Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Shimla - 6 to 9 March 2013
06.03.2013 - 09.03.2013 10 °C
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!
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The view from my room at the Hotel Kapil (with the Radisson Hotel in the foreground.
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.