Written by koshkha on 24 Aug, 2013
We left our base at the Sun Park hotel in Manali to head off to Dharamsala but things started a little slowly. Our poor driver, Mr Singh, was late arriving because he’d been staying in a drivers’ hostel where there was no hot water in…Read More
We left our base at the Sun Park hotel in Manali to head off to Dharamsala but things started a little slowly. Our poor driver, Mr Singh, was late arriving because he’d been staying in a drivers’ hostel where there was no hot water in the morning because the cold night had frozen everything. We were due to leave at about 8.30 but finally hit the road closer to 9 o’clock. There’s no point stressing about such things when you’re surrounded by giant mountains and it’s the done thing to take your time. The first couple of hours of the journey were simply retracing our route from a few days earlier, heading back along Route 21 towards Mandi. Although we’d been there before, the route felt fresh as we’d been half (or fully) asleep when going the other way. After about two hours we stopped at a roadside dhaba for lime sodas and some interesting local toilet facilities and for Mr Singh to get tea and something to eat and then got back in the car and carried on along the rough roads, heading to lower altitudes than those we’d left behind. The lower altitude areas were characterised by quite different scenery. This is a big fruit growing area and we passed lots of orchards and juice processing plants. Mandi seemed to be the biggest city in the area, with a wide, rock-strewn river passing through the centre of the city. I’d have liked to stop and have a look but we still had a long way to go and had to press one.In the early afternoon whilst driving through some orchards, the car got a puncture and we had to stop. Fortunately there was plenty of shade so we weren’t too exposed to the hot mid-day sun. Mr Singh must have had many punctures in his driving career but he clearly didn’t really know what he was doing. Tony, my husband was torn about what to do and held back until Mr Singh realised it wasn’t going to work before getting involved and helping him to put the jack in the right place. The spare tyre had even less tread than the now punctured one and we had to hope that it wouldn’t rain for the rest of the journey. When they finished fixing the tyre, Mr Singh declared "You sir, very good man sir".We then drove on, back up the mountainsides and into the higher Himalaya. The scenery was as good as it can be but after a few hours it becomes hard to really take it all in any more. Twice along the route the car was stopped and our bags were searched. Elections were due to take place soon after and police were checking cars for smuggled alcohol, although quite why they might think two very obviously foreign tourists would have decided to subsidise their holiday with illicit liquor activities was a mystery. My bag was opened and examined in the middle of the road whilst I sat in the car and glared as menacingly as I could manage. Eventually we arrived at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Approaching Dharamsala we started to see a change in the people we passed. More were wearing the robes of Buddhist monks and the people were looking more Tibetan and less Indian. Increasing numbers of foreign tourists were wandering around, and as we passed through Dharamsala and up to McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and his followers it was clear that this was going to be a very different type of Himalayan town than we’d visited before. Close
Written by koshkha on 27 May, 2013
Many Indian cities have a street called ‘Mall Road’ and Manali is no exception. I cannot be sure, but my assumption is that it’s a generic term referring to a pedestrian street with only very limited vehicular access. The most famous of the Mall Roads…Read More
Many Indian cities have a street called ‘Mall Road’ and Manali is no exception. I cannot be sure, but my assumption is that it’s a generic term referring to a pedestrian street with only very limited vehicular access. The most famous of the Mall Roads is in Shimla and has long been a place for promenading back and forth, looking in the shop windows, looking at other people and wearing your best clothes because other people will equally be looking at you. In Manali there is also a Mall Road but it’s rather more down to earth than Shimla’s namesake. For a start it lacks the ‘Little England’ rows of shops and civic buildings which echo the builders’ memories of life back home in the Home Counties of genteel England. Manali was never the sophisticated and scandalous summer bolt hole of the British and their government in India so it picked up fewer pretensions and fewer ‘Englishisms’.We walked the length of Mall Road Manali as part of our day’s sightseeing. More precisely, we walked it twice – once up, once back – in search of a place to eat and a bit of people watching. We found a bustling street filled with people of all colours and types of regional dress, strolling around. The locals in their traditional brightly coloured clothing, and Indian tourists from across the country all mingled with their different outfits. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry and most were wandering, drifting from shop to shop, stopping to look in the windows, buy a few souvenirs of find somewhere for a hot drink and something to eat.Mall Road is not very long – my guess would be that the pedestrian area is no more than about a quarter of a mile long – and it’s actually just a small section of route 21, the Leh Manali highway. At the southern end of Mall Road, the highway (I use the term loosely, this is India, it’s not Route 66!) is diverted through a dog-leg that bypasses the pedestrian area and rejoins route 21 close to the bridge which crosses the Beas River.The Taxi Stand (the place where, not surprisingly the taxis all gather to wait for business) is at the southern end of Mall Road. The Bus Stand, is across the road from the taxi stand. Heading up the road – by which I mean heading north or against the flow of the River Beas – you find a small wooden temple on the left hand side. This is one of those Indian temples that looks brand new but could – for all I know – have been there forever. We didn’t go in because it looked like they were still building it but of course they may have been doing repairs. The road is quite wide and nobody needs to jostle for space. We looked in the windows of the souvenir shops, tried to find a place to eat and then, once we’d eaten we wandered back down the road.Our hotel had no wi-fi (despite claiming that it did) so we found an internet cafe where my husband deposited me for half an hour (about 10 rupees) and went shopping whilst I was tapping away. Freed from the constraints of me watching over him, he buzzed about Mall Road and the surrounding back streets and bought a glow in the dark Ganesh covered in small crystals which he swore he would put on the dashboard of his car and a pair of adhesive printed eyes to put on the bonnet of his car. We have the most ‘desi’ Peugeot in England and probably the only one driven by a white guy who isn’t a Hindu.After I’d done my mail, we wandered a little more. I spotted one of the ‘Pimp my bunny’ ladies in traditional dress taking a rest with her angora rabbit friend. We popped down the side streets to look at the beautiful vegetable displays and to try to track down a book store which turned out to be closed for no apparent reason. We photographed the small vehicles lined up for delivering goods and then eventually, when we could take no more, we stopped for cold coffees in a cheap street-side cafe. Eventually we headed back to the car park to find Mr Singh, waiting for us and ready to take us to our next temple. Close
Written by koshkha on 18 May, 2013
After a long day of tourism, we were pretty much ready to head back to the hotel for a snooze but Mr Singh, our driver, had other instructions and wasn’t letting us go anywhere until he’d ticked off all the attractions on his list. The…Read More
After a long day of tourism, we were pretty much ready to head back to the hotel for a snooze but Mr Singh, our driver, had other instructions and wasn’t letting us go anywhere until he’d ticked off all the attractions on his list. The last of the day was to be the Vashista Temple. It’s located in the village of Vashisht just a few miles outside of the city upstream of Manali and on the opposite river bank. Getting there took about 15 minutes as we passed along winding narrow roads. We had no particular expectations but were surprised when we arrived in a bustling little place, stuffed with tourist taxis. Everywhere else that we’d been had been very quiet and in most places we were the only tourists there – in fact sometimes the only people there. We realised there must be something a bit special about this place. We also solved the mystery of why there were no backpackers in the main city – quite simply they were all in Vashisht.We still didn’t know what we were about to see but we left Mr Singh with a characteristically vague "back later" from us and a smile and a head wobble from him. He headed off to find a cup of tea and we set off up the hill, passing all the evidence of backpacker focus. Somebody had lost his passport and was offering a reward via posters pinned up on wooden electricity poles. Restaurants offered ‘international’ cuisine – including (and not temptingly) Israeli food as well as plenty of pizzas and easy foreign tourist food. Bars advertised cheap beer and film shows and if you were looking to get a massage or learn about meditation, this was clearly the place to be. I could almost taste the banana pancakes in the air.We saw the temple just as we heard the sound of drums and horns and spotted a crowd of locals gathered around a small square. A young cow bellowed indignantly as two men tried to milk her in a pit in the middle of the square. On the buildings around the square, people were