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Off to join the Raj in their summer capital

Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Shimla - 6 to 9 March 2013

sunny 10 °C
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We'd spent yesterday amid the clamour and cacophony of Delhi's characterful monuments and charismatic markets. At five o'clock this morning, a more different view could hardly be imagined.

There was only the merest hint of daylight. There was a chill in the air. There were no buzzing tuk-tuks, no honking horns, not even a background hum of traffic. Apart from a dog barking somewhere in the distance, silence reigned.

We were on our way out of chaotic Delhi.

Despite the ungodly hour, one of the young men from our homestay kindly supervised arrival of our taxi and quickly installed our bags, some in its boot and the rest balanced precariously on its roof-rack. We sped through an almost deserted city, racing through red lights, crossing junctions without slowing down, not giving the handful of pedestrians as much as a second glance. Fortunately, our driver missed the worst of the potholes too - we feared for our luggage on the roof.

We arrived safely at Sarai Rohilla Station in the north of the city, with all our bags intact and with time to spare before our train's scheduled departure at 05.45. This was fortunate because we discovered that it was leaving from a platform some distance away - up a long, steep flight of stairs, across a bridge and down another equally-long and equally-steep flight of stairs - and there wasn't a porter anywhere to be seen!

After a super-human relay-team effort, our bags were hauled to the waiting train and we were soon on our way. In the relative comfort of an air-conditioned Chair Class carriage, we began the first leg of our day's journey to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas.

*****

Train travel in India is so incredibly cheap. Our journey today, for example, would be 305 kilometres (190 miles) in five-and-a-half hours from Delhi to Kalka, followed by another train for 100 kilometres (62 miles) in five hours from Kalka up to the lofty hill-station of Shimla. The total cost for three people, albeit with Senior Citizen's discount*, was a staggering Rs.1,330 (£16.50/US$25/€19). Yes, that's for three, not per person, and yes, it includes all service charges for online booking too. Okay, the seats could have been a bit more padded, the toilets could have been a bit smarter, but everything worked - our seats were reserved, trains left more or less on time - and I won't be demanding a refund for reaching our eventual destination ten minutes behind schedule!

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India has the largest rail network in the world and, while it clearly suffers from under-investment, resulting in the use of old rolling stock, it seems to be pretty efficient considering that more than 20 million passengers travel every day to 7,500 stations. Oh, and you don't often get people riding on the roof or clinging onto the sides of the trains like you've seen in old television documentaries.

Incidentally, if you want to avoid disappointment or standing in line at station ticket windows, I recommend buying your rail tickets online in advance through a company called Cleartrip. You'll be able to check train times and fares, make reservations and pay with a regular credit card. Be sure to check the India Mike website for all the details. To get your Cleartrip account, you must follow India Mike's instructions for each step absolutely precisely (repeat: precisely). Read the forum comments underneath those instructions too so you can avoid some of the pitfalls. You have been warned: if you fail to do precisely (repeat again: precisely) what India Mike says, you'll find the whole process very, very, very frustrating and very, very, very time-consuming. I speak from experience!

As usual, I digress...

*****

Our journey from Delhi to Kalka on board the first section of the Himalayan Queen's route was uneventful, a means to an end really. Our journey proper started five and a half hours later when we transferred to the 'Toy Train' for the slow climb to Shimla.

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This narrow-gauge line, with track that's only 2ft 6ins/76 cms wide, was completed in 1906 and was once known as the 'British Jewel of the Orient'. It was an engineering feat that enabled the British rulers of the time to more easily reach what had become their summer capital. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - a good excuse, perhaps, for not being able to change it in any way by, for example, upgrading its uncomfortable, ancient carriages.

The train climbed lethargically uphill, around 919 curves, over 845 bridges, across 5 gated level-crossings and through 102 tunnels to Shimla's tiny station at 2,076 metres (6,811 feet) above sea level.

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It was an interesting journey with some remarkable views across lush valleys and hillsides dotted with towns, some of which were much larger than we'd expected in such mountainous terrain. The train stopped briefly at stations along its route, not so much for passengers to get off or new ones to board, but for those already on the train to buy food and drinks from little kiosks or vendors on the platforms, or simply to walk around stretching their legs and rubbing their numb backsides.

