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The Drive Uphill:on the Road from Chandigarh to Kasauli
The uphill road from Chandigarh to Himachal Pradesh is so familiar that I can close my eyes and remember it as if I were there. I can almost feel the movement of the curves of the road, smell the pine trees, breathe in the fresh mountain air (quite often soaked in diesel fumes, but that too is part of my memory!) and hear the characteristic croaking of the hills. It’s been over a year since I last drove these roads, but it still feels as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
The journey from Chandigarh to Kalka is in the plains, and is the dullest part of the journey; there is just too much traffic in this section. Before, as we drove up the hill to return to boarding school, it was a time of adjustment and the final decision that the holidays were (sadly!) over, but also with the anticipation of seeing friends again (and splitting up!). The view of Kasauli from this road used to be magnificent and as one approached, the hills seemed to recede further. Now there are so many stone crushers that the view is hidden in clouds of dust.
Entry into Himachal
Just beyond Kalka is Parwanoo, where you enter Himachal on an absurdly steep bridge, made by an engineer who probably assumed the traffic would be moving at Formula 1 speed and tilted it that way. There is actually a toll gate and traffic is trying to climb this steep and inclined bridge! As we enter my favorite state in India, my no-litter rule goes into strict effect.
For the 7 years I was at boarding school, as part of our weekly activities, we cleared the slopes of dried pine needles to prevent forest fires. All it takes is a carelessly thrown cigarette butt to engulf an entire mountain in flames that can spread with terrifying speed. At school, as part of SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work), we collected all the garbage in the campus and surrounding areas, planted trees to stop soil erosion, taught the local villagers hygienic ways of cooking and house keeping, their children the English alphabet, and visited the local sanatorium to cheer up residents.
Dhaba and picnics
The journey beyond Parwanoo is getting interesting. The hills will be full of flowering bushes and trees no matter what the season, the road will meander back and forth incessantly and there will be a dhaba and juice bars at almost every nook and cranny. Every time I drive up I think of all the different places we’ve stopped for picnics over the years. Our family is pretty crazy about picnics. I still think the most enjoyable way to spend a hot summer day is to head up the hill with some picnic food and then explore the area to find the perfect spot. A perfect picnic spot must have shade, a level area for the dhurria to spread, be away from road noise and pollution, and having a foaming stream or waterfall nearby to cool the drinks would be a great asset. I think it must be genetic because our family is pre-programmed to always look for good picnic spots, even if we’re not picnicking but just passing through.
Further down the road is the town of Dharampur, which is in two parts. At Dharampur I, one road turns towards Kasauli and another towards my old school, Lawrence School, Sanawar. The two roads meet below the school in Garkhal. At Dharampur II, the road climbs steeply uphill towards Dagshai. Dharampur I is famous for Giani da dhaba which has become a legend till Delhi for serving good food fast. Masses of boarding students stop by to visit their parents on the weekends. My favorite dish is the lemon chicken which is absolutely scrumptious and great for a picnic.
The direct drive to Kasauli is a nice leisurely drive. I remember that along the way there used to be a picturesque Snow White mushroom farm, where we often stopped for picnics. It has now been converted into a bleak mini-resort, but I prefer the open ground to the concrete cubicle structure.
The final climb
As you climb from Garkhal to Kasauli, the magnificent old bungalows built in the style of the British Raj, most of which were built by the British themselves before India’s independence, unfold spectacularly. All the houses within the army cantonment cannot be structurally altered, so the charm remains with the original structures. The names of the cottages and bungalows are strangely old-fashioned.
Deforestation and soil erosion are the two most important problems affecting the lower Himalayas today. Wood is still the primary source of fuel for cooking and cutting down trees is common, although it is an offense under the Indian Penal Code. Greenery in most of the hill stations in India survived only because of the presence of the army or air force. In fact, most of the forested areas left in the foothills of the Himalayas are now army cantonments. The only exception is my old school, Lawrence School Sanawar, where the efforts of the students over the last 30 years have resulted in a huge improvement in the greening of the hills and a reduction in 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, Upper Mall and Lower Mall. Both have bungalows and cottages along them, with the Lower Mall getting the morning sun (the lights of Simla can be seen on clear nights) and the Upper Mall facing Chandigarh and Simla and getting the beautiful morning and afternoon sun. Like all the towns of the cantonment, it has an old bazaar where originally only Indian merchants and traders 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’s club only, but visitors can get a temporary membership for a few days and use the club’s facilities.
In Kasauli, one must go for walks, soak up the atmosphere of British bungalows, enjoy the amazing views and the even more amazing stories of its inhabitants, past and present. The local photo studio is an interesting shop to visit as they have a photo documentary on the history of Kasauli and Sanawar.
There are 2 social seasons in Kasauli. The first season is in the last week of June called Kasauli Week where there are lots of parties and social events organized by the army and the Kasauli Club. There is a contest for the King and Queen of Kasauli and as a grand finale a dance party is held at the Kasauli Club. The second season is during Sanawar’s founders’ celebration, which takes place in the first week of October, when parents and old Sanavarans take over the city.
I personally avoid visiting Kasauli during social seasons, especially June. I find it too crowded, too dirty, too full of boisterous boys who don’t know how to drive in the hills and don’t understand the peaceful silence between the pines. For me, it’s the tranquility, the views coupled with a lot of childhood memories that keep me enthralled by this wonderful town.
Explanation of some words:
Spur = the outer curve of a hill
Dhaba = roadside restaurant
Hill Station = indicates a town with a military presence
Mall = an old British term, generally meaning a wide path primarily for pedestrians
British Raj = A general term that covers the British colonial rule of India
Dhurrie = flat woven cotton carpet
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