Tag Archives: travel

Rewalsar, a pilgrim’s paradise!

Welcome to Rewalsar!

Rewalsar was suggested to us by a friend who lives here.  He said it was peaceful, had good weather and was easy on the pocketbook. It is slightly cooler than Mandi and significantly smaller (2011 census figures for Mandi are 26,422 versus the 2001 census figure for Rewalsar of 1,369).  It is basically a place of pilgrimage with activity centering on the small lake in the center of town with the enormous statue of Guru Rinpoche perched high on the hill overlooking the lake.

Guru Rinpoche at sunset

This magnificent statue took Nepali and Bhutanese craftsmen 10 years to build and is the second largest statue in India.  The area is studded with caves which bear religious significance as well.  Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists all come to Rewalsar for its religious significance.  In addition, many residents of the Himalayan mountains descend to Rewalsar in the winter months to escape the harsh winter weather.  

A good night’s sleep

The town IS small.  Aside from the road around the lake which is a bit less than 1 kilometer long there is one main road leading in and out of the town. The main road serves as both a taxi and bus stand.  Most lodgings are found around the perimeter of the lake and many pilgrims come in large groups by bus.  The Buddhist monasteries and Sikh Gurdwara offer accommodation along with commercial hotels and guesthouses.  Most accommodation is quite cheap even by Indian standards running between 300 and 500 rupees a night.  Some of the hotels charge as much as 1,000 rupees a night and I would guess that these rates might rise during periods of high demand. Some people even rent places and use them sporadically throughout the year.  There are many good places to enjoy a decent meal either a tasty Himachal thali which is less spicy and oily than thalis found in other parts of India, or a mild Tibetan dish of dumplings (momos) or noodles (thukpa, thentuk, etc.). 

Nikko Dhaba is name you’ll hear over and over from the locals.  It is a small restaurant just off the road encircling the lake and is usually full of customers, both locals and visitors alike.  They serve the best tea in town as well.  One establishment of note is the Buddhist Monastery Guesthouse Cafe which serves a wide range of cakes (apple, carrot, lemon blueberry, etc.) as well as homemade brown bread, a vast array of really good coffee and lassis to name just a few of the treats. 

The cafe  is perched on a terrace with a stellar view of the lake and Guru Rinpoche. 

Gazing out at Guru Rinpoche

It seems to be a favorite spot for both visitors and locals alike and with decent wifi it attracts the laptop crowd.  

The ebb and flow of pilgrims and other visitors

Colorful pair of Arunachal Pradesh ladies

The crowds and activity ebb and flow according to the arrival and departure of various groups.  When we arrived there was a significant group of pilgrims from Arunachal Pradesh, the easternmost state of India.  I was especially pleased as they were all wearing their very unique red costumes. 

Ladakhis also arrive in large numbers wearing their more somber but traditional garb.  All walk clockwise around the lake fingering their prayer beads and chatting amongst themselves. 

Elegant pilgrim from Zanskar Valley

As the place is so tiny I find myself doing the rounds of the lake several times of day as well.  We even spotted a visitor from Zanskar Valley, a very elegant older man sporting a traditional dark purple robe. 

A plethora of holy places

While many visitors to Rewalsar have a religious agenda, we came for some peace and quiet.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the numerous sites that attract pilgrims to the area.  One must mention the imposing statue of Guru Rinpoche perched midway up the hill/mountain and seemingly visible from just about everywhere. 

The statue is the second largest in India which explains his visibility.  The statue is a short walk up the hill from lakeside and is well worth the climb if only for the stellar view of Rewalsar Lake. 

Selfies are obligatory, sometimes even with strangers! 

There is a small cafe at the base of the statue and pilgrims sometimes sit in groups on the lawn having picnics. Beneath this statue lakeside one finds a number of Hindu temples.  We didn’t explore these too much, but my favorite is the blue temple with the lifesize black bull statue outside. 

Hindu temple

Aside from Guru Rinpoche, Rewalsar attracts many Buddhists with a number of monasteries.  We spent many weeks in one of the five rooms available for guests at ,the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse just off of the main road leading into town on the lakeside road and near the entrance gate to the lakeside area. 

The guesthouse cafe has an ideal location for visitors with a birdseye view of the entrance gate from the main road as well as a curve on the lakeside road giving a view in two directions.  The statue of Guru Rinpoche is visible from most rooms. The actual brick red monastery sits on a hill above the cafe and guesthouse and houses a couple dozen young monks. 

