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Round the World Journey

Shimla and the North

INDIA | Wednesday, 27 September 2017 | Views [216]

From Udaipur we caught an overnight train back to Delhi sharing a comfortable 4 seater birth with a professional Delhi couple who were good fun. He has been working on top brands in western firms whilst she works for an Indian events company.  I slept surprisingly well but was still unporepared for the madness of Delhi which was busier than ever thanks to a joint Hindu/ Muslim festival that clogged up all the traffic in the evening. The day hotel was also pretty horrible with dirty sheets despite insisting that they were changed twice. Even the shower was cold. Rickshaw drivers were up to their usual tricks taking me to the wrong bazaar - no doubt on commission; and another insisting that I should visit Tourist Information which was another commission job no doubt.  I also visited the largely overgrown Nicholson Cemetry - a Christian cemetry notorious as the burial ground for an army officer John Nicholsoon who had overseen a massachre of Indians. 

We only needed the hotel for a few hours before catching a 9.40 pm train to Kalka and on to Shimla. Unfortunately, the train left an exhausing 4 hours late leading to a hot and humid night on the platform enlivened by the odd visit to the air conditioned McDonalds. Once inside the compartment however we slept well and arrived in Kalka where of course are connecting train was either long since gone or cancelled. So we had to take our chance with unreserved ticekts whcih were in third class. They were only 60p but we had to endure 6 hours in an overcroded carriage. A savinng grace was that as we climbed up the 2000m moutains the temperature got cooler and the views more and more spectiacular. We passed over umpteen bridges and through 92 tunnels - an incredible feat of engineering.  

Shimla itself offers a tast of old England with a hotpotch of Victorian and Edwardian buildings as well as Christchurch Church.  Walking down the main street - the Mall - is rather like walking down an English High Street.  Christchurch looks over the town, and along the Mall is the Gaiety Theatre and a large town hall which is being restored.  A 2.5km walk takes you past several other British buildings including a large complex now used by the Indian Army to the Vice Regal's Lodge which is a quintissentially British Mansion Housee complet with lawns and gardens that would not look out of place in Surrey.  It is soimewhow moving to see the mark that our ancestors made even if the legacy is not all good by any means.  

Below the Ridge and the Mall, the town is packed denseley and colourfully onto the steep hillside.  The shops take on more of the character of an Indian rather than an Indian town but everywhere the views across the moutains are stunning.  It was good to see so many wealthy Indians clealry enjoying this favoured spot blessed by its coolness.

I also walked up a steep hill to visit the Jakhu Temple which seems to be home to more monkeys than pilgrims.  

My two days in Shimla were thoroughly enjoyable but it was time to take a taxi 20km to Treebo Snow View Lodge. The views all the way were stunning even if the journey was slightly hair raising in places.  We passed through a protected forest but the Indian economic boom seems to be reflected in a construction boom in new hotels.  We even passed a fun park and safari park. Treebo Lodge is a work in progress. Garden walls being constructed and Reception unable to handle foreign bank cards or requests for a bill.

We faced a 10 or 11 hour journey on the bus to Malani. The ride was exhausting, hot at times but exhilirating as we navigated narrow mountain passes down from Shimla and then up to Manali. We were delayed en route by groups of pilgrims banging loud drums as they walked from villages hundreds of miles with a shrine to a festival in Kullu. Even worse delays were to follow as uncontrolled roadworks snarled the traffic and tempers as drivers sought to take advantage and drive in the wrong lane. It would have been nice to have stopped at Kullu but time as ever was pressing so we got a rickshaw from Manali bus station after supper to our hotel.  Manali was much larger and more crowed than we expected with a cosmopolitan air from its mixed residents including quite a few Tibetan monks, and backpackers from around the world. It is still early in the season but the main tourists taking advantage of adventure sports from para gliding, rafting to trekking are young Indians.  We were in for a rude surprise at the hotel as management insisted that they had just taken the hotel over and would not honour the booking at such a low (200 rupee per person per might) rate.  Arguments were futile so we resinged ourselves to booking another place which turned out to be closer to the backpacker scene in the old town which provided pleasant respite thanks to its many riverside cafes.

