As an experienced backpacker, I should have let the sheer geographical difference between beaches in southern India and snow covered mountains in the north be a guide to the variations I would experience, but I am not given to thinking that way.
It was cold. In my haste to get to the hill station, I had dug into the backpack and come up with the only clean t-shirt that was actually a souvenir from Goa. Before launching into a thoughtful stare into the deep valleys, I had to locate a safe place till the mist disappeared. Despite the cold morning, a few tea-shops had opened for business. I sat down heavily on a wooden bench and ordered tea straightaway.
The Garwali café owner, his faced covered in a red monkey cap, handed me a cup of spiced-tea and spoke through the wool. Hotels, he said, were plentiful. He pressed a paratha on me. The smells took away the edge from the cold and when I stepped out to take Mussoorie head on, I was shocked.
It had transformed into a fairyland. The mist had lifted and the sight I beheld made me forget my predicament. There was a certain softness highlighted by the pale sunlight, and in some places mists hung lazily not wanting to leave this piece of paradise.
A horse-buggy pulled up. I directed him towards any hotel that would have rooms and he found one very near the end of Mall Road, reasonably priced and they didn’t show any surprise at seeing me turn up in a beach shirt.
I had no idea how long I was going to stay in Mussoorie, but this was a good place to rest and contemplate. At 10.30am, I was rested and warm enough to begin exploration. I walked through Mall Road looking for shawls and sweaters, and finally settled for a blue and purple one that seemed appropriate, before heading to the bus station for a ride to Kempty Falls, 13 km away.
We hurtled past the Surkhanda Devi Temple perched on a pretty outcrop, and went through various twists and turns. Bundled in warm clothing, people trooped out and rapidly walked down to the falls. The air was crisp, the walk invigorating and views fantastic. I encountered a vermillion covered God-man under a rock who gave me a quick run through my life for Rs25.
Kempty Falls is a small natural pool into which water empties from a great height. Enterprising hoteliers have cashed in on Mussoorie’s natural splendour and built hotels, and going by the looks of it, were doing a roaring trade.
The pool was predictably empty but the cold couldn’t keep me away from the water. After ‘renting’ a pair of shorts, I made a dash for it. A second before I hit the water I realised my mistake. The cold knocked off my breath, my screams drowned in the icy water and then, from every side, fellows in colourful shorts began jumping in. Danger was appealing. Within minutes, the pool was lost to wriggling bodies.
Two hours and many cups of tea later, I reached the road to find my bus gone. But Rangeela & Rangeela, the horse and owner (respectively), came to my rescue. With them, I returned as the sky was hijacked by millions of stars.
The next morning, I decided to walk the Camel Back Road, till the weather or fatigue caught up, for here, I was told, I would get the best views of the Himalayas. I didn’t, but I did find pretty bungalows that I photographed for future reference.
The desire to dig into a crispy fried vada hit. There was no way I was going to get one, not here in the hills. But miracles have a way of happening when least expected. For at the bend in the road — I believe that the bend-in-the-road is where miracles happen — was a south Indian canteen! Without a thought, I presented myself at the door.
It was dark and cold inside and naturally the vada had absorbed most of the canteen’s quality, which wasn’t much, but I didn’t wince, because the owner gave me a tip that made up for everything — he told me about Clouds End Bungalow.
The name presented itself like a poem and I cut short whatever I was doing (which was nothing), and made haste to read the verses. The only obstacle was six kilometres that separated me from CEB. What didn’t strike me right away was that I could get a horse-buggy from the library. I walked, not fancying a Rangeela & Co, but as fated, I found myself staring at the face of Rangeela (horse, not owner). He smiled. Now it was a matter of getting used to them.
When I reached CEB, I saw why it was named so. The clouds come here to morning tea. I had them and a few primates for company, but the latter ruined my first ever rhododendron juice. Rangeela suggested a visit to Lal Tibba next day, if the weather held. I was saddled with Rangeela & Co for the rest of my stay. We wandered about the hills, peered into old bungalows and ate parathas. On day three, I hadn’t had enough of the magnificent sights. Day four was clear enough to visit Lal Tibba. Eagerly I applied my eye to the telescope, elated at my first real view. Voila! There it was, the Himalayas wearing a crown of white. I had seen it, at last! Mussoorie had rewarded my patience.
The last evening of my stay, I walked Mall Road, ate marble-sized apples, rode an ill-mannered horse, and not seeing guns on Gun Hill, ignored the cable car. Next morning, the mist had cleared for me to see the mountains one last time. I must have bowed in admiration or wept in awe, but I told myself, someday, I would find my way back.
Gun Hill, Lal Tibba
(the home of the legendary Ruskin Bond
Clouds End Bungalow
Fly from the UAE to New Delhi, which is well connected to Dehradun by road and train. From Dehradun, bus or private cars can easily take you to Mussoorie.
The passenger was travelling from an Asian country and was undergoing a security check when officials thought that a bag had unusual density
Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin is the fourth Indian to receive ‘Nishan-e-Pakistan’