Above the monastery compound is an elaborate building accommodating more long-term primarily western visitors who are in Rewalsar to deepen their Buddhist practice.  When Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse had a prior booking of a large group we moved over to Nyingma Gompa monastery

Nyingma Gompa Monastery just down the lakeside road in a clockwise direction.  This monastery is somewhat of a hub for Buddhist pilgrims especially with its 21 room capacity with single, double and triple rooms and even a room accommodating 5 guests!  The central courtyard of the Monastery hosted the Wednesday traditional dance nights for the Tibetan community. 

There is even a special room in the monastery reserved for the Dalai Lama.  Many pilgrims regularly gather in this courtyard and often traditional Tibetan tea is available for guests and visitors alike. Our own room was on the fringe of the complex one of three rooms along a corridor facing the lake and on the backside of the main street storefronts.  We even had a little glimpse of Guru Rinpoche and more monkeys than I would care for.  One evening I met a Tibetan man who had resettled many decades ago in Switzerland and he raved about the newest monastery, the Tso Pema Monastery perched up on a hill overlooking the lake and the former zoo.  This was also worth the climb.  It was a sumptuous place with a lot of gilded decorations including a wall of a thousand Buddhas encased in glass. 

A thousand Buddhas

This monastery had meditation houses available for those who wished to pursue a long course of meditation lasting 3 years and 3 months.  

Not far from the Tso Pema Monastery is the large white Gurdwara which also sits up on a hill.  Its architecture reminds me a bit of Islamic architecture with a simple facade in white with many arched doorways and windows. 

We ventured up there one gorgeous evening and explored the premises.  Sikh volunteers were busy preparing for the evening meal which is offered free to the public. 

Sikh volunteers helping to prepare the evening meal

We opted to have some tea instead but first took a tour of the premises. 

This included the main temple and the small, austere rooms around it that are available for visitors.  There is a daily bus to and from Chandigarh which parks here as well and which we wound up taking when we left.  Although there are a number of Hindu temples situated on the side where Guru Rinpoche is located, we merely walked past them occasionally catching an evening ritual in progress. 

Evening ceremony at Hindu shrine

Our agenda was not religious but for other visitors the many caves up in the mountains that were home to meditating monks were a draw.  I did step inside a cave just off the main lakeside road though.  The entire area is quite sacred and for those so inclined, there is a lot to do. 

Meet the locals

Life in this little town of a couple thousand people is tranquil which appeals to most visitors.  The locals make a living serving the pilgrims and other visitors with their small businesses such as restaurants, guesthouses, and stores selling clothing, groceries,  tsampa (Tibetan toasted barley flour), religious relics, and produce. 

Nikko Dhaba thali

Our favorite eatery was a well know restaurant called Nikko Dhaba serving a simple but delicious thali (rice, lentil and vegetable set) to both locals and visitors as well as the best milk tea in town.  As we walked around road following the 1 kilometer perimeter  of the lake almost 10 times a day, we became quite familiar with many of these businesses and with the locals who ran them.  When we weren’t enjoying breakfast at the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Cafe, we could be found at a truly tiny restaurant with an open front and one table where the husband and wife team served up hot, fresh chapatis and a savory vegetable dish.

School children would stream by on their way to school often stopping to purchase their small packaged snacks. 

My favorite place was a real hole-in-the-wall open-faced storefront where the proprietor sat hunched amidst an array of old items and parts of items offering his services as a repairman.  I am constantly impressed by the amount of recycling and repurposing of old items that goes on in India. 

School notebook bag

The cards I bought came packaged in a bag made from a used school notebook (complete with the corrections!). 

The budagas man had a cart which had the front wheel of an old scooter welded to the front. 

recycled scooter

A group of women street sweepers kept the road around the lake tidy and gathered any recyclable materials for the truck that would take them away. 

Tsampa shop dog

Then there was the Tibetan tsampa store which emitted the most pleasant aroma of roasted barley and which had its own dog usually sleeping near the massive, old-fashioned scale.

One Madame Defarge-like woman sat knitting in her chair as she waited for customers. 

Religious relics store

Several stores sold colorful religious relics made of resin and hand painted right there in Rewalsar. 

Past the Hindu Temples on an empty stretch of the road several ladies attempted to support themselves selling Hindu related items for worship or offering their bathroom scale to get your weight.  