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It's always considerably cooler up at Shimla than in the cities on the plains below. The first British summer home was built up here in 1822 but, within 40 years, the British government in India had begun moving their administration here from steamy Calcutta twice a year, despite the fact that it was difficult to reach at that time. Until Indian independence in 1947, Shimla officially remained only the Brits' summer capital, but it seems that the government actually spent more time here all the year round than in Calcutta or, later, than in New Delhi. Many of those officials were 'unattached' and this, together with women choosing to retreat to the hill-station during the hot season, gave it a reputation for adultery or, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, 'frivolity, gossip and intrigue'.

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As the British presence grew over the years, so did the town's buildings. The upper levels of the town in particular continue to reflect that connection. There you'll find the white Christ Church as if transplanted from a English village, a mock-Tudor library and town hall, and even a Gaiety Theatre. Children in traditional English-style uniforms stroll to lessons at highly-respected educational establishments bearing names like St Bede's College, St Edwards School and Bishop Cotton School. There's even a girls' school called Chelsea.

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The lower slopes meanwhile are occupied by busy, typically-Indian bazaars and restaurants. There's a ban on traffic in the historic central area; here and elsewhere in the town, where the streets are narrow and steep, noisy auto-rickshaws, common in almost every other Indian town, are noticeable by their absence.

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*****

Most of the town lies between 2,100 and 2,300 metres (6,900 - 7,545 feet), so our first few excursions on foot were brief and breathless in the thin air. Smoking in public here is banned too, so the air was both thin and clean!

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Given the customary way of cremating dead bodies in these parts,
the use of 'any body', rather than the correct 'anybody', is perhaps a little unfortunate.

We found ourselves walking much slower than usual throughout our stay in Shimla - all the better to enjoy the sights and sounds of this bastion of the former British empire.

We strolled down from our hotel, through the Lakkar Bazaar with its rather touristy handicrafts and souvenirs, to The Ridge. Here, looking quite at home, is Christ Church (pictured above), together with space for little children to be thrilled by pony rides and for promenading honeymoon couples to gaze out towards the distant snow-capped peaks. This huge open square, beneath which is a reservoir supplying most of the town's water, is overlooked by a statue of Indira Gandhi (Nehru's daughter and the country's first and only woman Prime Minister) and Mahatma Gandhi (leader of Indian nationalism during the time of British rule).

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A little farther down, where The Ridge meets The Mall, is Scandal Point (so called because a Maharajah is said to have eloped from near here with the British Viceroy's daughter!). The Mall Road is Shimla's main pedestrianised street and is where the police, fire and municipal offices are all located amid shops and restaurants. Shimla is now the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh and it's thought that more than fifty percent of its residents are employed by the government in one way or another. The recently-restored Gaiety Theatre, first opened in 1887 - Queen Victoria's jubilee year - is also here.

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Farther down still are the Middle and Lower Markets. Here's where you'll find local people shopping in a congested vegetable market and among the steep, narrow streets with traditional little shops on either side. Everything here has to be delivered and collected on foot, so people carrying heavy gas containers and sacks of fruit and vegetables are an everyday sight.

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If, like us, you spent hours wandering these streets and couldn't face the trek back up to your hotel, there are lifts (regular electric lifts, just like in an office building!) at the eastern end of The Mall, which will take you down to a car park full of taxis.

It's a taxi you'll need to take you to the former Vice Regal Lodge, a mock-Tudor, baronial-style building high up on Observatory Hill just outside the town. It's now used as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. Built in 1888, it had things that were state of the art at the time - a steam generator, running hot and cold water, and electric lighting - Lady Dufferin, the Vicereine (wife of Lord Dufferin, Viceroy and Governor General of India 1884-88) used an electric light switch here for the very first time in her life! The views from the grounds are, as this Victorian lady might have said, 'truly splendid'.

