We arrived in Shimla after a long and uncomfortable bus ride, grateful to climb off and stretch our cramping limbs.
Despite its relative proximity, Shimla was quite different to Manali. While Manali was situated more or less in a valley, Shimla sits proudly atop the hills. Rather than being surrounded by imposing mountains, Shimla offers panoramic views out over the countryside.
While the temperature had increased over the course of our bus ride, Shimla still offered a comfortable temperature, and we were pleased to find that we hadn't ventured too far back into the oppressive Indian summer heat!
We found ourselves a taxi and headed to our homestay, following instructions to have the taxi driver call the owner to get directions.
Soon enough, we pulled up in a small carpark in a shaded tree grove, and a smiling man made his way towards us, waving.
A very warm welcome
Sure enough, it was our homestay host. In our three nights in Shimla, we never saw him without a smile on his face! He explained that it was a short walk to his homestay, but that there were no cars allowed, so he'd come to meet us to show us the way.
Sure enough, after a two minute walk down a small pedestrian walkway flanked by cute houses absolutely crawling with monkeys (ugh), he showed us to our room. It was lovely, and contained a truly enormous bed, completely covered in polar fleece... Polar fleece duvet cover, polar fleece sheets, and polar fleece pillow cases... I was worried that if I rolled over too vigorously, the whole thing would catch fire...
He told us to relax and settle in, and that we could deal with all the paperwork over dinner. He brought us chai as we unpacked our bags, and we couldn't have felt more welcome or at home.
At the designated hour, we made our way upstairs for dinner. We met the man's wife (who did all the cooking) and son (who helped him run the business), and were given the most wonderful home cooked meal. While the novelty of curry has worn a little thin over past weeks, there's something about a home cooked meal eaten in the comfort of a family dining room while chatting happily with locals that really does something for your soul!
We retired to our polar fleece cocoon, warm, well fed, and smiling.
Exploring Shimla town
After a tasty Indian breakfast of aloo paratha, our host walked us into town to show us the way so that we wouldn't get lost.
We wound through the narrow streets near his house, stopping occasionally as he pointed out a view and encouraged us to take pictures (and indeed, took pictures of us for his listing!) and shared stories of the area with us.
Ten minutes from the homestay, he pointed us in the right direction, assured us we'd be able to find our way from there, and headed home. He was right - after five minutes of walking past streetside shops selling everything from fruit and veges to children's toys, clothing to giant boxes of walnuts, we were smack bang in the middle of Shimla.
For the next couple of hours, we wandered through the main part of town, which was blissfully a traffic-free area. Shimla main town felt very English, with lots of old British architecture, and beautiful paved pedestrian areas, and panoramic views wherever you look. While Manali had a real adventurous mountain town feeling, Shimla felt more like a small European village (despite being the largest city in the state, Himachal Pradesh). It was a relaxing and enjoyable place to be.
At the top of the hill, we entered The Ridge, a plaza area with great views of the countryside. The plaza was filled with horses for tourists to ride, and while we sat on one of the many benches enjoying the peace and quiet, one of the horses decided it had had enough, and made a break for it. Luckily, it was riderless, so the owner played it cool, strolling after the horse and calling it to come back with a smile on his face. Within about 30 seconds, it was clear that this horse wanted none of it, and it took off running down a walkway. Suddenly the owner wasn't so cool, and sprinted after it. We were really rooting for the horse to have a shot at freedom, but sadly, a few minutes later, the owner walked back leading the horse. Maybe next time buddy...
From there, we checked out The Mall, the main street in Shimla. We passed a pretty cool looking 'vintage' fire truck (it was unclear whether it was actually vintage, or whether it was a current firetruck) with an accompanying fire Royal Enfield, with special racks etc for fire fighting equipment!
In a sad turn of events, my bag split while we were in Manali, so I popped into some shops looking for a needle and thread to fix it up until I can get it properly repaired under Osprey's lifetime warranty while we're in the US. After asking in one shop, the man told me I would probably struggle to find one anywhere, so he offered me one of his own, and refused to take any payment for it. The people in this country are pretty damn awesome...
We stopped for some delicious milkshakes before assessing that the weather was about to pack it in and heading back to the homestay for the late afternoon. Despite a slight accidental detour (ie getting lost), we made it back just as the heavens opened!
Viceregal Lodge, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, and the Himalayan Bird Park
Despite the grey looking weather, we set out the next morning to tackle the walk to Viceregal Lodge. About 4.5kms from our accommodation, the walk was a pleasant way to start the day.
Just on the outskirts of the centre of town, we passed Bantony, a red brick mansion once home to the Maharajah of Sirmaur. Sadly, in recent years, the building has been left to fall into disrepair, although this may have even added to its charm. Signs out the front indicated that it was going to be restored, so fingers crossed it will be restored to its former glory in the not too distant future.
Viceregal Lodge and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study
Viceregal Lodge was the official summer residence of the British viceroys. Completed in 1888, India was ruled from here for just over half of every year during British rule in India. Since 1965 (after Indian independence), the lodge has been home to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, where students are able to live and pursue advanced academic study in the fields of humanities, social sciences, and natural and life sciences.
