We are finally on the move again! Yesterday, we bid family goodbye, promising not to return for at least a couple of months and took a Meru cab (love their service!) from Gurgaon to Delhi’s Inter State Bus Terminus (ISBT) at Kashmiri Gate. Using Himachal Pradesh tourism’s official website, we had booked tickets on a Volvo bus to Shimla. The plan was to alight at Dharampur (some 60km before Shimla) and take another bus to Kasauli – our first stop in HP. Since it was a Saturday morning, there was hardly any traffic between Delhi and Gurgaon, and our speeding cabbie brought us to the bus terminus around 8:15am, a good hour before the scheduled departure time of 9:25. I thought to myself that it would be enough time to get some breakfast before boarding the bus. But this was before I actually alighted at the terminus and realized that it was not really a place to eat at!
Coming from Bombay, Delhi has always fascinated me because of its wide, organized streets, beautifully maintained green spaces and a general air of being the capital of India. So I cannot be faulted for having certain expectations from its ISBT as well. Being old and a little dilapidated is one thing, ‘coz that is understandable. But being old, dilapidated and absolutely filthy is a completely different thing. The terminus is a large compound with a building in the center. Buses park in the open space in front of the building. Our cab dropped us off near the auto stand, which is at the back of the building. From here we had to enter the building and cross it to get to the front. We passed through the ground floor of the building, which is completely open on all sides with pillars to support. Calling this space open is wrong; it is filled with food stalls and magazine vendors and heaps of garbage ! To add to this mess, right in the center of the building, water was falling from somewhere above, creating a large, ugly puddle on the floor; there were flies everywhere. The whole place looked so unclean! I couldn’t believe that people could actually sit in this filth and sell food! Unbelievable!
Our air-conditioned Volvo bus pulled up to the terminus at around 9am and promptly left at the scheduled time. The seats were quite comfortable and we settled in for the long, 8-hr haul to Dharampur. En route, we were regaled with one of the worst Hindi movies I’ve seen in quite a while. The bus stopped at a nice hotel for lunch, where the bathrooms were newly updated and quite clean – hooray! It reached Chandigarh around 2:30pm and dropped us off at Dharampur, near the turnoff to Kasauli at 4:30pm. Just as we alighted from the Volvo, a tiny, private bus was waiting to take more passengers to Kasauli. So we grabbed our bags from the Volvo’s hold and managed to board the private bus, which took off in a hurry as soon as I got both my feet in. It hurtled towards Kasauli on the narrow streets like there was no tomorrow! The scenery outside was gorgeous but I couldn’t take my eyes off the road in the front as though by staring at it hard enough, I could will the bus into staying on it – it was all quite thrilling and nerve-wracking ! Thankfully, the bus managed to stay on track and dropped us off safely at Kasauli’s main bus stand by 5pm.
Kasauli, being a small town, has very few accommodations. Knowing this and because we were getting there on a Saturday, Madhu decided to call and book a hotel room in advance. He found good reviews for Kasauli Inn online and when he called them, was able to book one of their standard rooms for 2 nights. But sometime around noon, when we were on the bus to Dharampur, they called us to inform that there will be no room waiting for us ! Apparently, when Madhu had called, they only put the room ‘on hold’. To truly ‘book’ a room, one has to log onto their website and reserve the room using a credit card. How were we to know that?! Shouldn’t they have informed us of this when we called them?! Madhu was absolutely livid but there’s only so much you can say or do while on the phone in a moving bus with 50 other people around you. So when we got to Kasauli, we had no idea where we would stay for the day. Thankfully, after some running around (Madhu did the running while I stood at one corner of the street with all our luggage), we managed to find a really nice place to stay right by the town’s Lower Mall road.
Funnily, none of the 3 guidebooks we were carrying had any map of Kasauli, so we had to orient ourselves to the place by simply walking around. Thankfully, Kasauli’s main town is made of just 2 streets – the westward Upper Mall Rd and the eastward Lower Mall Rd. The two meet near the shops and food stalls that are just above the bus stand. We walked to this area and stopped at a small Tibetan food stall for some Momos and tea. The street was abuzz with vacationers – we realized that since it was the end of March, most schools must have closed for the summer, drawing families out. We continued walking past the stalls and crossed Upper Mall Road to a narrow alley, which is known as the Kasauli Bazaar. Here there were more food stalls and more stalls selling cheap woolens. None of them looked worth browsing, though, so we kept walking till we reached the end, beyond which were homes and small hotels. With nothing else to do, we walked back to our hotel, stopping at a ‘Daily Needs’ store to stock up on drinking water.
With all the citrus fruits being grown in the region, Himachal Pradesh has started producing some fruit wines, which are slowly gaining popularity. Daily Needs stocks some of these wines from a brand called ‘Wonder Wyne‘. There’s wine made from apples, peaches, plums and of course, grapes. But the most interesting one was wine made from Rhododendron flowers! The friendly and articulate owner of the store said that next to grapes, wine from these flowers taste quite good. We couldn’t resist trying the wine and bought a bottle of it. And just as he had promised, it turned out to be really good. It has a dark pink color (darker than white Zinfandel) and is quite fruity to taste. The alcohol content is lower too, making it a very light drink – thoroughly enjoyed it!
