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Published: November 25th 2007
Beautiful Shaheen Bagh
Shaheen Bagh, where we spent 3 wonderful days birding and relaxing
Second India Report
Greetings from the foot of the Himalayas!
This instalment begins with my parents’ and cousin’s arrival in Delhi on 21st October, followed by a very lengthy train journey, through the Hindu Diwali festival, with firecrackers blasting off in every direction, to Dehra Dun, where we arrived with a two hour delay. There then followed a hair-raising car journey through the night to Shaheen Bagh, a most beautiful house run by Bikram Grewal, a well-known birdwatcher and his wife.
We spent the next three days here, being guided on birdwatching walks by a charming and very knowledgeable Nepali guide named Hari Lama, relaxing in the wonderful gardens, and generally being pampered. Apparently these gardens had featured as the set for an interesting-sounding photographic book called “The Outdoor Kamasutra”, but sadly we could not actully locate a copy to satisfy our curiosity!
After the relaxing time here, our official engagements began, and we moved to the Forest Research Institute campus, where we were accommodated in the VIP guesthouse, which may well have been the house occupied by my great uncle back in the 1920’s and 30’s when he was Director of Silviculture. Sadly
2 of the insect specimens at the FRI
Two of the insect specimens caught by my great-uncle H G Champion and identified by his fathe G C Champion, now in the museum of the FRI
any attractive furnishing had long since gone, and the house was a mere shadow of its former self. The cook, who had clearly not attended Charm School, was rapidly named Mr Spit, as he cleared his throat of all possible impurities with exceptional vigour at every available moment!
The following day we were welcomed by Dr S. S. Negi, Director of the FRI, and we gave a presentation about my great uncle’s and grandfather’s work in the Indian Forest Service, which appeared to go down well, although one lady fell asleep! We were also shown some specimens of minute beetles which had been collected by my great uncle, sent back to London to be identified by my great grandfather George Charles Champion, and then returned to India - it was a strange feeling to see their tiny writing and initials on the labels under these insects!
Following these events, we were driven up to the hill station of Mussoorie, and we checked into a ramshackle old hotel run by a very helpful and chatty lady called Anu, but sadly here our luck failed us as my mother was struck down by an appalling attack of the notorious Delhi
At Carlton's Pleasance, Mussoorie
Parents and cousin at Carlton's Pleasance in Mussoorie, the night before the Delhi Belly struck!
Belly, hotly (and liquidly) followed by both my father and me, and much time was spent in the toilets of this hotel! However, Anu did her very best to assist, even summoning a doctor, who brandished a vicious-looking needle and said that we all needed a “shot in the bot”! My mother and I chickened out of such treatment, stating that we were suddenly feeling much better, but my father bravely agreed, disappearing into the bedroom to bare his posterior. When the doctor reappeared, I saw to my horror that the needle was bent right back on itself! I thought how wise I had been not to accept the injection, but when challenged, the doctor informed us that he always bent the needles back so as to avoid them being reused by accident! Better safe than sorry, I guess!
One sad side effect of our illness was that we missed a part of our family footstep tracing - my great great great grandmother, Mary Emilia Vansittart, had lived in a house called Phoenix Lodge in Mussoorie in the 1840’s, and after a lot of research, Anu managed to locate the house for us (it has now been converted into
Mussoorie is beautifully situated, strung out along a ridge in the foothills of the Himalayas
a wedding hall), but we were so ill that we did not manage to visit it. Maybe next time!?
From Mussoorie we arranged a vehicle to transport us to Lansdowne, my father’s birthplace and headquarters of the Garhwal Rifles regiment, of which my other great grandfather, Maj Gen Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO, was Colonel in Chief. He joined the regiment in 1893, and we had brought numerous photographs of Lansdowne from then, in particular of the Officers’ Mess, complete with all the gruesome trophies of dead tigers, leopards and bears adorning the walls. They have maintained this building immaculately, and we were able to photograph the same rooms 113 years later, including the very same moth-eaten dead animals! We were royally treated, with the regimental band playing for us and a cocktail party in the Mess, during which my father made a moving speech. We obviously went down well as we were invited to a great regimental reunion due to be held in 2008.
The next stage of our journey took us through the Corbett National Park, and we finally arrived at Kalagarh, where a graduation ceremony for students of Wildlife Management was being held. The top
The Officers Mess, Garhwal Rifles, Lansdowne, 1894
The astonishing Officers' Mess of the Garhwal Rifles in Lansdowne, photographed by my great grandfather in 1894
prize for the best student, known as the Champion's Trophy, was to be presented by my father, and we were then interviewed by Star TV News, which was then broadcast apparently to a potential audience of 800,000,000 the following day! Mr Rajiv Bhartari, Director of the Park, then looked after us, taking us on a wildlife viewing mission through the park. No tigers to be seen (pugmarks though), but we did see wild elephants, sambhar, chital (deer), hog deer, barking deer and two species of crocodile.
