Lansdowne, Haridwar, Rishikesh (India)

February 2009

Lansdowne (also spelled Lancedown) is a small hill station in Uttaranchal – perhaps the closest one to Delhi. I and my colleague Amar were looking for a weekend getaway and this little-known scenic town looked like a good option.

It is located 250 km from Delhi, in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas. Considering the manageable distance we initially planned on hiring a car for the trip but had a last minute change of plans. The Indian Railways online booking system might not be the most user-friendly, but I’ve slowly gotten good at using it. So we booked return tickets from Delhi to Kotdwar, the closest rail head to Lansdowne. The train was Mussoorie Express.

Our train left Friday night at around 10 from the Old Delhi Railway Station and catching it on time was a story in itself. Leaving our Gurgaon office at 7 PM, we needed to pack. Then we had to buy a memory card for the camera for which we parked our borrowed car in a tow-away zone outside the mall, ran like maniacs between showrooms before finally buying a 2 GB card and accidentally getting billed for an 8 GB one through credit card, realizing the mistake only much later. And then the taxi we had booked for the train station did not turn up. Thankfully the station is now connected by metro rail, so we took a painful ride on a packed minibus to the Dwarka metro station. Briefly stopping at Amar’s place for dinner, we managed to board the train, barely though.

After a (thankfully) uneventful eight hours we were happy to finally reach Kotdwar early next morning. I can’t say the same for a German backpacker who disembarked with us. To give you a brief background:

Mussoorie Express goes from Delhi to Najibabad where it splits into two. One part takes you to Dehradun via Haridwar, while the other set of bogies heads to Kotdwar. So when you board the train at Delhi, you need to make sure you are in the right bogie. The German had apparently missed this and landed in Kotdwar instead of Haridwar. Anyways, the angels that we are, we negotiated with a taxi driver to take her to Haridwar (100 km from Kotdwar) for Rs. 400. Pity she never gave us her phone number.

Kotdwar to Lansdowne is a 41-km uphill drive and Jeeps ply between these two for a standard Rs. 400. You can also take shared 10-seater Jeeps for Rs. 40 per seat.

The drive to Lansdowne was lovely with the morning sun playing hide and seek from behind the pines. The local river ‘Khoh’ faithfully accompanied us halfway to Lansdowne offering some fascinating views. The road was smooth for the most part except for a few bumpy patches. It was much colder than we expected; we were told it had snowed a fortnight back in Lansdowne – a rare spectacle.

In one and a half hours we arrived at Lansdowne’s centre, the Gandhi Chowk. We – or rather, I – had the famous gigantic Aloo ka Parantha (fried Indian bread stuffed with potato) for breakfast at the Mayur Hotel. There we also met a funny character – a little brat of a boy who’d show tourists around the toilet and recite a story of how he was being paid half of what he was promised by the hotel owner and how he fed his family from the tips he earned from the tourists. No, we did not tip him – we had done our good deed of the day by helping that German girl.

‘Retreat Anand’, the jungle resort we had booked in Lansdowne, lay 3 km from Gandhi Chowk, connected by a motorable but kachha road. The taxi charged Rs. 150 to take us there. In fact, the taxi charges in this area were fixed with no negotiation possible – Gandhi Chowk to resort was a flat Rs. 150, and to Kotdwar was a flat Rs. 400.

The resort reception was open-air. As I signed the check-in register, I noticed the last tourists came here as long as 10 days back. Whew, our very own Hotel California?

We got a ‘deluxe’ cottage for Rs 1000 a night, after an off-season discount. After some rest and light breakfast, we moved out to trek the hills with a crude map of the area drawn by the resort manager. So we weren’t surprised when we lost our way soon and started charting our own territory. We crossed a stream with big, round boulders and freezing water. Our initial plan, had we come by car, was to carry a grill with us and do a bar-be-que near such a stream. It’d have been heavenly.

While returning to the resort we sighted some local children playing cricket in a small, flat clearing. We joined them and were surprised to see their knowledge of cricket – the urchins carried nicknames of cricketers from across the world. So Amar came to be their Harbhajan and I became the bespectacled Vettori. We played for a while and took ‘team photographs’.

After lunch at the resort we went downtown again to Gandhi Chowk to check out the local attractions – the Bulla Lake and the War Museum. Lansdowne is a cantonment area maintained by the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army. Perhaps this is also the reason for its striking cleanliness compared to other hill stations.

We had planned to stay two days in Lansdowne, but ran out of things to do on the first day itself. Lansdowne proved much smaller and lonelier than we anticipated. Plus, the jungle resort was starting to get on our nerves – it was super-cold, dead silent, the food was bad and outrageously high-priced. It was as if the staff was saying from behind that pretentious smile – “the nearest shop is 3 miles.. you want something cheap and tasty? Go, walk through the jungle and get it.” So we decided to get moving and spend the spare Sunday in Haridwar-Rishikesh. (For the uninitiated, Haridwar and Rishikesh are important Hindu pilgrimages located on the banks of the river Ganges, where devotees descend in thousands to take a dip on sacred dates determined by the lunar calendar.)

We set off early in the morning to Kotdwar from where we took a bus to Haridwar. This two-hour bus ride through the ‘jungle route’ was more intense than racing a wild camel in a sandstorm in the middle of Sahara. There is a ‘highway route’ as well to Haridwar, though the ‘jungle route’ is a lot shorter. At either end of the dusty jungle patch were beautiful little villages which afforded a peep into north India’s agriculture-based lifestyles and ecosystem.

We disembarked at Haridwar from where Rishikesh is around 30 km. Blue-coloured three-wheelers (called ‘Vikram’) frequent the route. They charge Rs. 30 per side on a sharing basis and Rs. 250 if you book the full vehicle. We took the latter option.

From thereon we did the routine – a dip in the holy Ganges, lunch at Chottiwala (near Ram Jhula, Rishikesh), and the evening Aarti at Har ki Pauri in Haridwar. We also visited a Gurudwara which holds significance as the first checkpoint on the way to Hemkund Sahib, an important Sikh pilgrimage. Everything done, we had a couple of hours to spare before our train left, so we engaged in a spiritual dialogue on religions and beliefs by the side of the Ganges.

The trip was almost over, but there was a twist in the tail. Our train reservation to Delhi was from Kotdwar and here we were in Haridwar. The train was the same – Mussoorie Express, but our bogies coming from Kotdwar were to join with the train only at Najibabad, one hour distant from Haridwar. So we boarded the train and explained the situation to the ticket examiner. He raised concerns but was more cooperative once we expressed our willingness to pay for the un-reserved ride from Haridwar to Najibabad, whereafter we moved to our reserved seats and had a sound sleep. We woke up to the hustle-bustle of Delhi early next day, and had all the time in the world to go home, get ready and drive to the office.

Though our 2-day trip was far from the calm, serene, relaxing weekend getaway we had planned for, in retrospect I feel that it would have been incomplete without all these surprise turns.

Expenses:
Delhi-Kotdwar one-way rail ticket (AC 3-tier): Rs. 350
Kotdwar-Lansdowne taxi (jeep): Rs. 400
Lansdowne downtown to jungle resort taxi: Rs. 150
Forest resort cottage (Deluxe): Rs. 1000 per night
Bus from Kotdwar to Haridwar: Rs. 50
Three-wheeler from Haridwar to Rishikesh: Rs. 250
Getting lost while trekking, playing cricket with locals, a bumpy bus ride through the jungle, and a spiritual discussion by the Ganges: Priceless.