Today morning, we set out at 9am to visit Christ Church, which is just a couple of blocks away from our hotel. We had read in one of the guidebooks that they have Hindi sermons every Sunday at 9:30am; Madhu and I were keen on attending it. But when we got there, we learnt that it would open only at 10am. Not wanting to wait around for that long, we walked to Kasauli Bazaar for breakfast. But even after eating, it was just past 9:30am. So we decided to walk up Upper Mall Road and return to the church at 10. Upper Mall Rd snakes slightly uphill and opens out to a lovely avenue lined with trees and bungalows. We passed the stately Kasauli Club, open to members only and kept walking, enjoying the lovely morning light. And somewhere along the way we decided to skip the sermon and just keep walking.
The bungalows on Upper Mall road were all gorgeous. But the one that excited us the most was ‘Raj Villa’ that named the famed Indian writer and journalist, Khushwant Singh, as its owner. We had read that he was Kasauli’s most celebrated part-time resident but we hadn’t expected to stumble upon his residence so easily. Walking on, for what I think was at least 2kms, we came upon ‘Sunset Point’. The view out from here to the valley below was fantastic. I wish we had come here at the appropriate time. I cursed the guidebooks for not being more informative!
Later we stumbled across a narrow, dirt path, running parallel to the main road, with a sign ‘Gilbert Trail‘ marking it. While reading up on Kasauli, we realized that there’s nothing to see here apart from the church and a view point called Monkey Point (or Manki Point as spelled locally). What it does offer, though, is plenty of walks in and around town. Many of these were mentioned in the guidebooks, but without a map marking their exact location and with no street signs pointing them out, we had no idea how to get to them. Luckily, the Gilbert Trail is right off the main road and we spotted it easily. The guide books hadn’t mentioned how long the trail was or where it ended but we decided to check it out anyway. And I’m so glad we did.
Gilbert Trail is a dirt path running along the side of a west-facing cliff, providing fantastic views all along. It’s supposed to be a great place for bird watchers; we spotted two large eagles. Madhu and I walked the trail’s entire length, which must have been at least a couple of kilometers. In the beginning the path was wide enough for the two of us to walk side-by-side but soon it turned quite narrow and we had to walk in a single file. The sun bore down on us but there was also a nice, cool breeze, which made it bearable. At places, the path was so narrow that we had to hold on to the cliff-side for support to keep ourselves from slipping off the trail into the valley below. But at no point did it get too dangerous, so we kept going. The trail ended abruptly behind an Air Force Station’s boundary wall. A couple of men stared down at us curiously from here and yelled out saying that we cannot go any further as the area is off-limits to civilians. A narrower path forked off at the right leading to some village, which we knew would take us away from town. So we had no choice but to turn back. It had been a lovely walk and our first nature trek in India. We had bought special, light-hiking shoes from REI just for this purpose and today we tried them out for the first time. I’m happy to report that they worked beautifully !
Back on the main road, we continued on Upper Mall Road till it ended at the entrance to the Air Force Station; visitors weren’t allowed here either. So we turned around and headed back to our hotel for a break. After lunch, we walked back to Christ Church and were happy to find it open. Though modestly sized, it has a gorgeous, European facade and is surrounded by some greenery. Inside, the most striking feature was the lovely stained-glass window behind the altar. The dark wooden pews and overhead beams on vaulted ceilings lend the church a great feel. I bought a candle and lit it saying a small prayer for safe travels.
We now walked east on Lower Mall Road, which culminated 3.5kms later on Monkey Point. This road has nicer views out to the valleys below and even nicer bungalows perched precariously on sheer cliff-sides affording them the best views ever! Madhu and I gaped at all of them enviously and also noted that while some of them were owned by retired army personnel, almost all of them were owned by Punjabis !
Monkey Point is situated within an Air Force Station, the same one that we had come upon at the end of Upper Mall Road. Visitors were allowed to enter it thru this entrance but no bags were permitted. They didn’t have a cloakroom either. So Madhu and I had no place to leave our daypacks at. With no other choice, we decided that we would take turns to check out Monkey Point while the other waited outside with the bags; I went in first. Being an Air Force Station, security was very high. I had to present an ID card and provide my age (very annoying!), address and mobile number (even more annoying!) before being given a visitor pass. As I walked on the paved pathway beyond the security post, I felt a little lost and unsure about where to go or what to do. The views on the left were quite pretty but nothing different from what we had seen during the walk up to the station. The pathway led steeply uphill to a Hanuman temple at the very top and that’s where Monkey Point is. It would have taken me at least half hour to walk up to there. I was not keen on visiting a temple nor did it make any sense to go there alone. So I simply turned around, returned the visitor’s pass and came back out to Madhu. He was not interested in hiking up to the temple either so he didn’t even bother entering the place. If we had known earlier, we would have definitely left our bags at the hotel before setting out. Oh well!
On our way back, we stopped at HP Tourism run hotel Ros Common for some tea at their onsite restaurant. Unlike Maharashtra Tourism’s hotels and quite like Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s hotels, this one looked updated and well-maintained. Its restaurant has outdoor seating in a lovely courtyard-terrace overlooking the valleys. It was great to rest our tired butts for a while and enjoy the refreshingly cool breeze over hot tea and cutlets.
In total, we must have walked almost 15kms today! It was quite tiring at the end but we wouldn’t have had it any other way. This is how Kasauli is best explored; it is truly a walker’s paradise! Moreover, after being couch-potatoes for nearly a month, it was nice to be out and about on our feet.