We were then taken to an Ecotourism centre, founded by Mr Bhartari, and were able to see at first hand the excellent efforts that are being made to spread the benefits of the Park to local people. There then followed another press interview, but sadly the interviewer clearly had no idea who we were, and we had to supply him with appropriate questions to ask us! After that, we were taken on a tour of Chota Haldwani, the village sponsored by Jim Corbett (famous killer of maneating tigers and friend of my grandfather) where we met a 102-year-old widow of one of Corbett’s hunting assistants, who apparently remembered seeing my grandfather in the
The Officers' Mess today
Little has changed in the beautifully preserved Officers' Mess
From here we drove up a dramatic switchback road to the hill station of Naini Tal, with its beautiful mountain lake. We checked into our “heritage” hotel here, and immediately went down to the Naini Tal Yacht Club, a prestigious Victorian structure on the lake shore. My grandfather had been Rear Commodore of this institution in 1946/7, and used to sail in competitions a lot here. We were touched to see many mentions of his name on the boards on the walls, and even more so to see his yacht, Stella, moored just outside! These wooden boats were built on the Thames in 1911 and shipped all the way to India, probably being transported up into the Himalayas on some poor coolies’ heads, but they were obviously well constructed as they are still there! The staff of the Club were fascinated to see the photos and 16mm films of the sailing in the 1940’s that we had brought with us!
The following morning we drove up to Snow View, on the ridge above the town, and as the name implies, with a magnificent view of the Himalayan snows stretching all along the northern horizon. Here we greeted
The entrance hall in 1894
The entrance hall of the Officers' Mess in 1894
first by a charming family from Mumbai, who kindly offered to look after me when I travel down there (this kind of spontaneous invitation appears common in India), and then by a birdwatching guide who then took my father and me on a very precipitous hike through the mountain oak forests over the ridge - several sections of the path had been swept away in landslides and we had to scramble along above sheer drops. I was concerned for my father, but in fact he was fine....it was me who was scared!
In the afternoon we met the children of Mr Sahi, Assistant Divisional Forest Officer, who had looked after me so kindly earlier, and these two little charmers, Vedica (aged 10) and Ohm (7), took us on a cycle rickshaw tour of the town, followed by a rowing boat ride back across the lake. Then, on “The Flats”, an large open area at the head of the lake, we wandered through a bazaar, and we were shown by Vedica and Ohm to a magician’s stall. His tricks were absolutely convincing, and finally we were persuaded to buy some.....we had to be shown how to do them secretly under
The entrance hall today
Little has changed in the entrance hall since 1894
his table! This caused much amusement, and we spent the rest of the evening back in Mr Sahi’s home practising the tricks!
From here we moved on to Almora, another hill station about 50 kms closer to the mountains, and we checked into a charming house, perched high on a ridge. Here we were welcomed with open arms, and we spent 3 wonderful relaxing days here (much needed as we had not yet fully recovered from the Delhi Belly attack from Mussoorie!). We did excursions to the Hindu temple of Jageshwar and the high oak forests of Binsar, as well as letting my father visit his father’s old office in the town, where we met the sons of the two Indian foresters who used to look after him when he was a child - a very moving experience for all concerned.
Our next destination was Ranikhet, another hilltop town, very well maintained as it is the Headquarters of the Kumaon Rifles regiment, and we moved into the Rosemount Heritage Hotel, again with a magnificent Himalayan view. Sadly the restaurant here was very stark and cold, so on the second night we decided to eat at the Ranikhet Club
Speech in the Officers' Mess
My father making a speech to the officers and their wives, with his grandfather's portrait looking down from the wall
instead, and here we were introduced to an 84-year-old staff member, Bahadur Singh, who had worked at the Club since he was 13. He remembered my grandfather playing tennis with Kay Perry, my father’s governess, and reminisced about the glamorous dances that used to take place in the ballroom back in the 20’s and 30’s!
Finally we moved back to Naini Tal for one night, and then drove down, bidding our farewells to the Himalayan snows, to Kathgodam, the railhead station from which my father had left at the age of 8 when he began his journey to Bombay and then back to the grim boarding school in Scotland, almost exactly 70 years previously. We retraced the very journey he did back in 1936 as far as Delhi, and spent a final night together at the ICFRE guesthouse.
And so ends this instalment! My parents and cousin left Delhi for Scotland, and the next stage of my Indian adventure was about to commence!
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