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.