Who needs a zoo?

According to a long time visitor to Rewalsar, there used to be a zoo by the lakeside just below the Meditation Center and Tso Pema Monastery which had a malnourished bear and a few other unfortunate animals.  I was delighted to hear that it had closed a few years ago but the premises are still very visible.  But who needs a zoo in Rewalsar?  Animals are everywhere!  As with most holy places in India, monkeys are in abundance. 

They can be seen scampering around the lake road, rooting through garbage, swinging from tree branches over the lake and occasionally facing off with the dogs. 

Young monkeys playing lakeside

Enormous cows ply the main and lake road (and I mean ENORMOUS…about shoulder height) often parking themselves outside of eateries in the hopes of some chapatis. 

We would save our organic waste and give it to the cows on one of our many walks. 

Feeding the cows

At one point a large aggressive monkey spotted my bag of organic treats and marched aggressively towards me forcing me to surrender its contents on the spot.

Bessie gets some tsampa

As with most of India street dogs are everywhere and are for the most part well loved.  However at times it appears that there is no animal control and the large population of dogs leads to packs of roving dogs barking and fighting through the night.

Lakeside abounds in animals.  The lake itself is full of fish almost 2 feet in length that congregate on the shoreline in a very creepy fashion.  In some spots they break the surface of the water with open mouths seemingly gasping for air. 

Disturbing fish behavior at Rewalsar Lake

Ducks are kept near the Hindu Temple end of the lake and allowed to roam around in the day but put back in cages in the evenings.  Large white ducks make quite a show bathing themselves on the edge of the lake. 

Bath time for the ducks

One tree ladkeside across from the Drikung Kagyu Monastery Guesthouse Cafe is host to a great number of bright green parakeets with long tails who chatter away in the day time. 

We even thought we saw a mongoose darting across the lakeside road and disappearing into the bushes which we of course took to be a sign of impending wealth and prosperity. 

Looks like rain!

As in many small and quiet places, weather was a good topic of conversation and conjecture.  Some days Guru Rinpoche shone brightly under the sun.  On other days the statue was shrouded in mist.  Towards the end of our visit the rain became incessant making a muddy mess of the dirt road around the lake.  

Why travel, why India?

As with the weather, books have a prominent place in quiet out-of-the-way places.  I carry a Kindle with me on my travels and it gets some very heavy use.  One of the books that kept me riveted during my stay in Rewalsar was Lost in the Valley of Death by Harley Rustad.  It tells the story of a young American man who vanished into the mountains in a place called Kulu Valley not too far from Rewalsar.  It is particularly pertinent reading for anyone coming to India.  The book discusses the many reasons westerners are drawn to India as well as the reasons many become lost there.  Religion plays a role as well as people’s need to escape from life.  In trying to untangle the story of Justin Alexander Shetler one gets a pretty accurate view of the kind of tourism found in the northern mountainous regions of India.  The role of social media in creating a public image is dealt with at length and it is spooky to be able to visit Justin’s Instagram account to reference posts he made which are discussed in the book.  

The long journey to Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh

A skip and a hop: Pahalgam to Anantnag

2 1/2 hours / 42km via shared Jeep

One thing we discovered is that time estimations given for trips are terribly optimistic.  Road conditions may also be presented through very rose-tinted lenses.  The trip from Pahalgam to Anantnag was familiar and easy.  We caught a shared taxi from the end of the line taxi stand and it quickly filled up.  As the driver had a full complement (9 passengers) most of whom were going all the way to Anantnag, he did not stop for more passengers making the trip a speedy one. We mistakenly got off at the first drop off spot and were heralded into a deluxe shared taxi by an astute driver. 

taxi stand Anantnag

The jeep was parked next to an open sewer a couple cars down from the first in line.  We had a delicious cup of tea but it soon became clear that it would be ages until the taxi filled up (a condition for departure).  We retrieved our baggage, caught a tuk-tuk and went to the other shared taxi stand where we found a jeep with some passengers already inside.  After a half hour we had enough people to depart.  The backseat was filled with four laborers, one young man cradling his injured arm. We were told that the journey would take about 8 hours traveling along decent roads.  That was definitely not the case!

