Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Travels in the hills: Mussoorie

The hill station of Mussoorie, they say, is imbued with history at every turn: it was the place where British soldiers, stationed in India under the Raj, would come to, ahem, play away, often with the wives of their superiors. There's even a Scandal Point lookout.

The guidebooks describe Mussoorie as a fairyland, an ideal honeymoon spot, a peaceful, scenic spot for quiet contemplation.

In reality, visiting Mussoorie is an exercise in tempering expectation with reality.

I'd bought into the myth and had been desperately looking forward to escaping Delhi and its pressures for a long weekend in the cool of the hills. As it turned out, it was cool, it was misty, it was damp - but it was not peaceful, far from it.

Hill station streets weren't built for traffic. They were built for donkeys, carts, foot traffic. You won't be finding no dual carriageways or divided streets or white lines on those narrow hill station roads. Granted - there was a barrier along the side for much of the way of the drive up the hill - reassuring for me, after far too many drives on zigzaggy, landslide prone mountain passes - but there's very little space.

Surprising, then, that town elders haven't thought to ban traffic from the main drag, The Mall. It's about five metres wide, lined with shops and as crowded a marketplace as anywhere else in India, but you can't walk more than a few steps before being forced to lurch steeply to the side into the gutter to make way for a screeching moped or car or 4x4. And the worse thing is the endless horning and beeping, right in your ear. Drivers just do not care. It's law of the jungle, and the bigger the wheels, the louder the horn, the higher up the food chain you are. Much like any Delhi street, but
right up close in your ear.

So much for my plans to meander around town in a daze.

After a tipoff from a friend, I had booked into a hotel, the
Rink Pavillion. It's a quirky hotel, surprisingly not mentioned in any guidebooks or websites. What makes it unique is that it is built around a 19th century skating rink that was also, back in the day, used for everything from dog shows to Shakespearean plays to balls. Go on, click on the link. Doesn't it look marvellous, atmospheric and not at all rundown? That's not the reality. The reality is, it's a bit of a dump. Yes there's a skating rink and that's quite cool, but it's dark, faded, badly maintained and has an overall air of neglect. The room itself was murky, with a sagging mattress and a dusty bathtub. Not quite the thing for a romantic weekend away in the hills. (Although, under other circumstances I think it would be quite a cool and fun place to stay - so long as you know what you're in for).

We managed to get out of the booking by paying 500 rupees, and moved to the second choice,
Karma Vilas, which turned out to be wonderful, with searing views over the valley - once the fog cleared.

After about a day we finally wised up: stay away from The Mall, and head for the hills. Landour, that is, a cantonment area up high which means there can be no rampant building of illegal concrete boxes. There are still vehicles screaming up and down the hill but less so than down below, and there are a handful of fun antique shops where you can easily blow a few thousand rupees on, say, a Burmese incense holder, a Raj-era carriage clock or a print of a famous painting by a famous Bengali artist whose name the shop owner can't quite remember.

Another good spot is Sister Bazaar, for sights like this:

But if you are planning to go to Mussoorie for a weekend, ignore any guidebook that only shows you photos pointing upwards:

Because really, it's what's at ground level you have to worry about.


Anonymous said...

Your last comment struck me as funny ... because that's true everywhere, isn't it?

People ooh and aah about my photos from say ... Qutb Minar ... but aren't aware that I just stepped in who knows what, side-stepped a child begging for rupees, and stepped over a mound of nasty trash, etc. to get that photo of the beauty!

Glad you found somewhere to stay that was decent!

ephemerette said...

Such as shame the rink hotel wasn't great in reality, the website makes it look wonderful. A friend and I got a bit obsessed with a great BBC documentary recently about all the different train lines up to the various hill stations, I'd really love to visit some one day.

bridebug said...

Hope you got some peace and quiet in the 2nd hotel which looks lovely.

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