The allure of the hills begins the moment you hit the hill road just beyond Mohand. The road winding through the green hills slowly elevates you to the tunnel, locally called ‘daat’, the highest point before descending into the valley. Soon after the white domes of the distant Forest Research Institute come in sight on your left. Another few kilometres take you to Dehra Dun, the capital of Uttarakhand. The hexagonal clock tower at the junction of Paltan Bazaar and Rajpur and Chakrata Roads is the identity of Dehra Dun. The teeming Paltan Bazaar is a popular shopping centre while Ashley Hall on Rajpur Road is for the elite. Rajpur Road is to DehraDun what Hazratganj is to Lucknow. But like all large towns, Dehra Dun too has become overcrowded. Just as in Hazratganj, one cannot walk on Rajpur Road without pushing and getting pushed. The din of vehicular traffic is enough to drive sensitive ears away. Dehra Dun is no more the peaceful placid town I knew as a student sixty years ago. Still one cannot but love one’s home town.
The lush green forests on the hills around Dehra Dun were excellent hunting ground for us. We would often explore the area collecting and identifying flora for our projects. We frequently climbed to the popular hill station, Mussoorie – the proud Queen Hills. Not going to Mussoorie during snowfall was considered sinful. Sometimes we would go as far as Chakrata, Rishikesh and Hardwar. The Shivalik range of Himalayas largely made of lime stone and quarrying is blatantly carried out. Consequently, landslides and blocked roads are common.
The recent landslide which blocked traffic and left hundreds of pilgrims stranded on Badrinath road brought to mind a trip when we ourselves were stuck for a few hours in a landslide in the same area.
I used to visit Pauri, where I had a court case going, almost every month. I would travel to Muzaffarnagar from Delhi, where I was working, and stay overnight. In the morning my lawyer and I would go to Pauri by cab. More often than not, the case would be adjourned without being heard, the day wasted. Pauri is a small little hill station in Uttarakhand located within 350 kilometres of Delhi. But it does not see many tourists. Lack of infrastructure, shortage of water and apathy on part of local administration is responsible. It is difficult for visitors to find a reasonably decent hotel to stay. A passable eating place was a luxury to be cherished. Enamoured with the tall deodar and pine forests, 360 degrees view of snowy Himalayan peaks as far as the eye could see and the heavenly clean and fresh air, I was determined to spend a few days with family in Pauri.
We managed to get accommodation in the P.W.D. rest house. We had a suite, complete with a sitting room, a dining room and a spacious veranda with a magnificent view of the mountains. And all in exchange of a princely sum of Rs.1.50 per night. Being the only guests, the kitchen and the cook were to be at our disposal. A luxurious stay was on the cards. Fate had other designs. The cook decided to go on leave. Their only gas cylinder was exhausted and we ourselves were to fend for our meals. Even a cup of tea or coffee or milk for children could not be had. We were also warned not to stay out late at night lest we meet a panther.
We, a party of five, myself, wife, daughter and two sons of my wife’s brother, had arrived late afternoon after a leisurely drive via Hardwar, Rishikesh, and Srinagar(Garhwal). Driving along the Ganges Marine Drive was an exhilarating experience with the sacred river flowing through a narrow valley, a few hundred feet below. Byasi, 30 kilometres from Rishikesh, is where the rafters camp. But we did not, of course, stop. Rafting with three small children was a no, no. All we did was to drink in the beautiful mountain-scape. Devprayag with its temples the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda is one of the many holy places in Devbhumi (abode of Gods), as Uttarakhand is called.
To stave off starvation, we set out immediately to garner some food and managed to get some barely edible stuff. Fortunately, milk was available and we purchased a large thermos to keep it warm. Biting cold and the frugal meal we had made sleep difficult.
Ransi Sports Stadium is built on a steep hill covered under a thick growth of tall conifers, near our rest house. At nearly 6700 feet, it is reputed to be the highest stadium in Asia. It had rained at night and we could see that the hill still wore a shroud of clouds. It was a fascinating sight. My proposal to drive up the hill to the stadium was joyfully accepted by all. The children were thrilled that they would be walking among the clouds. Driving on the unkempt narrow steep road was difficult. The fallen wet pine leaves made it almost impossible. The car kept slipping backwards and could fall in one of the many trenches on either side of the road. I was thoroughly shaken and wanted to turn back. But there was no room to reverse. I had to reach the stadium. Keeping my fears to myself, I drove full throttle and the car crawled. The gate was open and I drove straight into a puddle. As far as the eyes could see, which was not very far, small puddles small puddles could be seen. All I could do was to carefully turn the car and drive out of the stadium. The children did not get their walk among the clouds. They got a joyride through the clouds instead. It was no joy for the driver though. I was doubly careful while driving downhill and collapsed on the wheel in relief. The children were happy. They had enjoyed the drive and wondered what I was making heavy weather about.
You can’t enjoy your vacation if you have to scrounge for food all the time. Filling your stomach is easy enough. But when you are on vacation, you want to gorge yourself on delicious dishes and generally pamper yourself. Our best efforts could not get us the kind of food we desired. We did some half-hearted sightseeing and, cutting short our vacation, embarked on return journey.
Srinagar, Garhwal (not to be confused with Srinagar, Kashmir), though many people believe it is, is not a hill station. Less than 2000 feet above mean sea level, it gets as hot in summer as the plains of North India. Finding a good restaurant, we fell on food ravenously. A hearty lunch later, happy that we would make Rishikesh in time for tea, we departed. Soon after reaching Devprayag we found the traffic blocked due to a massive landslide. Hundreds of stranded vehicles had queued up on the road. Border Road Organisation was on clearing job but it would be hours before the traffic would move. We might even have to spend the night on the road. We took stock of our provisions. We thanked god and patted our backs that we had purchased packets of biscuits and bottled water from Srinagar. We will survive, we decided and settled down for the long wait. It was not easy for two adults and three children to sleep in the car but, somehow, we passed the night.
We reached Rishikesh just in time for breakfast.