Obstacles and more obstacles: Anantnag to Jammu

11 1/4 hours / 204km via shared Jeep

We left Anantnag at 9:30am.  No sooner had we pulled out than the driver went to a filling station to tank up.  It always puzzles me why this isn’t done before departure. Kashmir is one big hive of military activity and just 30 minutes out we were pulled over for 20 to 30 minutes to let a military convoy by.  We sped along for another 30 minutes when we came to an abrupt halt behind a long line of parked vehicles on the road. 

Waiting for …. who knows?

We switched off our engine and got out to discover the cause of our delay.  Rumors of a landslide ahead circulated.  Local vendors were having a heyday selling apples, cotton candy, snacks, and acrylic shawls. 

A large tea stall across the highway was also doing a fair trade.  We had one false start when whistles were blown and everyone scrambled back to their vehicles.  Two and half hours after we stopped we were given the go ahead to proceed.  This pattern would be repeated over and over during the trip but with delays of about 15 minutes to a half hour each time.

The roads got worse and worse  and the truck and military traffic got heavier and heavier. We stopped in the late afternoon for some food at a local dhaba.  We had just barely resumed our journey when the driver pulled off to the side and informed us that we had a flat tire.  Fortunately (or so we mistakenly thought) there was a mechanic’s shop just up the road a bit. The driver bounded off wheeling the flat tire leaving the stranded jeep and passengers almost blocking the two lane road.  We wandered around in the fading light of late afternoon trying to escape the clouds of dust coming from the traffic on the road.  An hour went by and still our driver hadn’t reappeared. 

We discussed amongst ourselves what could possibly be taking so long.  A couple of passengers decided to find out and returned to report that the inner tube had been repaired once and blown and then twice and blown at which point the mechanic advised buying a new inner tube for 600 rupees. The driver felt he was being taken for a ride so he kept insisting on them trying again with the old inner tube.  On the third try it held and the driver paid the 150 rupees (50 rupees for each try) and quickly got the jeep ready to roll. It’s a hard call knowing who was right in this situation, perhaps the driver. We continued on in the receding light over very bad, heavily trafficked, and rutted roads going through two long tunnels (of about a 10 minute duration each). 

The tunnels were a bit creepy as cars sped by and attempted to pass each other on the two lane road.  The air was thick with dust and fumes but that didn’t prevent people from keeping their windows down.  When we emerged from the second and last tunnel we finally encountered very decent roads.  We had another two hours of clear sailing on a four lane paved highway before finally reaching Jammu at 8:45pm 11 and ¼ hours after leaving Anantnag.

Welcome to Jammu (or not)!

But our troubles were hardly over.  A fellow passenger had assured that good accommodation was readily available in Jammu where we were dropped off.  I was left with the luggage while my friend negotiated a room.  He came back saying he had managed to find a very clean and spacious room for a decent price.  The minute I entered the lobby the deal was off.  The manager was not prepared to handle a foreign guest which would require him to fill out and submit a special form (the C form) to the government.  Once again I was left out on the curb with the luggage. When my friend returned he had managed to find a room that would accept a foreigner but only on the 5th try.  The hotel wiling to accept me was under renovation.  The first floor rooms had been renovated but we were shown a room on the 3rd floor past a very dusty and debris-strewn 2nd floor to a third floor room which clearly was waiting to be renovated. But it had hot running water and a bed so got cleaned up and had a good sleep before heading out of Jammu the next day.

Goodbye Jammu, hello Himachal Pradesh!

Jammu to Mandi via Panthakot

We were very happy to see the backside of Jammu.  We got up early and went to the bus station easily finding a bus to Pathankot in Punjab.  It was a pleasant 2 and ¼ hour ride that crossed many almost dry river beds full of herds of water buffaloes and covering 108 kilometers on very good roads.  We made one stop for snacks in a little place that seemed to specialize in heavy fried foods. 

Fried food vendor Punjab

Our bus continued all the way to Amritsar so we were dropped off on the highway near Pathankot.  A tuktuk dropped us off at the bus station in Pathankot where we were most fortunate to find a bus just about to leave for Mandi.  I forgot to mention that our trip to Pathankot took us to Punjab which made us very happy as we once again had use of our mobile data (which had been blocked in Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh leaving us dependent on wifi).  The bus to Mandi took us up narrow mountain roads in the state of Himachal Pradesh.  The greenery was noticeable especially after the brown aridness of Punjab. 

The 224 kilometers to Mandi took a full 9 hours with stops at just about every settlement along the way. 

