Shimmying around Shimla
We were so excited to be heading to Shimla. Glad to have left the madness of Delhi behind, we had an early start to our morning. Our train chugged into Kalka Railway station at 04:30am.
At 5:30 we boarded the Toy Train to Shimla. The Kalka–Shimla Railway is a narrow gauge railway built during British reign to connect Delhi to Shimla, the then summer capital. It passes through 103 tunnels and crosses 864 bridges as it winds its way through the foothills of the Himalayas to an altitude of over 2200m. The train itself really does look like a “toy train.” I could have sworn I saw Noddy and Big Ears having a chat a few rows down the carriage.
The entire journey takes around 5 and a half hours. We were given tea and biscuits shortly after boarding as well a copy of the daily newspaper. We happened to be in India during the SA cricket tour, so it was great keeping up to date with the happenings
There is only one stop and that is Barog, named after the British railway engineer who was responsible for constructing the tunnel here. Tunnel no 33 has an eerie tale though. Due to miscalculations by the engineer the two sides of the tunnel did not align. Colonel Barog could not take the humiliation, and committed suicide. It’s believed his ghost still wanders in the tunnel.
After boarding again we were given a yummy breakfast. Delicious omelets, fresh bread, jam and coffee. What a treat, considering that the whole journey only costs around R60 p/p!
Strung out along a 12km ridge, with forested hillsides falling away in all directions, Shimla has to be the steepest place we’ve ever visited. Often shrouded in a blanket of mist because of its altitude, it’s hard work getting up and down all of those steps and steep alleyways.
Luckily we were able to catch a taxi from the station and only had to climb the last few steps to our fabulous hotel. We had the most stunning views from our room. We were however advised to keep our windows shut to keep out the pesky monkeys– well considering the temperature had dropped from 40 degrees in Delhi to close on freezing point in Shimla perhaps it was not a bad idea. A real novelty was the mirror on the ceiling. The mind boggles.
And so armed with Winter woollies we immediately set off to explore the town. The cool air was refreshing. The town was clean and people, although friendly, generally left you alone. We could not believe our luck after all of the touting in Delhi. We already liked the place!
The main street of Shimla is called the Mall. It runs the length of the ridge, and is the only flat surface in Shimla. Our hotel was on the one end of Mall Road.
From Mall road the maze-like alleys of the bustling bazaars cascade steeply down the hillside.
Before hitting the centre of town we stopped for a quick snack. Enter the Momo. My new favourite dish. A momo is to Tibet what dim sum is to China – only better. Served with a spicy dipping sauce – I thought I had died and gone to heaven! Andre opted for the Aloo tikki, a North Indian snack made out of boiled potatoes, onions and various spices. To end off we had an amazing breath freshener made of mint, fennel and anise seeds mixed with rock sugar.
The architecture in in Shimla is a mix of British Colonial and Kathkuni. The ‘Kathkuni’ style of building is something unique to this part of the world. A mesh of interlocking horizontal wooden sleepers is created and dressed in concrete or raw stone. With inherent elasticity, the design has an enormous seismic response. There have been instances when tremors have dislodged the stones from the frame, and later, have been hammered back into the intact mesh of wood. Further down in the lower bazaar areas homes are a mix match of wood and corrugations. The huge mudslides that occur in Winter often destroy entire homes.
Old post office building is a timber-framed structure in an eclectic mix of styles which is common to the buildings of Shimla; part-Tudor, part-Gothic, part-Alpine chalet and has been described by Philip Davies as ‘Wild West Swiss’.
After many years in a predominantly green and white, the most recent re-painting of the building in white and red has caused a bit of controversy.
The lovely Victorian Gaiety theatre opened in 1877 and now splendidly restored, has long been a focus of Shimla’s social life. Rudyard Kipling is among those who have trodden its Burmese teak boards. Today it hosts visiting theatre companies as well as 15 local dramatic societies.
Had a quick stop at one of the rooftop terraces for a beer. As per the norm in Shimla, we had to share our space with some furry creatures!
At 4 o’ clock in the afternoon the sun creeps behind the hills and the temperature drops drastically. This was usually our cue to head for the warm indoors of our hotel room, where I might add we had our personal butler (well kind of – but he REALLY looked after us during our stay!) But not before stopping to buy our stock of beers for cricket watching! The Indians absolutely ADORE AB De Villiers.
Beer was introduced to India by the British, who eventually set up a brewery that produced Asia’s first beer, a pale ale called Lion. However, these days, lager is the predominant type of beer available in India. Kingfisher, “The King of Good Times,” is India’s most recognized and widely available beer. The beer itself is a light tasting with plenty of malt. It goes down really well after a long day of walking!
You may wonder why our beer was wrapped in newspaper. Well, plastic bags are banned in Shimla. Before the ban , the hillsides were covered in litter. During the monsoon, the rain water brought along heaps of polythene bags and other non-biodegradable material that choked most of the municipal drains. Now, the problem has been solved to a great extent. A hefty fine of up to Rs25 000 could be imposed if the law is violated.
