India – A Passage to Shimla

A Passage to Simla

Recently I revisited one of the most beautiful parts of India– the North East state of Himachal Pradesh to stay in the capital Shimla or Simla as it’s now called, the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj.

It was going to be a long haul to get there, but I didn’t care as, for me, the journey is an important part of the holiday – an experience in itself. I’ve done the hippy backpacker budget thing sleeping everywhere and literally anywhere, and now, in my dotage, I like to ensure my comfort en route, as well as at my destination.  After going through several Himachal Packages, I carefully plan my flight, train and road trips to use them, not just as a means to get to my goal, but; as an integral part of the trip.  Not necessarily super deluxe palaces and hotels or 1st class plane seats (though I wouldn’t say no to an upgrade).  But, I’ve learnt, there’s no point arriving at the destination totally exhausted and just wanting to crash out for days…….you miss so much. sleeping!  Getting to Simla from my currnt home in Malta wasn’t going to be easy.

For my first leg I used Emirates Airlines for the ease of connection via Dubai – otherwise a long winded trip via a major European hub would have been necessary.  I also like Emirates – the in flight entertainment is second to none and the meals varied and tasty.  On one flight, an attendant even did an impromptu song and dance routine to keep some kids amused!  The whole cabin spontaneously gave the blushing hostie an ovation.

After that, the journey was from Delhi to Kalka with a next day dawn connection so  I needed to stay in the capital city for a night or two.  Delhi hotels are getting far too expensive and finding a sensibly priced room is becoming a nightmare. So, a niche market is opening up with Indian families  offering relatively inexpensive rooms in their homes.

Mine was run by a retired couple, Mr & Mrs Gulati , who encapsulated the essence of Indian hospitality. Their home is quietly refined and decorated in traditonal manner.  My simple, but sparklingly clean, double room was ensuite and had a small TV room.  However the piece de resistance were the scrummy home made snacks in the small fridge.  To die for.  The meals were equally as good – real home cooking – taken either in your room or with the family.   Having tasted the food, I was so glad I’d decided – in keeping with my comfort philosophy – to stay a couple of nights to get over the jetlag, before rising at dawn on the second day to catch the Shatabdi Himalayan Queen train.

Leaving in the early hours of the morning, sunrise over the Delhi skyline is a fantastic experience – the city erupts with a cacophony of cries as the birds leave their roosts to soar in the morning breeze.  I always feel I am back in the jungle listening to the morning dawn chorus.

At the railway station, my car driver/self nominated guide swaggered down the side of the carriages searching for my allotted coach, shouting and bullying my overloaded porter: teetering under the weight of my heavy suitcase precariously  perched  on his head.

In mock fear of my autocratic driver I dutifully brought up the rear of this rag tag procession….Twisting in and out of the crowds, jumping over bodies lying sound asleep on the centre of the main platform, dodging vendors selling hot tea, ducking out of the way of other porters carrying sacks of mail or vast parcels mysteriously wrapped in hessian.

Finally our motley crew ground to a halt.  Stuck firmly on each coach door is a list of names – with heaven forbid – your sex and age- and amazingly your seat number!  (I did hear sex and age were not being included on the form in the near future).

Indian train philosophy is very simple…

No name!

No seat!

I waited with bated breath until my driver, with all the air of a High Court Judge passing sentence, pronounced I had a name and a seat. I was allowed to enter the mighty Himalayan Queen!  The relief was palpable – particularly for my porter, whom, I think, had underestimated the weight of my baggage, and slumped immediately  to the ground  clutching his head– I watched in horror as my bright red suitcase  hit the ground with an unnerving ‘crump’.

Coach 3 Seat 37 – was it 38 or 40 – I can’t remember?  1st class a/c window chair seat.  Spacious reclining seat with footrest, flap down table, book pocket, water bottle holder and arm rests.  I was impressed!   My poter, sighing deeply and taking deep breaths finally manhandled my case aboard and slammed it into the rack. I gave him an extra 50 rupees for the heavy lifting on top of the agreed price….. then, to my amusement, I watched him walk sprightly away…….. he was certainly in line for an Oscar nomination for his ‘exhaustion’ performance !!

