Delhi to Naldehra: When the hills beckon


Published on 10 June 2016 in Mint

Going that extra mile to revisit childhood memories, trying golf and walking among apple orchards

hills-kOoF--621x414@LiveMint

We weren’t the quintessential Bengali family who had a home in Kolkata where ageing grandparents waited with gifts and blessings for grandchildren every summer. Instead, the vacation ritual comprised my father sitting and planning our nuclear family trip to the hills. This was the only way to escape the scorching heat of Delhi.

Back then—about a decade ago—Shimla was the most credible choice. A short train ride and a couple of hours’ drive was all that was needed to reach the erstwhile summer capital of British India. Those were the days when one didn’t have to climb cliff tops for unobstructed views of the mountains; snow-capped peaks shone uninhibitedly under the summer sun.

I am not sure how and when these annual family trips to the hills stopped. Perhaps it was around the time that people started complaining about how common and crowded Shimla had become. Like many others, we too bid adieu to the Mall Road, Christ Church, and the hall by Lakkar Bazaar where I learnt to roller skate.

travel

Last month, I found myself crossing the same route, dotted with familiar pines and deodars, on a weekend break. I was on my way to Naldehra, a hamlet that is just an hour’s drive from Shimla—offbeat travel, you see, is now in vogue and going a few extra miles for quieter terrain is considered the norm. The Chalets Naldehra, my abode for the next two days, was lavish. With more than half of the first day gone in travel, I decided to stay put in my room’s balcony, with a cup of tea and a book in hand. The view of the sun sinking behind the dark-grey ranges was the perfect way to end the day.

The next morning, intermittent drumming on the window panes woke me up. It was a troop of monkeys. Grateful for the ingenious alarm clock, I hit the road for my first excursion—the Naldehra Golf Course.

It was in the early 1900s that Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, supervised the construction of this nine-hole golf course. Perched at an altitude of 2,200m, the ground is one of the oldest and most scenic in the country. It’s open to both locals and tourists for a fee of Rs.250-500, and the 30-minute climb up the ridge was worth a few teeing-off lessons. After several failed attempts, I was finally able to swing the club hard enough to make the ball fly over the net. Golf will not stay with me the way roller skating did, but I’m glad I tried.

The next thing on my agenda almost immediately superseded the excitement at my freshly discovered golfing prowess—the apple orchards, in full bloom, at the Regional Horticultural Research and Training Station in Mashobra, 13km from Naldehra. I found myself following the station chief down a rutted path flanked by fragrant fruit trees. He told me about 170 varieties of apple trees, both red and golden, were cultivated there. Shiny golden apples hung from branches that seemed to have grown tired of their weight. An hour’s walk with him, and I wanted my own orchard. In fact, at the end of the day, premature retirement to the hills of Naldehra seemed like a good idea.

Reluctant to return straight to Delhi the next day, I decided to spend some time strolling around Shimla, hoping to catch glimpses of the summer I remembered. I ordered lunch at a café overlooking the Mall Road. It was teeming with people—college students, young couples, office-goers and tourists. Noisier than before and a little less clean—things had most certainly changed.

Perhaps I was better off exploring new places and keeping intact my childhood memories of Shimla.

Room service


Published in May 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveller India

Hyatt Regency Delhi
Hyatt Regency is centrally located at the hub of Bhikaji Cama Place.
Hyatt-Regency-Delhi-PRINT-16.jpgLong stays
Location: Centrally located in the commercial hub of Bhikaji Cama Place
Look: Native sandstone structure inspired by the Gupta age; interiors in cream, brown, purple and grey
Crowd: Mainly leisure and corporate travellers, hip young entrepreneurs
Rooms: All rooms and suites have free Wi-Fi; there are also fully equipped serviced apartments for long stays
Eating and drinking: While China Kitchen does excellent Asian, La Piazza offers Italian
Best thing: The instant feedback via the dedicated WhatsApp number
Worst thing: Some rooms need an update (ask for a newly renovated room)
Price: Doubles from Rs10,000
Website

