Monday, January 16, 2006


I spent the weekend with two friends in that queen of the hillstations, Shimla. Shimla is most famous, I think, for being the summer capital of the Raj. Every summer the Brits would pack up everything and go to Shimla, which is at about 8000 feet and considerably cooler. They traveled by mule train, which just shows you how desperate people are to get out of the plains.

Although we too discussed taking mules, just for the sake of historical accuracy, in the end we elected to go by train. We took the night sleeper to Kalka. There we sleepily boarded the Shivalik toy train, which has been running for over 100 years, albeit very slowly. This (very) narrow-gauge train is charmingly, arrestingly slow, but the view is fantastic, especially with the sun rising over the mountains and valleys.

We reached Shimla and checked into our hotel, a Quality Inn, which staff apparently chooses to abstain from use of any heating products. It was cold! We were encouraged by this to get moving and go see Shimla. (They eventually provided us with a space heater, which was a life-saver.)

Shimla is not that big, but the view of the mountains is wonderful. It feels very much like Mussoorie, where I stayed last time I was in India, especially with the combination of the pine trees and the view of the Himalayas. The architecture is that familiar mix of barely-preserved Raj-era buildings and newer concrete/aluminum dwellings. We strolled along the mall and made a few stops to drink chai and coffee.

We debated the merits of our two favorite stops, the very modern Barista and the very traditional coop, the Indian Coffee House. While the coffee was much better at Barista, the atmosphere at the ICH couldn't be beat. It seemed as though it had not changed its decor in at least 50 years, down to the promotional posters:

Of course, all the kids hang out at Barista, and all the old fogeys hang out at the ICH. Count me in with the fogeys.

Sufficiently caffeinated, we hiked up to the Jakhu Temple. In the Ramayan, this is the place where Lord Hanuman (a gigantic monkey, and one of the big heroes of Indian mythology) is reported to have briefly rested on his way to save Lakshman from the demon Ravana (who lived in Sri Lanka, naturally). While Hanuman dozed only briefly and then went on to Lanka, his helper monkeys all stayed asleep. Thus, the temple in Shimla is said to be populated by the descendants of Lord Hanuman. The local population comes to the temple for pooja (worship) and really reveres the monkeys.

Said another way, there are a bunch of coddled, aggressive monkeys here who get ornery when they're hungry. They want your food and your bags, and they'll come after you to get it. I got jumped by one monkey who saw I had a little food for the temple offering. He got the food. On the way down, we saw some monkeys grab a hat and a purse from a group of Indian tourists. Much screaming ensued. (The monkeys really aren't that dangerous, but they are quick and they hiss and scratch.) We got the purse and the hat back, which made us feel good. We rewarded ourselves with more coffee.

Lord Hanuman, father of many monkeys...

There weren't too many other highlights of the trip, besides a trip to the Oberoi hotel for lunch. I'll write more about the Oberoi and other such hotels later, but they all seem to celebrate the Raj era. The Oberoi is dominated by large pictures of Lord Kitchener in full regalia, and the staff all dress in period costume. A little unsettling, but fantastic brook trout. These hotels are all quite expensive, but they also offer a real respite from that daily feeling of chaos that envelops you in India. But it is still surreal to see what feels like an unapologetic nod to a different era.

Some more hiking about and a little more coffee later, we caught the return versions of the toy train and sleeper train back home to Delhi. Today is MLK Day, so we are off. I'm back on the consular line tomorrow. Happy MLK Day!


At 4:58 AM, Anonymous shrinkwrap said...

Best kind travel log! About the Oberoi type hotels, whether in India, Singapore, Thailand, or wherever "exotic" places we Euro/Amis might go, the locals' view or maybe the marketing view of what we would pay for prevails in the luxury hotels. And maybe this is for the best, since the waiters, cocktail waitresses, etc. have to dress somehow! So I often find myself thinking when I wander into one of these gaudy palaces: "So that's what they think I think of the exotic past of this place!" Anyway, crawdad, good show!


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