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Our Tryst with the Queen of the Hills

 
Queen of the Hills, Summer Capital are some of the lovely epithets that come to mind when you think of Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, which was our destination for a short holiday recently.
 
We had booked our rooms well in advance and got them for the period that bridged the post-monsoon and early winter. Diwali was over and done with for the year and Delhi suddenly started feeling chilly. It had turned cold as if on cue. It was a lot warmer at this time last year and for many years before that.
 
This only meant one thing, if Delhi was this cold, Shimla would be at least 5 degrees colder, we calculated. This entailed detailed stock taking of woollens and buying new ones too. One really should not take the cold for granted however much one would like to and however much anyone else tells you. Be prepared, that was the motto.
 

 
 
Reading up on Shimla and its tourist attractions was the next thing to do. Lots of friends piped in with their experiences and must-do things and must-avoid things. A confusing list that was luckily not jotted down. I can quite imagine the vigourously conflicting opinions that such a list would have produced. So, we just let Shimla happen to us, naturally and without any prejudice.
 
As far as getting to Shimla is concerned, there are many options. There are comfortable overnight bus services from Delhi. If you wish to travel by train, a ride on the Kalka-Shimla Railway - a UNESCO World Heritage site -- would be a great experience. Travelling on the narrow gauge section would give you some breathtaking views of the hills. One can travel to Kalka by broad gauge trains from Delhi and other places. Once the train leaves Kalka, it begins its climb and offers a panoramic view of the mountains all along, passing through Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Taradevi and Barog. The route has 102 tunnels and more than 800 bridges, mostly viaducts with multi-arched galleries. On our way to Shimla, we did see the tracks criss-crossing the road and in many places hugging the cliff face through the mountains and out of them. Quite an interesting sight!
 
The Kalka-Shimla train takes about five hours to cover 96 km, and if you think that is too long, you can choose to take a taxi from Kalka, if you arrive by train there, or from Chandigarh, which you can reach by train or air.
 
Shimla has an airport, too, at Jubbarhatti, 22 km from town but only turbo-prop aircraft can land there. We could not find any flights, however, from Delhi.
 
We opted to hire a car from Delhi. Shimla is 384 kms from Delhi and the drive would take about 8 hours or near-abouts. There were six of us and we hired a Toyoto Innova that could seat all of us. We had to make sure the vehicle had a luggage carrier on the top, given the number of bags we were carrying. 
 
Of course, ours was not a non-stop drive, and we made it to Shimla in about nine hours, not bad, I thought.  We had left Delhi only around 9.30 am and stopped for an early lunch at Haryana Tourism Development Corporation's Oasis restaurant at Karnal on the highway, a place we had visited earlier and with which we were comfortable, as far as the food and other facilities, were concerned. The restaurant is spacious, the food was generally okay, the toilets were clean, there are shops to browse around and there is a large area for you to loosen your limbs.
 
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For those who start out earlier from Delhi, another option for a stop for lunch is Dharampur, after Ambala, which has several restaurants, including the well-known Giani Dhaba and a McDonald's outlet. We had read mixed reviews about some of the dhabas there, and wanted to try Gyani out, but ultimately did not stop because we were running late and wanted to reach Shimla before sundown.
 
Leaving the wide and dusty roads of Delhi and later on, some towns of Haryana, had us wondering what the first glimpse of Shimla would be like. It got a lot more interesting once we reached the Trans-Himalayan Expressway. What a wonderfully exciting name!! That jolted all of us out of our slumber and the cameras got into action. The surroundings were no longer dusty. The winter sun was dazzling bright and hot and far, far, far away in the distance, we could see the shadowy outlines of the majestic Himalayas!! Utterly spell-binding to say the least.
 
We were now on a mountain road and the numerous curves on the road came sharp and quick that made some of us want to stop, to get our 'legs' back. After a few hours, we reached the place where we would be staying for the next four days. It was the Club Mahindra resort at Mashobra, about 10 km from Shimla, at about 8000 feet from sea-level. The whole place is covered with dense woods of pines and other evergreens. Mashobra is beautiful and quiet, away from the rush of tourists in Shimla. The resort is located just off the road and there are lots of little shops near the entrance. The resort itself is a bustling place with lots of guests walking in and out. The suites we were allotted exceeded our expectations and the staff at the resort went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
 
 It was already rather dark and we were tired after the drive. Looking forward to a restful night, we decided to relax and go downstairs for dinner. The temperatures were dropping to quite low in the night, notwithstanding the hot blazing sun in the day!  At last we were able to wear the woolies that we had so conscientiously taken with us.
 
