Hippie Stories / Mussoorie / Stories / Travel

Mussoorie Beyond the Tourists – Part 3


I’d met him in the café the previous evening, and something about his demeanor put me at ease instantly. He was to be my guide for the trek, and now here he was, standing outside my hotel at seven in the morning, replete in his hiking gear, a giant umbrella poking out of his backpack. I’d slept fitfully the night before, checking and rechecking my alarms, and it was just beginning to dawn on me that I was going to a strange hiking trail with an unknown man. My mind was thudding with ‘what-ifs’. My dramatic sense fully unleashed, I snapped pictures of the license plate of his Bullet and sent it to my dozing best friend, along with his contact number and the name of the café. You know, to leave poor reviews in case I died.

Early mornings are clearly not for me.

Anyhoo, safety precautions done, we set off for the base point of our hike. Mussoorie was just beginning to come into. We passed roads being cleaned, shopkeepers beginning to dust their wares for the new day, dogs huddled up in front. Sunlight was just beginning to glitter on top of the trees when we left the hustle and bustle behind and drove deeper into the forest.

I saw hordes and hordes of langoors eyeing us cautiously from their pine homes. Peter soon started telling me about his life as a guide, about the bicycle tours he leads on these roads, his favorite view point in these hills, throwing in information about Mussoorie like only a local could. He told me George Everest, the Surveyor General of India, or better yet, the guy Mount Everest is named after, lived right here in Mussoorie at a place now called Everest Hill. His house now in ruins, it still provides a spectacular view of the mountains from one side, and the Doon valley from the other. The forest accompanying us on both sides of the road, he told me, is declared private property in an attempt to preserve it. “Private property doesn’t mean you can do anything to it, but still how cool is it to own a forest”, he said.

I agree.

Our base point fell in an area called Cloud’s End. Cloud’s End is a literal point up in these hills beyond which clouds disperse into thin air. A museum and a heritage property, run by two sisters who inherited it, now mark the place. It’s literally the last point of Mussoorie.

That white house you see in top right corner is the Cloud’s End heritage property

My musings into what it must be like to live their lives got cut short by Peter pointing out a white temple atop a hill on our right. “We’ll be trekking up to there. That’s Benog Hill and that’s the temple of Jwalaji”, he told me as he stopped and parked the bike in front of a check post. I’d looked up Benog Hill the night before and it looked very unassuming. It looked like a random hill to be honest, but now that we were out here, let me just say that the pictures do not do justice to it.

Look at our starting point!

We crossed over the check post, and entered what is Benog Mountain Quail Sanctuary. Mountain quails are very rare, and the last they were spotted were in this sanctuary, and in Panghot near Nainital. Peter told me they are not sighted anymore at all. We’d been talking all the way and I was put at ease once again by his easy manner.  We kept a steady conversation going: me, with my endless stream of questions, and him answering each one of them politely, slightly amused. I’d forgotten all about my fears of being alone now that I was here on a forest trail that was hardly five kilometers from Mall freakin Road.

I wanted to take it all in and keep it there somewhere, hidden and preserved because I knew this was my last trip for a very long time.

We began walking in the forest. I was very aware of how quiet it was, and was positive a leopard or a bear would spring out in our way any moment. No such (mis)adventures though, as the most we saw on our walk uphill was more langoors and monkeys. Oh, and a suddenly running pheasant that I was sure was monkey man. Mussoorie forests do have bears and leopards, but they’ve got better things to do than show up to fulfill my wild imagination. We walked in silence, Peter matching my pace, pointing out birds and mushrooms sometimes, mostly leaving me alone with my thoughts as I took in the forest, taking pictures of everything quietly.

There was no network in the forest. I was glad. We took breaks wherever I wanted, with him encouraging me to slow down and not rush it. The hill top doesn’t look very impressive in pictures, but I have no idea why there aren’t more pictures of the trail circulating on the internet.

Look at this view!

I could sit here forever and stare at cloud’s end. Actually that’s what I was content to do, and not hike up anymore. I was happy, and I felt good. The hill in front had sunshine on one end, and clouds on the other.