JW Marriott Hotel New Delhi Aerocity
The 523 rooms help host large events.
Room-at-the-mariott-WEB.jpgEvents
Location: A few minutes’ drive from the international airport
Look: Steel and glass outside, an understated palette of light oak, dark wood and olive inside
Crowd: Think in-transit guests, large groups and well-known names such as P Chidambaram
Rooms: 523 rooms help host large events. Female guests get rooms near the lifts, in case of an emergency
Eating and drinking: K3 for Indian, Italian and Canton fare. Akira Back is a superb Japanese-Korean restaurant
Best thing: Watching planes take off and land from runway-facing rooms
Worst thing: There’s no neighbourhood to speak of, as most of Aerocity’s still being built
Price: Doubles from Rs15,000
Website

The Leela Palace New Delhi
The Leela Palace New Delhi is located in the high security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Leela.jpgShort stays
Location: In the high-security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan
Look: Murano glass chandeliers, Turkish carpets, exquisite flowers, modern Indian art on the walls
Crowd: Those who like to work and play, and royals such as the king of Morocco
Rooms: The 254-key hotel has three suites with plunge pools, which overlook the city
Eating and drinking: French-Italian gourmet restaurant Le Cirque and MEGU for modern Japanese
Best thing: The Library Bar (for whiskies and cigars), which serves till 1am
Worst thing: Being popular for weddings, it can get crowded and noisy
Price: Doubles from Rs20,000
Website

Trident, Gurgaon
The Trident, Gurgaon is close to several major company offices.
Trident.jpg
In transit
Location: Close to several major company offices in DLF Phase II and III, including TCS and Microsoft
Look: A blend of Moroccan, Mughal and Rajasthani styles; plenty of natural light and water bodies
Crowd: Corporate travellers, including young entrepreneurs
Rooms: The plush rooms and suites offer lovely views of the garden or the reflection pool
Eating and drinking: Three restaurants, including Konomi for modern Japanese; it stocks a range of sakes and shochus
Best thing: The heated outdoor pool, especially in winter
Worst thing: There are few dining or nightlife options in the immediate vicinity
Price: Doubles from Rs24,000
Website

Viking ways


Published on 21 February, 2016 in The Asian Age

The local life in Denmark is quiet and charming, in contrast to the buzzing hub of its capital, Copenhagen, writes Arunima Mazumdar

Vikingespillene i FrederikssundFoto: Wesseltoft 11/2004

Scene from a Viking play

There’s something about summer in Denmark. The sun is imposing, it shines overhead like a big, bright jewel, and yet, at the same time, there’s a nip in the air. Locals while away their days and evenings by the harbour, never tiring of the Danish way of life.

I am sitting by the edge of the sparkling blue waters of the Roskilde Fjord, away from the modern Copenhagen city, watching tourists move around in bundles from point to point, and children prancing about in capes and horned-helmets, dressed as little Vikings. Looking at them, I am reminded of what Mette, our guide here at the Roskilde Ship Museum, had said, “The Vikings never disappeared; they just changed their way of living. Slowly, they stopped being Vikings, had children and had families, and so on and so forth. They are our ancestors.”

Sailing alongside history
Roskilde is known as the Viking city. This is where five original Skuldelev Viking ships were found some five hundred years ago. The king and the bishop, two of the most powerful men in history, who lived here at the time, used these ships to block one of the three major sailing canals to prevent enemy ships sailing into the city. With a population of about a little more than 5,000 people, Roskilde was almost like the capital of Denmark. Much later, in 1962, all of these five Viking ships were excavated around 20 kms off the Roskilde Fjord. These nearly 1,000-year-old vessels now preserved in the Roskilde Ship Museum are proof that apart from being eminent sea warriors and tradesmen, the Vikings were above all experts in boatbuilding.

“The word Viking actually means a pirate, so not everyone would want to consider themselves as a Viking during the Viking period. It’s now cool to refer to oneself as their descendants,” says Mette as I prepare to hop onto one of the replicas of the Viking ships and set sail.

