The Great Hill Stations Of Asiaby Barbara Crossette, Alan Sirulnikoff/Photonica (Photographer), Rick Pracher (Designed by), Heather Hutchison (Designed by)
For the European and later the American colonial soldier, the civil administrator and his clerk, the merchant, the missionary, and the families who followed them east of Suez, daily life was less a matter of advancing the glory of God or empire than a battle for survival against sunstroke, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and a host of other unnamed deadly fevers as
For the European and later the American colonial soldier, the civil administrator and his clerk, the merchant, the missionary, and the families who followed them east of Suez, daily life was less a matter of advancing the glory of God or empire than a battle for survival against sunstroke, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and a host of other unnamed deadly fevers as well as little-examined, vague indispositions that in hindsight would probably be diagnosed as clinical symptoms of depression. Later, medical scholars coined a phrase for it: “tropical fatigue.” Pity John Ouchterlony. By the time they brought him to the healing hills, it was too late. On April 29, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Ouchterlony of the Royal Madras Engineers died of “jungle fever brought on by exposure while in the execution of his duty,” says a memorial plaqueone of manyat St. Stephens Church in Ootacumund, a British colonial town in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. Others were luckier. They got to Ooty in time and survived the perilous East, at least for another season, by rising above its pestilential lower reaches. On litters, in chairs, on ponies, by foot if they were able, Europeans in Asia nearly two centuries ago began climbing into the hills in search health, relaxation, and sometimes their sanity.They called the refuges they createdlittle European towns carved from rocky mountainsides or nestled in the meadows of high plateaus”hill stations.” Colonialism came and went, but the hill stations remain. They are no longer European, but most have not lost their unique appeal. After all, the plains still fry in the sun and the cities of Asia have only grown larger, noisier, and more polluted. New generations of Asians are rediscovering hill stations and turning them into tourist resorts with luxury hotels and golf courses. Hill stations still cling to their history, and the story they tell reveals a lot about how colonial life was lived. They also have a future, if environmental damage and overpopulation do not destroy the forested hills and mountains that gave them their spectacular settings and pleasant climates.Hill stations began to appear, albeit at different times in different places, when the era of initial exploration and conquest was waning, wives and families arrived in substantial numbers, and life had become a bit more routine. By then, colonial societies could take stock of their longer-term needs and, regrettably, look for ways to build walls around themselves to shut out native populations. Through the age of European mercantile empire building and colonialism that began with the turn of the sixteenth century, hill stations were largely a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Most were established between 1820 and 1885, though the Dutch were early with Bogor in Indonesia and the French came later with Dalat in Vietnam and the Americans with Baguio in the Philippines. The British themselves built a second generation of hill stations after World War I in southeast Asia.In early 1997, Barbara Crossette set off on a journey of several months to see Asia anew through its great hill stations, moving from mountain to mountain from Pakistan, across India, to Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. A year earlier, Crossette had made a trip to the highlands of Indonesian Sumatra, the land of the Minangkabau and Batak people, where the idea of this kind of journey came together.
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Grt Hill Stations of Asia PB
By Barbara Crossette Basic Books
Copyright © 1999 Barbara Crossette
All right reserved.
PITY JOHN OUCHTERLONY. By the time they brought him to the healing hills, it was too late. On April 29, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Ouchterlony of the Royal Madras Engineers died of "jungle fever brought on by exposure while in the execution of his duty," says a memorial plaque at St. Stephen's Church in Ootacamund, a British colonial town in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India. Others were luckier. They got to Ooty in time and survived the perilous East, at least for another season, by rising above its pestilential lower reaches. On litters, in chairs, on ponies, by foot if they were able, Europeans in Asia nearly two centuries ago began climbing into the hills in search of health, relaxation, and sometimes their sanity.
They called the refuges they created "hill stations." These little towns carved from rocky mountainsides or nestled in the meadows of high plateaus began mostly as sanitariums or convalescent centers, but they soon became Europeanized highland resorts and, ultimately, escapist retreats far from the tumultuous cities and hot, parched lowlands below. Colonialism came and went, but the hill stations are still there, from Pakistan on the old Northwest Frontier of imperial Asia, across India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam to the mountains of Luzon inthe Philippines, where Americans built one too. The hill stations are overgrown, often overpopulated, and no longer European now, but most have not lost their unique appeal. Air-conditioning notwithstanding, the plains still fry in the sun, and the cities of Asia have only grown larger, noisier, and more polluted.
For the European or American colonial soldier, the civil administrator and his clerk, the merchant, the missionary, and the families who followed them east of Suez, daily life was less a matter of advancing the glory of God or empire than, a battle for survival against sunstroke, dysentery, cholera, malaria, and a host of other unnamed deadly fevers as well as little-examined, vague indispositions that in hindsight would probably be diagnosed as clinical symptoms of depression. Later medical scholars coined a phrase for it: "tropical fatigue." Even a contemporary traveler in Asia, armed with the newest medications, knows the fear of falling sick in a very strange place. Within a few hours, a once-exotic environment can suddenly become an alarming, perhaps threatening one, as panic and disorientation compound the illness. Imagine the terror that gripped the afflicted when there were no reliable diagnoses, let alone cures.
