Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mountains and Monkeys

Once, just once, during my semester in Hyderabad, I took three trips in three weekends.  It was exhausting, and it left me tired and ill.  I vowed never to do anything like that this time.  And I have not broken my promise to myself, yet.  However, I did take two consecutive trips.  They left me exhausted, but very, very happy.  Here is the first installment:

Shimla: Friday, September 23rd –Sunday September 25th

At 8:30 pm, Krish and I boarded a bus bound for Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.  The bus had been described as “AC Volvo” on the website that we had booked it through, so we knew it would be pretty nice.  When we boarded, we were not disappointed.  The seats reclined, there was complimentary bottled water, and a large T.V. screen up front.  I thought I would be able to sleep well.  I thought wrong.

When I first saw that T.V. screen, I did not think that it would play loud movies until 1 am.  But it did.  I also had not foreseen the carelessness with which our driver jerked the wheel around, and alternately slammed on the brakes and accelerator.  Worst of all, there was a group of schoolgirls on board who saw fit to giggle and shriek their way through the entire night.  Very little sleeping took place.

We arrived in Shimla at about 6 o’ clock the next morning.  We were tired from the night’s events, but so happy to be back in the mountains in the cool weather.  After watching a beautiful Himalayan (foothills) sunrise, we hiked up over the ridge, and checked into our hotel.

Shimla sunrise

After catching up (part of the way) on sleep, Krish and I headed down to breakfast at The Indian Coffee House at around 8:30.  Yes, it’s “our pick!” in Lonely Planet, but that is NOT why we went.  We went because it was basically the only restaurant/café/food vending establishment that was open that early.  But we were glad we did.  The ambience is interesting: the place is dark and cavernous, and all the waiters are dressed exactly as their predecessors who worked back in the 60s (the place was built in 1957!) would have dressed.  The clientele—at least at the fairly non-touristy time at which we went—is mostly made up of local, middle-aged men.  Guidebooks describe the place as an “old boy’s club” for Shimla’s bank and civil service workers.  I’m not a coffee person, but I felt that I had to get some.  And it was quite good!  My veg dosa was even better.
The Indian Coffee House
Coffee House interior (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

After breakfast, Krish and I headed down the mountain towards the former Viceregal Lodge.  It was not the shortest walk, considering we only really had one full day in Shimla, but it was beautiful, and the weather was perfect.  The whole while I could not stop exclaiming about how beautiful Shimla was, and how happy I was to be out of Delhi for the weekend.  (I love Delhi of course, but I think I love the Himalayas more…)  Krish mentioned that Shimla reminded him a lot of Mussoorie, but was a lot cleaner.  I think I agree.

The walk down to the Viceregal Lodge was not at all well signposted, so there were several times at which I feared we were lost.  We kept asking people we passed if we were on the right track though, and it seemed we were.  Finally we arrived.  Lonely Planet (I promise I’m not an LP devotee; it’s just helpful for travel!) had described the Lodge as looking like Hogwarts.  When I first saw it, the first association that sprung to my mind was Bryn Mawr’s Thomas Hall.  Then I remembered that Bryn Mawr and Hogwarts are basically the same thing.

The Lodge
The Lodge (photo credit, Krish Varma)

Both the building’s exterior and the grounds were beautiful.  I really felt that I could have been on an old estate in the English countryside.  Except for the monkeys of course.  And the imposing peaks in the distance.  But still, a true Raj relic.  After walking around a little bit, Krish and I walked to the building’s entrance for a tour of the interior.  The tour guide explained that the lodge was once the summer home of the British Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, who used this massively grand mansion only a few weeks out of each year!  Several important conferences were held in the lodge; in fact, the decision to partition India 1947 was made there.   After Independence, the lodge remained the summer home of the Indian president, until 1965 when it became the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.  Now it houses an impressive collection of books, and provides a space for scholars to conduct research.

A conference room (Photo credit: Krish Varma)
After walking back up from the Viceregal Lodge, Krish and I had lunch, then headed up to Jhaku Temple, which is one of the most famous sights in Shimla.  The temple, which is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey God, is famous for being overrun with extremely aggressive rhesus macaques.  So aggressive in fact, that most people recommend that visitors bring a walking stick in order to fight off the monkeys.  Krish and I were quite excited.  It was starting to rain when we set off, so I bought an umbrella.  Because I didn’t want to have to carry an umbrella AND a stick, I bought an umbrella that was big enough to do both jobs.  Because I already had a practical umbrella back in Delhi, I decided that this one might as well be a fun umbrella.  Pictures are below.
Ready for monkeys
Ready for rain

The Jhaku Temple is about a 30 minute walk up a steep hill.  Unfortunately, it started pouring as we were walking, so it took a little longer.  We did make it eventually though, and we paid our respects to Hanuman inside the temple.  We then walked around outside the temple.  At first, we saw very few monkeys, as the rain was very strong.  They came out in full force as the skies began to clear though.  I never had to use my umbrella/monkey weapon, but I did brandish it several times!

Dos and Don'ts of monkey interactions in Shimla

Steps of the Jhaku Temple

HUGE Hanuman Statue

After coming down from the temple, we promenaded around Shimla, and admired the old British architecture.  Especially beautiful was Christ Church, which is actually the second oldest church in North India.  The inside was just as beautiful as the outside, with lovely stained glass windows and an elegant pulpit area.  I was particularly moved by the many plaques covering the walls of the church, some from as long ago as the 1870s and 80s.  They memorialized various members of the congregation, many of whom were Britishers who had died while on their assignments.  Though I am naturally not in sympathy with the people who came in and sought to oppress an entire subcontinent, it was still sad to think that many of them had lived very difficult lives in colonial India, then died far away from home.

Christ Church (Photo credit: Krish Varma)

The next day, Krish and I left Shimla by toy train.  This tiny train runs on a narrow gauge rail through the hills, going through numerous tunnels and revealing splendid views.  I think the pictures convey the trip much better than my words ever could:

Train on the narrow gauge rail (Photo credit: Krish Varma)

Through a tunnel (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Our train at the station

Mountains through trees, or, what happens when the train is faster than my photo taking reflexes--I promise there was a beautiful mountain view just seconds before that picture was snapped!
We reached Delhi late that night.  A short trip, but entirely worth it!

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