Our guidebook, Outlook Traveller’s Weekend Breaks from Delhi, says that the 303 km drive from Delhi to Kasauli takes six hours. Bunkum. It takes one hour to just battle our way past the horrendous traffic of Delhi and get on to the famous Grand Trunk Road, now National Highway 1. Once on NH1, things are a little smoother—eight lane highways in India are just about the only roads you can hope to touch 100 km per hour on. Unfortunately, NH1 is being renovated in a big way, with flyovers and toll booths (`Tool plaza’ reads an unfortunately spelt sign) being built.
Traffic is maddeningly slow and chaotic. We stop for half an hour to eat a late breakfast at Murthal; to fill petrol at Ambala; to tackle a corrupt cop who’s angling for a bribe, also at Ambala; and then at Pinjore, where a huge traffic jam has vehicles lining up for more than a kilometre. Add to that the fact that we take a wrong turn and go up to Chandigarh instead of turning off towards Kalka from Zirakpur—and it’s hardly surprising we end up taking over eight hours to get to Kasauli.
The road starts lifting into the foothills of the Himalayas at Pinjore, but even till after Parwanoo, the hills are not really what I think of as the Himalayas. These are scrubby foothills, grown over with orange-flowering lantana and not much else. No pines, no cedars, and no interesting birds. After Parwanoo (and a treacherous switchback going up a steep slope towards Kasauli), the scenery suddenly changes. The clouds, grey and forbidding, have been lowering over the landscape, and shortly after we enter our first belt of green pines, the first fat drops of rain start pelting down. It drizzles intermittently for the next couple of hours, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the view: misty mountains, pines (and cedars), white-cheeked bulbuls and a tree pie; a barking deer racing across the road and up the hillside; and langurs, all black-faced and with dangling question-mark tails, up in the trees.
Kasauli is a cantonment town, pretty but somewhat strictly run. A toll booth run by the cantonment board sits at the only road up to town. We buy a pass (Rs 65) and wait patiently for the barrier to be raised, only to discover that this is a high-tech barrier, managed by a remote control that’s suddenly gone haywire. Traffic begins piling up and the remote that’s gone kaput becomes the high point of Kasauli’s afternoon. Lots of pushing and shoving at the barrier, some desperate racing around, and the remote finally works after ten minutes of much excitement. Hallelujah!
We drive up to Ros Common, where we check in, have a very late lunch of sandwiches and coffee, and then set off on an introductory walk through town. Ros Common is ten minutes from the heart of town, and the stroll there takes us past langurs; horse chestnut trees in full bloom, and pines with the cones fresh and green. We go past the Grand Maurice Hotel, built in 1862 and still functional, but not particularly welcoming of anybody who isn’t a resident.
We’ve decided this isn’t a sightseeing trip; we’re just getting to know Kasauli. This doesn’t actually happen; the Christ Church is too lovely to resist, and we end up spending a while inside, admiring the stained glass. We follow this up with a leisurely stroll down the marketplace, the shops selling everything from smart T-shirts and skirts to hand-carved walking sticks, Tibetan masks, and locally brewed fruit wines. A quaint cobbled street (around from the time of the British? I wonder) curves downward, and we follow it diligently till we reach a dead end and have to turn around and walk right back. By the time we reach Ros Common, the sun’s beginning to set. A noisy group of middle-aged men who’d driven up from Chandigarh (or somewhere nearby; we didn’t bother to ask) have thankfully left Ros Common by now, so it’s blissfully quiet. A cup of tea, a look through the newspapers, and we’re ready for a quiet chat before it’s time for dinner and bed.