A British army doctor in Ceylon in the early nineteenth century calculated that a soldier between the ages of twenty and forty was five times as likely to die in the island's tropical climate, war or no war, than if he had been based in the British Isles. Ruskin Bond, the great essayist of India's Garhwal Himalayas, said that the average life span for a Briton in India in the first half of the nineteenth century was thirty-one for a man and twenty-eight for a woman, figures that reflect the deaths of many children. Bond wrote of a common grave in a town below his hills where ten members of an English family were buried together after dying of cholera in a period of only three days. In the 1830s, a group of American missionaries who arrived to open a new beachhead for the Lord's work in Madurai, in southern India, lost six of their number to diseases within a decade, only to be struck again, this time by a "fearful" cholera epidemic, when they thought the worst was over. The survivors, casting about for an escape, first considered buying a ship to sail away from infested India. On second thought, they took the advice of the British and joined the new trend. They, too, built a hill station.
Among Europeans in the colonies, culture shock was also certainly felt, if not identified or understood, by insensitive, blustering bureaucrats. Breakdowns sometimes followed long periods of stress punctuated by useless explosions of frustration. And all of it in the blistering, suffocating heat. "It rains hot water here," the nineteenth-century traveler Florence Caddy, who was good at one-liners, noted in Singapore. These were obviously not salubrious climes for the hot-tempered or inflexibly self-righteous. People almost literally burned out. Rudyard Kipling's oft-quoted bit of doggerel, injected into the odd little story he wrote with Walcott Balestier called "The Naulahka," struck a chord in the memories of many, to judge from the popularity it enjoyed in England:
Now it is not good for the Christian's health to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles, and he weareth the Christian down;
At the end of the fight is a tombstone white, with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: "A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East."
A flight to the hills gave many a nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century European beaten down by the debilitating tropics the strength to go back into the ring for another bout of administering, ministering, or running a colonial household. Although these men and women are long gone, their hill stations are being rediscovered by Asians, Europeans, and travelers from other continents and regions. Remote and rustic, hill stations are novelties to postcolonial Asians born and raised in increasingly affluent but traffic-choked cities. Furthermore, a century after Europeans first sought refuge in the highlands of Asia, the worst epidemic diseases may be under control, if not entirely gone, but new scourges have created new needs. Asian cities are among the world's most polluted because emission standards, where they exist, are often not enforced and unregulated industries, with the help of corrupt politicians, have made the air dangerous to breathe in New Delhi, Bangkok, and Manila, among other places. Great rivers have died, turned into stinking sewers. Coastal waters and shore resorts do not escape the poisonous by-products of rapid industrial growth and the press of population explosions.
Traveling around Asia now, one sees advertisements for hill stations pitched to local tourists in terms similar to those that publicized them first among colonial elites. Governments still use hill stations as rest and recreation areas for officials; large companies maintain substantial homes for executives and family resorts with lodges or cottages for employees. For foreigners who have done the palaces, temples, and beaches, hill stations are a quirky alternative, with eccentric inns nestling a lot closer to the land and the people than walled-off international tourists resorts with mass-produced hotels.
The universal resurgence of interest in hill stations is evident in the steady stream of old European books about this genre and its historical period now being reprinted in toto or extracted in anthologies. There is a rich deposit to mine. Colonials, whether government servants or private citizens, were often meticulous cataloguers and diarists. The joy and astonishment of discovery, tempered with the extreme hardship of the effort, leap from the writings of early travelers, both men and women, who were seeing wonderful things that none of their compatriots--or for that matter, many local people--had seen before. When Etienne Tardif, a young military doctor in Vietnam at the end of the nineteenth century, was searching for the right spot to build a French sanitarium, he encountered hill-tribe people in the highlands of Annam who were as strange to the Vietnamese in his party as they were to him. So was the sudden change in climate, since the towns of both the French and the Vietnamese tended to hug the torrid coast of the South China Sea and a few river valleys and deltas. "How well one sleeps when it is cold!" Tardif wrote of his first night in the hills, as it occurred to him that this was the first refreshing rest he had enjoyed in four months. "A light mist blurs the landscape. Am I in the colonies or in France, wrapped in the clouds of the Rhone?"
Whether or not these European intruders had the right to be wandering around Asia building towns and cities--apparently intending to stay forever, as they did in the Americas--is another matter. A crop of recent historians has sought to reduce their accomplishments to mere acts of cultural suppression. But to take a longer view of history than is now apparently fashionable, European explorers and settlers were certainly not the first people to migrate into Asia and change it. Arab traders in dhows and Chinese merchants in junks had transformed coastal populations in numerous places before the Europeans came. Before them, larger ethnic migrations had taken place almost everywhere, often pushing indigenous peoples into the hills and hinterlands or boxing them in there on subsistence land. Empires--Hellenistic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist--were on the move, conquering and converting, from the Indus Valley to the islands of what is now the Indonesian archipelago. Europeans were neither the first nor the only intruders to cajole, trick, or intimidate native populations while looting the land, which the great Western mercantile companies certainly did at some times and in some places. Now and then Europeans also fought one another, blowing up rivals' fortifications and sinking their ships, to the astonishment and bewilderment of the local audience.
