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The Drive Uphill:on the Road from Chandigarh to Kasauli
The uphill drive from Chandigarh to Himachal Pradesh is so familiar that I close my eyes and remember it as if I was there. I can almost feel the movement of the road curves, inhale the smell of pine, breathe in the fresh mountain air (quite often infused with diesel fumes, but then that’s part of my memory too!) and hear the quirkiness. cawing of mountain crows. It’s been over a year since I last drove these roads, but it still feels as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
The drive from Chandigarh to Kalka is on the plains and is the most boring part of the trip; there is simply too much traffic on this stretch. Before, when we drove uphill to return to the boarding school, it was a time of adjustment and finality that the holiday was (unfortunately!) over, but also with the anticipation of meeting (and sharing!) friends again. Earlier, the view of Kasauli from this road was magnificent and as we got closer, the hills seemed to recede further away. Now there are so many stone crushers here that the view is hidden in clouds of dust.
Just after Calcutta is Parwanoo, where Himachal is entered on an absurdly steep bridge made by an engineer who probably assumed the traffic would be moving at Formula 1 speeds and tilted it at that angle. In reality, there is a toll barrier and traffic is struggling to crawl up this steep and slanted bridge! As we enter my favorite state of India, my no-litter rule goes into strict effect.
For the seven years I was in boarding school, as part of our weekly activities, we cleared hillsides of dry pine needles to prevent forest fires. All it takes is a carelessly tossed cigarette butt to engulf an entire mountain in flames that can travel at terrifying speeds. At school, we collected all the garbage in and around the campus as part of SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work), planted trees to stop soil erosion, taught local village women hygienic cooking and housekeeping, and the English alphabet to their children. and visited a local sanatorium to cheer up the residents.
Dhaba and picnics
The drive also gets interesting beyond Parwanoo. The hills are full of flowering bushes and trees, whatever the season, the road meanders back and forth incessantly, and there are dhabas and juice bars at almost every turn. Every time I drive up, I remember all the different places we’ve stopped for a picnic over the years. Our family has been picnic crazy. I still think the most enjoyable way to spend a hot summer day is to drive uphill with a picnic lunch and then explore the area to find the perfect spot. An ideal picnic spot should have shade, a level area to spread the dhurrie, a path away from noise and pollution, and having a bubbling stream or waterfall nearby to cool the drinks would be a great boon. I think it must be genetic because our family is pre-programmed to constantly look for good picnic spots even when we’re not going on a picnic but just passing through.
Further down the road is the town of Dharampur, which is divided into two parts. At Dharampur I, one road turns towards Kasauli and the other towards my old school, Lawrence School, Sanawar. Both roads meet below Garkhal School. At Dharampur II, the road goes steeply uphill towards Dagshai. Dharampur I is famous for Giani da dhaba, which has quickly become a legend as far as Delhi for serving good food. Masses of boarding school students stay with their visiting parents on weekends. My favorite dish there is the lemon chicken, which is absolutely delicious and makes a great picnic meal.
The direct route to Kasauli is a nice, leisurely ride. I remember that there was once a peculiar mushroom farm on the road called Snow White, where we quite often stopped to have picnics. It has now been converted into a charming mini-resort, but I prefer open land to concrete structures.
The last rise
As you climb from Garkhal to Kasauli, beautiful old bungalows built in the style of the British Raj, most of which were built by the British themselves before India’s independence, come into view. Not all the houses within the army cantonment can be structurally altered, so the charm is preserved with the original structures. The names of the cottages and bungalows are peculiarly old-fashioned.
Deforestation and soil erosion are two of the most important problems affecting the sub-Himalayas today. Wood is still the main source of fuel for cooking, and cutting down trees is common, even though it is an offense punishable under the Indian Penal Code. Most of the hill stations in India have been kept green only because of the presence of the army or the air force. In fact, most of the remaining forest areas in the foothills of the Himalayas are now army cantonments. One exception is my old school, Lawrence School, Sanawar, where student reforestation efforts over the past 30 years have led to greening of the hills and reduction of landslides during the rainy season. Some of the towns in Himachal that still have heavily forested army cantonments 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, the Lower Mall gets morning sun (the lights of Simla are visible on clear nights) and the Upper Mall faces both Chandigarh and Simla and gets beautiful morning and afternoon sun. Like all canton towns, it has an old bazaar, originally inhabited only by Indian traders and merchants. There is one tourist hotel in Himachal Pradesh (Ros Common) and some private hotels (Alasia Hotel) but the best place to stay is Kasauli Club. It is a member only club, but visitors can temporarily become a member for a few days and use the club’s facilities.
In Kasauli, you can take walks, soak up the atmosphere of British-built bungalows, enjoy spectacular views and even more amazing stories about its inhabitants, past and present. The local photography 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 many parties and socials organized by the army and the Kasauli Club. There will be a Kasauli King and Queen competition and a dance party will be held at the Kasauli Club as the grand finale. The second season is during the Sanawar Founders’ Celebrations, held in the first week of October, when the older and old Sanawarians take over the town.
Personally, I avoid visiting Kasauli during social seasons, especially in the month of June. In my opinion, it is too crowded, too dirty, too full of rowdy boys who do not know how to ride in the mountains and do not understand the peaceful silence between the pines. For me, it’s the silence, the views, along with the many childhood memories that keep me captivated by this wonderful little town.
Some word explanations:
Spur = outer curve of a hill
Dhaba = roadside eatery
Hill Station = denotes a town with a military presence
Mall = an old British term, generally meaning a wide road intended mainly for pedestrians
British Raj = General term covering British colonial rule in India
Dhurrie = flat cotton carpet
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