I wish I could remember what it was about Shimla that caught my imagination and made me include it in the itinerary I was designing for our first fully independent trip to India. We'd done several tours with so-called adventure travel companies and had been adding more and more extra bits on the beginning and end of those tours as our confidence in finding our way around and our reluctance to be 'led' had grown. It's not as if Shimla is on the way to anywhere; going would inevitably mean a diversion from wherever else we planned to see but perhaps it was the magic of the name, perhaps my growing obsession with the history of the Indian Independence movement and the end of British rule, perhaps my selective memory that makes me forget that I don't REALLY like narrow gauge railways, or maybe it was just one of the options that fitted into an itinerary that had to include Delhi and Amritsar and a visit to our friend Dal's father's farm in the middle of the Punjab.
Several thousand metres up in the Himalayan mountains, Shimla offered an abundance of something that was in very short supply, especially in the days before Indian Independence and before air conditioning. In short, by Indian standards Shimla is cold and cold carries a big premium in the months when a European with business to do, armies to command, or a country to run wants to get away from the stifling and oppressive heat of the rest of the country. Shimla was the bolt-hole of choice for the predominantly British ex-patriot community based in Delhi. When the temperatures started to rise, the government, administration, business and anyone who could afford a season in the 'hills' would flee the cities. Shimla became the official seat of the British-run government for over half the year and more than one fifth of humanity was ruled from this rather charming and amusing little hill town.
Between the two world wars with a shortage of good men back home, Shimla was also the centre of a massive husband-hunting network in which young ladies were shipped out from Britain to find a good husband amongst the well-to-do men of the government and army - or if they were less picky, they might consider a businessman although those 'in trade' were less of a catch. There were parties galore and plenty of 'racy' behaviour before the season ended and the unsuccessful husband-hunters were shipped home as so-called 'returned empties'. Who could resist a place with such a history?
Once Shimla was on our itinerary, I spent a lot of time figuring out the insane and illogical workings of the Indian railways' on-line booking site and understanding how to get there; overnight train from Delhi to Kalka and then the connecting narrow-gauge 'Toy Train' to Shimla. In total a journey time about 14 hours. By the time we arrived, our friends were getting ratty. The overnight train had been their first experience of Indian sleepers and they'd not slept well at all and the poor taxi drivers caught the full blast of their tiredness. 'How could they possibly want so much money (a few pounds, not much really) to take us to our hotel?' Dal queried. 'They must be ripping us off'. In general every British-born Asian assumes that every Indian wants to 'rip them off'. The taxi men were firm - insisting prices were fixed and thank goodness Dal was too tired to fight more. Had we tried to walk to our hotel we'd probably still be plodding along when it was time to leave two days later as it was about 7 miles from the station.
Be aware therefore, that the station is not slap bang in the middle of town and you WILL be best to get a taxi unless you are very fit and already acclimatised to the altitude. Our hotel, the Woodville Palace, was in Chota Shimla - or 'Little Shimla' - the quieter suburb on the opposite side of town from the station.
Shimla's a town for walking - in fact walking is a necessity because most of the centre of the town is closed to motorised traffic. You might suspect then that it would be good to have a map to help guide your perambulations but unfortunately we found that every map we saw was less than useless. Shimla is a three dimensional town, sprawling up the steep mountainside. A two dimensional map of such extremely three dimensional space gives you very little indication of just how far apart two points might actually be.
The upper part of town contains The Mall, The Ridge and so-called Scandal Point. These three areas are the main zone for promenading tourists and honeymoon couples to look in the swanky shop windows, get something to eat, and do a good bit of 'seeing and being seen'. This is also the area to see most of the sometimes bizarre buildings that form the legacy of the British - buildings that bear a close resemblance to 1930s cricket pavilions and twee village shops. There's also the beautiful yellow Christ Church that once formed the religious hub of the town and now is locked up for much of the time, the cute little theatre and plenty of buildings that look to have been imported direct from suburban Surrey. The Mall and the Ridge form the upper zone of the town and are the core of most tourist activity.
Flights of steep stairs lead down to lower levels of the town filled with bustling street markets. We visited just a day or two before the big festival of Diwali which is a major present-buying time so these lower streets were so full you could do little more than shuffle along and let the crowd carry you. The lowest zone of the town is the area around the road where vehicles are allowed. This is possibly not the place to hunt out a good hotel.
If you are staying in the main part of the town, your taxi can take you no nearer than the closest road or drop you at one of the impressively engineered town elevators. For a few rupees, you can buy a ticket to take you up the almost shear mountainside to the nearest accessible point to your hotel. Porters abound as everything that gets into or out of the centre of town has to be carried. You might feel bad asking a spindly old man to carry your suitcase but ten minutes later, the same old boy could be carrying a fridge-freezer up the hill on his back. It's a very tough life to be a porter in a hill station.
Tourist attractions are not well publicised and the tourist office can help you with some limited information but not on a scale of what you'd find in Europe or North America. Keep in mind that most of the visitors are there for honeymooning - I'm not sure they have too much sightseeing on their minds. Mostly you'll have to figure out for yourself what to see and do. The main attraction for most visitors seems to be 'wandering around and wearing warm clothes' but if you come from a cold place like we do, that's not got so much novelty. We visited the Jakhu temple on the highest point above the city, took a drive out to the massive old Viceregal Lodge, walked from there to a bizarre local museum that looked like a 1930's boy scout hut and then discovered we had absolutely no idea how to get back to the town and had to track down a local 'wedding palace' and ask them to call a taxi for us. If you are staying for a few days, there are spectacular mountain walks although only those very confident in their navigation skills should consider setting out without local help. Most of our time was spent, and I'm not ashamed to admit it, taking very long and leisurely meals, drinking lots of coffee and tea to warm us up, doing a spot of shopping and just soaking up the atmosphere.
We spent two days and two nights in Shimla and felt that we'd pretty much done all there was to do in that time. If you are short on time, you could get round in a day or if you have longer, make sure you have access to transport to get out and enjoy the countryside around Shimla. People who know how it was in the past tell me that Shimla has 'gone to the dogs' and is too dirty, noisy and crowded but we still enjoyed our time there very much.