advertisement

Mussoorie

278km (172 miles) NE of Delhi; 35km (22 miles) N of Dehra Dun; 67km (42 miles) NW of Rishikesh

Smaller than Shimla and some 450m (1,500 ft.) lower, this hill station enjoys a more spectacular setting but has rather gone to seed, its regal colonial mansions marred by peeling plaster and overgrown hedges. It was once a favorite summer refuge of the Raj, but these days the strutting sahibs and memsahibs have been replaced by hordes of visitors escaping Delhi's blistering summer heat (which is when Mussoorie is best avoided). Until recently, Mussoorie's historical ambience was also overwhelmed by unchecked urban development; the government has now intervened (a little late, it must be said).

Unlike Shimla, Mussoorie in its glory days was pleasantly free of administrators, with plenty of nocturnal cavorting between young men and the wives of the hardworking bureaucrats who had remained back in the plains -- it is said that a bell was rung just before dawn at the famous Savoy Hotel (once host to royalty and the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle; now sadly closed and looking near collapse) to encourage impious lovers to get back to their own beds.

The town's lifeline is the Mall, a stretch of pedestrian road that links its two centers, Library Bazaar and Kulri Bazaar. During peak time, the mall is not only jam packed with domestic tourists out to have a good time come what may, even if that means pushing and shoving, but also (and quite irritatingly), cars amidst the crowds. Despite moving at a snail's pace, these drivers will honk incessantly, and no number of admonishing looks will bring respite. While beauty may be entirely lacking from walking the Mall, it is an amusing and interesting pastime to observe all shades and manner of tourists: grown men sporting cowboy hats and shooting air balloons, tattooed hipsters and scantily clad diva wannabes shivering in the name of vanity, and children pushing each other up steep inclines in prams. You can walk the entire length of the ridge, from the bandstand at the western end of the Mall to the old churches and cemeteries at the quieter end of Kulri. Above the town is Gun Hill, from where the British punctually fired their noonday guns. Today, visitors reach the summit by means of a ropeway; you could also walk up (1/2 hr.) or rent horses for a 15-minute ride from the central police station. Along Mussoorie's upper ridge, Camel's Back Road is another fine place for a stroll. Farther east of Kulri Bazaar is Landour, which is quieter and better-preserved than touristy Mussoorie, primarily because the rich and famous of near-by Delhi have their summer homes here. Even though there are no hotels in the area, it is lovely and worth walking through (1-hr. walk from the main Mall). You could start with Lal Tibba, where the lookout point provides sensational views of the Himalayas depending on the weather, as well as the litter that has sadly begun to make its way up the mountainside, with tourists happy to add colorful packets of chips to the otherwise gorgeous scene. Farther still is Sisters' Bazaar, a wooded area named for the nurses who attended to convalescing soldiers, and where you can explore an empty colonial mansion, said to be haunted. Speaking of which, the Graveyard with tombs dating back more than 200 years is a great atmospheric place to explore. You will probably find it padlocked but the caretaker lives inside -- you just have to shout out and request him to open up in exchange for a small token of appreciation! Make sure to have him show you the ancient cypress planted by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870 which has withstood storms, changes in power, dwindling soil, and numerous visitors whose stab at immortality has left their names etched in the yielding bark and rampaging tourists looking for bark to etch their names on. And when you're done with diving into the past, walk on to explore Woodstock -- no this is not an Indian version of the festival but one of the earliest international schools which is popular even today with the diplomatic crowd.

An Office in the Clouds -- There are few places within the Mussoorie district which can still be said to retain their charm and one of them, believe it or not, happens to be what was once a workplace -- Everest House, or the office of George Everest, the first surveyor-general of India after whom Mt. Everest is named. Thankfully, most tourists don't go there because it involves a fair amount of walking, but the trail is lovely, winding through sudden meadows, abandoned roads made for ferrying timber, Nepali hamlets and finally leading to an open tabletop with the outer shell of the office, the grandness of which one can imagine going by the arched gate. The only sound you hear is of the Tibetan flags fluttering incessantly in the chilly breeze. This has to be the most wonderfully located office in the world! (For directions, consult the tourism office next to the cable-car starting point.)

Rishikesh

238km (148 miles) NE of Delhi

The Beatles, who came here during the 1960s to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (a visit that inspired much of Sgt. Pepper), put Rishikesh on the map, and today the town is full of ashrams and yoga schools catering to Westerners who want to fine-tune their spiritual tool kits. Sadhus (holy men) in red and saffron robes, hippies in tie-dyed cheesecloth, and backpackers with plenty of time (and plenty of First World credit) gather on the banks of the Ganga to talk about the evils of the West and the failure of capitalism. By day, it's a spiritual Disneyland, where the commercial excesses of packaged meditation hang heavily about the concrete ashrams, bedecked with gaudy statues of Vishnu and Shiva. The place to concentrate your time is around the Lakhsman Jhula area, where there are plenty of simple eateries and stores selling all kinds of devotional paraphernalia; books and CDs in particular are worth browsing for. To get to the far side of the Ganga, where the most interesting ghats, ashrams, and people are concentrated, you'll need to cross the suspension bridge on foot. Here you can undertake any and every sort of self-improvement course, from yoga and reiki to cooking and music. A visit here in time for the sunset Ganga Aarti on the ghat of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram is highly recommended -- to the accompaniment of hypnotic prayers and harmonious singing, Rishikesh undergoes a magical transformation, reminding all that this really is a spiritual retreat.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.