Hilly Hideaway: Winding Walks & Banana Pancakes in Landour

There's plenty of nothing to do for a mother and son holidaying in the hills.  
Landour
During their family holiday, the writer and her son spent long hours at Char Dukan’s little cafés. Photo: Lalita Iyer

In May last year, overwhelmed by the excesses of Mussoorie, my six-year-old son Re and I took a taxi to Landour. I had brought him to Mussoorie to relive the travel memories of my childhood. But I soon realized that I was faking excitement as I pointed out various spots “Look, Gun Hill!” “There, Kempty Falls!” Sadly, Mussoorie just wasn’t the exciting hill station of my childhood anymore. It seemed to have faded with time, and the population had quadrupled. Or maybe I was a different person—looking for quieter things. During my childhood I recall my father intentionally skipping Landour saying it was a place with nothing to do and no places to stay. Now, it seemed the town might offer the perfect antidote.

Landour is a cantonment town at an altitude of 7,000 feet, a thousand feet above Mussoorie, and just five kilometres away by road. However, it felt further away than that. I guess time slowed down as we climbed the steep slopes, still untouched by Mussoorie’s tourist hullabaloo.

I had booked to stay at Hazelwood cottage and the only instructions I had from owner Pawan Gupta said: “Ask anyone at Char Dukan for Pawan Gupta and they will guide you. The taxi driver will most likely know my house.” The taxi driver did. Landour is that kind of town.

The house was quiet, elegant, and old-worldly in the way most Landour homes are. We had a room overlooking the valley at the back. Re met some mountain dogs the next morning, who immediately became our friends.

Dogs Landour

Even the town’s canine residents know how to take it slow. Photo; DBImages/Alamy/Indiapicture

Monkeys Landour

Grey langurs lounging on trees are a common sight in peaceful Landour. Photo: DBImages/Alamy/Indiapicture

 

I was grateful that there was nothing to do in Landour. Which meant that we had four days to do whatever we wanted. Hazelwood is a seven-minute walk downhill from Char Dukan, just below the cantonment office. Depending on which way you look at it, Char Dukan is the beginning and the end of everything in Landour. There is a certain charm in going around in circles here, treating Char Dukan as base.

Walking shoes became our best friends. Staying anywhere in Landour necessitates, at a minimum, a walk for your meals. I realized I had totally underestimated my six-year-old’s zest for walking and overestimated my own. On the first day, the trudge to Char Dukan (15 minutes uphill) took my lungs by surprise and I kept stopping to catch my breath. Re kept reminding me not to look where we were going, but instead to revel in how far we had already come from our cottage. He also found that if we played a game of counting deodar and pine trees, we tended to walk faster. With my child’s simple strategies, I soon became a more robust walker. And Landour always produced an incentive for us to walk more. One time we heard about a farmers market on the way to Lal Tibba, where we tried rhododendron crush. Another evening, the hills were alive with the sound of music from the Big Gig, a music festival in the highlands. We showed up to hear local bands and Woodstock students play.

We also uncovered Landour’s many celebrity connections. There were pictures of Arshad Warsi, Irrfan Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, and Landour’s very own Ruskin Bond displayed proudly by Landour’s well-known shoemakers. Each one of these shops has photos of the owners with these celebrities. They take pride in making bespoke Coco Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, and Gucci fakes in less than 24 hours. Some will even deliver them to your hotel.

Doma's Inn Landour

The facade of Doma’s Inn was painted by thangkha artists from Nepal. Photo: Bjanka Kadic/Alamy/Indiapicture

Church Landour

Quiet pervades the 19th-century Saint Paul’s Church. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

 

Our rambles took us along Landour’s “chakkar walks,” up and down hillsides, and through forests, but it was to Char Dukan with its Wai Wai noodles, sandwiches, pancakes, and ginger lemon tea that we gravitated to eat. We had several meals at Café Ivy, which has a real menu, a good aglio olio pasta, a loo, and free Wi-Fi. We enjoyed giant banana pancakes and ginger lemon tea at Anil’s Café, one of the four original shops of Char Dukan. But it wasn’t about the meals at all, lingering at Char Dukan was a means to watch the world go by. When we spotted a post office counter at the café, Re and I wrote and sent postcards we had picked up at the farmers market. A grey-black cat was washing herself at a strategic spot in the café and both of us were entranced. The café owner told us she was due to give birth any time. We didn’t have to wait long; later that night, she delivered three kittens.