sitting on the upper balconies, looking for a better view of what was going on. In the middle of the square stood a young barefoot couple, he in saffron robe topped off with a rather unattractive grey sweater, she in a white dress with embroidered edge and draped in a deep red, gold trimmed scarf. She was wearing her best jewelry and the two were joined by a pink scarf tied to each of them. Next to them stood another man, older than the first, but wearing the same saffron robe and a rather smart navy blazer. He was tied by a pink scarf to another young woman, dressed very similarly to the first. Beside her was an older lady dressed in the same way. I guessed – but wasn’t sure – that the two couples were getting engaged or married and that the older woman was the mother of the second woman. Of course, it was only a guess. We couldn’t ask the others around us as we were the only foreigners watching the events.Back in the pit, the cow had gone and several men in impressive hats were lighting candles or lamps. One held a bunch of burning twigs and the drummer and horn blowers stopped their musical exertions for a while. We were baffled about what was going on but rather enjoying being a part of it (whatever it was). Then my husband suggested that whilst everyone was distracted by the ceremony, perhaps we should nip into the temple since it would be quieter. A few minutes later when we were inside, we heard the musicians and the ceremonial party leave the square and head off up the hill past the temple. I’ll probably never really be sure what was going on but it was a rare opportunity to witness a ceremony that was clearly important to those who were involved. Close
Written by phileasfogg on 28 May, 2008
We’re headed down from the hills today, and the thought itself is enough to make me glum. I have a fascination for the hills, and a definite soft spot for Himachal. And a week in Himachal is, I realise all over again, just too short.Tarun…Read More
We’re headed down from the hills today, and the thought itself is enough to make me glum. I have a fascination for the hills, and a definite soft spot for Himachal. And a week in Himachal is, I realise all over again, just too short.
Tarun and I have had a rather restless night in our deluxe log hut at Chail. The Chail Palace itself looks not too bad—some parts of it are positively beautiful, and a visitor at the Orchard Retreat in Thanedhar had mentioned that the Maharani Suite is particularly fine. We seem to have been exceptionally unlucky in our accommodation. The hill on which the log huts stand is haunted by dangerous-looking Rhesus macaques, and Tarun and I move out only once we’ve armed ourselves with a couple of fist-sized stones. And the room, on closer acquaintance, does not improve. In fact, it just gets worse. Halfway through the evening, we realise the significance of the room’s somewhat weird décor. There are huge mirrors all over, even two on the ceiling. There’s a heart-shaped mirror in the bathroom. And there are prints of nudes, including a somewhat Rubensque woman with a bad case of cellulite. Not what you’d usually find in hotel rooms in India. And then we happen to have a look at the key tab: Honeymoon Den. Things sort of make an amusing sense after that.
But I guess you’d want some romance on your honeymoon, wouldn’t you? This log hut may be secluded, but the general air of scruffiness and dirt is appalling. There’s a half-smoked beedi (a local hand-rolled cigarette) lying in a drain in the bathroom floor. The cistern above the loo is rusted and dirty. At night we hear the pitter-patter of little feet somewhere behind the paneling of the room.
So we’re rather glad to check out of Chail. The road we have to take goes past Kandaghat, Solan, Dharampur, Kalka and Parwanoo to Pinjore. The first 10 km are through beautiful woods: mainly pine and oak, mixed with some deodar and rhododendron. Beyond that, the woods start thinning out, the cedars disappearing, and eventually the pines giving way to more plains species. Almost all the way through the hills are also orchards: we see ripe plums and apricots; raw walnuts, pears, apples and pomegranates. The pomegranates also grow wild in places in the hills, their bright red-orange flowers visible from far away.
We stop at Dharampur to have lunch at a famous roadside eatery called Giani da Dhaba. Giani is large, and the food is delicious. We order their specialty, a lemon chicken that has a lovely tang to it and isn’t terribly spicy. Half an hour later, full of good food and some chilled lychee juice, we’re on our way again.
We drive down a highway edged with flowering trees: mauve jacaranda, orange Royal Poinciana, magenta bougainvillea. They’re pretty, but we find ourselves missing the wildflowers of Thanedhar. We reach Pinjore at around 3 PM. Pinjore is home to a famous Mughal garden, a sight I’ve wanted to see for a while. We check in at the Budgerigar Motel, have a coffee (very weak and milky), and take ourselves off to the gardens next door.
