In 1822 a British civil service worker sat in his office somewhere in India sweltering in the heat. He dreamed of a holiday location where it was cooler and where he could kick back in peace. He came across Shimla and knocked up a summer house. It wasn’t long before other British caught on to the fact that nestled in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh was a place of solitude and solstice, and within no time at all the whole British government of India called Shimla their prime holiday getaway.
Since the British ditched India, the locals have continued to flock to Shimla keen to escape the heat of India.
It sprawls across a mountain ridge about 2200m at altitude, which really is perfect enough to escape the mountain sickness, yet high enough to stay cool. So cool that in winter the whole place is blanketed in pristine, white, mountain snow.
But for the tourist Shimla is India’s way of yet again showing a different face. It is like no where else in the sub continent. Imagine Blackpool in the 1920’s, now go get a shovel and dig it up. Fling it on the side of a mountain in India and then call it Shimla. It is so British seaside-esque it is unnerving. Walking along the promenade (or Mall as it is called) genuinely is like sauntering down a British Seaside front a hundred years ago. The only thing it hasn’t got is sea, but that didn’t put the Indians off, it has donkey rides, ice cream stalls and even a church plonked at the end of the Mall. That might not sound unusual, but a Church in India, particularly Northern India is very rare. Someone felt the need to paint it magnolia, but it fits in well with the British country village homes dotted about.
The main problem for backpackers in Shimla though is immediately apparent, before you’ve even left the bus station. Shimla attracts old people from Europe, and lets face it, in Britain a guy knocks on an old persons door claiming to be from the water board. They smile, let him in and whilst making him a brew he cleans out their knicker draw and robs their jewellery. You can imagine that, when they head en masse to Shimla they haemorrhage money. From the second they creep off the tour bus from Delhi, to the second they hunch back back onto the tour bus they bleed funds like it’s going out of fashion. Whilst we pay 24 Rupees for a Samosa (which is an absolute scam anyway) they pay 200.
Anyway, Shimla is basically a hill. Wherever you need to go is a hill and a steep hill at that. So of course, with their brand new titanium knee caps, the elderly, bless them are none too keen on walking. They head to the taxi rank vaseline in hand.
The town is pedestrianised and actually a real pioneer of India, smoking is banned throughout the whole of Shimla, as is spitting, littering and plastic bags. Hefty fines are waiting for anyone who thinks the rules don’t apply to them. Anyway, there are basically two main roads that run parallel through the town that is actually 12km long. A chair lift has been built to make it easier transiting between where vehicles are allowed, and where they aren’t (the Mall) It’s around 2km from the bus station and so around a 50 rupee taxi ride. If there were rickshaws it’d be around 30 Rupees. So fresh off the back of a stunningly beautiful 5 hour bus journey from Mandi we headed to the taxi rank. “…About 270 – 300 Rupees sir” said the taxi driver. It is the most ridiculously overpriced taxi fare we have ever been quoted. I told him it should be about 50 max and he said its 150 per km. Even Charlie laughed as we walked off and hopped on the local bus, paid 5 rupees each and within a few minutes were where we needed to be.
I had a hotel booked in Shimla because i was expecting some fall out from Independence day. But where we had booked had seriously tried it on and overcharged us so I went looking elsewhere. Walking to the end of the Mall was a killer with all our things, thankfully it was cool. I had been warned of hotel touts in Shimla. Their are fierce, usually quick ‘no thanks’ and theyre off to find someone else. But in Shimla they are die hard hotel touts. With a vengeance.
I ignore the touts, the reason is that they dont do anything you cant do yourself. But, when they take you to the hotel your room is more expensive to cover their commission which is usually about a hundred rupees. Turning up, in the rain at 2am and then it might be worth employing their services – But not at 2pm with just a few clouds spotting the sky. I spotted a hotel and we headed up to it, a guy followed us and as soon as we walked into the hotel he started speaking to the receptionist. I told him to go away and explained that I hadn’t come because of him so don’t give him commission. I got quoted 880 Rupees which is a really odd price and so straight away I smelled a rat. I always check the room first and so went to look, it wasn’t worth 880. As I left I saw a guy in the room a couple of doors down, exactly the same style. He was Israeli and he said he’d paid 750 for his room, but had phoned ahead. You never ever get a better price phoning ahead and so I knew we’d been scammed. I went to reception and said we weren’t staying and it seems that whilst I was upstairs the guy had already been paid his commission. I started to leave and he started shouting at me telling me I was dirty and should leave India. We smiled and left.
The next hotel we went to there was a guy waiting in the door way, as soon as we walked past him he followed us. Instantly he tried to speak to the receptionist and I spoke over him. The receptionist looked shady when conjuring up a price like I was the first person to ever ask and so I told him to forget it. He threw “ok ok 1200 Rupees” at us, I laughed and walked off.
