Kasauli and Ros Common, we decide, are lovely, beautifully relaxing and oh so quiet. Time to move on to Himachal’s capital, Shimla. Both Tarun and I, in our respective childhoods, have visited Shimla, but haven’t been since. It’s common knowledge that Shimla is probably the most crowded and commercial of India’s northern hill stations. No matter; this isn’t peak season, we tell ourselves. And Shimla has some interesting sights. It will be worth it—we hope.
Shimla’s 73 km from Kasauli, a three-hour drive at a pace that’s suited to the hill roads of Himachal. We descend from the pine and horse chestnut woods of Kasauli, then go through the foothills, past well-known towns. Dharampur, en route to Kasauli from the plains; Sanawar, known as the home of the prestigious St Lawrence School; and Solan, its main claim to fame the Solan Brewery and the town’s huge cultivations of mushrooms ("Buy spawn here" proclaims a sign. I’m a bit puzzled until I read the rest of it: "Button mushroom, white mushroom and dhingri mushroom spawn available here.")
What we really flip for are the flowering trees all along the hills between Kasauli and Shimla. There’s lots of pine here, some deodar cedar, stands of eucalyptus, orchards of peaches and other stone fruit—and loads of jacaranda and silver oak. The jacaranda, covered with a froth of bright mauve-purple flowers, contrasts beautifully with the rust-orange flowers of the silver oak. As if that wasn’t all, there are flowering mimosas, their powderpuff-like flowers pale pink and white. There are the cream-pink candles of wild horse chestnuts; the pink flowers of wild roses and oleanders; and the purple and yellow of wildflowers growing along the road. As if that wasn’t all, the cactus is currently in bloom: large yellow flowers shining bright among the fleshy grey-green of the thorns.
By the time we reach Shoghi, we can see Shimla, dauntingly built over, all ugly high-rise hotels, across the hills ahead.
The town itself has rather a lot of trees. Deodar cedars and oak grow thick and green all around. But there’s also the squalor of overpopulation and too many tourists. As we drive past slowly looking out for the Peterhoff (where we’re booked), we’re besieged by touts trying to sell us other hotels. They brandish hotel pamphlets, yelling to us and trying to stop the car. Very irritating.
We eventually land up at the Peterhoff, only to find that the hotel is playing host to a huge Hindu religious convention. The fact that hundreds of fanatical devotees sing loud hymns, clap and give speeches, doesn’t really endear them to us. The other major event at the hotel—a blood donation camp—is fortunately much quieter, but we find ourselves having to wend our way between lolling blood donors, who’re sprawling all over the banquet hall that lies between our room and the reception.
We have lunch and then decide to have a little siesta before we go off for a walk: anything to escape the caterwauling of the crowd outside our window. We haven’t realised how tired we are, though. We soon fall asleep despite the racket, and wake up only at around 4.30. The convention is still going strong, so we decide to go for a walk up to the Mall. It’s a longish stroll—around an hour and a half—but an unexpectedly pleasant introduction to Shimla. The clouds are lowering, grey and brooding, and it looks as if it’s going to begin raining any moment. The deodar cedars towering into the sky on the slope of the mountain make the winding road even darker. But we persevere, and end up seeing some lovely old colonial buildings.
First on the list, between Peterhoff and the Mall, is the lovely Oberoi Cecil hotel, originally a bungalow called Tendrils in which Rudyard Kipling stayed back in 1883. Beyond lies the pretty Wood Bank Rest House (built 1920) and its neighbouring Cleremont, built in 1927-8. Further on, on the Mall, is the imposing Gorton Castle (today the office of the Accountant General) and the Railway Board Building, both impressive edifices in two very different architectural styles. Beside the road, hawkers sell boxes of cherries and strawberries. Coolies with heavy loads on their backs trudge along doggedly uphill. Every now and then, a man pushing a pram along approaches a young family with a baby and asks if they’d like some transport uphill or down for the baby. 15 rupees for the loan of the pram.
By the time we reach the BSNL telecommunications building, the first drops have started falling, so we turn back. It doesn’t really rain hard enough to merit opening our umbrellas—in any case, the deodars block out most of the rain—and we’re dry when we get to Peterhoff. The convention still isn’t over, and tearful people are now testifying over a loud mike. Dinner, we decide, is in order. And then bed—if we can sleep despite the din.