The Castle hotel in Naggar proves to be an oasis of calm after Manali. The castle itself, which is over 600 years old, has been converted into a heritage hotel. During the day, there are lots of visitors to the castle but after five in the evening it’s left to the guests.
Breakfast and dinner are included in the price saving us the usual hunt for these meals. We walk up the quiet road from the Castle into the orchard covered hills with their backing of conifers and snow capped peaks. The valley is much more open at this point and the views are spectacular. It’s time for lunch!
Today we attempt to leave and find the taxis are on strike (see Manali blog), so, after standing in the sun for a while, we have a pleasant hours bus ride down to Kulu. From there we have booked a “Deluxe” bus on to Shimla, an 8 hour ride for $10 each – transport can be really cheap here! The bus turns out to be great and I picked the right seats for once and so 8 hours later, having wound endlessly though the hills, we transfer to a taxi and end up at the Kapil hotel in Shimla.
Shimla is known as the “Queen of the hill stations” and was the summer capital of the Raj from the mid 1800’s. From here the part of the empire stretching from the middle east through the whole of India and Shri Lanka and on to Burma was administered. It is still the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh.
The town of Shimla spills down the hillsides from a ridge. The whole of this ridge, and so the centre of town, is pedestrian only, so after a (very uphill) walk from the hotel and then up a long flight of stairs, we are free of the incessant hooting of horns, and swirl amid the crowds of tourists, mostly Indian, joining the high season’s escape from the heat of the plains.
We walk through the busy Lakkar Bazar and up on to the Ridge, with it’s Anglican church, administrative buildings, courts and endless pony rides, and on to the Mall with it’s up market shops and cafes. It’s a holiday atmosphere and time for strolling and people watching. We watch them and they watch us; always ready with a smile or request for a picture – it’s fun.
We will spend our week here exploring the pedestrian free area. We have to make the climb a couple of times a day for lunch and supper and so keep up the fitness level we have attained from long walks in Macloud Ganj and Manali. We will rarely eat in the same place twice, with the exception of the Ashiana, with it’s excellent food and position overlooking the open area of the Ridge, and the Indian Coffee House for it’s amazing atmosphere and oh-so-cheap food.
The Indian Coffee house is an institution with branches all over India started by the coffee board in the 1940’s and then bought up by the employees cooperative back in the 1950’s when the coffee board wanted to close them down. It still runs as a cooperative today.
We start on the very steep climb up to the Hanuman (Monkey God) temple with it’s giant Hanuman Statue which looks down on Shimla, but the weather turns and we get back into the shelter of the Ashiana just in time before the torrential rains come down. It is the start of the monsoon (two weeks early we are told) and the tragedy of the floods to the east of us is unfolding. The news spread world wide as a thousand people die and tens of thousands of people are trapped for weeks following the destruction caused by torrential downpours and dam failures high in the mountains. (We later meet an american couple in Kerela who left Haridwar the day before their hotel was washed into the Ganges!).
In the mornings I leave the hotel room to Jacqui and turn left out of the hotel (right goes up the hill) and walk along the quiet(ish) road and then down a track to a flat rock which serves as my meditation seat. It is a quiet spot among the trees with birds and the odd monkey to keep me company. Through the trees in front of me I can see a small rhodedendran tree, and on that tree appears a single bright red flower. I look for more as we walk around Shimla but this is the only one. I take it as auspicious that amid all the green surrounding my meditation seat there is this single splash of red.
In my mid teens in England I was an avid train-spotter as were most boys of the early 1960’s. Four of us used to buy all day rail passes and go off to the various hot spots to see the amazing steam locomotives that were sadly on their way out at that time. At King’s Cross loco sheds we would sneak round the back and wonder at the streamlined A4 express locos which were my favorite. My uncle in Yorkshire used to take me to a cutting out on the moors where the north and southbound Elizabethan Expresses (London to York) crossed on a stretch of long straight track – two roaring and steaming A4 locos pulling up to twenty carriages each – expresses at full speed – an amazing sight! So it was with some anticipation that we have decided to leave Shimla on the so called “Toy Train” which runs through it’s 101 tunnels down to the plains and the town of Kalka, not far from Chandigar, and from thence to change to the Kalka Shtbdi express to Delhi.
We are at the station in good time and are soon tucked up un our rather basic seats which somehow don’t quite fit the name of the train – “the Himalayan Express”. Oh well, can’t have everything. We start exactly on time in the pouring rain and begin the descent. There are a few small stations on the way and about an hour into the 5 hours trip we reach the second station. It soon becomes apparent that something was wrong and we are being told that there is a landslide over the track. Time goes by and the rain comes and goes and then we have to get off the train and get into a taxi for the rest of the journey. It’s a disappointment, but here we are crammed into an RV taxi with two Indian families, nine of us in all. The son of one of the families, who speaks excellent english, is particularly helpful and is keeping us up with the situation – like – “the cloud has descended and so we can’t start yet” and other useful information. But we have eventually got going and have started the downward trip along incredibly windy roads with stops for various pukings along the way (not us I am glad to say), and have reach Kalka, a town just north of Chandigah, the town famous for it’s layout and building designs by the french architect, Le Corbusier.
Now aboard the Kalka Shtbdi express (cute name huh!), we revel in the air conditioned comfort of reclining chairs with adjustable footrests complete with newspapers and magazines. The ride is smooth and quiet and the snacks have arrived with tea (or coffee). Later now, and the soup course is here – that is done and the main course arrives … “veg or non-veg Sir and Madam?”. We are now suitably full but just have room for the icecream that is offered for desert. Time for a snooze you think?
After an overnight in Delhi we are now on the three hour flight to Kochi. We had contemplated the 43 hour train journey, but decided against for some reason. A taxi from the airport and we are in Fort Kochi on an island among islands and in a small backstreet hotel.
But more of this in the next chapter.
Love from me
Bit of love going on here as well. The monkeys come to say hello from the widow ledge of our hotel in Shimla!