Yet individual adventurers--among them Victorian tourists who chose, courageously or recklessly, to venture beyond the European Grand Tour, along with scholars, writers, and the first Western administrators assigned to Asian posts by the trading companies--made tremendous contributions to the world's understanding of various Asian cultures. Of necessity, the pioneers learned languages, often without dictionaries or formal teachers. They ate and drank with native rulers and sometimes ordinary villagers, trading lore and absorbing local customs. Even the drunken misfit or the brawler who broke the cultural china everywhere he went often had an encyclopedic knowledge and a shrewd understanding of the neighborhood. Short stories and novels about colonial life draw vividly on such characters.
The first Europeans slogged through suffocating rain forests thick with ravenous leeches and mosquitoes and slashed their way into jungles alive with tigers and other predators. Alone and on foot, they approached indigenous settlements, not knowing if they would be welcomed, ignored, or summarily hacked to death; all had proved possible. They took measurements of everything: the longitude and latitude, the height of mountains, the depth of rivers, the temperature by day and night. They collected specimens and samples that enriched the museums and research organizations of Europe. They analyzed the composition of the soil and ground water. They observed and noted the existing wild and cultivated fruits, grains, or vegetables and calculated the potential for new species. They catalogued insects, animals, and trees. Those with the requisite talents made drawings and watercolors of the birds, the flowers, the untouched landscapes that unfolded before them. Some tried their hands at rudimentary photography when that became possible. All across colonized South Asia and Southeast Asia, European experts and their local colleagues established scientific, medical, archaeological, geographical, cartographic, and artistic institutions, museums, and libraries that sustain modern scholarship to this day.
Hill stations began to appear, albeit at different times in different Places, when the era of initial exploration and conquest was waning, wives and families were arriving in substantial numbers, and life had become a bit more routine. By then, colonial societies could take stock of their longer-term needs and, regrettably, look for ways to build walls around themselves to shut out native populations. Though the age of European mercantile empire building and colonialism began with the turn of the sixteenth century, hill stations were largely a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Most were established between 1820 and about 1885, though the French came late with Dalat, in Vietnam, and the Americans with Baguio, in the Philippines, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The British themselves created a second generation of hill stations in peninsular Malaya even later, after World War I. All had the example of British India's older hill stations to emulate--or not.
The age of the hill station mirrored the period when seaside resorts, spas, and great mountains lodges were built in Europe and the United States. In some cases, the style and atmosphere of these European or American mountain retreats were consciously copied in the colonies. A planner of Baguio, in the Philippines, was influenced by the Adirondacks, for example. But in colonial Asia, the relatively high altitude hill station, usually at 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, always had to be more than just a resort. It had to be a medical center of sorts to justify an officer's taking recuperative leave, however flimsy the excuse or ineffectual the cure. The site had to be beyond the reach of mosquitoes, though it was not known until the end of the nineteenth century that the malaria parasite was carried by these insects. The hill station was also a genteel fantasyland, a retreat from reality where the homesick colonial could be cosseted by the atmosphere of a European hometown, down to its familiar architecture and its cozy institutions: the club, the library, the village church. The hill station at its homiest is a phenomenon most often associated with the British in India, but the French, the Americans, and to some extent the Dutch also endowed them with similar properties.
The hill station was not confined to Asia. In Africa, the British found highlands that served similar needs in Kenya, Uganda, and elsewhere. But it was in Asia, in countries so far from home and so radically different in culture, where strong old civilizations stood their ground against the incursions of Westerners, that the hill stations thrived. Their place in history was strengthened when the British in India began the practice of moving the entire apparatus of regional and national government to the hills during the hottest, beastliest months of the year, turning hill towns into summer capitals. The greatest of these part-time capitals was Simla, in the Himalayan foothills of North India, where the viceroy's lodge rivaled a maharajah's palace. But there were others. British officers on the Northwest Frontier had a hot-weather headquarters at Murree. Mahabaleshwar served the sahibs and memsahibs based in the East India Company's Bombay region, and Ootacamund was the summer capital of the Madras presidency, Britain's first foothold on the Subcontinent. The British governor of Burma went to Maymyo for part of the year, and in the Vietnamese town of Dalat, the French planned to create a regional capital for an Indo-Chinese federation of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The American ambassador to the Philippines and the Philippine president continue to have formal residences at their disposal in Baguio, and the president of Indonesia has a palace at Bogor.