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Another taxi ride - or a steep, two kilometre climb up a path from near the church at The Ridge, if you prefer - will take you up to Shimla's highest point, Jakhoo Hill. Not surprisingly, as it's 1,455 metres (8,000 feet) high, there are panoramic views from here towards the Shivalik mountains. There's also an incredible temple with the world's tallest statue of the Hindu deity Lord Hanuman - at 108 feet (33 metres) tall and weighing a reputed 1,500 tonnes, it's taller, higher and heavier (and certainly more brightly coloured - see photos) than the famed statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

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Appropriately, as Hanuman is the Monkey God, the place is teeming with monkeys, but remove and hide your specs, hold tight to your camera, and be sure to rent a stick from a man just outside the entrance to the stairway - these monkeys are known raiders and are distinctly unfriendly, baring their teeth threateningly if you dare to approach them too close.

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In winter, Shimla has snow and, in summer, snow's not far away! It's now Spring, the first daffodils are just coming into flower, and the snow only left the town a few weeks ago. A worthwhile excursion is on the road towards Tibet - a full day, past Green Valley, up to Narkanda, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Shimla.

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In winter, this is a small-scale ski resort but, even now in March, there's still snow on the ground here and at Fagu on the way. Spectacularly, however, it was the permanent snow on the Himalayas, to which we were now close, that provided such wonderful vistas along the way.

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*****

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this former residence of the Raj, its reminders of home and its very Indian 'today'.

Next stop: somewhere a little like Tibet - the residence of the Dalai Lama in exile, Dharamsala.

*****

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The view from my room at the Hotel Kapil (with the Radisson Hotel in the foreground.

Accommodation:
Our choice in Shimla was the really excellent Hotel Kapil.

It's an interesting ten-minute walk to the Lakkar Bazaar and 20 minutes to The Ridge - you can find hotels closer to the town centre but I guarantee that you won't find one better. The hotel's website makes unnecessary comments about its lack of facilities - these are actually part of its character and mean that it feels more like a private residence than an hotel.

The rooms are large and comfortable, most with their own sitting area, and they have really special views over the valley to the hills beyond. The management is extremely efficient and service from staff who smiled non-stop was outstanding. The hotel's kitchen provided top-class food at very reasonable prices, all meals being served hot and fresh in your own room. In fact, we ate one night at the nearby - and considerably more expensive - Radisson Hotel and, without any shadow of a doubt, the Kapil's food, service and prices were superior in every way.

For a Deluxe Suite and a Super Deluxe Double for Single Occupancy, we paid a total (for three people) of Rs.5,650 (£67/US$105/€80) per night, rooms only, including taxes. Meals were extra but very reasonably priced and very good value. Oh, and laundry was the least expensive of all the hotels at which we stayed during our five weeks in India.

*Since this time, the Senior Citizens' discount on all Indian Railways' routes has been discontinued for foreigners, although Indian citizens still qualify for this and for a range of other disability or military discounts on train tickets.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:12 Archived in India Tagged india shimla himachal_pradesh Comments (1)

Dhasa!

Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Mcleod Ganj/Dharamsala - 9 to 12 March 2013

sunny 18 °C
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"I had hoped that some day I might see Tibet, the roof of the world.
However, until China returns the country to its rightful owners and stops brutalising its people and destroying its traditions, I'll make do with Tibet in Exile."

Mike Fossey, March 2013

In March of 1959, after an epic journey on foot over the Himalayas, Tibet's spiritual leader, Tenzin Gyatso - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, crossed through the Khenzimana Pass into India. Days earlier, in Tibet's capital Lhasa, the people had risen up against Communist China's occupation of their country for the past eight years. The uprising was brutally put down. The tiny Tibetan army was outnumbered and out-gunned. More than 85,000 were said to have been killed. Those members of the Dalai Lama's bodyguards who'd remained behind in Lhasa were publicly executed. Thousands of monks were killed and their monasteries destroyed.

The tolerant Indian nation offered refuge to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, a former colonial British summer hill-station and a place which already had some Buddhist connections. Tibetans had started coming here to live during the 19th century, establishing small temples and schools for its slowly-growing community. The Dalai Lama set up a Government in Exile and Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamsala) became his official residence. Just our luck - at the time of our visit to Mcleod Ganj he was giving some teachings in New Delhi, so he wasn't at home! Our arrival did, however, coincide with the 54th anniversary of the 1959 uprising!

