Rising temperatures…head for the hills (or hill stations)!
You’re looking at the hill stations of Musoorie and Landour in the far background as seen from the apartment terrace I have been staying in Dehradun since mid-April of 2022. At night the hill stations of Musoorie and Landour sparkle like jewels. When I arrived in Dehradun in mid-April temperatures were quite pleasant and the humidity was low. By mid-May the weather had heated up considerably bringing with it rising humidity. Occasional violent thunderstorms would clear the air and bring down temperatures temporarily. I finally made it up to Musoorie, a short hour to hour and a half car ride traffic, permitting, in mid-May and returned for a follow up visit at the end of May. I was (and remain) enchanted!
The journey up from Dehradun
On a good day the trip by car from Dehradun to Musoorie will take you a mere hour to hour and a half. On a busy day you might need to add another half hour to the journey as the tailback of traffic begins just past the humongous green parking garage and inches its way ever so slowly much to the delight of itinerant fruit and cotton candy vendors. The start of the journey from Dehradun is dry with little forest and it isn’t until you are almost at the Mall Road that the majestic trees appear. The roadside has hairpin curves and numerous ‘Maggi point’ restaurants perch precariously on pillars erected over the steep slope forming makeshift restaurants with tourist appearling views of Dehradun.
Musoorie is linear, snaking along the top ridge of the mountain from Mall Road in the west over to Landour in the east with other areas like Happy Valley spilling out up and down from this central spine. Aside from Mall Road and Camelback Road most all routes in this area involve a steep climb and/or descent. The trek from the beginning of Mall Road up to Landour involves an arduous almost two-hour climb the beginning through some interesting neighborhoods and the end through forest area with views that last forever over the surrounding hills. To get to Happy Valley you go in the opposite direction for about 45 minutes and at the end roll down hill to the valley. In addition, you can always stray off the flat routes and head up very steep roads to some lovely old areas dotted with quaint villas.
The new and not so new face of tourism
In general tourism can be disruptive and unattractive although admittedly it brings business to an area. Since the onset of the Pandemic, tourism has taken a very different look. It is now primarily domestic tourism with overseas visitors being the rare exception. The local tourist tends to breeze through a place quickly, visiting all the ‘must-see’ sights usually by car or other means of transport and taking plenty of selfies along the way. While foreign tourism was marked by the lone tourist making his/her way slowly and often on foot through Indian cities with the help of a guidebook, local tourists tend to be groups of either family or young students, coworkers or friends. Many come by car, often a large bulky SUV, clogging up the streets and creating a lot of business for hotels with parking facilities.
What destinations are popular in Musoorie & Landour? In general the average tourist tackles a list of the must see places (Buddha Temple, Community Gardens, Kempty Falls, Lal Tibba outlook and the cable car to Gun Hill Point). In my opinion these destinations are NOT the interesting part of the area. As for activities there are many to be found along Mall Road. Number one might be shopping with numerous stalls selling acrylic shawls, crocheted sweaters and other items of clothing. Eating is definitely near the top of the list! I wholeheartedly support this activity! My daily routine included a visited to my favorite soft serve ice cream shop where I was often served by the owner’s young son. I marvelled at the fresh fruit and produce vendors with their artistic displays laid out on circular trays close to the pavement. Watching them slice up a selection of fruits or vegetables for customers was almost as satisfying as eating their treats.
Many activities on the Mall Road are geared to families. Perhaps the most popular is taking a ride in cycle rickshaw pulled or cycled by a hardworking local. Their bells are constantly ringing to alert pedestrians to clear the way. The rickshaw seats two in front and accommodates a lightweight adult or child seated precariously in the back facing the opposite way.
There are numerous stalls with games such as throwing a ring over a table of prizes to ‘win’ the prize, or shooting balloons on a placard to win a prize. Rivalling the rickshaw ride is ‘dressing up for a photoshoot’ which is also my favorite as a photographer. Although it is incredibly corny, many tourists ‘go for it’! One golden afternoon I parked myself in one of the areas and observed the whole process.
The ‘dressup photoshoot’ is actually a great activity for a street photographer like myself as the layers of activity (official photographer getting the dressed up folks ready for the shoot, dressed up folks finished with the shoot taking their own photos presumably for immediate distribution on their social media channels) give me the needed ‘camouflage’ to carry out my own shooting. Later on I had a nice chat with the trio pictured here (dressed up couple being man and wife and third person being the sister of the dressed up man). The lady not participating had spent a year in Switzerland (about twenty years ago) studying comparative religions.