With each unhurried day of walking, our steps got brisker. Mostly we walked in search of food, but sometimes also just for the sake of walking. There was plenty of nothing to keep us going. We had the perfect backdrop: The deodars and pines with the sun playing peekaboo through them, birdsong in the air, inspirational quotes on trees and dustbins, charming houses along the paths.

Landour

Prayer flags fluttering in the breeze crown a hillside home in Landour. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

For a town so tiny, Landour’s residents have an exceptional ecological conscience and sense of conservation. They’ve adopted KEEN (Keeping the Environment Ecologically Natural), a solid-waste management programme that works with Landour’s homes, hotels, and shops; deployed Waste Warriors, an NGO from McLeod Ganj, to manage waste generated during a large local festival; and other individual efforts. The area’s Jabarkhet Nature Reserve is an excellent example of privatized conservation. Over the last five-odd years, this reserve has revitalized destroyed hill slopes, restored water sources, and brought back wildlife to the area. Jabarkhet has great vantage points for nature lovers and birdwatchers and offers expert-led nature walks once a month.

Landour is a town that takes its dustbins seriously. Every few hundred metres, there are special monkey-proof steel cans with quotes on nature, walking, and quietude. Strangely, there always seemed to be litter around the bins, despite the town doing its best to stay clean. I watched Re quietly pick up the trash from around the dustbins, returning it to its rightful place. He had already become a part of the community on day two.

On our last day the shoemaker had told us to show up at 11 a.m. if we wanted to meet Ruskin Bond. But we missed the appointed time as we were busy stuffing our faces with strawberry crepes at Landour Bakehouse. On our walk back home, the sound of Buddhist chants wafted from one house. It had a sign that said, “Beware Rabid Thespian.” I had already read that the house belonged to actor Victor Banerjee. Re wanted to know what a thespian was and why he was rabid. I answered the first part and was thinking about how I should answer the second when we came upon a pile of discarded beer bottles and empty packets of chips by the side of the road, along with other remnants of a good time that visitors to Lal Tibba had left behind. While I lamented at the indecency of the tourists who had defiled the pristine area, Re picked the mess up and turned it into the dustbin. “Maybe this is why the thespian gets rabid,” he said. In his own little way, my son had taught me a huge parenting lesson: Be the change you want to see. It brought to mind another sign I had seen the day before as were wandering about. A signboard near the gate of La Villa Bethany had a quote by J.R.R. Tolkien which said, “All those who wander are not lost”. It helped eloquently summarize our days of nothingness in Landour.

Appeared in the March 2017 as “Coming Full Circle in Landour”.

The 175-year-old Rokeby Manor is named after a poem written by Sir Walter Scott. Although it flaunts modern amenities like an outdoor jacuzzi, its elegant wooden interiors reveal a 19th-century heart. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

The Guide

Orientation
Landour is a former cantonment town, located on a ridge five kilometres east of Mussoorie in Uttarakhand’s Dehradun district.

Getting There
By Air
Dehradun’s Jolly Grant Airport (65 km/2 hr) is the closest airport and has daily direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai. Taxis from the airport to Landour charge ₹2,500 one way.
By Rail Dehradun, the closest railhead, is well-connected with Delhi and Mumbai. Taxis from the station to Landour charge ₹1,300 one-way.
By Road Landour is 38 km/1.15 hr northeast of Dehradun and 290 km/8.5 hr northeast of Delhi. Buses for Mussoorie leave daily from Delhi’s Kashmere Gate ISBT. Taxis for Landour are available outside Mussoorie’s Picture Palace at the head of Mall Road (₹300 one-way).

Stay
Hazelwood is a comfortable homestay with an open kitchen overlooking the valley, and a library filled with lovely Hindi and English poetry collections (downhill from Cantonment Board Office; 97600 49414; pawansidh@gmail.com; doubles from ₹2,100).

Doma’s Inn
is tucked away from the the bustle of the central town, and renovated in the style of a Bhutia monastery. It is right next door to Landour’s most famous resident Ruskin Bond (www.domasinn.com; doubles from ₹2,650 including breakfast and Wi-Fi).

Rokeby Manor was built in 1840, and the mansion is now an elegant heritage hotel. Its beautiful estate, stone-and wood interiors, brick arches, and cosy Victorian fireplaces ooze old-world charm (rokebymanor.com; doubles from ₹9,520, including breakfast).

  • Lalita Iyer is a journalist who prefers to write books, travel or cook. She is partial to cats, curly hair and all things yellow. She is being raised by a six-year-old, and tweets as @Lalitude.

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