January 30 – February 2, 2017
I’m going to gush over how splendid Shimla is. I really am. The former British summer capital in the foothills of the Himalayas is an impossible storybook town. But getting here? That was quite a challenging day of travel. The day was a hassle, and a full day of it. But once you arrive, it’s a small opportunity cost. The struggle to arrive here in modern times makes you really appreciate what it took to create Shimla in the late 1800s.
Originally, Chris and I wanted to take the toy train from Kalka to Shimla. The railway, opened in 1903, is a really unique and scenic way to travel. But due to time constraints, we decided to fly from Kathmandu. Well, you can’t really fly directly there. So starts the day: Our flight leaving Nepal is delayed for several hours. We arrive in Delhi late, missing our flight to Chandigarh in the north. We had to find the rusted floor board shuttle bus to take us a couple miles from the international terminal to the domestic one, only to have to purchase a new set of plane tickets. It’s now 3:30 pm and the last flight was supposed to leave at 2:05. But hey, it’s India, and anything could happen. Sure enough, we score tickets on SpiceJet for the 2:05 flight which was delayed to 4:45, rush through security, and board just as they’re closing the doors. We make it to Chandigarh about an hour later and start the taxi negotiation– we still have a 4 hour cab ride to get to Shimla.
By the time we arrive, it’s dark and we are delirious. And ravenous. And in need of a drink. Thankfully, Hotel Combermere has a great bar.
The hotel is also perfectly located in Shimla. This town carved into the mountainside is incredibly gorgeous, and quite steep. To reach the top, pedestrians have to take a series of lifts. I believe there is a small fee to use them, but if you are a guest at the hotel, there is one you can use for free to reach the top of the mountain.
Once you’re at the top, known as The Ridge, the views of the Himalayas are breathtaking. Snow-capped mountains circle the skyline in every direction. The air is fresh and crisp (a little chilly at the end of January, but there wasn’t any snow this time). The Ridge is an engineering feat I can’t fathom, but somehow they managed to flatten the mountain top and line it with statues, an iconic church, museums, and cafes.
The road directly below The Ridge is The Mall, home to more restaurants, bakeries, and small shops selling jewelry, Kashmir sweaters and scarves, and more. You will walk a lot in Shimla! Lots of streets and inclines, but it’s all worth it.
If you are looking for more local markets, just keep walking downhill! You’ll find the upper and lower bazaars. The atmosphere is a bit more frenetic on these streets! The upper bazaar has shop owners pedaling all sorts of goods– saris, cosmetics, toys, toothpaste, books, booze, and bargains galore. There’s something for everyone, even your horse.
It only gets more hectic the further down you go. The lower bazaar features fresh produce. Probably not something you need if you’re just visiting, but hey, if you came by horseback maybe you do need to pick up some carrots. It’s worth the walk through the chaos even if you don’t want fruits and veggies.
Why buy your own ingredients when there are so many incredible restaurants in Shimla? Leave the preparation to the pros. Open to the public, the restaurant at Hotel Combermere is really excellent. The food is delicious and there’s an outdoor patio so you never have to take your eyes off the mountain range.
I could have eaten every meal here! We sampled a little bit of everything– Dal Makhani (my favorite– black lentils in a delicious gravy), lamb, and of course– Chris always has to push the boundaries of adventurous eating, so that’s a big old bowl of mutton brains. I was a good sport and tried a bite, but no thank you. I’ll stick to my vegetarian dishes!
Especially when those veggies are deep fried. Ha, I’m no saint. The vegetable pakora at Ashiana & Goofa at the top of The Ridge is soooo good. I had it for breakfast, along with a crispy vegetable dosa and warm chai tea, perfect on a cold morning. Many places will bring out seed dishes after your meal. Meant to cleanse your palate, the fennel seeds have a black licorice taste.
After breakfast Chris and I took a taxi to Jakhu Temple. There is a trail you can hike up to the top, but I’m not the type of person to scarf down deep fried foods and then hike anywhere challenging. So we compromised– we’ll ride to the top and hike down.
Jakhu Temple is an ancient Hindu temple with scenic views of Shimla and the mountains. On a clear day, you can see for miles. It’s beautiful, but it belongs to the monkeys. Hundreds of monkeys inhabit the peak and they are ready to ransack your belongings for a snack. Or anything, really. I was victimized as soon as we reached the top. I was admiring the view and in an instant, a monkey landed on my shoulder and stole my glasses right off my head.
As the local man laughed, I realized this is a 3-way bribe situation. He got up from his perch and bribed the bandit down from the tree with some food. So of course, there’s an obligation to give a small tip for spectacle retrieval. Leave your snacks at home and be warned–anything not tethered to you is fair game. A pack of 3 monkeys terrorized a poor girl, chasing her around the temple for 10 minutes and ultimately stealing her iPhone, all because she tried to take a selfie a little too close. It’s great entertainment! But you don’t want to be part of the performance.
The temple area is also an incredible vantage point for sunsets. If you’re done monkeying around though, anywhere along The Ridge of Shimla is picturesque at dusk.
Observatory Hill is another great spot, as the name implies. Just slightly lower than Jakhu Hill, Observatory Hill is the location of the Viceregal Lodge. The residence of the former British Viceroy of India, the Viceregal is now home to a museum showcasing the British influence and life after independence. The sprawling grounds are beautiful, even during the winter months which aren’t so hospitable to lush greenery.
The facilities are now used for the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, but tours are offered and highly recommended. The history is fascinating and the architecture is well worth learning more about. Again, how anything was constructed here is mind-blowing when you think about the long haul effort to arrive by modern transportation.
Throughout Shimla remnants of the British stand out among the local shops and eateries. Some have found new life as military outposts and schools. Others sit eerily atop the mountains, looking haunted save for an undaunted monkey.
As main streets bustle with shoppers and children savoring ice cream cones, statues of Gandhi impose themselves over the Himalayan peaks with Christian churches in the backdrop. Families are taking photos and horses move among the crowds. Shimla is like a composite of two photographs: old and new India fused together, past and future layered on top of one another, giving rise to a town that creates itself anew each day.
Next stop, Delhi. Onward!