Steeped in history, yet changing on a daily basis
What I like most (second only to the cool weather) about Musoorie is the feeling of walking through history. It’s everywhere with the architecture, old churches, villas, puzzling plaques and signs outside of villas, wrought iron railings on Mall Road, etc.
I was so intrigued by the history of the area that I visited The Cambridge Book Depot on Mall Road during my first visit and purchased two books. The first was a slim but colorful soft cover book called “Mussoorie Medley” written by a local, Ganesh Saili. I enjoyed the photos but found the text a bit difficult to read as it often was a long list of facts or places or people with little narrative. The second book, “Mussoorie & Landour, Footprints of the Past” by father/daughter pair Virgil Miedema and Stephanie Spaid Miedema was much more to my liking and an easier read.
I would review my photos after a day of walking and try to find some links in the second book, “Mussoorie & Landour, Footprints of the Past” . On my long uphill walk to Landour I took the following photo and discovered almost its historical replica in the book. Some things haven’t changed!
During my second stay, a crew of workmen were sanding down and repainting the ornate wrought iron railings along Mall Road as well as adding some very welcoming benches for the tired traveller. Another lovely feature of the place is the tin roof, often weatherworn and sometimes decorated with an ornate trim. Many an old villa could be found on the slopes leading down from the main flat roads giving a great view of the roof.
But life must go on and side by side with history is of course the unrelenting march of construction often to the detriment of both history and nature. Some of the construction is regular maintenance mainly shoring up the steep slopes of the mountainside so they don’t come tumbling down into the road.
I don’t believe in spending a lot of money for accommodation while traveling as most of my time is spent outside of the hotel. Having said that, I do enjoy being in a good neighborhood and soaking up some pleasant atmosphere. I experienced both separately on my two visits. On the first visit I stayed in area called “Happy Valley” and who can resist a name like that? The hotel itself La Hill Vista was unremarkable but the neighborhood was a winner. The small terrace overlooked the entrance to a Tibetan boarding school with the cumbersome name of ‘Tibetan Homes Foundation – SOS Tibetan Children’s Village’. The school was founded by the Dalai Lama in 1962 to serve the children of Tibetans in exile.
The coming and going of a steady stream of children provided ample entertainment during my stay. I was also lucky to encounter a former student of the school, a delightful man in his late sixties who was revisiting the school for the first time in almost 46 or 47 years. He currently works as a teacher of Tibetan medicine in Darjeeling. He gave an ‘insider’s tour’ of the school which sprawls across the mountain in a series of dormitories and school buildings. We even got a tour of his former dormitory perched very high up on the hill.
From Happy Valley to Mall Road
On my second visit to Musoorie I chose a hotel that I had fallen in love with on my first visit. A chance meandering up a very steep driveway with a couple of hairpin curves off of Mall Road led to the charming old world Prince Hotel with a bird’s eye view of the Mall Road and the surrounding area. It was really a case of love at first sight!
In addition to the delightful old world public areas, my room was on a scale rarely encountered in modern hotels. The most remarkable feature was the height of the ceiling! In the early morning the sun would come flooding through the window located near the ceiling and sitting above the narrow exterior corridor. The bathroom was reached through a long corridor adding to the luxurious sense of endless space. The corridors were wide and spacious and also included skylights and glass tile floor panels as well as a narrow outside corridor with views of the green mountains. All doors had burgundy curtains allowing one to keep the door open while preserving one’s privacy.
The hardworking folks of Musoorie & Landour
I cannot talk Musoorie & Landour without referring to the hardworking folks I encountered daily, the porters, cycle rickshaw drivers, construction workers, and vendors.
The porters caught my attention every time carrying incredible loads on steep and congested streets. Often their loads were so heavy that they were bent over and unable to see the cars or pedestrians ahead of them.
The cycle rickshaw drivers were hard to ignore as they constantly rang their shrill bells to clear the path of pedestrians. Although the Mall Road was for the most part flat, other areas had slight inclines forcing them off their pedals and onto their feet to push the rickshaw up even a slight incline. The construction workers, both men and women were luckier as they usually worked far from the crowd building new villas, hotels, and reinforcement walls in the mountains.
I would gladly revisit this popular hill station to continue exploring this enchanting hill station!