The gardens are a mess. Oh, they’ve very neat, possibly pretty to many people: but they probably bear very little semblance to the original. The water channels, almost certainly originally lined in red sandstone—or some stone, at any rate—are now lined with ugly blue-grey ceramic tiles that make them look like a shoddy bathroom. The pavilions, originally made of lightly carved sandstone (you can still see the carving) have been painted over completely in a yellowish cream. One of the pavilions, centred along a water channel, had been converted into a horrible little café with huge garden umbrellas, tables and chairs on the terrace outside.
The only redeeming feature are the extensive orchards on either side of the main garden. Here grow mangoes and chikoos (neeseberry, also known as sapota), the trees laden with fruit, jealously guarded by men who patrol with long sticks in hand to keep off marauders, both human and avian.
We eat an earliesh dinner, then make our way to the gardens next door, to see them at night, when they’re illuminated. The lighting is all right—not as great as it could’ve been. We take a few pictures, then head back to the motel. It’s back to Delhi tomorrow. The party’s over.
We wake up in the morning to a sky that’s washed clean and beautiful—so clean that we can finally see a range of stunning snow-capped peaks way off to the right. The sky’s a lovely blue, the mist only lingering on the far-off peaks. The…Read More
We wake up in the morning to a sky that’s washed clean and beautiful—so clean that we can finally see a range of stunning snow-capped peaks way off to the right. The sky’s a lovely blue, the mist only lingering on the far-off peaks. The electricity still isn’t back, so it’s just as well that we’re moving on. Despite that, we’re pretty unhappy to be heading back; Thanedhar’s been a lovely, idyllic little place. We set off at about 10 A.M, but first we take a detour to Kotgarh, home to a historic 1843 church and mission which Rudyard Kipling used as a setting in his story Lispeth, about an orphaned village girl who’s brought up by the priest and falls in love with an Englishman.
We end up taking a wrong turn on the way to the church and go down an impossibly steep incline—but end up just near the church. A path leads through orange tiger lilies and pink and white roses, all growing wild, up to the mission school and the church. The church, to our utter disappointment, is being renovated at the moment, and there’s almost nothing except the stone doorway that’s anywhere close to intact. The church is a mere shell, with workers clambering all over, putting up wooden beams, cementing together stone blocks, gazing curiously at us. I don’t know what the church will look like when it’s finished—whether even it will resemble the original (though, considering it’s been around for more than 150 years, it’s hardly like to look like it did in 1843; there are bound to have been numerous changes ever since).
We set forth for Narkanda, beyond which it’s a two hour drive or so to Kufri. Sharmaji’s already told us that the road to Chail diverges from the National Highway at Kufri, so we’re looking out for it, and duly turn onto it when we arrive at Kufri. What we don’t realise until later is that Kufri’s main tourist area lies along the road to Chail. Kufri, in the good old days, was a major ski resort but has now been overtaken by Auli—and what’s left is a seedy, ugly place that’s thronged by tourists for whom the ultimate thrill is to ride a pony, eat spicy chaat from roadside stalls, and shriek happily at each other.
The result is a kilometre or more of vehicles—cabs and tourist buses—parked bumper to bumper along one side of a steep, narrow road. The travelers themselves flock around the numerous souvenir stalls and pony-wallahs (along with smelly ponies in tow). It’s a crazy, noisy, dirty and unbelievably crowded stretch of road, and by the time we make our way through it, Tarun and I (even though I’m not driving) are tense and irritable.
The road, 28 km of it, up to Chail, somewhat makes up for the utter horridness of Kufri itself. There are deep, dense woods of oak, pine, deodar and rhododendron all through, and some of the rhododendron is even flowering, the blossoms a brilliant red against the varied greens of the forest. We see a barbet up in a tree; a partridge; and lots of jungle crows, magpie robins, and white-cheeked bulbuls.
We reach the Chail Palace at around 3 PM, and have lunch before we’re taken up to our deluxe log hut. The setting is perfect—deodar woods all around—but if this is the deluxe log hut, I shudder to think what an ordinary log hut would be like. The room smells of mice, the carpet is faded, the bedspread stained, and the bathroom looks as if it was made when the Maharaja of Patiala built the Chail Palace, and hasn’t been renovated since. It isn’t obviously dirty, but there’s a certain shabbiness about it that makes even the Peterhoff look luxurious.