We paid for our entry tickets from a very bored man, who could barely be bothered to glance up from his computer to interact with us. We were told that the next tour wasn't for an hour, so we'd have to wait. Our tickets included entry to the botanic gardens, so we thought we'd check them out (despite the threatening rain) while we waited, although finding out how to get to them from the ticket seller was like pulling teeth.
The term 'botanic garden' may have been overselling it a little. While the ground surrounding the building were lovely, and there were indeed gardens, they were pretty run down. Nonetheless, they were heavily policed by security guards, ready and waiting to blow their whistle at a second's notice, should you stumble off the marked paths and onto the grass for even a second.
We managed to fill the time somehow, and at our allocated time, we eagerly lined up for our tour of the inside of the building. The doors unlocked, and 50 of us piled in to the first room. The door was locked behind us, and there was no easily visible way out. Our guide appeared - it was the ticket seller from earlier! It was clear that this was going to be a tour injected with sparkling personality.
The guide introduced us to a few key facts about the property, and then invited us all to look around the room. Barring a few seemingly random pieces of furniture, the room mostly contained photos of famous people and historic events taking place on the property - it was largely uninspiring, and dare I say it, uninteresting...
Soon, another set of doors were unlocked, and we were siphoned into the next room.
This pattern of locking us in a room with little furniture and many photos, offering us a few facts, leaving us to look around for a minute and then ushering us through to the next room was repeated twice more, and then the tour was over. Decidedly not worth an hour long wait, that's for sure.
Himalayan Bird Park
On our way out of Viceregal Lodge, the Himalayan Bird Park caught Zev's eye. We headed up to check it out. We entered a chainlink enclosure containing mostly chickens, geese and peacocks, but managed to see some pretty cool pheasants. It's safe to say the 70c entry fee was about right for this particular attraction.
After a long walk back into town, we stopped for some delicious burgers and iced tea from a cute little stall, and again, made it home right before the rain hit.
The Himalayan Queen
The next morning, we checked out and headed off to our next fun adventure: the toy train from Shimla to nearby Kalka. Despite being only 94km, the journey takes 6 hours! The narrow gauge railway snakes through the mountains between the towns, offering amazing views at a relaxed pace.
A slight lack of research on my part meant that we booked on the Himalayan Queen. This particular train has no luggage racks, seats in groups of four (ie two bench seats facing each other), and stops at every station between Shimla and Kalka... So it was an experience to say the least!
We entered our (fully booked) carriage and found our seats. Zev managed to shove his pack under our seat (just), and I spent the better part of the next 6 hours with my pack and my handbag on my lap.
While the first few hours were pretty pleasant despite the cramped conditions, the novelty began to wear off at hour five, and we were definitely ready to arrive.
The views were great, and since we both really like trains, the ride was nice, but sitting knee to knee with strangers, including a man who took his shoes off (which I could tell without looking), picked his nose and teeth constantly, and kept throwing rubbish out the train window (which, to be fair, everyone was doing, not just him) wasn't always the best time. Luckily, headphones and a great podcast passed the time nicely.
Eventually, we disembarked in Kalka, where we were spending a night before our train to Delhi. We tracked down our accommodation and were checked in by a man who spoke almost no English, but continued to speak to us in Hindi without any loss of enthusiasm.
Our room was large and had working AC and cable, but the light switches and skirting boards contained a layer of grime that suggested they'd never been cleaned. It would do for a night.
Since our train the following day wasn't until 5.45pm, we paid for a late check out (which was very difficult to negotiate given the language barrier), and spent the next day hanging out in the hotel room. Kalka is definitely not a town with a lot of tourist highlights... At about lunch time we discovered a mouse in our room. Zev spent some time trying to catch it before we decided to just leave it alone, and about an hour later we noticed it quietly slip out the door. Luxury travel at its finest...
Back to Delhi
Our train ride back to Delhi was a more civilised affair, with luggage racks and proper seating, and somehow, inexplicably, a three course meal. We managed to make our way to our Delhi accommodation, arriving quite late. We were only spending a night before flying to Hyderabad the next day, so we crawled into bed and fell asleep pretty quickly.
Until midnight. Yet again, Zev was hit with some sort of gastro bug, and spent most of the night in the bathroom. The next morning, we loaded him up on antibiotics and loperamide and hoped for the best for the upcoming journey...
We packed up to head to our flight at about 1pm, as suggested by our guesthouse owner, and headed down to order an Uber to the airport 3km away. As we left, I text the owner to say thanks for a great stay.
Of course, we had trouble finding an Uber, and by the time we got to the airport, checked in, and got in line to check our bags, we didn't have much time before bag drop closed. While we waited, my phone rang - it was the woman from the accommodation, informing us that we hadn't paid! I thought we'd paid online, but apparently we were supposed to pay cash to her... Yikes. I assured her we'd sort it out when we got to Hyderabad, but this was one more stress that we did not need!
We finally dropped our bags, jogged (Zev mostly from the knees down) to our gate, and got on the plane just in time...
Despite Zev feeling like garbage, we were both pretty excited to be on our way to Hyderabad to meet up with an old friend, get some planning and logistics done for our upcoming hike in Nepal and our time in the US, and enjoy some time in a pretty fancy schmancy hotel!
Lots of love,
S & Z