People got off and on the bus taking short rides from one settlement to the next.  We made a brief stop for food and were relieved to be served a mild and tasty thali (rice, lentils, vegetable plate).  Most stops were roadside stops but there were occasional stops at bona fide bus stations. 

Waiting for departure

At our last bus station the bus was flooded with passengers who had been waiting sometime for the bus.  We pulled into Mandi bus station in the evening completing a pleasant 9 hour ride.  We found a hotel near the bus station which was adequate for a night’s sleep and a shower. 

Mandi: full of character

Our hotel near the bus station was not memorable but Mandi itself was a nice surprise.  We managed to explore it on foot in the morning before continuing on to Rewalsar. 

Who’s the mannequin?
Wax museum or cafe?

It is a hilly city with many winding roads through the neighborhoods.  There are a number of Hindu temples as well as some handsome examples of old architecture.  Like Jaipur, one caught many intriguing glimpses through doorways leading to little private worlds beyond. 

We were there long enough to have breakfast and purchase a much needed hot kettle before we caught a bus for the one hour ride up the mountain to Rewalsar.

Leaving Mandi for Rewalsar

Pahalgam, Kashmir…my dream come true!

Why Pahalgam?

Our shared taxi driver did us good service by recommending that we get off at the end of the line, that is Upper Pahalgam.  We found a nearby hotel that seemed almost unfinished called “Hotel Water Vibe” where we were the only guests for our 8 day visit.   Our room was bright and airy and the bathroom was clean with hot running water however they hadn’t yet gotten around to fitting a sink in it so we used the wall spigot.

Hotel Water Vibe

We were on the edge of Pahalgam with only the forest and few resorts beyond us.  Even more lucky, we had arrived at a ‘low season’ for this town that receives both people trying to escape the sweltering heat of the south as well as Lord Shiva devotees who descend in droves during the Armanath Yatra pilgrimage which began on June 30th and ended on August 11th of 2022 after 2 year gap caused by the Pandemic. According to the locals the entire town of this Muslim dominated area is transformed during the pilgrimage with Indian soldiers lining the route and many businesses forced to close to allow for a smooth passage for the pilgrims.

Village life, daily routines

Without a doubt I thrive in the countryside.  We have discovered that longer, slower stays reveal a lot more about your surroundings and the people who inhabit them. Clean accommodation, fresh food, and the ability to take long walks is about all we need to be happy.  My partner learns a lot more than I ever would as a Hindi speaker so I usually sit silently using my eyes to capture the scenes and activity around me while he engages in long conversations with tea stall owners, drivers, bakers, etc.. There were two roads leading into town, one on each side of the Lidder River.  The road in front of our hotel was the most scenic with the bubbling river on the left and the high mountains rising on the right.  It had many attractive and old timey lodges, most of them empty at the time of our visit.

Tiny little hamlets dotted the route with the usual businesses (bakery, grocery store, barber) and even a river-run grain mill. 

Water being re-directed from river to canal leading to mill
Steep sluice leading from canal to mill
Diverted water from river exiting mill and rejoining river

As we walked away from out hotel the elevation rose and the river appeared farther and farther away down the valley.  After a good 30 minute walk the road descended down to the river and to a crossroad leading to another valley, the Arun Valley.  This side of the river is a favorite spot for picnickers despite the need to descend a steep path down to the river.

Picnickers on the old road Pahalgam

The road sees some very heavy traffic from horses, usually a group of them led by one handler but often horses simply going their own way. 

Horse rides are big business in Pahalgam.  A half day’s ride can earn the owner 2 to 3,000 rupees ($25 to $38) per horse.  As most Indian tourists come in large groups you can just imagine the riches to be made! 

I imagine that in the pre-tourist boom days the horses were essential for carrying goods on the rudimentary roads and paths in the area. Occasionally one encounters a group of nomads on horses.  They are distinguished by the colorful bridles and saddles which adorn their horses as well as the one lady leading a dog on a chain. Very often the horse minders are very young boys and men.  

Tourists most welcome

If you cross the bridge at the end of this road and turn left you will be heading for the road on the other side of the river which is the commercial hub of the town.  It receives most of the tourist activity and also contains several large and impressive public gardens which are very popular with the locals especially on a Sunday. 

