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Walking amid nature: Making discoveries in Lansdowne like the Romantics

Tucked away in the dark woods, the sleepy cantonment town of Lansdowne in Uttarakhand, located at a little over 250 kilometres from Delhi, is more than just a hill station. It has views to look far away into time and space and trails to walk into enlightenment.

travel Updated: Sep 17, 2018 19:22 IST
Hindustan Times
The winding trails of Lansdowne are a walkers’ delight.(Photos: Prannay Pathak/HT)

Looks like the cats and dogs have finally descended on Kotdwara, this sleepy Friday morning. As the pitter and the patter batter the ceiling of the railway station, the Mussoorie Express grinds to an orgasmic halt. We trundle our bags to the foot of the giant staircase and as we struggle up its steps, a man with weary expectancy carved in the lines of his face waits at the top. He asks for a thousand for our destination, and we walk out into the sound and fury where his clunky, old pickup waits.

The Mussoorie Express arrives at the Kotdwara Railway Station. Kotdwara serves as the primary entry point for those travelling to hill retreats in Pauri Garhwal.

“There’s nothing to see or do in Lansdowne,” a relative told me. “It’s tiny, not place enough for adventure,” my Kasol and Kheerganga-smitten friends have scoffed. But we’re off, speeding away to the cosy cantonment town tucked away in the deodars and the pines, the Kaaludanda of yore; Kaaludanda meaning the dark woods. The pickup thuds over bumps and negotiates holes on roads made worse by a punishing monsoon, and pulls over at a decrepit pahadi dhaba (a traditional roadside Indian cafe). It is damp inside and an old Hindi song plays to a light drizzle, but I will stick to John Denver.

However, change is close, and so is the place we will be staying at for the next three days — a cottage resort about 50 metres from Jaiharikhal, a little village in Pauri Garhwal, that was once the summer abode of the Hindi poet Nagarjun. A five-minute climb from our hotel affords plenty of pleasing visuals — cottages with sloping roofs, the mountains blue, splendid pines, hairy dogs, strutting mules, gamboling monkeys. Having polished off oily breakfast toasts, we arrive at the village taxi stand. A post-office, a bus stand, a ration shop, a chai (tea) dhaba are the main highlights here, apart from the smoke-spouting pickups hailing passengers going to Lansdowne. We hop into one and arrive at the town square.

A cottage resort in Jaiharikhal on the outskirts of Lansdowne. The scenic village has plenty of homestays and budget resorts, and is located just 5 kilometres away from Lansdowne.

Quaint, sleepy, haven in the hills; the clichés arrive despite my best intentions as I stand for the first time in Lansdowne. The picture is just what a generic Internet search would throw up — a collection of maybe eight passenger vehicles outside a cramped memorial park with the statue of freedom fighter Gabar Singh Negi. What remains makes up a busy market area — restaurants, general stores, the odd bakery, apparel stores — and a neat toilette facility. Is there indeed nothing significant to see or do in Lansdowne?

We hold on to denial, and walk into a little hole in the wall called The Tipsy Café. The counter, with a serving window, is all decked with recommendations and reviews, but the six tables are all up for grabs. Blame the rains. We float around a bit before settling down and ask for paranthas, which come swamped with butter. The filter coffee is sweet and flavourful, meaning good in these parts. More on the menu includes instant noodles with chewy, steamed vegetables, sandwiches, chai, snack staples and toothsome gulab jamuns. The attendant’s wan face betrayed no possibility of a good meal, but that it is.

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There might be little to see around in that Lansdowne is still not a tourist favourite in the way of a Dalhousie or a McLeod Ganj, but there is plenty of possibility for discovery and reflection, à la… William Wordsworth? The Bhulla Lake and the Tip ‘n’ Top viewing point are the best bets here, and we set aside a day each for both. By now, we’ve grown to believing in exploration being the greatest reward of travel, and what better than to walk and prolong the momentary discoveries we make here?

