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“You could be walking in the leopard’s footsteps”, Viru says in a tone that indicates it’s information and not breaking news. “There is one that visits the reserve regularly”, again – just relaying information.
We, on the other hand, are far from being passive listeners. How can you be, when you are told that a leopard could’ve walked down your path just a few hours earlier? It’s one thing to be on a jungle safari seated in a jeep, it’s totally another to be on your own two feet, retracing the steps of real life, wild leopard!
Viru now takes the chip out of the camera mounted on the tree, connects it to his tablet and checks for the previous night’s footage. Well, it doesn’t show a leopard. But that doesn’t stop him from pointing to the leopard scratchings on the Masura tree – the only tree the leopard visits in the entire 100-acres of the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve.
Jabarkhet – a pleasant surprise, just round the corner from Landour
Before arriving at Jabarkhet, we had checked its location on the map. It looked quite close to Mussoorie. The wild excitement on our first day itself was a far cry from the “crowded hill station” image we had of Mussoorie.
But then, everything since we took the turn to Landour had been a surprise! I had visited Mussoorie as a kid. It was one of the first places I had visited in the Himalayas. It had been fascinating then. The second visit happened 25 years later, and I felt cheated of my childhood memories. It had changed drastically and not for the better.
But this visit to Jabarkhet just reconfirmed what we always say about travel. Your travel experience is defined not by the place but by your perspective. Little changes can make a world of difference to your travel experience.
So, what had we done differently in Jabarkhet to give us a drastically different and exciting travel experience?
For starters, we stayed away from Mussoorie, in a lovely home in Jabarkhet
With an enticing name Rockvilla! Obviously, it was made in stone. Large windows, coniferous forest and views overlooking an entire valley. It even had a glass observatory at the top.
Inside, the focus shifted from the vast outdoor expanse to cosy little corners. Drawing you in with warmth and a flash of colour – done just right (tempting us sometimes to not step outside). Each room had its individual character.
The Blue Pottery Room was warm and cheerful with a view that brought an entire valley inside the room. A perfect place to plan a day full of exploration.
The Gond room was cool and playful. A place for a family to play some board games. Or just a quiet nook to sit with your cup of coffee and read a book, perhaps, by Ruskin Bond. Or an absorbing space to create art. It could inspire you in multiple ways, and each was sure to create fond memories.
The mosaic room – you could call it the master bedroom at the Rockvilla (Though each room is en suite, and you can be forgiven for not wanting to get out of the bathroom), is a different level of special. It’s intense with the kind of art that can only be called a labour of love.
We had got a taste of this love the moment we stepped into Rockvilla. As soon as we entered the front door, Bhagchand ji, who overlooks the operations at Rockvilla warmly told us to take our shoes off and pointed us to several pairs of soft home slippers stocked in the footwear drawers. Just like when you enter a family home!
The Rockvilla Experience
Our days in Rockvilla began with a hearty breakfast. Actually, no. They began with birdsongs. We just had to open the curtains of our room to see the entire valley basking in the early morning light. That would be enough to lure us outdoors.
We would make quick cups of tea and coffee, wear a sweater, cover up in a shawl and go sit on the steps leading to the terrace. Jackie and Sheru would somehow sense we had woken up and come running up to the lawn outside the home. Playing with them would take up all the time until breakfast was announced.
A spread of freshly baked muffins, rolls, local marmalades, pickles and yoghurt would greet us as the chef would ask us our preference for the “hot” items of the breakfast. Everything from soft, fluffy omelettes and runny half fried eggs to thickly stuffed parathas could be done. How much could we stuff ourselves with? Our stomachs would be full much before our hearts!
Breakfast would be followed by an outdoor activity – visit the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, or just a stroll around the home to a fabled haunted home. A walk in a forest leading to Landour or a walk around Mussourie’s Mall road – with a difference.
Back home in the evening, quick freshening up and dinner would be set. The day we reached Rockvilla, we were exhausted. It was almost 11 PM by the time we got there. The chef had sensed we would be waiting to crash into our beds. A hearty home cooked meal – comfort food was what we needed, and that’s exactly what had been prepared. Even before we freshened up and changed out of our day-long-travel clothes, dinner had been set.
The next day was a lavish feast. We were having an authentic Garhwali meal. Bicchu (the stingy grass of the Himalayas) kebabs with bhang chutney for starters, cucumber raita on the side, Thichodi (a mix of potato and radish with the Garhwali jakhiya tempering), Kafli (a leafy vegetable made by mixing 5 different types of greens – spinach, mustard, bicchhu and others), navrang dal (lentils in nine different colours from the same plant), the dark rustic mandwa roti and brown rice. Sweet rice kheer to end it all. We ate and we ate and we ate. It had rained a little that day and outside it was quite cold. Inside, one hot roti after the other was vanishing at lightning speeds. At the end, we were afraid we were going to burst.