Although the most important hill stations served as seasonal centers of government, administrative buildings were not always the defining or enduring landmarks. Hill stations often had and still have--in addition to their offices, hospitals, country homes, churches, clubs, and libraries--at least one grand hotel or rustic lodge, boarding schools, a brewery, a lake (usually created by damming a stream), a botanical garden, wildlife sanctuaries, a golf course, hiking trails, a race course or gymkhana ground for competitive games, and plenty of horses or ponies for mountain rides. A lot of hill stations have ghosts, "European" flowers, strawberries, and, alas, armies of uninvited monkeys. The monkeys are especially numerous in India, where Hanuman, the monkey god, is an important mythological figure and an object of worship. Hanuman's descendants are marvelously adept at finding tourist attractions and picnic spots. I noticed a gang of them panhandling beside a speed bump on the road up to Ooty, where they knew they couldn't be missed when the tourist buses slowed to negotiate the bump. In Darjeeling, they hang out at the temples on Observatory Hill trying to look very hungry and forlorn. In Simla, half a dozen of them were entertaining themselves by removing and tossing around a traveler's laundry that had been hung outside a guest house window to dry.
Rehan Khan, who describes himself as a "lifer" at one of the most famous of boarding schools in the Indian hills, Woodstock, in Mussoorie, spent all his secondary-school years there in the 1980s and remembers a lush campus with a lot of "red-butted monkeys" among the prolific wildlife. "In my first year at school," he recalled, "I was walking down the path to the dormitories eating a sandwich when a group of monkeys started to chase me. Needless to say, they were after my sandwich. I remembered the oft-repeated chant of my peers: Do not ever run away from a monkey. If you happen to visit Mussoorie and a monkey chases you, muster up your best growl and run toward the animal. In my five years at Woodstock I always kept my food--and also perfected a pretty mean growl." A decade earlier, Gil Halstead, another student hiking in the hills, was pelted with pine cones tossed by silver langurs, who also enjoyed sitting on a cliff overlooking the Woodstock campus and taunting boys and girls as they walked to classes.
The presence and ultimately the proliferation of boarding schools in the hills stemmed from a distressing dilemma faced by many parents during the colonial era. Sending children back to the West for schooling split families for long periods. But keeping sons and daughters at home in the colonies reduced their educational opportunities and risked their health. Life in the Asian colonies could be hard on children. Their small graves are scattered everywhere, painful even to an uninvolved traveler, who cannot help but feel the parents' intolerable sorrow. In southern India, I happened upon a nineteenth-century stone decorated with watchful angels hovering over the grave of a little English girl "swept away by an unknown fever." In Vietnam, an overgrown French cemetery had, among other small tombs, one where six-year-old Alain Rouget was buried beside his thirteen-month-old sister, Odile. The two children had died within a year of each other, as late as the 1940s. In the Pakistani hill town of Murree, Jonathan Addleton, who was born there in 1957 of American Baptist missionary parents and educated at the Murree Christian School in the 1960s and 1970s, was haunted by dead children. Addleton, now an American diplomat who has written A sensitive, thoughtful book about his Pakistani childhood, Some Far and Distant Place, remembers a brass plaque at Murree's Holy Trinity Church memorializing Hyacinth Swinhoe, who died in 1913, two weeks before her third birthday. On it, her family had engraved a verse:
I wonder, oh, I wonder where
The little faces go
That come and smile and stay awhile
Then pass like flakes of snow
Many children were sent back to England or another home country, sometimes as babies. But separation from their young sons and daughters was trying for parents, particularly mothers, as stories and diaries from the period reflect poignantly. "A Mother in India," a Victorian-era short story by Sara Jeanette Duncan, is one of the more painful to read. I found a copy of the story, part of a collection now out of print, in an old anthology tucked among the romantic novels in the library of the Kodaikanal Club. Duncan, who apparently knew India well, wrote of a baby dispatched to England soon after birth to be raised by an aunt, and of the mother's aching inability to relate to the little girl, still a toddler, when they met again on the family's next home leave. Brought to the crib of her sleeping daughter, the mother shrank back, mumbling something about not wanting to invade the child's privacy by picking her up and holding her.
Boarding schools in the hills were the solution for many parents, especially for families without the means or the connections to obtain a good education for their children in Europe or the United States, or the money to be able to arrange regular visits if sons and daughters were sent abroad. In the hill stations, parents could join their children for vacations, or make regular trips to see them during the school term. The best of the schools did not die with colonialism. The Murree Christian School, where Addleton recalls "living a Victorian childhood," was not even established until 1956, nearly a decade after Pakistani independence. During the colonial era, American Protestant missionaries in India had established two notable boarding schools, at Kodaikanal in the Palni Hills of the South and Mussoorie in the northern Himalayan foothills, which developed into internationally known and respected institutions that still draw students from around the world as well as from many parts of India. Roman Catholic orders also opened schools in the hills, as they had in the cities, giving the label of "convent school" such cachet in India that educational institutions all over the country adopted the description, though they may have had little or no connection with churches or religious orders. Secular private schools and colleges also appeared. Dehra Dun, at the gateway to the Himalayas, is the home of the Doon School, one of India's most exclusive private boarding schools. In Vietnam, the French built their rigorous and distinguished Lycee Yersin in the hill town of Dalat. Military academies were established in hill stations in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Burma. India's military academy is also at Dehra Dun, not far from Mussoorie, the hill station where the country's high-ranking civil servants study at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy, a national school for government administrators.