Tarun asks Reception if there’s another room we can get. There isn’t, but the guy at the front desk is curious to know why we want to move. Tarun says the room is awful. "It can’t be," the man exclaims, obviously horrified. "It’s got wall to wall carpeting." We give up. Thank heavens, we’re in Chail only one night.
We try doing some sightseeing—Chail, after all, is home to the highest cricket ground in the world—but the road leading up to the ground is so steep, there’s no way our poor car is going to do that climb. Let it be, we decide. We’ll go back to the hotel—the palace part of it—and while away our time there. Which we do.
The guru heading the convention yesterday has still not taken himself off, and dozens of devotees eager to get a private audience are milling about the hotel. They entertain themselves by singing songs and clapping loudly, so we decide that the sooner we get out…Read More
The guru heading the convention yesterday has still not taken himself off, and dozens of devotees eager to get a private audience are milling about the hotel. They entertain themselves by singing songs and clapping loudly, so we decide that the sooner we get out of the Peterhoff, the better. After breakfast (a very strenuous affair at the restaurant: the waiter is exceptionally clueless, and just ordering breakfast takes five minutes), we walk down to the Cecil, and from there on to the Mall.
We follow the same route as yesterday, up to Gorton Castle Square, and past the Railway Board Building. Further up is the BSNL Building, and then, beyond a row of shops—mainly cafés and souvenir shops—a wide promenade. There’s a rain shelter on the left, alongside a wide terrace that offers what would have been a spectacular view of the mountains and valleys around, if only it wasn’t so misty. On the right are a series of interesting old heritage buildings: the Municipal Corporation (built in 1908), and beyond that the Gaiety Theatre, with a lovely sloping roof laid over with slate tiles. The Gaiety’s being renovated right now, so any hopes of getting to see a good play fall flat on their faces.
Beyond the Gaiety is what used to be the Band Stand—a conical roofed building with slate tiles similar to that of the Gaiety Theatre. The Band Stand has now been taken over by Himachal Tourism, who’ve opened two restaurants here, the Ashiana (which means `Nest’) and Goofa.
This entire area forms a ridge running along the top of a hill, so there’s also actually a view on the right side, beyond Goofa. There’s a narrow strip of garden here for which they charge Rs 2 as an entry fee. It’s already pretty full of mooning honeymooners, many of them dressed in gaudy Himachali costumes and posing for wandering photographers who supply the clothing and the photos. We’re approached by one photographer too, who flourishes photos of cheesy-looking former patrons. "Photo in local dress?" he asks us, but we politely decline.
At the far right corner of the Ridge is the tall, cream-painted square tower of the Christ Church. Next to it is the quaint building of the State Library, but it’s the church we’re really interested in. We wander in, and spend a long while admiring the lovely stained glass panels in this amazing old building.
Once out, we take a peek at the library next door, when skirt a small patch of garden with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in it. Beyond this, a road snakes up towards Lakkar Bazaar (the Wood Market), whose shops do seem to specialise in woodwork: lovely hand carved walking sticks, keychains, bangles and bracelets, spatulas, figurines: just about anything small and decorative that’s made of wood. There are lots of shops selling other souvenirs too, including shawls, Himachali caps and jackets, and similar stuff. On one side, a row of fruit sellers offers local produce for sale: apricots, peaches, and raw almonds.
We wander through Lakkar Bazaar, avoiding the many pony-wallahs who go past with tourists’ children happily giggling on the back of the pony. The ponies are uniformly smelly and leave steaming piles of dung all along the road. Tarun and I, as soon as we realise Lakkar Bazaar doesn’t have very much more to offer, elect to turn back and return to the Band Stand. We go downhill, past the Indoor Roller Skating Rink (a Shimla attraction, along with the Outdoor Ice Skating Rink. Old Hindi movies of the 1960’s, before Shimla became passé, often had a scene set on one of the rinks). Back at the Band Stand, we toy with having lunch at the Goofa, but the name sounds utterly goofy and we decide to go on a bit more.
We end up having sandwiches and smoothies at the local Barista, an India-wide chain of cafés. Through the glass front of the café, we can see the awesome stone façade of the Municipal Corporation building and the District Police Assistance Room next door. There are tourists everywhere, toting cameras, posing against heritage buildings, buying souvenirs. I’m reminded suddenly, inexorably, of Rome in the summer. Everybody’s a visitor.
