My earliest memory of Lansdowne goes back to a few years ago, when a drunken party of family elders sabotaged my first rendezvous with it. As we holidayed in my maternal family’s village in Pauri Garhwal, my uncle, as he is often wont to, tested me with an offer to go to the cantonment town. But as it often happens in the hills, by the time we started, our pair had turned into a quartet. A boisterous relative quite given to alcohol not only offered to drive, but also brought along a meek neighbour who revealed his capacity for spiritedness only later.
I was a greenhorn to both travel and to worthless revelry, and to see the opportunity dissipated in a manner as this proved hard to stomach. The merry interlopers got wasted and filled the dingy roadside eatery with beedi smoke until late in the evening. As for myself, I couldn’t even drown my disappointment in a cup of masala chai at another eatery right across the road. It is only now, as I lie sequestered within the uninspiring confines of my parents’ home, that I feel grateful for getting to make out the fading letters on hotel signboards which kept getting distant as we returned as the night fell.
But I have surely not let that first setback put a damper on my lifelong love for Lansdowne. I have pined for the strange familiarity of its brooding forests and winding trails in the manner of a crazed romantic. I grew up with stories of my mother spending a part of her teenage here, with her quirky relatives and jolly band of friends and other shenanigans. My mother keeps telling me to locate her acquaintances here, but all my introverted self manages is to smile at a bakery owned by the family, every time I pass through the town centre.
What I call the town centre is really just a square marked by the memorial of WWI hero and Veer Chakra recipient Gabar Singh Negi. An old-fashioned market where most items of convenience can be got lines one side of the road, while the others lead to the tourist attractions. I failed to find a guloband (a traditional Garhwali choker necklace) in this market (given the generic name of Sadar Bazaar) but I am sure someone else could do a better job of it.
It was here that I had my first real good meal in the hills. A little hole in the wall called the Tipsy Café, bang at the entrance of the chowk, served us paranthas and chai that actually deserved the 'out-of-the-world' title. Given that Lansdowne is not huge and one can probably do a couple of rounds of the circuit in a day, one can actually bank on Tipsy for three meals without having to eat the same thing twice. No wonder then that they have an actual monopoly as far as the food goes in Lansdowne.
There aren’t too many hotels in the town proper, and even fewer in the main market, and I am thankful for making the mistake of booking one five kilometres away the first time I was here. By sheer serendipity, the property happened to be located in Jaiharikhal, a little village that falls on the Kotdwar-Pauri Road, flanked on the side by the gleeful Koh river. In an indication of the languid repose of what awaits the visitor, this route itself reveals to the traveller pretty sights on the way, including the scenic villages of Gumkhal and Dugadda. The latter even sees trippers stopping to fill their water bottles from spring water running down the hillside.
Read: Driving to Garhwal
Jaiharikhal ups the ante further with its serenity that is surviving despite the steady flux of homestays and cottages coming up in the valley. These properties have capitalised on the incredible views stretching far away and the sheer volume of open, unspoiled great outdoors on offer here. Jaiharikhal even served as a summer retreat for the Hindi poet Nagarjun. The allure of this rural hamlet gains an altogether new vigour when the monsoon arrives, turning the woods even lovelier, darker and deeper. I still remember one morning when a rampaging spell of rain battered the wooden roof under which I lay, tucked inside my bed, not a hair daring to move. A little while later, after my partner and I had had an argument, we walked in silence to the taxi stand and not finding one for a long time, decided to continue on the road that climbed up, snaking away to Lansdowne.
It is this road that I consider the symbolic walk of my life – the principal objective correlative to abide by always. It is this hour-long walk through the tall oaks and pines that illustrates why the locals even today fondly recall Lansdowne as ‘Kaalundanda’, translating to 'the dark woods' in Garhwali. A light mist covers much of the way that winds around the valley, and offers plenty of photo-ops and resting spots. No wonder we had more than made up by the time we reached the check-post that marks the entrance to Lansdowne.
Travellers looking for the thrills of a Dhanaulti or the frills of a Rishikesh will certainly go back disappointed. This is a fact that I saw proven when a group of vloggers seemed evidently bored and uninspired after a weekend trip to Lansdowne. I’d blame the entitled tourist syndrome where one wants to tick off a laundry list of attractions and sights and not really take in the small interstices of the journey, immerse themselves in the experience and being grateful for the freedom of having to engage with the outdoors and nature. It is true that Bhim Pakora is just a boulder placed over another boulder, but if one is expecting a light-and-sound show projected on it, there will be disappointment.
Instead, just try hiking up to the Tiffin Top—a bracing climb that’ll zap the lethargy right out of you—and enjoying the view of the Trishul and Chaukhamba peaks from the top. The restaurant here is nothing to write home about but the colourful observatory in the way of a telephone booth makes up for it. The St Mary’s Church that lies on the way, enjoys a great location, as do the several estates owned by influential residents that have me grimacing in envy whenever I walk past them. Close by lies the man-made Bhulla lake that was built by the soldiers posted locally and named as a tribute to this spirit of brotherhood (bhulla means little brother).
The scenic picnic spot has a handicrafts shop and a restaurant where refreshments can be had. The little water body allows a peaceful hour or two of introspection, and the other bank of the lake, accessible via a wooden bridge, has a machan. I plan on finding out whether one can climb up on top of it to listen to the chatter of the barbets and the rollers, on my next trip to my adopted home in the hills. Till then, let me write letters to it. Like a crazed romantic.