Woman enjoying public garden

With the carefully planted flower beds and pruned bushes set against the backdrop of rising green mountains these gardens are an attractive place to hang out. You will also find the police station, a most regal colonial style building as well as many not-so-attractive tourist oriented businesses.  Taxis and private cars go hurtling down this road, horns blaring warning horses, pedestrians, goats and sheep to clear the way. If you walk almost back to the end-of-the-line taxi stand you will find a road heading up a steep hill on the right with a steady stream of horses.  This road leads to “Mini Switzerland” the ultimate destination for the horse-rider wannabe.  “Mini Switzerland” refers to a very large meadow about an hour and a half hike up a rutted, muddy road. 

Mini Switzerland

Most tourists take a horse up but some like yours truly choose to use their own two feet. If you are not fleet footed I strongly suggest you stick to the main track and avoid the steep shortcut that forces you to cross bubbling streams and scramble up wet slippery trails. As with many tourist attractions, the destination often fails to live up to the hype.  Although the walk to and from “Mini Switzerland” is a good workout and scenic, the actual attraction is disappointing.  Tea stalls and dhabas line the perimeter on the entrance side each with their tarpaulin and plastic chairs in front offering very welcome shade to their customers. Vendors of pashmina shawls relentlessly attempt a sale.  A ‘mini’ zip line runs down the middle of the meadow and seems quite popular with day trippers intent on capturing their travel adventures with their GoPro cameras. Mind you we didn’t miss the opportunity for some selfies before heading back down. 

Local activity – tea sellers, goat and sheep herders and bakers galore!

Most of our time was spent sitting at tea stalls drinking either the sweet Kashmiri tea or the salted tea which was an unusual pink color but both served with a healthy dollop of butter. 

From the tea stalls we could learn a lot about the place both through observation and conversation.  Next to one of our favorite tea stalls was a shop that bought raw wool from the shepherds for 50 rupees a kilo which they then used to purchase salt for the sheep. 

Herds of goats and sheep often streamed down the middle of the road.

The herds were sometimes led by very colorful tall and thin herders who looked like they just crossed over from Afghanistan or Pakistan with gaunt faces and hennaed beards. 

Across from the tea stall was a tiny but perpetually busy bakery.  The place was full of bakeries, all busy, all day.  Four types of flat brea were produced at different times of the day. 

In the morning a very thin bread was baked with big air bubbles in it.  As the morning progressed a smaller and thicker flatbread appeared which was scored on the top and had a more yellowish color to it.  Lastly two breads appeared, one very similar to a mini bagel with sesame seeds on top and the other similar to the second bread of the day but shinier and more flavorful and flaky.  Needless to say we ate bread hot from the ovens throughout the day.  Most people simply grabbed the the bread in a stack and carried it in their hands or else stuffed it into their pockets. 

The bakeries were small, dark and cozy and usually manned by two 30-ish year old men who started their day at 3:30am.  The cylindrical oven was waist high and glowed orange in the dimness of the dark workspace.  One baker would be forming the bread using a rolling pin while the other would be rapidly slapping the dough on to the inner wall of the glowing open-topped oven until the entire inside of the oven was covered in flat breads.  Occasionally a bread would peel off of the side and fall to the bottom.  Next the baker would grab the finished bread with a wrought iron rod and toss it in a pile next to the oven.  The bakeries had a small window where customers would line up to buy the just baked bread.  

Goodbye Pahalgam…so many fond memories

We spent a blissful eight days wandering around upper Pahalgam, munching on bread, swilling Kashmir tea and observing rural life.  Pahalgam will always have a special place in my memories.  The scenery itself is a big draw not only for tourists but also for film makers. 

The aqua gray waters surging through town are indeed mesmerizing and many a selfie has been taken on the numerous bridges of Pahalgam both on the main road and the back road. 

1st bridge connecting back and main roads near upper Pahalgam taxi stand
2nd bridge and selfie favorite
3rd bridge on main road leading into tourist part of town

Kashmir also has a wealth of mosques with a very unique design reminding me of Eastern Europe with their onion shaped turrrets.

Animals dominate the economy with huge groups of horses, goats and sheep regularly flooding the streets.  And last but not least the people of Pahalgam had very interesting looks in addition to their friendly demeanor.

I would definitely like to return someday. 

Musoorie & Landour

Rising temperatures…head for the hills (or hill stations)!

Longing for Musoorie

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 layout

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.

Twilight from the Prince Hotel overlooking Mall Road

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!

The Taylor’s Flat playing field in the early 1900’s and today…not much change!
wrought iron fences on Mall Road

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.

tin 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.

Happy Valley

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.

Walking wardrobe

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!