The next night was a surprise. We were surprised that dinner preps weren’t on as we had got home a little late. We went up to the terrace and were in for a tempting surprise. It was going to be a barbecue night! We had three other guests for company, which meant enough people to do justice to the barbecue. A variety of soft luscious chicken, paneer, corn, potatoes followed one after the other. The surprise factor here was the peas. So soft that you could even eat their outer green cover.
Post dinner, we would turn up the heater, and enjoy a movie night before blissfully plunging into sleep.
Jabarkhet Nature Reserve – the most unique experience near Landour
The nature reserve is a 5-minute walk from Rockvilla. Jabarkhet Nature Reserve is one of the few privately-owned nature reserves in India. The land which houses the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, as well as some more hills, a total of 110- acre was gifted to Vipul Jain’s grandfather by the British.
Rockvilla, the home we were staying at was the home Vipul Jain grew up in. He decided to convert his share of his great grandfather’s land into a nature reserve. He teamed up with WWF and the local flora and fauna experts. To restore the endemic ecosystem of the land which would automatically increase the avian and wildlife was the primary motive of the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. Converting this land into a nature reserve, which the locals has started using for agriculture and collecting firewood meant a loss of livelihood for the people of the villages surrounding Jabarkhet. They figured out ways to reduce these losses and involved the local people in the conservation and restoration effort. Ecological and economic progress weren’t mutually exclusive and had to go hand in hand.
Work started with clearing the garbage which amounted to a whopping 400 kilos. Local grass was planted. Slowly, the forest regenerated and the soil quality improved. Species which had got wiped off from this region started returning and growing.
Today, there are several walking trails inside the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. Each is named after the character of the terrain or the flora and fauna found on the walk. The Ridge Trail took you to the Flag HillTop which is the highest point of the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. On clear days, you get views of the entire range of slow clad peaks like the Bunderpoonch and the Nanda Devi peaks. The Wildflower trail, perfect to walk in spring and early summer leads to a meadow covered in a carpet of flowers. The Mushroom trail is for perfect if you’re visiting the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve in the monsoon. It has mushrooms in all colours and sizes flourishing in the monsoon. The Leopard trail – is well, the one that the leopard takes.
We visited towards the end of summer. The rhododendrons were in full bloom. Naturally, we chose this trail for our late afternoon walk in the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. That’s when Viru, our guide took us to the Masura tree, which the leopard frequents.
Climb up and walk around the leafy lanes of Landour
Jabarkhet to Landour is a 3km drive. However, across the road from Rockvilla is a narrow pedestrian-only muddy path, covered in needles of the deodars, flowers of the rhododendron and leaves of the silver oak, in summer. It goes along the boundary of the famous Woodstock School of Landour and joins the road just before the Sister’s Bazar.
Once on the road, a journey back in time begins. The size of Landour demands that you explore it on foot. The deodars are tall enough to canopy the road. Gabled bungalows dot the sides of the roads. The cafes emanate sweet aromas of freshly baked goodies.
Knowing a bit of history adds some insight to this pretty walk around Landour. Landour came into existence as a convalescent depot for the British who couldn’t handle the heat in the Indian plains and suffered from tropical diseases, mainly tuberculosis.
You soon see the Institute of Technology Management which belongs to the DRDO of the Indian Army. The sanatorium was housed within what is now the campus of the ITM. The nurses’ quarters were also here and they would frequent the market square which came to be known as the Sister’s Bazaar. The name stuck around – like most of the other names in Landour.
Today, the Sister’s Bazar – is a corner with three shops and the Landour Bakehouse. One of the shops, the Prakash stores is popular among tourists for its local produce. It stocks locally made peanut butter, (Landour claims to be the first place in India where peanut butter was commercially made), orange and strawberry marmalades and the likes.
The road makes a figure eight around the town of Landour. The striking grey Kellogg church is at the intersection of this eight. We took the road to the right of the church.
Soon, we crossed an old British cemetery. There weren’t many people on the road. Just several trees, telling us how to behave in the hills! This peaceful walk went on for a while until we neared the New Lal Tibba. The actual Lal tibba is the point where the mobile tower is situated. It’s the highest point in Landour and the tower is seen prominently for afar. We could even see it from Rockvilla.
There are a couple of cafes here and one of them is said to make the best pizzas in Landour. Our solitude was broken with a rush of tourists at this point. The main attraction was the binocular installed on the terrace of the cafe at the cliff. Sprawled in front are a series of 6000 m+ Himalayan peaks – Swargrohini, Bunderpoonch, Nanda Devi and some more.
As you move ahead from the New Lal Tibba, the crowds recede and once again you are walking among the deodars on the quiet lanes. Once again, the trees teach you a wise lesson or two. Soon you are at Char Dukan.
We had imagined the name to have come from once upon a time, and now, Char Dukan must be a bustling square. The sight at Char Dukan was a reminder of what we had heard before – little had changed in Landour over the decades. Instead of four in the past, there are now 6 shops at Char Dukan. There’s a little post office on the first floor. A cafe on the opposite side is the latest addition.
