Landour is best known for its quixotic residents—a combination of writers, artists, media folks, business head-honchos and sundry cranks. Then it’s known for Prakash’s cheese, cinnamon rolls and blackberry jam (that of the numbered bottles fame, where if you’re not in line for the 400-odd produced each year, Anil will not make any exceptions and will not give you bottles from the First Family’s quota!)
But it is not (only) the people or the old world feel or even Prakash’s cheese that makes me return to Landour every few months. It’s the fantastic small game and birding trails and the endless walking possibilities that make Landour a good staging ground for visits into the neighbouring lower and middle Himalaya. Indeed, there are few places in the entire western Himalaya where one can come across such a vast canvas of geography and avifauna, of botanical types and forest types.
While I’ve surely made over a hundred visits to Landour by now, it was some years ago that I decided to cover a wider swathe of landscape in a single trip, making for an exhilarating melange of lower Himalayan thrills. As I was after something more interesting than the regular Delhi-Dehradun drive through the boring and thickly populated villages and towns of Muzaffarnagar and Roorkee, I drove from Delhi via Chhutmalpur and Saharanpur, and through Vikasnagar (Herbertpur) up to Kalsi, from where I followed the Yamuna up to the Aglar Junction (the Aglar originates from the valley across from Landour), up to Kempty Falls, and into Mussoorie. This was a full day’s routine and took far longer than the usual seven hours to Mussoorie via Dehradun. The drive was long, and the many avian diversions kept me constantly hopping out of my jeep. Among these diversions were frequent groups of griffon vultures (yes, still!), various species of hardy orchids on the trees along the road, khalij and other pheasants, leopard (if you’re driving at night—this is perfect leopard country, and people have seen as many as five in a single drive along these roads) and any number of new birding possibilities.
Once entrenched in Landour, and after a day of lazing in the piercing Himalayan sunshine at the bhooth bangla, I started with a daylong exploration of the hill called Pari Tibba that lies immediately below the Woodstock hill near Mussoorie. Driving down to the girls’ hostel of Woodstock, and further down to the ‘dhobi ghat’, I parked and started up the hill on the semi-kutcha jeep track that soon peters out and makes way for a walking track. The hillside facing one here makes for a steep one-hour walk, which gets one into prime pheasant country, and it doesn’t take much luck to find a barking deer (kakar) lurking in the meadows here—I saw three that day. Good low-altitude Himalayan walking, with excellent birding thrown in. I headed back to Landour after a circumambulation of the hill, with my calf muscles burning from the steep hike up. But this was good acclimatisation for the colourful walks ahead.
The next day, I headed down to Magra by road, a good hour-and-a-half journey away. Following the Mussoorie-Chamba ridge past Woodstock School and Jabbarkhet Bazaar, past the forest check post, I continued along the ridge to reach Kaplani and Masrana on the main road. A sharp left at a small intersection with the straight road to Chamba got me onto the road to Thatyur. Driving down some 20 minutes and I was on the northwest face of Toap Tibba, a lovely forested mountain that teems with black bear (you’re not likely to see any, so just take my word for it), goral (wild Himalayan mountain goat), kakar (you might actually see one, so don’t blow your car horn), khalij pheasant, chukor partridge and the elusive jerow or ‘hill’ sambhar. I stopped frequently, especially along the moist ravines, and came across moss banks teeming with butterflies, and horse chestnut trees with Himalayan barbets calling from their leafy and flowering boughs. I kept going downhill, and saw a sharp kutcha track turning left, to the government garden of Magra. Driving down to the rest house (looking out for laughing thrushes and red-billed blue magpies), I parked there. At the forest rest house, the affable old chowkidar immediately recognised me and came across, and we walked out to the nursery together. At the time, the kiwi climbers were laden with medium-sized fruit. We walked past the few olive trees and some regular stone fruit trees. If you listen carefully here, you are likely to hear the husky bark of the kakar, or see a fleeting glimpse of a covey of khalij.
Heading back down the road, I reached the sleepy mountain town of Thatyur, which is also the staging ground for the trek to Nag Tibba. But you should venture here only if you’re prepared for a steep full-day trek to the top of this 9,990ft-high peak. Carry camping gear if you would like to spend the night (advisable, since this is a tough trek, and if you want to enjoy the predawn glow and sunrise over the brilliant snows). From here, you’ll have a close view of Banderpunch, Thelaysagar, the Gangotri peaks, Jaonli, Swargarohini and even Nanda Devi and Chaukhamba. If you’re really lucky, you may even come across the rare Tragopan.
Heading back to the road, I retraced my tracks to the Mussoorie-Chamba ridge, and drove beyond the Thatyur turning. A few kilometres down and I noticed to my left rocks festooned with Cotoneaster microphylla, a spreading creeper with delicate white flowers. There are virtually no trees on this wind-swept ridge that leads up to the summit of Toap Tibba, a ridge that approaches 9,000ft in altitude. I took a quick two-hour walk up, to see the fantastic forest on the north face (Himalayan yew, spruce, deodar, oak, rhododendron and rock-faces brimming with shilajit). Here, even in early summer I recall having come across large tongues of snow hidden in the glens, meadows and rocky ridges.