Lunch over, the next sight on our itinerary is the stone church (a Catholic one) of St Michael’s. This stands below the District Courts, and though it looks imposing on the outside—and offers tantalizing glimpses of what is probably some fine stained glass—the church itself is locked and there’s nobody around to open it. "It’ll open after 5," says a man cleaning a car in the parking lot outside.
It’s not even 2.30 yet, and parading uphill and down all these hours since breakfast has taken its toll on our none-too-fit selves. We’ll call it quits for the time being. It’s back to the Peterhoff, where the guruji’s still around, his devotees a little more zealous. We give them some black looks, then take ourselves off to our room, me to make some notes on today’s wanderings, Tarun to watch some TV.
The hills are alive with the sound of birdsong. The liquid trills, chirrups and tweets echo through the pines, but the birds—little brats that they are—are nowhere to be seen. The only birds we’re able to see are the jungle crows (utterly commonplace) and a…Read More
The hills are alive with the sound of birdsong. The liquid trills, chirrups and tweets echo through the pines, but the birds—little brats that they are—are nowhere to be seen. The only birds we’re able to see are the jungle crows (utterly commonplace) and a couple of mynahs (there are plenty of them back in Delhi). Tarun is reduced to taking a photograph of a fat yellow-and-brown bumblebee buzzing around a delphinium. We console ourselves with breakfast on the terrace, then sit outside, cursing under our breaths at the ill-mannered children of some fellow residents at Ros Common. The children probably take after their parents though; the parents shriek to each other as they wander round the terrace, and the children imitate them. When this lot are augmented by another, equally loud family, we decide it’s time to take ourselves off to quieter climes.
Monkey Point, suggests the receptionist at Ros Common, a gentle and mild-mannered lady. "Drive up," she advises us. "It’s about two and a half kilometres uphill to the Air Force barrier. Leave your camera and cell phones in the car at the barrier and then walk up to the temple. And in the evening you can go to the Upper Mall, to Sunset Point."
So we drive up to Monkey Point, run the gauntlet of suspicious military guards—one of them, in charge of frisking male visitors, gets Tarun to pull down his socks and open his wallet. And that is all preliminary to a taxing haul uphill to the temple. By the time we reach the temple, we’re pooped and breathless. The priest at the temple is wiry and in peak physical condition, by the looks of him. Not surprising, if he does the trek uphill everyday.We wander around the terrace for a while, admiring the view, then head downhill. A woman in high heels is tottering along, followed by a husband with a toddler draped across his shoulders. Below them comes a gaggle of formerly noisy college students (they’d passed our hotel in the morning, and we’d shuddered at their rowdiness). I’d overheard the guard at the barrier say, "You lot, there. Quieten down or I’ll have all of you sent right back." It’s worked; they’re suitably subdued.
Further down, an Air Force officer is standing beside the railing and talking on his cellphone to (presumably) another officer. His voice is loud, every word ringing clear up the hill: a complete violation of the Air Force’s strict security here. Fortunately for the Official Secrets Act, the man’s speaking mostly in abbreviations and acronyms, so one can’t really figure out what he means.
For us, the trek to Monkey Point has been interesting (the view’s hard to beat), but before we head back to Ros Common, it’s time for one pleasurable chore. We take ourselves off to a nearby shop called Daily Needs and buy some fruit wines to take back home for family, friends and ourselves. Apricot, peach and plum, with an alcohol content of 11%. Smart bottles, enticing labels and fairly affordable prices, at only about Rs 90 per bottle. After all, Himachal is the fruit capital of India. They also have strawberry, kiwi, apple, orange and grape wine—and others. Along with lots of jams, marmalades, pickles, juices, cider and cider vinegar. We’re tempted, but then decide not to go overboard.