In the end we found a place and again there was a guy sat outside. I stood with him and sent Charlie in to get a rate, once he realised Charlie was going in he jumped up and I started saying no to him. Charlie came back and said the rate was 680 for the night. I went in and asked how much for 2 nights, we settled at 600 per night and checked in.
Its worth adding though that never, after travelling India extensively have we ever come across such behaviour before. It seems unique and confined to Shimla – I dread to think how a solo woman would be treated. For women heading to Shimla alone I guess booking ahead might be the better option, i’d certainly suggest it would be wise and would potentially avoid any unwanted confrontation or temperamental situation.
Shimla proper hasn’t actually got a great deal to do. But then for most people that’s the draw. There is a temple about a km above the town up a hefty hill which forms part of a fitness test. Basically you time yourself going up, then come back down and match your time with your age. If you do it in 30 minutes, under aged 30 you are classed as very fit. I know full well we could have done it in about 20 – 25 minutes, we have walked much further, much steeper, at altitude and in hotter temperature in much less time already. And so, as we stared up the hill getting ready to set off I figured I’d throw a suggestion into the foray. “Can anyone really be arsed with this” I asked. To which the immediate and in sync reply from both kids was “no”. So we sacked it off and went for a coffee.
There isn’t really a great deal else to do, there are some walks in the nearby woods and along the ridge which again we simply could not be arsed with. And so we sat and people watched waiting for the train booking office to open. We saw a guy steal another guys newspaper and leg it and realised times must be hard because the two main papers in India (Hindustan/Times of India) both cost 4 rupees which is less than 5 pence. We saw a monkey and a dog fighting, we saw monkeys robbing visitors and a guy fall over. Monkeys are a real problem, at any time in and around the town you’ll see at least ten or more walking the streets, climbing buildings and sitting on fences. It’s completely over run with them. So much so you can rent walking sticks for 10 rupees at various locations along the mall so you can poke them away if they try and rob you. And believe me, monkeys are master thieves. Ive seen them wearing glasses, base ball caps and eating burgers. I even once saw one drinking Red Bull in Mumbai a couple of years ago. They don’t mess about. If it’s loose, they’ll have it.
Shimla is home to the world famous, UNESCO toy train. Its basically a mini train that traverses the mountain from Kalka (which connects with National Indian Rail) some 6 hours away. To blokes in Macs that hang around looking suspicious on railway bridges, it is their ultimate thrill. To me its a train and when it takes twice as long as the bus to get to Kalka it’s a chore. But the kids were excited and so we decided to take the toy train to Kalka then connect via India rail to Chandigarh.
The guy who sold the tickets was straight from the school of knob head and had absolutely no time for us whatsoever. He was half arsed answering my questions and could not have cared less if he had spent a fortnight trying. Right next door is the tourist office for Himachal Pradesh and so we headed in there. The guy was really helpful and he told us that basically the toy train sold out around 5 days in advance in the off season and even more in the peak season. He told us that general class was also full but would give us a couple of tickets on the sly. As good a gesture as it was I politely refused and decided to take the bus.
The reason is that general class on Indian trains is no place for kids, seriously. The carriage has seats for around 80 people but they sell about 200 tickets. Indians do not travel light and so it’s an absolute nightmare. Done it once – Never again.
Shimla for many people offers them a real time of peace and relaxation, it is an escape from the torturous heat and pandemonium of most places in India. But for us it was boring. We have scaled mountains in absolute beauty and so paved hills just don’t cut it anymore. A temple knocked up on top of a hill just so there is one didn’t do it either – We’ve been to underground temples and some of the most amazing in the world. The monkeys pissed me off and the Britishness soon got tiresome. No doubt it is nice, even cute and I can certainly see the draw for old people and those who have just spunked a fortnight in India looking for some respite. But it felt soulless, boring and empty. It had a real heritage no doubt, but the prestige was lacking and ultimately for us Shimla was a bit like Filey. Good for a day, but not for longer.
As we left Shimla on the 11.30am local bus to Chandigarh I realised that it was a momentous occasion and so we needed to celebrate. It was the last bus we would have to take in India since we are now back on the railways and so once in Chandigarh we ditched our bags, sniffed out a Mcdonalds and ate Maharaja macs with a smile and a relief that no more do we have to spend hours after getting off the bus, having our bones still rattling. Or have to try and dodge all the vomit flying down the bus since seemingly every Indian suffers major travel sickness, no more sweat boxes, no more inch space, no more spending full days sat in a stress position. Oh yes, the last bus in India was the 11.30am from Shimla to Chandigarh, it took five hours and cost about 325 Rupees for the three of us. And, when it pulled into Chandigarh it was a damn good feeling 🙂