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Little Lhasa to Little Britain: Shimla

INDIA | Monday, 24 August 2009 | Views [2074]

The night bus to Shimla was “semi-deluxe”, which should be read as completely ordinary. It was however uneventful and I managed to snatch a few minutes sleep in between potholes and hairpin bends. It arrived literally at the crack of dawn – just past 5am and the usual slew of touts came to peddle rooms. I was in the market for a porter though. Good old Footprint had suggested that a few rupees to get someone to take your heavy rucksack up the streets to where the hotels are might just be the best money you ever spend in your life.


It was brilliant advice –  the alleys are really steep – I was out of breath with only my small bag. My porter took a few breaks along the way and was glad of the water I offered him. I felt a little bad that he was 75 years old (and proud) while this thirty something was letting his wallet do the heavy lifting. But he's a porter – this is what he does and I was happy to help “stimulate the local economy”. Plus he knew the way and I had read the map completely wrong. The streets were still quiet and almost empty, except for a few gamboling monkeys.


After looking at a few hotels that were over my budget I was finally led to Hotel Amar Palace which was clean, well equipped, had great views and was anything between half to a sixth of the price of some of the others. Although it did look a little like they sold out to the mobile phone companies and had made the hotel into a phone mast that you can sleep in!


I woke up later ravenous, and went to feed my hunger back in town. Shimla has an interesting history which helps explain its current make-up. It was a quiet hill town for many years until the British “discovered” it. Its cool mountain air was seen as so beneficial that the entire government used to decamp here from 1865 to 1939. The whole mechanics of the colonial government moved, all ministries and their associated bureaucracies and filing cabinets. And of course the government would need its support and creature comforts -  the main street is called the Mall and much of the architecture is in colonial British style. Above the mall is an open  area called the Ridge. It's dominated by Christchurch in one corner and has a bandstand and a mock tudor library. You could be in Cardiff (or maybe Edinburgh, it's hillier).


So I walked down towards the ridge and took in the pleasant air and views. It was all very nice but man can't live on air and views alone. I gorged on an excellent paneer tikka masala with rice AND  a butter garlic naan before trying to see how to make the next leg of the journey. It seemed callous to be seeking an exit before even having a look around but I needed to get to Rishikesh in time as I was booked in to an ashram a few days later.

The tourist travel shops didn't come up with the goods –  the only option was to take a local bus to Haridwar and another from there. I went back down to the bus stand (it really is a long way!) and bought a ticket. My choices were to leave at 5pm and arrive at 3am or leave at 5am and arrive at 3pm. Never liking to arrive somewhere new at night, I went for the early start.  I was happy to relax for the evening – especially having travelled all night. The room had a TV which had BBC News and a few movie channels so the evening was spent catching the amazing sunset from the window and watching TV. 

 I got quite into the Guru TV programme, where a yogi shows a live audience of thousands his stomach rolling and stretching moves. Big celebrity over here. It's in Hindi but I don't think I'd enjoy it any more even if it was in English.


In the morning I went for a small hike to the Hanuman temple, up Jakhu hill which dominates the eastern end of the town. Just a tiny bit of religion: the temple is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. Hanuman helped Shiva out in his efforts to  recover his wife Parvati after she was taken hostage. It is most fitting then that Jakhu hill is the home of many many Rhesus monkeys.


At the start of the trek there is a plaque telling people how fit they are based on age and time taken to complete it.

I wasn't going to happy with less than 30 minutes as I was unwiling to accept being lumped into the 30 to 50 year old demographic. Walking sticks are rented out from shops at the bottom, primarily to fend off the monkeys. However the little fellers tend to leave you alone as long as you don't have any food on display. One lady had an ice-cream grabbed off her in a millisecond by one of them – they are cheeky but if you drop and feign picking up and throwing a stone they scarper easily enough.


The walk is quite strenuous but thankfully I made it under my target time, and was befriended by a few local guys on the way. I think they're equally confused and fascinated by a westerner with a seriously unkempt beard who can say my name is Eoghan in Hindi (that's about it but my accent is quite good they say). At the top the temple was surrounded by some lovely peaceful gardens and a pine forest.

The temple itself though was somewhat anticlimactic – I found the monkeys more of a draw than the monkey deity. Lovely views though. 


One the way back down I found a collection of monkeys who were just having the craic jumping about 10 metres from a tree into a pool of water on a roof. I wonder how they discovered this game but it certainly made a lot of sense in the heat – the sun had risen and was beating down.


After lunch I walked west out of town, along the mall. I passed the communications tower which for a second made me think we live in a binary solar system.


After a good 3km I made it to the Indian Institute of  Advanced Studies. The building which it occupies was originally built as the Viceregal lodge and it still goes by that name. It's an impressive structure built in Victorian style and wouldn't be at all out of place in the Scottish highlands. The grounds are spectacular and there is a guided tour of a few of the rooms still open to the public.


It's amazing to think that for many years one fifth of the population of the world was governed from this building. In fact Shimla has been the capital of India for longer than Calcutta or Delhi. Although the most ostentatious parts (the ballroom and dining room) now have less lofty purposes, having been incorporated into the library, the building remains much as it was originally constructed and decorated with fine teak panelling.


There was also an interesting photo exhibition which gave details on some of the major decisions made there. Ghandi, Nehru and the Vice Roy at the time had conferences to discuss Indian independence and the plans for partition and the creation of the Pakistani state were put into action in the conference room which still has its original carpet and wall fabrics.



After all that exercise I didn't want to venture too far in the evening for dinner so I made for the Lakkar Bazaar which the hotel overlooked. Ignoring the rats scurrying about I had a cheap as chips but seriously tasty thali in a local place and a wander. The people were friendlier than many other places. Maybe there's a correlation between mean temperature and friendliness in India. Time for bed – early start in the morning.

Tags: history, mountains, temple, trekking


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