Hotel Clark's on Mall Road - The Mall may be the star but it also consumes everything else that Mussoorie has to offer.
Isn’t this the same exact dhaba where we stopped on our way to Haridwar enroute to Chopta last year? Trying to register all the similarities as I looked for the restroom or rather I should say the lavatory as I wasn’t of course in a five star. It was really chilly around one at night if I am not wrong about the time and there was a line outside the lavatory. It seemed that the number of buses going on the similar route and the people in them were endless. Unable to bear the wait in the chill I tried to emulate some of my predecessors by finding an appropriate location near the farmland behind the lavatory. It was even chillier there with the wind lashing onto me in the open. But it was quick.
I ran straight after towards the tea/coffee stall. Which made me wait again as the next jug full of coffee was being prepared. This made me firstly worry about whether this guy at the counter will remember about my ten rupees that I had already handed over to him in this frenzied frozen bunch of people. Secondly, I really needed this hot cup of coffee because my gentle shiver was fast turning into an embarrassing one. After some random desperate efforts to distract myself from the cold I had the coffee in my hands but for my not so good luck the coffee was like a hot sugar syrup. I tried gulping in as much as I could to try and suppress the cold but due to my utter dislike for the drink the cold decided to stick around and have some more fun on my expense.
Finally, I dumped the drink and got back to my bus (somehow there is always an unsettling feeling getting down at these dhabas as I fear being left behind while I am into my food or whatever else). Settling down on my seat I remembered my dinner at the I.S.B.T. and all the painful hours I spent there in the line for a ticket. To avoid repeating my last experience when I ended up back home instead of McLeodgunj, I reached the bus depot just after dusk and lined up in front of the ticket counter. My aversion to too many people around me was only suppressed by the excitement and adventure I was looking forward to.
The adventure began with quite a misadventure though. I had to stand in the line for more than two and a half hours. It was a journey in itself. In that time I got to know that I could do advance booking to avoid standing in this forever line and to assure a seat in one of the buses. People were so desperately clinging on to the counter from all around that I wondered that they may even uproot it. All throughout I hardly got to know if there was anyone inside giving out tickets as the line moved ahead ever so slow and I don’t think I really saw anyone leaving the line. The other thing I realised was the fact that it was the Christmas and New Year weekend which meant there was a crazy rush towards the mountains and also that all the buses were already booked.
After being second time unlucky in my bid to get to McLeodgunj, I decided to break away and eat something as it was well into dinner time. It is always exciting to eat at the bus depot as one feels being out and on the move like you eating at one of the dhabas along the highways. Well, after these two experiences it is only the feeling and not the food that was exciting. I guess only when you reach the mountains that you find decent dhabas along the road. In any case, while I ate my alooless aloo paratha with watery raita I saw this one counter out of the many which had Dehradoon and Mussoorie lettered on it. Well, why not Mussoorie? I thought. It may be one of the most commercialised hill stations but let me judge it myself. I rushed. All buses for Mussoorie were also full so I got into one of the many buses going to Dehradoon and took the first empty seat I could find. The bus soon left the depot and here I was on my first trip on my own, alone, looking forward to be among the beautiful mountains and valleys.
To my delight, the seats of these state buses weren’t so bad after all. So I stretched my legs and waited for the bus to move out of this dhaba and take me away. But I must point out that these midnight stops at these dhabas are pretty interesting. Besides all the excitement and anticipation seeing so many people go to the same place in one single night you realize the crazy migration of population from one city/town/village to another everyday. Especially, the shift to big cities like Delhi!
A crossing in Dehradoon where i got off the bus in the morning
Finally, it was morning and I got to see some hilly roads pepping up my excitement. We were close to Dehradoon. It was so amazingly cold. Soon the hilly roads disappeared and it was plains again and then we reached Dehradoon where I had to get down at this crossing close to the station. I was freezing in the cold of December at 5.20 in the morning. There were several auto guys around for local passengers so I asked them as to where I can get a bus to Mussoorie and started walking towards the station. I had just walked a bit when a mini bus came from the station side and I got in. This was exciting! I was on my way uphill away from the plains. It was nice to know that Mussoorie wasn’t too far from here but it was not so nice too, to know that it isn’t that far from the plains as well. In any case, I was just looking out all the time and hoping I don’t get to see the plains any more, which didn’t happen for quite sometime.
