I sat on the balcony and considered the view. The remote 7800ft high mountain town of Shimla flowed over the hills in front of our hotel. The roofs were the playgrounds of large collections of violent monkeys that tumbled and swung over the closely knitted but strangely British architecture.
That wasn’t the breathtaking thing.
Past that collection, that pottage of houses, the ground dropped away, sloping down, creating a valley and a roll of hills sweeping off into the undulating distance.
That, admittedly lovely, view was also not the breathtaking thing.
After the houses, monkeys and hills sat a horizon spanning collection of giant mountains forming a snow covered range of sky-high rock that glittered in the far distance. It was daring to be explored.
That was the mountains of the Himalayas, containing Nepal, Tibet and beyond… China.
Now that was breathtaking.
Watching all that gigantic history, a carve of glaciers through the Earth, the results – no doubt – of the shifting tectonic plates of some long ago Jurassic collision, was stunning. Ancient temples were hidden in those forbidding peaks. Hidden valleys of almost untouched beauty were masked by the high snows. Visiting that wilderness, one of our last places, is still for only the very adventurous traveller. Get it wrong out there, not make local friends willing to help, not find your way and you could be lost for good or trapped by six months of snow in some remote Buddhist Shangri-La. Actually, that wouldn’t be so bad.
I couldn’t have felt further from the “civilised” world as my eyes played over the distant peaks and I imagined the disconnected loneliness of wandering amongst them…
The hotel room’s doorbell rang and Cesca answered it, “Your Domino’s pizza is here,” she shouted to me.
Well, you can’t stay off the grid forever, right?
We had come to this high place for the cool air, after what happened in Jaipur.
In Jaipur we had gone a little mad.
Jaipur is the great pink city of India, a private coloured aesthetic chosen for a visiting British prince and never washed off the walls. It is a more centralised and established city than either Jodhpur or Jaisilmere.
We stayed at a “city” hostel and went out to see the centre. It was very touristy and I remember feeling gouged by our car trip around. Then we got the idea of visiting the observatory.
Ancient observatories were the plaything of the Rana’s and, back in the day, the absolute height of technological achievement. Using the power of the sun and movements of the stars, the giant instruments can tell the time down to an astonishing 15 seconds accuracy. There were all sorts of instruments on display in the wide open park and we had a great deal of fun trying them all out. One announced that the next day was my birthday.
Unfortunately, coming to this park in such heat and sun was not so much fun. We drank litre after litre but nothing worked. The temperature was reaching towards mid 40’s and my poor British brain could not take anymore. Nor could Cesca’s laptop, which gave up the ghost and died; its components unable to cool themselves down.
During one tuk tuk journey in the city I recall us descending into shouting at each other,
“Why are you shouting!?” Cesca screamed back matching me for decibels
“Because my brain is on fire!” I screamed in response. Then we both laughed.
We needed air-conditioning.
So, we checked into a very high-end hotel with a wonderful pool and excellent rooms to enjoy my birthday in comfort together. This was a few days of bliss and we went from hating it to loving every moment. I spent an afternoon explaining quantum theory to a couple of younger teenage youths who had got chatting to us.
A few days of air-conditioned luxury and we were ready to go on.
We visited the Amber fort and realised the sort of power and money it would take to build such a place.
The gardens especially were beautiful.
As was the locals’ clothing.
The Cesca got the idea of heading up the mountains.
“It will be much cooler!” she declared and then went into the importance, history and personal connections she had with the place and how much research she had done and how we would get there and so forth. I would like to say I heard all this, and I nodded along like all good husbands, but frankly she had me at “cooler”.
Hell may well be cooler than Jaipur. I kept expecting my trousers, containing as they did the sort of hairy English legs designed for insulation against the arctic winds of the North Sea, to spontaneously combust.
To get to Shimla is a trek in itself. Firstly we booked onto a train heading to Kalka from which we could catch the UNESCO World Heritage List Kalka–Shimla Railway up the mountain. Travelling C-Class to Kalka was a welcome luxury (it is an excellent service) and we were feeling a little pampered by the time we arrived at the station for the mountain train.
Then we came down with a bump.
The queue for tickets was so long it went out the door and down the street. It seems that pre-booking was vital. The train was due to leave any moment and I was feeling that we were totally buggered when I spied a closer kiosk with hardly any queue at all. I waited there and bought two cheap tickets.
This was going to be fun I thought to myself.
Walking down the train we got a good look at it. The front was the sort of lovely 12 person carriages that we had experienced in Ooty. Picturesque and quaint with plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the journey. These were all laced with tourists.
Then you had serviceable mid range carriages, obviously for the professionals just going home.
Then you had unreserved third.
I am sure that you have a picture in your mind of what this looked like, and I am equally sure that this picture is accurate apart from the scale of the train. It is much smaller than you imagine, so pack all those bodies into half the space.
The people inside eyed me approaching and the size of my backpacks with as much trepidation as I did of the space left. They were clearly all expecting me to push, shove and force my way on. Just another rude Brit throwing his ill mannered weight around.
There was only one thing to do:
I would love to write that I did the Indian head wiggle and it worked its magic, but what I did was let Cesca go first, armed with her million volt smile, genial nature and local dress.
Suddenly everything changed. Their wide starring eyes softened, mother’s nudged people to move and everyone shuffled along until some small semblance of space was found and Cesca and I were accepted onto the train. I exchanged smiles and nods with the locals (we were the only tourists travelling this class). Their welcome meant that I felt another little spark of love for India light up my heart.