There’s a winding road here that goes down to the right. It meets the Landour market.
If you walk straight ahead, you’ll see the St Paul Church to your left. We took a walk inside and noticed something strange – all the benches had big holes on one side. We had never seen anything like this before. But their presence on every bench clearly meant they served a purpose.
Later that evening we met Sunita of La Villa Bethany. While telling us the history of Landour, she also mentioned the mutiny of 1857. The mutinying soldiers would steal the rifles that the British officer would leave outside before entering the church. When this started happening frequently, they made holes in the benches big enough for the rifles to be held in place.
Soon we were back at the Kellogg church. We now walked toward the famous Rokeby Manor of Landour. Emily’s, the cafe at Rokeby Manor felt like pretty had turned itself into a structure. Stone passageways sealed by arches, colourful floral designs, wooden staircase and picture frames dripping with English humour – each corner at Emily’s was more attractive than the other. We finally chose the outdoor seating when the sun had cast a golden spell and ordered a sticky caramel pudding. Sweet spongy deliciousness exploded in our mouths with each bite we took.
We wanted to return via the same pedestrian path we had taken in the morning. Which meant we had to be back in Rockvilla by sunset.
Landour Bazaar leading to the Mall road in Mussourie
The next day, we set out to see the other side of Landour. We got dropped at Mullingar which was the first house to be built in Landour, by the founder Frederick Young. From a house to a boarding for the recuperating patients, Mullingar underwent several changes. Today, it’s a Tibetan colony, with the characteristic prayer flags and a whitewashed stupa.
Any time is good for a cafe break when they are as inviting as they’re in Landour. So what if it’s just the beginning of your walk? We walked into the Mudcup cafe. We had eaten the cinnamon rolls from here, as part of our breakfast at Rockvilla. We now packed in some raisin cookies. Enough nourishment for another day of strolling down a hillside.
A little ahead of Mullingar is a series of shops you must stop by and spend time at, in Landour. The first one is a store filled with antiques and vintage memorabilia. Old photographs, typewriters and cameras from the British era, old books, ceramics, vases – there’s every kind of vintage stuff here.
Next to it are the famous shoemakers of Landour. You’ll see them marking, cutting or sewing when you visit. You can buy handmade pure leather shoes that they stock. Or, if you want something customised, they’ll take your feet measurements, note the design that you want and courier the shoes to you once they’re ready. Local skilled art doesn’t get better than this!
From here on, we saw the more “daily needs” side of Landour. There was a long line of grocery stores, fresh fruit stalls, and tea stalls separated by wooden stairs one would have to squeeze through to climb up. The floor above were cramped homes, some with hanging balconies. Above all of this, blocking the direct view of the blue sky was a black maze of electric cables!
All of this continued till we reached the clock tower – an orange structure at the centre of the road. Behind it is the Clock tower cafe. The seats in front are perfect to catch a “slice of life”, with more locals walking down this street than tourists. The seats at the back that overlook the valley should be your choice if you want to see the more picturesque side of things.
Next to this cafe, beyond the clock tower is the Mussoorie Heritage Museum. Notice, how the name changes from Landour to Mussourie? The clock tower seems to be the unofficial demarcation between Landour and Mussourie. The museum is also a store where you can buy the local handicrafts and souvenirs. Even if you aren’t interested in buying anything, a stroll around the store is highly recommended. This is where the Parade Point was. You will understand why and how the British came here. You will be struck with wonder at the story of “Pahadi” Frederick Wilson – or how one man’s eccentricity made him king! You’ll then realise the significance of the place you are standing in!
Soon after, you cross the Picture Palace – once a movie theatre, now a place where you can play 5D games – no idea what and why would you want to do such a thing! Little Lama’s cafe is the place you go for a quick bite or a relaxed coffee with a view. Soon, you’ll be on the Mall road of Mussourie and all the peace and solitude will come to an end.
However, the scrumptious food at Kalsang is totally worth wading through the crowds. And if it’s a Saturday, it’s your lucky day! For that’s when the biggest legend of Landour visits the Cambridge book store. Mr Ruskin Bond, the man who introduced most Indians to the romance of the mountains visits for an hour, from 3-4 PM. You can queue up and take an autograph (even a selfie, to match the present times). Or you can just stand outside and watch him enthral his young fans.
After three days, we got off the hills not just rejuvenated but also feeling content. That we had not let our past experience of the crowds and commercialisation of Mussourie overpower our perception.
Choosing to stay at Rockvilla is all it had taken to rediscover the same hills drastically differently. Jabarkhet Nature Reserve had introduced us to a brilliant yet simple and successful story of conservation and progress. Landour had allowed us to travel back in time in solitude. And Rockvilla – with its warmth and cosiness, yes, but more so with its easy artistic vibe had made every moment special. We had left feeling content and inspired.