The resort staff had arranged some games and music in a hall and we spent some time there. Some kids were playing table tennis in the background, even as the others played a few rounds of housie. Finally, we went for dinner. The buffet spread was quite good and the chef came out and talked to us, especially to find out if we had any special wishes or requirements.
 
At the Jakhoo Temple
At the Jakhoo Temple
One of us wanted to avoid sugar, and he ensured that she got beautifully laid out fruit salads every day of our stay there. Another talked wistfully of fish he had tasted somewhere long ago, and there it was, in the barbecue the second night.
 
On our first morning in Shimla, we woke up to some amazing views of the mountains through the picture windows. After a nice, hot and filling breakfast buffet, we hired a car from the resort to drive us around Shimla. Though this was an extra cost, we opted for a car from the resort because our driver from Delhi could not be expected to know the routes and also might not be able to negotiate the mountain roads well as a local driver.
 
The weather was very pleasant and the drive was enjoyable. Most of Shimla lies between 2100 m and 2300 m. It used to be the summer capital in the times of the British Raj, thanks to its climate and terrain. History literally seeps through its bricks and stones, in its architecture and ambience.
 
The town itself offers many walks, day-trips, shopping, entertainment and museums and can also be your base for forays into the interior districts. Above all, it has got the famous Mall, one of the longest stretches of pedestrian shopping in the world.
 
Today's youngsters may not quite realise it, but Shimla had a close connection with India's freedom movement. It was here that ornithologist and former civil servant Allan Octavian Hume created the Indian National Congress which spearheaded the freedom struggle. Stalwarts such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Maulana Azad were also regular visitors to the town.
 
The town was also host to maor events such as the Shimla Conference in 1942 and the deliberations which finally led to the difficult decision to partition the country.
 
While the nostalgic elements are all over the place, Shimla today also has a youthful vigour. Its many attractions and the ease of accessibility have made it one of India's most popular hill resorts. 
 
Our driver-cum-guide took us first to the highest point in Shimla which has the famous Jakhoo Temple at its pinnacle. It is best to go to this place in a four-wheel drive as vehicles with less power would not be able to climb the rather steep gradient. The road to the top is long, narrow and winding. So it is good to have a driver who knows how to manouvre vehicles on such terrain. Many people had to leave their smaller vehicles on the way and had to trudge up.
 
The highest point was quite a surprise. There were lots of people and monkeys galore too.  Pilgrims were doing their bit by feeding the monkeys and the monkeys were doing their bit by checking out the vehicles.
 
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(In fact, our resort had bold signages for the guests cautioning them against leaving a window open here or there that would let in the curious simians, who could cause a lot of damage.)
 
The temple is popular with pilgrims and we saw many who were paying their obeisance to the very enormous vermillion Hanuman, the deity to whom this temple was dedicated.
 
After the temple, we proceeded to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), which used to be the Viceregal Lodge or the residence of the Viceroy of India in the summers. The building is huge and beautiful. It houses the Institute and the sight-seers were cautioned against making any noise and touching any of the handsome period furniture and objets d'art that were so plenty there.
 
We were shown around and were able to see the different rooms where monumental decisions regarding the future of the then pre-Independence India were taken. We felt a sense of pride unlike any other before...seeing the table where important documents and agreements were signed and the rooms where they were discussed and debated. Here, amongst these very same things, history was scripted and the future of millions of Indians was sealed. Photos of many of the ceremonies featuring the founding fathers of our nation among others were starting points of curious questions from the youngsters with us.  And when you club that with the state-of-the-art computer centre for the scholars who work here now, you feel an awesome patriotism for our dear country.
 
The Indian Institute of Advanced Studies
The Indian Institute of Advanced Studies
For those interested in details, the Viceroys and Governors-General who occupied Viceregal Lodge included  Marquess of Dufferin, 1884-88; Marquess of Landsdowne, 1888-94; Earl of Elgin, 1894-99; Marquess Curzon, 1899-1904 and 1904-05; Earl of Minto, 1905-10; Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, 1910-16; Viscount Chelmsford, 1916-21; Marquess of Reading, 1921-26; Lord Irwin, Earl of Halifax, 1926-31; Marquess of Willingdon, 1931-36; Marquess of Linlithgow, 1936-43; Earl Wavell, 1943-47 and Earl Mountbatten, April to August 1947.
 
You cannot fail to notice the elaborate wood-work of the building's interiors, the paneling and pilasters and the staircases with newels and handrails, all made of teak procured from Burma along with local cedar wood (deodar) and walnut. The huge estate around has a collection of rare and exotic plants and all kinds of grasses.
 