Poetic relics
Known to be outright opportunists, the Vikings made monasteries their main target of loot. Here were men, followers of Christianity and without any weapons guarding over silver. A lot of silver! Imagine how easy it’d be to simply crush over them and steal all their wealth. Ironically, much of what we know about the Vikings is second-hand information. They never wrote about themselves and whatever information we have is from what others recorded. Naturally, their portrayal and interpretation is a bit crooked in the pages of history. But not everything is negative. The museum’s bookshop has a lot of interesting volumes and I am pleased to spot a book on Vikings’ poetry.

According to the book, the Vikings are more renowned for their combat than for poetry, let alone love, but had a keen and overlapping interest in all three. They were known to be cruel and barbaric, but this book by several anonymous contributors has compiled verses written by them. For them, poetry served as a repository of stories about gods and heroes, expressing the ups and downs of daily life.

Village life
Summer days in Denmark are awfully long. There is still time for dusk, so I decide to take a detour to Frederikssund for the annual Vikings Festival in which every summer, hundreds of locals come together and volunteer to put up a traditional Viking play, alongside a huge Viking market with stalls and workshops.

A short bus ride away from Roskilde, Frederikssund is a treat for the eyes. This year’s play is called Hroar and Helge, a tale of two brothers who battle with the enemy king to win back their deceased father’s throne. The play is Danish, but the English scripts provided to us are of great help. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before — extravagant costumes, real horses, fire play, incredible music, and an impeccable performance by 50-odd men, women and children. There’s no better way of getting a taste of local life in a foreign land.

It’s dark enough to retire to the plush quarters of Vesterbro, Copenhagen. En route to my hotel there, I pop into a local microbrewery in Halsnæs Bryghus for a quick beer. “Try our Classens Lise, it’s an American pale ale, flavoured with chamomile and heather honey, and has history behind its name,” I’m told. How so, I ask. “Well, you see, Major-General Johan Frederik Classens founded the towns Frederiksværk and Liseleje; the latter is named after his beautiful stepdaughter, Lise, and the beer is named after her,” he explains. I smile back and request him to bring me the mug of history.

Home is where the hippie is


Published on 30 January, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink

Forty-four years after its conception, ‘free town’ Christiania, with its anarchic attitude, continues to exist rather peacefully in Copenhagen

Encounter this as you exit Christiania - You are now entering the EU.jpg

Welcome to Christiania: Copenhagen’s hippie enclave is a car-free zone

Every year since 2007, the British lifestyle magazine Monocle has brought out a list of the 25 most liveable cities in the world. The study is based on a variety of factors such as the quality of living conditions, architecture, public transport, environmental issues, medical care, and so on. Copenhagen, with its green and sustainable lifestyle, award-winning architecture, and meticulous city planning, has predictably topped the list for 2008, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

On the face of it, the Danish capital seems to have a rhythm of its own. There’s an unspoken and reciprocal respect for pedestrians and cyclists. The Danes seem content and carefree, and they go about their lives pretty simply. It’s almost impossible to nitpick the Danish way of life. But then there’s Christiania, the controversial ‘free town’ that exists contrarily within the controlled existence of Copenhagen, and I wonder if Christiania too has had a role to play in upping the rank of Copenhagen to match the urbane estimates of Monocle’s survey of the world’s most liveable cities.

The anarchic enclave of Christiania was founded by a group of squatters and hippies in 1971. They took over an abandoned military village, about 84 acres in all, and set up their own community — one that was free and unbound by any governmental rules or regulations. They made their own laws, flew their own flag (a red banner with three yellow dots, representing the three ‘I’s in Christiania), built their own homes using old army barracks, and made their own currency (which is no longer in use; they now accept Danish krone). They didn’t want to be part of the city in any way; they wanted to keep distance from the glare of lawful Danish institutions and wished an alternative way of living. They had their way then and they’re going strong even today with about a thousand residents forming the core community, while several others live in the hope of being included in the commune someday.