Midway between Dehradoon and Mussorie
Old Army jeeps (they were used as goods carriage vehicles now)
As per a friend, who is from Dehradoon, staying in Landour would be a better idea than Mussoorie really. So I told the bus conductor to let me down from wherever I can be closest to it. To my surprise I was dropped almost like in the middle of nowhere. Though a little ahead there were a few shops which were all closed except for one dhaba which seemed to have just opened. It was extremely cold and the wind too was pretty strong. I grabbed a hot cup of tea and went and stood outside for another bus which would take me to Landour. I again got dropped at a bus stand from where I had to take a cab to a certain extent inside Landour bazaar in front of the Gurdwara. I was dropped there as the Gurdwara provides some lodging facilities and also because I was duped by the cab driver saying they only go up till that extent.
Staying in a dharamshala didn’t sound like a good idea so I started walking ahead on the same road. It was still quite early in the morning and there was hardly anyone around except for several monkeys jumping around. A little beyond the market I found some people and asked if there was any guest house around where I could stay. These people seemed like labourers who were there for some work and had no idea. So I resumed my walk uphill. I constantly had to make halts to breathe in as the road was pretty steep at several places. It was really peaceful though. I don’t know what I intended but I chumma kept on walking and lusting at all the beautiful looking cottages. Green coloured doors and window panes with sun reflecting off the glasses. Wooden balconies with flower pots hanging from the roof at regular intervals, just picture perfect!
Approaching Chaar Dukaan
Suddenly I came up to a turn where I could hear something like carol singing from some distance not too far away. Everything was so beautiful. Cold Christmas morning on a mountain and sweet feminine voices singing at a distance, was just mesmerizing. Soon I came up to a point where there were some shops which were like general stores cum dhabas and just next to them was a beautiful Church. It was the St. Paul’s Church built in 1840 and this place was called Chaar Dukaan (Four Shops) as there were precisely four of these shops around. There wasn’t any place to stay here so I moved on. I was told that there is a lodge at Sister’s Bazaar a little ahead where I can look.
St. Paul's Church
Devdar Woods lodge
After walking for a while I decided to call my friend from Dehradoon to ask about places to stay in Landour and she suggested the same lodge so I went in to try my luck. To my disappointment the place was really expensive for me at around roughly a thousand rupees for a room per day. So I decided to get back to Chaar Dukaan and have breakfast and later try my luck down in Mussoorie. One of the shops there had these beautiful wooden benches which immediately drew me in and I parked myself there for a few hours from breakfast till just before lunch. I hogged on pancakes to butter toasts to cheese omelettes. It was heavenly stuff. After lazing around and making some sketches I decided to move downhill to look for a place to stay.
Some houses in Landour
Walking back downhill was much easier but I was a little disappointed about not getting a place to stay in Landour. As per my friend Landour is far less crowded than Mussoorie which was evident also by the fact that there were just two guest houses and both decently expensive. So here I was strolling down watching all the beautiful, cozy looking cottages when I suddenly saw an old man pass by with an assistant across the intersection in front. I was startled the moment I realised it was none other than Ruskin Bond! I ran after him and greeted him and asked him for an autograph as I could not get a photo with him as there weren’t any camera with me. Frankly, I don’t really remember any of his stories and have never read any of his books so I had nothing really to even talk to him about so I just said thanks and wished him Merry Christmas.
The Clock Tower in Mussoorie
After quite a bit of walking and enquiring I found a place next to the Clock Tower which was the cheapest I came across. The room came out to be pretty decent for three hundred rupees a day with relatively clean and adequately done up space. Even though it was cold I did sweat due to the exhausting walks up and down the hill so I quickly changed and left to explore Mussoorie. In fact now I was almost in between Landour and Mussoorie which wasn’t so bad afterall.
