Yesterday, for Rs.550, we took a cab from Shogi to Mashobra, a distance of about 30kms. We had initially planned on taking a bus to Shimla and from there, another bus to Mashobra. But given how much difficulty we’ve had balancing ourselves in these buses, we couldn’t imagine what it would be like to add backpacks and daypacks to that . So we decided to play it safe and ride comfortably in a car.
Mashobra is a quaint Himachali town set at a height of 7700ft, about 14kms NE of Shimla. We had read in the guidebooks that it was originally the haunt of British families who wanted to have a quiet retreat away from, yet accessible to, their official summer retreat, Shimla. Since then the tiny village has had an air of exclusivity, which persists even today with the string of old and new bungalows that cling to its cliffs. Our stop at Mashobra was to see just this. However, when we checked into Hotel Rock Heaven and asked the staff about Mashobra’s bungalows, including one belonging to Waheeda Rehman (yester-year Hindi actress), they showed no knowledge of them. We were quite disappointed and thought that the guidebooks had screwed it up once again.
After checking in, we spent the whole of yesterday afternoon within the hotel room fighting a bad cold and watching back-to-back IPL (cricket) games on the television. During the day, these hills have been warm and quite sunny, making us sweat profusely as we walked the hilly terrain. However, in the evenings by the time we got back to the hotel, the temperature would dip considerably, making us wear jackets and sweaters. This is probably why we caught a cold. Thankfully, apart from annoyingly runny noses and fits of sneezes, it hasn’t been too bad. By staying indoors yesterday and resting completely, we’ve gotten over most of it.
Today morning, after breakfast, one of the hotel staff guided us to a narrow, dirt path, which ran up the hillside some 100meters from the hotel. We were told that this path would eventually hit a motor-able road on which we have to take a left and keep walking until we come upon a temple. Beyond this would be the famous Craignano guesthouse and finally the Govt-run Fruit Research Institute. This is all there’s to see in Mashobra, they told us. We figured that we could cover all these within a few hours and then return to the hotel for a late lunch and some more rest.
Following instructions, we hit upon a shaded road, which led us to a small temple perched upon a rocky cliff. Built completely of marble, it was a modest structure housing an idol of Goddess Kali. Unfortunately, the temple was closed when we got there, so we couldn’t have a look inside. Next to it was a smaller shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva with a stone Lingam enshrined within. Since there was no one around to open the temple for us, we left after a few minutes. We later learnt that every year, during autumn, a fair called Jotton ka Mela is held in the temple grounds. A bull fight is held on this occasion for which bulls are brought in by people from various parts of the region; must be quite a sight!
Continuing on down the road, we came upon a large, open entrance gate with a sign stating it to be the Agricultural Institute of India. Assuming this to be the same as the Research Institute we were told of, we entered the compound and found ourselves in a very beautifully maintained area. Large trees and plants, indigenous to the Himachal area, were planted on either side of the road with signs displaying their local as well as scientific names. It’s here that I learnt that Deodhar trees as mentioned in the guidebooks are the same as Cedar. A few meters from the entrance were a couple of one-storey buildings that seemed to house administrative offices and a conference hall. Beyond these was a lovely garden with the valley on the right. A large, regal-looking building sat at the opposite side of the garden. It was all quite beautifully maintained. As we walked around leisurely, taking pictures, a security guard came up to us and said that ‘tourists’ are not allowed within this campus as it’s not open to the public. Apparently, this was not the research institute; it is further down the road. The guard was polite but firm, so we beat a hasty retreat out of there .
A few yards down the road, we came upon a dusty, dirt path forking to the right, sloping uphill. A hand-written sign stuck to a tree said ‘Camp Craignano’. Since we were looking for a Craignano guesthouse, which was supposed to be somewhere along this road, we ventured on to the dirt path. It led us to a large compound with a few tents that looked completely deserted. However, as we walked up to them, a man came out of somewhere to talk to us. This turned out to be ‘Camp Craignano’, which is a retreat where visitors, for Rs.2800 per night (twin-sharing), can stay in Swiss tents and indulge in activities such as trekking, rappelling and biking; food is included in the cost. The man was kind enough to show us the interiors of one of the tents, which turned out to be quite spacious with an attached, tiled bathroom; quite spiffy! We really liked the arrangement and wished we had known of this place before checking into Hotel Rock Heaven.
