As I sit here in the 'Hideout' of the Oak Grove Inn, strategically located below the 'Hangout', that was once a garage in Delhi, I am amazed at the transformation a little imagination and a lot of bric-a-brac can create in any space. What began as a planned holiday with friends to Landsdowne, turned into a little getaway for Nalini and me.
On a bright Monday morning, we stepped into a hired Scorpio and navigated the bylanes of Gurgaon and the busy thoroughfares of the city, to escape to towards 'The Hills' . The drive to Landsdowne was peppered with missed turns and guidance from Colonel Rawat, our host.
Lunch, a steaming bowl of butter chicken with freshly baked naans, served at a surprisingly posh, AC restaurant in the town of Kotdwara. The restaurant lived up to its name as we 'relished' our afternoon repast. From there on, it was literally uphill going. We ascended into pine forests, along narrow, winding hill roads, with silent jeeps screaming around the corners. It was a battle of wits, with a dash of common sense and generous dose of intuition that kept us going.
Oak Grove Inn is a charming homestay run by the Rawats. As we discovered over the next few days, everyone knows the Colonel. In fact, in this sleepy hamlet, it seems more as though everyone knows everyone. The homestay is located at Jaiharikhal, 6 km from Landsdowne. Spread over multiple levels across the hillside, it affords a private lair for those who seek it. And companionship for those who yearn for a chat or two.
The 'Hideout', discovered 3 days after landing here, explains why those who come here once, keep coming back, not only to Landsdowne, but to Oak Grove Inn. It's the kind of place that I would share only with those I know would appreciate it, and the lovely couple that run it. Hangout, Hideout, The Lounge, God's Own Window.... The resort is replete with colourful, cozy spaces created painstakingly by Mrs. Rawat. Rarely have I felt a desire to wax eloquent about a homestay, though I have been to quite a few across the country. Oak Grove deserves it.
The day we drove down from Delhi, it rained cats and dogs. Nestled on our balcony, we savoured hot chai and pakoras, waiting for the rain to subside. The wait was in vain. The heavens opened up and kept us indoors, nursing a rum and Coke, and the finest French Fries this side of the Atlantic. Chef Raju has magic in his hands, transforming the simplest local vegetables into a gourmet meal.
Conversation flowed freely from environment to travels, from Khichdi to Kung Pao Chicken, forest trails to fiery pulaos, until it was time to call it a night.
The rain was unrelenting. Through the night and well into the next morning, the pitter-pat of rain drops made their presence felt..tapping out a melody on the tin roof above us. As the rain cleared, we ventured into the town, to soak in the sights. First stop, Tip-in-Top, pronounced more as 'Tiffin Top', the highest point in the area. A picturesque spot that affords typically picturesque views of the Garhwhal Range. The Garhwhal Vikas Mandal has capitalised on this scenic location by setting up tree Houses, Log Huts and pre-fab cabins for tourists.
One mountain view is much like another says the blasé traveller. But each vista has the power to bestow upon the onlooker a sense or tranquility and awe. Thus did we linger, viewing the peaks before us, until an ominous growl was heard. As the hour crept past one, our stomachs signalled the need for nourishment.
So from one fairytale locale to Fairydale did we drive. Through vale and across marginally motor able tracks, the route to Fairydale Resort was reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie, minus the ominous clouds. The Resort, one of the very first to start operations in Landsdowne, is a large bungalow with a few cottages on its grounds. But what is enchanting is its al fresco dining area. Even the simplest fare tastes magical, if eaten amidst the pines, overlooking meadows and pine and peaks in the distance.
We have no agenda in Landsdowne or list of things to see, a bucket list of 'must-dos'. In fact, there should be a list of 'must-not-do's' here. You must not hurry, worry or scurry. The points will always be there. You must amble gently from one place to another and let the sleepy nature of this place overwhelm you. Only then, will you enjoy your stay in Landsdowne. Or else, stay away, lest your corrupt it with your 'city-slicker' attitude.
Things move slowly here, but they move with an air of elegance and calm that is lost on most city-dwellers. I have seen that those who visit places like Landsdowne begin to seek the very things that they wished to escape from. Why do you need satellite TV, when you have the Magpie's Chorus in the morning. Why waste time on political views, when you can spend the evening gazing at village lights in the distance. Why do you eschew the simple fare of a homestay, served with love, when that is what you signed up for? Why remain a tourist, when you have the chance to become a traveller? This is beyond me.
