The Hills Are Alive

AT THE FOOT OF THE INDIAN HIMALAYAS

When things got too hot in the Indian plains in the 19th century, the British colonials would head for the foothills of the Himalayas.

Every summer until India’s independence in 1947, the English and their convoys of servants and silver would make the trek from Delhi heading north as far as Shimla, the summer residence of the British Raj, or to other cool pinetree forested hill stations along the way like Kasauli.

Just about every summer since I married Arun, my Indian husband, in 1995, our family has been making our own modern-day journey to Kasauli.

Kasauli was established in 1842 as a cantonment, or military district, for the British Colonial government and it quickly became a beloved summer retreat for India’s growing expatriate population.

As more and more British families came to India to join the men folk, hill towns like Kasauli were designed to recreate idyllic English villages, complete with quaint stone churches, social clubs, leafy parks, half-timbered houses and elite boarding schools.

Still in use, the Anglican Christ Church was built in 1853 and with stained glass imported from Europe. Around the same time, Englishman Sir Henry Lawrence founded a co-educational boarding school known as the Lawrence School Sanawar, and it is still in operation.

When former students of Sanawar – including Arun – visit Kasauli, they marvel at how time has stood still.

The town’s designation as a government cantonment has restricted development and so its two main streets, the upper and lower Malls, have been virtually untouched through the years.

Today, old-fashioned buildings with gable roofs and wooden balconies remain intact. Many of the same shops are still in operation and some even with the same shopkeepers behind the counter.

The paan-walla is there selling sundries, cigarettes and paan (a chewing tobacco-like digestive wrapped in betel leaves) and the small grocery store called Daily Needs is still as it was, and so is the grumpy proprietor. An ancient barber shop in a simple wooden room covered with colourful pictures of Hindu deities from old calendars, continues to give men a super-close shave with a straight razor for about $1.50.

A trip here is all about enjoying the fresh air and great outdoors at some 6,000ft above sea level. There are many quiet walks along the town’s meandering roads and footpaths that weave through forests of pine, deodar cedars, fir trees and wild flowers carpeting the steep hillsides.

Late 19th century cottages framed with gingerbread trim are tucked into the foliage and framed with dahlias, hydrangeas and rose bushes, and given sweet names like Wood Villa and Cloud Nine.

Great walks include a trek along the lower and upper Malls to Sunset View as well as a stroll along the Gilbert Trail that overlooks the city of Chandigarh in the valley below. Hoof it up to Monkey Point for more panoramic views.

A 6km walk to the Sanawar School is another great option –– though you’ll have to get permission in advance to actually enter the school grounds –– and a chance to pass through small villages and enjoy stunning mountain views.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines and Jet Airways have direct flights between Singapore and Delhi. To reach Kasauli, you can travel by car from Delhi in about seven or eight hours, or better yet, take the comfortable Shatabdi Express train until the end of the line in the small town of Kalka, a four-hour journey of about 300km. Book a first class one-way ticket for about $25 per person and enjoy train stewards serving you coffee and tea, bottled water and small meals. From Kalka, you either take a local no-frills bus or a taxi to Kasauli, about an hour’s drive, or you can book passage on the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train. An hour-and-a-half or so later, arrive at Dharampur to catch a taxi or bus for the 30-minute drive to Kasauli.

TRAVELLER’S TIPS

■ The Kalka-Shimla Toy Train ride offers picturesque views. The 96km narrow-gauge rail line was built by the British in 1903 to connect the main rail lines from Delhi with the summer capital of the British Raj in Shimla. Designated a Unesco World Heritage attraction, the Toy Train has a feisty little engine pulling five or six small carriages with basic bench-style seats along zigzagging tracks that climb up the mountainside, rattle through tunnels, and skirt along cliff edges and across stone Roman-style aqueducts for both a beautiful and thrilling ride.

■ April through September are the most pleasant months to visit, with mild temperatures.

■ Weekdays are much quieter, as tourists from the city of Chandigarh an hour away flock to Kasauli on weekends.

■ Beware of the ubiquitous rhesus and langur monkeys, they’re not shy about grabbing food out of your hands or bags. – August, 2012