Craignano guesthouse was further uphill from Camp Craignano, though, not too far. It was built as a summer resort by the Countess of Craignano; apparently, the snow-capped Himalayas reminded her of the Italian Alps in her home-country. In the late 19th century, the British converted it into a club. Today it is a dilapidated-looking structure offering basic accommodation to travelers for less than Rs.500 a night. We were allowed to roam the grounds for a fee of Rs.5 each. A fruit-basket bearing Himachali woman’s stone figure stands in front of the house with a lawn next to it. The lawn, unfortunately, is in desperate need of some help. Thick woods surround this property, blocking some of the view out to the valley below. However, in its prime it must have been a wonderful place to stay. We walked around the perimeter of the garden and then headed back down.
Just below the guesthouse, to its right, is an underground water lift that was built by the British in 1922 to supply water to the neighboring areas. It is the world’s highest water lift at 7675ft and serves the Shimla district even to this day. We couldn’t see the lift but could hear the water gurgle underneath our feet as we stood over a circular, green expanse.
Descending from the dirt path, we got back on to the road and continued further on until we came upon another fork. This time the road leading uphill to the right was marked with a sign stating that the research institute was ahead. When we finally got there, we were happy to see some other visitors as well. Although we hate it when a place gets completely packed with tourists, it also tends to get a little boring when we are the only ones around . After buying tickets (Rs.5 each again), we entered the Regional Horticultural Research Station, which is spread out over 64acres. It was established in 1953 to conduct research on the temperate fruits and flowers of the Himachal area. It is also the largest germplasm (genetic study) center for apples, pears and cherries in India; quite impressive! The entryway was lined with apple trees on either side. Their white blossoms are absolutely gorgeous! Apparently, soon, over the next few months, the flowers will give way to apples, which will be ready to harvest sometime in August/September.
A small museum (of sorts) within the main building on campus displayed the various varieties of apples and pears that have been cultivated in the region. These were introduced to the Himachal area during the British era. From here, we walked out into the lawn and sat there for a few minutes. A few steps down from the lawn, led to a couple of greenhouses where flowers of fantastic colors were in full bloom. It was absolutely beautiful! These greenhouses sat at the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley below. What a wonderful setting to conduct research in!
Having completed the day’s agenda, we walked back for about a kilometer till we got to the temple again. Here at a tea stall, which also sold some groceries, we enquired if we could get any lunch. But the friendly owner said that he serves only tea and pakoras while the stall across the street from him would definitely serve lunch. I was too tempted by the word ‘pakoras’ to let this opportunity pass. So I convinced Madhu into tea and pakoras as a mini-meal before lunch . Needless to say, it was quite yummy! But it was more interesting to chat with the owner, his son and a friend of theirs who had stopped by to help with the delivery of a new bed . Later, we walked to the other food stall, which had just one wooden table and a couple of benches, and ate a proper lunch of Kadi-chawal, Himachal’s most traditional meal. It was simple and quite tasty!
The plan was to go back to the hotel for some siesta and then head out to the bazaar in the evening – that was the only area left to see in Mashobra or at least that’s what the hotel staff had us believe. But as we neared the turnoff towards the hotel, we felt that we weren’t tired enough for a siesta, so we kept walking. We asked a couple of passersby for directions to the bazaar and they said that the road we were on would hit it eventually. To our right, a little downhill, was the state highway by which our hotel stood. So we were basically walking parallel to the highway, walking south. The road went uphill for a while and then suddenly after a slight turn, we were in a shaded area with high walls on either side. We realized that these were boundary walls for homes that were hidden from sight. And then all of a sudden it dawned on us that we were in the ‘Bungalow-lined’ area that was mentioned in the guidebooks! They weren’t wrong after all !
