Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.
Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!
Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.
Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.
Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!
To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.
We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.
We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.
You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.
Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.
Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.
It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.
Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.
To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.
The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.
It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You
can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.
Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid
of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.
Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.
The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.
If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, we suggest you carry your alcohol.
Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.
Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can identify how good this would taste. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.
You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.
(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)
We are travel addicts; and clearly road trip aficionados. But, when another long weekend struck, there was an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chanced upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India.
Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there!
The closest to Delhi, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Simla, their summer capital. Thus started the search for a suitable train on the Kalka – Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train.
We booked ourselves for the onward journey on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka – Shimla route was covered. But, now came the challenge of the Delhi – Kalka stretch. This was an insipid route; all we had to do was to commute.
The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We did not want to take our car to Kalka as we would have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days.
We grudgingly booked the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onward journey and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we waited, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive. A couple of days before our journey, we began checking if the Howrah Kalka was running on time. To our horror, we realized that it had been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours!
We panicked & started thinking about Plan B. Then it struck us, ever the typical middle-income-group couple, that we could take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh.
For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scrambled to the Himachal Tourism website and heft a sigh of relief when we managed to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and booked it quickly.
The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government – ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, was followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.
Finally, the wait was over. We headed to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat was at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seemed unlikely. Sigh!
Before we boarded, we wanted to have our favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. We were drawn to it like bees to flowers.
Did you know that samosa is not Indian? It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once we were satiated, we grabbed our seats. A quick checking of tickets took place, & we started moving. Yay!
Getting out of Delhi was, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It was compounded with the ‘kaawariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in the name of religion. The ‘kaawar yatra’ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshiping Lord Shiva.
We stopped at the Haryana Tourism guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately got a little scare by our bus. While we had dinner, our bus driver & conductor tried to provide comfort to them. Nothing had happened to either them or to the bike. But they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle!
Dinner was a simple fare. We did not want to delay the bus. We observed other families who are carrying their own food. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden. This took us back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we looked forward to, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year.
Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver.
The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Do you support reclining seats? Aren’t they unnecessary and an inconvenience to fellow travelers? The manufacturers think only of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces.
And we were finally in Shimla! It was early morning, was drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! When you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful.
We were soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places we had come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer.
It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public.
The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the decor reminding of the colonial times. Lots of woodwork, lots of English paintings, lots of artifacts dating back to the Raj.
We needed some sleep on a proper bed. So we hid ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slipped into dreamland. It was noon by the time we were refreshed. It was time to hit Shimla. We felt like tourists.
A quick peek into Trip Advisor showed the Viceregal House (or now known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) as the #1 attraction. Our Resort arranged a cab for us. The cabbie turned out to be a friendly, simple chap. He told us more about Shimla.
The Viceregal House turned out to be more charming than we imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition.
There is a short guided tour for the ground floor. It was completely worth it. After independence, the House became the President’s summer retreat. Later, the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high.
We could not have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, & lots of history!
Next stop- the Mall Road. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we were hungry and wanted to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We took a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point. It was foggy; we deserved a cup of something warm.
We narrowed down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café. We were famished; Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seemed adequate. Burp!
The rain did not look like it was done with its daily target, but surprisingly, we quite enjoyed it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort was what the Gods intend for us. & we had no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.
We had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the inclusions was a romantic room decoration. Our room looked more wild than romantic. There was an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves.
We could neither stop giggling nor stop shaking our heads. We loved the cheesiness of it. For the decoration, we would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There were also fresh fruits & cookies. We did a little dance around the room.
Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff were disappointed when we asked them to clear the decoration within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!
Day 2 started with Annandale. It was Kargil Vijay Diwas – the day India won the Kargil War. It was an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We had asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliged.
We hold the defense forces in high esteem, especially the Indian Army. India is handicapped without them. Those days, there was a flash flood in J&K. The army carried out the rescue operations. J&K citizens, who have called the army all sorts of names & forced them to be withdrawn, now sought its help. It was an eye-opener how the army serves the nation without expecting anything.
The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do.
So where was Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji was our friendly cabbie.) We planned to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations were unimportant; it was the journey that held value.
Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seemed we were in a picture postcard. We have come to Shimla earlier, but have never felt so contented with this region.
The Mashobra apple orchard was completely covered in clouds. The walk up to the Naldehra golf course did not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we were more than satisfied with the journey to the two places.
We headed back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arranged it for us in the small outhouse cottage. This was NICE!
& here was the last day. The day which was the reason for this trip. We were set to experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort.
We clicked photographs with the train in the backdrop. We made a spectacle of ourselves; people gaped at us, but we were too excited to care. We realized that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe! It was good in a way as we sat cozily with each other.
The rowdy boys from our bus were on the adjacent seat. We rolled our eyes. The train was choc-a-bloc full. It was a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags.
The train pulled out from the station. Thus started a beautiful journey. We traveled through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that was pleasant.
It rained; we hurriedly closed our windows, but the water found its way in anyhow. People opened their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us was lamenting throughout. But we found it amusing, rather than annoying.
The train brought us closer to nature. There were tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. This was surely going to remain etched in our memories for as long as we lived…
The train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. It halts at Kalka from where the broad gauge starts. We boarded the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinated us in another manner. The train was spotless, the air-conditioning worked marvelously, the seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the service was impeccable.
Soon, we were home. Our first heritage train ride had been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, liking Shimla…
We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:
Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.
I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.
Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.
It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.
New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.
On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.
Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.
I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.
I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.
Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.
We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.
I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.
The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.
But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.