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Explore the Himalayan hill stations, Neolithic caves and Kashmiri houseboats outside Delhi

Five places to visit near Delhi

India’s capital is blanketed in choking smog in winter and smothered by baking heat in summer. Fortunately there are plenty of places to escape the extremes, says Alex Travelli

India’s capital is blanketed in choking smog in winter and smothered by baking heat in summer. Fortunately there are plenty of places to escape the extremes, says Alex Travelli

Alex Travelli | February/March 2019

1 LANDOUR
45 MINUTES  
BY PLANE

Though the Himalayas are only a short flight away from Delhi as the crow hops, getting there isn’t easy. There are few airports in the mountains and enough summertime tourists cramming Delhi’s domestic terminals to make you want to stay home and sweat. So be grateful for accessible places such as Dehradun, which is also connected to Delhi by rail, and the semi-hidden pleasures of Landour with its sweeping, pine- and cedar-fringed views of the infinite plain below.
      Landour is cool year round. As most hill stations do, it has a colonial heritage, but, unusually, not a British one. American missionaries started coming here in the 1830s and today both the Landour Language School and Woodstock, an innovative boarding school, testify to their influence. The town is a series of crossroads on ridges, and is home to a cluster of writers and artists. Take some steep walks up and down flinty trails in the bracing thin air, and then enjoy some peaceful contemplation, eating momos and other Tibetan snacks, or tea and pastries (and coffee and peanut butter – more American influences) in Landour’s many cafés and resting stops. The grandest is Rokeby Manor, which is also a splendid lodge.

2 AMRITSAR
1 HOUR  
BY PLANE

Come springtime, there are few jollier places to be than in the heart of Punjab. Amritsar, close to the Pakistan border, has been regarded as a holy place ever since it was founded by Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, in the 16th century. Baisakhi, a Sikh spring harvest festival is celebrated in Jallianwala Bagh, a public park, is a riot of colour. The history is a troubled one: this year marks the centenary of the 1919 massacre, when British troops fired into the crowd killing hundreds of civilians. These days the festival is more about partying and feasting: make sure you try sarson ka saag with makki ki roti, mustard greens and maize bread, which are the speciality of the season. Partisans will say that Bharawan da Dhaba or Kesar serve the best versions, but any dhaba should do.
      The epicentre of the Sikh religion is the Golden Temple. Take off your shoes to walk round the holy pool, or sit and watch. At dawn and dusk, processions bring the Sikhs’ holy book over a causeway, to chanting and trumpet blasts. You can eat free, seated in rows with worshippers and hungry locals, at the guru ka langar (community kitchen). Pilgrims will be found free lodgings, too, though many visitors will prefer the charms of Ranjit’s Svaasa or the new Hyatt Regency. The Partition Museum is worth a visit, and you could take in the daily border-closing ceremony where Indian Attari meets Pakistani Wagah.

3 SRINAGAR
1 HOUR  
BY PLANE

The valley of Kashmir, as distinct from the vast state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a cultural world unto itself, with the ancient city of Srinagar at its heart. Since Partition, conflict has ground down the people, and the place and lives are visibly scarred by the violence, which shows little sign of letting up. Official advice will tell you not to visit, but those who do so will be rewarded by the beauty of the land, incomparable hospitality and cultural mix that makes Kashmir an extraordinary place.
      Dal Lake in the middle of Srinagar is a vast circular sheet of water surrounded by reedy shallows, criss-crossed by elegant shikhara boats and set against a backdrop of aspen trees, meadows and a ring of buff-coloured mountains. Stay in grandeur on the water in one of Butt’s Clermont Houseboats, as the great and the good (and the Beatles) did in the 1960s, and have the place to yourself. The old city is a charming maze of timbered, brickwork chateaux, many of them listing amiably, and you can easily arrange a boat ride through the middle. Or shop for distinctive old-fashioned handicrafts at stores such as Asian Arts or Suffering Moses on the Bund nearby. The greatest display of workmanship is the Sheikh Hamdani mosque, which looks like the blessed love child of a Nepali pagoda and a Fabergé egg. Be sure to eat a fine, wedding-style feast of wazwan, ideally at Ahdoo’s.

4 BHOPAL
1.5 HOURS  
BY PLANE

To outsiders Bhopal’s name still evokes the terrible industrial disaster that struck the city in 1984. But its toxic past should not put you off; shielded between the Malwa plateau and the Vindhya range, the city is slightly elevated, keeping the air clear and the skies sunny. The capital of Madhya Pradesh, it occupies a beautiful spot, strewn between lakes and rocky hillsides, with a colourful Islamic old city at its heart.
      Founded in the 18th century by Afghans, Bhopal was dominated by a succession of powerful princesses, who left behind a courtly culture and fascinating buildings. Consider staying at one, such as the Jehan Numa Palace or the Noor us-Sabah. The Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum and the Remember Bhopal Museum are worth a visit, as is the Bharat Bhavan Centre for the Performing Arts. But the best reason to be based in Bhopal is what lies beyond it. Just 45 minutes to the north-east brings you to Sanchi, an ancient site of Buddhist learning. Its Great Stupa and stone gateways inspired 2,000 years of architecture across Asia. To the south, the painted rock caves of Bhimbetka (pictured) date back to Neolithic times. The bizarre standing rocks in which those early Indians took shelter are no less awesome today.

5 BHAINSRORGARH
5 HOURS  
BY TRAIN AND TAXI

When the weather is cool, Delhi residents and visitors alike have always made a beeline for the picturesque state of Rajasthan. But do not consider Jaipur in January if you’re looking for peace; the annual literature festival buzzes, but brings with it traffic and crowds. Instead rediscover small-town life in an unexplored corner of India’s largest state.
      Getting to and from Bhainsrorgarh eats up much of a long weekend – but repays the effort many times over. With a tongue-twister of a name, this tiny former principality hides near Kota Junction, an easy train journey from Delhi. As you approach the fortified palace (pictured), built in the 1740s on a cliff in a crook of the Chambal river, breathe a sigh of relief as its unhurried townspeople and their livestock make way for you. Staying at the Fort Hotel is a must, not least for its opulent local cuisine and views across the countryside. If you can tear yourself away, take a short drive to the virtually unvisited Baroli ruins, an 11th-century site built at the same time as the more-famous temples of Khajuraho. Alternatively, paddle down the unspoilt Chambal, or make a day of a trip to the frescoes and palaces of better-known Bundi.