We booked a tour bus of the Rohanti Pass for the next morning and set off packed like sardines in a tourer. I got the front seat to begin with and enjoyed taking dozens of photos of the incredible views as we climbed and climbed the pass up to 4000m. We saw shephers herding sheep and goats down the steep climbs and enjoyed the early Autumn foliage including many deciduous trees. The road was single track and treacherous in places particularly as barriers gave up half way up the moutain. We passed a Tibetan looking temple with its colourful flags strung out across the roadside and paragliders enjoying the steep inclines. I was just glad to get up and back safely. What a journey! It would have been fabulous if tiring to complete the full ring to Spiti but i will save that God willing for another holiday.

After another tiiring 10 or 11 hour bus journey through stunning mountain roads backtracking via Manali we reached Darmasala perched high up. I was struck by the sight of wild flowers like petunia or surfina growing wild alongside camellias, dahlias and other favuourites. Darmasala is well known and given by a visit the town was packed. It had a nice laid back feel and our hotel was hosting painting classes next to workshops on yoga, meditation, jewellery and other crafts. Half the foreign residents seemed to be from Israel and many cafes were owned or run by ex pats no doubt keen to escape Israeli discipline.

We didn't stay long but did visit 19th century St Johns overlooking the moutains which had teh feel of an English country church, complete with memorials including one to an army officer who died the night before his wedding, another to a climber who had fallen and another to one unfortunate who had met his end encountering a bear. The cemetry stones were hard to deciper but told an interesting story of the British occupation of India.

The 5am start to Armiritzar was made worse by incessant noise from my near neighbours. Despite promising to be quiet twice, the noise continued until gone 3 and I doubt that i got more than 30 mins sleep. Despite the heat of the plains, the fresh sight of the Golden Temple kept me wide awake. It is a stunning site, reminscent in part of Kyoto's Golden Pavilioon but more evidently a vibrant place of worship still today where thousands of pilgrams still share a communal meal each day. I also visigted the memorial to the 400 plus local inhabitants who were shot by the British in 1919 and Silver Temple a Hindu establishment built in teh 16th century with silver tools. Both temples were surrounded by large pools offering ritual bathing to pilgrims.

Apart from the shrines Armritzar is a hot, dusty and poor looking town which is fairly exahusting. But for the princely sun of 100 rupees we visited the famed border crossing nearby to watch an apparenlty choreographed closing cemetry with the Indian and Pakistani guards marching, preening and performing near acrobatics. The India crowd was much larger - think Bollywood with women running the Indian flag up and down, an MC to whip up the crowd and troops of schoolgirls dancing and singing. The Pakistani side was quieter and relied on an Imam to lead prayers.  Crowds on both sides displayed the flag - small hend help or with the help of make up or clothes. There was a strong display of nationalism but more than anything this felt like theatre whcih was practiced and agreed by both sides. I certainly hope so. 

The train journey back to Delhi meant another early start in time for a 6.15 departure but given the lack of sleep the night before I slept through the alarm to be woken up at 5.55 by our faithful rickshaw driver who kept his promise, unuslaly in our experience to date, to pick us up. We somehow raised ourselves to get into the rickshaw and arrived with 5 minutes to spare. A porter told is however that the train was delayed by 5 hours - which given previous experience was less of a surprise than it might have been. It was a blessing in disguise - time for a further hour in bed and shower before breakfast.  

The journey itself wsas ok but delayed further by 2 hours do we did not arrive back in Delhi until almost 10pm. Fortunlatey our hotel had rescinded its threat to cancel our booking, and we re-vsiited a decent enough restaurant, so rested well before the flight the following morning.

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