I wanted to sit there on that rock for hours and talk about nothing and everything with this comforting stranger. My problems, the indomitable question mark that had become my future, my fears, apprehensions, nothing mattered anymore. The forest swallowed all that up in its silence, and left behind the hippie to just be. Do you know what it’s like to share a moment like that with a person who knows nothing about you? Who knows nothing about why you’re here, what this means to you and what’s happening to you on the inside. And yet, you sit there in companionable silence.

We kept moving

There was a trail of cow dung accompanying us to the top, and that’s when I found out tribes lived in these forests too. The gujjars of these forests owned cows, who they let out to graze in the wilderness. And soon enough, we came across a rain-made pond full of apprehensive cows.

I swear every single one of them got up in one synchronized move as soon as we drew closer. It was fairly amusing. Before we got to the top, Peter took us on a detour to an old clock tower.

The view from the clock tower

We climbed it, and just sat, taking in the view.

Beautiful, untouched meadow

When we finally made our way to the top, all I could see around me were meadows. Full of daisies and purple flowers.

The flowers on top of the hill

Peter chose a spot for us to sit, overlooking the deodars and the deep valley below:

The “view” from Benog Hill

Joys in life are simple. Snacking on apples and bananas as I watched him trace a path up to Himachal in the valley below us is the most calm I’ve felt in my life. We spoke about his travels, the hardships of operating a travel company out of Mussoorie, his hometown, his favorite trek. I wanted to read this person, soak up every anecdote he told me and every thought he put forth, because here was a life so unlike mine and I got to be a part of it, no matter for how long. I never had much to tell anyway but I could tell he was amused somebody wanted to know about him for a change. But then, how often do you get a chance to sit on a hill with a person who’s bicycled all the way to Ladakh?

I did the most natural thing I could think of, right there on that hill with it’s endless meadows: I lay down in the tall grass and just let myself be. A couple hours later we’d be winding our slow and frustrating path back to Delhi, but for now, it didn’t matter.

Ladybirds wound a path through my hair, on my forehead, all the way to my chin as I just lay there, completely safe and at ease, staring at the deodars to my right. Peter left me alone, and I lay there for god knows how long.

He returned quietly after a while and now it was my turn to go around, take in the entire place. I will admit that that the valley view was alright, but our entire journey up to it, and the meadows and the tall grass and the quiet, locked temple and the alarmed cows and the chamomiles and daisies and the weather, that had been sunny but turned cold right when I decided to lay down, all of it was priceless.

Add to that the company of a seasoned traveler who showed me the place and a part of his life, and I had my perfect trip done well.

We walked back engrossed in a lively conversation. Both of us knew we’d probably never see each other again, and maybe that’s what makes sharing thoughts that much easier. I’m not saying we shared secrets. I’m saying we talked for no fear of judgement about anything and everything, trusting each other as only strangers can.

I’d seen Peter pick up plastic and any such garbage he’d encounter on the trail, and I joined in helping him. We even saw a snake cross our path on our way back so my wild imagination did come to some fruition. The bike ride on our way back included a short detour to Lambi Dehar mines, closed now and home to many a haunted stories, a sighting of the palace of the Queen of Kapurthala, and the Savoy Hotel.

Paradise is closer than you’d think

When he dropped me back in front of my hotel at 12 noon, there were no long drawn goodbyes. We shook hands and promised to exchange pictures, and just like that, he was gone. It felt right too, because I know this is a place I’d be coming back to a lot, and something tells me I’ll be seeing a lot more of Peter on these future trips. Mussoorie had given me a great gift this time, and that was the gift of knowing that people like Peter and places like Benog Hill often existed where you least expected them to. They show themselves only to those who seek them out, and wait for hippies like you and me, in patience.

Never stop seeking out your own adventure, even in the most touristy of places.

While in Mussoorie, I highly recommend checking out BackCountryIndia and if you’re lucky, you’d find Peter back from one of his trips and he’ll show you around himself. If not, stop by Café BytheWay which is where I met him and his partner Rajat, and listen to their stories over a cup of coffee.

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