In its 44th year, Christiania is a car-free zone. One could choose to walk, cycle, or ride a horse. I pack my camera and phone in a rucksack and enter the main gate, which opens directly into the infamous Pusher Street. A refreshingly green cannabis plant grows in a flowerpot kept on the side of the entrance. A sweet, almost fruity fragrance of weed hangs in the air. The street is flanked by makeshift booths, each of them stocked with different versions of hashish. The other thing common among the booths are the masked, bouncer-like men guarding them. Inside, other men sell, buy, smoke, or roll joints. Every wall is adorned with a mural or graffiti. I see colour, I sense controversy. It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. Sale of drugs is not legal, yet they’re bought and consumed openly, and perhaps that’s the beauty of Christiania. Police visits are also frequent. There’s temporary furore, fines are paid, people are arrested, and then life goes back to normal.

“Christiania is open for everybody, but not everybody can come in, become a part of the community and live here,” says Martha, who became a resident nine years ago and now works at Grønsagen, an organic fruits and vegetable market-cum-café across Pusher Street. She came to Denmark 18 years ago from Peru and fell in love with a man who belonged to the community. “It was easy for me as I married into the community. I didn’t choose Christiania, it was destiny,” she says.

Over the years, Christianites have learned to co-exist more naturally with the ways of the Danish government. They pay for electricity and water, along with an annual rent, and are now an integrated part of Copenhagen. And why not — it is, after all, the second-most visited attraction in Copenhagen after Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid.

They have also found new and smart ways of sustaining themselves — selling stocks of Christiania to outsiders, organising guided tours, hosting music festivals, et al.

Their autonomous approach to life also makes them an innovative bunch. Case in point is the Christiania Cargo Bike, which was invented in 1984 by blacksmith and resident Lars Engstrom as a birthday gift for his wife Annie Lerche, to haul their young kids in and around the commune. It is an award-winning Danish design classic and is a success all over the world.

The citizens of Christiania believe in having room for everyone. Their collective ability to support social freedom is marvellous, and perhaps that is why people are desperate to be a part of it even today. But sadly, there is no such thing as an application for membership. “The difficult way is to work a lot here, say for three, four or even five years. Slowly people start seeing you every day, they start getting to know you. But there are people who stay on for years and still don’t find a house. One has really got to push. There’s no waiting list and it’s only the consensus of the thousand-odd Christianites that matters over whom to include in the community,” explains Martha.

The lake is a short walk from Pusher Street. There are fewer people here. The silence and solitude is mesmerising. As I stroll along the marijuana-scented tracks, I find canoodling couples and youngsters setting up barbecues, each of them smoking thick joints. They’re outsiders who’ve come to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake. The people of Christiania are, however, a mix of Europeans, Americans and Latin Americans, most of whom were part of hippie and rebel movements in other countries. There was a man from India too who, Martha says, died this year — a musician who set up a Jimi Hendrix band and sang his songs. And now, she says, there is an Indian woman named Radha who sells trinkets in the market.

There are no IDs or stamp papers to prove you’re part of Christiania. It’s a small community and everyone knows everyone. There was only one day in the history of its existence when Christiania was closed to outsiders. The situation, however, says Martha wasn’t as tense before 2002 as it is now. “The government takes Pusher Street as a peg to attack our community, which is wrong. There’s a law in Christiania that anyone who sells hash has to live here, but the big bosses don’t live here anymore. The junkies are not a part of Christiania; they come here only for business. They know nothing about the history of Christiania and they don’t respect our ways. We’re working on ways to co-exist with them and even legalise the selling of drugs. But it’s not so easy because Scandinavian countries are very conservative by nature.”

Almost every community in the world is bound by some faith, belief or following, and it’s only a matter of time that they falter, owing to disharmony and disagreement. Auroville is still in full-swing, but it is inclined towards spiritualism. The no-strings-attached freedom that Christiania promises is, frankly, nowhere to be seen. There’s no belief system, there is no leader and there are no followers. It is an anarchist community, but can there be harmony in anarchy?

Martha gives us a knowing smile as she gets up to bring us her favourite carrot, orange and ginger juice, “There have been episodes of violence, but it’s incomparable with other European countries like Spain, which is known for much more violence. As per European standards, we are a peaceful bunch.”