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The 14th Dalai Lama

The Tibetan community has steadily grown over the years - so much so that Dharamsala is sometimes referred to as 'Little Lhasa', although the 8,000 Tibetan refugees who've set up home here often prefer to call it just 'Dhasa'. It has to be said that the Dalai Lama seems to have done a good job in creating a solid foundation for them, with financial support and establishment of good schools, organisations, museums and monasteries.

There are several Buddhist temples here. The largest - and, indeed, the largest one outside of Tibet - is in the Tsuglagkhang complex, in front of the Dalai Lama's residence on Temple Road. This was only a couple of minutes' steep downhill walk from our hotel, the Chonor House - itself part of the Tibetan culture so prevalent in Mcleod Ganj (see 'Accommodation' at the end of this blog).

*****

It was on our first walk down to Temple Road, on the anniversary of the Tibetan people's uprising, that we encountered a huge but peaceful march protesting about China's continued refusal to grant independence to Tibet. It was a good-humoured event, despite an unexpected but thankfully short-lived rainstorm, with much waving of the Tibetan flag, face-painting and slogans on placards.

Young and old, monks in their maroon red robes and trainers, school children in uniform, local Tibetans and even some foreigners all thronged the narrow lanes on the march down to Dharamsala.

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We decided not to join the march but, when the procession had gone, we discovered that the multitude of stalls on the long Temple Road were all closed, as were many of the shops. They were clearly run by Tibetans who were now on their way down the mountain or manned by Indians who, by coincidence, were celebrating the Hindu festival of Maha Shivratri on this same day!

Instead, we visited the near-deserted Tsuglagkhang complex. We went there a couple of times subsequently too, when it was busy with monks going about their business, the faithful prostrating themselves repeatedly, chanting prayers as they did so, and foreign visitors intrigued by all about them.

The temple is quite a modern structure, so lacking somewhat in atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. It contains a museum (which we should have visited perhaps, but we're really not into museums), a monastery which trains monks for rituals associated with the temple, the temple itself, a shrine with a huge gold statue of the Buddha and a massive chorten - a vast array of cylindrical metal prayer wheels bearing the 'Om mani padme hum' mantra. Paintings and wall hangings depict religious stories and fierce Tibetan deities.

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We didn't have an opportunity to speak with any of the monks - most are refugees from Tibet rather than born in India and speak only a smattering of Hindi or English anyway, and their monastic education is entirely in Tibetan. Their days are largely devoted to studying philosophy, history, geography and tantra. Having said that, we did see quite a few monks out in the town, shopping, eating at restaurants, talking on their mobile phones or just walking around.

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Propaganda posters are commonplace. One we saw related to the 10th Panchen Lama (the future Dalai Lama) who was kidnapped by the Chinese government and whose whereabouts are unknown. Others depicted the plight of Tibetan refugees or voiced the claim that a million Tibetans had been killed since China occupied the country, destroying 6,000 religious and cultural centres.

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In the town itself, one side of Temple Road is lined with stalls selling handmade necklaces, trinkets, woollens, leather goods, 'singing bowls' and Tibetan handicrafts of all kinds. Hard bargaining is the order of the day here. On the other side are dozens of small shops selling slightly more expensive articles, clothing, scarves, thangka paintings, souvenirs and the like. Amid this busy scene, all life is displayed - occasional beggars, a small troupe of Langur monkeys, women working on building sites, and even our hotel receptionist on her lunch break.

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Other foreigners, of which there were many around - most of them dressed like hippies in clothes that that they'd bought from locals dressed like non-hippie foreigners - seemed to be enjoying the street food and ice cream cones from the nearby shop too.

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There are one or two decent eating places, and even a coffee bar. I think Tibetans own a lot of the restaurants, shops and hotels in town and employ Indians to work for them. However, some of the restaurants didn't appear to follow any prescribed standards of hygiene - take a look at this (a)shocker:

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We tended to avoid food from street stalls too, but some of the Tibetan soup-like noodles and momos (dumplings, usually vegetable-filled and steamed or fried) looked almost good enough to eat!

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So, we ate mainly at our hotel, where we could choose western-style meals or Tibetan dishes with unpronounceable and eminently-forgettable names; it certainly made a change from the usual spicy Indian food we'd had almost everywhere else, although some still had a bit of kick.

