“Do all bus drivers drive like this?” I ask Ankit as I clutch nervously onto the grab handle in the back of the car.
“Yeah, they don’t give a shit,” comes the jovial reply.
I’ve now been in India for four days, and I’m just as astonished at the state of driving here as I was when I first arrived. Having come from Thailand and Vietnam where the situation on the roads isn’t exactly perfect, I’m surprised at how things can, in fact, get much worse than whatever I’ve experienced until now. Bus drivers in particular scare me here. They have zero regard for human life and will grab any opportunity to try and ram you off the road.
Ankit, Ankit’s brother Rajat, Rajat’s friend Anisha and I are on our way to Mussorie – also known as the Queen of the Hills. Once a British Raj-era hill station, Mussorie is now a popular holiday point for locals and tourists a like. The main draws? Its scenic beauty (which includes extensive views of the Himalayan snow ranges) and cooler climate. I’m told that during the summer, the traffic to Mussorie begins from Dehradun, which is 32km away, and mainly consists of Delhiites who are trying to escape the city heat. October is one the best months to visit – the weather is still relatively warm, and there aren’t any crowds.
Before we begin our ascent, we stop off at Orchard Restaurant. Ankit has been raving about the momos – Tibetan style dumplings – that are served here since I met him and I’m eagerly anticipating what delights my tastebuds will experience. Having arrived from the hectic roads of Dehradun, I’m astonished at the setting of this place. We’re sat on a terrace overlooking the most stunning views of pine trees, and there’s not another building in sight. It’s hard to believe that the city is only metres away from where we’re sat.
After devouring a plate of chicken momos with tomato chutney (yes, they’re everything I imagined them to be), we’re back on the road and heading up to Mussorie. There are a number of routes you can take, the official main road, and certain B-roads that only locals who visit often such as Rajat will know of. We, of course, are heading up on the latter.
The road is so narrow that it barely fits two cars at a time. Rajat honks the horn before every corner, while I close my eyes and pray that no one is coming in the opposite direction. This being India, more often than not there is another car, and we then have to delicately manoeuvre the vehicle in the way you would try to put a thread through a very tight needle hole.
The road is also ill-maintained, so I’m getting thrown around a lot. This mixed with the fact that I’ve just consumed momos amounting to the collective weight of all the people in China means that I’m experiencing something that I rarely ever experience; car sickness.
Our first stop is Landour, which is a small town that’s located very closely to Mussorie. Its name originates from the name of the tiny Welsh village of Llanddowror. It was commonplace during the British Raj for the names of places to be inspired by villages and towns back home. Before the British rule, Landour didn’t exist – it was developed by the British Army as a place for soldiers to recuperate. And as we wind our way to the top, I can see why – this place is absolutely beautiful. There are unadulterated views of deodara-covered mountains everywhere we look. The scene, in one word, is peaceful; few people, few noises, few distractions.
We get out of the car at Char Dukan – a small cluster of shops selling tea and snacks. The air up here is fresh and a lung-full of it transports me back to the Troodos area of Cyprus, and it strikes me how similar it is to the mountainous areas back home.
As I fight back a pang of homesickness, we begin to walk to the highest point of town – Lal Tibba. Here we find a four-storey observation point, and there’s little other to do than enjoy the scenery and soak up nature. It’s no wonder that there’s a language school here that offers Hindi lessons – it’s the perfect place in which to isolate yourself from the world and learn a whole new language.
We follow the winding road back to the car and come across St. Paul’s Church. Entering brings out my initial pangs of homesickness tenfold; I think of my mum and the rest of my family and begin to cry. The one thing I had not anticipated when we started out on this trip was homesickness, but alas, sometimes even when you’re in the most amazing of places your heart still hankers for home.
Following Landour, we venture down into Mussorie for a walk around the main stretch of town known as Mall Road. Street life here is buzzing; there are stalls selling Halloween props (I’m hoping that’s because of the time of year?), Indian ethnic wear, toys and sweets.
After the incessant pleading to buy something from market sellers in Vietnam and Thailand, it was a breath of fresh air to walk down a market street and not have a single soul beg me to purchase anything. I’m not quite sure whether this is because I’m with locals, or whether that’s just how it is here. Instead, as we walk along, I flash a smile to a woman who’s selling corn on the cob by the side of the road and who’s staring curiously at me, and she smiles back. In Vietnam I found myself avoiding making eye contact out of fear of being harassed to buy something yet again, so this is a welcomed change.
We spend a few hours walking the streets of Mussorie, taking in the mountain air and enjoying the street activity. Being the foodies that we are, we make two pit stops; one to buy gulab jamun and jalebi with warm milk, and one to try ‘drums of heaven’ from Kalsang, which came highly recommended by Anisha.
We end the evening at Emily’s with butter chicken, chana masala and roti, while overlooking the twinkling lights of the valley of the Doon before us.
After an average night’s sleep in the hotel that we are staying in, we wake up early for the last part of the trip – a visit to George Everest’s House and Laboratory. George Everest was a Welsh geographer and surveyor, who was responsible for completing the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. Mount Everest was actually named after him in his honour.
His house was built back in 1832, and now all that stands is a shell of a building, which is a big shame. The views from here, as the pictures show, are phenomenal. As it’s 7am in the morning, we’re the only people here, and we enjoy glimpses of the snow-covered Himalayas, while colourful Buddhist prayer flags flap above our heads and a sole market vendor cooks us breakfast omelettes.
The drawback of this place is the trash. When you see smashed bottles, plastic bags and crisp papers scattered among such beauty, the contrast is actually a tad heartbreaking. The uncle who is making our omelettes tells us that he cleans up whatever he can everyday, but each morning he comes back to the same scene.
While there’s not much to do up here, I can see the appeal. The weather is perfect, all you can do is eat and enjoy the fresh air, and it’s not as overwhelming as some parts of India can be. It actually could be one of the best places to have an induction to the country when you first arrive, away from the crowds, traffic and madness.
It’s definitely been a good a introduction for me, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to something a bit rawer. Bring on Agra!