By Rashmi Oberoi
When the heat gets to you or the stress of living in a concrete jungle, an escape to the hills is a must. The checklist is simple… Soak in the sun, breathe in the fresh air thanks to the carpeted old-growth forests of deodar, pine, oak and fir and allow the mist to kiss our faces.
We’ve decided to make it a yearly ritual now… Like a short break… A well-deserved jaunt to the hills… Escape! The drive from Panchkula to Dehradun is beautiful…picturesque and brings back old memories of my childhood spent in Nahan and the picnics and fishing expeditions around this area.
Come hail, come storm, some X’mas… We usually set off on a three-day trip. On a recent trip, we left around mid-morning, waiting for the fog to clear up and the sun to peek through the winter haze. The roads were winding in parts with lush green vegetation on either side, wild flowers, eucalyptus trees and monkeys and more monkeys swinging wildly from the branches. Our first stop was at the GurudwaraPaonta Sahib which is on the banks of the Yamuna River, and this river marks the boundary between the states Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. This was built in memory of Guru GobindSinghji, the tenth guru of the Sikhs. The Gurudwara was spotlessly clean and exuded tranquillity and peace. The pure gold “Palki” here is of great religious importance. Having being blessed, we enjoyed the warm, delicious ‘kada prasad’ and bought a few ‘karas’ which were in great demand by friends and family.
We hit the next beautiful spot a while later, and this was the Asan Barrage next to the Uttarakhand – Himachal Pradesh border region in Doon valley. This place is a Bird Watcher’s Paradise. Two perennial rivers, Asan and Yamuna confluence here and the, therefore, the wetlands attract a large number of birds, both domestic and migratory. Watching Mallards, Red Crested Pochards, and the Brahminy Duck, as well as the Common Teal just a few hundred yards away, is a spectacular sight indeed. We spotted some people strolling on the bridge and taking in the sights and a few indulging in water sports as well.
We reached Dehradun just in time for a late lunch with my Tibetan friend from college; our friendship goes back 28 years. I hunted down Tampa a few years ago having lost touch in between. That’s one more great story to be related another time. We were famished by then and so having picked up Jampa we headed to a quaint little Tibetan joint close by. Knowing our love for Tibetan food, this place was highly recommended by her, and we finally settled into wooden chairs and benches at Lhasa.
Jampa and my daughter discussed the menu and ordered Momos and Thupka, Kothe, Sha Paley, Timo, Shyapta and Shaptse… Phew! While gorging on this feast, we caught up on all our news and Jampa very gleefully regaled my daughter with stories of my antics from an era gone by. And by the end of it, we were so stuffed and satiated that we could barely move. The evening was spent shopping for the famous rusks, biscuits, and cakes at the well-known bakeries and then driving around and sightseeing the important landmarks around like the Cantonment, the Indian Military Academy, the Rashtriya Indian Military College, Doon School, the Forest Research Institute, etc. Later we headed for an early Continental meal at the Town Table. Since it was X’mas eve the restaurant was delightfully decorated displaying the festive cheer. It was warm and cosy inside while we planned the next day’s itinerary. After dinner, we drove past the Welham Girl school just to have a look-see at the institution where my niece studied. We snuggled into our beds much earlier than normal as it was going to be an early start the next day.
We hit the road by 7 am, cruising up to the Queen of the Hills, flanked by green hills and beautiful fauna and flora. Our hunger pangs nearly had us stop at one of the ‘Maggi Points’ along the way, but we managed not to succumb to greed and drove straight to Landour Cantonment and halt at ‘Char Dukan’. Even though it was early for a hill station, the antiquated shops were open and had started a business for the day. Now let me tell you that this is where you get pancakes and waffles to-die-for. The mist had just cleared…the haze in the mountains slowly drifted away…the sun peeked through…dew gently fell on our wooden benches and table, and there was a nip in the air that froze the tip of my long nose for sure. We ordered chocolate pancakes and cinnamon waffles that we drenched in maple syrup. May I add that they were deliciously yummy. After a steaming hot cup of coffee, we set off on a long walk. The calories get adjusted in the long walks around the tranquil and forests. The walking trails were beautiful…you could see the snow-capped mountains at a distance, the fresh pine smell engulfed you, the charming cottages of well-known personalities were a delight to see, and well it was just an amazing feeling to walk breathing in fresh air and be a part of nature. The long walk extended to the Sister’s Bazaar, past a clutch of old shops, Pizza and Ginger wine at Devdar Woods, then back to the Kellogg Memorial Church next to the Landour Language School that had a huge number of foreigners learning Hindi and Urdu. We grabbed a quick cup of tea at Rokeby Manor that stood regally in stone. The ambience and view from this delightful hotel were magnificent. Back to St. Paul’s Church, we noticed that Char Dukan had an overflow of visitors, and we also realised that we were ravenous, and so we drove back into Mussoorie through the winding slopes and sharp curves. Lunch was at ‘Kelsang’…the food there is just out of the world. If you wanted authentic Tibetan food…this was certainly the place. Excellent food…vibrant ambience…clean…reasonably priced…cheerful and friendly staff. Momos that melted in your mouth… Barbecued ribs/meat that had an array of flavours that burst forth… Deliciously flavoured dishes and while you literally ‘pigged out’, you also ended up reading messages scrawled on paper napkins from all the patrons which had been placed under all the glass table tops. It went without saying that we added our own special message on the napkins.
Post this sinful indulgence, we walked on the Mall, window-shopped and watched the local fanfare. We had to kill some time before we made it to the ‘final destination’ at the appropriate time to meet my favourite author and the man I so admire. The Cambridge Book Depot on the Mall Road not only boasts of a wide collection of literature from all across the globe but the highlight of this place being that the legendary author Mr. Ruskin Bond visits the book store every Saturday evening at 4pm and on special occasions like Christmas, his Birthday, New Year’s Day, etc. People line up to meet him and get his books personally signed by him.
We picked up a stack of books for ourselves and gifts for family and friends before his arrival and for me, it was such a treasured moment to be seated next to him. We chatted away while he signed all the books addressing them to the people the books were meant for and ended with a personal message. I was immensely impressed when he signed the books with a flourish using a beautiful fountain pen.
We spoke of his boarding school days in Shimla when I mentioned about my children studying at The Lawrence School, Sanawar. He told me that he was born in Kasauli and so was very happy to hear stories of that place and his desire to visit again if his health permitted. He genuinely showed an interest in my so-called ‘writings’ and the fact that two of my children’s story books had been published by the Late Professor Purushottama Lal, whom he admired very much. He very sweetly asked me to send him all my articles and joked around about his life and experiences and made us all very comfortable and at ease.
Time stands still at such moments… I would have loved to have continued our tête-à-tête with him endlessly, but he had a long line of fans craving for his attention. And so, I bid adieu to this Perfect Gentleman with a promise to visit him again very soon. That my friend is what you call a perfect holiday that ends with a Grand Finale… And moments that will always be treasured.
Our drive back was, even more, fun as we stuffed the boot and rear seats with fresh vegetables and fruit that we bought from the road-side that was being sold by the local villagers. It’s an absolute delight to buy produce straight from the fields. And what a price difference! We couldn’t help but stop again at Asan Barrage… We ate ‘Maggi’ and sipped hot tea at a cafeteria by the lake and watched the many species of birds in the wetlands. We managed to buy tons of Grape-fruit as well from the carts stationed next to the bridge.
We headed home refreshed and recouped and with a huge smile on our faces. All in all… It really had been a holiday to remember!