*****

About 15 kilometres outside of Mcleod Ganj is the Norbulingka Institute, a peaceful retreat devoted to preserving the culture and art of Tibet. Norbulingka was the name of the Dalai Lama's summer residence in Tibet. At the Institute, a guided tour introduced us to this picturesque and interesting cultural centre, where Tibetan arts and crafts continue to be practised and a livelihood is provided for a few of the exiled population.

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We saw artists meticulously painting thangkas, some of which could take months to complete. We were shown one painting that had already taken many months of skilled work and which, after several more months of tiny brush strokes, would eventually be presented to the Dalai Lama. Patience was certainly a virtue here.

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Groups of mainly women, sitting on cushions at low tables, made appliqué embroidery thangkas, detailed little pieces being carefully folded, pressed and sewn together with hundreds of stitches.

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Elsewhere, boxes were being assembled then beautifully painted by hand and metal figurines and fretwork pictures were being carefully constructed using basic tools. There's a shop where all the fruits of the workers' labour are well-presented and can be yours for a not unreasonable price given their very high quality.

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The artists' studios were set among landscaped gardens with ponds and streams, flowering shrubs and giant bamboos, decorated here and there with strings of prayer flags.

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A Doll Museum, an unusual exhibition of intricately detailed and lifelike dolls, provides a reference point for future generations of the costumes worn by people in various regions of Tibet and displays festivals and religious events that form part of Tibetan culture.

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Of course, there's a temple here too, with portraits of all the Dalai Lamas lining the walls of its upper floor, together with a stunning gold statue of the Buddha and a few murals of scary gods.

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*****

I loved everything about Mcleod Ganj, despite the number of tourists and the holiday industry that has grown up around them. It was definitely a very different face of India, one I'd never seen before. And, it was almost certainly the closest I'll get to Tibet in this lifetime!

*****

Accommodation:
Although the most expensive option here, our stay at Chonor House provided the ultimate Tibetan experience in this Tibet-influenced town. Its location, up a steep, narrow side alley off Temple Road within two or three minutes' walk of the entrance to the Tsuglagkhang complex was very convenient, although returning up the steep hill after walking around town was, perhaps, not ideal.

It's part of the Norbulingka Institute, some of whose beautiful handiwork provides furnishings for the very comfortable lounge and paintings on the staircases.

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The hotel's staff are all Tibetan and it's decorated throughout with the most wonderful hand-painted murals depicting scenes of Tibetan life and wildlife. Its 11 bedrooms are all different; one thing they do have in common though is a lack of room numbers - they have names instead. Mine was 'Wild Animals of Tibet' and, sure enough, there they were, all over my walls - a panda, yaks, monkeys... There were even leopards on the key tag and the carpet was decorated with tigers. I'd arranged in advance for my brother and his wife, the bloggers Grey haired nomads, to have the room aptly named 'Nomads of Tibet', which was adorned with murals of the country's nomadic peoples.

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The rooms were spacious, very clean, and had good bathrooms, complimentary tea and coffee making facilities, a small fridge, a desk and chair, and free WiFi.

The restaurant served excellent food with many Tibetan specialities. Waiters seemed inexperienced and very laid-back, so service was sometimes incredibly slow but, hey, we were on holiday...

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We paid Rs.4,650 (£56/US$86/€66) per night, room only including all taxes, for the double and Rs.4,016 (£48/US$75/€57) for single occupancy. Meals were additional but reasonably priced.

I'd go back there without any hesitation.

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Farewell Chonor House. My brother David (left of picture) and me about to leave Chonor House
after receiving traditional kurtas (white silk scarves) from Dorma.
Picture courtesy of the 'Grey haired nomads'.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:04 Archived in India Tagged india dharamsala himachal_pradesh mcleod_ganj Comments (0)

Pong stinks!

Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Pong Reservoir - 12/13 March 2013

sunny 35 °C
View Three travel bloggers go to Bhārata on Keep Smiling's travel map.

It's a long drive from Mcleod Ganj to Amritsar, so we'd decided to stop for a night at Pong on the way.

The journey from McLeod Ganj, down from the Himalayan foothills, across rivers and through valleys was probably the best part of this particular night stop!