The Ridge is a large open space, located in the heart of Shimla. It’s the hub of all cultural activities of Shimla. Late afternoon on The Ridge – as the sun goes down over Shimla, everyone tries to get their last little taste of warmth before the cold night begins. People, monkeys and dogs can be seen jostling for the best and most sunny spots.
A favourite pastime on the ridge especially for children is horse rides. I am not really a horsey person, and I cannot distinguish what would make a good breed or not, but I can say for sure that these Marwari horses are the most beautiful horses I have ever seen. What makes them unique is their inward pointing ears. The origin of the Marwari breed has been traced back to 1150 AD. Post Independence, most of the estates of the ruling kings were taken over by the newly formed Indian Government, bringing an abrupt end to the breeding of the Marwari war horse. They were however slowly re-introduced for domestic use. These beauties are tended to with love and care and we could not believe how clean and sparkly they were. They are adorned in jewels and tinkling bells – too gorgeous.
Christ Church was consecrated in 1846 and dominates the Ridge. It is the oldest surviving church in northern India and built in the Neo-Gothic style.
A narrow road leads down from the Ridge towards Lakkar Bazaar. The shops here are popular for wooden product s, especially walking sticks, but offer almost everything you could imagine. The market came into being after a group of Sikh carpenters settled here. We bought a few trinkets including a woolen hat and pair of gloves from a lovely Tibetan family.
The views across the hills from here are awesome! We could only just make out the outlines of the Himalayas in the distance. There and then it was decided that we still need to see them up close and personal. Maybe our next trip?
At 2455, above sea level, Jakhoo temple sits on the highest peak of Shimla. Before embarking on the very steep climb up the hill you are warned to remove all jewelry, glasses and cameras. How very apt that troops of naughty monkeys are the very ones to cause so much mayhem at a temple dedicated to the Monkey god Hanuman. They are nothing short of intimidating. We were told not to make eye contact as they see this as a threat. I decided to challenge this issue, with the dire consequence of a very nasty hiss and show of teeth from one of the critters. I did not try it again, not even a sneak of a look. I don’t think I like monkeys anymore! Subsequently, in April of 2016 the rhesus monkey in Shimla has been given vermin status. Although monkeys are sacred in the Hindu religion, they are now allowed to be eliminated from non-forest areas where they are causing havoc.
According to legend, Jakhoo Hanuman temple was formed when lord Hanuman visited Jakhu hill, during the famous Rama – Ravana fight. Lakshman, the younger brother of Ram, was critically injured during the fight and the only medicinal herb which could have saved his life was available in the Himalayan range. It was on his way that Hanuman rested on the Jakhu hills. It is said that the top of the mountain was flattened by his weight. Today a 33 metre high statue pays homage to him.
The official centre of Shimla is the junction called Scandal Point. Although the origin of the name is a little sketchy, the most common story told is that of the Maharaja of Patiala, eloping with the British Viceroy’s daughter in 1892. He was banned by the British from entering Shimla. So, he constructed a summer capital for himself at a small village called Chail. And the place of intersection of the Ridge and the Mall, where he eloped with her, was named Scandal Point.
We had lunch at Wake and Bake overlooking Scandal Point. This is one of Shimla’s hippest places. The shakes are to die for and the house special a kathi roll comes with a sumptious mix of sautéed paneer or chicken tikka and vegetables, with a mint chutney and cheese in between, served with dip. Yummy!
Kali Bari temple was built in 1845 and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Shyamala, from which Shimla derives its name. Goddess Kali is worshipped by Hindus across the world and represents the eradicating all evil from earth. The presence here was so peaceful. Not sure if it was the energy or the mere fact that the views and sunset were simply spectacular.
It was also here that we learnt from a friendly local the significance of ringing a bell when entering a Hindu Temple. By ringing the bell you are announcing your presence to the Hindu deity. The bell is made up of a variety of metals. When rung it produces a sharp lasting sound which lasts for a minimum of 7 seconds – just enough time to touch the 7 healing chakras in your body. The moment this happens the brain is emptied of all thoughts so you can focus on your worship.
Our last day in Shimla was spent ambling about the Lower Bazaar area. This is where the locals shop and where you get to experience the real Shimla. What a gem of a place. It was wonderful just getting lost in the little alleyways amongst the buildings that seemed they would tumble off the hillside at any moment.
Most areas of Shimla are not accessible by motor vehicle. It’s for this reason that porters carry enormous loads on their backs. From construction material like bricks and iron beams to household items like refrigerators and washing machines, the porters of Shimla are experts in navigating through the narrow lanes of the city.
Porters mostly come from the neighbouring states of Jammu and Kashmir. Come rain or snow, they can be seen climbing up or racing down the steep hilly path ways carrying heavy loads on their backs to be delivered to places which cannot be accessed by transport.
The Indian Coffee House is a real Shimla institution. It’s been run as a co-operative since 1957. Only a worker can be a member and membership is only granted after five years of service in the coffee house. A new recruit begins his internship as a scullion who washes dishes. People from all communities and all regions are part of the work force. The uniform with the traditional headgear has been in use since the Raj days. Meals are so reasonable here and the coffee is as good as it gets!
Sadly our time in Shimla had come to and end, and it was time to move on. New adventures were awaiting…