Later in the afternoon, we visited the immaculately maintained, though unlit, War Memorial - a tribute to the history and gallantry of the men of the Garwhal Rifles Regiment. With a background score provided by the Army Marching Band practicing in the adjacent parade ground, I leafed through the pages of the Regiment's history, reading stories of bravery beyond the call of duty, of weapons that would be considered primitive in today's times and most of all, of sense of duty that defies definition.
By now, the rains were a distant dream, and Landsdowne was bathed in bright sunshine. We trooped back to our haven for some victuals and rest, emerging from hibernation once the sun had set. Tonight, we were all set to make the most of the Hangout. Alcohol, conversation and snacks flowed freely, as we chanted with fellow guests with everything ranging from Uttapams to Urban Planning.
The next day, we decided to take a drive to the temple of Tadkeshvar, set in a Deodhar grove around 40 kilometres from Landsdowne. Armed with sandwiches, a mat and a thermos of hot water, we set off on our adventure. In the hills, a two lane road seems like a cruel joke, as one could probably place two feet apart in each of the lanes, but two cars passing each other? That's another story altogether. So with one eye on the landscape and another on the corner ahead, I propelled us gently towards our destination.
Predictably, the first stop was for lunch in a. No-name restaurant in a no-name stretch of habitation called Sisalda. Two benches, a counter and a fridge constituted the restaurant. But what it lacked in polish, it more than made up for in hospitality and fresh food. Everything was bought from the store opposite, as we needed it. Hot chapatis and fresh salad, cut on the spot. Dal, rice and the vegetable du jour, served with aplomb by the maitre'D . His ever watchful eye darting to see if we needed anything. Lunch thus dismissed, we are back on our way to Tadkeshwar.
When in search of experiences divine, on must bow to the needs of divinity and serve. So, when we saw two ladies trudging with large bags on their heads, along with a little girl in tow, we did what came naturally to me - offered them a ride. We exchanged pleasantries and dropped them off at their village, a few kilometres down the road, Their colourful garb, lilting dialect and sheer gratitude at a simple act of kindness made us realise how much we take for granted. They probably showered more blessings on us than a pantheon of priests, as they alighted from the car. And all through, I had only one thought in my mind, " I Hope she's not sitting on my IPad!" I guess there's only that much generosity of spirit in all of us - but I did everything I could to not stop the car while they were in it and check. Once they alighted, I stopped at the next scenic point, and clicked a picture, just to check!
The next hour or more was spent in the company of Lord Tadkeshwar and his Deodhar protectors. An idyllic spot set amidst pine and Deodar trees, desperately trying to escape the ravages of the paper-plate brigade. Even the Lord seems to be losing this battle, despite exhortations to keep His place clean. He frowns on those who litter and blesses those who clean up - or so a sign says.
Seems as though the devotees are not worried about a growing God, when they can feed cows the leftovers from their picnic, paper plates, et al.
I often wonder what it will take to install some civic sense into the common populace. There's more litter outside the dustbin than in it. And then, mountain breezes playfully play frisbee with paper plates, depositing them in the most unlikely locations - including the feet of the Lord.
As the sun began its decent over the horizon, so did we descend towards Landsdowne, sopping only for a cup of tea at a small hillside resort along the way. We stopped at the Army Market at Landsdowne for a dekho and were pleasantly surprised to find high quality fabrics and leather goods at reasonable prices. Over the next hour, we traipsed from one shop to other, picking up bags, shoes, kurtas and stoles to our hearts' delight. Thus armed with our purchases did we return to Oak Grove Inn. The moment we unburdened ourselves of our purchases, it became apparent that I had left my satchel which contained among other things my wallet and house keys at the shoe shop at Landsdowne, 5 km away. It took one phone call to confirm that the shopkeeper had it, In fact, he had already tried to contact the Colonel and tell him that we had left it behind.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. Probably the good karma I had earned with my good deed of the day paid off. The shop owner Javed met the Colonel at a wedding celebration in the town and handed over my satchel.Then, all was well with the world. The perfect end to a lovely day.
Day 3 in Landsdowne. Our last full day here. I took me 3 days to discover the Hideout where I am sitting and typing this blog. Armed with trusty IPad, a bottle of beer and plate of French Fries ( as mentioned afore), and a quiver of the finest words, I am reminiscing over the events of the past two days. It would be far too much to pack in the people we've met, new friends we've made and conversations we've had into this epistle. Suffice to say that they have made the entire stay exactly what I hoped it would be. Blissful.
The agenda for the rest of the day like most tourist agendas is very hectic and packed with items like lunch, nap, evening drink, fireside chat, dinner, sleep. All to be executed at the slowest possible pace. For the best journeys are those that flow from one moment to the next, without a plan. I'm sure the Landsdowners will concur. That's how they seem to live their lives, anyway.