I said farewell to my driver and settled down for the journey.  For the price of the ticket, you also get a bottle of water and a full meal – the contents depending upon the time of the day.  It’s good quality and served by serious young men conscious of the importance of their jobs.  They never smile – in all the years I’ve travelled on the Indian train system I’ve never seen a waiter smile!

Athough a fan of the Indian railways, I have to make one huge complaint. Toilets! Quite simply they’re the pits – the entrance to hell!  I could write a whole article on their negative points.  And not one word on the positive!

The vast train roars through the Indian countryside leaving the gloom of the Delhi suburbs behind, and thunders through endless miles of rolling countryside until the first low hills of the Himalayas cluster on the horizon.

I love the social aspect of Indian trains – people stop and chat, always interested to know what a single lady is doing in India, or simple to practise their impeccable English.  The belligerent ticket collector, almost godlike, comes with his pristine white sheets of print outs checking if you’re in the correct seat – and whoa betide you if you’ve moved. Detention immediately until you return to your delegated seat! Bureaucracy at its best!  How I love it………

Kalka is a small railway station and the penultimate sector on my Passage to Simla.  Fast food vendors swoop down on the myriad of passengers disgorged from the Himalayan Queen offering meals to take with you on the Toy Train.  The aroma of fresh food was tantalising –fresh biriyani, bowls of steaming rice topped by the ‘gravy of the day’ – chicken or maybe mutton. It’s the Food of the Gods. How on earth they get their orders cooked and delivered before the train leaves is beyond me.

The spectacular journey on the delightful world famed ‘Toy Train’ is quite an experience. Winding up the steep mountain hillside, often crawling at snails pace, the tiny engine resolutely grinds it way up the precipitous slope – sometimes you feel against all odds.

My coach travelling companions all soon fell asleep – the snoring perfectly in tune with the rhythm of the train. It took a full 5 hours to climb the tortuous track to the top.  I fortified myself at the small stations dotted along the track – just simple snacks, crisps and tea galore.  It was good to get out, stretch the legs and chat to other passengers.

The views from the train are quite magnificent – soaring peaks appear insurmountable, yet, somehow, the tiny train chugs up, puffing and blowing, creaking and moaning. Protesting at the steep slopes and cavorting down the valley slopes. You look down on the line you passed half an hour ago and then up to the line you crossed an hour ago. Deep river valleys, lush forests and small towns provide photographic opportunities around ever bend in the track.  Finally, Simla appears – and disappears and eventually the station comes in sight.

I was staying at the exclusive Oberoi Cecil Hotel, and was met for the final leg of my trip by an impressive, immaculately white suited moustachioed chauffeur, with cap smartly under his arm.  You couldn’t just call him a driver – he was far too sartorially elegant!   Snapping smartly to attention he saluted me, nonchantly replaced his cap, then tried to whisk away my suitcase from the porter. No way was he going to let go until I had given him the agreed tip……….then, hegrudgling,  he let go, counting over and over again the rupees in his rag covered hands.

My elegant chauffeur, inclining his head, motioned me to follow him. I felt very grand as he opened the door to the immaculate limo.  Then back to normality, as in good ole Indian style, horn blaring, we took off at mach 1 scattering the crowds left right and centre.  He would have given Andretti, Schumacher or Button a run for their money – and I would have placed my money on him for sure.

Finally, here I am – back in my very favourite place in India  and just looking forward to relaxing and wandering through the scented forests surrounding this most English of Hill Stations.  My advanced planning had worked very well – – no jet lag or tiredness (apart from a little stiffness from the train ride which was soon sorted with a pampering massage).  Without a mad rush I  was able to enjoy the various stages of my Passage to Simla, particularly meeting the wonderful people and sharing with them a few precious moments.

I hope the return journey will be just as enjoyable….weather permitting….. I will fly from a tiny mountain landing strip all the way to Delhi……..

Fact Box

Flights: Emirates :  www.emirates.com

Tour Operator: www.indusdiscoveries.com.

Indian Tourist Office: www.incredibleindia.org/

Guest House: Mrs. Shashi Gulati, D-102,Saket, New Delhi – 110017

 

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