After lunch (on the terrace at Ros Common), we have a long and much-deserved siesta. That done, we revive ourselves with some tea, and then head off to explore the Upper Mall and Gilbert Hill. The start of the Upper Mall, past the Central Research Institute (CRI) and the local television tower, is steep, but soon evens out into a narrow lane lined with flowering horse chestnut and silver oak, wild roses and wild delphiniums: lovely. We trudge on, past the Kasauli Club (established 1880) and the Army Holiday Home, then go a little way up the Gilbert Nature Walk, before we turn back and stop briefly at Sunset Point to see the sun go down. The trek back, on calves that are now aching, is inordinately long, but we get back to Ros Common by 7.30, for a quick rest before we set off for dinner at the Constellation Café in the nearby Hotel Alasia. Dinner is a disappointment—the Constellation is scruffy and badly managed. Meal over, we walk back to Ros Common, ready to put our feet up. It’s been a long day.
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…Read More
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.
We wake up in the morning and Tarun orders a cup of tea from Room Service. The waiter who brings it is the same one who took our order for breakfast yesterday. He’s at his dimwitted best again today. All the other waiters, when they…Read More
We wake up in the morning and Tarun orders a cup of tea from Room Service. The waiter who brings it is the same one who took our order for breakfast yesterday. He’s at his dimwitted best again today. All the other waiters, when they bring tea or coffee, bring a pot of grain sugar. This guy’s brought cubes. No problem, really—except that he could’ve been a bit more generous: the pot has three tiny cubes of sugar in it. That’s it.
"The teapot usually has two cups of tea in it," Tarun explains to the waiter patiently. "If I’m to have two cups of tea, I’d like some more sugar." My husband likes his tea sweet. The waiter looks at him blankly. "I have brought you sugar," he replies. "See. Three cubes."
At this point, Tarun realises that trying to get this man to understand will be a task beyond Tarun’s faculties at present. Tarun thanks him and lets him go, then tells me that if this guy ever went to a superhero convention, he’d be Moronic Man or Captain Cretin.
After breakfast, we ask the receptionist for directions to the Viceregal Lodge. We’re told that today’s a local holiday in Shimla, so the Viceregal Lodge, the Himachal State Museum and just about every other sight will be closed. This is a major blow for us: it means we’re effectively left with one entire day wasted, and worst of all, we’re going to be leaving Shimla tomorrow morning. I’d really wanted to see the Viceregal Lodge and the Himachal Museum, so this is a bit of a tragedy for me.
For lack of anything better to do, we decide to drive down to Annadale and the Glen, both of which lie downhill from the Vidhan Sabha. It’s a lovely drive—all oak, rhododendron and deodar trees—and even though we don’t find the Glen (a popular picnic spot, according to our guide book), we do fall in love with Annadale. It’s Army-run, with a golf course, pretty old cottages, and the Army Heritage Museum.
The museum’s no great shakes, but it’s quiet and neat, very militarily well-maintained. The Cactus House next door is delightful, with a fine collection of cacti and succulents, some of them in flower. We sit for a while on one of the benches overlooking the golf course, and feast our eyes on the surroundings. The green lies in a shallow bowl, the cottages all along the rim surrounded by crisscrossing paved paths and colourful flowerbeds. It’s delicious!
After Annadale, we head back up towards Peterhoff, then (on a whim) decide to check out the Himachal Pradesh University, which is supposed to be home to an old mansion called Manorville where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed. We ask directions from a local fruit seller, and though we don’t find Manorville, we end up at the Himalayan Bird Park. A misnomer, really, since it’s actually a very modest aviary—but it has some spectacular monal pheasants, silver pheasants and kaleej pheasants: exquisite.
Opposite the Bird Park is the Indian Institute of Advance Study, which is housed in the Viceregal Lodge. Not very hopeful, we ask the guard if it’s open today. "Yes," he says. "But you better hurry up; they close for lunch at 1." The institute lies 400 m steeply uphill, and it’s already 12.40. Panting and puffing, we manage to make our way up and arrive just in time to buy entry tickets for the last batch of visitors to be allowed in before lunch. The Viceregal Lodge is very impressive, the sprawling gardens outside equally so. We spend a good hour or so just wandering around, drinking in the majesty of it all (along with bottles of lychee juice from the Horticultural Produce Marketing Corporation stall tucked discreetly away behind a high hedge). Eventually, at around 2, we head back to Peterhoff for lunch.