Social life was taken very seriously in colonial hill stations, especially in the "official" resorts of India. Newcomers left cards in all the appropriate places until communities grew too large and diverse. Dinners were formal affairs, and there were numerous full-dress balls and costume-party evenings. The best imported wines and spirits were hauled up from distant ports across the plains. From accounts of some of the menus of the time, it appears that the food and drink available to those privileged enclaves would no longer be procurable in most hill stations today, certainly not in much of the Indian subcontinent, despite more modern means of transportation and rising incomes. The sheer audacity of colonial society assuming that households could eat as if in Europe, with fine food on fine linens and an abundance of silver and crystal, is truly extraordinary. "Isn't it strange to dine in silk stockings in such a place, to drink a bottle of French wine and another of champagne every evening, to have delicious Mocha coffee and receive the Calcutta papers every morning?" a French naturalist, Victor Jacquemont, wrote of a visit as early as 1830. Others recalled smoked salmon from Scotland, pates from France, and Mediterranean sardines. Jacquemont eventually concluded that rich food and excessive drink were undermining the health of Europeans who thought they could carry on eating in India, in the steaming cities as well as the hills, the way they would at home. Some colonial doctors supported that contention; they were usually ignored.
Between social events at clubs and summer residences, there were horse races and horse shows--the ability to ride well was a necessity in most places where roads were few or nonexistent--as well as team games at the gymkhana clubs and amateur theatricals for amusement. Some reasonably good libraries served to expand the mind, titillate the imagination, or just pass time. Shelves of popular novels and romances were escape hatches when life got boring. One viceroy's wife was thankful there was a Shakespeare collection at her disposal to recharge her mind now and then during a season of incessant entertaining. There were also assignations to enliven long afternoons and dark mountain nights.
The hills, where all cares and cautions seemed to be left behind, became famous for dalliances of every kind. Simla, the summer headquarters of the British Raj in India, had perhaps the worst reputation, though Ruskin Bond thought Mussoorie gave it competition. Rudyard Kipling suggested a cause for this propensity for mischief in "Bitters Neat," a story in Plain Tales from the Hills: "In India, where life goes quicker than at Home, things are more obviously tangled and therefore more pitiful to look at," he wrote. A mid-nineteenth-century cartoon from the "Delhi Sketch Book" in the Indian version of Punch warned horseback riders pictorially to slow down at Jakhu Hill, a well-known assignation point, lest they intrude too suddenly on a stolen kiss in passionate progress around the next bend. Adultery apart, hill stations were considered fine hunting grounds for lonely bachelors from the cantonments or collectors' bungalows, who sometimes in their rush to marry fell in love instantly and unwisely, as well as for single women shipped out from England under pressure by families to find a good match. In colonial parlance, these women were the "fishing fleet." If they went back unsuccessful, they were unkindly labeled "returned empties."
Decolonization began in the 1940s in Asia, earlier than in Africa. By the middle of the twentieth century, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, the Philippines, and Indonesia had become independent, with Vietnam and Malaya soon to follow. By then, the hill stations had lost much of their practical importance. Antimalarial drugs, insecticides, and antibiotics dealt with some of the worst diseases and their carriers; "air-cooled" and eventually air-conditioned offices and homes made life more tolerable at lower altitudes. Trips home to Europe during long breaks had for decades been easier and more affordable. Although many local people traveled or moved to hill stations for work or pleasure and often formed a significant majority of the population, the towns remained socially very much redolent of colonialism to the end, and thus a little irrelevant to the majority of local populations. Of course in some hill towns, the Japanese army occupation during World War II had cracked or shattered, if only temporarily, what was left of the effectively segregated colonial ambiance. The apparent ease with which the Japanese overran large areas of Asia, incidentally, suggested to many Asians that European invincibility had limits, a tremendous psychological catalyst to burgeoning independence movements.
But Japan's treatment of conquered populations during the occupation also demonstrated, paradoxically, that fellow Asians could be as brutal, if not much more brutal, than European colonizers. In a number of hill stations, the elderly relate that as children they were put to work at hard labor by the Japanese. In Indonesia, indignation at Japanese wartime atrocities was passed on to younger generations, contributing to widespread unease over Japan's economic power and its new reach over regions that Tokyo once called its "co-prosperity sphere." The brutality of Asian against Asian is part of history in other settings, too. Malays told the British in the nineteenth century about Siamese troops who ripped open the bellies of pregnant women to settle bets on the gender of unborn babies. Everywhere there are variants of stories about captive people tied down over fast-growing shoots of one or another jungle plant, usually bamboo or rattan, that pierce the body, causing insufferable pain.
Though the Westerners came rushing back after the defeat of Japan in 1945--except for the British in India proper, who never left, since the country escaped invasion--most hill stations had barely resumed functioning before the age of European empires was over. Hill stations went into a decline, and some observers at the time thought that they would never recover. For the people of the newly independent nations that inherited these orphaned towns, there were rankling memories of humiliating discrimination suffered at the hands of colonial masters, who in those artificially created settlements could make all the rules and often used their power to draw racial boundaries around their retreats. Freed of colonial domination, countries like India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia, and, later, Vietnam and Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) were in any case eager to get on with building new economies, political systems, and institutions. There were other preoccupations. Armed leftists in several countries, boosted in some cases by the Japanese during the war, carried on fighting after independence to "complete the revolution" by co-opting and harnessing anticolonial fervor to the service of Communist movements. The hills became both hideouts and battlegrounds. In India, there was horrific bloodshed over the division of the old British Raj into predominantly Muslim and Hindu countries. In Burma the hero of independence, General Aung San--the father of Aung San Suu Kyi--was assassinated, along with his cabinet. In India, Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, met the same fate.