This area definitely has an exclusive feel to it. The bungalows look new or well-maintained and quite expensive! We tried to peek at and catch a glimpse of them through their gates; it was quite exciting ! All of them seemed to have great views of the valley below and mountains around. As we walked further, we found a row of new villas, some still under construction, being built on the side of a cliff with the sign ‘Greenwood Estates – a Gables project’ at its entrance. It looked chic and fantastic. We talked to the security guards and they said that some families have already taken possession of the villas and are staying there – NICE! There were also some apartment-style homes being built but they didn’t seem to be of the same quality as the bungalows.
The road eventually led us down to the bazaar. As we were walking, a pick-up truck passed us and two men in it, waved at us enthusiastically. They turned out to be the same men we had met at the tea stall where we ate pakoras . They asked us where we were headed and when we said that we were just aimlessly walking around, they suggested that we head towards the helipad, which is just beyond the bazaar. We had read of Mashobra’s helipad in one of the guidebooks but had completely forgotten about it. Now, with encouragement from these men, we decided to check it out.
We are not sure how many kilometers we walked to get to the base of the hill atop which sat the helipad, but it must have been at least a couple. En route we passed two village bazaars with general utility stores, pharmacies and food stalls. It was all quite interesting. We must have passed Waheeda Rahman’s bungalow as well but had failed to locate it. At the end of the second bazaar, wide concrete steps led uphill into the mountain; another day, another uphill trek!
The path up the mountain towards the helipad is absolutely gorgeous as it’s shaded completely by tall trees and thick foliage. It was steep and tiring but quite lovely. After about half an hour uphill, we came across a fence that seemed to wind all around the girth of the mountain with a gate in the center, which was open. Not knowing any better, we passed thru the gate and continued on upwards. We came upon a couple of building structures on either side of the steps; they seemed to look like some kind of quarters. Suddenly, we heard ferocious barking and 2 dogs ran out of nowhere towards us and blocked our path. They didn’t look like they would bite but they sure didn’t look like they would let us pass either. We yelled out for help and finally a couple of people showed up from inside the quarters. A lady closest to me and the dogs asked us what we were doing there; she tried to shush the dogs at the same time but they weren’t in a mood to listen. When we said that we wanted to go to the helipad, she said that we had come up too far. We needed to turn back and take left on to a trail, which runs just next to the gated fence. Out of curiosity I asked her what this place was and found that it was actually the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s residence); it was a summer retreat! We turned around quickly to leave and the dogs followed us quite a ways down to ensure that we truly left; crazy buggers! How I wish Shayna was this particular !
We found the trail (no more steps) that ran parallel to the fence and walked on it for about 10 minutes till it deposited us on a concrete road that ran past the main entrance of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. From here we continued on the road uphill till we finally got to the helipad. From what I had read about the helipad and what I had imagined a helipad at about 9000ft to look like, I was looking forward to a large, green expanse of grass surrounded by fantastic views. Well, I was only partly right. The views were fantastic, of course, but the helipad turned out to be an ugly, concrete patch with no greenery whatsoever . I guess its only reason for popularity is that it’s way up there, on top of a mountain. I’m not complaining, though, ‘coz the views from it were fantastic and the trek up to it was truly amazing; wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
While walking back to our hotel, we took a left beyond the first bazaar and ended up on the state highway. We thought that this would be faster than going thru the second bazaar as well and trying to find the dirt path that we had taken in the morning. However, I’m not very sure if it was faster. We walked for about 2 to 3 kilometers on the winding highway with darkness creeping in and vehicles zipping past us; we had to walk carefully and slowly. Had it gotten any darker, it could have been dangerous. But we got to our hotel safely around 7pm; we had been out and on our feet since 11am . The hotel staff was shocked that we had walked up to the Research Institute at the northern end and from there, all the way to the helipad, which is at the southern end. They were happy for us that we had managed to explore the place so thoroughly on foot and agreed that one could never get the same experience while driving around!