At 4, we set off and labour up the impossibly steep shortcut from Peterhoff to the Himachal Pradesh State Museum. This is where our luck finally runs out; the place is closed. We go back dejectedly to the hotel, where the mayor of Shimla is being interviewed on the front lawns, so we can’t take any photographs of the view from the hotel.
At about 7.30, finally sick of the hopeless food we’ve been getting at the Peterhoff, we take ourselves off to the Oberoi Cecil for a fancy meal. It comes for a fancy price too, but as we get into the car, replete and feeling very smug, we agree that it’s worth it.
We’re feeling a little sad that we didn’t get to see the Himachal State Museum, but it can’t be helped, really. The museum opens only at 10, and unless we leave Shimla but 10, we won’t be in Thanedhar in time for lunch—and we’re supposed…Read More
We’re feeling a little sad that we didn’t get to see the Himachal State Museum, but it can’t be helped, really. The museum opens only at 10, and unless we leave Shimla but 10, we won’t be in Thanedhar in time for lunch—and we’re supposed to have lunch at the Orchard Retreat in Thanedhar. Never mind; we’ll see the museum the next time we come to Shimla.
The road to Thanedhar is about 80 km. The first 65 or so km, to the erstwhile ski resort town of Narkanda, is along National Highway 22, a fairly good, wide road (though currently being repaired in parts after recent landslides). The road goes through Kufri, also once an important ski resort; both Kufri and Narkanda have now been eclipsed by Auli, in neighbouring Uttaranchal. Kufri’s only about an hour or so from Shimla, and so is still very popular with tourists who come here for a daytrip. Not to ski, of course in this weather, but to gush over the stunning views and maybe go for a picnic.
All along the way, we see carloads of tourists stopping beside the road and taking photos. At one place, the local travel and tourism trade has done its bit to ensnare experience-hungry tourists. Someone’s selling snacks; a couple of people have set up telescopes beside the road and for a small amount, give you a spiel on the important sites you can see through the telescope in the valley below. One guy even has two depressed-looking yaks, duly saddled and fitted up, in tow.
The landscape is pretty; very pretty indeed, with forests of deodar marching right up the hillside. There are large bushes of wild roses, covered with fragile white blossoms, and bushes of what looks like gorse, with bright yellow flowers. Other wildflowers abound too—thistles, with their bright purple-magenta heads and prickly grey-green leaves; pink wild roses, wild strawberries, the white flowers profuse, the deep red berries hidden away beneath the leaves. There are other flowers too, brick red and magenta, mauve and bright yellow, white and pale blue. It’s stunning, and I end up begging Tarun to stop the car every now and then just so I can get out and photograph just one more wildflower. Soon enough, I’m vowing to myself that I’ll take pictures of every species I come across.
By the time we get to Matiana, the woods have dwindled; instead, we’ve begun to see orchards—mainly apple, but also cherry and plum and (I think) peach. The fruit, except for the cherries, is not yet anywhere close to mature, and this far away, sitting in a car on the highway, I can’t really distinguish one fruit for the other.
Just after Narkanda begins the 15 km stretch to Thanedhar. This is a state road, and proportionately narrow and secluded. The road surface, fortunately, is pretty good. But we end up not making very good time—mainly because we’re awestruck by the landscape. I’m oohing and aahing all the time, and Tarun, who doesn’t want to miss out on any of the beauty around, decides he must pull up now and then and gawp too. It’s lovely, really: mile upon mile of deep green mountainside, covered in a mixed forest of pine, deodar, spruce, and silver fir, with the occasional horse chestnut or rhododendron. It’s so exquisite that I’m tempted to take a photograph every time we come around a bend in the road.
We finally reach the Banjara Camps’ Orchard Retreat just before 2. We make our way down to the lovely little hotel, which is set amidst apple orchards. A leisurely lunch is followed by a brief nap, then tea on the lawn. After a relaxing stroll through the gardens, we move off to the library for a game of chess (Tarun wins, as usual; I’m no good at this) and some books. Later in the evening, we chat with the owner of the Orchard Retreat while sitting around a bonfire. Dinner is followed by a little bit of gazing out across the hills, watching the lights of Thanedhar and Kotgarh, a sprinkle of stars on black velvet. Pretty!