The hill stations may have languished somewhat in the postcolonial years, but they were never completely forgotten. By the 1960s, local elites had taken over the exclusive clubs, the solidly built bungalows, and the tea and coffee plantations. Numerous maharajas and sultans never gave up their retreats in the hills; middle-class professional families had also bought property during colonial times and were well established. In a number of places, Europeans who felt more at home in Asia than in the countries of their birth--along with a substantial group of men and women born in Asia of Western parents or mixed marriages--retired or stayed on around hill stations to work, learning to live with new masters and often dwindling resources. Anglo-Indians--in the original meaning of the phrase, Britons who were born or had settled in India--were frequently more Indian than they realized, although they spoke of England as "home." They capitalized it: Home. In her book, Ooty Preserved: A Victorian Hill Station, Molly Panter-Downes told the story of a woman in her eighties who, when finally forced to return to Britain because she could no longer manage alone, packed a stone mortar and pestle so that she would always have freshly ground chilies and spices for her curry.
Recently, it has become apparent that the old hill stations of Asia are not just going to survive, but are indeed reviving so quickly that they may be victims of their own successes. In the last decade or two of the twentieth century, when the hill stations began to experience a significant rebirth, in fact a boom, it dawned on those who love them that these little towns perched on their cliffsides and mountain meadows were going to be altered forever unless local planners curtailed or zoned development. Rising affluence and greater mobility all over Asia have made the hill stations accessible to millions, surely a democratic trend to be applauded. But the majority of those in the crowds now arriving almost year-round no longer are satisfied with bracing walks in the woods or a snooze in the garden under the fragrant evergreens. They want theme parks, fast food, discos, karaoke, casinos, lavish buffet tables and well-stocked bars, video players in every hotel room, and high-decibel popular bands in the gazebo, where the string quartet once played. "Indians love noise," said Nilam Macdonald, the Bombay-born wife and innkeeper partner of Tim Macdonald, who inherited the quietly elegant Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong. Southeast Asians love golf more than forests.
In many hill towns, trash piles up, choking drains and fouling footpaths no longer pleasant to walk along. Bookstores have all but vanished, except in India and Sri Lanka--significantly, both established democracies--and library collections have dwindled. Many classic old hotels are struggling, managers say, as newer ones with extravagant names and flashy images carve out places for themselves on already denuded hillsides, gashing the landscape, transforming the skyline with concrete blocks, and smudging the black night sky with neon. Condominiums and time-share holiday flats have also begun to migrate toward the hills. How the people who inherited the fragile hill resorts cope with the challenges they now face will determine which towns will survive the longest. Environmentally, all hill stations are probably as endangered as the tigers that once stalked the encircling forests. The woods themselves are disappearing, with forest cover dropping by 20 to 50 percent or more in only a few decades in most countries.
It is perhaps not surprising that a number of leading environmentalists in Asia have their bases in the hills and see the fate of hill towns as part of the larger problem of conserving valuable ecological systems. Saving forested watersheds that nurture the plains below is a high priority for activists across Asia, whose efforts all too often earn the scorn of politicians. "The Government believes that we should enjoy what nature provides," Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, said, as he defended his decision to resurrect plans for a new federal highway that would slice through some of the most beautiful hill country in Southeast Asia in order to link three Malaysian hill towns now reached by separate roads from the lowlands. Repudiating environmentalists' charges that it was needlessly destructive to crack open whole hillsides and bulldoze away thousands of acres of rain forest for the greater convenience of motorists, the prime minister retorted that activists didn't seem to mind clearing land to build their own homes. "In order to preserve the forests, are we supposed to live in trees?" he asked rhetorically, as he cut the ribbon on a new tramway to another resort complex. Southeast Asians are infatuated with funicular railways and cable cars. In Vietnam, I read about government plans to build cable connections to the peaceful hilltop Linh Phong Pagoda and other attractions scattered around the pine forests of Dalat. Terminals would be buttressed with restaurants, shopping arcades, electronic games centers, and karaoke bars to draw and satiate the crowds.
All over Asia, this kind of development has already produced significant ecological and climatological effects, beginning with rising temperatures and the disappearance of plant and animal species. A resident of the southern Indian hill station of Kodaikanal, the environmentalist M. S. Viraraghavan, explained that deforestation in the highlands significantly raises the temperature of the earth itself and makes the reintroduction of important old species, accustomed to lower soil temperatures, much harder. Many of these older species were useful regulators of water, retaining moisture and releasing it slowly to flow to the plains, helping farmers many miles away. Upland meadows and grasslands also played a part in this process. Without these natural regulators, rainwater cascades down the mountainsides, taking the shallow topsoil with it and causing choked waterways and floods thousands of feet below.