It is a good place and I miss it.
Cesca sat on our bags and I stood as the train pulled out. On leaving Kalka, the train entered the foothills and immediately commenced its climb up 4500ft of seriously big country.
The line has 864 bridges, but I didn’t count them. Some of them don’t look too safe and flying across them, along the side of deep ravines, raised the hairs on my neck. The locals in the carriage didn’t bat an eye lid.
One particular bridge was a collection of arches one atop the other, 5 high! I like train journeys, even when standing the whole way, and this one was one of the most visually impressive I ever took. It was a long journey to stand through in unreserved 3rd class though… 96km at that speed is very leg tiring.
You can check out this journey and some of the stories about the amazing people who work the railway on the BBC documentary series on the Great Railways of India.
Cesca fell asleep and I looked at her: she had the peaceful face of an angel. I took out my phone and snapped a picture of her peace. Not that I needed to, I can recall that softly smiling face whenever I want, it is burned into my memory.
Shimla was won from the Nepalese in 1816 and since then the British have fallen deeply in love with the place. Summer home to the Raj rulers of India and the Colonial offices, Shimla became a famous place for the rich, the connected and the romantic. The train, itself a major feat of engineering, was finalised around 1910 and ever since then people have been able to “nip up Shimla” and go skiing. Skiing… in India…
Finally, near the end, enough people had got off for us to sit.
The air cooled sure enough and eventually the mountains gave way and we arrived in Shimla.
Leaving the train I immediately felt weaker putting on my pack. Our booked hotel was a mile or so away, no problem normally, but at this height (what with the weaker air) I was finding my backpack hard going. We waved away the two men who offered to assist and started up the hill towards the hotel.
They followed at a respectful pace.
We made it to the hotel, but the men following us knew something we didn’t – it was terrible. One look and we left.
Their look was different, a type of Indian cultural type I had not met before. Handsome men of quite thin build, containing a wiry strength and sporting beards of a certain cut. Like mountain Fremen. The beards gave it away:
“You are Kashmiri?” I asked.
“Yes, sir!” the first answered, his English excellent.
“Cesca, look,” I said to her with excitement in my voice, “it’s one of the famous Kashmiri touts of Shimla!”
She regarded him coolly.
The Kashmiri’s are a lovely people, but the chancers touting for tourists in Shimla are legendary. Guide books and websites have whole sections dedicated to how much these guys rip you off, stitch you up, muck you around and screw you over all while faking such high quality friendliness that meeting one in the flesh was almost worth the trip on its own.
Cesca flipped open the Lonely Planet (the kryptonite to the tout) and pointed in no uncertain terms at the page.
“Take us here”, she said.
They plucked our bags from our backs and zoomed off like two mountain goats as if the 80litre packs were made of feathers. We actually struggled in keeping up with them without our packs and that is no exaggeration. They were able to keep up full conversation with us the entire journey through town.
The route ran along a ridge with buildings each side. This was a British promenaded style road leading through the “Mall” historic centre with amazing views of distant mountains one side and good looking restaurants on the other.
The promenade would not have looked out of place in Brighton or Atlantic City.
The innumerable hills on all sides were covered in houses all atop each other and as you got lower down the slopes they became in some places squalid. The core British architecture was prominent and Victorian looking, befitting a town with such important history. It was nice and I must admit, combined with the drop in temperature, I felt very much at home.
We passed through this part, passed a beautiful English style church, and up the hills onto the “Ridge” proper.
Of course they took us to a different hotel than we asked for and pressured us into taking a room there. No chance. Cesca stood firm and after a little confrontation (obviously their fee was being paid by the hotel – they refused any money from us, the classic tale) we were taken to the one she had specified. Their shock at our instance on that hotel, ruminations about the quality of our choices and begrudging to take us where we wanted was all as fake as their bonhomie. All a part of a game, all an elaborate dance and one that Cesca and I knew very well. They meant no harm and we took none. Frankly I was so tired from our trip that I was happy to let it all wash over me. We trudged up the hills.
After another confrontation, this time with the hotel (who tried to gouge us) we took a room. It wasn’t much, one of the grottier rooms I had been in for a while, but the bed was clean and free of pests, so Cesca sent me out for food. I went down to the restaurant and it was closed so I knocked on the kitchen door. It creaked open and 30 pairs of eyes looked at me from the darkness. The kitchen was packed full of half naked men eating bowls of rice in the dark. My mind tore itself from this and considered the cleanliness. The only thing one could reliably order from this kitchen was a hospital trip.
“Sorry, wrong door lads,” I said and left.
Returning to Cesca she expressed dismay that there was nothing to eat without getting up and walking into town.
“How about something from home?” I asked.
I went online and found that much to my surprise there was a Domino’s pizza in Shimla and ordered up a large pepperoni.
Sitting on the balcony eating my first pizza in 9 months and looking out at the view was something I won’t forget. I love pizza, but to suddenly have Domino’s after only eating local food for months was adventurous in itself. I have never felt so stuffed up and decadent.
“How would you like to walk over that mountain?” I asked Cesca.
“Not on this trip!”
“No,” I replied a little wistfully, “but Bodhidharma walked into China that way… and one day I will too”
And I will, oh yes. Mark my words.
The next day we took off into Shimla and met one of the most interesting people on our entire trip…