When the Uttarakhand Tourism Board and Lonely Planet Magazine India invited me to Uttarakhand, I was slightly hesitant. What the hell would a girl like me do there anyway? I like being warm and I’m interested in art and design. Nature is amazing but what would our meals be like? Then the itinerary offered a wildlife excursion, a proverbial dangling carrot to this proverbial bunny. I couldn’t resist.
I’m so glad I said yes. Not only did I end up meeting four of the most interesting and intelligent women, fellow writers who were all far more well travelled than I (dangnabbit!), I found enough to keep my whimsy-loving self happy and bought enough blankets to forget about the winter chill. Sheena liked the hills. Who would have thunk it?
Our first stop was Lansdowne, a perfectly picturesque hill station from the time of the British Raj. It’s the kind of place you go to do nothing, but unplug, enjoy the scenery and take long strolls on its deodar-lined paths. We stayed at Tip In Top, which despite the cheesy name was very comfortable with cosy wooden cabins and delicious lunches on tables they set up for us in the sun. We tried traditional Garhwali food, delicious meat curries and divine black rotis made from millet.
The walk from Tip In Top down to Bhulla Tal, the artificial lake is sublime and is much recommended. St Mary’s is a beautiful Gothic-style Anglican church with stained glass windows we stopped at on the way but the highlight for me, was another one a short distance away.
Just eight kilometers from lovely Lansdowne is Jaiharikal, where we dropped in to Jeevan Dhara, a chapel and ashram set up in the early 80s by the late Vandana Mataji, a missionary born a Zoroastrian who later converted to Christianity. Anybody is welcome at the ashram, they only ask that you observe some silence. (Meditation of all forms is encouraged, joining in the satsang and Hindi masses are optional.) The place fascinated me because every effigy of Jesus and Mary were in an Indian avatar: legs in sukhasana, crescent pedestals, crowns of stars. I hadn't seen anything else quite like it.
On our way back down from our visit, we were greeted with the most splendid sunset view over a field of practising footballers and serenaded by a group of local women in wonderful knitted sari blouses, who welcomed us into one of their houses and offered us hot cups of tea.
I’ve learnt over time that India’s spiritual (read: religious) centres are not for me really.
I walked around, ate a tasty lunch at Hoshiyar Puri, took some photos and enjoyed strolling about the markets but after the (seemingly perverse) fascination wore off, I didn’t really know what to do with myself as always, and mostly it terrified me how commercialised and exploitative faith can be.
Leisure Hotels definitely made our time there much more delightful. They welcome you to their hotels with a beaded mala and a cold glass of shikanji, delicious traditional lemonade. At Ganga Lahari, which has a sunny gallery which overlooks one of the bridges, I enjoyed an afternoon chai with a side of people watching - sadhus in their saffron robes, errant cows, people sifting the riverbed for coins, pilgrims and their families.
We had a great dinner at Haveli Hari Ganga, another one of their properties. If you follow me on instagram, you’ll know my thing for floors, and theirs are absolutely lovely. Go for an evening meal and you can listen to live bhajans stream in from the courtyard. The hotel has a beautiful outdoor terrace, framed posters of Bollywood films that have the word Ganga in the title, and it’s own private ghat for taking a morning dip in the Ganges, though my advice is if that is something you are interested in partaking in, do it in the freezing, but pristine waters in Rishikesh.
Check out part two for more from Uttarakhand and my visits to Rishikesh, Dehradun and Mussoorie.