The men and women who created hill stations almost two centuries ago were not guiltless of environmental destruction. By 1904 in Simla, the wildflowers that had covered the surrounding hills and meadows in the 1830s were all gone, Edward J. Buck wrote in Simla Past and Present, the standard reference work on the town for nearly a century until the publication of Pamela Kanwar's Imperial Simla in 1990, which added to accounts of early ecological devastation. Buck thought most of the flowers had been sacrificed to dining room tables. Women noted in their diaries that they sent servants into the meadows to pull up whole plants by the roots. Around other hill stations, tea plantations razed thousands of rolling acres of jungle or consumed all available pasture land. Roads (followed by railroads) began cutting into virgin hillsides more than 150 years ago, facilitating erosion and landslides--and, of course, opening the hills to crowds. Subsequent deforestation has only made the instability of the land more pronounced. Some new trees introduced for landscaping or mercantile gain, with eucalyptus and wattle the most common, proved to be destructive to the soil and to other species.
But there is a more positive side to the environmental record of colonialism. The heyday of hill stations coincided with a great age of gardening and of horticulture and agricultural experimentation, symbolized and often inspired by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in London, which, were established in 1759 and opened to the public about a century later. From Kew, botanists armed with seeds and seedlings roamed the world, changing whole colonial economies. They took South American rubber trees to Southeast Asia by way of Ceylon, and cinchona, the source of quinine, to a number of countries, planting it in the new botanical gardens often created with the help of colleagues on loan from the Royal Botanical Gardens. In the hill stations, a great deal of effort went into the planting of trees, grass, and flowers around private homes. Across Asia, hill stations continue to support nursery industries and hold wonderful flower shows. The cultivation of fresh vegetables was encouraged, and orchards with both tropical and temperate fruits appeared on many slopes. Cows were herded up to high-altitude pastures, and dairies opened, adding to the general sense of wholesomeness by providing safe fresh milk (when not watered down by rogues) and cheeses.
For the Western sojourner in Asia, the hill stations still offer some keys to understanding a long-gone, geographically distant past. And although they were creations of the ancestors of Westerners, a point of interest in itself for many, hill stations are also still-living remnants of an earlier age for Asians themselves. They are returning to these towns to become reacquainted with a part of their own history, to learn why the misty mountains had such attraction. From the beginning, it must not be forgotten, Asians--Indians, Ceylonese, Burmese, Malays, and others--were part of life despite the social prohibitions. They sometimes went to schools and churches and often traded with the foreigners or created lucrative service industries, renting ponies or sedan chairs from the earliest days and supplying provisions. Later, local people were recruited by hotels, restaurants, and shops. Some eventually built their own substantial homes, temples, and businesses. India's Oberoi hotel chain got its start in Simla, when Mohan Singh Oberoi sold some of his wife's jewelry to buy Clarkes on the Mall, where he had been a manager.
With the passing of years, the hill stations become more a part of Asian than of Western history and are increasingly recognized as such. "In British times," an Indian will say by way of preface to a historical account, in much the same matter-of-fact way an American would talk about the days before the Revolution. "When the French were here...," echoes a Vietnamese, with the emphasis on "here"--that is, in our place. In more than one hill station, Europeans are in fact back on the scene, advising local governments on tourism and sometimes restoring old hotels and villas for the leisure use of international corporations. Tourists from the old colonial powers come back to learn their own history, too: Witness the Dutch package tours to Indonesia.
Although natural settings may be under threat, there is still almost always enough wild terrain left in the hills, or along the way to them, to give the visitor at least a taste of the glorious Asian landscapes the first adventurers encountered. This was the environment in which earlier generations of Asians lived before the rush to the urban centers began in the latter part of the twentieth century. In very recent times, Asian cities, even more than Western ones, have simply bulldozed nature out of the way, making wild places more and more distant. Experienced tourists learn that beach resorts may seem largely interchangeable and Asian cities all begin to look alike. But hill stations, with their individual histories and vistas of arresting landscapes and other natural wonders, cannot be mass-produced or even reproduced anywhere but where they are.
As hill stations change, they also reveal something of the countries that inherited them and demonstrate how different these nations are from one another. Murree, now in Pakistan, could never be mistaken at the end of the twentieth century for the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, though both countries were once British colonies and both now call themselves Islamic. The old tea planters' Hill Club in Sri Lanka's Nuwara Eliya has an entirely different atmosphere than similar establishments in northern India. The metamorphoses of the hill stations are yet another reminder that there is no such thing as a monolithic "Asia," an invention of the Occidental mind, into which everything from the Levantine through the Indus civilizations to the courts of Imperial China and Japan was filed.
