Everybody has a favourite hill-station. Mine is Dalhousie in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh. I spent a week there, with a pile of paperbacks I had purchased in Delhi.
I went in late October, as the season and the hotels were about to shut for winter. Already the roads beyond Pathankot were thick with mountain mist, the drivers driving blindly through the largely because of their familiarity with the terrain.
Dalhousie is the Gurkhas regiment centre and I used to wake up to the regimental bugles echoing through the Dhaulagiris. The town had two chowks, named respectfully if unimaginatively after Gandhi and Nehru, linked to each other by a ridge that went past large Buddhist prayer flags and Om messages chalked on the cliff face. The mornings, I roamed around these chowks, watchhing Tibetan hawkers; by late afternoon it started raining and I kept myself in the large and empty hotel.
In most Indian hill-station, it starts raining in the late afternoon. It did in Gangtok, every afternoon without fail, though I do not know if we can call it a hill-station. I think, we can. Kanchenjunga stood opposite it, almost with arm’s reach. After Amadabalam, it is the most impressive looking mountain in India. I could see it from my room on the top if the Denzong Hotel at the top of the bazar. The rains subsided some time in the night and then a full moon lit Kanchenjunga’s sides.
From Darjeeling also you have a view of this mountain, but you have to get up early in the morning, take a taxi, drive down to a particular spot, and hope it is going to be a clear day with a clear view. However, Darjeeling has several more features than Kanchenjunga. The town is built on three separate tiers, like Carneigie Hall, with the bazar in the pit and the mall on the second level. The mall has a book-shop filled with mountaineering books that have gone out of print at other stores in the world. And Chinese (Tibetan) food in Darjeeling is as cheap as it is in Calcutta – cheaper.
Between Nainital and Ranikhet, I prefer the latter. It is quieter, the mountain views are grander, but Nainital has the lake, and half of Delhi’s Punjabi population walking around it, eating Punjabi samoosas. There is a cultural division between the hill-stations in the Western and Eastern Himalayas.
I have also been to Lansdowne, the Gharwal Rifles headquarters. It is at the top of a pine forest, a small military encampment. There are no hotels and very little civil population. If ever there is a place which totally belongs to the army, this is it.
Mussoorie is like an eagle’s nest, perched above Dehra Dun. From the town, you take a cable car to the terrace of the world and indentify the snow mountains, like in your atlas.
That only takes care of a part of North India. There is the entire South, from Ooty to Kodaikanal, and there are also our own hill-stations of Mahableshwar and Matheran. But these are too accessible to be exotic.