It was a heady feeling, to be in those environs and we spent a long time gazing at and discussing the events captured by the photographs and the furniture and other items on display.
 
We spent some time on the neat and pretty grounds. There is a fire engine station too, a tiny one by today’s standards, and now converted into a lovely cafe and souvenir shop. We picked up a few postcards to mail to friends and family. Truly, this place is a must-see for everyone who comes to this mountain capital.
 
The Mall
The Mall
After, the Institute, we headed to the Mall. The Mall in Shimla is famous. It is a plateau like area which has many things going on at the same time. First and foremost, the sun was shining brightly and people were soaking up the heat with pleasure. The Mall overlooks a cliff. This is barricaded with a long and beautiful wrought-iron parapet. There were pony-rides, food stalls and photographers. We could take our pick. While, some opted for the ethnic wear photo-session, others were oohing and aahing over the sights and munching away at the numerous snacks on sale.  The walk is extremely pleasant and the sights were truly exhilirating.
 
There was an old and pretty church at the Mall and we went in and lit some candles. The Mall is a pedestrian-only zone and has to be reached using a couple of elevators. One has to queue up to use the lift. Once you are out of the elevators, you reach a path flanked on one side by shops and eateries. This path leads up to the Mall. 
 
Senior citizens might find the incline of the road a bit tough, and we had one in our group, who opted out of the walk and preferred to sit and rest on one of benches thoughtfully provided on the wayside. We discovered that there were people with wheel chairs and prams on hire and many people made use of the facility. Near the Mall is the Lower Bazaar, which is a typical Indian marketplace where you can buy trinkets, silver jewellery, shawls, garments, handicrafts and a variety of other things. The entire area has a certain vibrancy, thanks to the hundreds of youngsters, many of them honeymooners, walking around.
 
After our time at the Mall, we had lunch at a cosy cafe attached to a hotel called Combermere. The food was piping hot and tasty. It was really good.
 
Walking up and down those paths had tired us out and nightfall saw us returning to the resort and dinner there. Bonfire and barbecue are very good things in the cold. The resort had organised one such event and dinner was indeed a warm and very happy time.
 
The next day we decided to travel to Kufri which is at a higher altitude (about 2800 metres) than Mashobra, where our resort was located. Kufri is about 15 km from Shimla and the highest point in the surrounding region. It has a zoo, with rare antelopes, felines and birds, including the Himalayan Monal. Kufri is famous for its ski-slopes and the amazing views it offers of deep valleys and thick forests. The Mahasu Peak is nearby.
 
The drive again was a very pleasant experience and we reached a place in Kufri which had pony rides and rustic looking eateries. Souvenier shops abound here and I did buy a small keepsake. And lots of photographs were taken. There is a nature park and a zoo in the vicinity, but we had to give them a miss because we were running short of time.
 
The Wildflower Hall, one of the best-known hotels in Shimla, was on the way back, and we stopped there for a cuppa. Lots of our friends had stayed there and told us we must at least visit the place.
Inside the church
Inside the church
 
The Wildflower hall used to be the residence of Lord Kitchener, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India (1902-09) It is now an Oberoi property and they have maintained it well. The hotel is a stately place and evokes the times gone by. We had lunch planned elsewhere, so we opted to have some hot coffee and snacks. After a late lunch, we had a relaxed evening at our resort.
 
There are any number of places to see within Shimla, including the State Museum, the Lakkar Bazaar and the various temples and churches and scores of historical buildings. There also several day-tours that one can take to places like Chail, Narkhanda and Tattapani. One can also take longer trips to places such as Manali, Dharamshala and Kinnaur. We hope to go to all of these places some day.
 
For the present, we had to return home the next day. There was a strike scheduled by local taxi operators, and our driver said we had to leave before dawn the next day to avoid any trouble with the strikers. The staff at the resort offered to pack dry breakfast for us -- sandwiches, muffins, fruit and the such. We set our while it was still dark.
 
On the way, we took an impromptu decision to just drive through Chandigarh because two people in our group had not seen Le Corbusier's well planned city. That done, we were on our way to Delhi, stopping again at Oasis in Karnal for lunch. Later, we stopped at Pind Baluchi at Murthal, near Sonipat, on the highway.
 
By late afternoon, it was back again to the traffic jams in the national capital, making us wonder if Shimla was a dream. We decided that we needed to go there once again for longer next time.
Rachel Sonny Abraham
Rachel Sonny Abraham

Rachel Sonny Abraham works full-time at NetIndian. She is a travel writer, writes a food blog and runs a clothing business.

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