I drive another hour away and come across the little cluster of shops at the base of Surkhanda Devi, a sub-10,000ft-high peak along the Mussoorie-Chamba ridge. I start walking up the semi-pedestrian pathway, enjoying the sharp biting wind, especially with a wintry chill in the air. A chukor partridge whizzes past me, flying downhill. From the top, I take a walk along the ridge heading west and come across excellent oak and rhododendron forests, with wild asters, primulas, gentians and a host of Himalayan forest-floor flora dotting the pathway. Cracks in the rocks are home to the exquisite flowering saxifrage or bergenia. I savour the snow-view from here, and walk around the old temple at the top, photographing the prayer flags amid the spruce forest on the north face.
If you want to see goral, trek down an hour on the north face until you descend to some glorious (if slippery, and thus dangerous in the monsoons) cliffs where you might hear a sneeze that would alert you to the presence of a goral or a group of them. Or you may be lucky enough to see them browsing on the grassy cliff-faces.
I head further along the Mussoorie-Chamba ridge, getting to Dhanolti, that once sylvan and pristine hill-town which has now been reduced to a claustrophobic cluster of shops and grotesque hotels clinging to the roadside, entirely dependent on tankers from the plains. But there are still lovely glens and meadows nearby where one can set up camp, an old forest rest house that is none the worse for wear and a few decent enough resorts and tented camps on the outskirts which can serve as a launching pad for some serious walks.
In the fall, my favourite walk here has been up the beautiful thickly forested slopes above the motor road, and up to the ridge itself. From here, I take any viable mountain track that goes to the other side. In this season, I always look around in shaded spots between the rocks for clumps of giant Himalayan gentians. The pleasant forest air and unspoiled tracks do the trick though, even if I don’t find the gentians. And I always come across khalij and even barking deer in the process, if not a group of goral on the other side.
If you’re into serious adventure and exploration, ask the old-timers to take you to the ‘Matriyon ki Dhang’ that lies far below Dhanolti. Here in a narrow canyon, you can find caves with stalactites and stalagmites, and possibly even nests of the rare edible nest swiftlets. But few people have visited this place in recent decades, and legends from the past occasionally come alive when old-timers sit huddled together and chat about what it was like in the olden days at the Matriyon ki Dhang, and how they hunted down the biggest head of goral here with their sahibs.
Things have changed, and yet, if you search hard enough, you might still find them the same. Those places are just further away from our current motor roads, and will take you that much more perspiration and effort to get to them, but you will not return unrewarded.
Getting there: Landour is a few kilometres above Mussoorie in Uttaranchal. Drive from Delhi via Dehradun (6hr), or take a train to Dehradun. From Dehradun, Mussoorie is another 34km/1hr away. Once in Mussoorie, quickly make your way through and out of the town and head into Landour.
Where to stay: There are no places to stay in Landour apart from the charming Devdar Woods (Rs 1,600 on the weekdays i.e. Mon-Thu, and Rs 1,800 on the weekends i.e. Fri-Sun ; 0135-2632544, +919927455444). The only other options are to be found in Mussoorie. But even here you could choose to stay on the outskirts, at a hotel like the nicely located Cloud End (Rs 3,500-7,500; 09634096861, www.cloudend.com).
The wild trail: From Landour head to Pari Tibba roadhead (1hr30min drive). Walk around Pari Tibba—there are many trails around the mountain which you can spend the entire day exploring. You can pitch camp on top of Pari Tibba hill. Head down to the roadhead (2hr walk down the hill). From here it’s a 2hr drive to Magra. Spend the day walking around the orchards. Stay at the forest rest house or in your own tent.
It’s a 2hr drive to Thatyur village. From the village the trek to the Nag Tibba summit takes six to eight hours. You’ll have to camp at Nag Tibba. Descend to Thatyur again the next morning. The drive from Thatyur to the base of Toap Tibba take about three hours. Walk to the top of Toap Tibba. There are a few glens close to the summit where you can pitch your tent and also find water. Descend the next morning.
Drive to the base of Surkhanda Devi (1hr30min). Climb to the top of the peak (about 1hr30min). Camp on the grassy spur there.
Head to Dhanaulti (1hr30min). There are mainly day hikes to be done here—unless you want to explore the Matriyon ki Dhang, which can take two to three days and will require you to camp en route. There’s also an old forest rest house here. Total trip duration: 1 week
What to pack: Everything you need to camp. Add a good pair of non-slip shoes so you’re prepared for rainfall; an umbrella is also useful. The temperature can change rapidly along the Mussoorie-Chamba ridge—days can be brutally hot (carry sunscreen), and the nights freezing cold. So carry along warm clothing plus a good flashlight with extra batteries, bottled water or chlorine tablets, and a sun hat.