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By the way, our destination wasn't 'Pong' the other half of 'Ping'. Nor 'Pong' the arcade video game. Not even 'pong' the disagreeable or offensive smell (although that's fairly close to the truth). I'm talking Pong the reservoir, the correct name for which is actually Maharana Pratap Sagar.

There's only one hotel, The Lodge at Pong. It turned out to be a carbuncle on the landscape with basic rooms, terrible food, dire management and a website that miserably failed to tell it how it was.

The view from the roof was lovely.

The boat ride on the reservoir was awful, as was everything else.

I thought about ending this blog right here, but you want to know more about why we didn't think much of Pong, don't you? So...

First, a confession. It was me who suggested adding Pong to our itinerary. Sorry, Janice. Sorry, David.

In my defence, may I add that:

- I hadn't been there before,
- we needed somewhere to break a long journey, and
- online research suggested that the reservoir had a reputation for its bird life - ideal, I reckoned, for a welcome rest and a spot of bird-watching.

There was a hotel there too, part of a group which also owned luxury hotels in Shekawati and Dharamsala, the latter being the residence of the Maharaja of Kangra. The one at Pong appeared to have a terrific view of the reservoir and promised on its website that this was 'a haven for resident and migratory birds' and 'you will enjoy a carefree boat ride...'.

How was I to know it was the runt of the litter and suitable only for those who'd given up the will to live?

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The concrete cube on the hill is where we stayed.

I'd booked our rooms by email four months in advance and reconfirmed them five days beforehand, yet when we arrived at the concrete cube on the hill it seemed almost as if we were unexpected. We offered our passports. The manager said they weren't required and didn't ask us to register - perhaps he preferred us to be non-existent, ghosts as far as the hotel's books were concerned and thus a nice little contribution to his back pocket.

We were shown to two rooms, one of which smelled worse than a sewer and had to be changed for another on the floor above. The other had curtains that, once upon a time, had been attached to the rail, and dirty windows that spoiled what could have been a great view towards the reservoir. Both rooms were bare and unloved.

We contemplated getting back in the car and continuing to Amritsar. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we should have.

However, we'd promised ourselves a relaxing afternoon and a boat trip on the lake so, after a mediocre lunch, we walked across farmland for about half an hour towards the lake, encountering only grass, mud and a few women gathering food for their livestock.

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It was hot, and so were we by the time we reached the muddy shoreline. There, a dilapidated vessel with faded paintwork suggesting it once belonged to the local Fisheries Department (perhaps it still did) waited to take us on our 'carefree boat ride'.

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Out on the water, the boatman insisted that we could only travel along a small area in the middle of the nearest part of the lake because there were fishing nets strung out along all the margins. There was only a cool breeze on the water - no birds! Just a handful of common cormorants and a gull sat on an islet and even Janice and David's powerful binoculars couldn't identify any birds on the far distant land.

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We've seen better on our local boating lake.

Thankfully, we returned to shore less than half an hour later and walked back to the hotel to cool off with a much-needed drink.

The only cold drink on offer was water.

We opted for tea.

Dinner that evening was lunch reincarnated. It obviously hadn't been good in its previous life as it came back in exactly the same form, right down to the last chapatti.

Afterwards, the manager enquired about what we'd like for breakfast. In the morning, it became clear that he hadn't passed on the information and we had to repeatedly ask the cook-come-waiter for every single thing. Breakfast took over an hour...

As we were about to leave, the manager appeared - in what were clearly his nightclothes - and scribbled the room and boat charges on the back of our food bill. Perhaps we did exist after all - in the restaurant anyway!

As they say: 'every cloud...' and our silver lining was simply that we'd broken the long journey without breaking the bank. Oh, and we'd enjoyed the view, at sunrise, during the day and at sunset.

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This last picture is the view of someone's washing hanging out to dry beside the hotel entrance.
It was there when we arrived - and still there when we left the next day!

*****

If you search Google for 'Pong', you'll find just an arcade video game and a supplier of smelly cheeses. Long may that continue!

*****

Accommodation:
The Lodge At Pong. Don't even think about going there.
Most of this blog is my one-star TripAdvisor review.

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:30 Archived in India Tagged india pong himachal_pradesh Comments (1)

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