Shimla, India: Oh I do like to be beside the mountains

Full set of Shimla photos

We arrived in the faux English town of Shimla, former colonial capital in summer, after having our fill of being stuck in the tiny hatchback taxi and driving at 30km/h along sickness-inducing windy roads, so getting lost looking for the hotel was not our ideal scenario. The accommodation we booked into was outside town and in this mountainous terrain one false turn can be hard to recover from. The taxi driver talked to the hotel owner on the phone but was not happy with the directions so he stopped every five minutes to ask uncomprehending pedestrians the way. At last we found a mechanic who seemed to know what he was talking about and we twisted our way downhill into a traffic jam as ludicrously oversized vehicles attempted to pass on the narrow roads.

When we finally arrived the view was fantastic. The guesthouse is a huge sprawling mansion with the family living in a wing upstairs and the guest rooms in a separate section below overlooking the valley beneath its balcony. We got settled in while the taxi driver argued with the laconic B&B owner about how crap his directions were. The B&B owner had an odd manner about him. Perhaps it was because of his long dank hair and unsmiling face but Sarah was initially worried that he was going to murder us in our sleep. This fear proved unfounded and we had a nice dinner and engaging conversation with him.

The B&B is a true family enterprise and eating in the dining room (there being no other restaurants nearby) is like popping round to someone’s house, albeit someone very wealthy. There is an unending feast supplied by the servants, all the vegetarian food you can eat with piping hot chappatis landing on your sideplate until you beg for mercy. The house was built by the father, a retired civil servant, and then the son decided that it might be a good idea to turn all the surplus rooms into a B&B. He dealt with bookings, in between serious bouts of online gaming that kept him up late (perfect for overnight reservations from Europe). His father sat with us and talked about Hinduism. He has a guru (the guru even has his own a room in the house) and a dedicated meditation room in a turret which he kindly let Sarah use, advising her to keep the door closed in case monkeys in the garden came along. He talked to us about astral travel and visions he achieved through meditation, his spiritual journey in finding his gurus, and previous lives. In the West we would start to think he was a little unhinged but in India religion is much more closely entwined with daily life, and such talk is not unusual. He did not see any conflict between his religious beliefs and his role in public office, but rather saw the former as central to his being a good and ethical bureaucrat.

The town of Shimla looks like it has been transported here from the English countryside. There are mock tudor buildings, pillboxes and a blessed car-free mall to wander along. The houses look a bit ramshackle now and are adorned with monkeys who scramble around, confusing the illusion further. A couple of monkeys shimmied down a long pole leaving their mate at the top, precariously balancing but too scared to go down himself. Sarah was advised not to go jogging in the area because the dogs and monkeys might chase her.

We had to head into town to get a permit for visiting Himachal Pradesh, the province that contains the Spiti valley, a high altitude desert in the Himalayas. A permit is required as this area is right next to Tibet and the government is sensitive about who visits. Getting anything official done in India is not a simple process. We found the office ok. It was in a sprawling complex split over several buildings and levels on the hillside. When we got to the main office we were told to go somewhere else to fill out our forms. We were given a guide to show us where to go, obviously nowhere near the office we were in. Once the forms we filled out we headed back to the office and told to come back in a few hours. When we returned to the office we were once again sent to the other office to pay, then came back up and waited to see the magistrate who signed our forms, then back to the office for some more waiting, back to the magistrate for checking and we were on our way. It was simpler than we were expecting and to be fair everyone was very helpful.

The offices were partly so busy because voting was underway in the local elections. Posters for the communist party candidates lined the streets and given conditions for the workers they must get some traction. We preferred this poster advertising an upcoming movie.

To get to the old town of Shimla most people leave their car behind and get two elevators called The Lift which take you uphill and into the faux English part of town. Enterprising locals wait at the exit to the last lift with baby strollers for the families who can’t fit them in the lift. The strollers come complete with little electronic keyboards to keep the kids amused.

On our last morning we were waiting for our driver to pick us up and head into the Spiti valley, a high altitude desert in the Himalayas. This being India, he was late. When he finally arrived we got in his clunky old 4WD with a small fire extinguisher on the dash so faded from the sun that it was pink, making it look like the kind of fire extinguisher Barbie would have as an accessory. As he turned up the volume on his Hindi pop music, we headed into the hills once again.

Full set of Shimla photos

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