Dhanaulti, the picture-perfect hill station


Published on 17 August, 2012 in The Times of India

The newspapers had mercilessly announced the soaring heat in calculated centigrade for the third time that week. And why not, the weather must adhere to the convention of the hottest months of summer in Delhi. That’s when words like ‘vacation’ and ‘hills’ knocked my sorrow state and I finally decided to take an impromptu holiday to Dhanaulti, leaving the capital city behind to swelter under the scorching summer sun.

Hill stations like Simla, Manali, Mussoorie and Nainital have been the favourite destinations of Indian families during the leisurely two-month break their children get from schools.

I was very sure that my hideout should be no where near such flocks and Dhanaulti fitted the bill perfectly. Tucked away from swarms of tourists in the most sought after destinations, Dhanaulti proved to be a pleasant and idyllic retreat.

Quiet, calm and serene

There are times when you want to do nothing. No meetings, no deadlines and no to-do lists to follow. Mornings in Dhanaulti are apt for those who want to remain pleasantly idle. The quietness of the hills, the stillness in the air and the fresh breeze that caresses your face and hair, is sometimes unbelievably haunting.

We reached Crystal Palace at 9 am in the morning, just in time for breakfast. After devouring multiple platters of cheese omelettes, Maggi noodles, buttered toasts, and pots of hot tea, we climbed up the stairs to move to the terrace. If I had to sum up the view that greeted us from above the rooftop in one word, it has to be breathtaking! The winding paths peeking from inside the hills, spectacular landscapes, lush green forests of Oak, Deodar and Rhododendron, all of it was more than enough to make us believe that we had managed to escape the madness. A couple of hours were spent gazing only into the expanse of the picture perfect hills.

Treks, worships and more

Don’t go looking for a Mall road in Dhanaulti. It’s a small town devoid of any fanciful shopping arcades or joy rides on horses and yaks. Spotless roads beckoned us after a sumptuous lunch and we set out to explore the nearby ECO Park. A patch of protected forest of mighty Deodar trees, developed and maintained by the Forest Department of Uttarakhand, has been done up with beautiful wild flower hedges and swings for children. The park is a favourite picnic spot for the localities of Mussoorie and Dehradun and an entry fee of Rs 15 per person is what you have to pay to enter it. Dotted along the periphery are many eateries selling roasted corn cobs, spicy peanuts, and tea. Cotton candy like clouds in the pristine blue sky playing peeking from between with the towering trees was a picturesque sight to remember.

Dusk fell and we decided to laze around in the hotel reading books, listening to music, basically doing nothing.

A visit to the Surkanda Devi temple was planned for the next day. About 8 km from Dhanaulti, the temple is associated with the myth of Sati and Shiva’s tandava nritya (dance of cosmic destruction). It is believed that when Shiva passed through this place carrying Sati’s dead body, he accidentally dropped her head at this spot. That is how the temple of Surkanda Devi came into being and is known be visited by many devotees throughout the year.

Disconnect from the world, quite literally

Dhanaulti gives you the option to remain disconnected from the chaotic world of social networking sites, constant nagging, and demanding obligations, quite literally at that. For some reason, mobile and internet connectivity is terribly weak up there. Also, there are hardly any tourists around. The only people we could spot were the Garhwali folks roaming about with their herd of cows. They’re not used to having tourists amidst them so don’t mind the tentative glances they throw at you.

How to get there

By air: The closest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun at a distance of 80kms.
By rail: The nearest railway station is also Dehradun. The taxi stand is right next to the railway station and prepaid cabs to Dhanaulti are easily available at Rs 1500 (one way). The uphill drive is a picturesque one and usually takes less than 2 hours.
By road: One can alternatively drive up to Dhanaulti. The distance is approx. 350 km from New Delhi and takes about 8 hours with traffic.

Best time to visit

Dhanaulti is pleasant and agreeable in the summer months, (May, June, July and August) and a light sweat shirt is more than enough to keep you warm. In winters, however, the mercury plummets and occasionally there is a snowfall that caps the tree tops and mountain peaks beautifully.