I first encountered hill stations years ago while teaching at an Indian university in Chandigarh, not too far from where the Sivalak Hills, the first step to the Himalayas, descend to meet the Punjabi plain. Chandigarh is an entirely planned city, the creation of Le Corbusier and a team of architects called in by India after independence to build the Punjab a city to compensate for the loss of its historical capital, Lahore, to Pakistan. One evening, walking near the city's artificial lake, I noticed under the vast Punjabi sky a cluster of twinkling lights high above the horizon. It was Kasauli, at more than 6,000 feet the first of a series of hill stations leading higher and higher into the mountains. Not long after that introduction, I made my first trip to the hills, to Simla, and was astounded at what had been created there despite the formidable natural obstacles. In subsequent years, as a correspondent in Asia, I stumbled from time to time into other hill stations, often because there was trouble of one kind or another: guerrilla warfare, rebellion at a military academy, or an environmental confrontation over a proposed dam or other development project.
Eventually the hill station as an idea, a point of historical reference, and a kind of social litmus test in fast-changing Asian nations began to take hold of my imagination. In early 1997, I set off on a journey of several months: to see Asia anew just through its great hill stations, moving from mountain to mountain from Pakistan, across India, to Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. A year earlier I had made a trip to the highlands of Indonesian Sumatra, and it was there, at Bukittinggi, in the land of the Minangkabau people, that the idea of this kind of journey came together. In the unlikely Sumatran interior, comfortable new hotels were rising to serve new generations of Southeast Asians with the time and money to take one vacation there and perhaps the next in the Malaysian highlands, Burma, India, or Vietnam. Hill stations were back on the tourist map everywhere.
I knew that it would never be possible to see them all in a matter of months--there are literally dozens of hill towns in India alone; the geographer Nora Mitchell plotted ninety-six of them. What could be accomplished was a tour of the classic Asian hill stations, including at least one built by each of the colonial powers. Not all the European imperialists established such towns. The Portuguese appear to have left no hill stations, and the Spanish never quite got around to building true sanitarium resorts in their 375-odd years in the Philippines, though they had taken a look at Baguio before the Americans came. The Dutch barely qualified. Although Bogor was their invention, it was greatly enhanced by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles during the short period when the British ruled Java. In choosing which hill stations to visit, I gravitated first to those I had seen and might have enough familiarity with to discern the changes taking place. I limited the choice to the former colonies of South Asia and Southeast Asia, regions where I had lived for the better part of a decade. Thailand, Nepal, and China were eliminated because they were never formally colonized, though Europeans did have varying degrees of influence. In China, for example, American missionaries built a hill station near Moganshan, about 150 miles from Shanghai, which became a popular resort for Europeans.
The journey to any hill station is a major part of the experience. With very few exceptions, hill stations do not have airports. Getting to them involves heading away from today's manic Asian cities and rambling through farmland and back-country villages or towns, past rice fields and orchards, and under canopies of tamarind and banyan trees, to the narrow, winding colonial-era roads that snake upward thousands of feet into the mountains. Most hill stations are reachable only by car or bus, though a few have narrow-gauge rail lines, also built in the age of empire. Getting to the destination can foster a new respect for the grit and perseverance of colonial planners and their impressive engineering achievements. With explosives but no large earth-moving equipment, the builders of mountain roads depended on local labor--not always voluntary--to dig and level the roadbed. They called the workers "coolies," derived from kuli, an Indian word whose origins and meaning are still disputed between colonizers and the colonized.
The gang-labor system continues in India and Burma, where poor men, women, and children swarm construction sites, carrying bricks, earth, and concrete in shallow pans on their heads to build overpasses and air-conditioned office towers. Just out of Bagdogra on my way to Darjeeling, I saw a common sight made especially ironic by its historical context. Dozens of ragged, dust-covered people sat among piles of large rocks on the highway shoulders. They were breaking stones slowly by hand, with hammers or by banging one rock against another, preparing to lay the foundation needed to widen a colonial-era road to the hills. The scene might have been the same 150 years earlier.
In renewing my acquaintance with the great hill stations of Asia, I traveled around the world from New York through Europe to the mountainous frontiers of the Indian subcontinent in Pakistan. Then I progressed eastward through India, Sri Lanka, and Burma to the lusher, sweeter lands of Southeast Asia, where Americans experienced their most intimate relations with the Asian world, for better or worse, in the Philippines and Vietnam. As the plane bringing me home across the Pacific slid into Los Angeles at dusk, there was a dusting of snow on the Sierra Nevadas, as there had been on Pakistan's Margala Hills, my first stop. I saw houses built along the razorback ridges of the hills behind Los Angeles, cool retreats for a new elite escaping the ills of lower elevations. With their lights twinkling in the dusk, they seemed not very different as night fell from those colonial outposts on their Asian heights.
Excerpted from Grt Hill Stations of Asia PB by Barbara Crossette Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Crossette. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Barbara Crossette is currently The New York Times United Nations bureau chief and author of So Close to Heaven.
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Ms Crossette's overview of the Hill Stations of Asia is very complete and she does a great job of balancing her observations with the historical background. I was based in Japan with the US Navy during the time period she wrote to the book, so her observations of the countries she visited in Asia were accurate. I did not agree with her review of her experience at the old Manila Hotel, she obviously missed the buffet by the pool and the barber shop is once of the best in the world. I loved it. I also loved the extensive bibliography, perfect for those of us with a deep interest in Asia. Biggest drawback in the lack of maps. Curious omission. However, this is still a strong effort and worht your time.