Lansdowne, Hidden Jewel of The Himalaya (2012)

Lansdowne, Hidden Jewel of The Himalaya (2012)

Testosterone and four-wheel drives make for a heady, often deadly combination. Three fancy four-wheel drives, plastered with rally stickers and belting out thunderous music are roaring up the hillsides, crunching pebbles with their monstrous tyres and overtaking other vehicles nonchalantly, in their rush to get to their dream destination. I reckon theirs is a spontaneous weekend trip. (I am a kettle calling the pot black, but more on that, in a while) But we no longer live in an era when one could drive to the hills on a whim and find welcoming lodgings and hot meals. Not even a benign and relatively obscure hill town with a seductive name like Lansdowne can provide beds for car loads of tourists who land up without notice. Lansdowne can accomodate no more than a couple of hundred people at a given time and these are wise people who have planned their trips and booked their rooms well ahead. No wonder you find that in just a couple of hours, the three SUVs are retracing their way back to Delhi, their tailpipes, which alas, can’t be tucked between the wheels, are tamely sighing!

We too had suddenly discovered it was a long weekend. A glance at the map showed Lansdowne to be doable. We did not anticipate difficulty in getting rooms in this sleepy hidden gem in Pauri Garwal, but made a few phone calls, just in case. Voila, the ramshackle government guesthouse happened to be vacant and thus we escaped the fate of the SUV bratpack.

Lansdowne is a jewel in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand that has so far managed to remain undetected by the roving eyes of the inveterate SUV-borne Delhi tourist. How did it manage to be so near, yet so far? About 260 kilometers from Delhi and accessed by both Mussoorie express and perfectly good roads that can reach you there in just six hours, it is a mystery that the bratpack has not started descending in droves on this  pristine and unspoilt town, nay just an overgrown village. 

But that may not be for long. Already resorts have started sprouting on the outskirts. Mercifully, the town itself is compact, with a single market oval with a few shops and a couple of eateries. If you’re not staying in a resort, you will have to come to either of these eateries for your meals although the narrow, winding alleys sport two mithai shops, one of them famous for its ‘chocolate’.

The road to Lansdowne takes you through a bypass near Meerut from where you reach Kotdwar through Najibabad. Till you reach Kotdwar, there is no sign of the hills. And then the lambent shades of green burst on you with a vengeance. Lush and profuse, the verdant slopes hold out the promise of an emerald paradise ahead. There is hardly any traffic on the roads and you are lulled into believing that this road has been constructed exclusively for your benefit. Lansdowne itself, clothed in dense oak and blue pine forests festooned with ferns and shrouded in mist, lives up to the promise.

Lansdowne is out and out a cantonment town and has that distinct military feel to it. The rest of the town has just grown around the cantonment, perhaps to cater to its needs. In its previous birth, this charming village used to be called Kalu Danda, but the Brits sexed it up, naming it after Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy of India then, around 1887. It started as a training centre for recruits to Garhwal rifles, and still remains a training centre. There is a museum of Garhwal Rifles, a War Memorial and a parade ground for those intent on ‘sight-seeing’

But the best sights to be had are the lovely views uninterrupted by human or vehicular traffic. The dense oak, pine and cedar forests reluctantly let in shafts of sunlight that dapples the valley. The hills reverberate with the screech of crickets and that set up quite a racket. Like most hill towns, this one too has its fair share of temples,churches and schools, but mercifully, very few visitors.

Neera Negi and Anand run the only homestay in this town. Situated atop a hill surrounded by stately trees festooned with ferns, their 100 year-old heritage cottage Prem Sadan  has a vantage view and hospitable hosts who serve delectable home-cooked meals and charge only for the expenses they incur rather than run the establishment for profit. Having relocated from Gurgaon three years ago, they haven’t made a single trip back to their NCR home in these three years because they can’t tear themselves away from these beautiful environs. And who can blame them?

Going by the inscriptions in St.Mary’s church, the town must have been a hip and happening place in the British times. There are accounts of fancy wedding parties complete with minute details including the dress and hats worn by the guests. Fortunately, all that is just a sepia memory now and you can enjoy the views from Tip-n-top uninterrupted by nuptial processions wending their way down the hill to the church. At night, you can look up at a star-studded firmament and listen to the distant call of a mousedeer warning its species about the presence of the predator.

If you happen to be in Lansdowne on one of the national holidays, you can experience the patriotic fervour of the local people. Gandhi Jayanthi witnesses the civilian population turning up in all its finery to honour the Mahatma with flag-hoisting, speeches and skits that showcase local talent. The sole cinema hall was playing Barfi to packed audiences. For want of anything else to do, the locals just turn up at the market place to exchange gossip and gawk at a few visitors.

There is a picturesque lake where a few pedal boats are moored, mercifully, almost as a concession to the city-bred, rather than out of eagerness to convert the spot into a picnic area. Eventually even the most die-hard tourist and picnicker realises that the best way to enjoy Lansdowne is to go for long walks under the canopy or trek down the slopes to a distant waterfall to the accompaniment of cricket music.

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