The Picture Palace (an old abandoned movie theatre)
As I reached the Mall road the crowd grew larger and larger and soon I realized that it possibly wasn’t the best time to be around here. But now since I was there it wasn’t any point dwelling on the issue. I was at the Picture Palace end of the road. As I walked along I realized that there were shops all over on both the sides from restaurants to clothing stores to electronic goods to anything you may think of. Everything seemed to be innumerable somehow, from the number of hotels to the number eateries, to the number of people to the variety of sounds. I was desperately looking around for some nice interesting looking cafés where I could possibly relax and have my lunch but all I came across was a Café Coffee Day. So I went on further and decided to eat at this Chinese/Tibetan restaurant called Kalsang Friend’s Corner exactly opposite the Café Coffee Day. By the time I finished the yummy crispy honey chilli potato my tummy was bloated like a frog.
The Library at one end of the Mall Road
I finally reached the other end of the Mall Road called the Library which was utterly congested with crazy amount of traffic especially due to the bottleneck at the other end of it which was going further beyond that junction. It didn’t make any sense to stay around. There was this shed there for people to sit around and look down the valley at Dehradoon. Now why on earth will I want to look at the plains when I am up on the mountains? So after making my sketch I started my stroll back. Just a little ahead was a Barista which was too much for me to resist and also the fact that since there weren’t any nice cafés around, this was the best place to go for a cup of coffee. By now I was really tired of walking so this was a nice break before I start walking back again to the hotel. I have been on my feet since 5.20 in the morning. I reached the hotel around 8.30 p.m. and decided to read a little before I sleep which was as always a failed attempt.
The telescopes at Camel's Back Road
The next morning I got up early as decided and left the hotel by 7.30 a.m. I walked back to the Mall Road upto a small Dhaba where I had my breakfast and asked the way to the Camel’s Back Road. I was told by a friend’s mom that it’s a nice peaceful road to go for a walk. It actually turned out to be quite beautiful as there were hardly any people and I could see mountains on the other side. A little ahead I came across a guy with three telescopes parked on the side of the road showing a few spots around the ranges for only twenty rupees. At first I despised the idea of trying it out thinking it to be so very touristy but then with the price tag, I thought, well why not. In the bargain I got a nice sketch and the information that Victor Banerjee has his cottage up in Landour and that about 90 percent of the inhabitants of Mussoorie actually stay in Landour too. It is called the old Mussoorie.
A cemetery on Camel's Back Road
I moved on and came across this beautiful cemetery which I couldn’t resist sketching. From here I walked up a steep climb and after covering up quite a distance reached the Library. Walking on the Mountains, especially alone, sometimes can be a little eerie. But it was extremely peaceful. Standing at the edge of the road staring at the cottages beneath and admiring them, observing the activities of some families engaged in their daily chores, it is all so calming. Time seems to also relax along with you.
Some resorts on the way to the Library through the Camel's Back Road
The Kempty Falls
At Library I was supposed to catch a bus to Kempty Falls but I was quite late so I took a shared jeep. I had decided that since I am there I must visit as many critical places around as possible. After a nice almost an hour long meandering journey we reached the falls which was already jam packed with vehicles and people to almost 800 meters away from it. The fall, as I got to know there, has become really frail over the years. It seemed pretty evident though but the worst was when I reached the bridge across the fall. There was crazy amount of construction below with several man made pools with one of the larger ones having people boating in it. With all my disappointment I decided to stick to the tiny portion above the bridge itself. After half an hour I took another jeep back to the Zero Point from where I was told to break away for the Company Gardens.
Soon I was walking towards the garden. The walk was a little long but really calming. I was hoping to end my day with something nice. The signs at the gate categorically spelled out not to step on the lawns but the moment I got in I had a feeling that this was going to be my worst experience on this trip. There were comparatively less people here from the Fall but the garden was apologetically small for all the kind of activities happening inside. It was essentially half garden half amusement park with again a small pool which had people boating in it. Several eateries spread around the premises with some photography shops which were offering the tourists some local folk clothing to wear and get themselves clicked. I made a hasty retreat back to Mussoorie but stopped midway between the Zero Point and the Garden at a small dhaba to eat something. The scene inside was pretty interesting so I started sketching till the man could make me some aloo parathas. In no time I was surrounded by these local guys who were, till now, standing outside smoking and checking out tourists passing by. I tried making some conversation with them but it was a little difficult as, even though they were all very fashionably dressed, they were neither able to talk clearly in Hindi nor English.
The dhaba between Zero Point and Company Gardens
By the time I left the dhaba it was dark. Soon I reached the Library but this time the junction had a traffic jam from almost a kilometer before it. I was thanking God that I was walking and wasn’t in one of those vehicles stuck there.