The ‘lake of the little brother’ — its meaning in Garhwali, paying homage to its man-made status — looks just like a place a family walking tour will culminate in. A nice, urban-looking café, plenty of covered seating spots, a rabbit enclosure, boats to ride in, a bridge that can support the weight of ten people at a time, a bamboo machan — the lake ticks most boxes.

The Bhulla Tal — its name meaning the lake of the little brother — is a pretty excursion spot here.

We opt for a winding trail snaking away into the forest, a secret pocket hidden beneath the shimmer of the lake. What I believe was possible only in the films is manifested here... grand residential estates belonging to defence veterans, ensconced in sheer scenic beauty. We reverse and head to the lake to revel in its delights. Back in Sadar Bazar, we hunt for pahadi dal and jakhya (a Himalayan spice). A child pesters his mother for a toy, a drunk cusses funnily, and the sun sets.

Just after we arrive in Jaiharikhal, the rain does, too. However, it clears up by morning, and after chai at the village taxi stand, we decide to walk the required five kilometres to reach Lansdowne. The road stretches and climbs up surreptitiously into a trail guarded by pirouetting pines on one side and the hill flanks on the other. Even the turns and the mist cannot deter us from teetering adventurously at the edge of the road.

The road from Jaiharikhal to Lansdowne.

Our goal for today is Tip ‘n’ Top, probably the most popular tourist haunt here, its claim to fame, its raison d’etre, a synecdoche for this place. Places are awfully easy to find in Lansdowne, what with the size of the place and its reassuring sense of calm. Take that, naysayers. From the town square, we walk up to a point high up on a slope where two roads diverge in a wood, taking the one where the board separating it from the trail for Bhulla Tal has long stood.

Thereon,we hike jauntily, undeterred by the dark that is closing in on us. Townspeople advise us to take the ‘short-cut’, a kilometre-long trail leading up to the point. Our strides are feverish and minds curious as we tread in a performance of exploration-crazed primeval spirits. Minutes away from our destination, we pass by the St Mary’s Church, the hors d’oeuvre before the final course. The sun is setting, and the church, with its adorable little fence and the dutiful watchman guarding it, looks like right out of a postcard!

The famous view of the Lansdowne road, as seen from the Tip ‘n’ Top viewing point

Tip ‘n’ Top is now upon us. Mountains tucked inside the cottony mist, sleep far away into time and space. A glass enclosure with a brightly-coloured frame — ostensibly an observatory — stands contemplating. A secluded café, perched at a height, overlooks a spacious viewing spot jutting out from the narrow ridge. There’s no more to walk, but only to sit and reflect until it gets darker.

Plan your trip
  • When to visit: Lansdowne is pleasant throughout the year, but avoid visiting in the rains — roads getting blocked and landslides in the surrounding hills is common. The summer months of April, May and June are ideal, the winter exceptionally cold, but October is generally a pleasant time to visit.
  • Getting there: Inarguably, taking the road is the best way to travel to Lansdowne. Trains — the Garhwal Express and the Mussoorie Express leave at night for Kotdwara. Pick-ups seating seven-eight passengers are easily available here. One can even book a cab to Lansdowne or the neighbouring village of Jaiharikhal. Buses from Delhi to Kotdwara are available, too — you can board one either from the Kashmere Gate ISBT or Mohan Nagar in Ghaziabad. Driving to Lansdowne from Delhi takes close to 8 hours.
  • Where to stay: You can book hotels and homestays online, or simply land up and walk into one of the facilities around the town square, or even a couple of resorts tucked away in the woods. If you enjoy walking in nature and the rural landscape, the right thing to do is to put up in Jaiharikhal, which is an hour-long walk from Lansdowne. The scenic village is home to several budget homestays and cottages.
  • Attractions: The Bhulla Tal is a popular excursion spot constructed around a man-made lake and perfect for calm, languid evenings. The Tip ‘n’ Top viewing point is a kilometre and a half away from the town square and affords an expansive, sweeping view of the mountains of Garhwal. This trek also offers you the chance to witness Lansdowne’s famous St Mary’s Church. One can also visit the Garhwali Museum that has historic weaponry on display.

Interact with the author at Twitter/@Prannay13

First Published: Sep 17, 2018 19:22 IST