I liked Nainital, particularly the cooler climate, so much that I decided my next destination after Haridwar would be Mussoorie, another hill station where the British used to retreat from the heat of the Indian plain to the more temperate climate of the Himalayan foothills.
The journey from Haridwar wasn’t too long, and the winding road up into the hills from Dehradun to Mussoorie was beautiful, even through it was shrouded in mist when I first went up it. You could still see the wooded ravines, the rapids and waterfalls of the mountain streams (in one place falling directly onto the road) and great mossy cliffs rising all around and dropping away into the fog.
Mussoorie is an interesting mix of cultures: as well as being built by the British and now inhabited mostly by Indians, there’s also a significant Tibetan population, as many refugees from the Chinese occupation of Tibet have settled here and in other north Indian mountain towns. So after checking into the hotel, I had a late lunch at the Tibetan restaurant Kalsang Friends Corner. The house special thukpa was a very tasty noodle soup, but more notable was the Tibetan “butter tea”. It was exactly like tea, except it also tasted of butter. It sounds weird, but it was bloody delicious.
I got back to the hotel just in time to avoid the torrential electrical storm which erupted that evening. Lightning was striking all over the hills, and thunder cracking and echoing around them: quite a sight from the vantage point of the town on the ridge. A couple of times it struck so close, sparks flew from the electrical sockets in the room. I stayed away from them and enjoyed the show. When the rain finally lifted, the skies had cleared and the lights of Dehradun could be seen spread out on the plain below.
Mussoorie is the most extreme linear settlement I’ve ever seen. It’s strung out along one or two parallel roads for about 15km along a high ridge line. The traditional central portion of that road is the Mall, where I was staying. The next day, I took a stroll along the Mall, which is now filled with typically Indian shops, although some signs of colonial heritage can still be seen, for example in the Methodist church (which is now strung with neon lights – not a very Methodist style) and the “Cambridge Book Shop”. At the east end of the Mall, one side of the road was being re-concreted at the barriered junction, leading to a level of traffic chaos which at one point had at least eight police officers overseeing it, and even warranted the attention of the police captain.
I walked further along into the area called Landour Bazaar. Several of the shops here specialise in antiques and trinkets, particularly from the Raj era. Having previously slated the idea of shopping as a tourist activity, I have to admit I enjoyed browsing here – they were more like museums than shops. After resisting the urge to buy various maps, books, prints, and a Royal Navy compass in a brass case etched with the Taj Mahal, I eventually relented and bought a stack of vintage 1920s postcards showing various Indian landmarks. At least, I think they were vintage. Another stack next to them, on close inspection, appeared to have been stained to achieve the “aged” effect, and one image was quite clearly pixellated. But the ones I got seemed plausibly genuine. Perhaps someone who knows about such things can take a look when I’m back?
Back at the hotel in the evening, I heard a lot of noise and commotion outside, and looked down from the terrace to see a full blown parade moving through the street, with marching bands, pipes and drums, sword fighting displays, and people whirling wheels of rope around in their hands. Apparently it was a Nagar Kirtan, a Sikh celebration, although of what exactly I’m still not sure.
While watching the Sikh parade, I saw something even more incredible: a human-powered ferris wheel. The two boys running it would help people get into the chairs, then either free climb up into the structure, or, more terrifyingly, start the wheel moving by pushing from the ground and then grab onto a chair by one hand and get pulled, dangling, up into the wheel. Then they would climb through to the middle, and walk the wheel round, stepping up to use their weight to spin it, like a hamster wheel. Every now and then, they’d get bored of the walking, and perform acrobatic feats like sliding and climbing through the spinning frame, or just holding on and being spun around themselves. To anyone who complains about the Health and Safety culture in the UK, I say: this is why we need it, because without it, people would do this.
On my last evening in Mussoorie, I went out to get some dinner, and was barely out of my hotel when someone offered a handshake and literally pulled me off the road. He was a Delhi lawyer who wanted to tell me about the beautiful mountains I could see in Uttarakhand, and invite me to visit his home when I was back in Delhi. Now, this is a classic example of how I’m going to have to harden myself to friendly overtures, even when they seem to be genuinely intended and not part of a scam. I should have taken the aggressive handshake as enough of a warning to just say “no thanks” and walk on. But instead I listened politely and looked at his mountain photos, after which it became totally impossible to shake the bastard off. I said was going to get some dinner, and he invited himself along with me. Then he wanted to have a beer with me, and after rejecting the cafe I’d had in mind, led me off to find a better one… but instead went straight to an off-licence and started buying whisky. At this point I began to realise that he was drunk, wanted to get more drunk, and was using me as an excuse not to drink alone. I refused to join him in drinking either whisky or beer, he seemed hurt and offended, and then selected a cafe which he assured me was the best in town, even though it was completely empty. I sat down, he went off again to buy some beer, and I did a runner back to my hotel, leaving him to find some other chump to facilitate his alcoholism. I really must learn how to say, “No! You are not my friend, or my brother. I don’t want to have dinner with you. I don’t want to meet your uncle. If this were the UK, your behaviour would not make me think I had any obligation other than to tell you where to ram it, so leave me alone. Goodbye.”
On the ride back down from Mussoorie, the sky was clear, and I could see that what had appeared merely beautiful on the way up was actually spectacular, with the town itself towering over the folds of wooded hills below.