The Mall Road near the Library
State Bank of India office in an old bungalow close to the Cafe Coffee Day outlet
I really wished to go to some café so I ended up at Café Coffee Day this time. It was quite a relief to sit down and relax for a while. After this I went to this really tiny stall inside this lane exactly opposite the Picture Place at the end of the mall road. There are in fact two similar stores side by side selling bread omelette, butter toast, maggi and similar items. After a nice dinner of all breakfast items I left for my hotel. I had been up not as long but still it was quite a tiring day compared to the day before.
An old house in Landour Bazaar
I checked out of the hotel early morning the next day and started my walk up to Landour. I had decided to spend the day up there as it was really crowded here. Enjoying the views and cottages on the way again I was wondering whether I should stay over another day here or leave tonight. Just then I was approaching Chaar Dukaan and I could again hear the same carol singing kind of a sound from somewhere in the distance. I went up to my favourite shop there and waited till the guy had set up everything to start his day. I ordered breakfast and started working on my sketches. By the time I finished my breakfast the sun was out so I stood out for a bit. The soothing sun and a nice talk with the owner of the shop was a delight. To my surprise, the sweet singing sound that I heard earlier wasn’t carol singing but some women praying at a Hindu temple at the top of the hill. I was wondering how he knows to make such wonderful pancakes, thinking that maybe he is a qualified chef or something living a humble life up here on the mountain with a small eatery. But he said that he picked up a lot of the recipes from these foreign students who come to study Indian languages at the language school a little ahead. I am glad he did, so now people like us can enjoy some really yummy food in these peaceful environs.
I spent all my day sitting there, sketching and watching people, eat, chit chat and go away. It was such a weird feeling to be sitting there all day like one of the furniture pieces. So many people came and left. One family actually came and sat on the same table as mine on the second time round they came to the shop and we ended up chatting a bit. The gentleman tried to tell the two kids with them to not shake the table as I was sketching by telling them that lets see who can have their drink without touching the table and the kids actually were trying to not touch and shake the table. We also ended up gossiping a bit regarding the dressing of a fashion victim who dropped in for a while.
The snow-capped range of Gangotri, Kedarnath and so on.
Between my breakfast and lunch I once went to this place called Laal Tibba, close to Chaar Dukaan. There is a platform at the edge of the hill at one side with a huge telescope through which one can see all the holy peaks of Gangotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Chaukhamba and a few others. One needs to pay a nominal amount to go up and see through the telescope. But the inevitable had to happen when you are up at a place where there are tourists all over. Two slightly elderly couples came in and one of the men came and stood right next to this foreigner, like a poster slapped onto his back, who was waiting for his turn behind his partner. There was another couple before me after the foreigners and it was utterly irritating to see this guy come in after us and go and stick to that guy like there is no one before him. After a few indications he reluctantly stood back and let us take our turns but just as I started seeing he suggested to the operator to focus on one place and show others also and the operator did just that. Initially I thought it was just him but it went on to his friend and his wife and so on. I was going to blow off but I just picked up my bag and left. Its unbelievable how some of us are so habitually in this mode of being selfish and totally inconsiderate to our neighbours or people around.
I returned to Chaar Dukaan and spent the rest of the day there contemplating again if I should stay over a day or leave tonight itself. But it made no sense to go down to Mussoorie again and stay there as it actually does not give a feeling of being on a mountain with so much construction all around. If only I could stay up in Landour somewhere where I could get up early morning and see the mountains all around. Sit with a cup of tea and stare at the horizon with a harmonious composition of peaks, some with snow and some just longing for it.
I was totally let down by the fact that there weren’t any localized cafés around where one could sit and enjoy. Thank God! Landour was right up there otherwise I don’t know what I would had done for the third day. Thus, I decided to leave that night itself for Delhi. To think of it Mussoorie may have been a better experience if there were lesser people around. May be I was just not the kind of person Mussoorie is looking forward to. But I will still cherish the trip for the fact that it was my first trip all alone with crazy amount of walking that led to a severe pain towards the inside of the sole of my right foot, that lasted for almost a month. I made several sketches and met several strangers. At the end of it all I just had a nauseate trip down the hill back to Delhi in the cramped mini bus.