The drive uphill from Chandigarh into Himachal Pradesh is so familiar that I can close my eyes and remember it as if I was there. I can almost feel the movement of the curves of the road, absorb the smell of the pines, breathe in the fresh mountain air (quite often infused with diesel fumes, but then that too is part of my memory cache!) and hear the distinctive cawing of the hill crows. It has been over a year since I last drove on these roads but it is still as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
The drive from Chandigarh to Kalka is in the plains and is the most boring part of the journey; there is just too much traffic on this portion. Earlier, when we used to drive uphill to go back to boarding school, it was a time of adjustment and finality that the holidays were (unfortunately!) over, but also with anticipation of meeting friends again (and sharing tuck!). The view of Kasauli from this road used to be superb and as one got closer, the hills seemed to recede farther back. Now, there are so many stone crushers here that the view is hidden in clouds of dust.
Just after Kalka is Parwanoo, where one enters Himachal on an absurdly steep bridge, made by an engineer who probably assumed that traffic would be moving at Formula 1 speeds, and angled it such. In reality, there is a toll barrier there and the traffic is struggling to crawl up this steep and lopsided bridge! As we enter my favorite state in India, my rule of no garbage comes into strict effect.
The 7 years I was in boarding school, as part of our weekly activities we cleared the hillsides of dried pine needles to avert forest fires. All it takes is a carelessly thrown cigarette stub to swallow up an entire mountain in flames that can travel at alarming speeds. In school, as part of SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work), we picked up any trash on the campus and surrounding areas, planted trees to stop soil erosion, taught local village women hygienic ways to cook and keep house, their kids the English alphabet and visited the local sanitarium to cheer up the residents.
Dhaba’s and Picnics
The drive gets interesting beyond Parwanoo. The hills will be full of flowering shrubs and trees no matter what time of the year it is, the road will curve back and forth non-stop, and there will be dhaba’s and juice bars at almost every spur. Each time I drive up, I remember all the different places we have stopped for picnics over the years. Our family has been quite crazy about picnics. I still think the most enjoyable way to spend a hot summer day, is to drive uphill with some picnic-y food, and then explore the area to find a perfect spot. The perfect picnic spot has to have shade, a flat area to spread a dhurrie, be away from the noise and pollution of the road and to have a frothy stream or waterfall nearby to chill the drinks would be a huge boon. I think, it must be genetic, as our family is pre-programmed to constantly be on the lookout for good picnic spots even when are not going for a picnic but just driving through.
Further along the road is the town of Dharampur, which is in two parts. At Dharampur I, one road turns off towards Kasauli and another towards my old school Lawrence School, Sanawar. Both roads meet below the school at Garkhal. At Dharampur II, a road climbs steeply uphill towards Dagshai. Dharampur I is famous because of Giani da dhaba, which has become a legend all the way to Delhi by serving good food fast. Masses of boarding school students stop with their visiting parents on the weekends. My favorite dish there is lemon chicken, which is absolutely scrumptious and makes for great picnic food.
The direct route to Kasauli is a nice leisurely drive. I remember there used to be a quaint mushroom farm called Snow White on the way, where we used to stop quite often for picnics. It has now been converted to a charmless mini-resort but I prefer the open land to cubbyhole concrete construction.
The final climb
On the climb from Garkhal to Kasauli, the beautiful old bungalows built in the style of the British Raj, most of them built by the Britishers themselves before the independence of India, grandly come into view. All the houses within the confines of the Army cantonment cannot be changed structurally, so the charm has remained, along with the original structures. The names of the cottages and bungalows are quaintly old-fashioned.
Deforestation and Soil Erosion are the two most important issues affecting the lower Himalayas today. Wood is still the primary source of cooking fuel and lopping of trees is common even though it is a punishable offense under the Indian Penal Code. The greenery in most of the hill stations in India has survived only due to the presence of the Army or Air Force. In fact, most of the forested areas remaining in the foothills of Himalayas now are Army cantonments. One exception is my old school, Lawrence School Sanawar where forestation efforts over the past 30 years by students have led to a vast improvement in green-ing the hills and reducing landslides during the rainy season. Some of the towns in Himachal with Army cantonments that still remain heavily forested are: Kasauli, Dagshai, Sabathu, Dharamsala, Solan, Simla and Dalhousie.
Kasauli, Queen of the Hills
Kasauli has two main roads, the Upper Mall and the Lower Mall. Both have bungalows and cottages along them with the Lower Mall getting the morning sun (Simla lights are visible on clear nights) and the Upper Mall facing both Chandigarh and Simla and getting beautiful morning and afternoon sunshine. Like all cantonment towns, it has an old bazaar where originally only the Indian tradesmen and merchants lived. There is one Himachal Pradesh tourist hotel (Ros Common) and a few private ones (Alasia Hotel), but the best place to stay is The Kasauli Club. It is a member only club but visitors can get temporary membership for a few days and use the club facilities.
The thing to do in Kasauli is to go for walks, to absorb the atmosphere of the British built bungalows, take in the amazing views and even more amazing stories of its residents, past and present. The local photo studio is an interesting store to visit as they have a photo-documentary of sorts of Kasauli and Sanawar’s history.
There are 2 social seasons in Kasauli. The first season is in the last week of June called Kasauli Week, where there are a lot of parties and socials organized by the Army and the Kasauli Club. There is a contest for Kasauli King and Queen and a dance party is held at the Kasauli Club as the grand finale. The second season is during the Founders celebrations of Sanawar held in the first week of October when parents and Old Sanawarians take over the town.
Personally, I avoid visiting Kasauli during the social seasons, especially the one in June. I find it too crowded, too dirty, too full of boisterous boys who don’t know how to drive in the hills and cannot understand the peaceful silences amidst the pines. For me, it’s the tranquility, the views coupled with lots of childhood memories that keep me captivated by this wonderful little town.
Some word explanations:
Spur = outside curve of a hill
Dhaba = roadside eatery
Hill Station = denotes a town with a military presence
Mall = an old British term, it generally implies a wide road primarily for pedestrians
British Raj = A general term that covers the British colonial rule of India
Dhurrie = A flat woven cotton rug